Category Archives: Appeal Deadlines

Knicole Emanuel Featured on Hospital Finance Podcast – Medicare Appeal Backlog (Legal Update)

On September 6, 2017, I appeared on the Besler Hospital Finance Podcast regarding:

Update on the Medicare appeals backlog [PODCAST]

Feel free to listen to the podcast, download it, and share with others!

 

“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 slow-motion unraveling of New Mexico’s Medicaid crackdown (With Sound Bites From Me).

There’s no getting around it. Four years after Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration charged 15 behavioral health organizations with potentially defrauding the state’s Medicaid program, its case has experienced a slow-motion unraveling.

No Medicaid fraud was ever found. And those eye-popping estimates that added up to $36 million the organizations had overbilled Medicaid?

In the summer of 2017, the Human Services Department (HSD) is seeking drastically lower reimbursements for overbilling the public health insurance program for low-income residents, a review of public records and state court documents has found.

Now exonerated by the state Attorney General’s Office, many organizations are challenging even those much-lower estimates in administrative hearings or in state court.

Consider Teambuilders Counseling Services, one of the accused behavioral health providers.

Last fall it received a new estimate from the New Mexico Human Services Department. Previous numbers had varied from as high as $9.6 million to as low as $2 million. But the new figure deviated sharply from earlier calculations when Chester Boyett, an administrative law judge in the state agency’s Fair Hearings Bureau, ruled Teambuilders owed only $896.35.

Boyett argued his agency had built its $2 million estimate of Medicaid overbilling on faulty analysis, according to his 12-page decision.

Nancy Smith-Leslie, the department’s director of the Medical Assistance Division, ignored Boyett’s recommendation. In a Jan. 6 letter she said the agency’s analysis was sound, even though she seemed to confirm Boyett’s critique in a Nov. 2 memo in which she had noted the inaccuracy of the extrapolated amount. In that memo Teambuilders and its attorney had not “sufficiently disputed” the method of extrapolation, however, she wrote.

In her Jan. 6 letter, Smith-Leslie sought to clear up matters. She amended her previous statement, saying the extrapolation referred to in her Nov. 2 memo indeed was correct.

Teambuilders and its attorney, Knicole Emanuel, appealed HSD’s ruling over whether Teambuilders overbilled Medicaid and by how much to state court, where three other former behavioral health organizations are fighting HSD’s extrapolated overpayments.

Boyett’s finding that Teambuilders owed hundreds rather than millions of dollars — even if it was ignored — represents a compelling data point given where things stand with other providers.

The state in May reduced to $484.71 what it said Southwest Counseling Center owed after accusing it of overbilling Medicaid by as much as $2.8 million as recently as January.

And last September HSD closed the books  on another organization — Las Cruces-based Families and Youth Inc. — without demanding any reimbursements for overbilling and releasing $1.4 million in Medicaid dollars the state had suspended. The action represented a reversal after a state-ordered 2013 audit that found $856,745 in potential Medicaid overbilling by FYI.

In fact, a review of state and court documents by New Mexico In Depth reveals a pattern regarding the state agency’s overbilling estimates: In many cases, they are moving targets, usually on a downward trajectory.

Like Southwest’s, some have dropped spectacularly. Setting aside Boyett’s figure of $896, even the $2 million HSD claims Teambuilders owes is far smaller than a high of $12 million.

Hogares Inc., another organization accused of fraud, watched last year as the state revised its overbilling estimates five times over six months, starting at $9.5 million in January and ending with $3.1 million in June, according to state court documents.

Meanwhile, Easter Seals El Mirador, initially accused of $850,000 in potential Medicaid overbilling, now stands accused of $127,000.

Emanuel and Bryan Davis, another attorney representing many of the formerly accused organizations, said the constantly changing estimates are due to HSD.

The state agency is examining a sampling of each organization’s Medicaid claims and asking the organizations for documentation to prove the government program was properly billed, they said.

“In most cases (the overbilling estimates) are dropping precipitously” as organizations submit the documents requested by HSD, Davis said.

To cite one example, HSD’s latest overbilling estimate for Counseling Associates, Inc. is $96,000, said Davis, who represents the organization. That compares to $3 million in potential overbilling a 2013 state-ordered audit found.

It is a perplexing situation, given that the Human Services Department found “‘credible allegations of fraud” against the 15 organizations using that 2013 audit, which was performed by Massachusetts-based Public Consulting Group Inc.

“They threw PCG’s audit in the trash,” Davis said of HSD, noting the cost. HSD agreed to pay PCG up to $3 million for the study in February 2013.

The current situation caused Davis to wonder “why PCG didn’t have these documents in the first place,” he said.

Emanuel offered a pointed answer.

“HSD did not allow PCG to gather all the documents,” she said.

A spokesperson for HSD did not respond multiple requests for comment for this story.

Repercussions of the Medicaid crackdown

The fight over Medicaid overbilling isn’t the only legacy left from the Medicaid crackdown, which happened the last week of June 2013.

