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Do the Anti-Kickback and Stark Laws Apply to Private Payors?

Good question.

Anti-Kickback statutes (AKS) and Stark law are extremely important issues in health care. Violations of these laws yield harsh penalties. Yet, many healthcare professionals have little to no knowledge on the details of these two legal beasts.

The most common question I get regarding AKS and Stark is: Do AKS and Stark apply to private payers? Health care professionals believe, if I don’t accept Medicare or Medicaid, then I don’t need to worry about AKS and Stark. Are they correct??

The general and overly broad response is that the Stark Law, 42 USC § 1395nn, only applies to Medicare and Medicaid. The AKS, 42 USC § 1320a-7b(b)),applies to any federal healthcare program.

Is there a difference between AKS and Stark?

Answer: Yes. As discussed above, the first difference is that AKS applies to all federal healthcare programs. This stark difference (pun intended) makes the simple decision to not accept Medicare and Medicaid, thus allowing you to never worry about AKS, infinitely more difficult.

Let’s take a step back… What are AKS and Stark laws and what do these laws prohibit? When you Google AKS and Stark, a bunch of legal blogs pop up and attempt to explain, in legalese, what two, extremely esoteric laws purport to say, using words like “renumeration,” “knowing and willful,” and “federal healthcare program.” You need a law license to decipher the deciphering of AKS and Stark. The truth is – it ain’t rocket science.

The AKS is a criminal law; if you violate the AKS, you can be prosecuted as a criminal. The criminal offense is getting something of value for referrals. You cannot refer patients to other health care professionals in exchange for money, reduced rent, use of laboratory equipment, referrals to you, health services for your mother, marketing, weekly meals at Ruth’s Chris, weekly meals at McDonalds, oil changes, discounted theater tickets, Uber rides, Costco coupons, cooking lessons, or…anything of value, regardless the value. 

Safe harbors (exceptions to AKS) exist. But those exceptions better fit squarely into the definition of the exceptions. Because there are no exceptions beyond the enumerated exceptions.

AKS is much more broad in scope than Stark. Other than Medicare and Medicaid, AKS applies to any health care plan that utilizes any amount of federal funds. For example, AKS applies to Veterans Health Care, State Children’s Health Programs (CHIP), Federal Employees Health Benefit Program, and many other programs with federal funding. Even if you opt to not accept Medicare and Medicaid, you may still be liable under AKS.

Stark law, on the other hand, is more narrow and only applies to Medicare and Medicaid. I find the following “cheat sheet” created by a subdivision of the Office of Inspector General to be helpful in understanding AKS and Stark and the differences between the two:

One other important aspect of Stark is that is considered “strict liability,” whereas AKS requires a proving of a “knowing and willful” action.

Feel free to print off the above chart for your reference. However, see that little asterisk at the bottom of the chart? It applies here as well.

All Medicare/Caid Health Care Professionals: Start Contracting with Qualified Translators to Comply with Section 1557 of the ACA!!

Being a health care professional who accepts Medicare and/ or Medicaid can sometimes feel like you are Sisyphus pushing the massive boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll down, over and over, with the same sequence continuing for eternity. Similarly, sometimes it can feel as though the government is the princess sleeping on 20 mattresses and you are the pea that is so small and insignificant, yet so annoying and disruptive to her sleep.

Well, effective immediately – that boulder has enlarged. And the princess has become even more sensitive.

boulder

On May 18, 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published a Final Rule to implement Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Section 1557 of the ACA has been on the books since the ACA’s inception in 2010. However, not until 6 years later, did HSD finally implement regulations regarding Section 1557. 81 Fed. Reg. 31376.

The Final Rule became effective July 18, 2016. You are expected to be compliant with the rule’s notice requirements, specifically the posting of a nondiscrimination notice and statement and taglines within 90 days of the Final Rule – October 16, 2016. So you better giddy-up!!

First, what is Section 1557?

Section 1557 of the ACA provides that an individual shall not, on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability, be

  • excluded from participation in,
  • denied the benefits of, or
  • subjected to discrimination under

all health programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance through HHS, including Medicaid, most Medicare, student health plans, Basic Health Program, and CHIP funds; meaningful use payments (which sunset in 2018); the advance premium tax credits; and many other programs.

