Category Archives: Legal Analysis

Darkness Surrounds MCO Mergers: Are Closed Meetings for MCOs Legal?

Recently, Eastpointe Human Services’ board voted unanimously to consolidate with Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, which would make the merged entity the managed care organization (MCO) overseeing 1/3 of NC’s Medicaid, behavioral health services – 32 counties, in all.

The Board’s decision is subject to the approval of the Secretary, but Eastpointe hopes to consolidate by July 1st.

Whether a consolidation between Eastpointe and Cardinal is good for Medicaid recipients and/or our community, I have no opinion.

But the reason that I have no opinion is because the negotiations, which all deal with public funds, have occurred behind closed doors.

Generally, it is our public policy that public bodies’ actions are to be conducted openly. This is why you can stroll on over to our courthouse and watch, virtually, any case be conducted.  There are rare cases in which the court will “seal” or close the record, such as to protect privileged health information or the identity of children.  Our public policy that strongly encourages open sessions for public entities exists for good reason.  As tax payers, we expect full disclosure and transparency as to how our tax dollars are being used.  In a way, all tax paying NC residents are shareholders of NC.  Those who spend our tax dollars owe us a fiduciary duty to manage our tax dollars in a reasonable and responsible manner, and we should be able to attend all board meetings and review all meeting minutes. The MCOs are the agents of the single state entity, Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), charged with managing behavioral health care for the Medicaid and state-funded population suffering with mental health/developmentally disabled /substance abuse (MR/DD/SA) issues.  As an agent of the state, MCOs are public entities.

But, as I am researching the internet in search of Eastpointe and Cardinal board meeting minutes, I realize that the MCOs are initiating closed meetings and quoting N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11, ” Closed sessions” as the  basis for being able to conduct closed sessions.  And the number of closed sessions that I notice is not a small number.

The deliberations of a merger between two MCOs are highly important to the public. The public needs to know whether the board members are concerned about improving quality and quantity of care. Whether the deliberations surround a more inclusive provider network and providing more services to those in need. Whether the deliberations consider using public funds to create playgrounds or to fund more services for the developmentally disabled. Or are the board members more concerned with which executives will remain employed and what salaried are to be compensated?

You’ve heard of the saying, “Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile?”  This is what is going through my mind as I review the statute allowing public bodies to hold closed sessions.  Is the statute too open-ended? Is the closed session statute a legal mishandling that unintentionally, and against public policy, allows public meetings to act privately? Or are the MCOs misusing the closed session statute?

So I ask myself the following:

1. Is N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11 applicable to MCOs, or, in other words, can the MCOs conduct closed sessions? and, if the answer to #1 is yes, then

2. Are the MCOs overusing or misusing its ability to hold closed sessions? If the answer to #3 is yes, then

3. What can be done?

These are the three questions I will address in this blog.

Number one:

Is N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11 applicable to MCOs, or, in other words, can the MCOs conduct closed sessions?

According to the statute, “”public body” means any elected or appointed authority, board, commission, committee, council, or other body of the State, or of one or more counties, cities, school administrative units, constituent institutions of The University of North Carolina, or other political subdivisions or public corporations in the State that (i) is composed of two or more members and (ii) exercises or is authorized to exercise a legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, or advisory function.”

The MCOs are bodies or agents of the state that are composed of more than 2 members and exercises or is authorized to exercise administrative or advisory functions to the extent allowed by the Waivers.

I determine that, in my opinion, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11 is applicable to the MCOs, so I move on to my next question…

Number two:

 Are the MCOs overusing or misusing its ability to hold closed sessions?

As public policy dictates that public bodies act openly, there are enumerated, statutory reasons that a public body may hold a closed session.

