Category Archives: Lawsuit
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.
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!!!!
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:
- Vaya Health
- Partners Behavioral Health Management
- Cardinal Innovations (formerly)
- Trillium Health Resources
- Alliance Behavioral Health Care
- 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…
On September 18, Cardinal filed a Petition at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) challenging the State’s authority to set executive compensation limits. In other words, Cardinal is suing the State of NC to keep paying Toppings $635,000.00 with our tax dollars. See below:
On Tuesday (October 10, 2017) legislators blasted Cardinal Healthcare and strongly urged DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen to terminate its contract with Cardinal. The legislators challenged the impressive and questionably-needed administrative costs of the managed care organizations (MCOs), including exorbitant salaries, office parties, and private jets. Cardinal’s CEO Richard Topping, who became CEO in July 2015, was compensated at $635,000.00 this year. His total compensation was over $1.2 million in 2016 and 2017 (for a government job; i.e., our tax dollars. So we all may own a portion of his home). See blog. and blog. The State Auditor also reported excessive spending and mismanagement of funds. Let’s keep in mind, people, these funds are earmarked to provide medically necessary services to our most needy population suffering from mental illness, substance abuse, and developmentally disabilities. But Toppings wants a Porsche. (Disclaimer – my opinion).
And if we weren’t enraged enough about the obscene salary of Cardinal’s CEO, Cardinal decided to spend more tax dollars…on attorneys’ fees to litigate maintaining its CEO’s salary. When I heard this, I hoped that Cardinal, with our tax dollars, paid an internal general counsel, who would litigate the case. I mean, an in-house counsel gets a salary, so it wouldn’t cost the taxpayers extra money (over and beyond his/her salary) to sue the State. But, no. I was woefully disappointed. Cardinal hired one of the biggest law firms in the State of NC – Womble Carlyle – the only firm downtown Raleigh with its signage on the outside of the skyscraper. I am sure that costs a pretty penny. Please understand – this is nothing against Womble Carlyle. It is a reputable firm with solid lawyers, which is why Cardinal hired them. But they ain’t cheap.
Cardinal is a Local Management Entity/Managed Care Organization (LME/MCO) created by North Carolina General Statute 122C. IT IS NOT A PRIVATE COMPANY, LIKE BCBS. Cardinal is responsible for managing, coordinating, facilitating and monitoring the provision of mental health, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse services in 20 counties across North Carolina. Cardinal is the largest of the state’s seven LME/MCOs, serving more than 850,000 members. Cardinal has contracted with DHHS to operate the managed behavioral healthcare services under the Medicaid waiver through a network of licensed practitioners and provider agencies. State law explicitly states Cardinal’s core mission as a government
Cardinal’s most significant funding is provided by Medicaid (85%). Funding from Medicaid totaled $567 million and $587 million for state fiscal years 2015 and 2016, respectively. Medicaid is a combination of federal and state tax dollars. If you pay taxes, you are paying for Toppings’ salary and the attorneys’ fees to keep that salary.
North Carolina General Statute 122C-123.1 states: “Any funds or part thereof of an area authority that are transferred by the area authority to any entity including a firm, partnership, corporation, company, association, joint stock association, agency, or nonprofit private foundation shall be subject to reimbursement by the area authority to the State when expenditures of the area authority are disallowed pursuant to a State or federal audit.” (Emphasis Added).
Our State Auditor, in its audit of Cardinal, already found that Cardinal’s spending of its funds is disallowed:
Not only has the State Auditor called Cardinal out for excessive salaries, in a letter, dated August 10, 2017, the Office of State Human Resources told Cardinal that “Based on the information you submitted, the salary of your Area Director/CEO is above this new rate and, therefore, out of compliance. Please work to adjust the Area Director/CEO salary accordingly and notify us of how you have remedied this situation. In the future, please ensure that any salary adjustment complies with the
provisions of G.S. 122C-121- the Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Act of 1985.” (emphasis added). In other words – follow the law! What did Cardinal do? Sued the Office of State Human Resources.
