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The slow-motion unraveling of New Mexico’s Medicaid crackdown (With Sound Bites From Me).

There’s no getting around it. Four years after Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration charged 15 behavioral health organizations with potentially defrauding the state’s Medicaid program, its case has experienced a slow-motion unraveling.

No Medicaid fraud was ever found. And those eye-popping estimates that added up to $36 million the organizations had overbilled Medicaid?

In the summer of 2017, the Human Services Department (HSD) is seeking drastically lower reimbursements for overbilling the public health insurance program for low-income residents, a review of public records and state court documents has found.

Now exonerated by the state Attorney General’s Office, many organizations are challenging even those much-lower estimates in administrative hearings or in state court.

Consider Teambuilders Counseling Services, one of the accused behavioral health providers.

Last fall it received a new estimate from the New Mexico Human Services Department. Previous numbers had varied from as high as $9.6 million to as low as $2 million. But the new figure deviated sharply from earlier calculations when Chester Boyett, an administrative law judge in the state agency’s Fair Hearings Bureau, ruled Teambuilders owed only $896.35.

Boyett argued his agency had built its $2 million estimate of Medicaid overbilling on faulty analysis, according to his 12-page decision.

Nancy Smith-Leslie, the department’s director of the Medical Assistance Division, ignored Boyett’s recommendation. In a Jan. 6 letter she said the agency’s analysis was sound, even though she seemed to confirm Boyett’s critique in a Nov. 2 memo in which she had noted the inaccuracy of the extrapolated amount. In that memo Teambuilders and its attorney had not “sufficiently disputed” the method of extrapolation, however, she wrote.

In her Jan. 6 letter, Smith-Leslie sought to clear up matters. She amended her previous statement, saying the extrapolation referred to in her Nov. 2 memo indeed was correct.

Teambuilders and its attorney, Knicole Emanuel, appealed HSD’s ruling over whether Teambuilders overbilled Medicaid and by how much to state court, where three other former behavioral health organizations are fighting HSD’s extrapolated overpayments.

Boyett’s finding that Teambuilders owed hundreds rather than millions of dollars — even if it was ignored — represents a compelling data point given where things stand with other providers.

The state in May reduced to $484.71 what it said Southwest Counseling Center owed after accusing it of overbilling Medicaid by as much as $2.8 million as recently as January.

And last September HSD closed the books  on another organization — Las Cruces-based Families and Youth Inc. — without demanding any reimbursements for overbilling and releasing $1.4 million in Medicaid dollars the state had suspended. The action represented a reversal after a state-ordered 2013 audit that found $856,745 in potential Medicaid overbilling by FYI.

In fact, a review of state and court documents by New Mexico In Depth reveals a pattern regarding the state agency’s overbilling estimates: In many cases, they are moving targets, usually on a downward trajectory.

Like Southwest’s, some have dropped spectacularly. Setting aside Boyett’s figure of $896, even the $2 million HSD claims Teambuilders owes is far smaller than a high of $12 million.

Hogares Inc., another organization accused of fraud, watched last year as the state revised its overbilling estimates five times over six months, starting at $9.5 million in January and ending with $3.1 million in June, according to state court documents.

Meanwhile, Easter Seals El Mirador, initially accused of $850,000 in potential Medicaid overbilling, now stands accused of $127,000.

Emanuel and Bryan Davis, another attorney representing many of the formerly accused organizations, said the constantly changing estimates are due to HSD.

The state agency is examining a sampling of each organization’s Medicaid claims and asking the organizations for documentation to prove the government program was properly billed, they said.

“In most cases (the overbilling estimates) are dropping precipitously” as organizations submit the documents requested by HSD, Davis said.

To cite one example, HSD’s latest overbilling estimate for Counseling Associates, Inc. is $96,000, said Davis, who represents the organization. That compares to $3 million in potential overbilling a 2013 state-ordered audit found.

It is a perplexing situation, given that the Human Services Department found “‘credible allegations of fraud” against the 15 organizations using that 2013 audit, which was performed by Massachusetts-based Public Consulting Group Inc.

“They threw PCG’s audit in the trash,” Davis said of HSD, noting the cost. HSD agreed to pay PCG up to $3 million for the study in February 2013.

The current situation caused Davis to wonder “why PCG didn’t have these documents in the first place,” he said.

