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Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies: Futile as the Caucus-Race?

Answer – Sometimes.

How many of you have received Remittance Advices from NCTracks that are impossible to understand, include denials without appeal rights, or, simply, are erroneous denials with no guidance as to the next steps?  While these were most prevalent in the first couple years after NCTracks was rolled out (back in July 2013), these burdensome errors still exist.

You are allowed to re-submit a claim to NCTracks for 18 months. How many times do you have to receive the denial in order for that denial to be considered a “final decision?” And, why is it important whether a denial is considered a final decision?

  1. Why is it important that a denial be considered a “final decision?”

As a health care provider, your right to challenge the Department of Health and Human Services’ (via CSC or NCTracks’) denial instantly becomes ripe (or appealable) only after the denial is a final decision.

Yet, with the current NCTracks system, you can receive a denial for one claim over and over and over and over without ever receiving a “final decision.”

It reminds me of the Causus-race in Alice and Wonderlandalice“There was no ‘One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?'” – Alice in Wonderland.

On behalf of all health care providers who accept Medicaid in North Carolina and suffered hardship because of NCTracks, at my former firm, I helped file the NCTracks class action lawsuit, Abrons Family Practice, et al., v. NCDHHS, et al., No. COA15-1197, which was heard before the NC Court of Appeals on June 12, 2015. The Opinion of the Court of Appeals was published today (October 18, 2016).

The Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs were not required to “exhaust their administrative remedies” by informal methods and the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) prior to bringing a lawsuit in the State Court for damages because doing to would be futile – like the Caucus-race. “But who has won?” asked Alice.

Plaintiffs argued that, without a “final decision” by DHHS as to the submitted claims, it is impossible for them to pursue the denials before the OAH.

And the Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, agrees.

The Abrons decision solidifies my contention over the past 4-5 years that a reconsideration review is NOT required by law prior to filing a Petition for Contested Case at OAH…. Boom! Bye, Felicia!

Years ago, I informed a client, who was terminated by an managed care organization (MCO), that she should file Petition for Contested Case at OAH without going through the informal reconsideration review. One – the informal reconsideration review was before the very agency that terminated her (futile); and two – going through two processes instead of one costs more in attorneys’ fees (burdensome).

We filed in OAH, and the judge dismissed the case, stating that we failed to exhaust our administrative remedies.

I have disagreed with that ruling for years (Psssst – judges do not always get it right, although we truly hope they do. But, in judges’ defenses, the law is an ever-changing, morphing creature that bends and yields to the community pressures and legal interpretations. Remember, judges are human, and to be human is to err).

However, years later, the Court of Appeals agreed with me, relying on the same argument I made years ago before OAH.

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 states that it is the policy of the State that disputes between the State and a party should be resolved through informal means. However, neither 150B-22 nor any other statute or regulation requires that a provider pursue the informal remedy of a reconsideration review. See my blog from 2013.

I love it when I am right. – And, according to my husband, it is a rarity.

Here is another gem from the Abrons opinion:

“DHHS is the only entity that has the authority to render a final decision on a contested medicaid claim. It is DHHS’ responsibility to make the final decision and to furnish the provider with written notification of the decision and of the provider’s appeal rights, as required by N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-23(f).”

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-23(f) states, ” Unless another statute or a federal statute or regulation sets a time limitation for the filing of a petition in contested cases against a specified agency, the general limitation for the filing of a petition in a contested case is 60 days. The time limitation, whether established by another statute, federal statute, or federal regulation, or this section, shall commence when notice is given of the agency decision to all persons aggrieved who are known to the agency by personal delivery or by the placing of the notice in an official depository of the United States Postal Service wrapped in a wrapper addressed to the person at the latest address given by the person to the agency. The notice shall be in writing, and shall set forth the agency action, and shall inform the persons of the right, the procedure, and the time limit to file a contested case petition. When no informal settlement request has been received by the agency prior to issuance of the notice, any subsequent informal settlement request shall not suspend the time limitation for the filing of a petition for a contested case hearing.”

2. How many times do you have to receive the denial in order for that denial to be considered a “final decision”?

There is no magic number. But the Court of Appeals in Abrons makes it clear that the “final decision” must be rendered by DHHS, not a contracted party.

So which we ask – What about terminations by MCOs? Do MCOs have the authority to terminate providers and render final decisions regarding Medicaid providers?

I would argue – no.

Our 1915b/c Waiver waives certain federal laws, not state laws. Our 1915 b/c Waiver does not waive N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B.

“But who has won?” asked Alice.

“At last the Dodo said, ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes.'” – Only in Wonderland!

Sometimes, you just need to stop running and dry off.

The Feds Criminally Investigating DHHS! Is Its Scope Too Narrow and What Are Possible Consequences?

DHHS is under criminal investigation by the federal government for allegedly overpaying employees without a bid process, and, simply, mismanaging and overspending our Medicaid tax dollars. See blog.

