Last week, (May 22nd) the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) unveiled a new, streamlined appeal process aimed at decreasing the massive Medicare appeal backlog. CMS is hopeful that providers, like you, will choose to settle your Medicare appeal cases instead continuing the litigious dispute. Remember, currently, the backlog at the third level of Medicare appeals, the administrative law judge (ALJ) level, is approximately 5 – 8 years (I will use 8 years for the purpose of this blog). Recoupment can legally begin after level two, so many providers go out of business waiting to be heard at the third level. See blog.
The new “settlement conference facilitation” (SCF) process will allow CMS to make a settlement offer and providers have seven days to accept or proceed with the longer-lasting route. I have a strong sense that, if litigated, a judge would find forcing the decision between accepting a quick settlement versus enduring an 8-year waiting-period to present before an ALJ, coercion. But, for now, it is A choice other than the 8-year wait-period (as long as the provider met the eligibility requirements, see below).
To initiate said SCF process, a provider would have to submit a request in writing to CMS. CMS would then have 15 days to reply. If the agency chooses to take part, a settlement conference would occur within four weeks. Like that underlined part? I read the SCF process as saying, even if the provider qualifies for such process, CMS still has the authority to refuse to participate. Which begs the question, why have a process that does not have to be followed?
The SCF process is directed toward sizable providers with older and more substantial, alleged overpayments. In order to play, you must meet the criteria to enter the game. Here are the eligibility requirements:
In fiscal year (FY) 2016, more than 1.2 billion Medicare fee-for-service claims were processed. Over 119 million claims (or 9.7%) were denied. Of the denied claims, 3.5 million (2.9% of all Medicare denied claims) were appealed. That seems surprisingly low to me. But many claims are denied to Medicare recipients, who would be less inclined to appeal. For example, my grandma would not hire an attorney to appeal a denied claim; it would be fiscally illogical. However, a hospital that is accused of $10 million in alleged overpayments will hire an attorney.
In recent years, the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) and the Council have received more appeals than they can process within the statutorily-defined time frames. From FY 2010 through FY 2015, OMHA experienced an overall 442% increase in the number of appeals received annually. As a result, as of the end of FY 2016, 658,307 appeals were waiting to be adjudicated by OMHA. Under current resource levels (and without any additional appeals), it would take eight years for OMHA and ten years for the Council to process their respective backlogs.
The SCF “Fix”
While I do not believe that the creation of the SCF process is a fix, it is a concerted step in the right direction. Being that it was just enacted, we do not have any trial results. So many things on paper look good, but when implemented in real life end so poorly. For example, the Titanic.
Considering that there is a court case that found Health and Human Services (HHS) in violation of federal regulations that require level three Medicare appeals to be adjudicated in 90 days, instead of 8 years and HHS failed to follow the Order, claiming impossibility, at least HHS is making baby steps. See blog. At some point, Congress is going to have to increase funding to hire additional ALJs. I can only assume that the Hospital Association and American Medical Association are lobbying to get this action, but you know what they say about assuming…
As broached above, I do not like the fact that – if you do not accept whatever amount CMS proposes as settlement – BOOM – negotiation is over and you suffer the 8-year backlog time, undergo recoupments (that may not be appropriate), and incur tens of thousands of attorneys’ fees to continue litigation. Literally, CMS has no incentive to settle and you have every reason to settle. The only incentive for CMS to settle that I can fathom is that CMS wants this SCF program to be a success for the jury of public opinion, therefore, will try to get a high rate of success. But do not fool yourself.
You are the beggar and CMS is the King.
Premature Recoupment of Medicare or Medicaid Funds Can Feel Like Getting Mauled by Dodgeballs: But Is It Constitutional?
State and federal governments contract with many private vendors to manage Medicare and Medicaid. And regulatory audits are fair game for all these contracted vendors and, even more – the government also contracts with private companies that are specifically hired to audit health care providers. Not even counting the contracted vendors that manage Medicaid or Medicare (the companies to which you bill and get paid), we have Recovery Act Contractors (RAC), Zone Program Integrity Contractors (ZPICs), Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), and Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) auditors. See blog for explanation. ZPICs, RACs, and MACs conduct pre-payment audits. ZPICs, RACs, MACs, and CERTs conduct post-payment audits.
It can seem that audits can hit you from every side.
“Remember the 5 D’s of dodgeball: Dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge.”
Remember the 5 A’s of audits: Appeal, argue, apply, attest, and appeal.”
Medicare providers can contest payment denials (whether pre-payment or post-payment) through a five-level appeal process. See blog.
On the other hand, Medicaid provider appeals vary depending on which state law applies. For example, in NC, the general process is an informal reconsideration review (which has .008% because, essentially you are appealing to the very entity that decided you owed an overpayment), then you file a Petition for Contested Case at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). Your likelihood of success greatly increases at the OAH level because these hearings are conducted by an impartial judge. Unlike in New Mexico, where the administrative law judges are hired by Human Services Department, which is the agency that decided you owe an overpayment. In NM, your chance of success increases greatly on judicial review.
In Tx, providers may use three methods to appeal Medicaid fee-for-service and carve-out service claims to Texas Medicaid & Healthcare Partnership (TMHP): electronic, Automated Inquiry System (AIS), or paper within 120 days.
In Il, you have 60-days to identify the total amount of all undisputed and disputed audit
overpayment. You must report, explain and repay any overpayment, pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. Section 1320a-7k(d) and Illinois Public Aid Code 305 ILCS 5/12-4.25(L). The OIG will forward the appeal request pertaining to all disputed audit overpayments to the Office of Counsel to the Inspector General for resolution. The provider will have the opportunity to appeal the Final Audit Determination, pursuant to the hearing process established by 89 Illinois Adm. Code, Sections 104 and 140.1 et. seq.
