Category Archives: Federal Government

New Revisions to the Justice Manual -The New World of Health Care Fraud and Abuse in 2019

So many memos, so little time. Federal prosecutors receive guidance on how to prosecute. Maybe “guidance” is too loose a term. There is a manual to follow, and memos are just guidance until the memos are incorporated into what is known as the Justice Manual. Memos are not as binding as the Justice Manual, but memos are persuasive. For the last 22 years, the Justice Manual has not been revised to reflect the many, many memos that have been drafted to direct prosecutors on how to proceed. Until recently…

Justice Manual Revised

The Justice Manual, which is the manual that instructs federal prosecutors how to proceed in cases of Medicare and Medicaid fraud, has been revised for the first time since 1997. The Justice Manual provides internal Department of Justice (DOJ) rules.

The DOJ has new policies for detecting Medicare and Medicaid fraud and abuse. Some of these policies are just addendums to old policies. Or formal acceptance to old memos. Remember the Yates Memo? The Yates Memo directed prosecutors to indict executives, individually, of fraudulent companies instead of just going after the company.

The Yates Memo has now been codified into the Justice Manual.

Then came the Granston Memo – In a January 10, 2018, memo (the “Granston Memo”), the DOJ directed its prosecutors to more seriously consider dismissing meritless False Claims Act (“FCA”) cases brought by whistleblowers. It lists 7 (non-exhaustive) criteria for determining whether the DOJ should dismiss a qui tam lawsuit.  The reasoning behind the Granston Memo is that whistleblower lawsuits have risen over 600 cases per year, but the government’s involvement has not mirrored the raise. This may indicate that many of the whistleblower lawsuits are frivolous and filed for the purpose of financial gain, even if the money is not warranted. Remember qui tam relators (people who bring lawsuits against those who mishandle tax dollars, are rewarded monetarily for their efforts…and, usually, the reward is not a de minimus amount. In turn, people are incentivized to identify fraud and abuse against the government. At least, according to the Granston Memo, the financial incentive works too well and frivolous lawsuits are too prevalent.

The Granston Memo has also been codified into the Justice Manual.

Talk about an oxymoron…the Yates Memo instructs prosecutors to pursue claims against more people, especially those in the executive positions for acts of the company. The Granston Memo instructs prosecutors to more readily dismiss frivolous FCA allegations. “You’re a wigwam. You’re a teepee. Calm down, you’re just two tents (too tense).” – a horrible joke that my husband often quips. But this horrible quote is apropos to describe the mixed messages from DOJ regarding Medicare and Medicaid fraud and abuse.

The Brand Memo, yet another memo that we saw come out of CMS, instructs prosecutors not to use noncompliance as subject to future DOJ enforcement actions. In other words, agency guidance does not cannot create binding legal requirements. Going forward, the DOJ will not enforce recommendations found in agency guidance documents in civil actions. Relatedly, DOJ will not use noncompliance with agency guidance to “presumptively or conclusively” establish violations of applicable law or regulations in affirmative civil enforcement cases.

The Brand Memo was not incorporated into the Justice Manual. It also was not repudiated.

Medicare/caid Audit Targets Broadened

Going forward, traditional health care providers will not be the only targets – Medicare Advantage plan, EHR companies, and private equity owners – will all be audited and reviewed for fraud and abuse. Expect more audits with wider nets to catch non-provider targets to increase now that the Yates Memo was codified into the Justice Manual.

Anti-Kickback Statute, Stark Law, and HIPAA Narrowed

The Stark Law (42 U.S.C. 1395nn) and the Anti-Kickback Statute (42 U.S.C. §1320a‑7b(b)) exist to minimize unneeded or over-utilization of health-care services payable by the federal government. Stark Law and the Anti-Kickback regulations criminalize, impose civil monetary penalties, or impose other legal sanctions (such as termination from Medicare) against health care providers and other individuals who violate these laws. These laws are esoteric (which is one reason that I have a job) and require careful navigation by specialized legal counsel. Accidental missteps, even minute documentation errors, can lead to harsh and expensive results.

In a health care world in which collaboration among providers is being pushed and recommended, the Anti-Kickback, Stark, and HIPAA laws are antiquated and fail to recognize the current world. Existing federal health-care fraud and abuse laws create a “silo effect” that requires mapping and separating financial interests of health-care providers in order to ensure that patient referrals cannot be tainted by self-interest. Under Stark, a strict liability law, physicians cannot make a referral for the provision of “designated health services” to an entity with which they have a financial relationship (unless one of approximately 30 exceptions applies). In other words, for example, a hospital cannot refer patients to the home health care company that the hospital owns.

Going forward – and this has not happened yet – regulators and the Department will begin to claw back some of the more strict requirements of the Stark, Anti-Kickback, and HIPAA regulations to decrease the “silo effect” and allow providers to collaborate more on an individual’s whole health method. I had an example of this changing of the tide recently with my broken leg debacle. See blog. After an emergency surgery on my leg by an orthopedic surgeon because of a contracted infection in my wound, my primary care physician (PCP) called to check on me. My PCP had nothing to do with my leg surgery, or, to my knowledge, was never informed of it. But because of new technology that allows patient’s records to be accessed by multiple providers in various health care systems or practices, my PCP was informed of my surgery and added it to my chart. This never could have happened 20 years ago. But this sharing of medical records with other providers could have serious HIPAA implications if some restrictions of HIPAA are not removed.

