Eastpointe Sues DHHS, Former Sec. Brajer, Nash County, and Trillium Claiming Conspiracy! (What It Means for Providers)
In HBO’s Game of Thrones, nine, noble, family houses of Westeros fight for the Iron Throne – either vying to claim the throne or fighting for independence from the throne.
Similarly, when NC moved to the managed care organizations for Medicaid behavioral health care services, we began with 12 MCOs (We actually started with 23 (39 if you count area authorities) LME/MCOs, but they quickly whittled down to 11). “The General Assembly enacted House Bill 916 (S.L. 2011-264) (“H.B. 916) to be effective June 23, 2011, which required the statewide expansion of the 1915(b)/(c) Medicaid Waiver Program to be completed within the State by July 1, 2013.” Compl. at 25. Now the General Assembly is pushing for more consolidation.
Now we have seven (7) MCOs remaining, and the future is uncertain. With a firehose of money at issue and the General Assembly’s push for consolidation, it has become a bloody battle to remain standing in the end, because, after all, only one may claim the Iron Throne. And we all know that “Winter is coming.”
Seemingly, as an attempt to remain financially viable, last week, on Thursday, June 8, 2017, Eastpointe, one of our current MCOs, sued the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Nash County, Trillium Health Resources, another MCO, and former secretary Richard Brajer in his individual and former official capacity. Since the Complaint is a public record, you can find the Complaint filed in the Eastern District of NC, Western Division, Civil Action 5:17-CV-275. My citations within this blog correspond with the paragraphs in the Complaint, not page numbers.
Eastpointe’s Complaint wields a complex web of conspiracy, government interference, and questionable relationships that would even intrigue George R. R. Martin.
The core grievance in the lawsuit is Eastpointe alleges that DHHS, Trillium, Nash County, and Brajer unlawfully conspired and interfered with Eastpointe’s contract to manage behavioral health care services for its twelve (12) county catchment area, including Nash County. In 2012, Nash County, as part of the The Beacon Center, signed a contract and became part of a merger with Eastpointe being the sole survivor (Beacon Center and Southeastern Regional Mental Health were swallowed by Eastpointe). At the heart of Eastpointe’s Complaint, Eastpointe is alleging that Nash County, Trillium, DHHS, and Brajer conspired to breach the contract between Eastpointe and Nash County and unlawfully allowed Nash County to join Trillium’s catchment area.
In June 2013, the General Assembly, pursuant to Senate Bill 208 (S.L. 2013-85 s. 4.(b)), appended N.C.G.S. § 122C-115 to include subparagraph (a3), permitting a county to disengage from one LME/MCO and align with another with the approval of the Secretary of the NCDHHS, who was required by law to promulgate “rules to establish a process for county disengagement.” N.C.G.S. § 122C-115(a3) (“Rules”) (10A N.C.A.C. 26C .0701-03).
Why does it matter whether Medicaid recipients receive behavioral health care services from providers within Trillium or Eastpointe’s catchment area?? As long as the medically necessary services are rendered – that should be what is important – right?
Wrong. First, I give my reason as a cynic (realist), then as a philanthropist (wishful thinker).
Cynical answer – The MCOs are prepaid. In general and giving a purposely abbreviated explanation, the way in which the amount is determined to pre-pay an MCO is based on how many Medicaid recipients reside within the catchment area who need behavioral health care services. The more people in need of Medicaid behavioral health care services in a catchment area, the more money the MCO receives to manage such services. With the removal of Nash County from Eastpointe’s catchment area, Eastpointe will lose approximately $4 million annually and Trillium will gain approximately $4 million annually, according to the Complaint. This lawsuit is a brawl over the capitated amount of money that Nash County represents, but it also is about the Iron Throne. If Eastpointe becomes less financially secure and Trillium becomes more financially secure, then it is more likely that Eastpointe would be chewed up and swallowed in any merger.
