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The Time Is Now To Fix Medicare ACOs


March 27th, 2015

This past January 20th, the Department of Health And Human Services established national Medicare pay-for-value goals. By 2016, the Department intends to tie 30 percent of Medicare payments, and by 2018 50 percent of payments, to quality or value through alternative payment models. Medicare Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) are expected to make a significant contribution toward meeting these goals. With current ACOs accounting for 7.8 million beneficiaries and 15 percent of Medicare spending, it will be essential for the current 405 ACOs to stay in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) through 2016, and for a substantial number of new ACOs to join the program.

However, common concerns about the MSSP became apparent a year ago when stakeholders submitted comment letters in response to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ “Evolution of ACO Initiatives at CMS” RFI (Request for Information). These concerns were reinforced last July after CMS announced proposed changes to ACO quality measure set and quality performance benchmarking, and again in November when the National Association of ACOs reported survey data showing nearly two-thirds of member ACOs would leave the program unless substantial improvements were made.

Recognizing these concerns, this past December CMS published a proposed rule offering many possible improvements to the Shared Savings Program. Public comments were due February 6th. CMS now has the opportunity to use stakeholder input to redesign the program in a way that will allow ACO providers to drive payment and delivery reform and thereby enable DHHS to meet its newly established pay-for-value goals.

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A Check-Up On Dental Coverage And The ACA


March 24th, 2015

Oral health is an important but often overlooked part of health and insurance coverage. State Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) are required to cover children’s dental services (and children’s access to care has been improving over the last ten years), but coverage for adults is optional. As noted in a recent Health Affairs GrantWatch Blog post, only about 15 states offer extensive coverage for adult dental services in Medicaid.

Medicare does not cover most dental services. And most private dental coverage is offered through stand-alone dental products that are separate from medical plans. Overall, this has resulted in more than 2.5 times as many Americans going without dental coverage as medical coverage.

Inadequate access to dental care is costly. Many low-income individuals turn to the emergency department as their primary and only source of care for oral health needs. The American Dental Association estimates that emergency room visits for avoidable oral health-related visits cost the U.S. health care system as much as two billion dollars per year. A recent Narrative Matters feature in Health Affairs (“Navigating Veronika”) highlighted the steep barriers that low-income individuals can face in navigating the dental safety net and finding a provider who will treat them, even when Medicaid covers the costs of care.

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Implementing Health Reform: Medicaid & CHIP Enrollment; Tax Forms; And SEP (March 30 Update, IPAB Challenge Dismissal)


March 22nd, 2015

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a number of items to close out the week on March 20, 2015.  First, CMS released the January 2015 Medicaid and CHIP Monthly Applications, Eligibility Determinations, and Enrollment Report.  (CMS blog post,  one pager)  The 50 states and the District of Columbia reported nearly 70 million enrollees in comprehensive Medicaid and CHIP programs as of the last day of the month.

Second, CMS and the Internal Revenue Service released updates regarding the issuance of corrected 1095-A forms.  The 1095-As are the forms that exchanges are providing to individuals who received premium tax credits for 2014; they are supposed to help individuals reconcile the advance premium tax credits they received for 2014 with the tax credits they should have received.

Finally, CMS has further clarified eligibility requirements for the special enrollment period (SEP) for people who owe an individual responsibility fee for 2014.

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What Kind Of Advance Care Planning Should CMS Pay For?


March 19th, 2015

Currently, Medicare does not offer a paid benefit for advance care planning (ACP). As a result, health care providers who want to assist Medicare enrollees with ACP do so voluntarily and neither they, nor their institutions, are compensated for their time and efforts. This is not only an unfair expectation on individual practitioners or health institutions, it is also medically and ethically unsound. Fortunately, two recent events have the potential to reshape the landscape of advance care planning in the U.S.

Cultural And Policy Evolution In Advance Care Planning

On September 17, 2014, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) published Dying in America: Improving Quality and Honoring Individual Preferences Near the End of Life. The report is built on two basic premises:

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Moving In Reverse? Potential Coverage Impacts For Children Of King v. Burwell, Medicaid And CHIP Eligibility Changes


March 17th, 2015

Over the last three decades, the US has taken important steps to reduce financial barriers to health insurance coverage for low and moderate-income children. These steps began with the Medicaid expansions for children in the 1980s and early 1990s, which were followed by the creation of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in 1997. Most recently, Congress reauthorized CHIP in 2009 and enacted the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010.

This commitment to children has resulted in substantial increases in coverage. The uninsured rate among children decreased from 15.0 percent in 1989 to 6.6 percent in 2012 (Exhibit 1).

