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The slow-motion unraveling of New Mexico’s Medicaid crackdown (With Sound Bites From Me).

There’s no getting around it. Four years after Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration charged 15 behavioral health organizations with potentially defrauding the state’s Medicaid program, its case has experienced a slow-motion unraveling.

No Medicaid fraud was ever found. And those eye-popping estimates that added up to $36 million the organizations had overbilled Medicaid?

In the summer of 2017, the Human Services Department (HSD) is seeking drastically lower reimbursements for overbilling the public health insurance program for low-income residents, a review of public records and state court documents has found.

Now exonerated by the state Attorney General’s Office, many organizations are challenging even those much-lower estimates in administrative hearings or in state court.

Consider Teambuilders Counseling Services, one of the accused behavioral health providers.

Last fall it received a new estimate from the New Mexico Human Services Department. Previous numbers had varied from as high as $9.6 million to as low as $2 million. But the new figure deviated sharply from earlier calculations when Chester Boyett, an administrative law judge in the state agency’s Fair Hearings Bureau, ruled Teambuilders owed only $896.35.

Boyett argued his agency had built its $2 million estimate of Medicaid overbilling on faulty analysis, according to his 12-page decision.

Nancy Smith-Leslie, the department’s director of the Medical Assistance Division, ignored Boyett’s recommendation. In a Jan. 6 letter she said the agency’s analysis was sound, even though she seemed to confirm Boyett’s critique in a Nov. 2 memo in which she had noted the inaccuracy of the extrapolated amount. In that memo Teambuilders and its attorney had not “sufficiently disputed” the method of extrapolation, however, she wrote.

In her Jan. 6 letter, Smith-Leslie sought to clear up matters. She amended her previous statement, saying the extrapolation referred to in her Nov. 2 memo indeed was correct.

Teambuilders and its attorney, Knicole Emanuel, appealed HSD’s ruling over whether Teambuilders overbilled Medicaid and by how much to state court, where three other former behavioral health organizations are fighting HSD’s extrapolated overpayments.

Boyett’s finding that Teambuilders owed hundreds rather than millions of dollars — even if it was ignored — represents a compelling data point given where things stand with other providers.

The state in May reduced to $484.71 what it said Southwest Counseling Center owed after accusing it of overbilling Medicaid by as much as $2.8 million as recently as January.

And last September HSD closed the books  on another organization — Las Cruces-based Families and Youth Inc. — without demanding any reimbursements for overbilling and releasing $1.4 million in Medicaid dollars the state had suspended. The action represented a reversal after a state-ordered 2013 audit that found $856,745 in potential Medicaid overbilling by FYI.

In fact, a review of state and court documents by New Mexico In Depth reveals a pattern regarding the state agency’s overbilling estimates: In many cases, they are moving targets, usually on a downward trajectory.

Like Southwest’s, some have dropped spectacularly. Setting aside Boyett’s figure of $896, even the $2 million HSD claims Teambuilders owes is far smaller than a high of $12 million.

Hogares Inc., another organization accused of fraud, watched last year as the state revised its overbilling estimates five times over six months, starting at $9.5 million in January and ending with $3.1 million in June, according to state court documents.

Meanwhile, Easter Seals El Mirador, initially accused of $850,000 in potential Medicaid overbilling, now stands accused of $127,000.

Emanuel and Bryan Davis, another attorney representing many of the formerly accused organizations, said the constantly changing estimates are due to HSD.

The state agency is examining a sampling of each organization’s Medicaid claims and asking the organizations for documentation to prove the government program was properly billed, they said.

“In most cases (the overbilling estimates) are dropping precipitously” as organizations submit the documents requested by HSD, Davis said.

To cite one example, HSD’s latest overbilling estimate for Counseling Associates, Inc. is $96,000, said Davis, who represents the organization. That compares to $3 million in potential overbilling a 2013 state-ordered audit found.

It is a perplexing situation, given that the Human Services Department found “‘credible allegations of fraud” against the 15 organizations using that 2013 audit, which was performed by Massachusetts-based Public Consulting Group Inc.

“They threw PCG’s audit in the trash,” Davis said of HSD, noting the cost. HSD agreed to pay PCG up to $3 million for the study in February 2013.

