Category Archives: Program Integrity

Attorney/Client Privilege: Its Importance to Health Care Providers, and TIPS to Avoid Potential Pitfalls as to Former Employees

This blog is intended to provide TIPS to health care providers who have any amount of attrition with staff members and why these TIPS as to attorney/client privilege are so important.

First, I’d like to say, for the past few weeks, I have been moving homes and firms, concurrently.  Add in a trial or two into the mix and I haven’t been able to blog as often.  But I’m fairly moved in now (to both) and have one of the trials mostly wrapped up.

The idea for this blog, in particular, actually came to me while Robert Shaw, Senior Counsel, and I were Santa Fe, New Mexico for a trial.

While preparing the witnesses for trial, I re-realized an important aspect of attorney/client privilege that is vital to health care providers if there is any attrition in their staff.

I say “re-realized” because I already knew the importance of attorney/client privilege, but I realized the importance for health care providers to understand its importance, as well…hence, this blog.

If, for whatever reason, your company is forced to lay off staff or, even, if you have staff voluntarily leave your office, you need to read the entirety of this blog and pay special attention to the TIPS at the bottom.

Why?

What if you need to rely on that former employee for testimony in a hearing?

For example, you are CEO of a small or large health care provider company and your Medical Director or Compliance Director leaves your employment and you need the former employee to testify in the future.  Your former employee and your attorney will not be protected by attorney/client privilege.

You may be thinking…so what?

But attorney/client privilege is key in trial.

Let me give you an illustrative example:

You own a dental practice and accept Medicaid.  Lucy is your office manager.  She oversees the Medicaid billing, ensures regulatory compliance, and deals with denials that come from NCTracks.  She also enters the data into NCTracks.  You, as the dentist, provide dental services, but you have little to do with what Lucy does.  You trust her and she does her job well.

DHHS via Program Integrity conducts an audit and determines that you owe $750,000 in alleged overpayments. Maybe the auditor didn’t know that the notation “cavies” means cavities and dinged you for billing for filling a cavity because the auditor could not discern from the service note that a cavity was actually filled.  Or, maybe you coded the service for scraping the wall of a gingival pocket, and the auditor did not understand what “curettage” is in the service note.

Regardless, you receive a Notice of Overpayment on May 4, 2015.  On May 7, 2015, Lucy tells you that she is having her first baby and wants to be stay at home mother.  You congratulate her and begin your search for another office manager.  You end up hiring Bill.

By the time that you need to get ready to defend your $750,000 overpayment with your attorney, Lucy has given birth to Annie and hasn’t worked for you for over a year.

But your attorney, in order to defend the overpayment, will need Lucy to testify at court.  Before a witness testifies in court, your attorney must meet with him or her to prepare the witness for direct examination and cross examination by opposing counsel. (If your attorney does not, instruct him or her to do so).

When I am in a situation such as the one I have outlined above.  I am extremely careful.  Because there is no attorney/client privilege between “Lucy” and me because she is a former employee, I am very precise in my prep.  For example, I would never discuss legal strategy with Lucy.  I would never show privileged information; I would never try to “lead” Lucy’s opinion. Leading a witness’s opinion could come across like, “Lucy, If I ask you on the stand whether your opinion is that curettage means scraping a gingival pocket, you would agree, correct?” Instead, I would ask, “Lucy, what do you understand curettage to mean and how would you normally code the procedure?”

Why?

Any attorney worth his or her salt knows that attorney/client privilege does not attach to a former employee.

Why does that matter?

Any opposing attorney worth his or her salt will cross exam Lucy as to every detail possible involving the meeting between Lucy and me. And I mean every detail.

For example:

Q: “You met with Ms. Emanuel in preparation for this meeting, correct?”

A: “Yes.”

Q: “When exactly was that?”

A: “Two weeks ago.”

Q: “What documents did Ms. Emanuel show you?”

A: “She showed me my direct examination.”

Q: “What do you mean? A hard copy of the questions that you would be asked?”

A: “Yes.”

Q: “Ms. Emanuel, I expect that you have no problem providing me with a copy of what you showed Lucy?”

Me: “Not at all.”

Boom! By Lucy testifying that I showed her my hard copy of my direct examination questions, opposing counsel is entitled to review my draft questions along with any notes I may have notated on that hard copy of Lucy’s direct testimony.  What happens if I have privileged notes contained within my questions? My attorney notes contained within the questions are now discoverable by the other side.

[BTW: I would never show Lucy my actual list of questions, unless I fully anticipated giving my list to opposing counsel.]

But you can see the potential pitfalls. Anything discussed or shown to Lucy by your counsel will be discoverable by opposing counsel.  What if your counsel, without thinking, tells Lucy that he or she thinks this is a weak case? Or tells Lucy that he or she hopes the other side doesn’t pick up on…..X?

Even if the attorney prepping Lucy states something disparaging about opposing counsel, or God forbid, the judge, those remarks are discoverable and Lucy must testify to those comments on the stand.

On one occasion, I actually had opposing counsel question my witness about our conversation during a 10 minute break, during which I was smart enough not to speak about the case.  My witness answered, “We discussed that I think you are b$#@!”  But counsel’s question was valid and allowable.  Because just as easily, during the break, I could have said, if I were not worth my salt, “Lucy, I did not like how you answered that question.  You need to say…..X.”

Judges do not look favorable on coached testimony.

TIPS:

As a health care provider, what measures can you take that if you are forced to call former employees as witnesses, you are poised for the best result?

1. Try to maintain a cordial relationship with former employees.

I know this can be difficult as every provider needs to terminate staff or has disgruntled employees.  But, even if you are firing staff, try to do so in a professional, amicable manner. Explain that it is a business decision, not personal (regardless the reason).  Give the soon-to-be-fired employee notice, such as 30 days, if possible.  If you would recommend the employee to a colleague, let the employee know and to whom.  These small steps can help your future in case of trial.

