Blog Archives

Medicaid Mishaps Cause Tempers to Flare

Here is an interesting article…

Article from Carolina Journal Online by Dan Way:

RALEIGH — With $2 billion in cost overruns the past four years, Medicaid continues to be North Carolina’s most volatile political conundrum, and now unanswered questions about its spending and growth threaten to delay passage of 2014-15 state budget adjustments before next Monday’s deadline.

Things got nasty in a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting last week, and one is left to wonder whether Gov. Pat McCrory and the state Department of Health and Human Services squandered political capital by snubbing budget writers struggling with alarming lapses in vital Medicaid data.

Medicaid “is the linchpin” to writing the 2014-15 budget, said an irritated Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg. “Would someone explain to me why we don’t have [Office of State Budget and Management] or staff people from DHHS here to help us get to an answer so that we can move this budget forward?”

If not a prairie fire, the meeting at least exposed the slow burn of senators handcuffed by a dearth of crucial budget numbers from DHHS. Capital press corps reporters instinctively asked one of their most oft-repeated questions: Is DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos to blame for yet another major Medicaid predicament?

Due to significant backlogs, DHHS cannot provide accurate Medicaid enrollment numbers, valid claims data, and categories into which new enrollees are entered. Without precise, up-to-date information for this fiscal year, drafting an accurate budget for 2014-15 is impossible.

That’s a tough corner to be backed into for McCrory and Wos, who have made Medicaid budget predictability a holy grail.

The exasperation of Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, typified the level of lawmaker frustration.

“If push comes to shove,” he said, “we can always issue subpoenas and have the numbers come to us. So let’s not take that off the table.”

The irritability in Senate Appropriations was bipartisan.

“Will we ever know what we need to know?” Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, asked incredulously. “Do we have to be completely at the mercy of executive branch agencies on an issue like this that is so critical to what we do?”

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, explained, in measured but heart-attack serious tones, why there is an elevated sense of urgency, and why he had wanted someone from the budget office at the Appropriations Committee meeting to explain Medicaid numbers that have swung from wildly varying to unaccounted for.

“Our feeling is we need to reach some understanding on the Medicaid number before we can realistically start talking about most of the other things,” including teacher pay raises and pay hikes for state workers, Berger said.

And then there was this jaw-dropping exchange between Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg, and Susan Jacobs of the legislative Fiscal Research Division.

“Based upon the uncertainty and the lack of data, how can we say for certain that people are not being overpaid or underpaid?” Ford asked.

“We probably can’t say that,” responded Jacobs. She also dropped a bombshell that it could be “probably late next year” before all necessary numbers are completely and accurately obtained.

“To me that is a very disturbing scenario where we are taking taxpayer money with good intentions, but with no verification that we’re doing the right thing because of a broken system,” Ford said.

Whether he realized it, Ford’s characterization of Medicaid as a broken system oozed irony.

In one of their first official acts upon assuming office in January 2013, McCrory and Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos lambasted the state’s Medicaid program as a chaotic, broken system. Eighteen months later and holding Swiss-cheese Medicaid reports, state senators are grumbling that the agency’s disarray persists.

Pressed by reporters, Berger stopped short of saying he has lost confidence in Wos’ leadership.

“I’ll leave it to others as to why they’re not able to provide that information,” he said, but he insisted this budgeting fiasco shows the need to remove Medicaid from Wos’ control and make it a standalone agency.

The Senate budget calls for $88 million more in Medicaid spending in 2014-15 than the House version. Berger said the Senate used higher, worst-case-scenario numbers.

Berger and his counterparts rightly expressed no appetite for once again using rosy projections only to find out halfway through the budget year that there is a whopping shortfall.

To make matters worse, Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow, said Fiscal Research staff isn’t even confident the worst-case numbers are sufficiently high. “I think that’s important to make sure everyone understands it.”

Sen. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, co-chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, agreed with frustrated Fiscal Research staff that much of the problem with missing data stems from NC Tracks, the new but deeply flawed Medicaid billing system.

But he was quick to note that Republicans inherited the woefully underperforming computer system that was in development for years under Democratic administrations.

“I don’t know if they made up-to-date adjustments as they went along, and we don’t know if it was tested properly before it went live,” Pate said. Others, including State Auditor Beth Wood, warned last year that the nearly half-billion-dollar system was not ready to launch.

Wos lost control and never regained the upper hand in messaging after she defiantly promised she was going to drag the long-beleaguered NC Tracks over the July 1 finish line, and declared it sound when she did.