Section 1557 is extremely broad in scope. Because it is a federal regulation, it applies to all states and health care providers in all specialties, regardless the size of the practice and regardless the percentage of Medicare/caid the agency accepts.

HHS estimates that Section 1557 applies to approximately 900,000 physicians. HHS also estimates that the rule will cover 133,343 facilities, such as hospitals, home health agencies and nursing homes; 445,657 clinical laboratories; 1300 community health centers; 40 health professional training programs; Medicaid agencies in each state; and, at least, 180 insurers that offer qualified health plans.

So now that we understand Section 1557 is already effective and that it applies to almost all health care providers who accept Medicare/caid, what exactly is the burden placed on the providers? Not discriminating does not seem so hard a burden.

Section 1557 requires much more than simply not discriminating against your clients.

Section 1557 mandates that you will provide appropriate aids and services without charge and in a timely manner, including qualified interpreters, for people with disabilities and that you will provide language assistance including translated documents and oral interpretation free of charge and in a timely manner.

In other words, you have to provide written materials to your clients in their spoken language. To ease the burden of translating materials, you can find a sample notice and taglines for 64 languages on HHS’ website. See here. The other requirement is that you provide, for no cost to the client, a translator in a timely manner for your client’s spoken language.

In other words, you must have qualified translators “on call” for the most common 15, non-English languages in your state. You cannot rely on friends, family, or staff. You also cannot allow the child of your client to act as the interpreter. The clients in need of the interpreters are not expected to provide their own translators – the burden is on the provider. The language assistance must be provided in a “timely  manner. “Further, these “on call” translators must be “qualified,” as defined by the ACA.

I remember an English teacher in high school telling the class that there were two languages in North Carolina: English and bad English. Even if that were true back in 19XX, it is not true now.

Here is a chart depicting the number of non-English speakers in North Carolina in 1980 versus 2009-2011:

languages

As you can see, North Carolina has become infinitely more diverse in the last three decades.

And translators aren’t free. According to Costhelper Small Business,

Typical costs:
  • Interpreting may take place in person, over the phone or via video phone.
  • In-person interpreters typically cost $50-$145 per hour. For example, American Language Services offers interpreters starting at $100 per hour (or $125 for sign language) and a two-hour minimum is required.
  • Phone interpreters typically cost $1.25-$3 per minute. Language Translation, Inc. offers a flat fee of $1.88 per minute for phone interpreting, for example.
  • Video interpreters typically range from $1.75 to $7 per minute. For instance, LifeLinks offers video interpreting from $2.25 per minute for any language and $2.95 for sign language. A 15-minute minimum is common for phone or video interpreting.

It seems likely that telehealth may be the best option for health care providers considering the cost of in-person translations. Of course, you need to calculate the cost of the telehealth equipment and the savings you project over time to determine whether the investment in telehealth equipment is financially smart.

In addition to agencies having access to qualified translators, agencies with over 15 employees must designate a single employee who will be responsible for Section 1557 compliance and to adopt a grievance procedure for clients. Sometimes this may mean hiring a new employee to comply.

The Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) at HHS is the enforcer of Section 1557. OCR has been enforcing Section 1557 since its inception in 2010 – to an extent.

However, expect a whole new policing of Section 1557 now that we have the Final Rule from HHS.

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.

NC Medicaid Reimbursement Rates for Primary Care Physicians Slashed; Is a Potential NC Lawsuit Looming?

Here is my follow-up from yesterday’s blog post, “NC Docs Face Retroactive Medicaid Rate Cut.

Nearly one-third of physicians say they will not accept new Medicaid patients, according to a new study.  Is this shocking in light of the end of the ACA enhanced payments for primary physicians, NC’s implementation of a 3% reimbursement rate cut for primary care physicians, and the additional 1% reimbursement rate cut?  No, this is not shocking. It merely makes economic sense.

Want more physicians to accept Medicaid? Increase reimbursement rates!

