Category Archives: Uncategorized

Warning: Medicare/caid Billing Confusion May Lead to Jail Time

All health care providers are under serious scrutiny, that is, if they take Medicaid. In Atlanta, GA, a dentist, Dr. Oluwatoyin Solarin was sentenced to a year and six months for filing false claims worth nearly $1 million. She pled guilty, and, I would assume, she had an attorney who recommended that she plead guilty. But were her claims actually false? Did she hire a criminal attorney or a Medicaid attorney? Because the answers could be the difference between being behind bars and freedom.

Dr. Solarin was accused of billing for and receiving payments for dental claims while she was not at the office. U.S. Attorney John Horn stated that “Solarin cheated the Medicaid program by submitting fraudulent claims, even billing the government for procedures she allegedly performed at the same time she was out of the country.”

I receive phone calls all the time from people who are under investigation for Medicare/caid fraud. What spurred on this particular blog was a phone call from (let’s call him) Dr. Jake, a dentist. He, similar to Dr. Solarin, was under investigation for Medicaid fraud by the federal government. By the time Dr. Jake called me, his investigation was well on its way, and his Medicaid reimbursements had been suspended due to credible allegations of fraud for almost a year. He was accused of billing for and receiving payments for dental services while he was on vacation…or sick…or otherwise indisposed. He hired one of the top criminal attorneys, who advised him to take a plea deal for a suspended jail sentence and monetary recompense.

But, wait, he says to me. I didn’t do anything wrong. Why should I have to admit to a felony charge and be punished for doing nothing wrong?

I said, let me guess, Jake. You were the rendering dentist – as in, your NPI number was on the billed claim – but you hired a temporary dentist to stand in your place while you were on vacation, sick, or otherwise indisposed?

How did you know? Jake asks.

Because I understand Medicaid billing.

When my car breaks down, I go to a mechanic, not a podiatrist. The same is true for health care providers undergoing investigation for Medicare/caid fraud – you need a Medicare/caid expert. A criminal attorney,most likely, will not understand the Medicare/caid policy on locum tenens. Or the legal limitations of Medicaid suspensions and the administrative route to get the suspension lifted. Or the good cause exception to suspensions.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating that, when under criminal, health care fraud investigation, you should not hire a criminal attorney. Absolutely, you will want a criminal attorney. But you will also want a Medicare/caid attorney.

What is Locum tenens? It is a Latin phrase that means temporary substitute. Physicians and dentists hire locum tenens when they go on vacation or if they fall ill. It is similar to a substitute teacher. Some days I would love to hire a locum tenens for me. When a doctor or dentist hires a temporary substitute, usually that substitute is paid by the hour or by the services rendered. If the payor is Medicare or Medicaid, the substitute is not expected to submit the billing and wait to be reimbursed. The substitute is paid for the day(s) work, and the practice/physician/dentist bills Medicare/caid, which is reimbursed. For billing purposes, this could create a claim with the rendering NPI number as Dr. Jake, while Dr. Sub Sally actually rendered the service, because Dr. Jake was in the Bahamas. It would almost look like Dr. Jake were billing for services billing the government for procedures he allegedly performed at the same time he was out of the country.

Going back to Dr. Jake…had Dr. Jake hired a Medicare/caid attorney a year ago, when his suspension was first implemented, he may have be getting reimbursed by Medicaid this whole past year – just by asking for a good cause exception or by filing an injunction lifting the suspension. His Medicaid/care attorney could have enlightened the investigators on locum tenens, and, perhaps, the charges would have been dropped, once the billing was understood.

Going back to Dr. Solarin who pled guilty to accusations of billing for services while out of the country…what if it were just a locum tenens problem?

The New Special Enrollment Confirmation Process

Kevin Counihan, Health Insurance Marketplace CEO and Shantanu Agrawal, M.D., CMS Deputy Administrator and Director, Center for Program Integrity As the Marketplace continues to grow and mature, we …

Source: The New Special Enrollment Confirmation Process

Documentation Errors Could Affect Your License to Practice!

