Category Archives: Lawsuit
-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.
Today I’m going to answer a few inquiries about recovery audit contractor (“RAC”) audits from providers. A question that I get often is: “Do I have to submit the same medical records to my Medicare Administrative Contractor (“MAC”) that I submit to a RAC for an audit?” The answer is “No.” Providers are not required to submit medical records to the MAC if submitted to a RAC, but doing so is encouraged by most MACs. There is no requirement that you submit to the MAC what you submit to RACs. This makes sense because the MACs and the RACs have disparate job duties. One of the MACs, Palmetto, instructs providers to send records sent to a RAC directly to the Palmetto GBA Appeals Department. Why send the records for a RAC audit to a MAC appeals department? Are they forecasting your intentions? The instruction is nonsensical unless ulterior motives exist.
RAC audits are separate from mundane MAC issues. They are distinct. Quite frankly, your MAC shouldn’t even be aware of your audit. (Why is it their business?) Yet, many times I see the MACs cc-ed on correspondence. Often, I feel like it’s a conspiracy – and you’re not invited. You get audited, and everyone is notified. It’s as if you are guilty before any trial.
I also get this question for appeals – “Do I need to send the medical records again? I already sent them for the initial review. Why do I need to send the same documents for appeal?” I get it – making copies of medical records is time-consuming. It also costs money. Paper and ink don’t grow on trees. The answer is “Yes.” This may come as a shock, but sometimes documents are misplaced or lost. Auditors are humans, and mistakes occur. Just like, providers are humans, and 100% Medicare regulatory compliance is not required…people make mistakes; those mistakes shouldn’t cause financial ruin.
“Do the results of a RAC audit get sent to your MAC?” The answer is “Yes.” Penalties penalize you in the future. You have to disclose penalties, and the auditors can and will use the information against you. The more penalties you have paid in the past clear demonstrate that you suffer from abhorrent billing practices.
In fact, Medicare post-payment audits are estimated to have risen over 900 percent over the last five years. Medicare provider audits take money from providers and give to the auditors. If you are an auditor, you uncover bad results or you aren’t good at your job.
Politicians see audits as a financial win and a plus for their platform. Reducing fraud, waste, and abuse is a fantastic platform. Everyone gets on board, and votes increase.
Appealing your RAC audits is essential, but you have to understand that you won’t get a fair deal. The Medicare provider appeals process is an uphill battle for providers. And your MACs will be informed.
The first two levels, redeterminations and reconsiderations are, basically, rubber-stamps on the first determination.
The third level is the before an administrative law judge (ALJ), and is the first appeal level that is before an independent tribunal.
Moving to the False Claims Act, which is the ugly step-sister to regulatory non-compliance and overpayments. The government and qui tam relators filed 801 new cases in 2022. That number is down from the unprecedented heights reached in 2020 (when there were a record 922 new FCA cases), but is consistent with the pace otherwise set over the past decade, reflecting the upward trend in FCA activity by qui tam relators and the government since the 2009 amendments to the statute.
See the chart below for reference:
If you could light a torch to a Molotov Cocktail and a bunch of newspapers, you could not make a bigger explosion in my head than a recent Decision from a Medicare administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The extrapolation was upheld, despite an expert statistician citing its shortcomings, based on a CMS Ruling, which is neither law nor precedent. The Decision reminded me of the new Firestarter movie because everything is up in flames. Drew Barrymore would be proud.
I find it very lazy of the government to rely on sampling and extrapolations, especially in light that no witness testifies to its accuracy.
Because this ALJ relied so heavily on CMS Rulings, I wanted to do a little detective work as to whether CMS Rulings are binding or even law. First, I logged onto Westlaw to search for “CMS Ruling” in any case in any jurisdiction in America. Nothing. Not one case ever mentioned “CMS Ruling.” Ever. (Nor did my law school).
What Is a CMS Ruling?
A CMS Ruling is defined as, “decisions of the Administrator that serve as precedent final opinions and orders and statements of policy and interpretation. They provide clarification and interpretation of complex or ambiguous provisions of the law or regulations relating to Medicare, Medicaid, Utilization and Quality Control Peer Review, private health insurance, and related matters.”
But Are CMS Rulings Law?
No. CMS Rulings are not law. CMS Rulings are not binding on district court judges because district court judges are not part of HHS or CMS. However, the Medicare ALJs are considered part of HHS and CMS; thus the CMS Rulings are binding on Medicare ALJs.