A public body may hold a closed session only when a closed session is required:

  1. “To prevent the disclosure of information that is privileged or confidential pursuant to the law of this State or of the United States, or not considered a public record within the meaning of Chapter 132 of the General Statutes.
  2. To prevent the premature disclosure of an honorary degree, scholarship, prize, or similar award.
  3. To consult with an attorney employed or retained by the public body in order to preserve the attorney-client privilege between the attorney and the public body, which privilege is hereby acknowledged. General policy matters may not be discussed in a closed session and nothing herein shall be construed to permit a public body to close a meeting that otherwise would be open merely because an attorney employed or retained by the public body is a participant. The public body may consider and give instructions to an attorney concerning the handling or settlement of a claim, judicial action, mediation, arbitration, or administrative procedure. If the public body has approved or considered a settlement, other than a malpractice settlement by or on behalf of a hospital, in closed session, the terms of that settlement shall be reported to the public body and entered into its minutes as soon as possible within a reasonable time after the settlement is concluded.
  4. To discuss matters relating to the location or expansion of industries or other businesses in the area served by the public body, including agreement on a tentative list of economic development incentives that may be offered by the public body in negotiations, or to discuss matters relating to military installation closure or realignment. Any action approving the signing of an economic development contract or commitment, or the action authorizing the payment of economic development expenditures, shall be taken in an open session.
  5. To establish, or to instruct the public body’s staff or negotiating agents concerning the position to be taken by or on behalf of the public body in negotiating (i) the price and other material terms of a contract or proposed contract for the acquisition of real property by purchase, option, exchange, or lease; or (ii) the amount of compensation and other material terms of an employment contract or proposed employment contract.
  6. To consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee; or to hear or investigate a complaint, charge, or grievance by or against an individual public officer or employee. General personnel policy issues may not be considered in a closed session. A public body may not consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, appointment, or removal of a member of the public body or another body and may not consider or fill a vacancy among its own membership except in an open meeting. Final action making an appointment or discharge or removal by a public body having final authority for the appointment or discharge or removal shall be taken in an open meeting.
  7. To plan, conduct, or hear reports concerning investigations of alleged criminal misconduct.
  8. To formulate plans by a local board of education relating to emergency response to incidents of school violence or to formulate and adopt the school safety components of school improvement plans by a local board of education or a school improvement team.
  9. To discuss and take action regarding plans to protect public safety as it relates to existing or potential terrorist activity and to receive briefings by staff members, legal counsel, or law enforcement or emergency service officials concerning actions taken or to be taken to respond to such activity.”

Option 1 clearly applies, in part, to privileged health information (PHI) and such.  So I would not expect that little Jimmy’s Medicaid ID would be part of the board meeting issues, and, thus, not included in the minutes, unless his Medicaid ID was discussed in a closed session.

I cannot fathom that Option 2 would ever be applicable, but who knows?  Maybe Alliance will start giving out prizes…

I would assume that Option 3 is used most frequently.  But notice:

“General policy matters may not be discussed in a closed session and nothing herein shall be construed to permit a public body to close a meeting that otherwise would be open merely because an attorney employed or retained by the public body is a participant.”

Which means that: (1) the closed session may only be used to talk about specific legal strategies and not general policies.  For example, arguably, an MCO could hold a closed session to consult with its attorney whether to appeal a specific case, but not to discuss whether, generally, the MCO intends to appeal all unsuccessful cases.

and

(2) the MCO cannot call for a closed session “on the fly” and only because its attorney happens to be participating in the board meeting.

As I am rifling through random board meeting minutes, I notice the MCO’s attorney is always present.  Now, I say “always,” but did not review all MCO meeting minutes. There may very well be board meetings at which  the attorneys don’t attend. However, the attorney is present for the minutes that I reviewed.

Which begs the question…Are the MCOs properly using the closed sessions?

Then I look at Options 4, and 5, and 6, and 7, and 8, and 9…and I realize, Geez, according to one’s interpretation, the statute may or may not allow almost everything behind closed doors. (Well, maybe not 9).  But, seriously, depending on the way in which each Option is interpreted, there is an argument that almost anything can be a closed session.

Want to hold a closed session to discuss why the CEO should receive a salary of $400,000? N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(5)(ii).

Want hold a closed session to discuss the anonymous tip claim that provider X is committing Medicaid fraud? N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(7).

Want to hold a closed session to discuss how an MCO can position itself to take over the world? N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(4).

In an atmosphere in which there is little to no supervision of the actions of the MCOs, who is monitoring whether the MCOs are overusing or misusing closed sessions?

Number three:

What can you do if you think that an MCO is holding closed sessions over and above what is allowed by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11?

