“Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law this week a bill (SB41) that ensures service providers accused of overbilling or defrauding Medicaid can review and respond to allegations of wrongdoing before state action is taken.” – Tripp Jennings, New Mexico In Depth.
For those of you who don’t know, in 2013, the State of New Mexico, suspended the Medicaid reimbursements of 15 behavioral health care providers based on “credible allegations of fraud.” 42 CFR 455.23. The Attorney General eventually determined that no fraud existed as to ANY of the 15 behavioral health care providers. These providers constituted 87.5% of the behavioral health care providers in New Mexico, which is predominantly Medicaid and has the highest suicide rate of any state, if you consider the Native American population.
There was no due process. The providers were informed of the immediate Medicaid suspension in a group meeting without ever being told what exactly the “fraud” was that they allegedly committed. They were informed by, then assistant Attorney General, Larry Hyeck, that fraud existed and because of the ongoing investigation nothing could be divulged to those accused. Supposedly, the evidence for such “fraud” was based on an independent audit performed by Public Consulting Group (PCG). However, according to testimony from an employee of PCG at the administrative hearing of The Counseling Center (one of the 15 accused behavioral health care providers), PCG was not allowed by the Human Services Department of NM (HSD) to complete its audit. According to this employee’s testimony, it is PCG’s common practice to return to the providers which are the subject of the audit a 2nd or even 3rd time to ensure that all the relevant documents were collected and reviewed. Human error and the sheer amount of medical records involved in behavioral health care suggest that a piece of paper or two can be overlooked, especially because this audit occurred in 2013, before most of the providers had adopted electronic medical record systems. Add in the fact that PCG’s scanners were less than stellar and that the former Governor Susan Martinez, Optum’s CEO, and the HSD Secretary -at the time- had already vetted 5 Arizona companies to overtake the 15 NM behavioral health care companies – even prior to PCG’s determination – and the sum equals a pre-determined accusation of fraud. PCG’s initial report stated that no credible allegations of fraud existed. However, PCG was instructed to remove that sentence.
Almost all the providers were forced out of business. The staff were terminated or told to be employed by the new 5 AZ companies. The Medicaid recipients lost their mental health services. One company remained in business because they paid the State for fraud that they never committed. Another company held on by a very thin thread because of its developmental disability services. But the former-CEO became taxed and stepped down and many more left or were let go. The 13 other providers were financially ruined, including the largest behavioral health care provider in NM, which serviced over 700 Medicaid recipients and employed hundreds of clinical staff. It had been servicing NM’s poor and those in need of mental health services for over 30 years. Another company had been in business over 40 years (with the same CEO). The careers and live’s work were crumbled in one day and by one accusation that was eventually proven to be wrong.
No one ever foresaw this amount of abuse of discretion to occur by government agents.
Now, today, in 2019, the new Governor of NM, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, signed a law introduced by Senator Mary Kay Papen, a long proponent and advocate that the 15 behavioral health care providers were unjustly accused and forced out of business, that will protect Medicaid providers in NM from ever being subjected to the unjust and arbitrary suspension of Medicaid funds and unfounded allegations of Medicaid fraud.
Even though 42 C.F.R. 455.23 requires a state to suspend Medicaid funding upon “credible allegations of fraud,” NM has taken the first step toward instituting a safeguard for Medicaid providers. Already too few health care providers accept Medicaid – and who can blame them? The low reimbursement rates are nothing compared to the regulatory scrutiny that they undergo merely for accepting Medicaid.
NM SB41 contradicts the harsh language of 42 CFR 455.23, which mandates that a State “must” suspend payments upon a credible allegation of fraud. NM SB41 provides due process for Medicaid providers accused of fraud. Which begs the question – why hasn’t anyone brought a declaratory action to determine that 42 CFR 455.23 violates due process, which happens to be a constitutional right?
Part of the due process enacted by New Mexico is that a suspension of Medicaid reimbursements should be released upon a post of a surety bond and that the posting of a surety bond shall be deemed good cause to not suspend payments during the investigation. Although the new law also states that the Medicaid reimbursement suspension must be released within 10 days of the posting of the surety bond “in the amount of the suspended payment.” After 4 administrative hearings in New Mexico, I can assure you that the provider and HSD will have two disparate views of the “amount of the suspended payment.” And by disparate, I mean REALLY disparate.
Regardless, I view this new law as a giant leap in the direction of the Constitution, which was actually enacted in 1789. So is it apropos that 230 years later NM is forced to enact a law that upholds a legal right that was written and enacted into law 230 years ago?
Thank you, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Senator Papen, Patsy Romero, and Shawn Mathis for your amazing effort on getting this legislation passed.
And – look forward to my webcast on RACMonitor on Monday, April 8, 2019, detailing how courts across the country are revising their views and granting federal injunctions stopping premature recoupments when a Medicare/caid provider is accused of an overpayment. Due process is on a come-back.
