Category Archives: Western Highlands

Managed Care – Eight Reasons Why MCOs Smell Like Pre-Minced Garlic

When it comes to the managed care organizations (MCOs) in NC, something smells rancid, like pre-minced garlic. When I first met my husband, Scott, I cooked with pre-minced garlic that comes in a jar. I figured it was easier than buying fresh garlic and dicing it myself. Scott bought fresh garlic and diced it. Then he asked me to smell the fresh garlic versus the pre-minced garlic. There was no contest. Next to the fresh garlic, the pre-minced garlic smelled rancid. That is the same odor I smell when I read information about the MCOs – pre-minced garlic in a jar.

garlic minced-garlic

In NC, MCOs are charged with managing Medicaid funds for behavioral health care, developmentally disabled, and substance abuse services. When the MCOs were initially created, we had 13. These are geographically situated, so providers and recipients have no choice with which MCO to interact. If you live in Sandhills’ catchment area, then you must go through Sandhills. If you provide services in Cardinal’s catchment area, then you must contract with Cardinal – even though you already have a provider participation agreement with the State of NC to provide Medicaid services in the State of NC.

Over the years, there has been consolidation, and now we have 7 MCOs.

newestmco

From left to right: Smoky Mountain (Duke blue); Partners Behavioral Health (Wake Forest gold); Cardinal Innovations Healthcare (ECU purple); Sandhills (UNCC green); Alliance Behavioral Healthcare (mint green); Eastpointe (Gap Khaki); and Trillium (highlighter yellow/green).

Recently, Cardinal (ECU purple) and Eastpointe (Gap khaki) announced they will consolidate, pending authorization from the Secretary of DHHS. The 20-county Cardinal will morph into a 32-county, MCO giant.

Here is the source of the rancid, pre-minced, garlic smell (in my opinion):

One – MCOs are not private entities. MCOs are prepaid with our tax dollars. Therefore, unlike Blue Cross Blue Shield, the MCOs must answer to NC taxpayers. The MCOs owe a duty of financial responsibility to taxpayers, just like the state government, cities, and towns.

Two – Cardinal CEO, Richard Topping, is paid $635,000, plus he has a 0 to 30 percent bonus potential which could be roughly another $250,000, plus he has some sort of annuity or long-term package of $412,000 (with our tax dollars).

Three – Cardinal is selling or has sold the 26 properties it owns or owned (with our tax dollars) to lease office space in the NASCAR Plaza office tower in uptown Charlotte for $300 to $400 per square foot plus employee parking (with our tax dollars).

Four – Cardinal charges 8% of public funds for its administrative costs. (Does that include Topping’s salary and bonuses?) How many employees are salaried by Cardinal? (with our tax dollars).

Five – The MCOs are prepaid. Once the MCOs receive the funds, the funds are public funds and subject to fiscal scrutiny. However, the MCOs keep whatever funds that it has at the end of the fiscal year. In other words, the MCOs pocket any money that was NOT used to reimburse a provider for a service rendered to a Medicaid recipient. Cardinal – alone – handles around $2.8 billion in Medicaid funding per year for behavioral health services. The financial incentive for MCOs? Terminate providers and reduce/deny services.

Six – MCOs are terminating providers and limiting access to care. In my law practice, I am constantly defending behavioral health care providers that are terminated from an MCO catchment area without cause or with erroneous cause. For example, an agency was terminated from their MCO because the agency had switched administrative offices without telling the MCO. The agency continued to provide quality services to those in need. But, because of a technicality, not informing the MCO that the agency moved administrative offices, the MCO terminated the contract. Which,in turn, puts more money in the MCO’s pocket; one less provider to pay.  Is a change of address really a material breach of a contract? Regardless – it is an excuse.

Seven – Medicaid recipients are not receiving medically necessary services. Either the catchment areas do not have enough providers, the MCOs are denying and reducing medically necessary services, or both. Cardinal cut 11 of its state-funded services. Parents of disabled, adult children write to me, complaining that their services from their MCO have been slashed for no reason….But the MCOs are saving NC money!

Eight – The MCOs ended 2015 with a collective $842 million in the bank. Wonder how much money the MCOs have now…(with our tax dollars).

Rancid, I say. Rancid!

A Dose of Truth: If an MCO Decides Not to Contract With You, YOU DO HAVE RIGHTS!

It has come to my attention that the managed care organizations (MCOs) are spreading non-truths.  As to appeal rights and rights, in general, of a Medicaid provider.  You may not hear the truth elsewhere, but you will hear the truth here.

Supposedly, the truth shall set you free. If this is true, then why do so many people lie? I believe that people’s desire for money, power, status, greed and/or others to look at them with respect are the some of the catalysts of many lies.

Of course, our old friend Aesop told many tales of the virtue of honesty.  My favorite is the “Mercury and the Woodman.”

A Woodman was felling a tree on the bank of a river, when his axe,
glancing off the trunk, flew out of his hands and fell into the water.
As he stood by the water’s edge lamenting his loss, Mercury appeared
and asked him the reason for his grief. On learning what had happened,
out of pity for his distress, Mercury dived into the river and,
bringing up a golden axe, asked him if that was the one he had lost.
The Woodman replied that it was not, and Mercury then dived a second
time, and, bringing up a silver axe, asked if that was his. “No,
that is not mine either,” said the Woodman. Once more Mercury dived
into the river, and brought up the missing axe. The Woodman was
overjoyed at recovering his property, and thanked his benefactor
warmly; and the latter was so pleased with his honesty that he made
him a present of the other two axes. When the Woodman told the story
to his companions, one of these was filled with envy of his good
fortune and determined to try his luck for himself. So he went and
began to fell a tree at the edge of the river, and presently contrived
to let his axe drop into the water. Mercury appeared as before, and,
on learning that his axe had fallen in, he dived and brought up a
golden axe, as he had done on the previous occasion. Without waiting
to be asked whether it was his or not, the fellow cried, “That’s mine,
that’s mine,” and stretched out his hand eagerly for the prize: but
Mercury was so disgusted at his dishonesty that he not only declined
to give him the golden axe, but also refused to recover for him the
one he had let fall into the stream.

The moral of the story is “Honesty is the best policy.”

But is it?  In our world, we do not have fairies, Roman gods, good witches, fairy godmothers, wood sprites, or wizards to hold us accountable for our lies.  If George Washington never admitted that he chopped down the cherry tree, no wood nymph would have appeared, angered by his lie, only to throw his ax into the Potomac.

So who holds us accountable for lies?

As a Christian, I believe that I will be held accountable in my afterlife.  But, without getting too profound and soapbox-ish, I mean who…NOW…presently…in our lives…holds us accountable for lies?

Obviously, when we were children, our parents held us accountable.  Oh boy…the worst thing for me to hear growing up was for my father to say, “I am so disappointed in you.” 

What about the MCOs? Who or what holds the MCOs accountable? And what is this non-truth that the MCOs may or may not be telling providers that has spurred me to write this blog?

Recently, many MCOs have (1) terminated contracts with providers; (2) refused to renew contracts with providers; and (3) conducted desk reviews and interviews of providers only to decide to not contract with many providers; thus leaving many small businesses to bankruptcy and closure…not to mention severing the relationships between the Medicaid recipients and their providers.

It has come to my attention that, when the MCO is asked by a provider whether the provider can have a reconsideration review or whether the provider has any appeal rights as to the MCO’s adverse decision, that the MCOs are telling providers, “No.”  As in, you have no appeal rights as to the MCOs decision to not contract with you. 

This is simply not true.

There are so few providers in NC willing to accept Medicaid because of the administrative burden of Medicaid regulations and the already low reimbursement rates.  To then have the audacity to “willy nilly” or at its own whim subjectively decide that it [the MCO] does not want to contract with you and then tell you that its “willy nilly” or subjective whim cannot be challenged legally eats at the heart of this country’s core values.  Do we not applaud small business owners?  Do we not applaud those small business owners dedicated to serving the population’s most needy?  Do we not promote due process?  Do we not promote truth, justice and the American way?

Or are those promotions clouded when it comes to money, power, status, greed, and desire for respect?

So, I say to you [providers who have been denied a Medicaid contract with an MCO despite having a contract with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to provide Medicaid services throughout the state of North Carolina], YOU HAVE RIGHTS

You do not need to merely accept the decision of the MCO.  You do not need to simply close up shop…fire your staff…and try a new career.  You have a choice to fight…legally.

But you DO need to know a few things.

First, lawyers are expensive. Period and without question.  So whatever law firm you hire, understand that the cost will more than you ever expected.  (Please understand that I am not advocating you to hire my firm.  Parker Poe and Poyner Spruill both have fantastic attorneys in this area.  Just hire someone knowledgable.)  It’s even a good idea to have consultations with more than one firm.  Find an attorney you trust.

Second, call your liability insurance.  There is a chance that your liability insurance will cover all, or a portion of, your attorneys’ fees.  But do not allow your insurance company tell you whom to hire.  Because this area is specialized there are few attorneys well-versed.  Again, go to the firms I mentioned above.