In sum, if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the Justice Manual in a while, now would be an appropriate time to do so since it has been revised for the first time in 22 years. This blog does not enumerate all the revisions to the Justice Manual. So it is important that you are familiar with the changes…or know someone who is.

Detroit Hospitals and Funeral Home Under Fire by Medicare and Police

What in the health care is going on in Detroit??

Hospitals in Detroit, MI may lose Medicare funding, which would be financially devastating to the hospitals. Is hospital care in Detroit at risk of going defunct? Sometimes, I think, we lose sight of how important our local hospitals are to our communities.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) notified DMC Harper University Hospital and Detroit Receiving Hospital that they may lose Medicare funding because they are allegedly not in compliance with “physical environment regulations.”

42 C.F.R. § 483.90 “Physical environment” states “The facility must be designed, constructed, equipped, and maintained to protect the health and safety of residents, personnel and the public.”

CMS will give the hospitals time to submit corrective action plan, but if the plans of correction are not accepted by CMS, Medicare will terminate the hospitals’ participation by April 15, 2019 (tax day – a bad omen?).

The two hospitals failed fire safety and infection control. Section 483.90 instructs providers to ensure fire safety by installing appropriate and required alarm systems. Providers are forbidden to have certain flammable goods in the hallways. It requires sprinkler systems to be installed. It requires emergency generators to be installed on the premises. Could you imagine the liability if Hurricane ABC destroys the area and Provider XYZ loses power, which causes Grandma Moses to stop breathing because her oxygen tube no longer disseminate oxygen? Think of the artwork we would have lost! Ok, that was a bad example because there are no hurricanes in Detroit.

Another important criterion of the physical environment regulations is infection control, which, according to the letters from CMS, is the criterion that the two hospitals allegedly have failed. Each hospital underwent a survey on Oct. 18th when the alleged deficiencies were discovered.

“We have determined that the deficiencies are significant and limit your hospital’s capacity to render adequate care and ensure the health and safety of your patients,” stated the Jan. 15 letters to the hospitals from CMS. CMS informed the hospitals they had until Jan. 25 to submit a plan of correction. It is unclear whether the hospitals submitted these plans. Hopefully, both hospitals have a legal team that did draft and submit the plans of correction.

Michigan is a state in which if Medicare funds are terminated, then Michigan will terminate Medicaid funds automatically. So termination of Medicare funding can be catastrophic. Concurrently, Scott Steiner, chief of Detroit Receiving Hospital, is resigning (shocker).

Detroit must have something in the water when it comes to health care issues in the news because, also in Detroit, a police task force Monday removed 26 fetuses from a Detroit Medical Center (DMC) morgue, all of which were allegedly mishandled by Perry Funeral Home. Twenty of the bodies taken from the DMC cooler had dates-of-birth listed from 1998 and earlier, with six dating to the 1970s. The earliest date of birth of a discovered fetus was Aug. 11, 1971.

State authorities are looking into another case of dozens of infant remains allegedly hidden for years in a DMC hospital. News articles do not mention the DMC hospital’s name, but one cannot help but wonder whether the two incidents – (1) Detroit hospitals failing infection control specifications; and (2) decomposing bodies found in a hospital – are intertwined.

Detroit has to be winning a record here with health care issues – Medicare audit failures in hospitals, possible loss of Medicare contracts, possible suspension of Medicaid reimbursements, and, apparently decomposing fetuses in funeral homes and hospitals.

Medicare Audits: Huge Overhaul on Extrapolation Rules

Effective January 2, 2019, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) radically changed its guidance on the use of extrapolation in audits by recovery audit contractors (RACs), Medicare administrative contractors (MACs), Unified Program Integrity Contractors (UPICs), and the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (SMRC).

Extrapolation is the tsunami in Medicare/caid audits. The auditor collects a small sample of claims to review for compliance. She then determines the “error rate” of the sample. For example, if 50 claims are reviewed and 10 are found to be noncompliant, then the error rate is set at 20%. That error rate is applied to the universe, which is generally a three-year time period. It is assumed that the random sample is indicative of all your billings regardless of whether you changed your billing system during that time period of the universe or maybe hired a different biller.

With extrapolated results, auditors allege millions of dollars of overpayments against health care providers…sometimes more than the provider even made during that time period. It is an overwhelming wave that many times drowns the provider and the company.

Prior to this recent change to extrapolation procedure, the Program Integrity Manual (PIM) offered little guidance to the proper method for extrapolation.

Well, Change Request 10067 – overhauled extrapolation in a HUGE way.

The first modification to the extrapolation rules is that the PIM now dictates when extrapolation should be used.

Determining When a Statistical Sampling May Be Used. Under the new guidance, a contractor “shall use statistical sampling when it has been determined that a sustained or high level of payment error exists. The use of statistical sampling may be used after documented educational intervention has failed to correct the payment error.” This guidance now creates a three-tier structure:

  1. Extrapolation shall be used when a sustained or high level of payment error exists.
  2. Extrapolation may be used after documented educational intervention (such as in the Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) program).
  3. It follows that extrapolation should not be used if there is not a sustained or high level of payment error or evidence that documented educational intervention has failed.