The current situation caused Davis to wonder “why PCG didn’t have these documents in the first place,” he said.

Emanuel offered a pointed answer.

“HSD did not allow PCG to gather all the documents,” she said.

A spokesperson for HSD did not respond multiple requests for comment for this story.

Repercussions of the Medicaid crackdown

The fight over Medicaid overbilling isn’t the only legacy left from the Medicaid crackdown, which happened the last week of June 2013.

The Martinez administration’s decision affected lives. Many lives if you listen to behavioral health advocates and officials in the 15 organizations.

Charging the organizations with fraud and then suspending Medicaid payments to many of them disrupted mental health and addiction services for tens of thousands of New Mexicans. It created chaos for employees. And four years on it has left a number of business failures in its wake, with many of the accused organizations unable to survive long-term without Medicaid dollars.

Teambuilders, which once operated 52 locations in 17 New Mexico counties, is no longer in business, according to Emanuel. Neither is Las Cruces-based Southwest Counseling Center. Or Hogares.

At the same time a gap in care has opened up after three of five Arizona companies the Martinez administration brought in to care for the vulnerable populations have departed the state, leaving New Mexico to pick up the pieces.

“It’s a mess. It’s disgusting,” said James Kerlin, executive director of The Counseling Center of Alamogordo, which no longer sees clients. Like Teambuilders, Hogares, Southwest Counseling and others, it was unable to stay in business without the flow of Medicaid dollars the state suspended. “I want the public to know where we’re at and what’s been done to us. I’m going to start making a lot of noise. This is ridiculous.”

Kerlin’s organization was the first of the 15 organizations exonerated by then Attorney General Gary King in early 2014. And it offered the earliest glimpse of the weaknesses in the Martinez administration’s case against the behavioral health providers.

First signs of weakness in the state’s case

HSD hired PCG to audit all 15 organizations and it found $655,000 in potential Medicaid overbilling by the Counseling Center.

PCG reached that conclusion after finding $1,873 in questionable Medicaid claims and then extrapolating from those claims that the center could have overbilled Medicaid by more than $600,000 based on the size of its Medicaid business over several years.

But during its fraud investigation the AG’s office flagged fewer Counseling Center claims than PCG and found a much lower cost of potential overbillings. It resolved some of the issues by reviewing records and interviewing staff.

In many cases, auditors give staff of audited organizations an opportunity to refute findings or address misunderstandings before finalizing their findings. For example, most state and local governmental agencies are audited annually in New Mexico. Staff within those agencies are afforded the chance to see and respond to audit findings within a certain amount of time before audits are made public.

Kerlin did not get that opportunity during the PCG audit.

PCG later confirmed to NMID that it is the firm’s standard procedure to give companies a chance to respond before issuing official audit findings. A PCG spokesperson would not tell NMID why that didn’t happen in New Mexico.

By the time HSD held a hearing for the Counseling Center, the state agency had lowered its Medicaid overbillings estimate to $379,135. And Kerlin finally was able to hear the accusations against his organization.

Counseling Center submitted evidence to rebut the state agency’s claims, but the hearing officer sided with HSD. The Counseling Center appealed to state court.

In late 2015, State District Court Judge Francis Mathew ruled in favor of Kerlin’s organization, calling HSD’s hearing decision “arbitrary, capricious or otherwise not in accordance with law.”

In addition, the judge found the administrative law judge had shifted the burden of proof from HSD to the Counseling Center and then set too high a standard for the organization. Citing portions of the administrative law judge’s ruling, Mathew noted  the Counseling Center had “offered certain amount of credible evidence in opposition” to HSD’s findings but not as much as the hearing officer required: a “100 percent audit” of records, which the state district judge found “unreasonable.”

HSD appealed the judge’s decision to the state Court of Appeals.

Examples of rejected claims 

The overly stringent standards for documentation — and even a basic lack of understanding by HSD staff of Medicaid billing requirements — can be found in cases involving other organizations that are contesting the department’s charges of overbilling, a review of court documents found.

In a motion appealing the administrative law judge’s ruling that it owed the state $127,240, Easter Seals disputed seven claims, including one HSD had rejected because there was no medication consent form in place, even though the patient and parent had signed a general informed consent form and the patient’s parent was present when the medication was prescribed.

