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Warning: Medicare/caid Billing Confusion May Lead to Jail Time

All health care providers are under serious scrutiny, that is, if they take Medicaid. In Atlanta, GA, a dentist, Dr. Oluwatoyin Solarin was sentenced to a year and six months for filing false claims worth nearly $1 million. She pled guilty, and, I would assume, she had an attorney who recommended that she plead guilty. But were her claims actually false? Did she hire a criminal attorney or a Medicaid attorney? Because the answers could be the difference between being behind bars and freedom.

Dr. Solarin was accused of billing for and receiving payments for dental claims while she was not at the office. U.S. Attorney John Horn stated that “Solarin cheated the Medicaid program by submitting fraudulent claims, even billing the government for procedures she allegedly performed at the same time she was out of the country.”

I receive phone calls all the time from people who are under investigation for Medicare/caid fraud. What spurred on this particular blog was a phone call from (let’s call him) Dr. Jake, a dentist. He, similar to Dr. Solarin, was under investigation for Medicaid fraud by the federal government. By the time Dr. Jake called me, his investigation was well on its way, and his Medicaid reimbursements had been suspended due to credible allegations of fraud for almost a year. He was accused of billing for and receiving payments for dental services while he was on vacation…or sick…or otherwise indisposed. He hired one of the top criminal attorneys, who advised him to take a plea deal for a suspended jail sentence and monetary recompense.

But, wait, he says to me. I didn’t do anything wrong. Why should I have to admit to a felony charge and be punished for doing nothing wrong?

I said, let me guess, Jake. You were the rendering dentist – as in, your NPI number was on the billed claim – but you hired a temporary dentist to stand in your place while you were on vacation, sick, or otherwise indisposed?

How did you know? Jake asks.

Because I understand Medicaid billing.

When my car breaks down, I go to a mechanic, not a podiatrist. The same is true for health care providers undergoing investigation for Medicare/caid fraud – you need a Medicare/caid expert. A criminal attorney,most likely, will not understand the Medicare/caid policy on locum tenens. Or the legal limitations of Medicaid suspensions and the administrative route to get the suspension lifted. Or the good cause exception to suspensions.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating that, when under criminal, health care fraud investigation, you should not hire a criminal attorney. Absolutely, you will want a criminal attorney. But you will also want a Medicare/caid attorney.

What is Locum tenens? It is a Latin phrase that means temporary substitute. Physicians and dentists hire locum tenens when they go on vacation or if they fall ill. It is similar to a substitute teacher. Some days I would love to hire a locum tenens for me. When a doctor or dentist hires a temporary substitute, usually that substitute is paid by the hour or by the services rendered. If the payor is Medicare or Medicaid, the substitute is not expected to submit the billing and wait to be reimbursed. The substitute is paid for the day(s) work, and the practice/physician/dentist bills Medicare/caid, which is reimbursed. For billing purposes, this could create a claim with the rendering NPI number as Dr. Jake, while Dr. Sub Sally actually rendered the service, because Dr. Jake was in the Bahamas. It would almost look like Dr. Jake were billing for services billing the government for procedures he allegedly performed at the same time he was out of the country.

Going back to Dr. Jake…had Dr. Jake hired a Medicare/caid attorney a year ago, when his suspension was first implemented, he may have be getting reimbursed by Medicaid this whole past year – just by asking for a good cause exception or by filing an injunction lifting the suspension. His Medicaid/care attorney could have enlightened the investigators on locum tenens, and, perhaps, the charges would have been dropped, once the billing was understood.

Going back to Dr. Solarin who pled guilty to accusations of billing for services while out of the country…what if it were just a locum tenens problem?

Medicaid/care Fraud: You Are Guilty Until Proven Innocent!

Don’t we have due process in America? Isn’t due process something that our founding fathers thought important, essential even? Due process is in our Constitution.

The Fourteenth (governing state governments) and the Fifth Amendment (governing federal government) state that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”

Yet, apparently, if you accept Medicaid or Medicare, due process is thrown out the window. Bye, Felicia!

How is it possible that criminals (burglars, murderers, rapists) are afforded due process but a health care provider who accepts Medicaid/care does not?

Surely, that is not true! Let’s look at some examples.

In Tulsa, a 61-year-old man was arrested for killing his Lebanese neighbor. He pled not guilty. In news articles, the word “allegedly” is rampant. He allegedly killed his neighbor. Authorities believe that he may have killed his neighbor.

And prior to getting his liberty usurped and getting thrown in jail, a trial ensues. Because before we take a person’s liberty away, we want a fair trial. Doesn’t the same go for life and property?

