Category Archives: Appeal Rights

Self Disclosure Protocol: What Is It? And Do I Have To?

You are a provider, and you accept Medicare and Medicaid. You find out that the person with whom you contracted to provide extraction services for your dental patients has been upcoding for the last few months. -or- You discover that the supervisory visits over the past year have been less than…well, nonexistent. -or- Or your licensed therapist forgot to mention that her license was revoked. What do you do?

What do you do when you unearth a potential, past overpayment to you from Medicare or Medicaid?

Number One: You do NOT hide your head!

man with head in sand

Do not be an ostrich. First, being an ostrich will have a direct correlation with harsher penalties. Second, you may miss mandatory disclosure deadlines, which will lead to a more in-depth, concentrated, and targeted audits by the government, which will lead to harsher penalties.

As for the first (harsher penalties), not only will your potential, monetary penalties leap skyward, but knowledge (actual or should have had) could put you at risk for criminal liability or false claims liability. As for increased, monetary penalties, recent Office of Inspector General (OIG) information regarding the self disclosure protocol indicates that self disclosure could reduce the minimum multiplier to only 1.5 times the single damages versus 2-10 times the damages without self disclosure.

As for the second (missing deadlines), your penalties will be exorbitantly higher if you had or should have had actual knowledge of the overpayments and failed to act timely. Should the government, despite your lack of self disclosure, decide to audit your billings, you can count on increased scrutiny and a much more concentrated, in-depth audit. Much of the target of the audit will be what you knew (or should have) and when you knew (or should have). Do not ever think: “I will not ever get audited. I am a small fish. There are so many other providers, who are really de-frauding the system. They won’t come after me.” If you do, you will not be prepared when the audit comes a’knocking on your door – and that is just foolish. In addition, never underestimate the breadth and scope of government audits. Remember, our tax dollars provide almost unlimited resources to fund thousands of audits at a time. Being audited is not like winning the lottery, Your chances are not one in two hundred million. If you accept Medicare and/or Medicaid, your chances of an audit are almost 100%. Some providers undergo audits multiple times a year.

Knowing that the definition of “knowing” may not be Merriam Webster’s definition is also key. The legal definition of “knowing” is more broad that you would think. Section 1128J(d)(4)(A) of the Act defines “knowing” and “knowingly” as those terms are defined in 31 U.S.C. 3729(b). In that statute the terms “knowing” and “knowingly” mean that a person with respect to information—(i) has actual knowledge of the information; (ii) acts in deliberate ignorance of the truth or falsity of the information; or (iii) acts in reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the information. 31 U.S.C. 3729(b) also states that knowing and knowingly do not require proof of specific intent to defraud.

Number Two: Contact your attorney.

It is essential that you have legal counsel throughout the self disclosure process. There are simply too many ways to botch a well-intended, self disclosure into a casus belli for the government. For example, OIG allows three options for self disclosure; however, one option requires prior approval from OIG. Your counsel needs to maintain your self disclosure between the allowable, navigational beacons.

Number Three: Act timely.

You have 60-days to report and pay. Section 1128J(d)(2) of the Social Security Act requires that a Medicare or Medicaid overpayment be reported and returned by the later of (1) the date that is 60 days after the date on which the overpayment was identified or (2) the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable. See blog.

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If you have a Medicare issue, please continue to Number Four. If your issue is Medicaid only, please skip Number Four and go to Number Five. If your issue concerns both Medicare and Medicaid, continue with Number Four and Five (skip nothing).

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Number Four: Review the OIG Self Disclosure Protocol (for Medicare).

OIG publishes a Self Disclosure Protocol. Read it. Print it. Frame it. Wear it. Memorize it.

Since 2008, OIG has resolved 235 self disclosure provider cases through settlements. In all but one of these cases, OIG released the disclosing parties from permissive exclusion without requiring any integrity measures. What that means is that, even if you self disclose, OIG has the authority to exclude you from the Medicare system. However, if you self disclose, may the odds be ever in your favor!

Number Five: Review your state’s self disclosure protocol.