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Implementing Health Reform: Wraparound Benefits Final Rule; Coverage Report (Revised)


March 17th, 2015

With open enrollment closed for 2015 and the Departments having finalized the Benefit and Payment Parameters Rule and Letter to Issuers for 2016, we have entered the Spring Affordable Care Act regulatory doldrums.  Reports, minor regulations, guidances, and court decisions continue to appear, however.  Two appeared on March 16.  This post addresses the final wraparound coverage excepted benefits rule, and a report on health insurance coverage and the ACA (technical appendix here), both released on March 16, 2015.

The wraparound coverage rule creates a new category of excepted benefits.  The concept of excepted benefits was created by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 and is carried forward in the ACA.  Excepted benefits plans provide benefits that resemble in some way the health benefits that have been regulated by HIPAA and are now regulated by the ACA, but are more limited or are more tangential to medical care.  These include benefits that are not generally medical benefits but do afford some medical coverage (auto liability, workers’ compensation); health coverage that is not medical coverage (dental, vision, long-term care); benefits that are not coordinated with medical benefits (specific disease coverage, fixed dollar indemnity coverage); and coverage that is supplemental to medical coverage (such as Medicare supplement policies).  Additional specific conditions must be met for some of these benefits to qualify as excepted benefits.

Excepted benefits are generally not subject to Affordable Care Act requirements, such as the ban on dollar coverage limits or preexisting conditions clauses.  But excepted benefit coverage explicitly does not qualify as minimum essential coverage.  An individual who has only excepted benefit coverage and does not qualify for a shared responsibility requirement exception must still pay the individual mandate penalty.  Large employers that offer only excepted benefits may have to pay the employer responsibility penalty, but individuals offered only excepted benefits by their employers are not disqualified from receiving premium tax credits to purchase individual coverage through the marketplaces.

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Physician Aid In Dying: Whither Legalization After Brittany Maynard?


March 12th, 2015

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series stemming from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015. The conference brought together leading experts to review major developments in health law over the previous year, and preview what is to come. A full agenda and links to video recordings of the panels are here.

Brittany Maynard’s highly publicized decision to end her life under Oregon’s Death With Dignity law has given a new face to the American right to die movement. It is that of a young, attractive, athletic newlywed, who would not have considered herself as having a stake in the movement until the day she learned a brain tumor was the cause of her severe headaches. She was terminally ill and faced a future of six months of increasing pain, debilitation, and severe seizures before dying.

A video of Maynard’s story produced by the non-profit advocacy organization Compassion and Choices has reached many millions of viewers. Extended coverage of her decision-making process by People Magazine resulted in record numbers of hits to the publication’s website. During her illness, Maynard moved from California to Oregon and on November 1, 2014 took barbiturates to end her life. In her memory, her husband and mother have become prominent activists in the effort to legalize physician aid-in-dying (PAD).

Is all of this likely to advance the PAD movement and, if so, through what legal processes?

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Implementing Health Reform: March Enrollment Report Provides Income Data (Updated)


March 11th, 2015

On March 10, 2015, the HHS Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) released the Health Insurance Marketplaces 2015 Open Enrollment Period March Enrollment Report.  The report covers open enrollment activity through February 22, 2015; it contains a wealth of data on 2015 marketplace enrollment, including for the first time enrollee income data that provides some useful insights (discussed in more detail below).

The headlines of the report are old news.  Nearly 11.7 million Americans selected or were automatically enrolled in health plans through the marketplaces during the 2015 open enrollment period, including 8.84 million through the exchanges that use healthcare.gov.  Of these, 4.6 million were new consumers, 2.2 million actively reenrolled , and nearly 2 million were automatically reenrolled.  Nearly 2.85 million people selected plans or were automatically enrolled through state exchanges that used their own marketplace platforms.

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Reconciling Prevention And Value In The Health Care System


March 11th, 2015

The term ‘value’ (commonly defined as health improvements attained per dollar spent) has become ubiquitous in discussions around improving the health care system. Increasingly, payers are adopting value-based purchasing programs (paying more for higher value care) and providing benefits that follow the principles of value-based insurance design (aligning patient cost-sharing with the value of the service). These programs typically focus on services widely regarded as relatively low-cost and clinically effective, such as beta-blockers prescribed for patients following a myocardial infarction (i.e. heart attack).

