Category Archives: Gordon & Rees

Accused of a Medicare or Medicaid Overpayment? Remember That You May Fall Into an Exception That Makes You NOT Liable to Pay!!

In today’s health care world, post-payment review audits on health care providers who accept Medicare and/or Medicaid have skyrocketed. Part of the reason is the enhanced fraud, waste, and abuse detections that were implanted under ObamaCare. Then the snowball effect occurred. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Systems (CMS), which is the single federal agency designated by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), via authority from Congress, to manage Medicare and Medicaid nationwide, started having positive statistics to show Congress.

Without question, the recovery audit contractors (RACs) have recouped millions upon millions of money since 2011, when implemented. Every financial report presented to Congress shows that the program more than pays for itself, because the RACs are paid on contingency.

Which pushed the snowball down the hill to get bigger and bigger and bigger…

However, I was reading recent, nationwide case law on Medicare and Medicaid provider overpayments reviews (I know, I am such a dork), and I realized that many attorneys that providers hire to defend their alleged overpayments have no idea about the exceptions found in Sections 1870 and 1879 of the Social Security Act (SSA). Why is this important? Good question. Glad you asked. Because of this legal jargon called stare decisis (let the decision stand). Like it or not, in American law, stare decisis is the legal doctrine that dictates once a Court has answered a question,the same question in other cases must elicit the same response from the same court or lower courts in that jurisdiction. In other words, if “Attorney Uneducated” argues on behalf of a health care provider and does a crappy job, that decision, if it is against the provider, must be applied similarly to other providers. In complete, unabashed, English – if a not-so-smart attorney is hired to defend a health care provider in the Medicare and/or Medicaid world, and yields a bad result, that bad result will be applied to all health care providers subsequently. That is scary! Bad laws are easily created through poor litigation.

A recent decision in the Central District of California (shocker), remanded the Medicare overpayment lawsuit back to the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level because the ALJ (or the provider’s attorney) failed to adequately assess whether the exceptions found in Sections 1870 and 1879 of the SSA applied to this individual provider. Prime Healthcare Servs.-Huntington Beach, LLC v. Hargan, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 205159 (Dec., 13, 2017).

The provider, in this case, was a California hospital. The overpayment was a whopping total of $5,380.30. I know, a small amount to fight in the court of law and expend hundreds of thousands of attorneys’ fees. But the hospital (I believe) wanted to make legal precedent. The issue is extremely important to hospitals across the county – if a patient is admitted as inpatient and a contractor of CMS determines in a post payment review that the patient should have been admitted as an outpatient – is the hospital liable for the difference between the outpatient reimbursement rate and the inpatient reimbursement rate? To those who do not know, the inpatient hospital rates are higher than outpatient. Because the issue was so important and would have affected the hospital’s reimbursement rates (and bottom line) in the future, the hospital appealed the alleged overpayment of $5,380.30. The hospital went through the five levels of Medicare appeals. See blog. It disagreed with the ALJ’s decision that upheld the alleged overpayment and requested judicial review.

Judicial review (in the health care context): When a health care providers presents evidence before an ALJ and the ALJ ruled against the provider.The provider appeals the ALJ decision to Superior Court, which stands in as if it is the Court of Appeals. What that means is – that at the judicial review level, providers cannot present new evidence or new testimony. The provider’s attorney must rely on the   official record or transcript from the ALJ level. This is why it is imperative that, at the ALJ level, you put forth your best evidence and testimony and have the best attorney, because the evidence and transcript created from the ALJ level is the only evidence allowed from judicial review.

The exceptions found in Sections 1870 and 1879 of the SSA allow for a provider to NOT pay back an alleged overpayment, even if medical necessity does not exist. It is considered a waiver of the provider’s overpayment. If a Court determines that services were not medically necessary, it must consider whether the overpayment should be waived under Sections 1870 and 1879.

Section 1879 limits a provider’s liability for services that are not medically necessary when it has been determined that the provider “did not know, and could not reasonably have been expected to know, that payment would not be made for such services.” 42 U.S.C. 1395pp(a). A provider is deemed to have actual or constructive knowledge of non-coverage based on its receipt of CMS notices, the Medicare manual, bulletins, and other written directives from CMS. In other words, if CMS published guidance on the issue, then you are out of luck with Section 1879. The Courts always hold that providers are responsible for keeping up-to-date on rules, regulations, and guidance from CMS. “Ignorance of the law is no defense.”

Section 1870 of the SSA permits providers to essentially be forgiven for overpayments discovered after a certain period of time so long as the provider is “without fault” in causing the overpayment. Basically, no intent is a valid defense.

Sections 1879 and 1870 are extraordinary, strong, legal defenses. Imagine, if your attorney is unfamiliar with these legal defenses.

In Prime Healthcare, the Court in the Central District of California held that the ALJ’s decision did not clearly apply the facts to the exceptions of Sections 1870 and 1879. I find this case extremely uplifting. The Judge, who was Judge Percy Anderson, wanted the provider to have a fair shake. Hey, even if the services were not medically necessary, the Judge wanted the ALJ to, at the least, determine whether an exception applied. I feel like these exceptions found in Sections 1870 and 1879 are wholly underutilized.

If you are accused of an overpayment…remember these exceptions!!!

Appeal! Appeal! Appeal!

RAC Audit Preview: And Those on The Chopping Block Are…(Drum Roll, Please)

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) posted its December 2017 list of health care services that the Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) will be auditing. As usual, home health is on the chopping block. So are durable medical equipment providers. For whatever reason, it seems that home health, DME, behavioral health care, and dentists are on the top of the lists for audits, at least in my experience.

