Category Archives: Administrative Costs

RAC Forecast: Increased RAC Audits with a High Likelihood of Recoupments

Data regarding the success of the Medicare RAC program does not lie, right? If the report shows success, then increase the RAC process!! And to anyone who reads the new report to Congress…a success the RAC process is!

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently published its 2016 results of the Medicare Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) program. And CMS was not shy in reporting high rates of returns due to the RAC program. With results as amazing as the report touts, it is clear that the Medicare RACs are hoping that this new report on the hundreds of millions they’ve recovered for Medicare will cause the CMS to reverse course on its decision to limit the number of claims they can review. After reviewing the report to CMS, I will be shocked if Congress does not loosen the limitations placed on RACs in the last couple years. The report acts as marketing propaganda to Congress.

My forecast: increased RAC audits with a high likelihood of recoupments.

The RAC program is divided into 5 regions (currently):

2018-09-26 -- RACMapImage.png

In 2016, the RAC regions were arranged a bit differently:

Screen Shot 2018-09-26 at 3.47.10 PM

The mission of the RAC program is to identify and correct overpayments made on claims for health care services provided to beneficiaries, to identify underpayments to providers, and to provide information that allows the CMS to implement corrective actions that will prevent future improper payments. As most of my readers are well aware, I have been critical of the RAC program in the past for being overzealous and hyper (overly) – technical, in an erroneous kind of way. See blog. And blog.

The Social Security Act (SSA), which allows for RAC programs, also requires that the CMS publish and submit a yearly “self-audit” on the RAC program. Even though we are almost in October 2018, the recent report released to Congress covers 2016 – apparently CMS’ data gathering lags a bit (lot). If I have to get my 2018 taxes to the IRS by April 15, 2019, shouldn’t CMS have a similar deadline? Instead of submitting information for 2016 when it’s almost 2019…

RACs are paid on a contingency fee basis, which incentivize the RACs to discover billing irregularities. The amount of the contingency fee is a percentage of the improper payment recovered from, or reimbursed to, providers. The RACs negotiate their contingency fees at the time of the contract award. The base contingency fees range from 10.4 – 14.4% for all claim types, except durable medical equipment (DME). The contingency fees for DME claims range from 15.4 – 18.9%. The RAC must return the contingency fee if an improper payment determination is overturned at any level of appeal although I am unaware whether the RAC has to return the interested gained on holding that amount as well, which cannot be a minute amount given that the Medicare appeal backlog causes Medicare appeals to last upwards of 5 – 9 years.

Beginning in 2017, the RAC contracts had an amendment not previously found in past contracts. Now the RACs are to wait 30-days before reporting the alleged overpayment to the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs). The thought process behind this revision to the RAC contracts is that the 30-day wait period allows the providers to informally discuss the findings with the RACs to determine the provider has additional records germane to the audit that could change the outcome of the audit. Theoretically, going forward, providers should receive notification of an alleged overpayment from the RACs rather than the MACs.

And the 2016 results are (drum roll, please):

RACs uncovered $404.46 million in overpayments and $69.46 million in underpayments in fiscal year 2016, for a total of $473.92 million in improper payments being corrected. This represents a 7.5% increase from program corrections in FY 2015, which were $440.69 million.

63% of overpayments identified in 2016 (more than $278 million) were from inpatient hospital claims, including coding validation reviews.

RACs received $39.12 million in contingency fees.

After factoring in contingency fees, administrative costs, and amounts overturned on appeal, the RAC program returned $214.09 million to the Medicare trust funds in 2016.

CMS has implemented several elements to verify RAC accuracy in identifying improper payments. The Recovery Audit Validation Contractor (RVC) establishes an annual accuracy score for each RAC. Supposedly, if we are to take the CMS report as accurate and unbiased, in FY 2016, each RAC had an overall accuracy score of 91% or higher for claims adjusted from August 2015 through July 2016. I am always amazed at the government’s ability to warp percentages. I had a client given a 1.2% accuracy rating during a prepayment review that would rival J.K. Rowling any day of the year. Robert Galbraith, as well.

To address the backlog of Medicare appeals, CMS offered a settlement process that paid hospitals 68% of what they claimed they were owed for short-term inpatient stays. – I am not confident that this money was accounted for in the overall results of the RAC program in the recent report.

135,492 claims were appealed by healthcare providers. But the RAC report to Congress notes: “appealed claims may be counted multiple times if the claim had appeal decisions rendered at multiple levels during 2016.” Undeniably, if this number is close to accurate, there was a significant down swing of appeals by providers in 2016. (I wonder whether the hospital settlement numbers were included).

Of the total appealed claims, 56,724, or 41.9%, were overturned with decisions in the provider’s favor. (Fact check, please!). In my experience as a Medicare and Medicaid regulatory compliance litigator, the success rate for Medicare and Medicaid alleged overpayments is remarkably higher (but maybe my clients just hired a better attorney (wink, wink!).

With results this good, who needs more RAC auditing? We do!! If the report shows success, then increase the RAC process!! 

COA Dismisses AHA 340B Lawsuit!

The 340B drug program is a topic that needs daily updates. It seems that something is happening constantly. Like a prime time soap opera or The Bachelor, the 340B program is all the talk at the water cooler. From lawsuits to legislation to executive orders – there is no way of knowing the outcome, so we all wait with bated breath to watch who will hold the final rose.

On Tuesday, July 17, 2018, the metaphoric guillotine fell on the American Hospital Association (AHA) and on hospitals across the country. The Court of Appeals (COA) dismissed AHA’s lawsuit.

The Background 

On November 1, 2017, the US Department of Health and Human Services released a Final Rule implementing a payment reduction for most covered outpatient drugs billed to Medicare by 340B-participating hospitals from the current Average Sales Price (ASP) plus 6% rate to ASP minus 22.5%, which represents a payment cut of almost 30%.

Effective January 1, 2018, the 30% slash in reimbursement rates became reality, but only for locations physically connected to participating hospitals. CMS is expected to broaden the 30% reduction to all 340B-participating entities in the near future.

What is the 340B drug program? The easiest explanation for the 340B program is that government insurance, Medicare and Medicaid, do not want to pay full price for medicine. In an effort to reduce costs of drugs for the government payors, the government requires that all drug companies enter into a rebate agreement with the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as a precondition for coverage of their drugs by Medicaid and Medicare Part B. If a drug manufacturer wants its drug to be prescribed to Medicare and Medicaid patients, then it must pay rebates.

The Lawsuit

The American Hospital Association (“AHA”) filed for an injunction last year requesting that the US District Court enjoin CMS from implementing the 340B payment reduction. On the merits, AHA argues that the HHS’s near-30% rate reduction constitutes an improper exercise of its statutory rate-setting authority.

The US District Court did not reach an opinion on the merits; it dismissed the case, issued December 29, 2017, based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The District Court found that: Whenever a provider challenges HHS, there is only one potential source of subject matter jurisdiction—42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Medicare Act places strict limits on the jurisdiction of federal courts to decide ‘any claims arising under’ the Act.

The Supreme Court has defined two elements that a plaintiff must establish in order to satisfy § 405(g). First, there is a non-waivable, jurisdictional requirement that a claim for benefits shall have been “presented” to the Secretary. Without presentment, there is no jurisdiction.

The second element is a waivable requirement to exhaust administrative remedies. I call this legal doctrine the Monopoly requirement. Do not pass go. Go directly to jail. Do not collect $200. Unlike the first element, however, a plaintiff may be excused from this obligation when, for example, exhaustion would be futile. Together, § 405(g)’s two elements serve the practical purpose of preventing premature interference with agency processes, so that the agency may function efficiently and so that it may have an opportunity to correct its own errors, to afford the parties and the courts the benefit of its experience and expertise, and to compile a record which is adequate for judicial review. However, there are ways around these obsolete legal doctrines in order to hold a state agency liable for adverse decisions.

