Category Archives: Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals
Let’s talk targeted probe-and-educate (“TPE”) audits – again.
I received quite a bit of feedback on my RACMonitor article regarding Medicare TPE audits being a “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.” So, I decided to delve into more depth by contacting providers who reached out to me to discuss specific issues. My intent is to shed the sheep’s clothing and show the big, pointy ears, big, round eyes, and big, sharp teeth that the MACs will hear, see, and eat you through the Medicare TPE audits. So, call the Woodsman, arm yourself with a hatchet, and get ready to be prepared for TPE audits. I cannot stress enough the importance of being proactive.
The very first way to rebut a TPE audit is to challenge the reason you were selected, which includes challenging the data supporting the reason that you were chosen. A poor TPE audit can easily result in termination of your Medicare contract, so it is imperative that you are prepared and appeal adverse results. 42 C.F.R. § 424.535, “Revocation of enrollment in the Medicare program” outlines the reasons for termination. Failing the audit process – even if the results are incorrect – can result in termination of your Medicare contract. Be prepared and appeal.
In 2014, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) began the TPE program that combines a review of a sample of claims with “education” to allegedly reduce errors in the Medicare claims submission process; however, it took years to get the program off the ground. But off the ground it is. It seems, however, that CMS pushed the TPE program off the ground and then allowed the MACs to dictate the terms. CMS claims that the results of the TPE program are favorable, basing its determination of success on the decrease in the number of claim errors after providers receive education. But providers undergoing the TPE audit process face tedious and burdensome deadlines to submit documents and to undergo the “education” process. These 45-day deadlines to submit documents are not supported by federal law or regulation; they are arbitrary deadlines. Yet, these deadlines must be met by the providers or the MACs will aver a 0% accuracy. Private payors may create and enforce arbitrary deadlines; they don’t have to follow federal Medicare regulations. But Medicare and Medicaid auditors must obey federal regulations. A quick search on Westlaw confirms that no provider has challenged the MACs’ TPE rules, at least, litigiously.
The TPE process begins by the MAC selecting a CPT/HCPC code and a provider. This selection process is a mystery. How the MACs decide to audit sleep studies versus chemotherapy administration or a 93675 versus a 93674 remains to be seen. According to one health care provider, which has undergone multiple TPE audits and has Noridian Healthcare Solutions as its MAC informed me that, at times, they may have 4 -5 TPE audits ongoing at the same time. CMS has touted that TPE audits do not overlap claims or cause the providers to undergo redundant audits. But if a provider bills numerous CPT codes, the provider can undergo multiple TPE audits concurrently, which is clearly not the intent of the TPE audits, in general. The provider has questioned ad nauseam the data analysis that alerted Noridian to assign the TPE to them in the first place. Supposedly, MACs target providers with claim activity that contractors deem as unusual. The usual TPE notification letter contains a six-month comparison table purportedly demonstrating the paid amount and number of claims for a particular CPT/HCPC code, but its accuracy is questionable. See below.
This particular provider ran its own internal reports, and regardless of how many different ways this provider re-calculated the numbers, the provider could not figure out the numbers the TPE letter was alleging they were billing. But, because of the short turnaround deadlines and harsh penalties for failing to adhere to these deadlines, this provider has been unable to challenge the MAC’s comparison table. The MACs have yet to share its algorithm or computer program used to govern (a) which provider to target; (b) what CPT code to target; and (c) how it determines the paid amount and number of claims.
Pushing back on the original data on which the MACs supposedly relied upon to initially target you is an important way to defend yourself against a TPE audit. Unmask the wolf from the beginning. If you can debunk the reason for the TPE audit in the first place, the rest of the findings of the TPE audit cannot be valid. It is the classic “fruit of the poisonous tree” argument. Yet according to a quick search on Westlaw, no provider has appealed the reason for selection yet. For example, in the above image, the MAC compared one CPT code (78452) for this particular provider for dates of services January 1, 2017, through June 30, 2017, and then compared those claims to dates July 1, 2017, through December 31, 2017. Why? How is a comparison of the first half of a year to a second end of a year even relevant to your billing compliance? Before an independent tribunal, this chart, as supposed evidence of wrongdoing, would be thrown out as ridiculous. The point is – the MACs are using similar, yet irrelevant charts as proof of alleged, aberrant billing practices.
Another way to defend yourself is to contest the auditors/surveyors background knowledge. Challenging the knowledge of the nurse reviewer(s) and questioning the denial rate in relation to your TPE denials can also be successful. I had a dentist-client who was audited by a dental hygienist. Not to undermine the intelligence of a dental hygienist, but you can understand the awkwardness of a dental hygienist questioning a dentist’s opinion of the medical necessity of a service. If the auditor/surveyor lacks the same level of education of the health care provider, an independent tribunal will defer to the more educated and experienced decisions. This same provider kept a detailed timeline of their interactions with the hygienist reviewer(s), which included a summary of the conversations. Significantly, notes of conversations with the auditor/surveyor would normally not be allowed as evidence in a Court of law due to the hearsay rules. However, contemporaneous notes of conversations written in close time proximity of the conversation fall within a hearsay exception and can be admitted.
Pushing back on the MACs and/or formally appealing the MAC’s decisions are/is extremely important in getting the correct denial rate. If your appeal is favorable, the MACs will take into your appeal results into account and will factor the appeal decision into the denial rate.
The upshot is – do not accept the sheep’s clothing. Understand that you are under target during this TPE “educational” audit. Understand how to defend yourself and do so. Call the Woodsman. Get the hatchet.
Let’s talk targeted probe-and-educate (TPE) audits. See on RACMonitor as well.
TPE audits have turned out to be “wolf audits” in sheep’s clothing. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) asserted that the intent of TPE audits is to reduce provider burden and appeals by combining medical review with provider education.
