Public Health Law

Public Health Bills So Far

There aren't very many public health related bills proposed yet, but they're on the way.  Here's what we have so far:

SB 1009 Electronic Cigarettes, Tobacco Sales

Expands the definition of tobacco products to include e-cigarettes. Among other things, it'll make it clear that it's illegal to sell e-cigarettes to minors. The penalty for selling to minors remains at $5K. 

HB 2024 Electronic Cigarettes. Smoke Free Arizona Act

Includes e-cigarettes in the definition of tobacco products and smoking for the purposes of the Smoke Free Arizona Act.  Because the Act was voter approved- this modification to the law will require a 3/4 majority of both houses. 

SB 1040 Maternal Mortality Report

This bill would require the Child Fatality Review Team subcommittee on maternal mortality to compile an annual statistical report on the incidence and causes of "severe maternal morbidity" with recommendations for action.  The current law requires a review of the data but no report.

The 2019 Legislative Session Underway 

This year's state legislative session began on Monday.  Here’s a PowerPoint with our 2019 Legislative Priorities.  Like other years, lots of things will come up during the session that we will support or be opposed to.  Our Public Health Policy Committee will share information and meet during the session as we prepare our positions and conduct our public health advocacy.

The party balance in the Senate will remain 17-13 while the balance in the House will be 31-29 (a much closer party balance than there has been in recent years).

The President of the Senate will be  Karen Fann (R) LD-1 and House Speaker will be  Rusty Bowers (R) LD-25.   The Senate Health and Human Service Committee will be chaired by Senator Kate Brophy-McGee (Sen. Heather Carter will be Co-chair).  The House Health Committee will be chaired by Representative Nancy Barto (Rep. Jay Lawrence is Vice Chair)

Senate Health & Human Services Committee

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee will meet this Session on Wednesday mornings at 9 am in Senate Hearing Room #1.  The Chair will be Senator Kate Brophy McGee with Senator Heather Carter as the Vice Chair.  Other committee members will be Tyler Pace, Rick Gray, Sylvia Allen, Rebecca Rios, Tony Navarette, and Victoria Steel.

House Health & Human Services Committee

The House of Representatives Health and Human Services Committee will meet this Session on Thursday mornings at 9 am.  The Chair will be Rep. Nancy Barto with Jay Lawrence serving as Vice Chair.  Other members are Representatives John Allen, Gail Griffin, Becky Nutt, Kelli Butler, Pamela Powers-Hannley, Alma Hernandez and Amish Shah.

Intermediate Care Facilities Like Hacienda de los Angeles are Exempt from State Licensing Requirements

By now you’ve heard the disturbing story of a 29-year-old resident of Hacienda de los Angeles who gave birth a couple of weeks ago. What’s troubling about the birth is that the mother was unable to give consent because of the nature of her medical condition. In short, it means she was raped and delivered a baby while under the care of Hacienda de los Angeles.

Quite honestly, it’s astonishing that the facility and its staff apparently failed to detect – or report -- the sexual assault or pregnancy until after the baby was born and in medical distress.  Arizona law (ARS 46-464) requires people that have responsibility to care for a vulnerable adult to report any abuse or neglect that they suspect.  Failure to report is a Class 1 misdemeanor.

With such resources now deployed with the various investigations including the Phoenix Police Department, we will eventually most likely learn whether Hacienda staff knew but did not report the pregnancy or whether the care being provided was such that staff did not discover the pregnancy until the woman gave birth.  

Arizona and local law enforcement officials are investigating the matter – but they may be impeded by this troubling fact: Hacienda de los Angeles isn’t required to have a state license (and doesn’t have one).

How is this possible?

Hacienda de los Angeles is classified as an intermediate care for persons with intellectual disabilities. Facilities in this class provide more intensive services than a residential group home for persons with intellectual disabilities but different services than a skilled nursing facility.

When I learned through the media of the assault and birth, I went to the ADHS’ AZ Care Check    website to look at the regulatory compliance record for the facility. I was puzzled when I discovered that the facility didn’t have an ADHS License number. They have an identifying number for their Certification to get paid by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) -- but no state license.

In digging deeper- I discovered that this class of facility doesn’t require a license from the ADHS.  They are specifically exempt. The exact statutory language is located in ARS 36-591(E) where it states that: “An intermediate care facility for persons with an intellectual disability that is operated by the division or a private entity is not required to be licensed under this section if the facility is certified pursuant to 42 Code of Federal Regulations section 483.400”.

That’s not to say that there’s no oversight of the facility.  There is. ADHS has conducted annual certification inspections under a contract from CMS every year for the last several years, and you can see that there are several deficiencies that have been identified (and corrected) over time.

What’s problematic is that the state has no direct regulatory authority over the facility because they’re not required to have a state license (if they’re CMS certified).  That means there’s no direct mechanism to compel compliance with state care regulations – because there’s no license to suspend, put on provisional status, or to revoke. 