Our old friends from Public Consulting Group (PCG) were found to have accepted improper Medicaid payments in New Jersey.
Those of you who have followed my blog will remember that PCG has been the “watchdog” and auditor of Medicaid claims in many, many states, including North Carolina, New Mexico, and New York. The story of PCG’s motus operandi is like an old re-run of Friends – it never seems to end. PCG audits health care provider records, usually about 150 claims, and determines an error rate based on a desk review by an employee who may or may not have the requisite experience in health care or regulatory compliance issues. The error rates are normally high, and PCG extrapolates the number across a universe of three years (generally). The result is an alleged overpayment of millions of dollars. Of course, it varies state to state, but PCG is paid on a contingency basis, usually 12 – 15%. See blog.
In a November 2017 Office of Inspector General (OIG) Report, OIG found that, in New Jersey, PCG, which was the contractor for New Jersey doctored records.
Isn’t that called fraud?
OIG found that New Jersey did not follow Federal regulations and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) guidance when it developed its payment rates for Medicaid school-based services and, as a result, claimed $300.5 million in unallowable costs. Among OIG’s findings, OIG determined that PCG improperly altered school employees’ responses to time studies to timestudies to indicate that their activities were directly related to providing Medicaid services when the responses indicated the activities were unrelated.
OIG recommended that New Jersey repay $300.5 million in federal Medicaid reimbursements. If you are a taxpayer in New Jersey,
you know that you are hanging Sec. Carole Johnson in effigy…at least, in your mind.
According to the New Jersey Medicaid website, PCG receives and processes billing agreements from newly Medicaid-enrolled LEAs, which is the acronym for “Local Education Agency.”
Here are PCG’s duties:
The New Jersey State Agency claims Federal Medicaid reimbursement for health services provided by schools under Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) through its Special Education Medicaid Initiative (SEMI). The State Department of Treasury (Treasury), the administrative manager for SEMI, hired PCG, on a contingency fee basis (shocker) to develop SEMI payment rates and submit claims on behalf of schools, which are overseen by the State Department of Education (DOE). Figure 1 (below) illustrates how New Jersey processes and claims Medicaid school-based services.
But notice the last bullet point in the list of PCG’s duties above. “provides ongoing Medicaid legal and regulatory compliance monitoring.” Of itself?
Only costs related to providing Medicaid-covered services may be included in payment rates for Medicaid services. But, remember, PCG is paid on contingency. See below.
So is it surprising that PCG raised the reimbursement rates? Why wouldn’t they? If you were paid on contingency, wouldn’t you determine the rates to be higher?
OIG’s report states that New Jersey, through a contractor (PCG), increased the payment rates retroactively to July 2003 from $552 to $1,451 for evaluation services and from $21 to $50 for rehabilitation services. This significant increase raised the question of whether the State was again using unallowable costs.
According to OIG, out of 1,575 responses from school employees, PCG recoded 235 employee responses in order to receive payment from Medicaid. Of those 235 recoded responses, OIG determined that 203 claims were incorrectly recoded by PCG. My math isn’t the best, but I am pretty sure that is approximately a 85% error rate. Shall we extrapolate?
Examples of improper activity code alterations included a social worker indicated that they were “scheduling students to see the [social worker].” Social worker coded this activity as “general administration” – correctly by the way. PCG altered the code to indicate that the employee was providing health care services in order to get paid for that time.
PCG incorporated learning disabilities teacher-consultant salaries in the evaluation rate. These salaries are unallowable because teacher-consultants provide special education services, not health-related services.
In a description of its rate-setting methodology, PCG stated that it excluded costs associated with learning disabilities teacher-consultants because they do not perform any medical services and are not medical providers as customarily recognized in the State’s Medicaid program. However, OIG found that PCG did not remove all learning disabilities teacher-consultant salaries when calculating payment rates
OIG calculated the amount of just that one issue – learning disabilities teacher-consultant salaries incorrectly incorporated – as more than $61 million. What’s 13% of $61 million (assuming that PCG’s contingency rate is 13%)? $7,930,000.
OIG recommended that New Jersey Medicaid:
- refund $300,452,930 in Federal Medicaid reimbursement claimed based on payment rates that incorporated unallowable costs,
- work with CMS to determine the allowable amount of the remaining $306,233,377 that we have set aside because the rates included unallowable costs that we cannot quantify, and
- revise its payment rates so they comply with Federal requirements.
PCG disagreed with OIG’s findings.
Another recommendation that OIG SHOULD have found – Get rid of PCG.
There’s no getting around it. Four years after Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration charged 15 behavioral health organizations with potentially defrauding the state’s Medicaid program, its case has experienced a slow-motion unraveling.
