Category Archives: Administrative Costs

Class Action Lawsuit Alleges Right to Inpatient Hospital Stays: Hospitals Are Damned If They Do…and Don’t!

Hospitals – “Lend me your ears; I come to warn you, not to praise RACs. The evil that RACs do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their appeals; So let it be with lawsuits.” – Julius Caesar, with modifications by me.

A class action lawsuit is pending against U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) alleging that the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) encourages (or bullies) hospitals to place patients in observation status (covered by Medicare Part B), rather than admitting them as patients (covered by Medicare Part A). The Complaint alleges that the treatments while in observation status are consistent with the treatments if the patients were admitted as inpatients; however, Medicare Part B reimbursements are lower, forcing the patient to pay more out-of-pocket expenses without recourse.

The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut refused to dismiss the class action case on February 8, 2017, giving the legal arguments within the Complaint some legal standing, at least, holding that the material facts alleged warrant investigation.

The issue of admitting patients versus keeping them in observation has been a hot topic for hospitals for years. If you recall, Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) specifically target patient admissions. See blog and blog. RAC audits of hospital short-stays is now one of the most RAC-reviewed issues. In fiscal year 2014, RACs “recouped” from hospitals $1.2 billion in allegedly improper inpatient claims. RACs do not, however, review outpatient claims to determine whether they should have been paid as inpatient.

On May 4, 2016, CMS paused its reviews of inpatient stays to determine the appropriateness of Medicare Part A payment. On September 12, 2016, CMS resumed them, but with more stringent rules on the auditors’ part. For example, auditors cannot audit claims more than the six-month look-back period from the date of admission.

Prior to September 2016,  hospitals would often have no recourse when a claim is denied because the timely filing limits will have passed. The exception was if the hospital joined the Medicare Part A/Part B rebilling demonstration project. But to join the program, hospitals would forfeit their right to appeal – leaving them with no option but to re-file the claim as an outpatient claim.

With increased scrutiny, including RAC audits, on hospital inpatient stays, the class action lawsuit, Alexander et al. v. Cochran, alleges that HHS pressures hospitals to place patients in observation rather than admitting them. The decision states that “Identical services provided to patients on observation status are covered under Medicare Part B, instead of Part A, and are therefore reimbursed at a lower rate. Allegedly, the plaintiffs lost thousands of dollars in coverage—of both hospital services and subsequent skilled nursing care—as a result of being placed on observation status during their hospital stays.” In other words, the decision to place on observation status rather than admit as an inpatient has significant financial consequences for the patient. But that decision does not affect what treatment or medical services the hospital can provide.

While official Medicare policy allows the physicians to determine the inpatient v. observation status, RAC audits come behind and question that discretion. The Medicare Policy states that “the decision to admit a patient is a complex medical judgment.” Ch. 1  § 10. By contrast, CMS considers the determination as to whether services are properly billed and paid as inpatient or outpatient to be a regulatory matter. In an effort to avoid claim denials and recoupments, plaintiffs allege that hospitals automatically place the patients in observation and rely on computer algorithms or “commercial screening tools.”

In a deposition, a RAC official admitted that if the claim being reviewed meets the “commercial screening tool” requirements, then the RAC would find the inpatient status is appropriate, as long as there is a technically valid order. No wonder hospitals are relying on these commercial screening tools more and more! It is only logical and self-preserving!

This case was originally filed in 2011, and the Court of Appeals overturned the district court’s dismissal and remanded it back to the district court for consideration of the due process claims. In this case, the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs could establish a protected property interest if they proved their allegation “that the Secretary—acting through CMS—has effectively established fixed and objective criteria for when to admit Medicare beneficiaries as ‘inpatients,’ and that, notwithstanding the Medicare Policy Manual’s guidance, hospitals apply these criteria when making admissions decisions, rather than relying on the judgment of their treating physicians.”

HHS argues that that the undisputed fact that a physician makes the initial patient status determination on the basis of clinical judgment is enough to demonstrate that there is no due process property interest at stake.

The court disagreed and found too many material facts in dispute to dismiss the case.

Going forward:

Significant discovery will be explored as to the extent to which hospitals rely on commercial screening tools. Also whether the commercial screening tools are applied equally to private insureds versus Medicare patients.

Significant discovery will be explored on whether the hospital’s physicians challenge changing a patient from inpatient to observation.

Significant discovery will be explored as to the extent that CMS policy influences hospital decision-making.

Hospitals need to follow this case closely. If, in fact, RAC audits and CMS policy is influencing hospitals to issue patients as observation status instead of inpatient, expect changes to come – regardless the outcome of the case.

As for inpatient hospital stays, could this lawsuit give Medicare patients the right to appeal a hospital’s decision to place the patient in observation status? A possible, future scenario is a physician places a patient in observation. The patient appeals and gets admitted. Then hospital’s claim is denied because the RAC determines that the patient should have been in observation, not inpatient. Will the hospitals be damned if they do, damned if they don’t?

damned

In the meantime:

Hospitals and physicians at hospitals: Review your policy regarding determining inpatient versus observation status. Review specific patient files that were admitted as inpatient. Was a commercial screening tool used? Is there adequate documentation that the physician made an independent decision to admit the patient? Hold educational seminars for your physicians. Educate! And have an attorney on retainer – this issue will be litigated.

