Category Archives: Tentative Notices of Overpayment
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.
In case you didn’t know, instead of orange, Medicare Advantage is the new black. Since MA plans are paid more for sicker patients, there are huge incentives to fabricate co-morbidities that may or may not exist.
Medicare Advantage will be the next most audited arena. Home health, BH, and the two-midnight rule had held the gold medal for highest number of audits, but MA will soon prevail.
As an example, last week- a New York health insurance plan for seniors, along with amedical analytics company the insurer is affiliated with, was accused by the Justice Department of committing health care fraud to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. The dollar amounts are exceedingly high, which also attracts auditors, especially the auditors who are paid on contingency fee, which is almost all the auditors.
CMS pays Medicare Advantage plans using a complex formula called a “risk score,” which is intended to render higher rates for sicker patients and less for those in good health. The data mining company combed electronic medical records to identify missed diagnoses — pocketing up to 20% of new revenue it generated for the health plan. But the Department of Justice alleges that DxID’s reviews triggered “tens of millions” of dollars in overcharges when those missing diagnoses were filled in with exaggerations of how sick patients were or with charges for medical conditions the patients did not have. “All problems are boring until they’re your own.” – Red
MA plans have grown to now cover more than 40% of all Medicare beneficiaries, so too has fraud and abuse. A 2020 OIG report found that MA paid $2.6 billion a year for diagnoses unrelated to any clinical services.
Diagnoses fraud is the main issue that auditors are focusing on. Juxtapose the other alphabet soup auditors – MACs, SMRCs, UPICs, ZPICs, MCOs, TPEs, RACs – they concentrate on documentation nitpicking. I had a client accused of FWA for using purple ink. “Yeah I said stupid twice, only to emphasize how stupid that is!” – Pennsatucky. Other examples include purported failing of writing the times “in or out” when the CPT code definition includes the amount of time.
Audits will be ramping up, especially since HHS has reduced the Medicare appeals backlog at the Administrative Judge Level by 79 percent, which puts the department on track to clear the backlog by the end of the 2022 fiscal year.
As of June 30, 2021, the end of the third quarter of FY 2021, HHS had 86,063 pending appeals remaining at OMHA, according to the latest status report, acquired by the American Hospital Association. The department started with 426,594 appeals. This is progress!!
Timing is everything. Missing a deadline germane to any type of Medicare or Medicaid audit is deadly. Miss an appeal deadline by one, single day, and you lose your right to appeal an overpayment.
If anyone has watched Schitt’s Creek, then you know that when Johnny and Moira Rose missed their deadline to file for and pay taxes, they lost their mansion, their money, and way of life. The same catastrophic loss can occur if a provider misses an appeal deadline. Then that provider will be up Schitt’s Creek.
Importantly, when it comes to Medicare appeals, your appeal is due 60 days after the reconsideration review decision. 42 CFR § 405.1014 – Request for an ALJ hearing or a review of a QIC dismissal. A third-level, Medicare provider appeal is considered “filed” upon receipt of the complete appeal at the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals, instead of the normal standard acceptance that an appeal is filed upon the mailing stamped date. As in, once you mail your appeal, it will be retroactively filed per the date of mailing. Not true for the third-level, Medicare provider appeal. It is considered filed the date of receipt.
Also, the regulatory clock starts ticking 5 days after the date the of the reconsideration review decision, because, the thought is that the U.S. Post Office will not take more than 5 days to deliver correspondence. Well, that assumption nowadays is inaccurate. The Post Office is a mess, and that’s an understatement. My friend, Dr. Ronald Hirsh told me that his overnighted packages have been received weeks later. More times than not, mail is received weeks after it was mailed, which makes the date of delivery imperative. Yet this regulation forces you to rely on the U.S. Post Office; it makes no logical sense.
We actually had a case in which the ALJ dismissed our appeal because the Post Office delivered the appeal on the 61st day after the reconsideration review decision, including the 5 days window. Literally, the 61st day. The reason that the appeal was received on the 61st day is because the 60th day fell on a holiday, a weekend, or a closure due to COVID – I cannot recall – but OMHA was closed. The mail delivery person had to return the next day to deliver the appeal. Yet, our appeal was dismissed based on the US Post Office! We filed a Motion to Reconsider, but the ALJ denied it. Our only chance at presenting to the ALJ was squashed – due to the Post Office.
