Category Archives: Administrative Remedies
Since the inception of the Medicaid MCOs in North Carolina, we have discussed that the MCO terminations of providers’ Medicaid contracts have consistently and disproportionately been African American-owned, behavioral health care providers. Normally the MCOs terminate for “purported various reasons,” which was usually in error. However, these provider companies had one thing in common; they were all African American-owned. On this blog, I have generally reported that MCO terminations were just based on inaccurate allegations against the providers. The truth may be more bias. – Knicole Emanuel
- Written by Ryan Hargrave, associate at Practus.
George Floyd; Breyonna Taylor; Eric Garner; Tamir Rice; Jordan Davis, these are all names that we know, all-too-well, for such horrendous reasons. Not for the brilliance, that these young African-American men and women possessed; nor for the accolades they had accumulated throughout their short-lived experiences on this earth. We recognize these names through a disastrous realization that brought communities and our nation together for a singular purpose; to fight racism.
A global non-profit organization, United Way, recognizes four types of racism.
- Internalized Racism—a set of privately held beliefs, prejudices, and ideas about the superiority of whites and the inferiority of people of color.
- Interpersonal Racism—the expression of racism between individuals. Occurring when individuals interact and their private beliefs affecting their interactions.
- Institutional Racism—the discriminatory treatment, unfair policies and practices, and inequitable opportunities and impacts within organizations and institutions, all based on race, that routinely produce racially inequitable outcomes for people of color and advantages for white people.
- Structural Racism—a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations and other norms work in various, often reinforcing, ways to perpetuate racial group inequality.
These various types of racism can be witnessed in every state, city, county, suburb, and community, although it isn’t always facially obvious. Racism can even be witnessed in the health care community. Recently in 2020, NC Governor Roy Cooper signed executive order 143 to address the social, environmental, economic, and health disparities in communities of color that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 Pandemic. Machelle Sanders, NC Department of Administration Secretary, was quoted stating that “Health inequities are the result of more than one individual choice or random occurrence—they are the result of the historic and ongoing interplay of inequitable structures, policies, and norms that shape lives.” Governor Cooper went on to include that there is a scarcity of African-American healthcare providers, namely behavioral healthcare providers, available to the public.
Noting this statement from the Governor of our great state, its troublesome to know that entities that provide federal funding to these healthcare providers have been doing their absolute best to rid the remaining African-American behavioral healthcare providers. For years, Managed Care Organizations (“MCOs”) have contracted with these providers to fund the expenses pursuant Medicaid billing. MCOs have repeatedly attempted to terminate these contracts with African-American providers without cause, unsuccessfully; until recently. In the past few years, Federal Administrative Law Judges (“ALJ’s”) have been upholding “termination without cause” contracts between MCOs and providers. This is nothing less of an escape route for MCOs, allowing them to keep the federal funds, that they receive each year based upon the number of contracts they have with providers, as profit. This is an obvious incentive to terminate contracts after receiving these funds. Some may refer to this as a business loophole, while most Americans would label this an unconstitutional form of structural racism. It has been estimated that 99% of behavioral healthcare providers in NC that have been terminated have ONE thing in common. You guessed it. They are African-American owned. Once terminated, most healthcare providers cannot operate without these Federal Medicaid Funds and, ultimately, are forced to close their respective practices.
Why is this not talked about? The answer is simple. Most Americans who are on Medicaid don’t even understand the processes and intricate considerations that go into Medicaid, let alone the general public. And what’s the craziest thing? The craziest thing is the fact that these Americans on Medicaid don’t know that the acts of racism instituted against their providers, trickle down and limit their ability to obtain healthcare services. Think about it. If I live in a rural town and have a healthcare provider that I know and love is terminated and forced to close, I lose access to said healthcare provider and must potentially go to an out-of-town provider. The unfortunate fact is that most healthcare providers who operate with a “specific” specialty, such as autistic therapy, can have waitlists up to 12 months! The ramifications of these financially-greedy, racist acts of the MCOs ultimately affect the general population.
