Eastpointe Sues DHHS, Former Sec. Brajer, Nash County, and Trillium Claiming Conspiracy! (What It Means for Providers)
In HBO’s Game of Thrones, nine, noble, family houses of Westeros fight for the Iron Throne – either vying to claim the throne or fighting for independence from the throne.
Similarly, when NC moved to the managed care organizations for Medicaid behavioral health care services, we began with 12 MCOs (We actually started with 23 (39 if you count area authorities) LME/MCOs, but they quickly whittled down to 11). “The General Assembly enacted House Bill 916 (S.L. 2011-264) (“H.B. 916) to be effective June 23, 2011, which required the statewide expansion of the 1915(b)/(c) Medicaid Waiver Program to be completed within the State by July 1, 2013.” Compl. at 25. Now the General Assembly is pushing for more consolidation.
Now we have seven (7) MCOs remaining, and the future is uncertain. With a firehose of money at issue and the General Assembly’s push for consolidation, it has become a bloody battle to remain standing in the end, because, after all, only one may claim the Iron Throne. And we all know that “Winter is coming.”
Seemingly, as an attempt to remain financially viable, last week, on Thursday, June 8, 2017, Eastpointe, one of our current MCOs, sued the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Nash County, Trillium Health Resources, another MCO, and former secretary Richard Brajer in his individual and former official capacity. Since the Complaint is a public record, you can find the Complaint filed in the Eastern District of NC, Western Division, Civil Action 5:17-CV-275. My citations within this blog correspond with the paragraphs in the Complaint, not page numbers.
Eastpointe’s Complaint wields a complex web of conspiracy, government interference, and questionable relationships that would even intrigue George R. R. Martin.
The core grievance in the lawsuit is Eastpointe alleges that DHHS, Trillium, Nash County, and Brajer unlawfully conspired and interfered with Eastpointe’s contract to manage behavioral health care services for its twelve (12) county catchment area, including Nash County. In 2012, Nash County, as part of the The Beacon Center, signed a contract and became part of a merger with Eastpointe being the sole survivor (Beacon Center and Southeastern Regional Mental Health were swallowed by Eastpointe). At the heart of Eastpointe’s Complaint, Eastpointe is alleging that Nash County, Trillium, DHHS, and Brajer conspired to breach the contract between Eastpointe and Nash County and unlawfully allowed Nash County to join Trillium’s catchment area.
In June 2013, the General Assembly, pursuant to Senate Bill 208 (S.L. 2013-85 s. 4.(b)), appended N.C.G.S. § 122C-115 to include subparagraph (a3), permitting a county to disengage from one LME/MCO and align with another with the approval of the Secretary of the NCDHHS, who was required by law to promulgate “rules to establish a process for county disengagement.” N.C.G.S. § 122C-115(a3) (“Rules”) (10A N.C.A.C. 26C .0701-03).
Why does it matter whether Medicaid recipients receive behavioral health care services from providers within Trillium or Eastpointe’s catchment area?? As long as the medically necessary services are rendered – that should be what is important – right?
Wrong. First, I give my reason as a cynic (realist), then as a philanthropist (wishful thinker).
Cynical answer – The MCOs are prepaid. In general and giving a purposely abbreviated explanation, the way in which the amount is determined to pre-pay an MCO is based on how many Medicaid recipients reside within the catchment area who need behavioral health care services. The more people in need of Medicaid behavioral health care services in a catchment area, the more money the MCO receives to manage such services. With the removal of Nash County from Eastpointe’s catchment area, Eastpointe will lose approximately $4 million annually and Trillium will gain approximately $4 million annually, according to the Complaint. This lawsuit is a brawl over the capitated amount of money that Nash County represents, but it also is about the Iron Throne. If Eastpointe becomes less financially secure and Trillium becomes more financially secure, then it is more likely that Eastpointe would be chewed up and swallowed in any merger.
Philanthropic answer – Allowing Nash County to disengage from Eastpointe’s catchment area would inevitably disrupt behavioral health care services to our most fragile and needy population. Medicaid recipients would be denied access to their chosen providers…providers that may have been treating them for years and created established trust. Allowing Nash County to disembark from Eastpointe would cause chaos for those least fortunate and in need of behavioral health care services.
Eastpointe also alleges that DHHS refused to approve a merger between Eastpointe and Cardinal purposefully and with the intent to sabotage Eastpointe’s financial viability.
Also in its Complaint, Eastpointe alleges a statewide, power-hungry, money-grubbing conspiracy in which Brajer and DHHS and Trillium are conspiring to pose Trillium as the final winner in the “MCO Scramble to Consolidate,” “Get Big or Die” MCO mentality arising out of the legislative push for MCO consolidation. Because, as with any consolidation, duplicate executives are cut.