With information that will be discovered in the coming days and weeks, the federal government could elect to decertify the facility and to no longer pay for services provided there, and/or our state Medicaid agency could decide to no longer approve placement of their members at the facility- but the state has no direct authority to compel compliance -- again, because there’s no state license to use as leverage to compel compliance with state licensing requirements.

Intermediate care facilities were exempt from state licensing requirements back in 1997 when HB 2247 was passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Hull.

Perhaps this case provides an opportunity for our state elected officials to re-examine the wisdom of exempting intermediate care facilities from having a state license.

‘Opportunity Zones’ & Public Health

When you think about the tax bill passed by congress last year you probably think about the permanent reduction in corporate tax rates and changes in the person income tax standard deductions and stuff like that.  But there was a sleeper provision in the law that could influence the built environment and therefore public health.  It’s a provision in the law called ‘Opportunity Zone’ investment tax deferment.

The ‘Opportunity Zones’ part of the new tax law provides incentives to investors to put their money into areas designated by states as low income or underdeveloped.  The law lets investors defer (or eliminate) their capital gains tax obligation when they invest the money in a designated ‘Opportunity Zone’. If they hold the investment for 7 years, 15% of their capital gains liability can be written off.  If they hold the investment for 10 years, then their entire capital gain tax liability can be written off.

The theory is that geographically targeted tax cut opportunities will encourage new clusters of economic activity to form which has the potential to improve conditions that influence the social determinants of health within the designated ‘Opportunity Zones’.

There are very few conditions that are put on the program in terms of what is a qualifying investment, except that the investment must be within a state designated Opportunity Zone.  Developers must make a substantial improvement on the property in the first 30 months.  Investors need to show that 70% of their capital is in the opportunity zone and 50% of their activities.

The governor of each state decides where the Opportunity Zones are (they can name 25% of the qualifying low-income Census tracts as Opportunity Zones).  Our Governor delegated that decision to the Arizona Commerce Authority.  Arizona’s Opportunity Zone nominations were submitted to the US Treasury Department a few months ago and have already been approved.  Here’s the map of the Opportunity Zones Arizona selected.

A couple of months ago the U.S. Department of the Treasury released their guidance on the Opportunity Zone tax law provisions.  The Internal Revenue Service issued proposed regulations in October. 

The AZ Commerce Authority has some material on their website with a more in-depth view of Opportunity Zones including a Guidance Update Webinar Presentation and an Opportunity Funds Guidance Update Webinar Video October 2018.

One thing is clear- the incentives built into the Opportunity Zone parts of the tax bill are huge- and there will be billions of dollars moving into these Opportunity Zones in the coming years.  What remains to be seen is what impact the program will have on the built environment and economic opportunities in these areas and what public health impacts will occur – both good and bad – as a result of the investments that are made in these communities. 

Very few guardrails exist for what kinds of developments qualify for the tax deferral- and no doubt there will be some good things (affordable housing) and bad things (investments that don’t improve conditions) in Opportunity Zone communities in the coming years.

Recently Passed Federal Public Health Legislation

Congress has passed several bills in the last few weeks related to public health.  Here’s a quick summary and links to the laws.

Improving Access to Maternity Care HR 315

This bill requires HRSA to identify maternity care health professional target areas and publish data comparing the availability of and need for maternity care health services in health professional shortage areas and areas within those areas.

Preventing Maternal Deaths Act of 2018 HR 1318

This bill authorizes HHS grants to states to review maternal deaths, publish reports with the results.

PREEMIE Reauthorization Act of 2018  S 3029

This bill increases federal research on preterm labor and delivery, improve the care, treatment, and outcomes of preterm birth and low birthweight infants. 

Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 – The Farm Bill HR 2

The Farm Bill reauthorizes food security programs through FY23 including Supplemental Assistance Program (SNAP) and SNAP nutrituon education.  It also removes hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, which would legalize hemp production and therefore changes how CBD is regulated.

State Offices of Rural Health Reauthorization Act: S 2278

This bill reauthorizes $12.5M annually through FY22 for the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy to make grants to each state office of rural health to improve health care in rural areas. This bill was approved by both the House and Senate but is not yet signed.

The Action for Dental Health Act of 2018

This bill provides an opportunity to improve oral health across the country.  The bill will provide additional resources to the CDC to increase funding for groups and organizations to qualify for federal grants that develop programs and expand access to oral health education and care in states and tribal areas

CDC will still need to flesh out the grant guidance in the coming months before they put out their announcement with the application and expectations. 

PEPFAR Extension Act of 2018  HR 6651

This bill extends certain provisions of the U.S. Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003.

Sickle Cell Disease Research, Surveillance, Prevention, and Treatment Act of 2018  S 2465

This bill reauthorizes a sickle cell disease prevention and treatment program and to authorizes funding for grants for research, surveillance, prevention, and treatment of heritable blood disorders.

