Category Archives: Hospitals

NC Medicaid OVERHAULED!

NC Medicaid is getting a complete overhaul. Politically, everyone is lost and has no idea how this will work. Back in 2010-ish, when NC went to the MCO model, which we have now, hundreds of providers were not paid or had trouble getting paid until the “dust” settled, and the MCOs were familiar with their jobs. Providers continue to suffer nonpayment from MCOs.

The new model consists of two, separate models: (1) the Standard Plan; and (2) the Tailored Plan models.

What’s the difference?

The Tailored Plan

Applies to:

  • People who get Innovations Waiver services
  • People who get Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Waiver services
  • People who may have a mental health disorder,substance use disorder, intellectual /developmental disability (I/DD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI).

The Standard Plan

Applies to everyone else. It is normal, physical Medicaid.

December 1, 2022, is the “go-live” date for the Tailored Plans.

Unlike the MCO model, the Tailored Plan offers physical health, pharmacy, care management and behavioral health services. It is for members who may have significant mental health needs, severe substance use disorders, intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DDs) or traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). Tailored Plans offer added services for members who qualify. DHHS is trying to distance itself from any Medicaid administration by hiring all these private companies to manage Medicaid for DHHS. DHHS has to get federal Waivers to do this.

The MCOs are taking on a new function. Starting December 1, 2022, the MCOs will be managing physical care, as well as mental health and substance abuse.

I see this HUGE change as good and bad (isn’t everything?). The good side effect of this transition is that Medicaid recipients who suffer mental health and/or substance abuse will have their physical health taken care of by the same MCO that manage their mental health and/or substance abuse services. Despite, this positive side effect, we all know that whenever NC Medicaid is OVERHAULED, consumers fall between cracks on a large scale. Let’s just hope that this transition will be easier than past transitions.

Dave Richard, Deputy Secretary NC Medicaid, NCDHHS, gave a presentation today for the NCSHCA. He said that the transition to MCOs was rocky. What does he think will happen when we transfer to the Tailored Plan?

I think I may ask him whether he thinks whether the MCOs are doing a good job, presently.

He’s a great presenter.

He said that the hospitals have come together in the last 4 weeks. He said that we will see something in the media on Monday.

He wants to expand Medicaid because his agency DHHS would be awarded $1.5 Billion over the course of 2 years. Of course, he wants to expand. He has no idea that the MCOs are “terminating at will” providers within the catchment areas in a disproportionate and discriminatory way.

We are close to expansion, he said. 80%, he guessed. “Expansion is really important.”

Not if there are not enough providers.

I did not ask him my question.

Today Mr. Richard had to get a bunch of data from the “new plans.” We are 2 1/2 months away, and he said they are not prepared yet, but hopes to be prepared by December 1, 2022. They still have the discretion to “pull the plug.” He’s worried about a lot of providers who have invested a lot of money to get compliant and ready for the transformation – that they won’t get paid.

“We have 5 really, strong Standard Plans,” he said. Most Medicaid recipients will choose the 5 Standard Plans,

Attorney from the audience: “We have to raise reimbursement rates.” There is a staffing crisis, the attorney, emphasized.

Mr. Richard stated that there will be a raise, but no indication of how much.

Finally, I did ask him his opinion as to whether he thinks the MCOs are doing better now than when the transformation happened (back in 2010-ish).

He said, that nothing is perfect. And that other Medicaid Deputy Secretaries think very highly of NC’s program. I wonder if he’ll run for office. He would win.

The guy next to me asked, “What is the future of the Tailored Plans when they go out of business in 4 years?”

Mr. Richards said that there needed to be competition for being the “big dogs.”

Post-COVID Medicare/caid Rules Matter!

How many times have we panelists talked about COVID and COVID exceptions to the regulatory rules? How many times have we warned providers that the exceptions will expire at the end of public health emergency (“PHE”)? Well, it’s coming. The COVID PHE is still in effect for America, but some States have lifted their PHE status. NC’s state of emergency expired August 15, 2022. In Montana, the state of emergency ended June 30, 2021.

