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Darkness Surrounds MCO Mergers: Are Closed Meetings for MCOs Legal?

Recently, Eastpointe Human Services’ board voted unanimously to consolidate with Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, which would make the merged entity the managed care organization (MCO) overseeing 1/3 of NC’s Medicaid, behavioral health services – 32 counties, in all.

The Board’s decision is subject to the approval of the Secretary, but Eastpointe hopes to consolidate by July 1st.

Whether a consolidation between Eastpointe and Cardinal is good for Medicaid recipients and/or our community, I have no opinion.

But the reason that I have no opinion is because the negotiations, which all deal with public funds, have occurred behind closed doors.

Generally, it is our public policy that public bodies’ actions are to be conducted openly. This is why you can stroll on over to our courthouse and watch, virtually, any case be conducted.  There are rare cases in which the court will “seal” or close the record, such as to protect privileged health information or the identity of children.  Our public policy that strongly encourages open sessions for public entities exists for good reason.  As tax payers, we expect full disclosure and transparency as to how our tax dollars are being used.  In a way, all tax paying NC residents are shareholders of NC.  Those who spend our tax dollars owe us a fiduciary duty to manage our tax dollars in a reasonable and responsible manner, and we should be able to attend all board meetings and review all meeting minutes. The MCOs are the agents of the single state entity, Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), charged with managing behavioral health care for the Medicaid and state-funded population suffering with mental health/developmentally disabled /substance abuse (MR/DD/SA) issues.  As an agent of the state, MCOs are public entities.

But, as I am researching the internet in search of Eastpointe and Cardinal board meeting minutes, I realize that the MCOs are initiating closed meetings and quoting N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11, ” Closed sessions” as the  basis for being able to conduct closed sessions.  And the number of closed sessions that I notice is not a small number.

The deliberations of a merger between two MCOs are highly important to the public. The public needs to know whether the board members are concerned about improving quality and quantity of care. Whether the deliberations surround a more inclusive provider network and providing more services to those in need. Whether the deliberations consider using public funds to create playgrounds or to fund more services for the developmentally disabled. Or are the board members more concerned with which executives will remain employed and what salaried are to be compensated?

You’ve heard of the saying, “Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile?”  This is what is going through my mind as I review the statute allowing public bodies to hold closed sessions.  Is the statute too open-ended? Is the closed session statute a legal mishandling that unintentionally, and against public policy, allows public meetings to act privately? Or are the MCOs misusing the closed session statute?

So I ask myself the following:

1. Is N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11 applicable to MCOs, or, in other words, can the MCOs conduct closed sessions? and, if the answer to #1 is yes, then

2. Are the MCOs overusing or misusing its ability to hold closed sessions? If the answer to #3 is yes, then

3. What can be done?

These are the three questions I will address in this blog.

Number one:

Is N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11 applicable to MCOs, or, in other words, can the MCOs conduct closed sessions?

According to the statute, “”public body” means any elected or appointed authority, board, commission, committee, council, or other body of the State, or of one or more counties, cities, school administrative units, constituent institutions of The University of North Carolina, or other political subdivisions or public corporations in the State that (i) is composed of two or more members and (ii) exercises or is authorized to exercise a legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, or advisory function.”

The MCOs are bodies or agents of the state that are composed of more than 2 members and exercises or is authorized to exercise administrative or advisory functions to the extent allowed by the Waivers.

I determine that, in my opinion, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11 is applicable to the MCOs, so I move on to my next question…

Number two:

 Are the MCOs overusing or misusing its ability to hold closed sessions?

As public policy dictates that public bodies act openly, there are enumerated, statutory reasons that a public body may hold a closed session.

A public body may hold a closed session only when a closed session is required:

  1. “To prevent the disclosure of information that is privileged or confidential pursuant to the law of this State or of the United States, or not considered a public record within the meaning of Chapter 132 of the General Statutes.
  2. To prevent the premature disclosure of an honorary degree, scholarship, prize, or similar award.
  3. To consult with an attorney employed or retained by the public body in order to preserve the attorney-client privilege between the attorney and the public body, which privilege is hereby acknowledged. General policy matters may not be discussed in a closed session and nothing herein shall be construed to permit a public body to close a meeting that otherwise would be open merely because an attorney employed or retained by the public body is a participant. The public body may consider and give instructions to an attorney concerning the handling or settlement of a claim, judicial action, mediation, arbitration, or administrative procedure. If the public body has approved or considered a settlement, other than a malpractice settlement by or on behalf of a hospital, in closed session, the terms of that settlement shall be reported to the public body and entered into its minutes as soon as possible within a reasonable time after the settlement is concluded.
  4. To discuss matters relating to the location or expansion of industries or other businesses in the area served by the public body, including agreement on a tentative list of economic development incentives that may be offered by the public body in negotiations, or to discuss matters relating to military installation closure or realignment. Any action approving the signing of an economic development contract or commitment, or the action authorizing the payment of economic development expenditures, shall be taken in an open session.
  5. To establish, or to instruct the public body’s staff or negotiating agents concerning the position to be taken by or on behalf of the public body in negotiating (i) the price and other material terms of a contract or proposed contract for the acquisition of real property by purchase, option, exchange, or lease; or (ii) the amount of compensation and other material terms of an employment contract or proposed employment contract.
  6. To consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee; or to hear or investigate a complaint, charge, or grievance by or against an individual public officer or employee. General personnel policy issues may not be considered in a closed session. A public body may not consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, appointment, or removal of a member of the public body or another body and may not consider or fill a vacancy among its own membership except in an open meeting. Final action making an appointment or discharge or removal by a public body having final authority for the appointment or discharge or removal shall be taken in an open meeting.
  7. To plan, conduct, or hear reports concerning investigations of alleged criminal misconduct.
  8. To formulate plans by a local board of education relating to emergency response to incidents of school violence or to formulate and adopt the school safety components of school improvement plans by a local board of education or a school improvement team.
  9. To discuss and take action regarding plans to protect public safety as it relates to existing or potential terrorist activity and to receive briefings by staff members, legal counsel, or law enforcement or emergency service officials concerning actions taken or to be taken to respond to such activity.”

