Category Archives: HMS

Letter to HHS: RAC Audits “Have Absolutely No Direct Impact on the Medicare Providers” – And I Spotted Elvis!

Recovery audits have absolutely no direct impact on the Medicare providers working hard to deliver much needed healthcare services to beneficiaries.

And Elvis Presley is still alive! Oh, and did you know that Bill Clinton never had an affair on Hillary? (since when has her name become one word, like Prince or Beyonce?)

This sentence was written in a March 6, 2018, correspondence from The Council for Medicare Integrity to HHS Secretary Alex Azar.

“Recovery auditing has never been an impediment to the delivery of healthcare services nor is it an intrusion in the physician-patient relationship.” – Kristin Walter of The Council for Medicare Integrity. BTW, Ms. Walter, health care has a space between the two syllables.

The purpose of this letter that was sent from the The Council for Medicare Integrity to Secretary Azar was to request an increase of prepayment reviews for Medicare providers. For those of you so blessed to not know what a prepayment review, prepayment review is a review of your Medicare (or Caid) claims prior to being paid. It sounds reasonable on paper, but, in real life, prepayment review is a Draconian, unjust, and preposterous tool aimed at putting healthcare providers out of business, or if not aimed, is the unknown or accidental outcome of such a review. If placed on prepayment review, your Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements are 100% cut off. Gone. Like the girl in that movie with Ben Affleck, Gone Girl Gone, and, like the girl, not really gone because it’s alive – you provided services and are owed that money – but it’s in hiding and may ruin your life. See blog.

Even if I were wrong, which I am not, the mere process in the order of events of prepayment review is illogical. In the interest of time, I will cut-and-paste a section from a prior blog that I wrote about 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.

_______________________________

Back to the current blog

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So to have The Council for Medicare Integrity declare that prepayment review has absolutely no impact on Medicare providers is ludicrous.

Now, I will admit that the RAC (and other acronyms) prepayment and post payment review programs have successfully recovered millions of dollars of alleged overpayments. But these processes must be done right, legally. You can’t just shove an overzealous, for-profit, audit company out the door like an overweight kid in a candy store. Legal due process and legal limitations must be required – and followed.

Ms. Walter does present some interesting, yet factually questionable, statistics:

  • “Over the past 5 years alone, Medicare has lost more than $200 billion taxpayer dollars to very preventable billing errors made by providers.”

Not quite sure how this was calculated. A team of compliance auditors would have had to review hundreds of thousands of medical records to determine this amount. Is she referring to money that has been recovered and the appeal process afforded to the providers has been exhausted? Or is this number how much money is being alleged has been overpaid? How exactly were these supposed billing errors “very preventable?” What does that mean? She is either saying that the health care providers could have prevented the ostensible overbillings – or – she is saying that RAC auditors could have prevented these purported overbillings by increased prepayment review. Either way … I don’t get it. It reminds me of Demi Moore in A Few Good Men, “I object.” Judge states, “Overruled.” Demi Moore pleads, “I strenuously object.” Judge states, “Still overruled.” “Very preventable billing errors,” said Ms. Walters. “Still overruled.”

  • “Currently, only 0.5 percent of Medicare claims are reviewed, on a post-payment basis, for billing accuracy and adherence to program billing rules. This leaves 99.5 percent of claims immune from any checks and balances that would ensure Medicare payments are correct.”

Again, I am curious as to the mathematic calculation used. Is she including the audits performed, not only by RACs, but audits by ZPICs, CERTS, MACs, including Palmetto, Noridian and CGS, federal and state Program Integrities, State contractors, MFCUs, MICs, MCOs, PERMs, PCG, and HHS? Because I can definitely see that we need more players.

  • “The contrast between Medicare review practices and private payers is startling. Despite the dire need to safeguard Medicare dollars, CMS currently allows Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) to review fewer than 30 Medicare claim  types (down from 800 claim types initially) and has scaled back to allow a review of a mere 0.5 percent of Medicare provider claims after they have been paid. Considered a basic cost of doing business, the same providers billing Medicare comply, without issue, with the more extensive claim review requirements of private health insurance companies. With Medicare however, provider groups have lobbied aggressively to keep their overpayments, putting intense pressure on CMS to block Medicare billing oversight.”

Did I wake up in the Twilight Zone? Zombies? Let’s compare Medicare/caid to private health care companies.

First, let’s talk Benjamins (or pennies in Medicare/caid). A study was conducted to compare Texas Medicare/caid reimbursement rates to private pay. Since everything is bigger in Texas, including the reimbursement rates for Medicare/caid, I figured this study is demonstrative for the country (obviously each state’s statistics would vary).

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According to a 2016 study by the National Comparisons of Commercial and Medicare Fee-For-Service Payments to Hospitals:

  • 96%. In 2012, average payments for commercial inpatient hospital stays were higher than Medicare fee-for-service payments for 96% of the diagnosis related groups (DRGs) analyzed.
  • 14%. Between 2008 and 2012, the commercial-to-Medicare payment difference had an average increase of 14%.
  • 86%. Longer hospital stays do not appear to be a factor for higher average commercial payments. During this period, 86 percent of the DRGs analyzed had commercial-to-Medicare average length-of-stay of ratios less than one.

