The Kansas Heart Hospital in Wichita filed a lawsuit against two former executives, claiming they stole money from the facility and improperly used CARES Act funds, according to ABC affiliate KAKE and court documents.
The lawsuit, filed April 29 in the U.S. District Court in Kansas,accuses the hospital’s former COO Joyce Heismeyer and former CFO Steve Smith of stealing funds between 2015 and 2020. During that time, Kansas Heart Hospital lost more than $31 million, according to the lawsuit.
Ms. Heismeyer and Mr. Smith abruptly stepped down from their roles in fall 2020. The hospital claims the former executives set up large severance payments for themselves before their departures, which prompted an internal investigation.
In its complaint, Kansas Heart Hospital alleges that Ms. Heismeyer and Mr. Smith conspired with the hospital’s former president, Gregory Duick, MD, to divert more than $6 million in hospital funds for undisclosed bonuses and benefits during the five-year period. Additionally, the hospital claims all three sent millions in hospital dollars to an investment account that Dr. Duick owned.
Kansas Heart Hospital also claims the three caused it to lose out on $4.4 million in CARES Act payments. The funds were returned to avoid a federal audit, the lawsuit alleges, but the former executives said the funds were returned because the hospital hadn’t treated any COVID-19 patients.
Dr. Duick also retired from his role in fall 2020. He is named in the lawsuit but is not a defendant, and did not immediately return KAKE‘s request for comment.
In a statement to KAKE, an attorney for Ms. Heismeyer and Mr. Smith said, “Joyce and Steve vehemently deny the allegations and will aggressively defend themselves and expect to clear their names in court.” Additionally, the statement said, “We are disappointed by the Kansas Heart Hospital’s plan to sue and tarnish the reputations of two long time employees.”
Several hospitals are looking to split from the health system they belong to, regain independence or partner with a different healthcare organization.
Below are five instances reported since Jan. 1, beginning with the most recent:
1. 2 hospitals to part ways with U of Kansas Health System HaysMed, a single-hospital system in Hays, Kan., and Pawnee Valley Community Hospital in Larned, Kan., will depart from the University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City. University of Kansas Health System and the two hospitals said they decided that working independently “best supports the long-term health and wellness of our communities.”
2. North Carolina system to sever ties with Atrium Carolinas HealthCare System Blue Ridge, a two-campus system in Morganton, N.C., plans to cut ties with Charlotte, N.C.-based Atrium Health. The hospital system said its board of directors approved a nonbinding letter of intent to instead become part of the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based UNC Health network through a management services agreement.
5. Washington hospital splits from Virginia Mason Virginia Mason Memorial in Yakima, Wash., has transitioned back to an independent hospital and reverted to its old name. The board of Virginia Mason Memorial voted in late October to end its affiliation with Seattle-based Virginia Mason Health System. The hospital said it split from Virginia Mason because of the system’s merger with Tacoma, Wash.-based CHI Franciscan.
In early 2013, Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Orange County, California, joined with St. Joseph Health, a local Catholic hospital chain, amid enthusiastic promises that their affiliation would broaden access to care and improve the health of residents across the community.
Eight years later, Hoag says this vision of achieving “population health” is dead, and it wants out. It is embroiled in a legal battle for independence from Providence, a Catholic health system with 51 hospitals across seven states, which absorbed St. Joseph in 2016, bringing Hoag along with it.
In a lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court last May, Hoag argues that remaining a “captive affiliate” of the nation’s 10th-largest health system, headquartered nearly 1,200 miles away in Washington state, constrains its ability to meet the needs of the local population.
Hoag doctors say that Providence’s drive to standardize treatment decisions across its chain — largely through a shared Epic electronic records system — often conflicts with their own judgment of best medical practices. And they recoil against restrictions on reproductive care they say Providence illegally imposes on them through its adherence to the Catholic health directives established by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Their large widespread system is very different than the laser focus Hoag has on taking care of its community,” said Hoag CEO Robert Braithwaite. “When Hoag needed speed and agility, we got inadequate responses or policies that were just wrong for us. We found ourselves frustrated with a big health system that had a generic approach to health care.”
Providence insists it wants to stay with Hoag, a financial powerhouse — even as the two sides engage in secret settlement talks that could end the marriage.
“We believe we are better together,” said Erik Wexler, president of Providence South, which includes the group’s operations in California, Texas and New Mexico. “The best way to do that is to collaborate.” He cited joint investments in Hoag Orthopedic Institute and in Be Well OC, a kind of mental health collaborative, as fruits of the affiliation.
“If we are separate,” Wexler added, “there is a chance we may begin to cannibalize each other and drive the cost of care up.”
Research over the past several years, however, has shown that it is the consolidation of hospitals into fewer and larger groups, with greater bargaining clout, that tends to raise medical prices — often with little improvement in the quality of care.
“Mergers are a self-centered pursuit of stability by hospitals and hospital systems that hope to get so big that they can survive the anarchy of U.S. health care,” said Alan Sager, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health.
Wexler argued that price increases linked to consolidation are less of a worry in Orange County, geographically small but densely populated with 3.2 million residents and 28 acute care hospitals. Given the proximity of so many hospitals, Wexler said, counterproductive duplication of medical services is more of a concern.
Unlike many local community hospitals that seek larger partners to survive, Hoag, one of Orange County’s premier medical institutions, is financially robust and perfectly able to stand on its own. It has the advantage of operating in one of Orange County’s most affluent areas, with two acute care hospitals and an orthopedic specialty hospital in Newport Beach and Irvine. It is the beneficiary of numerous wealthy donors, including bond market billionaire Bill Gross and thriller novelist Dean Koontz.
