Category Archives: Coronavirus

Post-COVID (ish) RAC Audits – Temporary Restrictions

2020 was an odd year for recovery audit contractor (“RAC”) and Medicare Administrative Contractors (“MAC”) audits. Well, it was an odd year for everyone. After trying five virtual trials, each one with up to 23 witnesses, it seems that, slowly but surely, we are getting back to normalcy. A tell-tale sign of fresh normalcy is an in-person defense of health care regulatory audits. I am defending a RAC audit of pediatric facility in Georgia in a couple weeks and the clerk of court said – “The hearing is in person.” Well, that’s new. Even when we specifically requested a virtual trial, we were denied with the explanation that GA is open now. The virtual trials are cheaper and more convenient; clients don’t have to pay for hotels and airlines.

In-person hearings are back – at least in most states. We have similar players and new restrictions.

On March 16, 2021, CMS announced that it will temporarily restrict audits to March 1, 2020, and before. Medicare audits are not yet dipping its metaphoric toes into the shark infested waters of auditing claims with dates of service (“DOS”) March 1 – today. This leaves a year and half time period untouched. Once the temporary hold is lifted, audits of 2020 DOS will be abound. March 26, 2021, CMS awarded Performant Recovery, Inc., the incumbent, the new RAC Region 1 contract.

RAC’s review claims on a post-payment and/or pre-payment basis. (FYI – You would rather a post payment review rather than a pre – I promise).

The RACs were created to detect fraud, waste, and abuse (“FWA”) by reviewing medical records. Any health care provider – not matter how big or small –  are subject to audits at the whim of the government. CMS, RACs, MCOs, MACs, TPEs, UPICs, and every other auditing company can implement actions that will prevent future improper payments, as well. As we all know, RACs are paid on a contingency basis. Approximately, 13%. When the RACs were first created, the RACs were compensated based on accusations of overpayments, not the amounts that were truly owed after an independent tribunal. As any human could surmise, the contingency payment creates an overzealousness that can only be demonstrated by my favorite case in my 21 years – in New Mexico against Public Consulting Group (“PCG”). A behavioral health care (“BH”) provider was accused of over $12 million overpayment. After we presented before the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) in NM Administrative Court, the ALJ determined that we owed $896.35. The 99.23% reduction was because of the following:

  1. Faulty Extrapolation: NM HSD’s contractor PCG reviewed approximately 150 claims out of 15,000 claims between 2009 and 2013. Once the error rate was defined as high as 92%, the base error equaled $9,812.08; however the extrapolated amount equaled over $12 million. Our expert statistician rebutted the error rate being so high.  Once the extrapolation is thrown out, we are now dealing with much more reasonable amounts – only $9k
  • Attack the Clinical Denials: The underlying, alleged overpayment of $9,812.08 was based on 150 claims. We walked through the 150 claims that PCG claimed were denials and proved PCG wrong. Examples of their errors include denials based on lack of staff credentialing, when in reality, the auditor could not read the signature. Other denials were erroneously denied based the application of the wrong policy year.

The upshot is that we convinced the judge that PCG was wrong in almost every denial PCG made. In the end, the Judge found we owed $896.35, not $12 million. Little bit of a difference! We appealed.

Medicare Appeal Backlog Dissolves and SMRC Audits Escalate

I have good news and bad news today. I have chosen to begin with the good news. The ALJ backlog will soon be no more. Yes, the 4-6 years waiting period between the second and third level will, by sometime in 2021, be back to 90 days, with is the statutory requirement. What precipitated this drastic improvement? Money. This past year, CMS’ budget increased exponentially, mostly due to the Medicare appeals backlog. OMHA was given enough dough to hire 70 additional ALJs and to open six additional locations. That brings the number of ALJs ruling over provider Medicare appeals to over 100. OMHA now has the capability to hear and render decisions for approximately 300,000 appeals per year. This number is drastically higher than the number of Medicare appeals being filed. The backlog will soon be nonexistent. This is fantastic for all providers because, while CMS will continue to recoup the alleged overpayment after the 2nd level, the providers will be able to have its case adjudicated by an ALJ much speedier.

Now the bad news. Remember when the RAC program was first implemented and the RACs were zealously auditing, which is the reason that the backlog exists in the first place. RACs were given free rein to audit whichever types of service providers they chose to target. Once the backlog was out of hand, CMS restricted the RACs. They only allowed a 3 year lookback period when other auditors can go back 6 years, like the SMRC audits. CMS also mandated that the RACs slow down their number of audits and put other restrictions on RACs. Now that OMHA has the capacity to adjudicate 300,000 Medicare appeals per year, expect that those reins that have been holding the RACs back will by 2021 or 2022 be fully loosened for a full gallop.

