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Medicare Fraud: Do MCOs Have Accountability Too?

Dr. Isaac Kojo Anakwah Thompson, a Florida primary care physician, was sentenced in July 2016 to 4 years in prison and a subsequent two years of supervised release. Dr. Thompson pled guilty to health care fraud.  He was further ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $2,114,332.33. Ouch!! What did he do?

According to the Department of Justice, Dr. Thompson falsely reported that 387 of his clients suffered from ankylosing spondylitis when they did not.

Question: How does faking a patient’s disease make a physician money???

Answer: Hierarchal condition category (HCC) coding. Wait, what?

Basically, Medicare Advantage assigns HCC coding to each patient depending on the severity of their illnesses. Higher HCC scores equals substantially higher monthly capitation payments from Medicare to the managed care organization (MCO). In turn, the MCO will pay physicians more who have more extremely sick patients (higher HCC codes).

Ankylosing spondylitis is a form of arthritis that causes inflammation and damage at the joints; eventually, the inflamed spinal joints can become fused, or joined together so they can’t move independently. It’s a rare disease, affecting 1 in 1000 people. And, importantly, it sports a high HCC code.

In this case, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) found it odd that, between 2006-2010, Dr. Thompson diagnosed 387 Medicare Advantage beneficiaries with ankylosing spondylitis and treated them with such rare disease. To which, I say, if you’re going to defraud the Medicare system, choose common, fabricated diseases (kidding – it’s called sarcasm – I always have to add a disclaimer for people with no humor).

According to the Department of Justice, none or very few of Dr. Thompson’s 387 consumers actually had ankylosing spondylitis.

My issue is as follows: Doesn’t the managed care organization (MCO) share in some of the punishment? Shouldn’t the MCO have to repay the financial benefit it reaped from Dr. Thompson?? Shouldn’t the MCO have a duty to report such oddities?

Let me explain:

In Florida, Humana acted as the MCO. Every dollar that Dr. Thompson received was funneled through Humana. Humana would pay Dr. Thompson a monthly capitation fee from Medicare Advantage based on his patient’s hierarchal condition category (HCC) coding. Increasing even just one patient’s HCC code means more bucks for Dr. Thompson. Remember, according to the DOJ, he increased 387 patients’ HCC codes.

Dr. Thompson reported these diagnoses to Humana, which in turn reported them to Medicare. Consequently, Medicare paid approximately $2.1 million in excess capitation fees to Humana, approximately 80% of which went to Dr. Thompson.

In this case, it is reasonable to expect that Humana had knowledge that Dr. Thompson reported abnormally high HCCs for his patients. For comparison, ankylosing spondylitis has an HCC score of 0.364, which is more than an aortic aneurysm and three times as high as diabetes. Plus, look at the amount of money that the MCO paid Dr. Thompson. Surely, it appeared irregular.

What, if anything, is the MCO’s duty to report physicians with an abnormally high number of high HCC codes? If you have knowledge of someone committing a crime and you do nothing, isn’t that called aiding and abetting?

With the publication of the Yates memo, I expect to see CMS holding MCOs and other state agencies accountable for the actions of its providers. Not to say that the MCOs should actively, independently investigate Medicare/caid fraud, but to notify the Human Services Department (HSD) if abnormalities exist, especially if as blatant as one doctor with 387 patients suffering from ankylosing spondylitis.

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).

Governmental Wand Waving and Late Apologies

In one of the most audacious acts of governmental power, in 2013, New Mexico accused 15 behavioral health care provider agencies of credible allegations of fraud and immediately suspended all Medicaid reimbursements to these agencies. These behavioral health care agencies comprised 87.5% of all New Mexico’s behavioral health care. Hundreds of thousands Medicaid recipients were adversely affected; all of a sudden, their mental health care provider was gone. Most of the companies were devastated. (One company was allowed to stay open because it paid millions to the state). See blog for more. See documentary.

Now, over 2 1/2 years later, three days ago (February 8, 2016), the NM Attorney General cleared 10 of the 15 companies. Oops, sorry, there was never any fraud. Sorry about the devastation of your company.

Imagine losing your job, your reputation, all your money, getting accused of a crime…then let two years pass. You walk into the grocery store (and everywhere else you go) and people stare at you, thinking that you are guilty of the crime for which you are accused. (Ever read “The Count of Monte Cristo?”)