Emanuel offered a pointed answer.

“HSD did not allow PCG to gather all the documents,” she said.

A spokesperson for HSD did not respond multiple requests for comment for this story.

Repercussions of the Medicaid crackdown

The fight over Medicaid overbilling isn’t the only legacy left from the Medicaid crackdown, which happened the last week of June 2013.

The Martinez administration’s decision affected lives. Many lives if you listen to behavioral health advocates and officials in the 15 organizations.

Charging the organizations with fraud and then suspending Medicaid payments to many of them disrupted mental health and addiction services for tens of thousands of New Mexicans. It created chaos for employees. And four years on it has left a number of business failures in its wake, with many of the accused organizations unable to survive long-term without Medicaid dollars.

Teambuilders, which once operated 52 locations in 17 New Mexico counties, is no longer in business, according to Emanuel. Neither is Las Cruces-based Southwest Counseling Center. Or Hogares.

At the same time a gap in care has opened up after three of five Arizona companies the Martinez administration brought in to care for the vulnerable populations have departed the state, leaving New Mexico to pick up the pieces.

“It’s a mess. It’s disgusting,” said James Kerlin, executive director of The Counseling Center of Alamogordo, which no longer sees clients. Like Teambuilders, Hogares, Southwest Counseling and others, it was unable to stay in business without the flow of Medicaid dollars the state suspended. “I want the public to know where we’re at and what’s been done to us. I’m going to start making a lot of noise. This is ridiculous.”

Kerlin’s organization was the first of the 15 organizations exonerated by then Attorney General Gary King in early 2014. And it offered the earliest glimpse of the weaknesses in the Martinez administration’s case against the behavioral health providers.

First signs of weakness in the state’s case

HSD hired PCG to audit all 15 organizations and it found $655,000 in potential Medicaid overbilling by the Counseling Center.

PCG reached that conclusion after finding $1,873 in questionable Medicaid claims and then extrapolating from those claims that the center could have overbilled Medicaid by more than $600,000 based on the size of its Medicaid business over several years.

But during its fraud investigation the AG’s office flagged fewer Counseling Center claims than PCG and found a much lower cost of potential overbillings. It resolved some of the issues by reviewing records and interviewing staff.

In many cases, auditors give staff of audited organizations an opportunity to refute findings or address misunderstandings before finalizing their findings. For example, most state and local governmental agencies are audited annually in New Mexico. Staff within those agencies are afforded the chance to see and respond to audit findings within a certain amount of time before audits are made public.

Kerlin did not get that opportunity during the PCG audit.

PCG later confirmed to NMID that it is the firm’s standard procedure to give companies a chance to respond before issuing official audit findings. A PCG spokesperson would not tell NMID why that didn’t happen in New Mexico.

By the time HSD held a hearing for the Counseling Center, the state agency had lowered its Medicaid overbillings estimate to $379,135. And Kerlin finally was able to hear the accusations against his organization.

Counseling Center submitted evidence to rebut the state agency’s claims, but the hearing officer sided with HSD. The Counseling Center appealed to state court.

In late 2015, State District Court Judge Francis Mathew ruled in favor of Kerlin’s organization, calling HSD’s hearing decision “arbitrary, capricious or otherwise not in accordance with law.”

In addition, the judge found the administrative law judge had shifted the burden of proof from HSD to the Counseling Center and then set too high a standard for the organization. Citing portions of the administrative law judge’s ruling, Mathew noted  the Counseling Center had “offered certain amount of credible evidence in opposition” to HSD’s findings but not as much as the hearing officer required: a “100 percent audit” of records, which the state district judge found “unreasonable.”

HSD appealed the judge’s decision to the state Court of Appeals.

Examples of rejected claims 

The overly stringent standards for documentation — and even a basic lack of understanding by HSD staff of Medicaid billing requirements — can be found in cases involving other organizations that are contesting the department’s charges of overbilling, a review of court documents found.

In a motion appealing the administrative law judge’s ruling that it owed the state $127,240, Easter Seals disputed seven claims, including one HSD had rejected because there was no medication consent form in place, even though the patient and parent had signed a general informed consent form and the patient’s parent was present when the medication was prescribed.

According to the court document, “There was no dispute that the service was medically necessary and was provided to J.A. There is no question as to quality of care provided to the recipient of services.”