Concurrently, Cardinal is terminating provider contracts in its closed network (which keeps Cardinal from having to pay those providers), decreasing and denying behavioral health care services to Medicaid recipients (which keeps Cardinal from having to pay for those services). — And now, paying attorneys to litigate in court to keep the CEO’s salary of $635,000.00. Because of my blog, I receive emails from parents who are distraught because Cardinal is decreasing or terminating their child’s services. Just look at some of the comments people have written on my blog. Because of my job, I see firsthand the providers that are getting terminated or struck with alleged overpayments by Cardinal (and all the MCOs).
My questions are – if Cardinal has enough money to pay its CEO $635,000.00, why doesn’t Cardinal increase reimbursement rates to providers? Provide more services to those in need? Isn’t that exactly why it exists? Oh, and, let’s not forget Cardinal’s savings account. The State Auditor found that “For FY 2015 and 2016, Cardinal accumulated approximately $30 million and $40 million, respectively, in Medicaid savings.” Cardinal, and all the MCOs, sit in a position that these government entities could actually improve mental health in NC. They certainly have the funds to do so.
According to a blog follower, Cardinal pays lower reimbursement rates than other MCOs:
Psychiatric Diagnostic Eval. (Non-Medical) 90791
Cardinal MCO Pays $94.04
Partners MCO Pays 185.90
Medicare Pays 129.60
SC Medicaid Pays 153.94
Psychotherapy 60 minutes (in-home) 90837
Cardinal MCO Pays $74.57
Partners MCO Pays 112.00
Medicare Pays 125.93
SC Medicaid Pays 111.90
According to the Petition, Cardinal’s argument is that it is not a government entity. That its employees, including Toppings, does not receive state government benefits and are not part of the state retirement program. It also states in its Petition that Cardinal hires external consultants (with our tax dollars) to conduct a market compensation study every two years. (cough!). Cardinal complains, in the Petition, that “If forced to reduce its CEO’s salary to a level well below market rate for the leader of an organization of Cardinal Innovations’ size and complexity, Cardinal Innovations would be likely to immediately lose its current CEO and would be at a significant market disadvantage when trying to replace its current CEO with one of similar experience and expertise in the industry, as is necessary to lead Cardinal Innovations. This would result in immediate and irreparable harm to Cardinal Innovations and reduce the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission.” Wow – Toppings must be unbelievable…a prodigy…the picture of utopia…
The State has informed Cardinal that a salary is more appropriate at $194,471.00 with the possibility of a 5% exception up to $204,195.00.
In its Petition, Cardinal calls the statutorily required salary cap “an irrationally low salary range.” If I take out 50% for taxes, which is high, Toppings is paid $26,458.33 per month. In comparison, the Medicaid recipients he serves get the following per month (at the most):
Disgusted? Angry? Contact your local representative. Don’t know who your representative is? Click here. I wonder how the IRS would react if I protested by refusing to pay taxes… Don’t worry. I’m not going to go all Martha Stewart on you.
Silence Can Be Deadly: Can You Be Held Responsible for Medicare/caid Billings Errors That You Never Knew Existed?
You submit a claim for medically necessary services for a Medicaid recipient. Let’s say you provide behavioral health care services and prescribe medication for people who suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar. One member of your staff (a PA) prescribes Abilify to a child – perfectly acceptable treatment for schizophrenia. The child suffers a seizure and dies. It is discovered, unbeknownst to you, as the owner of the agency, that the staff member prescribing the medication was not appropriately supervised. You are shocked. You are dismayed. You are terrified.
Sure enough, someone tattles on you and a qui tam lawsuit is filed against your agency.
A qui tam (kwee tam) lawsuit is Latin for “who as well,” a lawsuit brought by a private citizen (popularly called a “whistleblower”) against a person or company who is believed to have violated the law in the performance of a contract with the government or in violation of a government regulation, when there is a statute which provides for a penalty for such violations. The whistleblower in qui tam lawsuits can be awarded a lot of money, which is why whistleblowers bring the lawsuits.
In other words, a qui tam lawsuit filed against you is bad…very bad.