When I first started writing this blog, I opined that the federal investigation should be broadened. While I still believe so, the results of broadening the scope of a federal investigation could be catastrophic for our Medicaid providers and recipients. So I am metaphorically torn between wanting to shine light on tax payer waste and wanting to shield NC Medicaid providers and recipients from the consequences of penalties and sanctions on NC DHHS. Because, think about it, who would be harmed if NC lost federal funding for Medicaid?

[BTW, of note: These subpoenas were received July 28, 2015. Aldona Wos announced her resignation on August 5, 2015, after receipt of subpoenas. The Subpoenas demand an appearance on August 18, 2015, which, obviously, has already passed, yet we have no intel as to the occurrences on August 18, 2015. If anyone has information, let me know.]

Let’s explore:

Does this criminal investigation go far enough? Should the feds investigate more Medicaid mismanagement over and above the salaries of DHHS employees? What are the potential consequences if NC is sanctioned for violating Medicaid regulations? How could a sanction affect providers and recipients?

DHHS’ employees are not the only highly compensated parties when it comes to our Medicaid dollars! It is without question that the contracts with vendors with whom DHHS contracts contain astronomically high figures. For example, DHHS hired Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) to implement the NCTracks software for $265 million. Furthermore, there is no mention of the lack of supervision of the managed care organizations (MCOs) and the compensation for executives of MCOs being equal to that of the President of the United States in the Subpoenas.

The subpoenas are limited in scope as to documents related to hiring and the employment terms surrounding DHHS employees. As I just said, there is no mention of violations of bid processes for vendors or contractors, except as to Alvarez & Marsal, and nothing as to the MCOs.

Specifically, the subpoena is requesting documents germane to the following:

  • Les Merritt, a former state auditor who stepped down from the North Carolina State Ethics Commission after WRAL News raised questions about potential conflicts of interest created by his service contract with DHHS;
  • Thomas Adams, a former chief of staff who received more than $37,000 as “severance” after he served just one month on the job;
  • Angie Sligh, the former director of the state’s upgraded Medicaid payment system who faced allegations of nepotism and the waste of $1.6 million in payments to under-qualified workers for wages, unjustified overtime and holiday pay in a 2015 state audit;
  • Joe Hauck, an employee of Wos’ husband who landed a lucrative contract that put him among the highest-paid workers at DHHS;
  • Alvarez & Marsal, a consulting firm overseeing agency budget forecasting under a no-bid contract that has nearly tripled in value, to at least $8 million;

See WRAL.com.

Possible penalties:

Most likely, the penalties imposed would be more civil in nature and encompass suspensions, recoupments, and/or reductions to the federal matching. Possibly a complete termination of all federal matching funds, at the worst.

42 CFR Part 430, Subpart C – of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) covers “Grants; Reviews and Audits; Withholding for Failure To Comply; Deferral and Disallowance of Claims; Reduction of Federal Medicaid Payments”

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is charged with the oversight of all 50 states’ management of Medicaid, which makes CMS very busy and with solid job security.

“The Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) periodically audits State operations in order to determine whether—(1) The program is being operated in a cost-efficient manner; and
(2) Funds are being properly expended for the purposes for which they were appropriated under Federal and State law and regulations.” 42 CFR 430.33.

CMS may withhold federal funding, although reasonable notice and opportunity for a hearing is required (unlike the reimbursement suspensions from providers upon “credible” (or not) allegations of fraud).

If the Administrator of a hearing finds North Carolina non compliant with federal regulations, CMS may withhold, in whole or in part, our reimbursements until we remedy such deficiency. Similar to health care providers’ appeals, if the State of North Carolina is dissatisfied with the result of the hearing, NC may file for Judicial Review. Theoretically, NC could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Other penalties could include reductions of (1) the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage; (2) the amount of State expenditures subject to FFP; (3) the rates of FFP; and/or (4) the amount otherwise payable to the state.

As a reminder, the penalties listed above are civil penalties, and NC is under criminal investigation; however, I could not fathom that the criminal penalties would differ far from the civil allowable penalties. What are the feds going to do? Throw Wos in jail? Highly unlikely.

The subpoena was addressed to:

subpoena

NC DHHS, attention the Custodian of Records. In NC, public records requests go to Kevin V. Howell, Legal Communications Coordinator, DHHS.

But is the federal government’s criminal investigation of DHHS too narrow in scope?

If we are investigating DHHS employees’ salaries and bid processes, should we not also look into the salaries of DHHS’ agents, such as the salaries for employees of MCOs? And the contracts’ price tags for DHHS vendors?

Turning to the MCOs, who are the managers of a fire hose of Medicaid funds with little to no supervision, I liken the MCOs’ current stance on the tax dollars provided to the MCOs as the Lion, who hunted with the Fox and the Jackal from Aesop’s Fables.

The Lion went once a-hunting along with the Fox, the Jackal, and the Wolf. They hunted and they hunted till at last they surprised a Stag, and soon took its life. Then came the question how the spoil should be divided. “Quarter me this Stag,” roared the Lion; so the other animals skinned it and cut it into four parts. Then the Lion took his stand in front of the carcass and pronounced judgment: The first quarter is for me in my capacity as King of Beasts; the second is mine as arbiter; another share comes to me for my part in the chase; and as for the fourth quarter, well, as for that, I should like to see which of you will dare to lay a paw upon it.”