Simultaneously, there is widespread enthusiasm for the increased use of preventive services. The Patient Protection and Affordable Act (ACA) mandates the elimination of consumer cost sharing for selected preventive services in marketplace plans and many other individual health plans. A particular subset of plans, High-Deductible Health Plans with Health Savings Accounts (HSA-HDHPs) can cover certain preventive services—but not other services—before the deductible, a minimum of $1,250 for an individual and $2,500 for a family, is met.

Generally, policies supporting prevention and value are consistent. Many (not all) preventive services do provide considerable value. Yet as with value, there are nuances in the definition of prevention that can lead to suboptimal policy choices. Specifically, most policy related to prevention defines preventive services as those delivered to asymptomatic individuals.

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Implementing Health Reform: Supreme Court Remands Contraceptive Case; ACA Cost Estimates Go Lower


March 10th, 2015

On March 9, 2015, the Supreme Court waded once again into the waters of the Affordable Care Act, or at least got its toes wet.  The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Notre Dame v. Burwell, vacated the decision of the federal Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of Hobby Lobby v. Burwell.  Both Hobby Lobby and Notre Dame, of course, involve the regulations that require health plans and insurers to provide contraceptive services to female employees and students.

Also on March 9, 2015, the Congressional Budget Office issued its March, 2015 baseline report.  The CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) now project that the major insurance provisions of the ACA will cost $1.2 trillion over the period 2016-2025, $144 billion less than it projected in January, 2015.  Current projections for the years 2015-2019 are over $200 billion less than costs projected in 2010 when the law was adopted, while projected costs for 2019 are $56 billion, or 33 percent, lower.  The CBO also projects, however, that the ACA will reduce the number of uninsured by 25 million by 2025 rather than the 27 million it had projected in January.

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Who Authored Obamacare’s Exchanges? King v. Burwell And Justice Kagan’s Law Clerks


March 6th, 2015

Editor’s note: Watch Health Affairs Blog for more posts on King v. Burwell and the Supreme Court oral arguments in the case by Tim Jost, Grace-Marie Turner, Sara Rosenbaum, Bill Sage, and others.

Despite all the media hubbub and intense scrutiny, we didn’t learn all that much from the oral argument in King v. Burwell. The four liberal justices—Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan—clearly believe that an exchange established “for” or “in” a state by the federal government is the same as an exchange “established by the state” (or at least that it’s ambiguous and the tie goes to the IRS). Justices Scalia and Alito—and presumably the silent Thomas—equally believe that words mean what they say.

So the case, as expected, turns on the views of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy, who gave very little away. Indeed, I’ve never seen John Roberts so quiet at an oral argument—holding his cards so close that they risk being permanently imprinted on his vest—while Anthony Kennedy was characteristically inscrutable. In other words, 4-3 in the government’s favor with two wild cards.

That’s exactly what everyone knew going into the argument, and 85 minutes later if anyone tried to tell you that they knew what the outcome would be, they were engaging in spin or wishful thinking. To put an even finer point on it: whichever side you thought had the better chance of winning, downgrade your expectations to 50-50.

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Four Words Or 17 Syllables: Predicting King v. Burwell In Haiku


March 5th, 2015

Editor’s note: Watch Health Affairs Blog for more posts on King v. Burwell and the Supreme Court oral arguments in the case by Tim Jost, Grace-Marie Turner, Sara Rosenbaum, and others.

The resolution of King v. Burwell boils down to a simple point. A majority of the Supreme Court is willing to interpret the language of the Affordable Care Act. It is unwilling to rewrite that language.

It is all about four words: Whether “established by the state” in one section of the ponderously long, hastily passed health reform law renders low-income residents of states that have not created their own insurance exchanges but participate in federal exchanges ineligible for federal tax credits. If this is indeed the law, many middle-class families will be unable to afford coverage, residents of states that rely on federal exchanges will pay billions to the IRS for the benefit of those living elsewhere, premiums in those exchanges will rise as enrollment of healthy individuals drops, and the ACA will be unable to achieve its undisputed core purpose of health insurance for all Americans.

In contrast to the media cacophony leading up to yesterday’s hearing in the Supreme Court, the oral arguments themselves were clear and lawyerly. They were also undramatic. Most of the Justices knew where they stood, forcing plaintiff’s counsel Michael Carvin – who spoke first – to hear answers from the bench more often than he was asked actual questions. The Court’s willingness to listen had increased by the time Solicitor General Donald Verrilli took the podium on behalf of the government, and he proved himself an organized and articulate presenter. The only jurists not revealing their positions were Justice Kennedy, who challenged both lawyers on several points, and Chief Justice Roberts, who said little except to maintain order and decorum. (Justice Thomas famously refrains from participating in oral argument, but usually votes with Justice Scalia.)

