Category Archives: Rate Reductions

Broken Promises Could Promise Disaster for Pediatricians! or “I Don’t Give a Damn” What the Law Is!

In 2013 and 2014, those of you who are primary health care physicians received a boost in Medicaid reimbursement rates up to the Medicare rates for E&M and vaccine administration CPT codes. Many of you self-attested to being primary care physicians. In other words, you determined that you act as a primary care physician. No official acting on behalf of the government reviewed your self-attestation and approved or denied your self-attestation.

What if the government decides, retroactively, that you did not qualify as a primary care physician and attempt to recoup the enhanced payments?? Is that allowed? “A retroactive take back?”

We all know that retroactive take backs occur in other types of audits!

This whole situation reminds me of my favorite movie of all time: Gone With the Wind…you know, Scarlett O’Hare, Rhett Butler, the Civil War…Over Thanksgiving, AMC had a Gone With the Wind marathon, and I must have watched it 4 times (I was sick, so I couldn’t do much else).

The plot is that Rhett is in love with Scarlett the entire movie, which spans over a fictious, “movie time” of two decades. And Scarlett is not in love with Rhett the entire movie until the very end.Once she finally realizes her love for Rhett, he is beyond frustrated and wants nothing to do with her.

She asks, “Rhett, oh, Rhett, what am I supposed to do?” To which he responds, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”

There are many themes found in Gone With the Wind, but the one most appropos is “You may think you understand reality, but, in the end, your reality may be a fictitious dream.”

Similarly, in 2013 and 2014, if you are a primary health care physician, you received a boost in Medicaid reimbursement rates up to the Medicare rates for E&M and vaccine administration CPT codes. You believed the rate hike to be reality.

This rate hike was a big deal for physicians, especially pediatricians. Pediatric practices rely heavily on Medicaid, usually from 20-100%. This rate hike took a reimbursement rate of approximately 78% of the Medicare rate, which, by the way, has been frozen by our legislature at the 2002 rate, plus an additional 3% reduction, followed by another 1% reduction to 100% of the Medicare rate. Quite an increase!

Well, that so blissful increase in Medicaid rates may come back to bite you!!! You thought that you were receiving higher Medicaid reimbursement rates, but, in the end, may you have to pay it back?

The reality of receiving higher Medicaid reimbursement rates may truly only have been a fictitious dream.

“Why,” you demand. “Why?” “Well,” says the government, “I don’t give a damn what the law is.”

Caveat lector: It is not 100% certain that you will be audited. This blog is only a warning as to a possibility. If, in fact, you are audited, then you have legal rights!

Let’s go over why there may be audits for those of you who self-attested to being primary care physicians…

In order to receive this increased rate hike, physicians had to self-attest that he/she :

  1. “Is Board certified as family medicine, general internal medicine, or pediatric medicine; and/or
  2. Has furnished evaluation and management services under codes described in paragraph (b) of this section that equal at least 60 percent of the Medicaid codes he or she has billed during the most recently completed CY or, for newly eligible physicians, the prior month.”

If you are Board certified in family medicine, general internal medicine, or pediatric medicine, there should not be a problem. There isn’t anything to argue. You are either Board certified or not.

However, if you are not Board certified, you will be relying on the government’s auditors to determine whether your practice comprises 60% of applicable Medicaid codes during the most recent calendar year.

Hmmmmmm…

Then, if the government’s auditors determine that your practice comprises of only 57% of applicable Medicaid codes, you may be charged with returning all the money you received as enhanced payments during 2013 and 2014.

And we all know how accurate some of our government’s auditors are…

So there you were, a physician, happy to self-attest to being a primary care provider, happy to receive higher reimbursements for two years, and with no thought of recoupments.

Then…BOOM…you are hit with the realization that you may be liable to the government for a recoupment of those enhanced reimbursements.

Because, frankly, my Dear, the government does not give a damn. Your reality was, in fact, a mere fictitious dream.

CMS Proposes Mandatory Bundled Medicare Reimbursements: Financial Risk on Hospitals!

A new CMS proposal could transform durable medical equipment (DME) Medicare reimbursements to hospitals. The proposal, if adopted, would implement a mandatory bundled Medicare reimbursement for hip and knee replacements or lower extremity joint replacements (LEJRs).

CMS has proposed this change to be piloted in 75 metropolitan areas prior to being implemented nationwide.

This mandatory bundled Medicare reimbursement will be unprecedented, as, thus far, CMS has only implemented voluntary bundled reimbursement rates. However, CMS has stated that its goal is to have at least 50% of all Medicare fee-for-service reimbursement to be paid under an alternative payment model by 2018, and, in order to meet this objective, CMS will need to implement more  mandatory alternative payment models.

Another first is that CMS proposes that hospitals bear the brunt of the financial risk. To date, CMS has not targeted a type of health care provider as being a Guinea pig for new ideas, unlike the other proposed and implemented Bundled Payments for Care Improvement (BPCI) initiative where there are many types of providers that can participate and bear risks.

Will this affect NC hospitals?

Yes.

Of the 75 metropolitan areas chosen as “test sites” for the new bundled payment plan, 3 are located in NC.

1. Asheville
2. Charlotte
3. Durham-Chapel Hill

Apparently, CMS believes that Durham and Chapel Hill are one city, but you got to give it to them…by hyphenating Durham and Chapel Hill, CMS gets both Duke and UNC health systems to participate in the mandatory trial. Other large metro areas included in the trial are Los Angeles, New York City, and Miami.

LEJRs are the most frequent surgeries in the Medicare population. The average Medicare expenditures for LEJRs, including surgery, hospitalization, and recovery, can range from $16,500 to $33,000.

