Appeals court overturns ruling requiring HHS to clear Medicare appeals backlog by 2021

The U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia on Friday overturned an order requiring HHS to clear its backlog of Medicare reimbursement appeals by the end of 2020.

On Dec. 5, 2016, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg granted a motion for summary judgment filed by the American Hospital Association in AHA v. Burwell — a lawsuit that centers on the Recovery Audit Contractor Program.

He ordered HHS to incrementally reduce the backlog of 657,955 appeals pending before the agency's Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals over the next four years, reducing the backlog by 30 percent by the end of 2017; 60 percent by the end of 2018; 90 percent by the end of 2019; and to completely eliminate the backlog by Dec. 31, 2020.

HHS filed a motion Dec. 15, 2016, asking the judge to reconsider his decision. HHS argued it would be impossible to reduce the appeals backlog on the schedule provided by the court without improperly paying claims, regardless of merit. In January, Judge Boasberg denied HHS' motion for reconsideration.

In late January, HHS filed an appeal in the case, seeking to avoid the district court's order enforcing the plan to clear the appeals backlog by the end of 2020.

On Friday, the appellate court sided with HHS.

Since HHS said it was impossible to lawfully comply with the district court's order, the appellate court ruled it was "an error of law" and "an abuse of discretion" for the district court judge to order HHS to abide by the schedule to clear the Medicare appeals backlog.

"In sum, it was an abuse of discretion to tailor the mandamus relief without tackling the Secretary's claims that lawful compliance would be impossible," states the appellate court's opinion.

The appellate court held that on remand the lower court should determine if compliance with the timetable to reduce the Medicare appeals backlog is impossible.

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