-written by Todd Yoho, my paralegal, who has worked closely with me for over a decade. He knows more about Medicare and Medicaid than he probably cares to, but no one could contest that he doesn’t know his stuff!
There is a film almost everyone in the legal field has seen at least once. A comedic drama from 1973 titled, The Paper Chase. It follows the journey of a first year law student at Harvard Law School, and his particular frustrations with his Contracts course and professor. Contracts are one of the first things a law student studies, and some attorneys spend their career reviewing, drafting, revising, and negotiating contracts. They are that important.
In the health care, provider world, contracts are the lifeblood of your company. Contracts are how you secure work, ensure rates for revenue, and contain vital information should someone act contrary to the contract. If you have a dispute with an entity, your first act should be to consult an attorney and provide them with a copy of your contract. There should be a section about dispute resolution, which you should carefully scrutinize before signing any contract. It may be mandatory arbitration, it may stipulate a particular venue, or it may cite specific rules and statutes that, if you are not an attorney, may read like obtuse, dense, “word salad” put together by people who do not have to live and operate under the very laws they enact.
But, what if you don’t have a copy of your contract? You signed it years ago, your business has moved several times, or it just disappeared in the hectic daily life of daily operations. Your recourse is that you have to ask the very entity you have a dispute with to provide you with a copy. We’ve seen providers in situations like this, and sometimes the other entity complies immediately. Other times they say it will take 30 days, or 60 days, and you are already on your heels. Without a copy of that contract, you and your attorney may not know what your first step towards resolution will be. Worse if you are on a time limit you don’t know exists.
So, what do you do to avoid this kind of situation? You need to have a document retention policy. Know how long you are required to keep documents, Create an important document archive in a secure location that you update every time you execute a business related document. And make a copy to be kept in a separate, secure location. Then make another copy. It used to be this could be a notebook, a folder, or a file box in your CEO’s office, manager’s office, or with another person trusted with corporate responsibility. A copy could be kept at the CEO’s home in a locked file cabinet. And it still could be. There’s nothing wrong with keeping a hard copy archive, but this is the digital era.
Because we are in the digital era, you should absolutely keep your archive backed up to the cloud. Cloud data services can be cheap, and will pay enormous dividends if you suffer a catastrophic document loss. But, you have to preserve them first. Don’t let them get misplaced. Much like your important family documents, your important business documents are vital pieces of information. You may not need them every day, but the day you do need them, you want to have them quickly and easily available. They are that important. You don’t want to find yourself at an inopportune moment chasing paper.
Some helpful links include the following:
Knicole here. Sorry for the duplicative links. I don’t know how to delete them.
It’s hard enough to be one of the providers to accept Medicare and Medicaid. The regulatory oversight is burdensome. You are always getting metaphorically yelled at for upcoding or bundling. See blog, thanking providers.
One of the absolute, most-Draconian penalty against a Medicare or Medicaid provider is prepayment review.
Prepayment review is exactly as it sounds. Before you receive payment – for services rendered – an auditor reviews your claims to determine whether you should be reimbursed. Prepayment review is the epitome of being guilty until proven innocent. It flies in the face of American due process. However, no one has legally fought its Constitutionality. Yet many provider-companies have been put out of business by it.
Generally, to get off prepayment review, you have to achieve a 75% or 80% success rate for three consecutive months. It doesn’t sound hard until your auditors – or graders – fail to do their job correctly and fail you erroneously.
Usually, when a provider is placed on prepayment review, I say, “Well, you cannot appeal being placed on prepayment review, but we can get a preliminary injunction to Stay the withhold of reimbursements during the process.” It tends to work.
Most State statutes have language like this:
“(f) The decision to place or maintain a provider on prepayment claims review does not constitute a contested case under Chapter 150B of the General Statutes. A provider may not appeal or otherwise contest a decision of the Department to place a provider on prepayment review.”
However, in a recent case, Halikierra Community Services, LLC v. NCDHHS, the provider disputed being placed on prepayment review and accused NCDHHS of a malicious campaign against it.
