Category Archives: Federal Law

Recoupment, Recoupment, Everywhere and Not a Drop to Keep

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem written by Samuel Coleridge, states “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” It is a tale of retribution. The poem talks about a mariner who is traveling with his fellow sailors. Suddenly, when the mariner finds an albatross chasing them, the mariner at once kills the albatross in cold blood without any major reason. After the killing of the bird, nothing goes well with the mariner. He is not in a position even to hold communion with God. Killing an albatross is symbolic of showing a criminal disregard for a creature of nature.

Now, imagine the mariner is a Medicare or Medicaid auditor. You are the albatross. According to Coleridge, an auditor that needlessly and mindlessly accuses you of owing $1 million in alleged overpayments should suffer dire consequences. However, unlike in poetry, the auditors suffer nothing. The albatross may or may not perish. A health care company may or may not go bankrupt due to the mariner/auditor’s inane actions.

I have a case right now that the auditor applied the 1995 AND 1997 guidelines, instead of only the 1995 or 1997 guidelines. The auditor created a more rigid criteria than what was actually required. Not ok.

So, how do you stop recoupment when you are accused of owing money for allegedly improperly billing Medicare or Medicaid?

  1. Hire an attorney as soon as you receive a Tentative Notice of Overpayment (“TNO”). Do not do, what multiple clients of mine have done, do not wait until the last few days of being allowed to appeal the TNO until you contact an attorney. You want your attorney to have time on his or her side! And yours!
  2. Appeal timely or recoupment will begin. If you do not appeal, recoupment will occur.
  3. Start putting money aside to pay for attorneys’ fees. I hate saying this, but you are only as good (legally) as what you can pay your attorneys. Attorneys have bad reputations regarding billing, but in a situation in which you are accused of owing mass amounts of money or, in the worst case scenario, of fraud against Medicare, you want an experienced, specialized attorney, who understands Medicare and Medicaid. Note: You do not need to hire an attorney licensed or located in your State. Administrative Law Courts (where you go for Medicare and Medicaid legal issues) do not require the attorneys to be legally licensed in the State in which they are practicing. At least, most States do not require attorneys to be licensed in the State in which they are practicing. There are a few exceptions.
  4. Meditate. The process is tedious.

Advocates Split on the Benefit of Banning Non-Compete Clauses!

The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) unilaterally issued a Proposed Rule to ban non-compete clauses in employment contracts. See blog. The first question is: Does the FTC have the legal authority to ban non-compete clauses? As a member of the American Society of Medical Association Counsel (“ASMAC”), the president, Greg Pepe, sent out an informal questionnaire to solicit comments by health care attorneys and heads of medical societies.

Greg said, “The respondents were split 50%/50% between medical society attorney members and private practice attorneys who are members.  In general, the most common threads were as follows:

  1. The most common comment was that non-compete provisions in physician employment contracts impede the physician/patient relationship.  This comment came up over and over in a number of ways.
  2. A few comments pointed out that rural areas were disproportionately harmed by non-competes, with physicians having to move away to comply.
  3. Hospital-based physician groups need non-competes to protect their arrangements.
  4. Exemptions for non-profits is a loophole that eviscerates the effort.
  5. ASMAC should be mindful of the divergent interests of its members and their client when considering this kind of commentary.

Very few people offered specific examples of the ways non-competes in physician contracts harmed physicians.  If your organization takes steps to comment please keep ASMAC advised.”

I decided that ASMAC’s findings, even if informal, were important enough to post here on my blog. So, thank you, Greg, for heading this up.

I would like to pay particular attention to #4. Because, a week or so ago, I presented on RACMoniter the story about the FTC banning non-compete clauses, but failed to acknowledge the exemptions for non-profits, which is a HUGE exception. There are 6093 hospitals in the U.S. 1228 of the 6093 hospitals are for profit. The vast majority of hospitals are either government run or non-profit. If you notice above, the “anti-banning comment of non-competes” came from hospital-based physician groups (#3). That makes sense.

Most people, when asked, touts that non-compete agreements impede physician-patient relationships. Personally, as an attorney, non-compete agreements represent requiring me not being able to work at another law firm if I decided Practus, LLP, did not work out. Similarly, if I had attended med school and was working at a hospital in Angier, NC, which was in close proximity to my home, and received a better offer at a nearby hospital, why should I be impeded from working? Obviously, families need to have an income, and what if the physician was the sole breadwinner? The non-compete agreement could really adversely affect a family.

