Do the Anti-Kickback and Stark Laws Apply to Private Payors?

Good question.

Anti-Kickback statutes (AKS) and Stark law are extremely important issues in health care. Violations of these laws yield harsh penalties. Yet, many healthcare professionals have little to no knowledge on the details of these two legal beasts.

The most common question I get regarding AKS and Stark is: Do AKS and Stark apply to private payers? Health care professionals believe, if I don’t accept Medicare or Medicaid, then I don’t need to worry about AKS and Stark. Are they correct??

The general and overly broad response is that the Stark Law, 42 USC § 1395nn, only applies to Medicare and Medicaid. The AKS, 42 USC § 1320a-7b(b)),applies to any federal healthcare program.

Is there a difference between AKS and Stark?

Answer: Yes. As discussed above, the first difference is that AKS applies to all federal healthcare programs. This stark difference (pun intended) makes the simple decision to not accept Medicare and Medicaid, thus allowing you to never worry about AKS, infinitely more difficult.

Let’s take a step back… What are AKS and Stark laws and what do these laws prohibit? When you Google AKS and Stark, a bunch of legal blogs pop up and attempt to explain, in legalese, what two, extremely esoteric laws purport to say, using words like “renumeration,” “knowing and willful,” and “federal healthcare program.” You need a law license to decipher the deciphering of AKS and Stark. The truth is – it ain’t rocket science.

The AKS is a criminal law; if you violate the AKS, you can be prosecuted as a criminal. The criminal offense is getting something of value for referrals. You cannot refer patients to other health care professionals in exchange for money, reduced rent, use of laboratory equipment, referrals to you, health services for your mother, marketing, weekly meals at Ruth’s Chris, weekly meals at McDonalds, oil changes, discounted theater tickets, Uber rides, Costco coupons, cooking lessons, or…anything of value, regardless the value. 

Safe harbors (exceptions to AKS) exist. But those exceptions better fit squarely into the definition of the exceptions. Because there are no exceptions beyond the enumerated exceptions.

AKS is much more broad in scope than Stark. Other than Medicare and Medicaid, AKS applies to any health care plan that utilizes any amount of federal funds. For example, AKS applies to Veterans Health Care, State Children’s Health Programs (CHIP), Federal Employees Health Benefit Program, and many other programs with federal funding. Even if you opt to not accept Medicare and Medicaid, you may still be liable under AKS.

Stark law, on the other hand, is more narrow and only applies to Medicare and Medicaid. I find the following “cheat sheet” created by a subdivision of the Office of Inspector General to be helpful in understanding AKS and Stark and the differences between the two:

One other important aspect of Stark is that is considered “strict liability,” whereas AKS requires a proving of a “knowing and willful” action.

Feel free to print off the above chart for your reference. However, see that little asterisk at the bottom of the chart? It applies here as well.

Step Right Up! CMS Announces New Medicare-Medicaid ACO Model

Come one! Come all! Step right up to be one of the first 6 states to test the new Medicare-Medicaid Affordable Care Act (ACO) pilot program.

experiment

Let your elderly population be the guinea pigs for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Let your most needy population be the lab rats for CMS.

On December 15, 2016, CMS announced its intent to create Medicare/caid ACOs. Currently, Medicare ACOs exist, and if your physician has opted to participate in a Medicare ACO, then, most likely, you understand Medicare ACOs. Medicare ACOs are basically groups of physicians – of different service types – who voluntarily decide (but only after intense scrutiny by their lawyers of the ACO contract) to collaborate care with the intent of higher quality and lower cost care.  For example, if your primary care physician participates in a Medicare ACO and you suffer intestinal issues, your primary care doctor would coordinate with a GI specialist within the Medicare ACO to get you an appointment. Then the GI specialist and your physician would share medical records, including test results and medication management. The thought is that the coordination of care will decrease duplicative tests, ensure appointments are made and kept, and prevent losing medical records or reviewing older, moot records.

