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NC Medicaid Reform … Part 5,439-ish

I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah! As 2023 approaches, NC Medicaid is being overhauled…again! Medicaid reform is never smooth, despite the State. NC is no different. When NC Medicaid reformed in 2013, I brought a class action lawsuit against Computer Science Corporation, which created NCTracks, and DHHS, NC’s “single state entity” charged with managing Medicaid. See blog.

The new start date for NC Medicaid Tailored Plans is April 1, 2023. Tailored Plans, originally scheduled to launch Dec. 1, 2022, will provide the same services as Standard Plans in Medicaid Managed Care and will also provide additional specialized services for individuals with significant behavioral health conditions, Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities and traumatic brain injury.

While the start of Tailored Plans will be delayed, specific new services did go live Dec. 1, 2022.

The following organizations will serve as regional Behavioral Health I/DD Tailored Plans beginning April 1, 2023:

Aetna is a managed-care provider, one of eight entities who submitted proposals for Medicaid managed-care services. The Committee issued its recommendations on January 24, 2019, which identified four statewide contracts for Medicaid managed care services to be awarded. On February 4, 2019, DHHS awarded contracts to WellCare of North Carolina, Inc. (“Wellcare”), Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (“BCBS”), AmeriHealth Caritas of North Carolina (“AmeriHealth”), and UnitedHealthcare of North Carolina, Inc. (“United Healthcare”). DHHS also awarded a regional contract to Carolina Complete Health, Inc.

See below:

However, two private insurance failed to get awarded NC contracts.

Aetna, along with the two other entities who were not awarded contracts, protested DHHS’ contract by filing contested case petitions in the Office of Administrative Hearings (“OAH”). Aetna filed its contested case petition and motion for preliminary injunction on April 16, 2019. The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied Aetna’s motion for preliminary injunction on June 26, 2019. The ALJ consolidated all three petitions on July 26, 2019. It rose to the Court of Appeals, where it was thrown out on a technicality; i.e., failure to timely serve Defendants. Aetna Better Health of N. Carolina, Inc. v. N. Carolina Dep’t of Health & Hum. Servs., 2021-NCCOA-486, ¶ 4, 279 N.C. App. 261, 263, 866 S.E.2d 265, 267.

The Court stated, “Here, Aetna failed to timely serve DHHS or any other party within the “10 days after the petition is filed” as is mandated by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 150B-46. Prior to serving DHHS, Aetna amended its Petition on 12 October 2020 and served its amended Petition the same day. Aetna argues “the relation-back provision of Rule 15(c) allows the service of an amended pleading where the original pleading was not properly served.” What a silly and mundane reason to have their Complaint dismissed due to the oversight of an attorney or paralegal…and a great law firm at that. Just goes to show you that technical, legal mistakes are easily done. This career in law in the Medicare/Medicaid realm is not simple.

The upcoming transformation in Medicaid will probably not be smooth; it never is. But we shall see if Medicaid reform 2023 works better than 2013 reform. We can hope!

A Story of Three Medicaid Providers’ Erroneous Terminations

I have a story for you today that affected three, Medicaid, behavioral health care providers back in 2013. Instead of me spouting off legal jargon that no one understands, I am going to tell you a nonfictional story.

Since both stories occurred in NC, we will use DHHS, the Department of Health and Human Services, which is the acronym for NC’s Medicaid agency.

In 2013, a Residential Level IV facility was shut down overnight by the managed care organization (“MCO”), Alliance, which was one of many MCOs that managed all behavioral health care for NC Medicaid recipients within their respective, catchment areas. The facility, we will call Alpha, housed 5-6, at-risk, teenage, African American, males, who could not reside in their family’s home due to mental illness, substance abuse, legal trouble, and/or violence. The owners of Alpha, themselves were large, muscular, African American males, which, I can only imagine, was to their benefit.

Alliance terminated Alpha from its catchment area, but since Alpha only provided Medicaid services in Alliance’s catchment area, Alliance’s decision would close a business immediately, terminate all staff, cause the owners to lose their careers, and the residents would have no home.

Alpha hired me. We were successful in obtaining an injunction. Click on “injunction” to read my blog about this exact situation in 2013, written by me in 2013. I have written numerous blogs on the topic of erroneous terminations of Medicaid providers over the years. Here are a couple: blog and blog.

An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) ruled in our favor that Alliance does not have the legal authority to terminate a provider for no reason or any erroneous reason. The ALJ Stayed the termination and Ordered Alliance to reverse the termination and continue to contract with Alpha.

Whew! We thought. Then, Alliance flat-out ignored the ALJ’s Order.

We brought a Motion for Contempt and/or Sanctions; however, we were instructed, at the time, that a Writ of Mandamus was the appropriate venue in Superior Court. This too was unsuccessful.

During our legal battle for Alpha, we were successful in obtaining injunctions for two other provider also terminated without cause.

Alpha did close. But the bright side of the story is what happened in the future. Those 3 injunctions, which were ignored by MCOs to the detriment of the three providers, were the last ones to be ignored. In the years that followed, OAH ALJs routinely held MCOs accountable for erroneous terminations and without cause terminations.

My team has witnessed successful injunctions across the country that protect providers from arbitrary and capricious terminations. We have litigated many of these successful injunctions.

Darkness Surrounds MCO Mergers: Are Closed Meetings for MCOs Legal?

