Category Archives: Medicare Appeal Process
Class Action Lawsuit Alleges Right to Inpatient Hospital Stays: Hospitals Are Damned If They Do…and Don’t!
Hospitals – “Lend me your ears; I come to warn you, not to praise RACs. The evil that RACs do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their appeals; So let it be with lawsuits.” – Julius Caesar, with modifications by me.
A class action lawsuit is pending against U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) alleging that the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) encourages (or bullies) hospitals to place patients in observation status (covered by Medicare Part B), rather than admitting them as patients (covered by Medicare Part A). The Complaint alleges that the treatments while in observation status are consistent with the treatments if the patients were admitted as inpatients; however, Medicare Part B reimbursements are lower, forcing the patient to pay more out-of-pocket expenses without recourse.
The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut refused to dismiss the class action case on February 8, 2017, giving the legal arguments within the Complaint some legal standing, at least, holding that the material facts alleged warrant investigation.
The issue of admitting patients versus keeping them in observation has been a hot topic for hospitals for years. If you recall, Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) specifically target patient admissions. See blog and blog. RAC audits of hospital short-stays is now one of the most RAC-reviewed issues. In fiscal year 2014, RACs “recouped” from hospitals $1.2 billion in allegedly improper inpatient claims. RACs do not, however, review outpatient claims to determine whether they should have been paid as inpatient.
On May 4, 2016, CMS paused its reviews of inpatient stays to determine the appropriateness of Medicare Part A payment. On September 12, 2016, CMS resumed them, but with more stringent rules on the auditors’ part. For example, auditors cannot audit claims more than the six-month look-back period from the date of admission.
Prior to September 2016, hospitals would often have no recourse when a claim is denied because the timely filing limits will have passed. The exception was if the hospital joined the Medicare Part A/Part B rebilling demonstration project. But to join the program, hospitals would forfeit their right to appeal – leaving them with no option but to re-file the claim as an outpatient claim.
With increased scrutiny, including RAC audits, on hospital inpatient stays, the class action lawsuit, Alexander et al. v. Cochran, alleges that HHS pressures hospitals to place patients in observation rather than admitting them. The decision states that “Identical services provided to patients on observation status are covered under Medicare Part B, instead of Part A, and are therefore reimbursed at a lower rate. Allegedly, the plaintiffs lost thousands of dollars in coverage—of both hospital services and subsequent skilled nursing care—as a result of being placed on observation status during their hospital stays.” In other words, the decision to place on observation status rather than admit as an inpatient has significant financial consequences for the patient. But that decision does not affect what treatment or medical services the hospital can provide.
While official Medicare policy allows the physicians to determine the inpatient v. observation status, RAC audits come behind and question that discretion. The Medicare Policy states that “the decision to admit a patient is a complex medical judgment.” Ch. 1 § 10. By contrast, CMS considers the determination as to whether services are properly billed and paid as inpatient or outpatient to be a regulatory matter. In an effort to avoid claim denials and recoupments, plaintiffs allege that hospitals automatically place the patients in observation and rely on computer algorithms or “commercial screening tools.”
In a deposition, a RAC official admitted that if the claim being reviewed meets the “commercial screening tool” requirements, then the RAC would find the inpatient status is appropriate, as long as there is a technically valid order. No wonder hospitals are relying on these commercial screening tools more and more! It is only logical and self-preserving!
This case was originally filed in 2011, and the Court of Appeals overturned the district court’s dismissal and remanded it back to the district court for consideration of the due process claims. In this case, the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs could establish a protected property interest if they proved their allegation “that the Secretary—acting through CMS—has effectively established fixed and objective criteria for when to admit Medicare beneficiaries as ‘inpatients,’ and that, notwithstanding the Medicare Policy Manual’s guidance, hospitals apply these criteria when making admissions decisions, rather than relying on the judgment of their treating physicians.”
HHS argues that that the undisputed fact that a physician makes the initial patient status determination on the basis of clinical judgment is enough to demonstrate that there is no due process property interest at stake.
The court disagreed and found too many material facts in dispute to dismiss the case.
Significant discovery will be explored as to the extent to which hospitals rely on commercial screening tools. Also whether the commercial screening tools are applied equally to private insureds versus Medicare patients.
Significant discovery will be explored on whether the hospital’s physicians challenge changing a patient from inpatient to observation.
Significant discovery will be explored as to the extent that CMS policy influences hospital decision-making.
Hospitals need to follow this case closely. If, in fact, RAC audits and CMS policy is influencing hospitals to issue patients as observation status instead of inpatient, expect changes to come – regardless the outcome of the case.
