Auditors are not lawyers. Some auditors do not even possess the clinical background of the services they are auditing. In this blog, I am concentrating on the lack of legal licenses. Because the standards to which auditors need to hold providers to are not only found in the Medicare Provider Manuals, regulations, NCDs and LCDs. Oh, no… To add even more spice to the spice cabinet, common law court cases also create and amend Medicare and Medicaid policies.
For example, the Jimmo v. Selebius settlement agreement dictates the standards for skilled nursing and skilled therapy in skilled nursing facilities, home health, and outpatient therapy settings and importantly holds that coverage does not turn on the presence or absence of a beneficiary’s potential for improvement.
The Jimmo settlement dictates that:
“Specifically, in accordance with the settlement agreement, the manual revisions clarify that coverage of skilled nursing and skilled therapy services in the skilled nursing facility (SNF), home health (HH), and outpatient therapy (OPT) settings “…does not turn on the presence or absence of a beneficiary’s potential for improvement, but rather on the beneficiary’s need for skilled care.” Skilled care may be necessary to improve a patient’s current condition, to maintain the patient’s current condition, or to prevent or slow further deterioration of the patient’s condition.”
This Jimmo standard – not requiring a potential for improvement – is essential for diseases that are lifelong and debilitating, like Multiple Sclerosis (“MS”). For beneficiaries suffering from MS, skilled therapy is essential to prevent regression.
I have reviewed numerous audits by UPICs, in particular, which have failed to follow the Jimmo settlement standard and denied 100% of my provider-client’s claims. 100%. All for failure to demonstrate potential for improvement for MS patients. It’s ludicrous until you stop and remember that auditors are not lawyers. This Jimmo standard is found in a settlement agreement from January 2013. While we will win on appeal, it costs providers money valuable money when auditors apply the wrong standards.
The amounts in controversy are generally high due to extrapolations, which is when the UPIC samples a low number of claims, determines an error rate and extrapolates that error rate across the universe. When the error rate is falsely 100%, the extrapolation tends to be high.
While an expectation of improvement could be a reasonable criterion to consider when evaluating, for example, a claim in which the goal of treatment is restoring a prior capability, Medicare policy has long recognized that there may also be specific instances where no improvement is expected but skilled care is, nevertheless, required in order to prevent or slow deterioration and maintain a beneficiary at the maximum practicable level of function. For example, in the regulations at 42 CFR 409.32(c), the level of care criteria for SNF coverage specify that the “. . . restoration potential of a patient is not the deciding factor in determining whether skilled services are needed. Even if full recovery or medical improvement is not possible, a patient may need skilled services to prevent further deterioration or preserve current capabilities.” The auditors should understand this and be trained on the proper standards. The Medicare statute and regulations have never supported the imposition of an “Improvement Standard” rule-of-thumb in determining whether skilled care is required to prevent or slow deterioration in a patient’s condition.
When you are audited by an auditor whether it be a RAC, MAC or UPIC, make sure the auditors are applying the correct standards. Remember, the auditors aren’t attorneys or doctors.
Anti-Kickback statutes (AKS) and Stark law are extremely important issues in health care. Violations of these laws yield harsh penalties. Yet, many healthcare professionals have little to no knowledge on the details of these two legal beasts.
The most common question I get regarding AKS and Stark is: Do AKS and Stark apply to private payers? Health care professionals believe, if I don’t accept Medicare or Medicaid, then I don’t need to worry about AKS and Stark. Are they correct??
The general and overly broad response is that the Stark Law, 42 USC § 1395nn, only applies to Medicare and Medicaid. The AKS, 42 USC § 1320a-7b(b)),applies to any federal healthcare program.
Is there a difference between AKS and Stark?
Answer: Yes. As discussed above, the first difference is that AKS applies to all federal healthcare programs. This stark difference (pun intended) makes the simple decision to not accept Medicare and Medicaid, thus allowing you to never worry about AKS, infinitely more difficult.
Let’s take a step back… What are AKS and Stark laws and what do these laws prohibit? When you Google AKS and Stark, a bunch of legal blogs pop up and attempt to explain, in legalese, what two, extremely esoteric laws purport to say, using words like “renumeration,” “knowing and willful,” and “federal healthcare program.” You need a law license to decipher the deciphering of AKS and Stark. The truth is – it ain’t rocket science.
The AKS is a criminal law; if you violate the AKS, you can be prosecuted as a criminal. The criminal offense is getting something of value for referrals. You cannot refer patients to other health care professionals in exchange for money, reduced rent, use of laboratory equipment, referrals to you, health services for your mother, marketing, weekly meals at Ruth’s Chris, weekly meals at McDonalds, oil changes, discounted theater tickets, Uber rides, Costco coupons, cooking lessons, or…anything of value, regardless the value.
Safe harbors (exceptions to AKS) exist. But those exceptions better fit squarely into the definition of the exceptions. Because there are no exceptions beyond the enumerated exceptions.
AKS is much more broad in scope than Stark. Other than Medicare and Medicaid, AKS applies to any health care plan that utilizes any amount of federal funds. For example, AKS applies to Veterans Health Care, State Children’s Health Programs (CHIP), Federal Employees Health Benefit Program, and many other programs with federal funding. Even if you opt to not accept Medicare and Medicaid, you may still be liable under AKS.
Stark law, on the other hand, is more narrow and only applies to Medicare and Medicaid. I find the following “cheat sheet” created by a subdivision of the Office of Inspector General to be helpful in understanding AKS and Stark and the differences between the two:
One other important aspect of Stark is that is considered “strict liability,” whereas AKS requires a proving of a “knowing and willful” action.
Feel free to print off the above chart for your reference. However, see that little asterisk at the bottom of the chart? It applies here as well.
For a Notice of Overpayment? Providers should request a reconsideration review and hire an attorney.
For a denial of endorsement? Providers have very limited time to appeal a denial. Hire a lawyer. Appeal as the denial explains.
For a Medicaid recipients’ rights? Most appeals will be to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH).