2. Re-hire the employee.

In my opinion, this avenue has an aura of attempted deceit, and I do not recommend this route unless you are re-hiring the employee in good faith.  For example, if you truly did not want to fire the staff member and you genuinely could use that person back in your office, or, if, in the case of Lucy, she decides that she wants to come back to work of her own volition and you still have the need.

An employee is protected by attorney/client privilege, generally.

3. Be knowledgeable or hire a knowledgeable attorney.

If you are concerned that your attorney may disclose something otherwise confidential in witness prep of a former employee, have a lengthy discussion with your attorney prior to the preparation session.  Sit in with your attorney during the prep of the former attorney.

Along the same lines as above, come to an understanding with your attorney which documents may be considered “hot docs” and essential to the case, and, which should not be discussed with a former employee at all.

4. Test the waters.

Prior to your attorney contacting Lucy, call Lucy yourself. Have a chat.  Catch up. Ask Lucy whether she is willing to testify on your behalf.  If Lucy starts cussing you out, you may want to think of alternative witnesses.  If there are no alternative witnesses, you may want to discuss with your attorney whether an affidavit or deposition could substitute for Lucy’s testimony at trial.

5. Pay for Lucy’s time

There is nothing wrong or unethical about compensating Lucy for her trial preparation and appearance at trial.  Obviously, this compensation is discoverable by opposing counsel and questions can be asked about the compensation situation.  But I believe it is better to have a happy Lucy, who feels that her time is valuable, rather than an increasingly frustrated Lucy, as each second ticks along.

6. Think ahead

If you know you will be terminating an employee or if you receive notice that an employee  is leaving, think about the most important aspects of his or her job and memorialize the procedures.  For example, in the case of Lucy, ask Lucy to draft a memo to the file as to her procedures in billing Medicaid.  Have her write which service notes are billed for which codes and the reasons in support and how she manually enters data into NCTracks.  It may seem tedious, but these notes will be invaluable during any future litigation.

Along the same vein as above, if possible, have Lucy train Bill prior to her leaving.  That way, if Lucy is an undesirable witness, Bill can testify that he follows the same protocol as Lucy because Lucy trained him and he follows her protocol.

Hopefully, these TIPS will be helpful to you in the future in the case of employees leaving your practice.  Print off the blog and review it whenever an employee is leaving.

Is Health Care Fraud on the Rise? Or Just the Accusations??

Recent stories in the news seem to suggest that health care fraud is running rampant.  We’ve got stories about Eric Leak‘s Medicaid agency, Nature’s Reflections, funneling money to pay athletes, a seizure of property in Greensboro for alleged Medicaid fraud, and, in Charlotte, a man was charged with Medicaid fraud and sentenced to three years under court supervision and ordered to pay $3,153,074. And these examples are local.

Health care fraud with even larger amounts of money at stake has been prosecuted in other states.  A nonprofit up in NY is accused of defrauding the Medicaid system for over $27 million.  Overall, the federal government opened 924 criminal health care fraud investigations last year.

What is going on? Are more people getting into the health care fraud business? Has the government become better at detecting possible health care fraud?

I believe that the answer is that the federal and state governments have determined that it “pays” high dividends to invest in health care fraud investigations.  More and more money is being allocated to the fraud investigative divisions.  More money, in turn, yields more health care fraud allegations…which yields more convictions….and more money to the government.

Believe me, I understand the importance of detecting fraud.  It sickens me that those who actually defraud our Medicaid and Medicare systems are taking medically necessary services away from those who need the services.  However, sometimes the net is cast so wide…so far…that innocent providers get caught in the net.  And being accused of health care fraud when you innocent is a gruesome, harrowing experience that (1) you hope never happens; and (2) you have to be prepared in case it does.  I have seen it happen.

As previously stated, in fiscal year (FY) 2014, the federal government opened 924 new criminal health care fraud  investigations.  That’s 77 new fraud investigations a month!!  This number does not include civil investigations.

In FY 2012, the Department of Justice (DOJ) opened 2,016 new health care fraud investigations (1,131 criminal, 885 civil).

The Justice Department launched 903 new health-care fraud prosecutions in the first eight months of FY 2011, more than all of FY 2010.

These numbers show:

  • an 85% increase over FY 2010,
  • a 157% increase over FY 2006
  • and 822% over FY 1991.

And the 924  investigations opened in fiscal 2014 only represent federal investigations.  Concurrently, all 50 states are conducting similar investigations.

What is being recovered? Are the increased efforts to detect health care fraud worth the effort and expenditures?

Heck, yes, it is worth it to both the state and federal governments!

Government teams recovered $4.3 billion in FY 2013 and $19.2 billion over the last five years.  While still astronomically high, the numbers dropped slightly for FY 2014.  In FY 2014, according to the Annual Report of the Departments of Health and Human Services and Justice, the federal government won or negotiated over $2.3 billion in health care fraud judgments and settlements.  Due to these efforts, as well as efforts from preceding years, the federal government retrieved $3.3 billion from health care fraud investigations.

So the federal and state governments are putting more money into investigating health care fraud.  Why?

The Affordable Care Act.

Obviously, the federal and state governments conducted health care fraud investigations prior to the ACA.  But the implementation of the ACA set new mandates to increase fraud investigations. (Mandates, which were suggestions prior to the ACA).

In 2009, Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13520, which was targeted to reduce improper payments and to eliminate waste in federal programs.

On March 23, 2010, President Obama signed the ACA into law.  A major part of the ACA is focused on cost containment methods. Theoretically, the ACA is supposed to be self-funding.  Detecting fraud, waste and abuse in the Medicare/Medicaid system helps to fund the ACA.

