Category Archives: Physicians

E/M Codes and When You Should NOT Fire Your Attorney!

Lately, I have been inundated with Medicare and Medicaid health care providers getting audited for E/M codes. I know Dr. Hirsh has spoken often about the perils of e/m codes. The thing about e/m codes is that everyone uses them. Hospitals, family physicians, urgent care centers, specialists, like cardiologists. Obviously, for a specialist, like cardiology, the higher level codes will be more common. A 99214 will be common compared to a generalist like a primary care physician, where a 99213 may be more common.

Here’s a little secret: the difference between a 99214 and 99213 is subjective. It’s so subjective that I have seen auditors who are hired by private companies to audit on behalf of CMS and are financially incentivized to find fault find 100% error rates. Who finds a 100% error rate? Not one claim out of 150 was compliant. Then, I come in and hire the best independent auditors or coders. There are generally two companies that I always use. The independent auditors are so good. Most importantly, they come in and find a much more probable error rate of almost zero.

Hiring an independent, expert coder to ensure that the RAC, MAC, UPIC, or TPE audits accurately is always part of my defense.

Recently, I learned what I should have known a long time ago, but is essential for our listeners to know. If your medical malpractice is with The Doctors Company, for free, you get $25k of – what TDC calls – Medi-Guard or regulatory compliance protection. In other words, you get audited by a UPIC and are informed that you owe an alleged $5 million, extrapolated, of course, you get $25k to pay an attorney for defense. Sadly, $25k will not come close to paying your whole defense, but it’s a start. No one scoffs at “free” money.

When accused of an alleged overpayment, placed on prepayment review, or accused of a credible allegation of fraud, your reimbursements could be in imminent danger of being suspended or recouped. It is imperative for the health care provider to stay apprised of what penalties they are facing. You want to know: “best case scenario and worst case scenario.”

And, providers, be cognizant of the gravity of your situation. Infringement of the false claims act can result in high penalties or jail, depending on the circumstances and the provider’s attorney. I had a client, who is an M.D. psychiatrist. She asked me what is the worst penalty possible. I am blunt and honest, apparently to a fault. I didn’t miss a beat. “Jail,” I said. She was horrified, called her insurance company, and requested a new attorney. TDC refused to fire me, so the doctor said that she will draft the self-disclosure herself. She also said that she submitted the falsified documents to the UPIC, so she was confident that the UPIC would not notice, but see below, time stamps are a bitch.

When I told the doctor that we needed to self-disclose to OIG because she had some Medicare claims, she screamed, “No! No! NO!” It was a video call and my sound wasn’t up loud, and I just watch her on the screen with her face all contorted and her mouth getting really big, then contract, then get really big, then contract, then get really big and then even bigger. The expert certified coder was present for the call, and he called me afterward asking me: “What was that?” And his wife, who overheard, said, “OMG. I would have lashed out.” I kept my cool. Honestly, I just felt bad for her because I can see the writing on the wall.

Obviously, a new attorney is not going to change the outcome. She falsified 17 dates of service because she wanted the service notes to be “perfect.” Well, providers, there is no such thing as perfect and changing diagnoses and CPT codes and adding details to the notes that, supposedly, you remember from a month ago is not ok.

I did feel bad for her for leaving me. I could have gotten her off without any penalties.

You see, English is not her first language. She misinterpreted an email from the UPIC and thought it said that you can fix any errors before submitting the documents. She fabricated 17 claims before I was hired instructed her to stop. I had a solid defense prepared. I was going to hire an independent auditor to audit her 147 claims with the 17 falsified claims. I would have hoped for a low error rate. Then, I would have conducted a self-audit and self-disclosed the fabrications to the UPIC with the explanation that it was a nonintentional harmless error that we are admitting. Self-disclosure can, sometimes, save you from penalties! However, if she doesn’t self-disclose, she will be caught. Unbeknownst to her, on page 6 of the service notes, it is time and date stamped. It revealed on what day she changed the data and what data she changed. Those of you who would also terminate your attorney because you think you can get by with the fraud without anyone noticing, think hard about whether you would like to suffer the worst penalty – jail – or have your attorney be honest and upfront and get you off without penalties by following the rules and self-disclosing any problems uncovered.

I have no idea what will happen to the doctor, but had she stayed with me, she would have escaped without penalty. When not to fire your attorney!