Here, in NC, the Medicaid reimbursement rates for primary care physicians and pediatricians have spiraled downward from a trifecta resulting in an epically, low parlay. They say things happen in threes…

(1) With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Medicaid reimbursement rate for certain primary care services increased to reimburse 100% of Medicare Cost Share for services paid in 2013 and 2014.  This enhanced payment stopped on January 1, 2015.

(2) Concurrently on January 1, 2015, Medicaid reimbursement rates for evaluation and management and vaccination services were decreased by 3% due to enactments in the 2013 NC General Assembly session.

(3) Concurrently on January 1, 2015, Medicaid reimbursement rates for evaluation and management and vaccination services were decreased by 1% due to enactments in the 2014 NC General Assembly session.

The effect of the trifecta of Medicaid reimbursement rates for certain procedure codes for primary care physicians can be seen below.

CCNC

As a result, a physician currently receiving 100% of the Medicare rates will see a 16% to 24% reduction in certain E&M and vaccine procedure codes for Medicaid services rendered after January 1, 2015.

Are physicians (and all other types of health care providers) powerless against the slashing and gnashing of Medicaid reimbursement rates due to budgetary concerns?

No!  You are NOT powerless!  Be informed!!

Section 30(A) of the Medicaid Act states that:

“A state plan for medical assistance must –

Provide such methods and procedures relating to the utilization of, and the payment for, care and services available under the plan (including but not limited to utilization review plans as provided for in section 1396b(i)(4) of this title) as may be necessary to safeguard against unnecessary utilization of such care and services and to assure that payments are consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care and are sufficient to enlist enough providers so that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population in the geographic area.”

Notice those three key goals:

  • Quality of care
  • Sufficient to enlist enough providers
  • So that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population in the geographic area

Courts across the country have held that low Medicaid reimbursement rates which are set due to budgetary factors and fail to consider federally mandated factors, such as access to care or cost of care, are in violation of federal law.  Courts have further held that Medicaid reimbursement rates cannot be set based solely on budgetary reasons.

For example, U.S. District Court Judge Adalberto Jordan held in a 2014 Florida case that:

“I conclude that while reimbursement rates are not the only factor determining whether providers participate in Medicaid, they are by far the most important factor, and that a sufficient increase in reimbursement rates will lead to a substantial increase in provider participation and a corresponding increase to access to care.”

“Given the record, I conclude that plaintiffs have shown that achieving adequate provider enrollment in Medicaid – and for those providers to meaningfully open their practices to Medicaid children – requires compensation to be set at least at the Medicare level.

Judge Jordan is not alone.  Over the past two decades, similar cases have been filed in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Texas, and D.C. [Notice: Not in NC].  These lawsuits demanding higher reimbursement rates have largely succeeded.

There is also a pending Supreme Court case that I blogged about here.

Increasing the Medicaid reimbursement rates is vital for Medicaid recipients and access to care.  Low reimbursement rates cause physicians to cease accepting Medicaid patients.  Therefore, these lawsuits demanding increased reimbursement rates benefit both the Medicaid recipients and the physicians providing the services.

According to the above-mentioned study, in 2011, “96 percent of physicians accepted new patients in 2011, rates varied by payment source: 31 percent of physicians were unwilling to accept any new Medicaid patients; 17 percent would not accept new Medicare patients; and 18 percent of physicians would not accept new privately insured patients.”

It also found this obvious fact:  “Higher state Medicaid-to-Medicare fee ratios were correlated with greater acceptance of new Medicaid patients.”

Ever heard the phrase: “You get what you pay for.”?

A few months ago, my husband brought home a box of wine.  Yes, a box of wine.  Surely you have noticed those boxes of wine at Harris Teeter.  I tried a sip.  It was ok.  I’m no wine connoisseur.  But I woke the next morning with a terrible headache after only consuming a couple of glasses of wine.  I’m not sure whether the cheaper boxed wine has a higher level of tannins, or what, but I do not get headaches off of 2 glasses of wine when the wine bottle is, at least, $10.  You get what you pay for.

The same is true in service industries.  Want a cheap lawyer? You get what you pay for.  Want a cheap contractor? You get what you pay for.

So why do we expect physicians to provide the same quality of care in order to receive $10 versus $60?  Because physicians took the Hippocratic Oath?  Because physicians have an ethical duty to treat patients equally?

