Category Archives: Administrative Remedies

Are ALJ Appointed Properly, per the Constitution?

A sneaky and under-publicized matter, which will affect every one of you reading this, slid into common law last year with a very recent case, dated Jan. 9, 2020, upholding and expanding the findings of a 2018 case, Lucia v. SEC, 138 S. Ct. 2044 (U.S. 2018). In Lucia, the Supreme Court upheld the plain language of the U.S. Constitution’s Appointments Clause.

The Appointments Clause prescribes the exclusive means of appointing “officers.” Only the President, a court of law, or a head of department can do so. See Art. II, § 2, cl. 2.

In Lucia, the sole issue was whether an administrative law judge (ALJ) can be appointed by someone other than the President or a department head under Article II, §2, cl. 2 of the U.S. Constitution, or whether ALJs simply federal employees. The Lucia court held that ALJs must be appointed by the President or the department head; this is a non-delegable duty. The most recent case, Sara White Dove-Ridgeway v. Nancy Berrryhill, 2020 WL 109034, (D.Ct.DE, Jan. 9, 2020), upheld and expanded Lucia.

ALJs are appointed. In many states, ALJs are direct employees of a single state agency. In other words, in many states, about half, the payroll check that an ALJ receives bears the emblem of the department of health for that state. I have litigated in administrative courts in approximately 33 states, and have seen my share of surprises. In one case, many years ago, LinkedIn informed me that my appointed ALJ was actually a professional photographer by trade.

Lucia, however, determined that ALJs at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) were “officers of the United States,” subject to the Appointment Clause of the Constitution, which requires officers to be appointed by the president, the heads of departments, or the courts. The court’s decision raised concern at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) because its ALJs had not been appointed by the secretary, but rather by lower agency officials.

The court also held that relief should be granted to “one who makes a timely challenge to the constitutional validity of the appointment of an officer who adjudicates his case.” Whether that relief is monetary, in the form of attorneys’ fees reimbursed or out-of-pocket costs, it is unclear.

In July 2018, President Trump’s Executive Order 13843 excepted ALJs from the competitive service, so agency heads, like HHS Secretary Alex Azar, could directly select the best candidates through a process that would ensure the merit-based appointment of individuals with the specific experience and expertise needed by the selecting agencies.

The executive order also accepted all previously appointed ALJs. So there became a pre-July 16, 2018, challenge and a post-July 16, 2018, based on Trump’s Executive Order. Post-July 16, 2018, appointees had to be appointed by the President or department head. But the argument could be made that ALJs appointed pre-July 16, 2018, were grandfathered into the more lax standards. In Dove-Ridgway, Social Security benefits were at issue. On July 5, 2017, ALJ Jack S. Pena found a plaintiff not disabled. On Jan. 7, 2019, the plaintiff filed an appeal of the ALJ’s decision, seeking judicial review from the district court. In what seems to be the fastest decision ever to emerge from a court of law, two days later, a ruling was rendered. The District Court found that even though at the time of the administrative decision, Lucia and Trump’s Executive Order had not been issued, the court still held that the ALJ needed to have been appointed constitutionally. It ordered a remand for a rehearing before a different, constitutionally appointed ALJ, despite the fact that Trump had accepted all previously appointed ALJs.

In this firsthand, post-Jan. 9, 2020, era, we have an additional defense against Medicare or Medicaid audits or alleged overpayments in our arsenal: was the ALJ appointed properly, per the U.S. Constitution?

Programming Note: Listen to Knicole Emanuel’s live reports on Monitor Monday, 10-10:30 a.m. EST.

As seen on RACMonitor.

New Mexico Settlement…Six Years Later!

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For the full press release.

This New Mexico settlement…What a long strange trip it’s been!

The litigation started in 2013 (six years ago). I was a partner at another Raleigh, NC law firm. Out of the blue, a woman called me from New Mexico and asked whether I would be willing to fly to New Mexico to testify before the General Assembly regarding Public Consulting Group (PCG) and the company’s extrapolation and audit history.

See blog, blog, and blog.

I did. I testified before the NM General Assembly’s subcommittee for behavioral health care. Sitting next to me was a gentleman from PCG. He happened to be the team leader (not sure what his exact title was) for PCG’s audits in NM and NC. In his defense, he graciously sat there and testified against me while I told some horror stories of PCG audits. See blog.

