NC MCOs and Consolidation: “When the Music Stops? Nobody Knows!”

Our General Assembly is pushing for the managed care organizations (MCOs) to consolidate and/or morph.  Consolidating the MCOs makes fiscal sense for our state, but if I were executive management at an MCO, I would be be anxiously awaiting direction from our General Assembly.  A metaphoric 3-4 chair game of”Musical Chairs” is proceeding with 9 (now 8) players.  Five to six players will have no chairs when the music stops.

What are MCOs?  See blog and blog.

Multiple bills have been proposed.

Senate Bill 703 proposes 3 statewide MCOs. Senate Bill 574 seems to incorporate provider-led capitated health plans, but is unclear as to the exact model. Senate Bill 696 seems to create a symphony of provider-led and nonprovider-led, risk-based entities. Senate Bill 568 contemplates licensed commercial health insurers offering health care plans.

No one really knows how many MCOs will remain in the end…if any. Regardless, what the number of existing MCOs in the future will be, there is little dispute that the number will be fewer than the number of MCOs that exist now.

In an atmosphere where there is supposition that there are too many people or companies and that only a few will remain, competition brews. People/companies are forced to strategize if they want to survive.

Think about the childhood game, “Musical Chairs.” You start with a large group of people, but with one less chair than the number of people. The music plays and the players meander around at a relatively slow pace, around and around, until the music stops. And what happens when the music stops? The people scramble for a chair.  The person left standing is “out” and must sit on the sideline.

We have 9, soon to be 8, MCOs in NC right now. And the music is playing. But which MCOs will be left standing when the music stops?

Here is a map of our current MCOs:

2014 mco

 

As of July 1, CoastalCare and East Carolina Behavioral Healthcare (ECBH) will be merged. We will be down to 8 MCOs. Which means that the light blue on the bottom right hand side of the map will merge with the bright yellow on top right hand side of the map.

Mecklenburg county, which houses most of the Charlotte area, was not always light purple. It recently merged with Cardinal Innovations.

Partners (light yellow) and Smokey Mountain (dark blue) had serious discussions of a merger until, recently, when both walked away from negotiations of merger.

Why should it matter which MCOs are in existence or how many? Theoretically, it shouldn’t. These MCOs are created in order to manage behavioral health care (Medicaid services for those suffering from substance abuse, mental illness, and developmentally disabled), not to make a profit, right? The only issue of importance should be that medically necessary behavioral health care services are rendered to Medicaid recipients in the most efficient and most effective manner.

Yet competing interests come into play.

Think about it…each MCO employs hundreds of people. Each MCO has a CEO, who is not working for free. Generally, unless other arrangements have been negotiated, there can only be one CEO per MCO. When there are 2+ MCOs merging with 2 CEOs and only 1 “chair” for 1 CEO, it can seem like “Musical Chairs.” Multiple people are vying for one “chair.”

The money at issue for behavioral health care in NC is not a small amount. It is likened to a fire hose spouting money. We have a Medicaid budget in NC of approximately 14 billion dollars. To put it in perspective, with $14 billion dollars, you could purchase the LA Lakers 14 times. This is how much money we spend on Medicaid every year. It is really quite staggering when you think about it.

As every North Carolinian learns in the 6th grade, North Carolina is composed of 100 counties. The estimated Medicaid budget of $14 billion is allocated across 100 counties and among approximately 1.9 million Medicaid recipients.

When it was decided to implement the MCOs across the state, about 2012-ish (we actually obtained permission from CMS for the waiver years prior to 2012, but we began with a pilot and did not implement the MCOs statewide until 2012-13), we found ourselves, initially, with eleven MCOs, and now we have 9…soon to be 8.

The newly merged entity of CoastalCare and ECBH (CC+ECBH) will manage state funds and Medicaid dollars for behavioral health services across 24 counties in eastern North Carolina. In other words almost ¼ of the Medicaid budget will be handed to CC+ECBH, leaving approximately ¾ of the Medicaid budget for 7 other MCOs (the budget is determined by number of recipients, so I am assuming, for the purpose of this blog, that more counties mean more people).

The amount of counties controlled by the remaining 7 MCOs are as follows:

Smokey: 23
Partners: 8
Centerpointe: 4
Cardinal: 16
Sandhills: 9
Eastpointe: 12
Alliance: 4

chart for mcos

Looking at the chart above, it would appear that Smoky and CC+ECBH will manage almost 1/2 the state’s behavioral health care for Medicaid.

Prior to the 1915 b/c Waiver allowing the MCOs to manage behavioral services for Medicaid recipients in NC, DHHS managed it. (Obviously ValueOptions and other vendors had a part in it, but not with actual management).  As the single state agency for Medicaid, DHHS cannot delegate administrative duties to contracted parties without a “Waiver,” or permission for an exception from the federal government, or, more specifically, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Prior to the 1915 b/c Waiver, we did not have 9 companies with hundreds of employees managing behavioral health care for Medicaid recipients. We had DHHS, which employs approximately 18,000 employees.  To my knowledge DHHS did not terminate those employees who were in charge of behavioral health care issues in order to compensate the creation of new companies/employees.  In other words, say 1000 people at DHHS devoted their time to issues arising our of behavioral health care. Once we had an additional 9 (well, 11, at first), those 1000 employees were not asked to join the MCOs. Maybe some did, but, to my knowledge, there was no suggestion or incentive or requirement to leave DHHS and go to an MCO (to shift the administrative burden).