No Medicaid fraud was ever found. And those eye-popping estimates that added up to $36 million the organizations had overbilled Medicaid?
In the summer of 2017, the Human Services Department (HSD) is seeking drastically lower reimbursements for overbilling the public health insurance program for low-income residents, a review of public records and state court documents has found.
Now exonerated by the state Attorney General’s Office, many organizations are challenging even those much-lower estimates in administrative hearings or in state court.
Consider Teambuilders Counseling Services, one of the accused behavioral health providers.
Last fall it received a new estimate from the New Mexico Human Services Department. Previous numbers had varied from as high as $9.6 million to as low as $2 million. But the new figure deviated sharply from earlier calculations when Chester Boyett, an administrative law judge in the state agency’s Fair Hearings Bureau, ruled Teambuilders owed only $896.35.
Boyett argued his agency had built its $2 million estimate of Medicaid overbilling on faulty analysis, according to his 12-page decision.
Nancy Smith-Leslie, the department’s director of the Medical Assistance Division, ignored Boyett’s recommendation. In a Jan. 6 letter she said the agency’s analysis was sound, even though she seemed to confirm Boyett’s critique in a Nov. 2 memo in which she had noted the inaccuracy of the extrapolated amount. In that memo Teambuilders and its attorney had not “sufficiently disputed” the method of extrapolation, however, she wrote.
In her Jan. 6 letter, Smith-Leslie sought to clear up matters. She amended her previous statement, saying the extrapolation referred to in her Nov. 2 memo indeed was correct.
Teambuilders and its attorney, Knicole Emanuel, appealed HSD’s ruling over whether Teambuilders overbilled Medicaid and by how much to state court, where three other former behavioral health organizations are fighting HSD’s extrapolated overpayments.
Boyett’s finding that Teambuilders owed hundreds rather than millions of dollars — even if it was ignored — represents a compelling data point given where things stand with other providers.
And last September HSD closed the books on another organization — Las Cruces-based Families and Youth Inc. — without demanding any reimbursements for overbilling and releasing $1.4 million in Medicaid dollars the state had suspended. The action represented a reversal after a state-ordered 2013 audit that found $856,745 in potential Medicaid overbilling by FYI.
In fact, a review of state and court documents by New Mexico In Depth reveals a pattern regarding the state agency’s overbilling estimates: In many cases, they are moving targets, usually on a downward trajectory.
Like Southwest’s, some have dropped spectacularly. Setting aside Boyett’s figure of $896, even the $2 million HSD claims Teambuilders owes is far smaller than a high of $12 million.
Hogares Inc., another organization accused of fraud, watched last year as the state revised its overbilling estimates five times over six months, starting at $9.5 million in January and ending with $3.1 million in June, according to state court documents.
Meanwhile, Easter Seals El Mirador, initially accused of $850,000 in potential Medicaid overbilling, now stands accused of $127,000.
Emanuel and Bryan Davis, another attorney representing many of the formerly accused organizations, said the constantly changing estimates are due to HSD.
The state agency is examining a sampling of each organization’s Medicaid claims and asking the organizations for documentation to prove the government program was properly billed, they said.
“In most cases (the overbilling estimates) are dropping precipitously” as organizations submit the documents requested by HSD, Davis said.
To cite one example, HSD’s latest overbilling estimate for Counseling Associates, Inc. is $96,000, said Davis, who represents the organization. That compares to $3 million in potential overbilling a 2013 state-ordered audit found.
It is a perplexing situation, given that the Human Services Department found “‘credible allegations of fraud” against the 15 organizations using that 2013 audit, which was performed by Massachusetts-based Public Consulting Group Inc.
“They threw PCG’s audit in the trash,” Davis said of HSD, noting the cost. HSD agreed to pay PCG up to $3 million for the study in February 2013.
The current situation caused Davis to wonder “why PCG didn’t have these documents in the first place,” he said.
Emanuel offered a pointed answer.
“HSD did not allow PCG to gather all the documents,” she said.
A spokesperson for HSD did not respond multiple requests for comment for this story.
Repercussions of the Medicaid crackdown
The fight over Medicaid overbilling isn’t the only legacy left from the Medicaid crackdown, which happened the last week of June 2013.
The Martinez administration’s decision affected lives. Many lives if you listen to behavioral health advocates and officials in the 15 organizations.
Charging the organizations with fraud and then suspending Medicaid payments to many of them disrupted mental health and addiction services for tens of thousands of New Mexicans. It created chaos for employees. And four years on it has left a number of business failures in its wake, with many of the accused organizations unable to survive long-term without Medicaid dollars.
Teambuilders, which once operated 52 locations in 17 New Mexico counties, is no longer in business, according to Emanuel. Neither is Las Cruces-based Southwest Counseling Center. Or Hogares.