But the “education” portion is getting overlooked. Instead, the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) resort to referring healthcare providers to other agencies or contractors for “other possible action,” including audit by a Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC), which can include extrapolation or referral to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) for investigation of fraud. A TPE audit involves up to three rounds of review, conducted by a MAC. Once Congress was instructed that RAC audits are not fair, and providers complained that RAC auditors did not help with education, CMS came up with TPE audits – which, supposedly, had more of an educational aspect, and a more fair approach. But in reality, the TPE audits have created an expensive, burdensome, cyclical pattern that, again, can result in RAC audits. The implementation of TPE audits has been just as draconian and subjective as RAC audits. The penalties can be actually worse than those resulting from RAC audits, including termination from the Medicare program. In this article, I want to discuss the appeal process and why it is important to appeal at the first level of audit.
Chapter Three, Section 3.2.5 of the Medicare Program Integrity Manual (MPIM) outlines the requirements for the TPE process, which leaves much of the details within the discretion of the MAC conducting the review. The MACs are afforded too much discretion. Often, they make erroneous decisions, but providers are not pushing back. A recent one-time notification transmittal provides additional instructions to MACs on the TPE process: CMS Transmittal 2239 (Jan. 24, 2019).
Providers are selected for TPE audit based on data analysis, with CMS instructing MACs to target providers with high denial rates or claim activity that the contractor deems unusual, in comparison to peers. These audits are generally performed as a prepayment review of claims for a specific item or service, though relevant CMS instructions also allow for post-payment TPE audits.
A TPE round typically involves a review of a probe sample of between 20 and 40 claims. Providers first receive notice that they have been targeted by their MAC, followed by additional documentation requests (ADRs) for the specific claims included in the audit.
The MACs have sole discretion as to which providers to target, whether claims meet coverage requirements, what error rate is considered compliant, and when a provider should be removed from TPE. Health care providers can be exposed to future audits and penalties based merely on the MAC’s resolve, and before the provider has received due process through their right to challenge claim denials in an independent appeals process. In this way, the MACs’ misinterpretation of the rules and misapplication of coverage requirements can lead to further audits or disciplinary actions, based on an erroneous determination that is later overturned. Similarly, while the educational activities are supposedly meant to assist providers in achieving compliance, in reality, this “education” can force providers to appear to acknowledge error findings with which they may disagree – and which may ultimately be determined to be wrong. Often times, the MACs – for “educational purposes” – require the provider to sign documentation that admits alleged wrongdoing, and the provider signs these documents without legal counsel, and without the understanding that these documents can adversely affect any appeal or future audits.
The MACs have the power, based on CMS directive, to revoke billing privileges based on a determination that “the provider or supplier has a pattern or practice of submitting claims that fail to meet Medicare requirements.” 42 C.F.R. § 424.535(a)(8)(ii). This language shows that TPE audit findings can be used as a basis for a finding of abuse of billing privileges, warranting removal from participation in the Medicare program. CMS guidance also gives the MACs authority to refer providers for potential fraud investigation, based on TPE review findings. It is therefore vital that providers submit documentation in a timely fashion and build a clear record to support their claims and compliance with Medicare requirements.
TPE audits promise further education and training for an unsuccessful audit (unsuccessful according to the MAC, which may constitute a flawed opinion), but most of the training is broad in nature and offered remotely – either over the phone, via web conference, or through the mail, with documentation shared on Google Docs. Only on atypical occasions is there an on-site visit.
Why appeal? It’s expensive, tedious, time-consuming, and emotionally draining. Not only that, but many providers are complaining that the MACs inform them that the TPE audit results are not appealable (TPE audits ARE appealable).
TPE reviews and TPE audit overpayment determinations may be appealed through the Medicare appeals process. The first stage of appeal will be to request a redetermination of the overpayment by the MAC. If the redetermination decision is unfavorable, Medicare providers and suppliers may request an independent review by filing a request for reconsideration with the applicable Qualified Independent Contractor (QIC). If the reconsideration decision is unfavorable, Medicare providers and suppliers are granted the opportunity to present their case in a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). While providers or suppliers who disagree with an ALJ decision may appeal to the Medicare Appeals Council and then seek judicial review in federal district court, it is crucial to obtain experienced healthcare counsel to overturn the overpayment determination during the first three levels of review.
Appealing unfavorable TPE audits results sends a message. Right now, the MACs hold the metaphoric conch shell. The Medicare appeals process allows the provider or supplier to overturn the TPE audit overpayment, and reduces the likelihood of future TPE reviews, other Medicare audits, and disciplinary actions such as suspension of Medicare payments, revocation of Medicare billing privileges, or exclusion from the Medicare program. In instances when a TPE audit identifies potential civil or criminal fraud, it is essential that the Medicare provider or supplier engage experienced healthcare counsel to appeal the Medicare overpayment as the first step in defending its billing practices, and thus mitigating the likelihood of fraud allegations (e.g., False Claims Act actions).
CMS and the MACs maintain that TPEs are in the providers’ best interest because education is included. In actuality, TPEs are wolves in sheep’s clothing, masking true repercussions in a cloak of “education.” The Medicare appeal process is a provider’s best weapon.
According to the American Hospital Association, America has 4,840 general hospitals that aren’t run by the federal government: 2,849 are nonprofit, 1,035 are for-profit and 956 are owned by state or local governments.
What is the distinction between a for-profit and not-for-profit hospital… besides the obvious? The obvious difference is that one is “for-profit” and one is “not-for-profit” – but any reader of the English language would be able to tell you that. Unknown to some is that the not-for-profit status does not mean that the hospital will not make money; the status has nothing to do with a hospitals bottom line. Just ask any charity that brings in millions of dollars.
The most significant variation between non-profit and for-profit hospitals is tax status. Not-for-profit hospitals are exempt from state and local taxes. Some say that for-profit hospitals have to be more cost-effective because they have sales taxes and property taxes. I can understand that sentiment. Sales taxes and property taxes are nothing to sneeze at.
