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Medicare/caid Fraud, Tattletails, and How To Self Disclose

On July 13, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price, M.D., announced the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) biggest-ever health care fraud takedown. 412 health care providers were charged with health care fraud. In total, allegedly, the 412 providers schemed and received $1.3 billion in false billings to Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE. Of the 412 defendants, 115 are physicians, nurses, and other licensed medical professionals. Additionally, HHS has begun the suspension process against 295 health care providers’ licenses.

The charges include allegations of billing for medically unnecessary treatments or services that were not really provided. The DOJ has evidence that many of the defendants had illegal kickback schemes set up. More than 120 of the defendants were charged with unlawfully or inappropriately prescribing and distributing opioids and other narcotics.

While this particular sting operation resulted from government investigations, not all health care fraud is discovered through government investigation. A great deal of fraud is uncovered through private citizens coming forward with incriminating information. These private citizens can file suit against the fraudulent parties on behalf of the government; these are known as qui tam suits.

Being a whistleblower goes against what most of us are taught as children. We are taught not to be a tattletail. I have vivid memories from elementary school of other kids acting out, but I would remain silent and not inform the teacher. But in the health care world, tattletails are becoming much more common – and they make money for blowing that metaphoric whistle.

What is a qui tam lawsuit?

Qui tam is Latin for “who as well.” Qui tam lawsuits are a type of civil lawsuit whistleblowers (tattletails) bring under the False Claims Act, a law that rewards whistleblowers if their qui tam cases recover funds for the government. Qui tam cases are a powerful weapon against Medicare and Medicaid fraud. In other words, if an employee at a health care facility witnesses any type of health care fraud, even if the alleged fraud is unknown to the provider, that employee can hire an attorney to file a qui tam lawsuit to recover money on behalf of the government. The government investigates the allegations of fraud and decides whether it will join the lawsuit. Health care entities found guilty in a qui tam lawsuit will be liable to government for three times the government’s losses, plus penalties.

The whistleblower is rewarded for bringing these lawsuits. If the government intervenes in the case and recovers funds through a settlement or a trial, the whistleblower is entitled to 15% – 25% of the recovery. If the government doesn’t intervene in the case and it is pursued by the whistleblower team, the whistleblower reward is between 25% – 30% of the recovery.

These recoveries are not low numbers. On June 22, 2017, a physician and rehabilitative specialist agreed to pay $1.4 million to resolve allegations they violated the False Claims Act by billing federal health care programs for medically unreasonable and unnecessary ultrasound guidance used with routine lab blood draws, and with Botox and trigger point injections. If a whistleblower had brought this lawsuit, he/she would have been awarded $210,000 – 420,000.

On June 16, 2017, a Pennsylvania-based skilled nursing facility operator agreed to pay roughly $53.6 million to settle charges that it and its subsidiaries violated the False Claims Act by causing the submission of false claims to government health care programs for medically unnecessary therapy and hospice services. The allegations originated in a whistleblower lawsuit filed under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act by 7 former employees of the company. The whistleblower award – $8,040,000 – 16,080,000.

There are currently two, large qui tam cases against United Health Group (UHG) pending in the Central District of California. The cases are: U.S. ex rel. Benjamin Poehling v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc. and U.S. ex rel. Swoben v. Secure Horizons, et al. Both cases were brought by James Swoben, who was an employee and Benjamin Poehling, who was the former finance director of a UHG group that managed the insurer’s Medicare Advantage Plans. On May 2, 2027, the U.S. government joined the Poehling lawsuit.

The charges include allegations that UHG:

  • Submitted invalid codes to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that it knew of or should have known that the codes were invalid – some of the dates of services at issue in the case are older than 2008.
  • Intentionally avoided learning that some diagnoses codes or categories of codes submitted to their plans by providers were invalid, despite acknowledging in 2010 that it should evaluate the results of its blind chart reviews to find codes that need to be deleted.
  • Failed to follow up on and prevent the submissions of invalid codes or submit deletion for invalid codes.
  • Attested to CMS each year that the data they submitted was true and accurate while knowing it was not.

UHG would not be in this expensive, litigious pickle had it conducted a self audit and followed the mandatory disclosure requirements.

