Category Archives: CMS

Accused of a Medicare or Medicaid Overpayment? Remember That You May Fall Into an Exception That Makes You NOT Liable to Pay!!

In today’s health care world, post-payment review audits on health care providers who accept Medicare and/or Medicaid have skyrocketed. Part of the reason is the enhanced fraud, waste, and abuse detections that were implanted under ObamaCare. Then the snowball effect occurred. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Systems (CMS), which is the single federal agency designated by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), via authority from Congress, to manage Medicare and Medicaid nationwide, started having positive statistics to show Congress.

Without question, the recovery audit contractors (RACs) have recouped millions upon millions of money since 2011, when implemented. Every financial report presented to Congress shows that the program more than pays for itself, because the RACs are paid on contingency.

Which pushed the snowball down the hill to get bigger and bigger and bigger…

However, I was reading recent, nationwide case law on Medicare and Medicaid provider overpayments reviews (I know, I am such a dork), and I realized that many attorneys that providers hire to defend their alleged overpayments have no idea about the exceptions found in Sections 1870 and 1879 of the Social Security Act (SSA). Why is this important? Good question. Glad you asked. Because of this legal jargon called stare decisis (let the decision stand). Like it or not, in American law, stare decisis is the legal doctrine that dictates once a Court has answered a question,the same question in other cases must elicit the same response from the same court or lower courts in that jurisdiction. In other words, if “Attorney Uneducated” argues on behalf of a health care provider and does a crappy job, that decision, if it is against the provider, must be applied similarly to other providers. In complete, unabashed, English – if a not-so-smart attorney is hired to defend a health care provider in the Medicare and/or Medicaid world, and yields a bad result, that bad result will be applied to all health care providers subsequently. That is scary! Bad laws are easily created through poor litigation.

A recent decision in the Central District of California (shocker), remanded the Medicare overpayment lawsuit back to the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level because the ALJ (or the provider’s attorney) failed to adequately assess whether the exceptions found in Sections 1870 and 1879 of the SSA applied to this individual provider. Prime Healthcare Servs.-Huntington Beach, LLC v. Hargan, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 205159 (Dec., 13, 2017).

The provider, in this case, was a California hospital. The overpayment was a whopping total of $5,380.30. I know, a small amount to fight in the court of law and expend hundreds of thousands of attorneys’ fees. But the hospital (I believe) wanted to make legal precedent. The issue is extremely important to hospitals across the county – if a patient is admitted as inpatient and a contractor of CMS determines in a post payment review that the patient should have been admitted as an outpatient – is the hospital liable for the difference between the outpatient reimbursement rate and the inpatient reimbursement rate? To those who do not know, the inpatient hospital rates are higher than outpatient. Because the issue was so important and would have affected the hospital’s reimbursement rates (and bottom line) in the future, the hospital appealed the alleged overpayment of $5,380.30. The hospital went through the five levels of Medicare appeals. See blog. It disagreed with the ALJ’s decision that upheld the alleged overpayment and requested judicial review.

Judicial review (in the health care context): When a health care providers presents evidence before an ALJ and the ALJ ruled against the provider.The provider appeals the ALJ decision to Superior Court, which stands in as if it is the Court of Appeals. What that means is – that at the judicial review level, providers cannot present new evidence or new testimony. The provider’s attorney must rely on the   official record or transcript from the ALJ level. This is why it is imperative that, at the ALJ level, you put forth your best evidence and testimony and have the best attorney, because the evidence and transcript created from the ALJ level is the only evidence allowed from judicial review.

The exceptions found in Sections 1870 and 1879 of the SSA allow for a provider to NOT pay back an alleged overpayment, even if medical necessity does not exist. It is considered a waiver of the provider’s overpayment. If a Court determines that services were not medically necessary, it must consider whether the overpayment should be waived under Sections 1870 and 1879.

Section 1879 limits a provider’s liability for services that are not medically necessary when it has been determined that the provider “did not know, and could not reasonably have been expected to know, that payment would not be made for such services.” 42 U.S.C. 1395pp(a). A provider is deemed to have actual or constructive knowledge of non-coverage based on its receipt of CMS notices, the Medicare manual, bulletins, and other written directives from CMS. In other words, if CMS published guidance on the issue, then you are out of luck with Section 1879. The Courts always hold that providers are responsible for keeping up-to-date on rules, regulations, and guidance from CMS. “Ignorance of the law is no defense.”

Section 1870 of the SSA permits providers to essentially be forgiven for overpayments discovered after a certain period of time so long as the provider is “without fault” in causing the overpayment. Basically, no intent is a valid defense.

Sections 1879 and 1870 are extraordinary, strong, legal defenses. Imagine, if your attorney is unfamiliar with these legal defenses.

In Prime Healthcare, the Court in the Central District of California held that the ALJ’s decision did not clearly apply the facts to the exceptions of Sections 1870 and 1879. I find this case extremely uplifting. The Judge, who was Judge Percy Anderson, wanted the provider to have a fair shake. Hey, even if the services were not medically necessary, the Judge wanted the ALJ to, at the least, determine whether an exception applied. I feel like these exceptions found in Sections 1870 and 1879 are wholly underutilized.

If you are accused of an overpayment…remember these exceptions!!!

Appeal! Appeal! Appeal!

Inpatient Rehabilitation Facility Stay Claim Denials – Appeal Those Findings!

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) created a new page on its Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) website entitled “Provider Resources.” CMS indicated that it will post on this page any new issues the RACs have proposed to audit and are being evaluated by CMS for approval. It is like a glimpse behind the curtain to see the Great Oz. This is a fantastic resource for providers.  CMS posts a list of review topics that have been proposed, but not yet approved, for RACs to review. You can see the future!

