Category Archives: Lawsuit

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

Your Medicare Reimbursements Are Your Property Rights

As a Medicare/caid health care provider, you have a property right to your reimbursements for services rendered that were medically necessary.

Why does it matter if your Medicare/caid reimbursements constitute property rights? If you have a property right to something it cannot be taken from you without due process of law. Due process equals a fair hearing and notice. If you have a property right in something then it cannot be usurped from you. For example, since I own my house, you cannot come to my house and claim ownership, even as a squatter. I am afforded due process for my right to my property. Similarly, when you provide Medicare services that are medically necessary and properly completed, your reimbursements for such services cannot be withheld without due process. This means that many rules and regulations across the nation may be unconstitutional.

One of the questionable laws comes into light under many managed care catchment area’s (MCOs) closed network system, which comprises the majority of managed care in America, as well as Medicare Administrative Companies (MACs). MCOs and MACs act as if it are the judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to payments. But, according to the constitution and property rights, Medicare/caid reimbursements are not based on a subjective review by a government contractor.

The ultimate victims in unfair, premature, or erroneous terminations from Medicare or Medicaid programs are the recipients. Often there are too few providers who accept Medicare and Medicaid in certain areas. The other victims in a wrongful termination is the provider and its staff. While the adverse consequences of an unjust termination has minimal to no unfavorable results to the government.

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. See also Bowens v. N.C. Dept. of Human Res.

In determining whether a property interest exists a Court must first determine that there is an entitlement to that property. Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill. 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. Bowens.

Specifically, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has determined that North Carolina Medicaid providers have a property interest in continued provider status. Bowens, 710 F.2d 1018. In Bowens, the Fourth Circuit recognized that 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 his/her termination such that the contract was not terminable “at will” but 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 Court of Appeals’ jurisdiction.

Since Ram, North Carolina Medicaid provider’s right 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 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.

In another particular case, a MAC terminated a provider’s ability to deliver four CPT codes, which comprised of over 80% of the provider’s bailiwick and severely decreased the provider’s financial income, not to mention Medicare recipients lost their 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 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, which equals the Center for Medicare and 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 entitled “Provider Selection” requires the State to ensure, through a contract, that each MCO/PIHP “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.

To the extent that a MAC or MCO’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 and 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 it to make the determination for any reason in its sole discretion. Such a provision is tantamount to having no policies and procedures at all.

What “Medicare for All” Looks Like for All Health Care Providers, Even If You Refuse Medicare Now

“Medicare for All” is the talk of the town. People are either strong proponents or avid naysayers. Most of the articles that I have seen that have discussed Medicare for All writes about it as if it is a medical diagnosis and “cure-all” for the health care disease debilitating our country. Others articles discuss the amount Medicare for All will cost the taxpayers.

I want to look at Medicare for All from a different perspective. I want to discuss Medicare for All from the health care providers’ perspectives – those who already accept Medicare and those who, currently, do not accept Medicare, but may be forced to accept Medicare under the proposed Medicare for All and the legality or illegality of it.

I want to explore the implementation of Medicare for All by using my personal dentist as an example. When I went to my dentist, Dr. L,  today, who doesn’t accept Medicare or Medicaid, he was surprised to hear from the patient (me) in whom he was inserting a crown (after placing a long needle in my mouth to numb my mouth, causing great distress and pain) that he may be forced to accept Medicare in the near future. “I made the decision a long time ago to not accept Medicare or Medicaid,” he said. “Plus, Medicare doesn’t even cover dental services, does it?”

While Medicare doesn’t cover most dental care, dental procedures, or supplies, like cleanings, fillings, tooth extractions, dentures, dental plates, or other dental devices, Medicare Part A (Hospital Insurance) will pay for certain dental services that you get when you’re in a hospital. Part A can pay for inpatient hospital care if you need to have emergency or complicated dental procedures, even though the dental care isn’t covered. However, some Medicare Advantage Plans (Part C) offer extra benefits that original Medicare doesn’t cover – like vision, hearing, or dental. Theoretically, Medicare for All will cover dental services since Part C covers dental, although, there is a question as to how exactly Medicare for All will/would work. Who knows whether dental services would be included in Medicare for All – this is just an example. Insert any type of medical service in lieu of dental, if you wish.

