First and foremost, important, health care news:
The Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) have full authority to renew post-payments reviews of dates of service (DOS) during the COVID pandemic. The COVID pause is entirely off. It is going to be a mess to wade through the thousands of exceptions. RAC audits of COVID DOS will be, at best, placing a finger on a piece of mercury. I hope that the auditors remember that everyone was scrambling to do their best during the past year and a half. In the upcoming weeks, I will keep you posted.
I am especially excited today. Last week, I won a permanent injunction for a health care facility that but for this injunction, the facility would be closed, its 300 staff unemployed, and its 600 Medicare and Medicaid consumers without access to their mental health and substance abuse providers, their primary care physicians, and the Suboxone clinic. The Judge’s clerk emailed us on Friday. The email was terse although the clerk signified that the email was important by clicking the little, red, exclamation point. It simply stated: After speaking with Judge X, she is dismissing the government’s MTD and granting Petitioner’s permanent injunction. Petitioner’s counsel can send a proposed decision within 10 days. Such a simple email affected so many lives!
We hear Ellen Fink-Samnick MSW, ACSW, LCSW, CCM, CRP, speak about social determinants of health (SDoH) on RACMonitor. Well, this company is minority-owned and the mass percentage of staff and consumers are minorities.
Why was this company on the brink of closing down? The managed care organization (MCO) terminated the company’s Medicaid contract. Medicaid comprised the majority of its revenue. The MCO’s reason was that the company violated 42 CFR §455.106, which states:
“Information that must be disclosed. Before the Medicaid agency enters into or renews a provider agreement, or at any time upon written request by the Medicaid agency, the provider must disclose to the Medicaid agency the identity of any person who:
The former CEO – for years – he relied on professional tax accountants for the company’s taxes and his own personal family’s taxes. His wife, who is a physician, relied on her husband to do their personal taxes as one of his “honey-do” tasks. CEO relied on a sub-par accountant for a couple years and pled guilty to failing to pay personal taxes for two years. The plea ended up in the newspaper and the MCO terminated the facility.
We argued that the company, as an entity, was bigger than just the CEO. Quickly, we filed for a TRO to keep the company open. Concurrently, we transitioned the company from the CEO to Dr. wife. Dr became CEO in a seamless transition. A long-time executive stepped up as HR management.
Yet, according to testimony, the MCO terminated the company’s contract when the newspaper published the article about CEO’s guilty plea. The article was published in a local paper on April 9 and the termination notice was sent out April 19th. It was a quick decision.
We argued that 42 CFR §455.106 didn’t apply because CEO’s guilty plea was:
- Personal and not related to Medicare or Medicaid; and
- Not a conviction but a voluntary plea agreement.
The Judge agreed. We won the TRO for immediate relief. After a four-day hearing and 22 witnesses for Petitioner, we won the preliminary injunction. At this point, the MCO hired outside counsel with our tax dollars, which I did bring up in the final hearing on the merits.
New outside counsel was super excited to be involved. He immediately propounded a ton of discovery asking for things that he already had and for criminal documents that we had no access to because, by law, the government has possession of and CEO never had. Well, new lawyer was really excited, so he filed motions to compel us to produce these unobtainable documents. He filed for sanctions. We filed for sanctions back.
It grew more litigious as the final hearing on the merits approached.
Finally, we presented our case for a permanent injunction, emphasizing the importance of the company and the smooth transition to the new, Dr. CEO. We won! Because we won, the company is open and providing medically necessary services to our most needy population.
And…I get to draft the proposed decision.
2020 was an odd year for recovery audit contractor (“RAC”) and Medicare Administrative Contractors (“MAC”) audits. Well, it was an odd year for everyone. After trying five virtual trials, each one with up to 23 witnesses, it seems that, slowly but surely, we are getting back to normalcy. A tell-tale sign of fresh normalcy is an in-person defense of health care regulatory audits. I am defending a RAC audit of pediatric facility in Georgia in a couple weeks and the clerk of court said – “The hearing is in person.” Well, that’s new. Even when we specifically requested a virtual trial, we were denied with the explanation that GA is open now. The virtual trials are cheaper and more convenient; clients don’t have to pay for hotels and airlines.
