Update and Thoughts on Lawsuit Over Medicare Hearing Backlog

Several months ago, I promised to post my thoughts on the viability of the American Hospital Association’s threatened lawsuit against the Secretary of Health and Human Services challenging the growing backlog of coverage appeals.  (See my post here).  That issue has become timely, because the AHA and several providers filed suit in May in the District of Columbia, and a few days ago filed a motion for summary judgment.   (See here).  There has been some coverage of the suit.  (See here and here.)  In short, their argument is that the statute says that a hearing must be held in 90 days and Medicare officials admit that the plaintiffs will not get a hearing for years, so therefore the court should order “mandamus,” forcing compliance with the 90 day deadline.

When I was in practice before moving to academia, I represented the Secretary in cases like this, so keep in mind my view might be biased.  But the government’s response to the complaint is due (by my calculation) Monday, July 28, so I wanted to offer my quick reactions about the case and what sort of response we might hear from the government.  I’ve just read over the AHA’s motion for summary judgment and I think that in a case like this, with an admitted violation of a statutory requirement, you have to start with the presumption that things could go bad for the government.  But with that said, I don’t think that the government’s case is as gloomy as it might at first appear, so this could be an interesting case to watch going forward.

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Big Data, Predictive Analytics, Health Care, Law, and Ethics

Update: The Moore Foundation has generously paid to make my article available as open access on their website here. Today I am speaking at Health Affairs’ “Using Big Data to Transform Health Care” in DC, that will also launch its new issue devoted to the topic. I have a co-authored paper in the volume entitled “The Legal And Ethical Concerns That Arise From Using Complex Predictive Analytics In Health Care” that has just been released. Ironically the article is behind a paywall (while data wants to be free, I guess big data is different!) Here is the abstract.

Predictive analytics, or the use of electronic algorithms to forecast future events in real time, makes it possible to harness the power of big data to improve the health of patients and lower the cost of health care. However, this opportunity raises policy, ethical, and legal challenges. In this article we analyze the major challenges to implementing predictive analytics in health care settings and make broad recommendations for overcoming challenges raised in the four phases of the life cycle of a predictive analytics model: acquiring data to build the model, building and validating it, testing it in real-world settings, and disseminating and using it more broadly. For instance, we recommend that model developers implement governance structures that include patients and other stakeholders starting in the earliest phases of development. In addition, developers should be allowed to use already collected patient data without explicit consent, provided that they comply with federal regulations regarding research on human subjects and the privacy of health information.

I will also have a related paper on mobile health coming out later this summer that I will blog about when it comes out…

Medicare Coverage for Sex Change Therapy: What’s Next

Last month Medicare’s policy on coverage for sex change therapy changed somewhat. (See Matt’s earlier post here.) Specifically, Medicare’s Departmental Appeals Board invalidated the long-standing National Coverage Determination that dubbed sex change therapy to be non-covered, per se.

Co-blogger Elizabeth Guo and I have done some further digging on this issue and put together two posts answering some questions left open by Medicare’s decision and the news coverage surrounding it.  In this post we discuss next steps: what the change in coverage policy means for Medicare beneficiaries who want coverage for sex change therapy, and what, if any, additional developments are likely to follow.  In a companion post, we will be discussing the somewhat unusual process that was used to make this policy change.

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Medicare No Longer Excludes Coverage for Sex Change Surgery

Yesterday, Medicare’s Departmental Appeals Board set aside a thirty-year-old National Coverage Determination excluding Medicare coverage for sex change surgery.  As a result, Medicare beneficiaries may now seek coverage for sex change surgery, though the ruling does not make such coverage automatic; it only lifts the blanket national exclusion.  Regional and case-by-case determinations that such surgery is not “medically necessary” could still apply.  For news coverage, see here, here, and here.

The decision is not entirely surprising, Medicare had already in December reopened consideration of the National Coverage Determination precluding coverage.  One question to watch is whether this decision, and the changed Medicare policy that ultimately results from it, winds up furthering the case for coverage in private insurance.  There is an unmistakable trend in this area toward more coverage.  Connecticut recently mandated coverage for many plans, and California and Oregon expanded coverage last year.  And let’s not forget prison, in the First Circuit, at least, the refusal to provide sex change surgery to Michael Kosilek that doctors deemed to be medically necessary was ruled “cruel and unusual punishment.”  (Coverage in the Globe here.)

