Category Archives: Medicaid Budget
Medicare Payment Parity: More Confusing Audits
Every time a regulation is revised, Medicare and Medicaid audits are altered…sometimes in the providers’ favor, most times not. Since COVID, payment parity has created a large discrepancy in reimbursement rates for Medicare across the country.
Payment parity is a State-specific, Governor decision depending on whether your State is red or blue.
Payment parity laws require that health care providers are reimbursed the same amount for telehealth visits as in-person visits. During the ongoing, pandemic, or PHE, many states implemented temporary payment parity through the end of the PHE. Now, many States are implementing payment parity on a permanent basis. As portrayed in the below picture. As of August 2021, 18 States have implemented policies requiring payment parity, 5 States have payment parity in place with caveats, and 27 States have no payment parity.
On the federal level, H.R. 4748: Helping Every American Link To Healthcare Act of 2021 was introduced July 28, 2021. HR 4748 allows providers to furnish telehealth services using any non-public facing audio or video communication product during the 7-year period beginning the last day of the public health emergency. Yay. But that doesn’t help parity payments.
For example, NY is one of the states that has passed no parity regulation, temporary or permanent. However, the Governor signed an Executive Order mandating parity between telehealth and physical services. Much to the chagrin of the providers, the managed long-term care organizations reduced the Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements for social adult day care centers drastically claiming that the overhead cost of rendering virtual services is so much lower., which is really not even accurate. You have to ensure that your consumers all have access to technology. About four-in-ten adults with lower incomes do not have home broadband services (43%) or a desktop or laptop computer (41%). And a majority of Americans with lower incomes are not tablet owners.
Amidst all this confusion on reimbursement rates, last week, HHS released $25.5 billion on provider relief funds and promised increased audits. Smaller providers will be reimbursed at a higher rate than larger ones, the department said. Which leads me tov think: and perhaps be audited disproportionately more.
The first deadline for providers to report how they used grants they have already received is coming up at the end of September, but HHS on Friday announced a two-month grace period. HHS has hired several firms to conduct audits on the program.
Remember on June 3, 2021, CMS announced that MACs could begin conducting post-payment reviews for dates of service on or after March 1, 2020. Essentially, auditors can review any DOS with or without PHE exceptions applicable, but the PHE exceptions (i.e., waivers and flexibilities) continue, as the PHE was extended another 90 days and likely will be again through the end of this year.
I’m currently defending an audit spanning a 4-month period of June 2020 – September 2020. Interestingly, even during the short, 4 month, period, some exceptions apply to half the claims. While other apply to all the claims. It can get tricky fast. Now imagine the auditors feebly trying to remain up to speed with the latest policy changes or COVID exceptions.
Here, in NC, there was a short period of time during which physician signatures may not even be required for many services.
In addition to the MAC and SMRC audits, the RAC has shown an increase in audit activities, as have the UPICs and most state Medicaid plans. Commercial plan audits have also been on the rise, though they were under no directive to cease or slow audit functions at any time during the PHE.
Lastly, audit contractors have increasingly hinted to the use of six-year, lookback audits as a means for providers that have received improper payments to refund overpayments due. This 6- year lookback is the maximum lookback period unless fraud is alleged. It is important to note that the recoupments are not allowed once you appeal, so appeal!
Medicare “Site Neutral” Reimbursements Hit Hospitals Hard, But Is It Legal?
Shockingly, not all new rules that emerge from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) are actually compliant with the law. Wait! What? How can CMS publish Final Rules that are not compliant with the law?
This was an eye-opening discovery as a “baby lawyer” back 20 years ago. The government can and does publish and create Rules that, sometimes, exceed its legal authority. Of course, the Agency must follow appropriate rule-making procedure and allow for a comment period (etc.), but CMS does not have to listen to the comments. Theoretically, CMS could publish a Final Rule mandating that all Medicare providers provide 50 hours of free services a year or that the reimbursement rate for all services is $1. Both of my examples violate multiple rules, regulations, and laws, but until an aggrieved party with standing files a lawsuit declaring the Final Rule to be invalid or Congress passes a law that renders the Rule moot, the Rule exists and can be enforced by CMS and its agents.