The “basic cost of doing business” for Medicare/caid patients is not getting appropriate reimbursement rates.

The law states that the reimbursements rates should allow quality of care. Section 30(A) of the Medicare Act requires that each State “provide such methods and procedures relating to the utilization of, and the payment for, care and services available under the plan (including but not limited to utilization review plans as provided for in section 1396b(i)(4) of this title) as may be necessary to safeguard against unnecessary utilization of such care and services and to assure that payments are consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care and are sufficient to enlist enough providers so that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population in the geographic area.” (emphasis added).

Second, billing under Medicare/caid is much more complex than billing third-party payors, which are not required to follow the over-regulated, esoteric, administrative, spaghetti sauce that mandates providers who accept Medicare and/or Medicaid (a whole bunch of independent vegetables pureed into a sauce in which the vegetables are indiscernible from the other). The regulatory burden required of providing Medicare and/or Medicaid services does not compare to the administrative and regulatory burden associated with private pay, regardless of Ms. Walter’s uncited and unreferenced claims that “the more extensive claim review requirements [are with the] private health insurance companies.” We’re talking kumquats to rack of lamb (are kumquats cheap)?

Third, let’s discuss this comment: “provider groups have lobbied aggressively.” RAC auditors, and all the other alphabet soup, are paid A LOT. Government bureaucracy often does not require the same “bid process” that a private company would need to pass. Some government contracts are awarded on a no-bid process (not ok), which does not create the best “bang for your buck for the taxpayers.”

I could go on…but, I believe that you get the point. My readers are no dummies!

I disagree with the correspondence, dated March 6, 2018, from The Council for Medicare Integrity to HHS Secretary Alex Azar is correct. However, my question is who will push back against The Council for Medicare Integrity? All those health care provider associations that “have lobbied aggressively to keep their overpayments, putting intense pressure on CMS to block Medicare billing oversight.”?

At the end of the day (literally), I questioned the motive of The Council for Medicare Integrity. Whenever you question a person’s motive, follow the money. So, I googled “who funds The Council for Medicare Integrity? Unsurprisingly, it was difficult to locate. According to The Council for Medicare Integrity’s website it provides transparency with the following FAQ:

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Again, do you see why I am questioning the source of income?

According to The Council for Medicare Integrity, “The Council for Medicare Integrity is a 501(c)(6) non-profit organization. The Council’s mission is to educate policymakers and other stakeholders regarding the importance of healthcare integrity programs that help Medicare identify and correct improper payments.

As a 501(c)(6) organization, the Council files IRS Form 990s annually with the IRS as required by law. Copies of these filings and exemption application materials can be obtained by mailing your request to the Secretary at: Council for Medicare Integrity, Attention: Secretary, 9275 W. Russell Road, Suite 100, Las Vegas, Nevada 89148. In your request, please provide your name, address, contact telephone number and a list of documents requested. Hard copies are subject to a fee of $1.00 for the first page and $.20 per each subsequent page, plus postage, and must be made by check or money order, payable to the Council for Medicare Integrity. Copies will be provided within 30 days from receipt of payment. These documents are also available for public inspection without charge at the Council’s principal office during regular business hours. Please schedule an appointment by contacting the Secretary at the address above.

This website serves as an aggregator of all the verifiable key facts and data pertaining to this important healthcare issue, as well as a resource center to support the provider community in their efforts to comply with Medicare policy.”

I still question the funding (and the bias)…Maybe funded by the RACs??

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).

Kaiser Foundation: Estimates of the American Health Care Act

This data note reviews the Medicaid estimates included in the American Health Care Act prepared by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and staff at the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT).

via Data Note: Review of CBO Medicaid Estimates of the American Health Care Act — The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation

Medicaid Forecast: Cloudy with 100% Chance of Trump

Regardless how you voted, regardless whether you “accept” Trump as your president, and regardless with which party you are affiliated, we have a new President. And with a new President comes a new administration. Republicans have been vocal about repealing Obamacare, and, now, with a Republican majority in Congress and President, changes appear inevitable. But what changes?

What are Trump’s and our legislature’s stance on Medicaid? What could our future health care be? (BTW: if you do not believe that Medicaid funding and costs impact all healthcare, then please read blog – and understand that your hard-working tax dollars are the source of our Medicaid funding).

WHAT IS OUR HEALTHCARE’S FORECAST?

The following are my forecasted amendments for Medicaid:

  1. Medicaid block grants to states

Trump has indicated multiple times that he wants to put a cap on Medicaid expenses flowing from the federal government to the states. I foresee either a block grant (a fixed annual amount per state) or a per capita cap (fixed dollar per beneficiary) being implemented.

What would this mean to Medicaid?