At the same time a gap in care has opened up after three of five Arizona companies the Martinez administration brought in to care for the vulnerable populations have departed the state, leaving New Mexico to pick up the pieces.
“It’s a mess. It’s disgusting,” said James Kerlin, executive director of The Counseling Center of Alamogordo, which no longer sees clients. Like Teambuilders, Hogares, Southwest Counseling and others, it was unable to stay in business without the flow of Medicaid dollars the state suspended. “I want the public to know where we’re at and what’s been done to us. I’m going to start making a lot of noise. This is ridiculous.”
Kerlin’s organization was the first of the 15 organizations exonerated by then Attorney General Gary King in early 2014. And it offered the earliest glimpse of the weaknesses in the Martinez administration’s case against the behavioral health providers.
First signs of weakness in the state’s case
HSD hired PCG to audit all 15 organizations and it found $655,000 in potential Medicaid overbilling by the Counseling Center.
PCG reached that conclusion after finding $1,873 in questionable Medicaid claims and then extrapolating from those claims that the center could have overbilled Medicaid by more than $600,000 based on the size of its Medicaid business over several years.
But during its fraud investigation the AG’s office flagged fewer Counseling Center claims than PCG and found a much lower cost of potential overbillings. It resolved some of the issues by reviewing records and interviewing staff.
In many cases, auditors give staff of audited organizations an opportunity to refute findings or address misunderstandings before finalizing their findings. For example, most state and local governmental agencies are audited annually in New Mexico. Staff within those agencies are afforded the chance to see and respond to audit findings within a certain amount of time before audits are made public.
Kerlin did not get that opportunity during the PCG audit.
PCG later confirmed to NMID that it is the firm’s standard procedure to give companies a chance to respond before issuing official audit findings. A PCG spokesperson would not tell NMID why that didn’t happen in New Mexico.
By the time HSD held a hearing for the Counseling Center, the state agency had lowered its Medicaid overbillings estimate to $379,135. And Kerlin finally was able to hear the accusations against his organization.
Counseling Center submitted evidence to rebut the state agency’s claims, but the hearing officer sided with HSD. The Counseling Center appealed to state court.
In late 2015, State District Court Judge Francis Mathew ruled in favor of Kerlin’s organization, calling HSD’s hearing decision “arbitrary, capricious or otherwise not in accordance with law.”
In addition, the judge found the administrative law judge had shifted the burden of proof from HSD to the Counseling Center and then set too high a standard for the organization. Citing portions of the administrative law judge’s ruling, Mathew noted the Counseling Center had “offered certain amount of credible evidence in opposition” to HSD’s findings but not as much as the hearing officer required: a “100 percent audit” of records, which the state district judge found “unreasonable.”
HSD appealed the judge’s decision to the state Court of Appeals.
Examples of rejected claims
The overly stringent standards for documentation — and even a basic lack of understanding by HSD staff of Medicaid billing requirements — can be found in cases involving other organizations that are contesting the department’s charges of overbilling, a review of court documents found.
In a motion appealing the administrative law judge’s ruling that it owed the state $127,240, Easter Seals disputed seven claims, including one HSD had rejected because there was no medication consent form in place, even though the patient and parent had signed a general informed consent form and the patient’s parent was present when the medication was prescribed.
According to the court document, “There was no dispute that the service was medically necessary and was provided to J.A. There is no question as to quality of care provided to the recipient of services.”
Another claim was rejected because there was no doctor’s signature on a psychosocial assessment, however the state could provide no legal requirement for the signature, according to Easter Seals’ appeal. “A signature might be best practice, or advisable, but it is not a requirement,” the filing argued.
Also in the appeal, Easter Seals noted that the Human Service Department’s coding witness not only could not cite rules disallowing two services to be delivered during the same time period, but also appeared to be using a coding manual from Medicare, the insurance for seniors, and not Medicaid. And furthermore, she did not even realize there was a manual for Medicaid.
HSD ignored evidence in 2013 that refuted overbilling claims
Even those organizations that have avoided administrative hearings and court battles have stories to tell about HSD and its actions.
It wasn’t an easy decision, its CEO said this week, and it shouldn’t be construed as agreement with the state’s conclusions.
“We agree to disagree” is how Steven Hansen put it.
Until Presbyterian began negotiating an agreement, in fact, it had not seen the findings of the PCG audit.
During the negotiations PMS officials found documents they thought could refute PCG’s audit findings, Hansen and other PMS officials told state lawmakers in October 2014.
Presbyterian tried to give the files to PCG and the Human Services Department as proof that they had properly billed Medicaid for payment. The consulting firm said it would review the documentation if directed to by HSD, but PCG later told Presbyterian Medical Services the state agency “did not want to accept those records.”
“We believe there is a strong argument that nothing was owed back to HSD,” Presbyterian’s general counsel told lawmakers in 2014.