Following the Dec. 29, 2017, order by the District Court, which dismissed the lawsuit on jurisdictional grounds, the plaintiffs (AHA) appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals (COA), which promptly granted AHA’s request for an expedited appeal schedule.

In their brief, AHA contends that the District Court erred in dismissing their action as premature and that their continued actual damages following the Jan. 1 payment reduction’s effective date weighs heavily in favor of preliminary injunctive relief. More specifically, AHA argues that 30% reduction is causing irreparable injury to the plaintiffs “by jeopardizing essential programs and services provided to their communities and the vulnerable, poor and other underserved populations, such as oncology, dialysis, and immediate stroke treatment services.”

By contrast, the government’s brief rests primarily on jurisdictional arguments, specifically that: (1) the Medicare Act precludes judicial review of rate-setting activities by HHS; and (2) the District Court was correct that no jurisdiction exists.

Oral arguments in this appeal were May 4, 2018.

AHA posted in its newsletter that the COA seemed most interested in whether Medicare law precludes judicial review of CMS’ rule implementing the cuts. AHA says it hopes a ruling will be reached in the case sometime this summer.

In a completely different case, the DC District Court is contemplating a request to toll the time to file a Section 340B appeal.

AHA v. Azar, a case about RAC audits and the Medicare appeal backlog. During a March 22, 2018, hearing, the COA asked AHA to submit specific proposals that AHA wishes the COA to impose and why current procedures are insufficient. It was filed June 22, 2018.

In it proposal, AHA pointed out that HHS is needlessly causing hospitals to file thousands of protective appeals by refusing to toll the time for hospitals to file appeals arising out of the reduction in reimbursement that certain 340B hospitals. In order to avoid potential arguments from the government that 340B hospitals that do not administratively appeal the legality of a reduced rate will be time barred from seeking recovery if the court holds that the reduction in payments is unlawful, AHA proposed that the Secretary agree to toll the deadline for such appeals until resolution of the 340B litigation—an arrangement that would preserve the 340B hospitals’ right to full reimbursement in the event the 340B litigation is not successful. HHS has refused to toll the time, meaning that Section 340B hospitals will have to protect their interests in the interim by filing thousands upon thousands of additional claim appeals, which will add thousands upon thousands of more appeals to the current ALJ-level backlog.

The Decision

In a unanimous decision, three judges from the COA sided with HHS and ruled the hospitals’ suit was filed prematurely because hospitals had not formally filed claims with HHS because they were not yet experiencing cuts.

Basically, what the judges are saying is that you cannot ask for relief before the adverse action occurs. Even though the hospitals knew the 30% rate reduction would be implemented January 1, 2018, they had to wait until the pain was felt before they could ask for relief.

The lawsuit was not dismissed based on the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies. The Decision noted that in some cases plaintiffs might be justified in seeking judicial review before they have exhausted their administrative remedies, but that wouldn’t be the solution here.

Hindsight is always 20-20. I read the 11 page decision. But I believe that AHA failed in two ways that may have changed the outcome: (1) Nowhere in the decision does it appear that the attorneys for AHA argued that the subject matter jurisdiction issue was collateral to the merits; and (2) The lawsuit was filed pre-January 1, 2018, but AHA could have amended its complaint after January 1, 2018, to show injury and argue that its comments were rejected (final decision) by the rule being implemented.

But, hey, we will never know.

CMS Initiates Process to Decrease the Medicare Appeal Backlog: But You May Have to Beg!

Last week, (May 22nd) the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) unveiled a new, streamlined appeal process aimed at decreasing the massive Medicare appeal backlog. CMS is hopeful that providers, like you, will choose to settle your Medicare appeal cases instead continuing the litigious dispute. Remember, currently, the backlog at the third level of Medicare appeals, the administrative law judge (ALJ) level, is approximately 5 – 8 years (I will use 8 years for the purpose of this blog). Recoupment can legally begin after level two, so many providers go out of business waiting to be heard at the third level. See blog.

The new “settlement conference facilitation” (SCF) process will allow CMS to make a settlement offer and providers have seven days to accept or proceed with the longer-lasting route. I have a strong sense that, if litigated, a judge would find forcing the decision between accepting a quick settlement versus enduring an 8-year waiting-period to present before an ALJ, coercion. But, for now, it is A choice other than the 8-year wait-period (as long as the provider met the eligibility requirements, see below).

To initiate said SCF process, a provider would have to submit a request in writing to CMS. CMS would then have 15 days to reply. If the agency chooses to take part, a settlement conference would occur within four weeks. Like that underlined part? I read the SCF process as saying, even if the provider qualifies for such process, CMS still has the authority to refuse to participate. Which begs the question, why have a process that does not have to be followed?

The SCF process is directed toward sizable providers with older and more substantial, alleged overpayments. In order to play, you must meet the criteria to enter the game. Here are the eligibility requirements:

2018-05-29 -- Pic of eligibility

The Backlog

In fiscal year (FY) 2016, more than 1.2 billion Medicare fee-for-service claims were processed. Over 119 million claims (or 9.7%) were denied. Of the denied claims, 3.5 million (2.9% of all Medicare denied claims) were appealed. That seems surprisingly low to me. But many claims are denied to Medicare recipients, who would be less inclined to appeal. For example, my grandma would not hire an attorney to appeal a denied claim; it would be fiscally illogical. However, a hospital that is accused of $10 million in alleged overpayments will hire an attorney.

In recent years, the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) and the Council have received more appeals than they can process within the statutorily-defined time frames. From FY 2010 through FY 2015, OMHA experienced an overall 442% increase in the number of appeals received annually. As a result, as of the end of FY 2016, 658,307 appeals were waiting to be adjudicated by OMHA. Under current resource levels (and without any additional appeals), it would take eight years for OMHA and ten years for the Council to process their respective backlogs.

The SCF “Fix”

While I do not believe that the creation of the SCF process is a fix, it is a concerted step in the right direction. Being that it was just enacted, we do not have any trial results. So many things on paper look good, but when implemented in real life end so poorly. For example, the Titanic.

Considering that there is a court case that found Health and Human Services (HHS) in violation of federal regulations that require level three Medicare appeals to be adjudicated in 90 days, instead of 8 years and HHS failed to follow the Order, claiming impossibility, at least HHS is making baby steps. See blog. At some point, Congress is going to have to increase funding to hire additional ALJs. I can only assume that the Hospital Association and American Medical Association are lobbying to get this action, but you know what they say about assuming…

As broached above, I do not like the fact that – if you do not accept whatever amount CMS proposes as settlement – BOOM – negotiation is over and you suffer the 8-year backlog time, undergo recoupments (that may not be appropriate), and incur tens of thousands of attorneys’ fees to continue litigation. Literally, CMS has no incentive to settle and you have every reason to settle. The only incentive for CMS to settle that I can fathom is that CMS wants this SCF program to be a success for the jury of public opinion, therefore, will try to get a high rate of success. But do not fool yourself.

You are the beggar and CMS is the King.

 

Former Cardinal CEO files countersuit to retain severance

Here are our tax dollars continuing to be used for such great purposes!!! I completely understand Cardinal’s desire to recoup our tax dollars that went into Topping’s pocket – noble, indeed. But I am stumped as how, supposedly, Topping had the executive authority to unilaterally name his salary?? Did he have such authority – or, like many companies, was Topping’s exorbitant salary a Board decision? And – if Topping’s salary were a Board decision – is Cardinal suing itself for past poor decisions???? Curiouser and curiouser.

Regardless, let’s give a “hat’s off” and a “thank you” to Richard Craver staying on top of this important and upsetting issue. #icantwaituntilwererich (see below for context).

By Richard Craver Winston-Salem Journal

The fired chief executive of Cardinal Innovations, Richard Topping Jr., filed Tuesday his countersuit to thwart the agency’s attempt to recover $1.68 million in paid severance.

