For the full press release.
This New Mexico settlement…What a long strange trip it’s been!
The litigation started in 2013 (six years ago). I was a partner at another Raleigh, NC law firm. Out of the blue, a woman called me from New Mexico and asked whether I would be willing to fly to New Mexico to testify before the General Assembly regarding Public Consulting Group (PCG) and the company’s extrapolation and audit history.
I did. I testified before the NM General Assembly’s subcommittee for behavioral health care. Sitting next to me was a gentleman from PCG. He happened to be the team leader (not sure what his exact title was) for PCG’s audits in NM and NC. In his defense, he graciously sat there and testified against me while I told some horror stories of PCG audits. See blog.
I met the 15 behavioral health care providers’ CEOs who were accused of credible allegations of fraud. Their stories were so emotional and heart-tugging. These people had dedicated their lives and careers to New Mexico’s most needy population – those on Medicaid and suffering from mental health, substance abuse, and/or developmental disabilities – not for money, but because they cared. Then June 24, 2013, the State of New Mexico accused them all of credible allegations of fraud. NM’s proof? A PCG audit that found no credible allegations of fraud. But Human Services Department (HSD) instructed PCG to remove “no credible allegations of fraud,” and HSD referred the audits to the Attorney General (AG) claiming that credible allegations of fraud existed. Sound like a movie? It could be; it is a conspiracy theory story along the lines of Area 51. Is it a coincidence that Area 51 and the NM behavioral health care debacle both occurred in NM?
“I’d like to get some sleep before I travel
But if you got a warrant, I guess you’re gonna come in.” – Grateful Dead
A timeline of the events, starting in 2013, has been memorialized by multiple news organizations. See Timeline.
“June 24 — An audit paid for by the New Mexico Human Services Department and conducted by Public Consulting Group (PCG) finds that nearly $33.8 million in Medicaid overpayments were made to 15 behavioral health providers in the state.
June 24 — New Mexico Human Services Department notifies the 15 behavioral health providers that there is a “credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending,” and immediately suspends all Medicaid payments.
June 25 — Officials with the New Mexico Human Services Department send initial contracts to five Arizona companies: Agave Health Inc., Valle Del Sol, La Frontera Inc., Southwest Network Inc., and Turqouise Health and Wellness, Inc., to temporarily take over New Mexico behavioral health organizations for a combined price tag of $17.85 million. It’s estimated the move will impact about 30,000 patients. From a July 18 email: “I am following up on the proposed contract between HSD and Open Skies Healthcare (affiliated with Southwest Network, located in Phoenix). On July 3, 2013, I responded to Larry’s [Heyeck, Deputy General Counsel for HSD] June 25 email concerning the contract…”
July 17 – Eight agencies go to U.S. District Court to restore funding.
July 25 – A memo generated by one of the 15 affected providers, TeamBuilders, indicates it will stop taking new clients.
July 25 – A state district judge turns the PCG audit over to New Mexico State Auditor Hector Balderas, and orders the audit protected from public disclosure.
Aug. 21 – In a 15-1 vote New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee objects to the Human Services Department moving $10 million from it’s budget to pay Arizona agencies to take over New Mexico providers due to concerns over secrecy surrounding the process.
Aug. 27 – New Mexico In Depth and the Las Cruces Sun-Newsfile a lawsuit demanding the public release of the PCG audit.
Aug. 28 – Federal officials hold conference call to hear about widespread disruptions to clients of behavioral health providers in transition.
Aug. 29 – An Inspection of Public Records Act request filed by KUNM reveals contract communications between New Mexico Human Services Department officials and Arizona providers as early as May 29, a full month before the audit was released by Public Consulting Group.
Sept. 3 – Public Consulting Group representative Thomas Aldridge tells the New Mexico Legislative Behavioral Health Subcommittee that he helped state officials vet at least one Arizona firm before it even began its audit of agencies in the state.
Sept. 3 — Lawyer Knicole Emanuel testifies to ongoing problems with PCG audits conducted in North Carolina as well as lawsuits triggered by PCG activities. “In some of the PCG audits that I have encountered, PCG has said the Medicaid provider owes $700,000, $800,000, $1.5 million, these exorbitant amounts, and at the end of the day when they look at all the documents, it goes down to like $200 or $300.”
Sept. 10 – The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that political ads defending Gov. Susana Martinez have begun rolling out, framing the behavioral health takeover as a crackdown on Medicaid fraud.”
I litigated 4 administrative appeals. Even after the NM AG came out and stated that there was no fraud, HSD accused the providers of owing alleged overpayments, some upwards of $12 million. These amounts were extrapolated.
In the very first administrative appeal, for The Counseling Center, the extrapolation expert was one of HSD’s attorneys. Upon questions regarding his extrapolation and statistical experience and the foundation for his expertise, he testified that took a class on statistics in college. I guess I could be a bowling expert.
PCG only testified in the first two administrative appeals. I guess after PCG testified that they were never given the opportunity to finish their audit due to HSD and that PCG found no fraud, but HSD removed that language from the report, HSD smartened up and stopped calling PCG as a witness. PCG certainly was not bolstering HSD’s position.
For three of the administrative appeals, we had the same administrative law judge (ALJ), who appeared to have some experience as an ALJ. For one of the appeals, we had a younger gentleman as the ALJ, who, according to LINKEDIN, was a professional photographer.
About 5 years after the accusations of fraud, the AG came out and exonerated all the providers. Apparently, there never was any fraud. Only accusations. These exonerations, however, did not stop the allegations of overpayments to HSD. The exonerations also did not stop these companies from going out of business, being tried as fraudsters in the eyes of the public, losing their companies, firing staff, closing their doors, and losing everything.
This was all done under the administration of Susana Martinez – not saying that politics played a huge role in the act of overthrowing these providers.
The providers all appealed their alleged overpayments and filed a lawsuit against HSD and the State for damages suffered from the original allegation of fraud that was found to be meritless.
After an election and a new administration took control, the State of New Mexico settled with the providers, as you can see from the above press release.
During the long journey over the past 6 years, one of the CEOs, Jose Frietz, passed away. He had started his company Families & Youth, Inc. in 1977. A month before he died on March 2, 2016, the AG exonerated FYI.
