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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!!!!

Preliminary Injunctions: In NC Medicaid, Extraordinary Circumstances Call for Extraordinary Measures

Preliminary injunctions…Prior to law school, had you asked me what a preliminary injunction was I probably would have said, generally, that an injunction is a legal remedy to stop someone from doing something.

Now, post-law school and after approximately 13-years of legal experience, I know now that I would have been only partially right prior to law school.

First, I understand that preliminary injunctions are extraordinary measures.  But don’t extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures?

There are 2 types of injunctions: preventive and mandatory.

How could an injunction help you, as a Medicaid provider? (And, believe me, it can!!)

I have used injunctions in many different ways to help Medicaid providers.  Here are some examples:

  • A provider’s Medicaid contract is terminated…a preventive injunction can be put in place to stay the termination until a determination of the termination’s validity (Secret: If any entity other than the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) terminated the Medicaid contract, most likely, the termination is not valid).
  • A provider’s Medicaid reimbursements are suspended…a preventive injunction can be put into place to stay the suspension of payments until a determination of the suspension’s validity.
  • A provider, who has provided Medicaid services for years and has had a Medicaid contract with DHHS for years, is denied enrollment by a Managed Care Organization (MCO)…a mandatory injunction could force the MCO to contract with the provider.

The last example is an example of a mandatory injunction.  Mandatory injunctions, generally, are more difficult to convince a judge to order than a preventive injunction.  However, in the context of Medicaid, generally, the providers have compelling stories that will warrant any type of injunction…extraordinary circumstances.

But a preliminary injunctions is not the first step.

Normally when I draft a Motion for Preliminary Injunction, I use North Carolina Civil Procedure, Rule 65.

Rule 65. Injunctions.

(a)        Preliminary injunction; notice. – No preliminary injunction shall be issued without notice to the adverse party.

(b)        Temporary restraining order; notice; hearing; duration. – A temporary restraining order may be granted without written or oral notice to the adverse party or that party’s attorney only if (i) it clearly appears from specific facts shown by affidavit or by verified complaint that immediate and irreparable injury, loss, or damage will result to the applicant before the adverse party or that party’s attorney can be heard in opposition, and (ii) the applicant’s attorney certifies to the court in writing the efforts, if any, that have been made to give the notice and the reasons supporting the claim that notice should not be required.

Temporary Restraining Order? I thought we were talking about injunctions!!! Now I am confused!!

Do not fret!

Notice that, according to Rule 65, a preliminary injunction may NOT be issued without notice to the adverse party.  However, a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) CAN be granted withOUT notice to the adverse party.

How this plays out in real life is that, when I want an injunction, I file a “Motion to Stay, Temporary Restraining Order, and Preliminary Injunction.”  I file the Motion in the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), which is great, because, generally, the Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) have a deep understanding of Medicaid laws, rules and regulations.

According to Rule 65, the Judge, in his or her discretion may grant the TRO, then schedule the preliminary injunction within 7-10 days.

The fact that a Judge can grant a TRO quickly and without notice to the adverse party clearly shows how extraordinary a TRO is.

But extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures.  Or, in Latin, “extremis malis extrema remedia.”

Example:

Alice is a health care provider who accepts Medicaid.  Alice has a small practice; she only has 3 employees and maybe 40 clients.  She provides mental health care to needy adults in Mecklenburg county.  MeckLINK is her MCO.  On August 1, 2013, MeckLINK sends correspondence to Alice stating that as of August 5, 2013, Alice’s Medicaid contract will be terminated.  Alice panics.  Not only is her small practice her only source of revenue…her livelihood…her career, but she would have to close her practice immediately if MeckLINK failed to pay her even one time.

What are Alice’s choices?

A:   Cry. Give up;

B:   Cuss out MeckLINK, only to have MeckLINK provide her additional legal bases for the termination;

C:   Appeal through MeckLINK’s informal appeal, only to have the termination become effective August 5th, despite the appeal, schedule the informal appeal within 30 days, and go bankrupt prior to the informal appeal; or

D:   Get a TRO/preliminary injunction

Personally, I go with ‘D.’

If you do file a Motion to Stay, TRO and Preliminary Injunction and the Judge follows the legal protocol, the TRO should be granted within a few days.  Then a preliminary injunction (PI) should be scheduled within 7-10 days.  At the PI hearing, you must show: (1) likelihood of success on the merits; and (2) irreparable harm.

