Category Archives: Administrative Costs

RAC Audits: Alternatives to Litigation

Understanding why there’s a need for auditing the auditors.

I frequently encounter complaints by healthcare providers that when they are undergoing Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC), Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC), and, more recently, the Targeted Probe-and-Educate (TPE) audits, the auditors are getting it wrong. That’s as in, during a RAC audit, the auditor finds claims noncompliant, for example, for not having medical necessity – but the provider knows unequivocally that the determination is dead wrong. So the question that I get from the providers is whether they have any legal recourse against the RAC or MAC finding noncompliance, besides going through the tedious administrative action, which we all know can take upwards of 5-7 years before reaching the third administrative level.

To which, now, upon a recent discovery in one of my cases, I would have responded that the only other option for relief would be obtaining a preliminary injunction in federal court. To prove a preliminary injunction in federal court, you must prove: a) a likelihood of success on the merits; and b) that irreparable harm would be incurred without the injunction; i.e., that your company would be financially devastated, or even threatened with extinction.

The conundrum of being on the brink of financial ruin is that you cannot afford a legal defense if you are about to lose everything.

This past month, I had a completely different legal strategy, with a different result. I am not saying that this result would be reached by all healthcare providers that disagree with the results of their RAC or MAC or TPE audit, but I now believe that in certain extreme circumstances, this alternative route could work, as it did in my case.

When this particular client hired me, I quickly realized that the impact of the MAC’s decision to rescind the client’s Medicare contract was going to do more than the average catastrophic outcomes resulting from a rescission of a Medicare contract. First, this provider was the only provider in the area with the ability to perform certain surgeries. Secondly, his practice consisted of 90 percent of Medicare. An immediate suspension of Medicare would have been devastating to his practice. Thirdly, the consequence of these Medicaid patients not undergoing this particular and highly specialized surgery was dire. This trifecta sparked a situation in which, I believed, that even a Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) employee (who probably truly believed that the negative findings cited by the RAC or MAC were accurate) may be swayed by the exigent circumstances.

I contacted opposing counsel, who was the attorney for CMS. Prior to this situation, I had automatically assumed that non-litigious strategies would never work. Opposing counsel listened to the facts. She asked that I draft a detailed explanation as to the circumstances. Now, concurrently, I also drafted this provider’s Medicare appeal, because we did not want to lose the right to appeal. The letter was definitely detailed and took a lot of time to create.

In the end, CMS surprised me and we got the Medicare contract termination overturned within months, not years, and without expensive litigation.

(Originally published on RACMonitor)

Medicare TPE Audits: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing (Part II)

Let’s talk targeted probe-and-educate (“TPE”) audits – again.

I received quite a bit of feedback on my RACMonitor article regarding Medicare TPE audits being a “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.” So, I decided to delve into more depth by contacting providers who reached out to me to discuss specific issues. My intent is to shed the sheep’s clothing and show the big, pointy ears, big, round eyes, and big, sharp teeth that the MACs will hear, see, and eat you through the Medicare TPE audits. So, call the Woodsman, arm yourself with a hatchet, and get ready to be prepared for TPE audits. I cannot stress enough the importance of being proactive.

The very first way to rebut a TPE audit is to challenge the reason you were selected, which includes challenging the data supporting the reason that you were chosen. A poor TPE audit can easily result in termination of your Medicare contract, so it is imperative that you are prepared and appeal adverse results. 42 C.F.R. § 424.535, “Revocation of enrollment in the Medicare program” outlines the reasons for termination. Failing the audit process – even if the results are incorrect – can result in termination of your Medicare contract. Be prepared and appeal.

In 2014, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) began the TPE program that combines a review of a sample of claims with “education” to allegedly reduce errors in the Medicare claims submission process; however, it took years to get the program off the ground. But off the ground it is. It seems, however, that CMS pushed the TPE program off the ground and then allowed the MACs to dictate the terms. CMS claims that the results of the TPE program are favorable, basing its determination of success on the decrease in the number of claim errors after providers receive education. But providers undergoing the TPE audit process face tedious and burdensome deadlines to submit documents and to undergo the “education” process. These 45-day deadlines to submit documents are not supported by federal law or regulation; they are arbitrary deadlines. Yet, these deadlines must be met by the providers or the MACs will aver a 0% accuracy. Private payors may create and enforce arbitrary deadlines; they don’t have to follow federal Medicare regulations. But Medicare and Medicaid auditors must obey federal regulations. A quick search on Westlaw confirms that no provider has challenged the MACs’ TPE rules, at least, litigiously.

The TPE process begins by the MAC selecting a CPT/HCPC code and a provider. This selection process is a mystery. How the MACs decide to audit sleep studies versus chemotherapy administration or a 93675 versus a 93674 remains to be seen. According to one health care provider, which has undergone multiple TPE audits and has Noridian Healthcare Solutions as its MAC informed me that, at times, they may have 4 -5 TPE audits ongoing at the same time. CMS has touted that TPE audits do not overlap claims or cause the providers to undergo redundant audits. But if a provider bills numerous CPT codes, the provider can undergo multiple TPE audits concurrently, which is clearly not the intent of the TPE audits, in general. The provider has questioned ad nauseam the data analysis that alerted Noridian to assign the TPE to them in the first place. Supposedly, MACs target providers with claim activity that contractors deem as unusual. The usual TPE notification letter contains a six-month comparison table purportedly demonstrating the paid amount and number of claims for a particular CPT/HCPC code, but its accuracy is questionable. See below.

2019-06-07 -- TPE

This particular provider ran its own internal reports, and regardless of how many different ways this provider re-calculated the numbers, the provider could not figure out the numbers the TPE letter was alleging they were billing. But, because of the short turnaround deadlines and harsh penalties for failing to adhere to these deadlines, this provider has been unable to challenge the MAC’s comparison table. The MACs have yet to share its algorithm or computer program used to govern (a) which provider to target; (b) what CPT code to target; and (c) how it determines the paid amount and number of claims.

