We have had parity laws between mental and physical health care services on the books for years. Regardless of the black letter law, mental health health care services have been treated with stigma, embarrassment, and of lesser importance than physical health care services. A broken leg is easily proven by an X-Ray; whereas a broken mind is less obvious.
In an unprecedented Decision ripe with scathing remarks against Optum/United Behavioral Health’s (UBH) actions, a Court recently ruled that UBH improperly denied mental health services to insureds and that those improper denials were financially-driven. A slap-on-the-wrist, this Decision was not. More of a public whipping.
In a 106-page opinion, the US District Court, Northern District of California, slammed UBH in a blistering decision finding that UBH purposely and improperly denied behavioral health care benefits to thousands of mentally ill insureds by utilizing overly restrictive guidelines. This is a HUGE win for the mental health community, which often does not receive the parity of services (of physical health) that it is legally is entitled. U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero spared no political correctness in his mordacious written opinion, which is rarity in today’s vitriolic world.
The Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), saying the insurer denied benefits in violation of the terms of their insurance plans and state law. The Plaintiffs consisted of participants in UBH health care plans and who were denied mental health care services.
Judge Spero found United Behavioral’s guidelines were influenced by financial incentives concerning fully-funded and self-funded ERISA plans:
“While the incentives related to fully insured and self-funded plans are not identical, with respect to both types of plan UBH has a financial interest in keeping benefit expense down … [A]ny resulting shortcomings in its Guideline development process taints its decision-making as to both categories of plan because UBH maintains a uniform set of Guidelines for fully insured and self-funded plans … Instead of insulating its Guideline developers from these financial pressures, UBH has placed representatives of its Finance and Affordability Departments in key roles in the Guidelines development process throughout the class period.”
Surprisingly, this decision came out of California, which is notoriously socially-driven. Attorneys generally avert their eyes when opinions come from the 9th District.
Judge Spero found that UBH violated “generally accepted standards of care” to administer requests for benefits.
The Court found that “many mental health and substance use disorders are long-term and chronic.” It also found that, in questionable instances, the insurance company should err on the caution of placing the patient in a higher level of care. The Court basically cited the old adage – “Better safe than sorry,” which seems a pretty darn good idea when you are talking about mental health. Just ask Ted Bundy.
Even though the Wit Decision involved private pay insurance, the Court repeatedly cited to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Manual. For example, the Court stated that “the CMS Manual explains, [f]or many . . . psychiatric patients, particularly those with long-term, chronic conditions, control of symptoms and maintenance of a functional level to avoid further deterioration or hospitalization is an acceptable expectation of improvement.” It also quoted ASAM criteria as generally accepted standards, as well as LOCUS, which tells me that the law interprets the CMS Manual, ASAM criteria, and LOCUS as “generally accepted standards,” and not UBH’s or any other private pay insurance’s arbitrary standards. In fact, the Court actually stated that its decision was influenced by the fact that UBH’s adopted many portions of CMS’ Manual, but drafted the language in a more narrow way to ensure more denials of mental health benefits.
The Court emphasized the importance of ongoing care instead of acute care that ceases upon the end of the acute crisis. The denial of ongoing care was categorized as a financial decision. The Court found that UBH’s health care policy “drove members to lower levels of care even when treatment of the member’s overall and/or co-occurring conditions would have been more effective at the higher level of care.”
The Wit decision will impact us in so many ways. For one, if a State Medicaid program limits mental health services beyond what the CMS Manual, ASAM criteria, or LOCUS determines, then providers (and beneficiaries) have a strong legal argument that the State Medicaid criteria do not meet generally accepted standards. Even more importantly, if the State Medicaid policies do NOT limit mental health care services beyond what the CMS Manual, ASAM criteria, and LOCUS defines, but an agent of the State Medicaid Division; i.e, a managed care organization (MCO) deny mental health care services that would be considered appropriate under the generally accepted standards, then, again, both providers and beneficiaries would have strong legal arguments overturning those denials.
I, for one, hope this is a slippery slope…in the right direction.