The organizational structure and culture also varies at for-profit hospitals rather than not-for-profit hospitals. For-profit hospitals have to answer to shareholders and/or investors. Those that are publicly traded may have a high attrition rate at the top executive level because when poor performance occurs heads tend to roll.
Bargaining power is another big difference between for-profit and non-profit. For-profit has it while non-profit, generally, do not. The imbalance of bargaining power comes into play when the government negotiates its managed care contracts. I also believe that bargaining power is a strong catalyst in the push for mergers. Being a minnow means that you have insect larvae and fish eggs to consume. Being a whale, however, allows you to feed on sea lion, squid, and other larger fish.
A report conducted by the Health Research Institute showed 255 healthcare merger and acquisition (M&A) deals in the second quarter of 2018. Just the second quarter! According to the report, deal volume is up 9.4% since last year.
The most active sub-sector in the second quarter of 2018 is long-term care, with 104 announced healthcare M&A deals representing almost 41% of deal volume.
The trend today is that for-profit hospitals are buying up smaller, for-profit hospitals and, any and all, not-for-profit hospitals. The upshot is that hospitals are growing larger, more massive, more “corporate-like,” and less community-based. Is this trend positive or negative? I will have to research whether the prices of services increase at hospitals that are for-profit rather than not-for-profit, but I have a gut feeling that they do. Not that prices are the only variable to determine whether the merger trend is positive or negative. From the hospital’s perspective, I would much rather be the whale, not the minnow. I would feel much more comfortable swimming around.
My opinion is that, as our health care system veers toward value-based reimbursement and this metamorphous places financial pressure on providers, health care providers are struggling for more efficient means of cost control. The logical solution is to merge and buy up the smaller fish until your entity is a whale. Whales have more bargaining power and more budget.
In 2017, 29 for-profit companies bought 18 for-profit hospitals and 11 not-for-profits, according to an analysis for Kaiser Health News.
10 hospital M&A transactions involved health care organizations with net revenues of $1 billion or more in 2017.
Here, in NC, Mission Health, a former, not-for-profit hospital in Asheville, announced in March 2018 that HCA Healthcare, the largest, for-profit, hospital chain would buy it for $1.5 billion. The NC Attorney General had to sign off on the deal since the deal involved a non-profit turning for-profit, and he did ultimately did sign off on it.
Regardless your opinion on the matter, merger mania has manifested. Providers need to determine whether they want to be a whale or a minnow.
New case law supports due process for Medicare providers. As first seen on RACMonitor.
Due process is one of the cornerstones of our society. Due process is the universal guarantee and found in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides “No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and is applied to all states by the 14th Amendment. From this basic principle flows many legal decisions determining both procedural and substantive rights.
For Medicare and Medicaid providers, however, due process, in the past, has been nonexistent. Imagine that you are accused of owing $5 million to the government. Perhaps it was a CPT® code error. You disagree. You believe that your documentation was proper and that you filed for reimbursement correctly. You appeal the decision that you owe $5 million. You continue conducting business as normal. Suddenly, you realize the government is recouping the $5 million now. Prior to any hearing before a judge. You haven’t been found guilty. What happened to innocent until proven guilty? What happened to due process?
For Medicare appeals there is a five-step appeal process. The law requires the government not to recoup during the first and second levels of appeal. But the first and second levels are jumping through hoops and are not normally successful. It is at the third level – the appeal to an impartial administrative judge – that the alleged recoupments are overturned.
After the second level, according to the black letter of the law, the government can begin recouping the alleged overpayment.
Sadly, in the past, the courts have held that it is proper for the government to recoup reimbursements after the second level. Even though, no hearing has been held before an impartial judge and you haven’t been found guilty of owing the money.
On Sept. 27, 2018, another U.S. District Court in South Carolina has agreed with courts in Texas by granting a provider’s request for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to prevent the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) from recouping monies until after Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearings have been held (Accident, Injury and Rehabilitation, PC, c/a No. 4:18-cv-02173, September 27, 2018).
A new trend in favor of providers seems to be arising. This is fantastic news for providers across the country!
Accident, Injury & Rehab, PC found that the ALJ stage of the appellate process is the most important for providers, as it provides the first opportunity for plaintiff to cross examine defendant’s witnesses and examine the evidence used to formulate the statistical sample. According to the American Hospital Association (AHA), 66 percent of Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) denials are reversed by an ALJ (I actually believe the percentage is higher). The court found that plaintiff’s procedural due process rights were violated by premature recoupment. The court granted Accident, Injury & Rehab, PC’s preliminary injunction restraining and enjoining the government from withholding Medicare payments during the appeal process.
When the government starts recouping filing a preliminary injunction has been shown it to be the best course.
In the past, most preliminary injunctions asking the court to order the government to stop recoupments until a hearing was held was dismissed based on jurisdiction. In other words, the courts held that the courts did not have the authority to render an opinion as to recoupments prior to a hearing. Now, however, the trend is turning, and courts are starting to rule in favor of the provider, finding a violation of procedural due process based on a collateral claim exception.
There are four criteria in order to win a preliminary injunction. A party seeking a preliminary injunction must establish all for the following criteria: (1) that the party is likely to succeed on the merits; (2) that the party is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary injunction; (3) that the balance of the equity tips in the party’s favor; and (4) that injunction is in the public interest.
There is an esoteric legal theory called exhaustion of administrative remedies. So jurisdiction is the question. There are exceptions to the judicial bar. The Supreme Court of United States articulated a collateral claim exception. The Supreme Court permitted a plaintiff to bring a procedural due process claim requesting an evidentiary area hearing before the termination of disability benefits. There are nonwaivable and waivable jurisdictional elements the nonwaivable requirement is that a claim must be presented to the administrative agency. The waivable requirement is that administrative remedies be exhausted.
The Collateral claim exception is when a party brings a claim in federal court when that “constitutional challenge is entirely collateral to its substantive claim of entitlement.”