Switching gears: Two of the lesser known audits that are exclusive to the CMS are the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (“SMRC”) and the Targeted Probe and Educate (“TPE”) audits. Exclusivity to CMS just means that Medicare claims are reviewed, not Medicaid.

The SMRCs, in particular, create confusion. We have seen DME SMRC audits on ventilator claims, which are extremely document intensive. You can imagine the high amounts of money at issue because, for ventilators, many people require them for long periods of time. Sometimes there can 3000 claim lines for a ventilator claim. These SMRC audits are not extrapolated, but the amount in controversy is still high. SMRCs normally request the documents for 20-40 claims. It is a one-time review. It’s a post payment review audit. It doesn’t sound that bad until you receive the request for documents of 20-40 claims, all of which contain 3000 claim lines and you have 45 days to comply.

Lastly, in a rare act, CMS has inquired as whether provider prefer TPE audits or continue with post payment review audits for the remainder of the pandemic. If you have a strong opinion one way or the other, be sure to contact CMS.

Medicaid Fraud Control Units Performed Poorly During the Pandemic: Expect MFCU Oversight to Increase

OIG just published its annual survey of how well or poor MFCUs across the country performed in 2020, during the ongoing COVID pandemic. Each State has its own Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (“MFCU”) to prosecute criminal and civil fraud in its respective State. I promise you, you do not want MFCU to be calling or subpoena-ing you unexpectedly. The MFCUs reported that the pandemic created significant challenges for staff, operations, and court proceedings, which led to lower case outcomes in FY 2020. But during this past “lower than expected” recovery year, the MFCUs still recovered over $1 billion from health care providers. It was a 48% drop.

2020 MFCU Statistics at a Glance

As MFCUs initially moved to a telework environment, some staff reported experiencing challenges conducting work because of limitations with computer equipment and network infrastructure. Field work was also limited. To help protect staff and members of the public from the pandemic, MFCUs reported curtailing some in-person field work, such as interviews of witnesses and suspects. These activities were further limited because of an initial lack of personal protective equipment that was needed in order to conduct similar activities in nursing homes and other facilities. Basically, COVID made for a bad recovery year by the MFCUs. Courts were closed for a while as well, slowing the prosecutorial process.

The report further demonstrated how lucrative the MFCU agencies are, despite the pandemic. For every $1 dollar spent on the administration of a MFCU, the MFCUs rake in $3.36. In 2020, the MFCUs excluded 928 individuals or entities. There were 786 civil settlements and judgments; the vast majority of judgments were pharmaceutical manufacturers. Convictions decreased drastically from 1,564 in 2019 to 1,017 convictions in 2020.  Interestingly, looking at the types of providers convicted or penalized, the vast majority were personal care services attendants and agencies. Five times higher than the next highest provider type – nurses: LPN, RNs, NPs, and PAs.

And the award goes to Maine’s MFCU – The Maine MFCU received the Inspector General’s Award for Excellence in Fighting Fraud, Waste, and Abuse for its high number of case outcomes across a mix of case types.

OIG also established the desired performance indicators for 2021. OIG expects the MFCUs to maintain an indictment rate of 19% and a conviction rate of 89.1%.

The OIG Report Foreshadows 2021 MFCU Actions:

  1. Hospice: Expect audits. $0 was recovered in 2020.
  2. Fraud convictions increased for cardiologists and emergency medicine. Expect these areas to be more highly scrutinized, especially given all the COVID exceptions and rule amendments last year.
  3. Expect a MFCU rally. The pandemic may not be over, but with increased vaccines and after a down year, MFCUs will be bulls in the upcoming year as opposed to last year’s forced, lamb-like actions due to the pandemic.

While Medicare is strictly a federal program, Medicaid is funded with federal and State tax dollars. Therefore, each State’s regulations germane to Medicaid can vary. Medicaid fraud can be prosecuted as a federal or a State crime.

More Covered Health Care Services and More Policing under the Biden Administration!

Happy 55th Medicare! Pres. Biden’s health care policies differ starkly from former Pres. Trump’s. I will discuss some of the key differences. The newest $1.9 trillion COVID bill passed February 27th. President Biden is sending a clear message for health care providers: His agenda includes expanding government-run, health insurance and increase oversight on it. In 2021, Medicare is celebrating its 55th year of providing health insurance. The program was first signed into law in 1965 and began offering coverage in 1966. That first year, 19 million Americans enrolled in Medicare for their health care coverage. As of 2019, more than 61 million Americans were enrolled in the program.