Dr. L had made the decision not accept Medicaid or Medicare. He only accepts private pay or cash pay. If Medicare for All is implemented, Dr. L’s decision to not accept Medicare will no longer be his decision; it would be the government’s decision. The rates that Dr. L charges now and receives for reimbursements now could be slashed in half without Dr. L’s consent or business plan.

In a 2019 RAND study, researchers examined payment and claims data from 2015 to 2017 representing $13 billion in healthcare spending across 25 states at about 1,600 hospitals. The study showed that private insurers pay 235% of Medicare in 2015 to 241% of Medicare in 2017. The statistics differ state to state. In some states private pay reimbursed as low as 150% of Medicare, while in others private pay reimbursed up to 400% of Medicare.

To show how many providers are adverse to accepting Medicare: In 2000, nearly 80% of health care providers were taking new Medicare patients. By 2012, that number dropped to less than 60%. Currently, less than 40% of the health-care system are government run and nearly 33% of doctors won’t see new Medicaid patients. Medicare patients frequently have difficulty finding a new primary-care doctor.

My question is –

Is it legal for the government to force health care providers to accept Medicare rates by issuing a Medicare for All system?

An analogy would be that the government forced all attorneys to charge under $100/hour, or all airplane flights to be $100, or all restaurants to charge a flat fee that is determined by the government. Is this what our country has transformed into? A country in which the government determines the prices of services and products?

Let me be clear and and rebut what some readers will automatically think. This is not simply an anti-Medicare for All blog. Shoot, I’d love to get health care services for free. Instead, I am reviewing Medicare for All from a legal and constitutional perspective to discuss whether government implemented reimbursement rates will/would be legal. Or would government implemented reimbursement rates violate due process, the right to contract, the right to pursue a career, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and/or our country’s history of capitalism.

The consequences of accepting Medicare can be monumental. Going back to Dr. L, due to the massive decrease of reimbursement rates under Medicare, he may be forced to downsize his staff, stop investing in high tech devices to advance the practice of dentistry, take less of a salary, and, perhaps, work more to offset the reimbursement rate reduction.

Not to mention the immense regulatory oversight, including audits, documentation productions, possible suspensions of Medicare contracts or accusations of credible allegations of fraud that comes hand in hand with accepting Medicare.

I don’t think there is one particular law that would allow or prohibit Medicare for All requiring health care providers to accept Medicare reimbursements, even against their will. Although I do think there is potential for a class action lawsuit on behalf of health care providers who have decided to not accept Medicare if they are forced to accept Medicare in the future.

I do not believe that Medicare for All will ever be implemented. Just think of a world in which there is no need for private insurance companies…a utopia, right? But the private health care insurance companies have enough money and enough sway to keep Medicare for All at bay. Hospitals and the Hospital Association will also have some input regardless the implementation of Medicare for All. Most hospitals claim that, under Medicare for All, they would close.

Regardless the conversation is here and will, most likely, be a highly contested issue in our next election.

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.

Medicare “Site Neutral” Reimbursements Hit Hospitals Hard, But Is It Legal?

Shockingly, not all new rules that emerge from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) are actually compliant with the law. Wait! What? How can CMS publish Final Rules that are not compliant with the law?

This was an eye-opening discovery as a “baby lawyer” back 20 years ago. The government can and does publish and create Rules that, sometimes, exceed its legal authority. Of course, the Agency must follow appropriate rule-making procedure and allow for a comment period (etc.), but CMS does not have to listen to the comments. Theoretically, CMS could publish a Final Rule mandating that all Medicare providers provide 50 hours of free services a year or that the reimbursement rate for all services is $1. Both of my examples violate multiple rules, regulations, and laws, but until an aggrieved party with standing files a lawsuit declaring the Final Rule to be invalid or Congress passes a law that renders the Rule moot, the Rule exists and can be enforced by CMS and its agents.

