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Managed Care – Eight Reasons Why MCOs Smell Like Pre-Minced Garlic

When it comes to the managed care organizations (MCOs) in NC, something smells rancid, like pre-minced garlic. When I first met my husband, Scott, I cooked with pre-minced garlic that comes in a jar. I figured it was easier than buying fresh garlic and dicing it myself. Scott bought fresh garlic and diced it. Then he asked me to smell the fresh garlic versus the pre-minced garlic. There was no contest. Next to the fresh garlic, the pre-minced garlic smelled rancid. That is the same odor I smell when I read information about the MCOs – pre-minced garlic in a jar.

garlic minced-garlic

In NC, MCOs are charged with managing Medicaid funds for behavioral health care, developmentally disabled, and substance abuse services. When the MCOs were initially created, we had 13. These are geographically situated, so providers and recipients have no choice with which MCO to interact. If you live in Sandhills’ catchment area, then you must go through Sandhills. If you provide services in Cardinal’s catchment area, then you must contract with Cardinal – even though you already have a provider participation agreement with the State of NC to provide Medicaid services in the State of NC.

Over the years, there has been consolidation, and now we have 7 MCOs.

newestmco

From left to right: Smoky Mountain (Duke blue); Partners Behavioral Health (Wake Forest gold); Cardinal Innovations Healthcare (ECU purple); Sandhills (UNCC green); Alliance Behavioral Healthcare (mint green); Eastpointe (Gap Khaki); and Trillium (highlighter yellow/green).

Recently, Cardinal (ECU purple) and Eastpointe (Gap khaki) announced they will consolidate, pending authorization from the Secretary of DHHS. The 20-county Cardinal will morph into a 32-county, MCO giant.

Here is the source of the rancid, pre-minced, garlic smell (in my opinion):

One – MCOs are not private entities. MCOs are prepaid with our tax dollars. Therefore, unlike Blue Cross Blue Shield, the MCOs must answer to NC taxpayers. The MCOs owe a duty of financial responsibility to taxpayers, just like the state government, cities, and towns.

Two – Cardinal CEO, Richard Topping, is paid $635,000, plus he has a 0 to 30 percent bonus potential which could be roughly another $250,000, plus he has some sort of annuity or long-term package of $412,000 (with our tax dollars).

Three – Cardinal is selling or has sold the 26 properties it owns or owned (with our tax dollars) to lease office space in the NASCAR Plaza office tower in uptown Charlotte for $300 to $400 per square foot plus employee parking (with our tax dollars).

Four – Cardinal charges 8% of public funds for its administrative costs. (Does that include Topping’s salary and bonuses?) How many employees are salaried by Cardinal? (with our tax dollars).

Five – The MCOs are prepaid. Once the MCOs receive the funds, the funds are public funds and subject to fiscal scrutiny. However, the MCOs keep whatever funds that it has at the end of the fiscal year. In other words, the MCOs pocket any money that was NOT used to reimburse a provider for a service rendered to a Medicaid recipient. Cardinal – alone – handles around $2.8 billion in Medicaid funding per year for behavioral health services. The financial incentive for MCOs? Terminate providers and reduce/deny services.

Six – MCOs are terminating providers and limiting access to care. In my law practice, I am constantly defending behavioral health care providers that are terminated from an MCO catchment area without cause or with erroneous cause. For example, an agency was terminated from their MCO because the agency had switched administrative offices without telling the MCO. The agency continued to provide quality services to those in need. But, because of a technicality, not informing the MCO that the agency moved administrative offices, the MCO terminated the contract. Which,in turn, puts more money in the MCO’s pocket; one less provider to pay.  Is a change of address really a material breach of a contract? Regardless – it is an excuse.

Seven – Medicaid recipients are not receiving medically necessary services. Either the catchment areas do not have enough providers, the MCOs are denying and reducing medically necessary services, or both. Cardinal cut 11 of its state-funded services. Parents of disabled, adult children write to me, complaining that their services from their MCO have been slashed for no reason….But the MCOs are saving NC money!

Eight – The MCOs ended 2015 with a collective $842 million in the bank. Wonder how much money the MCOs have now…(with our tax dollars).

Rancid, I say. Rancid!

The Merger of the MCOs!

Breaking News: From DHHS

Raleigh, NC

State health officials announced today that the state- and Medicaid-funded Local Management Entities/Managed Care Organizations providing mental health, intellectual and developmental disability and substance use services to North Carolina citizens will be consolidating into four service regions across the state.

Further consolidation will improve quality of services, accessibility, accountability and long-term sustainability.

“I’m a strong believer in LME/MCOs,” said Rick Brajer, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. “These populations deserve dedicated management.”

The newly consolidated service areas are:

  • North Central Region: CenterPoint Human Services and Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions will be merging
  • South Central Region: Sandhills Center and Alliance Behavioral Healthcare will be merging
  • Eastern Region: Eastpointe and Trillium Health Resources will be merging
  • Western Region: Partners Behavioral Health Management and Smoky Mountain LME/MCO will be merging

newmco

Medicaid Closed Networks: Can Waivers Waive Your Legal Rights?

Sorry for the lapse in blogging. I took off for Thanksgiving and then got sick. I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving!!

While I was sick, I thought about all the health care providers that have been put out of business because the managed care organization (MCO) in their area terminated their Medicaid contract or refused to contract with them. I thought about how upset I would be if I could not see my doctor, whom I have seen for years. See blog for “You Do Have Rights!

