Category Archives: Tentative Notices of Overpayment
Here is an article that I wrote as a Medicaid news update, state-by-state, as seen on RACMonitor.
The latest and greatest in Medicaid news, state by state.
While Medicare is a nationwide healthcare insurance program, Medicaid, the government-funded health insurance for the poor and developmentally disabled, is state-specific, generally speaking. The backbone of Medicaid is federal; federal regulations set forth the minimum requirements that states must follow. It is up to the states to decide whether to mandate more stringent or more regulatory oversight than is required by the federal regulations.
Why is it important for you to know the latest up-to-date information on Medicaid issues? First, if you accept Medicaid, you need to know. Secondly, if you are thinking about expanding into different states, you need to be aware of how Medicaid is handled there.
What is happening in your State?
|Alabama:||Alabama did not expand Medicaid. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) recommended that Alabama improve its Medicaid security program, aligning it with federal requirements. The OIG also stated that Alabama also needs to provide adequate oversight to its contractors and address other vulnerabilities OIG found in its audit. Expect more audits here. In particular, the Medicaid Maternity Program is under the microscope. Apparently, healthcare providers that provide medically necessary services to women on the Maternity Program have been duped before, as some of the women enrolled had already given birth. Recoupment!|
|Alaska:||Alaska expanded Medicaid in 2015. Currently, lawmakers in the legislature here have introduced bills that would require the state to seek 20-hour work requirements for those enrolled in Medicaid.|
|Arizona:||Arizona expanded Medicaid, but with an approved section 1115 waiver. Arizona has failed to collect up to $36.7 million in rebates from prescription drug manufacturers since 2010 and may need to pay the federal government a portion of that amount, according to a new federal audit, which means more audits to reconcile the payback. Arizona State Rep. Kelli Butler wants to allow uninsured individuals to buy into the state’s Medicaid program. Butler is expected to introduce legislation to authorize a buy-in or direct state officials to study the proposal. The buy-in option would require consumers to pay the full cost of their insurance coverage.|
|Arkansas:||Arkansas expanded Medicaid, but with an approved section 1115 waiver. On March 5, 2018, it became the third state to win the Trump administration’s permission to compel Medicaid recipients to work or prepare for a job. The state’s program integrity is focusing its upcoming audits on home health, long-term care facilities, and inpatient hospital stays.|
|California:||California expanded Medicaid. The state’s Medicaid agency has posted draft language of a new state plan amendment (SPA) that would make major changes to Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) and Rural Health Clinic (RHC) reimbursement. If approved, the SPA would be retroactive to Jan. 1, 2018, so expect audits and recoupments. The proposed SPA would implement multiple new requirements for FQHC and RHCS. For example, the proposed productivity standard requires physicians to document 3,200 visits per year and applicable allied health professionals such as physician assistants and nurse practitioners to document 2,600 visits per year. In January 2018, Aetna received approval to participate in California’s Medicaid program as “Aetna Better Health of California.”|
|Colorado:||Colorado expanded Medicaid. Not unexpectedly, the state has one of the more lenient regulatory environments. For example, Colorado’s permissive approach to regulating more than 700 licensed residential and outpatient drug treatment centers got the attention of a congressional subcommittee investigating the drug rehab industry last year. Also, Colorado’s governor announced that he is not opposed to work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries.|
|Connecticut:||Connecticut expanded Medicaid. The Connecticut Health Policy Project data shows that net pharmacy spending minus rebates from Connecticut’s Medicaid program tripled from 2000 to 2017. After rebates, Medicaid’s pharmacy costs decreased from $542 million in 2015 to $465 million in 2017, a drop of over 14 percent. Interestingly, on March 21, 2018, the state’s General Assembly increased Connecticut’s 8,500 home care workers’ wages, and adding worker’s compensation, even those workers are being compensated by Medicaid. The increased wage will rise to $16.25 per hour by 2020 and will cost the state, after federal Medicaid reimbursement, $725,790 in 2018, almost $7 million in 2019, and over $9.3 million in 2020. If you have a home health agency here, you better make sure that lawmakers are smart enough to increase the reimbursement rates; otherwise, a lot of home health agencies will go out of business.|
|Delaware:||Delaware expanded Medicaid, but since it is so small in size and population, the expansion only added approximately 10,000 Medicaid recipients. This year, after two years of increasing Medicaid spending by approximately $70 million, Delaware’s Medicaid costs are expected to decrease a small amount, even with the expansion. Beginning this year, Delaware gives additional weight to value-based care when determining payment. Rather than paying solely for volume of care – hospital stays, tests and procedures, regardless of outcomes – the state will pay for achieving optimal health for its Medicaid recipients.|
|Florida:||Florida did not expand Medicaid. Lawmakers are considering opioid prescription limits for Medicaid recipients. The proposals would limit prescriptions for opioids to three-day supplies, but also allow for up to seven-day supplies if physicians deem it medically necessary. If passed, I question whether lawsuits will be filed claiming that such a move violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, because it violates parity between Medicaid recipients and the private-pay insured. And what about the people suffering with chronic, long-term pain? (especially considering the state’s demographics). In other news, Gov. Rick Scott has proposed to transition the state’s Children’s Medical Services program to a private managed care organization, beginning in 2019.|
|Georgia:||Georgia did not expand Medicaid. Recently, the Georgia Department of Community Health mistakenly issued multiple Medicaid ID numbers to hundreds of patients. Those mistakes led the state and federal governments to make duplicate payments for care of some Medicaid patients. Now, Georgia is being asked to refund the federal government’s share of the duplicate payments — more than $665,000. Expect more audits to fund the repayment.|
|Hawaii:||Hawaii expanded Medicaid. But the state is cracking down on its providers. In an effort to improve fraud prevention, Hawaii is performing more comprehensive screening, credentialing, and enrollment for all Medicaid providers. Those of you who are already credentialed here, expect tougher standards for re-credentialing.|