How do you show likelihood of success on the merits? Well, in my example, MeckLINK was the acting entity taking the action to terminate Alice’s Medicaid contract.  But federal law dictates that a single state entity manage Medicaid.  It is my position that MeckLINK does not have the authority to unilaterally and without DHHS’ express authorization to terminate a Medicaid contract. Make the argument…show likelihood of success on the merits.

How do you show irreparable harm? Damages must be more than just monetary. Damages must be irreparable…as in, not fixable with mere money.  Obviously, monetary damages are at issue.  But also, goodwill/reputation in the community, staff morale, fear of bankruptcy, effect of bankruptcy on Alice, Alice’s family, staff, effect on Medicaid recipients (not receiving the medically necessary services), impact on the community, etc.  Show irreparable harm…get the PI.

Once you meet your burden of proof for preliminary injunction, then the injunction is upheld until a full hearing on the merits.  Usually, the full hearing on the merits will not be scheduled for many months.  So the PI enables you to continue to do business as usual…as if no termination had ever been threatened.  Status quo. (The existing state of affairs).

Had Alice’s TRO and PI NOT been granted?

Alice would have lost her business.  Her 3 staff members would have been unemployed.  Alice’s family would have been without income.  Her 3 staff would have been without income, perhaps they would have applied for unemployment.  Her landlord would not have been paid.  The 40-ish  Medicaid recipients would not have received medically necessary services.  The Medicaid recipients would have decomposed…perhaps becoming hospitalized or incarcerated…or on the street.  Alice’s reputation in the community would have been that “MeckLINK shut Alice down! She must have been doing something wrong.”  Alice would have become depressed…convinced that she were a failure.  Alice, due to zero income, would have lost her home; her husband would have left her.  (No one can really comprehend the harm of closing a business. The consequences could be more dire than my description).

These are extraordinary circumstances. And extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures!

Why My Career, as a Medicaid Litigator/Medicaid Provider Advocate, is the Best, Most Rewarding Career…Ever!

I have the best and most rewarding career…EVER! It’s not the easiest career. It’s not a 9-5 job. When I schedule family trips, I normally have to cancel the trips or cut them short.

Like next week, my extended family on my dad’s side gets together every year for a week at Emerald Isle, NC. So about 3 months ago, I put in my secured leave with the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) for next week. Lawyers have to request “secured leave” for vacations. That way, the courts will not schedule hearings or mediations, etc. during the requested vacation time. Secured leave is really the only way to ensure an attorney gets a vacation. In my Medicaid practice, I normally only practice in OAH. For the most part, my clients have administrative complaints, not civil complaints, which would take me to Superior Court. So, I filed my secured leave in OAH only. Well, it just so happens that one of the State’s agents has refused to comply with an Order executed by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in OAH. The consequences of the agent’s refusal could be dire. So, we had no choice but to file a Writ of Mandamus in Superior Court. A Writ of Mandamus is an extremely, extraordinary motion. We filed it last week. Superior Court scheduled the Writ hearing for Monday, June 24th (supposedly the 3rd day of my family vacation). So, my vacation is shortened. My client, especially in this specific instance, is just more important than a day or two at the beach.

Anyway, going back to how my career is the best career ever…

My clients are health care providers that choose to accept Medicaid. They are behavioral healthcare providers, dentists, durable medical equipment suppliers, neurologists, primary care physicians, speech therapists, ER physicians/hospitals, hospice providers, etc.  No matter the service my clients provide, the common thread is that the provider chooses to provide services to Medicaid recipients.  In some fields, these providers willing to accept Medicaid are few and far between.  Sometimes Medicaid recipients are placed on a 3-5 month waiting list only to get to see a health care provider for the first time.

My clients are good people.  My clients are empathetic.  They understand that few providers choose to accept Medicaid. Nevertheless, these providers choose to provide services to the most needy people in North Carolina.

My clients are not greedy.  They choose to accept Medicaid despite the low reimbursement rates, despite the complex and burdensome amount of regulations, despite the need to constantly google “NC Medicaid” for Implementation Updates or Special Bulletins, despite the need to constantly attend seminars on Medicaid updates, despite the need to jump through hoops, whether it be CAHBA certifications or applications with the Managed Care Organizations (MCOs), despite the need to undergo harassing audits, and despite the risk of the Division of Medical Assistance, or one of its agents, to merely terminate their Medicaid contract without due process.  My clients understand these risks and negative aspects, yet they choose to continue to serve Medicaid recipients.