The Martinez administration’s decision affected lives. Many lives if you listen to behavioral health advocates and officials in the 15 organizations.

Charging the organizations with fraud and then suspending Medicaid payments to many of them disrupted mental health and addiction services for tens of thousands of New Mexicans. It created chaos for employees. And four years on it has left a number of business failures in its wake, with many of the accused organizations unable to survive long-term without Medicaid dollars.

Teambuilders, which once operated 52 locations in 17 New Mexico counties, is no longer in business, according to Emanuel. Neither is Las Cruces-based Southwest Counseling Center. Or Hogares.

At the same time a gap in care has opened up after three of five Arizona companies the Martinez administration brought in to care for the vulnerable populations have departed the state, leaving New Mexico to pick up the pieces.

“It’s a mess. It’s disgusting,” said James Kerlin, executive director of The Counseling Center of Alamogordo, which no longer sees clients. Like Teambuilders, Hogares, Southwest Counseling and others, it was unable to stay in business without the flow of Medicaid dollars the state suspended. “I want the public to know where we’re at and what’s been done to us. I’m going to start making a lot of noise. This is ridiculous.”

Kerlin’s organization was the first of the 15 organizations exonerated by then Attorney General Gary King in early 2014. And it offered the earliest glimpse of the weaknesses in the Martinez administration’s case against the behavioral health providers.

First signs of weakness in the state’s case

HSD hired PCG to audit all 15 organizations and it found $655,000 in potential Medicaid overbilling by the Counseling Center.

PCG reached that conclusion after finding $1,873 in questionable Medicaid claims and then extrapolating from those claims that the center could have overbilled Medicaid by more than $600,000 based on the size of its Medicaid business over several years.

But during its fraud investigation the AG’s office flagged fewer Counseling Center claims than PCG and found a much lower cost of potential overbillings. It resolved some of the issues by reviewing records and interviewing staff.

In many cases, auditors give staff of audited organizations an opportunity to refute findings or address misunderstandings before finalizing their findings. For example, most state and local governmental agencies are audited annually in New Mexico. Staff within those agencies are afforded the chance to see and respond to audit findings within a certain amount of time before audits are made public.

Kerlin did not get that opportunity during the PCG audit.

PCG later confirmed to NMID that it is the firm’s standard procedure to give companies a chance to respond before issuing official audit findings. A PCG spokesperson would not tell NMID why that didn’t happen in New Mexico.

By the time HSD held a hearing for the Counseling Center, the state agency had lowered its Medicaid overbillings estimate to $379,135. And Kerlin finally was able to hear the accusations against his organization.

Counseling Center submitted evidence to rebut the state agency’s claims, but the hearing officer sided with HSD. The Counseling Center appealed to state court.

In late 2015, State District Court Judge Francis Mathew ruled in favor of Kerlin’s organization, calling HSD’s hearing decision “arbitrary, capricious or otherwise not in accordance with law.”

In addition, the judge found the administrative law judge had shifted the burden of proof from HSD to the Counseling Center and then set too high a standard for the organization. Citing portions of the administrative law judge’s ruling, Mathew noted  the Counseling Center had “offered certain amount of credible evidence in opposition” to HSD’s findings but not as much as the hearing officer required: a “100 percent audit” of records, which the state district judge found “unreasonable.”

HSD appealed the judge’s decision to the state Court of Appeals.

Examples of rejected claims 

The overly stringent standards for documentation — and even a basic lack of understanding by HSD staff of Medicaid billing requirements — can be found in cases involving other organizations that are contesting the department’s charges of overbilling, a review of court documents found.

In a motion appealing the administrative law judge’s ruling that it owed the state $127,240, Easter Seals disputed seven claims, including one HSD had rejected because there was no medication consent form in place, even though the patient and parent had signed a general informed consent form and the patient’s parent was present when the medication was prescribed.

According to the court document, “There was no dispute that the service was medically necessary and was provided to J.A. There is no question as to quality of care provided to the recipient of services.”

Another claim was rejected because there was no doctor’s signature on a psychosocial assessment, however the state could provide no legal requirement for the signature, according to Easter Seals’ appeal. “A signature might be best practice, or advisable, but it is not a requirement,” the filing argued.

Also in the appeal, Easter Seals noted that the Human Service Department’s coding witness not only could not cite rules disallowing two services to be delivered during the same time period, but also appeared to be using a coding manual from Medicare, the insurance for seniors, and not Medicaid. And furthermore, she did not even realize there was a manual for Medicaid.

HSD ignored evidence in 2013 that refuted overbilling claims 

Even those organizations that have avoided administrative hearings and court battles have stories to tell about HSD and its actions.

Consider Presbyterian Medical Services, which signed an agreement with the Human Services Department in 2013 to pay $4 million after PCG found nearly $4.5 million in potential Medicaid overbillings.

