Category Archives: Legislation
Effective Jan. 2, 2019, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) radically changed its guidance on the use of extrapolation in audits by Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs), Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), Unified Program Integrity Contractors (UPICs), and the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (SMRC).
Extrapolation is a veritable tsunami in Medicare/Medicaid audits. The auditor collects a small sample of claims to review for compliance, then determines the “error rate” of the sample. For example, if 500 claims are reviewed and one is found to be noncompliant for a total of $100, then the error rate is set at 20 percent. That error rate is applied to the universe, which is generally a three-year time period. It is assumed that the random sample is indicative of all your billings, regardless of whether you changed your billing system during that time period or maybe hired a different biller. In order to extrapolate an error rate, contractors must use a “statistically valid random sample” and then apply that error rate on a broader universe of claims, using “statistically valid methods.”
With extrapolated results, auditors allege millions of dollars of overpayments against healthcare providers – sometimes a sum of more than the provider even made during the relevant time period. It is an overwhelming impact that can put a provider and its company out of business.
Prior to this recent change to extrapolation procedure, the Program Integrity Manual (PIM) offered little guidance regarding the proper method for extrapolation.
Prior to 2019, CMS offered broad strokes with few details. Its guidance was limited to generally identifying the steps contractors should take: “a) selecting the provider or supplier; b) selecting the period to be reviewed; c) defining the universe, the sampling unit, and the sampling frame; d) designing the sampling plan and selecting the sample; e) reviewing each of the sampling units and determining if there was an overpayment or an underpayment; and, as applicable, f) estimating the overpayment.”
Well, Change Request 10067 overhauled extrapolation in a huge way.
The first modification to the extrapolation rules is that the PIM now dictates when extrapolation should be used.
Under the new guidance, a contractor “shall use statistical sampling when it has been determined that a sustained or high level of payment error exists. The use of statistical sampling may be used after a documented educational intervention has failed to correct the payment error.” This guidance now creates a three-tier structure:
- Extrapolation shall be used when a sustained or high level of payment error exists.
- Extrapolation may be used after documented educational intervention (such as in the Targeted Probe-and-Educate (TPE) program).
- It follows that extrapolation should not be used if there is not a sustained or high level of payment error or evidence that documented educational intervention has failed.
“High level of payment error” is defined as 50 percent or greater. The PIM also states that the contractor may review the provider’s past noncompliance for the same or similar billing issues or a historical pattern of noncompliant billing practice. This is critical because so many times providers simply pay the alleged overpayment amount if the amount is low or moderate in order to avoid costly litigation. Now, those past times that you simply paid the alleged amounts will be held against you.
Another monumental modification to RAC audits is that the RAC auditor now must receive authorization from CMS to go forward in recovering from the provider if the alleged overpayment exceeds $500,000 or is an amount that is greater than 25 percent of the provider’s Medicare revenue received within the previous 12 months.
The identification of the claims universe was also redefined. Even CMS admitted in the change request that, on occasion, “the universe may include items that are not utilized in the construction of the sample frame. This can happen for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to: a) some claims/claim lines are discovered to have been subject to a prior review; b) the definitions of the sample unit necessitate eliminating some claims/claim lines; or c) some claims/claim lines are attributed to sample units for which there was no payment.”
How many of you have been involved in an alleged overpayment in which the auditor misplaced or lost documents? I know I have. The new rule also states that the auditors must be able to recreate the sample and maintain all documentation pertinent to the calculation of an alleged overpayment.
High-volume providers should face a lower risk of extrapolation if their audited error rate is less than 50 percent and they do not have a history of noncompliance for the same or similar billing issues, or a historical pattern of noncompliant billing practice.
“Medicare for All” is the talk of the town. People are either strong proponents or avid naysayers. Most of the articles that I have seen that have discussed Medicare for All writes about it as if it is a medical diagnosis and “cure-all” for the health care disease debilitating our country. Others articles discuss the amount Medicare for All will cost the taxpayers.
I want to look at Medicare for All from a different perspective. I want to discuss Medicare for All from the health care providers’ perspectives – those who already accept Medicare and those who, currently, do not accept Medicare, but may be forced to accept Medicare under the proposed Medicare for All and the legality or illegality of it.
I want to explore the implementation of Medicare for All by using my personal dentist as an example. When I went to my dentist, Dr. L, today, who doesn’t accept Medicare or Medicaid, he was surprised to hear from the patient (me) in whom he was inserting a crown (after placing a long needle in my mouth to numb my mouth, causing great distress and pain) that he may be forced to accept Medicare in the near future. “I made the decision a long time ago to not accept Medicare or Medicaid,” he said. “Plus, Medicare doesn’t even cover dental services, does it?”
While Medicare doesn’t cover most dental care, dental procedures, or supplies, like cleanings, fillings, tooth extractions, dentures, dental plates, or other dental devices, Medicare Part A (Hospital Insurance) will pay for certain dental services that you get when you’re in a hospital. Part A can pay for inpatient hospital care if you need to have emergency or complicated dental procedures, even though the dental care isn’t covered. However, some Medicare Advantage Plans (Part C) offer extra benefits that original Medicare doesn’t cover – like vision, hearing, or dental. Theoretically, Medicare for All will cover dental services since Part C covers dental, although, there is a question as to how exactly Medicare for All will/would work. Who knows whether dental services would be included in Medicare for All – this is just an example. Insert any type of medical service in lieu of dental, if you wish.
