There’s no getting around it. Four years after Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration charged 15 behavioral health organizations with potentially defrauding the state’s Medicaid program, its case has experienced a slow-motion unraveling.
No Medicaid fraud was ever found. And those eye-popping estimates that added up to $36 million the organizations had overbilled Medicaid?
In the summer of 2017, the Human Services Department (HSD) is seeking drastically lower reimbursements for overbilling the public health insurance program for low-income residents, a review of public records and state court documents has found.
Now exonerated by the state Attorney General’s Office, many organizations are challenging even those much-lower estimates in administrative hearings or in state court.
Consider Teambuilders Counseling Services, one of the accused behavioral health providers.
Last fall it received a new estimate from the New Mexico Human Services Department. Previous numbers had varied from as high as $9.6 million to as low as $2 million. But the new figure deviated sharply from earlier calculations when Chester Boyett, an administrative law judge in the state agency’s Fair Hearings Bureau, ruled Teambuilders owed only $896.35.
Boyett argued his agency had built its $2 million estimate of Medicaid overbilling on faulty analysis, according to his 12-page decision.
Nancy Smith-Leslie, the department’s director of the Medical Assistance Division, ignored Boyett’s recommendation. In a Jan. 6 letter she said the agency’s analysis was sound, even though she seemed to confirm Boyett’s critique in a Nov. 2 memo in which she had noted the inaccuracy of the extrapolated amount. In that memo Teambuilders and its attorney had not “sufficiently disputed” the method of extrapolation, however, she wrote.
In her Jan. 6 letter, Smith-Leslie sought to clear up matters. She amended her previous statement, saying the extrapolation referred to in her Nov. 2 memo indeed was correct.
Teambuilders and its attorney, Knicole Emanuel, appealed HSD’s ruling over whether Teambuilders overbilled Medicaid and by how much to state court, where three other former behavioral health organizations are fighting HSD’s extrapolated overpayments.
Boyett’s finding that Teambuilders owed hundreds rather than millions of dollars — even if it was ignored — represents a compelling data point given where things stand with other providers.
And last September HSD closed the books on another organization — Las Cruces-based Families and Youth Inc. — without demanding any reimbursements for overbilling and releasing $1.4 million in Medicaid dollars the state had suspended. The action represented a reversal after a state-ordered 2013 audit that found $856,745 in potential Medicaid overbilling by FYI.
In fact, a review of state and court documents by New Mexico In Depth reveals a pattern regarding the state agency’s overbilling estimates: In many cases, they are moving targets, usually on a downward trajectory.
Like Southwest’s, some have dropped spectacularly. Setting aside Boyett’s figure of $896, even the $2 million HSD claims Teambuilders owes is far smaller than a high of $12 million.
Hogares Inc., another organization accused of fraud, watched last year as the state revised its overbilling estimates five times over six months, starting at $9.5 million in January and ending with $3.1 million in June, according to state court documents.
Meanwhile, Easter Seals El Mirador, initially accused of $850,000 in potential Medicaid overbilling, now stands accused of $127,000.
Emanuel and Bryan Davis, another attorney representing many of the formerly accused organizations, said the constantly changing estimates are due to HSD.
The state agency is examining a sampling of each organization’s Medicaid claims and asking the organizations for documentation to prove the government program was properly billed, they said.
“In most cases (the overbilling estimates) are dropping precipitously” as organizations submit the documents requested by HSD, Davis said.
To cite one example, HSD’s latest overbilling estimate for Counseling Associates, Inc. is $96,000, said Davis, who represents the organization. That compares to $3 million in potential overbilling a 2013 state-ordered audit found.
It is a perplexing situation, given that the Human Services Department found “‘credible allegations of fraud” against the 15 organizations using that 2013 audit, which was performed by Massachusetts-based Public Consulting Group Inc.
“They threw PCG’s audit in the trash,” Davis said of HSD, noting the cost. HSD agreed to pay PCG up to $3 million for the study in February 2013.
The current situation caused Davis to wonder “why PCG didn’t have these documents in the first place,” he said.
Emanuel offered a pointed answer.
“HSD did not allow PCG to gather all the documents,” she said.
A spokesperson for HSD did not respond multiple requests for comment for this story.
Repercussions of the Medicaid crackdown
The fight over Medicaid overbilling isn’t the only legacy left from the Medicaid crackdown, which happened the last week of June 2013.
The Martinez administration’s decision affected lives. Many lives if you listen to behavioral health advocates and officials in the 15 organizations.
