Category Archives: Accountable Care Organizations

Medicare ACOs: Too Much Risk, Too Quickly?

As seen on RACMonitor.

More than a third of ACOs might leave if the proposed rule takes effect.

The comment period closed for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) proposed rule on Oct. 16. The MSSP has been a controversial program since its inception. The chief concern is that the financial “dis-incentives” will decrease the number of Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). The proposed rule for MSSP intensifies the financial “dis-incentives,” causing even more concern about the number of ACOs.

What is the Medicare Shared Savings Program? It is a voluntary program that is supposed to encourage groups of doctors, hospitals, and other healthcare providers to come together as ACOs to give coordinated, high-quality care to their Medicare patients. Providers can choose among three distinctive tracks, depending on the amount of risk the providers want to bear. The purpose of the MSSP is to diversify risk – of both loss and gain – between the government and the ACOs. For example, Track 1 ACOs do not assume downside risk (shared losses) if they do not lower growth in Medicare expenditures.

CMS created the MSSP in hopes that doctors, hospitals, and other healthcare providers would want to participate, with the incentive of the chance to make more money, rather than remaining in the traditional Medicare relationship. The program turned out to be more successful than anticipated, with the majority of ACOs opting to become Track 1, or the least risky model (one-sided risk).

CMS’s new proposed rule, however, increases the risk placed on the ACOs. Needless to say, providers aren’t happy, and many ACOs in the program warn that they’ll drop out if CMS finalizes its proposal as is.

What are these proposed changes to the MSSP?

Restricting Track 1 Enrollment

ACOs currently have six years to shift to a risk-bearing model from a shared savings-only model (Track 1). The proposed rule would give existing ACOs one year and new ACOs two years to transfer to a risk-bearing model. This one change could cause mass exodus from the MSSP, as many providers are, by nature, risk-averse.

Morphing to Five-Year Agreement Periods

The proposed rule requires CMS and the ACOs to morph into using five-year agreement periods. I am on the fence regarding this change. It could strengthen ACOs’ incentives to reduce spending by breaking the link between ACOs’ performance in the first two years of each agreement period and their future benchmarks. However, this modification could worsen incentives during the first two years of each agreement period. I would love to hear your opinions.

Slashing Shared Savings Rates

The proposed rule purports to slash shared savings rates for upside-risk models from 50 percent to as low as 25 percent. Under the one-sided model years of the glide path, an ACO’s maximum shared savings rate would be 25 percent, based on quality performance, applicable to first-dollar shared savings after the ACO meets the minimum savings rate. The glide path concludes with a maximum 50 percent sharing rate, based on quality performance, and a maximum level of risk, which qualifies a provider as an Advanced APM for purposes of the Quality Payment Program.

Other proposed changes include the following:

  • A bifurcated system for high- and low-revenue ACOs, which functionally would penalize certain ACOs for the size of their patient populations and volume of services.
  • A differential system for experienced versus inexperienced ACOs, which would allow experienced ACOs to choose from a more robust menu of participation options.
  • Dis-incentives to lower spending: ACOs have had little incentive to lower spending because of the link between the spending reductions they achieve and subsequent benchmarks. One could argue that it is astonishing that the MSSP has produced any savings at all. CMS proposes that the MSSP needs to be re-vamped.
  • A modified and more rigorous application review process to screen for good standing among ACOs seeking to renew or re-enter MSSP after termination or expiration of their previous agreement. ACOs in two-sided models would be held accountable for partial-year losses if either the ACO or CMS terminates the agreement during a performance year.

Will there be too much risk too quickly placed on the ACOs? Stay tuned for whether this proposed rule becomes finalized.

The Courts Order Medicare to Stop Recouping Alleged Overpayments Without Due Process!

New case law supports due process for Medicare providers. As first seen on RACMonitor.

Due process is one of the cornerstones of our society. Due process is the universal guarantee and found in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides “No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and is applied to all states by the 14th Amendment. From this basic principle flows many legal decisions determining both procedural and substantive rights.

For Medicare and Medicaid providers, however, due process, in the past, has been nonexistent. Imagine that you are accused of owing $5 million to the government. Perhaps it was a CPT® code error. You disagree. You believe that your documentation was proper and that you filed for reimbursement correctly. You appeal the decision that you owe $5 million. You continue conducting business as normal. Suddenly, you realize the government is recouping the $5 million now. Prior to any hearing before a judge. You haven’t been found guilty. What happened to innocent until proven guilty? What happened to due process?

For Medicare appeals there is a five-step appeal process. The law requires the government not to recoup during the first and second levels of appeal. But the first and second levels are jumping through hoops and are not normally successful. It is at the third level – the appeal to an impartial administrative judge – that the alleged recoupments are overturned.

After the second level, according to the black letter of the law, the government can begin recouping the alleged overpayment.

Sadly, in the past, the courts have held that it is proper for the government to recoup reimbursements after the second level. Even though, no hearing has been held before an impartial judge and you haven’t been found guilty of owing the money.

On Sept. 27, 2018, another U.S. District Court in South Carolina has agreed with courts in Texas by granting a provider’s request for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to prevent the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) from recouping monies until after Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearings have been held (Accident, Injury and Rehabilitation, PC, c/a No. 4:18-cv-02173, September 27, 2018).

A new trend in favor of providers seems to be arising. This is fantastic news for providers across the country!

Accident, Injury & Rehab, PC found that the ALJ stage of the appellate process is the most important for providers, as it provides the first opportunity for plaintiff to cross examine defendant’s witnesses and examine the evidence used to formulate the statistical sample. According to the American Hospital Association (AHA), 66 percent of Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) denials are reversed by an ALJ (I actually believe the percentage is higher). The court found that plaintiff’s procedural due process rights were violated by premature recoupment. The court granted Accident, Injury & Rehab, PC’s preliminary injunction restraining and enjoining the government from withholding Medicare payments during the appeal process.

When the government starts recouping filing a preliminary injunction has been shown it to be the best course.