According to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.16A, “[a]ny person may institute a suit in the superior court requesting the entry of a judgment declaring that any action of a public body was taken, considered, discussed, or deliberated in violation of this Article. Upon such a finding, the court may declare any such action null and void. Any person may seek such a declaratory judgment, and the plaintiff need not allege or prove special damage different from that suffered by the public at large.”

Plus, according to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.16A, “[w]hen an action is brought pursuant to G.S. 143-318.16 or G.S. 143-318.16A, the court may make written findings specifying the prevailing party or parties, and may award the prevailing party or parties a reasonable attorney’s fee, to be taxed against the losing party or parties as part of the costs. The court may order that all or any portion of any fee as assessed be paid personally by any individual member or members of the public body found by the court to have knowingly or intentionally committed the violation; provided, that no order against any individual member shall issue in any case where the public body or that individual member seeks the advice of an attorney, and such advice is followed.”

 In sum, if you believe that an MCO is conducting a closed session for a reason not enumerated above, then you can institute a lawsuit and request attorneys’ fees if you are successful in showing that the MCO knowingly or intentionally committed the violation.

We should also appeal to the General Assembly to revise, statutorily, more narrowly drafted closed session exceptions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going forward:

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

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

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

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

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

damned

In the meantime:

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

Do You Have a Property Right to Be a Medicaid Provider?

YES!

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital or otherwise infamous crime unless on presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” U.S. Constitution, 5th Amendment (emphasis added).

The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, or, the Bill of Rights, were written by James Madison (for whom my daughter Madison was named).

Our managed care organizations (MCOs) and the government take the irritating position that providers have no right to be a Medicaid provider. And, often they quote the NC Administrative Code, which states that “All provider contracts with the North Carolina State Medicaid Agency are terminable at will. Nothing in these Regulations creates in the provider a property right or liberty right in continued participation in the Medicaid program.” 10A NCAC 22F .0605. However, as every attorney knows, when there is a rule, there is an exception. And when there is a rule, case law overrides it.

Despite 10A NCAC 22F .0605, a intelligent judge found that “Alliance contends that [the provider] has no right to be a Medicaid provider and therefore this Court cannot find that [the provider]’s rights have been substantially violated by its decision. Alliance also argues that [the provider]’s rights are solely contractual in nature and once the contract expired, the [provider] had no rights.

This contested case is not merely a contract case as Alliance contends. This contested case is about Alliance’s almost total disregard for Federal and State laws and regulations and its own policies. Based on the evidence, the process for the RFP seems almost like it began on a whim—ostensibly to fix problems that had no basis in fact. The result was a flawed RFP in which providers which might otherwise be comparable were treated differently, based in significant part on a subjective review.” Carolina Comm. Support Serv., Inc. v. Alliance Behavioral Healthcare, 14 DHR 1500, April 2, 2015.

So how can you have a property right in a Medicaid contract when the NCAC states that the contracts are terminable at will?

“In determining whether a property interest exists a Court must first determine that there is an entitlement to that property. Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532 (1985). Unlike liberty interests, property interests and entitlements are not created by the Constitution. Instead, property interests are created by federal or state law and can arise from statute, administrative regulations, or contract. Bowens v. N.C. Dept. of Human Res., 710 F.2d 1015, 1018 (4th Cir. 1983). Under North Carolina case law, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has determined that North Carolina Medicaid providers have a property interest in continued provider status. Bowens, 710 F.2d 1018. In Bowens, the Fourth Circuit recognized that North Carolina provider appeals process created a due process property interest in a Medicaid provider’s continued provision of services, and could not be terminated “at the will of the state.” The court determined that these safeguards, which included a hearing and standards for review, indicated that the provider’s participation was not “terminable at will.” Id. The court held that these safeguards created an entitlement for the provider, because it limits the grounds for his termination such that the contract was not terminable “at will” but only for cause, and that such cause was reviewable. The Fourth Circuit reached the same result in Ram v. Heckler, 792 F.2d 444 (4th Cir. 1986) two years later. Since the Court’s decision in Bowen, a North Carolina Medicaid provider’s right to continued participation has been strengthened through the passage of Chapter 108C. Chapter 108C expressly creates a right for existing Medicaid providers to challenge a decision to terminate participation in the Medicaid program in the Office of Administrative Hearings. It also makes such reviews subject to the standards of Article 3 of the APA. Therefore, North Carolina law now contains a statutory process that confers an entitlement to Medicaid providers. Chapter 108C sets forth the procedure and substantive standards for which OAH is to operate and gives rise to the property right recognized in Bowens and Ram. Under Chapter 108C, providers have a statutory expectation that a decision to terminate participation will not violate the standards of Article 3 of the APA. The enactment of Chapter 108C gives a providers a right to not be terminated in a manner that (1) violates the law; (2) is in excess of the Department’s authority; (3) is erroneous; (4) is made without using proper procedures; or (5) is arbitrary and capricious. To conclude otherwise would nullify the General Assembly’s will by disregarding the rights conferred on providers by Chapter 108C. This expectation cannot be diminished by a regulation promulgated by the DMA which states that provider’s do not have a right to continued participation in the Medicaid program because under the analysis in Bowen the General Assembly created the property right through statutory enactment.” Carolina Comm. Support Serv, Inc., at 22.