You get the point.”Nobody makes me bleed my own blood. Nobody!” – White Goodman
Recoupment During Appeals
Regardless whether you are appealing a Medicare or Medicaid alleged overpayment, the appeals process takes time. Years in some circumstances. While the time gently passes during the appeal process, can the government or one of its minions recoup funds while your appeal is pending?
The answer is: It depends.
Before I explain, I hear my soapbox calling, so I will jump right on it. It is my legal opinion (and I am usually right) that recoupment prior to the appeal process is complete is a violation of due process. People are always shocked how many laws and regulations, both on the federal and state level, are unconstitutional. People think, well, that’s the law…it must be legal. Incorrect. Because something is allowed or not allowed by law does not mean the law is constitutional. If Congress passed a law that made it illegal to travel between states via car, that would be unconstitutional. In instances that the government is allowed to recoup Medicaid/care prior to the appeal is complete, in my (educated) opinion. However, until a provider will fund a lawsuit to strike these allowances, the rules are what they are. Soapbox – off.
Going back to whether recoupment may occur before your appeal is complete…
For Medicare audit appeals, there can be no recoupment at levels one and two. After level two, however, the dodgeballs can fly, according to the regulations. Remember, the time between levels two and three can be 3 – 5 years, maybe longer. See blog. There are legal options for a Medicare provider to stop recoupments during the 3rd through 5th levels of appeal and many are successful. But according to the black letter of the law, Medicare reimbursements can be recouped during the appeal process.
Medicaid recoupment prior to the appeal process varies depending on the state. Recoupment is not allowed in NC while the appeal process is ongoing. Even if you reside in a state that allows recoupment while the appeal process is ongoing – that does not mean that the recoupment is legal and constitutional. You do have legal rights! You do not need to be the last kid in the middle of a dodgeball game.
Don’t be this guy:
You are a Medicare health care provider. You perform health care services across the country. Maybe you are a durable medical equipment (DME) provider with a website that allows patients to order physician-prescribed, DME supplies from all 50 states. Maybe you perform telemedicine to multiple states. Maybe you are a large health care provider with offices in multiple states.
Regardless, imagine that you receive 25, 35, or 45 notifications of alleged overpayments from 5 separate “jurisdictions” (the 5th being Region 5 (DME/HHH – Performant Recovery, Inc.). You get one notice dated January 1, 2018, for $65,000 from Region 1. January 2, 2018, you receive a notice of alleged overpayment from Region 2 in the amount of $210.35. January 3, 2018, is a big day. You receive notices of alleged overpayments in the amounts of $5 million from Region 4, $120,000 from Region 3, and two other Region 1 notices in the amount of $345.00 and $65,000. This continues for three weeks. In the end, you have 20 different notices of alleged overpayments from 5 different regions, and you are terrified and confused. But you know you need legal representation.
Do you appeal all the notices? Even the notice for $345.00? Obviously, the cost of attorneys’ fees to appeal the $345.00 will way outweigh the amount of the alleged overpayment.
Here are my two cents:
Appeal everything – and this is why – it is a compelling argument of harassment/undue burden/complete confusion to a judge to demonstrate the fact that you received 20 different notices of overpayment from 5 different MACs. I mean, you need a freaking XL spreadsheet to keep track of your notices. Never mind that an appeal in Medicare takes 5 levels and each appeal will be at a separate and distinct status than the others. Judges are humans, and humans understand chaos and the fact that humans have a hard time with chaos. For example, I have contractors in my house. It is chaos. I cannot handle it.
While 20 distinct notices of alleged overpayment is tedious, it is worth it once you get to the third level, before an unbiased administrative law judge (ALJ), when you can consolidate the separate appeals to show the judge the madness.
Legally, the MACs cannot withhold or recoup funds while you appeal, although this is not always followed. In the case that the MACs recoup/withhold during your appeal, if it will cause irreparable harm to your company, then you need to get an injunction in court to suspend the recoupment/withhold.
According to multiple sources, the appeal success rate at the first and second levels are low, approximately 20%. This is to be expected since the first level is before the entity that determined that you owe money and the second level is not much better. The third level, however, is before an impartial ALJ. The success rate at that level is upwards of 75-80%. In the gambling game of life, those are good odds.
When you get accused of Medicare or Medicaid fraud or of an alleged overpayment, the federal and state governments have the authority to suspend your reimbursements. If you rely heavily on Medicaid or Medicare, this suspension can be financially devastating. If your Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements are suspended, you have to hire an attorney. And, somehow, you have to be able to afford such legal representation without reimbursements. Sadly, this is why many providers simply go out of business when their reimbursements are suspended.
But, legally, how long can the state or federal government suspend your Medicare or Medicaid payments without due process?
According to 42 C.F.R. 405.371, the federal government may suspend your Medicare reimbursements upon ” reliable information that an overpayment exists or that the payments to be made may not be correct, although additional information may be needed for a determination.” However, for Medicare, there is a general rule that the suspension may not last more than 180 days. MedPro Health Providers, LLC v. Hargan, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 173441 *2.
There are also procedural safeguards. A Medicare provider must be provided notice prior to a suspension and given the opportunity to submit a rebuttal statement explaining why the suspension should not be implemented. Medicare must, within 15 days, consider the rebuttal, including any material submitted. The Medicare Integrity Manual states that the material provided by the provider must be reviewed carefully.
42 CFR 455.23 states that “The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending under the Medicaid program against an individual or entity unless the agency has good cause to not suspend payments or to suspend payment only in part.”
Notice the differences…
Number one: In the Medicare regulation, the word used is “may” suspend. In the Medicaid regulation, the word used is “must” suspend. This difference between may and must may not resonate as a huge difference, but, in the legal world, it is. You see, “must” denotes that there is no discretion (even though there is discretion in the good cause exception). On the other hand, “may” suggests more discretionary power in the decision.
