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NC Medicaid Reimbursement Rates for Primary Care Physicians Slashed; Is a Potential NC Lawsuit Looming?

Here is my follow-up from yesterday’s blog post, “NC Docs Face Retroactive Medicaid Rate Cut.

Nearly one-third of physicians say they will not accept new Medicaid patients, according to a new study.  Is this shocking in light of the end of the ACA enhanced payments for primary physicians, NC’s implementation of a 3% reimbursement rate cut for primary care physicians, and the additional 1% reimbursement rate cut?  No, this is not shocking. It merely makes economic sense.

Want more physicians to accept Medicaid? Increase reimbursement rates!

Here, in NC, the Medicaid reimbursement rates for primary care physicians and pediatricians have spiraled downward from a trifecta resulting in an epically, low parlay. They say things happen in threes…

(1) With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Medicaid reimbursement rate for certain primary care services increased to reimburse 100% of Medicare Cost Share for services paid in 2013 and 2014.  This enhanced payment stopped on January 1, 2015.

(2) Concurrently on January 1, 2015, Medicaid reimbursement rates for evaluation and management and vaccination services were decreased by 3% due to enactments in the 2013 NC General Assembly session.

(3) Concurrently on January 1, 2015, Medicaid reimbursement rates for evaluation and management and vaccination services were decreased by 1% due to enactments in the 2014 NC General Assembly session.

The effect of the trifecta of Medicaid reimbursement rates for certain procedure codes for primary care physicians can be seen below.

CCNC

As a result, a physician currently receiving 100% of the Medicare rates will see a 16% to 24% reduction in certain E&M and vaccine procedure codes for Medicaid services rendered after January 1, 2015.

Are physicians (and all other types of health care providers) powerless against the slashing and gnashing of Medicaid reimbursement rates due to budgetary concerns?

No!  You are NOT powerless!  Be informed!!

Section 30(A) of the Medicaid Act states that:

“A state plan for medical assistance must –

Provide such methods and procedures relating to the utilization of, and the payment for, care and services available under the plan (including but not limited to utilization review plans as provided for in section 1396b(i)(4) of this title) as may be necessary to safeguard against unnecessary utilization of such care and services and to assure that payments are consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care and are sufficient to enlist enough providers so that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population in the geographic area.”

Notice those three key goals:

  • Quality of care
  • Sufficient to enlist enough providers
  • So that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population in the geographic area

Courts across the country have held that low Medicaid reimbursement rates which are set due to budgetary factors and fail to consider federally mandated factors, such as access to care or cost of care, are in violation of federal law.  Courts have further held that Medicaid reimbursement rates cannot be set based solely on budgetary reasons.

For example, U.S. District Court Judge Adalberto Jordan held in a 2014 Florida case that:

“I conclude that while reimbursement rates are not the only factor determining whether providers participate in Medicaid, they are by far the most important factor, and that a sufficient increase in reimbursement rates will lead to a substantial increase in provider participation and a corresponding increase to access to care.”

“Given the record, I conclude that plaintiffs have shown that achieving adequate provider enrollment in Medicaid – and for those providers to meaningfully open their practices to Medicaid children – requires compensation to be set at least at the Medicare level.

Judge Jordan is not alone.  Over the past two decades, similar cases have been filed in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Texas, and D.C. [Notice: Not in NC].  These lawsuits demanding higher reimbursement rates have largely succeeded.

There is also a pending Supreme Court case that I blogged about here.

Increasing the Medicaid reimbursement rates is vital for Medicaid recipients and access to care.  Low reimbursement rates cause physicians to cease accepting Medicaid patients.  Therefore, these lawsuits demanding increased reimbursement rates benefit both the Medicaid recipients and the physicians providing the services.

According to the above-mentioned study, in 2011, “96 percent of physicians accepted new patients in 2011, rates varied by payment source: 31 percent of physicians were unwilling to accept any new Medicaid patients; 17 percent would not accept new Medicare patients; and 18 percent of physicians would not accept new privately insured patients.”

