Category Archives: Denials of Medicaid Services
Premature Recoupment of Medicare or Medicaid Funds Can Feel Like Getting Mauled by Dodgeballs: But Is It Constitutional?
State and federal governments contract with many private vendors to manage Medicare and Medicaid. And regulatory audits are fair game for all these contracted vendors and, even more – the government also contracts with private companies that are specifically hired to audit health care providers. Not even counting the contracted vendors that manage Medicaid or Medicare (the companies to which you bill and get paid), we have Recovery Act Contractors (RAC), Zone Program Integrity Contractors (ZPICs), Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), and Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) auditors. See blog for explanation. ZPICs, RACs, and MACs conduct pre-payment audits. ZPICs, RACs, MACs, and CERTs conduct post-payment audits.
It can seem that audits can hit you from every side.
“Remember the 5 D’s of dodgeball: Dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge.”
Remember the 5 A’s of audits: Appeal, argue, apply, attest, and appeal.”
Medicare providers can contest payment denials (whether pre-payment or post-payment) through a five-level appeal process. See blog.
On the other hand, Medicaid provider appeals vary depending on which state law applies. For example, in NC, the general process is an informal reconsideration review (which has .008% because, essentially you are appealing to the very entity that decided you owed an overpayment), then you file a Petition for Contested Case at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). Your likelihood of success greatly increases at the OAH level because these hearings are conducted by an impartial judge. Unlike in New Mexico, where the administrative law judges are hired by Human Services Department, which is the agency that decided you owe an overpayment. In NM, your chance of success increases greatly on judicial review.
In Tx, providers may use three methods to appeal Medicaid fee-for-service and carve-out service claims to Texas Medicaid & Healthcare Partnership (TMHP): electronic, Automated Inquiry System (AIS), or paper within 120 days.
In Il, you have 60-days to identify the total amount of all undisputed and disputed audit
overpayment. You must report, explain and repay any overpayment, pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. Section 1320a-7k(d) and Illinois Public Aid Code 305 ILCS 5/12-4.25(L). The OIG will forward the appeal request pertaining to all disputed audit overpayments to the Office of Counsel to the Inspector General for resolution. The provider will have the opportunity to appeal the Final Audit Determination, pursuant to the hearing process established by 89 Illinois Adm. Code, Sections 104 and 140.1 et. seq.
You get the point.”Nobody makes me bleed my own blood. Nobody!” – White Goodman
Recoupment During Appeals
Regardless whether you are appealing a Medicare or Medicaid alleged overpayment, the appeals process takes time. Years in some circumstances. While the time gently passes during the appeal process, can the government or one of its minions recoup funds while your appeal is pending?
The answer is: It depends.
Before I explain, I hear my soapbox calling, so I will jump right on it. It is my legal opinion (and I am usually right) that recoupment prior to the appeal process is complete is a violation of due process. People are always shocked how many laws and regulations, both on the federal and state level, are unconstitutional. People think, well, that’s the law…it must be legal. Incorrect. Because something is allowed or not allowed by law does not mean the law is constitutional. If Congress passed a law that made it illegal to travel between states via car, that would be unconstitutional. In instances that the government is allowed to recoup Medicaid/care prior to the appeal is complete, in my (educated) opinion. However, until a provider will fund a lawsuit to strike these allowances, the rules are what they are. Soapbox – off.
Going back to whether recoupment may occur before your appeal is complete…
For Medicare audit appeals, there can be no recoupment at levels one and two. After level two, however, the dodgeballs can fly, according to the regulations. Remember, the time between levels two and three can be 3 – 5 years, maybe longer. See blog. There are legal options for a Medicare provider to stop recoupments during the 3rd through 5th levels of appeal and many are successful. But according to the black letter of the law, Medicare reimbursements can be recouped during the appeal process.
Medicaid recoupment prior to the appeal process varies depending on the state. Recoupment is not allowed in NC while the appeal process is ongoing. Even if you reside in a state that allows recoupment while the appeal process is ongoing – that does not mean that the recoupment is legal and constitutional. You do have legal rights! You do not need to be the last kid in the middle of a dodgeball game.
Don’t be this guy:
Low reimbursement rates make accepting Medicaid seem like drinking castor oil. You wrinkle your nose and swallow quickly to avoid tasting it. But if you are a provider that does accept Medicaid and you wish to stop accepting Medicaid – read this blog and checklist (below) before taking any action! Personally, if you do accept Medicaid, I say, “Thank you.” See blog. With more and more Medicaid recipients, the demand for providers who accept Medicaid has catapulted.
The United States has become a Medicaid nation. Medicaid is the nation’s largest health insurance program, covering 74 million, or more than 1 in 5 Americans.