The bravado and exuberant can-do proclamations might have seemed politically appropriate for a new administration seeking to position itself as an intrepid change agent.

But Wos would have been wise to have tempered her rookie remarks with caveats about the huge challenges left behind by previous Democratic administrations, downplayed expectations, and more candidly acknowledged what IT skeptics already knew — the system was going to encounter plenty of rollout problems that would require a long time to correct.

Pate was among those declaring that the current Medicaid budgeting calamity further demonstrates the “critical necessity for reorganization” of the agency. But restructuring has been hampered by the unsteadiness of tectonic policy shifts.

Pate is among senators who continue to oppose the latest reform plan favored by McCrory and Wos, and now in bill form in the House. He said the proposal only tinkers around the edges of budget predictability and restraint.

This latest iteration is an accountable care model comprising networks of doctors and hospitals. It was rolled out after the administration’s stunning U-turn from months of championing full-risk managed care, and scoring a coup in recruiting Carol Steckel, a highly sought, nationally renowned expert on Medicaid managed care.

Steckel, former head of the National Association of State Medicaid Directors, left her $210,000-a-year job in North Carolina last September after only eight months working for Wos.

Whether there was a back-story to the swift departure of a highly heralded Medicaid reformer, much like what this year’s Medicaid numbers are, remains a guessing game.

Right Wing, Left Wing: Does It Equal a More Balanced Senate Bill 744?

Our Senate put forth Senate Bill 744 with radical and shocking changes to our Medicaid system. However, one section of our General Assembly cannot create law. Both sides,the Senate and the House, much agree on a Bill in order to create law.

Senate sent SB 744 to the House on May 31, 2014. Between May 31 through June 13, 2014, the House revised, omitted, and added language to SB 744, making SB 744 a much different document than what the Senate had fashioned. Today, SB 744 is back in the Senate for more revisions. The end result will be a law that appears nothing like the initial SB 744 brought to the Senate on May 15, 2014.

The “ping pong” revision system between the Senate and the House that our founding fathers installed in order to generate actual laws is a well-crafted, finely-tuned balancing machine. It is an effort to keep all ideological agendas in-check. When one side dips too low, the other side counters in an effort to maintain balance. It reminds me of a bird in flight.

Our nation’s symbol is the bald eagle. I am sure everyone knows that, right? But did you also know that the bald eagle is not named the bald eagle because its white head gives the appearance that it is bald? No, bald eagle, in Latin, is haliaeetus leucocephalus (from Greek hali-, which means sea; aiētos , which means eagle; leuco-, which means white, and cephalos, which means head). So, literally its name means “sea eagle with white head.”

Even more important about the bald eagle is its set of wings. A bald eagle has a right wing and a left wing, and without both, the bald eagle would not be able to fly.

We need both the right and the left wings in order to maintain balance in our government. Both sides are necessary, and, yet, it seems that nowadays the left and right sides are at war with each other. Politics has become so polarized that the right wing and the left wing forget the attributes of the other.

The result of the ping pong revision system, in theory, is that, by the time a bill is brought into final shape and enacted into law, all polarized ideations have been balanced out in order to move forward. It does not always work that way, and it becomes increasingly difficult to balance the sides when the sides become more and more divided.

The Senate created SB 744, the House has made its alterations…and, if SB 744 passes, it will pass after many more modifications, no doubt.

When our state Senate passed Senate Bill 744 and sent it to the House, I blogged about the shocking ramifications to Medicaid had that bill been passed.

I listed the most shocking changes included within SB 744:

1. DHHS must immediately cease all efforts to transition Medicaid to the affordable care organizations (ACOs) system that DHHS had touted would be in effect by July 2015;
2. DHHS, DMA will no longer manage Medicaid. Instead a new state entity will be formed to manage Medicaid. (A kind of…scratch it all and start over method);
3. All funds previously appropriated to DHHS, DMA will be transferred to Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) and will be used for Medicaid reform and may not be used for any other purpose such as funding any shortfalls in the Medicaid program.
4. Categorical coverage for recipients of the optional state supplemental program State County Special Assistance is eliminated.
5. Coverage for the medically needy is eliminated, except those categories that the State is prohibited from eliminating by the maintenance of effort requirement of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Effective October 1, 2019, coverage for all medically needy categories is eliminated.
6. It is the intent of the General Assembly to reduce optional coverage for certain aged, blind, and disabled persons effective July 1, 2015, while meeting the State’s obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the United States Supreme Court decision in Olmstead v. L.C. ex rel. Zimring, 527 U.S. 581 (1999).
7. Repeal the shared savings program and just reduce the reimbursement rates by 3%.
8. DHHS shall implement a Medicaid assessment program for local management entities/managed care organizations (LME/MCOs) at a rate of three and one-half percent (3.5%).
9. Additional notices as to State Plan Amendments (SPAs), DHHS must post the proposed SPAs on its website at least 10 days prior to submitting the SPAs to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
10. Reimbursement rate changes become effective when CMS approves the reimbursement rate changes.
11. The Department of Health and Human Services shall not enter into any contract involving the program integrity functions listed in subsection (a) of this section that would have a termination date after September 1, 2015.
12. The Medicaid PROVIDER will have the burden of proof in contested case actions against the Department.
13. The Department shall withhold payment to any Medicaid provider for whom the DMA, or its vendor, has identified an overpayment in a written notice to the provider. Withholding shall begin on the 75th day after the day the notice of overpayment is mailed and shall continue during the pendency of any appeal until the overpayment becomes a final overpayment (can we say injunction?).