Non-compete agreements, also called restrictive covenants, are an increasingly common requirement for employment in many sectors, including health care. Sometimes non-compete agreements appear as a clause within a contract. Other times, they are separate contracts in and of themselves. Though common, the terms of non-compete agreements vary greatly.

Most people, even physicians, when presented with a contract, “fake” review the contract, and sign without digesting – or even reading – the material. Many don’t even know that a non-compete clause exists in their contracts. Until it’s too late.

Will the FTC’s Proposed Rule become permanent? So far, there have been 4.91k comments. One anonymous person posted: “I am completely in favor of forbidding noncompete agreements.” A woman posted: “I am a veterinarian and have worked close to 40 years. I have been an associate and a practice owner. I see no justification for non-competes and in fact feel it harms the entire profession. Non-competes are pervasive and notoriously difficult to fight. For many years now I have worked for corporations and have watched colleagues both attempt to negotiate non-competes and bear the brunt of legal battles if they attempt to challenge the non-compete. Should you really have to move your entire family to acquire a job? How do I harm a company by working for their competitor?”

A guy wrote: “These should’ve been banned a long time ago. Job mobility is important if we “really” believe in our economic system. Ban NDAs.”

A physician wrote: “As a physician I have suffered significant financial and personal hardship relating to a non-compete agreement. As a result of a non-compete I had to move across the country (twice). I suffered significant loss of income as a result of this not withstanding the expense of relocating twice within a year. My self and my family also suffered significant psycho-social ramifications and de-stabilization. I now also face another non-compete agreement that will essentially render me unable to leave my next position without tremendous harm to my life-long earning potential, credibly rendering me an indentured servant. The presence of a non-compete also removes any leverage an employee such as myself might have to negotiate agains unacceptable working or wage conditions.”

Unlike the commenters from ASMAC, which was split 50-50, it appears that many comments support banning non-compete agreements, but, remember, the not-for-profit exception!! The comment period is open through Mar 10, 2023.

340B Drug Pricing Program: Drug Companies Are Concerned!

The federal 340B Drug Pricing Program allows qualifying hospitals and clinics that treat low-income and uninsured patients to buy outpatient prescription drugs at a discount of 25 percent to 50 percent. The program is intended to help safety-net health care providers stretch their financial resources to reach more financially vulnerable patients and deliver comprehensive services.

The 340B Drug Pricing Program has spiked in use. It has become more and more popular over the years.

In 2020, there were 8,100 provider sites (including both hospitals and pharmacies), but that number rose to 50,000 by 2020. New data released in August 2022 by the Health Resources and Services Administration suggest discounted purchases under the 340B program reached $44 billion in 2021, about 16% more than in 2020. Drug companies are concerned.

On November 30, 2022, the 340B Drug Pricing Program; Administrative Dispute Resolution Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) was published in the Federal Register. Section 340B(d)(3) of the Public Health Service Act requires the establishment of an Administrative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process for certain disputes under the 340B Program. Under the statute, the ADR process is designed to resolve:

  • Claims by covered entities that they have been overcharged for covered outpatient drugs by manufacturers; and
  • Claims by manufacturers, after the manufacturer has conducted an audit of a covered entity, that a covered entity has violated the prohibition on diversion or duplicate discounts.

This NPRM proposes new requirements and more efficient procedures to make the 340B Program’s ADR process more accessible and efficient, including ensuring that ADR panels hearing disputes are comprised of subject matter experts on the 340B Program, and establishing an independent HRSA reconsideration process. The NPRM will be open for public comment through January 30, 2023. Please refer to the Federal Register (PDF – 315 KB) publication for instructions about how to submit comments.

The question is how does the new proposed rule mesh with the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022? If you recall, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) allows Medicare to negotiate drug rates. It has been suggested that the following 10 medications will be the first 10 negotiated:

Does the IRA and 340B conflict? How can you negotiate prices of a drug if the drug is already discounted?

Gift Cards Violate AKS? Maybe NOT!!!

Is Giving Gift Cards to Medicaid Consumers Suffering Substance Abuse Issues Who Comply with Weekly Criteria To Promote Wellness Against the Anti-Kickback statute (AKS)?