Along with multiple Executive Orders, Pres. Biden is clearly broadening the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”), Medicaid and Medicare programs. Indicating an emphasis on oversight, President Biden chose former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead HHS. Becerra was a prosecutor and plans to bring his prosecutorial efforts to the nation’s health care. President Biden used executive action to reopen enrollment in ACA marketplaces, a step in his broader agenda to bolster the Act with a new optional government health plan.

For example, one of my personal, favorite issues that Pres. Biden will address is parity for Medicare coverage for medically necessary, oral health care. In fact, Medicare coverage extends to the treatment of all microbial infections except for those originating from the teeth or periodontium. There is simply no medical justification for this exclusion, especially in light of the broad agreement among health care providers that such care is integral to the medical management of numerous diseases and medical conditions.

The Biden administration has taken steps to roll back a controversial Trump-era rule that requires Medicaid beneficiaries to work in order to receive coverage. Two weeks ago, CMS sent letters to several states that received approval for a Section 1115 waiver – for Medicaid. CMS said it was beginning a process to determine whether to withdraw the approval. States that received a letter include Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin. The work requirement waivers that HHS approved at the end of the previous administration’s term may not survive the new presidency.

Post Payment Reviews—Recovery Audit Contractor (“RAC”) audits will increase during the Biden administration. The RAC program was created by the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003. As we all know, the RACs are responsible for identifying Medicare overpayments and underpayments and for highlighting common billing errors, trends, and other Medicare payment issues. In addition to collecting overpayments, the data generated from RAC audits allows CMS to make changes to prevent improper payments in the future. The RACs are paid on a contingency fee basis and, therefore, only receive payment when recovery is made. This creates overzealous auditors and, many times, inaccurate findings. In 2010, the Obama administration directed federal agencies to increase the use of auditing programs such as the RACs to help protect the integrity of the Medicare program. The RAC program is relatively low cost and high value for CMS. It is likely that the health care industry will see growth in this area under the Biden administration. To that end, the expansion of audits will not only be RAC auditors, but will include increased oversight by MACs, CERTs, UPICs, etc.

Telehealth audits will be a focus for Pres. Biden. With increased use of telehealth due to COVID, comes increased telehealth fraud, allegedly. On September 30, 2020, the inter-agency National Health Care Take Down Initiative announced that it charged hundreds of defendants ostensibly responsible for—among other things—$4.5 billion in false and fraudulent claims relating to telehealth advertisements and services. Unfortunately for telehealth, bad actors are prevalent and will spur on more and more oversight.

Both government-initiated litigation and qui tam suits appear set for continued growth in 2021. Health care fraud and abuse dominated 2020 federal False Claims Act (“FCA”) recoveries, with almost 85 percent of FCA proceeds derived from HHS. The increase of health care enforcement payouts reflects how important government paid health insurance is in America. Becerra’s incoming team is, in any case, expected to generally ramp up law enforcement activities—both to punish health care fraud and abuse and as an exercise of HHS’s policy-making authorities.

With more than $1 billion of FCA payouts in 2020 derived from federal Anti-Kickback Statute (“AKS”) settlements alone, HHS’s heavy reliance on the FCA because it is a strong statute with “big teeth,” i.e., penalties are harsh. For these same reasons, prosecutors and qui tam relators will likely continue to focus their efforts on AKS enforcement in the Biden administration, despite the recent regulatory carveouts from the AKS and an emerging legal challenge from drug manufacturers.

The individual mandate is back in. The last administration got rid of the individual mandate when former Pres. Trump signed the GOP tax bill into law in 2017. Pres. Biden will bring back the penalty for not being covered under health insurance under his plan. Since the individual mandate currently is not federal law, a Biden campaign official said that he would use a combination of Executive Orders to undo the changes.

In an effort to lower the skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs, Pres. Biden’s plan would repeal existing law that currently bans Medicare from negotiating lower prices with drug manufacturers. He would also limit price increases for all brand, biotech and generic drugs and launch prices for drugs that do not have competition.

Consumers would also be able to buy cheaper priced prescription drugs from other countries, which could help mobilize competition. And Biden would terminate their advertising tax break in an effort to also help lower costs.

In all, the Biden administration is expected to expand health care, medical, oral, and telehealth, while simultaneously policing health care providers for aberrant billing practices. My advice for providers: Be cognizant of your billing practices. You have an opportunity with this administration to increase revenue from government-paid services but do so compliantly.

RAC Report: PET Scans, Helicopter Transportation, and Hospice, Oh My!

The RACs are on attack! The “COVID Pause Button” on RAC audits has been lifted. The COVID Pause Button has been lifted since August 2020. But never have I ever seen CMS spew out so many new RAC topics in one month of a new year. Happy 2021.

