Category Archives: Medicare Attorney
EHR Incentive Payments: If the Practice is Accepting Them, There Better Be a Legal Assignment Contract!
Under the Medicare EHR incentive program, CMS makes incentive payments to individual providers, not to practices or groups. The same is true for Medicaid. According to CMS, the incentive payment is based on the provider’s meaningful use of the EHRs and does not constitute reimbursement for the expenses incurred in establishing EHRs. Prior to actual receipt of an incentive payment, a recipient may assign the payment to a third party, typically, the practice group of which the recipient is a member.
This is a question of equity. Legally, the incentive payments are made to physicians not practice groups. But if the facility bears the burden of the price tag of the computer software, which price tags are not nominal, shouldn’t the facility receive the incentive payments? CMS has made it clear that the incentive payments are not intended to subsidize the price of the software program and updates. Instead, the incentive payments are intended to reward the use of such computer software.
The facilities, generally, pay for the EHR incentive program software programs. Some programs can be as high as $50,000/month. And updated regulatory compliance is not guaranteed. See blog. Plus, the practice group can be held liable for non-compliance issues found in the EHR technology. If the facility is audited and any non-compliance is under-covered, most physicians will be indemnified by the facility for any alleged overpayment, and the facility will be on the hook for any alleged overpayment (depending on the employment relationship). This increased burden on the practice group is why many physicians assign their incentive payments to the facilities. But it has to be done in a legally compliant manner.
Recently, however, I have been contacted by multiple health care facilities which have accepted the EHR incentive payments on behalf of its employed physicians, but did not have adequate, legal assignment contracts to receive the EHR incentives on behalf of the providers. These facilities relied on old, outdated, generic, employment contracts as the basis for the facilities accepting these payments on behalf of the physicians. Not having appropriate assignment contracts with the physicians can make the facilities liable to the physicians for the money accepted on their behalf.
Generic employee contracts that simply state that the facility can bill for and receive reimbursements on behalf of the physicians do not constitute adequate legal authority to accept EHR incentive payments on behalf of physician-employees.
Facilities, in order to legally accept the incentive payments on behalf of their employee-physicians must (1) determine whether their physicians are eligible professionals; and (2) execute a legally binding assignment contract.
Eligible Professionals (“EPs”) must first determine whether they are exactly that – eligible professionals.
Eligible professionals under the Medicare EHR Incentive Program include:
- Doctor of medicine or osteopathy
- Doctor of dental surgery or dental medicine
- Doctor of podiatry
- Doctor of optometry
Who is an Eligible Professional under the Medicaid EHR Incentive Program?
Eligible professionals under the Medicaid EHR Incentive Program include:
- Physicians (primarily doctors of medicine and doctors of osteopathy)
- Nurse practitioner
- Certified nurse-midwife
- Physician assistant who furnishes services in a Federally Qualified Health Center or Rural Health Clinic that is led by a physician assistant.
To qualify for an incentive payment under the Medicaid EHR Incentive Program, an eligible professional must meet one of the following criteria:
- Have a minimum 30% Medicaid patient volume*
- Have a minimum 20% Medicaid patient volume, and is a pediatrician*
- Practice predominantly in a Federally Qualified Health Center or Rural Health Center and have a minimum 30% patient volume attributable to needy individuals
* Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) patients do not count toward the Medicaid patient volume criteria.
Eligible for Both Programs?
Eligible professionals eligible for both the Medicare and Medicaid EHR Incentive Programs must choose which incentive program they wish to participate in when they register. Before 2015, an EP may switch programs only once after the first incentive payment is initiated. Most EPs will maximize their incentive payments by participating in the Medicaid EHR Incentive Program.
EPs can switch programs as often as they desire–until they receive their first payment. After receiving their first payment, they may only switch once between programs prior to 2015.
If you are part of a practice, each eligible professional may qualify for an incentive payment if each eligible professional successfully demonstrates meaningful use of certified EHR technology. Each eligible professional is only eligible for one incentive payment per year, regardless of how many practices or locations at which he or she provide services.
Hospital-based eligible professionals are not eligible for incentive payments. An eligible professional is considered hospital-based if 90% or more of his or her services are performed in a hospital inpatient (Place Of Service code 21) or emergency room (Place Of Service code 23) setting.