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.

Knicole Emanuel Speaks Out on WRAL: You Do Not Pee in a Cup at the Dentist!

WRAL Knicole

http://www.wral.com/dentists-left-holding-bills-for-services-to-pregnant-women/15311392/

Or click here.

Governmental Wand Waving and Late Apologies

In one of the most audacious acts of governmental power, in 2013, New Mexico accused 15 behavioral health care provider agencies of credible allegations of fraud and immediately suspended all Medicaid reimbursements to these agencies. These behavioral health care agencies comprised 87.5% of all New Mexico’s behavioral health care. Hundreds of thousands Medicaid recipients were adversely affected; all of a sudden, their mental health care provider was gone. Most of the companies were devastated. (One company was allowed to stay open because it paid millions to the state). See blog for more. See documentary.

Now, over 2 1/2 years later, three days ago (February 8, 2016), the NM Attorney General cleared 10 of the 15 companies. Oops, sorry, there was never any fraud. Sorry about the devastation of your company.

Imagine losing your job, your reputation, all your money, getting accused of a crime…then let two years pass. You walk into the grocery store (and everywhere else you go) and people stare at you, thinking that you are guilty of the crime for which you are accused. (Ever read “The Count of Monte Cristo?”)

Then you are exonerated. Are you happy or angry?

Here’s the issue: The government has a lot of power. Legally, the government has the authority to accuse you of a crime, seize your home, seize your property, take away your children, to put you in jail, to put you to death, etc.; the only barrier between the government carrying out these drastic measures and you is due process.

So, readers, if you are understanding my logic thus far, you understand the importance of due process.

However, for you who accept Medicare and Medicaid, due process is nonexistent. Since the inception of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), when it comes to accusations of fraud, due process has been suspended.

Hence the situation in New Mexico. Without substantial evidence supporting its decision (remember the Public Consulting Group (PCG) audit in this case actually found no credible allegations of fraud), the State of New Mexico accused 15 companies of fraud, suspended all their reimbursements, and put most of the companies out of business.

With a mere waving of the wand.

And an apology too little too late.

Medicare/caid Contracts Terminatations: “With” or “Without Cause. You May Need an Injunction

How is it already the second month of 2016? My how the time flies. As you can see below, I have started 2016 with my “best foot forward.”

image

Here’s the story (and why it’s been so long since I’ve blogged):

Santa Claus, whom I love, brought our 10-year-old daughter a zip line for Christmas. (She’s wanted one forever). My wonderful, exceedingly brilliant husband Scott miscalculated the amount of brakes needed for an adult of my weight for a 300-foot zip line. The brakes stopped, albeit suddenly, but adequately, for our 10-year-old.

However, for me…well…I went a bit faster than my 45-pound daughter. The two spring brakes were not adequate to stop my zip line experience and my out-thrown feet broke my crash…into the tree. (It was a miscalculation of basic physics).

On the bright side, apparently, my right leg is longer than my left, so only my right foot was injured.  Or my right foot is overly dominate than my left, which could also be the case.

Also, on the bright side, the zip line ride was AWESOME until the end.

On the down side, I tore the tendon on the bottom of my foot which, according to the ER doctor, is very difficult to tear. Embarrassingly, I had to undergo a psych evaluation because my ER doctor said that the only time he had seen someone tear that bottom tendon on their foot was by jumping off a building. So I have that going for me. I informed him that one could tear such tendon by going on zip line with inadequate brakes. (I passed the psych evaluation, BTW).

Then, while on crutches, I had a 5-day, federal trial in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the week of Martin Luther King, Jr., Tuesday through the next Monday. Thankfully, the judge did not make me stand to conduct direct and cross examinations.

But, up there, in the beautiful State of Indiana, I thought of my next blog (and lamented that I had not blogged in so long…still on crutches; I had not graduated to the gorgeous boot you saw in the picture above).