This creates a dichotomy between the “real law” and agency rules. When you read CMS Ruling 86-1, it reads as if there two parties with oppositive views, both presented their arguments, and the Administrator makes a ruling. But the Administrator is not a Judge, but the Ruling reads like a court case. CMS Rulings are not binding on:
- The Supreme Court
- Appellate Courts
- The real world outside of CMS
- District Courts
- The Department of Transportation
- Civil Jurisprudence
- The Department of Education
- Etc. – You get the point.
So why are Medicare providers held subject to penalties based on CMS Rulings, when after the providers appeal their case to district court, that “rule” that was subjected against them (saying they owe $7 million) is rendered moot? Can we say – not fair, equitable, Constitutional, and flies in the face of due process?
The future does not look bright for providers going forward in defending overzealous, erroneous, and misplaced audits. These audits aren’t even backed up by witnesses – seriously, at the ALJ Medicare appeals, there is no statistician testifying to verify the results. Yet some of the ALJs are still upholding these audits.
In the “court case,” which resulted in CMS Ruling 86-1, the provider argued that:
- There is no legal authority in the Medicare statute or regulations for HCFA or its intermediaries to determine overpayments by projecting the findings of a sample of specific claims onto a universe of unspecified beneficiaries and claims.
- Section 1879 of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395pp, contemplates that medical necessity and custodial care coverage determinations will be made only by means of a case-by-case review.
- When sampling is used, providers are not able to bill individual beneficiaries not in the sample group for the services determined to be noncovered.
- Use of a sampling procedure violates the rights of providers to appeal adverse determinations.
- The use of sampling and extrapolation to determine overpayments deprives the provider of due process.
The CMS Ruling 86-1 was decided by Mr. Henry R. Desmarais, Acting Administrator, Health Care Financing Administration in 1986.
Think it should be upheld?
If you receive a letter from CMS or your State Department terminating your Medicare or Medicaid contract, would that affect you financially? I ask this rhetorical question because providers’ rights to a Medicare or Medicaid contract or to reimbursements for services rendered is a split in the Circuit Courts. Thankfully, I reside in the 4th Circuit, which has unambiguously held that providers and recipients have a property right in reimbursements for services rendered, a Medicare/caid contract and the right to the freedom of choice of provider. If you live in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, I am sorry. You have no rights.
Usually when there is split decision among the Circuit Courts, the Supreme Court weighs in. But, it has not. In fact, it declined to opine. Timing is everything. A 4th Circuit court of Decision giving providers property rights requested the Supreme Court to weigh in and finally end this rift amongst the Circuits. But, sadly, Justice Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020. The Supreme Court declined to review the Fourth Circuit decision on October 13, 2020. Justice Barrett was confirmed by the Senate on October 26, 2020 and was sworn in on October 27, 2020. So, the certiorari was denied – I assume – due to the vacant seat at the time.
In 40 States, managed care manages Medicaid. The contracts they write are Draconian, saying that either party may terminate at will for no cause but for convenience. Termination at will is all fine and good in the private sector. However, Medicare and Medicaid are highly regulated, and when tax dollars and access to care are at issue, property rights are created.
In NC State Court, against the judgment of the 4th Circuit, a November 5, 2021, unpublished case determined that providers have no property rights to a Medicaid contract and an MCO can terminate at whim. Family Innovations v. Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions, No. COA20-681 (June 1, 2021). Unpublished decisions are supposed to carry no weight. Unpublished decisions are not supposed to be controlling. Citation is disfavored.
Yet, in a strange turn of events, our State administrative courts have rendered, in the last week and in violation of 4th Circuit and administrative case law, that the termination-at-will clause in the MCO contract that a provider is forced to sign stands and is enforceable. These were new Judges and obviously were not well-versed in Medicaid law. Both came from employment law backgrounds, which is completely different than the health care world. But their rash and uneducated decisions bankrupt companies and shut down access to care for medically necessary behavioral health care services.
The upshot? If you have managed care companies in charge of your Medicaid or Medicare contracts, review your contracts now. Is there a termination-at-will clause? Because if there is, you too could lose your contract at any time. Depending on where you reside, you may or may not have property rights in the Medicare Medicaid contract. This is an issue that the Supreme Court must decide. Too many providers are getting erroneously and discriminatorily terminated for no reason and given no due process.
