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Accused of a Medicare or Medicaid Overpayment? Remember That You May Fall Into an Exception That Makes You NOT Liable to Pay!!

In today’s health care world, post-payment review audits on health care providers who accept Medicare and/or Medicaid have skyrocketed. Part of the reason is the enhanced fraud, waste, and abuse detections that were implanted under ObamaCare. Then the snowball effect occurred. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Systems (CMS), which is the single federal agency designated by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), via authority from Congress, to manage Medicare and Medicaid nationwide, started having positive statistics to show Congress.

Without question, the recovery audit contractors (RACs) have recouped millions upon millions of money since 2011, when implemented. Every financial report presented to Congress shows that the program more than pays for itself, because the RACs are paid on contingency.

Which pushed the snowball down the hill to get bigger and bigger and bigger…

However, I was reading recent, nationwide case law on Medicare and Medicaid provider overpayments reviews (I know, I am such a dork), and I realized that many attorneys that providers hire to defend their alleged overpayments have no idea about the exceptions found in Sections 1870 and 1879 of the Social Security Act (SSA). Why is this important? Good question. Glad you asked. Because of this legal jargon called stare decisis (let the decision stand). Like it or not, in American law, stare decisis is the legal doctrine that dictates once a Court has answered a question,the same question in other cases must elicit the same response from the same court or lower courts in that jurisdiction. In other words, if “Attorney Uneducated” argues on behalf of a health care provider and does a crappy job, that decision, if it is against the provider, must be applied similarly to other providers. In complete, unabashed, English – if a not-so-smart attorney is hired to defend a health care provider in the Medicare and/or Medicaid world, and yields a bad result, that bad result will be applied to all health care providers subsequently. That is scary! Bad laws are easily created through poor litigation.

A recent decision in the Central District of California (shocker), remanded the Medicare overpayment lawsuit back to the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level because the ALJ (or the provider’s attorney) failed to adequately assess whether the exceptions found in Sections 1870 and 1879 of the SSA applied to this individual provider. Prime Healthcare Servs.-Huntington Beach, LLC v. Hargan, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 205159 (Dec., 13, 2017).

The provider, in this case, was a California hospital. The overpayment was a whopping total of $5,380.30. I know, a small amount to fight in the court of law and expend hundreds of thousands of attorneys’ fees. But the hospital (I believe) wanted to make legal precedent. The issue is extremely important to hospitals across the county – if a patient is admitted as inpatient and a contractor of CMS determines in a post payment review that the patient should have been admitted as an outpatient – is the hospital liable for the difference between the outpatient reimbursement rate and the inpatient reimbursement rate? To those who do not know, the inpatient hospital rates are higher than outpatient. Because the issue was so important and would have affected the hospital’s reimbursement rates (and bottom line) in the future, the hospital appealed the alleged overpayment of $5,380.30. The hospital went through the five levels of Medicare appeals. See blog. It disagreed with the ALJ’s decision that upheld the alleged overpayment and requested judicial review.

Judicial review (in the health care context): When a health care providers presents evidence before an ALJ and the ALJ ruled against the provider.The provider appeals the ALJ decision to Superior Court, which stands in as if it is the Court of Appeals. What that means is – that at the judicial review level, providers cannot present new evidence or new testimony. The provider’s attorney must rely on the   official record or transcript from the ALJ level. This is why it is imperative that, at the ALJ level, you put forth your best evidence and testimony and have the best attorney, because the evidence and transcript created from the ALJ level is the only evidence allowed from judicial review.

The exceptions found in Sections 1870 and 1879 of the SSA allow for a provider to NOT pay back an alleged overpayment, even if medical necessity does not exist. It is considered a waiver of the provider’s overpayment. If a Court determines that services were not medically necessary, it must consider whether the overpayment should be waived under Sections 1870 and 1879.

Section 1879 limits a provider’s liability for services that are not medically necessary when it has been determined that the provider “did not know, and could not reasonably have been expected to know, that payment would not be made for such services.” 42 U.S.C. 1395pp(a). A provider is deemed to have actual or constructive knowledge of non-coverage based on its receipt of CMS notices, the Medicare manual, bulletins, and other written directives from CMS. In other words, if CMS published guidance on the issue, then you are out of luck with Section 1879. The Courts always hold that providers are responsible for keeping up-to-date on rules, regulations, and guidance from CMS. “Ignorance of the law is no defense.”

Section 1870 of the SSA permits providers to essentially be forgiven for overpayments discovered after a certain period of time so long as the provider is “without fault” in causing the overpayment. Basically, no intent is a valid defense.

Sections 1879 and 1870 are extraordinary, strong, legal defenses. Imagine, if your attorney is unfamiliar with these legal defenses.

In Prime Healthcare, the Court in the Central District of California held that the ALJ’s decision did not clearly apply the facts to the exceptions of Sections 1870 and 1879. I find this case extremely uplifting. The Judge, who was Judge Percy Anderson, wanted the provider to have a fair shake. Hey, even if the services were not medically necessary, the Judge wanted the ALJ to, at the least, determine whether an exception applied. I feel like these exceptions found in Sections 1870 and 1879 are wholly underutilized.

If you are accused of an overpayment…remember these exceptions!!!

Appeal! Appeal! Appeal!

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.

NCTracks Lawsuit Dismissed! Judge Finds Providers Failed to Exhaust Their Administrative Remedies!

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.

Judge McGuire, of the NC Business Court, dismissed the NCTracks class action lawsuit stating the providers failed to exhaust the administrative remedies.  The Order reads, in part:

“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.

What?

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).

What now?

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?

