DHHS has ousted and taken over Cardinal Innovations!
And may I just say – Finally! Thank you, Sec. Cohen.
Cardinal is/was the largest of seven managed care organizations (MCOs) that was given the task to manage Medicaid funds for behavioral health care recipients. These are Medicaid recipients suffering from developmental disabilities, mental health issues, and substance abuse; these are our population’s most needy. These MCOs are given a firehose of Medicaid money; i.e., tax dollars, and were entrusted by the State of North Carolina, each individual taxpayer, Medicaid recipients, and the recipients’ families to maintain an adequate network of health care providers and authorize medically necessary behavioral health care services. Cardinal’s budget was just over $682 million in 2016. Instead, I have witnessed, as a Medicaid and Medicare regulatory compliance litigator, and have legally defended hundreds of health care providers who were unlawfully terminated from the MCOs’ catchment areas, refused a contract with the MCOs, accused of owing overpayments to the MCOs for services that were appropriately rendered. To the point that the provider catchment areas are woefully underrepresented (especially in Minority-owned companies), recipients are not receiving medically necessary services, and the MCOs are denying medically necessary services. The MCOs do so under the guise of their police power. For years, I have been blogging that this police power is overzealous, unsupervised, unchecked, and in violation of legal authority. I have blogged that the MCOs act as the judge, jury, and executioner. I have also stated that the actions of the MCOs are financially driven. Because when providers are terminated and services are not rendered, money is not spent, at least, on the Medicaid recipients’ services.
But, apparently, the money is spent on executives. This past May, State Auditor Beth Wood wrote a scathing performance audit regarding Cardinal’s lavish spending on CEO pay as well as on expensive Christmas parties and board retreats, charter flights for executives and “questionable” credit card purchases, including alcohol. All of that, her report said, threatened to “erode public trust.” Cardinal’s former CEO Richard Topping made more than $635,000 in salary this year. On Monday (November 21, 2017), DHHS escorted Topping and three other executives out the door. But they did not walk away empty handed. Topping walked away with a $1.7 million severance while three associates left with packages as high as $740,000 – of taxpayer money!
This overspending on salaries and administration is not new. Cardinal has been excessively spending on itself since inception. This has been a long term concern, and I congratulate Sec. Cohen for having the “cojones” to do something about it. (I know. Bad joke. I apologize for the French/Spanish).
In 2011, Cardinal spent millions of dollars constructing its administrative facility.
According to Edifice, the company that built Cardinal Innovations’ grand headquarters, starting in 2011, Cardinal’s building is described as:
“[T[his new three-story, 79,000-square-foot facility is divided into two separate structures joined by a connecting bridge. The 69,000-square-foot building houses the regional headquarters and includes Class A office space with conference rooms on each floor and a fully equipped corporate board room. This building also houses a consumer gallery and a staff cafe offering an outdoor dining area on a cantilevered balcony overlooking a landscaped ravine. The 10,000-square-foot connecting building houses a corporate training center. Computer access flooring is installed throughout the facility and is supported by a large server room to maintain redundancy of information flow.” How much did that cost the Medicaid recipients in Cardinal’s catchment area? Seem appropriate for an agent of the government spending tax money for luxurious office space? Shoot, my legal office is not even that nice. And I don’t get funded by tax dollars!
In 2015, I wrote:
On July 1, 2014, Cardinal Innovations, one of NC’s managed care organizations (MCOs) granted its former CEO, Ms. Pam Shipman, a 53% salary increase, raising her salary to $400,000/year. In addition to the raise, Cardinal issued Ms. Shipman a $65,000 bonus based on 2013-2014 performance.
Then in July 2015, according to the article in the Charlotte Observer, Cardinals paid Ms. Shipman an additional $424,975, as severance. Within one year, Ms. Shipman was paid by Cardinal a whopping $889,975. Almost one million dollars!!!!
Now, finally, DHHS says Cardinal Innovations “acted unlawfully” in giving its ousted CEO $1.7 million in severance, and DHHS took over the Charlotte-based agency. It was a complete oust. One journalist quoted Cardinal as saying, “DHHS officials arrived at Cardinal “unexpectedly and informed the executive leadership team that the department is assuming control of Cardinal’s governance.”” Unexpected they say? Cardinal conducted unexpected audits all the time on their providers. But, the shoe hurts when it’s on the other foot.