The Rule-change (the “Site-Neutrality Rule”), which became effective January 1, 2019, reduced Medicare reimbursements to hospitals with outpatient facilities. Medicare will pay hospitals that have outpatient facilities “off campus” at a lower rate — equivalent to what it pays independent physicians for clinic visits. This decrease in Medicare reimbursements hits hard for most hospitals across the country, but, especially, rural hospitals. For the past 10+ years, hospitals have built outpatient facilities to serve more patients, and been reimbursed a higher Medicare reimbursement rate than independent physicians because the services at the hospital’s outpatient facility were connected to an outpatient facility affiliated with a hospital. Now the Site-Neutrality Rule leaves many hospitals trying to catch their breaths after the metaphoric punch to the belly. On the other hand, independent physicians claim that they have been providing the exact, same services as the hospital-affiliated outpatient facilities for years, but have received a lower reimbursement rate. I have no opinion (I do, but my opinion is not the topic in this blog) as to whether physicians and hospitals should be reimbursed equally – this blog is not pro-physician or pro-hospital. Rather, this blog is “pro-holding CMS liable to render Rules that follow the law.” Whether the hospitals or the physicians were receiving a cut in reimbursement rates, I am in favor of the those cuts (and future cuts) abiding by the law. Interestingly, should the AHA win this case, it could set solid, helpful, legal precedent for all types of providers and all types of decreased Medicare/caid reimbursements going forward.

Because of the Site-Neutrality Rule, in 2019, hospitals’ reimbursements will drop approximately $380 million and $760 million in 2020, according to CMS.

Before CMS brags on a decrease in the Medicare budget due to a proposed or Final Rule, it should remember that there is budget neutrality requirement when it comes to Rules implemented by CMS. 42 US.C. § 1395l. Yet, here, for the Site-Neutrality Rule, according to articles and journals, CMS is boasting its Site-Neutrality Rule as saving millions upon millions of dollars for Medicare. Can we say “Budget Non-Neutrality?”

The American Hospital Association filed a lawsuit December 2018 claiming that CMS exceeded its authority by implementing the Final Rule for “site neutral” Medicare reimbursements for hospitals with outpatient facilities. The lawsuit requests an injunction to stop the decrease and an order to repay any funds withheld thus far.

The claim, which, I believe has merit, argues that the Site-Neutrality Rule exceeds CMS’s statutory authority under the Medicare Act because of the budget neutrality mandate, in part – there are other arguments, but, for the sake of this blog, I am concentrating on the budget neutrality requirement. In my humble opinion, the budget neutrality requirement is overlooked by many attorneys and providers when it comes to challenging cuts to Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement rates.

On March 22, 2019, CMS filed a Motion to Dismiss or in the alternative, a Cross Motion for Summary Judgment. On April 5, 2019, AHA (and the rest of the Plaintiffs) responded in opposition. On April 19, 2019, CMS responded to AHA’s response in opposition. The Judge has not ruled on the Motions, as of today, April 25, 2019.

Obviously, I will be keeping a close eye on the progress of this case going forward. In the meantime, more reductions in reimbursement rates are on the horizon…

Recently, CMS recently proposed three new rules that would further update the Medicare payment rates and quality reporting programs for hospices, skilled nursing facilities (SNFs), and inpatient psychiatric facilities.

Stay tuned.

Recent Case Law May Change the Relationship Between Hospitals and Physicians Forever!

No, this is not a Shakespearean blog post. The Hamlet in this case is not the Prince of Denmark; it is a hospital system who hired a doctor, Dr. Hernandez as an independent contractor and whose private practice flopped. When the hospital at which he had privileges refused to hire him as an employee, Hernandez sued Hamlet under the False Claims Act (FCA) and Unfair Trade Practices- AND WON!!

Relationships between hospitals and physicians may forever be changed.

In an October 2018 decision, Hamlet H.M.A., LLC V. Hernandez, the NC Court of Appeals ruled that a hospital can be liable to a physician for Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices (UDTP) – causing a new level of care to be needed in negotiations between hospitals and physicians.