Topics proposed for future audits:

  • Inpatient Rehabilitation Facility (IRF) Stays: Meeting Requirements to be considered Reasonable and Necessary;
  • Respiratory Assistive Devices: Meeting Requirements to be considered Reasonable and Necessary;
  • Excessive or Insufficient Drugs and Biologicals Units Billed;
  • E&M Codes billed within a Procedure Code with a “0” Day Global Period (Endoscopies or some minor surgical procedures);
  • E&M Codes billed within a Procedure Code with a “10” Day Global Period (other minor procedures);
  • E&M Codes billed within a Procedure Code with a “90” Day Global Period (major surgeries);

Over the next few weeks, intermittently (along with other blog posts), I will tackle these, and other, hot RAC audit topics.

IRFs are under fire in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia!

Many patients with conditions like stroke or brain injury, who need an intensive medical rehabilitation program, are transferred to an inpatient rehabilitation facility.

Palmetto, one of Medicare’s MACs, conducted a prepayment review of IRFs in these four states. The results were bleak, indeed, and will, most likely, spur more audits of IRFs in the future. If you are a Medicare provider within Palmetto’s catchment area, then you know that Palmetto conducts a lot of targeted prepayment review. Here is a map of the MAC jurisdictions:

medicaremac

You can see that Palmetto manages Medicare for North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Virginia. So Palmetto’s prepayment review covered its entire catchment area.

North Carolina Results A total of 28 claims were reviewed with 19 of the claims either completely or partially denied. The total dollars reviewed was $593,174.60 of which $416,483.42 was denied, resulting in a charge denial rate of 70.2 percent.

South Carolina Results A total of 24 claims were reviewed with 16 of the claims either completely or partially denied. The total dollars reviewed was $484,742.68 of which $325,266.43 was denied, resulting in a charge denial rate of 67.1 percent.

West Virginia Results
A total of two claims were reviewed with two of the claims either completely or partially denied. The total dollars reviewed was $32,506.21 of which $32,506.21 was denied, resulting in a charge denial rate of 100 percent.

Virginia Results
A total of 39 claims were reviewed with 31 of the claims either completely or partially denied. The total dollars reviewed was $810,913.83 of which $629,118.08 was denied, resulting in a charge denial rate of 77.6 percent.

In all 4 states, the most cited denial code was “5J504,” which means that “need for service/item not medically and reasonably necessary.” Subjective, right? I mean, who is better at determining medical necessity: (1) the treating physician who actually performs services and conducts the physical; or (2) a utilization auditor without an MD and who as never rendered medical services on the particular consumer? I see it all the time…former dental hygienists review the medical records of dentists and determine that no medial necessity exists…

When it comes to IRF Stays, what is reasonable and necessary?

According to Medicare policy and CMS guidance, the documentation in the patient’s IRF
medical record must demonstrate a reasonable expectation that the following criteria were met at the time of admission to the IRF. The patient must:

  • Require active and ongoing intervention of multiple therapy disciplines (Physical
    Therapy [PT], Occupational Therapy [OT], Speech-Language Pathology [SLP], or
    prosthetics/orthotics), at least one of which must be PT or OT;
  • Require an intensive rehabilitation therapy program, generally consisting of:
    ◦ 3 hours of therapy per day at least 5 days per week; or
    ◦ In certain well-documented cases, at least 15 hours of intensive rehabilitation
    therapy within a 7-consecutive day period, beginning with the date of admission;
  • Reasonably be expected to actively participate in, and benefit significantly
    from, the intensive rehabilitation therapy program (the patient’s condition and
    functional status are such that the patient can reasonably be expected to make
    measurable improvement, expected to be made within a prescribed period of time
    and as a result of the intensive rehabilitation therapy program, that will be of practical value to improve the patient’s functional capacity or adaptation to impairments);
  • Require physician supervision by a rehabilitation physician, with face-to-face
    visits at least 3 days per week to assess the patient both medically and functionally
    and to modify the course of treatment as needed; and
  • Require an intensive and coordinated interdisciplinary team approach to the
    delivery of rehabilitative care.

Did you notice how often the word “generally” or “reasonably” was used? Because the standard for an IRF stay is subjective. In fact, I would wager a bet that if I reviewed  the same documentation as the Palmetto auditors did, that I could make a legal argument that the opposite conclusion should have been drawn. I do it all the time. This is the reason that so many audits are easily overturned…they are subjective!

Therefore, when you get an audit result, such as the ones referenced above:

APPEAL! APPEAL! APPEAL!

Want to Drop Medicaid? (And I Don’t Blame You), But Here Are a Few Issues to Contemplate First

Low reimbursement rates make accepting Medicaid seem like drinking castor oil. You wrinkle your nose and swallow quickly to avoid tasting it. But if you are a provider that does accept Medicaid and you wish to stop accepting Medicaid – read this blog and checklist (below) before taking any action! Personally, if you do accept Medicaid, I say, “Thank you.” See blog. With more and more Medicaid recipients, the demand for providers who accept Medicaid has catapulted.

The United States has become a Medicaid nation. Medicaid is the nation’s largest health insurance program, covering 74 million, or more than 1 in 5 Americans.

