Monthly Archives: August 2017

Medicaid and Its Role in Providing Relief During Natural Disasters

As we know by now, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas and has expended utter disaster. It is the first hurricane to hit the state since Hurricane Ike in 2008. My prayers go out to all the Americans adversely affected by Hurricane Harvey. It is an utter catastrophe. Living in North Carolina, I am no stranger to hurricanes. But it made me think…when people lose everything to a natural disaster, do they become eligible for Medicaid? How does Medicaid offer relief during and after a natural disaster.

Medicaid is imperative during natural disasters because of its financial structure – the federal government pays a large percentage of its funds, without any limit. So if Texas spends more on Medicaid, the federal government spends more on Texas Medicaid. Obviously, if caps were applied to Medicaid, this would no longer be true. But, for now, the federal government’s promise to pay a percentage without a cap is key to natural disasters.

When disaster strikes, Medicaid serves as a valuable tool to quickly enroll affected people in temporary or permanent health care coverage and to allow for rapid access to medical care, including mental health services.

Two of the most infamous disasters, at least in recent US history, are the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks and Hurricane Katrina (now we can add Hurricane Harvey to the list). In both catastrophic events, people lost their homes, their businesses, suffered severe mental and physical anguish, and were in prompt need of health care. But applying for and receiving Medicaid is a voluminous, lengthy, and tedious process. And BTW, because of the natural disasters, no one has financial records to prove eligibility. Or, better yet, people were not eligible for Medicaid until the natural disaster. In that case, how do you prove eligibility for Medicaid? Take a selfie in front of where your house used to be? These are real issues with which survivors of natural disasters must grapple.

At the time of the 2001 attacks, New York already was facing a grave health care coverage quandary. Before 9/11, an estimated 1.6 million New Yorkers did not have health insurance. To apply for Medicaid, a person had to fill out an 8-page application, undergo a resource test and multiple requirements to document income and assets. Interestingly, in the case of 9/11, the terrorist attacks caused New York to lose its ability for people to electronically apply for Medicaid. But without the need of Congressional action, then-Governor Pataki announced that, low income residents would receive Medicaid by filling out a very short (one-page) questionnaire. Almost no documents were required. And coverage began immediately. Medicaid paid for over $670 million in post-9/11 health care costs.

In the case of Katrina, Louisiana straightaway stationed Medicaid employees at the FEMA shelters to enroll people in Medicaid. Louisiana also amended the Medicaid rules and allowed out-of-state providers to render services without prior authorization. Evacuees fled from Louisiana to surrounding states, and the evacuees, in many instances, had medical needs. Hundreds upon thousands of evacuees sought to use Medicaid and SCHIP to support their health needs in states in in which they were not a resident; however, four primary issues emerged. First, individuals eligible for Medicaid and SCHIP in their “Home” states needed to be eligible for and enroll in the “Host” state programs to receive assistance. Second, many individuals were newly uninsured and need to apply for Medicaid. Third, without Medicaid and SCHIP reimbursement, providers in the “Host” states could not be compensated for care provided to evacuees. Finally, because Medicaid and SCHIP are federal-state matching programs, “Host” states faced increased costs from enrolling evacuees. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) approved, on an expedited basis, 17 Waivers to allow survivors of Hurricane Katrina to receive health care via Medicaid in approximately 15 states.

We can expect similar outcomes in Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. HHS Secretary Price stated in an interview, “HHS is taking the necessary measures and has mobilized the resources to provide immediate assistance to those affected by Hurricane Harvey. We recognize the gravity of the situation in Texas, and the declaration of a public health emergency will provide additional flexibility and authority to help those who have been impacted by the storm.”

HHS has already deployed approximately 550 personnel to affected areas to help state and local authorities respond to communities’ medical needs, and additional staff is on standby to assist, if needed.

Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by Hurricane Harvey.

“Ought Implies Can” – Court Reverses Decision Forcing HHS to Eliminate Medicare Appeal Backlog

But all is not lost… it all lies in the possibility…

A few weeks ago I blogged about Health and Human Services (HHS) possibly being held in contempt of court for violating an Order handed down on Dec. 5, 2016, by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg. See blog.

