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A Federal Regulation Violates the U.S. Constitution and Ruins Careers; Yet It Sits…Vaguely

There is a federal regulation that is putting health care providers out of business. It is my legal opinion that the regulation violates the U.S. Constitution. Yet, the regulation still exists and continues to put health care providers out of business.

Why?

Because so far, no one has litigated the validity of the regulation, and I believe it could be legally wiped from existence with the right legal arguments.

How is this important?

Currently, the state and federal government are legally authorized to immediately suspend your Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements upon a credible allegation of fraud. This immense authority has put many a provider out of business. Could you survive without any Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements?

The federal regulation to which I allude is 42 CFR 455.23. It is a federal regulation, and it applies to every single health care provider, despite the service type allowed by Medicare or Medicaid. Home care agencies are just as susceptible to an accusation of health care fraud as a hospital. Durable medical equipment agencies are as susceptible as dentists. Yet the standard for a “credible allegation of fraud” is low. The standard for which the government can implement an immediate withhold of Medicaid/care reimbursements is lower than for an accused murderer to be arrested. At least when you are accused of murder, you have the right to an attorney. When you are accused to health care fraud on the civil level, you do not receive the right to an attorney. You must pay 100% out of pocket, unless your insurance happens to cover the expense for attorneys. But, even if your insurance does cover legal fees, you can believe that you will be appointed a general litigator with little to no knowledge of Medicare or Medicaid regulatory compliance litigation.

42 USC 455.23 states that:

The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending under the Medicaid program against an individual or entity unless the agency has good cause to not suspend payments or to suspend payment only in part.

(2) The State Medicaid agency may suspend payments without first notifying the provider of its intention to suspend such payments.

(3) A provider may request, and must be granted, administrative review where State law so requires.”

In the very first sentence, which I highlighted in red, is the word “must.” Prior to the Affordable Care Act, this text read “may.” From my years of experience, every single state in America has used this revision from “may” to “must” for governmental advantage over providers. When asked for good cause, the state and or federal government protest that they have no authority to make a decision that good cause exists to suspend any reimbursement freeze during an investigation. But this protest is a pile of hooey.

In reality, if anyone could afford to litigate the constitutionality of the regulation, I believe that the regulation would be stricken an unconstitutional.

Here is one reason why: Due Process

The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Bill of Rights provide us our due process rights. Here is the 5th Amendment:

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

There have been a long and rich history of interpretation of the due process clause. The Supreme Court has interpreted the due process clauses to provide four protections:  (1) procedural due process (in civil and criminal proceedings), (2) substantive due process, (3) a prohibition against vague laws, and (4) as the vehicle for the incorporation of the Bill of Rights.

42 CFR 455.23 violates procedural due process.

Procedural due process requires that a person be allowed notice and an opportunity to be heard before a government official takes a person’s life, liberty, or property.

Yet, 42 CFR 455.23 allows the government to immediately withhold reimbursements for services rendered based on an allegation without due process and taking a provider’s property; i.e., money owed for services rendered. Isn’t this exactly what procedural due process was created to prevent???? Where is the fundamental fairness?

42 CFR 455.23 violates substantive due process.

The Court usually looks first to see if there is a fundamental right, by examining if the right can be found deeply rooted in American history and traditions.

Fundamental rights include the right to vote, right for protection from pirates on the high seas (seriously – you have that right), and the right to constitutional remedies. Courts have held that our right to property is a fundamental right, but to my knowledge, not in the context of Medicare/caid reimbursements owed; however, I see a strong argument.

If the court establishes that the right being violated is a fundamental right, it applies strict scrutiny. This test inquires into whether there is a compelling state interest being furthered by the violation of the right, and whether the law in question is narrowly tailored to address the state interest.

Where the right is not a fundamental right, the court applies a rational basis test: if the violation of the right can be rationally related to a legitimate government purpose, then the law is held valid.

Taking away property of a Medicare/caid provider without due process violates substantive due process. The great thing about writing your own blog is that no one can argue with you. Playing Devil’s advocate, I would anticipate that the government would argue that a suspension or withhold of reimbursements is not a “taking” because the withhold or suspension is temporary and the government has a compelling reason to deter health care fraud. To which, I would say, yes, catching health care fraud is important – I am in no way advocating for fraud. But important also is the right to be innocent until proven guilty, and in civil cases, our deeply-rooted belief in the presumption of innocence is upheld by the action at issue not taking place until a hearing is held.

