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Appealing Adverse Decisions: Should We Reconsider the Medicaid Provider Reconsideration Review?

What if you had to appeal traffic citations through the police officer who pulled you over before you could defend yourself before an impartial judge? That would be silly and a waste of time. I could not fathom a time in which the officer would overturn his/her own decision.

“No, officer, I know you claim that I was speeding, but the speed limit on Hwy 1 had just increased to 65. You were wrong when you said the speed limit was 55.”

“Good catch, citizen. You’re right; I’m wrong. Let’s just rip up this speeding ticket.”

Not going to happen.

The same is true when it comes to decisions by the Department of Health and Human Service (DHHS) to sanction or penalize a Medicaid provider based on alleged provider abuse (otherwise known as documentation errors). If DHHS determines that you owe $800,000 because your service notes are noncompliant, I am willing to bet that, upon its own reconsideration, the decision will be upheld. Asking for reconsideration review from the very same entity that decided the sanction or penalty is akin to doing something over and over and expecting different results (definition of insanity?).

But – are informal reconsideration reviews required by law to fight an adverse decision before you may appear before an administrative law judge?

The reason that you should care whether the reconsideration reviews are required by law is because the process is time consuming, and, often, the adverse determination is in effect during the process. If you hire an attorney, it is an expensive process, but one that you will not (likely) win. Generally, I am adverse to spending time and money on something that will yield nothing.

Before delving into whether reconsideration reviews are required by law, here is my caveat: This issue has not been decided by our courts. In fact, our administrative court has rendered conflicting decisions. I believe that my interpretation of the laws is correct (obviously), but until the issue is resolved legally, cover your donkey (CYA), listen to your attorney, and act conservatively.

Different laws relate to whether the adverse decision is rendered by the DHHS or whether the adverse decision is rendered by a managed care organization (MCO). Thus, I will divide this blog into two sections: (1) reconsiderations to DHHS; and (2) reconsiderations to an MCO.

Appealing DHHS Adverse Determinations

When you receive an adverse decision from DHHS, you will know that it is from DHHS because it will be on DHHS letterhead (master of the obvious).

DHHS letterhead

10A NCAC 22F .0402 states that “(a) Upon notification of a tentative decision the provider will be offered, in writing, by certified mail, the opportunity for a reconsideration of the tentative decision and the reasons therefor. (b) The provider will be instructed to submit to the Division in writing his request for a Reconsideration Review within fifteen working days from the date of receipt of the notice. Failure to request a Reconsideration Review in the specified time shall result in the implementation of the tentative decision as the Division’s final decision.”

As seen above, our administrative code recommends that a Medicaid provider undergo the informal reconsideration review process through DHHS to defend a sanction or penalty before presenting before an impartial judge at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). I will tell you, having gone through hundreds upon hundreds of reconsideration reviews, DHHS does not overturn itself. The Hearing Officers know who pay their salaries (DHHS). The reconsideration review ends up being a waste of time and money for the provider, who must jump through the “reconsideration review hoop” prior to filing a petition for contested case.

Historically, attorneys recommend that provider undergo the reconsideration review for fear that an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at OAH would dismiss the case based on failure to exhaust administrative remedies. But upon a plain reading of 10A NCAC 22F .0402, is it really required? Look at the language again. “Will be offered” and “the opportunity for.” And what is the penalty for not requesting a reconsideration review? That the tentative decision becomes final – so you can petition to OAH the final decision.

My interpretation of 10A NCAC 22F .0402 is that the informal reconsideration review is an option, not a requirement.

Now, N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 states that “[i]t is the policy of this State that any dispute between an agency and another person that involves the person’s rights, duties, or privileges, including licensing or the levy of a monetary penalty, should be settled through informal procedures. In trying to reach a settlement through informal procedures, the agency may not conduct a proceeding at which sworn testimony is taken and witnesses may be cross-examined. If the agency and the other person do not agree to a resolution of the dispute through informal procedures, either the agency or the person may commence an administrative proceeding to determine the person’s rights, duties, or privileges, at which time the dispute becomes a “contested case.””

