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.
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:
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.
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:
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.”
Hospital is shocked to learn that its Medicare contract with Health and Human Services may be terminated by April 16, 2017. Medicaid services may also be adversely affected. The hospital was notified of the possible Medicare contract termination on March 27, 2017, and is faced with conceivably losing its Medicare contract within a month of notification. Legal action cannot act fast enough – unless the hospital requests an emergency temporary restraining order, motion to stay, and preliminary injunction and files it immediately upon learning that its Medicare contract is terminated.
The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) threatened Greenville Memorial Hospital, part of Greenville Health System, in South Carolina, that Medicare reimbursements will cease starting April 16, 2017. According to CMS, Memorial’s emergency department is not compliant with Medicare regulations.
A public notice in the Greenville News says: “Notice is hereby given that effective April 15, 2017, the agreement between GHS Greenville Memorial Hospital, 701 Grove Road, Greenville, S.C. 29605 and the Secretary of Health and Human Service, as a provider of Hospital Services and Health Insurance for the Aged and Disabled Program (Medicare) is to be terminated. GHS Greenville Memorial Hospital does not meet the following conditions of participation. 42 CFR 482.12 Governing Body, 42 CFR 482.13 Patients’ Rights and 42 CFR 482.23 Nursing Services.”
“The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has determined that GHS Greenville Memorial Hospital is not in compliance with the conditions of coverage. The Medicare program will not make payment for hospital services to patients who are admitted after April 16, 2017.”
The findings came after an onsite audit was conducted on March 13, 2017. Memorial was notified of the report on March 27, 2017.
Memorial must have submitted a corrective action plan by April 3, 2017, but it has not been released.
The emergency department at Memorial treats about 300 patients per day. An employee of Memorial estimates that the termination would lose net revenue from Medicare and Medicaid could potentially reach around $495 million. Greenville Memorial received $305 million in Medicare funding and $190 million from Medicaid in the most recent fiscal year, accounting for nearly six in 10 patients, officials said.
While CMS and Memorial refuse to discuss the details of the alleged noncompliance, CMS’ public notice cites three CFR cites: 42 CFR 482.12 Governing Body, 42 CFR 482.13 Patients’ Rights and 42 CFR 482.23 Nursing Services.
42 CFR 482.12 requires that hospitals have governing bodies and plans to follow Medicare regulations. Subsection (f) specifically requires that if a hospital has an emergency department that the hospital must follow 42 CFR 482.55 “Conditions of Participation,” which states that “The hospital must meet the emergency needs of patients in accordance with acceptable standards of practice.
(a) Standard: Organization and direction. If emergency services are provided at the hospital –
- The services must be organized under the direction of a qualified member of the medical staff;
- The services must be integrated with other departments of the hospital;
- The policies and procedures governing medical care provided in the emergency service or department are established by and are a continuing responsibility of the medical staff.
(b) Standard: Personnel.
- The emergency services must be supervised by a qualified member of the medical staff.
- There must be adequate medical and nursing personnel qualified in emergency care to meet the written emergency procedures and needs anticipated by the facility.”
The Memorial audit stemmed from a March 4, 2017, death of Donald Keith Smith, 48, who died as a result of traumatic asphyxiation. After an altercation, the patient was placed on a gurney, supposedly, face-down. South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Controls Site Survey Agency investigated the hospital after the death and the audit found that hospital security officers improperly restrained Smith, strapping him face down to a gurney during an altercation, rendering him unable to breathe. The death was ruled a homicide.
Memorial terminated the security officers involved in the death.
Now the hospital is faced with its own potential death. The loss of Medicare and, perhaps, Medicaid reimbursements could financially kill the hospital. Let’s see what happens…
Don’t we have due process in America? Isn’t due process something that our founding fathers thought important, essential even? Due process is in our Constitution.
The Fourteenth (governing state governments) and the Fifth Amendment (governing federal government) state that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”
Yet, apparently, if you accept Medicaid or Medicare, due process is thrown out the window. Bye, Felicia!