What language needs to be included in any assignment contracts?
A recent study by the American Hospital Association (AHA) found federal programs, including meaningful use, have cost health systems and post-acute care (PAC) providers nearly $39 billion a year. Small practices in particular have been hit hard by the added costs and administrative burden brought on by changing regulations. Studies have shown that small, specialty, non-hospital, facilities have carried the brunt of the financial burden for the EHR requirements.
Under the Medicaid incentive program, an EP may reassign incentive payments to “an entity promoting the adoption of certified EHR technology.” This term is defined as:
State-designated entities that are promoting the adoption of certified EHR technology by enabling oversight of the business, operational and legal issues involved in the adoption and implementation of certified EHR technology or by enabling the exchange and use of electronic clinical and administrative data between participating providers, in a secure manner, including maintaining the physical and organizational relationship integral to the adoption of certified EHR technology by eligible providers.
The Assignment Contract
At a minimum, the assignment language should address the following issues:
(1) Is the EP assigning all or a portion of the incentive payments to the facility? Be specific.
(2) Be clear on whether the facility or the EP must furnish the documentation necessary to establish meaningful use each year. In other words, denote who will be entering the data into the CMS or Medicaid website.
(3) Indicate whether the EP will consult with the facility in order to determine which incentive program will yield the higher possible payments – or – whether the decision rests with the facility.
(4) The assignment language should state, accurately, whether the facility expects to be designated as an “entity promoting the adoption of certified EHR technology.”
(5) The contract should state, accurately, whether there is or will be a valid contractual arrangement allowing the facility to bill for the EP’s services. Basically, if there is already an employment contract in place, this assignment contract can act as an addendum or exhibit to the original employment contract.
(6) Define the term of assignment with a start date and an end date.
Only after the the facility determines that the physicians are eligible to receive the EHR incentive payments AND a valid assignment contract is executed, can the facility legally accept the incentive payments on behalf of its physicians. If the facility accepts the incentive payments and the physicians are not eligible, the facility will owe money to the government. If the facility accepts the incentive payments without an assignment contract, the physicians could demand the payments from the practice.
Recently, my blog was named one of the top 75 health care blogs in the nation!!! See here for all 75 blogs. Thank you to everyone who subscribes to this blog. I remember when I started the blog in 2012, I thought, “who in the world will find Medicare and Medicaid interesting?” Now, 5 years later, I have thousands of readers and national recognition. Who would’ve thought???
What if there are only 76 health care blogs in existence? Well, that would take the wind out of my sails.
Even if there are only 76 health care blogs in the nation, I am still humbled and grateful to be named one of the top 75 health care blogs.
Thank you!! And keep reading!
Interestingly, how OIG and who OIG targets for audits is much more transparent than one would think. OIG tells you in advance (if you know where to look).
Prior to June 2017, the Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) OIG updated its public-facing Work Plan to reflect those adjustments once or twice each year. In order to enhance transparency around OIG’s continuous work planning efforts, effective June 15, 2017, OIG began updating its Work Plan website monthly.
Why is this important? I will even take it a step further…why is this information crucial for health care providers, such as you?
These monthly reports provide you with notice as to whether the type of provider you are will be on the radar for Medicare and Medicaid audits. And the notice provided is substantial. For example, in October 2017, OIG announced that it will investigate and audit specialty drug coverage and reimbursement in Medicaid – watch out pharmacies!!! But the notice also states that these audits of pharmacies for speciality drug coverage will not begin until 2019. So, pharmacies, you have over a year to ensure compliance with your records. Now don’t get me wrong… you should constantly self audit and ensure regulatory compliance. Notwithstanding, pharmacies are given a significant warning that – come 2019 – your speciality drug coverage programs better be spic and span.
Another provider type that will be on the radar – bariatric surgeons. Medicare Parts A and B cover certain bariatric procedures if the beneficiary has (1) a body mass index of 35 or higher, (2) at least one comorbidity related to obesity, and (3) been previously unsuccessful with medical treatment for obesity. Treatments for obesity alone are not covered. Bariatric surgeons, however, get a bit less lead time. Audits for bariatric surgeons are scheduled to start in 2018. Considering that 2018 is little more than a month away, this information is less helpful. The OIG Work Plans do not specific enough to name a month in which the audits will begin…just sometime in 2018.