The new trend in case law is that the courts are finding that the provider’s right to not undergo recoupment during the appeal process is a collateral issue as to the substantive issue of whether the provider owes the money. Therefore, the courts have found jurisdiction as to the collateral issue.
The proverbial ship has sailed. According to courts in Texas and now South Carolina, CMS cannot recoup monies prior to hearings before ALJs. Providers facing large recoupments should file TROs to prevent premature recoupments and to obtain due process.
When action happens in the Medicare/caid world, it happens quickly. Sometimes you do not receive adequate notice to coordinate continuity of care for your consumers or patients. For example, on August 3, 2018, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that at midnight on August 18, 2018, it would be terminating the contract between CMS and ESEC, LLC, an Oklahoma-based surgery center.
CMS provided ESEC 15 days notice of complete termination of Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. Now I do not know the details of ESEC’s financial reliance on Medicare or Medicaid, but, these days, few providers are solely third-party pay or cash-only. I can only assume that ESEC is scrambling to initiate a lawsuit to remain afloat and open for business. Or ESEC is praying for a “rescind” by correcting whatever issues it purportedly had. Personally, I would not count on a possible rescind. I would be proactively seeking legal intervention.
Here are some examples of recent terminations and the notice received by the providers:
- Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center’s heart transplant program lost federal funding August 17, 2018. The hospital will no longer be able to bill Medicare and Medicaid for heart transplants.
- Effective August 9, 2018, Brookwood Baptist Medical Center’s Medicare contract was terminated. The notice was published July 25, 2018.
- As of August 12, 2018, The Grandview Nursing & Rehabilitation Facility’s Medicare contract was terminated. Notice of the termination was published August 1, 2018.
- As of September 1, 2018, Compassus-Kansas City, a hospice company, will lose its Medicare contract. Notice was provided August 17, 2018.
- On August 3, 2018, CMS announced that it was terminating Deligent Health Services Inc.’s Medicare and Medicaid contact, effective December 5, 2017. (That is quite a retroactive timeframe).
Can Careless Judy put a healthcare provider out of business?
This happens all the time. Sure, ESEC probably had knowledge that CMS was investigating it. However, CMS has the authority to issue these public notices of termination without holding a hearing to determine whether CMS’ actions are accurate. What if Careless Judy in Program Integrity made a human error and ESEC actually does meet the standards of care. But you see, Careless Judy accidentally used the minimum standards of care from 2008 instead of 2018. It’s an honest mistake. She had no malice against ESEC. But, my point is – where is the mechanism that prevents a surgical ambulatory center from going out of business – just because Careless Judy made a mistake?
To look into whether any legal mechanism exists to prevent Careless Judy from putting the ambulatory center out of business, I turn to the legal rules.
42 CFR 488.456 governs terminations of provider agreements. Subsection (a) state that termination “ends – (1) Payment to the facility; and (2) Any alternative remedy.”
Subsection (b) states that CMS or the State may terminate the contract with the provider if the provider “Is not in substantial compliance with the requirements of participation, regardless whether immediate jeopardy is present.” On the bright side, if no immediate jeopardy exists then CMS or the State must give 15 days notice. If there is found to be immediate jeopardy, the provider get 2 days. But who determines what is “substantial compliance?” Careless Judy?
42 CFR 489.53 lists the reasons on which CMS may rely to terminate a provider. Although, please note, that the regulations use the word “may” and not “must.” So we have some additional guidance as to when a provider’s contract may be terminated, but it still seems subjective. Here are the reasons:
- The provider is not complying with the provisions of title XVIII and the applicable regulations of this chapter or with the provisions of the agreement.
- The provider or supplier places restrictions on the persons it will accept for treatment and it fails either to exempt Medicare beneficiaries from those restrictions or to apply them to Medicare beneficiaries the same as to all other persons seeking care.
- It no longer meets the appropriate conditions of participation or requirements (for SNFs and NFs) set forth elsewhere in this chapter. In the case of an RNHCI no longer meets the conditions for coverage, conditions of participation and requirements set forth elsewhere in this chapter.
- It fails to furnish information that CMS finds necessary for a determination as to whether payments are or were due under Medicare and the amounts due.
- It refuses to permit examination of its fiscal or other records by, or on behalf of CMS, as necessary for verification of information furnished as a basis for payment under Medicare.
- It failed to furnish information on business transactions as required in § 420.205 of this chapter.
- It failed at the time the agreement was entered into or renewed to disclose information on convicted individuals as required in § 420.204 of this chapter.
- It failed to furnish ownership information as required in § 420.206 of this chapter.
- It failed to comply with civil rights requirements set forth in 45 CFR parts 80, 84, and 90.
- In the case of a hospital or a critical access hospital as defined in section 1861(mm)(1) of the Act that has reason to believe it may have received an individual transferred by another hospital in violation of § 489.24(d), the hospital failed to report the incident to CMS or the State survey agency.
- In the case of a hospital requested to furnish inpatient services to CHAMPUS or CHAMPVA beneficiaries or to veterans, it failed to comply with § 489.25 or § 489.26, respectively.
- It failed to furnish the notice of discharge rights as required by § 489.27.
- The provider or supplier refuses to permit copying of any records or other information by, or on behalf of, CMS, as necessary to determine or verify compliance with participation requirements.
- The hospital knowingly and willfully fails to accept, on a repeated basis, an amount that approximates the Medicare rate established under the inpatient hospital prospective payment system, minus any enrollee deductibles or copayments, as payment in full from a fee-for-service FEHB plan for inpatient hospital services provided to a retired Federal enrollee of a fee-for-service FEHB plan, age 65 or older, who does not have Medicare Part A benefits.
- It had its enrollment in the Medicare program revoked in accordance to § 424.535 of this chapter.
- It has failed to pay a revisit user fee when and if assessed.
- In the case of an HHA, it failed to correct any deficiencies within the required time frame.
