Category Archives: Audits

Want to Drop Medicaid? (And I Don’t Blame You), But Here Are a Few Issues to Contemplate First

Low reimbursement rates make accepting Medicaid seem like drinking castor oil. You wrinkle your nose and swallow quickly to avoid tasting it. But if you are a provider that does accept Medicaid and you wish to stop accepting Medicaid – read this blog and checklist (below) before taking any action! Personally, if you do accept Medicaid, I say, “Thank you.” See blog. With more and more Medicaid recipients, the demand for providers who accept Medicaid has catapulted.

The United States has become a Medicaid nation. Medicaid is the nation’s largest health insurance program, covering 74 million, or more than 1 in 5 Americans.

Earlier this year, Kaiser published a report stating that 70% of office-based providers accept new patients covered by Medicaid. But this report does not mean that Medicaid recipients have access to quality health care. I will explain below.

medicaidacceptance

The variation in the above chart is interesting. Reimbursement rates directly impact whether providers in the state accept Medicaid. The participation goes from a low of 38.7% in New Jersey (where primary care reimbursement rates are 48% of Medicare rates) to a high of 96.5% in Nebraska (where the primary care reimbursement is 75% of Medicare). Montana, with a 90% physician participation rate, pays the same rate as Medicare for primary care, while California, with a 54.2% participation rate, pays 42% of the Medicare reimbursement rate. We should all strive to be like Nebraska and Montana … granted the number of Medicaid recipients are fewer in those states. For September 2017, Nebraska ranked 45th out of the 50 states for Medicaid enrollment. Montana ranked 42nd. Wyoming came in dead last.

Statistically writing, Medicaid covers:

  • 39% of all children.
  • Nearly half of all births in the country.
  • 60% of nursing home and other long-term care expenses.
  • More than 1/4 of all spending on mental health services and over a fifth of all spending on substance abuse treatment.

However, even if the report is correct and 70% of health care providers do accept Medicaid, that is not indicative of quality access of care for Medicaid recipients. The number of Medicaid recipients is skyrocketing at a rate that cannot be covered by the number of providers who accept Medicaid. Kaiser estimates that by 2020, more than 25% (1 out of 4) of Americans will be dependent on Medicaid. Because of the low reimbursement rates, health care providers who do accept Medicaid are forced to increase the quantity of patients, which, logically, could decrease the quality … or the amount of time spent with each patient. Citing the percentage of providers who accept Medicaid, in this instance, 70%, is not indicative of quality of access of care; the ratio of Medicaid recipients to providers who accept Medicaid would be more germane to quality of access to care for Medicaid recipients. Even if 70% of health care providers accept Medicaid, but we have 74 million Medicaid recipients, then 70% is not enough. My opinion is what it is because based on years of experience with this blog and people reaching out to me. I have people contact me via this blog or email explaining that their mother, father, child, sister, or brother, has Medicaid and cannot find a provider for – dental, mental health, developmentally disabled services. So, maybe, just maybe, 70% is not good enough.

Before dropping Medicaid like a hot potato, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Will I have enough patients without Medicaid to keep my staff and I busy?

Location! Location! Location! Your location matters. If you provide health care services in areas that are predominantly Medicaid-populated, then you may need to reconsider dropping the ‘Caid. California, New York, and Texas were the top spenders in Medicaid for fiscal year 2016, totaling over a whopping $183 billion of America’s total expenditure on ‘Caid, which was $553 billion.

I am sure that I am preaching to the choir, but choosing to not accept Medicaid is not fiscally sound if you and your staff will be twiddling their thumbs all day. Even low reimbursement rates are better than no reimbursement rates. On the downside, if you choose to accept Medicaid, you need a “rainy-day” fund to pay for attorneys to defend any regulatory audits, termination of Medicaid contracts, accusations of fraud, prepayment review, and/or other adverse determinations by the state (and, if you accept  Medicare, the federal government and all its vendors).

2. Have I attested for the Medicaid EHR meaningful use incentives?

If you attested and accepted the EHR incentive payments, you may need to continue seeing Medicaid patients in order to keep/maintain your EHR payments. (Please consult an attorney).

3. Will I still be subject to Medicaid audits in the future?

If avoiding Medicaid audits is your primary reason for dropping ‘Caid, ‘ho your horses. Refusing to accept ‘Caid going forward does not indemnify you from getting future audits. In fact, in cases of credible allegations of fraud, you may be subject to future Medicaid audits for another 6 years after you no longer accept Medicaid. You will also need to continue to maintain all your records for regulatory compliance. If you cease accepting Medicaid, those recipients will need to find new providers. Those medical records are the Medicaid recipients’ property and need to be forwarded to the new provider.

If you are currently under investigation for credible allegations of fraud, of which you may or may not be aware, then suddenly stop accepting Medicaid, it could be a red flag to an investigator. Not that ceasing to accept Medicaid is evidence of wrongdoing, but sometimes sudden change, regardless of the change, can spur curiosity in auditors. For example, in NC DHHS v. Parker Home Care, the Court of Appeals ruled that a tentative notice of overpayment by Public Consulting Group (PCG) does not constitute a final agency decision. The managed care organizations (MCOs) freaked out because the MCOs were frightened that a health care provider could argue, in Court, that Parker Home Care applies to MCOs, as well. They were so freaked out that they filed an Amicus Curiae Brief, which is a Brief on behalf of a person or organization that is not a party to a particular litigation but that is permitted by the court to advise it in respect to some matter of law that directly affects the case in question. The MCOs’ Brief states, “The Court of Appeals’ decision, if allowed to stand, could be construed to undermine the authority explicitly granted to managed care organizations, such as the LME/MCOs in North Carolina, by CMS.” Too bad our Waiver specifically states that DHS/DMA to CMS states, “[DMA] retains final decision-making authority on all waiver policies and requirements.” But I digress. In Parker Home Care, the MCOs filed the Brief to preserve their self-instilled authority over their catchments areas. However, despite the MCOs request that the NC Supreme Court take the issue under consideration, the Supreme Court denied certiorari, which means the Supreme Court refused to entertain the issue. While it is not “law” or “precedent” or “written in stone,” generally, attorneys argue that the Supreme Court’s refusal to entertain an issue means that it does not deem the issue to be a controversy … that the Court agrees with the lower court’s decision. Hence, the argument that the MCOs  cannot render final agency decisions.