The Horror Story of 99214 and Insurance to Assist

99214. Is that Jean Valjean’s number? No. It is an E/M code of moderate complexity. Few CPT codes cause goosebumps, chilly air, and a pit in your stomach besides 99214. As I said, 99214 is an E/M code of moderate level of complexity. For a low complexity visit, the code decreases to 99213. Even lower is a 99212, which is considered a straightforward visit. The code goes as high as a 99215, which denotes high complexity. Generally, physicians are good at spotting the 99215s and 99212s; the lowest and highest complexities seem simple to spot. However, the middle complexity codes are a bit subjective. Auditors frequently find 99214s that the auditor thinks should have been a 99213. I am talking about the RACs, MACs, TPEs, UPICs, and other contractors paid with our tax dollars on behalf of CMS. I recently had a BCBS audit, which found that an urgent care center had a 97% error rate. Out of 30 claims, only one claim was considered 99214; 29 claims should have been down coded to a 99213, according to BCBS. Well, my urgent care center disagreed and hired an independent auditor to review the same claims that were audited. The independent audit resulted in vastly different results. According to the independent audit, only 4 of the 30 claims should have been down coded to 99213.

One should ask, how could two separate auditors audit the same documents and issue such disparate results? One reason is that the difference between 99213 and 99214 is subjective. However, subjectiveness was not the only reason for two polar opposite results.

You see, before 2021, facilities had the choice to follow either the 1995 guidelines or the 1997 guidelines for these CPT codes. And, there is a difference between the two guidelines. Instead of choosing either the 1995 or 1997 guidelines, BCBS applied both the 1997 and 1995 guidelines, which falsely created a more stringent criteria for a 99214.

The urgent care center had been verbose about the fact that they use the 1995 guidelines, not the 1997 guidelines. When the independent contractor audited the records, it used the 1995 guidelines only.

All in all, for an accusation of owing $180k, it cost the urgent care center almost $100k to defend itself against what was obviously a faulty audit. So, I’m thinking why in the world is there insurance for physicians for making a mistake in surgery – medical malpractice, but no insurance for False Claims allegations. I mean, med mal allegations mean there is a victim. But you can be accused of false claims unexpectantly and your practice is changed forever.

Recently, I learned of an insurance company that insures doctors and facilities if they are accused of billing Medicare or Medicaid for false claims. Unlike med mal, an accusation of false claims does not yield a victim (unless you see our tax dollars as people); however, an accusation of billing a False Claim can cost a doctor, facility, a hospital hundreds of thousands of dollars. Which, knowing all things are relative, is pennies on the dollar of the penalties under the FCA.

The company’s name is Curi. That is C-U-R-I. Personally, I had never heard of this company. I googled it after I was placed on the panel. This is an insurance company that pays for attorneys’ fees if you are accused of false claims or an overpayment. Personally, I think every listener should procure this insurance directly after RACMonitor. After 23 years of litigating, I have realized the worst part about defending yourself against accusations that you owe the government money is the huge price tag associated with it.

When I presented this story on RACMonitor, David Glaser made a comment about my segment that I would be remiss to omit. SOME med mal insurance policies cover the legal fees for attorneys for regulatory audits. Please review your policy to see whether your insurance company covers the attorneys’ fees for defense of regulatory audits before purchasing more insurance.

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.

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?

Warning for Acute Care Hospitals: You’re a Target for Overpayment Audits

Today I want to talk about upcoming Medicare audits targeted toward Acute Care Hospitals.

In September 2022, OIG reported that “Medicare Part B Overpaid Critical Access Hospitals and Docs for Same Services.” OIG Reports are blinking signs that flash the future Medicare audits to come. This is a brief blog so be sure to tune in on December 8th for the RACMonitor webinar: Warning for Acute Care Hospitals: You’re a Target for Overpayment Audits. I will be presenting on this topic in much more depth. It is a 60-minute webinar.

For OIG’s report regarding the ACHs, OIG audited 40,026 Medicare Part B claims, with half submitted by critical access hospitals and the rest submitted by health care practitioners for the same services provided to beneficiaries on the same dates of service (“DOS”). OIG studied claims from March 1, 2018, to Feb. 28, 2021, and found almost 100% noncompliance, which constituted almost $1million in overpayments to providers.

According to the OIG Report, CMS didn’t have a system to edit claims to prevent and detect any duplicate claims, as in the services billed by an acute hospital and by a physician elsewhere. Even if the physician reassigned his/her rights to reimbursement to the ACH.

