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Former mental health providers take fight over Medicaid funds to lawmakers

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.

Audits “Breaking Bad” in New Mexico: Part II

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.

Note:

(*) 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.