Some legal gurus are questioning the constitutionality of a key provision of the Medicare prescription drug benefit: the so-called “clawback” provision that requires states to send the federal government cash to help cover the cost of drugs for dual eligibles. The mandatory payments are enormous – $6 billion in 2006 and over $48 billion (likely much more) during the first five years. And controversial idea of making states pay for a federal program benefit has generated strong criticism from governors and state Medicaid directors.

Recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and appeals courts have placed new restrictions on the ability of Congress to use its spending power to “encourage” state action. The clawback – and the consequences of late payment – would appear to cross the line. When Congress attaches conditions to federal funding, the Supremes say “the financial inducement offered by Congress might be so coercive as to pass the point at which pressure turns into compulsion.”

No doubt some states will go to court to challenge the clawback. It may be hard for the feds to argue in court that states, by signing up for the federal-state Medicaid partnership, somehow waived their sovereignty and agreed to remit state cash to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to pay for a federal program.

For more on this, check out an excellent article by James N. Gardner, JD, in the January 2005 issue of State News, published by the Council of State Governments. Mr. Gardner, a former Oregon state senator, also served as a law clerk to Justice Potter Stewart.