Number two: In the Medicare regulation, notice is required. It reads, “Except as provided in paragraphs (d) and (e) of this section, CMS or the Medicare contractor suspends payments only after it has complied with the procedural requirements set forth at § 405.372.” 405.372 reads the Medicare contractor must notify the provider or supplier of the intention to suspend payments, in whole or in part, and the reasons for making the suspension. In the Medicaid regulation, no notice is required. 455.23 reads “The State Medicaid agency may suspend payments without first notifying the provider of its intention to suspend such payments.”
Number three: In the Medicare regulation, a general limit of the reimbursement suspension is imposed, which is 180 days. In the Medicaid regulation, the regulations states that the suspension is “temporary” and must be lifted after either of the following (1) there is a determination of no credible allegations of fraud or (2) the legal proceedings regarding the alleged fraud are complete.
Yet I have seen States blatantly violate the “temporary” requirement. Consider the New Mexico situation. All the behavioral health care providers who were accused of Medicaid fraud have been cleared by the Attorney General. The regulation states that the suspension must be lifted upon either of the following – meaning, if one situation is met, the suspension must be lifted. Well, the Attorney General has cleared all the New Mexico behavioral health care providers of fraud. Criterion is met. But the suspension has not been lifted. The Health Services Department (HSD) has not lifted the suspension. This suspension has continued for 4 1/2 years. It began June 24, 2013. See blog, blog, and blog. Here is a timeline of events.
Why is there such a disparity in treatment with Medicare providers versus Medicaid providers?
The first thing that comes to mind is that Medicare is a fully federal program, while Medicaid is state-run. Although a portion of the funds for Medicaid comes from the federal government.
Secondly, Medicare patients pay part of costs through deductibles for hospital and other costs. Small monthly premiums are required for non-hospital coverage. Whereas, Medicaid patients pay nothing.
Thirdly, Medicare is for the elderly, and Medicaid is for the impoverished.
But should these differences between the two programs create such a disparity in due process and the length of reimbursement suspensions for health care providers? Why is a Medicare provider generally only susceptible to a 180 day suspension, while a Medicaid provider can be a victim of a 4 1/2 year suspension?
Parity, as it relates to mental health and substance abuse, prohibits insurers or health care service plans from discriminating between coverage offered for mental illness, serious mental illness, substance abuse, and other physical disorders and diseases. In short, parity requires insurers to provide the same level of benefits for mental illness, serious mental illness or substance abuse as for other physical disorders and diseases.
Does parity apply to Medicare and Medicaid providers?
Most of Medicare and Medicaid law is interpreted by administrative law judges. Most of the time, a health care provider, who is not receiving reimbursements cannot fund an appeal to Superior Court, the Court of Appeals, and, finally the Supreme Court. Going to the Supreme Court costs so much that most normal people will never present before the Supreme Court…it takes hundreds and hundreds upon thousands of dollars.
In January 1962, a man held in a Florida prison cell wrote a note to the United States Supreme Court. He’d been charged with breaking into a pool hall, stealing some Cokes, beer, and change, and was handed a five-year sentence after he represented himself because he couldn’t pay for a lawyer. Clarence Earl Gideon’s penciled message eventually led to the Supreme Court’s historic 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright ruling, reaffirming the right to a criminal defense and requiring states to provide a defense attorney to those who can’t afford one. But it does not apply to civil cases.
Furthermore, pro bono attorneys and legal aid attorneys, although much-needed for recipients, will not represent a provider.
So, until a health care provider, who is a gaga-zillionaire, pushes a lawsuit to the Supreme Court, our Medicare and Medicaid law will continue to be interpreted by administrative law judges and, perhaps, occasionally, by Superior Court. Do not take this message and interpret that I think that administrative law judges and Superior Court judges are incapable of interpreting the laws and fairly applying them to certain cases. That is the opposite of what I think. The point is that if the case law never gets to the Supreme Court, we will never have consistency in Medicare and Medicaid law. A District Court in New Mexico could define “temporary” in suspensions of Medicare and/or Medicaid reimbursements as 1 year. Another District Court in New York could define “temporary” as 1 month. Consistency in interpreting laws only happens once the Supreme Court weighs in.
Until then, stay thirsty, my friend.
On September 6, 2017, I appeared on the Besler Hospital Finance Podcast regarding:
Update on the Medicare appeals backlog [PODCAST]
Feel free to listen to the podcast, download it, and share with others!
But all is not lost… it all lies in the possibility…
A few weeks ago I blogged about Health and Human Services (HHS) possibly being held in contempt of court for violating an Order handed down on Dec. 5, 2016, by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg. See blog.
The District Court Judge granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of the American Hospital Association in AHA v. Burwell. He ordered HHS to incrementally reduce the backlog of 657,955 appeals pending before the agency’s Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals over the next four years, reducing the backlog by 30% by the end of 2017; 60% by the end of 2018; 90% by the end of 2019; and to completely eliminate the backlog by Dec. 31, 2020.
This was a huge win for AHA – and Medicare providers across the country. Currently, when a provider appeals an adverse decision regarding Medicare, it costs an inordinate amount of attorneys’ fees, and the provider will not receive legal relief for upwards of 6 – 10 years, which can cause financial hardship, especially if the adverse action is in place during the appeal process. Yet the administrative appeal process was designed (poorly) to conclude within 1 year.
With the first deadline (the end of 2017) fast approaching and HHS publicly announcing that the reduction of 30% by the end of 2017 is impossible, questions were posed – how could the District Court hold HHS, a federal agency, in contempt?
We got the answer.