 

Medicaid ACOs in New Jersey: At the Starting Line at Last

By Kate Greenwood

Cross-Posted at Health Reform Watch

Nearly three years ago, in July of 2011, Tara Adams Ragone wrote a blog post for Seton Hall Law’s Health Reform Watch blog entitled “Community Based Medicaid ACOs in New Jersey: A Signature Away”. As Professor Ragone explained, a month earlier the New Jersey legislature had passed Senate Bill 2443, which established a Medicaid accountable care organization (ACO) demonstration project, but Governor Chris Christie had not yet signed it. “It’s an exciting time for growth and innovation in the Garden State,” Professor Ragone wrote, “if we just get that signature.”

Governor Christie did go on to sign Senate Bill 2443 into law, in August of 2011, but the implementation process has been protracted. The act required the Department of Human Services to “adopt rules and regulations” that provided for oversight of the quality of care delivered to Medicaid recipients in the ACOs’ designated geographic areas and set standards for the gainsharing plans that participating ACOs must develop. The deadline for adopting the regulations was in June of 2012, but they were first issued, in draft form, in May of 2013. The final regulations were not adopted until earlier this week, one day before the proposed regulations were due to expire.

As Andrew Kitchenman reports here, with the regulations in place, the three community-based organizations that have been preparing to launch Medicaid ACOs, one in Camden, one in Trenton, and one in Newark, can finally get started. Unlike the State, they will have to move quickly; the deadline for applying to participate in the three-year demonstration is July 7th.

There is, in Kitchenman’s words, “a final piece to the puzzle”—the participation of managed care organizations (MCOs). Continue reading

#BELHP2014 Panel 2, Potential Problems and Limits of Nudges in Health Care

[Ed. Note: On Friday, May 2 and Saturday, May 3, 2014, the Petrie-Flom Center hosted its 2014 annual conference: "Behavioral Economics, Law, and Health Policy."  This is an installment in our series of live blog posts from the event; video will be available later in the summer on our website.]

By Matthew L Baum

In this next installment of today’s live-blogging of the conference (and with all of the caveats of live-blogging mentioned by my colleagues and my apologies for any errors or misrepresentations) we have Professors David Hyman (DH), Mark White (MW) and Andrea Freeman (AF) in a panel moderated by Glenn Cohen (GC) on the “Potential Problems and Limits of Nudges in Health Care”.

The panel began with DH, H. Ross & Helen Workman Chair in Law and Director of the Epstein Program in Health Law and Policy, University of Illinois College of Law, and a talk entitled, “what can PPACA teach us about behavioral law and economics” (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act). DH began with the observation that nudges often work quite well… “unless they don’t”. While many nudges are “sticky”, i.e. they influence behavior in the way they were intended, others are “slippery”, i.e. they fail to influence behavior in the way they were intended. His talk set out to illustrate the phenomenon, and to pose two questions. The first was an empirical question: what makes a nudge sticky vs slippery? The second was philosophical: is it meaningful to talk about a “failed nudge” or when we do, do we really just mean failed marketing? He focused on an analysis of PPACA as a case study.

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How should we label these “cognitive errors” that are particularly common among MDs?

Behavioral economists are really into giving the cognitive errors they study, and the corrective policy interventions they favor, labels. “Status quo bias,” “availability bias,” “recall bias,” etc., can all be fixed through “nudges” that involve “asymmetric paternalism” and the like.

Here’s an interesting “cognitive error” that I’m trying to crowd-source a label for: When America’s joint surgeons were challenged to come up with a list of unnecessary procedures in their field, their selections shared one thing: none significantly impacted their incomes.

And here’s another odd cognitive anomaly that seems to be especially limited to ophthalmologists: forgetting there’s a $50 dollar alternative that works just as well as the $2,000 injection they get 6% commission on. 