A reconstituted board of directors for Cardinal, the state’s largest behavioral health managed care organization, has alleged that Topping used his post to enrich himself and three other executives. That board filed its lawsuit March 29.

Both lawsuits were filed in Mecklenburg Superior Court.

The agency oversees providers of mental, substance abuse and development disabilities services for 20 counties, including Forsyth County. It has responsibility for more than 850,000 Medicaid recipients and more than $675 million in federal and state Medicaid funding.

According to an investigation done by former federal prosecutor Kurt Meyers at the new board’s request, Topping convinced the former board leadership to pay him the severance before he was removed by state health Secretary Mandy Cohen on Nov. 27 as part of a N.C. Department of Health and Human Services takeover of Cardinal.

The current Cardinal board not only wants to recoup $3.8 million in overall executive severance, but also at least $125,000 in damages. The complaint called Topping’s severance “excessive and unlawful payments.”

Topping faces seven claims in the Cardinal lawsuit: breach of contract; breach of fiduciary duties; breach of implied duty of good faith and fair dealing (in his role as CEO); conversion (deleting data from Cardinal-owned devices and not returning Cardinal electronic property); unjust enrichment; constructive trust (knowingly accepting overpayments in severance); and constructive fraud (taking without permission highly confidential Cardinal financial and operational data).

“He inflated his salary without regard to the reputational, regulatory and legal damages it was going to cause,” Meyers said.

Topping claims his reputation has been “severely damaged” in the healthcare sector by the Cardinal lawsuit and investigation.

Topping called claims made in Meyers’ detailed presentation “misleading and false” even though it contained email and text exchanges between Topping, former Cardinal executives and former board chairwoman Lucy Drake about his post-Cardinal plans.

“Topping took these steps acknowledging he would never get another contract with Cardinal, nor likely with any other North Carolina healthcare provider,” Trey Sutten said March 29. Sutten was named as interim CEO by Cohen on Nov. 27 and full-time CEO on March 29.

The Charlotte Observer said among those named by Topping as defendants were Cardinal general counsel Chuck Hollowell, deputy general counsel Stephen Martin and board vice chairwoman Carmen Hooker Odom. DHHS said Tuesday it had no comment about Topping’s countersuit.

Topping was paid as much as $635,000 in annual salary, about 3½ times the maximum allowed under state law.

Topping has claimed the salary, which was raised twice by the former board during his term, was justified based on an independent market survey of Charlotte-area healthcare executives. The Charlotte Observer said Topping claims he and the other former executives were paid at the 50th percentile of market rates.

According to Meyers’ investigation, Topping pressured the former board not to fire him for several months by saying that if he was terminated, his entire management team would also leave with him. According to Meyers, Topping told the board that if that action occurred, it would “end Cardinal as they knew it.”

Topping claimed he did not create the severance platform in dispute.

“Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, Carmen Hooker Odom, Chuck Hollowell and Stephen Martin deny the false claims and baseless allegations brought by former CEO Richard Topping,” Cardinal spokeswoman Ashley Conger said in a statement.

Texts and emails between Topping and Pete Murphy, former chief information officer, epitomized their self-enrichment thinking, Meyers said.

The former board paid $1.7 million in severance to Topping, along with $740,000 to Murphy; $690,000 to Will Woodell, chief operating officer; and $684,000 to Dr. Ranota Hall, chief medical officer.

One exchange— sent Nov. 17 before Topping was fired by the former board — involved Murphy and Topping discussing Topping’s securing 1.5-gigabytes of highly confidential Cardinal management files, including personnel files, before leaving his post.

Murphy wrote that Topping “was smart to take files now.” Topping ended the text with an emoji with a finger over the lips. Meyers said he interpreted that emoji as saying “Shhh. Be quiet, and don’t tell anyone what I’m doing.”

An email exchange between the former executives took place after Topping’s termination by the former board. The board agreed to allow Topping to remain as CEO through Nov. 30.

The context, according to Meyers, was Topping’s work to secure venture capital or private equity for a private startup business, potentially to compete against Cardinal in the planned Medicaid reform marketplace with Cardinal’s confidential financial and operational information in hand.

“I can’t wait until we’re rich,” Murphy wrote. Topping answered, “I’ve made great progress on that front.” (emphasis added).

Topping’s lawsuit claims he was gathering information to create a healthcare smartphone app.

_________________________________

For background, see blog and blog.

Medicare and Medicaid Providers: Administrative Law 101 and Hiring an Attorney from Out-of-State

What in the world is administrative law???? If you are a Medicare or Medicaid provider, you better know!

Most of my blogs are about Medicare and Medicaid providers and the tangled web of regulatory rules and regulations that they must abide by in order to continue providing medically necessary services to our most-needy and elderly populations. This time, however, I am going to blog about (1) administrative law 101 (which I am coming to the realization that few providers understand); and (2) out-of-state attorneys – and why you may need to seek out an attorney from another state from which you live (and why it is possible). Attorneys are licensed state-by-state and, lately, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about “how can you represent me in Nevada when you are in NC?” and when I Googled this topic – I found that there is very little information out there. I am here to teach and teach I will. Read on if you want to learn; close this browser if you do not. The other goal of this blog is to educate you on administrative law. Because administrative law is vastly different than normal law, yet it pertains to Medicare and Medicaid providers, such as you. My last goal with this blog is to educate you on the expense of hiring an attorney and why, in some instances, it may be more costly than others. Whew! We have a lot to go through!

Let’s get started…

A lot of potential clients often ask me how are you able to represent me in Nebraska when you live in North Carolina? Or Alaska? (yes, I have a client in Alaska). I figured I should clear up the confusion. (The “administrative law class” portion of this blog is interwoven throughout the blog – not my best blog, organizational-wise; but we cannot all be perfect).

There are three ways in which an attorney can represent an out-of-state client if that attorney does not have the State’s Bar license for the State in which you reside. Just in case you didn’t know, attorneys get licensed on a state-by-state basis. For example, I have my Bar licenses in North Carolina and Georgia. It is similar to how physicians have to get State licenses. However, I represent healthcare providers in approximately 30 states. I don’t have a client in Iowa yet, so any healthcare providers in Iowa – Hello!! Now we need to understand – how is this possible?

Let’s take a step back, in case there are those who are wondering what a Bar license is; it is a license to practice law and, literally, means that you can go past the bar in a courtroom.

courtroom.jpg

Number One

The first way in which in attorney can represent an out-of-state client is because most Medicaid and Medicare provider appeals must be brought before Administrative Court. In North Carolina, our Administrative Court is called the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). OAH is the administrative agency for the Judicial Branch. An Administrative Court is the type of court specializing in administrative law, particularly in disputes concerning the exercise of public power. Their role is to ascertain that official/governmental acts are consistent with the law. Such courts are considered separate from general courts. For most state’s Administrative Courts, attorneys do not have to be licensed in that state. Most people don’t know the difference between Administrative Courts versus normal civil courts, like Superior and District courts. Or Magistrate Courts, for example, where Judge Judy would be. I certainly didn’t know what administrative law was even after I graduated law school. Quite frankly, I didn’t take the administrative law class in law school because I had no idea that I would be doing 89.125% administrative law in my real, adult life (I still file federal and state injunctions and sue the government in civil court, but the majority of my practice is administrative).

Administrative laws, which are applicable to Medicare and Medicaid providers, are laws pertaining to administrative agencies (seems self-defining). Administrative court is defined as a court that specializes in dealing with cases relating to the way in which government bodies exercise their powers.