Halikierra was the largest, in-home, Medicaid health care provider and it alleged that 2 specific, individuals at DHHS “personally detested” Halikierra because of its size. As an aside, I hear this all the time. I hear that the auditors or government have personal vendettas against certain providers. Good for Halikierra for calling them out!
According to the opinion, these 2 DHHS employees schemed to get Halikierra on prepayment review by accusing it of employing felons, which is not illegal. (Just ask Dave’s Killer Bread). Halikierra sued based on substantive due process and equal protection rights, but not before being forced to terminate its 600 employees and closing its doors because of being placed on prepayment review. It also asserted a claim of conspiracy in restraint of trade under NCG.S. §75-1 against the individual DHHS employees.
The Court held that “[t]he mere fact that an agency action is nonreviewable under the Administrative Procedure Act does not shield it from judicial review.” The upshot? Even if a statute states that you cannot appeal being placed on prepayment review, you can sue for that very determination.
FYI – This case was filed in the Industrial Commission, which has jurisdiction for negligence conducted by the state agencies. Exhaustion of administrative remedies was not necessary because, per the state statute, being placed on prepayment review does not constitute a contested case in administrative court.
Timing is everything. Missing a deadline germane to any type of Medicare or Medicaid audit is deadly. Miss an appeal deadline by one, single day, and you lose your right to appeal an overpayment.
If anyone has watched Schitt’s Creek, then you know that when Johnny and Moira Rose missed their deadline to file for and pay taxes, they lost their mansion, their money, and way of life. The same catastrophic loss can occur if a provider misses an appeal deadline. Then that provider will be up Schitt’s Creek.
Importantly, when it comes to Medicare appeals, your appeal is due 60 days after the reconsideration review decision. 42 CFR § 405.1014 – Request for an ALJ hearing or a review of a QIC dismissal. A third-level, Medicare provider appeal is considered “filed” upon receipt of the complete appeal at the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals, instead of the normal standard acceptance that an appeal is filed upon the mailing stamped date. As in, once you mail your appeal, it will be retroactively filed per the date of mailing. Not true for the third-level, Medicare provider appeal. It is considered filed the date of receipt.
Also, the regulatory clock starts ticking 5 days after the date the of the reconsideration review decision, because, the thought is that the U.S. Post Office will not take more than 5 days to deliver correspondence. Well, that assumption nowadays is inaccurate. The Post Office is a mess, and that’s an understatement. My friend, Dr. Ronald Hirsh told me that his overnighted packages have been received weeks later. More times than not, mail is received weeks after it was mailed, which makes the date of delivery imperative. Yet this regulation forces you to rely on the U.S. Post Office; it makes no logical sense.
We actually had a case in which the ALJ dismissed our appeal because the Post Office delivered the appeal on the 61st day after the reconsideration review decision, including the 5 days window. Literally, the 61st day. The reason that the appeal was received on the 61st day is because the 60th day fell on a holiday, a weekend, or a closure due to COVID – I cannot recall – but OMHA was closed. The mail delivery person had to return the next day to deliver the appeal. Yet, our appeal was dismissed based on the US Post Office! We filed a Motion to Reconsider, but the ALJ denied it. Our only chance at presenting to the ALJ was squashed – due to the Post Office.
We appealed the ALJ’s denial to the Medicare Appeals Council with hope of reasonableness. We have no decision yet. It certainly makes me want to say: Eww, David!
“Get thee to a nunnery!” screamed Hamlet to Ophelia in frustration of his mother marrying Claudius so quickly after his father’s death. Similarly any provider who has undergone a Medicare appeal understands the frustration of getting the appeal to the administrative law judge level (the 3rd level). It takes years to do so, and it is the imperative step instead of the lower level rubber stamps. “Get thee to an ALJ!”
Per regulation, once you appeal an alleged Medicare overpayment, no recoupment of the disputed funds occurs until after you receive the second level review, which is usually the QIC upholding the overpayment. It is no secret that the Medicare provider appeals’ level one and two are basically an automatic approval process of the decision to recoup. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Hence, the importance of the ALJ level.