Option 1 clearly applies, in part, to privileged health information (PHI) and such.  So I would not expect that little Jimmy’s Medicaid ID would be part of the board meeting issues, and, thus, not included in the minutes, unless his Medicaid ID was discussed in a closed session.

I cannot fathom that Option 2 would ever be applicable, but who knows?  Maybe Alliance will start giving out prizes…

I would assume that Option 3 is used most frequently.  But notice:

“General policy matters may not be discussed in a closed session and nothing herein shall be construed to permit a public body to close a meeting that otherwise would be open merely because an attorney employed or retained by the public body is a participant.”

Which means that: (1) the closed session may only be used to talk about specific legal strategies and not general policies.  For example, arguably, an MCO could hold a closed session to consult with its attorney whether to appeal a specific case, but not to discuss whether, generally, the MCO intends to appeal all unsuccessful cases.

and

(2) the MCO cannot call for a closed session “on the fly” and only because its attorney happens to be participating in the board meeting.

As I am rifling through random board meeting minutes, I notice the MCO’s attorney is always present.  Now, I say “always,” but did not review all MCO meeting minutes. There may very well be board meetings at which  the attorneys don’t attend. However, the attorney is present for the minutes that I reviewed.

Which begs the question…Are the MCOs properly using the closed sessions?

Then I look at Options 4, and 5, and 6, and 7, and 8, and 9…and I realize, Geez, according to one’s interpretation, the statute may or may not allow almost everything behind closed doors. (Well, maybe not 9).  But, seriously, depending on the way in which each Option is interpreted, there is an argument that almost anything can be a closed session.

Want to hold a closed session to discuss why the CEO should receive a salary of $400,000? N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(5)(ii).

Want hold a closed session to discuss the anonymous tip claim that provider X is committing Medicaid fraud? N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(7).

Want to hold a closed session to discuss how an MCO can position itself to take over the world? N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(4).

In an atmosphere in which there is little to no supervision of the actions of the MCOs, who is monitoring whether the MCOs are overusing or misusing closed sessions?

Number three:

What can you do if you think that an MCO is holding closed sessions over and above what is allowed by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11?

According to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.16A, “[a]ny person may institute a suit in the superior court requesting the entry of a judgment declaring that any action of a public body was taken, considered, discussed, or deliberated in violation of this Article. Upon such a finding, the court may declare any such action null and void. Any person may seek such a declaratory judgment, and the plaintiff need not allege or prove special damage different from that suffered by the public at large.”

Plus, according to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.16A, “[w]hen an action is brought pursuant to G.S. 143-318.16 or G.S. 143-318.16A, the court may make written findings specifying the prevailing party or parties, and may award the prevailing party or parties a reasonable attorney’s fee, to be taxed against the losing party or parties as part of the costs. The court may order that all or any portion of any fee as assessed be paid personally by any individual member or members of the public body found by the court to have knowingly or intentionally committed the violation; provided, that no order against any individual member shall issue in any case where the public body or that individual member seeks the advice of an attorney, and such advice is followed.”

 In sum, if you believe that an MCO is conducting a closed session for a reason not enumerated above, then you can institute a lawsuit and request attorneys’ fees if you are successful in showing that the MCO knowingly or intentionally committed the violation.

We should also appeal to the General Assembly to revise, statutorily, more narrowly drafted closed session exceptions.

Managed Care – Eight Reasons Why MCOs Smell Like Pre-Minced Garlic

When it comes to the managed care organizations (MCOs) in NC, something smells rancid, like pre-minced garlic. When I first met my husband, Scott, I cooked with pre-minced garlic that comes in a jar. I figured it was easier than buying fresh garlic and dicing it myself. Scott bought fresh garlic and diced it. Then he asked me to smell the fresh garlic versus the pre-minced garlic. There was no contest. Next to the fresh garlic, the pre-minced garlic smelled rancid. That is the same odor I smell when I read information about the MCOs – pre-minced garlic in a jar.

garlic minced-garlic

In NC, MCOs are charged with managing Medicaid funds for behavioral health care, developmentally disabled, and substance abuse services. When the MCOs were initially created, we had 13. These are geographically situated, so providers and recipients have no choice with which MCO to interact. If you live in Sandhills’ catchment area, then you must go through Sandhills. If you provide services in Cardinal’s catchment area, then you must contract with Cardinal – even though you already have a provider participation agreement with the State of NC to provide Medicaid services in the State of NC.

Over the years, there has been consolidation, and now we have 7 MCOs.

newestmco

From left to right: Smoky Mountain (Duke blue); Partners Behavioral Health (Wake Forest gold); Cardinal Innovations Healthcare (ECU purple); Sandhills (UNCC green); Alliance Behavioral Healthcare (mint green); Eastpointe (Gap Khaki); and Trillium (highlighter yellow/green).

Recently, Cardinal (ECU purple) and Eastpointe (Gap khaki) announced they will consolidate, pending authorization from the Secretary of DHHS. The 20-county Cardinal will morph into a 32-county, MCO giant.

