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Darkness Surrounds MCO Mergers: Are Closed Meetings for MCOs Legal?

Recently, Eastpointe Human Services’ board voted unanimously to consolidate with Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, which would make the merged entity the managed care organization (MCO) overseeing 1/3 of NC’s Medicaid, behavioral health services – 32 counties, in all.

The Board’s decision is subject to the approval of the Secretary, but Eastpointe hopes to consolidate by July 1st.

Whether a consolidation between Eastpointe and Cardinal is good for Medicaid recipients and/or our community, I have no opinion.

But the reason that I have no opinion is because the negotiations, which all deal with public funds, have occurred behind closed doors.

Generally, it is our public policy that public bodies’ actions are to be conducted openly. This is why you can stroll on over to our courthouse and watch, virtually, any case be conducted.  There are rare cases in which the court will “seal” or close the record, such as to protect privileged health information or the identity of children.  Our public policy that strongly encourages open sessions for public entities exists for good reason.  As tax payers, we expect full disclosure and transparency as to how our tax dollars are being used.  In a way, all tax paying NC residents are shareholders of NC.  Those who spend our tax dollars owe us a fiduciary duty to manage our tax dollars in a reasonable and responsible manner, and we should be able to attend all board meetings and review all meeting minutes. The MCOs are the agents of the single state entity, Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), charged with managing behavioral health care for the Medicaid and state-funded population suffering with mental health/developmentally disabled /substance abuse (MR/DD/SA) issues.  As an agent of the state, MCOs are public entities.

But, as I am researching the internet in search of Eastpointe and Cardinal board meeting minutes, I realize that the MCOs are initiating closed meetings and quoting N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11, ” Closed sessions” as the  basis for being able to conduct closed sessions.  And the number of closed sessions that I notice is not a small number.

The deliberations of a merger between two MCOs are highly important to the public. The public needs to know whether the board members are concerned about improving quality and quantity of care. Whether the deliberations surround a more inclusive provider network and providing more services to those in need. Whether the deliberations consider using public funds to create playgrounds or to fund more services for the developmentally disabled. Or are the board members more concerned with which executives will remain employed and what salaried are to be compensated?

You’ve heard of the saying, “Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile?”  This is what is going through my mind as I review the statute allowing public bodies to hold closed sessions.  Is the statute too open-ended? Is the closed session statute a legal mishandling that unintentionally, and against public policy, allows public meetings to act privately? Or are the MCOs misusing the closed session statute?

So I ask myself the following:

1. Is N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11 applicable to MCOs, or, in other words, can the MCOs conduct closed sessions? and, if the answer to #1 is yes, then

2. Are the MCOs overusing or misusing its ability to hold closed sessions? If the answer to #3 is yes, then

3. What can be done?

These are the three questions I will address in this blog.

Number one:

Is N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11 applicable to MCOs, or, in other words, can the MCOs conduct closed sessions?

According to the statute, “”public body” means any elected or appointed authority, board, commission, committee, council, or other body of the State, or of one or more counties, cities, school administrative units, constituent institutions of The University of North Carolina, or other political subdivisions or public corporations in the State that (i) is composed of two or more members and (ii) exercises or is authorized to exercise a legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, or advisory function.”

The MCOs are bodies or agents of the state that are composed of more than 2 members and exercises or is authorized to exercise administrative or advisory functions to the extent allowed by the Waivers.

I determine that, in my opinion, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11 is applicable to the MCOs, so I move on to my next question…

Number two:

 Are the MCOs overusing or misusing its ability to hold closed sessions?

As public policy dictates that public bodies act openly, there are enumerated, statutory reasons that a public body may hold a closed session.