In 2013, Larry Heyeck was one of the attorneys for HSD. Multiple times during the witch hunt for Medicaid fraud, it appeared that Heyeck had some sort of personal vendetta against the 15 providers. According to one article, “Heyeck singled out Roque Garcia, former acting CEO of Southwest Counseling Services (Las Cruces), who was a recipient of the payments and asked legislators, “What does this mean? How can this money be accounted for to ensure that it isn’t used for private benefit?” Heyeck then asserted that Garcia had abused agency travel funds largely paid for by Medicaid through lavish travel to resort destinations in a private aircraft.”
Garcia wasn’t the only provider accused of misappropriating Medicaid funds. Shannon Freedle and his wife Lorraine were ostracized for having their abode in Hawaii.
Larry Heyeck, had an article published in the December 2012’s American Bar Association’s “The Health Lawyer” discussing the effect of 42 CFR 455.23 on Medicaid fraud and suspensions of Medicaid reimbursements. It was entitled, “Medicaid Payment Holds Due to Credible Allegations of Fraud.” Seem apropos?
By 2016, all 15 providers were cleared of allegations of fraud, but most were out of business.
Now – December 4, 2019 – a press release is disseminated to show that the last of the providers settled with the State of New Mexico. What the press release fails to express is the struggle, the financial and non-financial damages, the emotional turmoil, and the devastation these companies have endured over the past 6 years. No amount of money could ever right their catastrophic, past 6-years or the complete demise of their companies based on erroneous allegations of fraud.
“Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me; Other times, I can barely see; Lately, it occurs to me; What a long, strange trip it’s been.” – Grateful Dead
“Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law this week a bill (SB41) that ensures service providers accused of overbilling or defrauding Medicaid can review and respond to allegations of wrongdoing before state action is taken.” – Tripp Jennings, New Mexico In Depth.
For those of you who don’t know, in 2013, the State of New Mexico, suspended the Medicaid reimbursements of 15 behavioral health care providers based on “credible allegations of fraud.” 42 CFR 455.23. The Attorney General eventually determined that no fraud existed as to ANY of the 15 behavioral health care providers. These providers constituted 87.5% of the behavioral health care providers in New Mexico, which is predominantly Medicaid and has the highest suicide rate of any state, if you consider the Native American population.
There was no due process. The providers were informed of the immediate Medicaid suspension in a group meeting without ever being told what exactly the “fraud” was that they allegedly committed. They were informed by, then assistant Attorney General, Larry Hyeck, that fraud existed and because of the ongoing investigation nothing could be divulged to those accused. Supposedly, the evidence for such “fraud” was based on an independent audit performed by Public Consulting Group (PCG). However, according to testimony from an employee of PCG at the administrative hearing of The Counseling Center (one of the 15 accused behavioral health care providers), PCG was not allowed by the Human Services Department of NM (HSD) to complete its audit. According to this employee’s testimony, it is PCG’s common practice to return to the providers which are the subject of the audit a 2nd or even 3rd time to ensure that all the relevant documents were collected and reviewed. Human error and the sheer amount of medical records involved in behavioral health care suggest that a piece of paper or two can be overlooked, especially because this audit occurred in 2013, before most of the providers had adopted electronic medical record systems. Add in the fact that PCG’s scanners were less than stellar and that the former Governor Susan Martinez, Optum’s CEO, and the HSD Secretary -at the time- had already vetted 5 Arizona companies to overtake the 15 NM behavioral health care companies – even prior to PCG’s determination – and the sum equals a pre-determined accusation of fraud. PCG’s initial report stated that no credible allegations of fraud existed. However, PCG was instructed to remove that sentence.
Almost all the providers were forced out of business. The staff were terminated or told to be employed by the new 5 AZ companies. The Medicaid recipients lost their mental health services. One company remained in business because they paid the State for fraud that they never committed. Another company held on by a very thin thread because of its developmental disability services. But the former-CEO became taxed and stepped down and many more left or were let go. The 13 other providers were financially ruined, including the largest behavioral health care provider in NM, which serviced over 700 Medicaid recipients and employed hundreds of clinical staff. It had been servicing NM’s poor and those in need of mental health services for over 30 years. Another company had been in business over 40 years (with the same CEO). The careers and live’s work were crumbled in one day and by one accusation that was eventually proven to be wrong.
No one ever foresaw this amount of abuse of discretion to occur by government agents.
Now, today, in 2019, the new Governor of NM, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, signed a law introduced by Senator Mary Kay Papen, a long proponent and advocate that the 15 behavioral health care providers were unjustly accused and forced out of business, that will protect Medicaid providers in NM from ever being subjected to the unjust and arbitrary suspension of Medicaid funds and unfounded allegations of Medicaid fraud.
Even though 42 C.F.R. 455.23 requires a state to suspend Medicaid funding upon “credible allegations of fraud,” NM has taken the first step toward instituting a safeguard for Medicaid providers. Already too few health care providers accept Medicaid – and who can blame them? The low reimbursement rates are nothing compared to the regulatory scrutiny that they undergo merely for accepting Medicaid.
NM SB41 contradicts the harsh language of 42 CFR 455.23, which mandates that a State “must” suspend payments upon a credible allegation of fraud. NM SB41 provides due process for Medicaid providers accused of fraud. Which begs the question – why hasn’t anyone brought a declaratory action to determine that 42 CFR 455.23 violates due process, which happens to be a constitutional right?
Part of the due process enacted by New Mexico is that a suspension of Medicaid reimbursements should be released upon a post of a surety bond and that the posting of a surety bond shall be deemed good cause to not suspend payments during the investigation. Although the new law also states that the Medicaid reimbursement suspension must be released within 10 days of the posting of the surety bond “in the amount of the suspended payment.” After 4 administrative hearings in New Mexico, I can assure you that the provider and HSD will have two disparate views of the “amount of the suspended payment.” And by disparate, I mean REALLY disparate.
Regardless, I view this new law as a giant leap in the direction of the Constitution, which was actually enacted in 1789. So is it apropos that 230 years later NM is forced to enact a law that upholds a legal right that was written and enacted into law 230 years ago?
