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Non-Profit Going For-Profit: Merger Mania Manifests

According to the American Hospital Association, America has 4,840 general hospitals that aren’t run by the federal government: 2,849 are nonprofit, 1,035 are for-profit and 956 are owned by state or local governments.

What is the distinction between a for-profit and not-for-profit hospital… besides the obvious? The obvious difference is that one is “for-profit” and one is “not-for-profit” – but any reader of the English language would be able to tell you that. Unknown to some is that the not-for-profit status does not mean that the hospital will not make money; the status has nothing to do with a hospitals bottom line. Just ask any charity that brings in millions of dollars.

The most significant variation between non-profit and for-profit hospitals is tax status. Not-for-profit hospitals are exempt from state and local taxes. Some say that for-profit hospitals have to be more cost-effective because they have sales taxes and property taxes. I can understand that sentiment. Sales taxes and property taxes are nothing to sneeze at.

The organizational structure and culture also varies at for-profit hospitals rather than not-for-profit hospitals. For-profit hospitals have to answer to shareholders and/or investors. Those that are publicly traded may have a high attrition rate at the top executive level because when poor performance occurs heads tend to roll.

Bargaining power is another big difference between for-profit and non-profit. For-profit has it while non-profit, generally, do not. The imbalance of bargaining power comes into play when the government negotiates its managed care contracts. I also believe that bargaining power is a strong catalyst in the push for mergers. Being a minnow means that you have insect larvae and fish eggs to consume. Being a whale, however, allows you to feed on sea lion, squid, and other larger fish.

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Merger Mania

A report conducted by the Health Research Institute showed 255 healthcare merger and acquisition (M&A) deals in the second quarter of 2018. Just the second quarter! According to the report, deal volume is up 9.4% since last year.

The most active sub-sector in the second quarter of 2018 is long-term care, with 104 announced healthcare M&A deals representing almost 41% of deal volume.

The trend today is that for-profit hospitals are buying up smaller, for-profit hospitals and, any and all, not-for-profit hospitals. The upshot is that hospitals are growing larger, more massive, more “corporate-like,” and less community-based. Is this trend positive or negative? I will have to research whether the prices of services increase at hospitals that are for-profit rather than not-for-profit, but I have a gut feeling that they do. Not that prices are the only variable to determine whether the merger trend is positive or negative. From the hospital’s perspective, I would much rather be the whale, not the minnow. I would feel much more comfortable swimming around.

My opinion is that, as our health care system veers toward value-based reimbursement and this metamorphous places financial pressure on providers, health care providers are struggling for more efficient means of cost control. The logical solution is to merge and buy up the smaller fish until your entity is a whale. Whales have more bargaining power and more budget.

In 2017, 29 for-profit companies bought 18 for-profit hospitals and 11 not-for-profits, according to an analysis for Kaiser Health News.

10 hospital M&A transactions involved health care organizations with net revenues of $1 billion or more in 2017.

Here, in NC, Mission Health, a former, not-for-profit hospital in Asheville, announced in March 2018 that HCA Healthcare, the largest, for-profit, hospital chain would buy it for $1.5 billion. The NC Attorney General had to sign off on the deal since the deal involved a non-profit turning for-profit, and he did ultimately did sign off on it.

Regardless your opinion on the matter, merger mania has manifested. Providers need to determine whether they want to be a whale or a minnow.

Suspension of Medicare Reimbursements – Not Over 180 Days! Medicaid – Indefinite?!

When you get accused of Medicare or Medicaid fraud or of an alleged overpayment, the federal and state governments have the authority to suspend your reimbursements. If you rely heavily on Medicaid or Medicare, this suspension can be financially devastating. If your Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements are suspended, you have to hire an attorney. And, somehow, you have to be able to afford such legal representation without reimbursements. Sadly, this is why many providers simply go out of business when their reimbursements are suspended.

But, legally, how long can the state or federal government suspend your Medicare or Medicaid payments without due process?

According to 42 C.F.R. 405.371, the federal government may suspend your Medicare reimbursements upon ” reliable information that an overpayment exists or that the payments to be made may not be correct, although additional information may be needed for a determination.” However, for Medicare, there is a general rule that the suspension may not last more than 180 days. MedPro Health Providers, LLC v. Hargan, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 173441 *2.