Number one RAC audit issue: 

Home Health: Medical Necessity and Documentation Review

To be eligible for Medicare home health services, a beneficiary must have Medicare Part A and/or Part B per Section 1814 (a)(2)(C) and Section 1835 (a)(2)(A) of the Social Security Act:

  • Be confined to the home;
  • Need skilled services;
  • Be under the care of a physician;
  • Receive services under a plan of care established and reviewed by a physician; and
  • Have had a face-to-face encounter with a physician or allowed Non-Physician Practitioner (NPP).

Medical necessity is the top audited issue in home health. Auditors also love to compare the service notes to the independent assessment. Watch it if you fail to do one activity of daily living (ADL). Watch it if you do too many ADLs out of the kindness of your heart. Deviations from the independent assessment is a no-no to auditors, even if you are going above and beyond to be sweet. And never use purple ink!

Number two RAC audit issue:

Annual Wellness Visits (AWV) billed within 12 months of the Initial Preventative Physical Examination (IPPE) or Annual Wellness Examination (AWV)

This is a simple mathematical calculation. Has exactly 12 months passed? To the day….yes, they are that technical. 365 days from a visit on January 7, 2018 (my birthday, as an example) would be January 7, 2019. Schedule any AWV January 8, 2019, or beyond.

Number three RAC audit issue:

Ventilators Subject to DWO requirements on or after January 1, 2016

This will be an assessment of whether ventilators are medically necessary. Seriously? Who gets a ventilator who does not need one? I was thinking the other day, “Self? I want a ventilator.”

Number four RAC audit issue:

Cardiac Pacemakers

This will be an assessment of whether cardiac pacemakers are medically necessary. Seriously? Who gets a pacemaker who does not need one? I was thinking the other day, “Self? I want a pacemaker.” Hospitals are not the only providers targets for this audit. Ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs) also will be a target. As patient care continues its transition to the outpatient setting, ASCs have quickly grown in popularity as a high-quality, cost-effective alternative to hospital-based outpatient care. In turn, the number and types of services offered in the ASC setting have significantly expanded, including pacemakers.

Number five RAC audit issue:

Evaluation and Management (E/M) Same Day as Dialysis

Except when reported with modifier 25, payment for certain evaluation and management services is bundled into the payment for dialysis services 90935, 90937, 90945, and 90947

It is important to remember that if you receive a notice of overpayment, you need to appeal immediately. The first level of appeal is redetermination, usually with the Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC). Medicare will not begin overpayment collection of debts (or will cease collections that have started) when it receives notice that you  requested a Medicare contractor redetermination (first level of appeal).

See blog for full explanation of Medicare provider appeals.

Inpatient Rehabilitation Facility Stay Claim Denials – Appeal Those Findings!

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) created a new page on its Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) website entitled “Provider Resources.” CMS indicated that it will post on this page any new issues the RACs have proposed to audit and are being evaluated by CMS for approval. It is like a glimpse behind the curtain to see the Great Oz. This is a fantastic resource for providers.  CMS posts a list of review topics that have been proposed, but not yet approved, for RACs to review. You can see the future!

Topics proposed for future audits:

  • Inpatient Rehabilitation Facility (IRF) Stays: Meeting Requirements to be considered Reasonable and Necessary;
  • Respiratory Assistive Devices: Meeting Requirements to be considered Reasonable and Necessary;
  • Excessive or Insufficient Drugs and Biologicals Units Billed;
  • E&M Codes billed within a Procedure Code with a “0” Day Global Period (Endoscopies or some minor surgical procedures);
  • E&M Codes billed within a Procedure Code with a “10” Day Global Period (other minor procedures);
  • E&M Codes billed within a Procedure Code with a “90” Day Global Period (major surgeries);

Over the next few weeks, intermittently (along with other blog posts), I will tackle these, and other, hot RAC audit topics.

IRFs are under fire in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia!

Many patients with conditions like stroke or brain injury, who need an intensive medical rehabilitation program, are transferred to an inpatient rehabilitation facility.

Palmetto, one of Medicare’s MACs, conducted a prepayment review of IRFs in these four states. The results were bleak, indeed, and will, most likely, spur more audits of IRFs in the future. If you are a Medicare provider within Palmetto’s catchment area, then you know that Palmetto conducts a lot of targeted prepayment review. Here is a map of the MAC jurisdictions:

medicaremac

You can see that Palmetto manages Medicare for North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Virginia. So Palmetto’s prepayment review covered its entire catchment area.

North Carolina Results A total of 28 claims were reviewed with 19 of the claims either completely or partially denied. The total dollars reviewed was $593,174.60 of which $416,483.42 was denied, resulting in a charge denial rate of 70.2 percent.

South Carolina Results A total of 24 claims were reviewed with 16 of the claims either completely or partially denied. The total dollars reviewed was $484,742.68 of which $325,266.43 was denied, resulting in a charge denial rate of 67.1 percent.

West Virginia Results
A total of two claims were reviewed with two of the claims either completely or partially denied. The total dollars reviewed was $32,506.21 of which $32,506.21 was denied, resulting in a charge denial rate of 100 percent.

Virginia Results
A total of 39 claims were reviewed with 31 of the claims either completely or partially denied. The total dollars reviewed was $810,913.83 of which $629,118.08 was denied, resulting in a charge denial rate of 77.6 percent.

In all 4 states, the most cited denial code was “5J504,” which means that “need for service/item not medically and reasonably necessary.” Subjective, right? I mean, who is better at determining medical necessity: (1) the treating physician who actually performs services and conducts the physical; or (2) a utilization auditor without an MD and who as never rendered medical services on the particular consumer? I see it all the time…former dental hygienists review the medical records of dentists and determine that no medial necessity exists…

When it comes to IRF Stays, what is reasonable and necessary?

