Blog Archives

NC Docs Face Retroactive Medicaid Rate Cut

This is a story from NC Health News by Rose Hoban…a follow up blog to come

In the 2014 state budget passed last August, state lawmakers inserted what could be considered a poison pill for Medicaid providers: a 3 percent pay cut that for specialists could be effective retroactively to January 2014.

Primary care providers such as pediatricians, internists and family doctors will see the same pay cut, effective back to Jan. 1, 2015.

But the cut is only now being implemented.

“All of us were optimistic that the cut wouldn’t happen,” said Karen Smith, a family doctor in Raeford who runs her own practice.

Smith said she and other physicians have been writing, calling and talking to legislators, working to convince them not to implement the cut.

But she and thousands of other primary care providers received notification late last week that on March 1 they would begin seeing the 3 percent cut.

And for specialists, the reduction will go back 14 months.

“It’s quite a hit,” said Elaine Ellis, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Medical Society.

Failed shared-savings plan behind the problem

The origin of the 3 percent cut goes back to the 2013 budget for Medicaid, the program that covers health care for low-income children, some of their parents, pregnant women and low-income seniors. In 2013, the federal government paid North Carolina 65.5 percent of every dollar billed for Medicaid-eligible care, while the state covered the other 34.5 percent (The rate, which changes annually, is 65.9 percent for 2015).
In 2013, the Medicaid budget had grown to close to $4 billion in state dollars, and lawmakers at the General Assembly were looking for ways to trim costs. So they devised a “shared-savings” program, in which Medicaid providers would take a 3 percent rate cut that would be collected by the state Department of Health and Human Services. If doctors and hospitals saved money by operating more efficiently, DHHS would share those savings back with the providers, effectively reducing the amount of the 3 percent cut.

But DHHS needed federal approval to initiate the program, which would have been complicated. The agency never submitted a plan to the federal government, so neither part of the program was initiated.

That created a problem for lawmakers, who had calculated the savings from the rate cut into their state budget. When lawmakers returned to Raleigh in 2014 to adjust the state’s biennial budget, they implemented the rate cut retroactively to Jan 1, 2014 for specialists. Primary care providers, such as Karen Smith, had their rate cut put off until the beginning of 2015.

Big bucks

Officials from the Medical Society have been gathering numbers from around the state and are finding that some specialty practices could owe tens of thousands of dollars that would need to be repaid to state coffers.

The need for retroactive payment is in part a logistical problem: The computerized Medicaid management information system, known as NCTracks, has not been able to process the cuts. NCTracks has had technical issues since it was rolled out in mid-2013; at that time, glitches in the system created months of delays and tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid services for providers.

“Requiring these [specialist] medical practices to pay back 3 percent of what the state has already paid them for the last 14 months would wreak havoc with the finances of these businesses – really, any business would struggle to recover from such a financial blow,” Robert Schaaf, a Raleigh radiologist and president of the Medical Society, wrote Monday in a press release.

And primary care doctors like Smith are also fretting over paying back 3 percent of what she earned from Medicaid for the past two months.

“Practices such as my own are functioning on an operating budget that’s month by month,” said Smith, who said that a great many of her patients are Medicaid recipients.

“We simply do not have that type of operating reserve to allow for that,” she said.

The cuts will be especially tough for rural providers, who have high numbers of Medicaid patients, said Greg Griggs from the N.C. Academy of Family Practitioners (The Academy of Family Practitioners is a North Carolina Health News sponsor).

“It’s one thing to make the cuts going forward, but to take money back, especially for that period of time, is pretty significant for people who’ve been willing to take care of our most needy citizens,” Griggs said.

“It’s pretty bad,” he said, “and its not like Medicaid pays extraordinarily well to begin with.”

Piling on

In addition to the state cut is a federal cut of 1 percent to Medicaid reimbursements for primary care providers that went into effect on Jan. 1.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, primary care providers like Smith got a bump in reimbursement last year, but that ran out with the new year. Smith said that legislators in other states found ways to keep paying that enhanced rate for primary care doctors.

“We were hoping our legislators would do the same,” she said.

Instead, Smith finds herself talking to her staff about possible reductions, and she’s hearing from providers in her area that they’re throwing in the towel.

“I already have colleagues who’ve left practice of medicine in this area,” she said. “My personal physician is no longer in this area. Another colleague who was a resident three years in front of me told me he cannot deal with the economics of practicing like this anymore.”