Earlier this year, Kaiser published a report stating that 70% of office-based providers accept new patients covered by Medicaid. But this report does not mean that Medicaid recipients have access to quality health care. I will explain below.

medicaidacceptance

The variation in the above chart is interesting. Reimbursement rates directly impact whether providers in the state accept Medicaid. The participation goes from a low of 38.7% in New Jersey (where primary care reimbursement rates are 48% of Medicare rates) to a high of 96.5% in Nebraska (where the primary care reimbursement is 75% of Medicare). Montana, with a 90% physician participation rate, pays the same rate as Medicare for primary care, while California, with a 54.2% participation rate, pays 42% of the Medicare reimbursement rate. We should all strive to be like Nebraska and Montana … granted the number of Medicaid recipients are fewer in those states. For September 2017, Nebraska ranked 45th out of the 50 states for Medicaid enrollment. Montana ranked 42nd. Wyoming came in dead last.

Statistically writing, Medicaid covers:

  • 39% of all children.
  • Nearly half of all births in the country.
  • 60% of nursing home and other long-term care expenses.
  • More than 1/4 of all spending on mental health services and over a fifth of all spending on substance abuse treatment.

However, even if the report is correct and 70% of health care providers do accept Medicaid, that is not indicative of quality access of care for Medicaid recipients. The number of Medicaid recipients is skyrocketing at a rate that cannot be covered by the number of providers who accept Medicaid. Kaiser estimates that by 2020, more than 25% (1 out of 4) of Americans will be dependent on Medicaid. Because of the low reimbursement rates, health care providers who do accept Medicaid are forced to increase the quantity of patients, which, logically, could decrease the quality … or the amount of time spent with each patient. Citing the percentage of providers who accept Medicaid, in this instance, 70%, is not indicative of quality of access of care; the ratio of Medicaid recipients to providers who accept Medicaid would be more germane to quality of access to care for Medicaid recipients. Even if 70% of health care providers accept Medicaid, but we have 74 million Medicaid recipients, then 70% is not enough. My opinion is what it is because based on years of experience with this blog and people reaching out to me. I have people contact me via this blog or email explaining that their mother, father, child, sister, or brother, has Medicaid and cannot find a provider for – dental, mental health, developmentally disabled services. So, maybe, just maybe, 70% is not good enough.

Before dropping Medicaid like a hot potato, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Will I have enough patients without Medicaid to keep my staff and I busy?

Location! Location! Location! Your location matters. If you provide health care services in areas that are predominantly Medicaid-populated, then you may need to reconsider dropping the ‘Caid. California, New York, and Texas were the top spenders in Medicaid for fiscal year 2016, totaling over a whopping $183 billion of America’s total expenditure on ‘Caid, which was $553 billion.

I am sure that I am preaching to the choir, but choosing to not accept Medicaid is not fiscally sound if you and your staff will be twiddling their thumbs all day. Even low reimbursement rates are better than no reimbursement rates. On the downside, if you choose to accept Medicaid, you need a “rainy-day” fund to pay for attorneys to defend any regulatory audits, termination of Medicaid contracts, accusations of fraud, prepayment review, and/or other adverse determinations by the state (and, if you accept  Medicare, the federal government and all its vendors).

2. Have I attested for the Medicaid EHR meaningful use incentives?

If you attested and accepted the EHR incentive payments, you may need to continue seeing Medicaid patients in order to keep/maintain your EHR payments. (Please consult an attorney).

3. Will I still be subject to Medicaid audits in the future?

If avoiding Medicaid audits is your primary reason for dropping ‘Caid, ‘ho your horses. Refusing to accept ‘Caid going forward does not indemnify you from getting future audits. In fact, in cases of credible allegations of fraud, you may be subject to future Medicaid audits for another 6 years after you no longer accept Medicaid. You will also need to continue to maintain all your records for regulatory compliance. If you cease accepting Medicaid, those recipients will need to find new providers. Those medical records are the Medicaid recipients’ property and need to be forwarded to the new provider.

If you are currently under investigation for credible allegations of fraud, of which you may or may not be aware, then suddenly stop accepting Medicaid, it could be a red flag to an investigator. Not that ceasing to accept Medicaid is evidence of wrongdoing, but sometimes sudden change, regardless of the change, can spur curiosity in auditors. For example, in NC DHHS v. Parker Home Care, the Court of Appeals ruled that a tentative notice of overpayment by Public Consulting Group (PCG) does not constitute a final agency decision. The managed care organizations (MCOs) freaked out because the MCOs were frightened that a health care provider could argue, in Court, that Parker Home Care applies to MCOs, as well. They were so freaked out that they filed an Amicus Curiae Brief, which is a Brief on behalf of a person or organization that is not a party to a particular litigation but that is permitted by the court to advise it in respect to some matter of law that directly affects the case in question. The MCOs’ Brief states, “The Court of Appeals’ decision, if allowed to stand, could be construed to undermine the authority explicitly granted to managed care organizations, such as the LME/MCOs in North Carolina, by CMS.” Too bad our Waiver specifically states that DHS/DMA to CMS states, “[DMA] retains final decision-making authority on all waiver policies and requirements.” But I digress. In Parker Home Care, the MCOs filed the Brief to preserve their self-instilled authority over their catchments areas. However, despite the MCOs request that the NC Supreme Court take the issue under consideration, the Supreme Court denied certiorari, which means the Supreme Court refused to entertain the issue. While it is not “law” or “precedent” or “written in stone,” generally, attorneys argue that the Supreme Court’s refusal to entertain an issue means that it does not deem the issue to be a controversy … that the Court agrees with the lower court’s decision. Hence, the argument that the MCOs  cannot render final agency decisions.

