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BREAKING: House and Senate appear close to a Medicaid deal!!

In our last post on Medicaid reform, we updated you on the recent bill passed by the North Carolina Senate relating to the long-standing thorn in the side of the General Assembly, especially regarding the states’ budget – the Medicaid program. The Senate’s version of Medicaid reform is quite different from what we have previously seen and is a hodge-podge of managed care and a new idea: “provider-led entities.”

In a strong sign that this proposal is a compromise between competing sides that could end up getting passed, both House and Senate leaders are speaking positively on the record to news media about the prospects for a deal. Given how public the issue is and how big it is (an expected $14.2 billion in North Carolina in the coming year), that means they expect to get a deal done soon. The fact that the issue is so tied up with the budget that is overdue to be passed is a further headwind to passing a bill.

Right now, the bill is in a conference committee of negotiators from the House and Senate to work out an agreement, given the differences between the two chambers.

One major issue that the committee needs to look at is whether there will be a whole new state agency: the “Department of Medicaid.” The Senate endorsed that idea last week.

Our prediction: The legislators will chart a cautious course and not erect a whole new agency at the same time they are overhauling the system.

With Wos having (coincidentally?) just stepped down as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, perhaps the lack of a lightning rod for criticism of DHHS will let the air out of the proposal to remove Medicaid from DHHS’s hands.

Stay tuned.

By Robert Shaw

Robert

North Carolina Medicaid Reform Update – Round and Round She Goes

Given how long the Medicaid reform discussions have been going on at the legislature, you may be glazed over by now. Give me the memo when they pass something, right? Fair enough, let’s keep it brief. Where do things stand right now?

Last Wednesday, the Senate staked out its position in the ongoing debate between the House and the McCrory administration.

The Senate’s newest proposal is an unusual mix of different systems and new ideas. Not willing to commit to one model for the whole Medicaid program, the latest version of the bill includes something new called Provider Led Entities, or “PLEs.” PLEs are yet the latest in the alphabet soup of different alternatives to straight fee-for-service billing for Medicare/Medicaid. You’ve all heard of HMOs, PPOs, MCOs, and ACOs. PLEs appear to be similar to ACOs, but perhaps for political reasons the Senate bill sponsors saw the need to call the idea something different.  See Knicole Emanuel’s blog.

In any event, as the name suggests, such organizations would be provider-led and would be operated through a capitated system for managing the costs of the Medicaid program. The Senate bill would result in up to twelve PLEs being awarded contracts on a regional basis.

PLEs are not the only addition to the Medicaid alphabet soup that the Senate is proposing in its version of HB 372. The Senate has also renewed its interest in taking Medicaid out of the hands of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services entirely and creating a new state agency, the Department of Medicaid (“DOM”).

(One wonders whether the continual interest in creating a new Department of Medicaid independent of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services had anything to do with embattled DHHS Secretary Wos stepping down recently.)

The Senate also proposes creating a Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Medicaid (“LOC on Medicaid”).

But creating the DOM and using new PLEs to handle the provision of Medicaid services is not the whole story. Perhaps unwilling to jump entirely into a new delivery system managed by a wholly new state agency, the Senate bill would keep LME/MCOs for mental health services in place for at least another five years. Private contractor MCOs would also operate alongside the PLEs. The North Carolina Medicaid Choice coalition, a group which represents commercial MCOs in connection with the Medicaid reform process, is pleased.

One very interesting item that the Senate has included in its proposed legislation is the following requirement: “Small providers shall have an equal opportunity to participate in the provider networks established by commercial insurers and PLEs, and commercial insurers and PLEs shall apply economic and quality standards equally regardless of provider size or ownership.” You can thank Senator Joel Ford of Mecklenburg County for having sponsored this amendment to the Senate version of House Bill 372.

By pulling the Medicaid reform proposal out of the budget bill, the matter appears headed for further negotiation between the House and the Senate to see if the two can agree this year, unlike last year.

By legislative standards, that counts as forward progress… Here come the legislative discussion committees to hash it out more between the two chambers. We will keep a close eye on the proposals as they continue to evolve.

By Robert Shaw

Lawyer photo

 

Passing the Torch: Wos Resigns!! Brajer Appointed!

Aldona Wos resigned today after two years and seven months as Secretary of NC DHHS.  Wos’ last day will be Aug. 14.

McCrory named Rick Brajer, a former medical technology executive, as the new Secretary of DHHS.

