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?
- 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 Wonderland. “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.
The story of The Three Billy Goats Gruff tells a tale of 3 billy goats, one puny, one small, and one HUGE. The first two billy goats (the puny and small) independently try to cross the bridge to a green pasture. They are blocked by a mean troll, who wants to eat the billy goats. Both billy goats tell the troll that a bigger billy-goat is coming that would satisfy the troll’s hunger more than the puny and small goats. The troll waits for the HUGE billy-goat, which easily attacks the troll to his death.
The moral: “Don’t be greedy.”
My moral: “You don’t always have to be HUGE, the puny and small are equally as smart.” – (They didn’t even have to fight).
The majority of Medicaid cards do not have expiration dates. Though we have expiration dates on many of our other cards. For example, my drivers’ license expires January 7, 2018. My VISA expires April 18, 2018.
Most Medicaid cards are annually renewed, as well. Someone who is eligible for Medicaid one year may not be eligible the next.
Our Medicaid cards, generally, have an issuance date, but not an expiration date. The thought is that requiring people to “re-enroll” yearly is sufficient for eligibility status.
Similar to my CostCo card. My Costco card expires annually, and I have to renew it every 12 months. But my CostCo card is not given to me based on my personal circumstances. I pay for the card every year, which means that I can use the card all year, regardless whether I move, get promoted, or decide that I never want to shop at CostCo again.
Medicaid cards, on the other hand, are based on a person’s or family’s personal circumstances.
A lot can happen in a year causing someone to no longer be eligible for Medicaid.
For example, a Medicaid recipient, Susan, could qualify for Medicaid on January 1, 2015, because Susan is a jobless and a single mother going through a divorce. She has a NC Medicaid card issued on January 1, 2015. She presents herself to your office on March 1, 2015. Unbeknownst to you, she obtained a job at a law office in February (Susan is a licensed attorney, but she was staying home with the kids when she was married. Now that she is divorced, she quickly obtained employment for $70,000/year, but does not contact Medicaid. Her firm offers health insurance, but only after she is employed over 60 days. Thus, Susan presents herself to you with her Medicaid card).
If Susan presents to your office on March 1, 2015, with a Medicaid card issued January 1, 2015, how many of you would double-check the patients eligibility in the NCTracks portal?
How many would rely on the existence of the Medicaid card as proof of eligibility?
How many of you would check eligibility in the NCTRacks portal and print screen shot showing eligibility for proof in the future.
The next question is who is liable for Susan receiving Medicaid services in March when she was no longer eligible for Medicaid, but held a Medicaid card and, according to the NCTracks portal, was Medicaid eligible??
- You, the provider?
Do you really have to be the HUGE billy goat to avoid troll-ish recoupments?
Susan’s example is similar to dental services for pregnant women on Medicaid for Pregnant Women (MPW). MPW expires when the woman gives birth. However, the dentists do not report the birth of the child, the ob/gyn does. Dentists have no knowledge of whether a woman has or has not given birth. See blog.
MPW expires upon the birth of the child, and that due date is not printed on the MPW card.
I daresay that the dentists with whom I have spoken have assured me that every time a pregnant woman presents at the dental or orthodontic offices that an employee ensures that the consumer is eligible for dental services under MPW by checking the NCTracks portal. (Small billy-goat). Some dentists go so far to print out the screenshot on the NCTracks portal demonstrating MPW eligibility (HUGE billy-goat), but such overkill is not required by the DMA Clinical Coverage Policies.
If the clinical policies, rules, and regulations do not require such HUGE billy-goat nonsense, how can providers be held up to the HUGE billy-goat standard? Even the puny billy-goat is, arguably, reasonably compliant with rules, regulations, and policies.
NCTracks is not current; it is not “live time.” Apparently, even if the woman has delivered her baby, the NCTracks portal may still show that the woman is eligible for MPW. Maybe even for months…
Is the eligibility fallacy that is confirmed by NCTracks, the dentists’ fault?
