Category Archives: Behavioral health

Will Health Care Providers Be Affected By the Government Shutdown?

Happy third day of the government shutdown.

deflated

According to Twitter (which is not always correct – shocker), the government shutdown may be lifted momentarily. At least, according to Jamie Dupree’s Twitter account, “From the Senate hallways – it seems like there are enough votes now to fund the government & end the shutdown.”

But, as of now, the government shutdown remains in effect, after Senators failed to come to an agreement to end it, late Sunday night. A vote is is ongoing that could end the shutdown with a short-term, spending bill that would last three weeks. A short-term answer to a much bigger problem is like putting a band-aid on a broken leg. In other words, a shutdown can happen again in three weeks. So, even if the shutdown is thwarted today, it may not matter. For future government shutdowns, we need to explore the consequences of a shutdown as it pertains to health care.

If you are a health care provider who accepts Medicare and/or Medicaid, then you are probably worried about the consequences of a federal government shutdown. As in, will you get your reimbursements for services rendered? We are currently on Day 3.

Health Care Related Consequences

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) will send home — or furlough — about half of its employees, or nearly 41,000 people, according to an HHS shutdown contingency plan released this past Friday.

According to the HHS plan, the CDC will suspend its flu-tracking program.

Medicare

It depends. If the shutdown is short, medical providers will continue to receive reimbursements. If the shutdown is prolonged, reimbursements could be affected. As with Medicaid, Medicare has funding sources that don’t depend on Congress passing annual spending bills. Again, beneficiaries and providers should not be affected by a shutdown, unless it is prolonged.

Medicaid

States already have their funding for Medicaid through the second quarter, or the end of June, so no shortfall in coverage for enrollees or payments to providers is expected. Enrolling new Medicaid applicants is a State function, so that process should not be affected. Federal funding for the health insurance program for the low-income population is secure through the end of June.

States also handle much of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provides coverage for lower-income children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. But federal funding for CHIP is running dry — its regular authorization expired on Oct. 1, and Congress has not agreed on a long-term funding solution. However, federal employees, who are necessary to make payments to states running low on funds will continue to work during a shutdown. The definition of “necessary?” Up in the air.

With a shutdown, there will be no new mental health or social services grants awarded and less monitoring of existing grants. The HHS departments most involved in issuing grants to health-care providers around the country would be particularly affected by the shutdown because more of their employees are furloughed. This includes the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Administration for Children and Families.

FDA

The FDA’s food-safety inspection program hits pause. “FDA will be unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition and cosmetics activities,” the HHS contingency plan says. The exception is meat and poultry inspections carried out by the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Not health care related, but NASA tweeted “Sorry, but we won’t be tweeting/responding to replies during the government shutdown. Also, all public NASA activities and events are cancelled or postponed until further notice. We’ll be back as soon as possible! Sorry for the inconvenience.”

Is this legal? Well, as it pertains to Medicare and Medicaid providers receiving reimbursements, the government is required to follow the law.

42 CFR 422.520 require that the contract between CMS and the MA organization must provide that the MA organization will pay 95 percent of the “clean claims” within 30 days of receipt if they are submitted by, or on behalf of, an enrollee of an MA private fee-for-service plan or are claims for services that are not furnished under a written agreement between the organization and the provider.

42 CFR 447.45 requires that the Medicaid agency must pay 90 percent of all clean claims from practitioners, who are in individual or group practice or who practice in shared health facilities, within 30 days of the date of receipt.

Part D has a similar regulation, as does all Medicare and Medicaid service types.

Theoretically, if a government shutdown causes the federal or state government to violate the regulations that instruct those agencies to pay providers within 30 days, then providers would have a legal cause of action against the federal and/or state governments for not following the regulations.

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…

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!

Cardinal Sues State to Keep Paying CEO $635,000 – With Our Tax Dollars!

On September 18, Cardinal filed a Petition at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) challenging the State’s authority to set executive compensation limits. In other words, Cardinal is suing the State of NC to keep paying Toppings $635,000.00 with our tax dollars. See below:

petition

On Tuesday (October 10, 2017) legislators blasted Cardinal Healthcare and strongly urged DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen to terminate its contract with Cardinal. The legislators challenged the impressive and questionably-needed administrative costs of the managed care organizations (MCOs), including exorbitant salaries, office parties, and private jets. Cardinal’s CEO Richard Topping, who became CEO in July 2015, was compensated at $635,000.00 this year. His total compensation was over $1.2 million in 2016 and 2017 (for a government job; i.e., our tax dollars. So we all may own a portion of his home). See blog. and blog. The State Auditor also reported excessive spending and mismanagement of funds. Let’s keep in mind, people, these funds are earmarked to provide medically necessary services to our most needy population suffering from mental illness, substance abuse, and developmentally disabilities. But Toppings wants a Porsche. (Disclaimer – my opinion).