Soon-to-be Sec. Brajer, 54, was the chief executive of ProNerve and LipoScience.  LipoScience was sold to LabCorp in 2014, and ProNerve was sold to Specialty Care in April.

Brajer is not a doctor, as Wos was.  Instead, Brajer touts an MBA from Stanford.

I do not have any information as to why Wos resigned now, especially in light of the recent resignation of the Secretary of Transportation, but will keep you apprised.

More to come….

MCO CEO Compensated $400,000 Plus Bonuses with Our Tax Dollars!

On July 1, 2014, Cardinal Innovations, one of NC’s managed care organizations (MCOs) granted its former CEO, Ms. Pam Shipman, a 53% salary increase, raising her salary to $400,000/year. In addition to the raise, Cardinal issued Ms. Shipman a $65,000 bonus based on 2013-2014 performance.

$400,000 a year, plus bonuses.  Apparently, I got into the wrong career; the public sector seems to pay substantially more.

Then in July 2015, according to the article in the Charlotte Observer, Cardinals paid Ms. Shipman an additional $424,975, as severance. Within one year, Ms. Shipman was paid by Cardinal a whopping $889,975. Almost one million dollars!!!! To manage 16 counties’ behavioral health care services for Medicaid recipients.

For comparison purposes, the President of the United States earns $400,000/year (to run the entire country). Does the CEO of Cardinal equate to the President of the United States? Like the President, the CEO of Cardinal, along with all the other MCOs’ CEOs, are compensated with tax dollars.

Remember that the entire purpose of the MCO system is to decrease the risk of Medicaid budget overspending by placing the financial risk of overspending on the MCO instead of the State. In theory, the MCOs would be apt to conservatively spend funds and more carefully monitor the behavioral health care services provided to consumers within its catchment area to ensure medically necessity and not wasteful, unnecessary services.

Also, in theory, if the mission of the MCOs were to provide top-quality, medically necessary, behavioral health care services for all Medicaid recipients in need within its catchment area, as the MCOs often tout, then, theoretically, the MCOs would decrease administrative costs in order to provide higher quality, beefier services, increase reimbursement rates to incentivize health care providers to accept Medicaid, and maybe, even, not build a brand, new, stand-alone facility with top-notch technology and a cafeteria that looks how I would imagine Googles’ to look.

Here is how Cardinal’s building was described in 2010:

This new three-story, 79,000-square-foot facility is divided into two separate structures joined by a connecting bridge.  The 69,000-square-foot building houses the regional headquarters and includes Class A office space with conference rooms on each floor and a fully equipped corporate board room.  This building also houses a consumer gallery and a staff cafe offering an outdoor dining area on a cantilevered balcony overlooking a landscaped ravine.  The 10,000-square-foot connecting building houses a corporate training center. Computer access flooring is installed throughout the facility and is supported by a large server room to maintain redundancy of information flow.

The MCOs are not private companies. They do not sell products or services. Our tax dollars comprise the MCOs’ budget. Here is a breakdown of Cardinal’s budgetary sources from last year.

Cardinals budget

The so-called “revenues” are not revenues; they are tax dollars…our tax dollars.

78.1% of Cardinal’s budget, in 2014, came from our Medicaid budget. The remaining 21.7% came from state, federal, and county tax dollars, leaving .2% in the “other” category.

Because Cardinal’s budget is created with tax dollars, Cardinal is a public company working for all of us, tax paying, NC, residents.

When we hear that Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, received $9.22 million in compensation last year, we only contributed to his salary if we bought Apple products. If I never bought an Apple product, then his extraordinarily high salary is irrelevant to me. If I did buy an Apple product, then my purchase was a voluntary choice to increase Apple’s profits, or revenues.

When we hear that Cardinal Innovations paid $424,975 to ousted CEO, Pam Shipman, over and above her normal salary of $400,000 a year, we all contributed to Shipman’s compensation involuntarily. Similarly, the new CEO, Richard Toppings, received a raise when he became CEO to increase his salary to $400,000 a year. Again, we contributed to his salary.

A private company must answer to its Board of Directors. But an MCO, such as Cardinal, must answer to tax payers.

I work very hard, and I expect that my dollars be used intelligently and for the betterment of society as a whole. Isn’t that the purpose of taxes? I do not pay taxes in order for Cardinal to pay its CEO $400,000.

