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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.

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?

Another Win for the Good Guys! Federal Preliminary Injunction Granted!!

I do not believe that I have been more excited to post a blog than I am right now. For the past two weeks, an associate DeeDee Murphy and I have been in trial in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For those of you who do not know about the Draconian, governmental upheaval of the 15 behavioral health care companies in New Mexico, see blog. And blog. And documentary.

Going back to what it is that I am so excited to share…

A federal preliminary injunction is rare. It is about as rare as rocking horse poo. But when I met Dr. B, I knew I had to try. Poo or not. Dr. B is a geneticist, who accepts Medicaid. Her services are essential to her patients, who receive ongoing, genetic counseling from her. 70% of her practice comprised of Medicaid recipients.

You see, when Dr. B came to me, she had been represented by legal counsel for over two years but had received no recourse at all. For two years she had retained counsel to fight for her Medicaid contract with the State of Indiana, and for two years, she had no Medicaid contract to render services. For the previous 2 years, Dr. B had been subject to prepayment review and paid nothing – or next to nothing…certainly not enough to pay expenses.

When I met Dr. B, she had not been paid for two years. She continued to render medically necessary services, but she received no reimbursement. She had exhausted all her loans, her credit limit, and even borrowed money from family. She had been forced to terminate staff. Dr. B was on the brink of financial and career ruin. She was about to lose the company and work that she had put over 40 years into. Since her company’s revenue consisted of over 70% Medicaid without Medicaid reimbursements, her company could not survive.

Yet, she continued to provide services to her patients. She is a saint. But she was about to be an unemployed, financially-ruined saint, whose sainthood could not continue.

On December 10, 2015, we filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction in the Northern District of Indiana requesting that the Court enjoin the Indiana Medicaid agency (“FSSA”) from terminating Dr. B from the Medicaid program and from continuing to suspend the money owed to her for the past two year period that she had been subject to prepayment review.

Senior counsel, Josh Urquhart, from our Denver office, and I attended and argued on behalf of Dr. B in a 5-day trial from January 19-25, 2016.

On April 14, 2016, in a 63-page opinion, our preliminary injunction enjoining Indiana from terminating Dr. B from Medicaid was GRANTED. Dr. B is back in the Medicaid program!!!!!

The rocking horse poo is rampant!

This is not just a win for Dr. B. This is a win for all her Medicaid patients, as well. Two mothers with children-patients of Dr. B testified as to the fact that their children rely heavily on Dr. B. Both testified that without Dr. B their children would be irreparably harmed.

When Dr. B informed her former attorneys that she was hiring me, an attorney from North Carolina, those attorneys told Dr. B that “anyone who tells that they can get a federal preliminary injunction is blowing smoke up your ass.” [Pardon the cuss word – their words, not mine]. To which I would like to say, “[insert raspberry], here’s your smoke!”
A preliminary injunction is an extraordinary and drastic remedy, which is why it is rare. However, rare objects exist. The plaintiff must show the court that he/she has a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits, no adequate remedy at law, and irreparable harm absent the injunction. I felt that we had these criteria covered in Dr. B’s case.

The Court agreed with our contention that FSSA’s without cause termination violates her patients’ freedom to choose their provider. This is a big deal!

In our arguments to the Court, we relied heavily on Planned Parenthood of Indiana. We argued that Indiana’s without cause termination was merely a “business decision” and was not germane to Dr. B’s qualifications. As her qualifications remained intact, to disallow Dr. B from providing medically necessary services violates the patients’ freedom to choose their providers.

The Court held that FSSA “must rescind its without cause termination of Dr. B and reinstate her Medicaid provider agreement until this Court reaches a final decision.”

Even rocking horses poo every now and then.

Broken Promises Could Promise Disaster for Pediatricians! or “I Don’t Give a Damn” What the Law Is!

In 2013 and 2014, those of you who are primary health care physicians received a boost in Medicaid reimbursement rates up to the Medicare rates for E&M and vaccine administration CPT codes. Many of you self-attested to being primary care physicians. In other words, you determined that you act as a primary care physician. No official acting on behalf of the government reviewed your self-attestation and approved or denied your self-attestation.