Infrastructure for Alzheimer's Act S 2076

This bill would create an Alzheimer's public health infrastructure across the country to implement effective Alzheimer's interventions focused on public health issues such as increasing early detection and diagnosis, reducing risk and preventing avoidable hospitalizations.

Federal Government Shut-Down & Public Health

Federal funding for several federal agencies and programs expired on Saturday. The President wouldn't sign a Senate-approved short-term continuing resolution extending funding for some federal agencies through Feb. 8.  The House subsequently approved a short-term continuing resolution that included $5.7 billion for a wall at the US Mexico border. The Senate couldn't pass that House Resolution, and federal funding for several agencies and programs then expired, forcing a shut down of some programs.

The shut-down won't impact very many core public health programs (except for WIC and IHS- which I'll get to in a sec). That's because a couple of months ago Congress passed a bill that included funding for the HHS family of agencies: CDC, HRSA, SAMHSA, NIH, CMS, FDA, AHRQ.  

Other federal agencies and programs, such as WIC, EPA, and the Indian Health Services are affected because they weren't in the HHS funding bill. Public health programs outside of HHS are affected (WIC is within the US Department of Agriculture- not HHS).

Fortunately, Arizona has enough funding to keep WIC clinics open for a few weeks at least. Providing this information broadly is important so participating families don't think the shutdown means that WIC clinics will be closed due to the shutdown.

Public health programs working in Indian Country funded by HHS will not be impacted butn some other IHS services will be impacted. IHS will continue to provide direct clinical health care services, but some programs and activities that aren't directly related to the safety of human life may not be available during a shutdown.

Tribally-operated health programs will continue to operate under the direction of the Tribe- and each Tribe will determine how to address the impact from a government shutdown. 

For more information about initial estimates for activities under the appropriations lapse you can review the HHS Contingency Staffing Plan for Operations in the Absence of Enacted Annual Agriculture and Interior Appropriations.

What We Can Do to Prepare for a Post ACA Arizona 

A federal judge in Texas (Judge Reed O’Connor) dealt a blow to the Affordable Care Act late last week when he ruled in Texas v. Azar that the ACA is unconstitutional in its entirety- including the implementation of market reforms (e.g. protections for folks with pre-existing conditions), the health insurance marketplaces, and the expansion of Medicaid.

Fortunately, he didn’t issue an injunction ordering the Administration to stop implementing the law- so the ACA will remain the law of the land for now.

Back in February, 20 states (including Arizona) filed the lawsuit seeking to invalidate the 3 legs of the ACA stool: pre-existing condition exclusions, community rating, and guaranteed issue. 

The ACA prevents health insurance companies from: 1) denying someone health insurance because they have a preexisting condition -called the “guaranteed issue” requirement; 2) refusing to cover services that people need to treat a pre-existing condition- called “pre-existing condition exclusions”; and 3) charging a higher premium based on a person’s health status - called the “community rating” provision.

The U.S. Department of Justice isn’t defending the ACA because they agree with the plaintiff States.  In fact, the Justice Department has urged the court to strike down the law.  Luckily, several states including CA are defending the law.

The Plaintiffs (including AZ) argue that since the new federal tax reform law removed the financial penalty for not having health insurance, the ACA is now unconstitutional.  

So, Will the Supreme Court Uphold the ACA Again?

Last week’s ruling isn’t the last word. The case will certainly be appealed in the federal appellate court system and then to the US Supreme Court, which has a different cast of characters than it did when the ACA was originally upheld back in 2012 by a 5-4 vote.

Since then, Justice Gorsuch replaced Justice Scalia and Justice Kavanaugh replaced Justice Kennedy.  Both Scalia and Kennedy voted against the ACA- so not much on that score has changed.

Chief Justice Roberts voted with the majority that upheld the law.  His argument rested on the ACA’s link to the financial penalties for not having health insurance. But remember, the financial penalties for not having health insurance were removed from the IRS tax codes in last year's federal tax overhaul, pulling out the structure that Roberts used in his argument.

In the 2012 Ruling, Justice Roberts wrote that: “… the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a taxbecause the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.” 

Roberts rejected the Administration's argument that the federal government's authority to regulate interstate commerce provides the authority needed for the ACA to be constitutional (the Court struck down that argument 5-4).

The bottom line is that the ACA, including its protections for folks with pre-existing conditions, may very well be in jeopardy if Chief Justice Roberts views the ACA as fundamentally different now that the financial penalties for not having health insurance are gone.

 

What Happens in AZ if the ACA Goes Away & How Can We Prepare?

It's easy to see how the ACA could end up being struck down in a couple of years once this case gets to the highest court. Gone would be the health insurance market reforms like protection for folks with pre-existing conditions, community rating pricing and guarantee issue as well as Medicaid expansion and the health insurance marketplaces.