There are also procedural safeguards. A Medicare provider must be provided notice prior to a suspension and given the opportunity to submit a rebuttal statement explaining why the suspension should not be implemented. Medicare must, within 15 days, consider the rebuttal, including any material submitted. The Medicare Integrity Manual states that the material provided by the provider must be reviewed carefully.

Juxtapose Medicaid:

42 CFR 455.23 states that “The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending under the Medicaid program against an individual or entity unless the agency has good cause to not suspend payments or to suspend payment only in part.”

Notice the differences…

Number one: In the Medicare regulation, the word used is “may” suspend.  In the Medicaid regulation, the word used is “must” suspend. This difference between may and must may not resonate as a huge difference, but, in the legal world, it is. You see, “must” denotes that there is no discretion (even though there is discretion in the good cause exception). On the other hand, “may” suggests more discretionary power in the decision.

Number two: In the Medicare regulation, notice is required. It reads, “Except as provided in paragraphs (d) and (e) of this section, CMS or the Medicare contractor suspends payments only after it has complied with the procedural requirements set forth at § 405.372.” 405.372 reads the Medicare contractor must notify the provider or supplier of the intention to suspend payments, in whole or in part, and the reasons for making the suspension. In the Medicaid regulation, no notice is required. 455.23 reads “The State Medicaid agency may  suspend payments without first notifying the provider of its intention to suspend such payments.”

Number three: In the Medicare regulation, a general limit of the reimbursement suspension is imposed, which is 180 days. In the Medicaid regulation, the regulations states that the suspension is “temporary” and must be lifted after either of the following (1) there is a determination of no credible allegations of fraud or (2) the legal proceedings regarding the alleged fraud are complete.

Yet I have seen States blatantly violate the “temporary” requirement. Consider the New Mexico situation. All the behavioral health care providers who were accused of Medicaid fraud have been cleared by the Attorney General. The regulation states that the suspension must be lifted upon either of the following – meaning, if one situation is met, the suspension must be lifted. Well, the Attorney General has cleared all the New Mexico behavioral health care providers of fraud. Criterion is met. But the suspension has not been lifted. The Health Services Department (HSD) has not lifted the suspension. This suspension has continued for 4 1/2 years. It began June 24, 2013. See blog, blog, and blog. Here is a timeline of events.

Why is there such a disparity in treatment with Medicare providers versus Medicaid providers?

The first thing that comes to mind is that Medicare is a fully federal program, while Medicaid is state-run. Although a portion of the funds for Medicaid comes from the federal government.

Secondly, Medicare patients pay part of costs through deductibles for hospital and other costs. Small monthly premiums are required for non-hospital coverage. Whereas, Medicaid patients pay nothing.

Thirdly, Medicare is for the elderly, and Medicaid is for the impoverished.

But should these differences between the two programs create such a disparity in due process and the length of reimbursement suspensions for health care providers? Why is a Medicare provider generally only susceptible to a 180 day suspension, while a Medicaid provider can be a victim of a 4 1/2 year suspension?

Parity, as it relates to mental health and substance abuse, prohibits insurers or health care service plans from discriminating between coverage offered for mental illness, serious mental illness, substance abuse, and other physical disorders and diseases. In short, parity requires insurers to provide the same level of benefits for mental illness, serious mental illness or substance abuse as for other physical disorders and diseases.

Does parity apply to Medicare and Medicaid providers?

Most of Medicare and Medicaid law is interpreted by administrative law judges. Most of the time, a health care provider, who is not receiving reimbursements cannot fund an appeal to Superior Court, the Court of Appeals, and, finally the Supreme Court. Going to the Supreme Court costs so much that most normal people will never present before the Supreme Court…it takes hundreds and hundreds upon thousands of dollars.

In January 1962, a man held in a Florida prison cell wrote a note to the United States Supreme Court. He’d been charged with breaking into a pool hall, stealing some Cokes, beer, and change, and was handed a five-year sentence after he represented himself because he couldn’t pay for a lawyer. Clarence Earl Gideon’s penciled message eventually led to the Supreme Court’s historic 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright ruling, reaffirming the right to a criminal defense and requiring states to provide a defense attorney to those who can’t afford one. But it does not apply to civil cases.

Furthermore, pro bono attorneys and legal aid attorneys, although much-needed for recipients, will not represent a provider.