In the past, most preliminary injunctions asking the court to order the government to stop recoupments until a hearing was held was dismissed based on jurisdiction. In other words, the courts held that the courts did not have the authority to render an opinion as to recoupments prior to a hearing. Now, however, the trend is turning, and courts are starting to rule in favor of the provider, finding a violation of procedural due process based on a collateral claim exception.

There are four criteria in order to win a preliminary injunction. A party seeking a preliminary injunction must establish all for the following criteria: (1) that the party is likely to succeed on the merits; (2) that the party is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary injunction; (3) that the balance of the equity tips in the party’s favor; and (4) that injunction is in the public interest.

There is an esoteric legal theory called exhaustion of administrative remedies. So jurisdiction is the question. There are exceptions to the judicial bar. The Supreme Court of United States articulated a collateral claim exception. The Supreme Court permitted a plaintiff to bring a procedural due process claim requesting an evidentiary area hearing before the termination of disability benefits. There are nonwaivable and waivable jurisdictional elements the nonwaivable requirement is that a claim must be presented to the administrative agency. The waivable requirement is that administrative remedies be exhausted.

The Collateral claim exception is when a party brings a claim in federal court when that “constitutional challenge is entirely collateral to its substantive claim of entitlement.”

The new trend in case law is that the courts are finding that the provider’s right to not undergo recoupment during the appeal process is a collateral issue as to the substantive issue of whether the provider owes the money. Therefore, the courts have found jurisdiction as to the collateral issue.

The proverbial ship has sailed. According to courts in Texas and now South Carolina, CMS cannot recoup monies prior to hearings before ALJs. Providers facing large recoupments should file TROs to prevent premature recoupments and to obtain due process.

Medicare and Medicaid in the News: An Overview

With so much news about Medicare and Medicaid, I decided to do a general update of Medicare and Medicaid in the news. To the best of my ability, I am trying not to put my own “spin” on the stories, but just relay what is happening. Besides, Hurricane Florence is coming, and we have to hunker down. FYI: There is no more water at Costco.

Here is an overview of current “hot topics” for Medicare and Medicaid:

Affordable Care Act

On September 5, 2018, attorneys argued in TX district court whether the Affordable Care Act should be repealed. The Republican attorneys, who want the ACA repealed will argue that the elimination of the tax penalty for failure to have health insurance rendered the entire law unconstitutional because the Supreme Court upheld the ACA in 2012 by saying its requirement to carry insurance was a legitimate use of Congress’ taxing power. We await the Court’s decision.

Patient Dumping

In Maine, two hospitals illegally turned away emergency room patients in mental health crises and sometimes had them arrested for trespassing. The hospitals are Central Maine Medical Center and St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, and they have promised to address and change these policies. It is likely that the hospitals will be facing penalties. Generally, turning away a patient from an ER is over $100,000 per violation.

Kickbacks

Six San Francisco Bay Area medical professionals have been indicted for an alleged kickback scheme in which three paid and three received kickbacks for healthcare referrals in home health.

Medicaid Work Requirements

In June, Arkansas became the first state to implement a work requirement into its Medicaid program. The guinea pig subjects for the work requirement were Medicaid expansion recipients aged 30-49, without children under the age of 18 in the home, did not have a disability, and who did not meet other exemption criteria. On a monthly basis, recipients must work, volunteer, go to school, search for work, or attend health education classes for a combined total of 80 hours and report the hours to the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) through an online portal. Recipients who do not report hours any three months out of the year lose Medicaid health coverage until the following calendar year. September 5th was the reporting deadline for the third month of the policy, making today the first time that recipients can lose Medicaid coverage as a result of the work requirement. There are 5,426 people who missed the first two reporting deadlines, which is over half of the group of 30-49 year olds subject to the policy beginning in June. If these enrollees do not do not log August hours or an exemption into the portal by September 5th, they will lose Medicaid coverage until January 2019.

Accountable Care Organizations

According to a report in late August, accountable care organizations (ACOs) that requires physicians to take on substantial financial risk saved Medicare just over $100 million in the model’s first year, the CMS said in a report released Monday.

Lower Medicare Drug Costs

Back in May, the Trump administration published a “blueprint” for lowering drug costs. Advocacy groups are pushing back, saying that his plan will decrease access to drugs.

Balance Billing

Balance billing is when a patient presents at an emergency room and needs emergency medical services before the patient is able to determine whether the surgeon at the hospital is “in-network” with his insurance…most likely, because the patient is unconscious and no one has time to check for insurance networks. More and more states are passing laws to protect consumers from balance billing. An example of balance billing was Drew Calver, whose health plan paid $56,000 for his 4-day emergency stay at St. David’s Medical Center. Once he was discharged, he received a bill from the hospital for $109,000. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) regulates company plans that practice this. The hospital eventually reduced the bill to $332.

Patient Abandonment

During a fire, staff at two Santa Rosa, California-based nursing homes “abandoned their residents, many of them unable to walk and suffering from memory problems, according to a legal complaint filed by the California Department of Social Services.” The Department of Social Services accused the staff members of being unprepared for the emergency fire.

Makes you wonder what could possibly happen in the fast-approaching hurricane. At least with a hurricane, we have days advance notice. Granted there is no more water in the stores or gasoline at the pumps, but Amazon Prime, one-day service still works…for now.

Medicaid Reform: As Addictive as Fortnite

Do you have a kid addicted to Fortnite? The numbers are rising…

For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past year, this is how Fortnite is explained on the internet:

“In short, it’s a mass online brawl where 100 players leap out of a plane on to a small island and then fight each other until only one is left. Hidden around the island are weapons and items, including rifles, traps and grenade launchers, and players must arm themselves while exploring the landscape and buildings. It’s also possible to collect resources that allow you to build structures where you can hide or defend yourself. As the match progresses, the playable area of land is continually reduced, so participants are forced closer and closer together. The last survivor is the winner.”

More than 40 million people play Fortnite. According to the May 2018 Medicaid Enrollment Report, 73,633,050 Americans are enrolled in Medicaid or CHIP, so government-assisted health insurance definitely trumps Fortnite on participation.

