Category Archives: RAC Audits
The American Hospital Association (“AHA”) is asking the Department of Justice (DOJ) to look into health insurance companies that routinely deny patients access to care and payments to providers. I’d like a task force as well. This is exactly the problem I have witnessed with managed care organizations or MCOs. In traditional Medicare and Medicaid, MCOs are prepaid and make profit by denying consumers medical care, terminating provider contracts, and not paying providers for care rendered. Congress created the same scenario with Medicare Advantage. Individuals can elect coverage through private insurance plans. While MA has been wildly successful and popular, the AHA is complaining that too many people are getting denied services.
An OIG report that was published in April cites MAOs as denying services for beneficiaries. We are always talking about providers getting audited, it is about time that the companies that are gateways for providers getting reimbursed and beneficiaries getting medically necessary services are likewise audited for denying services. It seems ironic that providers are audited for potentially billing for too many services and these gateway, third party reimbursement companies are audited for providing too few services – or denying too many prior authorizations. But if the MCO or MAO deny medical services, then the money that would have been paid to the provider stays in their pocket.
The OIG report found that many MAOs delay or deny services despite those services meeting Medicare prior authorization criteria, approximately 13-18%. Almost a 20% wrongful denial rate. When these MAOs get tax payer money for a Medicare beneficiary and deny services those tax dollars stay in the MAO’s pockets.
Supposedly MAOs approve the vast majority of requests for services and payment, they issue millions of denials each year, and OIG’s audit of MAOs has highlighted widespread and persistent problems related to inappropriate denials of services and payment. As enrollment in Medicare Advantage continues to grow, MAOs play an increasingly critical role in ensuring that Medicare beneficiaries have access to medically necessary covered services and that providers are reimbursed appropriately.
According to the OIG report, MAOs denied prior authorization and payment requests that met Medicare coverage rules by: (1) using MAO clinical criteria that are not contained in Medicare coverage rules; (2) requesting unnecessary documentation; and (3) making manual review errors and system errors.
Personally, I am fed up with these private, insurance companies denying services and keeping our tax dollars. It is about time the insurance companies are audited.
If you could light a torch to a Molotov Cocktail and a bunch of newspapers, you could not make a bigger explosion in my head than a recent Decision from a Medicare administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The extrapolation was upheld, despite an expert statistician citing its shortcomings, based on a CMS Ruling, which is neither law nor precedent. The Decision reminded me of the new Firestarter movie because everything is up in flames. Drew Barrymore would be proud.
I find it very lazy of the government to rely on sampling and extrapolations, especially in light that no witness testifies to its accuracy.
Because this ALJ relied so heavily on CMS Rulings, I wanted to do a little detective work as to whether CMS Rulings are binding or even law. First, I logged onto Westlaw to search for “CMS Ruling” in any case in any jurisdiction in America. Nothing. Not one case ever mentioned “CMS Ruling.” Ever. (Nor did my law school).
What Is a CMS Ruling?
A CMS Ruling is defined as, “decisions of the Administrator that serve as precedent final opinions and orders and statements of policy and interpretation. They provide clarification and interpretation of complex or ambiguous provisions of the law or regulations relating to Medicare, Medicaid, Utilization and Quality Control Peer Review, private health insurance, and related matters.”
But Are CMS Rulings Law?
No. CMS Rulings are not law. CMS Rulings are not binding on district court judges because district court judges are not part of HHS or CMS. However, the Medicare ALJs are considered part of HHS and CMS; thus the CMS Rulings are binding on Medicare ALJs.
This creates a dichotomy between the “real law” and agency rules. When you read CMS Ruling 86-1, it reads as if there two parties with oppositive views, both presented their arguments, and the Administrator makes a ruling. But the Administrator is not a Judge, but the Ruling reads like a court case. CMS Rulings are not binding on:
- The Supreme Court
- Appellate Courts
- The real world outside of CMS
- District Courts
- The Department of Transportation
- Civil Jurisprudence
- The Department of Education
- Etc. – You get the point.
So why are Medicare providers held subject to penalties based on CMS Rulings, when after the providers appeal their case to district court, that “rule” that was subjected against them (saying they owe $7 million) is rendered moot? Can we say – not fair, equitable, Constitutional, and flies in the face of due process?