Importantly, the Medicare beneficiary retains all benefits of “normal” Medicare and can choose to see any physician who accepts Medicare. The ACO model is a shift from “fee-for-service” to a risk-based, capitated amount in which quality of care is rewarded.

On the federal level, there have not been ACOs specially created for dual-eligible recipients; i.e., those who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid…until now.

The CMS is requesting states to volunteer to participate in a pilot program instituting Medicare/Medicaid ACOs. CMS is looking for 6 brave states to participate. States may choose from three options for when the first 12-month performance period for the Medicare-Medicaid ACO Model will begin for ACOs in the state: January 1, 2018; January 1, 2019; or January 1, 2020.

Any state is eligible to apply, including the District of Columbia. But if the state wants to participate in the first round of pilot programs, intended to begin 2018, then that state must submit its letter of intent to participate by tomorrow by 11:59pm. See below.

dual-acos

I tried to research which states have applied, but was unsuccessful. If anyone has the information, I would appreciate it if you could forward it to me.

Participating in an ACO, whether it is only Medicare and Medicare/caid, can create a increase in revenue for your practices. Since you bear some risk, you also reap some benefit if you able to control costs. But, the decision to participate in an ACO should not be taken lightly. Federal law yields harsh penalties for violations of Anti-Kickback and Stark laws (which, on a very general level, prohibits referrals among physicians for any benefit). However, there are safe harbor laws and regulations specific to ACOs that allow exceptions. Regardless, do not ever sign a contract to participate in an ACO without an attorney reviewing it. 

Food for thought – CMS’ Medicare/caid ACO Model may exist only “here in this [Obama] world. Here may be the last ever to be seen of [healthcare.gov] and their [employee mandates]. Look for it only in [history] books, for it may be no more than a [Obamacare] remembered, a [health care policy] gone with the wind…”

As, tomorrow (January 20, 2017) is the presidential inauguration. The winds may be a’changing…

Look into My Crystal Ball: Who Is Going to Be Audited by the Government in 2017?

Happy New Year, readers!!! A whole new year means a whole new investigation plan for the government…

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) publishes what is called a “Work Plan” every year, usually around November of each year. 2017 was no different. These Work Plans offer rare insight into the upcoming plans of Medicare investigations, which is important to all health care providers who accept Medicare and Medicaid.

For those of you who do not know, OIG is an agency of the federal government that is charged with protecting the integrity of HHS, basically, investigating Medicare and Medicaid fraud, waste, and abuse.

So let me look into my crystal ball and let you know which health care professionals may be audited by the federal government…

crystal-ball

The 2017 Work Plan contains a multitude of new and revised topics related to durable medical equipment (DME), hospitals, nursing homes, hospice, laboratories.

For providers who accept Medicare Parts A and B, the following are areas of interest for 2017:

  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy services: provider reimbursement
  • Inpatient psychiatric facilities: outlier payments
  • Skilled nursing facilities: reimbursements
  • Inpatient rehabilitation hospital patients not suited for intensive therapy
  • Skilled nursing facilities: adverse event planning
  • Skilled nursing facilities: unreported incidents of abuse and neglect
  • Hospice: Medicare compliance
  • DME at nursing facilities
  • Hospice home care: frequency of on-site nurse visits to assess quality of care and services
  • Clinical Diagnostic Laboratories: Medicare payments
  • Chronic pain management: Medicare payments
  • Ambulance services: Compliance with Medicare

For providers who accept Medicare Parts C and D, the following are areas of interest for 2017:

  • Medicare Part C payments for individuals after the date of death
  • Denied care in Medicare Advantage
  • Compounded topical drugs: questionable billing
  • Rebates related to drugs dispensed by 340B pharmacies

For providers who accept Medicaid, the following are areas of interest for 2017:

  • States’ MCO Medicaid drug claims
  • Personal Care Services: compliance with Medicaid
  • Medicaid managed care organizations (MCO): compliance with hold harmless requirement
  • Hospice: compliance with Medicaid
  • Medicaid overpayment reporting and collections: all providers
  • Medicaid-only provider types: states’ risk assignments
  • Accountable care

Caveat: The above-referenced areas of interest represent the published list. Do not think that if your service type is not included on the list that you are safe from government audits. If we have learned nothing else over the past years, we do know that the government can audit anyone anytime.