Dr. L had made the decision not accept Medicaid or Medicare. He only accepts private pay or cash pay. If Medicare for All is implemented, Dr. L’s decision to not accept Medicare will no longer be his decision; it would be the government’s decision. The rates that Dr. L charges now and receives for reimbursements now could be slashed in half without Dr. L’s consent or business plan.
In a 2019 RAND study, researchers examined payment and claims data from 2015 to 2017 representing $13 billion in healthcare spending across 25 states at about 1,600 hospitals. The study showed that private insurers pay 235% of Medicare in 2015 to 241% of Medicare in 2017. The statistics differ state to state. In some states private pay reimbursed as low as 150% of Medicare, while in others private pay reimbursed up to 400% of Medicare.
To show how many providers are adverse to accepting Medicare: In 2000, nearly 80% of health care providers were taking new Medicare patients. By 2012, that number dropped to less than 60%. Currently, less than 40% of the health-care system are government run and nearly 33% of doctors won’t see new Medicaid patients. Medicare patients frequently have difficulty finding a new primary-care doctor.
My question is –
Is it legal for the government to force health care providers to accept Medicare rates by issuing a Medicare for All system?
An analogy would be that the government forced all attorneys to charge under $100/hour, or all airplane flights to be $100, or all restaurants to charge a flat fee that is determined by the government. Is this what our country has transformed into? A country in which the government determines the prices of services and products?
Let me be clear and and rebut what some readers will automatically think. This is not simply an anti-Medicare for All blog. Shoot, I’d love to get health care services for free. Instead, I am reviewing Medicare for All from a legal and constitutional perspective to discuss whether government implemented reimbursement rates will/would be legal. Or would government implemented reimbursement rates violate due process, the right to contract, the right to pursue a career, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and/or our country’s history of capitalism.
The consequences of accepting Medicare can be monumental. Going back to Dr. L, due to the massive decrease of reimbursement rates under Medicare, he may be forced to downsize his staff, stop investing in high tech devices to advance the practice of dentistry, take less of a salary, and, perhaps, work more to offset the reimbursement rate reduction.
Not to mention the immense regulatory oversight, including audits, documentation productions, possible suspensions of Medicare contracts or accusations of credible allegations of fraud that comes hand in hand with accepting Medicare.
I don’t think there is one particular law that would allow or prohibit Medicare for All requiring health care providers to accept Medicare reimbursements, even against their will. Although I do think there is potential for a class action lawsuit on behalf of health care providers who have decided to not accept Medicare if they are forced to accept Medicare in the future.
I do not believe that Medicare for All will ever be implemented. Just think of a world in which there is no need for private insurance companies…a utopia, right? But the private health care insurance companies have enough money and enough sway to keep Medicare for All at bay. Hospitals and the Hospital Association will also have some input regardless the implementation of Medicare for All. Most hospitals claim that, under Medicare for All, they would close.
Regardless the conversation is here and will, most likely, be a highly contested issue in our next election.
Let’s talk targeted probe-and-educate (“TPE”) audits – again.
I received quite a bit of feedback on my RACMonitor article regarding Medicare TPE audits being a “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.” So, I decided to delve into more depth by contacting providers who reached out to me to discuss specific issues. My intent is to shed the sheep’s clothing and show the big, pointy ears, big, round eyes, and big, sharp teeth that the MACs will hear, see, and eat you through the Medicare TPE audits. So, call the Woodsman, arm yourself with a hatchet, and get ready to be prepared for TPE audits. I cannot stress enough the importance of being proactive.
The very first way to rebut a TPE audit is to challenge the reason you were selected, which includes challenging the data supporting the reason that you were chosen. A poor TPE audit can easily result in termination of your Medicare contract, so it is imperative that you are prepared and appeal adverse results. 42 C.F.R. § 424.535, “Revocation of enrollment in the Medicare program” outlines the reasons for termination. Failing the audit process – even if the results are incorrect – can result in termination of your Medicare contract. Be prepared and appeal.
In 2014, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) began the TPE program that combines a review of a sample of claims with “education” to allegedly reduce errors in the Medicare claims submission process; however, it took years to get the program off the ground. But off the ground it is. It seems, however, that CMS pushed the TPE program off the ground and then allowed the MACs to dictate the terms. CMS claims that the results of the TPE program are favorable, basing its determination of success on the decrease in the number of claim errors after providers receive education. But providers undergoing the TPE audit process face tedious and burdensome deadlines to submit documents and to undergo the “education” process. These 45-day deadlines to submit documents are not supported by federal law or regulation; they are arbitrary deadlines. Yet, these deadlines must be met by the providers or the MACs will aver a 0% accuracy. Private payors may create and enforce arbitrary deadlines; they don’t have to follow federal Medicare regulations. But Medicare and Medicaid auditors must obey federal regulations. A quick search on Westlaw confirms that no provider has challenged the MACs’ TPE rules, at least, litigiously.
The TPE process begins by the MAC selecting a CPT/HCPC code and a provider. This selection process is a mystery. How the MACs decide to audit sleep studies versus chemotherapy administration or a 93675 versus a 93674 remains to be seen. According to one health care provider, which has undergone multiple TPE audits and has Noridian Healthcare Solutions as its MAC informed me that, at times, they may have 4 -5 TPE audits ongoing at the same time. CMS has touted that TPE audits do not overlap claims or cause the providers to undergo redundant audits. But if a provider bills numerous CPT codes, the provider can undergo multiple TPE audits concurrently, which is clearly not the intent of the TPE audits, in general. The provider has questioned ad nauseam the data analysis that alerted Noridian to assign the TPE to them in the first place. Supposedly, MACs target providers with claim activity that contractors deem as unusual. The usual TPE notification letter contains a six-month comparison table purportedly demonstrating the paid amount and number of claims for a particular CPT/HCPC code, but its accuracy is questionable. See below.