Earlier this year, Kaiser published a report stating that 70% of office-based providers accept new patients covered by Medicaid. But this report does not mean that Medicaid recipients have access to quality health care. I will explain below.
The variation in the above chart is interesting. Reimbursement rates directly impact whether providers in the state accept Medicaid. The participation goes from a low of 38.7% in New Jersey (where primary care reimbursement rates are 48% of Medicare rates) to a high of 96.5% in Nebraska (where the primary care reimbursement is 75% of Medicare). Montana, with a 90% physician participation rate, pays the same rate as Medicare for primary care, while California, with a 54.2% participation rate, pays 42% of the Medicare reimbursement rate. We should all strive to be like Nebraska and Montana … granted the number of Medicaid recipients are fewer in those states. For September 2017, Nebraska ranked 45th out of the 50 states for Medicaid enrollment. Montana ranked 42nd. Wyoming came in dead last.
Statistically writing, Medicaid covers:
- 39% of all children.
- Nearly half of all births in the country.
- 60% of nursing home and other long-term care expenses.
- More than 1/4 of all spending on mental health services and over a fifth of all spending on substance abuse treatment.
However, even if the report is correct and 70% of health care providers do accept Medicaid, that is not indicative of quality access of care for Medicaid recipients. The number of Medicaid recipients is skyrocketing at a rate that cannot be covered by the number of providers who accept Medicaid. Kaiser estimates that by 2020, more than 25% (1 out of 4) of Americans will be dependent on Medicaid. Because of the low reimbursement rates, health care providers who do accept Medicaid are forced to increase the quantity of patients, which, logically, could decrease the quality … or the amount of time spent with each patient. Citing the percentage of providers who accept Medicaid, in this instance, 70%, is not indicative of quality of access of care; the ratio of Medicaid recipients to providers who accept Medicaid would be more germane to quality of access to care for Medicaid recipients. Even if 70% of health care providers accept Medicaid, but we have 74 million Medicaid recipients, then 70% is not enough. My opinion is what it is because based on years of experience with this blog and people reaching out to me. I have people contact me via this blog or email explaining that their mother, father, child, sister, or brother, has Medicaid and cannot find a provider for – dental, mental health, developmentally disabled services. So, maybe, just maybe, 70% is not good enough.
Before dropping Medicaid like a hot potato, ask yourself the following questions:
Will I have enough patients without Medicaid to keep my staff and I busy?
Location! Location! Location! Your location matters. If you provide health care services in areas that are predominantly Medicaid-populated, then you may need to reconsider dropping the ‘Caid. California, New York, and Texas were the top spenders in Medicaid for fiscal year 2016, totaling over a whopping $183 billion of America’s total expenditure on ‘Caid, which was $553 billion.
I am sure that I am preaching to the choir, but choosing to not accept Medicaid is not fiscally sound if you and your staff will be twiddling their thumbs all day. Even low reimbursement rates are better than no reimbursement rates. On the downside, if you choose to accept Medicaid, you need a “rainy-day” fund to pay for attorneys to defend any regulatory audits, termination of Medicaid contracts, accusations of fraud, prepayment review, and/or other adverse determinations by the state (and, if you accept Medicare, the federal government and all its vendors).
2. Have I attested for the Medicaid EHR meaningful use incentives?
If you attested and accepted the EHR incentive payments, you may need to continue seeing Medicaid patients in order to keep/maintain your EHR payments. (Please consult an attorney).
3. Will I still be subject to Medicaid audits in the future?
If avoiding Medicaid audits is your primary reason for dropping ‘Caid, ‘ho your horses. Refusing to accept ‘Caid going forward does not indemnify you from getting future audits. In fact, in cases of credible allegations of fraud, you may be subject to future Medicaid audits for another 6 years after you no longer accept Medicaid. You will also need to continue to maintain all your records for regulatory compliance. If you cease accepting Medicaid, those recipients will need to find new providers. Those medical records are the Medicaid recipients’ property and need to be forwarded to the new provider.