Where do you find such information? On the OIG Work Plan website. Click here. Once you are on the website, you will see the title at the top, “Work Plan.” Directly under the title are the “clickable” subjects: Recently Added | Active Work Plan Items | Work Plan Archive. Pick one and read.
You will see that CMS is not the only agency that OIG audits. It also audits the Food and Drug Administration and the Office of the Secretary, for example. But we are concerned with the audits of CMS.
Other targeted providers types coming up:
- Security of Certified Electronic Health Record Technology Under Meaningful Use
- States’ Collection of Rebates on Physician-Administered Drugs
- States’ Collection of Rebates for Drugs Dispensed to Medicaid MCO Enrollees
- Adult Day Health Care Services
- Oversight of States’ Medicaid Information Systems Security Controls
- States’ MCO Medicaid Drug Claims
- Incorrect Medical Assistance Days Claimed by Hospitals
- Selected Inpatient and Outpatient Billing Requirements
And the list goes on and on…
Do not think that if your health care provider type is not listed on the OIG website that you are safe from audits. As we all know, OIG is not the only entity that conducts regulatory audits. The States and its contracted vendors also audit, as well as the RACs, MICs, MACs, CERTs…
Never forget that whatever entity audits you, YOU HAVE APPEAL RIGHTS!
What is scarier than Pennywise, Annabelle, and Jigsaw combined? Getting sued for an EHR program mistake and getting audited for EHR eligibility when the money is already spent (most likely, on the EHR programs).
Without question, EHR programs have many amazing qualities. These programs save practices time and money and allow them to communicate instantly with insurers, hospitals, and referring physicians. Medical history has never been so easy to get, which can improve quality of care.
However, recently, there have been a few audits of EHR programs that have caused some bloodcurdling concerns and of which providers need to be aware of creepy cobwebs with the EHR programs and the incentive programs.
- According to multiple studies, EHR has been linked to patient injuries, which can result in medical malpractice issues; and
- In an audit by OIG, CMS was found to have inappropriately paid $729.4 million (12 percent of the total) in incentive payments to providers who did not meet meaningful use requirements, which means that CMS may be auditing providers who accepted the EHR incentive payments in the near future.
Since the implementation of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, which rewards providers with incentive payments to utilize electronic health record (EHR) computer programs, EHR use has skyrocketed. Providers who accept Medicare are even more incentivized to implement EHR programs because not using EHR programs lead to penalties.
I. Possible Liability Due to EHR Programs
A recent study by the The Doctors’ Company (TDC) found that the use of EHR has contributed to a number of patient injuries over the last 10 years. The study highlights why it is so important to have processes in place for back-up, cross-checking, and auditing the documentation in your EHRs.
Without question, the federal government pushed for physicians and hospitals to implement EHR programs quickly. Now 80% of physician practices use EHR programs. 90% of hospitals use EHR programs. But the federal government did not create EHR standards when it mandated the use of the programs. This resulted in vastly inconsistent EHR programs. These programs, for the most part, were not created by health care workers. The people who know whether the EHR programs work in real life – the providers – haven’t transformed the EHR programs into better programs based on reality. The programs are “take it or leave it” models created in a vacuum. This only makes sense because providers don’t write computer code, and the EHR technology is extremely esoteric. A revision to an EHR program probably takes an act of wizardry. Revitalizing the current EHR programs to be better suited to real life could take years.
There are always unanticipated consequences when new technology is implemented – didn’t we all learn this from the NCTracks implementation debacle? Now that was gruesome!
TDC study found that EHR programs may place more liability on the provider-users than pre-electronic databases.
The study states the following:
“In our study of 66 EHR-related claims from July 2014 through December 2016, we found that 50 percent of these claims were caused by system factors such as failure of drug or clinical decision support alerts and 58 percent of claims were caused by user factors such as copying and pasting progress notes.
This study was an update to our first analysis of EHR-related claims, a review of 97 claims that closed from January 2007 through June 2014.”