Again – how can you have a property right in a Medicaid contract when the NCAC states that the contracts are terminable at will? The answer is – You have a property right in your Medicaid contract. The state or MCOs cannot arbitrarily terminate your contract – regardless what they say. Know your rights!!

Warning: Medicare/caid Billing Confusion May Lead to Jail Time

All health care providers are under serious scrutiny, that is, if they take Medicaid. In Atlanta, GA, a dentist, Dr. Oluwatoyin Solarin was sentenced to a year and six months for filing false claims worth nearly $1 million. She pled guilty, and, I would assume, she had an attorney who recommended that she plead guilty. But were her claims actually false? Did she hire a criminal attorney or a Medicaid attorney? Because the answers could be the difference between being behind bars and freedom.

Dr. Solarin was accused of billing for and receiving payments for dental claims while she was not at the office. U.S. Attorney John Horn stated that “Solarin cheated the Medicaid program by submitting fraudulent claims, even billing the government for procedures she allegedly performed at the same time she was out of the country.”

I receive phone calls all the time from people who are under investigation for Medicare/caid fraud. What spurred on this particular blog was a phone call from (let’s call him) Dr. Jake, a dentist. He, similar to Dr. Solarin, was under investigation for Medicaid fraud by the federal government. By the time Dr. Jake called me, his investigation was well on its way, and his Medicaid reimbursements had been suspended due to credible allegations of fraud for almost a year. He was accused of billing for and receiving payments for dental services while he was on vacation…or sick…or otherwise indisposed. He hired one of the top criminal attorneys, who advised him to take a plea deal for a suspended jail sentence and monetary recompense.

But, wait, he says to me. I didn’t do anything wrong. Why should I have to admit to a felony charge and be punished for doing nothing wrong?

I said, let me guess, Jake. You were the rendering dentist – as in, your NPI number was on the billed claim – but you hired a temporary dentist to stand in your place while you were on vacation, sick, or otherwise indisposed?

How did you know? Jake asks.

Because I understand Medicaid billing.

When my car breaks down, I go to a mechanic, not a podiatrist. The same is true for health care providers undergoing investigation for Medicare/caid fraud – you need a Medicare/caid expert. A criminal attorney,most likely, will not understand the Medicare/caid policy on locum tenens. Or the legal limitations of Medicaid suspensions and the administrative route to get the suspension lifted. Or the good cause exception to suspensions.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating that, when under criminal, health care fraud investigation, you should not hire a criminal attorney. Absolutely, you will want a criminal attorney. But you will also want a Medicare/caid attorney.

What is Locum tenens? It is a Latin phrase that means temporary substitute. Physicians and dentists hire locum tenens when they go on vacation or if they fall ill. It is similar to a substitute teacher. Some days I would love to hire a locum tenens for me. When a doctor or dentist hires a temporary substitute, usually that substitute is paid by the hour or by the services rendered. If the payor is Medicare or Medicaid, the substitute is not expected to submit the billing and wait to be reimbursed. The substitute is paid for the day(s) work, and the practice/physician/dentist bills Medicare/caid, which is reimbursed. For billing purposes, this could create a claim with the rendering NPI number as Dr. Jake, while Dr. Sub Sally actually rendered the service, because Dr. Jake was in the Bahamas. It would almost look like Dr. Jake were billing for services billing the government for procedures he allegedly performed at the same time he was out of the country.