In-person hearings are back – at least in most states. We have similar players and new restrictions.
On March 16, 2021, CMS announced that it will temporarily restrict audits to March 1, 2020, and before. Medicare audits are not yet dipping its metaphoric toes into the shark infested waters of auditing claims with dates of service (“DOS”) March 1 – today. This leaves a year and half time period untouched. Once the temporary hold is lifted, audits of 2020 DOS will be abound. March 26, 2021, CMS awarded Performant Recovery, Inc., the incumbent, the new RAC Region 1 contract.
RAC’s review claims on a post-payment and/or pre-payment basis. (FYI – You would rather a post payment review rather than a pre – I promise).
The RACs were created to detect fraud, waste, and abuse (“FWA”) by reviewing medical records. Any health care provider – not matter how big or small – are subject to audits at the whim of the government. CMS, RACs, MCOs, MACs, TPEs, UPICs, and every other auditing company can implement actions that will prevent future improper payments, as well. As we all know, RACs are paid on a contingency basis. Approximately, 13%. When the RACs were first created, the RACs were compensated based on accusations of overpayments, not the amounts that were truly owed after an independent tribunal. As any human could surmise, the contingency payment creates an overzealousness that can only be demonstrated by my favorite case in my 21 years – in New Mexico against Public Consulting Group (“PCG”). A behavioral health care (“BH”) provider was accused of over $12 million overpayment. After we presented before the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) in NM Administrative Court, the ALJ determined that we owed $896.35. The 99.23% reduction was because of the following:
- Faulty Extrapolation: NM HSD’s contractor PCG reviewed approximately 150 claims out of 15,000 claims between 2009 and 2013. Once the error rate was defined as high as 92%, the base error equaled $9,812.08; however the extrapolated amount equaled over $12 million. Our expert statistician rebutted the error rate being so high. Once the extrapolation is thrown out, we are now dealing with much more reasonable amounts – only $9k
- Attack the Clinical Denials: The underlying, alleged overpayment of $9,812.08 was based on 150 claims. We walked through the 150 claims that PCG claimed were denials and proved PCG wrong. Examples of their errors include denials based on lack of staff credentialing, when in reality, the auditor could not read the signature. Other denials were erroneously denied based the application of the wrong policy year.
The upshot is that we convinced the judge that PCG was wrong in almost every denial PCG made. In the end, the Judge found we owed $896.35, not $12 million. Little bit of a difference! We appealed.
I had the pleasure of being interviewed a second time on Legal Buzz. Thanks, Alex!!
Changes of ownership of a facility can spur RAC, MAC, and MCO audits. In fact, federal regulations require disclosure of changes of ownership within 35 days after any change of ownership. 42 CFR 455.104. The regulations require disclosure, but there is no guidance regarding acceptance of said change of ownership. In other words what if your company undergoes a change in ownership and the MCO or MAC terminates the participation agreement because they don’t appreciate who the new owner is. The federal regulations also require disclosure of any convictions related to Medicaid. 42 CFR 455.106. In the particular case I am discussing, the MCO audited this company 10-15 times over two years. There seemed to be a personal vendetta, for whatever reason, against the company from higher-ups at the MCO.
Managed care can be tricky because, by definition, it removes the management of Medicaid and Medicare from the government agencies into these quasi-private/quasi-governmental agencies. I still think that managed care violates 42 CFR 410(e), the single state agency requirement that states that “The Medicaid agency may not delegate, to other than its own officials, the authority to supervise the plan or to develop or issue policies, rules, and regulations on program matters.” Despite my personal opinion, managed care is definitely the trend. To date, 40 States have managed care organizations (MCOs) to manage Medicaid.
This company is a behavioral health care provider, which provides substance abuse services, SAIOP, SACOT, PSR, OPT, urine tests; they run a Suboxone clinic, a laboratory, and a pharmacy. It also provides free/charitable transportation services to get the consumers to the facility without receiving any money in return. The CEO was accused of personal, tax fraud. He and his wife never submitted their own taxes; they relied on professionals. One, below-stellar accountant performed the companies’ taxes and the CEO’s personal taxes a few years ago. I am no tax expert, but apparently the problem was that he took no salary for two years while the facility was bringing in little profit. His wife is a physician, so they were able to sustain on one income. A lot of confusion later and multiple tax and criminal attorneys, CEO pled guilty to a personal tax plea. It is a Martha Stewart mistake, not a Bernie Madoff. The guilty plea was not germane to Medicaid.
