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New Proposed Rules Aim to Enhance Healthcare Accessibility for People With Disabilities

The US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Justice recently published new proposed rules that update and create various requirements under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. What are some of the biggest changes?

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The MHPAEA Proposed Rule: ‘Meaningful Benefits’ and the ‘Scope of Services’

This post continues our consideration of comments submitted in response to proposed regulations under the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA). Our previous MHPAEA content is available here.

Under current law, if a plan provides any mental health or substance use disorder (MH/SUD) benefits in any classification of benefits, benefits for that condition or use disorder must be provided in every classification in which medical/surgical (M/S) benefits are provided. Classifications for this purpose include inpatient, in-network; inpatient, out-of-network; outpatient, in-network; outpatient, out-of-network; emergency care; and prescription drugs. The proposed regulations modify this standard by providing that a plan does not provide benefits for MH/SUD benefits in every classification in which M/S benefits are provided unless the plan provides meaningful benefits for treatment for the condition or disorder in each such classification “as determined in comparison to the benefits provided for medical/surgical conditions in the classification.”

The term “meaningful benefits” is nowhere defined. The regulators nevertheless “recognize that the proposal to require meaningful benefits [ ] is related to scope of services.” “Scope of services” for this purpose generally refers to the types of treatments and treatment settings that are covered by a group health plan or health insurance issuer. The preamble to the proposed regulation invites comments on how the meaningful benefits requirement “would interact with the approach related to scope of services adopted under the 2013 final regulations.” The preamble of the 2013 final regulations addressed an issue characterized as ‘‘scope of services’’ or ‘‘continuum of care’’ but otherwise failed to provide any substance. Two examples from the proposed regulations do, however, give us a sense of what the regulators have in mind.

  • A plan that generally covers treatment for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a mental health condition, and covers outpatient, out-of-network developmental evaluations for ASD but excludes all other benefits for outpatient treatment for ASD, including applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, when provided on an out-of-network basis. (ABA therapy is one of the primary treatments for ASD in children.) The plan generally covers the full range of outpatient treatments and treatment settings for M/S conditions and procedures when provided on an out-of-network basis. The plan in this example violates the applicable parity standards.
  • In another example, a plan generally covers diagnosis and treatment for eating disorders, a mental health condition, but specifically excludes coverage for nutrition counseling to treat eating disorders, including in the outpatient, in-network classification. Nutrition counseling is one of the primary treatments for eating disorders. The plan generally provides benefits for the primary treatments for medical conditions and surgical procedures in the outpatient, in-network classification. The exclusion of coverage for nutrition counseling for eating disorders results in the plan failing to provide meaningful benefits for the treatment of eating disorders in the outpatient, in-network classification, as determined in comparison to the benefits provided for M/S conditions in the classification. Therefore, the plan violates the proposed rules.

Notably, the newly proposed meaningful benefits requirement is separate from, [...]

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2024: The Year of the Telehealth Cliff

What does December 31, 2024, mean to you? New Year’s Eve? Post-2024 election? Too far away to know?

Our answer: December 31, 2024, is when we will go over a “telehealth cliff” if Congress fails to act before that date, directly impacting care and access for Medicare beneficiaries. What is this telehealth cliff?

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The MHPAEA Proposed Rule: Standards of Care and Medical Necessity

Comments submitted in response to the proposed regulations under the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) reflect a broad range of perspectives. Our previous MHPAEA content is available here.

A nontrivial subset of the comments single out a particular nonqualified treatment limitation (NQTL) for special treatment or scrutiny. An example of this trend is found in an October 16, 2023, comment letter submitted by the Legal Action Center. The letter asks the US Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and the Treasury (the Departments) to address the rule’s treatment of medical standards of care and medical necessity.

Under the 2013 final MHPAEA regulations, a plan or issuer may not impose an NQTL with respect to mental health/substance use disorder (MH/SUD) benefits in any classification unless the processes, strategies, evidentiary standards or other factors used in applying the NQTL in the classification are comparable to, and are applied no more stringently than, the processes, strategies, evidentiary standards or other factors used in applying the limitation with respect to medical/surgical (M/S) benefits. (Classifications for this purpose include inpatient, in-network; inpatient, out-of-network; outpatient, in-network; outpatient, out-of-network; emergency care; and prescription drugs.)

The proposed regulation defines “strategies” as “practices, methods, or internal metrics that a plan or issuer considers, reviews, or uses to design an NQTL.” Compliance with and deviations from generally accepted standards of care are cited as examples. Strategies for this purpose include “the development of the clinical rationale used in approving or denying benefits,” which is the central purpose of medical necessity determinations.