Going back to Dr. Jake…had Dr. Jake hired a Medicare/caid attorney a year ago, when his suspension was first implemented, he may have be getting reimbursed by Medicaid this whole past year – just by asking for a good cause exception or by filing an injunction lifting the suspension. His Medicaid/care attorney could have enlightened the investigators on locum tenens, and, perhaps, the charges would have been dropped, once the billing was understood.

Going back to Dr. Solarin who pled guilty to accusations of billing for services while out of the country…what if it were just a locum tenens problem?

New Revisions to Stark Law: Beware the “Per-Click Lease” – Maybe?

Scenario: You have an arrangement with your local hospital. You are a urologist and your practice owns a laser machine. You lease your laser machine to Hospital A, and your lease allows you to receive additional, but fair market value, money depending on how often your machine is used. Legal?

A new Final Ruling from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) provides murky guidance.

CMS finalized the 2017 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule (PFS) rule, which took effect on January 1, 2017. There have been few major revisions to the Stark Law since 2008…until now. The Stark Law is named for United States Congressman Pete Stark (D-CA), who sponsored the initial bill in 1988. Politicians love to name bills after themselves!

Absent an exception, the Stark Law prohibits a physician from referring Medicare patients for certain designated health services (“DHS”), for which payment may be made under Medicare, to any “entity” with which the physician (or an immediate family member) has a “financial relationship.” Conversely, the statute prohibits the DHS-furnishing entity from filing claims with Medicare for those referred services.

Despite the general prohibition on potentially self-interested referrals, the Stark Law permits Medicare referrals by physicians to entities in which they have a financial interest in certain limited circumstances. But these circumstances are limited and must be followed precisely and without deviation.

These exceptions are created by legally excluding some forms of compensation agreements and ownership interests from the definition of “financial relationship,” thus allowing both the relationships and the referrals. See 42 U.S.C. § 1395nn(b)-(e).

One of such exceptions to the Stark Law is the equipment lease exception.

This equipment lease exception to Stark law allows a financial relationship between physicians and hospitals for the lease of equipment, only if the lease (1) is in writing; (2) assigns the use of the equipment exclusively to the hospital; (3) lasts for a term of at least one year; (4) sets rental charges in advance that are consistent with fair market value and “not determined in a manner that takes into account the volume or value of any referrals or other business generated between the parties”; (5) satisfies the standard of commercial reasonableness even absent any referrals; and (6) meets “such other requirements as the Secretary may impose by regulation as needed to protect against program or patient abuse.”

For example, like the scenario above, a urology group owns and leases a laser machine to Hospital A. As long as the lease meets the criteria listed above, the urologists may refer Medicare patients to Hospital A to their hearts’ content – even though the urologists benefit financially from their own referrals.

However, what if the monetary incentive is tied to the amount the machine is actually used – or the “per-click lease?”

In a court case decided in January 2015, Council for Urological Interests v. Burwell, a D.C. circuit court decided that CMS’ ban on per-click leases was unreasonable.

In CMS’ Final Ruling, effective January 1, 2017, CMS again re-issued the per-click lease ban. But CMS’ revised ban appears to be more parochial in scope. CMS states that it “did not propose and [is] not finalizing an absolute prohibition on rental charges based on units of service furnished” and that “[i]n general, per-unit of service rental charges for the rental of office space or equipment are permissible.” As CMS had previously stated, the per-click ban applies only “to the extent that such charges reflect services provided to patients referred by the lessor to the lessee.”

Considering how unclear the Final Rule is – We are banning per-click leases, but not absolutely – expect lawsuits to clarify. In the meantime, re-visit your equipment leases. Have your attorney review for Stark compliance – because for the first time since 2008, major amendments to Stark Law became effective January 1, 2017.

Medicaid Forecast: Cloudy with 100% Chance of Trump

Regardless how you voted, regardless whether you “accept” Trump as your president, and regardless with which party you are affiliated, we have a new President. And with a new President comes a new administration. Republicans have been vocal about repealing Obamacare, and, now, with a Republican majority in Congress and President, changes appear inevitable. But what changes?

