Category Archives: Medical Necessity
DHHS has ousted and taken over Cardinal Innovations!
And may I just say – Finally! Thank you, Sec. Cohen.
Cardinal is/was the largest of seven managed care organizations (MCOs) that was given the task to manage Medicaid funds for behavioral health care recipients. These are Medicaid recipients suffering from developmental disabilities, mental health issues, and substance abuse; these are our population’s most needy. These MCOs are given a firehose of Medicaid money; i.e., tax dollars, and were entrusted by the State of North Carolina, each individual taxpayer, Medicaid recipients, and the recipients’ families to maintain an adequate network of health care providers and authorize medically necessary behavioral health care services. Cardinal’s budget was just over $682 million in 2016. Instead, I have witnessed, as a Medicaid and Medicare regulatory compliance litigator, and have legally defended hundreds of health care providers who were unlawfully terminated from the MCOs’ catchment areas, refused a contract with the MCOs, accused of owing overpayments to the MCOs for services that were appropriately rendered. To the point that the provider catchment areas are woefully underrepresented (especially in Minority-owned companies), recipients are not receiving medically necessary services, and the MCOs are denying medically necessary services. The MCOs do so under the guise of their police power. For years, I have been blogging that this police power is overzealous, unsupervised, unchecked, and in violation of legal authority. I have blogged that the MCOs act as the judge, jury, and executioner. I have also stated that the actions of the MCOs are financially driven. Because when providers are terminated and services are not rendered, money is not spent, at least, on the Medicaid recipients’ services.
But, apparently, the money is spent on executives. This past May, State Auditor Beth Wood wrote a scathing performance audit regarding Cardinal’s lavish spending on CEO pay as well as on expensive Christmas parties and board retreats, charter flights for executives and “questionable” credit card purchases, including alcohol. All of that, her report said, threatened to “erode public trust.” Cardinal’s former CEO Richard Topping made more than $635,000 in salary this year. On Monday (November 21, 2017), DHHS escorted Topping and three other executives out the door. But they did not walk away empty handed. Topping walked away with a $1.7 million severance while three associates left with packages as high as $740,000 – of taxpayer money!
This overspending on salaries and administration is not new. Cardinal has been excessively spending on itself since inception. This has been a long term concern, and I congratulate Sec. Cohen for having the “cojones” to do something about it. (I know. Bad joke. I apologize for the French/Spanish).
In 2011, Cardinal spent millions of dollars constructing its administrative facility.
According to Edifice, the company that built Cardinal Innovations’ grand headquarters, starting in 2011, Cardinal’s building is described as:
“[T[his new three-story, 79,000-square-foot facility is divided into two separate structures joined by a connecting bridge. The 69,000-square-foot building houses the regional headquarters and includes Class A office space with conference rooms on each floor and a fully equipped corporate board room. This building also houses a consumer gallery and a staff cafe offering an outdoor dining area on a cantilevered balcony overlooking a landscaped ravine. The 10,000-square-foot connecting building houses a corporate training center. Computer access flooring is installed throughout the facility and is supported by a large server room to maintain redundancy of information flow.” How much did that cost the Medicaid recipients in Cardinal’s catchment area? Seem appropriate for an agent of the government spending tax money for luxurious office space? Shoot, my legal office is not even that nice. And I don’t get funded by tax dollars!
In 2015, I wrote:
On July 1, 2014, Cardinal Innovations, one of NC’s managed care organizations (MCOs) granted its former CEO, Ms. Pam Shipman, a 53% salary increase, raising her salary to $400,000/year. In addition to the raise, Cardinal issued Ms. Shipman a $65,000 bonus based on 2013-2014 performance.
Then in July 2015, according to the article in the Charlotte Observer, Cardinals paid Ms. Shipman an additional $424,975, as severance. Within one year, Ms. Shipman was paid by Cardinal a whopping $889,975. Almost one million dollars!!!!
Now, finally, DHHS says Cardinal Innovations “acted unlawfully” in giving its ousted CEO $1.7 million in severance, and DHHS took over the Charlotte-based agency. It was a complete oust. One journalist quoted Cardinal as saying, “DHHS officials arrived at Cardinal “unexpectedly and informed the executive leadership team that the department is assuming control of Cardinal’s governance.”” Unexpected they say? Cardinal conducted unexpected audits all the time on their providers. But, the shoe hurts when it’s on the other foot.
The MCOs are charged with the HUGE fiscal and moral responsibility, on behalf of the taxpayers, to manage North Carolina and federal tax dollars and authorize medically necessary behavioral health care services for Medicaid recipients, our population’s most needy. The MCOs in NC are as follows:
- Vaya Health
- Partners Behavioral Health Management
- Cardinal Innovations (formerly)
- Trillium Health Resources
- Alliance Behavioral Health Care
- Sandhills Center
The 1915 (b)(c) Waiver Program was initially implemented at one pilot site in 2005 and evaluated for several years. Two expansion sites were then added in 2012. The State declared it an immediate success and requested and received the authority from CMS to implement the MCO project statewide. Full statewide implementation is expected by July 1, 2013. The MCO project was intended to save money in the Medicaid program. The thought was that if these MCO entities were prepaid on a capitated basis that the MCOs would have the incentive to be fiscally responsible, provide the medically necessary services to those in need, and reduce the dollars spent on prisons and hospitals for mentally ill.
Sadly, as we have seen, fire hoses of tax dollars catalyze greed.
Presumably, in the goal of financial wealth, Cardinal Innovations, and, maybe, expectantly the other MCOs, have sacrificed quality providers being in network and medically necessary services for Medicaid recipients, Cardinal has terminated provider contracts. And for what? Luxurious office space, high salaries, private jets, and a fat savings account.
I remember a former client from over 5 years ago, who owned and ran multiple residential facilities for at-risk, teen-age boys with violent tendencies and who suffered severe mental illness. Without cause, Alliance terminated the client’s Medicaid contract. There were no alternatives for the residents except for the street. We were able to secure a preliminary injunction preventing the termination. But for every one of those stories, there are providers who did not have the money to fight the terminations
Are there legal recourses for health care providers who suffered from Cardinal’s actions?