Recently, Eastpointe Human Services’ board voted unanimously to consolidate with Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, which would make the merged entity the managed care organization (MCO) overseeing 1/3 of NC’s Medicaid, behavioral health services – 32 counties, in all.

The Board’s decision is subject to the approval of the Secretary, but Eastpointe hopes to consolidate by July 1st.

Whether a consolidation between Eastpointe and Cardinal is good for Medicaid recipients and/or our community, I have no opinion.

But the reason that I have no opinion is because the negotiations, which all deal with public funds, have occurred behind closed doors.

Generally, it is our public policy that public bodies’ actions are to be conducted openly. This is why you can stroll on over to our courthouse and watch, virtually, any case be conducted.  There are rare cases in which the court will “seal” or close the record, such as to protect privileged health information or the identity of children.  Our public policy that strongly encourages open sessions for public entities exists for good reason.  As tax payers, we expect full disclosure and transparency as to how our tax dollars are being used.  In a way, all tax paying NC residents are shareholders of NC.  Those who spend our tax dollars owe us a fiduciary duty to manage our tax dollars in a reasonable and responsible manner, and we should be able to attend all board meetings and review all meeting minutes. The MCOs are the agents of the single state entity, Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), charged with managing behavioral health care for the Medicaid and state-funded population suffering with mental health/developmentally disabled /substance abuse (MR/DD/SA) issues.  As an agent of the state, MCOs are public entities.

But, as I am researching the internet in search of Eastpointe and Cardinal board meeting minutes, I realize that the MCOs are initiating closed meetings and quoting N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11, ” Closed sessions” as the  basis for being able to conduct closed sessions.  And the number of closed sessions that I notice is not a small number.

The deliberations of a merger between two MCOs are highly important to the public. The public needs to know whether the board members are concerned about improving quality and quantity of care. Whether the deliberations surround a more inclusive provider network and providing more services to those in need. Whether the deliberations consider using public funds to create playgrounds or to fund more services for the developmentally disabled. Or are the board members more concerned with which executives will remain employed and what salaried are to be compensated?

You’ve heard of the saying, “Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile?”  This is what is going through my mind as I review the statute allowing public bodies to hold closed sessions.  Is the statute too open-ended? Is the closed session statute a legal mishandling that unintentionally, and against public policy, allows public meetings to act privately? Or are the MCOs misusing the closed session statute?

So I ask myself the following:

1. Is N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11 applicable to MCOs, or, in other words, can the MCOs conduct closed sessions? and, if the answer to #1 is yes, then

2. Are the MCOs overusing or misusing its ability to hold closed sessions? If the answer to #3 is yes, then

3. What can be done?

These are the three questions I will address in this blog.

Number one:

Is N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11 applicable to MCOs, or, in other words, can the MCOs conduct closed sessions?

According to the statute, “”public body” means any elected or appointed authority, board, commission, committee, council, or other body of the State, or of one or more counties, cities, school administrative units, constituent institutions of The University of North Carolina, or other political subdivisions or public corporations in the State that (i) is composed of two or more members and (ii) exercises or is authorized to exercise a legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, or advisory function.”

The MCOs are bodies or agents of the state that are composed of more than 2 members and exercises or is authorized to exercise administrative or advisory functions to the extent allowed by the Waivers.

I determine that, in my opinion, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11 is applicable to the MCOs, so I move on to my next question…

Number two:

 Are the MCOs overusing or misusing its ability to hold closed sessions?

As public policy dictates that public bodies act openly, there are enumerated, statutory reasons that a public body may hold a closed session.

A public body may hold a closed session only when a closed session is required:

  1. “To prevent the disclosure of information that is privileged or confidential pursuant to the law of this State or of the United States, or not considered a public record within the meaning of Chapter 132 of the General Statutes.
  2. To prevent the premature disclosure of an honorary degree, scholarship, prize, or similar award.
  3. To consult with an attorney employed or retained by the public body in order to preserve the attorney-client privilege between the attorney and the public body, which privilege is hereby acknowledged. General policy matters may not be discussed in a closed session and nothing herein shall be construed to permit a public body to close a meeting that otherwise would be open merely because an attorney employed or retained by the public body is a participant. The public body may consider and give instructions to an attorney concerning the handling or settlement of a claim, judicial action, mediation, arbitration, or administrative procedure. If the public body has approved or considered a settlement, other than a malpractice settlement by or on behalf of a hospital, in closed session, the terms of that settlement shall be reported to the public body and entered into its minutes as soon as possible within a reasonable time after the settlement is concluded.
  4. To discuss matters relating to the location or expansion of industries or other businesses in the area served by the public body, including agreement on a tentative list of economic development incentives that may be offered by the public body in negotiations, or to discuss matters relating to military installation closure or realignment. Any action approving the signing of an economic development contract or commitment, or the action authorizing the payment of economic development expenditures, shall be taken in an open session.
  5. To establish, or to instruct the public body’s staff or negotiating agents concerning the position to be taken by or on behalf of the public body in negotiating (i) the price and other material terms of a contract or proposed contract for the acquisition of real property by purchase, option, exchange, or lease; or (ii) the amount of compensation and other material terms of an employment contract or proposed employment contract.
  6. To consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee; or to hear or investigate a complaint, charge, or grievance by or against an individual public officer or employee. General personnel policy issues may not be considered in a closed session. A public body may not consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, appointment, or removal of a member of the public body or another body and may not consider or fill a vacancy among its own membership except in an open meeting. Final action making an appointment or discharge or removal by a public body having final authority for the appointment or discharge or removal shall be taken in an open meeting.
  7. To plan, conduct, or hear reports concerning investigations of alleged criminal misconduct.
  8. To formulate plans by a local board of education relating to emergency response to incidents of school violence or to formulate and adopt the school safety components of school improvement plans by a local board of education or a school improvement team.
  9. To discuss and take action regarding plans to protect public safety as it relates to existing or potential terrorist activity and to receive briefings by staff members, legal counsel, or law enforcement or emergency service officials concerning actions taken or to be taken to respond to such activity.”