Loyal followers will remember the behavioral health care debacle that happened in New Mexico in June 2013. See blog and blog and blog. Basically, the State of New Mexico accused 15 behavioral health care companies of credible allegations of fraud and immediately froze all the companies’ Medicaid reimbursements. These 15 companies comprised 87.5% of New Mexico’s behavioral health providers. The companies were forced to close their doors. Hundreds of people lost their jobs. Hundreds of thousands of Medicaid recipients no longer received their medically necessary mental health and substance abuse services. It really was and is such a sad tragedy.
Now, more than 3 years later, the consequences of that payment suspension still haunts those providers. Once they were exonerated of fraud by the Attorney General, the single state entity, Human Services Department (HSD), is now accusing them – one by one – of alleged overpayments. These alleged overpayments are extrapolated. So 10 claims for $600 turns into $2 million. See blog.
I will leave Saturday the 30th of July to fly to Albuquerque, NM, to defend one of those behavioral health care providers in administrative court. The trial is scheduled to last two weeks.
Below is a great article from today’s The Santa Fe New Mexican about this:
By: Justin Horwath
ALBUQUERQUE — Executives of three former mental health agencies told state lawmakers Wednesday that they are still fighting the state’s determination that they overbilled Medicaid, and they are expected to repay millions of dollars, even after they have been cleared of criminal wrongdoing.
“Three years after the fact, and we are still plodding through this,” Shannon Freedle, who was an executive with the now-defunct Teambuilders Counseling Services in Santa Fe, told lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee during a hearing in Albuquerque. He was referring to allegations in June 2013 against 15 mental health providers that led to a statewide Medicaid service shake-up.
Along with Freedle, executives of the Santa Fe-based Easter Seals El Mirador and Albuquerque-based Hogares Inc. testified about the New Mexico Human Services Department’s continued claims of Medicaid overpayments long after the state Attorney General’s Office announced it found no evidence that any of the providers had committed fraud and many of the firms have shut down.
Some of the providers, meanwhile, say the state’s former Medicaid claims contractor, OptumHealth New Mexico, still owes them millions of dollars in back payments for treating patients before the shake-up. A group of behavioral health providers, including Teambuilders, Easter Seals and Hogares, filed a lawsuit against OptumHealth in state District Court in June. OptumHealth also faces at least three other lawsuits filed this year, accusing it of Medicaid fraud.
State Rep. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, called the Human Services Department’s actions “outrageous on so many levels.”
Rep. Christine Trujillo, also an Albuquerque Democrat, called for the resignation of Human Services Department Cabinet Secretary Brent Earnest and for “criminal charges to be pressed because this isn’t human error anymore — this is actually criminal behavior.” She is the second member of the committee to call for Earnest to step down.
No Republicans on the bipartisan committee were at the presentation.
Earlier Wednesday — at a news conference in Albuquerque promoting the Martinez administration’s efforts to tackle New Mexico’s drug abuse epidemic — Gov. Susana Martinez made a rare public comment about the decision in June 2013 to freeze Medicaid payments to the 15 mental health providers on allegations they had defrauded Medicaid, the state and federal program that provides health care to low-income residents. The state brought in five Arizona firms to replace the New Mexico providers, but three of them have since left the state, citing financial losses
Martinez said the decision to freeze the Medicaid payments “was recommended by the federal government.”
“But the patients were continued to be serviced and their services were not interrupted,” she said, “unless they decided on their own that they wanted to not continue.”
Asked to clarify Martinez’s statement about the federal government’s role in the Medicaid payment freeze, Michael Lonergan, the governor’s spokesman, said in an email that Martinez was “referencing federal law, which calls for the state to suspend payments and investigate any credible allegations of fraud.”
Federal law gave the state the option to freeze Medicaid payments but didn’t require it.
Kyler Nerison, a spokesman for the Human Services Department, defended the agency’s efforts to pursue the return of funds allegedly overpaid to the former Medicaid providers, saying in an email that the “Attorney General’s limited review of the agencies that had their payments suspended found thousands of cases of billing errors and other regulatory violations.
“Medicaid dollars should be used to help the people who need it most, and if these politicians want to turn a blind-eye to that kind of waste and abuse, that’s solely on them,” Nerison said. “The Human Services Department will continue working to recoup the misspent and overbilled Medicaid dollars as we continue to help more New Mexicans than ever before in both Medicaid and behavioral health services.”