What if the government decides, retroactively, that you did not qualify as a primary care physician and attempt to recoup the enhanced payments?? Is that allowed? “A retroactive take back?”

We all know that retroactive take backs occur in other types of audits!

This whole situation reminds me of my favorite movie of all time: Gone With the Wind…you know, Scarlett O’Hare, Rhett Butler, the Civil War…Over Thanksgiving, AMC had a Gone With the Wind marathon, and I must have watched it 4 times (I was sick, so I couldn’t do much else).

The plot is that Rhett is in love with Scarlett the entire movie, which spans over a fictious, “movie time” of two decades. And Scarlett is not in love with Rhett the entire movie until the very end.Once she finally realizes her love for Rhett, he is beyond frustrated and wants nothing to do with her.

She asks, “Rhett, oh, Rhett, what am I supposed to do?” To which he responds, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”

There are many themes found in Gone With the Wind, but the one most appropos is “You may think you understand reality, but, in the end, your reality may be a fictitious dream.”

Similarly, in 2013 and 2014, if you are a primary health care physician, you received a boost in Medicaid reimbursement rates up to the Medicare rates for E&M and vaccine administration CPT codes. You believed the rate hike to be reality.

This rate hike was a big deal for physicians, especially pediatricians. Pediatric practices rely heavily on Medicaid, usually from 20-100%. This rate hike took a reimbursement rate of approximately 78% of the Medicare rate, which, by the way, has been frozen by our legislature at the 2002 rate, plus an additional 3% reduction, followed by another 1% reduction to 100% of the Medicare rate. Quite an increase!

Well, that so blissful increase in Medicaid rates may come back to bite you!!! You thought that you were receiving higher Medicaid reimbursement rates, but, in the end, may you have to pay it back?

The reality of receiving higher Medicaid reimbursement rates may truly only have been a fictitious dream.

“Why,” you demand. “Why?” “Well,” says the government, “I don’t give a damn what the law is.”

Caveat lector: It is not 100% certain that you will be audited. This blog is only a warning as to a possibility. If, in fact, you are audited, then you have legal rights!

Let’s go over why there may be audits for those of you who self-attested to being primary care physicians…

In order to receive this increased rate hike, physicians had to self-attest that he/she :

  1. “Is Board certified as family medicine, general internal medicine, or pediatric medicine; and/or
  2. Has furnished evaluation and management services under codes described in paragraph (b) of this section that equal at least 60 percent of the Medicaid codes he or she has billed during the most recently completed CY or, for newly eligible physicians, the prior month.”

If you are Board certified in family medicine, general internal medicine, or pediatric medicine, there should not be a problem. There isn’t anything to argue. You are either Board certified or not.

However, if you are not Board certified, you will be relying on the government’s auditors to determine whether your practice comprises 60% of applicable Medicaid codes during the most recent calendar year.

Hmmmmmm…

Then, if the government’s auditors determine that your practice comprises of only 57% of applicable Medicaid codes, you may be charged with returning all the money you received as enhanced payments during 2013 and 2014.

And we all know how accurate some of our government’s auditors are…

So there you were, a physician, happy to self-attest to being a primary care provider, happy to receive higher reimbursements for two years, and with no thought of recoupments.

Then…BOOM…you are hit with the realization that you may be liable to the government for a recoupment of those enhanced reimbursements.

Because, frankly, my Dear, the government does not give a damn. Your reality was, in fact, a mere fictitious dream.

Have an Inkling of a Possible Overpayment, You Must Repay Within 60 Days, Says U.S. District Court!

You are a health care provider.  You own an agency.  An employee has a “hunch” that…

maybe…

perhaps….

your agency was overpaid for Medicare/caid reimbursements over the past two years to the tune of $1 million!

This employee has been your billing manager for years and you trust her…but…she’s not an attorney and doesn’t have knowledge of pertinent legal defenses. You are concerned about the possibility of overpayments, BUT….$1 million? What if she is wrong?  That’s a lot of money!