It is clear that our State’s policy is that a person who has a grievance against an agency; i.e., DHHS, attempts informal resolution prior to filing an appeal at OAH. Notice that N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 is applicable to any dispute between “an agency and another person.” “Agency” is defined as “an agency or an officer in the executive branch of the government of this State and includes the Council of State, the Governor’s Office, a board, a commission, a department, a division, a council, and any other unit of government in the executive branch. A local unit of government is not an agency.”

Clearly, DHHS is an “agency,” as defined. But an MCO is not a department; or a board; or a commission; or a division; or a unit of government in the executive branch; or a council. Since the policy of exhausting administrative remedies applies to DHHS, are you required to undergo an MCO’s reconsideration review process?

Appealing an MCO Adverse Determination

When you receive an adverse decision from an MCO, you will know that it is from an MCO because it will be on the MCO’s letterhead (master of the obvious).

For example:

trillium

There is a reason that I am emphasizing the letterhead. It is because DHHS contracts with a number of vendors. For example, DHHS contracts with Public Consulting Group (PCG), The Carolina Center for Medical Excellence (CCME), HMS, Liberty, etc. You could get a letter from any one of DHHS’ contracted entities – a letter on their letterhead. For example, you could receive a Tentative Notice of Overpayment on PCG  letterhead. In that case, PCG is acting on behalf of DHHS. So the informal reconsideration rules would be the same. For MCOs, on the other hand, we obtained a Waiver from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to “waive” certain rules and to create the MCOs. Different regulations apply to MCOs than DHHS. In fact, there is an argument that N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 does not apply to the MCOs because the MCOs are not an “agency.” Confusing, right? I call that job security.

Are you required to undergo the MCO’s internal reconsideration review process prior to filing a petition for contested case at OAH?

Your contract with the MCO certainly states that you must appeal through the MCO’s internal process. The MCO contracts with providers have language in them like this:

Dispute Resolution and Appeals: “The CONTRACTOR may file a complaint and/or appeals as outlined in the LME/PIHP Provider Manual promulgated by LME/PIHP pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. 122C-151.3 and as provided by N.C. Gen. Stat. Chapter 108C.”

I find numerous, fatal flaws in the above section. Whoever drafted this section of the contract evidently had never read N.C. Gen. Stat. 122C-151.3, which plainly states in subsection (b) “This section does not apply to LME/MCOs.” Also, the LME/PIHP does not have the legal authority to promulgate – that is a rule-making procedure for State agencies, such as DHHS. The third fatal flaw in the above section is that the LME/MCO Provider Manual is not promulgated and certainly was not promulgated not pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. 122C-151.3, does not apply to LME/MCOs.

Just because it is written, does not make it right.

If N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 does not apply to MCOs, because MCOs are not an agency, then the State policy of attempting to resolve disputes through informal methods before going to OAH does not apply.

There is no other statute or rule that requires a provider to exhaust an MCO’s internal review process prior to filing a petition for contested case.

What does that mean IN ENGLISH??

What it means is that the MCOs contract and provider manual that create an informal one or two-step reconsideration process is not required by law or rule. You do not have to waste your time and money arguing to the MCO that it should overturn its own decision, even though the reconsideration review process may be outlined in the provider manual or your procurement contract.

OAH has agreed…and disagreed.

In Person-Centered Partnerships, Inc. v. NC DHHS and MeckLINK, No. 13 DHR 18655, the court found that “[n]either the contractual provisions in Article II, Section 5.b of the Medicaid Contract nor MeckLINK’s “Procedures for implementation of policy # P0-09 Local Reconsideration Policy” states that reconsideration review is mandatory and a prerequisite to filing a contested case.”