Recently, the General Assembly passed and the Governor signed two Bills into law pertaining to Medicaid reform: (1) HB 403 (Session Law 2018-48); and (2) HB 156 (Session Law 2018-49). Notice that the Session Laws are one digit separate from each other. That is because Governor Cooper signed these two bills consecutively and on the same day. But did he read them? I do not know the answer, but I do know this: Medicaid reform in NC has become a Fortnite. The MCOs, provider-led entities, ACOs, auditors, DHHS…everyone is vying for a piece of the very large Medicaid budget, approximately $3.6 billion – or 16% of NC’s total budget. It is literally a firehose of money if you can manage to be a player in the Medicaid Fortnite – a fight to eliminate everyone but you. Unlike Fortnite, the pay-off for winning Medicaid Fortnite is financially lucrative. But it is a fight with few winners.

Session Law 2018-48 is entitled, “An Act to Modify the Medicaid Transformation Legislation.”

Session Law 2018-49 is entitled, “An Act to Require Medicaid Prepaid Health Plans to Obtain a License from the Department of Insurance and to Make Other Changes Pertaining to Medicaid Transformation and the Department of Insurance.”

Don’t you like how the House decided to use the term “transformation” instead of “reform?” The term “reform” had been over-utilized.

Recently, the North Carolina Medical Society announced that it is throwing its metaphoric hat in the ring to become “Carolina Complete Health,” a provider-led patient-care center.

The New Laws

Session Law 2018-48

Session Law 2018-48 defines provider-led entity (PLE) as an entity that meets the following criteria: (1) A majority of the entity’s ownership is held by an individual or entity that has its primary business purpose the operation of a capitated contract for Medicaid; (2) A majority of the entity’s governing body is composed of licensed physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, or psychologist and have experience treating Medicaid beneficiaries; (3) Holds a PHP license issued by the Department of Insurance (see Session Law 2018-49).

Services covered by PHP’s will include physical health services, prescription drugs, long-term services and supports, and behavioral health care services for North Carolina Health Choice recipients. The PHP’s will not cover services currently covered by the managed care organizations (MCOs).

Session Law 2018-48 allows for 4 contracts with PHPs to provide services for Medicaid and NC Health Choice (statewide contracts). Plus, it allows up to 12 regional contracts.

What is the future of behavioral health and the MCO system?

For now, they will still exist. The double negative wording of the new Session Law makes it seem like the MCOs will have less authority, but the MCOs will continue to cover for services described in subdivisions a, d, e, f, g, j, k, and l of this subdivision.

Session Law 2018-48 also creates new entities called BH IDD Tailored Plans. Session Law 2018-48 carves out developmentally disabled services (or IDD). It mandates that DHHS create a detailed plan for implementation of a new IDD program under the 1115 Waiver. Services provided by the new Tailored Plans shall pay for and manage services currently offered under the 1915(b)(c) Waiver.

Here’s the catch for providers: “Entities operating BH IDD Tailored Plans shall maintain closed provider networks for behavioral health, intellectual and developmental disability, and traumatic brain injury services and shall ensure network adequacy.” (emphasis added). Fortnite continues with providers jockeying to be included in the networks.

For the next four years only an MCO may operate a BH IDD Tailored Plan. This tells me that the MCOs have sufficiently lawyered up with lobbyists. After the term of the initial contracts, the Tailored Plans will be the result of RFPs issued by DHHS and the submission of competitive bids from nonprofit PHPs.

DHHS was to report to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee with a plan for the implementation of the Tailored Plans by June 22, 2018. – Sure would’ve loved to be a fly on that wall.

Starting August 31, 2018, DHHS is authorized to take any actions necessary to implement the BH IDD Tailored Plans in accordance with all the requirements in this Act.

Session Law 2018-49

A provider-led entity must meet all the following criteria: (1) A majority of the entity’s ownership is held by an individual or entity that has as its primary business purpose operating a capitated contract with with Medicaid providers; and (2) A majority of the governing body is composed of individuals who are licensed as physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, or psychologists and all of whom have experienced treating Medicaid beneficiaries.

Session Law 2018-49 requires that all PHPs apply for a license with the Commissioner of Insurance. With the application, all entities would need to provide proof of financial stability and other corporate documents. This new law definitely increases the authority of the Commissioner of Insurance (Mike Causey).

The remaining portion of the law pertains to protection against insolvency, continuation of healthcare services in case of insolvency, suspension or revocation of licenses, administrative procedures, penalties and enforcement, confidentiality of information, and that sort.

Session Law 2018-49 also applies to the current opioid crisis. It allows a “lock-in programs” for those consumers who use multiple pharmacies and multiple doctors to “lock them in” to one pharmacy and one doctor.

Besides the “lock-in” program, Session Law 2018-49 is basically a law that brings the Department of Insurance into the Medicaid arena.

Let Fortnite begin!

A Comparison of All the #1 European Health Care Systems in the World

The United States currently spends more per person on health care than any other developed country. So when my daughter and I recently vacationed the “Highlights of Europe” tour, I was interested in learning about the varied health care systems, country-by-country. We visited England, France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy. It was awesome!! She turned 13 during the trip, and she starts 8th grade next week. Where does the time go?

While I do not protest to know all the answers, during our vacation, I researched the diverse countries’ healthcare system and methods of payment, but, most importantly, I interviewed people. I interviewed people who were begging for money. I interviewed my taxi drivers. I interviewed the bus drivers. I interviewed people on the streets. I interviewed shop owners. I interviewed the hotel concierge. I interviewed bartenders and waiters.

This blog is intended to memorialize my findings. It has not been fact checked. In other words, if a person told me something about the healthcare system and their personal experiences, I did not go back and review that country’s laws to determine whether that person was telling the truth or that the person’s rendition of their experience was compliant with the law. I did this for a reason. Sometimes what the laws dictate as to healthcare is not what actually occurs in reality. I wanted personal perspectives. I wanted an opinion from citizens of other countries as to how healthcare was or was not working in their country. I did not want to meet health care policy, rules, regulations. I wanted the cold, hard, real truth.