There are 5 levels of Medicare appeals available to providers:
- Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)
- Departmental Appeals Board (DAB) Review
- Federal Court (Judicial) Review
The third level is the level in which you present your case to an ALJ, who is an impartial independent tribunal. Unfortunately, right now, it takes about five years between levels two and three, although with CMS hiring 70 new ALJs, the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) is optimistic that the backlog will quickly dissipate. Last week, I attended an ALJ hearing for a client based on an audit conducted in 2016. Five years later, we finally presented to the ALJ. When the ALJ was presented with our evidence which clearly demonstrated that the provider should not pay anything, he actually said, “I’m shocked this issue got this far.” As in, this should have been reversed before this level. “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!”
In many cases, a premature recoupment of funds in dispute will financially destroy the health care provider, which should not be the purpose of any overpayment nor the consequence of any fraud, waste, and abuse program. We are talking about documentation nit-picking. Not fraud. Such as services notes signed late, according to best practices. Or quibbles about medical necessity or the definition of in patient and the two-midnight rule.
You have all probably read my blogs about the Family Rehab case that came out in TX in 2019. A Court found that Family Rehab, a health care facility, which faced a $7 million alleged overpayment required an injunction. The Judge Ordered that CMS be enjoined from prematurely recouping Medicare reimbursements from Family Rehab. Now, be mindful, the Judge did not enjoin CMS the first time Family Rehab requested an injunction; Superior Court initially dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction based on failure to exhaust its administrative remedies. But instead of giving up, which is what most providers would do when faced with a dismissed injunction request due to emotional turmoil and finances. “To be, or not to be: that is the question:” Instead, Family Rehab appealed the dismissal to the Court of Appeals and won. The 5th Circuit held that Superior Court does have jurisdiction to hear a collateral challenge on both procedural due process grounds as well as an ultra vires action. On remand, Family Rehab successfully obtained a permanent injunction.
The clinical issues supposedly in support of the overpayment are silly. In Family Rehab’s case, the ZPIC claims homebound criteria was not met when it is clearly met by a reasonable review of the documents.
Homebound is defined as:
The patient must either:
- Because of illness or injury, need the aid of supportive devices such as crutches, canes, wheelchairs, and walkers; the use of special transportation; or the assistance of another person in order to leave their place of residence
- Have a condition such that leaving his or her home is medically contraindicated.
If the patient meets one of the Criteria One conditions, then the patient must ALSO meet two additional requirements in Criteria Two below:
- There must exist a normal inability to leave home;
- Leaving home must require a considerable and taxing effort.
In one of the claims that the ZPIC found no homebound status, the consumer was legally blind and in a wheelchair! The injunction hinged on the Court’s finding that because the ALJ stage is critical in decreasing the risk of erroneous deprivation, an injunction was necessary. I look forward to the ALJ hearing. “The rest is silence.”
Today I want to talk about two ways to increase revenue merely by ensuring that your patients’ rights are met. We talk about providers being audited for their claims being regulatory compliant, but how about self-audits to increase your revenue? I like these kind of audits! I am calling these audits “Reverse RAC audits”. Let’s bring money in instead of reimbursements recouped.
You can protect yourself as a provider and increase revenue by remembering and litigating on behalf of your consumers’ rights. Plus, your patients will be eternally grateful for your advocacy. It is a win/win. The following are two, distinct ways to increase revenue and protect your consumers’ rights:
- Ensuring freedom of choice of provider; and
- Appealing denials on behalf of your consumers.
Freedom of choice of provider.
In a federal case in Indiana, we won an injunction based on the patients’ rights to access to care.
42 CFR § 431.51 – Free choice of providers states that “(b) State plan requirements. A State plan must provide as follows…:
(1) A beneficiary may obtain Medicaid services from any institution, agency, pharmacy, person, or organization that is –
(i) Qualified to furnish the services; and
(ii) Willing to furnish them to that particular beneficiary.