First, remember that Medicaid is an entitlement program, which means that anyone who qualifies for Medicaid has a right to Medicaid. Currently, the federal government pays a percentage of a state’s cost of Medicaid, usually between 60-70%. North Carolina, for example, receives 66.2% of its Medicaid spending from Uncle Sam, which equals $8,922,363,531.

While California receives only 62.5% of its Medicaid spending from the federal government, the amount that it receives far surpasses NC’s share – $53,436,580,402.

The federal funding is open-ended (not a fixed a mount) and can inflate throughout the year, but, in return, the states are required to cover certain health care services for certain demographics; e.g., pregnant women who meet income criteria, children, etc. With a block grant or per capita cap, the states would have authority to decide who qualifies and for what services. In other words, the money would not be entwined with a duty that the state cover certain individuals or services.

Opponents to block grants claim that states may opt to cap Medicaid enrollment, which would cause some eligible Medicaid recipients to not get coverage.

On the other hand, proponents of per capita caps, opine that this could result in more money for a state, depending on the number of Medicaid eligible residents.

2. Medicaid Waivers

The past administration was relatively conservative when it came to Medicaid Waivers through CMS. States that want to contract with private entities to manage Medicaid, such as managed care organizations (MCOs), are required to obtain a Waiver from CMS, which waives the “single state entity” requirement. 42 CFR 431.10. See blog.

This administration has indicated that it is more open to granting Waivers to allow private entities to participate in Medicaid.

There has also been foreshadowing of possible beneficiary work requirements and premiums.Montana has already implemented job training components for Medicaid beneficiaries. However, federal officials from the past administration instructed Montana that the work component could not  be mandatory, so it is voluntary. Montana also expanded its Medicaid in 2015, under a Republican governor. At least for one Medicaid recipient, Ruth McCafferty, 53, the voluntary job training was Godsend. She was unemployed with three children at home. The Medicaid job program paid for her to participate in “a free online training to become a mortgage broker. The State even paid for her 400-mile roundtrip to Helena to take the certification exam. And now they’re paying part of her salary at a local business as part of an apprenticeship to make her easier to hire.” See article.

The current administration may be more apt to allow mandatory work requirements or job training for Medicaid recipients.

3. Disproportionate Share Hospital

When the ACA was implemented, hospitals were at the negotiating table. With promises from the past administration, hospitals agreed to take a cut on DSH payments, which are paid to hospitals to help offset the care of uninsured and Medicaid patients. The ACA’s DSH cut is scheduled to go into effect FY 2018 with a $2 billion reduction. It is scheduled to continue to reduce until FY 2025 with a $8 billion reduction. The reason for this deduction was that the ACA would create health coverage for more people and with Medicaid expansion there would be less uninsured.

If the ACA is repealed, our lawmakers need to remember that DSH payments are scheduled to decrease next year. This could have a dramatic impact on our hospitals. Last year, approximately 1/2 of our hospitals received DSH. In 2014, Medicaid paid approximately $18 billion for DSH payments, so the proposed reductions make up a high percentage of DSH payments.

4. Physician payment predictability

Unlike the hospitals, physicians got the metaphoric shaft when the ACA was implemented. Many doctors were forced to provide services to patients, even when those patients were not covered by a health plan. Many physicians had to  increase the types of insurance they would accept, which increased their administrative costs and the burden.

This go-around, physicians may have the ear of the HHS Secretary-nominee, Tom Price, who is an orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Price has argued for higher reimbursement rates for doctors and more autonomy. Regardless, reimburse rate predictability may stabilize.

Do the Anti-Kickback and Stark Laws Apply to Private Payors?

Good question.

Anti-Kickback statutes (AKS) and Stark law are extremely important issues in health care. Violations of these laws yield harsh penalties. Yet, many healthcare professionals have little to no knowledge on the details of these two legal beasts.

The most common question I get regarding AKS and Stark is: Do AKS and Stark apply to private payers? Health care professionals believe, if I don’t accept Medicare or Medicaid, then I don’t need to worry about AKS and Stark. Are they correct??

The general and overly broad response is that the Stark Law, 42 USC § 1395nn, only applies to Medicare and Medicaid. The AKS, 42 USC § 1320a-7b(b)),applies to any federal healthcare program.

Is there a difference between AKS and Stark?

Answer: Yes. As discussed above, the first difference is that AKS applies to all federal healthcare programs. This stark difference (pun intended) makes the simple decision to not accept Medicare and Medicaid, thus allowing you to never worry about AKS, infinitely more difficult.

Let’s take a step back… What are AKS and Stark laws and what do these laws prohibit? When you Google AKS and Stark, a bunch of legal blogs pop up and attempt to explain, in legalese, what two, extremely esoteric laws purport to say, using words like “renumeration,” “knowing and willful,” and “federal healthcare program.” You need a law license to decipher the deciphering of AKS and Stark. The truth is – it ain’t rocket science.