Freedle said he will attend a Human Services Department hearing next week to contest the agency’s claim that Teambuilders owes the state $2.2 million. At issue is the agency’s use of extrapolation to determine the figure of the alleged overbilling. The agency pointed to 12 allegedly errant claims Teambuilders had made to OptumHealth requesting Medicaid reimbursements worth a total of $728.
But Freedle said the Human Services Department used overpayments found in a small sample of claims and multiplied the amount by 3,000 to determine overbilling over a longer period of time, without proving such billing errors occurred. An investigation by the Attorney General’s Office, which found no evidence of criminal fraud, also found a smaller error rate.
Patsy Romero, CEO of Easter Seals El Mirador, and Nancy Jo Archer, who was the CEO of Hogares, broke down in tears as they described the Human Services Department’s “fair hearing process.”
“That’s really and truly an oxymoron,” Archer said.
By: Edward M. Roche, the founder of Barraclough NY LLC, a litigation support firm that helps healthcare providers fight against statistical extrapolations.
In the first article in this series, we covered how a new governor of New Mexico recently came into power and shortly thereafter, all 15 of the state’s nonprofit providers for behavioral health services were accused of fraud and replaced with companies owned by UnitedHealthcare.
When a new team is brought in to take over a crisis situation, one might expect that things would improve. The replacement companies might be presumed to transfer to New Mexico newer and more efficient methods of working, and patient services would become better and more efficient. Out with the old, in with the new. The problem in New Mexico is that this didn’t happen – not at all.
The corporate structure in New Mexico is byzantine. UnitedHealth Group, Inc. is a Minnesota corporation that works through subsidiaries, operating companies and joint ventures to provide managed healthcare throughout the United States. In New Mexico, UnitedHealth worked through Optum Behavioral Health Solutions and United Behavioral Health, Inc. OptumHealth New Mexico is a joint venture between UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company and United Behavioral Health, according to the professional services contract signed with the State of New Mexico.
And that’s not all. OptumHealth is not the company providing the services. According to the contract, It was set up to act as a bridge between actual providers of health services and a legal entity called the State of New Mexico Interagency Behavioral Health Purchasing Collaborative. This Collaborative combines together 16 agencies within the state government.
OptumHealth works by using subcontractors to actually deliver healthcare under both Medicaid and Medicare. Its job is to make sure that all claims from the subcontractors are compliant with state and federal law. It takes payment for the claims submitted and then pays out to the subcontractors. But for this service, OptumHealth takes a 28-percent commission, according to court papers.
This is a nice margin. A complaint filed by whistleblower Karen Clark, an internal auditor with OptimumHealth, indicated that from October 2011 until April 2012, OptumHealth paid out about $88.25 million in Medicaid funds and got a commission of $24.7 million. The payments went out to nine subcontractors. Clark claimed that from Oct. 1, 2011 until April 22, 2013, the overall payouts were about $529.5 million, and the 28-percent commission was about $148.3 million.
In spite of the liberal flow of taxpayer money, things did not go well. Clark’s whistleblower suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, claimed that OptumHealth knew of massive fraud but refused to investigate. Clark says she was eventually fired after she uncovered the malfeasance. It appears that even after learning of problems, OptumHealth kept billing away, eager to continue collecting that 28-percent commission.
Clark’s complaint details a number of problems in New Mexico’s behavioral health sector. It is a list of horrors: there were falsified records, services provided by unlicensed providers, use of improper billing codes, claims for services that never were provided, and many other problems. Allegedly, many client files contained no treatment plans or treatment notes, or even records of what treatments had been provided and s services billed for times when offices were closed. The suit also claims that some services were provided by probationers instead of licensed providers, and a number of bills were submitted for a person who was outside the United States at the time.
