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Darkness Surrounds MCO Mergers: Are Closed Meetings for MCOs Legal?

Recently, Eastpointe Human Services’ board voted unanimously to consolidate with Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, which would make the merged entity the managed care organization (MCO) overseeing 1/3 of NC’s Medicaid, behavioral health services – 32 counties, in all.

The Board’s decision is subject to the approval of the Secretary, but Eastpointe hopes to consolidate by July 1st.

Whether a consolidation between Eastpointe and Cardinal is good for Medicaid recipients and/or our community, I have no opinion.

But the reason that I have no opinion is because the negotiations, which all deal with public funds, have occurred behind closed doors.

Generally, it is our public policy that public bodies’ actions are to be conducted openly. This is why you can stroll on over to our courthouse and watch, virtually, any case be conducted.  There are rare cases in which the court will “seal” or close the record, such as to protect privileged health information or the identity of children.  Our public policy that strongly encourages open sessions for public entities exists for good reason.  As tax payers, we expect full disclosure and transparency as to how our tax dollars are being used.  In a way, all tax paying NC residents are shareholders of NC.  Those who spend our tax dollars owe us a fiduciary duty to manage our tax dollars in a reasonable and responsible manner, and we should be able to attend all board meetings and review all meeting minutes. The MCOs are the agents of the single state entity, Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), charged with managing behavioral health care for the Medicaid and state-funded population suffering with mental health/developmentally disabled /substance abuse (MR/DD/SA) issues.  As an agent of the state, MCOs are public entities.

But, as I am researching the internet in search of Eastpointe and Cardinal board meeting minutes, I realize that the MCOs are initiating closed meetings and quoting N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11, ” Closed sessions” as the  basis for being able to conduct closed sessions.  And the number of closed sessions that I notice is not a small number.

The deliberations of a merger between two MCOs are highly important to the public. The public needs to know whether the board members are concerned about improving quality and quantity of care. Whether the deliberations surround a more inclusive provider network and providing more services to those in need. Whether the deliberations consider using public funds to create playgrounds or to fund more services for the developmentally disabled. Or are the board members more concerned with which executives will remain employed and what salaried are to be compensated?

You’ve heard of the saying, “Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile?”  This is what is going through my mind as I review the statute allowing public bodies to hold closed sessions.  Is the statute too open-ended? Is the closed session statute a legal mishandling that unintentionally, and against public policy, allows public meetings to act privately? Or are the MCOs misusing the closed session statute?

So I ask myself the following:

1. Is N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11 applicable to MCOs, or, in other words, can the MCOs conduct closed sessions? and, if the answer to #1 is yes, then

2. Are the MCOs overusing or misusing its ability to hold closed sessions? If the answer to #3 is yes, then

3. What can be done?

These are the three questions I will address in this blog.

Number one:

Is N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11 applicable to MCOs, or, in other words, can the MCOs conduct closed sessions?

According to the statute, “”public body” means any elected or appointed authority, board, commission, committee, council, or other body of the State, or of one or more counties, cities, school administrative units, constituent institutions of The University of North Carolina, or other political subdivisions or public corporations in the State that (i) is composed of two or more members and (ii) exercises or is authorized to exercise a legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, or advisory function.”

The MCOs are bodies or agents of the state that are composed of more than 2 members and exercises or is authorized to exercise administrative or advisory functions to the extent allowed by the Waivers.

I determine that, in my opinion, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11 is applicable to the MCOs, so I move on to my next question…

Number two:

 Are the MCOs overusing or misusing its ability to hold closed sessions?

As public policy dictates that public bodies act openly, there are enumerated, statutory reasons that a public body may hold a closed session.

A public body may hold a closed session only when a closed session is required:

  1. “To prevent the disclosure of information that is privileged or confidential pursuant to the law of this State or of the United States, or not considered a public record within the meaning of Chapter 132 of the General Statutes.
  2. To prevent the premature disclosure of an honorary degree, scholarship, prize, or similar award.
  3. To consult with an attorney employed or retained by the public body in order to preserve the attorney-client privilege between the attorney and the public body, which privilege is hereby acknowledged. General policy matters may not be discussed in a closed session and nothing herein shall be construed to permit a public body to close a meeting that otherwise would be open merely because an attorney employed or retained by the public body is a participant. The public body may consider and give instructions to an attorney concerning the handling or settlement of a claim, judicial action, mediation, arbitration, or administrative procedure. If the public body has approved or considered a settlement, other than a malpractice settlement by or on behalf of a hospital, in closed session, the terms of that settlement shall be reported to the public body and entered into its minutes as soon as possible within a reasonable time after the settlement is concluded.
  4. To discuss matters relating to the location or expansion of industries or other businesses in the area served by the public body, including agreement on a tentative list of economic development incentives that may be offered by the public body in negotiations, or to discuss matters relating to military installation closure or realignment. Any action approving the signing of an economic development contract or commitment, or the action authorizing the payment of economic development expenditures, shall be taken in an open session.
  5. To establish, or to instruct the public body’s staff or negotiating agents concerning the position to be taken by or on behalf of the public body in negotiating (i) the price and other material terms of a contract or proposed contract for the acquisition of real property by purchase, option, exchange, or lease; or (ii) the amount of compensation and other material terms of an employment contract or proposed employment contract.
  6. To consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee; or to hear or investigate a complaint, charge, or grievance by or against an individual public officer or employee. General personnel policy issues may not be considered in a closed session. A public body may not consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, appointment, or removal of a member of the public body or another body and may not consider or fill a vacancy among its own membership except in an open meeting. Final action making an appointment or discharge or removal by a public body having final authority for the appointment or discharge or removal shall be taken in an open meeting.
  7. To plan, conduct, or hear reports concerning investigations of alleged criminal misconduct.
  8. To formulate plans by a local board of education relating to emergency response to incidents of school violence or to formulate and adopt the school safety components of school improvement plans by a local board of education or a school improvement team.
  9. To discuss and take action regarding plans to protect public safety as it relates to existing or potential terrorist activity and to receive briefings by staff members, legal counsel, or law enforcement or emergency service officials concerning actions taken or to be taken to respond to such activity.”

Option 1 clearly applies, in part, to privileged health information (PHI) and such.  So I would not expect that little Jimmy’s Medicaid ID would be part of the board meeting issues, and, thus, not included in the minutes, unless his Medicaid ID was discussed in a closed session.

I cannot fathom that Option 2 would ever be applicable, but who knows?  Maybe Alliance will start giving out prizes…

I would assume that Option 3 is used most frequently.  But notice:

“General policy matters may not be discussed in a closed session and nothing herein shall be construed to permit a public body to close a meeting that otherwise would be open merely because an attorney employed or retained by the public body is a participant.”

Which means that: (1) the closed session may only be used to talk about specific legal strategies and not general policies.  For example, arguably, an MCO could hold a closed session to consult with its attorney whether to appeal a specific case, but not to discuss whether, generally, the MCO intends to appeal all unsuccessful cases.

and

(2) the MCO cannot call for a closed session “on the fly” and only because its attorney happens to be participating in the board meeting.

As I am rifling through random board meeting minutes, I notice the MCO’s attorney is always present.  Now, I say “always,” but did not review all MCO meeting minutes. There may very well be board meetings at which  the attorneys don’t attend. However, the attorney is present for the minutes that I reviewed.

Which begs the question…Are the MCOs properly using the closed sessions?

Then I look at Options 4, and 5, and 6, and 7, and 8, and 9…and I realize, Geez, according to one’s interpretation, the statute may or may not allow almost everything behind closed doors. (Well, maybe not 9).  But, seriously, depending on the way in which each Option is interpreted, there is an argument that almost anything can be a closed session.

Want to hold a closed session to discuss why the CEO should receive a salary of $400,000? N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(5)(ii).

Want hold a closed session to discuss the anonymous tip claim that provider X is committing Medicaid fraud? N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(7).

Want to hold a closed session to discuss how an MCO can position itself to take over the world? N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(4).

In an atmosphere in which there is little to no supervision of the actions of the MCOs, who is monitoring whether the MCOs are overusing or misusing closed sessions?

Number three:

What can you do if you think that an MCO is holding closed sessions over and above what is allowed by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11?

According to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.16A, “[a]ny person may institute a suit in the superior court requesting the entry of a judgment declaring that any action of a public body was taken, considered, discussed, or deliberated in violation of this Article. Upon such a finding, the court may declare any such action null and void. Any person may seek such a declaratory judgment, and the plaintiff need not allege or prove special damage different from that suffered by the public at large.”

Plus, according to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.16A, “[w]hen an action is brought pursuant to G.S. 143-318.16 or G.S. 143-318.16A, the court may make written findings specifying the prevailing party or parties, and may award the prevailing party or parties a reasonable attorney’s fee, to be taxed against the losing party or parties as part of the costs. The court may order that all or any portion of any fee as assessed be paid personally by any individual member or members of the public body found by the court to have knowingly or intentionally committed the violation; provided, that no order against any individual member shall issue in any case where the public body or that individual member seeks the advice of an attorney, and such advice is followed.”

 In sum, if you believe that an MCO is conducting a closed session for a reason not enumerated above, then you can institute a lawsuit and request attorneys’ fees if you are successful in showing that the MCO knowingly or intentionally committed the violation.

We should also appeal to the General Assembly to revise, statutorily, more narrowly drafted closed session exceptions.

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.