While it is correct that physicians take the Hippocratic Oath and have an ethical duty to their clients, it’s for these exact reasons that many doctors simply refuse to accept Medicaid.  It costs the doctor the same office rental, nurse salaries, and time devoted to patients to treat a person with Blue Cross Blue Shield as it does a person on Medicaid.  However, the compensation is vastly different.

Why?  Why the different rates if the cost of care is equal?

Budgetary reasons.

Unlike private insurance, Medicaid is paid with tax dollars.  Each year, the General Assembly determines our Medicaid budget.  Reducing Medicaid reimbursement rates, by even 1%, can affect the national Medicaid budget by billions of dollars.

But, remember, rates cannot be set for merely budgetary reasons…

Is a potential lawsuit looming in NC’s not so distant future???

How EPSDT Allows Medicaid Recipients Under the Age of 21 To Receive More Services Than Covered By NC State Plan

EPSDT. What in the heck is EPSDT?

EPSDT is an acronym for the “Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment (EPSDT).” It only applies to Medicaid beneficiaries under the age of 21. As in, if you are 21, EPSDT does not apply to you. The point of EPSDT is to allow beneficiaries under the age of 21 to receive medically necessary services not normally allowed by the NC Medicaid State Plan. (These beneficiaries under the age of 21 I will call “children” for the sake of this blog, despite 18+ being a legal adult).

The definition of each part of the acronym is below:

Early:……. Assessing and identifying problems early
Periodic:…… Checking children’s health at periodic, age-appropriate intervals
Screening:…. Providing physical, mental, developmental, dental, hearing, vision, and other screening tests to detect potential problems
Diagnostic:…. Performing diagnostic tests to follow-up when a risk is identified, and
Treatment:…. Control, correct or reduce health problems found.

Federal Medicaid law at 42 U.S.C.§ 1396d(r) [1905(r) of the Social Security Act] requires state Medicaid programs to provide EPSDT for beneficiaries under 21 years of age. Within the scope of EPSDT benefits under the federal Medicaid law, states are required to cover any service that is medically necessary “to correct or ameliorate a defect, physical or mental illness, or a condition identified by screening,” whether or not the service is covered under the North Carolina State Medicaid Plan.

The services covered under EPSDT are limited to those within the scope of the category of services listed in the federal law at 42 U.S.C. § 1396d (a) [1905(a) of the Social Security Act].

For example, EPSDT will not cover, nor is it required to cover, purely cosmetic or experimental treatments.

Again, EPSDT allows for exceptions to Medicaid policies for beneficiaries under the age of 21. For example, if the DMA clinical policy for dental procedures does not cover a certain procedure, if the dentist determines that the procedure is medically necessary for a beneficiary under the age of 21, then the dentist can request prior approval under EPSDT simply by filling out a “non-covered services form” along with the other supporting documentation to establish medical necessity. More likely than not, the “non-covered procedure” would be approved.

Medical necessity is an interesting term. Medical necessity is not defined by statute. The American Medical Association (AMA) defines medical necessity as:

“Health care services or products that a prudent physician would provide to a patient for the purpose of preventing, diagnosing, treating or rehabilitating an illness, injury, disease or its associated symptoms, impairments or functional limitations in a manner that is: (1) in accordance with generally accepted standards of medical practice; (2) clinically appropriate in terms of type, frequency, extent, site and duration; and (3) not primarily for the convenience of the patient, physician, or other health care provider.”

But, legally, the courts have construed medical necessity broadly when it comes to EPSDT. As in, generally speaking, if a doctor will testify that a procedure or service is medically necessary, then, generally speaking, a judge will accept the medical necessity of the procedure or service.

It seems as though I am degrading the intelligence of the judges that take the face value testimony of the doctors. But I am not.

Judges, like I, are not doctors. We do not have the benefit of a medical education. I say benefit because any education is a benefit, in my opinion.

It would be difficult for anyone who is not a doctor to disagree with the testimony of a physician testifying to medical necessity. I mean, unless the person stayed in a Holiday Inn Express the night before. (I know…bad joke).