I wrote the above “blog” back in 2012. It was one of my first blogs and one of my shortest. Looking back, I must admit that the blog is not even good…it’s accurate-ish. I cannot believe that I have been blogging for over 10 years of my life…and about Medicare and Medicaid regulatory compliance litigation — who knew?
As the year ends, I want to thank all my readers for reading this blog for TEN YEARS. I am humbled and appreciative. As all of you are aware, I do not get paid to blog about Medicare and Medicaid. It actually eats-up quite a lot of my time, which I do not have in Spades, as a mother of a Senior in HS, a wife, and an attorney.
Now I will rewrite the 2012 blog for 2022-2023:
Health Care Providers: Where Do You File an Appeal?
If you are filing a Medicaid provider appeal claiming that you do not owe an overpayment, your State will have an administrative process for you to seek redress. You must exhaust administrative remedies, so read the notice of overpayment for clarification of the 1st and maybe 2nd steps. You normally have a reconsideration and a red-determination before presenting to an administrative law judge.
Hire a lawyer from the beginning.
If you are filing a Medicare provider appeal, see blog. Still hire an attorney.
I look forward to another year of defending health care providers against the State and federal governments. I see it as I have the chance to keep health care providers in business and accepting Medicaid and Medicare. Thank you for accepting Medicare and Medicaid, and I will be here to fight!! I have represented providers from Alaska to New Mexico to New York and Florida and all in between!
From February 2020 through March 2023, enrollment in Medicaid increased by 35.3 percent, or over 22 million individuals. Enrollment in Medicaid increased in every State during COVID. Concurrently, many States report a shortage of providers willing to accept Medicaid. Today NC will be announcing its Medicaid expansion, so the nationwide numbers will rise in the near future. However, as we are introducing over 22 million Americans to Medicaid, the number of physicians, oral surgeons, BH providers, or any health care provider type who accept Medicaid is not increasing. In many places, providers who accept Medicaid is shrinking. See blog.
For example, Arkansas expanded Medicaid in 2014, leading to a surge in Medicaid enrollees. While the expansion successfully reduced the state’s uninsured rate, it also highlighted the shortage of healthcare providers, especially in rural areas. Many residents in these underserved regions face long wait times to see a doctor, limiting their access to timely care.
Nationwide, access to mental health services has been a concern. Medicaid expansion aimed to provide mental health coverage to more people, but there has been a shortage of mental health professionals to meet the growing demand. In many states, there are waitlists regardless the crisis.
Providers continue to face insurmountable challenges. Such challenge is the burden of audits conducted by Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs), Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), and Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) programs. These audits are designed to ensure that healthcare providers comply with the complex web of regulations governing reimbursement and patient care. However, the reality is that these audits often impose an overwhelming burden on providers and their attorneys, making compliance a Herculean task.
The healthcare industry in the United States is governed by a myriad of rules, regulations, and guidelines. From Medicare and Medicaid requirements to state-specific laws, providers must navigate a complex regulatory maze to ensure compliance. RACs, MACs, and TPE programs scrutinize providers’ billing practices, medical necessity of services, and documentation to identify overpayments and potential fraud or abuse.
Healthcare providers, from hospitals to individual practitioners, must allocate significant resources to respond to audits and maintain compliance. The burden starts with the anticipation of an audit, as providers are often left in the dark about when and how they will be audited. This uncertainty can be paralyzing, as it requires providers to divert time, personnel, and financial resources away from patient care to prepare for an audit that may or may not occur.
Once an audit is initiated, providers are faced with a deluge of demands. They must gather and submit an extensive amount of documentation, which can include patient records, billing records, and other relevant materials. The process is not only time-consuming but also disruptive to day-to-day operations. Smaller practices, in particular, may struggle to allocate the necessary personnel and resources to meet these demands, potentially affecting patient care quality.
One of the most significant challenges faced by healthcare providers and their attorneys is the ever-changing nature of healthcare regulations. Keeping up with the latest rules and guidelines is a daunting task, and providers must constantly adapt their practices to remain compliant. The complex interplay between federal and state regulations further complicates matters, as what is compliant at one level may not be at another.
Healthcare attorneys play a critical role in assisting providers through the audit process. However, we too are challenged by the intricate nature of healthcare regulations and the constant need to stay abreast of updates and changes. David would concur, I believe, in my statement that, being a health care regulatory attorney is not a laid-back, calm career choice. We have to continue to educate ourselves at quite a fast pace. Think about how often laws and rules change federally and in 50 States. Tomorrow I am going to Baltimore Maryland for the Fraud and Abuse Conference by the American Health Law Association. I will let you know if I learn anything mind-blowing.
The burden of RAC, MAC, and TPE audits in healthcare is undeniable. While these audits are essential to protect the integrity of the healthcare system, the complex regulatory landscape, coupled with the uncertainty and resource-intensive nature of the audit process, places an overwhelming burden on providers and their attorneys. Healthcare providers are in a constant struggle to balance compliance with the delivery of quality patient care, and their legal representatives are similarly tasked with navigating an ever-changing regulatory maze.
Addressing this burden requires a collaborative effort among stakeholders, including government agencies, healthcare providers, and legal experts. Streamlining audit processes, providing clearer guidance, and ensuring that audits are conducted fairly and transparently can go a long way in alleviating the burden on providers. In the end, the goal should be to strike a balance between safeguarding taxpayer dollars and allowing healthcare providers to focus on what they do best – caring for patients. Or maybe we just need a computer program for audits that is NOT Excel.
Today, I am going to talk about RAC audits. I know what you are thinking…don’t you always talk about RACs? Of course, you are going to talk about RAC audits. No. Today, I’m taking this blog in a different direction.
I want to talk about secret, hidden RAC audits. As you are aware, the federal regulations limit RACs from going back more than 3 years to audit claims. Juxtapose the UPICs, TPEs, SMRCs, MACs, OIG, and even State Medicaid agencies. Everyone, but the RACs are allowed more than a 3-year lookback period. Some, like OIG, have long lookback periods. Coincidentally, when a company responds to an RFP or a request for proposal from CMS to act as CMS’ vendor to conduct Medicare audits on America’s Medicare providers, a clause in the proposed contract between CMS and the vendor is highly argued or negotiated. Which clause in the vendor’s contract is most negotiated? I will tell you. The clause that states that the vendor is a RAC is most negotiated. Because if the vendor is called a UPIC instead of a RAC, the vendor has a longer lookback period. Being called a UPIC, suddenly, becomes a commodity. There are no laws mandating UPICs to a 3-year lookback period. All of a sudden, it is not hip to be a RAC.
