Category Archives: Alleged Overpayment

Medicare Appeal Backlog Dissolves and SMRC Audits Escalate

I have good news and bad news today. I have chosen to begin with the good news. The ALJ backlog will soon be no more. Yes, the 4-6 years waiting period between the second and third level will, by sometime in 2021, be back to 90 days, with is the statutory requirement. What precipitated this drastic improvement? Money. This past year, CMS’ budget increased exponentially, mostly due to the Medicare appeals backlog. OMHA was given enough dough to hire 70 additional ALJs and to open six additional locations. That brings the number of ALJs ruling over provider Medicare appeals to over 100. OMHA now has the capability to hear and render decisions for approximately 300,000 appeals per year. This number is drastically higher than the number of Medicare appeals being filed. The backlog will soon be nonexistent. This is fantastic for all providers because, while CMS will continue to recoup the alleged overpayment after the 2nd level, the providers will be able to have its case adjudicated by an ALJ much speedier.

Now the bad news. Remember when the RAC program was first implemented and the RACs were zealously auditing, which is the reason that the backlog exists in the first place. RACs were given free rein to audit whichever types of service providers they chose to target. Once the backlog was out of hand, CMS restricted the RACs. They only allowed a 3 year lookback period when other auditors can go back 6 years, like the SMRC audits. CMS also mandated that the RACs slow down their number of audits and put other restrictions on RACs. Now that OMHA has the capacity to adjudicate 300,000 Medicare appeals per year, expect that those reins that have been holding the RACs back will by 2021 or 2022 be fully loosened for a full gallop.

Switching gears: Two of the lesser known audits that are exclusive to the CMS are the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (“SMRC”) and the Targeted Probe and Educate (“TPE”) audits. Exclusivity to CMS just means that Medicare claims are reviewed, not Medicaid.

The SMRCs, in particular, create confusion. We have seen DME SMRC audits on ventilator claims, which are extremely document intensive. You can imagine the high amounts of money at issue because, for ventilators, many people require them for long periods of time. Sometimes there can 3000 claim lines for a ventilator claim. These SMRC audits are not extrapolated, but the amount in controversy is still high. SMRCs normally request the documents for 20-40 claims. It is a one-time review. It’s a post payment review audit. It doesn’t sound that bad until you receive the request for documents of 20-40 claims, all of which contain 3000 claim lines and you have 45 days to comply.

Lastly, in a rare act, CMS has inquired as whether provider prefer TPE audits or continue with post payment review audits for the remainder of the pandemic. If you have a strong opinion one way or the other, be sure to contact CMS.

Medicare Auditors Fail to Follow the Jimmo Settlement

Auditors are not lawyers. Some auditors do not even possess the clinical background of the services they are auditing. In this blog, I am concentrating on the lack of legal licenses. Because the standards to which auditors need to hold providers to are not only found in the Medicare Provider Manuals, regulations, NCDs and LCDs. Oh, no… To add even more spice to the spice cabinet, common law court cases also create and amend Medicare and Medicaid policies.

For example, the Jimmo v. Selebius settlement agreement dictates the standards for skilled nursing and skilled therapy in skilled nursing facilities, home health, and outpatient therapy settings and importantly holds that coverage does not turn on the presence or absence of a beneficiary’s potential for improvement.

The Jimmo settlement dictates that:

“Specifically, in accordance with the settlement agreement, the manual revisions clarify that coverage of skilled nursing and skilled therapy services in the skilled nursing facility (SNF), home health (HH), and outpatient therapy (OPT) settings “…does not turn on the presence or absence of a beneficiary’s potential for improvement, but rather on the beneficiary’s need for skilled care.” Skilled care may be necessary to improve a patient’s current condition, to maintain the patient’s current condition, or to prevent or slow further deterioration of the patient’s condition.”

This Jimmo standard – not requiring a potential for improvement – is essential for diseases that are lifelong and debilitating, like Multiple Sclerosis (“MS”). For beneficiaries suffering from MS, skilled therapy is essential to prevent regression.

I have reviewed numerous audits by UPICs, in particular, which have failed to follow the Jimmo settlement standard and denied 100% of my provider-client’s claims. 100%. All for failure to demonstrate potential for improvement for MS patients. It’s ludicrous until you stop and remember that auditors are not lawyers. This Jimmo standard is found in a settlement agreement from January 2013. While we will win on appeal, it costs providers money valuable money when auditors apply the wrong standards.

The amounts in controversy are generally high due to extrapolations, which is when the UPIC samples a low number of claims, determines an error rate and extrapolates that error rate across the universe. When the error rate is falsely 100%, the extrapolation tends to be high.

While an expectation of improvement could be a reasonable criterion to consider when evaluating, for example, a claim in which the goal of treatment is restoring a prior capability, Medicare policy has long recognized that there may also be specific instances where no improvement is expected but skilled care is, nevertheless, required in order to prevent or slow deterioration and maintain a beneficiary at the maximum practicable level of function. For example, in the regulations at 42 CFR 409.32(c), the level of care criteria for SNF coverage specify that the “. . . restoration potential of a patient is not the deciding factor in determining whether skilled services are needed. Even if full recovery or medical improvement is not possible, a patient may need skilled services to prevent further deterioration or preserve current capabilities.” The auditors should understand this and be trained on the proper standards. The Medicare statute and regulations have never supported the imposition of an “Improvement Standard” rule-of-thumb in determining whether skilled care is required to prevent or slow deterioration in a patient’s condition.

