Category Archives: Medicaid Providers

Medicare TPE Audits: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Let’s talk targeted probe-and-educate (TPE) audits. See on RACMonitor as well.

TPE audits have turned out to be “wolf audits” in sheep’s clothing. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) asserted that the intent of TPE audits is to reduce provider burden and appeals by combining medical review with provider education.

But the “education” portion is getting overlooked. Instead, the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) resort to referring healthcare providers to other agencies or contractors for “other possible action,” including audit by a Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC), which can include extrapolation or referral to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) for investigation of fraud. A TPE audit involves up to three rounds of review, conducted by a MAC. Once Congress was instructed that RAC audits are not fair, and providers complained that RAC auditors did not help with education, CMS came up with TPE audits – which, supposedly, had more of an educational aspect, and a more fair approach. But in reality, the TPE audits have created an expensive, burdensome, cyclical pattern that, again, can result in RAC audits. The implementation of TPE audits has been just as draconian and subjective as RAC audits. The penalties can be actually worse than those resulting from RAC audits, including termination from the Medicare program. In this article, I want to discuss the appeal process and why it is important to appeal at the first level of audit.

Chapter Three, Section 3.2.5 of the Medicare Program Integrity Manual (MPIM) outlines the requirements for the TPE process, which leaves much of the details within the discretion of the MAC conducting the review. The MACs are afforded too much discretion. Often, they make erroneous decisions, but providers are not pushing back. A recent one-time notification transmittal provides additional instructions to MACs on the TPE process: CMS Transmittal 2239 (Jan. 24, 2019).

Providers are selected for TPE audit based on data analysis, with CMS instructing MACs to target providers with high denial rates or claim activity that the contractor deems unusual, in comparison to peers. These audits are generally performed as a prepayment review of claims for a specific item or service, though relevant CMS instructions also allow for post-payment TPE audits.

A TPE round typically involves a review of a probe sample of between 20 and 40 claims. Providers first receive notice that they have been targeted by their MAC, followed by additional documentation requests (ADRs) for the specific claims included in the audit.

TPE Audits

The MACs have sole discretion as to which providers to target, whether claims meet coverage requirements, what error rate is considered compliant, and when a provider should be removed from TPE. Health care providers can be exposed to future audits and penalties based merely on the MAC’s resolve, and before the provider has received due process through their right to challenge claim denials in an independent appeals process. In this way, the MACs’ misinterpretation of the rules and misapplication of coverage requirements can lead to further audits or disciplinary actions, based on an erroneous determination that is later overturned. Similarly, while the educational activities are supposedly meant to assist providers in achieving compliance, in reality, this “education” can force providers to appear to acknowledge error findings with which they may disagree – and which may ultimately be determined to be wrong. Often times, the MACs – for “educational purposes” – require the provider to sign documentation that admits alleged wrongdoing, and the provider signs these documents without legal counsel, and without the understanding that these documents can adversely affect any appeal or future audits.

The MACs have the power, based on CMS directive, to revoke billing privileges based on a determination that “the provider or supplier has a pattern or practice of submitting claims that fail to meet Medicare requirements.” 42 C.F.R. § 424.535(a)(8)(ii). This language shows that TPE audit findings can be used as a basis for a finding of abuse of billing privileges, warranting removal from participation in the Medicare program. CMS guidance also gives the MACs authority to refer providers for potential fraud investigation, based on TPE review findings. It is therefore vital that providers submit documentation in a timely fashion and build a clear record to support their claims and compliance with Medicare requirements.

TPE audits promise further education and training for an unsuccessful audit (unsuccessful according to the MAC, which may constitute a flawed opinion), but most of the training is broad in nature and offered remotely – either over the phone, via web conference, or through the mail, with documentation shared on Google Docs. Only on atypical occasions is there an on-site visit.

Why appeal? It’s expensive, tedious, time-consuming, and emotionally draining. Not only that, but many providers are complaining that the MACs inform them that the TPE audit results are not appealable (TPE audits ARE appealable).

TPE reviews and TPE audit overpayment determinations may be appealed through the Medicare appeals process. The first stage of appeal will be to request a redetermination of the overpayment by the MAC. If the redetermination decision is unfavorable, Medicare providers and suppliers may request an independent review by filing a request for reconsideration with the applicable Qualified Independent Contractor (QIC). If the reconsideration decision is unfavorable, Medicare providers and suppliers are granted the opportunity to present their case in a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). While providers or suppliers who disagree with an ALJ decision may appeal to the Medicare Appeals Council and then seek judicial review in federal district court, it is crucial to obtain experienced healthcare counsel to overturn the overpayment determination during the first three levels of review.

Appealing unfavorable TPE audits results sends a message. Right now, the MACs hold the metaphoric conch shell. The Medicare appeals process allows the provider or supplier to overturn the TPE audit overpayment, and reduces the likelihood of future TPE reviews, other Medicare audits, and disciplinary actions such as suspension of Medicare payments, revocation of Medicare billing privileges, or exclusion from the Medicare program. In instances when a TPE audit identifies potential civil or criminal fraud, it is essential that the Medicare provider or supplier engage experienced healthcare counsel to appeal the Medicare overpayment as the first step in defending its billing practices, and thus mitigating the likelihood of fraud allegations (e.g., False Claims Act actions).