4. Will I be able to sleep at night?

Health care providers become health care providers, generally, with the intent to help people. This makes most health care providers nurturing people. You have to ask yourself whether you will be comfortable, ethically, with your decision to not accept Medicaid. I cannot tell you how many of my clients tell me, at some point, “I’m just not going to accept Medicaid anymore.” And, then continue to accept Medicaid … because they are good people. It infuriates me when I am in court arguing that terminating a provider’s Medicaid contract will put the provider out of business, and the attorney from the State makes a comment like, “It was the provider’s business decision to depend this heavily on Medicaid.” No, actually, many providers do feel an ethical duty to serve the Medicaid population.

Check your health care community and determine whether other providers with your specialty accept Medicaid. Are they accepting new Medicaid patients? Are they viable options for your patients? Are they as good as you are? Just like attorneys, there are good and bad; experienced and inexperienced; intelligent and not-so-much; capable and not-so-much.

5. Can I delegate Medicaid recipients to a mid-level practitioner?

Physician assistants and nurse practitioners are wonderful assets to have to devote to Medicaid recipients. This is not to say that Medicaid recipients deserve lesser-educated services because, quite frankly, some PAs and NPs are just as good as the MDs. But you get my point. If PAs and NPs have a lower billable rate, then it makes business financial sense to delegate the Medicaid recipients to them. Similarly, I have an amazing, qualified paralegal, Todd Yoho. He has background in medical coding, went to two years of law school, and is smarter than many attorneys. I am blessed to have him. But the reality is that his billable rate is lower than mine. I try to use his services whenever possible to try to keep the attorneys’ fees lower. Same with mid-level practitioner versus using the MD.

6. Instead of eliminating Medicaid patients, can I just decrease my Medicaid patients?

This could be a compromise with yourself and your business. Having the right balance between Medicaid recipients and private pay, or even Medicare patients, can be key in increasing income and maintaining quality of care. Caveat: In most states, you are allowed to cap your Medicaid recipients. However, there are guidelines that you muts follow. Even Medicaid HMOs or MCOs could have different requirements for caps on Medicaid recipients. Again, seek legal advice.

Hostile Takeover: Cardinal Usurped by DHHS! Any Possible Relief to Providers for Misconduct?

DHHS has ousted and taken over Cardinal Innovations!

And may I just say – Finally! Thank you, Sec. Cohen.

Cardinal is/was the largest of seven managed care organizations (MCOs) that was given the task to manage Medicaid funds for behavioral health care recipients. These are Medicaid recipients suffering from developmental disabilities, mental health issues, and substance abuse; these are our population’s most needy. These MCOs are given a firehose of Medicaid money; i.e., tax dollars, and were entrusted by the State of North Carolina, each individual taxpayer, Medicaid recipients, and the recipients’ families to maintain an adequate network of health care providers and authorize medically necessary behavioral health care services. Cardinal’s budget was just over $682 million in 2016. Instead, I have witnessed, as a Medicaid and Medicare regulatory compliance litigator, and have legally defended hundreds of health care providers who were unlawfully terminated from the MCOs’ catchment areas, refused a contract with the MCOs, accused of owing overpayments to the MCOs for services that were appropriately rendered. To the point that the provider catchment areas are woefully underrepresented (especially in Minority-owned companies), recipients are not receiving medically necessary services, and the MCOs are denying medically necessary services. The MCOs do so under the guise of their police power. For years, I have been blogging that this police power is overzealous, unsupervised, unchecked, and in violation of legal authority. I have blogged that the MCOs act as the judge, jury, and executioner. I  have also stated that the actions of the MCOs are financially driven. Because when providers are terminated and services are not rendered, money is not spent, at least, on the Medicaid recipients’ services.

But, apparently, the money is spent on executives. This past May, State Auditor Beth Wood wrote a scathing performance audit regarding Cardinal’s lavish spending on CEO pay as well as on expensive Christmas parties and board retreats, charter flights for executives and “questionable” credit card purchases, including alcohol. All of that, her report said, threatened to “erode public trust.” Cardinal’s former CEO Richard Topping made more than $635,000 in salary this year. On Monday (November 21, 2017), DHHS escorted Topping and three other executives out the door. But they did not walk away empty handed. Topping walked away with a $1.7 million severance while three associates left with packages as high as $740,000 – of taxpayer money!

This overspending on salaries and administration is not new. Cardinal has been excessively spending on itself since inception. This has been a long term concern, and I congratulate Sec. Cohen for having the “cojones” to do something about it. (I know. Bad joke. I apologize for the French/Spanish).

In 2011, Cardinal spent millions of dollars constructing its administrative facility.

cardinaloutside

cardinal4 Break Room

cardconference Conference Room

According to Edifice, the company that built Cardinal Innovations’ grand headquarters, starting in 2011, Cardinal’s building is described as:

“[T[his new three-story, 79,000-square-foot facility is divided into two separate structures joined by a connecting bridge.  The 69,000-square-foot building houses the regional headquarters and includes Class A office space with conference rooms on each floor and a fully equipped corporate board room.  This building also houses a consumer gallery and a staff cafe offering an outdoor dining area on a cantilevered balcony overlooking a landscaped ravine.  The 10,000-square-foot connecting building houses a corporate training center. Computer access flooring is installed throughout the facility and is supported by a large server room to maintain redundancy of information flow.” How much did that cost the Medicaid recipients in Cardinal’s catchment area? Seem appropriate for an agent of the government spending tax money for luxurious office space? Shoot, my legal office is not even that nice. And I don’t get funded by tax dollars!

In 2015, I wrote:

On July 1, 2014, Cardinal Innovations, one of NC’s managed care organizations (MCOs) granted its former CEO, Ms. Pam Shipman, a 53% salary increase, raising her salary to $400,000/year. In addition to the raise, Cardinal issued Ms. Shipman a $65,000 bonus based on 2013-2014 performance.