At that point, Presbyterian had to make a choice: Settle with the state or fight and possibly run out of money.
Presbyterian settled, paying the $4 million.
The decision has worked out for the organization.
“We’re doing more business than we did before” the 2013 crackdown, Hansen said.
That’s because as the Arizona providers the Martinez administration brought in have left New Mexico, Presbyterian Medical Services has taken over mental health and addiction services.
Presbyterian has added Carlsbad, Alamogordo, Deming, Espańola, Grants, Artesia, Santa Fe and Rio Rancho to the places it provides behavioral health services, Hansen said, adding it’s “bits and pieces” of areas formerly serviced by three of the five Arizona companies.
“We feel like it’s going in a good direction for us,” Hansen said. “That’s hard for us to say because there were so many great organizations that are no longer in the state. But we’ve had to move on.”
What if you had to appeal traffic citations through the police officer who pulled you over before you could defend yourself before an impartial judge? That would be silly and a waste of time. I could not fathom a time in which the officer would overturn his/her own decision.
“No, officer, I know you claim that I was speeding, but the speed limit on Hwy 1 had just increased to 65. You were wrong when you said the speed limit was 55.”
“Good catch, citizen. You’re right; I’m wrong. Let’s just rip up this speeding ticket.”
Not going to happen.
The same is true when it comes to decisions by the Department of Health and Human Service (DHHS) to sanction or penalize a Medicaid provider based on alleged provider abuse (otherwise known as documentation errors). If DHHS determines that you owe $800,000 because your service notes are noncompliant, I am willing to bet that, upon its own reconsideration, the decision will be upheld. Asking for reconsideration review from the very same entity that decided the sanction or penalty is akin to doing something over and over and expecting different results (definition of insanity?).
But – are informal reconsideration reviews required by law to fight an adverse decision before you may appear before an administrative law judge?
The reason that you should care whether the reconsideration reviews are required by law is because the process is time consuming, and, often, the adverse determination is in effect during the process. If you hire an attorney, it is an expensive process, but one that you will not (likely) win. Generally, I am adverse to spending time and money on something that will yield nothing.
Before delving into whether reconsideration reviews are required by law, here is my caveat: This issue has not been decided by our courts. In fact, our administrative court has rendered conflicting decisions. I believe that my interpretation of the laws is correct (obviously), but until the issue is resolved legally, cover your donkey (CYA), listen to your attorney, and act conservatively.
Different laws relate to whether the adverse decision is rendered by the DHHS or whether the adverse decision is rendered by a managed care organization (MCO). Thus, I will divide this blog into two sections: (1) reconsiderations to DHHS; and (2) reconsiderations to an MCO.
Appealing DHHS Adverse Determinations
When you receive an adverse decision from DHHS, you will know that it is from DHHS because it will be on DHHS letterhead (master of the obvious).
10A NCAC 22F .0402 states that “(a) Upon notification of a tentative decision the provider will be offered, in writing, by certified mail, the opportunity for a reconsideration of the tentative decision and the reasons therefor. (b) The provider will be instructed to submit to the Division in writing his request for a Reconsideration Review within fifteen working days from the date of receipt of the notice. Failure to request a Reconsideration Review in the specified time shall result in the implementation of the tentative decision as the Division’s final decision.”
As seen above, our administrative code recommends that a Medicaid provider undergo the informal reconsideration review process through DHHS to defend a sanction or penalty before presenting before an impartial judge at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). I will tell you, having gone through hundreds upon hundreds of reconsideration reviews, DHHS does not overturn itself. The Hearing Officers know who pay their salaries (DHHS). The reconsideration review ends up being a waste of time and money for the provider, who must jump through the “reconsideration review hoop” prior to filing a petition for contested case.
Historically, attorneys recommend that provider undergo the reconsideration review for fear that an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at OAH would dismiss the case based on failure to exhaust administrative remedies. But upon a plain reading of 10A NCAC 22F .0402, is it really required? Look at the language again. “Will be offered” and “the opportunity for.” And what is the penalty for not requesting a reconsideration review? That the tentative decision becomes final – so you can petition to OAH the final decision.
My interpretation of 10A NCAC 22F .0402 is that the informal reconsideration review is an option, not a requirement.
Now, N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 states that “[i]t is the policy of this State that any 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.””
It is clear that our State’s policy is that a person who has a grievance against an agency; i.e., DHHS, attempts informal resolution prior to filing an appeal at OAH. Notice that N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 is applicable to any dispute between “an agency and another person.” “Agency” is defined as “an agency or an officer in the executive branch of the government of this State and includes the Council of State, the Governor’s Office, a board, a commission, a department, a division, a council, and any other unit of government in the executive branch. A local unit of government is not an agency.”