It also found this obvious fact:  “Higher state Medicaid-to-Medicare fee ratios were correlated with greater acceptance of new Medicaid patients.”

Ever heard the phrase: “You get what you pay for.”?

A few months ago, my husband brought home a box of wine.  Yes, a box of wine.  Surely you have noticed those boxes of wine at Harris Teeter.  I tried a sip.  It was ok.  I’m no wine connoisseur.  But I woke the next morning with a terrible headache after only consuming a couple of glasses of wine.  I’m not sure whether the cheaper boxed wine has a higher level of tannins, or what, but I do not get headaches off of 2 glasses of wine when the wine bottle is, at least, $10.  You get what you pay for.

The same is true in service industries.  Want a cheap lawyer? You get what you pay for.  Want a cheap contractor? You get what you pay for.

So why do we expect physicians to provide the same quality of care in order to receive $10 versus $60?  Because physicians took the Hippocratic Oath?  Because physicians have an ethical duty to treat patients equally?

While it is correct that physicians take the Hippocratic Oath and have an ethical duty to their clients, it’s for these exact reasons that many doctors simply refuse to accept Medicaid.  It costs the doctor the same office rental, nurse salaries, and time devoted to patients to treat a person with Blue Cross Blue Shield as it does a person on Medicaid.  However, the compensation is vastly different.

Why?  Why the different rates if the cost of care is equal?

Budgetary reasons.

Unlike private insurance, Medicaid is paid with tax dollars.  Each year, the General Assembly determines our Medicaid budget.  Reducing Medicaid reimbursement rates, by even 1%, can affect the national Medicaid budget by billions of dollars.

But, remember, rates cannot be set for merely budgetary reasons…

Is a potential lawsuit looming in NC’s not so distant future???

A New Year and We Will “Ring In” Even Lower PCS Reimbursement Rates: Time for Litigation?

Merry Christmas, everyone!!! And Happy New Year!!

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday! Personally, Christmas was wonderful for my family.  I actually took some days off.  And our 9-year-old girl received way too many presents.  Plus, I learned that we should be spending way less on her!! We bought her a new saddle, bridle and breast-strap for her horse, but, when asked what she received for Christmas, she tells everyone about the $2 marshmallow gun she received, not the saddle. Regardless, we were able to spend quality time together with my mom and dad and 2 sisters.  My husband Scott, however, got the flu and he has been in bed for the last few days…yuck! But he was healthy on Christmas.

We have been truly blessed this year, and I want to thank you all for reading my blog.

I received an email today from an owner of a home care agency that reminded me that, especially during the holidays, many people are struggling.  This home care agency owner, “we will call him Al,” informed me that he potentially will be closing his agency, which would put approximately 130 employees out of work. Al told me that his agency has been struggling over the past few years with the decrease in personal care services (PCS) reimbursement rate.

Al is not the only home care agency owner who has contacted me in the last few months bemoaning about the low PCS reimbursement rates.  The PCS reimbursement rates are set by legislature, most of the time in the budget bills.  For example, the General Assembly passed the budget this past year, which will decrease the PCS reimbursement rates by another 3% beginning January 1, 2015. (Happy New Years).

See below, which is from another blog post: “PCS Medicaid Reimbursement Rates Are TOO LOW to Maintain Adequate Quality of Care, in Violation of the Code of Federal Regulations!

“SECTION 12H.18.(b). During the 2013-2015 fiscal biennium, the Department of Health and Human Services shall withhold reduce by three percent (3%) of the payments … on or after January 1, 2014” (emphasis added).”

The PCS reimbursement rate became $13.88. Session Law 2014-100 was signed into law August 7, 2014; however, Session Law 2014-100 purports to be effective retroactively as of October 2013. (This brings into question these possible recoupments for services already rendered, which, in my opinion, would violate federal and state law, but such possible violations (or probable or currently occurring violations are a topic for another blog).

It is without question that the Medicaid reimbursement rate for PCS is too low. In NC, the PCS reimbursement rate is currently set at $13.88/hour (or $3.47/15 minutes). It is also without question that there is a direct correlation between reimbursement rates and quality of care.