Then in July 2015, according to the article in the Charlotte Observer, Cardinals paid Ms. Shipman an additional $424,975, as severance. Within one year, Ms. Shipman was paid by Cardinal a whopping $889,975. Almost one million dollars!!!!

I have been blogging about MCO misconduct for YEARS. Seeblog, blog, blog, blog, and blog.

Now, finally, DHHS says Cardinal Innovations “acted unlawfully” in giving its ousted CEO $1.7 million in severance, and DHHS took over the Charlotte-based agency. It was a complete oust. One journalist quoted Cardinal as saying, “DHHS officials arrived at Cardinal “unexpectedly and informed the executive leadership team that the department is assuming control of Cardinal’s governance.”” Unexpected they say? Cardinal conducted unexpected audits all the time on their providers. But, the shoe hurts when it’s on the other foot.

The MCOs are charged with the HUGE  fiscal and moral responsibility, on behalf of the taxpayers, to manage North Carolina and federal tax dollars and authorize medically necessary behavioral health care services for Medicaid recipients, our population’s most needy. The MCOs in NC are as follows:

  1. Vaya Health
  2. Partners Behavioral Health Management
  3. Cardinal Innovations (formerly)
  4. Trillium Health Resources
  5. Eastpointe
  6. Alliance Behavioral Health Care
  7. Sandhills Center

The 1915 (b)(c) Waiver Program was initially implemented at one pilot site in 2005 and evaluated for several years. Two expansion sites were then added in 2012. The State declared it an immediate success and requested and received the authority from CMS to implement the MCO project statewide. Full statewide implementation is expected by July 1, 2013. The MCO project was intended to save money in the Medicaid program. The thought was that if these MCO entities were prepaid on a capitated basis that the MCOs would have the incentive to be fiscally responsible, provide the medically necessary services to those in need, and reduce the dollars spent on prisons and hospitals for mentally ill.

Sadly, as we have seen, fire hoses of tax dollars catalyze greed.

Presumably, in the goal of financial wealth, Cardinal Innovations, and, maybe, expectantly the other MCOs, have sacrificed quality providers being in network and medically necessary services for Medicaid recipients, Cardinal has terminated provider contracts. And for what? Luxurious office space, high salaries, private jets, and a fat savings account.

I remember a former client from over 5 years ago, who owned and ran multiple residential facilities for at-risk, teen-age boys with violent tendencies and who suffered severe mental illness. Without cause, Alliance terminated the client’s Medicaid contract. There were no alternatives for the residents except for the street. We were able to secure a preliminary injunction preventing the termination. But for every one of those stories, there are providers who did not have the money to fight the terminations

Are there legal recourses for health care providers who suffered from Cardinal’s actions?

The million dollar question.

In light of the State Auditor’s report and DHHS’ actions and public comments that it was usurping Cardinal’s leadership based on “recent unlawful actions, including serious financial mismanagement by the leadership and Board of Directors at Cardinal Innovations,” I believe that the arrows point to yes, with a glaring caveat. It would be a massive and costly undertaking. David and Goliath does not even begin to express the undertaking. At one point, someone told me that Cardinal had $271 million in its bank account. I have no way to corroborate this, but I would not be surprised. In the past, Cardinal has hired private, steeply-priced attorney regardless that its funds are tax dollars. Granted, now DHHS may run things differently, but without question, any legal course of action against any MCO would be epically expensive.

Putting aside the money issue, potential claims could include (Disclaimer: this list is nonexhaustive and based on a cursory investigation for the purpose of my blog. Furthermore, research has not been conducted on possible bars to claims, such as immunity and/or exhaustion of administrative remedies.):

  • Breach of fiduciary duty. Provider would need to demonstrate that a duty existed between providers and MCO (contractual or otherwise), that said MCO breached such duty, and that damages exist. Damages can include actual loss and if intent is proven, punitive damages may be sought.
  • Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices. Providers would have to prove three elements: (1) an unfair or deceptive act or practice; (2) in or affecting commerce; (3) which proximately caused the injury to the claimant. A court will first determine if the act or practice was “in or affecting commerce” before determining if the act or practice was unfair or deceptive. Damages allowed are actual damages, plus treble damages (three times the actual damages).
  • Negligence. Providers would have to show (1) duty; (2) breach; (3) cause in fact; (4) proximate cause; and (5) damages. Actual damages are allowed for a negligence claim.
  • Breach of Contract. The providers would have to demonstrate that there was a valid contract; that the providers performed as specified by the contract; that the said MCO failed to perform as specified by the contract; and that the providers suffered an economic loss as a result of the defendant’s breach of contract. Actual damages are recoverable in a breach of action claim.
  • Declaratory Judgment. This would be a request to the Court to make a legal finding that the MCO failed to follow certain Medicaid procedures and regulations.
  • Violation of Article I, NC Constitution (legal and contractual right to receive payments for reimbursement claims due and payable under the Medicaid regulations.

To name a few…

EHR Incentive Payments: If the Practice is Accepting Them, There Better Be a Legal Assignment Contract!

Under the Medicare EHR incentive program, CMS makes incentive payments to individual providers, not to practices or groups. The same is true for Medicaid. According to CMS, the incentive payment is based on the provider’s meaningful use of the EHRs and does not constitute reimbursement for the expenses incurred in establishing EHRs. Prior to actual receipt of an incentive payment, a recipient may assign the payment to a third party, typically, the practice group of which the recipient is a member.

This is a question of equity. Legally, the incentive payments are made to physicians not practice groups. But if the facility bears the burden of the price tag of the computer software, which price tags are not nominal, shouldn’t the facility receive the incentive payments? CMS has made it clear that the incentive payments are not intended to subsidize the price of the software program and updates. Instead, the incentive payments are intended to reward the use of such computer software.

