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Hostile Takeover: Cardinal Usurped by DHHS! Any Possible Relief to Providers for Misconduct?

DHHS has ousted and taken over Cardinal Innovations!

And may I just say – Finally! Thank you, Sec. Cohen.

Cardinal is/was the largest of seven managed care organizations (MCOs) that was given the task to manage Medicaid funds for behavioral health care recipients. These are Medicaid recipients suffering from developmental disabilities, mental health issues, and substance abuse; these are our population’s most needy. These MCOs are given a firehose of Medicaid money; i.e., tax dollars, and were entrusted by the State of North Carolina, each individual taxpayer, Medicaid recipients, and the recipients’ families to maintain an adequate network of health care providers and authorize medically necessary behavioral health care services. Cardinal’s budget was just over $682 million in 2016. Instead, I have witnessed, as a Medicaid and Medicare regulatory compliance litigator, and have legally defended hundreds of health care providers who were unlawfully terminated from the MCOs’ catchment areas, refused a contract with the MCOs, accused of owing overpayments to the MCOs for services that were appropriately rendered. To the point that the provider catchment areas are woefully underrepresented (especially in Minority-owned companies), recipients are not receiving medically necessary services, and the MCOs are denying medically necessary services. The MCOs do so under the guise of their police power. For years, I have been blogging that this police power is overzealous, unsupervised, unchecked, and in violation of legal authority. I have blogged that the MCOs act as the judge, jury, and executioner. I  have also stated that the actions of the MCOs are financially driven. Because when providers are terminated and services are not rendered, money is not spent, at least, on the Medicaid recipients’ services.

But, apparently, the money is spent on executives. This past May, State Auditor Beth Wood wrote a scathing performance audit regarding Cardinal’s lavish spending on CEO pay as well as on expensive Christmas parties and board retreats, charter flights for executives and “questionable” credit card purchases, including alcohol. All of that, her report said, threatened to “erode public trust.” Cardinal’s former CEO Richard Topping made more than $635,000 in salary this year. On Monday (November 21, 2017), DHHS escorted Topping and three other executives out the door. But they did not walk away empty handed. Topping walked away with a $1.7 million severance while three associates left with packages as high as $740,000 – of taxpayer money!

This overspending on salaries and administration is not new. Cardinal has been excessively spending on itself since inception. This has been a long term concern, and I congratulate Sec. Cohen for having the “cojones” to do something about it. (I know. Bad joke. I apologize for the French/Spanish).

In 2011, Cardinal spent millions of dollars constructing its administrative facility.

cardinaloutside

cardinal4 Break Room

cardconference Conference Room

According to Edifice, the company that built Cardinal Innovations’ grand headquarters, starting in 2011, Cardinal’s building is described as:

“[T[his new three-story, 79,000-square-foot facility is divided into two separate structures joined by a connecting bridge.  The 69,000-square-foot building houses the regional headquarters and includes Class A office space with conference rooms on each floor and a fully equipped corporate board room.  This building also houses a consumer gallery and a staff cafe offering an outdoor dining area on a cantilevered balcony overlooking a landscaped ravine.  The 10,000-square-foot connecting building houses a corporate training center. Computer access flooring is installed throughout the facility and is supported by a large server room to maintain redundancy of information flow.” How much did that cost the Medicaid recipients in Cardinal’s catchment area? Seem appropriate for an agent of the government spending tax money for luxurious office space? Shoot, my legal office is not even that nice. And I don’t get funded by tax dollars!

In 2015, I wrote:

On July 1, 2014, Cardinal Innovations, one of NC’s managed care organizations (MCOs) granted its former CEO, Ms. Pam Shipman, a 53% salary increase, raising her salary to $400,000/year. In addition to the raise, Cardinal issued Ms. Shipman a $65,000 bonus based on 2013-2014 performance.

Then in July 2015, according to the article in the Charlotte Observer, Cardinals paid Ms. Shipman an additional $424,975, as severance. Within one year, Ms. Shipman was paid by Cardinal a whopping $889,975. Almost one million dollars!!!!

I have been blogging about MCO misconduct for YEARS. Seeblog, blog, blog, blog, and blog.

Now, finally, DHHS says Cardinal Innovations “acted unlawfully” in giving its ousted CEO $1.7 million in severance, and DHHS took over the Charlotte-based agency. It was a complete oust. One journalist quoted Cardinal as saying, “DHHS officials arrived at Cardinal “unexpectedly and informed the executive leadership team that the department is assuming control of Cardinal’s governance.”” Unexpected they say? Cardinal conducted unexpected audits all the time on their providers. But, the shoe hurts when it’s on the other foot.