What are Trump’s and our legislature’s stance on Medicaid? What could our future health care be? (BTW: if you do not believe that Medicaid funding and costs impact all healthcare, then please read blog – and understand that your hard-working tax dollars are the source of our Medicaid funding).

WHAT IS OUR HEALTHCARE’S FORECAST?

The following are my forecasted amendments for Medicaid:

  1. Medicaid block grants to states

Trump has indicated multiple times that he wants to put a cap on Medicaid expenses flowing from the federal government to the states. I foresee either a block grant (a fixed annual amount per state) or a per capita cap (fixed dollar per beneficiary) being implemented.

What would this mean to Medicaid?

First, remember that Medicaid is an entitlement program, which means that anyone who qualifies for Medicaid has a right to Medicaid. Currently, the federal government pays a percentage of a state’s cost of Medicaid, usually between 60-70%. North Carolina, for example, receives 66.2% of its Medicaid spending from Uncle Sam, which equals $8,922,363,531.

While California receives only 62.5% of its Medicaid spending from the federal government, the amount that it receives far surpasses NC’s share – $53,436,580,402.

The federal funding is open-ended (not a fixed a mount) and can inflate throughout the year, but, in return, the states are required to cover certain health care services for certain demographics; e.g., pregnant women who meet income criteria, children, etc. With a block grant or per capita cap, the states would have authority to decide who qualifies and for what services. In other words, the money would not be entwined with a duty that the state cover certain individuals or services.

Opponents to block grants claim that states may opt to cap Medicaid enrollment, which would cause some eligible Medicaid recipients to not get coverage.

On the other hand, proponents of per capita caps, opine that this could result in more money for a state, depending on the number of Medicaid eligible residents.

2. Medicaid Waivers

The past administration was relatively conservative when it came to Medicaid Waivers through CMS. States that want to contract with private entities to manage Medicaid, such as managed care organizations (MCOs), are required to obtain a Waiver from CMS, which waives the “single state entity” requirement. 42 CFR 431.10. See blog.

This administration has indicated that it is more open to granting Waivers to allow private entities to participate in Medicaid.

There has also been foreshadowing of possible beneficiary work requirements and premiums.Montana has already implemented job training components for Medicaid beneficiaries. However, federal officials from the past administration instructed Montana that the work component could not  be mandatory, so it is voluntary. Montana also expanded its Medicaid in 2015, under a Republican governor. At least for one Medicaid recipient, Ruth McCafferty, 53, the voluntary job training was Godsend. She was unemployed with three children at home. The Medicaid job program paid for her to participate in “a free online training to become a mortgage broker. The State even paid for her 400-mile roundtrip to Helena to take the certification exam. And now they’re paying part of her salary at a local business as part of an apprenticeship to make her easier to hire.” See article.

The current administration may be more apt to allow mandatory work requirements or job training for Medicaid recipients.

3. Disproportionate Share Hospital

When the ACA was implemented, hospitals were at the negotiating table. With promises from the past administration, hospitals agreed to take a cut on DSH payments, which are paid to hospitals to help offset the care of uninsured and Medicaid patients. The ACA’s DSH cut is scheduled to go into effect FY 2018 with a $2 billion reduction. It is scheduled to continue to reduce until FY 2025 with a $8 billion reduction. The reason for this deduction was that the ACA would create health coverage for more people and with Medicaid expansion there would be less uninsured.

If the ACA is repealed, our lawmakers need to remember that DSH payments are scheduled to decrease next year. This could have a dramatic impact on our hospitals. Last year, approximately 1/2 of our hospitals received DSH. In 2014, Medicaid paid approximately $18 billion for DSH payments, so the proposed reductions make up a high percentage of DSH payments.

4. Physician payment predictability

Unlike the hospitals, physicians got the metaphoric shaft when the ACA was implemented. Many doctors were forced to provide services to patients, even when those patients were not covered by a health plan. Many physicians had to  increase the types of insurance they would accept, which increased their administrative costs and the burden.