I met the 15 behavioral health care providers’ CEOs who were accused of credible allegations of fraud. Their stories were so emotional and heart-tugging. These people had dedicated their lives and careers to New Mexico’s most needy population – those on Medicaid and suffering from mental health, substance abuse, and/or developmental disabilities – not for money, but because they cared. Then June 24, 2013, the State of New Mexico accused them all of credible allegations of fraud. NM’s proof? A PCG audit that found no credible allegations of fraud. But Human Services Department (HSD) instructed PCG to remove “no credible allegations of fraud,” and HSD referred the audits to the Attorney General (AG) claiming that credible allegations of fraud existed. Sound like a movie? It could be; it is a conspiracy theory story along the lines of Area 51. Is it a coincidence that Area 51 and the NM behavioral health care debacle both occurred in NM?

I’d like to get some sleep before I travel
But if you got a warrant, I guess you’re gonna come in.” – Grateful Dead

A timeline of the events, starting in 2013, has been memorialized by multiple news organizations. See Timeline.

“June 24 — An audit paid for by the New Mexico Human Services Department and conducted by Public Consulting Group (PCG) finds that nearly $33.8 million in Medicaid overpayments were made to 15 behavioral health providers in the state.

June 24 — New Mexico Human Services Department notifies the 15 behavioral health providers that there is a “credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending,” and immediately suspends all Medicaid payments.

June 25 — Officials with the New Mexico Human Services Department send initial contracts to five Arizona companies: Agave Health Inc.Valle Del SolLa Frontera Inc.Southwest Network Inc., and Turqouise Health and Wellness, Inc., to temporarily take over New Mexico behavioral health organizations for a combined price tag of $17.85 million. It’s estimated the move will impact about 30,000 patients. From a July 18 email: “I am following up on the proposed contract between HSD and Open Skies Healthcare (affiliated with Southwest Network, located in Phoenix). On July 3, 2013, I responded to Larry’s [Heyeck, Deputy General Counsel for HSD] June 25 email concerning the contract…”

July 17 – Eight agencies go to U.S. District Court to restore funding.

July 25 – A memo generated by one of the 15 affected providers, TeamBuilders, indicates it will stop taking new clients.

July 25 – A state district judge turns the PCG audit over to New Mexico State Auditor Hector Balderas, and orders the audit protected from public disclosure.

Aug. 21 – In a 15-1 vote New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee objects to the Human Services Department moving $10 million from it’s budget to pay Arizona agencies to take over New Mexico providers due to concerns over secrecy surrounding the process.

Aug. 27 – New Mexico In Depth and the Las Cruces Sun-Newsfile a lawsuit demanding the public release of the PCG audit.

Aug. 28 – Federal officials hold conference call to hear about widespread disruptions to clients of behavioral health providers in transition.

Aug. 29 – An Inspection of Public Records Act request filed by KUNM reveals contract communications between New Mexico Human Services Department officials and Arizona providers as early as May 29, a full month before the audit was released by Public Consulting Group.

Sept. 3 – Public Consulting Group representative Thomas Aldridge tells the New Mexico Legislative Behavioral Health Subcommittee that he helped state officials vet at least one Arizona firm before it even began its audit of agencies in the state.

Sept. 3 — Lawyer Knicole Emanuel testifies to ongoing problems with PCG audits conducted in North Carolina as well as lawsuits triggered by PCG activities. “In some of the PCG audits that I have encountered, PCG has said the Medicaid provider owes $700,000, $800,000, $1.5 million, these exorbitant amounts, and at the end of the day when they look at all the documents, it goes down to like $200 or $300.”

Sept. 10 – The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that political ads defending Gov. Susana Martinez have begun rolling out, framing the behavioral health takeover as a crackdown on Medicaid fraud.”

I litigated 4 administrative appeals. Even after the NM AG came out and stated that there was no fraud, HSD accused the providers of owing alleged overpayments, some upwards of $12 million. These amounts were extrapolated.

In the very first administrative appeal, for The Counseling Center, the extrapolation expert was one of HSD’s attorneys. Upon questions regarding his extrapolation and statistical experience and the foundation for his expertise, he testified that took a class on statistics in college. I guess I could be a bowling expert.

PCG only testified in the first two administrative appeals. I guess after PCG testified that they were never given the opportunity to finish their audit due to HSD and that PCG found no fraud, but HSD removed that language from the report, HSD smartened up and stopped calling PCG as a witness. PCG certainly was not bolstering HSD’s position.

