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NCTracks Lawsuit Dismissed! Judge Finds Providers Failed to Exhaust Their Administrative Remedies!

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.

Judge McGuire, of the NC Business Court, dismissed the NCTracks class action lawsuit stating the providers failed to exhaust the administrative remedies.  The Order reads, in part:

“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.

What?

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).

What now?

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?

NC MCOs and Consolidation: “When the Music Stops? Nobody Knows!”

Our General Assembly is pushing for the managed care organizations (MCOs) to consolidate and/or morph.  Consolidating the MCOs makes fiscal sense for our state, but if I were executive management at an MCO, I would be be anxiously awaiting direction from our General Assembly.  A metaphoric 3-4 chair game of”Musical Chairs” is proceeding with 9 (now 8) players.  Five to six players will have no chairs when the music stops.

What are MCOs?  See blog and blog.

Multiple bills have been proposed.

Senate Bill 703 proposes 3 statewide MCOs. Senate Bill 574 seems to incorporate provider-led capitated health plans, but is unclear as to the exact model. Senate Bill 696 seems to create a symphony of provider-led and nonprovider-led, risk-based entities. Senate Bill 568 contemplates licensed commercial health insurers offering health care plans.

No one really knows how many MCOs will remain in the end…if any. Regardless, what the number of existing MCOs in the future will be, there is little dispute that the number will be fewer than the number of MCOs that exist now.

In an atmosphere where there is supposition that there are too many people or companies and that only a few will remain, competition brews. People/companies are forced to strategize if they want to survive.

Think about the childhood game, “Musical Chairs.” You start with a large group of people, but with one less chair than the number of people. The music plays and the players meander around at a relatively slow pace, around and around, until the music stops. And what happens when the music stops? The people scramble for a chair.  The person left standing is “out” and must sit on the sideline.

We have 9, soon to be 8, MCOs in NC right now. And the music is playing. But which MCOs will be left standing when the music stops?

Here is a map of our current MCOs:

2014 mco

 

As of July 1, CoastalCare and East Carolina Behavioral Healthcare (ECBH) will be merged. We will be down to 8 MCOs. Which means that the light blue on the bottom right hand side of the map will merge with the bright yellow on top right hand side of the map.

Mecklenburg county, which houses most of the Charlotte area, was not always light purple. It recently merged with Cardinal Innovations.

Partners (light yellow) and Smokey Mountain (dark blue) had serious discussions of a merger until, recently, when both walked away from negotiations of merger.

Why should it matter which MCOs are in existence or how many? Theoretically, it shouldn’t. These MCOs are created in order to manage behavioral health care (Medicaid services for those suffering from substance abuse, mental illness, and developmentally disabled), not to make a profit, right? The only issue of importance should be that medically necessary behavioral health care services are rendered to Medicaid recipients in the most efficient and most effective manner.

Yet competing interests come into play.

Think about it…each MCO employs hundreds of people. Each MCO has a CEO, who is not working for free. Generally, unless other arrangements have been negotiated, there can only be one CEO per MCO. When there are 2+ MCOs merging with 2 CEOs and only 1 “chair” for 1 CEO, it can seem like “Musical Chairs.” Multiple people are vying for one “chair.”

The money at issue for behavioral health care in NC is not a small amount. It is likened to a fire hose spouting money. We have a Medicaid budget in NC of approximately 14 billion dollars. To put it in perspective, with $14 billion dollars, you could purchase the LA Lakers 14 times. This is how much money we spend on Medicaid every year. It is really quite staggering when you think about it.

As every North Carolinian learns in the 6th grade, North Carolina is composed of 100 counties. The estimated Medicaid budget of $14 billion is allocated across 100 counties and among approximately 1.9 million Medicaid recipients.

When it was decided to implement the MCOs across the state, about 2012-ish (we actually obtained permission from CMS for the waiver years prior to 2012, but we began with a pilot and did not implement the MCOs statewide until 2012-13), we found ourselves, initially, with eleven MCOs, and now we have 9…soon to be 8.

The newly merged entity of CoastalCare and ECBH (CC+ECBH) will manage state funds and Medicaid dollars for behavioral health services across 24 counties in eastern North Carolina. In other words almost ¼ of the Medicaid budget will be handed to CC+ECBH, leaving approximately ¾ of the Medicaid budget for 7 other MCOs (the budget is determined by number of recipients, so I am assuming, for the purpose of this blog, that more counties mean more people).

The amount of counties controlled by the remaining 7 MCOs are as follows:

Smokey: 23
Partners: 8
Centerpointe: 4
Cardinal: 16
Sandhills: 9
Eastpointe: 12
Alliance: 4

chart for mcos

Looking at the chart above, it would appear that Smoky and CC+ECBH will manage almost 1/2 the state’s behavioral health care for Medicaid.