In Bader v. Wernert, MD, we successfully obtained an injunction enjoining the State of Indiana from terminating a health care facility. We sued on behalf of a geneticist – Dr. Bader – whose facility’s contract was terminated from the Medicaid program for cause. We sued Dr. Wernert in his official capacity as Secretary of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration. Through litigation, we saved the facility’s Medicaid contract from being terminated based on the rights of the consumers. The consumers’ rights can come to the aid of the provider.
Keep in mind that some States’ Waivers for Medicaid include exceptions and limitations to the qualified and willing provider standard. There are also limits to waiving the freedom of choice of provider, as well.
Appealing consumers’ denials.
This is kind of a reverse RAC Audit. This is an easy way to increase revenue.
Under 42 CFR § 405.910 – Appointed representatives, a provider of services may appeal on behalf of the consumers. If you appeal on behalf of your consumers, the obvious benefit is that you could get reimbursed for the services rendered that were denied. You cannot charge a fee for the service; however, so please keep this in mind.
One of my clients currently has hired my team appealing all denials that are still viable under the statute of limitations. There are literally hundreds of denials.
Over the past few years, they had hundreds of consumers’ coverage get denied for one reason or the other. Allegedly not medically necessary or provider’s trainings weren’t conveyed to the auditors. In other words, most of the denials are egregiously wrong. Others are closer to call. Regardless these funds were all a huge lump of accounts’ receivables that was weighing down the accounting books.
Now, with the help of my team, little by little, claim by claim, we are chipping away at that accounts’ receivables. The receivables are decreasing just by appealing the consumers’ denials.
In RAC news, on June 1, 2021, Cotiviti acquired HMS RAC region 4. Don’t be surprised if you see Cotiviti’s logo on RAC audits where you would have seen HMS. This change will have no impact in the day-to-day contract administration and audit timelines under CMS’ guidance. You will continue to follow the guidance in the alleged, improper payment notification letter for submission of medical documentation and discussion period request. In March 2021, CMS awarded Performant an 8.5 year contract to serve as the Region 1 RAC.
There really cannot be any deviations regardless the name of the RAC Auditor because this area is so regulated. Providers always have appeal rights regardless Medicare/caid RAC audits. Or any other type of audit. Medicaid RAC provider appeals are found in 42 CFR 455.512. Whereas Medicare provider redeterminations and the 5 levels of appeal are found in 42 CFR Subpart I. The reason that RAC audits are spoken about so often is that the Code of Federal Regulations applies different rules for RAC audits versus MAC, TPE, UPIC, or other audits. The biggest difference is that RAC auditors are limited to a 3 year look back period according to 42 CFR 455.508. Other auditors do not have that same limitation and can look back for longer periods of time. Of course, whenever “credible allegations of fraud” is involved, the lookback period can be for 10 years.
The federal regulations also allow States to request exceptions from the Medicaid RAC program. CMS mandates every State to participate in the RAC program. But there is a federal reg §455.516 that allows exceptions. To my knowledge, no State has requested exceptions out of the RAC Audit program.
RAC auditors have announced a renewed focus on the two-midnight rule for hospitals. Again. This may seem like a rerun and it is. You recall around 2012, RACs began noticing high rates of error with respect to patient status in certain short-stay Medicare claims submitted for inpatient hospital services. CMS and the RACs indicated the inpatient care setting was medically unnecessary, and the claims should have been billed as outpatient instead. Remember, for stays under 2 midnights, inpatient status may be used in rare and unusual exceptions and may be payable under Medicare Part A on a case-by-case basis.
Auditors are not lawyers. Some auditors do not even possess the clinical background of the services they are auditing. In this blog, I am concentrating on the lack of legal licenses. Because the standards to which auditors need to hold providers to are not only found in the Medicare Provider Manuals, regulations, NCDs and LCDs. Oh, no… To add even more spice to the spice cabinet, common law court cases also create and amend Medicare and Medicaid policies.
For example, the Jimmo v. Selebius settlement agreement dictates the standards for skilled nursing and skilled therapy in skilled nursing facilities, home health, and outpatient therapy settings and importantly holds that coverage does not turn on the presence or absence of a beneficiary’s potential for improvement.