“Humph,” grumbled the Fox as he walked away with his tail between his legs; but he spoke in a low growl:

Moral of Aesop’s Fable: “You may share the labours of the great, but you will not share the spoil.”

At least as to DHHS employees’ salaries, the federal government is investigating any potential mismanagement of Medicaid funds due to exorbitant salaries, which were compensated with tax dollars.

Maybe this investigation is only the beginning of more forced accountability as to mismanaging tax dollars with Medicaid administrative costs.

One can hope…(but you do not always want what you wish for…because the consequences to our state could be dire if the investigation were broadened and non compliance found).

Possible Ramifications:

Let us quickly contemplate the possible consequences of any of the above-mentioned penalties, whether civil or criminal in nature, on Medicaid recipients.

To the extent that you believe that the reimbursement rates are already too low, that medically necessary services are not being authorized, that limitations to the amount services are being unduly enforced…Imagine that NC lost our federal funding completely. We would lose approximately 60% of our Medicaid budget.

All our “voluntary” Medicaid-covered services would, most likely, be terminated. Personal care services (PCS) is an optional Medicaid-covered service.

With only 40% of our Medicaid budget, I could not imagine that we would have much money left to pay providers for services rendered to Medicaid recipients after paying our hefty administrative costs, including overhead,payroll, vendor contracts, MCO disbursements, etc. We may even be forced to breach our contracts with our vendors for lack of funds, which would cause us to incur additional expenses.

All Medicaid providers could not be paid. Without payments to providers, Medicaid recipients would not receive medically necessary services.

Basically, it would be the next episode of “Fear the Walking Dead.”

Hopefully, because the ramifications of such penalties would be so drastic, the federal government will not impose such sanctions lightly. Sanctions of such magnitude would be a last resort if we simply refused to remedy whatever deficiencies are found.

Otherwise, it could be the zombie apocalypse, but the Lion’s would be forced to share.

CMS’ Feeble Attempt to Decrease Medicare Appeal Backlog Will, At Least, Benefit Providers

On August 1, 2015, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) clarified (limited) the scope of Medicare auditors in a published article entitled, “Limiting the Scope of Review on Redeterminations and Reconsiderations of Certain Claims.” (MLN Matters® Number: SE1521).

The limitations apply to Medicare Audit Contractors (MACs) and Qualified Independent Contractors (QICs). This new instruction will apply to audits conducted on or after August 1, 2015, and will not be applied retroactively. Important to note: this instruction does not apply to prepayment review, only post payment reviews.

MLN Matters® Number: SE1521 was published in response to the overwhelming, increasingly, mushroomed backlog of Medicare appeals at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level. Six years ago, prior to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the number of Medicare appeals at the ALJ level was sustainable. Six years later, in 2015, the Medicare appeal backlog has skyrocketed to numbers beyond the comprehension of any adversely affected health care provider, i.e., over 547 days for adjudication!

So in order to combat these overwhelming, bottle-necked and “anything but speedy Medicare appeals,” CMS attempted to rectify the situation by setting new limitations (among other measures) as to the scope of authority that MACs and QICs may present on an audit.  However, these new limitations remind me of the hole that is in my front yard. Yes, a hole. The title of this story is “Inertia: What is Easy to Keep Going, Is Impossible to Pull Back” or “I love my husband’s intentions, but the result looks like the Medicare backlog.”

My wonderful husband and I purchased a small farm at the beginning of the year. If you have been following my blog over the past year, you will know that we have horses, peacocks, a micro pig, two dogs, and a 10-year-old. It is a whirlwind of fun.

Well, included in our purchase was a very shallow, very mosquito-ridden pond. It was about 4-5 inches deep and I never really thought about it. It was a pond. It was not beautiful, but it was not ugly. It was just there.

My husband tells me one day that he is going to “clean out the pond.”

BEFORE (except he already tore up the grass, so I do not have a true before picture):

smallpond

Every day, for three months, I come home to a deeper and deeper pond.

“I’m bound to hit a spring,” he would say. Or “Leroy says that there is a lot of water under our ground.” How Leroy came to this conclusion, I do not know. But, slowly, and almost unperceptively, each day the hole grows wider and deeper.

Until, one day, I come home to this:

AFTER:

hole

It would be funny if it were in your yard. (BTW: For scale, check out the horses (one is white, one is brown) in the top left corner.)

“I love my husband’s intentions, but the result looks like the Medicare backlog.”

You cannot undo digging a hole in your front yard that could swallow an elephant..or maybe two or three elephants. Just like you cannot undo a Medicare appeal backlog that could, potentially, fill my hole with its paperwork. You just have to make do, sit on your front porch, and admire the meteor-like hole that resides in your front lawn.