Over the last couple years, Eastpointe has discussed merging with Cardinal, Trillium, and Sandhills – none of which occurred. Comparably, Joffrey Lannister and Sansa Stark discussed merging. As did Viserys and Illyrio wed Daenerys to Khal Drogo to form an alliance between the Targaryens.
Some of the most noteworthy and scandalous accusations:
Leza Wainwright, CEO of Trillium and director of the NC Council of Community MH/DD/SA Programs (“NCCCP”) (now I know why I’ve never been invited to speak at NCCCP). Wainwright “brazenly took actions adverse to the interest of Eastpointe in violation of the NCCCP mission, conflicts of interest policy of the organization, and her fiduciary duty to the NCCCP and its members.” Compl. at 44.
Robinson, Governing Board Chair of Trillium, “further informed Brajer that he intended for Trillium to be the surviving entity in any merger with Eastpointe and that “any plan predicated on Trillium and Eastpointe being coequal is fundamentally flawed.”” Compl. at 61.
“On or about May 11, 2016, Denauvo Robinson (“Robinson”), Governing Board Chair of Trillium wrote Brajer, without copying Eastpointe, defaming Eastpointe’s reputation in such a way that undermined the potential merger of Eastpointe and Trillium.” Compl. at 59.
“Robinson, among other false statements, alleged the failure to consummate a merger between Eastpointe, CoastalCare, and East Carolina Behavioral Health LMEs was the result of Eastpointe’s steadfast desire to maintain control, and Eastpointe’s actions led those entities to break discussions with Eastpointe and instead merge to form Trillium.” Compl. at 60.
“Trillium, not Nash County, wrote Brajer on November 28, 2016 requesting approval to disengage from Eastpointe and to align with Trillium.” Compl. at 69.
Dave Richards, Deputy Secretary for Medical Assistance, maintains a “strong relationship with Wainwright” and “displayed unusual personal animus toward Kenneth Jones, Eastpointe’s former CEO.” Compl. at 47.
Brajer made numerous statements to Eastpointe staff regarding his animus toward Jones and Eastpointe. “Brajer continued to push for a merger between Eastpointe and Trillium.” Compl. at 53.
“On December 5, 2016, the same day that former Governor McCrory conceded the election to Governor Cooper, Brajer wrote a letter to Trillium indicating that he approved the disengagement and realignment of Nash County.” Compl. at 72.
“On March 17, 2016, however, Brajer released a memorandum containing a plan for consolidation of the LME/MCOs, in which NCDHHS proposed Eastpointe being merged with Trillium.” Compl. at 55.
Brajer’s actions were “deliberately premature, arbitrary, and capricious and not in compliance with statute and Rule, and with the intent to destabilize Eastpointe as an LME/MCO).” Compl. at 73.
“Brajer conspired with Nash County to cause Nash County to breach the Merger Agreement.” Compl. at 86.
Brajer “deliberately sought to block any merger between Eastpointe and other LME/MCOs except Trillium.” Compl. at 96.
“Brajer and NCDHHS’s ultra vires and unilateral approval of the Nash County disengagement request effective April 1, 2017 materially breached the contract between Eastpointe and NCDHHS. Equally brazen was Brajer’s calculated failure to give Eastpointe proper notice of the agency action taken or provide Eastpointe with any rights of appeal.” Compl. at 101.
Against Nash County
“To date, Nash County is Six Hundred Fifty Three Thousand Nine Hundred Fifty Nine Thousand and 16/100 ($653,959.16) in arrears on its Maintenance of Efforts to Eastpointe.” Compl. at 84.
“While serving on Eastpointe’s area board, Nash County Commissioner Lisa Barnes, in her capacity as a member of the Nash County Board of Commissioners, voted to adopt a resolution requesting permission for Nash County to disengage from Eastpointe and realign with Trillium. In so doing, Barnes violated her sworn oath to the determent of Eastpointe.” Compl. at 85.
What Eastpointe’s lawsuit could potentially mean to providers:
Eastpointe is asking the Judge in the federal court of our eastern district for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction prohibiting Nash County from withdrawing from Eastpointe’s catchment area and joining Trillium’s catchment area. It is important to note that the behavioral health care providers in Eastpointe’s catchment area may not be the same behavioral health care providers in Trillium’s catchment area. There may be some overlap, but without question there are behavioral health care providers in Trillium’s catchment area that are not in Eastpointe’s catchment area and vice versa.
If Eastpointe is not successful in stopping Nash County from switching to Trillium’s catchment area, those providers who provide services in Nash County need to inquire – if you do not currently have a contract with Trillium, will Trillium accept you into its catchment area, because Trillium runs a closed network?!?! If Trillium refuses to include Nash County’s behavioral health care providers in its catchment area, those Nash County providers risk no longer being able to provide services to their consumers. If this is the case, these Nash County, non-Trillium providers may want to consider joining Eastpointe’s lawsuit as a third-party intervenor, as an interested, aggrieved person. Obviously, you would, legally, be on Eastpointe’s side, hoping to stay Nash County’s jump from Eastpointe to Trillium.