How is it possible that criminals (burglars, murderers, rapists) are afforded due process but a health care provider who accepts Medicaid/care does not?
Surely, that is not true! Let’s look at some examples.
In Tulsa, a 61-year-old man was arrested for killing his Lebanese neighbor. He pled not guilty. In news articles, the word “allegedly” is rampant. He allegedly killed his neighbor. Authorities believe that he may have killed his neighbor.
And prior to getting his liberty usurped and getting thrown in jail, a trial ensues. Because before we take a person’s liberty away, we want a fair trial. Doesn’t the same go for life and property?
Example A: I recently received a phone call from a health care provider in New Jersey. She ran a pediatric medical daycare. In 2012, it closed its doors when the State of New Jersey accused it of an overpayment of over $12 million and suspended its funds. With its funds suspended, it could no longer pay staff or render services to its clients.
Now, in 2016, MORE THAN FOUR YEARS LATER, she calls to ask advice on a closing statement for an administrative hearing. This tells me (from my amazing Murdoch Mysteries (my daughter’s favorite show) sense of intuition): (1) she was not provided a trial for FOUR YEARS; (2) the state has withheld her money, kept it, and gained interest on it for over FOUR YEARS; (3) in the beginning, she did have an attorney to file an injunction and a declaratory judgment; and (4) in the end, she could not afford such representation (she was filing her closing argument pro se).
Examples B-P: 15 New Mexico behavioral health care agencies. On June 23, 2013, the State of New Mexico accuses 15 behavioral health care agencies of Medicaid fraud, which comprised 87.5% of the behavioral health care in New Mexico. The state immediately suspends all reimbursements and puts most of the companies out of business. Now, MORE THAN THREE YEARS LATER, 11 of the agencies still have not undergone a “Fair Hearing.” Could you imagine the outrage if an alleged criminal were held in jail for THREE YEARS before a trial?
Example Q: Child psychiatrist in rural area is accused of Medicaid fraud. In reality, he is not guilty. The person he hired as his biller is guilty. But the state immediately suspends all reimbursements. This Example has a happy ending. Child psychiatrist hired us and we obtained an injunction, which lifted the suspension. He did not go out of business.
Example R: A man runs a company that provides non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT). One day, the government comes and seizes all his property and freezes all his bank accounts with no notice. They even seize his fiance’s wedding ring. More than TWO YEARS LATER – He has not stood trial. He has not been able to defend himself. He still has no assets. He cannot pay for a legal defense, much less groceries.
Apparently the right to speedy trial and due process only applies to alleged burglars, rapists, and murderers, not physicians and health care providers who render medically necessary services to our most fragile and vulnerable population. Due process??? Bye, Felicia!
What can you, as a health care provider, do if you are accused of fraud and your reimbursements are immediately suspended?
- Prepare. If you accept Medicare/caid, open an account and contribute to it generously. This is your CYA account. It is for your legal defense. And do not be stupid. If you accept Medicaid/care, it is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when.
- Have your attorney on speed dial. And I am not talking about your brother’s best friend from college who practices general trial law and defends DUIs. I am talking about a Medicaid/care litigation expert.
- File an injunction. Suspension of your reimbursements is a death sentence. The two prongs for an injunction are (a) likelihood of success on the merits; and (b) irreparable harm. Losing your company is irreparable harm. Likelihood of success on the merits is on you. If your documents are good – you are good.
I do not believe that I have been more excited to post a blog than I am right now. For the past two weeks, an associate DeeDee Murphy and I have been in trial in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For those of you who do not know about the Draconian, governmental upheaval of the 15 behavioral health care companies in New Mexico, see blog. And blog. And documentary.
Going back to what it is that I am so excited to share…
A federal preliminary injunction is rare. It is about as rare as rocking horse poo. But when I met Dr. B, I knew I had to try. Poo or not. Dr. B is a geneticist, who accepts Medicaid. Her services are essential to her patients, who receive ongoing, genetic counseling from her. 70% of her practice comprised of Medicaid recipients.