As for inpatient hospital stays, could this lawsuit give Medicare patients the right to appeal a hospital’s decision to place the patient in observation status? A possible, future scenario is a physician places a patient in observation. The patient appeals and gets admitted. Then hospital’s claim is denied because the RAC determines that the patient should have been in observation, not inpatient. Will the hospitals be damned if they do, damned if they don’t?
In the meantime:
Hospitals and physicians at hospitals: Review your policy regarding determining inpatient versus observation status. Review specific patient files that were admitted as inpatient. Was a commercial screening tool used? Is there adequate documentation that the physician made an independent decision to admit the patient? Hold educational seminars for your physicians. Educate! And have an attorney on retainer – this issue will be litigated.
Happy New Year, readers!!! A whole new year means a whole new investigation plan for the government…
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) publishes what is called a “Work Plan” every year, usually around November of each year. 2017 was no different. These Work Plans offer rare insight into the upcoming plans of Medicare investigations, which is important to all health care providers who accept Medicare and Medicaid.
For those of you who do not know, OIG is an agency of the federal government that is charged with protecting the integrity of HHS, basically, investigating Medicare and Medicaid fraud, waste, and abuse.
So let me look into my crystal ball and let you know which health care professionals may be audited by the federal government…
The 2017 Work Plan contains a multitude of new and revised topics related to durable medical equipment (DME), hospitals, nursing homes, hospice, laboratories.
For providers who accept Medicare Parts A and B, the following are areas of interest for 2017:
- Hyperbaric oxygen therapy services: provider reimbursement
- Inpatient psychiatric facilities: outlier payments
- Skilled nursing facilities: reimbursements
- Inpatient rehabilitation hospital patients not suited for intensive therapy
- Skilled nursing facilities: adverse event planning
- Skilled nursing facilities: unreported incidents of abuse and neglect
- Hospice: Medicare compliance
- DME at nursing facilities
- Hospice home care: frequency of on-site nurse visits to assess quality of care and services
- Clinical Diagnostic Laboratories: Medicare payments
- Chronic pain management: Medicare payments
- Ambulance services: Compliance with Medicare
For providers who accept Medicare Parts C and D, the following are areas of interest for 2017:
- Medicare Part C payments for individuals after the date of death
- Denied care in Medicare Advantage
- Compounded topical drugs: questionable billing
- Rebates related to drugs dispensed by 340B pharmacies
For providers who accept Medicaid, the following are areas of interest for 2017:
- States’ MCO Medicaid drug claims
- Personal Care Services: compliance with Medicaid
- Medicaid managed care organizations (MCO): compliance with hold harmless requirement
- Hospice: compliance with Medicaid
- Medicaid overpayment reporting and collections: all providers
- Medicaid-only provider types: states’ risk assignments
- Accountable care
Caveat: The above-referenced areas of interest represent the published list. Do not think that if your service type is not included on the list that you are safe from government audits. If we have learned nothing else over the past years, we do know that the government can audit anyone anytime.
If you are audited, contact an attorney as soon as you receive notice of the audit. Because regardless the outcome of an audit – you have appeal rights!!! And remember, government auditors are more wrong than right (in my experience).
When you have a Medicare appeal, it is not uncommon for the appeal process to last years and years – up to 3-6 years in some cases. There has been a backlog of approximately 800,000+ Medicare appeals (almost 1 million), which, with no change, would take 11 years to vet.
A Federal Court Judge says – that is not good enough!
Judge James Boasburg Ordered that the Medicare appeal backlog be eliminated in the following stages:
- 30% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2017 (approximately a 300,000 case reduction within 1 year);
- 60% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2018;
- 90% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2019; and
- Elimination of the backlog of cases by Dec. 31, 2020;
A Medicare appeal has 5 steps. See blog. The backlog is at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level – or, Level 3.
This backlog is largely attributable to the Medicare Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) programs. In 2010, the federal government implemented the RAC program to recoup allegedly improper Medicare reimbursement payments. The RAC program (for both Medicare and Medicaid) has been criticized for being overly broad and burdensome and “nit picking,” insignificant paperwork errors. See blog.
While the RAC program has recovered a substantial sum of alleged overpayments, concurrently, it has cost health care providers an infinite amount of money to defend the allegations and has left Health and Human Services (HHS) with little funds to adjudicate the number of Medicare appeals, which increase every year. The number of Medicare appeals filed in fiscal year 2011 was 59,600. In fiscal year 2013, that number boomed to more than 384,000. Today, close to 1 million Medicare appeals stand in wait. The statutory adjudication deadline for appeals at the ALJ level is 90 days, yet the average Medicare appeal can last over 546 days.
The American Hospital Association (AHA) said – enough is enough!