For better or for worse, a large percentage of our tax dollars, here in NC, go to the Medicaid budget. I would venture that most people would agree that, as a society, we have a moral responsibility to ensure that our most vulnerable population…our poorest citizens…have adequate health care. No one should be denied medical coverage and our physicians cannot be expected to dole out charity beyond their means.

Hence, Medicaid.

We know that Medicaid recipients have a difficult time finding physicians who will accept Medicaid. We know that a Medicaid card is inferior to a private payor card and limits provider choice and allowable services. We know that certain services for which our private insurances pay, simply, are not covered by Medicaid. Why should a Medicaid-insured person receive sub-par medical services or have more difficulty finding willing providers, while privately insured persons receive high quality medical care with little effort?  See blog or blog.

Part of the trouble with Medicaid is the low reimbursements given to health care providers. Health-care consulting firm Merritt Hawkins conducted a study of Medicaid acceptance rates which found that just 45.7 percent of physicians are now accepting Medicaid patients in the U.S.’s largest 15 cities and the numbers worsen when you look at sub-specialties.

The reimbursement rates are so low for health care providers; the Medicaid services are inadequate, at best; and people in need of care have difficulty finding Medicaid physicians. Yet the CEO of Cardinal Innovations is compensated $400,000 per year.

Cardinal has 635 employees. Its five, top-paid executives are compensated $284,000-$400,000 with bonuses ranging $56,500-$122,000.

Richard Topping, Cardinal’s new CEO, told the Charlotte Observer that “it doesn’t cut into Medicaid services.”

He was also quoted as saying, “It’s a lot of money. It is. You’ve just got to look at the size and the scope and the scale.”

In contrast, Governor McCrory is compensated approximately $128,000.  Is McCrory’s “size, scope, and scale” smaller than the CEO’s of Cardinal?  Is the CEO of Cardinal “size and scope and scale,” more akin to the President of the US?

“We are a public entity that acts like a private company for a public purpose,” Toppings says.  Each MCO’s Board of Directors approve salaries and bonuses.

Cardinal is not the only MCO in NC compensating its CEO very well.  However, according to the Charlotte Observer, Cardinal’s CEO’s compensation takes the cake.

Smokey Mountain Center (SMC) pays its Chief Medical Officer Craig Martin $284,000 with a $6,789 longevity bonus.

Four years ago, before the initial 11 MCOs, the administrative cost of the MCOs was nonexistent (except for the pilot program, Piedmont Behavioral Health, which is Cardinal now).  Implementing the MCO system increased administrative costs, without question.  But by how much?  How much additional administrative costs are acceptable?

Is it acceptable to pay $400,000+ for a CEO of a public entity with our tax dollars?

Medicaid Reform in a House Divided and MCO, ACO…Who Cares?

We are living in the most polarized society in recent American history. A recent study shows that the feeling of political partisanship has more than doubled over the past 2 decades. So since 1995, politically, America has parted the Red Sea with voters increasingly ebbing away from the middle.

Even more interesting is that, according to the same 2014 study, political animosity is at an all-time, recent high. I say “recent” because I cannot fathom a more polarized society than the society in the 1850s-1860s leading up to the Civil War. So, when I say “recent,” I mean post-invention of the telephone.

According to the Pew Research Center, “[i]n each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.””

partisanship

If BOTH parties express this identical sentiment, someone is wrong.

So, now, here, in this extremely polarized society, our NC General Assembly is tackling one of our most important and most divisive issues…Medicaid Reform.

But, you say, “Knicole, our General Assembly is an overwhelming Republican majority.  Our Governor is Republican.  How can this vast and deep political polarization prevent NC from creating a new, better, non-broken Medicaid system?”

In NC, even the Republicans are polarized, at least as to the issue of Medicaid reform.  The two differing opinions as to Medicaid reform can be found in our separate houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives (House).  As for our executive branch, Governor McCrory sides with the House.

The houses are divided by acronyms: ACOs (House) versus MCOs (Senate).

The House plan for Medicaid reform involves accountable care organizations (ACOs).  The ACO plan includes physicians, hospitals and other health care providers collaborating to serve Medicaid recipients and assuming the monetary risks.  For example, one ACO may be liable for 6000 Medicaid recipients.  The ACO would be given X dollars per Medicaid recipient to cover the person’s overall health care.  Say the ACO, via its health professionals, conducts a preventative breast exam on a woman and discovers a lump.  The ACO would pay to remove the lump and, hopefully, the woman is ok.  If the ACO fails to practice preventative medicine and the woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, then the ACO must finance the more expensive surgery and chemotherapy required.  The ACO’s incentive would be to provide the best, proactive health care because, regardless, the ACO will be liable for that individual’s care.  With ACOs, there is a financial incentive to keep people healthy and the profit is shared with the state.