Here is the source of the rancid, pre-minced, garlic smell (in my opinion):

One – MCOs are not private entities. MCOs are prepaid with our tax dollars. Therefore, unlike Blue Cross Blue Shield, the MCOs must answer to NC taxpayers. The MCOs owe a duty of financial responsibility to taxpayers, just like the state government, cities, and towns.

Two – Cardinal CEO, Richard Topping, is paid $635,000, plus he has a 0 to 30 percent bonus potential which could be roughly another $250,000, plus he has some sort of annuity or long-term package of $412,000 (with our tax dollars).

Three – Cardinal is selling or has sold the 26 properties it owns or owned (with our tax dollars) to lease office space in the NASCAR Plaza office tower in uptown Charlotte for $300 to $400 per square foot plus employee parking (with our tax dollars).

Four – Cardinal charges 8% of public funds for its administrative costs. (Does that include Topping’s salary and bonuses?) How many employees are salaried by Cardinal? (with our tax dollars).

Five – The MCOs are prepaid. Once the MCOs receive the funds, the funds are public funds and subject to fiscal scrutiny. However, the MCOs keep whatever funds that it has at the end of the fiscal year. In other words, the MCOs pocket any money that was NOT used to reimburse a provider for a service rendered to a Medicaid recipient. Cardinal – alone – handles around $2.8 billion in Medicaid funding per year for behavioral health services. The financial incentive for MCOs? Terminate providers and reduce/deny services.

Six – MCOs are terminating providers and limiting access to care. In my law practice, I am constantly defending behavioral health care providers that are terminated from an MCO catchment area without cause or with erroneous cause. For example, an agency was terminated from their MCO because the agency had switched administrative offices without telling the MCO. The agency continued to provide quality services to those in need. But, because of a technicality, not informing the MCO that the agency moved administrative offices, the MCO terminated the contract. Which,in turn, puts more money in the MCO’s pocket; one less provider to pay.  Is a change of address really a material breach of a contract? Regardless – it is an excuse.

Seven – Medicaid recipients are not receiving medically necessary services. Either the catchment areas do not have enough providers, the MCOs are denying and reducing medically necessary services, or both. Cardinal cut 11 of its state-funded services. Parents of disabled, adult children write to me, complaining that their services from their MCO have been slashed for no reason….But the MCOs are saving NC money!

Eight – The MCOs ended 2015 with a collective $842 million in the bank. Wonder how much money the MCOs have now…(with our tax dollars).

Rancid, I say. Rancid!

CEO of Cardinal Gets a Raise – With Our Tax Dollars!

You could hear the outrage in the voices of some of the NC legislators (finally, for the love of God – our General Assembly has taken the blinders off their eyes regarding the MCOs) at the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Medicaid and NC Health Choice on Tuesday, December 6, 2016, when Cardinal Innovations‘, a NC managed care organization (MCO) that manages our Medicaid behavioral health care in its catchment area, CEO, Richard Topping, stated that his salary was raised this year from $400,000 to $635,000with our tax dollars. (Whoa – totally understand if you have to read that sentence multiple times; it was extraordinarily complex).

Senator Tommy Tucker (R-Waxhaw) was especially incensed. He said, “I received minutes from your board, Sept. 16 of 2016, they made that motion, that your 2017 comp package, they raised your salary from $400,000 to $635,000, they gave you a 0 to 30 percent bonus potential which could be roughly another $250,000 and also you have some sort of annuity or long-term package of $412,000,” said Sen. Tommy Tucker.

FINALLY!!! Not the first time that I have blogged about the mismanagement (my word) of our tax dollars. See blog. And blog.

Sen. Tucker was not alone.

Representative Dollar was also concerned. But even more surprising than our legislators stepping up to the plate and holding an MCO accountable (MCOs have expensive lobbyists – with our tax dollars), the State’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Secretary Rick Brajer was visibly infuriated. He spoke sharply and interrogated Topping as to his acute income increase, as well as the benefits attached.

As a health care blogger, I receive so many emails from blog readers, including parents of disabled children, who are not receiving the medically necessary Medicaid behavioral health care services for their developmentally disabled children. MCOs are denying medically necessary services. MCOs are terminating qualified health care providers. MCOs are putting access to care at issue. BTW – even if the MCOs only terminated 1 provider and stopped 1 Medicaid recipient from receiving behavioral health care services from their provider of choice, that MCO would be in violation of federal law access to care regulations.  But, MCOs are terminating multiple – maybe hundreds – of health care providers. MCOs are nickeling and diming health care providers. Yet, CEO Topping will reap $635,000+ as a salary.

The MCOs, including Cardinal, do not have assets except for our tax dollars. They are not incorporated. They are not private entities. They are extensions of our “single state agency” DHHS. The MCOs step into the shoes of DHHS. The MCOs are state agencies. The MCOs are paid with our tax dollars. Our tax dollars should be used (and are budgeted) to provide Medicaid behavioral health care services for our most needy and to be paid to those health care providers, who still accept Medicaid and provide services to our most vulnerable population. News alert – These providers who render behavioral health care services to Medicaid recipients do not make $635,000/year, or anywhere even close. The reimbursement rates for Medicaid is paltry, at best. Toppings should be embarrassed for even accepting a $635,000 salary. The money, instead, should go to increasing the reimbursements rates – or maintaining a provider network without terminating providers ad nauseum. Or providing medically necessary services to Medicaid recipients.