“High level of payment error” is defined as 50% or greater. The PIM also states that the contractor may review the provider’s past noncompliance for the same or similar billing issues, or a historical pattern of noncompliant billing practice. This is HUGE because so many times providers simply pay the alleged overpayment amount if the amount is low or moderate in order to avoid costly litigation. Now those past times that you simply pay the alleged amounts will be held against you.

Another monumental modification to RAC audits is that the RAC auditor must receive authorization from CMS to go forward in recovering from the provider if the alleged overpayment exceeds $500,000 or is an amount that is greater than 25% of the provider’s Medicare revenue received within the previous 12 months.

The identification of the claims universe was also re-defined. Even CMS admitted in the change request that, on occasion, “the universe may include items that are not utilized in the construction of the sample frame. This can happen for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to: (1) Some claims/claim lines are discovered to have been subject to a prior review, (2) The definitions of the sample unit necessitate eliminating some claims/claim lines, or (3) Some claims/claim lines are attributed to sample units for which there was no payment.”

There are many more changes to discuss, but I have been asked to appear on RACMonitor to present the details on February 19, 2019. So sign up to listen!!!

Hospital Association Joins Lawsuit to Enjoin “Psychiatric Boarding”

New Hampshire hospitals have joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a lawsuit against the State of New Hampshire over the boarding of mental health patients in hospital emergency rooms.

In November 2018, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit in NH federal court asking the court to order the cease of the practice of “psychiatric boarding,” in which mental health patients are held sometimes against their will and without due process in hospital emergency rooms throughout New Hampshire as they await admission to the state psychiatric hospital, often for weeks at a time. This is not only a New Hampshire problem. This is a problem in every state. The hospitals want the practice abolished because, in most cases of severe mental illness, the patient is unemployed and uninsured. There are not enough psychiatric beds to hold the amount of mentally ill consumers.

Many psychiatric patients rely on Medicaid, but due to the Institution for Mental Disease (IMD) exclusion, Medicaid does not cover the cost of care for patients 21 to 64 years of age (when Medicare kicks in) at inpatient psychiatric or addiction treatment facilities with a capacity greater than 16 beds. This rule makes it difficult for states to fund larger inpatient psychiatric hospitals, which further exacerbates the psychiatric boarding crisis.

The emergency rooms (ER) have become the safety net for mental health. The two most common diagnoses at an ER is alcohol abuse and suicidal tendencies. There has been a sharp increase in ER visits for the people suffering from mental health issues in the recent years. Are we as a population growing more depressed?

It is very frustrating to be in a hospital without the allowance to leave. But that is what psychiatric boarding is – patients present to an ER in crisis and because there is no bed for them at a psychiatric hospital, the patient is held at the hospital against their will until a bed opens up. No psychiatric care is rendered at the ER. It is just a waiting game, which is not fun for the people enduring it.

I recently encountered a glimpse into how it feels to be stuck at a hospital without the ability to leave. On a personal level, although not dealing with mental health but with hospitals in general, I recently broke my leg. I underwent surgery and received 6 screws and a plate in my leg. Around Christmas I became extremely ill from an infection in my leg. After I passed out at my home due to an allergic reaction to my medication which caused an epileptic seizure, my husband called EMS and I was transported to the hospital. Because it was the day after Christmas, the staff was light. I was transported to a hospital that had no orthopedic surgeon on call. (Akin to a mental health patient presenting at an ER – there are no psychiatric residents at most hospitals). Because no orthopedic surgeon was on call, I was transported to a larger hospital and underwent emergency surgery for the infection. I stayed at the hospital for 5 of the longest days of my life. Not because I still needed medical treatment, but because the orthopedic surgeon had taken off for vacation between Christmas and New Year’s. Without the orthopedic’s authorization that I could leave the hospital I was stuck there unless I left against medical advice. Finally, at what seemed to be at his leisurely time, the orthopedic surgeon came back to work the afternoon of January 1, 2019, and I was able to leave the hospital… but not without a few choice words from yours truly. I can tell you without any reservation that I was not a stellar patient those last couple days when I felt well enough to leave but there was no doctor present to allow it.

I imagine how I felt those last couple days in the hospital is how mentally ill patients feel while they are being held until a bed at a psychiatric unit opens up. It must be so frustrating. It certainly cannot be ameliorating any presenting mental health condition. In my case, I had no mental health issues but once I felt like I was being held against my will, mental health issues started to arise from my anger.

A shortage of psychiatric inpatient beds is a key contributing factor to overcrowded ERs across the nation. Between 1970 and 2006, state and county psychiatric inpatient facilities in the country cut capacity from about 400,000 beds to fewer than 50,000.

A study conducted by Wake Forest University found that ER stays for mental health issues are approximately 3.2 times longer stays than for physical reasons.

ER visits rose by nearly 15% between 2006 and 2014, according to the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project. Over the same time period, ER visits associated with mental health and substance abuse shot up by nearly 44%.

Hopefully if the NH Hospital Association is successful in its lawsuit, other states will follow suit and file a lawsuit. I am not sure where the mentally ill will go if they do not remain at the ER. Perhaps this lawsuit and others that follow will force states to change the current Medicaid laws that do not allow mental health coverage for those over 21 years old. With the mental health and physical health Americans with Disabilities’ parity laws, I do not know why someone hasn’t challenged the constitutionality of the IMD exclusion.

