Apparently, CMS also must undergo audits and it did, but I am not sure I believe the results. But that would be par for the course; I generally don’t find any audit results to be accurate. OIG audited CMS. OIG tried to verify that CMS actually collected all the funds from alleged Medicare overpayments. According to the audit, OIG was able to verify that verify that CMS had collected $120 million of the $498 million in overpayments. CMS told auditors that it has collected $272 million but auditors said the agency failed to properly document the recovery of $152 million.
Without question, when there is a Medicare alleged overpayment and the provider appeals, you have 5 levels of appeal. The first two levels, redetermination and reconsideration, are basically rubber stamp approval of the original decision. But after the 2nd level, rubber stamp and before you go to the third level, recoupment begins of the alleged amount owed, even though you haven’t completed litigation AND you may receive a decision at the third level that the money is not owed. Nonetheless, the recoupment begins.
In my experience, I have never had an instance that CMS forgot to prematurely recoup. I’m sure if there were instances of CMS forgetting to prematurely recoup the provider were ecstatic. Elated. But they were also probably nervous as heck, because we all know that, eventually, the government gets its money.
In fact, one of the recommendations from CMS’ audit, was that OIG suggested that CMS revise 42 CFR §405.980, which is the federal regulation that allows for reopening initial determinations, redeterminations, reconsiderations, decisions, and reviews. The regulation already allows QICs, ALJs, the contractor – anyone who makes decisions about Medicare audits – the ability to reopen a decision already made. There are time frames for doing so.
For example, “A party may request that a contractor reopen its initial determination or redetermination within 1 year from the date of the initial determination or redetermination for any reason.” 42 CFR 405.980(c)(1). Although I’ve never understood this section. Why would a party request its audit to be reopened instead of just appealing to the next level? I doubt reopening an initial determination would yield better results. But really the purpose of §405.980 is that the government can choose to reopen a decision and, later on, after you think you won your case and owe nothing, this regulation allows them to change their mind.
This just goes to show you, the laws are written in favor of the government. It truly is a David and Goliath battle.
Today I want to discuss the Medicare appeal process and its faults. Upon undergoing a Medicare audit by Safeguard or whichever auditor contracted by CMS, a provider usually receives a notice of overpayment. The 5-level appeal process is flawed as the first two levels rubber-stamp the findings. After the second level of appeal – the QIC level to the ALJ – recoupment occurs unless the provider set up an extended repayment schedule (ERS) or files for an injunction in federal court based on a taking of a property right; i.e., the right to reimbursement for services rendered.
Everyone deserves to be paid for medically necessary services rendered. The conundrum here is that the circuit courts are split as to the protections a provider deserves.
Whenever a federal injunction is filed, the Defendant auditor files a Motion to Dismiss based on (1) failure to exhaust administrative remedies and that the Medicare Act requires the administrative process; therefore, the federal court has no jurisdiction. The provider will argue that the federal action is ancillary to the substantive issue of whether the overpayment was in error and that its protected property right is being taken without due process.
A new case rendered October 1, 2021, Integrity Social Work Services, LCSW, LLC. V. Azar, 2021 WL 4502620 (E.D.N.Y 2021) straddles the fence on the issues. The EDNY falls within the 2nd circuit, which is undecidedly split. The 5th Circuit is, as well, split. District courts across the country are split on whether Medicare providers have a protected property interest in Medicare payments subject to recoupment. Several courts have found that the Medicare Act does create such a property right, including NC, 4th Circuit, Texas, Florida, Ohio, and Illinois, to name a few.
This provider was accused of an alleged overpayment of about 1 million. It argued that because it will not receive a prompt ALJ hearing that it will be driven out of business. This is a harsh and unacceptable outcome that readily occurs in about half the states. Providers should be aware of which State in which it resides and whether that State upholds a providers’ property interest in reimbursements for services rendered.