|Idaho:||Idaho did not expand Medicaid, but it did expand dental coverage. On March 12, 2018, the state’s Senate passed a bill that restores Medicaid non-emergency dental coverage. The coverage was cut in 2011 during the recession. The bill, HB 465, already passed the House and now moves to Gov. Butch Otter. It is expected to cost $38 a year per patient.|
|Illinois:||Illinois expanded Medicaid. On Jan. 12, 2018, five nursing home operators filed a federal lawsuit against the state, arguing that low Medicaid payment rates and the claims backlog are jeopardizing patient care. The lawsuit was filed by Generations Health Care Network, Carlyle Healthcare Center, St. Vincent’s Home, Clinton Manor Living Center, and Extended Care Clinical, which operate 100 skilled nursing facilities throughout the state. Because of Section 30(A) of the Social Security Act (SSA), which mandates that reimbursement rates allow for quality of care, why aren’t more health care providers filing lawsuits to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates?|
|Indiana:||Indiana expanded Medicaid, but with an approved section 1115 waiver, which includes work requirements and adds premium penalties for tobacco users. The state also plans to use an enrollment block on members who fail to meet work requirements. Indiana focuses its audits on outliers: in other words, a provider that provides significantly more services than like-specialties.|
|Iowa:||Iowa expanded Medicaid, but with an approved section 1115 waiver. The state’s Department of Human Services announced on March 12, 2018 that Iowa is in the process of searching for additional managed care organizations for the current program. So if you have the capacity to act as an Managed Care Organization (MCO), throw your name in the ring. Because of pressure from the federal government, Iowa has implemented more prepayment reviews. Specifically, auditors are reviewing hospital discharge records for any sign of noncompliance.|
|Kansas:||Kansas did not expand Medicaid. On Feb. 15, 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal class-action lawsuit arguing that the state’s Medicaid program is improperly denying Hepatitis C medication to members until they are severely ill. The suit names Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) Secretary Jeff Andersen and KDHE Division of Health Care Finance Director Jon Hamdorf. Medicaid managed care plans in the state either require “severe liver damage” before covering the drugs or allow some coverage before that point. If you have a Kansas Medicaid contract, on Feb. 18, 2018, Maximus instituted a compliance plan and announced that it is committed to reaching a June 1 deadline to deal with state concerns over the company’s processing of Medicaid applications. Maximus is required to reach certain performance standards or face fines and the potential loss of its contract.|
|Kentucky:||Kentucky expanded Medicaid, but with an approved section 1115 waiver. In January, Kentucky’s waiver was approved by the federal government to implement work requirements for Medicaid recipients. Implementation will start in April 2018, with full implementation by July 2018. The waiver was approved for five years, through Sept. 30, 2023. In state audit news, non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT) providers are on the chopping block.|
|Louisiana:||Louisiana expanded Medicaid, but now the state may remove 46,000 elderly and disabled individuals from Medicaid as part of a series of healthcare-related budget cuts proposed by Gov. John Bel Edwards for 2019. The proposal would cut $657 million in state healthcare funding and as much as $2.4 billion, including federal matching funds, in total. The proposal would also cut funding to safety net hospitals and eliminate mental health services for adults who don’t otherwise qualify for Medicaid.|
|Maine:||Maine expanded Medicaid. The state adopted the Medicaid expansion through a ballot initiative in November 2017; the measure required submission of the state plan amendment within 90 days and implementation of expansion within 180 days of the effective date. In Maine audit news, a behavioral healthcare provider accused of fraud has put behavioral healthcare providers on the front line.|
|Maryland:||Maryland expanded Medicaid. Maryland’s system of pushing hospitals to achieving lower admissions has added up to hundreds of millions of dollars in savings, a new report shows. Since 2014, the state caps hospitals’ revenue each year, letting them keep the difference if they reduce inpatient and outpatient treatment while maintaining care quality. Per capita hospital spending by all insurers has grown by less than 2 percent a year in Maryland, below the economic growth rate, defined four years ago as 3.58 percent annually, a key goal for the program.|
|Massachusetts:||Massachusetts expanded Medicaid. The state has begun to roll out new Accountable Care Organization (ACO) networks. Members assigned to an ACO have until May 31 to switch before they are locked in for nine months. The changes are expected to impact more than 800,000 Medicaid recipients and are designed to better manage patient care, reimburse providers based on quality, and address social determinants of health. There is expected confusion with this change among Medicaid patients and providers.|
|Michigan:||Michigan expanded Medicaid, but with an improved section 1115 waiver. On Feb. 18, 2018, Michigan announced that it would consider a proposal to transition the state’s $2.8 billion Medicaid nursing home and long-term care services programs into managed care. An initial review by the state Department of Health and Human Services is expected to begin by July 1.|
|Minnesota:||Minnesota expanded Medicaid. MN has a proposed Medicaid waiver bill, which requests permission from the federal government to implement an 80-hour-per-month requirement that would mandate Medicaid beneficiaries who are able-bodied adults and not the sole caretaker of a child to work, actively seek employment, participate in educational or training programs, or volunteer.|
|Mississippi:||Mississippi did not expand Medicaid. The five-year waiver request from Gov. Phil Bryant seeks to require nondisabled adults, including low-income parents and caretakers, to participate in at least 20 hours per week of “workforce training.” To be eligible, Medicaid beneficiaries must work, be self-employed, volunteer, or be in a drug treatment program, among other approved activities. If people don’t comply, they’ll be kicked off Medicaid.|
|Missouri:||Missouri did not expand Medicaid. The Missouri Hospital Association has won a lawsuit against the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) over a rule that deducts Medicare and commercial insurance reimbursements from total disproportionate-share hospital (DSH) allotments. U.S. District Judge Brian Wimes ruled that the agency exceeded its authority. State hospitals would have had to pay back $96 million for 2011 and 2012 alone. Expect more scrutiny on hospitals in light of this decision.|
|Montana:||Montana expanded Medicaid, but with an approved 1115 waiver. Montana is one of many states that have proposed budget cuts to Medicaid. A new proposed rule, which would take effect April 1, would move the state’s addiction counseling from a needs-based system to a cap of 12 individual sessions. The rule may be retroactive, so expect audits to recoup if the rule passes.|