According to Medicare policy and CMS guidance, the documentation in the patient’s IRF
medical record must demonstrate a reasonable expectation that the following criteria were met at the time of admission to the IRF. The patient must:

  • Require active and ongoing intervention of multiple therapy disciplines (Physical
    Therapy [PT], Occupational Therapy [OT], Speech-Language Pathology [SLP], or
    prosthetics/orthotics), at least one of which must be PT or OT;
  • Require an intensive rehabilitation therapy program, generally consisting of:
    ◦ 3 hours of therapy per day at least 5 days per week; or
    ◦ In certain well-documented cases, at least 15 hours of intensive rehabilitation
    therapy within a 7-consecutive day period, beginning with the date of admission;
  • Reasonably be expected to actively participate in, and benefit significantly
    from, the intensive rehabilitation therapy program (the patient’s condition and
    functional status are such that the patient can reasonably be expected to make
    measurable improvement, expected to be made within a prescribed period of time
    and as a result of the intensive rehabilitation therapy program, that will be of practical value to improve the patient’s functional capacity or adaptation to impairments);
  • Require physician supervision by a rehabilitation physician, with face-to-face
    visits at least 3 days per week to assess the patient both medically and functionally
    and to modify the course of treatment as needed; and
  • Require an intensive and coordinated interdisciplinary team approach to the
    delivery of rehabilitative care.

Did you notice how often the word “generally” or “reasonably” was used? Because the standard for an IRF stay is subjective. In fact, I would wager a bet that if I reviewed  the same documentation as the Palmetto auditors did, that I could make a legal argument that the opposite conclusion should have been drawn. I do it all the time. This is the reason that so many audits are easily overturned…they are subjective!

Therefore, when you get an audit result, such as the ones referenced above:

APPEAL! APPEAL! APPEAL!

Want to Drop Medicaid? (And I Don’t Blame You), But Here Are a Few Issues to Contemplate First

Low reimbursement rates make accepting Medicaid seem like drinking castor oil. You wrinkle your nose and swallow quickly to avoid tasting it. But if you are a provider that does accept Medicaid and you wish to stop accepting Medicaid – read this blog and checklist (below) before taking any action! Personally, if you do accept Medicaid, I say, “Thank you.” See blog. With more and more Medicaid recipients, the demand for providers who accept Medicaid has catapulted.

The United States has become a Medicaid nation. Medicaid is the nation’s largest health insurance program, covering 74 million, or more than 1 in 5 Americans.

Earlier this year, Kaiser published a report stating that 70% of office-based providers accept new patients covered by Medicaid. But this report does not mean that Medicaid recipients have access to quality health care. I will explain below.

medicaidacceptance

The variation in the above chart is interesting. Reimbursement rates directly impact whether providers in the state accept Medicaid. The participation goes from a low of 38.7% in New Jersey (where primary care reimbursement rates are 48% of Medicare rates) to a high of 96.5% in Nebraska (where the primary care reimbursement is 75% of Medicare). Montana, with a 90% physician participation rate, pays the same rate as Medicare for primary care, while California, with a 54.2% participation rate, pays 42% of the Medicare reimbursement rate. We should all strive to be like Nebraska and Montana … granted the number of Medicaid recipients are fewer in those states. For September 2017, Nebraska ranked 45th out of the 50 states for Medicaid enrollment. Montana ranked 42nd. Wyoming came in dead last.

Statistically writing, Medicaid covers:

  • 39% of all children.
  • Nearly half of all births in the country.
  • 60% of nursing home and other long-term care expenses.
  • More than 1/4 of all spending on mental health services and over a fifth of all spending on substance abuse treatment.

However, even if the report is correct and 70% of health care providers do accept Medicaid, that is not indicative of quality access of care for Medicaid recipients. The number of Medicaid recipients is skyrocketing at a rate that cannot be covered by the number of providers who accept Medicaid. Kaiser estimates that by 2020, more than 25% (1 out of 4) of Americans will be dependent on Medicaid. Because of the low reimbursement rates, health care providers who do accept Medicaid are forced to increase the quantity of patients, which, logically, could decrease the quality … or the amount of time spent with each patient. Citing the percentage of providers who accept Medicaid, in this instance, 70%, is not indicative of quality of access of care; the ratio of Medicaid recipients to providers who accept Medicaid would be more germane to quality of access to care for Medicaid recipients. Even if 70% of health care providers accept Medicaid, but we have 74 million Medicaid recipients, then 70% is not enough. My opinion is what it is because based on years of experience with this blog and people reaching out to me. I have people contact me via this blog or email explaining that their mother, father, child, sister, or brother, has Medicaid and cannot find a provider for – dental, mental health, developmentally disabled services. So, maybe, just maybe, 70% is not good enough.

Before dropping Medicaid like a hot potato, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Will I have enough patients without Medicaid to keep my staff and I busy?

Location! Location! Location! Your location matters. If you provide health care services in areas that are predominantly Medicaid-populated, then you may need to reconsider dropping the ‘Caid. California, New York, and Texas were the top spenders in Medicaid for fiscal year 2016, totaling over a whopping $183 billion of America’s total expenditure on ‘Caid, which was $553 billion.

I am sure that I am preaching to the choir, but choosing to not accept Medicaid is not fiscally sound if you and your staff will be twiddling their thumbs all day. Even low reimbursement rates are better than no reimbursement rates. On the downside, if you choose to accept Medicaid, you need a “rainy-day” fund to pay for attorneys to defend any regulatory audits, termination of Medicaid contracts, accusations of fraud, prepayment review, and/or other adverse determinations by the state (and, if you accept  Medicare, the federal government and all its vendors).

2. Have I attested for the Medicaid EHR meaningful use incentives?

If you attested and accepted the EHR incentive payments, you may need to continue seeing Medicaid patients in order to keep/maintain your EHR payments. (Please consult an attorney).