Another study published by the Journal of Patient Health studied more than 300,000 cases. Although it found that less than 1% of the total (248 cases) involved technology mistakes, more than 80% of those suits alleged harms of medium to intense severity. The researchers stressed that the 248 claims represented the “tip of an iceberg” because the vast majority of EHR-related cases, even those involving serious harm, never generate lawsuits.
Of those 248 claims that may have been the result of EHR-related mistakes, 31% were medication errors. For example, a transcription error in entering the data from a handwritten note. Diagnostic errors contributed to 28% of the claims. Inability to access records in an emergency setting accounted for another 31%. But systems aren’t entirely to blame. User error — such as data entry and copy-and-paste mistakes and alert fatigue — is also a big problem, showing up in 58% of the claims reviewed. Boo!
- Avoid copying and pasting; beware of templates.
- Do not just assume the EHR technology is correct. Cross check.
- Self audit
II. Possible Audit Exposure for Accepting EHR Incentive Payments
Not only do providers need to be careful in using the EHR technology, but if you did attest to Medicare or Medicaid EHR incentive programs, you may be audited.
In June 2017, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) audited CMS and its EHR incentive program. OIG found that “CMS did not always make EHR incentive payments to EPs [eligible professionals] in accordance with Federal requirements. On the basis of [OIG’s] sample results, [OIG] estimated that CMS inappropriately paid $729.4 million (12 percent of the total) in incentive payments to EPs who did not meet meaningful use requirements. These errors occurred because sampled EPs did not maintain support for their attestations. Furthermore, CMS conducted minimal documentation reviews, leaving the self-attestations of the EHR program vulnerable to abuse and misuse of Federal funds.”
OIG also found that CMS made EHR incentive payments totaling $2.3 million that were not in accordance with the program-year payment requirements when EPs switched between Medicare and Medicaid incentive programs.
OIG recommended that CMS review provider incentive payments to determine which providers did not meet meaningful use requirements and recover the estimated $729,424,395.
What this means for you (if you attested to EHR incentive payments) –
Be prepared for an audit.
If you are a physician practice, make sure that you have the legally adequate assignment contracts allowing you to collect incentive payments on behalf of your physicians. A general employment contract will , generally, not suffice.
Double check that your EHR program was deemed certified. Do not just take the salesperson’s word for it. You can check whether your EHR program is certified here.
If you accepted Medicaid EHR incentive payments be sure that you met all eligibility requirements and that you have the documentation to prove it. Same with Medicare. These two programs had different eligibility qualifications.
Following these tips can save you from a spine-tingling trick from Pennywise!
The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the expansion of Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) audits. At first glance, this appears to be fantastic news coming on the heels of so much craziness at Health and Human Services (HHS). We have former-HHS Secretary Price flying our tax dollars all over. Dr. Don Wright stepping up as our new Secretary. The Medicare appeal backlog fiasco. The repeal and replace Obamacare bomb. Amidst all this tomfoolery, health care providers are still serving Medicare and Medicaid patients, reimbursement rates are in the toilet, which drives down quality and incentivizes providers to not accept Medicare or Medicaid (especially Caid), and providers are undergoing “Audit Alphabet Soup.” I actually had a client tell me that he receives audit letters requesting documents and money every single week from a plethora of different organizations.
So when CMS announced that it was broadening its TPE audits, it was a sigh of relief for many providers. But will TPE audits be the benign beasts they are purporting to be?
What is a TPE audit? (And – Can We Have Anymore Acronyms…PLEASE!)
CMS says that TPE audits are benevolent. CMS’ rhetoric indicates that these audits should not cause the toner to run out from overuse. CMS states that TPE audits will involve “the review of 20-40 claims per provider, per item or service, per round, for a total of up to three rounds of review.” See CMS Announcement. The idea behind the TPE audits (supposedly) is education, not recoupments. CMS states that “After each round, providers are offered individualized education based on the results of their reviews. This program began as a pilot in one MAC jurisdiction in June 2016 and was expanded to three additional MAC jurisdictions in July 2017. As a result of the successes demonstrated during the pilot, including an increase in the acceptance of provider education as well as a decrease in appealed claims decisions, CMS has decided to expand to all MAC jurisdictions later in 2017.” – And “later in 2017” has arrived. These TPE audits are currently being conducted nationwide.