A public body may hold a closed session only when a closed session is required:

  1. “To prevent the disclosure of information that is privileged or confidential pursuant to the law of this State or of the United States, or not considered a public record within the meaning of Chapter 132 of the General Statutes.
  2. To prevent the premature disclosure of an honorary degree, scholarship, prize, or similar award.
  3. To consult with an attorney employed or retained by the public body in order to preserve the attorney-client privilege between the attorney and the public body, which privilege is hereby acknowledged. General policy matters may not be discussed in a closed session and nothing herein shall be construed to permit a public body to close a meeting that otherwise would be open merely because an attorney employed or retained by the public body is a participant. The public body may consider and give instructions to an attorney concerning the handling or settlement of a claim, judicial action, mediation, arbitration, or administrative procedure. If the public body has approved or considered a settlement, other than a malpractice settlement by or on behalf of a hospital, in closed session, the terms of that settlement shall be reported to the public body and entered into its minutes as soon as possible within a reasonable time after the settlement is concluded.
  4. To discuss matters relating to the location or expansion of industries or other businesses in the area served by the public body, including agreement on a tentative list of economic development incentives that may be offered by the public body in negotiations, or to discuss matters relating to military installation closure or realignment. Any action approving the signing of an economic development contract or commitment, or the action authorizing the payment of economic development expenditures, shall be taken in an open session.
  5. To establish, or to instruct the public body’s staff or negotiating agents concerning the position to be taken by or on behalf of the public body in negotiating (i) the price and other material terms of a contract or proposed contract for the acquisition of real property by purchase, option, exchange, or lease; or (ii) the amount of compensation and other material terms of an employment contract or proposed employment contract.
  6. To consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee; or to hear or investigate a complaint, charge, or grievance by or against an individual public officer or employee. General personnel policy issues may not be considered in a closed session. A public body may not consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, appointment, or removal of a member of the public body or another body and may not consider or fill a vacancy among its own membership except in an open meeting. Final action making an appointment or discharge or removal by a public body having final authority for the appointment or discharge or removal shall be taken in an open meeting.
  7. To plan, conduct, or hear reports concerning investigations of alleged criminal misconduct.
  8. To formulate plans by a local board of education relating to emergency response to incidents of school violence or to formulate and adopt the school safety components of school improvement plans by a local board of education or a school improvement team.
  9. To discuss and take action regarding plans to protect public safety as it relates to existing or potential terrorist activity and to receive briefings by staff members, legal counsel, or law enforcement or emergency service officials concerning actions taken or to be taken to respond to such activity.”

Option 1 clearly applies, in part, to privileged health information (PHI) and such.  So I would not expect that little Jimmy’s Medicaid ID would be part of the board meeting issues, and, thus, not included in the minutes, unless his Medicaid ID was discussed in a closed session.

I cannot fathom that Option 2 would ever be applicable, but who knows?  Maybe Alliance will start giving out prizes…

I would assume that Option 3 is used most frequently.  But notice:

“General policy matters may not be discussed in a closed session and nothing herein shall be construed to permit a public body to close a meeting that otherwise would be open merely because an attorney employed or retained by the public body is a participant.”

Which means that: (1) the closed session may only be used to talk about specific legal strategies and not general policies.  For example, arguably, an MCO could hold a closed session to consult with its attorney whether to appeal a specific case, but not to discuss whether, generally, the MCO intends to appeal all unsuccessful cases.

and

(2) the MCO cannot call for a closed session “on the fly” and only because its attorney happens to be participating in the board meeting.

As I am rifling through random board meeting minutes, I notice the MCO’s attorney is always present.  Now, I say “always,” but did not review all MCO meeting minutes. There may very well be board meetings at which  the attorneys don’t attend. However, the attorney is present for the minutes that I reviewed.

Which begs the question…Are the MCOs properly using the closed sessions?

Then I look at Options 4, and 5, and 6, and 7, and 8, and 9…and I realize, Geez, according to one’s interpretation, the statute may or may not allow almost everything behind closed doors. (Well, maybe not 9).  But, seriously, depending on the way in which each Option is interpreted, there is an argument that almost anything can be a closed session.

Want to hold a closed session to discuss why the CEO should receive a salary of $400,000? N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(5)(ii).

Want hold a closed session to discuss the anonymous tip claim that provider X is committing Medicaid fraud? N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(7).

Want to hold a closed session to discuss how an MCO can position itself to take over the world? N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(4).