Yes, but who cares?

OIG does not care and even published an opinion stating that OIG would not penalize the practice.

The AKS is a criminal law that prohibits the knowing and willful payment of “remuneration” to induce or reward patient referrals or the generation of business involving any item or service payable by the Federal health care programs (e.g., drugs, supplies, or health care services for Medicare or Medicaid patients). Remuneration includes anything of value and can take many forms besides cash, such as free rent, expensive hotel stays and meals, and excessive compensation for medical directorships or consultancies. In some industries, it is acceptable to reward those who refer business to you. However, in the Federal health care programs, paying for referrals is a crime. The statute covers the payers of kickbacks-those who offer or pay remuneration- as well as the recipients of kickbacks-those who solicit or receive remuneration. Each party’s intent is a key element of their liability under the AKS.

Criminal penalties and administrative sanctions for violating the AKS include fines, jail terms, and exclusion from participation in the Federal health care programs. Physicians who pay or accept kickbacks also face penalties of up to $50,000 per kickback plus three times the amount of the remuneration.

Safe harbors protect certain payment and business practices that could otherwise implicate the AKS from criminal and civil prosecution. To be protected by a safe harbor, an arrangement must fit squarely in the safe harbor and satisfy all of its requirements. Some safe harbors address personal services and rental agreements, investments in ambulatory surgical centers, and payments to bona fide employees.

However, study after study after study have demonstrated that people with substance abuse issues have a higher likelihood of success with monetary incentives. See article as an example.

OIG obviously understands the efficacy of gift cards. Maybe Congress can back up OIG because, you can be sure that, if the proposed rule is passed, litigation will ensue. People will claim that the FTC does not have the legal authority to issue such a rule in violation of the AKS.

Non-Compete Clauses Banned, According to Proposed Rule

Non-compete clauses have dominated the health care field for years. Generally, noncompete clauses place restrictions on a person’s ability to work in three different ways:

  1. geographical restrictions,
  2. time restrictions, and
  3. line of business restrictions

On January 5, 2023, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) released a notice of proposed rule-making to prohibit employers from imposing noncompete clauses on workers. Noncompete agreements block people from working for competing, potential employers or starting a competing business, after their employment ends.

Data show that non-compete clauses affect about one and five American workers, approximately 30 million people. However, non-compete clauses are predominantly in healthcare. By far, doctors employed by hospitals sign more non-compete agreements than any other profession. The theory behind eliminating non-compete agreements is that non-compete causes prevent employees from accepting better opportunities that offer higher pay or better working conditions.

Non-compete clauses are common and have been a contentious issue for decades. Some theorize that non-competes disrupt the physician-patient relationship and remove physicians who are already in short supply from the workforce.

I say, eliminating noncompete agreements may evolve healthcare.

As written, the federal rule will supersede state laws that currently govern noncompete and would apply retroactively, invalidating existing agreements.

This proposed rule comes with criticism and legal obstacles that will surely be tested. So for all of you who jumped up and down for the new proposed rule, expect litigation because as much as eliminating noncompete clause is awesome for physicians, hospitals will be adversely affected.

Many people have complained that the rule is over broad and vague. Challenges include whether the FTC has the authority to issue the non-compete rule under Section 5 of the FTC Act, the primary section the FTC cites as providing its rulemaking authority. Section 5 gives the FTC authority to police both “unfair methods of competition” and “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” affecting commerce. Although Section 18 of the FTC Act contains an explicit grant of rulemaking authority to the FTC for unfair or deceptive acts or practices, the statutory authority for the FTC’s ability to make rules for unfair methods of competition is less clear. Even if the federal courts conclude that the FTC had the authority to make a rule under the FTC Act, there will be challenges to the legality of the non-compete rule itself. The FTC claims that the non-compete rule is based on a finding that non-compete clauses constitute an “unfair method of competition and therefore violate Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.”

To address these problems, the FTC’s proposed rule would generally prohibit employers from using noncompete clauses. Specifically, the FTC’s new rule would make it illegal for an employer to: enter into or attempt to enter into a noncompete with a worker; maintain a noncompete with a worker; or represent to a worker, under certain circumstances, that the worker is subject to a noncompete.