Recovery audit contractors (“RACs”) will soon be auditing positron emission tomography (PET) scans for initial treatment strategy in oncologic conditions for compliance with medical necessity and documentation requirements.

Positron emission tomography (“PET”) scans detect early signs of cancer, heart disease and brain disorders. An injectable radioactive tracer detects diseased cells. A combination PET-CT scan produces 3D images for a more accurate diagnosis.

According to CMS’ RAC audit topics, “(PET) for Initial Treatment Strategy in Oncologic Conditions: Medical Necessity and Documentation Requirements,” will be reviewed as of January 5, 2021. The PET scan audits will be for outpatient hospital and professional service reviews. CMS added additional 2021 audit targets to the approved list:

  1. Air Ambulance: Medical Necessity and Documentation Requirements,[1]. This complex review will be examining rotatory wing (helicopter) aircraft claims to determine if air ambulance transport was reasonable and medically necessary as well as whether or not documentation requirements have been met.
  2. Hospice Continuous Home Care: Medical Necessity and Documentation Requirements,[2] and
  3. Ambulance Transport Subject to SNF Consolidated Billing.[3]

Upcoming HHS secretary Xavier Becerra plans to get his new tenure underway quickly.

In False Claims Act (“FCA”) news, Medicare audits of P-Stim have ramped up across the country. A Spinal Clinic in Texas agreed to pay $330,898 to settle FCA allegations for allegedly billing Medicare improperly for electro-acupuncture device neurostimulators. CMS claims that “Medicare does not reimburse for acupuncture or for acupuncture devices such as P-Stim, nor does Medicare reimburse for P-Stim as a neurostimulator or as implantation of neurostimulator electrodes.”

Finally, is your staff getting medical records to consumers requesting their records quickly enough? Right to access to health records is yet another potential risk for all providers, especially hospitals due to their size. A hospital system agreed to pay $200,000 to settle potential violations of the HIPAA Privacy Rule’s right of access standard. This is HHS Office for Civil Rights’ 14th settlement under its Right of Access Initiative. The first person alleged that she requested medical records in December 2017 and did not receive them until May 2018. In the second complaint, the person asked for an electronic copy of his records in September 2019, and they were not sent until February 2020.

Beware of slow document production as slow document production can lead to penalties. And be on the lookout for the next RAC Report.

Remember, never accept the results of a Medicare or Medicaid audit. It is always too high. Believe me, after 21 years of my legal practice, I have yet to agree with the findings if a Tentative notice of Overpayment by any governmental contracted auditor, whether it is PCG, NGS, the MACs, MCOs, or Program Integrity – in any of our 50 States. That is quite a statement about the general, quality of work of auditors. Remember Teambuilders? How did $12 million become $896.35? See blog.

1  CMS, “0200-Air Ambulance: Medical Necessity and Documentation Requirements,” proposed RAC topic, January 5, 2021, http://go.cms.gov/35Jx1co.
2 CMS, “0201-Hospice Continuous Home Care: Medical Necessity and Documentation Requirements,” proposed RAC topic, January 5, 2021, http://go.cms.gov/3oRUyiY.
3 CMS, “0202- Ambulance Transport Subject to SNF Consolidated Billing,” proposed RAC topic, January 5, 2021, http://go.cms.gov/2LOMEbw.

The Undefined, Definition of “Medical Necessity”

While the Coronavirus pandemic is horrible and seems to be getting worse. COVID has forced slight, positive changes in the telehealth arena and, perhaps, in the widening of the ambiguous definition of “medical necessity” or, as I call it – the undefined, definition of “medical necessity.” Medical necessity is the backbone of rendering health care services. Without it, services should not be provided. Yet, medical necessity is the most litigated topic in all of audits.

On September 1, 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) published a proposed rule that will codify a definition of “medical necessity” for Medicare purposes. So far, the definition of medical necessity varies, depending on the source. The MACs have been given long rein in defining the term on an individual and separate basis, creating disparity in definitions and criteria. The proposed rule’s comment period ended November 2, 2020.

All this to say medical necessity is in the eye of the beholder. Much like beauty. Why then, can RAC and MAC auditors who are not doctors, not firsthand, treating providers, not nurses or LCASs, decide that medical necessity does or does not exist for a patient that they have never seen?

Black’s Law Dictionary (the most prominent legal dictionary) has a super, unhelpful definition of medical necessity: “If not carried out the patient’s situation could worsen. For a patient’s treatment found to be necessary is this specific type of procedure or treatment.”