Managed Care – Eight Reasons Why MCOs Smell Like Pre-Minced Garlic

When it comes to the managed care organizations (MCOs) in NC, something smells rancid, like pre-minced garlic. When I first met my husband, Scott, I cooked with pre-minced garlic that comes in a jar. I figured it was easier than buying fresh garlic and dicing it myself. Scott bought fresh garlic and diced it. Then he asked me to smell the fresh garlic versus the pre-minced garlic. There was no contest. Next to the fresh garlic, the pre-minced garlic smelled rancid. That is the same odor I smell when I read information about the MCOs – pre-minced garlic in a jar.

garlic minced-garlic

In NC, MCOs are charged with managing Medicaid funds for behavioral health care, developmentally disabled, and substance abuse services. When the MCOs were initially created, we had 13. These are geographically situated, so providers and recipients have no choice with which MCO to interact. If you live in Sandhills’ catchment area, then you must go through Sandhills. If you provide services in Cardinal’s catchment area, then you must contract with Cardinal – even though you already have a provider participation agreement with the State of NC to provide Medicaid services in the State of NC.

Over the years, there has been consolidation, and now we have 7 MCOs.

newestmco

From left to right: Smoky Mountain (Duke blue); Partners Behavioral Health (Wake Forest gold); Cardinal Innovations Healthcare (ECU purple); Sandhills (UNCC green); Alliance Behavioral Healthcare (mint green); Eastpointe (Gap Khaki); and Trillium (highlighter yellow/green).

Recently, Cardinal (ECU purple) and Eastpointe (Gap khaki) announced they will consolidate, pending authorization from the Secretary of DHHS. The 20-county Cardinal will morph into a 32-county, MCO giant.

Here is the source of the rancid, pre-minced, garlic smell (in my opinion):

One – MCOs are not private entities. MCOs are prepaid with our tax dollars. Therefore, unlike Blue Cross Blue Shield, the MCOs must answer to NC taxpayers. The MCOs owe a duty of financial responsibility to taxpayers, just like the state government, cities, and towns.

Two – Cardinal CEO, Richard Topping, is paid $635,000, plus he has a 0 to 30 percent bonus potential which could be roughly another $250,000, plus he has some sort of annuity or long-term package of $412,000 (with our tax dollars).

Three – Cardinal is selling or has sold the 26 properties it owns or owned (with our tax dollars) to lease office space in the NASCAR Plaza office tower in uptown Charlotte for $300 to $400 per square foot plus employee parking (with our tax dollars).

Four – Cardinal charges 8% of public funds for its administrative costs. (Does that include Topping’s salary and bonuses?) How many employees are salaried by Cardinal? (with our tax dollars).

Five – The MCOs are prepaid. Once the MCOs receive the funds, the funds are public funds and subject to fiscal scrutiny. However, the MCOs keep whatever funds that it has at the end of the fiscal year. In other words, the MCOs pocket any money that was NOT used to reimburse a provider for a service rendered to a Medicaid recipient. Cardinal – alone – handles around $2.8 billion in Medicaid funding per year for behavioral health services. The financial incentive for MCOs? Terminate providers and reduce/deny services.

Six – MCOs are terminating providers and limiting access to care. In my law practice, I am constantly defending behavioral health care providers that are terminated from an MCO catchment area without cause or with erroneous cause. For example, an agency was terminated from their MCO because the agency had switched administrative offices without telling the MCO. The agency continued to provide quality services to those in need. But, because of a technicality, not informing the MCO that the agency moved administrative offices, the MCO terminated the contract. Which,in turn, puts more money in the MCO’s pocket; one less provider to pay.  Is a change of address really a material breach of a contract? Regardless – it is an excuse.

Seven – Medicaid recipients are not receiving medically necessary services. Either the catchment areas do not have enough providers, the MCOs are denying and reducing medically necessary services, or both. Cardinal cut 11 of its state-funded services. Parents of disabled, adult children write to me, complaining that their services from their MCO have been slashed for no reason….But the MCOs are saving NC money!

Eight – The MCOs ended 2015 with a collective $842 million in the bank. Wonder how much money the MCOs have now…(with our tax dollars).

Rancid, I say. Rancid!

Federal Court Orders HHS to Eliminate Medicare Appeal Backlog!

When you have a Medicare appeal, it is not uncommon for the appeal process to last years and years – up to 3-6 years in some cases. There has been a backlog of approximately 800,000+ Medicare appeals (almost 1 million), which, with no change, would take 11 years to vet.

A Federal Court Judge says – that is not good enough!

Judge James Boasburg Ordered that the Medicare appeal backlog be eliminated in the following stages:

  • 30% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2017 (approximately a 300,000 case reduction within 1 year);
  • 60% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2018;
  • 90% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2019; and
  • Elimination of the backlog of cases by Dec. 31, 2020;

A Medicare appeal has 5 steps. See blog. The backlog is at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level – or, Level 3.

This backlog is largely attributable to the Medicare Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) programs. In 2010, the federal government implemented the RAC program to recoup allegedly improper Medicare reimbursement payments. The RAC program (for both Medicare and Medicaid) has been criticized for being overly broad and burdensome and “nit picking,” insignificant paperwork errors. See blog.

While the RAC program has recovered a substantial sum of alleged overpayments, concurrently, it has cost health care providers an infinite amount of money to defend the allegations and has left Health and Human Services (HHS) with little funds to adjudicate the number of Medicare appeals, which increase every year. The number of Medicare appeals filed in fiscal year 2011 was 59,600. In fiscal year 2013, that number boomed to more than 384,000. Today, close to 1 million Medicare appeals stand in wait. The statutory adjudication deadline for appeals at the ALJ level is 90 days, yet the average Medicare appeal can last over 546 days.

The American Hospital Association (AHA) said – enough is enough!

AHA sued HHS’ Secretary Sylvia Burwell in 2014, but the case was dismissed. AHA appealed the District Court’s Decision to the Court of Appeals, which reversed the dismissal and gave the District Court guidance on how the backlog could be remedied.

Finally, last week, on December 5, 2016, the District Court published its Opinion and set forth the above referenced mandated dates for eliminating the Medicare appeal backlog.