What does that mean? When America’s PHE expires, so does also all the exceptions. When your particular State’s PHE ends, so do the PHE exceptions your particular State allowed. This is imperative to ALL Medicare and Medicaid audits by whatever alphabet soup is knocking on your door. As well you know, auditors don’t always get it right. Add in confusion due to COVID exceptions…which apply in which State and which expired?

 Last week, CMS released fact sheets summarizing the current status of Medicare and Medicaid COVID waivers and exceptions by provider type. The fact sheets include information about which waivers and flexibilities have already been terminated, have been made permanent or will end at the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency. Unless specifically stated, all exceptions expire at the end of PHE, which is in the process of winding down.

 I decided to review a fact sheet to determine how useful it was. I chose for provider type – hospitals. The fact sheet is entitled, “Hospitals and CAH (including swing beds, DPUs), ASCs and CMHCs.” It is 28 pages. The fact sheets are must reads for all providers. When you play chess the rules matter. When you accept Medicare and/or Medicaid, the rules matter. And these fact sheets are the rules.

The fact sheets cover telehealth and reimbursement rates. The hospital fact sheet covers hospitals without walls, off-site patient screening, paperwork requirements, physical environment requirements, which waivers will or will not expire at the end of PHE, and much more. I would say these fact sheets, for whichever type of provider you are – are mandatory reads. The fact sheets may not be absolutely encompassing, but they are summaries for you, all in one spot, organized for ease of reading. Thank you, CMS, for gathering this info and putting it all in one spot.

Medicare Inpatient versus Outpatient Status: A Due Process Right!

On January 25, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued an important opinion in Barrows v. Becerra that will have a significant impact on hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and, potentially, other Medicare providers. The Second Circuit affirmed a ruling from the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut that the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) violated the due process rights of a certified nationwide class of Medicare patients that were reclassified from “inpatient” to “observation” by a hospital’s utilization review committee (URC) without being provided an administrative review process to challenge that determination.

Although hospitals (and other Medicare providers and suppliers) are not typically considered to be governmental actors, the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s conclusion that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) requirements surrounding hospital URCs made those determinations “state action” and thus subject to due process requirements under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The classification from “inpatient” to “observation” can have significant financial repercussions to the Medicare beneficiary. Hospital inpatient services are generally covered under Medicare Part A. Outpatient or observation services are generally covered under Medicare Part B. Medicare beneficiaries pay monthly premiums for Part B coverage and also are subject to copayment obligations under Part B that may be higher than the inpatient deductible under Part A.

The Second Circuit’s opinion has huge ramifications on providers, especially hospitals. This opinion says a hospital stands in the shoes of the government when deciding to charge this person’s hospital stay under Part B. But what if the hospital itself argues that Part A should pay and it disagrees with the patient being deemed outpatient? Well, this ruling gives hospitals a lot more leeway in its finances. A hospital can sue on behalf of its consumer or itself in getting higher or any reimbursements.

The threshold question presented in Barrows was whether CMS’s oversight and control over hospital URC’s reclassification determinations transform those URCs into state action and thus subject to constitutional due process. The Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, which also included a permanent injunction, requiring the HHS Secretary to create some sort of due process if a Medicare beneficiary disagrees with a hospital URC’s reclassification determination.

This decision may also favorably impact skilled nursing facilities. Generally, a Medicare beneficiary must have a three-day inpatient stay at a hospital in order for Medicare to pay for a subsequent stay in a skilled nursing facility. This three-day requirement is currently waived during the COVID-19 public health emergency. Once the three-day-stay requirement returns, this decision may positively impact skilled nursing facilities by discouraging hospitals from reclassifying patients from inpatient to observation.

Although the district court decision was issued in 2020, the Second Circuit had granted a temporary stay to allow the HHS Secretary to appeal. In the Second Circuit’s opinion, the Court affirmed the district court and denied the HHS Secretary’s motion for stay as moot.

At this stage, HHS has not signaled what due process hospital URCs will have to provide a Medicare beneficiary who disagrees with a reclassification determination. There are also open questions about how to handle potential claims for various members of the class. The class includes Medicare beneficiaries who have been hospitalized since January 1, 2009, had their status changed from inpatient to hospital, received a notice from the hospital or Medicare, and either have Part A-coverage only or had Part A and B and were (or still could be) admitted to a skilled nursing facility within 30 days of hospital discharge.