We appealed the ALJ’s denial to the Medicare Appeals Council with hope of reasonableness. We have no decision yet. It certainly makes me want to say: Eww, David!
“Get thee to a nunnery!” screamed Hamlet to Ophelia in frustration of his mother marrying Claudius so quickly after his father’s death. Similarly any provider who has undergone a Medicare appeal understands the frustration of getting the appeal to the administrative law judge level (the 3rd level). It takes years to do so, and it is the imperative step instead of the lower level rubber stamps. “Get thee to an ALJ!”
Per regulation, once you appeal an alleged Medicare overpayment, no recoupment of the disputed funds occurs until after you receive the second level review, which is usually the QIC upholding the overpayment. It is no secret that the Medicare provider appeals’ level one and two are basically an automatic approval process of the decision to recoup. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Hence, the importance of the ALJ level.
There are 5 levels of Medicare appeals available to providers:
- Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)
- Departmental Appeals Board (DAB) Review
- Federal Court (Judicial) Review
The third level is the level in which you present your case to an ALJ, who is an impartial independent tribunal. Unfortunately, right now, it takes about five years between levels two and three, although with CMS hiring 70 new ALJs, the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) is optimistic that the backlog will quickly dissipate. Last week, I attended an ALJ hearing for a client based on an audit conducted in 2016. Five years later, we finally presented to the ALJ. When the ALJ was presented with our evidence which clearly demonstrated that the provider should not pay anything, he actually said, “I’m shocked this issue got this far.” As in, this should have been reversed before this level. “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!”
In many cases, a premature recoupment of funds in dispute will financially destroy the health care provider, which should not be the purpose of any overpayment nor the consequence of any fraud, waste, and abuse program. We are talking about documentation nit-picking. Not fraud. Such as services notes signed late, according to best practices. Or quibbles about medical necessity or the definition of in patient and the two-midnight rule.
You have all probably read my blogs about the Family Rehab case that came out in TX in 2019. A Court found that Family Rehab, a health care facility, which faced a $7 million alleged overpayment required an injunction. The Judge Ordered that CMS be enjoined from prematurely recouping Medicare reimbursements from Family Rehab. Now, be mindful, the Judge did not enjoin CMS the first time Family Rehab requested an injunction; Superior Court initially dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction based on failure to exhaust its administrative remedies. But instead of giving up, which is what most providers would do when faced with a dismissed injunction request due to emotional turmoil and finances. “To be, or not to be: that is the question:” Instead, Family Rehab appealed the dismissal to the Court of Appeals and won. The 5th Circuit held that Superior Court does have jurisdiction to hear a collateral challenge on both procedural due process grounds as well as an ultra vires action. On remand, Family Rehab successfully obtained a permanent injunction.
The clinical issues supposedly in support of the overpayment are silly. In Family Rehab’s case, the ZPIC claims homebound criteria was not met when it is clearly met by a reasonable review of the documents.
Homebound is defined as:
The patient must either:
- Because of illness or injury, need the aid of supportive devices such as crutches, canes, wheelchairs, and walkers; the use of special transportation; or the assistance of another person in order to leave their place of residence
- Have a condition such that leaving his or her home is medically contraindicated.
If the patient meets one of the Criteria One conditions, then the patient must ALSO meet two additional requirements in Criteria Two below:
- There must exist a normal inability to leave home;
- Leaving home must require a considerable and taxing effort.
In one of the claims that the ZPIC found no homebound status, the consumer was legally blind and in a wheelchair! The injunction hinged on the Court’s finding that because the ALJ stage is critical in decreasing the risk of erroneous deprivation, an injunction was necessary. I look forward to the ALJ hearing. “The rest is silence.”
Today I want to discuss EHR – electronic health records and RAC audits. We all remember the government pushing providers into purchasing EHR. It’s known as the meaningful use (MU) program, which is now known as the Promoting Interoperability Programs. CMS initially provided 10 incentives to accelerate the adoption of EHRs to meet program requirements. Now, physicians who fail to participate in MU will receive a penalty in the form of reduced Medicare reimbursements, at a minimum. Multiple audits at a maximum. Physicians must use certified electronic health records technology (CEHRT) and demonstrate meaningful use through an attestation process at the end of each MU reporting period to avoid the penalty.