The mandatory bundled reimbursement will become effective January 2, 2016; however, the hospitals will not carry the financial risk until January 1, 2017.  So, hospitals, you got a year and a half to figure it out!!

What exactly will this bundled reimbursement rate include?

Answer: Everything from an inpatient admission billed under MS DRG 469 or 470 until 90 days following discharge.

And we are talking about everything.

Thus, you will be reimbursed per “Episode of Care,” which includes:

“All related items and services paid under Medicare Part A and Part B for all Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries, including physicians’ services, inpatient hospital service, readmissions (subject to limited exceptions), skilled nursing facility services, durable medical equipment, and Part B drugs.”

What should you do if you are a hospital so graciously selected to participate?

1.  Assess your protocol as to discharging patients.  Where do your patients go after being discharged?

2. Determine whether you want to partner with any critical care facilities, skilled nursing agencies, or home health agencies.

3.  Assess your current reimbursement rates and analyze what current delivery patterns must be revamped in order to maintain profitability.

4. Determine future care management and clinical reprogram needs.

5. Analyze ways to provide more efficient delivery components.

6. Communicate with your DME vendors.  Discuss ways to decrease spending and increase efficiency.

7.  Plan all ways in which you will follow the patient after discharge through the 90 day period.

8. Consult your attorney.

If you would like to comment on the proposed rule, you have until September 8, 2015 at 5:00pm.

NC Medicaid Reimbursement Rates for Primary Care Physicians Slashed; Is a Potential NC Lawsuit Looming?

Here is my follow-up from yesterday’s blog post, “NC Docs Face Retroactive Medicaid Rate Cut.

Nearly one-third of physicians say they will not accept new Medicaid patients, according to a new study.  Is this shocking in light of the end of the ACA enhanced payments for primary physicians, NC’s implementation of a 3% reimbursement rate cut for primary care physicians, and the additional 1% reimbursement rate cut?  No, this is not shocking. It merely makes economic sense.

Want more physicians to accept Medicaid? Increase reimbursement rates!

Here, in NC, the Medicaid reimbursement rates for primary care physicians and pediatricians have spiraled downward from a trifecta resulting in an epically, low parlay. They say things happen in threes…

(1) With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Medicaid reimbursement rate for certain primary care services increased to reimburse 100% of Medicare Cost Share for services paid in 2013 and 2014.  This enhanced payment stopped on January 1, 2015.

(2) Concurrently on January 1, 2015, Medicaid reimbursement rates for evaluation and management and vaccination services were decreased by 3% due to enactments in the 2013 NC General Assembly session.

(3) Concurrently on January 1, 2015, Medicaid reimbursement rates for evaluation and management and vaccination services were decreased by 1% due to enactments in the 2014 NC General Assembly session.

The effect of the trifecta of Medicaid reimbursement rates for certain procedure codes for primary care physicians can be seen below.

CCNC

As a result, a physician currently receiving 100% of the Medicare rates will see a 16% to 24% reduction in certain E&M and vaccine procedure codes for Medicaid services rendered after January 1, 2015.

Are physicians (and all other types of health care providers) powerless against the slashing and gnashing of Medicaid reimbursement rates due to budgetary concerns?

No!  You are NOT powerless!  Be informed!!

Section 30(A) of the Medicaid Act states that:

“A state plan for medical assistance must –

Provide such methods and procedures relating to the utilization of, and the payment for, care and services available under the plan (including but not limited to utilization review plans as provided for in section 1396b(i)(4) of this title) as may be necessary to safeguard against unnecessary utilization of such care and services and to assure that payments are consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care and are sufficient to enlist enough providers so that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population in the geographic area.”

Notice those three key goals:

  • Quality of care
  • Sufficient to enlist enough providers
  • So that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population in the geographic area

Courts across the country have held that low Medicaid reimbursement rates which are set due to budgetary factors and fail to consider federally mandated factors, such as access to care or cost of care, are in violation of federal law.  Courts have further held that Medicaid reimbursement rates cannot be set based solely on budgetary reasons.

For example, U.S. District Court Judge Adalberto Jordan held in a 2014 Florida case that:

“I conclude that while reimbursement rates are not the only factor determining whether providers participate in Medicaid, they are by far the most important factor, and that a sufficient increase in reimbursement rates will lead to a substantial increase in provider participation and a corresponding increase to access to care.”

“Given the record, I conclude that plaintiffs have shown that achieving adequate provider enrollment in Medicaid – and for those providers to meaningfully open their practices to Medicaid children – requires compensation to be set at least at the Medicare level.

Judge Jordan is not alone.  Over the past two decades, similar cases have been filed in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Texas, and D.C. [Notice: Not in NC].  These lawsuits demanding higher reimbursement rates have largely succeeded.

There is also a pending Supreme Court case that I blogged about here.

Increasing the Medicaid reimbursement rates is vital for Medicaid recipients and access to care.  Low reimbursement rates cause physicians to cease accepting Medicaid patients.  Therefore, these lawsuits demanding increased reimbursement rates benefit both the Medicaid recipients and the physicians providing the services.

According to the above-mentioned study, in 2011, “96 percent of physicians accepted new patients in 2011, rates varied by payment source: 31 percent of physicians were unwilling to accept any new Medicaid patients; 17 percent would not accept new Medicare patients; and 18 percent of physicians would not accept new privately insured patients.”

It also found this obvious fact:  “Higher state Medicaid-to-Medicare fee ratios were correlated with greater acceptance of new Medicaid patients.”

Ever heard the phrase: “You get what you pay for.”?

A few months ago, my husband brought home a box of wine.  Yes, a box of wine.  Surely you have noticed those boxes of wine at Harris Teeter.  I tried a sip.  It was ok.  I’m no wine connoisseur.  But I woke the next morning with a terrible headache after only consuming a couple of glasses of wine.  I’m not sure whether the cheaper boxed wine has a higher level of tannins, or what, but I do not get headaches off of 2 glasses of wine when the wine bottle is, at least, $10.  You get what you pay for.