So, until a health care provider, who is a gaga-zillionaire, pushes a lawsuit to the Supreme Court, our Medicare and Medicaid law will continue to be interpreted by administrative law judges and, perhaps, occasionally, by Superior Court. Do not take this message and interpret that I think that administrative law judges and Superior Court judges are incapable of interpreting the laws and fairly applying them to certain cases. That is the opposite of what I think. The point is that if the case law never gets to the Supreme Court, we will never have consistency in Medicare and Medicaid law. A District Court in New Mexico could define “temporary” in suspensions of Medicare and/or Medicaid reimbursements as 1 year. Another District Court in New York could define “temporary” as 1 month. Consistency in interpreting laws only happens once the Supreme Court weighs in.

Until then, stay thirsty, my friend.

Inpatient Rehabilitation Facility Stay Claim Denials – Appeal Those Findings!

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) created a new page on its Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) website entitled “Provider Resources.” CMS indicated that it will post on this page any new issues the RACs have proposed to audit and are being evaluated by CMS for approval. It is like a glimpse behind the curtain to see the Great Oz. This is a fantastic resource for providers.  CMS posts a list of review topics that have been proposed, but not yet approved, for RACs to review. You can see the future!

Topics proposed for future audits:

  • Inpatient Rehabilitation Facility (IRF) Stays: Meeting Requirements to be considered Reasonable and Necessary;
  • Respiratory Assistive Devices: Meeting Requirements to be considered Reasonable and Necessary;
  • Excessive or Insufficient Drugs and Biologicals Units Billed;
  • E&M Codes billed within a Procedure Code with a “0” Day Global Period (Endoscopies or some minor surgical procedures);
  • E&M Codes billed within a Procedure Code with a “10” Day Global Period (other minor procedures);
  • E&M Codes billed within a Procedure Code with a “90” Day Global Period (major surgeries);

Over the next few weeks, intermittently (along with other blog posts), I will tackle these, and other, hot RAC audit topics.

IRFs are under fire in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia!

Many patients with conditions like stroke or brain injury, who need an intensive medical rehabilitation program, are transferred to an inpatient rehabilitation facility.

Palmetto, one of Medicare’s MACs, conducted a prepayment review of IRFs in these four states. The results were bleak, indeed, and will, most likely, spur more audits of IRFs in the future. If you are a Medicare provider within Palmetto’s catchment area, then you know that Palmetto conducts a lot of targeted prepayment review. Here is a map of the MAC jurisdictions:

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You can see that Palmetto manages Medicare for North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Virginia. So Palmetto’s prepayment review covered its entire catchment area.

North Carolina Results A total of 28 claims were reviewed with 19 of the claims either completely or partially denied. The total dollars reviewed was $593,174.60 of which $416,483.42 was denied, resulting in a charge denial rate of 70.2 percent.

South Carolina Results A total of 24 claims were reviewed with 16 of the claims either completely or partially denied. The total dollars reviewed was $484,742.68 of which $325,266.43 was denied, resulting in a charge denial rate of 67.1 percent.

West Virginia Results
A total of two claims were reviewed with two of the claims either completely or partially denied. The total dollars reviewed was $32,506.21 of which $32,506.21 was denied, resulting in a charge denial rate of 100 percent.

Virginia Results
A total of 39 claims were reviewed with 31 of the claims either completely or partially denied. The total dollars reviewed was $810,913.83 of which $629,118.08 was denied, resulting in a charge denial rate of 77.6 percent.

In all 4 states, the most cited denial code was “5J504,” which means that “need for service/item not medically and reasonably necessary.” Subjective, right? I mean, who is better at determining medical necessity: (1) the treating physician who actually performs services and conducts the physical; or (2) a utilization auditor without an MD and who as never rendered medical services on the particular consumer? I see it all the time…former dental hygienists review the medical records of dentists and determine that no medial necessity exists…

When it comes to IRF Stays, what is reasonable and necessary?