Look into it. Do your research. The contracts are public record. Ask for Cotiviti’s contracts with CMS. Notice I said contracts, not contract. What I have realized over time is that a vendor may be hired by CMS to be a RAC auditor, but, once the vendor realizes the limit of 3 years, it goes back to CMS and asks if it can be considered an UPIC. Why? A UPIC can do everything that a RAC does; however, it gets an additional 3 years to lookback at claims and that means money. Cha-ching! Even Dr. Ron Hirsh commented today on RACMonitor about this story, which I presented this morning at 10:00am, as I present every Monday morning, live, on the national podcast RACMonitor , hosted by Chuck Buck and produced by MedLearn. If you want to listen to the podcast, click the following link: Nelson Mullins – Monitor Mondays Podcast Featuring Knicole Emanuel; Defeating Statistical Extrapolations, Expansion of Medicaid RACs, IPPS Final Rule, Smart Hospitals, and Physician Advisors Episodes
The podcast is also on video, but I don’t know how to view that. If you do, you would see my baby duck Biscuit on the screen. He joined me this morning to talk about, “What Walks Like a Duck and Quacks Like a Duck, Must be a Duck.” Dr. Hirsh commented that companies like Cotiviti have many, many contracts deeming Cotiviti many different acronyms. If you get a letter from Cotiviti, do not assume it is acting as a RAC. Instead, ask for the contract which allows Cotiviti to do what it purports to want to do.
I’ve noticed this trend in real life, but only for 10-20 individual cases, maybe 30. I have not had the time to draft a FOYIA request, and, quite frankly, my name on a FOYIA request nowadays result in a response that says, something to the effect of, use discovery instead. Even though my personal experiences should not be extrapolated across the country because that would be inappropriate and judgmental, I will give an example and you may extrapolate or not. There is a company that has been doing RAC audits in NC for the last 5-8 years. It is called Public Consulting Group (“PCG”). PCG and I go way back. If you are a longtime listener of RACMonitor, you will recall that Ed Roche and I presented numerous podcasts about the debacle in NM in 2013. The State of NM put 15 Medicaid providers who constituted 87.6% of the BH providers in NM at the time. The consequences were catastrophic; thousands were out of BH services overnight. There is even a documentary about the unraveling of BH in NM in 2013. The reason that these 15 BH providers were put out of business overnight was because of a NM vendor called PCG. PCG issued a report to NM after conducting Medicaid audits on these 15 BH facilities, which accused the 15 facilities of fraud. In 2013, PCG was considered a RAC per contract. Today, when I have a case against PCG and make the 3-year lookback period argument, I get a retort that it’s not a RAC. Instead it’s a UPIC.
To which I say, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it is a duck.
Laboratories are under scrutiny by the OIG and State Medicaid Departments. Labs get urine samples from behavioral health care companies, substance abuse companies, hospitals, and primary care facilities, who don’t have their own labs. Owners of labs entrust their lab executives to follow procedure on a federal and/or state level for Medicare or Medicaid. Well, what if they don’t. For example, one client paid a urine collector/courier by the mile. That courier service collected urine from Medicaid consumers in NC, sometimes in excess of 90 times a year, when Medicaid only allows 24 per year. I have about 10-15 laboratory clients at the present.
Another laboratory’s urine collector collected the urine, but never brought the urine back to get tested. To which I ponder, where did all those urine specimens go?
Another laboratory had a standing order for over 6 years to test presumptive and definitive testing on 100% of urine samples.
OIG has smelled fraud within laboratories and is widening its search for fraudsters. Several laboratories are undergoing the most serious audits in existence. Not RAC, MAC, or UPIC audits, but audits of even more importance. They received CIDs or civil investigative demands from their State Medicaid Divisions. These requests, like RAC, MAC, or UPIC audits, request lots of documents. In fact, CIDs are legally allowed to request documents for a much longer period of time than RACs, which can only request 3 years back. Most CIDs are fishing for false claims under the False Claims Act (FCA). Stark and Anti-Kickback violations are also included in these investigations. While civil penalties can result in high monetary penalties, criminal violations result in jail time.
As everyone knows, labs must follow CLIA or be CLIA certified, which is the federal standard for which labs. The Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) of 1988 (42 USC 263a) and the associated regulations (42 CFR 493) provide the authority for certification and oversight of clinical laboratories and laboratory testing. Under the CLIA program, clinical laboratories are required to have the appropriate certificate before they can accept human samples for testing. There are different types of CLIA certificates, as well as different regulatory requirements, based on the types and complexity of clinical laboratory tests a laboratory conducts. CLIA, like CMS, has its own set of rules. When entities like CLIA or CMS have their own rules, sometimes those rules juxtapose law, which creates a conundrum for providers. If you own a lab, do you follow CLIA rules or CMS rules or the law? Let me give you an example. According to CLIA, you must maintain documentation regarding samples and testing for two years. So, if CLIA audits a laboratory, the audits requests will only go back for two years. Well, that’s all fine and dandy. Except according to the law, you have to maintain medical documents for 5 or 6 years, depending on the service type.
Recently, one of my labs received a CID for records going back to 2017. That is a 6-year lookback. Had the lab followed CLIA’s rules, the lab would only have documentation going back to 2021. Had the lab followed CLIA’s rules, when OIG knocked on its door, it would have NOT had four years of OIG’s request. Now I do not know, because I have never been in the position that my lab client only retained records for two years…thank goodness. If I were in the position, I would argue that the lab was following CLIA’s rules. But that’s the thing, rules are not laws. When in doubt, follow laws, not rules.