According to a recent U.S. District Court in New York, you have 60 days to notify and refund the government of this alleged $1 million overpayment, despite not having a concrete number or understanding whether, in fact, you actually owe the money.

Seem a bit harsh? It is.

With the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on March 23, 2010, many new regulations were implemented with burdensome requirements to which health care providers are required to adhere.  At first, the true magnitude of the ACA was unknown, as very few people actually read the voluminous Act and, even fewer, sat to contemplate the unintentional consequences the Act would present to providers. For example, I daresay that few, if any, legislators foresaw the Draconian effect from changing the word “may” in 42 CFR 455.23 to “must.” See blog and blog and blog.

Another boiling frog in the muck of the ACA is the 60-Day Refund Rule (informally the 60-day rule).

What is the 60-Day Refund Rule?

In 2012, CMS proposed the “60-day Refund Rule,” requiring Medicare providers and suppliers to repay Medicare overpayments within 60 days of the provider or supplier identifying the overpayment.  Meaning, if you perform a self audit and determine that you think that you were overpaid, then you must repay the amount within 60 days or face penalties.

If I had a nickel for each time a clients calls me and says, “Well, I THINK I may have been overpaid, but I’m not really sure,” and, subsequently, I explained how they did not owe the money, I’d be Kardashian rich.

It is easy to get confused. Some overpayment issues are esoteric, involving complex eligibility issues, questionable duplicity issues, and issues involving “grey areas” of “non”-covered services.  Sometimes a provider may think he/she owes an overpayment until he/she speaks to me and realizes that, by another interpretation of the same Clinical Coverage Policy that, in fact, no overpayment is owed. To know you owe an overpayment, generally, means that you hired someone like me to perform the self audit.  From my experience, billing folks are all too quick to believe an overpayment is owed without thinking of the legal defenses that could prevent repayment, and this “quick to find an overpayment without thinking of legal defenses” is represented in Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al., the lawsuit that I will be discussing in this blog.  And to the billings folks’ credit, you cannot blame them.  They don’t want to be accused of fraud. They would rather “do the right thing” and repay an overpayment, rather than try to argue that it is not due.  This “quick to find an overpayment without thinking of legal defenses” is merely the billing folks trying to conduct all work “above-board,” but can hurt the provider agency financially.

Nonetheless, the 60-day Refund Rule is apathetic as to whether you know what you owe or whether you hire someone like me.  The 60-Day Refund Rule demands repayment to the federal government upon 60-days after your “identification” of said alleged overpayment.

Section 1128(d)(2) of the Social Security Act states that:

“An overpayment must be reported and returned under paragraph (1) by the later of— (A) the date which is 60 days after the date on which the overpayment was identified; or (B) the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable.”

A recent case in the U.S. District Court of New York has forged new ground by denying a health care providers’ Motion to Dismiss the U.S. government’s and New York State’s complaints in intervention under the False Claims Act (FCA).  The providers argued that the 60-day rule cannot start without a precise understanding as to the actual amount of the overpayment. Surely, the 60-day rule does not begin to run on the day someone accuses the provider of a possible overpayment!

My colleague, Jennifer Forsyth, recently blogged about this very issue.  See Jennifer’s blog.

Basically, in Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al., three hospitals provided care to Medicaid patients. Due to a software glitch [cough, cough, NCTracks] and due to no fault of the hospitals, the hospitals received possible overpayments.  The single state entity for Medicaid in New York questioned the hospitals in 2010, and the hospitals took the proactive step of tasking an employee, Kane, who eventually became the whistleblower, to determine whether, if, in fact, the hospital did receive overpayments.

At this point, arguably, the hospitals were on notice of the possibility of overpayments, but had not “identified” such overpayments per the 60-day rule.  It was not until Kane made preliminary conclusions that the hospitals were held to have “identified” the alleged overpayments.  But very important is the fact that the Court held the hospitals liable for having “identified” the alleged overpayments prior to actually knowing the veracity of the preliminary findings.