I’ve thought of my own labels (or rather, euphemisms) for the policy interventions I would suggest in response: “continuing medical education”  for the first of these neat little errors, and “resocialization” for the second.

Is Medicare’s System for Challenging Coverage Determinations Unintentionally Unfair?

On March 25, Susan Jaffe published a blog post in the New York Times about Medicare’s recent change to cover skilled therapy (e.g. physical therapy, nursing care) where it is “reasonable and necessary” maintain a patient’s condition and to prevent deterioration, even when it is not likely that the patient will improve. Jaffe notes that the revisions will likely have a substantial impact on thousands of Medicare beneficiaries even though the change has been largely unnoticed.

The revision highlights a potential problem with the system in place for challenging Medicare coverage. The revision itself is unremarkable, reflecting what national Medicare policies professed, but what local contractors sometimes ignored. What is remarkable is the time it took for Medicare to make the revision, from when the controversy appeared to when Medicare posted the change in its manuals. This delay is problematic because it reflects a dichotomy in how coverage decisions are challenged and changed under Medicare – due not to medical necessity but to political and financial circumstances beyond patient control.

Constituents can change Medicare coverage policies through two processes. One is through the litigation system. Judges can overturn Medicare coverage decisions after patients have exhausted Medicare’s internal adjudication process. Yet, litigation can take years and judges usually defer to Medicare’s judgment. National Coverage Determinations (NCDs) provide an alternative under which constituents can encourage Medicare to reconsider or overturn a prior coverage decision. NCDs supersede Local Coverage Determinations (LCDs) – coverage decisions that affect a region of the United States. When Medicare determines that the LCDs for a specific technology or service are “inconsistent or conflict with each other to the detriment of Medicare beneficiaries,” Medicare can decide to issue an NCD to provide uniform coverage.

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News from OMHA Appellants Forum: Statistical Sampling Coming, Backlog Growing

Yesterday the HHS Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) held a forum for appellants affected by its decision, which I blogged about last month, to hold off on assigning incoming appeals to ALJs while they work to clear a large backlog.  I was able to go, and enjoyed every minute.  This issue has received its share of attention in the news (Washington Post here, National Review online here), as well as controversy (see here and here), but I have not yet seen an article discussing some of the policy developments that came out of yesterday’s forum.  So I am going to play journalist for a minute, rather than academic, and share yesterday’s developments.  There were a lot of them: Continue reading

Treating Addiction in Pregnant Women and New Mothers: A Promising Application for Social Impact Financing?

By Kate Greenwood

Cross-Posted at Health Reform Watch 

Last week, vtdigger.org ran an interesting article by Laura Krantz on the difficulties pregnant women and new mothers who are addicted to drugs have accessing not just drug treatment but also all of the other services and supports they need. Krantz reported on a hearing before the Human Services Committee of the Vermont House of Representatives at which a new mother in recovery from addiction, “a neonatalogist, a substance abuse clinician, a Health Department employee and a representative from the Phoenix House, a residential treatment facility in Brattleboro … all said women need not only treatment, but housing, transportation and help finding jobs.”

Alice Larned, a substance abuse clinician at the Lund Family Center in Burlington, told Krantz that spaces in residential detoxification facilities are increasingly scarce. The demand for transitional housing for women who have completed inpatient detoxification also exceeds the supply. Add to this the sad fact that women can wait a year or more for an appointment with a physician who can treat them with methadone or buprenorphine. Larned told Krantz that many of the women who start treatment with her are taking buprenorphine they bought illegally, an “indication they want help ‘yet we don’t have the legitimate means for them to get this medication[.]’”

In another story that ran last week on NPR, Steve Zind spoke with Harry Chen, the Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Health, who emphasized the complexities inherent in treating addiction in pregnant women and new mothers. To do so successfully, Commissioner Chen explained, “requires so many different systems working together well: the social service system, the health care system, the substance abuse system and even to some extent the correctional system.”

I confess that one reason that these two articles caught my attention is that Alice Larned is my sister.  Another reason, though, is that the problem described in the articles seems like a promising application for social impact financing, something that has been in the news here in New Jersey in recent weeks.