It wasn’t an easy decision, its CEO said this week, and it shouldn’t be construed as agreement with the state’s conclusions.

“We agree to disagree” is how Steven Hansen put it.

Until Presbyterian began negotiating an agreement, in fact, it had not seen the findings of the PCG audit.

During the negotiations PMS officials found documents they thought could refute PCG’s audit findings, Hansen and other PMS officials told state lawmakers in October 2014.

Presbyterian tried to give the files to PCG and the Human Services Department as proof that they had properly billed Medicaid for payment. The consulting firm said it would review the documentation if directed to by HSD, but PCG later told Presbyterian Medical Services the state agency “did not want to accept those records.”

“We believe there is a strong argument that nothing was owed back to HSD,” Presbyterian’s general counsel told lawmakers in 2014.

At that point, Presbyterian had to make a choice: Settle with the state or fight and possibly run out of money.

Presbyterian settled, paying the $4 million.

The decision has worked out for the organization.

“We’re doing more business than we did before” the 2013 crackdown, Hansen said.

That’s because as the Arizona providers the Martinez administration brought in have left New Mexico, Presbyterian Medical Services has taken over mental health and addiction services.

Presbyterian has added Carlsbad, Alamogordo, Deming, Espańola, Grants, Artesia, Santa Fe and Rio Rancho to the places it provides behavioral health services, Hansen said, adding it’s “bits and pieces” of areas formerly serviced by three of the five Arizona companies.

“We feel like it’s going in a good direction for us,” Hansen said. “That’s hard for us to say because there were so many great organizations that are no longer in the state. But we’ve had to move on.”

Durable Medical Equipment and Home Health and Hospice Targeted in Region 5!

Durable Medical Equipment (DME) providers across the country are walking around with large, red and white bullseyes on their backs. Starting back in March 2017, the RAC audits began targeting DME and home health and hospice. DME providers also have to undergo audits by the Comprehensive Error Rate Testing Program (CERT).

bullseye

The RAC for Jurisdiction 5, Performant Recovery, is a national company contracted to perform Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) audits of durable medical equipment, prosthetic, orthotic and supplies (DMEPOS) claims as well as home health and hospice claims. Medicare Part B covers medically necessary DME. The following are the RAC regions:

Region 1 – Performant Recovery, Inc.

Region 2 – Cotiviti, LLC

Region 3 – Cotiviti, LLC

Region 4 – HMS Federal Solutions

Region 5 – Performant Recovery, Inc.

racregions

As you can see from the above map, we are in Region 3. The country is broken up into four regions. But, wait, you say, you said that Performant Recovery is performing RAC audits in region 5 – where is region 5?

Region 5 is the whole country.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) has contracted with Performant Recovery to audit DME and home health and hospice across the whole country.

dmemap

DME and home health and hospice providers – There is nowhere to hide. If you provide equipment or services within the blue area, region 5, you are a target for a RAC audit.

What are some common findings in a RAC audit for DME?

Without question, the most common finding in a RAC or CERT audit is “insufficient documentation.” The problem is that “insufficient documentation” is nebulous, at best, and absolutely incorrect, at worst. This error is by auditors if they cannot conclude that the billed services were actually provided, were provided at the level billed, and/or were medically necessary. An infuriating discovery was when I was defending a DME RAC audit and learned that the “real” reason for the denial of a claim was that no one went to the consumers door, knocked on it, and verified that a wheelchair had, in fact, been delivered. In-person verification of delivery is not a requirement, nor should it be. Such a burdensome requirement would unduly prejudice DME companies. Yes, you need to be able to show a signed and dated delivery slip, but you do not have to go to the consumer’s house and snap a selfie with the consumer and the piece of equipment.

Another common target for RAC audits is oxygen tubing, oxygen stands/racks, portable liquid oxygen systems, and oxygen concentrators.  RAC auditors mainly look for medical necessity for oxygen equipment. Hospital beds/accessories are also a frequent find in a RAC audit. A high use of hospital beds/accessories codes can enlarge the target on your back.

Another recurrent issue that the RAC auditors cite is billing for bundled services separately. Medicare does not make separate payment for DME provider when a beneficiary is in a covered inpatient stay. RAC auditors check whether suppliers are inappropriately receiving separate DME payment when the beneficiary is in a covered inpatient stay.  Suppliers can’t bill for DME items used by the patient prior to the patient’s discharge from the hospital. Medicare doesn’t allow separate billing for surgical dressings, urological supplies, or ostomy supplies provided in the hospital because reimbursement for them is wrapped into the Part A payment. This prohibition applies even if the item is worn home by the patient when leaving the hospital.

As always, documentation of the face to face encounter and the prescription are also important.

You can find the federal regulation for DME documentation at 42 CFR 410.38 – “Durable medical equipment: Scope and conditions.”

Once you receive an alleged overpayment, know your rights! Appeal, appeal, appeal!! The Medicare appeal process can be found here.

