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Medicaid Law: What Are Policies Versus Law and Why Does It Matter?

“Always follow the Golden Rule. Always treat others how you want to be treated.”

What is so great about following rules? Do we have to follow all rules? What if other people do not follow the rules? What if the rules contradict? Are some rules more important than others?

The answer is – it depends.

When you sign your provider procurement agreement with NC to provide Medicaid services, there is a sentence in it that says, something to the effect, “The provider agrees to follow all applicable state and federal rules, laws, and regulations.” Yet, I am constantly shocked how many providers are completely oblivious to what are the “applicable state and federal rules, laws, and regulations” (although it does keep me in business).

The fact is, however, not all rules are created equal.

First, what is the difference between a policy, a regulation, and a law?

A law must be followed. If you break the law, you are punished. A regulation also must be followed; however, regulations are created by state agencies through a rule-making process. Usually, the public may comment on proposed regulations prior to being enacted.

On the other hand, a rule (that has not been formally adopted by the State) is policy or guidance. For example, the DMA Clinical Coverage Policies are rules or guidance. The Policies are not promulgated; i.e., they have not undergone the official rule-making process. Don’t get me wrong – you should follow the DMA Clinical Coverage Policies. My point is that a violation of a Clinical Coverage Policy will not/should not warrant the same punishment as violating a regulation or law.

Let’s think about this in a “real-life” hypothetical.

You receive a notice of overpayment in the amount of $450,000.00 because, allegedly, your service notes are signed electronically and you do not have an electronic signature policy.

There is no law or regulation that dictates that you must have an electronic signature policy. It is best practice to have an electronic signature policy. The Medicaid Billing Guide suggests that you maintain an electronic billing policy.

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B sets forth the rule-making process. Any policy or rule that has not undergone the official rule-making process is considered nonbinding interpretative statements. N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-18 states that “[a]n agency shall not seek to implement  or enforce  against any person a policy, guideline, or other nonbinding interpretative statement…if the statement has not been adopted as a rule in accordance with this Article.” (emphasis added).

Because there is no law or regulation requiring you to have an electronic signature policy, the State cannot punish you for not having one. In other words, the State cannot hold you to arbitrary criteria unless that criteria was formally adopted in the rule-making process.

How do you know if a policy or rule has been formally adopted?

Any policy or rule that is formally adopted will have a legal citation. For example, N.C. Gen. Stat 150B is a formal law. 10A NCAC 27G .0104 is a formal regulation – it is part of our administrative code. NC DMA Clinical Coverage Policies and the Medicaid Billing Guide are comprised of nonbinding, interpretative statements, as well as law and regulations. Usually, when a law or regulation is cited in the Policies or Billing Guide the formal, legal citation is also provided, but not always. I know, it’s confusing, yet extremely important.

You cannot and should not be punished for violating suggestions, policy, or nonbinding, interpretative statements. You should not be punished for not “treating others how you would like to be treated.” – That is not a law.

It is important to know the distinction because, apparently, those in charge of our Medicaid program, at times, do not.

Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies: Futile as the Caucus-Race?

Answer – Sometimes.

How many of you have received Remittance Advices from NCTracks that are impossible to understand, include denials without appeal rights, or, simply, are erroneous denials with no guidance as to the next steps?  While these were most prevalent in the first couple years after NCTracks was rolled out (back in July 2013), these burdensome errors still exist.

You are allowed to re-submit a claim to NCTracks for 18 months. How many times do you have to receive the denial in order for that denial to be considered a “final decision?” And, why is it important whether a denial is considered a final decision?

  1. Why is it important that a denial be considered a “final decision?”

As a health care provider, your right to challenge the Department of Health and Human Services’ (via CSC or NCTracks’) denial instantly becomes ripe (or appealable) only after the denial is a final decision.

Yet, with the current NCTracks system, you can receive a denial for one claim over and over and over and over without ever receiving a “final decision.”

It reminds me of the Causus-race in Alice and Wonderlandalice“There was no ‘One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?'” – Alice in Wonderland.

On behalf of all health care providers who accept Medicaid in North Carolina and suffered hardship because of NCTracks, at my former firm, I helped file the NCTracks class action lawsuit, Abrons Family Practice, et al., v. NCDHHS, et al., No. COA15-1197, which was heard before the NC Court of Appeals on June 12, 2015. The Opinion of the Court of Appeals was published today (October 18, 2016).

The Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs were not required to “exhaust their administrative remedies” by informal methods and the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) prior to bringing a lawsuit in the State Court for damages because doing to would be futile – like the Caucus-race. “But who has won?” asked Alice.

Plaintiffs argued that, without a “final decision” by DHHS as to the submitted claims, it is impossible for them to pursue the denials before the OAH.

And the Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, agrees.

The Abrons decision solidifies my contention over the past 4-5 years that a reconsideration review is NOT required by law prior to filing a Petition for Contested Case at OAH…. Boom! Bye, Felicia!

Years ago, I informed a client, who was terminated by an managed care organization (MCO), that she should file Petition for Contested Case at OAH without going through the informal reconsideration review. One – the informal reconsideration review was before the very agency that terminated her (futile); and two – going through two processes instead of one costs more in attorneys’ fees (burdensome).

We filed in OAH, and the judge dismissed the case, stating that we failed to exhaust our administrative remedies.

I have disagreed with that ruling for years (Psssst – judges do not always get it right, although we truly hope they do. But, in judges’ defenses, the law is an ever-changing, morphing creature that bends and yields to the community pressures and legal interpretations. Remember, judges are human, and to be human is to err).

However, years later, the Court of Appeals agreed with me, relying on the same argument I made years ago before OAH.