AHA sued HHS’ Secretary Sylvia Burwell in 2014, but the case was dismissed. AHA appealed the District Court’s Decision to the Court of Appeals, which reversed the dismissal and gave the District Court guidance on how the backlog could be remedied.
Finally, last week, on December 5, 2016, the District Court published its Opinion and set forth the above referenced mandated dates for eliminating the Medicare appeal backlog.
While, administratively, the case was dismissed, the District Court retained “jurisdiction in order to review the required status reports and rule on any challenges to unmet deadlines.”
In non-legalese, the Court said “The case is over, but we will be watching you and can enforce this Decision should it be violated.”
This is a win for all health care providers that accept Medicare.
Have you ever watched athletes compete in the high jump? Each time an athlete is successful in pole vaulting over the bar, the bar gets raised…again…and again…until the athlete can no longer vault over the bar. Similarly, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) continue to raise the bar on health care providers who accept Medicare and Medicaid.
In February, CMS finalized the rule requiring providers to proactively investigate themselves and report any overpayments to CMS for Medicare Part A and B. (The Rule for Medicare Parts C and D were finalized in 2014, and the Rule for Medicaid has not yet been promulgated). The Rule makes it very clear that CMS expects providers and suppliers to enact robust self auditing policies.
We all know that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was intended to be self-funding. Who is funding it? Doctors, psychiatrists, home care agencies, hospitals, long term care facilities, dentists…anyone who accepts Medicare and Medicaid. The self-funding portion of the ACA is strict; it is infallible, and its fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA) detection tools…oh, how wide that net is cast!
Subsection 1128J(d) was added to Section 6402 of the ACA, which requires that providers report overpayments to CMS “by the later of – (A) the date which is 60 days after the date on which the overpayment was identified; or (B) the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable.”
Identification of an overpayment is when the person has, or reasonably should have through the exercise of reasonable diligence, determined that the person received an overpayment. Overpayment includes referrals or those referrals that violate the Anti-Kickback statute.
CMS allows providers to extrapolate their findings, but what provider in their right mind would do so?
There is a six-year look back period, so you don’t have to report overpayments for claims older than six years.
You can get an extension of the 60-day deadline if:
• Office of Inspector General (OIG) acknowledges receipt of a submission to the OIG Self-Disclosure Protocol
• OIG acknowledges receipt of a submission to the OIG Voluntary Self-Referral Protocol
• Provider requests an extension under 42 CFR §401.603
My recommendation? Strap on your pole vaulting shoes and get to jumping!
Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) have been prevalent in traditional Medicare and Medicaid for years now. However, RACs have not knocked on the doors of providers who accept Medicare Advantage yet, despite the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requiring them to do so by 2010. Are RACs going to target Medicare Advantage? Keep reading…
RACs are like the Big Bad Wolf in the “Three Little Pigs.” “Little pig, little pig, let me in!” “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin!” “Then I’ll huff and puff and blow your house down!”
According to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), “the Recovery Audit Program’s mission is to identify and correct Medicare improper payments through the efficient detection and collection of overpayments made on claims of health care services provided to Medicare beneficiaries, and the identification of underpayments to providers so that the CMS can implement actions that will prevent future improper payments in all 50 states.”
But the above explanation fails to paint the whole picture.
RACs are compensated by contingency fees. In other words, the more claims they find noncompliant, the more money they are paid. Plus, RACs extrapolate their findings. If a RAC finds $6000 in noncompliant claims, then they extrapolate that number across a universe (usually three years) and come up with some exorbitant number. See blog and blog. The financial incentives create overzealous auditors.
What type of providers accept Medicare Advantage? Advantage providers include optical providers, some durable medical equipment (DME), dentists, nutritionists, and some providers of wellness programs. The Medicare Advantage recipients usually pay a premium. Approximately 15.8 million people rely on Medicare Advantage policies.
CMS has been looking to implement the RAC program on Medicare Advantage for months…if not years. Now, it appears, that the RAC program will be leashed on Medicare Advantage very soon.
“And I’ll blow your house down!!”
CMS released a request for information in December 2015 on how to incorporate RACs into Medicare Advantage, but made little progress until recently.
My “sources” (ha – like I am a journalist) have informed me that the RAC program will soon be released on the Medicare Advantage providers. So be forewarned!!
Caught with your pants down!
The Yates memo? Sadly, we aren’t talking about William Butler Yates, who is one of my favorite poets:
TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand…Part of The Second Coming
Ok, so maybe it is a little melodramatic to compare the Yates memo from the Office of the Deputy Attorney General to the end of the world, the drowning of innocence, and The Second Coming, but I made analogies in past blogs that had stretched and, dare I say, hyberbolized the situation.