Dr. Hernandez accepted a position with Sandhills Regional Medical Center. The original offer was for Dr. Hernandez to set up his own independent practice and to be an independent contractor for the hospital. The offer guaranteed a minimum collection amount for the first 18 months of the 36-month contract. The base salary was $325,000, with a bonus based on worked RVUs. Dr. Hernandez countered and asked to be considered as an employee instead of as an independent contractor. Sandhills sent an email offering a base salary of $275,000 as an employee. As any reasonable, logical person would do, Dr. Hernandez responded with an email stating that it would be irrational to accept a base salary so much lower in order to obtain employee status. The hospital offered an “employee status option” at the end of 18 months.

Dr. Hernandez then sent Sandhills an email asking to extend the time period of guaranteed income to 24 months, rather than 18 months. Plaintiff replied that it could not extend the period of guaranteed income, but raised the monthly salary from $47,616.82 to $49,500.00 and also added a signing bonus of $30,000.00. After further negotiations, the parties entered into a Physician Recruitment Agreement on March 9, 2011.

Dr. Hernandez’s private practice flopped, and at the end of the first 18-month period, he requested to exercise the employment option in his contract and to become an employee of Sandhills. But Sandhills did not give Dr. Hernandez an employment contract.

On August 29, 2014, Sandhills filed a complaint against Dr. Hernandez alleging breach of contract and demanding repayment of the entire amount paid to Dr. Hernandez, a total of 21 payments amounting to $902,259.66. Dr. Hernandez filed an answer with counterclaims for breach of contract, fraud, unfair or deceptive trade practices, and unjust enrichment. A jury trial was held in Superior Court in Richmond County at the end of August and the beginning of September 2016. The jury returned a verdict for Sandhills for $334,341.14 (a random number).

Dr. Hernandez countered sued the hospital for Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices (UDTP) alleging that the hospital fraudulently induced him to enter into the contract with the hospital as an independent contractor. His allegations that the hospital violated UDTP because the hospital offered a lower salary to be considered an employee was shocking and unprecedented. Most likely, Sandhills never even contemplated that it could be held liable under UDTP because of a disparity in salary offered to Dr. Hernandez depending on his employment status. Most likely, the man or woman who sent the email to Dr. Hernandez with the disparate salaries never asked its general counsel whether the action could penalize the hospital. Who would have thought to?

One exception to UDTP is the “learned profession” exception. Basically, the courts have held that if the two parties to an agreement are learned professionals and the topic of the contract has to do with the parties’ speciality; i.e, medicine, in this case, then the parties cannot allege UDTP because both parties were knowledgeable. The issue of first impression presented by Hamlet is whether the “learned profession” exception set forth in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 75-1.1(b) applies to a dispute between a physician and a hospital relating to alleged false claims made by the hospital to induce the physician to enter into an employment contract. If the learned profession exception were to apply, then Dr. Hernandez’s UDTP claim against Sandhill would be dismissed.

Dr. Hernandez alleged that the hospital made false representations to induce him to enter into a contract. The Court held that the fact that he is a physician does not change the nature of the negotiation of a business contract. The Court found that the “learned profession” exception does not apply to any negotiation just because the two parties are physicians. For example, if a physician and a hospital were to contract to buy a beach house, then the exception would not apply because the nature of the contract (were something go awry and cause an UDTP lawsuit) because buying a beach house has nothing to do with being a physician or hospital. Similarly, here, the Court held that an employment contract had nothing to do with rendering medicine. Therefore, the exception did not apply. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s directed verdict against Dr. Hernandez.

This decision definitely creates more tension between hospitals and physicians. Now, in negotiations with employees and independent contractors, hospitals need to be mindful that UDTP claims can be alleged against them. This case is recent precedent for an unfamiliar modern world of health care negotiations.

Hospital Association Joins Lawsuit to Enjoin “Psychiatric Boarding”

New Hampshire hospitals have joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a lawsuit against the State of New Hampshire over the boarding of mental health patients in hospital emergency rooms.