Well, over three (3) years from its go-live date, July 1, 2013, NCTracks may have finally fixed this error.
In the October 2015 Medicaid Bulletin, DHHS published the following:
Attention: Dental Providers
New NCTracks Edits to Limit Dental and Orthodontic Services for Medicaid for Pregnant Women (MPW) Beneficiaries
On Aug. 2, 2015, NCTracks began to deny/recoup payment of dental and orthodontic services for beneficiaries covered under the Medicaid for Pregnant Women (MPW) program if the date of service is after the baby was delivered. This is a longstanding N.C. Medicaid policy that was previously monitored through post-payment review.
According to N.C. Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) clinical coverage policy 4A, Dental Services:
For pregnant Medicaid-eligible beneficiaries covered under the Medicaid for Pregnant Women program class ‘MPW,’ dental services as described in this policy are covered through the day of delivery.
Therefore, claims for dental services rendered after the date of delivery for beneficiaries under MPW eligibility are outside the policy limitation and are subject to denial/recoupment.
According to DMA clinical coverage policy 4B,Orthodontic Services:
Pregnant Medicaid-eligible beneficiaries covered under the Medicaid for Pregnant Women program class ‘MPW’ are not eligible for orthodontic services as described in this policy.
Therefore, claims for orthodontic records (D0150, D0330, D0340, and D0470) or orthodontic banding (D8070 or D8080) rendered for beneficiaries under MPW eligibility are outside of policy limitation and are subject to denial/recoupment.
Periodic orthodontic treatment visits (D8670) and orthodontic retention (D8680) will continue to be reimbursed regardless of the beneficiary’s eligibility status at the time of the visit so long as the beneficiary was eligible on the date of banding.
Seriously? “Now I’m coming to gobble you up!!”
August 2, 2015, is over two years after NCTracks went live.
In essence, what DHHS is saying is that NCTracks was inept at catching whether a female Medicaid recipient gave birth. Either the computer system did not have a way for the ob/gyn to inform NCTracks that the baby was delivered, the ob/gyn did not timely submit such information, or NCTracks simply kept women as being eligible for MPW until, months later, someone caught the mistake. And, because of NCTracks’ folly, the dentists must pay.
How about, if the portal for NCTracks state that someone is eligible for MPW, then providers can actually believe that the portal is correct??? How about a little accountability, DHHS???
If you take MPW and want to avoid potential recoupments, you may need some pregnancy tests in your bathrooms.
DHHS is expecting all dentists to be the HUGE bill goat. Are these unreasonable expectations? I see no law, rules, regulations, or policies that require dentists to be the HUGE billy goat. In fact, the small and puny may also be compliant.
“You don’t always have to be HUGE, the puny and small are equally as smart.”
My mom taught me a song when I was young called, “A Hole in the Bucket.” It is a maddening song about a lazy husband named Henry who begins the song telling his wife Liza that “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza….” To which Liza sings, “Then fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry…”
The song continues with Henry singing excuses and impediments to his ability to fix the hole in the bucket and Liza explaining to Henry how to overcome these excuses. The song goes around and around until, in order to fix the bucket, Henry would have to sharpen an ax on a stone that “is too dry,” and the only way to wet the stone is with the bucket that has a hole. “There’s a hole in the bucket…” And the songs starts anew and can be sung continuously, never-ending.
My husband and daughter audibly groan when I begin such song.
And you can’t blame them! It is discouraging and frustrating when something is caught in a never-ending circle with no end and no conclusion. It is human nature to try to resolve issues; it is also ingrained in Americans’ minds that hard work yields results. When hard work yields nothing but a big, fat goose-egg, it is exacerbating.
Kind of like claims in NCTracks…
When NCTracks went live on July 1, 2013, providers immediately began to complain the claims were being erroneously denied and they were receiving no reimbursements. Folks with whom I spoke with were at their wits-ends, spending hours upon hours trying to discern why claims were being denied and what process they could undertake to fix “the hole in the bucket.”