The facilities, generally, pay for the EHR incentive program software programs. Some programs can be as high as $50,000/month. And updated regulatory compliance is not guaranteed. See blog. Plus, the practice group can be held liable for non-compliance issues found in the EHR technology. If the facility is audited and any non-compliance is under-covered, most physicians will be indemnified by the facility for any alleged overpayment, and the facility will be on the hook for any alleged overpayment (depending on the employment relationship). This increased burden on the practice group is why many physicians assign their incentive payments to the facilities. But it has to be done in a legally compliant manner.

Recently, however, I have been contacted by multiple health care facilities which have accepted the EHR incentive payments on behalf of its employed physicians, but did not have adequate, legal assignment contracts to receive the EHR incentives on behalf of the providers. These facilities relied on old, outdated, generic, employment contracts as the basis for the facilities accepting these payments on behalf of the physicians. Not having appropriate assignment contracts with the physicians can make the facilities liable to the physicians for the money accepted on their behalf.

Generic employee contracts that simply state that the facility can bill for and receive reimbursements on behalf of the physicians do not constitute adequate legal authority to accept EHR incentive payments on behalf of physician-employees.

Facilities, in order to legally accept the incentive payments on behalf of their employee-physicians must (1) determine whether their physicians are eligible professionals; and (2) execute a legally binding assignment contract.

Eligible Professionals (“EPs”) must first determine whether they are exactly that – eligible professionals.

Eligibility

Eligible professionals under the Medicare EHR Incentive Program include:

  • Doctor of medicine or osteopathy
  • Doctor of dental surgery or dental medicine
  • Doctor of podiatry
  • Doctor of optometry
  • Chiropractor

Who is an Eligible Professional under the Medicaid EHR Incentive Program?

Eligible professionals under the Medicaid EHR Incentive Program include:

  • Physicians (primarily doctors of medicine and doctors of osteopathy)
  • Nurse practitioner
  • Certified nurse-midwife
  • Dentist
  • Physician assistant who furnishes services in a Federally Qualified Health Center or Rural Health Clinic that is led by a physician assistant.

To qualify for an incentive payment under the Medicaid EHR Incentive Program, an eligible professional must meet one of the following criteria:

  • Have a minimum 30% Medicaid patient volume*
  • Have a minimum 20% Medicaid patient volume, and is a pediatrician*
  • Practice predominantly in a Federally Qualified Health Center or Rural Health Center and have a minimum 30% patient volume attributable to needy individuals

* Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) patients do not count toward the Medicaid patient volume criteria.

Eligible for Both Programs?

Eligible professionals eligible for both the Medicare and Medicaid EHR Incentive Programs must choose which incentive program they wish to participate in when they register. Before 2015, an EP may switch programs only once after the first incentive payment is initiated. Most EPs will maximize their incentive payments by participating in the Medicaid EHR Incentive Program.

EPs can switch programs as often as they desire–until they receive their first payment. After receiving their first payment, they may only switch once between programs prior to 2015.

If you are part of a practice, each eligible professional may qualify for an incentive payment if each eligible professional successfully demonstrates meaningful use of certified EHR technology. Each eligible professional is only eligible for one incentive payment per year, regardless of how many practices or locations at which he or she provide services.

Hospital-based eligible professionals are not eligible for incentive payments. An eligible professional is considered hospital-based if 90% or more of his or her services are performed in a hospital inpatient (Place Of Service code 21) or emergency room (Place Of Service code 23) setting.

What language needs to be included in any assignment contracts?

recent study by the American Hospital Association (AHA) found federal programs, including meaningful use, have cost health systems and post-acute care (PAC) providers nearly $39 billion a year. Small practices in particular have been hit hard by the added costs and administrative burden brought on by changing regulations. Studies have shown that small, specialty, non-hospital, facilities have carried the brunt of the financial burden for the EHR requirements.

Under the Medicaid incentive program, an EP may reassign incentive payments to “an entity promoting the adoption of certified EHR technology.” This term is defined as:

State-designated entities that are promoting the adoption of certified EHR technology by enabling oversight of the business, operational and legal issues involved in the adoption and implementation of certified EHR technology or by enabling the exchange and use of electronic clinical and administrative data between participating providers, in a secure manner, including maintaining the physical and organizational relationship integral to the adoption of certified EHR technology by eligible providers.

The Assignment Contract

At a minimum, the assignment language should address the following issues:

(1) Is the EP assigning all or a portion of the incentive payments to the facility? Be specific.

(2) Be clear on whether the facility or the EP must furnish the documentation necessary to establish meaningful use each year. In other words, denote who will be entering the data into the CMS or Medicaid website.

(3) Indicate whether the EP will consult with the facility  in order to determine which incentive program will yield the higher possible payments – or – whether the decision rests with the facility.

(4) The assignment language should state, accurately, whether the facility expects to be designated as an “entity promoting the adoption of certified EHR technology.”

(5) The contract should state, accurately, whether there is or will be a valid contractual arrangement allowing the facility to bill for the EP’s services. Basically, if there is already an employment contract in place, this assignment contract can act as an addendum or exhibit to the original employment contract.

(6) Define the term of assignment with a start date and an end date.

Only after the the facility determines that the physicians are eligible to receive the EHR incentive payments AND a valid assignment contract is executed, can the facility legally accept the incentive payments on behalf of its physicians. If the facility accepts the incentive payments and the physicians are not eligible, the facility will owe money to the government. If the facility accepts the incentive payments without an assignment contract, the physicians could demand the payments from the practice.

How Does OIG Target Provider Types for Audits and Who Needs to Worry?

Interestingly, how OIG and who OIG targets for audits is much more transparent than one would think. OIG tells you in advance (if you know where to look).

Prior to June 2017, the Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) OIG updated its public-facing Work Plan to reflect those adjustments once or twice each year. In order to enhance transparency around OIG’s continuous work planning efforts, effective June 15, 2017, OIG began updating its Work Plan website monthly.

Why is this important? I will even take it a step further…why is this information crucial for health care providers, such as you?