Smith acknowledged that North Carolina’s Medicaid program has a slightly higher reimbursement to physicians than surrounding states. But she said many of her patients are quite ill.

“We are in the stroke belt,” she said, referring to the high rate of strokes in eastern North Carolina. “When we look at how sick our patients are compared to other states, is it equivalent? Are we measuring apples to apples?

A New Year and We Will “Ring In” Even Lower PCS Reimbursement Rates: Time for Litigation?

Merry Christmas, everyone!!! And Happy New Year!!

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday! Personally, Christmas was wonderful for my family.  I actually took some days off.  And our 9-year-old girl received way too many presents.  Plus, I learned that we should be spending way less on her!! We bought her a new saddle, bridle and breast-strap for her horse, but, when asked what she received for Christmas, she tells everyone about the $2 marshmallow gun she received, not the saddle. Regardless, we were able to spend quality time together with my mom and dad and 2 sisters.  My husband Scott, however, got the flu and he has been in bed for the last few days…yuck! But he was healthy on Christmas.

We have been truly blessed this year, and I want to thank you all for reading my blog.

I received an email today from an owner of a home care agency that reminded me that, especially during the holidays, many people are struggling.  This home care agency owner, “we will call him Al,” informed me that he potentially will be closing his agency, which would put approximately 130 employees out of work. Al told me that his agency has been struggling over the past few years with the decrease in personal care services (PCS) reimbursement rate.

Al is not the only home care agency owner who has contacted me in the last few months bemoaning about the low PCS reimbursement rates.  The PCS reimbursement rates are set by legislature, most of the time in the budget bills.  For example, the General Assembly passed the budget this past year, which will decrease the PCS reimbursement rates by another 3% beginning January 1, 2015. (Happy New Years).

See below, which is from another blog post: “PCS Medicaid Reimbursement Rates Are TOO LOW to Maintain Adequate Quality of Care, in Violation of the Code of Federal Regulations!

“SECTION 12H.18.(b). During the 2013-2015 fiscal biennium, the Department of Health and Human Services shall withhold reduce by three percent (3%) of the payments … on or after January 1, 2014” (emphasis added).”

The PCS reimbursement rate became $13.88. Session Law 2014-100 was signed into law August 7, 2014; however, Session Law 2014-100 purports to be effective retroactively as of October 2013. (This brings into question these possible recoupments for services already rendered, which, in my opinion, would violate federal and state law, but such possible violations (or probable or currently occurring violations are a topic for another blog).

It is without question that the Medicaid reimbursement rate for PCS is too low. In NC, the PCS reimbursement rate is currently set at $13.88/hour (or $3.47/15 minutes). It is also without question that there is a direct correlation between reimbursement rates and quality of care.

Because Medicaid pays for approximately 67% of all nursing home residents and recipients of home health care in USA, the Medicaid reimbursement rates and methods are central to understanding the quality of care received by PCS services and the level of staffing criteria expected.

PCS for adults are not a required Medicaid service. As in, a state may opt to provide PCS services or not. As of 2012, 31 states/provinces provided PCS services for adults and 25 did not. Most notably, Florida, Virginia, and South Carolina did not provide PCS services for adults. See Kaiser Family Foundation website.

According to Kaiser Family Foundation, “For the personal care services state plan option, the average rate paid to provider agencies [across the nation] was $18.19 per hour in 2012, a slight increase from $17.91 per hour in 2011. In states where personal care services providers were paid directly by the state or where reimbursement rates were determined by the state, the average reimbursement rate was $16.31 per hour in 2012. Medicaid provider reimbursement rates are often set by state legislatures as part of the budget process.”

What can be done regarding these low PCS reimbursement rates in NC???

In order to change legislation, one of two avenues exist: (1) lobbying; or (2) litigation.

Over the past few years, while the PCS reimbursement rates have continued to decrease, the associations involved with home care organizations and long term care facilities (companies that provide PCS) have emphasized the lobbying aspect.  No litigation has been filed demanding a reasonable PCS reimbursement rate.

Obviously, the lobbying aspect has yielded less than desirable results.  Instead of increasing the PCS reimbursement rate, the General Assembly has continually decreased the rate.

When one line of attack does not work, you try another.

Maybe it is time for litigation.

PCS Medicaid Reimbursement Rates Are TOO LOW to Maintain Adequate Quality of Care, in Violation of the Code of Federal Regulations!