We (He) have (has) high hopes that our hole will become a lake or a swimming hole. In order to help the cause, I spit in it every time I walk by it. In the alternative, we sometimes aim the sprinkler toward the hole and let it run for a few hours. These are examples of our attempts of reconciling our hole into a beautiful swimming hole.

Similarly, when CMS created these MACs and QICs for Medicare audits, at first, it seemed that the MACs and QICs had no limits as to their scopes of authority to audit. Due to these overzealous and, sometimes, overreaching audits, the appeal backlog increased in number, then multiplied. Similar to the construction of my hole, the appeal backlog grew slowly, at first, then exponentially until the backlog is out of hand and uncontrollable. See blog.

One example of the seemingly limitless authority that the MACs and QICs wielded was that the auditors would provide reasons why claims were noncompliant, the defect could be cured, and the MACs and/or QICs would deny the claim for an entirely different reason.

The auditor would, in essence, be moving the goalposts after you kicked the ball. And the appeal backlog continued to swell.

The ability for the auditors to expand the review of claims beyond which was initially reviewed contributed the massive backlog of Medicare appeals at the ALJ level because more providers appeal an audit with which they disagree (common sense). Just like my hole in my front yard, the backlog of appeals grew, then ballooned until the number of Medicare appeals stuck in the backlog could possibly fill my hole. See blog for the Medicare appeal process and appeal deadlines.

According to the most current statistics available, there is a Medicare appeal backlog of approximately 870,000 appeals.  The average processing time for appeals decided in fiscal year 2015 is 547.1 days.

average time

Look at the balloon effect of “average processing time by fiscal year.” In 2009, the average processing time was 94.9 days (a little over 3 months). Now it is over 540 days (almost a year and a half)!!

“I love my husband’s intentions, but the result looks like the Medicare backlog.”

In an attempt to clear the backlog, CMS released MLN Matters® Number: SE1521, on August 1, 2015, in which “CMS has instructed MACs and QICs to limit their review to the reason(s) the claim or line item at issue was initially denied.” (emphasis added).

An exception, however, is if claims are denied for insufficient documentation and the provider submits documents, the claim may still be denied for lack of medical necessity if the documents submitted do not support medical necessity.

This new instruction found in MLN Matters No. SE1521 is an attempt by CMS to reconcile the huge backlog of Medicare appeals at the ALJ level. It is a small gesture. Quite frankly, this instruction should be self-evident as it is inherently unfair to providers to move the goalposts during an audit. I liken this gesture to my husband aiming the sprinkler toward the hole.

sprinkler

In other words, in my opinion, this feeble gesture alone, will not solve the problem. But, in the meantime, it will benefit providers who have been suffering from the goalposts being moved during an audit.

Once something is so big…

“I love my husband’s intentions, but the result looks like the Medicare backlog.”

Maybe the backlog will be fixed when my hole has transformed to a swimming hole.

The Nine Habits of a Highly Effective Secretary for DHHS

With the recent passing of the torch from Aldona Wos to Rick Brajer (see blog), I’ve been thinking about…

What are the qualifications of a Secretary of DHHS?

What exactly are the qualities that would make a great Secretary of DHHS?  Remember, in Mary Poppins, when the children draft their requirements for a nanny?  Or, better yet, what are the “Seven Habits of a Highly Effective” Secretary for DHHS?  Or…in this case, the “Nine Habits”…

Here are my “Nine Habits of a Highly Effective Secretary of DHHS;” our Secretary of DHHS should have the following:

  1. A health care background
  2. A successful track record of his/her ability to manage large companies or agencies
  3. An understanding of the Medicaid system, and, maybe, even have first-hand knowledge of how the system affects recipients and providers
  4. A relationship with someone on Medicaid or a parent of someone on Medicaid
  5. A working knowledge of clinical coverage policies, reimbursement rates, and regulations surrounding Medicaid
  6. Both the capacity to listen and speak and do both eloquently and genuinely
  7. True empathy about the physical and mental health of Medicaid recipients and about providers, plus have the patience to handle all types of demographic differences
  8. An understanding that he/she is handling tax payers’ money, that redundancy in staff is excess administrative costs, and ability to trim the fat
  9. An ability to communicate with both the Senate and the House and to be frank with both

wosbrajer

Let us analyze the qualifications of Wos that we came to witness over the last few years, as well as, review the qualifications of soon-to-be Sec. Brajer with information to which we are privy.

Let’s see if both, either, or neither have these “Nine Habits of a Highly-Effective Secretary for DHHS.”

  1. Health care background:

Wos: Yes. And, yet, maybe not.  She is an M.D. Although I do not know whether she ever practiced medicine in North Carolina.  According to Wikipedia, (which is never wrong) Wos “prides herself on her work in the field of preventing HIV and AIDS.”  However, I was unable to find a single clinic in which Wos provided services.  While, generally, an “M.D.” automatically bestows a certain aura of understanding health care, I question whether this “M.D.” automatically has a working knowledge of billing for and receiving reimbursements under Medicaid in North Carolina.