These monthly reports provide you with notice as to whether the type of provider you are will be on the radar for Medicare and Medicaid audits. And the notice provided is substantial. For example, in October 2017, OIG announced that it will investigate and audit specialty drug coverage and reimbursement in Medicaid – watch out pharmacies!!! But the notice also states that these audits of pharmacies for speciality drug coverage will not begin until 2019. So, pharmacies, you have over a year to ensure compliance with your records. Now don’t get me wrong… you should constantly self audit and ensure regulatory compliance. Notwithstanding, pharmacies are given a significant warning that – come 2019 – your speciality drug coverage programs better be spic and span.

Another provider type that will be on the radar – bariatric surgeons. Medicare Parts A and B cover certain bariatric procedures if the beneficiary has (1) a body mass index of 35 or higher, (2) at least one comorbidity related to obesity, and (3) been previously unsuccessful with medical treatment for obesity. Treatments for obesity alone are not covered. Bariatric surgeons, however, get a bit less lead time. Audits for bariatric surgeons are scheduled to start in 2018. Considering that 2018 is little more than a month away, this information is less helpful. The OIG Work Plans do not specific enough to name a month in which the audits will begin…just sometime in 2018.

Where do you find such information? On the OIG Work Plan website. Click here. Once you are on the website, you will see the title at the top, “Work Plan.” Directly under the title are the “clickable” subjects: Recently Added | Active Work Plan Items | Work Plan Archive.  Pick one and read.

You will see that CMS is not the only agency that OIG audits. It also audits the Food and Drug Administration and the Office of the Secretary, for example. But we are concerned with the audits of CMS.

Other targeted providers types coming up:

  • Telehealth
  • Security of Certified Electronic Health Record Technology Under Meaningful Use
  • States’ Collection of Rebates on Physician-Administered Drugs
  • States’ Collection of Rebates for Drugs Dispensed to Medicaid MCO Enrollees
  • Adult Day Health Care Services
  • Oversight of States’ Medicaid Information Systems Security Controls
  • States’ MCO Medicaid Drug Claims
  • Incorrect Medical Assistance Days Claimed by Hospitals
  • Selected Inpatient and Outpatient Billing Requirements

And the list goes on and on…

Do not think that if your health care provider type is not listed on the OIG website that you are safe from audits. As we all know, OIG is not the only entity that conducts regulatory audits. The States and its contracted vendors also audit, as well as the RACs, MICs, MACs, CERTs

Never forget that whatever entity audits you, YOU HAVE APPEAL RIGHTS!

EHR Programs’ Two, Haunting Risks: Liability and Audits – Scared Yet?

Happy Halloween!!

pennywise

What is scarier than Pennywise, Annabelle, and Jigsaw combined? Getting sued for an EHR program mistake and getting audited for EHR eligibility when the money is already spent (most likely, on the EHR programs).

Without question, EHR programs have many amazing qualities. These programs save practices time and money and allow them to communicate instantly with insurers, hospitals, and referring physicians. Medical history has never been so easy to get, which can improve quality of care.

However, recently, there have been a few audits of EHR programs that have caused some bloodcurdling concerns and of which providers need to be aware of creepy cobwebs with the EHR programs and the incentive programs.

  1. According to multiple studies, EHR has been linked to patient injuries, which can result in medical malpractice issues; and
  2. In an audit by OIG, CMS was found to have inappropriately paid $729.4 million (12 percent of the total) in incentive payments to providers who did not meet meaningful use requirements, which means that CMS may be auditing providers who accepted the EHR incentive payments in the near future.

Since the implementation of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, which rewards providers with incentive payments to utilize electronic health record (EHR) computer programs, EHR use has skyrocketed. Providers who accept Medicare are even more incentivized to implement EHR programs because not using EHR programs lead to penalties.

I.    Possible Liability Due to EHR Programs

A recent study by the The Doctors’ Company (TDC) found that the use of EHR has contributed to a number of patient injuries over the last 10 years. The study highlights why it is so important to have processes in place for back-up, cross-checking, and auditing the documentation in your EHRs.

Without question, the federal government pushed for physicians and hospitals to implement EHR programs quickly. Now 80% of physician practices use EHR programs. 90% of hospitals use EHR programs. But the federal government did not create EHR standards when it mandated the use of the programs. This resulted in vastly inconsistent EHR programs. These programs, for the most part, were not created by health care workers. The people who know whether the EHR programs work in real life – the providers – haven’t transformed the EHR programs into better programs based on reality. The programs are “take it or leave it” models created in a vacuum. This only makes sense because providers don’t write computer code, and the EHR technology is extremely esoteric. A revision to an EHR program probably takes an act of wizardry. Revitalizing the current EHR programs to be better suited to real life could take years.

There are always unanticipated consequences when new technology is implemented – didn’t we all learn this from the NCTracks implementation debacle? Now that was gruesome!

TDC study found that EHR programs may place more liability on the provider-users than pre-electronic databases.

The study states the following:

“In our study of 66 EHR-related claims from July 2014 through December 2016, we found that 50 percent of these claims were caused by system factors such as failure of drug or clinical decision support alerts and 58 percent of claims were caused by user factors such as copying and pasting progress notes.

This study was an update to our first analysis of EHR-related claims, a review of 97 claims that closed from January 2007 through June 2014.”

Another study published by the Journal of Patient Health studied more than 300,000 cases. Although it found that less than 1% of the total (248 cases) involved technology mistakes, more than 80% of those suits alleged harms of medium to intense severity. The researchers stressed that the 248 claims represented the “tip of an iceberg” because the vast majority of EHR-related cases, even those involving serious harm, never generate lawsuits.

Of those 248 claims that may have been the result of EHR-related mistakes, 31% were medication errors. For example, a transcription error in entering the data from a handwritten note. Diagnostic errors contributed to 28% of the claims. Inability to access records in an emergency setting accounted for another 31%. But systems aren’t entirely to blame. User error — such as data entry and copy-and-paste mistakes and alert fatigue — is also a big problem, showing up in 58% of the claims reviewed. Boo!

Tips:

  • Avoid copying and pasting; beware of templates.
  • Do not just assume the EHR technology is correct. Cross check.
  • Self audit

II.    Possible Audit Exposure for Accepting EHR Incentive Payments

Not only do providers need to be careful in using the EHR technology, but if you did attest to Medicare or Medicaid EHR incentive programs, you may be audited.