The American Medical Association (“AMA”), on the other hand, has a more detailed definition, probably unintended to make it all the more confusing:

“Our AMA defines medical necessity as: Health care services or products that a prudent physician would provide to a patient for the purpose of preventing, diagnosing or treating an illness, injury, disease or its symptoms in a manner that is: (a) in accordance with generally accepted standards of medical practice; (b) clinically appropriate in terms of type, frequency, extent, site, and duration; and (c) not primarily for the economic benefit of the health plans and purchasers or for the convenience of the patient, treating physician, or other health care provider.”

CMS’ proposed rule codifies a definition of what makes an item or service medically “reasonable and necessary” under the Social Security Act 1861(a)(1)(A). The rule, if finalized, would codify in regulations a definition of “reasonable and necessary” items and services based on a definition currently used by Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), with an additional element that potentially would include coverage determinations by commercial insurers as a factor in making Medicare coverage determinations.

The Proposed Definition (To be Codified in 42 CFR 405.201)

“We are proposing to codify the longstanding Program Integrity Manual definition of “reasonable and necessary” into our regulations at 42 CFR 405.201(b), with modification. Under the current definition, an item or service is considered “reasonable and necessary” if it is (1) safe and effective; (2) not experimental or investigational; and (3) appropriate, including the duration and frequency that is considered appropriate for the item or service, in terms of whether it is—

  • Furnished in accordance with accepted standards of medical practice for the diagnosis or treatment of the patient’s condition or to improve the function of a malformed body member;
  • Furnished in a setting appropriate to the patient’s medical needs and condition;
  • Ordered and furnished by qualified personnel;
  • One that meets, but does not exceed, the patient’s medical need; and
  • At least as beneficial as an existing and available medically appropriate alternative.” See Proposed Rule.

In addition, CMS adds that it will also utilize commercial payor standards or have an objective panel determine medical necessity if criteria #1 and #2 were met, but not #3. This additional commentary is another example of how subjective and fact-specific determining medical necessity can be. The LCDs will also be consulted.

If adopted, these proposals would arguably lead to the most wide-ranging changes in Medicare’s coverage standards and procedures in decades. The proposal to codify the definition of “reasonable and necessary” applies to all items and services. The inclusion of commercial payor standards may be a wild card.

The definition of medical necessity has not been officially revised – yet. One could imagine that, in the midst of a RAC or MAC audit, auditors and providers will disagree as to the true definition of medical necessity.

Going forward, when you get audited, immediately look and see whether your claim denials were denied due to “lack of medical necessity.” Ask yourself, “Really? Is there no medical necessity in this case…even in the era of COVID?” Because the auditors may be wrong.

Secondly, ensure that the RAC and MAC entity is CMS-certified to review those certain CPT codes for medical necessity. CMS limits audits on medical necessity because of the vagueness of the definition. When auditors find no medical necessity, then providers must push back. And you should push back, legally, of course!

Executive Orders and Presidential Memorandums: A Civics Lesson

Before the informative article below , I have two announcements!

(1) My blog has been “in publication” for over eight (8) years, this September 2020. Yay! I truly hope that my articles have been educational for the thousands of readers of my blog. Thank you to everyone who follows my blog. And…

(2) Knicole Emanuel and her legal team have moved law firms!!! We are now at PractUS, LLP. See the video interview of John Lively, who started my new law firm: here. It’s a pretty cool concept.

Click here: For my new bio and contact information.

Ok – Back to the informative news about the most recent Executive Orders…

My co-panelist on RACMonitor, Matthew Albright, gave a fascinating and informative summary on the recent, flurry of Executive Orders, and, he says, expect many more to come in the near future. He presented the following article on RACMonitor Monitor Monday, August 10, 2020. I found his article important enough to be shared on my blog. Enjoy!!

By Matthew Albright
Original story posted on: August 12, 2020

Presidential Executive Order No. 1 was issued on Oct. 20, 1862 by President Lincoln; it established a wartime court in Louisiana. The most famous executive order was also issued by Lincoln a few years later – the Emancipation Proclamation.

Executive orders are derived from the Constitution, which gives the president the authority to determine how to carry out the laws passed by Congress. The trick here is that executive orders can’t make new laws; they can only establish new – and perhaps creative – approaches to implementing existing laws.

President Trump has signed 18 executive orders and presidential memorandums in the past seven days. That sample of orders and memos are a good illustration of the authority – and the constraints – of presidential powers.

An executive order and a presidential memorandum are basically the same thing; the difference is that a memorandum doesn’t have to cite the specific law passed by Congress that the president is implementing, and a memorandum isn’t published in the Federal Register. In other words, an executive order says “this is what the President is going to do,” and a memorandum says “the President is going to do this too, but it shouldn’t be taken as seriously.”  

