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Appealing Adverse Decisions: Should We Reconsider the Medicaid Provider Reconsideration Review?

What if you had to appeal traffic citations through the police officer who pulled you over before you could defend yourself before an impartial judge? That would be silly and a waste of time. I could not fathom a time in which the officer would overturn his/her own decision.

“No, officer, I know you claim that I was speeding, but the speed limit on Hwy 1 had just increased to 65. You were wrong when you said the speed limit was 55.”

“Good catch, citizen. You’re right; I’m wrong. Let’s just rip up this speeding ticket.”

Not going to happen.

The same is true when it comes to decisions by the Department of Health and Human Service (DHHS) to sanction or penalize a Medicaid provider based on alleged provider abuse (otherwise known as documentation errors). If DHHS determines that you owe $800,000 because your service notes are noncompliant, I am willing to bet that, upon its own reconsideration, the decision will be upheld. Asking for reconsideration review from the very same entity that decided the sanction or penalty is akin to doing something over and over and expecting different results (definition of insanity?).

But – are informal reconsideration reviews required by law to fight an adverse decision before you may appear before an administrative law judge?

The reason that you should care whether the reconsideration reviews are required by law is because the process is time consuming, and, often, the adverse determination is in effect during the process. If you hire an attorney, it is an expensive process, but one that you will not (likely) win. Generally, I am adverse to spending time and money on something that will yield nothing.

Before delving into whether reconsideration reviews are required by law, here is my caveat: This issue has not been decided by our courts. In fact, our administrative court has rendered conflicting decisions. I believe that my interpretation of the laws is correct (obviously), but until the issue is resolved legally, cover your donkey (CYA), listen to your attorney, and act conservatively.

Different laws relate to whether the adverse decision is rendered by the DHHS or whether the adverse decision is rendered by a managed care organization (MCO). Thus, I will divide this blog into two sections: (1) reconsiderations to DHHS; and (2) reconsiderations to an MCO.

Appealing DHHS Adverse Determinations

When you receive an adverse decision from DHHS, you will know that it is from DHHS because it will be on DHHS letterhead (master of the obvious).

DHHS letterhead

10A NCAC 22F .0402 states that “(a) Upon notification of a tentative decision the provider will be offered, in writing, by certified mail, the opportunity for a reconsideration of the tentative decision and the reasons therefor. (b) The provider will be instructed to submit to the Division in writing his request for a Reconsideration Review within fifteen working days from the date of receipt of the notice. Failure to request a Reconsideration Review in the specified time shall result in the implementation of the tentative decision as the Division’s final decision.”

As seen above, our administrative code recommends that a Medicaid provider undergo the informal reconsideration review process through DHHS to defend a sanction or penalty before presenting before an impartial judge at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). I will tell you, having gone through hundreds upon hundreds of reconsideration reviews, DHHS does not overturn itself. The Hearing Officers know who pay their salaries (DHHS). The reconsideration review ends up being a waste of time and money for the provider, who must jump through the “reconsideration review hoop” prior to filing a petition for contested case.

Historically, attorneys recommend that provider undergo the reconsideration review for fear that an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at OAH would dismiss the case based on failure to exhaust administrative remedies. But upon a plain reading of 10A NCAC 22F .0402, is it really required? Look at the language again. “Will be offered” and “the opportunity for.” And what is the penalty for not requesting a reconsideration review? That the tentative decision becomes final – so you can petition to OAH the final decision.

My interpretation of 10A NCAC 22F .0402 is that the informal reconsideration review is an option, not a requirement.

Now, N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 states that “[i]t is the policy of this State that any dispute between an agency and another person that involves the person’s rights, duties, or privileges, including licensing or the levy of a monetary penalty, should be settled through informal procedures. In trying to reach a settlement through informal procedures, the agency may not conduct a proceeding at which sworn testimony is taken and witnesses may be cross-examined. If the agency and the other person do not agree to a resolution of the dispute through informal procedures, either the agency or the person may commence an administrative proceeding to determine the person’s rights, duties, or privileges, at which time the dispute becomes a “contested case.””

It is clear that our State’s policy is that a person who has a grievance against an agency; i.e., DHHS, attempts informal resolution prior to filing an appeal at OAH. Notice that N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 is applicable to any dispute between “an agency and another person.” “Agency” is defined as “an agency or an officer in the executive branch of the government of this State and includes the Council of State, the Governor’s Office, a board, a commission, a department, a division, a council, and any other unit of government in the executive branch. A local unit of government is not an agency.”