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TOMORROW: Second Annual Health Law Year in P/Review

Please join us for our second annual Health Law Year in P/Review event, co-sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and the New England Journal of Medicine. The conference will be held in Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East C at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 31, 2014, from 8:30am to 5:00pm.

This year we will welcome experts discussing major developments over the past year and what to watch out for in areas including the Affordable Care Act, medical malpractice, FDA regulatory policy, abortion, contraception, intellectual property in the life sciences industry, public health policy, and human subjects research.

The full agenda is available on our website. Speakers are:  Continue reading

1/31: Second Annual Health Law Year in P/Review

Please join us for our second annual Health Law Year in P/Review event, co-sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and the New England Journal of Medicine. The conference will be held in Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East C at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 31, 2014, from 8:30am to 5:00pm.

This year we will welcome experts discussing major developments over the past year and what to watch out for in areas including the Affordable Care Act, medical malpractice, FDA regulatory policy, abortion, contraception, intellectual property in the life sciences industry, public health policy, and human subjects research.

The full agenda is available on our website. Speakers are:  Continue reading

Medicare Stops Hearing Provider Appeals in Hopes of Clearing Backlog

When Medicare refuses to cover a treatment (such as inpatient hospitalization) or device (like diabetes testing supplies), the statute gives the disappointed beneficiary the right to appeal.  Furthermore, there are mechanisms by which the provider–which may be a hospital, doctor, durable medical equipment manufacturer, etc.–that recommended the treatment (and often stands to profit if it is covered) can appeal on the beneficiary’s behalf (or on their own if the claim is assigned).

The statute sets deadlines for decisions on appeal, but in recent years a flood of new cases has led to a growing backlog and long delays.  (The backlog is caused in large part by the Recovery Audit Contractor program, through which Medicare has been revisiting and revising coverage determinations from the past several years.   That is a subject for another day.)

On Christmas Eve, the office in the Department of Health and Human Services responsible for hearing appeals (that is, the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals), adopted a controversial mitigation measure: They’ve stopped hearing new appeals, while they work to clear the backlog.  Which will take at least two years.  (See recent coverage here.)

Yes, the law says that Medicare must hear appeals, so yes, this temporary measure is technically inconsistent with the law (which is not to say it is illegal, more below on that).  But in my view it is actually a good idea, and consistent with what I think is the best ultimate solution to the “backlog” problem.  Here’s why:

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Managing All Care

By Nathaniel Counts

Health insurers are beginning to realize the importance of downstream cost-saving.  By paying to keep people healthy now, health insurers avoid major expenditures later when they must cover chronic conditions and hospitalizations.  For example, by paying for nutrition counseling and fitness programs for prediabetics, health insurers can reduce the rate of transition to diabetes for their clients, which both saves the insurer thousands of dollars and keeps their clients happier and healthier.   This type of innovation is possible because the law requires certain expenditures, i.e. doctors must treat individuals at the emergency room, and these expenditures tend to be quite large if incurred.

Social services in general could enjoy this type of innovation if funding were pooled between government services, and healthcare, housing, food, and direct welfare were all managed together.  Currently, each is conceived as a separate welfare program, so one can only recognize reduction within a program, not how the programs interact.  For example, it may be that the expansion of SNAP benefits would decrease emergency room visits and end up being cost-saving overall.  It may also be that certain types of subsidized housing reduce the need for other services and are more cost-saving than others, but this is hard to recognize when each program is segregated.  One could imagine that subsidized housing built in areas with better access to quality food and jobs would be more expensive upfront, but could save in money overall by reducing the need for other benefits.  Because social services currently have a system of mandatory spending in the form of entitlements, there is an incentive to ensure that individuals transition away from use of the more expensive services.

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1/31: Second Annual Health Law Year in P/Review conference

Please join us for our second annual Health Law Year in P/Review event, co-sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and the New England Journal of Medicine. The conference will be held in Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East C at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 31, 2014, from 8:30am to 5:00pm.

This year we will welcome experts discussing major developments over the past year and what to watch out for in areas including the Affordable Care Act, medical malpractice, FDA regulatory policy, abortion, contraception, intellectual property in the life sciences industry, public health policy, and human subjects research.