Five months after being tasked with the job of determining any overpayment, Kane emails the hospital staff her findings that, in her opinion, the hospitals had received overpayments totaling over $1 million for over 900 claims.  In reality, Kane’s findings were largely inaccurate, as approximately one-half of her alleged findings of overpayments were actually paid accurately.  Despite the inaccurate findings, the Complaint that Kane filed as the whistleblower (she had been previously fired, which may or may not have contributed to her willingness to bring a whistleblower suit), alleged that the hospitals had a duty under the 60-day rule to report and refund the overpayments, even though there was no certainty as to whether the findings were accurate. And the Court agreed with Kane!

Even more astounding, Kane’s email to the hospitals’ management that contained the inaccurate findings contained phrases that would lead one to believe that the findings were only preliminary:

  • “further analysis would be needed to confirm his findings;” and
  • the spreadsheet provided “some insight to the magnitude of the problem” (emphasis added).

The above-mentioned comments would further the argument that the hospitals were not required to notify the Department and return the money 60 days from Kanes’ email because Kane’s own language within the email was so wishy-washy. Her language in her email certainly does not instill confidence that her findings are accurate and conclusive.

But…

The 60-day rule requires notification and return of the overpayments within 60 days of identification.  The definition of “identification” is the crux of Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al. [it depends on what the definition of “is” is].

The Complaint reads, that the hospitals “fraudulently delay[ed] its repayments for up to two years after the Health System knew” the extent of the overpayments” (emphasis added). According to the Complaint, the date that the hospitals “knew” of the overpayment was the date Kane emailed the inaccurate findings.

The hospitals filed a Motion to Dismiss based on the fact that Kane’s email and findings did not conclusively identify overpayments, instead, only provided a preliminary finding to which the hospitals would have needed to verify.

The issue in Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al. is the definition of “identify” under the 60-day rule. Does “identify” mean “possibly, maybe?” Or “I know I owe it?” Or somewhere in between?

The hospitals filed a Motion to Dismiss, claiming that the 60-day rule did not begin to run on the date that Kane sent his “preliminary findings.”  The U.S. District Court in New York denied the hospitals’ Motion to Dismiss and stated in the Order, “there is an established duty to pay money to the government, even if the precise amount due is yet to be determined.” (emphasis added).

Yet another heavy burden tossed upon health care providers in the ever-deepening, regulatory muck involved in the ACA.  As health care providers carry heavier burdens, they begin to sink into the muck.

Important take aways:

  • Caveat: Take precautions to avoid creating disgruntled, former employees.
  • Have an experienced attorney on speed dial.
  • Self audit, but self audit with someone highly experienced and knowledgeable.
  • Understand the ACA. If you do not, read it. Or hire someone to teach you.

The Grim Reaper – Prepayment Review!

The Nine Habits of a Highly Effective Secretary for DHHS

With the recent passing of the torch from Aldona Wos to Rick Brajer (see blog), I’ve been thinking about…

What are the qualifications of a Secretary of DHHS?

What exactly are the qualities that would make a great Secretary of DHHS?  Remember, in Mary Poppins, when the children draft their requirements for a nanny?  Or, better yet, what are the “Seven Habits of a Highly Effective” Secretary for DHHS?  Or…in this case, the “Nine Habits”…

Here are my “Nine Habits of a Highly Effective Secretary of DHHS;” our Secretary of DHHS should have the following:

  1. A health care background
  2. A successful track record of his/her ability to manage large companies or agencies
  3. An understanding of the Medicaid system, and, maybe, even have first-hand knowledge of how the system affects recipients and providers
  4. A relationship with someone on Medicaid or a parent of someone on Medicaid
  5. A working knowledge of clinical coverage policies, reimbursement rates, and regulations surrounding Medicaid
  6. Both the capacity to listen and speak and do both eloquently and genuinely
  7. True empathy about the physical and mental health of Medicaid recipients and about providers, plus have the patience to handle all types of demographic differences
  8. An understanding that he/she is handling tax payers’ money, that redundancy in staff is excess administrative costs, and ability to trim the fat
  9. An ability to communicate with both the Senate and the House and to be frank with both

wosbrajer

Let us analyze the qualifications of Wos that we came to witness over the last few years, as well as, review the qualifications of soon-to-be Sec. Brajer with information to which we are privy.