The problem persisted so long and I was contacted by so many providers that I instigated the NCTracks class action lawsuit, which is still pending on appeal, to the best of my knowledge, at my former firm. Although it was dismissed at the Business Court level, I believe it is on appeal. See blog.
Providers complained that, when they contacted CSC’s Help Desk regarding denied claims, the customer service representatives would have little to no understanding of the claims process and instruct them to re-file the denied claims, which created a perpetual cycle of unadjudicated claims.
“It was infuriating!” One provider explained. “It was as if we were caught in the spin cycle with no hope of stopping. I wanted to yell, ‘I’m dry all ready!!'”
“I was spending 20+ a week on NCTracks billing problems,” another said.
To which, I said, “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.”
Over two years after the “go live” date, the Department has now (finally) informed providers that there is an informal reconsideration review process for denials from CSC.
The September 2015 Medicaid Bulletin states that:
“This article provides a detailed explanation of the N.C. Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) procedures for Informal Reconsideration Review of adverse claim actions (denials, disallowances and adjustments) made by its fiscal agent, CSC.”
The Bulletin provides a 30 day time period during which a provider can appeal a denied claim:
“Time Limit for Submission of Request
- A provider may request a reconsideration review within 30 calendar days from receipt of final notification of payment, payment denial, disallowances, payment adjustment, notice of program reimbursement and adjustments. If no request is received within the respective 30 calendar day period, DMA’s action will become final.”
(emphasis in original).
You must request reconsideration review within 30 calendar days of the final notification. BUT what exactly is “final notification?” The initial denial? The second denial after re-submitting? The third? Or, what if, your claim is pending…for months…is that a denial? When CSC tells you to re-submit, does the time frame in which to file a reconsideration review start over? Or do you have to appeal every single denial for every single claim, even if the claim is re-submitted and re-denied 10 times?
This new informal appeal process is as clear as mud.
Notice the penalty for NOT appealing within 30 days…”DMA’s action will become final.”
This means that, if you fail to appeal a denial within 30 days, then the claim is denied and you cannot request a reconsideration review. Theoretically, there is a legal argument that, once the “final decision” is rendered, even if it were rendered due to you failing to request a reconsideration review, you would have 60 days to appeal such final decision to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). Although, acting as the Devil’s advocate, there is an argument that your failure to request a reconsideration review and taking the appeal straight to OAH is “failing to exhaust your administrative remedies.” See blog. Which could result in your appeal being dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. This goes to show you the importance of having your attorney involved at the earliest juncture, otherwise you could risk losing appeal rights.
Let’s think about the “time limit for submission of request” in a real-life hypothetical.
You keep receiving denials for dialysis claims for no apparent reason. You received 20 denials on September 4, 2015. You contact a CSC customer service representative on September 8, 2015, four days later, due to Labor Day weekend. The customer service representative instructs you to re-file the claims because you must include the initial date of treatment in order to have the claims processed and paid (which was not required with HP Enterprises’ system). Is this the “final notification?” It does not seem so, since you are allowed to re-submit…
You revise all 20 claims to include the first treatment date on the claim and re-submit them on September 9, 2015. Since you re-submitted prior to the September 10th cutoff, you expect payment by September 16, 2015, 12 days after the initial denial.
You receive your explanation of benefits (EOBs) and 5 claims were adjudicated and paid, while 15 were denied again.
You contact CSC customer service and the representative instructs you to re-submit the 15 claims. The rep does not know why the claims were denied, but she/he suggests that you review the claims and re-submit. After hours of investigative work, you believe that the claims were denied because the NPI number was wrong…or the incorrect address was processed…or…
You miss the September 17th cut-off because you were trying to figure out why these claims were denied. you submit them for payment for the September 29th checkwrite date (25 days after the initial denial).