For three of the administrative appeals, we had the same administrative law judge (ALJ), who appeared to have some experience as an ALJ. For one of the appeals, we had a younger gentleman as the ALJ, who, according to LINKEDIN, was a professional photographer.

About 5 years after the accusations of fraud, the AG came out and exonerated all the providers. Apparently, there never was any fraud. Only accusations. These exonerations, however, did not stop the allegations of overpayments to HSD. The exonerations also did not stop these companies from going out of business, being tried as fraudsters in the eyes of the public, losing their companies, firing staff, closing their doors, and losing everything.

This was all done under the administration of Susana Martinez – not saying that politics played a huge role in the act of overthrowing these providers.

The providers all appealed their alleged overpayments and filed a lawsuit against HSD and the State for damages suffered from the original allegation of fraud that was found to be meritless.

After an election and a new administration took control, the State of New Mexico settled with the providers, as you can see from the above press release.

FYI building in Las Cruces, NM.

During the long journey over the past 6 years, one of the CEOs, Jose Frietz, passed away. He had started his company Families & Youth, Inc. in 1977. A month before he died on March 2, 2016, the AG exonerated FYI.

In 2013, Larry Heyeck was one of the attorneys for HSD. Multiple times during the witch hunt for Medicaid fraud, it appeared that Heyeck had some sort of personal vendetta against the 15 providers. According to one article, “Heyeck singled out Roque Garcia, former acting CEO of Southwest Counseling Services (Las Cruces), who was a recipient of the payments and asked legislators, “What does this mean? How can this money be accounted for to ensure that it isn’t used for private benefit?” Heyeck then asserted that Garcia had abused agency travel funds largely paid for by Medicaid through lavish travel to resort destinations in a private aircraft.”

Garcia wasn’t the only provider accused of misappropriating Medicaid funds. Shannon Freedle and his wife Lorraine were ostracized for having their abode in Hawaii.

Larry Heyeck, had an article published in the December 2012’s American Bar Association’s “The Health Lawyer” discussing the effect of 42 CFR 455.23 on Medicaid fraud and suspensions of Medicaid reimbursements. It was entitled, “Medicaid Payment Holds Due to Credible Allegations of Fraud.” Seem apropos?

By 2016, all 15 providers were cleared of allegations of fraud, but most were out of business.

Now – December 4, 2019 – a press release is disseminated to show that the last of the providers settled with the State of New Mexico. What the press release fails to express is the struggle, the financial and non-financial damages, the emotional turmoil, and the devastation these companies have endured over the past 6 years. No amount of money could ever right their catastrophic, past 6-years or the complete demise of their companies based on erroneous allegations of fraud.

Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me; Other times, I can barely see; Lately, it occurs to me; What a long, strange trip it’s been.” – Grateful Dead

CMS Revises and Details Extrapolation Rules

Effective Jan. 2, 2019, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) radically changed its guidance on the use of extrapolation in audits by Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs), Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), Unified Program Integrity Contractors (UPICs), and the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (SMRC).

Extrapolation is a veritable tsunami in Medicare/Medicaid audits. The auditor collects a small sample of claims to review for compliance, then determines the “error rate” of the sample. For example, if 500 claims are reviewed and one is found to be noncompliant for a total of $100, then the error rate is set at 20 percent. That error rate is applied to the universe, which is generally a three-year time period. It is assumed that the random sample is indicative of all your billings, regardless of whether you changed your billing system during that time period or maybe hired a different biller. In order to extrapolate an error rate, contractors must use a “statistically valid random sample” and then apply that error rate on a broader universe of claims, using “statistically valid methods.”

With extrapolated results, auditors allege millions of dollars of overpayments against healthcare providers – sometimes a sum of more than the provider even made during the relevant time period. It is an overwhelming impact that can put a provider and its company out of business.

Prior to this recent change to extrapolation procedure, the Program Integrity Manual (PIM) offered little guidance regarding the proper method for extrapolation.

Prior to 2019, CMS offered broad strokes with few details. Its guidance was limited to generally identifying the steps contractors should take: “a) selecting the provider or supplier; b) selecting the period to be reviewed; c) defining the universe, the sampling unit, and the sampling frame; d) designing the sampling plan and selecting the sample; e) reviewing each of the sampling units and determining if there was an overpayment or an underpayment; and, as applicable, f) estimating the overpayment.”

Well, Change Request 10067 overhauled extrapolation in a huge way.