Charging the organizations with fraud and then suspending Medicaid payments to many of them disrupted mental health and addiction services for tens of thousands of New Mexicans. It created chaos for employees. And four years on it has left a number of business failures in its wake, with many of the accused organizations unable to survive long-term without Medicaid dollars.
Teambuilders, which once operated 52 locations in 17 New Mexico counties, is no longer in business, according to Emanuel. Neither is Las Cruces-based Southwest Counseling Center. Or Hogares.
At the same time a gap in care has opened up after three of five Arizona companies the Martinez administration brought in to care for the vulnerable populations have departed the state, leaving New Mexico to pick up the pieces.
“It’s a mess. It’s disgusting,” said James Kerlin, executive director of The Counseling Center of Alamogordo, which no longer sees clients. Like Teambuilders, Hogares, Southwest Counseling and others, it was unable to stay in business without the flow of Medicaid dollars the state suspended. “I want the public to know where we’re at and what’s been done to us. I’m going to start making a lot of noise. This is ridiculous.”
Kerlin’s organization was the first of the 15 organizations exonerated by then Attorney General Gary King in early 2014. And it offered the earliest glimpse of the weaknesses in the Martinez administration’s case against the behavioral health providers.
First signs of weakness in the state’s case
HSD hired PCG to audit all 15 organizations and it found $655,000 in potential Medicaid overbilling by the Counseling Center.
PCG reached that conclusion after finding $1,873 in questionable Medicaid claims and then extrapolating from those claims that the center could have overbilled Medicaid by more than $600,000 based on the size of its Medicaid business over several years.
But during its fraud investigation the AG’s office flagged fewer Counseling Center claims than PCG and found a much lower cost of potential overbillings. It resolved some of the issues by reviewing records and interviewing staff.
In many cases, auditors give staff of audited organizations an opportunity to refute findings or address misunderstandings before finalizing their findings. For example, most state and local governmental agencies are audited annually in New Mexico. Staff within those agencies are afforded the chance to see and respond to audit findings within a certain amount of time before audits are made public.
Kerlin did not get that opportunity during the PCG audit.
PCG later confirmed to NMID that it is the firm’s standard procedure to give companies a chance to respond before issuing official audit findings. A PCG spokesperson would not tell NMID why that didn’t happen in New Mexico.
By the time HSD held a hearing for the Counseling Center, the state agency had lowered its Medicaid overbillings estimate to $379,135. And Kerlin finally was able to hear the accusations against his organization.
Counseling Center submitted evidence to rebut the state agency’s claims, but the hearing officer sided with HSD. The Counseling Center appealed to state court.
In late 2015, State District Court Judge Francis Mathew ruled in favor of Kerlin’s organization, calling HSD’s hearing decision “arbitrary, capricious or otherwise not in accordance with law.”
In addition, the judge found the administrative law judge had shifted the burden of proof from HSD to the Counseling Center and then set too high a standard for the organization. Citing portions of the administrative law judge’s ruling, Mathew noted the Counseling Center had “offered certain amount of credible evidence in opposition” to HSD’s findings but not as much as the hearing officer required: a “100 percent audit” of records, which the state district judge found “unreasonable.”
HSD appealed the judge’s decision to the state Court of Appeals.
Examples of rejected claims
The overly stringent standards for documentation — and even a basic lack of understanding by HSD staff of Medicaid billing requirements — can be found in cases involving other organizations that are contesting the department’s charges of overbilling, a review of court documents found.
In a motion appealing the administrative law judge’s ruling that it owed the state $127,240, Easter Seals disputed seven claims, including one HSD had rejected because there was no medication consent form in place, even though the patient and parent had signed a general informed consent form and the patient’s parent was present when the medication was prescribed.
According to the court document, “There was no dispute that the service was medically necessary and was provided to J.A. There is no question as to quality of care provided to the recipient of services.”
Another claim was rejected because there was no doctor’s signature on a psychosocial assessment, however the state could provide no legal requirement for the signature, according to Easter Seals’ appeal. “A signature might be best practice, or advisable, but it is not a requirement,” the filing argued.
Also in the appeal, Easter Seals noted that the Human Service Department’s coding witness not only could not cite rules disallowing two services to be delivered during the same time period, but also appeared to be using a coding manual from Medicare, the insurance for seniors, and not Medicaid. And furthermore, she did not even realize there was a manual for Medicaid.
HSD ignored evidence in 2013 that refuted overbilling claims
Even those organizations that have avoided administrative hearings and court battles have stories to tell about HSD and its actions.