The MCOs are charged with the HUGE  fiscal and moral responsibility, on behalf of the taxpayers, to manage North Carolina and federal tax dollars and authorize medically necessary behavioral health care services for Medicaid recipients, our population’s most needy. The MCOs in NC are as follows:

  1. Vaya Health
  2. Partners Behavioral Health Management
  3. Cardinal Innovations (formerly)
  4. Trillium Health Resources
  5. Eastpointe
  6. Alliance Behavioral Health Care
  7. Sandhills Center

The 1915 (b)(c) Waiver Program was initially implemented at one pilot site in 2005 and evaluated for several years. Two expansion sites were then added in 2012. The State declared it an immediate success and requested and received the authority from CMS to implement the MCO project statewide. Full statewide implementation is expected by July 1, 2013. The MCO project was intended to save money in the Medicaid program. The thought was that if these MCO entities were prepaid on a capitated basis that the MCOs would have the incentive to be fiscally responsible, provide the medically necessary services to those in need, and reduce the dollars spent on prisons and hospitals for mentally ill.

Sadly, as we have seen, fire hoses of tax dollars catalyze greed.

Presumably, in the goal of financial wealth, Cardinal Innovations, and, maybe, expectantly the other MCOs, have sacrificed quality providers being in network and medically necessary services for Medicaid recipients, Cardinal has terminated provider contracts. And for what? Luxurious office space, high salaries, private jets, and a fat savings account.

I remember a former client from over 5 years ago, who owned and ran multiple residential facilities for at-risk, teen-age boys with violent tendencies and who suffered severe mental illness. Without cause, Alliance terminated the client’s Medicaid contract. There were no alternatives for the residents except for the street. We were able to secure a preliminary injunction preventing the termination. But for every one of those stories, there are providers who did not have the money to fight the terminations

Are there legal recourses for health care providers who suffered from Cardinal’s actions?

The million dollar question.

In light of the State Auditor’s report and DHHS’ actions and public comments that it was usurping Cardinal’s leadership based on “recent unlawful actions, including serious financial mismanagement by the leadership and Board of Directors at Cardinal Innovations,” I believe that the arrows point to yes, with a glaring caveat. It would be a massive and costly undertaking. David and Goliath does not even begin to express the undertaking. At one point, someone told me that Cardinal had $271 million in its bank account. I have no way to corroborate this, but I would not be surprised. In the past, Cardinal has hired private, steeply-priced attorney regardless that its funds are tax dollars. Granted, now DHHS may run things differently, but without question, any legal course of action against any MCO would be epically expensive.

Putting aside the money issue, potential claims could include (Disclaimer: this list is nonexhaustive and based on a cursory investigation for the purpose of my blog. Furthermore, research has not been conducted on possible bars to claims, such as immunity and/or exhaustion of administrative remedies.):

  • Breach of fiduciary duty. Provider would need to demonstrate that a duty existed between providers and MCO (contractual or otherwise), that said MCO breached such duty, and that damages exist. Damages can include actual loss and if intent is proven, punitive damages may be sought.
  • Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices. Providers would have to prove three elements: (1) an unfair or deceptive act or practice; (2) in or affecting commerce; (3) which proximately caused the injury to the claimant. A court will first determine if the act or practice was “in or affecting commerce” before determining if the act or practice was unfair or deceptive. Damages allowed are actual damages, plus treble damages (three times the actual damages).
  • Negligence. Providers would have to show (1) duty; (2) breach; (3) cause in fact; (4) proximate cause; and (5) damages. Actual damages are allowed for a negligence claim.
  • Breach of Contract. The providers would have to demonstrate that there was a valid contract; that the providers performed as specified by the contract; that the said MCO failed to perform as specified by the contract; and that the providers suffered an economic loss as a result of the defendant’s breach of contract. Actual damages are recoverable in a breach of action claim.
  • Declaratory Judgment. This would be a request to the Court to make a legal finding that the MCO failed to follow certain Medicaid procedures and regulations.
  • Violation of Article I, NC Constitution (legal and contractual right to receive payments for reimbursement claims due and payable under the Medicaid regulations.

To name a few…

House Bill 403: A Potential Upheaval of Medicaid!

Is this the end of the managed care organizations (MCOs)?

If the Senate’s proposed committee substitute (PCS) to House Bill 403 (HB 403) passes the answer is yes. The Senate’s PCS to House Bill 403 was just favorably reported out of the Senate Health Care Committee on June 15, 2017. The next step for the bill to advance will be approval by the Senate Rules Committee. Click here to watch its progress.

As my readers are well aware, I am not a proponent for the MCOs. I think the MCOs are run by overpaid executives, who pay themselves too high of bonuses, hire charter flights, throw fancy holiday parties, and send themselves and their families on expensive retreats – to the detriment of Medicaid recipients’ services and Medicaid providers’ reimbursement rates. See blog. And blog.

Over the last couple days, my email has been inundated by people abhorred with HB 403 – urging the Senators to retain the original HB 403, instead of the PCS version. As with all legislation, there are good and bad components. I went back and re-read these emails, and I realized multiple authors sat on an MCO Board. Of course MCO Board members will be against HB 403! Instead of hopping up and down “for” or “against” HB 403, I propose a (somewhat) objective review of the proposed legislation in this blog.

While I do not agree with everything found in HB 403, I certainly believe it is a step in the right direction. The MCOs have not been successful. Medically necessary behavioral health care services have been reduced or terminated, quality health care providers have been terminated from catchment areas, and our tax dollars have been misused.