The Jimmo settlement dictates that:
“Specifically, in accordance with the settlement agreement, the manual revisions clarify that coverage of skilled nursing and skilled therapy services in the skilled nursing facility (SNF), home health (HH), and outpatient therapy (OPT) settings “…does not turn on the presence or absence of a beneficiary’s potential for improvement, but rather on the beneficiary’s need for skilled care.” Skilled care may be necessary to improve a patient’s current condition, to maintain the patient’s current condition, or to prevent or slow further deterioration of the patient’s condition.”
This Jimmo standard – not requiring a potential for improvement – is essential for diseases that are lifelong and debilitating, like Multiple Sclerosis (“MS”). For beneficiaries suffering from MS, skilled therapy is essential to prevent regression.
I have reviewed numerous audits by UPICs, in particular, which have failed to follow the Jimmo settlement standard and denied 100% of my provider-client’s claims. 100%. All for failure to demonstrate potential for improvement for MS patients. It’s ludicrous until you stop and remember that auditors are not lawyers. This Jimmo standard is found in a settlement agreement from January 2013. While we will win on appeal, it costs providers money valuable money when auditors apply the wrong standards.
The amounts in controversy are generally high due to extrapolations, which is when the UPIC samples a low number of claims, determines an error rate and extrapolates that error rate across the universe. When the error rate is falsely 100%, the extrapolation tends to be high.
While an expectation of improvement could be a reasonable criterion to consider when evaluating, for example, a claim in which the goal of treatment is restoring a prior capability, Medicare policy has long recognized that there may also be specific instances where no improvement is expected but skilled care is, nevertheless, required in order to prevent or slow deterioration and maintain a beneficiary at the maximum practicable level of function. For example, in the regulations at 42 CFR 409.32(c), the level of care criteria for SNF coverage specify that the “. . . restoration potential of a patient is not the deciding factor in determining whether skilled services are needed. Even if full recovery or medical improvement is not possible, a patient may need skilled services to prevent further deterioration or preserve current capabilities.” The auditors should understand this and be trained on the proper standards. The Medicare statute and regulations have never supported the imposition of an “Improvement Standard” rule-of-thumb in determining whether skilled care is required to prevent or slow deterioration in a patient’s condition.
When you are audited by an auditor whether it be a RAC, MAC or UPIC, make sure the auditors are applying the correct standards. Remember, the auditors aren’t attorneys or doctors.
Hello! And beware the Ides of March, which is today! I am going to write today about the state of audits today. When I say Medicare and Medicaid audits, I mean, RACs, MACs, ZPICs, UPICs, CERTs, TPEs, and OIG investigations from credible allegations of fraud. Without question, the new Biden administration will be concentrating even more on fraud, waste, and abuse germane to Medicare and Medicaid. This means that auditing companies, like Public Consulting Group (“PCG”) and National Government Services (“NGS”) will be busy trying to line their pockets with Medicare dollars. As for the Ides, it is especially troubling in March, especially if you are Julius Caesar. “Et tu, Brute?”
One of the government’s most powerful tool is the federal government’s zealous use of 42 CFR 455.23, which states that “The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending under the Medicaid program against an individual or entity unless the agency has good cause to not suspend payments or to suspend payment only in part.” (emphasis added). That word – “must” – was revised from “may” in 2011, part of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”).
A “credible allegation” is defined as an indicia of reliability, which is a low bar. Very low.
Remember back in 2013 when Ed Roche and I were reporting on the New Mexico behavioral health care cluster? To remind you, the State of NM accused 15 BH health care providers, which constituted 87.5% of the BH providers in NM, of credible allegations of fraud after the assistant AG, at the time, Larry Heyeck, had just published a legal article re “Credible Allegations of Fraud.” See blog and blog. Unsurprisingly, the suicide rate and substance abuse skyrocketed. There was even a documentary “The Shake-Up” about the catastrophic events in NM set off by the findings of PCG.