4. Will I be able to sleep at night?

Health care providers become health care providers, generally, with the intent to help people. This makes most health care providers nurturing people. You have to ask yourself whether you will be comfortable, ethically, with your decision to not accept Medicaid. I cannot tell you how many of my clients tell me, at some point, “I’m just not going to accept Medicaid anymore.” And, then continue to accept Medicaid … because they are good people. It infuriates me when I am in court arguing that terminating a provider’s Medicaid contract will put the provider out of business, and the attorney from the State makes a comment like, “It was the provider’s business decision to depend this heavily on Medicaid.” No, actually, many providers do feel an ethical duty to serve the Medicaid population.

Check your health care community and determine whether other providers with your specialty accept Medicaid. Are they accepting new Medicaid patients? Are they viable options for your patients? Are they as good as you are? Just like attorneys, there are good and bad; experienced and inexperienced; intelligent and not-so-much; capable and not-so-much.

5. Can I delegate Medicaid recipients to a mid-level practitioner?

Physician assistants and nurse practitioners are wonderful assets to have to devote to Medicaid recipients. This is not to say that Medicaid recipients deserve lesser-educated services because, quite frankly, some PAs and NPs are just as good as the MDs. But you get my point. If PAs and NPs have a lower billable rate, then it makes business financial sense to delegate the Medicaid recipients to them. Similarly, I have an amazing, qualified paralegal, Todd Yoho. He has background in medical coding, went to two years of law school, and is smarter than many attorneys. I am blessed to have him. But the reality is that his billable rate is lower than mine. I try to use his services whenever possible to try to keep the attorneys’ fees lower. Same with mid-level practitioner versus using the MD.

6. Instead of eliminating Medicaid patients, can I just decrease my Medicaid patients?

This could be a compromise with yourself and your business. Having the right balance between Medicaid recipients and private pay, or even Medicare patients, can be key in increasing income and maintaining quality of care. Caveat: In most states, you are allowed to cap your Medicaid recipients. However, there are guidelines that you muts follow. Even Medicaid HMOs or MCOs could have different requirements for caps on Medicaid recipients. Again, seek legal advice.

How Does OIG Target Provider Types for Audits and Who Needs to Worry?

Interestingly, how OIG and who OIG targets for audits is much more transparent than one would think. OIG tells you in advance (if you know where to look).

Prior to June 2017, the Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) OIG updated its public-facing Work Plan to reflect those adjustments once or twice each year. In order to enhance transparency around OIG’s continuous work planning efforts, effective June 15, 2017, OIG began updating its Work Plan website monthly.

Why is this important? I will even take it a step further…why is this information crucial for health care providers, such as you?

These monthly reports provide you with notice as to whether the type of provider you are will be on the radar for Medicare and Medicaid audits. And the notice provided is substantial. For example, in October 2017, OIG announced that it will investigate and audit specialty drug coverage and reimbursement in Medicaid – watch out pharmacies!!! But the notice also states that these audits of pharmacies for speciality drug coverage will not begin until 2019. So, pharmacies, you have over a year to ensure compliance with your records. Now don’t get me wrong… you should constantly self audit and ensure regulatory compliance. Notwithstanding, pharmacies are given a significant warning that – come 2019 – your speciality drug coverage programs better be spic and span.

Another provider type that will be on the radar – bariatric surgeons. Medicare Parts A and B cover certain bariatric procedures if the beneficiary has (1) a body mass index of 35 or higher, (2) at least one comorbidity related to obesity, and (3) been previously unsuccessful with medical treatment for obesity. Treatments for obesity alone are not covered. Bariatric surgeons, however, get a bit less lead time. Audits for bariatric surgeons are scheduled to start in 2018. Considering that 2018 is little more than a month away, this information is less helpful. The OIG Work Plans do not specific enough to name a month in which the audits will begin…just sometime in 2018.

Where do you find such information? On the OIG Work Plan website. Click here. Once you are on the website, you will see the title at the top, “Work Plan.” Directly under the title are the “clickable” subjects: Recently Added | Active Work Plan Items | Work Plan Archive.  Pick one and read.

You will see that CMS is not the only agency that OIG audits. It also audits the Food and Drug Administration and the Office of the Secretary, for example. But we are concerned with the audits of CMS.

Other targeted providers types coming up:

  • Telehealth
  • Security of Certified Electronic Health Record Technology Under Meaningful Use
  • States’ Collection of Rebates on Physician-Administered Drugs
  • States’ Collection of Rebates for Drugs Dispensed to Medicaid MCO Enrollees
  • Adult Day Health Care Services
  • Oversight of States’ Medicaid Information Systems Security Controls
  • States’ MCO Medicaid Drug Claims
  • Incorrect Medical Assistance Days Claimed by Hospitals
  • Selected Inpatient and Outpatient Billing Requirements

And the list goes on and on…

Do not think that if your health care provider type is not listed on the OIG website that you are safe from audits. As we all know, OIG is not the only entity that conducts regulatory audits. The States and its contracted vendors also audit, as well as the RACs, MICs, MACs, CERTs

Never forget that whatever entity audits you, YOU HAVE APPEAL RIGHTS!

Medicare Audits – TPE Audits Are Here, But For How Long?

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the expansion of Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) audits. At first glance, this appears to be fantastic news coming on the heels of so much craziness at Health and Human Services (HHS). We have former-HHS Secretary Price flying our tax dollars all over. Dr. Don Wright stepping up as our new Secretary. The Medicare appeal backlog fiasco. The repeal and replace Obamacare bomb. Amidst all this tomfoolery, health care providers are still serving Medicare and Medicaid patients, reimbursement rates are in the toilet, which drives down quality and incentivizes providers to not accept Medicare or Medicaid (especially Caid), and providers are undergoing “Audit Alphabet Soup.” I actually had a client tell me that he receives audit letters requesting documents and money every single week from a plethora of different organizations.