And if we weren’t enraged enough about the obscene salary of Cardinal’s CEO, Cardinal decided to spend more tax dollars…on attorneys’ fees to litigate maintaining its CEO’s salary. When I heard this, I hoped that Cardinal, with our tax dollars, paid an internal general counsel, who would litigate the case. I mean, an in-house counsel gets a salary, so it wouldn’t cost the taxpayers extra money (over and beyond his/her salary) to sue the State. But, no. I was woefully disappointed. Cardinal hired one of the biggest law firms in the State of NC – Womble Carlyle – the only firm downtown Raleigh with its signage on the outside of the skyscraper. I am sure that costs a pretty penny. Please understand – this is nothing against Womble Carlyle. It is a reputable firm with solid lawyers, which is why Cardinal hired them. But they ain’t cheap.

BACKGROUND

Cardinal is a Local Management Entity/Managed Care Organization (LME/MCO) created by North Carolina General Statute 122C. IT IS NOT A PRIVATE COMPANY, LIKE BCBS. Cardinal is responsible for managing, coordinating, facilitating and monitoring the provision of mental health, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse services in 20 counties across North Carolina. Cardinal is the largest of the state’s seven LME/MCOs, serving more than 850,000 members. Cardinal has contracted with DHHS to operate the managed behavioral healthcare services under the Medicaid waiver through a network of licensed practitioners and provider agencies.  State law explicitly states Cardinal’s core mission as a government
entity.

CARDINAL’S FUNDING

Cardinal’s most significant funding is provided by Medicaid (85%). Funding from Medicaid totaled $567 million and $587 million for state fiscal years 2015 and 2016, respectively. Medicaid is a combination of federal and state tax dollars. If you pay taxes, you are paying for Toppings’ salary and the attorneys’ fees to keep that salary.

North Carolina General Statute 122C-123.1 states: “Any funds or part thereof of an area authority that are transferred by the area authority to any entity including a firm, partnership, corporation, company, association, joint stock association, agency, or nonprofit private foundation shall be subject to reimbursement by the area authority to the State when expenditures of the area authority are disallowed pursuant to a State or federal audit.” (Emphasis Added).

Our State Auditor, in its audit of Cardinal, already found that Cardinal’s spending of its funds is disallowed:

cardinals salary

Not only has the State Auditor called Cardinal out for excessive salaries, in a letter, dated August 10, 2017, the Office of State Human Resources told Cardinal that “Based on the information you submitted, the salary of your Area Director/CEO is above this new rate and, therefore, out of compliance. Please work to adjust the Area  Director/CEO salary accordingly and notify us of how you have remedied this situation. In the future, please ensure that any salary adjustment complies with the
provisions of G.S. 122C-121- the Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Act of 1985.” (emphasis added). In other words – follow the law! What did Cardinal do? Sued the Office of State Human Resources.

Concurrently, Cardinal is terminating provider contracts in its closed network (which keeps Cardinal from having to pay those providers), decreasing and denying behavioral health care services to Medicaid recipients (which keeps Cardinal from having to pay for those services). — And now, paying attorneys to litigate in court to keep the CEO’s salary of $635,000.00. Because of my blog, I receive emails from parents who are distraught because Cardinal is decreasing or terminating their child’s services. Just look at some of the comments people have written on my blog. Because of my job, I see firsthand the providers that are getting terminated or struck with alleged overpayments by Cardinal (and all the MCOs).

My questions are – if Cardinal has enough money to pay its CEO $635,000.00, why doesn’t Cardinal increase reimbursement rates to providers? Provide more services to those in need? Isn’t that exactly why it exists? Oh, and, let’s not forget Cardinal’s savings account. The State Auditor found that “For FY 2015 and 2016, Cardinal accumulated approximately $30 million and $40 million, respectively, in Medicaid savings.” Cardinal, and all the MCOs, sit in a position that these government entities could actually improve mental health in NC. They certainly have the funds to do so.

According to a blog follower, Cardinal pays lower reimbursement rates than other MCOs:

Psychiatric Diagnostic Eval. (Non-Medical) 90791
Cardinal MCO Pays $94.04
Partners MCO Pays 185.90
Medicare Pays 129.60
SC Medicaid Pays 153.94

Psychotherapy 60 minutes (in-home) 90837
Cardinal MCO Pays $74.57
Partners MCO Pays 112.00
Medicare Pays 125.93
SC Medicaid Pays 111.90

According to the Petition, Cardinal’s argument is that it is not a government entity. That its employees, including Toppings, does not receive state government benefits and are not part of the state retirement program. It also states in its Petition that Cardinal hires external consultants (with our tax dollars) to conduct a market compensation study every two years. (cough!). Cardinal complains, in the Petition, that “If forced to reduce its CEO’s salary to a level well below market rate for the leader of an organization of Cardinal Innovations’ size and complexity, Cardinal Innovations would be likely to immediately lose its current CEO and would be at a significant market disadvantage when trying to replace its current CEO with one of similar experience and expertise in the industry, as is necessary to lead Cardinal Innovations. This would result in immediate and irreparable harm to Cardinal Innovations and reduce the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission.” Wow – Toppings must be unbelievable…a prodigy…the picture of utopia…

The State has informed Cardinal that a salary is more appropriate at $194,471.00 with the possibility of a 5% exception up to $204,195.00.