At least one person in every country – Austria, The Netherlands, France, England, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy told me, “[Country name] has the best health care in the world.” Obviously, they cannot all be right. And I certainly heard the worst case scenarios in country’s that claimed to be the best in the world.

This is what I learned:

ENGLAND

England has the best health care system in the world! England’s healthcare system is drastically different from the USA’s. England’s National Health Service (NHS) is a free healthcare program for all permanent residents of United Kingdom. Reading the fine print, however, the NHS is not completely free. There are charges associated with eye tests, dental care, prescriptions, and many aspects of personal care.

England relies on primary care more so than specializations. Mental health services, for example, are largely treated by the general practitioners (GPs). Provider trusts, fed by taxes, compensate most health care, the main examples in the hospital trust and the ambulance trusts which send the money allocated to them by commissioning trusts. Hospitals normally receive the lion’s share of NHS funding as hospital’s have the most expenses.

Our taxi driver (Jim) told me that paperwork is minimal with the NHS, which makes it super easy to use. Although he was quick to point out that the health care system in England does vary in quality and timeliness depending on where you live, but I believe we can say the same about the USA. Jim also told me that he and his family has had problems with wait-times to be seen by specialists. Jim’s wife suffered persistent and serious acid reflux. Her general practitioner referred her to a gastroenterologist. However, she could not get an appointment until 20 weeks later. But, in the end, she was seen, and had no waiting period on the day of her appointment. Generally, Jim is happy with the NHS. The costs are minimal, and, he believes that the quality of care is high.

The hotel concierge (let’s call him Blake) was extremely open about his experiences with the health care system in England. It appears from his enthusiasm that health care is just as big of a political issue in England than it is in the US. He told me that he has never waited more than four hours in an emergency room. Apparently, his children frequent it. However, I do place an asterisk on Blake’s comment. You will see below that Alice from France waited for 7 hours at the ER in the UK with her husband. Some of the stories that I heard contradicted each other.

Blake also told me that for traumatic experiences, such a broken arm due to a car accident, which his youngest daughter recently endured, the wait time is significantly less than when his best buddy got drunk at the pub and broke his finger. Blake also told me that, for day-to-day, general, “I have a tummy ache” appointments, English citizens do not get to choose appointment times. You leave a voice mail message for the nurse and the nurse informs you when you need to present yourself. While this may sound inconvenient, Blake stated that there are no wait times. I know that I have waited many an hour to see my general practitioner.

Dental insurance, on the other hand, is a whole new can of worms. Basically, general practitioners are free, but dentists are not. The wait times to see a dentist are extensive, and, if you do not have private dental insurance, the wait times can be even longer. My take-away? If I were a dentist, I’d move the the UK. This also explains a lot about English actors and actresses.

We cannot analyze any country’s health care system without taking into account the taxes that you must pay in order to maintain such a health care system, no matter how poor or amazing that health care system is. Income taxes in the UK are 40% if you make more than 46,351 pounds. Once you hit 150,000 pounds, then your taxes increase to 45%. Almost half of your wages are taken by the government, but you get, essentially, free health care. Does it balance out?

THE NETHERLANDS

The Netherlands has the best health care system in the world! Every person that I asked in Amsterdam, informed me that Dutch health care is among the best in the world. It seemed that the Dutch took pride in their health care system. So, I wanted details. If Dutch health care is the best, why doesn’t everyone else mimic it?

I learned that everyone who lives or works in the Netherlands is legally obligated to take out standard health insurance. All insurers offer the same standard package. The standard insurance package includes general practitioners, some medications, dental care until the age of 18, nutritional and dietary care, medical aids, mental health services, and much more. It does not cover over-the-counter aspirin or cosmetic surgery procedures. But neither does insurance in America.

In Amsterdam, my daughter and I rented bicycles for two days. It was an absolute blast. The rental process, however, took a bit longer than expected. The gentleman behind the counter needed our passport numbers, information on our hotel, credit card information, and provided us with an instruction program on how to properly secure the bicycles. Given the length of the process, I took the opportunity to ask him about health care.

Let’s call the bicycle rental agent Stefan.

Stefan explained that the Dutch believe in misery first. According to him, regardless the affliction, general practitioners will tell you to take an aspirin and come back in two weeks if you are not dead. I am fairly sure that he was exaggerating. But I have always been of the opinion that exaggerations have some form of truth.

In the Netherlands, the general practitioners are called huisarts, which are expected to know all aspects of medicine. I liken the huisarts to attorneys who practice general law. What attorney could know all aspects of family law and criminal law? The answer is none. A generalist knows a tad about everything, but nothing much about anything.

Preventive care is rare in the Netherlands, certainly in terms of women’s health. For example, in the US, France, and Spain, it is typical to get a test for cervical cancer at least every 2 to 3 years. Here, in Amsterdam, insurance will only pay for one every 5 years. Hormone replacement therapy is also rare here, as most GPs are still following outdated guidelines, based on a flawed study from 2002.

It seems as though I am overly negative as to the health care in the Netherlands. All I can write is that I began this blog with an open mind because if any country has mastered health care then we should learn from it. I was also swayed by my interviewees.

While other countries maintained high income taxes to pay for “free health care,” the Netherlands does not use tax dollars to pay for health care. Every Dutch resident is required to buy their own health insurance on top of the taxes they pay to the government.

Taxes in the Netherlands is exorbitant. If you make over 66,421 euros, taxes are 52% of your income. These taxes, remember, do not include health insurance.

In Amsterdam, there was a pub across the river from our hotel Movenpick. A group of guys were “celebrating” an upcoming wedding and were drinking bottles upon bottles of wine at the river’s edge. Multiple times members of the group ended up swimming.