As I was up in Indiana, I thought, what if someone at the State Medicaid agency doesn’t like you, personally, and terminates your Medicaid contract “without cause?” Or refuses to contract with you? Or refuses to renew your contract?

Maybe you wouldn’t find it important whether your termination is “for cause” or “without cause,” but, in Indiana, and a lot of other states, if your termination is for “without cause,” you have no substantive appeal right, only a procedural appeal right. As in, if you are terminated “without cause,” the government never has to explain the reason for termination to you or a judge. If the government gave you the legally, proper amount of notice, the government can simply say, “I just do not want to do business with you.”

Many jurisdictions have opined that a Medicaid provider has a property right to their Medicaid contract. A health care provider does not have a property right to a Medicaid contract, but, once the state has approved that provider as a Medicaid provider, that provider has a reasonable expectation to continue to provide services to the Medicaid population. While we all know that providing services to the Medicaid population is not going to make you Richy Rich, in some jurisdictions, accepting Medicaid is necessary to stay solvent (despite the awful reimbursement rates).

Here in NC, our Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) have held a property right in maintaining a Medicaid contract once issued and relied upon, which, BTW, is the correct determination, in my opinion. Other jurisdictions concur with our NC ALJs, including the 7th Circuit.

Many times, when a provider is terminated (or not re-credentialed) “without cause,” there is an underlying and hidden cause, which makes a difference on the appeal of such purported “without cause” termination.

Because as I stated above, a “without cause” termination may not allow a substantive appeal, only procedural. In normal-day-speak, for a “without cause,” you cannot argue that the termination or refusal to credential isn’t “fair” or is based on an incorrect assumption that there is a quality of care concern that really does not exist. You can only argue that the agency did not provide the proper procedure, i.e., you didn’t get 60 days notice. Juxtapose, a “for cause” termination, you can argue that the basis for which the termination relies is incorrect, i.e., you are accusing me that my staff member is not credentialed, but you are wrong; she/he is actually credentialed.

So, what do you do if you are terminated “without cause?” What do you do if you are terminated “for cause?”

For both scenarios, you need an injunction.

But how do you prove your case for an injunction?

Proving you need an injunction entails you proving to a judge that: (a) likelihood of success on the merits; (b) irreparable harm; (c) balance of equities; and (d) impact on the community.

The hardest prongs to meet are the first two. Usually, in my experience, irreparable harm is the hardest prong to meet. Most clients, if they are willing to hire my team and me, can prove likelihood of success.  Think about it, if a client knows he/she has horrible documentation, he/she will not spring for an expensive attorney to defend themselves against a termination.

Irreparable harm, however, is difficult to demonstrate and the circumstances surrounding proving irreparable harm creates quite a quandary.

Irreparable, according to case law, cannot only be monetary damages. If you are just out of money and your company is in financial distress, it will not equate to irreparable harm.

Irreparable harm differs slightly from state to state.

Although, most jurisdictions agree that irreparable harm does equate to an imminent threat of your business closing, terminating staff, loss of goodwill, harm to reputation, patients not receiving medically necessary services, unfathamable emotional distress, the weights of loans and credit, understanding that you’ve depleting all savings and checkings, and understanding that you’ve exhausted all possible assets or loans.

The Catch-22 of it all is by the time you meet the prongs of irreparable harm, generally, you do not have the cash to hire an attorney. I suggest to all Medicare and Medicaid health care providers that you need to maintain an emergency fund account for unforeseen situations, such as audits, suspensions, terminations, etc. Put aside money every week, as much as you can. Hope that you never need to use it.

But you will be covered, just in case.

Medicare RAC Audits Are Spreading in 2016

By now, however unwanted, health care providers are intimately acquainted with RAC audits. If you are one of the lucky providers who has not had the pleasure of undergoing a RAC audit and accept Medicare/caid, then you should go buy lottery tickets.