You see, when Dr. B came to me, she had been represented by legal counsel for over two years but had received no recourse at all. For two years she had retained counsel to fight for her Medicaid contract with the State of Indiana, and for two years, she had no Medicaid contract to render services. For the previous 2 years, Dr. B had been subject to prepayment review and paid nothing – or next to nothing…certainly not enough to pay expenses.
When I met Dr. B, she had not been paid for two years. She continued to render medically necessary services, but she received no reimbursement. She had exhausted all her loans, her credit limit, and even borrowed money from family. She had been forced to terminate staff. Dr. B was on the brink of financial and career ruin. She was about to lose the company and work that she had put over 40 years into. Since her company’s revenue consisted of over 70% Medicaid without Medicaid reimbursements, her company could not survive.
Yet, she continued to provide services to her patients. She is a saint. But she was about to be an unemployed, financially-ruined saint, whose sainthood could not continue.
On December 10, 2015, we filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction in the Northern District of Indiana requesting that the Court enjoin the Indiana Medicaid agency (“FSSA”) from terminating Dr. B from the Medicaid program and from continuing to suspend the money owed to her for the past two year period that she had been subject to prepayment review.
Senior counsel, Josh Urquhart, from our Denver office, and I attended and argued on behalf of Dr. B in a 5-day trial from January 19-25, 2016.
On April 14, 2016, in a 63-page opinion, our preliminary injunction enjoining Indiana from terminating Dr. B from Medicaid was GRANTED. Dr. B is back in the Medicaid program!!!!!
The rocking horse poo is rampant!
This is not just a win for Dr. B. This is a win for all her Medicaid patients, as well. Two mothers with children-patients of Dr. B testified as to the fact that their children rely heavily on Dr. B. Both testified that without Dr. B their children would be irreparably harmed.
When Dr. B informed her former attorneys that she was hiring me, an attorney from North Carolina, those attorneys told Dr. B that “anyone who tells that they can get a federal preliminary injunction is blowing smoke up your ass.” [Pardon the cuss word – their words, not mine]. To which I would like to say, “[insert raspberry], here’s your smoke!”
A preliminary injunction is an extraordinary and drastic remedy, which is why it is rare. However, rare objects exist. The plaintiff must show the court that he/she has a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits, no adequate remedy at law, and irreparable harm absent the injunction. I felt that we had these criteria covered in Dr. B’s case.
The Court agreed with our contention that FSSA’s without cause termination violates her patients’ freedom to choose their provider. This is a big deal!
In our arguments to the Court, we relied heavily on Planned Parenthood of Indiana. We argued that Indiana’s without cause termination was merely a “business decision” and was not germane to Dr. B’s qualifications. As her qualifications remained intact, to disallow Dr. B from providing medically necessary services violates the patients’ freedom to choose their providers.
The Court held that FSSA “must rescind its without cause termination of Dr. B and reinstate her Medicaid provider agreement until this Court reaches a final decision.”
Even rocking horses poo every now and then.
How is it already the second month of 2016? My how the time flies. As you can see below, I have started 2016 with my “best foot forward.”
Here’s the story (and why it’s been so long since I’ve blogged):
Santa Claus, whom I love, brought our 10-year-old daughter a zip line for Christmas. (She’s wanted one forever). My wonderful, exceedingly brilliant husband Scott miscalculated the amount of brakes needed for an adult of my weight for a 300-foot zip line. The brakes stopped, albeit suddenly, but adequately, for our 10-year-old.
However, for me…well…I went a bit faster than my 45-pound daughter. The two spring brakes were not adequate to stop my zip line experience and my out-thrown feet broke my crash…into the tree. (It was a miscalculation of basic physics).
On the bright side, apparently, my right leg is longer than my left, so only my right foot was injured. Or my right foot is overly dominate than my left, which could also be the case.
Also, on the bright side, the zip line ride was AWESOME until the end.