It wasn’t an easy decision, its CEO said this week, and it shouldn’t be construed as agreement with the state’s conclusions.
“We agree to disagree” is how Steven Hansen put it.
Until Presbyterian began negotiating an agreement, in fact, it had not seen the findings of the PCG audit.
During the negotiations PMS officials found documents they thought could refute PCG’s audit findings, Hansen and other PMS officials told state lawmakers in October 2014.
Presbyterian tried to give the files to PCG and the Human Services Department as proof that they had properly billed Medicaid for payment. The consulting firm said it would review the documentation if directed to by HSD, but PCG later told Presbyterian Medical Services the state agency “did not want to accept those records.”
“We believe there is a strong argument that nothing was owed back to HSD,” Presbyterian’s general counsel told lawmakers in 2014.
At that point, Presbyterian had to make a choice: Settle with the state or fight and possibly run out of money.
Presbyterian settled, paying the $4 million.
The decision has worked out for the organization.
“We’re doing more business than we did before” the 2013 crackdown, Hansen said.
That’s because as the Arizona providers the Martinez administration brought in have left New Mexico, Presbyterian Medical Services has taken over mental health and addiction services.
Presbyterian has added Carlsbad, Alamogordo, Deming, Espańola, Grants, Artesia, Santa Fe and Rio Rancho to the places it provides behavioral health services, Hansen said, adding it’s “bits and pieces” of areas formerly serviced by three of the five Arizona companies.
“We feel like it’s going in a good direction for us,” Hansen said. “That’s hard for us to say because there were so many great organizations that are no longer in the state. But we’ve had to move on.”
When you have a Medicare appeal, it is not uncommon for the appeal process to last years and years – up to 3-6 years in some cases. There has been a backlog of approximately 800,000+ Medicare appeals (almost 1 million), which, with no change, would take 11 years to vet.
A Federal Court Judge says – that is not good enough!
Judge James Boasburg Ordered that the Medicare appeal backlog be eliminated in the following stages:
- 30% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2017 (approximately a 300,000 case reduction within 1 year);
- 60% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2018;
- 90% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2019; and
- Elimination of the backlog of cases by Dec. 31, 2020;
A Medicare appeal has 5 steps. See blog. The backlog is at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level – or, Level 3.
This backlog is largely attributable to the Medicare Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) programs. In 2010, the federal government implemented the RAC program to recoup allegedly improper Medicare reimbursement payments. The RAC program (for both Medicare and Medicaid) has been criticized for being overly broad and burdensome and “nit picking,” insignificant paperwork errors. See blog.
While the RAC program has recovered a substantial sum of alleged overpayments, concurrently, it has cost health care providers an infinite amount of money to defend the allegations and has left Health and Human Services (HHS) with little funds to adjudicate the number of Medicare appeals, which increase every year. The number of Medicare appeals filed in fiscal year 2011 was 59,600. In fiscal year 2013, that number boomed to more than 384,000. Today, close to 1 million Medicare appeals stand in wait. The statutory adjudication deadline for appeals at the ALJ level is 90 days, yet the average Medicare appeal can last over 546 days.
The American Hospital Association (AHA) said – enough is enough!
AHA sued HHS’ Secretary Sylvia Burwell in 2014, but the case was dismissed. AHA appealed the District Court’s Decision to the Court of Appeals, which reversed the dismissal and gave the District Court guidance on how the backlog could be remedied.
Finally, last week, on December 5, 2016, the District Court published its Opinion and set forth the above referenced mandated dates for eliminating the Medicare appeal backlog.
While, administratively, the case was dismissed, the District Court retained “jurisdiction in order to review the required status reports and rule on any challenges to unmet deadlines.”
In non-legalese, the Court said “The case is over, but we will be watching you and can enforce this Decision should it be violated.”
This is a win for all health care providers that accept Medicare.
Another Win for the Good Guys! RAC Auditors Cannot Look Back Over 3 Years!!! (BTW: We Already Knew This -Shhhhh!)
I love being right – just ask my husband.
I have argued for years that government auditors cannot go back over three years when conducting a Medicaid/Care audit of a health care provider’s records, unless there are credible allegations of fraud. See blog.
42 CFR 455.508 states that “[a]n entity that wishes to perform the functions of a Medicaid RAC must enter into a contract with a State to carry out any of the activities described in § 455.506 under the following conditions:…(f) The entity must not review clams that are older than 3 years from the date of the claim, unless it receives approval from the State.”