According to Medicare policy and CMS guidance, the documentation in the patient’s IRF
medical record must demonstrate a reasonable expectation that the following criteria were met at the time of admission to the IRF. The patient must:

  • Require active and ongoing intervention of multiple therapy disciplines (Physical
    Therapy [PT], Occupational Therapy [OT], Speech-Language Pathology [SLP], or
    prosthetics/orthotics), at least one of which must be PT or OT;
  • Require an intensive rehabilitation therapy program, generally consisting of:
    ◦ 3 hours of therapy per day at least 5 days per week; or
    ◦ In certain well-documented cases, at least 15 hours of intensive rehabilitation
    therapy within a 7-consecutive day period, beginning with the date of admission;
  • Reasonably be expected to actively participate in, and benefit significantly
    from, the intensive rehabilitation therapy program (the patient’s condition and
    functional status are such that the patient can reasonably be expected to make
    measurable improvement, expected to be made within a prescribed period of time
    and as a result of the intensive rehabilitation therapy program, that will be of practical value to improve the patient’s functional capacity or adaptation to impairments);
  • Require physician supervision by a rehabilitation physician, with face-to-face
    visits at least 3 days per week to assess the patient both medically and functionally
    and to modify the course of treatment as needed; and
  • Require an intensive and coordinated interdisciplinary team approach to the
    delivery of rehabilitative care.

Did you notice how often the word “generally” or “reasonably” was used? Because the standard for an IRF stay is subjective. In fact, I would wager a bet that if I reviewed  the same documentation as the Palmetto auditors did, that I could make a legal argument that the opposite conclusion should have been drawn. I do it all the time. This is the reason that so many audits are easily overturned…they are subjective!

Therefore, when you get an audit result, such as the ones referenced above:

APPEAL! APPEAL! APPEAL!

There Is Only One Head Chef in the Medicaid Kitchen, Part Deux!

In a groundbreaking decision published today by the Court of Appeals (COA), the Court smacked down Public Consulting Group’s (PCG), as well as any other  contracted entity’s, authority to wield an “adverse decision” against a health care provider. This solidifies my legal argument that I have been arguing on this blog and in court for years!

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is the “single state agency” charged with managing Medicaid. Federal law requires that that one agency manage Medicaid with no ability to delegate discretionary decisions. Case law in K.C. v. Shipman upheld the federal law. See blog.

Yet, despite K.C. v. Shipman, decided in 2013, in Court, DHHS continued to argue that it should be dismissed from cases in which a contracted vendor rendered the adverse decision to recoup, terminate, or suspend a health care provider. DHHS would argue that it had no part of the decision to recoup, terminate, or suspend, that K.C. Shipman is irrelevant to health care provider cases, and that K.C. v. Shipman is only pertinent to Medicaid recipient cases, to which I countered until I was “blue in the face” is a pile of horse manure.

DHHS would argue that my interpretation would break down the Medicaid system because DHHS cannot possibly review and discern whether every recoupment, termination, and/or suspension made by a contracted vendor was valid (my words, not theirs). DHHS argued that it simply does not have the manpower, plus if it has the authority to contract with a company, surely that company can determine the amount of an alleged overpayment…WRONG!!

In fact, in DHHS v. Parker Home Care, LLC, the COA delineates the exact process for the State determining an overpayment with its contracted agent PCG.

  1. DHHS may enter into a contract with a company, such as PCG.
  2. A private company, like PCG, may perform preliminary and full investigations to collect facts and data.
  3. PCG must submit its findings to DHHS, and DHHS must exercise its own discretion to reach a tentative decision from six options (enumerated in the NC Administrative Code).
  4. DHHS, after its decision, will notify the provider of its tentative decision.
  5. The health care provider may request a reconsideration of the tentative decision within 15 days.
  6. Failure to do so will transform the tentative decision into a final determination.
  7. Time to appeal to OAH begins upon notification of the final determination by DHHS (60 days).

Another interesting part of this decision is that the provider, Parker Home Care, received the Tentative Notice of Overpayment (TNO) in 2012 and did nothing. The provider did not appeal the TNO.

However, because PCG’s TNO did not constitute a final adverse decision by DHHS (because PCG does not have the authority to render a final adverse decision), the provider did not miss any appeal deadline. The final adverse decision was determined to be DHHS’ action of suspending funds to collect the recoupment, which did not occur until 2014…and THAT action was timely appealed.

The COA’s message to private vendors contracted with DHHS is crystal clear: “There is only one head chef in the Medicaid kitchen.”

Documentation Errors Could Affect Your License to Practice!

Written by Robert Shaw, Partner at Gordon & Rees.