What is the Yates memo?
The Yates memo is a memorandum written by Sally Quillian Yates, Deputy Attorney General for the U.S. Dept. of Justice, dated September 9, 2015.
It basically outlines how federal investigations for corporate fraud or misconduct should be conducted and what will be expected from the corporation getting investigated. It was not written specifically about health care providers; it is a general memo outlining the investigations of corporate wrongdoing across the board. But it is germane to health care providers.
By far the most scary and daunting item discussed within the Yates memo is the DOJ’s interest in indicting individuals within corporations as well as the corporate entities itself, i.e., the executives…the management. Individual accountability.
No more Lehman Brothers fallout with former CEO Dick Fuld leaving the catastrophe with a mansion in Greenwich, Conn., a 40+ acre ranch in Sun Valley, Idaho, as well as a five-bedroom home in Jupiter Island, Fla. Fuld may have or may not have been a player in the downfall of Lehman Brothers. But the Yates Memo was not published back in 2008.
The Yates Memo outlines 6 steps to strengthen audits for corporate compliance:
- To be eligible for any cooperation credit, corporations must provide to the DOJ all relevant facts about individuals involved in corporate misconduct.
- Both criminal and civil corporate investigations should focus on individuals from the inception of the investigation.
- Criminal and civil attorneys handling corporate investigations should be in routine communication with one another.
- Absent extraordinary circumstances, no corporate resolution will provide protection from criminal or civil liability for any individuals.
- Corporate cases should not be resolved without a clear plan to resolve related individual cases before the statute of limitations expires and declinations as to individuals in such cases must be memorialized.
- Civil attorneys should consistently focus on individuals as well as the company and evaluate whether to bring suit against an individual based on considerations beyond that individual’s ability to pay.
So why write about now – over 6 months after it was disseminated?
First, since its dissemination, a few points have been clarified that were otherwise in question.
About a month after its publication, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell emphasized the Yates memo’s requirement that corporations must disclose all relevant facts regarding misconduct to receive cooperation credit. Caldwell went so far to say that companies must affirmatively seek relevant facts regarding misconduct.
For example, Hospital X is accused of Medicare fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA) in the amount of $15 million. The Yates memo dictates that management at the hospital proactively investigate the allegations and report its findings to the federal government. The memo mandates that the hospital “show all its cards” and turn itself in prior to making any defense.
The problem here is that FWA is such a subjective determination.
What if a hospital bills Medicare for inplantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD, for patients that had coronary bypass surgery or angioplasty within 90 days or a heart attack within 40 days? What if the heart attack was never documented? What if the heart attack was so minor that it lasted under 100 milliseconds?
The Medicare National Coverage Determinations are so esoteric that your average Medicare auditor could very well cite a hospital for billing for an ICD even when the patient’s heart attack lasted under 100 milliseconds.
Yet, according to the Yates memo, the hospital is required to present all relevant facts before any defense. What if the hospital’s billing person is over zealous in detecting mis-billings? The hospital could very well have a legal defense as to why the alleged mis-billing is actually compliant. What about a company’s right to seek counsel and defend itself? The Yates memo may require the company to turn over attorney-client privilege.
The second point that has been clarified since the Yates’ memo’s publication came from Yates herself.
Yates remarks that there will be a presumption that the company has access to identify culpable individuals unless they can make an affirmative showing that the company does not have access to it or are legally prohibited from producing it.
Why should this matter? It’s only a memo, right?
Since its publication, the DOJ codified it into the revised U.S. Attorneys’ Manual, including the two clarifying remarks. Since its inception, the heads of companies have been targeted.
A case was brought against David Bostwick, the founder, owner and chief executive officer of Bostwick Laboratories for allegedly provided incentives to treating physicians in exchange for referrals of patients who would then be subjected to these tests.
When the pharmaceutical company Warner Chilcott was investigated for health care fraud prosecutors also went after W. Carl Reichel, the former president, for his alleged involvement in the company’s kickback scheme.
Prior to the Yates’ memo, it was uncommon for health care fraud investigations to involve criminal charges or civil resolutions against individual executives.
The Second Coming?
It may feel that way to executives of health care companies accused of fraud, waste, and abuse.
When you are accused of a $12 million dollar overpayment by Medicare, obviously, you appeal it.But do you expect that appeal to take ten years or longer? Are such long, wait periods allowed by law? That is what Cumberland Community Hospital System, Inc. (Cape Fear) discovered in a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision, on March 7, 2016, denying a Writ of Mandamus from the Court and refusing to order the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Burwell to immediately adjudicate Cape Fear’s Medicare appeals to be heard within the Congressional requirement that appeals be heard and decided by Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) within 90 days.