However, I do have concern about how quickly the MCOs would be dissolved and the new PHPs would be put into effect. There is no real transition period, which could provide safety nets to ensure continuity of services. We all remember when NCTracks was implemented in 2013 and MMIS was removed on the same day. There was no overlap – and the results were catastrophic.

The following bullet points are the main issues found in HB 403, as currently written.

  • Effective date – MCOs dissolve immediately (This could be dangerous if not done properly)

Past legislation enacted a transition time to dissolve the MCOs. Session Law 2015-245, as amended by Session Law 2016-121, provided that the MCOs would be dissolved in four years, allowing the State to implement a new system slowly instead of yanking the tablecloth from the table with hopes of the plates, glasses, and silverware not tumbling to the ground.

According to HB 403, “on the date when Medicaid capitated contracts with Prepaid Health Plans (PHPs) begin, as required by S.L. 2015-245, all of the following shall occur:…(2) The LME/MCOs shall be dissolved.”

Session Law 2015-245 states the following timeline: “LME/MCOs shall continue to manage the behavioral health services currently covered for their enrollees under all existing waivers, including the 1915(b) and (c) waivers, for four years after the date capitated PHP contracts begin. During this four-year period, the Division of Health Benefits shall continue to negotiate actuarially sound capitation rates directly
with the LME/MCOs in the same manner as currently utilized.”

HB 403 revises Session Law 2015-245’s timeline by the following: “LME/MCOs shall continue to manage the behavioral health services currently covered for their enrollees under all existing waivers, including the 1915(b) and (c) waivers, for four years after the date capitated PHP contracts begin. During this four-year period, the Division of Health Benefits shall continue to negotiate actuarially sound capitation rates directly with the LME/MCOs in the same manner as currently utilized.

Instead of a 4-year transition period, the day the PHP contracts are effective, the MCOs no longer exist. Poof!! Maybe Edward Bulwer-Lytton was right when he stated, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

Again, I am not opposed to dissolving the MCOs for behavioral health care; I just want whatever transition to be reasonable and safe for Medicaid recipients and providers.

With the MCOs erased from existence, what system will be put in place? According to HB 403, PHPs shall manage all behavioral health care now managed by MCOs and all the remaining assets (i.e., all those millions sitting in the savings accounts of the MCOs) will be transferred to DHHS in order to fund the contracts with the PHPs and any liabilities of the MCOs. (And what prevents or does not prevent an MCO simply saying, “Well, now we will act as a PHP?”).

What is a PHP? HB 403 defines PHPs as an entity, which may be a commercial plan or provider-led entity with a PHP license from the Department of Insurance and will operate a capitated contract for the delivery of services. “Services covered by PHP:

  1. Physical health services
  2. Prescription drugs
  3. Long-term care services
  4. Behavioral health services

The capitated contracts shall not cover:

  1. Behavioral health
  2. Dentist services
  3. The fabrication of eyeglasses…”

It would appear that dentists will also be managed by PHPs. As currently written, HB 403 also sets no less than three and no more than five contracts between DHHS and the PHPs should be implemented.

Don’t we need a Waiver from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)?

Yes. We need a Waiver. 42 CFR 410.10(e) states that “[t]he Medicaid agency may not delegate, to other than its own officials, the authority to supervise the plan or to develop or issue policies, rules, and regulations on program matters.” In order to “Waive” this clause, we must get permission from CMS. We had to get permission from CMS when we created the MCO model. The same is true for a new PHP model.

Technically, HB 403 is mandating DHHS to implement a PHP model before we have permission from the federal government. HB 403 does instruct DHHS to submit a demonstration waiver application. Still, there is always concern and hesitancy surrounding implementation of a Medicaid program without the blessing of CMS.

  • The provider network (This is awesome)

HB 403 requires that all contracts between PHPs and DHHS have a clause that requires PHPs to not exclude providers from their networks except for failure to meet objective quality standards or refusal to accept network rates.

  • PHPs use of money (Also good)

Clearly, the General Assembly drafted HB 403 out of anger toward the MCOs. HB 403 implements more supervision over the new entities. It also disallows use of money on alcohol, first-class airfare, charter flights, holiday parties or similar social gatherings, and retreats, which, we all know these are precisely the activities that State Auditor Beth Wood found occurring, at least, at Cardinal. See Audit Report.

HB 403 also mandates that the Office of State Human Resources revise and update the job descriptions for the area directors and set limitations on salaries. No more “$1.2 million in CEO salaries paid without proper authorization.”

  • Provider contracts with the PHPs (No choice is never good)

It appears that HB 403 will not allow providers to choose which PHP to join. DHHS is to create the regions for the PHPs and every county must be assigned to a PHP. Depending on how these PHPs are created, we could be looking at a similar situation that we have now with the MCOs. If the State is going to force you to contract with a PHP to provide Medicaid services, I would want the ability to choose the PHP.

In conclusion, HB 403 will re-shape our entire Medicaid program, if passed. It will abolish the MCO system, apply to almost all Medicaid services (both physical and mental), open the provider network, limit spending on inappropriate items, and assign counties to a PHP.

Boy, what I would give to be a fly on the wall in all the MCO’s boardrooms (during the closed sessions).