At this point, if any claims are denied, you wouldn’t know until October 6th, 32 days after the initial denial.
In my scenario, when is the final adjudication?
If the answer is that the final adjudication is at the point that the provider tries all possible revisions to the claims and continues to re-submit the claims until he/she cannot come up with another way to re-submit, then there is never final adjudication. As in, the provider could continue various changes to the billing ad nauseam and re-submit…and re-submit…and re-submit…”There’s a hole in the bucket!”
If the answer is that the final adjudication is the initial denial, then, in my scenario, the provider would be required to appeal every single denial, even for the same claim and every time it is denied.
You can imagine the burden to the provider if my second scenario is correct. You may as well hire a full-time person whose only task is to appeal denied claims.
Regardless, this new “Informal Reconsideration Review” purports to create many more questions than answers.
So may rules are enacted with good intentions, but without the “real life” analysis. How will this actually affect providers?
“There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.”
“Then fix it.”
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:
- A health care background
- A successful track record of his/her ability to manage large companies or agencies
- An understanding of the Medicaid system, and, maybe, even have first-hand knowledge of how the system affects recipients and providers
- A relationship with someone on Medicaid or a parent of someone on Medicaid
- A working knowledge of clinical coverage policies, reimbursement rates, and regulations surrounding Medicaid
- Both the capacity to listen and speak and do both eloquently and genuinely
- 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
- An understanding that he/she is handling tax payers’ money, that redundancy in staff is excess administrative costs, and ability to trim the fat
- An ability to communicate with both the Senate and the House and to be frank with both
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.”
- 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…
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
I go to the dentist for teeth cleaning. I go to an ob/gyn for my lady parts. They each are not entwined.
Recently, a number of dentists have contacted me they are receiving Tentative Notices of Overpayment (TNOs) stating that they owe money back to the state for dental services completed on women who had already given birth.
First, what is Medicaid for Pregnant Women?
Basically, Medicaid for Pregnant Women (MPW) is a self-defining type of Medicaid coverage. It is Medicaid coverage for pregnant women.
According to DHHS, “Medicaid for Pregnant Women (MPW) only covers services related to pregnancy:
- Prenatal care, delivery and 60 days postpartum care
- Services to treat medical conditions which may complicate the pregnancy (some services require prior approval)
- Childbirth classes
- Family planning services
A pregnant woman may apply for this program before or after she delivers. A woman who has experienced a recent pregnancy loss may also be eligible.”
And routine dental services are covered for MPW recipients through the date of delivery.
But, the day after the child is born…BOOM…no routine dental visits.
Here is a hypothetical example of this new issue that I have recently been made aware:
Mary is pregnant and is covered by MPW. She makes a dental appointment for August 1, 2015. She is due September 1, 2015. She gives birth to a bouncing, baby boy, whom she names Paul on July 28, 2015. Even though Paul is early, he is healthy (this is a happy hypothetical). She shows up for her dental appointment with Dr. Peter on August 1, 2015.
Herein lies a delicate subject…due to its sensitive nature, I will now revert the hypothetical to myself, personally, and only for this narrow topic.
I had my beautiful 10-year old daughter at 28 weeks. She came three months early. Despite the early delivery, I had expanded in the stomach area at least as much as a normal pregnant woman, if not more so. Chalk it up to Harris Teeter birthday cakes. After my daughter was born, the insensitive, yet rule-following nurse actually had the audacity to place me on a scale (while I was conscious and alert!). I was horrified to discover that after all that I went through that I had lost a mere 4 pounds. She must have seen my look because she quickly explained that I had been pumped with so much fluid during the procedure that my weight was inflated. Likely story, I thought. The point of this short anecdote is that I looked the same after giving birth that I did prior to giving birth. Embarrassingly, my transition back to a normal, un-pregnant body extended for a much longer than expected period of time. Chalk it up to Harris Teeter birthday cakes.