The same is true in service industries.  Want a cheap lawyer? You get what you pay for.  Want a cheap contractor? You get what you pay for.

So why do we expect physicians to provide the same quality of care in order to receive $10 versus $60?  Because physicians took the Hippocratic Oath?  Because physicians have an ethical duty to treat patients equally?

While it is correct that physicians take the Hippocratic Oath and have an ethical duty to their clients, it’s for these exact reasons that many doctors simply refuse to accept Medicaid.  It costs the doctor the same office rental, nurse salaries, and time devoted to patients to treat a person with Blue Cross Blue Shield as it does a person on Medicaid.  However, the compensation is vastly different.

Why?  Why the different rates if the cost of care is equal?

Budgetary reasons.

Unlike private insurance, Medicaid is paid with tax dollars.  Each year, the General Assembly determines our Medicaid budget.  Reducing Medicaid reimbursement rates, by even 1%, can affect the national Medicaid budget by billions of dollars.

But, remember, rates cannot be set for merely budgetary reasons…

Is a potential lawsuit looming in NC’s not so distant future???

NC Docs Face Retroactive Medicaid Rate Cut

This is a story from NC Health News by Rose Hoban…a follow up blog to come

In the 2014 state budget passed last August, state lawmakers inserted what could be considered a poison pill for Medicaid providers: a 3 percent pay cut that for specialists could be effective retroactively to January 2014.

Primary care providers such as pediatricians, internists and family doctors will see the same pay cut, effective back to Jan. 1, 2015.

But the cut is only now being implemented.

“All of us were optimistic that the cut wouldn’t happen,” said Karen Smith, a family doctor in Raeford who runs her own practice.

Smith said she and other physicians have been writing, calling and talking to legislators, working to convince them not to implement the cut.

But she and thousands of other primary care providers received notification late last week that on March 1 they would begin seeing the 3 percent cut.

And for specialists, the reduction will go back 14 months.

“It’s quite a hit,” said Elaine Ellis, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Medical Society.

Failed shared-savings plan behind the problem

The origin of the 3 percent cut goes back to the 2013 budget for Medicaid, the program that covers health care for low-income children, some of their parents, pregnant women and low-income seniors. In 2013, the federal government paid North Carolina 65.5 percent of every dollar billed for Medicaid-eligible care, while the state covered the other 34.5 percent (The rate, which changes annually, is 65.9 percent for 2015).
In 2013, the Medicaid budget had grown to close to $4 billion in state dollars, and lawmakers at the General Assembly were looking for ways to trim costs. So they devised a “shared-savings” program, in which Medicaid providers would take a 3 percent rate cut that would be collected by the state Department of Health and Human Services. If doctors and hospitals saved money by operating more efficiently, DHHS would share those savings back with the providers, effectively reducing the amount of the 3 percent cut.

But DHHS needed federal approval to initiate the program, which would have been complicated. The agency never submitted a plan to the federal government, so neither part of the program was initiated.

That created a problem for lawmakers, who had calculated the savings from the rate cut into their state budget. When lawmakers returned to Raleigh in 2014 to adjust the state’s biennial budget, they implemented the rate cut retroactively to Jan 1, 2014 for specialists. Primary care providers, such as Karen Smith, had their rate cut put off until the beginning of 2015.

Big bucks

Officials from the Medical Society have been gathering numbers from around the state and are finding that some specialty practices could owe tens of thousands of dollars that would need to be repaid to state coffers.

The need for retroactive payment is in part a logistical problem: The computerized Medicaid management information system, known as NCTracks, has not been able to process the cuts. NCTracks has had technical issues since it was rolled out in mid-2013; at that time, glitches in the system created months of delays and tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid services for providers.

“Requiring these [specialist] medical practices to pay back 3 percent of what the state has already paid them for the last 14 months would wreak havoc with the finances of these businesses – really, any business would struggle to recover from such a financial blow,” Robert Schaaf, a Raleigh radiologist and president of the Medical Society, wrote Monday in a press release.

And primary care doctors like Smith are also fretting over paying back 3 percent of what she earned from Medicaid for the past two months.

“Practices such as my own are functioning on an operating budget that’s month by month,” said Smith, who said that a great many of her patients are Medicaid recipients.

“We simply do not have that type of operating reserve to allow for that,” she said.

The cuts will be especially tough for rural providers, who have high numbers of Medicaid patients, said Greg Griggs from the N.C. Academy of Family Practitioners (The Academy of Family Practitioners is a North Carolina Health News sponsor).

“It’s one thing to make the cuts going forward, but to take money back, especially for that period of time, is pretty significant for people who’ve been willing to take care of our most needy citizens,” Griggs said.

“It’s pretty bad,” he said, “and its not like Medicaid pays extraordinarily well to begin with.”

Piling on

In addition to the state cut is a federal cut of 1 percent to Medicaid reimbursements for primary care providers that went into effect on Jan. 1.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, primary care providers like Smith got a bump in reimbursement last year, but that ran out with the new year. Smith said that legislators in other states found ways to keep paying that enhanced rate for primary care doctors.

“We were hoping our legislators would do the same,” she said.

Instead, Smith finds herself talking to her staff about possible reductions, and she’s hearing from providers in her area that they’re throwing in the towel.

“I already have colleagues who’ve left practice of medicine in this area,” she said. “My personal physician is no longer in this area. Another colleague who was a resident three years in front of me told me he cannot deal with the economics of practicing like this anymore.”

Smith acknowledged that North Carolina’s Medicaid program has a slightly higher reimbursement to physicians than surrounding states. But she said many of her patients are quite ill.