Philanthropic answer – Allowing Nash County to disengage from Eastpointe’s catchment area would inevitably disrupt behavioral health care services to our most fragile and needy population. Medicaid recipients would be denied access to their chosen providers…providers that may have been treating them for years and created established trust. Allowing Nash County to disembark from Eastpointe would cause chaos for those least fortunate and in need of behavioral health care services.
Eastpointe also alleges that DHHS refused to approve a merger between Eastpointe and Cardinal purposefully and with the intent to sabotage Eastpointe’s financial viability.
Also in its Complaint, Eastpointe alleges a statewide, power-hungry, money-grubbing conspiracy in which Brajer and DHHS and Trillium are conspiring to pose Trillium as the final winner in the “MCO Scramble to Consolidate,” “Get Big or Die” MCO mentality arising out of the legislative push for MCO consolidation. Because, as with any consolidation, duplicate executives are cut.
Over the last couple years, Eastpointe has discussed merging with Cardinal, Trillium, and Sandhills – none of which occurred. Comparably, Joffrey Lannister and Sansa Stark discussed merging. As did Viserys and Illyrio wed Daenerys to Khal Drogo to form an alliance between the Targaryens.
Some of the most noteworthy and scandalous accusations:
Leza Wainwright, CEO of Trillium and director of the NC Council of Community MH/DD/SA Programs (“NCCCP”) (now I know why I’ve never been invited to speak at NCCCP). Wainwright “brazenly took actions adverse to the interest of Eastpointe in violation of the NCCCP mission, conflicts of interest policy of the organization, and her fiduciary duty to the NCCCP and its members.” Compl. at 44.
Robinson, Governing Board Chair of Trillium, “further informed Brajer that he intended for Trillium to be the surviving entity in any merger with Eastpointe and that “any plan predicated on Trillium and Eastpointe being coequal is fundamentally flawed.”” Compl. at 61.
“On or about May 11, 2016, Denauvo Robinson (“Robinson”), Governing Board Chair of Trillium wrote Brajer, without copying Eastpointe, defaming Eastpointe’s reputation in such a way that undermined the potential merger of Eastpointe and Trillium.” Compl. at 59.
“Robinson, among other false statements, alleged the failure to consummate a merger between Eastpointe, CoastalCare, and East Carolina Behavioral Health LMEs was the result of Eastpointe’s steadfast desire to maintain control, and Eastpointe’s actions led those entities to break discussions with Eastpointe and instead merge to form Trillium.” Compl. at 60.
“Trillium, not Nash County, wrote Brajer on November 28, 2016 requesting approval to disengage from Eastpointe and to align with Trillium.” Compl. at 69.
Dave Richards, Deputy Secretary for Medical Assistance, maintains a “strong relationship with Wainwright” and “displayed unusual personal animus toward Kenneth Jones, Eastpointe’s former CEO.” Compl. at 47.
Brajer made numerous statements to Eastpointe staff regarding his animus toward Jones and Eastpointe. “Brajer continued to push for a merger between Eastpointe and Trillium.” Compl. at 53.
“On December 5, 2016, the same day that former Governor McCrory conceded the election to Governor Cooper, Brajer wrote a letter to Trillium indicating that he approved the disengagement and realignment of Nash County.” Compl. at 72.
“On March 17, 2016, however, Brajer released a memorandum containing a plan for consolidation of the LME/MCOs, in which NCDHHS proposed Eastpointe being merged with Trillium.” Compl. at 55.
Brajer’s actions were “deliberately premature, arbitrary, and capricious and not in compliance with statute and Rule, and with the intent to destabilize Eastpointe as an LME/MCO).” Compl. at 73.
“Brajer conspired with Nash County to cause Nash County to breach the Merger Agreement.” Compl. at 86.
Brajer “deliberately sought to block any merger between Eastpointe and other LME/MCOs except Trillium.” Compl. at 96.