Option 1 clearly applies, in part, to privileged health information (PHI) and such.  So I would not expect that little Jimmy’s Medicaid ID would be part of the board meeting issues, and, thus, not included in the minutes, unless his Medicaid ID was discussed in a closed session.

I cannot fathom that Option 2 would ever be applicable, but who knows?  Maybe Alliance will start giving out prizes…

I would assume that Option 3 is used most frequently.  But notice:

“General policy matters may not be discussed in a closed session and nothing herein shall be construed to permit a public body to close a meeting that otherwise would be open merely because an attorney employed or retained by the public body is a participant.”

Which means that: (1) the closed session may only be used to talk about specific legal strategies and not general policies.  For example, arguably, an MCO could hold a closed session to consult with its attorney whether to appeal a specific case, but not to discuss whether, generally, the MCO intends to appeal all unsuccessful cases.

and

(2) the MCO cannot call for a closed session “on the fly” and only because its attorney happens to be participating in the board meeting.

As I am rifling through random board meeting minutes, I notice the MCO’s attorney is always present.  Now, I say “always,” but did not review all MCO meeting minutes. There may very well be board meetings at which  the attorneys don’t attend. However, the attorney is present for the minutes that I reviewed.

Which begs the question…Are the MCOs properly using the closed sessions?

Then I look at Options 4, and 5, and 6, and 7, and 8, and 9…and I realize, Geez, according to one’s interpretation, the statute may or may not allow almost everything behind closed doors. (Well, maybe not 9).  But, seriously, depending on the way in which each Option is interpreted, there is an argument that almost anything can be a closed session.

Want to hold a closed session to discuss why the CEO should receive a salary of $400,000? N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(5)(ii).

Want hold a closed session to discuss the anonymous tip claim that provider X is committing Medicaid fraud? N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(7).

Want to hold a closed session to discuss how an MCO can position itself to take over the world? N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(4).

In an atmosphere in which there is little to no supervision of the actions of the MCOs, who is monitoring whether the MCOs are overusing or misusing closed sessions?

Number three:

What can you do if you think that an MCO is holding closed sessions over and above what is allowed by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11?

According to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.16A, “[a]ny person may institute a suit in the superior court requesting the entry of a judgment declaring that any action of a public body was taken, considered, discussed, or deliberated in violation of this Article. Upon such a finding, the court may declare any such action null and void. Any person may seek such a declaratory judgment, and the plaintiff need not allege or prove special damage different from that suffered by the public at large.”

Plus, according to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.16A, “[w]hen an action is brought pursuant to G.S. 143-318.16 or G.S. 143-318.16A, the court may make written findings specifying the prevailing party or parties, and may award the prevailing party or parties a reasonable attorney’s fee, to be taxed against the losing party or parties as part of the costs. The court may order that all or any portion of any fee as assessed be paid personally by any individual member or members of the public body found by the court to have knowingly or intentionally committed the violation; provided, that no order against any individual member shall issue in any case where the public body or that individual member seeks the advice of an attorney, and such advice is followed.”

 In sum, if you believe that an MCO is conducting a closed session for a reason not enumerated above, then you can institute a lawsuit and request attorneys’ fees if you are successful in showing that the MCO knowingly or intentionally committed the violation.

We should also appeal to the General Assembly to revise, statutorily, more narrowly drafted closed session exceptions.

Do You Have a Property Right to Be a Medicaid Provider?

YES!

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital or otherwise infamous crime unless on presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” U.S. Constitution, 5th Amendment (emphasis added).

The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, or, the Bill of Rights, were written by James Madison (for whom my daughter Madison was named).

Our managed care organizations (MCOs) and the government take the irritating position that providers have no right to be a Medicaid provider. And, often they quote the NC Administrative Code, which states that “All provider contracts with the North Carolina State Medicaid Agency are terminable at will. Nothing in these Regulations creates in the provider a property right or liberty right in continued participation in the Medicaid program.” 10A NCAC 22F .0605. However, as every attorney knows, when there is a rule, there is an exception. And when there is a rule, case law overrides it.

Despite 10A NCAC 22F .0605, a intelligent judge found that “Alliance contends that [the provider] has no right to be a Medicaid provider and therefore this Court cannot find that [the provider]’s rights have been substantially violated by its decision. Alliance also argues that [the provider]’s rights are solely contractual in nature and once the contract expired, the [provider] had no rights.

This contested case is not merely a contract case as Alliance contends. This contested case is about Alliance’s almost total disregard for Federal and State laws and regulations and its own policies. Based on the evidence, the process for the RFP seems almost like it began on a whim—ostensibly to fix problems that had no basis in fact. The result was a flawed RFP in which providers which might otherwise be comparable were treated differently, based in significant part on a subjective review.” Carolina Comm. Support Serv., Inc. v. Alliance Behavioral Healthcare, 14 DHR 1500, April 2, 2015.