In 2020, Hoag’s net assets, essentially its net worth, stood at about $3.3 billion — nearly 20% of the total for all Providence-affiliated facilities, even though Hoag has only three of the group’s 51 hospitals. Hoag generated operating income of $38 million last year, while Providence posted a $306 million operating loss.
But Providence is hardly a financial weakling. It is sitting on a mountain of unrestricted cash and investments worth $15.3 billion as of Dec. 31. And despite its hefty reserves, it received $1.1 billion in coronavirus relief grants last year under the federal CARES Act, and millions more from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Providence does not own Hoag, since no money changed hands and their assets were not commingled. But Providence is able to keep Hoag from walking away because it has a majority on the governing body that was set up to oversee the original affiliation with St. Joseph.
Hoag executives also express frustration at what they describe as efforts by Providence to interfere with their financial, labor and supply decisions.
Providence, in turn, worries that “if Hoag disaffiliates with Providence, it has the potential to impact our credit rating,”Wexler said.
Despite its insistence on the value of the affiliation, Providence officials are said to be willing to end the affiliation in exchange for payment of an undisclosed amount that Hoag considers unwarranted. Wexler and Hoag executives declined to comment on their discussions. A trial start date has not been set, but on April 26 the court will hear a motion from Hoag to expedite it.
While its financial fortitude distinguishes it from many other community hospitals tied to larger partners, Hoag’s experience with Providence is hardly uncommon amid widespread consolidation in the hospital industry and the growing influence of Catholic health care in the U.S.
“The bigger your parent organization becomes, the smaller your voice is within the system, and that’s part of what Hoag has been complaining about,” said Lois Uttley, director of the women’s health program at Community Catalyst, a Boston-based patient advocacy group that monitors hospital mergers.
“Compounding the problem is the fact that the system in this case is Catholic-run, because then, in addition to having an out-of-town system headquarters calling the shots, you also have to contend with governance from Catholic bishops,” Uttley said. “So you have two bosses, in a sense.”
Hoag is not the only hospital seeking to flee this dynamic. Last year, for example, Virginia Mason Memorial hospital in Yakima, Washington, said it would separate from its parent, Seattle-based Virginia Mason Health System, to avoid a pending merger with CHI Franciscan, part of the Catholic hospital giant CommonSpirit Health.
Mergers and acquisitions have led to the increasing dominance of mega hospital chains in U.S. health care over the past several years. From 2013 to 2018, the revenue of the 10 largest health systems grew 82%, compared with 45% for all other hospital groups, according to a recent study by Deloitte, the consulting and auditing firm.
Researchers expect the trend to accelerate as large health systems swallow smaller facilities economically weakened by the pandemic, and a growing trend toward outpatient care reduces demand for hospital beds.
Four of the 10 largest U.S. hospital systems are Catholic, including Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health, St. Louis-based Ascension, Livonia, Michigan-based Trinity Health and Providence. A study by Community Catalyst found that 1 in 6 acute care hospital beds are in Catholic facilities, and that 52 hospitals operating under Catholic restrictions were the sole acute care facilities in their regions last year, up from 30 in 2013.
“We need to make this a national conversation,” said Dr. Jeffrey Illeck, a Hoag OB-GYN.
He was among a group of Hoag OB-GYNs who signed a letter to then-California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in October, alleging that Providence frequently declined to authorize contraceptive treatments, such as intrauterine devices and tubal ligations — in breach of the conditions imposed by Becerra’s predecessor, Kamala Harris, when she approved the original affiliation with St. Joseph in 2013.
Wexler said he is confident the attorney general’s probe will provide “clarity that Providence has done nothing wrong.”
A particularly bitter disagreement between the two sides concerns a rupture last year within St. Joseph Heritage Healthcare, a physician group belonging to Providence that included both St. Joseph and Hoag doctors. In November, the group notified thousands of patients that their Hoag specialists were no longer part of the network and that they needed to choose new doctors.
Wexler said that was the inevitable result of a decision by the Hoag physicians to negotiate separate HMO contracts, an assertion Braithwaite contested. The move disrupted patient care just as the winter covid surge was gaining momentum, he said.
Perhaps the biggest frustration for most Hoag administrators and physicians is Providence’s desire to standardize care across all 51 hospitals through their shared Epic electronic records system.
Hoag doctors say Providence controls the contents of the Epic system and that the care protocols in it, often driven by cost considerations, frequently collide with their own clinical decisions. Any changes must be debated among all the hospitals in the system and adopted by consensus — a laborious undertaking.
Dr. Richard Haskell, a cardiologist at Hoag, recalled a dispute over intravenous Tylenol, which Hoag’s orthopedists prefer because they say it works well and furthered a concerted effort to reduce opioid addiction. Providence took IV Tylenol off its list of accepted drugs, and the Hoag orthopedists “were very upset,” Haskell said.
They eventually got it back on that list, but with the condition that they could order it only one dose at a time. That meant nurses had to call the doctor every four hours for a new order. “Doctors probably felt, ‘Screw it, I don’t want to get woken up every four hours,’ so they probably just gave them narcotics,’” Haskell said.
He said that before agreeing to adopt Providence’s Epic system, Hoag had received written assurances it could make changes that included its preferred treatment choices for various conditions. But it quickly became clear that was not going to happen, he said.
“We couldn’t make any changes at all, so we were stuck with their system,” Haskell said. “I don’t want to be in a system bogged down by bureaucracy that requires 51 hospitals to vote on it.”