3. Will I still be subject to Medicaid audits in the future?

If avoiding Medicaid audits is your primary reason for dropping ‘Caid, ‘ho your horses. Refusing to accept ‘Caid going forward does not indemnify you from getting future audits. In fact, in cases of credible allegations of fraud, you may be subject to future Medicaid audits for another 6 years after you no longer accept Medicaid. You will also need to continue to maintain all your records for regulatory compliance. If you cease accepting Medicaid, those recipients will need to find new providers. Those medical records are the Medicaid recipients’ property and need to be forwarded to the new provider.

If you are currently under investigation for credible allegations of fraud, of which you may or may not be aware, then suddenly stop accepting Medicaid, it could be a red flag to an investigator. Not that ceasing to accept Medicaid is evidence of wrongdoing, but sometimes sudden change, regardless of the change, can spur curiosity in auditors. For example, in NC DHHS v. Parker Home Care, the Court of Appeals ruled that a tentative notice of overpayment by Public Consulting Group (PCG) does not constitute a final agency decision. The managed care organizations (MCOs) freaked out because the MCOs were frightened that a health care provider could argue, in Court, that Parker Home Care applies to MCOs, as well. They were so freaked out that they filed an Amicus Curiae Brief, which is a Brief on behalf of a person or organization that is not a party to a particular litigation but that is permitted by the court to advise it in respect to some matter of law that directly affects the case in question. The MCOs’ Brief states, “The Court of Appeals’ decision, if allowed to stand, could be construed to undermine the authority explicitly granted to managed care organizations, such as the LME/MCOs in North Carolina, by CMS.” Too bad our Waiver specifically states that DHS/DMA to CMS states, “[DMA] retains final decision-making authority on all waiver policies and requirements.” But I digress. In Parker Home Care, the MCOs filed the Brief to preserve their self-instilled authority over their catchments areas. However, despite the MCOs request that the NC Supreme Court take the issue under consideration, the Supreme Court denied certiorari, which means the Supreme Court refused to entertain the issue. While it is not “law” or “precedent” or “written in stone,” generally, attorneys argue that the Supreme Court’s refusal to entertain an issue means that it does not deem the issue to be a controversy … that the Court agrees with the lower court’s decision. Hence, the argument that the MCOs  cannot render final agency decisions.

4. Will I be able to sleep at night?

Health care providers become health care providers, generally, with the intent to help people. This makes most health care providers nurturing people. You have to ask yourself whether you will be comfortable, ethically, with your decision to not accept Medicaid. I cannot tell you how many of my clients tell me, at some point, “I’m just not going to accept Medicaid anymore.” And, then continue to accept Medicaid … because they are good people. It infuriates me when I am in court arguing that terminating a provider’s Medicaid contract will put the provider out of business, and the attorney from the State makes a comment like, “It was the provider’s business decision to depend this heavily on Medicaid.” No, actually, many providers do feel an ethical duty to serve the Medicaid population.

Check your health care community and determine whether other providers with your specialty accept Medicaid. Are they accepting new Medicaid patients? Are they viable options for your patients? Are they as good as you are? Just like attorneys, there are good and bad; experienced and inexperienced; intelligent and not-so-much; capable and not-so-much.

5. Can I delegate Medicaid recipients to a mid-level practitioner?

Physician assistants and nurse practitioners are wonderful assets to have to devote to Medicaid recipients. This is not to say that Medicaid recipients deserve lesser-educated services because, quite frankly, some PAs and NPs are just as good as the MDs. But you get my point. If PAs and NPs have a lower billable rate, then it makes business financial sense to delegate the Medicaid recipients to them. Similarly, I have an amazing, qualified paralegal, Todd Yoho. He has background in medical coding, went to two years of law school, and is smarter than many attorneys. I am blessed to have him. But the reality is that his billable rate is lower than mine. I try to use his services whenever possible to try to keep the attorneys’ fees lower. Same with mid-level practitioner versus using the MD.

6. Instead of eliminating Medicaid patients, can I just decrease my Medicaid patients?

This could be a compromise with yourself and your business. Having the right balance between Medicaid recipients and private pay, or even Medicare patients, can be key in increasing income and maintaining quality of care. Caveat: In most states, you are allowed to cap your Medicaid recipients. However, there are guidelines that you muts follow. Even Medicaid HMOs or MCOs could have different requirements for caps on Medicaid recipients. Again, seek legal advice.

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

DHHS has ousted and taken over Cardinal Innovations!

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

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

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

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

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

cardinaloutside

cardinal4 Break Room

cardconference Conference Room

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

“[T[his new three-story, 79,000-square-foot facility is divided into two separate structures joined by a connecting bridge.  The 69,000-square-foot building houses the regional headquarters and includes Class A office space with conference rooms on each floor and a fully equipped corporate board room.  This building also houses a consumer gallery and a staff cafe offering an outdoor dining area on a cantilevered balcony overlooking a landscaped ravine.  The 10,000-square-foot connecting building houses a corporate training center. Computer access flooring is installed throughout the facility and is supported by a large server room to maintain redundancy of information flow.” How much did that cost the Medicaid recipients in Cardinal’s catchment area? Seem appropriate for an agent of the government spending tax money for luxurious office space? Shoot, my legal office is not even that nice. And I don’t get funded by tax dollars!

In 2015, I wrote:

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

Then in July 2015, according to the article in the Charlotte Observer, Cardinals paid Ms. Shipman an additional $424,975, as severance. Within one year, Ms. Shipman was paid by Cardinal a whopping $889,975. Almost one million dollars!!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The million dollar question.

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

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

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

To name a few…

EHR Incentive Payments: If the Practice is Accepting Them, There Better Be a Legal Assignment Contract!