The MCOs are charged with the HUGE fiscal and moral responsibility, on behalf of the taxpayers, to manage North Carolina and federal tax dollars and authorize medically necessary behavioral health care services for Medicaid recipients, our population’s most needy. The MCOs in NC are as follows:
- Vaya Health
- Partners Behavioral Health Management
- Cardinal Innovations (formerly)
- Trillium Health Resources
- Alliance Behavioral Health Care
- Sandhills Center
The 1915 (b)(c) Waiver Program was initially implemented at one pilot site in 2005 and evaluated for several years. Two expansion sites were then added in 2012. The State declared it an immediate success and requested and received the authority from CMS to implement the MCO project statewide. Full statewide implementation is expected by July 1, 2013. The MCO project was intended to save money in the Medicaid program. The thought was that if these MCO entities were prepaid on a capitated basis that the MCOs would have the incentive to be fiscally responsible, provide the medically necessary services to those in need, and reduce the dollars spent on prisons and hospitals for mentally ill.
Sadly, as we have seen, fire hoses of tax dollars catalyze greed.
Presumably, in the goal of financial wealth, Cardinal Innovations, and, maybe, expectantly the other MCOs, have sacrificed quality providers being in network and medically necessary services for Medicaid recipients, Cardinal has terminated provider contracts. And for what? Luxurious office space, high salaries, private jets, and a fat savings account.
I remember a former client from over 5 years ago, who owned and ran multiple residential facilities for at-risk, teen-age boys with violent tendencies and who suffered severe mental illness. Without cause, Alliance terminated the client’s Medicaid contract. There were no alternatives for the residents except for the street. We were able to secure a preliminary injunction preventing the termination. But for every one of those stories, there are providers who did not have the money to fight the terminations
Are there legal recourses for health care providers who suffered from Cardinal’s actions?
The million dollar question.
In light of the State Auditor’s report and DHHS’ actions and public comments that it was usurping Cardinal’s leadership based on “recent unlawful actions, including serious financial mismanagement by the leadership and Board of Directors at Cardinal Innovations,” I believe that the arrows point to yes, with a glaring caveat. It would be a massive and costly undertaking. David and Goliath does not even begin to express the undertaking. At one point, someone told me that Cardinal had $271 million in its bank account. I have no way to corroborate this, but I would not be surprised. In the past, Cardinal has hired private, steeply-priced attorney regardless that its funds are tax dollars. Granted, now DHHS may run things differently, but without question, any legal course of action against any MCO would be epically expensive.
Putting aside the money issue, potential claims could include (Disclaimer: this list is nonexhaustive and based on a cursory investigation for the purpose of my blog. Furthermore, research has not been conducted on possible bars to claims, such as immunity and/or exhaustion of administrative remedies.):
- Breach of fiduciary duty. Provider would need to demonstrate that a duty existed between providers and MCO (contractual or otherwise), that said MCO breached such duty, and that damages exist. Damages can include actual loss and if intent is proven, punitive damages may be sought.
- Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices. Providers would have to prove three elements: (1) an unfair or deceptive act or practice; (2) in or affecting commerce; (3) which proximately caused the injury to the claimant. A court will first determine if the act or practice was “in or affecting commerce” before determining if the act or practice was unfair or deceptive. Damages allowed are actual damages, plus treble damages (three times the actual damages).
- Negligence. Providers would have to show (1) duty; (2) breach; (3) cause in fact; (4) proximate cause; and (5) damages. Actual damages are allowed for a negligence claim.
- Breach of Contract. The providers would have to demonstrate that there was a valid contract; that the providers performed as specified by the contract; that the said MCO failed to perform as specified by the contract; and that the providers suffered an economic loss as a result of the defendant’s breach of contract. Actual damages are recoverable in a breach of action claim.
- Declaratory Judgment. This would be a request to the Court to make a legal finding that the MCO failed to follow certain Medicaid procedures and regulations.