|Nebraska:||Nebraska did not expand Medicaid. On March 7, 2018, advocates for Medicaid expansion launched a petition drive, “Insure the Good Life,” to place the expansion issue on the November 2018 general election ballot. State lawmakers have rejected the expansion measure the past five legislative attempts. Nebraska has paid millions to the federal government in the past few years for noncompliance. Many think it will owe millions more. Audits on providers will increase in Nebraska to compensate for money paid to the federal government – in all service types.|
|Nevada:||Nevada did expand Medicaid. It paid the federal government roughly $4.1 million in 2017 to use HealthCare.gov. CMS also asked for 1.5 percent of the premium payments that were collected through its exchange last year, a percentage that will double in 2019. Nevada plans to cut its IT costs by replacing its use of HealthCare.gov with a new health insurance exchange in 2019. Pain management providers and pharmacies are the target of Medicaid audits here.|
|New Hampshire:||New Hampshire expanded Medicaid, but with an approved section 1115 waiver. On March 9, 2018, the New Hampshire Senate passed a bill to continue the state’s Medicaid expansion program. The legislation, which now heads to the House, would impose work requirements on members and utilize 5 percent of liquor revenues to cover the cost of expansion. The Senate voted to reauthorize the Medicaid program for five years and transition to managed care in 2019. The current expansion program, the New Hampshire Health Protection Program, covers about 50,000 individuals.|
|New Jersey:||New Jersey expanded Medicaid. On March 13, 2018, Gov. Phil Murphy delivered his first budget address, unveiling a $37.4 billion budget with a projected surplus of $743 million. 2019 revenues are projected to grow by 5.7 percent from last year. Among the healthcare provisions are: a) close to $4.4 billion in state funds to provide healthcare to almost 1.8 million residents through New Jersey’s Medicaid program, NJ FamilyCare; b) $8.5 million to implement autism spectrum disorder services for Medicaid-eligible children and teens to help 10,000+ families with behavioral and physical supports; c) $11 million in state and federal funds to expand family planning services under NJ FamilyCare to residents at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level; d) $252 million to fund the hospital Charity Care program; and e) $100 million to fund addiction initiatives (list not exhaustive).|
|New Mexico:||New Mexico expanded Medicaid. The 15 behavioral healthcare providers that were put out of business in 2013 have filed lawsuits against the state. Speculation has it that after the election this year – likely taking Gov. Susana Martinez out of office – the providers may get compensated. New Mexico auditors are focused on the delivery of babies and services to the elderly.|
|New York:||New York expanded Medicaid. Recently, the state’s Assembly released its one-house budget bill. The plan restores $135 million in reductions to the Medicaid program. The big news in the Big Apple regarding Medicaid is in home health. The New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, has agreed to hear a case regarding wages for home care workers. A state Appellate Court ruled in September 2017 that home care agencies must pay live-in home health aides for 24 hours per day, not the 13 hours that is the industry standard, assuming that they are allowed eight hours of sleep and three hours for meals. The New York Department of Labor has issued an emergency regulation that maintains the policy of allowing employers to pay home care workers for 13 hours of a 24-hour shift. If the decision stands, it means that agencies must pay for an additional 11 hours of care per day, almost doubling the cost of care. It is estimated that it will increase costs for home care in New York’s Medicaid program by tens of millions of dollars. Any of you who have home health care agencies in New York, which are dependent on Medicaid, beware that the reimbursement rates are not increasing to accommodate for the increased wages. Many home health companies will go out of business if the decision stands.|
|North Carolina:||North Carolina did not expand Medicaid. The state is seeking to transition its Medicaid program from a fee-for-service model to a managed care model for all services. The transition of beneficiaries with a serious mental illness, a serious emotional disturbance, a substance use disorder, or an intellectual/developmental disability (IDD) will be delayed until the launch of behavioral health and IDD tailored plans. The state estimates that 2.1 million individuals will be eligible for managed care. This is a huge overhaul of the Medicaid system.|
|North Dakota:||North Dakota expanded Medicaid. The state received substantial funds from a settlement designed to compensate states, in part, for the billions of dollars in healthcare costs associated with treating tobacco-related diseases under state Medicaid programs. To date, states have received more than $50 billion in settlement payments. North Dakota is also one of the “test” states to allow Medicare Advantage Value-Based Insurance Design to waive many requirements of federal regulation.|
|Ohio:||Ohio expanded Medicaid. On March 13, 2018, it was announced that the Ohio Pharmacists Association alleged that CVS Caremark overcharges Medicaid managed care plans for medications while often reimbursing pharmacists less than the cost of the drugs. CVS denied accusations of overcharging in an attempt to drive out retail competition and reported that there are strict firewalls between their retail business and their pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) business, CVS Caremark. Beginning in July, Medicaid MCOs will be required to report to state regulators how much PBMs are paying pharmacies.|
|Oklahoma:||Oklahoma did not expand Medicaid. On March 6, 2018, Gov. Mary Fallin issued an executive order to develop Medicaid work requirements. On March 13, 2018, the OK Senate approved legislation to tighten the income threshold for Medicaid eligibility among parents and caretakers to 20 percent of the federal poverty level, down from 40 percent under current state law. The move could impact nearly 44,000 of the 107,000 parents and caretakers on Medicaid in the state. The legislation now moves to the House.|
|Oregon:||Oregon expanded Medicaid. But how it will be funded makes state hospitals angry. Voters approved taxes on hospitals and health plans to continue to fund the state’s Medicaid expansion. The taxes, which were approved in a ballot measure, are expected to generate $210 million to $320 million over two years by imposing a 0.7 percent tax on some hospitals and a 1.5 percent tax on gross health insurance premiums and on managed care organizations. Unions and large, self-insured employers are exempt.|
|Pennsylvania:||Pennsylvania expanded Medicaid. On March 8, 2018, the state’s Department of Human Services discussed HB 59, a bill that would require able-bodied Medicaid recipients to prove they are looking for work. The bill was passed last year by the General Assembly, but vetoed by Gov. Wolf. Acting Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said implementing the requirements would be expensive, estimating that the project could run up to $600 million in the first year.|