Example A: I recently received a phone call from a health care provider in New Jersey. She ran a pediatric medical daycare. In 2012, it closed its doors when the State of New Jersey accused it of an overpayment of over $12 million and suspended its funds. With its funds suspended, it could no longer pay staff or render services to its clients.

Now, in 2016, MORE THAN FOUR YEARS LATER, she calls to ask advice on a closing statement for an administrative hearing. This tells me (from my amazing Murdoch Mysteries (my daughter’s favorite show) sense of intuition): (1) she was not provided a trial for FOUR YEARS; (2) the state has withheld her money, kept it, and gained interest on it for over FOUR YEARS; (3) in the beginning, she did have an attorney to file an injunction and a declaratory judgment; and (4) in the end, she could not afford such representation (she was filing her closing argument pro se).

Examples B-P: 15 New Mexico behavioral health care agencies. On June 23, 2013, the State of New Mexico accuses 15 behavioral health care agencies of Medicaid fraud, which comprised 87.5% of the behavioral health care in New Mexico. The state immediately suspends all reimbursements and puts most of the companies out of business. Now, MORE THAN THREE YEARS LATER, 11 of the agencies still have not undergone a “Fair Hearing.” Could you imagine the outrage if an alleged criminal were held in jail for THREE YEARS before a trial?

Example Q: Child psychiatrist in rural area is accused of Medicaid fraud. In reality, he is not guilty. The person he hired as his biller is guilty. But the state immediately suspends all reimbursements. This Example has a happy ending. Child psychiatrist hired us and we obtained an injunction, which lifted the suspension. He did not go out of business.

Example R: A man runs a company that provides non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT). One day, the government comes and seizes all his property and freezes all his bank accounts with no notice. They even seize his fiance’s wedding ring. More than TWO YEARS LATER – He has not stood trial. He has not been able to defend himself. He still has no assets. He cannot pay for a legal defense, much less groceries.

Apparently the right to speedy trial and due process only applies to alleged burglars, rapists, and murderers, not physicians and health care providers who render medically necessary services to our most fragile and vulnerable population. Due process??? Bye, Felicia!

What can you, as a health care provider, do if you are accused of fraud and your reimbursements are immediately suspended?

  1. Prepare. If you accept Medicare/caid, open an account and contribute to it generously. This is your CYA account. It is for your legal defense. And do not be stupid. If you accept Medicaid/care, it is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when.
  2. Have your attorney on speed dial. And I am not talking about your brother’s best friend from college who practices general trial law and defends DUIs. I am talking about a Medicaid/care litigation expert.
  3. File an injunction. Suspension of your reimbursements is a death sentence. The two prongs for an injunction are (a) likelihood of success on the merits; and (b) irreparable harm. Losing your company is irreparable harm. Likelihood of success on the merits is on you. If your documents are good – you are good.

Audits “Breaking Bad” in New Mexico: Part II

By: Edward M. Roche, the founder of Barraclough NY LLC, a litigation support firm that helps healthcare providers fight against statistical extrapolations.

In the first article in this series, we covered how a new governor of New Mexico recently came into power and shortly thereafter, all 15 of the state’s nonprofit providers for behavioral health services were accused of fraud and replaced with companies owned by UnitedHealthcare.

When a new team is brought in to take over a crisis situation, one might expect that things would improve. The replacement companies might be presumed to transfer to New Mexico newer and more efficient methods of working, and patient services would become better and more efficient. Out with the old, in with the new. The problem in New Mexico is that this didn’t happen – not at all.

The corporate structure in New Mexico is byzantine. UnitedHealth Group, Inc. is a Minnesota corporation that works through subsidiaries, operating companies and joint ventures to provide managed healthcare throughout the United States. In New Mexico, UnitedHealth worked through Optum Behavioral Health Solutions and United Behavioral Health, Inc. OptumHealth New Mexico is a joint venture between UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company and United Behavioral Health, according to the professional services contract signed with the State of New Mexico.

And that’s not all. OptumHealth is not the company providing the services. According to the contract, It was set up to act as a bridge between actual providers of health services and a legal entity called the State of New Mexico Interagency Behavioral Health Purchasing Collaborative. This Collaborative combines together 16 agencies within the state government.

OptumHealth works by using subcontractors to actually deliver healthcare under both Medicaid and Medicare. Its job is to make sure that all claims from the subcontractors are compliant with state and federal law. It takes payment for the claims submitted and then pays out to the subcontractors. But for this service, OptumHealth takes a 28-percent commission, according to court papers.

This is a nice margin. A complaint filed by whistleblower Karen Clark, an internal auditor with OptimumHealth, indicated that from October 2011 until April 2012, OptumHealth paid out about $88.25 million in Medicaid funds and got a commission of $24.7 million. The payments went out to nine subcontractors. Clark claimed that from Oct. 1, 2011 until April 22, 2013, the overall payouts were about $529.5 million, and the 28-percent commission was about $148.3 million.

