Category Archives: Medicaid Investigations Division
OIG Finds Questionable Billing! California Medicaid Dentists: Expect Withholdings or Other Penalties!
Currently, dentists who accept Medicaid are ripe for pickings as targets for regulatory audits from both the federal and state governments. Actually, this is true for any provider that accepts Medicaid. It just happens that, recently, I have noticed an uptick in dental audits both in North Carolina and nationwide. Some dentists, who accept pregnancy Medicaid, may even bear the burden of determining pregnancy prior to a teeth cleaning…however, that is a topic for another day. Although, I tell you what, if my dentist asked whether I were pregnant prior to cleaning my teeth, he may have an abnormally red cheek the remainder of the day and I may join Crossfit.
Generally, dentists tend to not accept Medicaid. The reimbursement rates barely cover overhead. Add high regulatory compliance requirements, the likelihood of undergoing audits, and the government’s robust and zealous desire to tackle fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA), and it is no wonder why most dentists opt to not accept Medicaid. See blog. And blog.
Those dentists (and other providers) that do make the decision to accept Medicaid, these brave and noble souls, are subject to onerous audits; the result of a recent California audit is probably sending shock waves through the California dental community.
335 dental providers in California have been targeted by OIG as having questionable billing issues. Sadly, this is only the beginning for these 335 providers. Now the state will audit the providers, and these 335 providers may very well become the subject of a payment withhold in the near future.
What will happen next?
I will look into my crystal ball, otherwise known as experience, and let you know.
First, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently published a report called: “QUESTIONABLE BILLING FOR MEDICAID PEDIATRIC DENTAL SERVICES IN CALIFORNIA.”
One can only imagine by the title that OIG found alleged questionable billing. Otherwise the title may have been, “A Study into Medicaid Billing for Medicaid Pediatric Dental Services,” instead of “Questionable Billing.” With such a leading title, a reader knows the contents before reading one word.
What is questionable billing?
Importantly, before addressing what IS questionable billing, what is NOT questionable billing? Questionable billing is not abhorrent billing practices. Questionable billing is not wasteful billing or abusive billing. And questionable billing is certainly not fraudulent billing. That is not to say that some of these questionable billing will be investigated and, perhaps, fall into one the aforementioned categories. But not yet. Again, these dentists have a long journey ahead of them.
In this context, questionable billing seems to mean that the OIG report identifies dentists who perform a higher number of services per day. OIG analyzed rendering dental providers’ NPI numbers to determine how many services each rendering provider was providing per day. Then OIG compared the average Medicaid payment per kid, number of services per day, and number of services provided per child per visit. OIG determined a “threshold” number for each category and cited questionable billing practices for those dentists that fell egregiously outside the thresholds. Now, obviously, this is a simplistic explanation for a more esoteric procedure, but the explanation is illustrative.
This study of California Medicaid dentists is not first dental study OIG has undertaken. Recently, OIG studied Medicaid dentists in New York, Louisiana, and Indiana. What stands out in the California Medicaid dental study is the volume of dentists involved in the study. In Indiana, OIG reviewed claims for 787 dentists; in New York it reviewed claims for 719 dentists, and in Louisiana, OIG studied 512 dentists’ claims, all of whom rendered services to over 50 Medicaid children.
In California, OIG studied 3,921 dentists.
Why such a difference?
Apparently, California has more dentists than the other three states and more dentists who accept Medicaid. So, if you are Medicaid dentists, apparently, there is more competition in California.
Juxtapose that, in California, in 2012, only 3 periodontists, 3 prosthodontists, 2 endodontists, and 1 oral pathologist provided services to 50 or more children with Medicaid in California.
Going back to the audit findings…
OIG considered dentists who exceeded its identified threshold for one or more of the seven measures to have questionable billing.
OIG identified 329 general dentists and 6 orthodontists out of 3,921 providers as having with questionable billing. But these findings are only the beginning of what will, most likely, become a long and tedious legal battle for these 335 providers. Lumping together so many dentists and claiming questionable billing practices will inevitably include many dentists who have done nothing irregular. Many other dentists, will have engaged in unintentional billing errors and may owe recoupments. But I foresee a very small number of these dentists to actually have committed fraudulent billing.