In its Petition, Cardinal calls the statutorily required salary cap “an irrationally low salary range.” If I take out 50% for taxes, which is high, Toppings is paid $26,458.33 per month. In comparison, the Medicaid recipients he serves get the following per month (at the most):

eligibility

Disgusted? Angry? Contact your local representative. Don’t know who your representative is? Click here. I wonder how the IRS would react if I protested by refusing to pay taxes… Don’t worry. I’m not going to go all Martha Stewart on you.

Silence Can Be Deadly: Can You Be Held Responsible for Medicare/caid Billings Errors That You Never Knew Existed?

You submit a claim for medically necessary services for a Medicaid recipient. Let’s say you provide behavioral health care services and prescribe medication for people who suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar. One member of your staff (a PA) prescribes Abilify to a child – perfectly acceptable treatment for schizophrenia. The child suffers a seizure and dies. It is discovered, unbeknownst to you, as the owner of the agency, that the staff member prescribing the medication was not appropriately supervised. You are shocked. You are dismayed. You are terrified.

Sure enough, someone tattles on you and a qui tam lawsuit is filed against your agency.

A qui tam (kwee tam) lawsuit is Latin for “who as well,” a lawsuit brought by a private citizen (popularly called a “whistleblower”) against a person or company who is believed to have violated the law in the performance of a contract with the government or in violation of a government regulation, when there is a statute which provides for a penalty for such violations. The whistleblower in qui tam lawsuits can be awarded a lot of money, which is why whistleblowers bring the lawsuits.

In other words, a qui tam lawsuit filed against you is bad…very bad.

You are looking at six figures, easily, in attorneys’ fees, years of litigation, endless sleepless nights, and a high dose of Prozac. All because one of your staff was not properly licensed and could not prescribe medication without supervision. And you had no idea…

Wait…what? Isn’t “intent” or, legally, “scienter” a requirement to prove fraud?? You mean that I could be prosecuted for fraud when I had zero intent to commit fraud, plus, I didn’t even know it was occurring?

This is what happened to Universal Health Services, Inc.’s subsidiary that provided behavioral health care services in Massachusetts. Universal Health Serv. v. United States ex rel. Escobar, 136 S.Ct. 1989 (2016).

The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that each time a billing party submits a claim, it implicitly communicates that it conformed to the relevant program requirements, such that it was entitled to receive payment. Every claim implicitly promised compliance of every law!

Imagine the slippery slope with this decision – a multi-state company with offices across the nation bills millions to Medicare and Medicaid monthly. Executive management is in Rhode Island. An office in Tampa fails to check the criminal background of its employees for a period of a year, but in all other ways complies with the regulations and renders medically necessary services that entire year. According to the 1st Circuit opinion, the company could be liable for fraud and the false claims act, resulting in millions of dollars of penalties.

Did it matter to the judge in this case that the company was large? What if it were a small company with one office and four staff?

Juxtapose the 7th Circuit which held only express (or affirmative) falsehoods can render a claim “false” or “fraudulent.” In other words, you can only be held liable for fraud if you purposely or affirmatively acted.

The Supreme Court (last year) held that the implied false certification theory can, at least in some circumstances, provide a basis for liability.

The thinking is that a half truth is a lie. Which is correct…but is it fraud? A classic example of an actionable half-truth in contract law is the seller who reveals that there may be two new roads near a property he is selling, but fails to disclose that a third potential road might bisect the property.

The False Claims Act imposes civil liability on “any person who . . . knowingly presents, or causes to be presented, a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval.” §3729(a)(1)(A). Here’s the prob-lem-o: Congress never defined what is “false.”

Here is what the Supreme Court had to say about the unlicensed social worker:

“So too here, by submitting claims for payment using payment codes that corresponded to specific counseling services, Universal Health represented that it had provided individual therapy, family therapy, preventive medication counseling, and other types of treatment. Moreover, Arbour staff members allegedly made further representations in submitting Medicaid reimbursement claims by using National Provider Identification numbers corresponding to specific job titles. And these representations were clearly misleading in context. Anyone informed that a social worker at a Massachusetts mental health clinic provided a teenage patient with individual counseling services would probably—but wrongly—conclude that the clinic had complied with core Massachusetts Medicaid requirements (1) that a counselor “treating children [is] required to have specialized training and experience in children’s services,” 130 Code Mass. Regs. §429.422, and also (2) that, at a minimum, the social worker possesses the prescribed qualifications for the job, §429.424(C). By using payment and other codes that conveyed this information without disclosing Arbour’s many violations of basic staff and licensing requirements for mental health facilities, Universal Health’s claims constituted misrepresentations.””

In English, this means that: With the act of submitting a Medicaid claim, you are promising that you have followed all rules, including the licensure status required for rendering that service.

The Court held that:

The issue is whether a defendant should face False Claims Act liability only if it fails to disclose the violation of a contractual, statutory, or regulatory provision that the Government expressly designated a condition of payment. The Court concluded that the FCA does not impose this limit on liability. But it also held that not every undisclosed violation of an express condition of payment automatically triggers liability. It matters whether the omission was material.