Some courts, however, have ruled that the decision as to whether a procedure is medically necessary must be a joint effort by the state and the treating physician. Obviously, for courts that follow the “joint decision for medical necessity” holdings, less procedures would be allowed under EPSDT because, more likely than not, the state will disagree with a treating physician (I say this only from my own experience representing the state when the state disagreed with EPSDT treatments despite the treating physician testifying that the procedure was medically necessary).

For example, the 11th Circuit has held that both the state and the treating physician have a role in determining whether a procedure or treatment is medically necessary to correct or ameliorate a medical condition. The 11th circuit disagreed with the Northern District of Georgia’s determination that the state MUST provide the amount of services which the treating physician dreamed necessary. Moore v. Medows, No. 08-13926, 2009 WL 1099133 (11th Cir. Apr. 24, 2009).

Regardless, in practice, EPSDT is interpreted broadly. A long, long time ago, I worked at the Attorneys’ Generals office. A mother requested hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) for her autistic children (and I had to oppose her request because that was my job).

For those of you who do not know what HBOT is (I sure didn’t know what HBOT is prior to this particular case)…

“Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) is the use of high pressure oxygen as a drug to treat basic pathophysiologic processes and their diseases. HBOT has acute and chronic drug effects. Acutely, HBOT has been proven to be the most powerful inhibitor of reperfusion injury, which is the injury that occurs to tissue deprived of blood supply when blood flow is resumed. This is thought to be one of the primary mechanisms of hyperbaric oxygen therapy effects in acute global ischemia, anoxia, and coma. Chronically, HBOT acts as a signal inducer of DNA to effect trophic (growth) tissue changes.” See http://www.hbot.com/hbot.

I went and saw a hyperbaric oxygen treatment chamber in preparation of my case. It’s pretty intimidating. It is a large chamber made of thick metal. It looks like you could get inside, have it submerged under the ocean, and explore. It appears similar to a submarine. And, interestingly, it is most often used for divers who get the bends.

It is highly controversial as to whether HBOT cures, remedies or ameliorates autistic symptoms. I had two experts testifying that HBOT was experimental, and, therefore, not covered by Medicaid, even with EPSDT. (Remember, back then I was at the AG’s office).

Yet, despite the fact that HBOT was still controversial as to whether it ameliorates the symptoms of autism, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) used the EPSDT doctrine to rule that the mother’s children could receive HBOT and Medicaid must pay for the services.

That is the power of EPSDT. HBOT was clearly not covered by Medicaid for the purpose of ameliorating symptoms of autism. But, for the children named in the Petition who were under 21, Medicaid paid nonetheless.

HBOT allows beneficiaries under the age of 21 to receive medically necessary services that would not normally be allowed under the North Carolina Medicaid State Plan.

Importantly, EPSDT provides for private rights of action under 1983. At least all the federal circuit court of appeals have held such.

Oh, and, BTW, NCTracks will soon also be in charge of EPSDT determinations.

The NC State Plan, Its Importance, and How Can We Keep Up With All the Changes??

I am constantly amazed at the amount of knowledge that I do not know.  And how quickly the knowledge I have becomes obsolete due to changes.  To quote Lewis Carroll’s “Alice and Wonderland,” “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” My other favorite quote series from Lewis Carroll is the following scene:

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, or you wouldn’t have come here.”

So too, must I be mad, I think, at times, for dealing with Medicaid and Medicare law.  The statutes and regulations are vast and ever-changing.  You can easily miss a policy change that was disseminated by an update posted on the web.  But, I am a lawyer…I read a lot.  But providers are held accountable as well for every revision and every update.

Just when you think you understand the State Plan, the Department of Health and Human Service (DHHS) asks the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) for an amendment.

In this blog, I am going to discuss 2 issues.  (1) What is the State Plan and why is it important; and (2) how can providers stay abreast of the ever-changing Medicare/caid world and policies.

(1) Our State Plan

What is our State Plan in Medicaid? Is it law? Guidance? Does NC have to follow the State Plan? Can NC amend the State Plan?

These are all good questions.

The State Plan is a contract between North Carolina and the federal government describing how NC will administer its State Plan, i.e., Medicaid program.  The State Plan describes who can be covered by Medicaid, what services are available, and, basically, assures the federal government that we will abide by certain rules and regulations.  NC must follow the State Plan or risk losing federal funding for Medicaid, which would be BAD.