The proposed rule would apply to independent contractors and anyone who works for an employer, whether paid or unpaid. It would also require employers to rescind existing noncompetes and actively inform workers that they are no longer in effect.

The agency estimates that the new rule could boost wages by nearly $300 billion a year and expand career opportunities for about 30 million Americans.

The commission invites the public to submit comments. The FTC will review the comments and may make changes, in the final rule, based on the comments and on the FTC’s further analysis of the issue. Comments are due 60 days after the federal register publishes the proposed rule. You have until March 6 to comment.

Don’t Like the Reimbursement Rates? Maybe Litigation Is the Answer!

The Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates are a disgrace to health care providers nationwide. The low reimbursement rates are the reason why so many providers refuse to accept Medicare and/or Medicaid patients. Yet, with the pandemic, it is estimated that 100 million people will be on Medicaid by next year. Having a Medicaid card to wave around is useless if providers refuse to accept it.

Hospitals in Nebraska are not putting up with it – and they should not put up with it! Not only can hospitals NOT turn away any person; thus being forced to accept Medicaid and Medicare … and uninsured patients, but the overhead for a hospital is astronomical.

Saying more than half of the state’s hospitals are operating in the red, the Nebraska Hospital Association is calling for a 9.6% increase to Medicaid reimbursement rates this year, and 7.7% next year, after seeing a 2% bump each of the last two years.

The Hospital Association has never demanded this high of a rate increase. Inflation has significantly impacted the costs for Nebraska hospitals. The association says drug costs are up 35%, labor costs are up 20%, supplies are up 15-20%, and food and utilities are up 10%. Overall, it says inflation is up more than 20% per patient compared to the pre-pandemic level. The cost of labor has spiked, especially during the pandemic when emergency room nurses were in such short supply and such demand. Some hospitals were forced to pay nurses $10k a week! Traveling nurses became a “thing,” which allowed nurses to jump around hospitals for the best pay. In no way, I am not campaigning for lower salaries for nurses. Nurses are essential. However, the reimbursement rates are supposed to reflect society’s needs.

The Nebraska Hospital Association is completely in the right to sue for higher reimbursement rates. I commend them. I beseech more association groups to do the same. The dental, pediatric, primary care, home health, long term care facilities, behavioral health care, and other associations across the country should follow suit.

The legal argument is clear. Under §1902(a)(30)(A) of the Social Security Act, State Medicaid programs must ensure that provider payments are “consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care and are sufficient to enlist enough providers” to provide access to care and services comparable to those generally available. On November 2, 2015, CMS issued a regulation (42 CFR Part 447) under this authority requiring State Medicaid programs to demonstrate that their Medicaid fee-for-service (FFS) non-waiver payment rates ensure sufficient access to care. See blog.

Hospitals lose money on Medicare and Medicaid patients. Considering the legal requirement of reimbursement rates to be consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care, I am shocked that MORE associations haven’t litigated this issue. Perhaps the providers within these associations, who pay high yearly memberships, should demand that associations fund this type of litigation.

I have no doubt that the cost of litigation dissuades most associations from making the expensive decision to litigate for better rates. But isn’t litigating for higher reimbursement rates the job of the associations? The cost would be prohibitive for single provider facilities. And, aren’t we always more strong when we band together?

Medicare Auditors Fail to Follow the Jimmo Settlement

Auditors are not lawyers. Some auditors do not even possess the clinical background of the services they are auditing. In this blog, I am concentrating on the lack of legal licenses. Because the standards to which auditors need to hold providers to are not only found in the Medicare Provider Manuals, regulations, NCDs and LCDs. Oh, no… To add even more spice to the spice cabinet, common law court cases also create and amend Medicare and Medicaid policies.

For example, the Jimmo v. Selebius settlement agreement dictates the standards for skilled nursing and skilled therapy in skilled nursing facilities, home health, and outpatient therapy settings and importantly holds that coverage does not turn on the presence or absence of a beneficiary’s potential for improvement.

The Jimmo settlement dictates that:

“Specifically, in accordance with the settlement agreement, the manual revisions clarify that coverage of skilled nursing and skilled therapy services in the skilled nursing facility (SNF), home health (HH), and outpatient therapy (OPT) settings “…does not turn on the presence or absence of a beneficiary’s potential for improvement, but rather on the beneficiary’s need for skilled care.” Skilled care may be necessary to improve a patient’s current condition, to maintain the patient’s current condition, or to prevent or slow further deterioration of the patient’s condition.”

