A Case Against the “Noncompliant” Patient

By Deborah Cho

In recent years, providers have attempted to shift how health care is delivered so as to include the patient in the decision-making process.  This concept of shared decision-making was most memorably relayed to me in medical school through a critical lesson during which we were instructed to replace the word “noncompliant” with “non-adherent” when describing patients who were unwilling or unable to stick with treatment regimens.    Noncompliance painted a picture of a paternalistic provider mandating the rules of play, while the patient cowered below as a disobedient subordinate.  It also implied that the patient did something wrong by breaking the rules and that the actions of the patient ought to be modified to fit the rules, rather than the other way around.  On the other hand, non-adherence signified that the patient was a contributing partner in the development of the treatment plan and, further, that he may be justified for not abiding by the terms of his plan.

There were two overarching reasons for the shift to the shared decision-making model: first, that this would produce better overall clinical results and second, that this view shows more respect for patient autonomy.  Providers were learning and accepting that treatment plans prescribed within their vacuums could fail to be affordable, intelligible, or even realistic given a patient’s life circumstances.

So how does this relate to law students and lawyers?

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Is Finding Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Worth 52,192 years of children’s lives?

[Note: This post is meant to be provocative and press a public policy question in the most thought-provoking way possible. Losing a loved one is among the most heart-wrenching experiences in a life time and my heart goes out to all those with loved ones on the flight waiting for answers. But one of the major points of this post is to highlight our tendency to spend more on identified lives not statistical ones for just these kinds of reasons and ask if it is justified.]

The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is likely run to “Hundreds of Millions of Dollars” according to the most recent estimate from ABC News. This is based on extrapolation of the difficulties involved and the experience of searching for Air France 447 which cost 50 million USD. Let’s take a conservative estimate of 100 million USD to find the plane, probably on the low end. Let us put aside the possibility that even with that expenditure the plane will never be found, again an assumption that counts against the argument I will be making. This is 100 million dollars spent, roughly speaking, on “helping.” It is very unlikely that there are any survivors, so I don’t think this can reasonably be thought of as “life-saving” (I will assume it is not, but if it were  that wouldn’t make that much of a difference in the argument I will offer though it will require confronting the question of Should the Numbers Count for life saving?).

Instead the money is being spent (1) to satisfy the somewhat diffuse curiosity/grief of those who have watched this in the media, (2) to give answers to the very deep need for closure of the loved ones of those flying on these planes, and (3) to learn about what went wrong and potentially determine whether there is a systemic problem with these planes that might affect other planes.

All of those are worthy goals. But are they worth 100 million USD? In the category of “helping” or “life-saving” what else could we do with the money? Let me draw on one estimate mentioned by Ezra Klein in the WaPo and Don Taylor at the Incidental Economist from a paper by Tammy Tengs “Five Hundred Life Saving Interventions and Their Cost Effectiveness

I chose the cheapest intervention, influenza vaccines for children age 5+ which is estimated to cost $1,300/life year saved in 1993 dollars. I then updated that to 2013 dollars with a conversion calculator to generate a cost of 1915.89 USD per life year saved (it may also be that this intervention is now cheaper than it was at the time of Teng’s paper). I then divided 100 million dollars by that number to get my 52,192 life years saved for children estimate. That is fairly back of the envelope and there are lots of tweaks you would do to get a more exact figure, but it is close enough to make the point: Why are we spending so much on Malaysia Airlines search when we could be saving so many lives?

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Genetic Mugshots

By Dov Fox

New technologies can put pressure on the logic of the law. Consider the well-settled legal conclusion that equal protection rights don’t apply when police use race-based descriptions to look for suspects. An emerging forensic technique called DNA phenotyping makes it hard to defend this reliance on racial proxies–rather than appearance itself–in the investigation of crime.

Phenotyping promises to use a piece of hair or skin left at a crime scene to infer an unknown person’s physical characteristics like eye color, nose shape, and cheekbone width. A groundbreaking new study — featured in last week’s NatureNew Scientist, and Time Magazine — used high-resolution 3D images and facial recognition software to approximate the facial features of almost 600 people of mixed ancestry from their DNA.