Quite often, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) will issue a State Plan Amendment (SPA) to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).  DHHS has to post all proposed amendments on its website “10 Day Posting for Submission to CMS.”  This internet site should be in your “favorites,” and you should check it regularly.

For example, February 27th, DHHS asked to reduce Medicaid reimbursements methodologies for Chiropractic Services, Podiatry Services and Optometry Services to 97% of the July 1, 2013, rate, effective January 1, 2014 (yes, retroactively).

Just in 2014, there have been approximately 10 SPA requests.  So, these SPAs are relatively common.

So, question #2…how can you keep up?

(2) Keeping abreast of all changes

As much as I would love to throw my computer out the window (I am on the 16th floor) and watch it crash, computers and technology can be very helpful.  And technology makes it easy for everyone, even busy health care providers, to stay current on changes, amendments, and revisions to Medicaid/care policies and law.

Here is the secret: (shhhhhhhhh!!)

Google Alerts.

If you want to keep current on NCTracks, all you have to do is set a Google alert with the search term “NCTracks,” and you will receive daily email alerts on all internet articles on NCTracks.  It is that easy.

So how do you set up a Google Alert?  I have drafted a set by step process, otherwise entitled “Google Alerts for Dummies.”

1. Go to Google.

2. At the top of the page you will see the words: “You,” “Search,” “Images,” “Maps,” “Play,” “Youtube,” “News,” “Gmail,” and “More.”  Click on “More.”

3. When the box drops, at the very bottom, you will see “even more.”  Click on “even more.”

4. Scroll down to specialized search and click on “Alerts.”

5. Type in whatever search term you like, such as “Medicaid,” or “Knicole Emanuel.”

6. Decide how often you want to be alerted and your email address.

You will now be alerted about your topic.  See? Easy!!

Now, because of this blog, you have learned two or more impossible things before lunch.

The “Single State Agency” Medicaid Requirement: The Buck Stops With Whom?????

What is THE most important law? I’m sure most people would have a differing opinion.  Maybe you think the most important law is that it is against the law to murder a person. Or to not drive drunk.

Personally, I think the most important law of the United States begins, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”  The Constitution of the United States.

Well, in the Medicaid arena, in my opinion, the most important law is the “single state entity” requirement.

Why is the “single state entity” requirement so important? 

Have any of you tried to read Title XIX of the Social Security Act? Or the 1915(b)(c) Innovations Waiver? The State Plan?

If you have, then you know how difficult Medicaid laws, rules and regulations are to read, much less understand.  It’s a bit like reading Chaucer in its original language, Middle English, in kindergarten…not impossible, you can sound out all the words…but, in the end, you have no idea what it was you just read.  Wife of whom?

What if we allowed 10 different companies, each with different employees, to implement/interpret Medicaid laws, rules, and regulations?

Each of the 10 companies would read the Medicaid laws, rules and regulations differently.

We would not have a statewide consistent Medicaid system.

Medicaid is tough enough, we, at least, need one agency to implement and interpret all of Medicaid.

Another example is if, suddenly, we had no president or federal government.  And all 50 states’ governors tried to run the country, as a country and not 50 independent states.  We would, obviously, have 50 different “leaders” trying to run one country with 50 different ideas as to how the country should be run.  There would be no nationwide uniformity.

Hence, the “single state agency” requirement.  DHHS must implement/administer/interpret all Medicaid decision for the sake of uniformity.

Not only is the “single state agency” requirement logical, it is federal law.

42 U.S.C. 1396 a(a)(5) requires states participating in the Medicaid program to designate a “single state entity” to operate the Medicaid program.  

In North Carolina, that “single state entity” is the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

Remember the sign on Harry Truman’s desk? “The Buck Stops Here!” Meaning, as a president, President Truman understood that anything that went wrong in any federal department was on his shoulders.  He was the captain of the ship.  He was the big cheese. The buck stopped with Truman.

In NC Medicaid, the buck stops with DHHS.