Hospital May Lose Its Medicare Contract, Threatens CMS

Hospital is shocked to learn that its Medicare contract with Health and Human Services may be terminated by April 16, 2017. Medicaid services may also be adversely affected. The hospital was notified of the possible Medicare contract termination on March 27, 2017, and is faced with conceivably losing its Medicare contract within a month of notification. Legal action cannot act fast enough – unless the hospital requests an emergency temporary restraining order, motion to stay, and preliminary injunction and files it immediately upon learning that its Medicare contract is terminated.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) threatened Greenville Memorial Hospital, part of Greenville Health System, in South Carolina, that Medicare reimbursements will cease starting April 16, 2017. According to CMS, Memorial’s emergency department is not compliant with Medicare regulations.

A public notice in the Greenville News says: “Notice is hereby given that effective April 15, 2017, the agreement between GHS Greenville Memorial Hospital, 701 Grove Road, Greenville, S.C. 29605 and the Secretary of Health and Human Service, as a provider of Hospital Services and Health Insurance for the Aged and Disabled Program (Medicare) is to be terminated. GHS Greenville Memorial Hospital does not meet the following conditions of participation. 42 CFR 482.12 Governing Body, 42 CFR 482.13 Patients’ Rights and 42 CFR 482.23 Nursing Services.”

“The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has determined that GHS Greenville Memorial Hospital is not in compliance with the conditions of coverage. The Medicare program will not make payment for hospital services to patients who are admitted after April 16, 2017.”

The findings came after an onsite audit was conducted on March 13, 2017. Memorial was notified of the report on March 27, 2017.

Memorial must have submitted a corrective action plan by April 3, 2017, but it has not been released.

The emergency department at Memorial treats about 300 patients per day. An employee of Memorial estimates that the termination would lose net revenue from Medicare and Medicaid could potentially reach around $495 million. Greenville Memorial received $305 million in Medicare funding and $190 million from Medicaid in the most recent fiscal year, accounting for nearly six in 10 patients, officials said.

While CMS and Memorial refuse to discuss the details of the alleged noncompliance, CMS’ public notice cites three CFR cites: 42 CFR 482.12 Governing Body, 42 CFR 482.13 Patients’ Rights and 42 CFR 482.23 Nursing Services.

42 CFR 482.12 requires that hospitals have governing bodies and plans to follow Medicare regulations. Subsection (f) specifically requires that if a hospital has an emergency department that the hospital must follow 42 CFR 482.55 “Conditions of Participation,” which states that “The hospital must meet the emergency needs of patients in accordance with acceptable standards of practice.

(a) Standard: Organization and direction. If emergency services are provided at the hospital –

  1. The services must be organized under the direction of a qualified member of the medical staff;
  2. The services must be integrated with other departments of the hospital;
  3. The policies and procedures governing medical care provided in the emergency service or department are established by and are a continuing responsibility of the medical staff.

(b) Standard: Personnel.

  1. The emergency services must be supervised by a qualified member of the medical staff.
  2. There must be adequate medical and nursing personnel qualified in emergency care to meet the written emergency procedures and needs anticipated by the facility.”

The Memorial audit stemmed from a March 4, 2017, death of Donald Keith Smith, 48, who died as a result of traumatic asphyxiation. After an altercation, the patient was placed on a gurney, supposedly, face-down. South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Controls Site Survey Agency investigated the hospital after the death and the audit found that hospital security officers improperly restrained Smith, strapping him face down to a gurney during an altercation, rendering him unable to breathe. The death was ruled a homicide.

Memorial terminated the security officers involved in the death.

Now the hospital is faced with its own potential death. The loss of Medicare and, perhaps, Medicaid reimbursements could financially kill the hospital. Let’s see what happens…

Class Action Lawsuit Alleges Right to Inpatient Hospital Stays: Hospitals Are Damned If They Do…and Don’t!

Hospitals – “Lend me your ears; I come to warn you, not to praise RACs. The evil that RACs do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their appeals; So let it be with lawsuits.” – Julius Caesar, with modifications by me.

A class action lawsuit is pending against U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) alleging that the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) encourages (or bullies) hospitals to place patients in observation status (covered by Medicare Part B), rather than admitting them as patients (covered by Medicare Part A). The Complaint alleges that the treatments while in observation status are consistent with the treatments if the patients were admitted as inpatients; however, Medicare Part B reimbursements are lower, forcing the patient to pay more out-of-pocket expenses without recourse.

The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut refused to dismiss the class action case on February 8, 2017, giving the legal arguments within the Complaint some legal standing, at least, holding that the material facts alleged warrant investigation.

The issue of admitting patients versus keeping them in observation has been a hot topic for hospitals for years. If you recall, Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) specifically target patient admissions. See blog and blog. RAC audits of hospital short-stays is now one of the most RAC-reviewed issues. In fiscal year 2014, RACs “recouped” from hospitals $1.2 billion in allegedly improper inpatient claims. RACs do not, however, review outpatient claims to determine whether they should have been paid as inpatient.