Pushing back on the original data on which the MACs supposedly relied upon to initially target you is an important way to defend yourself against a TPE audit. Unmask the wolf from the beginning. If you can debunk the reason for the TPE audit in the first place, the rest of the findings of the TPE audit cannot be valid. It is the classic “fruit of the poisonous tree” argument. Yet according to a quick search on Westlaw, no provider has appealed the reason for selection yet. For example, in the above image, the MAC compared one CPT code (78452) for this particular provider for dates of services January 1, 2017, through June 30, 2017, and then compared those claims to dates July 1, 2017, through December 31, 2017. Why? How is a comparison of the first half of a year to a second end of a year even relevant to your billing compliance? Before an independent tribunal, this chart, as supposed evidence of wrongdoing, would be thrown out as ridiculous. The point is – the MACs are using similar, yet irrelevant charts as proof of alleged, aberrant billing practices.

Another way to defend yourself is to contest the auditors/surveyors background knowledge. Challenging the knowledge of the nurse reviewer(s) and questioning the denial rate in relation to your TPE denials can also be successful. I had a dentist-client who was audited by a dental hygienist. Not to undermine the intelligence of a dental hygienist, but you can understand the awkwardness of a dental hygienist questioning a dentist’s opinion of the medical necessity of a service. If the auditor/surveyor lacks the same level of education of the health care provider, an independent tribunal will defer to the more educated and experienced decisions. This same provider kept a detailed timeline of their interactions with the hygienist reviewer(s), which included a summary of the conversations. Significantly, notes of conversations with the auditor/surveyor would normally not be allowed as evidence in a Court of law due to the hearsay rules. However, contemporaneous notes of conversations written in close time proximity of the conversation fall within a hearsay exception and can be admitted.

Pushing back on the MACs and/or formally appealing the MAC’s decisions are/is extremely important in getting the correct denial rate.  If your appeal is favorable, the MACs will take into your appeal results into account and will factor the appeal decision into the denial rate.

The upshot is – do not accept the sheep’s clothing. Understand that you are under target during this TPE “educational” audit. Understand how to defend yourself and do so. Call the Woodsman. Get the hatchet.

Medicare TPE Audits: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Let’s talk targeted probe-and-educate (TPE) audits. See on RACMonitor as well.

TPE audits have turned out to be “wolf audits” in sheep’s clothing. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) asserted that the intent of TPE audits is to reduce provider burden and appeals by combining medical review with provider education.

But the “education” portion is getting overlooked. Instead, the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) resort to referring healthcare providers to other agencies or contractors for “other possible action,” including audit by a Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC), which can include extrapolation or referral to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) for investigation of fraud. A TPE audit involves up to three rounds of review, conducted by a MAC. Once Congress was instructed that RAC audits are not fair, and providers complained that RAC auditors did not help with education, CMS came up with TPE audits – which, supposedly, had more of an educational aspect, and a more fair approach. But in reality, the TPE audits have created an expensive, burdensome, cyclical pattern that, again, can result in RAC audits. The implementation of TPE audits has been just as draconian and subjective as RAC audits. The penalties can be actually worse than those resulting from RAC audits, including termination from the Medicare program. In this article, I want to discuss the appeal process and why it is important to appeal at the first level of audit.

Chapter Three, Section 3.2.5 of the Medicare Program Integrity Manual (MPIM) outlines the requirements for the TPE process, which leaves much of the details within the discretion of the MAC conducting the review. The MACs are afforded too much discretion. Often, they make erroneous decisions, but providers are not pushing back. A recent one-time notification transmittal provides additional instructions to MACs on the TPE process: CMS Transmittal 2239 (Jan. 24, 2019).

Providers are selected for TPE audit based on data analysis, with CMS instructing MACs to target providers with high denial rates or claim activity that the contractor deems unusual, in comparison to peers. These audits are generally performed as a prepayment review of claims for a specific item or service, though relevant CMS instructions also allow for post-payment TPE audits.

A TPE round typically involves a review of a probe sample of between 20 and 40 claims. Providers first receive notice that they have been targeted by their MAC, followed by additional documentation requests (ADRs) for the specific claims included in the audit.

TPE Audits

The MACs have sole discretion as to which providers to target, whether claims meet coverage requirements, what error rate is considered compliant, and when a provider should be removed from TPE. Health care providers can be exposed to future audits and penalties based merely on the MAC’s resolve, and before the provider has received due process through their right to challenge claim denials in an independent appeals process. In this way, the MACs’ misinterpretation of the rules and misapplication of coverage requirements can lead to further audits or disciplinary actions, based on an erroneous determination that is later overturned. Similarly, while the educational activities are supposedly meant to assist providers in achieving compliance, in reality, this “education” can force providers to appear to acknowledge error findings with which they may disagree – and which may ultimately be determined to be wrong. Often times, the MACs – for “educational purposes” – require the provider to sign documentation that admits alleged wrongdoing, and the provider signs these documents without legal counsel, and without the understanding that these documents can adversely affect any appeal or future audits.

The MACs have the power, based on CMS directive, to revoke billing privileges based on a determination that “the provider or supplier has a pattern or practice of submitting claims that fail to meet Medicare requirements.” 42 C.F.R. § 424.535(a)(8)(ii). This language shows that TPE audit findings can be used as a basis for a finding of abuse of billing privileges, warranting removal from participation in the Medicare program. CMS guidance also gives the MACs authority to refer providers for potential fraud investigation, based on TPE review findings. It is therefore vital that providers submit documentation in a timely fashion and build a clear record to support their claims and compliance with Medicare requirements.

TPE audits promise further education and training for an unsuccessful audit (unsuccessful according to the MAC, which may constitute a flawed opinion), but most of the training is broad in nature and offered remotely – either over the phone, via web conference, or through the mail, with documentation shared on Google Docs. Only on atypical occasions is there an on-site visit.

Why appeal? It’s expensive, tedious, time-consuming, and emotionally draining. Not only that, but many providers are complaining that the MACs inform them that the TPE audit results are not appealable (TPE audits ARE appealable).