Let’s see if both, either, or neither have these “Nine Habits of a Highly-Effective Secretary for DHHS.”

  1. Health care background:

Wos: Yes. And, yet, maybe not.  She is an M.D. Although I do not know whether she ever practiced medicine in North Carolina.  According to Wikipedia, (which is never wrong) Wos “prides herself on her work in the field of preventing HIV and AIDS.”  However, I was unable to find a single clinic in which Wos provided services.  While, generally, an “M.D.” automatically bestows a certain aura of understanding health care, I question whether this “M.D.” automatically has a working knowledge of billing for and receiving reimbursements under Medicaid in North Carolina.

Brajer: Hmmmm.  This one is more tricky. The two companies that Brajer owned, Pro-nerve LLC and LipoScience Inc., are health care related, in that Pro-nerve was an intraoperative neuromonitoring (IONM) company and LipoScience sold a diagnostic tool to health care providers.  Arguably, both companies are health care related, at least, in an ancillary way.  However, Brajer is not a health care professional, and, to my knowledge, has never rendered health care services. Furthermore, neither of Brajer’s companies was successful; quite the opposite is true, in fact. From my understanding, one company declared bankruptcy and the other was not far behind.  Which brings us to the next category…

Answer: Both…kinda.

2. A successful track record of his/her ability to manage large entities:

Wos: Prior to acting as the Secretary to DHHS, Wos served as the Ambassador to Estonia until 2006.  What she did besides political functions between 2006 and 2012, I do not know. Acting as an Ambassador does not entail managing large entities.  The most managerial skills that I can find in her background, prior to being appointed Secretary, are related to political fund-raising. Since I would not call her brief reign as Secretary of DHHS a success, I give Wos a “two thumbs down” on this criterion.

Brajer: He managed two companies.  We can bicker as to whether these companies should be considered large…neither employed 17,000 employees.  Regardless, the “successful” criterion appears to be lacking.

Answer: Neither…pickles.

3. An understanding of the Medicaid system:

Wos: “You’re asking me without having all the data available to answer a question,” she told lawmakers on October 8, 2013.  In her defense, she responded as such when asked whether the State was moving toward privatization for Medicaid.  No one could know the answer, except, maybe, McCrory.

On the other hand, the implementation of NCTracks was nothing short of a catastrophe of epic proportion. See blog. See blog.  Anyone with nominal knowledge of the Medicaid system would have, at least, paused to consider keeping HP Enterprises under contract during the switch to NCTracks or pushed back the go-live date.

Brajer: Unknown

Answer: Here’s to hoping that Brajer does.  I’m cheering for you! Go! Fight! Win!

4. A relationship with someone on Medicaid or a parent of someone on Medicaid:

Wos: Unknown.  If I were shaking a proverbial “8 Ball,” it would read, “Doubtful.”

Brajer: Unknown. Perhaps one of his former employees at Pro-nerve, LLC and LipoScience, Inc. is on Medicaid.

Answer: Gimme a ‘B’! B! Gimme a ‘R’! R! Gimme a ‘A’! A! Gimme a ‘J’! J! Gimme a ‘E’! E! Gimme a ‘R’! R! Whats that spell? Brajer!!

5.  A working knowledge of clinical coverage policies, reimbursement rates, and regulations surrounding Medicaid.

Wos: Unknown. Whatever Wos’ knowledge of regulations and clinical coverage policies is or lacked, she, initially, made up for any knowledge lacked with the key hire and quick resignation of Carol Steckel.  Unfortunately, Steckel’s experience was never replaced.

January 2013: “I am pleased to say that we are already taking steps to address some of these issues,” Wos said. “Now, the most important of this is that we have hired Ms. Carol Steckel, a nationally recognized — nationally recognized — expert in Medicaid to run our Medicaid program for the state. Carol is already moving ahead with systemic reviews of operations in this division. She is reviewing and establishing new policies and procedures.”