So how can you have a property right in a Medicaid contract when the NCAC states that the contracts are terminable at will?

“In determining whether a property interest exists a Court must first determine that there is an entitlement to that property. Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532 (1985). Unlike liberty interests, property interests and entitlements are not created by the Constitution. Instead, property interests are created by federal or state law and can arise from statute, administrative regulations, or contract. Bowens v. N.C. Dept. of Human Res., 710 F.2d 1015, 1018 (4th Cir. 1983). Under North Carolina case law, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has determined that North Carolina Medicaid providers have a property interest in continued provider status. Bowens, 710 F.2d 1018. In Bowens, the Fourth Circuit recognized that North Carolina provider appeals process created a due process property interest in a Medicaid provider’s continued provision of services, and could not be terminated “at the will of the state.” The court determined that these safeguards, which included a hearing and standards for review, indicated that the provider’s participation was not “terminable at will.” Id. The court held that these safeguards created an entitlement for the provider, because it limits the grounds for his termination such that the contract was not terminable “at will” but only for cause, and that such cause was reviewable. The Fourth Circuit reached the same result in Ram v. Heckler, 792 F.2d 444 (4th Cir. 1986) two years later. Since the Court’s decision in Bowen, a North Carolina Medicaid provider’s right to continued participation has been strengthened through the passage of Chapter 108C. Chapter 108C expressly creates a right for existing Medicaid providers to challenge a decision to terminate participation in the Medicaid program in the Office of Administrative Hearings. It also makes such reviews subject to the standards of Article 3 of the APA. Therefore, North Carolina law now contains a statutory process that confers an entitlement to Medicaid providers. Chapter 108C sets forth the procedure and substantive standards for which OAH is to operate and gives rise to the property right recognized in Bowens and Ram. Under Chapter 108C, providers have a statutory expectation that a decision to terminate participation will not violate the standards of Article 3 of the APA. The enactment of Chapter 108C gives a providers a right to not be terminated in a manner that (1) violates the law; (2) is in excess of the Department’s authority; (3) is erroneous; (4) is made without using proper procedures; or (5) is arbitrary and capricious. To conclude otherwise would nullify the General Assembly’s will by disregarding the rights conferred on providers by Chapter 108C. This expectation cannot be diminished by a regulation promulgated by the DMA which states that provider’s do not have a right to continued participation in the Medicaid program because under the analysis in Bowen the General Assembly created the property right through statutory enactment.” Carolina Comm. Support Serv, Inc., at 22.

Again – how can you have a property right in a Medicaid contract when the NCAC states that the contracts are terminable at will? The answer is – You have a property right in your Medicaid contract. The state or MCOs cannot arbitrarily terminate your contract – regardless what they say. Know your rights!!

Managed Care – Eight Reasons Why MCOs Smell Like Pre-Minced Garlic

When it comes to the managed care organizations (MCOs) in NC, something smells rancid, like pre-minced garlic. When I first met my husband, Scott, I cooked with pre-minced garlic that comes in a jar. I figured it was easier than buying fresh garlic and dicing it myself. Scott bought fresh garlic and diced it. Then he asked me to smell the fresh garlic versus the pre-minced garlic. There was no contest. Next to the fresh garlic, the pre-minced garlic smelled rancid. That is the same odor I smell when I read information about the MCOs – pre-minced garlic in a jar.

garlic minced-garlic

In NC, MCOs are charged with managing Medicaid funds for behavioral health care, developmentally disabled, and substance abuse services. When the MCOs were initially created, we had 13. These are geographically situated, so providers and recipients have no choice with which MCO to interact. If you live in Sandhills’ catchment area, then you must go through Sandhills. If you provide services in Cardinal’s catchment area, then you must contract with Cardinal – even though you already have a provider participation agreement with the State of NC to provide Medicaid services in the State of NC.

Over the years, there has been consolidation, and now we have 7 MCOs.

newestmco

From left to right: Smoky Mountain (Duke blue); Partners Behavioral Health (Wake Forest gold); Cardinal Innovations Healthcare (ECU purple); Sandhills (UNCC green); Alliance Behavioral Healthcare (mint green); Eastpointe (Gap Khaki); and Trillium (highlighter yellow/green).

Recently, Cardinal (ECU purple) and Eastpointe (Gap khaki) announced they will consolidate, pending authorization from the Secretary of DHHS. The 20-county Cardinal will morph into a 32-county, MCO giant.

Here is the source of the rancid, pre-minced, garlic smell (in my opinion):

One – MCOs are not private entities. MCOs are prepaid with our tax dollars. Therefore, unlike Blue Cross Blue Shield, the MCOs must answer to NC taxpayers. The MCOs owe a duty of financial responsibility to taxpayers, just like the state government, cities, and towns.

Two – Cardinal CEO, Richard Topping, is paid $635,000, plus he has a 0 to 30 percent bonus potential which could be roughly another $250,000, plus he has some sort of annuity or long-term package of $412,000 (with our tax dollars).

Three – Cardinal is selling or has sold the 26 properties it owns or owned (with our tax dollars) to lease office space in the NASCAR Plaza office tower in uptown Charlotte for $300 to $400 per square foot plus employee parking (with our tax dollars).

Four – Cardinal charges 8% of public funds for its administrative costs. (Does that include Topping’s salary and bonuses?) How many employees are salaried by Cardinal? (with our tax dollars).