TPE reviews and TPE audit overpayment determinations may be appealed through the Medicare appeals process. The first stage of appeal will be to request a redetermination of the overpayment by the MAC. If the redetermination decision is unfavorable, Medicare providers and suppliers may request an independent review by filing a request for reconsideration with the applicable Qualified Independent Contractor (QIC). If the reconsideration decision is unfavorable, Medicare providers and suppliers are granted the opportunity to present their case in a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). While providers or suppliers who disagree with an ALJ decision may appeal to the Medicare Appeals Council and then seek judicial review in federal district court, it is crucial to obtain experienced healthcare counsel to overturn the overpayment determination during the first three levels of review.

Appealing unfavorable TPE audits results sends a message. Right now, the MACs hold the metaphoric conch shell. The Medicare appeals process allows the provider or supplier to overturn the TPE audit overpayment, and reduces the likelihood of future TPE reviews, other Medicare audits, and disciplinary actions such as suspension of Medicare payments, revocation of Medicare billing privileges, or exclusion from the Medicare program. In instances when a TPE audit identifies potential civil or criminal fraud, it is essential that the Medicare provider or supplier engage experienced healthcare counsel to appeal the Medicare overpayment as the first step in defending its billing practices, and thus mitigating the likelihood of fraud allegations (e.g., False Claims Act actions).

CMS and the MACs maintain that TPEs are in the providers’ best interest because education is included. In actuality, TPEs are wolves in sheep’s clothing, masking true repercussions in a cloak of “education.” The Medicare appeal process is a provider’s best weapon.

Once You STOP Accepting Medicaid/Care, How Much Time Has to Pass to Know You Will Not Be Audited? (For Past Nitpicking Documentation Errors)

I had a client, a dentist, ask me today how long does he have to wait until he need not worry about government, regulatory audits after he decides to not accept Medicare or Medicaid any more. It made me sad. It made me remember the blog that I wrote back in 2013 about the shortage of dentists that accept Medicaid. But who can blame him? With all the regulatory, red tape, low reimbursement rates, and constant headache of audits, who would want to accept Medicare or Medicaid, unless you are Mother Teresa…who – fun fact – vowed to live in poverty, but raised more money than any Catholic in the history of the recorded world.

What use is a Medicaid card if no one accepts Medicaid? It’s as useful as our appendix, which I lost in 1990 and have never missed it since, except for the scar when I wear a bikini. A Medicaid card may be as useful as me with a power drill. Or exercising lately since my leg has been broken…

The answer to the question of how long has to pass before breathing easily once you make the decision to refuse Medicaid or Medicare? – It depends. Isn’t that the answer whenever it comes to the law?

By Whom and Why You Are Being Investigated Matters

If you are being investigated for fraud, then 6 years.

If you are being investigated by a RAC audit, 3 years.

If you are being investigated by some “non-RAC entity,” then it however many years they want unless you have a lawyer.

If being investigated under the False Claims Act, you have 6 – 10 years, depending on the circumstances.

If investigated by MICs, generally, there is a 5-year, look-back period.

ZPICS have no particular look-back period, but with a good attorney, reasonableness can be argued. How can you be audited once you are no longer liable to maintain the records?

The CERT program is limited by the same fiscal year.

The Alternative: Self-Disclosure (Hint – This Is In Your Favor)

If you realized that you made an oops on your own, you have 60-days. The 60-day repayment rule was implemented by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”), effective March 14, 2016, to clarify health care providers’ obligations to investigate, report, and refund identified overpayments under the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”).

Notably, CMS specifically stated in the final rule that it only applies to traditional Medicare overpayments for Medicare Part A and B services, and does not apply to Medicaid overpayments. However, most States have since legislated similar statutes to mimic Medicare rules (but there are arguments to be made in courts of law to distinguish between Medicare and Medicaid).

 

 

 

Nursing Home Safety Is Under Scrutiny from CMS – Staff May Be Penalized!

This past Tuesday, CMS unveiled a new initiative aimed at improving safety at nursing homes. While the study did not compare nursing home safety for staff, which, BTW, is staggering in numbers; i.e., more nursing home staff call-in sick or contract debilitating viruses versus the normal population. I question why ER nurses/doctors do not have the same rate of sickness. But that is the source of another blog…

The Committee on Energy and Commerce (“the Committee”) began conducting audits of nursing homes after numerous media reports described instances of abuse, neglect, and substandard care occurring at skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) and nursing facilities (NFs) across the country, including the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills where at least 12 residents died in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

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Under the Civil Money Penalty Reinvestment Program, CMS will create training products for nursing home professionals including staff competency assessment tools, instructional guides, webinars and technical assistance seminars.

These materials aim to help staff reduce negative events (including death), improve dementia care and strengthen staffing quality, including by reducing staff turnover and enhancing performance. A high rate of staff attrition is a product of low hourly wages, which is a product of low Medicare/caid reimbursement rates.

“We are pleased to offer nursing home staff practical tools and assistance to improve resident care and positively impact the lives of individuals in our nation’s nursing homes,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a statement.

Seema Verna

The three-year effort is funded by federal civil penalties, which are fines nursing homes pay the CMS when they are noncompliant with regulations. There is no data as to how much CMS collects from civil fines against nursing homes per year, which is disconcerting considering everything about CMS is public record for taxpayers.

A proposed rule in the works to implement a federal law would allow the CMS to impose enforcement actions on nursing home staff in cases of elder abuse or other illegal activities.

CMS is increasing its oversight of post-acute care settings through this new civil money penalties initiative on nursing home staff and a new verification process to confirm personal attendants actually showed up to care for seniors when they are at home. This directive is targeted at personal care services (“PCS”). A proposed rule would allow CMS to impose enforcement actions on nursing home staff in cases of elder abuse or other illegal activities. The regulation being developed will outline how CMS would impose civil money penalties of up to $200,000 against nursing home staff or volunteers who fail to report reasonable suspicion of crimes. In addition, the proposed regulation would allow a 2-year exclusion from federal health programs for retaliating. It is questionable as to why CMS would penalize staff and/or volunteers rather than the nursing home company. One would think that volunteers may be more rare to find with this ruling.