I consider the scientific, constitutional, and criminological implications of this technology in The Second Generation of Racial Profiling. I argue that reliable DNA phenotyping would force us to rethink whether race-based suspect descriptions are the kind of racially classifying state action subject to strict scrutiny–and it would lean on the narrow tailoring requirement that the state use race-neutral alternatives when possible. I summarized my replies to the best policy objections in a short piece on The Future of Genetic Privacy:

Critics of the forensic technique argue that its adoption would imperil individual privacy and facilitate racial profiling. These objections are important, but they’re overstated. What “a person knowingly exposes to the public,” the Supreme Court has held, “is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection” against unreasonable searches and seizures. And statutory safeguards could be afforded for sensitive external traits about whether a suspect has changed genders, for example, or had plastic surgery.

Racial profiling is another concern. That the technology could be used to target minorities at disproportionate rates, however, gives no reason to think that such misuse is probable or any more likely than DNA dragnets or stop-and-question sweeps based on race-based suspect descriptions. The adoption of more precise physical markers in place of notoriously unreliable eyewitness observation would improve arrest accuracy and enhance police legitimacy.

The more serious worry is that DNA phenotyping might resurrect discredited conceptions of racial biology. If the [National Institute of Justice-funded] technology works as well as the government is banking it will, however, then replacing race-based suspect designations with the colors and shapes of facial features could, to the contrary, loosen the hold that race has on the way that people think about crime. Today’s all-points-bulletin for a “black man” could give way to tomorrow’s search for a suspect with dimples, copper complexion, and green eyes.

Wouldn’t police just filter these markers into racial terms? Maybe not, if they’re trained like clerks at a makeup counter are to trade in racial identifiers for face shapes and color tones. Besides, measures short of prohibition would likely soften whatever risk the adoption of DNA phenotyping would pose to egalitarian norms — for example, requiring higher burdens for investigatory use, or racial impact assessments of the kind that gained national prominence after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.

Antibiotics, Farm Animals, and the FDA

On Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration announced that 25 pharmaceutical companies that manufacture animal drugs will participate in voluntarily phasing-out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion purposes in farm animals.

The companies are acting in response to voluntary guidelines that the FDA issued in December, requesting that the companies change their labeling of “medically important” antibiotics in two ways: (1) removing production uses (e.g., animal growth promotion) from the approved indications for the drugs; and (2) requiring veterinary oversight, rather than allowing over-the-counter distribution, for the remaining therapeutic uses.

Of the 26 companies targeted by these guidelines, 25 have agreed to comply by either revising their labels or withdrawing the drugs from animal use completely.   The FDA did not name the one company that has not agreed to comply.

While this is undoubtedly an important step forward in the FDA’s efforts to reduce non-necessary uses of antibiotics in livestock production—and hopefully slow the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria—it is important to note that there are potential loopholes in the FDA’s approach, as I have previously discussed. Continue reading

Doc Fix Likely to Delay Review of Inpatient Hospital Admissions

Every year, in order to prevent a statutorily-triggered decrease in physician reimbursements under Medicare, Congress must adjust the statutorily-prescribed fee schedule.  This is known as the “doc fix.”  The American Medical Association, for what it is worth, has lobbied for a permanent doc fix, but that has not happened yet.

This year’s automatic pay cut was going to be 24%, and for a moment a temporary fix was in doubt because of bipartisan support for a permanent fix.  But thanks to some procedural maneuvering yesterday, it looks like a temporary doc fix is through the house, at least.  (See coverage in Politico here and Washington Post here.  And just for fun, see a show about getting things through the house with procedural maneuvering here.)