CMS and the MACs maintain that TPEs are in the providers’ best interest because education is included. In actuality, TPEs are wolves in sheep’s clothing, masking true repercussions in a cloak of “education.” The Medicare appeal process is a provider’s best weapon.

HIPAA Penalties on the Rise and New HIPAA Penalties Reduced

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.

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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:

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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.

 

Medicare “Site Neutral” Reimbursements Hit Hospitals Hard, But Is It Legal?

Shockingly, not all new rules that emerge from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) are actually compliant with the law. Wait! What? How can CMS publish Final Rules that are not compliant with the law?

This was an eye-opening discovery as a “baby lawyer” back 20 years ago. The government can and does publish and create Rules that, sometimes, exceed its legal authority. Of course, the Agency must follow appropriate rule-making procedure and allow for a comment period (etc.), but CMS does not have to listen to the comments. Theoretically, CMS could publish a Final Rule mandating that all Medicare providers provide 50 hours of free services a year or that the reimbursement rate for all services is $1. Both of my examples violate multiple rules, regulations, and laws, but until an aggrieved party with standing files a lawsuit declaring the Final Rule to be invalid or Congress passes a law that renders the Rule moot, the Rule exists and can be enforced by CMS and its agents.

The Rule-change (the “Site-Neutrality Rule”), which became effective January 1, 2019, reduced Medicare reimbursements to hospitals with outpatient facilities. Medicare will pay hospitals that have outpatient facilities “off campus” at a lower rate — equivalent to what it pays independent physicians for clinic visits. This decrease in Medicare reimbursements hits hard for most hospitals across the country, but, especially, rural hospitals. For the past 10+ years, hospitals have built outpatient facilities to serve more patients, and been reimbursed a higher Medicare reimbursement rate than independent physicians because the services at the hospital’s outpatient facility were connected to an outpatient facility affiliated with a hospital. Now the Site-Neutrality Rule leaves many hospitals trying to catch their breaths after the metaphoric punch to the belly. On the other hand, independent physicians claim that they have been providing the exact, same services as the hospital-affiliated outpatient facilities for years, but have received a lower reimbursement rate. I have no opinion (I do, but my opinion is not the topic in this blog) as to whether physicians and hospitals should be reimbursed equally – this blog is not pro-physician or pro-hospital. Rather, this blog is “pro-holding CMS liable to render Rules that follow the law.” Whether the hospitals or the physicians were receiving a cut in reimbursement rates, I am in favor of the those cuts (and future cuts) abiding by the law. Interestingly, should the AHA win this case, it could set solid, helpful, legal precedent for all types of providers and all types of decreased Medicare/caid reimbursements going forward.

Because of the Site-Neutrality Rule, in 2019, hospitals’ reimbursements will drop approximately $380 million and $760 million in 2020, according to CMS.

Before CMS brags on a decrease in the Medicare budget due to a proposed or Final Rule, it should remember that there is budget neutrality requirement when it comes to Rules implemented by CMS. 42 US.C. § 1395l. Yet, here, for the Site-Neutrality Rule, according to articles and journals, CMS is boasting its Site-Neutrality Rule as saving millions upon millions of dollars for Medicare. Can we say “Budget Non-Neutrality?”

The American Hospital Association filed a lawsuit December 2018 claiming that CMS exceeded its authority by implementing the Final Rule for “site neutral” Medicare reimbursements for hospitals with outpatient facilities. The lawsuit requests an injunction to stop the decrease and an order to repay any funds withheld thus far.

The claim, which, I believe has merit, argues that the Site-Neutrality Rule exceeds CMS’s statutory authority under the Medicare Act because of the budget neutrality mandate, in part – there are other arguments, but, for the sake of this blog, I am concentrating on the budget neutrality requirement. In my humble opinion, the budget neutrality requirement is overlooked by many attorneys and providers when it comes to challenging cuts to Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement rates.

On March 22, 2019, CMS filed a Motion to Dismiss or in the alternative, a Cross Motion for Summary Judgment. On April 5, 2019, AHA (and the rest of the Plaintiffs) responded in opposition. On April 19, 2019, CMS responded to AHA’s response in opposition. The Judge has not ruled on the Motions, as of today, April 25, 2019.

Obviously, I will be keeping a close eye on the progress of this case going forward. In the meantime, more reductions in reimbursement rates are on the horizon…

Recently, CMS recently proposed three new rules that would further update the Medicare payment rates and quality reporting programs for hospices, skilled nursing facilities (SNFs), and inpatient psychiatric facilities.

Stay tuned.

New Mexico Leads the Nation in Ground-Breaking Legislation in Support of Medicaid Providers

“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.

United Behavioral Health SLAMMED by Judge for Improperly Denying Behavioral Health Care Services

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.

2019- Spero

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.