While every state differs slightly in self disclosure protocol, it is surprising how similar the protocol is state-to-state. In order to find your state’s self disclosure protocol, simply Google: “[insert your state] Medicaid provider self disclosure protocol.” In most cases, you will find that your state’s protocol is less burdensome than OIG’s.

On the state-side, you will also find that the benefits of self disclosure, generally, are even better than the benefits from the federal government. In most states, self disclosure results in no penalties (as long as you follow the correct protocol and do not hide anything).

Number Six: Draft your self disclosure report.

Your self disclosure report must contain certain criteria. Review the Federal Registrar for everything that needs to be included.

It is important to remember that you are only responsible for self disclosures going back six years (on the federal side).

Mail the report to:

DHHS/OIG/OCIG
Grantee Self-Disclosures
330 Independence Avenue, Room 5527
Washington, DC 20201

Or you can self disclose online at this link.

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.

Do You Have a Property Right to Be a Medicaid Provider?

YES!

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital or otherwise infamous crime unless on presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” U.S. Constitution, 5th Amendment (emphasis added).

The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, or, the Bill of Rights, were written by James Madison (for whom my daughter Madison was named).

Our managed care organizations (MCOs) and the government take the irritating position that providers have no right to be a Medicaid provider. And, often they quote the NC Administrative Code, which states that “All provider contracts with the North Carolina State Medicaid Agency are terminable at will. Nothing in these Regulations creates in the provider a property right or liberty right in continued participation in the Medicaid program.” 10A NCAC 22F .0605. However, as every attorney knows, when there is a rule, there is an exception. And when there is a rule, case law overrides it.

Despite 10A NCAC 22F .0605, a intelligent judge found that “Alliance contends that [the provider] has no right to be a Medicaid provider and therefore this Court cannot find that [the provider]’s rights have been substantially violated by its decision. Alliance also argues that [the provider]’s rights are solely contractual in nature and once the contract expired, the [provider] had no rights.

This contested case is not merely a contract case as Alliance contends. This contested case is about Alliance’s almost total disregard for Federal and State laws and regulations and its own policies. Based on the evidence, the process for the RFP seems almost like it began on a whim—ostensibly to fix problems that had no basis in fact. The result was a flawed RFP in which providers which might otherwise be comparable were treated differently, based in significant part on a subjective review.” Carolina Comm. Support Serv., Inc. v. Alliance Behavioral Healthcare, 14 DHR 1500, April 2, 2015.

So how can you have a property right in a Medicaid contract when the NCAC states that the contracts are terminable at will?

“In determining whether a property interest exists a Court must first determine that there is an entitlement to that property. Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532 (1985). Unlike liberty interests, property interests and entitlements are not created by the Constitution. Instead, property interests are created by federal or state law and can arise from statute, administrative regulations, or contract. Bowens v. N.C. Dept. of Human Res., 710 F.2d 1015, 1018 (4th Cir. 1983). Under North Carolina case law, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has determined that North Carolina Medicaid providers have a property interest in continued provider status. Bowens, 710 F.2d 1018. In Bowens, the Fourth Circuit recognized that North Carolina provider appeals process created a due process property interest in a Medicaid provider’s continued provision of services, and could not be terminated “at the will of the state.” The court determined that these safeguards, which included a hearing and standards for review, indicated that the provider’s participation was not “terminable at will.” Id. The court held that these safeguards created an entitlement for the provider, because it limits the grounds for his termination such that the contract was not terminable “at will” but only for cause, and that such cause was reviewable. The Fourth Circuit reached the same result in Ram v. Heckler, 792 F.2d 444 (4th Cir. 1986) two years later. Since the Court’s decision in Bowen, a North Carolina Medicaid provider’s right to continued participation has been strengthened through the passage of Chapter 108C. Chapter 108C expressly creates a right for existing Medicaid providers to challenge a decision to terminate participation in the Medicaid program in the Office of Administrative Hearings. It also makes such reviews subject to the standards of Article 3 of the APA. Therefore, North Carolina law now contains a statutory process that confers an entitlement to Medicaid providers. Chapter 108C sets forth the procedure and substantive standards for which OAH is to operate and gives rise to the property right recognized in Bowens and Ram. Under Chapter 108C, providers have a statutory expectation that a decision to terminate participation will not violate the standards of Article 3 of the APA. The enactment of Chapter 108C gives a providers a right to not be terminated in a manner that (1) violates the law; (2) is in excess of the Department’s authority; (3) is erroneous; (4) is made without using proper procedures; or (5) is arbitrary and capricious. To conclude otherwise would nullify the General Assembly’s will by disregarding the rights conferred on providers by Chapter 108C. This expectation cannot be diminished by a regulation promulgated by the DMA which states that provider’s do not have a right to continued participation in the Medicaid program because under the analysis in Bowen the General Assembly created the property right through statutory enactment.” Carolina Comm. Support Serv, Inc., at 22.