Executive orders and memorandums often give instructions to federal agencies on what elements of a broader law they should focus on. One good example of this is the executive order signed a week ago by President Trump that provides new support and access to healthcare for rural communities. In that executive order, the President cited the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as the broad law he was using to improve access to rural communities.

Executive orders also often illustrate the limits of presidential authority, a good example being the series of executive orders and memorandums that the president signed this past Saturday, intended to provide Americans financial relief during the pandemic.

One of the memorandums signed on Saturday delayed the due date for employers to submit payroll taxes. The idea was that companies would in turn decide to stop taking those taxes out of employees’ paychecks, at least until December.  

By looking at the language in the memorandum and seeing what it does not try to do, we can learn a lot about presidential limits.

The memorandum does not give employers or employees a tax break. That power rests unquestionably with Congress. The order only delays when the taxes will be collected. Like the grim reaper, the tax man will come to your door someday, even if you can delay when that “someday” is.  

Also, the tax delay is only for employers, and – again, another illustration of the limits of presidential power – it doesn’t tell employers how they should manage this extra time they have to pay the tax. That is, companies could decide to continue to take taxes out of people’s paychecks, knowing that the taxes will still have to be paid someday.

Another memorandum that the president signed on Saturday concerned unemployment benefits. That order illustrates the division in powers between the federal Executive Branch and the authority of the states.

The memorandum provides an extra $400 in unemployment benefits, but in order for it to work, the states would have to put up one-fourth of the money. The memorandum doesn’t require states to put up the money; it “calls on” them to do it, because the President, unless authorized by Congress, can’t make states pay for something they don’t want.

Executive orders and memorandums are reflective of my current position as the father of two pre-teen girls. I can declare the direction the household should go, I can “call on them” to play less Fortnite and eat more fruit, but my orders and their subsequent implementation often just serve to illustrate the limits – both perceived and real –of my paternal power.

Programming Note: Matthew Albright is a permanent panelist on Monitor Mondays (with me:) ). Listen to his legislative update sponsored by Zelis, Mondays at 10 a.m. EST.

RAC Audits Expected During the COVID Pandemic

Even though the public health emergency (“PHE”) for the COVID pandemic is scheduled to expire July 24, 2020, all evidence indicates that the PHE will be renewed. I cannot imagine a scenario in which the PHE is not extended, especially with the sudden uptick of COVID.

Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has given guidance that the voluminous number of exceptions that CMS has granted during this period of the PHE may be extended to Dec. 1, 2020. However, there is no indication of the RAC, and MAC audits being suspended until December 2020. In fact, we expect the audits to begin again any day. There will be confusion when audits resume and COVID exceptions are revoked on a rolling basis.

Remember the emergency-room physician whom I spoke about on the June 29 on Monitor Mondays? The physician whose Medicare enrollment was revoked due to a computer error or an error on the part of CMS. What normally would have been an easy fix, because of COVID, became more difficult. Because of COVID, he was unable to work for three months. He is back up and running now. The point is that COVID really messed up so many aspects of our lives.

The extension of PHE, technically, has no bearing on RAC and MAC audits coming back. Word on the street is that RAC and MAC audits are returning August 2020.

This month, July 2020, CMS released, “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Provider Burden Relief Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).” (herein afterward referred as “CMS July 2020 FAQs”).

The question was posed to CMS: “Is CMS suspending most Medicare-Fee-for-Service (FFS) medical review during the PHE for the COVID-19 pandemic? The answer is, according to CMS, “As states reopen, and given the importance of medical review activities to CMS’ program integrity efforts, CMS expects to discontinue exercising enforcement discretion beginning on Aug. 3, 2020, regardless of the status of the public health emergency. If selected for review, providers should discuss with their contractor any COVID-19-related hardships they are experiencing that could affect audit response timeliness. CMS notes that all reviews will be conducted in accordance with statutory and regulatory provisions, as well as related billing and coding requirements. Waivers and flexibilities in place at the time of the dates of service of any claims potentially selected for review will also be applied.” See CMS July 2020 FAQs.

Monday, July 13, 2020, we began our fourth “COVID-virtual trial.” The Judges with whom I have had interaction have taken a hard stance to not “force” someone to appear in person. It appears, at least to me, that virtual trials are the wave of the future. This is the guidance that conveys to me that RAC and MAC audits will begin again in August. Virtual audits may even be the best thing that ever happened to RAC and MAC audits. Maybe now the auditors will actually read the documents that the provider gives them.