Then I thought about…Can a Waiver waive a legal right?

Federal law mandates that Medicaid recipients be able to choose their providers of choice. Court have also held that this “freedom of choice” of provider is a right, not a privilege.

42 U.S.C. § 1396a states that Medicaid recipients may obtain medical services from “any institution, agency, community pharmacy, or person, qualified to perform the service or services required… who undertakes to provide him such services….” Id. at (a)(23).

So how can these MCOs restrict access?

First, we need to discuss the difference between a right and a privilege.

For example, driving is a privilege, not a right. You have no right to a driver’s license, which is why you can lose your license for things, such as multiple DUIs. Plus, you cannot receive a driver’s license unless you pass a test, because a license is not a right.

Conversely, you have the right to free speech and the right to vote. Meaning, the government cannot infringe on your rights to speak and vote unless there are extraordinary circumstances. For example, the First Amendment does not protect obscenity, child pornography, true threats, fighting words, incitement to imminent lawless action (yelling “fire” in a crowded theater), criminal solicitation or defamation. Your right to vote will be rescinded if you are convicted of a felony. Furthermore, you do not need to take a test or qualify for the rights of free speech and voting.

Likewise, your choice of health care provider is a right. It can only be usurped in extraordinary circumstances. You do not need to take a test or qualify for the right. (Ok, I am going to stop underlining “right” and “privilege” now. You get the point).

Then how are MCOs operating closed networks? For that matter, how can Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) terminate a provider’s contract? Wouldn’t both those actions limit your right to choose your provider?

The answer is yes.

And the answer is simple for BCBS. As for BCBS, it is a private company and does not have to follow all the intricate regulations for Medicare/caid. 42 U.S.C.  § 1396a is inapplicable to it.

But Medicaid recipients have the right to choose their provider.  This “freedom of choice” provision has been interpreted by both the Supreme Court and the Seventh Circuit as giving Medicaid recipients the right to choose among a range of qualified providers, without government interference (or its agents thereof).

What does this mean? How can a managed care organization (MCO) here in NC maintain a closed network of providers without violating the freedom of choice of provider rule?

The “Stepford” answer is that we have our Waivers in NC, which have waived the freedom of choice. In our 1915 b/c Waiver, there are a couple pages that enumerates certain statutes. We “x” out the statutes that we were requesting to waive.

It looks like this:

waiver1

Furthermore, federal law carves out an exception to freedom to choose right when it comes to managed care. But to what extent? It the federal carve unconstitutional?

But…the question is twofold:

  • Would our Waiver stand up to federal court scrutiny?
  • Can our state government waive your rights? (I couldn’t help it).

Let’s think of this in the context of the freedom of speech. Could NC request from the federal government a waiver of our right to free speech? It sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? What is the difference between your right to free speech and your right to choose a provider? Is one right more important than the other?

The answer is that no one has legally challenged our Waiver’s waiver of the right to freedom of provider with a federal lawsuit claiming a violation of a constitutionally protected right. It could be successful. If so, in my opinion, two legal theories should be used.

  1. A § 1983 action; and/or
  2. A challenge under 42 CFR 431.55(f)

Section 1983 creates a federal remedy against anyone who deprives “any citizen of the United States… of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” under the color of state law. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Supreme Court has explained that § 1983 should be read to generally “authorize[] suits to enforce individual rights under federal statutes as well as the Constitution.” City of Rancho Palos Verdes, Cal. v. Abrams, 544 U.S. 113, 119 (2005).

Section 1983 does not authorize a federal remedy against state interference with all government entitlements, however; “it is rights, not the broader or vaguer ‘benefits’ or ‘interests,’ that may be enforced under the authority of that section.” Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 283 (2002). But the courts have already held that the freedom to choose your provider is a right.

In 2012, the Seventh Circuit confirmed that § 1983 authorizes Medicaid recipients to sue to enforce the right to freely choose among qualified health providers.

In Planned Parenthood, the court was confronted with an Indiana state law prohibiting state agencies from providing state or federal funds to any entity that performs abortions or maintains or operates a facility in which abortions are performed – regardless of whether there is any nexus between those funds and the abortion services. See Planned Parenthood, 699 F.3d at 967 (7th Cir. 2012). In other words, the law effectively prohibited entities that perform abortions from receiving any state or federal funds for any (non-abortion) purpose.

The Court found that the restrictions violated the Medicaid recipients’ right to freedom of choice of provider.

There are, as always, more than one way to skin a cat. You could also attack the Waiver’s waiver of the freedom to choose your health care provider by saying the NC is violating 42 CFR 431.55.

Notice the last sentence in subsection (d) in the picture above. In our Waiver, NC promises to abide by 42 CFR 431.55(f), which states:

(f) Restriction of freedom of choice—
(1) Waiver of appropriate requirements of section 1902 of the Act may be authorized for States to restrict beneficiaries to obtaining services from (or through) qualified providers or practitioners that meet, accept, and comply with the State reimbursement, quality and utilization standards specified in the State’s waiver request.
(2) An agency may qualify for a waiver under this paragraph (f) only if its applicable State standards are consistent with access, quality and efficient and economic provision of covered care and services and the restrictions it imposes—
(i) Do not apply to beneficiaries residing at a long-term care facility when a restriction is imposed unless the State arranges for reasonable and adequate beneficiary transfer.
(ii) Do not discriminate among classes of providers on grounds unrelated to their demonstrated effectiveness and efficiency in providing those services; and
(iii) Do not apply in emergency circumstances.
(3) Demonstrated effectiveness and efficiency refers to reducing costs or slowing the rate of cost increase and maximizing outputs or outcomes per unit of cost.
(4) The agency must make payments to providers furnishing services under a freedom of choice waiver under this paragraph (f) in accordance with the timely claims payment standards specified in § 447.45 of this chapter for health care practitioners participating in the Medicaid program.