- Violation of Article I, NC Constitution (legal and contractual right to receive payments for reimbursement claims due and payable under the Medicaid regulations.
To name a few…
Eastpointe Sues DHHS, Former Sec. Brajer, Nash County, and Trillium Claiming Conspiracy! (What It Means for Providers)
In HBO’s Game of Thrones, nine, noble, family houses of Westeros fight for the Iron Throne – either vying to claim the throne or fighting for independence from the throne.
Similarly, when NC moved to the managed care organizations for Medicaid behavioral health care services, we began with 12 MCOs (We actually started with 23 (39 if you count area authorities) LME/MCOs, but they quickly whittled down to 11). “The General Assembly enacted House Bill 916 (S.L. 2011-264) (“H.B. 916) to be effective June 23, 2011, which required the statewide expansion of the 1915(b)/(c) Medicaid Waiver Program to be completed within the State by July 1, 2013.” Compl. at 25. Now the General Assembly is pushing for more consolidation.
Now we have seven (7) MCOs remaining, and the future is uncertain. With a firehose of money at issue and the General Assembly’s push for consolidation, it has become a bloody battle to remain standing in the end, because, after all, only one may claim the Iron Throne. And we all know that “Winter is coming.”
Seemingly, as an attempt to remain financially viable, last week, on Thursday, June 8, 2017, Eastpointe, one of our current MCOs, sued the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Nash County, Trillium Health Resources, another MCO, and former secretary Richard Brajer in his individual and former official capacity. Since the Complaint is a public record, you can find the Complaint filed in the Eastern District of NC, Western Division, Civil Action 5:17-CV-275. My citations within this blog correspond with the paragraphs in the Complaint, not page numbers.
Eastpointe’s Complaint wields a complex web of conspiracy, government interference, and questionable relationships that would even intrigue George R. R. Martin.
The core grievance in the lawsuit is Eastpointe alleges that DHHS, Trillium, Nash County, and Brajer unlawfully conspired and interfered with Eastpointe’s contract to manage behavioral health care services for its twelve (12) county catchment area, including Nash County. In 2012, Nash County, as part of the The Beacon Center, signed a contract and became part of a merger with Eastpointe being the sole survivor (Beacon Center and Southeastern Regional Mental Health were swallowed by Eastpointe). At the heart of Eastpointe’s Complaint, Eastpointe is alleging that Nash County, Trillium, DHHS, and Brajer conspired to breach the contract between Eastpointe and Nash County and unlawfully allowed Nash County to join Trillium’s catchment area.
In June 2013, the General Assembly, pursuant to Senate Bill 208 (S.L. 2013-85 s. 4.(b)), appended N.C.G.S. § 122C-115 to include subparagraph (a3), permitting a county to disengage from one LME/MCO and align with another with the approval of the Secretary of the NCDHHS, who was required by law to promulgate “rules to establish a process for county disengagement.” N.C.G.S. § 122C-115(a3) (“Rules”) (10A N.C.A.C. 26C .0701-03).
Why does it matter whether Medicaid recipients receive behavioral health care services from providers within Trillium or Eastpointe’s catchment area?? As long as the medically necessary services are rendered – that should be what is important – right?
Wrong. First, I give my reason as a cynic (realist), then as a philanthropist (wishful thinker).
Cynical answer – The MCOs are prepaid. In general and giving a purposely abbreviated explanation, the way in which the amount is determined to pre-pay an MCO is based on how many Medicaid recipients reside within the catchment area who need behavioral health care services. The more people in need of Medicaid behavioral health care services in a catchment area, the more money the MCO receives to manage such services. With the removal of Nash County from Eastpointe’s catchment area, Eastpointe will lose approximately $4 million annually and Trillium will gain approximately $4 million annually, according to the Complaint. This lawsuit is a brawl over the capitated amount of money that Nash County represents, but it also is about the Iron Throne. If Eastpointe becomes less financially secure and Trillium becomes more financially secure, then it is more likely that Eastpointe would be chewed up and swallowed in any merger.
