FCC Seeks Comment on HHS/CMS Request for Certainty About Communications Critical to Federal and State Health Insurance Programs Post-Pandemic

Reacting quickly to a joint request by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) (collectively, the Health Agencies) last Thursday, the FCC released a Public Notice on May 3, 2022, inviting comments about how it should clarify “that certain automated calls and text messages or prerecorded voice calls relating to enrollment in state Medicaid and other governmental health coverage programs are permissible under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).” Recognizing the time-sensitive nature of the Health Agencies’ request, the FCC established a short cycle for public comment – comments are due in 14 days on May 17, 2022, and any reply comments are due on May 24, 2022.

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Texts Regarding COVID Vaccine Eligibility Are Not Actionable Under TCPA, Texas Northern District Holds

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas recently held that unsolicited text messages that simply inform recipients of the availability of a free COVID-19 vaccine are protected by the “emergency purposes” exception to the TCPA’s prior express consent requirement and also do not qualify as telephone “solicitations” prohibited by the FCC’s do-not-call (DNC) rules.

In Horton v. Tarrant County Hospital District, No. 4:22-CV-9-P, 2022 WL 702536 (N.D. Tex. Feb. 4, 2022), the plaintiff alleged that he received a single unsolicited text message from the defendant, a public hospital district, announcing that “everyone ages 12 and up is eligible for the COVID vaccine.” Mr. Horton alleged that the text was sent without his consent in violation of the TCPA’s prohibition on autodialed calls as well as the rule against solicitations to telephone numbers on the national DNC list.

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“Pretext” Theory Could Turn Calls Regarding Free Health Care Services into Prohibited Solicitations, District of New Jersey Holds

The District of New Jersey recently endorsed the view that calls regarding the availability of free services may plausibly qualify, at the pleadings stage, as “telephone solicitations,” and as such be subject to the Do Not Call prohibition, where the calls are part of a larger marketing program for the defendant’s services. It also held, as the FCC has ruled, that the FCC’s exemption for calls that deliver a “health care message,” from a HIPAA-covered entity or its business associates, treats the calls differently based on whether the calls are delivered to a cell phone or a residential landline. Calls from such entities about health care, when made to wireless numbers, are exempt only from the requirement for written consent that applies to telemarketing calls. Unlike health care calls to residential landlines, these calls are not exempt from the TCPA’s general “prior express consent” requirement for prerecorded and autodialed phone calls, the court held.

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PBM’s Policy Update Fax Not TCPA “Advertisement,” Says Eastern District of Missouri

Earlier this week, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri granted summary judgment for a pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) that allegedly violated the TCPA by sending unsolicited advertisements via fax to thousands of healthcare providers. The defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the court concluded, because the fax simply notified recipients of changes to insured patients’ coverage and did not promote any products or services.

The case began when a St. Louis healthcare provider (BPP) filed a complaint alleging that defendant CaremarkPCS Health, LLC, violated the TCPA when it sent an unsolicited fax to over 55,000 providers notifying them of new limits on insurance coverage for opioid prescriptions for pediatric and adolescent patients in plans sponsored by Caremark’s clients. BPP v. CaremarkPCS Health, LLC, No. 4:20-cv-126, 2021 WL 5195785, at *1 (E.D. Mo. Nov. 9, 2021). Caremark, which manages prescription drug benefits for various health insurers, asked for summary judgment on the ground that the fax was not an “advertisement” under the TCPA and that plaintiff’s claim therefore failed as a matter of law. Id.

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Some Clinical Trial Calls Now Eligible for the FCC’s Revised TCPA Exemption

The TRACED Act’s December 30, 2020 deadline was not the end of the FCC’s recent series of actions to bring more clarity to certain forms of TCPA exemptions. Most recently, on January 15, 2021, the FCC issued a Declaratory Ruling “clarify[ing] that a call to a residential telephone line seeking an individual’s participation in a clinical pharmaceutical trial is not subject to the TCPA’s restrictions on prerecorded calls.” Instead, the FCC stated that these calls are eligible for exemption from the TCPA’s prior express written consent requirement as other calls to a residence that do not constitute telemarketing.