Audits for MU can equal tens of thousands of dollars. The monetary amount is not as high as other RAC audits for medical records. One of my clients is a pediatric facility in Georgia. His facility received an alleged overpayment of $34,000 for two of his physicians not meeting the meaningful use criteria 8 and 9. We were going to fight it, but the two physicians who were dinged had quit and would not testify positively on behalf of my client. Plus, attorneys’ fees would surpass the penalty. Criteria 8 and 9 constitute proving your consumer have email and actually open their emails to check their health care internet folders, which are ridiculous criteria.
On September 2, 2020, CMS published the Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 Medicare Hospital Inpatient Prospective Payment System (IPPS) for Acute Care Hospitals and Long-Term Care Hospital (LTCH) Prospective Payment System (PPS) Final Rule which included program requirements for calendar year (CY) 2021. In this final rule, CMS continued its advancement of EHR utilization, focusing on burden reduction, and improving interoperability, and patient access to health information.
Meaningful use’s not anticipated consequence is ramping up RAC audits. Many RAC auditors are using EHR to claim “copy and paste.” Obviously, the point of EHR is to morph all service notes into a certain standard-looking note. But standard-looking notes scream copy and paste to RAC auditors. Maybe RAC auditors haven’t digested meaningful use yet.
On August 2, 2021 CMS released the Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 Medicare Hospital Inpatient Prospective Payment System for Acute Care Hospitals and Long-term Care Hospital Prospective Payment System Final Rule. For more information on the proposed changes, visit the Federal Register.
COVID affected EHR audits too.
The deadline for eligible hospitals and critical access to submit a hardship exception application is September 1, 2021.
The audits of telehealth during COVID. OIG is conducting, at least, seven (7) nationwide audits of providers specific to telemedicine. These audits will review remote patient monitoring, virtual check-ins, and e-visits. In 2018, OIG issued a report regarding a 31% error rate of claims for telehealth – and that report was prior to the explosion of telemedicine in 2020 due to COVID. All providers who have billed telehealth during the public health emergency (“PHE”) should be prepared to undergo audits of those claims.
The following audit projects are as follows:
- Audits of behavioral health care telehealth in Medicaid managed care;
- Audits of Medicare Part B telehealth services during PHE;
- Audits of home health services provided as telehealth during the PHE;
- Audits of home health agencies’ challenges and strategies in responding to the PHE;
- Medicare telehealth services during PHE: Program Integrity Risks;
- Audits of telehealth services in Medicare Parts B (non-institutional services) and C (managed care) during the COVID-19 pandemic;
- Medicaid: Telehealth expansion during PHE.
Recently added to the “chopping block” of audits via OIG include Medicare payments for clinical diagnostic laboratory tests in 2020. OIG will also audit for accuracy of place-of-service codes on claims for Medicare Part B physician services when beneficiaries are inpatients under Part A. As it always seems is the case, home health and behavioral health care are big, red targets for all audits. Over the pandemic, telehealth became the “new norm.” Audits on telehealth will be forthcoming. Specifically in behavioral health, OIG announced that it will audit Medicaid applied behavior analysis for children diagnosed with autism.
On another note, I recently had a client undergo a meaningful use audit. Everyone knows the government provides incentives for using electronic records. In order to qualify for a meaningful use incentive you must meet 9 criteria. If you fail one criterion, you owe the money back. One of the biggest issue physicians have faced in an audit is demonstrating the “yes/no” requirements that call for attestation proving the security risk analysis was successfully met. In this particular case, opposing counsel was a GA state AG. The attorney told me that he had zero authority to negotiate the penalty amount. It was the first time another lawyer told me that the penalty was basically a “strict liability” issue, and since the funds were federal, the State of GA had no authority to reduce or remove the penalty. But there is an appeal process. It made no sense. In this case, the doctor didn’t want to pursue litigation. So, reluctantly, we paid. I am wondering if any of my readers have encountered this issue of no negotiations for meaningful use penalties.
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.
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.