Once the CEO pleads guilty to the personal plea, the newspaper publishes a story. The MCO first terminates the contract based on 42 CFR 455.106, which requires disclosure if – and the exact wording is important – “Has been convicted of a criminal offense related to that person’s involvement in any program under Medicare, Medicaid, or the Title XX services program since the inception of those programs.” This guilty plea was not related to Medicaid so the termination was erroneous.
Concurrently, in light of the CEO’s plea, he steps down and his wife who is also a medical physician steps in to transition as CEO to keep the company going. Obviously, a company is bigger than its CEO’s personal transgressions. 200 staff and hundreds of consumers relied on its viability as a company.
Once we argued that the personal guilty plea was not related to Medicaid, the MCO added the additional reason for termination – failing to disclose a change in ownership. A double whammy!
We were able to successfully file a preliminary injunction arguing that irreparable harm would ensue if the termination were upheld. We also argued that the terminations were erroneous. The Judge agreed in this case agreeing that a company is indeed bigger than its CEO’s transgressions.
We always think about audits involving medical records. But audits can also involve audits of corporate disclosures or nondisclosures of managerial issues. Audits of provider executive teams can be deadly to any company.
Terminations of provider agreements are always tricky because, most often, the MCO or MAC will argue that it can terminate the Medicaid/care contract at will. I disagree, first and foremost. See blog, “Property Rights.”
If a facility is terminated for cause, that reason better be accurate!
In this case, the CEO had no duty to disclose his personal, guilty plea per the regulations. Secondly, the MCOs’ assertion that it had no notice of the transfer of ownership was equally as disingenuous. The facility had been open and honest regarding the transition of the company to a new CEO. While no formal notice was ever provided, there was clear communication about the transition to/from the MCO.
Thus, we were successful in obtaining an injunction; thereby keeping the company viable.
This segment is rated ‘F’ for fraud. It is not for the meek of heart. How many of you have read a newspaper or seen the news about Medicare and Medicaid provider fraudsters? There is a grey area between civil and criminal prosecutions of fraud. Some innocent providers get caught in the wide, fraud net because counsel doesn’t understand the idiosyncrasies of Medicare regulations.
Health care fraud GENERALLY exists as one of the following:
- Billing for services not rendered;
- Billing for a non-covered service as a covered service;
- Misrepresenting the DOS
- Misrepresenting location of service;
- Misrepresenting provider of service
- Waiving deductibles and/or co-payments
- Incorrect reporting of diagnoses or procedures;
- Overutilization of services;
- Kickbacks/referrals for money
- False or unnecessary issuance of prescription drugs
To err is human. Or so Alexander Pope says. I am here to attest that many of those accused providers are innocent and victims of unspecialized criminal attorneys.
One plastic surgeon knows this only too well. Quick anecdote:
Doctor was audited for removing lesions from the eye area and accused of billing for removing cancerous lesions even when the biopsies came back benign. Yet Medicare instructs physicians to NOT go back and change a CPT code after the fact. The physician is supposed to make an educated guess as to whether the lesion removed is benign or malignant. There are no crystal balls so he makes an educated determination.
Since plastic surgery is highly specialized and the physician is highly educated. Deference should be given to the physician regardless.
This plastic surgeon was accused of upcoding and billing for services not rendered. He performed biopsies around the eye of possible, cancerous lesions. Once removed, he would send the samples to lab. Meanwhile, before knowing whether the samples were cancerous, because he believed them to be cancerous, billed for removal of cancerous lesion to Medicare. Correct coding for skin procedures is not impossible.
In a Local Coverage Determination (“LCD”), beginning 2008, Medicare instructed physicians to not go back and change codes depending on the pathology. “If a benign skin lesion excision was performed, report the applicable CPT code, even if final pathology demonstrates a malignant or carcinoma diagnosis for the lesion removed. The final pathology does not change the CPT code of the procedure performed.” See LCD: Removal of Benign Skin Lesions, 2008. This plastic surgeon relied on CMS’ Medicare regulations and policies, including the Medicare Provider Manual and LCD 2008, which are published by the government and on which Dr. relied.