On May 4, 2016, CMS paused its reviews of inpatient stays to determine the appropriateness of Medicare Part A payment. On September 12, 2016, CMS resumed them, but with more stringent rules on the auditors’ part. For example, auditors cannot audit claims more than the six-month look-back period from the date of admission.

Prior to September 2016,  hospitals would often have no recourse when a claim is denied because the timely filing limits will have passed. The exception was if the hospital joined the Medicare Part A/Part B rebilling demonstration project. But to join the program, hospitals would forfeit their right to appeal – leaving them with no option but to re-file the claim as an outpatient claim.

With increased scrutiny, including RAC audits, on hospital inpatient stays, the class action lawsuit, Alexander et al. v. Cochran, alleges that HHS pressures hospitals to place patients in observation rather than admitting them. The decision states that “Identical services provided to patients on observation status are covered under Medicare Part B, instead of Part A, and are therefore reimbursed at a lower rate. Allegedly, the plaintiffs lost thousands of dollars in coverage—of both hospital services and subsequent skilled nursing care—as a result of being placed on observation status during their hospital stays.” In other words, the decision to place on observation status rather than admit as an inpatient has significant financial consequences for the patient. But that decision does not affect what treatment or medical services the hospital can provide.

While official Medicare policy allows the physicians to determine the inpatient v. observation status, RAC audits come behind and question that discretion. The Medicare Policy states that “the decision to admit a patient is a complex medical judgment.” Ch. 1  § 10. By contrast, CMS considers the determination as to whether services are properly billed and paid as inpatient or outpatient to be a regulatory matter. In an effort to avoid claim denials and recoupments, plaintiffs allege that hospitals automatically place the patients in observation and rely on computer algorithms or “commercial screening tools.”

In a deposition, a RAC official admitted that if the claim being reviewed meets the “commercial screening tool” requirements, then the RAC would find the inpatient status is appropriate, as long as there is a technically valid order. No wonder hospitals are relying on these commercial screening tools more and more! It is only logical and self-preserving!

This case was originally filed in 2011, and the Court of Appeals overturned the district court’s dismissal and remanded it back to the district court for consideration of the due process claims. In this case, the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs could establish a protected property interest if they proved their allegation “that the Secretary—acting through CMS—has effectively established fixed and objective criteria for when to admit Medicare beneficiaries as ‘inpatients,’ and that, notwithstanding the Medicare Policy Manual’s guidance, hospitals apply these criteria when making admissions decisions, rather than relying on the judgment of their treating physicians.”

HHS argues that that the undisputed fact that a physician makes the initial patient status determination on the basis of clinical judgment is enough to demonstrate that there is no due process property interest at stake.

The court disagreed and found too many material facts in dispute to dismiss the case.

Going forward:

Significant discovery will be explored as to the extent to which hospitals rely on commercial screening tools. Also whether the commercial screening tools are applied equally to private insureds versus Medicare patients.

Significant discovery will be explored on whether the hospital’s physicians challenge changing a patient from inpatient to observation.

Significant discovery will be explored as to the extent that CMS policy influences hospital decision-making.

Hospitals need to follow this case closely. If, in fact, RAC audits and CMS policy is influencing hospitals to issue patients as observation status instead of inpatient, expect changes to come – regardless the outcome of the case.

As for inpatient hospital stays, could this lawsuit give Medicare patients the right to appeal a hospital’s decision to place the patient in observation status? A possible, future scenario is a physician places a patient in observation. The patient appeals and gets admitted. Then hospital’s claim is denied because the RAC determines that the patient should have been in observation, not inpatient. Will the hospitals be damned if they do, damned if they don’t?

damned

In the meantime:

Hospitals and physicians at hospitals: Review your policy regarding determining inpatient versus observation status. Review specific patient files that were admitted as inpatient. Was a commercial screening tool used? Is there adequate documentation that the physician made an independent decision to admit the patient? Hold educational seminars for your physicians. Educate! And have an attorney on retainer – this issue will be litigated.

Federal Court Orders HHS to Eliminate Medicare Appeal Backlog!

When you have a Medicare appeal, it is not uncommon for the appeal process to last years and years – up to 3-6 years in some cases. There has been a backlog of approximately 800,000+ Medicare appeals (almost 1 million), which, with no change, would take 11 years to vet.

A Federal Court Judge says – that is not good enough!

Judge James Boasburg Ordered that the Medicare appeal backlog be eliminated in the following stages:

  • 30% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2017 (approximately a 300,000 case reduction within 1 year);
  • 60% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2018;
  • 90% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2019; and
  • Elimination of the backlog of cases by Dec. 31, 2020;

A Medicare appeal has 5 steps. See blog. The backlog is at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level – or, Level 3.