When you are audited by an auditor whether it be a RAC, MAC or UPIC, make sure the auditors are applying the correct standards. Remember, the auditors aren’t attorneys or doctors.

Beware the Ides of March! And Medicare Provider Audits!

Hello! And beware the Ides of March, which is today! I am going to write today about the state of audits today. When I say Medicare and Medicaid audits, I mean, RACs, MACs, ZPICs, UPICs, CERTs, TPEs, and OIG investigations from credible allegations of fraud. Without question, the new Biden administration will be concentrating even more on fraud, waste, and abuse germane to Medicare and Medicaid. This means that auditing companies, like Public Consulting Group (“PCG”) and National Government Services (“NGS”) will be busy trying to line their pockets with Medicare dollars. As for the Ides, it is especially troubling in March, especially if you are Julius Caesar. “Et tu, Brute?”

One of the government’s most powerful tool is the federal government’s zealous use of 42 CFR 455.23, which states that “The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending under the Medicaid program against an individual or entity unless the agency has good cause to not suspend payments or to suspend payment only in part.” (emphasis added). That word – “must” – was revised from “may” in 2011, part of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”).

A “credible allegation” is defined as an indicia of reliability, which is a low bar. Very low.

Remember back in 2013 when Ed Roche and I were reporting on the New Mexico behavioral health care cluster? To remind you, the State of NM accused 15 BH health care providers, which constituted 87.5% of the BH providers in NM, of credible allegations of fraud after the assistant AG, at the time, Larry Heyeck, had just published a legal article re “Credible Allegations of Fraud.” See blog and blog. Unsurprisingly, the suicide rate and substance abuse skyrocketed. There was even a documentary “The Shake-Up” about the catastrophic events in NM set off by the findings of PCG.

This is another example of a PCG allegation of overpayment over $700k, which was reduced to $336.84.

I was the lawyer for the three, largest entities and litigated four administrative appeals. If you recall, for Teambuilders, PCG claimed it owed over $12 million. After litigation, an ALJ decided that Teambuilders owed $836.35. Hilariously, we appealed. While at the time, PCG’s accusations put the company out of business, it has re-opened its doors finally – 8 years later. This is how devastating a regulatory audit can be. But congratulations, Teambuilders, for re-opening.

Federal law mandates that during the appeal of a Medicare audit at the first two levels: the redetermination and reconsideration, that no recoupment occur. However, after the 2nd level and you appeal to the ALJ level, the third level, the government can and will recoup unless you present before a judge and obtain an injunction.

Always expect bumps along the road. I have two chiropractor clients in Indiana. They both received notices of alleged overpayments. They are running a parallel appeal. Whatever we do for one we have to do for the other. You would think that their attorneys’ fees would be similar. But for one company, NGS has preemptively tried to recoup THREE times. We have had to contact NGS’ attorney multiple times to stop the withholds. It’s a computer glitch supposedly. Or it’s the Ides of March!

Premature Recoupment of Medicare Reimbursements Defies Due Process!

Who knows that – regardless your innocence –the government can and will recoup your funds preemptively at the third level of Medicare appeals. This flies in the face of the elements of due process. However, courts have ruled that the redetermination and the reconsideration levels afford the providers enough due process, which entails notice and an opportunity to be heard. I am here to tell you – that is horse manure. The first two levels of a Medicare appeal are hoops to jump through in order to get to an independent tribunal – the administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The odds of winning at the 1st or 2nd level Medicare appeal is next to zilch, although often you can get the alleged amount reduced. The first level is before the same entity that found you owe the money. Auditors are normally not keen on overturning themselves. The second level is little better. The first time that you present to an independent tribunal is at the third level.

Between 2009 and 2014, the number of ALJ appeals increased more than 1,200 percent. And the government recoups all alleged overpayments before you ever get before an ALJ.

In a recent case, Sahara Health Care, Inc. v. Azar, 975 F.3d 523 (5th Cir. 2020), a home health care provider brought an action against Secretary of Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) and Administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”), asserting that its statutory and due process rights were violated and that defendants acted ultra vires by recouping approximately $2.4 million in Medicare overpayments without providing a timely ALJ hearing. HHS moved to dismiss, and the provider moved to amend, for a temporary restraining order (“TRO”) and preliminary injunction, and for an expedited hearing.

The case was thrown out, concluding that adequate process had been provided and that defendants had not exceeded statutory authority, and denied provider’s motion for injunctive relief and to amend. The provider appealed and lost again.

What’s the law?

Congress prohibited HHS from recouping payments during the first two stages of administrative review. 42 U.S.C. § 1395ff(f)(2)(A).

If repayment of an overpayment would constitute an “extreme hardship, as determined by the Secretary,” the agency “shall enter into a plan with the provider” for repayment “over a period of at least 60 months but … not longer than 5 years.” 42 U.S.C. § 1395ddd(f)(1)(A). That hardship safety valve has some exceptions that work against insolvent providers. If “the Secretary has reason to believe that the provider of services or supplier may file for bankruptcy or otherwise cease to do business or discontinue participation” in the Medicare program, then the extended repayment plan is off the table. 42 U.S.C. § 1395ddd(f)(1)(C)(i). A provider that ultimately succeeds in overturning an overpayment determination receives the wrongfully recouped payments with interest. 42 U.S.C. § 1395ddd(f)(2)(B). The government’s interest rate is high. If you do have to pay back the alleged overpayment prematurely, the silver lining is that you may receive extra money for your troubles.