Basically, to argue a violation of 42 CFR 431.55, you would have to demonstrate that NC violated or is violating the above regulation by not providing services “consistent with access, quality and efficient and economic provision of covered care and services.”

So, while it is true that NC has requested and received permission from the Center of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to restrict access to providers, that fact may not be constitutional.

Someone just needs to challenge the Waiver’s waiver.

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?

A Brave New World With Mergers and Acquisitions of Behavioral Health Care Providers: Not Always Happily Ever After!

Unintentionally, I misrepresented the Benchmark panel discussion on which I appeared last Thursday. See blog.  I thought that I would be sitting on the panel along with MCO representatives. I honestly cannot tell you from where I got this idea. Maybe it was a subconscious desire. Regardless, the panel discussion was about merges and acquisitions among behavioral health care providers. While the subject of managed care organizations (MCOs) did come up, managed care was not the primary subject.  And the only MCO representative that I saw was Smokey Mountain’s attorney.

panelpic2

Nevertheless, the panel discussion went fantastic and was informative for those who attended.  I will summarize the panel discussion here for those who could not attend.  First, if you are a behavioral health care provider in NC, joining an association, such as Benchmarks, is an asset.  Not only do you get the benefit of attending educational programs, but you also have the opportunity to meet other behavioral health care providers across the state at the events.  You never know the potential relationships that could be created by attending a Benchmark event.

Going back to the panel…

There were 5 people sitting on the panel.  Besides myself, the panel consisted of Robert Shaw, Senior Counsel with me at Gordon & Rees, Frank Williams, a broker who facilitates mergers and acquisitions for health care providers, and two CEOs of health care providers who have undergone successful mergers and/or acquisitions.

The general consensus of the panel was that the future of behavioral health care will be larger companies which offer multiple services, instead of mom and pop shops that provide few types of services.  The panel was intended to bring potential mergers/acquisitions together in one venue and to educate the providers on “Do’s and Don’ts of Merging/Acquiring,” which is summarized below.

This consensus is generally derived from the MCO atmosphere here in NC.  Right or wrong, the MCOs are operating in closed networks and have the financial incentives to save money by contracting with fewer providers and decreasing authorizations for Medicaid services requested by Medicaid recipients.  See blog. And blog. And blog.

The MCOs seem to be terminating or refusing to contract with smaller health care providers, which, in turn, incentivize small health care providers to join other providers in order to grow its footprint.

Merging or acquiring a company is similar to partnering with another person in marriage.  Both parties have to familiarize themselves with the other’s habits, expectations, learn the other’s faults/liabilities, and, ultimately, have to work together on projects, issues and other matters.  And as we can discern from today’s high divorce rate, not everyone lives happily ever after.

Some marriages, as well as mergers, simply do not work.  Others live happily ever after.

The two provider panelists shared successful merger/acquisition stories.  Both shared experiences in creating new and larger entities effectively.  Both panelists were happy with the mergers/acquisitions and hopeful as to what the future will bring both new entities.

But all mergers and acquisitions do not have happy endings.  The two entities do not always live happily ever after.

Robert and I shared a story of an acquisition from Hades. There is no other way to describe the outcome of the acquisition.

The story of these two companies begins with the fact that the companies leased space in the same building.  One company was on floor 2 and the other was on floor 1.  The staff knew each other in passing.

The problem with the merger of these companies stemmed from a difference in culture.

Theoretically, the two companies did everything right.  The owner of the company getting acquired agreed to stay and work for the company buying it in order to ensure consistency. The buying company agreed to hire all the seller’s employees at their current salaries.  The acquisition was to be seamless.

The problems arose when news of the acquisition passed to the employees.  There was genuine discontentment with the arrangement.  The employees from the seller reacted with hostility and resentment.  Prior to the acquisition, the seller was fairly lax in regulatory compliance.  For example, if a service note was not drafted and filed the date of services….eh?…not that big of a deal.  Well, the buyer had strict document compliance rules for daily service notes.  Anytime more stringent policies are enacted on employees, there is sure to be a negative reaction.  The buyer also expected the seller’s employees to provide more services for the same salary received before the acquisition.

There was no legal or logical step omitted in the acquisition of the one company to the other.  On paper, the acquisition should have been successful.  But, then, personalities got in the way of happily ever after.

The other panelists offered great advice as to mergers and acquisitions, both from the providers’ view and a broker’s view.  I have compiled the advice that I recall below.  I have taken the liberty to provide analogous dating advice, as well, since marriages and mergers/acquisitions are so similar.  Hope it helps!!

Do’s and Don’ts of Mergers/Acquisitions

  • Do not let the secret out.

One provider panelist explained that if your employees learn of a possible merger/acquisition, they will kill the deal. Confide only in the CEO of the firm of which you are looking to merge, acquire, or sell.  Those dating: Never tell other that you want to marry (until the appropriate time).

  • Look outside your catchment area.

The reason companies merge/acquire is to grow.  Think of potential companies outside your own catchment area to grow even more.  For example, if you are in Alliance’s catchment area, think of merging with a company in ECBH/Eastpointe’s area.  Those dating: Have you exhausted your resources? Think of others, such as church, Match.com, etc.