Medicaid RAC is defined as “Medicaid RAC program means a recovery audit contractor program administered by a State to identify overpayments and underpayments and recoup overpayments.” 42 CFR 455. 504.
From the definition of a Medicaid RAC (Medicare RAC is similarly defined), albeit vague, entities hired by the state to identify over and underpayments are RACs. And RACs are prohibited from auditing claims that are older than 3 years from the date of the claim.
In one of our recent cases, our client, Edmond Dantes, received a Tentative Notice of Overpayment from Public Consulting Group (PCG) on May 13, 2015. In a Motion for Summary Judgment, we argued that PCG was disallowed to review claims prior to May 13, 2012. Of the 8 claims reviewed, 7 claims were older than May 13, 2012 – one even went back to 2009!
The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) agreed. In the Order Granting Partial Summary Judgment, the ALJ opined that “[s]tatutes of limitation serve an important purpose: to afford security against stale demands.”
Accordingly, the ALJ threw out 7 of the 8 claims for violating the statute of limitation. With one claim left, the amount in controversy was nominal.
A note as to the precedential value of this ruling:
Generally, an ALJ decision is not binding on other ALJs. The decisions are persuasive. Had DHHS appealed the decision and the decision was upheld by Superior Court, then the case would have been precedent; it would have been law.
Regardless, this is a fantastic ruling , which only bolsters my argument that Medicaid/care auditors cannot review claims over 3 years old from the date of the claim.
So when you receive a Tentative Notice of Overpayment, after contacting an attorney, look at the reviewed claims. Are those reviewed claims over 3 years old? If so, you too may win on summary judgment.
Recently, hundreds of dentists across North Carolina received Tentative Notices of Overpayment (TNOs) from Public Consulting Group (PCG) demanding recoupment for reimbursements made to dentists who rendered services on Medicaid for Pregnant Women (MPW) eligible recipients. There was no dispute at this hearing that these women were eligible for MPW according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) portal. There was also no dispute that these woman had delivered their babies prior to the date of dental service. So the question becomes: If DHHS informs a dentist that a woman is MPW eligible on the date of the service, does that dentist have an individual and separate burden to determine whether these women are pregnant. And if so, what is it? Have them pee in a cup prior to dental services? See blog, and blog, and blog.
We do not have a definitive answer to the above-posed question, as the Judge has not rendered his decision. However, he did substantially limit these “nameless audits” or “non-RAC” audits to the RAC program limitations. In an Order on our Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that, even if the State does not agree that an audit is a RAC audit, if the audit conducted falls within the definition of a RAC audit, then the audit is a RAC audit.
The reason this is important is because RAC auditors yield such powerful and overwhelming tools against health care providers, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) limits the RAC auditors’ ability to look-back on older claims. For example, even though a provider is, generally, required to maintain records for six (6) years, the federal regulations only allow RAC auditors to look-back three (3) years, unless credible allegations of fraud exist.
Thus, when an auditor reviews documents over three-years-old, I always argue that the review of claims over 3-years-old violates the statute of limitations and federal law.
During hearings, inevitably, the state argues that this particular audit…the one at issue here…is not a RAC audit. The opposing side could no more identify which acronym this audit happens to be, but this audit is not a RAC. “I don’t know what it is, but I know what it’s not!”
Well, an ALJ looked past the rhetoric and pleas by the State that “this is not a RAC” and held that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is a RAC audit and, subsequently, the RAC audit limitations do apply.
In the case for this dentist, Public Consulting Group (PCG) audited claims going back as far as six years! The Department of Health and Human Services’ argument was that this audit is not a RAC audit. So what is it? What makes it NOT a RAC? Because you say so? We all know that PCG has a contract with DHHS to perform RAC audits. Is this audit somehow outside its contractual purview?
So I filed a Motion for Summary Judgment requesting the Judge to throw out all claims outside the three-year look-back period per the RAC limitations.
Lo, and behold, I was right!! (The good guys win again!)
To understand this fully, it is important to first understand what the RAC program is and its intention. (“It depends on what the definition of “is” is”).
Under 42 U.S.C. § 1396a(a)(42):
the State shall—(i) establish a program under which the State contracts (consistent with State law and in the same manner as the Secretary enters into contracts with recovery audit contractors under section 1893(h), subject to such exceptions or requirements as the Secretary may require for purposes of this title or a particular State) with 1 or more recovery audit contractors for the purpose of identifying underpayments and overpayments and recouping overpayments under the State plan and under any waiver of the State plan with respect to all services for which payment is made to any entity under such plan or waiver.