If you are currently under investigation for credible allegations of fraud, of which you may or may not be aware, then suddenly stop accepting Medicaid, it could be a red flag to an investigator. Not that ceasing to accept Medicaid is evidence of wrongdoing, but sometimes sudden change, regardless of the change, can spur curiosity in auditors. For example, in NC DHHS v. Parker Home Care, the Court of Appeals ruled that a tentative notice of overpayment by Public Consulting Group (PCG) does not constitute a final agency decision. The managed care organizations (MCOs) freaked out because the MCOs were frightened that a health care provider could argue, in Court, that Parker Home Care applies to MCOs, as well. They were so freaked out that they filed an Amicus Curiae Brief, which is a Brief on behalf of a person or organization that is not a party to a particular litigation but that is permitted by the court to advise it in respect to some matter of law that directly affects the case in question. The MCOs’ Brief states, “The Court of Appeals’ decision, if allowed to stand, could be construed to undermine the authority explicitly granted to managed care organizations, such as the LME/MCOs in North Carolina, by CMS.” Too bad our Waiver specifically states that DHS/DMA to CMS states, “[DMA] retains final decision-making authority on all waiver policies and requirements.” But I digress. In Parker Home Care, the MCOs filed the Brief to preserve their self-instilled authority over their catchments areas. However, despite the MCOs request that the NC Supreme Court take the issue under consideration, the Supreme Court denied certiorari, which means the Supreme Court refused to entertain the issue. While it is not “law” or “precedent” or “written in stone,” generally, attorneys argue that the Supreme Court’s refusal to entertain an issue means that it does not deem the issue to be a controversy … that the Court agrees with the lower court’s decision. Hence, the argument that the MCOs cannot render final agency decisions.
4. Will I be able to sleep at night?
Health care providers become health care providers, generally, with the intent to help people. This makes most health care providers nurturing people. You have to ask yourself whether you will be comfortable, ethically, with your decision to not accept Medicaid. I cannot tell you how many of my clients tell me, at some point, “I’m just not going to accept Medicaid anymore.” And, then continue to accept Medicaid … because they are good people. It infuriates me when I am in court arguing that terminating a provider’s Medicaid contract will put the provider out of business, and the attorney from the State makes a comment like, “It was the provider’s business decision to depend this heavily on Medicaid.” No, actually, many providers do feel an ethical duty to serve the Medicaid population.
Check your health care community and determine whether other providers with your specialty accept Medicaid. Are they accepting new Medicaid patients? Are they viable options for your patients? Are they as good as you are? Just like attorneys, there are good and bad; experienced and inexperienced; intelligent and not-so-much; capable and not-so-much.
5. Can I delegate Medicaid recipients to a mid-level practitioner?
Physician assistants and nurse practitioners are wonderful assets to have to devote to Medicaid recipients. This is not to say that Medicaid recipients deserve lesser-educated services because, quite frankly, some PAs and NPs are just as good as the MDs. But you get my point. If PAs and NPs have a lower billable rate, then it makes business financial sense to delegate the Medicaid recipients to them. Similarly, I have an amazing, qualified paralegal, Todd Yoho. He has background in medical coding, went to two years of law school, and is smarter than many attorneys. I am blessed to have him. But the reality is that his billable rate is lower than mine. I try to use his services whenever possible to try to keep the attorneys’ fees lower. Same with mid-level practitioner versus using the MD.
6. Instead of eliminating Medicaid patients, can I just decrease my Medicaid patients?
This could be a compromise with yourself and your business. Having the right balance between Medicaid recipients and private pay, or even Medicare patients, can be key in increasing income and maintaining quality of care. Caveat: In most states, you are allowed to cap your Medicaid recipients. However, there are guidelines that you muts follow. Even Medicaid HMOs or MCOs could have different requirements for caps on Medicaid recipients. Again, seek legal advice.
On September 6, 2017, I appeared on the Besler Hospital Finance Podcast regarding:
Update on the Medicare appeals backlog [PODCAST]
Feel free to listen to the podcast, download it, and share with others!
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.
Class Action Lawsuit Alleges Right to Inpatient Hospital Stays: Hospitals Are Damned If They Do…and Don’t!
Hospitals – “Lend me your ears; I come to warn you, not to praise RACs. The evil that RACs do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their appeals; So let it be with lawsuits.” – Julius Caesar, with modifications by me.
A class action lawsuit is pending against U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) alleging that the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) encourages (or bullies) hospitals to place patients in observation status (covered by Medicare Part B), rather than admitting them as patients (covered by Medicare Part A). The Complaint alleges that the treatments while in observation status are consistent with the treatments if the patients were admitted as inpatients; however, Medicare Part B reimbursements are lower, forcing the patient to pay more out-of-pocket expenses without recourse.
The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut refused to dismiss the class action case on February 8, 2017, giving the legal arguments within the Complaint some legal standing, at least, holding that the material facts alleged warrant investigation.
The issue of admitting patients versus keeping them in observation has been a hot topic for hospitals for years. If you recall, Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) specifically target patient admissions. See blog and blog. RAC audits of hospital short-stays is now one of the most RAC-reviewed issues. In fiscal year 2014, RACs “recouped” from hospitals $1.2 billion in allegedly improper inpatient claims. RACs do not, however, review outpatient claims to determine whether they should have been paid as inpatient.