Here is an example found in the OIG’s report, OIG identified that 108 dentists provided stainless steel crowns to 18% of the children served by these dentists, compared to an average of only 5% of children receiving stainless steel crowns by those served by all general dentists (non-Medicaid).
Another example is that 98 dentists provided pulpotomies to 18% of the children, while the statewide percentage is 5% to undergo pulpotomies.
Do these examples show that 108 dentists providing stainless steel crowns and that 98 dentists providing pulpotomies are improperly billing?
Of course not.
It is only logical that dentists who accept Medicaid would have a significantly higher number of pulpotomies compared to dentists who service the privately insured. Usually, although not always, a Medicaid recipient will have more issues with their teeth than those privately insureds. In order to qualify for Medicaid, the family must live in poverty (some more than others with the expansion of Medicaid in some states). Some of kids in this population will have parents who do not harp on the importance of dental hygiene, thus allowing many kids in this population to have decay in their teeth. Obviously, this is a generalization; however, I am confident that many studies exist to back up this generalization.
Therefore, if you accept my generalization, it makes sense that Medicaid dentists perform more pulpotomies than private insurance dentists.
And stainless steel crowns go hand in hand with pulpotomies. Unless you extract the tooth after the removal of the decay, you will need to provide a stainless steel crown to protect the tooth from future damage.
What will happen next?
OIG admits in its report that “our findings do not prove that providers either billed fraudulently or provided medically unnecessary services, providers with extreme billing patterns warrant further scrutiny.”
Which is precisely what will happen next…”further scrutiny”…
The OIG report recommends to California that it:
• Increase its monitoring of dental providers to identify patterns of questionable billing
• Closely monitor billing by providers in dental chains
• Review its payment processes for orthodontic services
• Take appropriate action against dental providers with questionable billing
It is that last recommendation, taking appropriate action, which will determine the future course for these 335 Medicaid providers. Because, as many of you know if you have followed my blog, the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) has a large toolbox with a considerable amount of tools for which it may yield its power against these providers…right or wrong. The same goes for all state Medicaid agencies. When it comes to a Medicaid provider and a Medicaid state agency, there is no balance of powers, in fact, there is only one power. Instead the scales of justice have one arm on the ground and the other raised in the air. There is an imbalance of power, unless you arm yourself with the right allies.
Possible future actions by DHCS:
• Payment suspensions
• Withholds of all reimbursements
• Post payment review
• Prepayment review
And combinations thereof.
DCHS stated that “it will review the dental providers referred by OIG and will determine by December 2015 what appropriate action may be warranted. Should there exist any provider cases not previously evaluated by existing program monitoring efforts, DHCS will take appropriate action through the available channels.”
First, December 2015 is a short timeframe for DCHS to audit 335 providers’ records and determine the proper course of action. So, expect a vendor for DCHS to be hired for this task. Also, expect that an audit of 335 providers in 7 months will have flaws.
These California dentists and orthodontists need to arm themselves with defense tools. And, quickly. Because it is amazing how fast 7 months will fly by!!
The report also states that OIG will be undertaking a study in the future to determine access to dental care issues. I will be interested in the result of that study.
These possible penalties that I already enumerated above are not without defenses.
These 335 CA Medicaid dental providers have administrative remedies to prevent these possible penalties. In other words, these 335 CA Medicaid dental providers do not have to take this lying down. Even though it appears that an imbalance of power exists between the state agency and the providers, these providers have appeal rights.
The second that any of these providers receive correspondence from DCHS, it is imperative that the provider contact its attorney.
Remember, some appeals have very short windows for which to appeal. Do not miss an appeal deadline!!
Recent stories in the news seem to suggest that health care fraud is running rampant. We’ve got stories about Eric Leak‘s Medicaid agency, Nature’s Reflections, funneling money to pay athletes, a seizure of property in Greensboro for alleged Medicaid fraud, and, in Charlotte, a man was charged with Medicaid fraud and sentenced to three years under court supervision and ordered to pay $3,153,074. And these examples are local.
Health care fraud with even larger amounts of money at stake has been prosecuted in other states. A nonprofit up in NY is accused of defrauding the Medicaid system for over $27 million. Overall, the federal government opened 924 criminal health care fraud investigations last year.
What is going on? Are more people getting into the health care fraud business? Has the government become better at detecting possible health care fraud?