Readers of this blog know well what financial harm can come from documentation problems, particularly resulting from Medicare and Medicaid auditors. But just as significantly, these problems can affect your participation rights in federal programs, and could even affect your license to practice. A case in point is a recent decision from the North Carolina Court of Appeals about disciplinary action taken against a dentist.

In Walker v. North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners, the Court of Appeals, in an opinion filed today, addressed findings by auditors that the dentist had not properly documented “the reasons for prescribing narcotic pain medications for a number of patients in her treatment records.” Well, you might ask, What Does The Rule Say? There is in fact a rule on the records that dentists must keep, similar to the rules in most other health care specialties. It is the Record Content Rule in 21 N.C.A.C. 16T .101.

(By the way, now is a great time to review every rule that you must follow in order to keep proper records and to figure out what the legal requirements are. Many providers did this at one time but fail to keep up to speed on the latest rule changes, which gets them into trouble. Or, they keep records based on how someone taught them. But, that’s not a legal defense!)

The Court of Appeals found that Dr. Walker did NOT violate the Record Content Rule, which does not require documentation of the medical reasons for prescribing pain medication. So, the Board of Dental Examiners got it wrong by citing Dr. Walker for a violation of 21 N.C.A.C. 16T .101. That rule only requires that the dentist document “[n]ame and strength of any medications prescribed, dispensed or administered along with the quantity and date.”

But that was not the end of the matter. The Board also cited Dr. Walker for violating N.C. Gen. Stat. 90-41(a)(12), which provides that the Board of Dental Examiners “shall have the power and authority to . . . [i]nvoke . . . disciplinary measures . . . in any instance or instances in which the Board is satisfied that [a dentist] . . . [h]as been negligent in the practice of dentistry[.]” This is very broad power.

So, what is the standard to be applied under this general “negligent in the practice of dentistry” statute? At the disciplinary hearing, two expert witnesses (other North Carolina dentists) testified that “the applicable standard of care require[s] North Carolina dentists to not only record [the] prescription [of] controlled substances, but the reason for prescribing those medications.” This is, in effect, an unwritten standard of practice that dentists, at least according to these witnesses, should follow in North Carolina. Perhaps importantly, Petitioner acknowledged that she had participated in training programs that advised that dentists should record the reasons for medications that they prescribe. But nevertheless, this rule was not in the North Carolina Administrative Code, a clinical coverage policy, or other policy statement published by the Board (at least that was cited in the opinion).

The Court of Appeals affirmed that the Board had the authority to discipline the petitioner for failing to follow these general standards of care in North Carolina, based on testimony of two practicing North Carolina dentists!

What does this mean? It means that your licensing board could cite general record-keeping practices in your field as the basis for disciplinary action against you under a catch-all negligence standard. While each board is governed by its own set of rules and statutory authority, Walker v. North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners is a powerful reminder that record-keeping is serious business, and you could be legally obligated to follow standard practices in your field in addition to the legal maze of federal and state regulations and policies governing health care records.

Medicare/caid Contracts Terminatations: “With” or “Without Cause. You May Need an Injunction

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.”

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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.

OIG Finds Questionable Billing! California Medicaid Dentists: Expect Withholdings or Other Penalties!

Currently, dentists who accept Medicaid are ripe for pickings as targets for regulatory audits from both the federal and state governments. Actually, this is true for any provider that accepts Medicaid. It just happens that, recently, I have noticed an uptick in dental audits both in North Carolina and nationwide. Some dentists, who accept pregnancy Medicaid, may even bear the burden of determining pregnancy prior to a teeth cleaning…however, that is a topic for another day.  Although, I tell you what, if my dentist asked whether I were pregnant prior to cleaning my teeth, he may have an abnormally red cheek the remainder of the day and I may join Crossfit.

Moving on….

Generally, dentists tend to not accept Medicaid. The reimbursement rates barely cover overhead. Add high regulatory compliance requirements, the likelihood of undergoing audits, and the government’s robust and zealous desire to tackle fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA), and it is no wonder why most dentists opt to not accept Medicaid. See blog. And blog.

Those dentists (and other providers) that do make the decision to accept Medicaid, these brave and noble souls, are subject to onerous audits; the result of a recent California audit is probably sending shock waves through the California dental community.