On May 4, 2016, CMS paused its reviews of inpatient stays to determine the appropriateness of Medicare Part A payment. On September 12, 2016, CMS resumed them, but with more stringent rules on the auditors’ part. For example, auditors cannot audit claims more than the six-month look-back period from the date of admission.
Prior to September 2016, hospitals would often have no recourse when a claim is denied because the timely filing limits will have passed. The exception was if the hospital joined the Medicare Part A/Part B rebilling demonstration project. But to join the program, hospitals would forfeit their right to appeal – leaving them with no option but to re-file the claim as an outpatient claim.
With increased scrutiny, including RAC audits, on hospital inpatient stays, the class action lawsuit, Alexander et al. v. Cochran, alleges that HHS pressures hospitals to place patients in observation rather than admitting them. The decision states that “Identical services provided to patients on observation status are covered under Medicare Part B, instead of Part A, and are therefore reimbursed at a lower rate. Allegedly, the plaintiffs lost thousands of dollars in coverage—of both hospital services and subsequent skilled nursing care—as a result of being placed on observation status during their hospital stays.” In other words, the decision to place on observation status rather than admit as an inpatient has significant financial consequences for the patient. But that decision does not affect what treatment or medical services the hospital can provide.
While official Medicare policy allows the physicians to determine the inpatient v. observation status, RAC audits come behind and question that discretion. The Medicare Policy states that “the decision to admit a patient is a complex medical judgment.” Ch. 1 § 10. By contrast, CMS considers the determination as to whether services are properly billed and paid as inpatient or outpatient to be a regulatory matter. In an effort to avoid claim denials and recoupments, plaintiffs allege that hospitals automatically place the patients in observation and rely on computer algorithms or “commercial screening tools.”
In a deposition, a RAC official admitted that if the claim being reviewed meets the “commercial screening tool” requirements, then the RAC would find the inpatient status is appropriate, as long as there is a technically valid order. No wonder hospitals are relying on these commercial screening tools more and more! It is only logical and self-preserving!
This case was originally filed in 2011, and the Court of Appeals overturned the district court’s dismissal and remanded it back to the district court for consideration of the due process claims. In this case, the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs could establish a protected property interest if they proved their allegation “that the Secretary—acting through CMS—has effectively established fixed and objective criteria for when to admit Medicare beneficiaries as ‘inpatients,’ and that, notwithstanding the Medicare Policy Manual’s guidance, hospitals apply these criteria when making admissions decisions, rather than relying on the judgment of their treating physicians.”
HHS argues that that the undisputed fact that a physician makes the initial patient status determination on the basis of clinical judgment is enough to demonstrate that there is no due process property interest at stake.
The court disagreed and found too many material facts in dispute to dismiss the case.
Significant discovery will be explored as to the extent to which hospitals rely on commercial screening tools. Also whether the commercial screening tools are applied equally to private insureds versus Medicare patients.
Significant discovery will be explored on whether the hospital’s physicians challenge changing a patient from inpatient to observation.
Significant discovery will be explored as to the extent that CMS policy influences hospital decision-making.
Hospitals need to follow this case closely. If, in fact, RAC audits and CMS policy is influencing hospitals to issue patients as observation status instead of inpatient, expect changes to come – regardless the outcome of the case.
As for inpatient hospital stays, could this lawsuit give Medicare patients the right to appeal a hospital’s decision to place the patient in observation status? A possible, future scenario is a physician places a patient in observation. The patient appeals and gets admitted. Then hospital’s claim is denied because the RAC determines that the patient should have been in observation, not inpatient. Will the hospitals be damned if they do, damned if they don’t?
In the meantime:
Hospitals and physicians at hospitals: Review your policy regarding determining inpatient versus observation status. Review specific patient files that were admitted as inpatient. Was a commercial screening tool used? Is there adequate documentation that the physician made an independent decision to admit the patient? Hold educational seminars for your physicians. Educate! And have an attorney on retainer – this issue will be litigated.
Written by Robert Shaw, Partner at Gordon & Rees.
Readers of this blog know well what financial harm can come from documentation problems, particularly resulting from Medicare and Medicaid auditors. But just as significantly, these problems can affect your participation rights in federal programs, and could even affect your license to practice. A case in point is a recent decision from the North Carolina Court of Appeals about disciplinary action taken against a dentist.
In Walker v. North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners, the Court of Appeals, in an opinion filed today, addressed findings by auditors that the dentist had not properly documented “the reasons for prescribing narcotic pain medications for a number of patients in her treatment records.” Well, you might ask, What Does The Rule Say? There is in fact a rule on the records that dentists must keep, similar to the rules in most other health care specialties. It is the Record Content Rule in 21 N.C.A.C. 16T .101.