So when CMS announced that it was broadening its TPE audits, it was a sigh of relief for many providers. But will TPE audits be the benign beasts they are purporting  to be?

What is a TPE audit? (And – Can We Have Anymore Acronyms…PLEASE!)

CMS says that TPE audits are benevolent. CMS’ rhetoric indicates that these audits should not cause the toner to run out from overuse. CMS states that TPE audits will involve “the review of 20-40 claims per provider, per item or service, per round, for a total of up to three rounds of review.” See CMS Announcement. The idea behind the TPE audits (supposedly) is education, not recoupments. CMS states that “After each round, providers are offered individualized education based on the results of their reviews. This program began as a pilot in one MAC jurisdiction in June 2016 and was expanded to three additional MAC jurisdictions in July 2017. As a result of the successes demonstrated during the pilot, including an increase in the acceptance of provider education as well as a decrease in appealed claims decisions, CMS has decided to expand to all MAC jurisdictions later in 2017.” – And “later in 2017” has arrived. These TPE audits are currently being conducted nationwide.

Below is CMS’ vision for a TPE audit:

TPE3

Clear? As mud?

The chart does not indicate how long the provider will have to submit records or how quickly the TPE auditors will review the documents for compliance. But it appears to me that getting through Round 3 could take a year (this is a guess based on allowing the provider 30 days to gather the records and allowing the TPE auditor 30 days to review).

Although the audit is purportedly benign and less burdensome, a TPE audit could take a whole year or more. Whether the audit reviews one claim or 20, having to undergo an audit of any size for a year is burdensome on a provider. In fact, I have seen many companies having to hire staff dedicated to responding to audits. And here is the problem with that – there aren’t many people who understand Medicare/caid medical billing. Providers beware – if you rely on an independent biller or an electronic medical records program, they better be accurate. Otherwise the buck stops with your NPI number.

Going back to CMS’ chart (above), notice where all the “yeses” go. As in, if the provider is found compliant , during any round, all the yeses point to “Discontinue for at least 12 months.” I am sure that CMS thought it was doing providers a favor, but what that tells me is the TPE audit will return after 12 months! If the provider is found compliant, the audit is not concluded. In fact, according to the chart, the only end results are (1) a referral to CMS for possible further action; or (2) continued TPE audits after 12 months. “Further action” could include 100% prepayment review, extrapolation, referral to a Recovery Auditor, or other action. Where is the outcome that the provider receives an A+ and is left alone??

CMS states that “Providers/suppliers may be removed from the review process after any of the three rounds of probe review, if they demonstrate low error rates or sufficient improvement in error rates, as determined by CMS.”

I just feel as though that word “may” should be “will.” It’s amazing how one word could change the entire process.

Knicole Emanuel Featured on Hospital Finance Podcast – Medicare Appeal Backlog (Legal Update)

On September 6, 2017, I appeared on the Besler Hospital Finance Podcast regarding:

Update on the Medicare appeals backlog [PODCAST]

Feel free to listen to the podcast, download it, and share with others!

 

Medicaid and Its Role in Providing Relief During Natural Disasters

As we know by now, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas and has expended utter disaster. It is the first hurricane to hit the state since Hurricane Ike in 2008. My prayers go out to all the Americans adversely affected by Hurricane Harvey. It is an utter catastrophe. Living in North Carolina, I am no stranger to hurricanes. But it made me think…when people lose everything to a natural disaster, do they become eligible for Medicaid? How does Medicaid offer relief during and after a natural disaster.

Medicaid is imperative during natural disasters because of its financial structure – the federal government pays a large percentage of its funds, without any limit. So if Texas spends more on Medicaid, the federal government spends more on Texas Medicaid. Obviously, if caps were applied to Medicaid, this would no longer be true. But, for now, the federal government’s promise to pay a percentage without a cap is key to natural disasters.

When disaster strikes, Medicaid serves as a valuable tool to quickly enroll affected people in temporary or permanent health care coverage and to allow for rapid access to medical care, including mental health services.

Two of the most infamous disasters, at least in recent US history, are the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks and Hurricane Katrina (now we can add Hurricane Harvey to the list). In both catastrophic events, people lost their homes, their businesses, suffered severe mental and physical anguish, and were in prompt need of health care. But applying for and receiving Medicaid is a voluminous, lengthy, and tedious process. And BTW, because of the natural disasters, no one has financial records to prove eligibility. Or, better yet, people were not eligible for Medicaid until the natural disaster. In that case, how do you prove eligibility for Medicaid? Take a selfie in front of where your house used to be? These are real issues with which survivors of natural disasters must grapple.

At the time of the 2001 attacks, New York already was facing a grave health care coverage quandary. Before 9/11, an estimated 1.6 million New Yorkers did not have health insurance. To apply for Medicaid, a person had to fill out an 8-page application, undergo a resource test and multiple requirements to document income and assets. Interestingly, in the case of 9/11, the terrorist attacks caused New York to lose its ability for people to electronically apply for Medicaid. But without the need of Congressional action, then-Governor Pataki announced that, low income residents would receive Medicaid by filling out a very short (one-page) questionnaire. Almost no documents were required. And coverage began immediately. Medicaid paid for over $670 million in post-9/11 health care costs.