The HHS Secretary has until late April 2022 to file a petition for writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court. At the time of this publication, HHS has not indicated whether it intends to appeal.

New Report Points to More Audits of Hospitals

Hospitals across the nation are seeing lower profits, and it’s all because of a sudden, tsunami of Medicare and Medicaid provider audits. Whether it be RAC, MAC, UPIC, or Program Integrity, hospital audits are rampant. Billing errors, especially ‘supposed bundling,’ are causing a high rate of insurance claims denials, hurting the finances of hospitals and providers.

A recent report from American Hospital Association (AHA) found “Under an optimistic scenario, hospitals would lose $53 billion in revenue this year. Under a more pessimistic scenario, hospitals would lose $122 billion thanks to a $64 billion decline in outpatient revenue”*[1]

The “Health Care Auditing and Revenue Integrity—2021 Benchmarking and Trends Report” is an insider’s look at billing and claims issues but reveals insights into health care costs trends and why administrative issues continue to play an outsize role in the nation’s high costs in this area. The data used covers 900+ facilities, 50,000 providers, 1500 coders, and 700 auditors – what could go wrong?

According to the report,

  • 40% of COVID-19-related charges were denied and 40% of professional outpatient audits for COVID-19 and 20% of hospital inpatient audits failed.
  • Undercoding poses a significant revenue risk, with audits indicating the average value of underpayment is $3,200 for a hospital claim and $64 for a professional claim.
  • Overcoding remains problematic, with Medicare Advantage plans and payers under scrutiny for expensive inpatient medical necessity claims, drug charges, and clinical documentation to justify the final reimbursement.
  • Missing modifiers resulted in an average denied amount of $900 for hospital outpatient claims, $690 for inpatient claims, and $170 for professional claims.
  • 33% of charges submitted with hierarchical condition category (HCC) codes were initially denied by payers, highlighting increased scrutiny of complex inpatient stays and higher financial risk exposure to hospitals.

The top fields being audited were diagnoses, present on admission indicator, diagnosis position, CPT/HCPCS coding, units billed, and date of service. The average outcome from the audits was 70.5% satisfactory. So, as a whole, they got a ‘C’.

While this report did not in it of itself lead to any alleged overpayments and recoupments, guess who else is reading this audit and salivating like Pavlov’s dogs? The RACs, MACs, UPICs, and all other alphabet soup auditors. The 900 facilities and 50,000 health care providers need to be prepared for audits with consequences. Get those legal defenses ready!!!!


[1] * https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/hospitals/kaufman-hall-hospitals-close-between-53-and-122b-year-due-to-pandemic

Instead of Orange, Medicare Advantage Audits Are the New Black

In case you didn’t know, instead of orange, Medicare Advantage is the new black. Since MA plans are paid more for sicker patients, there are huge incentives to fabricate co-morbidities that may or may not exist.

Medicare Advantage will be the next most audited arena. Home health, BH, and the two-midnight rule had held the gold medal for highest number of audits, but MA will soon prevail.

As an example, last week- a New York health insurance plan for seniors, along with amedical analytics company the insurer is affiliated with, was accused by the Justice Department of committing health care fraud to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. The dollar amounts are exceedingly high, which also attracts auditors, especially the auditors who are paid on contingency fee, which is almost all the auditors.

CMS pays Medicare Advantage plans using a complex formula called a “risk score,” which is intended to render higher rates for sicker patients and less for those in good health. The data mining company combed electronic medical records to identify missed diagnoses — pocketing up to 20% of new revenue it generated for the health plan. But the Department of Justice alleges that DxID’s reviews triggered “tens of millions” of dollars in overcharges when those missing diagnoses were filled in with exaggerations of how sick patients were or with charges for medical conditions the patients did not have. “All problems are boring until they’re your own.” – Red

MA plans have grown to now cover more than 40% of all Medicare beneficiaries, so too has fraud and abuse. A 2020 OIG report found that MA paid $2.6 billion a year for diagnoses unrelated to any clinical services.