For Medicare providers, the RAC audits have been targeted to only Parts A and B. However, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) proposes to expand the RAC audits to Medicare Advantage. CMS has published the proposal and seeks comments by February 1, 2016.

I am reminded of the Bubonic Plague from the 14th century.

As these Medicare audits continue to spread nationwide, to more CPT codes, and to more health care services, providers are warned to wash your hands. It is the best way to prevent acquiring a Medicare audit.

So far, there is no indication when the RAC audits for Medicare Advantage will begin. However, remember that RAC auditors are financially incentivized to audit and find errors. Thus, those RAC auditors will be chomping at the bit to get going.

Wouldn’t you if you were  compensated 9-13% of amount found to be owed back to the state?

More to come…

“A Modest Proposal for the ACA Employer Mandate”

We all know about the ACA employer mandate. It placed a tremendous burden on employers, many of whom will only feel this burden weighing them down as we ring in the new year because, starting in 2016, companies with over 50 employees must offer health insurance to full time employees (those who work over 30 hours per week).

So how much does it cost you, as an employer, to hire an employee? Are there exceptions? Are there loopholes?

We will get to the first question in a second. The answer to the last two questions is a “yes,” which will be discussed further in this blog.

Cost of an employee

Employers have to pay Social Security tax, Medicare tax, state unemployment insurance, and, now in 2016, health care insurance benefits (if the company has 50+ employees).

Social Security tax is 6.2%. Medicare tax is 1.45%. State unemployment tax differs from state to state, but it can range from 0% to 12.27% (Massachusetts). For the sake of clarity, we will use 5%.

Health insurance benefits also can vary greatly depending on the plan. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation/Health Research & Education Trust 2015 Employer Health Benefits Survey, annual premiums for employer-sponsored family health coverage reached $17,545 this year, up 4 percent from last year, with workers on average paying $4,955 towards the cost of their coverage.

This means that the employer, on average, is paying $12,490 per year per employee for health care benefits.

Assuming a base salary of $70,000, an employer would spend:

Social Security tax: $4,340

Medicare tax: $1,015

State unemployment tax: $350

Health care insurance benefits: $12,490

For a whopping total of $18,195 per year.

Think about this…if you offer your employee a salary of $70,000/year, he/she has to produce revenue for that company of, at least, $88,195 per year in order for you to break even. As you well know, successful companies are not in the business of breaking even, so you will expect your employee to create, at least, over $90,000 of profit in order to be paid a salary of $70,000.

None of the above contemplate a 401K plan. If you’re in a position to offer your employees a 401K plan, they will need to be that much more profitable.

So how can you, as the employer of a home health company, a long term care facility, a dentist practice, or other health care provider decrease the amount of money spent on health care benefits?

“A Modest Proposal for the ACA Employer Mandate”

Before we begin our journey of “A Modest Proposal for the ACA Employer Mandate,” I would like to give a bit of an English lesson on satire, lest one of you miss it. Satire is defined as, “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” It is burlesque. And so I write this blog in the vein of Jonathon Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (for those of you who have not heard of it, I suggest you click on the link above). For the faint of heart, those easily offended, or those too lazy to click on the link, I suggest not reading further.

Below is my “A Modest Proposal for the ACA Employer Mandate.”

  1. Hire childless singles.

Childless singles are cheaper to insure. So screen your potential employees. Ask whether they intend to have children and warn them that you operate a non-child company. Explain that if you discover that any employee has a dependent child it will result in immediate termination. Bonuses for those who undergo voluntary hysterectomies or vasectomies.

2. Hire old people.

People over 65 are eligible for Medicare. They’re loyal; they don’t talk back. The only things they complain about are their ailments. Many expect little pay because they, or their parents, went through the Great Depression. You can be sure that they will not spend their time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other social media because they don’t know how. If the position involves driving, you can sure they will get no speeding tickets. Best of all, you know that you are not undertaking a long-term commitment.

