Category Archives: Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals

Non-Profit Going For-Profit: Merger Mania Manifests

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.

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Merger Mania

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.

The Courts Order Medicare to Stop Recouping Alleged Overpayments Without Due Process!

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.

RAC Forecast: Increased RAC Audits with a High Likelihood of Recoupments

Data regarding the success of the Medicare RAC program does not lie, right? If the report shows success, then increase the RAC process!! And to anyone who reads the new report to Congress…a success the RAC process is!

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently published its 2016 results of the Medicare Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) program. And CMS was not shy in reporting high rates of returns due to the RAC program. With results as amazing as the report touts, it is clear that the Medicare RACs are hoping that this new report on the hundreds of millions they’ve recovered for Medicare will cause the CMS to reverse course on its decision to limit the number of claims they can review. After reviewing the report to CMS, I will be shocked if Congress does not loosen the limitations placed on RACs in the last couple years. The report acts as marketing propaganda to Congress.

My forecast: increased RAC audits with a high likelihood of recoupments.

The RAC program is divided into 5 regions (currently):

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In 2016, the RAC regions were arranged a bit differently:

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The mission of the RAC program is to identify and correct overpayments made on claims for health care services provided to beneficiaries, to identify underpayments to providers, and to provide information that allows the CMS to implement corrective actions that will prevent future improper payments. As most of my readers are well aware, I have been critical of the RAC program in the past for being overzealous and hyper (overly) – technical, in an erroneous kind of way. See blog. And blog.

The Social Security Act (SSA), which allows for RAC programs, also requires that the CMS publish and submit a yearly “self-audit” on the RAC program. Even though we are almost in October 2018, the recent report released to Congress covers 2016 – apparently CMS’ data gathering lags a bit (lot). If I have to get my 2018 taxes to the IRS by April 15, 2019, shouldn’t CMS have a similar deadline? Instead of submitting information for 2016 when it’s almost 2019…

RACs are paid on a contingency fee basis, which incentivize the RACs to discover billing irregularities. The amount of the contingency fee is a percentage of the improper payment recovered from, or reimbursed to, providers. The RACs negotiate their contingency fees at the time of the contract award. The base contingency fees range from 10.4 – 14.4% for all claim types, except durable medical equipment (DME). The contingency fees for DME claims range from 15.4 – 18.9%. The RAC must return the contingency fee if an improper payment determination is overturned at any level of appeal although I am unaware whether the RAC has to return the interested gained on holding that amount as well, which cannot be a minute amount given that the Medicare appeal backlog causes Medicare appeals to last upwards of 5 – 9 years.

Beginning in 2017, the RAC contracts had an amendment not previously found in past contracts. Now the RACs are to wait 30-days before reporting the alleged overpayment to the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs). The thought process behind this revision to the RAC contracts is that the 30-day wait period allows the providers to informally discuss the findings with the RACs to determine the provider has additional records germane to the audit that could change the outcome of the audit. Theoretically, going forward, providers should receive notification of an alleged overpayment from the RACs rather than the MACs.

And the 2016 results are (drum roll, please):

RACs uncovered $404.46 million in overpayments and $69.46 million in underpayments in fiscal year 2016, for a total of $473.92 million in improper payments being corrected. This represents a 7.5% increase from program corrections in FY 2015, which were $440.69 million.

63% of overpayments identified in 2016 (more than $278 million) were from inpatient hospital claims, including coding validation reviews.

RACs received $39.12 million in contingency fees.

After factoring in contingency fees, administrative costs, and amounts overturned on appeal, the RAC program returned $214.09 million to the Medicare trust funds in 2016.

CMS has implemented several elements to verify RAC accuracy in identifying improper payments. The Recovery Audit Validation Contractor (RVC) establishes an annual accuracy score for each RAC. Supposedly, if we are to take the CMS report as accurate and unbiased, in FY 2016, each RAC had an overall accuracy score of 91% or higher for claims adjusted from August 2015 through July 2016. I am always amazed at the government’s ability to warp percentages. I had a client given a 1.2% accuracy rating during a prepayment review that would rival J.K. Rowling any day of the year. Robert Galbraith, as well.

To address the backlog of Medicare appeals, CMS offered a settlement process that paid hospitals 68% of what they claimed they were owed for short-term inpatient stays. – I am not confident that this money was accounted for in the overall results of the RAC program in the recent report.