Clearly, DHHS is an “agency,” as defined. But an MCO is not a department; or a board; or a commission; or a division; or a unit of government in the executive branch; or a council. Since the policy of exhausting administrative remedies applies to DHHS, are you required to undergo an MCO’s reconsideration review process?
Appealing an MCO Adverse Determination
When you receive an adverse decision from an MCO, you will know that it is from an MCO because it will be on the MCO’s letterhead (master of the obvious).
There is a reason that I am emphasizing the letterhead. It is because DHHS contracts with a number of vendors. For example, DHHS contracts with Public Consulting Group (PCG), The Carolina Center for Medical Excellence (CCME), HMS, Liberty, etc. You could get a letter from any one of DHHS’ contracted entities – a letter on their letterhead. For example, you could receive a Tentative Notice of Overpayment on PCG letterhead. In that case, PCG is acting on behalf of DHHS. So the informal reconsideration rules would be the same. For MCOs, on the other hand, we obtained a Waiver from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to “waive” certain rules and to create the MCOs. Different regulations apply to MCOs than DHHS. In fact, there is an argument that N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 does not apply to the MCOs because the MCOs are not an “agency.” Confusing, right? I call that job security.
Are you required to undergo the MCO’s internal reconsideration review process prior to filing a petition for contested case at OAH?
Your contract with the MCO certainly states that you must appeal through the MCO’s internal process. The MCO contracts with providers have language in them like this:
Dispute Resolution and Appeals: “The CONTRACTOR may file a complaint and/or appeals as outlined in the LME/PIHP Provider Manual promulgated by LME/PIHP pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. 122C-151.3 and as provided by N.C. Gen. Stat. Chapter 108C.”
I find numerous, fatal flaws in the above section. Whoever drafted this section of the contract evidently had never read N.C. Gen. Stat. 122C-151.3, which plainly states in subsection (b) “This section does not apply to LME/MCOs.” Also, the LME/PIHP does not have the legal authority to promulgate – that is a rule-making procedure for State agencies, such as DHHS. The third fatal flaw in the above section is that the LME/MCO Provider Manual is not promulgated and certainly was not promulgated not pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. 122C-151.3, does not apply to LME/MCOs.
Just because it is written, does not make it right.
If N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 does not apply to MCOs, because MCOs are not an agency, then the State policy of attempting to resolve disputes through informal methods before going to OAH does not apply.
There is no other statute or rule that requires a provider to exhaust an MCO’s internal review process prior to filing a petition for contested case.
What does that mean IN ENGLISH??
What it means is that the MCOs contract and provider manual that create an informal one or two-step reconsideration process is not required by law or rule. You do not have to waste your time and money arguing to the MCO that it should overturn its own decision, even though the reconsideration review process may be outlined in the provider manual or your procurement contract.
OAH has agreed…and disagreed.
In Person-Centered Partnerships, Inc. v. NC DHHS and MeckLINK, No. 13 DHR 18655, the court found that “[n]either the contractual provisions in Article II, Section 5.b of the Medicaid Contract nor MeckLINK’s “Procedures for implementation of policy # P0-09 Local Reconsideration Policy” states that reconsideration review is mandatory and a prerequisite to filing a contested case.”
In another case, OAH has held that, “[c]ontract provisions cannot override or negate the protections provided under North Carolina law, specifically the appeal rights set forth in N.C. Gen. Stat. Chapter 108C. Giesel, Corbin on Contracts § 88.7, at 595 (2011) (When the law confers upon an individual a right, privilege, or defense, the assumption is that the right, privilege or defense is conferred because it is in the public interest. Thus, in many cases, it is contrary to the public interest to permit the holder of the right, privilege, or defense to waive or to bargain it away. In these situations, the attempted waiver or bargain is unenforceable.”)” Essential Supportive Services, LLC v. DHHS and its Agent Alliance Behavioral Healthcare, No. 13 DHR 20386 (NCOAH) (quoting Yelverton’s Enrichment Services, Inc., v. PBH, as legally authorized contractor of and agent for N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, 13-CVS-11337, (7 March 2014)).
However, most recently, OAH ruled in the opposite way. A provider was terminated from an MCO’s catchment area, and we immediately filed a preliminary injunction to cease the termination. As you can see from the above-mentioned cases, OAH had not considered the reconsideration review mandatory. But, this time, the Judge found that the “contractual provision in [the MCO’s] contract with Petitioner, which provides for a local reconsideration review, is a valid and binding provision within the contract.”
So, again, the law is as clear as two and two adding up to five.
For now, when you are disputing an adverse determination by an MCO requesting a reconsideration review before going to OAH is a good CYA.
Going back to the traffic example at the beginning of the blog, my husband was pulled for speeding a few weeks ago. I was surprised because, generally, he does not speed. He is a usually conscientious and careful driver. When the officer came to his window, he was genuinely confused as to the reason for the stop. In his mind, he was driving 73 mph, only 3 miles over the speed limit. In fact, he had the car on cruise control. Turns out he confused the sign for HWY 70, as a speed limit sign. The speed limit was actually 55 mph.