Ok, going back to our hypothetical…
Mary really wants her teeth cleaned because, once she gives birth, she knows full well that she will not be able to undergo a teeth cleaning. So when she presents herself at Dr. Peter’s office and Dr. Peter asks whether she is still pregnant, she answers, “Yes, sir.”
Dr. Peter, undergoing all the due diligence that a dentist can be expected, has his assistant log on to NCTracks. According to NCTracks, Mary is eligible for MPW. No changes are noted on her eligibility. Satisfied with his due diligence, Dr. Peter cleans Mary’s teeth.
Two years later, Dr. Peter receives a TNO stating that he owes $10,000 back for services rendered to women after they gave birth.
Dr. Peter conducted his due diligence. Dr. Peter inquired as to the pregnancy status to the patient. Dr. Peter checked eligibility status with NCTracks.
What more would the state expect Dr. Peter do to determine whether his dental patients are indeed still pregnant? Ask them to pee in a cup? Hire a onsite ob/gyn?
You can imagine the consequences of each.
Yet, according to a number of dentists who have communicated with me, the state is placing the burden of knowing whether the dental patient is still pregnant on the dentist.
Talk about accountability! If NCTracks shows that the patient is eligible for MPW, shouldn’t NCTracks be held liable instead of the dentist?
Call me crazy, but I may or may not be extremely angry if my dentist asks me to pee in cup.
Remember July 1, 2013? Providers across North Carolina probably still suffer PTSD at the mention of the “go-live” date for NCTracks. If you remember July 1, 2013, you probably also remember that my former firm filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the physicians in NC who suffered losses from NCTracks’ inception.
There was oral argument at the NC Business Court.
“Ultimately, the burden of proving that administrative remedies are inadequate in this action rests on Plaintiffs. Jackson, 131 N.C. App. at 186. Although sympathetic to the apparently difficult administrative process, the Court concludes that, particularly in light of the fact that not a single Plaintiff has attempted to use the available administrative procedures to resolve their Medicaid reimbursement claims, Plaintiffs have simply failed to satisfy this burden. Accordingly, Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) should be GRANTED.”
While I understand the logic applied to come to this decision, I do not necessarily agree with the outcome. There are exceptions to the exhaustion of administrative remedies, which, in my humble opinion, are present here.
(This blog contains my own opinions as to the NCTracks ruling and not those of my present or former firms. It is not intended to claim any ruling was incorrect or inconsistent with case law, rules, and statutes).
(Try to read the foregoing sentences in a fast-paced, tiny, whispery voice, like a pharmaceutical commercial).
Regardless, where does this decision leave the physicians in NC who suffered under an, admittedly, botched, beginning of NCTracks? (Even DHHS recognized the imperfections at the beginning).
First, what is the doctrine of failure of administrative remedies? (I was going to start with what is NCTracks, but you do not know what NCTracks is, you probably should begin reading some of my earlier blog posts: blog; and blog; and blog).
In a nutshell, the exhaustion doctrine dictates that if a party disagrees with an adverse action of a state agency that the party must exhaust its administrative remedies before asking for relief from a civil court judge.
Law 101: The Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) has limited jurisdiction. It only has jurisdiction over those matters specifically granted to it by statute. If you have an issue with a final adverse decision of a state agency, you sue at OAH. In other words, if you want to sue a state agency, such as DHHS, or any of its agents, like an MCO, you sue at OAH, not Superior Court. An Administrative Law Judge, or ALJ, presides over the court. While OAH is more informal than Superior Court, OAH follows the rules of civil procedure unless an administrative rule exists.
If a Superior Court were to find that the party failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, then the court would find that the party lacked subject matter jurisdiction; i.e., the court is holding that it does not have the authority to determine the legal question at issue.
You would be back to square one, and, potentially, miss an appeal deadline.
In the Medicaid world this is similar to a managed care organization (MCO) having an informal review process internally which would be required prior to bringing a Petition for Judicial Review at OAH.
