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Medicaid Closed Networks: Can Waivers Waive Your Legal Rights?

Sorry for the lapse in blogging. I took off for Thanksgiving and then got sick. I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving!!

While I was sick, I thought about all the health care providers that have been put out of business because the managed care organization (MCO) in their area terminated their Medicaid contract or refused to contract with them. I thought about how upset I would be if I could not see my doctor, whom I have seen for years. See blog for “You Do Have Rights!

Then I thought about…Can a Waiver waive a legal right?

Federal law mandates that Medicaid recipients be able to choose their providers of choice. Court have also held that this “freedom of choice” of provider is a right, not a privilege.

42 U.S.C. § 1396a states that Medicaid recipients may obtain medical services from “any institution, agency, community pharmacy, or person, qualified to perform the service or services required… who undertakes to provide him such services….” Id. at (a)(23).

So how can these MCOs restrict access?

First, we need to discuss the difference between a right and a privilege.

For example, driving is a privilege, not a right. You have no right to a driver’s license, which is why you can lose your license for things, such as multiple DUIs. Plus, you cannot receive a driver’s license unless you pass a test, because a license is not a right.

Conversely, you have the right to free speech and the right to vote. Meaning, the government cannot infringe on your rights to speak and vote unless there are extraordinary circumstances. For example, the First Amendment does not protect obscenity, child pornography, true threats, fighting words, incitement to imminent lawless action (yelling “fire” in a crowded theater), criminal solicitation or defamation. Your right to vote will be rescinded if you are convicted of a felony. Furthermore, you do not need to take a test or qualify for the rights of free speech and voting.

Likewise, your choice of health care provider is a right. It can only be usurped in extraordinary circumstances. You do not need to take a test or qualify for the right. (Ok, I am going to stop underlining “right” and “privilege” now. You get the point).

Then how are MCOs operating closed networks? For that matter, how can Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) terminate a provider’s contract? Wouldn’t both those actions limit your right to choose your provider?

The answer is yes.

And the answer is simple for BCBS. As for BCBS, it is a private company and does not have to follow all the intricate regulations for Medicare/caid. 42 U.S.C.  § 1396a is inapplicable to it.

But Medicaid recipients have the right to choose their provider.  This “freedom of choice” provision has been interpreted by both the Supreme Court and the Seventh Circuit as giving Medicaid recipients the right to choose among a range of qualified providers, without government interference (or its agents thereof).

What does this mean? How can a managed care organization (MCO) here in NC maintain a closed network of providers without violating the freedom of choice of provider rule?

The “Stepford” answer is that we have our Waivers in NC, which have waived the freedom of choice. In our 1915 b/c Waiver, there are a couple pages that enumerates certain statutes. We “x” out the statutes that we were requesting to waive.

It looks like this:

waiver1

Furthermore, federal law carves out an exception to freedom to choose right when it comes to managed care. But to what extent? It the federal carve unconstitutional?

But…the question is twofold:

  • Would our Waiver stand up to federal court scrutiny?
  • Can our state government waive your rights? (I couldn’t help it).

Let’s think of this in the context of the freedom of speech. Could NC request from the federal government a waiver of our right to free speech? It sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? What is the difference between your right to free speech and your right to choose a provider? Is one right more important than the other?

The answer is that no one has legally challenged our Waiver’s waiver of the right to freedom of provider with a federal lawsuit claiming a violation of a constitutionally protected right. It could be successful. If so, in my opinion, two legal theories should be used.

  1. A § 1983 action; and/or
  2. A challenge under 42 CFR 431.55(f)

Section 1983 creates a federal remedy against anyone who deprives “any citizen of the United States… of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” under the color of state law. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Supreme Court has explained that § 1983 should be read to generally “authorize[] suits to enforce individual rights under federal statutes as well as the Constitution.” City of Rancho Palos Verdes, Cal. v. Abrams, 544 U.S. 113, 119 (2005).

Section 1983 does not authorize a federal remedy against state interference with all government entitlements, however; “it is rights, not the broader or vaguer ‘benefits’ or ‘interests,’ that may be enforced under the authority of that section.” Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 283 (2002). But the courts have already held that the freedom to choose your provider is a right.

In 2012, the Seventh Circuit confirmed that § 1983 authorizes Medicaid recipients to sue to enforce the right to freely choose among qualified health providers.

In Planned Parenthood, the court was confronted with an Indiana state law prohibiting state agencies from providing state or federal funds to any entity that performs abortions or maintains or operates a facility in which abortions are performed – regardless of whether there is any nexus between those funds and the abortion services. See Planned Parenthood, 699 F.3d at 967 (7th Cir. 2012). In other words, the law effectively prohibited entities that perform abortions from receiving any state or federal funds for any (non-abortion) purpose.