|Rhode Island:||Rhode Island expanded Medicaid. On Feb. 14, 2018, it was announced that the number of recently released inmates in Rhode Island who died from an opioid overdose decreased between 2016 and 2017. The study attributed the decrease to the availability of medication-assisted treatment in correctional facilities starting in 2016. Rhode Island was the first state to offer inmates methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone.|
|South Carolina:||South Carolina did not expand Medicaid. The state is overhauling its Medicaid Management Information System. Cognosante was awarded the contract, effective March 6, 2018 through March 5, 2023.|
|South Dakota:||South Dakota did not expand Medicaid. Furthermore, the state is seeking permission from the Trump administration to implement Medicaid work requirements, a move that would affect 4,500 beneficiaries. In South Dakota audit news, Program Integrity has ramped up the number of audits and prepayment reviews, especially on behavioral healthcare, dental care, hospital care, and home health.|
|Tennessee:||Tennessee did not expand Medicaid. In February, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services approved a proposal to launch a two-year pilot designed to improve prescription drug adherence and effectiveness for Medicaid beneficiaries. As part of the pilot, pharmacists will work with Medicaid beneficiaries enrolled in patient-centered medical homes to ensure that medications are appropriate, safe, and taken as directed. As many as 300,000 enrollees may be affected by the pilot. This initiative will affect pharmacies based within hospitals.|
|Texas:||Texas did not expand Medicaid. The state’s Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) announced contract awards for the state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in rural areas. The six awardees are Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas (Central Region), Driscoll Children’s Health Plan (Hidalgo Region), Molina Healthcare of Texas, Inc. (Central, Hidalgo, Northeast, and West Regions), Superior Health Plan, Inc./Centene (West Region), and TX Children’s Health Plan, Inc. (Northeast Region). Contracts are slated to begin on Sept. 1, 2018. This is a big change to Texas Medicaid.|
|Utah:||Utah did not expand Medicaid. On March 9, 2018, Utah legislators passed a limited Medicaid expansion bill. The legislation would cover approximately 70,000 individuals who earn under 100 percent of the federal poverty level and impose a work requirement and spending cap for enrollees.|
|Vermont:||Vermont expanded Medicaid. One hospital here recently paid $1.6 million to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act (FCA). According to the government, between January 2012 and September 2014, Brattleboro Memorial knowingly submitted a number of outpatient laboratory claims that lacked proper documentation. On another note, Vermont only has 188 beds in its mental health system, and patients are placed on waiting lists or forced to rely on hospital ERs. This is an ongoing problem for patients and hospitals.|
|Virginia:||Virginia did not expand Medicaid. On March 2, 2018, Gov. Ralph Northam told state budget legislators to include Medicaid expansion spending plans or he would add the expansion as a budget amendment. In state audit news, Program Integrity’s spotlight is shining on long-term care facilities, durable medical equipment, transportation, and hospitals.|
|Washington:||Washington expanded Medicaid. On Feb. 20, 2018, the state announced that it approved all nine Accountable Communities of Health (ACH) Medicaid Transformation Project Plans. The Medicaid Transformation Project is the state’s Section 1115 waiver, approved by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in 2017. Under the waiver, the first initiative involves transforming Medicaid delivery in each regional service area through ACHs. The newly approved project plans will look to improve the overall health of Medicaid beneficiaries by tackling the opioid crisis and integrating behavioral health, among other aims.|
|West Virginia:||West Virginia expanded Medicaid. On March 6, 2018, it was announced that Medicaid funding could be at risk after Gov. James Justice signed a bill increasing state workers’ and teachers’ pay by 5 percent following a statewide teachers’ strike. According to West Virginia Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, the pay raises could be funded through cuts to Medicaid, among other areas; however, the Governor stated that the Medicaid budget would not be cut. The strike was in response to low pay and rising health insurance costs. The raises are expected to cost the state treasury approximately $110 million a year.|
|Wisconsin:||Wisconsin did not expand Medicaid. The state covers adults up to 100 percent of the federal poverty line in Medicaid, but it did not adopt the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) expansion. Still, managed care will soon be mandatory. The state’s Department of Health Services reported that through June 2018, it will roll out mandatory enrollment for many Supplemental Security Income (SSI) beneficiaries in Medicaid managed care. Approximately 28,000 beneficiaries may be impacted. The change impacts members who live an SSI managed care service area, are age 19 or older, and have a Medicaid SSI or SSI-related disability. Previously, SSI beneficiaries could opt out of managed care after two months. Up to two-thirds of eligible beneficiaries typically opt out of managed care.|
|Wyoming:||Wyoming did not expand Medicaid. A bill that would have required able-bodied Medicaid recipients in Wyoming to work at a job, go to school, or do volunteer work died this month in a House committee. The state’s Department of Health is partnering with Medicity to develop a new health information exchange for the state. The Wyoming Frontier Information Exchange will be a centralized repository of clinical data for participating patients, powered in part by Medicity’s data aggregation and interoperability technology.|
5th Circuit Finds Subject Matter Jurisdiction For Medicare and Medicaid Providers – Why Collards Matter
“I’d like some spaghetti, please, and a side of meatballs.” – This sentence is illogical because meatballs are integral to spaghetti and meatballs. If you order spaghetti – and -meatballs, you are ordering “spaghetti and meatballs.” Meatballs on the side is not a thing.
Juxtapose, a healthcare provider defending itself from an alleged overpayment, But during the appeal process undergoes a different penalty – the state or federal government begins to recoup future funds prior to a decision that the alleged recoupment is authorized, legal, or warranted. When a completely new issue unrelated to the allegation of overpayment inserts itself into the mix, then you have spaghetti and meatballs with a side of collard greens. Collard greens need to be appealed in a completely different manner than spaghetti and meatballs, especially when the collard greens could put the company out of business because of the premature and unwarranted recoupments without due process.
I have been arguing this for years based off of, not only, a 1976 Supreme Court case, but multiple state case law, as well as, success I have had in the federal and administrative courts, and BTW – logic.