There are literally hundreds of federal administrative agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, known as the EPA. If I have a pollution complaint, I contact the EPA. Another example is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, known as the EEOC. This agency is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate a job applicant or employee. If I have a discrimination complaint, I contact the EEOC. Another example is the Consumer Product Safety Commission, known as CPSC, which is the independent agency that oversees the safety of products sold in the United States. If I have a problem with the safety of the product that I bought, I contact the CPSC. Complaints to government agencies, such as the EPA, do not go to normal, civil court. These complaints, otherwise known as petitions for contested case hearings, go to Administrative Court and are overseen by Administrative Law Judges (“ALJs”). Same is true for Medicare and Medicaid provider disputes. You cannot go to Superior Court until you have gone through Administrative Court otherwise your case will be kicked out because of an esoteric legal doctrine known as “exhaustion of administrative remedies.” See blog.

Here is a picture of North Carolina’s Raleigh OAH. You can see, from the picture below, that it does not look like a normal courthouse. It’s a beautiful building – don’t get me wrong. But it does not look like a courthouse.

OAH

Our OAH is located at 1711 New Hope Church Road, Raleigh NC, 27609. OAH used to be downtown Raleigh and one of the historic houses, but that got a little cramped.

Complaints about Medicare and Medicaid regulatory compliance issues go to Administrative Court because these complaints are against a government agency known as the Health Service Department or the Department of Health and Human Services, depending on which state within you live – the names may differ, but the responsibility does not.

Bringing a lawsuit in Administrative Court with an out-of-state attorney is the cheapest method. There is no need to pay local counsel to file pleadings. There is no need to pay to be pro hac-ed in (see below). Sure, you have to pay for travel expenses, but as we all know, you get what you pay for. If you don’t have an expert in Medicare or Medicaid in your state you need to look elsewhere. [Disclaimer – I am not saying you have to hire me. Just hire an expert].

Number Two

Very few states require administrative attorneys to have the State Bar license in which they are practicing. For those few States that do require a State Bar license, even for administrative actions, the second alternative to hire an attorney out-of-state is for the attorney to pro hac into that State. Pro hace vice is a fancy Latin phrase which means, literally, “for on this occasion only.” It allows out-of-state attorneys a way to ask the court to allow them to represent a client in a state in which they do not have a license. Again, the reason why this is important is that in a extremely, niche practices, there may not be an attorney with the expertise you need in your state. I know there are not that many attorneys that do the kind of law that I do, [possibly because it is emotionally-draining (because all your clients are financial and emotional distress), extremely esoteric, yet highly-rewarding (when you keep someone in business to continue to provide medically necessary services), but, at times, overwhelming and, without question, time-consuming]. Did someone say, “Vacation?” “Pro hac-ing in” (defined as the attorney asking the court to allow them to represent a client in a state for which they do not have a license for one-time only) is also helpful when I appear in state or federal courts.

Most states have a limit of how many times an attorney can pro hac. For example, in New Mexico, out-of-state attorneys can only pro hac into New Mexico State courts four times a year. The fee for an attorney to pro hac into a state court varies state-by-state, but the amount is nominal when you compare the fee against how much it would cost to hire local counsel.

Number Three

Thirdly, is by hiring local counsel. Some cases need to be escalated to federal or state court, and, in these instances, a Bar license in the state in which the case is being pursued is necessary. An example of why you would want to bring a lawsuit in federal or state court instead of an Administrative Court would be if you are asking for monetary damages. An Administrative Court does not have the jurisdiction to award such damages.

This is the scenario that I dislike the most because the client has to pay for another attorney only because their warm body possesses a State Bar license. Generally, local counsel does not do much heavy lifting. As in, they don’t normally contribute to the merits of the case. Because they have the State Bar license, they are used to file and sign-off on pleadings.

Cost

The first scenario – in which I represent a out-of-state client in Administrative Court, and do not need to hire local counsel or to get my pro hac, is the cheapest method for clients. As an aside, I spoke with an attorney from a bigger city yesterday and was amazed at his or her billable rates. Apparently, I’m steal.

The second most inexpensive way to hire an attorney from out-of-state is to have them get pro hac-ed in. There is a filing fee of, usually, a few hundred dollars in order to get pro hac-ed in. But, in some states, you don’t have to hire local counsel when you are pro hac-ed in.

The most expensive way to hire an out-of-state attorney is needing to hire local counsel as well. Let’s be honest – attorneys are expensive. Adding another into the pot just ups the ante, regardless how little they do. When attorneys charge $300, $400, or $500 an hour, very few hours add up to a lot of money (or $860/hour….what…zombies?).

If you do not agree with the decision that the Administrative Law Judge renders, then you can appeal to, depending in which state you reside, Superior Court or District Court. If you do not agree with the decision you receive in District Court or Superior Court, you then appeal to the Court of Appeals. On the appellate level, out-of-state attorneys would need to either be pro hac-ed on or hire local counsel.

Suspension of Medicare Reimbursements – Not Over 180 Days! Medicaid – Indefinite?!

When you get accused of Medicare or Medicaid fraud or of an alleged overpayment, the federal and state governments have the authority to suspend your reimbursements. If you rely heavily on Medicaid or Medicare, this suspension can be financially devastating. If your Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements are suspended, you have to hire an attorney. And, somehow, you have to be able to afford such legal representation without reimbursements. Sadly, this is why many providers simply go out of business when their reimbursements are suspended.

But, legally, how long can the state or federal government suspend your Medicare or Medicaid payments without due process?

According to 42 C.F.R. 405.371, the federal government may suspend your Medicare reimbursements upon ” reliable information that an overpayment exists or that the payments to be made may not be correct, although additional information may be needed for a determination.” However, for Medicare, there is a general rule that the suspension may not last more than 180 days. MedPro Health Providers, LLC v. Hargan, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 173441 *2.

There are also procedural safeguards. A Medicare provider must be provided notice prior to a suspension and given the opportunity to submit a rebuttal statement explaining why the suspension should not be implemented. Medicare must, within 15 days, consider the rebuttal, including any material submitted. The Medicare Integrity Manual states that the material provided by the provider must be reviewed carefully.

Juxtapose Medicaid:

42 CFR 455.23 states that “The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending under the Medicaid program against an individual or entity unless the agency has good cause to not suspend payments or to suspend payment only in part.”

Notice the differences…

Number one: In the Medicare regulation, the word used is “may” suspend.  In the Medicaid regulation, the word used is “must” suspend. This difference between may and must may not resonate as a huge difference, but, in the legal world, it is. You see, “must” denotes that there is no discretion (even though there is discretion in the good cause exception). On the other hand, “may” suggests more discretionary power in the decision.

Number two: In the Medicare regulation, notice is required. It reads, “Except as provided in paragraphs (d) and (e) of this section, CMS or the Medicare contractor suspends payments only after it has complied with the procedural requirements set forth at § 405.372.” 405.372 reads the Medicare contractor must notify the provider or supplier of the intention to suspend payments, in whole or in part, and the reasons for making the suspension. In the Medicaid regulation, no notice is required. 455.23 reads “The State Medicaid agency may  suspend payments without first notifying the provider of its intention to suspend such payments.”

Number three: In the Medicare regulation, a general limit of the reimbursement suspension is imposed, which is 180 days. In the Medicaid regulation, the regulations states that the suspension is “temporary” and must be lifted after either of the following (1) there is a determination of no credible allegations of fraud or (2) the legal proceedings regarding the alleged fraud are complete.

Yet I have seen States blatantly violate the “temporary” requirement. Consider the New Mexico situation. All the behavioral health care providers who were accused of Medicaid fraud have been cleared by the Attorney General. The regulation states that the suspension must be lifted upon either of the following – meaning, if one situation is met, the suspension must be lifted. Well, the Attorney General has cleared all the New Mexico behavioral health care providers of fraud. Criterion is met. But the suspension has not been lifted. The Health Services Department (HSD) has not lifted the suspension. This suspension has continued for 4 1/2 years. It began June 24, 2013. See blog, blog, and blog. Here is a timeline of events.