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King v. Burwell: Finding A Path Forward After An Executive Overreach


March 5th, 2015

Editor’s note: Watch Health Affairs Blog for more posts on King v. Burwell and the Supreme Court oral arguments in the case by Tim Jost and others.

The Supreme Court justices had a lively discussion today during arguments in King v. Burwell about who Congress intended to get health insurance subsidies and under what conditions.

The central question is whether the Internal Revenue Service had the authority to write a rule authorizing subsidies to go to millions of people in the 37 states now operating under federal exchanges.

The plaintiffs say the language of the law is clear:  Subsidies are allowed in “an Exchange established by the State under [section] 1311of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.” It doesn’t just say this once, but nine times in various linguistic forms.

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King v. Burwell: Unpacking The Supreme Court Oral Arguments


March 5th, 2015

Editor’s note: Watch Health Affairs Blog for more posts by Grace-Marie Turner and others on King v. Burwell and the Supreme Court oral arguments in the case.

One March 4, 2015, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in King v. Burwell.  As every reader of this Blog knows, the issue in the case is whether the Internal Revenue Service rule that allows the federally facilitated marketplaces to grant premium tax credits is valid.

If it is not, millions of individuals in the 34 states served by the FFMs will lose their tax credits.  Without the credits, they will no longer be able to afford health insurance.  The cost of insurance to those remaining in the nongroup market will rise precipitously, causing even more Americans to lose coverage.  As the number of uninsured increases, providers will bear an increased burden of uncompensated care.  A decision for the plaintiffs, that is, will be disaster for the American health care system.

The challengers argue that this is a result Congress intended.  They contend that the subsection of the Affordable Care Act dealing with the calculation of premium tax credits limits the credits to individuals enrolled in an “Exchange established by the State.”  The government argues that this is a term of art — that Congress intended this phrase to include the federally facilitated exchanges that the ACA requires the Department of Health and Human Services to create as a fallback where the states elect not to operate their own exchange.  Dozens of other provisions of the ACA support the government’s position.

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Health Affairs’ March Issue: The Benefits And Limitations Of Information


March 2nd, 2015

The March issue of Health Affairs contains papers focusing on the benefits—and the limitations—of information-gathering processes as a way to solve health system problems. Studies in this variety issue examine US hospital rating systems, disclaimers on dietary supplements, state prescription drug monitoring programs, the value of US versus Western European cancer care and other topics.

National hospital rating systems show little agreement — what’s a consumer to do?

Matt Austin of Johns Hopkins Medicine and coauthors compared four well-known national hospital rating systems designed for use by US consumers: U.S. News & World Report’s Best Hospitals; HealthGrades’ America’s 100 Best Hospitals; Leapfrog’s Hospital Safety Score; and Consumer Reports’ Health Safety Score. They analyzed ratings covering the time period from July 2012 to July 2013.

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How Many Americans Will Lose Coverage If The Supreme Court Kills The ACA Tax Credits?


March 2nd, 2015

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court is slated to hear King v. Burwell, a case that challenges the authority of the federal government to provide tax credits and other financial assistance to people who buy Affordable Care Act (ACA) coverage through the federal health insurance marketplace. The federal government runs the health insurance marketplace in 34 states where states chose not to set up a state-based exchange.

Estimates on how many people could lose tax credits in these 34 states vary widely from 4.5 million to 13 million. After talking to executives and lobbyists for health care related entities in 20 of the 34 states affected, I believe that about 6.5 million people who have tax credits in 2015 will lose them. The difference in these numbers will be important to policymakers, since politicians are likely to make decisions on how to respond to a Court ruling based on the actual number of their constituents who are receiving tax credits or other support.

In addition, the impact of a Court ruling will be affected by state action. Some observers have questioned whether states will set up exchanges if the Court eliminates tax credits from the federal exchange. These observers have said that establishing a state exchange is costly and time consuming and that most federal exchange states will not take this step. I argue in the following post that setting up a state exchange could be easy and inexpensive if the federal exchange operations are used.

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State Expectations: Setting The Record Straight In King v. Burwell


February 25th, 2015

On Wednesday, March 4th, the Supreme Court will hear the latest attack on the Affordable Care Act (ACA): the case King v. Burwell. The King petitioners allege that the Internal Revenue Service overstepped its authority by issuing regulations authorizing residents of states with federally run exchanges to access premium tax credits. The petitioners claim that Congress intentionally limited access to premium tax credits to residents of state-based exchanges as a way to encourage states to run their own exchanges.