The AKS is a criminal law; if you violate the AKS, you can be prosecuted as a criminal. The criminal offense is getting something of value for referrals. You cannot refer patients to other health care professionals in exchange for money, reduced rent, use of laboratory equipment, referrals to you, health services for your mother, marketing, weekly meals at Ruth’s Chris, weekly meals at McDonalds, oil changes, discounted theater tickets, Uber rides, Costco coupons, cooking lessons, or…anything of value, regardless the value. 

Safe harbors (exceptions to AKS) exist. But those exceptions better fit squarely into the definition of the exceptions. Because there are no exceptions beyond the enumerated exceptions.

AKS is much more broad in scope than Stark. Other than Medicare and Medicaid, AKS applies to any health care plan that utilizes any amount of federal funds. For example, AKS applies to Veterans Health Care, State Children’s Health Programs (CHIP), Federal Employees Health Benefit Program, and many other programs with federal funding. Even if you opt to not accept Medicare and Medicaid, you may still be liable under AKS.

Stark law, on the other hand, is more narrow and only applies to Medicare and Medicaid. I find the following “cheat sheet” created by a subdivision of the Office of Inspector General to be helpful in understanding AKS and Stark and the differences between the two:

One other important aspect of Stark is that is considered “strict liability,” whereas AKS requires a proving of a “knowing and willful” action.

Feel free to print off the above chart for your reference. However, see that little asterisk at the bottom of the chart? It applies here as well.

The Effects of Medicaid Expansion under the ACA: Findings from a Literature Review — The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation

Research on the effects of Medicaid expansions under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) can help increase understanding of how the ACA has impacted coverage; access to care, utilization, and health outcomes; and various economic outcomes, including state budgets, the payer mix for hospitals and clinics, and the employment and labor market. These findings also may…

via The Effects of Medicaid Expansion under the ACA: Findings from a Literature Review — The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation

“Red Rover, Red Rover, Send Lab Services Right Over!” And How To Self Audit

Medicare is the largest payor of clinical lab services in the nation. Clinical lab services include everything from blood counts to urinalyses, and every letter of the alphabet in between. Lab services are performed by hospitals, independent labs, physicians, or other institutions.

Medicare Part B (which covers lab services) has had increased enrollment over the past few years, but the amount billed to Part B over the past few years has increased at a much higher rate. In other words, the amount of lab services billed to Part B has increased disproportionately to the increase in enrollment. Any number of factors could contribute to this: defensive practice of medicine, more reliance on laboratory testing, more labs…

Regardless, the higher billing amounts in lab services has now won the prestigious award of “Increased CMS Scrutiny!” (sarcasm, people). And the crowd goes wild!!!!

Mid-2014, the U.S. Office of Inspector General (OIG) published a study entitled, “Questionable Billing for Medicare Part B Clinical Laboratory Services.” OIG determined that Medicare allowed $1.5 billion to be paid for claims with questionable billing. It recommended that CMS: (1) review the labs identified with questionable billing and take appropriate action; (2) review program integrity strategies and determine whether such strategies are adequate; and (3) ensure that claims with invalid and ineligible ordering-physician numbers are not being paid.

In normal and expectant government time frames, the “dinosauric beast” has now determined, a little over a year later, that laboratory service claims warrant enhanced scrutiny. And a little over 85 years after its discovery, we finally determine that Pluto isn’t a planet.

CMS zoomed in their lens of scrutiny on lab services multiple times over a decade ago. Each “CMS zoom” resulted in millions and millions of money given to the federal government, which perpetuates the feds to zoom more and more…it’s easy money.

For example, in 2000, OIG issued Project LabScam, which resulted in substantial settlements against Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings, SmithKline Beecham, Met/Path, Damon, Roche, and Allied.

In 2002, OIG found that Medicare incorrectly paid $7.4 million for lab services with invalid ordering UPINs and $15.3 million for lab service claims with inactive ordering UPINs.

What does this mean to providers of lab services today?

It means you need to be prepared for an audit.

When I was young, one of my favorite games was “Red Rover.” Children would grasp arms and form a straight line facing the other team, which was doing the same. I would yell, “Red River, Red Rover, send Holly right over!” At which time, little Holly would be released from her line and prepare to run, full speed, into my line of little kids’ arms. Inevitably, once we saw where Holly was running, we would tighten up our grasps on one another’s arms to prepare for the impact.

Similarly, in preparation for upcoming audits, lab service providers need to tighten up.

How?

The best way to be certain of your risks in a potential audit is to hire a professional consultant or an experienced attorney to review a large sample of your documents. This allows an outsider to provide an unbiased opinion as to your risk. You may have the best billing manager in the world, but, when it comes to a self audit, he or she already believes that his or her documentation is stellar and that the organization of such documents is self evident. Having an outsider audit your records is worth its weight in gold and the best way to tighten up pre-audit.

The second best way to be certain of your risks in a potential audit is to self audit. Even if you hire a consultant or an attorney for a one time, third-party audit, you still want to self-audit multiple times a year. Every now and then you need to kick the old tires.

How do you self audit?