Because Medicaid pays for approximately 67% of all nursing home residents and recipients of home health care in USA, the Medicaid reimbursement rates and methods are central to understanding the quality of care received by PCS services and the level of staffing criteria expected.

PCS for adults are not a required Medicaid service. As in, a state may opt to provide PCS services or not. As of 2012, 31 states/provinces provided PCS services for adults and 25 did not. Most notably, Florida, Virginia, and South Carolina did not provide PCS services for adults. See Kaiser Family Foundation website.

According to Kaiser Family Foundation, “For the personal care services state plan option, the average rate paid to provider agencies [across the nation] was $18.19 per hour in 2012, a slight increase from $17.91 per hour in 2011. In states where personal care services providers were paid directly by the state or where reimbursement rates were determined by the state, the average reimbursement rate was $16.31 per hour in 2012. Medicaid provider reimbursement rates are often set by state legislatures as part of the budget process.”

What can be done regarding these low PCS reimbursement rates in NC???

In order to change legislation, one of two avenues exist: (1) lobbying; or (2) litigation.

Over the past few years, while the PCS reimbursement rates have continued to decrease, the associations involved with home care organizations and long term care facilities (companies that provide PCS) have emphasized the lobbying aspect.  No litigation has been filed demanding a reasonable PCS reimbursement rate.

Obviously, the lobbying aspect has yielded less than desirable results.  Instead of increasing the PCS reimbursement rate, the General Assembly has continually decreased the rate.

When one line of attack does not work, you try another.

Maybe it is time for litigation.

PCS Medicaid Reimbursement Rates Are TOO LOW to Maintain Adequate Quality of Care, in Violation of the Code of Federal Regulations!

I recently spoke at the Association for Hospice and Home Care (AHHC) and the NC Association for Long Term Care Facilities (NCLTCF) conferences. At issue at both conferences was the reimbursement rate for personal care services (PCS), which is extremely important to both home health agencies (HHAs) and long-term care facilities (LTCFs).

Both AHHC and NCLTCF, as associations, are vital to the HHAs and LTCFs across the state. Associations provide a network of peers, up-to-date information, and lobbying efforts. The old saying, “United we stand, divided we fall,” comes to mind.

The saying, “United we stand, divided we fall,” was originally coined by Aesop, one of my favorite storytellers of all time, in the story “The Four Oxen and the Lion,” which goes like this:

“A lion used to prowl about a field in which four oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them. At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four.”

UNITED WE STAND, DIVIDED WE FALL.”

I think “The Four Oxen and the Lion” is indicative as to the importance of an association, generally. An association is truly essential when it comes to lobbying. There are two times during which we have a potential impact as to the wording of statutes: (1) During the forefront, by lobbying efforts; and (2) At the backend, through litigation. Obviously, if the forefront is successful, then there becomes no need for the backend.

Much to my chagrin, in my explanation above, I am the “backend.” Hmmmm.

Because I am a litigator and not a lobbyist, I am only called upon if the forefront fails.

In the last session, the General Assembly enacted Session Law 2014-100, which reduced the Medicaid reimbursement rates for all services by 3%.

“SECTION 12H.18.(b). During the 2013-2015 fiscal biennium, the Department of Health and Human Services shall withhold reduce by three percent (3%) of the payments … on or after January 1, 2014” (emphasis added).”

The PCS reimbursement rate became $13.88. Session Law 2014-100 was signed into law August 7, 2014; however, Session Law 2014-100 purports to be effective retroactively as of October 2013. (This brings into question these possible recoupments for services already rendered, which, in my opinion, would violate federal and state law, but such possible violations (or probable or currently occurring violations are a topic for another blog).

It is without question that the Medicaid reimbursement rate for PCS is too low. In NC, the PCS reimbursement rate is currently set at $13.88/hour (or $3.47/15 minutes). It is also without question that there is a direct correlation between reimbursement rates and quality of care.

Because Medicaid pays for approximately 67% of all nursing home residents and recipients of home health care in USA, the Medicaid reimbursement rates and methods are central to understanding the quality of care received by PCS services and the level of staffing criteria expected.

