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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.

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

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

Here is the following article by Mike Voorheis…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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