Prior to the 1915 b/c Waiver allowing the MCOs to manage behavioral services for Medicaid recipients in NC, DHHS managed it. (Obviously ValueOptions and other vendors had a part in it, but not with actual management).  As the single state agency for Medicaid, DHHS cannot delegate administrative duties to contracted parties without a “Waiver,” or permission for an exception from the federal government, or, more specifically, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Prior to the 1915 b/c Waiver, we did not have 9 companies with hundreds of employees managing behavioral health care for Medicaid recipients. We had DHHS, which employs approximately 18,000 employees.  To my knowledge DHHS did not terminate those employees who were in charge of behavioral health care issues in order to compensate the creation of new companies/employees.  In other words, say 1000 people at DHHS devoted their time to issues arising our of behavioral health care. Once we had an additional 9 (well, 11, at first), those 1000 employees were not asked to join the MCOs. Maybe some did, but, to my knowledge, there was no suggestion or incentive or requirement to leave DHHS and go to an MCO (to shift the administrative burden).

When we created an additional 9 (well, 11 at first) companies to, essentially, take over behavioral health care…

We created more administrative costs, in order to lift the risk of overspending the Medicaid budget off the state.  It is estimated that America wastes $190 billion in excess administrative costs per year.

Waste in health care

In theory, consolidating the MCOs would decrease administrative costs by having fewer paid employees, not dissimilar to why MCOs want a closed network.  See blog. Again, in theory, having fewer MCOs may create a more consistent statewide manner in managing behavioral health care.

Assume for the purpose of this blog that each MCO employs 100 people (which is a very low number) and each employee is paid $50,000, then the administrative cost associated with delegating behavioral health care to MCOs equals $500,000, counting only employee salaries. Multiple that number by 9 (number of current MCOs) and you get an increased administrative cost of approximately $4.5 million dollars per year, not counting the additional overhead each MCO bears (rent/mortgage, equipment, salary benefits, health care benefits, etc.). Plus you have to include the top management’s salaries, because you know the executives are receiving more than $50,000/year.

What motivated us to implement a MCOs system? With an MCO system, the General Assembly is able to allocate funds for Medicaid and place the risk of going over the budget on the MCOs, not the state. This is a completely understandable and reasonable objective. It is without question that the Medicaid budget is swelling to the point of unsustainability.

However, are we trading “control/supervision” for “knowability?” Are we also trading “risk” for “higher administrative costs,” which, in turn, equals less Medicaid dollars for providers and Medicaid recipients? Every dollar paid to an MCO employee is a dollar not going to a health care provider to reimburse for services.

For these reasons, the government’s push for consolidation of the MCOs is astute. Fewer MCOs = less administrative costs. Fewer MCOs = easier supervision by DHHS.

Less administrative costs = more Medicaid dollars going to providers…to serve our most needy. Because, at the end of the day, the most important issue when it comes to Medicaid is providing quality care for recipients.

It is no matter which entity controls/manages behavioral health care for Medicaid, because regardless the entity, that entity should be managing our tax dollars in the most efficient way that provides the best quality to services to those in need.

“Around and around we go, when we stop? Nobody knows…”  But we do know this…when the music stops, there will be scrambling!

In the Future, Could Physicians Be Forced to Accept Medicaid?

According to a report in the “Mason Conservative,” Virginia Democrat delegate candidate, Kathleen Murphy, stated, during a debate, that the government should force physicians to accept Medicaid.

After reading that, how many of you shuddered from horror?

I think we can all agree that we need more physicians to accept Medicaid.  We simply do not have enough physicians to meet the needs of all our Medicaid recipients.  Not enough physicians equals not enough quality health care to our most needy.  In particular, rural areas suffer most from the lack of physicians who accept Medicaid.

According to Forbes magazine, “Right now, the United States is short some 20,000 doctors, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. The shortage could quintuple over the next decade, thanks to the aging of the American population — and the aging and consequent retirement of many physicians. Nearly half of the 800,000-plus doctors in the United States are over the age of 50.”  I’m sure Forbes would have found even more shortage had it researched the rural areas.

But is the answer to force doctors to accept Medicaid?

A week or so ago I saw my primary care physician.  I’ve seen my primary care doctor for years. (We will call him Dr. Bob).  He’s a native North Carolinian, just like I.  So he knew me in college, law school, and for the past 13 years of my legal career, both pre-baby and post-baby.  Until a week or so ago, I always knew Dr. Bob accepts Medicaid as a form of insurance.  I liked that he did.