The Rule-change (the “Site-Neutrality Rule”), which became effective January 1, 2019, reduced Medicare reimbursements to hospitals with outpatient facilities. Medicare will pay hospitals that have outpatient facilities “off campus” at a lower rate — equivalent to what it pays independent physicians for clinic visits. This decrease in Medicare reimbursements hits hard for most hospitals across the country, but, especially, rural hospitals. For the past 10+ years, hospitals have built outpatient facilities to serve more patients, and been reimbursed a higher Medicare reimbursement rate than independent physicians because the services at the hospital’s outpatient facility were connected to an outpatient facility affiliated with a hospital. Now the Site-Neutrality Rule leaves many hospitals trying to catch their breaths after the metaphoric punch to the belly. On the other hand, independent physicians claim that they have been providing the exact, same services as the hospital-affiliated outpatient facilities for years, but have received a lower reimbursement rate. I have no opinion (I do, but my opinion is not the topic in this blog) as to whether physicians and hospitals should be reimbursed equally – this blog is not pro-physician or pro-hospital. Rather, this blog is “pro-holding CMS liable to render Rules that follow the law.” Whether the hospitals or the physicians were receiving a cut in reimbursement rates, I am in favor of the those cuts (and future cuts) abiding by the law. Interestingly, should the AHA win this case, it could set solid, helpful, legal precedent for all types of providers and all types of decreased Medicare/caid reimbursements going forward.
Because of the Site-Neutrality Rule, in 2019, hospitals’ reimbursements will drop approximately $380 million and $760 million in 2020, according to CMS.
Before CMS brags on a decrease in the Medicare budget due to a proposed or Final Rule, it should remember that there is budget neutrality requirement when it comes to Rules implemented by CMS. 42 US.C. § 1395l. Yet, here, for the Site-Neutrality Rule, according to articles and journals, CMS is boasting its Site-Neutrality Rule as saving millions upon millions of dollars for Medicare. Can we say “Budget Non-Neutrality?”
The American Hospital Association filed a lawsuit December 2018 claiming that CMS exceeded its authority by implementing the Final Rule for “site neutral” Medicare reimbursements for hospitals with outpatient facilities. The lawsuit requests an injunction to stop the decrease and an order to repay any funds withheld thus far.
The claim, which, I believe has merit, argues that the Site-Neutrality Rule exceeds CMS’s statutory authority under the Medicare Act because of the budget neutrality mandate, in part – there are other arguments, but, for the sake of this blog, I am concentrating on the budget neutrality requirement. In my humble opinion, the budget neutrality requirement is overlooked by many attorneys and providers when it comes to challenging cuts to Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement rates.
On March 22, 2019, CMS filed a Motion to Dismiss or in the alternative, a Cross Motion for Summary Judgment. On April 5, 2019, AHA (and the rest of the Plaintiffs) responded in opposition. On April 19, 2019, CMS responded to AHA’s response in opposition. The Judge has not ruled on the Motions, as of today, April 25, 2019.
Obviously, I will be keeping a close eye on the progress of this case going forward. In the meantime, more reductions in reimbursement rates are on the horizon…
Recently, CMS recently proposed three new rules that would further update the Medicare payment rates and quality reporting programs for hospices, skilled nursing facilities (SNFs), and inpatient psychiatric facilities.
NC State Auditor Finds Cardinal Expenditures Unreasonable!!(Finally) #Wastedtaxdollars
The NC State Auditor Beth Wood released an audit report on Cardinal Innovations yesterday, May 17, 2017. Here are the key findings. For the full report click here.
Cardinal is a Local Management Entity/Managed Care Organization (LME/MCO) created by North Carolina General Statute 122C. 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.
• Cardinal spent money exploring strategic opportunities outside of its core mission
• $1.2 million in CEO salaries paid without proper authorization
• Cardinal’s unreasonable spending could erode public trust
• Cardinal should consult and collaborate with members of the General Assembly before taking any actions outside of its statutory boundaries
• The Office of State Human Resources should immediately begin reviewing and approving Cardinal CEO salary adjustments
• The Department of Health and Human Services should determine whether any Cardinal CEO salary expenditures should be disallowed and request reimbursement as appropriate
• Cardinal should implement procedures consistent with other LME/MCOs, state laws, and federal reimbursement policy to ensure its spending is appropriate for a local government entity
My favorite? Recoup CEO salaries. Maybe we should extrapolate.