The first modification to the extrapolation rules is that the PIM now dictates when extrapolation should be used.

Under the new guidance, a contractor “shall use statistical sampling when it has been determined that a sustained or high level of payment error exists. The use of statistical sampling may be used after a documented educational intervention has failed to correct the payment error.” This guidance now creates a three-tier structure:

  1. Extrapolation shall be used when a sustained or high level of payment error exists.
  2. Extrapolation may be used after documented educational intervention (such as in the Targeted Probe-and-Educate (TPE) program).
  3. It follows that extrapolation should not be used if there is not a sustained or high level of payment error or evidence that documented educational intervention has failed.

“High level of payment error” is defined as 50 percent or greater. The PIM also states that the contractor may review the provider’s past noncompliance for the same or similar billing issues or a historical pattern of noncompliant billing practice. This is critical because so many times providers simply pay the alleged overpayment amount if the amount is low or moderate in order to avoid costly litigation. Now, those past times that you simply paid the alleged amounts will be held against you.

Another monumental modification to RAC audits is that the RAC auditor now must receive authorization from CMS to go forward in recovering from the provider if the alleged overpayment exceeds $500,000 or is an amount that is greater than 25 percent of the provider’s Medicare revenue received within the previous 12 months.

The identification of the claims universe was also redefined. Even CMS admitted in the change request that, on occasion, “the universe may include items that are not utilized in the construction of the sample frame. This can happen for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to: a) some claims/claim lines are discovered to have been subject to a prior review; b) the definitions of the sample unit necessitate eliminating some claims/claim lines; or c) some claims/claim lines are attributed to sample units for which there was no payment.”

How many of you have been involved in an alleged overpayment in which the auditor misplaced or lost documents? I know I have. The new rule also states that the auditors must be able to recreate the sample and maintain all documentation pertinent to the calculation of an alleged overpayment.

High-volume providers should face a lower risk of extrapolation if their audited error rate is less than 50 percent and they do not have a history of noncompliance for the same or similar billing issues, or a historical pattern of noncompliant billing practice.

Termination Underway for Virginia Medicaid Behavioral Health Care Providers!

As Virginia Medicaid behavioral health care providers are being terminated, the question remains, is it legal?

Virginia behavioral health care providers that accept Medicaid are under statewide blanket fire.

Without warning or provocation, the Managed Care Organizations (MCOs) recently began a mass firing, terminating all Medicaid behavioral health care providers “without cause.” Since the terminations involved multiple MCOs that were not ostensibly connected by business organization, involving providers across the state, it became immediately clear that the MCOs may have planned the terminations together.

Why are the MCOs doing this, you might ask? If you were charged with managing a firehose of Medicaid dollars, would you rather deal with 100 small providers or two large providers? This appears to be discrimination based on size.

Thankfully, for the behavioral healthcare providers of Virginia, they had an association, which is run by a tenacious woman with energy like the Energizer Bunny and passion like a tsunami. Caliber Virginia is the association heading the defense.

This is not my first rodeo with large-scale litigation regarding Medicare or Medicaid. I represented four behavioral healthcare providers in the New Mexico debacle through the administrative process. I have brought class-action lawsuits based on the computer software program implemented by the state to manage Medicaid funds. I have been successful in federal courts in obtaining federal injunctions staying terminations of Medicaid provider contracts.

Since I was contacted by Caliber Virginia, I have reviewed multiple contracts between providers and MCOs, termination letters, and federal and state law, listened to the stories of the providers that are facing imminent closure, and brainstormed legal theories to protect the providers.

I came up with this – these MCOs cannot terminate these providers “without cause.” In fact, these MCOs cannot terminate these providers without good reason.

Under numerous Supreme Court holdings, most notably the Court’s holding in Board of Regents v. Roth, the right to due process under the law only arises when a person has a property or liberty interest at stake.

In determining whether a property interest exists, a Court must first determine that there is an entitlement to that property. Unlike liberty interests, property interests and entitlements are not created by the Constitution. Instead, property interests are created by federal or state law, and can arise from statute, administrative regulations, or contract.