On August 11, 2017, the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia overturned the District Court; thereby lifting the requirement to reduce the Medicare appeal backlog.
Wiping tear from face.
The first paragraph of the Ruling, indicates the Court’s philosophic reasoning, starting with a quote from Immanuel Kant (not to be confused with Knicole Emanuel), CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON 548 (Norman Kemp Smith trans., Macmillan 1953) (1781) (“The action to which the ‘ought’ applies must indeed be possible under natural conditions.”)
First paragraph of the decision:
“”Ought implies can.” That is, in order for law – man-made or otherwise – to command the performance of an act, that act must be possible to perform. This lofty philosophical maxim, ordinarily relevant only to bright-eyed college freshmen, sums up our reasoning in this case.”
The Appeals Court determined that the District Court commanded the Secretary to perform an act – clear the backlog by certain deadlines – without evaluating whether performance was possible.
The Medicare backlog skyrocketed in 2011 due to the federally-required Medicare Recovery Audit Program (RAC). With the implementation of the RAC program, the number of appeals filed ballooned from 59,600 in fiscal year 2011 to more than 384,000 in fiscal year 2013. These appeals bottlenecked to the third level of appeal, which is before an administrative law judge (ALJ). As of June 2, 2017, there was a backlog of 607,402 appeals awaiting review at this level. On its current course, the backlog is projected to grow to 950,520 by the end of fiscal year 2021.
There is a way for a provider to “skip” the ALJ level and “escalate” the claim, but it comes at a cost. Several procedural rights must be forfeited.
It is important to note that the appellate decision does not state that the District Court does not have the authority to Order HHS to eliminate the appeals backlog.
It only holds that, because HHS claims that compliance is impossible, the District Court must rule on whether compliance is possible before mandating the compliance. In other words, the Appeals Court wants the lower court to make a fact-finding decision as to whether HHS is able to eliminate the backlog before ordering it to do so. The Appeals Court is instructing the lower court to put the horse in front of the cart.
The Appeals Court explicitly states that it is suspect that the Secretary of HHS has done all things possible to decrease the backlog. (“We also share the District Court’s skepticism of the Secretary’s assertion that he has done all he can to reduce RAC-related appeals.”) So do not take the Appeals Court’s reversal as a sign that HHS will win the war.
I only hope that AHA presents every possible legal argument once the case is remanded to District Court. It is imperative that AHA’s attorneys think of every possible legal misstep in this remand in order to win. Not winning could potentially create bad law, basically, asserting that the Secretary has no duty to fix this appeals backlog. Obviously, the Secretary is exactly the person who should fix the backlog in his own agency. To hold otherwise, would thwart the very reason we have a Secretary of HHS. Through its rhetoric, the Appeals Court made it clear that it, too, has severe reservations about HHS’ claim of impossibility. However, without question, AHA’s suggestion to the District Court that a timeframe be implemented to reduce the backlog is not the answer. AHA needs to brainstorm and come up with several detailed proposals. For example, does the court need to include a requirement that the Secretary devote funds to hire additional ALJs? Or mandate that the ALJs work a half day on Saturday? Or order that the appeal process be revised to make the process more efficient? Clearly, the mere demand that HHS eliminate the backlog within a certain timeframe was too vague.
From here, the case will be remanded back to the District Court with instructions to the Judge to determine whether the elimination of the Medicare appeal backlog is possible. So, for now, HHS is safe from being held in contempt. But the Secretary should take heed from the original ruling and begin taking steps in fixing this mess. It is highly likely that HHS will be facing similar deadlines again – once the District Court determines it is possible.
Four months after the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Final Rule went in effect (March 2017) attempting to eliminate the Medicare appeal backlog and 6 months before United States District Court for the District of Columbia’s first court-imposed deadline (end of 2017) of reducing the Medicare appeal backlog by 30%, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are woefully far from either. According to HHS’ June 2017 report on the Medicare appeal backlog, 950,520 claims will remain in the backlog by 2021. This is in stark contrast to the District Court’s Order that HHS completely eliminate the backlog by 2020. So will HHS be held in contempt? Throw the Secretary in jail? That is what normally happened when someone violates a Court Order.
Supposedly, HHS’ catastrophic inability to decrease the Medicare appeal backlog is not from a lack of giving the ole college try. But, in its June 2017 report, HHS blames funding.
CMS issued a new Final Rule in January 2017, which took effect March 2017, in hopes of reducing the massive Medicare provider appeal backlog that has clogged up the third level of appeal of Medicare providers’ adverse actions. In the third level of appeal, providers make their arguments before an administrative law judge (ALJ). For information on all the Medicare appeal levels, click here.
The Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) claims that it currently can adjudicate roughly 92,000 appeals annually. The current backlog is approximately 667,326 appeals that HHS estimates will grow to 950,520 by 2021. The average number of days between filing a Petition with OMHA and adjudicating the case is around 1057.2 days.
HHS had high hopes that these changes would eliminate the backlog. In HHS’ Final Rule Fact Sheet, it states “with the administrative authorities set forth in the final rule and the FY 2017 proposed funding increases and legislative actions outlined in the President’s Budget, we estimate that that the backlog of appeals could be eliminated by FY 2020.” The changes made to the Medicare appeals process by the January 2017 Final Rule is the following:
Changes to the Medicare Appeals Process
The changes in the final rule are primarily focused on the third level of appeal and will:
- Designate Medicare Appeals Council decisions (final decisions of the Secretary) as precedential to provide more consistency in decisions at all levels of appeal, reducing the resources required to render decisions, and possibly reducing appeal rates by providing clarity to appellants and adjudicators.
- Allow attorney adjudicators to decide appeals for which a decision can be issued without a hearing and dismiss requests for hearing when an appellant withdraws the request. That way ALJs can focus on conducting hearings and adjudicating the merits of more complex cases.