If you are audited, contact an attorney as soon as you receive notice of the audit. Because regardless the outcome of an audit – you have appeal rights!!! And remember, government auditors are more wrong than right (in my experience).

Federal Court Orders HHS to Eliminate Medicare Appeal Backlog!

When you have a Medicare appeal, it is not uncommon for the appeal process to last years and years – up to 3-6 years in some cases. There has been a backlog of approximately 800,000+ Medicare appeals (almost 1 million), which, with no change, would take 11 years to vet.

A Federal Court Judge says – that is not good enough!

Judge James Boasburg Ordered that the Medicare appeal backlog be eliminated in the following stages:

  • 30% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2017 (approximately a 300,000 case reduction within 1 year);
  • 60% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2018;
  • 90% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2019; and
  • Elimination of the backlog of cases by Dec. 31, 2020;

A Medicare appeal has 5 steps. See blog. The backlog is at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level – or, Level 3.

This backlog is largely attributable to the Medicare Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) programs. In 2010, the federal government implemented the RAC program to recoup allegedly improper Medicare reimbursement payments. The RAC program (for both Medicare and Medicaid) has been criticized for being overly broad and burdensome and “nit picking,” insignificant paperwork errors. See blog.

While the RAC program has recovered a substantial sum of alleged overpayments, concurrently, it has cost health care providers an infinite amount of money to defend the allegations and has left Health and Human Services (HHS) with little funds to adjudicate the number of Medicare appeals, which increase every year. The number of Medicare appeals filed in fiscal year 2011 was 59,600. In fiscal year 2013, that number boomed to more than 384,000. Today, close to 1 million Medicare appeals stand in wait. The statutory adjudication deadline for appeals at the ALJ level is 90 days, yet the average Medicare appeal can last over 546 days.

The American Hospital Association (AHA) said – enough is enough!

AHA sued HHS’ Secretary Sylvia Burwell in 2014, but the case was dismissed. AHA appealed the District Court’s Decision to the Court of Appeals, which reversed the dismissal and gave the District Court guidance on how the backlog could be remedied.

Finally, last week, on December 5, 2016, the District Court published its Opinion and set forth the above referenced mandated dates for eliminating the Medicare appeal backlog.

While, administratively, the case was dismissed, the District Court retained “jurisdiction in order to review the required status reports and rule on any challenges to unmet deadlines.”

In non-legalese, the Court said “The case is over, but we will be watching you and can enforce this Decision should it be violated.”

This is a win for all health care providers that accept Medicare.

CEO of Cardinal Gets a Raise – With Our Tax Dollars!

You could hear the outrage in the voices of some of the NC legislators (finally, for the love of God – our General Assembly has taken the blinders off their eyes regarding the MCOs) at the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Medicaid and NC Health Choice on Tuesday, December 6, 2016, when Cardinal Innovations‘, a NC managed care organization (MCO) that manages our Medicaid behavioral health care in its catchment area, CEO, Richard Topping, stated that his salary was raised this year from $400,000 to $635,000with our tax dollars. (Whoa – totally understand if you have to read that sentence multiple times; it was extraordinarily complex).

Senator Tommy Tucker (R-Waxhaw) was especially incensed. He said, “I received minutes from your board, Sept. 16 of 2016, they made that motion, that your 2017 comp package, they raised your salary from $400,000 to $635,000, they gave you a 0 to 30 percent bonus potential which could be roughly another $250,000 and also you have some sort of annuity or long-term package of $412,000,” said Sen. Tommy Tucker.

FINALLY!!! Not the first time that I have blogged about the mismanagement (my word) of our tax dollars. See blog. And blog.

Sen. Tucker was not alone.