In addition to the doc fix, a provision included in the House bill would forbid the Department of Health and Human Services from conducting post-payment review through Recovery Audit Contractors of inpatient hospital admission until March 31, 2015.  This will stop for at least a year a review program that, in its last full year of operation, returned to the Medicare trust fund (and took away from hospitals) billions of dollars.  (See commentary condemning the delay here and commentary criticizing the Recovery Audit Contractor program here.) It’s a notable development and if passed will kick the can down the road a short ways for Medicare to decide how it wants to handle utilization review in this area.

Petrie-Flom Intern’s Weekly Round-Up, 3/21-3/28

By Chloe Reichel

The Hobby Lobby case that is currently before the Supreme Court may have effects far beyond the contraceptives mandate stemming from the Affordable Care Act. Other health care services and non-discrimination provisions may also be at stake.

Deadlines will be extended for people who need more time to complete their enrollment in insurance plans through HealthCare.gov. Those who apply will be given until mid-April to complete their applications.

Social media efforts led to the provision of an experimental drug to treat a young boy’s life-threatening infection. Bioethicists are now debating the ethics of this case and its implications for future social media interactions.

Due to stringent approval processes, researchers interested in studying marijuana face difficulty in attempting to do so. Despite growing interest in researching the substance, it can take years for researchers to begin their studies on marijuana.

Enrollment in health insurance policies through the Affordable Care Act reflect vast differences in the legislation’s implementation across the country. State-by-state enrollment data varies widely, and overall enrollment statistics neglect this important variation.

Tanning salons in New York are now forbidden from making claims about the health effects of their services. Previously, tanning salons in New York suggested that “sunlight prevents cancer,” a misleading statement considering the negative health effects of tanning.

Changes to Medicare’s policy manual have shifted the agency’s policies on paying for care used to maintain, rather than improve, patients’ health. Medicare will now pay for physical therapy, nursing care, and services for patients with chronic diseases.

Responding to a statewide public health crisis, Governor Deval Patrick has proposed a ban on the the opiate Zohydro. He has also suggested designating $20 million in funds for the purpose of bolstering treatment and recovery programs.

RESCHEDULED: 4/11, Hot Topics at Presidential Commission on Bioethics

Hot Topics at the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues: Plus Q&A on Careers in Law and Bioethics!

Friday, April 11, 2014, 12:00pm

Pound Hall 100, Harvard Law School, 1563 Massachusetts Ave.

Please join us for an update from the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, delivered by Michelle Groman (HLS ’05), Associate Director at the Bioethics Commission.  Since its inception in 2009, President Obama’s Commission has issued reports on synthetic biology, human subjects research, whole genome sequencing, pediatric medical countermeasure research, and incidental findings. Currently, the Commission is examining the ethical implications of neuroscience research and the application of neuroscience research findings as part of the federal government’s BRAIN Initiative.  The Commission also has developed educational materials to support teaching of bioethics ideas, principles, and theories in traditional and non-traditional settings.

This final half-hour of this event will feature a discussion of career opportunities in law and bioethics, led by Ms. Groman and Holly Fernandez Lynch, Petrie-Flom Center Executive Director.  Bring your questions!

This event is free and open to the public. Lunch will be served.

For questions, contact petrie-flom@law.harvard.edu, or 617-496-4662.

Cosponsored by the Office of Career Services at Harvard Law School. This event is supported by the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund.

Saturday, April 5th: Aid Grade! (from Harvard Effective Altruism)

A communication from Harvard Effective Altruism:

 

Hi altruists,

Saturday, April 5th is a big day for EA at Harvard: we have three different awesome events for you! Our guest for the day, flying up from DC for the occasion, will be Dr. Eva Vivalt, the founder of AidGrade. AidGrade helps figure out what works in international development by doing rigorous and engaging analyses of different interventions to find out their effects. They’re also looking for interns and full-time hires for this work, so please visit if you’re interested!

We’ll be having a talk on AidGrade’s research from 1-2pm, followed by a research-a-thon from 2-6 where we help AidGrade do some meta-analysis. The day will be topped off by a Boston-area effective altruism meetup at Clover–with another special guest, Jacob Trefethen of 80,000 Hours Cambridge UK, and many awesome local effective altruists.