So, imagine my surprise when one of the intoxicated gentlemen sat at our table and ensued with a semi-intelligent conversation about health care. We will call him Henry. Henry had recently been married and his wife gave birth last year to a premature baby. I completely related because my daughter was born at 28 weeks and 2 pounds and 2 ounces. I asked Henry about the health care coverage for his premature baby girl’s birth and subsequent surgeries. He told me that, besides the meals that he ate during the two-month stay in the hospital, once his new daughter and wife were free to leave, his hospital bill was zero. His daughter endured a two-month stay in the neonatal department, his wife had a two-month, inpatient hospital stay, his daughter underwent multiple surgeries for her lungs and heart, and his daughter had 24-hour care for 60 days. All for zero euros. All children in the Netherlands are automatically insured by the government.

While I see the downside of paying 52% of your income to the Dutch government and having to pay for health insurance, I do see the benefit of Dutch insurance if you have a medical emergency, like a premature baby.

FRANCE

France has the best health care system in the world! In a 2000 World Health Organization (WHO) comparison of 191 different countries’ health care, France came out at number one. And they are not afraid to tell you. Even though the WHO ranking is from 2000, the French still tout its outcome because there have been no other such rankings since then. The French believe in the universal right to health care.

The entire population must pay compulsory health insurance.

Our two-hour ride on the Eurostar from Paris to London gave me a unique opportunity to ask other passengers about health care, especially since there is bar in one of the cabins. People congregated there to drink, eat, and talk, plus one nosy American asking about health care. The following are summaries of the stories I heard:

Nancy, who is from Devon, England and has lived in France with her family since 2006 thinks that French health care is the best. Since she moved to France her family has, unfortunately, undergone 6 operations. Her husband had cancer a couple of years ago and the Oncopole (oncologist) encouraged alternative therapies and even told him the taxi drivers (bringing patients home from the hospital) often go straight to a rebouteuse (a healer) after radiotherapy. A lot of doctors practice homeopathy, which is fantastic, according to Nancy. She also said that doctors prescribe “sacks full of medicine.” The good news is that Nancy’s husband is in remission.

Alice, a former British citizen, who moved to France told me the French health care system saved her husband’s life. Five years ago, her husband started to feel ill while visiting the UK. They couldn’t get a family/general practitioner to come to their home (I thought, my doctor wouldn’t come to my home in the US either). Over the phone, the general practitioner said, “take an aspirin and rest.” They also went to the ER but gave up after 7 hours waiting as her husband was in extreme pain (Juxtapose Blake’s recount that he never waited over 4 hours in the ER in the UK). A few days later they flew home, and her husband could not walk. Within an hour of arriving in France, her husband was admitted to a hospital. He was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney failure and stage 5 equates to dialysis. Needless to say, Alice is a French health care fan.

My daughter and I used a tour group company for our mommy-daughter vacation, and, while in France, I heard one person tout that health care is free in France. I will contend, from my travels, that French health care is great, but not completely free. I saw a presumably-homeless, elderly gentleman with no legs begging for money. In extremely, broken Frenglish and impromptu sign language, I asked the gentleman why he didn’t have health coverage and was he a French citizen? To the best of my ability, I interpreted his responses to indicate that, yes, he is a French citizen, but that free, French health care does not include prosthetics.

Taxes are approximately 41% if you make over $72,617. Whereas, in the US, if you make over $72,000 your tax bracket is 15.55%, barring extraordinary circumstances.

ITALY

Italy has the best health care system in the world! From my travels, I gathered that Italians believe that their health care system is the best (over France’s – I believe that there is a bit of a friendly rivalry). In 2000, the World Health Organization (WHO) ranked Italy as the 2nd best health care system in the world, right under France. In 2012, WHO found Italy’s life expectancy to be 82.3 years.

Italy has a regionally organized National Health Service (“SSN” – Servizio Sanitario Nazionale) that provides citizens with free or low-cost healthcare. It’s funded through national income taxes and regional VAT, and generally the standard of care is very high. I was pleased to discover that foreign citizens living in Italy with a regular stay permit are entitled to all the same treatment and rights as Italian citizens. Retirement 2035 – here I come!

For a country with the best health care in the world, I saw the most homeless, medically-challenged beggars than any other country. Maybe there are more homeless, medically-challenged beggars in Italy than other country because the weather is so nice, the gelato is so delicious, the population is greater, mental health care is worse, or the food is so amazing…I do not know. But I saw the most homeless, medically challenged beggars in Italy than anywhere else. Oddly, the afflictions were the same. Their feet were misshapen and curled inward to a degree that did not allow them to walk. It was heartbreaking. I googled it and discovered that medical articles have been written on the anomaly of foot deformities in southern Italy.

Taxes in Italy are as follows:

  • 23% for amounts up to $36,000
  • 33% for the next band from $36,001 to $39,300
  • 39% for amounts between $39,301 and $119,200
  • 45% for amounts $119,201 and over.

I met Valentina in Roma. Europe has strict hourly limits for bus drivers and our original bus driver, apparently, over-drove. Valentina stepped in and was very chatty, unlike the original bis driver who spoke no English. Considering our group consisted of 21 English-speaking vacationers and one couple fluent in Spanish and English, a bus driver who only spoke French was unhelpful.

Valentina told me that in Italy, mainly in the south, public hospitals are very crowded and offer very limited and sometimes hasty assistance, so that patients are too soon sent to rehabilitation centers, very few of which are public. This almost entirely private field is financially sustained by the National Health Service, which pays a per diem for a patient’s clinic stay. If a patient still needs rehabilitation after 2 months in a rehabilitation clinic or center, reimbursement from the National Health Service will be in any case cut by about 40%. Private insurance is very rare and usually is not involved in rehabilitation.

In private rehabilitation centers, physicians often have to deal with overworked nurses and angry, worried patients and relatives.

Valentina said that her mother went to her general practitioner complaining of frequent headaches, depression, anxiety, dizziness, and recurrent fatigue. Her general practitioner, diagnosed her as “a hysteric neurotic,” and she was prescribed anxiolytics. Her headaches continued. When she finally was able to see a specialist, her magnetic resonance image report showed that she had several cerebral metastatic lesions from an otherwise silent neoplasia – basically, a death sentence.