- Simplify proceedings when CMS or CMS contractors are involved by limiting the number of entities (CMS or contractors) that can be a participant or party at the hearing.
- Clarify areas of the regulations that currently causes confusion and may result in unnecessary appeals to the Medicare Appeals Council.
- Create process efficiencies by eliminating unnecessary steps (e.g., by allowing ALJs to vacate their own dismissals rather than requiring appellants to appeal a dismissal to the Medicare Appeals Council); streamlining certain procedures (e.g., by using telephone hearings for appellants who are not unrepresented beneficiaries, unless the ALJ finds good cause for an appearance by other means); and requiring appellants to provide more information on what they are appealing and who will be attending a hearing.
- Address areas for improvement previously identified by stakeholders to increase the quality of the process and responsiveness to customers, such as establishing an adjudication time frame for cases remanded from the Medicare Appeals Council, revising remand rules to help ensure cases keep moving forward in the process, simplifying the escalation process, and providing more specific rules on what constitutes good cause for new evidence to be admitted at the OMHA level of appeal.
In early June 2017, HHS issued its second status report on the Medicare appeals backlog and the outlook does not look good.
CMS held a call on June 29, 2017, to discuss recent regulatory changes intended to streamline the Medicare administrative appeal processes, reduce the backlog of pending appeals, and increase consistency in decision-making across appeal levels.
Now HHS is in danger of violating a Court Order.
In December 2016, the District Court for the District of Columbia held in American Hospital Association v Burwell case Ordered HHS to release to status reports every 90 days and the complete elimination of the backlog by 2020, HHS is also required to observe several intermediary benchmarks: 30% reduction by the end of 2017, 60% by the end of 2018, 90% by the end of 2019, and then ultimately 100% elimination by the end of 2020.
BUT LITTLE TO NOTHING HAS CHANGED.
HHS itself has maintained since the requirements were instituted that the elimination of the backlog would not be possible. June’s report projects 950,520 claims will remain by 2021, but this projection is still very far from meeting the court order.
HHS blames funding.
But even significant increase of funding (from about $107 million in 2017, to $242 million in 2018) will not cure the problem! I find it very disturbing that $242 million could not eliminate the Medicare appeal backlog. So what will happen when HHS fails to meet the Court’s mandate of a 30% reduction of the backlog by the end of 2017? Hold the Secretary in contempt?
The court in Burwell drafted a “what if” into the Decision—the Court stated: “if [HHS] fails to meet [these] deadlines, Plaintiffs may move for default judgment or to otherwise enforce the writ of mandamus.” This allows the Court authority to enforce its Decision, but it has not motivated HHS to try any innovative procedures to reduce the backlog. So far no additional actions have been attempted, and the backlog remains.
If HHS is in violation of the Court Order at the end of 2017, the Court could issue harsh penalties. (Or the Court could do nothing and be a complete disappointment).
There’s no getting around it. Four years after Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration charged 15 behavioral health organizations with potentially defrauding the state’s Medicaid program, its case has experienced a slow-motion unraveling.
No Medicaid fraud was ever found. And those eye-popping estimates that added up to $36 million the organizations had overbilled Medicaid?
In the summer of 2017, the Human Services Department (HSD) is seeking drastically lower reimbursements for overbilling the public health insurance program for low-income residents, a review of public records and state court documents has found.
Now exonerated by the state Attorney General’s Office, many organizations are challenging even those much-lower estimates in administrative hearings or in state court.
Consider Teambuilders Counseling Services, one of the accused behavioral health providers.
Last fall it received a new estimate from the New Mexico Human Services Department. Previous numbers had varied from as high as $9.6 million to as low as $2 million. But the new figure deviated sharply from earlier calculations when Chester Boyett, an administrative law judge in the state agency’s Fair Hearings Bureau, ruled Teambuilders owed only $896.35.
Boyett argued his agency had built its $2 million estimate of Medicaid overbilling on faulty analysis, according to his 12-page decision.
Nancy Smith-Leslie, the department’s director of the Medical Assistance Division, ignored Boyett’s recommendation. In a Jan. 6 letter she said the agency’s analysis was sound, even though she seemed to confirm Boyett’s critique in a Nov. 2 memo in which she had noted the inaccuracy of the extrapolated amount. In that memo Teambuilders and its attorney had not “sufficiently disputed” the method of extrapolation, however, she wrote.
In her Jan. 6 letter, Smith-Leslie sought to clear up matters. She amended her previous statement, saying the extrapolation referred to in her Nov. 2 memo indeed was correct.
Teambuilders and its attorney, Knicole Emanuel, appealed HSD’s ruling over whether Teambuilders overbilled Medicaid and by how much to state court, where three other former behavioral health organizations are fighting HSD’s extrapolated overpayments.
Boyett’s finding that Teambuilders owed hundreds rather than millions of dollars — even if it was ignored — represents a compelling data point given where things stand with other providers.
And last September HSD closed the books on another organization — Las Cruces-based Families and Youth Inc. — without demanding any reimbursements for overbilling and releasing $1.4 million in Medicaid dollars the state had suspended. The action represented a reversal after a state-ordered 2013 audit that found $856,745 in potential Medicaid overbilling by FYI.
In fact, a review of state and court documents by New Mexico In Depth reveals a pattern regarding the state agency’s overbilling estimates: In many cases, they are moving targets, usually on a downward trajectory.
Like Southwest’s, some have dropped spectacularly. Setting aside Boyett’s figure of $896, even the $2 million HSD claims Teambuilders owes is far smaller than a high of $12 million.
Hogares Inc., another organization accused of fraud, watched last year as the state revised its overbilling estimates five times over six months, starting at $9.5 million in January and ending with $3.1 million in June, according to state court documents.