“Brajer and NCDHHS’s ultra vires and unilateral approval of the Nash County disengagement request effective April 1, 2017 materially breached the contract between Eastpointe and NCDHHS. Equally brazen was Brajer’s calculated failure to give Eastpointe proper notice of the agency action taken or provide Eastpointe with any rights of appeal.” Compl. at 101.
Against Nash County
“To date, Nash County is Six Hundred Fifty Three Thousand Nine Hundred Fifty Nine Thousand and 16/100 ($653,959.16) in arrears on its Maintenance of Efforts to Eastpointe.” Compl. at 84.
“While serving on Eastpointe’s area board, Nash County Commissioner Lisa Barnes, in her capacity as a member of the Nash County Board of Commissioners, voted to adopt a resolution requesting permission for Nash County to disengage from Eastpointe and realign with Trillium. In so doing, Barnes violated her sworn oath to the determent of Eastpointe.” Compl. at 85.
What Eastpointe’s lawsuit could potentially mean to providers:
Eastpointe is asking the Judge in the federal court of our eastern district for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction prohibiting Nash County from withdrawing from Eastpointe’s catchment area and joining Trillium’s catchment area. It is important to note that the behavioral health care providers in Eastpointe’s catchment area may not be the same behavioral health care providers in Trillium’s catchment area. There may be some overlap, but without question there are behavioral health care providers in Trillium’s catchment area that are not in Eastpointe’s catchment area and vice versa.
If Eastpointe is not successful in stopping Nash County from switching to Trillium’s catchment area, those providers who provide services in Nash County need to inquire – if you do not currently have a contract with Trillium, will Trillium accept you into its catchment area, because Trillium runs a closed network?!?! If Trillium refuses to include Nash County’s behavioral health care providers in its catchment area, those Nash County providers risk no longer being able to provide services to their consumers. If this is the case, these Nash County, non-Trillium providers may want to consider joining Eastpointe’s lawsuit as a third-party intervenor, as an interested, aggrieved person. Obviously, you would, legally, be on Eastpointe’s side, hoping to stay Nash County’s jump from Eastpointe to Trillium.
Even if Eastpointe is successful in stopping Nash County’s Benedict Arnold, then, as a provider in Eastpointe’s catchment area, you need to think ahead. How viable is Eastpointe? Eastpointe’s lawsuit is a powerful indication that Eastpointe itself is concerned about the future, although this lawsuit could be its saving grace. How fair (yet realistic) is it that whichever providers happen to have a contract with the biggest, most powerful MCO in the end get to continue to provide services and those providers with contracts with smaller, less viable MCOs are put out of business based on closed networks?
If Nash County is allowed to defect from Eastpointe and unite with Trillium, all providers need to stress. Allowing a county to abscond from its MCO on the whim of county leadership could create absolute havoc. Switching MCOs effects health care providers and Medicaid recipients. Each time a county decides to choose a new MCO the provider network is upended. Recipients are wrenched from the provider of their choice and forced to re-invent the psychological wheel to their detriment. Imagine Cherokee County being managed by Eastpointe…Brunswick County being managed by Vaya Health…or Randolph County being managed by Partners. Location-wise, it would be an administrative mess. Every election of a county leadership could determine the fate of a county’s Medicaid recipients.
Here is a map of the current 7 MCOs:
All behavioral health care providers should be keeping a close watch on the MCO consolidations and this lawsuit. There is nothing that requires the merged entity to maintain or retain the swallowed up entities provider network. Make your alliances because…
“Winter is coming.”
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?
- 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 Wonderland. “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.
In the 1968 Presidential campaign, Richard Nixon stated that “new leadership will end the war” in Vietnam. Also, in a 1968 interview, Nixon said he had “no magic formula” or “gimmick” for ending the Vietnam War. Then, in his memoirs, Nixon stated he never claimed to have such a plan. This is called a broken election promise.
Sadly, Richard Nixon’s broken election promise was not the first, nor would it be the last. We have become used to politicians making election promises and breaking those same promises which got them elected once they are in office.
“If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.”
“Read my lips: no new taxes.”