The million dollar question.
In light of the State Auditor’s report and DHHS’ actions and public comments that it was usurping Cardinal’s leadership based on “recent unlawful actions, including serious financial mismanagement by the leadership and Board of Directors at Cardinal Innovations,” I believe that the arrows point to yes, with a glaring caveat. It would be a massive and costly undertaking. David and Goliath does not even begin to express the undertaking. At one point, someone told me that Cardinal had $271 million in its bank account. I have no way to corroborate this, but I would not be surprised. In the past, Cardinal has hired private, steeply-priced attorney regardless that its funds are tax dollars. Granted, now DHHS may run things differently, but without question, any legal course of action against any MCO would be epically expensive.
Putting aside the money issue, potential claims could include (Disclaimer: this list is nonexhaustive and based on a cursory investigation for the purpose of my blog. Furthermore, research has not been conducted on possible bars to claims, such as immunity and/or exhaustion of administrative remedies.):
- Breach of fiduciary duty. Provider would need to demonstrate that a duty existed between providers and MCO (contractual or otherwise), that said MCO breached such duty, and that damages exist. Damages can include actual loss and if intent is proven, punitive damages may be sought.
- Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices. Providers would have to prove three elements: (1) an unfair or deceptive act or practice; (2) in or affecting commerce; (3) which proximately caused the injury to the claimant. A court will first determine if the act or practice was “in or affecting commerce” before determining if the act or practice was unfair or deceptive. Damages allowed are actual damages, plus treble damages (three times the actual damages).
- Negligence. Providers would have to show (1) duty; (2) breach; (3) cause in fact; (4) proximate cause; and (5) damages. Actual damages are allowed for a negligence claim.
- Breach of Contract. The providers would have to demonstrate that there was a valid contract; that the providers performed as specified by the contract; that the said MCO failed to perform as specified by the contract; and that the providers suffered an economic loss as a result of the defendant’s breach of contract. Actual damages are recoverable in a breach of action claim.
- Declaratory Judgment. This would be a request to the Court to make a legal finding that the MCO failed to follow certain Medicaid procedures and regulations.
- Violation of Article I, NC Constitution (legal and contractual right to receive payments for reimbursement claims due and payable under the Medicaid regulations.
To name a few…
Is this the end of the managed care organizations (MCOs)?
If the Senate’s proposed committee substitute (PCS) to House Bill 403 (HB 403) passes the answer is yes. The Senate’s PCS to House Bill 403 was just favorably reported out of the Senate Health Care Committee on June 15, 2017. The next step for the bill to advance will be approval by the Senate Rules Committee. Click here to watch its progress.
As my readers are well aware, I am not a proponent for the MCOs. I think the MCOs are run by overpaid executives, who pay themselves too high of bonuses, hire charter flights, throw fancy holiday parties, and send themselves and their families on expensive retreats – to the detriment of Medicaid recipients’ services and Medicaid providers’ reimbursement rates. See blog. And blog.
Over the last couple days, my email has been inundated by people abhorred with HB 403 – urging the Senators to retain the original HB 403, instead of the PCS version. As with all legislation, there are good and bad components. I went back and re-read these emails, and I realized multiple authors sat on an MCO Board. Of course MCO Board members will be against HB 403! Instead of hopping up and down “for” or “against” HB 403, I propose a (somewhat) objective review of the proposed legislation in this blog.
While I do not agree with everything found in HB 403, I certainly believe it is a step in the right direction. The MCOs have not been successful. Medically necessary behavioral health care services have been reduced or terminated, quality health care providers have been terminated from catchment areas, and our tax dollars have been misused.
However, I do have concern about how quickly the MCOs would be dissolved and the new PHPs would be put into effect. There is no real transition period, which could provide safety nets to ensure continuity of services. We all remember when NCTracks was implemented in 2013 and MMIS was removed on the same day. There was no overlap – and the results were catastrophic.
The following bullet points are the main issues found in HB 403, as currently written.
- Effective date – MCOs dissolve immediately (This could be dangerous if not done properly)
Past legislation enacted a transition time to dissolve the MCOs. Session Law 2015-245, as amended by Session Law 2016-121, provided that the MCOs would be dissolved in four years, allowing the State to implement a new system slowly instead of yanking the tablecloth from the table with hopes of the plates, glasses, and silverware not tumbling to the ground.
According to HB 403, “on the date when Medicaid capitated contracts with Prepaid Health Plans (PHPs) begin, as required by S.L. 2015-245, all of the following shall occur:…(2) The LME/MCOs shall be dissolved.”
Session Law 2015-245 states the following timeline: “LME/MCOs shall continue to manage the behavioral health services currently covered for their enrollees under all existing waivers, including the 1915(b) and (c) waivers, for four years after the date capitated PHP contracts begin. During this four-year period, the Division of Health Benefits shall continue to negotiate actuarially sound capitation rates directly
with the LME/MCOs in the same manner as currently utilized.”
HB 403 revises Session Law 2015-245’s timeline by the following: “
LME/MCOs shall continue to manage the behavioral health services currently covered for their enrollees under all existing waivers, including the 1915(b) and (c) waivers, for four years after the date capitated PHP contracts begin. During this four-year period, the Division of Health Benefits shall continue to negotiate actuarially sound capitation rates directly with the LME/MCOs in the same manner as currently utilized.”
Instead of a 4-year transition period, the day the PHP contracts are effective, the MCOs no longer exist. Poof!! Maybe Edward Bulwer-Lytton was right when he stated, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
Again, I am not opposed to dissolving the MCOs for behavioral health care; I just want whatever transition to be reasonable and safe for Medicaid recipients and providers.
With the MCOs erased from existence, what system will be put in place? According to HB 403, PHPs shall manage all behavioral health care now managed by MCOs and all the remaining assets (i.e., all those millions sitting in the savings accounts of the MCOs) will be transferred to DHHS in order to fund the contracts with the PHPs and any liabilities of the MCOs. (And what prevents or does not prevent an MCO simply saying, “Well, now we will act as a PHP?”).