Doctor hired two criminal attorneys who did not specialize in Medicare. Doctor gets charged, and attorneys convince him to plead guilty claiming that he cannot fight the government. And that the government will seize his property if he doesn’t settle.
He pled guilty to a crime that he did not do. He paid millions in restitution, was under house arrest for 15 months, the Medical Board revoked his medical license, and he lost his career.
The lesson here is always fight the government. But choose wisely with whom you fight.
HEAR YE, HEAR YE: Medicare reimbursement rate increase!!
On April 27th, CMS proposed a rule to increase Medicare fee-for-service payment rates and policies for inpatient hospitals and long-term care hospitals for fiscal year (FY) 2022. The proposed rule will update Medicare payment policies and rates for operating and capital‑related costs of acute care hospitals and for certain hospitals. The proposed increase in operating payment rates for general acute care hospitals paid under the IPPS that successfully participate in the Hospital Inpatient Quality Reporting (“IQR”) Program and are meaningful electronic health record (“EHR”) users is approximately 2.8%. This reflects the projected hospital market basket update of 2.5% reduced by a 0.2 percentage point productivity adjustment and increased by a 0.5 percentage point adjustment required by legislation.
Secondly, a sample audit of nursing homes conducted by CMS will lead to more scrutiny of nursing homes and long-term care facilities. The sample audit showed that two-thirds of Massachusetts’s nursing homes that receive federal Medicaid and Medicare funding are lagging in required annual inspections — and MA is demonstrative of the country.
237 nursing homes and long-term care facilities in the state, or 63.7% of the total, are behind on their federal health and safety inspections by at least 18 months. The national average is 51.3%.
We cannot blame COVID for everything. Those inspections lagged even before the pandemic, the data shows, but ground to a halt last year when the federal agency discontinued in-person visits to nursing homes as they were closed off to the public to help prevent spread of the COVID.
Lastly, on April 29, 2021, CMS issued a final rule to extend and make changes to the Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement (“CJR”) model. You’ve probably heard Dr. Ron Hirsch reporting on the joint replacement model on RACMonitor. The CJR model aims to pay providers based on total episodes of care for hip and knee replacements to curb costs and improve quality. Hospitals in the model that meet spending and quality thresholds can get an additional Medicare payment. But hospitals that don’t meet targets must repay Medicare for a portion of their spending.
This final rule revises the episode definition, payment methodology, and makes other modifications to the model to adapt the CJR model to changes in practice and fee-for-service payment occurring over the past several years. The changes in practice and payment are expected to limit or reverse early evaluation results demonstrating the CJR model’s ability to achieve savings while sustaining quality. This rule provides the time needed to test modifications to the model by extending the CJR model for an additional three performance years through December 31, 2024 for certain participant hospitals.
The CJR model has proven successful according to CMS. It began in 2016. Hospitals had a “statistically significant decrease” in average payments for all hip and knee replacements relative to a control group. $61.6 million (a savings of 2% of the baseline)
I have good news and bad news today. I have chosen to begin with the good news. The ALJ backlog will soon be no more. Yes, the 4-6 years waiting period between the second and third level will, by sometime in 2021, be back to 90 days, with is the statutory requirement. What precipitated this drastic improvement? Money. This past year, CMS’ budget increased exponentially, mostly due to the Medicare appeals backlog. OMHA was given enough dough to hire 70 additional ALJs and to open six additional locations. That brings the number of ALJs ruling over provider Medicare appeals to over 100. OMHA now has the capability to hear and render decisions for approximately 300,000 appeals per year. This number is drastically higher than the number of Medicare appeals being filed. The backlog will soon be nonexistent. This is fantastic for all providers because, while CMS will continue to recoup the alleged overpayment after the 2nd level, the providers will be able to have its case adjudicated by an ALJ much speedier.