Below is CMS’ vision for a TPE audit:
Clear? As mud?
The chart does not indicate how long the provider will have to submit records or how quickly the TPE auditors will review the documents for compliance. But it appears to me that getting through Round 3 could take a year (this is a guess based on allowing the provider 30 days to gather the records and allowing the TPE auditor 30 days to review).
Although the audit is purportedly benign and less burdensome, a TPE audit could take a whole year or more. Whether the audit reviews one claim or 20, having to undergo an audit of any size for a year is burdensome on a provider. In fact, I have seen many companies having to hire staff dedicated to responding to audits. And here is the problem with that – there aren’t many people who understand Medicare/caid medical billing. Providers beware – if you rely on an independent biller or an electronic medical records program, they better be accurate. Otherwise the buck stops with your NPI number.
Going back to CMS’ chart (above), notice where all the “yeses” go. As in, if the provider is found compliant , during any round, all the yeses point to “Discontinue for at least 12 months.” I am sure that CMS thought it was doing providers a favor, but what that tells me is the TPE audit will return after 12 months! If the provider is found compliant, the audit is not concluded. In fact, according to the chart, the only end results are (1) a referral to CMS for possible further action; or (2) continued TPE audits after 12 months. “Further action” could include 100% prepayment review, extrapolation, referral to a Recovery Auditor, or other action. Where is the outcome that the provider receives an A+ and is left alone??
CMS states that “Providers/suppliers may be removed from the review process after any of the three rounds of probe review, if they demonstrate low error rates or sufficient improvement in error rates, as determined by CMS.”
I just feel as though that word “may” should be “will.” It’s amazing how one word could change the entire process.
On September 6, 2017, I appeared on the Besler Hospital Finance Podcast regarding:
Update on the Medicare appeals backlog [PODCAST]
Feel free to listen to the podcast, download it, and share with others!
But all is not lost… it all lies in the possibility…
A few weeks ago I blogged about Health and Human Services (HHS) possibly being held in contempt of court for violating an Order handed down on Dec. 5, 2016, by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg. See blog.
The District Court Judge granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of the American Hospital Association in AHA v. Burwell. He ordered HHS to incrementally reduce the backlog of 657,955 appeals pending before the agency’s Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals over the next four years, reducing the backlog by 30% by the end of 2017; 60% by the end of 2018; 90% by the end of 2019; and to completely eliminate the backlog by Dec. 31, 2020.
This was a huge win for AHA – and Medicare providers across the country. Currently, when a provider appeals an adverse decision regarding Medicare, it costs an inordinate amount of attorneys’ fees, and the provider will not receive legal relief for upwards of 6 – 10 years, which can cause financial hardship, especially if the adverse action is in place during the appeal process. Yet the administrative appeal process was designed (poorly) to conclude within 1 year.
With the first deadline (the end of 2017) fast approaching and HHS publicly announcing that the reduction of 30% by the end of 2017 is impossible, questions were posed – how could the District Court hold HHS, a federal agency, in contempt?
We got the answer.
On August 11, 2017, the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia overturned the District Court; thereby lifting the requirement to reduce the Medicare appeal backlog.
Wiping tear from face.
The first paragraph of the Ruling, indicates the Court’s philosophic reasoning, starting with a quote from Immanuel Kant (not to be confused with Knicole Emanuel), CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON 548 (Norman Kemp Smith trans., Macmillan 1953) (1781) (“The action to which the ‘ought’ applies must indeed be possible under natural conditions.”)
First paragraph of the decision:
“”Ought implies can.” That is, in order for law – man-made or otherwise – to command the performance of an act, that act must be possible to perform. This lofty philosophical maxim, ordinarily relevant only to bright-eyed college freshmen, sums up our reasoning in this case.”
The Appeals Court determined that the District Court commanded the Secretary to perform an act – clear the backlog by certain deadlines – without evaluating whether performance was possible.
The Medicare backlog skyrocketed in 2011 due to the federally-required Medicare Recovery Audit Program (RAC). With the implementation of the RAC program, the number of appeals filed ballooned from 59,600 in fiscal year 2011 to more than 384,000 in fiscal year 2013. These appeals bottlenecked to the third level of appeal, which is before an administrative law judge (ALJ). As of June 2, 2017, there was a backlog of 607,402 appeals awaiting review at this level. On its current course, the backlog is projected to grow to 950,520 by the end of fiscal year 2021.