Clearly, DHHS is an “agency,” as defined. But an MCO is not a department; or a board; or a commission; or a division; or a unit of government in the executive branch; or a council. Since the policy of exhausting administrative remedies applies to DHHS, are you required to undergo an MCO’s reconsideration review process?

Appealing an MCO Adverse Determination

When you receive an adverse decision from an MCO, you will know that it is from an MCO because it will be on the MCO’s letterhead (master of the obvious).

For example:

trillium

There is a reason that I am emphasizing the letterhead. It is because DHHS contracts with a number of vendors. For example, DHHS contracts with Public Consulting Group (PCG), The Carolina Center for Medical Excellence (CCME), HMS, Liberty, etc. You could get a letter from any one of DHHS’ contracted entities – a letter on their letterhead. For example, you could receive a Tentative Notice of Overpayment on PCG  letterhead. In that case, PCG is acting on behalf of DHHS. So the informal reconsideration rules would be the same. For MCOs, on the other hand, we obtained a Waiver from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to “waive” certain rules and to create the MCOs. Different regulations apply to MCOs than DHHS. In fact, there is an argument that N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 does not apply to the MCOs because the MCOs are not an “agency.” Confusing, right? I call that job security.

Are you required to undergo the MCO’s internal reconsideration review process prior to filing a petition for contested case at OAH?

Your contract with the MCO certainly states that you must appeal through the MCO’s internal process. The MCO contracts with providers have language in them like this:

Dispute Resolution and Appeals: “The CONTRACTOR may file a complaint and/or appeals as outlined in the LME/PIHP Provider Manual promulgated by LME/PIHP pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. 122C-151.3 and as provided by N.C. Gen. Stat. Chapter 108C.”

I find numerous, fatal flaws in the above section. Whoever drafted this section of the contract evidently had never read N.C. Gen. Stat. 122C-151.3, which plainly states in subsection (b) “This section does not apply to LME/MCOs.” Also, the LME/PIHP does not have the legal authority to promulgate – that is a rule-making procedure for State agencies, such as DHHS. The third fatal flaw in the above section is that the LME/MCO Provider Manual is not promulgated and certainly was not promulgated not pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. 122C-151.3, does not apply to LME/MCOs.

Just because it is written, does not make it right.

If N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 does not apply to MCOs, because MCOs are not an agency, then the State policy of attempting to resolve disputes through informal methods before going to OAH does not apply.

There is no other statute or rule that requires a provider to exhaust an MCO’s internal review process prior to filing a petition for contested case.

What does that mean IN ENGLISH??

What it means is that the MCOs contract and provider manual that create an informal one or two-step reconsideration process is not required by law or rule. You do not have to waste your time and money arguing to the MCO that it should overturn its own decision, even though the reconsideration review process may be outlined in the provider manual or your procurement contract.

OAH has agreed…and disagreed.

In Person-Centered Partnerships, Inc. v. NC DHHS and MeckLINK, No. 13 DHR 18655, the court found that “[n]either the contractual provisions in Article II, Section 5.b of the Medicaid Contract nor MeckLINK’s “Procedures for implementation of policy # P0-09 Local Reconsideration Policy” states that reconsideration review is mandatory and a prerequisite to filing a contested case.”

In another case, OAH has held that, “[c]ontract provisions cannot override or negate the protections provided under North Carolina law, specifically the appeal rights set forth in N.C. Gen. Stat. Chapter 108C. Giesel, Corbin on Contracts § 88.7, at 595 (2011) (When the law confers upon an individual a right, privilege, or defense, the assumption is that the right, privilege or defense is conferred because it is in the public interest. Thus, in many cases, it is contrary to the public interest to permit the holder of the right, privilege, or defense to waive or to bargain it away. In these situations, the attempted waiver or bargain is unenforceable.”)” Essential Supportive Services, LLC v. DHHS and its Agent Alliance Behavioral Healthcare, No. 13 DHR 20386 (NCOAH) (quoting Yelverton’s Enrichment Services, Inc., v. PBH, as legally authorized contractor of and agent for N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, 13-CVS-11337, (7 March 2014)).

However, most recently, OAH ruled in the opposite way. A provider was terminated from an MCO’s catchment area, and we immediately filed a preliminary injunction to cease the termination. As you can see from the above-mentioned cases, OAH had not considered the reconsideration review mandatory. But, this time, the Judge found that the “contractual provision in [the MCO’s] contract with Petitioner, which provides for a local reconsideration review, is a valid and binding provision within the contract.”