However, that takes me to Medicare provider appeals of RAC, MAC, and UPIC audits. Everything under the umbrella of CMS must follow CMS rules. Remember how I said that rules are not laws? CMS rules, sometimes, contradict law. Yet when a Medicare provider appeals an overpayment or termination, the first four levels of appeal are mandated to follow CMS rules. It is not until the 5th level, which is the federal district court that law prevails. In other words, the RAC, MAC, or UPIC, the 2nd level QIC, the 3rd level ALJ, and the 4th level Medicare Appeal Council, all must follow CMS rules. It is not until you appear before the federal district judge that law prevails.
Receiving a CID does not mean that your investigation will remain civil. Most investigations begin civilly. If the evidence uncovered demonstrates any criminal activity, your civil investigation can quickly turn criminal. I co-defend with a federal criminal attorney if the case has a chance to turn criminal. Believe me, there is a huge difference between federal and state criminal lawyers! Even with the best federal criminal lawyers, you want a Medicare and Medicaid expert lawyer on the team to dispute the regulatory accusations that a criminal attorney may not be as well-versed. I am so thankful that I moved my practice to Nelson Mullins, because we have a huge, yet highly-specialized health care practice. While we have a large number of lawyers, each partner specializes in slightly different aspects of health care. So, when I need a federal criminal attorney to partner-up with me, I just walk down the hall.
Laboratories: Beware! Be ready! Be prepared! Be lawyered up!
Surprisingly, I am talking about the No Surprises Act today. Last year, I had an unwelcome surprise. I was thrown from my horse on February 20, 2022. I’ve been thrown from many horses, and usually, I land on my boots or, at worst, my behind. However, last year, I awoke in the ICU after being thrown from a horse. Surprise! Spoiler alert, I ended up ok, according to most. However, I was helicoptered from the extremely rural area to the closest hospital. And you are probably thinking that I was blessed that someone could contact and obtain a helicopter so quickly for me…it probably saved my life. And you may be right. But there are two things about me that you probably don’t know: 1) my best friend in life is an ER Trauma nurse with over 20 years’ experience; and (2) I don’t like to spend $49,753.00 for a helicopter ride that I don’t even remember.
Let me explain. As I said earlier, I was unconscious when someone contacted a helicopter. Let me tell you who I was with. Let me set the stage, so to speak. I was with my husband Scott, my bff Tracey – the ER trauma nurse, and her husband Josh. I never asked them, because, quite frankly, I didn’t think to ask who called the helicopter until now. Regardless, I was helicoptered, and received a bill a month or so later for almost $50k. And I freaked.
I am without a doubt even more sympathetic to my provider-clients who get notices of owing tens of thousands or millions of dollars. That $50k stopped my heart for a second. Then, I thought, Dr. Ronald Hirsh and others have spoken about the NSA multiple times on Monitor Monday. Maybe I should re-listen to a couple, really good, detailed podcast episode. I did so.
Last year, in my unconscious-state, I would have entrusted my life with Tracey to drive me about 30 minutes to a hospital because:
- She is an ER Trauma nurse.
- She is good at her job. She was handed a decapitated arm once. I am sure I would have had nightmares, not she.
- She works at the nearest hospital and it was only 30 minutes away. She is/was friends with the ER surgeons. So, yes, had you asked me whether I wanted a $50k helicopter ride or a 30-minute ride with an experienced ER Trauma nurse – I would have chosen the free one. that, from some of her stories, I think may be more experienced than the MDs she performs under.
However, after I presented this story on RACMonitor, Dr. Hirsch, along with several listeners, one of whom is an emergency physician, told me that they would NEVER recommend a private transfer to the hospital, even if Dr. Hirsch were driving, especially for an unconscious, head injury victim. I was told that the helicopter was the way to go in my case, but that I should not be liable for it. I agree, hence the NSA. However, in the same vein, providers need to be paid. Remember, this paragraph was written after RACMonitor and after I was told the helicopter was the way to go.
However, had you asked me then, I would have chosen the free ride to the hospital. Post haste!!! Instead of getting my consent to pay $50k for a helicopter ride or a free ride with an ER Trauma nurse, I was “forced” to the helicopter. And here is where the NSA gets confusing. It was effective January 2022. The political issue arose a stark “T” or perpendicular “behind a rock and a hard place.” A month or so after my accident, I got the bill for almost $50k. Like I said, my heart palpitated. Just like the doctors, hospitals, DME providers, dentists, LTCF, HH, BHP, and anyone who accepts Medicare or Medicaid hearts’ would palpitate when they receive a bill for tens of millions of dollars that they may or may not truly owe.
The DOS happened to be one month after the NSA went into effect. No one wanted to pay for this ride. My health insurance went to bat for me; or, really, for them. My health insurance also didn’t want to pay for my $50k helicopter ride. The letter from my insurance company to the helicopter company said: “Upon review of your request, we have confirmed the claim was processed according to the terms of the No Surprises Act (NSA). Accordingly, your request does not qualify as an appeal under the terms of the member benefit plan.”
While I agree that I should not have been liable for a $50k helicopter ride, I do have empathy for the helicopter company and its nurses. It expended money on my behalf. And I am appreciative. I feel like there should be a less Draconian law than the NSA. Because of my being unconscious during my helicopter admission and my lack of ability to consent, shouldn’t mean the providers shouldn’t be paid for services rendered.
But maybe the letter, which ostensibly shuts down any appeal to additional funds by the provider, means that the provider was paid an amount, maybe a reduced amount, but an amount nonetheless. If anyone knows whether surprised patients’ medical bills get paid at a reduced rate, let me know! Thanks!
Last week, I attended the American Health Lawyers Association (“AHLA”) annual conference in San Franscisco, CA. Attorneys must attend a certain number of continuing legal education (“CLE”) courses each year and this conference helps. The first session was entitled, “Year in Review” and lasted two hours. On a personal note, I had Googled the weather, which claimed to be 60-70 degrees, so, I thought, nice! a bit cooler than NC, but not much difference. I packed for NC’s climate. I pretty much froze the first two days and nights.