Rest assured, Cardinal is not the only MCO lining the pockets of its executives. While both Trillium and Alliance, other MCOs, pay their CEOs under $200,000 (still nothing to sneeze at). Alliance, however, throws its tax dollars at private, legal counsel. No in-house counsel for Alliance! Oh, no! Alliance hires expensive, private counsel to defend its actions. Another way our tax dollars are at work. And – my question – why in the world does Alliance, or any other MCO, need to hire legal counsel? Our State has perfectly competent attorneys at our Attorney General’s office, who are on salary to defend the state, and its agencies, for any issue. The MCOs stand in the shoes of the State when it comes to Medicaid for behavioral health. The MCOs should utilize the attorneys the State already employs – not a high-dollar, private law firm. These are our tax dollars!

There have been few times that I have praised DHHS in my blogs. I will readily admit that I am harsh on DHHS’ actions/nonactions with our tax dollars. And I am now not recanting any of my prior opinions. But, last Tuesday, Sec. Brajer held Toppings feet to the fire. Thank you, Brajer, for realizing the horror of an MCO CEO earning $635,000/year while our most needy population goes under-served, and, sometimes not served at all, with medically necessary behavioral health care services.

What is deeply concerning is that if Sec. Brajer is this troubled by actions by the MCOs, or, at least, Cardinal, why can he not DO SOMETHING?? Where is the supervision of the MCOs by DHHS? I’ve read the contracts between the MCOs and DHHS. DHHS is the supervising entity over the MCOs. Our Waiver to the federal government promises that DHHS will supervise the MCOs.

If the Secretary of DHHS cannot control the MCOs, who can?

All Medicare/Caid Health Care Professionals: Start Contracting with Qualified Translators to Comply with Section 1557 of the ACA!!

Being a health care professional who accepts Medicare and/ or Medicaid can sometimes feel like you are Sisyphus pushing the massive boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll down, over and over, with the same sequence continuing for eternity. Similarly, sometimes it can feel as though the government is the princess sleeping on 20 mattresses and you are the pea that is so small and insignificant, yet so annoying and disruptive to her sleep.

Well, effective immediately – that boulder has enlarged. And the princess has become even more sensitive.

boulder

On May 18, 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published a Final Rule to implement Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Section 1557 of the ACA has been on the books since the ACA’s inception in 2010. However, not until 6 years later, did HSD finally implement regulations regarding Section 1557. 81 Fed. Reg. 31376.

The Final Rule became effective July 18, 2016. You are expected to be compliant with the rule’s notice requirements, specifically the posting of a nondiscrimination notice and statement and taglines within 90 days of the Final Rule – October 16, 2016. So you better giddy-up!!

First, what is Section 1557?

Section 1557 of the ACA provides that an individual shall not, on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability, be

  • excluded from participation in,
  • denied the benefits of, or
  • subjected to discrimination under

all health programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance through HHS, including Medicaid, most Medicare, student health plans, Basic Health Program, and CHIP funds; meaningful use payments (which sunset in 2018); the advance premium tax credits; and many other programs.

Section 1557 is extremely broad in scope. Because it is a federal regulation, it applies to all states and health care providers in all specialties, regardless the size of the practice and regardless the percentage of Medicare/caid the agency accepts.

HHS estimates that Section 1557 applies to approximately 900,000 physicians. HHS also estimates that the rule will cover 133,343 facilities, such as hospitals, home health agencies and nursing homes; 445,657 clinical laboratories; 1300 community health centers; 40 health professional training programs; Medicaid agencies in each state; and, at least, 180 insurers that offer qualified health plans.

So now that we understand Section 1557 is already effective and that it applies to almost all health care providers who accept Medicare/caid, what exactly is the burden placed on the providers? Not discriminating does not seem so hard a burden.

Section 1557 requires much more than simply not discriminating against your clients.

Section 1557 mandates that you will provide appropriate aids and services without charge and in a timely manner, including qualified interpreters, for people with disabilities and that you will provide language assistance including translated documents and oral interpretation free of charge and in a timely manner.

In other words, you have to provide written materials to your clients in their spoken language. To ease the burden of translating materials, you can find a sample notice and taglines for 64 languages on HHS’ website. See here. The other requirement is that you provide, for no cost to the client, a translator in a timely manner for your client’s spoken language.

In other words, you must have qualified translators “on call” for the most common 15, non-English languages in your state. You cannot rely on friends, family, or staff. You also cannot allow the child of your client to act as the interpreter. The clients in need of the interpreters are not expected to provide their own translators – the burden is on the provider. The language assistance must be provided in a “timely  manner. “Further, these “on call” translators must be “qualified,” as defined by the ACA.

I remember an English teacher in high school telling the class that there were two languages in North Carolina: English and bad English. Even if that were true back in 19XX, it is not true now.

Here is a chart depicting the number of non-English speakers in North Carolina in 1980 versus 2009-2011:

languages

As you can see, North Carolina has become infinitely more diverse in the last three decades.

And translators aren’t free. According to Costhelper Small Business,

Typical costs:
  • Interpreting may take place in person, over the phone or via video phone.
  • In-person interpreters typically cost $50-$145 per hour. For example, American Language Services offers interpreters starting at $100 per hour (or $125 for sign language) and a two-hour minimum is required.
  • Phone interpreters typically cost $1.25-$3 per minute. Language Translation, Inc. offers a flat fee of $1.88 per minute for phone interpreting, for example.
  • Video interpreters typically range from $1.75 to $7 per minute. For instance, LifeLinks offers video interpreting from $2.25 per minute for any language and $2.95 for sign language. A 15-minute minimum is common for phone or video interpreting.

It seems likely that telehealth may be the best option for health care providers considering the cost of in-person translations. Of course, you need to calculate the cost of the telehealth equipment and the savings you project over time to determine whether the investment in telehealth equipment is financially smart.