(By the way, now is a great time to review every rule that you must follow in order to keep proper records and to figure out what the legal requirements are. Many providers did this at one time but fail to keep up to speed on the latest rule changes, which gets them into trouble. Or, they keep records based on how someone taught them. But, that’s not a legal defense!)
The Court of Appeals found that Dr. Walker did NOT violate the Record Content Rule, which does not require documentation of the medical reasons for prescribing pain medication. So, the Board of Dental Examiners got it wrong by citing Dr. Walker for a violation of 21 N.C.A.C. 16T .101. That rule only requires that the dentist document “[n]ame and strength of any medications prescribed, dispensed or administered along with the quantity and date.”
But that was not the end of the matter. The Board also cited Dr. Walker for violating N.C. Gen. Stat. 90-41(a)(12), which provides that the Board of Dental Examiners “shall have the power and authority to . . . [i]nvoke . . . disciplinary measures . . . in any instance or instances in which the Board is satisfied that [a dentist] . . . [h]as been negligent in the practice of dentistry[.]” This is very broad power.
So, what is the standard to be applied under this general “negligent in the practice of dentistry” statute? At the disciplinary hearing, two expert witnesses (other North Carolina dentists) testified that “the applicable standard of care require[s] North Carolina dentists to not only record [the] prescription [of] controlled substances, but the reason for prescribing those medications.” This is, in effect, an unwritten standard of practice that dentists, at least according to these witnesses, should follow in North Carolina. Perhaps importantly, Petitioner acknowledged that she had participated in training programs that advised that dentists should record the reasons for medications that they prescribe. But nevertheless, this rule was not in the North Carolina Administrative Code, a clinical coverage policy, or other policy statement published by the Board (at least that was cited in the opinion).
The Court of Appeals affirmed that the Board had the authority to discipline the petitioner for failing to follow these general standards of care in North Carolina, based on testimony of two practicing North Carolina dentists!
What does this mean? It means that your licensing board could cite general record-keeping practices in your field as the basis for disciplinary action against you under a catch-all negligence standard. While each board is governed by its own set of rules and statutory authority, Walker v. North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners is a powerful reminder that record-keeping is serious business, and you could be legally obligated to follow standard practices in your field in addition to the legal maze of federal and state regulations and policies governing health care records.
My mom taught me a song when I was young called, “A Hole in the Bucket.” It is a maddening song about a lazy husband named Henry who begins the song telling his wife Liza that “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza….” To which Liza sings, “Then fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry…”
The song continues with Henry singing excuses and impediments to his ability to fix the hole in the bucket and Liza explaining to Henry how to overcome these excuses. The song goes around and around until, in order to fix the bucket, Henry would have to sharpen an ax on a stone that “is too dry,” and the only way to wet the stone is with the bucket that has a hole. “There’s a hole in the bucket…” And the songs starts anew and can be sung continuously, never-ending.
My husband and daughter audibly groan when I begin such song.
And you can’t blame them! It is discouraging and frustrating when something is caught in a never-ending circle with no end and no conclusion. It is human nature to try to resolve issues; it is also ingrained in Americans’ minds that hard work yields results. When hard work yields nothing but a big, fat goose-egg, it is exacerbating.
Kind of like claims in NCTracks…
When NCTracks went live on July 1, 2013, providers immediately began to complain the claims were being erroneously denied and they were receiving no reimbursements. Folks with whom I spoke with were at their wits-ends, spending hours upon hours trying to discern why claims were being denied and what process they could undertake to fix “the hole in the bucket.”
The problem persisted so long and I was contacted by so many providers that I instigated the NCTracks class action lawsuit, which is still pending on appeal, to the best of my knowledge, at my former firm. Although it was dismissed at the Business Court level, I believe it is on appeal. See blog.
Providers complained that, when they contacted CSC’s Help Desk regarding denied claims, the customer service representatives would have little to no understanding of the claims process and instruct them to re-file the denied claims, which created a perpetual cycle of unadjudicated claims.
“It was infuriating!” One provider explained. “It was as if we were caught in the spin cycle with no hope of stopping. I wanted to yell, ‘I’m dry all ready!!'”
“I was spending 20+ a week on NCTracks billing problems,” another said.
To which, I said, “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.”
Over two years after the “go live” date, the Department has now (finally) informed providers that there is an informal reconsideration review process for denials from CSC.
The September 2015 Medicaid Bulletin states that:
“This article provides a detailed explanation of the N.C. Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) procedures for Informal Reconsideration Review of adverse claim actions (denials, disallowances and adjustments) made by its fiscal agent, CSC.”