My clients serve the most needy, most mute, and most underserved population in NC.  Obviously, Medicaid recipients, by definition, are the most poor citizens in our state.

My clients are scared. They have been told by the state or its agents that they owe money, that they have “credible allegations of fraud,” or indications of “abhorrent billing practices.” These allegations are unsubstantiated.  My clients served their consumers well.  But they have to defend these McCarthian-istic allegations, and health care providers, in general, are not litigious.  My clients are scared.

My career is the best and most rewarding career ever because I represent clients, who are good people doing good things.

My career is the best and most rewarding career ever because, by helping my clients, I am helping voiceless, Medicaid recipients.

A week or so ago, a client sent me a card saying, “Knicole and Elizabeth [one of my upcoming star-associates], Thank you for all you have done.  You have saved a company, 140 jobs, and over 500 Medicaid recipients from having no provider.  I almost cried.

I have always looked at my career as: By devoting my career to Medicaid providers, I am able to serve, indirectly, Medicaid recipients.  Medicaid recipients, for the most part, sadly, cannot hire me (believe me, I wish I could work for free), but, by my work for Medicaid providers, I am able to help Medicaid recipients by helping the providers the recipients so desperately need.

But this past week, I had the opportunity to help a Medicaid recipient directly, not indirectly. And, I left the hearing with goosebumps, good feelings, and a desire for more.

One of my clients had his or her Medicaid contract terminated; let’s call this person X.  Because of X’s termination of Medicaid contract, a Medicaid consumer, a teenage girl, who had seen X weekly for 6 years, was, suddenly, disallowed to see X.  Let’s call her ‘A.’  Without X, A spiraled.  A became suicidal and homicidal, both at home and at school. She begged to see X.  Since not being able to X, A was hospitalized 2x and was taken from her family home and placed in therapeutic foster care. All because A was disallowed to see the one therapist she had become to trust over the course of 6 years.

I decided to take A’s case pro bono.

I filed a Temporary Restraining Order, Motion to Stay, and Preliminary Injunction (TRO) on behalf of A. I argued that A was stable (as stable as possible for a person suffering from her mental illnesses) while she was able to see X.  When X’s Medicaid contract was terminated, A was not able to be seen by X.  A refused to go to another provider and spiraled.  I argued that A should be able to see X while A and X’s lawsuits went forward.  A should not suffer while X’s Medicaid contract was erroneously terminated.

A’s mother testified emotionally.

The Judge has not officially ruled yet. But, at the end of  the hearing, he wanted to ensure that, while he was deciding the ruling, A would be able to receive services from X.  I informed him that, no, A was not currently receiving services from X (despite the TRO being granted the prior week before the preliminary injunction hearing).

The judge looked at counsel for the MCO (the MCO that was not allowing X to see any Medicaid recipients) and said…Why?

Long story, short, my Medicaid recipient client was emotional (in a happy way) with the outcome. While my provider clients are also emotional (in a happy way) with the outcomes, this seemed different.  Had I not agreed to work pro bono, this person may never had received relief for her daughter.

Pro bono is tough.  You go into a pro bono case understanding that your legal fees will not be paid.  But it is rewarding.  In OAH, after the final disposition of the case, an attorney may petition for attorneys’ fees.  I hope my petition is granted…not because I want these legal fees so badly (honestly, my salary stays the same whether I get these attorneys’ fees or not), but because, if my attorneys’ fees are awarded in this case, maybe, just maybe, I would be able to take on more pro bono cases and help more Medicaid recipients directly.

Regardless, in my career, I go to bed knowing that I have helped good people, good providers and, indirectly, helped Medicaid recipients.

Best….Career….Ever!!!!

What Is the Legal Process for Contesting a Termination of a Medicaid Contract?

What is the legal process?
How long does it take?
How much does it cost?
What is the likelihood of success?
If I win, what will happen?

These are probably the most FAQ by providers who have either been placed on prepayment review or been through prepayment review, only to have their Medicaid contracts terminated at the end of six months.

First, what is prepayment review?

If you are an old hat to this blog, then skip this section. Most likely, you already know what the dreaded term “prepayment review” means. If you are a newbie, prepayment review is a status. A bad status. A status created by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). In essence, prepayment review means that, for 6 months, you must have all claims evaluated by a third-party prior to being paid. You can render medically necessary services (for which you obtained prior authorization) and the third-party could decide that you do not deserve to be reimbursed. You can go 6 months without reimbursement, but provide services and pay your staff, then have your Medicaid contract terminated erroneously and because of the subjective and incorrect opinion of the third-party contractor.