The Integrity Social Work Court found that, yes, jurisdiction in federal court was proper because the claims were ancillary to the substantive claims that would be heard by the ALJ. The provider was asking for a temporary stay of the recoupments until an ALJ hearing was concluded. As you read the case, you get false hope on the ruling. In the end, Judge Peggy Kuo found “Nor is the process to contest an overpayment or a recoupment decision arbitrary, outrageous, or even inadequate.”
Respectfully, I disagree. As does half the other courts. See, e.g., Accident, Injury & Rehab., PC v. Azar, No. 4:18-CV-2173 (DCC), 2018 WL 4625791, at *7 (D.S.C. Sept. 27, 2018); Adams EMS, Inc. v. Azar, No. H-18-1443, 2018 WL 3377787, at *4 (S.D. Tex. July 11, 2018); Family Rehab., Inc. v. Azar, No. 3:17-CV-3008-K, 2018 WL 3155911, at *4-5 (N.D. Tex. June 28, 2018). Juxtapose other courts have found that no such property interest exists. See, e.g., Alpha Home Health Solutions, LLC v. Sec’y of United States Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 340 F. Supp. 3d 1291, 1303 (M.D. Fla. 2018); Sahara Health Care, Inc. v. Azar, 349 F. Supp. 3d 555, 572 (S.D. Tex. 2018); PHHC, LLC v. Azar, No. 1:18-CV-1824, 2018 WL 5754393, at *10 (N.D. Ohio Nov. 2, 2018); In Touch Home Health Agency, Inc. v. Azar, 414 F. Supp. 3d 1177, 1189-90 (N.D. Ill. 2019).
Providers – If you bring a claim to cease the recoupment, also sue on behalf of your Medicare beneficiaries’ property rights to freedom of choice of provider and access to care. Their rights are even stronger than the providers’ rights. I did this in Bader in Indiana and won based on the recipients’ rights.
Here is an article that I wrote that was first published on RACMonitor on March 15, 2018:
All audits are questionable, contends the author, so appeal all audit results.
Providers ask me all the time – how will you legally prove that an alleged overpayment is erroneous? When I explain some examples of mistakes that Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) and other health care auditors make, they ask, how do these auditors get it so wrong?
First, let’s debunk the notion that the government is always right. In my experience, the government is rarely right. Auditors are not always healthcare providers. Some have gone to college. Many have not. I googled the education criteria for a clinical compliance reviewer. The job application requires the clinical reviewer to “understand Medicare and Medicaid regulations,” but the education requirement was to have an RN. Another company required a college degree…in anything.
Let’s go over the most common mistakes auditors make that I have seen. I call them “oops, I did it again.” And I am not a fan of reruns.
- Using the Wrong Clinical Coverage Policy/Manual/Regulation
Before an on-site visit, auditors are given a checklist, which, theoretically, is based on the pertinent rules and regulations germane to the type of healthcare service being audited. The checklists are written by a government employee who most likely is not an attorney. There is no formal mechanism in place to compare the Medicare policies, rules, and manuals to the checklist. If the checklist is erroneous, then the audit results are erroneous. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) frequently revises final rules, changing requirements for certain healthcare services. State agencies amend small technicalities in the Medicaid policies constantly. These audit checklists are not updated every time CMS issues a new final rule or a state agency revises a clinical coverage policy.
For example, for hospital-based services, there is a different reimbursement rate depending on whether the patient is an inpatient or outpatient. Over the last few years there have been many modifications to the benchmarks for inpatient services. Another example is in behavioral outpatient therapy; while many states allow 32 unmanaged visits, others have decreased the number of unmanaged visits to 16, or, in some places, eight. Over and over, I have seen auditors apply the wrong policy or regulation. They apply the Medicare Manual from 2018 for dates of service performed in 2016, for example. In many cases, the more recent policies are more stringent that those of two or three years ago.