What are the mandatory disclosure requirements? Glad you asked…

Section 6402(a) of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) creates an express obligation for health care providers to report and return overpayments of Medicare and Medicaid. The disclosure must be made by 60 days days after the date that the overpayment was identified or the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable. Identification is defined as the point in which the provider has determined or should have determined through the exercise of due diligence that an overpayment exists. CMS expects the provider to proactively investigate any credible information of a potential overpayment. The consequences of failing to proactively investigate can be seen by the UHG  lawsuits above-mentioned. Apparently, UHG had some documents dated in 2010 that indicated it should review codes and delete the invalid codes, but, allegedly, failed to do so.

How do you self disclose?

According to CMS:

“Beginning June 1, 2017, providers of services and suppliers must use the forms included in the OMB-approved collection instrument entitled CMS Voluntary Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol (SRDP) in order to utilize the SRDP. For disclosures of noncompliant financial relationships with more than one physician, the disclosing entity must submit a separate Physician Information Form for each physician. The CMS Voluntary Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol document contains one Physician Information Form.”

Former mental health providers take fight over Medicaid funds to lawmakers

Loyal followers will remember the behavioral health care debacle that happened in New Mexico in June 2013. See blog and blog and blog. Basically, the State of New Mexico accused 15 behavioral health care companies of credible allegations of fraud and immediately froze all the companies’ Medicaid reimbursements. These 15 companies comprised 87.5% of New Mexico’s behavioral health providers. The companies were forced to close their doors. Hundreds of people lost their jobs. Hundreds of thousands of Medicaid recipients no longer received their medically necessary mental health and substance abuse services. It really was and is such a sad tragedy.

Now, more than 3 years later, the consequences of that payment suspension still haunts those providers. Once they were exonerated of fraud by the Attorney General, the single state entity, Human Services Department (HSD), is now accusing them – one by one – of alleged overpayments. These alleged overpayments are extrapolated. So 10 claims for $600 turns into $2 million. See blog.

I will leave Saturday the 30th of July to fly to Albuquerque, NM, to defend one of those behavioral health care providers in administrative court. The trial is scheduled to last two weeks.

Below is a great article from today’s The Santa Fe New Mexican about this:

By: Justin Horwath
ALBUQUERQUE — Executives of three former mental health agencies told state lawmakers Wednesday that they are still fighting the state’s determination that they overbilled Medicaid, and they are expected to repay millions of dollars, even after they have been cleared of criminal wrongdoing.

“Three years after the fact, and we are still plodding through this,” Shannon Freedle, who was an executive with the now-defunct Teambuilders Counseling Services in Santa Fe, told lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee during a hearing in Albuquerque. He was referring to allegations in June 2013 against 15 mental health providers that led to a statewide Medicaid service shake-up.

Along with Freedle, executives of the Santa Fe-based Easter Seals El Mirador and Albuquerque-based Hogares Inc. testified about the New Mexico Human Services Department’s continued claims of Medicaid overpayments long after the state Attorney General’s Office announced it found no evidence that any of the providers had committed fraud and many of the firms have shut down.

Some of the providers, meanwhile, say the state’s former Medicaid claims contractor, OptumHealth New Mexico, still owes them millions of dollars in back payments for treating patients before the shake-up. A group of behavioral health providers, including Teambuilders, Easter Seals and Hogares, filed a lawsuit against OptumHealth in state District Court in June. OptumHealth also faces at least three other lawsuits filed this year, accusing it of Medicaid fraud.

State Rep. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, called the Human Services Department’s actions “outrageous on so many levels.”

Rep. Christine Trujillo, also an Albuquerque Democrat, called for the resignation of Human Services Department Cabinet Secretary Brent Earnest and for “criminal charges to be pressed because this isn’t human error anymore — this is actually criminal behavior.” She is the second member of the committee to call for Earnest to step down.

No Republicans on the bipartisan committee were at the presentation.

Earlier Wednesday — at a news conference in Albuquerque promoting the Martinez administration’s efforts to tackle New Mexico’s drug abuse epidemic — Gov. Susana Martinez made a rare public comment about the decision in June 2013 to freeze Medicaid payments to the 15 mental health providers on allegations they had defrauded Medicaid, the state and federal program that provides health care to low-income residents. The state brought in five Arizona firms to replace the New Mexico providers, but three of them have since left the state, citing financial losses

Martinez said the decision to freeze the Medicaid payments “was recommended by the federal government.”