CMS has been under heightened Congressional pressure to improve safety standards following ongoing media reports of abuse, neglect and substandard care occurring at nursing facilities across the country in recent years – or, at least, reported.

The federal government cited more than 1,000 nursing homes for either mishandling cases related to, or failing to protect residents against, rape, sexual abuse, or sexual assault, with nearly 100 facilities incurring multiple citations.

On October 20, 2017, the Committee sent a bipartisan letter requesting documents and information from Jack Michel, an owner of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills (“Rehabilitation Center”) where at least 12 residents died in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Florida. Excessive heat was the issue. According to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA), the Rehabilitation Center failed to follow adequate emergency management procedures after the facility’s air conditioning system lost power during Hurricane Irma. No generator? Despite increasingly excessive heat, staff at the facility did not take advantage of a fully functional hospital across the street and “overwhelmingly delayed calling 911” during a medical emergency. The facility also had contractual agreements with an assisted living facility and transportation company for emergency evacuation purposes yet did not activate these services. CMS ultimately terminated the Rehabilitation Center from the Medicare and Medicaid programs following an on-site inspection where surveyors found that the facility failed to meet Medicare’s basic health and safety requirements.

The Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) found that, as of 2014, there were 15,600 nursing home facilities in the United States; 69.8 % of U.S. nursing home facilities have for-profit ownership. OIG has been accusing nursing homes of elderly abuse for years, but, only now, does the federal government have a sword for its accusations. Accusations, however, come with false ones. The appeal process for such accusations will be essential.

According to HHS OIG’s 2017 report, nursing facilities continue to experience problems ensuring quality of care and safety for people residing in them. OIG identified instances of substandard care causing preventable adverse events, finding an estimated 22% of Medicare beneficiaries had experienced an adverse event during their nursing stay. The report further states that “OIG continues to raise concerns about nursing home residents being at risk of abuse and neglect. In some instances, nursing home care is so substandard that providers may have liability under the False Claims Act.”

HHS has continuously expressed concerns about nursing home residents being at risk of abuse and neglect.

With the new initiative, nursing homes that do not achieve substantial compliance within six months will be terminated from participating in Medicare and Medicaid. Appeals to come…

RAC Forecast: Increased RAC Audits with a High Likelihood of Recoupments

Data regarding the success of the Medicare RAC program does not lie, right? If the report shows success, then increase the RAC process!! And to anyone who reads the new report to Congress…a success the RAC process is!

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently published its 2016 results of the Medicare Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) program. And CMS was not shy in reporting high rates of returns due to the RAC program. With results as amazing as the report touts, it is clear that the Medicare RACs are hoping that this new report on the hundreds of millions they’ve recovered for Medicare will cause the CMS to reverse course on its decision to limit the number of claims they can review. After reviewing the report to CMS, I will be shocked if Congress does not loosen the limitations placed on RACs in the last couple years. The report acts as marketing propaganda to Congress.

My forecast: increased RAC audits with a high likelihood of recoupments.

The RAC program is divided into 5 regions (currently):

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In 2016, the RAC regions were arranged a bit differently:

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The mission of the RAC program is to identify and correct overpayments made on claims for health care services provided to beneficiaries, to identify underpayments to providers, and to provide information that allows the CMS to implement corrective actions that will prevent future improper payments. As most of my readers are well aware, I have been critical of the RAC program in the past for being overzealous and hyper (overly) – technical, in an erroneous kind of way. See blog. And blog.

The Social Security Act (SSA), which allows for RAC programs, also requires that the CMS publish and submit a yearly “self-audit” on the RAC program. Even though we are almost in October 2018, the recent report released to Congress covers 2016 – apparently CMS’ data gathering lags a bit (lot). If I have to get my 2018 taxes to the IRS by April 15, 2019, shouldn’t CMS have a similar deadline? Instead of submitting information for 2016 when it’s almost 2019…

RACs are paid on a contingency fee basis, which incentivize the RACs to discover billing irregularities. The amount of the contingency fee is a percentage of the improper payment recovered from, or reimbursed to, providers. The RACs negotiate their contingency fees at the time of the contract award. The base contingency fees range from 10.4 – 14.4% for all claim types, except durable medical equipment (DME). The contingency fees for DME claims range from 15.4 – 18.9%. The RAC must return the contingency fee if an improper payment determination is overturned at any level of appeal although I am unaware whether the RAC has to return the interested gained on holding that amount as well, which cannot be a minute amount given that the Medicare appeal backlog causes Medicare appeals to last upwards of 5 – 9 years.

Beginning in 2017, the RAC contracts had an amendment not previously found in past contracts. Now the RACs are to wait 30-days before reporting the alleged overpayment to the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs). The thought process behind this revision to the RAC contracts is that the 30-day wait period allows the providers to informally discuss the findings with the RACs to determine the provider has additional records germane to the audit that could change the outcome of the audit. Theoretically, going forward, providers should receive notification of an alleged overpayment from the RACs rather than the MACs.

And the 2016 results are (drum roll, please):

RACs uncovered $404.46 million in overpayments and $69.46 million in underpayments in fiscal year 2016, for a total of $473.92 million in improper payments being corrected. This represents a 7.5% increase from program corrections in FY 2015, which were $440.69 million.

63% of overpayments identified in 2016 (more than $278 million) were from inpatient hospital claims, including coding validation reviews.

RACs received $39.12 million in contingency fees.

After factoring in contingency fees, administrative costs, and amounts overturned on appeal, the RAC program returned $214.09 million to the Medicare trust funds in 2016.

CMS has implemented several elements to verify RAC accuracy in identifying improper payments. The Recovery Audit Validation Contractor (RVC) establishes an annual accuracy score for each RAC. Supposedly, if we are to take the CMS report as accurate and unbiased, in FY 2016, each RAC had an overall accuracy score of 91% or higher for claims adjusted from August 2015 through July 2016. I am always amazed at the government’s ability to warp percentages. I had a client given a 1.2% accuracy rating during a prepayment review that would rival J.K. Rowling any day of the year. Robert Galbraith, as well.