Specifically, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has determined that North Carolina Medicaid providers have a property interest in continued provider status. In Bowens v. N.C. Dept. of Human Res., the Fourth Circuit recognized that the North Carolina provider appeals process created a due-process property interest in a Medicaid provider’s continued provision of services, and could not be terminated “at the will of the state.” The Court determined that these due process safeguards, which included a hearing and standards for review, indicated that the provider’s participation was not “terminable at will.” The Court held that these safeguards created an entitlement for the provider, because it limits the grounds for termination, only for cause, and that such cause was reviewable. The Fourth Circuit reached the same result in Ram v. Heckler two years later. I foresee the same results in other appellate jurisdictions, but definitely again within the Fourth Circuit.

Since Ram, North Carolina Medicaid providers’ rights to continued participation has been strengthened through the passage of Chapter 108C. Chapter 108C expressly creates a right for existing Medicaid providers to challenge a decision to terminate participation in the Medicaid program in the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). It also makes such reviews subject to the standards of Article 3 of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Therefore, North Carolina law now contains a statutory process that confers an entitlement to Medicaid providers. Chapter 108C sets forth the procedure and substantive standards for which OAH is to operate, and gives rise to the property right recognized in Bowens and Ram. Similarly, the Virginia law provides an appeal process for providers to follow in accordance with the Virginia Administrative Process Act.  See VA Code § 32.1-325 and 12 VAC 30-121-230.

In another particular case, a Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) terminated a provider’s ability to deliver four CPT® codes, which comprised of over 80 percent of the provider’s bailiwick, severely decreasing the provider’s funding source, not to mention costing Medicare recipients’ access to care and choice of provider.

The MAC’s contention was that the provider was not really terminated, since they could still participate in the network in ways. But the company was being terminated from providing certain services.

The Court found that the MAC’s contention that providers have no right to challenge a termination was without merit. And, rightfully so, the Court stated that if the MAC’s position were correct, the appeals process provided by law would be meaningless. This was certainly not the case.

The MAC’s contention that it operates a “closed network” and thus can terminate a provider at its sole discretion was also not supported by the law. No MAC or MCO can cite to any statute, regulation, or contract provision that gives it such authority. The statutory definition of “closed network” simply delineates those providers that have contracted with the Local Management Entity (LME) MCOs to furnish services to Medicaid enrollees. The MAC was relying on its own definition of “closed network” to exercise complete and sole control and discretion, which is without foundation and/or any merit. Nothing in the definition of “closed network” indicates that MACs or MCOs have absolute discretion to determine which existing providers can remain in the closed network.

It is well-settled law that there is a single state agency responsible for Medicare and Medicaid: The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). Case law dictates that the responsibility cannot be delegated away. A supervisory role, at the very least, must be maintained.

On the Medicaid level, 42 CFR § 438.214, titled “Provider Selection,” requires the state to ensure, through a contract, that each MCO PIHP (Prepaid Inpatient Health Plan) “implements written policies and procedures for selection and retention of providers.”) A plain reading of the law makes clear that MCOs that operate a PIHP are required to have written policies and procedures for retention of providers. Requiring policies and procedures would be pointless if they are not followed.

The Medicare Provider Manual and any the provisions of a request for proposal (RFP) must be adhered to, pursuant to the federal regulation and the state contracts. To the extent that Alliance’s policy states that it can decide not to retain a provider for any reason at its sole discretion, such a policy does not conform with federal law or the state requirements.

On the Medicare level, 42 U.S.C. § 405(h) spells out the judicial review available to providers, which is made applicable to Medicare by 42 U.S.C. § 1395ii. Section 405(h) aims to lay out the sole means by which a court may review decisions to terminate a provider agreement in compliance with the process available in § 405(g). Section 405(g) lays out the sole process of judicial review available in this type of dispute. The Supreme Court has endorsed the process, for nearly two decades, since its decision in Shalala v. Illinois Council on Long Term Care, Inc., holding that providers are required to abide by the provisions of § 405(g) providing for judicial review only after the administrative appeal process is complete.

The MACs and the MCOs cannot circumvent federal law and state requirements regarding provider retention by creating a policy that allows them to make the determination for any reason in its sole discretion. Such a provision is tantamount to having no policies and procedures at all.

If you or someone you know is being terminated in Virginia, please contact me – kemanuel@potomasclaw.com, or Caliber Virginia – calibervaed@gmail.com.

Caliber Virginia, formerly known as the Association for Community-Based Service Providers (ACBP), was established in 2006 to provide support, resources, and information with a united, well-informed and engaged voice among the community-based behavioral and mental health service providers of the Commonwealth. Caliber Virginia represents organizations that provide health and human services and supports for children, adults, and families in the areas of mental health, substance use disorders, developmental disabilities, child and family health and well-being, and other related issue areas.  Its member providers deliver quality health and human services to over 500,000 of Virginia’s residents each year. Caliber Virginia promotes equal opportunity, economic empowerment, independent living, and political participation for people with disabilities, including mental health diagnoses.