In November 2018, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit in NH federal court asking the court to order the cease of the practice of “psychiatric boarding,” in which mental health patients are held sometimes against their will and without due process in hospital emergency rooms throughout New Hampshire as they await admission to the state psychiatric hospital, often for weeks at a time. This is not only a New Hampshire problem. This is a problem in every state. The hospitals want the practice abolished because, in most cases of severe mental illness, the patient is unemployed and uninsured. There are not enough psychiatric beds to hold the amount of mentally ill consumers.

Many psychiatric patients rely on Medicaid, but due to the Institution for Mental Disease (IMD) exclusion, Medicaid does not cover the cost of care for patients 21 to 64 years of age (when Medicare kicks in) at inpatient psychiatric or addiction treatment facilities with a capacity greater than 16 beds. This rule makes it difficult for states to fund larger inpatient psychiatric hospitals, which further exacerbates the psychiatric boarding crisis.

The emergency rooms (ER) have become the safety net for mental health. The two most common diagnoses at an ER is alcohol abuse and suicidal tendencies. There has been a sharp increase in ER visits for the people suffering from mental health issues in the recent years. Are we as a population growing more depressed?

It is very frustrating to be in a hospital without the allowance to leave. But that is what psychiatric boarding is – patients present to an ER in crisis and because there is no bed for them at a psychiatric hospital, the patient is held at the hospital against their will until a bed opens up. No psychiatric care is rendered at the ER. It is just a waiting game, which is not fun for the people enduring it.

I recently encountered a glimpse into how it feels to be stuck at a hospital without the ability to leave. On a personal level, although not dealing with mental health but with hospitals in general, I recently broke my leg. I underwent surgery and received 6 screws and a plate in my leg. Around Christmas I became extremely ill from an infection in my leg. After I passed out at my home due to an allergic reaction to my medication which caused an epileptic seizure, my husband called EMS and I was transported to the hospital. Because it was the day after Christmas, the staff was light. I was transported to a hospital that had no orthopedic surgeon on call. (Akin to a mental health patient presenting at an ER – there are no psychiatric residents at most hospitals). Because no orthopedic surgeon was on call, I was transported to a larger hospital and underwent emergency surgery for the infection. I stayed at the hospital for 5 of the longest days of my life. Not because I still needed medical treatment, but because the orthopedic surgeon had taken off for vacation between Christmas and New Year’s. Without the orthopedic’s authorization that I could leave the hospital I was stuck there unless I left against medical advice. Finally, at what seemed to be at his leisurely time, the orthopedic surgeon came back to work the afternoon of January 1, 2019, and I was able to leave the hospital… but not without a few choice words from yours truly. I can tell you without any reservation that I was not a stellar patient those last couple days when I felt well enough to leave but there was no doctor present to allow it.

I imagine how I felt those last couple days in the hospital is how mentally ill patients feel while they are being held until a bed at a psychiatric unit opens up. It must be so frustrating. It certainly cannot be ameliorating any presenting mental health condition. In my case, I had no mental health issues but once I felt like I was being held against my will, mental health issues started to arise from my anger.

A shortage of psychiatric inpatient beds is a key contributing factor to overcrowded ERs across the nation. Between 1970 and 2006, state and county psychiatric inpatient facilities in the country cut capacity from about 400,000 beds to fewer than 50,000.

A study conducted by Wake Forest University found that ER stays for mental health issues are approximately 3.2 times longer stays than for physical reasons.

ER visits rose by nearly 15% between 2006 and 2014, according to the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project. Over the same time period, ER visits associated with mental health and substance abuse shot up by nearly 44%.

Hopefully if the NH Hospital Association is successful in its lawsuit, other states will follow suit and file a lawsuit. I am not sure where the mentally ill will go if they do not remain at the ER. Perhaps this lawsuit and others that follow will force states to change the current Medicaid laws that do not allow mental health coverage for those over 21 years old. With the mental health and physical health Americans with Disabilities’ parity laws, I do not know why someone hasn’t challenged the constitutionality of the IMD exclusion.