Wexler said Hoag understood exactly what it had signed up for. “They knew full well that there would be a collaborative approach across all of Providence, including Hoag, to make decisions on what standardizations would happen across the entire system,” he said. “It is not easy if one hospital wants to create its own specific pathway.”
Despite Hoag’s concerns about lesser standards of care, Braithwaite could not cite an example of an adverse outcome that had resulted from it. And Hoag’s strong reputation seems untarnished, as reflected in the high rankings and awards it continues to garner — and tout on its website.
Still, the affiliation’s days seem numbered. Hoag is no longer on the Providence website or in its marketing materials, and in many cases — such as the St. Joseph Heritage schism — the two groups are already going their separate ways.
“They are certainly acting like we are competitors, and I assume that means they know the disaffiliation is imminent,” Braithwaite said.
Wexler, while reiterating that Providence wants to maintain the current arrangement, was nonetheless able to imagine a different outcome: “What we would do post-affiliation,” he said, “is to continue to look for opportunities to collaborate.”
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost has filed suit against Centene and several of its subsidiaries, alleging that they schemed to misrepresent pharmacy costs and gain overpayments from the state’s Medicaid program.
According to the lawsuit, Centene subsidiary Buckeye Health Plan used sister companies Envolve Health Solutions and Health Net Pharmacy Solutions to administer its pharmacy benefit. Yost’s office said it began to investigate their business practices as the arrangement “raised questions.”
In a statement, Yost’s office said the investigation, which was conducted by outside counsel, found that the companies filed reimbursement requests for amounts that had already been paid by third parties, and failed to accurately represent costs to the Ohio Department of Medicaid.
In addition, the scheme led to artificially inflated dispensing fees, the AG’s office said.
“Corporate greed has led Centene and its wholly-owned subsidiaries to fleece taxpayers out of millions. This conspiracy to obtain Medicaid payments through deceptive means stops now,” Yost said in a statement. “My office has worked tirelessly to untangle this complex scheme, and we are confident that Centene and its affiliates have materially breached their obligations both to the Department of Medicaid and the state of Ohio.”
Yost has openly declared war on PBMs and has made investigating their business practices a critical initiative within his office. In March 2019, the AG filed suit against Optum, seeking to reclaim $16 million in what he says are drug overcharges.
In a statement, Centene called the claims in the lawsuit “unfounded” and said it will “aggressively defend” against the allegations.
“Envolve’s pharmacy contracts with the State are reviewed and pre-approved by state agencies before they ever go into effect. Furthermore, these services saved millions of tax-payer dollars for Ohioans from market-based pharmaceutical pricing,” Centene said.
“We look forward to answering any of the Attorney General’s questions. Our company is committed to the highest levels of quality and transparency,” the insurer said.
The payment gap was $63,000 for primary care doctors, $178,000 for medical specialists and $150,000 for surgeons.
Doctors who work for hospital outpatient facilities get much higher payments for their services from Medicare than doctors who practice independently, according to a new study.
The research, based on Medicare claims data from 2010-2016,found that the program’s payments for doctors’ work were, on average, $114,000 higher per doctor per year when billed by a hospital than when billed by a doctor’s independent practice.
Published in Health Services Research, results found that the amount Medicare would pay for outpatient care at doctors’ offices would have been 80% higher if the services had been billed by a hospital outpatient facility. In 2010, the average set of Medicare services independent doctors performed annually for patients was worth $141,000, but charging for the same group of services would have grossed $240,000 if a hospital outpatient facility billed for them.
The payment difference varied by specialty. The payment gap was $63,000 for primary care doctors, $178,000 for medical specialists and $150,000 for surgeons.
Moreover, the study found the differential grew over time. From 2010-2016, the average difference between hospital outpatient and private practice payments grew from 80% higher to 99% higher.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT?
The main reason for these large payment differences: facility fees. For each service a doctor performs, Medicare pays hospital outpatient facilities both a fee for the doctor’s work and a fee for the facility, whereas private practices receive only doctor fees.
Although the doctor fees are a bit lower in hospital outpatient locations, the facility fees more than make up for the difference, and the total payments to hospitals are reflected in higher doctor salaries and bonuses.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has been trying to correct this imbalance for years with policies that would pay both sites the same amount. In 2015, the Bipartisan Budget Act authorized CMS to impose site-neutral payments but grandfathered existing hospital outpatient facilities. Later, CMS expanded the equal payments to other hospital outpatient facilities, but the American Hospital Association sued to overturn this regulation.
The groups filed for a petition for a rehearing, which was denied.
In February, the Supreme Court acknowledged the AHA’s request for judicial review. The government response was due by March 15, but on March 3, Norris Cochran, acting Secretary of Health and Human Service asked for an extension until April 14 to file the government’s response, according to court documents.
The significant difference between Medicare payments to hospital outpatient facilities and independent offices has encouraged hospitals and health systems to buy doctor practices, but the study noted that good research about this has been lacking up to now.
It found little evidence of a direct relationship linking the size of the pay gap between hospital outpatient facilities and independent offices, with hospitals buying doctor practices, in particular medical specialties. But it did find that doctors whose services had larger pay gaps were more likely to have a hospital buy their practice than doctors whose services had a smaller pay gap.
In an accompanying commentary, Dr. Michael Chernew of Harvard Medical School in Boston said the study had found that the ability of hospitals and employed doctors to earn more from Medicare had resulted in a greater amount of integration.