RAC is defined as an entity that “…will review claims submitted by providers of items and services or other individuals furnishing items and services for which payment has been made under section 1902(a) of the Act or under any waiver of the State Plan to identify underpayments and overpayment and recoup overpayments for the States.” 42 CFR § 455.506(a).
Under this definition, PCG is clearly a recovery audit contractor. And the Judge agreed. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, just because the duck protests it is a donkey, it is still a duck. (Hmmmm..wonder how this logic would carry over to the whole transgender bathroom issue…another topic for another blogger…)
RACs must follow certain limitations as outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations. For example, pursuant to 42 C.F.R. § 455.508(f), a Medicaid RAC “must not review claims that are older than 3 years from the date of the claim, unless it receives approval from the State.”
In this particular case, there were 15 claims at issue. Eleven (11) of those claims were outside the three-year look-back period!! With one fell swoop of an ALJ’s signature, we reduced the claims at issue from 15 to 4. Nice!
In DHHS’ Response to our Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, DHHS argued that, in this case, PCG was not acting as a RAC; therefore, the limitations do not apply. In support of such decision, DHHS supplied an affidavit of a DMA employee. She averred that the audit of this particular dentist was not per the RAC program. No rules were cited. No contract in support of her position was provided. Nothing except an affidavit of a DMA employee.
Obviously, it is my opinion that the ALJ was 100% accurate in ruling that this audit was a RAC audit and was limited in scope to a 3-year look-back period.
If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it is not a donkey. No matter how much it pleads that it is, in fact, a donkey!
Remember the Super Bowl Ad of the Puppy, Baby, Monkey?:
That is so NOT ok!
When is sales tax due on your DME-related sales and services? The North Carolina Business Court Weighs In.
Feeling Great, Inc. v. North Carolina Department of Revenue
Sales tax compliance may not be the reason you are in business, but consequences can be very serious if you fail to collect and remit sales taxes on a taxable transaction. Durable medical equipment suppliers (DME) should take note of a recent decision by the North Carolina Business Court in which the DME supplier (at least according to the Court) erroneously thought that certain DME sales were exempt from use tax.
In Feeling Great, Inc. v. North Carolina Department of Revenue, 2015 NCBC 81 (N.C. Business Ct. Aug. 20, 2015), the DME suppliers did not collect and remit use tax to the Department of Revenue on the basis that the purchases at issue (medical supplies used in sleep study testing) were exempt from sales and use tax under N.C. Gen. Stat. 105-164.13(12)d. That statute provides that sales of “[d]urable medical supplies sold on prescription” are exempt from sales tax. Seems straightforward, right?
The Department of Revenue, however, issued a tax assessment for sales of supplies used in sleep study testing in connection with a diagnostic sleep system machine. The sleep studies were covered by Medicare or Medicaid and were not part of the tax assessment. It was the supplies used with the sleep studies, such as cleaner, sensors, gauze tape, Q-Tips, and the like, that the Department took issue with because the physicians’ prescriptions did not specifically mention the supplies as having been prescribed, only the sleep studies!
Feeling Great’s problem was that the prescriptions did not specifically refer to “supplies” associated with the sleep studies. Instead, the physician only “prescribed sleep study testing for the patient.” Had the prescription included “all supplies as needed” in the description, the court implied that the result would have been different: sales of such supplies would have been “on prescription” and therefore exempt from sales tax.
Feeling Great’s many arguments to the contrary, including that “Medicaid routinely authorizes the purchase of durable medical equipment and associated ‘supplies’ under a single prescription” (which the administrative law judge had found), were not accepted by the Business Court.
It may seem odd to distinguish between a prescription that prescribes sleep study testing and a prescription that prescribes sleep study testing as well as needed supplies for the machine, but it is the distinction that caused a significant sales tax assessment for the taxpayer in this case. DME suppliers should carefully review the prescriptions and be mindful of the Department’s position when collecting sales and use tax.
How is it already the second month of 2016? My how the time flies. As you can see below, I have started 2016 with my “best foot forward.”
Here’s the story (and why it’s been so long since I’ve blogged):
Santa Claus, whom I love, brought our 10-year-old daughter a zip line for Christmas. (She’s wanted one forever). My wonderful, exceedingly brilliant husband Scott miscalculated the amount of brakes needed for an adult of my weight for a 300-foot zip line. The brakes stopped, albeit suddenly, but adequately, for our 10-year-old.
However, for me…well…I went a bit faster than my 45-pound daughter. The two spring brakes were not adequate to stop my zip line experience and my out-thrown feet broke my crash…into the tree. (It was a miscalculation of basic physics).