3. Hire poor people.

People below the poverty line are eligible for Medicaid. They rarely talk on the phone to friends. Many even only talk to themselves, which is fantastic (and not creepy at all) in the workplace. They are never late with excuses of bad traffic; and their homes are, most likely, going to be very near by (and maybe right out front). They never try to “one-up” the Joneses’. You will never see them bragging about their new Iphones, Louis Vuitton bag, or Mercedes Benz.

5. Hire lazy people.

People who work under 30 hours per week do not get offered health care coverage. Hire employees who enjoy video games too excess. All the better if they own Assassin’s Creed: Victory, Battlefield: Hardline, and Dying Light. It’s an office party every day – no need to worry about them working over 30 hours per week – they like vodka, bourbon, and gin. It’s even better if they enjoy the occasional (daily) marijuana. Embrace a drug-friendly environment.

If you follow the above hiring tips, you too can avoid paying the ACA employer mandate. Remember, the key to success is to only hire childless singles, and old, poor, and lazy people.

And you’ve struck gold if you hire a childless, old, lazy, poor, single person….Goldmine!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmmmmmm…

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

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

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

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

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

Medicaid Closed Networks: Can Waivers Waive Your Legal Rights?

Sorry for the lapse in blogging. I took off for Thanksgiving and then got sick. I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving!!

While I was sick, I thought about all the health care providers that have been put out of business because the managed care organization (MCO) in their area terminated their Medicaid contract or refused to contract with them. I thought about how upset I would be if I could not see my doctor, whom I have seen for years. See blog for “You Do Have Rights!

Then I thought about…Can a Waiver waive a legal right?

Federal law mandates that Medicaid recipients be able to choose their providers of choice. Court have also held that this “freedom of choice” of provider is a right, not a privilege.

42 U.S.C. § 1396a states that Medicaid recipients may obtain medical services from “any institution, agency, community pharmacy, or person, qualified to perform the service or services required… who undertakes to provide him such services….” Id. at (a)(23).

So how can these MCOs restrict access?

First, we need to discuss the difference between a right and a privilege.

For example, driving is a privilege, not a right. You have no right to a driver’s license, which is why you can lose your license for things, such as multiple DUIs. Plus, you cannot receive a driver’s license unless you pass a test, because a license is not a right.

Conversely, you have the right to free speech and the right to vote. Meaning, the government cannot infringe on your rights to speak and vote unless there are extraordinary circumstances. For example, the First Amendment does not protect obscenity, child pornography, true threats, fighting words, incitement to imminent lawless action (yelling “fire” in a crowded theater), criminal solicitation or defamation. Your right to vote will be rescinded if you are convicted of a felony. Furthermore, you do not need to take a test or qualify for the rights of free speech and voting.

Likewise, your choice of health care provider is a right. It can only be usurped in extraordinary circumstances. You do not need to take a test or qualify for the right. (Ok, I am going to stop underlining “right” and “privilege” now. You get the point).

Then how are MCOs operating closed networks? For that matter, how can Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) terminate a provider’s contract? Wouldn’t both those actions limit your right to choose your provider?

The answer is yes.

And the answer is simple for BCBS. As for BCBS, it is a private company and does not have to follow all the intricate regulations for Medicare/caid. 42 U.S.C.  § 1396a is inapplicable to it.

But Medicaid recipients have the right to choose their provider.  This “freedom of choice” provision has been interpreted by both the Supreme Court and the Seventh Circuit as giving Medicaid recipients the right to choose among a range of qualified providers, without government interference (or its agents thereof).

What does this mean? How can a managed care organization (MCO) here in NC maintain a closed network of providers without violating the freedom of choice of provider rule?

The “Stepford” answer is that we have our Waivers in NC, which have waived the freedom of choice. In our 1915 b/c Waiver, there are a couple pages that enumerates certain statutes. We “x” out the statutes that we were requesting to waive.