Representative Dollar was also concerned. But even more surprising than our legislators stepping up to the plate and holding an MCO accountable (MCOs have expensive lobbyists – with our tax dollars), the State’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Secretary Rick Brajer was visibly infuriated. He spoke sharply and interrogated Topping as to his acute income increase, as well as the benefits attached.

As a health care blogger, I receive so many emails from blog readers, including parents of disabled children, who are not receiving the medically necessary Medicaid behavioral health care services for their developmentally disabled children. MCOs are denying medically necessary services. MCOs are terminating qualified health care providers. MCOs are putting access to care at issue. BTW – even if the MCOs only terminated 1 provider and stopped 1 Medicaid recipient from receiving behavioral health care services from their provider of choice, that MCO would be in violation of federal law access to care regulations.  But, MCOs are terminating multiple – maybe hundreds – of health care providers. MCOs are nickeling and diming health care providers. Yet, CEO Topping will reap $635,000+ as a salary.

The MCOs, including Cardinal, do not have assets except for our tax dollars. They are not incorporated. They are not private entities. They are extensions of our “single state agency” DHHS. The MCOs step into the shoes of DHHS. The MCOs are state agencies. The MCOs are paid with our tax dollars. Our tax dollars should be used (and are budgeted) to provide Medicaid behavioral health care services for our most needy and to be paid to those health care providers, who still accept Medicaid and provide services to our most vulnerable population. News alert – These providers who render behavioral health care services to Medicaid recipients do not make $635,000/year, or anywhere even close. The reimbursement rates for Medicaid is paltry, at best. Toppings should be embarrassed for even accepting a $635,000 salary. The money, instead, should go to increasing the reimbursements rates – or maintaining a provider network without terminating providers ad nauseum. Or providing medically necessary services to Medicaid recipients.

Rest assured, Cardinal is not the only MCO lining the pockets of its executives. While both Trillium and Alliance, other MCOs, pay their CEOs under $200,000 (still nothing to sneeze at). Alliance, however, throws its tax dollars at private, legal counsel. No in-house counsel for Alliance! Oh, no! Alliance hires expensive, private counsel to defend its actions. Another way our tax dollars are at work. And – my question – why in the world does Alliance, or any other MCO, need to hire legal counsel? Our State has perfectly competent attorneys at our Attorney General’s office, who are on salary to defend the state, and its agencies, for any issue. The MCOs stand in the shoes of the State when it comes to Medicaid for behavioral health. The MCOs should utilize the attorneys the State already employs – not a high-dollar, private law firm. These are our tax dollars!

There have been few times that I have praised DHHS in my blogs. I will readily admit that I am harsh on DHHS’ actions/nonactions with our tax dollars. And I am now not recanting any of my prior opinions. But, last Tuesday, Sec. Brajer held Toppings feet to the fire. Thank you, Brajer, for realizing the horror of an MCO CEO earning $635,000/year while our most needy population goes under-served, and, sometimes not served at all, with medically necessary behavioral health care services.

What is deeply concerning is that if Sec. Brajer is this troubled by actions by the MCOs, or, at least, Cardinal, why can he not DO SOMETHING?? Where is the supervision of the MCOs by DHHS? I’ve read the contracts between the MCOs and DHHS. DHHS is the supervising entity over the MCOs. Our Waiver to the federal government promises that DHHS will supervise the MCOs.

If the Secretary of DHHS cannot control the MCOs, who can?

Key Medicaid Questions Post-Election

Disclosure: This is the opinion/facts from the Kaiser Family Foundation, not me. But I found this interesting. My opinion will be forthcoming.

Kaiser Family Foundation article:

Medicaid covers about 73 million people nationwide.  Jointly financed by the federal and state governments, states have substantial flexibility to administer the program under existing law.  Medicaid provides health insurance for low-income children and adults, financing for the safety net, and is the largest payer for long-term care services in the community and nursing homes for seniors and people with disabilities.  President-elect Trump supports repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and a Medicaid block grant. The GOP plan would allow states to choose between block grant and a per capita cap financing for Medicaid. The new Administration could also make changes to Medicaid without new legislation.