September 27, 2013: Steckel resigns. And blog.

Brajer: Unknown.

Answer: B! R! A! J! E! R! Let’s go, Brajer!

6. Both the capacities to listen and speak and do both eloquently.

Wos: Wos brandished an ability to speak publicly with ease.  Listening, on the other hand….eh?

Brajer: Unknown

Answer: I think you can, I think you can, I think you can…

7. Genuine concern about the physical and mental health of Medicaid recipients AND about providers PLUS have the patience to handle all types of demographic differences

Wos: She seems to think so. Her country club does not discriminate.

Brajer: Unknown

Answer: Go! Go! Go! Go! Go, Brajer!!

8. An understanding that he/she is handling tax payers money and that redundancy in staff is excess administrative costs and trim the meat

Wos: “My obligation as secretary is to find the best possible team in order to get the job done.”  Les Merritt served as CFO of DMA on a $300,000-plus contract.  Joe Hauck was paid over $228,000 for 6 months of advise to Wos.  Matt McKillip was paid $87,500 to serve as chief policy maker without any health care background.  Ricky Diaz pulled in $85,000 as communications director. Id.  Wos has handed out $1.7 million in pay hikes to 280 staffers, many with “no career or educational experience for the jobs they hold.” Id. The implementation of the MCOs also fell under Wos’ watchful eye.  The MCO system has created thousands upon thousands of high-paying jobs with our Medicaid dollars.  I believe that in the “trim the fat” category, Sec. Wos scores a goose egg.

Brajer: Unknown.

Answer: Please, Brajer! For the love of Pete!

9. Ability to communicate with both the Senate and the House and to be frank with both.

Wos: “Separation pay” v. “Severance pay?

In April 2013: “I think the word transparency can get pretty dangerous,” Wos said. “Because what does transparency mean? If transparency means that we’re in a planning process and you’re asking us, ‘Tell us all the things you’re planning,’ well, my goodness, allow us to work, and then we’ll give you everything that you want.”

Brajer: Unknown

Answer: Brajer, Brajer, He’s our man! If he can’t do it…[gulp].

____________________________________________

It concerns me that so many of future Sec. Brajer’s core abilities/habits to run and manage DHHS and the Medicaid program in a highly effective manner are unknown.  Nothing like placing all your money on red!  But we have HIGH hopes for Brajer!!!  Don’t let us down!!

The whole point of this blog is to pause and really contemplate what characteristics would comprise a great Secretary for DHHS. Obviously, the Governor has the full authority to appoint the Secretary, meaning that we taxpayers have little to no input as to whether we deem a person qualified, except in the indirect method of voting or not voting for the Governor.

Call this blog an exercise in examining what habits, if in existence, would make the most highly effective Secretary of DHHS and an opinion as to whether these habits exist in our former and future Secretaries.

We are cheering for Brajer!  But…

One fact about the future is that it is unknown.

North Carolina Medicaid Reform Update – Round and Round She Goes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Robert Shaw

Lawyer photo

 

State Auditor Finds Robeson County School NOT Using Medicaid Money

Our State Auditor Beth Wood’s most recent audit finds that The Public Schools of Robeson County failed to spend approximately $1 million in Medicaid dollars intended for special needs children in schools!!

See audit report.

“The Public Schools of Robeson County (School District) did not use approximately $1 million per year in Medicaid administrative reimbursements to provide required services to students with disabilities. The School District missed this opportunity to better serve students with disabilities because it was unaware of a contractual requirement to use the Medicaid reimbursements to provide required services.

Over the last three years, the School District reported that it used $26,780 out of $3.16 million in Medicaid administrative reimbursements to provide services to students with disabilities.

The amounts reportedly spent each year are as follows:

• $ 8,969 out of $1,010,397 (0.89%) in 2013

• $12,043 out of $872,299 (1.38%) in 2012

• $ 5,768 out of $1,278,519 (0.45%) in 2011”

The question that I have after reading the audit report is…WHERE IS THE MONEY?