It looks like this:

waiver1

Furthermore, federal law carves out an exception to freedom to choose right when it comes to managed care. But to what extent? It the federal carve unconstitutional?

But…the question is twofold:

  • Would our Waiver stand up to federal court scrutiny?
  • Can our state government waive your rights? (I couldn’t help it).

Let’s think of this in the context of the freedom of speech. Could NC request from the federal government a waiver of our right to free speech? It sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? What is the difference between your right to free speech and your right to choose a provider? Is one right more important than the other?

The answer is that no one has legally challenged our Waiver’s waiver of the right to freedom of provider with a federal lawsuit claiming a violation of a constitutionally protected right. It could be successful. If so, in my opinion, two legal theories should be used.

  1. A § 1983 action; and/or
  2. A challenge under 42 CFR 431.55(f)

Section 1983 creates a federal remedy against anyone who deprives “any citizen of the United States… of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” under the color of state law. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Supreme Court has explained that § 1983 should be read to generally “authorize[] suits to enforce individual rights under federal statutes as well as the Constitution.” City of Rancho Palos Verdes, Cal. v. Abrams, 544 U.S. 113, 119 (2005).

Section 1983 does not authorize a federal remedy against state interference with all government entitlements, however; “it is rights, not the broader or vaguer ‘benefits’ or ‘interests,’ that may be enforced under the authority of that section.” Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 283 (2002). But the courts have already held that the freedom to choose your provider is a right.

In 2012, the Seventh Circuit confirmed that § 1983 authorizes Medicaid recipients to sue to enforce the right to freely choose among qualified health providers.

In Planned Parenthood, the court was confronted with an Indiana state law prohibiting state agencies from providing state or federal funds to any entity that performs abortions or maintains or operates a facility in which abortions are performed – regardless of whether there is any nexus between those funds and the abortion services. See Planned Parenthood, 699 F.3d at 967 (7th Cir. 2012). In other words, the law effectively prohibited entities that perform abortions from receiving any state or federal funds for any (non-abortion) purpose.

The Court found that the restrictions violated the Medicaid recipients’ right to freedom of choice of provider.

There are, as always, more than one way to skin a cat. You could also attack the Waiver’s waiver of the freedom to choose your health care provider by saying the NC is violating 42 CFR 431.55.

Notice the last sentence in subsection (d) in the picture above. In our Waiver, NC promises to abide by 42 CFR 431.55(f), which states:

(f) Restriction of freedom of choice—
(1) Waiver of appropriate requirements of section 1902 of the Act may be authorized for States to restrict beneficiaries to obtaining services from (or through) qualified providers or practitioners that meet, accept, and comply with the State reimbursement, quality and utilization standards specified in the State’s waiver request.
(2) An agency may qualify for a waiver under this paragraph (f) only if its applicable State standards are consistent with access, quality and efficient and economic provision of covered care and services and the restrictions it imposes—
(i) Do not apply to beneficiaries residing at a long-term care facility when a restriction is imposed unless the State arranges for reasonable and adequate beneficiary transfer.
(ii) Do not discriminate among classes of providers on grounds unrelated to their demonstrated effectiveness and efficiency in providing those services; and
(iii) Do not apply in emergency circumstances.
(3) Demonstrated effectiveness and efficiency refers to reducing costs or slowing the rate of cost increase and maximizing outputs or outcomes per unit of cost.
(4) The agency must make payments to providers furnishing services under a freedom of choice waiver under this paragraph (f) in accordance with the timely claims payment standards specified in § 447.45 of this chapter for health care practitioners participating in the Medicaid program.

Basically, to argue a violation of 42 CFR 431.55, you would have to demonstrate that NC violated or is violating the above regulation by not providing services “consistent with access, quality and efficient and economic provision of covered care and services.”

So, while it is true that NC has requested and received permission from the Center of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to restrict access to providers, that fact may not be constitutional.

Someone just needs to challenge the Waiver’s waiver.