As you know, a critical access hospital cannot bill Part B for any outpatient services delivered by a health care practitioner unless that provider reassigns the claim to the facility, which then bills Part B. However, OIG’s audit found that providers billed and got reimbursed for services they did perform but reassigned their billing rights to the critical access hospital. 

The question is – why did the physicians get reimbursed even if they assigned their rights to reimbursement away? At some point, CMS needs to take responsibility as to the lack having a system to catch these alleged overpayments. If the physicians were reimbursed and had no reason to know that they were getting reimbursed for services that they assigned to an ACH, there is an equitable argument that CMS cannot take back money based on its own error and no intent by the physician.

On a different note, I wanted to give a shout out to ASMAC, which is the American Society of Medical Association Counsel; Attorneys Advocating for America’s Physicians. It is comprised of general counsels (GCs) of health care entities and presidents of State Medical Societies. ASMAC’s topics at conferences are cutting-edge in our industry of defending health care providers, interesting, and on-point by experts in the fields. I was to present there last week in Hawaii on extrapolations in Medicare and Medicaid provider audits. Thankfully, all their conferences are not in Hawaii; that is too far of a trip for someone on the East Coast. But you should look into the association, if ASMAC sounds like it would benefit you or you could benefit them, join.

Medicare Provider Appeals: Premature Recoupment Is Not OK!

A ZPIC audited a client of mine a few years ago and found an alleged overpayment of over $7 million. Prior to them hiring my team, they obtained a preliminary injunction in federal court – like I always preach to do – remember, that between the levels 2 and 3 of a Medicare provider appeal, CMS can recoup the alleged overpayment. This is sheer balderdash; the government should not be able to recoup funds that the provider, most likely, doesn’t owe. But this is the law. I guess we need to petition Congress to change this tomfoolery.

Going back to the case, an injunction stops the premature recoupments, but it does nothing regarding the actual alleged overpayments. In fact, the very reason that you can go to federal court based on an administrative action is because the injunction is ancillary to the merits of the contested case. Otherwise, you would have to exhaust your administrative remedies.

Here, we asserted, the premature recoupments (1) violated its rights to procedural due process, (2) infringed its substantive due-process rights, (3) established an “ultra vires” cause of action, and (4) entitled it to a “preservation of rights” injunction under the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. §§ 704–05. We won the battle, but not the war. To date, we have no date for an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) – or level 3 – hearing on the merits.

For those of you who have participated in a third-level, Medicare provider appeal will know that, many times, no one shows for the other side. The other side being the entity claiming that you owe $7million. For such an outlandish claim of $7 million, would you not think that the side protesting that you owe $7 million would appear and try to prove it? At my most recent ALJ hearing, no one appeared for the government. Literally, my client – a facility in NJ that serves the MS population – me and the ALJ were the only participants. Are the auditors so falsely confident that they believe their audits speaks for itself?

In this particular case, the questionable issue was whether the MS provider’s consumers met the qualifications for the skilled rehabilitation due to no exacerbated physical issues. However, we all know from the Jimmo settlement, that having exacerbated issues or improvement is not a requirement to requiring skilled rehab versus exercising with your spouse. The ALJ actually said – “I cannot believe this issue has gotten this far.” I agree.

The Grey Area Between Civil and Criminal Fraud

This segment is rated ‘F’ for fraud. It is not for the meek of heart. How many of you have read a newspaper or seen the news about Medicare and Medicaid provider fraudsters? There is a grey area between civil and criminal prosecutions of fraud. Some innocent providers get caught in the wide, fraud net because counsel doesn’t understand the idiosyncrasies of Medicare regulations.

Health care fraud GENERALLY exists as one of the following:

  1. Billing for services not rendered;
  2. Billing for a non-covered service as a covered service;
  3. Misrepresenting the DOS
  4. Misrepresenting location of service;
  5. Misrepresenting provider of service
  6. Waiving deductibles and/or co-payments
  7. Incorrect reporting of diagnoses or procedures;
  8. Overutilization of services;
  9. Kickbacks/referrals for money
  10. False or unnecessary issuance of prescription drugs

To err is human. Or so Alexander Pope says. I am here to attest that many of those accused providers are innocent and victims of unspecialized criminal attorneys.

