For decades, people in federal assistance programs like Medicaid have been able to sue state agencies if they don’t receive the benefits they are entitled to. The Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County – an Indiana government agency – wants to change it.
On November 8, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case in northwest Indiana that could have huge national implications. WFYI’s Farah Yousry spoke to Tony Cook, an investigative reporter from the Indianapolis Star who reported mismanagement of taxpayer money and concerns about the quality of care in statewide nursing facilities owned by the County Health and Hospital Corporation. by Marion.
Farah Yousry: What exactly is Marion County Health and Hospital Corporation? And what have your investigations of this government agency revealed in recent years about their precedents?
Tony Cook: Hence, Health and Hospital Corporation owns 78 nursing homes across the state and operates the public hospital here in Indianapolis and in [Marion County Public] Department of health. They bought all of these nursing homes to access the extra Medicaid money available to government-owned facilities, but they diverted a lot of that money to fund the hospital.
And so, what we have found is that the quality of the nursing home is really lagging behind [behind] the rest of the nation. And the staff is quite low compared to the rest of the nation. Indiana nursing homes ranked 48th in the nation for staff. And that’s really the key to quality because these are the people who, you know, help the residents on a daily basis.
FY: So, a lot of public money mismanagement and patient care quality issues. And recently, the family of one of the former residents of an HHC nursing home is report the facility for over-medicating it and chemically holding it and unintentionally transferring it to other facilities. In response, the agency decided to make a very large pivot and open a Pandora’s box. Can you explain what happened here?
TC: Then, many times with nursing home complaints, they filed a negligence claim with the state court. But it can be very challenging, because there are a lot of barriers, there are limits to the damage, you have to go to a medical review panel, which can take years. So in this case though, the family sued under federal law and claimed that the HHC violated the law [Federal] Law on the reform of nursing homes.
And so, what HHC has done to defend itself is, it claimed and asked the Supreme Court to consider whether federal beneficiaries of these entitlement programs should be allowed to sue – period. And so this is a huge question that could affect millions of people in the United States and prevent them from suing state or local governments if they believe their rights are being violated or their benefits are improperly denied.
FY: It’s a very high-stakes legal battle. And a number of state officials and representatives have done so urged the Health and Hospital Corporation to withdraw his Supreme Court petition. What did you hear about it?
TC: Yes, I mean, the pressure has really increased because the advocates of low income people, the elderly, the disabled are all up for it because of what they could do. And so are the liberal political groups who want to defend Medicaid because they see it as a democratic achievement they want to expand and protect. And so they’re really mad at HHC, which, you know, everything HHC board members they are appointed by the mayor, the city council or the county commission, all controlled by the Democrats. And so there was a lot of pressure.
It has turned into a kind of political firestorm. And now, there are many state lawmakers and city council members who are Democrats calling on the HHC to withdraw this petition. And they did a great commotion at the last board meeting. But so far, HHC has practically refused to comment and has held his position. So, it will be interesting to see what happens before the oral discussions on November 8th.
READ MORE: To learn more about the topics surrounding this case and its potential implications for tens of millions of Americans who rely on federal assistance programs, take a look at our reports: