Category Archives: Agency

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.”

Work Requirements for Medicaid?

Under the Trump Administration, some Republican governors may look to move their Medicaid programs in a more conservative direction. In his latest column for Axios, Drew Altman discusses the arguments about Medicaid “work requirements” and why few people are likely to be affected by them in practice.

via Don’t Expect Medicaid Work Requirements to Make a Big Difference — The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I ask myself the following:

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

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

3. What can be done?

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

Number one:

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

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

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

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

Number two:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Number three:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Win! 12 Million Dollar Recoupment Reduced to $896 – But There is a Twist

One of our clients in New Mexico had an alleged Medicaid recoupment of over $12 million!! Actually, $12,015,850.00 – to be exact. (See below). After we presented our evidence and testimony, the Judge found that we owe $896.35. I call that a win!

In this case, the Human Services Department (HSD) in New Mexico had reviewed 150 random claims. Initially, HSD claimed that 41 claims out of 150 were noncompliant.

fullsizerender-jpg

But, prior to the hearing, we saved over $10 million by pointing out HSD’s errors and/or by providing additional documentation.

And then the ALJ’s decision after we presented our evidence and testimony –

penultimatefullsizerender-jpg-3

Boom! Drop the mike…

…………………………….not so fast…

……………………………………………..picking the mike back up…

You see, in New Mexico, the administrative law judges (ALJs) cannot render decisions. Look in the above picture. You see where it reads, “Recommendation?” That is because the ALJs in New Mexico can only render recommendations.

Because Medicaid has a “single state agency” rule; i.e., that only one agency may render discretionary decisions regarding Medicaid, and HSD is the single state agency in New Mexico charged with managing Medicaid, only HSD may render a discretionary decision. So in NM, the ALJ makes a recommendation and then the Secretary of HSD has the choice to either accept or reject the decision.

Guess whether HSD accepted or rejected the ALJ’s recommendation?

reject

Now we will have to appeal the Agency’s Decision to overturn the ALJ recommendation.

Here, in NC, we obtained a waiver from the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to allow our ALJs to render Decisions. See blog.

I still consider this a win.

Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies: Futile as the Caucus-Race?

Answer – Sometimes.

How many of you have received Remittance Advices from NCTracks that are impossible to understand, include denials without appeal rights, or, simply, are erroneous denials with no guidance as to the next steps?  While these were most prevalent in the first couple years after NCTracks was rolled out (back in July 2013), these burdensome errors still exist.

You are allowed to re-submit a claim to NCTracks for 18 months. How many times do you have to receive the denial in order for that denial to be considered a “final decision?” And, why is it important whether a denial is considered a final decision?

  1. Why is it important that a denial be considered a “final decision?”

As a health care provider, your right to challenge the Department of Health and Human Services’ (via CSC or NCTracks’) denial instantly becomes ripe (or appealable) only after the denial is a final decision.

Yet, with the current NCTracks system, you can receive a denial for one claim over and over and over and over without ever receiving a “final decision.”

It reminds me of the Causus-race in Alice and Wonderlandalice“There was no ‘One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?'” – Alice in Wonderland.

On behalf of all health care providers who accept Medicaid in North Carolina and suffered hardship because of NCTracks, at my former firm, I helped file the NCTracks class action lawsuit, Abrons Family Practice, et al., v. NCDHHS, et al., No. COA15-1197, which was heard before the NC Court of Appeals on June 12, 2015. The Opinion of the Court of Appeals was published today (October 18, 2016).

The Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs were not required to “exhaust their administrative remedies” by informal methods and the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) prior to bringing a lawsuit in the State Court for damages because doing to would be futile – like the Caucus-race. “But who has won?” asked Alice.

Plaintiffs argued that, without a “final decision” by DHHS as to the submitted claims, it is impossible for them to pursue the denials before the OAH.

And the Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, agrees.

The Abrons decision solidifies my contention over the past 4-5 years that a reconsideration review is NOT required by law prior to filing a Petition for Contested Case at OAH…. Boom! Bye, Felicia!

Years ago, I informed a client, who was terminated by an managed care organization (MCO), that she should file Petition for Contested Case at OAH without going through the informal reconsideration review. One – the informal reconsideration review was before the very agency that terminated her (futile); and two – going through two processes instead of one costs more in attorneys’ fees (burdensome).

We filed in OAH, and the judge dismissed the case, stating that we failed to exhaust our administrative remedies.

I have disagreed with that ruling for years (Psssst – judges do not always get it right, although we truly hope they do. But, in judges’ defenses, the law is an ever-changing, morphing creature that bends and yields to the community pressures and legal interpretations. Remember, judges are human, and to be human is to err).

However, years later, the Court of Appeals agreed with me, relying on the same argument I made years ago before OAH.

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 states that it is the policy of the State that disputes between the State and a party should be resolved through informal means. However, neither 150B-22 nor any other statute or regulation requires that a provider pursue the informal remedy of a reconsideration review. See my blog from 2013.

I love it when I am right. – And, according to my husband, it is a rarity.

Here is another gem from the Abrons opinion:

“DHHS is the only entity that has the authority to render a final decision on a contested medicaid claim. It is DHHS’ responsibility to make the final decision and to furnish the provider with written notification of the decision and of the provider’s appeal rights, as required by N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-23(f).”

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-23(f) states, ” Unless another statute or a federal statute or regulation sets a time limitation for the filing of a petition in contested cases against a specified agency, the general limitation for the filing of a petition in a contested case is 60 days. The time limitation, whether established by another statute, federal statute, or federal regulation, or this section, shall commence when notice is given of the agency decision to all persons aggrieved who are known to the agency by personal delivery or by the placing of the notice in an official depository of the United States Postal Service wrapped in a wrapper addressed to the person at the latest address given by the person to the agency. The notice shall be in writing, and shall set forth the agency action, and shall inform the persons of the right, the procedure, and the time limit to file a contested case petition. When no informal settlement request has been received by the agency prior to issuance of the notice, any subsequent informal settlement request shall not suspend the time limitation for the filing of a petition for a contested case hearing.”

2. How many times do you have to receive the denial in order for that denial to be considered a “final decision”?

There is no magic number. But the Court of Appeals in Abrons makes it clear that the “final decision” must be rendered by DHHS, not a contracted party.

So which we ask – What about terminations by MCOs? Do MCOs have the authority to terminate providers and render final decisions regarding Medicaid providers?

I would argue – no.

Our 1915b/c Waiver waives certain federal laws, not state laws. Our 1915 b/c Waiver does not waive N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B.

“But who has won?” asked Alice.

“At last the Dodo said, ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes.'” – Only in Wonderland!

Sometimes, you just need to stop running and dry off.

Medicaid Auditors, Nitpicky Nonsense, and Journalistic Mistakes

In my experience with regulatory audits of health care providers, which is substantial, the auditors have zero incentive to perform audits conservatively…or even properly, if I am being completely honest. The audit companies themselves are for-profit entities with Boards of Directors, sometimes with shareholders, and definitely with executives who are concerned with the corporate bottom lines. The actual auditors are salaried employees (or contractors) who are given an audit checklist, which may or may not be correct) and instructions as to which companies to audit.

Think about it – you are hired as an auditor…what happens if you come back to your boss, saying, “Nope. I found no documentation errors.”I liken it to me hiring a housekeeper and that housekeeper showing up at my house and saying, “Your house is so clean. There is nothing for me to clean.” First of all, for those who know me, you know that no housekeeper would ever say that my house did not to be cleaned, but that is neither here nor there. The analogy remains. No employee or hired contractor will tell you that you do not need to hire him or her because he or she is not needed. It is only human nature and logic. Will a dog trainer tell you that your dog is fully trained? Will a personal trainer tell you are perfectly fit? Will a rug maker tell you that you don’t need a rug? Will an auditor tell you that your documents are perfect? If so, they would render themselves obsolete.

Disagree with my opinions on this blog all you want, but if you disagree with the principle that an employee will not argue himself or herself out of a job, then you are living in a fantasy land made up of rainbows and gummy bears.

So let’s begin with the basic logical principles: 2+2=4 and auditors have incentives to find errors.

Now, knowing the basic, underlying fact that auditors have incentives to locate documentation errors, an article was recently published entitled, “Audit says home health care companies overbilled Mass. Medicaid by $23m.” While I am not in a position to critique a journalist’s writing, I disagree with the broad, overreaching statements found in this article. While the article claims that 9 home health companies owe the State of Massachusetts $23 million, my guess is that (if the companies hire a competent attorney) the companies do not owe such a large amount. In my experience, there are many legal defenses to safeguard against allegations in an audit.

The follow-up article may be entitled, “Audit of Home Health Agencies Found to Be Erroneous.”

Here is the first paragraph of that article claiming home care agencies overbilled Medicaid for $23 million:

“The state’s Medicaid program was routinely billed for home health care services that were never provided or were not medically necessary. Providers submitted documents with missing dates and signatures. Sometimes basic information like a patient’s medical history was nowhere to be found.”

Let’s dissect.

First sentence: “The state’s Medicaid program was routinely billed for home health care services that were never provided or were not medically necessary.”

I call bull feces on this one. First, the audit, which is the topic of this article, only audited 9 home health agencies. Unless only 10 home health agencies exist in Massachusetts, an audit of 9 agencies can hardly be considered “routinely billing” Medicaid.

Second, who is making these determinations that the home health services are not medically necessary??? Considering that, in order to render home health services, the provider must obtain prior authorization that the services are medically necessary, I find it a hard pill to swallow that the rendered services are not medically necessary. These are prior authorized services!!

Third, providing home health services is anything but routine. Life happens. The assertion that home health care services were never provided fails to take into consideration – life. For example, a home health aide could present at the client’s home at the regularly scheduled time, but the consumer’s son is present. The son brought McDonald’s, in which case, the aide may render all services, but does not prepare a meal for the client. Or, perhaps, the consumer’s plan states that the aide must bathe the consumer. But the consumer recently had surgery and cannot take a bath or shower for a certain amount of time. In the above examples, services were not rendered, that is true, but did some sort of aberrant billing or fraud occur? I would argue, no.

Second sentence: “Providers submitted documents with missing dates and signatures.”

This sentence is also troubling. Let’s say that a consumer requires home health services and receives prior authorization. The home health aide renders the services. In the subsequent documentation, the home health aide forgets to date the service note. There is no question that the home health services were needed. There is no question that the services were rendered. There is only a missing date written on the service note. Does this circumstance warrant a 100% recoupment for a minor documentation error? If you answer, yes, you may have a fulfilling career as a Medicaid auditor in your future. You also may believe that a documentation error as egregious as a missing date should warrant tearing up the provider’s Medicaid contract and burning it. You may also hate puppy dogs and ice cream.

My answer is no. There are less drastic measures to be implemented other than a 100% recoupment – for example, a plan of correction could be required.

Third sentence: “Sometimes basic information like a patient’s medical history was nowhere to be found.”

I have major issues with this sentence. Ever hear of the saying, “You only get what you ask for?” All health care providers, including home health care providers, maintain massive amounts of documentation, whether it be electronic or paper. Furthermore, one client file could have years and years of documentation. When an auditor comes to an agency, the auditor normally presents with a list of consumer names and dates of service.

For example, the auditor wants to review the documentation for Barack Obama, date of service 11/8/12. The provider hands over the service note, the plan of care, the prior authorization, etc. Information not found on the documents provided to the auditor: place of birth, past drug use, including, marijuana and cocaine, smoking history, exercise regimen, marital status, immunizations, list of surgical procedures…you get the picture.

The article goes on to state, “Executives at all of the companies reached by the Globe said they are appealing the audit findings and chalked up most of the violations to minor paperwork issues that were overblown by state auditors.”

“There’s mistakes here, I understand that,” said Debra Walsh, administrator at Able Home Care. “[But] how did a missing address escalate to a sanction? That doesn’t make any sense.”

She’s right. It doesn’t make logical, reasonable, human sense. But it does make sense when you remember that the auditors are sent to the agencies with an audit checklist and a list of consumers with dates of service. If the checklist requires an address of the provider and the consumer to be present on the service note, regardless whether the regulations, rules or law require an address to be present on a service note, and there is no address present on the service note, then the auditor will find noncompliance. Strict adherence to the “Stepford Auditors’ Handbook” is required, not strict adherence to the law.

Looking at the sunny side – Most audit findings are easy-greasy to defend with legal arguments. Have you seen the TV show, “What Not To Wear?” The first, initial meeting of the targeted person on “What Not To Wear” is the original audit results “before a good legal defense.” It’s exaggerated, ugly, and quite shocking.

Then Stacy and Clinton come to the rescue and teach the scraggly, poorly-dressed individual fashion tips and the former frumpy individual is transformed into a fashionable chichi – or a much more palatable overpayment amount.

(In this analogy, my team and I are Stacy and Clinton. I will be Stacy).

One of my favorite examples of a “before” and “after” audit results is the following:

Before (frumpy individual):

""before2
After (fashionable chichi):
photo (3)
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Next time you see an article claiming that a health care provider overbilled the government for Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements, check and see whether the determination was appealed by the provider(s).

The appeal may demonstrate an entirely new perspective on such alleged overpayments than the original audit, because, remember, an auditor would not maintain a job if he or she found compliance.

Medicare Audits: DRG Downcoding in Hospitals: Algorithms Substituting for Medical Judgment, Part 1

This article is written by our good friend, Ed Roche. He is the founder of Barraclough NY, LLC, which is a litigation support firm that helps us fight against extrapolations.

e-roche

The number of Medicare audits is increasing. In the last five years, audits have grown by 936 percent. As reported previously in RACmonitor, this increase is overwhelming the appeals system. Less than 3 percent of appeal decisions are being rendered on time, within the statutory framework.

It is peculiar that the number of audits has grown rapidly, but without a corresponding growth in the number of employees for Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs). How can this be? Have the RAC workers become more than 900 percent more efficient? Well, in a way, they have. They have learned to harness the power of big data.

Since 1986, the ability to store digital data has grown from 0.02 exabytes to 500 exabytes. An exabyte is one quintillion bytes. Every day, the equivalent 30,000 Library of Congresses is put into storage. That’s lots of data.

Auditing by RACs has morphed into using computerized techniques to pick targets for audits. An entire industry has emerged that specializes in processing Medicare claims data and finding “sweet spots” on which the RACs can focus their attention. In a recent audit, the provider was told that a “focused provider analysis report” had been obtained from a subcontractor. Based on that report, the auditor was able to target the provider.

A number of hospitals have been hit with a slew of diagnosis-related group (DRG) downgrades from internal hospital RAC teams camping out in their offices, continually combing through their claims data. The DRG system constitutes a framework that classifies any inpatient stay into groups for purposes of payment.

The question then becomes: how is this work done? How is so much data analyzed? Obviously, these audits are not being performed manually. They are cyber audits. But again, how?

An examination of patent data sheds light on the answer. For example, Optum, Inc. of Minnesota (associated with UnitedHealthcare) has applied for a patent on “computer-implemented systems and methods of healthcare claim analysis.” These are complex processes, but what they do is analyze claims based on DRGs.

The information system envisaged in this patent appears to be specifically designed to downgrade codes. It works by running a simulation that switches out billed codes with cheaper codes, then measures if the resulting code configuration is within the statistical range averaged from other claims.

If it is, then the DRG can be downcoded so that the revenue for the hospital is reduced correspondingly. This same algorithm can be applied to hundreds of thousands of claims in only minutes. And the same algorithm can be adjusted to work with different DRGs. This is only one of many patents in this area.

When this happens, the hospital may face many thousands of downgraded claims. If it doesn’t like it, then it must appeal.

Here there is a severe danger for any hospital. The problem is that the cost the RAC incurs running the audit is thousands of time less expensive that what the hospital must spend to refute the DRG coding downgrade.

This is the nature of asymmetric warfare. In military terms, the cost of your enemy’s offense is always much smaller than the cost of your defense. That is why guerrilla warfare is successful against nation states. That is why the Soviet Union and United States decided to stop building anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems — the cost of defense was disproportionately greater than the cost of offense.

Hospitals face the same problem. Their claims data files are a giant forest in which these big data algorithms can wander around downcoding and picking up substantial revenue streams.

By using artificial intelligence (advanced statistical) methods of reviewing Medicare claims, the RACs can bombard hospitals with so many DRG downgrades (or other claim rejections) that it quickly will overwhelm their defenses.

We should note that the use of these algorithms is not really an “audit.” It is a statistical analysis, but not done by any doctor or healthcare professional. The algorithm could just as well be counting how many bags of potato chips are sold with cans of beer.

If the patient is not an average patient, and the disease is not an average disease, and the treatment is not an average treatment, and if everything else is not “average,” then the algorithm will try to throw out the claim for the hospital to defend. This has everything to do with statistics and correlation of variables and very little to do with understanding whether the patient was treated properly.

And that is the essence of the problem with big data audits. They are not what they say they are, because they substitute mathematical algorithms for medical judgment.

EDITOR’ NOTE: In Part II of this series, Edward Roche will examine the changing appeals landscape and what big data will mean for defense against these audits. In Part III, he will look at future scenarios for the auditing industry and the corresponding public policy agenda that will involve lawmakers.

 

All Medicare/Caid Health Care Professionals: Start Contracting with Qualified Translators to Comply with Section 1557 of the ACA!!

Being a health care professional who accepts Medicare and/ or Medicaid can sometimes feel like you are Sisyphus pushing the massive boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll down, over and over, with the same sequence continuing for eternity. Similarly, sometimes it can feel as though the government is the princess sleeping on 20 mattresses and you are the pea that is so small and insignificant, yet so annoying and disruptive to her sleep.

Well, effective immediately – that boulder has enlarged. And the princess has become even more sensitive.

boulder

On May 18, 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published a Final Rule to implement Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Section 1557 of the ACA has been on the books since the ACA’s inception in 2010. However, not until 6 years later, did HSD finally implement regulations regarding Section 1557. 81 Fed. Reg. 31376.

The Final Rule became effective July 18, 2016. You are expected to be compliant with the rule’s notice requirements, specifically the posting of a nondiscrimination notice and statement and taglines within 90 days of the Final Rule – October 16, 2016. So you better giddy-up!!

First, what is Section 1557?

Section 1557 of the ACA provides that an individual shall not, on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability, be

  • excluded from participation in,
  • denied the benefits of, or
  • subjected to discrimination under

all health programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance through HHS, including Medicaid, most Medicare, student health plans, Basic Health Program, and CHIP funds; meaningful use payments (which sunset in 2018); the advance premium tax credits; and many other programs.

Section 1557 is extremely broad in scope. Because it is a federal regulation, it applies to all states and health care providers in all specialties, regardless the size of the practice and regardless the percentage of Medicare/caid the agency accepts.

HHS estimates that Section 1557 applies to approximately 900,000 physicians. HHS also estimates that the rule will cover 133,343 facilities, such as hospitals, home health agencies and nursing homes; 445,657 clinical laboratories; 1300 community health centers; 40 health professional training programs; Medicaid agencies in each state; and, at least, 180 insurers that offer qualified health plans.

So now that we understand Section 1557 is already effective and that it applies to almost all health care providers who accept Medicare/caid, what exactly is the burden placed on the providers? Not discriminating does not seem so hard a burden.

Section 1557 requires much more than simply not discriminating against your clients.

Section 1557 mandates that you will provide appropriate aids and services without charge and in a timely manner, including qualified interpreters, for people with disabilities and that you will provide language assistance including translated documents and oral interpretation free of charge and in a timely manner.

In other words, you have to provide written materials to your clients in their spoken language. To ease the burden of translating materials, you can find a sample notice and taglines for 64 languages on HHS’ website. See here. The other requirement is that you provide, for no cost to the client, a translator in a timely manner for your client’s spoken language.

In other words, you must have qualified translators “on call” for the most common 15, non-English languages in your state. You cannot rely on friends, family, or staff. You also cannot allow the child of your client to act as the interpreter. The clients in need of the interpreters are not expected to provide their own translators – the burden is on the provider. The language assistance must be provided in a “timely  manner. “Further, these “on call” translators must be “qualified,” as defined by the ACA.

I remember an English teacher in high school telling the class that there were two languages in North Carolina: English and bad English. Even if that were true back in 19XX, it is not true now.

Here is a chart depicting the number of non-English speakers in North Carolina in 1980 versus 2009-2011:

languages

As you can see, North Carolina has become infinitely more diverse in the last three decades.

And translators aren’t free. According to Costhelper Small Business,

Typical costs:
  • Interpreting may take place in person, over the phone or via video phone.
  • In-person interpreters typically cost $50-$145 per hour. For example, American Language Services offers interpreters starting at $100 per hour (or $125 for sign language) and a two-hour minimum is required.
  • Phone interpreters typically cost $1.25-$3 per minute. Language Translation, Inc. offers a flat fee of $1.88 per minute for phone interpreting, for example.
  • Video interpreters typically range from $1.75 to $7 per minute. For instance, LifeLinks offers video interpreting from $2.25 per minute for any language and $2.95 for sign language. A 15-minute minimum is common for phone or video interpreting.

It seems likely that telehealth may be the best option for health care providers considering the cost of in-person translations. Of course, you need to calculate the cost of the telehealth equipment and the savings you project over time to determine whether the investment in telehealth equipment is financially smart.

In addition to agencies having access to qualified translators, agencies with over 15 employees must designate a single employee who will be responsible for Section 1557 compliance and to adopt a grievance procedure for clients. Sometimes this may mean hiring a new employee to comply.

The Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) at HHS is the enforcer of Section 1557. OCR has been enforcing Section 1557 since its inception in 2010 – to an extent.

However, expect a whole new policing of Section 1557 now that we have the Final Rule from HHS.

NC DHHS Fails: No Bid Contracts – No Bueno!

A recent State Auditor report found that DHHS “had approximately 2,500 non-competitively bid contracts with a value of approximately $2.4 billion between state fiscal year 2012 through 2014. The value of the no-bid contracts accounts for more than 32% of all contracts during the same period.”

No bid contracts are exactly that – the company awarded the contract received the contract without competition, or a bid process. Think of a no bid contract as a try out for a professional football team, but only one person is trying out. Generally, competition breeds better results because people try harder when they compete, rather than a solo act.

In contract bidding, rivalry also breeds a lower contract price. It’s only logical. If you know that other companies are submitting bids, you are going to submit the lowest number possible.

So how is DHHS allowed to award no bid contracts?

NC Statute dictates that the AG or the AG’s attorney shall review “all proposed contracts for supplies, materials, printing, equipment, and contractual services that exceed one million dollars…” as of June 27, 2011. See NCGS 114-8.3 as amended by Session Law 2011-326 and Session Law 2013-234.

But – Per 09 NCAC 06B .0901, “…competition may be limited or waived where a factual basis demonstrates support of one or more of the conditions set forth in Paragraph (b) of this Rule. If the procurement is within a purchasing agency’s general delegation, then the purchasing agency may waive competition in conformance with this Rule. If the procurement is greater than the agency’s delegation, requests for limited or waived competition shall be submitted to the State CIO for approval.”

Here are the exceptions found in 09 NCAC 06B.0901(b):

(b) Competition may be limited or waived under the following conditions:

  1. Competition is not available;
  2. A needed product or service is available from only one source of supply;
  3. Emergency action is indicated;
  4. Competition has been solicited but no responsive offers have been received;
  5. Standardization or compatibility is the overriding consideration;
  6. A donation stipulates the source of supply;
  7. Personal or particular professional services are required;
  8. A product or service is needed for a person with disabilities and there are overriding considerations for its use;
  9. Additional products or services are needed to complete an ongoing job or task;
  10. A particular product or service is desired for educational, training, experimental, developmental or research work;
  11. Equipment is already installed, connected and in service, and it is determined advantageous to purchase it;
  12. Items are subject to rapid price fluctuation or immediate acceptance;
  13. There is evidence of resale price maintenance or other control of prices or collusion on the part of persons or entities that thwarts normal competitive procedures unless otherwise prohibited by law;
  14. A purchase is being made and a price is available from a previous contract;
  15. The requirement is for an authorized cooperative project with another governmental unit(s) or a charitable non-profit organization(s); or
  16. A used item is available on short notice and subject to prior sale.

Did all the no bid contracts that DHHS procured between state fiscal year 2012 through 2014 to equal approximately $2.4 billion fit within 1 or more of the above referenced exceptions?

At least, according to the State Auditor – No.

Here are the key findings of the State Auditor’s Report:

  • Many no-bid contracts lacked required review and approval to protect state interests
  • Many no-bid contracts lacked documentation of negotiations to improve pricing or terms
  • Many no-bid contracts lacked adequate written justification to waive competition, which increases the risk of favoritism, unfavorable terms, and poor performance

It appears that DHHS failed this audit. Should we extrapolate?