In the case of Katrina, Louisiana straightaway stationed Medicaid employees at the FEMA shelters to enroll people in Medicaid. Louisiana also amended the Medicaid rules and allowed out-of-state providers to render services without prior authorization. Evacuees fled from Louisiana to surrounding states, and the evacuees, in many instances, had medical needs. Hundreds upon thousands of evacuees sought to use Medicaid and SCHIP to support their health needs in states in in which they were not a resident; however, four primary issues emerged. First, individuals eligible for Medicaid and SCHIP in their “Home” states needed to be eligible for and enroll in the “Host” state programs to receive assistance. Second, many individuals were newly uninsured and need to apply for Medicaid. Third, without Medicaid and SCHIP reimbursement, providers in the “Host” states could not be compensated for care provided to evacuees. Finally, because Medicaid and SCHIP are federal-state matching programs, “Host” states faced increased costs from enrolling evacuees. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) approved, on an expedited basis, 17 Waivers to allow survivors of Hurricane Katrina to receive health care via Medicaid in approximately 15 states.

We can expect similar outcomes in Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. HHS Secretary Price stated in an interview, “HHS is taking the necessary measures and has mobilized the resources to provide immediate assistance to those affected by Hurricane Harvey. We recognize the gravity of the situation in Texas, and the declaration of a public health emergency will provide additional flexibility and authority to help those who have been impacted by the storm.”

HHS has already deployed approximately 550 personnel to affected areas to help state and local authorities respond to communities’ medical needs, and additional staff is on standby to assist, if needed.

Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by Hurricane Harvey.

“Ought Implies Can” – Court Reverses Decision Forcing HHS to Eliminate Medicare Appeal Backlog

But all is not lost… it all lies in the possibility…

A few weeks ago I blogged about Health and Human Services (HHS) possibly being held in contempt of court for violating an Order handed down on Dec. 5, 2016, by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg. See blog.

The District Court Judge granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of the American Hospital Association in AHA v. Burwell. He ordered HHS to incrementally reduce the backlog of 657,955 appeals pending before the agency’s Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals over the next four years, reducing the backlog by 30% by the end of 2017; 60% by the end of 2018; 90% by the end of 2019; and to completely eliminate the backlog by Dec. 31, 2020.

This was a huge win for AHA – and Medicare providers across the country. Currently, when a provider appeals an adverse decision regarding Medicare, it costs an inordinate amount of attorneys’ fees, and the provider will not receive legal relief for upwards of 6 – 10 years, which can cause financial hardship, especially if the adverse action is in place during the appeal process. Yet the administrative appeal process was designed (poorly) to conclude within 1 year.

With the first deadline (the end of 2017) fast approaching and HHS publicly announcing that the reduction of 30% by the end of 2017 is impossible, questions were posed – how could the District Court hold HHS, a federal agency, in contempt?

We got the answer.

On August 11, 2017, the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia overturned the District Court; thereby lifting the requirement to reduce the Medicare appeal backlog.

deflatedWiping tear from face.

The first paragraph of the Ruling, indicates the Court’s philosophic reasoning, starting with a quote from Immanuel Kant (not to be confused with Knicole Emanuel), CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON 548 (Norman Kemp Smith trans., Macmillan 1953) (1781) (“The action to which the ‘ought’ applies must indeed be possible under natural conditions.”)

First paragraph of the decision:

“”Ought implies can.” That is, in order for law – man-made or otherwise – to command the performance of an act, that act must be possible to perform. This lofty philosophical maxim, ordinarily relevant only to bright-eyed college freshmen, sums up our reasoning in this case.”

The Appeals Court determined that the District Court commanded the Secretary to perform an act – clear the backlog by certain deadlines – without evaluating whether performance was possible.

The Medicare backlog skyrocketed in 2011 due to the federally-required Medicare Recovery Audit Program (RAC). With the implementation of the RAC program, the number of appeals filed ballooned from 59,600 in fiscal year 2011 to more than 384,000 in fiscal year 2013. These appeals bottlenecked to the third level of appeal, which is before an administrative law judge (ALJ). As of June 2, 2017, there was a backlog of 607,402 appeals awaiting review at this level. On its current course, the backlog is projected to grow to 950,520 by the end of fiscal year 2021.

There is a way for a provider to “skip” the ALJ level and “escalate” the claim, but it comes at a cost. Several procedural rights must be forfeited.

It is important to note that the appellate decision does not state that the District Court does not have the authority to Order HHS to eliminate the appeals backlog.

It only holds that, because HHS claims that compliance is impossible, the District Court must rule on whether compliance is possible before mandating the compliance. In other words, the Appeals Court wants the lower court to make a fact-finding decision as to whether HHS is able to eliminate the backlog before ordering it to do so. The Appeals Court is instructing the lower court to put the horse in front of the cart.

The Appeals Court explicitly states that it is suspect that the Secretary of HHS has done all things possible to decrease the backlog. (“We also share the District Court’s skepticism of the Secretary’s assertion that he has done all he can to reduce RAC-related appeals.”) So do not take the Appeals Court’s reversal as a sign that HHS will win the war.

I only hope that AHA presents every possible legal argument once the case is remanded to District Court. It is imperative that AHA’s attorneys think of every possible legal misstep in this remand in order to win. Not winning could potentially create bad law, basically, asserting that the Secretary has no duty to fix this appeals backlog. Obviously, the Secretary is exactly the person who should fix the backlog in his own agency. To hold otherwise, would thwart the very reason we have a Secretary of HHS. Through its rhetoric, the Appeals Court made it clear that it, too, has severe reservations about HHS’ claim of impossibility. However, without question, AHA’s suggestion to the District Court that a timeframe be implemented to reduce the backlog is not the answer. AHA needs to brainstorm and come up with several detailed proposals. For example, does the court need to include a requirement that the Secretary devote funds to hire additional ALJs? Or mandate that the ALJs work a half day on Saturday? Or order that the appeal process be revised to make the process more efficient? Clearly, the mere demand that HHS eliminate the backlog within a certain timeframe was too vague.