I recently spoke at the Association for Hospice and Home Care (AHHC) and the NC Association for Long Term Care Facilities (NCLTCF) conferences. At issue at both conferences was the reimbursement rate for personal care services (PCS), which is extremely important to both home health agencies (HHAs) and long-term care facilities (LTCFs).

Both AHHC and NCLTCF, as associations, are vital to the HHAs and LTCFs across the state. Associations provide a network of peers, up-to-date information, and lobbying efforts. The old saying, “United we stand, divided we fall,” comes to mind.

The saying, “United we stand, divided we fall,” was originally coined by Aesop, one of my favorite storytellers of all time, in the story “The Four Oxen and the Lion,” which goes like this:

“A lion used to prowl about a field in which four oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them. At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four.”

UNITED WE STAND, DIVIDED WE FALL.”

I think “The Four Oxen and the Lion” is indicative as to the importance of an association, generally. An association is truly essential when it comes to lobbying. There are two times during which we have a potential impact as to the wording of statutes: (1) During the forefront, by lobbying efforts; and (2) At the backend, through litigation. Obviously, if the forefront is successful, then there becomes no need for the backend.

Much to my chagrin, in my explanation above, I am the “backend.” Hmmmm.

Because I am a litigator and not a lobbyist, I am only called upon if the forefront fails.

In the last session, the General Assembly enacted Session Law 2014-100, which reduced the Medicaid reimbursement rates for all services by 3%.

“SECTION 12H.18.(b). During the 2013-2015 fiscal biennium, the Department of Health and Human Services shall withhold reduce by three percent (3%) of the payments … on or after January 1, 2014” (emphasis added).”

The PCS reimbursement rate became $13.88. Session Law 2014-100 was signed into law August 7, 2014; however, Session Law 2014-100 purports to be effective retroactively as of October 2013. (This brings into question these possible recoupments for services already rendered, which, in my opinion, would violate federal and state law, but such possible violations (or probable or currently occurring violations are a topic for another blog).

It is without question that the Medicaid reimbursement rate for PCS is too low. In NC, the PCS reimbursement rate is currently set at $13.88/hour (or $3.47/15 minutes). It is also without question that there is a direct correlation between reimbursement rates and quality of care.

Because Medicaid pays for approximately 67% of all nursing home residents and recipients of home health care in USA, the Medicaid reimbursement rates and methods are central to understanding the quality of care received by PCS services and the level of staffing criteria expected.

PCS for adults are not a required Medicaid service. As in, a state may opt to provide PCS services or not. As of 2012, 31 states/provinces provided PCS services for adults and 25 did not. Most notably, Florida, Virginia, and South Carolina did not provide PCS services for adults. See Kaiser Family Foundation website.

According to Kaiser Family Foundation, “For the personal care services state plan option, the average rate paid to provider agencies [across the nation] was $18.19 per hour in 2012, a slight increase from $17.91 per hour in 2011. In states where personal care services providers were paid directly by the state or where reimbursement rates were determined by the state, the average reimbursement rate was $16.31 per hour in 2012. Medicaid provider reimbursement rates are often set by state legislatures as part of the budget process.”

See the below chart for a state by state comparison:

PCS across country 1

PCS country 2

Why should we care about the Medicaid PCS reimbursement rates?

1. Low reimbursement rates directly, and negatively, impact quality of care.
2. The aides who provide the PCS services, whether in someone’s home or at a LTCF, are often, him or herself on Medicaid.
3. It is in our best interest as a public for home health care agencies and LTCF to continue to accept Medicaid recipients.
4. It is in our best interest as a public for home health agencies and LTCF to stay in business.

#1: Low reimbursement rates directly, and negatively, impact quality of care.

42 U.S.C.A §1396a requires that a state provide Medicaid reimbursement rates at a level to “assure that payments are consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care and are sufficient to enlist enough providers so that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population…”

In an article entitled “Nurse Staffing Levels and Medicaid Reimbursement Rates in Nursing Facilities,” written by Charlene Harrington, James H Swan, and Helen Carrillo, the authors found that the Medicaid nursing home reimbursement rates were linked to quality of care, as to both RN hours and total nursing hours.

“Resident case mix was a positive predictor of RN hours and a negative predictor of total nursing hours. Higher state minimum RN staffing standards was a positive predictor of RN and total nursing hours while for-profit facilities and the percent of Medicaid residents were negative predictors.”