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It’s Doctors’ Duty to Promote Gun Safety With Patients

Art Caplan has a new opinion piece up at Medscape: “It’s Doctors’ Duty to Promote Gun Safety With Patients.” From the article:

There is a huge problem with guns in the United States, and there are many things that public health can do, and many things that doctors should do to try to minimize the threats that guns pose to children, families, and all of us. One of the leading problems with guns is that we don’t educate children to know what to do when they find a gun or see a gun. So, if a 5- or 6-year-old sees a gun, we need a program that teaches that child that if you see a gun, walk away, get out of the area, and then tell an adult. That is a public health program. It’s something that school nurses could do. It’s something that pediatricians should talk about with their child patients. It’s something that families should hear about. We need a campaign. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General candidate, thinks that it is an appropriate thing to do. Apparently, the NRA doesn’t.

You can watch or read the full piece on the Medscape website (access requires a login and password, but registration is free).

China Issues 2014-2020 Development Blueprint on Food and Nutrition

By Ching-Fu Lin

China’s highest executive organ, the State Council, put out the Food and Nutrition Development Outline 2014-2020 (the Outline) in February of 2014.  The Outline was jointly drafted by China’s Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) and National Health and Family Planning Commission.  The Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Science and Technology, and National Development and Reform Commission also participated in its development.  Based on a review of China’s growth and problems in food and nutrition, the Outline sets a seven-year plan that highlights basic policy objectives.  The areas of focus are food supply systems, nutrition intake and balance (especially amongst population sub-groups), regulatory and surveillance mechanisms, industry development, research, and education.

The Outline lays out its “guiding strategy” that the government should regard the effective supply of food, balanced nutritional profile, and production-consumption coordination as its chief missions.  To execute these missions, the government identifies certain key products (quality agricultural products, convenient processed foods, and dairy and soy foods), key areas (poor, rural, and newly urbanized areas), and key population groups (the pregnant women and nursing mothers, infants and children, and the elderly) as starting points to promote better food and nutrition development patterns.  Such points are further elaborated in the document.  The guiding strategy ultimately aims to improve public health and a well-off society.

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CFP: CLE/CEU symposium on outstanding challenges in healthcare reform implementation

With the help of Medica Health Plans, the Health Law Institute at Hamline University School of Law and the Hamline Law Review seek proposals for presentations and papers for our all-day CLE/CEU Symposium that will examine the outstanding challenges confronting the implementation of healthcare reform.  The Symposium will take place on Friday, October 24, 2014, at Hamline University’s main campus in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Anyone interested in speaking at the Symposium and/or publishing in the Hamline Law Review’s Symposium issue should submit both a CV and a 500-word abstract to healthlaw@hamline.edu by April 15, 2014.  While the primary focus of the presentation or paper need not be Minnesota-specific, please explain the regional relevance of your topic and thesis.

Additional information can be found here. Please feel free to share this information with anyone you think may be interested.

Who’s the Boss? Why are our employers making our health insurance choices in the first place?

This guest cross-post first appeared on Slate.com.

Margaux J. Hall is the Center for Reproductive Rights Fellow at Columbia Law School. All views expressed are the author’s own.

This week, the Supreme Court hears oral argument in two cases asking whether for-profit business corporations have religious liberty rights. Hobby Lobby, a group of craft stores with 13,000 employees, and Conestoga Wood, a small Mennonite furniture maker, want to be free of the Obamacare requirement that employer-provided health insurance plans need to provide certain forms of birth control. They argue that their religious convictions prohibit them from covering such items. Religious institutions, reproductive-rights advocates, and others have sparred over the conflicting rights claims, but one important part of the conversation has been missing almost completely: Why are American employers deciding the contents of our personal health insurance plans?