Philanthropic answer – Allowing Nash County to disengage from Eastpointe’s catchment area would inevitably disrupt behavioral health care services to our most fragile and needy population. Medicaid recipients would be denied access to their chosen providers…providers that may have been treating them for years and created established trust. Allowing Nash County to disembark from Eastpointe would cause chaos for those least fortunate and in need of behavioral health care services.
Eastpointe also alleges that DHHS refused to approve a merger between Eastpointe and Cardinal purposefully and with the intent to sabotage Eastpointe’s financial viability.
Also in its Complaint, Eastpointe alleges a statewide, power-hungry, money-grubbing conspiracy in which Brajer and DHHS and Trillium are conspiring to pose Trillium as the final winner in the “MCO Scramble to Consolidate,” “Get Big or Die” MCO mentality arising out of the legislative push for MCO consolidation. Because, as with any consolidation, duplicate executives are cut.
Over the last couple years, Eastpointe has discussed merging with Cardinal, Trillium, and Sandhills – none of which occurred. Comparably, Joffrey Lannister and Sansa Stark discussed merging. As did Viserys and Illyrio wed Daenerys to Khal Drogo to form an alliance between the Targaryens.
Some of the most noteworthy and scandalous accusations:
Leza Wainwright, CEO of Trillium and director of the NC Council of Community MH/DD/SA Programs (“NCCCP”) (now I know why I’ve never been invited to speak at NCCCP). Wainwright “brazenly took actions adverse to the interest of Eastpointe in violation of the NCCCP mission, conflicts of interest policy of the organization, and her fiduciary duty to the NCCCP and its members.” Compl. at 44.
Robinson, Governing Board Chair of Trillium, “further informed Brajer that he intended for Trillium to be the surviving entity in any merger with Eastpointe and that “any plan predicated on Trillium and Eastpointe being coequal is fundamentally flawed.”” Compl. at 61.
“On or about May 11, 2016, Denauvo Robinson (“Robinson”), Governing Board Chair of Trillium wrote Brajer, without copying Eastpointe, defaming Eastpointe’s reputation in such a way that undermined the potential merger of Eastpointe and Trillium.” Compl. at 59.
“Robinson, among other false statements, alleged the failure to consummate a merger between Eastpointe, CoastalCare, and East Carolina Behavioral Health LMEs was the result of Eastpointe’s steadfast desire to maintain control, and Eastpointe’s actions led those entities to break discussions with Eastpointe and instead merge to form Trillium.” Compl. at 60.
“Trillium, not Nash County, wrote Brajer on November 28, 2016 requesting approval to disengage from Eastpointe and to align with Trillium.” Compl. at 69.
Dave Richards, Deputy Secretary for Medical Assistance, maintains a “strong relationship with Wainwright” and “displayed unusual personal animus toward Kenneth Jones, Eastpointe’s former CEO.” Compl. at 47.
Brajer made numerous statements to Eastpointe staff regarding his animus toward Jones and Eastpointe. “Brajer continued to push for a merger between Eastpointe and Trillium.” Compl. at 53.
“On December 5, 2016, the same day that former Governor McCrory conceded the election to Governor Cooper, Brajer wrote a letter to Trillium indicating that he approved the disengagement and realignment of Nash County.” Compl. at 72.
“On March 17, 2016, however, Brajer released a memorandum containing a plan for consolidation of the LME/MCOs, in which NCDHHS proposed Eastpointe being merged with Trillium.” Compl. at 55.
Brajer’s actions were “deliberately premature, arbitrary, and capricious and not in compliance with statute and Rule, and with the intent to destabilize Eastpointe as an LME/MCO).” Compl. at 73.
“Brajer conspired with Nash County to cause Nash County to breach the Merger Agreement.” Compl. at 86.
Brajer “deliberately sought to block any merger between Eastpointe and other LME/MCOs except Trillium.” Compl. at 96.
“Brajer and NCDHHS’s ultra vires and unilateral approval of the Nash County disengagement request effective April 1, 2017 materially breached the contract between Eastpointe and NCDHHS. Equally brazen was Brajer’s calculated failure to give Eastpointe proper notice of the agency action taken or provide Eastpointe with any rights of appeal.” Compl. at 101.