I believe that the answer is that the federal and state governments have determined that it “pays” high dividends to invest in health care fraud investigations. More and more money is being allocated to the fraud investigative divisions. More money, in turn, yields more health care fraud allegations…which yields more convictions….and more money to the government.
Believe me, I understand the importance of detecting fraud. It sickens me that those who actually defraud our Medicaid and Medicare systems are taking medically necessary services away from those who need the services. However, sometimes the net is cast so wide…so far…that innocent providers get caught in the net. And being accused of health care fraud when you innocent is a gruesome, harrowing experience that (1) you hope never happens; and (2) you have to be prepared in case it does. I have seen it happen.
As previously stated, in fiscal year (FY) 2014, the federal government opened 924 new criminal health care fraud investigations. That’s 77 new fraud investigations a month!! This number does not include civil investigations.
In FY 2012, the Department of Justice (DOJ) opened 2,016 new health care fraud investigations (1,131 criminal, 885 civil).
The Justice Department launched 903 new health-care fraud prosecutions in the first eight months of FY 2011, more than all of FY 2010.
These numbers show:
- an 85% increase over FY 2010,
- a 157% increase over FY 2006
- and 822% over FY 1991.
And the 924 investigations opened in fiscal 2014 only represent federal investigations. Concurrently, all 50 states are conducting similar investigations.
What is being recovered? Are the increased efforts to detect health care fraud worth the effort and expenditures?
Heck, yes, it is worth it to both the state and federal governments!
Government teams recovered $4.3 billion in FY 2013 and $19.2 billion over the last five years. While still astronomically high, the numbers dropped slightly for FY 2014. In FY 2014, according to the Annual Report of the Departments of Health and Human Services and Justice, the federal government won or negotiated over $2.3 billion in health care fraud judgments and settlements. Due to these efforts, as well as efforts from preceding years, the federal government retrieved $3.3 billion from health care fraud investigations.
So the federal and state governments are putting more money into investigating health care fraud. Why?
The Affordable Care Act.
Obviously, the federal and state governments conducted health care fraud investigations prior to the ACA. But the implementation of the ACA set new mandates to increase fraud investigations. (Mandates, which were suggestions prior to the ACA).
In 2009, Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13520, which was targeted to reduce improper payments and to eliminate waste in federal programs.
On March 23, 2010, President Obama signed the ACA into law. A major part of the ACA is focused on cost containment methods. Theoretically, the ACA is supposed to be self-funding. Detecting fraud, waste and abuse in the Medicare/Medicaid system helps to fund the ACA.
Unlike many of the other ACA provisions, most of the fraud and abuse provisions went into effect in 2010 or 2011. The ACA increases funding to the Healthcare Fraud and Abuse Control Program by $350 million over the next decade. These funds can be used for fraud and abuse control and for the Medicare Integrity Program.
The ACA mandates states to conduct post payment and prepayment reviews, screen and audit providers, terminate certain providers, and create provider categories of risk.
While recent articles and media seem to indicate that health care fraud is running rampant, the substantial increase in accusations of health care fraud really may be caused by factors other than more fraud is occurring.
The ACA mandates have an impact.
And, quite frankly, the investigation units may be a bit overzealous to recover funds.
What will happen if you are a target of a criminal health care fraud investigation?
It depends whether the federal or state government is conducting the investigation.
If the federal government is investigating you, most likely, you will be unaware of the investigation. Then, one day, agents of the federal government will come to your office and seize all property deemed related to the alleged fraud. Your accounts will be frozen. Whether you are guilty or not will not matter. What will matter is you will need an experienced, knowledgeable health fraud attorney and the funds with which to compensate said attorney with frozen accounts.
If the state government is conducting the investigation, it is a little less hostile and CSI-ish. Your reimbursements will be suspended with or without your notice (obviously, you would notice the suspension once the suspension occurred). But the whole “raid on your office thing” is less likely.
There are legal remedies available, and the “defense” should begin immediately.
Most importantly, if you are a health care provider and you are not committing fraud, you are not safe from accusations of fraud.
Your insurance, most likely, will not cover attorneys’ fees for alleged intention fraud.
The attorney of your choice will not be able to accept funds that are “tainted” by alleged fraud, even if no fraud occurred.
Be aware that if, for whatever reason, you are accused, you will need to be prepared…for what you hope never happens.