Thirdly, you may not win.  While the success rate is extremely high, there are some clients who are simply not going to win.  For example, if your documentation is so poor.  Or, for example, you really are not a great provider.  Remember, the MCOs do have a point to try to only contract with great providers.  I only disagree with the way in which the MCOs are deciding to not contract with providers.  It seems “willy nilly” and subjectively arbitrary.  But, depending on your exact circumstances, you do have a chance of success.

Fourth, you will have to testify.  I know it is scary, but I can think of very few circumstances during which the provider would not testify.  The judge needs to hear your story….why you should be allowed to continue to provide Medicaid services.

Fifth, the lawsuit will not shield you from future issues with the MCO.  Until DHHS decides to actually supervise the MCOs properly (or maybe even after that), the MCOs seem to wield the power.

So why even fight legally?  You certainly aren’t guaranteed success.  It will certainly cost you a pretty penny. 

Maybe the answer for you is to not fight.  Only you can make that decision.  But I hope someone holds the MCOs accountable for telling providers that the providers have no recourse…no appeal rights…for the MCOs simply not contracting with the provider.

Because if honesty is the best policy, the MCOs’ policies leave much to be desired. Someone needs to throw their axes into the Potomac!

NC Medicaid: Freedom of Choice of Providers? Why Bother? Providers Are Fungible!…Right?

I found some interesting language in the 1915(b) Waiver last week (well, interesting to me).

What is the 1915(b) Waiver? In the simplest of terms, with the 1915(b) Waiver, NC has asked the federal government for an exception to certain mandatory statutes.  In order to request the exception or “waiver” of certain federal statutes, NC had to draft our 1915(b) Waiver and promise the federal government that, despite the fact that NC is not following certain federal statutes, that certain things about Medicaid will not change.  Even though we may have waived the federal statute requiring it.

For example, in our 1915(b) Waiver, NC asks to waive Medicaid recipients’ “freedom of choice of provider” provision.  As in, federal statute requires the states to allow a Medicaid recipient to have the freedom to choose whatever or whomever provider that recipient desires.  (Kind of like…”You like your doctor? You can keep your doctor!”)

Well, NC had to waive the freedom of choice of provider because the MCOs in NC are jurisdictional.  For example, if Dr. Norwood provides Medicaid services in Durham, there is no reason that she should have to contract with Smokey Mountain Center (SMC).  And because Dr. Norwood does not contract with SMC, a Medicaid recipient cannot choose to receive services from Dr. Norwood, which, obviously, limits Medicaid recipients’ freedom of choice of provider.

The thinking behind the waiver of Medicaid recipients’ freedom of choice of provider is that (in my opinion), realistically, even if we did not waive the provision mandating the freedom of choice of provider, how likely is it that a Medicaid recipient residing in Asheville would choose to receive services from a Medicaid provider in Durham, NC? Most likely, the Medicaid recipients in Asheville have never heard of the Medicaid providers in Durham.  So…waive the freedom of choice….it’s harmless.

However, in order for the feds to allow this waiver of the freedom of choice of provider, NC had to promise something.

Our promise is found in the 1915(b) Waiver.  The language of our promise reads, ”

1915(b)

Why is this important?

Because it is not true.  Our promise that we made to the federal government in order for the federal government to allow us to implement our managed care system for our mental health, substance abuse, and developmentally disabled population is not true.

“These providers support this initiative and consumers have at least as much choice in individual providers as they had in the pre-reform non-managed care environment.”

If the Waiver were Pinocchio, its nose would be circling the earth.

It reminds me of my grandma.  Grandma is the sweetest, most wonderful grandma in the world.  She and my grandpa lived in a home in Cary, NC for over five decades.  When grandpa passed and grandma’s health began to decline, grandma decided to sell her home and move into an assisted living facility.  Well, grandma’s home was near and dear to all 5 children’s hearts, as well as all 15+ grandchildren’s hearts (I know…I have a huge family).  I, personally, had so many wonderful memories there (fishing in the lake behind the house, playing pool and ping-pong in the basement, climbing up and down the laundry chute acting as if it were a secret passage way, and grandpa’s amazing tomato sandwiches, gumbo and cornbread).

Anyway, the point is that when grandma sold the house, there was a stipulation in the contract.  The buyer promised to not bulldoze the house and build a new home.  You see, this neighborhood was old…one of the oldest in Cary.  So the homes were built in the 70s.  It had become “posh” to buy an older home in this neighborhood because the lots were so large and the location was so great and to simply flatten the old house for a new one.