Thank you, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Senator Papen, Patsy Romero, and Shawn Mathis for your amazing effort on getting this legislation passed.
And – look forward to my webcast on RACMonitor on Monday, April 8, 2019, detailing how courts across the country are revising their views and granting federal injunctions stopping premature recoupments when a Medicare/caid provider is accused of an overpayment. Due process is on a come-back.
So many memos, so little time. Federal prosecutors receive guidance on how to prosecute. Maybe “guidance” is too loose a term. There is a manual to follow, and memos are just guidance until the memos are incorporated into what is known as the Justice Manual. Memos are not as binding as the Justice Manual, but memos are persuasive. For the last 22 years, the Justice Manual has not been revised to reflect the many, many memos that have been drafted to direct prosecutors on how to proceed. Until recently…
Justice Manual Revised
The Justice Manual, which is the manual that instructs federal prosecutors how to proceed in cases of Medicare and Medicaid fraud, has been revised for the first time since 1997. The Justice Manual provides internal Department of Justice (DOJ) rules.
The DOJ has new policies for detecting Medicare and Medicaid fraud and abuse. Some of these policies are just addendums to old policies. Or formal acceptance to old memos. Remember the Yates Memo? The Yates Memo directed prosecutors to indict executives, individually, of fraudulent companies instead of just going after the company.
The Yates Memo has now been codified into the Justice Manual.
Then came the Granston Memo – In a January 10, 2018, memo (the “Granston Memo”), the DOJ directed its prosecutors to more seriously consider dismissing meritless False Claims Act (“FCA”) cases brought by whistleblowers. It lists 7 (non-exhaustive) criteria for determining whether the DOJ should dismiss a qui tam lawsuit. The reasoning behind the Granston Memo is that whistleblower lawsuits have risen over 600 cases per year, but the government’s involvement has not mirrored the raise. This may indicate that many of the whistleblower lawsuits are frivolous and filed for the purpose of financial gain, even if the money is not warranted. Remember qui tam relators (people who bring lawsuits against those who mishandle tax dollars, are rewarded monetarily for their efforts…and, usually, the reward is not a de minimus amount. In turn, people are incentivized to identify fraud and abuse against the government. At least, according to the Granston Memo, the financial incentive works too well and frivolous lawsuits are too prevalent.
The Granston Memo has also been codified into the Justice Manual.
Talk about an oxymoron…the Yates Memo instructs prosecutors to pursue claims against more people, especially those in the executive positions for acts of the company. The Granston Memo instructs prosecutors to more readily dismiss frivolous FCA allegations. “You’re a wigwam. You’re a teepee. Calm down, you’re just two tents (too tense).” – a horrible joke that my husband often quips. But this horrible quote is apropos to describe the mixed messages from DOJ regarding Medicare and Medicaid fraud and abuse.
The Brand Memo, yet another memo that we saw come out of CMS, instructs prosecutors not to use noncompliance as subject to future DOJ enforcement actions. In other words, agency guidance does not cannot create binding legal requirements. Going forward, the DOJ will not enforce recommendations found in agency guidance documents in civil actions. Relatedly, DOJ will not use noncompliance with agency guidance to “presumptively or conclusively” establish violations of applicable law or regulations in affirmative civil enforcement cases.
The Brand Memo was not incorporated into the Justice Manual. It also was not repudiated.
Medicare/caid Audit Targets Broadened
Going forward, traditional health care providers will not be the only targets – Medicare Advantage plan, EHR companies, and private equity owners – will all be audited and reviewed for fraud and abuse. Expect more audits with wider nets to catch non-provider targets to increase now that the Yates Memo was codified into the Justice Manual.
Anti-Kickback Statute, Stark Law, and HIPAA Narrowed
The Stark Law (42 U.S.C. 1395nn) and the Anti-Kickback Statute (42 U.S.C. §1320a‑7b(b)) exist to minimize unneeded or over-utilization of health-care services payable by the federal government. Stark Law and the Anti-Kickback regulations criminalize, impose civil monetary penalties, or impose other legal sanctions (such as termination from Medicare) against health care providers and other individuals who violate these laws. These laws are esoteric (which is one reason that I have a job) and require careful navigation by specialized legal counsel. Accidental missteps, even minute documentation errors, can lead to harsh and expensive results.
In a health care world in which collaboration among providers is being pushed and recommended, the Anti-Kickback, Stark, and HIPAA laws are antiquated and fail to recognize the current world. Existing federal health-care fraud and abuse laws create a “silo effect” that requires mapping and separating financial interests of health-care providers in order to ensure that patient referrals cannot be tainted by self-interest. Under Stark, a strict liability law, physicians cannot make a referral for the provision of “designated health services” to an entity with which they have a financial relationship (unless one of approximately 30 exceptions applies). In other words, for example, a hospital cannot refer patients to the home health care company that the hospital owns.
Going forward – and this has not happened yet – regulators and the Department will begin to claw back some of the more strict requirements of the Stark, Anti-Kickback, and HIPAA regulations to decrease the “silo effect” and allow providers to collaborate more on an individual’s whole health method. I had an example of this changing of the tide recently with my broken leg debacle. See blog. After an emergency surgery on my leg by an orthopedic surgeon because of a contracted infection in my wound, my primary care physician (PCP) called to check on me. My PCP had nothing to do with my leg surgery, or, to my knowledge, was never informed of it. But because of new technology that allows patient’s records to be accessed by multiple providers in various health care systems or practices, my PCP was informed of my surgery and added it to my chart. This never could have happened 20 years ago. But this sharing of medical records with other providers could have serious HIPAA implications if some restrictions of HIPAA are not removed.
In sum, if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the Justice Manual in a while, now would be an appropriate time to do so since it has been revised for the first time in 22 years. This blog does not enumerate all the revisions to the Justice Manual. So it is important that you are familiar with the changes…or know someone who is.
There is a federal regulation that is putting health care providers out of business. It is my legal opinion that the regulation violates the U.S. Constitution. Yet, the regulation still exists and continues to put health care providers out of business.
Because so far, no one has litigated the validity of the regulation, and I believe it could be legally wiped from existence with the right legal arguments.