The complaint further alleges that one provider received $300,000 in payments, but had submitted only $200,000 worth of claims. When Clark discovered this she allegedly was told by her supervisor at OptumHealth that it was “too small to be concerned about”. It also is alleged that a) insight-oriented psychotherapy was billed when actually the client was being taught how to brush their teeth; b) the same services were billed to the same patient several times per month, and files were falsified to satisfy Medicaid rules; c) interactive therapy sessions were billed for patients who were non-verbal and unable to participate; d) individual therapy was claimed when group therapy was given; e) apart from Medicaid, other sources allegedly were billed for exactly the same services; and f) developmentally disabled patients were used to bill for group therapy from which they had no capacity to benefit. Clark also stated that investigations of one provider for false billing were suspended because they were “a big player in the state”.
Other alleged abuse included a provider that submitted claims for 15-20 hours per day of group therapy for 20 to 40 children at a time, and for numerous psychotherapy services never provided. The complaint also describes one individual provider that supposedly worked three days per week, routinely billing Medicaid for twelve 30-minute individual psychotherapy sessions; 12 family psychotherapy sessions; 23 children in group therapy; and 32 children in group interactive psychotherapy each day.
A number of other abuses are detailed in the complaint: a) some providers had secretaries prescribing medication; b) one provider claimed that it saw 30 patients each 90 minutes per day for psychotherapeutic treatment; c) some individuals allegedly submitted claims for 30 hours per day of treatment; and d) some facilities had no credentialed psychotherapist at any of its facilities. Remember that all of these subcontractors are providing behavioral (psychiatric and psychological) services. Clark found that others submitted bills claiming the services were performed by a medical doctor, but there were none at their facility.
And in one of the most stunning abuses imaginable, one provider allegedly diagnosed all of their patients as having autism. Clark believes this was done because it allowed billing under both medical and mental health billing codes.
These are only a few of the apparent problems we see in New Mexico’s behavioral services.
You would think that once all of this had been brought to light, then public authorities such as the state’s Attorney General’s office would be eager to investigate and begin to root out the abusers. But that isn’t what happened.
James Hallinan, a spokesman for that office, stated that “based on its investigation, the Office of the Attorney General determined it would be in the best interest of the State to decline to intervene in the case.”
While it was making this decision, Clark’s allegations remained under court seal. But now they can be shown.
(*) Hallinan, James, spokesman for Attorney General’s office, quoted by Peters, J. and Lyman, A. Lawsuit: $14 million in new Medicaid fraud ignored in botched behavioral health audits, January 8, 2016, NM Political Report, URL: http://nmpoliticalreport.com/26519/lawsuit-optumhealth-botched-audits-of-nm-providers/ accessed March 22, 2016.
This article is based on US ex rel. Karen Clark and State of New Mexico ex rel. Karen Clark and Karen Clark, individually vs. UnitedHealth Group, Inc., United Healthcare Insurance Company, United Behavioral Health, Inc., and OptumHealth New Mexico, Complaint for Damages and Penalties, United States District Court for the District of New Mexico, No. 13-CV-372, April 22, 2013 held under court seal until a few weeks ago.
By: Ed Roche, founder of Barraclough NY LLC, a litigation support firm that helps healthcare providers fight against statistical extrapolations
It was published in RACMonitor.
Healthcare providers sometimes can get caught up in a political storm. When this happens, audits can be used as a weapon to help preferred providers muscle into a market. This appears to have happened recently in New Mexico.
Let’s go back in time.
On Sept. 14, 2010, Susana Martinez was in Washington, D.C. She was looking for campaign contributions to run for the governorship of New Mexico. She visited the office of the government lobbying division of UnitedHealth Group and picked up a check for $25,000.
The next day, Martinez published an editorial claiming that Bill Richardson’s administration in New Mexico was tolerating much “waste, fraud and abuse” in its Medicaid program. Eventually, she was elected as the 31st governor of New Mexico and took office Jan. 1, 2011.
According to an email trail, by the fall of 2012, Martinez’s administration was busy exchanging emails with members of the boards of directors of several healthcare companies in Arizona. During this same period, the Arizonans made a number of contributions to a political action committee (PAC) set up to support Martinez. At the same time, officers from New Mexico’s Human Services Department (HSD) made a number of unannounced visits to Arizona.
The lobbying continued in earnest. Hosted in part by UnitedHealth money, the head of HSD visited Utah’s premier ski resort, and the bill was paid for by an organization financed in part by UnitedHealth. The governor’s chief of staff was treated to dinner at an expensive steakhouse in Las Vegas. There is suspicion of other contacts, but these have not been identified. All of these meetings were confidential.