It’s a heart-stopping moment, but it happens regularly: A Medicaid provider, who never had any problems with the State of North Carolina, receives a letter from the North Carolina Attorney General’s Medicaid Investigations Division, or “MID”, informing her that she is the subject of an investigation of Medicaid billing practices. The MID’s core mission is to investigate and prosecute health care fraud committed by Medicaid providers. If you receive a letter from MID, it is an extremely serious matter and can instantly change everything you. You need to know what MID is, how you might become the subject of an investigation, and what to do if you are.
What is MID? MID is a subdivision of the North Carolina Department of Justice that is tasked primarily with investigating Medicaid fraud. MID has two main divisions, civil and criminal. The civil division investigates cases in which a provider may have made a false statement in order to obtain reimbursement payments. The civil division uses special powers granted by the North Carolina False Claims Act to investigate providers, determine if there is enough evidence to show a false statement resulting in reimbursement payments from Medicaid, and thereafter file a civil lawsuit to recover the money.
MID’s criminal division employs prosecutors whose job is to investigate, file criminal charges against, and convict providers who have intentionally and willfully obtained reimbursement payments under false pretenses. The MID website itself describes Medicaid fraud to include circumstances in which providers intentionally bill Medicaid for services not actually provided, use an improper procedure code to bill for a higher priced service when a lower priced service was provided, bill for non-covered services by describing the services as covered services, misrepresent a patient’s diagnosis and symptoms and bill Medicaid for a service that is medically unnecessary, or falsifies medical records. Any such acts could result in criminal prosecution.
As a responsible Medicaid provider, you might conclude that you would never have to worry about an MID investigation. After all, MID is tasked with investigating fraud, and the vast majority of providers honestly and lawfully provide services and submit reimbursement requests for those services. However, the new reality in Medicaid is that many honest providers can and do find themselves dealing with an MID investigation. A prime example, which happens frequently, is when DHHS finds a “credible allegation of fraud” regarding the provider. One would conclude that a “credible allegation of fraud” would be limited to hard evidence that a provider intentionally obtained reimbursements based on false information or some other bad act. However, the Medicaid regulations define a “credible allegation of fraud” to include the results of claims data mining. In other words, a “credible allegation of fraud” can be based simply on a computer analysis of a provider’s billings to Medicaid, and this has indeed been the basis of DHHS’ referral of cases to MID for investigation. For this reason, a number of honest providers have indeed found themselves the subject of an MID investigation, having to contend with the difficulty that such an investigation brings.
There are several key things that providers must know about an MID investigation. If you find yourself the subject of such an investigation, keep the following in mind:
• The first and most important: get a lawyer. The stakes in an MID investigation are extremely high, to include the potential for conviction of a crime. Proceeding without advice of counsel is very risky. Everyone who is subject of an investigation has substantial and important rights, but it takes an expert in this area of the law (and not necessarily me or my firm) to competently advise someone who is the subject of an MID investigation.
• Always remember that the State’s investigators and lawyers only work for the State. MID is staffed with competent, dedicated investigators and attorneys, and my dealings with them show that they are straightforward people. However, their job is to investigate fraud, and if you are the subject of an investigation, they have received information indicating that you may have committed fraud. You therefore should exercise caution when speaking with them, you are under no obligation to answer questions, and you certainly are under no such obligation without first hiring an attorney.
• Ensure that all your records are properly preserved. Part of MID’s investigation will certainly be a request to inspect and copy your records related to Medicaid billing, such as patient files, employee timesheets, records relating to claims submissions, and contracts with service providers. Any loss of such records will have to be explained, and if a loss occurs after a provider has received notice of an investigation, the provider could be accused of having destroyed records. It is therefore crucial that you preserve your records, both the ones on paper and the electronic data containing relevant information.
• Do not discuss the investigation or your Medicaid billing practices with anyone except your lawyer. Because you are the subject of an investigation that is based on information that may indicate you committed fraud, you must be careful about what you say. If you discuss matters with anyone but your lawyer, those persons could be compelled to testify about what you said, and it is not uncommon for someone to misquote, misunderstand, or otherwise misreport what someone has said. Speaking only with your lawyer is the safest course.
• Finally, be patient with the process. Being the subject of an MID investigation is stressful and frustrating, but MID currently is backlogged with a huge number of cases. This means that it will take time for the investigation to conclude. Expert counsel can help you through this process, but recognize that it will take a long time for it to conclude.