Unlike many of the other ACA provisions, most of the fraud and abuse provisions went into effect in 2010 or 2011. The ACA increases funding to the Healthcare Fraud and Abuse Control Program by $350 million over the next decade. These funds can be used for fraud and abuse control and for the Medicare Integrity Program.

The ACA mandates states to conduct post payment and prepayment reviews, screen and audit providers, terminate certain providers, and create provider categories of risk.

While recent articles and media seem to indicate that health care fraud is running rampant, the substantial increase in accusations of health care fraud really may be caused by factors other than more fraud is occurring.

The ACA mandates have an impact.

And, quite frankly, the investigation units may be a bit overzealous to recover funds.

What will happen if you are a target of a criminal health care fraud investigation?

It depends whether the federal or state government is conducting the investigation.

If the federal government is investigating you, most likely, you will be unaware of the investigation.  Then, one day, agents of the federal government will come to your office and seize all property deemed related to the alleged fraud.  Your accounts will be frozen.  Whether you are guilty or not will not matter.  What will matter is you will need an experienced, knowledgeable health fraud attorney and the funds with which to compensate said attorney with frozen accounts.

If the state government is conducting the investigation, it is a little less hostile and CSI-ish.  Your reimbursements will be suspended with or without your notice (obviously, you would notice the suspension once the suspension occurred).  But the whole “raid on your office thing” is less likely.

There are legal remedies available, and the “defense” should begin immediately.

Most importantly, if you are a health care provider and you are not committing fraud, you are not safe from accusations of fraud.

Your insurance, most likely, will not cover attorneys’ fees for alleged intention fraud.

The attorney of your choice will not be able to accept funds that are “tainted” by alleged fraud, even if no fraud occurred.

Be aware that if, for whatever reason, you are accused, you will need to be prepared…for what you hope never happens.

Medicare Alert: Mere Documentation Mistakes May Lead to Termination of Your Medicare Enrollment Contract

Another new CMS rule, released yesterday, increases Medicare provider oversight for fraud, waste, and abuse even more.  See CMS Press Release below.

Now CMS can revoke enrollment of Medicare providers who are found to engage in abusive billing practices by billing for services that do not meet the Medicare requirements.

Well, that sounds great on its face.  We don’t want Medicare providers billing for services that do not meet the Medicare requirements.  We all agree.

Here’s the problem with this very broad new rule…

Who determines whether the Medicare services meet Medicare requirements?  A recover audit contractor (RAC) who is paid on contingency fee?  SeeNC Medicaid RACs Paid to Find Errors by Providers, No Incentive to Find Errors by DMA.”  Even though that blog is speaking about NC RACs, it is analogous to Medicare RACs.

I foresee two longterm consequences of this new rule:

1. North Carolina will adopt the same rules for Medicaid billing errors.  And we know how accurate those alleged billing errors have been…SeeThe Exaggeration of Tentative Notices of Overpayment.”

2. On the federal level, Medicare providers are going to start seeing more terminations of their Medicare contracts for supposed billing mistakes.  Perhaps without due process.  Then providers will have to fight to prove that a property right has been violated.

We shall see…

Here is the CMS press release:

New CMS rules enhance Medicare provider oversight;strengthens beneficiary protections

CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner today announced new rules that strengthen oversight of Medicare providers and protect taxpayer dollars from bad actors. These new safeguards are designed to prevent physicians and other providers with unpaid debt from re-entering Medicare, remove providers with patterns or practices of abusive billing, and implement other provisions to help save more than $327 million annually.

“The changes announced today are common-sense safeguards to preserve Medicare for generations to come, while making the rules more consistent for all providers that work with us,” Administrator Tavenner said. “The Administration is committed to using all appropriate tools as part of its comprehensive program integrity strategy shaped by the Affordable Care Act.”

CMS Deputy Administrator and Director of the Center for Program Integrity, Shantanu Agrawal, M.D., said, “CMS has removed nearly 25,000 providers from Medicare and the new rules help us stop bad actors from coming back in as we continue to protect our patients. For years, some providers tried to game the system and dodge rules to get Medicare dollars; today, this final rule makes it much harder for bad actors that were removed from the program to come back in.”

CMS is using new authorities created by the Affordable Care Act to clamp down on Medicare fraud, waste and abuse. CMS currently has in place temporary enrollment moratoria on new ambulance and home health providers in seven fraud hot spots around the country. The moratoria are allowing CMS to target its resources in those areas, including use of fingerprint-based criminal background checks. These and other successes continue to protect the Medicare Trust Funds. CMS has demonstrated that removing providers from Medicare has a real impact on savings. For example, the Fraud Prevention System, a predictive analytics technology, identified providers and suppliers who were ultimately revoked, and prevented $81 million from being paid.

New changes announced today allow CMS to:

  • Deny enrollment to providers, suppliers and owners affiliated with any entity that has unpaid Medicare debt; this will prevent people and entities that have incurred substantial Medicare debts from exiting the program and then attempting to re-enroll as a new business to avoid repayment of the outstanding Medicare debt.
  • Deny or revoke the enrollment of a provider or supplier if a managing employee has been convicted of a felony offense that CMS determines to be detrimental to Medicare beneficiaries. The recently implemented background checks will provide CMS with more information about felony convictions for high risk providers or suppliers.
  • Revoke enrollments of providers and suppliers engaging in abuse of billing privileges by demonstrating a pattern or practice of billing for services that do not meet Medicare requirements.