While, administratively, the case was dismissed, the District Court retained “jurisdiction in order to review the required status reports and rule on any challenges to unmet deadlines.”

In non-legalese, the Court said “The case is over, but we will be watching you and can enforce this Decision should it be violated.”

This is a win for all health care providers that accept Medicare.

The New White Collar Exemptions: The Final Rule, (an exception), and the Possible Consequences

On May 18, 2016, the US Department of Labor (DOL) announced the Final Rule amending the “white collar” overtime exemptions to increase the number of employees eligible for overtime, effective December 1, 2016. Got overtime? There is no phase-in; it is immediately effective on December 1st.

We all know that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) placed heavier burdens on employers with the employer mandate for employee health insurance. But, the burdens didn’t stop with the ACA!! Oh, no!  In 2014, President Obama signed an Executive Order directing the Department of Labor to update the regulations defining which white collar workers are protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) minimum wage and overtime standards. How else could we financially burden employers? We could mandate employers pay overtime to salaried workers!!! Oh, we already do? Let’s raise the overtime salary threshold exemptions so more employees receive overtime!!

aca-white-collar-highres

You ask, “How is the DOL Final Rule on white collar exemptions germane to my health care agency/practice?” Answer: Do you have employees? If yes, the Final Rule is applicable to you. If no, there is no need to read this blog (unless you are a salaried employee and want to receive more overtime).

The new, increased salary threshold for executives, administration, and professionals exemptions swells from $455/week to $913/week or $23,660/year to $47,476/year. The number for the ceiling is actually less than what was proposed by $800/week. These numbers are based on 40th percentile of full-time employees (salaried) in the lowest wage region, which happens to be the South. Don’t get your knickers in a knot.

Furthermore, the exemption for the highly compensated employee will jump from $100,000 to $134,004 (odd number). This number is $12,000 more than the proposed amount. Well, that just dills my pickle!

The Final Rule also requires that the salary threshold for executives, administration, and professionals be reviewed every three years in order to maintain the salary exemption comparable to the 40th percentile of full-time employees (salaried) in the lowest wage census region – the South.

Finally, the salary basis test will be amended to allow employers to use non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments, such as commissions, to satisfy the requirements up to 10% of the salary threshold.

The allowance of non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments was meant to soften the blow of the increased salary thresholds. That’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine/a trapdoor on a canoe.

VERY IMPORTANT EXCEPTION

The Secretary of DOL issued a time-limited non-enforcement policy for providers of Medicaid-funded services for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities in residential homes and facilities with 15 or fewer beds. From December 1, 2016 to March 17, 2019, the Department will not enforce the updated salary thresholds.

BUT THE REST OF US BEWARE!!

Do your math!! If the 10% maximum allowance is exceeded, you could find yourself in a world of hurt! We are talking misclassification claims! Also, ensure you know the proper distinctions between discretionary and non-discretionary bonuses!

What likely consequences will arise from this Final Rule? There are a number of possibilities:

  1. Employers will raise employees’ salaries to the new levels;
  2. Employers will pay more overtime;
  3. Employers will convert the salaried employees to hourly;
  4. Employers will change benefits or other operation costs to compensate for the increased burden.

Well, that’s just lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut!

Feds launch investigation into DHHS contracts, hiring!!!

WRAL ARTICLE:

By Tyler Dukes, Mark Binker & Laura Leslie

RALEIGH, N.C. — The U.S. Attorney’s Office has launched an investigation into high-dollar consulting contracts and salary payments at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

According to documents provided by DHHS on Friday afternoon, U.S. Attorney Thomas Walker subpoenaed the department for information on more than 30 employees, as well as bidding and payment information for administrative contracts, as part of a criminal investigation. The subpoenas came in late July, about a week before the resignation of former DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos in early August.

The investigation was first reported by The News & Observer.

DHHS spokeswoman Kendra Gerlach said Wos decided to resign before the subpoenas.

“The current secretary had been selected prior to any knowledge of this government inquiry,” Gerlach said.

Walker’s office did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Gerlach said the department is cooperating with the federal government, but she declined to comment further about the investigation.

“We will continue to respect the confidentiality of the process by the federal government to protect the integrity and fairness of this review,” she said in an emailed statement.

The Governor’s Office has not responded to requests for comment.

Among the targets of the subpoena are the records of state employees and contractors who have come under fire in the past, both by North Carolina legislators and the State Auditor’s Office.

That includes:

  • Les Merritt, a former state auditor who stepped down from the North Carolina State Ethics Commission after WRAL News raised questions about potential conflicts of interest created by his service contract with DHHS
  • Thomas Adams, a former chief of staff who received more than $37,000 as “severance” after he served just one month on the job
  • Angie Sligh, the former director of the state’s upgraded Medicaid payment system who faced allegations of nepotism and the waste of $1.6 million in payments to under-qualified workers for wages, unjustified overtime and holiday pay in a 2015 state audit
  • Joe Hauck, an employee of Wos’ husband who landed a lucrative contract that put him among the highest-paid workers at DHHS
  • Alvarez & Marsal, a consulting firm overseeing agency budget forecasting under a no-bid contract that has nearly tripled in value, to at least $8 million

State lawmakers have grilled DHHS leadership in the past in response to the contracts and audits, often publicly in legislative oversight meetings.

Rep. Justin Burr, co-chairman of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on DHHS, said Friday that he was recently made aware of the federal investigation into DHHS.

“It’s a concern, but it covers several areas that our oversight committee has expressed concerns about,” Burr, R-Stanly, said.

Oversight hearings during Wos’ tenure questioned the qualifications of contractors hired by DHHS, as well as the size of those contracts.