On March 27, 2018, I was confirmed again. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided a landmark case for Medicare and Medicaid providers across the country. The case, Family Rehab., Inc. v Azar, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 7668, involved a Medicare home health service provider, which was assessed for approximately $7.8 million in Medicare overpayments. Family Rehab, the plaintiff in the case, relied on 88% to 94% of its revenue from Medicare. The company had timely appealed the alleged overpayment, and it was at the third level of the Medicare five step process for appeals. See blog. But there is a 3 – 5 year backlog on the third level, and the government began to recoup the $7.8 million despite the ongoing appeal. If no action were taken, the company would be out of business well-before any ALJ could rule on the merits of the case, i.e. whether the recoupment was warranted. How is that fair? The provider may not owe $7.8 million, but before an objective tribunal decides what is actually owed, if anything, we are going to go ahead and take the money and reap the benefit of any interest accrued during the time it takes the provider to get a hearing.
The backlog for Medicare appeals at the ALJ level is unacceptably long. See blog and blog. However, the federal regulations only prevent recoupment during the appeal process during the first and second levels. This is absolutely asinine and should be changed considering we do have a clause in the Constitution called “due process.” Purported criminals receive due process, but healthcare providers who accept Medicare or Medicaid, at times, do not.
At the third level of appeal, Family Rehab underwent recoupments, even though it was still appealing the decision, which immediately stifled Family Rehab’s income. Family Rehab, because of the premature recoupments, was at risk of losing everything, going bankrupt, firing its staff, and no longer providing medically necessary home health services for the elderly. This situation mimics a situation in which I represented a client in northern Indiana who was losing its Medicaid contract. I also successfully obtained a preliminary injunction preventing the provider from losing its Medicaid contract. See blog.
It is important to note that in this case the ZPIC had audited only 43 claims. Then it used a statistical method to extrapolate the alleged over-billings and concluded that the alleged overpayment was $7,885,803.23. I cannot tell you how many times I have disputed an extrapolation and won. See blog.
42 USC 1395(f)(f)(d)(1)(A) states that the ALJ shall conduct and conclude the hearing and render a decision no later than 90 days after a timely request. Yet the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that an ALJ hearing would not be forthcoming not within 90 days or even 900 days. The judge noted in his decision that the Medicare appeal backlog for an ALJ hearing was 3 – 5 years. The District Court held that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction because Family Rehab had not exhausted its administrative remedies. Family Rehab appealed.
On appeal, Family Rehab argued the same arguments that I have made in the past: (1) its procedural due process and ultra vires claims are collateral to the agency’s appellate process; and (2) going through the appellate process would mean no review at all because the provider would be out of business by the time it would be heard by an ALJ.
What does collateral mean? Collard greens are collateral. When you think collateral; think collards. Collard greens do not normally come with spaghetti and meatballs. A collateral issue is an issue that is entirely collateral to a substantive agency decision and would not be decided through the administrative appeal process. In other words, even if Family Rehab were to only pursue the $7.8 million overpayment issue through the administrative process, the issue of having money recouped and the damage to the company that the recoupment was causing would never be heard by the ALJ because those “collateral” issues are outside the ALJ’s purview. The premature recoupment issue could not be remedied by an ALJ. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
The collateral argument also applies to terminations of Medicare and Medicaid contracts without due process. In an analogous case (Affiliated Professional), the provider argued that the termination of its Medicare contract without due process violated its right to due process and the Equal Protection Clause and was successful.
The upshot is obvious, if the Court must examine the merits of the underlying dispute, delve into the statute and regulations, or make independent judgments as to plaintiff’s eligibility under a statute, the claim is not collateral.
The importance of this case is that it verifies my contention that if a provider is undergoing a recoupment or termination without due process, there is relief for that provider – an injunction stopping the premature recoupments or termination until due process has been completed.
They say that lightning never strikes the same place twice, but tell that to my colleague Bill. Bill has been struck by lightning twice and has lived to tell the story. Granted, he was not physically standing in the same place that he was struck the first time as when he was hit by lightning the second time – so lightning technically didn’t hit the same place twice. But it did strike the same person twice. Maybe Bill is just extremely unlucky, or maybe Bill is extremely lucky because he lived through the incidents.
An intense shock can severely impair most of the body’s vital functions. Cardiac arrest is common. Yet Bill lived. Twice.
No one ever thinks they will get struck by lightning. But it happens. According to the National Weather Service, so far this year, lightning strikes have killed at least 20 people in the US, and that does not even take into consideration the people who were just injured, like my pal Bill.
A lightning strike is a massive electrical discharge between the atmosphere and an earth-bound object. A lightning bolt can heat the surrounding air to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit—that’s five times hotter than the sun—and can contain up to 300kV of energy.
Yet most people do survive, in part because lightning rarely passes through the body.
Instead, a “flashover” occurs, meaning that the lightning zips over the body, traveling via ultra-conductive sweat (and often rainwater), which provides an external voltage pathway around the body. When people do die from a lightning strike, it is usually due to an electrical discharge-induced hear attack. A body hit by lightning will show various signs of trauma.
Like a gunshot, a lightning strike causes both an exit and entrance wound, marking where the current both entered and left the victim. Lichtenberg scarring, which outlines ruptured blood vessels, frequently covers the body in odd, almost beautiful, spiderweb patterns.
Surprisingly enough, many lightning strike survivors do not remember being struck. Instead, the only evidence of the traumatic event is burnt, displaced clothing and marks along the body.
For instance, many lightning strike survivors report memory issues, trouble with concentration and severe headaches, all of which last decades after the initial strike.
Due to the rarity of lightning strike cases, less time and resources have been devoted to better understanding how these strikes impact long-term brain function. An unpublished study by medical doctor Mary Ann Cooper found that there were “significant differences in brain activity between lightning-strike victims and healthy people as they performed mental-aptitude tests.”
Aside from impacting long-term brain function, lightning strikes are also known to blow out eardrums, prompting constant muscle twitches and moderate to severe nerve damage. Overall, the effects of a lightning strike may range from a slight inconvenience to a debilitating, lifelong struggle. In the case of my colleague, you would never be able to tell mind looking at him that he has been hit by lightning twice.
Why is this – extensive – discussion about lightning strikes relevant? – Or is it not?
If you are a health care provider and accept Medicare or Medicaid, the risk of an audit far exceeds your chances of getting struck by lightning. In FY 2016, CMS continued its use of the Affordable Care Act authority to suspend Medicare payments to providers during an investigation of a credible allegation of fraud. CMS also has authority to suspend Medicare payments if reliable information of an overpayment exists. During FY 2016, there were 508 payment suspensions that were active at some point during the fiscal year. Of the 508 payment suspensions, 291 new payment suspensions were imposed during FY 2016.