The Senate plan for Medicaid reform involves managed care organizations (MCOs).  Unlike ACOs, MCOs will not be comprised of health care providers.  The MCOs will be large companies that will be charged with managing Medicaid by contracting with a network of providers.  Many Medicaid services require prior authorization, which would be in the hands of the utilization review team employed by the MCO.  Similar to the ACO, the MCO would be given an amount of money based on the number of Medicaid recipients within its network.  The profit for the MCO is the money remaining at the end of the fiscal quarter that was not spent on services for Medicaid recipients.

What is better?  Does better mean the most cost-savings?  Does better mean the best quality of care for Medicaid recipients?

In order to determine whether the MCO-model or ACO-model is better and what exactly “better” means, you have to follow the money.  For both models, you have to ask, “If the actual medical services provided cost double the anticipated amount, who bears the burden?” And, conversely, “If the actual medical services provided cost half the anticipated amount, who pockets the profit?”

There are numerous ways for an insurer to be paid.  At one end of the spectrum, you have capitation; while at the other end of the spectrum you have a more typical financial relationship in which the insurer simply pays the health care provider its reasonable and usual amount.

Capitation is how we currently have our MCOs set up for behavioral health care in North Carolina.  As we currently use capitation for our MCOs, I would assume that the Senate-model MCOs would also be capitated.  Capitation places the risk on the MCO because the MCO receives a fixed amount regardless of actual cost.  However, there is concern (or should be) that the MCOs will provide patients less care than needed in order to pocket a profit.

On the other hand, ACOs typically do not rely on full capitation.  The ACOs may share the risk, and, therefore, the profit, with the state.

Another HUGE difference between ACOs and MCOs is that, with MCOs, the insurer in effect dictates what a health care provider is allowed to do.  For example, say a dentist believes that a person is in need of dentures.  Maybe 4-5 teeth have already fallen out and the remaining teeth are suffering more mild rot.  The dentist requests prior authorization from the MCO to extract teeth, create a mold of the mouth, and order dentures to be custom-created.  The MCO denies the requests saying, for example, not enough teeth have fallen out or not enough rot is present in the remaining teeth.  The dentist’s hands are tied to the decision of the MCO, unless the patient can fork over the cost of care that the MCO refuses to authorize.  And, BTW, the person who denied the request may have graduated from college with a BA in History . . . or in any event something else other than a field of medical or dental care

An ACO, on the other hand, is run by physicians, hospitals, and other health care providers. Theoretically, the decisions to authorize services would be made by those same people who swore the Hippocratic Oath.

With regard to healing the sick, I will devise and order for them the best diet, according to my judgment and means; and I will take care that they suffer no hurt or damage.

(I doubt a History major ever swore to heal the sick).

There has also been contemplation as to whether the General Assembly should remove the responsibility of managing Medicaid from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) completely.  Obviously, this suggestion is extreme and would require a Waiver from the federal government to transfer the “single state agency” requirement from DHHS to another entity.

Regardless of what decisions are made…whether the GA requires a private Medicaid panel to usurp Medicaid responsibilities from DHHS….whether NC adopts an MCO-model or an ACO-model for Medicaid reform….as it currently stands, our houses are divided.  No bills pass a divided legislature.

The Senate and House both indicate that Medicaid reform is a forefront issue during this long session, but, so far, there has been no indication of a Great Compromise.

Williams Mullen Hosts “The State of the State of Health Care” Panel Discussion

Williams Mullen is hosting a free panel discussion on “The State of the State of Health Care.”  Please see below!

The panelists will be Rep. Nelson Dollar, Steven Keene, General Counsel to the NC Medical Society, Barbara Burke, from BCBS, and me.  The panel discussion will begin at 4:00.  Then from 5:00-6:30 we will have free drinks and appetizers.

Please feel free to come and bring others.  But we do request that you register here by October 10th in order for us to have a correct head count.

panel

 

 

DHHS reviews options for Medicaid expansion

From the News & Observer:

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina’s health secretary said Wednesday her agency is collecting information for Gov. Pat McCrory to offer him possible ways to expand Medicaid coverage to more people under the federal health care overhaul.