THE LARGER TREND
However, the authors pointed out that the Medicare payment difference is only one of many factors that have contributed to the huge increase in the share of doctors employed at hospitals over the past decade. For example, they found a higher probability of a doctor going to work for a hospital in highly concentrated hospital markets and rural areas.
Other studies, they said, have established that some health systems use integration with doctors’ offices as a bargaining chip with commercial health insurance plans. Also, some doctors may find that independent practice is less viable than it used to be for a variety of reasons.
It has also been suggested that many younger doctors prefer hospital employment to private practice because they crave economic security and work-life balance.
It’s been estimated that even the payments to hospitals vs. doctors could save CMS $11 billion over 10 years. But the paper illustrates that the payment disparities can also create broader market distortions because consolidation of hospitals and doctors’ offices has been shown to lead to higher prices overall.
The Medicare Act “prohibits Medicare payment for services that are not furnished within the United States,” according to the filing.
RemoteICU, a telemedicine provider group, is suing the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for not reimbursing telehealth services provided by physicians who are located outside the United States, according to a federal lawsuit filed last week in Washington.
RICU wants reimbursement for telehealth services provided within the U.S., but not necessarily by a physician who lives within its borders.
The company employs physicians who live outside the country, but are U.S. board-certified critical-care specialists and licensed in one or more U.S. jurisdictions. With RICU’s telecommunications system, these physicians can provide critical-care services in U.S. hospital ICUs, the lawsuit said.
“Although RICU’s physicians live abroad, they serve as full-time, permanent staff members of the U.S. hospitals at which they serve patients,” the company said in the court filing.
“By employing U.S.-licensed intensivists who live overseas, RICU has enabled the American healthcare system to recapture talent that would otherwise be lost to it – and this has helped to alleviate the ongoing shortage of intensivists in American hospitals.“
However, after the company reached out to several officials from HHS and CMS, it was notified that Medicare could not reimburse the client hospitals for RICU’s services, because the Medicare Act “prohibits Medicare payment for services that are not furnished within the United States,” according to the filing.
The company is seeking a preliminary injunction to stop HHS and CMS from denying Medicare reimbursement for telehealth services on the basis of a provider’s physical location outside of the United States at the time of service.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT?
RICU claims that, by failing to reimburse for the critical care telehealth services provided by its physicians, HHS and CMS are causing “immediate harm both to RICU and to the public.”
It argues that it’s filling a gap in critical care that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“There remains [a] significant unmet need for critical care services, as desperately sick patients have overwhelmed ICU resources across the country,” RICU said in the court filing.
“In some cases, lack of adequate care can mean the difference between life or death. And one of the groups most at risk from death and serious illness due to COVID-19 is the elderly – the very same population that relies upon Medicare.”
Without reimbursement, RICU says that some of its current clients, as well as potential customers, will not be able to offer its services.
The company argues that this causes “significant, unrecoverable monetary damages” because tele-ICU providers that use physicians located within the U.S. are eligible for reimbursement and therefore have a competitive edge over RICU.
Further, it says that it has already begun losing business because of hospitals’ inability to receive Medicare reimbursement.
“The Critical Care Ban is causing irreparable harm to RICU, which is suffering ongoing financial and reputational harms that cannot be remedied in the future,” the court filing said.
“The balance of the equities favors an injunction, because Defendants have already admitted that there is a desperate medical need for the critical care that RICU would provide but for the Critical Care Ban.
“And, finally, preliminary injunction would be in the public interest because, across the United States, Americans stricken by the COVID-19 pandemic are in desperate need of critical care – a need that RICU can help meet. It is not hyperbole to say that the requested injunctive relief is in the public interest because it could save lives.”
After filing a lawsuit in May to end its affiliation with Renton, Wash.-based Providence, Hoag Memorial Hospital in Newport Beach, Calif., is alleging it is now the target of retaliation, according to theLos Angeles Times.
Hoag Memorial said that Providence removed Hoag Memorial’s three facilities from its website of Southern California locations and terminated Hoag Memorial’s specialists from St. Joseph Heritage Healthcare, a network of medical providers for managed care plans in Southern California. Additionally, Hoag Memorial said that Providence informed Heritage members they would lose access to Hoag’s 13 urgent care centers by Dec. 31.
According to the report, Providence’s notice to patients that Hoag facilities and physicians would be dropped from its network all came in the fall of 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was the most inappropriate, inexplicable and harsh thing to do to a lot of patients,” Hoag President and CEO Robert Braithwaite told the Los Angeles Times. “Finding a new physician or new specialist is particularly hard on seniors and any patient who has a chronic condition and has established a long-term relationship with an endocrinologist or rheumatologist or cancer doctor.”
Providence told the Los Angeles Times it disagrees that patients have been disadvantaged.
“We are committed to the well-being of our communities and to serving patients with high quality and compassionate care,” a Providence spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times.
Hoag Memorial has been affiliated with Providence, a Catholic health system, since 2016.
Hoag Memorial said the changes all came after the hospital sought to end its affiliation with Providence by filing a lawsuit. Hoag Memorial said in its lawsuit it is seeking to end the affiliation because Providence is undermining local decision-making and Catholic Church restrictions are expanding.
Providence has fought Hoag’s lawsuit to end the affiliation. The health system claims Hoag doesn’t have the right to unilaterally dissolve the affiliation, and its board members don’t have the authority to file the lawsuit. An Orange County Superior Court judge rejected Providence’s argument Feb. 1 and scheduled another court hearing for March.
Four companies that agreed to pay a combined $26 billion to settle claims about their roles in the opioid crisis plan to deduct some of those costs from their taxes and recoup around $1 billion apiece.