- A Flawed Sample Equals a Flawed Extrapolation
The second common blunder auditors often make is producing a flawed sample. Two common mishaps in creating a sample are: a) including non-government paid claims in the sample and b) failing to pick the sample randomly. Both common mistakes can render a sample invalid, and therefore, the extrapolation invalid. Auditors try to throw out their metaphoric fishing nets wide in order to collect multiple types of services. The auditors accidentally include dates of service of claims that were paid by third-party payors instead of Medicare/Medicaid. You’ve heard of the “fruit of the poisonous tree?” This makes the audit the fruit of the poisonous audit. The same argument goes for samples that are not random, as required by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG). A nonrandom sample is not acceptable and would also render any extrapolation invalid.
- A Simple Misunderstanding
A third common blooper found with RAC auditors is simple misunderstandings based on lack of communication between the auditor and provider. Say an auditor asks for a chart for date of service X. The provider gives the auditor the chart for date of service X, but what the auditor is really looking for is the physician’s order or prescription that was dated the day prior. The provider did not give the auditor the pertinent document because the auditor did not request it. These issues cause complications later, because inevitably, the auditor will argue that if the provider had the document all along, then why was the document not presented? Sometimes inaccurate accusations of fraud and fabrication are averred.
- The Erroneous Extrapolation
Auditors use a computer program called RAT-STATS to extrapolate the sample error rate across a universe of claims. There are so many variables that can render an extrapolation invalid. Auditors can have too low a confidence level. The OIG requires a 90 percent confidence level at 25 percent precision for the “point estimate.” The size and validity of the sample matters to the validity of the extrapolation. The RAT-STATS outcome must be reviewed by a statistician or a person with equal expertise. An appropriate statistical formula for variable sampling must be used. Any deviations from these directives and other mandates render the extrapolation invalid. (This is not an exhaustive list of requirements for extrapolations).
- That Darn Purple Ink!
A fifth reason that auditors get it wrong is because of nitpicky, nonsensical reasons such as using purple ink instead of blue. Yes, this actually happened to one of my clients. Or if the amount of time with the patient is not denoted on the medical record, but the duration is either not relevant or the duration is defined in the CPT code. Electronic signatures, when printed, sometimes are left off – but the document was signed. A date on the service note is transposed. Because there is little communication between the auditor and the provider, mistakes happen.
The moral of the story — appeal all audit results.
June 12, 2018, is…
the 163rd day of the year. There will be 202 days left in 2018. It is the 24th Tuesday and the 85th day of spring. It is the Filipino Independence Day. And it is Recoupment Day for 80% or more of NC Medicaid dentists.
DHHS sent an important message to The Society of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons that 80% of dentists who accept Medicaid will be undergoing a recoupment – some for over $25,000. But for claims for dates of service 2013 and 2014. Claims that are 4 and 5 years old! Here is the message:
Please read the following email from Dr. Mark Casey with DMA regarding upcoming recoupment of funds from dentists:
Over a year ago, the Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) and our fiscal agent, CSRA, identified defects in NCTracks that had resulted in overpayments to enrolled dental providers in 2013-2014. DMA has been working on a plan to implement two (2) NCTracks system recoupments (claims reprocessing) that will affect a fairly large number of providers. We believe that giving the NCSOMS, other dental professional organizations and our enrolled dental providers plenty of advance notice prior to the recoupment date is a good idea. The number of providers impacted will not be as large as the Medicaid for Pregnant Women (MPW) recoupment of 2015. You will find a summary of the notice below that will be sent to dental professional membership organizations as well as the two dental schools in the state.
DMA has gone through a lengthy process of identifying all providers who received overpayments and developing a plan for the NCTracks system recoupment.
I have seen the list of providers affected and we expect that a large majority (around 80%) will be able to repay the overpayment in one checkwrite based on their past claims activity. There will be some practices/providers who will be responsible for amounts approaching $25,000 or more. Practices with multiple offices will have multiple amounts recouped based on the multiple organization NPIs used for billing for each office. As you can see from the list of CDT codes that were overpaid below – diagnostic/preventive, restorative, denture repairs, extraction and the expose and bond codes (procedure codes where tooth numbers were reported and tooth surfaces were either reported or not reported) — we expect that general dentists, pediatric dentists and oral surgeons will be the dental provider types most affected by this recoupment.