The full agenda is available on our website. Speakers are:  Continue reading

Petrie-Flom Intern’s Weekly Round-Up: 12/1-12/8

By Chloe Reichel

1) Following orders from FDA, 23andMe will no longer market genetic tests using health analyses. The company will, however, continue to sell genetic tests related to ancestry.

2) Families with children who have seizure disorders are flocking to Colorado. There, these children can legally receive medications containing extracts from marijuana, which are believed to reduce the occurrence of seizures.

3) A bill is being debated in the New York City Council that would ban the use of electronic cigarettes in public spaces. Supporters of the ban say that electronic cigarettes pose a public health risk, while opponents say that they are harmless.

4) Chemotherapy will not be forced on an Amish girl with lymphoblastic lymphoma. The family decided to stop treatment because of the side effects, and the court-appointed guardian of the girl has decided to drop the case against her parents because they are not locatable.

5) Error rates for those who filled out enrollment forms on the Healthcare.gov online insurance marketplace were at 25 percent for October, although representatives say that these error rates have since declined.

6) Legislators who are opposed to the Affordable Care Act are planning to utilize funds allocated by the federal government for Medicaid expansion to instead purchase private health insurance plans for people who are of low socioeconomic status. This Friday, Tom Corbett, governor of Pennsylvania announced this plan, and Arkansas legislators have already enacted an analogous plan.

Great piece on ER pricing

The New York Times has posted another installment of its excellent series, “Paying Till it Hurts,” by Elisabeth Rosenthal, this time on the astonishingly high costs of emergency room visits.  The piece is worth a read in full for its infuriating detail—really, I think the whole series is—but the message is pretty clear.  I’d also be remiss in not noting that the basic message, with its own set of excruciating details, was laid out in Steven Brill’s piece in Time magazine back in March.  But it’s such a big issue that it deserves this kind of attention.

The basic point is that the costs charged by hospitals are incredibly high, highly variable, and invariably opaque.  Hospitals price procedures, products, and everything else based on the typically secret (but not in California!) “chargemaster,” which lists sticker prices for everything.  Hospital executives speaking about the chargemaster say no one pays sticker price.  That may be true, but the discounts from sticker are almost totally opaque, which hampers the market’s cost-checking role (the Times piece describes Sutter Health contracts as having “gag clauses” so that insurers who negotiate with Sutter can’t tell the employers who are paying for the insurance what rates have been negotiated).  In addition, lots of locales are dominated by one or two hospital systems, which consolidate then raise prices without worrying much about competition.  Finally, most people aren’t comparison shopping for an ER visit anyway – even if they could.

The effect of opacity and consolidation looks to be pretty regressive—even if no one plays the sticker price, the people paying closest to it are those without insurance, who have no prenegotiated discounts and no one to argue on their behalf.  Cal. Pacific’s CEO, Dr. Warren Browner, argues for opacity for pseudo-progressive goal of fleecing rich foreigners (“You don’t really want to change your charges if you have a Saudi sheikh come in with a suitcase full of cash who’s going to pay full charges.”), but that seems a lot rarer than near-poor coming in to ERs uninsured and getting billed full fare (especially if, a la a certain recent presidential candidate, ERs are our health care system for the uninsured).

As in the rest of the US health care system, higher costs appear to be totally divorced from quality of care or outcomes (national variation here (pdf), international comparison here).

It’s hard to see what effect PPACA/ACA/Obamacare might have on this problem.  The Independent Payment Advisory Board has lots of power (or will once it has members), but is still Medicare-focused.  Cost-savings in Medicaid or Medicare payments might spill over into the private insurance market, but if the opacity and market power mechanisms remain, it’s not obvious to me how and why that would really happen.  Medicare is already paying by care episode much more than private insurers, who are still usually fee-for-service.  More competition and transparency might help (More vigorous antitrust enforcement?  Required disclosure of billed/paid costs? (maybe, but maybe not)).  Maybe the fact that more people will be insured will make a difference; if the biggest burden is borne by the uninsured, who have little leverage, lowering that numbermight lower the burden.  But it could also just make it even more unfair for those who remain outside the system.