How is this important?
Currently, the state and federal government are legally authorized to immediately suspend your Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements upon a credible allegation of fraud. This immense authority has put many a provider out of business. Could you survive without any Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements?
The federal regulation to which I allude is 42 CFR 455.23. It is a federal regulation, and it applies to every single health care provider, despite the service type allowed by Medicare or Medicaid. Home care agencies are just as susceptible to an accusation of health care fraud as a hospital. Durable medical equipment agencies are as susceptible as dentists. Yet the standard for a “credible allegation of fraud” is low. The standard for which the government can implement an immediate withhold of Medicaid/care reimbursements is lower than for an accused murderer to be arrested. At least when you are accused of murder, you have the right to an attorney. When you are accused to health care fraud on the civil level, you do not receive the right to an attorney. You must pay 100% out of pocket, unless your insurance happens to cover the expense for attorneys. But, even if your insurance does cover legal fees, you can believe that you will be appointed a general litigator with little to no knowledge of Medicare or Medicaid regulatory compliance litigation.
42 USC 455.23 states that:
“The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending under the Medicaid program against an individual or entity unless the agency has good cause to not suspend payments or to suspend payment only in part.
(2) The State Medicaid agency may suspend payments without first notifying the provider of its intention to suspend such payments.
(3) A provider may request, and must be granted, administrative review where State law so requires.”
In the very first sentence, which I highlighted in red, is the word “must.” Prior to the Affordable Care Act, this text read “may.” From my years of experience, every single state in America has used this revision from “may” to “must” for governmental advantage over providers. When asked for good cause, the state and or federal government protest that they have no authority to make a decision that good cause exists to suspend any reimbursement freeze during an investigation. But this protest is a pile of hooey.
In reality, if anyone could afford to litigate the constitutionality of the regulation, I believe that the regulation would be stricken an unconstitutional.
Here is one reason why: Due Process
The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Bill of Rights provide us our due process rights. Here is the 5th Amendment:
“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
There have been a long and rich history of interpretation of the due process clause. The Supreme Court has interpreted the due process clauses to provide four protections: (1) procedural due process (in civil and criminal proceedings), (2) substantive due process, (3) a prohibition against vague laws, and (4) as the vehicle for the incorporation of the Bill of Rights.
42 CFR 455.23 violates procedural due process.
Procedural due process requires that a person be allowed notice and an opportunity to be heard before a government official takes a person’s life, liberty, or property.
Yet, 42 CFR 455.23 allows the government to immediately withhold reimbursements for services rendered based on an allegation without due process and taking a provider’s property; i.e., money owed for services rendered. Isn’t this exactly what procedural due process was created to prevent???? Where is the fundamental fairness?
42 CFR 455.23 violates substantive due process.
The Court usually looks first to see if there is a fundamental right, by examining if the right can be found deeply rooted in American history and traditions.
Fundamental rights include the right to vote, right for protection from pirates on the high seas (seriously – you have that right), and the right to constitutional remedies. Courts have held that our right to property is a fundamental right, but to my knowledge, not in the context of Medicare/caid reimbursements owed; however, I see a strong argument.
If the court establishes that the right being violated is a fundamental right, it applies strict scrutiny. This test inquires into whether there is a compelling state interest being furthered by the violation of the right, and whether the law in question is narrowly tailored to address the state interest.
Where the right is not a fundamental right, the court applies a rational basis test: if the violation of the right can be rationally related to a legitimate government purpose, then the law is held valid.
Taking away property of a Medicare/caid provider without due process violates substantive due process. The great thing about writing your own blog is that no one can argue with you. Playing Devil’s advocate, I would anticipate that the government would argue that a suspension or withhold of reimbursements is not a “taking” because the withhold or suspension is temporary and the government has a compelling reason to deter health care fraud. To which, I would say, yes, catching health care fraud is important – I am in no way advocating for fraud. But important also is the right to be innocent until proven guilty, and in civil cases, our deeply-rooted belief in the presumption of innocence is upheld by the action at issue not taking place until a hearing is held.
For example, if I sue my neighbor and declare that he is encroaching on my property, the property line is not moved until a decision is in my favor.
Another example, if I sue my business partner for breach of contract because she embezzled $1 million from me, I do not get the $1 million from her until it is decided that she actually took $1 million from me.
So to should be – if a provider is accused of fraud, property legally owned by said provider cannot just be taken away. That is a violation of substantive due process.
42 CFR 455.23 violates the prohibition against vague laws
A law is void for vagueness if an average citizen cannot understand it. The vagueness doctrine is my favorite. According to census data, there are 209.3 million people in the US who are over 24-years. Of those over 24-years-old, 66.9 million have a college degree. 68% do not.
Although here is a quick anecdote: Not so sure that a college degree is indicative of intelligence. A recent poll of law students at Columbia University showed that over 60% of the students, who were polled, could not name what rights are protected by the 1st Amendment. Once they responded “speech,” many forgot the others. In case you need a refresher for the off-chance that you are asked this question in an impromptu interview, see here.
My point is – who is to determine what the average person may or may not understand?
Back to why 42 CFR 455.23 violates the vagueness doctrine…
Remember the language of the regulations: “The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud…”
“Credible allegation of fraud” is defined as an allegation, which has been verified by the State, from any source, including but not limited to the following:
- Fraud hotline complaints.
- Claims data mining.
- Patterns identified through provider audits, civil false claims cases, and law enforcement investigations. Allegations are considered to be credible when they have indicia of reliability and the State Medicaid agency has reviewed all allegations, facts, and evidence carefully and acts judiciously on a case-by-case basis.”
With a bit of research, I was able to find a written podcast published by CMS. It appears to be a Q and A between two workers at CMS discussing whether they should suspend a home health care agency’s reimbursements, similar to a playbook. I assume that it was an internal workshop to educate the CMS employees considering that the beginning of the screenplay begins with a “canned narrator” saying “This is a Medicaid program integrity podcast.”
The weird thing is that when you pull up the website – here – you get a glimpse of the podcast, but, at least on my computer, the image disappears in seconds and does not allow you to read it. I encourage you to determine whether this happens you as well.