Brajer: Hmmmm.  This one is more tricky. The two companies that Brajer owned, Pro-nerve LLC and LipoScience Inc., are health care related, in that Pro-nerve was an intraoperative neuromonitoring (IONM) company and LipoScience sold a diagnostic tool to health care providers.  Arguably, both companies are health care related, at least, in an ancillary way.  However, Brajer is not a health care professional, and, to my knowledge, has never rendered health care services. Furthermore, neither of Brajer’s companies was successful; quite the opposite is true, in fact. From my understanding, one company declared bankruptcy and the other was not far behind.  Which brings us to the next category…

Answer: Both…kinda.

2. A successful track record of his/her ability to manage large entities:

Wos: Prior to acting as the Secretary to DHHS, Wos served as the Ambassador to Estonia until 2006.  What she did besides political functions between 2006 and 2012, I do not know. Acting as an Ambassador does not entail managing large entities.  The most managerial skills that I can find in her background, prior to being appointed Secretary, are related to political fund-raising. Since I would not call her brief reign as Secretary of DHHS a success, I give Wos a “two thumbs down” on this criterion.

Brajer: He managed two companies.  We can bicker as to whether these companies should be considered large…neither employed 17,000 employees.  Regardless, the “successful” criterion appears to be lacking.

Answer: Neither…pickles.

3. An understanding of the Medicaid system:

Wos: “You’re asking me without having all the data available to answer a question,” she told lawmakers on October 8, 2013.  In her defense, she responded as such when asked whether the State was moving toward privatization for Medicaid.  No one could know the answer, except, maybe, McCrory.

On the other hand, the implementation of NCTracks was nothing short of a catastrophe of epic proportion. See blog. See blog.  Anyone with nominal knowledge of the Medicaid system would have, at least, paused to consider keeping HP Enterprises under contract during the switch to NCTracks or pushed back the go-live date.

Brajer: Unknown

Answer: Here’s to hoping that Brajer does.  I’m cheering for you! Go! Fight! Win!

4. A relationship with someone on Medicaid or a parent of someone on Medicaid:

Wos: Unknown.  If I were shaking a proverbial “8 Ball,” it would read, “Doubtful.”

Brajer: Unknown. Perhaps one of his former employees at Pro-nerve, LLC and LipoScience, Inc. is on Medicaid.

Answer: Gimme a ‘B’! B! Gimme a ‘R’! R! Gimme a ‘A’! A! Gimme a ‘J’! J! Gimme a ‘E’! E! Gimme a ‘R’! R! Whats that spell? Brajer!!

5.  A working knowledge of clinical coverage policies, reimbursement rates, and regulations surrounding Medicaid.

Wos: Unknown. Whatever Wos’ knowledge of regulations and clinical coverage policies is or lacked, she, initially, made up for any knowledge lacked with the key hire and quick resignation of Carol Steckel.  Unfortunately, Steckel’s experience was never replaced.

January 2013: “I am pleased to say that we are already taking steps to address some of these issues,” Wos said. “Now, the most important of this is that we have hired Ms. Carol Steckel, a nationally recognized — nationally recognized — expert in Medicaid to run our Medicaid program for the state. Carol is already moving ahead with systemic reviews of operations in this division. She is reviewing and establishing new policies and procedures.”

September 27, 2013: Steckel resigns. And blog.

Brajer: Unknown.

Answer: B! R! A! J! E! R! Let’s go, Brajer!

6. Both the capacities to listen and speak and do both eloquently.

Wos: Wos brandished an ability to speak publicly with ease.  Listening, on the other hand….eh?

Brajer: Unknown

Answer: I think you can, I think you can, I think you can…

7. Genuine concern about the physical and mental health of Medicaid recipients AND about providers PLUS have the patience to handle all types of demographic differences

Wos: She seems to think so. Her country club does not discriminate.

Brajer: Unknown

Answer: Go! Go! Go! Go! Go, Brajer!!

8. An understanding that he/she is handling tax payers money and that redundancy in staff is excess administrative costs and trim the meat

Wos: “My obligation as secretary is to find the best possible team in order to get the job done.”  Les Merritt served as CFO of DMA on a $300,000-plus contract.  Joe Hauck was paid over $228,000 for 6 months of advise to Wos.  Matt McKillip was paid $87,500 to serve as chief policy maker without any health care background.  Ricky Diaz pulled in $85,000 as communications director. Id.  Wos has handed out $1.7 million in pay hikes to 280 staffers, many with “no career or educational experience for the jobs they hold.” Id. The implementation of the MCOs also fell under Wos’ watchful eye.  The MCO system has created thousands upon thousands of high-paying jobs with our Medicaid dollars.  I believe that in the “trim the fat” category, Sec. Wos scores a goose egg.

Brajer: Unknown.

Answer: Please, Brajer! For the love of Pete!

9. Ability to communicate with both the Senate and the House and to be frank with both.

Wos: “Separation pay” v. “Severance pay?