Back to the topic of issue. One of the topics at the AHLA conference was the catastrophic consequences of COVID on hospitals. As an attorney specializing in healthcare law, I find myself deeply troubled by the intersecting crises of COVID, nursing shortages, and the resulting closure of hospitals. The recent events in Indiana have left me grappling with the difficult legal and ethical implications of a Court Order that clashed with the reality on the ground. A northwestern Indiana hospital that was, according to it, days away from closing its emergency room. The Mayor of Hammond, Indiana, was mortified, as this hospital was Hammond’s only hospital. He brought suit demanding a preliminary injunction. Franciscan Health Hammond was Ordered by a Judge to keep those emergency services operational for another nine months, which would be until September 2023.
Despite Franciscan Health Hammond’s best intentions, the hospital found itself in a seemingly impossible predicament. The confluence of safety concerns and severe staffing shortages forced the hospital’s hand, rendering compliance with the Court Order an insurmountable obstacle.
An Indiana Appellate Court reversed the District Court Decision and lifted the Injunction that the city was granted late December 2022 that had ordered the hospital’s ER to remain open another nine months so the city could find another provider.
The hospital announced its planned closure back in November 2022, saying it was averaging fewer than three inpatients a day. I do not have personal knowledge of whether the only hospital in Hammond has closed its doors. According to a cursory Google search, which we all know wherein always lies the truth, Franciscan Health Hammond, which used to be called St. Margaret’s Hospital, is still open. If anyone knows firsthand, I welcome any information. It may have closed its doors temporarily, according to one source online. Regardless, I am taken aback by the Court’s Order not being able to be followed due to staff shortages. It reminds me of when a federal court Ordered CMS to follow the timeliness rules in the regulations and render decisions for Medicare provider appeals timely. See blog and blog.
The impact of COVID on healthcare systems has been devastating across the country, and Indiana has not been spared. The virus has unleashed unprecedented pressures on hospitals, stretching their resources to the breaking point. Frontline healthcare workers have been tirelessly battling this invisible enemy, putting their lives on the line to save others. But the relentless strain of the pandemic has taken its toll, leaving healthcare professionals physically exhausted and emotionally drained.
Rural hospitals have been disproportionately hit catastrophically. 17 rural hospitals closed last year, according to the AHLA “Year in Review” presentation.
Nursing shortages have only exacerbated the crisis. Even before the pandemic, the shortage of qualified nurses was a pressing issue, but COVID has exacerbated the problem exponentially. The demands placed on nurses have skyrocketed, as they find themselves on the front lines of the battle against the virus. The prolonged stress, burnout, and emotional trauma have led many nurses to reconsider their chosen profession or seek alternative employment options. Consequently, hospitals find themselves in a perpetual cycle of understaffing, perpetuating a domino effect that strains resources and compromises patient care.
You may be asking, how do you, Knicole, an attorney, have firsthand experience about the trauma nurses have endured over COVID?? To which I would respond, “Thank you for that question, reader, however, my best friend is an ER Trauma nurse here in NC. Since COVID, she has become a traveling nurse, her income has, at least, doubled. Not that she doesn’t deserve such an income hike! Oh contraire mon fraire! The stories I have heard…. The emotional distress that she has had to endure… The young people who have died… Being forced to get vaccinated and the emotional toll on her and those similarly situated… Multiple deaths nightly, for over two years… Having to console families… Having to live away from home for weeks… Believe me, she deserved every extra cent she earned during the public health emergency (“PHE”), which was officially declared “over” on May 11, 2023. The problem that hospitals are having now, is basic supply and demand. Nurses are in demand; therefore, it is difficult for hospitals to decrease salaries and hourly wages without losing the nurses it has.”
According to Franciscan Health Hammond, its dire staffing situation made it nearly impossible to maintain safe patient care within the emergency room. The safety and well-being of both patients and employees must always remain paramount, and the hospital administrators were left with an agonizing decision. Ultimately, according to the internet but unconfirmed, it made the difficult choice to close the emergency room temporarily, recognizing the potential risks of operating under severe staff shortages.
As an attorney, it is my duty to uphold the law and advocate for the best interests of my clients. However, in situations like these, I cannot help but empathize with the hospital administrators who faced an impossible dilemma. The judicial system must grapple with the reality on the ground and understand the complex factors that contribute to hospital closures. Simply ordering a hospital to remain open without addressing the underlying challenges, such as nursing shortages and safety concerns, may create an unmanageable burden that compromises patient safety and exacerbates the crisis.
This case in Indiana serves as a sobering reminder of the urgent need for comprehensive solutions. Our healthcare system requires support and resources to address the immediate challenges posed by the pandemic, including expanding nursing education programs, providing incentives for healthcare professionals, and bolstering mental health resources for those on the front lines. Furthermore, long-term planning and systemic reforms are necessary to build a resilient healthcare infrastructure that can withstand future crises.
As I reflect on these current events, I am reminded of the importance of collaboration between the legal, healthcare, and policy-making spheres. Only through a collective effort can we navigate these difficult times and strive for a more robust healthcare system that ensures the safety and well-being of all. It is my hope that this blog entry serves as a testament to the complex issues at hand, spurring further discussions and actions to mitigate the challenges posed by COVID, nursing shortages, and hospital closures.
Not everyone loves their job. Not everyone has a job. Not everyone does their job. And that includes doctors and lawyers. Not all doctors and lawyers do their jobs well. When a doctor fails to doctor, where does the liability lie? On the facility? On the hospital?
That is exactly what happened in one of my cases. My client, an inpatient substance abuse facility, hired a physician. Upon hire, the doctor signed an employment agreement that stated that he or she would perform the role as a doctor/medical director for the facility. Years passed. There were no complaints, so the executive committee was under the impression that the doctor was fulfilling his duties. The members certainly had no reason to suspect that the doctor was not doctoring according to the employment contract. No, they assumed that a doctor would doctor.