  • Do your due diligence

This is a task as important as the oxygen you breath.  The last thing that you want is to acquire or merge with a company that owes $500,000 in employment taxes or an alleged overpayment.  Part of due diligence will be to check the credentials of every single staff member.  If someone is acting in the role of a LCAS, ensure the person is appropriately licensed.  Those dating: Is he/she employed? Have significant debt?

  • Review the other company’s documentation policies

This could be lumped into the due diligence section, but I think its importance is worth emphasizing.  Whatever service(s) the other company provides, what are its policies as to documentation? Does the provider have a computer program to maintain electronic health records (EHR)? Does it employ paper copies? Does the other company require the providers to submit daily service notes? Look at your own documentation policies.  Contemplate whether your own documentation policies would mesh well with the other company’s policies.  Those dating: How does your potential partner document spending, taxes, and calendared events?

  • Analyze both company’s corporate culture

Merging or acquiring a company is difficult in many ways, but it’s also hard on staff.  Imagine walking into work one day and you notice that the staff had doubled…or tripled.  And you and your colleagues are being told what to do by someone you never met.  This is not an uncommon occurrence with mergers and acquisitions.  Sometimes accepting change of supervision or team members can be a bitter pill to swallow.  How will you work through employee issues?  Personality clashes?  Ego fights?  Those dating: Analyze both person’s personalities, dispute resolutions, religion and beliefs.  Do you like his/her friends?

In addition to the potential conflicts with employees that stay with the merged entity, you also need to contemplate which employees, if any, may, potentially leave the new entity.  Disgruntled employees are a liability.  Those dating: How does he/she treat ex-partners?

  • Research the company’s relationship with its MCO

In our current MCO atmosphere, it is imperative to know, before merging or acquiring, whether the company has a good relationship with its MCO.  What if you acquire the company and its MCO refuses to continue to contract with the new entity.  Knowing the company’s relationship with the MCO is not an absolute.  As in, the company may believe it to have a good relationship with the MCO, while, in truth, it does not.  Ask to review some correspondence between the company and the MCO to discern the tone of the communications.  Those dating: How does he/she treat his/her mother/father?

  • Surround yourself with knowledge

Have a broker and an attorney with expertise in Medicaid.  Those dating: What do your friends think?

To watch the video of me speaking as a panelist for Benchmark, click here.  Scroll down until you see the video with Robert and me.

Otherwise, I hope you live happily ever after!

Knicole Emanuel: Panel Discussion – David Is To Goliath As NC Behavioral Health Care Providers Are To MCOs

Isn’t that analogy apropos? (And it’s not mine…its Benchmarks’)

I will be sitting on a panel today in Raleigh, NC.  See below.

A wonderful association, Benchmarks, is hosting a panel discussion for behavioral health care providers. While it is meant for smaller providers, in my own humble opinion, all behavioral health care providers would benefit from this panel discussion.

Senior Counsel, Robert Shaw, and I will be sitting on the panel…with managed care organizations (MCO) representatives.  It is without question that I have not been a big fan of the MCOs.  If I were to suggest otherwise, I believe that my blog followers would scoff. However, I am interested in hearing these MCO representatives’ side of the argument.

Will these MCO reps merely parrot? Or will they truly engage in worthwhile conversations to understand what it is like for a behavioral health care provider in NC today?

Feel free to join the discussion at 12:30-2:30.  Below is the Evite: 3801 Hillsborough St.

david and goliath

NC MCOs and Consolidation: “When the Music Stops? Nobody Knows!”

Our General Assembly is pushing for the managed care organizations (MCOs) to consolidate and/or morph.  Consolidating the MCOs makes fiscal sense for our state, but if I were executive management at an MCO, I would be be anxiously awaiting direction from our General Assembly.  A metaphoric 3-4 chair game of”Musical Chairs” is proceeding with 9 (now 8) players.  Five to six players will have no chairs when the music stops.

What are MCOs?  See blog and blog.

Multiple bills have been proposed.

Senate Bill 703 proposes 3 statewide MCOs. Senate Bill 574 seems to incorporate provider-led capitated health plans, but is unclear as to the exact model. Senate Bill 696 seems to create a symphony of provider-led and nonprovider-led, risk-based entities. Senate Bill 568 contemplates licensed commercial health insurers offering health care plans.

No one really knows how many MCOs will remain in the end…if any. Regardless, what the number of existing MCOs in the future will be, there is little dispute that the number will be fewer than the number of MCOs that exist now.

In an atmosphere where there is supposition that there are too many people or companies and that only a few will remain, competition brews. People/companies are forced to strategize if they want to survive.

Think about the childhood game, “Musical Chairs.” You start with a large group of people, but with one less chair than the number of people. The music plays and the players meander around at a relatively slow pace, around and around, until the music stops. And what happens when the music stops? The people scramble for a chair.  The person left standing is “out” and must sit on the sideline.

We have 9, soon to be 8, MCOs in NC right now. And the music is playing. But which MCOs will be left standing when the music stops?

Here is a map of our current MCOs:

2014 mco

 

As of July 1, CoastalCare and East Carolina Behavioral Healthcare (ECBH) will be merged. We will be down to 8 MCOs. Which means that the light blue on the bottom right hand side of the map will merge with the bright yellow on top right hand side of the map.

Mecklenburg county, which houses most of the Charlotte area, was not always light purple. It recently merged with Cardinal Innovations.