Was this $1 million given to the school system and spent on items other than services for children? Is the school district sitting on a surplus of money that was unspent? Or was this amount budgeted to the school system and the remainder or unspent money is sitting in our state checking account?

To me, it is relatively unclear from the audit report which of the above scenarios is an accurate depiction of the facts.  If anyone knows, let me know.

OIG Finds Questionable Billing! California Medicaid Dentists: Expect Withholdings or Other Penalties!

Currently, dentists who accept Medicaid are ripe for pickings as targets for regulatory audits from both the federal and state governments. Actually, this is true for any provider that accepts Medicaid. It just happens that, recently, I have noticed an uptick in dental audits both in North Carolina and nationwide. Some dentists, who accept pregnancy Medicaid, may even bear the burden of determining pregnancy prior to a teeth cleaning…however, that is a topic for another day.  Although, I tell you what, if my dentist asked whether I were pregnant prior to cleaning my teeth, he may have an abnormally red cheek the remainder of the day and I may join Crossfit.

Moving on….

Generally, dentists tend to not accept Medicaid. The reimbursement rates barely cover overhead. Add high regulatory compliance requirements, the likelihood of undergoing audits, and the government’s robust and zealous desire to tackle fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA), and it is no wonder why most dentists opt to not accept Medicaid. See blog. And blog.

Those dentists (and other providers) that do make the decision to accept Medicaid, these brave and noble souls, are subject to onerous audits; the result of a recent California audit is probably sending shock waves through the California dental community.

335 dental providers in California have been targeted by OIG as having questionable billing issues. Sadly, this is only the beginning for these 335 providers. Now the state will audit the providers, and these 335 providers may very well become the subject of a payment withhold in the near future.

What will happen next?

I will look into my crystal ball, otherwise known as experience, and let you know.

First, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently published a report called: “QUESTIONABLE BILLING FOR MEDICAID PEDIATRIC DENTAL SERVICES IN CALIFORNIA.

One can only imagine by the title that OIG found alleged questionable billing. Otherwise the title may have been, “A Study into Medicaid Billing for Medicaid Pediatric Dental Services,” instead of “Questionable Billing.” With such a leading title, a reader knows the contents before reading one word.

What is questionable billing?

Importantly, before addressing what IS questionable billing, what is NOT questionable billing? Questionable billing is not abhorrent billing practices. Questionable billing is not wasteful billing or abusive billing. And questionable billing is certainly not fraudulent billing. That is not to say that some of these questionable billing will be investigated and, perhaps, fall into one the aforementioned categories. But not yet. Again, these dentists have a long journey ahead of them.

In this context, questionable billing seems to mean that the OIG report identifies dentists who perform a higher number of services per day. OIG analyzed rendering dental providers’ NPI numbers to determine how many services each rendering provider was providing per day. Then OIG compared the average Medicaid payment per kid, number of services per day, and number of services provided per child per visit. OIG determined a “threshold” number for each category and cited questionable billing practices for those dentists that fell egregiously outside the thresholds. Now, obviously, this is a simplistic explanation for a more esoteric procedure, but the explanation is illustrative.

This study of California Medicaid dentists is not first dental study OIG has undertaken. Recently, OIG studied Medicaid dentists in New York, Louisiana, and Indiana. What stands out in the California Medicaid dental study is the volume of dentists involved in the study. In Indiana, OIG reviewed claims for 787 dentists; in New York it reviewed claims for 719 dentists, and in Louisiana, OIG studied 512 dentists’ claims, all of whom rendered services to over 50 Medicaid children.

In California, OIG studied 3,921 dentists.

Why such a difference?

Apparently, California has more dentists than the other three states and more dentists who accept Medicaid. So, if you are Medicaid dentists, apparently, there is more competition in California.

Juxtapose that, in California, in 2012, only 3 periodontists, 3 prosthodontists, 2 endodontists, and 1 oral pathologist provided services to 50 or more children with Medicaid in California.

Going back to the audit findings…

OIG considered dentists who exceeded its identified threshold for one or more of the seven measures to have questionable billing.

The result?