“But the patients were continued to be serviced and their services were not interrupted,” she said, “unless they decided on their own that they wanted to not continue.”

Asked to clarify Martinez’s statement about the federal government’s role in the Medicaid payment freeze, Michael Lonergan, the governor’s spokesman, said in an email that Martinez was “referencing federal law, which calls for the state to suspend payments and investigate any credible allegations of fraud.”

Federal law gave the state the option to freeze Medicaid payments but didn’t require it.

Kyler Nerison, a spokesman for the Human Services Department, defended the agency’s efforts to pursue the return of funds allegedly overpaid to the former Medicaid providers, saying in an email that the “Attorney General’s limited review of the agencies that had their payments suspended found thousands of cases of billing errors and other regulatory violations.

“Medicaid dollars should be used to help the people who need it most, and if these politicians want to turn a blind-eye to that kind of waste and abuse, that’s solely on them,” Nerison said. “The Human Services Department will continue working to recoup the misspent and overbilled Medicaid dollars as we continue to help more New Mexicans than ever before in both Medicaid and behavioral health services.”

Freedle said he will attend a Human Services Department hearing next week to contest the agency’s claim that Teambuilders owes the state $2.2 million. At issue is the agency’s use of extrapolation to determine the figure of the alleged overbilling. The agency pointed to 12 allegedly errant claims Teambuilders had made to OptumHealth requesting Medicaid reimbursements worth a total of $728.

But Freedle said the Human Services Department used overpayments found in a small sample of claims and multiplied the amount by 3,000 to determine overbilling over a longer period of time, without proving such billing errors occurred. An investigation by the Attorney General’s Office, which found no evidence of criminal fraud, also found a smaller error rate.

Patsy Romero, CEO of Easter Seals El Mirador, and Nancy Jo Archer, who was the CEO of Hogares, broke down in tears as they described the Human Services Department’s “fair hearing process.”

“That’s really and truly an oxymoron,” Archer said.

The Yates Memo: It May Be the Second Coming for Individual Executives

The Yates memo? Sadly, we aren’t talking about William Butler Yates, who is one of my favorite poets:

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand…Part of The Second Coming

Ok, so maybe it is a little melodramatic to compare the Yates memo from the Office of the Deputy Attorney General to the end of the world, the drowning of innocence, and The Second Coming, but I made analogies in past blogs that had stretched and, dare I say, hyberbolized the situation.

What is the Yates memo?

The Yates memo is a memorandum written by Sally Quillian Yates, Deputy Attorney General for the U.S. Dept. of Justice, dated September 9, 2015.

It basically outlines how federal investigations for corporate fraud or misconduct should be conducted  and what will be expected from the corporation getting investigated. It was not written specifically about health care providers; it is a general memo outlining the investigations of corporate wrongdoing across the board. But it is germane to health care providers.

By far the most scary and daunting item discussed within the Yates memo is the DOJ’s interest in indicting individuals within corporations as well as the corporate entities itself, i.e., the executives…the management. Individual accountability.

No more Lehman Brothers fallout with former CEO Dick Fuld leaving the catastrophe with a mansion in Greenwich, Conn., a 40+ acre ranch in Sun Valley, Idaho, as well as a five-bedroom home in Jupiter Island, Fla.  Fuld may have or may not have been a player in the downfall of Lehman Brothers. But the Yates Memo was not published back in 2008.

The Yates Memo outlines 6 steps to strengthen audits for corporate compliance:

  1. To be eligible for any cooperation credit, corporations must provide to the DOJ all relevant facts about individuals involved in corporate misconduct.
  2. Both criminal and civil corporate investigations should focus on individuals from the inception of the investigation.
  3. Criminal and civil attorneys handling corporate investigations should be in routine communication with one another.
  4. Absent extraordinary circumstances, no corporate resolution will provide protection from criminal or civil liability for any individuals.
  5. Corporate cases should not be resolved without a clear plan to resolve related individual cases before the statute of limitations expires and declinations as to individuals in such cases must be memorialized.
  6. Civil attorneys should consistently focus on individuals as well as the company and evaluate whether to bring suit against an individual based on considerations beyond that individual’s ability to pay.

So why write about now – over 6 months after it was disseminated?

First, since its dissemination, a few points have been clarified that were otherwise in question.