AHA Obtains a Permanent Injunction against HHS!!! Raises the Price of Drugs!

Obtaining injunctions against the government is the best part of my job. I love it. I thrive on it. Whenever there is a reduction in Medicare/caid reimbursements rates, I secretly hope someone hires me to get an injunction to increase the reimbursement rates. But injunctions are expensive. So I am always happy whenever a provider obtains an injunction against the government, even if I were not hired to obtain it.

On December 27, 2018, Judge Rudolph Contreras, United States District Judge, ordered the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) to increase the Medicare reimbursements rates for outpatient drugs under the 340B Drug Program. A permanent injunction!!!

In November 2017, HHS reduced the Medicare reimbursement rates for outpatient drugs acquired through the 340B Program from average sales price (“ASP”) plus 6% to ASP minus 22.5%. Medicare Program: Hospital Outpatient Prospective Payment and Ambulatory Surgical Center Payment Systems and Quality Reporting Programs, 82 Fed. Reg. 33,558, 33,634 (Jul. 20, 2017) (codified at 42 C.F.R. pt. 419).

HHS reduced Medicare reimbursements worth billions of dollars to private institutions. HHS has the authority to set Medicare reimbursement rates. But one should question a 30% reduction. Drug prices haven’t dropped.

Plaintiff – the American Hospital Association (AHA) – sued HHS when HHS cut outpatient pharmaceuticals by 30%. HHS contends that the rate adjustment was statutorily authorized and necessary to close the gap between the discounted rates at which Plaintiffs obtain the drugs at issue—through Medicare’s “340B Program”—and the higher rates at which Plaintiffs were previously reimbursed for those drugs under a different Medicare framework.

AHA asked the Court to vacate the HHS’ rate reduction, require HHS to apply previous reimbursement rates for the remainder of this year, and require HHS to pay Plaintiffs the difference between the reimbursements they have received this year under the new rates and the reimbursements they would have received under the previous rates.

HHS argued that AHA failed to exhaust its administrative remedies. See blog.

What is the 340B Drug Program?

In 1992, Congress established what is now commonly referred to as the “340B Program.” Veterans Health Care Act of 1992, Pub L. No. 102-585, § 602, 106 Stat. 4943, 4967–71. The 340B Program allows participating hospitals and other health care providers (“covered entities”) to purchase certain “covered outpatient drugs” from manufacturers at or below the drugs’ “maximum” or “ceiling” prices, which are dictated by a statutory formula and are typically significantly discounted from those drugs’ average manufacturer prices. See 42 U.S.C. § 256b(a)(1)–(2).3 Put more simply, this Program “imposes ceilings on prices drug manufacturers may charge for medications sold to specified health care facilities.” Astra USA, Inc. v. Santa Clara Cty., 563 U.S. 110, 113 (2011). It is intended to enable covered entities “to stretch scarce Federal resources as far as possible, reaching more eligible patients and providing more comprehensive services.” H.R. Rep. No. 102-384(II), at 12 (1992); see also Medicare Program: Hospital Outpatient Prospective Payment System and Ambulatory Surgical Center Payment Systems and Quality Reporting Programs (“2018 OPPS Rule”), 82 Fed. Reg. 52,356, 52,493 & 52,493 n.18 (Nov. 13, 2017) (codified at 42 C.F.R. pt. 419). Importantly, and as discussed in greater detail below, the 340B Program allows covered entities to purchase certain drugs at steeply discounted rates, and then seek reimbursement for those purchases under Medicare Part B at the rates established by OPPS.

HHS provided a detailed explanation of why it believed this rate reduction was necessary. First, HHS noted that several recent studies have confirmed the large “profit” margin created by the difference between the price that hospitals pay to acquire 340B drugs and the price at which Medicare reimburses those drugs. Second, HHS stated that because of this “profit” margin, HHS was “concerned that the current payment methodology may lead to unnecessary utilization and potential over-utilization of separately payable drugs.” It cited, as an example of this phenomenon, a 2015 Government Accountability Office Report finding that Medicare Part B drug spending was substantially higher at 340B hospitals than at non-340B hospitals. The data indicated that “on average, beneficiaries at 340B . . . hospitals were either prescribed more drugs or more expensive drugs than beneficiaries at the other non-340B hospitals in GAO’s analysis.” Id. at 33,633. Third, HHS expressed concern “about the rising prices of certain drugs and that Medicare beneficiaries, including low-income seniors, are responsible for paying 20 % of the Medicare payment rate for these drugs,” rather than the lower 340B rate paid by the covered hospitals.

The Court found that Plaintiff – AHA – did not need to exhaust its administrative remedies because there was no administrative remedy to exhaust. HHS had ruled that 340B drugs were to be recompensed at 30% lower rates. There is no appeal route for a rule made. There is no reconsideration review of a rule made. Therefore, the Court found that exhaustion of administrative remedies would be futile because no administrative remedies existed.

But the most important finding the Court made was that the 30% reduction in Medicare reimbursement rates for 340B drugs was arbitrary, capricious and outside the Secretary’s legal scope. The Court made the brash decision to determine the reimbursement rate for 340B drugs was arbitrary, but could not decide a remedy.