Again – how can you have a property right in a Medicaid contract when the NCAC states that the contracts are terminable at will? The answer is – You have a property right in your Medicaid contract. The state or MCOs cannot arbitrarily terminate your contract – regardless what they say. Know your rights!!

Look into My Crystal Ball: Who Is Going to Be Audited by the Government in 2017?

Happy New Year, readers!!! A whole new year means a whole new investigation plan for the government…

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) publishes what is called a “Work Plan” every year, usually around November of each year. 2017 was no different. These Work Plans offer rare insight into the upcoming plans of Medicare investigations, which is important to all health care providers who accept Medicare and Medicaid.

For those of you who do not know, OIG is an agency of the federal government that is charged with protecting the integrity of HHS, basically, investigating Medicare and Medicaid fraud, waste, and abuse.

So let me look into my crystal ball and let you know which health care professionals may be audited by the federal government…

crystal-ball

The 2017 Work Plan contains a multitude of new and revised topics related to durable medical equipment (DME), hospitals, nursing homes, hospice, laboratories.

For providers who accept Medicare Parts A and B, the following are areas of interest for 2017:

  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy services: provider reimbursement
  • Inpatient psychiatric facilities: outlier payments
  • Skilled nursing facilities: reimbursements
  • Inpatient rehabilitation hospital patients not suited for intensive therapy
  • Skilled nursing facilities: adverse event planning
  • Skilled nursing facilities: unreported incidents of abuse and neglect
  • Hospice: Medicare compliance
  • DME at nursing facilities
  • Hospice home care: frequency of on-site nurse visits to assess quality of care and services
  • Clinical Diagnostic Laboratories: Medicare payments
  • Chronic pain management: Medicare payments
  • Ambulance services: Compliance with Medicare

For providers who accept Medicare Parts C and D, the following are areas of interest for 2017:

  • Medicare Part C payments for individuals after the date of death
  • Denied care in Medicare Advantage
  • Compounded topical drugs: questionable billing
  • Rebates related to drugs dispensed by 340B pharmacies

For providers who accept Medicaid, the following are areas of interest for 2017:

  • States’ MCO Medicaid drug claims
  • Personal Care Services: compliance with Medicaid
  • Medicaid managed care organizations (MCO): compliance with hold harmless requirement
  • Hospice: compliance with Medicaid
  • Medicaid overpayment reporting and collections: all providers
  • Medicaid-only provider types: states’ risk assignments
  • Accountable care

Caveat: The above-referenced areas of interest represent the published list. Do not think that if your service type is not included on the list that you are safe from government audits. If we have learned nothing else over the past years, we do know that the government can audit anyone anytime.

If you are audited, contact an attorney as soon as you receive notice of the audit. Because regardless the outcome of an audit – you have appeal rights!!! And remember, government auditors are more wrong than right (in my experience).

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.

Knicole Emanuel Interviewed on Recent Success: Behavioral Health Care Service Still Locked in Overbilling Dispute with State

Last Thursday, I was interviewed by a reporter from New Mexico regarding our Teambuilders win, in which an administrative judge has found that Teambuilders owes only $896 for billing errors. Here is a copy of an article published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, written by Justin Horwath:

Source: Behavioral health care service still locked in overbilling dispute with state

The true tragedy is that these companies, including Teambuilders, should not have been put out of business based on false allegations of fraud. Not only was Teambuilders cleared of fraud, but, even the ALJ agreed with us that Teambuilders does not owe $12 million – but a small, nominal amount ($896.35). Instead of having the opportunity to pay the $896.35 and without due process of law, Teambuilders was destroyed – because of allegations.