About a month after its publication, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell emphasized the Yates memo’s requirement that corporations must disclose all relevant facts regarding misconduct to receive cooperation credit. Caldwell went so far to say that companies must affirmatively seek relevant facts regarding misconduct.

For example, Hospital X is accused of Medicare fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA) in the amount of $15 million. The Yates memo dictates that management at the hospital proactively investigate the allegations and report its findings to the federal government. The memo mandates that the hospital “show all its cards” and turn itself in prior to making any defense.

The problem here is that FWA is such a subjective determination.

What if a hospital bills Medicare for inplantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD, for patients that had coronary bypass surgery or angioplasty within 90 days or a heart attack within 40 days? What if the heart attack was never documented? What if the heart attack was so minor that it lasted under 100 milliseconds?

The Medicare National Coverage Determinations are so esoteric that your average Medicare auditor could very well cite a hospital for billing for an ICD even when the patient’s heart attack lasted under 100 milliseconds.

Yet, according to the Yates memo, the hospital is required to present all relevant facts before any defense. What if the hospital’s billing person is over zealous in detecting mis-billings? The hospital could very well have a legal defense as to why the alleged mis-billing is actually compliant. What about a company’s right to seek counsel and defend itself? The Yates memo may require the company to turn over attorney-client privilege.

The second point that has been clarified since the Yates’ memo’s publication came from Yates herself.

Yates remarks that there will be a presumption that the company has access to identify culpable individuals  unless they can make an affirmative showing that the company does not have access to it or are legally prohibited from producing it.

Why should this matter? It’s only a memo, right?

Since its publication, the DOJ codified it into the revised U.S. Attorneys’ Manual, including the two clarifying remarks. Since its inception, the heads of companies have been targeted.

A case was brought against David Bostwick, the founder, owner and chief executive officer of Bostwick Laboratories for  allegedly provided incentives to treating physicians in exchange for referrals of patients who would then be subjected to these tests.

When the pharmaceutical company Warner Chilcott was investigated for health care fraud prosecutors also went after W. Carl Reichel, the former president, for his alleged involvement in the company’s kickback scheme.

Prior to the Yates’ memo, it was uncommon for health care fraud investigations to  involve criminal charges or civil resolutions against individual executives.

The Second Coming?

It may feel that way to executives of health care companies accused of fraud, waste, and abuse.

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.

Governmental Wand Waving and Late Apologies

In one of the most audacious acts of governmental power, in 2013, New Mexico accused 15 behavioral health care provider agencies of credible allegations of fraud and immediately suspended all Medicaid reimbursements to these agencies. These behavioral health care agencies comprised 87.5% of all New Mexico’s behavioral health care. Hundreds of thousands Medicaid recipients were adversely affected; all of a sudden, their mental health care provider was gone. Most of the companies were devastated. (One company was allowed to stay open because it paid millions to the state). See blog for more. See documentary.

Now, over 2 1/2 years later, three days ago (February 8, 2016), the NM Attorney General cleared 10 of the 15 companies. Oops, sorry, there was never any fraud. Sorry about the devastation of your company.

Imagine losing your job, your reputation, all your money, getting accused of a crime…then let two years pass. You walk into the grocery store (and everywhere else you go) and people stare at you, thinking that you are guilty of the crime for which you are accused. (Ever read “The Count of Monte Cristo?”)

Then you are exonerated. Are you happy or angry?

Here’s the issue: The government has a lot of power. Legally, the government has the authority to accuse you of a crime, seize your home, seize your property, take away your children, to put you in jail, to put you to death, etc.; the only barrier between the government carrying out these drastic measures and you is due process.

So, readers, if you are understanding my logic thus far, you understand the importance of due process.

However, for you who accept Medicare and Medicaid, due process is nonexistent. Since the inception of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), when it comes to accusations of fraud, due process has been suspended.

Hence the situation in New Mexico. Without substantial evidence supporting its decision (remember the Public Consulting Group (PCG) audit in this case actually found no credible allegations of fraud), the State of New Mexico accused 15 companies of fraud, suspended all their reimbursements, and put most of the companies out of business.

With a mere waving of the wand.

And an apology too little too late.

Williams Mullen and Local Counsel, Bryan Davis, Win Declaratory Action Against HSD in New Mexico!!