In spite of the liberal flow of taxpayer money, things did not go well. Clark’s whistleblower suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, claimed that OptumHealth knew of massive fraud but refused to investigate. Clark says she was eventually fired after she uncovered the malfeasance. It appears that even after learning of problems, OptumHealth kept billing away, eager to continue collecting that 28-percent commission.

Clark’s complaint details a number of problems in New Mexico’s behavioral health sector. It is a list of horrors: there were falsified records, services provided by unlicensed providers, use of improper billing codes, claims for services that never were provided, and many other problems. Allegedly, many client files contained no treatment plans or treatment notes, or even records of what treatments had been provided and s services billed for times when offices were closed. The suit also claims that some services were provided by probationers instead of licensed providers, and a number of bills were submitted for a person who was outside the United States at the time.

The complaint further alleges that one provider received $300,000 in payments, but had submitted only $200,000 worth of claims. When Clark discovered this she allegedly was told by her supervisor at OptumHealth that it was “too small to be concerned about”. It also is alleged that a) insight-oriented psychotherapy was billed when actually the client was being taught how to brush their teeth; b) the same services were billed to the same patient several times per month, and files were falsified to satisfy Medicaid rules; c) interactive therapy sessions were billed for patients who were non-verbal and unable to participate; d) individual therapy was claimed when group therapy was given; e) apart from Medicaid, other sources allegedly were billed for exactly the same services; and f) developmentally disabled patients were used to bill for group therapy from which they had no capacity to benefit. Clark also stated that investigations of one provider for false billing were suspended because they were “a big player in the state”.

Other alleged abuse included a provider that submitted claims for 15-20 hours per day of group therapy for 20 to 40 children at a time, and for numerous psychotherapy services never provided. The complaint also describes one individual provider that supposedly worked three days per week, routinely billing Medicaid for twelve 30-minute individual psychotherapy sessions; 12 family psychotherapy sessions; 23 children in group therapy; and 32 children in group interactive psychotherapy each day.

A number of other abuses are detailed in the complaint: a) some providers had secretaries prescribing medication; b) one provider claimed that it saw 30 patients each 90 minutes per day for psychotherapeutic treatment; c) some individuals allegedly submitted claims for 30 hours per day of treatment; and d) some facilities had no credentialed psychotherapist at any of its facilities. Remember that all of these subcontractors are providing behavioral (psychiatric and psychological) services. Clark found that others submitted bills claiming the services were performed by a medical doctor, but there were none at their facility.

And in one of the most stunning abuses imaginable, one provider allegedly diagnosed all of their patients as having autism. Clark believes this was done because it allowed billing under both medical and mental health billing codes.

These are only a few of the apparent problems we see in New Mexico’s behavioral services.

You would think that once all of this had been brought to light, then public authorities such as the state’s Attorney General’s office would be eager to investigate and begin to root out the abusers. But that isn’t what happened.

James Hallinan, a spokesman for that office, stated that “based on its investigation, the Office of the Attorney General determined it would be in the best interest of the State to decline to intervene in the case.”

While it was making this decision, Clark’s allegations remained under court seal. But now they can be shown.

Note:

(*) Hallinan, James, spokesman for Attorney General’s office, quoted by Peters, J. and Lyman, A. Lawsuit: $14 million in new Medicaid fraud ignored in botched behavioral health audits, January 8, 2016, NM Political Report, URL: http://nmpoliticalreport.com/26519/lawsuit-optumhealth-botched-audits-of-nm-providers/ accessed March 22, 2016.

This article is based on US ex rel. Karen Clark and State of New Mexico ex rel. Karen Clark and Karen Clark, individually vs. UnitedHealth Group, Inc., United Healthcare Insurance Company, United Behavioral Health, Inc., and OptumHealth New Mexico, Complaint for Damages and Penalties, United States District Court for the District of New Mexico, No. 13-CV-372, April 22, 2013 held under court seal until a few weeks ago.

Is Health Care Fraud on the Rise? Or Just the Accusations??

Recent stories in the news seem to suggest that health care fraud is running rampant.  We’ve got stories about Eric Leak‘s Medicaid agency, Nature’s Reflections, funneling money to pay athletes, a seizure of property in Greensboro for alleged Medicaid fraud, and, in Charlotte, a man was charged with Medicaid fraud and sentenced to three years under court supervision and ordered to pay $3,153,074. And these examples are local.

Health care fraud with even larger amounts of money at stake has been prosecuted in other states.  A nonprofit up in NY is accused of defrauding the Medicaid system for over $27 million.  Overall, the federal government opened 924 criminal health care fraud investigations last year.