When we created an additional 9 (well, 11 at first) companies to, essentially, take over behavioral health care…

We created more administrative costs, in order to lift the risk of overspending the Medicaid budget off the state.  It is estimated that America wastes $190 billion in excess administrative costs per year.

Waste in health care

In theory, consolidating the MCOs would decrease administrative costs by having fewer paid employees, not dissimilar to why MCOs want a closed network.  See blog. Again, in theory, having fewer MCOs may create a more consistent statewide manner in managing behavioral health care.

Assume for the purpose of this blog that each MCO employs 100 people (which is a very low number) and each employee is paid $50,000, then the administrative cost associated with delegating behavioral health care to MCOs equals $500,000, counting only employee salaries. Multiple that number by 9 (number of current MCOs) and you get an increased administrative cost of approximately $4.5 million dollars per year, not counting the additional overhead each MCO bears (rent/mortgage, equipment, salary benefits, health care benefits, etc.). Plus you have to include the top management’s salaries, because you know the executives are receiving more than $50,000/year.

What motivated us to implement a MCOs system? With an MCO system, the General Assembly is able to allocate funds for Medicaid and place the risk of going over the budget on the MCOs, not the state. This is a completely understandable and reasonable objective. It is without question that the Medicaid budget is swelling to the point of unsustainability.

However, are we trading “control/supervision” for “knowability?” Are we also trading “risk” for “higher administrative costs,” which, in turn, equals less Medicaid dollars for providers and Medicaid recipients? Every dollar paid to an MCO employee is a dollar not going to a health care provider to reimburse for services.

For these reasons, the government’s push for consolidation of the MCOs is astute. Fewer MCOs = less administrative costs. Fewer MCOs = easier supervision by DHHS.

Less administrative costs = more Medicaid dollars going to providers…to serve our most needy. Because, at the end of the day, the most important issue when it comes to Medicaid is providing quality care for recipients.

It is no matter which entity controls/manages behavioral health care for Medicaid, because regardless the entity, that entity should be managing our tax dollars in the most efficient way that provides the best quality to services to those in need.

“Around and around we go, when we stop? Nobody knows…”  But we do know this…when the music stops, there will be scrambling!

About kemanuel

Medicare and Medicaid Regulatory Compliance Litigator

Posted on April 20, 2015, in "Single State Agency", 1915 b/c Waiver, Access to Care, Accountability, Accountable Care Organizations, Agency, Aldona Wos, Alliance, Budget, CMS, Decrease in Medicaid Spending, DHHS, Division of Medical Assistance, EastPointe, ECBH, Health Care Providers and Services, Legal Analysis, Managed Care, MCO, MeckLINK, Medicaid, Medicaid Advocate, Medicaid Attorney, Medicaid Costs, Medicaid Funds, Medicaid Providers, Medicaid Reform, Medicaid Services, Medicaid Spending, Mental Health, Mental Health Problems, Mental Illness, NC, North Carolina, Partners, Provider Medicaid Contracts, Sandhills, State Budget, Tax Dollars, Taxes, Taxpayers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Too Funny !! Fact check though. When the LMEs merged they kept all three CEOs, CFOs, Top Management, and hired 100 – 200 more staff each to do Care Coordination, authorizations for services, monitoring, credentialing, etc. Not acting like private MCOs. We do a sharply increased admin burden on Plans of Corrections for any missed paper date, back up staffing reports, Incident reporting, ad nauseum. New computer systems to aggravate billing folks and increase bad debt write-off for the pleasure of going through this downsizing process.

    • Fred,

      Downsizing how? You mean the people who no longer have jobs due to mergers? When you say you do a sharply increased admin burden on Plans of Correction, what do you mean? On the MCO side or provider side?

  2. Knicole, got to ask a couple of questions here. You say in your blog that ECBH+CC (actually to bka “Trilium”) could inherit about 1/4 of a $14b budget based on the number of counties, isn’t the allocation of funds actually by Population? Trilium’s 24 counties actually represent only about 13% of the population in NC, based on the numbers in the state map.
    Also as to the bar chart from the Inst of Medicine, is that for ALL healthcare, and not just Medicaid-funded healthcare? is their $ amount for fraud, the actual measured cost, or like all the other five figures, merely an estimate?
    Just askin.

    • Ron,

      You are correct that the budget is based on population, not sheer size. I was using the # of counties only as demonstrative evidence. The bar chart from the Inst of Med is for all health care. Thanks for asking!!!

  3. Geoffrey Zeger

    Has anyone started a pool? You know – everyone throws 5 bucks into a hat, guesses the names of the final 3 and the date of implementation, and whoever comes closest wins the whole pot! If so, I want in!

  4. 50k times 100= 5 million not 500k so even more absurd

    • Erica, Thank you! I have never purported to be great at math. That’s why I’m an attorney. Lol. :). But you are correct. Even more absurd. You should ask for a public records request to inquire how many tax dollars are spent on MCO employees’ salaries and health benefits.

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