135,492 claims were appealed by healthcare providers. But the RAC report to Congress notes: “appealed claims may be counted multiple times if the claim had appeal decisions rendered at multiple levels during 2016.” Undeniably, if this number is close to accurate, there was a significant down swing of appeals by providers in 2016. (I wonder whether the hospital settlement numbers were included).

Of the total appealed claims, 56,724, or 41.9%, were overturned with decisions in the provider’s favor. (Fact check, please!). In my experience as a Medicare and Medicaid regulatory compliance litigator, the success rate for Medicare and Medicaid alleged overpayments is remarkably higher (but maybe my clients just hired a better attorney (wink, wink!).

With results this good, who needs more RAC auditing? We do!! If the report shows success, then increase the RAC process!! 

Hasty and Careless Termination Decisions Can Put Medicare/caid Providers Out of Business

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.

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. It failed to furnish information on business transactions as required in § 420.205 of this chapter.
  7. 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.
  8. It failed to furnish ownership information as required in § 420.206 of this chapter.
  9. It failed to comply with civil rights requirements set forth in 45 CFR parts 80, 84, and 90.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. It failed to furnish the notice of discharge rights as required by § 489.27.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. It had its enrollment in the Medicare program revoked in accordance to § 424.535 of this chapter.
  16. It has failed to pay a revisit user fee when and if assessed.
  17. In the case of an HHA, it failed to correct any deficiencies within the required time frame.
  18. 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.

COA Dismisses AHA 340B Lawsuit!

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.

The Background 

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 Lawsuit

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.

The Decision

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.

CMS Initiates Process to Decrease the Medicare Appeal Backlog: But You May Have to Beg!

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:

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The Backlog

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.

Medicare and Medicaid Providers: Administrative Law 101 and Hiring an Attorney from Out-of-State

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.

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Number One

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.

OAH

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].

Number Two

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.

Number Three

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.

Cost

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.

Premature Recoupment of Medicare or Medicaid Funds Can Feel Like Getting Mauled by Dodgeballs: But Is It Constitutional?

State and federal governments contract with many private vendors to manage Medicare and Medicaid. And regulatory audits are fair game for all these contracted vendors and, even more – the government also contracts with private companies that are specifically hired to audit health care providers. Not even counting the contracted vendors that manage Medicaid or Medicare (the companies to which you bill and get paid), we have Recovery Act Contractors (RAC), Zone Program Integrity Contractors (ZPICs), Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), and Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) auditors. See blog for explanation. ZPICs, RACs, and MACs conduct pre-payment audits. ZPICs, RACs, MACs, and CERTs conduct post-payment audits.

It can seem that audits can hit you from every side.

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“Remember the 5 D’s of dodgeball: Dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge.”

Remember the 5 A’s of audits: Appeal, argue, apply, attest, and appeal.”

Medicare providers can contest payment denials (whether pre-payment or post-payment) through a five-level appeal process. See blog.

On the other hand, Medicaid provider appeals vary depending on which state law applies. For example, in NC, the general process is an informal reconsideration review (which has .008% because, essentially you are appealing to the very entity that decided you owed an overpayment), then you file a Petition for Contested Case at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). Your likelihood of success greatly increases at the OAH level because these hearings are conducted by an impartial judge. Unlike in New Mexico, where the administrative law judges are hired by Human Services Department, which is the agency that decided you owe an overpayment. In NM, your chance of success increases greatly on judicial review.

In Tx, providers may use three methods to appeal Medicaid fee-for-service and carve-out service claims to Texas Medicaid & Healthcare Partnership (TMHP): electronic, Automated Inquiry System (AIS), or paper within 120 days.

In Il, you have 60-days to identify the total amount of all undisputed and disputed audit
overpayment. You must report, explain and repay any overpayment, pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. Section 1320a-7k(d) and Illinois Public Aid Code 305 ILCS 5/12-4.25(L). The OIG will forward the appeal request pertaining to all disputed audit overpayments to the Office of Counsel to the Inspector General for resolution. The provider will have the opportunity to appeal the Final Audit Determination, pursuant to the hearing process established by 89 Illinois Adm. Code, Sections 104 and 140.1 et. seq.