This backlog is largely attributable to the Medicare Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) programs. In 2010, the federal government implemented the RAC program to recoup allegedly improper Medicare reimbursement payments. The RAC program (for both Medicare and Medicaid) has been criticized for being overly broad and burdensome and “nit picking,” insignificant paperwork errors. See blog.

While the RAC program has recovered a substantial sum of alleged overpayments, concurrently, it has cost health care providers an infinite amount of money to defend the allegations and has left Health and Human Services (HHS) with little funds to adjudicate the number of Medicare appeals, which increase every year. The number of Medicare appeals filed in fiscal year 2011 was 59,600. In fiscal year 2013, that number boomed to more than 384,000. Today, close to 1 million Medicare appeals stand in wait. The statutory adjudication deadline for appeals at the ALJ level is 90 days, yet the average Medicare appeal can last over 546 days.

The American Hospital Association (AHA) said – enough is enough!

AHA sued HHS’ Secretary Sylvia Burwell in 2014, but the case was dismissed. AHA appealed the District Court’s Decision to the Court of Appeals, which reversed the dismissal and gave the District Court guidance on how the backlog could be remedied.

Finally, last week, on December 5, 2016, the District Court published its Opinion and set forth the above referenced mandated dates for eliminating the Medicare appeal backlog.

While, administratively, the case was dismissed, the District Court retained “jurisdiction in order to review the required status reports and rule on any challenges to unmet deadlines.”

In non-legalese, the Court said “The case is over, but we will be watching you and can enforce this Decision should it be violated.”

This is a win for all health care providers that accept Medicare.

There Is Only One Head Chef in the Medicaid Kitchen, Part Deux!

In a groundbreaking decision published today by the Court of Appeals (COA), the Court smacked down Public Consulting Group’s (PCG), as well as any other  contracted entity’s, authority to wield an “adverse decision” against a health care provider. This solidifies my legal argument that I have been arguing on this blog and in court for years!

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is the “single state agency” charged with managing Medicaid. Federal law requires that that one agency manage Medicaid with no ability to delegate discretionary decisions. Case law in K.C. v. Shipman upheld the federal law. See blog.

Yet, despite K.C. v. Shipman, decided in 2013, in Court, DHHS continued to argue that it should be dismissed from cases in which a contracted vendor rendered the adverse decision to recoup, terminate, or suspend a health care provider. DHHS would argue that it had no part of the decision to recoup, terminate, or suspend, that K.C. Shipman is irrelevant to health care provider cases, and that K.C. v. Shipman is only pertinent to Medicaid recipient cases, to which I countered until I was “blue in the face” is a pile of horse manure.

DHHS would argue that my interpretation would break down the Medicaid system because DHHS cannot possibly review and discern whether every recoupment, termination, and/or suspension made by a contracted vendor was valid (my words, not theirs). DHHS argued that it simply does not have the manpower, plus if it has the authority to contract with a company, surely that company can determine the amount of an alleged overpayment…WRONG!!

In fact, in DHHS v. Parker Home Care, LLC, the COA delineates the exact process for the State determining an overpayment with its contracted agent PCG.

  1. DHHS may enter into a contract with a company, such as PCG.
  2. A private company, like PCG, may perform preliminary and full investigations to collect facts and data.
  3. PCG must submit its findings to DHHS, and DHHS must exercise its own discretion to reach a tentative decision from six options (enumerated in the NC Administrative Code).
  4. DHHS, after its decision, will notify the provider of its tentative decision.
  5. The health care provider may request a reconsideration of the tentative decision within 15 days.
  6. Failure to do so will transform the tentative decision into a final determination.
  7. Time to appeal to OAH begins upon notification of the final determination by DHHS (60 days).

Another interesting part of this decision is that the provider, Parker Home Care, received the Tentative Notice of Overpayment (TNO) in 2012 and did nothing. The provider did not appeal the TNO.

However, because PCG’s TNO did not constitute a final adverse decision by DHHS (because PCG does not have the authority to render a final adverse decision), the provider did not miss any appeal deadline. The final adverse decision was determined to be DHHS’ action of suspending funds to collect the recoupment, which did not occur until 2014…and THAT action was timely appealed.

The COA’s message to private vendors contracted with DHHS is crystal clear: “There is only one head chef in the Medicaid kitchen.”

Medicare Appeal Backlog: Tough Tooties!…Unless…[Think Outside the Box!]

When you are accused of a $12 million dollar overpayment by Medicare, obviously, you appeal it.But do you expect that appeal to take ten years or longer? Are such long, wait periods allowed by law? That is what Cumberland Community Hospital System, Inc. (Cape Fear) discovered in a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision, on March 7, 2016, denying a Writ of Mandamus from the Court and refusing to order the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Burwell to immediately adjudicate Cape Fear’s Medicare appeals to be heard within the Congressional requirement that appeals be heard and decided by Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) within 90 days.