Then you are exonerated. Are you happy or angry?

Here’s the issue: The government has a lot of power. Legally, the government has the authority to accuse you of a crime, seize your home, seize your property, take away your children, to put you in jail, to put you to death, etc.; the only barrier between the government carrying out these drastic measures and you is due process.

So, readers, if you are understanding my logic thus far, you understand the importance of due process.

However, for you who accept Medicare and Medicaid, due process is nonexistent. Since the inception of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), when it comes to accusations of fraud, due process has been suspended.

Hence the situation in New Mexico. Without substantial evidence supporting its decision (remember the Public Consulting Group (PCG) audit in this case actually found no credible allegations of fraud), the State of New Mexico accused 15 companies of fraud, suspended all their reimbursements, and put most of the companies out of business.

With a mere waving of the wand.

And an apology too little too late.

Another Win for the Good Guys! Gordon & Rees Succeeds in Overturning Yet Another Medicaid Contract Termination!

Getting placed on prepayment review is normally a death sentence for most health care providers. However, our health care team here at Gordon Rees has been successful at overturning the consequences of prepayment review. Special Counsel, Robert Shaw, and team recently won another case for a health care provider, we will call her Provider A. She had been placed on prepayment review for 17 months, informed that her accuracy ratings were all in the single digits, and had her Medicaid contract terminated.

We got her termination overturned!! Provider A is still in business!

(The first thing we did was request the judge to immediately remove her off prepayment review; thereby releasing some funds to her during litigation.  The state is only allowed to maintain a provider on prepayment review for 12 months).

Prepayment review is allowed per N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C-7.  See my past blogs on my opinion as to prepayment review. “NC Medicaid: CCME’s Comedy of Errors of Prepayment Review“NC Medicaid and Constitutional Due Process.

108C-7 states, “a provider may be required to undergo prepayment claims review by the Department. Grounds for being placed on prepayment claims review shall include, but shall not be limited to, receipt by the Department of credible allegations of fraud, identification of aberrant billing practices as a result of investigations or data analysis performed by the Department or other grounds as defined by the Department in rule.”

Being placed on prepayment review results in the immediate withhold of all Medicaid reimbursements pending the Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) contracted entity’s review of all submitted claims and its determination that the claims meet criteria for all rules and regulations.

In Provider A’s situation, the Carolinas Center for Medical Excellence (CCME) conducted her prepayment review. Throughout the prepayment process, CCME found Provider A almost wholly noncompliant. Her monthly accuracy ratings were 1.5%, 7%, and 3%. In order to get off prepayment review, a provider must demonstrate 70% accuracy ratings for 3 consecutive months. Obviously, according to CCME, Provider A was not even close.

We reviewed the same records that CCME reviewed and came to a much different conclusion. Not only did we believe that Provider A met the 70% accuracy ratings for 3 consecutive months, we opined that the records were well over 70% accurate.

Provider A is an in-home care provider agency for adults. Her aides provide personal care services (PCS). Here are a few examples of what CCME claimed were inaccurate:

1. Provider A serves two double amputees. The independent assessments state that the pateint needs help in putting on and taking off shoes. CCME found that there was no indication on the service note that the in-home aide put on or took off the patients’ shoes, so CCME found the dates of service (DOS) noncompliant. But the consumers were double amputees! They did not require shoes!

2. Provider A has a number of consumers who require 6 days of services per week based on the independent assessments. However, many of the consumers do not wish for an in-home aide to come to their homes on days on which their families are visiting. Many patients inform the aides that “if you come on Tuesday, I will not let you in the house.” Therefore, there no service note would be present for Tuesday. CCME found claims inaccurate because the assessment stated services were needed 6 days a week, but the aide only provided services on 5 days.  CCME never inquired as to the reason for the discrepancy.

3. CCME found every claim noncompliant because the files did not contain the service authorizations. Provider A had service authorizations for every client and could view the service authorizations on her computer queue. But, because the service authorization was not physically in the file, CCME found noncompliance.

Oh, and here is the best part about #3…CCME was the entity that was authorizing the PCS (providing the service authorizations) and, then, subsequently, finding the claim noncompliant based on no service authorization.