There is a way for a provider to “skip” the ALJ level and “escalate” the claim, but it comes at a cost. Several procedural rights must be forfeited.
It is important to note that the appellate decision does not state that the District Court does not have the authority to Order HHS to eliminate the appeals backlog.
It only holds that, because HHS claims that compliance is impossible, the District Court must rule on whether compliance is possible before mandating the compliance. In other words, the Appeals Court wants the lower court to make a fact-finding decision as to whether HHS is able to eliminate the backlog before ordering it to do so. The Appeals Court is instructing the lower court to put the horse in front of the cart.
The Appeals Court explicitly states that it is suspect that the Secretary of HHS has done all things possible to decrease the backlog. (“We also share the District Court’s skepticism of the Secretary’s assertion that he has done all he can to reduce RAC-related appeals.”) So do not take the Appeals Court’s reversal as a sign that HHS will win the war.
I only hope that AHA presents every possible legal argument once the case is remanded to District Court. It is imperative that AHA’s attorneys think of every possible legal misstep in this remand in order to win. Not winning could potentially create bad law, basically, asserting that the Secretary has no duty to fix this appeals backlog. Obviously, the Secretary is exactly the person who should fix the backlog in his own agency. To hold otherwise, would thwart the very reason we have a Secretary of HHS. Through its rhetoric, the Appeals Court made it clear that it, too, has severe reservations about HHS’ claim of impossibility. However, without question, AHA’s suggestion to the District Court that a timeframe be implemented to reduce the backlog is not the answer. AHA needs to brainstorm and come up with several detailed proposals. For example, does the court need to include a requirement that the Secretary devote funds to hire additional ALJs? Or mandate that the ALJs work a half day on Saturday? Or order that the appeal process be revised to make the process more efficient? Clearly, the mere demand that HHS eliminate the backlog within a certain timeframe was too vague.
From here, the case will be remanded back to the District Court with instructions to the Judge to determine whether the elimination of the Medicare appeal backlog is possible. So, for now, HHS is safe from being held in contempt. But the Secretary should take heed from the original ruling and begin taking steps in fixing this mess. It is highly likely that HHS will be facing similar deadlines again – once the District Court determines it is possible.
Four months after the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Final Rule went in effect (March 2017) attempting to eliminate the Medicare appeal backlog and 6 months before United States District Court for the District of Columbia’s first court-imposed deadline (end of 2017) of reducing the Medicare appeal backlog by 30%, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are woefully far from either. According to HHS’ June 2017 report on the Medicare appeal backlog, 950,520 claims will remain in the backlog by 2021. This is in stark contrast to the District Court’s Order that HHS completely eliminate the backlog by 2020. So will HHS be held in contempt? Throw the Secretary in jail? That is what normally happened when someone violates a Court Order.
Supposedly, HHS’ catastrophic inability to decrease the Medicare appeal backlog is not from a lack of giving the ole college try. But, in its June 2017 report, HHS blames funding.
CMS issued a new Final Rule in January 2017, which took effect March 2017, in hopes of reducing the massive Medicare provider appeal backlog that has clogged up the third level of appeal of Medicare providers’ adverse actions. In the third level of appeal, providers make their arguments before an administrative law judge (ALJ). For information on all the Medicare appeal levels, click here.
The Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) claims that it currently can adjudicate roughly 92,000 appeals annually. The current backlog is approximately 667,326 appeals that HHS estimates will grow to 950,520 by 2021. The average number of days between filing a Petition with OMHA and adjudicating the case is around 1057.2 days.
HHS had high hopes that these changes would eliminate the backlog. In HHS’ Final Rule Fact Sheet, it states “with the administrative authorities set forth in the final rule and the FY 2017 proposed funding increases and legislative actions outlined in the President’s Budget, we estimate that that the backlog of appeals could be eliminated by FY 2020.” The changes made to the Medicare appeals process by the January 2017 Final Rule is the following:
Changes to the Medicare Appeals Process
The changes in the final rule are primarily focused on the third level of appeal and will:
- Designate Medicare Appeals Council decisions (final decisions of the Secretary) as precedential to provide more consistency in decisions at all levels of appeal, reducing the resources required to render decisions, and possibly reducing appeal rates by providing clarity to appellants and adjudicators.