Programming Note:

Listen to Knicole Emanuel’s live reporting on this story Monday, Sept. 23, 2019, on Monitor Monday, 10-10:30 a.m. EST.

First published on RACMonitor

RAC Audits: Alternatives to Litigation

Understanding why there’s a need for auditing the auditors.

I frequently encounter complaints by healthcare providers that when they are undergoing Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC), Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC), and, more recently, the Targeted Probe-and-Educate (TPE) audits, the auditors are getting it wrong. That’s as in, during a RAC audit, the auditor finds claims noncompliant, for example, for not having medical necessity – but the provider knows unequivocally that the determination is dead wrong. So the question that I get from the providers is whether they have any legal recourse against the RAC or MAC finding noncompliance, besides going through the tedious administrative action, which we all know can take upwards of 5-7 years before reaching the third administrative level.

To which, now, upon a recent discovery in one of my cases, I would have responded that the only other option for relief would be obtaining a preliminary injunction in federal court. To prove a preliminary injunction in federal court, you must prove: a) a likelihood of success on the merits; and b) that irreparable harm would be incurred without the injunction; i.e., that your company would be financially devastated, or even threatened with extinction.

The conundrum of being on the brink of financial ruin is that you cannot afford a legal defense if you are about to lose everything.

This past month, I had a completely different legal strategy, with a different result. I am not saying that this result would be reached by all healthcare providers that disagree with the results of their RAC or MAC or TPE audit, but I now believe that in certain extreme circumstances, this alternative route could work, as it did in my case.

When this particular client hired me, I quickly realized that the impact of the MAC’s decision to rescind the client’s Medicare contract was going to do more than the average catastrophic outcomes resulting from a rescission of a Medicare contract. First, this provider was the only provider in the area with the ability to perform certain surgeries. Secondly, his practice consisted of 90 percent of Medicare. An immediate suspension of Medicare would have been devastating to his practice. Thirdly, the consequence of these Medicaid patients not undergoing this particular and highly specialized surgery was dire. This trifecta sparked a situation in which, I believed, that even a Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) employee (who probably truly believed that the negative findings cited by the RAC or MAC were accurate) may be swayed by the exigent circumstances.

I contacted opposing counsel, who was the attorney for CMS. Prior to this situation, I had automatically assumed that non-litigious strategies would never work. Opposing counsel listened to the facts. She asked that I draft a detailed explanation as to the circumstances. Now, concurrently, I also drafted this provider’s Medicare appeal, because we did not want to lose the right to appeal. The letter was definitely detailed and took a lot of time to create.

In the end, CMS surprised me and we got the Medicare contract termination overturned within months, not years, and without expensive litigation.

(Originally published on RACMonitor)

Medicare TPE Audits: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing (Part II)

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.

2019-06-07 -- TPE

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.

Medicare TPE Audits: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

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.

TPE Audits

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.

United Behavioral Health SLAMMED by Judge for Improperly Denying Behavioral Health Care Services

We have had parity laws between mental and physical health care services on the books for years. Regardless of the black letter law, mental health health care services have been treated with stigma, embarrassment, and of lesser importance than physical health care services. A broken leg is easily proven by an X-Ray; whereas a broken mind is less obvious.

In an unprecedented Decision ripe with scathing remarks against Optum/United Behavioral Health’s (UBH) actions, a Court recently ruled that UBH improperly denied mental health services to insureds and that those improper denials were financially-driven. A slap-on-the-wrist, this Decision was not. More of a public whipping.

In a 106-page opinion, the US District Court, Northern District of California, slammed UBH in a blistering decision finding that UBH purposely and improperly denied behavioral health care benefits to thousands of mentally ill insureds by utilizing overly restrictive guidelines. This is a HUGE win for the mental health community, which often does not receive the parity of services (of physical health) that it is legally is entitled. U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero spared no political correctness in his mordacious written opinion, which is rarity in today’s vitriolic world.

2019- Spero

The Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), saying the insurer denied benefits in violation of the terms of their insurance plans and state law. The Plaintiffs consisted of participants in UBH health care plans and who were denied mental health care services.