In April 2013: “I think the word transparency can get pretty dangerous,” Wos said. “Because what does transparency mean? If transparency means that we’re in a planning process and you’re asking us, ‘Tell us all the things you’re planning,’ well, my goodness, allow us to work, and then we’ll give you everything that you want.”

Brajer: Unknown

Answer: Brajer, Brajer, He’s our man! If he can’t do it…[gulp].

____________________________________________

It concerns me that so many of future Sec. Brajer’s core abilities/habits to run and manage DHHS and the Medicaid program in a highly effective manner are unknown.  Nothing like placing all your money on red!  But we have HIGH hopes for Brajer!!!  Don’t let us down!!

The whole point of this blog is to pause and really contemplate what characteristics would comprise a great Secretary for DHHS. Obviously, the Governor has the full authority to appoint the Secretary, meaning that we taxpayers have little to no input as to whether we deem a person qualified, except in the indirect method of voting or not voting for the Governor.

Call this blog an exercise in examining what habits, if in existence, would make the most highly effective Secretary of DHHS and an opinion as to whether these habits exist in our former and future Secretaries.

We are cheering for Brajer!  But…

One fact about the future is that it is unknown.

Massive Medicaid Metamorphosis: Providers Beware! Be Proactive NOT Reactive!

Medicaid is ever-changing. But every 5 years or so, it seems, that a substantial section of Medicaid is completely revamped. Sometimes to the detriment of many uninformed, un-suspecting providers. For providers, it is imperative to stay above the curve…to foresee the changes in Medicaid, to plan for those changes, and to morph your own practice into one that will persevere despite the changes to come.

We are on the brink of a massive Medicaid metamorphosis.

Medicaid modifications have happened in the past. For example, a substantial shift in Medicaid occurred when DHHS switched from HP Enterprises to Computer Science Corporation (CSC) as its billing vendor. When the NCTracks system went live, the new NCTracks system forced office managers to re-learn how to bill for Medicaid. It was a rough start and many office managers spent countless hours inputting information into NCTracks, only to get erroneous denials and high blood pressure.

Another example of a Medicaid modification was the implementation of the managed care organizations (MCOs) which came on the heels of the new CABHA certification requirements. Only a couple of years after the shellshock of CABHA certification and thousands of providers going out of business because they could not meet the demands of the CABHA standards, behavioral health care providers were again put through the wringer with new standards created and maintained by the MCOs.

Think about it…Ten years ago, we never used the acronym MCO.

Enter [stage left]: A NEW ACRONYM!!

PLE

Don’t you love acronyms? My family has this game called Balderdash. It is one of my favorite games. The object of the game is to have the best fabricated answer. For example, if the category is “Acronym,” the “Dasher” will read the acronym, say, “PLE.” All the players draft their fake renditions of what “PLE” really means.

Plato Learning Environment; or
Panel of Legal Experts; or
Perinatal Lethality.

You get the point. In the game, the players vote on which answers they believe are correct (BTW: All of the above are real definitions for the acronym “PLE” (according to Google).)

In the Medicaid/care world, we play alphabet soup constantly. MCO, DD, SAIOP, DHHS, BWX, MID CPT….Throw out a few letters, and, most likely, you will have said some acronym that means something to someone. See my acronym page for a list of those pertinent to us (and it is ever-growing).

The most recent new acronym to the Medicaid arena here in North Carolina that I have seen is PLE, which is the crux of the new, upcoming massive Medicaid metamorphosis.

House Bill 372’s short title is “Medicaid Modernization” and has passed in the House.

On June 25, 2015, the Senate passed the House Bill on its first read!

I waited to blog about HB 327 until the Senate had an initial reaction to it. If you recall, the Senate and House has been on contradictory sides when it comes to Medicaid reform. However, it appears that HB 327 may have some traction.

House Bill 372 defines PLE as “[a]ny of the following:

a. A provider.
b. An entity with the primary purpose of owning or operating one or more providers.
c. A business entity in which providers hold a controlling ownership interest.”

Over the last couple years, the Senate and the House have stood divided over whether Medicaid should be managed by ACOs (House) or MCOs (Senate). It appears from the definition of a PLE, that a PLE could be a much simpler version of an ACO, which has had my vote since day 1. The whole concept of an ACO is a provider-run entity in which the providers make the decisions instead of utilization reviews, which have little to no contact with the patients, and, sometimes little health care experience, especially on the provider side.

From my cursory review of the proposed PLEs, it seems that a PLE would mimic an ACO, except, and, further federal research is needed, without some of the highly-regulated mandates that the federal government requires for MCOs (it will still be highly-regulated).

Is this just a question of semantics?  Is this just a question of changing its name?

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet.” Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II.

Let’s look again at the definition of a PLE, according to Version 3 of House Bill 372.

a. A provider.
b. An entity with the primary purpose of owning or operating one or more providers.
c. A business entity in which providers hold a controlling ownership interest.”

A provider?

Any provider? Does that provider need to ask to become a PLE or is it automatic? Does being a PLE give enhanced benefits other than being just a provider?