A remedy for an erroneous rule is to strike the rule and have the government repay the 340B drug reimbursements at the amount that should have been paid. But the Court does not order this. Instead the Court asks for each side to brief what remedy they think should be used. They have 30 days to brief their side.

Once You STOP Accepting Medicaid/Care, How Much Time Has to Pass to Know You Will Not Be Audited? (For Past Nitpicking Documentation Errors)

I had a client, a dentist, ask me today how long does he have to wait until he need not worry about government, regulatory audits after he decides to not accept Medicare or Medicaid any more. It made me sad. It made me remember the blog that I wrote back in 2013 about the shortage of dentists that accept Medicaid. But who can blame him? With all the regulatory, red tape, low reimbursement rates, and constant headache of audits, who would want to accept Medicare or Medicaid, unless you are Mother Teresa…who – fun fact – vowed to live in poverty, but raised more money than any Catholic in the history of the recorded world.

What use is a Medicaid card if no one accepts Medicaid? It’s as useful as our appendix, which I lost in 1990 and have never missed it since, except for the scar when I wear a bikini. A Medicaid card may be as useful as me with a power drill. Or exercising lately since my leg has been broken…

The answer to the question of how long has to pass before breathing easily once you make the decision to refuse Medicaid or Medicare? – It depends. Isn’t that the answer whenever it comes to the law?

By Whom and Why You Are Being Investigated Matters

If you are being investigated for fraud, then 6 years.

If you are being investigated by a RAC audit, 3 years.

If you are being investigated by some “non-RAC entity,” then it however many years they want unless you have a lawyer.

If being investigated under the False Claims Act, you have 6 – 10 years, depending on the circumstances.

If investigated by MICs, generally, there is a 5-year, look-back period.

ZPICS have no particular look-back period, but with a good attorney, reasonableness can be argued. How can you be audited once you are no longer liable to maintain the records?

The CERT program is limited by the same fiscal year.

The Alternative: Self-Disclosure (Hint – This Is In Your Favor)

If you realized that you made an oops on your own, you have 60-days. The 60-day repayment rule was implemented by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”), effective March 14, 2016, to clarify health care providers’ obligations to investigate, report, and refund identified overpayments under the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”).

Notably, CMS specifically stated in the final rule that it only applies to traditional Medicare overpayments for Medicare Part A and B services, and does not apply to Medicaid overpayments. However, most States have since legislated similar statutes to mimic Medicare rules (but there are arguments to be made in courts of law to distinguish between Medicare and Medicaid).

 

 

 

Another NCTracks Debacle? Enter NC HealthConnex – A Whole New Computer System To Potentially Screw Up

North Carolina is mandating that health care providers link with all other health care providers. HIPAA be damned! Just another hoop to jump through in order to get paid by Medicaid – as if it isn’t hard enough!

If you do not comply and link your health care practice to NC HealthConnex by June 1, 2019, you could lose your Medicaid contract.

“As North Carolina moves into data-driven, value-based health care, the NC HIEA is working to modernize the state-designated health information exchange, now called NC HealthConnex.” About NC HealthConnex website.

NC HIEA = NC Health Information Exchange Authority (NC HIEA) and created by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-414.7. “North Carolina Health Information Exchange Authority.”

North Carolina state law mandates that all health care providers who receive any State funds, which would include Medicaid, HealthChoice and the State Health Plan, must connect and submit patient demographic and clinical data to NC HealthConnex by June 1, 2019. The process could take 12 to 18 months. So you better get going. Move it or lose it, literally. If you do not comply, you can lose your license to participate in state-funded programs, including Medicaid.

If you go to the NC Health Information Exchange Authority (NC HIEA) website article, entitled, “NC HealthConnex Participant Base Continues to Grow,” you will see the following:

Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 3.21.53 PM

I highlighted the Session Law that, according to the above, requires that health care providers who receive state funds must connect to NC HealthConnex. See above. However, when you actually read Session Law 2017-57, it is untrue that Session Law 2017-57 mandates that health care providers who receive state funds must connect to NC HealthConnex.

If you follow the citation by NC HIEA (above), you will see that buried in Session Law 2017-57, the 2017 Appropriations Bill, is a clause that states:

“SECTION 11A.8.(e)  Of the funds appropriated in this act to the Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Central Management and Support, Office of Rural Health, for the Community Health Grant Program, the sum of up to one hundred fifty thousand dollars ($150,000) in recurring funds for each fiscal year of the 2017‑2019 fiscal biennium shall be used to match federal funds to provide to safety net providers eligible to participate in the Community Health Grant Program, through the Rural Health Technology Team, ongoing training and technical assistance with respect to health information technology, the adoption of electronic health records, and the establishment of connectivity to the State’s health information exchange network known as NC HealthConnex.”

As you can plainly read, this clause only allots funds to provide training and assistance to providers eligible to participate in the Community Health Grant Program. The above clause certainly does not mandate that Healthcare providers who receive state funds connect to NC HealthConnex.

Session Law 2017-57, only mandates $150,000 for training and assistance for HealthConnex.

So what is the legal statute that mandates health care providers who receive state funds must connect to NC HealthConnex?

Ok, bear with me. Here’s where it gets complex.