On the bright side, apparently, my right leg is longer than my left, so only my right foot was injured. Or my right foot is overly dominate than my left, which could also be the case.
Also, on the bright side, the zip line ride was AWESOME until the end.
On the down side, I tore the tendon on the bottom of my foot which, according to the ER doctor, is very difficult to tear. Embarrassingly, I had to undergo a psych evaluation because my ER doctor said that the only time he had seen someone tear that bottom tendon on their foot was by jumping off a building. So I have that going for me. I informed him that one could tear such tendon by going on zip line with inadequate brakes. (I passed the psych evaluation, BTW).
Then, while on crutches, I had a 5-day, federal trial in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the week of Martin Luther King, Jr., Tuesday through the next Monday. Thankfully, the judge did not make me stand to conduct direct and cross examinations.
But, up there, in the beautiful State of Indiana, I thought of my next blog (and lamented that I had not blogged in so long…still on crutches; I had not graduated to the gorgeous boot you saw in the picture above).
As I was up in Indiana, I thought, what if someone at the State Medicaid agency doesn’t like you, personally, and terminates your Medicaid contract “without cause?” Or refuses to contract with you? Or refuses to renew your contract?
Maybe you wouldn’t find it important whether your termination is “for cause” or “without cause,” but, in Indiana, and a lot of other states, if your termination is for “without cause,” you have no substantive appeal right, only a procedural appeal right. As in, if you are terminated “without cause,” the government never has to explain the reason for termination to you or a judge. If the government gave you the legally, proper amount of notice, the government can simply say, “I just do not want to do business with you.”
Many jurisdictions have opined that a Medicaid provider has a property right to their Medicaid contract. A health care provider does not have a property right to a Medicaid contract, but, once the state has approved that provider as a Medicaid provider, that provider has a reasonable expectation to continue to provide services to the Medicaid population. While we all know that providing services to the Medicaid population is not going to make you Richy Rich, in some jurisdictions, accepting Medicaid is necessary to stay solvent (despite the awful reimbursement rates).
Here in NC, our Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) have held a property right in maintaining a Medicaid contract once issued and relied upon, which, BTW, is the correct determination, in my opinion. Other jurisdictions concur with our NC ALJs, including the 7th Circuit.
Many times, when a provider is terminated (or not re-credentialed) “without cause,” there is an underlying and hidden cause, which makes a difference on the appeal of such purported “without cause” termination.
Because as I stated above, a “without cause” termination may not allow a substantive appeal, only procedural. In normal-day-speak, for a “without cause,” you cannot argue that the termination or refusal to credential isn’t “fair” or is based on an incorrect assumption that there is a quality of care concern that really does not exist. You can only argue that the agency did not provide the proper procedure, i.e., you didn’t get 60 days notice. Juxtapose, a “for cause” termination, you can argue that the basis for which the termination relies is incorrect, i.e., you are accusing me that my staff member is not credentialed, but you are wrong; she/he is actually credentialed.
So, what do you do if you are terminated “without cause?” What do you do if you are terminated “for cause?”
For both scenarios, you need an injunction.
But how do you prove your case for an injunction?
Proving you need an injunction entails you proving to a judge that: (a) likelihood of success on the merits; (b) irreparable harm; (c) balance of equities; and (d) impact on the community.
The hardest prongs to meet are the first two. Usually, in my experience, irreparable harm is the hardest prong to meet. Most clients, if they are willing to hire my team and me, can prove likelihood of success. Think about it, if a client knows he/she has horrible documentation, he/she will not spring for an expensive attorney to defend themselves against a termination.
Irreparable harm, however, is difficult to demonstrate and the circumstances surrounding proving irreparable harm creates quite a quandary.
Irreparable, according to case law, cannot only be monetary damages. If you are just out of money and your company is in financial distress, it will not equate to irreparable harm.
Irreparable harm differs slightly from state to state.
Although, most jurisdictions agree that irreparable harm does equate to an imminent threat of your business closing, terminating staff, loss of goodwill, harm to reputation, patients not receiving medically necessary services, unfathamable emotional distress, the weights of loans and credit, understanding that you’ve depleting all savings and checkings, and understanding that you’ve exhausted all possible assets or loans.
The Catch-22 of it all is by the time you meet the prongs of irreparable harm, generally, you do not have the cash to hire an attorney. I suggest to all Medicare and Medicaid health care providers that you need to maintain an emergency fund account for unforeseen situations, such as audits, suspensions, terminations, etc. Put aside money every week, as much as you can. Hope that you never need to use it.