For example, if I sue my neighbor and declare that he is encroaching on my property, the property line is not moved until a decision is in my favor.

Another example, if I sue my business partner for breach of contract because she embezzled $1 million from me, I do not get the $1 million from her until it is decided that she actually took $1 million from me.

So to should be – if a provider is accused of fraud, property legally owned by said provider cannot just be taken away. That is a violation of substantive due process.

42 CFR 455.23 violates the prohibition against vague laws

A law is void for vagueness if an average citizen cannot understand it. The vagueness doctrine is my favorite. According to census data, there are 209.3 million people in the US who are over 24-years. Of those over 24-years-old, 66.9 million have a college degree. 68% do not.

Although here is a quick anecdote: Not so sure that a college degree is indicative of intelligence. A recent poll of law students at Columbia University showed that over 60% of the students, who were polled, could not name what rights are protected by the 1st Amendment. Once they responded “speech,” many forgot the others. In case you need a refresher for the off-chance that you are asked this question in an impromptu interview, see here.

My point is – who is to determine what the average person may or may not understand?

Back to why 42 CFR 455.23 violates the vagueness doctrine…

Remember the language of the regulations: “The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud…”

“Credible allegation of fraud” is defined as an allegation, which has been verified by the State, from any source, including but not limited to the following:

  • Fraud hotline complaints.
  • Claims data mining.
  • Patterns identified through provider audits, civil false claims cases, and law enforcement investigations. Allegations are considered to be credible when they have indicia of reliability and the State Medicaid agency has reviewed all allegations, facts, and evidence carefully and acts judiciously on a case-by-case basis.”

With a bit of research, I was able to find a written podcast published by CMS. It appears to be a Q and A between two workers at CMS discussing whether they should suspend a home health care agency’s reimbursements, similar to a playbook. I assume that it was an internal workshop to educate the CMS employees considering that the beginning of the screenplay begins with a “canned narrator” saying “This is a Medicaid program integrity podcast.”

2018-08-07 -- pic of cms podcast

The weird thing is that when you pull up the website – here – you get a glimpse of the podcast, but, at least on my computer, the image disappears in seconds and does not allow you to read it. I encourage you to determine whether this happens you as well.

While the podcast shimmered for a few seconds, I hit print and was able to read the disappearing podcast. As you can see, it is a staged conversation between “Patrick” and “Jim” regarding suspicion of a home health agency falsifying certificates of medical necessity.

On page 3, “Jim” says, “Remember the provider has the right to know why we are taking such serious action.”

But if your Medicare/caid reimbursements were suddenly suspended and you were told the suspension was based upon “credible allegations of fraud,” wouldn’t you find that reasoning vague?

42 CFR 455.23 violates the right to apply the Bill of Rights to me, as a citizen

This esoteric doctrine only means that the Bill of Rights apply to State governments. [Why do lawyers make everything so hard to understand?]

Medicare/caid Contracts Terminatations: “With” or “Without Cause. You May Need an Injunction

How is it already the second month of 2016? My how the time flies. As you can see below, I have started 2016 with my “best foot forward.”

image

Here’s the story (and why it’s been so long since I’ve blogged):

Santa Claus, whom I love, brought our 10-year-old daughter a zip line for Christmas. (She’s wanted one forever). My wonderful, exceedingly brilliant husband Scott miscalculated the amount of brakes needed for an adult of my weight for a 300-foot zip line. The brakes stopped, albeit suddenly, but adequately, for our 10-year-old.

However, for me…well…I went a bit faster than my 45-pound daughter. The two spring brakes were not adequate to stop my zip line experience and my out-thrown feet broke my crash…into the tree. (It was a miscalculation of basic physics).

On the bright side, apparently, my right leg is longer than my left, so only my right foot was injured.  Or my right foot is overly dominate than my left, which could also be the case.

Also, on the bright side, the zip line ride was AWESOME until the end.