335 dental providers in California have been targeted by OIG as having questionable billing issues. Sadly, this is only the beginning for these 335 providers. Now the state will audit the providers, and these 335 providers may very well become the subject of a payment withhold in the near future.

What will happen next?

I will look into my crystal ball, otherwise known as experience, and let you know.

First, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently published a report called: “QUESTIONABLE BILLING FOR MEDICAID PEDIATRIC DENTAL SERVICES IN CALIFORNIA.

One can only imagine by the title that OIG found alleged questionable billing. Otherwise the title may have been, “A Study into Medicaid Billing for Medicaid Pediatric Dental Services,” instead of “Questionable Billing.” With such a leading title, a reader knows the contents before reading one word.

What is questionable billing?

Importantly, before addressing what IS questionable billing, what is NOT questionable billing? Questionable billing is not abhorrent billing practices. Questionable billing is not wasteful billing or abusive billing. And questionable billing is certainly not fraudulent billing. That is not to say that some of these questionable billing will be investigated and, perhaps, fall into one the aforementioned categories. But not yet. Again, these dentists have a long journey ahead of them.

In this context, questionable billing seems to mean that the OIG report identifies dentists who perform a higher number of services per day. OIG analyzed rendering dental providers’ NPI numbers to determine how many services each rendering provider was providing per day. Then OIG compared the average Medicaid payment per kid, number of services per day, and number of services provided per child per visit. OIG determined a “threshold” number for each category and cited questionable billing practices for those dentists that fell egregiously outside the thresholds. Now, obviously, this is a simplistic explanation for a more esoteric procedure, but the explanation is illustrative.

This study of California Medicaid dentists is not first dental study OIG has undertaken. Recently, OIG studied Medicaid dentists in New York, Louisiana, and Indiana. What stands out in the California Medicaid dental study is the volume of dentists involved in the study. In Indiana, OIG reviewed claims for 787 dentists; in New York it reviewed claims for 719 dentists, and in Louisiana, OIG studied 512 dentists’ claims, all of whom rendered services to over 50 Medicaid children.

In California, OIG studied 3,921 dentists.

Why such a difference?

Apparently, California has more dentists than the other three states and more dentists who accept Medicaid. So, if you are Medicaid dentists, apparently, there is more competition in California.

Juxtapose that, in California, in 2012, only 3 periodontists, 3 prosthodontists, 2 endodontists, and 1 oral pathologist provided services to 50 or more children with Medicaid in California.

Going back to the audit findings…

OIG considered dentists who exceeded its identified threshold for one or more of the seven measures to have questionable billing.

The result?

OIG identified 329 general dentists and 6 orthodontists out of 3,921 providers as having with questionable billing. But these findings are only the beginning of what will, most likely, become a long and tedious legal battle for these 335 providers. Lumping together so many dentists and claiming questionable billing practices will inevitably include many dentists who have done nothing irregular. Many other dentists, will have engaged in unintentional billing errors and may owe recoupments. But I foresee a very small number of these dentists to actually have committed fraudulent billing.

Here is an example found in the OIG’s report, OIG identified that 108 dentists provided stainless steel crowns to 18% of the children served by these dentists, compared to an average of only 5% of children receiving stainless steel crowns by those served by all general dentists (non-Medicaid).

Another example is that 98 dentists provided pulpotomies to 18% of the children, while the statewide percentage is 5% to undergo pulpotomies.

Do these examples show that 108 dentists providing stainless steel crowns and that 98 dentists providing pulpotomies are improperly billing?

Of course not.

It is only logical that dentists who accept Medicaid would have a significantly higher number of pulpotomies compared to dentists who service the privately insured. Usually, although not always, a Medicaid recipient will have more issues with their teeth than those privately insureds. In order to qualify for Medicaid, the family must live in poverty (some more than others with the expansion of Medicaid in some states). Some of kids in this population will have parents who do not harp on the importance of dental hygiene, thus allowing many kids in this population to have decay in their teeth. Obviously, this is a generalization; however, I am confident that many studies exist to back up this generalization.

Therefore, if you accept  my generalization, it makes sense that Medicaid dentists perform more pulpotomies than private insurance dentists.

And stainless steel crowns go hand in hand with pulpotomies. Unless you extract the tooth after the removal of the decay, you will need to provide a stainless steel crown to protect the tooth from future damage.