FYI: My general explanation of how to self audit will be appropriate for all health care service provider types. I will describe some more detailed ways to self audit that will be specific to lab services.

In order to self audit, I teach the IAKA method, not to be confused with IKEA.

  • Identify common risks
  • Audit a sample of your documents
  • Keep record of each step of your audit, including findings
  • Act on the findings.

Identify

What are the common red flags in your industry?

For lab services, common red flags may be high average allowed amounts per ordering physician, high percentage of claims with ineligible ordering-physician numbers, high percentage of claims with compromised beneficiary numbers, and high percentage of duplicate lab tests.

Here’s an area to look into that you may not otherwise consider in a self audit: what percentage of your lab clients live outside 100 miles? This may sound hoaky, but I had a lab service client flagged because 92% of the clients resided over 150 miles away. There was a perfectly reasonable explanation for such anomaly, the lab was located in a large, prestigious hospital in a rural area and people came from miles away to the hospital, but the statistic still flagged it.

Another specific item to review is, on average, how much does each physician bill in the laboratory? Do you have 4 physicians who bill, on average, $60,000+ per ordering physician? Because, for an independent lab, that would be very high.

Audit

For the actual self audit, you want to break up the audit into two categories: standards and procedures and document compliance.

For standards and procedures, you are reviewing whether you are properly orienting new hires, the specific training you implement, your criminal background check procedures, HIPAA training, your license renewal processes, your certification renewal processes, etc.

For document compliance, you are reviewing for physician signatures and dates.

NOTE: It is not required, but it is extremely prudent to print the name of the signator underneath all signatures. I have seen auditors ding providers on “physicians not being licensed/credentialed” because the auditor could not read the name of the physician. 

You are also reviewing for medical necessity, eligible ordering-physician numbers, distance the client is to the lab, amount prescribed to that particular client, amount prescribed by that particular physician, whether that test prescribed for the same client within a 12 month period, coding compliance, etc.

Keep Record

It is imperative that you keep meticulous records while you conducting the audits. You want to be able to show an auditor that you caught a mistake and that you implemented a plan of correction to remedy the mistake going forward. And that, in actuality, you remedied the mistake going forward. This documentation is essential for possible defenses to alleged potential overpayments, false claims, and, even, alleged criminal actions. Your documentation skills could be the difference between paying millions in penalties, or, in the extreme case, jail.

Act

I got ahead of myself in the prior section by saying that you need to document the way in which you fix the mistake. But I cannot emphasize it enough. Acting on your findings is important, obviously, but documenting the actions is more important. Ever hear the saying, “If it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen?” Take that as gospel.

Be prepared. Be proactive. Be ready. Tighten up!

Alphabet Soup: RACs, MICs, MFCUs, CERTs, ZPICs, PERMs and Their Respective Look Back Periods

I have a dental client, who was subject to a post payment review by Public Consulting Group (PCG). During the audit, PCG reviewed claims that were 5 years old.  In communication with the state, I pointed out that PCG surpassed its allowable look back period of 3 years.  To which the Assistant Attorney General (AG) said, “This was not a RAC audit.”  I said, “Huh. Then what type of audit is it? MIC? ZPIC? CERT?” Because the audit has to be one of the known acronyms, otherwise, where is PCG’s authority to conduct the audit?

There has to be a federal and state regulation applicable to every audit.  If there is not, the audit is not allowable.

So, with the state claiming that this post payment review is not a RAC audit, I looked into what it could be.

In order to address health care fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA), Congress and CMS developed a variety of approaches over the past several years to audit Medicare and Medicaid claims. For all the different approaches, the feds created rules and different acronyms.  For example, a ZPIC audit varies from a CERT audit, which differs from a RAC audit, etc. The rules regulating the audit differ vastly and impact the provider’s audit results greatly. It can be as varied as hockey and football; both have the same purpose of scoring points, but the equipment, method of scoring, and ways to defend against an opponent scoring are as polar opposite as oil and water. It can be confusing and overwhelming to figure out which entity has which rule and which entity has exceeded its scope in an audit.

It can seem that we are caught swimming in a bowl of alphabet soup. We have RACs, ZPICs, MICs, CERTs, and PERMs!!

alphabet soup

What are these acronyms??

This blog will shed some light on the different types of agencies auditing your Medicare and Medicaid claims and what restrictions are imposed on such agencies, as well as provide you with useful tips while undergoing an audit and defending the results.

First, what do the acronyms stand for?

  • Medicare Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs)
  • Medicaid RACs
  • Medicaid Integrity Contractors (MICs)
  • Zone Program Integrity Contractors (ZPICs)
  • State Medicaid Fraud Control Units (MFCUs)
  • Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT)
  • Payment Error Rate Measurement (PERM)

Second, what are the allowable scope, players, and look back periods for each type of audit? I have comprised the following chart for a quick “cheat sheet” when it comes to the various types of audits. When an auditor knocks on your door, ask them, “What type of audit is this?” This can be invaluable information when it comes to defending the alleged overpayment.