In recent months, as details of the blockbuster settlement were still being worked out, pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson and the “big three” drug distributors — McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health —all updated their financial projections to include large tax benefits stemming from the expected deal, a Washington Post analysis of regulatory filings found.
In one example, Dublin, Ohio-based drug distributor Cardinal Health said earlier this month it planned to collect a $974 million cash refund because it claimed its opioid-related legal costs as a “net operating loss carryback” — a tax provision Congress included in last year’s coronavirus bailout package as a way of helping companies struggling during the pandemic.
The deductions may deepen public anger toward companies prosecutors say played key roles in a destructive public health crisis that kills tens of thousands of Americans every year. In lawsuits filed by dozens of states and local jurisdictions, public officials have argued that the companies, among other corporate defendants, flooded the country with billions of highly addictive pills and ignored signs they were being steered to people who abused them.
Under the terms of the proposed settlement— which is being finalized and will ultimately be subject to federal court approval — the four companies would pay between $5 billion and $8 billion each to reimburse communities for the costs of the health crisis. Plaintiffs who support the proposal say it will resolve a highly complex litigation process and make funds available to communities and individuals still struggling with addiction.
Others including Greg McNeil, whose son became addicted to opioids and died from an overdose, have said $26 billion is only a small fraction of the epidemic’s financial toll and argue the proposal doesn’t include what many family members of opioid victims want the most: an admission of guilt.
All four firms disavow any wrongdoing or legal responsibility. The companies have said they produced government-approved prescription pills, distributed them to registered pharmacies and took steps to try to prevent their misuse.
U.S. tax laws generally restrict companies from deducting the cost of legal settlements from their taxes, with one major exception: Damages paid to victims as restitution for the misdeeds can usually be deducted. Still, Congress has placed stricter limits on such deductions in recent years, and some tax experts say the Internal Revenue Service could challenge the companies’ attempts to deduct opioid settlement costs.
Harry Cullen, a Brooklyn-based activist who has worked to hold drug companies accountable for the epidemic, said it is “incredibly insulting” that companies would try deduct the settlement payments. “As if they are donating it to these people who they harmed in the first place.”
Erich Timmerman, a spokesman for Cardinal Health, said in a statement that the company’s tax deductions are permissible under federal law. He also pointed to a statement chief executive Mike Kaufmann made in November, when he said Cardinal takes its role in the pharmaceutical supply chain seriously and remains “committed to being part of the solution to this epidemic.”
AmerisourceBergen declined to comment on its taxes but said in a statement the company takes steps to mitigate the diversion of prescription drugs, including by refusing service to customers it sees as a risk and by making daily reports to federal drug officials.
Johnson & Johnson declined to comment on the opioid settlement and tax deductions beyond its regulatory filings.A spokeswoman for McKesson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Cardinal Health’s use of the “carryback” tax break draws attention to what some see as a shortcoming of the $2 trillion U.S. coronavirus bailout known as the Cares Act. In their haste to funnel cash benefits to businesses facing economic peril, lawmakers made billions of dollars in tax breaks broadly available to any company, regardless of whether it suffered during the pandemic.
Cardinal, a company with a $15 billion market capitalization and $4 billion in available cash, surpassed Wall Street expectations for its most recent earnings period. Last week, CEO Kaufmann told investors a rebound in medical treatments and procedures had revived demand for Cardinal’s health devices and drugs. He said the company was boosting its investment in sophisticated supply-chain technology.
On the same day, Cardinal said it was filing for a tax break using the Cares Act provision and expected a nearly $1 billion cash refund from the IRS within the next 12 months. The company plans to pay $6.6 billion in the settlement.
Francine J. Lipman, a tax professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, said Cardinal Health appears to be “getting a bit of a windfall from laws that Congress intended to help companies that are suffering due to a pandemic.”
The “carryback” tax break permits any company that lost money in 2018, 2019 or 2020 to apply those losses to previous, more profitable years. Some form of this provision has been permitted by the U.S. tax code for over a century to help businesses that face ups and downs to even out their taxes.
The Cares Act raised the limit on the amount of losses companies can use to offset taxes and permitted them to apply those losses to earlier periods. Because the corporate tax rate was higher before 2018, companies with recent losses can increase tax refunds they received before that year by up to 67 percent.
Cardinal estimated in August it expected to deduct $488 million from the expected opioid legal settlement. But in its Feb. 5 filing, the company said the amount probably would be higher in part because the Cares Act permitted it to carry back losses related to the opioid litigation to previous years when the tax rate was higher.
UNLV’s Lipman said Cardinal’s decision to apply for a tax refund before any legal settlement has been finalized could face scrutiny from the IRS. Deductions must be made against business expenses that are shown to have “economic effect,” she said, which may preclude deductions against future, unpaid legal settlements.
Timmerman, Cardinal’s spokesman, said the company has already recorded a loss related to the opioid litigation because Cardinal insures itself through a wholly-owned insurance subsidiary. The opioid litigation caused a loss to the insurance company’s reserve, and that is the loss that Cardinal is deducting, he said.
“Tax and accounting rules applicable to insurance companies, including self-insurance companies, require recognition of loss when an insurance reserve is set, thus establishing economic effect, even if the underlying settlement is not final,” Timmerman said.
The three other companies involved in the $26 billion settlement have estimated the tax benefits of the deal but have not filed for tax refunds. They all said the tax benefits could be lower if courts or regulators determined some or all of the payments are not tax-deductible.