But you will be covered, just in case.
People screw up. We are human; hence the term, “human error.”
But how to handle said mistakes in health care records after the fact, which could be the target in a Medicare/caid audit?
This is a very important, yet extremely “fine-lined” topic. Imagine a tightrope walker. If you fall off one way, you fall to the abyss of accusations of fraud. You fall off the other way and you fall into the ocean of the False Claims Act. Fixing document errors post date of service (DOS) is a fine line with catastrophic consequences on both sides.
In NC, our administrative code provides guidance.
“SECTION .1400 – SERVICE RECORDS
10A NCAC 13J .1401 REQUIREMENT
(a) The agency shall develop and implement written policies governing content and handling of client records.
(b) The agency shall maintain a client record for each client. Each page of the client record shall have the client’s name. All entries in the record shall reflect the actual date of entry. When agency staff make additional, late, or out of sequence entries into the client record, the documentation shall include the following applicable notations: addendum, late entry, or entry out of sequence, and the date of the entry. A system for maintaining originals and copies shall be described in the agency policies and procedures.
(c) The agency shall assure that originals of client records are kept confidential and secure on the licensed premises unless in accordance with Rule .0905 of this Subchapter, or subpoenaed by a court of legal jurisdiction, or to conduct an evaluation as required in Rule .1004 of this Subchapter.
(d) If a record is removed to conduct an evaluation, the record shall be returned to the agency premises within five working days. The agency shall maintain a sign out log that includes to whom the record was released, client’s name and date removed. Only authorized staff or other persons authorized by law may remove the record for these purposes.
(e) A copy of the client record for each client must be readily available to the appropriate health professional(s) providing services or managing the delivery of such services.
(f) Client records shall be retained for a period of not less than five years from the date of the most recent discharge of the client, unless the client is a minor in which case the record must be retained until three years after the client’s 18th birthday. When an agency ceases operation, the Department shall be notified in writing where the records will be stored for the required retention period.”
What NOT to do:
- Erase notations and write the revision
- Add a check mark that was not previously there
- Forge a staff’s initials
- Back date the revision
When it comes to alteration of medical records for Medicare/caid patients after the DOS, you are walking on a tightrope. Catastrophe is below, not a net. So tiptoe carefully.
Call an attorney with specific questions.
What is the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies? And why is it important?
If you are a Medicaid or Medicare provider (which, most likely, you are if you are reading this blog), then knowing your administrative remedies is vital. Specifically, you need to know your administrative remedies if you receive an “adverse determination” by the “Department.” I have placed “adverse determination” and the “Department” in quotation marks because these are defined terms in the North Carolina statutes and federal regulations.
What are administrative remedies? If you have been damaged by a decision by a state agency then you have rights to recoup for the damages.
However, just like in the game of Chess, there are rules…procedures to follow…you cannot bring your castle out until the pawn in front of it has moved.
Similarly, you cannot jump to NC Supreme Court without beginning at the lowest court.
What is an adverse determination?
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My mom taught me a song when I was young called, “A Hole in the Bucket.” It is a maddening song about a lazy husband named Henry who begins the song telling his wife Liza that “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza….” To which Liza sings, “Then fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry…”
The song continues with Henry singing excuses and impediments to his ability to fix the hole in the bucket and Liza explaining to Henry how to overcome these excuses. The song goes around and around until, in order to fix the bucket, Henry would have to sharpen an ax on a stone that “is too dry,” and the only way to wet the stone is with the bucket that has a hole. “There’s a hole in the bucket…” And the songs starts anew and can be sung continuously, never-ending.
My husband and daughter audibly groan when I begin such song.
And you can’t blame them! It is discouraging and frustrating when something is caught in a never-ending circle with no end and no conclusion. It is human nature to try to resolve issues; it is also ingrained in Americans’ minds that hard work yields results. When hard work yields nothing but a big, fat goose-egg, it is exacerbating.
Kind of like claims in NCTracks…
When NCTracks went live on July 1, 2013, providers immediately began to complain the claims were being erroneously denied and they were receiving no reimbursements. Folks with whom I spoke with were at their wits-ends, spending hours upon hours trying to discern why claims were being denied and what process they could undertake to fix “the hole in the bucket.”
The problem persisted so long and I was contacted by so many providers that I instigated the NCTracks class action lawsuit, which is still pending on appeal, to the best of my knowledge, at my former firm. Although it was dismissed at the Business Court level, I believe it is on appeal. See blog.