The answer is that all providers are not PLEs and providers will need to undertake significant legal and administrative steps to become a PLE.

“PLEs shall implement full-risk capitated health plans to manage and coordinate the care for enough program aid categories to cover at least ninety percent (90%) of Medicaid recipients to be phased in over five years from the date this act becomes law.”

What is “full risk?”

“Full risk” is not defined in HB 372, although, I believe that the definition is self-evident.

Capitation payment is defined by reference to 42 CFR 438.2:

“Capitation payment means a payment the State agency makes periodically to a contractor on behalf of each beneficiary enrolled under a contract for the provision of medical services under the State plan. The State agency makes the payment regardless of whether the particular beneficiary receives services during the period covered by the payment.”

Interestingly, this definition for “capitation payment” is found in the same section of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) as all the managed care regulations. Part 438 of the CFR applies to managed care.

We have managed care organizations in our state now managing the behavioral health care aspect of Medicaid. Will the same provisions apply to MCOs…to ACOs…to PLEs?

A rose by any other name…

What else does House Bill 372 purport to do?

• Within 12 months, the Department shall request a waiver from CMS to implement the components of this act.
• Within 24 months, the Department will issue an RFP for provider-led entities to bid on contracts required under this act.
• Within 5 years, 90% of all Medicaid services must be provided from a PLE, except those services managed by the MCOs , dental services, pharmaceutical products and dispensing fees. The Department may implement a pilot within 3 years.

As a provider, if you want to continue to serve the Medicaid population, then you may want to insert your company or agency into the creation of the PLEs, whether you sell, merge, acquire, or create a conglomerate.

It is my prediction that those providers who are reactive, instead of proactive, will lose business, consumers, and, potentially, a lot of cash. It is my “predictive recommendation” [as you are aware, we do not have an attorney/client relationship, so no recommendation of mine is tailored for you] that those providers who proactively seek mergers, acquisitions, and/or business agreements with other providers to morph into PLEs will be more successful, both financially and in serving their consumers better.

What you need to know about the future PLEs:

  • Must cover at least 30,000 recipients
  • Must provide all health benefits and administrative services, including physical, long-term services and supports, and other medical services generally considered physical care
  • Must meet solvency requirements
  • Must provide for appeal processes
  • Will cover 100% of the NC counties

The PLEs will, effectively, absorb the Medicaid dollars for recipients across the entire state and provide care for all physical health needs of Medicaid recipients.

In this environment, providers need to be proactive, not reactive!

If House Bill 327 passes into law, our next Medicaid metamorphosis will be monumental!  And the state will issue an RFP for providers within 2 years!

State Auditor Finds Taxpayer Waste at OMMISS!!!!

New State Auditor report investigates the Office of Medicaid Management Information Systems Services (OMMISS) within the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

With DHHS’ emphasis on detecting health care providers’ fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA) across the state, it seems ironic that its own agency is deemed guilty of wastefulness by our State Auditor.  What’s that about glass houses……??

What exactly does OMMISS do?  Well, for one, OMMISS works with Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) regarding NCTracks.  We all know how wonderfully NCTracks has operated since inception….See blog. And blog.

State Auditor Beth Wood finds:

KEY FINDINGS

 At least $1.6 million wasted through excessive wages and commissions, unjustified overtime, and
holiday pay to ineligible employees

 OMMISS Director engaged in or allowed nepotism

 OMMISS Director received unauthorized compensatory time that may result in inflated retirement
benefits

 Reports to General Assembly omitted at least $260,000 of overtime and compensatory time

 Lack of adequate oversight of OMMISS despite findings in prior audit reports

 

CMS Certifies NCTracks!!! NC Will Get 19 Million from the Feds!

As I am driving back to the office after lunch, I hear on the news that CMS has certified NCTracks!  This is huge on so many levels, and I will have to add another blog about once I get more information.  So after 2 years and almost 8 months after its go-live date, NCTracks is certified.

Had CMS not certified NCTracks, then NC would have lost millions of dollars in federal dollars to fund the computer program created by Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC).

I am going to look into the standards for the certification…I know there are over 600 criteria that must be met for certification…but what is the threshold? An ‘A?’ Or do you squeak by with a ‘D?’

In the meantime, NC will receive approximately $19 million from the federal government.  NCTracks had replaced the decades-old computer system created by HP Enterprises back in the summer of 2013.

CSC is a named Defendant in a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of physicians across NC alleging that the computer system was fraught with errors when it went live, including erroneous denials and heavy administrative burdens.

See blog.

Remember, this was not NCTracks’ first rodeo with an attempted certification from CMS.  Back in 2013, CMS did not certify NCTracks.

In 2013, NCTracks did not meet a federal certification deadline that could have saved the state more than $9 million in annual operation costs.  See article.

 

“Doctor still waiting for NC Tracks payment,” Reports Star News Online

Happy New Year, everyone!!! Hope your New Year’s celebrations were safe and surrounded by friends and family! According to a journalist, the new year did not ring in the Medicaid reimbursements owed by NCTracks.  (Obviously I cannot comment on NCTracks’ current status due to the lawsuit we filed on behalf of all physicians in NC).