Another Win! 12 Million Dollar Recoupment Reduced to $896 – But There is a Twist

One of our clients in New Mexico had an alleged Medicaid recoupment of over $12 million!! Actually, $12,015,850.00 – to be exact. (See below). After we presented our evidence and testimony, the Judge found that we owe $896.35. I call that a win!

In this case, the Human Services Department (HSD) in New Mexico had reviewed 150 random claims. Initially, HSD claimed that 41 claims out of 150 were noncompliant.

fullsizerender-jpg

But, prior to the hearing, we saved over $10 million by pointing out HSD’s errors and/or by providing additional documentation.

And then the ALJ’s decision after we presented our evidence and testimony –

penultimatefullsizerender-jpg-3

Boom! Drop the mike…

…………………………….not so fast…

……………………………………………..picking the mike back up…

You see, in New Mexico, the administrative law judges (ALJs) cannot render decisions. Look in the above picture. You see where it reads, “Recommendation?” That is because the ALJs in New Mexico can only render recommendations.

Because Medicaid has a “single state agency” rule; i.e., that only one agency may render discretionary decisions regarding Medicaid, and HSD is the single state agency in New Mexico charged with managing Medicaid, only HSD may render a discretionary decision. So in NM, the ALJ makes a recommendation and then the Secretary of HSD has the choice to either accept or reject the decision.

Guess whether HSD accepted or rejected the ALJ’s recommendation?

reject

Now we will have to appeal the Agency’s Decision to overturn the ALJ recommendation.

Here, in NC, we obtained a waiver from the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to allow our ALJs to render Decisions. See blog.

I still consider this a win.

Medicaid Law: What Are Policies Versus Law and Why Does It Matter?

“Always follow the Golden Rule. Always treat others how you want to be treated.”

What is so great about following rules? Do we have to follow all rules? What if other people do not follow the rules? What if the rules contradict? Are some rules more important than others?

The answer is – it depends.

When you sign your provider procurement agreement with NC to provide Medicaid services, there is a sentence in it that says, something to the effect, “The provider agrees to follow all applicable state and federal rules, laws, and regulations.” Yet, I am constantly shocked how many providers are completely oblivious to what are the “applicable state and federal rules, laws, and regulations” (although it does keep me in business).

The fact is, however, not all rules are created equal.

First, what is the difference between a policy, a regulation, and a law?

A law must be followed. If you break the law, you are punished. A regulation also must be followed; however, regulations are created by state agencies through a rule-making process. Usually, the public may comment on proposed regulations prior to being enacted.

On the other hand, a rule (that has not been formally adopted by the State) is policy or guidance. For example, the DMA Clinical Coverage Policies are rules or guidance. The Policies are not promulgated; i.e., they have not undergone the official rule-making process. Don’t get me wrong – you should follow the DMA Clinical Coverage Policies. My point is that a violation of a Clinical Coverage Policy will not/should not warrant the same punishment as violating a regulation or law.

Let’s think about this in a “real-life” hypothetical.

You receive a notice of overpayment in the amount of $450,000.00 because, allegedly, your service notes are signed electronically and you do not have an electronic signature policy.

There is no law or regulation that dictates that you must have an electronic signature policy. It is best practice to have an electronic signature policy. The Medicaid Billing Guide suggests that you maintain an electronic billing policy.

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B sets forth the rule-making process. Any policy or rule that has not undergone the official rule-making process is considered nonbinding interpretative statements. N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-18 states that “[a]n agency shall not seek to implement  or enforce  against any person a policy, guideline, or other nonbinding interpretative statement…if the statement has not been adopted as a rule in accordance with this Article.” (emphasis added).

Because there is no law or regulation requiring you to have an electronic signature policy, the State cannot punish you for not having one. In other words, the State cannot hold you to arbitrary criteria unless that criteria was formally adopted in the rule-making process.