Another specific issue addressed in the CMS’ July 2020 FAQs is that given the nature of the pandemic and the inability to collect signatures during this time, CMS will not be enforcing the signature requirement. Typically, Part B drugs and certain Durable Medical Equipment (DME) covered by Medicare require proof of delivery and/or a beneficiary’s signature. Suppliers should document in the medical record the appropriate date of delivery and that a signature was not able to be obtained because of COVID-19. This exception may or may not extend until Dec. 31, 2020.

The upshot is that no one really knows how the next few months will unfold in the healthcare industry. Some hospitals and healthcare systems are going under due to COVID. Big and small hospital systems are in financial despair. A RAC or MAC audit hitting in the wake of the COVID pandemic could cripple most providers. I will reiterate my recommendation: In the re-arranged words of Roosevelt, “Speak loudly, and carry a big stick.”

Programming Note: Knicole Emanuel is a permanent panelist on Monitor Mondays. Listen to her live reporting every Monday at 10 a.m. EST.

A Court Case in the Time of COVID: The Judge Forgot to Swear in the Witnesses

Since COVID-19, courts across the country have been closed. Judges have been relaxing at home.

As an attorney, I have not been able to relax. No sunbathing for me. Work has increased since COVID-19 (me being a healthcare attorney). I never thought of myself as an essential worker. I still don’t think that I am essential.

On Friday, May 8, my legal team had to appear in court.

“How in the world are we going to do this?” I thought.

My law partner lives in Philadelphia. Our client lives in Charlotte, N.C. I live on a horse farm in Apex, N.C. Who knows where the judge lives, or opposing counsel or their witnesses? How were we going to question a witness? Or exchange documents?

Despite COVID-19, we had to have court, so I needed to buck up, stop whining, and figure it out. “Pull up your bootstraps, girl,” I thought.

First, we practiced on Microsoft Teams. Multiple times. It is not a user-friendly interface. This Microsoft Team app was the judge’s choice, not mine. I had never heard of it. It turns out that it does have some cool features. For example, my paralegal had 100-percent control of the documents. If we needed a document up on the screen, then he made it pop up, at my direction. If I wanted “control” of the document, I simply placed my mouse cursor over it. But then my paralegal did not have control. In other words, two people cannot fight over a document on this new “TV Court.”

The judge forgot to swear in the witnesses. That was the first mess-up “on the record.” I didn’t want to call her out in front of people, so I went with it. She remembered later and did swear everyone in. These are new times.

Then we had to discuss HIPAA, because this was a health care provider asking for immediate relief because of COVID-19. We were sharing personal health information (PHI) over all of our computers and in space. We asked the judge to seal the record before we even got started. All of a sudden, our court case made us all “essentials.” Besides my client, the healthcare provider, no one else involved in this court case was an “essential.” We were all on the computer trying to get this provider back to work during COVID-19. That is what made us essentials!

Interestingly, we had 10 people participating on the Microsoft Team “TV Court” case. The person that I kept forgetting was there was Mr. Carr (because Mr. Carr works at the courthouse and I have never seen him). Also, another woman stepped in for a while, so even though the “name” of the masked attendee was Mr. Carr, for a while Patricia was in charge. A.K.A. Mr. Carr.

You cannot see all 10 people on the Team app. We discovered that whomever spoke, their face would pop up on the screen. I could only see three people at a time on the screen. Automatically, the app chose the three people to be visible based on who had spoken most recently. We were able to hold this hearing because of the mysterious Mr. Carr.

The witnesses stayed on the application the whole time. In real life, witnesses listen to others’ testimony all the time, but with this, you had to remember that everyone could hear everything. You can elect to not video-record yourself and mute yourself. When I asked my client to step away and have a private conversation, my paralegal, my partner, and the client would log off the link and log back on an 8 a.m. link that we used to practice earlier that day. That was our private chat room.

The judge wore no robe. She looked like she was sitting on the back porch of her house. Birds were whistling in the background. It was a pretty day, and there was a bright blue sky…wherever she was. No one wore suits except for me. I wore a nice suit. I wore no shoes, but a nice suit. Everyone one else wore jeans and a shirt.

I didn’t have to drive to the courthouse and find parking. I didn’t even have to wear high heels and walk around in them all day. I didn’t have to tell my paralegal to carry all 1,500 pages of exhibits to the courthouse, or bring him Advil for when he complains that his job is making his back ache.

Whenever I wanted to get a refill of sweet tea or go to the bathroom, I did so quietly. I turned off my video and muted myself and carried my laptop to the bathroom. Although, now, I completely understand why the Supreme Court had its “Supreme Flush.”