Against Nash County
“To date, Nash County is Six Hundred Fifty Three Thousand Nine Hundred Fifty Nine Thousand and 16/100 ($653,959.16) in arrears on its Maintenance of Efforts to Eastpointe.” Compl. at 84.
“While serving on Eastpointe’s area board, Nash County Commissioner Lisa Barnes, in her capacity as a member of the Nash County Board of Commissioners, voted to adopt a resolution requesting permission for Nash County to disengage from Eastpointe and realign with Trillium. In so doing, Barnes violated her sworn oath to the determent of Eastpointe.” Compl. at 85.
What Eastpointe’s lawsuit could potentially mean to providers:
Eastpointe is asking the Judge in the federal court of our eastern district for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction prohibiting Nash County from withdrawing from Eastpointe’s catchment area and joining Trillium’s catchment area. It is important to note that the behavioral health care providers in Eastpointe’s catchment area may not be the same behavioral health care providers in Trillium’s catchment area. There may be some overlap, but without question there are behavioral health care providers in Trillium’s catchment area that are not in Eastpointe’s catchment area and vice versa.
If Eastpointe is not successful in stopping Nash County from switching to Trillium’s catchment area, those providers who provide services in Nash County need to inquire – if you do not currently have a contract with Trillium, will Trillium accept you into its catchment area, because Trillium runs a closed network?!?! If Trillium refuses to include Nash County’s behavioral health care providers in its catchment area, those Nash County providers risk no longer being able to provide services to their consumers. If this is the case, these Nash County, non-Trillium providers may want to consider joining Eastpointe’s lawsuit as a third-party intervenor, as an interested, aggrieved person. Obviously, you would, legally, be on Eastpointe’s side, hoping to stay Nash County’s jump from Eastpointe to Trillium.
Even if Eastpointe is successful in stopping Nash County’s Benedict Arnold, then, as a provider in Eastpointe’s catchment area, you need to think ahead. How viable is Eastpointe? Eastpointe’s lawsuit is a powerful indication that Eastpointe itself is concerned about the future, although this lawsuit could be its saving grace. How fair (yet realistic) is it that whichever providers happen to have a contract with the biggest, most powerful MCO in the end get to continue to provide services and those providers with contracts with smaller, less viable MCOs are put out of business based on closed networks?
If Nash County is allowed to defect from Eastpointe and unite with Trillium, all providers need to stress. Allowing a county to abscond from its MCO on the whim of county leadership could create absolute havoc. Switching MCOs effects health care providers and Medicaid recipients. Each time a county decides to choose a new MCO the provider network is upended. Recipients are wrenched from the provider of their choice and forced to re-invent the psychological wheel to their detriment. Imagine Cherokee County being managed by Eastpointe…Brunswick County being managed by Vaya Health…or Randolph County being managed by Partners. Location-wise, it would be an administrative mess. Every election of a county leadership could determine the fate of a county’s Medicaid recipients.
Here is a map of the current 7 MCOs:
All behavioral health care providers should be keeping a close watch on the MCO consolidations and this lawsuit. There is nothing that requires the merged entity to maintain or retain the swallowed up entities provider network. Make your alliances because…
“Winter is coming.”
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.
Knicole Emanuel: Panel Discussion – David Is To Goliath As NC Behavioral Health Care Providers Are To MCOs
Isn’t that analogy apropos? (And it’s not mine…its Benchmarks’)
I will be sitting on a panel today in Raleigh, NC. See below.
A wonderful association, Benchmarks, is hosting a panel discussion for behavioral health care providers. While it is meant for smaller providers, in my own humble opinion, all behavioral health care providers would benefit from this panel discussion.
Senior Counsel, Robert Shaw, and I will be sitting on the panel…with managed care organizations (MCO) representatives. It is without question that I have not been a big fan of the MCOs. If I were to suggest otherwise, I believe that my blog followers would scoff. However, I am interested in hearing these MCO representatives’ side of the argument.
Will these MCO reps merely parrot? Or will they truly engage in worthwhile conversations to understand what it is like for a behavioral health care provider in NC today?
Feel free to join the discussion at 12:30-2:30. Below is the Evite: 3801 Hillsborough St.