Providers complained that, when they contacted CSC’s Help Desk regarding denied claims, the customer service representatives would have little to no understanding of the claims process and instruct them to re-file the denied claims, which created a perpetual cycle of unadjudicated claims.
“It was infuriating!” One provider explained. “It was as if we were caught in the spin cycle with no hope of stopping. I wanted to yell, ‘I’m dry all ready!!'”
“I was spending 20+ a week on NCTracks billing problems,” another said.
To which, I said, “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.”
Over two years after the “go live” date, the Department has now (finally) informed providers that there is an informal reconsideration review process for denials from CSC.
The September 2015 Medicaid Bulletin states that:
“This article provides a detailed explanation of the N.C. Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) procedures for Informal Reconsideration Review of adverse claim actions (denials, disallowances and adjustments) made by its fiscal agent, CSC.”
The Bulletin provides a 30 day time period during which a provider can appeal a denied claim:
“Time Limit for Submission of Request
- A provider may request a reconsideration review within 30 calendar days from receipt of final notification of payment, payment denial, disallowances, payment adjustment, notice of program reimbursement and adjustments. If no request is received within the respective 30 calendar day period, DMA’s action will become final.”
(emphasis in original).
You must request reconsideration review within 30 calendar days of the final notification. BUT what exactly is “final notification?” The initial denial? The second denial after re-submitting? The third? Or, what if, your claim is pending…for months…is that a denial? When CSC tells you to re-submit, does the time frame in which to file a reconsideration review start over? Or do you have to appeal every single denial for every single claim, even if the claim is re-submitted and re-denied 10 times?
This new informal appeal process is as clear as mud.
Notice the penalty for NOT appealing within 30 days…”DMA’s action will become final.”
This means that, if you fail to appeal a denial within 30 days, then the claim is denied and you cannot request a reconsideration review. Theoretically, there is a legal argument that, once the “final decision” is rendered, even if it were rendered due to you failing to request a reconsideration review, you would have 60 days to appeal such final decision to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). Although, acting as the Devil’s advocate, there is an argument that your failure to request a reconsideration review and taking the appeal straight to OAH is “failing to exhaust your administrative remedies.” See blog. Which could result in your appeal being dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. This goes to show you the importance of having your attorney involved at the earliest juncture, otherwise you could risk losing appeal rights.
Let’s think about the “time limit for submission of request” in a real-life hypothetical.
You keep receiving denials for dialysis claims for no apparent reason. You received 20 denials on September 4, 2015. You contact a CSC customer service representative on September 8, 2015, four days later, due to Labor Day weekend. The customer service representative instructs you to re-file the claims because you must include the initial date of treatment in order to have the claims processed and paid (which was not required with HP Enterprises’ system). Is this the “final notification?” It does not seem so, since you are allowed to re-submit…
You revise all 20 claims to include the first treatment date on the claim and re-submit them on September 9, 2015. Since you re-submitted prior to the September 10th cutoff, you expect payment by September 16, 2015, 12 days after the initial denial.
You receive your explanation of benefits (EOBs) and 5 claims were adjudicated and paid, while 15 were denied again.
You contact CSC customer service and the representative instructs you to re-submit the 15 claims. The rep does not know why the claims were denied, but she/he suggests that you review the claims and re-submit. After hours of investigative work, you believe that the claims were denied because the NPI number was wrong…or the incorrect address was processed…or…
You miss the September 17th cut-off because you were trying to figure out why these claims were denied. you submit them for payment for the September 29th checkwrite date (25 days after the initial denial).
At this point, if any claims are denied, you wouldn’t know until October 6th, 32 days after the initial denial.
In my scenario, when is the final adjudication?
If the answer is that the final adjudication is at the point that the provider tries all possible revisions to the claims and continues to re-submit the claims until he/she cannot come up with another way to re-submit, then there is never final adjudication. As in, the provider could continue various changes to the billing ad nauseam and re-submit…and re-submit…and re-submit…”There’s a hole in the bucket!”
If the answer is that the final adjudication is the initial denial, then, in my scenario, the provider would be required to appeal every single denial, even for the same claim and every time it is denied.
You can imagine the burden to the provider if my second scenario is correct. You may as well hire a full-time person whose only task is to appeal denied claims.
Regardless, this new “Informal Reconsideration Review” purports to create many more questions than answers.
So may rules are enacted with good intentions, but without the “real life” analysis. How will this actually affect providers?
“There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.”
“Then fix it.”
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?