The years-long back log, however, may dwindle. The agency has received a funding increase, and currently expects to clear the backlog by 2022. In fact, the Secretary is under a Mandamus Order requiring such a timetable. 

A caveat regarding this grim news. This was in the Fifth Circuit. Other Courts disagree. The Fourth Circuit has held that providers do have property interests in Medicare reimbursements owed for services rendered, which is the correct holding. Of course, you have a property interest in your own money. An allegation of wrongdoing does not erase that property interest. The Fourth Circuit agrees with me.

A Study of Contractor Consistency in Reviewing Extrapolated Overpayments

By Frank Cohen, MPA, MBB – my colleague from RACMonitor. He wrote a great article and has permitted me to share it with you. See below.

CMS levies billions of dollars in overpayments a year against healthcare providers, based on the use of extrapolation audits.

The use of extrapolation in Medicare and private payer audits has been around for quite some time now. And lest you be of the opinion that extrapolation is not appropriate for claims-based audits, there are many, many court cases that have supported its use, both specifically and in general. Arguing that extrapolation should not have been used in a given audit, unless that argument is supported by specific statistical challenges, is mostly a waste of time. 

For background purposes, extrapolation, as it is used in statistics, is a “statistical technique aimed at inferring the unknown from the known. It attempts to predict future data by relying on historical data, such as estimating the size of a population a few years in the future on the basis of the current population size and its rate of growth,” according to a definition created by Eurostat, a component of the European Union. For our purposes, extrapolation is used to estimate what the actual overpayment amount might likely be for a population of claims, based on auditing a smaller sample of that population. For example, say a Uniform Program Integrity Contractor (UPIC) pulls 30 claims from a medical practice from a population of 10,000 claims. The audit finds that 10 of those claims had some type of coding error, resulting in an overpayment of $500. To extrapolate this to the entire population of claims, one might take the average overpayment, which is the $500 divided by the 30 claims ($16.67 per claim) and multiply this by the total number of claims in the population. In this case, we would multiply the $16.67 per claim by 10,000 for an extrapolated overpayment estimate of $166,667. 

The big question that normally crops up around extrapolation is this: how accurate are the estimates? And the answer is (wait for it …), it depends. It depends on just how well the sample was created, meaning: was the sample size appropriate, were the units pulled properly from the population, was the sample truly random, and was it representative of the population? The last point is particularly important, because if the sample is not representative of the population (in other words, if the sample data does not look like the population data), then it is likely that the extrapolated estimate will be anything but accurate.

To account for this issue, referred to as “sample error,” statisticians will calculate something called a confidence interval (CI), which is a range within which there is some acceptable amount of error. The higher the confidence value, the larger the potential range of error. For example, in the hypothetical audit outlined above, maybe the real average for a 90-percent confidence interval is somewhere between $15 and $18, while, for a 95-percent confidence interval, the true average is somewhere between $14 and $19. And if we were to calculate for a 99-percent confidence interval, the range might be somewhere between $12 and $21. So, the greater the range, the more confident I feel about my average estimate. Some express the confidence interval as a sense of true confidence, like “I am 90 percent confident the real average is somewhere between $15 and $18,” and while this is not necessarily wrong, per se, it does not communicate the real value of the CI. I have found that the best way to define it would be more like “if I were to pull 100 random samples of 30 claims and audit all of them, 90 percent would have a true average of somewhere between $15 and $18,” meaning that the true average for some 1 out of 10 would fall outside of that range – either below the lower boundary or above the upper boundary. The main reason that auditors use this technique is to avoid challenges based on sample error.

To the crux of the issue, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) levies billions of dollars in overpayments a year against healthcare providers, based on the use of extrapolation audits. And while the use of extrapolation is well-established and well-accepted, its use in an audit is not an automatic, and depends upon the creation of a statistically valid and representative sample. Thousands of extrapolation audits are completed each year, and for many of these, the targeted provider or organization will appeal the use of extrapolation. In most cases, the appeal is focused on one or more flaws in the methodology used to create the sample and calculate the extrapolated overpayment estimate. For government audits, such as with UPICs, there is a specific appeal process, as outlined in their Medical Learning Network booklet, titled “Medicare Parts A & B Appeals Process.”

On Aug. 20, 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS OIG) released a report titled “Medicare Contractors Were Not Consistent in How They Reviewed Extrapolated Overpayments in the Provider Appeals Process.” This report opens with the following statement: “although MACs (Medicare Administrative Contractors) and QICs (Qualified Independent Contractors) generally reviewed appealed extrapolated overpayments in a manner that conforms with existing CMS requirements, CMS did not always provide sufficient guidance and oversight to ensure that these reviews were performed in a consistent manner.” These inconsistencies were associated with $42 million in extrapolated payments from fiscal years 2017 and 2018 that were overturned in favor of the provider. It’s important to note that at this point, we are only talking about appeal determinations at the first and second level, known as redetermination and reconsideration, respectively.