You are looking at six figures, easily, in attorneys’ fees, years of litigation, endless sleepless nights, and a high dose of Prozac. All because one of your staff was not properly licensed and could not prescribe medication without supervision. And you had no idea…
Wait…what? Isn’t “intent” or, legally, “scienter” a requirement to prove fraud?? You mean that I could be prosecuted for fraud when I had zero intent to commit fraud, plus, I didn’t even know it was occurring?
This is what happened to Universal Health Services, Inc.’s subsidiary that provided behavioral health care services in Massachusetts. Universal Health Serv. v. United States ex rel. Escobar, 136 S.Ct. 1989 (2016).
The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that each time a billing party submits a claim, it implicitly communicates that it conformed to the relevant program requirements, such that it was entitled to receive payment. Every claim implicitly promised compliance of every law!
Imagine the slippery slope with this decision – a multi-state company with offices across the nation bills millions to Medicare and Medicaid monthly. Executive management is in Rhode Island. An office in Tampa fails to check the criminal background of its employees for a period of a year, but in all other ways complies with the regulations and renders medically necessary services that entire year. According to the 1st Circuit opinion, the company could be liable for fraud and the false claims act, resulting in millions of dollars of penalties.
Did it matter to the judge in this case that the company was large? What if it were a small company with one office and four staff?
Juxtapose the 7th Circuit which held only express (or affirmative) falsehoods can render a claim “false” or “fraudulent.” In other words, you can only be held liable for fraud if you purposely or affirmatively acted.
The Supreme Court (last year) held that the implied false certification theory can, at least in some circumstances, provide a basis for liability.
The thinking is that a half truth is a lie. Which is correct…but is it fraud? A classic example of an actionable half-truth in contract law is the seller who reveals that there may be two new roads near a property he is selling, but fails to disclose that a third potential road might bisect the property.
The False Claims Act imposes civil liability on “any person who . . . knowingly presents, or causes to be presented, a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval.” §3729(a)(1)(A). Here’s the prob-lem-o: Congress never defined what is “false.”
Here is what the Supreme Court had to say about the unlicensed social worker:
“So too here, by submitting claims for payment using payment codes that corresponded to specific counseling services, Universal Health represented that it had provided individual therapy, family therapy, preventive medication counseling, and other types of treatment. Moreover, Arbour staff members allegedly made further representations in submitting Medicaid reimbursement claims by using National Provider Identification numbers corresponding to specific job titles. And these representations were clearly misleading in context. Anyone informed that a social worker at a Massachusetts mental health clinic provided a teenage patient with individual counseling services would probably—but wrongly—conclude that the clinic had complied with core Massachusetts Medicaid requirements (1) that a counselor “treating children [is] required to have specialized training and experience in children’s services,” 130 Code Mass. Regs. §429.422, and also (2) that, at a minimum, the social worker possesses the prescribed qualifications for the job, §429.424(C). By using payment and other codes that conveyed this information without disclosing Arbour’s many violations of basic staff and licensing requirements for mental health facilities, Universal Health’s claims constituted misrepresentations.””
In English, this means that: With the act of submitting a Medicaid claim, you are promising that you have followed all rules, including the licensure status required for rendering that service.
The Court held that:
The issue is whether a defendant should face False Claims Act liability only if it fails to disclose the violation of a contractual, statutory, or regulatory provision that the Government expressly designated a condition of payment. The Court concluded that the FCA does not impose this limit on liability. But it also held that not every undisclosed violation of an express condition of payment automatically triggers liability. It matters whether the omission was material.
The Supreme Court determined that not all statutory or regulatory violations are material, disagreeing with the government and the 1st Circuit.
But the Court never made a decision regarding Universal Health Services, Inc. Instead, it vacated the 1st Circuit and remanded the case for reconsideration of whether respondents have sufficiently pleaded a False Claims Act violation. But in doing so, the Court gave guidance as to its opinion. It wrote: “This case centers on allegations of fraud, not medical malpractice.”