Prior to the ACA, the standards to protect people with pre-existing conditions were determined at the state level.  Most states including AZ had very limited protections. Many insurers maintained lists of up to 400 different conditions that disqualified applicants from insurance or resulted in higher premiums.  35% of people who tried to buy insurance on their own were either turned down by an insurer, charged a higher premium, or had a benefit excluded from coverage because of their preexisting health problem.

Fortunately, Arizona is partially in control of our own destiny if the ACA is struck down. We couldn't do much about Medicaid rolling back to pre-ACA levels or the loss of subsidies on the Marketplace, but we could have some control over the market reforms like pre-existing condition exclusions, community pricing, and guarantee issue.

Several states have enacted their own laws to be consistent with the ACA market reforms. Several states (CT, HI, IA, IN, MA, ME, MD, MN, NE, NY, NC, ND, OR, SD, VA, VT) already have their own laws that incorporate some or all the ACA insurance market protections. Arizona could do the same. 

The good news is that we have time before the Texas v. Azar case makes it to the Supreme Court. A reasonable first step would be for the Governor to ask the Arizona Department of Insurance, the ADHS and AHCCCS to generate (or commission) a report outlining the real-life impact in Arizona in the event that the Texas v. Azar suit is ultimately successful. The report would also put forward options for state-based health insurance market reform laws that could be enacted to require things like prohibiting pre-existing condition exclusions.

Such a report would give the Arizona State Legislature an analysis with which to evaluate public policy options for state-based market reforms.

I know what you're thinking, it's impossible to pass these kind of market reforms in Arizona.  Maybe, but many thought that Arizona's expansion of our Medicaid system back in 2013 was impossible.

That case study shows that with the right kind of leadership on the 9th floor, anything is possible.

Public Health Ballot Measures Approved in Other States

Here’s a summary of what voters approved in other states that link to public health policy.  There are a few surprises in here- at least things that I found surprising.

Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah voted to expand their Medicaid programs (up to 138% of the federal poverty level).  Idaho’s Proposition 2 was approved by 61% of voters and Nebraska’s passed with 53% approval (called Initiative 427 to expand Medicaid). Interestingly, neither of those states established a funding mechanism.  

Utah’s Proposition 3 was approved by 54% of voters and funds the expansion with a 0.15% increase to the state’s sales tax. There are now 14 states  left that haven’t expanded Medicaid.  With gubernatorial party changes in Wisconsin & Kansas perhaps those states may be next.

Proposals related to marijuana were on the ballot in five states. Utah voters approved a medical marijuana initiative (Proposition 2) by a 53-47 percent margin. Interestingly, it will be a strictly “edibles” based program (prohibits the medical marijuana). 

Missouri voters approved Amendment 2 (with 66% of the vote) that gives the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services oversight of the state’s new medical marijuana program. 

Michigan approved a measure to allowing adults to use marijuana for non-medical purposes and a retail sale program.  Proposal 18-1 directs Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to oversee the commercial production and retail sale of marijuana. 

The People Speak. Will Public Health Policy Follow?

By now all of you know the results of the federal and state election results so I won't recap them here - except to link the results to the prospects for public health policy.

The results in the US House of Representatives suggest that it's unlikely there will be another effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  That doesn't mean that the ACA is no longer in jeopardy. There's still an outstanding lawsuit challenging the mandate for health insurance plans to cover preexisting conditions as well as other provisions in the ACA (AZ is on the list of states challenging the law). The US Justice Department will presumably continue to decline to defend the ACA in court.

The fact that the US House will be controlled by the Dems means that there will be an opportunity for additional oversight of the decisions that the federal agencies are making with respect to public heath and health care (e.g. CMS, EPA, DHS, USDA etc.).  That oversight authority can be used to ensure that the administrative decisions made by the federal agencies are consistent with their statutory authority.

There will be no party changes in the executive branch here in Arizona and we will continue to have the same governor and presumably the same agency heads. The makeup of the state legislature looks like it will shift a little- but party control won't change. The Senate will likely remain 17-13.  In the House it looks like the new split will be a razor thin 31-29. 

Many of the bills that we supported last year passed with bipartisan support- and it remains important to look toward public health policies that are founded with evidence and for us to continue to frame the issues in a way that builds bipartisan support for sound public health policy.

Educating Parents to Improve Vaccination Rates

It’s no secret that many states including Arizona are struggling to maintain enough vaccination coverage to achieve “herd immunity”.  Herd immunity simply means that you have enough vaccination coverage to protect the entire community - including people that for medical reasons can’t be vaccinated and folks who’ve been vaccinated but still may be susceptible (because vaccines aren’t 100% effective). Generally, herd immunity happens when a community has a vaccination rate above 95%.