From here, the case will be remanded back to the District Court with instructions to the Judge to determine whether the elimination of the Medicare appeal backlog is possible. So, for now, HHS is safe from being held in contempt. But the Secretary should take heed from the original ruling and begin taking steps in fixing this mess. It is highly likely that HHS will be facing similar deadlines again – once the District Court determines it is possible.

Medicare Appeals Backlog: Is HHS In Danger of Being Held in Contempt?

Four months after the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Final Rule went in effect (March 2017) attempting to eliminate the Medicare appeal backlog and 6 months before United States District Court for the District of Columbia’s first court-imposed deadline (end of 2017) of reducing the Medicare appeal backlog by 30%, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are woefully far from either. According to HHS’ June 2017 report on the Medicare appeal backlog, 950,520 claims will remain in the backlog by 2021. This is in stark contrast to the District Court’s Order that HHS completely eliminate the backlog by 2020. So will HHS be held in contempt? Throw the Secretary in jail? That is what normally happened when someone violates a Court Order.

Supposedly, HHS’ catastrophic inability to decrease the Medicare appeal backlog is not from a lack of giving the ole college try. But, in its June 2017 report, HHS blames funding.

CMS issued a new Final Rule in January 2017, which took effect March 2017, in hopes of reducing the massive Medicare provider appeal backlog that has clogged up the third level of appeal of Medicare providers’ adverse actions. In the third level of appeal, providers make their arguments before an administrative law judge (ALJ). For information on all the Medicare appeal levels, click here.

The Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) claims that it currently can adjudicate roughly 92,000 appeals annually. The current backlog is approximately 667,326 appeals that HHS estimates will grow to 950,520 by 2021. The average number of days between filing a Petition with OMHA and adjudicating the case is around 1057.2 days. 

HHS had high hopes that these changes would eliminate the backlog. In HHS’ Final Rule Fact Sheet, it states “with the administrative authorities set forth in the final rule and the FY 2017 proposed funding increases and legislative actions outlined in the President’s Budget, we estimate that that the backlog of appeals could be eliminated by FY 2020.” The changes made to the Medicare appeals process by the January 2017 Final Rule is the following:

Changes to the Medicare Appeals Process

The changes in the final rule are primarily focused on the third level of appeal and will:

  • Designate Medicare Appeals Council decisions (final decisions of the Secretary) as precedential to provide more consistency in decisions at all levels of appeal, reducing the resources required to render decisions, and possibly reducing appeal rates by providing clarity to appellants and adjudicators.
  • Allow attorney adjudicators to decide appeals for which a decision can be issued without a hearing and dismiss requests for hearing when an appellant withdraws the request. That way ALJs can focus on conducting hearings and adjudicating the merits of more complex cases.
  • Simplify proceedings when CMS or CMS contractors are involved by limiting the number of entities (CMS or contractors) that can be a participant or party at the hearing.
  • Clarify areas of the regulations that currently causes confusion and may result in unnecessary appeals to the Medicare Appeals Council.
  • Create process efficiencies by eliminating unnecessary steps (e.g., by allowing ALJs to vacate their own dismissals rather than requiring appellants to appeal a dismissal to the Medicare Appeals Council); streamlining certain procedures (e.g., by using telephone hearings for appellants who are not unrepresented beneficiaries, unless the ALJ finds good cause for an appearance by other means); and requiring appellants to provide more information on what they are appealing and who will be attending a hearing.
  • Address areas for improvement previously identified by stakeholders to increase the quality of the process and responsiveness to customers, such as establishing an adjudication time frame for cases remanded from the Medicare Appeals Council, revising remand rules to help ensure cases keep moving forward in the process, simplifying the escalation process, and providing more specific rules on what constitutes good cause for new evidence to be admitted at the OMHA level of appeal.

In early June 2017, HHS issued its second status report on the Medicare appeals backlog and the outlook does not look good.

CMS held a call on June 29, 2017, to discuss recent regulatory changes intended to streamline the Medicare administrative appeal processes, reduce the backlog of pending appeals, and increase consistency in decision-making across appeal levels.

Now HHS is in danger of violating a Court Order.

In December 2016, the District Court for the District of Columbia held in American Hospital Association v Burwell case Ordered HHS to release to status reports every 90 days and the complete elimination of the backlog by 2020, HHS is also required to observe several intermediary benchmarks: 30% reduction by the end of 2017, 60% by the end of 2018, 90% by the end of 2019, and then ultimately 100% elimination by the end of 2020.

BUT LITTLE TO NOTHING HAS CHANGED.

HHS itself has maintained since the requirements were instituted that the elimination of the backlog would not be possible. June’s report projects 950,520 claims will remain by 2021, but this projection is still very far from meeting the court order.

HHS blames funding.

But even significant increase of funding (from about $107 million in 2017, to $242 million in 2018) will not cure the problem! I find it very disturbing that $242 million could not eliminate the Medicare appeal backlog. So what will happen when HHS fails to meet the Court’s mandate of a 30% reduction of the backlog by the end of 2017? Hold the Secretary in contempt?