What is going on? Are more people getting into the health care fraud business? Has the government become better at detecting possible health care fraud?

I believe that the answer is that the federal and state governments have determined that it “pays” high dividends to invest in health care fraud investigations.  More and more money is being allocated to the fraud investigative divisions.  More money, in turn, yields more health care fraud allegations…which yields more convictions….and more money to the government.

Believe me, I understand the importance of detecting fraud.  It sickens me that those who actually defraud our Medicaid and Medicare systems are taking medically necessary services away from those who need the services.  However, sometimes the net is cast so wide…so far…that innocent providers get caught in the net.  And being accused of health care fraud when you innocent is a gruesome, harrowing experience that (1) you hope never happens; and (2) you have to be prepared in case it does.  I have seen it happen.

As previously stated, in fiscal year (FY) 2014, the federal government opened 924 new criminal health care fraud  investigations.  That’s 77 new fraud investigations a month!!  This number does not include civil investigations.

In FY 2012, the Department of Justice (DOJ) opened 2,016 new health care fraud investigations (1,131 criminal, 885 civil).

The Justice Department launched 903 new health-care fraud prosecutions in the first eight months of FY 2011, more than all of FY 2010.

These numbers show:

  • an 85% increase over FY 2010,
  • a 157% increase over FY 2006
  • and 822% over FY 1991.

And the 924  investigations opened in fiscal 2014 only represent federal investigations.  Concurrently, all 50 states are conducting similar investigations.

What is being recovered? Are the increased efforts to detect health care fraud worth the effort and expenditures?

Heck, yes, it is worth it to both the state and federal governments!

Government teams recovered $4.3 billion in FY 2013 and $19.2 billion over the last five years.  While still astronomically high, the numbers dropped slightly for FY 2014.  In FY 2014, according to the Annual Report of the Departments of Health and Human Services and Justice, the federal government won or negotiated over $2.3 billion in health care fraud judgments and settlements.  Due to these efforts, as well as efforts from preceding years, the federal government retrieved $3.3 billion from health care fraud investigations.

So the federal and state governments are putting more money into investigating health care fraud.  Why?

The Affordable Care Act.

Obviously, the federal and state governments conducted health care fraud investigations prior to the ACA.  But the implementation of the ACA set new mandates to increase fraud investigations. (Mandates, which were suggestions prior to the ACA).

In 2009, Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13520, which was targeted to reduce improper payments and to eliminate waste in federal programs.

On March 23, 2010, President Obama signed the ACA into law.  A major part of the ACA is focused on cost containment methods. Theoretically, the ACA is supposed to be self-funding.  Detecting fraud, waste and abuse in the Medicare/Medicaid system helps to fund the ACA.

Unlike many of the other ACA provisions, most of the fraud and abuse provisions went into effect in 2010 or 2011. The ACA increases funding to the Healthcare Fraud and Abuse Control Program by $350 million over the next decade. These funds can be used for fraud and abuse control and for the Medicare Integrity Program.

The ACA mandates states to conduct post payment and prepayment reviews, screen and audit providers, terminate certain providers, and create provider categories of risk.

While recent articles and media seem to indicate that health care fraud is running rampant, the substantial increase in accusations of health care fraud really may be caused by factors other than more fraud is occurring.

The ACA mandates have an impact.

And, quite frankly, the investigation units may be a bit overzealous to recover funds.

What will happen if you are a target of a criminal health care fraud investigation?

It depends whether the federal or state government is conducting the investigation.

If the federal government is investigating you, most likely, you will be unaware of the investigation.  Then, one day, agents of the federal government will come to your office and seize all property deemed related to the alleged fraud.  Your accounts will be frozen.  Whether you are guilty or not will not matter.  What will matter is you will need an experienced, knowledgeable health fraud attorney and the funds with which to compensate said attorney with frozen accounts.

If the state government is conducting the investigation, it is a little less hostile and CSI-ish.  Your reimbursements will be suspended with or without your notice (obviously, you would notice the suspension once the suspension occurred).  But the whole “raid on your office thing” is less likely.

There are legal remedies available, and the “defense” should begin immediately.

Most importantly, if you are a health care provider and you are not committing fraud, you are not safe from accusations of fraud.

Your insurance, most likely, will not cover attorneys’ fees for alleged intention fraud.

The attorney of your choice will not be able to accept funds that are “tainted” by alleged fraud, even if no fraud occurred.

Be aware that if, for whatever reason, you are accused, you will need to be prepared…for what you hope never happens.

Williams Mullen and Local Counsel, Bryan Davis, Win Declaratory Action Against HSD in New Mexico!!