Five – The MCOs are prepaid. Once the MCOs receive the funds, the funds are public funds and subject to fiscal scrutiny. However, the MCOs keep whatever funds that it has at the end of the fiscal year. In other words, the MCOs pocket any money that was NOT used to reimburse a provider for a service rendered to a Medicaid recipient. Cardinal – alone – handles around $2.8 billion in Medicaid funding per year for behavioral health services. The financial incentive for MCOs? Terminate providers and reduce/deny services.

Six – MCOs are terminating providers and limiting access to care. In my law practice, I am constantly defending behavioral health care providers that are terminated from an MCO catchment area without cause or with erroneous cause. For example, an agency was terminated from their MCO because the agency had switched administrative offices without telling the MCO. The agency continued to provide quality services to those in need. But, because of a technicality, not informing the MCO that the agency moved administrative offices, the MCO terminated the contract. Which,in turn, puts more money in the MCO’s pocket; one less provider to pay.  Is a change of address really a material breach of a contract? Regardless – it is an excuse.

Seven – Medicaid recipients are not receiving medically necessary services. Either the catchment areas do not have enough providers, the MCOs are denying and reducing medically necessary services, or both. Cardinal cut 11 of its state-funded services. Parents of disabled, adult children write to me, complaining that their services from their MCO have been slashed for no reason….But the MCOs are saving NC money!

Eight – The MCOs ended 2015 with a collective $842 million in the bank. Wonder how much money the MCOs have now…(with our tax dollars).

Rancid, I say. Rancid!

CEO of Cardinal Gets a Raise – With Our Tax Dollars!

You could hear the outrage in the voices of some of the NC legislators (finally, for the love of God – our General Assembly has taken the blinders off their eyes regarding the MCOs) at the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Medicaid and NC Health Choice on Tuesday, December 6, 2016, when Cardinal Innovations‘, a NC managed care organization (MCO) that manages our Medicaid behavioral health care in its catchment area, CEO, Richard Topping, stated that his salary was raised this year from $400,000 to $635,000with our tax dollars. (Whoa – totally understand if you have to read that sentence multiple times; it was extraordinarily complex).

Senator Tommy Tucker (R-Waxhaw) was especially incensed. He said, “I received minutes from your board, Sept. 16 of 2016, they made that motion, that your 2017 comp package, they raised your salary from $400,000 to $635,000, they gave you a 0 to 30 percent bonus potential which could be roughly another $250,000 and also you have some sort of annuity or long-term package of $412,000,” said Sen. Tommy Tucker.

FINALLY!!! Not the first time that I have blogged about the mismanagement (my word) of our tax dollars. See blog. And blog.

Sen. Tucker was not alone.

Representative Dollar was also concerned. But even more surprising than our legislators stepping up to the plate and holding an MCO accountable (MCOs have expensive lobbyists – with our tax dollars), the State’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Secretary Rick Brajer was visibly infuriated. He spoke sharply and interrogated Topping as to his acute income increase, as well as the benefits attached.

As a health care blogger, I receive so many emails from blog readers, including parents of disabled children, who are not receiving the medically necessary Medicaid behavioral health care services for their developmentally disabled children. MCOs are denying medically necessary services. MCOs are terminating qualified health care providers. MCOs are putting access to care at issue. BTW – even if the MCOs only terminated 1 provider and stopped 1 Medicaid recipient from receiving behavioral health care services from their provider of choice, that MCO would be in violation of federal law access to care regulations.  But, MCOs are terminating multiple – maybe hundreds – of health care providers. MCOs are nickeling and diming health care providers. Yet, CEO Topping will reap $635,000+ as a salary.

The MCOs, including Cardinal, do not have assets except for our tax dollars. They are not incorporated. They are not private entities. They are extensions of our “single state agency” DHHS. The MCOs step into the shoes of DHHS. The MCOs are state agencies. The MCOs are paid with our tax dollars. Our tax dollars should be used (and are budgeted) to provide Medicaid behavioral health care services for our most needy and to be paid to those health care providers, who still accept Medicaid and provide services to our most vulnerable population. News alert – These providers who render behavioral health care services to Medicaid recipients do not make $635,000/year, or anywhere even close. The reimbursement rates for Medicaid is paltry, at best. Toppings should be embarrassed for even accepting a $635,000 salary. The money, instead, should go to increasing the reimbursements rates – or maintaining a provider network without terminating providers ad nauseum. Or providing medically necessary services to Medicaid recipients.

Rest assured, Cardinal is not the only MCO lining the pockets of its executives. While both Trillium and Alliance, other MCOs, pay their CEOs under $200,000 (still nothing to sneeze at). Alliance, however, throws its tax dollars at private, legal counsel. No in-house counsel for Alliance! Oh, no! Alliance hires expensive, private counsel to defend its actions. Another way our tax dollars are at work. And – my question – why in the world does Alliance, or any other MCO, need to hire legal counsel? Our State has perfectly competent attorneys at our Attorney General’s office, who are on salary to defend the state, and its agencies, for any issue. The MCOs stand in the shoes of the State when it comes to Medicaid for behavioral health. The MCOs should utilize the attorneys the State already employs – not a high-dollar, private law firm. These are our tax dollars!

There have been few times that I have praised DHHS in my blogs. I will readily admit that I am harsh on DHHS’ actions/nonactions with our tax dollars. And I am now not recanting any of my prior opinions. But, last Tuesday, Sec. Brajer held Toppings feet to the fire. Thank you, Brajer, for realizing the horror of an MCO CEO earning $635,000/year while our most needy population goes under-served, and, sometimes not served at all, with medically necessary behavioral health care services.