NC Medicaid Providers: Do Not Be a Cockey Lockey! Know Your Due Process Rights to Defend Against Administrative Penalties

An acorn falls on Chicken Little’s head. His first immediate thought is, “The sky is falling. The sky is falling.” So Chicken Little begins his travels to tell the king that the sky is falling. Along the way he meets Cockey Lockey, Ducky Lucky, Drakey Lakey and Goosey Loosey, to name a few of his well-feathered friends. Each new waterfowl asks Chicken Little where he is going. To which Chicken Little replies, “The sky is falling. The sky is falling. We have to tell the king.” And the fowl join Chicken Little in his travel to the king.

None of the characters question Chicken Little’s assertion that the sky is falling. They simply accept the fact that the sky is falling.

All too often, people, like Cockey Lockey and Goosey Loosey, accept what they are told without questioning the source.

Over and over I talk to health care providers who are told:

• by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) that they owe DMA hundreds of thousands of dollars for Medicaid overpayments;
• by the managed care organization (MCO) that the provider’s Medicaid contract is terminated;
• by a contracted entity that the provider is out of compliance with rules and regulations;
• by Program Integrity (PI) that there is a complaint filed against the provider; or
• by an MCO that its network is closed.

And some providers just accept the overpayment, the contract termination, the penalty, or the refusal to contract.

Don’t be a Cockey Lockey!

You do have rights! You deserve due process!

Let’s talk about the possible penalties allowed by Medicaid regulations and your right to defend against such penalties and the procedural safeguards enacted to protect you.

10A NCAC 22F .0602 governs “Administrative Sanctions and Remedial Measures,” and it enumerates the following possible sanctions for provider abuse:

• Warning letters for those instances of abuse that can be satisfactorily settled by issuing a warning to cease the specific abuse. The letter will state that any further violations will result in administrative or legal action initiated by the Medicaid Agency.
• Suspension of a provider from further participation in the Medicaid Program for a specified period of time, provided the appropriate findings have been made and provided that this action does not deprive recipients of access to reasonable service of adequate quality.
• Termination of a provider from further participation in the Medicaid Program, provided the appropriate findings have been made and provided that this action does not deprive recipients of access to reasonable services of adequate quality.
• Probation whereby a provider’s participation is closely monitored for a specified period of time not to exceed one year. At the termination of the probation period, the Medicaid Agency will conduct a follow-up review of the provider’s Medicaid practice to ensure compliance with the Medicaid rules.

Remedial Measures are to include:

• placing the provider on “flag” status whereby his claims are remanded for manual review;
• establishing a monitoring program not to exceed one year whereby the provider must comply with pre-established conditions of participation to allow review and evaluation of his Medicaid practice, i.e., quality of care.

Furthermore, certain factors must be considered prior to the levy of a sanction, including:

• seriousness of the offense;
• extent of violations found;
• history or prior violations;
• prior imposition of sanctions;
• period of time provider practiced violations;
• provider willingness to obey program rules;
• recommendations by the investigative staff or Peer Review Committees; and
• effect on health care delivery in the area

All of this information is found in 10A NCAC 22F, et al, which is an administrative code. The code also defines provider fraud and abuse. The penalties enumerated above are penalties allowed for instances of provider abuse, but, only after proper investigation, proper notice to the provider, and proper consideration of lesser penalties. In other words, due process.

For example, 10A NCAC 22F.0302 states that “[a]busive practices shall be investigated according to the provisions of Rule .0202 of this Subchapter.”

Rule .0202 requires a preliminary investigation prior to a full investigation. Additionally, Rule .0302 requires the investigative unit to prepare a “Provider Summary Report,” furnishing the full investigative findings of fact, conclusions, and recommendations. Then the Department is to review the Provider Summary Report and make a “tentative” recommendation as to the penalty, and that tentative recommendation is reviewable under Rule .0400, which allows a reconsideration review. The provider will receive the results of the reconsideration review within 5 business days following the date of the review.

If a provider is unhappy with the results of a reconsideration review, then the provider can appeal to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) within 60 days.

All of the above-mentioned administrative procedures exist in order to protect a provider from unfair, arbitrary, capricious, erroneous actions by DMA and any of its contracted entities. That means Public Consulting Group (PCG), Carolinas Center for Medical Excellence (CCME), all the MCOs, HMS, and any other state contractor must also follow these administrative procedures.

So next time you are told that you owe hundreds of thousands of dollars to the state, that your Medicaid contract has been terminated, or your Medicaid reimbursements are being withheld, do not take these penalties at face value! Know you rights!

Do not be a Cockey Lockey!!

The Medicaid Investigations Division: Facing the Department of Justice’s Fraud Unit

Blog post written by Camden Webb, guest blogger and partner at Williams Mullen. (He is also the attorney that filed the NCTracks lawsuit with me).

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It’s a heart-stopping moment, but it happens regularly: A Medicaid provider, who never had any problems with the State of North Carolina, receives a letter from the North Carolina Attorney General’s Medicaid Investigations Division, or “MID”, informing her that she is the subject of an investigation of Medicaid billing practices. The MID’s core mission is to investigate and prosecute health care fraud committed by Medicaid providers. If you receive a letter from MID, it is an extremely serious matter and can instantly change everything you. You need to know what MID is, how you might become the subject of an investigation, and what to do if you are.

What is MID? MID is a subdivision of the North Carolina Department of Justice that is tasked primarily with investigating Medicaid fraud. MID has two main divisions, civil and criminal. The civil division investigates cases in which a provider may have made a false statement in order to obtain reimbursement payments. The civil division uses special powers granted by the North Carolina False Claims Act to investigate providers, determine if there is enough evidence to show a false statement resulting in reimbursement payments from Medicaid, and thereafter file a civil lawsuit to recover the money.