The Republican-led General Assembly and McCrory declined to accept expansion last year because they said the state Medicaid office consistently faced shortfalls in the hundreds of millions of dollars. A state audit and other troubled operations led McCrory to call the $13 billion program “broken.”

But Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos told a legislative committee the agency’s financial and structural improvements make offering credible options doable.

“We are at a point …. where we have an ability to evaluate options for the state and will be presenting those options to the governor,” Wos told the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee. Last week, Wos trumpeted to another General Assembly panel how the Division of Medical Assistance held a $64 million cash balance at the end of the last fiscal year.

Wos stressed it would be up to others to decide on expansion, most of which would be paid by the federal government for the near future. Expansion is designed for hundreds of thousands of uninsured North Carolina residents who make too much for traditional Medicaid but not enough for subsidized insurance exchange plans. Medicaid currently enrolls more than 1.8 million state residents — mostly poor children, older adults and the disabled.

Wos gave no timetable for offering McCrory those options but said it would be more than just determining whether it would make financial sense. For example, she said, there needs to be enough health care providers to oversee any wave of new enrollees.

McCrory said in July he would be willing to revisit Medicaid expansion if cost overruns were repaired and provided the federal government in part gave the state flexibility to target any coverage increase based on North Carolina’s needs.

Earlier Wednesday, DHHS also announced plans for a retooled organizational structure for the division, the first of its kind in 36 years. It shifts from two division sections to what the agency calls five clearly defined functions. An outside consultant has been helping with organizational, finance and budget forecasting within Medicaid.

Again Wednesday, Wos rejected arguments from the legislature, particularly the Senate, to remove Medicaid from DHHS, saying it would undo recent progress.

NC State Auditor’s Findings May Cause Overzealous Oversight

Ok, so it took me a couple of days to free up some time to discuss the most recent Performance Audit by our State Auditor. This time of year is CRAZY! We had to get our daughter ready for the 4th grade, which entails buying an absurd amount of school supplies. Thank goodness we don’t have to do “back to school” clothes shopping, because she wears uniforms. Yesterday was her first day of school and, apparently, everything went well.

Now, I want to discuss the recent Performance Audit published by Beth Wood, our NC State Auditor, regarding provider eligibility. Prior to going any further, let me voice my opinion that Beth Wood as our State Auditor rocks. She is smart, courageous, and a force of nature. Any comment that may be negative in nature as to the most recent audit is NOT negative as to the audit itself, but to the possible consequences of such an audit. In other words, I do not believe that the Performance Audit as to Medicaid Provider Eligibility is incorrect; I am only concerned as to the possible consequences of such an audit on the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and health care providers.

The Medicaid Provider Eligibility Performance Audit found that “deficiencies in the enrollment process increase the risk of unqualified providers participating in the Medicaid Program.”

And DHHS’ “enrollment review procedures do not provide reasonable assurance that only qualified providers are approved to participate in the NC Medicaid program.”

And “quality assurance reviews were not conducted or were ineffective.”

Basically, the Performance Audit (in layman’s terms) says that DHHS, again, has little to no oversight, lacks supervision over providers, has program deficiencies, and lacks the ability to manage Medicaid provider eligibility requirements adequately. Considering that DHHS is the single agency charged with managing Medicaid in North Carolina, the Performance Audit is yet another blow to the ability of DHHS to do its job.

Gov. McCrory appointed Sec. Aldona Wos as the head of DHHS, effective January 5, 2013. With Sec. Wos at its helm, DHHS has been riddled by the media with stories of management difficulties, high-level resignations, and mismanaged tax dollars. With the amount of media attention shining on DHHS, it is amazing that Sec. Wos has only been there almost a year and a half. Oh, how time flies.

While, again, I do not discount the accuracy of the Medicaid Provider Eligibility Performance Audit, I am fearful that it will spur DHHS to almost another “Salem witch hunt” extravaganza by pushing the already far-swung pendulum of attacks on providers, in the direction of more attacks. DHHS, through its contractors, agents and vendors, has increased its regulatory audits and heightened its standards to be compliant as a provider for a number of reasons:

1. The U. S. Supreme Court’s Olmstead case;
2. The DOJ settlement as to ACTT providers;
3. More oversight by CMS;
4. The ACA’s push for recovery audit contractors (RACs);
5. General need to decrease the Medicaid budget;
6. Increased fraud, waste, and abuse detection standards in the ACA;
7. Monetary incentives on managed care organizations (MCOs) to decrease the number of providers;
8. Etc.

