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.
Remember July 1, 2013? Providers across North Carolina probably still suffer PTSD at the mention of the “go-live” date for NCTracks. If you remember July 1, 2013, you probably also remember that my former firm filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the physicians in NC who suffered losses from NCTracks’ inception.
There was oral argument at the NC Business Court.
“Ultimately, the burden of proving that administrative remedies are inadequate in this action rests on Plaintiffs. Jackson, 131 N.C. App. at 186. Although sympathetic to the apparently difficult administrative process, the Court concludes that, particularly in light of the fact that not a single Plaintiff has attempted to use the available administrative procedures to resolve their Medicaid reimbursement claims, Plaintiffs have simply failed to satisfy this burden. Accordingly, Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) should be GRANTED.”
While I understand the logic applied to come to this decision, I do not necessarily agree with the outcome. There are exceptions to the exhaustion of administrative remedies, which, in my humble opinion, are present here.
(This blog contains my own opinions as to the NCTracks ruling and not those of my present or former firms. It is not intended to claim any ruling was incorrect or inconsistent with case law, rules, and statutes).
(Try to read the foregoing sentences in a fast-paced, tiny, whispery voice, like a pharmaceutical commercial).
Regardless, where does this decision leave the physicians in NC who suffered under an, admittedly, botched, beginning of NCTracks? (Even DHHS recognized the imperfections at the beginning).
First, what is the doctrine of failure of administrative remedies? (I was going to start with what is NCTracks, but you do not know what NCTracks is, you probably should begin reading some of my earlier blog posts: blog; and blog; and blog).
In a nutshell, the exhaustion doctrine dictates that if a party disagrees with an adverse action of a state agency that the party must exhaust its administrative remedies before asking for relief from a civil court judge.
Law 101: The Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) has limited jurisdiction. It only has jurisdiction over those matters specifically granted to it by statute. If you have an issue with a final adverse decision of a state agency, you sue at OAH. In other words, if you want to sue a state agency, such as DHHS, or any of its agents, like an MCO, you sue at OAH, not Superior Court. An Administrative Law Judge, or ALJ, presides over the court. While OAH is more informal than Superior Court, OAH follows the rules of civil procedure unless an administrative rule exists.
If a Superior Court were to find that the party failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, then the court would find that the party lacked subject matter jurisdiction; i.e., the court is holding that it does not have the authority to determine the legal question at issue.
You would be back to square one, and, potentially, miss an appeal deadline.
In the Medicaid world this is similar to a managed care organization (MCO) having an informal review process internally which would be required prior to bringing a Petition for Judicial Review at OAH.
Were you to bring a Petition for Judicial Review at OAH prior to attending an informal reconsideration review at the MCO, the ALJ would, most likely, dismiss the case for failure to exhaust your administrative remedies.
But in the NCTracks case, the Plaintiffs sued DHHS and Computer Science Corporation (CSC). CSC is, arguably, not a state agency. The only way in which you could sue CSC at OAH would be for an ALJ to determine that CSC is an agent of a state agency. And, who knows? Maybe CSC is an agent of DHHS. Judge McGuire does not address this issue in his Order.
Many of you may wonder why I opine that CSC is not an agent of the state, yet surmise that the MCOs are agents of DHHS. Here is my reasoning: DHHS, in order to bestow or delegate its powers of administering behavioral health to the MCOs, was required to request a Waiver from the federal government. Unlike with CSC, DHHS merely contracted with CSC; no Waiver was required. That Waiver (two Waivers, really, the 1915(b) and 1915(c)) allow the MCOs to step into the shoes of DHHS….to a degree…and only as far as was requested and approved by CMS…no more. I view CSC as a contractor or vendor of DHHS, while the MCOs are limited agents.
Going back to NCTracks…
One can surmise that, because Judge McGuire dismissed the entire lawsuit and did not keep CSC as a party, Judge McGuire opined that CSC is an agent of DHHS. But there is a possibility that the providers sue in OAH and an ALJ determines that OAH is not a proper venue for CSC. Then what? Back to Superior Court and/or Business Court?