The Supreme Court determined that not all statutory or regulatory violations are material, disagreeing with the government and the 1st Circuit.

But the Court never made a decision regarding Universal Health Services, Inc. Instead, it vacated the 1st Circuit and remanded the case for reconsideration of whether respondents have sufficiently pleaded a False Claims Act violation. But in doing so, the Court gave guidance as to its opinion. It wrote: “This case centers on allegations of fraud, not medical malpractice.”

What that one sentence tells me is that the Supreme Court does not want to create liability for any and every regulatory omission/mistake on a Medicaid claim. Mistakes happen. People are human. Apparently, even the Supreme Court knows that…

The Reality of Prepayment Review and What To Do If You Are Tagged – You’re It!

Prepayment review is a drastic tool (more like a guillotine) that the federal and state governments via hired contractors review the documentation supporting services for Medicare and Medicaid prior to the provider receiving reimbursement. The providers who are placed on prepayment review are expected to continue to render services, even if the provider is not compensated. Prepayment review is a death sentence for most providers.

The required accuracy rating varies state to state, but, generally, a provider must meet 75% accuracy for three consecutive months.

In the governments’ defense, theoretically, prepayment review does not sound as Draconian as it is. Government officials must think, “Well, if the provider submits the correct documentation and complies with all applicable rules and regulations, it should be easy for the provider to meet the requirements and be removed from prepayment review.” However, this false reasoning only exists in a fantasy world with rainbows and gummy bears. Real life prepayment review is vastly disparate from the rainbow and gummy bears prepayment review.

In real life prepayment review:

  • The auditors may use incorrect, inapplicable, subjective, and arbitrary standards.

I had a case in which the auditors were denying 100% ACTT services, which are 24-hour mental health services for those 10% of people who suffer from extreme mental illness. The reason that the auditor was denying 100% of the claims was because “lower level services were not tried and ruled out.” In this instance, we have a behavioral health care provider employing staff to render ACTT services (expensive), actually rendering the ACTT services (expensive), and getting paid zero…zilch…nada…for a reason that is not required! There is no requirement that a person receiving ACTT services try a lower level of service first. If the person qualifies for ACTT, the person should receive ACTT services. Because of this auditor’s misunderstanding of ACTT, this provider was almost put out of business.

Another example: A provider of home health was placed on prepayment review. Again, 90 – 100% of the claims were denied. In home health, program eligibility is determined by an independent assessment conducted by the Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) via Liberty, which creates an individualized plan of care. The provider submitted claims for Patient Sally, who, according to her plan, needs help dressing. The service notes demonstrated that the in-home aide helped Sally dress with a shirt and pants. But the auditor denies every claim the provider bills for Sally (which is 7 days a week) because, according to the service note, the in-home aide failed to check the box to show she/he helped put on Sally’s shoes. The auditor fails to understand that Sally is a double amputee – she has no feet.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes – Who watches the watchmen???

  • The administrative burden placed on providers undergoing prepayment review is staggering.

In many cases, a provider on prepayment review is forced to hire contract workers just to keep up with the number of document requests coming from the entity that is conducting the prepayment review. After initial document requests, there are supplemental document requests. Then every claim that is denied needs to be re-submitted or appealed. The amount of paperwork involved in prepayment review would cause an environmentalist to scream and crumple into the fetal position like “The Crying Game.”

  • The accuracy ratings are inaccurate.

Because of the mistakes the auditors make in erroneously denying claims, the purported “accuracy ratings” are inaccurate. My daughter received an 86 on a test. Given that she is a straight ‘A’ student, this was odd. I asked her what she got wrong, and she had no idea. I told her to ask her teacher the next day why she received an 86. Oops. Her teacher had accidentally given my daughter an 86; the 86 was the grade of another child in the class with the same first name. In prepayment review, the accuracy ratings are the only method to be removed from prepayment, so the accuracy of the accuracy ratings is important. One mistaken, erroneously denied claim damages the ratings, and we’ve already discussed that mistakes/errors occur. You think, if a mistake is found, call up the auditing entity…talk it out. See below.

  • The communication between provider and auditor do not exist.

Years ago my mom and I went to visit relatives in Switzerland. (Not dissimilar to National Lampoon’s European Vacation). They spoke German; we did not. We communicated with pictures and hand gestures. To this day, I have no idea their names. This is the relationship between the provider and the auditor.

Assuming that the provider reaches a live person on the telephone:

“Can you please explain to me why claims 1-100 failed?”

“Don’t you know the service definitions and the policies? That is your responsibility.”

“Yes, but I believe that we follow the policies. We don’t understand why these claims are denied. That’s what I’m asking.”

“Read the policy.”

“Not helpful.”

  • The financial burden on the provider is devastating.