According to the court document, “There was no dispute that the service was medically necessary and was provided to J.A. There is no question as to quality of care provided to the recipient of services.”

Another claim was rejected because there was no doctor’s signature on a psychosocial assessment, however the state could provide no legal requirement for the signature, according to Easter Seals’ appeal. “A signature might be best practice, or advisable, but it is not a requirement,” the filing argued.

Also in the appeal, Easter Seals noted that the Human Service Department’s coding witness not only could not cite rules disallowing two services to be delivered during the same time period, but also appeared to be using a coding manual from Medicare, the insurance for seniors, and not Medicaid. And furthermore, she did not even realize there was a manual for Medicaid.

HSD ignored evidence in 2013 that refuted overbilling claims 

Even those organizations that have avoided administrative hearings and court battles have stories to tell about HSD and its actions.

Consider Presbyterian Medical Services, which signed an agreement with the Human Services Department in 2013 to pay $4 million after PCG found nearly $4.5 million in potential Medicaid overbillings.

It wasn’t an easy decision, its CEO said this week, and it shouldn’t be construed as agreement with the state’s conclusions.

“We agree to disagree” is how Steven Hansen put it.

Until Presbyterian began negotiating an agreement, in fact, it had not seen the findings of the PCG audit.

During the negotiations PMS officials found documents they thought could refute PCG’s audit findings, Hansen and other PMS officials told state lawmakers in October 2014.

Presbyterian tried to give the files to PCG and the Human Services Department as proof that they had properly billed Medicaid for payment. The consulting firm said it would review the documentation if directed to by HSD, but PCG later told Presbyterian Medical Services the state agency “did not want to accept those records.”

“We believe there is a strong argument that nothing was owed back to HSD,” Presbyterian’s general counsel told lawmakers in 2014.

At that point, Presbyterian had to make a choice: Settle with the state or fight and possibly run out of money.

Presbyterian settled, paying the $4 million.

The decision has worked out for the organization.

“We’re doing more business than we did before” the 2013 crackdown, Hansen said.

That’s because as the Arizona providers the Martinez administration brought in have left New Mexico, Presbyterian Medical Services has taken over mental health and addiction services.

Presbyterian has added Carlsbad, Alamogordo, Deming, Espańola, Grants, Artesia, Santa Fe and Rio Rancho to the places it provides behavioral health services, Hansen said, adding it’s “bits and pieces” of areas formerly serviced by three of the five Arizona companies.

“We feel like it’s going in a good direction for us,” Hansen said. “That’s hard for us to say because there were so many great organizations that are no longer in the state. But we’ve had to move on.”

Legislative Update For May 10, 2017

I am a member of the Health Law Section’s Legislative Committee, along with attorneys Shawn Parker, and Scott Templeton. Together we drafted summaries of all the potential House and Senate Bills that have passed one house (crossed over) and have potential of becoming laws. We published it on the NC Bar Association Blog. I figured my readers would benefit from the Bill summaries as well. Please see below blog.

On behalf of the North Carolina Bar Association Health Law Section’s Legislative Committee,  we are providing the following 2017 post-crossover legislative update.

The North Carolina General Assembly has been considering a substantial number of bills of potential relevance to health law practitioners this session. The Health Law Section’s Legislative Committee, with the help of NCBA staff, has been monitoring these bills on virtually a daily basis.

The General Assembly’s rules provide for a “crossover date” during the legislative session, which this year was April 27. The importance of that date is essentially that, with certain caveats, unless a bill has passed one chamber (House or Senate) by the crossover date, the bill will no longer be considered by the legislature. The following listing provides brief descriptions of current proposed legislation, in two categories.

The first category includes bills that passed either the House or Senate by the crossover date, and therefore remain in consideration by the legislature. The second category includes bills that did not pass either chamber before the crossover date, but because the bills contain an appropriation or fee provisions, they may continue to be considered pursuant to legislative rules.

In addition to the bills listed below, a number of bills did not make crossover and do not meet an exception to the crossover rule, and are likely “dead” for this legislative session. We recognize, however, that the legislature is capable of “reviving” legislation by various mechanisms. The Legislative Committee continues to monitor legislation during the session, and in addition to this update, we may provide further updates as appropriate, and also anticipate doing a final summary once the legislature has adjourned later this year.

