If you are injured due to another person’s negligence and receive Medicaid benefits to pay for care, the state has a legal right to recover the funds it spends on your care from a personal injury settlement or award. Yet in a legal case involving a Floridian teen who was catastrophically injured more than a decade ago, the U.S. Supreme Court this week ruled that states have the right to recover funds that they may spend on future medical expenses, too.
The decision affects anyone who receives medical care through Medicaid after suffering a disabling injury that results in a lawsuit.
In 2008, a truck struck 13-year-old Gianinna Gallardo, leaving her in a vegetative state. The state’s Medicaid agency provided $862,688.77 in medical payments on Gallardo’s behalf. Her parents sued the parties responsible, and the case eventually settled for $800,000, of which about $35,000 represented payment for past medical expenses. The settlement also included funds for Gallardo’s future medical expenses, lost wages, and other damages.
The state Medicaid agency claimed it was entitled to more than $300,000 in medical payments from this settlement, including money that had been specifically allocated for Gianinna’s future medical expenses.
Gianinna’s parents then sued the agency in federal court, arguing that the state of Florida should be able to recover monies only from that portion of the settlement allocated for past medical expenses.
When a U.S. district court ruled in favor of Gianinna, the Medicaid agency appealed. A court of appeals reversed the lower court’s decision. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in order to resolve the conflict.
In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court agreed that the state is allowed to recover benefits for Gianinna’s past — as well as future — medical care. Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the majority opinion, noted that Medicaid law “distinguishes only between medical and nonmedical care, not between past (paid) medical care payments and future (un-paid) medical care payments.”
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer dissented. They argued that accepting Medicaid shouldn’t leave a beneficiary indebted to the state for future care that may or may not be needed. Justice Sotomayor noted that the majority’s decision undercuts Congress’ choice to allow Medicaid beneficiaries to place their excess recovery funds in Special Needs Trusts, protecting their ability to pay for important expenses Medicaid will not cover.”