- The provider or supplier fails to grant immediate access upon a reasonable request to a state survey agency or other authorized entity for the purpose of determining, in accordance with § 488.3, whether the provider or supplier meets the applicable requirements, conditions of participation, conditions for coverage, or conditions for certification.
As you can see from the above list of possible termination reasons, many of which are subjective, it could be easy for Careless Judy to terminate a Medicare contract erroneously, based on inaccurate facts, or without proper investigation.
The same is true for Medicaid; your contract can be terminated on the federal or state level. The difference is that at the state level, Careless Judy is a state employee, not a federal.
42 CFR 498.5 governs appeal rights for providers contract terminations. Subsection (b) states that “Any provider dissatisfied with an initial determination to terminate its provider agreement is entitled to a hearing before an ALJ.”
42 CFR 498.20 states that an initial determination by CMS (like a contract termination) is binding unless it is reconsidered per 42 CFR 498.24.
A Stay of the termination should suspend the termination until the provider can obtain a hearing by an impartial tribunal until the appeal has been completed. The appeal process and supposed automatic Stay of the termination is the only protection for the provider from Careless Judy. Or filing an expensive injunction.
The 340B drug program is a topic that needs daily updates. It seems that something is happening constantly. Like a prime time soap opera or The Bachelor, the 340B program is all the talk at the water cooler. From lawsuits to legislation to executive orders – there is no way of knowing the outcome, so we all wait with bated breath to watch who will hold the final rose.
On Tuesday, July 17, 2018, the metaphoric guillotine fell on the American Hospital Association (AHA) and on hospitals across the country. The Court of Appeals (COA) dismissed AHA’s lawsuit.
On November 1, 2017, the US Department of Health and Human Services released a Final Rule implementing a payment reduction for most covered outpatient drugs billed to Medicare by 340B-participating hospitals from the current Average Sales Price (ASP) plus 6% rate to ASP minus 22.5%, which represents a payment cut of almost 30%.
Effective January 1, 2018, the 30% slash in reimbursement rates became reality, but only for locations physically connected to participating hospitals. CMS is expected to broaden the 30% reduction to all 340B-participating entities in the near future.
What is the 340B drug program? The easiest explanation for the 340B program is that government insurance, Medicare and Medicaid, do not want to pay full price for medicine. In an effort to reduce costs of drugs for the government payors, the government requires that all drug companies enter into a rebate agreement with the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as a precondition for coverage of their drugs by Medicaid and Medicare Part B. If a drug manufacturer wants its drug to be prescribed to Medicare and Medicaid patients, then it must pay rebates.
The American Hospital Association (“AHA”) filed for an injunction last year requesting that the US District Court enjoin CMS from implementing the 340B payment reduction. On the merits, AHA argues that the HHS’s near-30% rate reduction constitutes an improper exercise of its statutory rate-setting authority.
The US District Court did not reach an opinion on the merits; it dismissed the case, issued December 29, 2017, based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The District Court found that: Whenever a provider challenges HHS, there is only one potential source of subject matter jurisdiction—42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Medicare Act places strict limits on the jurisdiction of federal courts to decide ‘any claims arising under’ the Act.
The Supreme Court has defined two elements that a plaintiff must establish in order to satisfy § 405(g). First, there is a non-waivable, jurisdictional requirement that a claim for benefits shall have been “presented” to the Secretary. Without presentment, there is no jurisdiction.
The second element is a waivable requirement to exhaust administrative remedies. I call this legal doctrine the Monopoly requirement. Do not pass go. Go directly to jail. Do not collect $200. Unlike the first element, however, a plaintiff may be excused from this obligation when, for example, exhaustion would be futile. Together, § 405(g)’s two elements serve the practical purpose of preventing premature interference with agency processes, so that the agency may function efficiently and so that it may have an opportunity to correct its own errors, to afford the parties and the courts the benefit of its experience and expertise, and to compile a record which is adequate for judicial review. However, there are ways around these obsolete legal doctrines in order to hold a state agency liable for adverse decisions.
Following the Dec. 29, 2017, order by the District Court, which dismissed the lawsuit on jurisdictional grounds, the plaintiffs (AHA) appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals (COA), which promptly granted AHA’s request for an expedited appeal schedule.
In their brief, AHA contends that the District Court erred in dismissing their action as premature and that their continued actual damages following the Jan. 1 payment reduction’s effective date weighs heavily in favor of preliminary injunctive relief. More specifically, AHA argues that 30% reduction is causing irreparable injury to the plaintiffs “by jeopardizing essential programs and services provided to their communities and the vulnerable, poor and other underserved populations, such as oncology, dialysis, and immediate stroke treatment services.”
By contrast, the government’s brief rests primarily on jurisdictional arguments, specifically that: (1) the Medicare Act precludes judicial review of rate-setting activities by HHS; and (2) the District Court was correct that no jurisdiction exists.
Oral arguments in this appeal were May 4, 2018.
AHA posted in its newsletter that the COA seemed most interested in whether Medicare law precludes judicial review of CMS’ rule implementing the cuts. AHA says it hopes a ruling will be reached in the case sometime this summer.
In a completely different case, the DC District Court is contemplating a request to toll the time to file a Section 340B appeal.
AHA v. Azar, a case about RAC audits and the Medicare appeal backlog. During a March 22, 2018, hearing, the COA asked AHA to submit specific proposals that AHA wishes the COA to impose and why current procedures are insufficient. It was filed June 22, 2018.
In it proposal, AHA pointed out that HHS is needlessly causing hospitals to file thousands of protective appeals by refusing to toll the time for hospitals to file appeals arising out of the reduction in reimbursement that certain 340B hospitals. In order to avoid potential arguments from the government that 340B hospitals that do not administratively appeal the legality of a reduced rate will be time barred from seeking recovery if the court holds that the reduction in payments is unlawful, AHA proposed that the Secretary agree to toll the deadline for such appeals until resolution of the 340B litigation—an arrangement that would preserve the 340B hospitals’ right to full reimbursement in the event the 340B litigation is not successful. HHS has refused to toll the time, meaning that Section 340B hospitals will have to protect their interests in the interim by filing thousands upon thousands of additional claim appeals, which will add thousands upon thousands of more appeals to the current ALJ-level backlog.
