Medicare Secondary Payer Act Sways PA Superior Court Ruling
The Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently upheld a ruling in the Court of Common Pleas which has created somewhat of a stir in the Medicare Compliance industry in recent days. Those familiar with the Medicare Secondary Payer (MSP) Act, however, are not surprised by what the court made plain: MSP Compliance must not be merely an afterthought in tort litigation. MSP issues must be dealt with before the case goes to trial and, indeed, before settlement negotiations begin. The mere suggestion of a potential conditional payment lien is not enough, the court concluded, to hold off enforcement of a verdict. Further, the court found that a defendant cannot pursue lien rights that belong to the United States alone.
In Zaleppa v. Seiwell, defendant Seiwell backed her automobile into a vehicle occupied by plaintiff Zaleppa, causing personal injury. At the time of the accident, Zaleppa was sixty nine years of age and a Medicare beneficiary. A jury awarded Zaleppa $15,000.00, $10,000.00 of which was compensation for physical pain and suffering, mental anguish, etc.
After the verdict, Seiwell argued that the Medicare Secondary Payer Act required Medicare’s interests to be taken into account where conditional payments may have been made. On that basis, Seiwell requested that the court allow her (and her liability carrier) to include the plaintiff, her attorney and Medicare as a payee on the draft in satisfaction of the verdict or to pay the verdict into the court until Medicare notified the court that any lien was satisfied.
The trial court denied the motion, essentially finding that the defendant’s inaction regarding Medicare’s interests did not operate to stave off the enforcement of the verdict. On appeal, the Superior court nicely analyzed the MSP Act in addressing the core question: Can a private entity (Seiwell) assert the rights of the United States government regarding potential Medicare reimbursement?
Court Rules that Obligation to Reimburse was Triggered Before Tort Litigation Established
Seiwell, quite correctly, argued that as the “primary plan” she and her liability carrier were responsible for conditional payments made to Zapella, if any. What Seiwell failed to establish, however, was the existence of a Medicare lien. The court specifically recognized that if a lien existed, MSP required the primary plan to reimburse Medicare. Significantly, the court found that a recovery demand letter, issued by Medicare, triggers the primary plan’s duty to reimburse Medicare yet also acknowledged that payment to the plaintiff triggers reimbursement rights. Despite the fact that liability is established upon payment of a judgment, the mere fact of liability for MSP does not entitle a party to post trial relief until the obligation to reimburse has been triggered.
In its analysis of the MSP, the court found that there is a fundamental difference between Medicare’s right of reimbursement and the obligation of a primary plan. Nothing in the MSP, they reasoned, authorizes a primary plan to assert Medicare’s rights as a method to guard against their own liability. Only the U.S. government is authorized to pursue its own right of reimbursement.
The Pennsylvania court also added its “two cents” to the body of case law on conditional payments. Where Medicare’s interests are raised, the primary plan must show both the existence of a lien by affirmative evidence (a Medicare lien letter) but are not empowered to pursue Medicare’s interests under the private cause of action until they are actually damaged.
PA Court’s Decision Illustrates That Ignorance or Neglect of Medicare’s Interests Carries Consequences
The Pennsylvania decision again illustrates the fact that ignorance or neglect of Medicare’s interests has dire consequences. In the Seiwell case, had the primary plan taken the simple step of requesting and receiving a lien amount from Medicare, the interests of the U.S. government would have been placed at issue and addressed in the verdict phase. Instead of seeking to limit liability by raising Medicare’s interests until after a verdict is entered, parties must be aware that Medicare reimbursement must be addressed in every case. The Seiwell case is yet another example of what is becoming an increasingly clear message: Medicare’s interests must be identified and dealt with as early as possible and to ensure compliance and avoid penalties.