As I indicated above, the messages that the dental professional organizations and the individual providers will be receiving over the next week or so will offer more detail than this email notice from me. If you have any questions or concerns regarding my email, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Mark W. Casey DDS, MPH
Reprocessing of Dental Claims for Overpayment
Issue: Some dental claims that processed in NCTracks beginning July 1, 2013 through April 20, 2014 paid incorrectly resulting in overpayments to providers.
Duplicate dental claims that included a tooth number and no tooth surface such as procedure codes D0220, D0230, D1351, D2930, D2931, D2932, D2933, D2934, D3220, D3230, D3240, D3310, D3320, D3330, D5520, D5630, D5640, D5650, D5660, D7111, D7140, D7210, D7220, D7230, D7240, D7241, and D7250, D7280, and D7283 processed and paid incorrectly in NCTracks between July 1, 2013, and April 20, 2014.
Additionally, duplicate dental claims for restorative services that included a tooth number and one or more tooth surfaces such as procedure codes D2140, D2150, D2160, D2161, D2330, D2331, D2332, D2335, D2391, D2392, D2393, and D2394 processed and paid incorrectly in NCTracks between July 1, 2013 through October 14, 2013.
Based on NC Medicaid billing guidelines, these duplicate claims should have denied. This caused an overpayment to providers.
Action: Duplicate dental claims identified with the two issues documented will be recouped and reprocessed in NCTracks to apply the duplicate editing correctly. Any overpayments identified will be recouped.
Timing: Applicable dental claims will be reprocessed in the June 12, 2018, checkwrite to recoup the overpayments.
Remittance Advice: Reprocessed claims will be displayed in a separate section of the paper Remittance Advice with the unique Explanation of Benefits (EOB) code 10007 ‘DENTAL CLAIM REPROCESSED DUE TO PREVIOUS DUPLICATE PAYMENT’. The 835 electronic transactions will include the reprocessed claims along with other claims submitted for the checkwrite (there is no separate 835 for these reprocessed claims.)
Can DHHS recoup claims that are 4 and 5 years old? How about a mass recoupment without any details as to the reasons for the individual claims being recouped? How about a mass recoupment with no due process?
While we do not have a definitive answer from our court system, my answer is a resounding, “No!”
Electronic health records or EHR have metamorphosed health care. Choosing a vendor can be daunting and the prices fluctuate greatly. As a provider, you probably determine your EHR platform on which vendor’s program creates the best service notes… or which creates the most foolproof way of tracking time… or which program is the cheapest.
But…what’s in YOUR contract can be legally deadly.
Regardless how you choose your EHR vendor, you need to keep the following legal issues in mind when it comes to EHR and the law:
Regulatory and Clinical Coverage Policy Compliance
Most likely, your EHR vendor does not have a legal degree. Yet, you are buying a product and assuming that the EHR program complies with applicable regulations, rules, and clinical coverage policies – whichever are applicable to your type of service. Well, guess what? These regulations, rules, and clinical coverage policies are not stagnant. They are amended, revised, and re-written more than my chickens lay eggs, but a little less often, because my chickens lay eggs every day.
Think about it – The Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) publishes a monthly Medicaid Bulletin. Every month DMA provides more insight, more explanations, more rules that providers will be held accountable to follow.
Does your EHR program update every month?
You need to review your contract and determine whether the vendor is responsible for regulatory compliance or whether you are. If you are, should you put so much faith in the EHR program?
You are required to maintain your records (depending on your type of service) anywhere from 5-10 years. Let’s say that you sign a four year contract with EHR Vendor X. The four years expires, and you hire a new EHR vendor. You are audited. But Vendor X does not allow you access to the records because you no longer have a contract with them – not their problem!