For those of you who follow my blog, you know that the single state agency in New Mexico, Human Services Department (HSD), accused 15 behavioral health care providers, which made up 87% of the mental health care in NM, of credible allegations of fraud back in June 2013.  HSD immediately ceased paying all companies’ Medicaid and non-Medicaid reimbursements causing most of the companies to go out of business.

See my blogs: “New Mexico Offers No Due Process Based on a PCG Audit!, and “Documentary on New Mexico Provider: Breaking Bonds: The Shutdown of NM’s Behavioral Health Care Providers.”

Easter Seals El Mirador is one of those companies accused of fraud.

Then, a year later, May 2014, the Attorney General’s office clears Easter Seals El Mirador (ESEM) of any fraud.  ESEM is the second company cleared of fraud.  In other words, HSD accused 15 companies of fraud, and the first two reviewed by the AG were determined to have committed no fraud.  Oops.  Sorry.  We were mistaken.

But you can’t fix a broken egg.  The best you can do is clean it up.

But, no, HSD does not accept the AG’s determination that ESEM committed no fraud, and on or about June 25, 2014, HSD re-referred ESEM to the AG for credible allegations of fraud again.

Instead of me going on a rampage as to the violations committed (and alleged in our complaint), let me just explain that through the first referral and re-referral of credible allegations of fraud, HSD is withholding all ESEM’s reimbursements.

After the re-referral, in June 2014, we, on behalf of ESEM, and with the help of local counsel, Bryan Davis, filed a Complaint requesting declaratory judgment followed by a Motion for Summary Judgment.

Last Friday, January 23, 2015, the New Mexico judge agreed with us holding that HSD’s “temporary” withhold of reimbursements violates due process and that ESEM has a right to a fair hearing.

Here is an article from the Santa Fe New Mexican written by Patrick Malone:

Judge: State Human Services Department violated due process law

In a harsh rebuke of the 2013 behavioral health shake-up that thrust mental health care for indigent New Mexicans into disarray, a Santa Fe judge on Friday ruled that the state Human Services Department had denied due process to one of the providers accused of fraud.

State District Judge Francis Mathew ordered the department to hold a hearing that would allow Santa Fe-based Easter Seals El Mirador to hear the specific allegations against it for the first time — and give the provider a chance to respond to those claims. The ruling could open the door for other providers affected by the shake-up to do the same, according to the nonprofit’s lawyer.

In the 19 months since audit findings spurred Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration to cut off Medicaid funds to Easter Seals El Mirador and other providers in the state who treat Medicaid patients, the nonprofit has not been shown the audit findings that outline exactly what it is accused of doing wrong. Nor has the agency been afforded the chance to refute any of the findings. Meanwhile, the Human Services Department has withheld more than $600,000 in Medicaid funds that were owed to Easter Seals El Mirador at the time of its termination, citing federal guidelines that allow temporary withholding of funds from agencies that are suspected of Medicaid fraud.

“I don’t believe that 19 months is temporary,” Mathew said, particularly since the Human Services Department has prolonged the investigation by referring Easter Seals El Mirador’s case back to the Attorney General’s Office after the nonprofit already had been cleared once.

The judge blasted the department’s process from the outset of the shake-up.

“I think it’s a due-process violation,” he said.

In June 2013, Human Services halted Medicaid funding to 15 organizations that provided mental health and substance abuse services to low-income patients. The state pointed to audit findings that indicated the agencies had overbilled Medicaid by an estimated $36 million as grounds for the decision. The Martinez administration brought in five Arizona providers as replacements and paid them $24 million to set up shop in New Mexico.

This month, one of the replacement providers informed the state that it is financially failing and plans to pull out of New Mexico at the end of March, bringing new disruptions to a fragile population still reeling from the earlier provider changes.

“We have an obligation to protect taxpayer dollars and to help ensure that New Mexicans most in need receive vital behavioral health services,” said Matt Kennicott, a spokesman for Human Services. “We will provide a hearing on the credible allegations of fraud.”

He said the department has not yet decided whether it will appeal the judge’s ruling. Easter Seals El Mirador’s lawyer, Bryan Davis, said he expects the department to do so.

When Judge Mathew issues a written ruling in the days ahead, the Human Services Department will have 90 days to set a hearing date. Within 30 days, the department will be required to share with Easter Seals El Mirador the evidence it plans to present at the hearing. That could yield the agency’s first glimpse at the state’s basis for accusing it of fraud. The behavioral health audit that led to the shake-up has been largely shielded from public view while the Attorney General’s Office conducts a criminal investigation.

On Friday, Attorney General Hector Balderas, who just took office this month, informally asked lawmakers for an additional $1 million in hopes of speeding up the probe to complete it within the next six to eight months. Balderas inherited the investigation from his predecessor, Gary King, whose office has faced criticisms from lawmakers and the ousted providers for its slow pace. To date, three investigations have been completed, four are actively being investigated and eight have not yet begun, Balderas’ spokesman said.