On the down side, I tore the tendon on the bottom of my foot which, according to the ER doctor, is very difficult to tear. Embarrassingly, I had to undergo a psych evaluation because my ER doctor said that the only time he had seen someone tear that bottom tendon on their foot was by jumping off a building. So I have that going for me. I informed him that one could tear such tendon by going on zip line with inadequate brakes. (I passed the psych evaluation, BTW).
Then, while on crutches, I had a 5-day, federal trial in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the week of Martin Luther King, Jr., Tuesday through the next Monday. Thankfully, the judge did not make me stand to conduct direct and cross examinations.
But, up there, in the beautiful State of Indiana, I thought of my next blog (and lamented that I had not blogged in so long…still on crutches; I had not graduated to the gorgeous boot you saw in the picture above).
As I was up in Indiana, I thought, what if someone at the State Medicaid agency doesn’t like you, personally, and terminates your Medicaid contract “without cause?” Or refuses to contract with you? Or refuses to renew your contract?
Maybe you wouldn’t find it important whether your termination is “for cause” or “without cause,” but, in Indiana, and a lot of other states, if your termination is for “without cause,” you have no substantive appeal right, only a procedural appeal right. As in, if you are terminated “without cause,” the government never has to explain the reason for termination to you or a judge. If the government gave you the legally, proper amount of notice, the government can simply say, “I just do not want to do business with you.”
Many jurisdictions have opined that a Medicaid provider has a property right to their Medicaid contract. A health care provider does not have a property right to a Medicaid contract, but, once the state has approved that provider as a Medicaid provider, that provider has a reasonable expectation to continue to provide services to the Medicaid population. While we all know that providing services to the Medicaid population is not going to make you Richy Rich, in some jurisdictions, accepting Medicaid is necessary to stay solvent (despite the awful reimbursement rates).
Here in NC, our Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) have held a property right in maintaining a Medicaid contract once issued and relied upon, which, BTW, is the correct determination, in my opinion. Other jurisdictions concur with our NC ALJs, including the 7th Circuit.
Many times, when a provider is terminated (or not re-credentialed) “without cause,” there is an underlying and hidden cause, which makes a difference on the appeal of such purported “without cause” termination.
Because as I stated above, a “without cause” termination may not allow a substantive appeal, only procedural. In normal-day-speak, for a “without cause,” you cannot argue that the termination or refusal to credential isn’t “fair” or is based on an incorrect assumption that there is a quality of care concern that really does not exist. You can only argue that the agency did not provide the proper procedure, i.e., you didn’t get 60 days notice. Juxtapose, a “for cause” termination, you can argue that the basis for which the termination relies is incorrect, i.e., you are accusing me that my staff member is not credentialed, but you are wrong; she/he is actually credentialed.
So, what do you do if you are terminated “without cause?” What do you do if you are terminated “for cause?”
For both scenarios, you need an injunction.
But how do you prove your case for an injunction?
Proving you need an injunction entails you proving to a judge that: (a) likelihood of success on the merits; (b) irreparable harm; (c) balance of equities; and (d) impact on the community.
The hardest prongs to meet are the first two. Usually, in my experience, irreparable harm is the hardest prong to meet. Most clients, if they are willing to hire my team and me, can prove likelihood of success. Think about it, if a client knows he/she has horrible documentation, he/she will not spring for an expensive attorney to defend themselves against a termination.
Irreparable harm, however, is difficult to demonstrate and the circumstances surrounding proving irreparable harm creates quite a quandary.
Irreparable, according to case law, cannot only be monetary damages. If you are just out of money and your company is in financial distress, it will not equate to irreparable harm.
Irreparable harm differs slightly from state to state.
Although, most jurisdictions agree that irreparable harm does equate to an imminent threat of your business closing, terminating staff, loss of goodwill, harm to reputation, patients not receiving medically necessary services, unfathamable emotional distress, the weights of loans and credit, understanding that you’ve depleting all savings and checkings, and understanding that you’ve exhausted all possible assets or loans.