The future does not look bright for providers going forward in defending overzealous, erroneous, and misplaced audits. These audits aren’t even backed up by witnesses – seriously, at the ALJ Medicare appeals, there is no statistician testifying to verify the results. Yet some of the ALJs are still upholding these audits.
In the “court case,” which resulted in CMS Ruling 86-1, the provider argued that:
- There is no legal authority in the Medicare statute or regulations for HCFA or its intermediaries to determine overpayments by projecting the findings of a sample of specific claims onto a universe of unspecified beneficiaries and claims.
- Section 1879 of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395pp, contemplates that medical necessity and custodial care coverage determinations will be made only by means of a case-by-case review.
- When sampling is used, providers are not able to bill individual beneficiaries not in the sample group for the services determined to be noncovered.
- Use of a sampling procedure violates the rights of providers to appeal adverse determinations.
- The use of sampling and extrapolation to determine overpayments deprives the provider of due process.
The CMS Ruling 86-1 was decided by Mr. Henry R. Desmarais, Acting Administrator, Health Care Financing Administration in 1986.
Think it should be upheld?
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that they have modified the additional documentation request (ADR) limits for the Medicare Fee-for-Service Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) program for suppliers. ADRs are the about of documents that a RAC auditor can demand from you. This is a win for DME providers.
Currently, the RAC’s methodology is based on a total claim number by NPI without consideration for the number of claims in a particular product category. This means that suppliers can receive large volumes of RAC audits for a product category in which they do minimal business.
These new limits will be set by CMS on a regular basis to establish the maximum number of medical records that may be requested by a RAC, per 45-day period. These changes will be effective beginning April 1, 2022.
Each limit will be based on a given supplier’s volume of Medicare claims paid within a previous 12-month period, in a particular HCPCS policy group (The policy groups are available on the PDAC website). Limits will be based on the supplier’s Tax Identification Number (TIN). Limits will be set at 10% of all paid claims, by policy group, paid within a previous 12-month period, divided into eight periods (45 days). If you get more than the allowed ADRs, call them out. These limits are created to lessen the burden on providers.
Although a RAC may go more than 45 days between record requests, in no case shall a RAC make requests more frequently than every 45 days. Limits are based on paid claims, irrespective of individual lines, although credit/replacement pairs shall be considered a single claim.
- Supplier A had 1,253 claims paid with HCPCS codes in the “surgical dressings” policy group, within a previous 12-month period. The supplier’s ADR limit would be (1,253 * 0.1) / 8 = 15.6625, or 16 ADRs, per 45 days, for claims with HCPCS codes in the “surgical dressings” policy group.
- Supplier B had 955 claims paid with HCPCS codes in the “glucose monitor” policy group, within a previous 12-month period. The supplier’s ADR limit would be (955 * 0.1) / 8 = 11.9375 or 12 ADRs, per 45 days, for claims with HCPCS codes in the “glucose monitor” policy group.
CMS reserves the right to give a RAC permission to exceed these ADR limits. But that would be in instances of potential fraud.
(On a personal note, I apologize for how long since it has been my last blog. I was in an accident and spent 3 days in the ICU.)
I’d like to write today about the sheer absurdity about how these RAC, ZPIC, MAC, and other types of audits are being held against health care providers. When an auditor requests documents from a provider and opines that the provider owes a million dollars in alleged overpayments, I would expect that the auditor will show up before an independent tribunal to defend its findings. However, for so many of these Medicare provider appeals, the auditor doesn’t appear to defend its findings.
In my opinion, if the entity claiming that you owe money back to the government does not appear at the hearing, the provider should automatically prevail. A basic legal concept is that the accused should be able to confront its accuser.
I had depositions the last two weeks for a case that involved an opiate treatment program. The two main accusers were Optum and ID Medicaid. When Optum was deposed, they testified that Optum did not conduct the audit of the facility. When ID Medicaid was deposed, it contended that Optum did conduct the audit at issue.
When not one person can vouch for the veracity of an audit, it is ludicrous to force the provider to pay back anything. Auditors cannot hide behind smoke and mirrors. Auditors need to testify to the veracity of their audits.