According to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services‘ (CMS) website, an “ALJ will generally issue a decision within 90 days of receipt of the hearing request. Again, according to CMS’ website, this time frame may be extended for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to:
- The case being escalated from the reconsideration level
- The submission of additional evidence not included with the hearing request
- The request for an in-person hearing
- The appellant’s failure to send a notice of the hearing request to other parties
- The initiation of discovery if CMS is a party.”
In Cape Fear’s case, the Secretary admitted that the Medicare appeal backlog equates to more than 800,000 claims and would, likely, take over 10 years to adjudicate all the claims. Even the 4th Circuit Court, which, ultimately, dismissed Cape Fear’s complaint, agrees with Cape Fear and calls the Medicare appeal backlog “incontrovertibly grotesque.”
Generally, the rule is that if the ALJ does not render a decision after 180 days of the filing of the case, then the provider has the right to escalate the case to the Medicare Appeals Council, which is the 4th step of a Medicare appeal. See blog for more details on the appeal process.
What about after 3,650 days? Get a big pie in the face?
The United States Code is even less vague than CMS’ website. Without question 42 U.S.C. states that for a:
“(1)Hearing by administrative law judge; (A)In general
Except as provided in subparagraph (B), an administrative law judge shall conduct and conclude a hearing on a decision of a qualified independent contractor under subsection (c) of this section and render a decision on such hearing by not later than the end of the 90-day period beginning on the date a request for hearing has been timely filed.”
(emphasis added). And, BTW, subsection (B) is irrelevant here. It contemplates when a party moves for or stipulates to an extension past the 90-day period.
So why did Cape Fear lose? How could the hospital lose when federal administrative code specifically spells out mandatory 90-day limit for a decision by an ALJ? Ever heard of a statute with no teeth? [i.e., HIPAA].
No one will be surprised to read that I have my opinions. First, a writ of mandamus was not the legal weapon to wield. It is an antiquated legal theory that rarely makes itself useful in modern law. I remember the one and only time I filed a writ of mandamus in state court in an attempt to hold a State Agency liable for willfully violating a Court’s Order. I appeared before the judge, who asked me, “Do you know how long I have been on this bench?” To which I responded, “Yes, Your Honor, you have been on the bench for X number of years.” He said, “Do you know how many times I have granted a writ of mandamus?” I said, “No, Your Honor.” “Zero,” he said, “Zero.” The point is that writs of mandamus are rare. A party must prove to the court that he/she has a clear and indisputable right to what is being asked of the court.
Secondly, in my mind, Cape Fear made a disastrous mistake in arguing that it has a clear right for its Medicare appeals to be adjudicated immediately. Think about it…there are 800,000+ Medicare appeals pending before the ALJs. What judge would ever order the administrative court to immediately drop all other 799,250 pended claims (Cape Fear had 750 claims pending) and to adjudicate only Cape Fear’s claims? It is the classic slippery slope…if you do this for Cape Fear, then you need to order the same for the rest of the pended claims.
In this instance, it appears that Cape Fear requested too drastic a measure for a federal judge to order. The claims were doomed from the beginning.
However, I cannot fault Cape Fear for trying since the code is crystal clear in requiring a 90-day turnaround time. The question becomes…what is the proper remedy for a gross disregard, even if unwillful, of the 90-day turnaround period?
This would have taken thinking outside the box.
Medicare providers have some rights. I discuss those rights frequently on this blog. But the population that the courts inevitably want to insulate from “David and Goliath situations” are the recipients. Unlike the perceived, “big, strong, and well-attorneyed” hospital, recipients often find themselves lacking legal representation to defend their statutorily-given right to choose their provider and exercise their right to access to care.
Had Cape Fear approached the same problem from a different perspective and argued violations of law on behalf of the beneficiaries of Cape Fear’s quality health care services, a different result may have occurred.
Another way Cape Fear could have approached the same problem, could have been a request for the Court to Cape Fear’s funds owed for service rendered to be released pending the litigation.
As always, there is more than one way to skin a cat. I humbly suggest that when you have such an important case to bring…BRING IT ALL!!
Medicare is the largest payor of clinical lab services in the nation. Clinical lab services include everything from blood counts to urinalyses, and every letter of the alphabet in between. Lab services are performed by hospitals, independent labs, physicians, or other institutions.
Medicare Part B (which covers lab services) has had increased enrollment over the past few years, but the amount billed to Part B over the past few years has increased at a much higher rate. In other words, the amount of lab services billed to Part B has increased disproportionately to the increase in enrollment. Any number of factors could contribute to this: defensive practice of medicine, more reliance on laboratory testing, more labs…
Regardless, the higher billing amounts in lab services has now won the prestigious award of “Increased CMS Scrutiny!” (sarcasm, people). And the crowd goes wild!!!!