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New Year, New Rules: FCC Modifies Existing TCPA Exemptions, Adopts New “Call Blocking” Requirements, and Clarifies TCPA Application Over Soundboard Technology

Some welcome the New Year with new goals and new plans while others – the FCC, in particular, welcomes the New Year by wrapping up TCPA rulemakings and issuing other rulings. As expected, a number of TRACED Act items were included in orders issued in late December 2020. As we previewed, the FCC amended nine existing TCPA exemptions, imposing additional restrictions on pre-recorded/artificial voice calls placed to residential lines even for informational calling, and adopted new redress requirements on and safe harbor protections for carriers engaging in network-based call blocking. The FCC also denied two petitions for declaratory rulings, clarifying that “soundboard callers use a prerecorded voice to deliver a message” and that as a result, these calls made using soundboards are subject to TCPA restrictions. In light of these changes, we encourage business callers to carefully assess how they affect any existing calling protocols and compliance practices.

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FCC Proposed Rulemaking Presents an Opportunity to Reshape Some Existing TCPA Exemptions

Over the years, one of the biggest challenges many businesses face when assessing TCPA risks posed by a new calling or texting campaign has been determining whether the proposed use case can defensibly rely on one of the exemptions adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). That is because the FCC has repeatedly cautioned that any exemptions it adopts apply only to the specific set of facts considered by the agency. Sometimes the jigsaw puzzle pieces align, but other times they do not perfectly fit together, making exemptions less useful than they might otherwise be.

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The FCC Clarifies that Certain Communications to COVID-19 Patients Fall with TCPA’s “Emergency Purposes” Safe Harbor

In a Public Notice issued July 28, 2020, the FCC confirmed that the TCPA’s safe harbor for calls or text messages made for “emergency purposes” applies to calls and text messages made by or on behalf of health care entities to communicate with individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 to provide them with information regarding donating their plasma after recovery. As a result, in the FCC’s view, such calls or text messages during the ongoing pandemic do not require prior express consent to be lawful. Continue reading   »

FCC Affirms that Health Plans and Providers Cannot Offer Post-Call Opt-Out in Lieu of “Prior Express Consent”

The FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau last week issued a declaratory ruling resolving a long-pending Petition on the question of whether certain healthcare-related calls, given their significance and value for consumers, should be entirely exempted from the TCPA’s prior express consent requirement, or at least exempted as long as consumers are allowed to opt out of the calls. The Bureau declined the petitioner’s invitation to create new healthcare exemptions or expand the scope of exemptions already in place for certain types of health-care-related calls.

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FCC Issues Ruling Applying TCPA’s “Emergency Purposes Exception” To Calls Addressing Health and Safety Risks Arising Out Of COVID-19 Pandemic

Acknowledging that “effective communications with the American public” is “a critical component” to efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released on its own motion, a declaratory ruling on March 20, 2020, addressing the applicability of the “emergency purposes” exception to the TCPA’s prohibition against making automated and prerecorded calls without prior express consent. This declaratory ruling is meant to provide “hospitals, health care providers, state and local health officials, and other government officials” peace of mind when sending important COVID-19 information through automated calls or texts.

As readers of the blog are well aware, the TCPA contains an exception to its consent requirements for calls made for “emergency purposes.” 47 U.S.C. §§ 227(b)(1)(A)-(B). The FCC’s rules define “emergency purposes” to mean “calls made necessary in any situation affecting the health and safety of consumers.” 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(f)(4). The FCC’s declaratory ruling officially acknowledges the undeniable point that the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes an “emergency” under the TCPA. Earlier this month, on March 13, 2020, the White House declared a national emergency in light of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. As of March 20, 2020, all fifty states and the District of Columbia had declared states of emergency, which have led to many cities closing schools, workplaces, parks, restaurants, and houses of worship. Public safety organizations and institutions providing healthcare services, in particular, are changing modes of operation and means of handling some public-facing tasks. For example, many health care clinics have broadened their telemedicine programs or have begun conducting new patient intake “virtually” to triage patients with flu-like symptoms. These changes need to be communicated to existing and prospective patients in a timely manner on a large scale.

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