Bills That Passed One Chamber by the Crossover Date.

House Bills 

HB 57: Enact Physical Therapy Licensure Compact

Makes North Carolina a member of the Physical Therapy Licensure Compact, upon the 10th member state to enact the compact. Membership in the compact would allow physical therapists who hold licenses in good standing in any other compact state to practice physical therapy in North Carolina. Likewise, physical therapists holding a valid license in North Carolina would be able to practice physical therapy in any of other the compact member states.

 HB 140: Dental Plans Provider Contracts/Transparency

Provides that insurance companies that offer stand-alone dental insurance are subject to the disclosure and notification provisions of G.S. 58-3-227.

 HB 156: Eyeglasses Exemption from Medicaid Capitation

Adds the fabrication of eyeglasses to the list of services that are not included as part of transitioning the State Medicaid program to a capitated system.

HB 199: Establish Standards for Surgical Technology

Creates standards for surgical technology care in hospitals and ambulatory surgical facilities, specifically prohibiting employing or contracting with a surgical technologist unless that technologist produces one of four enumerated qualifications.

HB 206: N.C. Cancer Treatment Fairness

Requires insurance coverage parity so orally administered anti-cancer drugs are covered on a basis no less favorable than intravenously administered or injected anti-cancer drugs.

 HB 208 : Occupational Therapy Choice of Provider

Adds licensed occupational therapists to the list of providers for whom insurers are required to pay for services rendered, regardless of limitations to access of such providers within the insurance contract.

 HB 243: Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention (STOP) Act

Requires, among other things, practitioners to review information in the state-controlled substance reporting system prior to prescribing certain targeted controlled substance and limits the length of supply that a targeted controlled substance may be prescribed for acute pain relief.

HB 258: Amend Medical Malpractice Health Care Provider Definition

Includes paramedics, as defined in G.S. 131E-155, within the definition of health care provider for the purposes of medical malpractice actions.

HB 283: Telehealth Fairness Act

Requires health benefit plans to provide coverage for health care services that are provided via telemedicine as if the service were provided in person.

HB 307: Board Certified Behavioral Analyst/Autism Coverage

Adds board certified behavioral analysts as professionals that qualify for reimbursement for providing adaptive behavioral treatments under North Carolina’s mandatory coverage requirements for autism spectrum disorder.

 HB 403: LME/MCO Claims Reporting/Mental Health Amendments

Requires Local Management Entities/Managed Care Organizations (LME/MCOs) to use a state-designated standardized format for submitting encounter data, clarifies that the data submitted may be used by DHHS to, among other authorized purposes, set capitation rates. Also modifies multiple statutory requirements and references related to LME/MCOs. Limits the LME/MCOs’ use of funds to their functions and responsibilities under Chapter 122C. Also limits the salary of an area director unless certain criteria are met.

HB 425: Improve Utilization of MH Professionals

Allows licensed clinical addiction specialists to own or have ownership interest in a North Carolina professional corporation that provides psychotherapeutic services. Allows licensed professional counselors or licensed marriage and family therapist to conduct initial examinations for involuntary commitment process when requested by the LME and approved by DHHS.

HB 550: Establish New Nurse Licensure Compact

Repeals the current nurse licensure compact codified at G.S. 90-171.80 – 171.94 and codifies a substantially similar compact, which North Carolina will join upon adoption by the 26th state, allowing nurses to have one multi-state license, with the ability to practice in both their home state and other compact states.

HB 631: Reduce Admin. Duplication MH/DD/SAS Providers

Directs DHHS to establish a work group to examine and make recommendations to eliminate administrative duplication of requirements affecting healthcare providers.

Senate Bills 

SB 42: Reduce Cost and Regulatory Burden/Hospital Construction

Directs the N.C. Medical Care Commission to adopt the American Society of Healthcare Engineers Facility Guidelines for physical plant and construction requirements for hospital facilities and to repeal the current set of rules pertaining to such requirements under the current hospital facilities rules within the North Carolina Administrative Code.