Diagnoses fraud is the main issue that auditors are focusing on. Juxtapose the other alphabet soup auditors – MACs, SMRCs, UPICs, ZPICs, MCOs, TPEs, RACs – they concentrate on documentation nitpicking. I had a client accused of FWA for using purple ink. “Yeah I said stupid twice, only to emphasize how stupid that is!” – Pennsatucky. Other examples include purported failing of writing the times “in or out” when the CPT code definition includes the amount of time.

Audits will be ramping up, especially since HHS has reduced the Medicare appeals backlog at the Administrative Judge Level by 79 percent, which puts the department on track to clear the backlog by the end of the 2022 fiscal year.

 As of June 30, 2021, the end of the third quarter of FY 2021, HHS had 86,063 pending appeals remaining at OMHA, according to the latest status report, acquired by the American Hospital Association. The department started with 426,594 appeals. This is progress!!

Meaningful Use Increases Audits

Today I want to discuss EHR – electronic health records and RAC audits. We all remember the government pushing providers into purchasing EHR. It’s known as the meaningful use (MU) program, which is now known as the Promoting Interoperability Programs. CMS initially provided 10 incentives to accelerate the adoption of EHRs to meet program requirements. Now, physicians who fail to participate in MU will receive a penalty in the form of reduced Medicare reimbursements, at a minimum. Multiple audits at a maximum. Physicians must use certified electronic health records technology (CEHRT) and demonstrate meaningful use through an attestation process at the end of each MU reporting period to avoid the penalty.

Audits for MU can equal tens of thousands of dollars. The monetary amount is not as high as other RAC audits for medical records. One of my clients is a pediatric facility in Georgia. His facility received an alleged overpayment of $34,000 for two of his physicians not meeting the meaningful use criteria 8 and 9. We were going to fight it, but the two physicians who were dinged had quit and would not testify positively on behalf of my client. Plus, attorneys’ fees would surpass the penalty. Criteria 8 and 9 constitute proving your consumer have email and actually open their emails to check their health care internet folders, which are ridiculous criteria.

On September 2, 2020, CMS published the Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 Medicare Hospital Inpatient Prospective Payment System (IPPS) for Acute Care Hospitals and Long-Term Care Hospital (LTCH) Prospective Payment System (PPS) Final Rule which included program requirements for calendar year (CY) 2021. In this final rule, CMS continued its advancement of EHR utilization, focusing on burden reduction, and improving interoperability, and patient access to health information.

Meaningful use’s not anticipated consequence is ramping up RAC audits. Many RAC auditors are using EHR to claim “copy and paste.” Obviously, the point of EHR is to morph all service notes into a certain standard-looking note. But standard-looking notes scream copy and paste to RAC auditors. Maybe RAC auditors haven’t digested meaningful use yet.

On August 2, 2021 CMS released the Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 Medicare Hospital Inpatient Prospective Payment System for Acute Care Hospitals and Long-term Care Hospital Prospective Payment System Final Rule. For more information on the proposed changes, visit the Federal Register.

COVID affected EHR audits too.

The deadline for eligible hospitals and critical access to submit a hardship exception application is September 1, 2021.

Increased Medicare Reimbursements and Nursing Home Audits

HEAR YE, HEAR YE: Medicare reimbursement rate increase!!

On April 27th, CMS proposed a rule to increase Medicare fee-for-service payment rates and policies for inpatient hospitals and long-term care hospitals for fiscal year (FY) 2022. The proposed rule will update Medicare payment policies and rates for operating and capital‑related costs of acute care hospitals and for certain hospitals. The proposed increase in operating payment rates for general acute care hospitals paid under the IPPS that successfully participate in the Hospital Inpatient Quality Reporting (“IQR”) Program and are meaningful electronic health record (“EHR”) users is approximately 2.8%. This reflects the projected hospital market basket update of 2.5% reduced by a 0.2 percentage point productivity adjustment and increased by a 0.5 percentage point adjustment required by legislation.

Secondly, a sample audit of nursing homes conducted by CMS will lead to more scrutiny of nursing homes and long-term care facilities. The sample audit showed that two-thirds of Massachusetts’s nursing homes that receive federal Medicaid and Medicare funding are lagging in required annual inspections — and MA is demonstrative of the country.