Judge Craig Croom at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) found in our favor that DHHS via CCME terminated Provider A’s Medicaid contract arbitrarily, capriciously, erroneously, exceeded its authority or jurisdiction, and failed to act as accordingly to the law. He ruled that DHHS’ placement of Provider A on prepayment review was random

Because of Judge Croom’s Order, Provider A remains in business. Plus, she can retroactively bill all the unpaid claims over the course of the last year.

Great job, Robert!!! Congratulations, Provider A!!!

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.

Attorney/Client Privilege: Its Importance to Health Care Providers, and TIPS to Avoid Potential Pitfalls as to Former Employees

This blog is intended to provide TIPS to health care providers who have any amount of attrition with staff members and why these TIPS as to attorney/client privilege are so important.

First, I’d like to say, for the past few weeks, I have been moving homes and firms, concurrently.  Add in a trial or two into the mix and I haven’t been able to blog as often.  But I’m fairly moved in now (to both) and have one of the trials mostly wrapped up.

The idea for this blog, in particular, actually came to me while Robert Shaw, Senior Counsel, and I were Santa Fe, New Mexico for a trial.

While preparing the witnesses for trial, I re-realized an important aspect of attorney/client privilege that is vital to health care providers if there is any attrition in their staff.

I say “re-realized” because I already knew the importance of attorney/client privilege, but I realized the importance for health care providers to understand its importance, as well…hence, this blog.

If, for whatever reason, your company is forced to lay off staff or, even, if you have staff voluntarily leave your office, you need to read the entirety of this blog and pay special attention to the TIPS at the bottom.

Why?

What if you need to rely on that former employee for testimony in a hearing?

For example, you are CEO of a small or large health care provider company and your Medical Director or Compliance Director leaves your employment and you need the former employee to testify in the future.  Your former employee and your attorney will not be protected by attorney/client privilege.

You may be thinking…so what?

But attorney/client privilege is key in trial.

Let me give you an illustrative example:

You own a dental practice and accept Medicaid.  Lucy is your office manager.  She oversees the Medicaid billing, ensures regulatory compliance, and deals with denials that come from NCTracks.  She also enters the data into NCTracks.  You, as the dentist, provide dental services, but you have little to do with what Lucy does.  You trust her and she does her job well.

DHHS via Program Integrity conducts an audit and determines that you owe $750,000 in alleged overpayments. Maybe the auditor didn’t know that the notation “cavies” means cavities and dinged you for billing for filling a cavity because the auditor could not discern from the service note that a cavity was actually filled.  Or, maybe you coded the service for scraping the wall of a gingival pocket, and the auditor did not understand what “curettage” is in the service note.

Regardless, you receive a Notice of Overpayment on May 4, 2015.  On May 7, 2015, Lucy tells you that she is having her first baby and wants to be stay at home mother.  You congratulate her and begin your search for another office manager.  You end up hiring Bill.

By the time that you need to get ready to defend your $750,000 overpayment with your attorney, Lucy has given birth to Annie and hasn’t worked for you for over a year.

But your attorney, in order to defend the overpayment, will need Lucy to testify at court.  Before a witness testifies in court, your attorney must meet with him or her to prepare the witness for direct examination and cross examination by opposing counsel. (If your attorney does not, instruct him or her to do so).

When I am in a situation such as the one I have outlined above.  I am extremely careful.  Because there is no attorney/client privilege between “Lucy” and me because she is a former employee, I am very precise in my prep.  For example, I would never discuss legal strategy with Lucy.  I would never show privileged information; I would never try to “lead” Lucy’s opinion. Leading a witness’s opinion could come across like, “Lucy, If I ask you on the stand whether your opinion is that curettage means scraping a gingival pocket, you would agree, correct?” Instead, I would ask, “Lucy, what do you understand curettage to mean and how would you normally code the procedure?”

Why?

Any attorney worth his or her salt knows that attorney/client privilege does not attach to a former employee.

Why does that matter?

Any opposing attorney worth his or her salt will cross exam Lucy as to every detail possible involving the meeting between Lucy and me. And I mean every detail.

For example:

Q: “You met with Ms. Emanuel in preparation for this meeting, correct?”

A: “Yes.”

Q: “When exactly was that?”

A: “Two weeks ago.”

Q: “What documents did Ms. Emanuel show you?”

A: “She showed me my direct examination.”

Q: “What do you mean? A hard copy of the questions that you would be asked?”

A: “Yes.”