Under the Medicare EHR incentive program, CMS makes incentive payments to individual providers, not to practices or groups. The same is true for Medicaid. According to CMS, the incentive payment is based on the provider’s meaningful use of the EHRs and does not constitute reimbursement for the expenses incurred in establishing EHRs. Prior to actual receipt of an incentive payment, a recipient may assign the payment to a third party, typically, the practice group of which the recipient is a member.

This is a question of equity. Legally, the incentive payments are made to physicians not practice groups. But if the facility bears the burden of the price tag of the computer software, which price tags are not nominal, shouldn’t the facility receive the incentive payments? CMS has made it clear that the incentive payments are not intended to subsidize the price of the software program and updates. Instead, the incentive payments are intended to reward the use of such computer software.

The facilities, generally, pay for the EHR incentive program software programs. Some programs can be as high as $50,000/month. And updated regulatory compliance is not guaranteed. See blog. Plus, the practice group can be held liable for non-compliance issues found in the EHR technology. If the facility is audited and any non-compliance is under-covered, most physicians will be indemnified by the facility for any alleged overpayment, and the facility will be on the hook for any alleged overpayment (depending on the employment relationship). This increased burden on the practice group is why many physicians assign their incentive payments to the facilities. But it has to be done in a legally compliant manner.

Recently, however, I have been contacted by multiple health care facilities which have accepted the EHR incentive payments on behalf of its employed physicians, but did not have adequate, legal assignment contracts to receive the EHR incentives on behalf of the providers. These facilities relied on old, outdated, generic, employment contracts as the basis for the facilities accepting these payments on behalf of the physicians. Not having appropriate assignment contracts with the physicians can make the facilities liable to the physicians for the money accepted on their behalf.

Generic employee contracts that simply state that the facility can bill for and receive reimbursements on behalf of the physicians do not constitute adequate legal authority to accept EHR incentive payments on behalf of physician-employees.

Facilities, in order to legally accept the incentive payments on behalf of their employee-physicians must (1) determine whether their physicians are eligible professionals; and (2) execute a legally binding assignment contract.

Eligible Professionals (“EPs”) must first determine whether they are exactly that – eligible professionals.

Eligibility

Eligible professionals under the Medicare EHR Incentive Program include:

  • Doctor of medicine or osteopathy
  • Doctor of dental surgery or dental medicine
  • Doctor of podiatry
  • Doctor of optometry
  • Chiropractor

Who is an Eligible Professional under the Medicaid EHR Incentive Program?

Eligible professionals under the Medicaid EHR Incentive Program include:

  • Physicians (primarily doctors of medicine and doctors of osteopathy)
  • Nurse practitioner
  • Certified nurse-midwife
  • Dentist
  • Physician assistant who furnishes services in a Federally Qualified Health Center or Rural Health Clinic that is led by a physician assistant.

To qualify for an incentive payment under the Medicaid EHR Incentive Program, an eligible professional must meet one of the following criteria:

  • Have a minimum 30% Medicaid patient volume*
  • Have a minimum 20% Medicaid patient volume, and is a pediatrician*
  • Practice predominantly in a Federally Qualified Health Center or Rural Health Center and have a minimum 30% patient volume attributable to needy individuals

* Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) patients do not count toward the Medicaid patient volume criteria.

Eligible for Both Programs?

Eligible professionals eligible for both the Medicare and Medicaid EHR Incentive Programs must choose which incentive program they wish to participate in when they register. Before 2015, an EP may switch programs only once after the first incentive payment is initiated. Most EPs will maximize their incentive payments by participating in the Medicaid EHR Incentive Program.

EPs can switch programs as often as they desire–until they receive their first payment. After receiving their first payment, they may only switch once between programs prior to 2015.

If you are part of a practice, each eligible professional may qualify for an incentive payment if each eligible professional successfully demonstrates meaningful use of certified EHR technology. Each eligible professional is only eligible for one incentive payment per year, regardless of how many practices or locations at which he or she provide services.

Hospital-based eligible professionals are not eligible for incentive payments. An eligible professional is considered hospital-based if 90% or more of his or her services are performed in a hospital inpatient (Place Of Service code 21) or emergency room (Place Of Service code 23) setting.

What language needs to be included in any assignment contracts?

recent study by the American Hospital Association (AHA) found federal programs, including meaningful use, have cost health systems and post-acute care (PAC) providers nearly $39 billion a year. Small practices in particular have been hit hard by the added costs and administrative burden brought on by changing regulations. Studies have shown that small, specialty, non-hospital, facilities have carried the brunt of the financial burden for the EHR requirements.

Under the Medicaid incentive program, an EP may reassign incentive payments to “an entity promoting the adoption of certified EHR technology.” This term is defined as:

State-designated entities that are promoting the adoption of certified EHR technology by enabling oversight of the business, operational and legal issues involved in the adoption and implementation of certified EHR technology or by enabling the exchange and use of electronic clinical and administrative data between participating providers, in a secure manner, including maintaining the physical and organizational relationship integral to the adoption of certified EHR technology by eligible providers.

The Assignment Contract

At a minimum, the assignment language should address the following issues:

(1) Is the EP assigning all or a portion of the incentive payments to the facility? Be specific.

(2) Be clear on whether the facility or the EP must furnish the documentation necessary to establish meaningful use each year. In other words, denote who will be entering the data into the CMS or Medicaid website.

(3) Indicate whether the EP will consult with the facility  in order to determine which incentive program will yield the higher possible payments – or – whether the decision rests with the facility.

(4) The assignment language should state, accurately, whether the facility expects to be designated as an “entity promoting the adoption of certified EHR technology.”

(5) The contract should state, accurately, whether there is or will be a valid contractual arrangement allowing the facility to bill for the EP’s services. Basically, if there is already an employment contract in place, this assignment contract can act as an addendum or exhibit to the original employment contract.

(6) Define the term of assignment with a start date and an end date.