The District Court Judge granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of the American Hospital Association in AHA v. Burwell. He ordered HHS to incrementally reduce the backlog of 657,955 appeals pending before the agency’s Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals over the next four years, reducing the backlog by 30% by the end of 2017; 60% by the end of 2018; 90% by the end of 2019; and to completely eliminate the backlog by Dec. 31, 2020.

This was a huge win for AHA – and Medicare providers across the country. Currently, when a provider appeals an adverse decision regarding Medicare, it costs an inordinate amount of attorneys’ fees, and the provider will not receive legal relief for upwards of 6 – 10 years, which can cause financial hardship, especially if the adverse action is in place during the appeal process. Yet the administrative appeal process was designed (poorly) to conclude within 1 year.

With the first deadline (the end of 2017) fast approaching and HHS publicly announcing that the reduction of 30% by the end of 2017 is impossible, questions were posed – how could the District Court hold HHS, a federal agency, in contempt?

We got the answer.

On August 11, 2017, the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia overturned the District Court; thereby lifting the requirement to reduce the Medicare appeal backlog.

deflatedWiping tear from face.

The first paragraph of the Ruling, indicates the Court’s philosophic reasoning, starting with a quote from Immanuel Kant (not to be confused with Knicole Emanuel), CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON 548 (Norman Kemp Smith trans., Macmillan 1953) (1781) (“The action to which the ‘ought’ applies must indeed be possible under natural conditions.”)

First paragraph of the decision:

“”Ought implies can.” That is, in order for law – man-made or otherwise – to command the performance of an act, that act must be possible to perform. This lofty philosophical maxim, ordinarily relevant only to bright-eyed college freshmen, sums up our reasoning in this case.”

The Appeals Court determined that the District Court commanded the Secretary to perform an act – clear the backlog by certain deadlines – without evaluating whether performance was possible.

The Medicare backlog skyrocketed in 2011 due to the federally-required Medicare Recovery Audit Program (RAC). With the implementation of the RAC program, the number of appeals filed ballooned from 59,600 in fiscal year 2011 to more than 384,000 in fiscal year 2013. These appeals bottlenecked to the third level of appeal, which is before an administrative law judge (ALJ). As of June 2, 2017, there was a backlog of 607,402 appeals awaiting review at this level. On its current course, the backlog is projected to grow to 950,520 by the end of fiscal year 2021.

There is a way for a provider to “skip” the ALJ level and “escalate” the claim, but it comes at a cost. Several procedural rights must be forfeited.

It is important to note that the appellate decision does not state that the District Court does not have the authority to Order HHS to eliminate the appeals backlog.

It only holds that, because HHS claims that compliance is impossible, the District Court must rule on whether compliance is possible before mandating the compliance. In other words, the Appeals Court wants the lower court to make a fact-finding decision as to whether HHS is able to eliminate the backlog before ordering it to do so. The Appeals Court is instructing the lower court to put the horse in front of the cart.

The Appeals Court explicitly states that it is suspect that the Secretary of HHS has done all things possible to decrease the backlog. (“We also share the District Court’s skepticism of the Secretary’s assertion that he has done all he can to reduce RAC-related appeals.”) So do not take the Appeals Court’s reversal as a sign that HHS will win the war.

I only hope that AHA presents every possible legal argument once the case is remanded to District Court. It is imperative that AHA’s attorneys think of every possible legal misstep in this remand in order to win. Not winning could potentially create bad law, basically, asserting that the Secretary has no duty to fix this appeals backlog. Obviously, the Secretary is exactly the person who should fix the backlog in his own agency. To hold otherwise, would thwart the very reason we have a Secretary of HHS. Through its rhetoric, the Appeals Court made it clear that it, too, has severe reservations about HHS’ claim of impossibility. However, without question, AHA’s suggestion to the District Court that a timeframe be implemented to reduce the backlog is not the answer. AHA needs to brainstorm and come up with several detailed proposals. For example, does the court need to include a requirement that the Secretary devote funds to hire additional ALJs? Or mandate that the ALJs work a half day on Saturday? Or order that the appeal process be revised to make the process more efficient? Clearly, the mere demand that HHS eliminate the backlog within a certain timeframe was too vague.