However, this blog is about the legal process of fighting your Medicaid contract termination, not the absurdity of the prepayment review process.

The legal process:

You determine that (a) you are wrongfully withheld Medicaid reimbursements while on prepayment review; or (b) your Medicaid contract has been terminated based on an erroneous prepayment review.

1. You hire counsel. (It does not have to be me. Just a knowledgeable Medicaid attorney).

2. The attorney files a Motion to Stay, Temporary Restraining Order, and Preliminary Injunction (TRO) against DHHS, DMA. The third-party auditor that conducted the prepayment review does not need to be named because the auditor is considered to be an agent of the state. In fact, whenever I have filed a TRO, DMA automatically brings a witness from the third-party auditor. If DMA did not, DMA would not be able to dispute my contention that the prepayment review was conducted erroneously.

3. NC Civil Rule of Procedure, Rule 65 governs injunctions (A TRO is legally considered an injunction. The difference is between a court of equity and a court of law).

4. Usually within 7-10 days, (barring some unforeseen hurdle) the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) will either grant or deny the TRO.

It is important to note that not all ALJ’s procedural postures for TROs are identical. One ALJ may grant the TRO with no legal arguments heard from opposing counsel and schedule the Preliminary Injunction hearing in the near future. Another ALJ may require telephonic legal arguments prior to granting the TRO. Yet another ALJ may require legal arguments in person at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH).

5. Once the TRO is granted, status quo governs. In other words, the TRO allows you to have your Medicaid contract, service Medicaid recipients, and get reimbursed…just as if the prepayment review had never happened.

6. A TRO is VERY temporary. For the most part, if executed strictly according to Rule 65, a TRO is granted without hearing from the other side. Therefore, a preliminary injunction hearing must be scheduled as soon as possible. The ALJ does not want to burden an unheard party’s rights for too long without hearing that unheard party’s side.

7. Within a month or so after the grant of the TRO, a preliminary injunction hearing is scheduled. (This is normally conducted in one, full-day hearing…sometimes shorter if you have one particular Judge, because he or she has such a clear understanding of the facts).

8. At the preliminary injunction hearing, you must show: (1) likelihood of success on the merits; and (2) irreparable harm. Which means, in the vernacular, (1) that the prepayment review was conducted incorrectly (or your Medicaid reimbursements are being wrongly withheld); and (2) if the termination of your Medicaid contract is not stopped, then you would suffer great consequences.

9. If the ALJ grants the preliminary injunction, then that grant of relief maintains status quo until the full-blown hearing.

10. The full-blown hearing will be held, generally, over 6 months in the future. Which means that you will be able to render medically necessary services for Medicaid recipients and be reimbursed for services rendered until the final adjudication of the lawsuit.

Basically, once the TRO is filed, you could be “back to normal” or status quo within 7-10 days.  That does not mean that the legal battle is over.  In fact, once the TRO is granted and you are back to normal, the legal battle just begins.  The legal battle can be a long, stressful and drawn-out process.  But, at least, you are able to render medically necessary services and receive reimbursement.

As to cost, the legal process is expensive.  Obviously, cost depends on the attorney that you hire, that hired attorney’s billable rate, and that hired attorney’s legal knowledge of Medicaid.  Be sure to ask many questions prior to engaging any attorney.  Anybody would hate to get an unexpectedly high bill.

Also, check with your liability insurance to determine whether your liability insurance will cover attorneys’ legal fees.  Many times your liability insurance will cover regulatory audits.

Also, NCGS 6-19.1 allows a party defending against an agency decision to petition the court for attorneys fees within 30 days of final disposition of the case.  Therefore, there is a possibility to have your attorneys’ fees reimbursed, but not until the very, very end of your case.  You would be responsible for fronting the attorneys’ fees with a chance of not recovering your attorneys’ fees at the back-end.

As to likelihood of success, obviously, it depends on your particular facts.  Was the third-party auditor really actually wrong in its audit denials? Does your documentation actually meet compliance requirements. Remember, just because the auditor believes that your documents are not compliant, does not mean your documents are actually noncompliant.  But likelihood of success rests primarily in your facts/documents.  Your attorney should be able to be more specific.