Non-Profit Going For-Profit: Merger Mania Manifests

According to the American Hospital Association, America has 4,840 general hospitals that aren’t run by the federal government: 2,849 are nonprofit, 1,035 are for-profit and 956 are owned by state or local governments.

What is the distinction between a for-profit and not-for-profit hospital… besides the obvious? The obvious difference is that one is “for-profit” and one is “not-for-profit” – but any reader of the English language would be able to tell you that. Unknown to some is that the not-for-profit status does not mean that the hospital will not make money; the status has nothing to do with a hospitals bottom line. Just ask any charity that brings in millions of dollars.

The most significant variation between non-profit and for-profit hospitals is tax status. Not-for-profit hospitals are exempt from state and local taxes. Some say that for-profit hospitals have to be more cost-effective because they have sales taxes and property taxes. I can understand that sentiment. Sales taxes and property taxes are nothing to sneeze at.

The organizational structure and culture also varies at for-profit hospitals rather than not-for-profit hospitals. For-profit hospitals have to answer to shareholders and/or investors. Those that are publicly traded may have a high attrition rate at the top executive level because when poor performance occurs heads tend to roll.

Bargaining power is another big difference between for-profit and non-profit. For-profit has it while non-profit, generally, do not. The imbalance of bargaining power comes into play when the government negotiates its managed care contracts. I also believe that bargaining power is a strong catalyst in the push for mergers. Being a minnow means that you have insect larvae and fish eggs to consume. Being a whale, however, allows you to feed on sea lion, squid, and other larger fish.

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 10.24.22 AM

Merger Mania

A report conducted by the Health Research Institute showed 255 healthcare merger and acquisition (M&A) deals in the second quarter of 2018. Just the second quarter! According to the report, deal volume is up 9.4% since last year.

The most active sub-sector in the second quarter of 2018 is long-term care, with 104 announced healthcare M&A deals representing almost 41% of deal volume.

The trend today is that for-profit hospitals are buying up smaller, for-profit hospitals and, any and all, not-for-profit hospitals. The upshot is that hospitals are growing larger, more massive, more “corporate-like,” and less community-based. Is this trend positive or negative? I will have to research whether the prices of services increase at hospitals that are for-profit rather than not-for-profit, but I have a gut feeling that they do. Not that prices are the only variable to determine whether the merger trend is positive or negative. From the hospital’s perspective, I would much rather be the whale, not the minnow. I would feel much more comfortable swimming around.

My opinion is that, as our health care system veers toward value-based reimbursement and this metamorphous places financial pressure on providers, health care providers are struggling for more efficient means of cost control. The logical solution is to merge and buy up the smaller fish until your entity is a whale. Whales have more bargaining power and more budget.

In 2017, 29 for-profit companies bought 18 for-profit hospitals and 11 not-for-profits, according to an analysis for Kaiser Health News.

10 hospital M&A transactions involved health care organizations with net revenues of $1 billion or more in 2017.

Here, in NC, Mission Health, a former, not-for-profit hospital in Asheville, announced in March 2018 that HCA Healthcare, the largest, for-profit, hospital chain would buy it for $1.5 billion. The NC Attorney General had to sign off on the deal since the deal involved a non-profit turning for-profit, and he did ultimately did sign off on it.

Regardless your opinion on the matter, merger mania has manifested. Providers need to determine whether they want to be a whale or a minnow.

Nursing Home Safety Is Under Scrutiny from CMS – Staff May Be Penalized!

This past Tuesday, CMS unveiled a new initiative aimed at improving safety at nursing homes. While the study did not compare nursing home safety for staff, which, BTW, is staggering in numbers; i.e., more nursing home staff call-in sick or contract debilitating viruses versus the normal population. I question why ER nurses/doctors do not have the same rate of sickness. But that is the source of another blog…

The Committee on Energy and Commerce (“the Committee”) began conducting audits of nursing homes after numerous media reports described instances of abuse, neglect, and substandard care occurring at skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) and nursing facilities (NFs) across the country, including the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills where at least 12 residents died in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

Screen Shot 2018-11-26 at 11.41.31 AM

Under the Civil Money Penalty Reinvestment Program, CMS will create training products for nursing home professionals including staff competency assessment tools, instructional guides, webinars and technical assistance seminars.