In a unanimous decision, three judges from the COA sided with HHS and ruled the hospitals’ suit was filed prematurely because hospitals had not formally filed claims with HHS because they were not yet experiencing cuts.
Basically, what the judges are saying is that you cannot ask for relief before the adverse action occurs. Even though the hospitals knew the 30% rate reduction would be implemented January 1, 2018, they had to wait until the pain was felt before they could ask for relief.
The lawsuit was not dismissed based on the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies. The Decision noted that in some cases plaintiffs might be justified in seeking judicial review before they have exhausted their administrative remedies, but that wouldn’t be the solution here.
Hindsight is always 20-20. I read the 11 page decision. But I believe that AHA failed in two ways that may have changed the outcome: (1) Nowhere in the decision does it appear that the attorneys for AHA argued that the subject matter jurisdiction issue was collateral to the merits; and (2) The lawsuit was filed pre-January 1, 2018, but AHA could have amended its complaint after January 1, 2018, to show injury and argue that its comments were rejected (final decision) by the rule being implemented.
But, hey, we will never know.
Last week, (May 22nd) the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) unveiled a new, streamlined appeal process aimed at decreasing the massive Medicare appeal backlog. CMS is hopeful that providers, like you, will choose to settle your Medicare appeal cases instead continuing the litigious dispute. Remember, currently, the backlog at the third level of Medicare appeals, the administrative law judge (ALJ) level, is approximately 5 – 8 years (I will use 8 years for the purpose of this blog). Recoupment can legally begin after level two, so many providers go out of business waiting to be heard at the third level. See blog.
The new “settlement conference facilitation” (SCF) process will allow CMS to make a settlement offer and providers have seven days to accept or proceed with the longer-lasting route. I have a strong sense that, if litigated, a judge would find forcing the decision between accepting a quick settlement versus enduring an 8-year waiting-period to present before an ALJ, coercion. But, for now, it is A choice other than the 8-year wait-period (as long as the provider met the eligibility requirements, see below).
To initiate said SCF process, a provider would have to submit a request in writing to CMS. CMS would then have 15 days to reply. If the agency chooses to take part, a settlement conference would occur within four weeks. Like that underlined part? I read the SCF process as saying, even if the provider qualifies for such process, CMS still has the authority to refuse to participate. Which begs the question, why have a process that does not have to be followed?
The SCF process is directed toward sizable providers with older and more substantial, alleged overpayments. In order to play, you must meet the criteria to enter the game. Here are the eligibility requirements:
In fiscal year (FY) 2016, more than 1.2 billion Medicare fee-for-service claims were processed. Over 119 million claims (or 9.7%) were denied. Of the denied claims, 3.5 million (2.9% of all Medicare denied claims) were appealed. That seems surprisingly low to me. But many claims are denied to Medicare recipients, who would be less inclined to appeal. For example, my grandma would not hire an attorney to appeal a denied claim; it would be fiscally illogical. However, a hospital that is accused of $10 million in alleged overpayments will hire an attorney.
In recent years, the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) and the Council have received more appeals than they can process within the statutorily-defined time frames. From FY 2010 through FY 2015, OMHA experienced an overall 442% increase in the number of appeals received annually. As a result, as of the end of FY 2016, 658,307 appeals were waiting to be adjudicated by OMHA. Under current resource levels (and without any additional appeals), it would take eight years for OMHA and ten years for the Council to process their respective backlogs.
The SCF “Fix”
While I do not believe that the creation of the SCF process is a fix, it is a concerted step in the right direction. Being that it was just enacted, we do not have any trial results. So many things on paper look good, but when implemented in real life end so poorly. For example, the Titanic.
Considering that there is a court case that found Health and Human Services (HHS) in violation of federal regulations that require level three Medicare appeals to be adjudicated in 90 days, instead of 8 years and HHS failed to follow the Order, claiming impossibility, at least HHS is making baby steps. See blog. At some point, Congress is going to have to increase funding to hire additional ALJs. I can only assume that the Hospital Association and American Medical Association are lobbying to get this action, but you know what they say about assuming…
As broached above, I do not like the fact that – if you do not accept whatever amount CMS proposes as settlement – BOOM – negotiation is over and you suffer the 8-year backlog time, undergo recoupments (that may not be appropriate), and incur tens of thousands of attorneys’ fees to continue litigation. Literally, CMS has no incentive to settle and you have every reason to settle. The only incentive for CMS to settle that I can fathom is that CMS wants this SCF program to be a success for the jury of public opinion, therefore, will try to get a high rate of success. But do not fool yourself.
You are the beggar and CMS is the King.
5th Circuit Finds Subject Matter Jurisdiction For Medicare and Medicaid Providers – Why Collards Matter
“I’d like some spaghetti, please, and a side of meatballs.” – This sentence is illogical because meatballs are integral to spaghetti and meatballs. If you order spaghetti – and -meatballs, you are ordering “spaghetti and meatballs.” Meatballs on the side is not a thing.
Juxtapose, a healthcare provider defending itself from an alleged overpayment, But during the appeal process undergoes a different penalty – the state or federal government begins to recoup future funds prior to a decision that the alleged recoupment is authorized, legal, or warranted. When a completely new issue unrelated to the allegation of overpayment inserts itself into the mix, then you have spaghetti and meatballs with a side of collard greens. Collard greens need to be appealed in a completely different manner than spaghetti and meatballs, especially when the collard greens could put the company out of business because of the premature and unwarranted recoupments without due process.
I have been arguing this for years based off of, not only, a 1976 Supreme Court case, but multiple state case law, as well as, success I have had in the federal and administrative courts, and BTW – logic.