In June 2017, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) audited CMS and its EHR incentive program. OIG found that “CMS did not always make EHR incentive payments to EPs [eligible professionals] in accordance with Federal requirements. On the basis of [OIG’s] sample results, [OIG] estimated that CMS inappropriately paid $729.4 million (12 percent of the total) in incentive payments to EPs who did not meet meaningful use requirements. These errors occurred because sampled EPs did not maintain support for their attestations. Furthermore, CMS conducted minimal documentation reviews, leaving the self-attestations of the EHR program vulnerable to abuse and misuse of Federal funds.”

OIG also found that CMS made EHR incentive payments totaling $2.3 million that were not in accordance with the program-year payment requirements when EPs switched between Medicare and Medicaid incentive programs.

OIG recommended that CMS review provider incentive payments to determine which providers did not meet meaningful use requirements and recover the estimated $729,424,395.

What this means for you (if you attested to EHR incentive payments) –

Be prepared for an audit.

If you are a physician practice, make sure that you have the legally adequate assignment contracts allowing you to collect incentive payments on behalf of your physicians. A general employment contract will , generally, not suffice.

Double check that your EHR program was deemed certified. Do not just take the salesperson’s word for it. You can check whether your EHR program is certified here.

If you accepted Medicaid EHR incentive payments be sure that you met all eligibility requirements and that you have the documentation to prove it. Same with Medicare. These two programs had different eligibility qualifications.

Following these tips can save you from a spine-tingling trick from Pennywise!

we all float

Cardinal Board Slashes CEO’s Salary and CEO Cannot Accept!

In the wake of bad press, Cardinal Innovation’s Board of Directors finally acted and cut Richard Topping’s, the CEO, obnoxiously high salary, which is paid with Medicaid fund tax dollars. It seems he received a salary decrease of over $400,000! According to the below article, Topping did not take the news well and stated that he cannot accept the massive decrease in salary. See blog.

Will Topping quit? Who will manage Cardinal?

See article below written by Richard Craver of the Winston Salem Journal:

The salary for the chief executive of Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions has been cut by two-thirds — from $617,526 a year to $204,195 — reducing it to the maximum allowed by North Carolina law. Cardinal’s embattled board of directors passed a resolution on CEO Richard Topping’s salary after a four-hour closed special session that ended about 11 p.m. Tuesday, according to Charlotte radio station WFAE.

The vote was 5-3 in favor of the resolution with two members abstaining and two members absent. The eight members represented a quorum.

Bryan Thompson serves on the Cardinal board as the lone representative from Davie, Forsyth, Rockingham and Stokes counties. He was the chairman of CenterPoint Human Services of Winston-Salem until it was taken over by Cardinal in June 2016. Thompson confirmed Wednesday that he introduced the motion for the resolution. “I am very proud of the work Cardinal Innovations does and the seriousness I observed in the board members last night,” Thompson said. “I fully support the resolution adopted to bring the salary into range as provided by the state.” Ashley Conger, Cardinal’s vice president of communications and marketing, on Wednesday confirmed the board’s salary-reduction resolution. “Richard is still leading the company, and his priority is to ensure stability and continuity for our employees, members and communities as we continue work with the state to address their concerns,” Conger said.

Cardinal’s board chairwoman, Lucy Drake, voted against the resolution. “We brought him in and we offered (the reduced salary) to him. And he has said he cannot accept that,” Drake told WFAE.

It’s unclear if Topping qualifies for a severance package should he choose to resign because of the salary cut. “We have got to find out who on the team is going to stay,” Drake said. “We’ve got to find out who will be running Cardinal. Because this just completely overwhelmed me. I didn’t know this was going this way tonight.” Attending the meeting was Dave Richard, the state’s deputy health secretary for medical assistance and head of its Medicaid program. After the second of two scathing state audits, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services issued a statement Oct. 2 saying, “Cardinal should immediately bring its salary/compensation package for its CEO in line with the other MCOs, and shed its excessive severance offerings. DHHS will continue to monitor Cardinal’s performance.” Richard told legislators on Oct. 11 that he would present to the Cardinal board a list of state compliance requirements for Cardinal, the largest of the state’s seven behavioral-health managed care organizations, or MCOs. On Wednesday, Richard said through a spokesman that Cardinal’s board is taking steps to comply with state law, “and we look forward to continuing to work with Cardinal to ensure North Carolinians receive excellent care and state resources are handled appropriately.”

Reversing course

The board’s decision represents a stunning about-face for the MCO. On Sept. 18, Cardinal sued the state to maintain what it claims is the authority to pay Topping up to 3½ times more than his peers. Drake issued a statement supporting the lawsuit, which challenges the state’s authority to set executive-compensation limits. Cardinal filed the lawsuit against the Office of State Human Resources with the State Office of Administrative Hearings. Cardinal’s predecessor was formed in part as a legislative experiment for using private sector methods to lower the cost of caring for Medicaid enrollees without sacrificing the quality of care.

Cardinal and Topping have viewed the agency as an independent contractor as part of state Medicaid reform, gaining financial and business flexibility beyond those of other MCOs. That included being able to retain about $70 million in Medicaid savings from fiscal years 2014-15 and 2015-16. Topping has said Cardinal is performing in accord with what legislators have asked it to do. However, Cardinal is considered a political subdivision of the state, with oversight contracts subject to approval by the state health secretary and executive compensation subject to Office of State Human Resources guidelines. Cardinal argues in its complaint that not being allowed to pay Topping up to $635,000 in annual salary could convince him to resign, thereby putting Cardinal “at a significant market disadvantage” recruiting a top executive in the Mecklenburg County business market. “This would result in immediate and irreparable harm to Cardinal Innovations and reduce the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission,” Cardinal said. Topping’s current three-year contract provides severance payments “for a broad range of reasons” beyond termination of employment without just cause. They include:

  • If Cardinal is taken over or ceases to be an independent entity.
  • If a majority of the board is replaced without the board’s approval.
  • If the agency is “materially” affected by statutory or regulatory changes to its services, revenue, governance or employment practices.