Why do you have to exhaust your administrative remedies? It does seem too burdensome to jump through all the hoops.
The rationale behind requiring parties to exhaust their administrative remedies is that those entities (such as OAH) that hear these specialized cases over and over and develop an expertise to decide the certain esoteric matters that arise under their jurisdiction. Also, the doctrine of separation of powers dictates that an agency created by Congress should be allowed to carry out its duties without undue interference from the judiciary.
For example, Judges Don Overby and Melissa Lassiter, ALJs at the NC OAH have, without question, presided over more Medicaid cases than any Superior Court Judge in the state (unless a Superior Court is a former ALJ, like Judge Beecher Gray). The thinking is that, since Overby and Lassiter, or, ALJs, generally, have presided over more Medicaid cases than the average judge, that the ALJs have formed expertise in area. Which is probably true. It cannot be helped. When you hear the same arguments over and over, you tend to research the answers and form an opinion.
So there is the “why,” what about the exceptions?
There are exceptions to the general rule of having to exhaust your administrative remedies that may or may not be present in the NC tracks case. If you ask me, exceptions are present. If you ask Judge McGuire vis-à-vis his Order, there are no exceptions that were applicable.
One such exception to the general rule that you must exhaust your administrative remedies is if bringing a case at the informal administrative level would be futile. If you can prove futility, then you are not required to exhaust your administrative remedies. Another exception is if you are requesting monetary damages that cannot be awarded at the administrative law level.
Where the administrative remedy is inadequate, a plaintiff is not required to exhaust that remedy before turning to the courts. Shell Island, 134 N.C. App. at 222. The burden of establishing the inadequacy of an administrative remedy is on the party asserting inadequacy. Huang v. N.C. State Univ., 107 N.C. App. 110, 115 (1992).
What DHHS argued, in order to have the case dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and Judge McGuire agreed with, is:
that adequate administrative remedies exist for all health care providers when NCTracks improperly denies claims.
This holding is not without questions.
Some providers re-bill denied claims over and over. There is a question as to when do you appeal? The first denial? The second? The Fourteenth? At which point do you accept the denial from NCTracks as a “final agency decision?” Do you use the “3 strikes and you’re out” rule? Do you give NCTracks a mulligan? Or do you wait until NCTracks “fouls out” with a 6th denial?
Another question that remains hanging in the wake of the NCTracks dismissal is how will providers handle the sheer volume of denials. Some providers receive voluminous denials. Some RAs can be hundreds of pages long.
Let’s contemplate this argument in a hypothetical. You run a nephrology practice. The bulk of your patients are Medicaid (90% Medicaid, although 50% are dual eligible with Medicaid/Medicare). You have approximately 500-700 patients, who come see your doctors because they are in need of dialysis. You know that if a person does not receive dialysis that there is a chance that the person can enter Stage 5 (end stage renal disease) and die quickly. However, upon July 1, 2013, when NCTracks went live, you stopped receiving Medicaid payments completely. Do you stop accepting and treating your Medicaid patients? Obviously you do not stop accepting Medicaid patients? But your practice cannot sustain itself. Even if you continue to treat Medicaid patients, at some point, you will be out of business, failing to meet payroll, and being forced to involuntarily not treat your patients.
Your patients in need of dialysis come to the office 3x per week. A single hemodialysis treatment typically costs up to $500 or more — or, about $72,000 or more per year for the typical three treatments per week.
Let’s approximate with 500 patients. 500 patients multiplied by 3x per week is 1,500 per week. That is 1,500 denials per week. What Judge McGuire is saying is that your office is burdened with appealing 1,500 denials per week. Or 6,000 denials per month. Or 72,000 appeals per year.
Which of your office staff will be charged with appealing at OAH 72,000 denials per year? The physicians? You, the office manager (because you obviously have nothing else to do)? The receptionist? Hire someone new? For how much? How will you recoup the cost of appealing 72,000 denials per year? How many hours does it cost to appeal one? Hire an attorney?
Obviously, my example is one of an extreme case with 100% denials. But the sentiment holds true even for 30%, 40%, or 50% of denials. The sheer volume would be overwhelming.