“Depending on which one you’re talking about, there was no sort of bid or effort to find the most qualified person,” Burr said. “They were just hand-picking individuals.”

This is a copy of the WRAL article. MORE TO COME FROM ME!!!!

The Nine Habits of a Highly Effective Secretary for DHHS

With the recent passing of the torch from Aldona Wos to Rick Brajer (see blog), I’ve been thinking about…

What are the qualifications of a Secretary of DHHS?

What exactly are the qualities that would make a great Secretary of DHHS?  Remember, in Mary Poppins, when the children draft their requirements for a nanny?  Or, better yet, what are the “Seven Habits of a Highly Effective” Secretary for DHHS?  Or…in this case, the “Nine Habits”…

Here are my “Nine Habits of a Highly Effective Secretary of DHHS;” our Secretary of DHHS should have the following:

  1. A health care background
  2. A successful track record of his/her ability to manage large companies or agencies
  3. An understanding of the Medicaid system, and, maybe, even have first-hand knowledge of how the system affects recipients and providers
  4. A relationship with someone on Medicaid or a parent of someone on Medicaid
  5. A working knowledge of clinical coverage policies, reimbursement rates, and regulations surrounding Medicaid
  6. Both the capacity to listen and speak and do both eloquently and genuinely
  7. True empathy about the physical and mental health of Medicaid recipients and about providers, plus have the patience to handle all types of demographic differences
  8. An understanding that he/she is handling tax payers’ money, that redundancy in staff is excess administrative costs, and ability to trim the fat
  9. An ability to communicate with both the Senate and the House and to be frank with both

wosbrajer

Let us analyze the qualifications of Wos that we came to witness over the last few years, as well as, review the qualifications of soon-to-be Sec. Brajer with information to which we are privy.

Let’s see if both, either, or neither have these “Nine Habits of a Highly-Effective Secretary for DHHS.”

  1. Health care background:

Wos: Yes. And, yet, maybe not.  She is an M.D. Although I do not know whether she ever practiced medicine in North Carolina.  According to Wikipedia, (which is never wrong) Wos “prides herself on her work in the field of preventing HIV and AIDS.”  However, I was unable to find a single clinic in which Wos provided services.  While, generally, an “M.D.” automatically bestows a certain aura of understanding health care, I question whether this “M.D.” automatically has a working knowledge of billing for and receiving reimbursements under Medicaid in North Carolina.

Brajer: Hmmmm.  This one is more tricky. The two companies that Brajer owned, Pro-nerve LLC and LipoScience Inc., are health care related, in that Pro-nerve was an intraoperative neuromonitoring (IONM) company and LipoScience sold a diagnostic tool to health care providers.  Arguably, both companies are health care related, at least, in an ancillary way.  However, Brajer is not a health care professional, and, to my knowledge, has never rendered health care services. Furthermore, neither of Brajer’s companies was successful; quite the opposite is true, in fact. From my understanding, one company declared bankruptcy and the other was not far behind.  Which brings us to the next category…

Answer: Both…kinda.

2. A successful track record of his/her ability to manage large entities:

Wos: Prior to acting as the Secretary to DHHS, Wos served as the Ambassador to Estonia until 2006.  What she did besides political functions between 2006 and 2012, I do not know. Acting as an Ambassador does not entail managing large entities.  The most managerial skills that I can find in her background, prior to being appointed Secretary, are related to political fund-raising. Since I would not call her brief reign as Secretary of DHHS a success, I give Wos a “two thumbs down” on this criterion.

Brajer: He managed two companies.  We can bicker as to whether these companies should be considered large…neither employed 17,000 employees.  Regardless, the “successful” criterion appears to be lacking.

Answer: Neither…pickles.

3. An understanding of the Medicaid system:

Wos: “You’re asking me without having all the data available to answer a question,” she told lawmakers on October 8, 2013.  In her defense, she responded as such when asked whether the State was moving toward privatization for Medicaid.  No one could know the answer, except, maybe, McCrory.

On the other hand, the implementation of NCTracks was nothing short of a catastrophe of epic proportion. See blog. See blog.  Anyone with nominal knowledge of the Medicaid system would have, at least, paused to consider keeping HP Enterprises under contract during the switch to NCTracks or pushed back the go-live date.

Brajer: Unknown

Answer: Here’s to hoping that Brajer does.  I’m cheering for you! Go! Fight! Win!

4. A relationship with someone on Medicaid or a parent of someone on Medicaid:

Wos: Unknown.  If I were shaking a proverbial “8 Ball,” it would read, “Doubtful.”

Brajer: Unknown. Perhaps one of his former employees at Pro-nerve, LLC and LipoScience, Inc. is on Medicaid.

Answer: Gimme a ‘B’! B! Gimme a ‘R’! R! Gimme a ‘A’! A! Gimme a ‘J’! J! Gimme a ‘E’! E! Gimme a ‘R’! R! Whats that spell? Brajer!!

5.  A working knowledge of clinical coverage policies, reimbursement rates, and regulations surrounding Medicaid.

Wos: Unknown. Whatever Wos’ knowledge of regulations and clinical coverage policies is or lacked, she, initially, made up for any knowledge lacked with the key hire and quick resignation of Carol Steckel.  Unfortunately, Steckel’s experience was never replaced.

January 2013: “I am pleased to say that we are already taking steps to address some of these issues,” Wos said. “Now, the most important of this is that we have hired Ms. Carol Steckel, a nationally recognized — nationally recognized — expert in Medicaid to run our Medicaid program for the state. Carol is already moving ahead with systemic reviews of operations in this division. She is reviewing and establishing new policies and procedures.”

September 27, 2013: Steckel resigns. And blog.

Brajer: Unknown.

Answer: B! R! A! J! E! R! Let’s go, Brajer!