Only after the the facility determines that the physicians are eligible to receive the EHR incentive payments AND a valid assignment contract is executed, can the facility legally accept the incentive payments on behalf of its physicians. If the facility accepts the incentive payments and the physicians are not eligible, the facility will owe money to the government. If the facility accepts the incentive payments without an assignment contract, the physicians could demand the payments from the practice.

My Blog Named One of Nation’s Top 75 Health Care Blogs!

Recently, my blog was named one of the top 75 health care blogs in the nation!!! See here for all 75 blogs. Thank you to everyone who subscribes to this blog. I remember when I started the blog in 2012, I thought, “who in the world will find Medicare and Medicaid interesting?” Now, 5 years later, I have thousands of readers and national recognition. Who would’ve thought???

Top 75 BADGE

What if there are only 76 health care blogs in existence? Well, that would take the wind out of my sails.

Even if there are only 76 health care blogs in the nation, I am still humbled and grateful to be named one of the top 75 health care blogs.

Thank you!! And keep reading!

How Does OIG Target Provider Types for Audits and Who Needs to Worry?

Interestingly, how OIG and who OIG targets for audits is much more transparent than one would think. OIG tells you in advance (if you know where to look).

Prior to June 2017, the Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) OIG updated its public-facing Work Plan to reflect those adjustments once or twice each year. In order to enhance transparency around OIG’s continuous work planning efforts, effective June 15, 2017, OIG began updating its Work Plan website monthly.

Why is this important? I will even take it a step further…why is this information crucial for health care providers, such as you?

These monthly reports provide you with notice as to whether the type of provider you are will be on the radar for Medicare and Medicaid audits. And the notice provided is substantial. For example, in October 2017, OIG announced that it will investigate and audit specialty drug coverage and reimbursement in Medicaid – watch out pharmacies!!! But the notice also states that these audits of pharmacies for speciality drug coverage will not begin until 2019. So, pharmacies, you have over a year to ensure compliance with your records. Now don’t get me wrong… you should constantly self audit and ensure regulatory compliance. Notwithstanding, pharmacies are given a significant warning that – come 2019 – your speciality drug coverage programs better be spic and span.

Another provider type that will be on the radar – bariatric surgeons. Medicare Parts A and B cover certain bariatric procedures if the beneficiary has (1) a body mass index of 35 or higher, (2) at least one comorbidity related to obesity, and (3) been previously unsuccessful with medical treatment for obesity. Treatments for obesity alone are not covered. Bariatric surgeons, however, get a bit less lead time. Audits for bariatric surgeons are scheduled to start in 2018. Considering that 2018 is little more than a month away, this information is less helpful. The OIG Work Plans do not specific enough to name a month in which the audits will begin…just sometime in 2018.

Where do you find such information? On the OIG Work Plan website. Click here. Once you are on the website, you will see the title at the top, “Work Plan.” Directly under the title are the “clickable” subjects: Recently Added | Active Work Plan Items | Work Plan Archive.  Pick one and read.

You will see that CMS is not the only agency that OIG audits. It also audits the Food and Drug Administration and the Office of the Secretary, for example. But we are concerned with the audits of CMS.

Other targeted providers types coming up:

  • Telehealth
  • Security of Certified Electronic Health Record Technology Under Meaningful Use
  • States’ Collection of Rebates on Physician-Administered Drugs
  • States’ Collection of Rebates for Drugs Dispensed to Medicaid MCO Enrollees
  • Adult Day Health Care Services
  • Oversight of States’ Medicaid Information Systems Security Controls
  • States’ MCO Medicaid Drug Claims
  • Incorrect Medical Assistance Days Claimed by Hospitals
  • Selected Inpatient and Outpatient Billing Requirements

And the list goes on and on…

Do not think that if your health care provider type is not listed on the OIG website that you are safe from audits. As we all know, OIG is not the only entity that conducts regulatory audits. The States and its contracted vendors also audit, as well as the RACs, MICs, MACs, CERTs

Never forget that whatever entity audits you, YOU HAVE APPEAL RIGHTS!

EHR Programs’ Two, Haunting Risks: Liability and Audits – Scared Yet?

Happy Halloween!!

pennywise

What is scarier than Pennywise, Annabelle, and Jigsaw combined? Getting sued for an EHR program mistake and getting audited for EHR eligibility when the money is already spent (most likely, on the EHR programs).

Without question, EHR programs have many amazing qualities. These programs save practices time and money and allow them to communicate instantly with insurers, hospitals, and referring physicians. Medical history has never been so easy to get, which can improve quality of care.

However, recently, there have been a few audits of EHR programs that have caused some bloodcurdling concerns and of which providers need to be aware of creepy cobwebs with the EHR programs and the incentive programs.

  1. According to multiple studies, EHR has been linked to patient injuries, which can result in medical malpractice issues; and
  2. In an audit by OIG, CMS was found to have inappropriately paid $729.4 million (12 percent of the total) in incentive payments to providers who did not meet meaningful use requirements, which means that CMS may be auditing providers who accepted the EHR incentive payments in the near future.

Since the implementation of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, which rewards providers with incentive payments to utilize electronic health record (EHR) computer programs, EHR use has skyrocketed. Providers who accept Medicare are even more incentivized to implement EHR programs because not using EHR programs lead to penalties.

I.    Possible Liability Due to EHR Programs

A recent study by the The Doctors’ Company (TDC) found that the use of EHR has contributed to a number of patient injuries over the last 10 years. The study highlights why it is so important to have processes in place for back-up, cross-checking, and auditing the documentation in your EHRs.