While the podcast shimmered for a few seconds, I hit print and was able to read the disappearing podcast. As you can see, it is a staged conversation between “Patrick” and “Jim” regarding suspicion of a home health agency falsifying certificates of medical necessity.
On page 3, “Jim” says, “Remember the provider has the right to know why we are taking such serious action.”
But if your Medicare/caid reimbursements were suddenly suspended and you were told the suspension was based upon “credible allegations of fraud,” wouldn’t you find that reasoning vague?
42 CFR 455.23 violates the right to apply the Bill of Rights to me, as a citizen
This esoteric doctrine only means that the Bill of Rights apply to State governments. [Why do lawyers make everything so hard to understand?]
Our old friends from Public Consulting Group (PCG) were found to have accepted improper Medicaid payments in New Jersey.
Those of you who have followed my blog will remember that PCG has been the “watchdog” and auditor of Medicaid claims in many, many states, including North Carolina, New Mexico, and New York. The story of PCG’s motus operandi is like an old re-run of Friends – it never seems to end. PCG audits health care provider records, usually about 150 claims, and determines an error rate based on a desk review by an employee who may or may not have the requisite experience in health care or regulatory compliance issues. The error rates are normally high, and PCG extrapolates the number across a universe of three years (generally). The result is an alleged overpayment of millions of dollars. Of course, it varies state to state, but PCG is paid on a contingency basis, usually 12 – 15%. See blog.
In a November 2017 Office of Inspector General (OIG) Report, OIG found that, in New Jersey, PCG, which was the contractor for New Jersey doctored records.
Isn’t that called fraud?
OIG found that New Jersey did not follow Federal regulations and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) guidance when it developed its payment rates for Medicaid school-based services and, as a result, claimed $300.5 million in unallowable costs. Among OIG’s findings, OIG determined that PCG improperly altered school employees’ responses to time studies to timestudies to indicate that their activities were directly related to providing Medicaid services when the responses indicated the activities were unrelated.
OIG recommended that New Jersey repay $300.5 million in federal Medicaid reimbursements. If you are a taxpayer in New Jersey,
you know that you are hanging Sec. Carole Johnson in effigy…at least, in your mind.
According to the New Jersey Medicaid website, PCG receives and processes billing agreements from newly Medicaid-enrolled LEAs, which is the acronym for “Local Education Agency.”
Here are PCG’s duties:
The New Jersey State Agency claims Federal Medicaid reimbursement for health services provided by schools under Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) through its Special Education Medicaid Initiative (SEMI). The State Department of Treasury (Treasury), the administrative manager for SEMI, hired PCG, on a contingency fee basis (shocker) to develop SEMI payment rates and submit claims on behalf of schools, which are overseen by the State Department of Education (DOE). Figure 1 (below) illustrates how New Jersey processes and claims Medicaid school-based services.
But notice the last bullet point in the list of PCG’s duties above. “provides ongoing Medicaid legal and regulatory compliance monitoring.” Of itself?
Only costs related to providing Medicaid-covered services may be included in payment rates for Medicaid services. But, remember, PCG is paid on contingency. See below.
So is it surprising that PCG raised the reimbursement rates? Why wouldn’t they? If you were paid on contingency, wouldn’t you determine the rates to be higher?
OIG’s report states that New Jersey, through a contractor (PCG), increased the payment rates retroactively to July 2003 from $552 to $1,451 for evaluation services and from $21 to $50 for rehabilitation services. This significant increase raised the question of whether the State was again using unallowable costs.
According to OIG, out of 1,575 responses from school employees, PCG recoded 235 employee responses in order to receive payment from Medicaid. Of those 235 recoded responses, OIG determined that 203 claims were incorrectly recoded by PCG. My math isn’t the best, but I am pretty sure that is approximately a 85% error rate. Shall we extrapolate?
Examples of improper activity code alterations included a social worker indicated that they were “scheduling students to see the [social worker].” Social worker coded this activity as “general administration” – correctly by the way. PCG altered the code to indicate that the employee was providing health care services in order to get paid for that time.
PCG incorporated learning disabilities teacher-consultant salaries in the evaluation rate. These salaries are unallowable because teacher-consultants provide special education services, not health-related services.
In a description of its rate-setting methodology, PCG stated that it excluded costs associated with learning disabilities teacher-consultants because they do not perform any medical services and are not medical providers as customarily recognized in the State’s Medicaid program. However, OIG found that PCG did not remove all learning disabilities teacher-consultant salaries when calculating payment rates
OIG calculated the amount of just that one issue – learning disabilities teacher-consultant salaries incorrectly incorporated – as more than $61 million. What’s 13% of $61 million (assuming that PCG’s contingency rate is 13%)? $7,930,000.
OIG recommended that New Jersey Medicaid:
- refund $300,452,930 in Federal Medicaid reimbursement claimed based on payment rates that incorporated unallowable costs,
- work with CMS to determine the allowable amount of the remaining $306,233,377 that we have set aside because the rates included unallowable costs that we cannot quantify, and
- revise its payment rates so they comply with Federal requirements.
PCG disagreed with OIG’s findings.
Another recommendation that OIG SHOULD have found – Get rid of PCG.
When you get accused of Medicare or Medicaid fraud or of an alleged overpayment, the federal and state governments have the authority to suspend your reimbursements. If you rely heavily on Medicaid or Medicare, this suspension can be financially devastating. If your Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements are suspended, you have to hire an attorney. And, somehow, you have to be able to afford such legal representation without reimbursements. Sadly, this is why many providers simply go out of business when their reimbursements are suspended.
But, legally, how long can the state or federal government suspend your Medicare or Medicaid payments without due process?
According to 42 C.F.R. 405.371, the federal government may suspend your Medicare reimbursements upon ” reliable information that an overpayment exists or that the payments to be made may not be correct, although additional information may be needed for a determination.” However, for Medicare, there is a general rule that the suspension may not last more than 180 days. MedPro Health Providers, LLC v. Hargan, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 173441 *2.
There are also procedural safeguards. A Medicare provider must be provided notice prior to a suspension and given the opportunity to submit a rebuttal statement explaining why the suspension should not be implemented. Medicare must, within 15 days, consider the rebuttal, including any material submitted. The Medicare Integrity Manual states that the material provided by the provider must be reviewed carefully.