1. HOW WOULD ACA REPEAL AFFECT MEDICAID?

A repeal of the ACA’s coverage expansion provisions would remove the new eligibility pathway created for adults, increase the number of uninsured and reduce the amount of federal Medicaid funds available to states. The Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling on the ACA effectively made the Medicaid expansion optional for states. As of November 2016, 32 states (including the District of Columbia) are implementing the expansion.  The full implications of repeal will depend on whether the ACA is repealed in whole or in part, whether there is an alternative to the ACA put in place and what other simultaneous changes to Medicaid occur. However, examining the effects of the ACA on Medicaid provide insight into what might be at stake under a repeal.

What happened to coverage? The ACA expanded Medicaid eligibility to nearly all non-elderly adults with income at or below 138% of the federal poverty level (FPL) – about $16,396 per year for an individual in 2016. Since summer of 2013, just before implementation of the ACA expansions, through August 2016 about 16 million people have been added to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.  While not all of this increase is due to those made newly eligible under the ACA, expansion states account for a much greater share of growth. States that expanded Medicaid have had large gains in coverage, although ACA related enrollment has tapered.  From 2013 to 2016 the rate of uninsured non-elderly adults fell by 9.2% in expansion states compared to 6% in non-expansion states.

What happened to financing? The law provided for 100% federal funding of the expansion through 2016, declining gradually to 90% in 2020 and beyond. Expansion states have experienced large increases in federal dollars for Medicaid and have claimed $79 billion in federal dollars for the new expansion group from January 2014 through June 2015.  Studies also show that states expanding Medicaid under the ACA have realized net fiscal gains despite Medicaid enrollment growth initially exceeding projections in many states.

What other Medicaid provisions were in the ACA? The ACA required states to implement major transformations to modernize and streamline eligibility and enrollment processes and systems.  The ACA also included an array of new opportunities related to delivery system reforms for complex populations, those dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid and new options to expand community-based long-term care services.

2. WHAT WOULD CHANGES IN THE FINANCING STRUCTURE MEAN FOR MEDICAID?

A Medicaid block grant or per capita cap policy would fundamentally change the current structure of the program. These policies are typically designed to reduce federal spending and fix rates of growth to make federal spending more predictable, but could eliminate the guarantee of coverage for all who are eligible and the guarantee to states for matching funds.  States would gain additional flexibility to administer their programs but reduced federal funding could shift costs and risk to beneficiaries, states, and providers.

How would it work? Block grants or per capita caps could be structured in multiple ways. Key policy decisions would determine levels of federal financing as well as federal and state requirements around eligibility, benefits, state matching requirements, and beneficiary protections. Previous block grant proposals have determined a base year financing amount for each state and then specified a fixed rate of growth for federal spending. Under a Medicaid per capita cap, the federal government would set a limit on how much to reimburse states per enrollee.  Payments to states would be based on per enrollee spending multiplied by enrollees. Spending under per capita cap proposals fluctuate based on changes in enrollment, but would not account for changes in the costs per enrollee beyond the growth limit.  To achieve federal savings, the per capita growth amounts would be set below the projected rates of growth under current law.

What are the key policy questions? Key questions in designing these proposals include: what new flexibility would be granted to states, what federal requirements would remain in place, what requirements would be in place for state matching funds, what is the base year and growth rates, and how would a potential repeal of the ACA work with a block grant proposal?  Given the lack of recent administrative data, setting a base year could be challenging.  These financing designs could lock in historic spending patterns and variation in Medicaid spending across states, resulting in states deemed “winners” or “losers.”