How do you know if a policy or rule has been formally adopted?

Any policy or rule that is formally adopted will have a legal citation. For example, N.C. Gen. Stat 150B is a formal law. 10A NCAC 27G .0104 is a formal regulation – it is part of our administrative code. NC DMA Clinical Coverage Policies and the Medicaid Billing Guide are comprised of nonbinding, interpretative statements, as well as law and regulations. Usually, when a law or regulation is cited in the Policies or Billing Guide the formal, legal citation is also provided, but not always. I know, it’s confusing, yet extremely important.

You cannot and should not be punished for violating suggestions, policy, or nonbinding, interpretative statements. You should not be punished for not “treating others how you would like to be treated.” – That is not a law.

It is important to know the distinction because, apparently, those in charge of our Medicaid program, at times, do not.

Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies: Futile as the Caucus-Race?

Answer – Sometimes.

How many of you have received Remittance Advices from NCTracks that are impossible to understand, include denials without appeal rights, or, simply, are erroneous denials with no guidance as to the next steps?  While these were most prevalent in the first couple years after NCTracks was rolled out (back in July 2013), these burdensome errors still exist.

You are allowed to re-submit a claim to NCTracks for 18 months. How many times do you have to receive the denial in order for that denial to be considered a “final decision?” And, why is it important whether a denial is considered a final decision?

  1. Why is it important that a denial be considered a “final decision?”

As a health care provider, your right to challenge the Department of Health and Human Services’ (via CSC or NCTracks’) denial instantly becomes ripe (or appealable) only after the denial is a final decision.

Yet, with the current NCTracks system, you can receive a denial for one claim over and over and over and over without ever receiving a “final decision.”

It reminds me of the Causus-race in Alice and Wonderlandalice“There was no ‘One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?'” – Alice in Wonderland.

On behalf of all health care providers who accept Medicaid in North Carolina and suffered hardship because of NCTracks, at my former firm, I helped file the NCTracks class action lawsuit, Abrons Family Practice, et al., v. NCDHHS, et al., No. COA15-1197, which was heard before the NC Court of Appeals on June 12, 2015. The Opinion of the Court of Appeals was published today (October 18, 2016).

The Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs were not required to “exhaust their administrative remedies” by informal methods and the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) prior to bringing a lawsuit in the State Court for damages because doing to would be futile – like the Caucus-race. “But who has won?” asked Alice.

Plaintiffs argued that, without a “final decision” by DHHS as to the submitted claims, it is impossible for them to pursue the denials before the OAH.

And the Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, agrees.

The Abrons decision solidifies my contention over the past 4-5 years that a reconsideration review is NOT required by law prior to filing a Petition for Contested Case at OAH…. Boom! Bye, Felicia!

Years ago, I informed a client, who was terminated by an managed care organization (MCO), that she should file Petition for Contested Case at OAH without going through the informal reconsideration review. One – the informal reconsideration review was before the very agency that terminated her (futile); and two – going through two processes instead of one costs more in attorneys’ fees (burdensome).

We filed in OAH, and the judge dismissed the case, stating that we failed to exhaust our administrative remedies.

I have disagreed with that ruling for years (Psssst – judges do not always get it right, although we truly hope they do. But, in judges’ defenses, the law is an ever-changing, morphing creature that bends and yields to the community pressures and legal interpretations. Remember, judges are human, and to be human is to err).

However, years later, the Court of Appeals agreed with me, relying on the same argument I made years ago before OAH.

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 states that it is the policy of the State that disputes between the State and a party should be resolved through informal means. However, neither 150B-22 nor any other statute or regulation requires that a provider pursue the informal remedy of a reconsideration review. See my blog from 2013.

I love it when I am right. – And, according to my husband, it is a rarity.

Here is another gem from the Abrons opinion:

“DHHS is the only entity that has the authority to render a final decision on a contested medicaid claim. It is DHHS’ responsibility to make the final decision and to furnish the provider with written notification of the decision and of the provider’s appeal rights, as required by N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-23(f).”