Why is there such a disparity in treatment with Medicare providers versus Medicaid providers?

The first thing that comes to mind is that Medicare is a fully federal program, while Medicaid is state-run. Although a portion of the funds for Medicaid comes from the federal government.

Secondly, Medicare patients pay part of costs through deductibles for hospital and other costs. Small monthly premiums are required for non-hospital coverage. Whereas, Medicaid patients pay nothing.

Thirdly, Medicare is for the elderly, and Medicaid is for the impoverished.

But should these differences between the two programs create such a disparity in due process and the length of reimbursement suspensions for health care providers? Why is a Medicare provider generally only susceptible to a 180 day suspension, while a Medicaid provider can be a victim of a 4 1/2 year suspension?

Parity, as it relates to mental health and substance abuse, prohibits insurers or health care service plans from discriminating between coverage offered for mental illness, serious mental illness, substance abuse, and other physical disorders and diseases. In short, parity requires insurers to provide the same level of benefits for mental illness, serious mental illness or substance abuse as for other physical disorders and diseases.

Does parity apply to Medicare and Medicaid providers?

Most of Medicare and Medicaid law is interpreted by administrative law judges. Most of the time, a health care provider, who is not receiving reimbursements cannot fund an appeal to Superior Court, the Court of Appeals, and, finally the Supreme Court. Going to the Supreme Court costs so much that most normal people will never present before the Supreme Court…it takes hundreds and hundreds upon thousands of dollars.

In January 1962, a man held in a Florida prison cell wrote a note to the United States Supreme Court. He’d been charged with breaking into a pool hall, stealing some Cokes, beer, and change, and was handed a five-year sentence after he represented himself because he couldn’t pay for a lawyer. Clarence Earl Gideon’s penciled message eventually led to the Supreme Court’s historic 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright ruling, reaffirming the right to a criminal defense and requiring states to provide a defense attorney to those who can’t afford one. But it does not apply to civil cases.

Furthermore, pro bono attorneys and legal aid attorneys, although much-needed for recipients, will not represent a provider.

So, until a health care provider, who is a gaga-zillionaire, pushes a lawsuit to the Supreme Court, our Medicare and Medicaid law will continue to be interpreted by administrative law judges and, perhaps, occasionally, by Superior Court. Do not take this message and interpret that I think that administrative law judges and Superior Court judges are incapable of interpreting the laws and fairly applying them to certain cases. That is the opposite of what I think. The point is that if the case law never gets to the Supreme Court, we will never have consistency in Medicare and Medicaid law. A District Court in New Mexico could define “temporary” in suspensions of Medicare and/or Medicaid reimbursements as 1 year. Another District Court in New York could define “temporary” as 1 month. Consistency in interpreting laws only happens once the Supreme Court weighs in.

Until then, stay thirsty, my friend.

Hostile Takeover: Cardinal Usurped by DHHS! Any Possible Relief to Providers for Misconduct?

DHHS has ousted and taken over Cardinal Innovations!

And may I just say – Finally! Thank you, Sec. Cohen.

Cardinal is/was the largest of seven managed care organizations (MCOs) that was given the task to manage Medicaid funds for behavioral health care recipients. These are Medicaid recipients suffering from developmental disabilities, mental health issues, and substance abuse; these are our population’s most needy. These MCOs are given a firehose of Medicaid money; i.e., tax dollars, and were entrusted by the State of North Carolina, each individual taxpayer, Medicaid recipients, and the recipients’ families to maintain an adequate network of health care providers and authorize medically necessary behavioral health care services. Cardinal’s budget was just over $682 million in 2016. Instead, I have witnessed, as a Medicaid and Medicare regulatory compliance litigator, and have legally defended hundreds of health care providers who were unlawfully terminated from the MCOs’ catchment areas, refused a contract with the MCOs, accused of owing overpayments to the MCOs for services that were appropriately rendered. To the point that the provider catchment areas are woefully underrepresented (especially in Minority-owned companies), recipients are not receiving medically necessary services, and the MCOs are denying medically necessary services. The MCOs do so under the guise of their police power. For years, I have been blogging that this police power is overzealous, unsupervised, unchecked, and in violation of legal authority. I have blogged that the MCOs act as the judge, jury, and executioner. I  have also stated that the actions of the MCOs are financially driven. Because when providers are terminated and services are not rendered, money is not spent, at least, on the Medicaid recipients’ services.

But, apparently, the money is spent on executives. This past May, State Auditor Beth Wood wrote a scathing performance audit regarding Cardinal’s lavish spending on CEO pay as well as on expensive Christmas parties and board retreats, charter flights for executives and “questionable” credit card purchases, including alcohol. All of that, her report said, threatened to “erode public trust.” Cardinal’s former CEO Richard Topping made more than $635,000 in salary this year. On Monday (November 21, 2017), DHHS escorted Topping and three other executives out the door. But they did not walk away empty handed. Topping walked away with a $1.7 million severance while three associates left with packages as high as $740,000 – of taxpayer money!

This overspending on salaries and administration is not new. Cardinal has been excessively spending on itself since inception. This has been a long term concern, and I congratulate Sec. Cohen for having the “cojones” to do something about it. (I know. Bad joke. I apologize for the French/Spanish).

In 2011, Cardinal spent millions of dollars constructing its administrative facility.

cardinaloutside

cardinal4 Break Room

cardconference Conference Room

According to Edifice, the company that built Cardinal Innovations’ grand headquarters, starting in 2011, Cardinal’s building is described as:

“[T[his 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.” How much did that cost the Medicaid recipients in Cardinal’s catchment area? Seem appropriate for an agent of the government spending tax money for luxurious office space? Shoot, my legal office is not even that nice. And I don’t get funded by tax dollars!

In 2015, I wrote:

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.

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!!!!

I have been blogging about MCO misconduct for YEARS. Seeblog, blog, blog, blog, and blog.

Now, finally, DHHS says Cardinal Innovations “acted unlawfully” in giving its ousted CEO $1.7 million in severance, and DHHS took over the Charlotte-based agency. It was a complete oust. One journalist quoted Cardinal as saying, “DHHS officials arrived at Cardinal “unexpectedly and informed the executive leadership team that the department is assuming control of Cardinal’s governance.”” Unexpected they say? Cardinal conducted unexpected audits all the time on their providers. But, the shoe hurts when it’s on the other foot.

The MCOs are charged with the HUGE  fiscal and moral responsibility, on behalf of the taxpayers, to manage North Carolina and federal tax dollars and authorize medically necessary behavioral health care services for Medicaid recipients, our population’s most needy. The MCOs in NC are as follows:

  1. Vaya Health
  2. Partners Behavioral Health Management
  3. Cardinal Innovations (formerly)
  4. Trillium Health Resources
  5. Eastpointe
  6. Alliance Behavioral Health Care
  7. Sandhills Center

The 1915 (b)(c) Waiver Program was initially implemented at one pilot site in 2005 and evaluated for several years. Two expansion sites were then added in 2012. The State declared it an immediate success and requested and received the authority from CMS to implement the MCO project statewide. Full statewide implementation is expected by July 1, 2013. The MCO project was intended to save money in the Medicaid program. The thought was that if these MCO entities were prepaid on a capitated basis that the MCOs would have the incentive to be fiscally responsible, provide the medically necessary services to those in need, and reduce the dollars spent on prisons and hospitals for mentally ill.

Sadly, as we have seen, fire hoses of tax dollars catalyze greed.

Presumably, in the goal of financial wealth, Cardinal Innovations, and, maybe, expectantly the other MCOs, have sacrificed quality providers being in network and medically necessary services for Medicaid recipients, Cardinal has terminated provider contracts. And for what? Luxurious office space, high salaries, private jets, and a fat savings account.