Medicare and Medicaid audits far exceed lightning strikes. Yet, providers believe in their heart of hearts that and on an audit (or an audit with bad results) will never happen to them, which causes providers to not engage in attorney until after the lightning strikes. Then it’s too late, and you have Lichtenberg scarring across your arm.
There is scene in Breaking Bad in which Saul, the attorney, stops a person from talking. He says, “Give me a dollar. Don’t tell me anything until you give me a dollar. Once money is exchanged, we will have attorney-client privilege.” What Saul was saying is that the exchange of money catalyzed the duty for Saul to keep all conversation confidential.
This was a low-point of legal-fiction television. It made great drama with zero accuracy.
The question is why should you have an attorney on retainer?
The obvious response is that you can have confidential conversations with said attorney at your beck and call. The honest truth is that you do not have to have an attorney on retainer in order for your conversations to be confidential. But is smart to do so, and I will tell you why.
If you call me and I have never represented you and you ask me a legal question, our conversation is legally protected, even if you hire a different attorney.
No – the reason to have an attorney on retainer is to be able to consult him or her with legal questions on a daily basis, and, especially of there is an ongoing audit. Most of my clients do not contact me when they receive the document request. They think, “Oh, this is no big deal. I will give my records to [state] or [federal] – [and/or its contractors] government and they will determine that my [Medicare] or [Medicaid] records are amazing. In fact the [state] or [federal] government my even ask me to educate other providers on what pristine records should look like. I got this. Easy, peasy, lemon-squeezey.” They contact me when they get an accusation of an alleged overpayment of $5 million. Lichtenberg scarring has already occurred.
The smartest clients contact me prior to receiving an alleged overpayment of $12 million or an accusation of fraud. They contact me the moment they receive a notice of an audit or a request for documents…before ever submitting documents to the government.
Because, regardless the type of provider, be it dentist, behavioral counseling, podiatrist, chiropractor, or hospital, understand that every communication with a government auditor and/or contractor is admissible in court – if the communication does not go through an attorney. When the [state/federal] auditor asks to see a record and you say, “Let me get it from my off-site storage facility” – BAM – HIPAA violation. When the state/federal auditor asks to see a record and you say, “Here it is,” and fail to keep a copy for yourself, there can be discrepancy in the future as to what you actually provided. And you are in a “he said she said” battle – never good.
On the other hand, if you have an attorney on retainer, you can ask any question you need, you can get any advice you desire, and it’s all confidential. It is as though you have Siri in your back pocket. It’s the 411 for legal information. It’s an ATM for legal advice. AND it is all confidential.
Next time you think to yourself, “Self, I will ace any Medicaid or Medicare audit. I don’t need counsel. I can talk to the auditors myself without an attorney. I got this.”
Think again. [Don’t, necessarily, call Saul, but call someone.] Because, like lightning strike victims, you may not even remember the audit. Until you are scarred.
Here is an article that I wrote that was first published on RACMonitor on March 15, 2018:
All audits are questionable, contends the author, so appeal all audit results.
Providers ask me all the time – how will you legally prove that an alleged overpayment is erroneous? When I explain some examples of mistakes that Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) and other health care auditors make, they ask, how do these auditors get it so wrong?
First, let’s debunk the notion that the government is always right. In my experience, the government is rarely right. Auditors are not always healthcare providers. Some have gone to college. Many have not. I googled the education criteria for a clinical compliance reviewer. The job application requires the clinical reviewer to “understand Medicare and Medicaid regulations,” but the education requirement was to have an RN. Another company required a college degree…in anything.
Let’s go over the most common mistakes auditors make that I have seen. I call them “oops, I did it again.” And I am not a fan of reruns.
- Using the Wrong Clinical Coverage Policy/Manual/Regulation
Before an on-site visit, auditors are given a checklist, which, theoretically, is based on the pertinent rules and regulations germane to the type of healthcare service being audited. The checklists are written by a government employee who most likely is not an attorney. There is no formal mechanism in place to compare the Medicare policies, rules, and manuals to the checklist. If the checklist is erroneous, then the audit results are erroneous. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) frequently revises final rules, changing requirements for certain healthcare services. State agencies amend small technicalities in the Medicaid policies constantly. These audit checklists are not updated every time CMS issues a new final rule or a state agency revises a clinical coverage policy.
For example, for hospital-based services, there is a different reimbursement rate depending on whether the patient is an inpatient or outpatient. Over the last few years there have been many modifications to the benchmarks for inpatient services. Another example is in behavioral outpatient therapy; while many states allow 32 unmanaged visits, others have decreased the number of unmanaged visits to 16, or, in some places, eight. Over and over, I have seen auditors apply the wrong policy or regulation. They apply the Medicare Manual from 2018 for dates of service performed in 2016, for example. In many cases, the more recent policies are more stringent that those of two or three years ago.
- A Flawed Sample Equals a Flawed Extrapolation
The second common blunder auditors often make is producing a flawed sample. Two common mishaps in creating a sample are: a) including non-government paid claims in the sample and b) failing to pick the sample randomly. Both common mistakes can render a sample invalid, and therefore, the extrapolation invalid. Auditors try to throw out their metaphoric fishing nets wide in order to collect multiple types of services. The auditors accidentally include dates of service of claims that were paid by third-party payors instead of Medicare/Medicaid. You’ve heard of the “fruit of the poisonous tree?” This makes the audit the fruit of the poisonous audit. The same argument goes for samples that are not random, as required by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG). A nonrandom sample is not acceptable and would also render any extrapolation invalid.
- A Simple Misunderstanding
A third common blooper found with RAC auditors is simple misunderstandings based on lack of communication between the auditor and provider. Say an auditor asks for a chart for date of service X. The provider gives the auditor the chart for date of service X, but what the auditor is really looking for is the physician’s order or prescription that was dated the day prior. The provider did not give the auditor the pertinent document because the auditor did not request it. These issues cause complications later, because inevitably, the auditor will argue that if the provider had the document all along, then why was the document not presented? Sometimes inaccurate accusations of fraud and fabrication are averred.