You need to ensure that your EHR contract allows you access to your documents (because they are your documents) even in the event of the contract expiring or getting terminated. The excuse that “I don’t have access to that” does not equal a legal defense.
This is otherwise known as the “Blame Game.” If there is a problem with regulatory compliance, as in, the EHR records do not follow the regulations, then you need to know whether the EHR vendor will take responsibility and pay, or help pay, for attorneys’ fees to defend yourself.
Like it or not, the EHR vendor does not undergo audits by the state and federal government. The EHR vendor does not undergo post and pre-payment reviews for regulatory compliance. You do. It is your NPI number that is held accountable for regulatory compliance.
You need to check whether there is an indemnification clause in the EHR contract. In other words, if you are accused of an overpayment because of a mistake on the part of the vendor, will the vendor cover your defense? My guess is that there is no indemnification clause.
HIPAA laws require that you minimize the access to private health information (PHI) and prevent dissemination. With hard copies, this was easy. You could just lock up the documents. With EHR, it becomes trickier. Obviously, you have access to the PHI as the provider. But who can access your EHR on the vendor-side? Assuming that the vendor has an IT team in case of computer issues, you have to consider to what exactly does that team have access.
I recently attended a legal continuing education class on data breach and HIPAA compliance for health care. One of the speakers was a Special Agent with the FBI. This gentleman prosecutes data breaches for a living. He said that hackers will pay over $500 per private medical document. Health care companies experienced a 72% increase in cyberattacks between 2013 and 2014. Stolen health care information is 10 times more valuable than your credit card information.
Obviously, I am exaggerating here. I do not believe that The Walking Dead is real and in our future. But here is my point – You are held accountable for maintaining your medical records, even in the face of an act of God or terrorism.
Example: It was 1996. Provider Dentist did not have EHR; he had hard copies. Hurricane Fran flooded Provider Dentist’s office, ruining all medical records. When Provider Dentist was audited, the government did not accept the whole “there was a hurricane” excuse. Dentist was liable for sever penalties and recoupments.
Fast forward to 2017 and EHR – Think a mass computer shutdown won’t happen? Just ask Delta about its August 2016 computer shutdown that took four days and cancelled over 2000 flights. Or Medstar Health, which operates 10 hospitals and more than 250 outpatient facilities, when in March 2016, a computer virus shut down its emails and…you guessed it…its EHR database.
So, what’s in YOUR contract?
Knicole Emanuel Interviewed on Recent Success: Behavioral Health Care Service Still Locked in Overbilling Dispute with State
Last Thursday, I was interviewed by a reporter from New Mexico regarding our Teambuilders win, in which an administrative judge has found that Teambuilders owes only $896 for billing errors. Here is a copy of an article published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, written by Justin Horwath:
The true tragedy is that these companies, including Teambuilders, should not have been put out of business based on false allegations of fraud. Not only was Teambuilders cleared of fraud, but, even the ALJ agreed with us that Teambuilders does not owe $12 million – but a small, nominal amount ($896.35). Instead of having the opportunity to pay the $896.35 and without due process of law, Teambuilders was destroyed – because of allegations.
One of our clients in New Mexico had an alleged Medicaid recoupment of over $12 million!! Actually, $12,015,850.00 – to be exact. (See below). After we presented our evidence and testimony, the Judge found that we owe $896.35. I call that a win!
In this case, the Human Services Department (HSD) in New Mexico had reviewed 150 random claims. Initially, HSD claimed that 41 claims out of 150 were noncompliant.
But, prior to the hearing, we saved over $10 million by pointing out HSD’s errors and/or by providing additional documentation.
And then the ALJ’s decision after we presented our evidence and testimony –
Boom! Drop the mike…
…………………………….not so fast…
……………………………………………..picking the mike back up…
You see, in New Mexico, the administrative law judges (ALJs) cannot render decisions. Look in the above picture. You see where it reads, “Recommendation?” That is because the ALJs in New Mexico can only render recommendations.