The Court found that the restrictions violated the Medicaid recipients’ right to freedom of choice of provider.

There are, as always, more than one way to skin a cat. You could also attack the Waiver’s waiver of the freedom to choose your health care provider by saying the NC is violating 42 CFR 431.55.

Notice the last sentence in subsection (d) in the picture above. In our Waiver, NC promises to abide by 42 CFR 431.55(f), which states:

(f) Restriction of freedom of choice—
(1) Waiver of appropriate requirements of section 1902 of the Act may be authorized for States to restrict beneficiaries to obtaining services from (or through) qualified providers or practitioners that meet, accept, and comply with the State reimbursement, quality and utilization standards specified in the State’s waiver request.
(2) An agency may qualify for a waiver under this paragraph (f) only if its applicable State standards are consistent with access, quality and efficient and economic provision of covered care and services and the restrictions it imposes—
(i) Do not apply to beneficiaries residing at a long-term care facility when a restriction is imposed unless the State arranges for reasonable and adequate beneficiary transfer.
(ii) Do not discriminate among classes of providers on grounds unrelated to their demonstrated effectiveness and efficiency in providing those services; and
(iii) Do not apply in emergency circumstances.
(3) Demonstrated effectiveness and efficiency refers to reducing costs or slowing the rate of cost increase and maximizing outputs or outcomes per unit of cost.
(4) The agency must make payments to providers furnishing services under a freedom of choice waiver under this paragraph (f) in accordance with the timely claims payment standards specified in § 447.45 of this chapter for health care practitioners participating in the Medicaid program.

Basically, to argue a violation of 42 CFR 431.55, you would have to demonstrate that NC violated or is violating the above regulation by not providing services “consistent with access, quality and efficient and economic provision of covered care and services.”

So, while it is true that NC has requested and received permission from the Center of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to restrict access to providers, that fact may not be constitutional.

Someone just needs to challenge the Waiver’s waiver.

Judge Orders State’s Termination of Provider’s Medicaid Contract To Be REVERSED, Despite the Unilateral Termination!!

THE CASES LISTED BELOW ARE ILLUSTRATIVE OF THE MATTERS HANDLED BY THE FIRM. CASE RESULTS DEPEND UPON A VARIETY OF FACTORS UNIQUE TO EACH CASE. NOT ALL CASE RESULTS ARE PROVIDED. CASE RESULTS DO NOT GUARANTEE OR PREDICT A SIMILAR RESULT IN ANY FUTURE CASE UNDERTAKEN BY THE LAWYER.

[The names and services involved have been changed to protect the innocent. Lawyers have so many rules to follow…probably due to litigation].

Imagine that the State of North Carolina knocks on your office door and informs you that you are no longer allowed to accept Medicaid and/or Medicare reimbursement rates. That for whatever reason, you are no longer allowed to bill for Medicaid and/or Medicare services. You would expect a reason, right? You would expect the reason to be correct, right?

But what if the reason is invalid?

A North Carolina administrative judge recently held that the State’s reason for terminating a Medicaid provider’s contract must be accurate, and REVERSED the State’s decision to terminate its Medicaid contract with my client.  Here’s the story:

The State terminated my client’s contract to provide chiropractic services.

In this case it was a bit of a duress contract (as are most Medicaid contracts) – a “take or leave it” offer to the local service provider.  If you are a provider and want to continue to serve Medicaid recipients, you have no choice but to sign whatever contract the State gives you. You cannot negotiate. You’d be told to sign the contract “as is,” or you do not provide services. I know of a provider who, before he signed a contract with the State, crossed out a number of clauses. The State just sent him a clean, un-altered contract, same as the original, and told him sign it, no changes allowed.

Going back to my case…

My client is a provider that provides chiropractic services. In this case, the State inaccurately claimed that my client provided services without a proper license.

Upon the State’s termination of my client’s contract for chiropractic services, we filed a petition to the Office of Administrative Hearings in 2013 and asked the administrative law judge for a temporary restraining order, a motion to stay the termination, and a Preliminary Injunction to enjoin the State from terminating my client’s Medicaid provider contract.

The administrative law judge (ALJ) issued the temporary restraining order in May 2013. According to judge, we demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits and that any failure to award the injunction would cause irreparable harm.

Obtaining an injunction, however, was not a complete victory. We had won an opening battle, but not the war.