The Bulletin provides a 30 day time period during which a provider can appeal a denied claim:
“Time Limit for Submission of Request
- A provider may request a reconsideration review within 30 calendar days from receipt of final notification of payment, payment denial, disallowances, payment adjustment, notice of program reimbursement and adjustments. If no request is received within the respective 30 calendar day period, DMA’s action will become final.”
(emphasis in original).
You must request reconsideration review within 30 calendar days of the final notification. BUT what exactly is “final notification?” The initial denial? The second denial after re-submitting? The third? Or, what if, your claim is pending…for months…is that a denial? When CSC tells you to re-submit, does the time frame in which to file a reconsideration review start over? Or do you have to appeal every single denial for every single claim, even if the claim is re-submitted and re-denied 10 times?
This new informal appeal process is as clear as mud.
Notice the penalty for NOT appealing within 30 days…”DMA’s action will become final.”
This means that, if you fail to appeal a denial within 30 days, then the claim is denied and you cannot request a reconsideration review. Theoretically, there is a legal argument that, once the “final decision” is rendered, even if it were rendered due to you failing to request a reconsideration review, you would have 60 days to appeal such final decision to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). Although, acting as the Devil’s advocate, there is an argument that your failure to request a reconsideration review and taking the appeal straight to OAH is “failing to exhaust your administrative remedies.” See blog. Which could result in your appeal being dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. This goes to show you the importance of having your attorney involved at the earliest juncture, otherwise you could risk losing appeal rights.
Let’s think about the “time limit for submission of request” in a real-life hypothetical.
You keep receiving denials for dialysis claims for no apparent reason. You received 20 denials on September 4, 2015. You contact a CSC customer service representative on September 8, 2015, four days later, due to Labor Day weekend. The customer service representative instructs you to re-file the claims because you must include the initial date of treatment in order to have the claims processed and paid (which was not required with HP Enterprises’ system). Is this the “final notification?” It does not seem so, since you are allowed to re-submit…
You revise all 20 claims to include the first treatment date on the claim and re-submit them on September 9, 2015. Since you re-submitted prior to the September 10th cutoff, you expect payment by September 16, 2015, 12 days after the initial denial.
You receive your explanation of benefits (EOBs) and 5 claims were adjudicated and paid, while 15 were denied again.
You contact CSC customer service and the representative instructs you to re-submit the 15 claims. The rep does not know why the claims were denied, but she/he suggests that you review the claims and re-submit. After hours of investigative work, you believe that the claims were denied because the NPI number was wrong…or the incorrect address was processed…or…
You miss the September 17th cut-off because you were trying to figure out why these claims were denied. you submit them for payment for the September 29th checkwrite date (25 days after the initial denial).
At this point, if any claims are denied, you wouldn’t know until October 6th, 32 days after the initial denial.
In my scenario, when is the final adjudication?
If the answer is that the final adjudication is at the point that the provider tries all possible revisions to the claims and continues to re-submit the claims until he/she cannot come up with another way to re-submit, then there is never final adjudication. As in, the provider could continue various changes to the billing ad nauseam and re-submit…and re-submit…and re-submit…”There’s a hole in the bucket!”
If the answer is that the final adjudication is the initial denial, then, in my scenario, the provider would be required to appeal every single denial, even for the same claim and every time it is denied.
You can imagine the burden to the provider if my second scenario is correct. You may as well hire a full-time person whose only task is to appeal denied claims.
Regardless, this new “Informal Reconsideration Review” purports to create many more questions than answers.
So may rules are enacted with good intentions, but without the “real life” analysis. How will this actually affect providers?
“There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.”
“Then fix it.”
Our State Auditor Beth Wood’s most recent audit finds that The Public Schools of Robeson County failed to spend approximately $1 million in Medicaid dollars intended for special needs children in schools!!
See audit report.
“The Public Schools of Robeson County (School District) did not use approximately $1 million per year in Medicaid administrative reimbursements to provide required services to students with disabilities. The School District missed this opportunity to better serve students with disabilities because it was unaware of a contractual requirement to use the Medicaid reimbursements to provide required services.
Over the last three years, the School District reported that it used $26,780 out of $3.16 million in Medicaid administrative reimbursements to provide services to students with disabilities.
The amounts reportedly spent each year are as follows:
• $ 8,969 out of $1,010,397 (0.89%) in 2013
• $12,043 out of $872,299 (1.38%) in 2012
• $ 5,768 out of $1,278,519 (0.45%) in 2011”
The question that I have after reading the audit report is…WHERE IS THE MONEY?
Was this $1 million given to the school system and spent on items other than services for children? Is the school district sitting on a surplus of money that was unspent? Or was this amount budgeted to the school system and the remainder or unspent money is sitting in our state checking account?