To address the backlog of Medicare appeals, CMS offered a settlement process that paid hospitals 68% of what they claimed they were owed for short-term inpatient stays. – I am not confident that this money was accounted for in the overall results of the RAC program in the recent report.

135,492 claims were appealed by healthcare providers. But the RAC report to Congress notes: “appealed claims may be counted multiple times if the claim had appeal decisions rendered at multiple levels during 2016.” Undeniably, if this number is close to accurate, there was a significant down swing of appeals by providers in 2016. (I wonder whether the hospital settlement numbers were included).

Of the total appealed claims, 56,724, or 41.9%, were overturned with decisions in the provider’s favor. (Fact check, please!). In my experience as a Medicare and Medicaid regulatory compliance litigator, the success rate for Medicare and Medicaid alleged overpayments is remarkably higher (but maybe my clients just hired a better attorney (wink, wink!).

With results this good, who needs more RAC auditing? We do!! If the report shows success, then increase the RAC process!! 

COA Dismisses AHA 340B Lawsuit!

The 340B drug program is a topic that needs daily updates. It seems that something is happening constantly. Like a prime time soap opera or The Bachelor, the 340B program is all the talk at the water cooler. From lawsuits to legislation to executive orders – there is no way of knowing the outcome, so we all wait with bated breath to watch who will hold the final rose.

On Tuesday, July 17, 2018, the metaphoric guillotine fell on the American Hospital Association (AHA) and on hospitals across the country. The Court of Appeals (COA) dismissed AHA’s lawsuit.

The Background 

On November 1, 2017, the US Department of Health and Human Services released a Final Rule implementing a payment reduction for most covered outpatient drugs billed to Medicare by 340B-participating hospitals from the current Average Sales Price (ASP) plus 6% rate to ASP minus 22.5%, which represents a payment cut of almost 30%.

Effective January 1, 2018, the 30% slash in reimbursement rates became reality, but only for locations physically connected to participating hospitals. CMS is expected to broaden the 30% reduction to all 340B-participating entities in the near future.

What is the 340B drug program? The easiest explanation for the 340B program is that government insurance, Medicare and Medicaid, do not want to pay full price for medicine. In an effort to reduce costs of drugs for the government payors, the government requires that all drug companies enter into a rebate agreement with the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as a precondition for coverage of their drugs by Medicaid and Medicare Part B. If a drug manufacturer wants its drug to be prescribed to Medicare and Medicaid patients, then it must pay rebates.

The Lawsuit

The American Hospital Association (“AHA”) filed for an injunction last year requesting that the US District Court enjoin CMS from implementing the 340B payment reduction. On the merits, AHA argues that the HHS’s near-30% rate reduction constitutes an improper exercise of its statutory rate-setting authority.

The US District Court did not reach an opinion on the merits; it dismissed the case, issued December 29, 2017, based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The District Court found that: Whenever a provider challenges HHS, there is only one potential source of subject matter jurisdiction—42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Medicare Act places strict limits on the jurisdiction of federal courts to decide ‘any claims arising under’ the Act.

The Supreme Court has defined two elements that a plaintiff must establish in order to satisfy § 405(g). First, there is a non-waivable, jurisdictional requirement that a claim for benefits shall have been “presented” to the Secretary. Without presentment, there is no jurisdiction.

The second element is a waivable requirement to exhaust administrative remedies. I call this legal doctrine the Monopoly requirement. Do not pass go. Go directly to jail. Do not collect $200. Unlike the first element, however, a plaintiff may be excused from this obligation when, for example, exhaustion would be futile. Together, § 405(g)’s two elements serve the practical purpose of preventing premature interference with agency processes, so that the agency may function efficiently and so that it may have an opportunity to correct its own errors, to afford the parties and the courts the benefit of its experience and expertise, and to compile a record which is adequate for judicial review. However, there are ways around these obsolete legal doctrines in order to hold a state agency liable for adverse decisions.

Following the Dec. 29, 2017, order by the District Court, which dismissed the lawsuit on jurisdictional grounds, the plaintiffs (AHA) appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals (COA), which promptly granted AHA’s request for an expedited appeal schedule.

In their brief, AHA contends that the District Court erred in dismissing their action as premature and that their continued actual damages following the Jan. 1 payment reduction’s effective date weighs heavily in favor of preliminary injunctive relief. More specifically, AHA argues that 30% reduction is causing irreparable injury to the plaintiffs “by jeopardizing essential programs and services provided to their communities and the vulnerable, poor and other underserved populations, such as oncology, dialysis, and immediate stroke treatment services.”

By contrast, the government’s brief rests primarily on jurisdictional arguments, specifically that: (1) the Medicare Act precludes judicial review of rate-setting activities by HHS; and (2) the District Court was correct that no jurisdiction exists.

Oral arguments in this appeal were May 4, 2018.

AHA posted in its newsletter that the COA seemed most interested in whether Medicare law precludes judicial review of CMS’ rule implementing the cuts. AHA says it hopes a ruling will be reached in the case sometime this summer.

In a completely different case, the DC District Court is contemplating a request to toll the time to file a Section 340B appeal.

AHA v. Azar, a case about RAC audits and the Medicare appeal backlog. During a March 22, 2018, hearing, the COA asked AHA to submit specific proposals that AHA wishes the COA to impose and why current procedures are insufficient. It was filed June 22, 2018.

In it proposal, AHA pointed out that HHS is needlessly causing hospitals to file thousands of protective appeals by refusing to toll the time for hospitals to file appeals arising out of the reduction in reimbursement that certain 340B hospitals. In order to avoid potential arguments from the government that 340B hospitals that do not administratively appeal the legality of a reduced rate will be time barred from seeking recovery if the court holds that the reduction in payments is unlawful, AHA proposed that the Secretary agree to toll the deadline for such appeals until resolution of the 340B litigation—an arrangement that would preserve the 340B hospitals’ right to full reimbursement in the event the 340B litigation is not successful. HHS has refused to toll the time, meaning that Section 340B hospitals will have to protect their interests in the interim by filing thousands upon thousands of additional claim appeals, which will add thousands upon thousands of more appeals to the current ALJ-level backlog.