Medical necessity criteria are considered NQTLs because the criteria have the capacity to limit a patient’s access to or duration of MH/SUD treatment that are not based on the frequency of treatment, number of visits, days of coverage or days in a waiting period (the latter are quantitative treatment limitations). The Legal Action Center claims that plans sometimes develop their own criteria for determining medical necessity for MH/SUD treatment or use criteria developed by nonprofit clinical specialty associations or industry entities, despite the law’s admonition that plans must treat the two comparably. Concerned that under the proposed regulation plans retain significant discretion to adopt overly restrictive medical necessity criteria, the Legal Action Center asks the Departments to revise the definition of “strategies” to include a definition of “generally accepted standards of care” that is tied to criteria and guidelines from the nonprofit clinical association for the relevant specialty.

One way to determine the quality of a medical necessity definition is to look at claims data, which offer a useful test of parity compliance. Current law does not require parity of outcomes, but the proposed regulation does. The proposed rule would require that plans collect and evaluate outcomes data for the express purpose of assessing the impact of the NQTL on access to MH/SUD benefits. Material differences in outcomes are viewed as a strong indicator of noncompliance. (For the network composition NQTL, a material difference in outcomes data [...]

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States Move to Amend, Clarify Telehealth-Related Standards of Care

Multiple states – including Alaska, Wisconsin and New Jersey – have been busy finalizing legislation and rulemaking to adopt interstate compacts and amend and clarify telehealth-related standards of care.

What else have these states been up to over the last month?

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McDermott Submits Amicus Brief to the US Supreme Court in United Behavioral Health

On January 2, 2024, McDermott filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC) and the United States Chamber of Commerce (Chamber) in United Behavioral Health v. David K., No. 23-586, in the US Supreme Court. The case presents two questions of broad public importance concerning the requirements under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) for denials of health benefits. But underlying the two questions is an even more fundamental Administrative Procedure Act (APA) issue: May a court, at the invitation of an agency in an amicus brief, effectively amend regulations by judicial fiat, providing the agency with an end run around the APA’s notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures?

The answer to that question should be an obvious no. But that is precisely what happened in the court of appeals in this case. After the plaintiffs filed their response brief, the US Department of Labor (DOL) filed an amicus brief urging a radically new interpretation of regulations the agency had promulgated to implement ERISA’s procedural protections. In essence, the DOL argued that its disability- and health-benefit regulations should be read to contain the same procedural requirements, despite clear regulatory language specifying that some requirements only apply in one context and not the other. The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit adopted the DOL’s position, decreeing a new regulatory requirement for health-benefit denials that the DOL, in dual 2015 and 2016 rulemakings, expressly considered and chose to adopt only for disability-benefit denials and not for health-benefit denials.

If not corrected by the Supreme Court, the decision will stand as an invitation to agencies to file amicus briefs in the courts of appeals, advocating for substantial changes to their regulations without the bother (or transparency) of APA rulemaking. When so much lawmaking today is undertaken by unaccountable federal bureaucrats, that is a deeply troubling prospect. ERIC and the Chamber supported the petition, explaining the legal and practical issues with the approach the DOL and Tenth Circuit mutually took. Agency interpretations that defy clear regulatory text are entitled to no deference because they are invalid (especially after the Court’s decision in Kisor v. Wilkie). Ignoring this basic proposition of administrative law undercuts the core values served by the APA, including transparency and accountability. Most directly, however, an agency’s decision to seek backdoor revisions to its rules through interpretations announced in litigation deprive the agency of the benefit of public comment that can provide critical data and analysis to inform the agency’s policymaking. Had the DOL engaged in notice and comment, as it should have done, commenters would have presented key distinctions between the disability- and health-benefit contexts; without that information, the DOL’s decision was not fully informed.

ERIC and the Chamber are frequent amici in cases concerning ERISA and the APA’s interpretation and requirements. While the Supreme Court grants only a tiny fraction of the petitions it receives each term, the amici are hopeful that this brief will help focus the Court’s attention on this [...]

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Obamacare Would Be Even Harder to Kill Now, but Trump Promises to Try Anyway

While former President Donald Trump has threatened to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) if he wins reelection, the landmark healthcare law would be increasingly difficult to dismantle. In this CNN article, McDermott+Consulting’s Rodney Whitlock says the country is “as close as we’ve been to meeting the aspirational goals of 2010 for the ACA.”

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