Today’s case is not our usual fare. But we’ve never seen this kind of appeal succeed before, so we’re going to spare a few minutes for something a little odd but important.
First of all, the patient and the medical device manufacturer are on the same side – they’re both plaintiffs in Alcresta Therapeutics, Inc. v. Azar, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 33961 (D.C. App. Dec. 3, 2018). Because in this suit, the medical device manufacturer and the patient are aligned in their desire to get the patient access to the device. Defendant is the Secretary of Health and Human Services. And the issue is the billing code, or lack thereof, assigned by HHS to the device.
The device, Relizorb, is a cartridge containing an enzyme that predigests fats in enteral formula. So the device is designed to be used with enteral feeding via a stomach tube for people with illnesses who have difficulty digesting and absorbing essential fats. Id. at *2. Relizorb is expensive and is not needed by all enteral feeding patients. Id. at *6-7. Feeding tube systems consist of many different parts that are not pre-packaged together, but that are coded and priced together by the HHS as an “enteral feeding supply kit.” Id. at *2. Many other products used for enteral feeding are priced and coded separately. HHS determined, however, that Relizorb should be coded as part of the supply kit rather than separately. Id. That decision has led Medicare and private insurers to deny reimbursement for Relizorb which in turn has prevented the patient from getting Relizorb and the manufacturer from selling it. So, they sought a preliminary injunction ordering HHS to assign the device a temporary billing code that doesn’t treat Relizorb as a component of the enteral feeding supply kit allowing it be separately priced.
The district court denied the injunction and the only issue on appeal was whether plaintiffs had demonstrated irreparable injury. Id. at *5. That, and of course, whether they had standing to challenge HHS’s coding determinations. HHS argued that coding decisions are not determinations of the reimbursement rates and that the only way plaintiffs should be allowed to proceed is to challenge a specific reimbursement denial through the Medicare appeals process. Id. at *7. But, in this instance, the coding decision dictated the reimbursement rate. HHS had no evidence that it made any separate pricing determination separate from the coding decision. Therefore, both the patient and the manufacturer had standing because they demonstrated “they are harmed by a lack of opportunity to obtain reimbursement that is caused at least in significant part by HHS’s coding determination” and a new, independent billing code would redress that harm. Id. at *8. The new billing code wouldn’t set the reimbursement rate, but it would allow the agency to set a reimbursement rate for the device.
A similar argument prevailed on irreparable harm. The patient-plaintiff cannot afford to buy Relizorb without insurance reimbursement and the manufacturer-plaintiff can’t sell Relizorb because patients cannot get insurance reimbursement. Id. at *10. The detriment to the manufacturer threatened to put it out of business. For the reasons noted above on standing, plaintiffs demonstrated a sufficient connection between the HHS coding decision and their irreparable harm “that success on the merits would meaningfully redress those injuries.” Id. at *11.
This may be a rare situation, but important for our clients, and therefore us, to be aware of.