“We are in the stroke belt,” she said, referring to the high rate of strokes in eastern North Carolina. “When we look at how sick our patients are compared to other states, is it equivalent? Are we measuring apples to apples?

Argument analysis: Working out the broader implications of a Medicaid suit

This is a copy of an article written by William Baude on SCOTUSblog.

In the article, William analyzes the oral arguments for Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center, a very important Supreme Court case heard by the Justices January 20, 2015.  If you don’t recall the lawsuit, see my blog: “Low Medicaid Reimbursement Rates Violate the Supremacy Clause?!… The Supreme Court to Weigh In!

Here is the analysis:

The Supreme Court has heard a lot of preemption suits, but Tuesday’s arguments in Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center suggest that the Court has not yet agreed on what exactly the formal underpinnings of those suits are.

The case features a debate about the intersection of two lines of precedent. One line restricts the availability of a federal statutory cause of action unless Congress has deliberately included one. The other line makes a cause of action broadly available when the plaintiff seeks an injunction to enforce a constitutional provision. At issue in this case is whether suits to enforce the preemptive effect of a federal statute are more like constitutional injunctions or statutory suits.

Both lines of precedent were on full display at yesterday’s argument. Shortly after his argument started the state’s counsel, Carl Withroe, was pressed with questions about the many prior preemption cases the Court had heard. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg adverted to a list of fifty-seven cases attached to the Medicaid recipients’ brief that are alleged to fail under the state’s theory. Withroe made several different attempts to distinguish those cases, although he did not seem to fully satisfy the Court. Towards the end of Withroe’s argument, Justice Anthony Kennedy asked “Did I miss something? … I thought you were going to give us a principled way to say why this case is different from our other preemption cases.”

Deputy Solicitor General Ed Kneedler took the podium next, attempting to supply that principled basis. He argued that Spending Clause legislation, and Medicaid specifically, was different from the usual preemption case for reasons rooted in the history of equity practice. Traditional equitable remedies, he said, could vindicate a person’s “liberty,” “property,” or “business,” but Medicaid was none of those things because it was a spending program created by a cooperative agreement with the state. Once again, Justice Kennedy chimed in at the end of Kneedler’s time to question whether his theory really distinguished one of the Court’s prior cases, American Trucking Associations v. City of Los Angeles.

Representing the Medicaid recipients, attorney James Piotrowski also faced skepticism about the implications of his position, and seemed to embrace them more than to distinguish them. He openly conceded that his clients would not have a right to sue under the Court’s statutory cause of action cases or under Section 1983. But the Supremacy Clause suit, he stressed, would seek only the narrow remedy of an injunction.

Justice Samuel Alito asked Piotrowksi whether his argument implied that someone could challenge a state’s decision to legalize marijuana as preempted by federal drug laws. Yes, Piotrowksi agreed, so long as Article III standing was satisfied, there would indeed be a cause of action. (Though Justice Alito did not specifically mention a suit by a state, the question might have been inspired by the recent marijuana preemption lawsuit filed in the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction by two states — Oklahoma and Nebraska.)

And when Chief Justice John Roberts suggested to Piotrowski that his position would open “the courthouse door to everybody who says that federal law was not followed,” Piotrowski agreed: “Yes, your honor, that’s right. We open the courthouse doors.”

At the same time, Piotrowski also conceded that Congress could expressly preclude a preemption suit if it spoke clearly. The key, he argued, is that Congress’s decision not to create a statutory cause of action was not the same as a congressional decision to prohibit a cause of action that came from other background legal principles. Justice Kennedy did not ask Piotrowski any questions.

Lest this abbreviated summary make it seem like argument followed a clear path, I should say that there were also plenty of side points raised throughout. There were questions about how the state’s reimbursement rates related to its formula, a question from Justice Elena Kagan about why nobody from the federal Department of Health and Human Services had signed the federal government’s amicus brief, a response from Chief Justice Roberts about whether DHS was just trying to help the health-care sector “get a bigger chunk of the federal budget,” and a series of questions from Justice Stephen Breyer about the doctrine of “primary jurisdiction,” including a nostalgic reminiscence about the Civil Aeronautics Board “of blessed memory.” But the Justices also constantly reminded one another that the question was whether the suit could be brought, not whether it should prevail.

Four Justices have already answered that question in their dissent three years ago in Douglas v. Independent Living Center. Over the next few months, we will see if they have persuaded any of their colleagues to join them.

A New Year and We Will “Ring In” Even Lower PCS Reimbursement Rates: Time for Litigation?

Merry Christmas, everyone!!! And Happy New Year!!

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday! Personally, Christmas was wonderful for my family.  I actually took some days off.  And our 9-year-old girl received way too many presents.  Plus, I learned that we should be spending way less on her!! We bought her a new saddle, bridle and breast-strap for her horse, but, when asked what she received for Christmas, she tells everyone about the $2 marshmallow gun she received, not the saddle. Regardless, we were able to spend quality time together with my mom and dad and 2 sisters.  My husband Scott, however, got the flu and he has been in bed for the last few days…yuck! But he was healthy on Christmas.

We have been truly blessed this year, and I want to thank you all for reading my blog.

I received an email today from an owner of a home care agency that reminded me that, especially during the holidays, many people are struggling.  This home care agency owner, “we will call him Al,” informed me that he potentially will be closing his agency, which would put approximately 130 employees out of work. Al told me that his agency has been struggling over the past few years with the decrease in personal care services (PCS) reimbursement rate.

Al is not the only home care agency owner who has contacted me in the last few months bemoaning about the low PCS reimbursement rates.  The PCS reimbursement rates are set by legislature, most of the time in the budget bills.  For example, the General Assembly passed the budget this past year, which will decrease the PCS reimbursement rates by another 3% beginning January 1, 2015. (Happy New Years).