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.
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…
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:
- “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.
- To prevent the premature disclosure of an honorary degree, scholarship, prize, or similar award.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- To plan, conduct, or hear reports concerning investigations of alleged criminal misconduct.
- 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.
- 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.
(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?
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.
Key Medicaid Questions Post-Election
Disclosure: This is the opinion/facts from the Kaiser Family Foundation, not me. But I found this interesting. My opinion will be forthcoming.
Kaiser Family Foundation article:
Medicaid covers about 73 million people nationwide. Jointly financed by the federal and state governments, states have substantial flexibility to administer the program under existing law. Medicaid provides health insurance for low-income children and adults, financing for the safety net, and is the largest payer for long-term care services in the community and nursing homes for seniors and people with disabilities. President-elect Trump supports repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and a Medicaid block grant. The GOP plan would allow states to choose between block grant and a per capita cap financing for Medicaid. The new Administration could also make changes to Medicaid without new legislation.
1. HOW WOULD ACA REPEAL AFFECT MEDICAID?
A repeal of the ACA’s coverage expansion provisions would remove the new eligibility pathway created for adults, increase the number of uninsured and reduce the amount of federal Medicaid funds available to states. The Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling on the ACA effectively made the Medicaid expansion optional for states. As of November 2016, 32 states (including the District of Columbia) are implementing the expansion. The full implications of repeal will depend on whether the ACA is repealed in whole or in part, whether there is an alternative to the ACA put in place and what other simultaneous changes to Medicaid occur. However, examining the effects of the ACA on Medicaid provide insight into what might be at stake under a repeal.
What happened to coverage? The ACA expanded Medicaid eligibility to nearly all non-elderly adults with income at or below 138% of the federal poverty level (FPL) – about $16,396 per year for an individual in 2016. Since summer of 2013, just before implementation of the ACA expansions, through August 2016 about 16 million people have been added to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. While not all of this increase is due to those made newly eligible under the ACA, expansion states account for a much greater share of growth. States that expanded Medicaid have had large gains in coverage, although ACA related enrollment has tapered. From 2013 to 2016 the rate of uninsured non-elderly adults fell by 9.2% in expansion states compared to 6% in non-expansion states.
What happened to financing? The law provided for 100% federal funding of the expansion through 2016, declining gradually to 90% in 2020 and beyond. Expansion states have experienced large increases in federal dollars for Medicaid and have claimed $79 billion in federal dollars for the new expansion group from January 2014 through June 2015. Studies also show that states expanding Medicaid under the ACA have realized net fiscal gains despite Medicaid enrollment growth initially exceeding projections in many states.
What other Medicaid provisions were in the ACA? The ACA required states to implement major transformations to modernize and streamline eligibility and enrollment processes and systems. The ACA also included an array of new opportunities related to delivery system reforms for complex populations, those dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid and new options to expand community-based long-term care services.
2. WHAT WOULD CHANGES IN THE FINANCING STRUCTURE MEAN FOR MEDICAID?
A Medicaid block grant or per capita cap policy would fundamentally change the current structure of the program. These policies are typically designed to reduce federal spending and fix rates of growth to make federal spending more predictable, but could eliminate the guarantee of coverage for all who are eligible and the guarantee to states for matching funds. States would gain additional flexibility to administer their programs but reduced federal funding could shift costs and risk to beneficiaries, states, and providers.
How would it work? Block grants or per capita caps could be structured in multiple ways. Key policy decisions would determine levels of federal financing as well as federal and state requirements around eligibility, benefits, state matching requirements, and beneficiary protections. Previous block grant proposals have determined a base year financing amount for each state and then specified a fixed rate of growth for federal spending. Under a Medicaid per capita cap, the federal government would set a limit on how much to reimburse states per enrollee. Payments to states would be based on per enrollee spending multiplied by enrollees. Spending under per capita cap proposals fluctuate based on changes in enrollment, but would not account for changes in the costs per enrollee beyond the growth limit. To achieve federal savings, the per capita growth amounts would be set below the projected rates of growth under current law.