This particular provider ran its own internal reports, and regardless of how many different ways this provider re-calculated the numbers, the provider could not figure out the numbers the TPE letter was alleging they were billing. But, because of the short turnaround deadlines and harsh penalties for failing to adhere to these deadlines, this provider has been unable to challenge the MAC’s comparison table. The MACs have yet to share its algorithm or computer program used to govern (a) which provider to target; (b) what CPT code to target; and (c) how it determines the paid amount and number of claims.
Pushing back on the original data on which the MACs supposedly relied upon to initially target you is an important way to defend yourself against a TPE audit. Unmask the wolf from the beginning. If you can debunk the reason for the TPE audit in the first place, the rest of the findings of the TPE audit cannot be valid. It is the classic “fruit of the poisonous tree” argument. Yet according to a quick search on Westlaw, no provider has appealed the reason for selection yet. For example, in the above image, the MAC compared one CPT code (78452) for this particular provider for dates of services January 1, 2017, through June 30, 2017, and then compared those claims to dates July 1, 2017, through December 31, 2017. Why? How is a comparison of the first half of a year to a second end of a year even relevant to your billing compliance? Before an independent tribunal, this chart, as supposed evidence of wrongdoing, would be thrown out as ridiculous. The point is – the MACs are using similar, yet irrelevant charts as proof of alleged, aberrant billing practices.
Another way to defend yourself is to contest the auditors/surveyors background knowledge. Challenging the knowledge of the nurse reviewer(s) and questioning the denial rate in relation to your TPE denials can also be successful. I had a dentist-client who was audited by a dental hygienist. Not to undermine the intelligence of a dental hygienist, but you can understand the awkwardness of a dental hygienist questioning a dentist’s opinion of the medical necessity of a service. If the auditor/surveyor lacks the same level of education of the health care provider, an independent tribunal will defer to the more educated and experienced decisions. This same provider kept a detailed timeline of their interactions with the hygienist reviewer(s), which included a summary of the conversations. Significantly, notes of conversations with the auditor/surveyor would normally not be allowed as evidence in a Court of law due to the hearsay rules. However, contemporaneous notes of conversations written in close time proximity of the conversation fall within a hearsay exception and can be admitted.
Pushing back on the MACs and/or formally appealing the MAC’s decisions are/is extremely important in getting the correct denial rate. If your appeal is favorable, the MACs will take into your appeal results into account and will factor the appeal decision into the denial rate.
The upshot is – do not accept the sheep’s clothing. Understand that you are under target during this TPE “educational” audit. Understand how to defend yourself and do so. Call the Woodsman. Get the hatchet.
HIPAA mandates the privacy of private health care records. HIPAA is a serious issue, both financially and in the risk-management aspect, for health care providers. Providers need to delegate annual funds to the defense of regulatory audits proactively – before the actual adverse action occurs. Because it’s not an “if;” it’s a “when,” when you accept Medicare/caid. In the Medicare/caid world, HIPAA violations can catastrophically render a company dead for an infraction. In the current days of technical, daily advances and allegations of cybersecurity breaches, health care providers must be cognizant of cyber criminals, their intent, their modus operandi, and what personal/company information is valuable to such criminals. The HIPAA statutes are vague and lack detailed explanations as to penalties.
In 2018, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a record-breaking $28 million in fines for HIPAA violations. The number of health care providers currently under investigation by HHS, in 2019, will be another record-breaking number.
As more and more data is maintained on computer systems, the more and more accessible the information becomes to potential scammers. In 2017, the number of cyber attacks increased exponentially to 5,207. There is actually an itemization as to how many of the attacks were germane to health care; health care breaches accounted for 8.5% of all breaches. 2.3 billion health care records have been exposed. This isn’t new. In 2015, the most healthcare records ever were breached. 113 million healthcare records were exposed that year. Now, in 2019, we may witness an all-time-high.
Human error is the number 1 reason for HIPAA violations. Employees gossiping and disclosing private health care information among each other is another culprit, along with social media and lack of training.
The largest individual HIPAA settlement was reached in October 2018, when OCR fined health insurer Anthem $16 million.
The oxymoron is that the government (Medicare/caid) and private payors are pushing for collaborative health care and the sharing of health care records amongst varying providers. Yet the possible HIPAA breaches increase with collaboration.
In April 2019, HHS randomly selected 9 HIPAA-covered entities—a mix of health plans and clearinghouses—for Compliance Reviews. The CMS Division of National Standards, on behalf of HHS, has launched a volunteer Provider Pilot Program to test the compliance review process.
The Trump administration has interpreted HIPAA penalties differently than the Obama administration did. Now HHS will apply a different cumulative annual CMP limit for the four penalties tiers in the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act.
There are four tiers of HIPAA violation severity outlined in the HITECH Act, based on the violator’s level of culpability:
Under the Obama administration, the annual limit for each tier was $1.5 million.
HIPAA penalties are appealable and with the disparate amount of penalties, it is well worth the time and expense to appeal.
“Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law this week a bill (SB41) that ensures service providers accused of overbilling or defrauding Medicaid can review and respond to allegations of wrongdoing before state action is taken.” – Tripp Jennings, New Mexico In Depth.
For those of you who don’t know, in 2013, the State of New Mexico, suspended the Medicaid reimbursements of 15 behavioral health care providers based on “credible allegations of fraud.” 42 CFR 455.23. The Attorney General eventually determined that no fraud existed as to ANY of the 15 behavioral health care providers. These providers constituted 87.5% of the behavioral health care providers in New Mexico, which is predominantly Medicaid and has the highest suicide rate of any state, if you consider the Native American population.