One plastic surgeon knows this only too well. Quick anecdote:

Doctor was audited for removing lesions from the eye area and accused of billing for removing cancerous lesions even when the biopsies came back benign. Yet Medicare instructs physicians to NOT go back and change a CPT code after the fact. The physician is supposed to make an educated guess as to whether the lesion removed is benign or malignant. There are no crystal balls so he makes an educated determination.

Since plastic surgery is highly specialized and the physician is highly educated. Deference should be given to the physician regardless.

This plastic surgeon was accused of upcoding and billing for services not rendered. He performed biopsies around the eye of possible, cancerous lesions. Once removed, he would send the samples to lab. Meanwhile, before knowing whether the samples were cancerous, because he believed them to be cancerous, billed for removal of cancerous lesion to Medicare. Correct coding for skin procedures is not impossible. 

In a Local Coverage Determination (“LCD”), beginning 2008, Medicare instructed physicians to not go back and change codes depending on the pathology. “If a benign skin lesion excision was performed, report the applicable CPT code, even if final pathology demonstrates a malignant or carcinoma diagnosis for the lesion removed. The final pathology does not change the CPT code of the procedure performed.” See LCD: Removal of Benign Skin Lesions, 2008. This plastic surgeon relied on CMS’ Medicare regulations and policies, including the Medicare Provider Manual and LCD 2008, which are published by the government and on which Dr. relied.

Doctor hired two criminal attorneys who did not specialize in Medicare. Doctor gets charged, and attorneys convince him to plead guilty claiming that he cannot fight the government. And that the government will seize his property if he doesn’t settle.

He pled guilty to a crime that he did not do. He paid millions in restitution, was under house arrest for 15 months, the Medical Board revoked his medical license, and he lost his career.

The lesson here is always fight the government. But choose wisely with whom you fight.

Recent Case Law May Change the Relationship Between Hospitals and Physicians Forever!

No, this is not a Shakespearean blog post. The Hamlet in this case is not the Prince of Denmark; it is a hospital system who hired a doctor, Dr. Hernandez as an independent contractor and whose private practice flopped. When the hospital at which he had privileges refused to hire him as an employee, Hernandez sued Hamlet under the False Claims Act (FCA) and Unfair Trade Practices- AND WON!!

Relationships between hospitals and physicians may forever be changed.

In an October 2018 decision, Hamlet H.M.A., LLC V. Hernandez, the NC Court of Appeals ruled that a hospital can be liable to a physician for Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices (UDTP) – causing a new level of care to be needed in negotiations between hospitals and physicians.

Dr. Hernandez accepted a position with Sandhills Regional Medical Center. The original offer was for Dr. Hernandez to set up his own independent practice and to be an independent contractor for the hospital. The offer guaranteed a minimum collection amount for the first 18 months of the 36-month contract. The base salary was $325,000, with a bonus based on worked RVUs. Dr. Hernandez countered and asked to be considered as an employee instead of as an independent contractor. Sandhills sent an email offering a base salary of $275,000 as an employee. As any reasonable, logical person would do, Dr. Hernandez responded with an email stating that it would be irrational to accept a base salary so much lower in order to obtain employee status. The hospital offered an “employee status option” at the end of 18 months.

Dr. Hernandez then sent Sandhills an email asking to extend the time period of guaranteed income to 24 months, rather than 18 months. Plaintiff replied that it could not extend the period of guaranteed income, but raised the monthly salary from $47,616.82 to $49,500.00 and also added a signing bonus of $30,000.00. After further negotiations, the parties entered into a Physician Recruitment Agreement on March 9, 2011.

Dr. Hernandez’s private practice flopped, and at the end of the first 18-month period, he requested to exercise the employment option in his contract and to become an employee of Sandhills. But Sandhills did not give Dr. Hernandez an employment contract.

On August 29, 2014, Sandhills filed a complaint against Dr. Hernandez alleging breach of contract and demanding repayment of the entire amount paid to Dr. Hernandez, a total of 21 payments amounting to $902,259.66. Dr. Hernandez filed an answer with counterclaims for breach of contract, fraud, unfair or deceptive trade practices, and unjust enrichment. A jury trial was held in Superior Court in Richmond County at the end of August and the beginning of September 2016. The jury returned a verdict for Sandhills for $334,341.14 (a random number).