What are the key policy questions? Key questions in designing these proposals include: what new flexibility would be granted to states, what federal requirements would remain in place, what requirements would be in place for state matching funds, what is the base year and growth rates, and how would a potential repeal of the ACA work with a block grant proposal? Given the lack of recent administrative data, setting a base year could be challenging. These financing designs could lock in historic spending patterns and variation in Medicaid spending across states, resulting in states deemed “winners” or “losers.”
What are the implications? Capping and reducing federal financing for Medicaid could have implications for beneficiaries, states, and providers including: declines in Medicaid coverage or new financial barriers to care; limited funding for children (the majority of Medicaid enrollees) as well as the elderly and those with disabilities (populations that represent the majority of Medicaid spending); reduced funding for nursing homes and community-based long-term care (Medicaid is the largest payer of these services); reductions in federal revenues to states and Medicaid revenues for safety-net providers. A block grant would not adjust to increased coverage needs during a recession. Block grants or per capita caps would not adjust to changes in health care or drug costs or emergencies. Recently Medicaid costs have increased due to high cost specialty drugs and Medicaid has been used to help combat the growing opioid crisis.
3. HOW COULD MEDICAID BE CHANGED THROUGH ADMINISTRATIVE ACTIONS?
The Administration could make changes to Medicaid without changes in legislation.
How can changes be made through guidance? A new administration can reinterpret existing laws through new regulations and new sub-regulatory guidance. While there are rules that govern how to change regulations, a new administration has more flexibility to issue or amend sub-regulatory guidance, such as state Medicaid director letters. Rules promulgated by the Obama administration could be rolled back or changed.
How can changes be made through waivers? Throughout the history of the Medicaid program, Section 1115 waivers have provided states an avenue to test and implement demonstrations that, in the view of the Health and Human Services Secretary, advance program objectives but do not meet federal program rules. Longstanding federal policy has required waivers to be budget neutral for the federal government.
What kind of waivers may be considered? Seven states are using waivers to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion, including Indiana. The Indiana waiver, implemented under then Governor Pence, includes provisions to impose: premiums on most Medicaid beneficiaries; a coverage lock-out period for individuals with incomes above the poverty level who fail to pay premiums; health savings accounts; and healthy behavior incentives. The Obama administration has not approved waivers that would require work as a condition of Medicaid eligibility. It also has denied Ohio’s waiver request to impose premiums regardless of income and exclude individuals from coverage until all arrears are paid on the basis that this would restrict or undermine coverage from existing levels. Many other states are using waivers to implement payment and delivery system reforms. The incoming administration could decide whether or not to renew existing waivers and can approve a new set of waivers to promote its own program goals.
Feds launch investigation into DHHS contracts, hiring!!!
By Tyler Dukes, Mark Binker & Laura Leslie
RALEIGH, N.C. — The U.S. Attorney’s Office has launched an investigation into high-dollar consulting contracts and salary payments at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
According to documents provided by DHHS on Friday afternoon, U.S. Attorney Thomas Walker subpoenaed the department for information on more than 30 employees, as well as bidding and payment information for administrative contracts, as part of a criminal investigation. The subpoenas came in late July, about a week before the resignation of former DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos in early August.
The investigation was first reported by The News & Observer.
DHHS spokeswoman Kendra Gerlach said Wos decided to resign before the subpoenas.
“The current secretary had been selected prior to any knowledge of this government inquiry,” Gerlach said.
Walker’s office did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Gerlach said the department is cooperating with the federal government, but she declined to comment further about the investigation.
“We will continue to respect the confidentiality of the process by the federal government to protect the integrity and fairness of this review,” she said in an emailed statement.
The Governor’s Office has not responded to requests for comment.
Among the targets of the subpoena are the records of state employees and contractors who have come under fire in the past, both by North Carolina legislators and the State Auditor’s Office.
- Les Merritt, a former state auditor who stepped down from the North Carolina State Ethics Commission after WRAL News raised questions about potential conflicts of interest created by his service contract with DHHS
- Thomas Adams, a former chief of staff who received more than $37,000 as “severance” after he served just one month on the job
- Angie Sligh, the former director of the state’s upgraded Medicaid payment system who faced allegations of nepotism and the waste of $1.6 million in payments to under-qualified workers for wages, unjustified overtime and holiday pay in a 2015 state audit
- Joe Hauck, an employee of Wos’ husband who landed a lucrative contract that put him among the highest-paid workers at DHHS
- Alvarez & Marsal, a consulting firm overseeing agency budget forecasting under a no-bid contract that has nearly tripled in value, to at least $8 million
State lawmakers have grilled DHHS leadership in the past in response to the contracts and audits, often publicly in legislative oversight meetings.