In another case, OAH has held that, “[c]ontract provisions cannot override or negate the protections provided under North Carolina law, specifically the appeal rights set forth in N.C. Gen. Stat. Chapter 108C. Giesel, Corbin on Contracts § 88.7, at 595 (2011) (When the law confers upon an individual a right, privilege, or defense, the assumption is that the right, privilege or defense is conferred because it is in the public interest. Thus, in many cases, it is contrary to the public interest to permit the holder of the right, privilege, or defense to waive or to bargain it away. In these situations, the attempted waiver or bargain is unenforceable.”)” Essential Supportive Services, LLC v. DHHS and its Agent Alliance Behavioral Healthcare, No. 13 DHR 20386 (NCOAH) (quoting Yelverton’s Enrichment Services, Inc., v. PBH, as legally authorized contractor of and agent for N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, 13-CVS-11337, (7 March 2014)).

However, most recently, OAH ruled in the opposite way. A provider was terminated from an MCO’s catchment area, and we immediately filed a preliminary injunction to cease the termination. As you can see from the above-mentioned cases, OAH had not considered the reconsideration review mandatory. But, this time, the Judge found that the “contractual provision in [the MCO’s] contract with Petitioner, which provides for a local reconsideration review, is a valid and binding provision within the contract.”

So, again, the law is as clear as two and two adding up to five.

For now, when you are disputing an adverse determination by an MCO requesting a reconsideration review before going to OAH is a good CYA.

Going back to the traffic example at the  beginning of the blog, my husband was pulled for speeding a few weeks ago. I was surprised because, generally, he does not speed. He is a usually conscientious and careful driver. When the officer came to his window, he was genuinely confused as to the reason for the stop. In his mind, he was driving 73 mph, only 3 miles over the speed limit. In fact, he had the car on cruise control. Turns out he confused the sign for HWY 70, as a speed limit sign. The speed limit was actually 55 mph.

We did not appeal the decision.

The Doctrine of Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies and Medicare/caid Providers

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?

In Medicaid, NCGS 108C-2 defines “Adverse determination” as “a final decision by the Department to deny, terminate, suspend, reduce, or recoup a Medicaid payment or to deny, terminate, or suspend a provider’s or applicant’s participation in the Medical Assistance Program.”

In Medicare, sometimes the phrase “final adverse action” applies.  But, basically an adverse determination in Medicaid and Medicare is a decision by [whatever entity] that adversely affects you, your Medicare/caid contract or reimbursements.

What is the definition of the Department? 

NCGS 108C-2 defines the “Department,” as “The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, its legally authorized agents, contractors, or vendors who acting within the scope of their authorized activities, assess, authorize, manage, review, audit, monitor, or provide services pursuant to Title XIX or XXI of the Social Security Act, the North Carolina State Plan of Medical Assistance, the North Carolina State Plan of the Health Insurance Program for Children, or any waivers of the federal Medicaid Act granted by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.”

On the federal level, the Department would be the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) and its agents, contractors and/or vendors.

So, an adverse decision is any final decision by DHHS….OR any of its vendors (Public Consulting Group (PCG), Carolinas Center for Medical Excellence (CCME), HMS, Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), or any of the 10 managed care organizations (MCOs) (Alliance, Centerpointe, Smokey Mountain Center, Sandhills, East Carolina Behavioral Health, MeckLink, Cardinal Innovations, Eastpointe, CoastalCare, and Partners).

For example, PCG tells a dentist that he/she owes $500,000 in overpayments to the State.  The notice of overpayment is an adverse determination by the Department as defined in the general statutes.

For example, Smokey Mountain Center (SMC) tells a provider that it will no longer contract with the provider as of March 15, 2014.  SMC’s decision to not contract with the provider is an adverse determination by the Department as defined in the general statutes.

For example, CCME tells you that you are subject to prepayment review under NCGS 108C-7, which results in DHHS withholding Medicaid reimbursements.  The notice of suspension of payments is an adverse determination by the Department, as defined in the general statutes (not the fact that you were placed on prepayment review because the placement on prepayment review is not appealable, but the determination that Medicaid reimbursements will be withheld).

The doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies is, in essence,  a party must satisfy five conditions before turning to the courts: “(1) the person must be aggrieved; (2) there must be a contested case; (3) there must be a final agency decision; (4) administrative remedies must be exhausted; and (5) no other adequate procedure for judicial review can be provided by another statute.”  Huang v. N.C. State Univ., 107 N.C. App. 710, 713, 421 S.E.2d 812, 814 (1992) (citing Dyer v. Bradshaw, 54 N.C. App. 136, 138, 282 S.E.2d 548, 550 (1981)

Move your pawn before moving your castle.

Typically, if a party has not exhausted its administrative remedies, the party cannot bring a claim before the courts.  However, NC courts have recognized two exceptions that I will explain in a moment.

If you bring a lawsuit based on the adverse determination by the Department, do you go to state Superior Court?  No.

In North Carolina, we are lucky to have the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH).  OAH is fantastic because the judges at OAH, Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) have immense Medicaid experience.  OAH is a court of limited jurisdiction, meaning that only if a NC statute allows OAH to hear the case is OAH allowed to hear the case.  One facet of OAH’s jurisdiction is adverse determinations by DHHS, its agents, vendors or independent contractors.  Not all states have an administrative court system, and we are lucky to have an accomplished administrative court system.  Our ALJs are well-versed in Medicaid, so, most likely, your issue you bring to OAH will be one already heard by the court.

Another great thing about OAH, is that OAH publishes some opinions.  So you can review some published opinions prior to your hearing.  For the most part, the ALJs are quite consistent in rulings.  For the published opinions of OAH, click here.  And, BTW, if you want to review only cases involving the Department of Health and Human Services, scroll down to the cases with the acronym: DHR.  As you can see, OAH listens to cases involving many different state agencies.

So, let’s review:

If you receive an adverse determination by any state or federal agency, its contractors, vendors and/or independent contractors, you have the right to appeal the adverse determination.  However, you MAY need to exhaust your administrative remedies prior to bringing the action in OAH.  In other words, if the agency’s contractor, vendor, and/or independent contractor notifies you of an adverse determination, check with the contractor, vendor and/or independent contractor for informal appeals. 

There are, however, some small exceptions. (Remember the knights can jump over your pawns.  So can the Queen).

Number 1: Inadequacy.

If the informal administrative appeal process would be inadequate for your remedies then you are not required to exhaust the administrative remedies prior to going to the courts.

A remedy is inadequate “unless it is ‘calculated to give relief more or less commensurate with the claim.’”  Huang v. N.C. State Univ., 107 N.C. App. 710, 713, 421 S.E.2d 812, 814 (1992) (citing Dyer v. Bradshaw, 54 N.C. App. 136, 138, 282 S.E.2d 548, 550 (1981).

An example of inadequacy would be if you are seeking monetary damages and the agency is powerless to grant such relief.

The phrase “monetary damages” means that you are seeking money.  The agency owes you money and you are seeking the money.  Or if you were caused monetary damages because of the agencies actions.  For example, your Medicaid reimbursements were suspended. As a result, you fired staff and closed your doors.  You would want to sue for the money you lost as a result of the reimbursement suspension.  If the agency cannot give money damages or is powerless to give such money damages, then informal agency appeals would be in adequate to address you needs.

Number 2: Futility.

Futility refers to situations where an agency “has deliberately placed an impediment in the path of a party” or where agency policies “are so entrenched that it is unlikely that parties will obtain a fair hearing.”

For example, if by appealing informally within the administrative agency, you will not receive a fair hearing because no independent decision maker exists, you can make the argument that the informal appeal process would be futile.

Here’s the “small print:”

If you claim futility and/or inadequacy, then you must include the futility and/or inadequacy allegations in the Complaint; AND you bear the burden of proving futility and/or inadequacy.

If, however, you exhaust your adminastrative remedies, go to OAH.

Checkmate!