Q: “Ms. Emanuel, I expect that you have no problem providing me with a copy of what you showed Lucy?”

Me: “Not at all.”

Boom! By Lucy testifying that I showed her my hard copy of my direct examination questions, opposing counsel is entitled to review my draft questions along with any notes I may have notated on that hard copy of Lucy’s direct testimony.  What happens if I have privileged notes contained within my questions? My attorney notes contained within the questions are now discoverable by the other side.

[BTW: I would never show Lucy my actual list of questions, unless I fully anticipated giving my list to opposing counsel.]

But you can see the potential pitfalls. Anything discussed or shown to Lucy by your counsel will be discoverable by opposing counsel.  What if your counsel, without thinking, tells Lucy that he or she thinks this is a weak case? Or tells Lucy that he or she hopes the other side doesn’t pick up on…..X?

Even if the attorney prepping Lucy states something disparaging about opposing counsel, or God forbid, the judge, those remarks are discoverable and Lucy must testify to those comments on the stand.

On one occasion, I actually had opposing counsel question my witness about our conversation during a 10 minute break, during which I was smart enough not to speak about the case.  My witness answered, “We discussed that I think you are b$#@!”  But counsel’s question was valid and allowable.  Because just as easily, during the break, I could have said, if I were not worth my salt, “Lucy, I did not like how you answered that question.  You need to say…..X.”

Judges do not look favorable on coached testimony.

TIPS:

As a health care provider, what measures can you take that if you are forced to call former employees as witnesses, you are poised for the best result?

1. Try to maintain a cordial relationship with former employees.

I know this can be difficult as every provider needs to terminate staff or has disgruntled employees.  But, even if you are firing staff, try to do so in a professional, amicable manner. Explain that it is a business decision, not personal (regardless the reason).  Give the soon-to-be-fired employee notice, such as 30 days, if possible.  If you would recommend the employee to a colleague, let the employee know and to whom.  These small steps can help your future in case of trial.

2. Re-hire the employee.

In my opinion, this avenue has an aura of attempted deceit, and I do not recommend this route unless you are re-hiring the employee in good faith.  For example, if you truly did not want to fire the staff member and you genuinely could use that person back in your office, or, if, in the case of Lucy, she decides that she wants to come back to work of her own volition and you still have the need.

An employee is protected by attorney/client privilege, generally.

3. Be knowledgeable or hire a knowledgeable attorney.

If you are concerned that your attorney may disclose something otherwise confidential in witness prep of a former employee, have a lengthy discussion with your attorney prior to the preparation session.  Sit in with your attorney during the prep of the former attorney.

Along the same lines as above, come to an understanding with your attorney which documents may be considered “hot docs” and essential to the case, and, which should not be discussed with a former employee at all.

4. Test the waters.

Prior to your attorney contacting Lucy, call Lucy yourself. Have a chat.  Catch up. Ask Lucy whether she is willing to testify on your behalf.  If Lucy starts cussing you out, you may want to think of alternative witnesses.  If there are no alternative witnesses, you may want to discuss with your attorney whether an affidavit or deposition could substitute for Lucy’s testimony at trial.

5. Pay for Lucy’s time

There is nothing wrong or unethical about compensating Lucy for her trial preparation and appearance at trial.  Obviously, this compensation is discoverable by opposing counsel and questions can be asked about the compensation situation.  But I believe it is better to have a happy Lucy, who feels that her time is valuable, rather than an increasingly frustrated Lucy, as each second ticks along.

6. Think ahead

If you know you will be terminating an employee or if you receive notice that an employee  is leaving, think about the most important aspects of his or her job and memorialize the procedures.  For example, in the case of Lucy, ask Lucy to draft a memo to the file as to her procedures in billing Medicaid.  Have her write which service notes are billed for which codes and the reasons in support and how she manually enters data into NCTracks.  It may seem tedious, but these notes will be invaluable during any future litigation.

Along the same vein as above, if possible, have Lucy train Bill prior to her leaving.  That way, if Lucy is an undesirable witness, Bill can testify that he follows the same protocol as Lucy because Lucy trained him and he follows her protocol.

Hopefully, these TIPS will be helpful to you in the future in the case of employees leaving your practice.  Print off the blog and review it whenever an employee is leaving.

Is Health Care Fraud on the Rise? Or Just the Accusations??