The Decision

In a unanimous decision, three judges from the COA sided with HHS and ruled the hospitals’ suit was filed prematurely because hospitals had not formally filed claims with HHS because they were not yet experiencing cuts.

Basically, what the judges are saying is that you cannot ask for relief before the adverse action occurs. Even though the hospitals knew the 30% rate reduction would be implemented January 1, 2018, they had to wait until the pain was felt before they could ask for relief.

The lawsuit was not dismissed based on the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies. The Decision noted that in some cases plaintiffs might be justified in seeking judicial review before they have exhausted their administrative remedies, but that wouldn’t be the solution here.

Hindsight is always 20-20. I read the 11 page decision. But I believe that AHA failed in two ways that may have changed the outcome: (1) Nowhere in the decision does it appear that the attorneys for AHA argued that the subject matter jurisdiction issue was collateral to the merits; and (2) The lawsuit was filed pre-January 1, 2018, but AHA could have amended its complaint after January 1, 2018, to show injury and argue that its comments were rejected (final decision) by the rule being implemented.

But, hey, we will never know.

CMS Initiates Process to Decrease the Medicare Appeal Backlog: But You May Have to Beg!

Last week, (May 22nd) the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) unveiled a new, streamlined appeal process aimed at decreasing the massive Medicare appeal backlog. CMS is hopeful that providers, like you, will choose to settle your Medicare appeal cases instead continuing the litigious dispute. Remember, currently, the backlog at the third level of Medicare appeals, the administrative law judge (ALJ) level, is approximately 5 – 8 years (I will use 8 years for the purpose of this blog). Recoupment can legally begin after level two, so many providers go out of business waiting to be heard at the third level. See blog.

The new “settlement conference facilitation” (SCF) process will allow CMS to make a settlement offer and providers have seven days to accept or proceed with the longer-lasting route. I have a strong sense that, if litigated, a judge would find forcing the decision between accepting a quick settlement versus enduring an 8-year waiting-period to present before an ALJ, coercion. But, for now, it is A choice other than the 8-year wait-period (as long as the provider met the eligibility requirements, see below).

To initiate said SCF process, a provider would have to submit a request in writing to CMS. CMS would then have 15 days to reply. If the agency chooses to take part, a settlement conference would occur within four weeks. Like that underlined part? I read the SCF process as saying, even if the provider qualifies for such process, CMS still has the authority to refuse to participate. Which begs the question, why have a process that does not have to be followed?

The SCF process is directed toward sizable providers with older and more substantial, alleged overpayments. In order to play, you must meet the criteria to enter the game. Here are the eligibility requirements:

2018-05-29 -- Pic of eligibility

The Backlog

In fiscal year (FY) 2016, more than 1.2 billion Medicare fee-for-service claims were processed. Over 119 million claims (or 9.7%) were denied. Of the denied claims, 3.5 million (2.9% of all Medicare denied claims) were appealed. That seems surprisingly low to me. But many claims are denied to Medicare recipients, who would be less inclined to appeal. For example, my grandma would not hire an attorney to appeal a denied claim; it would be fiscally illogical. However, a hospital that is accused of $10 million in alleged overpayments will hire an attorney.

In recent years, the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) and the Council have received more appeals than they can process within the statutorily-defined time frames. From FY 2010 through FY 2015, OMHA experienced an overall 442% increase in the number of appeals received annually. As a result, as of the end of FY 2016, 658,307 appeals were waiting to be adjudicated by OMHA. Under current resource levels (and without any additional appeals), it would take eight years for OMHA and ten years for the Council to process their respective backlogs.

The SCF “Fix”

While I do not believe that the creation of the SCF process is a fix, it is a concerted step in the right direction. Being that it was just enacted, we do not have any trial results. So many things on paper look good, but when implemented in real life end so poorly. For example, the Titanic.

Considering that there is a court case that found Health and Human Services (HHS) in violation of federal regulations that require level three Medicare appeals to be adjudicated in 90 days, instead of 8 years and HHS failed to follow the Order, claiming impossibility, at least HHS is making baby steps. See blog. At some point, Congress is going to have to increase funding to hire additional ALJs. I can only assume that the Hospital Association and American Medical Association are lobbying to get this action, but you know what they say about assuming…

As broached above, I do not like the fact that – if you do not accept whatever amount CMS proposes as settlement – BOOM – negotiation is over and you suffer the 8-year backlog time, undergo recoupments (that may not be appropriate), and incur tens of thousands of attorneys’ fees to continue litigation. Literally, CMS has no incentive to settle and you have every reason to settle. The only incentive for CMS to settle that I can fathom is that CMS wants this SCF program to be a success for the jury of public opinion, therefore, will try to get a high rate of success. But do not fool yourself.

You are the beggar and CMS is the King.

 

Former Cardinal CEO files countersuit to retain severance

Here are our tax dollars continuing to be used for such great purposes!!! I completely understand Cardinal’s desire to recoup our tax dollars that went into Topping’s pocket – noble, indeed. But I am stumped as how, supposedly, Topping had the executive authority to unilaterally name his salary?? Did he have such authority – or, like many companies, was Topping’s exorbitant salary a Board decision? And – if Topping’s salary were a Board decision – is Cardinal suing itself for past poor decisions???? Curiouser and curiouser.

Regardless, let’s give a “hat’s off” and a “thank you” to Richard Craver staying on top of this important and upsetting issue. #icantwaituntilwererich (see below for context).

By Richard Craver Winston-Salem Journal

The fired chief executive of Cardinal Innovations, Richard Topping Jr., filed Tuesday his countersuit to thwart the agency’s attempt to recover $1.68 million in paid severance.

A reconstituted board of directors for Cardinal, the state’s largest behavioral health managed care organization, has alleged that Topping used his post to enrich himself and three other executives. That board filed its lawsuit March 29.

Both lawsuits were filed in Mecklenburg Superior Court.

