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.]
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;
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.
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:
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).
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.
Remember July 1, 2013? Providers across North Carolina probably still suffer PTSD at the mention of the “go-live” date for NCTracks. If you remember July 1, 2013, you probably also remember that my former firm filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the physicians in NC who suffered losses from NCTracks’ inception.
There was oral argument at the NC Business Court.
“Ultimately, the burden of proving that administrative remedies are inadequate in this action rests on Plaintiffs. Jackson, 131 N.C. App. at 186. Although sympathetic to the apparently difficult administrative process, the Court concludes that, particularly in light of the fact that not a single Plaintiff has attempted to use the available administrative procedures to resolve their Medicaid reimbursement claims, Plaintiffs have simply failed to satisfy this burden. Accordingly, Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) should be GRANTED.”
While I understand the logic applied to come to this decision, I do not necessarily agree with the outcome. There are exceptions to the exhaustion of administrative remedies, which, in my humble opinion, are present here.
(This blog contains my own opinions as to the NCTracks ruling and not those of my present or former firms. It is not intended to claim any ruling was incorrect or inconsistent with case law, rules, and statutes).
(Try to read the foregoing sentences in a fast-paced, tiny, whispery voice, like a pharmaceutical commercial).
Regardless, where does this decision leave the physicians in NC who suffered under an, admittedly, botched, beginning of NCTracks? (Even DHHS recognized the imperfections at the beginning).
First, what is the doctrine of failure of administrative remedies? (I was going to start with what is NCTracks, but you do not know what NCTracks is, you probably should begin reading some of my earlier blog posts: blog; and blog; and blog).
In a nutshell, the exhaustion doctrine dictates that if a party disagrees with an adverse action of a state agency that the party must exhaust its administrative remedies before asking for relief from a civil court judge.
Law 101: The Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) has limited jurisdiction. It only has jurisdiction over those matters specifically granted to it by statute. If you have an issue with a final adverse decision of a state agency, you sue at OAH. In other words, if you want to sue a state agency, such as DHHS, or any of its agents, like an MCO, you sue at OAH, not Superior Court. An Administrative Law Judge, or ALJ, presides over the court. While OAH is more informal than Superior Court, OAH follows the rules of civil procedure unless an administrative rule exists.
If a Superior Court were to find that the party failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, then the court would find that the party lacked subject matter jurisdiction; i.e., the court is holding that it does not have the authority to determine the legal question at issue.
You would be back to square one, and, potentially, miss an appeal deadline.
In the Medicaid world this is similar to a managed care organization (MCO) having an informal review process internally which would be required prior to bringing a Petition for Judicial Review at OAH.
Were you to bring a Petition for Judicial Review at OAH prior to attending an informal reconsideration review at the MCO, the ALJ would, most likely, dismiss the case for failure to exhaust your administrative remedies.
But in the NCTracks case, the Plaintiffs sued DHHS and Computer Science Corporation (CSC). CSC is, arguably, not a state agency. The only way in which you could sue CSC at OAH would be for an ALJ to determine that CSC is an agent of a state agency. And, who knows? Maybe CSC is an agent of DHHS. Judge McGuire does not address this issue in his Order.
Many of you may wonder why I opine that CSC is not an agent of the state, yet surmise that the MCOs are agents of DHHS. Here is my reasoning: DHHS, in order to bestow or delegate its powers of administering behavioral health to the MCOs, was required to request a Waiver from the federal government. Unlike with CSC, DHHS merely contracted with CSC; no Waiver was required. That Waiver (two Waivers, really, the 1915(b) and 1915(c)) allow the MCOs to step into the shoes of DHHS….to a degree…and only as far as was requested and approved by CMS…no more. I view CSC as a contractor or vendor of DHHS, while the MCOs are limited agents.
Going back to NCTracks…
One can surmise that, because Judge McGuire dismissed the entire lawsuit and did not keep CSC as a party, Judge McGuire opined that CSC is an agent of DHHS. But there is a possibility that the providers sue in OAH and an ALJ determines that OAH is not a proper venue for CSC. Then what? Back to Superior Court and/or Business Court?