Recent stories in the news seem to suggest that health care fraud is running rampant.  We’ve got stories about Eric Leak‘s Medicaid agency, Nature’s Reflections, funneling money to pay athletes, a seizure of property in Greensboro for alleged Medicaid fraud, and, in Charlotte, a man was charged with Medicaid fraud and sentenced to three years under court supervision and ordered to pay $3,153,074. And these examples are local.

Health care fraud with even larger amounts of money at stake has been prosecuted in other states.  A nonprofit up in NY is accused of defrauding the Medicaid system for over $27 million.  Overall, the federal government opened 924 criminal health care fraud investigations last year.

What is going on? Are more people getting into the health care fraud business? Has the government become better at detecting possible health care fraud?

I believe that the answer is that the federal and state governments have determined that it “pays” high dividends to invest in health care fraud investigations.  More and more money is being allocated to the fraud investigative divisions.  More money, in turn, yields more health care fraud allegations…which yields more convictions….and more money to the government.

Believe me, I understand the importance of detecting fraud.  It sickens me that those who actually defraud our Medicaid and Medicare systems are taking medically necessary services away from those who need the services.  However, sometimes the net is cast so wide…so far…that innocent providers get caught in the net.  And being accused of health care fraud when you innocent is a gruesome, harrowing experience that (1) you hope never happens; and (2) you have to be prepared in case it does.  I have seen it happen.

As previously stated, in fiscal year (FY) 2014, the federal government opened 924 new criminal health care fraud  investigations.  That’s 77 new fraud investigations a month!!  This number does not include civil investigations.

In FY 2012, the Department of Justice (DOJ) opened 2,016 new health care fraud investigations (1,131 criminal, 885 civil).

The Justice Department launched 903 new health-care fraud prosecutions in the first eight months of FY 2011, more than all of FY 2010.

These numbers show:

  • an 85% increase over FY 2010,
  • a 157% increase over FY 2006
  • and 822% over FY 1991.

And the 924  investigations opened in fiscal 2014 only represent federal investigations.  Concurrently, all 50 states are conducting similar investigations.

What is being recovered? Are the increased efforts to detect health care fraud worth the effort and expenditures?

Heck, yes, it is worth it to both the state and federal governments!

Government teams recovered $4.3 billion in FY 2013 and $19.2 billion over the last five years.  While still astronomically high, the numbers dropped slightly for FY 2014.  In FY 2014, according to the Annual Report of the Departments of Health and Human Services and Justice, the federal government won or negotiated over $2.3 billion in health care fraud judgments and settlements.  Due to these efforts, as well as efforts from preceding years, the federal government retrieved $3.3 billion from health care fraud investigations.

So the federal and state governments are putting more money into investigating health care fraud.  Why?

The Affordable Care Act.

Obviously, the federal and state governments conducted health care fraud investigations prior to the ACA.  But the implementation of the ACA set new mandates to increase fraud investigations. (Mandates, which were suggestions prior to the ACA).

In 2009, Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13520, which was targeted to reduce improper payments and to eliminate waste in federal programs.

On March 23, 2010, President Obama signed the ACA into law.  A major part of the ACA is focused on cost containment methods. Theoretically, the ACA is supposed to be self-funding.  Detecting fraud, waste and abuse in the Medicare/Medicaid system helps to fund the ACA.

Unlike many of the other ACA provisions, most of the fraud and abuse provisions went into effect in 2010 or 2011. The ACA increases funding to the Healthcare Fraud and Abuse Control Program by $350 million over the next decade. These funds can be used for fraud and abuse control and for the Medicare Integrity Program.

The ACA mandates states to conduct post payment and prepayment reviews, screen and audit providers, terminate certain providers, and create provider categories of risk.

While recent articles and media seem to indicate that health care fraud is running rampant, the substantial increase in accusations of health care fraud really may be caused by factors other than more fraud is occurring.

The ACA mandates have an impact.

And, quite frankly, the investigation units may be a bit overzealous to recover funds.

What will happen if you are a target of a criminal health care fraud investigation?

It depends whether the federal or state government is conducting the investigation.

If the federal government is investigating you, most likely, you will be unaware of the investigation.  Then, one day, agents of the federal government will come to your office and seize all property deemed related to the alleged fraud.  Your accounts will be frozen.  Whether you are guilty or not will not matter.  What will matter is you will need an experienced, knowledgeable health fraud attorney and the funds with which to compensate said attorney with frozen accounts.

