Medicolegal Issues

6 Supreme Court decisions that affected ObGyns in 2015

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This case will give rise to considerable litigation for many years. Medical boards should endeavor to get ahead of the issue by immediately studying ways in which the concerns of the Federal Trade Commissioncan be accommodated without significantly reducing the public protection that is part of well-administered professional licensing.

3. State reimbursement for Medicaid services
Medicaid is a federal-state program, and federal law requires, in part, that states must “assure that payments are … sufficient to enlist enough providers so that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population in the geographic area.”3 Providers claimed that the state had failed to establish such a payment system. A number of medical groups, including the AMA, filed amicus briefs in support of the providers.

At stake. State funding for various Medicaid services has been a problem for many health care professionals for some time. But the Medicaid law does not clearly give providers the right to file lawsuits claiming inadequate reimbursement,4 so the question in this case was whether or not there was an implied right to do so.

Final ruling. The Court, in a 5-4 decision, held that Medicaid providers do not have the authority to sue states in federal courts torequire that the states provide higher Medicaid rates for services.4 As a practical matter, this decision leaves with the states broad authority to set Medicaid reimbursement rates. It is possible, of course, that in the future Congress would change the law to grant such rights or more clearly set reimbursement rates.

4. False Claims Act cases
Unfortunately, False Claims Act cases occur in health care. False claims transpire when someone (or an organization) presents to the government a claim for payment that is not legitimate or is for inadequate or low quality services. False claims include everything from fraudulent billing for services never performed to a pharmaceutical company’s promotion of a drug for off-label use.

The federal False Claims Act incentivizes private whistleblowers (often disgruntled employees) to initiate false claims lawsuits. (The government may then choose to take over the false claims or allow the private whistleblower to pursue them.)

At stake. Because Medicare and Medicaid are federally financed programs, it is common for providers who participate in those programs to be subject to false claims.5 This term the Court heard an important False Claims Act case involving the statute of limitations and multiple claims based on the same activity. The AMA joined an amicus brief urging the Court to prohibit both kinds of expansion.

Final ruling. The Court agreed that the statute of limitations for these claims should not be extended, but it did determine that the “first-to-file” limitation in the statute “keeps new claims out of court only while related claims are still alive, not in perpetuity.”5 The result of this second holding is that the “firstto-file” rule does not preclude another false claims suit that is duplicative to be filed as soon as the prior suit is no longer pending.

It is not clear that the practical effect of the decision will be great, but it may in some cases open up clinicians to multiple, serial lawsuits over the same claims.

5. Pregnancy and employment discrimination
The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) prohibits discrimination “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” It also requires that employers treat “women affected by pregnancy . . . the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”

At stake. United Parcel Service (UPS) declined to give a pregnant employee a “light duty” accommodation during pregnancy so that she could avoid having to lift heavy packages. But it had given other employees just that kind of accommodation when they were injured or lost certification to drive a delivery truck. The suit claimed violation of the PDA.6

Final ruling. The Court held that UPS violated the PDA by giving some employees this accommodation but refusing it to pregnant workers who requested it.6 Once an organization voluntarily grants a particular accommodation to, for example, a temporarily injured worker, it may be required to provide similar accommodation to pregnant workers. The case probably will increase employment protection for pregnant women.

6. Children “testifying” in abuse cases
All states require physicians and teachers, among others, to report suspected child abuse. An ongoing question has been whether those reporters may be called to testify about what the child said at the time of abuse discovery/suspicion. This case involved a teacher, but it could as easily have been a physician.7

Key points of the case. Teachers found suspicious injuries on 3-year-old L.P. The child gave conflicting statements about what happened, but claimed that Clark had hurt him. At Clark’s criminal trial, L.P. did not testify, but the state wanted to introduce L.P.’s statements to the teachers as evidence of Clark’s guilt.

At stake. The question was whether or not this introduction would violate the right of Clark to “confront his accuser” as guaranteed by the Constitution.

Final ruling. All 9 justices said it was proper to allow L.P.’s statements to be introduced at trial.7 Essentially this was permitted because the primary purpose of L.P.’s statements was not to gather testimony to be presented at trial.

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