In support, some state officials claim that they interpreted the law in this manner and that it impacted their state’s decision not to operate a state-run exchange. These assertions, like their analysis of the statutory language, fall flat under any serious scrutiny, however.

Between October 2012 and March 2013, with the support of the Commonwealth Fund, the Center on Health Insurance Reforms (CHIR) conducted a comprehensive review of publicly available information in 50 states pertaining to their decisions to operate either a state or federally run exchange.

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Implementing Health Reform: Beginning The Cadillac Tax Regulatory Conversation And Other ACA News (Updated)


February 24th, 2015

The Cadillac high-cost health plan excise tax, which goes into effect in 2018, is one of the last-to-be-implemented provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It was one of the most controversial provisions of the ACA, which contributed to its delayed effective date. But 2018 is now getting closer, and the Internal Revenue Services (IRS) is beginning a discussion about implementation of the Cadillac plan tax.

The Cadillac plan provision of the ACA will impose a 40 percent excise tax on the cost of employer-sponsored health plans when that cost exceeds certain thresholds. It is projected to be one of the biggest sources of revenue under the ACA; the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in its 2015 Budget and Economic Outlook Report estimated that it would account for $149 billion in revenue between 2018 and 2225. Of this, however, only one quarter will come from the tax itself, while three quarters will come from increases in taxes on income as employers shift compensation from health benefits to taxable wages.

While the tax will affect few plans initially, it is likely to affect many more plans over time as the cost of health care continues to grow faster than inflation generally. The tax is expected to reduce health care expenditures by individuals, as it will drive employers to increase employee cost sharing as they cut the cost of coverage, and employees are likely to spend less on health care if they have to purchase it out-of-pocket rather than drawing on insurance coverage.

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Implementing Health Reform: New Enrollment Opportunity For Those Subject To 2014 Penalty


February 20th, 2015

In our Health Affairs Blog post of November 7, 2014, Brian Haile and I recommended that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) create a special enrollment period to allow individuals who had to pay the individual responsibility penalty for being uninsured for 2014 to enroll in coverage for 2015 so that they would not have to pay a higher penalty for being uninsured for 2015. Other advocates subsequently joined in this call. On February 20, 2015, HHS announced that it is creating such a special enrollment period.

The special enrollment period will run from March 15 to April 30, 2015 and will allow individuals who live in states served by the federally facilitated marketplace website, Healthcare.gov, to enroll in coverage for 2015 if they:

  • Are not currently enrolled in coverage through the Federally Facilitated Marketplace (FFM) for 2015;
  • Attest that when they filed their 2014 tax return they paid the fee for not having coverage in 2014; and
  • Attest that “they first became aware of, or understood the implications of, the Shared Responsibility Payment after the end of open enrollment (February 15, 2014) in connection with preparing their 2014 taxes.”

Coverage will be effective on the first day of May for those who enroll by April 15 and the first day of June for those who enroll thereafter. Individuals who apply will have to pay the penalty for months they were uninsured in 2015 unless they otherwise qualify for an exemption. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has also launched a new online tool to help consumers determine who might otherwise be subject to the penalty to see if they are covered by another exemption.

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HHS Proposed Policy On Non-Discrimination: Does It Adequately Protect Children?


February 19th, 2015

On November 26, 2014, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published a proposed 2016 Notice of Benefits and Payment Parameters, an omnibus regulation published annually that sets “rules of the road” for the administration of federally regulated insurance plans. Among other matters, this year’s Notice contained a discussion of non-discrimination in coverage.

The concept of non-discrimination in coverage is a basic tenet health plans subject to the Affordable Care Act (ACA)’s “essential health benefit” requirements applicable to non-grandfathered health plans sold in the individual and small group markets (42 U.S.C. §18022, added by PPACA §1302). The non-discrimination standard is a watershed in U.S. law that extends the reach of prior federal civil rights laws and regulates the design, content, and administration of health insurance including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975.

In accordance with its provisions, the HHS Secretary is barred from “mak[ing] coverage decisions, determin[ing] reimbursement rates, establish[ing] incentive programs, or design[ing] benefits that discriminate against individuals because of their age, disability, or expected length of life,” (42 U.S.C. §18022(b)(4)(B)). The provision further requires the Secretary to “take into account” the health needs of “diverse segments of the population including women, children, persons with disabilities, and other groups,” (42 U.S.C. §18022(b)(4)(C)).

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