The Catch-22 of it all is by the time you meet the prongs of irreparable harm, generally, you do not have the cash to hire an attorney. I suggest to all Medicare and Medicaid health care providers that you need to maintain an emergency fund account for unforeseen situations, such as audits, suspensions, terminations, etc. Put aside money every week, as much as you can. Hope that you never need to use it.
But you will be covered, just in case.
As if South Carolina didn’t have enough issues with the recent flooding, let’s throw in some allegations of Medicaid fraud against the health care providers. I’m imagining a provider under water, trying to defend themselves against fraud allegations, while treading water. It’s not a pretty picture.
Flash floods happen fast, as those in SC can attest.
So, too, do the consequences of allegations.
Shakespeare is no stranger to false accusations. In Othello, Othello is convinced that his wife is unfaithful, yet she was virtuous. In Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio believes Hero to be unfaithful and slanders her until her death. Interestingly, neither Othello and Claudio came to their respective opinions on their own. Both had a persuader. Both had a tempter. Both had someone else whisper the allegations of unfaithfulness in their ears and both chose to believe the accusation with no independent investigation. So too are accusations of Medicaid/care fraud so easily accepted without independent investigation.
With the inception of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), We have seen a sharp uptick on accusations of credible allegations of fraud. See blog for the definition of credible allegation of fraud.
The threshold for credible allegation of fraud incredibly low. A mere accusation from a disgruntled employee, a mere indicia of credibility, and/or even a computer data mining program can incite an allegation of fraud. Hero was, most likely, committing Medicare/acid fraud too.
The consequences of being accused of fraud is catastrophic for a health care provider regardless whether the accusation is accurate. You are guilty before proving your innocence! Your reimbursements are immediately suspended! Your entire livelihood is immediately crumbled! You are forced to terminate staff! Assets can be seized, preventing you even the ability to hire an attorney to defend yourself!
I have seen providers be accused of credible allegations of fraud and the devastation that follows. In New Mexico. In North Carolina. See documentary. Many NC providers serve SC’s population as well. The Medicaid reimbursement rates are higher in SC.
Obviously, The ACA is nationwide, federal law. Hence, the increase in allegations/accusations of health care fraud is nationwide.
Recently, South Carolina health care providers have been on the chopping block. Othello and Claudio are in the house of Gamecocks!
South Carolina’s single state agency, DHHS, required Medicaid recipients to get a 2nd prior approval before receiving health care services for “rehabilitative behavioral health” services, such as behavioral health care services for substance abuse and mental illness (could you imagine the burden if this were required here in NC?).
Then, last year, SC DHHS eliminated such 2nd prior approval requirement.
With fewer regulations and red tape in which to maneuver, SC saw a drastic uptick of behavioral health care services. Othello and Claudio said, “Fraud! More services with only one prior approval must be prima fracie fraud!”
Hence, behavioral health care providers in SC are getting investigated. But, mind you, during investigations reimbursements are suspended. You say, “Well, Knicole, how will these health care provider agencies afford to defend themselves without getting paid?” “Good question,” I say. “They cannot unless they have a stack of cash on hand for this exact reason.”
“What should these providers do?” You ask.
Hire an attorney and seek an injunction lifting the suspension of payments during the investigation.
Turn a Shakespearean tragedy into a comedy! Toss in a dingy!
Judges have lifted the suspensions. Read the case excerpt below:
As you can read in the above-referenced case, despite 42 455.23(a) mandating a suspension of payments upon credible allegations of fraud, this Judge found that the state failed to carefully weigh the evidence before suspending all payments.
There are legal remedies!!
What is the legal process?
How long does it take?
How much does it cost?
What is the likelihood of success?
If I win, what will happen?
These are probably the most FAQ by providers who have either been placed on prepayment review or been through prepayment review, only to have their Medicaid contracts terminated at the end of six months.
First, what is prepayment review?