For those of you who follow my blog, you know that the single state agency in New Mexico, Human Services Department (HSD), accused 15 behavioral health care providers, which made up 87% of the mental health care in NM, of credible allegations of fraud back in June 2013.  HSD immediately ceased paying all companies’ Medicaid and non-Medicaid reimbursements causing most of the companies to go out of business.

See my blogs: “New Mexico Offers No Due Process Based on a PCG Audit!, and “Documentary on New Mexico Provider: Breaking Bonds: The Shutdown of NM’s Behavioral Health Care Providers.”

Easter Seals El Mirador is one of those companies accused of fraud.

Then, a year later, May 2014, the Attorney General’s office clears Easter Seals El Mirador (ESEM) of any fraud.  ESEM is the second company cleared of fraud.  In other words, HSD accused 15 companies of fraud, and the first two reviewed by the AG were determined to have committed no fraud.  Oops.  Sorry.  We were mistaken.

But you can’t fix a broken egg.  The best you can do is clean it up.

But, no, HSD does not accept the AG’s determination that ESEM committed no fraud, and on or about June 25, 2014, HSD re-referred ESEM to the AG for credible allegations of fraud again.

Instead of me going on a rampage as to the violations committed (and alleged in our complaint), let me just explain that through the first referral and re-referral of credible allegations of fraud, HSD is withholding all ESEM’s reimbursements.

After the re-referral, in June 2014, we, on behalf of ESEM, and with the help of local counsel, Bryan Davis, filed a Complaint requesting declaratory judgment followed by a Motion for Summary Judgment.

Last Friday, January 23, 2015, the New Mexico judge agreed with us holding that HSD’s “temporary” withhold of reimbursements violates due process and that ESEM has a right to a fair hearing.

Here is an article from the Santa Fe New Mexican written by Patrick Malone:

Judge: State Human Services Department violated due process law

In a harsh rebuke of the 2013 behavioral health shake-up that thrust mental health care for indigent New Mexicans into disarray, a Santa Fe judge on Friday ruled that the state Human Services Department had denied due process to one of the providers accused of fraud.

State District Judge Francis Mathew ordered the department to hold a hearing that would allow Santa Fe-based Easter Seals El Mirador to hear the specific allegations against it for the first time — and give the provider a chance to respond to those claims. The ruling could open the door for other providers affected by the shake-up to do the same, according to the nonprofit’s lawyer.

In the 19 months since audit findings spurred Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration to cut off Medicaid funds to Easter Seals El Mirador and other providers in the state who treat Medicaid patients, the nonprofit has not been shown the audit findings that outline exactly what it is accused of doing wrong. Nor has the agency been afforded the chance to refute any of the findings. Meanwhile, the Human Services Department has withheld more than $600,000 in Medicaid funds that were owed to Easter Seals El Mirador at the time of its termination, citing federal guidelines that allow temporary withholding of funds from agencies that are suspected of Medicaid fraud.

“I don’t believe that 19 months is temporary,” Mathew said, particularly since the Human Services Department has prolonged the investigation by referring Easter Seals El Mirador’s case back to the Attorney General’s Office after the nonprofit already had been cleared once.

The judge blasted the department’s process from the outset of the shake-up.

“I think it’s a due-process violation,” he said.

In June 2013, Human Services halted Medicaid funding to 15 organizations that provided mental health and substance abuse services to low-income patients. The state pointed to audit findings that indicated the agencies had overbilled Medicaid by an estimated $36 million as grounds for the decision. The Martinez administration brought in five Arizona providers as replacements and paid them $24 million to set up shop in New Mexico.

This month, one of the replacement providers informed the state that it is financially failing and plans to pull out of New Mexico at the end of March, bringing new disruptions to a fragile population still reeling from the earlier provider changes.

“We have an obligation to protect taxpayer dollars and to help ensure that New Mexicans most in need receive vital behavioral health services,” said Matt Kennicott, a spokesman for Human Services. “We will provide a hearing on the credible allegations of fraud.”

He said the department has not yet decided whether it will appeal the judge’s ruling. Easter Seals El Mirador’s lawyer, Bryan Davis, said he expects the department to do so.

When Judge Mathew issues a written ruling in the days ahead, the Human Services Department will have 90 days to set a hearing date. Within 30 days, the department will be required to share with Easter Seals El Mirador the evidence it plans to present at the hearing. That could yield the agency’s first glimpse at the state’s basis for accusing it of fraud. The behavioral health audit that led to the shake-up has been largely shielded from public view while the Attorney General’s Office conducts a criminal investigation.