We did not appeal the decision.
Knicole Emanuel Interviewed on Recent Success: Behavioral Health Care Service Still Locked in Overbilling Dispute with State
Last Thursday, I was interviewed by a reporter from New Mexico regarding our Teambuilders win, in which an administrative judge has found that Teambuilders owes only $896 for billing errors. Here is a copy of an article published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, written by Justin Horwath:
The true tragedy is that these companies, including Teambuilders, should not have been put out of business based on false allegations of fraud. Not only was Teambuilders cleared of fraud, but, even the ALJ agreed with us that Teambuilders does not owe $12 million – but a small, nominal amount ($896.35). Instead of having the opportunity to pay the $896.35 and without due process of law, Teambuilders was destroyed – because of allegations.
One of our clients in New Mexico had an alleged Medicaid recoupment of over $12 million!! Actually, $12,015,850.00 – to be exact. (See below). After we presented our evidence and testimony, the Judge found that we owe $896.35. I call that a win!
In this case, the Human Services Department (HSD) in New Mexico had reviewed 150 random claims. Initially, HSD claimed that 41 claims out of 150 were noncompliant.
But, prior to the hearing, we saved over $10 million by pointing out HSD’s errors and/or by providing additional documentation.
And then the ALJ’s decision after we presented our evidence and testimony –
Boom! Drop the mike…
…………………………….not so fast…
……………………………………………..picking the mike back up…
You see, in New Mexico, the administrative law judges (ALJs) cannot render decisions. Look in the above picture. You see where it reads, “Recommendation?” That is because the ALJs in New Mexico can only render recommendations.
Because Medicaid has a “single state agency” rule; i.e., that only one agency may render discretionary decisions regarding Medicaid, and HSD is the single state agency in New Mexico charged with managing Medicaid, only HSD may render a discretionary decision. So in NM, the ALJ makes a recommendation and then the Secretary of HSD has the choice to either accept or reject the decision.
Guess whether HSD accepted or rejected the ALJ’s recommendation?
Now we will have to appeal the Agency’s Decision to overturn the ALJ recommendation.
Here, in NC, we obtained a waiver from the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to allow our ALJs to render Decisions. See blog.
I still consider this a win.
Recently, hundreds of dentists across North Carolina received Tentative Notices of Overpayment (TNOs) from Public Consulting Group (PCG) demanding recoupment for reimbursements made to dentists who rendered services on Medicaid for Pregnant Women (MPW) eligible recipients. There was no dispute at this hearing that these women were eligible for MPW according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) portal. There was also no dispute that these woman had delivered their babies prior to the date of dental service. So the question becomes: If DHHS informs a dentist that a woman is MPW eligible on the date of the service, does that dentist have an individual and separate burden to determine whether these women are pregnant. And if so, what is it? Have them pee in a cup prior to dental services? See blog, and blog, and blog.
We do not have a definitive answer to the above-posed question, as the Judge has not rendered his decision. However, he did substantially limit these “nameless audits” or “non-RAC” audits to the RAC program limitations. In an Order on our Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that, even if the State does not agree that an audit is a RAC audit, if the audit conducted falls within the definition of a RAC audit, then the audit is a RAC audit.
The reason this is important is because RAC auditors yield such powerful and overwhelming tools against health care providers, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) limits the RAC auditors’ ability to look-back on older claims. For example, even though a provider is, generally, required to maintain records for six (6) years, the federal regulations only allow RAC auditors to look-back three (3) years, unless credible allegations of fraud exist.
Thus, when an auditor reviews documents over three-years-old, I always argue that the review of claims over 3-years-old violates the statute of limitations and federal law.
During hearings, inevitably, the state argues that this particular audit…the one at issue here…is not a RAC audit. The opposing side could no more identify which acronym this audit happens to be, but this audit is not a RAC. “I don’t know what it is, but I know what it’s not!”
Well, an ALJ looked past the rhetoric and pleas by the State that “this is not a RAC” and held that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is a RAC audit and, subsequently, the RAC audit limitations do apply.
In the case for this dentist, Public Consulting Group (PCG) audited claims going back as far as six years! The Department of Health and Human Services’ argument was that this audit is not a RAC audit. So what is it? What makes it NOT a RAC? Because you say so? We all know that PCG has a contract with DHHS to perform RAC audits. Is this audit somehow outside its contractual purview?
So I filed a Motion for Summary Judgment requesting the Judge to throw out all claims outside the three-year look-back period per the RAC limitations.
Lo, and behold, I was right!! (The good guys win again!)
To understand this fully, it is important to first understand what the RAC program is and its intention. (“It depends on what the definition of “is” is”).