MID’s criminal division employs prosecutors whose job is to investigate, file criminal charges against, and convict providers who have intentionally and willfully obtained reimbursement payments under false pretenses. The MID website itself describes Medicaid fraud to include circumstances in which providers intentionally bill Medicaid for services not actually provided, use an improper procedure code to bill for a higher priced service when a lower priced service was provided, bill for non-covered services by describing the services as covered services, misrepresent a patient’s diagnosis and symptoms and bill Medicaid for a service that is medically unnecessary, or falsifies medical records. Any such acts could result in criminal prosecution.

As a responsible Medicaid provider, you might conclude that you would never have to worry about an MID investigation. After all, MID is tasked with investigating fraud, and the vast majority of providers honestly and lawfully provide services and submit reimbursement requests for those services. However, the new reality in Medicaid is that many honest providers can and do find themselves dealing with an MID investigation. A prime example, which happens frequently, is when DHHS finds a “credible allegation of fraud” regarding the provider. One would conclude that a “credible allegation of fraud” would be limited to hard evidence that a provider intentionally obtained reimbursements based on false information or some other bad act. However, the Medicaid regulations define a “credible allegation of fraud” to include the results of claims data mining. In other words, a “credible allegation of fraud” can be based simply on a computer analysis of a provider’s billings to Medicaid, and this has indeed been the basis of DHHS’ referral of cases to MID for investigation. For this reason, a number of honest providers have indeed found themselves the subject of an MID investigation, having to contend with the difficulty that such an investigation brings.

There are several key things that providers must know about an MID investigation. If you find yourself the subject of such an investigation, keep the following in mind:

• The first and most important: get a lawyer. The stakes in an MID investigation are extremely high, to include the potential for conviction of a crime. Proceeding without advice of counsel is very risky. Everyone who is subject of an investigation has substantial and important rights, but it takes an expert in this area of the law (and not necessarily me or my firm) to competently advise someone who is the subject of an MID investigation.

Always remember that the State’s investigators and lawyers only work for the State. MID is staffed with competent, dedicated investigators and attorneys, and my dealings with them show that they are straightforward people. However, their job is to investigate fraud, and if you are the subject of an investigation, they have received information indicating that you may have committed fraud. You therefore should exercise caution when speaking with them, you are under no obligation to answer questions, and you certainly are under no such obligation without first hiring an attorney.

Ensure that all your records are properly preserved. Part of MID’s investigation will certainly be a request to inspect and copy your records related to Medicaid billing, such as patient files, employee timesheets, records relating to claims submissions, and contracts with service providers. Any loss of such records will have to be explained, and if a loss occurs after a provider has received notice of an investigation, the provider could be accused of having destroyed records. It is therefore crucial that you preserve your records, both the ones on paper and the electronic data containing relevant information.

Do not discuss the investigation or your Medicaid billing practices with anyone except your lawyer. Because you are the subject of an investigation that is based on information that may indicate you committed fraud, you must be careful about what you say. If you discuss matters with anyone but your lawyer, those persons could be compelled to testify about what you said, and it is not uncommon for someone to misquote, misunderstand, or otherwise misreport what someone has said. Speaking only with your lawyer is the safest course.

• Finally, be patient with the process. Being the subject of an MID investigation is stressful and frustrating, but MID currently is backlogged with a huge number of cases. This means that it will take time for the investigation to conclude. Expert counsel can help you through this process, but recognize that it will take a long time for it to conclude.

NC Medicaid Providers: “Credible Allegations of Fraud?” YOU ARE GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT!!

“Credible allegations of fraud.”  What does that mean???

As it pertains to Medicaid, “credible allegations of fraud” was first introduced into law by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010.  The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) issued its Final Rule February, 2, 2011, and the Informational Bulletin in March 2011.

As you can see, “credible allegations of fraud,” as pertaining to Medicaid, is a relatively new concept.  But what does it mean?  The ACA does not define “credible allegations of fraud.”

I know what “allegation” means.  I also know allegations are not always true.  I also know allegations can change your life. 

When I was a senior in high school, I had been dating my high school sweetheart for 2 years.  An acquaintance, and an apparently, mean-spirited girl, alleged that my boyfriend cheated on me with another girl.  I was so angered and so hurt that I called up my boyfriend immediately and broke up with him.  For weeks, my boyfriend hounded me, professing his innocence.  But I was not to be swayed.  I refused phone calls, avoided seeing him, and publicly disparaged him to my friends.  20 years later I saw him.  I asked him whether he had really cheated on me, knowing that he had no reason to lie now (he is married with 4 children; I am happily married with one child).  But I was just curious because that allegation that he had cheated changed both our lives.  I am not saying that had it not been for the allegation that he and I would be together…not at all…in fact, I am sure we would have eventually broken up.  The point is that the allegation that he cheated, for good or for bad, changed our lives.  And, to me, he was guilty based on the allegation.

20 years later I found out that the allegation was false.  He never cheated.  But his innocence did not change the consequences of the accusation.  He was guilty until proven innocent.

Similarly (and more importantly), a mere accusation that a Medicaid provider is undergoing abhorrent billing practices or committing Medicaid fraud, and without any proof, can change a provider’s life.  A mere allegation of fraud suspends a Medicaid provider’s reimbursements.  The consequence of which can be dire…You are guilty until proven innocent.  Just like my boyfriend.  The accusation alone made him guilty.

According to 42 C.F.R. 447.90, “This section implements section 1903(i)(2)(C) of the Act which prohibits payment of FFP with respect to items or services furnished by an individual or entity with respect to which there is pending an investigation of a credible allegation of fraud except under specified circumstances.”  FYI: FFP stands for Federal Financial Participation (or Medicaid reimbursements in the vernacular).

Section 1903(i)(2)(C) of the Social Security Act (SSA) states that no payments shall be paid to “any individual or entity to whom the State has failed to suspend payments under the plan during any period when there is pending an investigation of a credible allegation of fraud against the individual or entity, as determined by the State in accordance with regulations promulgated by the Secretary for purposes of section 1862(o) and this subparagraph, unless the State determines in accordance with such regulations there is good cause not to suspend such payment.”