Now the bad news. Remember when the RAC program was first implemented and the RACs were zealously auditing, which is the reason that the backlog exists in the first place. RACs were given free rein to audit whichever types of service providers they chose to target. Once the backlog was out of hand, CMS restricted the RACs. They only allowed a 3 year lookback period when other auditors can go back 6 years, like the SMRC audits. CMS also mandated that the RACs slow down their number of audits and put other restrictions on RACs. Now that OMHA has the capacity to adjudicate 300,000 Medicare appeals per year, expect that those reins that have been holding the RACs back will by 2021 or 2022 be fully loosened for a full gallop.
Switching gears: Two of the lesser known audits that are exclusive to the CMS are the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (“SMRC”) and the Targeted Probe and Educate (“TPE”) audits. Exclusivity to CMS just means that Medicare claims are reviewed, not Medicaid.
The SMRCs, in particular, create confusion. We have seen DME SMRC audits on ventilator claims, which are extremely document intensive. You can imagine the high amounts of money at issue because, for ventilators, many people require them for long periods of time. Sometimes there can 3000 claim lines for a ventilator claim. These SMRC audits are not extrapolated, but the amount in controversy is still high. SMRCs normally request the documents for 20-40 claims. It is a one-time review. It’s a post payment review audit. It doesn’t sound that bad until you receive the request for documents of 20-40 claims, all of which contain 3000 claim lines and you have 45 days to comply.
Lastly, in a rare act, CMS has inquired as whether provider prefer TPE audits or continue with post payment review audits for the remainder of the pandemic. If you have a strong opinion one way or the other, be sure to contact CMS.
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.
Medicaid Fraud Control Units Performed Poorly During the Pandemic: Expect MFCU Oversight to Increase
OIG just published its annual survey of how well or poor MFCUs across the country performed in 2020, during the ongoing COVID pandemic. Each State has its own Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (“MFCU”) to prosecute criminal and civil fraud in its respective State. I promise you, you do not want MFCU to be calling or subpoena-ing you unexpectedly. The MFCUs reported that the pandemic created significant challenges for staff, operations, and court proceedings, which led to lower case outcomes in FY 2020. But during this past “lower than expected” recovery year, the MFCUs still recovered over $1 billion from health care providers. It was a 48% drop.
As MFCUs initially moved to a telework environment, some staff reported experiencing challenges conducting work because of limitations with computer equipment and network infrastructure. Field work was also limited. To help protect staff and members of the public from the pandemic, MFCUs reported curtailing some in-person field work, such as interviews of witnesses and suspects. These activities were further limited because of an initial lack of personal protective equipment that was needed in order to conduct similar activities in nursing homes and other facilities. Basically, COVID made for a bad recovery year by the MFCUs. Courts were closed for a while as well, slowing the prosecutorial process.
The report further demonstrated how lucrative the MFCU agencies are, despite the pandemic. For every $1 dollar spent on the administration of a MFCU, the MFCUs rake in $3.36. In 2020, the MFCUs excluded 928 individuals or entities. There were 786 civil settlements and judgments; the vast majority of judgments were pharmaceutical manufacturers. Convictions decreased drastically from 1,564 in 2019 to 1,017 convictions in 2020. Interestingly, looking at the types of providers convicted or penalized, the vast majority were personal care services attendants and agencies. Five times higher than the next highest provider type – nurses: LPN, RNs, NPs, and PAs.
And the award goes to Maine’s MFCU – The Maine MFCU received the Inspector General’s Award for Excellence in Fighting Fraud, Waste, and Abuse for its high number of case outcomes across a mix of case types.
OIG also established the desired performance indicators for 2021. OIG expects the MFCUs to maintain an indictment rate of 19% and a conviction rate of 89.1%.
The OIG Report Foreshadows 2021 MFCU Actions:
- Hospice: Expect audits. $0 was recovered in 2020.
- Fraud convictions increased for cardiologists and emergency medicine. Expect these areas to be more highly scrutinized, especially given all the COVID exceptions and rule amendments last year.
- Expect a MFCU rally. The pandemic may not be over, but with increased vaccines and after a down year, MFCUs will be bulls in the upcoming year as opposed to last year’s forced, lamb-like actions due to the pandemic.
While Medicare is strictly a federal program, Medicaid is funded with federal and State tax dollars. Therefore, each State’s regulations germane to Medicaid can vary. Medicaid fraud can be prosecuted as a federal or a State crime.