What are the implications? Capping and reducing federal financing for Medicaid could have implications for beneficiaries, states, and providers including: declines in Medicaid coverage or new financial barriers to care; limited funding for children (the majority of Medicaid enrollees) as well as the elderly and those with disabilities (populations that represent the majority of Medicaid spending); reduced funding for nursing homes and community-based long-term care (Medicaid is the largest payer of these services); reductions in federal revenues to states and Medicaid revenues for safety-net providers.  A block grant would not adjust to increased coverage needs during a recession.  Block grants or per capita caps would not adjust to changes in health care or drug costs or emergencies.  Recently Medicaid costs have increased due to high cost specialty drugs and Medicaid has been used to help combat the growing opioid crisis.

3. HOW COULD MEDICAID BE CHANGED THROUGH ADMINISTRATIVE ACTIONS?

The Administration could make changes to Medicaid without changes in legislation.

How can changes be made through guidance? A new administration can reinterpret existing laws through new regulations and new sub-regulatory guidance. While there are rules that govern how to change regulations, a new administration has more flexibility to issue or amend sub-regulatory guidance, such as state Medicaid director letters. Rules promulgated by the Obama administration could be rolled back or changed.

How can changes be made through waivers? Throughout the history of the Medicaid program, Section 1115 waivers have provided states an avenue to test and implement demonstrations that, in the view of the Health and Human Services Secretary, advance program objectives but do not meet federal program rules. Longstanding federal policy has required waivers to be budget neutral for the federal government.

What kind of waivers may be considered?  Seven states are using waivers to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion, including Indiana.  The Indiana waiver, implemented under then Governor Pence, includes provisions to impose: premiums on most Medicaid beneficiaries; a coverage lock-out period for individuals with incomes above the poverty level who fail to pay premiums; health savings accounts; and healthy behavior incentives.  The Obama administration has not approved waivers that would require work as a condition of Medicaid eligibility.  It also has denied Ohio’s waiver request to impose premiums regardless of income and exclude individuals from coverage until all arrears are paid on the basis that this would restrict or undermine coverage from existing levels.  Many other states are using waivers to implement payment and delivery system reforms.  The incoming administration could decide whether or not to renew existing waivers and can approve a new set of waivers to promote its own program goals.

Knicole Emanuel Interviewed on Recent Success: Behavioral Health Care Service Still Locked in Overbilling Dispute with State

Last Thursday, I was interviewed by a reporter from New Mexico regarding our Teambuilders win, in which an administrative judge has found that Teambuilders owes only $896 for billing errors. Here is a copy of an article published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, written by Justin Horwath:

Source: Behavioral health care service still locked in overbilling dispute with state

The true tragedy is that these companies, including Teambuilders, should not have been put out of business based on false allegations of fraud. Not only was Teambuilders cleared of fraud, but, even the ALJ agreed with us that Teambuilders does not owe $12 million – but a small, nominal amount ($896.35). Instead of having the opportunity to pay the $896.35 and without due process of law, Teambuilders was destroyed – because of allegations.

Another Win! 12 Million Dollar Recoupment Reduced to $896 – But There is a Twist

One of our clients in New Mexico had an alleged Medicaid recoupment of over $12 million!! Actually, $12,015,850.00 – to be exact. (See below). After we presented our evidence and testimony, the Judge found that we owe $896.35. I call that a win!

In this case, the Human Services Department (HSD) in New Mexico had reviewed 150 random claims. Initially, HSD claimed that 41 claims out of 150 were noncompliant.

fullsizerender-jpg

But, prior to the hearing, we saved over $10 million by pointing out HSD’s errors and/or by providing additional documentation.

And then the ALJ’s decision after we presented our evidence and testimony –

penultimatefullsizerender-jpg-3

Boom! Drop the mike…

…………………………….not so fast…

……………………………………………..picking the mike back up…

You see, in New Mexico, the administrative law judges (ALJs) cannot render decisions. Look in the above picture. You see where it reads, “Recommendation?” That is because the ALJs in New Mexico can only render recommendations.

Because Medicaid has a “single state agency” rule; i.e., that only one agency may render discretionary decisions regarding Medicaid, and HSD is the single state agency in New Mexico charged with managing Medicaid, only HSD may render a discretionary decision. So in NM, the ALJ makes a recommendation and then the Secretary of HSD has the choice to either accept or reject the decision.