If you are an old hat to this blog, then skip this section. Most likely, you already know what the dreaded term “prepayment review” means. If you are a newbie, prepayment review is a status. A bad status. A status created by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). In essence, prepayment review means that, for 6 months, you must have all claims evaluated by a third-party prior to being paid. You can render medically necessary services (for which you obtained prior authorization) and the third-party could decide that you do not deserve to be reimbursed. You can go 6 months without reimbursement, but provide services and pay your staff, then have your Medicaid contract terminated erroneously and because of the subjective and incorrect opinion of the third-party contractor.
However, this blog is about the legal process of fighting your Medicaid contract termination, not the absurdity of the prepayment review process.
The legal process:
You determine that (a) you are wrongfully withheld Medicaid reimbursements while on prepayment review; or (b) your Medicaid contract has been terminated based on an erroneous prepayment review.
1. You hire counsel. (It does not have to be me. Just a knowledgeable Medicaid attorney).
2. The attorney files a Motion to Stay, Temporary Restraining Order, and Preliminary Injunction (TRO) against DHHS, DMA. The third-party auditor that conducted the prepayment review does not need to be named because the auditor is considered to be an agent of the state. In fact, whenever I have filed a TRO, DMA automatically brings a witness from the third-party auditor. If DMA did not, DMA would not be able to dispute my contention that the prepayment review was conducted erroneously.
3. NC Civil Rule of Procedure, Rule 65 governs injunctions (A TRO is legally considered an injunction. The difference is between a court of equity and a court of law).
4. Usually within 7-10 days, (barring some unforeseen hurdle) the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) will either grant or deny the TRO.
It is important to note that not all ALJ’s procedural postures for TROs are identical. One ALJ may grant the TRO with no legal arguments heard from opposing counsel and schedule the Preliminary Injunction hearing in the near future. Another ALJ may require telephonic legal arguments prior to granting the TRO. Yet another ALJ may require legal arguments in person at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH).
5. Once the TRO is granted, status quo governs. In other words, the TRO allows you to have your Medicaid contract, service Medicaid recipients, and get reimbursed…just as if the prepayment review had never happened.
6. A TRO is VERY temporary. For the most part, if executed strictly according to Rule 65, a TRO is granted without hearing from the other side. Therefore, a preliminary injunction hearing must be scheduled as soon as possible. The ALJ does not want to burden an unheard party’s rights for too long without hearing that unheard party’s side.
7. Within a month or so after the grant of the TRO, a preliminary injunction hearing is scheduled. (This is normally conducted in one, full-day hearing…sometimes shorter if you have one particular Judge, because he or she has such a clear understanding of the facts).
8. At the preliminary injunction hearing, you must show: (1) likelihood of success on the merits; and (2) irreparable harm. Which means, in the vernacular, (1) that the prepayment review was conducted incorrectly (or your Medicaid reimbursements are being wrongly withheld); and (2) if the termination of your Medicaid contract is not stopped, then you would suffer great consequences.
9. If the ALJ grants the preliminary injunction, then that grant of relief maintains status quo until the full-blown hearing.
10. The full-blown hearing will be held, generally, over 6 months in the future. Which means that you will be able to render medically necessary services for Medicaid recipients and be reimbursed for services rendered until the final adjudication of the lawsuit.
Basically, once the TRO is filed, you could be “back to normal” or status quo within 7-10 days. That does not mean that the legal battle is over. In fact, once the TRO is granted and you are back to normal, the legal battle just begins. The legal battle can be a long, stressful and drawn-out process. But, at least, you are able to render medically necessary services and receive reimbursement.
As to cost, the legal process is expensive. Obviously, cost depends on the attorney that you hire, that hired attorney’s billable rate, and that hired attorney’s legal knowledge of Medicaid. Be sure to ask many questions prior to engaging any attorney. Anybody would hate to get an unexpectedly high bill.
Also, check with your liability insurance to determine whether your liability insurance will cover attorneys’ legal fees. Many times your liability insurance will cover regulatory audits.
Also, NCGS 6-19.1 allows a party defending against an agency decision to petition the court for attorneys fees within 30 days of final disposition of the case. Therefore, there is a possibility to have your attorneys’ fees reimbursed, but not until the very, very end of your case. You would be responsible for fronting the attorneys’ fees with a chance of not recovering your attorneys’ fees at the back-end.