SCOPE, AUDITOR, AND LOOK-BACK PERIOD
Name Scope Auditor Look-back period
Medicare RACs

Focus:

Medicare zaqoverpayments and underpayments

Medicare RACs are nationwide. The companies bid for federal contracts. They use post payment reviews to seek over and under payments and are paid on a contingency basis. Region A:  Performant Recovery

Region B:  CGI Federal, Inc.

Region C:  Connolly, Inc.

Region D:  HealthDataInsights, Inc.

Three years after the date the claim was filed.
Medicaid RACs

Focus:

Medicaid overpayments and underpayments

Medicaid RACs operate nationwide on a state-by-state basis. States choose the companies to perform RAC functions, determine the areas to target without informing the public, and pay on a contingency fee basis. Each state contracts with a private company that operates as a Medicaid RAC.

In NC, we use PCG and HMS.

Three years after the date the claim was filed, unless the Medicaid RAC has approval from the state.
MICs

Focus:

Medicaid overpayments and education

MICs review all Medicaid providers to identify high-risk areas, overpayments, and areas for improvement. CMS divided the U.S. into five MIC jurisdictions.

New York (CMS Regions I & II) – Thomson Reuters (R) and IPRO (A) • Atlanta (CMS Regions III & IV) – Thomson Reuters (R) and Health Integrity (A) • Chicago (CMS Regions V & VII) – AdvanceMed (R) and Health Integrity (A) • Dallas (CMS Regions VI & VIII) – AdvanceMed (R) and HMS (A) • San Francisco (CMS Regions IX & X) – AdvanceMed (R) and HMS (A)

MICs are not paid on a contingency fee basis.

MICs  may review a claim as far back as permitted under the laws of the respective states (generally a five-year look-back period).
ZPICs

Focus:

Medicare fraud, waste, and abuse

ZPICs investigate potential Medicare FWA and refer these cases to other entities.

Not random.

CMS, which has divided the U.S. into seven ZPICs jurisdictions.

Only investigate potential fraud.

ZPICs are not paid on a contingency fee basis.

ZPICs have no specified look-back period.
MFCUs

Focus:

Medicaid fraud, waste, and abuse

MFCUs investigate and prosecute (or refer for prosecution) criminal and civil Medicaid fraud cases. Each state, except North Dakota, has an MFCU.

Contact info for NC’s:

Medicaid Fraud Control Unit of North Carolina
Office of the Attorney General
5505 Creedmoor Rd
Suite 300
Raleigh, NC   27612

Phone: (919) 881-2320

website

MFCUs have no stated look-back period.
CERT

Focus:

Medicare improper payment rate

CERT companies indicate the rate of improper payments in the Medicare program in an annual report. CMS runs the CERT program using two private contractors (which I am yet to track down, but I will). The look back period is the current fiscal year (October 1 to September 30).
PERM

Focus:

Medicaid improper payment rate

PERM companies research improper payments in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. They extrapolate a national error rate. CMS runs the PERM program using two private contractors(which I am yet to track down, but I will). The look back period is the current fiscal year (the complete measurement cycle is 22 to 28 months).

 As you can see, the soup is flooded with letters of the alphabet. But which letters are attached to which audit company determines which rules are followed.

It is imperative to know, when audited, exactly which acronym those auditors are

Which brings me back to my original story of my dental provider, who was audited by a “non-RAC” entity for claims 5 years old.

What entity could be performing this audit, since PCG was not acting as its capacity as a RAC auditor? Let’s review:

  • RAC: AG claims no.
  • MIC: This is a state audit, not federal. No.
  • MFCU: No prosecutor involved. No.
  • ZPIC: This is a state audit, not federal. No allegation of fraud. No.
  • CERT:This is a state audit, not federal. No.
  • PERM: This is a state audit, not federal. No.

Hmmmm….

If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and acts like a duck, it must be a duck, right?

Or, in this case, a RAC.

Proposed Federal Legislation Will Provide Relief to Hospitals and Medicare Patients in Need of Post-Acute Care

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) announced that the new RAC contracts in North Carolina should be ready by the end of the year.  This means that, next year, RAC audits on hospitals and other providers will significantly increase in number. Get prepared, providers!!

However, there is proposed federal legislation that could protect hospitals and Medicare patients if passed.

Hypothetical: You present yourself to a hospital. The hospital keeps you in observation for 1 day. You are then formally admitted to the hospital as an inpatient for 2 more days. Under Medicare rules, will Medicare now cover your post-acute care in a skilled nursing facility (SNF)?

Answer: No. Observation days in hospitals do not count toward the Medicare 3-day requirement.

On November 19, 2014, Congressman Kevin Brady introduced draft legislation that would allow hospital observation stays to count toward establishing Medicare eligibility for post-acute services, as well as improve and supervise the RAC program.

You are probably wondering…Why would a hospital keep me in observation for a full day without admitting me as an inpatient when hospitals are reimbursed at a significantly higher rate for inpatient versus outpatient?