SWITZERLAND

Switzerland has the best health care system in the world! The Swiss health care system is regulated by the Swiss Federal Law on Health Insurance. There are no free state-provided health services, but private health insurance is compulsory for all persons residing in Switzerland (within three months of taking up residence or being born in the country) (country #2 on my options for retirement).

Like every country we visited, Switzerland has a universal health care system, requiring all to buy insurance. Switzerland holds a special place in my heart. My mother’s mother, Martha Zuin (imagine an umlaut over the ‘u’), immigrated to the US from Switzerland, so I still have family living in Switzerland.

The plans in Switzerland resemble those in the United States under the Affordable Care Act: offered by private insurance companies, community-rated and guaranteed-issue, with prices varying by things like breadth of network, size of deductible and ease of seeing a specialist. Almost 40% of people get subsidies offsetting the cost of premiums, on a sliding scale pegged to income. Although these plans are offered on a nonprofit basis, insurers can also offer coverage on a for-profit basis, providing additional services and more choice in hospitals. For these voluntary plans, insurance companies may vary benefits and premiums; they also can deny coverage to people with chronic conditions. Most doctors work on a national fee-for-service scale, and patients have considerable choice of doctors, unless they’ve selected a managed-care plan.

Both Swiss and German systems cost their countries about 11 percent of GDP.

Mia, the hotel clerk at Lake Maggiore, is a Swiss resident. She informed me that insurance premiums are not adequately adjusted to income, and they have doubled in price since 1996, while salaries have risen by just one-fifth. It comes as no surprise, then, that just over a quarter of the population needed government assistance to pay their premiums in 2014. She says that over 1/2 of Swiss residents owe money for medical bills.

You can be blacklisted from reimbursement for health insurance in Switzerland.  Some 30,000 blacklisted patients so far have lost their right to be reimbursed for medical services under basic insurance and can be refused care, save for emergencies. A policy initially designed to encourage people to pay up has instead come under fire for going against the principle of basic health coverage for all. In 2017, EHR became mandatory for most, which increased the costs for many health care visits.

Research told me that Switzerland is the second most expensive country for health care other than USA with The Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, and Denmark closely following.

GERMANY

Germany has the best health care system in the world! The German health care system and Switzerland’s have a lot in common. According to interviewees, Germany has slightly better access to health care, especially with respect to costs. Switzerland has higher levels of cost-sharing, but its outcomes are hard to beat — arguably the best in the world – for real.

A majority of Germans (86%) get their coverage primarily though the national public system, with others choosing voluntary private health insurance. Most premiums for the public system are based on income and paid for by employers and employees, with subsidies available but capped at earnings of about $65,000. Patients have a lot of choice among doctors and hospitals, and cost sharing is quite low. It’s capped for low-income people, reduced for care of those with chronic illnesses, and nonexistent for services to children. There are no subsidies for private health insurance, but the government regulates premiums, which can be higher for people with pre-existing conditions. Private insurers charge premiums on an actuarial basis when they first enroll a customer, and subsequently raise premiums only as a function of age — not health status. Most physicians work in a fee-for-service setting based on negotiated rates, and there are limits on what they can be paid annually.

Though mostly public, the German health insurance system is not a state-run system like the National Health Service in the United Kingdom. In fact, more than 100 different health insurers, known as sickness funds, compete for members in Germany’s comparatively decentralized system. These sickness funds are non-profit, non-governmental organizations that operate autonomously. Most Germans’ health insurance contributions are deducted from their paychecks by their employers. The amount, however, is capped at 14.6% of a person’s salary, split fifty-fifty between the employer and the employee, so 7.3% each way. But coverage is not dependent on the employer, so when Germans change or lose their jobs, nothing changes in their health insurance. Recent changes in health care have allowed the wealthy to obtain higher quality and more efficient health care services. Anyone who makes over 57,600 euros/year can opt out of public health care and pay for private health care. Doctors are more prone to be more attentive of their privately-insured patients.

We met Emma at a beer garden; she was our waitress. Emma was as equally inquisitive about American health care as I was about German health care. She said that she could not get her head wrapped around HIPAA. Privacy, she indicated, is not a hot topic issue in Germany. Emma said that doctors in Germany “get it wrong a lot.” When I asked her what she meant, she said that she went to her general practitioner for chest pain. Whereas, in America, chest pain is considered serious, Emma said that her doctor did not even place a stethoscope on her chest. Instead, he told her to go home, rest, and take an Ibuprofen. Emma’s friend had a baby with a problem in one eye. She went to several doctors and they told her nothing can be done. She finally went to a specialist in Spain and received a concrete diagnostic and special glasses for the 7 month-old-baby, because the eye movement was related to the eye condition.

AUSTRIA

Austria has the best health care system in the world! If European health care were on a bell curve, Austria would be at the bottom (hmmmmm…..although I have not compared Austria to the US). Dr. Clemens Martin Auer is the President of the European Health Forum Gastein and Director General at the Austrian Federal Ministry of Health.

Austriapres

Dr. Auer is focused on digital health and access to drugs. Talking to people in other European countries, who complained about over prescribing, Austria, apparently, has a high cost issue barring many people from receiving prescriptions.

In Austria, the health care system is largely financed by social security contributions and taxes, to a lesser part also by private sources, such as prescription charges, compulsory personal contributions, per-diem charges for hospital stays or contributions to private health insurance.

Each month a contribution will be taken from your tax payment, which is worked out according to how much you earn. This gives you access to basic healthcare including treatment in hospitals, medication, dental care, and some specialist appointments. If you make over 31,000 euros, you pay 41% tax.

According to Tobias, the man I met in Innsbruck, people wait months to see a specialist. So, if you have a cold, you are good, but of you have cancer, then get on the waiting list. Tobias also told me that people do not go to hospitals unless they have a severe injury or serious surgery. Instead, the general practitioners are heavily relied on. I am not sure I like the idea of going to a generalist for everything. If I have stark knee pain, I want to see an orthopedic, not a general internist. But I am learning that free health care may not equate to the best health care.