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TOMORROW: panel discussion, Current Legal Issues in HIV/AIDS Work

Current Legal Issues in HIV/AIDS Work

Thursday, March 27, 2014, 12:00pm

Wasserstein Hall 1019, Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

More than 30 years have passed since AIDS first appeared in the United States. Today the CDC estimates that 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV/AIDS, and each year 50,000 Americans are newly diagnosed. Despite great strides in education, awareness, prevention, and treatment, people affected by HIV/AIDS still face significant discrimination, including unequal treatment under the law. This panel will explore some of the legal barriers faced by people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States, including FDA’s ban on men who have sex with men donating blood and laws criminalizing HIV transmission. Panelists include:

  • Felix Lopez, Director of the Legal Department, GMHC
  • Jason Cianciotto, Director of the Public Policy Department, GMHC
  • I. Glenn Cohen, Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School
  • Moderator: Aziza Ahmed, Visiting Scholar, Petrie-Flom Center; Associate Professor of Law, Northeastern University School of Law

This event is free and open to the public. Lunch will be provided. For questions, contact petrie-flom@law.harvard.edu or 617-496-4662.

This event is cosponsored by Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). Founded in New York in 1981, GMHC is one of the world’s first and leading providers of HIV/AIDS prevention, care, and advocacy. 

NEJM Editorial on Murthy for Surgeon General (with some further editorial comments by me)

Our friends at the New England Journal of Medicine have a great editorial chastising Congress and the White House for potentially bowing to the NRA’s pressure not to confirm Vivek Murthy for Surgeon General. The whole thing is worth a read but here are a couple of key paragraphs.

This is the first time that the NRA has flexed its political muscle over the appointment of a surgeon general. The NRA has taken this action even though the surgeon general has no authority over firearm regulation and even though Murthy made it clear in his testimony before the Senate HELP Committee that if he is confirmed, his principal focus will be on the important national problem of obesity prevention, not firearm policy. Still, 10 Senate Democrats are apparently prepared to vote against Murthy’s confirmation because of his personal views on firearms — a demonstration of just how much political power our legislators have ceded to the NRA.

The critical question is this: Should a special-interest organization like the NRA have veto power over the appointment of the nation’s top doctor? The very idea is unacceptable.

Despite the continuing American tragedy of mass shootings — Newtown, Aurora, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech — the NRA has redoubled its efforts to prevent enactment of stricter firearm regulations. Lawmakers who run afoul of the NRA face political retribution. By obstructing the President’s nomination of Vivek Murthy as surgeon general, the NRA is taking its single-issue political blackmail to a new level. With the record of past surgeons general as their guide, senators should do what is right for the health of our country by confronting the NRA and voting their own conscience. Dr. Murthy is an accomplished physician, policymaker, leader, and entrepreneur. He deserves the President’s continued backing and should be confirmed.

I think this is very well said and largely sympathetic. The one point on which I will slightly veer off course (disagree with is too strong) from NEJM has to do with the connection between gun safety and health. I do think it is legitimate to view gun safety and firearm deaths as a HEALTH issue, even if not particularly a HEALTH CARE issue. It is a staple part of public health regulatory studies, along with drugs, alcohol, obesity, and tobacco. While we have the CDC as a kind of public health federal executive power, as its name suggests communicable and non-communicable disease has always been its focus. I think it would be great if we understand the “top doc” of the United States’ role as being about HEALTH and not just HEALTH CARE, so I would not (and to be clear I don’t think NEJM has) draw too strong a line between these two in an attempt to salvage this nomination. Doctors (not exclusively of other actors in the system, of course) should view themselves as agents of HEALTH not just HEALTH CARE, and I would hate for Murthy or other doctors’ efforts in the broader sphere to be dismissed as “frolicks” or “extracurricular.”

 

Advance Directives, Rights, and Brain Death Pregnancies

By John A. Robertson

Dr. Jeffrey Ecker, a noted fetal medicine specialist, has an excellent piece on the Munoz case in Texas in a recent NEJM article (“Death in Pregnancy—An American Tragedy”).[1]   He shares the widespread view that brain dead pregnant women should not be maintained over the father or family’s objections.  He does, however, suggest that maintenance may occur with family consent to enable the fetus be born with the best chance of survival.