Well, grandma wouldn’t have it.  There was too much nostalgia in the home for some buyer to bulldoze the home.  So the contract to sell the house stipulated that the buyer would not bulldoze the house.  So grandma sold the home.

And the buyer bulldozed the home.

Of all the low-down, dirty tricks!!! To lie in a contract to my grandma! Needless to say, grandma was very upset.  She felt that a piece of her life vanished, which, obviously, it did.

Well, grandma has a number of attorneys in the family (including me).  So grandma’s kids began to talk about a lawsuit.  But grandma said that even if she sued the buyer that it would not bring back the house.  Money could not replace the memories at grandma’s house.

If I am remembering correctly, this new house was built 5-6 years ago. Maybe more.  I pass the neighborhood all the time.  To date, I still have not driven to see the house that replaced grandma’s house.  I don’t think I could take it.

What is worse than lying to a grandmother about her home?

In my opinion? Lying to the feds about the freedom of choice of Medicaid provider that our Medicaid recipients have here in NC.  Talk about a vulnerable population…our most needy citizens, but add to the vulnerability mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and/or developmentally disablement.  And, now, let’s lie about their freedom of choice.

So where am I getting my allegation that Medicaid recipients do not have “at least enough choice in individual providers as they had in pre-reform non-managed care?”

Normally I only blog as to facts that I can corroborate with some research.  However, this blog may not be corroborated by any independent research.  My allegation is based on my own experience as a Medicaid attorney, conversations with my clients, emails that I have received from providers across the state, memos I have read from the MCOs, and the very real fact that the MCOs are terminating (or not renewing) hundreds of provider contracts across the state.

For the sake of argument, let’s say I am right.  That Medicaid recipients do not have at least the same freedom of choice of provider as pre-MCOs.  What then?

If I am right, this is the situation in which we find ourselves today.  So what is happening today?

As the MCOs determine that fewer providers are needed within a catchment area, the MCOs are refusing to contract with “redundant and unnecessary” providers.  But are these providers really unnecessary?  Really redundant?  Are we to believe that mental health providers are fungible?  Meaning that one provider is just as good as the next…that nothing makes some provider “stick out?”  Are providers fungible like beach balls are fungible?

Let’s test that theory.

Abby is a suicidal teenager.  She has suffered from schizophrenia with auditory hallucinations since she was a child.  For the last six years, Abby has seen Dr. Norwood.  It took some time, but, eventually, Abby began to trust Dr. Norwood.  Dr. Norwood has developed a close relationship with Abby, even telling Abby to call her 24 hours a day, 7 days a week if she is in crisis.  Dr. Norwood resides in Durham, so Alliance Behavioral Healthcare (Alliance) is her MCO, and Dr. Norwood provides Abby with outpatient behavioral therapy (OBT).  But, in addition to the weekly therapy, Dr. Norwood also provides Abby with a sense of security.  Abby knows that, if needed, Dr. Norwood would be there for here under any circumstances.  In addition, Abby trusts Dr. Norwood because she is a female.  Abby has an intense distrust of males.  When Abby was 9, her step-father raped her over and over until child protective services stepped in, but not before Abby suffered 8 broken bones and has lost the ability to reproduce forever.

Then, Alliance held its RFPs a couple of months ago.  It’s “tryout.”

And Dr. Norwood was not awarded a contract with Alliance.  Dr. Norwood has no idea why Alliance did not award her a contract.  Only that, according to Alliance, Alliance has sufficient number of providers providing OBT within its catchment area and Dr. Norwood’s services are no longer needed.

Because mental health care providers are fungible, right?

Who cares whether Abby receives services from Dr. Norwood? She can get the same exact services from a large corporation…we will call it “Triangle Counseling.” (BTW: If a Triangle Counseling really exists, I apologize.  This is a fictitious company made up for my example).  Triangle Counseling employs 25+ psychiatrists and 30+ counselors.  When a Medicaid recipient is referred to Triangle, Triangle assigns a psychiatrist and a counselor to the recipient.  Oh, and if, for some reason, the Medicaid recipients needs crisis help outside business hours, Triangle provides “tele-care” so the Medicaid recipient can speak to a computer screen on which a person can be seen by a counselor.

Abby is now hospitalized.  Dr. Norwood filed bankruptcy, lost her 30 year+ career, and is receiving monetary support from the state.