Step Right Up! CMS Announces New Medicare-Medicaid ACO Model

Come one! Come all! Step right up to be one of the first 6 states to test the new Medicare-Medicaid Affordable Care Act (ACO) pilot program.

experiment

Let your elderly population be the guinea pigs for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Let your most needy population be the lab rats for CMS.

On December 15, 2016, CMS announced its intent to create Medicare/caid ACOs. Currently, Medicare ACOs exist, and if your physician has opted to participate in a Medicare ACO, then, most likely, you understand Medicare ACOs. Medicare ACOs are basically groups of physicians – of different service types – who voluntarily decide (but only after intense scrutiny by their lawyers of the ACO contract) to collaborate care with the intent of higher quality and lower cost care.  For example, if your primary care physician participates in a Medicare ACO and you suffer intestinal issues, your primary care doctor would coordinate with a GI specialist within the Medicare ACO to get you an appointment. Then the GI specialist and your physician would share medical records, including test results and medication management. The thought is that the coordination of care will decrease duplicative tests, ensure appointments are made and kept, and prevent losing medical records or reviewing older, moot records.

Importantly, the Medicare beneficiary retains all benefits of “normal” Medicare and can choose to see any physician who accepts Medicare. The ACO model is a shift from “fee-for-service” to a risk-based, capitated amount in which quality of care is rewarded.

On the federal level, there have not been ACOs specially created for dual-eligible recipients; i.e., those who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid…until now.

The CMS is requesting states to volunteer to participate in a pilot program instituting Medicare/Medicaid ACOs. CMS is looking for 6 brave states to participate. States may choose from three options for when the first 12-month performance period for the Medicare-Medicaid ACO Model will begin for ACOs in the state: January 1, 2018; January 1, 2019; or January 1, 2020.

Any state is eligible to apply, including the District of Columbia. But if the state wants to participate in the first round of pilot programs, intended to begin 2018, then that state must submit its letter of intent to participate by tomorrow by 11:59pm. See below.

dual-acos

I tried to research which states have applied, but was unsuccessful. If anyone has the information, I would appreciate it if you could forward it to me.

Participating in an ACO, whether it is only Medicare and Medicare/caid, can create a increase in revenue for your practices. Since you bear some risk, you also reap some benefit if you able to control costs. But, the decision to participate in an ACO should not be taken lightly. Federal law yields harsh penalties for violations of Anti-Kickback and Stark laws (which, on a very general level, prohibits referrals among physicians for any benefit). However, there are safe harbor laws and regulations specific to ACOs that allow exceptions. Regardless, do not ever sign a contract to participate in an ACO without an attorney reviewing it. 

Food for thought – CMS’ Medicare/caid ACO Model may exist only “here in this [Obama] world. Here may be the last ever to be seen of [healthcare.gov] and their [employee mandates]. Look for it only in [history] books, for it may be no more than a [Obamacare] remembered, a [health care policy] gone with the wind…”

As, tomorrow (January 20, 2017) is the presidential inauguration. The winds may be a’changing…

BREAKING: House and Senate appear close to a Medicaid deal!!

In our last post on Medicaid reform, we updated you on the recent bill passed by the North Carolina Senate relating to the long-standing thorn in the side of the General Assembly, especially regarding the states’ budget – the Medicaid program. The Senate’s version of Medicaid reform is quite different from what we have previously seen and is a hodge-podge of managed care and a new idea: “provider-led entities.”

In a strong sign that this proposal is a compromise between competing sides that could end up getting passed, both House and Senate leaders are speaking positively on the record to news media about the prospects for a deal. Given how public the issue is and how big it is (an expected $14.2 billion in North Carolina in the coming year), that means they expect to get a deal done soon. The fact that the issue is so tied up with the budget that is overdue to be passed is a further headwind to passing a bill.

Right now, the bill is in a conference committee of negotiators from the House and Senate to work out an agreement, given the differences between the two chambers.

One major issue that the committee needs to look at is whether there will be a whole new state agency: the “Department of Medicaid.” The Senate endorsed that idea last week.

Our prediction: The legislators will chart a cautious course and not erect a whole new agency at the same time they are overhauling the system.

With Wos having (coincidentally?) just stepped down as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, perhaps the lack of a lightning rod for criticism of DHHS will let the air out of the proposal to remove Medicaid from DHHS’s hands.

Stay tuned.

By Robert Shaw

Robert

North Carolina Medicaid Reform Update – Round and Round She Goes

Given how long the Medicaid reform discussions have been going on at the legislature, you may be glazed over by now. Give me the memo when they pass something, right? Fair enough, let’s keep it brief. Where do things stand right now?

Last Wednesday, the Senate staked out its position in the ongoing debate between the House and the McCrory administration.

The Senate’s newest proposal is an unusual mix of different systems and new ideas. Not willing to commit to one model for the whole Medicaid program, the latest version of the bill includes something new called Provider Led Entities, or “PLEs.” PLEs are yet the latest in the alphabet soup of different alternatives to straight fee-for-service billing for Medicare/Medicaid. You’ve all heard of HMOs, PPOs, MCOs, and ACOs. PLEs appear to be similar to ACOs, but perhaps for political reasons the Senate bill sponsors saw the need to call the idea something different.  See Knicole Emanuel’s blog.

In any event, as the name suggests, such organizations would be provider-led and would be operated through a capitated system for managing the costs of the Medicaid program. The Senate bill would result in up to twelve PLEs being awarded contracts on a regional basis.

PLEs are not the only addition to the Medicaid alphabet soup that the Senate is proposing in its version of HB 372. The Senate has also renewed its interest in taking Medicaid out of the hands of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services entirely and creating a new state agency, the Department of Medicaid (“DOM”).

(One wonders whether the continual interest in creating a new Department of Medicaid independent of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services had anything to do with embattled DHHS Secretary Wos stepping down recently.)