I was the lawyer for the three, largest entities and litigated four administrative appeals. If you recall, for Teambuilders, PCG claimed it owed over $12 million. After litigation, an ALJ decided that Teambuilders owed $836.35. Hilariously, we appealed. While at the time, PCG’s accusations put the company out of business, it has re-opened its doors finally – 8 years later. This is how devastating a regulatory audit can be. But congratulations, Teambuilders, for re-opening.
Federal law mandates that during the appeal of a Medicare audit at the first two levels: the redetermination and reconsideration, that no recoupment occur. However, after the 2nd level and you appeal to the ALJ level, the third level, the government can and will recoup unless you present before a judge and obtain an injunction.
Always expect bumps along the road. I have two chiropractor clients in Indiana. They both received notices of alleged overpayments. They are running a parallel appeal. Whatever we do for one we have to do for the other. You would think that their attorneys’ fees would be similar. But for one company, NGS has preemptively tried to recoup THREE times. We have had to contact NGS’ attorney multiple times to stop the withholds. It’s a computer glitch supposedly. Or it’s the Ides of March!
Who knows that – regardless your innocence –the government can and will recoup your funds preemptively at the third level of Medicare appeals. This flies in the face of the elements of due process. However, courts have ruled that the redetermination and the reconsideration levels afford the providers enough due process, which entails notice and an opportunity to be heard. I am here to tell you – that is horse manure. The first two levels of a Medicare appeal are hoops to jump through in order to get to an independent tribunal – the administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The odds of winning at the 1st or 2nd level Medicare appeal is next to zilch, although often you can get the alleged amount reduced. The first level is before the same entity that found you owe the money. Auditors are normally not keen on overturning themselves. The second level is little better. The first time that you present to an independent tribunal is at the third level.
Between 2009 and 2014, the number of ALJ appeals increased more than 1,200 percent. And the government recoups all alleged overpayments before you ever get before an ALJ.
In a recent case, Sahara Health Care, Inc. v. Azar, 975 F.3d 523 (5th Cir. 2020), a home health care provider brought an action against Secretary of Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) and Administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”), asserting that its statutory and due process rights were violated and that defendants acted ultra vires by recouping approximately $2.4 million in Medicare overpayments without providing a timely ALJ hearing. HHS moved to dismiss, and the provider moved to amend, for a temporary restraining order (“TRO”) and preliminary injunction, and for an expedited hearing.
The case was thrown out, concluding that adequate process had been provided and that defendants had not exceeded statutory authority, and denied provider’s motion for injunctive relief and to amend. The provider appealed and lost again.
What’s the law?
Congress prohibited HHS from recouping payments during the first two stages of administrative review. 42 U.S.C. § 1395ff(f)(2)(A).
If repayment of an overpayment would constitute an “extreme hardship, as determined by the Secretary,” the agency “shall enter into a plan with the provider” for repayment “over a period of at least 60 months but … not longer than 5 years.” 42 U.S.C. § 1395ddd(f)(1)(A). That hardship safety valve has some exceptions that work against insolvent providers. If “the Secretary has reason to believe that the provider of services or supplier may file for bankruptcy or otherwise cease to do business or discontinue participation” in the Medicare program, then the extended repayment plan is off the table. 42 U.S.C. § 1395ddd(f)(1)(C)(i). A provider that ultimately succeeds in overturning an overpayment determination receives the wrongfully recouped payments with interest. 42 U.S.C. § 1395ddd(f)(2)(B). The government’s interest rate is high. If you do have to pay back the alleged overpayment prematurely, the silver lining is that you may receive extra money for your troubles.
The years-long back log, however, may dwindle. The agency has received a funding increase, and currently expects to clear the backlog by 2022. In fact, the Secretary is under a Mandamus Order requiring such a timetable.
A caveat regarding this grim news. This was in the Fifth Circuit. Other Courts disagree. The Fourth Circuit has held that providers do have property interests in Medicare reimbursements owed for services rendered, which is the correct holding. Of course, you have a property interest in your own money. An allegation of wrongdoing does not erase that property interest. The Fourth Circuit agrees with me.