Imagine a pendulum swinging…or, better yet, imagine a child swinging on a swing. Before the child reaches the highest point of the swing, an adult runs behind the child and pushes the child even higher, in order to get a little more “umphf” on the swing. And the child goes even higher and squeals even more in excitement. But that’s not always a great idea. Sometimes the child goes flying off.

I am afraid that the Performance Audit will be that adult pushing the child on the swing. The extra little push…the extra little “umphf” to make the pendulum swing even higher.

As with any Performance Audit, DHHS is allowed to respond to Ms. Wood’s findings. One response is as follows:

“In September 2013, DMA established and implemented Management Monitoring Quality Controls (Monitoring Plan) for reviewing approval and denial decisions related to provider applications referred to it by the Contractor due to a potential concern. The Monitoring Plan established standardized policies and procedures and ensures that staff adheres to them in making enrollment determinations.”

In other words, recently DHHS has put forth a more aggressive oversight program as to health care providers and it will only get more aggressive.

In the last year or so, we have seen more aggressive oversight measures on health care provider that accept Medicaid. More audits, more desk reviews, more fraud investigation…and most (that I have seen) are overzealous and incorrect.

Believe me, I would be fine with increased oversight on health care providers, if the increased oversight was conducted correctly and in compliance with federal and state rules and regulations. But the audits and oversight to which I have been privy are over-bearing on providers, incorrect in the findings, and lacking much of due process for, much less respect to the providers.

I am concerned that the extra little “umphf” by this Performance Audit will impact health care providers’ decisions to accept or not to accept Medicaid patients. See my past blogs on the shortage of health care providers accepting Medicaid.  “Shortage of Dentists Who Accept Medicaid: The Shortage Continues.” “Provider Shortage for Medicaid Recipients.” And “Prisons and Emergency Rooms: Our New Medicaid Mental Health Care Providers.

Instead of increasing overzealous audits on health care providers, maybe we should require DHHS, through its contractors, agents, and vendors, to conduct compliant, considerate, and constitutionally-correct audits and oversight. Maybe the “umphf” should be applied more toward DHHS.

Our Medicaid Budget Does More Than Allocate Money; It Places the Burden of Proof on Medicaid Providers!!!

Are you a health care provider in NC? Are you wonderful enough to help Medicaid patients but accept low Medicaid reimbursements? Are you dedicated to helping our most needy? Well, guess what???? YOU now have the burden of proof if you disagree with an adverse determination by the State.

That’s right. The newly-enacted state budget quietly changes the statutes and shifts the burden of proof from the Department to YOU. I am reminded of my Grandpa Carson. Whenever he couldn’t believe what he just heard, he would bellow, “Wooooo weee.” Growing up in the south, we have certain sayings, such as “Bless your heart,” “Y’all come back now, ya hear?” and “That food is so good I could slap my momma.” My Grandpa Carson, God rest his soul, was as southern as southern can get. If he were here and heard about the burden shift onto the providers, he would say, “Wooo weeeee.”

Last week while I was on my first week-long vacation in 2 years, the North Carolina state budget, known as Session Law 2014-100, was signed into law by Governor McCrory.  (Which is why I missed a week of blogging…my vacation, not McCrory’s signature).  Since I was at my family reunion started by my Grandpa, I am dedicating this blog to my grandpa, Nat Carson, who created a family tradition that has lasted for over 40 years. Our (huge) extended family vacation together once a year at Emerald Isle for a family reunion. FOUR generations attend!

Going back to the budget…

An “adverse determination” in this case includes decisions by North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) under the Medicaid program such as the Department’s termination of a contract with the provider, a Managed Care Organization’s (MCO) termination of a provider contract, or the Department or one its many vendors determines that the providers owes an overpayment back to the state.

Not only does the state budget shift the burden of proof onto providers when they contest an adverse determination by the State, which we will discuss more below, but it also takes a lot of DHHS decision-making power away. It is apparent that the General Assembly does NOT think DHHS can do its job of managing Medicaid and creating Medicaid reform competently. The General Assembly (GA) has decided that, for whatever reason, it will be more hands-on regarding Medicaid decisions in the future.

