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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.

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game of thrones

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:

Against Trillium:

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.

Against DHHS:

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:

new mco map

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.”

How Managed Care Organizations Will Be the Downfall of Mental Health in NC

Lately, mental health has been a topic of great interest to many people.  Tragedies like the Navy Yard shooting bring the mental health issue even more to the forefront.  Remember, the shooter had complained about auditory hallucinations prior to the horrible event.

Yet North Carolina, like many other states, has implemented the managed care system for Medicaid behavioral health.  These managed care organizations (MCOs) will be the downfall of the mental health care system.

That’s a pretty strong statement, huh? How could these MCOs be the downfall of mental health?

Let me explain…

Currently, in NC we have hundreds of thousands of mental health care providers across the state.  Most of the behavioral health care providers are not huge companies.  Many thousands of these providers are small businesses with under 10 staff, although there are certainly some that staff numerous psychiatrists and hundreds of employees.  Regardless, in the aggregate, these behavioral health care provider staff millions of North Carolinians.  (I don’t have the data on the numbers, so these numbers are estimates).

Not only do we rely on these behavioral health care providers to staff millions of North Carolinians, but these providers also service our 1.5 million Medicaid recipients with any mental health care issue.

I doubt I would receive any opposition to the statement that these behavioral health care providers across NC are assets to our community.  They provide employment for some and mental health services for others.  Without our behavioral health care providers, our Medicaid recipients would (a) not receive medically necessary treatment; and (b) most likely, be hospitalized, incarcerated, or simply non-productive citizens. Not to mention the number of people who would become unemployed if the behavioral health care providers went our of business.

Many studies have proven that, in fact, many mentally ill not receiving care end up in prisons or the emergency room (ER).  For example,  in one study, “More Mentally Ill Persons Are in Jails and Prisons Than Hospitals: A Survey of the States,” the authors found that:

Using 2004–2005 data not previously published, we found that in the United States there are now more than three times more seriously mentally ill persons in jails and prisons than in hospitals. Looked at by individual states, in North Dakota there are approximately an equal number of mentally ill persons in jails and prisons compared to hospitals. By contrast, Arizona and Nevada have almost ten times more mentally ill persons in jails and prisons than in hospitals. It is thus fact, not hyperbole, that America’s jails and prisons have become our new mental hospitals.

The way to combat the fact that many mentally ill become hospitalized or jailed is to have enough behavioral health care providers to service all the people in-need and to allow people easy access to the providers at all times.  It only makes sense. If we have people needing mental health care services, we need enough providers to service them.  This is Logic 101, people.

Well, when we switched over the managed care system for behavioral health, at first, we didn’t see a huge impact.  Yes, we missed ValueOptions.  Yes, we hated the process of provider credentialing and obtaining additional contracts with the new MCOs (I mean, good gracious, we already had the contract with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).  How many contracts would we need?)  But, at first, the MCOs were not crippling.  Killing a ton of trees? Yes.  But crippling? No.

Our government leaders performed two (2) fatal flaws when implementing the MCOs.  (1) The MCOs were allowed to conduct a closed network after a short period of time; and (2) the MCOs were not statewide.  Well, there were probably many more flaws, but these were the most fatal.

CLOSED NETWORK

The MCOs are allowed via statute to contract with the number of providers that it deems necessary for its catchment area.  If, for example, MeckLINK, the MCO in Meckeleburg county, decides that 1 provider can service all the mental health needs of Medicaid recipients in Mecklenburg county, then MeckLINK may contract with only one provider.

What happens to the rest of the behavioral health providers in Mecklenburg county?  Well, those providers do not have contracts with MeckLINK to provide services within Mecklenburg county.  Never mind that the provider had signed a 5-year lease in downtown Charlotte.  No other provider except for the one that MeckLINK contracts with can provide services in Mecklenburg county.

So you say, so what? The providers can provide services in 99 other counties.

But, what if a provider has been in business for 15 years.  What if the mentally ill that the provider services are severely mentally ill?  What if that provider was the only person that some Medicaid recipients trusted?  What if those Medicaid recipients refuse to switch providers?  Who suffers?  Because, despite any other contention, behavioral health care providers are not fungible.

Or…change it from MeckLINK to Smokey Mountain Center (SMC), which starting next month will have a 23 county catchment area.  23 counties!!

What happens when SMC determines that it will only contract with 2 providers per county?

Are the thousands of behavioral health care providers who reside and service those 23 counties that can no longer provider services all to move out of SMC’s catchment area in order to continue their careers?

No, realistically, if SMC decides that it will only contract with 2 providers per county, all other providers within SMC’s catchment area go out of business.  All employees of those thousands of providers are  unemployed.  Unemployment sky-rockets and the need for Medicaid and food stamps sky-rocket.

NOT STATEWIDE

The MCOs in NC are not statewide.  What does that mean?  That means that every MCO in NC has its own catchment area…or jurisdiction.  If you are a provider in Wake county, you must have a contract with Alliance Behavioral Health (Alliance).  If you are a provider in Pitt county, you must have a contract with East Carolina Behavioral Health (ECBH).

Other states have implemented MCOs differently.  Such as New Mexico…not that the MCOs are working great in NM, but I do agree with this one facet of NM MCOs.  Other states have MCOs that are statewide.  Each MCO has providers across the state, and…get this…the Medicaid recipients get to choose with which MCO they want to deal.

Think about it…Medicaid recipients having a choice among MCOs depending on the providers with which the MCO contracts.

But not in NC.

In NC, Medicaid recipient Alice may choose to go to Dr. Jane in Charlotte.  In fact, Alice has gone to Dr. Jane for years.  Alice suffers schizophrenia with visual hallucinations.  Dr. Jane has known Alice for so long that Dr. Jane can tell when Alice is going through a more troubling than normal bout.  But last week MeckLINK determined that it would not contract with Dr. Jane and demanded that Dr. Jane transition all clients.

So, Dr. Jane transitions Alice to Dr. Kelly and closes up her shop.  Dr. Jane and her 16 employees file for unemployment, food stamps and subsidized housing…oh, and Medicaid.

Alice decides she hates Dr. Kelly and is convinced that Dr. Kelly had devised a plot to rid her of Dr. Jane.  Remember, people who suffer from mental illnesses don’t always think rationally…

So Alice never goes to any appointments with Dr. Kelly.  Instead, she begins to use heroin again.

Sound far off? Crazy? Unrealistic?

I beg to differ.

The way in which the MCOs are set-up in NC allows the MCOs to unilaterally decide to contract with one provider, but not the other.  Or even scarier, just 1 provider.  The MCO set-up in NC allows the MCOs to determine that certain providers cannot service the population within its catchment area.

A GLIMPSE INTO THE FUTURE

If our MCOs continue to terminate Medicaid provider contracts at the rate that they are currently, thousands and thousands of providers will soon be out of business.  Hundreds of thousands of citizens will be unemployed (the staff of the provider companies).  Unemployment will increase.  The need for Medicaid and food stamps will increase.  The very few behavioral health care providers that are still allowed to provide services to Medicaid recipients will be overwhelmed, unable to meet the needs of every single recipient.  Medicaid recipients will not receive individual, unique mental health care; Medicaid recipients will be overlooked (whether they don’t go to appointments, become hospitalized or incarcerated).

And something very tragic will happen here in NC.  And not on a Navy Yard.

Hence the downfall of mental health in NC.