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 states that it is the policy of the State that disputes between the State and a party should be resolved through informal means. However, neither 150B-22 nor any other statute or regulation requires that a provider pursue the informal remedy of a reconsideration review. See my blog from 2013.

I love it when I am right. – And, according to my husband, it is a rarity.

Here is another gem from the Abrons opinion:

“DHHS is the only entity that has the authority to render a final decision on a contested medicaid claim. It is DHHS’ responsibility to make the final decision and to furnish the provider with written notification of the decision and of the provider’s appeal rights, as required by N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-23(f).”

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-23(f) states, ” Unless another statute or a federal statute or regulation sets a time limitation for the filing of a petition in contested cases against a specified agency, the general limitation for the filing of a petition in a contested case is 60 days. The time limitation, whether established by another statute, federal statute, or federal regulation, or this section, shall commence when notice is given of the agency decision to all persons aggrieved who are known to the agency by personal delivery or by the placing of the notice in an official depository of the United States Postal Service wrapped in a wrapper addressed to the person at the latest address given by the person to the agency. The notice shall be in writing, and shall set forth the agency action, and shall inform the persons of the right, the procedure, and the time limit to file a contested case petition. When no informal settlement request has been received by the agency prior to issuance of the notice, any subsequent informal settlement request shall not suspend the time limitation for the filing of a petition for a contested case hearing.”

2. How many times do you have to receive the denial in order for that denial to be considered a “final decision”?

There is no magic number. But the Court of Appeals in Abrons makes it clear that the “final decision” must be rendered by DHHS, not a contracted party.

So which we ask – What about terminations by MCOs? Do MCOs have the authority to terminate providers and render final decisions regarding Medicaid providers?

I would argue – no.

Our 1915b/c Waiver waives certain federal laws, not state laws. Our 1915 b/c Waiver does not waive N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B.

“But who has won?” asked Alice.

“At last the Dodo said, ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes.'” – Only in Wonderland!

Sometimes, you just need to stop running and dry off.

NC Medicaid Providers, Are You Required to Seek an Informal Appeal Prior to Filing a Contested Case at OAH?

Recently, numerous clients have come to me asking whether they have the right to appeal straight to the Office of Administrative Appeals or whether they have to attend informal appeals first, whether the informal appeal is within a managed care organization (MCO), the Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) or any other entity contracted by DMA.

The answer is: No, you are not required to go through the informal review prior to filing a contested case at OAH, but, in some cases, the informal review is beneficial.

Let me explain.

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22-37 (Article 3) applies to:

“[A]ny dispute between an agency and another person that involves the person’s rights, duties, or privileges, including licensing or the levy of a monetary penalty, should be settled through informal procedures. In trying to reach a settlement through informal procedures, the agency may not conduct a proceeding at which sworn testimony is taken and witnesses may be cross-examined. If the agency and the other person do not agree to a resolution of the dispute through informal procedures, either the agency or the person may commence an administrative proceeding to determine the person’s rights, duties, or privileges, at which time the dispute becomes a “contested case.”

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22.

“Any dispute between an agency and another person”…Obviously DMA is a state agency, but is Public Consulting Group (PCG)?  Is the Carolinas Center for Medical Excellence (CCME)? East Carolina Behavioral Health?  HMS?

What if you disagree with a prepayment review result that CCME conducted?  DMA had nothing to do with the actual prepayment review.  Can you bring a contested case at OAH against CCME?

Yes.  But include DHHS, DMA as a named Respondent.  If you include the state agency that contracted with the entity, then jurisdiction is proper at OAH.  The argument being that the actions of a contracted entity is imputed to the principle (DMA).

“Should be settled through informal procedures…”  Notice it states “should,” not “must.”  Time and time again when a provider skips the informal review within the entity (for example, let’s say that MeckLINK terminates Provider Jane’s Medicaid contract and files a grievance with OAH instead of through MeckLINK first) the counsel for the entity (MeckLINK in this example) argues that OAH does not have jurisdiction because Jane failed to exhaust her administrative remedies.  As in, Jane should have appealed through MeckLINK first.

In my opinion, appealing to the very entity that is causing the grievance is futile.  The decision was made.  The entity is not going to rule against itself. 

Plus, there is no requirement for any petitioner to exhaust informal appeals prior to appealing to OAH.  When you receive a Tentative Notice of Overpayment from PCG, you can go to an informal review or you can appeal in OAH. 

The “failing to exhaust administrative remedies” argument is being misapplied by the entities.  In order to file judicial review in Superior Court or a declaratory judgment action in Superior Court, you must exhaust all administrative remedies prior to seeking relief in Superior Court.  But the requirement to exhaust administrative remedies is not applicable to filing at OAH.

The upshot is that any person aggrieved may bring a contested case in OAH without attending an informal appeal first.

However, there are some occasions that, in my opinion, the informal appeal is useful.  Such as an overpayment found by PCG.  If you receive a Tentative Notice of Overpayment by PCG, the informal reconsideration review at DMA can be helpful for a number of reasons.

1.  It forces you to review the audited documents with a fine tooth comb prior to getting in front of a judge.

2. It allows you to find all PCG’s mistakes, and there will be mistakes, and bring those mistakes to the attention of the auditor.

3.  It gives you a chance to decrease the alleged amount owed before a contested case.

Keeping those positive aspects in mind, most likely, the reconsideration review will NOT resolve the case.  Although it has happened occasionally, more times than not, you will not agree with the reduced amount the DHHS hearing officer decides.  The alleged overpayment will still be extrapolated. The alleged overpayment will still be ridiculous.

Other than an overpayment, I have found very little use for the informal appeals.