What will happen next?

OIG admits in its report that “our findings do not prove that providers either billed fraudulently or provided medically unnecessary services, providers with extreme billing patterns warrant further scrutiny.”

Which is precisely what will happen next…”further scrutiny”…

The OIG report recommends to California that it:

• Increase its monitoring of dental providers to identify patterns of questionable billing
• Closely monitor billing by providers in dental chains
• Review its payment processes for orthodontic services
• Take appropriate action against dental providers with questionable billing

It is that last recommendation, taking appropriate action, which will determine the future course for these 335 Medicaid providers. Because, as many of you know if you have followed my blog, the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) has a large toolbox with a considerable amount of tools for which it may yield its power against these providers…right or wrong. The same goes for all state Medicaid agencies. When it comes to a Medicaid provider and a Medicaid state agency, there is no balance of powers, in fact, there is only one power. Instead the scales of justice have one arm on the ground and the other raised in the air. There is an imbalance of power, unless you arm yourself with the right allies.

Possible future actions by DHCS:

• Payment suspensions
• Withholds of all reimbursements
• Post payment review
• Prepayment review

And combinations thereof.

DCHS stated that “it will review the dental providers referred by OIG and will determine by December 2015 what appropriate action may be warranted. Should there exist any provider cases not previously evaluated by existing program monitoring efforts, DHCS will take appropriate action through the available channels.”

First, December 2015 is a short timeframe for DCHS to audit 335 providers’ records and determine the proper course of action. So, expect a vendor for DCHS to be hired for this task. Also, expect that an audit of 335 providers in 7 months will have flaws.

These California dentists and orthodontists need to arm themselves with defense tools. And, quickly. Because it is amazing how fast 7 months will fly by!!

The report also states that OIG will be undertaking a study in the future to determine access to dental care issues.  I will be interested in the result of that study.

These possible penalties that I already enumerated above are not without defenses.

These 335 CA Medicaid dental providers have administrative remedies to prevent these possible penalties.   In other words, these 335 CA Medicaid dental providers do not have to take this lying down. Even though it appears that an imbalance of power exists between the state agency and the providers, these providers have appeal rights.

The second that any of these providers receive correspondence from DCHS, it is imperative that the provider contact its attorney.

Remember, some appeals have very short windows for which to appeal.  Do not miss an appeal deadline!!

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!

A Dose of Truth: If an MCO Decides Not to Contract With You, YOU DO HAVE RIGHTS!

It has come to my attention that the managed care organizations (MCOs) are spreading non-truths.  As to appeal rights and rights, in general, of a Medicaid provider.  You may not hear the truth elsewhere, but you will hear the truth here.

Supposedly, the truth shall set you free. If this is true, then why do so many people lie? I believe that people’s desire for money, power, status, greed and/or others to look at them with respect are the some of the catalysts of many lies.

Of course, our old friend Aesop told many tales of the virtue of honesty.  My favorite is the “Mercury and the Woodman.”

A Woodman was felling a tree on the bank of a river, when his axe,
glancing off the trunk, flew out of his hands and fell into the water.
As he stood by the water’s edge lamenting his loss, Mercury appeared
and asked him the reason for his grief. On learning what had happened,
out of pity for his distress, Mercury dived into the river and,
bringing up a golden axe, asked him if that was the one he had lost.
The Woodman replied that it was not, and Mercury then dived a second
time, and, bringing up a silver axe, asked if that was his. “No,
that is not mine either,” said the Woodman. Once more Mercury dived
into the river, and brought up the missing axe. The Woodman was
overjoyed at recovering his property, and thanked his benefactor
warmly; and the latter was so pleased with his honesty that he made
him a present of the other two axes. When the Woodman told the story
to his companions, one of these was filled with envy of his good
fortune and determined to try his luck for himself. So he went and
began to fell a tree at the edge of the river, and presently contrived
to let his axe drop into the water. Mercury appeared as before, and,
on learning that his axe had fallen in, he dived and brought up a
golden axe, as he had done on the previous occasion. Without waiting
to be asked whether it was his or not, the fellow cried, “That’s mine,
that’s mine,” and stretched out his hand eagerly for the prize: but
Mercury was so disgusted at his dishonesty that he not only declined
to give him the golden axe, but also refused to recover for him the
one he had let fall into the stream.

