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Audits “Breaking Bad” in New Mexico

By: Ed Roche, founder of Barraclough NY LLC, a litigation support firm that helps healthcare providers fight against statistical extrapolations

It was published in RACMonitor.

Healthcare providers sometimes can get caught up in a political storm. When this happens, audits can be used as a weapon to help preferred providers muscle into a market. This appears to have happened recently in New Mexico.

Let’s go back in time.

On Sept. 14, 2010, Susana Martinez was in Washington, D.C. She was looking for campaign contributions to run for the governorship of New Mexico. She visited the office of the government lobbying division of UnitedHealth Group and picked up a check for $25,000.

The next day, Martinez published an editorial claiming that Bill Richardson’s administration in New Mexico was tolerating much “waste, fraud and abuse” in its Medicaid program. Eventually, she was elected as the 31st governor of New Mexico and took office Jan. 1, 2011.

According to an email trail, by the fall of 2012, Martinez’s administration was busy exchanging emails with members of the boards of directors of several healthcare companies in Arizona. During this same period, the Arizonans made a number of contributions to a political action committee (PAC) set up to support Martinez. At the same time, officers from New Mexico’s Human Services Department (HSD) made a number of unannounced visits to Arizona.

The lobbying continued in earnest. Hosted in part by UnitedHealth money, the head of HSD visited Utah’s premier ski resort, and the bill was paid for by an organization financed in part by UnitedHealth. The governor’s chief of staff was treated to dinner at an expensive steakhouse in Las Vegas. There is suspicion of other contacts, but these have not been identified. All of these meetings were confidential.

The governor continued to publicly criticize health services in New Mexico. She focused on 15 mental health providers who had been in business for 40 years. They were serving 87 percent of the mental health population in New Mexico and had developed an extensive delivery system that reached all corners of the state.

Martinez honed in on one mental health provider because the CEO used a private aircraft. He was accused of using Medicaid funds to finance a lavish lifestyle. None of this was true. It turned out that the owner had operations all over the state and used the plane for commuting, but it made for good sound bites to feed the press.

The state decided to raise the pressure against the providers. Public Consulting Group (PCG), a Boston-based contractor, was called in to perform an audit of mental health services. In addition to taking samples and performing analyses of claims, PCG was asked to look for “credible allegations of fraud.”

In legal terms, the phrase “credible allegations of fraud” carries much weight. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it can be used to justify punitive actions against a provider. It is surprising that only “allegations” are necessary, not demonstrated proof. The reality is that in practical terms, a provider can be shut down based on allegations alone.

In a letter regarding its work, PCG stated that “there are no credible allegations of fraud.” Evidently, that was the wrong answer. PCG was kicked out of New Mexico and not allowed to complete its audit. HSD took over.

The PCG letter had been supplied to HSD in a Microsoft Word format. In a stunning act, HSD removed the statement concluding that there were “no credible allegations of fraud.” HSD continued to use the PCG letter, but only in this altered form.

HSD continued to insist publicly that there were credible allegations of fraud. Since PCG had been kicked out before completing the audit, a HSD staff attorney took the liberty of performing several statistical extrapolations that generated a repayment demand of more than $36 million. During testimony, the attorney admitted that the extent of his experience with statistics was an introductory course he had taken years earlier in college.

Two years later, statistical experts from Barraclough NY LLC who are elected fellows of the American Statistical Association examined HSD’s work and concluded that it was faulty and unreliable. They concluded there was zero credibility in the extrapolations.

But for the time being, the extrapolations and audits were powerful tools. On June 24, 2013, all of the aforementioned 15 nonprofits were called into a meeting with HSD. All were accused of massive fraud. They were informed that their Medicaid payments were to be impounded. The money needed to service 87 percent of New Mexico’s mental health population was being cut off.

The next day, UnitedHealth announced a $22 million investment in Santa Fe. We have not been able to track down the direct beneficiaries of these investments. However, we do know that the governor’s office immediately issued a press release on their behalf.

The 15 New Mexico providers were being driven out of business. This had been planned well in advance. Shortly thereafter, the government of New Mexico, through HSD, [approved] issued $18 million in no-bid contracts to five Arizona-based providers affiliated with UnitedHealth. These are the same companies that had been contributing to the governor’s PAC.

These five Arizona companies then took over all mental health services for New Mexico. Their first step was to begin cutting back services. To give one example: patients with two hours therapy per week were cut back to 10 fifteen-minute sessions per year.It was the beginning of a mental health crisis in New Mexico.

As of today, two of the Arizona providers have abandoned their work in New Mexico. A third is in the process of leaving. What is the result? Thousands of New Mexico mental health patients have been left with no services. Entire communities have been completely shut [cut] off. The most vulnerable communities have been hit the hardest.

Through litigation, the 15 original providers forced the New Mexico Attorney General to examine the situation. It took a long time. All of the providers now are out of business. The Attorney General reported a few weeks ago that there were never any credible allegations of fraud.

This should mean that the impounded money would be returned to the 15 providers. After all, the legal reason why it was impounded in the first place has been shown to be false. One would think that the situation could return to normal.

The original 15 should be able to continue their business, and hire back the more than 1,500 persons they had been forced to lay off. Once the impounded monies are returned to the providers, they will be able to pay their legal bills, which now add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Unfortunately, that is not happening. HSD still is claiming that the $36 million extrapolation is due, and that actually, the providers owe the state money. The New Mexico government is not budging from its position. The litigation continues.