What is a PHP? HB 403 defines PHPs as an entity, which may be a commercial plan or provider-led entity with a PHP license from the Department of Insurance and will operate a capitated contract for the delivery of services. “Services covered by PHP:
- Physical health services
- Prescription drugs
- Long-term care services
- Behavioral health services
The capitated contracts shall not cover:
Behavioral health Dentist services
- The fabrication of eyeglasses…”
It would appear that dentists will also be managed by PHPs. As currently written, HB 403 also sets no less than three and no more than five contracts between DHHS and the PHPs should be implemented.
Don’t we need a Waiver from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)?
Yes. We need a Waiver. 42 CFR 410.10(e) states that “[t]he Medicaid agency may not delegate, to other than its own officials, the authority to supervise the plan or to develop or issue policies, rules, and regulations on program matters.” In order to “Waive” this clause, we must get permission from CMS. We had to get permission from CMS when we created the MCO model. The same is true for a new PHP model.
Technically, HB 403 is mandating DHHS to implement a PHP model before we have permission from the federal government. HB 403 does instruct DHHS to submit a demonstration waiver application. Still, there is always concern and hesitancy surrounding implementation of a Medicaid program without the blessing of CMS.
- The provider network (This is awesome)
HB 403 requires that all contracts between PHPs and DHHS have a clause that requires PHPs to not exclude providers from their networks except for failure to meet objective quality standards or refusal to accept network rates.
- PHPs use of money (Also good)
Clearly, the General Assembly drafted HB 403 out of anger toward the MCOs. HB 403 implements more supervision over the new entities. It also disallows use of money on alcohol, first-class airfare, charter flights, holiday parties or similar social gatherings, and retreats, which, we all know these are precisely the activities that State Auditor Beth Wood found occurring, at least, at Cardinal. See Audit Report.
HB 403 also mandates that the Office of State Human Resources revise and update the job descriptions for the area directors and set limitations on salaries. No more “$1.2 million in CEO salaries paid without proper authorization.”
- Provider contracts with the PHPs (No choice is never good)
It appears that HB 403 will not allow providers to choose which PHP to join. DHHS is to create the regions for the PHPs and every county must be assigned to a PHP. Depending on how these PHPs are created, we could be looking at a similar situation that we have now with the MCOs. If the State is going to force you to contract with a PHP to provide Medicaid services, I would want the ability to choose the PHP.
In conclusion, HB 403 will re-shape our entire Medicaid program, if passed. It will abolish the MCO system, apply to almost all Medicaid services (both physical and mental), open the provider network, limit spending on inappropriate items, and assign counties to a PHP.
Boy, what I would give to be a fly on the wall in all the MCO’s boardrooms (during the closed sessions).
What if, right before your wedding day, you discover a secret about your betrothed that changes the very fabric of your relationship. For example, you find out your spouse-to-be is actually gay or a heroin addict. Not that there is anything bad about being gay or a heroin addict, but these are important facts to know and accept [or reject] about your future mate prior to the ringing of the wedding bells. The same is true with two companies that are merging to become one. The merged entity will be liable for any secrets either company is keeping. In this hypothetical, Eastpointe just found out that Cardinal has been cheating – and the wedding is set for July 1!
Cardinal Innovations and Eastpointe, two of our managed care organizations (MCO) charged with managing Medicaid behavioral health care funds plan to merge, effective July 1, 2017. Together the monstrous entity would manage Medicaid behavioral funds for 32 counties.
Last week the State Auditor published a scathing Performance Audit on Cardinal. State Auditor Beth Wood found more than $400,000 in “unreasonable” expenses, including corporate retreats at a luxury hotel in Charleston, S.C.; chartering planes to fly to Greenville, Rocky Mount and Smithfield; providing monthly detailing service for the CEO’s car; and purchasing alcohol, private and first-class airline tickets and other items with company credit cards.
Cardinal’s most significant funding is provided by Medicaid. Funding from Medicaid totaled $567 million and $587 million for state fiscal years 2015 and 2016, respectively. In other words, the State Auditor found that Cardinal is using our tax dollars – public money obtained by you and me – for entertainment, while concurrently, denying behavioral health care services and terminating providers from its catchment area. Over 30% of my salary goes to taxes. I do not accept Cardinal mismanaging my hard earned money – or anyone else’s. It is unacceptable!
“The unreasonable spending on board retreats, meetings, Christmas parties and travel goes against legislative intent for Cardinal’s operations, potentially resulting in the erosion of public trust,” the audit states.
Eastpointe, however, is not squeaky clean.
A June 2015 Performance Audit by the State Auditor found that its former chief financial officer Bob Canupp was alleged to have received kickbacks worth a combined $547,595. It was also alleged that he spent $143,041 on three agency vehicles without a documented business purpose. Canupp, chief executive Ken Jones and other employees also were determined to have used Eastpointe credit cards to make $157,565 in “questionable purchases.” There has not been an audit, thus far, on Eastpointe’s management of public funds. One can only hope that the results of the Cardinal audit spurs on Beth Wood to metaphorically lift the skirts of all the MCOs.
Given the recent audit on Cardinal, I would like to think that Eastpointe is hesitant to merge with such an entity. If a provider had mismanaged Medicaid funds like the State Auditor found that Cardinal did, without question, the authorities would be investigating the provider for Medicaid fraud, waste, and abuse. Will Eastpointe continue with the merger despite the potential liability that may arise from Cardinal’s mismanagement of funds? Remember, according to our State Auditor, “Cardinal could be required to reimburse the State for any payroll expenditures that are later disallowed because they were unauthorized.” – Post-payment review!!
Essentially, this is a question of contract.
We learned about the potential merger of Cardinal and Eastpointe back in January 2017, when Sarah Stroud, Eastpointe’s chief executive, announced in a statement that the agency plans to negotiate a binding agreement within weeks. The question is – how binding is binding?