Guess whether HSD accepted or rejected the ALJ’s recommendation?

reject

Now we will have to appeal the Agency’s Decision to overturn the ALJ recommendation.

Here, in NC, we obtained a waiver from the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to allow our ALJs to render Decisions. See blog.

I still consider this a win.

Medicaid Law: What Are Policies Versus Law and Why Does It Matter?

“Always follow the Golden Rule. Always treat others how you want to be treated.”

What is so great about following rules? Do we have to follow all rules? What if other people do not follow the rules? What if the rules contradict? Are some rules more important than others?

The answer is – it depends.

When you sign your provider procurement agreement with NC to provide Medicaid services, there is a sentence in it that says, something to the effect, “The provider agrees to follow all applicable state and federal rules, laws, and regulations.” Yet, I am constantly shocked how many providers are completely oblivious to what are the “applicable state and federal rules, laws, and regulations” (although it does keep me in business).

The fact is, however, not all rules are created equal.

First, what is the difference between a policy, a regulation, and a law?

A law must be followed. If you break the law, you are punished. A regulation also must be followed; however, regulations are created by state agencies through a rule-making process. Usually, the public may comment on proposed regulations prior to being enacted.

On the other hand, a rule (that has not been formally adopted by the State) is policy or guidance. For example, the DMA Clinical Coverage Policies are rules or guidance. The Policies are not promulgated; i.e., they have not undergone the official rule-making process. Don’t get me wrong – you should follow the DMA Clinical Coverage Policies. My point is that a violation of a Clinical Coverage Policy will not/should not warrant the same punishment as violating a regulation or law.

Let’s think about this in a “real-life” hypothetical.

You receive a notice of overpayment in the amount of $450,000.00 because, allegedly, your service notes are signed electronically and you do not have an electronic signature policy.

There is no law or regulation that dictates that you must have an electronic signature policy. It is best practice to have an electronic signature policy. The Medicaid Billing Guide suggests that you maintain an electronic billing policy.

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B sets forth the rule-making process. Any policy or rule that has not undergone the official rule-making process is considered nonbinding interpretative statements. N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-18 states that “[a]n agency shall not seek to implement  or enforce  against any person a policy, guideline, or other nonbinding interpretative statement…if the statement has not been adopted as a rule in accordance with this Article.” (emphasis added).

Because there is no law or regulation requiring you to have an electronic signature policy, the State cannot punish you for not having one. In other words, the State cannot hold you to arbitrary criteria unless that criteria was formally adopted in the rule-making process.

How do you know if a policy or rule has been formally adopted?

Any policy or rule that is formally adopted will have a legal citation. For example, N.C. Gen. Stat 150B is a formal law. 10A NCAC 27G .0104 is a formal regulation – it is part of our administrative code. NC DMA Clinical Coverage Policies and the Medicaid Billing Guide are comprised of nonbinding, interpretative statements, as well as law and regulations. Usually, when a law or regulation is cited in the Policies or Billing Guide the formal, legal citation is also provided, but not always. I know, it’s confusing, yet extremely important.

You cannot and should not be punished for violating suggestions, policy, or nonbinding, interpretative statements. You should not be punished for not “treating others how you would like to be treated.” – That is not a law.

It is important to know the distinction because, apparently, those in charge of our Medicaid program, at times, do not.

Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies: Futile as the Caucus-Race?

Answer – Sometimes.

How many of you have received Remittance Advices from NCTracks that are impossible to understand, include denials without appeal rights, or, simply, are erroneous denials with no guidance as to the next steps?  While these were most prevalent in the first couple years after NCTracks was rolled out (back in July 2013), these burdensome errors still exist.

You are allowed to re-submit a claim to NCTracks for 18 months. How many times do you have to receive the denial in order for that denial to be considered a “final decision?” And, why is it important whether a denial is considered a final decision?

  1. Why is it important that a denial be considered a “final decision?”

As a health care provider, your right to challenge the Department of Health and Human Services’ (via CSC or NCTracks’) denial instantly becomes ripe (or appealable) only after the denial is a final decision.