I remember a former client from over 5 years ago, who owned and ran multiple residential facilities for at-risk, teen-age boys with violent tendencies and who suffered severe mental illness. Without cause, Alliance terminated the client’s Medicaid contract. There were no alternatives for the residents except for the street. We were able to secure a preliminary injunction preventing the termination. But for every one of those stories, there are providers who did not have the money to fight the terminations

Are there legal recourses for health care providers who suffered from Cardinal’s actions?

The million dollar question.

In light of the State Auditor’s report and DHHS’ actions and public comments that it was usurping Cardinal’s leadership based on “recent unlawful actions, including serious financial mismanagement by the leadership and Board of Directors at Cardinal Innovations,” I believe that the arrows point to yes, with a glaring caveat. It would be a massive and costly undertaking. David and Goliath does not even begin to express the undertaking. At one point, someone told me that Cardinal had $271 million in its bank account. I have no way to corroborate this, but I would not be surprised. In the past, Cardinal has hired private, steeply-priced attorney regardless that its funds are tax dollars. Granted, now DHHS may run things differently, but without question, any legal course of action against any MCO would be epically expensive.

Putting aside the money issue, potential claims could include (Disclaimer: this list is nonexhaustive and based on a cursory investigation for the purpose of my blog. Furthermore, research has not been conducted on possible bars to claims, such as immunity and/or exhaustion of administrative remedies.):

  • Breach of fiduciary duty. Provider would need to demonstrate that a duty existed between providers and MCO (contractual or otherwise), that said MCO breached such duty, and that damages exist. Damages can include actual loss and if intent is proven, punitive damages may be sought.
  • Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices. Providers would have to prove three elements: (1) an unfair or deceptive act or practice; (2) in or affecting commerce; (3) which proximately caused the injury to the claimant. A court will first determine if the act or practice was “in or affecting commerce” before determining if the act or practice was unfair or deceptive. Damages allowed are actual damages, plus treble damages (three times the actual damages).
  • Negligence. Providers would have to show (1) duty; (2) breach; (3) cause in fact; (4) proximate cause; and (5) damages. Actual damages are allowed for a negligence claim.
  • Breach of Contract. The providers would have to demonstrate that there was a valid contract; that the providers performed as specified by the contract; that the said MCO failed to perform as specified by the contract; and that the providers suffered an economic loss as a result of the defendant’s breach of contract. Actual damages are recoverable in a breach of action claim.
  • Declaratory Judgment. This would be a request to the Court to make a legal finding that the MCO failed to follow certain Medicaid procedures and regulations.
  • Violation of Article I, NC Constitution (legal and contractual right to receive payments for reimbursement claims due and payable under the Medicaid regulations.

To name a few…

“Ought Implies Can” – Court Reverses Decision Forcing HHS to Eliminate Medicare Appeal Backlog

But all is not lost… it all lies in the possibility…

A few weeks ago I blogged about Health and Human Services (HHS) possibly being held in contempt of court for violating an Order handed down on Dec. 5, 2016, by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg. See blog.

The District Court Judge granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of the American Hospital Association in AHA v. Burwell. He ordered HHS to incrementally reduce the backlog of 657,955 appeals pending before the agency’s Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals over the next four years, reducing the backlog by 30% by the end of 2017; 60% by the end of 2018; 90% by the end of 2019; and to completely eliminate the backlog by Dec. 31, 2020.

This was a huge win for AHA – and Medicare providers across the country. Currently, when a provider appeals an adverse decision regarding Medicare, it costs an inordinate amount of attorneys’ fees, and the provider will not receive legal relief for upwards of 6 – 10 years, which can cause financial hardship, especially if the adverse action is in place during the appeal process. Yet the administrative appeal process was designed (poorly) to conclude within 1 year.

With the first deadline (the end of 2017) fast approaching and HHS publicly announcing that the reduction of 30% by the end of 2017 is impossible, questions were posed – how could the District Court hold HHS, a federal agency, in contempt?

We got the answer.

On August 11, 2017, the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia overturned the District Court; thereby lifting the requirement to reduce the Medicare appeal backlog.

deflatedWiping tear from face.

The first paragraph of the Ruling, indicates the Court’s philosophic reasoning, starting with a quote from Immanuel Kant (not to be confused with Knicole Emanuel), CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON 548 (Norman Kemp Smith trans., Macmillan 1953) (1781) (“The action to which the ‘ought’ applies must indeed be possible under natural conditions.”)

First paragraph of the decision:

“”Ought implies can.” That is, in order for law – man-made or otherwise – to command the performance of an act, that act must be possible to perform. This lofty philosophical maxim, ordinarily relevant only to bright-eyed college freshmen, sums up our reasoning in this case.”

The Appeals Court determined that the District Court commanded the Secretary to perform an act – clear the backlog by certain deadlines – without evaluating whether performance was possible.

The Medicare backlog skyrocketed in 2011 due to the federally-required Medicare Recovery Audit Program (RAC). With the implementation of the RAC program, the number of appeals filed ballooned from 59,600 in fiscal year 2011 to more than 384,000 in fiscal year 2013. These appeals bottlenecked to the third level of appeal, which is before an administrative law judge (ALJ). As of June 2, 2017, there was a backlog of 607,402 appeals awaiting review at this level. On its current course, the backlog is projected to grow to 950,520 by the end of fiscal year 2021.

There is a way for a provider to “skip” the ALJ level and “escalate” the claim, but it comes at a cost. Several procedural rights must be forfeited.

It is important to note that the appellate decision does not state that the District Court does not have the authority to Order HHS to eliminate the appeals backlog.

It only holds that, because HHS claims that compliance is impossible, the District Court must rule on whether compliance is possible before mandating the compliance. In other words, the Appeals Court wants the lower court to make a fact-finding decision as to whether HHS is able to eliminate the backlog before ordering it to do so. The Appeals Court is instructing the lower court to put the horse in front of the cart.

The Appeals Court explicitly states that it is suspect that the Secretary of HHS has done all things possible to decrease the backlog. (“We also share the District Court’s skepticism of the Secretary’s assertion that he has done all he can to reduce RAC-related appeals.”) So do not take the Appeals Court’s reversal as a sign that HHS will win the war.

I only hope that AHA presents every possible legal argument once the case is remanded to District Court. It is imperative that AHA’s attorneys think of every possible legal misstep in this remand in order to win. Not winning could potentially create bad law, basically, asserting that the Secretary has no duty to fix this appeals backlog. Obviously, the Secretary is exactly the person who should fix the backlog in his own agency. To hold otherwise, would thwart the very reason we have a Secretary of HHS. Through its rhetoric, the Appeals Court made it clear that it, too, has severe reservations about HHS’ claim of impossibility. However, without question, AHA’s suggestion to the District Court that a timeframe be implemented to reduce the backlog is not the answer. AHA needs to brainstorm and come up with several detailed proposals. For example, does the court need to include a requirement that the Secretary devote funds to hire additional ALJs? Or mandate that the ALJs work a half day on Saturday? Or order that the appeal process be revised to make the process more efficient? Clearly, the mere demand that HHS eliminate the backlog within a certain timeframe was too vague.

From here, the case will be remanded back to the District Court with instructions to the Judge to determine whether the elimination of the Medicare appeal backlog is possible. So, for now, HHS is safe from being held in contempt. But the Secretary should take heed from the original ruling and begin taking steps in fixing this mess. It is highly likely that HHS will be facing similar deadlines again – once the District Court determines it is possible.

Medicare Appeals Backlog: Is HHS In Danger of Being Held in Contempt?

Four months after the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Final Rule went in effect (March 2017) attempting to eliminate the Medicare appeal backlog and 6 months before United States District Court for the District of Columbia’s first court-imposed deadline (end of 2017) of reducing the Medicare appeal backlog by 30%, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are woefully far from either. According to HHS’ June 2017 report on the Medicare appeal backlog, 950,520 claims will remain in the backlog by 2021. This is in stark contrast to the District Court’s Order that HHS completely eliminate the backlog by 2020. So will HHS be held in contempt? Throw the Secretary in jail? That is what normally happened when someone violates a Court Order.