What that one sentence tells me is that the Supreme Court does not want to create liability for any and every regulatory omission/mistake on a Medicaid claim. Mistakes happen. People are human. Apparently, even the Supreme Court knows that…
On September 6, 2017, I appeared on the Besler Hospital Finance Podcast regarding:
Update on the Medicare appeals backlog [PODCAST]
Feel free to listen to the podcast, download it, and share with others!
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.
Wiping 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.
On July 13, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price, M.D., announced the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) biggest-ever health care fraud takedown. 412 health care providers were charged with health care fraud. In total, allegedly, the 412 providers schemed and received $1.3 billion in false billings to Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE. Of the 412 defendants, 115 are physicians, nurses, and other licensed medical professionals. Additionally, HHS has begun the suspension process against 295 health care providers’ licenses.
The charges include allegations of billing for medically unnecessary treatments or services that were not really provided. The DOJ has evidence that many of the defendants had illegal kickback schemes set up. More than 120 of the defendants were charged with unlawfully or inappropriately prescribing and distributing opioids and other narcotics.
While this particular sting operation resulted from government investigations, not all health care fraud is discovered through government investigation. A great deal of fraud is uncovered through private citizens coming forward with incriminating information. These private citizens can file suit against the fraudulent parties on behalf of the government; these are known as qui tam suits.
Being a whistleblower goes against what most of us are taught as children. We are taught not to be a tattletail. I have vivid memories from elementary school of other kids acting out, but I would remain silent and not inform the teacher. But in the health care world, tattletails are becoming much more common – and they make money for blowing that metaphoric whistle.
What is a qui tam lawsuit?
Qui tam is Latin for “who as well.” Qui tam lawsuits are a type of civil lawsuit whistleblowers (tattletails) bring under the False Claims Act, a law that rewards whistleblowers if their qui tam cases recover funds for the government. Qui tam cases are a powerful weapon against Medicare and Medicaid fraud. In other words, if an employee at a health care facility witnesses any type of health care fraud, even if the alleged fraud is unknown to the provider, that employee can hire an attorney to file a qui tam lawsuit to recover money on behalf of the government. The government investigates the allegations of fraud and decides whether it will join the lawsuit. Health care entities found guilty in a qui tam lawsuit will be liable to government for three times the government’s losses, plus penalties.
The whistleblower is rewarded for bringing these lawsuits. If the government intervenes in the case and recovers funds through a settlement or a trial, the whistleblower is entitled to 15% – 25% of the recovery. If the government doesn’t intervene in the case and it is pursued by the whistleblower team, the whistleblower reward is between 25% – 30% of the recovery.
These recoveries are not low numbers. On June 22, 2017, a physician and rehabilitative specialist agreed to pay $1.4 million to resolve allegations they violated the False Claims Act by billing federal health care programs for medically unreasonable and unnecessary ultrasound guidance used with routine lab blood draws, and with Botox and trigger point injections. If a whistleblower had brought this lawsuit, he/she would have been awarded $210,000 – 420,000.
On June 16, 2017, a Pennsylvania-based skilled nursing facility operator agreed to pay roughly $53.6 million to settle charges that it and its subsidiaries violated the False Claims Act by causing the submission of false claims to government health care programs for medically unnecessary therapy and hospice services. The allegations originated in a whistleblower lawsuit filed under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act by 7 former employees of the company. The whistleblower award – $8,040,000 – 16,080,000.
There are currently two, large qui tam cases against United Health Group (UHG) pending in the Central District of California. The cases are: U.S. ex rel. Benjamin Poehling v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc. and U.S. ex rel. Swoben v. Secure Horizons, et al. Both cases were brought by James Swoben, who was an employee and Benjamin Poehling, who was the former finance director of a UHG group that managed the insurer’s Medicare Advantage Plans. On May 2, 2027, the U.S. government joined the Poehling lawsuit.
The charges include allegations that UHG:
- Submitted invalid codes to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that it knew of or should have known that the codes were invalid – some of the dates of services at issue in the case are older than 2008.
