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Appealing Adverse Decisions: Should We Reconsider the Medicaid Provider Reconsideration Review?

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).

DHHS letterhead

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).

For example:

trillium

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.

Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies: Futile as the Caucus-Race?

Answer – Sometimes.

How many of you have received Remittance Advices from NCTracks that are impossible to understand, include denials without appeal rights, or, simply, are erroneous denials with no guidance as to the next steps?  While these were most prevalent in the first couple years after NCTracks was rolled out (back in July 2013), these burdensome errors still exist.

You are allowed to re-submit a claim to NCTracks for 18 months. How many times do you have to receive the denial in order for that denial to be considered a “final decision?” And, why is it important whether a denial is considered a final decision?

  1. Why is it important that a denial be considered a “final decision?”

As a health care provider, your right to challenge the Department of Health and Human Services’ (via CSC or NCTracks’) denial instantly becomes ripe (or appealable) only after the denial is a final decision.

Yet, with the current NCTracks system, you can receive a denial for one claim over and over and over and over without ever receiving a “final decision.”

It reminds me of the Causus-race in Alice and Wonderlandalice“There was no ‘One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?'” – Alice in Wonderland.

On behalf of all health care providers who accept Medicaid in North Carolina and suffered hardship because of NCTracks, at my former firm, I helped file the NCTracks class action lawsuit, Abrons Family Practice, et al., v. NCDHHS, et al., No. COA15-1197, which was heard before the NC Court of Appeals on June 12, 2015. The Opinion of the Court of Appeals was published today (October 18, 2016).

The Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs were not required to “exhaust their administrative remedies” by informal methods and the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) prior to bringing a lawsuit in the State Court for damages because doing to would be futile – like the Caucus-race. “But who has won?” asked Alice.

Plaintiffs argued that, without a “final decision” by DHHS as to the submitted claims, it is impossible for them to pursue the denials before the OAH.

And the Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, agrees.

The Abrons decision solidifies my contention over the past 4-5 years that a reconsideration review is NOT required by law prior to filing a Petition for Contested Case at OAH…. Boom! Bye, Felicia!

Years ago, I informed a client, who was terminated by an managed care organization (MCO), that she should file Petition for Contested Case at OAH without going through the informal reconsideration review. One – the informal reconsideration review was before the very agency that terminated her (futile); and two – going through two processes instead of one costs more in attorneys’ fees (burdensome).

We filed in OAH, and the judge dismissed the case, stating that we failed to exhaust our administrative remedies.

I have disagreed with that ruling for years (Psssst – judges do not always get it right, although we truly hope they do. But, in judges’ defenses, the law is an ever-changing, morphing creature that bends and yields to the community pressures and legal interpretations. Remember, judges are human, and to be human is to err).

However, years later, the Court of Appeals agreed with me, relying on the same argument I made years ago before OAH.

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 states that it is the policy of the State that disputes between the State and a party should be resolved through informal means. However, neither 150B-22 nor any other statute or regulation requires that a provider pursue the informal remedy of a reconsideration review. See my blog from 2013.

I love it when I am right. – And, according to my husband, it is a rarity.

Here is another gem from the Abrons opinion:

“DHHS is the only entity that has the authority to render a final decision on a contested medicaid claim. It is DHHS’ responsibility to make the final decision and to furnish the provider with written notification of the decision and of the provider’s appeal rights, as required by N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-23(f).”

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-23(f) states, ” Unless another statute or a federal statute or regulation sets a time limitation for the filing of a petition in contested cases against a specified agency, the general limitation for the filing of a petition in a contested case is 60 days. The time limitation, whether established by another statute, federal statute, or federal regulation, or this section, shall commence when notice is given of the agency decision to all persons aggrieved who are known to the agency by personal delivery or by the placing of the notice in an official depository of the United States Postal Service wrapped in a wrapper addressed to the person at the latest address given by the person to the agency. The notice shall be in writing, and shall set forth the agency action, and shall inform the persons of the right, the procedure, and the time limit to file a contested case petition. When no informal settlement request has been received by the agency prior to issuance of the notice, any subsequent informal settlement request shall not suspend the time limitation for the filing of a petition for a contested case hearing.”