Redetermination is the first level of appeal, and is adjudicated by the MAC. And while the staff that review the appeals at this level are supposed to have not been involved in the initial claim determination, I believe that most would agree that this step is mostly a rubber stamp of approval for the extrapolation results. In fact, of the hundreds of post-audit extrapolation mitigation cases in which I have been the statistical expert, not a single one was ever overturned at redetermination.

The second level of appeal, reconsideration, is handled by a QIC. In theory, the QIC is supposed to independently review the administrative records, including the appeal results of redetermination. Continuing with the prior paragraph, I have to date had only several extrapolation appeals reversed at reconsideration; however, all were due to the fact that the auditor failed to provide the practice with the requisite data, and not due to any specific issues with the statistical methodology. In two of those cases, the QIC notified the auditor that if they were to get the required information to them, they would reconsider their decision. And in two other cases, the auditor appealed the decision, and it was reversed again. Only the fifth case held without objection and was adjudicated in favor of the provider.

Maybe this is a good place to note that the entire process for conducting extrapolations in government audits is covered under Chapter 8 of the Medicare Program Integrity Manual (PIM). Altogether, there are only 12 pages within the entire Manual that actually deal with the statistical methodology behind sampling and extrapolation; this is certainly not enough to provide the degree of guidance required to ensure consistency among the different government contractors that perform such audits. And this is what the OIG report is talking about.

Back to the $42 million that was overturned at either redetermination or reconsideration: the OIG report found that this was due to a “type of simulation testing that was performed only by a subset of contractors.” The report goes on to say that “CMS did not intend that the contractors use this procedure, (so) these extrapolations should not have been overturned. Conversely, if CMS intended that contractors use this procedure, it is possible that other extrapolations should have been overturned but were not.” This was quite confusing for me at first, because this “simulation” testing was not well-defined, and also because it seemed to say that if this procedure was appropriate to use, then more contractors should have used it, which would have resulted in more reversals in favor of the provider.   

Interestingly, CMS seems to have written itself an out in Chapter 8, section 8.4.1.1 of the PIM, which states that “[f]ailure by a contractor to follow one or more of the requirements contained herein does not necessarily affect the validity of the statistical sampling that was conducted or the projection of the overpayment.” The use of the term “does not necessarily” leaves wide open the fact that the failure by a contractor to follow one or more of the requirements may affect the validity of the statistical sample, which will affect the validity of the extrapolated overpayment estimate. 

Regarding the simulation testing, the report stated that “one MAC performed this type of simulation testing for all extrapolation reviews, and two MACs recently changed their policies to include simulation testing for sample designs that are not well-supported by the program integrity contractor. In contrast, both QICs and three MACs did not perform simulation testing and had no plans to start using it in the future.” And even though it was referenced some 20 times, with the exception of an example given as Figure 2 on page 10, the report never did describe in any detail the type of simulation testing that went on. From the example, it was evident to me that the MACs and QICs involved were using what is known as a Monte Carlo simulation. In statistics, simulation is used to assess the performance of a method, typically when there is a lack of theoretical background. With simulations, the statistician knows and controls the truth. Simulation is used advantageously in a number of situations, including providing the empirical estimation of sampling distributions. Footnote 10 in the report stated that ”reviewers used the specific simulation test referenced here to provide information about whether the lower limit for a given sampling design was likely to achieve the target confidence level.” If you are really interested in learning more about it, there is a great paper called
“The design of simulation studies in medical statistics” by Burton et al. (2006). 

Its application in these types of audits is to “simulate” the audit many thousands of times to see if the mean audit results fall within the expected confidence interval range, thereby validating the audit results within what is known as the Central Limit Theorem (CLT).

Often, the sample sizes used in recoupment-type audits are too small, and this is usually due to a conflict between the sample size calculations and the distributions of the data. For example, in RAT-STATS, the statistical program maintained by the OIG, and a favorite of government auditors, sample size estimates are based on an assumption that the data are normally (or near normally) distributed. A normal distribution is defined by the mean and the standard deviation, and includes a bunch of characteristics that make sample size calculations relatively straightforward. But the truth is, because most auditors use the paid amount as the variable of interest, population data are rarely, if ever, normally distributed. Unfortunately, there is simply not enough room or time to get into the details of distributions, but suffice it to say that, because paid data are bounded on the left with zero (meaning that payments are never less than zero), paid data sets are almost always right-skewed. This means that the distribution tail continues on to the right for a very long distance.  

In these types of skewed situations, sample size normally has to be much larger in order to meet the CLT requirements. So, what one can do is simulate the random sample over and over again to see whether the sampling results ever end up reporting a normal distribution – and if not, it means that the results of that sample should not be used for extrapolation. And this seems to be what the OIG was talking about in this report. Basically, they said that some but not all of the appeals entities (MACs and QICs) did this type of simulation testing, and others did not. But for those that did perform the tests, the report stated that $41.5 million of the $42 million involved in the reversals of the extrapolations were due to the use of this simulation testing. The OIG seems to be saying this: if this was an unintended consequence, meaning that there wasn’t any guidance in place authorizing this type of testing, then it should not have been done, and those extrapolations should not have been overturned. But if it should have been done, meaning that there should have been some written guidance to authorize that type of testing, then it means that there are likely many other extrapolations that should have been reversed in favor of the provider. A sticky wicket, at best.