According to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services‘ (CMS) website, an “ALJ will generally issue a decision within 90 days of receipt of the hearing request. Again, according to CMS’ website, this time frame may be extended for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to:

  • The case being escalated from the reconsideration level
  • The submission of additional evidence not included with the hearing request
  • The request for an in-person hearing
  • The appellant’s failure to send a notice of the hearing request to other parties
  • The initiation of discovery if CMS is a party.”

In Cape Fear’s case, the Secretary admitted that the Medicare appeal backlog equates to more than 800,000 claims and would, likely, take over 10 years to adjudicate all the claims. Even the 4th Circuit Court, which, ultimately, dismissed Cape Fear’s complaint, agrees with Cape Fear and calls the Medicare appeal backlog “incontrovertibly grotesque.”

Generally, the rule is that if the ALJ does not render a decision after 180 days of the filing of the case, then the provider has the right to escalate the case to the Medicare Appeals Council, which is the 4th step of a Medicare appeal. See blog for more details on the appeal process.

Care appeals

What about after 3,650 days? Get a big pie in the face?

The United States Code is even less vague than CMS’ website. Without question 42 U.S.C. states that for a:

“(1)Hearing by administrative law judge; (A)In general

Except as provided in subparagraph (B), an administrative law judge shall conduct and conclude a hearing on a decision of a qualified independent contractor under subsection (c) of this section and render a decision on such hearing by not later than the end of the 90-day period beginning on the date a request for hearing has been timely filed.”

(emphasis added). And, BTW, subsection (B) is irrelevant here. It contemplates when a party moves for or stipulates to an extension past the 90-day period.

So why did Cape Fear lose? How could the hospital lose when federal administrative code specifically spells out mandatory 90-day limit for a decision by an ALJ? Ever heard of a statute with no teeth? [i.e., HIPAA].

No one will be surprised to read that I have my opinions. First, a writ of mandamus was not the legal weapon to wield. It is an antiquated legal theory that rarely makes itself useful in modern law. I remember the one and only time I filed a writ of mandamus in state court in an attempt to hold a State Agency liable for willfully violating a Court’s Order. I appeared before the judge, who asked me, “Do you know how long I have been on this bench?” To which I responded, “Yes, Your Honor, you have been on the bench for X number of years.” He said, “Do you know how many times I have granted a writ of mandamus?” I said, “No, Your Honor.” “Zero,” he said, “Zero.” The point is that writs of mandamus are rare. A party must prove to the court that he/she has a clear and indisputable right to what is being asked of the court.

Secondly, in my mind, Cape Fear made a disastrous mistake in arguing that it has a clear right for its Medicare appeals to be adjudicated immediately. Think about it…there are 800,000+ Medicare appeals pending before the ALJs. What judge would ever order the administrative court to immediately drop all other 799,250 pended claims (Cape Fear had 750 claims pending) and to adjudicate only Cape Fear’s claims? It is the classic slippery slope…if you do this for Cape Fear, then you need to order the same for the rest of the pended claims.

In this instance, it appears that Cape Fear requested too drastic a measure for a federal judge to order. The claims were doomed from the beginning.

However, I cannot fault Cape Fear for trying since the code is crystal clear in requiring a 90-day turnaround time. The question becomes…what is the proper remedy for a gross disregard, even if unwillful, of the 90-day turnaround period?

This would have taken thinking outside the box.

Medicare providers have some rights. I discuss those rights frequently on this blog. But the population that the courts inevitably want to insulate from “David and Goliath situations” are the recipients. Unlike the perceived, “big, strong, and well-attorneyed” hospital, recipients often find themselves lacking legal representation to defend their statutorily-given right to choose their provider and exercise their right to access to care.

Had Cape Fear approached the same problem from a different perspective and argued violations of law on behalf of the beneficiaries of Cape Fear’s quality health care services, a different result may have occurred.

Another way Cape Fear could have approached the same problem, could have been a request for the Court to Cape Fear’s funds owed for service rendered to be released pending the litigation.

As always, there is more than one way to skin a cat. I humbly suggest that when you have such an important case to bring…BRING IT ALL!!

CMS Ramps Up Medicare Audits: A Pig and Pony Show?

Monday, February 22, 2016, The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that it plans to increase onsite visits and monitoring of health care providers. One of the top priorities for CMS is to verify that provider enrollment and address are correct…

Because, as you know, providers with correct addresses on file are less likely to commit Medicare fraud. Medicare Fraud 101 – Give CMS the wrong address. Really? (While I applaud their valiant effort, the fraud that I have witnessed has not been a health care provider using a fake address to provide fake services…that is too Ponzi, too shallow in thought…too easily detected. Oh no, the fraud I have encountered were providers with actual practices with correct addresses, but embellishing on the amount of services provided to an actual Medicare enrollee to cushion their pockets. This is much more difficult to detect.