We must bring litigation to thwart the Courts that uphold termination-at-will clauses. Especially, in the era of COVID, we need our health care providers. We certainly do not need the MCOs, which kill access to care.
A ZPIC audited a client of mine a few years ago and found an alleged overpayment of over $7 million. Prior to them hiring my team, they obtained a preliminary injunction in federal court – like I always preach to do – remember, that between the levels 2 and 3 of a Medicare provider appeal, CMS can recoup the alleged overpayment. This is sheer balderdash; the government should not be able to recoup funds that the provider, most likely, doesn’t owe. But this is the law. I guess we need to petition Congress to change this tomfoolery.
Going back to the case, an injunction stops the premature recoupments, but it does nothing regarding the actual alleged overpayments. In fact, the very reason that you can go to federal court based on an administrative action is because the injunction is ancillary to the merits of the contested case. Otherwise, you would have to exhaust your administrative remedies.
Here, we asserted, the premature recoupments (1) violated its rights to procedural due process, (2) infringed its substantive due-process rights, (3) established an “ultra vires” cause of action, and (4) entitled it to a “preservation of rights” injunction under the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. §§ 704–05. We won the battle, but not the war. To date, we have no date for an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) – or level 3 – hearing on the merits.
For those of you who have participated in a third-level, Medicare provider appeal will know that, many times, no one shows for the other side. The other side being the entity claiming that you owe $7million. For such an outlandish claim of $7 million, would you not think that the side protesting that you owe $7 million would appear and try to prove it? At my most recent ALJ hearing, no one appeared for the government. Literally, my client – a facility in NJ that serves the MS population – me and the ALJ were the only participants. Are the auditors so falsely confident that they believe their audits speaks for itself?
In this particular case, the questionable issue was whether the MS provider’s consumers met the qualifications for the skilled rehabilitation due to no exacerbated physical issues. However, we all know from the Jimmo settlement, that having exacerbated issues or improvement is not a requirement to requiring skilled rehab versus exercising with your spouse. The ALJ actually said – “I cannot believe this issue has gotten this far.” I agree.
“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 pose a very important question for you. Do your participation contracts that you sign with Medicare/caid, MCOs, MACs – do they even matter? Are these boilerplate contracts worth the ink and the paper? The answer is yes and no. To the extent that the contracts are written aligned with the federal and State regulations, the contracts are enforceable. To the extent that the contracts violate the federal regulations, those clauses are unenforceable. The contract can even, at times, be more stringent or contain more limitations than the federal regulations. One thing is for sure, these contracts can be your worst enemy or your savior, depending on the clauses.
An Idaho client-provider of mine has been the victim of Optum-“black-hole-ism.” In this case, the “black-hole-ism” will save my client from paying $500k it does not owe. My client is the leading substance abuse (SA) provider in Idaho. Optum is managing Medicaid dollars, which makes it the Agent of the “single State agency,” the Department of Health of Idaho. 42 C.F.R. 431.10. See blog.
The Optum provider contract states that – “It is agreed that the parties knowingly and voluntarily waive any right to a Dispute if arbitration is not initiated within one year after the Dispute Date.” What a great clause. If only all contracts had this limiting clause.
In our dispute, Optum avers we owe $500k. The first demand we received was dated December 2018 for DOS 2016-2017. Notice Optum was timely back in 2018. That was when the client hired my team, and we submitted a rebuttal and initiated the informal appeal to Optum. Here’s where Optum gets sloppy. Months pass. A year passes. I hear crickets in the background. A year and a half passes. Who knows why Optum took a year and a half to respond? COVID happened. Black-hole-ism? Bureaucracy and red tape? Apathy? Ineptness?
Finally, we get a response in September 2020. We respond in October 2020. Our new response included a novel argument that was not included in the 2018 rebuttal. Our argument went something like: “Na Na Na Boo Boo, you’re too late per 7.1 Optum contract.” If we could have included a raspberry, we would done so.
Remember the clause? “It is agreed that the parties knowingly and voluntarily waive any right to a Dispute if arbitration is not initiated within one year after the Dispute Date.”
Well, 2020 is 3-4 years after the initial DOS at issue: 2016-2017. This time, the boilerplate contract is our friend.
Since there is also an arbitration clause, which is not your friend, we will be wholly dependent on an arbitrator to interpret the one-year, limiting clause as a logical, reasonable person. But I will be shocked if even an arbitrator doesn’t throw out this case with prejudice.
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.