Mid-2014, the U.S. Office of Inspector General (OIG) published a study entitled, “Questionable Billing for Medicare Part B Clinical Laboratory Services.” OIG determined that Medicare allowed $1.5 billion to be paid for claims with questionable billing. It recommended that CMS: (1) review the labs identified with questionable billing and take appropriate action; (2) review program integrity strategies and determine whether such strategies are adequate; and (3) ensure that claims with invalid and ineligible ordering-physician numbers are not being paid.
In normal and expectant government time frames, the “dinosauric beast” has now determined, a little over a year later, that laboratory service claims warrant enhanced scrutiny. And a little over 85 years after its discovery, we finally determine that Pluto isn’t a planet.
CMS zoomed in their lens of scrutiny on lab services multiple times over a decade ago. Each “CMS zoom” resulted in millions and millions of money given to the federal government, which perpetuates the feds to zoom more and more…it’s easy money.
For example, in 2000, OIG issued Project LabScam, which resulted in substantial settlements against Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings, SmithKline Beecham, Met/Path, Damon, Roche, and Allied.
In 2002, OIG found that Medicare incorrectly paid $7.4 million for lab services with invalid ordering UPINs and $15.3 million for lab service claims with inactive ordering UPINs.
What does this mean to providers of lab services today?
It means you need to be prepared for an audit.
When I was young, one of my favorite games was “Red Rover.” Children would grasp arms and form a straight line facing the other team, which was doing the same. I would yell, “Red River, Red Rover, send Holly right over!” At which time, little Holly would be released from her line and prepare to run, full speed, into my line of little kids’ arms. Inevitably, once we saw where Holly was running, we would tighten up our grasps on one another’s arms to prepare for the impact.
Similarly, in preparation for upcoming audits, lab service providers need to tighten up.
The best way to be certain of your risks in a potential audit is to hire a professional consultant or an experienced attorney to review a large sample of your documents. This allows an outsider to provide an unbiased opinion as to your risk. You may have the best billing manager in the world, but, when it comes to a self audit, he or she already believes that his or her documentation is stellar and that the organization of such documents is self evident. Having an outsider audit your records is worth its weight in gold and the best way to tighten up pre-audit.
The second best way to be certain of your risks in a potential audit is to self audit. Even if you hire a consultant or an attorney for a one time, third-party audit, you still want to self-audit multiple times a year. Every now and then you need to kick the old tires.
How do you self audit?
FYI: My general explanation of how to self audit will be appropriate for all health care service provider types. I will describe some more detailed ways to self audit that will be specific to lab services.
In order to self audit, I teach the IAKA method, not to be confused with IKEA.
- Identify common risks
- Audit a sample of your documents
- Keep record of each step of your audit, including findings
- Act on the findings.
What are the common red flags in your industry?
For lab services, common red flags may be high average allowed amounts per ordering physician, high percentage of claims with ineligible ordering-physician numbers, high percentage of claims with compromised beneficiary numbers, and high percentage of duplicate lab tests.
Here’s an area to look into that you may not otherwise consider in a self audit: what percentage of your lab clients live outside 100 miles? This may sound hoaky, but I had a lab service client flagged because 92% of the clients resided over 150 miles away. There was a perfectly reasonable explanation for such anomaly, the lab was located in a large, prestigious hospital in a rural area and people came from miles away to the hospital, but the statistic still flagged it.
Another specific item to review is, on average, how much does each physician bill in the laboratory? Do you have 4 physicians who bill, on average, $60,000+ per ordering physician? Because, for an independent lab, that would be very high.
For the actual self audit, you want to break up the audit into two categories: standards and procedures and document compliance.
For standards and procedures, you are reviewing whether you are properly orienting new hires, the specific training you implement, your criminal background check procedures, HIPAA training, your license renewal processes, your certification renewal processes, etc.
For document compliance, you are reviewing for physician signatures and dates.
NOTE: It is not required, but it is extremely prudent to print the name of the signator underneath all signatures. I have seen auditors ding providers on “physicians not being licensed/credentialed” because the auditor could not read the name of the physician.
You are also reviewing for medical necessity, eligible ordering-physician numbers, distance the client is to the lab, amount prescribed to that particular client, amount prescribed by that particular physician, whether that test prescribed for the same client within a 12 month period, coding compliance, etc.