See below, which is from another blog post: “PCS Medicaid Reimbursement Rates Are TOO LOW to Maintain Adequate Quality of Care, in Violation of the Code of Federal Regulations!

“SECTION 12H.18.(b). During the 2013-2015 fiscal biennium, the Department of Health and Human Services shall withhold reduce by three percent (3%) of the payments … on or after January 1, 2014” (emphasis added).”

The PCS reimbursement rate became $13.88. Session Law 2014-100 was signed into law August 7, 2014; however, Session Law 2014-100 purports to be effective retroactively as of October 2013. (This brings into question these possible recoupments for services already rendered, which, in my opinion, would violate federal and state law, but such possible violations (or probable or currently occurring violations are a topic for another blog).

It is without question that the Medicaid reimbursement rate for PCS is too low. In NC, the PCS reimbursement rate is currently set at $13.88/hour (or $3.47/15 minutes). It is also without question that there is a direct correlation between reimbursement rates and quality of care.

Because Medicaid pays for approximately 67% of all nursing home residents and recipients of home health care in USA, the Medicaid reimbursement rates and methods are central to understanding the quality of care received by PCS services and the level of staffing criteria expected.

PCS for adults are not a required Medicaid service. As in, a state may opt to provide PCS services or not. As of 2012, 31 states/provinces provided PCS services for adults and 25 did not. Most notably, Florida, Virginia, and South Carolina did not provide PCS services for adults. See Kaiser Family Foundation website.

According to Kaiser Family Foundation, “For the personal care services state plan option, the average rate paid to provider agencies [across the nation] was $18.19 per hour in 2012, a slight increase from $17.91 per hour in 2011. In states where personal care services providers were paid directly by the state or where reimbursement rates were determined by the state, the average reimbursement rate was $16.31 per hour in 2012. Medicaid provider reimbursement rates are often set by state legislatures as part of the budget process.”

What can be done regarding these low PCS reimbursement rates in NC???

In order to change legislation, one of two avenues exist: (1) lobbying; or (2) litigation.

Over the past few years, while the PCS reimbursement rates have continued to decrease, the associations involved with home care organizations and long term care facilities (companies that provide PCS) have emphasized the lobbying aspect.  No litigation has been filed demanding a reasonable PCS reimbursement rate.

Obviously, the lobbying aspect has yielded less than desirable results.  Instead of increasing the PCS reimbursement rate, the General Assembly has continually decreased the rate.

When one line of attack does not work, you try another.

Maybe it is time for litigation.

Compelling Personal Care Workers to Pay Union Dues Violates Our Freedom of Speech: But I Still Have to Pay My HOA Dues!

I live in a community that requires homeowner association monthly dues.  We have a homeowner association (HOA).  More than once I have complained at the high cost of these monthly dues and the absurd endeavors on which our HOA spends my money.  For example, we had a beautiful, clay tennis court.  If you have ever played tennis on a clay court, you know how wonderful it is to play on clay.  Clay tennis courts are also expensive to build.  A few years ago, my HOA decided to turn the clay tennis courts into a gardening center.  In place of the tennis nets, they built 10-12 raised beds to which the homeowners could purchase rights to use.  Somehow, my HOA determined the clay tennis court would be better used as a place to hold raised beds instead of playing tennis.

Despite my intense disapproval of this decision, I was forced to continue to pay my HOA dues, and a part of my HOA dues was spent on the conversion from tennis court to garden center.

Not completely dissimilar, in many states, public sector workers are required to contribute to union dues, even if they disagree with the union’s actions.  In-home care workers are considered public sector workers in Illinois because they care for the disabled and elderly and accept Medicaid money.  Including Illinois, 19 states allow bargaining agreements for home care workers.

Last week the Supreme Court sent shockwaves to the 19 states that allow bargaining agreements with home care workers.  The Supreme Court held that Illinois cannot compel personal care workers to pay union dues.

You may be asking yourself, why is Knicole blogging about an Illinois lawsuit and union dues.  How in the world does this affect North Carolina health care providers who accept Medicare and Medicaid?

The narrow answer would be that the case has no effect whatsoever on NC health care providers.  Unlike Illinois, North Carolina does not allow public sector bargaining.  In fact, in NC, union contracts, or bargaining contracts for public sector employees are considered “illegal, unlawful, void and of no effect.”  N.C. Gen. Stat. 95-98.

A broader view, on the other hand, is to understand that increases or decreases in personal care wages, better or worse benefits provided to personal care workers, and the overall profit or loss of personal care workers across the country, is relevant to NC personal care workers, and I prefer this broader view.

In the Supreme Court case, Harris, et al v. Quinn, Justice Alito wrote that compelling public sector workers to compensate a third party to “speak” for them, even if the worker disagrees with the third party’s speech violates the First Amendment.

In the Supreme Court opinion, Justice Alito writes:

“If we accepted Illinois’ argument, we would approve an unprecedented violation of the bedrock principle that, except perhaps in the rarest of circumstances, no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support.”

Individual states determine labor laws related to government employees.  As previously stated, NC bans bargaining agreements.  Virginia does as well.

In states that do allow bargaining agreements, if workers did not want to participate in the bargaining unit, the worker would opt out of full dues and pay only the cost of grievance administration and collective bargaining.  Supposedly, this prevents the nonmembers, who benefit from the reward of collectively-bargained higher wages or better benefits, from reaping the benefits without paying for them.  The whole “free-ride” idea…

In Illinois, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a bargaining unit, argued that personal care workers should be compelled to contribute to it because personal care workers are public sector workers.

SEIU claims that it gets higher pay and better benefits for personal care workers.  Approximately 1 million of the 3 million personal care workers nationwide are members of SEIU or other similar organizations.