Every contract is breakable, but there will be a penalty involved in breaching the contract, usually monetary. So – fantastic – if Eastpointe does back out of the merger, maybe our tax dollars that are earmarked for behavioral health care services for Medicaid recipients can pay the penalty for breaching the contract.
Another extremely troubling finding in Cardinal’s State Audit Report is that Cardinal is sitting on over $70 million in its savings account. The audit states that “[b]ased on Cardinal’s accumulated savings, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) should consider whether Cardinal is overcompensated. For FY 2015 and 2016, Cardinal accumulated approximately $30 million and $40 million, respectively, in Medicaid savings. According to the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS), Cardinal can use the Medicaid savings as they see fit.”
As Cardinal sees fit??!!?! These are our tax dollars. Cardinal is not Blue Cross Blue Shield. Cardinal is not a private company. Who in the world thought it a good idea to allow any MCO to use saved money (money not spent on behavioral health care services for Medicaid recipients) to use as it sees fit. It is unconscionable!
Because of my blog, I receive emails almost daily from mothers and fathers of developmentally disabled or mentally handicapped children complaining about Cardinal’s denials or reductions in services. I am also told that there are not enough providers within the catchment area. One mother’s child was approved to receive 16 hours of service, but received zero services because there was no available provider. Another family was told by an MCO that the family’s limit on the amount of services was drastically lower than the actual limit. Families contact me about reduced services when the recipient’s condition has not changed. Providers contact me about MCO recoupments and low reimbursement rates.
Cardinal, and all the MCOs, should be required to use our tax dollars to ensure that enough providers are within the catchment areas to provide the medically necessary services. Increase the reimbursement rates. Increase necessary services.
According to the report, “Cardinal paid about $1.9 million in FY 2015 employee bonuses and $2.4 million in FY 2016 employee bonuses. The average bonus per employee was about $3,000 in FY 2015, and $4,000 in FY 2016. The bonuses were coded to Cardinal’s administrative portion of Medicaid funding source in both years.” Cardinal employs approximately 635 employees.
Good to know that Cardinal is thriving. Employees are overpaid and receive hefty bonuses. Executives are buying alcohol, private and first-class airline tickets and other items with company credit cards. It hosts lavish Christmas parties and retreats. It sits on a $70 million savings account. While I receive reports from families and providers that Medicaid recipients are not receiving medically necessary services, that there are not enough providers within the catchment area to render the approved services, that the reimbursement rates for the services are too low to attract quality providers, that more expensive services are denied for incorrect reasons, and that all the MCOs are recouping money from providers that should not be recouped.
If I were Eastpointe, I would run, regardless the cost.
Under the Trump Administration, some Republican governors may look to move their Medicaid programs in a more conservative direction. In his latest column for Axios, Drew Altman discusses the arguments about Medicaid “work requirements” and why few people are likely to be affected by them in practice.
When it comes to the managed care organizations (MCOs) in NC, something smells rancid, like pre-minced garlic. When I first met my husband, Scott, I cooked with pre-minced garlic that comes in a jar. I figured it was easier than buying fresh garlic and dicing it myself. Scott bought fresh garlic and diced it. Then he asked me to smell the fresh garlic versus the pre-minced garlic. There was no contest. Next to the fresh garlic, the pre-minced garlic smelled rancid. That is the same odor I smell when I read information about the MCOs – pre-minced garlic in a jar.
In NC, MCOs are charged with managing Medicaid funds for behavioral health care, developmentally disabled, and substance abuse services. When the MCOs were initially created, we had 13. These are geographically situated, so providers and recipients have no choice with which MCO to interact. If you live in Sandhills’ catchment area, then you must go through Sandhills. If you provide services in Cardinal’s catchment area, then you must contract with Cardinal – even though you already have a provider participation agreement with the State of NC to provide Medicaid services in the State of NC.
Over the years, there has been consolidation, and now we have 7 MCOs.
From left to right: Smoky Mountain (Duke blue); Partners Behavioral Health (Wake Forest gold); Cardinal Innovations Healthcare (ECU purple); Sandhills (UNCC green); Alliance Behavioral Healthcare (mint green); Eastpointe (Gap Khaki); and Trillium (highlighter yellow/green).
Recently, Cardinal (ECU purple) and Eastpointe (Gap khaki) announced they will consolidate, pending authorization from the Secretary of DHHS. The 20-county Cardinal will morph into a 32-county, MCO giant.
Here is the source of the rancid, pre-minced, garlic smell (in my opinion):
One – MCOs are not private entities. MCOs are prepaid with our tax dollars. Therefore, unlike Blue Cross Blue Shield, the MCOs must answer to NC taxpayers. The MCOs owe a duty of financial responsibility to taxpayers, just like the state government, cities, and towns.
Two – Cardinal CEO, Richard Topping, is paid $635,000, plus he has a 0 to 30 percent bonus potential which could be roughly another $250,000, plus he has some sort of annuity or long-term package of $412,000 (with our tax dollars).
Three – Cardinal is selling or has sold the 26 properties it owns or owned (with our tax dollars) to lease office space in the NASCAR Plaza office tower in uptown Charlotte for $300 to $400 per square foot plus employee parking (with our tax dollars).
Four – Cardinal charges 8% of public funds for its administrative costs. (Does that include Topping’s salary and bonuses?) How many employees are salaried by Cardinal? (with our tax dollars).
Five – The MCOs are prepaid. Once the MCOs receive the funds, the funds are public funds and subject to fiscal scrutiny. However, the MCOs keep whatever funds that it has at the end of the fiscal year. In other words, the MCOs pocket any money that was NOT used to reimburse a provider for a service rendered to a Medicaid recipient. Cardinal – alone – handles around $2.8 billion in Medicaid funding per year for behavioral health services. The financial incentive for MCOs? Terminate providers and reduce/deny services.