What is deeply concerning is that if Sec. Brajer is this troubled by actions by the MCOs, or, at least, Cardinal, why can he not DO SOMETHING?? Where is the supervision of the MCOs by DHHS? I’ve read the contracts between the MCOs and DHHS. DHHS is the supervising entity over the MCOs. Our Waiver to the federal government promises that DHHS will supervise the MCOs.

If the Secretary of DHHS cannot control the MCOs, who can?

The Merger of the MCOs!

Breaking News: From DHHS

Raleigh, NC

State health officials announced today that the state- and Medicaid-funded Local Management Entities/Managed Care Organizations providing mental health, intellectual and developmental disability and substance use services to North Carolina citizens will be consolidating into four service regions across the state.

Further consolidation will improve quality of services, accessibility, accountability and long-term sustainability.

“I’m a strong believer in LME/MCOs,” said Rick Brajer, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. “These populations deserve dedicated management.”

The newly consolidated service areas are:

  • North Central Region: CenterPoint Human Services and Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions will be merging
  • South Central Region: Sandhills Center and Alliance Behavioral Healthcare will be merging
  • Eastern Region: Eastpointe and Trillium Health Resources will be merging
  • Western Region: Partners Behavioral Health Management and Smoky Mountain LME/MCO will be merging

newmco

Medicaid Closed Networks: Can Waivers Waive Your Legal Rights?

Sorry for the lapse in blogging. I took off for Thanksgiving and then got sick. I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving!!

While I was sick, I thought about all the health care providers that have been put out of business because the managed care organization (MCO) in their area terminated their Medicaid contract or refused to contract with them. I thought about how upset I would be if I could not see my doctor, whom I have seen for years. See blog for “You Do Have Rights!

Then I thought about…Can a Waiver waive a legal right?

Federal law mandates that Medicaid recipients be able to choose their providers of choice. Court have also held that this “freedom of choice” of provider is a right, not a privilege.

42 U.S.C. § 1396a states that Medicaid recipients may obtain medical services from “any institution, agency, community pharmacy, or person, qualified to perform the service or services required… who undertakes to provide him such services….” Id. at (a)(23).

So how can these MCOs restrict access?

First, we need to discuss the difference between a right and a privilege.

For example, driving is a privilege, not a right. You have no right to a driver’s license, which is why you can lose your license for things, such as multiple DUIs. Plus, you cannot receive a driver’s license unless you pass a test, because a license is not a right.

Conversely, you have the right to free speech and the right to vote. Meaning, the government cannot infringe on your rights to speak and vote unless there are extraordinary circumstances. For example, the First Amendment does not protect obscenity, child pornography, true threats, fighting words, incitement to imminent lawless action (yelling “fire” in a crowded theater), criminal solicitation or defamation. Your right to vote will be rescinded if you are convicted of a felony. Furthermore, you do not need to take a test or qualify for the rights of free speech and voting.

Likewise, your choice of health care provider is a right. It can only be usurped in extraordinary circumstances. You do not need to take a test or qualify for the right. (Ok, I am going to stop underlining “right” and “privilege” now. You get the point).

Then how are MCOs operating closed networks? For that matter, how can Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) terminate a provider’s contract? Wouldn’t both those actions limit your right to choose your provider?

The answer is yes.

And the answer is simple for BCBS. As for BCBS, it is a private company and does not have to follow all the intricate regulations for Medicare/caid. 42 U.S.C.  § 1396a is inapplicable to it.

But Medicaid recipients have the right to choose their provider.  This “freedom of choice” provision has been interpreted by both the Supreme Court and the Seventh Circuit as giving Medicaid recipients the right to choose among a range of qualified providers, without government interference (or its agents thereof).

What does this mean? How can a managed care organization (MCO) here in NC maintain a closed network of providers without violating the freedom of choice of provider rule?

The “Stepford” answer is that we have our Waivers in NC, which have waived the freedom of choice. In our 1915 b/c Waiver, there are a couple pages that enumerates certain statutes. We “x” out the statutes that we were requesting to waive.

It looks like this:

waiver1

Furthermore, federal law carves out an exception to freedom to choose right when it comes to managed care. But to what extent? It the federal carve unconstitutional?

But…the question is twofold:

  • Would our Waiver stand up to federal court scrutiny?
  • Can our state government waive your rights? (I couldn’t help it).

Let’s think of this in the context of the freedom of speech. Could NC request from the federal government a waiver of our right to free speech? It sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? What is the difference between your right to free speech and your right to choose a provider? Is one right more important than the other?

The answer is that no one has legally challenged our Waiver’s waiver of the right to freedom of provider with a federal lawsuit claiming a violation of a constitutionally protected right. It could be successful. If so, in my opinion, two legal theories should be used.

  1. A § 1983 action; and/or
  2. A challenge under 42 CFR 431.55(f)

Section 1983 creates a federal remedy against anyone who deprives “any citizen of the United States… of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” under the color of state law. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Supreme Court has explained that § 1983 should be read to generally “authorize[] suits to enforce individual rights under federal statutes as well as the Constitution.” City of Rancho Palos Verdes, Cal. v. Abrams, 544 U.S. 113, 119 (2005).