To poke holes in Medicare audits, you need to know the rules. You wouldn’t play chess without knowing the rules. Various auditor have disparate look-back period, which is the time frame the auditor is allowed to look back and review a claim. For example, RACs may only look back 3 years. Whereas ZPICs have no specific look back period, although I would argue that the older the claim, the less likely it is to be recouped. There is also the federal 48-month limit to look backs absent accusations of fraud.
When appealing the outcome of a MAC or RAC audit, it is necessary for providers to have a specific reason for challenging the auditors’ determinations. Simply being dissatisfied or having generalized complaints about the process is not enough. Some examples of potential grounds for challenging a MAC or RAC determination on appeal include:
- Application if inapplicable Medicare billing rules
- Misinterpretation of applicable Medicare billing rules
- Reliance on unsound auditing methodologies
- Failure to seek an expert opinion
- Ignoring relevant information disclosed by the provider
- Exceeding the MAC’s or RAC’s scope of authority
It is imperative that you arm yourself in defending a Medicare audit, but if the auditor fails to appear at any stage in litigation, then you should call foul and win on a “absent” technicality.
It’s a miracle! HHS has reduced the Medicare appeals backlog at the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) level by 75 %, which puts the department on track to clear the backlog by the end of the 2022 fiscal year. The department had 426,594 appeals bottlenecked on backlog. An audit from 2016 could get heard by an ALJ in 2021. However, movement has occurred.
According to the latest status report, HHS has 86,063 pending appeals remaining at the Office of Medicare Hearing and Appeals (“OMHA”).
In 2018, a federal Judge ruled in favor of the American Hospital Association (“AHA”) and its hospital Plaintiffs and Ordered HHS to eliminate the backlog of appeals by the end of FY 2022 and provided the department with a number of goals. According to the ruling, HHS had to reduce the backlog by 19 percent by the end of FY 2019, 49 percent by the end of FY 2020, and 75 percent by the end of FY 2021. Originally, the Order scheduled the timeframe for disseminating the backlog much shorter, but CMS claimed impossibility.
On another note, lately, I’ve seen a lot of supposed audit results based on local coverage determinations (“LCDs”) or policy manuals. This is unacceptable. In a January 4, 2022, decision from the NC Court of Appeals, the Court held that when a State agency implements an unpromulgated rule, the rule may not be enforced. Hendrixson v. Div. of Soc. Servs., 2022-NCCOA-10, ¶ 9. The Hendrixson case piggybacks the Supreme Court, which held that LCDs are unenforceable against providers. Azar v. Allina Health Services, 139 S. Ct. 1804, 204 L. Ed. 2d 139 (2019).
In Hendrixson v. Division of Social Services, the Court held that people eligible for Medicare Part B must apply and enroll and that if the applicant fails to enroll, Medicaid pays no portion of the costs for medical services that would have been covered by Medicare Part B, as you know Medicare Part B provides coverage for certain hospital outpatient services, physician services, and services not covered by Part A. See Bruton, 134 N.C. App. at 42, 516 S.E.2d at 635; 42 U.S.C. § 1395k (2019); 42 C.F.R. § 407.2 (2020). Enrollment in Medicare Part B is generally not automatic, see 42 C.F.R. §§ 407.4-407.40 (2020), and requires the patient to pay insurance premiums to enroll, after which the federal government pays most of the reasonable costs, with patients paying the remaining cost and an annual deductible. See Bruton, 134 N.C. App. at 42, 516 S.E.2d at 635; 42 U.S.C. §§ 1395l, 1395r-1395s (2019); 42 C.F.R. § 407.2 (2020). “Together, the part B premiums, deductibles and coinsurance are generally referred to as ‘Part B cost-sharing.’” Bruton, 134 N.C. App. at 42, 516 S.E.2d at 635. At your hospital or health care entity, do you have someone dedicated to properly enrolling consumers into Medicare Part B? If not, you may want to consider as a financial investment. Additionally, while you do not want to ignore the LCDs, the LCDs or Manuals cannot be a basis for any alleged recoupment or other sanction. As a general canon, any unpromulgated rule cannot be the basis of any penalty.
 The ALJ level is the third level in Medicare provider audits, but the first time that providers are allowed to present evidence to an independent tribunal.