If the state government is conducting the investigation, it is a little less hostile and CSI-ish.  Your reimbursements will be suspended with or without your notice (obviously, you would notice the suspension once the suspension occurred).  But the whole “raid on your office thing” is less likely.

There are legal remedies available, and the “defense” should begin immediately.

Most importantly, if you are a health care provider and you are not committing fraud, you are not safe from accusations of fraud.

Your insurance, most likely, will not cover attorneys’ fees for alleged intention fraud.

The attorney of your choice will not be able to accept funds that are “tainted” by alleged fraud, even if no fraud occurred.

Be aware that if, for whatever reason, you are accused, you will need to be prepared…for what you hope never happens.

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

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

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

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

But what if the reason is invalid?

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

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

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

Going back to my case…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Low Medicaid Reimbursement Rates Violate the Supremacy Clause?! …The Supreme Court to Weigh In!

Tomorrow is a big day.  Not only will most of us return to work after a long weekend, but the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on a very important issue.

On January 20, 2015, (tomorrow) the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral arguments on a very important issue that will affect every health care provider in America who accepts Medicaid, and, yet, there has been very little media coverage over this lawsuit.

Legal Issue: Does a Medicaid provider have a private right of action under the Medicaid Act to bring a lawsuit against states under the Supremacy clause.

The Issue Translated from Legalese to English: Can a Medicaid provider sue the state in which the provider does business if the provider believes that the Medicaid reimbursement rate for a particular service or product is too low? For example, can a dentist sue NC for a higher Medicaid reimbursement rate for tooth extractions? Can a long-term care facility and/or a home care agency sue due to low Medicaid personal care services (PCS) rates?

It is my opinion that Medicaid providers across the country have not brought enough lawsuits demanding higher Medicaid reimbursement rates. It is without question that Medicaid reimbursement rates across the country are too low. Low reimbursement rates cause health care providers to refuse to accept Medicaid recipients. See my blog NC Health Care Providers Who Accept Medicaid: Thank you!.

If you hold a Medicaid card, you do not automatically have access to good quality health care. You are segregated from the privately insured and the care you receive is not equal. You are limited in your choice of doctors. If you are an adult, you can forget any dental procedures. Even if you aren’t an adult, you require prior approval for almost all services (regardless of whether you are suffering from pain), which will often be denied (or reduced…or require a significant waiting period). You want mental health care? You better get the very least amount of help possible until you prove you need more help. See my blog NC Medicaid Expansion: Bad for the Poor.

And why won’t more health care providers accept Medicaid? The Medicaid reimbursement rates are too low!! The Medicaid reimbursement rates are too low for health care providers to yield a profit…or, in many instances, even cover the overhead. In fact, providers tell me that when they do accept Medicaid, they are forced to accept more privately insured patients to offset the losses from accepting the finite number of Medicaid patients. In many states, the states refuse to cover psychology costs for Medicaid recipients, and other states refuse to cover the costs for PCS.

So, I say, bring on the lawsuits!!! Force states to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates!!

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

So far, across the country, federal courts have held that Medicaid providers do have a private right of action to sue states for low reimbursement rates. In fact, in most cases, the providers have PREVAILED and the states have been forced to pay higher rates!!!

Providers of all types have filed lawsuits across the country disputing the states’ Medicaid reimbursement rates as being too low. For example, in California, between April 2008 and April 2009, five lawsuits were filed against the state of California to stop scheduled reductions in reimbursement rates (on behalf of rehabilitation providers, nonemergency medical transportation providers, pharmacies, physicians, and emergency physicians).

A Florida lawsuit that was settled in December 2014 revolved around a young boy on Medicaid who was suffering from a painful sinus infection. His mother contacted multiple physicians and was denied appointments because the mother and her son were on Medicaid. He was forced to wait almost a week for an appointment. The judge in the case wrote, “I conclude that Florida’s Medicaid program has not compensated primary physicians or specialists at a competitive rate as compared with either that of Medicare or private insurance payers….I further conclude that Florida’s structure for setting physician reimbursement fails to account for statutorily mandated factors in the Medicaid Act, including the level of compensation needed to assure an adequate supply of physicians.”