But what does “credible allegation of fraud” mean? Where is the definition?  Not in the SSA.

On March 25, 2011, CMS issued an Informational Bulletin in which “credible allegations of fraud” is defined…sort of…

The Informational Bulletin states, “In the final rule, CMS provides certain bounds around the definition of “credible allegation of fraud” at 42 C.F.R. § 455.2. Generally, a “credible allegation of fraud” may be an allegation that has been verified by a State and that has indicia of reliability that comes from any source. Further, CMS recognizes that different States may have different considerations in determining what may be a “credible allegation of fraud.” Accordingly, CMS believes States should have the flexibility to determine what constitutes a “credible allegation of fraud” consistent with individual State law. However, a credible allegation of fraud, for example, could be a complaint made by an employee of a physician alleging that the physician is engaged in fraudulent billing practices,  i.e., the physician repeatedly bills for services at a higher level than is actually justified by the services rendered to beneficiaries. Upon State review of the physician’s billings, the State may determine that the allegation has indicia of reliability and is, in fact, credible. “

1. An allegation

An allegation by its very definition is “a claim or assertion that someone has done something illegal or wrong, typically one made without proof.” See Wikipedia.  Without proof!!!  Why without proof? Because an allegation is preliminary…an accusation…not a conclusion. Girl alleges my boyfriend cheated on me.

2. Verified by a State

Makes sense to need to be verified…

2. Indicia of reliability

Indicia? Indicia means “distinctive marks: indication.” See Dictionary.com.  Not quite sure what that means, but indicia of reliability does not sound like a very high threshold.  Nothing like preponderance of the evidence or beyond a reasonable doubt.  Could be as low a threshold as I applied when the girl alleged my boyfriend cheated on me.

3. Comes from any source

Are you kidding me?? So, if I were a Medicaid provider, my ex-husband, out of spite and hatred, could call up Patrick Piggott over at Program Integrity (PI) and accuse me of Medicaid fraud…or the disgruntled employee I fired….or my next door neighbor who is angry about the bush I planted on his property…you get the point.

Why is it important what the definition is of “credible allegation of fraud?”

As a Medicaid attorney, I represent Medicaid providers (duh).  The point is that I have seen the dire consequences, first-hand, to many, many a Medicaid provider accused of “credible allegations of fraud.”  Here are a few, real-life examples (names have been changed to protect the innocent):

  • Provider Leroy is accused of “credible allegations of fraud.”  Leroy is placed on prepayment review and all Medicaid reimbursements are suspended.  Leroy provides residential services (the people he serves actually live in his home because of severe mental illnesses).  Without Medicaid reimbursements, Leroy cannot pay the mortgage, his staff’s hourly wages, or anything else.  He acquires a $200,000 loan to help him through, and the interest is high.  He truly thinks that he will get off prepayment review and save his company and his Medicaid recipients from not having a home or Medicaid mental health services.  After 6 months of barely sliding by, Leroy receives a Notice of Termination terminating his Medicaid contract with the State.  (It is important to note that the termination was based of a faulty audit by an inept contractor).  He declares bankruptcy and all the Medicaid recipients are discharged to the homes that could not care for them in the first place.  The “credible allegation of fraud?” It came from a disgruntled employee.
  • Provider Lacey receives a Tentative Notice of Overpayment (TNO) in the amount of over $2 million based on “credible allegations of fraud.”  Provider Lacey (after her initial heart attack) hires Attorney Clueless.  Clueless appeals the TNO and gets the overpayment amount reduced to $1.5 million.  Lacey does not have $1.5 million and asks Clueless to appeal again.  Clueless fails to appeal the overpayment by the appeal deadline, and Lacey gets a judgment entered against her and her company.  Lacey’s husband is sick and tired of hearing about the Medicaid audit and abandons her and her two children.  Lacey declares bankruptcy.  Lacey used to support herself and her family.  Now North Carolina does.  The “credible allegation of fraud?” Lacey’s husband (apparently he had issues WAY before he left).
  • Provider Larry receives notice from a managed care organization (MCO) terminating his Medicaid contract based on “credible allegations of fraud” and demanding a $700,000 recoupment.  Larry also hires Clueless.  Clueless files a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the MCO.  Clueless did some homework and actually makes a good argument in court.  But by the time Clueless gets to court, 4 months has passed and Larry racked up $50,000 in legal fees.  Larry can’t pay the attorney fees.  Clueless withdraws as counsel.  Larry goes bankrupt.  The 400 Medicaid recipients that his company serviced do not receive the health care needed.  The “credible allegation of fraud?” One of his own recipients receiving substance abuse services in a state of incoherence while on crack cocaine.
  • Provider Lucy receives notice from the Medicaid Investigative Department  (MID) that she is under criminal investigation based on a “credible allegation of fraud.”  Lucy does not have enough money to hire an attorney, so she opts for the public defender, who knows nothing about Medicaid and is also named Clueless.  The public defender did not even review Lucy documentation because she did not understand the complex system of Medicaid.  Clueless provided poor representation, and Lucy was sentenced to 5 years in prison.  Lucy said, “I was the first in my family to get a PhD and the first to go to jail.”  The “credible allegation of fraud?”  Her local competitor.
  • 15 providers in New Mexico, based on “credible allegations of fraud,” have their Medicaid reimbursements suspended.  The 15 providers cannot pay staff, rent on buildings, and other bills.  The State of New Mexico brings in Arizona providers to replace the 15 Medicaid providers.  The Arizona provider takes over the 15 providers’ buildings, most staff and all consumers.  The 15 providers are out of business.  Without a trial.  Without even reviewing the evidence against them.  Based on a mere allegation of fraud, 15 providers go bankrupt…lose their careers…are unemployed… The “credible allegation of fraud?” Unknown.

