4th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds application of Ahlborn in NC- rejects reasoning of NC Supreme Court in Andrews
After about 7 years of multiple protracted litigation on three separate cases, the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit has established in the matter of E.M.A. v. CANSLER, that Ark. Dep't of Human Servs. v. Ahlborn, 547 U.S. 268 (2006) is the law of North Carolina and that the NC Supreme Court opinion of Andrews v. Haygood did not properly interpret Ahlborn as it applies to NC Medicaid reimbursement.
Congratulations to Bill Bystrynski of Kirby & Holt of Raleigh, NC for the huge win for his client.
I'm going to keep this post fairly short and then add more posts with analysis, but I think the court puts their finding best.
Given that North Carolina common law does not bar DHHS’s lien against E.M.A.’s settlement proceeds, we arefaced with the same question considered by the North CarolinaSupreme Court in Andrews: Whether North Carolina’sthird-party liability statutes comport with federal Medicaidlaw and Ahlborn merely because the subrogation statute, N.C.Gen. Stat. § 108A-57, "caps" the state’s recovery at the lesserof the actual medical expenses paid or one-third of the totalsettlement. The North Carolina Supreme Court in Andrewsand the district court in this case adopted a narrow interpretationof Ahlborn, limiting its holding to cases in which the partieshave stipulated to or otherwise allocated settlementproceeds between different categories of damages, therebyidentifying a sum certain for medical expenses. Thus, thesedecisions are based on the view that Ahlborn is inapplicablein cases involving an unallocated lump-sum settlement, suchas the instant matter.On the contrary, however, nothing in Justice Stevens’sopinion for a unanimous court in Ahlborn supports such acrabbed application of that case. The Ahlborn Court addressedthe specific issue of "whether [ADHHS] can lay claim tomore than the portion of [the recipient’s] settlement that representsmedical expenses." 547 U.S. at 280.
The Court in no way rested its analysis of this issue on whether there has been a prior determination or stipulation as to the medical expensesportion of a Medicaid recipient’s settlement. Thus, Ahlborn isproperly understood to prohibit recovery by the state of morethan the amount of settlement proceeds representing paymentfor medical care already received. The North Carolina statute’sone-third cap on the state’s recovery against a Medicaidrecipient’s settlement proceeds does not satisfy Ahlborn insofaras it permits DHHS to assert a lien against settlement proceedsintended (or otherwise properly allocable) tocompensate the Medicaid recipient for other claims, such aspain and suffering or lost wages (i.e., in cases where one-thirdof the recipient’s total settlement recovery is greater than theamount DHHS expended on the recipient’s behalf).10 See Andrews, 669 S.E.2d at 607-09 (Hudson, J., dissenting) (concludingthat the North Carolina statutes conflict with federalMedicaid law by allowing the state to recover from a recipientfunds that were for purposes other than medical expenses);Andrews, 655 S.E.2d at 445 (Wynn, J., dissenting) (same).
We are not persuaded that a mere "reasonable cap" on astate’s recovery from an unallocated lump-sum settlement satisfiesthe federal anti-lien law as required by Ahlborn. Indeed,contrary to the Andrews court’s reliance on Justice Stevens’sfootnote, the ATLA Brief, rather than advocating full recoverysubject only to a statutory cap, discussed procedures inseveral states to have "mini-hearings" to set allocations ofproceeds from tort settlements where there is no agreementamong the interested parties. Nevertheless, the Supreme Courtof North Carolina found that footnote 18 in Ahlborn authorizesthe states to mandate full recovery up to a legislativelydetermined,across-the-board limit or cap. This reliance is misplaced.
On the basis of Ahlborn’s clear holding that the general anti-lien provision in federal Medicaid law prohibits a statefrom recovering any portion of a settlement or judgment not attributable to medical expenses, DHHS’s lien on E.M.A.’ssettlement proceeds in this case violates federal law. In order to comply with 42 U.S.C. §§ 1396a(a)(18), 1396p, and Ahlborn,North Carolina is free to implement a process by whichsettlement proceeds are explicitly allocated or otherwisedetermined. In this case, we must remand for an evidentiaryhearing consistent with this opinion to determine the properamount of the DHHS lien on E.M.A.’s settlement proceeds.
You can read the full opinion here: Download F-Opinion
I'll be writing a whole lot more on the issue, but wanted to get this out there.
I'm also proud that the 4th Circuit relied on a Memorandum issued by CMS to the states in their decision:
It is also illuminating that the Centers for Medicaid andMedicare Services ("CMS") issued a memorandum to all Associate Regional Administrators for Medicaid and State Operations in the wake of the Ahlborn decision to aid the states in understanding the effect the decision would have onstate third-party liability recovery. See Memorandum from Gale Arden, Director of CMS’s Center for Medicaid and StateOperations Disable and Elderly Health Programs Group(DEHPG) to all Associate Regional Administrators for Medicaidand State Operations, "State Options for RecoveryAgainst Liability Settlements in Light of U.S. Supreme CourtDecision in Arkansas Department of Human Services v. Ahlborn"(July 3, 2006) (hereafter "CMS Memorandum"). The CMS Memorandum stated that, post-Ahlborn, "if a State attempted to recover from more than the portion of a settlementthat the parties allocated to medical items and services,it was in violation of the federal anti-lien statute." Id. Additionally,the CMS Memorandum clarified that, "to the extent State laws permit recovery over and above what the partieshave appropriately designated as payment for medical itemsand services, the State was in violation of federal Medicaidlaws." Id. (Page 32)
NCTrialLAw Blog was the first blog to find and publish Download CMS Advisory Ahlborn Settlement Options (July 2006)-1 after some deep searches on the Internet. It was a sort of "smoking gun" that showed that CMS itself was telling the State of North Carolina that Ahlborn applied.