- Intentionally avoided learning that some diagnoses codes or categories of codes submitted to their plans by providers were invalid, despite acknowledging in 2010 that it should evaluate the results of its blind chart reviews to find codes that need to be deleted.
- Failed to follow up on and prevent the submissions of invalid codes or submit deletion for invalid codes.
- Attested to CMS each year that the data they submitted was true and accurate while knowing it was not.
UHG would not be in this expensive, litigious pickle had it conducted a self audit and followed the mandatory disclosure requirements.
What are the mandatory disclosure requirements? Glad you asked…
Section 6402(a) of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) creates an express obligation for health care providers to report and return overpayments of Medicare and Medicaid. The disclosure must be made by 60 days days after the date that the overpayment was identified or the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable. Identification is defined as the point in which the provider has determined or should have determined through the exercise of due diligence that an overpayment exists. CMS expects the provider to proactively investigate any credible information of a potential overpayment. The consequences of failing to proactively investigate can be seen by the UHG lawsuits above-mentioned. Apparently, UHG had some documents dated in 2010 that indicated it should review codes and delete the invalid codes, but, allegedly, failed to do so.
How do you self disclose?
According to CMS:
“Beginning June 1, 2017, providers of services and suppliers must use the forms included in the OMB-approved collection instrument entitled CMS Voluntary Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol (SRDP) in order to utilize the SRDP. For disclosures of noncompliant financial relationships with more than one physician, the disclosing entity must submit a separate Physician Information Form for each physician. The CMS Voluntary Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol document contains one Physician Information Form.”
Durable Medical Equipment (DME) providers across the country are walking around with large, red and white bullseyes on their backs. Starting back in March 2017, the RAC audits began targeting DME and home health and hospice. DME providers also have to undergo audits by the Comprehensive Error Rate Testing Program (CERT).
The RAC for Jurisdiction 5, Performant Recovery, is a national company contracted to perform Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) audits of durable medical equipment, prosthetic, orthotic and supplies (DMEPOS) claims as well as home health and hospice claims. Medicare Part B covers medically necessary DME. The following are the RAC regions:
Region 1 – Performant Recovery, Inc.
Region 2 – Cotiviti, LLC
Region 3 – Cotiviti, LLC
Region 4 – HMS Federal Solutions
Region 5 – Performant Recovery, Inc.
As you can see from the above map, we are in Region 3. The country is broken up into four regions. But, wait, you say, you said that Performant Recovery is performing RAC audits in region 5 – where is region 5?
Region 5 is the whole country.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) has contracted with Performant Recovery to audit DME and home health and hospice across the whole country.
DME and home health and hospice providers – There is nowhere to hide. If you provide equipment or services within the blue area, region 5, you are a target for a RAC audit.
What are some common findings in a RAC audit for DME?
Without question, the most common finding in a RAC or CERT audit is “insufficient documentation.” The problem is that “insufficient documentation” is nebulous, at best, and absolutely incorrect, at worst. This error is by auditors if they cannot conclude that the billed services were actually provided, were provided at the level billed, and/or were medically necessary. An infuriating discovery was when I was defending a DME RAC audit and learned that the “real” reason for the denial of a claim was that no one went to the consumers door, knocked on it, and verified that a wheelchair had, in fact, been delivered. In-person verification of delivery is not a requirement, nor should it be. Such a burdensome requirement would unduly prejudice DME companies. Yes, you need to be able to show a signed and dated delivery slip, but you do not have to go to the consumer’s house and snap a selfie with the consumer and the piece of equipment.
Another common target for RAC audits is oxygen tubing, oxygen stands/racks, portable liquid oxygen systems, and oxygen concentrators. RAC auditors mainly look for medical necessity for oxygen equipment. Hospital beds/accessories are also a frequent find in a RAC audit. A high use of hospital beds/accessories codes can enlarge the target on your back.