You get the point.”Nobody makes me bleed my own blood. Nobody!” – White Goodman

Recoupment During Appeals

Regardless whether you are appealing a Medicare or Medicaid alleged overpayment, the appeals process takes time. Years in some circumstances. While the time gently passes during the appeal process, can the government or one of its minions recoup funds while your appeal is pending?

The answer is: It depends.

soapbox

Before I explain, I hear my soapbox calling, so I will jump right on it. It is my legal opinion (and I am usually right) that recoupment prior to the appeal process is complete is a violation of due process. People are always shocked how many laws and regulations, both on the federal and state level, are unconstitutional. People think, well, that’s the law…it must be legal. Incorrect. Because something is allowed or not allowed by law does not mean the law is constitutional. If Congress passed a law that made it illegal to travel between states via car, that would be unconstitutional. In instances that the government is allowed to recoup Medicaid/care prior to the appeal is complete, in my (educated) opinion. However, until a provider will fund a lawsuit to strike these allowances, the rules are what they are. Soapbox – off.

Going back to whether recoupment may occur before your appeal is complete…

For Medicare audit appeals, there can be no recoupment at levels one and two. After level two, however, the dodgeballs can fly, according to the regulations. Remember, the time between levels two and three can be 3 – 5 years, maybe longer. See blog. There are legal options for a Medicare provider to stop recoupments during the 3rd through 5th levels of appeal and many are successful. But according to the black letter of the law, Medicare reimbursements can be recouped during the appeal process.

Medicaid recoupment prior to the appeal process varies depending on the state. Recoupment is not allowed in NC while the appeal process is ongoing. Even if you reside in a state that allows recoupment while the appeal process is ongoing – that does not mean that the recoupment is legal and constitutional. You do have legal rights! You do not need to be the last kid in the middle of a dodgeball game.

Don’t be this guy:

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RAC Audits: How to Deal with Concurrent, Overpayment Accusations in Multiple Jurisdictions

You are a Medicare health care provider. You perform health care services across the country. Maybe you are a durable medical equipment (DME) provider with a website that allows patients to order physician-prescribed, DME supplies from all 50 states. Maybe you perform telemedicine to multiple states. Maybe you are a large health care provider with offices in multiple states.

Regardless, imagine that you receive 25, 35, or 45 notifications of alleged overpayments from 5 separate “jurisdictions” (the 5th being Region 5 (DME/HHH – Performant Recovery, Inc.). You get one notice dated January 1, 2018, for $65,000 from Region 1. January 2, 2018, you receive a notice of alleged overpayment from Region 2 in the amount of $210.35. January 3, 2018, is a big day. You receive notices of alleged overpayments in the amounts of $5 million from Region 4, $120,000 from Region 3, and two other Region 1 notices in the amount of $345.00 and $65,000. This continues for three weeks. In the end, you have 20 different notices of alleged overpayments from 5 different regions, and you are terrified and confused. But you know you need legal representation.

 

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Do you appeal all the notices? Even the notice for $345.00? Obviously, the cost of attorneys’ fees to appeal the $345.00 will way outweigh the amount of the alleged overpayment.

Here are my two cents:

Appeal everything – and this is why – it is a compelling argument of harassment/undue burden/complete confusion to a judge to demonstrate the fact that you received 20 different notices of overpayment from 5 different MACs. I mean, you need a freaking XL spreadsheet to keep track of your notices. Never mind that an appeal in Medicare takes 5 levels and each appeal will be at a separate and distinct status than the others. Judges are humans, and humans understand chaos and the fact that humans have a hard time with chaos. For example, I have contractors in my house. It is chaos. I cannot handle it.

While 20 distinct notices of alleged overpayment is tedious, it is worth it once you get to the third level, before an unbiased administrative law judge (ALJ), when you can consolidate the separate appeals to show the judge the madness.

Legally, the MACs cannot withhold or recoup funds while you appeal, although this is not always followed. In the case that the MACs recoup/withhold during your appeal, if it will cause irreparable harm to your company, then you need to get an injunction in court to suspend the recoupment/withhold.

According to multiple sources, the appeal success rate at the first and second levels are low, approximately 20%. This is to be expected since the first level is before the entity that determined that you owe money and the second level is not much better. The third level, however, is before an impartial ALJ. The success rate at that level is upwards of 75-80%. In the gambling game of life, those are good odds.