Numerous other articles have been published in the last few years that cite the direct correlation between reimbursement rates and quality of care.

The argument can be made that $13.88 is too low a reimbursement rate to ensure adequate quality of care. However, again, because this rate was not prevented at the forefront, it would entail a “backend” act of litigation to adjust the current reimbursement rate. (It is important to note that beginning next year, there will be an additional reduction of rate by another 1%).

#2: The aides who provide the PCS services, whether in someone’s home or at a LTCF, is often, him or herself on Medicaid.

According to the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, an advocacy group for home care workers, 1 in 4 home health workers has a household income below the federal poverty line and more than 1 in 3 do not have health insurance.

Think about this…home care workers provide PCS to the elderly, disabled, and needy, many of which are on Medicaid and Medicare. Home care workers work full-time changing diapers, assisting with ambulation, dressing, and grooming for the elderly, yet 1 in 4 home care workers are eligible for Medicaid themselves.

Currently, federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour. 18 states have minimum wage equal to the federal minimum wage, including North Carolina. 23 states set minimum wage higher than the federal level. Washington D.C. pays the highest minimum wage at $9.50/hour.

PCS reimbursement rates in NC are $3.47/15 minutes, or $13.88/hour. $13.88 is above the federal and NC minimum wage of $7.25. However, just because the PCS reimbursement rate is $13.88/hour does not mean that the PCS workers are receiving $13.88/hour. The owners of HHAs and LTCFs pay their workers much less than $13.88/hour; they have overhead, insurance, taxes, salaries, etc. to pay…not to mention a percentage of the $13.88/hour needs to be allocated to profit (albeit, however, small).

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2013, the average PCS worker’s salary in NC is $19,392/year, or $1,660/month. Working 40 hours a week, a salary of $17,280 equates to approximately $10.10/hour. Obviously, $10.10 is well-above our $7.25 minimum wage, although difficult to make ends meet.

The average fast food worker’s hourly wage is $7.73.

In order for an increase of hourly pay, of any amount, for home health workers, the Medicaid PCS reimbursement rate would need to be increased.

With the current PCS rate at $13.88/hour, home health workers are getting paid between $8.00-11.00/hour. In order for PCS workers to receive $15.00/hour, the PCS rate would need to be increased by $2.00-5.00/hour.

#3: It is in our best interest as a public for HHAs and LTCFs to continue to accept Medicaid recipients.

What if HHA and LTCF refused to accept Medicaid recipients because the reimbursement rates are simply too low?

With the number of people dependent on Medicaid, if HHAs and LTCFs refused Medicaid recipients, our elderly and disabled would suffer.

Perhaps the average length of life would decrease. Perhaps we would implement legal euthanasia. Perhaps the suicide rate would increase. Perhaps the homelessness percentage would reach an all-time high. Is this the world in which you want to live?? Is this the world in which you want to age??

In my opinion, the way we treat our elderly, disabled and needy population is a direct reflection on the level of civilization or educated sophistication.

Here is an excerpt of an article published in 2013 when China passed its new Elderly Rights Law:

Korea: Celebrating old age
Not only do Koreans respect the elderly, but they also celebrate them. For Koreans, the 60th and 70th birthdays are prominent life events, which are commemorated with large-scale family parties and feasts. As in Chinese culture, the universal expectation in Korea is that roles reverse once parents age, and that it is an adult child’s duty — and an honorable one at that — to care for his or her parents.

The U.S. and U.K.: Protestantism at play
Western cultures tend to be youth-centric, emphasizing attributes like individualism and independence. This relates back to the Protestant work ethic, which ties an individual’s value to his or her ability to work — something that diminishes in old age. Anthropologist Jared Diamond, who has studied the treatment of the elderly across cultures, has said the geriatric in countries like the U.K. and U.S. live “lonely lives separated from their children and lifelong friends.” As their health deteriorates, the elderly in these cultures often move to retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes.”

#4: It is in our best interest as a public for HHAs and LTCFs to stay in business.

Or we can become more like the Koreans. At least, in this one respect, would emulating the Korean attitude be so bad?

Conclusion

Obviously, we cannot shift the American attitude toward the elderly, disabled and needy within one generation.

But we CAN increase the PCS reimbursement rate.

Here, the forefront was not as effective as needed. Maybe there is a need for a “backend” act of litigation…