This Jimmo standard – not requiring a potential for improvement – is essential for diseases that are lifelong and debilitating, like Multiple Sclerosis (“MS”). For beneficiaries suffering from MS, skilled therapy is essential to prevent regression.

I have reviewed numerous audits by UPICs, in particular, which have failed to follow the Jimmo settlement standard and denied 100% of my provider-client’s claims. 100%. All for failure to demonstrate potential for improvement for MS patients. It’s ludicrous until you stop and remember that auditors are not lawyers. This Jimmo standard is found in a settlement agreement from January 2013. While we will win on appeal, it costs providers money valuable money when auditors apply the wrong standards.

The amounts in controversy are generally high due to extrapolations, which is when the UPIC samples a low number of claims, determines an error rate and extrapolates that error rate across the universe. When the error rate is falsely 100%, the extrapolation tends to be high.

While an expectation of improvement could be a reasonable criterion to consider when evaluating, for example, a claim in which the goal of treatment is restoring a prior capability, Medicare policy has long recognized that there may also be specific instances where no improvement is expected but skilled care is, nevertheless, required in order to prevent or slow deterioration and maintain a beneficiary at the maximum practicable level of function. For example, in the regulations at 42 CFR 409.32(c), the level of care criteria for SNF coverage specify that the “. . . restoration potential of a patient is not the deciding factor in determining whether skilled services are needed. Even if full recovery or medical improvement is not possible, a patient may need skilled services to prevent further deterioration or preserve current capabilities.” The auditors should understand this and be trained on the proper standards. The Medicare statute and regulations have never supported the imposition of an “Improvement Standard” rule-of-thumb in determining whether skilled care is required to prevent or slow deterioration in a patient’s condition.

When you are audited by an auditor whether it be a RAC, MAC or UPIC, make sure the auditors are applying the correct standards. Remember, the auditors aren’t attorneys or doctors.

Medicare and Medicaid Reimbursement Rates Suck: Is Litigation the Answer?

One way to raise Medicaid reimbursement rates would be to bring litigation against the State Medicaid agency in charge of managing Medicaid under §30(A) of the Social Security Act (“SSA”).

That’s what the pharmacy associations in the State of Washington did in April 2021. The associations alleged that, per a 2016 CMS Rule, State Medicaid agencies must consider two types of costs when it comes to reimbursement rates; i.e., (1) the ingredient costs; and (2) the professional dispensing fee, when creating a Medicaid reimbursement rate. They argued that Washington’s Medicaid reimbursement rates were less than half of the surrounding States.

The case never went to trial. In July 2021, the parties filed a Joint Motion for Voluntary Remand and Dismissal Without Prejudice. It was so ordered that this matter was remanded back to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”). It was further ordered that this matter was dismissed without prejudice with the parties to bear their own costs and fees. The Order was signed by Judge Ricardo S. Martinez. National Association of Chain Drug Stores et al v. Becerra et al, 2:21CV00576. I have no idea what has happened since leaving the court system. If anyone knows, I would love to know. Has Washington’s Medicaid reimbursement rates increased for pharmacies?

Section 30(A) of the Social Security Act (“SSA”) describes reimbursement rates as being high enough “to assure that payments are consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care and are sufficient to enlist enough providers so that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population in the geographic area.” Yet, statistics show that only 70% of health care providers accept Medicaid or Medicare. In mental health, in particular, there is a shortage of providers, especially minority providers. In other words, government health is failing its providers and consumers. See blog.

Exactly what Section 30(A) requires of States in terms of payments to Medicaid providers has been the subject of considerable litigation. There is little consistency in the Courts’ interpretation of §30(A). While some Courts have held that provider costs should be considered, other Courts disagree.

Providers have reasonable complaints about the Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates. The reimbursement rates are wholly inadequate; in fact, the reimbursement rates, in some cases, do not even cover the cost of rendering the services. Yet “quality of care” and “equality of access” are promised in Section 1902(a)(30)(A) of the SSA. For example, in 2020 hospitals received only 88 cents for every dollar spent caring for Medicaid patients. This amounted to a $24.8 billion underpayment. Low reimbursement rates limit access to quality care and contribute to poor health outcomes for Medicaid beneficiaries, who are disproportionately minority. Research suggests that increasing Medicaid primary care rates by $45 per service would reduce access-to-care inequities by at least 70%.