A couple of months ago the ADHS released their latest school reporting data on vaccine exemption rates (medical, personal and religious).  Here’s a 2-page summary of some of the results.  This year’s report covers the 2017-2018 school year. The data show that:

  • Immunization rates have decreased across all age groups from 2012 to 2017;

  • Personal exemption rates continue to be highest in charter schools, followed by private and public schools in 2017; and 

  • Overall personal exemption rates increased in the last year- going from 3.9% to 4.3% for pre-school; 4.9% to 5.4% for Kindergarten and 5.1% to 5.4% among 6th graders.

Requiring kids in public school to be vaccinated is one of the most important public policy tools to ensure herd immunity.  Arizona does that through statutes labeled ARS-872 & ARS-873 - which require kids to be vaccinated if they attend public school (unless they have an exemption). In Arizona, there are medical, religious, and “personal” exemptions. The problem over the last few years is that more and more parents are exercising the personal exemption option.

According to our current statute, parents can get a personal exemption if they “… sign a statement to the school administrator stating that (they) have received information about immunizations provided by the ADHS and understand the risks…” (as defined in R9-6-701-708). Despite numerous interventions to improve immunization rates among AZ school children- we continue to lose ground. In several parts of the state and among certain demographic groups (high income zip codes and some charter schools for example) we’ve lost herd immunity- which means we’re at real risk for outbreaks.

Arizona’s public health system has been doing some creative work to improve our immunization rates. One of my favorites is an innovative on-line immunization education course that’s designed to serve as part of a potential new personal exemption process. The Maricopa County Department of Public Health worked with a University of Arizona medical student and the ADHS Immunizations Program to design and conduct the test pilot program. The new education course was piloted at 16 schools in Maricopa County (8 elementary, 5 middle or junior high and 3 high schools) last school year.  The pilot objectives were to:

  • Learn how to best implement the immunization education module developed by ADHS in Maricopa County schools;

  • Get feedback from school staff regarding the use of the module to ensure a smooth rollout in the future; and

  • Identify whether parents learned new information about vaccine preventable diseases and vaccines using a brief anonymous pre-and post-knowledge assessment survey.

The pilot was small & wasn't designed as a formal study and therefore wasn't able to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of the modules- but it’s a promising intervention that has a good chance of helping improve immunization rates.

There’s a lot of interest among a host of public health stakeholders in continuing to pursue this educational (informed consent) process as part of the personal exemption process.  I’m optimistic that executive branch decision-makers will recognize the value that a more robust parent education policy can have in improving rates and that AZ will continue to develop and implement this innovative intervention.

Part of what makes me optimistic are comments that the Governor recently made during an interview with the Arizona Republic in which (about 25 minutes into the interview) he states that "This is a public-health issue, I’m a big believer in freedom and choice on a lot of issues, but… if your kid’s going to be in the public-school system in Arizona, they’re going to be vaccinated."

The bottom line is that despite our work to date, vaccination rates continue to decline and are below the herd immunity threshold in some parts of the state and among some demographic groups.  Additional interventions are clearly needed.  Perhaps the education modules will help.  But it may be that the only real solution is to look to other states that have eliminated the personal exemption.  California provides a promising case study.

CMS Opens Door to Waivers that Subsidize Weaker Health Insurance Plans

Section 1332 of the Affordable Care Act gives the HHS and the Department of Treasury authority to review and potentially approve a “State Innovation Waiver” related to Marketplace insurance if a state’s waiver application provides “coverage to a comparable number of residents of the state as would be provided coverage absent the waiver” and “provides coverage that is at least as comprehensive and affordable as would be provided absent the waiver”, and "doesn't increase the Federal deficit".

If a state’s waiver is approved by HHS, a state can get pass-through funding equal to what they would have received without the waiver.  Back in 2015 the Obama Administration issued guidance regarding the requirements to get a 1332 waiver. 

Last week CMS replaced the 2015 guidance with new guidance for 1332 waivers that would (if the guidance stands up to judicial review) allow states to implement what CMS is calling “State Relief Empowerment Waivers”.  It’s a name they invented- not a name that’s outlined in the ACA.  The new guidance will likely have an impact beginning in the 2020 open enrollment period- not the current open enrollment period.

CMS says they will now allow a wider range of insurance coverage levels in waiver requests, including plans that don’t comply with the ACA’s basic coverage requirements. For example, state 1332 waivers will now be able to include Association Health Plans and short-term limited duration insurance. Under the guidance, states could get a federal subsidy to subsidize the purchase of these plans. 

To be honest I don’t think the short-term limited duration insurance part of the guidance will stand up to judicial review because the ACA states that the waivers must provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive and affordable as would be provided absent the waiver. Short term limited duration plans and some association health plans do not.

Association Health Plans and short-term plans don’t necessarily include coverage for essential health benefits, which can leave plan participants with high out-of-pocket costs or discourage individuals from seeking timely treatment. For example, short term plans don’t usually cover pre-existing conditions and generally don’t offer coverage for behavioral health services, prescription drug costs, or maternity care.