From here, the case will be remanded back to the District Court with instructions to the Judge to determine whether the elimination of the Medicare appeal backlog is possible. So, for now, HHS is safe from being held in contempt. But the Secretary should take heed from the original ruling and begin taking steps in fixing this mess. It is highly likely that HHS will be facing similar deadlines again – once the District Court determines it is possible.

The Reality of Prepayment Review and What To Do If You Are Tagged – You’re It!

Prepayment review is a drastic tool (more like a guillotine) that the federal and state governments via hired contractors review the documentation supporting services for Medicare and Medicaid prior to the provider receiving reimbursement. The providers who are placed on prepayment review are expected to continue to render services, even if the provider is not compensated. Prepayment review is a death sentence for most providers.

The required accuracy rating varies state to state, but, generally, a provider must meet 75% accuracy for three consecutive months.

In the governments’ defense, theoretically, prepayment review does not sound as Draconian as it is. Government officials must think, “Well, if the provider submits the correct documentation and complies with all applicable rules and regulations, it should be easy for the provider to meet the requirements and be removed from prepayment review.” However, this false reasoning only exists in a fantasy world with rainbows and gummy bears. Real life prepayment review is vastly disparate from the rainbow and gummy bears prepayment review.

In real life prepayment review:

  • The auditors may use incorrect, inapplicable, subjective, and arbitrary standards.

I had a case in which the auditors were denying 100% ACTT services, which are 24-hour mental health services for those 10% of people who suffer from extreme mental illness. The reason that the auditor was denying 100% of the claims was because “lower level services were not tried and ruled out.” In this instance, we have a behavioral health care provider employing staff to render ACTT services (expensive), actually rendering the ACTT services (expensive), and getting paid zero…zilch…nada…for a reason that is not required! There is no requirement that a person receiving ACTT services try a lower level of service first. If the person qualifies for ACTT, the person should receive ACTT services. Because of this auditor’s misunderstanding of ACTT, this provider was almost put out of business.

Another example: A provider of home health was placed on prepayment review. Again, 90 – 100% of the claims were denied. In home health, program eligibility is determined by an independent assessment conducted by the Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) via Liberty, which creates an individualized plan of care. The provider submitted claims for Patient Sally, who, according to her plan, needs help dressing. The service notes demonstrated that the in-home aide helped Sally dress with a shirt and pants. But the auditor denies every claim the provider bills for Sally (which is 7 days a week) because, according to the service note, the in-home aide failed to check the box to show she/he helped put on Sally’s shoes. The auditor fails to understand that Sally is a double amputee – she has no feet.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes – Who watches the watchmen???

  • The administrative burden placed on providers undergoing prepayment review is staggering.

In many cases, a provider on prepayment review is forced to hire contract workers just to keep up with the number of document requests coming from the entity that is conducting the prepayment review. After initial document requests, there are supplemental document requests. Then every claim that is denied needs to be re-submitted or appealed. The amount of paperwork involved in prepayment review would cause an environmentalist to scream and crumple into the fetal position like “The Crying Game.”

  • The accuracy ratings are inaccurate.

Because of the mistakes the auditors make in erroneously denying claims, the purported “accuracy ratings” are inaccurate. My daughter received an 86 on a test. Given that she is a straight ‘A’ student, this was odd. I asked her what she got wrong, and she had no idea. I told her to ask her teacher the next day why she received an 86. Oops. Her teacher had accidentally given my daughter an 86; the 86 was the grade of another child in the class with the same first name. In prepayment review, the accuracy ratings are the only method to be removed from prepayment, so the accuracy of the accuracy ratings is important. One mistaken, erroneously denied claim damages the ratings, and we’ve already discussed that mistakes/errors occur. You think, if a mistake is found, call up the auditing entity…talk it out. See below.