42 CFR 455.23 states that “The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending under the Medicaid program against an individual or entity unless the agency has good cause to not suspend payments or to suspend payment only in part.”
Notice the differences…
Number one: In the Medicare regulation, the word used is “may” suspend. In the Medicaid regulation, the word used is “must” suspend. This difference between may and must may not resonate as a huge difference, but, in the legal world, it is. You see, “must” denotes that there is no discretion (even though there is discretion in the good cause exception). On the other hand, “may” suggests more discretionary power in the decision.
Number two: In the Medicare regulation, notice is required. It reads, “Except as provided in paragraphs (d) and (e) of this section, CMS or the Medicare contractor suspends payments only after it has complied with the procedural requirements set forth at § 405.372.” 405.372 reads the Medicare contractor must notify the provider or supplier of the intention to suspend payments, in whole or in part, and the reasons for making the suspension. In the Medicaid regulation, no notice is required. 455.23 reads “The State Medicaid agency may suspend payments without first notifying the provider of its intention to suspend such payments.”
Number three: In the Medicare regulation, a general limit of the reimbursement suspension is imposed, which is 180 days. In the Medicaid regulation, the regulations states that the suspension is “temporary” and must be lifted after either of the following (1) there is a determination of no credible allegations of fraud or (2) the legal proceedings regarding the alleged fraud are complete.
Yet I have seen States blatantly violate the “temporary” requirement. Consider the New Mexico situation. All the behavioral health care providers who were accused of Medicaid fraud have been cleared by the Attorney General. The regulation states that the suspension must be lifted upon either of the following – meaning, if one situation is met, the suspension must be lifted. Well, the Attorney General has cleared all the New Mexico behavioral health care providers of fraud. Criterion is met. But the suspension has not been lifted. The Health Services Department (HSD) has not lifted the suspension. This suspension has continued for 4 1/2 years. It began June 24, 2013. See blog, blog, and blog. Here is a timeline of events.
Why is there such a disparity in treatment with Medicare providers versus Medicaid providers?
The first thing that comes to mind is that Medicare is a fully federal program, while Medicaid is state-run. Although a portion of the funds for Medicaid comes from the federal government.
Secondly, Medicare patients pay part of costs through deductibles for hospital and other costs. Small monthly premiums are required for non-hospital coverage. Whereas, Medicaid patients pay nothing.
Thirdly, Medicare is for the elderly, and Medicaid is for the impoverished.
But should these differences between the two programs create such a disparity in due process and the length of reimbursement suspensions for health care providers? Why is a Medicare provider generally only susceptible to a 180 day suspension, while a Medicaid provider can be a victim of a 4 1/2 year suspension?
Parity, as it relates to mental health and substance abuse, prohibits insurers or health care service plans from discriminating between coverage offered for mental illness, serious mental illness, substance abuse, and other physical disorders and diseases. In short, parity requires insurers to provide the same level of benefits for mental illness, serious mental illness or substance abuse as for other physical disorders and diseases.
Does parity apply to Medicare and Medicaid providers?
Most of Medicare and Medicaid law is interpreted by administrative law judges. Most of the time, a health care provider, who is not receiving reimbursements cannot fund an appeal to Superior Court, the Court of Appeals, and, finally the Supreme Court. Going to the Supreme Court costs so much that most normal people will never present before the Supreme Court…it takes hundreds and hundreds upon thousands of dollars.
In January 1962, a man held in a Florida prison cell wrote a note to the United States Supreme Court. He’d been charged with breaking into a pool hall, stealing some Cokes, beer, and change, and was handed a five-year sentence after he represented himself because he couldn’t pay for a lawyer. Clarence Earl Gideon’s penciled message eventually led to the Supreme Court’s historic 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright ruling, reaffirming the right to a criminal defense and requiring states to provide a defense attorney to those who can’t afford one. But it does not apply to civil cases.
Furthermore, pro bono attorneys and legal aid attorneys, although much-needed for recipients, will not represent a provider.
So, until a health care provider, who is a gaga-zillionaire, pushes a lawsuit to the Supreme Court, our Medicare and Medicaid law will continue to be interpreted by administrative law judges and, perhaps, occasionally, by Superior Court. Do not take this message and interpret that I think that administrative law judges and Superior Court judges are incapable of interpreting the laws and fairly applying them to certain cases. That is the opposite of what I think. The point is that if the case law never gets to the Supreme Court, we will never have consistency in Medicare and Medicaid law. A District Court in New Mexico could define “temporary” in suspensions of Medicare and/or Medicaid reimbursements as 1 year. Another District Court in New York could define “temporary” as 1 month. Consistency in interpreting laws only happens once the Supreme Court weighs in.
Until then, stay thirsty, my friend.
The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the expansion of Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) audits. At first glance, this appears to be fantastic news coming on the heels of so much craziness at Health and Human Services (HHS). We have former-HHS Secretary Price flying our tax dollars all over. Dr. Don Wright stepping up as our new Secretary. The Medicare appeal backlog fiasco. The repeal and replace Obamacare bomb. Amidst all this tomfoolery, health care providers are still serving Medicare and Medicaid patients, reimbursement rates are in the toilet, which drives down quality and incentivizes providers to not accept Medicare or Medicaid (especially Caid), and providers are undergoing “Audit Alphabet Soup.” I actually had a client tell me that he receives audit letters requesting documents and money every single week from a plethora of different organizations.
So when CMS announced that it was broadening its TPE audits, it was a sigh of relief for many providers. But will TPE audits be the benign beasts they are purporting to be?
What is a TPE audit? (And – Can We Have Anymore Acronyms…PLEASE!)
CMS says that TPE audits are benevolent. CMS’ rhetoric indicates that these audits should not cause the toner to run out from overuse. CMS states that TPE audits will involve “the review of 20-40 claims per provider, per item or service, per round, for a total of up to three rounds of review.” See CMS Announcement. The idea behind the TPE audits (supposedly) is education, not recoupments. CMS states that “After each round, providers are offered individualized education based on the results of their reviews. This program began as a pilot in one MAC jurisdiction in June 2016 and was expanded to three additional MAC jurisdictions in July 2017. As a result of the successes demonstrated during the pilot, including an increase in the acceptance of provider education as well as a decrease in appealed claims decisions, CMS has decided to expand to all MAC jurisdictions later in 2017.” – And “later in 2017” has arrived. These TPE audits are currently being conducted nationwide.