Supposedly, HHS’ catastrophic inability to decrease the Medicare appeal backlog is not from a lack of giving the ole college try. But, in its June 2017 report, HHS blames funding.

CMS issued a new Final Rule in January 2017, which took effect March 2017, in hopes of reducing the massive Medicare provider appeal backlog that has clogged up the third level of appeal of Medicare providers’ adverse actions. In the third level of appeal, providers make their arguments before an administrative law judge (ALJ). For information on all the Medicare appeal levels, click here.

The Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) claims that it currently can adjudicate roughly 92,000 appeals annually. The current backlog is approximately 667,326 appeals that HHS estimates will grow to 950,520 by 2021. The average number of days between filing a Petition with OMHA and adjudicating the case is around 1057.2 days. 

HHS had high hopes that these changes would eliminate the backlog. In HHS’ Final Rule Fact Sheet, it states “with the administrative authorities set forth in the final rule and the FY 2017 proposed funding increases and legislative actions outlined in the President’s Budget, we estimate that that the backlog of appeals could be eliminated by FY 2020.” The changes made to the Medicare appeals process by the January 2017 Final Rule is the following:

Changes to the Medicare Appeals Process

The changes in the final rule are primarily focused on the third level of appeal and will:

  • Designate Medicare Appeals Council decisions (final decisions of the Secretary) as precedential to provide more consistency in decisions at all levels of appeal, reducing the resources required to render decisions, and possibly reducing appeal rates by providing clarity to appellants and adjudicators.
  • Allow attorney adjudicators to decide appeals for which a decision can be issued without a hearing and dismiss requests for hearing when an appellant withdraws the request. That way ALJs can focus on conducting hearings and adjudicating the merits of more complex cases.
  • Simplify proceedings when CMS or CMS contractors are involved by limiting the number of entities (CMS or contractors) that can be a participant or party at the hearing.
  • Clarify areas of the regulations that currently causes confusion and may result in unnecessary appeals to the Medicare Appeals Council.
  • Create process efficiencies by eliminating unnecessary steps (e.g., by allowing ALJs to vacate their own dismissals rather than requiring appellants to appeal a dismissal to the Medicare Appeals Council); streamlining certain procedures (e.g., by using telephone hearings for appellants who are not unrepresented beneficiaries, unless the ALJ finds good cause for an appearance by other means); and requiring appellants to provide more information on what they are appealing and who will be attending a hearing.
  • Address areas for improvement previously identified by stakeholders to increase the quality of the process and responsiveness to customers, such as establishing an adjudication time frame for cases remanded from the Medicare Appeals Council, revising remand rules to help ensure cases keep moving forward in the process, simplifying the escalation process, and providing more specific rules on what constitutes good cause for new evidence to be admitted at the OMHA level of appeal.

In early June 2017, HHS issued its second status report on the Medicare appeals backlog and the outlook does not look good.

CMS held a call on June 29, 2017, to discuss recent regulatory changes intended to streamline the Medicare administrative appeal processes, reduce the backlog of pending appeals, and increase consistency in decision-making across appeal levels.

Now HHS is in danger of violating a Court Order.

In December 2016, the District Court for the District of Columbia held in American Hospital Association v Burwell case Ordered HHS to release to status reports every 90 days and the complete elimination of the backlog by 2020, HHS is also required to observe several intermediary benchmarks: 30% reduction by the end of 2017, 60% by the end of 2018, 90% by the end of 2019, and then ultimately 100% elimination by the end of 2020.

BUT LITTLE TO NOTHING HAS CHANGED.

HHS itself has maintained since the requirements were instituted that the elimination of the backlog would not be possible. June’s report projects 950,520 claims will remain by 2021, but this projection is still very far from meeting the court order.

HHS blames funding.

But even significant increase of funding (from about $107 million in 2017, to $242 million in 2018) will not cure the problem! I find it very disturbing that $242 million could not eliminate the Medicare appeal backlog. So what will happen when HHS fails to meet the Court’s mandate of a 30% reduction of the backlog by the end of 2017? Hold the Secretary in contempt?

The court in Burwell drafted a “what if” into the Decision—the Court stated: “if [HHS] fails to meet [these] deadlines, Plaintiffs may move for default judgment or to otherwise enforce the writ of mandamus.”  This allows the Court authority to enforce its Decision, but it has not motivated HHS to try any innovative procedures to reduce the backlog. So far no additional actions have been attempted, and the backlog remains.

If HHS is in violation of the Court Order at the end of 2017, the Court could issue harsh penalties. (Or the Court could do nothing and be a complete disappointment).

The slow-motion unraveling of New Mexico’s Medicaid crackdown (With Sound Bites From Me).

There’s no getting around it. Four years after Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration charged 15 behavioral health organizations with potentially defrauding the state’s Medicaid program, its case has experienced a slow-motion unraveling.

No Medicaid fraud was ever found. And those eye-popping estimates that added up to $36 million the organizations had overbilled Medicaid?

In the summer of 2017, the Human Services Department (HSD) is seeking drastically lower reimbursements for overbilling the public health insurance program for low-income residents, a review of public records and state court documents has found.

Now exonerated by the state Attorney General’s Office, many organizations are challenging even those much-lower estimates in administrative hearings or in state court.

Consider Teambuilders Counseling Services, one of the accused behavioral health providers.

Last fall it received a new estimate from the New Mexico Human Services Department. Previous numbers had varied from as high as $9.6 million to as low as $2 million. But the new figure deviated sharply from earlier calculations when Chester Boyett, an administrative law judge in the state agency’s Fair Hearings Bureau, ruled Teambuilders owed only $896.35.

Boyett argued his agency had built its $2 million estimate of Medicaid overbilling on faulty analysis, according to his 12-page decision.

Nancy Smith-Leslie, the department’s director of the Medical Assistance Division, ignored Boyett’s recommendation. In a Jan. 6 letter she said the agency’s analysis was sound, even though she seemed to confirm Boyett’s critique in a Nov. 2 memo in which she had noted the inaccuracy of the extrapolated amount. In that memo Teambuilders and its attorney had not “sufficiently disputed” the method of extrapolation, however, she wrote.

In her Jan. 6 letter, Smith-Leslie sought to clear up matters. She amended her previous statement, saying the extrapolation referred to in her Nov. 2 memo indeed was correct.

Teambuilders and its attorney, Knicole Emanuel, appealed HSD’s ruling over whether Teambuilders overbilled Medicaid and by how much to state court, where three other former behavioral health organizations are fighting HSD’s extrapolated overpayments.

Boyett’s finding that Teambuilders owed hundreds rather than millions of dollars — even if it was ignored — represents a compelling data point given where things stand with other providers.

The state in May reduced to $484.71 what it said Southwest Counseling Center owed after accusing it of overbilling Medicaid by as much as $2.8 million as recently as January.

And last September HSD closed the books  on another organization — Las Cruces-based Families and Youth Inc. — without demanding any reimbursements for overbilling and releasing $1.4 million in Medicaid dollars the state had suspended. The action represented a reversal after a state-ordered 2013 audit that found $856,745 in potential Medicaid overbilling by FYI.

In fact, a review of state and court documents by New Mexico In Depth reveals a pattern regarding the state agency’s overbilling estimates: In many cases, they are moving targets, usually on a downward trajectory.

Like Southwest’s, some have dropped spectacularly. Setting aside Boyett’s figure of $896, even the $2 million HSD claims Teambuilders owes is far smaller than a high of $12 million.

Hogares Inc., another organization accused of fraud, watched last year as the state revised its overbilling estimates five times over six months, starting at $9.5 million in January and ending with $3.1 million in June, according to state court documents.

