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Medicaid Closed Networks: Can Waivers Waive Your Legal Rights?

Sorry for the lapse in blogging. I took off for Thanksgiving and then got sick. I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving!!

While I was sick, I thought about all the health care providers that have been put out of business because the managed care organization (MCO) in their area terminated their Medicaid contract or refused to contract with them. I thought about how upset I would be if I could not see my doctor, whom I have seen for years. See blog for “You Do Have Rights!

Then I thought about…Can a Waiver waive a legal right?

Federal law mandates that Medicaid recipients be able to choose their providers of choice. Court have also held that this “freedom of choice” of provider is a right, not a privilege.

42 U.S.C. § 1396a states that Medicaid recipients may obtain medical services from “any institution, agency, community pharmacy, or person, qualified to perform the service or services required… who undertakes to provide him such services….” Id. at (a)(23).

So how can these MCOs restrict access?

First, we need to discuss the difference between a right and a privilege.

For example, driving is a privilege, not a right. You have no right to a driver’s license, which is why you can lose your license for things, such as multiple DUIs. Plus, you cannot receive a driver’s license unless you pass a test, because a license is not a right.

Conversely, you have the right to free speech and the right to vote. Meaning, the government cannot infringe on your rights to speak and vote unless there are extraordinary circumstances. For example, the First Amendment does not protect obscenity, child pornography, true threats, fighting words, incitement to imminent lawless action (yelling “fire” in a crowded theater), criminal solicitation or defamation. Your right to vote will be rescinded if you are convicted of a felony. Furthermore, you do not need to take a test or qualify for the rights of free speech and voting.

Likewise, your choice of health care provider is a right. It can only be usurped in extraordinary circumstances. You do not need to take a test or qualify for the right. (Ok, I am going to stop underlining “right” and “privilege” now. You get the point).

Then how are MCOs operating closed networks? For that matter, how can Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) terminate a provider’s contract? Wouldn’t both those actions limit your right to choose your provider?

The answer is yes.

And the answer is simple for BCBS. As for BCBS, it is a private company and does not have to follow all the intricate regulations for Medicare/caid. 42 U.S.C.  § 1396a is inapplicable to it.

But Medicaid recipients have the right to choose their provider.  This “freedom of choice” provision has been interpreted by both the Supreme Court and the Seventh Circuit as giving Medicaid recipients the right to choose among a range of qualified providers, without government interference (or its agents thereof).

What does this mean? How can a managed care organization (MCO) here in NC maintain a closed network of providers without violating the freedom of choice of provider rule?

The “Stepford” answer is that we have our Waivers in NC, which have waived the freedom of choice. In our 1915 b/c Waiver, there are a couple pages that enumerates certain statutes. We “x” out the statutes that we were requesting to waive.

It looks like this:

waiver1

Furthermore, federal law carves out an exception to freedom to choose right when it comes to managed care. But to what extent? It the federal carve unconstitutional?

But…the question is twofold:

  • Would our Waiver stand up to federal court scrutiny?
  • Can our state government waive your rights? (I couldn’t help it).

Let’s think of this in the context of the freedom of speech. Could NC request from the federal government a waiver of our right to free speech? It sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? What is the difference between your right to free speech and your right to choose a provider? Is one right more important than the other?

The answer is that no one has legally challenged our Waiver’s waiver of the right to freedom of provider with a federal lawsuit claiming a violation of a constitutionally protected right. It could be successful. If so, in my opinion, two legal theories should be used.

  1. A § 1983 action; and/or
  2. A challenge under 42 CFR 431.55(f)

Section 1983 creates a federal remedy against anyone who deprives “any citizen of the United States… of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” under the color of state law. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Supreme Court has explained that § 1983 should be read to generally “authorize[] suits to enforce individual rights under federal statutes as well as the Constitution.” City of Rancho Palos Verdes, Cal. v. Abrams, 544 U.S. 113, 119 (2005).

Section 1983 does not authorize a federal remedy against state interference with all government entitlements, however; “it is rights, not the broader or vaguer ‘benefits’ or ‘interests,’ that may be enforced under the authority of that section.” Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 283 (2002). But the courts have already held that the freedom to choose your provider is a right.