Then a RAC audit happened. As you are well aware, RAC audits go back three years. The facility received a Tentative Notice of Overpayment from the RAC alleging the facility owed almost $10 million. I was hired, and I conducted a review of the facility, its policies, and interviewed all staff. It came to light that the doctor did not review the results of urinalysis tests. Remember, this is a substance abuse facility. Urine tests are essential. The Medicaid recipients provided the samples; they peed in a cup. The labs were ordered. The doctor has a standing order for definitive and presumptive urinalysis tests. The doctor has sole access to the test results electronically. We discovered, much to our horror, that the doctor never looked at the results. For the past three years, she has never informed any patient that they were or were not positive or negative for any substance. In my mind, reviewing the urinalysis results goes hand in hand with substance abuse therapy.
Here, we discovered a breakdown in the facility, but that breakdown was one person not doing his or her job. Sadly for him or her, we – the facility – were able to use the doctor’s failure to doctor to our advantage. We appealed the $10 million alleged overpayment. Our primary defense was throwing the doctor under the bus, and we had every right to do so. Who would have expected your medical director failing to direct or review pertinent tests. In the world of law, respondeat superior, normally, is the general rule. In Latin, respondeat superior means that the superior or the boss or the owner is responsible for those underneath them. In this case, the facility is the superior and the doctor is the inferior, so you would expect the facility to bear any liability of its employees. But, not here. Not in this case. The doctor failed to meet expectations of the job. By not reviewing urinalysis test results, the doctor veered enough off the track to relieve liability from the facility. The doctor’s inactions were the direct cause of the accusation of owing $10 million. The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) agreed. After terminating the doctor, we contemplated suing the physician for damages. However, since we won the alleged overpayment case, we did not do so.
Every skilled nursing facility in the US will be subject to a five-claim audit starting THIS WEEK as regulators try to better assess and root out improper payments. Blah. Blah. Blah. The former is the first sentence in an article that is giving warning to skilled nursing facilities (“SNF”). But, we all know that PROPER PAYMENTS get caught in the wide net cast for improper payments. Innocent people get accused of crimes. Health care providers get accused of Medicare and Medicaid fraud or, at least, abhorrent billing.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) announced the nationwide audits, which will be conducted by Medicare Administrative Contractors (“MACs”) on a rolling basis, with the MAC in every region required to pull five Medicare Part A claims from every facility they cover and review them for potential errors.
The results will lead to alleged overpayments, credible allegations of fraud, submittals to the OIG, and False Claims Act (“FCA”) penalties. The effort follows an HHS report that found skilled nursing facilities had the highest rate of improper payments, with nearly a quarter of those tied to insufficient documentation.
Most of the rest of my blog (except for what is important) is cut and pasted from the article (since I am not a journalist and cannot procure quotes):
“We haven’t seen anything like this in the recent past, at least not in the last 10 years,” said Stacy Baker, OTR/L, RAC-CT, director of audit services for Proactive LTC Consulting. “But it’s no surprise to see this sector-wide probe and educate. Looking back on Medicare FFS improper payment data, we’ve never seen SNF improper payment rates this high, and nearly doubling since the 2021 report.”
That rate stood at 15.1% in 2022, almost double the 7.79% rate in 2021. A CMS report blamed missing case-mix group component documentation. Baker billed the new initiative as an attempt to improve poor billing practices that emerged with the implementation of the Patient Driven Payment Model.
But the improper payments can’t be attributed to PDPM alone, said Alicia Cantinieri BSN, vice president of MDS policy and education for Zimmet Healthcare Services.
“That’s probably not the whole reason,” she said on a webinar earlier this month.
She noted that risk areas that could move providers to the front of the audit process include past performance, such as a history of additional documentation requests (“ADR”); frequent errors in Section GG, which sets payment rates for physical therapy, occupational and nursing groups; diagnoses without medical record to support MDS inclusion; and even illegible RN signatures. I bolded “even illegible RN signatures” because I cannot tell you how many times I have seen denials by auditors because they couldn’t read someone’s signature, and, therefore, could not verify their license. Have auditors heard of a phone?
“Keep in mind, there’s lots of low-hanging fruit for payment error aside from PDPM accuracy, such as but not limited to, compliant SNF Certs and Recerts and physician oversight regs,” Baker added. “These components should be included in the Triple Check process as well.”
The CMG for each HIPPS code also must be clearly supported to validate the claim.
The MACs will complete one round of probe and educate for every provider, instead of that usual potential three rounds, as per their traditional TPE program.
It is a good idea for providers to start analyzing data and conducting internal self-audits.
TIPS for an effective ADR response:
- SECURE AN ATTORNEY WHO SPECIALIZES IN THIS TYPE OF LEGAL WORK.
- Develop a process and team now. Assign responsibilities for tasks such as, but not limited to: identifying ADR requests, ensuring timely response to deadlines are met, pulling together medical records and documents required to support the HIPPS code, and reviewing the packet for completeness.
- Make copies. Never ever, ever, ever send originals.
- Organize documentation to make the contractor’s review easy, labeling critical sections such as physician orders, MDS assessments, Section GG documentation and more.
- Allow sufficient time for your lawyers and hired experts, both with clinical and MDS coding expertise, to review the claims and documentation for accuracy. If your attorney believes that your documentation has concerning issues, it is best to SELF-DISCLOSE. Self-disclosure can prevent penalties; whereas if you are caught, penalties will ensue.
Lately, I have been inundated with Medicare and Medicaid health care providers getting audited for E/M codes. I know Dr. Hirsh has spoken often about the perils of e/m codes. The thing about e/m codes is that everyone uses them. Hospitals, family physicians, urgent care centers, specialists, like cardiologists. Obviously, for a specialist, like cardiology, the higher level codes will be more common. A 99214 will be common compared to a generalist like a primary care physician, where a 99213 may be more common.
Here’s a little secret: the difference between a 99214 and 99213 is subjective. It’s so subjective that I have seen auditors who are hired by private companies to audit on behalf of CMS and are financially incentivized to find fault find 100% error rates. Who finds a 100% error rate? Not one claim out of 150 was compliant. Then, I come in and hire the best independent auditors or coders. There are generally two companies that I always use. The independent auditors are so good. Most importantly, they come in and find a much more probable error rate of almost zero.