In addition to agencies having access to qualified translators, agencies with over 15 employees must designate a single employee who will be responsible for Section 1557 compliance and to adopt a grievance procedure for clients. Sometimes this may mean hiring a new employee to comply.

The Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) at HHS is the enforcer of Section 1557. OCR has been enforcing Section 1557 since its inception in 2010 – to an extent.

However, expect a whole new policing of Section 1557 now that we have the Final Rule from HHS.

Medicaid/care Fraud: You Are Guilty Until Proven Innocent!

Don’t we have due process in America? Isn’t due process something that our founding fathers thought important, essential even? Due process is in our Constitution.

The Fourteenth (governing state governments) and the Fifth Amendment (governing federal government) state that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”

Yet, apparently, if you accept Medicaid or Medicare, due process is thrown out the window. Bye, Felicia!

How is it possible that criminals (burglars, murderers, rapists) are afforded due process but a health care provider who accepts Medicaid/care does not?

Surely, that is not true! Let’s look at some examples.

In Tulsa, a 61-year-old man was arrested for killing his Lebanese neighbor. He pled not guilty. In news articles, the word “allegedly” is rampant. He allegedly killed his neighbor. Authorities believe that he may have killed his neighbor.

And prior to getting his liberty usurped and getting thrown in jail, a trial ensues. Because before we take a person’s liberty away, we want a fair trial. Doesn’t the same go for life and property?

Example A: I recently received a phone call from a health care provider in New Jersey. She ran a pediatric medical daycare. In 2012, it closed its doors when the State of New Jersey accused it of an overpayment of over $12 million and suspended its funds. With its funds suspended, it could no longer pay staff or render services to its clients.

Now, in 2016, MORE THAN FOUR YEARS LATER, she calls to ask advice on a closing statement for an administrative hearing. This tells me (from my amazing Murdoch Mysteries (my daughter’s favorite show) sense of intuition): (1) she was not provided a trial for FOUR YEARS; (2) the state has withheld her money, kept it, and gained interest on it for over FOUR YEARS; (3) in the beginning, she did have an attorney to file an injunction and a declaratory judgment; and (4) in the end, she could not afford such representation (she was filing her closing argument pro se).

Examples B-P: 15 New Mexico behavioral health care agencies. On June 23, 2013, the State of New Mexico accuses 15 behavioral health care agencies of Medicaid fraud, which comprised 87.5% of the behavioral health care in New Mexico. The state immediately suspends all reimbursements and puts most of the companies out of business. Now, MORE THAN THREE YEARS LATER, 11 of the agencies still have not undergone a “Fair Hearing.” Could you imagine the outrage if an alleged criminal were held in jail for THREE YEARS before a trial?

Example Q: Child psychiatrist in rural area is accused of Medicaid fraud. In reality, he is not guilty. The person he hired as his biller is guilty. But the state immediately suspends all reimbursements. This Example has a happy ending. Child psychiatrist hired us and we obtained an injunction, which lifted the suspension. He did not go out of business.

Example R: A man runs a company that provides non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT). One day, the government comes and seizes all his property and freezes all his bank accounts with no notice. They even seize his fiance’s wedding ring. More than TWO YEARS LATER – He has not stood trial. He has not been able to defend himself. He still has no assets. He cannot pay for a legal defense, much less groceries.

Apparently the right to speedy trial and due process only applies to alleged burglars, rapists, and murderers, not physicians and health care providers who render medically necessary services to our most fragile and vulnerable population. Due process??? Bye, Felicia!

What can you, as a health care provider, do if you are accused of fraud and your reimbursements are immediately suspended?

  1. Prepare. If you accept Medicare/caid, open an account and contribute to it generously. This is your CYA account. It is for your legal defense. And do not be stupid. If you accept Medicaid/care, it is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when.
  2. Have your attorney on speed dial. And I am not talking about your brother’s best friend from college who practices general trial law and defends DUIs. I am talking about a Medicaid/care litigation expert.
  3. File an injunction. Suspension of your reimbursements is a death sentence. The two prongs for an injunction are (a) likelihood of success on the merits; and (b) irreparable harm. Losing your company is irreparable harm. Likelihood of success on the merits is on you. If your documents are good – you are good.

Medicaid Reimbursement Rates: What Goes Down Never Goes Up!

It is a timeless joke. What goes down, but never goes up? Medicaid rates!

Having a Medicaid card is as useful as holding a lottery ticket. Sure, maybe you’ll hit the jackpot and find a quality health care provider with whom you share some common connection, but, most likely, you will receive nothing but false hope. 10% of nothing is nothing.

For health care providers that do accept Medicaid – how many of you are accepting new patients? Or maybe the better question is – how many of you are profitable from your Medicaid patients?

The fact of the matter is that Medicaid pays crap. See blog. And blog.

Because we live in a society in which we need money to live, if Medicaid pays less than the cost, health care providers will not accept Medicaid. And you cannot blame them. It’s happening all over the country. In Utah, dentists are un-enrolling in Medicaid, i.e., refusing their Medicaid patients. See article. Pennsylvania has a shortage of psychiatrists..even more so who accept Medicaid. See article. “Some 55% of doctors in major metropolitan areas refuse to take new Medicaid patients, according to a 2014 report by Merritt Hawkins. The Department of Health and Human Services reported that same year that 56% of Medicaid primary-care doctors and 43% of specialists weren’t available to new patients.” See article.

Medicaid is failing our most vulnerable and many more. Medicaid, as it exists now, fails every taxpayer, every health care provider who accepts it, and every family member of a developmentally disabled person who is dependent on Medicaid.