  • The communication between provider and auditor do not exist.

Years ago my mom and I went to visit relatives in Switzerland. (Not dissimilar to National Lampoon’s European Vacation). They spoke German; we did not. We communicated with pictures and hand gestures. To this day, I have no idea their names. This is the relationship between the provider and the auditor.

Assuming that the provider reaches a live person on the telephone:

“Can you please explain to me why claims 1-100 failed?”

“Don’t you know the service definitions and the policies? That is your responsibility.”

“Yes, but I believe that we follow the policies. We don’t understand why these claims are denied. That’s what I’m asking.”

“Read the policy.”

“Not helpful.”

  • The financial burden on the provider is devastating.

If a provider’s reimbursements are 80 – 100% reliant on Medicaid/care and those funds are frozen, the provider cannot meet payroll. Yet the provider is expected to continue to render services. A few years ago, I requested from NC DMA a list of providers on prepayment review and the details surrounding them. I was shocked at the number of providers that were placed on prepayment review and within a couple months ceased submitting claims. In reality, what happened was that those providers were forced to close their doors. They couldn’t financially support their company without getting paid.

Ok, now we know that prepayment review can be a death sentence for a health care provider. How can we prepare for prepayment review and what do we do if we are placed on prepayment review?

  1. Create a separate “what if” savings account to pay for attorneys’ fees. The best defense is a good offense. You cannot prevent yourself from being placed on prepayment review – there is no rhyme or reason for such placement. If you believe that you will never get placed on prepayment review, then you should meet one of my partners. He got hit by lightning – twice! (And lived). So start saving! Legal help is a must. Have your attorney on speed dial.
  2. Self-audit. Be proactive, not reactive. Check your documents. If you use an electronic records system, review the notes that it is creating. If it appears that all the notes look the same except for the name of the recipient, fix your system. Cutting and pasting (or appearing to cut and paste) is a pitfall in audits. Review the notes of the highest reimbursement code. Most likely, the more the reimbursement rate, the more likely to get flagged.
  3. Implement an in-house policy about opening the mail and responding to document requests. This sounds self evident, but you will be surprised how many providers have multiple people getting and opening the mail. The employees see a document request and they want to be good employees – so they respond and send the documents. They make a mistake and BOOM – you are on prepayment review. Know who reviews the mail and have a policy for notifying you if a document request is received.
  4. Buck up. Prepayment review is a b*^%$. Cry, pray, meditate, exercise, get therapy, go to the spa, medicate…whatever you need to do to alleviate stress – do it.
  5. Do not think you can get off prepayment review alone and without help. You will need help. You will need bodies to stand at the copy machine. You will need legal help. Do not make the mistake of allowing the first three months pass before you contact an attorney. Contact your attorney immediately.

Medicare Appeals Backlog: Is HHS In Danger of Being Held in Contempt?

Four months after the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Final Rule went in effect (March 2017) attempting to eliminate the Medicare appeal backlog and 6 months before United States District Court for the District of Columbia’s first court-imposed deadline (end of 2017) of reducing the Medicare appeal backlog by 30%, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are woefully far from either. According to HHS’ June 2017 report on the Medicare appeal backlog, 950,520 claims will remain in the backlog by 2021. This is in stark contrast to the District Court’s Order that HHS completely eliminate the backlog by 2020. So will HHS be held in contempt? Throw the Secretary in jail? That is what normally happened when someone violates a Court Order.

Supposedly, HHS’ catastrophic inability to decrease the Medicare appeal backlog is not from a lack of giving the ole college try. But, in its June 2017 report, HHS blames funding.

CMS issued a new Final Rule in January 2017, which took effect March 2017, in hopes of reducing the massive Medicare provider appeal backlog that has clogged up the third level of appeal of Medicare providers’ adverse actions. In the third level of appeal, providers make their arguments before an administrative law judge (ALJ). For information on all the Medicare appeal levels, click here.

The Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) claims that it currently can adjudicate roughly 92,000 appeals annually. The current backlog is approximately 667,326 appeals that HHS estimates will grow to 950,520 by 2021. The average number of days between filing a Petition with OMHA and adjudicating the case is around 1057.2 days. 

HHS had high hopes that these changes would eliminate the backlog. In HHS’ Final Rule Fact Sheet, it states “with the administrative authorities set forth in the final rule and the FY 2017 proposed funding increases and legislative actions outlined in the President’s Budget, we estimate that that the backlog of appeals could be eliminated by FY 2020.” The changes made to the Medicare appeals process by the January 2017 Final Rule is the following:

Changes to the Medicare Appeals Process

The changes in the final rule are primarily focused on the third level of appeal and will:

  • Designate Medicare Appeals Council decisions (final decisions of the Secretary) as precedential to provide more consistency in decisions at all levels of appeal, reducing the resources required to render decisions, and possibly reducing appeal rates by providing clarity to appellants and adjudicators.
  • Allow attorney adjudicators to decide appeals for which a decision can be issued without a hearing and dismiss requests for hearing when an appellant withdraws the request. That way ALJs can focus on conducting hearings and adjudicating the merits of more complex cases.
  • Simplify proceedings when CMS or CMS contractors are involved by limiting the number of entities (CMS or contractors) that can be a participant or party at the hearing.
  • Clarify areas of the regulations that currently causes confusion and may result in unnecessary appeals to the Medicare Appeals Council.
  • Create process efficiencies by eliminating unnecessary steps (e.g., by allowing ALJs to vacate their own dismissals rather than requiring appellants to appeal a dismissal to the Medicare Appeals Council); streamlining certain procedures (e.g., by using telephone hearings for appellants who are not unrepresented beneficiaries, unless the ALJ finds good cause for an appearance by other means); and requiring appellants to provide more information on what they are appealing and who will be attending a hearing.
  • Address areas for improvement previously identified by stakeholders to increase the quality of the process and responsiveness to customers, such as establishing an adjudication time frame for cases remanded from the Medicare Appeals Council, revising remand rules to help ensure cases keep moving forward in the process, simplifying the escalation process, and providing more specific rules on what constitutes good cause for new evidence to be admitted at the OMHA level of appeal.

In early June 2017, HHS issued its second status report on the Medicare appeals backlog and the outlook does not look good.

CMS held a call on June 29, 2017, to discuss recent regulatory changes intended to streamline the Medicare administrative appeal processes, reduce the backlog of pending appeals, and increase consistency in decision-making across appeal levels.

Now HHS is in danger of violating a Court Order.

In December 2016, the District Court for the District of Columbia held in American Hospital Association v Burwell case Ordered HHS to release to status reports every 90 days and the complete elimination of the backlog by 2020, HHS is also required to observe several intermediary benchmarks: 30% reduction by the end of 2017, 60% by the end of 2018, 90% by the end of 2019, and then ultimately 100% elimination by the end of 2020.

BUT LITTLE TO NOTHING HAS CHANGED.

HHS itself has maintained since the requirements were instituted that the elimination of the backlog would not be possible. June’s report projects 950,520 claims will remain by 2021, but this projection is still very far from meeting the court order.

HHS blames funding.

But even significant increase of funding (from about $107 million in 2017, to $242 million in 2018) will not cure the problem! I find it very disturbing that $242 million could not eliminate the Medicare appeal backlog. So what will happen when HHS fails to meet the Court’s mandate of a 30% reduction of the backlog by the end of 2017? Hold the Secretary in contempt?

The court in Burwell drafted a “what if” into the Decision—the Court stated: “if [HHS] fails to meet [these] deadlines, Plaintiffs may move for default judgment or to otherwise enforce the writ of mandamus.”  This allows the Court authority to enforce its Decision, but it has not motivated HHS to try any innovative procedures to reduce the backlog. So far no additional actions have been attempted, and the backlog remains.

If HHS is in violation of the Court Order at the end of 2017, the Court could issue harsh penalties. (Or the Court could do nothing and be a complete disappointment).