Why do you have to exhaust your administrative remedies? It does seem too burdensome to jump through all the hoops.
The rationale behind requiring parties to exhaust their administrative remedies is that those entities (such as OAH) that hear these specialized cases over and over and develop an expertise to decide the certain esoteric matters that arise under their jurisdiction. Also, the doctrine of separation of powers dictates that an agency created by Congress should be allowed to carry out its duties without undue interference from the judiciary.
For example, Judges Don Overby and Melissa Lassiter, ALJs at the NC OAH have, without question, presided over more Medicaid cases than any Superior Court Judge in the state (unless a Superior Court is a former ALJ, like Judge Beecher Gray). The thinking is that, since Overby and Lassiter, or, ALJs, generally, have presided over more Medicaid cases than the average judge, that the ALJs have formed expertise in area. Which is probably true. It cannot be helped. When you hear the same arguments over and over, you tend to research the answers and form an opinion.
So there is the “why,” what about the exceptions?
There are exceptions to the general rule of having to exhaust your administrative remedies that may or may not be present in the NC tracks case. If you ask me, exceptions are present. If you ask Judge McGuire vis-à-vis his Order, there are no exceptions that were applicable.
One such exception to the general rule that you must exhaust your administrative remedies is if bringing a case at the informal administrative level would be futile. If you can prove futility, then you are not required to exhaust your administrative remedies. Another exception is if you are requesting monetary damages that cannot be awarded at the administrative law level.
Where the administrative remedy is inadequate, a plaintiff is not required to exhaust that remedy before turning to the courts. Shell Island, 134 N.C. App. at 222. The burden of establishing the inadequacy of an administrative remedy is on the party asserting inadequacy. Huang v. N.C. State Univ., 107 N.C. App. 110, 115 (1992).
What DHHS argued, in order to have the case dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and Judge McGuire agreed with, is:
that adequate administrative remedies exist for all health care providers when NCTracks improperly denies claims.
This holding is not without questions.
Some providers re-bill denied claims over and over. There is a question as to when do you appeal? The first denial? The second? The Fourteenth? At which point do you accept the denial from NCTracks as a “final agency decision?” Do you use the “3 strikes and you’re out” rule? Do you give NCTracks a mulligan? Or do you wait until NCTracks “fouls out” with a 6th denial?
Another question that remains hanging in the wake of the NCTracks dismissal is how will providers handle the sheer volume of denials. Some providers receive voluminous denials. Some RAs can be hundreds of pages long.
Let’s contemplate this argument in a hypothetical. You run a nephrology practice. The bulk of your patients are Medicaid (90% Medicaid, although 50% are dual eligible with Medicaid/Medicare). You have approximately 500-700 patients, who come see your doctors because they are in need of dialysis. You know that if a person does not receive dialysis that there is a chance that the person can enter Stage 5 (end stage renal disease) and die quickly. However, upon July 1, 2013, when NCTracks went live, you stopped receiving Medicaid payments completely. Do you stop accepting and treating your Medicaid patients? Obviously you do not stop accepting Medicaid patients? But your practice cannot sustain itself. Even if you continue to treat Medicaid patients, at some point, you will be out of business, failing to meet payroll, and being forced to involuntarily not treat your patients.
Your patients in need of dialysis come to the office 3x per week. A single hemodialysis treatment typically costs up to $500 or more — or, about $72,000 or more per year for the typical three treatments per week.
Let’s approximate with 500 patients. 500 patients multiplied by 3x per week is 1,500 per week. That is 1,500 denials per week. What Judge McGuire is saying is that your office is burdened with appealing 1,500 denials per week. Or 6,000 denials per month. Or 72,000 appeals per year.
Which of your office staff will be charged with appealing at OAH 72,000 denials per year? The physicians? You, the office manager (because you obviously have nothing else to do)? The receptionist? Hire someone new? For how much? How will you recoup the cost of appealing 72,000 denials per year? How many hours does it cost to appeal one? Hire an attorney?
Obviously, my example is one of an extreme case with 100% denials. But the sentiment holds true even for 30%, 40%, or 50% of denials. The sheer volume would be overwhelming.