Below is CMS’ vision for a TPE audit:
Clear? As mud?
The chart does not indicate how long the provider will have to submit records or how quickly the TPE auditors will review the documents for compliance. But it appears to me that getting through Round 3 could take a year (this is a guess based on allowing the provider 30 days to gather the records and allowing the TPE auditor 30 days to review).
Although the audit is purportedly benign and less burdensome, a TPE audit could take a whole year or more. Whether the audit reviews one claim or 20, having to undergo an audit of any size for a year is burdensome on a provider. In fact, I have seen many companies having to hire staff dedicated to responding to audits. And here is the problem with that – there aren’t many people who understand Medicare/caid medical billing. Providers beware – if you rely on an independent biller or an electronic medical records program, they better be accurate. Otherwise the buck stops with your NPI number.
Going back to CMS’ chart (above), notice where all the “yeses” go. As in, if the provider is found compliant , during any round, all the yeses point to “Discontinue for at least 12 months.” I am sure that CMS thought it was doing providers a favor, but what that tells me is the TPE audit will return after 12 months! If the provider is found compliant, the audit is not concluded. In fact, according to the chart, the only end results are (1) a referral to CMS for possible further action; or (2) continued TPE audits after 12 months. “Further action” could include 100% prepayment review, extrapolation, referral to a Recovery Auditor, or other action. Where is the outcome that the provider receives an A+ and is left alone??
CMS states that “Providers/suppliers may be removed from the review process after any of the three rounds of probe review, if they demonstrate low error rates or sufficient improvement in error rates, as determined by CMS.”
I just feel as though that word “may” should be “will.” It’s amazing how one word could change the entire process.
Silence Can Be Deadly: Can You Be Held Responsible for Medicare/caid Billings Errors That You Never Knew Existed?
You submit a claim for medically necessary services for a Medicaid recipient. Let’s say you provide behavioral health care services and prescribe medication for people who suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar. One member of your staff (a PA) prescribes Abilify to a child – perfectly acceptable treatment for schizophrenia. The child suffers a seizure and dies. It is discovered, unbeknownst to you, as the owner of the agency, that the staff member prescribing the medication was not appropriately supervised. You are shocked. You are dismayed. You are terrified.
Sure enough, someone tattles on you and a qui tam lawsuit is filed against your agency.
A qui tam (kwee tam) lawsuit is Latin for “who as well,” a lawsuit brought by a private citizen (popularly called a “whistleblower”) against a person or company who is believed to have violated the law in the performance of a contract with the government or in violation of a government regulation, when there is a statute which provides for a penalty for such violations. The whistleblower in qui tam lawsuits can be awarded a lot of money, which is why whistleblowers bring the lawsuits.
In other words, a qui tam lawsuit filed against you is bad…very bad.
You are looking at six figures, easily, in attorneys’ fees, years of litigation, endless sleepless nights, and a high dose of Prozac. All because one of your staff was not properly licensed and could not prescribe medication without supervision. And you had no idea…
Wait…what? Isn’t “intent” or, legally, “scienter” a requirement to prove fraud?? You mean that I could be prosecuted for fraud when I had zero intent to commit fraud, plus, I didn’t even know it was occurring?
This is what happened to Universal Health Services, Inc.’s subsidiary that provided behavioral health care services in Massachusetts. Universal Health Serv. v. United States ex rel. Escobar, 136 S.Ct. 1989 (2016).
The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that each time a billing party submits a claim, it implicitly communicates that it conformed to the relevant program requirements, such that it was entitled to receive payment. Every claim implicitly promised compliance of every law!
Imagine the slippery slope with this decision – a multi-state company with offices across the nation bills millions to Medicare and Medicaid monthly. Executive management is in Rhode Island. An office in Tampa fails to check the criminal background of its employees for a period of a year, but in all other ways complies with the regulations and renders medically necessary services that entire year. According to the 1st Circuit opinion, the company could be liable for fraud and the false claims act, resulting in millions of dollars of penalties.
Did it matter to the judge in this case that the company was large? What if it were a small company with one office and four staff?
Juxtapose the 7th Circuit which held only express (or affirmative) falsehoods can render a claim “false” or “fraudulent.” In other words, you can only be held liable for fraud if you purposely or affirmatively acted.
The Supreme Court (last year) held that the implied false certification theory can, at least in some circumstances, provide a basis for liability.
The thinking is that a half truth is a lie. Which is correct…but is it fraud? A classic example of an actionable half-truth in contract law is the seller who reveals that there may be two new roads near a property he is selling, but fails to disclose that a third potential road might bisect the property.
The False Claims Act imposes civil liability on “any person who . . . knowingly presents, or causes to be presented, a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval.” §3729(a)(1)(A). Here’s the prob-lem-o: Congress never defined what is “false.”
Here is what the Supreme Court had to say about the unlicensed social worker:
“So too here, by submitting claims for payment using payment codes that corresponded to specific counseling services, Universal Health represented that it had provided individual therapy, family therapy, preventive medication counseling, and other types of treatment. Moreover, Arbour staff members allegedly made further representations in submitting Medicaid reimbursement claims by using National Provider Identification numbers corresponding to specific job titles. And these representations were clearly misleading in context. Anyone informed that a social worker at a Massachusetts mental health clinic provided a teenage patient with individual counseling services would probably—but wrongly—conclude that the clinic had complied with core Massachusetts Medicaid requirements (1) that a counselor “treating children [is] required to have specialized training and experience in children’s services,” 130 Code Mass. Regs. §429.422, and also (2) that, at a minimum, the social worker possesses the prescribed qualifications for the job, §429.424(C). By using payment and other codes that conveyed this information without disclosing Arbour’s many violations of basic staff and licensing requirements for mental health facilities, Universal Health’s claims constituted misrepresentations.””