Without question, the federal government pushed for physicians and hospitals to implement EHR programs quickly. Now 80% of physician practices use EHR programs. 90% of hospitals use EHR programs. But the federal government did not create EHR standards when it mandated the use of the programs. This resulted in vastly inconsistent EHR programs. These programs, for the most part, were not created by health care workers. The people who know whether the EHR programs work in real life – the providers – haven’t transformed the EHR programs into better programs based on reality. The programs are “take it or leave it” models created in a vacuum. This only makes sense because providers don’t write computer code, and the EHR technology is extremely esoteric. A revision to an EHR program probably takes an act of wizardry. Revitalizing the current EHR programs to be better suited to real life could take years.

There are always unanticipated consequences when new technology is implemented – didn’t we all learn this from the NCTracks implementation debacle? Now that was gruesome!

TDC study found that EHR programs may place more liability on the provider-users than pre-electronic databases.

The study states the following:

“In our study of 66 EHR-related claims from July 2014 through December 2016, we found that 50 percent of these claims were caused by system factors such as failure of drug or clinical decision support alerts and 58 percent of claims were caused by user factors such as copying and pasting progress notes.

This study was an update to our first analysis of EHR-related claims, a review of 97 claims that closed from January 2007 through June 2014.”

Another study published by the Journal of Patient Health studied more than 300,000 cases. Although it found that less than 1% of the total (248 cases) involved technology mistakes, more than 80% of those suits alleged harms of medium to intense severity. The researchers stressed that the 248 claims represented the “tip of an iceberg” because the vast majority of EHR-related cases, even those involving serious harm, never generate lawsuits.

Of those 248 claims that may have been the result of EHR-related mistakes, 31% were medication errors. For example, a transcription error in entering the data from a handwritten note. Diagnostic errors contributed to 28% of the claims. Inability to access records in an emergency setting accounted for another 31%. But systems aren’t entirely to blame. User error — such as data entry and copy-and-paste mistakes and alert fatigue — is also a big problem, showing up in 58% of the claims reviewed. Boo!

Tips:

  • Avoid copying and pasting; beware of templates.
  • Do not just assume the EHR technology is correct. Cross check.
  • Self audit

II.    Possible Audit Exposure for Accepting EHR Incentive Payments

Not only do providers need to be careful in using the EHR technology, but if you did attest to Medicare or Medicaid EHR incentive programs, you may be audited.

In June 2017, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) audited CMS and its EHR incentive program. OIG found that “CMS did not always make EHR incentive payments to EPs [eligible professionals] in accordance with Federal requirements. On the basis of [OIG’s] sample results, [OIG] estimated that CMS inappropriately paid $729.4 million (12 percent of the total) in incentive payments to EPs who did not meet meaningful use requirements. These errors occurred because sampled EPs did not maintain support for their attestations. Furthermore, CMS conducted minimal documentation reviews, leaving the self-attestations of the EHR program vulnerable to abuse and misuse of Federal funds.”

OIG also found that CMS made EHR incentive payments totaling $2.3 million that were not in accordance with the program-year payment requirements when EPs switched between Medicare and Medicaid incentive programs.

OIG recommended that CMS review provider incentive payments to determine which providers did not meet meaningful use requirements and recover the estimated $729,424,395.

What this means for you (if you attested to EHR incentive payments) –

Be prepared for an audit.

If you are a physician practice, make sure that you have the legally adequate assignment contracts allowing you to collect incentive payments on behalf of your physicians. A general employment contract will , generally, not suffice.

Double check that your EHR program was deemed certified. Do not just take the salesperson’s word for it. You can check whether your EHR program is certified here.

If you accepted Medicaid EHR incentive payments be sure that you met all eligibility requirements and that you have the documentation to prove it. Same with Medicare. These two programs had different eligibility qualifications.

Following these tips can save you from a spine-tingling trick from Pennywise!

we all float

Cardinal Board Slashes CEO’s Salary and CEO Cannot Accept!

In the wake of bad press, Cardinal Innovation’s Board of Directors finally acted and cut Richard Topping’s, the CEO, obnoxiously high salary, which is paid with Medicaid fund tax dollars. It seems he received a salary decrease of over $400,000! According to the below article, Topping did not take the news well and stated that he cannot accept the massive decrease in salary. See blog.

Will Topping quit? Who will manage Cardinal?

See article below written by Richard Craver of the Winston Salem Journal:

The salary for the chief executive of Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions has been cut by two-thirds — from $617,526 a year to $204,195 — reducing it to the maximum allowed by North Carolina law. Cardinal’s embattled board of directors passed a resolution on CEO Richard Topping’s salary after a four-hour closed special session that ended about 11 p.m. Tuesday, according to Charlotte radio station WFAE.

The vote was 5-3 in favor of the resolution with two members abstaining and two members absent. The eight members represented a quorum.

Bryan Thompson serves on the Cardinal board as the lone representative from Davie, Forsyth, Rockingham and Stokes counties. He was the chairman of CenterPoint Human Services of Winston-Salem until it was taken over by Cardinal in June 2016. Thompson confirmed Wednesday that he introduced the motion for the resolution. “I am very proud of the work Cardinal Innovations does and the seriousness I observed in the board members last night,” Thompson said. “I fully support the resolution adopted to bring the salary into range as provided by the state.” Ashley Conger, Cardinal’s vice president of communications and marketing, on Wednesday confirmed the board’s salary-reduction resolution. “Richard is still leading the company, and his priority is to ensure stability and continuity for our employees, members and communities as we continue work with the state to address their concerns,” Conger said.

Cardinal’s board chairwoman, Lucy Drake, voted against the resolution. “We brought him in and we offered (the reduced salary) to him. And he has said he cannot accept that,” Drake told WFAE.