Under the heading “Opportunity To Improve Contractor Understanding of Policy Updates,” the report also stated that “the MACs and QICs have interpreted these requirements differently. The MAC that previously used simulation testing to identify the coverage of the lower limit stated that it planned to continue to use that approach. Two MACs that previously did not perform simulation testing indicated that they would start using such testing if they had concerns about a program integrity contractor’s sample design. Two other MACs, which did not use simulation testing, did not plan to change their review procedures.” One QIC indicated that it would defer to the administrative QIC (AdQIC, the central manager for all Medicare fee-for-service claim case files appealed to the QIC) regarding any changes. But it ended this paragraph by stating that “AdQIC did not plan to change the QIC Manual in response to the updated PIM.”

With respect to this issue and this issue alone, the OIG submitted two specific recommendations, as follows:

  • Provide additional guidance to MACs and QICs to ensure reasonable consistency in procedures used to review extrapolated overpayments during the first two levels of the Medicare Parts A and B appeals process; and
  • Take steps to identify and resolve discrepancies in the procedures that MACs and QICs use to review extrapolations during the appeals process.

In the end, I am not encouraged that we will see any degree of consistency between and within the QIC and MAC appeals in the near future.

Basically, it would appear that the OIG, while having some oversight in the area of recommendations, doesn’t really have any teeth when it comes to enforcing change. I expect that while some reviewers may respond appropriately to the use of simulation testing, most will not, if it means a reversal of the extrapolated findings. In these cases, it is incumbent upon the provider to ensure that these issues are brought up during the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) appeal.

Programming Note: Listen to Frank Cohen report this story live during the next edition of Monitor Mondays, 10 a.m. Eastern.

RAC Report: PET Scans, Helicopter Transportation, and Hospice, Oh My!

The RACs are on attack! The “COVID Pause Button” on RAC audits has been lifted. The COVID Pause Button has been lifted since August 2020. But never have I ever seen CMS spew out so many new RAC topics in one month of a new year. Happy 2021.

Recovery audit contractors (“RACs”) will soon be auditing positron emission tomography (PET) scans for initial treatment strategy in oncologic conditions for compliance with medical necessity and documentation requirements.

Positron emission tomography (“PET”) scans detect early signs of cancer, heart disease and brain disorders. An injectable radioactive tracer detects diseased cells. A combination PET-CT scan produces 3D images for a more accurate diagnosis.

According to CMS’ RAC audit topics, “(PET) for Initial Treatment Strategy in Oncologic Conditions: Medical Necessity and Documentation Requirements,” will be reviewed as of January 5, 2021. The PET scan audits will be for outpatient hospital and professional service reviews. CMS added additional 2021 audit targets to the approved list:

  1. Air Ambulance: Medical Necessity and Documentation Requirements,[1]. This complex review will be examining rotatory wing (helicopter) aircraft claims to determine if air ambulance transport was reasonable and medically necessary as well as whether or not documentation requirements have been met.
  2. Hospice Continuous Home Care: Medical Necessity and Documentation Requirements,[2] and
  3. Ambulance Transport Subject to SNF Consolidated Billing.[3]

Upcoming HHS secretary Xavier Becerra plans to get his new tenure underway quickly.

In False Claims Act (“FCA”) news, Medicare audits of P-Stim have ramped up across the country. A Spinal Clinic in Texas agreed to pay $330,898 to settle FCA allegations for allegedly billing Medicare improperly for electro-acupuncture device neurostimulators. CMS claims that “Medicare does not reimburse for acupuncture or for acupuncture devices such as P-Stim, nor does Medicare reimburse for P-Stim as a neurostimulator or as implantation of neurostimulator electrodes.”

Finally, is your staff getting medical records to consumers requesting their records quickly enough? Right to access to health records is yet another potential risk for all providers, especially hospitals due to their size. A hospital system agreed to pay $200,000 to settle potential violations of the HIPAA Privacy Rule’s right of access standard. This is HHS Office for Civil Rights’ 14th settlement under its Right of Access Initiative. The first person alleged that she requested medical records in December 2017 and did not receive them until May 2018. In the second complaint, the person asked for an electronic copy of his records in September 2019, and they were not sent until February 2020.

Beware of slow document production as slow document production can lead to penalties. And be on the lookout for the next RAC Report.

Remember, never accept the results of a Medicare or Medicaid audit. It is always too high. Believe me, after 21 years of my legal practice, I have yet to agree with the findings if a Tentative notice of Overpayment by any governmental contracted auditor, whether it is PCG, NGS, the MACs, MCOs, or Program Integrity – in any of our 50 States. That is quite a statement about the general, quality of work of auditors. Remember Teambuilders? How did $12 million become $896.35? See blog.

1  CMS, “0200-Air Ambulance: Medical Necessity and Documentation Requirements,” proposed RAC topic, January 5, 2021, http://go.cms.gov/35Jx1co.
2 CMS, “0201-Hospice Continuous Home Care: Medical Necessity and Documentation Requirements,” proposed RAC topic, January 5, 2021, http://go.cms.gov/3oRUyiY.
3 CMS, “0202- Ambulance Transport Subject to SNF Consolidated Billing,” proposed RAC topic, January 5, 2021, http://go.cms.gov/2LOMEbw.

“Credible Allegations of Fraud”: Immediate Medicare Payment Suspension!