As to likelihood of success, obviously, it depends on your particular facts. Was the third-party auditor really actually wrong in its audit denials? Does your documentation actually meet compliance requirements. Remember, just because the auditor believes that your documents are not compliant, does not mean your documents are actually noncompliant. But likelihood of success rests primarily in your facts/documents. Your attorney should be able to be more specific.
At a preliminary injunction hearing today, I realized that NC Division of Medical Assistance (DMA), like the Titanic, has difficulty changing its course.
It is my contention (and, I argue, the 4th Circuit’s position, as well) that a Managed Care Organization (MCO) does not have the authority, without DMA’s express authorization, to terminate, suspend or refuse to contract with any provider. PERIOD. I don’t care if the provider has phantom clients and is billing Medicaid 34/hr/day. (People, I am obviously against Medicaid fraud. I am trying to make a point).
An MCO cannot, without express authorization from DMA, terminate, suspend, or refuse to contract with any provider.
Why do I think this? (besides the fact that this is a better position for my clients). And why do I think DMA is Titanic-like?
On or about May 10, 2013, the 4th Circuit published K.C. v. Shipman (“Shipman”). The second sentence of Shipman says it all, “PBH [the MCO at-issue in this particular case], a local subdivision of the state that manages the delivery of plaintiffs’ Medicaid services pursuant to a contract with NCDHHS.” Hmmmm…too legalese-like?
FYI: NCDHHS = NC Dept. of Health and Human Services (DHHS), which is the state agency that manages DMA, which is the division that manages Medicaid. For a complete list of DHHS’ divisions, click here.
Shipman goes on to say, “states should enjoy both an administrative benefit (the ability to designate a single state agency to make final decisions in the interest of efficiency) but also a corresponding burden (an accountability regime in which an agency cannot evade federal requirements by deferring to the actions of other entities).” (emphasis added). Accountability, People!!! That’s what I am talking about!
In other words, DMA, as the single state entity, cannot contract with a third-party and NOT carry the burden of supervising that third-party and insuring that the third-party follows federal law. Or even simpler, the single state entity cannot contract out of (or divorce itself from) federal laws and hide behind a contract. Or even simpler, a teacher at a school cannot suspend a student without the authorization of the principal/school.
Yet, despite Shipman, MCOs are still contending that, “DMA cannot tell us what to do.”
Yet, despite Shipman, MCOs are still terminating, suspending and refusing to contract with providers without the express authority of DMA.
Yet, despite Shipman, TODAY, in my preliminary injunction hearing (the transcript of which will be a public record), the MCO’s attorney argued that (per case law from 1941) the MCO is an independent contractor (hence DMA having no control over the MCO). The DMA attorney piggy-backed the MCO argument and pointed out that DMA had taken no action in this case (i.e., the provider’s Medicaid contract was NOT terminated according to DMA). In other words, the teacher tried to expel a student from school without the school/principal authorizing the expulsion…or even backing it up.
It is as if Shipman came out May 10, 2013, and, here on now May 28, DMA (or its agents the MCOs) is struggling to change its course. But, like the Titanic, DMA is too big, too heavy and too dinosaur-ish to move quickly adapt or change to comply with new federal law (although, even prior to Shipman, I argued it is absolutely obvious that an MCO is the agent of the state…it’s just nice to have some “auth-or-i-TIE” to back my argument).
At the moment that someone yelled, “Iceberg,” what did the Titanic do?
1. Some say the officer in charge had a 30 second delay in giving the order to change the ship’s course after the spotting of the iceberg. Apparently, he was dumbfounded for 30 seconds. Can’t say I blame him. Pretty scary stuff! But, some say, that 30 second delay sunk the Titanic.
2. Some say when the iceberg was spotted, the steersman, Robert Hitchins, went into a panic and turned the Titanic the wrong way. Remember, the Titanic was launched back when sailors were more used to sailing ships. They learned on “Tiller Orders.” If you want to go one way, you push the tiller the other way. So it is not surprising that, in a panic, Hitchins would have resorted to Tillers Orders.