Partners (light yellow) and Smokey Mountain (dark blue) had serious discussions of a merger until, recently, when both walked away from negotiations of merger.

Why should it matter which MCOs are in existence or how many? Theoretically, it shouldn’t. These MCOs are created in order to manage behavioral health care (Medicaid services for those suffering from substance abuse, mental illness, and developmentally disabled), not to make a profit, right? The only issue of importance should be that medically necessary behavioral health care services are rendered to Medicaid recipients in the most efficient and most effective manner.

Yet competing interests come into play.

Think about it…each MCO employs hundreds of people. Each MCO has a CEO, who is not working for free. Generally, unless other arrangements have been negotiated, there can only be one CEO per MCO. When there are 2+ MCOs merging with 2 CEOs and only 1 “chair” for 1 CEO, it can seem like “Musical Chairs.” Multiple people are vying for one “chair.”

The money at issue for behavioral health care in NC is not a small amount. It is likened to a fire hose spouting money. We have a Medicaid budget in NC of approximately 14 billion dollars. To put it in perspective, with $14 billion dollars, you could purchase the LA Lakers 14 times. This is how much money we spend on Medicaid every year. It is really quite staggering when you think about it.

As every North Carolinian learns in the 6th grade, North Carolina is composed of 100 counties. The estimated Medicaid budget of $14 billion is allocated across 100 counties and among approximately 1.9 million Medicaid recipients.

When it was decided to implement the MCOs across the state, about 2012-ish (we actually obtained permission from CMS for the waiver years prior to 2012, but we began with a pilot and did not implement the MCOs statewide until 2012-13), we found ourselves, initially, with eleven MCOs, and now we have 9…soon to be 8.

The newly merged entity of CoastalCare and ECBH (CC+ECBH) will manage state funds and Medicaid dollars for behavioral health services across 24 counties in eastern North Carolina. In other words almost ¼ of the Medicaid budget will be handed to CC+ECBH, leaving approximately ¾ of the Medicaid budget for 7 other MCOs (the budget is determined by number of recipients, so I am assuming, for the purpose of this blog, that more counties mean more people).

The amount of counties controlled by the remaining 7 MCOs are as follows:

Smokey: 23
Partners: 8
Centerpointe: 4
Cardinal: 16
Sandhills: 9
Eastpointe: 12
Alliance: 4

chart for mcos

Looking at the chart above, it would appear that Smoky and CC+ECBH will manage almost 1/2 the state’s behavioral health care for Medicaid.

Prior to the 1915 b/c Waiver allowing the MCOs to manage behavioral services for Medicaid recipients in NC, DHHS managed it. (Obviously ValueOptions and other vendors had a part in it, but not with actual management).  As the single state agency for Medicaid, DHHS cannot delegate administrative duties to contracted parties without a “Waiver,” or permission for an exception from the federal government, or, more specifically, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Prior to the 1915 b/c Waiver, we did not have 9 companies with hundreds of employees managing behavioral health care for Medicaid recipients. We had DHHS, which employs approximately 18,000 employees.  To my knowledge DHHS did not terminate those employees who were in charge of behavioral health care issues in order to compensate the creation of new companies/employees.  In other words, say 1000 people at DHHS devoted their time to issues arising our of behavioral health care. Once we had an additional 9 (well, 11, at first), those 1000 employees were not asked to join the MCOs. Maybe some did, but, to my knowledge, there was no suggestion or incentive or requirement to leave DHHS and go to an MCO (to shift the administrative burden).

When we created an additional 9 (well, 11 at first) companies to, essentially, take over behavioral health care…

We created more administrative costs, in order to lift the risk of overspending the Medicaid budget off the state.  It is estimated that America wastes $190 billion in excess administrative costs per year.

Waste in health care

In theory, consolidating the MCOs would decrease administrative costs by having fewer paid employees, not dissimilar to why MCOs want a closed network.  See blog. Again, in theory, having fewer MCOs may create a more consistent statewide manner in managing behavioral health care.

Assume for the purpose of this blog that each MCO employs 100 people (which is a very low number) and each employee is paid $50,000, then the administrative cost associated with delegating behavioral health care to MCOs equals $500,000, counting only employee salaries. Multiple that number by 9 (number of current MCOs) and you get an increased administrative cost of approximately $4.5 million dollars per year, not counting the additional overhead each MCO bears (rent/mortgage, equipment, salary benefits, health care benefits, etc.). Plus you have to include the top management’s salaries, because you know the executives are receiving more than $50,000/year.

What motivated us to implement a MCOs system? With an MCO system, the General Assembly is able to allocate funds for Medicaid and place the risk of going over the budget on the MCOs, not the state. This is a completely understandable and reasonable objective. It is without question that the Medicaid budget is swelling to the point of unsustainability.

However, are we trading “control/supervision” for “knowability?” Are we also trading “risk” for “higher administrative costs,” which, in turn, equals less Medicaid dollars for providers and Medicaid recipients? Every dollar paid to an MCO employee is a dollar not going to a health care provider to reimburse for services.

For these reasons, the government’s push for consolidation of the MCOs is astute. Fewer MCOs = less administrative costs. Fewer MCOs = easier supervision by DHHS.

Less administrative costs = more Medicaid dollars going to providers…to serve our most needy. Because, at the end of the day, the most important issue when it comes to Medicaid is providing quality care for recipients.