A law was passed in 2015, which created the North Carolina Health Information Exchange Authority (NC HIEA). NC HIEA is a sub agency of the North Carolina Department of Information Technology (NC DIT) Government Data Analytic Center. NC HIEA operates the NC HealthConnex. The State CIO maintains the responsibility if the NC HealthConnex.

Supposedly, that 2015 law mandates that health care providers who receive state funds must connect to NC HealthConnex…

I read it. You can click on the link here. This subsection is the only section that I would deem apropos to health care providers accepting State funding:

“In consultation with the Advisory Board, develop a strategic plan for achieving statewide participation in the HIE Network by all hospitals and health care providers licensed in this State.”

What part of the above clause states that health care providers are MANDATED to participate? So, please, if any of my readers actually know which law mandates provider participation, please forward to me. Because my question is – Is participation REALLY mandated? Will providers seriously lose their reimbursement rights for services rendered for failing to participate in NC HealthConnex?? Because I see multiple violations of federal law with this requirement, including HIPAA and due process.

HealthConnex can link your practice to it if you use the following EHR programs:

  • Ace Health Solutions
  • Allscripts
  • Amazing Charts/Harris Healthcare Company
  • Aprima
  • Athena Health
  • AYM Technologies
  • Casehandler
  • Centricity
  • Cerner
  • CureMD
  • DAS Health/Aprima
  • eClinicalWorks
  • eMD
  • eMed Solutions, LLC
  • EPIC
  • Evident- Thrive
  • Greenway
  • ICANotes Behavioral Health EHR
  • ICAN Solutions, Inc
  • Integrity/Checkpoint
  • Kaleidacare
  • Lauris Online
  • McKesson Practice Partners
  • Medical Transcription Billing Corporation
  • Medinformatix
  • Meditab Software, Inc.
  • Meditech
  • Mediware-Alphaflex
  • MTBC
  • MicroMD
  • Netsmart
  • NextGen
  • Office Ally
  • Office Practicum
  • Oncelogix Sharenote
  • Patagonia Health
  • Physician’s Computer Company (PCC)
  • PIMSY
  • Practice Fusion Cloud
  • Praxis
  • PrognoCIS
  • PsyTech Solutions, Inc.
  • Qualifacts – Carelogic
  • Radysans
  • Reli Med Solutions
  • SET-Works
  • SRS
  • The Echo Group
  • Therap
  • Trimed Tech
  • Valant
  • Waiting Room Solutions

The law also requires:

  • Hospitals as defined by G.S. 131E-176(13), physicians licensed to practice under Article 1 of Chapter 90 of the General Statutes, physician assistants as defined in 21 NCAC 32S .0201, and nurse practitioners as defined in 21 NCAC 36 .0801 who provide Medicaid services and who have an electronic health record system shall connect by June 1, 2018.
  • All other providers of Medicaid and state-funded services shall connect by June 1, 2019. See changes in 2018 Session Law below.
  • Prepaid Health Plans (PHPs), as defined in S.L. 2015-245, will be required to connect to the HIE per their contracts with the NC Division of Health Benefits (DHB). Clarifies that PHPs are required to submit encounter and claims data by the commencement of the contract with NC DHB.
  • Clarifies that Local Management Entities/Managed Care Organizations (LMEs/MCOs) are required to submit encounter and claims data by June 1, 2020.

New from the 2018 Legislative Short Session, NCSL 2018-41: 

  • Dentists and ambulatory surgical centers are required to submit clinical and demographic data by June 1, 2021.
  • Pharmacies are required to submit claims data pertaining to State services once per day by June 1, 2021, using pharmacy industry standardized formats.

To meet the state’s mandate, a Medicaid provider is “connected” when its clinical and demographic information pertaining to services paid for by Medicaid and other State-funded health care funds are being sent to NC HealthConnex, at least twice daily—either through a direct connection or via a hub (i.e., a larger system with which it participates, another regional HIE with which it participates or an EHR vendor). Participation agreements signed with the designated entity would need to list all affiliate connections.

Let’s just wait and see how this computer system turns out. Hopefully we don’t have a second rendition of NCTracks. We all know how well that turned out. See blog and blog.

Medicaid participation continues to get more and more complicated. Remember the day when you could write a service note with a pen? That was so much cheaper than investing in computers and software. When did it get so expensive to provide health care to the most needy?

Non-Profit Going For-Profit: Merger Mania Manifests

According to the American Hospital Association, America has 4,840 general hospitals that aren’t run by the federal government: 2,849 are nonprofit, 1,035 are for-profit and 956 are owned by state or local governments.

What is the distinction between a for-profit and not-for-profit hospital… besides the obvious? The obvious difference is that one is “for-profit” and one is “not-for-profit” – but any reader of the English language would be able to tell you that. Unknown to some is that the not-for-profit status does not mean that the hospital will not make money; the status has nothing to do with a hospitals bottom line. Just ask any charity that brings in millions of dollars.

The most significant variation between non-profit and for-profit hospitals is tax status. Not-for-profit hospitals are exempt from state and local taxes. Some say that for-profit hospitals have to be more cost-effective because they have sales taxes and property taxes. I can understand that sentiment. Sales taxes and property taxes are nothing to sneeze at.