If a provider’s reimbursements are 80 – 100% reliant on Medicaid/care and those funds are frozen, the provider cannot meet payroll. Yet the provider is expected to continue to render services. A few years ago, I requested from NC DMA a list of providers on prepayment review and the details surrounding them. I was shocked at the number of providers that were placed on prepayment review and within a couple months ceased submitting claims. In reality, what happened was that those providers were forced to close their doors. They couldn’t financially support their company without getting paid.

Ok, now we know that prepayment review can be a death sentence for a health care provider. How can we prepare for prepayment review and what do we do if we are placed on prepayment review?

  1. Create a separate “what if” savings account to pay for attorneys’ fees. The best defense is a good offense. You cannot prevent yourself from being placed on prepayment review – there is no rhyme or reason for such placement. If you believe that you will never get placed on prepayment review, then you should meet one of my partners. He got hit by lightning – twice! (And lived). So start saving! Legal help is a must. Have your attorney on speed dial.
  2. Self-audit. Be proactive, not reactive. Check your documents. If you use an electronic records system, review the notes that it is creating. If it appears that all the notes look the same except for the name of the recipient, fix your system. Cutting and pasting (or appearing to cut and paste) is a pitfall in audits. Review the notes of the highest reimbursement code. Most likely, the more the reimbursement rate, the more likely to get flagged.
  3. Implement an in-house policy about opening the mail and responding to document requests. This sounds self evident, but you will be surprised how many providers have multiple people getting and opening the mail. The employees see a document request and they want to be good employees – so they respond and send the documents. They make a mistake and BOOM – you are on prepayment review. Know who reviews the mail and have a policy for notifying you if a document request is received.
  4. Buck up. Prepayment review is a b*^%$. Cry, pray, meditate, exercise, get therapy, go to the spa, medicate…whatever you need to do to alleviate stress – do it.
  5. Do not think you can get off prepayment review alone and without help. You will need help. You will need bodies to stand at the copy machine. You will need legal help. Do not make the mistake of allowing the first three months pass before you contact an attorney. Contact your attorney immediately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emanuel offered a pointed answer.

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

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

Repercussions of the Medicaid crackdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First signs of weakness in the state’s case

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

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

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

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

Kerlin did not get that opportunity during the PCG audit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Examples of rejected claims 

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

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

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

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

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

HSD ignored evidence in 2013 that refuted overbilling claims 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Presbyterian settled, paying the $4 million.

The decision has worked out for the organization.

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

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

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

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

House Bill 403: A Potential Upheaval of Medicaid!

Is this the end of the managed care organizations (MCOs)?

If the Senate’s proposed committee substitute (PCS) to House Bill 403 (HB 403) passes the answer is yes. The Senate’s PCS to House Bill 403 was just favorably reported out of the Senate Health Care Committee on June 15, 2017. The next step for the bill to advance will be approval by the Senate Rules Committee. Click here to watch its progress.

As my readers are well aware, I am not a proponent for the MCOs. I think the MCOs are run by overpaid executives, who pay themselves too high of bonuses, hire charter flights, throw fancy holiday parties, and send themselves and their families on expensive retreats – to the detriment of Medicaid recipients’ services and Medicaid providers’ reimbursement rates. See blog. And blog.

Over the last couple days, my email has been inundated by people abhorred with HB 403 – urging the Senators to retain the original HB 403, instead of the PCS version. As with all legislation, there are good and bad components. I went back and re-read these emails, and I realized multiple authors sat on an MCO Board. Of course MCO Board members will be against HB 403! Instead of hopping up and down “for” or “against” HB 403, I propose a (somewhat) objective review of the proposed legislation in this blog.

While I do not agree with everything found in HB 403, I certainly believe it is a step in the right direction. The MCOs have not been successful. Medically necessary behavioral health care services have been reduced or terminated, quality health care providers have been terminated from catchment areas, and our tax dollars have been misused.

However, I do have concern about how quickly the MCOs would be dissolved and the new PHPs would be put into effect. There is no real transition period, which could provide safety nets to ensure continuity of services. We all remember when NCTracks was implemented in 2013 and MMIS was removed on the same day. There was no overlap – and the results were catastrophic.

The following bullet points are the main issues found in HB 403, as currently written.

  • Effective date – MCOs dissolve immediately (This could be dangerous if not done properly)

Past legislation enacted a transition time to dissolve the MCOs. Session Law 2015-245, as amended by Session Law 2016-121, provided that the MCOs would be dissolved in four years, allowing the State to implement a new system slowly instead of yanking the tablecloth from the table with hopes of the plates, glasses, and silverware not tumbling to the ground.

According to HB 403, “on the date when Medicaid capitated contracts with Prepaid Health Plans (PHPs) begin, as required by S.L. 2015-245, all of the following shall occur:…(2) The LME/MCOs shall be dissolved.”

Session Law 2015-245 states the following timeline: “LME/MCOs shall continue to manage the behavioral health services currently covered for their enrollees under all existing waivers, including the 1915(b) and (c) waivers, for four years after the date capitated PHP contracts begin. During this four-year period, the Division of Health Benefits shall continue to negotiate actuarially sound capitation rates directly
with the LME/MCOs in the same manner as currently utilized.”