The moral of the story is “Honesty is the best policy.”

But is it?  In our world, we do not have fairies, Roman gods, good witches, fairy godmothers, wood sprites, or wizards to hold us accountable for our lies.  If George Washington never admitted that he chopped down the cherry tree, no wood nymph would have appeared, angered by his lie, only to throw his ax into the Potomac.

So who holds us accountable for lies?

As a Christian, I believe that I will be held accountable in my afterlife.  But, without getting too profound and soapbox-ish, I mean who…NOW…presently…in our lives…holds us accountable for lies?

Obviously, when we were children, our parents held us accountable.  Oh boy…the worst thing for me to hear growing up was for my father to say, “I am so disappointed in you.” 

What about the MCOs? Who or what holds the MCOs accountable? And what is this non-truth that the MCOs may or may not be telling providers that has spurred me to write this blog?

Recently, many MCOs have (1) terminated contracts with providers; (2) refused to renew contracts with providers; and (3) conducted desk reviews and interviews of providers only to decide to not contract with many providers; thus leaving many small businesses to bankruptcy and closure…not to mention severing the relationships between the Medicaid recipients and their providers.

It has come to my attention that, when the MCO is asked by a provider whether the provider can have a reconsideration review or whether the provider has any appeal rights as to the MCO’s adverse decision, that the MCOs are telling providers, “No.”  As in, you have no appeal rights as to the MCOs decision to not contract with you. 

This is simply not true.

There are so few providers in NC willing to accept Medicaid because of the administrative burden of Medicaid regulations and the already low reimbursement rates.  To then have the audacity to “willy nilly” or at its own whim subjectively decide that it [the MCO] does not want to contract with you and then tell you that its “willy nilly” or subjective whim cannot be challenged legally eats at the heart of this country’s core values.  Do we not applaud small business owners?  Do we not applaud those small business owners dedicated to serving the population’s most needy?  Do we not promote due process?  Do we not promote truth, justice and the American way?

Or are those promotions clouded when it comes to money, power, status, greed, and desire for respect?

So, I say to you [providers who have been denied a Medicaid contract with an MCO despite having a contract with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to provide Medicaid services throughout the state of North Carolina], YOU HAVE RIGHTS

You do not need to merely accept the decision of the MCO.  You do not need to simply close up shop…fire your staff…and try a new career.  You have a choice to fight…legally.

But you DO need to know a few things.

First, lawyers are expensive. Period and without question.  So whatever law firm you hire, understand that the cost will more than you ever expected.  (Please understand that I am not advocating you to hire my firm.  Parker Poe and Poyner Spruill both have fantastic attorneys in this area.  Just hire someone knowledgable.)  It’s even a good idea to have consultations with more than one firm.  Find an attorney you trust.

Second, call your liability insurance.  There is a chance that your liability insurance will cover all, or a portion of, your attorneys’ fees.  But do not allow your insurance company tell you whom to hire.  Because this area is specialized there are few attorneys well-versed.  Again, go to the firms I mentioned above.

Thirdly, you may not win.  While the success rate is extremely high, there are some clients who are simply not going to win.  For example, if your documentation is so poor.  Or, for example, you really are not a great provider.  Remember, the MCOs do have a point to try to only contract with great providers.  I only disagree with the way in which the MCOs are deciding to not contract with providers.  It seems “willy nilly” and subjectively arbitrary.  But, depending on your exact circumstances, you do have a chance of success.

Fourth, you will have to testify.  I know it is scary, but I can think of very few circumstances during which the provider would not testify.  The judge needs to hear your story….why you should be allowed to continue to provide Medicaid services.

Fifth, the lawsuit will not shield you from future issues with the MCO.  Until DHHS decides to actually supervise the MCOs properly (or maybe even after that), the MCOs seem to wield the power.

So why even fight legally?  You certainly aren’t guaranteed success.  It will certainly cost you a pretty penny. 

Maybe the answer for you is to not fight.  Only you can make that decision.  But I hope someone holds the MCOs accountable for telling providers that the providers have no recourse…no appeal rights…for the MCOs simply not contracting with the provider.

Because if honesty is the best policy, the MCOs’ policies leave much to be desired. Someone needs to throw their axes into the Potomac!