Here are a few examples of the GA’s hands-on attitude found in the Session Law 2014-100 (with some emphasis I have made by putting some words in bold-faced type)

  • “Until the General Assembly enacts legislation authorizing a plan to reform Medicaid, the Department of Health and Human Services (i) shall continue to consult with stakeholder groups, study, and recommend options for Medicaid reform that will provide greater budget predictability for the Medicaid program and (ii) shall not commit the State to any particular course on Medicaid reform and shall not submit any reform-related State plan amendments, waivers, or grant applications nor enter into any contracts related to implementing Medicaid reform.”
  • “The Department may submit drafts of the waiver to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to solicit feedback but shall not submit the waiver for CMS approval until authorized by the General Assembly.”
  • “The Department of Health and Human Services shall make payments to the contractor hired by the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services from funds appropriated elsewhere in this budget for this contract…”
  • “The Department of Health and Human Services shall not make any other modifications to the portion of the Medicaid State Plan referenced in this section, except as provided herein.”
  • “The Department may submit drafts of the waivers to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to solicit feedback but shall not submit the waivers for CMS approval until authorized by the General Assembly.
  • “[T]he Division of Medical Assistance shall ensure that any Medicaid-related or NC Health Choice-related State contract entered into after the effective date of this section contains a clause that allows the Department or the Division to terminate the contract without cause upon 30 days’ notice.”
  • “No fewer than 10 days prior to submitting an amendment to the State Plan to the federal government, the Department shall post the amendment on its Web site and notify the members of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services and the Fiscal Research Division that the amendment has been posted.”

Basically, the GA has estopped DHHS from reforming Medicaid without the consent of the General Assembly.

Then, stuck in the middle of the state budget is the amendment to N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C…. “Woooo weeee!”

MODIFY MEDICAID APPEALS SECTION 12H.27.

(a) G.S. 108C-12(d) reads as rewritten: “(d) Burden of Proof. – The Department petitioner shall have the burden of proof in appeals of Medicaid providers or applicants concerning an adverse determination.”

Does anyone else understand what this teeny, tiny clause within Session Law 2014-100 means????

What is the importance of burden of proof? Enormous! And this clause changes the playing field for Medicaid providers. It may not have been a level field prior to Session Law 2014-100, but now it’s even more slanted.

The easiest way to explain “burden of proof” is that when a petitioning Medicaid provider challenges some adverse determination by DHHS, for example, the Department’s termination of a contract with the provider, the “burden of proof” decides which party must persuade the reviewing tribunal that the party’s assertions are correct. Up until this amendment of G.S.108C-12(d), the Department has had the burden to present evidence showing that its adverse determination was correct. The petitioner could then respond to that evidence, to try to show the contrary, but the burden of proving the correctness of the adverse determination still rested on the Department in cases filed by Medicaid providers under Chapter 108C.

In court, one of the first questions a judge will ask is, “Who carries the burden of proof?” Because the legal burden of proof is just that…a burden…that must be satisfactorily carried in order to win.

Health care providers who accept Medicaid have notoriously been given the short-end of the stick, i.e., low reimbursement rates, undergoing burdensome audits, but, at least, in NC, historically, the Department has had to prove the correctness of its allegations, whether it be an alleged overpayment, a termination of a Medicaid contract, or other allegations.

But now? DHHS’ allegations against a health care provider are true…unless the provider can prove DHHS wrong. The uphill fight of a provider seeking to correct a DHHS adverse determination, just became much steeper, and it was done with little or no fanfare.

“Woooooooo weeeeeee!”

So can you do? Only options as far as I see it:

  1. Call and email your state representatives.
  2. Hire a lobbyist.
  3. Bring a lawsuit to change it.
  4. Do nothing.

Per L. Warren’s comment, I am adding #5.

5. Stop taking Medicaid clients.

Medicare Appeals to OMHA Reaches 15,000 Per Week, Yet Decisions Take Years; Hospital Association Sues Over Medicare Backlog

When you are a health care provider and make the business determination to accept Medicare or Medicaid, you are agreeing to deal with certain headaches.  Low reimbursement rates and more regulations than you can possibly count make accepting Medicare and Medicaid a daunting experience.  Throw in some pre- and post-payment review audits, some inept contractors, and dealing with the government, in general, and you have a trifecta of terrible to-dos.

But having to “pay back” (by reimbursement withholding) an alleged overpayment before an appeal decision is rendered is not a headache which hospitals have agreed to take, says the American Hospital Association.  And it said so very definitively, in the form of a Complaint in the U. S. District Court for the District of Columbia

In both Medicaid and Medicare audits, if you get audited and are told to pay back XX dollars, you have a right to appeal that determination.  Obviously, with Medicare, you appeal on the federal level and with Medicaid, you appeal to the state level.  But the two roads to appeal (the state and federal) are not identical.  Robert Frost once said, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”  However,the Medicare appeal route is NOT the route less traveled by.