In 2012, the Seventh Circuit confirmed that § 1983 authorizes Medicaid recipients to sue to enforce the right to freely choose among qualified health providers.

In Planned Parenthood, the court was confronted with an Indiana state law prohibiting state agencies from providing state or federal funds to any entity that performs abortions or maintains or operates a facility in which abortions are performed – regardless of whether there is any nexus between those funds and the abortion services. See Planned Parenthood, 699 F.3d at 967 (7th Cir. 2012). In other words, the law effectively prohibited entities that perform abortions from receiving any state or federal funds for any (non-abortion) purpose.

The Court found that the restrictions violated the Medicaid recipients’ right to freedom of choice of provider.

There are, as always, more than one way to skin a cat. You could also attack the Waiver’s waiver of the freedom to choose your health care provider by saying the NC is violating 42 CFR 431.55.

Notice the last sentence in subsection (d) in the picture above. In our Waiver, NC promises to abide by 42 CFR 431.55(f), which states:

(f) Restriction of freedom of choice—
(1) Waiver of appropriate requirements of section 1902 of the Act may be authorized for States to restrict beneficiaries to obtaining services from (or through) qualified providers or practitioners that meet, accept, and comply with the State reimbursement, quality and utilization standards specified in the State’s waiver request.
(2) An agency may qualify for a waiver under this paragraph (f) only if its applicable State standards are consistent with access, quality and efficient and economic provision of covered care and services and the restrictions it imposes—
(i) Do not apply to beneficiaries residing at a long-term care facility when a restriction is imposed unless the State arranges for reasonable and adequate beneficiary transfer.
(ii) Do not discriminate among classes of providers on grounds unrelated to their demonstrated effectiveness and efficiency in providing those services; and
(iii) Do not apply in emergency circumstances.
(3) Demonstrated effectiveness and efficiency refers to reducing costs or slowing the rate of cost increase and maximizing outputs or outcomes per unit of cost.
(4) The agency must make payments to providers furnishing services under a freedom of choice waiver under this paragraph (f) in accordance with the timely claims payment standards specified in § 447.45 of this chapter for health care practitioners participating in the Medicaid program.

Basically, to argue a violation of 42 CFR 431.55, you would have to demonstrate that NC violated or is violating the above regulation by not providing services “consistent with access, quality and efficient and economic provision of covered care and services.”

So, while it is true that NC has requested and received permission from the Center of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to restrict access to providers, that fact may not be constitutional.

Someone just needs to challenge the Waiver’s waiver.

Williams Mullen Hosts Its First Annual Healthcare Panel Discussion: Summary Below

I am currently sitting in a hotel in New Mexico.  I testified this morning before the New Mexico Behavioral Health Care Subcommittee regarding due process for health care providers upon “credible allegations of fraud.”

This past Sunday I ran and finished my very first half marathon.  And, yes, I am sore.  I signed up for the Bull City 1/2 marathon in Durham because it was being held in October and I thought the temperature would be cool.  But I failed to contemplate Durham’s hills…ouch!

Despite my jet lag and sore muscles, I wanted to blog about the health care panel discussion this past Thursday night hosted by Williams Mullen. Representative Nelson Dollar, Barbara Morales Burke, Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC, Stephen Keene, General Counsel for the NC Medical Society, and I presented as the healthcare panel.  As you can see below, we sat in the above-referenced order.

Panel4

with moderator

Below, I have outlined the questions presented and my personal recollection of each answer.  These answers were not recorded, so, if, by chance, I misquote someone, it is my own personal recollection’s fault, and I apologize.

Our Williams Mullen associate Robert Shaw, acted as the moderator and asked the following questions:

To Rep. Dollar:

Most of us have heard about the discussion in the General Assembly about moving North Carolina’s Medicaid program towards a more fully implemented managed care model or to one using accountable care organizations. Where do the House and Senate currently stand with respect to these models, and what are the prospects for passing Medicaid reform in next year’s long session of the General Assembly?

Summary: The House and the Senate are not in agreement.  The House put forth a Bill 1181 last session that encompasses the House’s ideas for Medicaid reform.  It was a bipartisan bill.  It was passed unanimously.  Medicaid reform should not be a bipartisan matter.  Our Bill did not fare well in the Senate, but the House believes Bill 1181 is the best we have so far.