3. Some say the Titanic sank because it was the largest ship afloat. The Titanic was only the second of three Olympic class ocean liners operated by White Star Line. It carried 2,224 passengers. Because of the Titanic’s massive size, the hull plates buckled inward along her starboard side and opened 5 of 16 watertight compartments to the sea.
4. Some say (this has nothing to do with sinking, but with loss of life), the Titanic lacked enough lifeboats. The Titanic had enough lifeboats for 1,178 people, slightly more than 1/2 of the passengers. Supposedly, the reason the Titanic had insufficient lifeboats was because of outdated maritime safety regulations.
Similarly, DMA, like the Titanic, has made some “sink-able” errors, but with administration committed to change, let’s hope we can correct the “sink-able” errors before the Medicaid behavioral health system sinks. Because, instead of 2,224 passengers, Medicaid carries 1.5 million passengers.
Let’s review the Titanic-like errors of DMA. For the sake of this blog, the “Iceberg!” moment was the publication of K.C. v. Shipman.
1. K.C. v. Shipman was published May 10, 2013. It is now May 28, and DMA and the MCOs are still arguing in court that MCOs are not agents of DMA. An 18 day delay is a bit more than a 30 second delay, but the similarity is there nonetheless.
2. A panicked turn the wrong way…Shipman came out and legal advocates for DMA and the MCOs instantly begin to argue, “Yeah, but…” Yeah, but Shipman does not apply to providers…Yeah, but Shipman only applies to managed care, not fee-for-services…Yeah, but just because PBH is an agent of the state, it does not mean that all MCOS are agents. Folks, an agent is an agent is an agent. A panicked turn the wrong way is merely a way of denial (and I am not talking about the river De-Nile). And, some say, the panicked turn the wrong way sunk the Titanic.
3. Largest ship afloat; large bureaucratic agency. I do not have the data, but I am willing to bet that DHHS/DMA is one of the biggest NC governmental agencies. In January, the State Auditor released a Medicaid audit. According to the January audit, “[i]n SFY 2011, North Carolina Medicaid incurred administrative expenses of approximately $648.8 million which when compared to MAP spending of $10.3 billion produced an ADM/MAP percentage of 6.3 percent. This percentage was significantly greater than the ratio for states with comparable spending.” With that much spending on administration, the agency can’t be small! Like the Titanic, big things are hard to maneuver or change course. The hull plates begin to buckle. Imagine an elephant going through an obstacle course at top speed…it just isn’t pretty.
4. Like too few lifeboats, Medicaid’s mental health system has too few providers and too many wanting for a seat on the lifeboat. Not to mention, the MCOs seem to have taken it upon themselves to insure there are too few providers by terminating Medicaid contracts, suspending Medicaid contracts and refusing to enroll providers. Today, my client informed me (and, folks, this is not verified; it is hearsay) that during the time in which this provider’s certain Medicaid contracts were terminated by this one MCO, that this one MCO also terminated 27 other providers’ Medicaid contracts. It’s as if, prior to setting sail, a person brought the captain an extra few thousand lifeboats, and, instead of putting the lifeboats on the ship, the captain said, “No thanks. We don’t have room.” But as to Medicaid behavioral health, we have too many in need and not enough providers providing services. (Again, this does not go to the reason of the sink-age (I know that is not a word) of the Titanic, but rather to the number of deaths/recipients not receiving medically necessary mental health services.
In sum, today I decided that DMA is like the Titanic. So big that both were/are very difficult to change its course. Since Shipman, DMA has had an 18 day delay digesting the decision (and counting). Since Shipman, DMA has panicked and turned the wrong way. Since Shipman, DMA has shown it is just too big to move quickly (and it’s hulls may be buckling). Since Shipman, DMA has proven too little providers and too many Medicaid recipients in-need is not a healthy combination.
Remember the saying, “[T]hose that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it?”
People, the Titanic sank!