Even if Eastpointe is successful in stopping Nash County’s Benedict Arnold, then, as a provider in Eastpointe’s catchment area, you need to think ahead. How viable is Eastpointe? Eastpointe’s lawsuit is a powerful indication that Eastpointe itself is concerned about the future, although this lawsuit could be its saving grace. How fair (yet realistic) is it that whichever providers happen to have a contract with the biggest, most powerful MCO in the end get to continue to provide services and those providers with contracts with smaller, less viable MCOs are put out of business based on closed networks?
If Nash County is allowed to defect from Eastpointe and unite with Trillium, all providers need to stress. Allowing a county to abscond from its MCO on the whim of county leadership could create absolute havoc. Switching MCOs effects health care providers and Medicaid recipients. Each time a county decides to choose a new MCO the provider network is upended. Recipients are wrenched from the provider of their choice and forced to re-invent the psychological wheel to their detriment. Imagine Cherokee County being managed by Eastpointe…Brunswick County being managed by Vaya Health…or Randolph County being managed by Partners. Location-wise, it would be an administrative mess. Every election of a county leadership could determine the fate of a county’s Medicaid recipients.
Here is a map of the current 7 MCOs:
All behavioral health care providers should be keeping a close watch on the MCO consolidations and this lawsuit. There is nothing that requires the merged entity to maintain or retain the swallowed up entities provider network. Make your alliances because…
“Winter is coming.”
The NC State Auditor Beth Wood released an audit report on Cardinal Innovations yesterday, May 17, 2017. Here are the key findings. For the full report click here.
Cardinal is a Local Management Entity/Managed Care Organization (LME/MCO) created by North Carolina General Statute 122C. Cardinal is responsible for managing, coordinating, facilitating and monitoring the provision of mental health, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse services in 20 counties across North Carolina. Cardinal is the largest of the state’s seven LME/MCOs, serving more than 850,000 members. Cardinal has contracted with DHHS to operate the managed behavioral healthcare services under the Medicaid waiver through a network of licensed practitioners and provider agencies.
• Cardinal spent money exploring strategic opportunities outside of its core mission
• $1.2 million in CEO salaries paid without proper authorization
• Cardinal’s unreasonable spending could erode public trust
• Cardinal should consult and collaborate with members of the General Assembly before taking any actions outside of its statutory boundaries
• The Office of State Human Resources should immediately begin reviewing and approving Cardinal CEO salary adjustments
• The Department of Health and Human Services should determine whether any Cardinal CEO salary expenditures should be disallowed and request reimbursement as appropriate
• Cardinal should implement procedures consistent with other LME/MCOs, state laws, and federal reimbursement policy to ensure its spending is appropriate for a local government entity
My favorite? Recoup CEO salaries. Maybe we should extrapolate.
Number of Mental Health Patients Rise in ERs as Willing/Able Medicaid Behavioral Health Providers Dwindle
This is EXACTLY the issue that I have been blogging about for months. The State of North Carolina, for whatever reason, has determined (whether intentional or not) to decrease the number of behavioral health care providers who accept Medicaid. With the aggressive tools in the Division of Medical Assistance’s (DMA) work shed, such as outrageous Tentative Notices of Overpayments, capricious prepayment review audits, and arbitrary terminations of Medicaid contracts without affording due process, DMA has, in the last year or so, successfully bankrupt hundreds of Medicaid behavioral health providers. Or the providers simply washes their hands of Medicaid all together.
With the dramatic decrease in Medicaid mental health providers, where are all the Medicaid recipients going? One answer? The ERs.
People in the industry are also noticing.
My best friend is an ER nurse. She told me recently that she noticed more and more patients coming in to the ER with mental illness the primary diagnosis. I asked her whether she knew whether these patients with primary mental health diagnoses were Medicaid patients. She answered (which I love), “I don’t know. I never look to see if a patient is a Medicaid recipient. I treat them all the same.” She is a good nurse.
Anyway, I asked her to start paying attention (without ever providing me with specific information). She returned a week or so later saying that, yes, the patients with mental illness as the primary diagnosis generally seem to be Medicaid recipients. (In fact the night before a man came in the ER sticking his tongue in and out rapidly and screaming, “Get me my lily pad!” This is not a man who should be in the ER. This man should be receiving mental health services).