Over the last few years, I have written ad nausem about accountability and proper supervision when it comes to the Managed Care Organizations (MCOs) in North Carolina. The other day, I was reviewing some pertinent federal regulations and came across this:
§ 438.52 Choice of MCOs, PIHPs, PAHPs, and PCCMs.
• General rule. Except as specified in paragraphs (b) and (c) of this section, a State that requires Medicaid beneficiaries to enroll in an MCO, PIHP, PAHP, or PCCM must give those beneficiaries a choice of at least two entities.
Obviously, North Carolina is not adhering to the above-referenced requirement.
Pull up the Waiver. In order to offer Medicaid enrollees only one MCO or other such entity, North Carolina would have had to request a waiver of 42 CFR § 438.52.If you rely on Medicaid for behavioral health care and live in Wake County, you have no choice but to rely on the provider network of only entity, Alliance Behavioral Health (Alliance), to receive services. For example, you do not get to choose between Alliance’s provider network and Eastpointe Behavioral Healthcare’s (Eastpointe) provider network. Staying with the same theoretical hypothesis, if your provider was not anointed with the gift of being in Alliance’s network, then you do not get to stay with your provider.
“If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.”
Similar to President Barack Obama’s contention quoted above, we made similar promises to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Our promises are found within our Waivers. We have two Waivers, one for the developmentally disabled population and one for the mentally ill/substance abuse population. Each Waiver waives certain federal exceptions. However, in lieu of the federal requirements, we make certain promises to CMS. In order to waive 42 CFR § 438.52, we made certain promises to CMS in order to circumvent the necessary provisions of 42 CFR § 438.52.
The State sought a waiver of section 1902(a)(4) of the Act:
“The State seeks a waiver of section 1902(a)(4) of the Act, which requires States to offer a choice of more than one PIHP or PAHP per 42 CFR 438.52. Please describe how the State will ensure this lack of choice of PIHP or PAHP is not detrimental to beneficiaries’ ability to access services.”
Here are our promises:
“Under these circumstances, the State does not believe that making only one plan available in each geographic area of the State will negatively impact recipients’ access to care.”
“The LMEs have decades of experience locating and developing services for consumers with MH/IDD/SAS needs, and over the years, have built strong and collaborative working relationships with the providers of these services.”
“These providers support this initiative and consumers have at least as much choice in individual providers as they had in the non-managed care environment.”
“Enrollees will have free choice of providers within the PIHP serving their respective geographic area and may change providers as often as desired. If an individual joins the PIHP and is already established with a provider who is not a member of the network, the PIHP will make every effort to arrange for the consumer to continue with the same provider if the consumer so desires.”
“If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.”
My two personal favorites among the State’s promises to CMS are: (1) “consumers have at least as much choice in individual providers as they had in the non-managed care environment;” and (2) the PIHP will make every effort to arrange for the consumer to continue with the same provider if the consumer so desires.”
These promises, in reality, are utter horsefeathers.
Over and over my provider clients come to me because one of the MCOs has terminated their Medicaid contract, usually for absolutely no valid reason. Over and over my provider clients tell me that their consumers are devastated by the news that they may lose their provider. I have had consumers contact me to beg me to help the provider. I have had consumers appear in court stating how much they want that particular provider. I have had provider clients cry in my office because their consumers are so upset and regressing because of the news that they may have to find another provider.
Yet, we have promised CMS that consumers have just as much choice in providers than when there was no managed care.
In the words of Dorothy from the Wizard of OZ, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Frightening him like that when he came to you for help.”
Similarly, our Medicaid recipients go to their providers for help. They create relationships…trust…bonds. And the MCOs are terminating these very providers, most for invalid and erroneous reasons, and, certainly, without the consideration of our promise to CMS.
But, remember, we are told the PIHPs will make every effort to keep the consumer with the chosen provider…
It would be interesting to do a public records request as to how many providers have been terminated by the MCOs in the last 2 years. Because, even if only 1 provider were terminated in the past 2 years and its consumers still wanted to go to that particular provider, then our State has broken its promise.