Meanwhile, Easter Seals El Mirador, initially accused of $850,000 in potential Medicaid overbilling, now stands accused of $127,000.

Emanuel and Bryan Davis, another attorney representing many of the formerly accused organizations, said the constantly changing estimates are due to HSD.

The state agency is examining a sampling of each organization’s Medicaid claims and asking the organizations for documentation to prove the government program was properly billed, they said.

“In most cases (the overbilling estimates) are dropping precipitously” as organizations submit the documents requested by HSD, Davis said.

To cite one example, HSD’s latest overbilling estimate for Counseling Associates, Inc. is $96,000, said Davis, who represents the organization. That compares to $3 million in potential overbilling a 2013 state-ordered audit found.

It is a perplexing situation, given that the Human Services Department found “‘credible allegations of fraud” against the 15 organizations using that 2013 audit, which was performed by Massachusetts-based Public Consulting Group Inc.

“They threw PCG’s audit in the trash,” Davis said of HSD, noting the cost. HSD agreed to pay PCG up to $3 million for the study in February 2013.

The current situation caused Davis to wonder “why PCG didn’t have these documents in the first place,” he said.

Emanuel offered a pointed answer.

“HSD did not allow PCG to gather all the documents,” she said.

A spokesperson for HSD did not respond multiple requests for comment for this story.

Repercussions of the Medicaid crackdown

The fight over Medicaid overbilling isn’t the only legacy left from the Medicaid crackdown, which happened the last week of June 2013.

The Martinez administration’s decision affected lives. Many lives if you listen to behavioral health advocates and officials in the 15 organizations.

Charging the organizations with fraud and then suspending Medicaid payments to many of them disrupted mental health and addiction services for tens of thousands of New Mexicans. It created chaos for employees. And four years on it has left a number of business failures in its wake, with many of the accused organizations unable to survive long-term without Medicaid dollars.

Teambuilders, which once operated 52 locations in 17 New Mexico counties, is no longer in business, according to Emanuel. Neither is Las Cruces-based Southwest Counseling Center. Or Hogares.

At the same time a gap in care has opened up after three of five Arizona companies the Martinez administration brought in to care for the vulnerable populations have departed the state, leaving New Mexico to pick up the pieces.

“It’s a mess. It’s disgusting,” said James Kerlin, executive director of The Counseling Center of Alamogordo, which no longer sees clients. Like Teambuilders, Hogares, Southwest Counseling and others, it was unable to stay in business without the flow of Medicaid dollars the state suspended. “I want the public to know where we’re at and what’s been done to us. I’m going to start making a lot of noise. This is ridiculous.”

Kerlin’s organization was the first of the 15 organizations exonerated by then Attorney General Gary King in early 2014. And it offered the earliest glimpse of the weaknesses in the Martinez administration’s case against the behavioral health providers.

First signs of weakness in the state’s case

HSD hired PCG to audit all 15 organizations and it found $655,000 in potential Medicaid overbilling by the Counseling Center.

PCG reached that conclusion after finding $1,873 in questionable Medicaid claims and then extrapolating from those claims that the center could have overbilled Medicaid by more than $600,000 based on the size of its Medicaid business over several years.

But during its fraud investigation the AG’s office flagged fewer Counseling Center claims than PCG and found a much lower cost of potential overbillings. It resolved some of the issues by reviewing records and interviewing staff.

In many cases, auditors give staff of audited organizations an opportunity to refute findings or address misunderstandings before finalizing their findings. For example, most state and local governmental agencies are audited annually in New Mexico. Staff within those agencies are afforded the chance to see and respond to audit findings within a certain amount of time before audits are made public.

Kerlin did not get that opportunity during the PCG audit.

PCG later confirmed to NMID that it is the firm’s standard procedure to give companies a chance to respond before issuing official audit findings. A PCG spokesperson would not tell NMID why that didn’t happen in New Mexico.

By the time HSD held a hearing for the Counseling Center, the state agency had lowered its Medicaid overbillings estimate to $379,135. And Kerlin finally was able to hear the accusations against his organization.

Counseling Center submitted evidence to rebut the state agency’s claims, but the hearing officer sided with HSD. The Counseling Center appealed to state court.

In late 2015, State District Court Judge Francis Mathew ruled in favor of Kerlin’s organization, calling HSD’s hearing decision “arbitrary, capricious or otherwise not in accordance with law.”

In addition, the judge found the administrative law judge had shifted the burden of proof from HSD to the Counseling Center and then set too high a standard for the organization. Citing portions of the administrative law judge’s ruling, Mathew noted  the Counseling Center had “offered certain amount of credible evidence in opposition” to HSD’s findings but not as much as the hearing officer required: a “100 percent audit” of records, which the state district judge found “unreasonable.”

HSD appealed the judge’s decision to the state Court of Appeals.

Examples of rejected claims 

The overly stringent standards for documentation — and even a basic lack of understanding by HSD staff of Medicaid billing requirements — can be found in cases involving other organizations that are contesting the department’s charges of overbilling, a review of court documents found.

In a motion appealing the administrative law judge’s ruling that it owed the state $127,240, Easter Seals disputed seven claims, including one HSD had rejected because there was no medication consent form in place, even though the patient and parent had signed a general informed consent form and the patient’s parent was present when the medication was prescribed.

According to the court document, “There was no dispute that the service was medically necessary and was provided to J.A. There is no question as to quality of care provided to the recipient of services.”

Another claim was rejected because there was no doctor’s signature on a psychosocial assessment, however the state could provide no legal requirement for the signature, according to Easter Seals’ appeal. “A signature might be best practice, or advisable, but it is not a requirement,” the filing argued.

Also in the appeal, Easter Seals noted that the Human Service Department’s coding witness not only could not cite rules disallowing two services to be delivered during the same time period, but also appeared to be using a coding manual from Medicare, the insurance for seniors, and not Medicaid. And furthermore, she did not even realize there was a manual for Medicaid.

HSD ignored evidence in 2013 that refuted overbilling claims 

Even those organizations that have avoided administrative hearings and court battles have stories to tell about HSD and its actions.

Consider Presbyterian Medical Services, which signed an agreement with the Human Services Department in 2013 to pay $4 million after PCG found nearly $4.5 million in potential Medicaid overbillings.

It wasn’t an easy decision, its CEO said this week, and it shouldn’t be construed as agreement with the state’s conclusions.

“We agree to disagree” is how Steven Hansen put it.

Until Presbyterian began negotiating an agreement, in fact, it had not seen the findings of the PCG audit.

During the negotiations PMS officials found documents they thought could refute PCG’s audit findings, Hansen and other PMS officials told state lawmakers in October 2014.

Presbyterian tried to give the files to PCG and the Human Services Department as proof that they had properly billed Medicaid for payment. The consulting firm said it would review the documentation if directed to by HSD, but PCG later told Presbyterian Medical Services the state agency “did not want to accept those records.”

“We believe there is a strong argument that nothing was owed back to HSD,” Presbyterian’s general counsel told lawmakers in 2014.

At that point, Presbyterian had to make a choice: Settle with the state or fight and possibly run out of money.

Presbyterian settled, paying the $4 million.

The decision has worked out for the organization.

“We’re doing more business than we did before” the 2013 crackdown, Hansen said.

That’s because as the Arizona providers the Martinez administration brought in have left New Mexico, Presbyterian Medical Services has taken over mental health and addiction services.

Presbyterian has added Carlsbad, Alamogordo, Deming, Espańola, Grants, Artesia, Santa Fe and Rio Rancho to the places it provides behavioral health services, Hansen said, adding it’s “bits and pieces” of areas formerly serviced by three of the five Arizona companies.

“We feel like it’s going in a good direction for us,” Hansen said. “That’s hard for us to say because there were so many great organizations that are no longer in the state. But we’ve had to move on.”