The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that HHS improperly changed its Medicare disproportionate-share hospital payments when it made billions of dollars in cuts.
In a 7-1 decision, the justices said HHS needed a notice-and-comment period for the Medicare DSH calculation change. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the decision that HHS' position for not following the procedure was "ambiguous at best."
"Because affected members of the public received no advance warning and no chance to comment first, and because the government has not identified a lawful excuse for neglecting its statutory notice-and-comment obligations, we agree with the court of appeals that the new policy cannot stand," Gorsuch wrote.
The case was highly technical, and hinged on dueling interpretations of agency activity on what constitutes a "substantive legal standard" in a payment policy change to Medicare.
Under the new Medicare DSH formula, the CMS began to lump Medicare Advantage enrollees in with traditional Medicare enrollees to calculate a hospital's DSH payment.
But Medicare spending is about $700 billion per year, and the program covers nearly one-fifth of Americans.
"Not only has the government failed to document any draconian costs associated with notice and comment, it also has neglected to acknowledge the potential countervailing benefits," Gorsuch wrote. "Notice and comment gives affected parties fair warning of potential changes in the law and an opportunity to be heard on those changes—and it affords the agency a chance to avoid errors and make a more informed decision."
The majority opinion also emphasized the size and scope of Medicare, noting that "even seemingly modest modifications to the program can affect the lives of millions."
"As Medicare has grown, so has Congress's interest in ensuring that the public has a chance to be heard before changes are made to its administration," Gorsuch wrote.
During oral arguments in the case in January, Gorsuch and Justice Sonia Sotomayor doubled down on the economic magnitude of the change, which HHS estimated to be $3 billion to $4 billion between fiscal 2005 and 2013.
Justice Stephen Breyer dissented from the majority, and Justice Brett Kavanaugh recused himself because he participated in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruling that the Supreme Court upheld.
Breyer wrote he believed the government had the legal grounds to skip the public comment period in this policy.
"The statutory language, at minimum, permits this interpretation, and the statute's history and the practical consequences provide further evidence that Congress had only substantive rules in mind," he wrote. "Importantly, this interpretation of the statute, unlike the court's, provides a familiar and readily administrable way for the agency to distinguish the actions that require notice and comment from the actions that do not."