6. Both the capacities to listen and speak and do both eloquently.

Wos: Wos brandished an ability to speak publicly with ease.  Listening, on the other hand….eh?

Brajer: Unknown

Answer: I think you can, I think you can, I think you can…

7. Genuine concern about the physical and mental health of Medicaid recipients AND about providers PLUS have the patience to handle all types of demographic differences

Wos: She seems to think so. Her country club does not discriminate.

Brajer: Unknown

Answer: Go! Go! Go! Go! Go, Brajer!!

8. An understanding that he/she is handling tax payers money and that redundancy in staff is excess administrative costs and trim the meat

Wos: “My obligation as secretary is to find the best possible team in order to get the job done.”  Les Merritt served as CFO of DMA on a $300,000-plus contract.  Joe Hauck was paid over $228,000 for 6 months of advise to Wos.  Matt McKillip was paid $87,500 to serve as chief policy maker without any health care background.  Ricky Diaz pulled in $85,000 as communications director. Id.  Wos has handed out $1.7 million in pay hikes to 280 staffers, many with “no career or educational experience for the jobs they hold.” Id. The implementation of the MCOs also fell under Wos’ watchful eye.  The MCO system has created thousands upon thousands of high-paying jobs with our Medicaid dollars.  I believe that in the “trim the fat” category, Sec. Wos scores a goose egg.

Brajer: Unknown.

Answer: Please, Brajer! For the love of Pete!

9. Ability to communicate with both the Senate and the House and to be frank with both.

Wos: “Separation pay” v. “Severance pay?

In April 2013: “I think the word transparency can get pretty dangerous,” Wos said. “Because what does transparency mean? If transparency means that we’re in a planning process and you’re asking us, ‘Tell us all the things you’re planning,’ well, my goodness, allow us to work, and then we’ll give you everything that you want.”

Brajer: Unknown

Answer: Brajer, Brajer, He’s our man! If he can’t do it…[gulp].

____________________________________________

It concerns me that so many of future Sec. Brajer’s core abilities/habits to run and manage DHHS and the Medicaid program in a highly effective manner are unknown.  Nothing like placing all your money on red!  But we have HIGH hopes for Brajer!!!  Don’t let us down!!

The whole point of this blog is to pause and really contemplate what characteristics would comprise a great Secretary for DHHS. Obviously, the Governor has the full authority to appoint the Secretary, meaning that we taxpayers have little to no input as to whether we deem a person qualified, except in the indirect method of voting or not voting for the Governor.

Call this blog an exercise in examining what habits, if in existence, would make the most highly effective Secretary of DHHS and an opinion as to whether these habits exist in our former and future Secretaries.

We are cheering for Brajer!  But…

One fact about the future is that it is unknown.

CMS Proposes Mandatory Bundled Medicare Reimbursements: Financial Risk on Hospitals!

A new CMS proposal could transform durable medical equipment (DME) Medicare reimbursements to hospitals. The proposal, if adopted, would implement a mandatory bundled Medicare reimbursement for hip and knee replacements or lower extremity joint replacements (LEJRs).

CMS has proposed this change to be piloted in 75 metropolitan areas prior to being implemented nationwide.

This mandatory bundled Medicare reimbursement will be unprecedented, as, thus far, CMS has only implemented voluntary bundled reimbursement rates. However, CMS has stated that its goal is to have at least 50% of all Medicare fee-for-service reimbursement to be paid under an alternative payment model by 2018, and, in order to meet this objective, CMS will need to implement more  mandatory alternative payment models.

Another first is that CMS proposes that hospitals bear the brunt of the financial risk. To date, CMS has not targeted a type of health care provider as being a Guinea pig for new ideas, unlike the other proposed and implemented Bundled Payments for Care Improvement (BPCI) initiative where there are many types of providers that can participate and bear risks.

Will this affect NC hospitals?

Yes.

Of the 75 metropolitan areas chosen as “test sites” for the new bundled payment plan, 3 are located in NC.

1. Asheville
2. Charlotte
3. Durham-Chapel Hill

Apparently, CMS believes that Durham and Chapel Hill are one city, but you got to give it to them…by hyphenating Durham and Chapel Hill, CMS gets both Duke and UNC health systems to participate in the mandatory trial. Other large metro areas included in the trial are Los Angeles, New York City, and Miami.

LEJRs are the most frequent surgeries in the Medicare population. The average Medicare expenditures for LEJRs, including surgery, hospitalization, and recovery, can range from $16,500 to $33,000.

The mandatory bundled reimbursement will become effective January 2, 2016; however, the hospitals will not carry the financial risk until January 1, 2017.  So, hospitals, you got a year and a half to figure it out!!

What exactly will this bundled reimbursement rate include?

Answer: Everything from an inpatient admission billed under MS DRG 469 or 470 until 90 days following discharge.

And we are talking about everything.

Thus, you will be reimbursed per “Episode of Care,” which includes:

“All related items and services paid under Medicare Part A and Part B for all Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries, including physicians’ services, inpatient hospital service, readmissions (subject to limited exceptions), skilled nursing facility services, durable medical equipment, and Part B drugs.”

What should you do if you are a hospital so graciously selected to participate?

1.  Assess your protocol as to discharging patients.  Where do your patients go after being discharged?

2. Determine whether you want to partner with any critical care facilities, skilled nursing agencies, or home health agencies.

3.  Assess your current reimbursement rates and analyze what current delivery patterns must be revamped in order to maintain profitability.

4. Determine future care management and clinical reprogram needs.

5. Analyze ways to provide more efficient delivery components.

6. Communicate with your DME vendors.  Discuss ways to decrease spending and increase efficiency.

7.  Plan all ways in which you will follow the patient after discharge through the 90 day period.

8. Consult your attorney.

If you would like to comment on the proposed rule, you have until September 8, 2015 at 5:00pm.