Another claim was rejected because there was no doctor’s signature on a psychosocial assessment, however the state could provide no legal requirement for the signature, according to Easter Seals’ appeal. “A signature might be best practice, or advisable, but it is not a requirement,” the filing argued.

Also in the appeal, Easter Seals noted that the Human Service Department’s coding witness not only could not cite rules disallowing two services to be delivered during the same time period, but also appeared to be using a coding manual from Medicare, the insurance for seniors, and not Medicaid. And furthermore, she did not even realize there was a manual for Medicaid.

HSD ignored evidence in 2013 that refuted overbilling claims 

Even those organizations that have avoided administrative hearings and court battles have stories to tell about HSD and its actions.

Consider Presbyterian Medical Services, which signed an agreement with the Human Services Department in 2013 to pay $4 million after PCG found nearly $4.5 million in potential Medicaid overbillings.

It wasn’t an easy decision, its CEO said this week, and it shouldn’t be construed as agreement with the state’s conclusions.

“We agree to disagree” is how Steven Hansen put it.

Until Presbyterian began negotiating an agreement, in fact, it had not seen the findings of the PCG audit.

During the negotiations PMS officials found documents they thought could refute PCG’s audit findings, Hansen and other PMS officials told state lawmakers in October 2014.

Presbyterian tried to give the files to PCG and the Human Services Department as proof that they had properly billed Medicaid for payment. The consulting firm said it would review the documentation if directed to by HSD, but PCG later told Presbyterian Medical Services the state agency “did not want to accept those records.”

“We believe there is a strong argument that nothing was owed back to HSD,” Presbyterian’s general counsel told lawmakers in 2014.

At that point, Presbyterian had to make a choice: Settle with the state or fight and possibly run out of money.

Presbyterian settled, paying the $4 million.

The decision has worked out for the organization.

“We’re doing more business than we did before” the 2013 crackdown, Hansen said.

That’s because as the Arizona providers the Martinez administration brought in have left New Mexico, Presbyterian Medical Services has taken over mental health and addiction services.

Presbyterian has added Carlsbad, Alamogordo, Deming, Espańola, Grants, Artesia, Santa Fe and Rio Rancho to the places it provides behavioral health services, Hansen said, adding it’s “bits and pieces” of areas formerly serviced by three of the five Arizona companies.

“We feel like it’s going in a good direction for us,” Hansen said. “That’s hard for us to say because there were so many great organizations that are no longer in the state. But we’ve had to move on.”

Knicole Emanuel Interviewed on Recent Success: Behavioral Health Care Service Still Locked in Overbilling Dispute with State

Last Thursday, I was interviewed by a reporter from New Mexico regarding our Teambuilders win, in which an administrative judge has found that Teambuilders owes only $896 for billing errors. Here is a copy of an article published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, written by Justin Horwath:

Source: Behavioral health care service still locked in overbilling dispute with state

The true tragedy is that these companies, including Teambuilders, should not have been put out of business based on false allegations of fraud. Not only was Teambuilders cleared of fraud, but, even the ALJ agreed with us that Teambuilders does not owe $12 million – but a small, nominal amount ($896.35). Instead of having the opportunity to pay the $896.35 and without due process of law, Teambuilders was destroyed – because of allegations.

Former mental health providers take fight over Medicaid funds to lawmakers

Loyal followers will remember the behavioral health care debacle that happened in New Mexico in June 2013. See blog and blog and blog. Basically, the State of New Mexico accused 15 behavioral health care companies of credible allegations of fraud and immediately froze all the companies’ Medicaid reimbursements. These 15 companies comprised 87.5% of New Mexico’s behavioral health providers. The companies were forced to close their doors. Hundreds of people lost their jobs. Hundreds of thousands of Medicaid recipients no longer received their medically necessary mental health and substance abuse services. It really was and is such a sad tragedy.

Now, more than 3 years later, the consequences of that payment suspension still haunts those providers. Once they were exonerated of fraud by the Attorney General, the single state entity, Human Services Department (HSD), is now accusing them – one by one – of alleged overpayments. These alleged overpayments are extrapolated. So 10 claims for $600 turns into $2 million. See blog.

I will leave Saturday the 30th of July to fly to Albuquerque, NM, to defend one of those behavioral health care providers in administrative court. The trial is scheduled to last two weeks.