Dr. Hernandez countered sued the hospital for Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices (UDTP) alleging that the hospital fraudulently induced him to enter into the contract with the hospital as an independent contractor. His allegations that the hospital violated UDTP because the hospital offered a lower salary to be considered an employee was shocking and unprecedented. Most likely, Sandhills never even contemplated that it could be held liable under UDTP because of a disparity in salary offered to Dr. Hernandez depending on his employment status. Most likely, the man or woman who sent the email to Dr. Hernandez with the disparate salaries never asked its general counsel whether the action could penalize the hospital. Who would have thought to?

One exception to UDTP is the “learned profession” exception. Basically, the courts have held that if the two parties to an agreement are learned professionals and the topic of the contract has to do with the parties’ speciality; i.e, medicine, in this case, then the parties cannot allege UDTP because both parties were knowledgeable. The issue of first impression presented by Hamlet is whether the “learned profession” exception set forth in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 75-1.1(b) applies to a dispute between a physician and a hospital relating to alleged false claims made by the hospital to induce the physician to enter into an employment contract. If the learned profession exception were to apply, then Dr. Hernandez’s UDTP claim against Sandhill would be dismissed.

Dr. Hernandez alleged that the hospital made false representations to induce him to enter into a contract. The Court held that the fact that he is a physician does not change the nature of the negotiation of a business contract. The Court found that the “learned profession” exception does not apply to any negotiation just because the two parties are physicians. For example, if a physician and a hospital were to contract to buy a beach house, then the exception would not apply because the nature of the contract (were something go awry and cause an UDTP lawsuit) because buying a beach house has nothing to do with being a physician or hospital. Similarly, here, the Court held that an employment contract had nothing to do with rendering medicine. Therefore, the exception did not apply. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s directed verdict against Dr. Hernandez.

This decision definitely creates more tension between hospitals and physicians. Now, in negotiations with employees and independent contractors, hospitals need to be mindful that UDTP claims can be alleged against them. This case is recent precedent for an unfamiliar modern world of health care negotiations.

Licensing and Tax Implications of Telemedicine; Will the Regulations Inhibit Telemedicine’s Ability to Thrive?

My husband and I recently decided to try new insurance. It is always hard to change from what you know, so we were a bit hesitant. But the insurance costs under half of what we were paying, and it seemed that nothing was covered with our old insurance. So we took the leap. The absolute best thing about our new insurance is that we have 24/7 access to a physician for prescriptions. For example, I was ill last week, so at about midnight on Tuesday, I called the 24/7 hotline for anti-nausea medicine. A doctor called me within 30 minutes, listened to my complaints, and I had a prescription to be picked from my local Costco within minutes. Obviously, I waited to pick up my prescription the next day when Costco opened, but you see my point. Technology is amazing and scary. Had I preferred, I could have opted to talk to my tele-doctor through Facetime, but, quite frankly, I doubt he would have enjoyed that image of me sick with vomit in my hair. But if my issue were a rash or a questionable mole, Facetime would have worked.

There I am – last Tuesday – at midnight, talking to my new tele-doctor. I don’t even know his name. Most likely, next time I call the 24/7 hotline I will talk to someone else. I may never speak to my prescribing provider again. Nor would I know if I did.

But it worked. It was efficient. Oh, and did I say “free?” We pay a monthly premium and the cost of the prescription was $9.75, but no cost of a doctor visit. I didn’t have to drive to an office. I spoke to the doctor while laying on bed. This is telehealth.

I found myself wondering why doesn’t every health insurance implement this system of free access to a doctor 24/7, the ability to get a prescription at any time, and at nominal cost?? Medicare and Medicaid recipients would benefit highly from telehealth.

And I wondered so much (and couldn’t sleep) that I decided to research. My Melatonin works less and less as time passes. I guess I am getting resistant.

The tele-doctor that wrote me a prescription for anti-nausea was not a North Carolinian. I know this for a fact because when I said to tele-doctor, “I cannot believe that you work at midnight.” He said, “Oh, it’s only 9:00 here.” Based on his sentence, I deduced that tele-doctor was somewhere on the west coast. (I could be a PI).

How could tele-doctor write me a prescription when I live in North Carolina and he lives in CA, OR, or WA? Does he have to be licensed in NC to prescribe to me? And what about the tax implications on providing a medical service in a different state?