The cost of the Medicaid program is expected to rise from $500 billion to $890 billion by 2024, according to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Yet – throwing more money at a dysfunctional program does not equate to Medicaid recipients gaining access to quality care. The increased money is not going to the services for Medicaid recipients. The ballooned Medicaid budget is not earmarked to elevate the current, inadequate Medicaid reimbursements, which would induce more health care providers to accept Medicaid. The higher the cost of Medicaid, the more the government slashes the reimbursement rates. Yet our government is willing to throw Medicaid dollars at managed care organizations (MCOs) to release the burden of managing such shortfalls and turn a blind eye when our taxpayers’ money is not used to provide Medicaid medically necessary services to recipients, but to compensate CEOs $400,000 or allow alleged extortion.

For example, in obstetrics, if the national Medicaid reimbursement rate for ob/gyn visits is $1.00, here, in NC, Medicaid reimburses ob/gyns 88¢. Which is why only 34% of North Carolina ob/gyns accept Medicaid.

If it is imperative for the Medicaid reimbursements to increase (to, at the very least, cost, if not a slight profit), then how do we accomplish such an insurmountable task?

There are two options: (1) lobbying (which, obviously, has not been successful thus far); and (2) litigation.

Section 30(A) of the Medicaid Act requires that a state provide Medicaid reimbursement rates at a level to “assure that payments are consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care and are sufficient to enlist enough providers so that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population…”

In an article entitled “Nurse Staffing Levels and Medicaid Reimbursement Rates in Nursing Facilities,” written by Charlene Harrington, James H. Swan, and Helen Carrillo, the authors found that the Medicaid nursing home reimbursement rates were linked to quality of care, as to both RN hours and total nursing hours.

“Resident case mix was a positive predictor of RN hours and a negative predictor of total nursing hours. Higher state minimum RN staffing standards was a positive predictor of RN and total nursing hours while for-profit facilities and the percent of Medicaid residents were negative predictors.” Id.

Numerous other articles have been published in the last few years that cite the direct correlation between reimbursement rates and quality of care.

How do we stop Medicaid reimbursement rates from dropping and the executives of those companies charged with managing Medicaid funds from lining their own pockets?

According to the Supreme Court, suing under the Supremacy Clause is not the answer.

In Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Services, providers of habilitative Medicaid services sued the State of Idaho for Medicaid reimbursements rates being too low as to violate Section 30(A) of the Medicaid Act.

In the Armstrong decision from last year, the Supreme Court, Scalia found that, in enacting §1902(a)(30)(A) Congress had empowered the HHS Secretary to withhold all Federal funds from states that violate federal law. According to Armstrong, this “express provision of an administrative remedy” shows that Congress intended that the Secretary be the enforcer – not the courts. In other words, the Supreme Court held that

“The sole remedy Congress provided for a State’s failure to comply with Medicaid’s requirements—for the State’s “breach” of the Spending Clause contract—is the withholding of Medicaid funds by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.” Armstrong.

In other words, according to Armstrong, the sole remedy for health care providers who demand higher Medicaid reimbursement rates, will be for the Secretary of HHS to withhold Medicaid funds from the state. Such a drastic measure would undoubtedly cause the state such a budgetary shortfall that the state would soon be in a position in which it could not reimburse health care providers at all. Therefore, the providers go from receiving woefully low reimbursement rates to receiving none at all. That seems hardly the situation that the Supreme Court would want.

There are still litigation options for health care providers to sue in order to increase the Medicaid reimbursement rate. Just not through the Supremacy Clause.

I have a joke: What goes down, but never goes up?

NC DHHS Fails: No Bid Contracts – No Bueno!

A recent State Auditor report found that DHHS “had approximately 2,500 non-competitively bid contracts with a value of approximately $2.4 billion between state fiscal year 2012 through 2014. The value of the no-bid contracts accounts for more than 32% of all contracts during the same period.”

No bid contracts are exactly that – the company awarded the contract received the contract without competition, or a bid process. Think of a no bid contract as a try out for a professional football team, but only one person is trying out. Generally, competition breeds better results because people try harder when they compete, rather than a solo act.

In contract bidding, rivalry also breeds a lower contract price. It’s only logical. If you know that other companies are submitting bids, you are going to submit the lowest number possible.

So how is DHHS allowed to award no bid contracts?

NC Statute dictates that the AG or the AG’s attorney shall review “all proposed contracts for supplies, materials, printing, equipment, and contractual services that exceed one million dollars…” as of June 27, 2011. See NCGS 114-8.3 as amended by Session Law 2011-326 and Session Law 2013-234.

But – Per 09 NCAC 06B .0901, “…competition may be limited or waived where a factual basis demonstrates support of one or more of the conditions set forth in Paragraph (b) of this Rule. If the procurement is within a purchasing agency’s general delegation, then the purchasing agency may waive competition in conformance with this Rule. If the procurement is greater than the agency’s delegation, requests for limited or waived competition shall be submitted to the State CIO for approval.”

Here are the exceptions found in 09 NCAC 06B.0901(b):

(b) Competition may be limited or waived under the following conditions:

  1. Competition is not available;
  2. A needed product or service is available from only one source of supply;
  3. Emergency action is indicated;
  4. Competition has been solicited but no responsive offers have been received;
  5. Standardization or compatibility is the overriding consideration;
  6. A donation stipulates the source of supply;
  7. Personal or particular professional services are required;
  8. A product or service is needed for a person with disabilities and there are overriding considerations for its use;
  9. Additional products or services are needed to complete an ongoing job or task;
  10. A particular product or service is desired for educational, training, experimental, developmental or research work;
  11. Equipment is already installed, connected and in service, and it is determined advantageous to purchase it;
  12. Items are subject to rapid price fluctuation or immediate acceptance;
  13. There is evidence of resale price maintenance or other control of prices or collusion on the part of persons or entities that thwarts normal competitive procedures unless otherwise prohibited by law;
  14. A purchase is being made and a price is available from a previous contract;
  15. The requirement is for an authorized cooperative project with another governmental unit(s) or a charitable non-profit organization(s); or
  16. A used item is available on short notice and subject to prior sale.