MCO CEO Compensated $400,000 Plus Bonuses with Our Tax Dollars!

On July 1, 2014, Cardinal Innovations, one of NC’s managed care organizations (MCOs) granted its former CEO, Ms. Pam Shipman, a 53% salary increase, raising her salary to $400,000/year. In addition to the raise, Cardinal issued Ms. Shipman a $65,000 bonus based on 2013-2014 performance.

$400,000 a year, plus bonuses.  Apparently, I got into the wrong career; the public sector seems to pay substantially more.

Then in July 2015, according to the article in the Charlotte Observer, Cardinals paid Ms. Shipman an additional $424,975, as severance. Within one year, Ms. Shipman was paid by Cardinal a whopping $889,975. Almost one million dollars!!!! To manage 16 counties’ behavioral health care services for Medicaid recipients.

For comparison purposes, the President of the United States earns $400,000/year (to run the entire country). Does the CEO of Cardinal equate to the President of the United States? Like the President, the CEO of Cardinal, along with all the other MCOs’ CEOs, are compensated with tax dollars.

Remember that the entire purpose of the MCO system is to decrease the risk of Medicaid budget overspending by placing the financial risk of overspending on the MCO instead of the State. In theory, the MCOs would be apt to conservatively spend funds and more carefully monitor the behavioral health care services provided to consumers within its catchment area to ensure medically necessity and not wasteful, unnecessary services.

Also, in theory, if the mission of the MCOs were to provide top-quality, medically necessary, behavioral health care services for all Medicaid recipients in need within its catchment area, as the MCOs often tout, then, theoretically, the MCOs would decrease administrative costs in order to provide higher quality, beefier services, increase reimbursement rates to incentivize health care providers to accept Medicaid, and maybe, even, not build a brand, new, stand-alone facility with top-notch technology and a cafeteria that looks how I would imagine Googles’ to look.

Here is how Cardinal’s building was described in 2010:

This new three-story, 79,000-square-foot facility is divided into two separate structures joined by a connecting bridge.  The 69,000-square-foot building houses the regional headquarters and includes Class A office space with conference rooms on each floor and a fully equipped corporate board room.  This building also houses a consumer gallery and a staff cafe offering an outdoor dining area on a cantilevered balcony overlooking a landscaped ravine.  The 10,000-square-foot connecting building houses a corporate training center. Computer access flooring is installed throughout the facility and is supported by a large server room to maintain redundancy of information flow.

The MCOs are not private companies. They do not sell products or services. Our tax dollars comprise the MCOs’ budget. Here is a breakdown of Cardinal’s budgetary sources from last year.

Cardinals budget

The so-called “revenues” are not revenues; they are tax dollars…our tax dollars.

78.1% of Cardinal’s budget, in 2014, came from our Medicaid budget. The remaining 21.7% came from state, federal, and county tax dollars, leaving .2% in the “other” category.

Because Cardinal’s budget is created with tax dollars, Cardinal is a public company working for all of us, tax paying, NC, residents.

When we hear that Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, received $9.22 million in compensation last year, we only contributed to his salary if we bought Apple products. If I never bought an Apple product, then his extraordinarily high salary is irrelevant to me. If I did buy an Apple product, then my purchase was a voluntary choice to increase Apple’s profits, or revenues.

When we hear that Cardinal Innovations paid $424,975 to ousted CEO, Pam Shipman, over and above her normal salary of $400,000 a year, we all contributed to Shipman’s compensation involuntarily. Similarly, the new CEO, Richard Toppings, received a raise when he became CEO to increase his salary to $400,000 a year. Again, we contributed to his salary.

A private company must answer to its Board of Directors. But an MCO, such as Cardinal, must answer to tax payers.

I work very hard, and I expect that my dollars be used intelligently and for the betterment of society as a whole. Isn’t that the purpose of taxes? I do not pay taxes in order for Cardinal to pay its CEO $400,000.

For better or for worse, a large percentage of our tax dollars, here in NC, go to the Medicaid budget. I would venture that most people would agree that, as a society, we have a moral responsibility to ensure that our most vulnerable population…our poorest citizens…have adequate health care. No one should be denied medical coverage and our physicians cannot be expected to dole out charity beyond their means.

Hence, Medicaid.

We know that Medicaid recipients have a difficult time finding physicians who will accept Medicaid. We know that a Medicaid card is inferior to a private payor card and limits provider choice and allowable services. We know that certain services for which our private insurances pay, simply, are not covered by Medicaid. Why should a Medicaid-insured person receive sub-par medical services or have more difficulty finding willing providers, while privately insured persons receive high quality medical care with little effort?  See blog or blog.

Part of the trouble with Medicaid is the low reimbursements given to health care providers. Health-care consulting firm Merritt Hawkins conducted a study of Medicaid acceptance rates which found that just 45.7 percent of physicians are now accepting Medicaid patients in the U.S.’s largest 15 cities and the numbers worsen when you look at sub-specialties.

The reimbursement rates are so low for health care providers; the Medicaid services are inadequate, at best; and people in need of care have difficulty finding Medicaid physicians. Yet the CEO of Cardinal Innovations is compensated $400,000 per year.

Cardinal has 635 employees. Its five, top-paid executives are compensated $284,000-$400,000 with bonuses ranging $56,500-$122,000.

Richard Topping, Cardinal’s new CEO, told the Charlotte Observer that “it doesn’t cut into Medicaid services.”

He was also quoted as saying, “It’s a lot of money. It is. You’ve just got to look at the size and the scope and the scale.”