And you can imagine the backlog that would be created at OAH.
Judge McGuire’s decision that plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies issue appears to be based, in part, that because no plaintiff had tried to go to OAH, plaintiffs could not convince him that the administrative remedy was non-functional.
“Significantly, none of the Plaintiffs even attempted to use the administrative procedures to address the failure to pay claims and other issues they allegedly encountered in attempting to use NCTracks. Instead, Plaintiffs allege that the administrative process would have been futile and inadequate to provide the relief they seek.” See Abrons Family Practice v. DHHS and CSC, ¶ 36 (emphasis added).
Well, first of all, when I moved to Gordon & Rees, I left this case in the capable hands of my former partners, so I have no special intelligence, but I wager that this is not the end.
There are choices. They could:
(1) Appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals;
(2) File an insurmountable number of petition’s at OAH; or
(3) Do nothing.
For some reason, I have my doubts that #3 will occur.
What do you think??? What should the Plaintiffs do now in the wake of this dismissal?
Happy New Year, everyone!!! Hope your New Year’s celebrations were safe and surrounded by friends and family! According to a journalist, the new year did not ring in the Medicaid reimbursements owed by NCTracks. (Obviously I cannot comment on NCTracks’ current status due to the lawsuit we filed on behalf of all physicians in NC).
Here is the following article by Mike Voorheis…
A year after a Wilmington doctor filed a lawsuit, the state still owes his practice more than $100,000 in unpaid or underpaid Medicaid and Medicare services, he says.
Dr. S. Albert Abrons, a family physician, is the first of seven plaintiffs listed in Abrons vs. N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, a class-action suit, (filed by Williams Mullen), that seeks unspecified damages from the state and three other defendants responsible for the development and implementation of NC Tracks, the software that disburses Medicare and Medicaid payments to health care providers.
Problems with the software began immediately in January 2013 and continued for about 14 months, Abrons said. During that time, Abrons and his staff treated thousands of Medicaid patients. Instead of being reimbursed at the higher Medicare rate for primary care services – a provision of the Affordable Care Act – Abrons was reimbursed at the lower Medicaid rate.
That amounted to about $20 per visit, his office manager said, eventually leading to a six-figure deficit.
Abrons said that meant he had to take out loans and couldn’t give raises to his employees when he wanted to.
“The state still owes me and every provider, I presume, enhanced payments for 2013,” Abrons said.
Abrons fought the state to correct numerous errors beyond the reimbursement rates, he said. The harder he pushed, the less receptive DHHS became.
“There was a complete lack of courtesy,” Abrons said. “Those people have no humanity.”
N.C. Rep. Susi Hamilton, D-New Hanover, was also very critical of DHHS’ response.
“The problem clearly starts at the top,” Hamilton said, referring to DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos.
“There is an unwillingness to admit that there are problems. We’ve left several messages and were unable to get a response.”
The state filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in July and did not wish to comment further, spokesman Kevin Howell said.
Some organizations have had success in receiving their backlogged reimbursements. Wilmington Health CEO Jeff James said the state does not have extraordinary unpaid bills with his organization.
Elderhaus PACE’s Rick Richards said the state owes the Wilmington organization about $350,000. A plan is in place, he said, to have the debt cleared in the next 90 days.
The lawsuit argues that more than 70,000 providers in North Carolina may have had a claim against the state.
“It’s systemic,” Hamilton said. “It’s not about one physician’s profit margin or bottom line. The more we delay payment for services, the more reluctant the private sector is to provide services to Medicaid or Medicare patients. That’s not acceptable.”
Hamilton said that after 14 months of frustration that she’s grown more optimistic over the past 10 days, since speaker-elect Tim Moore has added his voice to the cause.
But even if Abrons recoups the money that is owed him, Hamilton said, his practice has still been a victim of the state’s mismanagement. Every paper that is resubmitted and every phone call that is made to the state costs money. And that doesn’t include the time and money invested in the lawsuit.
“Time is money,” Hamilton said. “They have experienced a tremendous loss even if they are reimbursed at 100 percent.”