There was no due process. The providers were informed of the immediate Medicaid suspension in a group meeting without ever being told what exactly the “fraud” was that they allegedly committed. They were informed by, then assistant Attorney General, Larry Hyeck, that fraud existed and because of the ongoing investigation nothing could be divulged to those accused. Supposedly, the evidence for such “fraud” was based on an independent audit performed by Public Consulting Group (PCG). However, according to testimony from an employee of PCG at the administrative hearing of The Counseling Center (one of the 15 accused behavioral health care providers), PCG was not allowed by the Human Services Department of NM (HSD) to complete its audit. According to this employee’s testimony, it is PCG’s common practice to return to the providers which are the subject of the audit a 2nd or even 3rd time to ensure that all the relevant documents were collected and reviewed. Human error and the sheer amount of medical records involved in behavioral health care suggest that a piece of paper or two can be overlooked, especially because this audit occurred in 2013, before most of the providers had adopted electronic medical record systems. Add in the fact that PCG’s scanners were less than stellar and that the former Governor Susan Martinez, Optum’s CEO, and the HSD Secretary -at the time- had already vetted 5 Arizona companies to overtake the 15 NM behavioral health care companies – even prior to PCG’s determination – and the sum equals a pre-determined accusation of fraud. PCG’s initial report stated that no credible allegations of fraud existed. However, PCG was instructed to remove that sentence.
Almost all the providers were forced out of business. The staff were terminated or told to be employed by the new 5 AZ companies. The Medicaid recipients lost their mental health services. One company remained in business because they paid the State for fraud that they never committed. Another company held on by a very thin thread because of its developmental disability services. But the former-CEO became taxed and stepped down and many more left or were let go. The 13 other providers were financially ruined, including the largest behavioral health care provider in NM, which serviced over 700 Medicaid recipients and employed hundreds of clinical staff. It had been servicing NM’s poor and those in need of mental health services for over 30 years. Another company had been in business over 40 years (with the same CEO). The careers and live’s work were crumbled in one day and by one accusation that was eventually proven to be wrong.
No one ever foresaw this amount of abuse of discretion to occur by government agents.
Now, today, in 2019, the new Governor of NM, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, signed a law introduced by Senator Mary Kay Papen, a long proponent and advocate that the 15 behavioral health care providers were unjustly accused and forced out of business, that will protect Medicaid providers in NM from ever being subjected to the unjust and arbitrary suspension of Medicaid funds and unfounded allegations of Medicaid fraud.
Even though 42 C.F.R. 455.23 requires a state to suspend Medicaid funding upon “credible allegations of fraud,” NM has taken the first step toward instituting a safeguard for Medicaid providers. Already too few health care providers accept Medicaid – and who can blame them? The low reimbursement rates are nothing compared to the regulatory scrutiny that they undergo merely for accepting Medicaid.
NM SB41 contradicts the harsh language of 42 CFR 455.23, which mandates that a State “must” suspend payments upon a credible allegation of fraud. NM SB41 provides due process for Medicaid providers accused of fraud. Which begs the question – why hasn’t anyone brought a declaratory action to determine that 42 CFR 455.23 violates due process, which happens to be a constitutional right?
Part of the due process enacted by New Mexico is that a suspension of Medicaid reimbursements should be released upon a post of a surety bond and that the posting of a surety bond shall be deemed good cause to not suspend payments during the investigation. Although the new law also states that the Medicaid reimbursement suspension must be released within 10 days of the posting of the surety bond “in the amount of the suspended payment.” After 4 administrative hearings in New Mexico, I can assure you that the provider and HSD will have two disparate views of the “amount of the suspended payment.” And by disparate, I mean REALLY disparate.
Regardless, I view this new law as a giant leap in the direction of the Constitution, which was actually enacted in 1789. So is it apropos that 230 years later NM is forced to enact a law that upholds a legal right that was written and enacted into law 230 years ago?
Thank you, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Senator Papen, Patsy Romero, and Shawn Mathis for your amazing effort on getting this legislation passed.
And – look forward to my webcast on RACMonitor on Monday, April 8, 2019, detailing how courts across the country are revising their views and granting federal injunctions stopping premature recoupments when a Medicare/caid provider is accused of an overpayment. Due process is on a come-back.
We have had parity laws between mental and physical health care services on the books for years. Regardless of the black letter law, mental health health care services have been treated with stigma, embarrassment, and of lesser importance than physical health care services. A broken leg is easily proven by an X-Ray; whereas a broken mind is less obvious.
In an unprecedented Decision ripe with scathing remarks against Optum/United Behavioral Health’s (UBH) actions, a Court recently ruled that UBH improperly denied mental health services to insureds and that those improper denials were financially-driven. A slap-on-the-wrist, this Decision was not. More of a public whipping.
In a 106-page opinion, the US District Court, Northern District of California, slammed UBH in a blistering decision finding that UBH purposely and improperly denied behavioral health care benefits to thousands of mentally ill insureds by utilizing overly restrictive guidelines. This is a HUGE win for the mental health community, which often does not receive the parity of services (of physical health) that it is legally is entitled. U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero spared no political correctness in his mordacious written opinion, which is rarity in today’s vitriolic world.
The Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), saying the insurer denied benefits in violation of the terms of their insurance plans and state law. The Plaintiffs consisted of participants in UBH health care plans and who were denied mental health care services.