To me, it is relatively unclear from the audit report which of the above scenarios is an accurate depiction of the facts. If anyone knows, let me know.
Remember July 1, 2013? Providers across North Carolina probably still suffer PTSD at the mention of the “go-live” date for NCTracks. If you remember July 1, 2013, you probably also remember that my former firm filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the physicians in NC who suffered losses from NCTracks’ inception.
There was oral argument at the NC Business Court.
“Ultimately, the burden of proving that administrative remedies are inadequate in this action rests on Plaintiffs. Jackson, 131 N.C. App. at 186. Although sympathetic to the apparently difficult administrative process, the Court concludes that, particularly in light of the fact that not a single Plaintiff has attempted to use the available administrative procedures to resolve their Medicaid reimbursement claims, Plaintiffs have simply failed to satisfy this burden. Accordingly, Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) should be GRANTED.”
While I understand the logic applied to come to this decision, I do not necessarily agree with the outcome. There are exceptions to the exhaustion of administrative remedies, which, in my humble opinion, are present here.
(This blog contains my own opinions as to the NCTracks ruling and not those of my present or former firms. It is not intended to claim any ruling was incorrect or inconsistent with case law, rules, and statutes).
(Try to read the foregoing sentences in a fast-paced, tiny, whispery voice, like a pharmaceutical commercial).
Regardless, where does this decision leave the physicians in NC who suffered under an, admittedly, botched, beginning of NCTracks? (Even DHHS recognized the imperfections at the beginning).
First, what is the doctrine of failure of administrative remedies? (I was going to start with what is NCTracks, but you do not know what NCTracks is, you probably should begin reading some of my earlier blog posts: blog; and blog; and blog).
In a nutshell, the exhaustion doctrine dictates that if a party disagrees with an adverse action of a state agency that the party must exhaust its administrative remedies before asking for relief from a civil court judge.
Law 101: The Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) has limited jurisdiction. It only has jurisdiction over those matters specifically granted to it by statute. If you have an issue with a final adverse decision of a state agency, you sue at OAH. In other words, if you want to sue a state agency, such as DHHS, or any of its agents, like an MCO, you sue at OAH, not Superior Court. An Administrative Law Judge, or ALJ, presides over the court. While OAH is more informal than Superior Court, OAH follows the rules of civil procedure unless an administrative rule exists.
If a Superior Court were to find that the party failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, then the court would find that the party lacked subject matter jurisdiction; i.e., the court is holding that it does not have the authority to determine the legal question at issue.
You would be back to square one, and, potentially, miss an appeal deadline.
In the Medicaid world this is similar to a managed care organization (MCO) having an informal review process internally which would be required prior to bringing a Petition for Judicial Review at OAH.
Were you to bring a Petition for Judicial Review at OAH prior to attending an informal reconsideration review at the MCO, the ALJ would, most likely, dismiss the case for failure to exhaust your administrative remedies.
But in the NCTracks case, the Plaintiffs sued DHHS and Computer Science Corporation (CSC). CSC is, arguably, not a state agency. The only way in which you could sue CSC at OAH would be for an ALJ to determine that CSC is an agent of a state agency. And, who knows? Maybe CSC is an agent of DHHS. Judge McGuire does not address this issue in his Order.
Many of you may wonder why I opine that CSC is not an agent of the state, yet surmise that the MCOs are agents of DHHS. Here is my reasoning: DHHS, in order to bestow or delegate its powers of administering behavioral health to the MCOs, was required to request a Waiver from the federal government. Unlike with CSC, DHHS merely contracted with CSC; no Waiver was required. That Waiver (two Waivers, really, the 1915(b) and 1915(c)) allow the MCOs to step into the shoes of DHHS….to a degree…and only as far as was requested and approved by CMS…no more. I view CSC as a contractor or vendor of DHHS, while the MCOs are limited agents.
Going back to NCTracks…
One can surmise that, because Judge McGuire dismissed the entire lawsuit and did not keep CSC as a party, Judge McGuire opined that CSC is an agent of DHHS. But there is a possibility that the providers sue in OAH and an ALJ determines that OAH is not a proper venue for CSC. Then what? Back to Superior Court and/or Business Court?
Why do you have to exhaust your administrative remedies? It does seem too burdensome to jump through all the hoops.
The rationale behind requiring parties to exhaust their administrative remedies is that those entities (such as OAH) that hear these specialized cases over and over and develop an expertise to decide the certain esoteric matters that arise under their jurisdiction. Also, the doctrine of separation of powers dictates that an agency created by Congress should be allowed to carry out its duties without undue interference from the judiciary.