Medicaid reimbursement rates suck. Medicare reimbursement rates suck. Plus, providers must succumb to tedious audits. There is little upside to accepting Medicare and Medicaid, except charity.

I do not believe that the reason “why” matters when it comes to reimbursement rates. If the government chooses to regulate health care, the health care the government regulates should be adequate.

Other service types should choose to litigate over the low reimbursement rates.

The State of Florida recently looked into its Medicaid reimbursement rates. “According to the latest Physician Workforce Annual Report published by the Florida Department of Health, the most common reason that physicians do not accept Medicaid is low reimbursement.” In total, the report found that 44% of physicians who do not accept Medicaid patients do so due to the unacceptably low reimbursement offered by the program.

Other associations have likewise filed litigation in hopes of increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates. I highly encourage providers to discuss bringing litigation to increase Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates to their respective associations Litigation, unlike lobbying, is swifter to change. Public opinion has weight.

Nursing Homes Face Higher Scrutiny and Increased Penalties

Some nursing homes are facing tougher penalties, including the loss of federal funding. In an effort to increase quality of care in nursing homes, the Biden administration implemented revisions to the Special Focus Facility (“SFF”) program, which targets the “worst” nursing homes in each State. Nursing homes are selected for the program by the “single State agency” using a point system based on the number and severity of deficiencies cited during their past 3 inspections.

CMS released a revised SFF Program policy memo QS0-23-01-NH and these revisions are meant to increase: (A) the requirements for “graduation” of the SFF program; and (B) the enforcement for facilities that do not demonstrate improvement. A high-level overview of key changes made in the revised memo are as follows: 

  • Staffing levels is a consideration for SFF selection: CMS has directed states to consider a facility’s staffing level when selecting facilities for the SFF program. CMS recommends if a State is considering two candidates with a similar compliance history, it should select the facility with lower staffing ratios/rating as the SFF.  
  • Criteria for Graduation of the Program Escalated: CMS has added a threshold that prevents a facility from exiting based on the total number of deficiencies cited. To graduate from the program, facilities must complete two consecutive standard health surveys, with no intervening complaint, LSC, or EP surveys with 13 or more total deficiencies, or any deficiencies cited at scope and severity of “F” or higher. 
  • Involuntary Termination Enforced: SFFs with deficiencies cited at immediate Jeopardy (“IJ”) on any two surveys (standard health, complaint, LSC, or EP) while in the SFF program, will now be considered for discretionary termination.  
  • Enforcement Actions Increased: CMS will impose immediate sanctions on an SFF that fails to achieve and maintain significant improvement in correcting deficiencies on the first and each subsequent standard health, complaint and LSC/EP survey after a facility becomes an SFF. Enforcement sanctions will be of increasing severity for SFFs demonstrating continued noncompliance and failure to demonstrate good faith efforts to improve performance. 
  • Sustainable Improvements Incentivized: CMS will closely monitor graduates from the SFF program for a period of three years to ensure improvements are sustained. For SFFs that graduate but continue to demonstrate poor compliance identified on any survey (e.g., actual harm, substandard quality of care, or IJ deficiencies), CMS may use its authority to impose enhanced enforcement options, up to, and including discretionary termination from the Medicare and/or Medicaid programs.

It is imperative to note that your past alleged violations will work against you. This means that if you are cited with a deficiency, it is of the utmost importance, if you disagree with the assessment, to appeal the alleged deficiency. If you merely pay the penalty and roll over like an old dog, your lack of appealing can aid toward your demise. You are basically being held to a giant, bell curve against the other nursing homes in your State.

Once in the SFF program, nursing homes are inspected at least every six months rather than annually. State inspectors apply progressive enforcement—penalties, fines, withholding of payments—until the facilities significantly improve or are terminated from Medicaid and/or Medicare.

Nationally, 88 nursing homes participate in the SFF program, about 0.5% of all nursing homes. It is mandatory if chosen.