Rep. Justin Burr, co-chairman of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on DHHS, said Friday that he was recently made aware of the federal investigation into DHHS.
“It’s a concern, but it covers several areas that our oversight committee has expressed concerns about,” Burr, R-Stanly, said.
Oversight hearings during Wos’ tenure questioned the qualifications of contractors hired by DHHS, as well as the size of those contracts.
“Depending on which one you’re talking about, there was no sort of bid or effort to find the most qualified person,” Burr said. “They were just hand-picking individuals.”
This is a copy of the WRAL article. MORE TO COME FROM ME!!!!
BREAKING: House and Senate appear close to a Medicaid deal!!
In our last post on Medicaid reform, we updated you on the recent bill passed by the North Carolina Senate relating to the long-standing thorn in the side of the General Assembly, especially regarding the states’ budget – the Medicaid program. The Senate’s version of Medicaid reform is quite different from what we have previously seen and is a hodge-podge of managed care and a new idea: “provider-led entities.”
In a strong sign that this proposal is a compromise between competing sides that could end up getting passed, both House and Senate leaders are speaking positively on the record to news media about the prospects for a deal. Given how public the issue is and how big it is (an expected $14.2 billion in North Carolina in the coming year), that means they expect to get a deal done soon. The fact that the issue is so tied up with the budget that is overdue to be passed is a further headwind to passing a bill.
Right now, the bill is in a conference committee of negotiators from the House and Senate to work out an agreement, given the differences between the two chambers.
One major issue that the committee needs to look at is whether there will be a whole new state agency: the “Department of Medicaid.” The Senate endorsed that idea last week.
Our prediction: The legislators will chart a cautious course and not erect a whole new agency at the same time they are overhauling the system.
With Wos having (coincidentally?) just stepped down as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, perhaps the lack of a lightning rod for criticism of DHHS will let the air out of the proposal to remove Medicaid from DHHS’s hands.
By Robert Shaw
The Nine Habits of a Highly Effective Secretary for DHHS
With the recent passing of the torch from Aldona Wos to Rick Brajer (see blog), I’ve been thinking about…
What are the qualifications of a Secretary of DHHS?
What exactly are the qualities that would make a great Secretary of DHHS? Remember, in Mary Poppins, when the children draft their requirements for a nanny? Or, better yet, what are the “Seven Habits of a Highly Effective” Secretary for DHHS? Or…in this case, the “Nine Habits”…
Here are my “Nine Habits of a Highly Effective Secretary of DHHS;” our Secretary of DHHS should have the following:
- A health care background
- A successful track record of his/her ability to manage large companies or agencies
- An understanding of the Medicaid system, and, maybe, even have first-hand knowledge of how the system affects recipients and providers
- A relationship with someone on Medicaid or a parent of someone on Medicaid
- A working knowledge of clinical coverage policies, reimbursement rates, and regulations surrounding Medicaid
- Both the capacity to listen and speak and do both eloquently and genuinely
- True empathy about the physical and mental health of Medicaid recipients and about providers, plus have the patience to handle all types of demographic differences
- An understanding that he/she is handling tax payers’ money, that redundancy in staff is excess administrative costs, and ability to trim the fat
- An ability to communicate with both the Senate and the House and to be frank with both
Let us analyze the qualifications of Wos that we came to witness over the last few years, as well as, review the qualifications of soon-to-be Sec. Brajer with information to which we are privy.
Let’s see if both, either, or neither have these “Nine Habits of a Highly-Effective Secretary for DHHS.”
- Health care background:
Wos: Yes. And, yet, maybe not. She is an M.D. Although I do not know whether she ever practiced medicine in North Carolina. According to Wikipedia, (which is never wrong) Wos “prides herself on her work in the field of preventing HIV and AIDS.” However, I was unable to find a single clinic in which Wos provided services. While, generally, an “M.D.” automatically bestows a certain aura of understanding health care, I question whether this “M.D.” automatically has a working knowledge of billing for and receiving reimbursements under Medicaid in North Carolina.