237 nursing homes and long-term care facilities in the state, or 63.7% of the total, are behind on their federal health and safety inspections by at least 18 months. The national average is 51.3%.

We cannot blame COVID for everything. Those inspections lagged even before the pandemic, the data shows, but ground to a halt last year when the federal agency discontinued in-person visits to nursing homes as they were closed off to the public to help prevent spread of the COVID.

Lastly, on April 29, 2021, CMS issued a final rule to extend and make changes to the Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement (“CJR”) model. You’ve probably heard Dr. Ron Hirsch reporting on the joint replacement model on RACMonitor. The CJR model aims to pay providers based on total episodes of care for hip and knee replacements to curb costs and improve quality. Hospitals in the model that meet spending and quality thresholds can get an additional Medicare payment. But hospitals that don’t meet targets must repay Medicare for a portion of their spending.

This final rule revises the episode definition, payment methodology, and makes other modifications to the model to adapt the CJR model to changes in practice and fee-for-service payment occurring over the past several years. The changes in practice and payment are expected to limit or reverse early evaluation results demonstrating the CJR model’s ability to achieve savings while sustaining quality. This rule provides the time needed to test modifications to the model by extending the CJR model for an additional three performance years through December 31, 2024 for certain participant hospitals.

The CJR model has proven successful according to CMS. It began in 2016. Hospitals had a “statistically significant decrease” in average payments for all hip and knee replacements relative to a control group. $61.6 million (a savings of 2% of the baseline)

Provider Relief Funds: The Hottest RAC Audit Subject

Reporting the use of PRFs will be an ongoing issue due to the fraud and abuse implications of misusing PRFs.

The federal Provider Relief Fund (PRF) was created under the provisions of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was passed to address the economic harm suffered by healthcare providers that have incurred (or will incur) additional expenses and have lost (or will lose) significant revenue as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. PRF payments have been made from either the “general distribution” tranche or via various “targeted distributions.” PRF payment amounts and whether the providers complied with the terms and conditions will be a hotly contested topic in Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) and Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) audits for years to come. If Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) auditors put out a monthly magazine, like Time, PRF would be on the cover. This will be the hot topic of RAC audits, come Jan. 1, 2021.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) will audit Medicare payments made to hospitals for COVID-19 discharges that qualified for the 20-percent add-on payment under the CARES Act, according to a new item on the agency’s work plan.

To use the PRF funding from either the general or targeted distributions, providers must attest to receiving the funds and agree to all terms and conditions. However, what constitutes a “healthcare-related expense” or how to calculate “lost revenue” is not clearly defined. Similarly, how you net healthcare-related expenses toward lost revenue is also vague and undefined. On Nov. 2, HHS issued a clarification to post-payment reporting guidance for PRF funds.

The current guidance, issued Oct. 22, includes a two-step process for providers to report their use of PRF payments. The guidance specifically cites:

  • Healthcare-related expenses attributable to COVID that another source has not reimbursed and is not obligated to reimburse, which may include general and administrative (G&A) or “healthcare-related operating expenses;” and
  • PRF payment amounts not fully expended on healthcare-related expenses attributable to coronavirus are then applied to lost revenues associated with patient care, net of the healthcare-related expenses attributable to coronavirus calculated under the first step. Recipients may apply PRF payments toward lost revenue, up to the amount of the difference between their 2019 and 2020 actual patient care revenue.

HHS’s newest clarification came from its response to a FAQ, in which it said that healthcare-related expenses are no longer netted against the patient care lost revenue amount cited in the second portion. HHS indicated that a revised notice would be posted to remove the “net of the healthcare-related expenses” language in the guidance. Of course, as of now, we have no guidance regarding when this clarification is to be put into place officially. Yet another moving target for auditors.

Anticipate audits of the use of your PRF payments. CMS is choosing a sample of hospitals across the country that have received PRF payments to verify that such expenditures were for healthcare-related expenses. For each audit, OIG will obtain data and interview HHS/PRF program officials to understand how PRF payments were calculated, and then review actual PRF payments for compliance with CARES Act requirements. OIG will also review whether HHS’s controls over PRF payments ensured that payments were calculated correctly and disbursed to eligible providers.