Meanwhile, Easter Seals El Mirador, initially accused of $850,000 in potential Medicaid overbilling, now stands accused of $127,000.
Emanuel and Bryan Davis, another attorney representing many of the formerly accused organizations, said the constantly changing estimates are due to HSD.
The state agency is examining a sampling of each organization’s Medicaid claims and asking the organizations for documentation to prove the government program was properly billed, they said.
“In most cases (the overbilling estimates) are dropping precipitously” as organizations submit the documents requested by HSD, Davis said.
To cite one example, HSD’s latest overbilling estimate for Counseling Associates, Inc. is $96,000, said Davis, who represents the organization. That compares to $3 million in potential overbilling a 2013 state-ordered audit found.
It is a perplexing situation, given that the Human Services Department found “‘credible allegations of fraud” against the 15 organizations using that 2013 audit, which was performed by Massachusetts-based Public Consulting Group Inc.
“They threw PCG’s audit in the trash,” Davis said of HSD, noting the cost. HSD agreed to pay PCG up to $3 million for the study in February 2013.
The current situation caused Davis to wonder “why PCG didn’t have these documents in the first place,” he said.
Emanuel offered a pointed answer.
“HSD did not allow PCG to gather all the documents,” she said.
A spokesperson for HSD did not respond multiple requests for comment for this story.
Repercussions of the Medicaid crackdown
The fight over Medicaid overbilling isn’t the only legacy left from the Medicaid crackdown, which happened the last week of June 2013.
The Martinez administration’s decision affected lives. Many lives if you listen to behavioral health advocates and officials in the 15 organizations.
Charging the organizations with fraud and then suspending Medicaid payments to many of them disrupted mental health and addiction services for tens of thousands of New Mexicans. It created chaos for employees. And four years on it has left a number of business failures in its wake, with many of the accused organizations unable to survive long-term without Medicaid dollars.
Teambuilders, which once operated 52 locations in 17 New Mexico counties, is no longer in business, according to Emanuel. Neither is Las Cruces-based Southwest Counseling Center. Or Hogares.
At the same time a gap in care has opened up after three of five Arizona companies the Martinez administration brought in to care for the vulnerable populations have departed the state, leaving New Mexico to pick up the pieces.
“It’s a mess. It’s disgusting,” said James Kerlin, executive director of The Counseling Center of Alamogordo, which no longer sees clients. Like Teambuilders, Hogares, Southwest Counseling and others, it was unable to stay in business without the flow of Medicaid dollars the state suspended. “I want the public to know where we’re at and what’s been done to us. I’m going to start making a lot of noise. This is ridiculous.”
Kerlin’s organization was the first of the 15 organizations exonerated by then Attorney General Gary King in early 2014. And it offered the earliest glimpse of the weaknesses in the Martinez administration’s case against the behavioral health providers.
First signs of weakness in the state’s case
HSD hired PCG to audit all 15 organizations and it found $655,000 in potential Medicaid overbilling by the Counseling Center.
PCG reached that conclusion after finding $1,873 in questionable Medicaid claims and then extrapolating from those claims that the center could have overbilled Medicaid by more than $600,000 based on the size of its Medicaid business over several years.
But during its fraud investigation the AG’s office flagged fewer Counseling Center claims than PCG and found a much lower cost of potential overbillings. It resolved some of the issues by reviewing records and interviewing staff.
In many cases, auditors give staff of audited organizations an opportunity to refute findings or address misunderstandings before finalizing their findings. For example, most state and local governmental agencies are audited annually in New Mexico. Staff within those agencies are afforded the chance to see and respond to audit findings within a certain amount of time before audits are made public.
Kerlin did not get that opportunity during the PCG audit.
PCG later confirmed to NMID that it is the firm’s standard procedure to give companies a chance to respond before issuing official audit findings. A PCG spokesperson would not tell NMID why that didn’t happen in New Mexico.
By the time HSD held a hearing for the Counseling Center, the state agency had lowered its Medicaid overbillings estimate to $379,135. And Kerlin finally was able to hear the accusations against his organization.
Counseling Center submitted evidence to rebut the state agency’s claims, but the hearing officer sided with HSD. The Counseling Center appealed to state court.
In late 2015, State District Court Judge Francis Mathew ruled in favor of Kerlin’s organization, calling HSD’s hearing decision “arbitrary, capricious or otherwise not in accordance with law.”
In addition, the judge found the administrative law judge had shifted the burden of proof from HSD to the Counseling Center and then set too high a standard for the organization. Citing portions of the administrative law judge’s ruling, Mathew noted the Counseling Center had “offered certain amount of credible evidence in opposition” to HSD’s findings but not as much as the hearing officer required: a “100 percent audit” of records, which the state district judge found “unreasonable.”
HSD appealed the judge’s decision to the state Court of Appeals.
Examples of rejected claims
The overly stringent standards for documentation — and even a basic lack of understanding by HSD staff of Medicaid billing requirements — can be found in cases involving other organizations that are contesting the department’s charges of overbilling, a review of court documents found.
In a motion appealing the administrative law judge’s ruling that it owed the state $127,240, Easter Seals disputed seven claims, including one HSD had rejected because there was no medication consent form in place, even though the patient and parent had signed a general informed consent form and the patient’s parent was present when the medication was prescribed.
According to the court document, “There was no dispute that the service was medically necessary and was provided to J.A. There is no question as to quality of care provided to the recipient of services.”
Another claim was rejected because there was no doctor’s signature on a psychosocial assessment, however the state could provide no legal requirement for the signature, according to Easter Seals’ appeal. “A signature might be best practice, or advisable, but it is not a requirement,” the filing argued.