In contrast, Governor McCrory is compensated approximately $128,000.  Is McCrory’s “size, scope, and scale” smaller than the CEO’s of Cardinal?  Is the CEO of Cardinal “size and scope and scale,” more akin to the President of the US?

“We are a public entity that acts like a private company for a public purpose,” Toppings says.  Each MCO’s Board of Directors approve salaries and bonuses.

Cardinal is not the only MCO in NC compensating its CEO very well.  However, according to the Charlotte Observer, Cardinal’s CEO’s compensation takes the cake.

Smokey Mountain Center (SMC) pays its Chief Medical Officer Craig Martin $284,000 with a $6,789 longevity bonus.

Four years ago, before the initial 11 MCOs, the administrative cost of the MCOs was nonexistent (except for the pilot program, Piedmont Behavioral Health, which is Cardinal now).  Implementing the MCO system increased administrative costs, without question.  But by how much?  How much additional administrative costs are acceptable?

Is it acceptable to pay $400,000+ for a CEO of a public entity with our tax dollars?

NCTracks Lawsuit Dismissed! Judge Finds Providers Failed to Exhaust Their Administrative Remedies!

Remember July 1, 2013? Providers across North Carolina probably still suffer PTSD at the mention of the “go-live” date for NCTracks.  If you remember July 1, 2013, you probably also remember that my former firm filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the physicians in NC who suffered losses from NCTracks’ inception.

There was oral argument at the NC Business Court.

Judge McGuire, of the NC Business Court, dismissed the NCTracks class action lawsuit stating the providers failed to exhaust the administrative remedies.  The Order reads, in part:

“Ultimately, the burden of proving that administrative remedies are inadequate in this action rests on Plaintiffs.  Jackson, 131 N.C. App. at 186.  Although sympathetic to the apparently difficult administrative process, the Court concludes that, particularly in light of the fact that not a single Plaintiff has attempted to use the available administrative procedures to resolve their Medicaid reimbursement claims, Plaintiffs have simply failed to satisfy this burden.  Accordingly, Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) should be GRANTED.”

While I understand the logic applied to come to this decision, I do not necessarily agree with the outcome.  There are exceptions to the exhaustion of administrative remedies, which, in my humble opinion, are present here.

(This blog contains my own opinions as to the NCTracks ruling and not those of my present or former firms.  It is not intended to claim any ruling was incorrect or inconsistent with case law, rules, and statutes).

(Try to read the foregoing sentences in a fast-paced, tiny, whispery voice, like a pharmaceutical commercial).

Regardless, where does this decision leave the physicians in NC who suffered under an, admittedly, botched, beginning of NCTracks? (Even DHHS recognized the imperfections at the beginning).

First, what is the doctrine of failure of administrative remedies? (I was going to start with what is NCTracks, but you do not know what NCTracks is, you probably should begin reading some of my earlier blog posts: blog; and blog; and blog).

In a nutshell, the exhaustion doctrine dictates that if a party disagrees with an adverse action of a state agency that the party must exhaust its administrative remedies before asking for relief from a civil court judge.

What?

Law 101: The Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) has limited jurisdiction. It only has jurisdiction over those matters specifically granted to it by statute. If you have an issue with a final adverse decision of a state agency, you sue at OAH. In other words, if you want to sue a state agency, such as DHHS, or any of its agents, like an MCO, you sue at OAH, not Superior Court.  An Administrative Law Judge, or ALJ, presides over the court.  While OAH is more informal than Superior Court, OAH follows the rules of civil procedure unless an administrative rule exists.

If a Superior Court were to find that the party failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, then the court would find that the party lacked subject matter jurisdiction; i.e., the court is holding that it does not have the authority to determine the legal question at issue.

You would be back to square one, and, potentially, miss an appeal deadline.

In the Medicaid world this is similar to a managed care organization (MCO) having an informal review process internally which would be required prior to bringing a Petition for Judicial Review at OAH.

Were you to bring a Petition for Judicial Review at OAH prior to attending an informal reconsideration review at the MCO, the ALJ would, most likely, dismiss the case for failure to exhaust your administrative remedies.

But in the NCTracks case, the Plaintiffs sued DHHS and Computer Science Corporation (CSC).  CSC is, arguably, not a state agency. The only way in which you could sue CSC at OAH would be for an ALJ to determine that CSC is an agent of a state agency.  And, who knows? Maybe CSC is an agent of DHHS.  Judge McGuire does not address this issue in his Order.

Many of you may wonder why I opine that CSC is not an agent of the state, yet surmise that the MCOs are agents of DHHS.  Here is my reasoning: DHHS, in order to bestow or delegate its powers of administering behavioral health to the MCOs, was required to request a Waiver from the federal government.  Unlike with CSC, DHHS merely contracted with CSC; no Waiver was required.  That Waiver (two Waivers, really, the 1915(b) and 1915(c)) allow the MCOs to step into the shoes of DHHS….to a degree…and only as far as was requested and approved by CMS…no more.  I view CSC as a contractor or vendor of DHHS, while the MCOs are limited agents.

Going back to NCTracks…

One can surmise that, because Judge McGuire dismissed the entire lawsuit and did not keep CSC as a party, Judge McGuire opined that CSC is an agent of DHHS.  But there is a possibility that the providers sue in OAH and an ALJ determines that OAH is not a proper venue for CSC.  Then what? Back to Superior Court and/or Business Court?

Why do you have to exhaust your administrative remedies? It does seem too burdensome to jump through all the hoops.

The rationale behind requiring parties to exhaust their administrative remedies is that those entities (such as OAH) that hear these specialized cases over and over and develop an expertise to decide the certain esoteric matters that arise under their jurisdiction. Also, the doctrine of separation of powers dictates that an agency created by Congress should be allowed to carry out its duties without undue interference from the judiciary.

