U.S. Supreme Court To Decide If North Carolina Medical Malpractice Law Is Valid

On September 25, 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) agreed to hear and decide an appeal arising from a North Carolina medical malpractice settlement that will decide if a North Carolina law that allows recovery of funds spent on providing medical care to the poor or disabled under the federal Medicaid law when the patient has received funds from another source is valid. The case is Delia v. E.M.S., Docket No. 12-98.

The case that SCOTUS has agreed to decide is an appeal from the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (“Fourth Circuit”), which includes North Carolina. The Fourth Circuit summarized the issues before it as follows:  Under federal law, states participating in the Medicaid program are obligated (with some exceptions) to seek reimbursement from third-party tortfeasors for health care expenditures made on behalf of Medicaid beneficiaries who are tort victims. At the same time, however, states are prohibited (with some exceptions) from seeking reimbursement “from the personal property of Medicaid beneficiaries themselves for health care expenditures made on behalf of those beneficiaries. But what if the injured Medicaid beneficiary obtains a judgment against (or enters into a settlement agreement with) the tortfeasor? Under such circumstances, what constraints are imposed as to how the state may satisfy its mandatory claim for reimbursement?

The Fourth Circuit’s opinion stated as follows, in part:

The minor appellant, E.M.A., sustained serious injuries at birth due to the negligence of the medical professionals who attended to her delivery. As a result of E.M.A.’s injuries, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (“DHHS”), through the state Medicaid program, paid more than $1.9 million in medical and health care expenses on her behalf. Meanwhile, E.M.A., through her guardian ad litem, and her parents, Sandra and William Earl Armstrong, individually (hereafter “Appellants”), instituted a medical malpractice action in state court. In due course, they settled the action for a lump sum of approximately $2.8 million (a sum in excess of the total Medicaid expenditures of approximately $1.9 million but well below the full value of all the tort claims). The settlement agreement did not allocate separate amounts for past medical expenses and other damages.

DHHS subsequently asserted a statutory lien on the settlement proceeds pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 108A-57 and-59 (referred to herein as “the North Carolina third-party liability statutes”), which provide that North Carolina has a subrogation right to, and may assert a lien upon, the lesser of its actual medical expenditures or one-third of the Medicaid recipient’s total recovery. Thus, under the circumstances described, where DHHS’s actual medical expenditures are greater than one-third of the settlement funds, the North Carolina third-party liability statutes effect an unrebuttable presumption that the state is entitled to one-third of the total settlement proceeds recovered by E.M.A. and her parents. This amount, $933,333.33 (one-third of the $2.8 million lump-sum settlement), has been paid into the registry of the state court, where the funds have remained during the pendency of this action. The parties before us do not dispute the state’s entitlement to some reimbursement from the lump-sum settlement, but they vigorously dispute the proper allocation of the portion of the settlement proceeds held in trust by the state court.

Appellants brought this action in federal district court against Lanier M. Cansler, in his official capacity as Secretary of DHHS, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. They sought to forestall payment of the amount claimed by DHHS on the basis of the provision of the federal Medicaid law known as the “anti-lien provision,”42 U.S.C. § 1396p … For the reasons set forth within, … we are persuaded that the unrebuttable presumption inherent in the one-third cap on the state’s recovery imposed by the North Carolina third-party liability statutes is in fatal conflict with federal law … 

As the unanimous Ahlborn Court’s decision makes clear [SCOTUS’ Ahlborn decision held that the federal third-party liability provisions require an assignment of no more than the right to recover the portion of the settlement proceeds which are designated for past medical bills paid by Medicaid and that the federal anti-lien provision prohibits state Medicaid programs from asserting a third-party liability claim against a Medicaid beneficiary’s settlement or judgment for personal injury damages other than medical expenses], federal Medicaid law limits North Carolina’s recovery to settlement proceeds representing payment for medical expenses. In the event of a lump-sum settlement, as in this case, the sum certain allocable to medical expenses must be determined, in the absence of a stipulation by the affected parties, by judicial determination or some similar adversarial process, before the state may recoup its Medicaid outlays …

On the basis of Ahlborn`s clear holding that the general anti-lien provision in federal Medicaid law prohibits a state from recovering any portion of a settlement or judgment not attributable to medical expenses, DHHS’s lien on E.M.A.’s settlement proceeds in this case violates federal law. In order to comply with 42 U.S.C. §§ 1396a(a)(18), 1396p, and Ahlborn, North Carolina is free to implement a process by which settlement proceeds are explicitly allocated or otherwise determined. In this case, we must remand for an evidentiary hearing consistent with this opinion to determine the proper amount of the DHHS lien on E.M.A.’s settlement proceeds …

In sum, E.M.A.’s argument that DHHS cannot assert a lien against her portion of the settlement proceeds because a minor has no cause of action for past medical expenses under North Carolina common law fails because the state Medicaid statutes at issue fully abrogate the common law. Nevertheless, we hold that the North Carolina third-party liability statutes, N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 108A-57 and –59, as applied in this case, fail to comply with federal Medicaid law as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Ahlborn. As the unanimous Ahlborn Court’s decision makes clear, federal Medicaid law limits a state’s recovery to settlement proceeds that are shown to be properly allocable to past medical expenses. In the event of an unallocated lump-sum settlement exceeding the amount of the state’s Medicaid expenditures, as in this case, the sum certain allocable to medical expenses must be determined by way of a fair and impartial adversarial procedure that affords the Medicaid beneficiary an opportunity to rebut the statutory presumption in favor of the state that allocation of one-third of a lump sum settlement is consistent with the anti-lien provision in federal law.


SCOTUS Case Reference Information:



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This entry was posted on Friday, September 28th, 2012 at 10:12 am. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


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