According to federal law, the “single state entity” may contract with entities, such as Managed Care Organizations (MCOs), Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs), etc. to assist with certain functions of the Medicaid program.  But…that “single state entity” CANNOT delegate its authority to “issue policies, rules, and regulations on program matters.”  42 C.F.R. 431.10.

Moreover, the “single state entity” MUST NOT allow a contracted company to have authority to change or disapprove an administrative decision of the “single state entity.”  42 U.S.C. 1396a(a)(5) states that “either provide for the establishment or designation of a single State agency to administer or to supervise the administration of the plan.”

Similarly, in K.C. v. Shipman, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals states that:

“If other State or local agencies or offices perform services for the Medicaid agency, they must not have the authority to change or disapprove any administrative decision of that agency, or otherwise substitute their judgment for that of the Medicaid agency with respect to the application of policies, rules, and regulations issued by the Medicaid agency.  42 C.F.R. § 431.10(e)(3).” (emphasis added).

Ok, pretty clear, right?

Then how can an MCO determine that a provider’s Medicaid contract should be terminated without DHHS’ authorization (which, I believe, is a substitute of judgment in applying policies)? How can an MCO determine that a Medicaid recipient’s services should be reduced (another substitution of judgment in applying policies) without DHHS’ authorization?

If you ask me, the MCOs cannot terminate a provider’s Medicaid contract or reduce services without DHHS’ authorization.  Substituting an MCO’s judgment in applying Medicaid policies is a violation of the “single state entity” requirement.

Yet….the MCOs are doing just that.

Even more scary is the recent MCO Communication Bulletin #55, dated August 2, 2013, which states:

MCO Communication Bulletin #55

Date:                August 2, 2013                                                            

To:                   LME-MCO CEOs

From:               Courtney Cantrell, Assistant Director, Behavioral Health Section

Subject:         Provider Appeals

Currently DMA is reviewing LME-MCO contract terminations and service denials when appealed due to LME-MCO manuals stating that appeals of denials should come to DMA prior to Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH).  DMA should not be a part of the LME-MCO appeals process.  We ask that you please correct your manuals by August 7, 2013, and share with your contract managers so that these appeals can be appropriately routed.

Yes, I agree, the author could have written this Communication Bulletin is a way that would have been easier to read. But, maybe that is the point.

I interpret this bulletin to say:

Right now, the MCO manuals instruct MCOs to send DMA all contract terminations and service denials prior to going to the OAH (litigation).  But, DMA does not want to be a part of the appeal process anymore.  Therefore, revise all MCO manuals to reflect that MCOs no longer need to send DMA contract terminations and service denials, even if those denials and terminations are appealed.

I also infer from this language that, since the inception of MCOs, DMA has not reviewed any contract terminations or service denials unless these denials and terminations are appealed.

 DMA does not review prior to the MCO terminating or denying services???? Where is the supervision? Where is the “single state agency?”

And then, even scarier, Bulletin #55 seems to say that DMA wants to be involved even LESS.

In essence, we have 10 MCOs, 10 jurisdictions, 10 interpretations of Medicaid laws, rules and regulations.  And no statewide uniformity.

I guess the buck stops with East Carolina Behavioral Health (ECBH)…and MeckLINK…and Alliance…and Smoky Mountain Center…and Cardinal Innovations…and Centerpoint Human Services…and CoastalCare…and EastPointe…and Partners Behavioral Health Management…and Sandhills…and (at least for a short time) Western Highlands…

That is a lot of bucks.

Proposed NC Medicaid Bill: Circumventing the State Plan?

Proposed House Bill 320 will be heard in committee on Tuesday, May 14, 2013.

For those of you who do not know what House Bill 320-2013 is, let me explain:

As of now, when a health care provider’s Medicaid contract is terminated or suspended by a Managed Care Organization (MCO), the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), not superior court, has jurisdiction over the grievance.  OAH is the administrative court set up to hear grievances against a state agency. 

When North Carolina ceased DHHS’ issuance of a Final Agency Decision after the OAH decision back toward the end of 2012, North Carolina, in essence, was handing OAH a decision-making role in Medicaid.  The reason that any entity getting a decision-making role in Medicaid is so important is because the federal statutes specifically state that Medicaid must be run by a single state entity.  The fact that OAH had a decision-making role in Medicaid would violate the single state entity requirement.