So, again, the law is as clear as two and two adding up to five.

For now, when you are disputing an adverse determination by an MCO requesting a reconsideration review before going to OAH is a good CYA.

Going back to the traffic example at the  beginning of the blog, my husband was pulled for speeding a few weeks ago. I was surprised because, generally, he does not speed. He is a usually conscientious and careful driver. When the officer came to his window, he was genuinely confused as to the reason for the stop. In his mind, he was driving 73 mph, only 3 miles over the speed limit. In fact, he had the car on cruise control. Turns out he confused the sign for HWY 70, as a speed limit sign. The speed limit was actually 55 mph.

We did not appeal the decision.

Do You Have a Property Right to Be a Medicaid Provider?

YES!

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital or otherwise infamous crime unless on 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.” U.S. Constitution, 5th Amendment (emphasis added).

The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, or, the Bill of Rights, were written by James Madison (for whom my daughter Madison was named).

Our managed care organizations (MCOs) and the government take the irritating position that providers have no right to be a Medicaid provider. And, often they quote the NC Administrative Code, which states that “All provider contracts with the North Carolina State Medicaid Agency are terminable at will. Nothing in these Regulations creates in the provider a property right or liberty right in continued participation in the Medicaid program.” 10A NCAC 22F .0605. However, as every attorney knows, when there is a rule, there is an exception. And when there is a rule, case law overrides it.

Despite 10A NCAC 22F .0605, a intelligent judge found that “Alliance contends that [the provider] has no right to be a Medicaid provider and therefore this Court cannot find that [the provider]’s rights have been substantially violated by its decision. Alliance also argues that [the provider]’s rights are solely contractual in nature and once the contract expired, the [provider] had no rights.

This contested case is not merely a contract case as Alliance contends. This contested case is about Alliance’s almost total disregard for Federal and State laws and regulations and its own policies. Based on the evidence, the process for the RFP seems almost like it began on a whim—ostensibly to fix problems that had no basis in fact. The result was a flawed RFP in which providers which might otherwise be comparable were treated differently, based in significant part on a subjective review.” Carolina Comm. Support Serv., Inc. v. Alliance Behavioral Healthcare, 14 DHR 1500, April 2, 2015.

So how can you have a property right in a Medicaid contract when the NCAC states that the contracts are terminable at will?

“In determining whether a property interest exists a Court must first determine that there is an entitlement to that property. Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532 (1985). Unlike liberty interests, property interests and entitlements are not created by the Constitution. Instead, property interests are created by federal or state law and can arise from statute, administrative regulations, or contract. Bowens v. N.C. Dept. of Human Res., 710 F.2d 1015, 1018 (4th Cir. 1983). Under North Carolina case law, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has determined that North Carolina Medicaid providers have a property interest in continued provider status. Bowens, 710 F.2d 1018. In Bowens, the Fourth Circuit recognized that North Carolina provider appeals process created a due process property interest in a Medicaid provider’s continued provision of services, and could not be terminated “at the will of the state.” The court determined that these safeguards, which included a hearing and standards for review, indicated that the provider’s participation was not “terminable at will.” Id. The court held that these safeguards created an entitlement for the provider, because it limits the grounds for his termination such that the contract was not terminable “at will” but only for cause, and that such cause was reviewable. The Fourth Circuit reached the same result in Ram v. Heckler, 792 F.2d 444 (4th Cir. 1986) two years later. Since the Court’s decision in Bowen, a North Carolina Medicaid provider’s right to continued participation has been strengthened through the passage of Chapter 108C. Chapter 108C expressly creates a right for existing Medicaid providers to challenge a decision to terminate participation in the Medicaid program in the Office of Administrative Hearings. It also makes such reviews subject to the standards of Article 3 of the APA. Therefore, North Carolina law now contains a statutory process that confers an entitlement to Medicaid providers. Chapter 108C sets forth the procedure and substantive standards for which OAH is to operate and gives rise to the property right recognized in Bowens and Ram. Under Chapter 108C, providers have a statutory expectation that a decision to terminate participation will not violate the standards of Article 3 of the APA. The enactment of Chapter 108C gives a providers a right to not be terminated in a manner that (1) violates the law; (2) is in excess of the Department’s authority; (3) is erroneous; (4) is made without using proper procedures; or (5) is arbitrary and capricious. To conclude otherwise would nullify the General Assembly’s will by disregarding the rights conferred on providers by Chapter 108C. This expectation cannot be diminished by a regulation promulgated by the DMA which states that provider’s do not have a right to continued participation in the Medicaid program because under the analysis in Bowen the General Assembly created the property right through statutory enactment.” Carolina Comm. Support Serv, Inc., at 22.