Six – MCOs are terminating providers and limiting access to care. In my law practice, I am constantly defending behavioral health care providers that are terminated from an MCO catchment area without cause or with erroneous cause. For example, an agency was terminated from their MCO because the agency had switched administrative offices without telling the MCO. The agency continued to provide quality services to those in need. But, because of a technicality, not informing the MCO that the agency moved administrative offices, the MCO terminated the contract. Which,in turn, puts more money in the MCO’s pocket; one less provider to pay. Is a change of address really a material breach of a contract? Regardless – it is an excuse.
Seven – Medicaid recipients are not receiving medically necessary services. Either the catchment areas do not have enough providers, the MCOs are denying and reducing medically necessary services, or both. Cardinal cut 11 of its state-funded services. Parents of disabled, adult children write to me, complaining that their services from their MCO have been slashed for no reason….But the MCOs are saving NC money!
Eight – The MCOs ended 2015 with a collective $842 million in the bank. Wonder how much money the MCOs have now…(with our tax dollars).
Rancid, I say. Rancid!
I have blogged about peeing in a cup before…but we will not be talking about dentists in this blog. Instead we will be discussing pain management physicians and peeing in a cup.
Pain management physicians are under intense scrutiny on the federal and state level due to increased urine testing. But is it the pain management doctors’ fault?
When I was little, my dad and I would play catch with bouncy balls. He would always play a dirty little trick, and I fell for it every time. He would toss one ball high in the air. While I was concentrating on catching that ball, he would hurl another ball straight at me, which, every time, smacked into me – leaving me disoriented as to what was happening. He would laugh and laugh. I was his Charlie Brown, and he was my Lucy. (Yes, I have done this to my child).
The point is that it is difficult to concentrate on more than one thing. When the Affordable Care Act (ACA) came out, it was as if the federal government wielded 500, metaphoric, bouncy balls at every health care provider. You couldn’t comprehend it in its entirety. There were different deadlines for multiple changes, provider requirements, employer requirements, consumer requirements…it was a bloodbath! [If you haven’t seen the brothers who trick their sister into thinking it’s a zombie apocalypse, you have to watch it!!]
A similar “metaphoric ball frenzy” is occurring now with urine testing, and pain management physicians make up the bulk of prescribed urine testing. The urine testing industry has boomed in the past 4-5 years. This could be caused by a number of factors:
- increase use of drugs (especially heroine and opioids),
- the tightening of regulations requiring physicians to monitor whether patients are abusing drugs,
- increase of pain management doctors purchasing mass-spectrometry machines and becoming their own lab,
- simply more people are complaining of pain, and
- the pharmaceutical industry’s direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA).
Medicare’s spending on 22 high-tech tests for drugs of abuse hit $445 million in 2012, up 1,423% in five years. “In 2012, 259 million prescriptions were written for opioids, which is more than enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills.” See article.
According to the American Association of Pain Management, pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined. The chart below depicts the number of chronic pain sufferers compared to other major health conditions.
In the world of Medicare and Medicaid, where there is profit being made, the government comes a-knockin’.
But should we blame the pain management doctors if recent years brought more patients due to increase of drug use? The flip side is that we do not want doctors ordering urine tests unnecessarily. But aren’t the doctors supposed to the experts on medical necessity??? How can an auditor, who is not a physician and never seen the patient opine to medical necessity of a urine test?
The metaphoric ball frenzy:
There are so many investigations into urine testing going on right now.
Ball #1: The machine manufacturers. A couple of years ago, Carolina Liquid Chemistries (CLC) was raided by the federal government. See article. One of the allegations was that CLC was misrepresenting their product, a urinalysis machine, which caused doctors to overbill Medicare and Medicaid. According to a source, the federal government is still investigating CLC and all the physicians who purchased the urinalysis machine from CLC.
Ball #2: The federal government. Concurrently, the federal government is investigating urine testing billed to Medicare. In 2015, Millennium Health paid $256 million to resolve alleged violations of the False Claims Act for billing Medicare and Medicaid for medically unnecessary urine drug and genetic testing. I wonder if Millennium bought a urinalysis machine from CLC…
Ball #3: The state governments. Many state governments are investigating urine testing billed to Medicaid. Here are a few examples:
New Jersey: July 12, 2016, a couple and their diagnostic imaging companies were ordered to pay more than $7.75 million for knowingly submitting false claims to Medicare for thousands of falsified diagnostic test reports and the underlying tests.
Oklahoma: July 10, 2016, the Oklahoma attorney general’s office announced that it is investigating a group of laboratories involved in the state’s booming urine testing industry.
Tennessee: April 2016, two lab professionals from Bristol, Tenn., were convicted of health care fraud in a scheme involving urine tests for substance abuse treatments.
If you are a pain management physician, here are a few recommendations to, not necessarily avoid an audit (because that may be impossible), but recommendations on how to “win” an audit:
- Document, document, document. Explain why the urine test is medically necessary in your documents. An auditor is less likely to question something you wrote at the time of the testing, instead of well after the fact.
- Double check the CPT codes. These change often.
- Check your urinalysis machine. Who manufactured it? Is it performing accurately?
- Have an experienced, knowledgeable, health care attorney. Do not wait for the results of the audit to contact an attorney.
And, perhaps, the most important – Do NOT just accept the results of an audit. Especially with allegations involving medical necessity…there are so many legal defenses built into regulations!! You turn around and throw a bouncy ball really high – and then…wallop them!!
Often we read in the news stories of hospitals or health care providers paying inordinate amounts to settle cases in which credible allegations of fraud or allegations of false claims preside. Many times the providers actually committed fraud, waste, or abuse. Maybe medical records were falsified, or maybe the documents were created for Medicaid/care recipients that do not exist. Maybe the services claimed to have been rendered were not. In these cases, the provider can be held liable criminally (fraud) and/or civilly (false claims). And these providers should be held accountable to the government and the taxpayers.
It appears that this is not the case for an Ohio hospital that settled a False Claims Act case for $4.1 million last month. Do not get me wrong: The False Claims Act is no joke. Possible penalties imposed by the False Claims Act can be up to $10,000 per claim “plus 3 times the amount of damages which the Government sustains because of the act of that person.” 37 USC §3729. See blog for more explanation.