Excessive spending

About 96,300 Triad Medicaid enrollees may be along for the ride if a day of reckoning arrives for Cardinal. That’s how many individuals could be affected in Davie, Forsyth, Rockingham and Stokes counties involving services for mental health, developmental disorders and substance abuse. Cardinal oversees providers of those services and handles more than $675 million in annual federal and state Medicaid money.

The main issue at hand is executive compensation and severance packages that Cardinal has committed to Topping and 10 other executives, which legislators have called excessive and unacceptable. The Cardinal board approved two raises for Topping since he became chief executive in July 2015. Cardinal’s board minutes are not available on its website, and Cardinal officials have a pattern of responding slowly to public and media requests for those minutes, including a request made Friday that it referred to its legal team.

An internal DHHS audit, released Oct. 1, determined that the salary and severance packages Cardinal’s board approved “pose a substantial risk (to Cardinal) and may not be in the best interest of Cardinal, beneficiaries and/or the state.” “This is excessive and raises concerns about the entity’s solvency and ability to continue to provide services in the event of a significant change in its leadership team,” DHHS said in a statement. In May, the state auditor’s office cited in its audit of Cardinal unauthorized executive compensation and a combined $490,756 in high-end board retreats and “unreasonable spending (that) could erode public trust.”

N.C. Auditor Beth Wood said in May that Cardinal “is not independent of the state … and it is definitely responsible to the General Assembly.” “Its whole independent contractor claims have been taken out of context, and they are being misleading when they say they are,” Wood said. Wood also blamed the Office of State Human Resources for not doing a better job of monitoring Cardinal’s executive-compensation packages.

Uncertain future

A bipartisan group of state legislators is urging the state health secretary, Dr. Mandy Cohen, to replace Topping and the board, and/or terminate Cardinal’s state Medicaid contracts, for noncompliance with state laws. State health officials and legislators say they are not ready to predict what steps Cohen might take, which could include splintering Cardinal’s 20-county territory and assigning parts to one or more of the state’s other six MCOs. Cardinal also covers Alamance and Davidson counties. “All of the options are possible,” state Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, said last week. Krawiec is a member of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services. However, it is not likely that Cohen would approve resurrecting CenterPoint. Since taking office, Cohen has tightened core performance requirements for the MCOs, including adding financial penalties for noncompliance. “These new contracts hold each organization accountable to meeting key performance measures to ensure high-quality care,” Cohen said.

State Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, a co-chairman of the health-care oversight committee, said last week that while it would be cumbersome to divvy up the Cardinal counties “to other MCO who would absorb these services … it can be done.” Counties can request, during a relatively brief period each year, to switch MCOs with the state health secretary’s permission. Three county managers — Dudley Watts of Forsyth, Lance Metzler of Rockingham and Rick Morris of Stokes — said last week that their respective boards of commissioner have not discussed contingency plans in preparation for any action by Cohen on Cardinal. Krawiec said the executive-compensation information about Cardinal is “very disappointing and disturbing.” “While Cardinal has obviously shown us how health services can be delivered at a cost savings, those savings have led to lavish expenditures by Cardinal,” she said. “Instead of returning the savings back into improving the system and providing for those in need, the funds have been spent in a very irresponsible manner.”

_____________________________________________________________________

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall, during Tuesday’s Board of Directors meeting at Cardinal… We will definitely need to request the meeting minutes!

Medicare Audits – TPE Audits Are Here, But For How Long?

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the expansion of Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) audits. At first glance, this appears to be fantastic news coming on the heels of so much craziness at Health and Human Services (HHS). We have former-HHS Secretary Price flying our tax dollars all over. Dr. Don Wright stepping up as our new Secretary. The Medicare appeal backlog fiasco. The repeal and replace Obamacare bomb. Amidst all this tomfoolery, health care providers are still serving Medicare and Medicaid patients, reimbursement rates are in the toilet, which drives down quality and incentivizes providers to not accept Medicare or Medicaid (especially Caid), and providers are undergoing “Audit Alphabet Soup.” I actually had a client tell me that he receives audit letters requesting documents and money every single week from a plethora of different organizations.

So when CMS announced that it was broadening its TPE audits, it was a sigh of relief for many providers. But will TPE audits be the benign beasts they are purporting  to be?

What is a TPE audit? (And – Can We Have Anymore Acronyms…PLEASE!)

CMS says that TPE audits are benevolent. CMS’ rhetoric indicates that these audits should not cause the toner to run out from overuse. CMS states that TPE audits will involve “the review of 20-40 claims per provider, per item or service, per round, for a total of up to three rounds of review.” See CMS Announcement. The idea behind the TPE audits (supposedly) is education, not recoupments. CMS states that “After each round, providers are offered individualized education based on the results of their reviews. This program began as a pilot in one MAC jurisdiction in June 2016 and was expanded to three additional MAC jurisdictions in July 2017. As a result of the successes demonstrated during the pilot, including an increase in the acceptance of provider education as well as a decrease in appealed claims decisions, CMS has decided to expand to all MAC jurisdictions later in 2017.” – And “later in 2017” has arrived. These TPE audits are currently being conducted nationwide.

Below is CMS’ vision for a TPE audit:

TPE3

Clear? As mud?

The chart does not indicate how long the provider will have to submit records or how quickly the TPE auditors will review the documents for compliance. But it appears to me that getting through Round 3 could take a year (this is a guess based on allowing the provider 30 days to gather the records and allowing the TPE auditor 30 days to review).

Although the audit is purportedly benign and less burdensome, a TPE audit could take a whole year or more. Whether the audit reviews one claim or 20, having to undergo an audit of any size for a year is burdensome on a provider. In fact, I have seen many companies having to hire staff dedicated to responding to audits. And here is the problem with that – there aren’t many people who understand Medicare/caid medical billing. Providers beware – if you rely on an independent biller or an electronic medical records program, they better be accurate. Otherwise the buck stops with your NPI number.