McKesson, which expects to pay $8.1 billion in the settlement, said in a Feb. 2 filing that the actual cost of the deal would be $6.7 billion after taxes, implying a $1.4 billion tax benefit. The company also said $497 million in tax benefits were “uncertain” because of the “uncertainty in connection with the deductibility of opioid related litigation and claims.”
AmerisourceBergen, which anticipates a $6.6 billion settlement payment, said in November it expects a $1.1 billion tax benefit. The company said an additional $371.5 million tax benefit was possible but “uncertain.”
“A settlement has not been reached, and, therefore, we applied significant judgment in estimating the ultimate amount of the opioid litigation settlement that would be deductible,” the company said.
Matthew Gardner, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, said these disclaimers suggest the companies are making conservative estimates. “That’s one way of saying they are likely going to claim even bigger tax benefits in their tax returns than they are showing on their financial statements,” he said.
Whether the payments will be deductible may hinge on specific word choices in the final terms of the settlement. Though recent changes to the tax code have attempted to close loopholes that permit companies to deduct taxes when they have committed wrongdoing, many companies now push to make sure their settlements include a “restitution” payment for victims — the “magic word” that often qualifies them for deductions, Gardner said.
In previous opioid-related settlements local governments reached with McKesson, Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals, the companies admitted no fault and agreed to restitution payments that appeared to qualify them for tax deductions, USA Today reported in 2019.
Johnson & Johnsonhas said it expects it could deduct as much as 21.4 percent of its $5 billion share of the settlement, which would mean a roughly $1.1 billion tax benefit. However, the company said last summer that the deductible amount may be lower if a regulation proposed by the IRS last year came into effect.
The rule, which did take effect Jan. 20, requires companies to meet a long list of specific criteria to qualify government settlements for tax deductions.
In 2019, The Post analyzed a database maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration that tracks the path of every pain pill sold in the United States. The database shows that America’s largest drug companies distributed 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills across the country between 2006 and 2012 as the nation’s deadliest drug epidemic spun out of control.
McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen distributed 44 percent of the nation’s oxycodone and hydrocodone pills — the two most abused prescription opioid drugs — during that time.
An investigation by The Post last year found that near the peak of U.S. opioid production, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary was manufacturing enough oxycodone and hydrocodone to capture half or more of the U.S. market. The company also lobbied for years to help persuade regulators to loosen a narcotics import rule, allowing Johnson & Johnson’s U.S. subsidiary to produce rising amounts of opioids out of potent poppies harvested by its Tasmanian subsidiary, The Post found.
Attorneys for Johnson & Johnson have said its opioid-producing subsidiaries did not cause the United States’ addiction crisis, that the companies were heavily regulated, and that such companies play only a “peripheral role in the multibillion-dollar market for prescription opioids.”
On January 14, 2021, Planned Parenthood Southeast and the Feminist Women’s Health Center filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s approval of Georgia’s waiver under Section 1332 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The lawsuit was filed in federal district court in DC. This post summarizes that legal challenge as well as parts of President Biden’s recent proposed pandemic relief package that relate to the ACA and coverage. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan includes several coverage-related proposals and would follow the pandemic relief passed by Congress in December 2020.
Advocates Challenge The Approval of Georgia’s 1332 Waiver
Regular readers know that the Trump administration—through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Treasury Department—approved a broad waiver request from Georgia under Section 1332 of the ACA. The approved waiver authorizes the state to establish a reinsurance program for plan year 2022 and eliminate the use of HealthCare.gov beginning with plan year 2023. CMS and Treasury approved the waiver application on November 1, 2020. The history of Georgia’s waiver application and approval is summarized in prior posts as well as in the complaint filed in the lawsuit.
The reinsurance portion of the waiver is straightforward; of the 16 states with an approved Section 1332 waiver, all but one state has established a state-based reinsurance program. But the second part of the waiver application, known as the Georgia Access Model, is far more controversial. This is the broadest waiver yet to be approved under Section 1332 and relies on interpretations of Section 1332 made in much-criticized Trump-era guidance from 2018.
Critics have long argued that Georgia’s proposal fails to satisfy Section 1332’s procedural and substantive guardrails, meaning it could not be lawfully approved by the Trump administration. Given this controversy, legal challenges to the waiver approval were expected.
Planned Parenthood Southeast and the Feminist Women’s Health Center—represented by Democracy Forward—filed a lawsuit in federal district court in DC on January 14, 2021. The lawsuit alleges that the Trump administration’s 2018 guidance and approval of Georgia’s waiver are unlawful because these actions violate Section 1332 of the ACA and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The lawsuit also cites many of the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to undermine the ACA as evidence that the 2018 guidance and waiver approval are part of a pattern of ACA sabotage.
In particular, the plaintiffs argue that the 2018 guidance and waiver approval are contrary to Section 1332, exceed the scope of the agencies’ authority (by allowing states to waive non-waivable provisions of the ACA), and are arbitrary and capricious. They also argue that the waiver approval failed to satisfy procedural requirements under the ACA and APA because Georgia and the Trump administration “rushed through the process without adequate time for public comment and without adequate clarification of how the state intends to approach key issues.” Here, the lawsuit points to the fact that Georgia went through four iterations of its waiver application, that its application was incomplete, and that only eight comments (less than one half of one percent) of the 1,826 total comments submitted during the most recent federal public comment period were in support of the Georgia Access Model.