And you can imagine the backlog that would be created at OAH.
Judge McGuire’s decision that plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies issue appears to be based, in part, that because no plaintiff had tried to go to OAH, plaintiffs could not convince him that the administrative remedy was non-functional.
“Significantly, none of the Plaintiffs even attempted to use the administrative procedures to address the failure to pay claims and other issues they allegedly encountered in attempting to use NCTracks. Instead, Plaintiffs allege that the administrative process would have been futile and inadequate to provide the relief they seek.” See Abrons Family Practice v. DHHS and CSC, ¶ 36 (emphasis added).
Well, first of all, when I moved to Gordon & Rees, I left this case in the capable hands of my former partners, so I have no special intelligence, but I wager that this is not the end.
There are choices. They could:
(1) Appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals;
(2) File an insurmountable number of petition’s at OAH; or
(3) Do nothing.
For some reason, I have my doubts that #3 will occur.
What do you think??? What should the Plaintiffs do now in the wake of this dismissal?
Throughout my career I have seen more people confuse Medicare and Medicaid than any other two items in my line of work. If I am about to give a presentation on Medicaid, without question, someone will comment, “Oh, that’s important! We will all be on Medicaid someday.” Hmmmm? Really? (I hope not).
It’s confusing. I get it. They sound the same and both are heavily regulated with esoteric rules and regulations.
For the record, MediCARE covers those who qualify for Medicare and are 65 years of age or older. MediCAID serves low-income parents, children, seniors, and people with disabilities.
By providers, I am asked frequently, “What is the difference between a Medicaid audit appeal and a Medicare audit appeal?”
The easy “Audit 101” answer is that Medicaid audit appeals are quicker (although in the legal world, nothing is truly fast) than Medicare audits and that the Medicaid administrative appeal process is easier (or has fewer steps) than the Medicare appeal process.
In Medicaid you have an informal appeal, an appeal to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), and, if you are so inclined, judicial review to the Superior Courts. Obviously you can appeal the judicial review, but most appeals stop at the OAH level.
So, with Medicaid audit appeals, you have 2 levels…maybe 3.
In Medicare audits appeals, there are 5 levels. You have more of a Dante-ish order of events.
In the “Divine Comedy,” Dante writes of three levels of afterlife: (1) Inferno (2) Purgatorio; and (3) Paradiso.
If Dante stopped at those 3 levels, the “Divine Comedy” would be more similar to Medicaid audit appeals, not Medicare audit appeals. But Dante does not stop at 3 levels.
Purgatory, which is the place that the human soul must purge its sins and climb up to be worthy of Heaven, is divided into three sections: (1) Antepurgatory; (2) Purgatory proper; and (3) the Earthly Paradise. (I am giving the Cliff’s Notes version for the purpose of this blog. Obviously, there were other mountains symbolizing the 7 deadly sins and other layers, but I will leave that for English class).
In recent times, Purgatory has come to mean a state of suffering or torment that is meant to be temporary.
Regardless, the “Divine Comedy” and its multi-layers to achieve Paradiso is more akin to the Medicare appeal audit process.
Here are the levels in a Medicare audit appeal process:
3. Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)
4. Review by the Appeals Council
5. Judicial Review
Nowadays many providers undergoing Medicare audits are getting stuck waiting for #3 to occur. Purgatory.
So long is the hold up before step #3 that Congressman Jim McDermott, 7th District, Washington, wrote a letter to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius expressing concerns.
In a letter dated March 18, 2014, Congressman McDermott writes that he is concerned with the backlog of appeals pending in the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA).
According to Congressman McDermott, 357,000 Medicare appeals are pending at OMHA. If OMHA decided to set a one-year deadline to hear the pending actions and not counting new actions that would be filed, OMHA would have to preside over 1,027.4 hearings a day, including weekends and holidays.
For as long as I know, OMHA has expedited Medicare recipients appeals. However, while Congressman McDermott commends OMHA for the expeditions, he states that the expeditions are not fast enough, even for Medicare recipients.