[UPDATE 12/5/13: I missed Section 9007 of the act, which requires charitable hospitals to publish their chargemasters and prohibits charging chargemaster rates to individuals who qualify for financial assistance (instead, they'd be charged insurer-negotiated rates).  Unfortunately, the implementing regulations haven't been promulgated by HHS or Treasury, so these provisions aren't yet applicable.  But eventually they may help, once they're implemented.  Steven Brill has a piece on this here, and Sarah Alder here.]

In any case, the Times piece is worth a read.  And so are the previous four entries (on colonoscopies, pregnancy, joint replacement (with a nice discussion of medical tourism), and prescription drugs).

A Little Choice About PPACA Risk Corridors That Could Have Big Consequences

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has made even the most technical questions of healthcare coverage regulation newsworthy. Policy questions that would be noticed only by experts and interested parties in the regulation of Medicare or Medicaid, even with billions of dollars in taxpayer or beneficiary money at stake (think DSH and the transition to MS-DRGs), are front-page news when they have a connection to the PPACA.  The best example may be the recent attention to the PPACA’s risk corridors, which was the subject of an op-ed by Senator Rubio last week that led to a lot of discussion in the press.  (For background on the risk corridors, as well as their cousins, the risk adjustment program and transitional reinsurance, see the helpful efforts of Seth Chandler, Mark Hall (also here), and Timothy Jost.)

In that spirit, I noticed in my research a tiny regulatory policy choice made by the HHS about the risk corridors that may wind up making news one of these days, in a lawsuit or otherwise.  It has to do with the way the risk corridor payments are calculated, and could have an impact on the extent of taxpayer liability for risk corridor payments.  Continue reading

Limits on the Physician as a Good Samaritan

As one partner at my firm puts it, “If it makes good business sense, in the health care business, it’s probably illegal.” As a practicing junior health care attorney it did not take long for me to learn this reality of the regulatory scheme I learned as a law student.   As snarky as the sentiment may seem, the restrictions on profit-sharing, referrals, and reduced-cost or free goods and services imposed by Stark and Anti-Kickback laws (while well-intended) can stifle some creative thinking in health care delivery.

What is not always as salient in the daily grind of my practice focusing on transactions and system-level compliance issues, are the ways in which the regulatory scheme can limit a physician’s acts of generosity and kindness.  Whether we think our regulations intended to align incentives with cost-effective and quality health care delivery are good, bad or otherwise, I found this article in the New York Times by Abigail Zuger to be a thought-provoking moment of pause to consider how the complex scheme plays out in the day-to-day delivery of primary care and the physician-patient relationship.

Action of Ohio Controlling Board on Medicaid Expansion

According to Professor Wilson R. Huhn of the University of Akron School of Law, the Ohio governor’s action expanding Medicaid in Ohio is valid. He writes:

On Monday, October 22, at the urging of Governor Kasich, the  Controlling Board of the Ohio Legislature voted 5-2 to accept $2.5  billion in federal funding to expand Medicaid in the State of Ohio.  Under the laws of Ohio this action was valid.

The Controlling Board is a state agency created by statute. The agency  has two principal powers: it can transfer funds and authorize purchases  by state agencies, and it can decide to accept federal funding on behalf of these agencies. Section 131.35(A)(5) of the Ohio Revised Code  states: “Controlling board authorization for a state agency to make an expenditure of  federal funds constitutes authority for the agency to participate in the federal program providing the funds ….”

Two advocacy organizations (the Buckeye Institute and the 1851 Center  for Constitutional Law) as well as several Ohio lawmakers have announced that they intend to challenge the legality of the action of the  Controlling Board. They contend that the action of the Board violates  Section 127.17 of the Ohio Revised Code, which provides that the Board  is bound by the intent of the Ohio General Assembly. The challengers  quite correctly point out that both houses of the General Assembly voted not to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid. Governor Kasich  vetoed this bill, but the challengers argue that despite the Governor’s  veto it’s clear that the General Assembly did not want the Controlling  Board to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid.

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