Auditors are overzealous. I am not telling you anything you don’t know. Auditors cast wide nets to catch a few minnows. Occasionally, they catch a bass. But, for the most part, innocent, health care providers get caught in the overzealous, metaphoric net. What auditors and judges and basically the human population doesn’t understand is that accusing providers of “credible allegations of fraud” and alleged overpayments, when unfounded, has a profound and negative impact. First, the providers are forced to hire legal counsel at an extremely high cost. Their reputations and names get dragged through the mud because providers are guilty until they are proved innocent. Then, once they prove that there is no fraud or noncompliant documents, the wrongly accused providers are left with no recourse.
The audits generally result in similar reasoning for denials. For instance,
- Lacks medical necessity. Defense: The treating physician rule. Deference must be given to the treating physician, not the desk reviewer who has never seen the patient.
- Canned notes: Defense: While canned notes are not desirable, it is not against the law. There is no statute, regulation, or rule against canned notes. Canned notes are just not best practices. But, in reality, when you serve a certain population, the notes are going to be similar.
- X-rays tend to be denied for the sole reason that there are no identifying notes on the X-ray. Or the printed copy of the X-ray you submit to the auditors is unreadable. Defense/Proactive measure: When you submit an X-ray, include a brief note as to the DOS and consumer.
- Signature illegible; therefore, no proof of provider being properly trained and qualified. Defense: This one is easy; you just show proof of trainings, but to head off the issue, print your name under your signature or have it embedded into your EHR.
- Documentation nitpicking. The time, date, or other small omissions result in many a denial. Defense: There is no requirement for documents to be perfect. The SSA provides defenses for providers, such as “waiver of liability” and “providers without fault.” The “waiver of liability” defense provides that even if payment for claims is deemed not reasonable and necessary, payment may be rendered if the provider did not know and could not have been reasonably expected to know that payment would not be made.
Whenever a client tells me – let’s concede these claims because he/she believes the auditors to be right, I say, let me review it. With so many defenses, I rarely concede any claims. See blog for more details.
Today I want to discuss the Medicare appeal process and its faults. Upon undergoing a Medicare audit by Safeguard or whichever auditor contracted by CMS, a provider usually receives a notice of overpayment. The 5-level appeal process is flawed as the first two levels rubber-stamp the findings. After the second level of appeal – the QIC level to the ALJ – recoupment occurs unless the provider set up an extended repayment schedule (ERS) or files for an injunction in federal court based on a taking of a property right; i.e., the right to reimbursement for services rendered.
Everyone deserves to be paid for medically necessary services rendered. The conundrum here is that the circuit courts are split as to the protections a provider deserves.
Whenever a federal injunction is filed, the Defendant auditor files a Motion to Dismiss based on (1) failure to exhaust administrative remedies and that the Medicare Act requires the administrative process; therefore, the federal court has no jurisdiction. The provider will argue that the federal action is ancillary to the substantive issue of whether the overpayment was in error and that its protected property right is being taken without due process.
A new case rendered October 1, 2021, Integrity Social Work Services, LCSW, LLC. V. Azar, 2021 WL 4502620 (E.D.N.Y 2021) straddles the fence on the issues. The EDNY falls within the 2nd circuit, which is undecidedly split. The 5th Circuit is, as well, split. District courts across the country are split on whether Medicare providers have a protected property interest in Medicare payments subject to recoupment. Several courts have found that the Medicare Act does create such a property right, including NC, 4th Circuit, Texas, Florida, Ohio, and Illinois, to name a few.
This provider was accused of an alleged overpayment of about 1 million. It argued that because it will not receive a prompt ALJ hearing that it will be driven out of business. This is a harsh and unacceptable outcome that readily occurs in about half the states. Providers should be aware of which State in which it resides and whether that State upholds a providers’ property interest in reimbursements for services rendered.
The Integrity Social Work Court found that, yes, jurisdiction in federal court was proper because the claims were ancillary to the substantive claims that would be heard by the ALJ. The provider was asking for a temporary stay of the recoupments until an ALJ hearing was concluded. As you read the case, you get false hope on the ruling. In the end, Judge Peggy Kuo found “Nor is the process to contest an overpayment or a recoupment decision arbitrary, outrageous, or even inadequate.”