Congressman McDermott makes several suggestions as to how to decrease the current workload on OMHA.
First, he asks that the “two midnights policy” not be implemented. Instead, he suggests to revamp the recovery audit contractor (RAC) program. Congressman McDermott states that too many issues are still not resolved for the Policy to be implemented and that the implementation will only add to OMHA’s workload.
Second, Congressman McDermott suggests more accountability for the RACs. He states that there is no associated penalty if a RAC collects money from a provider and the decision is overturned on appeal.
To this suggestion, I say, “Bravo, Congressman McDermott!” My suggestion is that the RACs to pay the provider’s attorneys’ fees if overturned on appeal. It seems only fair that the provider not have to pay legal fees if the provider shows that the RAC was incorrect in its assessment.
Thirdly, Congressman McDermott suggests to ensure the newly instated pause on document requests corrects the problems. CMS has recognized inherent problems with the RAC program and has issued a pause of document requests. Well, Congressman McDermott says make sure you fix the problem before lifting the pause. Logical.
Without question, the backlog at OMHA needs to be addressed. Some Medicare providers have complained of not having their cases heard for years. Imagine waiting to be heard in front of a judge for years….not knowing…
It is hard enough for providers to go through a Medicare audit. Much less appeal and then…………………………………………….wait in Purgatory.
This is huge!! Not often in Medicaid administrative law, does the appeal process actually change. But the appeal process has changed.
In the past, to appeal a decision from North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), you had to file a Petition for Contested Case. The Petition would be heard by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH).
Once the ALJ rendered a Decision, DHHS would review the ALJ Decision and render a “Final Agency Decision.” Since DHHS is the entity rendering the Final Agency Decision, 9 times out of 10, the Final Agency Decision happened to decide in favor of the Department.
To appeal a Final Agency Decision, you had to request a Judicial Review in Superior Court. For the Judicial Review, the Superior Court sits as a Court of Appeals. Meaning no additional testimony or evidence may be introduced, but each side arguments the legal arguments with the evidence already introduced at OAH.
Not anymore. For dental, behavioral health, and medical authorizations, following an OAH Decision, no Final Agency Decision will be rendered.
This means that any decision made by OAH is the decision that the provider and beneficiary can act upon and that a final agency decision by DHHS is no longer required.
OAH will mail a copy of the decision via trackable mail (e.g., certified mail, registered mail, USPS trackable mail) to the parties identified on the appeal request form.
How the OAH decision is implemented depends on whether the Decision agreed with DHHS (or the contracting company) or overturned DHHS, in full or in part. The implementation language is no important, I copied and pasted the language from the http://www.ncdhhs.gov/dma/bulletin/0313bulletin.htmhttp://www.ncdhhs.gov/dma/bulletin/0313bulletin.htm.
An OAH decision that upholds the agency action will be implemented no later than three business days from the date the OAH hearing decision is mailed.
Decisions that Reverse the Agency Action (Utilization Review [UR] Contractor Decision) in Part or in Full
- If the OAH decision or a mediated settlement holds that all or part of the requested services were medically necessary, payment for those services as approved in the OAH decision or settlement will be authorized by Medicaid or its UR contractor within three business days of receipt of the decision. This authorization will remain in effect for 20 prospective calendar days after the date of the decision.
- If the provider believes that it is medically necessary for the beneficiary to continue the service that has been under appeal, the provider shall submit a prior approval request to the appropriate UR contractor within 15 calendar days of the date of the OAH decision in order to avoid an interruption in services. Upon receipt by the UR contractor of a request for service authorization within the 15 calendar days of the OAH decision, a determination to approve, deny, reduce, or terminate the request will be made within 15 business days – or in accordance with the contractor’s contract with Medicaid. If the request cannot be approved as submitted, authorization for payment will remain in effect without interruption for at least 10 calendar days following the mailing of the notice of decision on the new request for prior approval.
- If the request is denied or reduced, it will be treated as a timely request for reauthorization and maintenance of service (MOS) pending appeal will apply.
Remember, regardless of the OAH Decision, you still have the right to a judicial review at Superior Court.