On the down side, I tore the tendon on the bottom of my foot which, according to the ER doctor, is very difficult to tear. Embarrassingly, I had to undergo a psych evaluation because my ER doctor said that the only time he had seen someone tear that bottom tendon on their foot was by jumping off a building. So I have that going for me. I informed him that one could tear such tendon by going on zip line with inadequate brakes. (I passed the psych evaluation, BTW).

Then, while on crutches, I had a 5-day, federal trial in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the week of Martin Luther King, Jr., Tuesday through the next Monday. Thankfully, the judge did not make me stand to conduct direct and cross examinations.

But, up there, in the beautiful State of Indiana, I thought of my next blog (and lamented that I had not blogged in so long…still on crutches; I had not graduated to the gorgeous boot you saw in the picture above).

As I was up in Indiana, I thought, what if someone at the State Medicaid agency doesn’t like you, personally, and terminates your Medicaid contract “without cause?” Or refuses to contract with you? Or refuses to renew your contract?

Maybe you wouldn’t find it important whether your termination is “for cause” or “without cause,” but, in Indiana, and a lot of other states, if your termination is for “without cause,” you have no substantive appeal right, only a procedural appeal right. As in, if you are terminated “without cause,” the government never has to explain the reason for termination to you or a judge. If the government gave you the legally, proper amount of notice, the government can simply say, “I just do not want to do business with you.”

Many jurisdictions have opined that a Medicaid provider has a property right to their Medicaid contract. A health care provider does not have a property right to a Medicaid contract, but, once the state has approved that provider as a Medicaid provider, that provider has a reasonable expectation to continue to provide services to the Medicaid population. While we all know that providing services to the Medicaid population is not going to make you Richy Rich, in some jurisdictions, accepting Medicaid is necessary to stay solvent (despite the awful reimbursement rates).

Here in NC, our Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) have held a property right in maintaining a Medicaid contract once issued and relied upon, which, BTW, is the correct determination, in my opinion. Other jurisdictions concur with our NC ALJs, including the 7th Circuit.

Many times, when a provider is terminated (or not re-credentialed) “without cause,” there is an underlying and hidden cause, which makes a difference on the appeal of such purported “without cause” termination.

Because as I stated above, a “without cause” termination may not allow a substantive appeal, only procedural. In normal-day-speak, for a “without cause,” you cannot argue that the termination or refusal to credential isn’t “fair” or is based on an incorrect assumption that there is a quality of care concern that really does not exist. You can only argue that the agency did not provide the proper procedure, i.e., you didn’t get 60 days notice. Juxtapose, a “for cause” termination, you can argue that the basis for which the termination relies is incorrect, i.e., you are accusing me that my staff member is not credentialed, but you are wrong; she/he is actually credentialed.

So, what do you do if you are terminated “without cause?” What do you do if you are terminated “for cause?”

For both scenarios, you need an injunction.

But how do you prove your case for an injunction?

Proving you need an injunction entails you proving to a judge that: (a) likelihood of success on the merits; (b) irreparable harm; (c) balance of equities; and (d) impact on the community.

The hardest prongs to meet are the first two. Usually, in my experience, irreparable harm is the hardest prong to meet. Most clients, if they are willing to hire my team and me, can prove likelihood of success.  Think about it, if a client knows he/she has horrible documentation, he/she will not spring for an expensive attorney to defend themselves against a termination.

Irreparable harm, however, is difficult to demonstrate and the circumstances surrounding proving irreparable harm creates quite a quandary.

Irreparable, according to case law, cannot only be monetary damages. If you are just out of money and your company is in financial distress, it will not equate to irreparable harm.

Irreparable harm differs slightly from state to state.

Although, most jurisdictions agree that irreparable harm does equate to an imminent threat of your business closing, terminating staff, loss of goodwill, harm to reputation, patients not receiving medically necessary services, unfathamable emotional distress, the weights of loans and credit, understanding that you’ve depleting all savings and checkings, and understanding that you’ve exhausted all possible assets or loans.

The Catch-22 of it all is by the time you meet the prongs of irreparable harm, generally, you do not have the cash to hire an attorney. I suggest to all Medicare and Medicaid health care providers that you need to maintain an emergency fund account for unforeseen situations, such as audits, suspensions, terminations, etc. Put aside money every week, as much as you can. Hope that you never need to use it.

But you will be covered, just in case.