As such, the plaintiffs ask the court to vacate both the approved waiver and the 2018 guidance and declare that they are unlawful. They also ask that the federal government be enjoined from taking further action on Georgia’s waiver or considering other waivers under the 2018 guidance. The plaintiffs acknowledge that the reinsurance portion of the waiver is uncontroversial and that the focus of the lawsuit is on the Georgia Access Model; however, the plaintiffs challenge approval of the waiver as a whole and ask the court to set aside the waiver in whole or in part. The plaintiffs have not sued Georgia, although it is possible that Georgia may ask to intervene in the litigation to defend its interests.
Much of the lawsuit turns on how the Trump administration interpreted the statutory guardrails under Section 1332 and long-standing concerns about direct enrollment and enhanced direct enrollment.Federal officials can grant a Section 1332 waiver only if a state demonstrates that their proposal meets certain statutory “guardrails.”These guardrails ensure that a waiver proposal will 1) provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive as ACA coverage ( “comprehensiveness” guardrail); 2) provide coverage and cost-sharing protections that are at least as affordable as ACA requirements (“affordability” guardrail); 3) provide coverage to at least a comparable number of residents as under the ACA ( “coverage” guardrail); and 4) not increase the federal deficit. The Obama administration issued guidance in 2015 on its interpretation of these guardrails.
In 2018, the Trump administration replaced that guidance and adopted its own interpretation, which manyargued was inconsistent with Section 1332. The 2018 guidance tried to pave the way for the Trump administration to approve waivers where only some coverage under the waiver (instead of all coverage) satisfied the comprehensiveness and affordability guardrails. Under this view, waivers could be approved even if only some coverage under the waiver was as comprehensive, as affordable, and as available as coverage provided under the ACA. The 2018 guidance would also allow waivers to expand access to plans that do not have to meet the ACA’s requirements. (Separately, the Trump administration issued a final rule to codify the 2018 guidance’s interpretations into regulations.)
The lawsuit argues that the Georgia Access Model violates all four statutory guardrails because it will “drastically underperform the ACA.” The waiver proposal could lead to net enrollment losses in Georgia, which violates the coverage guardrail. The waiver could lead some consumers to enroll in non-ACA plans (such as short-term plans) with benefit gaps, which violates the comprehensiveness guardrail. And consumers will have to pay higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs through higher broker commissions, reduced competition, and adverse selection against the ACA markets, which violates the affordability guardrail and potentially the deficit neutrality guardrail (since higher ACA premiums mean higher federal outlays in the form of premium tax credits).
As health care providers in Georgia, Planned Parenthood Southeast and the Feminist Women’s Health Center allege they will be harmed for several reasons. They argue that the Georgia Access Model will make it more difficult and expensive for their patients to obtain health insurance. Fewer patients with health insurance will result in higher levels of uncompensated care. More uncompensated care will strain the plaintiffs’ resources and limit other services, such as community outreach. The loss of coverage resulting from the waiver will leave their patients in worse health and develop more complex treatment needs, making it more expensive for plaintiffs to treat those patients as a result. And approval of the waiver will make it more complicated for the plaintiffs to assist their patients with enrollment.
What Happens Next
The lawsuit was assigned to Judge James E. Boasberg of the federal district court for DC. Health policy watchers know Judge Boasberg as the judge who repeatedly invalidated the Trump administration’s approval of state Section 1115 waivers with work and community engagement requirements. He is thus no stranger to assessing the legality of waiver approvals under the APA and other federal statutes.
The lawsuit will proceed, and the Biden administration will be responsible for filing a response in court. One potential option could be for the Biden administration to ask the court for a stay while it revisits the approved waiver and perhaps holds another round of public comment on the most recent version of the waiver (which, as the lawsuit points out, was never submitted for public comment). The Biden administration could consider any new comments in reevaluating approval of the Georgia Access Model.
If the federal government newly concludes that the proposal fails to satisfy the substantive guardrails, it could have grounds to amend, suspend, or terminate Georgia’s waiver, so long as certain procedures are followed. This is because the terms and conditions of the waiver agreement between the federal government and Georgia (as well as implementing regulations) always give the federal government “the right to suspend or terminate a waiver, in whole or in part, any time before the date of expiration, if the Secretaries determine that the state materially failed to comply with the terms” of the waiver.
Georgia’s waiver agreement includes some unique terms and conditions relative to waivers in other states. Those terms seem designed to limit the federal government’s ability to suspend or terminate Georgia’s waiver. But the federal government can do so as long as it complies with relevant procedures. This includes notifying Georgia of its determination, providing an effective date, and citing reasons for the amendment or termination (i.e., why the Georgia Access Model fails to satisfy Section 1332’s substantive guardrails). Georgia would have 90 days to respond, with the possibility of providing a corrective action plan to come into compliance with the waiver conditions. Georgia must also be given an opportunity to be heard and challenge the suspension or termination.
Alternatively, the Biden administration could regularly assess and monitor the state’s compliance with the terms and conditions and its progress, or lack thereof, in implementing the Georgia Access Model. Federal officials do this with all waivers. Under the waiver approval, Georgia must, for instance, satisfy requirements related to funding, reporting and evaluation, development of an outreach and communications plan, and operational standards for eligibility determinations. If Georgia fails to comply with these terms and conditions, that too would be grounds to initiate the process to amend or terminate parts or all of Georgia’s waiver.
Coverage Provisions In Biden’s American Rescue Plan
On January 14, a few days before taking office, President Biden issued a 19-page fact sheet outlining his proposed American Rescue Plan to contain the COVID-19 virus and stabilize the economy. The announcement praised the bipartisan package adopted in December 2020 as “a step in the right direction” but notes that Congress did not go far enough to fully address the pandemic and economic fallout. Following Inauguration Day, Biden is expected to lay out an additional economic recovery plan.