Going back to CMS’ chart (above), notice where all the “yeses” go. As in, if the provider is found compliant , during any round, all the yeses point to “Discontinue for at least 12 months.” I am sure that CMS thought it was doing providers a favor, but what that tells me is the TPE audit will return after 12 months! If the provider is found compliant, the audit is not concluded. In fact, according to the chart, the only end results are (1) a referral to CMS for possible further action; or (2) continued TPE audits after 12 months. “Further action” could include 100% prepayment review, extrapolation, referral to a Recovery Auditor, or other action. Where is the outcome that the provider receives an A+ and is left alone??

CMS states that “Providers/suppliers may be removed from the review process after any of the three rounds of probe review, if they demonstrate low error rates or sufficient improvement in error rates, as determined by CMS.”

I just feel as though that word “may” should be “will.” It’s amazing how one word could change the entire process.

Silence Can Be Deadly: Can You Be Held Responsible for Medicare/caid Billings Errors That You Never Knew Existed?

You submit a claim for medically necessary services for a Medicaid recipient. Let’s say you provide behavioral health care services and prescribe medication for people who suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar. One member of your staff (a PA) prescribes Abilify to a child – perfectly acceptable treatment for schizophrenia. The child suffers a seizure and dies. It is discovered, unbeknownst to you, as the owner of the agency, that the staff member prescribing the medication was not appropriately supervised. You are shocked. You are dismayed. You are terrified.

Sure enough, someone tattles on you and a qui tam lawsuit is filed against your agency.

A qui tam (kwee tam) lawsuit is Latin for “who as well,” a lawsuit brought by a private citizen (popularly called a “whistleblower”) against a person or company who is believed to have violated the law in the performance of a contract with the government or in violation of a government regulation, when there is a statute which provides for a penalty for such violations. The whistleblower in qui tam lawsuits can be awarded a lot of money, which is why whistleblowers bring the lawsuits.

In other words, a qui tam lawsuit filed against you is bad…very bad.

You are looking at six figures, easily, in attorneys’ fees, years of litigation, endless sleepless nights, and a high dose of Prozac. All because one of your staff was not properly licensed and could not prescribe medication without supervision. And you had no idea…

Wait…what? Isn’t “intent” or, legally, “scienter” a requirement to prove fraud?? You mean that I could be prosecuted for fraud when I had zero intent to commit fraud, plus, I didn’t even know it was occurring?

This is what happened to Universal Health Services, Inc.’s subsidiary that provided behavioral health care services in Massachusetts. Universal Health Serv. v. United States ex rel. Escobar, 136 S.Ct. 1989 (2016).

The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that each time a billing party submits a claim, it implicitly communicates that it conformed to the relevant program requirements, such that it was entitled to receive payment. Every claim implicitly promised compliance of every law!

Imagine the slippery slope with this decision – a multi-state company with offices across the nation bills millions to Medicare and Medicaid monthly. Executive management is in Rhode Island. An office in Tampa fails to check the criminal background of its employees for a period of a year, but in all other ways complies with the regulations and renders medically necessary services that entire year. According to the 1st Circuit opinion, the company could be liable for fraud and the false claims act, resulting in millions of dollars of penalties.

Did it matter to the judge in this case that the company was large? What if it were a small company with one office and four staff?

Juxtapose the 7th Circuit which held only express (or affirmative) falsehoods can render a claim “false” or “fraudulent.” In other words, you can only be held liable for fraud if you purposely or affirmatively acted.

The Supreme Court (last year) held that the implied false certification theory can, at least in some circumstances, provide a basis for liability.

The thinking is that a half truth is a lie. Which is correct…but is it fraud? A classic example of an actionable half-truth in contract law is the seller who reveals that there may be two new roads near a property he is selling, but fails to disclose that a third potential road might bisect the property.

The False Claims Act imposes civil liability on “any person who . . . knowingly presents, or causes to be presented, a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval.” §3729(a)(1)(A). Here’s the prob-lem-o: Congress never defined what is “false.”

Here is what the Supreme Court had to say about the unlicensed social worker:

“So too here, by submitting claims for payment using payment codes that corresponded to specific counseling services, Universal Health represented that it had provided individual therapy, family therapy, preventive medication counseling, and other types of treatment. Moreover, Arbour staff members allegedly made further representations in submitting Medicaid reimbursement claims by using National Provider Identification numbers corresponding to specific job titles. And these representations were clearly misleading in context. Anyone informed that a social worker at a Massachusetts mental health clinic provided a teenage patient with individual counseling services would probably—but wrongly—conclude that the clinic had complied with core Massachusetts Medicaid requirements (1) that a counselor “treating children [is] required to have specialized training and experience in children’s services,” 130 Code Mass. Regs. §429.422, and also (2) that, at a minimum, the social worker possesses the prescribed qualifications for the job, §429.424(C). By using payment and other codes that conveyed this information without disclosing Arbour’s many violations of basic staff and licensing requirements for mental health facilities, Universal Health’s claims constituted misrepresentations.””

In English, this means that: With the act of submitting a Medicaid claim, you are promising that you have followed all rules, including the licensure status required for rendering that service.

The Court held that:

The issue is whether a defendant should face False Claims Act liability only if it fails to disclose the violation of a contractual, statutory, or regulatory provision that the Government expressly designated a condition of payment. The Court concluded that the FCA does not impose this limit on liability. But it also held that not every undisclosed violation of an express condition of payment automatically triggers liability. It matters whether the omission was material.

The Supreme Court determined that not all statutory or regulatory violations are material, disagreeing with the government and the 1st Circuit.

But the Court never made a decision regarding Universal Health Services, Inc. Instead, it vacated the 1st Circuit and remanded the case for reconsideration of whether respondents have sufficiently pleaded a False Claims Act violation. But in doing so, the Court gave guidance as to its opinion. It wrote: “This case centers on allegations of fraud, not medical malpractice.”

What that one sentence tells me is that the Supreme Court does not want to create liability for any and every regulatory omission/mistake on a Medicaid claim. Mistakes happen. People are human. Apparently, even the Supreme Court knows that…

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.