Did all the no bid contracts that DHHS procured between state fiscal year 2012 through 2014 to equal approximately $2.4 billion fit within 1 or more of the above referenced exceptions?

At least, according to the State Auditor – No.

Here are the key findings of the State Auditor’s Report:

  • Many no-bid contracts lacked required review and approval to protect state interests
  • Many no-bid contracts lacked documentation of negotiations to improve pricing or terms
  • Many no-bid contracts lacked adequate written justification to waive competition, which increases the risk of favoritism, unfavorable terms, and poor performance

It appears that DHHS failed this audit. Should we extrapolate?

The New White Collar Exemptions: The Final Rule, (an exception), and the Possible Consequences

On May 18, 2016, the US Department of Labor (DOL) announced the Final Rule amending the “white collar” overtime exemptions to increase the number of employees eligible for overtime, effective December 1, 2016. Got overtime? There is no phase-in; it is immediately effective on December 1st.

We all know that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) placed heavier burdens on employers with the employer mandate for employee health insurance. But, the burdens didn’t stop with the ACA!! Oh, no!  In 2014, President Obama signed an Executive Order directing the Department of Labor to update the regulations defining which white collar workers are protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) minimum wage and overtime standards. How else could we financially burden employers? We could mandate employers pay overtime to salaried workers!!! Oh, we already do? Let’s raise the overtime salary threshold exemptions so more employees receive overtime!!

aca-white-collar-highres

You ask, “How is the DOL Final Rule on white collar exemptions germane to my health care agency/practice?” Answer: Do you have employees? If yes, the Final Rule is applicable to you. If no, there is no need to read this blog (unless you are a salaried employee and want to receive more overtime).

The new, increased salary threshold for executives, administration, and professionals exemptions swells from $455/week to $913/week or $23,660/year to $47,476/year. The number for the ceiling is actually less than what was proposed by $800/week. These numbers are based on 40th percentile of full-time employees (salaried) in the lowest wage region, which happens to be the South. Don’t get your knickers in a knot.

Furthermore, the exemption for the highly compensated employee will jump from $100,000 to $134,004 (odd number). This number is $12,000 more than the proposed amount. Well, that just dills my pickle!

The Final Rule also requires that the salary threshold for executives, administration, and professionals be reviewed every three years in order to maintain the salary exemption comparable to the 40th percentile of full-time employees (salaried) in the lowest wage census region – the South.

Finally, the salary basis test will be amended to allow employers to use non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments, such as commissions, to satisfy the requirements up to 10% of the salary threshold.

The allowance of non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments was meant to soften the blow of the increased salary thresholds. That’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine/a trapdoor on a canoe.

VERY IMPORTANT EXCEPTION

The Secretary of DOL issued a time-limited non-enforcement policy for providers of Medicaid-funded services for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities in residential homes and facilities with 15 or fewer beds. From December 1, 2016 to March 17, 2019, the Department will not enforce the updated salary thresholds.

BUT THE REST OF US BEWARE!!

Do your math!! If the 10% maximum allowance is exceeded, you could find yourself in a world of hurt! We are talking misclassification claims! Also, ensure you know the proper distinctions between discretionary and non-discretionary bonuses!

What likely consequences will arise from this Final Rule? There are a number of possibilities:

  1. Employers will raise employees’ salaries to the new levels;
  2. Employers will pay more overtime;
  3. Employers will convert the salaried employees to hourly;
  4. Employers will change benefits or other operation costs to compensate for the increased burden.

Well, that’s just lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut!

Health Care Integration: A Glimpse Into My Crystal Ball

Throughout the history of health care, payors and payees of Medicare/caid have existed in separate silos. In fact, the two have combated – the relationship has not always been stellar.

Looking into my crystal ball; however, all will not be as it is now [that’s clear as mud!].

Now, and in the upcoming years, there will be a massive shift to integrate payors and payees under the same roof. Competition drives this movement. So does the uncertainty in the health care market. This means that under one umbrella may be the providers and the paying entities.

Why is this a concern? First – Any healthcare entity that submits claims to the federal government, whether it be a provider or payor, must comply with the fraud and abuse statutes. As such, there is a potential to run afoul of federal and state regulations regulating the business of health care. Payors know their rules; providers know their rules…And those rules are dissimilar; and, at times, conflicting. The opportunity to screw up is endemic.

Second – With the new responsibilities mandated by the Yates Memo, these new relationships could create awkward situations in which the head of the payor department could have knowledge (or should have knowledge) of an [alleged] overpayment, but because of the politics at the company or self-interest in the preservation of his or her career, the head may not want to disclose such overpayment. With the 60-day rule, the head’s hesitation could cost the company.

Let’s investigate:

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) reinvented health care in so many ways. Remember, the ACA is supposed to be self-funding. Taxes were not to increase due to its inception. Instead, health care providers fund the ACA through post payment and prepayment audits, ZPIC audits, CERTs, MFCU, MICs, RACs, and PERMs.