Below is a great article from today’s The Santa Fe New Mexican about this:

By: Justin Horwath
ALBUQUERQUE — Executives of three former mental health agencies told state lawmakers Wednesday that they are still fighting the state’s determination that they overbilled Medicaid, and they are expected to repay millions of dollars, even after they have been cleared of criminal wrongdoing.

“Three years after the fact, and we are still plodding through this,” Shannon Freedle, who was an executive with the now-defunct Teambuilders Counseling Services in Santa Fe, told lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee during a hearing in Albuquerque. He was referring to allegations in June 2013 against 15 mental health providers that led to a statewide Medicaid service shake-up.

Along with Freedle, executives of the Santa Fe-based Easter Seals El Mirador and Albuquerque-based Hogares Inc. testified about the New Mexico Human Services Department’s continued claims of Medicaid overpayments long after the state Attorney General’s Office announced it found no evidence that any of the providers had committed fraud and many of the firms have shut down.

Some of the providers, meanwhile, say the state’s former Medicaid claims contractor, OptumHealth New Mexico, still owes them millions of dollars in back payments for treating patients before the shake-up. A group of behavioral health providers, including Teambuilders, Easter Seals and Hogares, filed a lawsuit against OptumHealth in state District Court in June. OptumHealth also faces at least three other lawsuits filed this year, accusing it of Medicaid fraud.

State Rep. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, called the Human Services Department’s actions “outrageous on so many levels.”

Rep. Christine Trujillo, also an Albuquerque Democrat, called for the resignation of Human Services Department Cabinet Secretary Brent Earnest and for “criminal charges to be pressed because this isn’t human error anymore — this is actually criminal behavior.” She is the second member of the committee to call for Earnest to step down.

No Republicans on the bipartisan committee were at the presentation.

Earlier Wednesday — at a news conference in Albuquerque promoting the Martinez administration’s efforts to tackle New Mexico’s drug abuse epidemic — Gov. Susana Martinez made a rare public comment about the decision in June 2013 to freeze Medicaid payments to the 15 mental health providers on allegations they had defrauded Medicaid, the state and federal program that provides health care to low-income residents. The state brought in five Arizona firms to replace the New Mexico providers, but three of them have since left the state, citing financial losses

Martinez said the decision to freeze the Medicaid payments “was recommended by the federal government.”

“But the patients were continued to be serviced and their services were not interrupted,” she said, “unless they decided on their own that they wanted to not continue.”

Asked to clarify Martinez’s statement about the federal government’s role in the Medicaid payment freeze, Michael Lonergan, the governor’s spokesman, said in an email that Martinez was “referencing federal law, which calls for the state to suspend payments and investigate any credible allegations of fraud.”

Federal law gave the state the option to freeze Medicaid payments but didn’t require it.

Kyler Nerison, a spokesman for the Human Services Department, defended the agency’s efforts to pursue the return of funds allegedly overpaid to the former Medicaid providers, saying in an email that the “Attorney General’s limited review of the agencies that had their payments suspended found thousands of cases of billing errors and other regulatory violations.

“Medicaid dollars should be used to help the people who need it most, and if these politicians want to turn a blind-eye to that kind of waste and abuse, that’s solely on them,” Nerison said. “The Human Services Department will continue working to recoup the misspent and overbilled Medicaid dollars as we continue to help more New Mexicans than ever before in both Medicaid and behavioral health services.”

Freedle said he will attend a Human Services Department hearing next week to contest the agency’s claim that Teambuilders owes the state $2.2 million. At issue is the agency’s use of extrapolation to determine the figure of the alleged overbilling. The agency pointed to 12 allegedly errant claims Teambuilders had made to OptumHealth requesting Medicaid reimbursements worth a total of $728.

But Freedle said the Human Services Department used overpayments found in a small sample of claims and multiplied the amount by 3,000 to determine overbilling over a longer period of time, without proving such billing errors occurred. An investigation by the Attorney General’s Office, which found no evidence of criminal fraud, also found a smaller error rate.

Patsy Romero, CEO of Easter Seals El Mirador, and Nancy Jo Archer, who was the CEO of Hogares, broke down in tears as they described the Human Services Department’s “fair hearing process.”

“That’s really and truly an oxymoron,” Archer said.