Among many other initiatives, the comprehensive $1.9 trillion plan would provide funding for a national vaccination program, create a new public health jobs program, provide funding for schools to reopen safely, extend and expand emergency paid leave, extend and expand unemployment benefits, raise the minimum wage, and deliver $1,400 in support for people across the country. The Biden plan also calls for preserving and expanding health insurance, noting that 30 million people were uninsured even before the pandemic and that millions may have lost job-based coverage in 2020.
First, the American Rescue Plan calls for Congress to provide COBRA subsidies through the end of September. Presumably, these subsidies would be available from the beginning of 2021, rather than subsidizing premiums from 2020. COBRA subsidies during an economic emergency are not new. Congress subsidized COBRA premiums during the 2008 recession, with mixed results. Full COBRA subsidies were included in the original Heroes Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in May 2020, although not in the revised Heroes Act that was passed by the House in October 2020. But neither bill was ever taken up by the U.S. Senate. It is not clear from the fact sheet whether the Biden administration is aiming for full COBRA subsidies where the government would pay 100 percent of the premiums for COBRA coverage for laid-off workers and furloughed employees—or some other amount (e.g., 80 percent of premiums).
Second, the American Rescue Plan would accomplish one of candidate Biden’s key campaign promises by expanding and increasing the value of premium tax credits under the ACA. Democrats in Congress have repeatedly passed legislation that would accomplish what the American Rescue Plan fact sheet seems to call for. For instance, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Enhancement Act—passed by the House in July 2020—would have expanded the availability of premium tax credits to those whose income is above 400 percent of the federal poverty level and made those credits more generous by reducing the level of income that an individual must contribute towards their health insurance premiums to 8.5 percent for those with the highest incomes. This subsidy expansion and enhancement would improve the affordability of coverage for millions of Americans who purchase coverage in the individual market.
Beyond COBRA and ACA subsidies, the American Rescue Plan calls for additional funding for veterans’ health care needs and for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Health Resources and Services Administration to expand access to behavioral health services. The proposal would also increase the federal Medicaid assistance percentage (FMAP) to 100 percent for the administration of COVID-19 vaccines to help ensure that all Medicaid enrollees will be vaccinated. The proposal does not appear to otherwise mention Medicaid, which is serving as a key safety net as incomes have dropped for millions of Americans, despite bipartisan support for an enhanced FMAP during the pandemic.
The indictment describes an inside job involving Beaumont employees who sold stolen sponges, adhesives and instruments used to inspect eyes and ears. The equipment included cystoscopes, a thin tube with a camera that is inserted through the urethra and into the bladder.
“Some of the medical devices stolen and re-sold over the Internet were possibly contaminated devices that were previously used in various surgical and other medical procedures on patients,” according to the indictment.
The three individuals charged in the indictment are:
Paul Purdy, 49, of Bellbrook, Ohio
Valdet Seferovic, 32, of Auburn Hills
Zafar Khan, 40, of Fenton
Purdy and Seferovic not respond to messages seeking comment Thursday while Harold Gurewitz, a lawyer for Khan, declined comment. The three defendants are scheduled to make initial appearances Jan. 21 in federal court.
“These defendants used their employment status to circumvent the safety protocols established by Beaumont Hospital to profit from the theft of medical devices and put the health and safety of the general public at risk in doing so,” U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said in a statement.
The wire fraud and conspiracy charges listed in the 18-count indictment are punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison.
Beaumont officials have cooperated fully with the investigation, health system spokesman Mark Geary wrote in an email to The Detroit News.
“This kind of theft does a disservice to more than just Beaumont — it does a disservice to the community,” Geary wrote. “We have confidence in the legal process and trust a just result will be achieved.”
Purdy and Seferovic were friends who worked at Beaumont and had access to storage areas inside one of the system’s hospitals, prosecutors alleged. The duo gained access to medical supplies and devices, according to the government, and devised a plan to steal the equipment and sell the items throughout the U.S.
Purdy, who worked for Beaumont until resigning in 2017, never told buyers the items were stolen, prosecutors said. After he quit, Purdy recruited Seferovic to continue stealing items from the medical supply, cleaning and disinfecting rooms, according to prosecutors.
“Medical devices that are removed from their rightful place in a hospital or other medical setting put patients’ health at risk by denying them access to needed diagnostic imaging and treatment,” Lynda Burdelik, special agent in charge of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Criminal Investigations field office in Chicago, said in a statement.
Purdy paid Seferovic for stolen items via PayPal and resold the devices on eBay and Amazon, according to the government. On March 28, 2018, the indictment alleges Purdy received a $4,800 wire payment from the sale of two cystoscopes.
That same day, Seferovic received a $2,550 payment via PayPal, according to the government.
In fall 2017, Seferovic also agreed to steal and sell medical devices and supplies to Khan, who owns Wholesale Medical & Surgical Suppliers of America, LLC in Flint, according to the indictment.
Seferovic would transfer stolen supplies to Khan during meetings in metro Detroit, including at a Walmart parking lot, according to the indictment. Khan, in turn, would sell the supplies and devices online at below retail price.
Seferovic’s job duties and status was unclear Thursday.
The investigation and alleged crimes have prompted internal changes at Beaumont.
“…Beaumont has enhanced security protocols and implemented additional checks and balances across the organization to reduce the chances of something like this happening again,” Geary said.