The burden of his comment is on legal issues and rights.  Because Texas recognizes brain death as legal death, the hospital had acted inappropriately when it relied on the Texas advance directive statute, which limits advance directives when a woman is pregnant, to maintain her over her husband’s wishes. The court ruled that since Ms Munoz was brain dead, the advance directive limitation which applies only to patients who are still alive, did not apply to a pregnant patient who was dead under cardiopulmonary or brain death criteria for death.  His comment deserves laurels for its clear presentation of the statutory conflict and its resolution.

Dr. Ecker, however, like many other commentators, runs into trouble when he says that the hospital’s actions in the Munoz case, even if supported by statute  are “a wrongful usurpation of the rights of individuals,  in this case  … women.”[2]  The problem is his the assumption that there is or should be a constitutional or legal right at Time 1 when competent to issue a legally binding directive at Time 2 when the maker is incompetent and indeed may have a different set of interests or none at all.

But there is no constitutional right to make a directive at Time 1 that binds at Time 2.  Justice Sandra O’Connor concurring in the outcome in Cruzan mentioned a possible 14th Amendment right to appoint a health care proxy to make a decision at Time 2, but no other justice joined her.[3]  Indeed, a constitutional right to make future directives that bind oneself directly or through an agent has no constitutional precedent and poses many problems.

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Awkward Company

I am often surprised when I discover the folk who are on the same side of an issue as me. I must say, it’s not always a pleasant surprise. In fact, I just as often regret having to share company with many people who are on “my side” of a cause.

I expect this is exactly what many of those who oppose abortion in this country would feel if they learned who the main champion of their cause is in Colombia: Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez, who recently gained international notoriety after he deposed the left-leaning Mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Petro and barred him from holding public office for 18 years. The official reason is related to his administration’s handling of waste management in Bogotá. However, many believe that the harshness of the sanctions were motivated due to Ordoñez’s repudiations of Petro’s positions regarding abortion and the rights of the LGBT community.

I very much believe that most opponents of abortion in the US would also strongly oppose most of the stringently misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic views that are fundamental to Ordoñez’s political conception, which he defends in his writings, including: “Towards the Free Development of our Animalness” or “Gender Ideology: Tragic Utopia or Cultural Revolution.”

In case you’re curious, below are some translated excerpts from his Law School thesis, which he presented to the University of Saint Thomas in Bucaramanga, Colombia, in 1979.

Fundamental Presuppositions of the Catholic State

Dedication: To our lady the VIRGIN MARY, Mother of God and Mother of ours, co-redeemer of the human lineage… supplicating from her the restoration of the Christian order and the crushing of atheistic communism so that catholic faith my shine allover since without her there is no hope for societies or for men.”

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Evidence in Policy Innovation

In the last few decades, there has been a broad effort to strengthen the use of evidence-based law as a tool for the promotion of population health. There are two major fronts in the campaign, each essential, and both largely successful, though much work also remains. One aims to increase the quantity and quality of empirical research on the health effects of existing policy choices. The other focuses on how best to get such knowledge into action in the form of policy and practice. In a new PHLR Theory Practice and Evidence paper, Evan Anderson and I draw attention to a third front: the formulation of new legal interventions. Though policy experimentation is inevitable, it has been the subject of relatively little systematic study. For proponents of evidence-based public health law, policy experimentation presents a paradox: if a legal intervention is truly innovative, there will not yet be direct evidence of its impact. Yet direct evidence from policy evaluations is never the only source of research knowledge relevant to a policy decision, even under conditions of novelty and uncertainty. And few interventions are truly new in a broad sense; in most instances, similarly designed laws have been deployed before, just not for the same specific purpose.

We use the case of youth sports concussion and Washington’s Lystedt Law as a case study of how even new legal strategies dealing with new problems can be built on evidence. We show  how evidence about the problem lawmakers are addressing, combined with widely-used analytic tools like the Haddon Matrix and an understanding of the generic mechanisms through which law influences behavior and outcomes, can bring existing research knowledge into the crafting of even very innovative legal interventions for newly perceived problems.  While we don’t expect the policy sausage factory to suddenly start looking like a research lab, there’s no question that legislators typically care about getting policy right and want evidence.  The point of our paper is to get the research world to think about ways we can help even when no one has yet studied the specific law at issue.