Because Medicaid has a “single state agency” rule; i.e., that only one agency may render discretionary decisions regarding Medicaid, and HSD is the single state agency in New Mexico charged with managing Medicaid, only HSD may render a discretionary decision. So in NM, the ALJ makes a recommendation and then the Secretary of HSD has the choice to either accept or reject the decision.
Guess whether HSD accepted or rejected the ALJ’s recommendation?
Now we will have to appeal the Agency’s Decision to overturn the ALJ recommendation.
Here, in NC, we obtained a waiver from the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to allow our ALJs to render Decisions. See blog.
I still consider this a win.
Written by Robert Shaw, Partner at Gordon & Rees.
Readers of this blog know well what financial harm can come from documentation problems, particularly resulting from Medicare and Medicaid auditors. But just as significantly, these problems can affect your participation rights in federal programs, and could even affect your license to practice. A case in point is a recent decision from the North Carolina Court of Appeals about disciplinary action taken against a dentist.
In Walker v. North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners, the Court of Appeals, in an opinion filed today, addressed findings by auditors that the dentist had not properly documented “the reasons for prescribing narcotic pain medications for a number of patients in her treatment records.” Well, you might ask, What Does The Rule Say? There is in fact a rule on the records that dentists must keep, similar to the rules in most other health care specialties. It is the Record Content Rule in 21 N.C.A.C. 16T .101.
(By the way, now is a great time to review every rule that you must follow in order to keep proper records and to figure out what the legal requirements are. Many providers did this at one time but fail to keep up to speed on the latest rule changes, which gets them into trouble. Or, they keep records based on how someone taught them. But, that’s not a legal defense!)
The Court of Appeals found that Dr. Walker did NOT violate the Record Content Rule, which does not require documentation of the medical reasons for prescribing pain medication. So, the Board of Dental Examiners got it wrong by citing Dr. Walker for a violation of 21 N.C.A.C. 16T .101. That rule only requires that the dentist document “[n]ame and strength of any medications prescribed, dispensed or administered along with the quantity and date.”
But that was not the end of the matter. The Board also cited Dr. Walker for violating N.C. Gen. Stat. 90-41(a)(12), which provides that the Board of Dental Examiners “shall have the power and authority to . . . [i]nvoke . . . disciplinary measures . . . in any instance or instances in which the Board is satisfied that [a dentist] . . . [h]as been negligent in the practice of dentistry[.]” This is very broad power.
So, what is the standard to be applied under this general “negligent in the practice of dentistry” statute? At the disciplinary hearing, two expert witnesses (other North Carolina dentists) testified that “the applicable standard of care require[s] North Carolina dentists to not only record [the] prescription [of] controlled substances, but the reason for prescribing those medications.” This is, in effect, an unwritten standard of practice that dentists, at least according to these witnesses, should follow in North Carolina. Perhaps importantly, Petitioner acknowledged that she had participated in training programs that advised that dentists should record the reasons for medications that they prescribe. But nevertheless, this rule was not in the North Carolina Administrative Code, a clinical coverage policy, or other policy statement published by the Board (at least that was cited in the opinion).
The Court of Appeals affirmed that the Board had the authority to discipline the petitioner for failing to follow these general standards of care in North Carolina, based on testimony of two practicing North Carolina dentists!
What does this mean? It means that your licensing board could cite general record-keeping practices in your field as the basis for disciplinary action against you under a catch-all negligence standard. While each board is governed by its own set of rules and statutory authority, Walker v. North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners is a powerful reminder that record-keeping is serious business, and you could be legally obligated to follow standard practices in your field in addition to the legal maze of federal and state regulations and policies governing health care records.
Attorney/Client Privilege: Its Importance to Health Care Providers, and TIPS to Avoid Potential Pitfalls as to Former Employees
This blog is intended to provide TIPS to health care providers who have any amount of attrition with staff members and why these TIPS as to attorney/client privilege are so important.