One thing that I need to make clear for my readers is that this blog is made possible by the standoff in our U.S. Congress that failed to pass legislature regarding telemedicine in its 2017-2018 session, the first week of August 2018. The opioid bill (which is what it has been dubbed) was to boost telemedicine by breaking down state law barriers disallowing telemedicine or imposing high taxes on telemedicine, which inhibits its growth. In case you are curious, Massachusetts has been named the worst state in which to perform telemedicine. Apparently, Massachusetts has many laws suppressing the advancement of telemedicine.

According to (hopefully not fake) news, what ultimately sunk this year’s wide-ranging health bill was a philosophical disagreement over the funding of community hospitals, which, apparently is a hot topic to debate between the Senate and the House.

As for the telemedicine elements of the failed bill, word on the street is that it could return in a standalone bill come January. Consult your horoscope or 8-ball for more information.

Telemedicine – How Does It Work Legally?

The World Health Organization’s has defined telemedicine as “The delivery of healthcare services, where distance is a critical factor, by all healthcare professionals using information and communication technologies for the exchange of valid information for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease and injuries, research and evaluation, and for the continuing education of healthcare providers, all in the interests of advancing the health of individuals and their communities.”

The type of telemedicine in which I participated is considered “real time telemedicine.” I had a consultation with no delay in communication at a distance.

While real estate tax is relatively simple, other taxes are not. Sales and use taxes, income taxes, and business privilege taxes are complex because of the interstate commerce issues. If my tele-doctor lives in CA and provides taxable services to me in North Carolina, does California or North Carolina benefit from the tax? Is the tax due where the provider lives or the consumer? And, BTW, Dr. Tele-health did not ask my location or state of residence. How will he do his taxes?

One of the pinnacle, legal cases that speaks to jurisdictional issues, such as interstate tax issues, is the Supreme Court case, International Shoe Co. V. Washington (I hated this case in law school). According to International Shoe:

  • A state may only impose a tax if it has a substantial nexus to the persons and transactions that would be subject to tax. (Now you see why I hate this case. What is substantial nexus? This case creates a riddle.) Oh, and it gets better.
  • The tax must be a fairly apportioned to reduce the prospect of double taxation.
  • A state cannot adapt a tax that discriminates against interstate commerce.
  • Any tax must be fairly related to services provided by the state. (Can you hear the Charlie Brown teacher reciting this?)

Wait, what?

Because we are the United States of America and believe in States remaining sovereign over its own people, unsurprisingly, the tax laws in every state differ – dramatically.

Telemedicine providers need to be cautious of income tax, unrelated business income tax, sales and use tax, sales tax, and use tax and be knowledgable about the state-by-state  licensing requirements for telehealth. Most states require that a physician is licensed in the state where their patient is located, which presents a problem for telehealth. Some states have exceptions carved out for telehealth.

Here is the Cliffnotes version:

Income Tax

The telehealth professional will be paid, and income will be reported to the IRS on a 1099. Most states have income tax, but some do not. Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas,Washington and Wyoming do not have income tax.

Even more complicated for the telehealth providers, is the question of whether the “source” of the income received by the surgeon is the country or state where the provider is located or the country or state where the patient is located. You can see why this is an important issue to the state, which wants to collect the most income tax possible, and to the physician, who doesn’t want to pull a Martha Stewart.

The current IRS definition of “patient” originated in 1968. The current definition of a “patient” contemplates a bricks-and-mortar structure at which patients receive treatment. Even though the IRS’ definition of “patient” is prehistoric, there have been several subsequent private letter rulings (PLRs) permitting the term “patient” to extend to recipients of services conducted by providers, even though performed at a variety of locations.

Unrelated Business Income (UBI)

The IRS defines UBI as income from a trade or business that is regularly carried on by a tax-exempt organization and that is not substantially related to the organization’s exempt purpose.

To date, the IRS has not issued any guidance or rulings regarding telemedicine UBI, specifically. For now, tax-exempt healthcare organizations participating in telemedicine are subject to the IRS rules and principles that apply more broadly to UBI and healthcare activities – some of which, frankly, don’t neatly fit, and some of which require careful documentation to avoid triggering UBI status.

One problem with UBI (like income tax) is the IRS’ definition of “patient.” The IRS’ definition does not contemplate telemedicine because the setting is not traditional.