The organizational structure and culture also varies at for-profit hospitals rather than not-for-profit hospitals. For-profit hospitals have to answer to shareholders and/or investors. Those that are publicly traded may have a high attrition rate at the top executive level because when poor performance occurs heads tend to roll.

Bargaining power is another big difference between for-profit and non-profit. For-profit has it while non-profit, generally, do not. The imbalance of bargaining power comes into play when the government negotiates its managed care contracts. I also believe that bargaining power is a strong catalyst in the push for mergers. Being a minnow means that you have insect larvae and fish eggs to consume. Being a whale, however, allows you to feed on sea lion, squid, and other larger fish.

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Merger Mania

A report conducted by the Health Research Institute showed 255 healthcare merger and acquisition (M&A) deals in the second quarter of 2018. Just the second quarter! According to the report, deal volume is up 9.4% since last year.

The most active sub-sector in the second quarter of 2018 is long-term care, with 104 announced healthcare M&A deals representing almost 41% of deal volume.

The trend today is that for-profit hospitals are buying up smaller, for-profit hospitals and, any and all, not-for-profit hospitals. The upshot is that hospitals are growing larger, more massive, more “corporate-like,” and less community-based. Is this trend positive or negative? I will have to research whether the prices of services increase at hospitals that are for-profit rather than not-for-profit, but I have a gut feeling that they do. Not that prices are the only variable to determine whether the merger trend is positive or negative. From the hospital’s perspective, I would much rather be the whale, not the minnow. I would feel much more comfortable swimming around.

My opinion is that, as our health care system veers toward value-based reimbursement and this metamorphous places financial pressure on providers, health care providers are struggling for more efficient means of cost control. The logical solution is to merge and buy up the smaller fish until your entity is a whale. Whales have more bargaining power and more budget.

In 2017, 29 for-profit companies bought 18 for-profit hospitals and 11 not-for-profits, according to an analysis for Kaiser Health News.

10 hospital M&A transactions involved health care organizations with net revenues of $1 billion or more in 2017.

Here, in NC, Mission Health, a former, not-for-profit hospital in Asheville, announced in March 2018 that HCA Healthcare, the largest, for-profit, hospital chain would buy it for $1.5 billion. The NC Attorney General had to sign off on the deal since the deal involved a non-profit turning for-profit, and he did ultimately did sign off on it.

Regardless your opinion on the matter, merger mania has manifested. Providers need to determine whether they want to be a whale or a minnow.

Nursing Home Safety Is Under Scrutiny from CMS – Staff May Be Penalized!

This past Tuesday, CMS unveiled a new initiative aimed at improving safety at nursing homes. While the study did not compare nursing home safety for staff, which, BTW, is staggering in numbers; i.e., more nursing home staff call-in sick or contract debilitating viruses versus the normal population. I question why ER nurses/doctors do not have the same rate of sickness. But that is the source of another blog…

The Committee on Energy and Commerce (“the Committee”) began conducting audits of nursing homes after numerous media reports described instances of abuse, neglect, and substandard care occurring at skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) and nursing facilities (NFs) across the country, including the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills where at least 12 residents died in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

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Under the Civil Money Penalty Reinvestment Program, CMS will create training products for nursing home professionals including staff competency assessment tools, instructional guides, webinars and technical assistance seminars.

These materials aim to help staff reduce negative events (including death), improve dementia care and strengthen staffing quality, including by reducing staff turnover and enhancing performance. A high rate of staff attrition is a product of low hourly wages, which is a product of low Medicare/caid reimbursement rates.

“We are pleased to offer nursing home staff practical tools and assistance to improve resident care and positively impact the lives of individuals in our nation’s nursing homes,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a statement.

Seema Verna

The three-year effort is funded by federal civil penalties, which are fines nursing homes pay the CMS when they are noncompliant with regulations. There is no data as to how much CMS collects from civil fines against nursing homes per year, which is disconcerting considering everything about CMS is public record for taxpayers.

A proposed rule in the works to implement a federal law would allow the CMS to impose enforcement actions on nursing home staff in cases of elder abuse or other illegal activities.

CMS is increasing its oversight of post-acute care settings through this new civil money penalties initiative on nursing home staff and a new verification process to confirm personal attendants actually showed up to care for seniors when they are at home. This directive is targeted at personal care services (“PCS”). A proposed rule would allow CMS to impose enforcement actions on nursing home staff in cases of elder abuse or other illegal activities. The regulation being developed will outline how CMS would impose civil money penalties of up to $200,000 against nursing home staff or volunteers who fail to report reasonable suspicion of crimes. In addition, the proposed regulation would allow a 2-year exclusion from federal health programs for retaliating. It is questionable as to why CMS would penalize staff and/or volunteers rather than the nursing home company. One would think that volunteers may be more rare to find with this ruling.

CMS has been under heightened Congressional pressure to improve safety standards following ongoing media reports of abuse, neglect and substandard care occurring at nursing facilities across the country in recent years – or, at least, reported.

The federal government cited more than 1,000 nursing homes for either mishandling cases related to, or failing to protect residents against, rape, sexual abuse, or sexual assault, with nearly 100 facilities incurring multiple citations.