Brajer: Hmmmm. This one is more tricky. The two companies that Brajer owned, Pro-nerve LLC and LipoScience Inc., are health care related, in that Pro-nerve was an intraoperative neuromonitoring (IONM) company and LipoScience sold a diagnostic tool to health care providers. Arguably, both companies are health care related, at least, in an ancillary way. However, Brajer is not a health care professional, and, to my knowledge, has never rendered health care services. Furthermore, neither of Brajer’s companies was successful; quite the opposite is true, in fact. From my understanding, one company declared bankruptcy and the other was not far behind. Which brings us to the next category…
2. A successful track record of his/her ability to manage large entities:
Wos: Prior to acting as the Secretary to DHHS, Wos served as the Ambassador to Estonia until 2006. What she did besides political functions between 2006 and 2012, I do not know. Acting as an Ambassador does not entail managing large entities. The most managerial skills that I can find in her background, prior to being appointed Secretary, are related to political fund-raising. Since I would not call her brief reign as Secretary of DHHS a success, I give Wos a “two thumbs down” on this criterion.
Brajer: He managed two companies. We can bicker as to whether these companies should be considered large…neither employed 17,000 employees. Regardless, the “successful” criterion appears to be lacking.
3. An understanding of the Medicaid system:
Wos: “You’re asking me without having all the data available to answer a question,” she told lawmakers on October 8, 2013. In her defense, she responded as such when asked whether the State was moving toward privatization for Medicaid. No one could know the answer, except, maybe, McCrory.
On the other hand, the implementation of NCTracks was nothing short of a catastrophe of epic proportion. See blog. See blog. Anyone with nominal knowledge of the Medicaid system would have, at least, paused to consider keeping HP Enterprises under contract during the switch to NCTracks or pushed back the go-live date.
Answer: Here’s to hoping that Brajer does. I’m cheering for you! Go! Fight! Win!
4. A relationship with someone on Medicaid or a parent of someone on Medicaid:
Wos: Unknown. If I were shaking a proverbial “8 Ball,” it would read, “Doubtful.”
Brajer: Unknown. Perhaps one of his former employees at Pro-nerve, LLC and LipoScience, Inc. is on Medicaid.
Answer: Gimme a ‘B’! B! Gimme a ‘R’! R! Gimme a ‘A’! A! Gimme a ‘J’! J! Gimme a ‘E’! E! Gimme a ‘R’! R! Whats that spell? Brajer!!
5. A working knowledge of clinical coverage policies, reimbursement rates, and regulations surrounding Medicaid.
Wos: Unknown. Whatever Wos’ knowledge of regulations and clinical coverage policies is or lacked, she, initially, made up for any knowledge lacked with the key hire and quick resignation of Carol Steckel. Unfortunately, Steckel’s experience was never replaced.
January 2013: “I am pleased to say that we are already taking steps to address some of these issues,” Wos said. “Now, the most important of this is that we have hired Ms. Carol Steckel, a nationally recognized — nationally recognized — expert in Medicaid to run our Medicaid program for the state. Carol is already moving ahead with systemic reviews of operations in this division. She is reviewing and establishing new policies and procedures.”
September 27, 2013: Steckel resigns. And blog.
Answer: B! R! A! J! E! R! Let’s go, Brajer!
6. Both the capacities to listen and speak and do both eloquently.
Wos: Wos brandished an ability to speak publicly with ease. Listening, on the other hand….eh?
Answer: I think you can, I think you can, I think you can…
7. Genuine concern about the physical and mental health of Medicaid recipients AND about providers PLUS have the patience to handle all types of demographic differences
Wos: She seems to think so. Her country club does not discriminate.
Answer: Go! Go! Go! Go! Go, Brajer!!
8. An understanding that he/she is handling tax payers money and that redundancy in staff is excess administrative costs and trim the meat
Wos: “My obligation as secretary is to find the best possible team in order to get the job done.” Les Merritt served as CFO of DMA on a $300,000-plus contract. Joe Hauck was paid over $228,000 for 6 months of advise to Wos. Matt McKillip was paid $87,500 to serve as chief policy maker without any health care background. Ricky Diaz pulled in $85,000 as communications director. Id. Wos has handed out $1.7 million in pay hikes to 280 staffers, many with “no career or educational experience for the jobs they hold.” Id. The implementation of the MCOs also fell under Wos’ watchful eye. The MCO system has created thousands upon thousands of high-paying jobs with our Medicaid dollars. I believe that in the “trim the fat” category, Sec. Wos scores a goose egg.