It is no matter which entity controls/manages behavioral health care for Medicaid, because regardless the entity, that entity should be managing our tax dollars in the most efficient way that provides the best quality to services to those in need.

“Around and around we go, when we stop? Nobody knows…”  But we do know this…when the music stops, there will be scrambling!

The NC Medicaid Mental Health 10-Ring Circus: How 10 Mini-Jurisdictions Will Be the Downfall of Mental Health

Ever been to a three-ring circus? It is hard to stay focused on one ring because so much is happening in all 3 rings.  Are you supposed to watch the lion-tamer? The trapeze artists? Or the motorcycles jumping through rings of fire? You can’t watch all the acts.  You end up turning your head back and forth like a water sprinkler, only to catch some of each act.

Now imagine a 10-ring circus.

You wouldn’t be able to see much of any act.

This is similar to our NC Medicaid mental health system.  Instead of the one single state entity running our mental health system for Medicaid, we have 10 entities.  And all 10 entities have different rules.  Different Medicaid rates.  (Not to mention this is in violation of the federal “single state agency” mandate).

So what is the effect of these 10 mini-jurisdictions with different rules on our Medicaid mental health system?

Providers are going out of business.  Medicaid recipients are not receiving medically necessary, mental health services.

While the dancing bears, the fire-eaters and the acrobats are all performing, the ringmaster loses control.

Yesterday a psychologist-friend (We will call her Dr. Liz) told me that a mother called her asking whether Dr. Liz could see her child.  Dr. Liz soon learned that the mother and the child were on Medicaid.  Dr. Liz agreed to assess the child, but sadly informed the mother that it was highly unlikely that Dr. Liz could provide therapy for the child because the child is on Medicaid.

The mother burst into tears.  She explained that she lives in Fayetteville.  (Dr. Liz provides services in Durham).  One and a half hours away.  The mother said that Dr. Liz was the 30th provider she called.

29 providers either refused to see the child or had waiting lists months and months long because the child is on Medicaid.

The mother explained that the psychologist the child had routinely seen went out of business and that she did not understand why there were no psychologists within an hour and a half drive of her that were willing or able to provide services to her child.

She cried, “Why won’t anyone take Medicaid?”

When Dr. Liz told me this story, I was deeply saddened.  Yet this is reality.

Dr. Liz could not provide services to the child because, despite the fact that Dr. Liz has a Medicaid contract with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to provide Medicaid services throughout North Carolina, one managed care organization (MCO), Alliance Behavioral Health (Alliance), has decided that Dr. Liz cannot provide services in Durham County (where Dr. Liz is located).

We have 11 MCOs across North Carolina.

MCO map

Although after September 30, 2013, we will have 10 MCOs.  After Sept. 30, Western Highlands will be consolidated with Smoky Mountain, and Smoky Mountain will oversee management of mental health services for 23 western North Carolina counties.

So I will use 10 MCOs in this blog as there will be 10 within a few weeks.  BTW: There is also a lot of talk that MeckLINK will soon be the next MCO to disappear, but we shall see.

So how are these 10 MCO creating mini-jurisdictions? And why are these mini-jurisdictions causing the downfall of NC Medicaid mental health?

Let me explain:

Dr. Liz lives and works in Durham county.  Alliance is the MCO.  Alliance has refused to provide Dr. Liz with a Medicaid contract.  Therefore, Dr. Liz is not allowed to provide Medicaid services in Wake, Durham, Cumberland, or Johnston counties, because Alliance is in charge of those counties.

However, if Dr. Liz drives over to Fuquay Varina (Harnett county), Dr. Liz CAN provide Medicaid services there because Sandhills, the MCO for Harnett county, contracted with Dr. Liz.

Do you see the issue?

In essence, by Alliance not contracting with Dr. Liz, Alliance has taken Dr. Liz’s Medicaid contract with DHHS and torn a chunk out of it.  Dr. Liz’s contract with DHHS states she can provide services statewide.  But Alliance removed Dr. Liz’s ability to provide services in 4 counties, Wake, Cumberland, Durham and Johnston.  Since Dr. Liz could, theoretically, provide services in 96 other counties, Alliance removed a small chunk of Dr. Liz’s contract with DHHS…but still a chunk nonetheless.

If Dr. Liz ONLY provided services within Alliance’s catchment, then Alliance, by refusing to contract with Dr. Liz, would have either (1) put Dr. Liz out of business; (2) caused Dr. Liz to no longer accept Medicaid; or (3) forced Dr. Liz to relocate.

As all 10 MCOs are managing Medicaid differently, one provider could be allowed to provide Medicaid services in half the state, but not the other half.

While, theoretically, on paper, it may seem easy to tell Dr. Liz to just relocate her practice to Fuquay Varina, in reality, this is much more difficult.

Dr. Liz signed a 5-year lease for her building in Durham, and she is only in her first year (she just renewed it) of the lease.  She also has a daughter who attends school nearby her office.  Were Dr. Liz to move her office, she would no longer be able to transport her daughter to school.  Her clients cannot drive to Fuquay.  Most of her Medicaid clients lack transportation or the funds to pay for gas to drive 30 minutes further.  She has no clients in Fuquay.  She has no staff in Fuquay.  Her staff will not follow her to Fuquay; they all live in Durham. 

Dr. Liz does not have monetary ability to go lease another building in Fuquay.  But she is unable to perform her work where she is located now in Durham.

So what happens?