Again – how can you have a property right in a Medicaid contract when the NCAC states that the contracts are terminable at will? The answer is – You have a property right in your Medicaid contract. The state or MCOs cannot arbitrarily terminate your contract – regardless what they say. Know your rights!!

Judge Orders State’s Termination of Provider’s Medicaid Contract To Be REVERSED, Despite the Unilateral Termination!!

THE CASES LISTED BELOW ARE ILLUSTRATIVE OF THE MATTERS HANDLED BY THE FIRM. CASE RESULTS DEPEND UPON A VARIETY OF FACTORS UNIQUE TO EACH CASE. NOT ALL CASE RESULTS ARE PROVIDED. CASE RESULTS DO NOT GUARANTEE OR PREDICT A SIMILAR RESULT IN ANY FUTURE CASE UNDERTAKEN BY THE LAWYER.

[The names and services involved have been changed to protect the innocent. Lawyers have so many rules to follow…probably due to litigation].

Imagine that the State of North Carolina knocks on your office door and informs you that you are no longer allowed to accept Medicaid and/or Medicare reimbursement rates. That for whatever reason, you are no longer allowed to bill for Medicaid and/or Medicare services. You would expect a reason, right? You would expect the reason to be correct, right?

But what if the reason is invalid?

A North Carolina administrative judge recently held that the State’s reason for terminating a Medicaid provider’s contract must be accurate, and REVERSED the State’s decision to terminate its Medicaid contract with my client.  Here’s the story:

The State terminated my client’s contract to provide chiropractic services.

In this case it was a bit of a duress contract (as are most Medicaid contracts) – a “take or leave it” offer to the local service provider.  If you are a provider and want to continue to serve Medicaid recipients, you have no choice but to sign whatever contract the State gives you. You cannot negotiate. You’d be told to sign the contract “as is,” or you do not provide services. I know of a provider who, before he signed a contract with the State, crossed out a number of clauses. The State just sent him a clean, un-altered contract, same as the original, and told him sign it, no changes allowed.

Going back to my case…

My client is a provider that provides chiropractic services. In this case, the State inaccurately claimed that my client provided services without a proper license.

Upon the State’s termination of my client’s contract for chiropractic services, we filed a petition to the Office of Administrative Hearings in 2013 and asked the administrative law judge for a temporary restraining order, a motion to stay the termination, and a Preliminary Injunction to enjoin the State from terminating my client’s Medicaid provider contract.

The administrative law judge (ALJ) issued the temporary restraining order in May 2013. According to judge, we demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits and that any failure to award the injunction would cause irreparable harm.

Obtaining an injunction, however, was not a complete victory. We had won an opening battle, but not the war.

A temporary injunction is exactly that…temporary. We had two additional hurdles to overcome: (1) a hearing at which we would have to prove to the judge that we were likely to succeed and the irreparable harm would be so irreparable that the judge should award us a longer injunction, at least until we could have a full hearing on the merits; and (2) a final hearing on the merits.

We received the Final Decision from the ALJ last week. The judge found that my client performed its contractual and legal obligations and that the State acted erroneously in determining that my client had breached its contract. The judge found the weight of the evidence sufficient to prove that my client provided services with a proper license.

If you think a 2 year injunction is pretty long, from May 2013 to now, you are right.

But think about this…from May 2013, through today and into the foreseeable future, as long as the contract is in effect, my client has been and will be able to provide medically necessary chiropractic services to those in need and receive reimbursements for those medically necessary services. This case shows why it is important for providers to assert their rights when those are violated.

And it shows also that the State is not allowed to arbitrarily violate those provider rights.

NC Medicaid: Are New Mexico and NC Medicaid Providers Fraternal Twins? At Least, When It Comes to PCG!

North Carolina and New Mexico? Fraternal twins?  Remember Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito?

I don’t know about you, but I imagine New Mexico is as identical to North Carolina as chicharrones are to grits. And I can only imagine what New Mexicans think of us. The words “redneck,” “chewing tobacco,” and “backward” come to mind, although being born and raised in NC, I would take vehement objection to those stereotypes. Regardless, as polar opposite as New Mexico and North Carolina may or may not be, we have at least one commonality. Public Consulting Group (PCG).

Since I posted my blog: “Even New Mexico Identifies PCG Audits as “Unreliable!”” I have had the pleasure of speaking to a number of New Mexicans (although one sounded, surprisingly, British). 