In the Ohio hospital’s case, the penalty derived from Dr. Abubakar Atiq Durrani, a spinal surgeon, performing spinal surgeries that, allegedly, were not medically necessary.
According to what I’ve read, there is no question that Dr. Durrani actually performed these surgeries. He did. On actual people who exist. Instead, the allegation is that the surgeries were not medically necessary.
I have blogged about medical necessity in the past. Medical necessity is a subjective standard. Medical necessity is defined as reasonable, necessary, and/or appropriate, based on evidence-based clinical standards of care.
But it is still a subjective standard. When you receive news that you suffer from a debilitating disease, what do you do? You get a second opinion. If one doctor recommends brain surgery, what do you do? You get a second opinion.
After that, you grab a handy, dandy Magic 8 Ball and give it a shake. Kidding. Kinda.
My point is that 2 physicians can recommend two different courses of treatment. One physician may practice more defensive medicine, while another may be more cautious. Surgeons will, generally, recommend surgery, more than non-surgeons; it’s what they do.
Going back to Dr. Durrani, who was arrested in 2013 for allegedly “convinc[ing] [patients] they needed spine and neck surgery. However, other doctors later determined those surgeries as unnecessary and damaging to the patient’s health.”
I find two points striking about this case: (1) The allegation that this physician “convinced” people to undergo spine surgery; and (2) The fact that the hospital settled for $4.1 million when no fraud existed or was alleged, only questions as to medical necessity, which is subjective.
As to the first, I am imagining my doctor. I am imagining that I have horrible, chronic back pain. My doctor recommends spinal surgery. There is no way, at all, ever, in this universe, that any doctor would be able to convince me to undergo surgery if I did not want surgery. Period. Who allows themselves to be peer pressured into surgery? Not to knock on my own profession, but I have a sneaky suspicion that this allegation was concocted by the plaintiffs’ attorney(s) and the plaintiffs responded, “Oh, you are right. I was persuaded.”
As to the second…Why did the hospital settle for such a high amount? Couldn’t the hospital have gone to trial and convinced a jury that Dr. Durrani’s surgeries were, in fact, reasonable and/or appropriate, based on evidence-based clinical standards of care?
According to the Magic 8 Ball, “signs point to yes.” Why cave at such a large number where no fraud was alleged?
Whatever happened to Dr. Durrani because of this whole mess? “Following his arraignment, Durrani allegedly fled the United States and remains a fugitive.”
In sum, based on allegations of questionable medical necessity, not fraud, a hospital paid $4.1 million and a U.S. physician fled into hiding…allegedly.
I question this outcome. I even question whether these types of allegations fall within the False Claims Act.
The False Claims Act holds providers liable for (abridged version):
- knowingly presenting a fraudulent claim to the Government;
- knowingly making a fraudulent record or statement to the Government;
- conspiring to do any of the referenced bullet points;
- having possession of Government money and knowingly delivering less than the amount;
- delivering a certified document intending to defraud the Government without completely knowing whether the information was true;
- knowingly buying or receiving as a pledge of debt, public property from the an employee of the Government who does not have the right to pledge that property;
- knowingly making, using, or causing to be made or used, a false record material to an obligation to pay the Government, or knowingly concealing or decreasing an obligation to pay the Government.
I see nothing in the False Claims Act punishing a provider for rendering services that, perhaps, may not be medically necessary.
I actually find questions of medical necessity to be easily defensible. After all, who do we look to for determinations of what are reasonable and/or appropriate services, based on evidence-based clinical standards of care?
Sure, some physicians may have conflicting views as to what is medically necessary. I see it all the time in court. One expert witness physician testifies that the service was medically necessary and another, equally as qualified, physician testifies to the contrary.
Unless I’m missing something (here, folks, is my “CYA”), I just do not understand why allegations of questionable medical necessity caused an U.S. physician to become a fugitive and a hospital to settle for $4.1 million.
It’s as if the hospital shook the Magic 8 Ball and asked whether it would be able to defend itself and received:
On July 1, 2014, Cardinal Innovations, one of NC’s managed care organizations (MCOs) granted its former CEO, Ms. Pam Shipman, a 53% salary increase, raising her salary to $400,000/year. In addition to the raise, Cardinal issued Ms. Shipman a $65,000 bonus based on 2013-2014 performance.
$400,000 a year, plus bonuses. Apparently, I got into the wrong career; the public sector seems to pay substantially more.
Then in July 2015, according to the article in the Charlotte Observer, Cardinals paid Ms. Shipman an additional $424,975, as severance. Within one year, Ms. Shipman was paid by Cardinal a whopping $889,975. Almost one million dollars!!!! To manage 16 counties’ behavioral health care services for Medicaid recipients.
For comparison purposes, the President of the United States earns $400,000/year (to run the entire country). Does the CEO of Cardinal equate to the President of the United States? Like the President, the CEO of Cardinal, along with all the other MCOs’ CEOs, are compensated with tax dollars.
Remember that the entire purpose of the MCO system is to decrease the risk of Medicaid budget overspending by placing the financial risk of overspending on the MCO instead of the State. In theory, the MCOs would be apt to conservatively spend funds and more carefully monitor the behavioral health care services provided to consumers within its catchment area to ensure medically necessity and not wasteful, unnecessary services.
Also, in theory, if the mission of the MCOs were to provide top-quality, medically necessary, behavioral health care services for all Medicaid recipients in need within its catchment area, as the MCOs often tout, then, theoretically, the MCOs would decrease administrative costs in order to provide higher quality, beefier services, increase reimbursement rates to incentivize health care providers to accept Medicaid, and maybe, even, not build a brand, new, stand-alone facility with top-notch technology and a cafeteria that looks how I would imagine Googles’ to look.
Here is how Cardinal’s building was described in 2010:
This new three-story, 79,000-square-foot facility is divided into two separate structures joined by a connecting bridge. The 69,000-square-foot building houses the regional headquarters and includes Class A office space with conference rooms on each floor and a fully equipped corporate board room. This building also houses a consumer gallery and a staff cafe offering an outdoor dining area on a cantilevered balcony overlooking a landscaped ravine. The 10,000-square-foot connecting building houses a corporate training center. Computer access flooring is installed throughout the facility and is supported by a large server room to maintain redundancy of information flow.