As of February 12, 2014, over 480,000 Medicare appeals were pending for assignment to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), with 15,000 new appeals filed each week.  In December 2013, HHS Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) announced a moratorium on assignment of provider appeals to ALJs for at least the next two years, and possibly longer.  The average wait-time for a hearing is approximately 24 months, but will undoubtedly increase quickly due to the moratorium.  A decision would not come until later.  And all the while the parties are waiting, the provider’s reimbursements will be withheld until the alleged overpayment amount is met.  Literally, a Medicare appeal could take 3-5 years.

The American Hospital Association is fed up. And who can blame them?  On May 22, 2014, the American Hospital Association (AHA) filed a Complaint in the United States District Court in the District of Columbia against Kathleen Selebius, in her official capacity as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), complaining that HHS is noncompliant with federal statutory law because of the Medicare appeal backlog.  I am not surprised by AHA’s Complaint; I am only surprised that it took this long for a lawsuit.  I am also surprised that more providers, other than hospitals, are not taking action.

AHA is requesting relief under the Mandamus Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1361.  The Mandamus Act allows a court to compel an officer or employee of the United States or any agency thereof to perform a duty owed.  In this case, the AHA is saying that HHS has a statutory duty to resolve Medicare appeals within 90 days.  So, AHA is asking the district court to compel HHS to resolve Medicare appeals by not later than the end of the 90-day period beginning on the date a request for hearing has been timely filed.

And, here, I am obliged to insert a quick, two thumbs-up for our very own Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH)  in NC for its handling of Medicaid appeals.  If you file a contested case at OAH, it will not take 3-5 years.

AHA’s lawsuit is significant because AHA does not restrict the relief requested to only hospital Medicare appeals.  AHA requests that the District Court “enter a declaratory judgment that HHS’s delay in adjudication of Medicare appeals violates federal law.”  If granted, I would assume that this declaratory judgment would impact all Medicare providers.  The only way to ensure all providers are covered by this decision is for all providers to either (1) file a separate action (to include damages, which is not included in AHA’s action for some reason); or (2) to join AHA’s action (and forego damages), but its impact will be broad.  I am not sure why AHA did not seek damages; the time value of money is a real damage…the non-ability for the hospitals to invest in more beds because their money is stuck at HHS is a real damage…the loss of the interest on the withheld money, which is obviously benefiting the feds, is a real damage.

AHA’s request is not dissimilar to an arrested individual’s right to a speedy trial.  During a criminal trial, the defendant remains incarcerated.  Therefore, because we believe our liberty is so important, the defendant has a right to a speedy trial.  That way, if he or she is innocent, the defendant would have spent the least number of days imprisoned.

With a Medicare audit appeal, HHS begins immediately withholding reimbursements until the alleged overpayment amount is met, even though through the appeal, that overpayment will most likely be decreased quite substantially.  Apparently, across the nation, the percent of overturned Medicare audits through appeal is around 72%,  but I could not find out whether the 72% represents ANY amount overturned or the entire 100% of the audit being overturned.  Because, in my personal experience, 99.9% of Medicare appeals have SOME reduction in the alleged amount (I would have said 100%, but we are taught not to use definitive remarks as attorneys).

Because the provider’s Medicare money is withheld based on an allegation of an overpayment, the fact that the cases are backlogged at the ALJ level is financially distressing for any provider.Even without the backlog, Medicare appeals take longer than Medicaid appeals.  In Medicare, there is four-step appeal process.  Going before the ALJ is the 3rd level.

First, a Medicare appeal begins with the Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) for redetermination.  The MAC must render a redetermination decision within sixty days.

If unsuccessful, a provider can appeal the MAC’s decision to a Qualified Independent Contractor (“QIC”) for reconsideration. QICs must render a decision within sixty days.

Provided that the amount in controversy is greater than $140 (for calendar year 2014), the next level, and where the backlog begins, is at the level of appeal to an ALJ. The ALJ is required both to hold a hearing and to render a decision within ninety days, which is not happening.

Hence, AHA’s lawsuit.  Hopefully AHA will be successful, because a backlog of Medicare appeals at the ALJ level doesn’t help anyone.  And audits are not going away.