It is imperative that you keep meticulous records while you conducting the audits. You want to be able to show an auditor that you caught a mistake and that you implemented a plan of correction to remedy the mistake going forward. And that, in actuality, you remedied the mistake going forward. This documentation is essential for possible defenses to alleged potential overpayments, false claims, and, even, alleged criminal actions. Your documentation skills could be the difference between paying millions in penalties, or, in the extreme case, jail.
I got ahead of myself in the prior section by saying that you need to document the way in which you fix the mistake. But I cannot emphasize it enough. Acting on your findings is important, obviously, but documenting the actions is more important. Ever hear the saying, “If it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen?” Take that as gospel.
Be prepared. Be proactive. Be ready. Tighten up!
As if South Carolina didn’t have enough issues with the recent flooding, let’s throw in some allegations of Medicaid fraud against the health care providers. I’m imagining a provider under water, trying to defend themselves against fraud allegations, while treading water. It’s not a pretty picture.
Flash floods happen fast, as those in SC can attest.
So, too, do the consequences of allegations.
Shakespeare is no stranger to false accusations. In Othello, Othello is convinced that his wife is unfaithful, yet she was virtuous. In Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio believes Hero to be unfaithful and slanders her until her death. Interestingly, neither Othello and Claudio came to their respective opinions on their own. Both had a persuader. Both had a tempter. Both had someone else whisper the allegations of unfaithfulness in their ears and both chose to believe the accusation with no independent investigation. So too are accusations of Medicaid/care fraud so easily accepted without independent investigation.
With the inception of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), We have seen a sharp uptick on accusations of credible allegations of fraud. See blog for the definition of credible allegation of fraud.
The threshold for credible allegation of fraud incredibly low. A mere accusation from a disgruntled employee, a mere indicia of credibility, and/or even a computer data mining program can incite an allegation of fraud. Hero was, most likely, committing Medicare/acid fraud too.
The consequences of being accused of fraud is catastrophic for a health care provider regardless whether the accusation is accurate. You are guilty before proving your innocence! Your reimbursements are immediately suspended! Your entire livelihood is immediately crumbled! You are forced to terminate staff! Assets can be seized, preventing you even the ability to hire an attorney to defend yourself!
I have seen providers be accused of credible allegations of fraud and the devastation that follows. In New Mexico. In North Carolina. See documentary. Many NC providers serve SC’s population as well. The Medicaid reimbursement rates are higher in SC.
Obviously, The ACA is nationwide, federal law. Hence, the increase in allegations/accusations of health care fraud is nationwide.
Recently, South Carolina health care providers have been on the chopping block. Othello and Claudio are in the house of Gamecocks!
South Carolina’s single state agency, DHHS, required Medicaid recipients to get a 2nd prior approval before receiving health care services for “rehabilitative behavioral health” services, such as behavioral health care services for substance abuse and mental illness (could you imagine the burden if this were required here in NC?).
Then, last year, SC DHHS eliminated such 2nd prior approval requirement.
With fewer regulations and red tape in which to maneuver, SC saw a drastic uptick of behavioral health care services. Othello and Claudio said, “Fraud! More services with only one prior approval must be prima fracie fraud!”
Hence, behavioral health care providers in SC are getting investigated. But, mind you, during investigations reimbursements are suspended. You say, “Well, Knicole, how will these health care provider agencies afford to defend themselves without getting paid?” “Good question,” I say. “They cannot unless they have a stack of cash on hand for this exact reason.”
“What should these providers do?” You ask.
Hire an attorney and seek an injunction lifting the suspension of payments during the investigation.
Turn a Shakespearean tragedy into a comedy! Toss in a dingy!
Judges have lifted the suspensions. Read the case excerpt below:
As you can read in the above-referenced case, despite 42 455.23(a) mandating a suspension of payments upon credible allegations of fraud, this Judge found that the state failed to carefully weigh the evidence before suspending all payments.
There are legal remedies!!
On August 1, 2015, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) clarified (limited) the scope of Medicare auditors in a published article entitled, “Limiting the Scope of Review on Redeterminations and Reconsiderations of Certain Claims.” (MLN Matters® Number: SE1521).
The limitations apply to Medicare Audit Contractors (MACs) and Qualified Independent Contractors (QICs). This new instruction will apply to audits conducted on or after August 1, 2015, and will not be applied retroactively. Important to note: this instruction does not apply to prepayment review, only post payment reviews.
MLN Matters® Number: SE1521 was published in response to the overwhelming, increasingly, mushroomed backlog of Medicare appeals at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level. Six years ago, prior to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the number of Medicare appeals at the ALJ level was sustainable. Six years later, in 2015, the Medicare appeal backlog has skyrocketed to numbers beyond the comprehension of any adversely affected health care provider, i.e., over 547 days for adjudication!