Audits will also focus on how providers initially applied to receive PRFs, including calculations utilized and how COVID-19 patients are defined. When each hospital ceased netting expenses against lost revenue will now be another hot topic.

Balance billing is another area of interest. The terms and conditions require providers that accept the PRFs not to collect out-of-pocket payments from patients for all care for a presumptive or actual case of COVID-19 that exceeded what they would pay an in-network provider.

More havoc may ensue with any purchases or sales transactions that occur in the next year or so. Providers will need to know how to navigate compliance risks associated with any accepted or transferred PRFs. Tracking and reporting use of the PRFs will also be an ongoing issue due to the fraud and abuse implications of misusing PRFs, and there is limited guidance regarding how use will be audited. Many questions remain unanswered. Many terms remain undefined.

Programming Note: Knicole Emanuel, Esq. is a permanent panelist on Monitor Mondays. Listen to her RAC Report every Monday at 10 a.m. EST.

PHE Is an Enigma for Most Providers

As of now, the public health emergency (PHE) for the COVID-19 pandemic will expire July 24, 2020, unless it is renewed. Fellow contributor David Glaser and I have both reported on the potential end date of the PHE. Recent intel from Dr. Ronald Hirsh is that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) may renew the PHE period. Each time the PHE period is renewed, it is effective for another 90 days. Recent news about the uptick in COVID cases may have already alerted you that the PHE period will probably be prolonged.

CMS has given guidance that the exceptions that it has granted during this period of the PHE may be extended to Dec. 1, 2020. There is no indication of the Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) and Medicare Administrative Contractor (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.

I witnessed some interesting developments as a health care attorney during this ongoing pandemic. Three of my physician clients were erroneously placed on the Medicare exclusion lists. One would think that during the pandemic, CMS would move mountains to allow a Harvard-trained ER doctor to work in an ER. Because of the lack of staff, it was actually difficult to achieve an easy fix. This doctor was suspended from Medicare based on an accidental and inadvertent omission of a substance abuse issue more than 10 years ago. He disclosed everything except an 11-year-old misdemeanor. He did not omit the misdemeanor purposely. Instead, this ER physician relies on other hospital staff to submit his Medicare re-credentialing every year, as he should. It just happened that this year, the year of COVID, this doctor got caught up in a mistake that in normal times would have been a phone call away from fixing. We cleared up his issue, but not until he was unable to work for over two months, during the midst of the PHE.

At the time of the announcement of the public health emergency, another company, a home health provider, was placed on prepayment review. I am not sure how many of you are familiar with prepayment review, but this is a Draconian measure that all States and the federal government may wield against health care providers. When you are on prepayment review, you cannot get paid until another independent contracted entity reviews your claims “objectively.” I say objectively in quotes because I have yet to meet a prepayment review audit with which I agreed.

Mostly because of COVID, we were forced to argue for a preliminary injunction, allowing this home heath provider to continue to provide services and get paid for services rendered during the PHE. We were successful. That was our first lawsuit during COVID. I believe we went to trial in April 2020. We had another trial in May 2020, for which we have not received the result, although we have high hopes. I may be able to let you know the outcome eventually. But for now, because of COVID, with a shortage of court reporters willing to work, we will not receive the transcript from the trial until over four weeks after the trial.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, we begin our third COVID trial. For the first time since COVID, it will not be virtual. This is the guidance that conveys to me that RAC and MAC audits will begin again soon. If a civil judge is ordering the parties to appear in person, then the COVID stay-at-home orders must be decreasing. I cannot say I am happy about this most recent development (although audits may be easier if they are conducted virtually).

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. In the rearranged words of Roosevelt, “speak loudly, and carry a big stick.”

Inconsequential Medicare Audits Could Morph into a Whopper of a Whale

Emergency room physicians or health care providers are a discrete breed – whales in a sea of fish. Emergency room doctors have – for the most part – been overlooked by the RAC auditors or TPE, ZPIC, or MAC auditors. Maybe it’s because, even RAC auditors have children or spouses that need ER services from time to time. Maybe it’s because ER doctors use so many different billers. Normally, an ER doctor doesn’t know which of his or her patients are Medicaid or Medicare. When someone is suffering from a a broken leg or heart attack, the ER doctor is not going to stop care to inquire whether the patient is insured and by whom. But should they? Should ER doctors have to ask patients their insurer? If the answer includes any sort of explanation that care differs depending on whether someone is covered by Medicare or Medicaid or has private insurance, then, sadly, the answer may be yes.