Respectfully, I disagree. As does half the other courts. See, e.g., Accident, Injury & Rehab., PC v. Azar, No. 4:18-CV-2173 (DCC), 2018 WL 4625791, at *7 (D.S.C. Sept. 27, 2018); Adams EMS, Inc. v. Azar, No. H-18-1443, 2018 WL 3377787, at *4 (S.D. Tex. July 11, 2018); Family Rehab., Inc. v. Azar, No. 3:17-CV-3008-K, 2018 WL 3155911, at *4-5 (N.D. Tex. June 28, 2018). Juxtapose other courts have found that no such property interest exists. See, e.g., Alpha Home Health Solutions, LLC v. Sec’y of United States Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 340 F. Supp. 3d 1291, 1303 (M.D. Fla. 2018); Sahara Health Care, Inc. v. Azar, 349 F. Supp. 3d 555, 572 (S.D. Tex. 2018); PHHC, LLC v. Azar, No. 1:18-CV-1824, 2018 WL 5754393, at *10 (N.D. Ohio Nov. 2, 2018); In Touch Home Health Agency, Inc. v. Azar, 414 F. Supp. 3d 1177, 1189-90 (N.D. Ill. 2019).
Providers – If you bring a claim to cease the recoupment, also sue on behalf of your Medicare beneficiaries’ property rights to freedom of choice of provider and access to care. Their rights are even stronger than the providers’ rights. I did this in Bader in Indiana and won based on the recipients’ rights.
If you receive a letter from CMS or your State Department terminating your Medicare or Medicaid contract, would that affect you financially? I ask this rhetorical question because providers’ rights to a Medicare or Medicaid contract or to reimbursements for services rendered is a split in the Circuit Courts. Thankfully, I reside in the 4th Circuit, which has unambiguously held that providers and recipients have a property right in reimbursements for services rendered, a Medicare/caid contract and the right to the freedom of choice of provider. If you live in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, I am sorry. You have no rights.
Usually when there is split decision among the Circuit Courts, the Supreme Court weighs in. But, it has not. In fact, it declined to opine. Timing is everything. A 4th Circuit court of Decision giving providers property rights requested the Supreme Court to weigh in and finally end this rift amongst the Circuits. But, sadly, Justice Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020. The Supreme Court declined to review the Fourth Circuit decision on October 13, 2020. Justice Barrett was confirmed by the Senate on October 26, 2020 and was sworn in on October 27, 2020. So, the certiorari was denied – I assume – due to the vacant seat at the time.
In 40 States, managed care manages Medicaid. The contracts they write are Draconian, saying that either party may terminate at will for no cause but for convenience. Termination at will is all fine and good in the private sector. However, Medicare and Medicaid are highly regulated, and when tax dollars and access to care are at issue, property rights are created.
In NC State Court, against the judgment of the 4th Circuit, a November 5, 2021, unpublished case determined that providers have no property rights to a Medicaid contract and an MCO can terminate at whim. Family Innovations v. Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions, No. COA20-681 (June 1, 2021). Unpublished decisions are supposed to carry no weight. Unpublished decisions are not supposed to be controlling. Citation is disfavored.
Yet, in a strange turn of events, our State administrative courts have rendered, in the last week and in violation of 4th Circuit and administrative case law, that the termination-at-will clause in the MCO contract that a provider is forced to sign stands and is enforceable. These were new Judges and obviously were not well-versed in Medicaid law. Both came from employment law backgrounds, which is completely different than the health care world. But their rash and uneducated decisions bankrupt companies and shut down access to care for medically necessary behavioral health care services.
The upshot? If you have managed care companies in charge of your Medicaid or Medicare contracts, review your contracts now. Is there a termination-at-will clause? Because if there is, you too could lose your contract at any time. Depending on where you reside, you may or may not have property rights in the Medicare Medicaid contract. This is an issue that the Supreme Court must decide. Too many providers are getting erroneously and discriminatorily terminated for no reason and given no due process.
We must bring litigation to thwart the Courts that uphold termination-at-will clauses. Especially, in the era of COVID, we need our health care providers. We certainly do not need the MCOs, which kill access to care.