More times than not…the provider’s company goes bankrupt.  Which is why the mother cannot find services for her child in Fayetteville.  Many providers in Fayetteville and across NC have gone belly up.  The few remaining providers are either limiting the number of Medicaid patients they will accept or have long waiting lists.

Not only do the MCOs determine the providers with whom to contract differently, the MCOs even reimburse certain Medicaid services differently.

Assertive Community Treatment Team (ACTT) is a 24-hour service for the severely mentally ill.  All 10 MCOs must provide ACTT services, but the MCOs do not have to reimburse uniformly.

Therefore, if Dr. Liz were to provide ACTT services in the western part of the state, Dr. Liz may receive $295.32 per unit.  But if Dr. Liz provided the services in southern NC, she may have been reimbursed $323.98 per unit.

This Medicaid reimbursement rate changing depending on which MCO is paying would be like a Chatham county DMV charging $25 to renew your license, but a Mecklenburg county DMV charging $75.  It is a North Carolina state license!  The price to renew should be statewide.

Just like Medicaid should be uniform across the state. 

But, instead, here in NC, we have created 10 mini-jurisdictions.

In each of the 10 mini-jurisdictions, the MCO dictate the rules.  In each of the 10 MCOs, the rules are different.  Each MCO can choose to contract with a provider (or not) with zero regard as to the effect on the provider, the provider’s company, and the Medicaid recipients.  The MCOs can reimburse the same Medicaid services at different rates.

The dancing bears, the fire-eater, and the acrobats are all charging different entrance fees, depending on which entrance you entered.  (And we all know that a dancing bear should not be in charge of entrance fees!) 

The ringmaster is sleeping.

There is no uniformity in Medicaid mental health in NC. 

It is a 10-ring circus!

NC General Assembly: Hold Contracted Companies Accountable in NC Medicaid! (If You Do Not, Who Will?)

Our government is made of checks and balances.  The reason for having checks and balances is to create independent governing bodies with separate powers, thereby preventing any one branch from having more power over another.

The legislative branch (General Assembly), most importantly, passes bills (makes the laws) and has broad taxing and spending power.

The executive branch (Governor), most importantly, makes appointments, may veto bills, but those vetoes may be overridden, and executes the spending allowed by the legislature.

The judicial branch (court system), most importantly, interprets the laws passed by the legislature, exercises injunctions and judicial reviews.

How these checks and balances can play out in real life are endless.  But, without question, if the legislative branch fails to check the executive branch, even if the judicial branch is checking the executive branch, then the executive branch exceeds its power and the legislative branch is failing its intended job.

It has nothing to do with Republicans versus Democrats.  No one cares that the executive branch is conservative or liberal or whether the legislative branch is 60% Republicans or 70% Democrats.  It is a matter of the legislative branch doing its job.  The legislative branch’s job is to check and balance the executive and judicial branch.

Here, in North Carolina, it appears that the legislative branch is not checking the executive branch.  (While all our branches of government have their own shortcomings, I am concentrating on the legislative branch in today’s blog because, recently, I have seen other legislative branches step-up.  Now our state legislative branch needs to step-up.)  It certainly appears that our judicial branch is providing the checks and balances on the executive branch via the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH).

But where is the legislative branch’s checks and balances? If our legislators do not demand accountability, who will? 

Me?

You?

Recently, I have seen two instances in which legislative branches checked and balanced the executive branch.  These two legislative branches stepped-up to the plate…

Last Tuesday (September 3, 2013), the New Mexico behavioral health subcommittee convened and demanded accountability from Public Consulting Group (PCG).  Coincidentally, last Tuesday, Mecklenburg county commissioners also held a meeting and demanded accountability from MeckLINK, the managed care organization (MCO) in Mecklenburg county, managing Medicaid behavioral health services. (Was it a full moon?)

To see my blog explaining the events in NM leading up to the NM subcommittee meeting, click here.

To see my blog explaining the events in Mecklenburg county leading to the commissioner’s meeting, see all posts on my blog.  Or if you don’t have time to read all posts in my blog over the past 9-10 months, click here.

So why hasn’t the NC General Assembly held a meeting to demand accountability from all MCOs, PCG, and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Division of Medical Assistance (DMA)? 

I do not know.

Because of our government’s system of checks and balances, the legislative branch has the power over the money, both the taxing and spending power.  So the legislative branch has the authority to have DHHS appear before the General Assembly or a subcommittee and demand accountability for the tax dollars spent…as to all DHHS’ contracted companies…and DHHS’ apparent lack of supervision over these contracted companies.

Other legislative entities have done this.

As I already said, last week, the New Mexico behavioral health subcommittee convened to hold HSD (NM’s DHHS) and PCG accountable.

NM legislature

As you can see, the NM subcommittee formed a “U”-shape.  At the table facing the subcommittee, sat:

(1) Larry Heyek, the HSD Deputy General Counsel (remember, HSD = North Carolina’s DMA), Brent Earnest, Deputy Secretary HSD (representing Secretary Sidonie Squier, who was unable to attend due to eye surgery), and Diana McWilliams, Chief Executive Officer, Interagency Behavioral Health Purchasing Collaborative; Director, Behavioral Health Services Division, HSD.

Then…

(2) Me…to be joined later by Thomas Aldrich, manager at PCG.

Then…

(3) William Boyd Kleefisch, F.A.C.H.E., Executive Director, HealthInsight New Mexico, Margaret A. White, R.N., B.S.N., M.S.H.A., Director, External Quality Review, HealthInsight New Mexico, and Greg Lújan, L.I.S.W., Project Manager, Behavioral Health, HealthInsight New Mexico.