PCS for adults are not a required Medicaid service. As in, a state may opt to provide PCS services or not. As of 2012, 31 states/provinces provided PCS services for adults and 25 did not. Most notably, Florida, Virginia, and South Carolina did not provide PCS services for adults. See Kaiser Family Foundation website.

According to Kaiser Family Foundation, “For the personal care services state plan option, the average rate paid to provider agencies [across the nation] was $18.19 per hour in 2012, a slight increase from $17.91 per hour in 2011. In states where personal care services providers were paid directly by the state or where reimbursement rates were determined by the state, the average reimbursement rate was $16.31 per hour in 2012. Medicaid provider reimbursement rates are often set by state legislatures as part of the budget process.”

See the below chart for a state by state comparison:

PCS across country 1

PCS country 2

Why should we care about the Medicaid PCS reimbursement rates?

1. Low reimbursement rates directly, and negatively, impact quality of care.
2. The aides who provide the PCS services, whether in someone’s home or at a LTCF, are often, him or herself on Medicaid.
3. It is in our best interest as a public for home health care agencies and LTCF to continue to accept Medicaid recipients.
4. It is in our best interest as a public for home health agencies and LTCF to stay in business.

#1: Low reimbursement rates directly, and negatively, impact quality of care.

42 U.S.C.A §1396a requires that a state provide Medicaid reimbursement rates at a level to “assure that payments are consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care and are sufficient to enlist enough providers so that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population…”

In an article entitled “Nurse Staffing Levels and Medicaid Reimbursement Rates in Nursing Facilities,” written by Charlene Harrington, James H Swan, and Helen Carrillo, the authors found that the Medicaid nursing home reimbursement rates were linked to quality of care, as to both RN hours and total nursing hours.

“Resident case mix was a positive predictor of RN hours and a negative predictor of total nursing hours. Higher state minimum RN staffing standards was a positive predictor of RN and total nursing hours while for-profit facilities and the percent of Medicaid residents were negative predictors.”

Numerous other articles have been published in the last few years that cite the direct correlation between reimbursement rates and quality of care.

The argument can be made that $13.88 is too low a reimbursement rate to ensure adequate quality of care. However, again, because this rate was not prevented at the forefront, it would entail a “backend” act of litigation to adjust the current reimbursement rate. (It is important to note that beginning next year, there will be an additional reduction of rate by another 1%).

#2: The aides who provide the PCS services, whether in someone’s home or at a LTCF, is often, him or herself on Medicaid.

According to the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, an advocacy group for home care workers, 1 in 4 home health workers has a household income below the federal poverty line and more than 1 in 3 do not have health insurance.

Think about this…home care workers provide PCS to the elderly, disabled, and needy, many of which are on Medicaid and Medicare. Home care workers work full-time changing diapers, assisting with ambulation, dressing, and grooming for the elderly, yet 1 in 4 home care workers are eligible for Medicaid themselves.

Currently, federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour. 18 states have minimum wage equal to the federal minimum wage, including North Carolina. 23 states set minimum wage higher than the federal level. Washington D.C. pays the highest minimum wage at $9.50/hour.

PCS reimbursement rates in NC are $3.47/15 minutes, or $13.88/hour. $13.88 is above the federal and NC minimum wage of $7.25. However, just because the PCS reimbursement rate is $13.88/hour does not mean that the PCS workers are receiving $13.88/hour. The owners of HHAs and LTCFs pay their workers much less than $13.88/hour; they have overhead, insurance, taxes, salaries, etc. to pay…not to mention a percentage of the $13.88/hour needs to be allocated to profit (albeit, however, small).

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2013, the average PCS worker’s salary in NC is $19,392/year, or $1,660/month. Working 40 hours a week, a salary of $17,280 equates to approximately $10.10/hour. Obviously, $10.10 is well-above our $7.25 minimum wage, although difficult to make ends meet.

The average fast food worker’s hourly wage is $7.73.

In order for an increase of hourly pay, of any amount, for home health workers, the Medicaid PCS reimbursement rate would need to be increased.