HB 403 revises Session Law 2015-245’s timeline by the following: “LME/MCOs shall continue to manage the behavioral health services currently covered for their enrollees under all existing waivers, including the 1915(b) and (c) waivers, for four years after the date capitated PHP contracts begin. During this four-year period, the Division of Health Benefits shall continue to negotiate actuarially sound capitation rates directly with the LME/MCOs in the same manner as currently utilized.

Instead of a 4-year transition period, the day the PHP contracts are effective, the MCOs no longer exist. Poof!! Maybe Edward Bulwer-Lytton was right when he stated, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

Again, I am not opposed to dissolving the MCOs for behavioral health care; I just want whatever transition to be reasonable and safe for Medicaid recipients and providers.

With the MCOs erased from existence, what system will be put in place? According to HB 403, PHPs shall manage all behavioral health care now managed by MCOs and all the remaining assets (i.e., all those millions sitting in the savings accounts of the MCOs) will be transferred to DHHS in order to fund the contracts with the PHPs and any liabilities of the MCOs. (And what prevents or does not prevent an MCO simply saying, “Well, now we will act as a PHP?”).

What is a PHP? HB 403 defines PHPs as an entity, which may be a commercial plan or provider-led entity with a PHP license from the Department of Insurance and will operate a capitated contract for the delivery of services. “Services covered by PHP:

  1. Physical health services
  2. Prescription drugs
  3. Long-term care services
  4. Behavioral health services

The capitated contracts shall not cover:

  1. Behavioral health
  2. Dentist services
  3. The fabrication of eyeglasses…”

It would appear that dentists will also be managed by PHPs. As currently written, HB 403 also sets no less than three and no more than five contracts between DHHS and the PHPs should be implemented.

Don’t we need a Waiver from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)?

Yes. We need a Waiver. 42 CFR 410.10(e) states that “[t]he Medicaid agency may not delegate, to other than its own officials, the authority to supervise the plan or to develop or issue policies, rules, and regulations on program matters.” In order to “Waive” this clause, we must get permission from CMS. We had to get permission from CMS when we created the MCO model. The same is true for a new PHP model.

Technically, HB 403 is mandating DHHS to implement a PHP model before we have permission from the federal government. HB 403 does instruct DHHS to submit a demonstration waiver application. Still, there is always concern and hesitancy surrounding implementation of a Medicaid program without the blessing of CMS.

  • The provider network (This is awesome)

HB 403 requires that all contracts between PHPs and DHHS have a clause that requires PHPs to not exclude providers from their networks except for failure to meet objective quality standards or refusal to accept network rates.

  • PHPs use of money (Also good)

Clearly, the General Assembly drafted HB 403 out of anger toward the MCOs. HB 403 implements more supervision over the new entities. It also disallows use of money on alcohol, first-class airfare, charter flights, holiday parties or similar social gatherings, and retreats, which, we all know these are precisely the activities that State Auditor Beth Wood found occurring, at least, at Cardinal. See Audit Report.

HB 403 also mandates that the Office of State Human Resources revise and update the job descriptions for the area directors and set limitations on salaries. No more “$1.2 million in CEO salaries paid without proper authorization.”

  • Provider contracts with the PHPs (No choice is never good)

It appears that HB 403 will not allow providers to choose which PHP to join. DHHS is to create the regions for the PHPs and every county must be assigned to a PHP. Depending on how these PHPs are created, we could be looking at a similar situation that we have now with the MCOs. If the State is going to force you to contract with a PHP to provide Medicaid services, I would want the ability to choose the PHP.

In conclusion, HB 403 will re-shape our entire Medicaid program, if passed. It will abolish the MCO system, apply to almost all Medicaid services (both physical and mental), open the provider network, limit spending on inappropriate items, and assign counties to a PHP.

Boy, what I would give to be a fly on the wall in all the MCO’s boardrooms (during the closed sessions).

Eastpointe Sues DHHS, Former Sec. Brajer, Nash County, and Trillium Claiming Conspiracy! (What It Means for Providers)

In HBO’s Game of Thrones, nine, noble, family houses of Westeros fight for the Iron Throne – either vying to claim the throne or fighting for independence from the throne.

Similarly, when NC moved to the managed care organizations for Medicaid behavioral health care services, we began with 12 MCOs (We actually started with 23 (39 if you count area authorities) LME/MCOs, but they quickly whittled down to 11). “The General Assembly enacted House Bill 916 (S.L. 2011-264) (“H.B. 916) to be effective June 23, 2011, which required the statewide expansion of the 1915(b)/(c) Medicaid Waiver Program to be completed within the State by July 1, 2013.” Compl. at 25. Now the General Assembly is pushing for more consolidation.

image

game of thrones

Now we have seven (7) MCOs remaining, and the future is uncertain. With a firehose of money at issue and the General Assembly’s push for consolidation, it has become a bloody battle to remain standing in the end, because, after all, only one may claim the Iron Throne. And we all know that “Winter is coming.”