N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-23(f) states, ” Unless another statute or a federal statute or regulation sets a time limitation for the filing of a petition in contested cases against a specified agency, the general limitation for the filing of a petition in a contested case is 60 days. The time limitation, whether established by another statute, federal statute, or federal regulation, or this section, shall commence when notice is given of the agency decision to all persons aggrieved who are known to the agency by personal delivery or by the placing of the notice in an official depository of the United States Postal Service wrapped in a wrapper addressed to the person at the latest address given by the person to the agency. The notice shall be in writing, and shall set forth the agency action, and shall inform the persons of the right, the procedure, and the time limit to file a contested case petition. When no informal settlement request has been received by the agency prior to issuance of the notice, any subsequent informal settlement request shall not suspend the time limitation for the filing of a petition for a contested case hearing.”

2. How many times do you have to receive the denial in order for that denial to be considered a “final decision”?

There is no magic number. But the Court of Appeals in Abrons makes it clear that the “final decision” must be rendered by DHHS, not a contracted party.

So which we ask – What about terminations by MCOs? Do MCOs have the authority to terminate providers and render final decisions regarding Medicaid providers?

I would argue – no.

Our 1915b/c Waiver waives certain federal laws, not state laws. Our 1915 b/c Waiver does not waive N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B.

“But who has won?” asked Alice.

“At last the Dodo said, ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes.'” – Only in Wonderland!

Sometimes, you just need to stop running and dry off.

Medicaid Auditors, Nitpicky Nonsense, and Journalistic Mistakes

In my experience with regulatory audits of health care providers, which is substantial, the auditors have zero incentive to perform audits conservatively…or even properly, if I am being completely honest. The audit companies themselves are for-profit entities with Boards of Directors, sometimes with shareholders, and definitely with executives who are concerned with the corporate bottom lines. The actual auditors are salaried employees (or contractors) who are given an audit checklist, which may or may not be correct) and instructions as to which companies to audit.

Think about it – you are hired as an auditor…what happens if you come back to your boss, saying, “Nope. I found no documentation errors.”I liken it to me hiring a housekeeper and that housekeeper showing up at my house and saying, “Your house is so clean. There is nothing for me to clean.” First of all, for those who know me, you know that no housekeeper would ever say that my house did not to be cleaned, but that is neither here nor there. The analogy remains. No employee or hired contractor will tell you that you do not need to hire him or her because he or she is not needed. It is only human nature and logic. Will a dog trainer tell you that your dog is fully trained? Will a personal trainer tell you are perfectly fit? Will a rug maker tell you that you don’t need a rug? Will an auditor tell you that your documents are perfect? If so, they would render themselves obsolete.

Disagree with my opinions on this blog all you want, but if you disagree with the principle that an employee will not argue himself or herself out of a job, then you are living in a fantasy land made up of rainbows and gummy bears.

So let’s begin with the basic logical principles: 2+2=4 and auditors have incentives to find errors.

Now, knowing the basic, underlying fact that auditors have incentives to locate documentation errors, an article was recently published entitled, “Audit says home health care companies overbilled Mass. Medicaid by $23m.” While I am not in a position to critique a journalist’s writing, I disagree with the broad, overreaching statements found in this article. While the article claims that 9 home health companies owe the State of Massachusetts $23 million, my guess is that (if the companies hire a competent attorney) the companies do not owe such a large amount. In my experience, there are many legal defenses to safeguard against allegations in an audit.

The follow-up article may be entitled, “Audit of Home Health Agencies Found to Be Erroneous.”

Here is the first paragraph of that article claiming home care agencies overbilled Medicaid for $23 million:

“The state’s Medicaid program was routinely billed for home health care services that were never provided or were not medically necessary. Providers submitted documents with missing dates and signatures. Sometimes basic information like a patient’s medical history was nowhere to be found.”

Let’s dissect.

First sentence: “The state’s Medicaid program was routinely billed for home health care services that were never provided or were not medically necessary.”

I call bull feces on this one. First, the audit, which is the topic of this article, only audited 9 home health agencies. Unless only 10 home health agencies exist in Massachusetts, an audit of 9 agencies can hardly be considered “routinely billing” Medicaid.