All in all, it went as smoothly as one could hope in such an awkward platform.

Oh, and happily, we won the injunction, and now a home healthcare provider can go back to work during COVID-19. All of her aides have PPE. All of her aides want to go to work to earn money. They are willing to take the risk. My client should get back-paid for all her services rendered prior to the injunction. She hadn’t been getting paid for months. However, this provider is still on prepayment review due to N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C-7(e), which legislators should really review. This statute does not work. Especially in the time of COVID. See blog.

I may be among the first civil attorneys to go to court in the time of COVID-19. If I’m honest, I kind of liked it better. I can go to the bathroom whenever I need to, as long as I turn off my audio. Interestingly, Monday, Texas began holding its first jury trial – virtually. I cannot wait to see that cluster! It is streaming live.

Being on RACMonitor for so long definitely helped me prepare for my first remote lawsuit. My next lawsuit will be in New York City, where adult day care centers are not getting properly reimbursed.

RACMonitor Programming Note:

Healthcare attorney Knicole Emanuel is a permanent panelist on Monitor Monday and you can hear her reporting every Monday, 10-10:30 a.m. EST.

Contract Law Versus Executive Orders: Which Wins in the Wake of a Worldwide Pandemic?

How much power does an Executive Order signed by your State’s Governor actually wield? Governors, all of whom are elected, serve as the CEOs of the 50 states, five commonwealths, and territories of the U.S.

As CEO of their particular State, Governors are responsible for ensuring that each State is adequately prepared for emergencies and disasters of all types and sizes. Most emergencies and disasters are handled at the local level, and few require a presidential disaster declaration or attract worldwide media attention. Yet here we are. A global pandemic affecting every single person on the planet.

This is not a tornado. It’s not Sept. 11 or giant killer hornets, which are also apparently a new thing. This virus has uprooted the world in a way that no one has ever witnessed.

Not everyone is following Governors’ Executive Orders. For example, multiple adult day care centers contacted me recently from New York. Governor Cuomo has issued multiple Executive Orders regarding telehealth, basically relaxing the rules and forcing higher reimbursement rates and allowing for more telehealth, when in the past, it would not have been allowed. However, private insurance companies are refusing to obey the governor’s executive orders. The private companies argue that the providers signed a binding contract that does not include telehealth. The private payors argue that contract law trumps a governor’s executive order, even though the governor has ordered it because of the pandemic. Governor Cuomo has suspended New York State Public Health Law §2999-cc, as well as numerous others.

These adult day centers have followed the governor’s executive orders and are providing telehealth to maintain elderly socialization. The mental health aspect is their main concern right now.

There is no consistency in how the private companies are complying or not complying. Some private payors have issued amendments to the providers’ contracts, allowing telehealth, but at a serious financial decrease. Where the visit would have been reimbursed at $100-200, the new contract amendments allow for reimbursement rates of $25.

Others stick to the contracts and refuse to reimburse telehealth for these adult day care centers at all.

According to one of the companies that spoke with me, the adult day care centers in New York are losing approximately $56,000 per month. Now, I know that most health care providers are losing money in this pandemic. My friend who is an ER nurse says she has never seen the ER so empty. We cannot have our hospitals close. But in the case of the adult day care centers, we can point to a legal reason that providers should be reimbursed during this pandemic. The private payors are blatantly not following the Governor’s Executive Order.

Here, in North Carolina, the reimbursement rates for health care providers are increasing, sometimes doubling, as in the case of home health due to the shortage of health care providers willing to go onto someone’s home. From about $15 to $33 per hour. Thank you to all you home health workers! It is a scary time, and you are essential.

The providers want to sue to get the reimbursements that they are owed.

This is just one example of how discombobulated COVID-19 has made everyone.

Then add in the next variable of New Yorkers re-entering society and the “stay at home” Orders being lifted. I do not think that the problem with private payors not following a Governor’s Executive Order will just vanish when the state reopens. These providers have lost their higher reimbursable rates and cannot get that money unless they sue.

If I were a betting woman, I would bet that there are hundreds of intricate ways that insurance companies have not followed their particular states’ executive orders. Think about this: even if the companies were truly trying to abide by all executive orders, those companies in multiple states may get opposing orders from different states. So then a nationwide private payor is expected to follow 50 different executive orders. I can see why it would be difficult to comply with everything.

We have to ask ourselves – does an Executive Order, in a time of crisis, trump normal laws, including basic contract law? If the answer is yes, then how do we make private payer insurance companies comply?

Programming Note:

Knicole Emanuel is a permanent panelist on Monitor Monday. Listen to her live reporting every Monday at 10-10:30 a.m. EST.