- Allow attorney adjudicators to decide appeals for which a decision can be issued without a hearing and dismiss requests for hearing when an appellant withdraws the request. That way ALJs can focus on conducting hearings and adjudicating the merits of more complex cases.
- Simplify proceedings when CMS or CMS contractors are involved by limiting the number of entities (CMS or contractors) that can be a participant or party at the hearing.
- Clarify areas of the regulations that currently causes confusion and may result in unnecessary appeals to the Medicare Appeals Council.
- Create process efficiencies by eliminating unnecessary steps (e.g., by allowing ALJs to vacate their own dismissals rather than requiring appellants to appeal a dismissal to the Medicare Appeals Council); streamlining certain procedures (e.g., by using telephone hearings for appellants who are not unrepresented beneficiaries, unless the ALJ finds good cause for an appearance by other means); and requiring appellants to provide more information on what they are appealing and who will be attending a hearing.
- Address areas for improvement previously identified by stakeholders to increase the quality of the process and responsiveness to customers, such as establishing an adjudication time frame for cases remanded from the Medicare Appeals Council, revising remand rules to help ensure cases keep moving forward in the process, simplifying the escalation process, and providing more specific rules on what constitutes good cause for new evidence to be admitted at the OMHA level of appeal.
In early June 2017, HHS issued its second status report on the Medicare appeals backlog and the outlook does not look good.
CMS held a call on June 29, 2017, to discuss recent regulatory changes intended to streamline the Medicare administrative appeal processes, reduce the backlog of pending appeals, and increase consistency in decision-making across appeal levels.
Now HHS is in danger of violating a Court Order.
In December 2016, the District Court for the District of Columbia held in American Hospital Association v Burwell case Ordered HHS to release to status reports every 90 days and the complete elimination of the backlog by 2020, HHS is also required to observe several intermediary benchmarks: 30% reduction by the end of 2017, 60% by the end of 2018, 90% by the end of 2019, and then ultimately 100% elimination by the end of 2020.
BUT LITTLE TO NOTHING HAS CHANGED.
HHS itself has maintained since the requirements were instituted that the elimination of the backlog would not be possible. June’s report projects 950,520 claims will remain by 2021, but this projection is still very far from meeting the court order.
HHS blames funding.
But even significant increase of funding (from about $107 million in 2017, to $242 million in 2018) will not cure the problem! I find it very disturbing that $242 million could not eliminate the Medicare appeal backlog. So what will happen when HHS fails to meet the Court’s mandate of a 30% reduction of the backlog by the end of 2017? Hold the Secretary in contempt?
The court in Burwell drafted a “what if” into the Decision—the Court stated: “if [HHS] fails to meet [these] deadlines, Plaintiffs may move for default judgment or to otherwise enforce the writ of mandamus.” This allows the Court authority to enforce its Decision, but it has not motivated HHS to try any innovative procedures to reduce the backlog. So far no additional actions have been attempted, and the backlog remains.
If HHS is in violation of the Court Order at the end of 2017, the Court could issue harsh penalties. (Or the Court could do nothing and be a complete disappointment).
On July 13, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price, M.D., announced the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) biggest-ever health care fraud takedown. 412 health care providers were charged with health care fraud. In total, allegedly, the 412 providers schemed and received $1.3 billion in false billings to Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE. Of the 412 defendants, 115 are physicians, nurses, and other licensed medical professionals. Additionally, HHS has begun the suspension process against 295 health care providers’ licenses.
The charges include allegations of billing for medically unnecessary treatments or services that were not really provided. The DOJ has evidence that many of the defendants had illegal kickback schemes set up. More than 120 of the defendants were charged with unlawfully or inappropriately prescribing and distributing opioids and other narcotics.
While this particular sting operation resulted from government investigations, not all health care fraud is discovered through government investigation. A great deal of fraud is uncovered through private citizens coming forward with incriminating information. These private citizens can file suit against the fraudulent parties on behalf of the government; these are known as qui tam suits.