2. How many times do you have to receive the denial in order for that denial to be considered a “final decision”?

There is no magic number. But the Court of Appeals in Abrons makes it clear that the “final decision” must be rendered by DHHS, not a contracted party.

So which we ask – What about terminations by MCOs? Do MCOs have the authority to terminate providers and render final decisions regarding Medicaid providers?

I would argue – no.

Our 1915b/c Waiver waives certain federal laws, not state laws. Our 1915 b/c Waiver does not waive N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B.

“But who has won?” asked Alice.

“At last the Dodo said, ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes.'” – Only in Wonderland!

Sometimes, you just need to stop running and dry off.

NCTracks: There’s a Hole in My Bucket !!

My mom taught me a song when I was young called, “A Hole in the Bucket.” It is a maddening song about a lazy husband named Henry who begins the song telling his wife Liza that “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza….” To which Liza sings, “Then fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry…”

The song continues with Henry singing excuses and impediments to his ability to fix the hole in the bucket and Liza explaining to Henry how to overcome these excuses. The song goes around and around until, in order to fix the bucket, Henry would have to sharpen an ax on a stone that “is too dry,” and the only way to wet the stone is with the bucket that has a hole. “There’s a hole in the bucket…” And the songs starts anew and can be sung continuously, never-ending.

My husband and daughter audibly groan when I begin such song.

And you can’t blame them! It is discouraging and frustrating when something is caught in a never-ending circle with no end and no conclusion.  It is human nature to try to resolve issues; it is also ingrained in Americans’ minds that hard work yields results. When hard work yields nothing but a big, fat goose-egg, it is exacerbating.

Kind of like claims in NCTracks…

When NCTracks went live on July 1, 2013, providers immediately began to complain the claims were being erroneously denied and they were receiving no reimbursements. Folks with whom I spoke with were at their wits-ends, spending hours upon hours trying to discern why claims were being denied and what process they could undertake to fix “the hole in the bucket.”

The problem persisted so long and I was contacted by so many providers that I instigated the NCTracks class action lawsuit, which is still pending on appeal, to the best of my knowledge, at my former firm.  Although it was dismissed at the Business Court level, I believe it is on appeal. See blog.

Providers complained that, when they contacted CSC’s Help Desk regarding denied claims, the customer service representatives would have little to no understanding of the claims process and instruct them to re-file the denied claims, which created a perpetual cycle of unadjudicated claims.

“It was infuriating!” One provider explained. “It was as if we were caught in the spin cycle with no hope of stopping. I wanted to yell, ‘I’m dry all ready!!'”

“I was spending 20+ a week on NCTracks billing problems,” another said.

To which, I said, “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.”

Over two years after the “go live” date, the Department has now (finally) informed providers that there is an informal reconsideration review process for denials from CSC.

The September 2015 Medicaid Bulletin states that:

“This article provides a detailed explanation of the N.C. Division of Medical Assistance (DMA)  procedures for Informal Reconsideration Review of adverse claim actions (denials, disallowances and adjustments) made by its fiscal agent, CSC.”

The Bulletin provides a 30 day time period during which a provider can appeal a denied claim:

“Time Limit for Submission of Request

  • A provider may request a reconsideration review within 30 calendar days from receipt of final notification of payment, payment denial, disallowances, payment adjustment, notice of program reimbursement and adjustments. If no request is received within the respective 30 calendar day period, DMA’s action will become final.”

(emphasis in original).

You must request reconsideration review within 30 calendar days of the final notification.  BUT what exactly is “final notification?” The initial denial? The second denial after re-submitting? The third? Or, what if, your claim is pending…for months…is that a denial?  When CSC tells you to re-submit, does the time frame in which to file a reconsideration review start over? Or do you have to appeal every single denial for every single claim, even if the claim is re-submitted and re-denied 10 times?

This new informal appeal process is as clear as mud.

Notice the penalty for NOT appealing within 30 days…”DMA’s action will become final.”