These materials aim to help staff reduce negative events (including death), improve dementia care and strengthen staffing quality, including by reducing staff turnover and enhancing performance. A high rate of staff attrition is a product of low hourly wages, which is a product of low Medicare/caid reimbursement rates.

“We are pleased to offer nursing home staff practical tools and assistance to improve resident care and positively impact the lives of individuals in our nation’s nursing homes,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a statement.

Seema Verna

The three-year effort is funded by federal civil penalties, which are fines nursing homes pay the CMS when they are noncompliant with regulations. There is no data as to how much CMS collects from civil fines against nursing homes per year, which is disconcerting considering everything about CMS is public record for taxpayers.

A proposed rule in the works to implement a federal law would allow the CMS to impose enforcement actions on nursing home staff in cases of elder abuse or other illegal activities.

CMS is increasing its oversight of post-acute care settings through this new civil money penalties initiative on nursing home staff and a new verification process to confirm personal attendants actually showed up to care for seniors when they are at home. This directive is targeted at personal care services (“PCS”). A proposed rule would allow CMS to impose enforcement actions on nursing home staff in cases of elder abuse or other illegal activities. The regulation being developed will outline how CMS would impose civil money penalties of up to $200,000 against nursing home staff or volunteers who fail to report reasonable suspicion of crimes. In addition, the proposed regulation would allow a 2-year exclusion from federal health programs for retaliating. It is questionable as to why CMS would penalize staff and/or volunteers rather than the nursing home company. One would think that volunteers may be more rare to find with this ruling.

CMS has been under heightened Congressional pressure to improve safety standards following ongoing media reports of abuse, neglect and substandard care occurring at nursing facilities across the country in recent years – or, at least, reported.

The federal government cited more than 1,000 nursing homes for either mishandling cases related to, or failing to protect residents against, rape, sexual abuse, or sexual assault, with nearly 100 facilities incurring multiple citations.

On October 20, 2017, the Committee sent a bipartisan letter requesting documents and information from Jack Michel, an owner of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills (“Rehabilitation Center”) where at least 12 residents died in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Florida. Excessive heat was the issue. According to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA), the Rehabilitation Center failed to follow adequate emergency management procedures after the facility’s air conditioning system lost power during Hurricane Irma. No generator? Despite increasingly excessive heat, staff at the facility did not take advantage of a fully functional hospital across the street and “overwhelmingly delayed calling 911” during a medical emergency. The facility also had contractual agreements with an assisted living facility and transportation company for emergency evacuation purposes yet did not activate these services. CMS ultimately terminated the Rehabilitation Center from the Medicare and Medicaid programs following an on-site inspection where surveyors found that the facility failed to meet Medicare’s basic health and safety requirements.

The Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) found that, as of 2014, there were 15,600 nursing home facilities in the United States; 69.8 % of U.S. nursing home facilities have for-profit ownership. OIG has been accusing nursing homes of elderly abuse for years, but, only now, does the federal government have a sword for its accusations. Accusations, however, come with false ones. The appeal process for such accusations will be essential.

According to HHS OIG’s 2017 report, nursing facilities continue to experience problems ensuring quality of care and safety for people residing in them. OIG identified instances of substandard care causing preventable adverse events, finding an estimated 22% of Medicare beneficiaries had experienced an adverse event during their nursing stay. The report further states that “OIG continues to raise concerns about nursing home residents being at risk of abuse and neglect. In some instances, nursing home care is so substandard that providers may have liability under the False Claims Act.”

HHS has continuously expressed concerns about nursing home residents being at risk of abuse and neglect.

With the new initiative, nursing homes that do not achieve substantial compliance within six months will be terminated from participating in Medicare and Medicaid. Appeals to come…