The other oral argument on Tuesday

By Kevin Outterson

Cross posted from The Incidental Economist:

The opponents of the Affordable Care Act certainly know their way around a courtroom. Oral arguments in the contraception mandate case (Hobby Lobby) will be heard on Tuesday at the Supreme Court. That same day, another challenge will be heard in a federal courtroom nearby, in the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit (the WSJ photo identifies the wrong court).

To the Cato Institute, the tax credit cases (Halbig v. Sebelius and a related case in the Fourth Circuit, King v. Sebelius) represent their last shot to cripple the four-year-old law by wiping out health insurance subsidies to millions of people in the 36 states that did not create state exchanges. (I’ve blogged about these cases before, and Cato folks have also posted summaries of the anti-ACA amicus briefs. Sunday’s WSJ ran an editorial following the Cato line).

Today, I wanted to highlight the amicus brief filed on Thursday March 20, 2014 by the Commonwealth of Virginia in King v. Sebelius (the 4th Circuit case, not the one up for oral argument on Tuesday). I appreciate the beauty of this argument, for it uses a conservative victory in federalism to support the federal government, and it comes from the newly-elected attorney general who replaced an early opponent of the ACA. (Mark Herring won by only 165 votes, but #electionsmatter).

I’m talking about the Pennhurst doctrine, which requires Congress to give states “clear notice” if conditions on states are attached to federal spending. So Virginia asks the very interesting question: Did Congress give “clear notice” that the penalty for failing to build a state exchange would be the loss of billions of dollars of health insurance subsidies?  When you put it that way, Cato’s argument collapses. From the brief:

For no one can reasonably claim that the federal government gave Virginia clear notice that its citizens would be denied premium tax-credit assistance as punishment for the Commonwealth’s decision to forgo building its own health insurance exchange.

And later:

 [The Plaintiffs argue] that everyone in Congress silently but mistakenly assumed that every State would create its own Exchange. (Appellants’ Br. 6, 42.) That claim finds no support in the record. The ACA was controversial when it was debated and adopted, and it was well known that numerous States objected to it and would not go along willingly.

The brief also notes that no Member of Congress expressed such a view and even the architects of this litigation (Cannon and Adler) were surprised by this “glitch” after the fact. The brief also reviews the official correspondence to and from the Governor on this issue; any notice whatsoever is lacking, much less “clear notice.”

What bothers me the most about this litigation is Cato’s willingness to try to hurt millions of vulnerable people in order to score political points, even after losing the 2012 Presidential election and the first bite of the Supreme Court apple in NFIB v. Sebelius. The Virginia brief puts the emphasis on the people:

Two sovereign interests compel the Commonwealth of Virginia to file this brief. First, the Commonwealth represents the interests of the hundreds of thousands of Virginians who depend on federal premium tax-credit assistance to afford the health insurance that is now available under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (the “Affordable Care Act” or “ACA”). Their interests are not represented by the Appellants here, four individual Virginians who do not want health insurance. Second, the Appellants’ legal theory contradicts the fundamental assumption on which the Commonwealth elected to forgo building its own health insurance exchange in favor of a federally-facilitated exchange: that doing so would not harm the interests of Virginians. The Appellants’ theory must be rejected under the Pennhurst doctrine, which prevents Spending Clause statutes like the ACA from being used to impose unusual conditions about which States were not provided “clear notice.” What is more, if Congress had actually done what Appellants claim — made State citizens financial hostages in a scheme to force State governments to adopt State-based exchanges —it would have violated the Tenth Amendment’s prohibition on coercing States to carry out federal policies. Accordingly, this Court should reject Appellants’ arguments and affirm the ruling of the District Court.

h/t Tim Jost

@kevinoutterson