Under the new guidance, CMS’ analysis of affordability and coverage will be based on the types of coverage made available to state residents rather than on the coverage that residents buy.  Again, I wonder how they’ll keep this in accord with the statutory ACA requirements of 1332 waivers. 

CMS says their analysis will focus on the aggregate effects of a waiver rather than on the effects on a subgroup of state residents. In other words, CMS will consider the overall improvements in affordability and coverage for state residents- even if there’s a negative effect for a subset of folks. 

Right now, there are only eight 1332 waivers (they were approved under the 2015 guidance).  Those 1332 waivers mostly focused on reinsurance programs to lower premiums in the federal marketplaces.

Weigh in on the US Department of Homeland Security's new "Public Charge" Rules

The US Department of Homeland Security is proposing new changes to what is commonly referred to as their public charge’ rule.  If they’re adopted as-is, the new regulations would make it harder for families who are following all the rules of legal immigration to enter the U.S. or obtain a green card to become a legal, permanent resident. This means people trying to become new Americans legally would risk their status simply by turning to available services of Medicaid (and possibly CHIP/KidsCare), SNAP (aka food stamps), Medicare Part D, and housing assistance. You can learn more about what “public charge” is here

DHS is accepting public comments on their rule package through December 10.  We’d like your help to put together comments from the Arizona public health community.  Here’s some background:

DHS already uses information about whether applicants for legal permanent residency receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) when they evaluate applications.  After these proposed new rules are adopted, they’ll also consider whether applicants receive Medicaid (AHCCCS), Medicare Part D Low Income Subsidy, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), and Section 8 Housing program.  Once adopted, applicants that receive any of these benefits will be far less likely to be approved for a status change or stay extension.  I didn’t see any exemptions for children- so presumably benefits used by any noncitizen family member including kids would count.  Here are some take-aways from the proposal:  

  • This is an issue of legal immigration- unauthorized migrants are largely ineligible for public assistance;

  • The use of public benefits by citizen children would not be considered a public charge;

  • This does not directly impact green card holders (the public charge test is not applied to green card holders applying for citizenship);

  • While CHIP (KidsCare) hasn’t been included in the proposed list of benefits that will count against individuals, the proposal draft seeks comments about whether CHIP should be included;

  • The proposed rule is not retroactive – meaning the public benefits received before the rule is final will not be counted as a public charge; and 

  • The proposed rules would not apply to refugees because existing statute prevents DHS from using the criteria for refugees.

  • Even though the new draft doesn’t include vaccinations (VFC), WIC and marketplace insurance- many families will believe that the regulations do include these benefits and will elect not to use these important safety net benefits- as doing so will risk their immigration status.  As a result, families will have a more difficult time improving the health status of their families.  An estimated 200,000 Arizonans will be impacted directly and many more may avoid using services they need due to fear and misinformation. The good news is that your voice matters! 

Turning in public comments matters because: 1) Federal law requires the government read and consider every unique comment before issuing a final rule and significant or copious comments could slow down the process and give policymakers more time to reconsider the final rule change; 2) Comments can later provide an opportunity to challenge the regulations in court; and 3) Comments give our communities a chance for their voice to be heard.

DHS will group all identical comments and count them as one comment. To make the most impact, it’s important to add your own words and ideas to your comments so it can be counted as a unique comment. Take a moment to highlight how your professional career or personal experiences has informed your view of what the Feds are proposing.  Below are example comments for you to consider using or modifying, along with your own words, and step by step instructions on how to submit your own comments.  

I oppose the Department of Homeland Security’s proposed rule change to "public charge.”  The policy will undermine access to essential health, nutrition, and shelter for immigrants and their family. One in four children in Arizona, and nearly 20 million children nationwide, live with at least one immigrant parent. By forcing choices no family should have to make, it puts our whole country at risk. This will policy is short-sighted and will only create costs shifts to states as well as create, bigger more expensive problems down the road. DHS should immediately withdraw its proposal. 

A community’s overall health depends on the health of all of its members. The proposed rule change will lead to higher rates of uninsured adults and children. Without insurance, families may delay care or forego it altogether. This means there will be more children in school, and adults in the workplace, without needed preventive services and untreated illnesses. Treatment for life-threatening conditions such as asthma keeps children in school. More people delaying care until the last possible moment will strain emergency resources. Hospitals’ and clinics’ uncompensated care burdens will increase. Children with Medicaid and CHIP have better health as adults, with fewer hospitalizations and emergency room visits; they also earn more and pay more in taxes. 

CHIP (KidsCare in Arizona) is designed especially for working families and should not be considered a public charge. Including CHIP would be a double hit to families who work hard and play by all the rules of our immigration system only to have the American dream become that much more unattainable. 