Easter Seals El Mirador and the Counseling Center of Alamogordo have been cleared of fraud by the Attorney General’s Office, but Human Services referred Easter Seals El Mirador back to the attorney general for a follow-up investigation.

Mark Johnson, chief executive officer of Easter Seals El Mirador, said he is confident that the organization would be cleared of any wrongdoing in a fair hearing.

With at least one of the replacement providers from Arizona already leaving the state and the New Mexico providers financially hobbled or already out of business because of the shake-up, Johnson said, he fears the most serious consequences of the Martinez administration’s abrupt actions lie ahead.

“There is no safety net. There is no New Mexico company that can fill the systemic void for services for the poor people who need them,” Johnson said. “It’s catastrophic.”

Source: [New Mexico] Human Services Secretary Squier Resigns!

“Gov. Susana Martinez’s controversial Human Services Department Secretary Sidonie Squier resigned on Thursday, sources inside the department confirmed,” according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Patsy Romero, COO of Easter Seals El Mirador wrote to me, “post on your blog and say thank God that this woman is out after she falsely accused innocent people of being criminal and specifically targeted individuals without any evidence to support her allegations.”

According to a member of legislature, Squier had stated to the member that she was “after Patsy and Roque.” (Roque is the CEO of the Rio Grande Behavioral Health).

See the documentary about the events in New Mexico leading up to the accusations of fraud against 15 behavioral healthcare providers here.

Obviously, I cannot comment or have an opinion, so here is the rest of the article from the Santa Fe New Mexican:

“In a state that ranks at or near the bottom of the nation in childhood hunger, poverty and unemployment, Squier has been a target of criticisms from groups that advocate for the poor, beginning with a statement in an email last year from her office that no evidence of hunger in the state exists in New Mexico.

Squier later backed off the statement, but came under fire again last year over the sudden removal of 15 behavioral health providers accused of fraud and their replacement with Arizona companies. The Human Services Department’s suspicions have yet to be proven.  See my blog: “Because of PCG Audit, New Mexico Freezes Mental Health Services!

Democrats in the New Mexico Senate this year targeted Squier with a “no confidence” resolution over her remarks about hunger in the state and the behavioral health shakeup.

Since then, a federal judge chided the Human Services Department when he ordered it to immediately eliminate a backlog of thousands of applications for food and health benefits from poor New Mexicans that were months overdue for processing. The department has since satisfied the court that the backlog for those most desperately in need of food assistance has been eliminated, but advocates for impoverished residents of the state say problems in other areas continue to deny eligible applicants much needed benefits.

While working to satisfy the court order over the benefit delays, Squier announced plans to restore a requirement that some food benefit recipients work, receive job training or perform community service in order to keep receiving assistance. A state district judge in Santa Fe delayed the launch of the regulatory change last week in a lawsuit that challenged whether the Human Services Department fully disclosed all the relevant details of the requirement before adopting it.

On Wednesday, the department announced it will start the hearing process for the work requirement anew, further delaying its implementation.

As election results came in Tuesday night and Martinez was swept into office for a second term by a large margin, U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-New Mexico, said she planned to apply pressure on the governor to dump Squier based on the volume of complaints Lujan Grisham’s office has received about human services in the state.

“I don’t think that Sidonie Squier is the right leadership for the Human Services Department,” Lujan Grisham told The New Mexican.”

New Mexico Senator Proposes Forefront State Legislation to Provide Due Process to Providers Accused of Fraud (Oh, And Here Are Some NC Election Results)

Whew…the election is over.  No more political ads, emails, and other propaganda… Ok, so we have our new elected officials, now our new elected officials need to pass some new legislation protecting providers when it comes to “noncredible allegations of fraud.”

Due Process…It’s such a fundamental part of our society that we rarely think about due process on a day-to-day basis. Not until due process is violated, do we usually contemplate it.

However, when it comes to credible allegations of fraud against a health care provider who accepts Medicaid or Medicare, the federal government, arguably, dropped the ball. The federal regulations instruct the states to “afford due process,” but fail to instruct how. 42 CFR 455.23. Which leaves the due process component in the states’ hands.

To begin with, the standard for a credible allegation of fraud is excruciatingly low. I mean, LOW. The bar has been set so low that an ant would probably climb over the bar rather than walk beneath it. See my past blogs: “New Mexico Affords No Due Process Based on a PCG Audit.”and   “NC Medicaid Providers: “Credible Allegations of Fraud?” YOU ARE GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT!!”  For example, a disgruntled employee or a competitor can draft an anonymous letter without a signature and without a return address, send it to the single state entity, and all your reimbursements could be suspended without any notice to you.