ER doctors travel to separate emergency rooms, which are owned by various and distinct entities, and rely on individual billing companies. They do not normally work at only one hospital. Thus, they do not always have the same billers. We all know that not all billers are created equal. Some are endowed with a higher understanding of billing idiosyncrasies than others.

For example, for CPT codes 99281-99285 – Hospital emergency department services are not payable for the same calendar date as critical care services when provided by the same physician or physician group with the same specialty to the same patient. 

We all know that all hospitals do not hire and implement the same billing computer software programs. The old adage – “you get what you pay for” – may be more true than we think. Recent articles purport that “the move to electronic health records may be contributing to billions of dollars in higher costs for Medicare, private insurers and patients by making it easier for hospitals and physicians to bill more for their services, whether or not they provide additional care.” – Think a comment like that would red-flag ER doctors services by RAC, MAC and ZPIC auditors? The white whale may as well shoot a water spray 30 feet into the air.

Will auditing entities begin to watch ER billing more closely? And what are the consequences? When non-emergency health care providers are terminated by Medicare, Medicaid, or a MAC or MCO’s network, there is no emergency – by definition. Juxtapose, the need for ER health care providers. ER rooms cannot function with a shortage of  physicians and health care providers. Even more disturbing is if the termination is unwarranted and seemingly inconsequential – only affecting under 4 surgeries per month – but acts as the catalyst for termination of Medicare, Medicaid, and private payors across the board.

I have a client named Dr. Ishmael. His big fish became the MAC Palmetto – very suddenly. Like many ER docs, he rotates ERs. He provides services for Medicare, Medicaid, private pay, uninsured – it doesn’t matter to him, he is an ER doctor. He gets a letter from one MAC. In this case, it was Palmetto. Interestingly enough, Palmetto is his smallest insurance payor. Maybe 2 surgeries a month are covered by Palmetto. 90% of his services are provided to Medicaid patients. Not by his choice, but by demographics and circumstance. The letter from Palmetto states that he is being excluded from Palmetto’s Medicare network, effective in 10 days. He will also be placed on the CMS preclusion list in 4 months.

We appeal through Palmetto, as required. But, in the meantime, four other MACs, State Medicaid and BCBS terminate Dr. Ishmael’s billing privileges for Medicare and Medicaid based on Palmetto’s decision. Remember, we are appealing Palmetto’s decision as we believe it is erroneous. But because of Palmetto’s possibly incorrect decision to terminate Dr. Ishmael’s Medicare billing privileges, all of a sudden, 100% of Dr. Ishmael’s services are nonbillable and nonreimburseable…without Dr. Ishmael or the hospital ever getting the opportunity to review and defend against the otherwise innocuous termination decision.

Here, the hospital executives, along with legal counsel, schedule meetings with Dr. Ishmael. “They need him,” they say. “He is important,” they say. But he is not on the next month’s rotation. Or the next.

They say: “Come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me?”

Billing audits on ER docs for Medicare/caid compliance are distinctive processes, separate from other providers’ audits. Most providers know the insurance of the patient to whom they are rendering services. Most providers use one biller and practice at one site. ER docs have no control over the choice of their billers. Not to mention, the questions arises, who gets to appeal on behalf the ER provider? Doesn’t the hospital reap the benefit of the reimbursements?

But one seemingly paltry, almost, minnow-like, audit by a cameo auditor can disrupt an entire career for an ER doc. It is imperative to act fast to appeal in the case of an ER doc.  But balance speed of the appeal with the importance of preparing all legal arguments. Most MACs or other auditing entities inform other payors quickly of your exclusion or termination but require you to put forth all arguments in your appeal or you could waive those defenses. I argue against that, but the allegations can exist nonetheless.

The moral of the story is ER docs need to appeal and appeal fast when billing privileges are restricted, even if the particular payor only constitutes 4 surgeries a month. As Herman Melville said: “I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.” 

Sometimes, however, it is not a laughing matter. It is an appealable matter.