Since my last blog about Senate Bill 744 (the Appropriations Bill), Senate Bill 744 has reached its 7th revision.

The House took it upon itself to delete many of the shocking changes in the Senate Bill. Just like the bald eagle using its right and left wings to balance out.

First, the General Assembly’s proposed cease and desist order that would have stopped Gov. McCrory and Sec. Wos from implementing Medicaid reform and the accountable care organizations (ACOs), is deleted from the current version of the bill. Gone too is the “new state agency” created to manage Medicaid. Medicaid services are no longer eliminated. The Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) is no longer receiving all funds appropriated for the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Division of Medical Assistance (DMA).

On June 13, 2014, the House finished its revisions to SB 744 and sent the revised bill back to the Senate. On June 18, 2014, the conference committee for SB 744 was formed and includes:

  • Sen. Harry Brown, Chair
  • Sen. Andrew C. Brock
  • Sen. Kathy Harrington
  • Sen. Tom Apodaca
  • Sen. Ralph Hise
  • Sen. Neal Hunt
  • Sen. Phil Berger
  • Sen. Brent Jackson
  • Sen. Wesley Meredith
  • Sen. Louis Pate
  • Sen. Bill Rabon
  • Sen. Shirley B. Randleman
  • Sen. Bob Rucho
  • Sen. Dan Soucek
  • Sen. Jerry W. Tillman
  • Sen. Tommy Tucker

SB 744 is still not law. It takes both the House and Senate to pass the bill, and then the Governor has to sign the bill. So we have a ways to go. We need the agreement of the right wing and the left wing.

The two main political parties were not always so polarized.

A couple of our founding fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, were fierce political adversaries. Imagine the political distance between Barack Obama and Ted Cruz. Despite their political differences, both Adams and Jefferson believed in the importance of funding public education. Rather than defaming the other’s point of view, Adams and Jefferson collaborated and compromised. “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it,” wrote Adams. “There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.” Adams and Jefferson were able to balance out the right wing and the left wing in order to fly a straight path.

Back when our founding fathers squabbled and debated key issues, both sides worked together, instead of running mudslinging commercials and scoffing at the other side’s position on the media. During one of the biggest debates in history, the creation of our government, the lawmakers convened together for about 4 months. The Constitutional Convention lasted from May 25 to September 17, 1787 (the first one). The delegates were within close proximity of one another, which led to more conversations and more compromises. Until the Constitution was drafted, the delegates continued to meet together. I imagine they ate lunch together and shared whiskey and cigars in the evenings.

Maybe our lawmakers should schedule a new constitutional convention, both on the state and federal level. At least, both sides need to realize that the right wing and the left wing are necessary. Otherwise we would just fly in circles.

“The Times They Are a-Changin’”: A Look at Possible Ramifications on Medicaid by Senate Bill 744

I think of Bob Dylan’s raspy voice singing:

Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt took the presidency during a time of severe poverty. The Great Depression, which would last until the late 1930s or early 1940s, cast shadows and doubt over the future of America. People were starving. Unemployment and homelessness were at an all-time high.

FDR’s first 100 days in office were monumental. In fact, FDR’s first 100 days in office changed America forever. With bold legislation and a myriad of executive orders, he instituted the New Deal. The New Deal created government jobs for the homeless, banking reform, and emergency relief to states and cities. During those 100 days of lawmaking, Congress granted every major request Roosevelt asked. This is an example of what I call blending of the separation of powers. In a time of great national need, Congress took an expansive view of the president’s constitutional powers and cooperated with him to effect major change.