Remember “credible allegation of fraud” is preliminary, and, at times, without any proof, yet the consequences are dire. 

Innocent until proven guilty is a bedrock principle in the American justice system.  Yet, innocent until proven guilty does not apply to Medicaid providers.  Our founding fathers created the concept of innocent until proven guilty.  While innocent until proven guilty is not explicitly codified in the Bill of Rights, the presumption of innocence is widely held to follow from the 5th, 6th, and 14th amendments. See also Coffin v. United States and In re Winship.

Here’s the problem….presumption of innocence only applies to criminal law.  Even when the consequences of a civil action is so monumental, so dire, so irreparable, the presumption of innocence does not apply.

So “credible allegation of fraud?”  It does not matter what the definition is.  The fact is that if ANYBODY alleges a “credible allegation of fraud” against you, you are guilty.  You are my boyfriend who never cheated on me, but a girl alleged that he did cheat. 

No evidence…You are GUILTY based on the ALLEGATION of fraud!

Credible?

Big Change in Medicaid Audits? Or Just More Auditing Companies?

According to “Report on Medicare Compliance,” dated August 5, 2013, (Yes, I actually subscribe to this Report), the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has BIG changes on the horizon for Medicare AND Medicaid audits (nationwide).

According to “New CMS Program-Integrity Plan Is In the Works; No More ZPICs, MICs,” CMS is developing a “unified program integrity strategy” that will consolidate some Medicaid and Medicare audits.

What does that mean to NC health care providers? Less audits? More audits?

Apparently, CMS intends to contract with 5 – 15 new “unified program integrity contractors (UPIC)…yes, another new acronym… The article also states that UPICs would replace zone program integrity contractors (ZPICs) and Medicaid integrity contractors and program safeguard contractors.

However, according to the article, the Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) will remain in place. 

Companies wanting to act as UPICs were to respond to CMS by August 13th.  So these UPICs may be effective in the near future.

Are UPICS intended to streamline the audit process (by consolidating Medicare and Medicaid audits)?

Or will UPICS just add an additional 5 – 15 auditing companies, increasing the number of audits on providers, and weeding out providers willing to accept Medicaid to decrease Medicaid spending?

NC Medicaid Providers: Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear

Edgar Allan Poe said, “Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear.”

Not only do I think that Poe’s quote is accurate in every day life, but even more accurate as applied to dealing with the Division of Medical Assistance (DMA).

A client told me a story: (This is a synopsis. This may not be a true story.)

“I called DMA Program Integrity (PI).  The person there told me that my documents were fine and that I should not worry.  Two days later, DMA sent me a letter terminating my Medicaid contract.  And guess who signed it? The exact person who reassured me over the phone!”

Obviously, this client was flabbergasted when the letter of termination was delivered.  I try to logically understand how “client” could be reassured one day by DMA and two days later be terminated from Medicaid by DMA.

My question is: Is there a lack of communication between or within departments at DMA?

Logically, I see two options. I have not come up with any other options, but feel free to suggest any.

Option A: Perhaps the signator does not actually sign the documents; instead, maybe there is a stamped-signature for the signator. So, if a stamped-signature is used, perhaps the signator was unaware of the Termination Notice being mailed. But if the signator was unaware of something as important as a Termination Notice, then there is HUGE breakdown in communication, either between departments or within departments at DMA.

Option B:  So, if there is NOT a lack of communication between departments or within departments at DMA, then I am left to logically ascertain that the signator knew that the Termination Notice was being mailed or was going to be mailed at the time of the reassurance to client.

 Both Option A and B are bothersome.  I actually cannot decide which one is worse.

However, despite the reason behind both: (1) the verbal reassurance; and (2) the termination notice, the moral of the story is obvious: “Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear.”

Furthermore, despite the reason behind both, the action to be taken from the moral is: Document everything.

It reminds me of Aesop’s Fable, “The Man and the Satyr.”

A man and a satyr once poured out libations together in token of a bond of alliance being formed between them. One very cold wintry day, as they talked together, the man put his fingers to his mouth and blew on them. On the satyr inquiring the reason of this, he told him that he did it to warm his hands, they were so cold. Later on in the day they sat down to eat, the food prepared being quite scalding. The man raised one of the dishes a little towards his mouth and blew in it. On the satyr again inquiring the reason of this, he said that he did it to cool the meat, it was so hot.

“I can no longer consider you as a friend,” said the Satyr, “a fellow who with the same breath blows hot and cold.”

Fear Prevents Medicaid Providers From Fighting DMA: Fear of Retaliation?

A client called me today asking whether there was anything he could do legally against the Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) for terminating his Medicaid contract. The convo went something like this:

“Of course,” I said. “When was your Medicaid contract terminated?”
“Last January.”
“As in, January 2012?”
“Yes.”
“Why didn’t you call me January 2012?
“Because I was scared of retaliation by DMA.”

What I did NOT say: You were scared of retaliation by DMA when you were wrongly terminated from your Medicaid contract, your company was forced to file bankruptcy and dissolve, you, personally, lost your livelihood, your company, and your self-worth, you were forced to terminate all staff, and all Medicaid recipients were forced to be discharged???? What else could possibly happen? Maybe DMA could’ve kicked your dog.

In all seriousness, most of the time, this fear of retaliation comes way before all the dire and irreparable consequences. Such as a provider refuses to seek legal counsel when the provider is initially placed on prepayment review. Normally the provider thinks, “I can get through this,” “70% is not that hard,” “My documents are compliant,” or “If I get counsel, DMA will just retaliate.”