I ask you, if Alliance (or any other MCO) has terminated even one provider, hasn’t that MCO restricted Medicaid recipients’ freedom of choice of provider beyond what was contemplated by the Waiver?  Is the clause in our Waiver that “freedom of choice of provider will be the same as before the implementation of MCOs?,” truthful?  What if the MCO has terminated 10 provider contracts?  50?  100? 

Yet, in order to implement the MCO system, we promised the federal government in our 1915(b) Waiver that “consumers have at least as much choice in individual providers as they had in the pre-reform non-managed care environment.”

Fact or fiction?

Are providers fungible?  Because my grandma knows from experience, houses sure are not.

The Future of NC Medicaid Behavioral Health: Will We Soon Be Down to Eight MCOs? Two More Monkeys Jumping off the Bed?!

Remember the song “10 Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed?”

Ten little monkeys jumping on the bed.
One fell off and broke his head.
Mama called the doctor and the doctor said,
“No more monkeys jumping on the bed!”

Nine…Eight…Seven…Six…Five…Four…Three…

I used to love that song as a kid.  I have two siblings and I distinctly remember our jumping-on-the-bed-game-while-trying-to-push-the-others-off-game.  Many times we would sing “10 Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed,” while trying to push our siblings off the bed.

Here in North Carolina we started with 11 managed care organizations (MCOs) across NC to manage behavioral health care for Medicaid recipients.

MCO map

See the map? We began with 11 MCOs.  Today, we have 10 (Western Highlands Network (WHN) is no more) with strong possibilities of reducing the number of MCOs to 9…and then 8.

Rumor has it that Centerpoint Human Services (Centerpoint) and MeckLINK Behavioral Healthcare (MeckLINK) are on the brink of nonexistence.  “One fell off and broke his head.”

Centerpoint and MeckLINK are, however, moving forward to nonexistence in entirely different ways.  Centerpoint is looking to merge with two MCOs.  Both Partners Behavioral Health Management  (Partners) and Smoky Mountain Center (SMC) are getting updates as to Centerpoint’s merger plans.  Will Centerpoint break up its catchment area and merge with 2 MCOs? Or are those 2 MCOs the contenders?  Not sure. But either way, Centerpoint will be eliminated in the near future.

If SMC absorbed Centerpoint entirely, SMC will be HUGE!!

SMC began with Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Caldwell, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, McDowell, Swain, Watauga and Wilkes Counties (15 counties).  Then SMC ate up WHN and acquired Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Transylvania and Yancey counties. (15 + 8 = 23 counties).

Centerpoint manages behavioral health care for Forsyth, Stokes, Davie and Rockingham counties.

(15 + 8 + 5 = 28 counties).  Over 1/4 of NC’s counties.  The MCO map would be dominated by dark blue, and, as North Carolinians, let me ask you, do we want our state dominated by dark blue? What about Wolfpack red? 

Here is the MCO map, as of October 2013:

October 2013 MCOs

Partners’ catchment area is light yellow and includes Burke, Catawba, Cleveland, Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln, Surry, and Yadkin counties (all in the west and bordering SMC’s catchment area).  If SMC continues to expand, like Stephen King’s “The Blob,” SMC may ooze into Partners. 

Unlike Centerpoint, at least on paper, MeckLINK is not willingly jumping off the bed and breaking its head.  MeckLINK is the only MCO run by a county (Mecklenburg county).  See the lone red county? In May, state lawmakers passed a bill that says a county can’t run its own organization.  Mecklenburg County Commissioners voted last Tuesday to work out a deal with Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions (Cardinal) or dissolve MeckLINK when its contract expires next April.

Cardinal’s catchment area is purple and includes 15 counties.

But do not underestimate the power of usurping MeckLINK, even though it is only one county.  Mecklenburg county is one of NC’s most populous counties, which means it receives a hefty Medicaid budget.

Ten little MCOs jumping on our heads
One fell off; its assets in the reds,
DMA called the doctor and the doctor said
No more MCOs jumping on our heads.
 
Nine little MCOs jumping on our heads…

So which MCOs will survive? How soon until we only have 8 MCOs? Will all the MCOs be replaced with out-of-state, huge MCOs?  Will the future MCOs manage all Medicaid services?  Will there be carve-outs?  These are unanswered questions as we embark into the future of NC Medicaid managed care. 

One thing we do know is we started with 11 MCOs (all of whom were deemed solvent and competent by a state contractor) and, not even 1 year later, WHN falls…MeckLINK falls…and Centerpoint falls.

11…10…9…8…

Maybe the 11 MCOs were not solvent and competent in the first place.  Why else would the MCOs keep jumping off and breaking their heads?  Silly monkeys.