On October 20, 2017, the Committee sent a bipartisan letter requesting documents and information from Jack Michel, an owner of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills (“Rehabilitation Center”) where at least 12 residents died in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Florida. Excessive heat was the issue. According to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA), the Rehabilitation Center failed to follow adequate emergency management procedures after the facility’s air conditioning system lost power during Hurricane Irma. No generator? Despite increasingly excessive heat, staff at the facility did not take advantage of a fully functional hospital across the street and “overwhelmingly delayed calling 911” during a medical emergency. The facility also had contractual agreements with an assisted living facility and transportation company for emergency evacuation purposes yet did not activate these services. CMS ultimately terminated the Rehabilitation Center from the Medicare and Medicaid programs following an on-site inspection where surveyors found that the facility failed to meet Medicare’s basic health and safety requirements.

The Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) found that, as of 2014, there were 15,600 nursing home facilities in the United States; 69.8 % of U.S. nursing home facilities have for-profit ownership. OIG has been accusing nursing homes of elderly abuse for years, but, only now, does the federal government have a sword for its accusations. Accusations, however, come with false ones. The appeal process for such accusations will be essential.

According to HHS OIG’s 2017 report, nursing facilities continue to experience problems ensuring quality of care and safety for people residing in them. OIG identified instances of substandard care causing preventable adverse events, finding an estimated 22% of Medicare beneficiaries had experienced an adverse event during their nursing stay. The report further states that “OIG continues to raise concerns about nursing home residents being at risk of abuse and neglect. In some instances, nursing home care is so substandard that providers may have liability under the False Claims Act.”

HHS has continuously expressed concerns about nursing home residents being at risk of abuse and neglect.

With the new initiative, nursing homes that do not achieve substantial compliance within six months will be terminated from participating in Medicare and Medicaid. Appeals to come…

Medicare ACOs: Too Much Risk, Too Quickly?

As seen on RACMonitor.

More than a third of ACOs might leave if the proposed rule takes effect.

The comment period closed for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) proposed rule on Oct. 16. The MSSP has been a controversial program since its inception. The chief concern is that the financial “dis-incentives” will decrease the number of Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). The proposed rule for MSSP intensifies the financial “dis-incentives,” causing even more concern about the number of ACOs.

What is the Medicare Shared Savings Program? It is a voluntary program that is supposed to encourage groups of doctors, hospitals, and other healthcare providers to come together as ACOs to give coordinated, high-quality care to their Medicare patients. Providers can choose among three distinctive tracks, depending on the amount of risk the providers want to bear. The purpose of the MSSP is to diversify risk – of both loss and gain – between the government and the ACOs. For example, Track 1 ACOs do not assume downside risk (shared losses) if they do not lower growth in Medicare expenditures.

CMS created the MSSP in hopes that doctors, hospitals, and other healthcare providers would want to participate, with the incentive of the chance to make more money, rather than remaining in the traditional Medicare relationship. The program turned out to be more successful than anticipated, with the majority of ACOs opting to become Track 1, or the least risky model (one-sided risk).

CMS’s new proposed rule, however, increases the risk placed on the ACOs. Needless to say, providers aren’t happy, and many ACOs in the program warn that they’ll drop out if CMS finalizes its proposal as is.

What are these proposed changes to the MSSP?

Restricting Track 1 Enrollment

ACOs currently have six years to shift to a risk-bearing model from a shared savings-only model (Track 1). The proposed rule would give existing ACOs one year and new ACOs two years to transfer to a risk-bearing model. This one change could cause mass exodus from the MSSP, as many providers are, by nature, risk-averse.

Morphing to Five-Year Agreement Periods

The proposed rule requires CMS and the ACOs to morph into using five-year agreement periods. I am on the fence regarding this change. It could strengthen ACOs’ incentives to reduce spending by breaking the link between ACOs’ performance in the first two years of each agreement period and their future benchmarks. However, this modification could worsen incentives during the first two years of each agreement period. I would love to hear your opinions.

Slashing Shared Savings Rates

The proposed rule purports to slash shared savings rates for upside-risk models from 50 percent to as low as 25 percent. Under the one-sided model years of the glide path, an ACO’s maximum shared savings rate would be 25 percent, based on quality performance, applicable to first-dollar shared savings after the ACO meets the minimum savings rate. The glide path concludes with a maximum 50 percent sharing rate, based on quality performance, and a maximum level of risk, which qualifies a provider as an Advanced APM for purposes of the Quality Payment Program.

Other proposed changes include the following:

  • A bifurcated system for high- and low-revenue ACOs, which functionally would penalize certain ACOs for the size of their patient populations and volume of services.
  • A differential system for experienced versus inexperienced ACOs, which would allow experienced ACOs to choose from a more robust menu of participation options.
  • Dis-incentives to lower spending: ACOs have had little incentive to lower spending because of the link between the spending reductions they achieve and subsequent benchmarks. One could argue that it is astonishing that the MSSP has produced any savings at all. CMS proposes that the MSSP needs to be re-vamped.
  • A modified and more rigorous application review process to screen for good standing among ACOs seeking to renew or re-enter MSSP after termination or expiration of their previous agreement. ACOs in two-sided models would be held accountable for partial-year losses if either the ACO or CMS terminates the agreement during a performance year.

Will there be too much risk too quickly placed on the ACOs? Stay tuned for whether this proposed rule becomes finalized.