The agency oversees providers of mental, substance abuse and development disabilities services for 20 counties, including Forsyth County. It has responsibility for more than 850,000 Medicaid recipients and more than $675 million in federal and state Medicaid funding.

According to an investigation done by former federal prosecutor Kurt Meyers at the new board’s request, Topping convinced the former board leadership to pay him the severance before he was removed by state health Secretary Mandy Cohen on Nov. 27 as part of a N.C. Department of Health and Human Services takeover of Cardinal.

The current Cardinal board not only wants to recoup $3.8 million in overall executive severance, but also at least $125,000 in damages. The complaint called Topping’s severance “excessive and unlawful payments.”

Topping faces seven claims in the Cardinal lawsuit: breach of contract; breach of fiduciary duties; breach of implied duty of good faith and fair dealing (in his role as CEO); conversion (deleting data from Cardinal-owned devices and not returning Cardinal electronic property); unjust enrichment; constructive trust (knowingly accepting overpayments in severance); and constructive fraud (taking without permission highly confidential Cardinal financial and operational data).

“He inflated his salary without regard to the reputational, regulatory and legal damages it was going to cause,” Meyers said.

Topping claims his reputation has been “severely damaged” in the healthcare sector by the Cardinal lawsuit and investigation.

Topping called claims made in Meyers’ detailed presentation “misleading and false” even though it contained email and text exchanges between Topping, former Cardinal executives and former board chairwoman Lucy Drake about his post-Cardinal plans.

“Topping took these steps acknowledging he would never get another contract with Cardinal, nor likely with any other North Carolina healthcare provider,” Trey Sutten said March 29. Sutten was named as interim CEO by Cohen on Nov. 27 and full-time CEO on March 29.

The Charlotte Observer said among those named by Topping as defendants were Cardinal general counsel Chuck Hollowell, deputy general counsel Stephen Martin and board vice chairwoman Carmen Hooker Odom. DHHS said Tuesday it had no comment about Topping’s countersuit.

Topping was paid as much as $635,000 in annual salary, about 3½ times the maximum allowed under state law.

Topping has claimed the salary, which was raised twice by the former board during his term, was justified based on an independent market survey of Charlotte-area healthcare executives. The Charlotte Observer said Topping claims he and the other former executives were paid at the 50th percentile of market rates.

According to Meyers’ investigation, Topping pressured the former board not to fire him for several months by saying that if he was terminated, his entire management team would also leave with him. According to Meyers, Topping told the board that if that action occurred, it would “end Cardinal as they knew it.”

Topping claimed he did not create the severance platform in dispute.

“Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, Carmen Hooker Odom, Chuck Hollowell and Stephen Martin deny the false claims and baseless allegations brought by former CEO Richard Topping,” Cardinal spokeswoman Ashley Conger said in a statement.

Texts and emails between Topping and Pete Murphy, former chief information officer, epitomized their self-enrichment thinking, Meyers said.

The former board paid $1.7 million in severance to Topping, along with $740,000 to Murphy; $690,000 to Will Woodell, chief operating officer; and $684,000 to Dr. Ranota Hall, chief medical officer.

One exchange— sent Nov. 17 before Topping was fired by the former board — involved Murphy and Topping discussing Topping’s securing 1.5-gigabytes of highly confidential Cardinal management files, including personnel files, before leaving his post.

Murphy wrote that Topping “was smart to take files now.” Topping ended the text with an emoji with a finger over the lips. Meyers said he interpreted that emoji as saying “Shhh. Be quiet, and don’t tell anyone what I’m doing.”

An email exchange between the former executives took place after Topping’s termination by the former board. The board agreed to allow Topping to remain as CEO through Nov. 30.

The context, according to Meyers, was Topping’s work to secure venture capital or private equity for a private startup business, potentially to compete against Cardinal in the planned Medicaid reform marketplace with Cardinal’s confidential financial and operational information in hand.

“I can’t wait until we’re rich,” Murphy wrote. Topping answered, “I’ve made great progress on that front.” (emphasis added).

Topping’s lawsuit claims he was gathering information to create a healthcare smartphone app.

_________________________________

For background, see blog and blog.

Medicare and Medicaid Providers: Administrative Law 101 and Hiring an Attorney from Out-of-State

What in the world is administrative law???? If you are a Medicare or Medicaid provider, you better know!

Most of my blogs are about Medicare and Medicaid providers and the tangled web of regulatory rules and regulations that they must abide by in order to continue providing medically necessary services to our most-needy and elderly populations. This time, however, I am going to blog about (1) administrative law 101 (which I am coming to the realization that few providers understand); and (2) out-of-state attorneys – and why you may need to seek out an attorney from another state from which you live (and why it is possible). Attorneys are licensed state-by-state and, lately, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about “how can you represent me in Nevada when you are in NC?” and when I Googled this topic – I found that there is very little information out there. I am here to teach and teach I will. Read on if you want to learn; close this browser if you do not. The other goal of this blog is to educate you on administrative law. Because administrative law is vastly different than normal law, yet it pertains to Medicare and Medicaid providers, such as you. My last goal with this blog is to educate you on the expense of hiring an attorney and why, in some instances, it may be more costly than others. Whew! We have a lot to go through!

Let’s get started…

A lot of potential clients often ask me how are you able to represent me in Nebraska when you live in North Carolina? Or Alaska? (yes, I have a client in Alaska). I figured I should clear up the confusion. (The “administrative law class” portion of this blog is interwoven throughout the blog – not my best blog, organizational-wise; but we cannot all be perfect).

There are three ways in which an attorney can represent an out-of-state client if that attorney does not have the State’s Bar license for the State in which you reside. Just in case you didn’t know, attorneys get licensed on a state-by-state basis. For example, I have my Bar licenses in North Carolina and Georgia. It is similar to how physicians have to get State licenses. However, I represent healthcare providers in approximately 30 states. I don’t have a client in Iowa yet, so any healthcare providers in Iowa – Hello!! Now we need to understand – how is this possible?