In an atmosphere in which there is little to no supervision of the actions of the MCOs, who is monitoring whether the MCOs are overusing or misusing closed sessions?

Number three:

What can you do if you think that an MCO is holding closed sessions over and above what is allowed by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11?

According to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.16A, “[a]ny person may institute a suit in the superior court requesting the entry of a judgment declaring that any action of a public body was taken, considered, discussed, or deliberated in violation of this Article. Upon such a finding, the court may declare any such action null and void. Any person may seek such a declaratory judgment, and the plaintiff need not allege or prove special damage different from that suffered by the public at large.”

Plus, according to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.16A, “[w]hen an action is brought pursuant to G.S. 143-318.16 or G.S. 143-318.16A, the court may make written findings specifying the prevailing party or parties, and may award the prevailing party or parties a reasonable attorney’s fee, to be taxed against the losing party or parties as part of the costs. The court may order that all or any portion of any fee as assessed be paid personally by any individual member or members of the public body found by the court to have knowingly or intentionally committed the violation; provided, that no order against any individual member shall issue in any case where the public body or that individual member seeks the advice of an attorney, and such advice is followed.”

 In sum, if you believe that an MCO is conducting a closed session for a reason not enumerated above, then you can institute a lawsuit and request attorneys’ fees if you are successful in showing that the MCO knowingly or intentionally committed the violation.

We should also appeal to the General Assembly to revise, statutorily, more narrowly drafted closed session exceptions.

MCO CEO Compensated $400,000 Plus Bonuses with Our Tax Dollars!

On July 1, 2014, Cardinal Innovations, one of NC’s managed care organizations (MCOs) granted its former CEO, Ms. Pam Shipman, a 53% salary increase, raising her salary to $400,000/year. In addition to the raise, Cardinal issued Ms. Shipman a $65,000 bonus based on 2013-2014 performance.

$400,000 a year, plus bonuses.  Apparently, I got into the wrong career; the public sector seems to pay substantially more.

Then in July 2015, according to the article in the Charlotte Observer, Cardinals paid Ms. Shipman an additional $424,975, as severance. Within one year, Ms. Shipman was paid by Cardinal a whopping $889,975. Almost one million dollars!!!! To manage 16 counties’ behavioral health care services for Medicaid recipients.

For comparison purposes, the President of the United States earns $400,000/year (to run the entire country). Does the CEO of Cardinal equate to the President of the United States? Like the President, the CEO of Cardinal, along with all the other MCOs’ CEOs, are compensated with tax dollars.

Remember that the entire purpose of the MCO system is to decrease the risk of Medicaid budget overspending by placing the financial risk of overspending on the MCO instead of the State. In theory, the MCOs would be apt to conservatively spend funds and more carefully monitor the behavioral health care services provided to consumers within its catchment area to ensure medically necessity and not wasteful, unnecessary services.

Also, in theory, if the mission of the MCOs were to provide top-quality, medically necessary, behavioral health care services for all Medicaid recipients in need within its catchment area, as the MCOs often tout, then, theoretically, the MCOs would decrease administrative costs in order to provide higher quality, beefier services, increase reimbursement rates to incentivize health care providers to accept Medicaid, and maybe, even, not build a brand, new, stand-alone facility with top-notch technology and a cafeteria that looks how I would imagine Googles’ to look.

Here is how Cardinal’s building was described in 2010:

This new three-story, 79,000-square-foot facility is divided into two separate structures joined by a connecting bridge.  The 69,000-square-foot building houses the regional headquarters and includes Class A office space with conference rooms on each floor and a fully equipped corporate board room.  This building also houses a consumer gallery and a staff cafe offering an outdoor dining area on a cantilevered balcony overlooking a landscaped ravine.  The 10,000-square-foot connecting building houses a corporate training center. Computer access flooring is installed throughout the facility and is supported by a large server room to maintain redundancy of information flow.

The MCOs are not private companies. They do not sell products or services. Our tax dollars comprise the MCOs’ budget. Here is a breakdown of Cardinal’s budgetary sources from last year.

