Chevron deference at stake in fight over payments for hospital drugs

Over at SCOTUSblog, I’ve written a case preview for American Hospital Association v. Becerra, which is being argued tomorrow. The case is not only important for what it could mean for administrative law. It’s important in its own right because billions of dollars in hospital payments are at stake.

The case centers on part of a 2003 law that gives Medicare two options for how to pay for [certain expensive outpatient] drugs. Under the first option, Medicare would survey hospitals about what it cost them to acquire the drugs. Medicare would then draw on the survey data and reimburse hospitals for their “average acquisition costs,” subject to variations for different types of hospitals. It’s a rough-cut way to make hospitals whole without requiring them to submit receipts for every drug purchase.

But Medicare immediately encountered a problem: It just wasn’t practical to survey hospitals about their acquisition costs. Fortunately, the law anticipated that possibility and gave Medicare a second option. In the absence of survey data, Medicare could pay the “average price” for the drug, “as calculated and adjusted by the Secretary [of Health and Human Services] as necessary for purposes of this [option].”

This approach turned out to be costly. A drug’s “average price” is fixed elsewhere in the Medicare statute, typically at 106% of the drug’s sale price. As a policy matter, this “average sales price plus 6%” approach is hard to defend. Because 6% of a large number is bigger than 6% of a small number, hospitals have an incentive to dispense more expensive drugs, even when there are cheaper and equally effective therapies.

Other developments soon made the payment policy look even more dubious. Back in 1992, Congress created something called the 340B program to support health-care providers that serve poor and disadvantaged communities. Eligible providers get steep discounts on the drugs that they purchase — anywhere between 20% and 50% of the normal price.

Initially, few hospitals qualified for the 340B program. Today, more than two-thirds of nonprofit hospitals participate. (For-profits are excluded from the program.) For years, Medicare kept paying those 340B hospitals 106% of the average sales price of their outpatient drugs. The upshot was that hospitals were buying highly discounted drugs and then charging the federal government full price. That heightened the incentive to prescribe very expensive medications — which is partly why Medicare spending on outpatient drugs has ballooned, growing an average of 8.1% per year from 2006 through 2017.

I’ll also be recapping the oral argument and discussing the outcome when the case is resolved. Read the whole thing here!

@nicholas_bagley

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