Also in the appeal, Easter Seals noted that the Human Service Department’s coding witness not only could not cite rules disallowing two services to be delivered during the same time period, but also appeared to be using a coding manual from Medicare, the insurance for seniors, and not Medicaid. And furthermore, she did not even realize there was a manual for Medicaid.
HSD ignored evidence in 2013 that refuted overbilling claims
Even those organizations that have avoided administrative hearings and court battles have stories to tell about HSD and its actions.
It wasn’t an easy decision, its CEO said this week, and it shouldn’t be construed as agreement with the state’s conclusions.
“We agree to disagree” is how Steven Hansen put it.
Until Presbyterian began negotiating an agreement, in fact, it had not seen the findings of the PCG audit.
During the negotiations PMS officials found documents they thought could refute PCG’s audit findings, Hansen and other PMS officials told state lawmakers in October 2014.
Presbyterian tried to give the files to PCG and the Human Services Department as proof that they had properly billed Medicaid for payment. The consulting firm said it would review the documentation if directed to by HSD, but PCG later told Presbyterian Medical Services the state agency “did not want to accept those records.”
“We believe there is a strong argument that nothing was owed back to HSD,” Presbyterian’s general counsel told lawmakers in 2014.
At that point, Presbyterian had to make a choice: Settle with the state or fight and possibly run out of money.
Presbyterian settled, paying the $4 million.
The decision has worked out for the organization.
“We’re doing more business than we did before” the 2013 crackdown, Hansen said.
That’s because as the Arizona providers the Martinez administration brought in have left New Mexico, Presbyterian Medical Services has taken over mental health and addiction services.
Presbyterian has added Carlsbad, Alamogordo, Deming, Espańola, Grants, Artesia, Santa Fe and Rio Rancho to the places it provides behavioral health services, Hansen said, adding it’s “bits and pieces” of areas formerly serviced by three of the five Arizona companies.
“We feel like it’s going in a good direction for us,” Hansen said. “That’s hard for us to say because there were so many great organizations that are no longer in the state. But we’ve had to move on.”
What if you had to appeal traffic citations through the police officer who pulled you over before you could defend yourself before an impartial judge? That would be silly and a waste of time. I could not fathom a time in which the officer would overturn his/her own decision.
“No, officer, I know you claim that I was speeding, but the speed limit on Hwy 1 had just increased to 65. You were wrong when you said the speed limit was 55.”
“Good catch, citizen. You’re right; I’m wrong. Let’s just rip up this speeding ticket.”
Not going to happen.
The same is true when it comes to decisions by the Department of Health and Human Service (DHHS) to sanction or penalize a Medicaid provider based on alleged provider abuse (otherwise known as documentation errors). If DHHS determines that you owe $800,000 because your service notes are noncompliant, I am willing to bet that, upon its own reconsideration, the decision will be upheld. Asking for reconsideration review from the very same entity that decided the sanction or penalty is akin to doing something over and over and expecting different results (definition of insanity?).
But – are informal reconsideration reviews required by law to fight an adverse decision before you may appear before an administrative law judge?
The reason that you should care whether the reconsideration reviews are required by law is because the process is time consuming, and, often, the adverse determination is in effect during the process. If you hire an attorney, it is an expensive process, but one that you will not (likely) win. Generally, I am adverse to spending time and money on something that will yield nothing.
Before delving into whether reconsideration reviews are required by law, here is my caveat: This issue has not been decided by our courts. In fact, our administrative court has rendered conflicting decisions. I believe that my interpretation of the laws is correct (obviously), but until the issue is resolved legally, cover your donkey (CYA), listen to your attorney, and act conservatively.
Different laws relate to whether the adverse decision is rendered by the DHHS or whether the adverse decision is rendered by a managed care organization (MCO). Thus, I will divide this blog into two sections: (1) reconsiderations to DHHS; and (2) reconsiderations to an MCO.
Appealing DHHS Adverse Determinations
When you receive an adverse decision from DHHS, you will know that it is from DHHS because it will be on DHHS letterhead (master of the obvious).
10A NCAC 22F .0402 states that “(a) Upon notification of a tentative decision the provider will be offered, in writing, by certified mail, the opportunity for a reconsideration of the tentative decision and the reasons therefor. (b) The provider will be instructed to submit to the Division in writing his request for a Reconsideration Review within fifteen working days from the date of receipt of the notice. Failure to request a Reconsideration Review in the specified time shall result in the implementation of the tentative decision as the Division’s final decision.”
As seen above, our administrative code recommends that a Medicaid provider undergo the informal reconsideration review process through DHHS to defend a sanction or penalty before presenting before an impartial judge at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). I will tell you, having gone through hundreds upon hundreds of reconsideration reviews, DHHS does not overturn itself. The Hearing Officers know who pay their salaries (DHHS). The reconsideration review ends up being a waste of time and money for the provider, who must jump through the “reconsideration review hoop” prior to filing a petition for contested case.
Historically, attorneys recommend that provider undergo the reconsideration review for fear that an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at OAH would dismiss the case based on failure to exhaust administrative remedies. But upon a plain reading of 10A NCAC 22F .0402, is it really required? Look at the language again. “Will be offered” and “the opportunity for.” And what is the penalty for not requesting a reconsideration review? That the tentative decision becomes final – so you can petition to OAH the final decision.
My interpretation of 10A NCAC 22F .0402 is that the informal reconsideration review is an option, not a requirement.
Now, N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 states that “[i]t is the policy of this State that any dispute between an agency and another person that involves the person’s rights, duties, or privileges, including licensing or the levy of a monetary penalty, should be settled through informal procedures. In trying to reach a settlement through informal procedures, the agency may not conduct a proceeding at which sworn testimony is taken and witnesses may be cross-examined. If the agency and the other person do not agree to a resolution of the dispute through informal procedures, either the agency or the person may commence an administrative proceeding to determine the person’s rights, duties, or privileges, at which time the dispute becomes a “contested case.””