If you are accused of Medicare fraud, your Medicare reimbursements will be immediately cut off without any due process or ability to defend yourself against the allegations. If you accept Medicare and Medicaid then you are held to strict regulations, some of which are highly, Draconian in nature without much recourse, legally, for providers. Many, many a provider have gone bankrupt and been forced out of business due to “credible allegations of fraud.” You see, legally, “credible allegations of fraud” is a low standard to meet. The definition of “credible” is “an indicia of reliability.” “Indicia” is defined as “signs, indications, circumstances which tend to show or indicate that something is probable. It is used in the form of “indicia of title,” or “indicia of partnership,” particularly when the “signs” are items like letters, certificates, or other things that one would not have unless the facts were as the possessor claimed. It can be a disgruntled worker. I am sure that none of the listeners here today have ever dealt with a disgruntled employee. Yes, that is sarcasm.

42 CFR § 405.372 is the regulation outlining the requirements for suspending Medicare payments. 42 CFR § 455.23 is the regulation mandating suspension of Medicaid payments upon credible allegations of fraud.

Pursuant to Medicare regulations, CMS must suspend Medicare reimbursements to a healthcare provider “in whole or in part” if it has been “determined that a credible allegation of fraud exists against a provider or supplier.” 42 C.F.R. § 405.371(a)(2). A credible allegation of fraud is “an allegation from any source, including … civil fraud claims cases, and law enforcement investigations.” 42 C.F.R. § 405.370(a). The decision to suspend Medicare payment or continue a payment suspension is made at the discretion of CMS – not the MAC. If you receive a letter from a MAC alleging fraud, be sure to check whether the letter states that the decision was made in collaboration with CMS. The MACs do not have the authority.

The suspension, however, is not indefinite, although the length is normally a year, which is financially devastating. The regulations allow CMS to maintain the suspension until a “legal action is terminated by settlement, judgment, or dismissal, or when the case is closed or dropped because of insufficient evidence to support allegations of fraud.” 42 C.F.R. §§ 405.370(a) and .372(d)(3); see also § 405.371(b)(3)(ii) (CMS may extend the suspension of payment if the Department of Justice submits a written request that “suspension of payments be continued based on the ongoing investigation and anticipated filing of criminal or civil action or both or based on a pending criminal or civil action or both.”).

When you receive a fraud accusation of any type – it is imperative to send it to your counsel. If you opt to litigate the suspension by asking the Court to enjoin the suspension, your first legal obstacle will be to argue that you do not have to exhaust your administrative remedies before appearing for the injunction. Cases have been decided both in the favor of providers and their suspensions have been lifted and against the providers. These cases usually win or lose on the argument that the suspension of reimbursements is an ancillary subject from the actual investigation of fraud. It is a jurisdictional argument.

It is my opinion that the federal regulations that allow for suspension of payments upon credible allegations of fraud need to be revised. Any of you with lobbyists, we need to revise the regulations to require due process – notice and an opportunity to be heard – prior to the government suspending Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements based on a spurious accusation from an anonymous source.

Back in 2015, I am sure that you all recall the case in New Mexico where NM accused 15 BH care provider of credible allegations of fraud. The providers constituted 87.5% of the BH in NM. I was one of the attorneys representing the larger BH cos. Prior to my involvement, all 15 providers requested good cause. All were denied. Lawmakers think that the good cause exception written into the regulation is enough defense for providers. But when the good cause is almost always denied, it isn’t much help. Write to your congress people. Amend the regulations to require due process.

Inconsequential Medicare Audits Could Morph into a Whopper of a Whale

Emergency room physicians or health care providers are a discrete breed – whales in a sea of fish. Emergency room doctors have – for the most part – been overlooked by the RAC auditors or TPE, ZPIC, or MAC auditors. Maybe it’s because, even RAC auditors have children or spouses that need ER services from time to time. Maybe it’s because ER doctors use so many different billers. Normally, an ER doctor doesn’t know which of his or her patients are Medicaid or Medicare. When someone is suffering from a a broken leg or heart attack, the ER doctor is not going to stop care to inquire whether the patient is insured and by whom. But should they? Should ER doctors have to ask patients their insurer? If the answer includes any sort of explanation that care differs depending on whether someone is covered by Medicare or Medicaid or has private insurance, then, sadly, the answer may be yes.

ER doctors travel to separate emergency rooms, which are owned by various and distinct entities, and rely on individual billing companies. They do not normally work at only one hospital. Thus, they do not always have the same billers. We all know that not all billers are created equal. Some are endowed with a higher understanding of billing idiosyncrasies than others.

For example, for CPT codes 99281-99285 – Hospital emergency department services are not payable for the same calendar date as critical care services when provided by the same physician or physician group with the same specialty to the same patient. 

We all know that all hospitals do not hire and implement the same billing computer software programs. The old adage – “you get what you pay for” – may be more true than we think. Recent articles purport that “the move to electronic health records may be contributing to billions of dollars in higher costs for Medicare, private insurers and patients by making it easier for hospitals and physicians to bill more for their services, whether or not they provide additional care.” – Think a comment like that would red-flag ER doctors services by RAC, MAC and ZPIC auditors? The white whale may as well shoot a water spray 30 feet into the air.