However, the Supreme Court disagrees.  According to the Harris decision, I shouldn’t have to pay for HOA dues if I disagree with the HOA’s actions (I’m kidding.  Sadly, I have no case to cease paying my HOA dues).

Proponents of unions are not happy with the results, but let’s play out a hypothetical…what if the Supreme Court held that public sector workers were required to pay union dues, even against their will….

Because, think about it…the government cannot prevent us from contributing to political candidates nor can the candidate force you to contribute to a political campaign.  Upholding the freedom of speech is not necessarily anti-union.  The Supreme Court did not rule “against” unions per se.  It ruled that a bargaining unit is “bargaining for” or “speaking for” its members.  And you cannot be forced to pay for speech with which you disagree.

Free speech allows all of us to individually decide which principles to support.  Allowing personal care workers to choose not to support certain ideologies is not an attack on collective bargaining.  Rather, it ensures that the free choices of personal care workers are represented by any union entity, rather than union leaders benefiting from coerced fees.

While the Harris decision does not apply to me and my HOA dues for many reasons, including the fact that I chose to live in the community knowing that the HOA existed, the Harris decision does have possible broad ramifications, especially as to in-home care workers and other public sector workers.  It may mean that the 1 million in-home care workers now compelled to contribute to unions may have standing to stop if they so choose.

Medicaid, Medicare, Nursing Facilities, and Death and Taxes: Our Uncertain Future for Our Aged Population

There are few “knowns” in life. In 1789, Benjamin franklin penned a correspondence to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, in which he wrote, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Certainly the phrase “death and taxes” had existed prior to Franklin’s 1789 usage, but considering how famous Franklin became in history for our country, many people attribute the phrase to Franklin.

Think about it. Nothing is certain, but death and taxes. It is a rather bleak view of the world. Why not “nothing is certain except happiness and sadness?” Or “nothing is certain but you being alive and dying?” Why do both “certain” items have to be bleak?

For purposes of this blog, I am using my own phrase:

“Nothing is certain except old age, unless you die early.”

For one day, we will all be old (unless we die early). And when we age, as much as we would love to ignore the fact, the fact is that most of us will be placed in an assisted living facility (ALF) or a nursing home of some sort.

But what will the world of ALFs look like 20…30…40 years from now? With the low Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates for personal care services (PCS), how many nursing homes will exist in the future?

Already, in Massachusetts, nursing homes are dropping like flies due to low reimbursement rates. What does this mean to the aged population?

In NC, our PCS reimbursement rate continues to be slashed. What will this mean for our aged population?

In the past few years, with approval from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has lowered the reimbursement rates for non-medical PCS provided both in the home and in a facility.

In October 2013, DHHS officials proposed to CMS a cut in the Medicaid PCS hourly rate by $2.40 per hour, down to $13.12 per hour, retroactive to July 1 (At the time, the PCS hourly rate was $15.52 and allowed up to 130 hours of care per month or, roughly, 4 hours a day).

Interestingly, DHHS has the PCS reimbursement rate for facilities and for home health care providers the same. Yet, facilities face much higher overhead, staffing costs, and building and equipment costs than does a home care provider. So why do both different types of providers receive the same reimbursement rate?

Prior to 2010, DHHS had two separate PCS rates, one for facilities and one for home health care providers. Obviously, the reimbursement rate in facilities was higher than the PCS rate for home health care providers to account for the additional overhead costs.

However, Disability Rights of NC warned DHHS that paying lower reimbursement rates for people living in the home versus a facility violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) agreed, and, in 2012, the General Assembly (GA) had to make a decision: (1) lower the reimbursement rate for PCS in facilities; (2) increase the reimbursement rates for PCS in the home; (3) or come up with some innovative way to not violate the ADA.

Feeling pinched, the GA passed legislation that made it more difficult for recipients to qualify for PCS and decreased the number of allowable hours of PCS to from 130 to 80 hours per month, although if a person suffered from dementia, the PCS provider could get an extra 50 hours/week.

Plus, starting January 1, 2014, the shared savings plan went into effect, which decreased reimbursement rates by 3% across the board.

What does all this mean? It points to a couple of things.

Nursing facilities are facing financial distress.

In Massachusetts nursing facilities have already begun to close down. As of May 19, 2014, within 5 months, 4 nursing homes have gone out of business. According to The Boston Globe, the 4 nursing homes closed because they were “unable to make ends meet with the money they get from Medicaid because reimbursement rates have not increased in nearly a decade, according to the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, the industry trade group. Scores more are on the edge of shutting down.”

Scores more are on the verge of shutting down? For those of you who do not recall Lincoln’s speech, “Four scores and seven years ago…,” a score equals 20. According to the Boston Globe scores are on the verge of shutting down??? 40? 60?

With our aged population growing by the day, what does the future look like for nursing homes and the aged population?

Nothing may be certain except death and taxes, but I think it is certain that you will grow old, unless you die early.

Personal Care Services: Will the Fear of the “F” Word (Medicaid Fraud) Cause PCS in the Home to Be Eradicated???

In my career, I call it the “F” word:

Fraud.

Its existence and fear of existence drives Medicare and Medicaid policies.

It is without question that Medicare and Medicaid fraud needs to be eliminated.  In fact, for true Medicare and Medicaid fraud, I propose harsher penalties.  Think about what the fraudulent provider is doing…taking health care dollars from the elderly and poor without providing services.  Medicare and Medicaid recipients receive less medically necessary services because of fraudulent providers.