Meanwhile, New Mexico now is tied with Montana in having the highest suicide rate in the continental United States.

AZ Supreme Court Holds AZ Legislators Have Standing to Challenge AZ Law, But Media Mischaracterizing the Lawsuit

You know the old adage, “Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see?” –Benjamin Franklin.

Well the old adage still holds true, especially when it comes to journalists and the media interpreting and reporting on lawsuits that deal with Medicaid laws, and which, perhaps, only an infinitesimal, ancillary aspect may touch the issue of Medicaid expansion.

Even if the lawsuit will not impact Medicaid expansion, journalists and the media hype the lawsuits as “conservatives challenging Obamacare yet again,” which mischaracterizes the actual lawsuit.

It seems that the media have become so accustomed to polarizing the topic of Medicaid expansion that reporters seem incapable of truly assessing the issues objectively and reporting accordingly.  This has happened recently when the AZ Supreme Court rendered a decision December 31, 2014, regarding legal standing, not the constitutionality of Medicaid expansion as many journalists report.  Biggs, et al. v. Hon. Cooper, et al.

The Arizona Supreme Court only decided that 36 legislators have the legal standing to challenge the passage of House Bill 2010, which was signed into law as A.R.S. § 36-2901.08.

What is A.R.S. § 36-2901.08?

For starters, A.R.S. stands for Arizona Revised Statutes (ARS). For those of you who missed “Schoolhouse Rock” as a child, a statute is a law that is enacted by the legislative body and which governs the state. Statutes are considered “black letter law” and should be interpreted on their face value and plain meaning.

The content of 36-2901.08 allows the State of Arizona to expand Medicaid.  In addition to expanding Medicaid, 35-2901.08 assesses a levy on hospitals to aid in funding the expansion of Medicaid.

36 Arizona legislators voted against 36-2901.08. It passed by a simple majority and was signed into law. The 36 legislators, who voted against the bill, brought a lawsuit to enjoin the statute from being applied or enacted. The State of Arizona’s position is that the 36 legislators lack the legal standing to bring the lawsuit.

Here are the issues in the legislators’ case, BIGGS ET AL. v. HON. COOPER ET AL.:

1. Do the 36 legislators have the standing to bring an injunctive action enjoining Arizona from carrying out 36-2901.08?

2. If the answer to #1 is yes, then have the 36 legislators proven that 36-2901.08 was passed in violation of the AZ Constitution?

I’ve read a number of articles from journalists covering this matter who mischaracterize the Biggs lawsuit as a lawsuit brought by the Arizona legislators, predominantly Republicans, asking the Arizona Supreme Court to strike statute 36-2901.08 because the expansion of Medicaid is unconstitutional, or “challenging Governor Jan Brewer’s Medicaid expansion plan,” or “challenging the legality of the state’s Medicaid expansion…”

These journalists are mischaracterizing the Arizona Supreme Court’s opinion.  And I am not talking about journalists for small, local papers are making these mistakes…the above quotations are from “The New York Times” and “The Associated Press.”

So, let’s discuss the true, correct ramifications of the Arizona Supreme Court opinion in Biggs

First, the Biggs opinion does not hold that Medicaid expansion in Arizona or elsewhere is unconstitutional…nor does it decide whether Medicaid expansion in Arizona is invalid on its face.

The opinion, rendered December 31, 2014, only holds that the 36 legislators have the legal standing to bring the lawsuit…there is no holding as to constitutionality of Medicaid expansion, despite so many journalists across America stating it so.

What is standing?

Standing, or locus standi, is the capacity of a party to bring suit in court.  This is not a question of whether a person is physically capable of bringing a lawsuit, but whether the person prove that he or she has sustained or will sustain a direct injury or harm and that the harm is redressable (or can be fixed or set right by the lawsuit).

The issue on the Supreme Court level in Arizona is only the narrow issue of whether the 36 legislators have standing. Period.

The Arizona Supreme Court held that the 36 legislators do possess the requisite legal standing in order to bring the lawsuit.

Now, the case will be remanded (sent to a lower court), in this instance, to the Superior Court, for a new fact-finding trial now that the issue of standing has been resolved.  In other words, at the lower superior court level, the ref (judge) made a call that the football players on the team (36 legislators) were ineligible to play NCAA football (poor grades, were red-shirted last year), and the alleged ineligible players appealed the decision all the way up.  Now the NCAA (AZ Supreme Court) has determined that the players are eligible and the game will resume.

Again, despite the rhetoric put forth by numerous widespread journalists, the 36 legislators are not merely challenging Arizona Medicaid expansion on its face.

Instead, the Arizona Constitution requires that certain Acts that increase state revenues must pass the legislature by a supermajority vote. See Ariz. Const. art. 9, § 22(A).

Remember from the beginning of this blog that 36-2901.08 was passed by a simple majority.

The 36 legislators argue that the assessment of a levy on Arizona hospitals constitute an Act that requires a supermajority vote, which, obviously would require more than a straight 50% approval.

So the 36 legislators’ lawsuit in AZ is about whether 36-2901.08 needs a supermajority or simple majority to vote it into law.

Not whether Medicaid expansion is constitutional.

Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see…especially when it comes to journalists and media reporting on lawsuits regarding Medicaid rules and regulations.