Seemingly, as an attempt to remain financially viable, last week, on Thursday, June 8, 2017, Eastpointe, one of our current MCOs, sued the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Nash County, Trillium Health Resources, another MCO, and former secretary Richard Brajer in his individual and former official capacity. Since the Complaint is a public record, you can find the Complaint filed in the Eastern District of NC, Western Division, Civil Action 5:17-CV-275. My citations within this blog correspond with the paragraphs in the Complaint, not page numbers.

Eastpointe’s Complaint wields a complex web of conspiracy, government interference, and questionable relationships that would even intrigue George R. R. Martin.

The core grievance in the lawsuit is Eastpointe alleges that DHHS, Trillium, Nash County, and Brajer unlawfully conspired and interfered with Eastpointe’s contract to manage behavioral health care services for its twelve (12) county catchment area, including Nash County.  In 2012, Nash County, as part of the The Beacon Center, signed a contract and became part of a merger with Eastpointe being the sole survivor (Beacon Center and Southeastern Regional Mental Health were swallowed by Eastpointe). At the heart of Eastpointe’s Complaint, Eastpointe is alleging that Nash County, Trillium, DHHS, and Brajer conspired to breach the contract between Eastpointe and Nash County and unlawfully allowed Nash County to join Trillium’s catchment area.

In June 2013, the General Assembly, pursuant to Senate Bill 208 (S.L. 2013-85 s. 4.(b)), appended N.C.G.S. § 122C-115 to include subparagraph (a3), permitting a county to disengage from one LME/MCO and align with another with the approval of the Secretary of the NCDHHS, who was required by law to promulgate “rules to establish a process for county disengagement.” N.C.G.S. § 122C-115(a3) (“Rules”) (10A N.C.A.C. 26C .0701-03).

Why does it matter whether Medicaid recipients receive behavioral health care services from providers within Trillium or Eastpointe’s catchment area?? As long as the medically necessary services are rendered – that should be what is important – right?

Wrong. First, I give my reason as a cynic (realist), then as a philanthropist (wishful thinker).

Cynical answer – The MCOs are prepaid. In general and giving a purposely abbreviated explanation, the way in which the amount is determined to pre-pay an MCO is based on how many Medicaid recipients reside within the catchment area who need behavioral health care services. The more people in need of Medicaid behavioral health care services in a catchment area, the more money the MCO receives to manage such services. With the removal of Nash County from Eastpointe’s catchment area, Eastpointe will lose approximately $4 million annually and Trillium will gain approximately $4 million annually, according to the Complaint. This lawsuit is a brawl over the capitated amount of money that Nash County represents, but it also is about the Iron Throne. If Eastpointe becomes less financially secure and Trillium becomes more financially secure, then it is more likely that Eastpointe would be chewed up and swallowed in any merger.

Philanthropic answer – Allowing Nash County to disengage from Eastpointe’s catchment area would inevitably disrupt behavioral health care services to our  most fragile and needy population. Medicaid recipients would be denied access to their chosen providers…providers that may have been treating them for years and created established trust. Allowing Nash County to disembark from Eastpointe would cause chaos for those least fortunate and in need of behavioral health care services.

Eastpointe also alleges that DHHS refused to approve a merger between Eastpointe and Cardinal purposefully and with the intent to sabotage Eastpointe’s financial viability.

Also in its Complaint, Eastpointe alleges a statewide, power-hungry, money-grubbing conspiracy in which Brajer and DHHS and Trillium are conspiring to pose Trillium as the final winner in the “MCO Scramble to Consolidate,” “Get Big or Die” MCO mentality arising out of the legislative push for MCO consolidation. Because, as with any consolidation, duplicate executives are cut.

Over the last couple years, Eastpointe has discussed merging with Cardinal, Trillium, and Sandhills – none of which occurred. Comparably, Joffrey Lannister and Sansa Stark discussed merging. As did Viserys and Illyrio wed Daenerys to Khal Drogo to form an alliance between the Targaryens.

Some of the most noteworthy and scandalous accusations:

Against Trillium:

Leza Wainwright, CEO of Trillium and director of the NC Council of Community MH/DD/SA Programs (“NCCCP”) (now I know why I’ve never been invited to speak at NCCCP). Wainwright “brazenly took actions adverse to the interest of Eastpointe in violation of the NCCCP mission, conflicts of interest policy of the organization, and her fiduciary duty to the NCCCP and its members.” Compl. at 44.

Robinson, Governing Board Chair of Trillium, “further informed Brajer that he intended for Trillium to be the surviving entity in any merger with Eastpointe and that “any plan predicated on Trillium and Eastpointe being coequal is fundamentally flawed.”” Compl. at 61.

“On or about May 11, 2016, Denauvo Robinson (“Robinson”), Governing Board Chair of Trillium wrote Brajer, without copying Eastpointe, defaming Eastpointe’s reputation in such a way that undermined the potential merger of Eastpointe and Trillium.” Compl. at 59.

“Robinson, among other false statements, alleged the failure to consummate a merger between Eastpointe, CoastalCare, and East Carolina Behavioral Health LMEs was the result of Eastpointe’s steadfast desire to maintain control, and Eastpointe’s actions led those entities to break discussions with Eastpointe and instead merge to form Trillium.” Compl. at 60.