I am in no way comparing our General Assembly to Congress back in the 1930s nor am I comparing FDR to Gov. McCrory. In fact, there are vast differences. I am only making the point that rarely does the legislative body create such change.

But North Carolina’s current Senate Bill 744 may create this change. For example, if Senate Bill 744 passes the House, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) may no longer manage Medicaid. That’s right. A whole new state agency may manage Medicaid.

This past Friday, May 30, 2014, the state Senate passed a $21.2 billion budget, which is known as Senate Bill 744. On May 31, 2014, Senate Bill 744 passed its 3rd reading and will now go on to the House. So far, it has been revised 3 times, so we do not know whether the House will make substantial changes. But, as it stands today, it is shocking. Is it good? Bad? I don’t think we can know whether the changes are good or bad yet, and, quite honestly, I have not had time to digest all of the possible implications of Senate Bill 744. But, regardless, the changes are shocking.

Of the most shocking changes (should SB 744 get passed), consider the following:

1. DHHS must immediately cease all efforts to transition Medicaid to the affordable care organizations (ACOs) system that DHHS had touted would be in effect by July 2015;

2. DHHS’s DMA will no longer manage Medicaid. Instead, a new state entity will be formed to manage Medicaid. (A kind of…”scratch it all and start over” method);

3. All funds previously appropriated to DMA will be transferred to the Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) and will be used for Medicaid reform and may not be used for any other purpose such as funding any shortfalls in the Medicaid program.

4. Categorical coverage for recipients of the optional state supplemental program State County Special Assistance is eliminated.

5. Coverage for the medically needy is eliminated, except those categories that the State is prohibited from eliminating by the “maintenance of effort” requirement of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Effective October 1, 2019, coverage for all medically needy categories is eliminated.

6. It is the intent of the General Assembly to reduce optional coverage for certain aged, blind, and disabled persons effective July 1, 2015, while meeting the State’s obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the United States Supreme Court decision in Olmstead v. L.C. ex rel. Zimring, 527 U.S. 581 (1999).

7. Repeal the shared savings program and just reduce the reimbursement rates by 3%.

8. DHHS shall implement a Medicaid assessment program for local management entities/managed care organizations (LME/MCOs) at a rate of three and one-half percent (3.5%).

9. For additional notices as to State Plan Amendments (SPAs), DHHS must post the proposed SPAs on its website at least 10 days prior to submitting the SPAs to the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

10. Reimbursement rate changes become effective when CMS approves the reimbursement rate changes.

11. The Department of Health and Human Services shall not enter into any contract involving the program integrity functions listed in subsection (a) of this section of SB 774 that would have a termination date after September 1, 2015.

12. The Medicaid PROVIDER will have the burden of proof in contested case actions against the Department.

13. The Department shall withhold payment to any Medicaid provider for whom the DMA, or its vendor, has identified an overpayment in a written notice to the provider. Withholding shall begin on the 75th day after the day the notice of overpayment is mailed and shall continue during the pendency of any appeal until the overpayment becomes a final overpayment (can we say injunction?).

Senate Bill 744 purports to make immense modifications to our Medicaid system. I wonder what Gov. McCrory and Secretary Wos think about Senate Bill 744. If SB 744 passes, McCrory and Wos can no longer continue down the ACO path. Does the General Assembly even have the authority to bind their hands from creating ACOs? It seems so.

As for the “new state agency” that will manage Medicaid, maybe the General Assembly is right and we do need to scratch out the current Medicaid management and start over…I doubt anyone would disagree that DHHS has had some “oops” moments in the past year or so. But (a) is this the way to start all over; and (b) does the General Assembly have the legal power to remove the management of Medicaid from Secretary Wos?

Going to the reduction of optional services for the “medically needy,” what services are considered optional? Here is a list of optional services, as defined by the Center of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS):

• Case Management
• Mental Health
• Podiatry
• Intermediate Care Facilities (ICF-MR)
• Personal Care Services
• Prosthetics
• Respiratory Therapy
• Hospice
• Adult Dentures
• Prescription Drugs
• Community Alternative Programs (CAP)
• Private Duty Nursing
• Chiropractor
• Home Infusion Therapy
• Physical Therapy/Speech Therapy
• Transportation

I cannot comment on all the changes proposed by Senate Bill 744; I simply have not had enough time to review them in detail, because there are so many changes. I do not purport to know whether these modifications are ultimately for the good or for the bad.

All I know is that we better start swimming or we will sink like a stone, because the times they are a-changin’.