For example, Judges Don Overby and Melissa Lassiter, ALJs at the NC OAH have, without question, presided over more Medicaid cases than any Superior Court Judge in the state (unless a Superior Court is a former ALJ, like Judge Beecher Gray). The thinking is that, since Overby and Lassiter, or, ALJs, generally, have presided over more Medicaid cases than the average judge, that the ALJs have formed expertise in area. Which is probably true. It cannot be helped. When you hear the same arguments over and over, you tend to research the answers and form an opinion.
So there is the “why,” what about the exceptions?
There are exceptions to the general rule of having to exhaust your administrative remedies that may or may not be present in the NC tracks case. If you ask me, exceptions are present. If you ask Judge McGuire vis-à-vis his Order, there are no exceptions that were applicable.
One such exception to the general rule that you must exhaust your administrative remedies is if bringing a case at the informal administrative level would be futile. If you can prove futility, then you are not required to exhaust your administrative remedies. Another exception is if you are requesting monetary damages that cannot be awarded at the administrative law level.
Where the administrative remedy is inadequate, a plaintiff is not required to exhaust that remedy before turning to the courts. Shell Island, 134 N.C. App. at 222. The burden of establishing the inadequacy of an administrative remedy is on the party asserting inadequacy. Huang v. N.C. State Univ., 107 N.C. App. 110, 115 (1992).
What DHHS argued, in order to have the case dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and Judge McGuire agreed with, is:
that adequate administrative remedies exist for all health care providers when NCTracks improperly denies claims.
This holding is not without questions.
Some providers re-bill denied claims over and over. There is a question as to when do you appeal? The first denial? The second? The Fourteenth? At which point do you accept the denial from NCTracks as a “final agency decision?” Do you use the “3 strikes and you’re out” rule? Do you give NCTracks a mulligan? Or do you wait until NCTracks “fouls out” with a 6th denial?
Another question that remains hanging in the wake of the NCTracks dismissal is how will providers handle the sheer volume of denials. Some providers receive voluminous denials. Some RAs can be hundreds of pages long.
Let’s contemplate this argument in a hypothetical. You run a nephrology practice. The bulk of your patients are Medicaid (90% Medicaid, although 50% are dual eligible with Medicaid/Medicare). You have approximately 500-700 patients, who come see your doctors because they are in need of dialysis. You know that if a person does not receive dialysis that there is a chance that the person can enter Stage 5 (end stage renal disease) and die quickly. However, upon July 1, 2013, when NCTracks went live, you stopped receiving Medicaid payments completely. Do you stop accepting and treating your Medicaid patients? Obviously you do not stop accepting Medicaid patients? But your practice cannot sustain itself. Even if you continue to treat Medicaid patients, at some point, you will be out of business, failing to meet payroll, and being forced to involuntarily not treat your patients.
Your patients in need of dialysis come to the office 3x per week. A single hemodialysis treatment typically costs up to $500 or more — or, about $72,000 or more per year for the typical three treatments per week.
Let’s approximate with 500 patients. 500 patients multiplied by 3x per week is 1,500 per week. That is 1,500 denials per week. What Judge McGuire is saying is that your office is burdened with appealing 1,500 denials per week. Or 6,000 denials per month. Or 72,000 appeals per year.
Which of your office staff will be charged with appealing at OAH 72,000 denials per year? The physicians? You, the office manager (because you obviously have nothing else to do)? The receptionist? Hire someone new? For how much? How will you recoup the cost of appealing 72,000 denials per year? How many hours does it cost to appeal one? Hire an attorney?
Obviously, my example is one of an extreme case with 100% denials. But the sentiment holds true even for 30%, 40%, or 50% of denials. The sheer volume would be overwhelming.
And you can imagine the backlog that would be created at OAH.
Judge McGuire’s decision that plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies issue appears to be based, in part, that because no plaintiff had tried to go to OAH, plaintiffs could not convince him that the administrative remedy was non-functional.
“Significantly, none of the Plaintiffs even attempted to use the administrative procedures to address the failure to pay claims and other issues they allegedly encountered in attempting to use NCTracks. Instead, Plaintiffs allege that the administrative process would have been futile and inadequate to provide the relief they seek.” See Abrons Family Practice v. DHHS and CSC, ¶ 36 (emphasis added).
Well, first of all, when I moved to Gordon & Rees, I left this case in the capable hands of my former partners, so I have no special intelligence, but I wager that this is not the end.
There are choices. They could:
(1) Appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals;
(2) File an insurmountable number of petition’s at OAH; or
(3) Do nothing.
For some reason, I have my doubts that #3 will occur.
What do you think??? What should the Plaintiffs do now in the wake of this dismissal?