Were you to bring a Petition for Judicial Review at OAH prior to attending an informal reconsideration review at the MCO, the ALJ would, most likely, dismiss the case for failure to exhaust your administrative remedies.
But in the NCTracks case, the Plaintiffs sued DHHS and Computer Science Corporation (CSC). CSC is, arguably, not a state agency. The only way in which you could sue CSC at OAH would be for an ALJ to determine that CSC is an agent of a state agency. And, who knows? Maybe CSC is an agent of DHHS. Judge McGuire does not address this issue in his Order.
Many of you may wonder why I opine that CSC is not an agent of the state, yet surmise that the MCOs are agents of DHHS. Here is my reasoning: DHHS, in order to bestow or delegate its powers of administering behavioral health to the MCOs, was required to request a Waiver from the federal government. Unlike with CSC, DHHS merely contracted with CSC; no Waiver was required. That Waiver (two Waivers, really, the 1915(b) and 1915(c)) allow the MCOs to step into the shoes of DHHS….to a degree…and only as far as was requested and approved by CMS…no more. I view CSC as a contractor or vendor of DHHS, while the MCOs are limited agents.
Going back to NCTracks…
One can surmise that, because Judge McGuire dismissed the entire lawsuit and did not keep CSC as a party, Judge McGuire opined that CSC is an agent of DHHS. But there is a possibility that the providers sue in OAH and an ALJ determines that OAH is not a proper venue for CSC. Then what? Back to Superior Court and/or Business Court?
Why do you have to exhaust your administrative remedies? It does seem too burdensome to jump through all the hoops.
The rationale behind requiring parties to exhaust their administrative remedies is that those entities (such as OAH) that hear these specialized cases over and over and develop an expertise to decide the certain esoteric matters that arise under their jurisdiction. Also, the doctrine of separation of powers dictates that an agency created by Congress should be allowed to carry out its duties without undue interference from the judiciary.
For example, Judges Don Overby and Melissa Lassiter, ALJs at the NC OAH have, without question, presided over more Medicaid cases than any Superior Court Judge in the state (unless a Superior Court is a former ALJ, like Judge Beecher Gray). The thinking is that, since Overby and Lassiter, or, ALJs, generally, have presided over more Medicaid cases than the average judge, that the ALJs have formed expertise in area. Which is probably true. It cannot be helped. When you hear the same arguments over and over, you tend to research the answers and form an opinion.
So there is the “why,” what about the exceptions?
There are exceptions to the general rule of having to exhaust your administrative remedies that may or may not be present in the NC tracks case. If you ask me, exceptions are present. If you ask Judge McGuire vis-à-vis his Order, there are no exceptions that were applicable.
One such exception to the general rule that you must exhaust your administrative remedies is if bringing a case at the informal administrative level would be futile. If you can prove futility, then you are not required to exhaust your administrative remedies. Another exception is if you are requesting monetary damages that cannot be awarded at the administrative law level.
Where the administrative remedy is inadequate, a plaintiff is not required to exhaust that remedy before turning to the courts. Shell Island, 134 N.C. App. at 222. The burden of establishing the inadequacy of an administrative remedy is on the party asserting inadequacy. Huang v. N.C. State Univ., 107 N.C. App. 110, 115 (1992).
What DHHS argued, in order to have the case dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and Judge McGuire agreed with, is:
that adequate administrative remedies exist for all health care providers when NCTracks improperly denies claims.
This holding is not without questions.
Some providers re-bill denied claims over and over. There is a question as to when do you appeal? The first denial? The second? The Fourteenth? At which point do you accept the denial from NCTracks as a “final agency decision?” Do you use the “3 strikes and you’re out” rule? Do you give NCTracks a mulligan? Or do you wait until NCTracks “fouls out” with a 6th denial?
Another question that remains hanging in the wake of the NCTracks dismissal is how will providers handle the sheer volume of denials. Some providers receive voluminous denials. Some RAs can be hundreds of pages long.