Another recurrent issue that the RAC auditors cite is billing for bundled services separately. Medicare does not make separate payment for DME provider when a beneficiary is in a covered inpatient stay. RAC auditors check whether suppliers are inappropriately receiving separate DME payment when the beneficiary is in a covered inpatient stay. Suppliers can’t bill for DME items used by the patient prior to the patient’s discharge from the hospital. Medicare doesn’t allow separate billing for surgical dressings, urological supplies, or ostomy supplies provided in the hospital because reimbursement for them is wrapped into the Part A payment. This prohibition applies even if the item is worn home by the patient when leaving the hospital.
As always, documentation of the face to face encounter and the prescription are also important.
You can find the federal regulation for DME documentation at 42 CFR 410.38 – “Durable medical equipment: Scope and conditions.”
Once you receive an alleged overpayment, know your rights! Appeal, appeal, appeal!! The Medicare appeal process can be found here.
Eastpointe Sues DHHS, Former Sec. Brajer, Nash County, and Trillium Claiming Conspiracy! (What It Means for Providers)
In HBO’s Game of Thrones, nine, noble, family houses of Westeros fight for the Iron Throne – either vying to claim the throne or fighting for independence from the throne.
Similarly, when NC moved to the managed care organizations for Medicaid behavioral health care services, we began with 12 MCOs (We actually started with 23 (39 if you count area authorities) LME/MCOs, but they quickly whittled down to 11). “The General Assembly enacted House Bill 916 (S.L. 2011-264) (“H.B. 916) to be effective June 23, 2011, which required the statewide expansion of the 1915(b)/(c) Medicaid Waiver Program to be completed within the State by July 1, 2013.” Compl. at 25. Now the General Assembly is pushing for more consolidation.
Now we have seven (7) MCOs remaining, and the future is uncertain. With a firehose of money at issue and the General Assembly’s push for consolidation, it has become a bloody battle to remain standing in the end, because, after all, only one may claim the Iron Throne. And we all know that “Winter is coming.”
Seemingly, as an attempt to remain financially viable, last week, on Thursday, June 8, 2017, Eastpointe, one of our current MCOs, sued the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Nash County, Trillium Health Resources, another MCO, and former secretary Richard Brajer in his individual and former official capacity. Since the Complaint is a public record, you can find the Complaint filed in the Eastern District of NC, Western Division, Civil Action 5:17-CV-275. My citations within this blog correspond with the paragraphs in the Complaint, not page numbers.
Eastpointe’s Complaint wields a complex web of conspiracy, government interference, and questionable relationships that would even intrigue George R. R. Martin.
The core grievance in the lawsuit is Eastpointe alleges that DHHS, Trillium, Nash County, and Brajer unlawfully conspired and interfered with Eastpointe’s contract to manage behavioral health care services for its twelve (12) county catchment area, including Nash County. In 2012, Nash County, as part of the The Beacon Center, signed a contract and became part of a merger with Eastpointe being the sole survivor (Beacon Center and Southeastern Regional Mental Health were swallowed by Eastpointe). At the heart of Eastpointe’s Complaint, Eastpointe is alleging that Nash County, Trillium, DHHS, and Brajer conspired to breach the contract between Eastpointe and Nash County and unlawfully allowed Nash County to join Trillium’s catchment area.
In June 2013, the General Assembly, pursuant to Senate Bill 208 (S.L. 2013-85 s. 4.(b)), appended N.C.G.S. § 122C-115 to include subparagraph (a3), permitting a county to disengage from one LME/MCO and align with another with the approval of the Secretary of the NCDHHS, who was required by law to promulgate “rules to establish a process for county disengagement.” N.C.G.S. § 122C-115(a3) (“Rules”) (10A N.C.A.C. 26C .0701-03).
Why does it matter whether Medicaid recipients receive behavioral health care services from providers within Trillium or Eastpointe’s catchment area?? As long as the medically necessary services are rendered – that should be what is important – right?
Wrong. First, I give my reason as a cynic (realist), then as a philanthropist (wishful thinker).