The loss of access to SNAP would further exacerbate food insecurity. SNAP is a critical source of support for struggling households; research shows how SNAP lifts people out of poverty, reduces hunger and obesity, and improves school attendance, behavior, and achievement. The consequences of food insecurity are especially detrimental to the health, development, and well-being of children.

We’ll be turning in public comments on the rule change before the December 10 deadline…  but please consider turning in your own unique comments!

History of Considering Public Benefits

The term “public charge” as it relates to admitting immigrants has a long history in immigration law, appearing at least as far back as the Immigration Act of 1882.  In the 1800s and early 1900s “public charge: was the most common ground for refusing admission at U.S. 

In 1999, the INS (DHS didn’t exist yet) issued Rules to "address the public’s concerns about immigrant fears of accepting public benefits for which they remained eligible, specifically medical care, children's immunizations, basic nutrition and treatment of medical conditions that may jeopardize public health.” Here's that final Rule from 1999, which didn't include Medicaid our housing benefits in the public charge definition.

US DHS Proposed Regulations Chill Programs that Address Social Determinants

Last Saturday the US Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen proposed new rules that (when adopted) will consider a much wider range of public benefits when they evaluate applications for an immigration change of status or extension of stay request.  

DHS already uses information about whether applicants for legal permanent residency receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) when they evaluate applications.  After these new rules are adopted, they’ll also consider whether applicants receive Medicaid (AHCCCS), Medicare Part D Low Income Subsidy, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), and Section 8 Housing program.  Once adopted, applicants that receive any of these benefits will be far less likely to be approved for a status change or stay extension.  I didn’t see any exemptions for children- so presumably benefits used by any noncitizen family member including kids would count.

Here are some take-aways from the draft: 

  • This is an issue of legal immigration- unauthorized migrants are largely ineligible for public assistance;

  • The use of public benefits by citizen children would not be considered a public charge;

  • This does not directly impact green card holders (the public charge test is not applied to green card holders applying for citizenship);

  • The proposed rule is not retroactive – meaning the public benefits received before the rule is final will not be counted as a public charge; and 

  • The proposed rules would not apply to refugees because existing statute prevents DHS from using the criteria for refugees.

A few months ago, DHS issued a discussion draft of the rule change that would have also included programs like Women Infant and Children (WIC) program, school lunch programs, subsidized marketplace health insurance and even participation in the Vaccines for Children program.

Even though the new draft doesn’t include vaccinations (VFC), WIC and marketplace insurance- many families will believe that the regulations do include these benefits and will elect not to use these important safety net benefits- as doing so will risk their immigration status.  As a result, families will have a more difficult time improving the health status of their families.  

The proposed new rules are 447 pages long- but a key place to look are pages 94-100 (that’s where the outline the new list of benefits that they intend to include).  The official proposal will be published in the Federal Register in a few weeks.  Once it’s officially published, the public will be able to comment on the proposed rule for 60 days.  The official version in the Federal Register will contain information about how to submit comments. I’ll keep my eye out for that.

History of Considering Public Benefits

The term “public charge” as it relates to admitting immigrants has a long history in immigration law, appearing at least as far back as the Immigration Act of 1882.  In the 1800s and early 1900s “public charge: was the most common ground for refusing admission at U.S. 

In 1999, the INS (DHS didn’t exist yet) issued Rules to "address the public’s concerns about immigrant fears of accepting public benefits for which they remained eligible, specifically medical care, children's immunizations, basic nutrition and treatment of medical conditions that may jeopardize public health.” Here's that final Rule from 1999, which didn't include Medicaid our housing benefits in the public charge definition.

ADHS Threatens to Revoke SW Key Shelter Licenses

Results Bring into Question Arizona’s Regulatory Oversight Statutes

Some of the kids that have been separated from their parents by the federal government have been and are being cared for at places run by an organization named Southwest Key. There are 13 such facilities in AZ.  SW Key is contracted by the federal government to provide these services and the facilities are licensed by the ADHS. They’re classified as Child Behavioral Health Facilities. 

Here’s the public health policy rub- even though they’re licensed by the ADHS, the Agency doesn’t conduct routine unannounced inspections at these facilities because they’re accredited by the Council on Accreditation, and Arizona law says that when a facility like this is accredited by “an appropriate independent body”, the ADHS shall accept the accreditation in lieu of a routine agency inspection. Specifically, ARS 36-424 (B) states that: “The (ADHS) director shall accept proof that a health care institution is an accredited health care institution in lieu of all compliance inspections required by this chapter if the director receives a copy of the institution's accreditation report for the licensure period”.

The ADHS still has an obligation to investigate complaints at these facilities because ARS 36-424 (C) says that: “On a determination by the director that there is reasonable cause to believe a health care institution is not adhering to the licensing requirements of this chapter… (the ADHS) may enter on and into the premises…  (to) determine the state of compliance with this chapter, the rules adopted pursuant to this chapter and local fire ordinances or rules.”