In PLR 8122013, a tax-exempt hospital was not liable for UBI tax on its provision of laboratory services to patients of private physicians because such services contributed importantly to meeting the health needs of the community. In discussing Rev. Rul. 68-376, the IRS noted: “[I]t is important that the Service take cognizance of the changes in health care delivery brought about by modern technology. For example, the technology is now in place for a hospital to monitor the results of an electrocardiogram attached to a patient who is 80 miles away. The point is that who is legitimately considered a patient of a hospital today is not necessarily the same as 12 years ago, when the cited revenue ruling was published.” This shows, at the very least, that the IRS understands the definition of “patient” needs to be updated, even if no steps are taken to do so.

Sales and Use Tax

Sales and use taxes are typically imposed upon tangible personal property. Medical services provided in a traditional face-to-face setting would not trigger any sales and use tax issues. However, many states have adopted legislation that defines some intangible items to be treated like tangible personal property. For example, the data transmission component of telemedicine services could be subject to sales and use tax, which would mean that my “free” telehealth consult could have a tax implication of which I was unaware.

Sales Tax

If a provider renders health care services to someone in a foreign state, that provider may be liable to collect sales tax. Quite recently, I noticed this issue, not with telehealth, but with the internet sales of durable medical equipment. Providers who sell equipment, prescriptions, or vitamins over the internet need to be mindful of cross-state, sales tax.

The potential sales tax arises from the data transmission component of telemedicine. For example, in New Jersey, the sales tax expressly exempts services of of a physician. Juxtapose Connecticut, which has an administrative ruling that the provision of medical records through an online service is a taxable service.

Licensing Issues

This issue – cross-state licensing issues – really deserves a blog of its own. I will discuss this issue with the author of this blog. Much like an attorney, physicians and other health care providers have to be licensed in the state in which they practice.Most states require that a physician is licensed in the state where their patient is located.  Telehealth challenges states’ borders. Some states have attempted to solve this problem by creating a limited telemedicine license for which out-of state physicians can apply. However, this solution doesn’t exist in all states.

The Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB), is a non-profit representing more than 70 medical and osteopathic boards. It also has about 17 states as members. FSMB is a proponent of allowing physicians to practice beyond state lines.

Partly due to the efforts of FSMB, approximately nineteen states have passed legislation to adopt the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, which allows physicians to obtain a license to practice medicine in any Compact state through a simplified application process. The state medical boards retain their licensing and disciplinary authority, but agree to share information for licensing purposes.

The state boards of medicine recognize that standard of care is also largely a state-by-state analysis, sometimes even a community-by-community expectation. Some states, such as California, passed policy requiring the standard of care in telemedicine services to be the same as if providing the service in person.

All in all, I was happy with my very first telehealth experience. I do recognize, however, that there are legal barriers preventing telehealth and regulatory risks for the health care providers to contemplate before jumping on the telehealth boat. But, as a consumer…I’m hooked!

 

 

The Reality of Prepayment Review and What To Do If You Are Tagged – You’re It!

Prepayment review is a drastic tool (more like a guillotine) that the federal and state governments via hired contractors review the documentation supporting services for Medicare and Medicaid prior to the provider receiving reimbursement. The providers who are placed on prepayment review are expected to continue to render services, even if the provider is not compensated. Prepayment review is a death sentence for most providers.

The required accuracy rating varies state to state, but, generally, a provider must meet 75% accuracy for three consecutive months.

In the governments’ defense, theoretically, prepayment review does not sound as Draconian as it is. Government officials must think, “Well, if the provider submits the correct documentation and complies with all applicable rules and regulations, it should be easy for the provider to meet the requirements and be removed from prepayment review.” However, this false reasoning only exists in a fantasy world with rainbows and gummy bears. Real life prepayment review is vastly disparate from the rainbow and gummy bears prepayment review.

In real life prepayment review:

  • The auditors may use incorrect, inapplicable, subjective, and arbitrary standards.

I had a case in which the auditors were denying 100% ACTT services, which are 24-hour mental health services for those 10% of people who suffer from extreme mental illness. The reason that the auditor was denying 100% of the claims was because “lower level services were not tried and ruled out.” In this instance, we have a behavioral health care provider employing staff to render ACTT services (expensive), actually rendering the ACTT services (expensive), and getting paid zero…zilch…nada…for a reason that is not required! There is no requirement that a person receiving ACTT services try a lower level of service first. If the person qualifies for ACTT, the person should receive ACTT services. Because of this auditor’s misunderstanding of ACTT, this provider was almost put out of business.