- The Erroneous Extrapolation
Auditors use a computer program called RAT-STATS to extrapolate the sample error rate across a universe of claims. There are so many variables that can render an extrapolation invalid. Auditors can have too low a confidence level. The OIG requires a 90 percent confidence level at 25 percent precision for the “point estimate.” The size and validity of the sample matters to the validity of the extrapolation. The RAT-STATS outcome must be reviewed by a statistician or a person with equal expertise. An appropriate statistical formula for variable sampling must be used. Any deviations from these directives and other mandates render the extrapolation invalid. (This is not an exhaustive list of requirements for extrapolations).
- That Darn Purple Ink!
A fifth reason that auditors get it wrong is because of nitpicky, nonsensical reasons such as using purple ink instead of blue. Yes, this actually happened to one of my clients. Or if the amount of time with the patient is not denoted on the medical record, but the duration is either not relevant or the duration is defined in the CPT code. Electronic signatures, when printed, sometimes are left off – but the document was signed. A date on the service note is transposed. Because there is little communication between the auditor and the provider, mistakes happen.
The moral of the story — appeal all audit results.
Premature Recoupment of Medicare or Medicaid Funds Can Feel Like Getting Mauled by Dodgeballs: But Is It Constitutional?
State and federal governments contract with many private vendors to manage Medicare and Medicaid. And regulatory audits are fair game for all these contracted vendors and, even more – the government also contracts with private companies that are specifically hired to audit health care providers. Not even counting the contracted vendors that manage Medicaid or Medicare (the companies to which you bill and get paid), we have Recovery Act Contractors (RAC), Zone Program Integrity Contractors (ZPICs), Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), and Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) auditors. See blog for explanation. ZPICs, RACs, and MACs conduct pre-payment audits. ZPICs, RACs, MACs, and CERTs conduct post-payment audits.
It can seem that audits can hit you from every side.
“Remember the 5 D’s of dodgeball: Dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge.”
Remember the 5 A’s of audits: Appeal, argue, apply, attest, and appeal.”
Medicare providers can contest payment denials (whether pre-payment or post-payment) through a five-level appeal process. See blog.
On the other hand, Medicaid provider appeals vary depending on which state law applies. For example, in NC, the general process is an informal reconsideration review (which has .008% because, essentially you are appealing to the very entity that decided you owed an overpayment), then you file a Petition for Contested Case at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). Your likelihood of success greatly increases at the OAH level because these hearings are conducted by an impartial judge. Unlike in New Mexico, where the administrative law judges are hired by Human Services Department, which is the agency that decided you owe an overpayment. In NM, your chance of success increases greatly on judicial review.
In Tx, providers may use three methods to appeal Medicaid fee-for-service and carve-out service claims to Texas Medicaid & Healthcare Partnership (TMHP): electronic, Automated Inquiry System (AIS), or paper within 120 days.
In Il, you have 60-days to identify the total amount of all undisputed and disputed audit
overpayment. You must report, explain and repay any overpayment, pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. Section 1320a-7k(d) and Illinois Public Aid Code 305 ILCS 5/12-4.25(L). The OIG will forward the appeal request pertaining to all disputed audit overpayments to the Office of Counsel to the Inspector General for resolution. The provider will have the opportunity to appeal the Final Audit Determination, pursuant to the hearing process established by 89 Illinois Adm. Code, Sections 104 and 140.1 et. seq.
You get the point.”Nobody makes me bleed my own blood. Nobody!” – White Goodman
Recoupment During Appeals
Regardless whether you are appealing a Medicare or Medicaid alleged overpayment, the appeals process takes time. Years in some circumstances. While the time gently passes during the appeal process, can the government or one of its minions recoup funds while your appeal is pending?
The answer is: It depends.
Before I explain, I hear my soapbox calling, so I will jump right on it. It is my legal opinion (and I am usually right) that recoupment prior to the appeal process is complete is a violation of due process. People are always shocked how many laws and regulations, both on the federal and state level, are unconstitutional. People think, well, that’s the law…it must be legal. Incorrect. Because something is allowed or not allowed by law does not mean the law is constitutional. If Congress passed a law that made it illegal to travel between states via car, that would be unconstitutional. In instances that the government is allowed to recoup Medicaid/care prior to the appeal is complete, in my (educated) opinion. However, until a provider will fund a lawsuit to strike these allowances, the rules are what they are. Soapbox – off.
Going back to whether recoupment may occur before your appeal is complete…
For Medicare audit appeals, there can be no recoupment at levels one and two. After level two, however, the dodgeballs can fly, according to the regulations. Remember, the time between levels two and three can be 3 – 5 years, maybe longer. See blog. There are legal options for a Medicare provider to stop recoupments during the 3rd through 5th levels of appeal and many are successful. But according to the black letter of the law, Medicare reimbursements can be recouped during the appeal process.
Medicaid recoupment prior to the appeal process varies depending on the state. Recoupment is not allowed in NC while the appeal process is ongoing. Even if you reside in a state that allows recoupment while the appeal process is ongoing – that does not mean that the recoupment is legal and constitutional. You do have legal rights! You do not need to be the last kid in the middle of a dodgeball game.
Don’t be this guy:
You are a Medicare health care provider. You perform health care services across the country. Maybe you are a durable medical equipment (DME) provider with a website that allows patients to order physician-prescribed, DME supplies from all 50 states. Maybe you perform telemedicine to multiple states. Maybe you are a large health care provider with offices in multiple states.
Regardless, imagine that you receive 25, 35, or 45 notifications of alleged overpayments from 5 separate “jurisdictions” (the 5th being Region 5 (DME/HHH – Performant Recovery, Inc.). You get one notice dated January 1, 2018, for $65,000 from Region 1. January 2, 2018, you receive a notice of alleged overpayment from Region 2 in the amount of $210.35. January 3, 2018, is a big day. You receive notices of alleged overpayments in the amounts of $5 million from Region 4, $120,000 from Region 3, and two other Region 1 notices in the amount of $345.00 and $65,000. This continues for three weeks. In the end, you have 20 different notices of alleged overpayments from 5 different regions, and you are terrified and confused. But you know you need legal representation.