Cardinals budget

The so-called “revenues” are not revenues; they are tax dollars…our tax dollars.

78.1% of Cardinal’s budget, in 2014, came from our Medicaid budget. The remaining 21.7% came from state, federal, and county tax dollars, leaving .2% in the “other” category.

Because Cardinal’s budget is created with tax dollars, Cardinal is a public company working for all of us, tax paying, NC, residents.

When we hear that Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, received $9.22 million in compensation last year, we only contributed to his salary if we bought Apple products. If I never bought an Apple product, then his extraordinarily high salary is irrelevant to me. If I did buy an Apple product, then my purchase was a voluntary choice to increase Apple’s profits, or revenues.

When we hear that Cardinal Innovations paid $424,975 to ousted CEO, Pam Shipman, over and above her normal salary of $400,000 a year, we all contributed to Shipman’s compensation involuntarily. Similarly, the new CEO, Richard Toppings, received a raise when he became CEO to increase his salary to $400,000 a year. Again, we contributed to his salary.

A private company must answer to its Board of Directors. But an MCO, such as Cardinal, must answer to tax payers.

I work very hard, and I expect that my dollars be used intelligently and for the betterment of society as a whole. Isn’t that the purpose of taxes? I do not pay taxes in order for Cardinal to pay its CEO $400,000.

For better or for worse, a large percentage of our tax dollars, here in NC, go to the Medicaid budget. I would venture that most people would agree that, as a society, we have a moral responsibility to ensure that our most vulnerable population…our poorest citizens…have adequate health care. No one should be denied medical coverage and our physicians cannot be expected to dole out charity beyond their means.

Hence, Medicaid.

We know that Medicaid recipients have a difficult time finding physicians who will accept Medicaid. We know that a Medicaid card is inferior to a private payor card and limits provider choice and allowable services. We know that certain services for which our private insurances pay, simply, are not covered by Medicaid. Why should a Medicaid-insured person receive sub-par medical services or have more difficulty finding willing providers, while privately insured persons receive high quality medical care with little effort?  See blog or blog.

Part of the trouble with Medicaid is the low reimbursements given to health care providers. Health-care consulting firm Merritt Hawkins conducted a study of Medicaid acceptance rates which found that just 45.7 percent of physicians are now accepting Medicaid patients in the U.S.’s largest 15 cities and the numbers worsen when you look at sub-specialties.

The reimbursement rates are so low for health care providers; the Medicaid services are inadequate, at best; and people in need of care have difficulty finding Medicaid physicians. Yet the CEO of Cardinal Innovations is compensated $400,000 per year.

Cardinal has 635 employees. Its five, top-paid executives are compensated $284,000-$400,000 with bonuses ranging $56,500-$122,000.

Richard Topping, Cardinal’s new CEO, told the Charlotte Observer that “it doesn’t cut into Medicaid services.”

He was also quoted as saying, “It’s a lot of money. It is. You’ve just got to look at the size and the scope and the scale.”

In contrast, Governor McCrory is compensated approximately $128,000.  Is McCrory’s “size, scope, and scale” smaller than the CEO’s of Cardinal?  Is the CEO of Cardinal “size and scope and scale,” more akin to the President of the US?

“We are a public entity that acts like a private company for a public purpose,” Toppings says.  Each MCO’s Board of Directors approve salaries and bonuses.

Cardinal is not the only MCO in NC compensating its CEO very well.  However, according to the Charlotte Observer, Cardinal’s CEO’s compensation takes the cake.

Smokey Mountain Center (SMC) pays its Chief Medical Officer Craig Martin $284,000 with a $6,789 longevity bonus.

Four years ago, before the initial 11 MCOs, the administrative cost of the MCOs was nonexistent (except for the pilot program, Piedmont Behavioral Health, which is Cardinal now).  Implementing the MCO system increased administrative costs, without question.  But by how much?  How much additional administrative costs are acceptable?

Is it acceptable to pay $400,000+ for a CEO of a public entity with our tax dollars?