First, I’d like to say, for the past few weeks, I have been moving homes and firms, concurrently. Add in a trial or two into the mix and I haven’t been able to blog as often. But I’m fairly moved in now (to both) and have one of the trials mostly wrapped up.
The idea for this blog, in particular, actually came to me while Robert Shaw, Senior Counsel, and I were Santa Fe, New Mexico for a trial.
While preparing the witnesses for trial, I re-realized an important aspect of attorney/client privilege that is vital to health care providers if there is any attrition in their staff.
I say “re-realized” because I already knew the importance of attorney/client privilege, but I realized the importance for health care providers to understand its importance, as well…hence, this blog.
If, for whatever reason, your company is forced to lay off staff or, even, if you have staff voluntarily leave your office, you need to read the entirety of this blog and pay special attention to the TIPS at the bottom.
What if you need to rely on that former employee for testimony in a hearing?
For example, you are CEO of a small or large health care provider company and your Medical Director or Compliance Director leaves your employment and you need the former employee to testify in the future. Your former employee and your attorney will not be protected by attorney/client privilege.
You may be thinking…so what?
But attorney/client privilege is key in trial.
Let me give you an illustrative example:
You own a dental practice and accept Medicaid. Lucy is your office manager. She oversees the Medicaid billing, ensures regulatory compliance, and deals with denials that come from NCTracks. She also enters the data into NCTracks. You, as the dentist, provide dental services, but you have little to do with what Lucy does. You trust her and she does her job well.
DHHS via Program Integrity conducts an audit and determines that you owe $750,000 in alleged overpayments. Maybe the auditor didn’t know that the notation “cavies” means cavities and dinged you for billing for filling a cavity because the auditor could not discern from the service note that a cavity was actually filled. Or, maybe you coded the service for scraping the wall of a gingival pocket, and the auditor did not understand what “curettage” is in the service note.
Regardless, you receive a Notice of Overpayment on May 4, 2015. On May 7, 2015, Lucy tells you that she is having her first baby and wants to be stay at home mother. You congratulate her and begin your search for another office manager. You end up hiring Bill.
By the time that you need to get ready to defend your $750,000 overpayment with your attorney, Lucy has given birth to Annie and hasn’t worked for you for over a year.
But your attorney, in order to defend the overpayment, will need Lucy to testify at court. Before a witness testifies in court, your attorney must meet with him or her to prepare the witness for direct examination and cross examination by opposing counsel. (If your attorney does not, instruct him or her to do so).
When I am in a situation such as the one I have outlined above. I am extremely careful. Because there is no attorney/client privilege between “Lucy” and me because she is a former employee, I am very precise in my prep. For example, I would never discuss legal strategy with Lucy. I would never show privileged information; I would never try to “lead” Lucy’s opinion. Leading a witness’s opinion could come across like, “Lucy, If I ask you on the stand whether your opinion is that curettage means scraping a gingival pocket, you would agree, correct?” Instead, I would ask, “Lucy, what do you understand curettage to mean and how would you normally code the procedure?”
Any attorney worth his or her salt knows that attorney/client privilege does not attach to a former employee.
Why does that matter?
Any opposing attorney worth his or her salt will cross exam Lucy as to every detail possible involving the meeting between Lucy and me. And I mean every detail.
Q: “You met with Ms. Emanuel in preparation for this meeting, correct?”
Q: “When exactly was that?”
A: “Two weeks ago.”
Q: “What documents did Ms. Emanuel show you?”
A: “She showed me my direct examination.”
Q: “What do you mean? A hard copy of the questions that you would be asked?”
Q: “Ms. Emanuel, I expect that you have no problem providing me with a copy of what you showed Lucy?”
Me: “Not at all.”