But CMS has its reasons for sniffing out fake addresses. CMS’ address hunt-down comes on the heels of a report from June 2015 out of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which determined that approximately 22% of Medicare provider addresses are “potentially ineligible.” Additionally, last March (2015) CMS decreased the amount of audits conducted by Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), which are one of the entities that investigate Medicare provider eligibility.

Whenever the GAO finds potential errors, CMS usually puts on the whole dog and pony show…or, maybe, for a change, a pig and pony show…

With all these political talks about donkeys and elephants, I would like to take a moment and blog about a pig. Some of you know that I own a pet pig. She is 4 1/2 years old and about 30 pounds. See below.

oink

Isn’t she cute?! Some of you will remember my last blog about Oink was “Our Medicaid Budget: Are We Just Putting Lipstick on a Pig?

The reason I bring up Oink is that she is the smartest, most animated animal I have ever encountered. She is also the best “sniffer-outer” I have ever encountered. Her keen sense of smell is well beyond any human’s sense of smell. If you liken Oink to CMS and Medicare fraud to a Skittle, the Skittle would have no chance.

These upcoming and increased number of audits is CMS’ way of sniffing out fraud. However, CMS’ sense of smell is not up to snuff like Oink’s sense of smell.

Searching for erroneous addresses in order to detect fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA) will, inevitably, be over-inclusive. Meaning, many of the erroneous addresses will not be committing Medicare fraud. Some erroneous addresses exist because providers simply moved to another location and either failed to inform CMS or CMS’ database was not updated with the new address. Other erroneous addresses exist because health care providers went out of business and never informed CMS. A new company leases the property and it appears to CMS that fraudulent billing was occurring a couple years ago out of, for example, what is now a Jimmy John’s.

Searching for erroneous addresses in order to detect FWA will, inevitably, be under-inclusive. Meaning, that many providers committing Medicare fraud do so with accurate office addresses.

My contention is that if you want to find FWA, you need to dig deeper than an incorrect address. Sniffing out Medicare fraud is a bit more in depth than finding improper addresses. That would be like tossing handfuls of Skittles on the ground and expecting Oink to only find the green ones.

In fiscal year 2014, Medicare paid $554 billion for health care and related services. CMS estimates that $60 billion (about 10 percent) of that total was paid improperly (not only because of incorrect addresses).

CMS is responsible for developing provider and supplier enrollment procedures to help safeguard the program from FWA. CMS contracts with Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) and the National Supplier Clearinghouse (NSCs) to manage the enrollment process. MACs are responsible for verifying provider and supplier application information in Provider Enrollment, Chain and Ownership System (PECOS) before the providers and suppliers are permitted to enroll into Medicare. CMS currently contracts with 12 MACs, each of which is responsible for its own geographic region, known as a “jurisdiction.

As you can see, we live in Jurisdiction 11. These MACs act as the “sniffer-outers” for CMS.

According to the GAO June 2015 report, about 23,400 (22 percent) of the 105,234 addresses that GAO initially identified as a Commercial Mail Receiving Agency (CMRA), vacant, or invalid address are potentially ineligible for Medicare providers and suppliers. “About 300 of the addresses were CMRAs, 3,200 were vacant properties, and 19,900 were invalid. Of the 23,400 potentially ineligible addresses, [GAO] estimates that, from 2005 to 2013, about 17,900 had no claims associated with the address, 2,900 were associated with providers that had claims that were less than $500,000, and 2,600 were associated with providers that had claims that were $500,000 or more per address.”

In other words, out of 105,234 addresses, only 2,600 actively billed Medicare for over $500,000 from 2005 through 2013 (8 years). Had CMS narrowed the scope and looked at practices that billed over $500,000 since 2010, I fancy the the number would have been much lower, because, as discussed above, many of these providers either moved or went out-of-business.

Now, 2,600 is not a nominal number. I am in no way undermining CMS’ efforts to determine the accuracy of providers’ addresses; I am not insinuating that these efforts are unnecessary or a complete waste of time. I think verification of health care providers’ addresses is an important aspect of detecting FWA. Instead, I believe that, as discussed above, verifying providers’ addresses is a poor, under and over-inclusive attempt at searching for FWA. Because, as I stated at the beginning of this blog, the people who are intentionally trying to defraud the system, are not going to intentionally give an erroneous address. It is just too easy for the government to discover the error. No, the people who are intentionally defrauding the state will have a legitimate office.

For example, in my opinion, it is unlikely that anyone intentionally trying to defraud the system will inform the government that they provide health care services from the following places:

UPS2demolished2

fast food2

Again, if I liken CMS’ search for FWA by detecting inaccurate addresses to Oink, it would be like tossing a handful of Skittles on the ground and expecting Oink to only find the green ones.

If CMS audits are to Oink as fraud is to Skittles, then I think there is a less intrusive, less inclusive way to detect FWA rather than throwing out packets of Skittles for Oink. All that does is make Oink eat too much.

If you are one of the Medicare providers that get caught into CMS’ widely  thrown net, be sure to know your rights! Know the appeal steps!