Hiring an independent, expert coder to ensure that the RAC, MAC, UPIC, or TPE audits accurately is always part of my defense.
Recently, I learned what I should have known a long time ago, but is essential for our listeners to know. If your medical malpractice is with The Doctors Company, for free, you get $25k of – what TDC calls – Medi-Guard or regulatory compliance protection. In other words, you get audited by a UPIC and are informed that you owe an alleged $5 million, extrapolated, of course, you get $25k to pay an attorney for defense. Sadly, $25k will not come close to paying your whole defense, but it’s a start. No one scoffs at “free” money.
When accused of an alleged overpayment, placed on prepayment review, or accused of a credible allegation of fraud, your reimbursements could be in imminent danger of being suspended or recouped. It is imperative for the health care provider to stay apprised of what penalties they are facing. You want to know: “best case scenario and worst case scenario.”
And, providers, be cognizant of the gravity of your situation. Infringement of the false claims act can result in high penalties or jail, depending on the circumstances and the provider’s attorney. I had a client, who is an M.D. psychiatrist. She asked me what is the worst penalty possible. I am blunt and honest, apparently to a fault. I didn’t miss a beat. “Jail,” I said. She was horrified, called her insurance company, and requested a new attorney. TDC refused to fire me, so the doctor said that she will draft the self-disclosure herself. She also said that she submitted the falsified documents to the UPIC, so she was confident that the UPIC would not notice, but see below, time stamps are a bitch.
When I told the doctor that we needed to self-disclose to OIG because she had some Medicare claims, she screamed, “No! No! NO!” It was a video call and my sound wasn’t up loud, and I just watch her on the screen with her face all contorted and her mouth getting really big, then contract, then get really big, then contract, then get really big and then even bigger. The expert certified coder was present for the call, and he called me afterward asking me: “What was that?” And his wife, who overheard, said, “OMG. I would have lashed out.” I kept my cool. Honestly, I just felt bad for her because I can see the writing on the wall.
Obviously, a new attorney is not going to change the outcome. She falsified 17 dates of service because she wanted the service notes to be “perfect.” Well, providers, there is no such thing as perfect and changing diagnoses and CPT codes and adding details to the notes that, supposedly, you remember from a month ago is not ok.
I did feel bad for her for leaving me. I could have gotten her off without any penalties.
You see, English is not her first language. She misinterpreted an email from the UPIC and thought it said that you can fix any errors before submitting the documents. She fabricated 17 claims before I was hired instructed her to stop. I had a solid defense prepared. I was going to hire an independent auditor to audit her 147 claims with the 17 falsified claims. I would have hoped for a low error rate. Then, I would have conducted a self-audit and self-disclosed the fabrications to the UPIC with the explanation that it was a nonintentional harmless error that we are admitting. Self-disclosure can, sometimes, save you from penalties! However, if she doesn’t self-disclose, she will be caught. Unbeknownst to her, on page 6 of the service notes, it is time and date stamped. It revealed on what day she changed the data and what data she changed. Those of you who would also terminate your attorney because you think you can get by with the fraud without anyone noticing, think hard about whether you would like to suffer the worst penalty – jail – or have your attorney be honest and upfront and get you off without penalties by following the rules and self-disclosing any problems uncovered.
I have no idea what will happen to the doctor, but had she stayed with me, she would have escaped without penalty. When not to fire your attorney!
The federal Public Health Emergency (PHE) for COVID-19, declared under Section 319 of the Public Health Service (PHS) Act, is expiring at the end of the day on May 11, 2023, today! This is huge. There have been thousands of exceptions and waivers due to COVID throughout the last 2 1/2 years. But on the end of the day on May 11, 2023…POOF….
Most exceptions or waivers will immediately cease.
The Department claims it has been working closely with partners—including Governors; state, local, Tribal, and territorial agencies; industry; and advocates—to ensure an orderly transition out of the COVID PHE.
Yesterday, HHS released a Fact Sheet. It is quite extensive, as it should be considering the amount of regulatory compliance changes that will happen overnight!
Since January 2021, COVID deaths have declined by 95% and hospitalizations are down nearly 91%.
There are some flexibilities and actions that will not be affected on May 11.
Access to COVID vaccinations and certain treatments, such as Paxlovid and Lagevrio, will generally not be affected.
At the end of the PHE on May 11, Americans will continue to be able to access COVID vaccines at no cost, just as they have during the COVID PHE. People will also continue to be able to access COVID treatments just as they have during the COVID PHE.
At some point, the federal government will no longer purchase or distribute COVID vaccines and treatments, payment, coverage, and access may change.
On April 18, 2023, HHS announced the “HHS Bridge Access Program for COVID-19 Vaccines and Treatments.” to maintain broad access to vaccines and treatments for uninsured Americans after the transition to the traditional health care market. For those with most types of private insurance, COVID vaccines recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) are a preventive health service and will be fully covered without a co-pay when provided by an in-network provider. Currently, COVID vaccinations are covered under Medicare Part B without cost sharing, and this will continue. Medicare Advantage plans must also cover COVID vaccinations in-network without cost sharing, and this will continue. Medicaid will continue to cover COVID vaccinations without a co-pay or cost sharing through September 30, 2024, and will generally cover ACIP-recommended vaccines for most beneficiaries thereafter.
After the transition to the traditional health care market, out-of-pocket expenses for certain treatments, such as Paxlovid and Lagevrio, may change, depending on an individual’s health care coverage, similar to costs that one may experience for other covered drugs. Medicaid programs will continue to cover COVID treatments without cost sharing through September 30, 2024. After that, coverage and cost sharing may vary by state.
Major telehealth flexibilities will not be affected. The vast majority of current Medicare telehealth flexibilities that people with Medicare—particularly those in rural areas and others who struggle to find access to care—have come to rely upon throughout the PHE, will remain in place through December 2024. Plus, States already have significant flexibility with respect to covering and paying for Medicaid services delivered via telehealth. This flexibility was available prior to the COVID PHE and will continue to be available after the COVID PHE ends.
What will be affected by the end of the COVID-19 PHE:
Many COVID PHE flexibilities and policies have already been made permanent or otherwise extended for some time, with others expiring after May 11.