Congressman McDermott Calls on Sec. Sebelius to Fix the Medicare Appeal Purgatory

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:

1. Redetermination

2. Reconsideration

(Purgatory)

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.

The NC MCOs: Jurisdiction Issues and Possible Unenforceable Contract Clauses with Medicaid Providers

According to NC Superior Court, OAH (and I) has (have) been right all along…OAH does have jurisdiction over the MCOs.  And you cannot contract away protections allowable by statute.

Before I went to law school, I do not recall ever thinking about the word “jurisdiction.”  Maybe in an episode of Law and Order I would hear the word thrown around, but I certainly was not well-versed in its meaning. While I was in law school, the word “jurisdiction” cropped up incessantly.

“Jurisdiction” is extremely important to North Carolina Medicaid providers.  Jurisdiction, in the most basic terms, means in which court to bring the lawsuit or appeal of an adverse determination.

In this blog, I am mostly referring to terminations/refusals to contract with providers by the managed care organizations (MCOs), which manage behavioral health, developmental disability, and substance abuse services for North Carolina. Recently, there have been a slew of providers terminated or told that they would not receive a renewed contract to provide Medicaid services. The MCOs tell the providers that, per contract, the providers have no rights to continued participation in the Medicaid system.

The MCOs also tell the providers that the providers cannot appeal at OAH… That the providers have no recourse… That the providers’ contracts are terminable at will (at the MCO’s will)…. I have been arguing all along that this is simply not true. And now a Superior Court decision sides with me.

The MCO have been arguing in every case that OAH does not have jurisdiction over the actions of the MCOs.  The MCOs have pointed to NC Gen. Stat. 108D and Session Law 2013-397, which amends NC Gen. Stat. 150B-23 to read:

“Solely and only for the purposes of contested cases commenced as Medicaid managed care enrollee appeals under Chapter 108D of the General Statutes, a LME/MCO is considered an agency as defined in G.S. 150B-2(1a). The LME/MCO shall not be considered an agency for any other purpose.”

A termination or denial to participate in the Medicaid program is an adverse determination. Adverse determination is defined in NC Gen. Stat. 108C-2 as, “A final decision by the Department to deny, terminate, suspend, reduce, or recoup a Medicaid payment or to deny, terminate, or suspend a provider’s or applicant’s participation in the Medical Assistance Program.”

The Department is defined as, “The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, its legally authorized agents, contractors, or vendors who acting within the scope of their authorized activities, assess, authorize, manage, review, audit, monitor, or provide services pursuant to Title XIX or XXI of the Social Security Act, the North Carolina State Plan of Medical Assistance, the North Carolina State Plan of the Health Insurance Program for Children, or any waivers of the federal Medicaid Act granted by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.”

Obviously, per statute, any entity that is acting on behalf of DHHS would be considered the “Department.” Any adverse act by any entity acting on behalf of DHHS, including terminating a provider’s participation in the Medical Assistance Program is considered an adverse determination.

The MCOs have been arguing that the above-referenced amendment to 150B means that the MCOs are not agents of the state; therefore, OAH has no jurisdiction over them.

Until March 7, 2014, these issues have been argued within OAH and no Superior Court judge had ruled on the issue.  Most of the Administrative Law Judges (ALJ), even without Superior Court’s guidance, has, in my opinion, correctly concluded that OAH does have jurisdiction over the MCOs.  A couple of the ALJs vacillate, but without clear guidance, it is to be expected.

On or about March 7, 2014, the Honorable Donald W. Stephens, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge ruled that OAH does have jurisdiction over the MCOsYelverton’s Enrichment Services, Inc. v. PBH, as legally authorized contractor of and agent for NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

If these MCOs are acting on DHHS’ behalf in managing the behavioral health Medicaid services, it would be illogical for OAH to NOT have jurisdiction over the MCOs.

In the Yelverton Order, Judge Stephens writes, “OAH did not err or exceed its statutory authority in determining that it had jurisdiction over Yelverton’s contested case.”

The Order also states that the MCO, in this case, PBH (now Cardinal Innovations), agreed that only DHHS had the authority to terminate provider enrollment. The MCO argued that, while only DHHS can terminate provider enrollment, the MCOs do have the authority “to terminate the participation of the provider in the Medical Assistance Program.”

Talk about splitting hairs! DHHS can terminate the enrollment, but the MCO can terminate the participation? If you cannot participate, what is the point of your enrollment?

Judge Stephens did not buy the MCO’s argument.

On March 7, 2014, Judge Stephens upheld ALJ Donald Overby’s Decision that OAH has jurisdiction over the MCOs for terminating provider contracts.

I anticipate that the MCOs will argue in future cases that the Yelverton case was filed prior to Session Law 2013-397, so Yelverton does not apply to post-Session Law 2013-397 fillings. However, I find this argument also without merit. The Yelverton Order expressly contemplates NC Gen. Stat. 108D and House Bill 320.

House Bill 320 was the bill contemplated by the General Assembly in the last legislative session that expressly stated that OAH does not have jurisdiction over the MCOs. It did not pass.

In Yelverton, the MCO argued that the MCO contracts with the providers allow the MCO to terminate without cause and without providing a reason.

Judge Stephens notes that the General Assembly did not pass House Bill 320. The Yelverton Order further states that no matter what the contracts between the providers and the MCOs states, “[c]ontract provisions cannot override or negate the protections provided under North Carolina law, specifically appeal rights set forth in NC Gen. Stat. 108C.”

Will the MCO appeal? That is the million dollar question…

Final Agency Decision No Longer Needed in Medicaid Appeals

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.

See below:

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.