The above-listed people all testified before the NM behavioral health subcommittee because the subcommittee demanded accountability from HSD, PCG and others due to the disastrous state of mental health in NM.

Why hasn’t the North Carolina legislature demanded the same accountability?

Similarly, September 3, 2013, the Mecklenburg county commissioners held a meeting and demanded accountability of MeckLINK. 

Mecklenburg county

Apparently, behavioral health care providers have been complaining to their county commissioners about MeckLINK denying medically necessary services and targeting certain providers.

See article.

So, when NM providers complained to their State legislators, the NM subcommittee for behavioral health held a meeting to investigate the source of these complaints.

When Mecklenburg county providers complained to their county commissioners, the County commissioners held a meeting to investigate the source of these complaints.

Have not enough providers complained about PCG and the actions of the MCOs to our North Carolina legislature?

I find that hard to believe, but, just in case, providers….CONTACT YOUR STATE SENATOR AND REPRESENTATIVE!

DEMAND ACCOUNTABILITY!!

Let our elected officials know that:

There is NOT statewide consistency with the MCOs. 

Where 1 MCO denies services, another will authorize.  Where 1 MCO terminates a Medicaid contract of a provider, another does not. Where 1 MCO finds a provider compliant, another does not.

The DMA Clinical Policies and Innovations Waiver are not being applied consistently across the state.  Because of these inconsistencies, the MCOs have created 11 Medicaid jurisdictions. Where is the single state entity?

The MCOs are terminating provider contracts in violation of federal law.

Federal Medicaid law dictates that a “single state entity” manage Medicaid.  In NC, that single state entity is DHHS, DMA.  Yes, DMA may contract with companies.  Yes, DMA may delegate some duties to contracted entities.  BUT, DMA cannot allow a contracted entity substitute its judgment for DMA’s judgment.  See K.C. v. Shipman.  See also my blog: NC Medicaid: One Head Chef in the Kitchen Is Enough!

If DHHS is allowing 11 different companies to decide (use its own judgment) as to whether a provider can provide Medicaid services, the MCOs are substituting their decision-making in place of DHHS.

Also, at times, the MCOs are terminating the providers based on erroneous audits from the Carolinas Center of Medical Excellence.  For more on that…click here.

The MCOs are denying Medicaid recipients medically necessary mental health services.

The MCOs are prepaid, risk-based models.  What does that mean? That the MCOs have monetary incentives to DENY services in lieu of cheaper services.  In an extreme case, one MCO has denied 100% of ACTT services (24-hour, 7/days/week mental health care) in lieu of weekly, one-hour sessions of therapy.  Really?  24-hour care…reduced to weekly therapy????  But authorizing weekly therapy instead of 24-hour care saves the MCO thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.

What happens to the Medicaid recipients denied medically necessary services?  Answer: Imprisonment and hospitalizations.  So, fret not, taxpayers, you are actually paying MORE in taxes when the MCOs deny medically necessary services.  The increase in tax expenditure just will not be funded by the MCO’s Medicaid money.

As an aside, the attorney for the MCO stated that the Medicaid recipients should be the ones to appeal these erroneous denials.  To which I say, “Ha!”  One denied recipient suffered auditory and visual hallucinations (birds, snakes and crocodiles attacking.)  Another attacked his mother with a knife after services were denied.  Another was evicted from her home and, subsequently, jailed.  Another believed Satan spoke to him, telling him to kill himself.  I ask, when should the Medicaid recipients have (a) gotten themselves to a computer; (b) googled the NC Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH); (c) found the form to appeal a Medicaid denial of services; (d) filled-out the legal reasons they disagree with the denial of services; (d) complied with OAH procedure and drafted a prehearing statement, conducted any necessary discovery, and created all legal arguments to demonstrate medical necessity; and (e) attended a hearing in front of a judge…before or after hospitalization?  Before or after the recipient has had his/her conversation with Satan?

PCG’s audits are NOT 95% accurate (not even close).

I’ve heard that PCG’s contract with DHHS places an obligation on PCG that its audits be 95% accurate.  One person questioned whether that was 95% accurate as to PCG must be able to recoup (defend upon appeal) 95% of the audit results.  Obviously, that is not the case, because the inverse is probably closer to true.  95% of PCG’s audits are overturned (obviously, this number is not accurate…I am making a point).  Another person wondered whether the 95% accuracy meant that if 1 PCG auditor comes up with a $1 million overpayment, and the next day another PCG auditor audits the same documentation, that the 2nd auditor would be within 95% accurate of the $1 million the 1st auditor deemed needed to be recouped.  If the latter is the case, I can see why PCG may have 95% accuracy.  If you teach all your staff how to audit a Medicaid provider and all staff are taught to audit incorrectly, then, no matter the staff member auditing, the audit will be incorrect…but consistent.

Regardless, for a multitude of reasons, I have found almost all PCG audits erroneous. 

Yet, these PCG audits are terrifying Medicaid providers, causing them to ramp up attorney fees to defend themselves, and, in some cases, putting providers out of business.  And, in all cases, increasing the provider’s administrative burden and decreasing the time a provider can allot to serving the Medicaid recipients.

Contact your state legislators!   Help our General Assembly provide the checks and balances needed!

Just to help out, here is a link to all NC State Senators’ telephone numbers.

Because, in the absence of the legislative branch properly checking and balancing the executive branch, the legislative branch loses power and the executive branch gains power.