A temporary injunction is exactly that…temporary. We had two additional hurdles to overcome: (1) a hearing at which we would have to prove to the judge that we were likely to succeed and the irreparable harm would be so irreparable that the judge should award us a longer injunction, at least until we could have a full hearing on the merits; and (2) a final hearing on the merits.

We received the Final Decision from the ALJ last week. The judge found that my client performed its contractual and legal obligations and that the State acted erroneously in determining that my client had breached its contract. The judge found the weight of the evidence sufficient to prove that my client provided services with a proper license.

If you think a 2 year injunction is pretty long, from May 2013 to now, you are right.

But think about this…from May 2013, through today and into the foreseeable future, as long as the contract is in effect, my client has been and will be able to provide medically necessary chiropractic services to those in need and receive reimbursements for those medically necessary services. This case shows why it is important for providers to assert their rights when those are violated.

And it shows also that the State is not allowed to arbitrarily violate those provider rights.

NC Medicaid Providers, Are You Required to Seek an Informal Appeal Prior to Filing a Contested Case at OAH?

Recently, numerous clients have come to me asking whether they have the right to appeal straight to the Office of Administrative Appeals or whether they have to attend informal appeals first, whether the informal appeal is within a managed care organization (MCO), the Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) or any other entity contracted by DMA.

The answer is: No, you are not required to go through the informal review prior to filing a contested case at OAH, but, in some cases, the informal review is beneficial.

Let me explain.

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22-37 (Article 3) applies to:

“[A]ny dispute between an agency and another person that involves the person’s rights, duties, or privileges, including licensing or the levy of a monetary penalty, should be settled through informal procedures. In trying to reach a settlement through informal procedures, the agency may not conduct a proceeding at which sworn testimony is taken and witnesses may be cross-examined. If the agency and the other person do not agree to a resolution of the dispute through informal procedures, either the agency or the person may commence an administrative proceeding to determine the person’s rights, duties, or privileges, at which time the dispute becomes a “contested case.”

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22.

“Any dispute between an agency and another person”…Obviously DMA is a state agency, but is Public Consulting Group (PCG)?  Is the Carolinas Center for Medical Excellence (CCME)? East Carolina Behavioral Health?  HMS?

What if you disagree with a prepayment review result that CCME conducted?  DMA had nothing to do with the actual prepayment review.  Can you bring a contested case at OAH against CCME?

Yes.  But include DHHS, DMA as a named Respondent.  If you include the state agency that contracted with the entity, then jurisdiction is proper at OAH.  The argument being that the actions of a contracted entity is imputed to the principle (DMA).

“Should be settled through informal procedures…”  Notice it states “should,” not “must.”  Time and time again when a provider skips the informal review within the entity (for example, let’s say that MeckLINK terminates Provider Jane’s Medicaid contract and files a grievance with OAH instead of through MeckLINK first) the counsel for the entity (MeckLINK in this example) argues that OAH does not have jurisdiction because Jane failed to exhaust her administrative remedies.  As in, Jane should have appealed through MeckLINK first.

In my opinion, appealing to the very entity that is causing the grievance is futile.  The decision was made.  The entity is not going to rule against itself. 

Plus, there is no requirement for any petitioner to exhaust informal appeals prior to appealing to OAH.  When you receive a Tentative Notice of Overpayment from PCG, you can go to an informal review or you can appeal in OAH. 

The “failing to exhaust administrative remedies” argument is being misapplied by the entities.  In order to file judicial review in Superior Court or a declaratory judgment action in Superior Court, you must exhaust all administrative remedies prior to seeking relief in Superior Court.  But the requirement to exhaust administrative remedies is not applicable to filing at OAH.

The upshot is that any person aggrieved may bring a contested case in OAH without attending an informal appeal first.

However, there are some occasions that, in my opinion, the informal appeal is useful.  Such as an overpayment found by PCG.  If you receive a Tentative Notice of Overpayment by PCG, the informal reconsideration review at DMA can be helpful for a number of reasons.

1.  It forces you to review the audited documents with a fine tooth comb prior to getting in front of a judge.

2. It allows you to find all PCG’s mistakes, and there will be mistakes, and bring those mistakes to the attention of the auditor.

3.  It gives you a chance to decrease the alleged amount owed before a contested case.

Keeping those positive aspects in mind, most likely, the reconsideration review will NOT resolve the case.  Although it has happened occasionally, more times than not, you will not agree with the reduced amount the DHHS hearing officer decides.  The alleged overpayment will still be extrapolated. The alleged overpayment will still be ridiculous.

Other than an overpayment, I have found very little use for the informal appeals.