This means that, if you fail to appeal a denial within 30 days, then the claim is denied and you cannot request a reconsideration review. Theoretically, there is a legal argument that, once the “final decision” is rendered, even if it were rendered due to you failing to request a reconsideration review, you would have 60 days to appeal such final decision to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). Although, acting as the Devil’s advocate, there is an argument that your failure to request a reconsideration review and taking the appeal straight to OAH is “failing to exhaust your administrative remedies.” See blog. Which could result in your appeal being dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. This goes to show you the importance of having your attorney involved at the earliest juncture, otherwise you could risk losing appeal rights.

Let’s think about the “time limit for submission of request” in a real-life hypothetical.

You keep receiving denials for dialysis claims for no apparent reason. You received 20 denials on September 4, 2015. You contact a CSC customer service representative on September 8, 2015, four days later, due to Labor Day weekend. The customer service representative instructs you to re-file the claims because you must include the initial date of treatment in order to have the claims processed and paid (which was not required with HP Enterprises’ system). Is this the “final notification?” It does not seem so, since you are allowed to re-submit…

You revise all 20 claims to include the first treatment date on the claim and re-submit them on September 9, 2015. Since you re-submitted prior to the September 10th cutoff, you expect payment by September 16, 2015, 12 days after the initial denial.

You receive your explanation of benefits (EOBs) and 5 claims were adjudicated and paid, while 15 were denied again.

You contact CSC customer service and the representative instructs you to re-submit the 15 claims.  The rep does not know why the claims were denied, but she/he suggests that you review the claims and re-submit. After hours of investigative work, you believe that the claims were denied because the NPI number was wrong…or the incorrect address was processed…or…

You miss the September 17th cut-off because you were trying to figure out why these claims were denied.  you submit them for payment for the September 29th checkwrite date (25 days after the initial denial).

At this point, if any claims are denied, you wouldn’t know until October 6th, 32 days after the initial denial.

In my scenario, when is the final adjudication?

If the answer is that the final adjudication is at the point that the provider tries all possible revisions to the claims and continues to re-submit the claims until he/she cannot come up with another way to re-submit, then there is never final adjudication. As in, the provider could continue various changes to the billing ad nauseam and re-submit…and re-submit…and re-submit…”There’s a hole in the bucket!”

If the answer is that the final adjudication is the initial denial, then, in my scenario, the provider would be required to appeal every single denial, even for the same claim and every time it is denied.

You can imagine the burden to the provider if my second scenario is correct. You may as well hire a full-time person whose only task is to appeal denied claims.

Regardless, this new “Informal Reconsideration Review” purports to create many more questions than answers.

So may rules are enacted with good intentions, but without the “real life” analysis. How will this actually affect providers?

“There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.”

Then fix it.”

Federal Audit Spurs NC to Recoup from Dentists Who Accept MPW!!

When providers receive Tentative Notices of Overpayment (TNOs), we appeal the findings. And, for the most part, we are successful. Does our State of NC simply roll over when the federal government audits it??

A recent audit by Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) finds that:

“We recommend that the State agency:

  • refund $1,038,735 to the Federal Government for unallowable dental services provided to MPW beneficiaries after the day of delivery; and
  • increase postpayment reviews of dental claims, including claims for MPW beneficiaries, to help ensure the proper and efficient payment of claims and ensure compliance with
    Federal and State laws, regulations, and program guidance.”

MPW is Medicaid for Pregnant Women.  Recently, I had noticed that a high number of dentists were receiving TNOs.  See blog.  I hear through the grapevine that a very high number of dentists recently received TNOs claiming that the dentists had rendered dental services to women who had delivered their babies.

Now we know why…

However, my question is: Does NC simply accept the findings of HHS OIG without requesting a reconsideration review and/or appeal?

It seems that if NC appealed the findings, then NC would not be forced to seek recoupments from health care providers.  We already have a shortage of dentists for Medicaid recipients.  See blog and blog.

And if the federal auditors audit in similar fashion to our NC auditors, then the appeal would, most likely, be successful. Or, in the very least, reduce the recouped amount, which would benefit health care providers and taxpayers.

Whenever NC receives a federal audit with an alleged recoupment, NC should fight for NC Medicaid providers and taxpayers!!  Not simply roll over and pay itself back with recoupments!

This audit was published March 2015.  It is September.  I will look into whether there is an appeal on record.