Judge Spero found United Behavioral’s guidelines were influenced by financial incentives concerning fully-funded and self-funded ERISA plans:
“While the incentives related to fully insured and self-funded plans are not identical, with respect to both types of plan UBH has a financial interest in keeping benefit expense down … [A]ny resulting shortcomings in its Guideline development process taints its decision-making as to both categories of plan because UBH maintains a uniform set of Guidelines for fully insured and self-funded plans … Instead of insulating its Guideline developers from these financial pressures, UBH has placed representatives of its Finance and Affordability Departments in key roles in the Guidelines development process throughout the class period.”
Surprisingly, this decision came out of California, which is notoriously socially-driven. Attorneys generally avert their eyes when opinions come from the 9th District.
Judge Spero found that UBH violated “generally accepted standards of care” to administer requests for benefits.
The Court found that “many mental health and substance use disorders are long-term and chronic.” It also found that, in questionable instances, the insurance company should err on the caution of placing the patient in a higher level of care. The Court basically cited the old adage – “Better safe than sorry,” which seems a pretty darn good idea when you are talking about mental health. Just ask Ted Bundy.
Even though the Wit Decision involved private pay insurance, the Court repeatedly cited to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Manual. For example, the Court stated that “the CMS Manual explains, [f]or many . . . psychiatric patients, particularly those with long-term, chronic conditions, control of symptoms and maintenance of a functional level to avoid further deterioration or hospitalization is an acceptable expectation of improvement.” It also quoted ASAM criteria as generally accepted standards, as well as LOCUS, which tells me that the law interprets the CMS Manual, ASAM criteria, and LOCUS as “generally accepted standards,” and not UBH’s or any other private pay insurance’s arbitrary standards. In fact, the Court actually stated that its decision was influenced by the fact that UBH’s adopted many portions of CMS’ Manual, but drafted the language in a more narrow way to ensure more denials of mental health benefits.
The Court emphasized the importance of ongoing care instead of acute care that ceases upon the end of the acute crisis. The denial of ongoing care was categorized as a financial decision. The Court found that UBH’s health care policy “drove members to lower levels of care even when treatment of the member’s overall and/or co-occurring conditions would have been more effective at the higher level of care.”
The Wit decision will impact us in so many ways. For one, if a State Medicaid program limits mental health services beyond what the CMS Manual, ASAM criteria, or LOCUS determines, then providers (and beneficiaries) have a strong legal argument that the State Medicaid criteria do not meet generally accepted standards. Even more importantly, if the State Medicaid policies do NOT limit mental health care services beyond what the CMS Manual, ASAM criteria, and LOCUS defines, but an agent of the State Medicaid Division; i.e, a managed care organization (MCO) deny mental health care services that would be considered appropriate under the generally accepted standards, then, again, both providers and beneficiaries would have strong legal arguments overturning those denials.
I, for one, hope this is a slippery slope…in the right direction.
No, this is not a Shakespearean blog post. The Hamlet in this case is not the Prince of Denmark; it is a hospital system who hired a doctor, Dr. Hernandez as an independent contractor and whose private practice flopped. When the hospital at which he had privileges refused to hire him as an employee, Hernandez sued Hamlet under the False Claims Act (FCA) and Unfair Trade Practices- AND WON!!
Relationships between hospitals and physicians may forever be changed.
In an October 2018 decision, Hamlet H.M.A., LLC V. Hernandez, the NC Court of Appeals ruled that a hospital can be liable to a physician for Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices (UDTP) – causing a new level of care to be needed in negotiations between hospitals and physicians.
Dr. Hernandez accepted a position with Sandhills Regional Medical Center. The original offer was for Dr. Hernandez to set up his own independent practice and to be an independent contractor for the hospital. The offer guaranteed a minimum collection amount for the first 18 months of the 36-month contract. The base salary was $325,000, with a bonus based on worked RVUs. Dr. Hernandez countered and asked to be considered as an employee instead of as an independent contractor. Sandhills sent an email offering a base salary of $275,000 as an employee. As any reasonable, logical person would do, Dr. Hernandez responded with an email stating that it would be irrational to accept a base salary so much lower in order to obtain employee status. The hospital offered an “employee status option” at the end of 18 months.
Dr. Hernandez then sent Sandhills an email asking to extend the time period of guaranteed income to 24 months, rather than 18 months. Plaintiff replied that it could not extend the period of guaranteed income, but raised the monthly salary from $47,616.82 to $49,500.00 and also added a signing bonus of $30,000.00. After further negotiations, the parties entered into a Physician Recruitment Agreement on March 9, 2011.
Dr. Hernandez’s private practice flopped, and at the end of the first 18-month period, he requested to exercise the employment option in his contract and to become an employee of Sandhills. But Sandhills did not give Dr. Hernandez an employment contract.
On August 29, 2014, Sandhills filed a complaint against Dr. Hernandez alleging breach of contract and demanding repayment of the entire amount paid to Dr. Hernandez, a total of 21 payments amounting to $902,259.66. Dr. Hernandez filed an answer with counterclaims for breach of contract, fraud, unfair or deceptive trade practices, and unjust enrichment. A jury trial was held in Superior Court in Richmond County at the end of August and the beginning of September 2016. The jury returned a verdict for Sandhills for $334,341.14 (a random number).