Cynical answer – The MCOs are prepaid. In general and giving a purposely abbreviated explanation, the way in which the amount is determined to pre-pay an MCO is based on how many Medicaid recipients reside within the catchment area who need behavioral health care services. The more people in need of Medicaid behavioral health care services in a catchment area, the more money the MCO receives to manage such services. With the removal of Nash County from Eastpointe’s catchment area, Eastpointe will lose approximately $4 million annually and Trillium will gain approximately $4 million annually, according to the Complaint. This lawsuit is a brawl over the capitated amount of money that Nash County represents, but it also is about the Iron Throne. If Eastpointe becomes less financially secure and Trillium becomes more financially secure, then it is more likely that Eastpointe would be chewed up and swallowed in any merger.
Philanthropic answer – Allowing Nash County to disengage from Eastpointe’s catchment area would inevitably disrupt behavioral health care services to our most fragile and needy population. Medicaid recipients would be denied access to their chosen providers…providers that may have been treating them for years and created established trust. Allowing Nash County to disembark from Eastpointe would cause chaos for those least fortunate and in need of behavioral health care services.
Eastpointe also alleges that DHHS refused to approve a merger between Eastpointe and Cardinal purposefully and with the intent to sabotage Eastpointe’s financial viability.
Also in its Complaint, Eastpointe alleges a statewide, power-hungry, money-grubbing conspiracy in which Brajer and DHHS and Trillium are conspiring to pose Trillium as the final winner in the “MCO Scramble to Consolidate,” “Get Big or Die” MCO mentality arising out of the legislative push for MCO consolidation. Because, as with any consolidation, duplicate executives are cut.
Over the last couple years, Eastpointe has discussed merging with Cardinal, Trillium, and Sandhills – none of which occurred. Comparably, Joffrey Lannister and Sansa Stark discussed merging. As did Viserys and Illyrio wed Daenerys to Khal Drogo to form an alliance between the Targaryens.
Some of the most noteworthy and scandalous accusations:
Leza Wainwright, CEO of Trillium and director of the NC Council of Community MH/DD/SA Programs (“NCCCP”) (now I know why I’ve never been invited to speak at NCCCP). Wainwright “brazenly took actions adverse to the interest of Eastpointe in violation of the NCCCP mission, conflicts of interest policy of the organization, and her fiduciary duty to the NCCCP and its members.” Compl. at 44.
Robinson, Governing Board Chair of Trillium, “further informed Brajer that he intended for Trillium to be the surviving entity in any merger with Eastpointe and that “any plan predicated on Trillium and Eastpointe being coequal is fundamentally flawed.”” Compl. at 61.
“On or about May 11, 2016, Denauvo Robinson (“Robinson”), Governing Board Chair of Trillium wrote Brajer, without copying Eastpointe, defaming Eastpointe’s reputation in such a way that undermined the potential merger of Eastpointe and Trillium.” Compl. at 59.
“Robinson, among other false statements, alleged the failure to consummate a merger between Eastpointe, CoastalCare, and East Carolina Behavioral Health LMEs was the result of Eastpointe’s steadfast desire to maintain control, and Eastpointe’s actions led those entities to break discussions with Eastpointe and instead merge to form Trillium.” Compl. at 60.
“Trillium, not Nash County, wrote Brajer on November 28, 2016 requesting approval to disengage from Eastpointe and to align with Trillium.” Compl. at 69.
Dave Richards, Deputy Secretary for Medical Assistance, maintains a “strong relationship with Wainwright” and “displayed unusual personal animus toward Kenneth Jones, Eastpointe’s former CEO.” Compl. at 47.
Brajer made numerous statements to Eastpointe staff regarding his animus toward Jones and Eastpointe. “Brajer continued to push for a merger between Eastpointe and Trillium.” Compl. at 53.
“On December 5, 2016, the same day that former Governor McCrory conceded the election to Governor Cooper, Brajer wrote a letter to Trillium indicating that he approved the disengagement and realignment of Nash County.” Compl. at 72.
“On March 17, 2016, however, Brajer released a memorandum containing a plan for consolidation of the LME/MCOs, in which NCDHHS proposed Eastpointe being merged with Trillium.” Compl. at 55.