Answer: Please, Brajer! For the love of Pete!
9. Ability to communicate with both the Senate and the House and to be frank with both.
Wos: “Separation pay” v. “Severance pay?”
In April 2013: “I think the word transparency can get pretty dangerous,” Wos said. “Because what does transparency mean? If transparency means that we’re in a planning process and you’re asking us, ‘Tell us all the things you’re planning,’ well, my goodness, allow us to work, and then we’ll give you everything that you want.”
Answer: Brajer, Brajer, He’s our man! If he can’t do it…[gulp].
It concerns me that so many of future Sec. Brajer’s core abilities/habits to run and manage DHHS and the Medicaid program in a highly effective manner are unknown. Nothing like placing all your money on red! But we have HIGH hopes for Brajer!!! Don’t let us down!!
The whole point of this blog is to pause and really contemplate what characteristics would comprise a great Secretary for DHHS. Obviously, the Governor has the full authority to appoint the Secretary, meaning that we taxpayers have little to no input as to whether we deem a person qualified, except in the indirect method of voting or not voting for the Governor.
Call this blog an exercise in examining what habits, if in existence, would make the most highly effective Secretary of DHHS and an opinion as to whether these habits exist in our former and future Secretaries.
We are cheering for Brajer! But…
One fact about the future is that it is unknown.
North Carolina Medicaid Reform Update – Round and Round She Goes
Given how long the Medicaid reform discussions have been going on at the legislature, you may be glazed over by now. Give me the memo when they pass something, right? Fair enough, let’s keep it brief. Where do things stand right now?
Last Wednesday, the Senate staked out its position in the ongoing debate between the House and the McCrory administration.
The Senate’s newest proposal is an unusual mix of different systems and new ideas. Not willing to commit to one model for the whole Medicaid program, the latest version of the bill includes something new called Provider Led Entities, or “PLEs.” PLEs are yet the latest in the alphabet soup of different alternatives to straight fee-for-service billing for Medicare/Medicaid. You’ve all heard of HMOs, PPOs, MCOs, and ACOs. PLEs appear to be similar to ACOs, but perhaps for political reasons the Senate bill sponsors saw the need to call the idea something different. See Knicole Emanuel’s blog.
In any event, as the name suggests, such organizations would be provider-led and would be operated through a capitated system for managing the costs of the Medicaid program. The Senate bill would result in up to twelve PLEs being awarded contracts on a regional basis.
PLEs are not the only addition to the Medicaid alphabet soup that the Senate is proposing in its version of HB 372. The Senate has also renewed its interest in taking Medicaid out of the hands of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services entirely and creating a new state agency, the Department of Medicaid (“DOM”).
(One wonders whether the continual interest in creating a new Department of Medicaid independent of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services had anything to do with embattled DHHS Secretary Wos stepping down recently.)
The Senate also proposes creating a Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Medicaid (“LOC on Medicaid”).
But creating the DOM and using new PLEs to handle the provision of Medicaid services is not the whole story. Perhaps unwilling to jump entirely into a new delivery system managed by a wholly new state agency, the Senate bill would keep LME/MCOs for mental health services in place for at least another five years. Private contractor MCOs would also operate alongside the PLEs. The North Carolina Medicaid Choice coalition, a group which represents commercial MCOs in connection with the Medicaid reform process, is pleased.
One very interesting item that the Senate has included in its proposed legislation is the following requirement: “Small providers shall have an equal opportunity to participate in the provider networks established by commercial insurers and PLEs, and commercial insurers and PLEs shall apply economic and quality standards equally regardless of provider size or ownership.” You can thank Senator Joel Ford of Mecklenburg County for having sponsored this amendment to the Senate version of House Bill 372.
By pulling the Medicaid reform proposal out of the budget bill, the matter appears headed for further negotiation between the House and the Senate to see if the two can agree this year, unlike last year.
By legislative standards, that counts as forward progress… Here come the legislative discussion committees to hash it out more between the two chambers. We will keep a close eye on the proposals as they continue to evolve.
By Robert Shaw