The governor continued to publicly criticize health services in New Mexico. She focused on 15 mental health providers who had been in business for 40 years. They were serving 87 percent of the mental health population in New Mexico and had developed an extensive delivery system that reached all corners of the state.
Martinez honed in on one mental health provider because the CEO used a private aircraft. He was accused of using Medicaid funds to finance a lavish lifestyle. None of this was true. It turned out that the owner had operations all over the state and used the plane for commuting, but it made for good sound bites to feed the press.
The state decided to raise the pressure against the providers. Public Consulting Group (PCG), a Boston-based contractor, was called in to perform an audit of mental health services. In addition to taking samples and performing analyses of claims, PCG was asked to look for “credible allegations of fraud.”
In legal terms, the phrase “credible allegations of fraud” carries much weight. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it can be used to justify punitive actions against a provider. It is surprising that only “allegations” are necessary, not demonstrated proof. The reality is that in practical terms, a provider can be shut down based on allegations alone.
In a letter regarding its work, PCG stated that “there are no credible allegations of fraud.” Evidently, that was the wrong answer. PCG was kicked out of New Mexico and not allowed to complete its audit. HSD took over.
The PCG letter had been supplied to HSD in a Microsoft Word format. In a stunning act, HSD removed the statement concluding that there were “no credible allegations of fraud.” HSD continued to use the PCG letter, but only in this altered form.
HSD continued to insist publicly that there were credible allegations of fraud. Since PCG had been kicked out before completing the audit, a HSD staff attorney took the liberty of performing several statistical extrapolations that generated a repayment demand of more than $36 million. During testimony, the attorney admitted that the extent of his experience with statistics was an introductory course he had taken years earlier in college.
Two years later, statistical experts from Barraclough NY LLC who are elected fellows of the American Statistical Association examined HSD’s work and concluded that it was faulty and unreliable. They concluded there was zero credibility in the extrapolations.
But for the time being, the extrapolations and audits were powerful tools. On June 24, 2013, all of the aforementioned 15 nonprofits were called into a meeting with HSD. All were accused of massive fraud. They were informed that their Medicaid payments were to be impounded. The money needed to service 87 percent of New Mexico’s mental health population was being cut off.
The next day, UnitedHealth announced a $22 million investment in Santa Fe. We have not been able to track down the direct beneficiaries of these investments. However, we do know that the governor’s office immediately issued a press release on their behalf.
The 15 New Mexico providers were being driven out of business. This had been planned well in advance. Shortly thereafter, the government of New Mexico, through HSD, [approved] issued $18 million in no-bid contracts to five Arizona-based providers affiliated with UnitedHealth. These are the same companies that had been contributing to the governor’s PAC.
These five Arizona companies then took over all mental health services for New Mexico. Their first step was to begin cutting back services. To give one example: patients with two hours therapy per week were cut back to 10 fifteen-minute sessions per year.It was the beginning of a mental health crisis in New Mexico.
As of today, two of the Arizona providers have abandoned their work in New Mexico. A third is in the process of leaving. What is the result? Thousands of New Mexico mental health patients have been left with no services. Entire communities have been completely shut [cut] off. The most vulnerable communities have been hit the hardest.
Through litigation, the 15 original providers forced the New Mexico Attorney General to examine the situation. It took a long time. All of the providers now are out of business. The Attorney General reported a few weeks ago that there were never any credible allegations of fraud.
This should mean that the impounded money would be returned to the 15 providers. After all, the legal reason why it was impounded in the first place has been shown to be false. One would think that the situation could return to normal.
The original 15 should be able to continue their business, and hire back the more than 1,500 persons they had been forced to lay off. Once the impounded monies are returned to the providers, they will be able to pay their legal bills, which now add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Unfortunately, that is not happening. HSD still is claiming that the $36 million extrapolation is due, and that actually, the providers owe the state money. The New Mexico government is not budging from its position. The litigation continues.
Meanwhile, New Mexico now is tied with Montana in having the highest suicide rate in the continental United States.