Answer: To avoid RAC recoupments.

In recent years, recovery audit contractors (RACs) have been exceedingly aggressive in post payment review audits in challenging hospital claims for short, inpatient stays. The RACs are motivated by money, and all of the RACs are compensated on a contingency basis, which leads to overzealous, sometimes, inaccurate audits. Here in North Carolina, Public Consulting Group (PCG) retains 11.5% of collected audits, and Health Management Systems (HMS) retains 9.75%.  See my blog: “NC Medicaid Extrapolation Audits: How Does $100 Become $100,000? Check for Clusters!”

Why have RACs targeted short-stay admissions in hospitals? As mentioned, one-day inpatient stays are paid significantly more than similar outpatient stays. Because of the financial incentives, RACs often focus audits on whether the short-stay is appropriate because this focus will yield a larger overpayment. As a result, hospitals become hesitant to admit patients as an “inpatient” status and, instead, keep the patient in outpatient observation for longer periods of time.

Keeping a person in observation status rather than admitting the person could impact the person’s health and well-being, but it will also impact whether a Medicare patient can receive post-acute care in a SNF (or, rather, whether Medicare will pay for it).

In order for a Medicare patient to receive covered, skilled nursing care after a hospital stay, Medicare requires a 3-day inpatient stay.  With the onslaught of RAC audits, hospitals become leery to admit a person as an inpatient.  When hospitals are tentative about admitting people, it can adversely affect a person’s post-acute care services.

To give you an idea of how overzealous these RACs are when it comes to auditing Medicare providers, there are over 800,000 pending Medicare appeals. That means that, across the country, RACs and other auditing companies have determined that over 800,000 providers and hospitals that accept Medicare were improperly overpaid for services rendered due to billing errors, etc. Over 800,000 providers and hospitals disagree with the audit results and are appealing. Now, obviously, all 800,000 appeals are hospitals appealing audits findings short-stay admissions not meeting criteria, but enough of them exist to warrant Congressman Brady’s proposed bill.

The proposed bill will significantly impact RAC audits of short-stay admissions in hospitals.  But the proposed bill will also extend the current short moratorium on RAC audits on short-stay admissions in hospitals.  Basically, the RACs became so overzealous and the Medicare appeals backlog became so large that Congress placed a short moratorium on RACs auditing short-stay admissions under the two-midnight rule through the end of March 2015.   The proposed bill will lengthen the moratorium just in time for NC’s new RACs to begin additional hospital audits.

The moral of the story is…you get too greedy, you get nothing…

Remember “The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs?”

A man and his wife owned a very special goose. Every day the goose would lay a golden egg, which made the couple very rich.  “Just think,” said the man’s wife, “If we could have all the golden eggs that are inside the goose, we could be richer much faster.”  “You’re right,” said her husband, “We wouldn’t have to wait for the goose to lay her egg every day.”  So, the couple killed the goose and cut her open, only to find that she was just like every other goose. She had no golden eggs inside of her at all, and they had no more golden eggs.

Too much greed results in nothing.

Similar to the husband and wife who killed the goose who laid the golden eggs, overzealous and inaccurate audits cause Congress to propose a temporary moratorium on RACs conducting audits on short-term hospital stays until the reimbursement rates are implemented within the same proposed bill (which, in essence will lengthen the moratorium until the rates within the bill are implemented, which also includes additional methods to settle RAC disputes).

The proposed bill, entitled, “The Hospitals Improvements for Payment Act of 2014,” (HIP) would revamp the way in which short hospital stays are reimbursed and how observation days are counted toward Medicare’s 3-day rule for post-acute care; thereby alleviating these painful hospital audits for short inpatient stays. Remember my blog: “Medicare Appeals to OMHA Reaches 15,000 Per Week, Yet Decisions Take Years; Hospital Association Sues Over Medicare Backlog.”

HIP would create a new payment model called the Hospital Prospective Payment System (HPPS) that would apply to short-term hospital stays.

What is a “short stay?” According to the proposed bill, a short stay is a: (1) stay that is less than 3 days; (2) stay that has a national average length of stay less than 3 days; or (3) stay that is “among the most highly ranked discharges that have been denied for reasons of medical necessity.”

Proposed HIP would also require the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to establish a new base rate of payment, which will be calculated by blending the base operating rate for short stays and an equivalent base operating rate for overnight hospital outpatient services.

The draft bill would also repeal the 0.2 percent ($200 million per year) reduction that CMS implemented with the two-midnight rule, which is the standard that presumes hospital stays are reasonable if the stay covers two midnights.

The proposed bill also mandates more government supervision as to the RACs.

This proposed bill comes on the cusp of an increased amount of RAC audits in NC on hospitals. As previously discussed, our new RAC contracts will be awarded before the end of this year. So our new RACs will come in with the new year…

The moral of the story?

Expect hospital RAC audits to increase dramatically in the next year, unless this bill is passed.