On March 27, 2018, I was confirmed again. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided a landmark case for Medicare and Medicaid providers across the country. The case, Family Rehab., Inc. v Azar, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 7668, involved a Medicare home health service provider, which was assessed for approximately $7.8 million in Medicare overpayments. Family Rehab, the plaintiff in the case, relied on 88% to 94% of its revenue from Medicare. The company had timely appealed the alleged overpayment, and it was at the third level of the Medicare five step process for appeals. See blog. But there is a 3 – 5 year backlog on the third level, and the government began to recoup the $7.8 million despite the ongoing appeal. If no action were taken, the company would be out of business well-before any ALJ could rule on the merits of the case, i.e. whether the recoupment was warranted. How is that fair? The provider may not owe $7.8 million, but before an objective tribunal decides what is actually owed, if anything, we are going to go ahead and take the money and reap the benefit of any interest accrued during the time it takes the provider to get a hearing.
The backlog for Medicare appeals at the ALJ level is unacceptably long. See blog and blog. However, the federal regulations only prevent recoupment during the appeal process during the first and second levels. This is absolutely asinine and should be changed considering we do have a clause in the Constitution called “due process.” Purported criminals receive due process, but healthcare providers who accept Medicare or Medicaid, at times, do not.
At the third level of appeal, Family Rehab underwent recoupments, even though it was still appealing the decision, which immediately stifled Family Rehab’s income. Family Rehab, because of the premature recoupments, was at risk of losing everything, going bankrupt, firing its staff, and no longer providing medically necessary home health services for the elderly. This situation mimics a situation in which I represented a client in northern Indiana who was losing its Medicaid contract. I also successfully obtained a preliminary injunction preventing the provider from losing its Medicaid contract. See blog.
It is important to note that in this case the ZPIC had audited only 43 claims. Then it used a statistical method to extrapolate the alleged over-billings and concluded that the alleged overpayment was $7,885,803.23. I cannot tell you how many times I have disputed an extrapolation and won. See blog.
42 USC 1395(f)(f)(d)(1)(A) states that the ALJ shall conduct and conclude the hearing and render a decision no later than 90 days after a timely request. Yet the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that an ALJ hearing would not be forthcoming not within 90 days or even 900 days. The judge noted in his decision that the Medicare appeal backlog for an ALJ hearing was 3 – 5 years. The District Court held that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction because Family Rehab had not exhausted its administrative remedies. Family Rehab appealed.
On appeal, Family Rehab argued the same arguments that I have made in the past: (1) its procedural due process and ultra vires claims are collateral to the agency’s appellate process; and (2) going through the appellate process would mean no review at all because the provider would be out of business by the time it would be heard by an ALJ.
What does collateral mean? Collard greens are collateral. When you think collateral; think collards. Collard greens do not normally come with spaghetti and meatballs. A collateral issue is an issue that is entirely collateral to a substantive agency decision and would not be decided through the administrative appeal process. In other words, even if Family Rehab were to only pursue the $7.8 million overpayment issue through the administrative process, the issue of having money recouped and the damage to the company that the recoupment was causing would never be heard by the ALJ because those “collateral” issues are outside the ALJ’s purview. The premature recoupment issue could not be remedied by an ALJ. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
The collateral argument also applies to terminations of Medicare and Medicaid contracts without due process. In an analogous case (Affiliated Professional), the provider argued that the termination of its Medicare contract without due process violated its right to due process and the Equal Protection Clause and was successful.
The upshot is obvious, if the Court must examine the merits of the underlying dispute, delve into the statute and regulations, or make independent judgments as to plaintiff’s eligibility under a statute, the claim is not collateral.
The importance of this case is that it verifies my contention that if a provider is undergoing a recoupment or termination without due process, there is relief for that provider – an injunction stopping the premature recoupments or termination until due process has been completed.
What in the world is administrative law???? If you are a Medicare or Medicaid provider, you better know!
Most of my blogs are about Medicare and Medicaid providers and the tangled web of regulatory rules and regulations that they must abide by in order to continue providing medically necessary services to our most-needy and elderly populations. This time, however, I am going to blog about (1) administrative law 101 (which I am coming to the realization that few providers understand); and (2) out-of-state attorneys – and why you may need to seek out an attorney from another state from which you live (and why it is possible). Attorneys are licensed state-by-state and, lately, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about “how can you represent me in Nevada when you are in NC?” and when I Googled this topic – I found that there is very little information out there. I am here to teach and teach I will. Read on if you want to learn; close this browser if you do not. The other goal of this blog is to educate you on administrative law. Because administrative law is vastly different than normal law, yet it pertains to Medicare and Medicaid providers, such as you. My last goal with this blog is to educate you on the expense of hiring an attorney and why, in some instances, it may be more costly than others. Whew! We have a lot to go through!
Let’s get started…
A lot of potential clients often ask me how are you able to represent me in Nebraska when you live in North Carolina? Or Alaska? (yes, I have a client in Alaska). I figured I should clear up the confusion. (The “administrative law class” portion of this blog is interwoven throughout the blog – not my best blog, organizational-wise; but we cannot all be perfect).
There are three ways in which an attorney can represent an out-of-state client if that attorney does not have the State’s Bar license for the State in which you reside. Just in case you didn’t know, attorneys get licensed on a state-by-state basis. For example, I have my Bar licenses in North Carolina and Georgia. It is similar to how physicians have to get State licenses. However, I represent healthcare providers in approximately 30 states. I don’t have a client in Iowa yet, so any healthcare providers in Iowa – Hello!! Now we need to understand – how is this possible?
Let’s take a step back, in case there are those who are wondering what a Bar license is; it is a license to practice law and, literally, means that you can go past the bar in a courtroom.
