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Last year’s budget called for reduced reimbursement for physicians providing Medicaid. But the cuts have not been effective – until now.

By Rose Hoban

In the 2014 state budget passed last August, state lawmakers inserted what could be considered a poison pill for Medicaid providers: a 3 percent pay cut that for specialists could be effective retroactively to January 2014.

Primary care providers such as pediatricians, internists and family doctors will see the same pay cut, effective back to Jan. 1, 2015.

But the cut is only now being implemented.

“All of us were optimistic that the cut wouldn’t happen,” said Karen Smith, a family doctor in Raeford who runs her own practice.

Smith said she and other physicians have been writing, calling and talking to legislators, working to convince them not to implement the cut.

But she and thousands of other primary care providers received notification late last week that on March 1 they would begin seeing the 3 percent cut.

And for specialists, the reduction will go back 14 months.

“It’s quite a hit,” said Elaine Ellis, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Medical Society.

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Failed shared-savings plan behind the problem

The origin of the 3 percent cut goes back to the 2013 budget for Medicaid, the program that covers health care for low-income children, some of their parents, pregnant women and low-income seniors. In 2013, the federal government paid North Carolina 65.5 percent of every dollar billed for Medicaid-eligible care, while the state covered the other 34.5 percent (The rate, which changes annually, is 65.9 percent for 2015).

In 2013, the Medicaid budget had grown to close to $4 billion in state dollars, and lawmakers at the General Assembly were looking for ways to trim costs. So they devised a “shared-savings” program, in which Medicaid providers would take a 3 percent rate cut that would be collected by the state Department of Health and Human Services. If doctors and hospitals saved money by operating more efficiently, DHHS would share those savings back with the providers, effectively reducing the amount of the 3 percent cut.

But DHHS needed federal approval to initiate the program, which would have been complicated. The agency never submitted a plan to the federal government, so neither part of the program was initiated.

That created a problem for lawmakers, who had calculated the savings from the rate cut into their state budget. When lawmakers returned to Raleigh in 2014 to adjust the state’s biennial budget, they implemented the rate cut retroactively to Jan 1, 2014 for specialists. Primary care providers, such as Karen Smith, had their rate cut put off until the beginning of 2015.

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Big bucks

Big bucks

Officials from the Medical Society have been gathering numbers from around the state and are finding that some specialty practices could owe tens of thousands of dollars that would need to be repaid to state coffers.

The need for retroactive payment is in part a logistical problem: The computerized Medicaid management information system, known as NCTracks, has not been able to process the cuts. NCTracks has had technical issues since it was rolled out in mid-2013; at that time, glitches in the system created months of delays and tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid services for providers.

“Requiring these [specialist] medical practices to pay back 3 percent of what the state has already paid them for the last 14 months would wreak havoc with the finances of these businesses – really, any business would struggle to recover from such a financial blow,” Robert Schaaf, a Raleigh radiologist and president of the Medical Society, wrote Monday in a press release.

And primary care doctors like Smith are also fretting over paying back 3 percent of what she earned from Medicaid for the past two months.

“Practices such as my own are functioning on an operating budget that’s month by month,” said Smith, who said that a great many of her patients are Medicaid recipients.

“We simply do not have that type of operating reserve to allow for that,” she said.

The cuts will be especially tough for rural providers, who have high numbers of Medicaid patients, said Greg Griggs from the N.C. Academy of Family Physicians (The Academy of Family Physicians is a North Carolina Health News sponsor).

“It’s one thing to make the cuts going forward, but to take money back, especially for that period of time, is pretty significant for people who’ve been willing to take care of our most needy citizens,” Griggs said.

“It’s pretty bad,” he said, “and its not like Medicaid pays extraordinarily well to begin with.”

Piling on

In addition to the state cut is a federal cuts to many Medicaid services provided by primary care providers that can be as much as 15 to 20 percent depending on the service. That cut went into effect on Jan. 1.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, primary care providers like Smith got a bump in reimbursement last year, but that ran out with the new year. Smith said that legislators in other states found ways to keep paying that enhanced rate for primary care doctors.

“We were hoping our legislators would do the same,” she said.

In addition, state legislators mandated an additional one percent rate cut for all providers that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2015.

Now, Smith finds herself talking to her staff about possible reductions, and she’s hearing from providers in her area that they’re throwing in the towel.

“I already have colleagues who’ve left practice of medicine in this area,” she said. “My personal physician is no longer in this area. Another colleague who was a resident three years in front of me told me he cannot deal with the economics of practicing like this anymore.”

Smith acknowledged that North Carolina’s Medicaid program has a slightly higher reimbursement to physicians than surrounding states. But she said many of her patients are quite ill.

“We are in the stroke belt,” she said, referring to the high rate of strokes in eastern North Carolina. “When we look at how sick our patients are compared to other states, is it equivalent? Are we measuring apples to apples?

Correction: The original version stated that the federal Medicaid rate cut was only one percent. In actuality, it is much higher as noted in the corrected article. The one percent Medicaid cut to providers was mandated by state lawmakers in last year’s budget.

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