Activists, mayor, councilors push HHC to drop Medicaid suit

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (IL file photo)

Health care advocates and members of the Indianapolis City-County Council urged a city entity Thursday to drop a Medicaid lawsuit set to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court next month.

The Health and Hospital Corp. of Marion County is a defendant in a lawsuit that some worry would impact any Medicaid beneficiary receiving care in a government-owned facility.

“If (HHC) wins this case, they will take away the basic right to sue in federal court under civil rights protections that have been there since Reconstruction,” said Michael Oles, a field director with Our Revolution. “This is a very dangerous case, in a very dangerous moment with a dangerous Supreme Court.”

Oles, the Community Action Coalition and three city-county council members — Vice President Zach Adamson, Dan Boots and Ethan Evans — presented a letter urging the HHC board, which meets next week, to reconsider the lawsuit.

Specifically, the letter asks HHC to withdraw the petition or ask for a narrow interpretation that wouldn’t have any impact outside of the case, Talevski v. Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County.

“A broad decision in favor of (HHC) and its co-parties … could effectively prevent people who receive federal safety net services like Medicaid from having the right to sue state and county entities in federal court for denying, reducing or terminating guaranteed benefits,” Adamson read from the letter.

Case and HHC background

The case stems from the treatment and death of Gorgi Talevski at a Valparaiso long-term care facility. The Health and Hospital Corp. of Marion County owns that nursing home, along with 77 others across the state, in addition to operating the Marion County Health Department and Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Hospital in Indianapolis.

Indiana’s unique reliance on government-owned long-term care facilities, 93% of all facilities, has been extensively investigated by the IndyStar. The 2020 ‘Careless’ series documented how the approach allows counties to reap millions in federal monies designated for publicly funded nursing homes and divert those dollars for other uses — all legal under current law but not available for public review.

While Indiana has a disproportionately high number of nursing home residents in government-owned long-term care facilities compared to other states, the impact of this legislation would be felt beyond its borders.

The Indianapolis City-County Council appoints two board members while the remaining five are appointed by Mayor Joe Hogsett and the Marion County Commissioners — nearly all of whom are Democrats.

Oles noted that Democrats, traditionally supporters of Medicaid and social safety net programs, could inadvertently cause one of its biggest defeats.

“We don’t want to be the laughingstock of the nation because Indiana Democrats helped put a final nail in our safety net,” Oles said.

Hogsett told the IndyStar on Thursday that the agency went “a step too far” in the case and urged it to backtrack by narrowing the scope.

Oles said the decision to expand the litigation beyond the scope of one case, the treatment of Talevski, didn’t ever appear before the board but rather was approved by President and CEO Paul Babcock. This was affirmed by the Indiana Public Access Counselor’s opinion determining that HHC had violated Open Door Laws by pursuing the litigation in private.

“We were met with a cold shoulder when we first started reaching out,” Oles said. “We were written off so we kept the pressure on all summer. I’ve talked to several board members now and we’re hoping that … there will be an effort to get this thing withdrawn.”

Pressure to withdraw the lawsuit

The City-County Council members said they bore the responsibility of appointing two members and typically took a “hands-off” approach to the board.

“This isn’t something that came to them for a vote in the first place,” Adamson said. “We don’t want to create a process of meddling in (every) case. … That’s not something we want to be a part of.”

Boots, an attorney, noted that City-County Council members directly contacting board members created an ethical conflict and necessitated the public letter.

However, there are concerns that even if HHC withdraws from the case, other plaintiffs, including American Senior Communities and the Valparaiso nursing home, may continue to pursue it.

If so, those parties would have the support of a powerful coalition of state attorneys general, as detailed in a brief from 22 attorneys, including Indiana AG Todd Rokita.

The HHC board will meet  at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in Indianapolis, their final meeting before oral arguments are due to begin in the Supreme Court.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.

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