OIG identified 329 general dentists and 6 orthodontists out of 3,921 providers as having with questionable billing. But these findings are only the beginning of what will, most likely, become a long and tedious legal battle for these 335 providers. Lumping together so many dentists and claiming questionable billing practices will inevitably include many dentists who have done nothing irregular. Many other dentists, will have engaged in unintentional billing errors and may owe recoupments. But I foresee a very small number of these dentists to actually have committed fraudulent billing.

Here is an example found in the OIG’s report, OIG identified that 108 dentists provided stainless steel crowns to 18% of the children served by these dentists, compared to an average of only 5% of children receiving stainless steel crowns by those served by all general dentists (non-Medicaid).

Another example is that 98 dentists provided pulpotomies to 18% of the children, while the statewide percentage is 5% to undergo pulpotomies.

Do these examples show that 108 dentists providing stainless steel crowns and that 98 dentists providing pulpotomies are improperly billing?

Of course not.

It is only logical that dentists who accept Medicaid would have a significantly higher number of pulpotomies compared to dentists who service the privately insured. Usually, although not always, a Medicaid recipient will have more issues with their teeth than those privately insureds. In order to qualify for Medicaid, the family must live in poverty (some more than others with the expansion of Medicaid in some states). Some of kids in this population will have parents who do not harp on the importance of dental hygiene, thus allowing many kids in this population to have decay in their teeth. Obviously, this is a generalization; however, I am confident that many studies exist to back up this generalization.

Therefore, if you accept  my generalization, it makes sense that Medicaid dentists perform more pulpotomies than private insurance dentists.

And stainless steel crowns go hand in hand with pulpotomies. Unless you extract the tooth after the removal of the decay, you will need to provide a stainless steel crown to protect the tooth from future damage.

What will happen next?

OIG admits in its report that “our findings do not prove that providers either billed fraudulently or provided medically unnecessary services, providers with extreme billing patterns warrant further scrutiny.”

Which is precisely what will happen next…”further scrutiny”…

The OIG report recommends to California that it:

• Increase its monitoring of dental providers to identify patterns of questionable billing
• Closely monitor billing by providers in dental chains
• Review its payment processes for orthodontic services
• Take appropriate action against dental providers with questionable billing

It is that last recommendation, taking appropriate action, which will determine the future course for these 335 Medicaid providers. Because, as many of you know if you have followed my blog, the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) has a large toolbox with a considerable amount of tools for which it may yield its power against these providers…right or wrong. The same goes for all state Medicaid agencies. When it comes to a Medicaid provider and a Medicaid state agency, there is no balance of powers, in fact, there is only one power. Instead the scales of justice have one arm on the ground and the other raised in the air. There is an imbalance of power, unless you arm yourself with the right allies.

Possible future actions by DHCS:

• Payment suspensions
• Withholds of all reimbursements
• Post payment review
• Prepayment review

And combinations thereof.

DCHS stated that “it will review the dental providers referred by OIG and will determine by December 2015 what appropriate action may be warranted. Should there exist any provider cases not previously evaluated by existing program monitoring efforts, DHCS will take appropriate action through the available channels.”

First, December 2015 is a short timeframe for DCHS to audit 335 providers’ records and determine the proper course of action. So, expect a vendor for DCHS to be hired for this task. Also, expect that an audit of 335 providers in 7 months will have flaws.

These California dentists and orthodontists need to arm themselves with defense tools. And, quickly. Because it is amazing how fast 7 months will fly by!!

The report also states that OIG will be undertaking a study in the future to determine access to dental care issues.  I will be interested in the result of that study.

These possible penalties that I already enumerated above are not without defenses.

These 335 CA Medicaid dental providers have administrative remedies to prevent these possible penalties.   In other words, these 335 CA Medicaid dental providers do not have to take this lying down. Even though it appears that an imbalance of power exists between the state agency and the providers, these providers have appeal rights.

The second that any of these providers receive correspondence from DCHS, it is imperative that the provider contact its attorney.

Remember, some appeals have very short windows for which to appeal.  Do not miss an appeal deadline!!