The ACA also made a whole new commercially-insured population subject to the False Claims Act. False statements are now being investigated in connection with Medical Loss Ratios, justifications for rate increases, risk corridor calculations, or risk adjustment submissions.

CMS imposes a duty to detect fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA). But what if you’re looking at your own partners?

medicare paying

 

The chart above depicts “old school” Medicare payment options for physicians and other health care providers. In our Brave New World, the arrows will be criss-crossed (applesauce), because when the payors and the payees merge, the reimbursements, the billing, and the regulatory supervision will be underneath the same roof. It’ll be the game of “chicken” taken to a whole new level…with prison and financial penalties for the loser.

Since 2011, kickback issues have exponentially grown. The Anti-Kickback Statute makes it a criminal offense for a provider to give “remuneration” to a physician in order to compensate the physician for past referrals or to induce future referrals of patients to the provider for items or services that are reimbursed, in whole or in part, by Medicare or Medicaid.

Imagine when payors and payees are owned by the same entity! Plus, the ACA amended the kickback statutes to eliminate the prong requiring actual knowledge or intent. Now you can be convicted of anti kickback issues without any actual knowledge it was ever occurring!!

Now we have the “one purpose test,” which holds that a payment or offer of remuneration violates the Anti-Kickback Statute so long as part of the purpose of a payment to a physician or other referral source by a provider or supplier is an inducement for past or future referrals. United States v. Borrasi,  2011 WL 1663373 (7th Cir. May 4, 2011).

There are statutory exceptions. But these exceptions differ depending on whether you are a payor or payee – see the potential criss-cross applesauce?

And, BTW, which types of health care services are bound by the anti kickback statutes?

  1. Clinical laboratory services;
  2. Physical therapy services;
  3. Occupation therapy services;
  4. Radiology services (including MRIs, Ultrasounds, and CAT scans);
  5. Radiation therapy and supplies;
  6. Durable medical equipment and supplies;
  7. Parenteral and enteral nutrients, equipment, and supplies;
  8. Prosthetics, orthotics, and prosthetic devices and supplies;
  9. Home health services;
  10. Outpatient prescription drugs; and
  11. Inpatient and outpatient hospital services.

 

Imagine a building. Inside is a primary care physician (PCP), a pediatrician, a home health agency, and a psychiatrist. Can the PCP refer to the home health agency? Can a hospital refer to a home care agency? What if one of the Board of Directors sit on both entities?

The keys to avoiding the anti kickback pitfalls is threefold: (1) fair market value (FMV); (2) arm’s length transactions; and (3) money cannot be germane to referrals.

However, there is no one acceptable way to determine FMV. Hire an objective appraiser. While hiring an objective appraiser does not establish accuracy, it can demonstrate a good faith attempt.

Number One Rule for Merging/Acquiring/Creating New Partnerships in our new Brave New World of health care?

Your attorney should be your new BFF!! (Unless she already is).

Medicaid Managed Care Organizations: They Ain’t No Jesus!

Many of my clients come to me because a managed care organization (MCO) terminated or refused to renew their Medicaid contracts. These actions by the MCOs cause great financial distress and, most of the time, put the health care provider out of business. My team and I file preliminary injunctions in order to maintain status quo (i.e., allow the provider to continue to bill for and receive reimbursement for services rendered) until an administrative law judge (ALJ) can determine whether the termination (or refusal to contract with) was arbitrary, capricious, or, even, authorized by law.

With so many behavioral health care providers receiving terminations, I wondered…Do Medicaid recipients have adequate access to care? Are there enough behavioral health care providers to meet the need? I only know of one person who could feed hundreds with one loaf of bread and one fish – and He never worked for the MCOs!

On April 25, 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released its massive Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) managed care final rule (“Final Rule”).

Network adequacy is addressed. States are required to develop and make publicly available time and distance network adequacy standards for primary care (adult and pediatric), OB/GYN, behavioral health, adult and pediatric specialist, hospital, pharmacy, and pediatric dental providers, and for additional provider types as determined by CMS.

Currently, 39 states and the District of Columbia contract with private managed care plans to furnish services to Medicaid beneficiaries, and almost two thirds of the 72 million Medicaid beneficiaries are enrolled in managed care.

Access to care has always been an issue. Our Code of Federal Regulations require adequate access to quality health care coverage for Medicaid/care recipients. See blog. And blog.

However, Section 30A of the Social Security Act, while important, delineates no repercussions for violating such access requirements. You could say that the section “has no teeth,” meaning there is no defined penalty for a violation. Even more “toothless” is Section 30A’s lack of definition of what IS an adequate network? There is no publication that states what ratio of provider to recipient is acceptable.

Enter stage right: Final Rule.

The Final Rule requires states to consider certain criteria when determining adequacy of networks in managed care. Notice – I did not write the MCOs are to consider certain criteria in determining network adequacy. I have high hopes that the Final Rule will instill accountability and responsibility on our single state entity to maintain constant supervision on the MCOs [insert sarcastic laughter].

The regulation lists factors states are to consider in setting standards, including the ability of providers to communicate with limited English proficient enrollees, accommodation of disabilities, and “the availability of triage lines or screening systems, as well as the use of telemedicine, e-visits, and/or other evolving and innovative technological solutions.” If states create exceptions from network adequacy standards, they must monitor enrollee access on an ongoing basis.

The Final Rule marks the first major overhaul of the Medicaid and CHIP programs in more than a decade. It requires states to establish network adequacy standards in Medicaid and CHIP managed care for providers. § 457.1230(a) states that “[t]he State must ensure that the services are available and accessible to enrollees as provided in § 438.206 of this chapter.” (emphasis added).

Perhaps now the MCOs will be audited! Amen!