The MCOs are not private companies. They do not sell products or services. Our tax dollars comprise the MCOs’ budget. Here is a breakdown of Cardinal’s budgetary sources from last year.
The so-called “revenues” are not revenues; they are tax dollars…our tax dollars.
78.1% of Cardinal’s budget, in 2014, came from our Medicaid budget. The remaining 21.7% came from state, federal, and county tax dollars, leaving .2% in the “other” category.
Because Cardinal’s budget is created with tax dollars, Cardinal is a public company working for all of us, tax paying, NC, residents.
When we hear that Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, received $9.22 million in compensation last year, we only contributed to his salary if we bought Apple products. If I never bought an Apple product, then his extraordinarily high salary is irrelevant to me. If I did buy an Apple product, then my purchase was a voluntary choice to increase Apple’s profits, or revenues.
When we hear that Cardinal Innovations paid $424,975 to ousted CEO, Pam Shipman, over and above her normal salary of $400,000 a year, we all contributed to Shipman’s compensation involuntarily. Similarly, the new CEO, Richard Toppings, received a raise when he became CEO to increase his salary to $400,000 a year. Again, we contributed to his salary.
A private company must answer to its Board of Directors. But an MCO, such as Cardinal, must answer to tax payers.
I work very hard, and I expect that my dollars be used intelligently and for the betterment of society as a whole. Isn’t that the purpose of taxes? I do not pay taxes in order for Cardinal to pay its CEO $400,000.
For better or for worse, a large percentage of our tax dollars, here in NC, go to the Medicaid budget. I would venture that most people would agree that, as a society, we have a moral responsibility to ensure that our most vulnerable population…our poorest citizens…have adequate health care. No one should be denied medical coverage and our physicians cannot be expected to dole out charity beyond their means.
We know that Medicaid recipients have a difficult time finding physicians who will accept Medicaid. We know that a Medicaid card is inferior to a private payor card and limits provider choice and allowable services. We know that certain services for which our private insurances pay, simply, are not covered by Medicaid. Why should a Medicaid-insured person receive sub-par medical services or have more difficulty finding willing providers, while privately insured persons receive high quality medical care with little effort? See blog or blog.
Part of the trouble with Medicaid is the low reimbursements given to health care providers. Health-care consulting firm Merritt Hawkins conducted a study of Medicaid acceptance rates which found that just 45.7 percent of physicians are now accepting Medicaid patients in the U.S.’s largest 15 cities and the numbers worsen when you look at sub-specialties.
The reimbursement rates are so low for health care providers; the Medicaid services are inadequate, at best; and people in need of care have difficulty finding Medicaid physicians. Yet the CEO of Cardinal Innovations is compensated $400,000 per year.
Cardinal has 635 employees. Its five, top-paid executives are compensated $284,000-$400,000 with bonuses ranging $56,500-$122,000.
Richard Topping, Cardinal’s new CEO, told the Charlotte Observer that “it doesn’t cut into Medicaid services.”
He was also quoted as saying, “It’s a lot of money. It is. You’ve just got to look at the size and the scope and the scale.”
In contrast, Governor McCrory is compensated approximately $128,000. Is McCrory’s “size, scope, and scale” smaller than the CEO’s of Cardinal? Is the CEO of Cardinal “size and scope and scale,” more akin to the President of the US?
“We are a public entity that acts like a private company for a public purpose,” Toppings says. Each MCO’s Board of Directors approve salaries and bonuses.
Cardinal is not the only MCO in NC compensating its CEO very well. However, according to the Charlotte Observer, Cardinal’s CEO’s compensation takes the cake.
Smokey Mountain Center (SMC) pays its Chief Medical Officer Craig Martin $284,000 with a $6,789 longevity bonus.
Four years ago, before the initial 11 MCOs, the administrative cost of the MCOs was nonexistent (except for the pilot program, Piedmont Behavioral Health, which is Cardinal now). Implementing the MCO system increased administrative costs, without question. But by how much? How much additional administrative costs are acceptable?
Is it acceptable to pay $400,000+ for a CEO of a public entity with our tax dollars?
OIG Finds Questionable Billing! California Medicaid Dentists: Expect Withholdings or Other Penalties!
Currently, dentists who accept Medicaid are ripe for pickings as targets for regulatory audits from both the federal and state governments. Actually, this is true for any provider that accepts Medicaid. It just happens that, recently, I have noticed an uptick in dental audits both in North Carolina and nationwide. Some dentists, who accept pregnancy Medicaid, may even bear the burden of determining pregnancy prior to a teeth cleaning…however, that is a topic for another day. Although, I tell you what, if my dentist asked whether I were pregnant prior to cleaning my teeth, he may have an abnormally red cheek the remainder of the day and I may join Crossfit.
Generally, dentists tend to not accept Medicaid. The reimbursement rates barely cover overhead. Add high regulatory compliance requirements, the likelihood of undergoing audits, and the government’s robust and zealous desire to tackle fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA), and it is no wonder why most dentists opt to not accept Medicaid. See blog. And blog.
Those dentists (and other providers) that do make the decision to accept Medicaid, these brave and noble souls, are subject to onerous audits; the result of a recent California audit is probably sending shock waves through the California dental community.
335 dental providers in California have been targeted by OIG as having questionable billing issues. Sadly, this is only the beginning for these 335 providers. Now the state will audit the providers, and these 335 providers may very well become the subject of a payment withhold in the near future.
What will happen next?
I will look into my crystal ball, otherwise known as experience, and let you know.
First, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently published a report called: “QUESTIONABLE BILLING FOR MEDICAID PEDIATRIC DENTAL SERVICES IN CALIFORNIA.”