With the current PCS rate at $13.88/hour, home health workers are getting paid between $8.00-11.00/hour. In order for PCS workers to receive $15.00/hour, the PCS rate would need to be increased by $2.00-5.00/hour.

#3: It is in our best interest as a public for HHAs and LTCFs to continue to accept Medicaid recipients.

What if HHA and LTCF refused to accept Medicaid recipients because the reimbursement rates are simply too low?

With the number of people dependent on Medicaid, if HHAs and LTCFs refused Medicaid recipients, our elderly and disabled would suffer.

Perhaps the average length of life would decrease. Perhaps we would implement legal euthanasia. Perhaps the suicide rate would increase. Perhaps the homelessness percentage would reach an all-time high. Is this the world in which you want to live?? Is this the world in which you want to age??

In my opinion, the way we treat our elderly, disabled and needy population is a direct reflection on the level of civilization or educated sophistication.

Here is an excerpt of an article published in 2013 when China passed its new Elderly Rights Law:

Korea: Celebrating old age
Not only do Koreans respect the elderly, but they also celebrate them. For Koreans, the 60th and 70th birthdays are prominent life events, which are commemorated with large-scale family parties and feasts. As in Chinese culture, the universal expectation in Korea is that roles reverse once parents age, and that it is an adult child’s duty — and an honorable one at that — to care for his or her parents.

The U.S. and U.K.: Protestantism at play
Western cultures tend to be youth-centric, emphasizing attributes like individualism and independence. This relates back to the Protestant work ethic, which ties an individual’s value to his or her ability to work — something that diminishes in old age. Anthropologist Jared Diamond, who has studied the treatment of the elderly across cultures, has said the geriatric in countries like the U.K. and U.S. live “lonely lives separated from their children and lifelong friends.” As their health deteriorates, the elderly in these cultures often move to retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes.”

#4: It is in our best interest as a public for HHAs and LTCFs to stay in business.

Or we can become more like the Koreans. At least, in this one respect, would emulating the Korean attitude be so bad?

Conclusion

Obviously, we cannot shift the American attitude toward the elderly, disabled and needy within one generation.

But we CAN increase the PCS reimbursement rate.

Here, the forefront was not as effective as needed. Maybe there is a need for a “backend” act of litigation…

Our Medicaid Budget Does More Than Allocate Money; It Places the Burden of Proof on Medicaid Providers!!!

Are you a health care provider in NC? Are you wonderful enough to help Medicaid patients but accept low Medicaid reimbursements? Are you dedicated to helping our most needy? Well, guess what???? YOU now have the burden of proof if you disagree with an adverse determination by the State.

That’s right. The newly-enacted state budget quietly changes the statutes and shifts the burden of proof from the Department to YOU. I am reminded of my Grandpa Carson. Whenever he couldn’t believe what he just heard, he would bellow, “Wooooo weee.” Growing up in the south, we have certain sayings, such as “Bless your heart,” “Y’all come back now, ya hear?” and “That food is so good I could slap my momma.” My Grandpa Carson, God rest his soul, was as southern as southern can get. If he were here and heard about the burden shift onto the providers, he would say, “Wooo weeeee.”

Last week while I was on my first week-long vacation in 2 years, the North Carolina state budget, known as Session Law 2014-100, was signed into law by Governor McCrory.  (Which is why I missed a week of blogging…my vacation, not McCrory’s signature).  Since I was at my family reunion started by my Grandpa, I am dedicating this blog to my grandpa, Nat Carson, who created a family tradition that has lasted for over 40 years. Our (huge) extended family vacation together once a year at Emerald Isle for a family reunion. FOUR generations attend!

Going back to the budget…

An “adverse determination” in this case includes decisions by North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) under the Medicaid program such as the Department’s termination of a contract with the provider, a Managed Care Organization’s (MCO) termination of a provider contract, or the Department or one its many vendors determines that the providers owes an overpayment back to the state.