“Trillium, not Nash County, wrote Brajer on November 28, 2016 requesting approval to disengage from Eastpointe and to align with Trillium.” Compl. at 69.

Against DHHS:

Dave Richards, Deputy Secretary for Medical Assistance, maintains a “strong relationship with Wainwright” and “displayed unusual personal animus toward Kenneth Jones, Eastpointe’s former CEO.” Compl. at 47.

Brajer made numerous statements to Eastpointe staff regarding his animus toward Jones and Eastpointe. “Brajer continued to push for a merger between Eastpointe and Trillium.” Compl. at 53.

“On December 5, 2016, the same day that former Governor McCrory conceded the election to Governor Cooper, Brajer wrote a letter to Trillium indicating that he approved the disengagement and realignment of Nash County.” Compl. at 72.

“On March 17, 2016, however, Brajer released a memorandum containing a plan for consolidation of the LME/MCOs, in which NCDHHS proposed Eastpointe being merged with Trillium.” Compl. at 55.

Brajer’s actions were “deliberately premature, arbitrary, and capricious and not in compliance with statute and Rule, and with the intent to destabilize Eastpointe as an LME/MCO).” Compl. at 73.

“Brajer conspired with Nash County to cause Nash County to breach the Merger Agreement.” Compl. at 86.

Brajer “deliberately sought to block any merger between Eastpointe and other LME/MCOs except Trillium.” Compl. at 96.

“Brajer and NCDHHS’s ultra vires and unilateral approval of the Nash County disengagement request effective April 1, 2017 materially breached the contract between Eastpointe and NCDHHS. Equally brazen was Brajer’s calculated failure to give Eastpointe proper notice of the agency action taken or provide Eastpointe with any rights of appeal.” Compl. at 101.

Against Nash County

“To date, Nash County is Six Hundred Fifty Three Thousand Nine Hundred Fifty Nine Thousand and 16/100 ($653,959.16) in arrears on its Maintenance of Efforts to Eastpointe.” Compl. at 84.

“While serving on Eastpointe’s area board, Nash County Commissioner Lisa Barnes, in her capacity as a member of the Nash County Board of Commissioners, voted to adopt a resolution requesting permission for Nash County to disengage from Eastpointe and realign with Trillium. In so doing, Barnes violated her sworn oath to the determent of Eastpointe.” Compl. at 85.

What Eastpointe’s lawsuit could potentially mean to providers:

Eastpointe is asking the Judge in the federal court of our eastern district for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction prohibiting Nash County from withdrawing from Eastpointe’s catchment area and joining Trillium’s catchment area.  It is important to note that the behavioral health care providers in Eastpointe’s catchment area may not be the same behavioral health care providers in Trillium’s catchment area. There may be some overlap, but without question there are behavioral health care providers in Trillium’s catchment area that are not in Eastpointe’s catchment area and vice versa.

If Eastpointe is not successful in stopping Nash County from switching to Trillium’s catchment area, those providers who provide services in Nash County need to inquire – if you do not currently have a contract with Trillium, will Trillium accept you into its catchment area, because Trillium runs a closed network?!?! If Trillium refuses to include Nash County’s behavioral health care providers in its catchment area, those Nash County providers risk no longer being able to provide services to their consumers. If this is the case, these Nash County, non-Trillium providers may want to consider joining Eastpointe’s lawsuit as a third-party intervenor, as an interested, aggrieved person. Obviously, you would, legally, be on Eastpointe’s side, hoping to stay Nash County’s jump from Eastpointe to Trillium.

Even if Eastpointe is successful in stopping Nash County’s Benedict Arnold, then, as a provider in Eastpointe’s catchment area, you need to think ahead. How viable is Eastpointe? Eastpointe’s lawsuit is a powerful indication that Eastpointe itself is concerned about the future, although this lawsuit could be its saving grace. How fair (yet realistic) is it that whichever providers happen to have a contract with the biggest, most powerful MCO in the end get to continue to provide services and those providers with contracts with smaller, less viable MCOs are put out of business based on closed networks?

If Nash County is allowed to defect from Eastpointe and unite with Trillium, all providers need to stress. Allowing a county to abscond from its MCO on the whim of county leadership could create absolute havoc. Switching MCOs effects health care providers and Medicaid recipients. Each time a county decides to choose a new MCO the provider network is upended. Recipients are wrenched from the provider of their choice and forced to re-invent the psychological wheel to their detriment. Imagine Cherokee County being managed by Eastpointe…Brunswick County being managed by Vaya Health…or Randolph County being managed by Partners. Location-wise, it would be an administrative mess. Every election of a county leadership could determine the fate of a county’s Medicaid recipients.

Here is a map of the current 7 MCOs:

new mco map

All behavioral health care providers should be keeping a close watch on the MCO consolidations and this lawsuit. There is nothing that requires the merged entity to maintain or retain the swallowed up entities provider network. Make your alliances because…

“Winter is coming.”