Senator Mary Kay Papen of New Mexico and her team have drafted a fantastic proposed state bill which would provide safeguards for health care providers’ due process while still allowing the state to investigate Medicaid fraud. I mean, let’s face it, we want to catch Medicaid fraud, but we don’t all live in Florida…or New York. 🙂 Fraud is much more infrequent than people imagine compared to the overreaching ability of the single state agencies to suspend innocent providers’ reimbursements.

I had the privilege of flying out to New Mexico a week or so ago to testify before a subcommittee of the legislature about my opinion of Senator Papen’s proposed bill.

Little known fact about New Mexico: The New Mexico legislature is the only unpaid legislature in the country. I had no idea. To which, I said, which I believed was a logical statement, “why doesn’t the legislature pass a bill that creates salaries for members of the legislature?” I was told that no bill providing salaries to members of legislature would ever be signed by the governor (no specific governor, I believe, but, any governor) because the status of governor is so important/powerful in New Mexico due to the less powerful legislature. In other words, supposedly, no governor would sign a bill instituting salaries for members of legislature because the governor would be fearful to lose power. (I do not know the validity of this conjecture, but I do find it interesting).

Going back to the proposed bill…

For starters, the proposed bill re-defines “credible allegation of fraud.” Instead of the current federal statute, which holds an allegation credible if it is merely uttered aloud, the proposed bill states that a credible allegation of fraud is credible only after the single state entity:

1. Considers the totality of the facts and circumstances;
2. Conducts a careful review of the facts, evidence, and facts; and
3. Determines that sufficient indicia of reliability exist to justify a reason to refer the provider to the Attorney General (AG) for further investigation.

The proposed bill also forbids extrapolation as to alleged overpayments.

Further, the proposed bill forbids the state agency from suspending payments until certain safety procedures are met. For example, all appeals and administrative remedies must be exhausted, and the bill allows the provider to post a bond in order to keep receiving reimbursements.

It also allows a provider to receive injunctive relief against the agency in order to continue receiving reimbursements.

And, my favorite part, states that a judge may award attorney’s fees if it shown that the agency substantially prejudiced the provider’s rights and acted arbitrarily and capriciously. Obviously, the attorneys’ fees are not a given; the provider would need to show that the state, somehow, acted, for example, without enough evidence or failed to provide due process.

Senator Papen’s proposed bill is just that…a proposed bill.  But, it is a start in the right direction.  If, in fact, the federal government placed the burden on the states to implement due process in situations in which there are allegations of fraud, then the states need to act.  Because, right now, when there is noncredible allegation of fraud, the state has the ability, and is using this ability in many states, to completely shut down providers.  In essence, an allegation of fraud becomes the death of a company…no reimbursements, no income, no payroll, terminate staff, cease paying bills, file for bankruptcy.

The End.

I encourage more states to review Senator Papen’s proposed bill and propose similar bills in other states.

And for you politicians…the best part? At least, in New Mexico, the bill appeared to be supported by a non-partisan group.

BTW, in case you are interested, here are the changes to our General Assembly and Congress after Tuesday’s election: (brought to you by Tracy Colvard, Vice President of Government Relations and Public Policy for AHHC).

The Numbers

North Carolina Legislature

  • Republicans in N.C. House (2015-16): 74
  • Number needed for supermajority: 72
  • Democrats in N.C. House (2015-16): 46
  • Change from 2013-2014: +3 DEM
  • New faces in House: 15
  • Incumbents defeated: 4
  • Republicans in N.C. Senate (2015-16): 34
  • Number needed for supermajority: 30
  • Democrats in N.C. Senate (2015-16): 16
  • Change from 2013-2014: +1 GOP
  • New faces in Senate: 6
  • Incumbents defeated: 1

N.C. Congressional Delegation

  • Republicans in U.S. House: 10
  • Democrats in U.S. House: 3
  • Change from 2013-2014: +1 GOP
  • Republicans in U.S. Senate: 2
  • Democrats in U.S. Senate: 0
  • Change from 2013-2014: +1 (GOP)

Thanks, Tracy, for those demographics.

Now, let’s get some due process safeguards for health care providers!!!!

Mass Medicare and Medicaid Payment Suspensions Increase Based on “Credible Allegations of Fraud”

One way in which President Obama pushed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) through Congress was the promise that the ACA would, basically, fund itself by the increase in recoupments from providers for fraud, waste, and abuse…hence, the dramatic increase in audits and payments suspensions for both Medicare and Medicaid providers.