So what did NC do in order to ensure compliance with the single state entity requirement set forth by the federal government?

NC asked the federal government for a Waiver.  Or, in other words, an exception.  NC asked the federal government, “Can we have permission to allow OAH to have a decision-making role and not be in violation of the single state entity requirement?”

The federal government authorized our request, which can be found as the State Plan, Attachment 1.1D.

Our State Plan, Attachment 1.1B states:

“OAH acknowledges and also agrees that the issue to be determined at final hearings conducted in accordance with this waiver is whether the single state Medicaid agency or one of its contractors or agents exceeded its authority or jurisdiction, acted erroneously, failed to use proper procedure, acted arbitrarily or capriciously, and/or failed to act as required by law or rule; that it will conduct de novo reviews in beneficiary.”

Therefore, according to our State Plan and the federal government’s authorization, OAH hears cases involving DMA and its contractors or agents.

Yet proposed House Bill 320 states, in pertinent part (at 108D-18(d), “Notwithstanding any other law, OAH does not have jurisdiction over any dispute between an LME/MCO and a provider or applicant.”

Obviously the State Plan and the legislature are at odds.  After receiving the authorization to do something by the federal government, can NC legislate around what the feds told us to do? Seems pretty hairy.  Personally, I would go with that whole Supremacy Clause stuff.

Proposed House Bill 320 would take the decision-making role regarding Medicaid away from OAH and simply hand the superior court the authority…with zero authority from the federal government.  This is like a teenage boy asking for permission to go to Billy Bob’s house, but really sneaking out to go see Betty Lou.

Well, Betty Lou, here we come…

 

Supreme Court of the United States Holds NCGS §108A–57 Violates Federal Law!

Remember my post on March 14, 2013, stating that NCGS 108C-7 violates federal law? Well, obviously I wrote that blog without pursuing a legal case and without having a judge decide whether NCGS 108C-7 actually violates federal law.

But there may be some validity to my claim that 108C-7 violates federal law.

Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States wrote an opinion regarding another North Carolina Medicaid statute: NCGS 108A-57.  Wos v. E.M.A.  In Wos v. E.M.A., the Supreme Court held that the NC Medicaid statute 108A-57 is pre-empted by the Supremacy Clause in the Constitution.

By way of background, the case originated from a mom and dad bringing a medical malpractice claim against the doctor and hospital that delivered their child, E.M.A.  E.M.A. suffered multiple serious injuries during birth, leaving her deaf, blind, and unable to sit, walk, crawl, or talk. She also suffers mental retardation and seizures.  Due to these birth injuries, Medicaid paid $1.9 in hospital costs, surgeries and health care on behave of E.M.A. In November 2006, the NC Court approved a settlement for $2.8 million.  If you think that the settlement seems low, it is low.  Apparently the settlement was based on the amount of malpractice insurance the defendants possessed.

A representative from Medicaid (DMA) informed the parents that Medicaid would seek reimbursement for the $1.9 million expended.

“E. M. A. and her parents then filed this action under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U. S. C. §1983, in the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief, arguing that the State’s reimbursement scheme violated the Medicaid anti-lien provision, §1396p(a)(1) .”

After appeal after appeal and all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, North Carolina fought E.M.A. and her parents, saying that the State was entitled to Medicaid reimbursement as required under NCGS 108A-57.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed .

In the words of the Supreme Court (as to why the NC Statute was pre-empted):

“Instead, North Carolina has picked an arbitrary number—one-third—and by statutory command labeled that portion of a beneficiary’s tort recovery as representing payment for medical care. Pre-emption is not a matter of semantics. A State may not evade the pre-emptive force of federal law by resorting to creative statutory interpretation or description at odds with the statute’s intended operation and effect. ”

Interesting that the Supreme Court picked the word “arbitrary.”

In light of the Wos v. E.M.A. decision, I think it would be prudent to question other Medicaid statutes. Most likely other Medicaid statutes, similarly, violate federal law.  Maybe…..108C-7.

See my March 14, 2013, blog for my legal reasons that 108C-7 violates federal law.