On Friday, Attorney General Hector Balderas, who just took office this month, informally asked lawmakers for an additional $1 million in hopes of speeding up the probe to complete it within the next six to eight months. Balderas inherited the investigation from his predecessor, Gary King, whose office has faced criticisms from lawmakers and the ousted providers for its slow pace. To date, three investigations have been completed, four are actively being investigated and eight have not yet begun, Balderas’ spokesman said.

Easter Seals El Mirador and the Counseling Center of Alamogordo have been cleared of fraud by the Attorney General’s Office, but Human Services referred Easter Seals El Mirador back to the attorney general for a follow-up investigation.

Mark Johnson, chief executive officer of Easter Seals El Mirador, said he is confident that the organization would be cleared of any wrongdoing in a fair hearing.

With at least one of the replacement providers from Arizona already leaving the state and the New Mexico providers financially hobbled or already out of business because of the shake-up, Johnson said, he fears the most serious consequences of the Martinez administration’s abrupt actions lie ahead.

“There is no safety net. There is no New Mexico company that can fill the systemic void for services for the poor people who need them,” Johnson said. “It’s catastrophic.”

You Received a Tentative Notice of Overpayment: Now What?

You are a health care provider that accepts Medicaid.  You received a Tentative Notice of Overpayment from North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Division of Medical Assistance(DMA), Program Integrity (PI). You owe a million dollars (or whatever amount…it may as well be a million, right?) to DHHS and it must be paid within 30 days. First, you cry (“Why me?”), then you get angry (“Why do they say I owe this?” or “My documents are compliant!”), then you get scared (“What am I going to do?”).

So what do you do after getting this Notice?

Obviously, my official advice is to immediately call a lawyer; however, if for some reason, obtaining a lawyer is not an option, do you opt to appeal:

Formally or informally?

In DHHS or the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH)?

Challenging the extrapolation or the decision?

Breathe.

If you can obtain a lawyer, do so. (Not necessarily me. Just someone).

If a lawyer is out of the question, for whatever reason, and you do not have the millions (or whatever amount DHHS claims you owe) sitting under your mattress, appeal. Appeal whatever. Appeal however. Just appeal.

An appeal maintains status quo. An appeal allows you to by time to figure out your options. An appeal makes you keep your money for a longer period of time before turning any amount over to DHHS.

What not to do:

  • Do not pay the entire amount.
  • Do not agree to set up a payment plan.
  • Do not think, “Oh, DHHS is right. My documents are out of compliance.”

If you appeal the amount supposedly owed will decrease. If you agree to pay, the amount will not decrease.

Now, what to appeal?

Personally, I prefer to appeal the decision, not the extrapolation. If you appeal the extrapolation, first, you have to do a lot of math. And who wants to do a lot of math? Secondly, you end up dealing with PI  in an informal and amorphous proceeding.  Dealing with PI during this amorphous proceeding is a bit like playing dodge ball…alone.  Thirdly, by appealing the extrapolation you are only delaying getting an Attorney General (AG) involved and any sort of formal proceedings.  Surprisingly enough, the whole process becomes easier when an AG is assigned.  They actually know how to maneuver through this system.

So, you appeal the decision…

Formal appeal or informal appeal?

In DHHS (informally) or OAH (formally)? I, myself, have pondered this for hours.  I’ve never received a decision from a DHHS Hearing Officer that I have not appealed.  So, my first instinct is, go straight to OAH.  In fact, I’ve blogged about that before.  But after more consideration, I actually think it is a good decision to go through the reconsideration review.

(1) It provides time to get to know the documents. If you go straight to OAH you will have to learn all the documents faster and in a more formal setting.

(2) There  may be an argument that providers MUST exhaust the LME-MCO Appeal Process (“Reconsideration”) before accessing the State Fair Hearing (or Appeal to OAH).

While I am unsure whether the issue of whether providers must exhaust informal remedies before attempting formal remedies has been decided by a court of law, because a Medicaid recipient is required to go through an informal appeal first, I would think the same would apply to a provider. Plus, because clients pay me good money, I have been unwilling to “take a risk” with my clients’ money. I’d hate to go that route and be told I did it wrong. Besides, it’s been working this way.

So, there you go.

The moral of the story? Appeal, appeal, appeal.