Here is the following article by Mike Voorheis…

A year after a Wilmington doctor filed a lawsuit, the state still owes his practice more than $100,000 in unpaid or underpaid Medicaid and Medicare services, he says.

Dr. S. Albert Abrons, a family physician, is the first of seven plaintiffs listed in Abrons vs. N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, a class-action suit, (filed by Williams Mullen), that seeks unspecified damages from the state and three other defendants responsible for the development and implementation of NC Tracks, the software that disburses Medicare and Medicaid payments to health care providers.

Problems with the software began immediately in January 2013 and continued for about 14 months, Abrons said. During that time, Abrons and his staff treated thousands of Medicaid patients. Instead of being reimbursed at the higher Medicare rate for primary care services – a provision of the Affordable Care Act – Abrons was reimbursed at the lower Medicaid rate.

That amounted to about $20 per visit, his office manager said, eventually leading to a six-figure deficit.

Abrons said that meant he had to take out loans and couldn’t give raises to his employees when he wanted to.

“The state still owes me and every provider, I presume, enhanced payments for 2013,” Abrons said.

Abrons fought the state to correct numerous errors beyond the reimbursement rates, he said. The harder he pushed, the less receptive DHHS became.

“There was a complete lack of courtesy,” Abrons said. “Those people have no humanity.”

N.C. Rep. Susi Hamilton, D-New Hanover, was also very critical of DHHS’ response.

“The problem clearly starts at the top,” Hamilton said, referring to DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos.

“There is an unwillingness to admit that there are problems. We’ve left several messages and were unable to get a response.”

The state filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in July and did not wish to comment further, spokesman Kevin Howell said.

Some organizations have had success in receiving their backlogged reimbursements. Wilmington Health CEO Jeff James said the state does not have extraordinary unpaid bills with his organization.

Elderhaus PACE’s Rick Richards said the state owes the Wilmington organization about $350,000. A plan is in place, he said, to have the debt cleared in the next 90 days.

The lawsuit argues that more than 70,000 providers in North Carolina may have had a claim against the state.

“It’s systemic,” Hamilton said. “It’s not about one physician’s profit margin or bottom line. The more we delay payment for services, the more reluctant the private sector is to provide services to Medicaid or Medicare patients. That’s not acceptable.”

Hamilton said that after 14 months of frustration that she’s grown more optimistic over the past 10 days, since speaker-elect Tim Moore has added his voice to the cause.

But even if Abrons recoups the money that is owed him, Hamilton said, his practice has still been a victim of the state’s mismanagement. Every paper that is resubmitted and every phone call that is made to the state costs money. And that doesn’t include the time and money invested in the lawsuit.

“Time is money,” Hamilton said. “They have experienced a tremendous loss even if they are reimbursed at 100 percent.”

Knicole Emanuel Speaks About CSC Fraud Investigation on ABC

I was interviewed by Heather Waliga, ABC News, last Friday about the U.S. Attorney’s lawsuit against Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) accusing CSC of hundreds of millions of dollars of Medicaid fraud.

To watch the video, please click here.

But, beware! Do not make the video full screen unless you are prepared to see a very, large, close-up picture of my head.  The camera man zoomed in to, literally, just my head.

 

 

NCTracks developer CSC faces health care fraud lawsuit in NY

Jason DeBruyn of the Triangle Business Journal wrote:

Jason DeBruyn

Computer Sciences Corporation, the company that designed, developed and is operating the Medicaid claims payment system in North Carolina, is facing a health care fraud lawsuit brought by the U.S. attorney’s office in New York.

That lawsuit has no immediate impact in North Carolina, though Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC) built the system in this state – called NCTracks – using 32 percent of the code used in New York City. Initially, CSC had hoped to duplicate as much as 73 percent of the New York City code in North Carolina.
NCTracks has been the target of several attacks from health care providers who say they have not been paid on time. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, where NCTracks is housed, faces a lawsuit that could incorporate 70,000 health care providers and end up with damages exceeding $100 million. NCTracks has been the target of at least three searing audits.

The New York lawsuit, brought by Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, alleges billing fraud schemes that used computer programs to automatically alter billing data, including the use of a defaulting program to systematically falsify diagnosis codes submitted to Medicaid.
“As alleged, CSC and the City created computer programs that systematically, and fraudulently, altered billing data in order to get paid by Medicaid as quickly as possible and as much as possible,” Bharara said through a statement. “Billing frauds like those alleged undermine the integrity of public healthcare programs like Medicaid.”

Although this lawsuit makes no mention of activity in North Carolina, Knicole Emanuel, an attorney with Williams Mullen in Raleigh who represents providers in the lawsuit against DHHS, says it “will almost certainly cause the federal government to peer a bit closer at all CSC’s billing software systems in other states (including North Carolina).”

Representatives from DHHS did not immediately comment on the New York lawsuit.