Boom! By Lucy testifying that I showed her my hard copy of my direct examination questions, opposing counsel is entitled to review my draft questions along with any notes I may have notated on that hard copy of Lucy’s direct testimony. What happens if I have privileged notes contained within my questions? My attorney notes contained within the questions are now discoverable by the other side.
[BTW: I would never show Lucy my actual list of questions, unless I fully anticipated giving my list to opposing counsel.]
But you can see the potential pitfalls. Anything discussed or shown to Lucy by your counsel will be discoverable by opposing counsel. What if your counsel, without thinking, tells Lucy that he or she thinks this is a weak case? Or tells Lucy that he or she hopes the other side doesn’t pick up on…..X?
Even if the attorney prepping Lucy states something disparaging about opposing counsel, or God forbid, the judge, those remarks are discoverable and Lucy must testify to those comments on the stand.
On one occasion, I actually had opposing counsel question my witness about our conversation during a 10 minute break, during which I was smart enough not to speak about the case. My witness answered, “We discussed that I think you are b$#@!” But counsel’s question was valid and allowable. Because just as easily, during the break, I could have said, if I were not worth my salt, “Lucy, I did not like how you answered that question. You need to say…..X.”
Judges do not look favorable on coached testimony.
As a health care provider, what measures can you take that if you are forced to call former employees as witnesses, you are poised for the best result?
1. Try to maintain a cordial relationship with former employees.
I know this can be difficult as every provider needs to terminate staff or has disgruntled employees. But, even if you are firing staff, try to do so in a professional, amicable manner. Explain that it is a business decision, not personal (regardless the reason). Give the soon-to-be-fired employee notice, such as 30 days, if possible. If you would recommend the employee to a colleague, let the employee know and to whom. These small steps can help your future in case of trial.
2. Re-hire the employee.
In my opinion, this avenue has an aura of attempted deceit, and I do not recommend this route unless you are re-hiring the employee in good faith. For example, if you truly did not want to fire the staff member and you genuinely could use that person back in your office, or, if, in the case of Lucy, she decides that she wants to come back to work of her own volition and you still have the need.
An employee is protected by attorney/client privilege, generally.
3. Be knowledgeable or hire a knowledgeable attorney.
If you are concerned that your attorney may disclose something otherwise confidential in witness prep of a former employee, have a lengthy discussion with your attorney prior to the preparation session. Sit in with your attorney during the prep of the former attorney.
Along the same lines as above, come to an understanding with your attorney which documents may be considered “hot docs” and essential to the case, and, which should not be discussed with a former employee at all.
4. Test the waters.
Prior to your attorney contacting Lucy, call Lucy yourself. Have a chat. Catch up. Ask Lucy whether she is willing to testify on your behalf. If Lucy starts cussing you out, you may want to think of alternative witnesses. If there are no alternative witnesses, you may want to discuss with your attorney whether an affidavit or deposition could substitute for Lucy’s testimony at trial.
5. Pay for Lucy’s time
There is nothing wrong or unethical about compensating Lucy for her trial preparation and appearance at trial. Obviously, this compensation is discoverable by opposing counsel and questions can be asked about the compensation situation. But I believe it is better to have a happy Lucy, who feels that her time is valuable, rather than an increasingly frustrated Lucy, as each second ticks along.
6. Think ahead
If you know you will be terminating an employee or if you receive notice that an employee is leaving, think about the most important aspects of his or her job and memorialize the procedures. For example, in the case of Lucy, ask Lucy to draft a memo to the file as to her procedures in billing Medicaid. Have her write which service notes are billed for which codes and the reasons in support and how she manually enters data into NCTracks. It may seem tedious, but these notes will be invaluable during any future litigation.
Along the same vein as above, if possible, have Lucy train Bill prior to her leaving. That way, if Lucy is an undesirable witness, Bill can testify that he follows the same protocol as Lucy because Lucy trained him and he follows her protocol.
Hopefully, these TIPS will be helpful to you in the future in the case of employees leaving your practice. Print off the blog and review it whenever an employee is leaving.