Let’s contemplate this argument in a hypothetical. You run a nephrology practice. The bulk of your patients are Medicaid (90% Medicaid, although 50% are dual eligible with Medicaid/Medicare). You have approximately 500-700 patients, who come see your doctors because they are in need of dialysis. You know that if a person does not receive dialysis that there is a chance that the person can enter Stage 5 (end stage renal disease) and die quickly. However, upon July 1, 2013, when NCTracks went live, you stopped receiving Medicaid payments completely. Do you stop accepting and treating your Medicaid patients? Obviously you do not stop accepting Medicaid patients? But your practice cannot sustain itself. Even if you continue to treat Medicaid patients, at some point, you will be out of business, failing to meet payroll, and being forced to involuntarily not treat your patients.
Your patients in need of dialysis come to the office 3x per week. A single hemodialysis treatment typically costs up to $500 or more — or, about $72,000 or more per year for the typical three treatments per week.
Let’s approximate with 500 patients. 500 patients multiplied by 3x per week is 1,500 per week. That is 1,500 denials per week. What Judge McGuire is saying is that your office is burdened with appealing 1,500 denials per week. Or 6,000 denials per month. Or 72,000 appeals per year.
Which of your office staff will be charged with appealing at OAH 72,000 denials per year? The physicians? You, the office manager (because you obviously have nothing else to do)? The receptionist? Hire someone new? For how much? How will you recoup the cost of appealing 72,000 denials per year? How many hours does it cost to appeal one? Hire an attorney?
Obviously, my example is one of an extreme case with 100% denials. But the sentiment holds true even for 30%, 40%, or 50% of denials. The sheer volume would be overwhelming.
And you can imagine the backlog that would be created at OAH.
Judge McGuire’s decision that plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies issue appears to be based, in part, that because no plaintiff had tried to go to OAH, plaintiffs could not convince him that the administrative remedy was non-functional.
“Significantly, none of the Plaintiffs even attempted to use the administrative procedures to address the failure to pay claims and other issues they allegedly encountered in attempting to use NCTracks. Instead, Plaintiffs allege that the administrative process would have been futile and inadequate to provide the relief they seek.” See Abrons Family Practice v. DHHS and CSC, ¶ 36 (emphasis added).
Well, first of all, when I moved to Gordon & Rees, I left this case in the capable hands of my former partners, so I have no special intelligence, but I wager that this is not the end.
There are choices. They could:
(1) Appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals;
(2) File an insurmountable number of petition’s at OAH; or
(3) Do nothing.
For some reason, I have my doubts that #3 will occur.
What do you think??? What should the Plaintiffs do now in the wake of this dismissal?
Jon Camp, journalist for ABC11, interviewed me yesterday about a durable medical equipment client. In case you missed it, here is the link:
As I am driving back to the office after lunch, I hear on the news that CMS has certified NCTracks! This is huge on so many levels, and I will have to add another blog about once I get more information. So after 2 years and almost 8 months after its go-live date, NCTracks is certified.
Had CMS not certified NCTracks, then NC would have lost millions of dollars in federal dollars to fund the computer program created by Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC).
I am going to look into the standards for the certification…I know there are over 600 criteria that must be met for certification…but what is the threshold? An ‘A?’ Or do you squeak by with a ‘D?’
In the meantime, NC will receive approximately $19 million from the federal government. NCTracks had replaced the decades-old computer system created by HP Enterprises back in the summer of 2013.
CSC is a named Defendant in a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of physicians across NC alleging that the computer system was fraught with errors when it went live, including erroneous denials and heavy administrative burdens.
Remember, this was not NCTracks’ first rodeo with an attempted certification from CMS. Back in 2013, CMS did not certify NCTracks.
In 2013, NCTracks did not meet a federal certification deadline that could have saved the state more than $9 million in annual operation costs. See article.