Monthly Archives: May 2023
E/M Codes and When You Should NOT Fire Your Attorney!
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!
Ding Dong! PHE Is Dead!!!
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.
Medicare Extrapolation Under 50% Error Rate? No Extrapolation ALLOWED!
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!
Texas Judge Poo Poos the ACA Preventable Services Mandate!
In March, the U.S District Court in the Northern District of Texas vacated the requirement that ACA-compliant health plans cover certain U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended preventive services without cost sharing.
The DOJ argued the lower-court ruling from a federal judge in Texas “has no legal justification and threatens the public health.” The Health and Human Services Department estimates the ACA covered preventive services for more than 150 million people in 2020.
I am not taking a stance on the ACA. As a lawyer, I can tell you that to obtain an injunction, you have to prove:
- Likelihood of success on the merits;
- Irreprepable harm;
- Balancing the equities;
- Public interest.
Those standards come from a Supreme Court case called Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 555 U.S. 7 (2008).
I understand that the Texas case vacating that the ACA-compliant health plans cover preventive services has become highly polarizing in politics. Obviously, the Republicans are Plaintiffs in this case and fighting against Obamacare. But I do not care about the politics. My contention with this case is if the government is mandating (well, was mandating before this TX judge’s decision) preventive care to be free, how is that not forcing doctor’s to work for whatever the government deems to be fair. Will they get paid Medicare or Medicaid prices? They should be so lucky. I don’t want to go out on a limb and compare mandating doctors to provide services for Medicare and Medicaid prices, regardless whether that physician is even enrolled in Medicare or Medicaid to slavery, but if the shoe fits…
On another note, the Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) added hospice to the list of CMS approved audit targets. The review will determine if Hospice General Inpatient Care (GIP) was reasonable and necessary to achieve pain control or acute or chronic symptom management which could not be managed in any other setting. Claims that do not meet the indications of coverage and/or medical necessity will be recoded to Routine Hospice Care 0651 and result in an overpayment.” The affected code will be REV code 0656.
On March 31, CMS issued the FY 2024 proposed rule which includes a 2.8% rate increase and the FY 2024 cap of $33,396.55. The proposed rule also includes updates on the Hospice Outcomes & Patient Evaluation (HOPE) tool, CAHPS® tool, the Hospice Special Focus Program, and a proposed addition of hospice physicians to the Medicare enrollment process. For a full analysis of the proposed rule, view NHPCO’s regulatory alert from April 4. Comments are due by May 30, 2023.
Other CMS approved audit targets for 2023 and 2024 are : Ambulance Providers, Ambulatory Surgery Center (ASC), Outpatient Hospital, Inpatient Hospital, Inpatient Hospital, Inpatient Psychiatric Facility, Inpatient, Outpatient, ASC, Physician, IP, OP, SNF, OP Clinics, ORF, CORF, OPH, OP Non-Hospital, SNF, ORF, CORF, Physician, Physician/Non-physician Practitioner (NPP), Physician/NPP, Professional Services (Physician/Non-Physician), and Radiologists/Part B providers.
To name a few.