Hospitals across the nation are seeing lower profits, and it’s all because of a sudden, tsunami of Medicare and Medicaid provider audits. Whether it be RAC, MAC, UPIC, or Program Integrity, hospital audits are rampant. Billing errors, especially ‘supposed bundling,’ are causing a high rate of insurance claims denials, hurting the finances of hospitals and providers.
A recent report from American Hospital Association (AHA) found “Under an optimistic scenario, hospitals would lose $53 billion in revenue this year. Under a more pessimistic scenario, hospitals would lose $122 billion thanks to a $64 billion decline in outpatient revenue”*
The “Health Care Auditing and Revenue Integrity—2021 Benchmarking and Trends Report” is an insider’s look at billing and claims issues but reveals insights into health care costs trends and why administrative issues continue to play an outsize role in the nation’s high costs in this area. The data used covers 900+ facilities, 50,000 providers, 1500 coders, and 700 auditors – what could go wrong?
According to the report,
- 40% of COVID-19-related charges were denied and 40% of professional outpatient audits for COVID-19 and 20% of hospital inpatient audits failed.
- Undercoding poses a significant revenue risk, with audits indicating the average value of underpayment is $3,200 for a hospital claim and $64 for a professional claim.
- Overcoding remains problematic, with Medicare Advantage plans and payers under scrutiny for expensive inpatient medical necessity claims, drug charges, and clinical documentation to justify the final reimbursement.
- Missing modifiers resulted in an average denied amount of $900 for hospital outpatient claims, $690 for inpatient claims, and $170 for professional claims.
- 33% of charges submitted with hierarchical condition category (HCC) codes were initially denied by payers, highlighting increased scrutiny of complex inpatient stays and higher financial risk exposure to hospitals.
The top fields being audited were diagnoses, present on admission indicator, diagnosis position, CPT/HCPCS coding, units billed, and date of service. The average outcome from the audits was 70.5% satisfactory. So, as a whole, they got a ‘C’.
While this report did not in it of itself lead to any alleged overpayments and recoupments, guess who else is reading this audit and salivating like Pavlov’s dogs? The RACs, MACs, UPICs, and all other alphabet soup auditors. The 900 facilities and 50,000 health care providers need to be prepared for audits with consequences. Get those legal defenses ready!!!!
A ZPIC audited a client of mine a few years ago and found an alleged overpayment of over $7 million. Prior to them hiring my team, they obtained a preliminary injunction in federal court – like I always preach to do – remember, that between the levels 2 and 3 of a Medicare provider appeal, CMS can recoup the alleged overpayment. This is sheer balderdash; the government should not be able to recoup funds that the provider, most likely, doesn’t owe. But this is the law. I guess we need to petition Congress to change this tomfoolery.
Going back to the case, an injunction stops the premature recoupments, but it does nothing regarding the actual alleged overpayments. In fact, the very reason that you can go to federal court based on an administrative action is because the injunction is ancillary to the merits of the contested case. Otherwise, you would have to exhaust your administrative remedies.
Here, we asserted, the premature recoupments (1) violated its rights to procedural due process, (2) infringed its substantive due-process rights, (3) established an “ultra vires” cause of action, and (4) entitled it to a “preservation of rights” injunction under the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. §§ 704–05. We won the battle, but not the war. To date, we have no date for an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) – or level 3 – hearing on the merits.
For those of you who have participated in a third-level, Medicare provider appeal will know that, many times, no one shows for the other side. The other side being the entity claiming that you owe $7million. For such an outlandish claim of $7 million, would you not think that the side protesting that you owe $7 million would appear and try to prove it? At my most recent ALJ hearing, no one appeared for the government. Literally, my client – a facility in NJ that serves the MS population – me and the ALJ were the only participants. Are the auditors so falsely confident that they believe their audits speaks for itself?
In this particular case, the questionable issue was whether the MS provider’s consumers met the qualifications for the skilled rehabilitation due to no exacerbated physical issues. However, we all know from the Jimmo settlement, that having exacerbated issues or improvement is not a requirement to requiring skilled rehab versus exercising with your spouse. The ALJ actually said – “I cannot believe this issue has gotten this far.” I agree.