Judge Spero found United Behavioral’s guidelines were influenced by financial incentives concerning fully-funded and self-funded ERISA plans:

“While the incentives related to fully insured and self-funded plans are not identical, with respect to both types of plan UBH has a financial interest in keeping benefit expense down … [A]ny resulting shortcomings in its Guideline development process taints its decision-making as to both categories of plan because UBH maintains a uniform set of Guidelines for fully insured and self-funded plans … Instead of insulating its Guideline developers from these financial pressures, UBH has placed representatives of its Finance and Affordability Departments in key roles in the Guidelines development process throughout the class period.”

Surprisingly, this decision came out of California, which is notoriously socially-driven. Attorneys generally avert their eyes when opinions come from the 9th District.

Judge Spero found that UBH violated “generally accepted standards of care” to administer requests for benefits.

The Court found that “many mental health and substance use disorders are long-term and chronic.” It also found that, in questionable instances, the insurance company should err on the caution of placing the patient in a higher level of care. The Court basically cited the old adage – “Better safe than sorry,” which seems a pretty darn good idea when you are talking about mental health. Just ask Ted Bundy.

Even though the Wit Decision involved private pay insurance, the Court repeatedly cited to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Manual. For example, the Court stated that “the CMS Manual explains, [f]or many . . . psychiatric patients, particularly those with long-term, chronic conditions, control of symptoms and maintenance of a functional level to avoid further deterioration or hospitalization is an acceptable expectation of improvement.” It also quoted ASAM criteria as generally accepted standards, as well as LOCUS, which tells me that the law interprets the CMS Manual, ASAM criteria, and LOCUS as “generally accepted standards,” and not UBH’s or any other private pay insurance’s arbitrary standards. In fact, the Court actually stated that its decision was influenced by the fact that UBH’s adopted many portions of CMS’ Manual, but drafted the language in a more narrow way to ensure more denials of mental health benefits.

The Court emphasized the importance of ongoing care instead of acute care that ceases upon the end of the acute crisis. The denial of ongoing care was categorized as a financial decision. The Court found that UBH’s health care policy “drove members to lower levels of care even when treatment of the member’s overall and/or co-occurring conditions would have been more effective at the higher level of care.”

The Wit decision will impact us in so many ways. For one, if a State Medicaid program limits mental health services beyond what the CMS Manual, ASAM criteria, or LOCUS determines, then providers (and beneficiaries) have a strong legal argument that the State Medicaid criteria do not meet generally accepted standards. Even more importantly, if the State Medicaid policies do NOT limit mental health care services beyond what the CMS Manual, ASAM criteria, and LOCUS defines, but an agent of the State Medicaid Division; i.e, a managed care organization (MCO) deny mental health care services that would be considered appropriate under the generally accepted standards, then, again, both providers and beneficiaries would have strong legal arguments overturning those denials.

I, for one, hope this is a slippery slope…in the right direction.

 

Medicare Audits: Huge Overhaul on Extrapolation Rules

Effective January 2, 2019, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) radically changed its guidance on the use of extrapolation in audits by recovery audit contractors (RACs), Medicare administrative contractors (MACs), Unified Program Integrity Contractors (UPICs), and the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (SMRC).

Extrapolation is the tsunami in Medicare/caid audits. The auditor collects a small sample of claims to review for compliance. She then determines the “error rate” of the sample. For example, if 50 claims are reviewed and 10 are found to be noncompliant, then the error rate is set at 20%. That error rate is applied to the universe, which is generally a three-year time period. It is assumed that the random sample is indicative of all your billings regardless of whether you changed your billing system during that time period of the universe or maybe hired a different biller.

With extrapolated results, auditors allege millions of dollars of overpayments against health care providers…sometimes more than the provider even made during that time period. It is an overwhelming wave that many times drowns the provider and the company.

Prior to this recent change to extrapolation procedure, the Program Integrity Manual (PIM) offered little guidance to the proper method for extrapolation.

Well, Change Request 10067 – overhauled extrapolation in a HUGE way.

The first modification to the extrapolation rules is that the PIM now dictates when extrapolation should be used.

Determining When a Statistical Sampling May Be Used. Under the new guidance, a contractor “shall use statistical sampling when it has been determined that a sustained or high level of payment error exists. The use of statistical sampling may be used after documented educational intervention has failed to correct the payment error.” This guidance now creates a three-tier structure:

  1. Extrapolation shall be used when a sustained or high level of payment error exists.
  2. Extrapolation may be used after documented educational intervention (such as in the Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) program).
  3. It follows that extrapolation should not be used if there is not a sustained or high level of payment error or evidence that documented educational intervention has failed.