The Senate also proposes creating a Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Medicaid (“LOC on Medicaid”).

But creating the DOM and using new PLEs to handle the provision of Medicaid services is not the whole story. Perhaps unwilling to jump entirely into a new delivery system managed by a wholly new state agency, the Senate bill would keep LME/MCOs for mental health services in place for at least another five years. Private contractor MCOs would also operate alongside the PLEs. The North Carolina Medicaid Choice coalition, a group which represents commercial MCOs in connection with the Medicaid reform process, is pleased.

One very interesting item that the Senate has included in its proposed legislation is the following requirement: “Small providers shall have an equal opportunity to participate in the provider networks established by commercial insurers and PLEs, and commercial insurers and PLEs shall apply economic and quality standards equally regardless of provider size or ownership.” You can thank Senator Joel Ford of Mecklenburg County for having sponsored this amendment to the Senate version of House Bill 372.

By pulling the Medicaid reform proposal out of the budget bill, the matter appears headed for further negotiation between the House and the Senate to see if the two can agree this year, unlike last year.

By legislative standards, that counts as forward progress… Here come the legislative discussion committees to hash it out more between the two chambers. We will keep a close eye on the proposals as they continue to evolve.

By Robert Shaw

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Introducing: The Gordon & Rees Raleigh Health Care Team

I am extremely excited to announce that our Gordon & Rees Raleigh health care team just keeps growing!! Remember, this is just the Raleigh health care team…firm wide, we are a health care team of 40-50 attorneys. Now that is a bench as deep as NCSU, UNC, and Duke’s basketball teams put together!

We have:

Me.

Obviously.

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Robin Vinson

Robin was a partner at Smith Anderson for over two decades. In 2011, Robin was named Managing Partner of the Raleigh office of Nexsen Pruet, where the oversaw the growth of that office from 5 to 23 lawyers in less than two years. In January of 2013, Robin joined forces with his life-long friend, Paul C. Creech, Esq., to form a boutique health care law and litigation firm until Paul retired in 2015 due to medical reasons. Robin now joins us with renewed entrepreneurial spirit and vigor to make this Raleigh office of Gordon Rees a very special place to practice law and service clients.

Robin began his practice in health care litigation and morphed into a health care transactional attorney. He has bought and sold more physicians’ practices than Imelda Marco had shoes. He has created affordable care organizations (ACOs), has written physician policy manuals, and dealt with antitrust issues and e-discovery issues, including electronic medical records issues. When it comes to health care law, he is the Christopher Michael Langan without the sub-par childhood.

Personally, I have never had a mentor in the health care industry, and I believe that he can learn me a thing or two.

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Robert Shaw

Robert transitioned to GR with me from Williams Mullen.  He is absolutely brilliant with an analytical mind, which probably stems from his tax law background.  Yes, he can answer tax questions for health care providers as well!

His expertise in numbers makes him exceptionally well-suited to argue against extrapolations, as he actually understands that independent variables are just variables that have become teenagers and want out of the house.

Murphy_DeeDee_2015_0
DeeDee Murphy

DeeDee comes to us from Williams Mullen, as well.  Prior to WM, DeeDee worked as a senior consultant for more than six years at Ascendient Healthcare Advisors. DeeDee is also a smarty pants…she earned a Master of Public Health degree from the UNC School of Public Health as well as a J.D. from the UNC School of Law.  You can’t have too many acronyms, right?  She also has expertise in CON law.

_______________________________________________

That is our Raleigh health care team.  Like I said, we have a wealth of knowledge nationwide with our healthcare team, and I would be remiss if I excluded a few of our super stars.

Our team is led by the brilliant Thomas Quinn out of the Denver office.

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We also have a partner who is a registered nurse (RN), Linda Mullany, from the San Diego office.

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And Joe DiCecco from the Houston office

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And Thomas Chairs from the Pittsburg office.

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And Josh Urquhart, also from the Denver office and the co-author of the Colorado Healthcare Law Blog.

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And these are only a few attorneys that comprise our nationwide, talented health care team So, as you can see, I joined a rock star law firm with almost 700 attorneys in 35 offices nationwide.  Gordon & Rees boasts the following statistics:

92% Trial Win Rate
10% Top Verdicts
Law360 California Powerhouse
Go-To Employment Law Firm
#71 Largest U.S. Law Firm
650 lawyers, 40 jurisdictions,
35 U.S. offices in 22 states
Top 10 Fastest-Growing Firm

We also ranked in the top 100 law firms for female attorneys, a ranking that I am especially proud of (sorry for ending a sentence with a preposition, but writing “of which I am especially proud” seemed way too pomp and circumstance).

I will make every effort going forward to NOT write blogs about how awesome my law firm is, but I had to just write one.  So, please forgive me on this unabashed, shameless, self-serving blog.  It will not happen again (I hope).

Look forward to my next blog…Administrative costs of the MCOs and our tax dollars hard at work.

And here is the legal disclaimer:

Legal Disclaimer and Note:   I welcome your feedback, thoughts, questions, and suggestions.  Just a reminder: These materials have been prepared by me for informational purposes only and are not legal advice. Internet followers and online readers should not act upon this information without seeking independent legal counsel.

This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. Please note that an attorney-client relationship, and corresponding confidentiality of information, does not arise until Gordon & Rees has received an executed legal service agreement. Do not send us confidential information until you speak with one of our attorneys and get authorization to send that information to us. Gordon & Rees is pleased to receive inquiries from prospective clients regarding its services and its lawyers. However, an inquiry to Gordon & Rees should not disclose information about a particular matter prompting the inquiry.

While I try to update this site on a regular basis, I do not intend any information on this site to be treated or considered as the most current expression of the law on any given point, and certain legal positions expressed on this site, by passage of time or otherwise, may be superseded or incorrect. Readers should not consider the information provided to be an invitation for an attorney-client relationship, and should always seek the advice of independent legal counsel in the reader’s home jurisdiction.

The opinions expressed on this site are the opinions of the user, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Gordon & Rees.

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!