Being a whistleblower goes against what most of us are taught as children. We are taught not to be a tattletail. I have vivid memories from elementary school of other kids acting out, but I would remain silent and not inform the teacher. But in the health care world, tattletails are becoming much more common – and they make money for blowing that metaphoric whistle.
What is a qui tam lawsuit?
Qui tam is Latin for “who as well.” Qui tam lawsuits are a type of civil lawsuit whistleblowers (tattletails) bring under the False Claims Act, a law that rewards whistleblowers if their qui tam cases recover funds for the government. Qui tam cases are a powerful weapon against Medicare and Medicaid fraud. In other words, if an employee at a health care facility witnesses any type of health care fraud, even if the alleged fraud is unknown to the provider, that employee can hire an attorney to file a qui tam lawsuit to recover money on behalf of the government. The government investigates the allegations of fraud and decides whether it will join the lawsuit. Health care entities found guilty in a qui tam lawsuit will be liable to government for three times the government’s losses, plus penalties.
The whistleblower is rewarded for bringing these lawsuits. If the government intervenes in the case and recovers funds through a settlement or a trial, the whistleblower is entitled to 15% – 25% of the recovery. If the government doesn’t intervene in the case and it is pursued by the whistleblower team, the whistleblower reward is between 25% – 30% of the recovery.
These recoveries are not low numbers. On June 22, 2017, a physician and rehabilitative specialist agreed to pay $1.4 million to resolve allegations they violated the False Claims Act by billing federal health care programs for medically unreasonable and unnecessary ultrasound guidance used with routine lab blood draws, and with Botox and trigger point injections. If a whistleblower had brought this lawsuit, he/she would have been awarded $210,000 – 420,000.
On June 16, 2017, a Pennsylvania-based skilled nursing facility operator agreed to pay roughly $53.6 million to settle charges that it and its subsidiaries violated the False Claims Act by causing the submission of false claims to government health care programs for medically unnecessary therapy and hospice services. The allegations originated in a whistleblower lawsuit filed under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act by 7 former employees of the company. The whistleblower award – $8,040,000 – 16,080,000.
There are currently two, large qui tam cases against United Health Group (UHG) pending in the Central District of California. The cases are: U.S. ex rel. Benjamin Poehling v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc. and U.S. ex rel. Swoben v. Secure Horizons, et al. Both cases were brought by James Swoben, who was an employee and Benjamin Poehling, who was the former finance director of a UHG group that managed the insurer’s Medicare Advantage Plans. On May 2, 2027, the U.S. government joined the Poehling lawsuit.
The charges include allegations that UHG:
- Submitted invalid codes to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that it knew of or should have known that the codes were invalid – some of the dates of services at issue in the case are older than 2008.
- Intentionally avoided learning that some diagnoses codes or categories of codes submitted to their plans by providers were invalid, despite acknowledging in 2010 that it should evaluate the results of its blind chart reviews to find codes that need to be deleted.
- Failed to follow up on and prevent the submissions of invalid codes or submit deletion for invalid codes.
- Attested to CMS each year that the data they submitted was true and accurate while knowing it was not.
UHG would not be in this expensive, litigious pickle had it conducted a self audit and followed the mandatory disclosure requirements.
What are the mandatory disclosure requirements? Glad you asked…
Section 6402(a) of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) creates an express obligation for health care providers to report and return overpayments of Medicare and Medicaid. The disclosure must be made by 60 days days after the date that the overpayment was identified or the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable. Identification is defined as the point in which the provider has determined or should have determined through the exercise of due diligence that an overpayment exists. CMS expects the provider to proactively investigate any credible information of a potential overpayment. The consequences of failing to proactively investigate can be seen by the UHG lawsuits above-mentioned. Apparently, UHG had some documents dated in 2010 that indicated it should review codes and delete the invalid codes, but, allegedly, failed to do so.
How do you self disclose?
According to CMS:
“Beginning June 1, 2017, providers of services and suppliers must use the forms included in the OMB-approved collection instrument entitled CMS Voluntary Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol (SRDP) in order to utilize the SRDP. For disclosures of noncompliant financial relationships with more than one physician, the disclosing entity must submit a separate Physician Information Form for each physician. The CMS Voluntary Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol document contains one Physician Information Form.”