For example, Judges Don Overby and Melissa Lassiter, ALJs at the NC OAH have, without question, presided over more Medicaid cases than any Superior Court Judge in the state (unless a Superior Court is a former ALJ, like Judge Beecher Gray).  The thinking is that, since Overby and Lassiter, or, ALJs, generally, have presided over more Medicaid cases than the average judge, that the ALJs have formed expertise in area.  Which is probably true.  It cannot be helped.  When you hear the same arguments over and over, you tend to research the answers and form an opinion.

So there is the “why,” what about the exceptions?

There are exceptions to the general rule of having to exhaust your administrative remedies that may or may not be present in the NC tracks case.  If you ask me, exceptions are present. If you ask Judge McGuire vis-à-vis his Order, there are no exceptions that were applicable.

One such exception to the general rule that you must exhaust your administrative remedies is if bringing a case at the informal administrative level would be futile.  If you can prove futility, then you are not required to exhaust your administrative remedies. Another exception is if you are requesting monetary damages that cannot be awarded at the administrative law level.

Where the administrative remedy is inadequate, a plaintiff is not required to exhaust that remedy before turning to the courts. Shell Island, 134 N.C. App. at 222. The burden of establishing the inadequacy of an administrative remedy is on the party asserting inadequacy. Huang v. N.C. State Univ., 107 N.C. App. 110, 115 (1992).

What DHHS argued, in order to have the case dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and Judge McGuire agreed with, is:

that adequate administrative remedies exist for all health care providers when NCTracks improperly denies claims.

This holding is not without questions.

Some providers re-bill denied claims over and over.  There is a question as to when do you appeal?  The first denial? The second? The Fourteenth?  At which point do you accept the denial from NCTracks as a “final agency decision?”  Do you use the “3 strikes and you’re out” rule?  Do you give NCTracks a mulligan? Or do you wait until NCTracks “fouls out” with a 6th denial?

Another question that remains hanging in the wake of the NCTracks dismissal is how will providers handle the sheer volume of denials. Some providers receive voluminous denials.  Some RAs can be hundreds of pages long.

Let’s contemplate this argument in a hypothetical.  You run a nephrology practice.  The bulk of your patients are Medicaid (90% Medicaid, although 50% are dual eligible with Medicaid/Medicare). You have approximately 500-700 patients, who come see your doctors because they are in need of dialysis.  You know that if a person does not receive dialysis that there is a chance that the person can enter Stage 5 (end stage renal disease) and die quickly. However, upon July 1, 2013, when NCTracks went live, you stopped receiving Medicaid payments completely.  Do you stop accepting and treating your Medicaid patients? Obviously you do not stop accepting Medicaid patients?  But your practice cannot sustain itself.  Even if you continue to treat Medicaid patients, at some point, you will  be out of business, failing to meet payroll, and being forced to involuntarily not treat your patients.

Your patients in need of dialysis come to the office 3x per week.  A single hemodialysis treatment typically costs up to $500 or more — or, about $72,000 or more per year for the typical three treatments per week.

Let’s approximate with 500 patients.  500 patients multiplied by 3x per week is 1,500 per week. That is 1,500 denials per week.  What Judge McGuire is saying is that your office is burdened with appealing 1,500 denials per week.  Or 6,000 denials per  month. Or 72,000 appeals per year.

Which of your office staff will be charged with appealing at OAH 72,000 denials per year? The physicians?  You, the office manager (because you obviously have nothing else to do)?  The receptionist? Hire someone new?  For how much?  How will you recoup the cost of appealing 72,000 denials per year?  How many hours does it cost to appeal one?  Hire an attorney?

Obviously, my example is one of an extreme case with 100% denials. But the sentiment holds true even for 30%, 40%, or 50% of denials. The sheer volume would be overwhelming.

And you can imagine the backlog that would be created at OAH.

Judge McGuire’s decision that plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies issue appears to be based, in part, that because no plaintiff had tried to go to OAH, plaintiffs could not convince him that the administrative remedy was non-functional.

“Significantly, none of the Plaintiffs even attempted to use the administrative procedures to address the failure to pay claims and other issues they allegedly encountered in attempting to use NCTracks. Instead, Plaintiffs allege that the administrative process would have been futile and inadequate to provide the relief they seek.”  See Abrons Family Practice v. DHHS and CSC, ¶ 36 (emphasis added).

What now?

Well, first of all, when I moved to Gordon & Rees, I left this case in the capable hands of my former partners, so I have no special intelligence, but I wager that this is not the end.

There are choices. They could:

(1) Appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals;

(2) File an insurmountable number of petition’s at OAH; or

(3) Do nothing.

For some reason, I have my doubts that #3 will occur.

What do you think???  What should the Plaintiffs do now in the wake of this dismissal?

State Auditor Finds Taxpayer Waste at OMMISS!!!!

New State Auditor report investigates the Office of Medicaid Management Information Systems Services (OMMISS) within the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

With DHHS’ emphasis on detecting health care providers’ fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA) across the state, it seems ironic that its own agency is deemed guilty of wastefulness by our State Auditor.  What’s that about glass houses……??

What exactly does OMMISS do?  Well, for one, OMMISS works with Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) regarding NCTracks.  We all know how wonderfully NCTracks has operated since inception….See blog. And blog.

State Auditor Beth Wood finds:

KEY FINDINGS

 At least $1.6 million wasted through excessive wages and commissions, unjustified overtime, and
holiday pay to ineligible employees

 OMMISS Director engaged in or allowed nepotism

 OMMISS Director received unauthorized compensatory time that may result in inflated retirement
benefits

 Reports to General Assembly omitted at least $260,000 of overtime and compensatory time

 Lack of adequate oversight of OMMISS despite findings in prior audit reports