The facilities with the most points in a state then become candidates for the SFF program. The number of nursing homes on the candidate list is based on five candidates for each SFF slot, with a minimum candidate pool of five nursing homes and a maximum of 30 per State. State Agencies (“SAs”) use this list to select nursing homes to fill the SFF slot(s) in their State. Additionally, since a facility’s staffing (staffing levels and turnover) is very important to residents’ care, CMS recommends that SAs consider a facility’s staffing information when selecting SFFs from the SFF candidate list. See the list of current candidates in Table D, current as of December 7, 2022. For example, NC has 10 facilities on the proposed list for participation in the SFF program. Each State is allotted a number of SFFs the State may allot. See below.

Once a State selects a facility as an SFF, the SA, on CMS’s behalf, conducts a full, onsite inspection of all Medicare health and safety requirements every six months, and recommends progressive enforcement (e.g., civil money penalty, denial of Medicare payment, etc.) until the nursing home either: (1) graduates from the SFF program; or (2) is terminated from the Medicare and/or Medicaid program(s). While in the SFF program, CMS expects facilities to take meaningful actions to address the underlying and systemic issues leading to poor quality.

Once an SFF graduates or is terminated, each SA then selects a new SFF from a monthly list of candidates. CMS also informs candidate nursing homes of their inclusion on the SFF candidate list in the monthly preview of the Five-Star Quality Rating System. The facility will graduate from the SFF program once it has had two consecutive standard health surveys with 12 or fewer deficiencies cited at S/S of “E” or less on each survey (these surveys must have occurred after the facility has been selected as an SFF).  To avoid situations where a facility remains an SFF for a prolonged period of time, CMS is establishing criteria that could result in the facility’s termination from the Medicare and/or Medicaid programs. SFFs with deficiencies cited at Immediate Jeopardy on any two surveys while in the SFF program, will be considered for discretionary termination.

While the initial SFF designation is not appealable, the facility does have some appeal rights. Federal regulations allow for dispute resolution and to appeal a finding of noncompliance determined under an SFF survey that results in an enforcement remedy.

If you find yourself on the SFF list, you must hire a lawyer with expertise. Your lawyer should be able to help you “graduate” from the SFF list without termination or closure. Your lawyer can help negotiate Systems Improvement Agreements (“SIAs”) with SAs and CMS to provide additional time for nursing homes to improve their internal systems and the quality of care they provide.

My Halloween blog from Yesterday: Medicare Dollars Vanish!

Happy Halloween. This year I am dressing as Freddy Krueger and my daughter, who is 17, says, “that’s so 80’s.” I guess some younger kids will just think I’m a spooky lady in a green and red sweater with knives for fingers. In honor of Halloween, I would like to tell you three ghost stories, of Medicare money that has vanished never to be found.

First, a ghoulish report from OIG states that CMS has not done enough to recoup Medicare payments found in 12 hospitals. Nothing like a report saying “CMS isn’t getting enough money” to make CMS “trick or treat” with more audits. According to the OIG report, CMS is short staffed, like almost every employer in America. Apparently, CMS claims to have too many phantoms instead of employees to track down every dollar, which I must say, makes me superstitious. If CMS is claiming to not have enough resources to track down money that has been targeted at 12 hospitals, how is it conducting the other audits nation-wide?

Among the 12 hospitals, supposedly, there is an eerie $82 million allegedly owed to CMS.

OIG recommended recouping all the money, but, according to OIG, CMS has provided insufficient information. Specifically, CMS did not provide information on the status of appeals hospitals levied against OIG’s overpayment findings. CMS didn’t provide information on the reason for the appeal or status of the action. Personally, I am just happy the hospitals appealed.

The second ghost story entails CMS’ continual audit of providers, especially the Medicare Advantage plans, which are nightmares. CMS has agreed to release the audits of 90 MA plans conducted between 2011 and 2013. These records are expected to demonstrate more than $600 million in MA overpayments due to alleged upcoding. Chilling!

Finally, a NC hospital system, Atrium Health, publicly announced that in 2019 it provided $640 million to Medicare patients that were never paid for. You would think this spine chilling unless you knew the tax breaks associated with the charity. But for the same year that Atrium’s website says it recorded the $640 million loss on Medicare, the hospital system claimed $82 million in profits from Medicare and an additional $37.2 million in profits from Medicare Advantage in a federally required financial document. Sleight of hand and hocus pocus!