It’s unclear if Topping qualifies for a severance package should he choose to resign because of the salary cut. “We have got to find out who on the team is going to stay,” Drake said. “We’ve got to find out who will be running Cardinal. Because this just completely overwhelmed me. I didn’t know this was going this way tonight.” Attending the meeting was Dave Richard, the state’s deputy health secretary for medical assistance and head of its Medicaid program. After the second of two scathing state audits, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services issued a statement Oct. 2 saying, “Cardinal should immediately bring its salary/compensation package for its CEO in line with the other MCOs, and shed its excessive severance offerings. DHHS will continue to monitor Cardinal’s performance.” Richard told legislators on Oct. 11 that he would present to the Cardinal board a list of state compliance requirements for Cardinal, the largest of the state’s seven behavioral-health managed care organizations, or MCOs. On Wednesday, Richard said through a spokesman that Cardinal’s board is taking steps to comply with state law, “and we look forward to continuing to work with Cardinal to ensure North Carolinians receive excellent care and state resources are handled appropriately.”

Reversing course

The board’s decision represents a stunning about-face for the MCO. On Sept. 18, Cardinal sued the state to maintain what it claims is the authority to pay Topping up to 3½ times more than his peers. Drake issued a statement supporting the lawsuit, which challenges the state’s authority to set executive-compensation limits. Cardinal filed the lawsuit against the Office of State Human Resources with the State Office of Administrative Hearings. Cardinal’s predecessor was formed in part as a legislative experiment for using private sector methods to lower the cost of caring for Medicaid enrollees without sacrificing the quality of care.

Cardinal and Topping have viewed the agency as an independent contractor as part of state Medicaid reform, gaining financial and business flexibility beyond those of other MCOs. That included being able to retain about $70 million in Medicaid savings from fiscal years 2014-15 and 2015-16. Topping has said Cardinal is performing in accord with what legislators have asked it to do. However, Cardinal is considered a political subdivision of the state, with oversight contracts subject to approval by the state health secretary and executive compensation subject to Office of State Human Resources guidelines. Cardinal argues in its complaint that not being allowed to pay Topping up to $635,000 in annual salary could convince him to resign, thereby putting Cardinal “at a significant market disadvantage” recruiting a top executive in the Mecklenburg County business market. “This would result in immediate and irreparable harm to Cardinal Innovations and reduce the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission,” Cardinal said. Topping’s current three-year contract provides severance payments “for a broad range of reasons” beyond termination of employment without just cause. They include:

  • If Cardinal is taken over or ceases to be an independent entity.
  • If a majority of the board is replaced without the board’s approval.
  • If the agency is “materially” affected by statutory or regulatory changes to its services, revenue, governance or employment practices.

Excessive spending

About 96,300 Triad Medicaid enrollees may be along for the ride if a day of reckoning arrives for Cardinal. That’s how many individuals could be affected in Davie, Forsyth, Rockingham and Stokes counties involving services for mental health, developmental disorders and substance abuse. Cardinal oversees providers of those services and handles more than $675 million in annual federal and state Medicaid money.

The main issue at hand is executive compensation and severance packages that Cardinal has committed to Topping and 10 other executives, which legislators have called excessive and unacceptable. The Cardinal board approved two raises for Topping since he became chief executive in July 2015. Cardinal’s board minutes are not available on its website, and Cardinal officials have a pattern of responding slowly to public and media requests for those minutes, including a request made Friday that it referred to its legal team.

An internal DHHS audit, released Oct. 1, determined that the salary and severance packages Cardinal’s board approved “pose a substantial risk (to Cardinal) and may not be in the best interest of Cardinal, beneficiaries and/or the state.” “This is excessive and raises concerns about the entity’s solvency and ability to continue to provide services in the event of a significant change in its leadership team,” DHHS said in a statement. In May, the state auditor’s office cited in its audit of Cardinal unauthorized executive compensation and a combined $490,756 in high-end board retreats and “unreasonable spending (that) could erode public trust.”

N.C. Auditor Beth Wood said in May that Cardinal “is not independent of the state … and it is definitely responsible to the General Assembly.” “Its whole independent contractor claims have been taken out of context, and they are being misleading when they say they are,” Wood said. Wood also blamed the Office of State Human Resources for not doing a better job of monitoring Cardinal’s executive-compensation packages.

Uncertain future

A bipartisan group of state legislators is urging the state health secretary, Dr. Mandy Cohen, to replace Topping and the board, and/or terminate Cardinal’s state Medicaid contracts, for noncompliance with state laws. State health officials and legislators say they are not ready to predict what steps Cohen might take, which could include splintering Cardinal’s 20-county territory and assigning parts to one or more of the state’s other six MCOs. Cardinal also covers Alamance and Davidson counties. “All of the options are possible,” state Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, said last week. Krawiec is a member of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services. However, it is not likely that Cohen would approve resurrecting CenterPoint. Since taking office, Cohen has tightened core performance requirements for the MCOs, including adding financial penalties for noncompliance. “These new contracts hold each organization accountable to meeting key performance measures to ensure high-quality care,” Cohen said.

State Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, a co-chairman of the health-care oversight committee, said last week that while it would be cumbersome to divvy up the Cardinal counties “to other MCO who would absorb these services … it can be done.” Counties can request, during a relatively brief period each year, to switch MCOs with the state health secretary’s permission. Three county managers — Dudley Watts of Forsyth, Lance Metzler of Rockingham and Rick Morris of Stokes — said last week that their respective boards of commissioner have not discussed contingency plans in preparation for any action by Cohen on Cardinal. Krawiec said the executive-compensation information about Cardinal is “very disappointing and disturbing.” “While Cardinal has obviously shown us how health services can be delivered at a cost savings, those savings have led to lavish expenditures by Cardinal,” she said. “Instead of returning the savings back into improving the system and providing for those in need, the funds have been spent in a very irresponsible manner.”

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Oh, to have been a fly on the wall, during Tuesday’s Board of Directors meeting at Cardinal… We will definitely need to request the meeting minutes!