Brajer’s actions were “deliberately premature, arbitrary, and capricious and not in compliance with statute and Rule, and with the intent to destabilize Eastpointe as an LME/MCO).” Compl. at 73.
“Brajer conspired with Nash County to cause Nash County to breach the Merger Agreement.” Compl. at 86.
Brajer “deliberately sought to block any merger between Eastpointe and other LME/MCOs except Trillium.” Compl. at 96.
“Brajer and NCDHHS’s ultra vires and unilateral approval of the Nash County disengagement request effective April 1, 2017 materially breached the contract between Eastpointe and NCDHHS. Equally brazen was Brajer’s calculated failure to give Eastpointe proper notice of the agency action taken or provide Eastpointe with any rights of appeal.” Compl. at 101.
Against Nash County
“To date, Nash County is Six Hundred Fifty Three Thousand Nine Hundred Fifty Nine Thousand and 16/100 ($653,959.16) in arrears on its Maintenance of Efforts to Eastpointe.” Compl. at 84.
“While serving on Eastpointe’s area board, Nash County Commissioner Lisa Barnes, in her capacity as a member of the Nash County Board of Commissioners, voted to adopt a resolution requesting permission for Nash County to disengage from Eastpointe and realign with Trillium. In so doing, Barnes violated her sworn oath to the determent of Eastpointe.” Compl. at 85.
What Eastpointe’s lawsuit could potentially mean to providers:
Eastpointe is asking the Judge in the federal court of our eastern district for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction prohibiting Nash County from withdrawing from Eastpointe’s catchment area and joining Trillium’s catchment area. It is important to note that the behavioral health care providers in Eastpointe’s catchment area may not be the same behavioral health care providers in Trillium’s catchment area. There may be some overlap, but without question there are behavioral health care providers in Trillium’s catchment area that are not in Eastpointe’s catchment area and vice versa.
If Eastpointe is not successful in stopping Nash County from switching to Trillium’s catchment area, those providers who provide services in Nash County need to inquire – if you do not currently have a contract with Trillium, will Trillium accept you into its catchment area, because Trillium runs a closed network?!?! If Trillium refuses to include Nash County’s behavioral health care providers in its catchment area, those Nash County providers risk no longer being able to provide services to their consumers. If this is the case, these Nash County, non-Trillium providers may want to consider joining Eastpointe’s lawsuit as a third-party intervenor, as an interested, aggrieved person. Obviously, you would, legally, be on Eastpointe’s side, hoping to stay Nash County’s jump from Eastpointe to Trillium.
Even if Eastpointe is successful in stopping Nash County’s Benedict Arnold, then, as a provider in Eastpointe’s catchment area, you need to think ahead. How viable is Eastpointe? Eastpointe’s lawsuit is a powerful indication that Eastpointe itself is concerned about the future, although this lawsuit could be its saving grace. How fair (yet realistic) is it that whichever providers happen to have a contract with the biggest, most powerful MCO in the end get to continue to provide services and those providers with contracts with smaller, less viable MCOs are put out of business based on closed networks?
If Nash County is allowed to defect from Eastpointe and unite with Trillium, all providers need to stress. Allowing a county to abscond from its MCO on the whim of county leadership could create absolute havoc. Switching MCOs effects health care providers and Medicaid recipients. Each time a county decides to choose a new MCO the provider network is upended. Recipients are wrenched from the provider of their choice and forced to re-invent the psychological wheel to their detriment. Imagine Cherokee County being managed by Eastpointe…Brunswick County being managed by Vaya Health…or Randolph County being managed by Partners. Location-wise, it would be an administrative mess. Every election of a county leadership could determine the fate of a county’s Medicaid recipients.
Here is a map of the current 7 MCOs:
All behavioral health care providers should be keeping a close watch on the MCO consolidations and this lawsuit. There is nothing that requires the merged entity to maintain or retain the swallowed up entities provider network. Make your alliances because…
“Winter is coming.”
Here’s a little unabashed, yet well-deserved honor my firm recently obtained. Number 48!! Go Team G&RSM! #Medicaidatty #Medicareatty
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