Yet, with the current NCTracks system, you can receive a denial for one claim over and over and over and over without ever receiving a “final decision.”

It reminds me of the Causus-race in Alice and Wonderlandalice“There was no ‘One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?'” – Alice in Wonderland.

On behalf of all health care providers who accept Medicaid in North Carolina and suffered hardship because of NCTracks, at my former firm, I helped file the NCTracks class action lawsuit, Abrons Family Practice, et al., v. NCDHHS, et al., No. COA15-1197, which was heard before the NC Court of Appeals on June 12, 2015. The Opinion of the Court of Appeals was published today (October 18, 2016).

The Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs were not required to “exhaust their administrative remedies” by informal methods and the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) prior to bringing a lawsuit in the State Court for damages because doing to would be futile – like the Caucus-race. “But who has won?” asked Alice.

Plaintiffs argued that, without a “final decision” by DHHS as to the submitted claims, it is impossible for them to pursue the denials before the OAH.

And the Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, agrees.

The Abrons decision solidifies my contention over the past 4-5 years that a reconsideration review is NOT required by law prior to filing a Petition for Contested Case at OAH…. Boom! Bye, Felicia!

Years ago, I informed a client, who was terminated by an managed care organization (MCO), that she should file Petition for Contested Case at OAH without going through the informal reconsideration review. One – the informal reconsideration review was before the very agency that terminated her (futile); and two – going through two processes instead of one costs more in attorneys’ fees (burdensome).

We filed in OAH, and the judge dismissed the case, stating that we failed to exhaust our administrative remedies.

I have disagreed with that ruling for years (Psssst – judges do not always get it right, although we truly hope they do. But, in judges’ defenses, the law is an ever-changing, morphing creature that bends and yields to the community pressures and legal interpretations. Remember, judges are human, and to be human is to err).

However, years later, the Court of Appeals agreed with me, relying on the same argument I made years ago before OAH.

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 states that it is the policy of the State that disputes between the State and a party should be resolved through informal means. However, neither 150B-22 nor any other statute or regulation requires that a provider pursue the informal remedy of a reconsideration review. See my blog from 2013.

I love it when I am right. – And, according to my husband, it is a rarity.

Here is another gem from the Abrons opinion:

“DHHS is the only entity that has the authority to render a final decision on a contested medicaid claim. It is DHHS’ responsibility to make the final decision and to furnish the provider with written notification of the decision and of the provider’s appeal rights, as required by N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-23(f).”

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-23(f) states, ” Unless another statute or a federal statute or regulation sets a time limitation for the filing of a petition in contested cases against a specified agency, the general limitation for the filing of a petition in a contested case is 60 days. The time limitation, whether established by another statute, federal statute, or federal regulation, or this section, shall commence when notice is given of the agency decision to all persons aggrieved who are known to the agency by personal delivery or by the placing of the notice in an official depository of the United States Postal Service wrapped in a wrapper addressed to the person at the latest address given by the person to the agency. The notice shall be in writing, and shall set forth the agency action, and shall inform the persons of the right, the procedure, and the time limit to file a contested case petition. When no informal settlement request has been received by the agency prior to issuance of the notice, any subsequent informal settlement request shall not suspend the time limitation for the filing of a petition for a contested case hearing.”

2. How many times do you have to receive the denial in order for that denial to be considered a “final decision”?

There is no magic number. But the Court of Appeals in Abrons makes it clear that the “final decision” must be rendered by DHHS, not a contracted party.

So which we ask – What about terminations by MCOs? Do MCOs have the authority to terminate providers and render final decisions regarding Medicaid providers?

I would argue – no.

Our 1915b/c Waiver waives certain federal laws, not state laws. Our 1915 b/c Waiver does not waive N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B.

“But who has won?” asked Alice.

“At last the Dodo said, ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes.'” – Only in Wonderland!

Sometimes, you just need to stop running and dry off.