Just recently, in Charlotte, on April 9, 2014, V.F. Brewton, of Shelby, N.C., was sentenced to 111 months in prison, three years of supervised release and ordered to pay $7,070,426 in restitution to Medicaid and $573,392 to IRS. On April 8, 2014, co-defendant, R. S. Cannon, of Charlotte, was sentenced to 102 months in prison, three years court supervised release and ordered to pay $2,541,306 in restitution.  See press release.  Ouch!

On November 21, 2013, in Miami, Fla., Roberto Marrero, who ran Trust Care, was sentenced 120 months in prison.  From approximately March 2007 through at least October 2010, Trust Care submitted more than $20 million in claims for home health services. Medicare paid Trust Care more than $15 million for these fraudulent claims. Marrero and his co-conspirators have also acknowledged their involvement in similar fraudulent schemes at several other Miami health care agencies with estimated total losses of approximately $50 million. See article.  Ouch!

However, there are never the stories in the newspapers and media about all the services actually rendered to Medicare and Medicaid recipients by upstanding providers who do not commit fraud, but, instead, work very hard every day to stay up-to-date on regulations and policies and who do not reap much profit for the services provided.  I guess that doesn’t make good journalism.

I recently attended the Association for Home and Hospice Care (AHHC) conference in RTP, NC.  I met wonderful and non-fraudulent providers.  Each provider I met was passionate and compassionate about their job.  The only time money was brought up was to discuss the low reimbursement rates and the low profit margin for these providers.

In fact, one of the speakers even opined that, because of the alleged prevalence of fraud in home health care, the federal and state governments will continue to cut reimbursement rates for home health and hospice until over 50% of the agencies operate at a loss by 2017.  That is a dismal thought!  What happened to our right to pursue a career without intervention?

One provider informed me that, upon his or her information and belief, there is a chance that PCS, which is an optional program under Medicaid, may be wiped out in the near future by the General Assembly (PCS for home health and assisted living facilities, not the recipients covered by the Waiver).

What are personal care services (PCS)?

In the world of Medicaid and Medicare, there are a number of different types of PCS.  No, actually, I think it is more apropos to say there are a number of different PCS recipients in the world of Medicaid and Medicare.

First, the definition/eligibility requirements:

Personal Care Services (PCS) are available to individuals who have a medical condition, disability, or cognitive impairment and demonstrate unmet needs for, at a minimum three of the five qualifying activities of daily living (ADLs) with limited hands-on assistance; two ADLs, one of which requires extensive assistance; or two ADLs, one of which requires assistance at the full dependence level. The five qualifying ADLs are eating, dressing, bathing, toileting, and mobility.  See DMA website.

PCS are provided to developmentally disabled people under the 1915 b/c Waivers, people who reside in nursing homes and long-term assisted living facilities, and people who qualify to receive PCS in their homes.  For purposes of this blog, I am writing about the latter three types of recipients.  All 50 states allow PCS for qualified individuals, but the qualifications differ among the states.

In this day and age, the “F” word drives Medicaid and Medicare policies.  Without question Medicaid fraud exists.  Whether Medicaid fraud is as prevalent as some may believe, I am not sure.  I have certainly witnessed honest providers accused of Medicaid fraud.

And home health care providers are viewed by some, generally, as the providers who can most easily commit Medicaid fraud (with which I do not agree, but must concede that home health care is more difficult to monitor).  For example, a home health care provider goes to a person’s home and provides services.  Who would know whether the home health care provider was billing for services on days he or she did not go to the recipient’s house? Not the recipient, because the recipient has no idea for what dates the provider is billing.  Unlike an assisted living facility or nursing home that is easier to monitor and would have the documentation to show that the recipient actually lived in the facility.

Because of the alleged prevalence of fraud in home health care, apparently, (and with no independent verification on my part) some in North Carolina are questioning whether we should continue to reimburse PCS with Medicaid dollars, particularly as to home health.  But if we stopped reimbursing for PCS in the homes, what would be the alternative?  How would it affect North Carolinians? Would eliminating PCS save tax dollar money? Stop fraud?

When we evaluate the effects of whether to continue to reimburse for PCS with Medicaid dollars, we aren’t only talking about those served by PCS, but also the companies and all employees providing the home health.  In 2012 in NC, approximately 40,000 were employed in home health.

Why is home health care important (or is it?)? Should we allow the “F” word to erase PCS  in home health?

What is the alternative to home health?  Answer: (1) Assisted living facilities?  (2) Nursing homes? (3) A dedicated, family caregiver?  (4) Nothing?

While there are, I am sure, many reasons that PCS in home health care is vital to our community, for the purposes of this blog, I am going to concentrate on cost savings to the taxpayers.  Home health costs us (taxpayers) less money than other alternatives to home health.

Also, understand please that I am not advocating that everyone should receive home health instead of entering nursing homes or assisted living facilities.  Quite the contrary, as both nursing homes and assisted living facilities are essential to NC.  I am merely pointing out that all the services (home health, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities) are important.

What is the difference between assisted living and nursing homes?

An assisted living community provides communal living, usually with social activities, a cafeteria, laundry service, etc.  I always think of my grandma at Glenaire in Cary, NC.  She plays bridge, attends a book club, and even takes a computer course!  She actually joined Facebook a couple of years ago!

A nursing home, on the other hand, provides 24-hour supervision by a licensed or registered nursing staff.  Generally, the folks eligible to be admitted into an assisted living facility will be eligible to receive PCS (see the above definition/eligibility requirements).  So, logically, the clientele in an assisted living facility receiving PCS could, in some cases, also be eligible to receive PCS in their home.  Obviously a number of factors come into play to determine whether a person goes into an assisted living facility versus staying at home and receiving home health care: eligibility, family issues, money, condition of your home, money, desire for independence, money, health issues, and money.