Dr. Hernandez countered sued the hospital for Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices (UDTP) alleging that the hospital fraudulently induced him to enter into the contract with the hospital as an independent contractor. His allegations that the hospital violated UDTP because the hospital offered a lower salary to be considered an employee was shocking and unprecedented. Most likely, Sandhills never even contemplated that it could be held liable under UDTP because of a disparity in salary offered to Dr. Hernandez depending on his employment status. Most likely, the man or woman who sent the email to Dr. Hernandez with the disparate salaries never asked its general counsel whether the action could penalize the hospital. Who would have thought to?
One exception to UDTP is the “learned profession” exception. Basically, the courts have held that if the two parties to an agreement are learned professionals and the topic of the contract has to do with the parties’ speciality; i.e, medicine, in this case, then the parties cannot allege UDTP because both parties were knowledgeable. The issue of first impression presented by Hamlet is whether the “learned profession” exception set forth in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 75-1.1(b) applies to a dispute between a physician and a hospital relating to alleged false claims made by the hospital to induce the physician to enter into an employment contract. If the learned profession exception were to apply, then Dr. Hernandez’s UDTP claim against Sandhill would be dismissed.
Dr. Hernandez alleged that the hospital made false representations to induce him to enter into a contract. The Court held that the fact that he is a physician does not change the nature of the negotiation of a business contract. The Court found that the “learned profession” exception does not apply to any negotiation just because the two parties are physicians. For example, if a physician and a hospital were to contract to buy a beach house, then the exception would not apply because the nature of the contract (were something go awry and cause an UDTP lawsuit) because buying a beach house has nothing to do with being a physician or hospital. Similarly, here, the Court held that an employment contract had nothing to do with rendering medicine. Therefore, the exception did not apply. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s directed verdict against Dr. Hernandez.
This decision definitely creates more tension between hospitals and physicians. Now, in negotiations with employees and independent contractors, hospitals need to be mindful that UDTP claims can be alleged against them. This case is recent precedent for an unfamiliar modern world of health care negotiations.
So many memos, so little time. Federal prosecutors receive guidance on how to prosecute. Maybe “guidance” is too loose a term. There is a manual to follow, and memos are just guidance until the memos are incorporated into what is known as the Justice Manual. Memos are not as binding as the Justice Manual, but memos are persuasive. For the last 22 years, the Justice Manual has not been revised to reflect the many, many memos that have been drafted to direct prosecutors on how to proceed. Until recently…
Justice Manual Revised
The Justice Manual, which is the manual that instructs federal prosecutors how to proceed in cases of Medicare and Medicaid fraud, has been revised for the first time since 1997. The Justice Manual provides internal Department of Justice (DOJ) rules.
The DOJ has new policies for detecting Medicare and Medicaid fraud and abuse. Some of these policies are just addendums to old policies. Or formal acceptance to old memos. Remember the Yates Memo? The Yates Memo directed prosecutors to indict executives, individually, of fraudulent companies instead of just going after the company.
The Yates Memo has now been codified into the Justice Manual.
Then came the Granston Memo – In a January 10, 2018, memo (the “Granston Memo”), the DOJ directed its prosecutors to more seriously consider dismissing meritless False Claims Act (“FCA”) cases brought by whistleblowers. It lists 7 (non-exhaustive) criteria for determining whether the DOJ should dismiss a qui tam lawsuit. The reasoning behind the Granston Memo is that whistleblower lawsuits have risen over 600 cases per year, but the government’s involvement has not mirrored the raise. This may indicate that many of the whistleblower lawsuits are frivolous and filed for the purpose of financial gain, even if the money is not warranted. Remember qui tam relators (people who bring lawsuits against those who mishandle tax dollars, are rewarded monetarily for their efforts…and, usually, the reward is not a de minimus amount. In turn, people are incentivized to identify fraud and abuse against the government. At least, according to the Granston Memo, the financial incentive works too well and frivolous lawsuits are too prevalent.
The Granston Memo has also been codified into the Justice Manual.
Talk about an oxymoron…the Yates Memo instructs prosecutors to pursue claims against more people, especially those in the executive positions for acts of the company. The Granston Memo instructs prosecutors to more readily dismiss frivolous FCA allegations. “You’re a wigwam. You’re a teepee. Calm down, you’re just two tents (too tense).” – a horrible joke that my husband often quips. But this horrible quote is apropos to describe the mixed messages from DOJ regarding Medicare and Medicaid fraud and abuse.
The Brand Memo, yet another memo that we saw come out of CMS, instructs prosecutors not to use noncompliance as subject to future DOJ enforcement actions. In other words, agency guidance does not cannot create binding legal requirements. Going forward, the DOJ will not enforce recommendations found in agency guidance documents in civil actions. Relatedly, DOJ will not use noncompliance with agency guidance to “presumptively or conclusively” establish violations of applicable law or regulations in affirmative civil enforcement cases.
The Brand Memo was not incorporated into the Justice Manual. It also was not repudiated.
Medicare/caid Audit Targets Broadened
Going forward, traditional health care providers will not be the only targets – Medicare Advantage plan, EHR companies, and private equity owners – will all be audited and reviewed for fraud and abuse. Expect more audits with wider nets to catch non-provider targets to increase now that the Yates Memo was codified into the Justice Manual.
Anti-Kickback Statute, Stark Law, and HIPAA Narrowed
The Stark Law (42 U.S.C. 1395nn) and the Anti-Kickback Statute (42 U.S.C. §1320a‑7b(b)) exist to minimize unneeded or over-utilization of health-care services payable by the federal government. Stark Law and the Anti-Kickback regulations criminalize, impose civil monetary penalties, or impose other legal sanctions (such as termination from Medicare) against health care providers and other individuals who violate these laws. These laws are esoteric (which is one reason that I have a job) and require careful navigation by specialized legal counsel. Accidental missteps, even minute documentation errors, can lead to harsh and expensive results.