Over the years, the Supreme Court has vacillated over even determining whether a Medicaid provider has a private right of action under the Medicaid Act to bring a lawsuit against states under the Supremacy clause.

In 2002, the Supreme Court denied certiorari (refused to hear the argument) on this very issue. Coming out of the 9th Circuit (which includes California), a Circuit which has been especially busy with lawsuits arguing Medicaid reimbursement rates are too low, the case of Independent Living Center of California v. Shewry would have squarely addressed this issue. But the Supreme Court denied certiorari and did not hear arguments.

In 2012, the Supreme Court decided to hear arguments on this issue. In Douglas v. Independent Living Center, Medicaid beneficiaries and providers sued the California state Medicaid agency, seeking to enjoin a number of proposed provider payment rate cuts. After the Supreme Court heard oral argument, but before it had issued its decision, the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) approved California’s state plan amendment containing the rate cuts. Consequently, the Douglas majority held that the case should be sent back to the lower courts to consider the effect of CMS’s approval of the state plan amendment, without deciding whether the beneficiaries and providers had a right to sue.

Now the case Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center will be heard by the Supreme Court on January 20, 2015.

How did this case come about?

In 2005, the Idaho state legislature passed a law requiring the state Medicaid agency to implement a new methodology to determine provider reimbursement rates, and in 2009, the state Medicaid agency published new, higher rates based, in part, on a study of provider costs. CMS approved the state’s new methodology. However, the new rates never were implemented because the state legislature failed to appropriate sufficient funding, making the refusal to increase the reimbursment rate a budgetary issue.  A group of Idaho residential habilitation providers that accept Medicaid sued the Idaho state Medicaid agency and alleged that the state’s failure to implement the new rates conflicted with federal law (the Supremacy Clause).

Section (30)(A) of the Medicaid Act requires state Medicaid agencies to take provider costs into account when setting reimbursement rates. Under case law precedent, the rate must “bear a reasonable relationship to efficient and economical . . . costs of providing quality services.” To deviate from this standard of reasonableness, a state must justify its decisions with more than budgetary reasons.

The argument is that the state’s low reimbursement rate for X service, is too low to provide good quality services and that the low rates were set for purely budgetary reasons.

Once you prove that the reimbursement rates are too low to expect good quality care (which would be fairly easy for almost all Medicaid services in NC), then you argue that the state’s reimbursement rates violate the Supremacy Clause because the federal law requires good quality care.

What is the Supremacy Clause?

The Supremacy Clause can be found in Article VI, Paragraph 2 of the U. S. Constitution. Basically, it establishes that federal law trumps conflicting state laws , even state constitutional provisions, on matters within the Constitution’s grant of powers to the federal government – such as Medicaid..

In this case, we are talking about a state’s Medicaid reimbursement rate violating the federal law requiring that the rate must bear a reasonable relationship to quality of care.

This is not a small matter.

After all is said and done, the Armstrong case, which will be heard by the Supreme Court tomorrow, will be extraordinarily important for Medicaid health care providers. I believe it is obvious which way I hope the Supreme Court decides…in favor of providers!! In favor of a ruling that states are not allowed to underpay health care providers only because the patient holds a Medicaid card.

My wish is that Medicaid providers across the country bring lawsuits against their state to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates…that the providers prevail…that more health care providers accept Medicaid…and that more Medicaid recipients receive quality health care.

Is that too much to ask?

The Supreme Court will most likely publish its opinion this summer.

Its decision could have an extreme impact on both Medicaid providers and recipients.  Higher Medicaid reimbursement rates would increase the number of physicians willing to accept Mediaid, which, in turn, would provide more access to care for Medicaid recipients.

Keep in mind, however, the issue before the Supreme Court in Armstrong is narrow.  If, for whatever reason, the Supreme Court decides that Medicaid providers do not have a private right to sue under the Supremacy Clause…all is not lost!!! There is more than one way to skin a cat.

Knicole Emanuel Speaks About CSC Fraud Investigation on ABC

I was interviewed by Heather Waliga, ABC News, last Friday about the U.S. Attorney’s lawsuit against Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) accusing CSC of hundreds of millions of dollars of Medicaid fraud.

To watch the video, please click here.

But, beware! Do not make the video full screen unless you are prepared to see a very, large, close-up picture of my head.  The camera man zoomed in to, literally, just my head.