 

New Revisions to the Additional Documentation Request (ADR) Process

The ADR rule went into effect Jan. 1, 2019. Original blog post published March 6, 2019, on RACMonitor.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has updated its criteria for additional development requests (ADRs). If your ADR “cycle” is less than 1, CMS will round it up to 1.

What is an ADR cycle?

When a claim is selected for medical review, an ADR is generated requesting medical documentation be submitted to ensure payment is appropriate. Documentation must be received by CGS (A Celerian Group Company)  within 45 calendar days for review and payment determination. Any selected and submitted claim can create an ADR. In other words, a provider is asked to prove that the service was rendered and that the billing was compliant.

It is imperative to understand that you, as the provider, check the Fiscal Intermediary Standard System (FISS) status/location S B6001. Providers are encouraged to use FISS Option 12 (Claim Inquiry) to check for ADRs at least once per week. You will not receive any other form of notification for an ADR.

To make matters even more confusing, there are two different types of ADRs: medical review (reason code 39700) and non-medical review (reason code 39701).

An ADR may be sent by CGS, Zone Program Integrity Contractors (ZPICs), Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs), Supplemental Medical Review Contractors (SMRCs), the Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) contractor, etc. When a claim is selected for review or when additional documentation is needed to complete the claim, an ADR letter is generated requesting that documentation and/or medical records be submitted.

The ADR process is essentially a type of prepayment review.

A baseline annual ADR limit is established for each provider based on the number of Medicare claims paid in the previous 12-month period that are associated with the provider’s six-digit CMS Certification Number (CCN) and the provider’s National Provider Identifier (NPI) number. Using the baseline annual ADR limit, an ADR cycle limit is also established.

After three 45-day ADR cycles, CMS will calculate (or recalculate) a provider’s denial rate, which will then be used to identify a provider’s corresponding “adjusted” ADR limit. Auditors may choose to either conduct reviews of a provider based on their adjusted ADR limit (with a shorter lookback period) or their baseline annual ADR limit (with a longer lookback period).

The baseline, annual ADR limit is one-half of one percent of the provider’s total number of paid Medicare service types for which the provider had reimbursed Medicare claims.

Effective Jan. 1, 2019, providers whose ADR cycle limit is less than 1, even though their annual ADR limit is greater than 1, will have their ADR cycle limit round up to 1 additional documentation request per 45 days, until their annual ADR limit has been reached.

For example, say Provider ABC billed and was paid for 400 Medicare claims in a previous 12-month period. The provider’s baseline annual ADR limit would be 400 multiplied by 0.005, which is two. The ADR cycle limit would be 2/8, which is less than one. Therefore, Provider ABC’s ADR cycle limit will be set at one additional documentation request per 45 days, until their annual ADR limit, which in this example is two, has been reached. In other words, Provider ABC can receive one additional documentation request for two of the eight ADR cycles, per year.

ADR letters are sent on a 45-day cycle. The baseline annual ADR limit is divided by eight to establish the ADR cycle limit, which is the maximum number of claims that can be included in a single 45-day period. Although auditors may go more than 45 days between record requests, in no case shall they make requests more frequently than every 45 days.

And that is the update on ADRs. Remember, the rule changed Jan. 1, 2019.

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

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

Relationships between hospitals and physicians may forever be changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medicare Audits: Huge Overhaul on Extrapolation Rules

Effective January 2, 2019, the Center for Medicare and 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 the tsunami in Medicare/caid audits. The auditor collects a small sample of claims to review for compliance. She then determines the “error rate” of the sample. For example, if 50 claims are reviewed and 10 are found to be noncompliant, then the error rate is set at 20%. 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 of the universe or maybe hired a different biller.

With extrapolated results, auditors allege millions of dollars of overpayments against health care providers…sometimes more than the provider even made during that time period. It is an overwhelming wave that many times drowns the provider and the company.

Prior to this recent change to extrapolation procedure, the Program Integrity Manual (PIM) offered little guidance to the proper method for extrapolation.

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.

Determining When a Statistical Sampling May 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 documented educational intervention has failed to correct the payment error.” This guidance now creates a three-tier structure:

  1. Extrapolation shall be used when a sustained or high level of payment error exists.
  2. Extrapolation may be used after documented educational intervention (such as in the Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) program).
  3. 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% 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 HUGE 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 pay the alleged amounts will be held against you.

Another monumental modification to RAC audits is that the RAC auditor 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% of the provider’s Medicare revenue received within the previous 12 months.

The identification of the claims universe was also re-defined. 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: (1) Some claims/claim lines are discovered to have been subject to a prior review, (2) The definitions of the sample unit necessitate eliminating some claims/claim lines, or (3) Some claims/claim lines are attributed to sample units for which there was no payment.”

There are many more changes to discuss, but I have been asked to appear on RACMonitor to present the details on February 19, 2019. So sign up to listen!!!

Hospital Association Joins Lawsuit to Enjoin “Psychiatric Boarding”

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.

AHA Obtains a Permanent Injunction against HHS!!! Raises the Price of Drugs!

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.