To which Keene interjected: It is important that Bill 1181 was unanimous. The Medical Society endorses the bill. 

To Barbara Morales Burke:

As we head into open enrollment season under the Affordable Care Act, what are the biggest challenges you see from the insurer’s perspective in complying with Affordable Care Act requirements and meeting the needs of the marketplace?

Summary: BCBS, as all other insurance companies, faced unique times last year during the open enrollment and this year will be even more important because we will find out who will re-new the policies.  While BCBS was not perfect during last year’s open enrollment, we have learned from the mistakes and are ready for the upcoming enrollment.

To Steve Keene:

What concerns are you seeing from members of the North Carolina Medical Society regarding patients’ access to providers of their choice and your members’ participation in the major health insurance networks?

Summary: This has always an issue since he came to NC. He actually wrote a memo regarding the access to provider issue back in the 1990s.  The insurance need to come up with a known a published standard. BCBS actually has better relationships with providers than, say, for example, a United Healthcare.  If the insurance company decides to only use X number of ob/gyns, then it should be clear why the insurance company is only contracting with x number ob/gyns.

To Knicole Emanuel:

Under the Affordable Care Act, the standard for withholding payments in the event of a credible allegation of fraud has changed. What is the standard for a credible allegation of fraud and how does such an allegation affect Medicaid reimbursements?

Summary: The ACA was intended to be self-funding.  In drafting the ACA, 42 CFR 455.23 was amended from allowing states to choose whether to suspend Medicaid reimbursements upon credible allegations of fraud to mandating the states to suspend payments.  The basis for a suspension is credible allegations of fraud and only requires an indicia of reliability.  This indicia of reliability is an extremely low standard and, thus, adversely impacts health care providers who are accused of fraud without a basis, such as a disgruntled employee or anonymous and unfounded complaint.  

For more information on suspension of Medicaid payments, please see my blogs: “How the ACA Has Redefined the Threshold for “Credible Allegations of Fraud” and Does It Violate Due Process?” or “NC Medicaid Providers: “Credible Allegations of Fraud?” YOU ARE GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT!

To Keene and Burke: (ACA topic)

One of the concerns, or perhaps benefits depending on one’s perspective, about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act is the possible transition from our country’s employer-based health insurance model. Are you seeing any trends away from the employer-based health insurance model, or do you expect such a trend in the future?

Summary: (From Keene) He sees the employer-based health insurance model as a tax issue.  Employer-based health insurance is not going anywhere unless the related tax break is eliminated.  Keene does not have an opinion as to whether the employer-based health insurance model is good or bad; he just believes that it is not going anywhere.  On a side note, Keene mentioned that, with employer-based health insurance, the employee has a much smaller voice when it comes to negotiating any terms of the health insurance.  The employee is basically at the whim of the employer and health insurance company.

Dollar and Emanuel: (Medicaid reform)

Who are the major contributors to the legislative discussion on Medicaid funding and reimbursement rates? What stakeholders do legislators want or need to hear from more to make sound policy decisions about funding decisions?

Summary: (From Dollar) It is without question that the legislators are surrounded by lobbyists regarding the discussion as to Medicaid funding and reimbursement rates.  I stated that the reimbursement rates are too low and are a direct correlation as to quality of care.  Rep. Dollar stated that he is open to hearing from all.  Furthermore, Rep. Dollar believes that the Senate Bill on Medicaid reform is a good start for Medicaid reform. The Bill implements the Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), and is supported by the NC Medical Society.

Summary: (From me) I support Medicaid reform that eliminates the MCOs in behavioral health care.  These MCOs are prepaid and have all the financial incentive to deny services and terminate providers.

Burke: (ACO)

How is Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina working with providers to take advantage of the new Medicare Shared Savings Program? (E.g., partnership signed with WakeMed Key Community Care (an accountable care organization) in July.)

Summary: BCBS works very hard to maintain solid relationships with providers.  To which Keene agreed and stated that other private insurance does not.

The health care panel was great.  We hope to host a State of the State on Health Care panel discussion annually.