One can only imagine by the title that OIG found alleged questionable billing. Otherwise the title may have been, “A Study into Medicaid Billing for Medicaid Pediatric Dental Services,” instead of “Questionable Billing.” With such a leading title, a reader knows the contents before reading one word.
What is questionable billing?
Importantly, before addressing what IS questionable billing, what is NOT questionable billing? Questionable billing is not abhorrent billing practices. Questionable billing is not wasteful billing or abusive billing. And questionable billing is certainly not fraudulent billing. That is not to say that some of these questionable billing will be investigated and, perhaps, fall into one the aforementioned categories. But not yet. Again, these dentists have a long journey ahead of them.
In this context, questionable billing seems to mean that the OIG report identifies dentists who perform a higher number of services per day. OIG analyzed rendering dental providers’ NPI numbers to determine how many services each rendering provider was providing per day. Then OIG compared the average Medicaid payment per kid, number of services per day, and number of services provided per child per visit. OIG determined a “threshold” number for each category and cited questionable billing practices for those dentists that fell egregiously outside the thresholds. Now, obviously, this is a simplistic explanation for a more esoteric procedure, but the explanation is illustrative.
This study of California Medicaid dentists is not first dental study OIG has undertaken. Recently, OIG studied Medicaid dentists in New York, Louisiana, and Indiana. What stands out in the California Medicaid dental study is the volume of dentists involved in the study. In Indiana, OIG reviewed claims for 787 dentists; in New York it reviewed claims for 719 dentists, and in Louisiana, OIG studied 512 dentists’ claims, all of whom rendered services to over 50 Medicaid children.
In California, OIG studied 3,921 dentists.
Why such a difference?
Apparently, California has more dentists than the other three states and more dentists who accept Medicaid. So, if you are Medicaid dentists, apparently, there is more competition in California.
Juxtapose that, in California, in 2012, only 3 periodontists, 3 prosthodontists, 2 endodontists, and 1 oral pathologist provided services to 50 or more children with Medicaid in California.
Going back to the audit findings…
OIG considered dentists who exceeded its identified threshold for one or more of the seven measures to have questionable billing.
OIG identified 329 general dentists and 6 orthodontists out of 3,921 providers as having with questionable billing. But these findings are only the beginning of what will, most likely, become a long and tedious legal battle for these 335 providers. Lumping together so many dentists and claiming questionable billing practices will inevitably include many dentists who have done nothing irregular. Many other dentists, will have engaged in unintentional billing errors and may owe recoupments. But I foresee a very small number of these dentists to actually have committed fraudulent billing.
Here is an example found in the OIG’s report, OIG identified that 108 dentists provided stainless steel crowns to 18% of the children served by these dentists, compared to an average of only 5% of children receiving stainless steel crowns by those served by all general dentists (non-Medicaid).
Another example is that 98 dentists provided pulpotomies to 18% of the children, while the statewide percentage is 5% to undergo pulpotomies.
Do these examples show that 108 dentists providing stainless steel crowns and that 98 dentists providing pulpotomies are improperly billing?
Of course not.
It is only logical that dentists who accept Medicaid would have a significantly higher number of pulpotomies compared to dentists who service the privately insured. Usually, although not always, a Medicaid recipient will have more issues with their teeth than those privately insureds. In order to qualify for Medicaid, the family must live in poverty (some more than others with the expansion of Medicaid in some states). Some of kids in this population will have parents who do not harp on the importance of dental hygiene, thus allowing many kids in this population to have decay in their teeth. Obviously, this is a generalization; however, I am confident that many studies exist to back up this generalization.
Therefore, if you accept my generalization, it makes sense that Medicaid dentists perform more pulpotomies than private insurance dentists.
And stainless steel crowns go hand in hand with pulpotomies. Unless you extract the tooth after the removal of the decay, you will need to provide a stainless steel crown to protect the tooth from future damage.
What will happen next?
OIG admits in its report that “our findings do not prove that providers either billed fraudulently or provided medically unnecessary services, providers with extreme billing patterns warrant further scrutiny.”
Which is precisely what will happen next…”further scrutiny”…
The OIG report recommends to California that it:
• Increase its monitoring of dental providers to identify patterns of questionable billing
• Closely monitor billing by providers in dental chains
• Review its payment processes for orthodontic services
• Take appropriate action against dental providers with questionable billing
It is that last recommendation, taking appropriate action, which will determine the future course for these 335 Medicaid providers. Because, as many of you know if you have followed my blog, the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) has a large toolbox with a considerable amount of tools for which it may yield its power against these providers…right or wrong. The same goes for all state Medicaid agencies. When it comes to a Medicaid provider and a Medicaid state agency, there is no balance of powers, in fact, there is only one power. Instead the scales of justice have one arm on the ground and the other raised in the air. There is an imbalance of power, unless you arm yourself with the right allies.
Possible future actions by DHCS:
• Payment suspensions
• Withholds of all reimbursements
• Post payment review
• Prepayment review
And combinations thereof.
DCHS stated that “it will review the dental providers referred by OIG and will determine by December 2015 what appropriate action may be warranted. Should there exist any provider cases not previously evaluated by existing program monitoring efforts, DHCS will take appropriate action through the available channels.”
First, December 2015 is a short timeframe for DCHS to audit 335 providers’ records and determine the proper course of action. So, expect a vendor for DCHS to be hired for this task. Also, expect that an audit of 335 providers in 7 months will have flaws.
These California dentists and orthodontists need to arm themselves with defense tools. And, quickly. Because it is amazing how fast 7 months will fly by!!
The report also states that OIG will be undertaking a study in the future to determine access to dental care issues. I will be interested in the result of that study.
These possible penalties that I already enumerated above are not without defenses.
These 335 CA Medicaid dental providers have administrative remedies to prevent these possible penalties. In other words, these 335 CA Medicaid dental providers do not have to take this lying down. Even though it appears that an imbalance of power exists between the state agency and the providers, these providers have appeal rights.
The second that any of these providers receive correspondence from DCHS, it is imperative that the provider contact its attorney.
Remember, some appeals have very short windows for which to appeal. Do not miss an appeal deadline!!