Under 42 U.S.C. § 1396a(a)(42):
the State shall—(i) establish a program under which the State contracts (consistent with State law and in the same manner as the Secretary enters into contracts with recovery audit contractors under section 1893(h), subject to such exceptions or requirements as the Secretary may require for purposes of this title or a particular State) with 1 or more recovery audit contractors for the purpose of identifying underpayments and overpayments and recouping overpayments under the State plan and under any waiver of the State plan with respect to all services for which payment is made to any entity under such plan or waiver.
RAC is defined as an entity that “…will review claims submitted by providers of items and services or other individuals furnishing items and services for which payment has been made under section 1902(a) of the Act or under any waiver of the State Plan to identify underpayments and overpayment and recoup overpayments for the States.” 42 CFR § 455.506(a).
Under this definition, PCG is clearly a recovery audit contractor. And the Judge agreed. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, just because the duck protests it is a donkey, it is still a duck. (Hmmmm..wonder how this logic would carry over to the whole transgender bathroom issue…another topic for another blogger…)
RACs must follow certain limitations as outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations. For example, pursuant to 42 C.F.R. § 455.508(f), a Medicaid RAC “must not review claims that are older than 3 years from the date of the claim, unless it receives approval from the State.”
In this particular case, there were 15 claims at issue. Eleven (11) of those claims were outside the three-year look-back period!! With one fell swoop of an ALJ’s signature, we reduced the claims at issue from 15 to 4. Nice!
In DHHS’ Response to our Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, DHHS argued that, in this case, PCG was not acting as a RAC; therefore, the limitations do not apply. In support of such decision, DHHS supplied an affidavit of a DMA employee. She averred that the audit of this particular dentist was not per the RAC program. No rules were cited. No contract in support of her position was provided. Nothing except an affidavit of a DMA employee.
Obviously, it is my opinion that the ALJ was 100% accurate in ruling that this audit was a RAC audit and was limited in scope to a 3-year look-back period.
If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it is not a donkey. No matter how much it pleads that it is, in fact, a donkey!
Remember the Super Bowl Ad of the Puppy, Baby, Monkey?:
That is so NOT ok!
In a groundbreaking decision published today by the Court of Appeals (COA), the Court smacked down Public Consulting Group’s (PCG), as well as any other contracted entity’s, authority to wield an “adverse decision” against a health care provider. This solidifies my legal argument that I have been arguing on this blog and in court for years!
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is the “single state agency” charged with managing Medicaid. Federal law requires that that one agency manage Medicaid with no ability to delegate discretionary decisions. Case law in K.C. v. Shipman upheld the federal law. See blog.
Yet, despite K.C. v. Shipman, decided in 2013, in Court, DHHS continued to argue that it should be dismissed from cases in which a contracted vendor rendered the adverse decision to recoup, terminate, or suspend a health care provider. DHHS would argue that it had no part of the decision to recoup, terminate, or suspend, that K.C. Shipman is irrelevant to health care provider cases, and that K.C. v. Shipman is only pertinent to Medicaid recipient cases, to which I countered until I was “blue in the face” is a pile of horse manure.
DHHS would argue that my interpretation would break down the Medicaid system because DHHS cannot possibly review and discern whether every recoupment, termination, and/or suspension made by a contracted vendor was valid (my words, not theirs). DHHS argued that it simply does not have the manpower, plus if it has the authority to contract with a company, surely that company can determine the amount of an alleged overpayment…WRONG!!
In fact, in DHHS v. Parker Home Care, LLC, the COA delineates the exact process for the State determining an overpayment with its contracted agent PCG.
- DHHS may enter into a contract with a company, such as PCG.
- A private company, like PCG, may perform preliminary and full investigations to collect facts and data.
- PCG must submit its findings to DHHS, and DHHS must exercise its own discretion to reach a tentative decision from six options (enumerated in the NC Administrative Code).
- DHHS, after its decision, will notify the provider of its tentative decision.
- The health care provider may request a reconsideration of the tentative decision within 15 days.
- Failure to do so will transform the tentative decision into a final determination.
- Time to appeal to OAH begins upon notification of the final determination by DHHS (60 days).
Another interesting part of this decision is that the provider, Parker Home Care, received the Tentative Notice of Overpayment (TNO) in 2012 and did nothing. The provider did not appeal the TNO.
However, because PCG’s TNO did not constitute a final adverse decision by DHHS (because PCG does not have the authority to render a final adverse decision), the provider did not miss any appeal deadline. The final adverse decision was determined to be DHHS’ action of suspending funds to collect the recoupment, which did not occur until 2014…and THAT action was timely appealed.
The COA’s message to private vendors contracted with DHHS is crystal clear: “There is only one head chef in the Medicaid kitchen.”
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.