Apparently, due to my outspoken positions, DHHS will no longer honor my public records requests, which I think is absolutely preposterous. I am, still, a paying taxpayer last time I checked, which is every pay-day when I only get 60% of my wages. If any of you would submit this public records request, please forward it to me. I would be grateful for the information.
Do you know the difference between the 1915 b/c Waiver and the Technical Guide?
You should! (If you provide Medicaid mental health or substance abuse services or services to developmentally disabled persons).
What is the 1915 b/c Waiver (the “Waiver”)?
It is a document (a very large document) that all health care providers, recipients and State agencies must adhere to in order for Medicaid recipients to receive the medically necessary services needed. The consequence of anyone in NC not following the Waiver? The feds can come and recoup Medicaid money…or perform any other allowable remedy/punishment. Basically, everyone in NC (germane to Medicaid) must follow the Waiver or answer to the federal government.
The Waiver applies to Medicaid recipients suffering mental health issues, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) granted the North Carolina Waiver, which operates under Section 1915 (c) of the Social Security Act. This Waiver operates concurrently with a 1915 (b) Waiver, the North Carolina Mental Health/Developmental Disabilities/ Substance Abuse Services Health Plan (NC MH/DD/SAS Health Plan).
In sum, the Waiver is a document approved by the federal government (CMS). The Waiver applies to Medicaid recipients suffering mental illness, developmental disabilities and substance abuse. We must adhere to the Waiver…or else.
So what is the Technical Guide?
First, what is it not? If the Waiver is Medicaid “law,” the Technical Guide is not.
When you were in high school, did you ever read Cliffsnotes? You know, your English teacher assigns “The Great Gatsby,” but you have so many other important things to do in high school other than to read “The Great Gatsby.” So you get the Cliffsnotes. Easy enough, right?
Until your teacher tests on details in “The Great Gatsby” that were not in the Cliffsnotes…
I am NOT (capital N.O.T.) comparing the Technical Guide to Cliffsnotes. The Technical Guide is approximately 350 pages. If Cliffsnotes were 350 pages long, then the actual book would be over 1000 pages. If the Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) were attempting to draft an abridged version of the Waiver with the Technical Guide, then someone grossly misunderstood the word “abridged.”
DMA prepares the Waiver, and (although I have never been present for the process of its creation) I believe that DMA works extraordinarily hard on the Technical Guide.
Despite, DMA’s hard work, the Technical Guide, generally, is not identical to the Waiver.
If the Technical Guide were identical to the Waiver, then the Technical Guide and the Waiver would be identical, right?
The Technical Guide is supposed to be a “user-friendly” rendition of the Waiver. Because, folks, I am here to tell you, the Waiver is NOT “reader-friendly.”
But….beware….if it comes down to a legal argument in a court of law, the Technical Guide is not law…the Waiver is law. So if you are having your employees read the Technical Guide in lieu of the actual Waiver, you MAY be in violation of the Waiver, even though you meet the Technical Guide criteria.
For example, in the Technical Guide, for authorization of In-Home Intensive Supports, for prior authorization, a Medicaid recipient could use (for prior authorization):
“Until the participant has a Supports Intensity Scale assessment [SIS assessment], the NC SNAP is used and the participant must have a score of at least 4 or 5 in Medical and/or Behavioral.”
According to the Technical Guide, a SNAP score can be used in order to receive authorization for In-Home Intensive Services.
However, the Waiver says nothing about a SNAP score. According to the Waiver, the ONLY document that can be used for prior authorization for In-Home Intensive Supports is the SIS assessment.
Not the SNAP!
Ambiguity? I think so…
But, when the English teacher tests on the details of “The Great Gatsby” that were not found in the Cliffsnotes, you fail.
Similarly, when you only follow the Technical Guide, you may find yourself (legally) holding the “Cliffsnotes of the Waiver.”