Per our normal routine, Dr. Bob asks about my husband, my daughter, and my job.  But, usually he is extremely interested in “all-things-Medicaid.”  He normally asks the status of reimbursement rates, my opinion on the current administration, my perception of the trend at my job (who was getting audits, who may be getting audits soon, etc.), and other various Medicaid-related issues.

But, at my visit, Dr. Bob fails to ask about the current events of Medicaid.  And I, being I, just started talking about Medicaid.  He interrupts me and says, “Knicole, I made a difficult decision since I have seen you last.”

Pause….I’m expecting:

Retirement….possible divorce???

Retirement….change in profession???

Retirement…closing his practice???

Instead, Dr. Bob says, “I’ve decided to no longer accept Medicaid.”  (My jaw is agape).

My first instinct is, “What? But you CARE! How could you?”

My second instinct is, “I get it. Medicaid is a hassle.”

My third instinct is to actually ask HIM why HE made this decision. (My first couple instincts are usually the wrong route).

When I ask him why he decided to no longer take Medicaid, his response is “I’m sick of people who are not physicians telling me what to do in my practice.”

I get it. 

As a primary care physician, the bulk of his Medicaid work is conducting physicals (or what Medicaid calls, “preventative care”).

He says that he is ‘ok’ with the low reimbursement rates of Medicaid because he is able to offset the low reimbursement rates by accepting more privately insured patients (like me).  He says he loves serving the Medicaid population. His issue lies in the administrative burden of accepting Medicaid versus accepting private insurance, including the regulatory audits, the way in which the regulatory audits are conducted, NCTracks debacles, and possible unannounced payment suspensions…to name a few.  Dr. Bob explains that when he decides a procedure is “gender-and-age-appropriate,” inevitably, someone, from some, state-contracted company, will come back to him a couple of years later to recoup the Medicaid money because that (non-physician) auditor disagrees that the procedure he chose, as a physician, was “gender-and-age-appropriate.”

DMA Clinical Policy 1A-2 defines preventative care as, “An adult preventive medicine health assessment consists of a comprehensive unclothed physical examination, comprehensive health history, anticipatory guidance/risk factor reduction interventions, and the ordering of gender and age-appropriate laboratory and diagnostic procedures.” (emphasis added).

He describes an audit during which an auditor, who was not a physician, attempted to recoup a date of service (DOS), citing the reason as the procedure was not “gender-and-age-appropriate.”  How can a non-physician decide what treatment is or is not “gender-and-age-appropriate?”

I’ve seen this before.  In behavioral health care audits, an auditor with no substance abuse clinical background determines no medical necessity exists for a service for a Medicaid recipient suffering from substance abuse.  In dental audits, an auditor without ever attending dental school, will determine that a partial implant is not medically necessary.

N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C-5 requires that, “[a]udits that result in the extrapolation of results must be performed and reviewed by individuals who shall be credentialed by the Department, as applicable, in the matters to be audited, including, but not limited to, coding or specific clinical issues.” (emphasis added).

Credentialed in the matters to be audited.

Is DHHS seriously credentialing non-physicians to audit physician? Non-dentists to audit dentists? Non-substance abuse clinical providers to audit substance abuse clinical providers?

I do not know whether DHHS is credentialing the auditors, but, in my experience, non-qualified auditors (in the field in which they are auditing) are conducting audits.

Going back to my original premise, are we going to force/require that physicians, in order to be physicians, to accept Medicaid, thus subjecting themselves to limitless and unannounced Medicaid audits? To force physicians to undergo the administrative burden that comes with Medicaid audits, not to mention the administrative burden to just follow Medicaid regulations?  To force physicians to accept the quite possible possibility that the physician will need to defend him or herself against audits and incur steep attorneys’ fees?

In Dr. Bob’s case, he did accept Medicaid for years.  Then, he consciously made the decision that he no longer wanted to be subject to the regulatory scrutiny that comes with accepting Medicaid.  So, now, would we force Dr. Bob to undergo the very scrutiny he so loathes?

It would be similar to the State forcing all attorneys to accept clients at a discounted rate and accept the threat of audits.  Or forcing accountants to accept clients at a discounted rate and accept the threat of audits.  Or forcing a plumber to accept clients at a discounted rate and accept the threat of audits.

Don’t we, in the United States, have the economic freedom to own private property, thus, logically, allowing us the right to pursue private property?

“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness;…”

See the Declaration of Independence.

I understand that Ms. Murphy’s comment was just that…a comment at a debate.  But her comment demonstrates that, while politicians understand there is a shortage of physicians who are willing to accept Medicaid, some politicians may believe that physicians should be forced to accept Medicaid.

But aren’t we all entitled to the economic freedom to pursue private property, happiness, and liberty?

Or is that all a ruse?