So in order to combat these overwhelming, bottle-necked and “anything but speedy Medicare appeals,” CMS attempted to rectify the situation by setting new limitations (among other measures) as to the scope of authority that MACs and QICs may present on an audit. However, these new limitations remind me of the hole that is in my front yard. Yes, a hole. The title of this story is “Inertia: What is Easy to Keep Going, Is Impossible to Pull Back” or “I love my husband’s intentions, but the result looks like the Medicare backlog.”
My wonderful husband and I purchased a small farm at the beginning of the year. If you have been following my blog over the past year, you will know that we have horses, peacocks, a micro pig, two dogs, and a 10-year-old. It is a whirlwind of fun.
Well, included in our purchase was a very shallow, very mosquito-ridden pond. It was about 4-5 inches deep and I never really thought about it. It was a pond. It was not beautiful, but it was not ugly. It was just there.
My husband tells me one day that he is going to “clean out the pond.”
BEFORE (except he already tore up the grass, so I do not have a true before picture):
Every day, for three months, I come home to a deeper and deeper pond.
“I’m bound to hit a spring,” he would say. Or “Leroy says that there is a lot of water under our ground.” How Leroy came to this conclusion, I do not know. But, slowly, and almost unperceptively, each day the hole grows wider and deeper.
Until, one day, I come home to this:
It would be funny if it were in your yard. (BTW: For scale, check out the horses (one is white, one is brown) in the top left corner.)
“I love my husband’s intentions, but the result looks like the Medicare backlog.”
You cannot undo digging a hole in your front yard that could swallow an elephant..or maybe two or three elephants. Just like you cannot undo a Medicare appeal backlog that could, potentially, fill my hole with its paperwork. You just have to make do, sit on your front porch, and admire the meteor-like hole that resides in your front lawn.
We (He) have (has) high hopes that our hole will become a lake or a swimming hole. In order to help the cause, I spit in it every time I walk by it. In the alternative, we sometimes aim the sprinkler toward the hole and let it run for a few hours. These are examples of our attempts of reconciling our hole into a beautiful swimming hole.
Similarly, when CMS created these MACs and QICs for Medicare audits, at first, it seemed that the MACs and QICs had no limits as to their scopes of authority to audit. Due to these overzealous and, sometimes, overreaching audits, the appeal backlog increased in number, then multiplied. Similar to the construction of my hole, the appeal backlog grew slowly, at first, then exponentially until the backlog is out of hand and uncontrollable. See blog.
One example of the seemingly limitless authority that the MACs and QICs wielded was that the auditors would provide reasons why claims were noncompliant, the defect could be cured, and the MACs and/or QICs would deny the claim for an entirely different reason.
The auditor would, in essence, be moving the goalposts after you kicked the ball. And the appeal backlog continued to swell.
The ability for the auditors to expand the review of claims beyond which was initially reviewed contributed the massive backlog of Medicare appeals at the ALJ level because more providers appeal an audit with which they disagree (common sense). Just like my hole in my front yard, the backlog of appeals grew, then ballooned until the number of Medicare appeals stuck in the backlog could possibly fill my hole. See blog for the Medicare appeal process and appeal deadlines.
According to the most current statistics available, there is a Medicare appeal backlog of approximately 870,000 appeals. The average processing time for appeals decided in fiscal year 2015 is 547.1 days.
Look at the balloon effect of “average processing time by fiscal year.” In 2009, the average processing time was 94.9 days (a little over 3 months). Now it is over 540 days (almost a year and a half)!!
“I love my husband’s intentions, but the result looks like the Medicare backlog.”
In an attempt to clear the backlog, CMS released MLN Matters® Number: SE1521, on August 1, 2015, in which “CMS has instructed MACs and QICs to limit their review to the reason(s) the claim or line item at issue was initially denied.” (emphasis added).
An exception, however, is if claims are denied for insufficient documentation and the provider submits documents, the claim may still be denied for lack of medical necessity if the documents submitted do not support medical necessity.
This new instruction found in MLN Matters No. SE1521 is an attempt by CMS to reconcile the huge backlog of Medicare appeals at the ALJ level. It is a small gesture. Quite frankly, this instruction should be self-evident as it is inherently unfair to providers to move the goalposts during an audit. I liken this gesture to my husband aiming the sprinkler toward the hole.
In other words, in my opinion, this feeble gesture alone, will not solve the problem. But, in the meantime, it will benefit providers who have been suffering from the goalposts being moved during an audit.
Once something is so big…
“I love my husband’s intentions, but the result looks like the Medicare backlog.”
Maybe the backlog will be fixed when my hole has transformed to a swimming hole.