Certain Medicare and Medicaid waivers and broad flexibilities for health care providers are no longer necessary and will end. During the COVID PHE, CMS used a combination of emergency authority waivers, regulations, and sub-regulatory guidance to ensure and expand access to care and to give health care providers the flexibilities needed to help keep people safe. States, hospitals, nursing homes, and others are currently operating under hundreds of these waivers that affect care delivery and payment and that are integrated into patient care and provider systems. Many of these waivers and flexibilities were necessary to expand facility capacity for the health care system and to allow the health care system to weather the heightened strain created by COVID-19; given the current state of COVID-19, this excess capacity is no longer necessary.
For Medicaid, some additional COVID PHE waivers and flexibilities will end on May 11, while others will remain in place for six months following the end of the COVID PHE. But many of the Medicaid waivers and flexibilities, including those that support home and community-based services, are available for states to continue beyond the COVID PHE, if they choose to do so. For example, States have used COVID PHE-related flexibilities to increase the number of individuals served under a waiver, expand provider qualifications, and other flexibilities. Many of these options may be extended beyond the PHE.
Coverage for COVID-19 testing will change.
State Medicaid programs must provide coverage without cost sharing for COVID testing until the last day of the first calendar quarter that begins one year after the last day of the PHE. That means with the PHE ending on May 11, 2023, this mandatory coverage will end on September 30, 2024, after which coverage may vary by state.
The requirement for private insurance companies to cover COVID tests without cost sharing, both for OTC and laboratory tests, will end at the expiration of the PHE.
Certain COVID data reporting and surveillance will change. CDC COVID data surveillance has been a cornerstone of our response, and during the PHE, HHS had the authority to require lab test reporting for COVID. At the end of the COVID-19 PHE, HHS will no longer have this express authority to require this data from labs, which will affect the reporting of negative test results and impact the ability to calculate percent positivity for COVID tests in some jurisdictions. Hospital data reporting will continue as required by the CMS conditions of participation through April 30, 2024, but reporting will be reduced from the current daily reporting to weekly.
FDA’s ability to detect shortages of critical devices related to COVID-19 will be more limited. While FDA will still maintain its authority to detect and address other potential medical product shortages, it is seeking congressional authorization to extend the requirement for device manufacturers to notify FDA of interruptions and discontinuances of critical devices outside of a PHE which will strengthen the ability of FDA to help prevent or mitigate device shortages.
Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act liability protections will be amended. On April 14, 2023, HHS Secretary Becerra mailed all the governors announcing his intention to amend the PREP Act declaration to extend certain important protections that will continue to facilitate access to convenient and timely COVID vaccines, treatments, and tests for individuals.
More changes are occurring than what I can write in one, little blogpost. Know that auditors will be knocking on your doors, asking for dates of service during the PHE. Be sure to research the policies and exceptions that were pertinent during those DOS. This is imperative for defending yourself against auditors knocking on your doors.
And, as always, lawyer-up fast!
And just like the Wicked With of the West, DING DONG! The PHE is dead.
Earlier this year, I reported on the new extrapolation rules for all audits, including RAC, UPIC, TPE, CERT, etc. You know, that alphabet soup. The biggest change was that no extrapolation may be run if the error rate is under 50%. This was an exciting and unexpected new protection for health care providers. Now I have seen it in action and want to tell you about it.
A client of mine, an internal medicine facility in Alabama, received a notice of overpayment for over $3 million. This is the first case in which I saw the 50% error rate rule in action. Normally, I always tell clients that the first two levels of appeals are rubber-stamps. In other words, don’t expect to win. The QIC and the entity that conducted the audit saying you owe money are not going to overturn themselves. However, in this case, we were “partially favorable” at the QIC level. “Partially favorable” normally means mostly unfavorable. However, the partially favorable decision took the error rate from over 50% to under 50%. We re-grouped. Obviously, we were going to appeal because the new extrapolation was still over $1 million. However, before our ALJ hearing, we received correspondence from Palmetto that said our overpayment was $0. Confused, we wrote to the ALJ pointing out that Palmetto said our balance was zero. The Judge wrote back saying that, certainly, the money has already been recouped and the practice would get a refund if he reversed the denials.” “Ok,” we said and attended a telephonic hearing. We were unsuccessful at the hearing, and the ALJ upheld an alleged overpayment of over $1 million. We argued that the extrapolation should be thrown out due to the error rate being under 50%. The Judge still ruled against us, saying that CMS has the right to extrapolate, and the courts have upheld CMS’ ability to extrapolate. Ok, but what about the NEW RULE?
Later, we contacted Palmetto to confirm what the zero-balance meant. The letter read as if we did not owe anything, yet we had an ALJ decision mandating us to pay over a $1million. There was serious juxtaposition. After many hours of chasing answers on hold with multiple telephone answerers of Palmetto, we learned that, apparently, because the error rate dropped below 50% after the QIC level, Palmetto “wrote off” the nominal balance. Since an extrapolation was no longer allowed, the miniscule amount that Palmetto thought we owed wasn’t enough to pursue. However, the letter sent to us from Palmetto did not explain, “hey, we are writing off your overpayment because the error rate fell below 50%.” No, it was vague. We didn’t even know if it were true.
It took us reaching out to Palmetto and getting an email confirmation that Palmetto had written off the alleged overpayment due to the error rate dropping. Even the ALJ misinterpreted the letter, which tells me that Palmetto should revise its notices of write offs.
If Palmetto unilaterally dismisses or writes off any balance that is allegedly owed, the letter should explicitly explain this. Because providers and attorneys are not accustomed to receiving correspondence from a MAC, CMS, Palmetto, or any other auditing entity with GOOD NEWS. If we get GOOD NEWS from an auditing entity, that correspondence should be explicit.
Regardless, this was a huge win for me and my client, who was positively ecstatic with the outcome. Tune in next week, during which I will tell a story of how we battled successfully a qui tam action against a facility of 9 specialists due to a disgruntled employee who tried to blow the whistle on my specialists and their facility…falsely!