It is clear that our State’s policy is that a person who has a grievance against an agency; i.e., DHHS, attempts informal resolution prior to filing an appeal at OAH. Notice that N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 is applicable to any dispute between “an agency and another person.” “Agency” is defined as “an agency or an officer in the executive branch of the government of this State and includes the Council of State, the Governor’s Office, a board, a commission, a department, a division, a council, and any other unit of government in the executive branch. A local unit of government is not an agency.”
Clearly, DHHS is an “agency,” as defined. But an MCO is not a department; or a board; or a commission; or a division; or a unit of government in the executive branch; or a council. Since the policy of exhausting administrative remedies applies to DHHS, are you required to undergo an MCO’s reconsideration review process?
Appealing an MCO Adverse Determination
When you receive an adverse decision from an MCO, you will know that it is from an MCO because it will be on the MCO’s letterhead (master of the obvious).
There is a reason that I am emphasizing the letterhead. It is because DHHS contracts with a number of vendors. For example, DHHS contracts with Public Consulting Group (PCG), The Carolina Center for Medical Excellence (CCME), HMS, Liberty, etc. You could get a letter from any one of DHHS’ contracted entities – a letter on their letterhead. For example, you could receive a Tentative Notice of Overpayment on PCG letterhead. In that case, PCG is acting on behalf of DHHS. So the informal reconsideration rules would be the same. For MCOs, on the other hand, we obtained a Waiver from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to “waive” certain rules and to create the MCOs. Different regulations apply to MCOs than DHHS. In fact, there is an argument that N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 does not apply to the MCOs because the MCOs are not an “agency.” Confusing, right? I call that job security.
Are you required to undergo the MCO’s internal reconsideration review process prior to filing a petition for contested case at OAH?
Your contract with the MCO certainly states that you must appeal through the MCO’s internal process. The MCO contracts with providers have language in them like this:
Dispute Resolution and Appeals: “The CONTRACTOR may file a complaint and/or appeals as outlined in the LME/PIHP Provider Manual promulgated by LME/PIHP pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. 122C-151.3 and as provided by N.C. Gen. Stat. Chapter 108C.”
I find numerous, fatal flaws in the above section. Whoever drafted this section of the contract evidently had never read N.C. Gen. Stat. 122C-151.3, which plainly states in subsection (b) “This section does not apply to LME/MCOs.” Also, the LME/PIHP does not have the legal authority to promulgate – that is a rule-making procedure for State agencies, such as DHHS. The third fatal flaw in the above section is that the LME/MCO Provider Manual is not promulgated and certainly was not promulgated not pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. 122C-151.3, does not apply to LME/MCOs.
Just because it is written, does not make it right.
If N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 does not apply to MCOs, because MCOs are not an agency, then the State policy of attempting to resolve disputes through informal methods before going to OAH does not apply.
There is no other statute or rule that requires a provider to exhaust an MCO’s internal review process prior to filing a petition for contested case.
What does that mean IN ENGLISH??
What it means is that the MCOs contract and provider manual that create an informal one or two-step reconsideration process is not required by law or rule. You do not have to waste your time and money arguing to the MCO that it should overturn its own decision, even though the reconsideration review process may be outlined in the provider manual or your procurement contract.
OAH has agreed…and disagreed.
In Person-Centered Partnerships, Inc. v. NC DHHS and MeckLINK, No. 13 DHR 18655, the court found that “[n]either the contractual provisions in Article II, Section 5.b of the Medicaid Contract nor MeckLINK’s “Procedures for implementation of policy # P0-09 Local Reconsideration Policy” states that reconsideration review is mandatory and a prerequisite to filing a contested case.”
In another case, OAH has held that, “[c]ontract provisions cannot override or negate the protections provided under North Carolina law, specifically the appeal rights set forth in N.C. Gen. Stat. Chapter 108C. Giesel, Corbin on Contracts § 88.7, at 595 (2011) (When the law confers upon an individual a right, privilege, or defense, the assumption is that the right, privilege or defense is conferred because it is in the public interest. Thus, in many cases, it is contrary to the public interest to permit the holder of the right, privilege, or defense to waive or to bargain it away. In these situations, the attempted waiver or bargain is unenforceable.”)” Essential Supportive Services, LLC v. DHHS and its Agent Alliance Behavioral Healthcare, No. 13 DHR 20386 (NCOAH) (quoting Yelverton’s Enrichment Services, Inc., v. PBH, as legally authorized contractor of and agent for N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, 13-CVS-11337, (7 March 2014)).
However, most recently, OAH ruled in the opposite way. A provider was terminated from an MCO’s catchment area, and we immediately filed a preliminary injunction to cease the termination. As you can see from the above-mentioned cases, OAH had not considered the reconsideration review mandatory. But, this time, the Judge found that the “contractual provision in [the MCO’s] contract with Petitioner, which provides for a local reconsideration review, is a valid and binding provision within the contract.”
So, again, the law is as clear as two and two adding up to five.
For now, when you are disputing an adverse determination by an MCO requesting a reconsideration review before going to OAH is a good CYA.
Going back to the traffic example at the beginning of the blog, my husband was pulled for speeding a few weeks ago. I was surprised because, generally, he does not speed. He is a usually conscientious and careful driver. When the officer came to his window, he was genuinely confused as to the reason for the stop. In his mind, he was driving 73 mph, only 3 miles over the speed limit. In fact, he had the car on cruise control. Turns out he confused the sign for HWY 70, as a speed limit sign. The speed limit was actually 55 mph.
We did not appeal the decision.