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May 13, 2014

The Comptroller has the authority to review and report on the billing practices of a medical provider not a participating physician within the NYSHIP Empire Plan network

The Comptroller has the authority to review and report on the billing practices of a medical provider not a participating physician within the NYSHIP Empire Plan network
Martin H. Handler, M.D., P.C. v DiNapoli, 2014 NY Slip Op 03191, Court of Appeals

Among the patients treated by a physician and a medical group [Providers] were individuals insured by the Empire Plan, New York State's primary health benefit plan. The Empire Plan pays about 80% of the charges billed for the medical services provided to individuals covered by the Empire Plan. Providers challenged the authority of the State Comptroller to review their records as part of an audit of billing practices in the health care industry for claims paid by the Empire Plan

The Comptroller contended that he had the authority to review and otherwise report on medical provider’s billing practices as part of its audit of State expenditures. The Court of Appeals agreed.

Among the issues considered by the court were “co-payments” incorporated in the fee structure.

Participating providers have an agreement with United that specifies the fees they may charge. These providers bill claims, less a patient “co-pay,” to United Healthcare Insurance of New York [United] which processes and pays claims made by Empire Plan beneficiaries. In contrast, non-participating providers charge market rates for their services and bill the patient directly. United then reimburses the patient 80% of either the actual fee charged or the "customary and reasonable charge" for the service, whichever is lower. The patient is responsible for paying the provider’s bill, including the 20% that is not paid by United, from his or her personal funds.

Non-participating providers have a legal duty to collect patients' co-payments and failure to collect these fees can result in civil and criminal penalties for insurance fraud.*  

According to the decision, the non-participating provider's failure to collect a co-payment from an Empire Plan member inflates a claim's cost and adversely impacts the State's fisc. A provider that charges $100 for a service, and who collects $80 in State money, must collect $20 from the Empire Plan member. In the event that the provider does not collect the co-payment, it has provided a medical service for $80, not $100, and the State should have paid only $64 of that cost.

After the Comptroller had examined Providers billing records for certain periods of time, the auditors found Providers routinely waived the co-pay that was to be paid by Empire patients and that this resulted in more than $1.500,000 in overpayments by United during this period. The Comptroller recommended that United recover the overpaid sums of money, advise Providers of the advantages of participating in the Empire Plan, and contact the Department of Civil Service to develop a plan for preventing future waiver of required co-payments. The Comptroller took no independent enforcement action.

Providers then filed separate combined Article 78 and declaratory judgment actions against the Comptroller and United, challenging the Comptroller's authority to audit their books and sought judicial relief that included enjoining publication of the results of the audit and enjoining United from collecting any alleged overpayments.

Supreme Court granted the petitions in part and enjoined United from taking action based on the Comptroller’s audit results. In separate decisions, Supreme Court concluded that the Comptroller lacked constitutional authority to audit Providers because Providers are "not a political subdivision of the State."

The Appellate Division found the Comptroller has a constitutional duty to audit payments made by the State, and, as a part of that duty, the Comptroller has the authority to conduct post-audit reviews of payments made to Providers. The Appellate Division explained that were the Comptroller to lack authority to audit health care providers' payment records, "no other entity . . . would retain oversight" to prevent overpayments that result from waived co-insurance fees. The Appellate Division remitted the cases to Supreme Court for further proceedings to address Providers’ claims that the audit findings were arbitrary and capricious and lacked a rational basis. Supreme Court dismissed Providers’ petitions and they appealed to the Court of Appeals ”as of right under CPLR 5601(d), bringing up the prior orders of the Appellate Division, which involved a substantial constitutional question.” 

Providers contended that the Comptroller's audits exceeded the constitutional limitations on its powers because, as non-participants in the Empire Plan, they neither have a contract with the State nor receive State funds, and the Comptroller cannot audit them. 

Under the current provisions of law, the Comptroller is to audit State payments and receipts and the Legislature is prohibited from assigning administrative tasks to the office in order to protect "the independent character of the Comptroller's audit function."

Further, Civil Service Law §167 (7), provides that the Comptroller is to audit payments to the State's health insurance vendors whereby "The amounts required to be paid to any contracting corporation under any contract [with NYSHIP] shall be payable from such health insurance fund as audited by and upon the warrant of the comptroller[.]"

Thus, said the court, both the Constitution and statutes require the Comptroller to ensure proper billing and payment for the Empire Plan. In order to accomplish its legally mandated duties to prevent unauthorized payments and overpayments, the Comptroller must perform both pre- and post-audit review of Empire Plan payments.

The Court of Appeals rejected Providers’ theory that United’s role as a conduit severs any connection between the State funds and the their billing practices, putting the records beyond the Comptroller's reach, explaining that the Constitution does not limit the Comptroller's authority in this way and the fact that the State relies on a third-party conduit, United, does not change the character of the funds.

Holding that the Comptroller's limited examination of Providers' billing records amounted to a post-audit of State payments and was permitted by the Constitution, the Court of Appeals ruled that the judgments of Supreme Court and the prior orders of the Appellate Division reviewed should be affirmed, with costs.

* (see Insurance Law §403 [c]; Penal Law § 176.05 [2]).

The decision is posted on the Internet at:


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