In English, this means that: With the act of submitting a Medicaid claim, you are promising that you have followed all rules, including the licensure status required for rendering that service.
The Court held that:
The issue is whether a defendant should face False Claims Act liability only if it fails to disclose the violation of a contractual, statutory, or regulatory provision that the Government expressly designated a condition of payment. The Court concluded that the FCA does not impose this limit on liability. But it also held that not every undisclosed violation of an express condition of payment automatically triggers liability. It matters whether the omission was material.
The Supreme Court determined that not all statutory or regulatory violations are material, disagreeing with the government and the 1st Circuit.
But the Court never made a decision regarding Universal Health Services, Inc. Instead, it vacated the 1st Circuit and remanded the case for reconsideration of whether respondents have sufficiently pleaded a False Claims Act violation. But in doing so, the Court gave guidance as to its opinion. It wrote: “This case centers on allegations of fraud, not medical malpractice.”
What that one sentence tells me is that the Supreme Court does not want to create liability for any and every regulatory omission/mistake on a Medicaid claim. Mistakes happen. People are human. Apparently, even the Supreme Court knows that…
On July 13, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price, M.D., announced the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) biggest-ever health care fraud takedown. 412 health care providers were charged with health care fraud. In total, allegedly, the 412 providers schemed and received $1.3 billion in false billings to Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE. Of the 412 defendants, 115 are physicians, nurses, and other licensed medical professionals. Additionally, HHS has begun the suspension process against 295 health care providers’ licenses.
The charges include allegations of billing for medically unnecessary treatments or services that were not really provided. The DOJ has evidence that many of the defendants had illegal kickback schemes set up. More than 120 of the defendants were charged with unlawfully or inappropriately prescribing and distributing opioids and other narcotics.
While this particular sting operation resulted from government investigations, not all health care fraud is discovered through government investigation. A great deal of fraud is uncovered through private citizens coming forward with incriminating information. These private citizens can file suit against the fraudulent parties on behalf of the government; these are known as qui tam suits.
Being a whistleblower goes against what most of us are taught as children. We are taught not to be a tattletail. I have vivid memories from elementary school of other kids acting out, but I would remain silent and not inform the teacher. But in the health care world, tattletails are becoming much more common – and they make money for blowing that metaphoric whistle.
What is a qui tam lawsuit?
Qui tam is Latin for “who as well.” Qui tam lawsuits are a type of civil lawsuit whistleblowers (tattletails) bring under the False Claims Act, a law that rewards whistleblowers if their qui tam cases recover funds for the government. Qui tam cases are a powerful weapon against Medicare and Medicaid fraud. In other words, if an employee at a health care facility witnesses any type of health care fraud, even if the alleged fraud is unknown to the provider, that employee can hire an attorney to file a qui tam lawsuit to recover money on behalf of the government. The government investigates the allegations of fraud and decides whether it will join the lawsuit. Health care entities found guilty in a qui tam lawsuit will be liable to government for three times the government’s losses, plus penalties.
The whistleblower is rewarded for bringing these lawsuits. If the government intervenes in the case and recovers funds through a settlement or a trial, the whistleblower is entitled to 15% – 25% of the recovery. If the government doesn’t intervene in the case and it is pursued by the whistleblower team, the whistleblower reward is between 25% – 30% of the recovery.
These recoveries are not low numbers. On June 22, 2017, a physician and rehabilitative specialist agreed to pay $1.4 million to resolve allegations they violated the False Claims Act by billing federal health care programs for medically unreasonable and unnecessary ultrasound guidance used with routine lab blood draws, and with Botox and trigger point injections. If a whistleblower had brought this lawsuit, he/she would have been awarded $210,000 – 420,000.
On June 16, 2017, a Pennsylvania-based skilled nursing facility operator agreed to pay roughly $53.6 million to settle charges that it and its subsidiaries violated the False Claims Act by causing the submission of false claims to government health care programs for medically unnecessary therapy and hospice services. The allegations originated in a whistleblower lawsuit filed under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act by 7 former employees of the company. The whistleblower award – $8,040,000 – 16,080,000.
There are currently two, large qui tam cases against United Health Group (UHG) pending in the Central District of California. The cases are: U.S. ex rel. Benjamin Poehling v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc. and U.S. ex rel. Swoben v. Secure Horizons, et al. Both cases were brought by James Swoben, who was an employee and Benjamin Poehling, who was the former finance director of a UHG group that managed the insurer’s Medicare Advantage Plans. On May 2, 2027, the U.S. government joined the Poehling lawsuit.
The charges include allegations that UHG:
- Submitted invalid codes to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that it knew of or should have known that the codes were invalid – some of the dates of services at issue in the case are older than 2008.
- Intentionally avoided learning that some diagnoses codes or categories of codes submitted to their plans by providers were invalid, despite acknowledging in 2010 that it should evaluate the results of its blind chart reviews to find codes that need to be deleted.
- Failed to follow up on and prevent the submissions of invalid codes or submit deletion for invalid codes.
- Attested to CMS each year that the data they submitted was true and accurate while knowing it was not.
UHG would not be in this expensive, litigious pickle had it conducted a self audit and followed the mandatory disclosure requirements.
What are the mandatory disclosure requirements? Glad you asked…
Section 6402(a) of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) creates an express obligation for health care providers to report and return overpayments of Medicare and Medicaid. The disclosure must be made by 60 days days after the date that the overpayment was identified or the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable. Identification is defined as the point in which the provider has determined or should have determined through the exercise of due diligence that an overpayment exists. CMS expects the provider to proactively investigate any credible information of a potential overpayment. The consequences of failing to proactively investigate can be seen by the UHG lawsuits above-mentioned. Apparently, UHG had some documents dated in 2010 that indicated it should review codes and delete the invalid codes, but, allegedly, failed to do so.
How do you self disclose?
According to CMS:
“Beginning June 1, 2017, providers of services and suppliers must use the forms included in the OMB-approved collection instrument entitled CMS Voluntary Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol (SRDP) in order to utilize the SRDP. For disclosures of noncompliant financial relationships with more than one physician, the disclosing entity must submit a separate Physician Information Form for each physician. The CMS Voluntary Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol document contains one Physician Information Form.”