Herein lies the problem, by relying on you, who accept Medicare and Medicaid to fund, even a portion, of the ACA, we are de-incentivizing you, as a health care providers, to accept Medicare and Medicaid. Think about this logically, we are placing MORE people in a system (by expanding Medicaid), more people will rely on Medicare and Medicaid as their health insurance, but we are incentivizing FEWER providers to accept Medicaid and Medicare. It is as though we don’t care what happens to the people once we give them insurance. The goal of the ACA seems to be: get more people insured; instead of having the goal to allow everyone to get health care.

But I digress…

Section 6402(h) of the ACA requires suspension of Medicare and/or Medicaid payments when there is a credible allegation of fraud. Before the ACA, the suspension was not mandatory.

So, what constitutes a credible allegation of fraud?

Let me give you a real life example. One of my clients, we will call it Company Good Health, had its Medicare and Medicaid payments suspended based on an anonymous letter claiming Good Health commits Medicaid fraud and sent to the Division of Health and Human Services (DHHS) with no name of the author or return address. Therefore, DHHS had no way to contact the anonymous author to verify whether any sentence within the letter had an ounce of veracity. In fact, the author of the letter may very well have been an ex-girlfriend of the CEO or a bitter competitor for business. There is no way to know.

Yet, according to the ACA, an allegation of fraud is credible if it has an “indicia of reliability.” Look up “indicia.” I did. I found “from Latin plural of indicium (“a notice, information, discovery, sign, mark, token”).” I thought, that’s an unhelpful definition, so I looked up indicia in my legal dictionary, Black’s Law Dictionary. I found, in part, “[t]he term is much used in Civil Law in a sense nearly or entirely synonymous with Circumstantial Evidence. It denotes facts that give rise to inferences, rather than the inferences themselves.” Facts that give rise to inferences. Circumstantial evidence is evidence which may allow a judge or jury to deduce a certain fact from other facts which can be proven. In some cases, there can be some evidence that cannot be proven directly, such as with an eye-witness. (Think of the Scott Peterson trial).

Under the ACA, if there is a fact that gives rise to an inference of an allegation of fraud, the your Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements must be suspended. I underlined the words in the preceding sentence “inference,” “allegation,” and “must” to emphasize the slight and without any factual verification circumstance may be that causes suspension of payments. For many of you, this suspension is financially debilitating and will cause you to go out of business…or, at the very least, never accept Medicare or Medicaid again. Suspensions of payments do not only affect you, if affects your recipients as well.

An example of a mass suspension can be found in our nation’s capital. Recently, in D.C., the Medicaid agency suspended payments to 52% of the city’s home health agencies for personal care services (PCS). The companies hired an attorney and got a temporary restraining order (TRO) preventing the city from withholding funds, but lost at the preliminary injunction.

In an Order denying the preliminary injunction, the Judge stated that “in contrast to a provider’s right to participate in the Medicaid program, there is no constitutional right to receive Medicaid payments.” (To which I disagree, because there is a right to Medicaid payments for services rendered. National case law from multiple jurisdictions illustrates this, but maybe it was not argued before or accepted by this judge).

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) has also suspended Medicare payments on a large-scale. CMS suspended Medicare payments to 78 Dallas area home health providers. Last year’s “Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control report” stated that 297 providers were under “active suspension” from Medicare and 105 more suspensions were approved.

Another example of a mass suspension is the behavioral health providers in New Mexico. In June 2013, the Health Services Division (HSD) suspended all reimbursements for 15 behavioral health care providers, all of whom accounted for 87% of New Mexico’s behavioral health care, based on credible allegations of fraud. Most accused providers went out of business.

While both Medicare and Medicaid require the suspension of reimbursements upon a credible allegation of fraud, you are slightly more protected. Medicare suspensions end after 18 months and can only be extended from 6 months in special circumstances.

There is no such protection for you when it comes to Medicaid; the states make the rules. There is a good cause exception that allows the state NOT to suspend payments, but, to date, I have yet to witness one good cause exception being recognized by the state. Instead, relief for the accused providers only comes from filing a lawsuit, most likely, an injunctive lawsuit. The downside of filing a lawsuit is that you have to pay attorney’s fees, which can be daunting, and you must find an attorney that specializes in Medicare and Medicaid. I have seen too many inexperienced, but well-intended, attorneys create bad law for providers due to self-imposed, legal stumbles.

The enigma within the language of the ACA, in this particular section, is the complete disregard for due process. See my blog on “How the ACA Has Redefined the Threshold for “Credible Allegations of Fraud” and Does It Violate Due Process?”  By suspending Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements due to “indicia of reliability of an allegation of fraud,” the government is usurping your right to payment for services rendered without notice and an opportunity to be heard, which is one of the bedrocks of our Constitution.

So what are you to do if you are caught up in this web of mass suspensions based on “indicia of reliability of an allegation of fraud?”

Contact your Medicare and Medicaid litigation attorney!  And do NOT forget to fill out the “good cause” exception…just in case…