Others in the industry have noticed this growing issue of Medicaid recipients with mental illness as the primary diagnosis going to the ER as well. Dr. Judy Tintinalli, an ER physician noticed and researched the issue. Here is her article:
NC Emergency Patients Twice as Likely to Have Mental Health Problems
June 17, 2013 by Rose Hoban
Research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compared rates of people reporting to North Carolina’s emergency departments complaining of mental health issues to EDs in the rest of the country.
By Rose Hoban
Many people think of emergency departments as mostly treating patients with traumas or heart attacks or an out-of-control infection. But in 2010, Judy Tintinalli, an emergency department physician at UNC Hospitals, was getting the sense that she was seeing more and more patients coming into her emergency department with mental health problems. She started asking around and found she wasn’t the only one with this impression. “We’d all noticed that the number of mental health diagnoses in visits are just going up in EDs,” Tintinalli said. “And this has been going on for a while.” Source: Emergency Department Visits by Patients with Mental Health Disorders — North Carolina, 2008–2010, MMWR 62(23);469-472 So she and her colleagues from several states started work on a study to look at rates of people coming in for care with mental health issues as one of their main complaints. Tintinalli’s intuition was on target. In a paper published last week, she writes that while rates of mental health issues in emergency departments are up all over the country, they’re especially high in North Carolina. Patients who came to emergency departments in the state between the beginning of 2008 and the end of 2010 were twice as likely to have a mental health complaint than in the rest of the country.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2009, about 5 percent of people coming into emergency rooms had a mental health disorder. But at that time, North Carolina’s rate was almost double, according to Tintinalli’s study. She used data that comes from almost every emergency department in the state, a system called the North Carolina Disease Event Tracking and Epidemiologic Collection Tool (NC DETECT). The system, begun as a way to catch bioterrorism or disease outbreaks before they get out of control, collects data about the diagnoses of every visitor to North Carolina’s emergency departments. NC DETECT captures more than four million emergency department visits per year. No personal data is collected, just geographic data and information about what happened during the visit. The system collects up to 10 possible diagnoses for each patient encounter. “And at the end of the patient encounter, you list the diagnoses the patient had,” Tintinalli said. “You prioritize based on how critical they are. “So, say you have someone come in with cancer, and they have pneumonia, and they’re also depressed; depression is the third diagnosis. If you come in saying you want to kill yourself, then the depression will be the first diagnosis.” By the end of 2010, 9.3 percent of all ED visits had a mental health problem as one of the top complaints.
NC DETECT draws data from many sources and provides surveillance data to NC public health as well as to CDC. Diagram courtesy North Carolina Preparedness and Emergency Response Research Center
And Tintinalli found that not only were people coming in for mental health disorders, but those people with a main complaint of mental health problems were more than twice as likely to be admitted to the hospital. No surprise. Clinical social worker Bebe Smith, who teaches at the UNC School of Social Work, said she wasn’t surprised to hear that North Carolina has had higher rates of emergency department usage among people with mental health issues. “North Carolina’s mental health system has been in constant flux for over a decade,” Smith said. “Sometimes people end up going to the ER when they’re truly suicidal and despairing and overwhelmed by stress. You know, if there are psychosocial stressors like losing a job, you don’t want to go on, you start drinking, get suicidal,” Smith said. She said it’s called being “in crisis,” and it looks slightly different for each patient. Tintinalli’s data showed that close to two-thirds of people coming in with mental health problems were complaining of stress, anxiety or depression.
“We let people go into crisis,” said Vicki Smith, head of Disability Rights North Carolina, who pointed to the lack of community-based services for people with mental health problems. “We are not providing people with mental health needs the services they need to keep them out of crisis,” she said. “We allow them to go into crisis and they end up in the ED, sometimes via police cars.”
“If numbers are going up, we need to look and ask if we have adequate resources to really deal with these problems statewide,” Tintinalli said. Vicki Smith said that’s exactly the problem. “We can keep people out of EDs, and there are a lot of evidence-based practices to do that,” she said. “But we haven’t provided the resources.”
Severe and persistent
A lot of providers of care for people with severe and persistent mental illness, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, have gone out of business, Bebe Smith said. And when that happens, patients lose their continuity of care. “That’s something important for them,” she said, “and it’s something we’ve lost.” She also said that the state has shifted away from continuous provision of care for these people – who often are disabled enough to have Medicaid –into episodic care, as a way to save dollars. “So people might have been in treatment for a while, they do better and then we discharge them,” Bebe Smith said. She said many outpatient clinics have pushed providers into seeing more patients for shorter visits as a way of getting productivity – and revenues – up. Then if patients start to do poorly, they get lost. “So if someone misses the appointment, they don’t have time to check in on that person. But the people who are doing more poorly are the ones who need outreach,” Smith said. “The way they’ve pushed productivity levels on therapeutic workers – that’s another place where you lose the continuity that’s key in keeping people from crisis.” So, she said, many end up in the facility of last resort – emergency departments.