SB 161: Conforming Changes LME/MCO Grievances/Appeals

Provides a technical change to North Carolina LME/MCO enrollee grievance statutes by renaming “managed care actions” as “adverse benefit determinations” to conform to changes in federal law.

SB 368: Notice of Medicaid SPA Submissions

Directs DHHS to notify the General Assembly when DHHS submits to the federal government an amendment to the Medicaid State Plan, or decides not to submit a previously published amendment.

 SB 383: Behavioral Health Crisis EMS Transport

Directs DHHS to develop a plan for adding Medicaid coverage for ambulance transports to behavioral health clinics under Medicaid Clinical Coverage Policy 15.

SB 384: The Pharmacy Patient Fair Practices Act

Prohibits pharmacy benefits managers from using contract terms to prevent pharmacies from providing direct delivery services and allows pharmacists to discuss lower-cost alternative drugs with and sell lower-cost alternative drugs to its customers.

SB 630: Revise IVC Laws to Improve Behavioral Health

Makes substantial revisions to Chapter 122C regarding involuntary commitment laws.

Bills That Did Not Pass Either Chamber by the Crossover Date, But Appear to Remain Eligible for Consideration.

House Bills

HB 88: Modernize Nursing Practice Act

Eliminates the requirement of physician supervision for nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives, clinical nurse specialists and certified registered nurse anesthetists.

HB 185: Legalize Medical Marijuana

Creates the North Carolina Medical Cannabis Act.  Among many other provisions, it provides that physicians would not be subject to arrest, prosecution or penalty for recommending the medical use of cannabis or providing written certification for the medical use of cannabis pursuant to the provision of the newly created article.

HB 270: The Haley Hayes Newborn Screening Bill

Directs additional screening tests to detect Pompe disease, Mucopolysaccharidosis Type I, and X-linked Adrenoleukodystrophy as part of the state’s mandatory newborn screening program.

HB 858: Medicaid Expansion/Healthcare Jobs Initiatives

Repeals the legislative restriction on expanding the state’s Medicaid eligibility and directs DHHS to provide Medicaid coverage to all people under age 65 with incomes equal to or less than 133 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. Appropriates funds and directs the reduction of certain recurring funds to implement the act. Additionally the bill creates and imposes an assessment on each hospital that is not fully exempt from both the current equity and upper payment limit assessments imposed by state law.

HB 887: Health Insurance Mandates Study/Funds

Appropriates $200,000 to fund consultant services to assist the newly established Legislative Research Commission committee on state mandatory health insurance coverage requirements.

HB 902: Enhance Patient Safety in Radiological Imaging.

Creates a new occupational licensure board to regulate the practice of radiologic imaging and radiation therapy procedures by Radiologic Technologists and Radiation Therapists.

Senate Bills

SB 73: Modernize Nursing Practice Act

Eliminates the requirement of physician supervision for nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives, clinical nurse specialists and certified registered nurse anesthetists.

SB 290: Medicaid Expansion/Healthcare Jobs Initiative

Repeals the legislative restriction on expanding the state’s Medicaid eligibility and directs DHHS to provide Medicaid coverage to all people under age 65 with incomes equal to or less than 133 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. Appropriates funds, directs the reduction of certain recurring funds to implement the Act. Additionally the bill creates and imposes an assessment on each hospital that is not fully exempt from both the current equity and upper payment limit assessments imposed state law.

SB 579: The Catherine A. Zanga Medical Marijuana Bill

Creates the North Carolina Medical Cannabis Act.  Among many other provisions, it provides that physicians would not be subject to arrest, prosecution or penalty for recommending the medical use of cannabis or providing written certification for the medical use of cannabis pursuant to the provision of the newly created article.

SB 648: Legalize Medical Marijuana

Creates the North Carolina Medical Cannabis Act.  Among many other provisions, it provides that physicians would not be subject to arrest, prosecution or penalty for recommending the medical use of cannabis or providing written certification for the medical use of cannabis pursuant to the provision of the newly created article.

Please contact a member of the Health Law Section’s Legislative Committee should you have any questions regarding this report.  The Committee’s members are Knicole Emanuel, Shawn Parker, and Scott Templeton (chair).