Will auditing entities begin to watch ER billing more closely? And what are the consequences? When non-emergency health care providers are terminated by Medicare, Medicaid, or a MAC or MCO’s network, there is no emergency – by definition. Juxtapose, the need for ER health care providers. ER rooms cannot function with a shortage of  physicians and health care providers. Even more disturbing is if the termination is unwarranted and seemingly inconsequential – only affecting under 4 surgeries per month – but acts as the catalyst for termination of Medicare, Medicaid, and private payors across the board.

I have a client named Dr. Ishmael. His big fish became the MAC Palmetto – very suddenly. Like many ER docs, he rotates ERs. He provides services for Medicare, Medicaid, private pay, uninsured – it doesn’t matter to him, he is an ER doctor. He gets a letter from one MAC. In this case, it was Palmetto. Interestingly enough, Palmetto is his smallest insurance payor. Maybe 2 surgeries a month are covered by Palmetto. 90% of his services are provided to Medicaid patients. Not by his choice, but by demographics and circumstance. The letter from Palmetto states that he is being excluded from Palmetto’s Medicare network, effective in 10 days. He will also be placed on the CMS preclusion list in 4 months.

We appeal through Palmetto, as required. But, in the meantime, four other MACs, State Medicaid and BCBS terminate Dr. Ishmael’s billing privileges for Medicare and Medicaid based on Palmetto’s decision. Remember, we are appealing Palmetto’s decision as we believe it is erroneous. But because of Palmetto’s possibly incorrect decision to terminate Dr. Ishmael’s Medicare billing privileges, all of a sudden, 100% of Dr. Ishmael’s services are nonbillable and nonreimburseable…without Dr. Ishmael or the hospital ever getting the opportunity to review and defend against the otherwise innocuous termination decision.

Here, the hospital executives, along with legal counsel, schedule meetings with Dr. Ishmael. “They need him,” they say. “He is important,” they say. But he is not on the next month’s rotation. Or the next.

They say: “Come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me?”

Billing audits on ER docs for Medicare/caid compliance are distinctive processes, separate from other providers’ audits. Most providers know the insurance of the patient to whom they are rendering services. Most providers use one biller and practice at one site. ER docs have no control over the choice of their billers. Not to mention, the questions arises, who gets to appeal on behalf the ER provider? Doesn’t the hospital reap the benefit of the reimbursements?

But one seemingly paltry, almost, minnow-like, audit by a cameo auditor can disrupt an entire career for an ER doc. It is imperative to act fast to appeal in the case of an ER doc.  But balance speed of the appeal with the importance of preparing all legal arguments. Most MACs or other auditing entities inform other payors quickly of your exclusion or termination but require you to put forth all arguments in your appeal or you could waive those defenses. I argue against that, but the allegations can exist nonetheless.

The moral of the story is ER docs need to appeal and appeal fast when billing privileges are restricted, even if the particular payor only constitutes 4 surgeries a month. As Herman Melville said: “I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.” 

Sometimes, however, it is not a laughing matter. It is an appealable matter.

State Agencies Must Follow the State Medicare Plan! Or Else!

Accused of an alleged overpayment? Scrutinize the Department’s procedure to determine that alleged overpayment. One step out of line (in violation of any pertinent rule) by the Department and the overpayment is dismissed.

Ask yourself: Did the State follow Medicare State Plan Agreement? (The Plan germane in your State).

In a Mississippi Supreme Court case, the Mississippi Department of Medicaid (“DOM”) alleged that a hospital owed $1.2226 million in overpayments. However, the Court found that DOM failed to follow proper procedure in assessing the alleged overpayment. Since the DOM failed to follow the rules, the $1.2226 million alleged overpayment was thrown out.

The Court determined that the DOM, the single state agency charged with managing Medicare and Medicaid, must follow all pertinent rules otherwise an alleged overpayment will be thrown out.

Two cases premised on the notion that the DOM must follow all pertinent rules were decided in MS – with polar opposite endings.

  • Crossgates River Oaks Hosp. v. Mississippi Div. of Medicaid, 240 So. 3d 385, 388 (Miss. 2018); and
  • Cent. Mississippi Med. Ctr. v. Mississippi Div. of Medicaid, No. 2018-SA-01410-SCT, 2020 WL 728806, at *2–3 (Miss. Feb. 13, 2020).

In Crossgates, the hospitals prevailed because the DOM had failed to adhere to the Medicare State Plan Agreement. Applying the same legal principles in Cent. MS Med. Ctr, the DOM prevailed because the DOM adhered to the Medicaid State Plan.

It is as simple as the childhood game, “Simon Says.” Do what Simon (State Plan) says or you will be eliminated.

Crossgates

In the 2018 MS Supreme Court case, the Court found that the MS Department failed to follow the Medicare State Plan Agreement in determining an overpayment for a provider, which meant that the overpayment alleged was arbitrary. The thinking is as follows: had the Department followed the rules, then there may not be an overpayment or the alleged overpayment would be a different amount. Since the Department messed up procedurally, the provider got the whole alleged overpayment dismissed from Court. It is the “fruit of the poisonous tree” theory. See Crossgates River Oaks Hosp. v. Miss. Div. of Medicaid, 240 So. 3d 385 (Miss. 2018).

While Courts generally afford great deference to an agency’s interpretation of its regulations, once the agency violates a procedural rule, it is not entitled to that deference. The Court found that the DOM’s interpretation of Attachment 4.19–B of the State Plan was inconsistent with the relevant regulation. Crossgates River Oaks Hosp. v. Mississippi Div. of Medicaid, 240 So. 3d 385, 388 (Miss. 2018).