A few weeks ago, the ADHS did some on site investigations of the facilities (under the ARS 36-424 (C) provision) and presented SW Key with a list of deficiencies to correct (including better documentation of employee background checks).  SW Key’s response appears to have been wholly inadequate.  In a strongly worded letter, the ADHS let all 13 licensees know that the Department is beginning license revocation procedures. 

SW Key will likely now take their deficiencies seriously (including the requirement to document background checks) and avoid revocation…  but this incident demonstrates (to me) that the statutory framework that allows applicants to submit 3rd party accreditation documents instead of being subjected to an unannounced inspection by the regulatory agency (ADHS) provides inadequate protection when vulnerable children are involved.

Perhaps there will be a bipartisan plan next legislative session to update the regulatory framework for facilities that provide services to vulnerable kids.

You can view the status of these facilities at www.azcarecheck.com and search for the words Southwest Key.  You’d be able to see the results of any complaint investigations or enforcement actions against these facilities- but not the backup accreditation documents from the Council on Accreditation.

Kids Care & ACA Advocacy

Election season is upon us and KidsCare and healthcare generally are key issues we want candidates for state office to weigh in on.  The Children’s Action Alliance has a helpful election’s page up and running now!  On it you can link to it to point the communities your organization serves to where they can contact candidates, see where candidates stand on issues, and register to vote. CAA is also launching a digital ads campaign around the key questions for candidates today.

Here’s is a fact sheet from Families USA explaining what’s at stake for people with pre-existing conditions in Arizona. The issue is a bit complicated to understand, but here goes for anyone that’s interested. Currently, there is a lawsuit, Texas v Azar, making its way through the courts that challenges the ACA as unconstitutional. 

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich has signed Arizona on as a plaintiff state. If the lawsuit is successful, the protections for people with pre-existing conditions, along with other parts of the ACA, will be repealed.  

We don’t know the timetable on a final court decision, but we do know that, if the lawsuit is successful, Arizona’s law is set up so that these protections will essentially be repealed simultaneously in state statute.

Health Insurance for People w Pre-existing Conditions in Jeopardy Again

A main driver for passing and implementing the Affordable Care Act was to ensure that people with pre-existing health conditions could buy health insurance.  Prior to the ACA- people with pre-existing medical conditions like diabetes faced real challenges getting health insurance.

Indeed, one of the most consistently popular parts of the ACA are the provisions that help people get  coverage regardless of health status.  The ACA prevents health insurance companies from denying someone a policy because they have a preexisting condition (called the “guaranteed issue” requirement), refusing to cover services that people need to treat a pre-existing condition (called “preexisting condition exclusions”), or charging a higher premium based on a person’s health status (called the “community rating” provision).   

You can think of pre-existing conditions exclusions, guarantee issue, and community rating as the three legs of the ACA stool.  Despite these largely popular provisions, there are people that want to knock over the stool.  Back in February, 20 states (including Arizona) filed a lawsuit in Texas federal court seeking to invalidate the 3 legs of the stool: preexisting condition exclusions, community rating, and guaranteed issue.

This most recent legal attack argues that the removal of the individual mandate penalty by the most recent federal tax cut legislation makes the ACA unconstitutional (the US Supreme Court upheld the ACA several years ago, in part, because the tax penalty provision provided a statutory hook for the ACA to rest on).  The lawsuit argues that because the mandate is an essential feature of the ACA, the rest of the law must be struck down too.  If the lawsuit eventually succeeds these central provisions of the ACA would go away and an estimated 17 million people could become uninsured again.

During the Obama Administration, the federal government defended the ACA from lawsuits like these.  Those days are over.  A couple of months ago, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that they agree with the plaintiff States that the ACA’s individual mandate is unconstitutional. The administration urged the court to strike down the law’s guaranteed issue, preexisting condition exclusion, and community rating provisions.

Prior to the ACA, standards to protect people with preexisting conditions were primarily determined at the state level.  Most states including AZ had very limited protections. Before the ACA, many insurers maintained lists of up to 400 different conditions that disqualified applicants from insurance or resulted in higher premiums.  35% of people who tried to buy insurance on their own were either turned down by an insurer, charged a higher premium, or had a benefit excluded from coverage because of their preexisting health problem.

If the Federal courts (ultimately the US Supreme Court probably) rule in favor of the plaintiffs, States could still play as a regulator of insurance, as they could enact and enforce their own laws to protect residents from discrimination due to preexisting conditions.  In fact, several states already have their own laws to incorporate some or all of the ACA’s protections (Arizona does not). 

Oral arguments have been scheduled for next week in the Texas lawsuit. Arguments are scheduled to take place next Monday before Judge Reed O’Connor.  Whatever the Federal TX Court rules, the result will likely be appealed to the UA Appellate Court and eventually probably the US Supreme Court.