This go-around, physicians may have the ear of the HHS Secretary-nominee, Tom Price, who is an orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Price has argued for higher reimbursement rates for doctors and more autonomy. Regardless, reimburse rate predictability may stabilize.

Do the Anti-Kickback and Stark Laws Apply to Private Payors?

Good question.

Anti-Kickback statutes (AKS) and Stark law are extremely important issues in health care. Violations of these laws yield harsh penalties. Yet, many healthcare professionals have little to no knowledge on the details of these two legal beasts.

The most common question I get regarding AKS and Stark is: Do AKS and Stark apply to private payers? Health care professionals believe, if I don’t accept Medicare or Medicaid, then I don’t need to worry about AKS and Stark. Are they correct??

The general and overly broad response is that the Stark Law, 42 USC § 1395nn, only applies to Medicare and Medicaid. The AKS, 42 USC § 1320a-7b(b)),applies to any federal healthcare program.

Is there a difference between AKS and Stark?

Answer: Yes. As discussed above, the first difference is that AKS applies to all federal healthcare programs. This stark difference (pun intended) makes the simple decision to not accept Medicare and Medicaid, thus allowing you to never worry about AKS, infinitely more difficult.

Let’s take a step back… What are AKS and Stark laws and what do these laws prohibit? When you Google AKS and Stark, a bunch of legal blogs pop up and attempt to explain, in legalese, what two, extremely esoteric laws purport to say, using words like “renumeration,” “knowing and willful,” and “federal healthcare program.” You need a law license to decipher the deciphering of AKS and Stark. The truth is – it ain’t rocket science.

The AKS is a criminal law; if you violate the AKS, you can be prosecuted as a criminal. The criminal offense is getting something of value for referrals. You cannot refer patients to other health care professionals in exchange for money, reduced rent, use of laboratory equipment, referrals to you, health services for your mother, marketing, weekly meals at Ruth’s Chris, weekly meals at McDonalds, oil changes, discounted theater tickets, Uber rides, Costco coupons, cooking lessons, or…anything of value, regardless the value. 

Safe harbors (exceptions to AKS) exist. But those exceptions better fit squarely into the definition of the exceptions. Because there are no exceptions beyond the enumerated exceptions.

AKS is much more broad in scope than Stark. Other than Medicare and Medicaid, AKS applies to any health care plan that utilizes any amount of federal funds. For example, AKS applies to Veterans Health Care, State Children’s Health Programs (CHIP), Federal Employees Health Benefit Program, and many other programs with federal funding. Even if you opt to not accept Medicare and Medicaid, you may still be liable under AKS.

Stark law, on the other hand, is more narrow and only applies to Medicare and Medicaid. I find the following “cheat sheet” created by a subdivision of the Office of Inspector General to be helpful in understanding AKS and Stark and the differences between the two:

One other important aspect of Stark is that is considered “strict liability,” whereas AKS requires a proving of a “knowing and willful” action.

Feel free to print off the above chart for your reference. However, see that little asterisk at the bottom of the chart? It applies here as well.

Federal Court Orders HHS to Eliminate Medicare Appeal Backlog!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CEO of Cardinal Gets a Raise – With Our Tax Dollars!

You could hear the outrage in the voices of some of the NC legislators (finally, for the love of God – our General Assembly has taken the blinders off their eyes regarding the MCOs) at the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Medicaid and NC Health Choice on Tuesday, December 6, 2016, when Cardinal Innovations‘, a NC managed care organization (MCO) that manages our Medicaid behavioral health care in its catchment area, CEO, Richard Topping, stated that his salary was raised this year from $400,000 to $635,000with our tax dollars. (Whoa – totally understand if you have to read that sentence multiple times; it was extraordinarily complex).

Senator Tommy Tucker (R-Waxhaw) was especially incensed. He said, “I received minutes from your board, Sept. 16 of 2016, they made that motion, that your 2017 comp package, they raised your salary from $400,000 to $635,000, they gave you a 0 to 30 percent bonus potential which could be roughly another $250,000 and also you have some sort of annuity or long-term package of $412,000,” said Sen. Tommy Tucker.

FINALLY!!! Not the first time that I have blogged about the mismanagement (my word) of our tax dollars. See blog. And blog.

Sen. Tucker was not alone.