Throughout these proceedings, the DOM never articulated an explanation for its failure to exclude the radiology and laboratory charges or for its use of a blended rate in place of actual costs, absent altering or amending the State Plan. The clear language of the State Plan establishes that DOM’s choice to reduce payments to the Hospitals was arbitrary, capricious, and not supported by substantial evidence.

Central MS Medical Center

Juxtapose the Central Mississippi Medical Center case, which, by the way has not been released for publication. Atop the header for the case is the following warning:

“NOTICE: THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN RELEASED FOR PUBLICATION IN THE PERMANENT LAW REPORTS. UNTIL RELEASED, IT IS SUBJECT TO REVISION OR WITHDRAWAL.”

With that caveat, the MS Supreme Court held that Medicaid State Plans that are accepted by CMS reign supreme and must be followed. In this case, the MS State Plan required the DOM to use the Medicare Notice of Program Reimbursement (NPR) to establish the final reimbursement.

According to the Supreme Court, the agency followed the rules. Thus, the agency’s adverse determination was upheld. It does not matter what the adverse determination was – you can insert any adverse determination into the equation. But the equation remains stedfast. The State must follow the State Plan in order to validate any adverse decision.

Why Auditors Can’t be Unbiased

Last week on Monitor Mondays, Knicole Emanuel, Esq. reported on the case of Commonwealth v. Pediatric Specialist, PLLC, wherein the Recovery Audit Contractors’ (RACs’) experts were prohibited from testifying because they were paid on contingency. This means that the auditor (or the company for which they work) is paid some percentage of the overpayment findings it reports.

In this case, as in most nowadays, the overpayment estimate was based upon extrapolation, which means that the auditor extended the overpayment amount found in the sample to that of all claims within the universe from which the sample was drawn. I have written about this process before, but basically, it can turn a $1,500 overpayment on the sample into a $1.5 million overpayment demand.

The key to an effective extrapolation is that the statistical process is appropriate, proper, and accurate. In many audits, this is not the case, and so what happens is, if the provider believes that the extrapolation is not appropriate, they may choose to challenge the results in their appeal. Many times, this is when they will hire a statistician, like me, to review the statistical sampling and overpayment estimate (SSOE), including data and documentation to assist with the appeal. I have worked on hundreds of these post-audit extrapolation mitigation appeals over the years, and even though I am employed by the provider, I maintain a position as an independent fact-finder.  My reports are based on facts and figures, and my opinion is based on those findings. Period.

So, what is it that allows me to remain independent? To perform my job without undue influence or bias? Is it my incredibly high ethical standards? Check! My commitment to upholding the standards of my industry? Check!  Maybe my good looks? Well, not check! It is the fact that my fees are fixed, and are not contingent on the outcome. I mean, it would be great if I could do what the RACs do and cash in on the outcomes of a case, but alas, no such luck.

In one large class-action case in which I was the statistical expert, the defendant settled for $122 million. The law firm got something like a quarter or a third of that, and the class members all received some remuneration as well. Me? I got my hourly rate, and after the case was done, a bottle of Maker’s Mark whiskey as a thank you. And I’m not even sure that was appropriate, so I sent it back. I would love to be paid a percentage of what I am able to save a client in this type of appeal. I worked on a case a couple of years ago for which we were able to get the extrapolation thrown out, which reduced the payment demand from $5.9 million to $3,300. Imagine if I got paid even 2 percent of that; it would be nearly $120,000. But that can’t happen, because the moment my work product is tied to the results, I am no longer independent, nor unbiased. I don’t care how honest or ethical you are, contingency deals change the landscape – and that is as true for me, as an expert, as it is for the auditor.

In the pediatric case referenced above, the RAC that performed the audit is paid on a contingency, although I like to refer to it as a “bounty.” As such, the judge ruled, as Ms. Emanuel reported, that their experts could not testify on behalf of the RAC. Why not? Because the judge, unlike the RAC, is an independent arbiter, and having no skin in the game, is unbiased in their adjudication. But you can’t say that about the RAC. If they are being paid a “bounty” (something like 10 percent), then how in the world could they be considered independent and unbiased?

The short answer is, they can’t. And this isn’t just based on standards of statistical practice; it is steeped in common sense. Look at the appeal statistics; some 50 percent of all RAC findings are eventually reversed in favor of the provider. If that isn’t evidence of an overzealous, biased, bounty-hunting process, I don’t know what is. Basically, as Knicole reported, having their experts prohibited from testifying, the RAC was unable to contest the provider’s arguments, and the judge ruled in favor of the provider.

But, in my opinion, it should not stop here. This is one of those cases that exemplifies the “fruit of the poisonous tree” defense, meaning that if this case passes muster, then every other case for which the RAC did testify and the extrapolation held should be challenged and overturned. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of all of those affected by RAC extrapolated audits. And if there is one, I would love to be the statistical expert – but for a flat fee, of course, and not contingent upon the outcome.

And that’s the world according to Frank.

Frank Cohen is a frequent panelist with me on RACMonitor. I love his perspective on expert statistician witnesses. He drafted based off a Monitor Monday report of mine. Do not miss both Frank and me on RACMonitor, every Monday.