Not only does the state budget shift the burden of proof onto providers when they contest an adverse determination by the State, which we will discuss more below, but it also takes a lot of DHHS decision-making power away. It is apparent that the General Assembly does NOT think DHHS can do its job of managing Medicaid and creating Medicaid reform competently. The General Assembly (GA) has decided that, for whatever reason, it will be more hands-on regarding Medicaid decisions in the future.

Here are a few examples of the GA’s hands-on attitude found in the Session Law 2014-100 (with some emphasis I have made by putting some words in bold-faced type)

  • “Until the General Assembly enacts legislation authorizing a plan to reform Medicaid, the Department of Health and Human Services (i) shall continue to consult with stakeholder groups, study, and recommend options for Medicaid reform that will provide greater budget predictability for the Medicaid program and (ii) shall not commit the State to any particular course on Medicaid reform and shall not submit any reform-related State plan amendments, waivers, or grant applications nor enter into any contracts related to implementing Medicaid reform.”
  • “The Department may submit drafts of the waiver to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to solicit feedback but shall not submit the waiver for CMS approval until authorized by the General Assembly.”
  • “The Department of Health and Human Services shall make payments to the contractor hired by the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services from funds appropriated elsewhere in this budget for this contract…”
  • “The Department of Health and Human Services shall not make any other modifications to the portion of the Medicaid State Plan referenced in this section, except as provided herein.”
  • “The Department may submit drafts of the waivers to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to solicit feedback but shall not submit the waivers for CMS approval until authorized by the General Assembly.
  • “[T]he Division of Medical Assistance shall ensure that any Medicaid-related or NC Health Choice-related State contract entered into after the effective date of this section contains a clause that allows the Department or the Division to terminate the contract without cause upon 30 days’ notice.”
  • “No fewer than 10 days prior to submitting an amendment to the State Plan to the federal government, the Department shall post the amendment on its Web site and notify the members of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services and the Fiscal Research Division that the amendment has been posted.”

Basically, the GA has estopped DHHS from reforming Medicaid without the consent of the General Assembly.

Then, stuck in the middle of the state budget is the amendment to N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C…. “Woooo weeee!”

MODIFY MEDICAID APPEALS SECTION 12H.27.

(a) G.S. 108C-12(d) reads as rewritten: “(d) Burden of Proof. – The Department petitioner shall have the burden of proof in appeals of Medicaid providers or applicants concerning an adverse determination.”

Does anyone else understand what this teeny, tiny clause within Session Law 2014-100 means????

What is the importance of burden of proof? Enormous! And this clause changes the playing field for Medicaid providers. It may not have been a level field prior to Session Law 2014-100, but now it’s even more slanted.

The easiest way to explain “burden of proof” is that when a petitioning Medicaid provider challenges some adverse determination by DHHS, for example, the Department’s termination of a contract with the provider, the “burden of proof” decides which party must persuade the reviewing tribunal that the party’s assertions are correct. Up until this amendment of G.S.108C-12(d), the Department has had the burden to present evidence showing that its adverse determination was correct. The petitioner could then respond to that evidence, to try to show the contrary, but the burden of proving the correctness of the adverse determination still rested on the Department in cases filed by Medicaid providers under Chapter 108C.

In court, one of the first questions a judge will ask is, “Who carries the burden of proof?” Because the legal burden of proof is just that…a burden…that must be satisfactorily carried in order to win.

Health care providers who accept Medicaid have notoriously been given the short-end of the stick, i.e., low reimbursement rates, undergoing burdensome audits, but, at least, in NC, historically, the Department has had to prove the correctness of its allegations, whether it be an alleged overpayment, a termination of a Medicaid contract, or other allegations.

But now? DHHS’ allegations against a health care provider are true…unless the provider can prove DHHS wrong. The uphill fight of a provider seeking to correct a DHHS adverse determination, just became much steeper, and it was done with little or no fanfare.

“Woooooooo weeeeeee!”

So can you do? Only options as far as I see it:

  1. Call and email your state representatives.
  2. Hire a lobbyist.
  3. Bring a lawsuit to change it.
  4. Do nothing.

Per L. Warren’s comment, I am adding #5.

5. Stop taking Medicaid clients.