Knicole Emanuel Interviewed on Recent Success: Behavioral Health Care Service Still Locked in Overbilling Dispute with State

Last Thursday, I was interviewed by a reporter from New Mexico regarding our Teambuilders win, in which an administrative judge has found that Teambuilders owes only $896 for billing errors. Here is a copy of an article published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, written by Justin Horwath:

Source: Behavioral health care service still locked in overbilling dispute with state

The true tragedy is that these companies, including Teambuilders, should not have been put out of business based on false allegations of fraud. Not only was Teambuilders cleared of fraud, but, even the ALJ agreed with us that Teambuilders does not owe $12 million – but a small, nominal amount ($896.35). Instead of having the opportunity to pay the $896.35 and without due process of law, Teambuilders was destroyed – because of allegations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

david and goliath

NC MCOs and Consolidation: “When the Music Stops? Nobody Knows!”

Our General Assembly is pushing for the managed care organizations (MCOs) to consolidate and/or morph.  Consolidating the MCOs makes fiscal sense for our state, but if I were executive management at an MCO, I would be be anxiously awaiting direction from our General Assembly.  A metaphoric 3-4 chair game of”Musical Chairs” is proceeding with 9 (now 8) players.  Five to six players will have no chairs when the music stops.

What are MCOs?  See blog and blog.

Multiple bills have been proposed.

Senate Bill 703 proposes 3 statewide MCOs. Senate Bill 574 seems to incorporate provider-led capitated health plans, but is unclear as to the exact model. Senate Bill 696 seems to create a symphony of provider-led and nonprovider-led, risk-based entities. Senate Bill 568 contemplates licensed commercial health insurers offering health care plans.

No one really knows how many MCOs will remain in the end…if any. Regardless, what the number of existing MCOs in the future will be, there is little dispute that the number will be fewer than the number of MCOs that exist now.

In an atmosphere where there is supposition that there are too many people or companies and that only a few will remain, competition brews. People/companies are forced to strategize if they want to survive.

Think about the childhood game, “Musical Chairs.” You start with a large group of people, but with one less chair than the number of people. The music plays and the players meander around at a relatively slow pace, around and around, until the music stops. And what happens when the music stops? The people scramble for a chair.  The person left standing is “out” and must sit on the sideline.

We have 9, soon to be 8, MCOs in NC right now. And the music is playing. But which MCOs will be left standing when the music stops?

Here is a map of our current MCOs:

2014 mco

 

As of July 1, CoastalCare and East Carolina Behavioral Healthcare (ECBH) will be merged. We will be down to 8 MCOs. Which means that the light blue on the bottom right hand side of the map will merge with the bright yellow on top right hand side of the map.

Mecklenburg county, which houses most of the Charlotte area, was not always light purple. It recently merged with Cardinal Innovations.

Partners (light yellow) and Smokey Mountain (dark blue) had serious discussions of a merger until, recently, when both walked away from negotiations of merger.

Why should it matter which MCOs are in existence or how many? Theoretically, it shouldn’t. These MCOs are created in order to manage behavioral health care (Medicaid services for those suffering from substance abuse, mental illness, and developmentally disabled), not to make a profit, right? The only issue of importance should be that medically necessary behavioral health care services are rendered to Medicaid recipients in the most efficient and most effective manner.

Yet competing interests come into play.

Think about it…each MCO employs hundreds of people. Each MCO has a CEO, who is not working for free. Generally, unless other arrangements have been negotiated, there can only be one CEO per MCO. When there are 2+ MCOs merging with 2 CEOs and only 1 “chair” for 1 CEO, it can seem like “Musical Chairs.” Multiple people are vying for one “chair.”

The money at issue for behavioral health care in NC is not a small amount. It is likened to a fire hose spouting money. We have a Medicaid budget in NC of approximately 14 billion dollars. To put it in perspective, with $14 billion dollars, you could purchase the LA Lakers 14 times. This is how much money we spend on Medicaid every year. It is really quite staggering when you think about it.

As every North Carolinian learns in the 6th grade, North Carolina is composed of 100 counties. The estimated Medicaid budget of $14 billion is allocated across 100 counties and among approximately 1.9 million Medicaid recipients.