Do you appeal all the notices? Even the notice for $345.00? Obviously, the cost of attorneys’ fees to appeal the $345.00 will way outweigh the amount of the alleged overpayment.
Here are my two cents:
Appeal everything – and this is why – it is a compelling argument of harassment/undue burden/complete confusion to a judge to demonstrate the fact that you received 20 different notices of overpayment from 5 different MACs. I mean, you need a freaking XL spreadsheet to keep track of your notices. Never mind that an appeal in Medicare takes 5 levels and each appeal will be at a separate and distinct status than the others. Judges are humans, and humans understand chaos and the fact that humans have a hard time with chaos. For example, I have contractors in my house. It is chaos. I cannot handle it.
While 20 distinct notices of alleged overpayment is tedious, it is worth it once you get to the third level, before an unbiased administrative law judge (ALJ), when you can consolidate the separate appeals to show the judge the madness.
Legally, the MACs cannot withhold or recoup funds while you appeal, although this is not always followed. In the case that the MACs recoup/withhold during your appeal, if it will cause irreparable harm to your company, then you need to get an injunction in court to suspend the recoupment/withhold.
According to multiple sources, the appeal success rate at the first and second levels are low, approximately 20%. This is to be expected since the first level is before the entity that determined that you owe money and the second level is not much better. The third level, however, is before an impartial ALJ. The success rate at that level is upwards of 75-80%. In the gambling game of life, those are good odds.
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) created a new page on its Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) website entitled “Provider Resources.” CMS indicated that it will post on this page any new issues the RACs have proposed to audit and are being evaluated by CMS for approval. It is like a glimpse behind the curtain to see the Great Oz. This is a fantastic resource for providers. CMS posts a list of review topics that have been proposed, but not yet approved, for RACs to review. You can see the future!
Topics proposed for future audits:
- Inpatient Rehabilitation Facility (IRF) Stays: Meeting Requirements to be considered Reasonable and Necessary;
- Respiratory Assistive Devices: Meeting Requirements to be considered Reasonable and Necessary;
- Excessive or Insufficient Drugs and Biologicals Units Billed;
- E&M Codes billed within a Procedure Code with a “0” Day Global Period (Endoscopies or some minor surgical procedures);
- E&M Codes billed within a Procedure Code with a “10” Day Global Period (other minor procedures);
- E&M Codes billed within a Procedure Code with a “90” Day Global Period (major surgeries);
Over the next few weeks, intermittently (along with other blog posts), I will tackle these, and other, hot RAC audit topics.
IRFs are under fire in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia!
Many patients with conditions like stroke or brain injury, who need an intensive medical rehabilitation program, are transferred to an inpatient rehabilitation facility.
Palmetto, one of Medicare’s MACs, conducted a prepayment review of IRFs in these four states. The results were bleak, indeed, and will, most likely, spur more audits of IRFs in the future. If you are a Medicare provider within Palmetto’s catchment area, then you know that Palmetto conducts a lot of targeted prepayment review. Here is a map of the MAC jurisdictions:
You can see that Palmetto manages Medicare for North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Virginia. So Palmetto’s prepayment review covered its entire catchment area.
North Carolina Results A total of 28 claims were reviewed with 19 of the claims either completely or partially denied. The total dollars reviewed was $593,174.60 of which $416,483.42 was denied, resulting in a charge denial rate of 70.2 percent.
South Carolina Results A total of 24 claims were reviewed with 16 of the claims either completely or partially denied. The total dollars reviewed was $484,742.68 of which $325,266.43 was denied, resulting in a charge denial rate of 67.1 percent.
West Virginia Results
A total of two claims were reviewed with two of the claims either completely or partially denied. The total dollars reviewed was $32,506.21 of which $32,506.21 was denied, resulting in a charge denial rate of 100 percent.
A total of 39 claims were reviewed with 31 of the claims either completely or partially denied. The total dollars reviewed was $810,913.83 of which $629,118.08 was denied, resulting in a charge denial rate of 77.6 percent.
In all 4 states, the most cited denial code was “5J504,” which means that “need for service/item not medically and reasonably necessary.” Subjective, right? I mean, who is better at determining medical necessity: (1) the treating physician who actually performs services and conducts the physical; or (2) a utilization auditor without an MD and who as never rendered medical services on the particular consumer? I see it all the time…former dental hygienists review the medical records of dentists and determine that no medial necessity exists…
When it comes to IRF Stays, what is reasonable and necessary?
According to Medicare policy and CMS guidance, the documentation in the patient’s IRF
medical record must demonstrate a reasonable expectation that the following criteria were met at the time of admission to the IRF. The patient must:
- Require active and ongoing intervention of multiple therapy disciplines (Physical
Therapy [PT], Occupational Therapy [OT], Speech-Language Pathology [SLP], or
prosthetics/orthotics), at least one of which must be PT or OT;
- Require an intensive rehabilitation therapy program, generally consisting of:
◦ 3 hours of therapy per day at least 5 days per week; or
◦ In certain well-documented cases, at least 15 hours of intensive rehabilitation
therapy within a 7-consecutive day period, beginning with the date of admission;
- Reasonably be expected to actively participate in, and benefit significantly
from, the intensive rehabilitation therapy program (the patient’s condition and
functional status are such that the patient can reasonably be expected to make
measurable improvement, expected to be made within a prescribed period of time
and as a result of the intensive rehabilitation therapy program, that will be of practical value to improve the patient’s functional capacity or adaptation to impairments);
- Require physician supervision by a rehabilitation physician, with face-to-face
visits at least 3 days per week to assess the patient both medically and functionally
and to modify the course of treatment as needed; and
- Require an intensive and coordinated interdisciplinary team approach to the
delivery of rehabilitative care.
Did you notice how often the word “generally” or “reasonably” was used? Because the standard for an IRF stay is subjective. In fact, I would wager a bet that if I reviewed the same documentation as the Palmetto auditors did, that I could make a legal argument that the opposite conclusion should have been drawn. I do it all the time. This is the reason that so many audits are easily overturned…they are subjective!
Therefore, when you get an audit result, such as the ones referenced above:
APPEAL! APPEAL! APPEAL!
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!
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.
Wiping 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.