Sebelius v. Auburn Regional Medical Center: Hospitals Allege Medicare Intentionally Underpaid Providers–And Got Away With It

By Katie Booth

In the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Auburn Regional Medical Center, the Court held that a suit against HHS by eighteen hospitals alleging intentional underpayment of Medicare reimbursements was barred by a 180-day internal agency deadline for appeals of reimbursement decisions. The rub is that the hospitals only found out about the underpayments, which allegedly occurred from 1987 to 1994, in March of 2006. These underpayments affected thousands of hospitals and added up to billions of dollars. Yet under Auburn, since the hospitals did not sue within 180 days of the underpayment (or even within an extended three-year window for “good cause”), they cannot recover. The Court in Auburn rejected the hospitals’ argument that equitable tolling should apply, finding instead that “the presumption in favor of equitable tolling does not apply to administrative appeals of the kind here at issue.”

The Auburn decision raises important questions about the ability of the federal government to intentionally underpay healthcare providers. In oral argument, the lawyer for the hospitals characterized HHS’s actions as “intentional concealment . . . [and] misconduct by the Secretary, that caused the statute of limitations time to be missed.” While there are good reasons not to disturb decades-old reimbursement decisions, it is sobering that the federal government can intentionally conceal underpayments and—if it conceals the underpayment for only 180 days—never have to reimburse the injured party. This situation presents a striking contrast “to 42 CFR § 405.1885(b)(3) (2012), which permits reopening of an intermediary’s reimbursement determination ‘at any time if it is established that such determination . . . was procured by fraud or similar fault of any party to the determination.’” In other words, HHS can reopen reimbursement decisions if a provider intentionally conceals important information, but not vice versa.

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