Because of the level of supervision and skill required in a nursing home, a nursing home will be much more expensive than an assisted living facility.  Insomuch as the assisted living facility will be less expensive than a nursing home, home health care, because you are paying for your own room and board, will be cheaper than both.

The average national cost for an assisted living facility in 2012 was $3,550/month.  That’s $42,600/year.  The average cost for an assisted living facility in 2012 in NC was $2900/month.

The average cost for a nursing home in NC for a semi-private room is $73,913 and $82,125 for a private room.  That’s $225/day for a private room.  For that price, you could get a room at a Ritz Carlton! (albeit not in a touristy area).

You think nursing homes are expensive in NC? Don’t move to NY!! In NY, for a semi-private room it costs $124,100/year and $130,670/year for a private room ($358/day!). Florida is a bit more expensive that NC too.  In Florida, on average, a semi-private room in a nursing home costs $83,950 and a private room is approximately $91,615.

On the flip side, the average cost for a homemaker is $38,896.  A home health aide costs, on average, $40,040.

If, in fact, NC ceases to reimburse PCS in home health, many of the people residing in their homes and relying on Medicaid-covered PCS will be forced to leave their homes for, in some case, more expensive alternatives.

Though the odd contrast may not be easily seen, there is an argument that erasing PCS in the home may actually cost the tax payers more.  Not to mention that erasing PCS in home health would drive agencies bankrupt and staff jobless.

Remember, I have no verification that our General Assembly would or would not eradicate PCS in the home environment.  It was mere speculation in a conversation.  But the conversation got me thinking about the delicate balance of Medicaid services in NC.  And how one abrupt and drastic change could change our health care system and capitalist ideas so quickly.

And, arguably, all because of the speculative “F” word.  What is that political phrase we heard so much in the last elections? Oh, yes, maybe we should use a scalpel, not an ax?

Possible Hospital RAC Audits in 2014: Pow! Right in the Kisser!

Muhammad Ali said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Whew…it’s a new year.  While I thoroughly enjoyed 2013, I am excited and hopeful for 2014.  Work is so busy that it seems like I’ve barely had time to breathe this January….that’s a good thing, right?  Hey, anyone see me on TV? 🙂  Check out WRAL.

Hospitals, on the other hand, may be anxious and doubtful about their 2014s.  Hospitals have good reason to wonder about the future.  Our NC General Assembly was fairly harsh on hospitals in the last session, passing numerous session laws that directly or indirectly negatively affect hospitals.

But to be fair, the 2013 NC General Assembly didn’t ONLY affect hospitals…see Stephen Kobert’s report on North Carolina legislature.  Kobert’s graphic simulation is hilarious!

Senate Bill 4 entitled “No NC Exchange/No Medicaid Expansion,” was one of the first bills out of the gate.  While I am not necessary an advocate for expanding Medicaid (see my blog “Medicaid Expansion: Bad for the Poor“), I understand that Medicaid expansion would greatly benefit the hospitals, as well as Medicaid recipients. 

Here is an interesting scenario:

Bradford Regional Medical Center and Olean General Hospital sit only 20 miles apart on opposite sides of the Pennsylvania/New York border. (See “Hospitals Facing Big Divide In Pro- and Anti- ACA States” by Beth Kutscher).  New York expanded Medicaid and Pennsylvania did not.  New York also opted to set up its own health exchange, which is working.  Pennsylvania is floundering with healthcare.gov.  Olean projects billions in lost revenue due to non-Medicaid expansion.  I bet Olean wishes it could move the border of New York!  Or its hospital!

House Bill 998 capped the sales tax refund that non-profit organizations, which was largely aimed at non-profit hospitals. 

House Bill 834 and Senate Bill 473 require certain hospitals and health care facilities to publicize the costs many health care procedures.  So when you need a CAT scan, you can see what UNC’s costs are for a CAT scan versus WakeMed’s and make an individual choice as to which hospital to present yourself.  Sounds like a fair and reasonable request, but imagine the administrative cost for the hospitals to abide by the requirements.

Furthermore, the budget reduced hospital outpatient payments from 80% to 70% of costs. The budget further instituted a 3% Medicaid reimbursement “withhold” that the states calls a “shared savings plan.” The budget changed the hospital provider assessment state retention formula.  Now the state can collect 25.9% of total assessment, instead of the cap of $43 million.

Not just the NC General Assembly affects hospitals.  On the federal level, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services CMS) also took a stab.  A new CMS rule converts the current Medicare 5-level, intensity-based payment system for clinic visits to one, single outpatient visit code.  Prior to this change, a hospital could be reimbursed for a Medicare patient visit anywhere from $56.77 for a level 1 new patient to $175.79 for a level 5 new patient.  Now all Medicare clinic visits are reimbursed at $88.31.  You can see that some hospitals would not like this change.

But, as Ali said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the nose.”

The possible punch to NC Hospitals?

Medicaid RAC audits…

For two years, we have been required to sign up Medicaid recovery audit contractors (RACs).  But we have been slow.  HMS, the RAC with contracts in 28 states, including North Carolina says that it has been slow getting started with Medicaid RACs because the state-by-state data have been scant and the procedural hurdles were difficult.  But, according to “Report on Medicare Compliance,” Medicaid RAC audits will be in full swing for hospitals this year.

According to the same article, in North Carolina, two targets are tonsillectomies/adenoidectomies and ambulance services.  Also, at issue in NC, are the DRGs and the medical necessity of inpatient admissions vs. outpatient services.  While RACs are only to audit going back 3 years, the RACs can get permission to go back 5 years.

Medicaid RACs collect contingency fees anywhere between 9.5% to 12.5%, so they have the incentive to find problems. 

HMS boasts that in two mid-Atlantic states, the Medicaid RAC recovered over $12.5 million through credit balance audits of inpatient facilities.

Pow!! Right in the kisser!