Section 1983 does not authorize a federal remedy against state interference with all government entitlements, however; “it is rights, not the broader or vaguer ‘benefits’ or ‘interests,’ that may be enforced under the authority of that section.” Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 283 (2002). But the courts have already held that the freedom to choose your provider is a right.

In 2012, the Seventh Circuit confirmed that § 1983 authorizes Medicaid recipients to sue to enforce the right to freely choose among qualified health providers.

In Planned Parenthood, the court was confronted with an Indiana state law prohibiting state agencies from providing state or federal funds to any entity that performs abortions or maintains or operates a facility in which abortions are performed – regardless of whether there is any nexus between those funds and the abortion services. See Planned Parenthood, 699 F.3d at 967 (7th Cir. 2012). In other words, the law effectively prohibited entities that perform abortions from receiving any state or federal funds for any (non-abortion) purpose.

The Court found that the restrictions violated the Medicaid recipients’ right to freedom of choice of provider.

There are, as always, more than one way to skin a cat. You could also attack the Waiver’s waiver of the freedom to choose your health care provider by saying the NC is violating 42 CFR 431.55.

Notice the last sentence in subsection (d) in the picture above. In our Waiver, NC promises to abide by 42 CFR 431.55(f), which states:

(f) Restriction of freedom of choice—
(1) Waiver of appropriate requirements of section 1902 of the Act may be authorized for States to restrict beneficiaries to obtaining services from (or through) qualified providers or practitioners that meet, accept, and comply with the State reimbursement, quality and utilization standards specified in the State’s waiver request.
(2) An agency may qualify for a waiver under this paragraph (f) only if its applicable State standards are consistent with access, quality and efficient and economic provision of covered care and services and the restrictions it imposes—
(i) Do not apply to beneficiaries residing at a long-term care facility when a restriction is imposed unless the State arranges for reasonable and adequate beneficiary transfer.
(ii) Do not discriminate among classes of providers on grounds unrelated to their demonstrated effectiveness and efficiency in providing those services; and
(iii) Do not apply in emergency circumstances.
(3) Demonstrated effectiveness and efficiency refers to reducing costs or slowing the rate of cost increase and maximizing outputs or outcomes per unit of cost.
(4) The agency must make payments to providers furnishing services under a freedom of choice waiver under this paragraph (f) in accordance with the timely claims payment standards specified in § 447.45 of this chapter for health care practitioners participating in the Medicaid program.

Basically, to argue a violation of 42 CFR 431.55, you would have to demonstrate that NC violated or is violating the above regulation by not providing services “consistent with access, quality and efficient and economic provision of covered care and services.”

So, while it is true that NC has requested and received permission from the Center of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to restrict access to providers, that fact may not be constitutional.

Someone just needs to challenge the Waiver’s waiver.

A Brave New World With Mergers and Acquisitions of Behavioral Health Care Providers: Not Always Happily Ever After!

Unintentionally, I misrepresented the Benchmark panel discussion on which I appeared last Thursday. See blog.  I thought that I would be sitting on the panel along with MCO representatives. I honestly cannot tell you from where I got this idea. Maybe it was a subconscious desire. Regardless, the panel discussion was about merges and acquisitions among behavioral health care providers. While the subject of managed care organizations (MCOs) did come up, managed care was not the primary subject.  And the only MCO representative that I saw was Smokey Mountain’s attorney.

panelpic2

Nevertheless, the panel discussion went fantastic and was informative for those who attended.  I will summarize the panel discussion here for those who could not attend.  First, if you are a behavioral health care provider in NC, joining an association, such as Benchmarks, is an asset.  Not only do you get the benefit of attending educational programs, but you also have the opportunity to meet other behavioral health care providers across the state at the events.  You never know the potential relationships that could be created by attending a Benchmark event.

Going back to the panel…

There were 5 people sitting on the panel.  Besides myself, the panel consisted of Robert Shaw, Senior Counsel with me at Gordon & Rees, Frank Williams, a broker who facilitates mergers and acquisitions for health care providers, and two CEOs of health care providers who have undergone successful mergers and/or acquisitions.

The general consensus of the panel was that the future of behavioral health care will be larger companies which offer multiple services, instead of mom and pop shops that provide few types of services.  The panel was intended to bring potential mergers/acquisitions together in one venue and to educate the providers on “Do’s and Don’ts of Merging/Acquiring,” which is summarized below.

This consensus is generally derived from the MCO atmosphere here in NC.  Right or wrong, the MCOs are operating in closed networks and have the financial incentives to save money by contracting with fewer providers and decreasing authorizations for Medicaid services requested by Medicaid recipients.  See blog. And blog. And blog.

The MCOs seem to be terminating or refusing to contract with smaller health care providers, which, in turn, incentivize small health care providers to join other providers in order to grow its footprint.

Merging or acquiring a company is similar to partnering with another person in marriage.  Both parties have to familiarize themselves with the other’s habits, expectations, learn the other’s faults/liabilities, and, ultimately, have to work together on projects, issues and other matters.  And as we can discern from today’s high divorce rate, not everyone lives happily ever after.

Some marriages, as well as mergers, simply do not work.  Others live happily ever after.

The two provider panelists shared successful merger/acquisition stories.  Both shared experiences in creating new and larger entities effectively.  Both panelists were happy with the mergers/acquisitions and hopeful as to what the future will bring both new entities.

But all mergers and acquisitions do not have happy endings.  The two entities do not always live happily ever after.

Robert and I shared a story of an acquisition from Hades. There is no other way to describe the outcome of the acquisition.