Let’s take a step back, in case there are those who are wondering what a Bar license is; it is a license to practice law and, literally, means that you can go past the bar in a courtroom.

courtroom.jpg

Number One

The first way in which in attorney can represent an out-of-state client is because most Medicaid and Medicare provider appeals must be brought before Administrative Court. In North Carolina, our Administrative Court is called the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). OAH is the administrative agency for the Judicial Branch. An Administrative Court is the type of court specializing in administrative law, particularly in disputes concerning the exercise of public power. Their role is to ascertain that official/governmental acts are consistent with the law. Such courts are considered separate from general courts. For most state’s Administrative Courts, attorneys do not have to be licensed in that state. Most people don’t know the difference between Administrative Courts versus normal civil courts, like Superior and District courts. Or Magistrate Courts, for example, where Judge Judy would be. I certainly didn’t know what administrative law was even after I graduated law school. Quite frankly, I didn’t take the administrative law class in law school because I had no idea that I would be doing 89.125% administrative law in my real, adult life (I still file federal and state injunctions and sue the government in civil court, but the majority of my practice is administrative).

Administrative laws, which are applicable to Medicare and Medicaid providers, are laws pertaining to administrative agencies (seems self-defining). Administrative court is defined as a court that specializes in dealing with cases relating to the way in which government bodies exercise their powers.

There are literally hundreds of federal administrative agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, known as the EPA. If I have a pollution complaint, I contact the EPA. Another example is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, known as the EEOC. This agency is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate a job applicant or employee. If I have a discrimination complaint, I contact the EEOC. Another example is the Consumer Product Safety Commission, known as CPSC, which is the independent agency that oversees the safety of products sold in the United States. If I have a problem with the safety of the product that I bought, I contact the CPSC. Complaints to government agencies, such as the EPA, do not go to normal, civil court. These complaints, otherwise known as petitions for contested case hearings, go to Administrative Court and are overseen by Administrative Law Judges (“ALJs”). Same is true for Medicare and Medicaid provider disputes. You cannot go to Superior Court until you have gone through Administrative Court otherwise your case will be kicked out because of an esoteric legal doctrine known as “exhaustion of administrative remedies.” See blog.

Here is a picture of North Carolina’s Raleigh OAH. You can see, from the picture below, that it does not look like a normal courthouse. It’s a beautiful building – don’t get me wrong. But it does not look like a courthouse.

OAH

Our OAH is located at 1711 New Hope Church Road, Raleigh NC, 27609. OAH used to be downtown Raleigh and one of the historic houses, but that got a little cramped.

Complaints about Medicare and Medicaid regulatory compliance issues go to Administrative Court because these complaints are against a government agency known as the Health Service Department or the Department of Health and Human Services, depending on which state within you live – the names may differ, but the responsibility does not.

Bringing a lawsuit in Administrative Court with an out-of-state attorney is the cheapest method. There is no need to pay local counsel to file pleadings. There is no need to pay to be pro hac-ed in (see below). Sure, you have to pay for travel expenses, but as we all know, you get what you pay for. If you don’t have an expert in Medicare or Medicaid in your state you need to look elsewhere. [Disclaimer – I am not saying you have to hire me. Just hire an expert].

Number Two

Very few states require administrative attorneys to have the State Bar license in which they are practicing. For those few States that do require a State Bar license, even for administrative actions, the second alternative to hire an attorney out-of-state is for the attorney to pro hac into that State. Pro hace vice is a fancy Latin phrase which means, literally, “for on this occasion only.” It allows out-of-state attorneys a way to ask the court to allow them to represent a client in a state in which they do not have a license. Again, the reason why this is important is that in a extremely, niche practices, there may not be an attorney with the expertise you need in your state. I know there are not that many attorneys that do the kind of law that I do, [possibly because it is emotionally-draining (because all your clients are financial and emotional distress), extremely esoteric, yet highly-rewarding (when you keep someone in business to continue to provide medically necessary services), but, at times, overwhelming and, without question, time-consuming]. Did someone say, “Vacation?” “Pro hac-ing in” (defined as the attorney asking the court to allow them to represent a client in a state for which they do not have a license for one-time only) is also helpful when I appear in state or federal courts.

Most states have a limit of how many times an attorney can pro hac. For example, in New Mexico, out-of-state attorneys can only pro hac into New Mexico State courts four times a year. The fee for an attorney to pro hac into a state court varies state-by-state, but the amount is nominal when you compare the fee against how much it would cost to hire local counsel.

Number Three

Thirdly, is by hiring local counsel. Some cases need to be escalated to federal or state court, and, in these instances, a Bar license in the state in which the case is being pursued is necessary. An example of why you would want to bring a lawsuit in federal or state court instead of an Administrative Court would be if you are asking for monetary damages. An Administrative Court does not have the jurisdiction to award such damages.

This is the scenario that I dislike the most because the client has to pay for another attorney only because their warm body possesses a State Bar license. Generally, local counsel does not do much heavy lifting. As in, they don’t normally contribute to the merits of the case. Because they have the State Bar license, they are used to file and sign-off on pleadings.

Cost

The first scenario – in which I represent a out-of-state client in Administrative Court, and do not need to hire local counsel or to get my pro hac, is the cheapest method for clients. As an aside, I spoke with an attorney from a bigger city yesterday and was amazed at his or her billable rates. Apparently, I’m steal.

The second most inexpensive way to hire an attorney from out-of-state is to have them get pro hac-ed in. There is a filing fee of, usually, a few hundred dollars in order to get pro hac-ed in. But, in some states, you don’t have to hire local counsel when you are pro hac-ed in.

The most expensive way to hire an out-of-state attorney is needing to hire local counsel as well. Let’s be honest – attorneys are expensive. Adding another into the pot just ups the ante, regardless how little they do. When attorneys charge $300, $400, or $500 an hour, very few hours add up to a lot of money (or $860/hour….what…zombies?).

If you do not agree with the decision that the Administrative Law Judge renders, then you can appeal to, depending in which state you reside, Superior Court or District Court. If you do not agree with the decision you receive in District Court or Superior Court, you then appeal to the Court of Appeals. On the appellate level, out-of-state attorneys would need to either be pro hac-ed on or hire local counsel.