Representative Dollar was also concerned. But even more surprising than our legislators stepping up to the plate and holding an MCO accountable (MCOs have expensive lobbyists – with our tax dollars), the State’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Secretary Rick Brajer was visibly infuriated. He spoke sharply and interrogated Topping as to his acute income increase, as well as the benefits attached.

As a health care blogger, I receive so many emails from blog readers, including parents of disabled children, who are not receiving the medically necessary Medicaid behavioral health care services for their developmentally disabled children. MCOs are denying medically necessary services. MCOs are terminating qualified health care providers. MCOs are putting access to care at issue. BTW – even if the MCOs only terminated 1 provider and stopped 1 Medicaid recipient from receiving behavioral health care services from their provider of choice, that MCO would be in violation of federal law access to care regulations.  But, MCOs are terminating multiple – maybe hundreds – of health care providers. MCOs are nickeling and diming health care providers. Yet, CEO Topping will reap $635,000+ as a salary.

The MCOs, including Cardinal, do not have assets except for our tax dollars. They are not incorporated. They are not private entities. They are extensions of our “single state agency” DHHS. The MCOs step into the shoes of DHHS. The MCOs are state agencies. The MCOs are paid with our tax dollars. Our tax dollars should be used (and are budgeted) to provide Medicaid behavioral health care services for our most needy and to be paid to those health care providers, who still accept Medicaid and provide services to our most vulnerable population. News alert – These providers who render behavioral health care services to Medicaid recipients do not make $635,000/year, or anywhere even close. The reimbursement rates for Medicaid is paltry, at best. Toppings should be embarrassed for even accepting a $635,000 salary. The money, instead, should go to increasing the reimbursements rates – or maintaining a provider network without terminating providers ad nauseum. Or providing medically necessary services to Medicaid recipients.

Rest assured, Cardinal is not the only MCO lining the pockets of its executives. While both Trillium and Alliance, other MCOs, pay their CEOs under $200,000 (still nothing to sneeze at). Alliance, however, throws its tax dollars at private, legal counsel. No in-house counsel for Alliance! Oh, no! Alliance hires expensive, private counsel to defend its actions. Another way our tax dollars are at work. And – my question – why in the world does Alliance, or any other MCO, need to hire legal counsel? Our State has perfectly competent attorneys at our Attorney General’s office, who are on salary to defend the state, and its agencies, for any issue. The MCOs stand in the shoes of the State when it comes to Medicaid for behavioral health. The MCOs should utilize the attorneys the State already employs – not a high-dollar, private law firm. These are our tax dollars!

There have been few times that I have praised DHHS in my blogs. I will readily admit that I am harsh on DHHS’ actions/nonactions with our tax dollars. And I am now not recanting any of my prior opinions. But, last Tuesday, Sec. Brajer held Toppings feet to the fire. Thank you, Brajer, for realizing the horror of an MCO CEO earning $635,000/year while our most needy population goes under-served, and, sometimes not served at all, with medically necessary behavioral health care services.

What is deeply concerning is that if Sec. Brajer is this troubled by actions by the MCOs, or, at least, Cardinal, why can he not DO SOMETHING?? Where is the supervision of the MCOs by DHHS? I’ve read the contracts between the MCOs and DHHS. DHHS is the supervising entity over the MCOs. Our Waiver to the federal government promises that DHHS will supervise the MCOs.

If the Secretary of DHHS cannot control the MCOs, who can?

Knicole Emanuel Interviewed on Recent Success: Behavioral Health Care Service Still Locked in Overbilling Dispute with State

Last Thursday, I was interviewed by a reporter from New Mexico regarding our Teambuilders win, in which an administrative judge has found that Teambuilders owes only $896 for billing errors. Here is a copy of an article published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, written by Justin Horwath:

Source: Behavioral health care service still locked in overbilling dispute with state

The true tragedy is that these companies, including Teambuilders, should not have been put out of business based on false allegations of fraud. Not only was Teambuilders cleared of fraud, but, even the ALJ agreed with us that Teambuilders does not owe $12 million – but a small, nominal amount ($896.35). Instead of having the opportunity to pay the $896.35 and without due process of law, Teambuilders was destroyed – because of allegations.