Most health care providers view their roles in society as helping people. The thought of hiring an attorney is against the providers’ very core being, like rubbing a shark against its grain.

Yet, the fact is that the government is not always right. The government’s contracted companies are not always right. Or even better, the way the employees hired by the contracted companies complete their tasks is similar to playing “phone” in grade school. The employees hired by the contracted companies get their work orders from supervisors hired by contracted companies, who, in turn, get their work orders from someone else hired by the contracted companies, and so on. The hierarchy of order creates a distorted work order.

For example, perhaps the DMA employee who hired the contracted company stated, “Always follow DMA Clinical Policies and federal and state law. When in doubt err on the side of the provider.”

But 20 people down the line, you have Ms. Sweet (fictional) from the Carolinas Center of Medical Excellence (CCME) getting paid $10/hour going to providers’ offices with her standing orders as she understands them as “Always follow DMA policies. When in doubt err on the side of the State.” It’s not Ms. Sweet’s fault that the audit is conducted incorrectly, but, regardless of fault, the audit is conducted incorrectly.

The provider, during the whole process, believes Ms. Sweet when Ms. Sweet states that she knows what she is doing, has hope vested in all the telephone calls made to Program Integrity (PI) in which PI informed the provider that its documents are “great” or “some of the best they’ve seen,” only to open the mailbox a week later with a letter stating the provider’s Medicaid contract had been terminated with a signature from the very person from PI that informed the provider that the documents were “great.” (And of course, the provider took no notes of any telephone calls….But Attorney X, I swear John Doe at PI told me my documents were great!)

I have a saying (that I just made up) In Medicaid, your fear of the unknown coupled with your nonaction will cause all those fears to come true.

In the words of Arthur Ashe: “Fear isn’t an excuse to come to a standstill. It’s the impetus to step up and strike.”

Standing still in the face of Medicaid unknown allows DMA (or whatever contracted company) to decide your fate without hearing your side. If you think DMA or PI (or whatever entity) is listening to your side, then, at the very least, take copious notes of all conversations, write memos to the file regarding conversations, and prepare for the worst.

In my experience fear of DMA does nothing except create negative consequences.

So instead of blissfully following PCG or CCME or HP Enterprises (the Recovery Audit Companies)’s audit requirements and receiving denial after denial (despite your knowledge that the documents were in compliance), don’t wait until your Medciaid contract is terminated. Be proactive. Shake off your fear of retaliation by DMA. Buck up. The only thing to fear, is fear itself. Put on your big boy pants. Stand strong. Don’t get run over. Put on your dancing shoes. Get a stiff upper lip.

(Ok, I’m out of cliches)

You Received a Tentative Notice of Overpayment: Now What?

You are a health care provider that accepts Medicaid.  You received a Tentative Notice of Overpayment from North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Division of Medical Assistance(DMA), Program Integrity (PI). You owe a million dollars (or whatever amount…it may as well be a million, right?) to DHHS and it must be paid within 30 days. First, you cry (“Why me?”), then you get angry (“Why do they say I owe this?” or “My documents are compliant!”), then you get scared (“What am I going to do?”).

So what do you do after getting this Notice?

Obviously, my official advice is to immediately call a lawyer; however, if for some reason, obtaining a lawyer is not an option, do you opt to appeal:

Formally or informally?

In DHHS or the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH)?

Challenging the extrapolation or the decision?

Breathe.

If you can obtain a lawyer, do so. (Not necessarily me. Just someone).

If a lawyer is out of the question, for whatever reason, and you do not have the millions (or whatever amount DHHS claims you owe) sitting under your mattress, appeal. Appeal whatever. Appeal however. Just appeal.

An appeal maintains status quo. An appeal allows you to by time to figure out your options. An appeal makes you keep your money for a longer period of time before turning any amount over to DHHS.

What not to do:

  • Do not pay the entire amount.
  • Do not agree to set up a payment plan.
  • Do not think, “Oh, DHHS is right. My documents are out of compliance.”

If you appeal the amount supposedly owed will decrease. If you agree to pay, the amount will not decrease.

Now, what to appeal?

Personally, I prefer to appeal the decision, not the extrapolation. If you appeal the extrapolation, first, you have to do a lot of math. And who wants to do a lot of math? Secondly, you end up dealing with PI  in an informal and amorphous proceeding.  Dealing with PI during this amorphous proceeding is a bit like playing dodge ball…alone.  Thirdly, by appealing the extrapolation you are only delaying getting an Attorney General (AG) involved and any sort of formal proceedings.  Surprisingly enough, the whole process becomes easier when an AG is assigned.  They actually know how to maneuver through this system.

So, you appeal the decision…

Formal appeal or informal appeal?

In DHHS (informally) or OAH (formally)? I, myself, have pondered this for hours.  I’ve never received a decision from a DHHS Hearing Officer that I have not appealed.  So, my first instinct is, go straight to OAH.  In fact, I’ve blogged about that before.  But after more consideration, I actually think it is a good decision to go through the reconsideration review.

(1) It provides time to get to know the documents. If you go straight to OAH you will have to learn all the documents faster and in a more formal setting.

(2) There  may be an argument that providers MUST exhaust the LME-MCO Appeal Process (“Reconsideration”) before accessing the State Fair Hearing (or Appeal to OAH).

While I am unsure whether the issue of whether providers must exhaust informal remedies before attempting formal remedies has been decided by a court of law, because a Medicaid recipient is required to go through an informal appeal first, I would think the same would apply to a provider. Plus, because clients pay me good money, I have been unwilling to “take a risk” with my clients’ money. I’d hate to go that route and be told I did it wrong. Besides, it’s been working this way.

So, there you go.

The moral of the story? Appeal, appeal, appeal.