“High level of payment error” is defined as 50% or greater. The PIM also states that the contractor may review the provider’s past noncompliance for the same or similar billing issues, or a historical pattern of noncompliant billing practice. This is HUGE because so many times providers simply pay the alleged overpayment amount if the amount is low or moderate in order to avoid costly litigation. Now those past times that you simply pay the alleged amounts will be held against you.

Another monumental modification to RAC audits is that the RAC auditor must receive authorization from CMS to go forward in recovering from the provider if the alleged overpayment exceeds $500,000 or is an amount that is greater than 25% of the provider’s Medicare revenue received within the previous 12 months.

The identification of the claims universe was also re-defined. Even CMS admitted in the change request that, on occasion, “the universe may include items that are not utilized in the construction of the sample frame. This can happen for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to: (1) Some claims/claim lines are discovered to have been subject to a prior review, (2) The definitions of the sample unit necessitate eliminating some claims/claim lines, or (3) Some claims/claim lines are attributed to sample units for which there was no payment.”

There are many more changes to discuss, but I have been asked to appear on RACMonitor to present the details on February 19, 2019. So sign up to listen!!!

Ring In the New Year with New Medicare Rules

Change your calendars! 2019 is here!

2019 is the 19th year of the 21st century, and the 10th and last year of the 2010s decade. Next we know it’ll be 2020.

Few fun facts:

  • January 7th is my birthday. And no, you may not ask my age.
  • In February 2019, Nigeria will elect a new president.
  • In June the Women’s World Cup will be held in France.
  • November 5, 2019, USA will have our next election. Three Governor races will occur.

What else do we have in store for 2019? There are a TON of changes getting implemented for Medicare in 2019.

Hospital Prices Go Public

For starters, hospital prices will go public. Prices hospitals charge for their services will all go online Jan. 1 under a new federal requirement. There is a question as to how up-to-date the information will be. For example, a hospital publishes its prices for a Cesarian Section on January 1, 2019. Will that price be good on December 1, 2019? According to the rule, hospitals will be required to update the information annually or “more often as appropriate.”

“More often as appropriate” is not defined and upon reading it, I envision litigation arising between hospitals and patients bickering over increased rates but were not updated on the public site “more often as appropriate.” This recently created requirement for hospitals to publish its rates “more often as appropriate” will also create unfamiliar penalties for hospitals to face. Because whenever there is a rule, there are those who break them. Just ask CMS.

Skilled Nursing Facility Value-Based Purchasing Program (SNF VBP) Is Implemented

Skilled nursing facilities (SNF) will be penalized or rewarded on an annual basis depending on the SNFs’ performance, which is judged on a “hospital readmissions measure” during a performance period. The rule aims to improve quality of care and lower the number of elderly patients repeatedly readmitted to hospitals. The Medicare law that was implemented in October 2018 will be enforced in 2019.

Basically, all SNFs will receive a “performance score” annually based on performance, which is calculated by comparing data from years prior. The scores range from 0 – 100. But what if you disagree with your score? Take my word for it, when the 2019 scores roll in, there will be many an unhappy SNFs. Fair scoring, correct auditing, and objective reviews are not in Medicare auditors’ bailiwick.

Expansion of Telehealth

Telehealth benefits are limited to services available under Medicare Part B that are clinically appropriate to be administered through telecommunications and e-technology. For 2019, a proposed rule creates three, new, “virtual,” CPT codes that do not have the same restrictions as the current, “traditional” telehealth definition. Now CMS provides reimbursement for non-office visits through telehealth services, but only if the patients present physically at an “originating site,” which only includes physician offices, hospitals, and other qualified health care centers. This prevents providers from consulting with their patients while they are at their home. The brand-new, 2019 CPT codes would allow telehealth to patients in homes.

Word of caution, my friends… Do not cross the streams.

  • CPT #1 – Telephone conference for established patients only; video not required
  • CPT #2 – Review of selfies of patient to determine whether office visit is needed; established patients only
  • CPT #3 – Consult with a specialist or colleague for advice without requiring a specialist visit; patient’s consent required.

These are not the only developments in Medicare in 2019. But these are some highlights. Here is wishing you and yours a very happy New Year, and thank you for reading my blog because if you are reading this then you read the whole blog.