The first way in which in attorney can represent an out-of-state client is because most Medicaid and Medicare provider appeals must be brought before Administrative Court. In North Carolina, our Administrative Court is called the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). OAH is the administrative agency for the Judicial Branch. An Administrative Court is the type of court specializing in administrative law, particularly in disputes concerning the exercise of public power. Their role is to ascertain that official/governmental acts are consistent with the law. Such courts are considered separate from general courts. For most state’s Administrative Courts, attorneys do not have to be licensed in that state. Most people don’t know the difference between Administrative Courts versus normal civil courts, like Superior and District courts. Or Magistrate Courts, for example, where Judge Judy would be. I certainly didn’t know what administrative law was even after I graduated law school. Quite frankly, I didn’t take the administrative law class in law school because I had no idea that I would be doing 89.125% administrative law in my real, adult life (I still file federal and state injunctions and sue the government in civil court, but the majority of my practice is administrative).
Administrative laws, which are applicable to Medicare and Medicaid providers, are laws pertaining to administrative agencies (seems self-defining). Administrative court is defined as a court that specializes in dealing with cases relating to the way in which government bodies exercise their powers.
There are literally hundreds of federal administrative agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, known as the EPA. If I have a pollution complaint, I contact the EPA. Another example is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, known as the EEOC. This agency is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate a job applicant or employee. If I have a discrimination complaint, I contact the EEOC. Another example is the Consumer Product Safety Commission, known as CPSC, which is the independent agency that oversees the safety of products sold in the United States. If I have a problem with the safety of the product that I bought, I contact the CPSC. Complaints to government agencies, such as the EPA, do not go to normal, civil court. These complaints, otherwise known as petitions for contested case hearings, go to Administrative Court and are overseen by Administrative Law Judges (“ALJs”). Same is true for Medicare and Medicaid provider disputes. You cannot go to Superior Court until you have gone through Administrative Court otherwise your case will be kicked out because of an esoteric legal doctrine known as “exhaustion of administrative remedies.” See blog.
Here is a picture of North Carolina’s Raleigh OAH. You can see, from the picture below, that it does not look like a normal courthouse. It’s a beautiful building – don’t get me wrong. But it does not look like a courthouse.
Our OAH is located at 1711 New Hope Church Road, Raleigh NC, 27609. OAH used to be downtown Raleigh and one of the historic houses, but that got a little cramped.
Complaints about Medicare and Medicaid regulatory compliance issues go to Administrative Court because these complaints are against a government agency known as the Health Service Department or the Department of Health and Human Services, depending on which state within you live – the names may differ, but the responsibility does not.
Bringing a lawsuit in Administrative Court with an out-of-state attorney is the cheapest method. There is no need to pay local counsel to file pleadings. There is no need to pay to be pro hac-ed in (see below). Sure, you have to pay for travel expenses, but as we all know, you get what you pay for. If you don’t have an expert in Medicare or Medicaid in your state you need to look elsewhere. [Disclaimer – I am not saying you have to hire me. Just hire an expert].
Very few states require administrative attorneys to have the State Bar license in which they are practicing. For those few States that do require a State Bar license, even for administrative actions, the second alternative to hire an attorney out-of-state is for the attorney to pro hac into that State. Pro hace vice is a fancy Latin phrase which means, literally, “for on this occasion only.” It allows out-of-state attorneys a way to ask the court to allow them to represent a client in a state in which they do not have a license. Again, the reason why this is important is that in a extremely, niche practices, there may not be an attorney with the expertise you need in your state. I know there are not that many attorneys that do the kind of law that I do, [possibly because it is emotionally-draining (because all your clients are financial and emotional distress), extremely esoteric, yet highly-rewarding (when you keep someone in business to continue to provide medically necessary services), but, at times, overwhelming and, without question, time-consuming]. Did someone say, “Vacation?” “Pro hac-ing in” (defined as the attorney asking the court to allow them to represent a client in a state for which they do not have a license for one-time only) is also helpful when I appear in state or federal courts.
Most states have a limit of how many times an attorney can pro hac. For example, in New Mexico, out-of-state attorneys can only pro hac into New Mexico State courts four times a year. The fee for an attorney to pro hac into a state court varies state-by-state, but the amount is nominal when you compare the fee against how much it would cost to hire local counsel.
Thirdly, is by hiring local counsel. Some cases need to be escalated to federal or state court, and, in these instances, a Bar license in the state in which the case is being pursued is necessary. An example of why you would want to bring a lawsuit in federal or state court instead of an Administrative Court would be if you are asking for monetary damages. An Administrative Court does not have the jurisdiction to award such damages.
This is the scenario that I dislike the most because the client has to pay for another attorney only because their warm body possesses a State Bar license. Generally, local counsel does not do much heavy lifting. As in, they don’t normally contribute to the merits of the case. Because they have the State Bar license, they are used to file and sign-off on pleadings.
The first scenario – in which I represent a out-of-state client in Administrative Court, and do not need to hire local counsel or to get my pro hac, is the cheapest method for clients. As an aside, I spoke with an attorney from a bigger city yesterday and was amazed at his or her billable rates. Apparently, I’m steal.
The second most inexpensive way to hire an attorney from out-of-state is to have them get pro hac-ed in. There is a filing fee of, usually, a few hundred dollars in order to get pro hac-ed in. But, in some states, you don’t have to hire local counsel when you are pro hac-ed in.
The most expensive way to hire an out-of-state attorney is needing to hire local counsel as well. Let’s be honest – attorneys are expensive. Adding another into the pot just ups the ante, regardless how little they do. When attorneys charge $300, $400, or $500 an hour, very few hours add up to a lot of money (or $860/hour….what…zombies?).
If you do not agree with the decision that the Administrative Law Judge renders, then you can appeal to, depending in which state you reside, Superior Court or District Court. If you do not agree with the decision you receive in District Court or Superior Court, you then appeal to the Court of Appeals. On the appellate level, out-of-state attorneys would need to either be pro hac-ed on or hire local counsel.