In a health care world in which collaboration among providers is being pushed and recommended, the Anti-Kickback, Stark, and HIPAA laws are antiquated and fail to recognize the current world. Existing federal health-care fraud and abuse laws create a “silo effect” that requires mapping and separating financial interests of health-care providers in order to ensure that patient referrals cannot be tainted by self-interest. Under Stark, a strict liability law, physicians cannot make a referral for the provision of “designated health services” to an entity with which they have a financial relationship (unless one of approximately 30 exceptions applies). In other words, for example, a hospital cannot refer patients to the home health care company that the hospital owns.
Going forward – and this has not happened yet – regulators and the Department will begin to claw back some of the more strict requirements of the Stark, Anti-Kickback, and HIPAA regulations to decrease the “silo effect” and allow providers to collaborate more on an individual’s whole health method. I had an example of this changing of the tide recently with my broken leg debacle. See blog. After an emergency surgery on my leg by an orthopedic surgeon because of a contracted infection in my wound, my primary care physician (PCP) called to check on me. My PCP had nothing to do with my leg surgery, or, to my knowledge, was never informed of it. But because of new technology that allows patient’s records to be accessed by multiple providers in various health care systems or practices, my PCP was informed of my surgery and added it to my chart. This never could have happened 20 years ago. But this sharing of medical records with other providers could have serious HIPAA implications if some restrictions of HIPAA are not removed.
In sum, if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the Justice Manual in a while, now would be an appropriate time to do so since it has been revised for the first time in 22 years. This blog does not enumerate all the revisions to the Justice Manual. So it is important that you are familiar with the changes…or know someone who is.
New Hampshire hospitals have joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a lawsuit against the State of New Hampshire over the boarding of mental health patients in hospital emergency rooms.
In November 2018, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit in NH federal court asking the court to order the cease of the practice of “psychiatric boarding,” in which mental health patients are held sometimes against their will and without due process in hospital emergency rooms throughout New Hampshire as they await admission to the state psychiatric hospital, often for weeks at a time. This is not only a New Hampshire problem. This is a problem in every state. The hospitals want the practice abolished because, in most cases of severe mental illness, the patient is unemployed and uninsured. There are not enough psychiatric beds to hold the amount of mentally ill consumers.
Many psychiatric patients rely on Medicaid, but due to the Institution for Mental Disease (IMD) exclusion, Medicaid does not cover the cost of care for patients 21 to 64 years of age (when Medicare kicks in) at inpatient psychiatric or addiction treatment facilities with a capacity greater than 16 beds. This rule makes it difficult for states to fund larger inpatient psychiatric hospitals, which further exacerbates the psychiatric boarding crisis.
The emergency rooms (ER) have become the safety net for mental health. The two most common diagnoses at an ER is alcohol abuse and suicidal tendencies. There has been a sharp increase in ER visits for the people suffering from mental health issues in the recent years. Are we as a population growing more depressed?
It is very frustrating to be in a hospital without the allowance to leave. But that is what psychiatric boarding is – patients present to an ER in crisis and because there is no bed for them at a psychiatric hospital, the patient is held at the hospital against their will until a bed opens up. No psychiatric care is rendered at the ER. It is just a waiting game, which is not fun for the people enduring it.
I recently encountered a glimpse into how it feels to be stuck at a hospital without the ability to leave. On a personal level, although not dealing with mental health but with hospitals in general, I recently broke my leg. I underwent surgery and received 6 screws and a plate in my leg. Around Christmas I became extremely ill from an infection in my leg. After I passed out at my home due to an allergic reaction to my medication which caused an epileptic seizure, my husband called EMS and I was transported to the hospital. Because it was the day after Christmas, the staff was light. I was transported to a hospital that had no orthopedic surgeon on call. (Akin to a mental health patient presenting at an ER – there are no psychiatric residents at most hospitals). Because no orthopedic surgeon was on call, I was transported to a larger hospital and underwent emergency surgery for the infection. I stayed at the hospital for 5 of the longest days of my life. Not because I still needed medical treatment, but because the orthopedic surgeon had taken off for vacation between Christmas and New Year’s. Without the orthopedic’s authorization that I could leave the hospital I was stuck there unless I left against medical advice. Finally, at what seemed to be at his leisurely time, the orthopedic surgeon came back to work the afternoon of January 1, 2019, and I was able to leave the hospital… but not without a few choice words from yours truly. I can tell you without any reservation that I was not a stellar patient those last couple days when I felt well enough to leave but there was no doctor present to allow it.
I imagine how I felt those last couple days in the hospital is how mentally ill patients feel while they are being held until a bed at a psychiatric unit opens up. It must be so frustrating. It certainly cannot be ameliorating any presenting mental health condition. In my case, I had no mental health issues but once I felt like I was being held against my will, mental health issues started to arise from my anger.
A shortage of psychiatric inpatient beds is a key contributing factor to overcrowded ERs across the nation. Between 1970 and 2006, state and county psychiatric inpatient facilities in the country cut capacity from about 400,000 beds to fewer than 50,000.
A study conducted by Wake Forest University found that ER stays for mental health issues are approximately 3.2 times longer stays than for physical reasons.
ER visits rose by nearly 15% between 2006 and 2014, according to the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project. Over the same time period, ER visits associated with mental health and substance abuse shot up by nearly 44%.