The court in Burwell drafted a “what if” into the Decision—the Court stated: “if [HHS] fails to meet [these] deadlines, Plaintiffs may move for default judgment or to otherwise enforce the writ of mandamus.”  This allows the Court authority to enforce its Decision, but it has not motivated HHS to try any innovative procedures to reduce the backlog. So far no additional actions have been attempted, and the backlog remains.

If HHS is in violation of the Court Order at the end of 2017, the Court could issue harsh penalties. (Or the Court could do nothing and be a complete disappointment).

Medicare/caid Fraud, Tattletails, and How To Self Disclose

On July 13, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price, M.D., announced the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) biggest-ever health care fraud takedown. 412 health care providers were charged with health care fraud. In total, allegedly, the 412 providers schemed and received $1.3 billion in false billings to Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE. Of the 412 defendants, 115 are physicians, nurses, and other licensed medical professionals. Additionally, HHS has begun the suspension process against 295 health care providers’ licenses.

The charges include allegations of billing for medically unnecessary treatments or services that were not really provided. The DOJ has evidence that many of the defendants had illegal kickback schemes set up. More than 120 of the defendants were charged with unlawfully or inappropriately prescribing and distributing opioids and other narcotics.

While this particular sting operation resulted from government investigations, not all health care fraud is discovered through government investigation. A great deal of fraud is uncovered through private citizens coming forward with incriminating information. These private citizens can file suit against the fraudulent parties on behalf of the government; these are known as qui tam suits.

Being a whistleblower goes against what most of us are taught as children. We are taught not to be a tattletail. I have vivid memories from elementary school of other kids acting out, but I would remain silent and not inform the teacher. But in the health care world, tattletails are becoming much more common – and they make money for blowing that metaphoric whistle.

What is a qui tam lawsuit?

Qui tam is Latin for “who as well.” Qui tam lawsuits are a type of civil lawsuit whistleblowers (tattletails) bring under the False Claims Act, a law that rewards whistleblowers if their qui tam cases recover funds for the government. Qui tam cases are a powerful weapon against Medicare and Medicaid fraud. In other words, if an employee at a health care facility witnesses any type of health care fraud, even if the alleged fraud is unknown to the provider, that employee can hire an attorney to file a qui tam lawsuit to recover money on behalf of the government. The government investigates the allegations of fraud and decides whether it will join the lawsuit. Health care entities found guilty in a qui tam lawsuit will be liable to government for three times the government’s losses, plus penalties.

The whistleblower is rewarded for bringing these lawsuits. If the government intervenes in the case and recovers funds through a settlement or a trial, the whistleblower is entitled to 15% – 25% of the recovery. If the government doesn’t intervene in the case and it is pursued by the whistleblower team, the whistleblower reward is between 25% – 30% of the recovery.

These recoveries are not low numbers. On June 22, 2017, a physician and rehabilitative specialist agreed to pay $1.4 million to resolve allegations they violated the False Claims Act by billing federal health care programs for medically unreasonable and unnecessary ultrasound guidance used with routine lab blood draws, and with Botox and trigger point injections. If a whistleblower had brought this lawsuit, he/she would have been awarded $210,000 – 420,000.

On June 16, 2017, a Pennsylvania-based skilled nursing facility operator agreed to pay roughly $53.6 million to settle charges that it and its subsidiaries violated the False Claims Act by causing the submission of false claims to government health care programs for medically unnecessary therapy and hospice services. The allegations originated in a whistleblower lawsuit filed under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act by 7 former employees of the company. The whistleblower award – $8,040,000 – 16,080,000.

There are currently two, large qui tam cases against United Health Group (UHG) pending in the Central District of California. The cases are: U.S. ex rel. Benjamin Poehling v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc. and U.S. ex rel. Swoben v. Secure Horizons, et al. Both cases were brought by James Swoben, who was an employee and Benjamin Poehling, who was the former finance director of a UHG group that managed the insurer’s Medicare Advantage Plans. On May 2, 2027, the U.S. government joined the Poehling lawsuit.

The charges include allegations that UHG:

  • Submitted invalid codes to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that it knew of or should have known that the codes were invalid – some of the dates of services at issue in the case are older than 2008.
  • Intentionally avoided learning that some diagnoses codes or categories of codes submitted to their plans by providers were invalid, despite acknowledging in 2010 that it should evaluate the results of its blind chart reviews to find codes that need to be deleted.
  • Failed to follow up on and prevent the submissions of invalid codes or submit deletion for invalid codes.
  • Attested to CMS each year that the data they submitted was true and accurate while knowing it was not.

UHG would not be in this expensive, litigious pickle had it conducted a self audit and followed the mandatory disclosure requirements.

What are the mandatory disclosure requirements? Glad you asked…

Section 6402(a) of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) creates an express obligation for health care providers to report and return overpayments of Medicare and Medicaid. The disclosure must be made by 60 days days after the date that the overpayment was identified or the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable. Identification is defined as the point in which the provider has determined or should have determined through the exercise of due diligence that an overpayment exists. CMS expects the provider to proactively investigate any credible information of a potential overpayment. The consequences of failing to proactively investigate can be seen by the UHG  lawsuits above-mentioned. Apparently, UHG had some documents dated in 2010 that indicated it should review codes and delete the invalid codes, but, allegedly, failed to do so.

How do you self disclose?

According to CMS:

“Beginning June 1, 2017, providers of services and suppliers must use the forms included in the OMB-approved collection instrument entitled CMS Voluntary Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol (SRDP) in order to utilize the SRDP. For disclosures of noncompliant financial relationships with more than one physician, the disclosing entity must submit a separate Physician Information Form for each physician. The CMS Voluntary Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol document contains one Physician Information Form.”