Second, who is making these determinations that the home health services are not medically necessary??? Considering that, in order to render home health services, the provider must obtain prior authorization that the services are medically necessary, I find it a hard pill to swallow that the rendered services are not medically necessary. These are prior authorized services!!

Third, providing home health services is anything but routine. Life happens. The assertion that home health care services were never provided fails to take into consideration – life. For example, a home health aide could present at the client’s home at the regularly scheduled time, but the consumer’s son is present. The son brought McDonald’s, in which case, the aide may render all services, but does not prepare a meal for the client. Or, perhaps, the consumer’s plan states that the aide must bathe the consumer. But the consumer recently had surgery and cannot take a bath or shower for a certain amount of time. In the above examples, services were not rendered, that is true, but did some sort of aberrant billing or fraud occur? I would argue, no.

Second sentence: “Providers submitted documents with missing dates and signatures.”

This sentence is also troubling. Let’s say that a consumer requires home health services and receives prior authorization. The home health aide renders the services. In the subsequent documentation, the home health aide forgets to date the service note. There is no question that the home health services were needed. There is no question that the services were rendered. There is only a missing date written on the service note. Does this circumstance warrant a 100% recoupment for a minor documentation error? If you answer, yes, you may have a fulfilling career as a Medicaid auditor in your future. You also may believe that a documentation error as egregious as a missing date should warrant tearing up the provider’s Medicaid contract and burning it. You may also hate puppy dogs and ice cream.

My answer is no. There are less drastic measures to be implemented other than a 100% recoupment – for example, a plan of correction could be required.

Third sentence: “Sometimes basic information like a patient’s medical history was nowhere to be found.”

I have major issues with this sentence. Ever hear of the saying, “You only get what you ask for?” All health care providers, including home health care providers, maintain massive amounts of documentation, whether it be electronic or paper. Furthermore, one client file could have years and years of documentation. When an auditor comes to an agency, the auditor normally presents with a list of consumer names and dates of service.

For example, the auditor wants to review the documentation for Barack Obama, date of service 11/8/12. The provider hands over the service note, the plan of care, the prior authorization, etc. Information not found on the documents provided to the auditor: place of birth, past drug use, including, marijuana and cocaine, smoking history, exercise regimen, marital status, immunizations, list of surgical procedures…you get the picture.

The article goes on to state, “Executives at all of the companies reached by the Globe said they are appealing the audit findings and chalked up most of the violations to minor paperwork issues that were overblown by state auditors.”

“There’s mistakes here, I understand that,” said Debra Walsh, administrator at Able Home Care. “[But] how did a missing address escalate to a sanction? That doesn’t make any sense.”

She’s right. It doesn’t make logical, reasonable, human sense. But it does make sense when you remember that the auditors are sent to the agencies with an audit checklist and a list of consumers with dates of service. If the checklist requires an address of the provider and the consumer to be present on the service note, regardless whether the regulations, rules or law require an address to be present on a service note, and there is no address present on the service note, then the auditor will find noncompliance. Strict adherence to the “Stepford Auditors’ Handbook” is required, not strict adherence to the law.

Looking at the sunny side – Most audit findings are easy-greasy to defend with legal arguments. Have you seen the TV show, “What Not To Wear?” The first, initial meeting of the targeted person on “What Not To Wear” is the original audit results “before a good legal defense.” It’s exaggerated, ugly, and quite shocking.

Then Stacy and Clinton come to the rescue and teach the scraggly, poorly-dressed individual fashion tips and the former frumpy individual is transformed into a fashionable chichi – or a much more palatable overpayment amount.

(In this analogy, my team and I are Stacy and Clinton. I will be Stacy).

One of my favorite examples of a “before” and “after” audit results is the following:

Before (frumpy individual):

""before2
After (fashionable chichi):
photo (3)
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Next time you see an article claiming that a health care provider overbilled the government for Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements, check and see whether the determination was appealed by the provider(s).

The appeal may demonstrate an entirely new perspective on such alleged overpayments than the original audit, because, remember, an auditor would not maintain a job if he or she found compliance.