Hopefully if the NH Hospital Association is successful in its lawsuit, other states will follow suit and file a lawsuit. I am not sure where the mentally ill will go if they do not remain at the ER. Perhaps this lawsuit and others that follow will force states to change the current Medicaid laws that do not allow mental health coverage for those over 21 years old. With the mental health and physical health Americans with Disabilities’ parity laws, I do not know why someone hasn’t challenged the constitutionality of the IMD exclusion.
Obtaining injunctions against the government is the best part of my job. I love it. I thrive on it. Whenever there is a reduction in Medicare/caid reimbursements rates, I secretly hope someone hires me to get an injunction to increase the reimbursement rates. But injunctions are expensive. So I am always happy whenever a provider obtains an injunction against the government, even if I were not hired to obtain it.
On December 27, 2018, Judge Rudolph Contreras, United States District Judge, ordered the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) to increase the Medicare reimbursements rates for outpatient drugs under the 340B Drug Program. A permanent injunction!!!
In November 2017, HHS reduced the Medicare reimbursement rates for outpatient drugs acquired through the 340B Program from average sales price (“ASP”) plus 6% to ASP minus 22.5%. Medicare Program: Hospital Outpatient Prospective Payment and Ambulatory Surgical Center Payment Systems and Quality Reporting Programs, 82 Fed. Reg. 33,558, 33,634 (Jul. 20, 2017) (codified at 42 C.F.R. pt. 419).
HHS reduced Medicare reimbursements worth billions of dollars to private institutions. HHS has the authority to set Medicare reimbursement rates. But one should question a 30% reduction. Drug prices haven’t dropped.
Plaintiff – the American Hospital Association (AHA) – sued HHS when HHS cut outpatient pharmaceuticals by 30%. HHS contends that the rate adjustment was statutorily authorized and necessary to close the gap between the discounted rates at which Plaintiffs obtain the drugs at issue—through Medicare’s “340B Program”—and the higher rates at which Plaintiffs were previously reimbursed for those drugs under a different Medicare framework.
AHA asked the Court to vacate the HHS’ rate reduction, require HHS to apply previous reimbursement rates for the remainder of this year, and require HHS to pay Plaintiffs the difference between the reimbursements they have received this year under the new rates and the reimbursements they would have received under the previous rates.
HHS argued that AHA failed to exhaust its administrative remedies. See blog.
What is the 340B Drug Program?
In 1992, Congress established what is now commonly referred to as the “340B Program.” Veterans Health Care Act of 1992, Pub L. No. 102-585, § 602, 106 Stat. 4943, 4967–71. The 340B Program allows participating hospitals and other health care providers (“covered entities”) to purchase certain “covered outpatient drugs” from manufacturers at or below the drugs’ “maximum” or “ceiling” prices, which are dictated by a statutory formula and are typically significantly discounted from those drugs’ average manufacturer prices. See 42 U.S.C. § 256b(a)(1)–(2).3 Put more simply, this Program “imposes ceilings on prices drug manufacturers may charge for medications sold to specified health care facilities.” Astra USA, Inc. v. Santa Clara Cty., 563 U.S. 110, 113 (2011). It is intended to enable covered entities “to stretch scarce Federal resources as far as possible, reaching more eligible patients and providing more comprehensive services.” H.R. Rep. No. 102-384(II), at 12 (1992); see also Medicare Program: Hospital Outpatient Prospective Payment System and Ambulatory Surgical Center Payment Systems and Quality Reporting Programs (“2018 OPPS Rule”), 82 Fed. Reg. 52,356, 52,493 & 52,493 n.18 (Nov. 13, 2017) (codified at 42 C.F.R. pt. 419). Importantly, and as discussed in greater detail below, the 340B Program allows covered entities to purchase certain drugs at steeply discounted rates, and then seek reimbursement for those purchases under Medicare Part B at the rates established by OPPS.
HHS provided a detailed explanation of why it believed this rate reduction was necessary. First, HHS noted that several recent studies have confirmed the large “profit” margin created by the difference between the price that hospitals pay to acquire 340B drugs and the price at which Medicare reimburses those drugs. Second, HHS stated that because of this “profit” margin, HHS was “concerned that the current payment methodology may lead to unnecessary utilization and potential over-utilization of separately payable drugs.” It cited, as an example of this phenomenon, a 2015 Government Accountability Office Report finding that Medicare Part B drug spending was substantially higher at 340B hospitals than at non-340B hospitals. The data indicated that “on average, beneficiaries at 340B . . . hospitals were either prescribed more drugs or more expensive drugs than beneficiaries at the other non-340B hospitals in GAO’s analysis.” Id. at 33,633. Third, HHS expressed concern “about the rising prices of certain drugs and that Medicare beneficiaries, including low-income seniors, are responsible for paying 20 % of the Medicare payment rate for these drugs,” rather than the lower 340B rate paid by the covered hospitals.
The Court found that Plaintiff – AHA – did not need to exhaust its administrative remedies because there was no administrative remedy to exhaust. HHS had ruled that 340B drugs were to be recompensed at 30% lower rates. There is no appeal route for a rule made. There is no reconsideration review of a rule made. Therefore, the Court found that exhaustion of administrative remedies would be futile because no administrative remedies existed.
But the most important finding the Court made was that the 30% reduction in Medicare reimbursement rates for 340B drugs was arbitrary, capricious and outside the Secretary’s legal scope. The Court made the brash decision to determine the reimbursement rate for 340B drugs was arbitrary, but could not decide a remedy.
A remedy for an erroneous rule is to strike the rule and have the government repay the 340B drug reimbursements at the amount that should have been paid. But the Court does not order this. Instead the Court asks for each side to brief what remedy they think should be used. They have 30 days to brief their side.