Here is what I have learned:

1. PCG is equally as inept in New Mexico as here. No explanation needed.

2. NM  has no administrative remedy for providers.  Whereas, we can request a reconsideration review with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) when providers receive an outrageous Tentative Notice of Overpayment (TNO) from PCG, and, ultimately, appeal the DHHS decision to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), apparently (remember I have never taken the Bar in NM, so if a NM lawyer would like to explain, I would be much obliged) there is no administrative process in NM. So, it seems, that the NM providers have to file an injunction in state or federal court to cease PCG’s erroneous auditing. Ugh!

3. In NM, PCG is freezing funding. So, in NM, PCG is acting similar to what may occur if you squished PCG and CCME together. Could you imagine? PCG and CCME merging? I shudder at the thought.

4. The suffering of Medicaid providers is not limited to state lines. New Mexican providers who accept Medicaid are suffering as much as NC providers who accept Medicaid are suffering. 

As I informed my blog readers a couple of days ago, 15 behavioral health providers  in NM filed an injunction against the State and PCG staying the providers’ frozen Medicaid funds. Now the NM State Auditor (our Beth Wood) will be reviewing the “special audit” that, supposedly, contains evidence of alleged overcharging, etc. by the 15 providers. (The special audit is the basis for the providers’ frozen funds….kinda like being on prepayment review, huh?).

Here is the article:

[New Mexico] State Human Services Secretary Sidonie Squier has refused to give State Auditor Hector Balderas a copy of the special audit that she says found evidence of alleged overcharging and possible fraud on the part of 15 behavioral-health providers. But on Tuesday, Balderas got a state district judge to subpoena the audit.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday a federal judge in Albuquerque heard arguments by lawyers for Human Services and eight of the providers whose Medicaid funding was frozen because of the special audit. The eight firms are seeking an injunction to force Human Services to resume payments to the providers. However, U.S. District Judge Christina Armijo took no immediate action on the request.

“It is necessary that my auditors fully review the report issued by Public Consulting Group Inc. in order to assess the risks to public funds and the potential impact on the Human Services Department’s financial affairs,” Balderas said in a written statement. “I formally requested the report from Secretary Squier pursuant to state law, but unfortunately the Department refused to comply with my lawful request. I am disappointed that I have been forced to take legal action to prevent the obstruction of a thorough audit of these taxpayer dollars.”

Public Consulting Group, a Boston company, was paid more than $3 million to audit the providers.

In a July 11 letter to Squier, James Noel, lawyer for the State Auditor’s Office, said the State Audit Act requires his office to “thoroughly examine and audit the financial affairs of every state agency.”

Noting that Human Services has said the special audit showed credible evidence of fraud, Noel said the department is required to “report immediately, in writing, to the state auditor any violation of a criminal statute in connection with financial affairs.”

Squier on July 12 responded in a letter to Balderas saying she was declining to release the audit to him.

“At this time no determination has been made that any individual or entity violated federal or state criminal statue, nor does [Human Services] have the authority to make such a determination,” the letter states.

Of the federal laws and regulations that require the department to turn “credible evidence of fraud” over to the state attorney general for investigation, Squier said, “Such a referral is not a finding of fraud by this agency.” She said she had to decline Balderas’ request because it could jeopardize the state attorney general’s investigation.

State District Judge Sarah Singleton of Santa Fe on Tuesday signed a subpoena requiring Squier to permit the state auditor to inspect the Public Consulting Group audit at 10 a.m. Monday.

Department spokesman Matt Kennicott said Wednesday that Squier and department lawyers will have to look over the subpoena before deciding on their course of action.

Earlier in the week, Rep. Stephen Easley, D-Santa Fe, and Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, chairmen of a legislative subcommittee on behavioral health, delivered a five-page letter to Balderas requesting his office examine the Public Consulting Group audit. The letter raised issues including the role of OptumHealth, the company in charge of overseeing the behavioral health providers, and how the five Arizona companies — with which the state is contracting to take up the slack of the providers under investigation — were chosen.

On Tuesday, Gov. Susana Martinez told reporters that the Arizona companies were chosen because they have done similar work before. “They’ve been able to pick up services when there have been problems in other states, where there have been other allegations of fraud or misuse or mismanagement,” she said. “We want to make sure those patients have quick access.”

Does it matter to you, my reader, that all this hullaballoo is occurring on taxpayer money? And Medicaid state and federal money. Our tax dollars are paying PCG.