Prior To Means BEFORE: An Amendment to N.C. Gen. Stat 108C-5(i) and Renovating the Leaning Tower of Pisa

The way it works with our three, separate branches of government is that if the court system determines that a statute should be interpreted as ‘A,’ and the legislative branch does not appreciate the way in which the statute was interpreted, then, during the next session, the legislative branch can pass a bill into law that specifically states that the statute is ‘B’ (provided the statutes are consistent with the constitution).

Take the leaning Tower of Pisa. It was built on unsteady ground and within 10 years of its construction, the builders knew it would lean…much like many of our Medicaid and Medicare laws. A beautiful tower, on paper, may not work in real life and on unsteady ground. But once the tower is erected, renovations can occur that will stop the tower from falling over (supposedly, the leaning Tower of Pisa is now stable).

Similarly, when a new law is enacted, no one can predict whether the law will work in real life or be effective in the manner for which it was intended.

N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C-5 was enacted in 2011 and allows the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to audit a small sample of a health care provider’s medical records and extrapolate the error rate against the universe of all of the provider’s records. For example, HMS, one of NC’s hired auditors, asks a Hospital X for all 99222, 99219 and 99235 codes, that is, initial hospital encounter codes, for the period of time of January 1, 2010 – January 1, 2011. After HMS reviews a sample of those medical records, it determines that Hospital X is miscoding at an error rate of 45% (a conclusion which is ALWAYS likely to be wrong, from my experience) for an actual overpayment amount (from just that particular record sample) of $100,000.00. N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C-5 allows HMS to extrapolate the actual overpayment over a universe all of the Hospital’s records for ‘x’ number of years, to reach an alleged overpayment amount of $4,000,000.00 for the audited time period

It really is ridiculous. For example, one of my clients, a behavioral health care provider, who works very hard for his clients, received from the auditor an alleged notice of overpayment of $640,441.00. My associate, Robert Shaw, reviewed the exact same documents that the auditors reviewed and determined that the audit was erroneous. Robert didn’t even have to take it to court. After he drafted correspondence to the auditing company with explanations of why the audit was incorrect, the auditing company admitted that almost every single one of its conclusions was in error, and agreed to accept $258.20 for one claim.

Going back to N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C-5, subsection (i) used to state, “Prior to extrapolating the results of any audits, the Department shall demonstrate and inform the provider that (i) the provider failed to substantially comply with the requirements of State or federal law or regulation or (ii) the Department has credible allegation of fraud concerning the provider.”

Using the plain language of the statute, in court, I would often argue in defense of a health care provider that the extrapolation should be thrown out because DHHS would send a Tentative Notice of Overpayment (TNO) that included the extrapolated amount in the same correspondence in which DHHS was “demonstrating and informing” the health care provider that either: (i) the provider failed to substantially comply with the requirements of State or federal law or regulation or (ii) the Department has a credible allegation of fraud concerning the provider. N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C-5 clearly states that the demonstration and informing should be given to the health care provider prior to extrapolating.

The DHHS attorney would argue that my argument would create absurd results in that DHHS could demonstrate and inform the provider in one correspondence, then one minute later send the extrapolation. The judges at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) agreed with me to a point. They agreed that the first extrapolation should be thrown out because DHHS did not demonstrate and inform prior to extrapolating.

However, when a provider receives an extrapolation, the first level of appeal is an informal reconsideration review within DHHS, Division of Medical Assistance (DMA). The hearing officers are hired by DHHS and do not, generally, have legal backgrounds; although I can think of one exception. After the reconsideration review, DHHS, through its hired vendor, conducts another extrapolation, which usually does not usually result in a severe decrease in alleged overpayment.

So the Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) held that the subsequent extrapolations…the extrapolations after receiving the TNO which provides the provider notice, are legit…that the TNOs satisfy the requirement of DHHS to demonstrate and inform the provider prior to extrapolating

Well, long story short, DHHS did not like having to defend itself for not providing sufficient notice prior to extrapolating.

Enter Session Law 2014-100, otherwise known as the sneaky Appropriations Bill that appropriates more than our budget.

Session Law 2014-100 revises N.C. Gen. Stat 108C-5(i) to state “(i) Prior to extrapolating the results of any audits, the Department shall demonstrate and inform the provider that (i) the provider failed to substantially comply with the requirements of State or federal law or regulation or (ii) the Department has a credible allegation of fraud concerning the provider. Nothing in the subsection shall be construed to prohibit the Department from identifying the extrapolated overpayment amount in the same notice that meets the requirements of this subsection.

See the difference? Poof! The leaning Tower of Pisa is renovated!

Session Law 2014-100 retroactively became effective July 31, 2014. So, going forward, I can no longer argue that the TNO is not sufficient notice in order to throw out the first extrapolation.

However, I do have more arguments as to how DHHS is not complying with N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C-5 in an effort to throw out the extrapolation. There is more than one way to skin a cat! In fact, I am waiting for a decision from an ALJ on an innovative argument I made the last week.

Perhaps the leaning Tower of Pisa will lean a little more in the future despite the renovations…