When it was decided to implement the MCOs across the state, about 2012-ish (we actually obtained permission from CMS for the waiver years prior to 2012, but we began with a pilot and did not implement the MCOs statewide until 2012-13), we found ourselves, initially, with eleven MCOs, and now we have 9…soon to be 8.

The newly merged entity of CoastalCare and ECBH (CC+ECBH) will manage state funds and Medicaid dollars for behavioral health services across 24 counties in eastern North Carolina. In other words almost ¼ of the Medicaid budget will be handed to CC+ECBH, leaving approximately ¾ of the Medicaid budget for 7 other MCOs (the budget is determined by number of recipients, so I am assuming, for the purpose of this blog, that more counties mean more people).

The amount of counties controlled by the remaining 7 MCOs are as follows:

Smokey: 23
Partners: 8
Centerpointe: 4
Cardinal: 16
Sandhills: 9
Eastpointe: 12
Alliance: 4

chart for mcos

Looking at the chart above, it would appear that Smoky and CC+ECBH will manage almost 1/2 the state’s behavioral health care for Medicaid.

Prior to the 1915 b/c Waiver allowing the MCOs to manage behavioral services for Medicaid recipients in NC, DHHS managed it. (Obviously ValueOptions and other vendors had a part in it, but not with actual management).  As the single state agency for Medicaid, DHHS cannot delegate administrative duties to contracted parties without a “Waiver,” or permission for an exception from the federal government, or, more specifically, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Prior to the 1915 b/c Waiver, we did not have 9 companies with hundreds of employees managing behavioral health care for Medicaid recipients. We had DHHS, which employs approximately 18,000 employees.  To my knowledge DHHS did not terminate those employees who were in charge of behavioral health care issues in order to compensate the creation of new companies/employees.  In other words, say 1000 people at DHHS devoted their time to issues arising our of behavioral health care. Once we had an additional 9 (well, 11, at first), those 1000 employees were not asked to join the MCOs. Maybe some did, but, to my knowledge, there was no suggestion or incentive or requirement to leave DHHS and go to an MCO (to shift the administrative burden).

When we created an additional 9 (well, 11 at first) companies to, essentially, take over behavioral health care…

We created more administrative costs, in order to lift the risk of overspending the Medicaid budget off the state.  It is estimated that America wastes $190 billion in excess administrative costs per year.

Waste in health care

In theory, consolidating the MCOs would decrease administrative costs by having fewer paid employees, not dissimilar to why MCOs want a closed network.  See blog. Again, in theory, having fewer MCOs may create a more consistent statewide manner in managing behavioral health care.

Assume for the purpose of this blog that each MCO employs 100 people (which is a very low number) and each employee is paid $50,000, then the administrative cost associated with delegating behavioral health care to MCOs equals $500,000, counting only employee salaries. Multiple that number by 9 (number of current MCOs) and you get an increased administrative cost of approximately $4.5 million dollars per year, not counting the additional overhead each MCO bears (rent/mortgage, equipment, salary benefits, health care benefits, etc.). Plus you have to include the top management’s salaries, because you know the executives are receiving more than $50,000/year.

What motivated us to implement a MCOs system? With an MCO system, the General Assembly is able to allocate funds for Medicaid and place the risk of going over the budget on the MCOs, not the state. This is a completely understandable and reasonable objective. It is without question that the Medicaid budget is swelling to the point of unsustainability.

However, are we trading “control/supervision” for “knowability?” Are we also trading “risk” for “higher administrative costs,” which, in turn, equals less Medicaid dollars for providers and Medicaid recipients? Every dollar paid to an MCO employee is a dollar not going to a health care provider to reimburse for services.

For these reasons, the government’s push for consolidation of the MCOs is astute. Fewer MCOs = less administrative costs. Fewer MCOs = easier supervision by DHHS.

Less administrative costs = more Medicaid dollars going to providers…to serve our most needy. Because, at the end of the day, the most important issue when it comes to Medicaid is providing quality care for recipients.

It is no matter which entity controls/manages behavioral health care for Medicaid, because regardless the entity, that entity should be managing our tax dollars in the most efficient way that provides the best quality to services to those in need.

“Around and around we go, when we stop? Nobody knows…”  But we do know this…when the music stops, there will be scrambling!