Another example: A provider of home health was placed on prepayment review. Again, 90 – 100% of the claims were denied. In home health, program eligibility is determined by an independent assessment conducted by the Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) via Liberty, which creates an individualized plan of care. The provider submitted claims for Patient Sally, who, according to her plan, needs help dressing. The service notes demonstrated that the in-home aide helped Sally dress with a shirt and pants. But the auditor denies every claim the provider bills for Sally (which is 7 days a week) because, according to the service note, the in-home aide failed to check the box to show she/he helped put on Sally’s shoes. The auditor fails to understand that Sally is a double amputee – she has no feet.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes – Who watches the watchmen???

  • The administrative burden placed on providers undergoing prepayment review is staggering.

In many cases, a provider on prepayment review is forced to hire contract workers just to keep up with the number of document requests coming from the entity that is conducting the prepayment review. After initial document requests, there are supplemental document requests. Then every claim that is denied needs to be re-submitted or appealed. The amount of paperwork involved in prepayment review would cause an environmentalist to scream and crumple into the fetal position like “The Crying Game.”

  • The accuracy ratings are inaccurate.

Because of the mistakes the auditors make in erroneously denying claims, the purported “accuracy ratings” are inaccurate. My daughter received an 86 on a test. Given that she is a straight ‘A’ student, this was odd. I asked her what she got wrong, and she had no idea. I told her to ask her teacher the next day why she received an 86. Oops. Her teacher had accidentally given my daughter an 86; the 86 was the grade of another child in the class with the same first name. In prepayment review, the accuracy ratings are the only method to be removed from prepayment, so the accuracy of the accuracy ratings is important. One mistaken, erroneously denied claim damages the ratings, and we’ve already discussed that mistakes/errors occur. You think, if a mistake is found, call up the auditing entity…talk it out. See below.

  • The communication between provider and auditor do not exist.

Years ago my mom and I went to visit relatives in Switzerland. (Not dissimilar to National Lampoon’s European Vacation). They spoke German; we did not. We communicated with pictures and hand gestures. To this day, I have no idea their names. This is the relationship between the provider and the auditor.

Assuming that the provider reaches a live person on the telephone:

“Can you please explain to me why claims 1-100 failed?”

“Don’t you know the service definitions and the policies? That is your responsibility.”

“Yes, but I believe that we follow the policies. We don’t understand why these claims are denied. That’s what I’m asking.”

“Read the policy.”

“Not helpful.”

  • The financial burden on the provider is devastating.

If a provider’s reimbursements are 80 – 100% reliant on Medicaid/care and those funds are frozen, the provider cannot meet payroll. Yet the provider is expected to continue to render services. A few years ago, I requested from NC DMA a list of providers on prepayment review and the details surrounding them. I was shocked at the number of providers that were placed on prepayment review and within a couple months ceased submitting claims. In reality, what happened was that those providers were forced to close their doors. They couldn’t financially support their company without getting paid.

Ok, now we know that prepayment review can be a death sentence for a health care provider. How can we prepare for prepayment review and what do we do if we are placed on prepayment review?

  1. Create a separate “what if” savings account to pay for attorneys’ fees. The best defense is a good offense. You cannot prevent yourself from being placed on prepayment review – there is no rhyme or reason for such placement. If you believe that you will never get placed on prepayment review, then you should meet one of my partners. He got hit by lightning – twice! (And lived). So start saving! Legal help is a must. Have your attorney on speed dial.
  2. Self-audit. Be proactive, not reactive. Check your documents. If you use an electronic records system, review the notes that it is creating. If it appears that all the notes look the same except for the name of the recipient, fix your system. Cutting and pasting (or appearing to cut and paste) is a pitfall in audits. Review the notes of the highest reimbursement code. Most likely, the more the reimbursement rate, the more likely to get flagged.
  3. Implement an in-house policy about opening the mail and responding to document requests. This sounds self evident, but you will be surprised how many providers have multiple people getting and opening the mail. The employees see a document request and they want to be good employees – so they respond and send the documents. They make a mistake and BOOM – you are on prepayment review. Know who reviews the mail and have a policy for notifying you if a document request is received.
  4. Buck up. Prepayment review is a b*^%$. Cry, pray, meditate, exercise, get therapy, go to the spa, medicate…whatever you need to do to alleviate stress – do it.
  5. Do not think you can get off prepayment review alone and without help. You will need help. You will need bodies to stand at the copy machine. You will need legal help. Do not make the mistake of allowing the first three months pass before you contact an attorney. Contact your attorney immediately.