The story of these two companies begins with the fact that the companies leased space in the same building.  One company was on floor 2 and the other was on floor 1.  The staff knew each other in passing.

The problem with the merger of these companies stemmed from a difference in culture.

Theoretically, the two companies did everything right.  The owner of the company getting acquired agreed to stay and work for the company buying it in order to ensure consistency. The buying company agreed to hire all the seller’s employees at their current salaries.  The acquisition was to be seamless.

The problems arose when news of the acquisition passed to the employees.  There was genuine discontentment with the arrangement.  The employees from the seller reacted with hostility and resentment.  Prior to the acquisition, the seller was fairly lax in regulatory compliance.  For example, if a service note was not drafted and filed the date of services….eh?…not that big of a deal.  Well, the buyer had strict document compliance rules for daily service notes.  Anytime more stringent policies are enacted on employees, there is sure to be a negative reaction.  The buyer also expected the seller’s employees to provide more services for the same salary received before the acquisition.

There was no legal or logical step omitted in the acquisition of the one company to the other.  On paper, the acquisition should have been successful.  But, then, personalities got in the way of happily ever after.

The other panelists offered great advice as to mergers and acquisitions, both from the providers’ view and a broker’s view.  I have compiled the advice that I recall below.  I have taken the liberty to provide analogous dating advice, as well, since marriages and mergers/acquisitions are so similar.  Hope it helps!!

Do’s and Don’ts of Mergers/Acquisitions

  • Do not let the secret out.

One provider panelist explained that if your employees learn of a possible merger/acquisition, they will kill the deal. Confide only in the CEO of the firm of which you are looking to merge, acquire, or sell.  Those dating: Never tell other that you want to marry (until the appropriate time).

  • Look outside your catchment area.

The reason companies merge/acquire is to grow.  Think of potential companies outside your own catchment area to grow even more.  For example, if you are in Alliance’s catchment area, think of merging with a company in ECBH/Eastpointe’s area.  Those dating: Have you exhausted your resources? Think of others, such as church, Match.com, etc.

  • Do your due diligence

This is a task as important as the oxygen you breath.  The last thing that you want is to acquire or merge with a company that owes $500,000 in employment taxes or an alleged overpayment.  Part of due diligence will be to check the credentials of every single staff member.  If someone is acting in the role of a LCAS, ensure the person is appropriately licensed.  Those dating: Is he/she employed? Have significant debt?

  • Review the other company’s documentation policies

This could be lumped into the due diligence section, but I think its importance is worth emphasizing.  Whatever service(s) the other company provides, what are its policies as to documentation? Does the provider have a computer program to maintain electronic health records (EHR)? Does it employ paper copies? Does the other company require the providers to submit daily service notes? Look at your own documentation policies.  Contemplate whether your own documentation policies would mesh well with the other company’s policies.  Those dating: How does your potential partner document spending, taxes, and calendared events?

  • Analyze both company’s corporate culture

Merging or acquiring a company is difficult in many ways, but it’s also hard on staff.  Imagine walking into work one day and you notice that the staff had doubled…or tripled.  And you and your colleagues are being told what to do by someone you never met.  This is not an uncommon occurrence with mergers and acquisitions.  Sometimes accepting change of supervision or team members can be a bitter pill to swallow.  How will you work through employee issues?  Personality clashes?  Ego fights?  Those dating: Analyze both person’s personalities, dispute resolutions, religion and beliefs.  Do you like his/her friends?

In addition to the potential conflicts with employees that stay with the merged entity, you also need to contemplate which employees, if any, may, potentially leave the new entity.  Disgruntled employees are a liability.  Those dating: How does he/she treat ex-partners?

  • Research the company’s relationship with its MCO

In our current MCO atmosphere, it is imperative to know, before merging or acquiring, whether the company has a good relationship with its MCO.  What if you acquire the company and its MCO refuses to continue to contract with the new entity.  Knowing the company’s relationship with the MCO is not an absolute.  As in, the company may believe it to have a good relationship with the MCO, while, in truth, it does not.  Ask to review some correspondence between the company and the MCO to discern the tone of the communications.  Those dating: How does he/she treat his/her mother/father?

  • Surround yourself with knowledge

Have a broker and an attorney with expertise in Medicaid.  Those dating: What do your friends think?

To watch the video of me speaking as a panelist for Benchmark, click here.  Scroll down until you see the video with Robert and me.

Otherwise, I hope you live happily ever after!

Knicole Emanuel: Panel Discussion – David Is To Goliath As NC Behavioral Health Care Providers Are To MCOs

Isn’t that analogy apropos? (And it’s not mine…its Benchmarks’)

I will be sitting on a panel today in Raleigh, NC.  See below.

A wonderful association, Benchmarks, is hosting a panel discussion for behavioral health care providers. While it is meant for smaller providers, in my own humble opinion, all behavioral health care providers would benefit from this panel discussion.

Senior Counsel, Robert Shaw, and I will be sitting on the panel…with managed care organizations (MCO) representatives.  It is without question that I have not been a big fan of the MCOs.  If I were to suggest otherwise, I believe that my blog followers would scoff. However, I am interested in hearing these MCO representatives’ side of the argument.

Will these MCO reps merely parrot? Or will they truly engage in worthwhile conversations to understand what it is like for a behavioral health care provider in NC today?

Feel free to join the discussion at 12:30-2:30.  Below is the Evite: 3801 Hillsborough St.

david and goliath