We all know that there is no law, regulation or statute that medical records supporting payment by Medicare or Medicaid must be perfect. There is no mandatory 100% compliant standard. Because humans err. In light of the ongoing financial strain brought about by the pandemic and the constraints imposed by Congress on Medicaid coverage disenrollments, State Medicaid agencies are poised to explore additional audits to manage increasing Medicaid expenditures. Recent developments, such as additional flexibilities granted by CMS, suggest a shifting landscape in how States respond to these challenges.
Anticipating a more assertive approach by States in dealing with service providers, potential measures could include rate cuts and enhanced scrutiny through service audits. This prompts a crucial examination of States’ and providers’ rights under federal Medicaid law to audit service provisions and recover overpayments, a legally intricate and noteworthy domain.
Medicaid RAC Audits are governed by 42 CFR 455 Subpart F—Medicaid Recovery Audit Contractors Program. Other Medicaid alleged overpayments are dictated by 42 CFR Chapter 433.
To establish a foundational understanding, it’s essential to consider the mandate imposed by Congress in section 1902(a)(30)(A) of the Social Security Act. States are required to incorporate provisions in their Medicaid plans to “safeguard against unnecessary utilization of … care and services.” This underscores the federal interest in ensuring responsible use of matching funds, given the federal government’s financial contribution to the program.
A landmark case illustrating the complexities of this mandate is the 1999 decision by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary v. Commissioner of Medical Assistance. The court evaluated Massachusetts Medicaid’s retrospective utilization review policy, emphasizing the need for meaningful definitions of terms like “inpatient” and “outpatient” to avoid arbitrary penalties on providers.
Moving to the realm of overpayments, CMS regulations, specifically at 42 C.F.R. § 433.316, provide guidance on how States should proceed when identifying overpayments. The regulations recommend written notification to providers, with states having the discretion to choose whether to notify in cases of suspected fraud. Furthermore, States are required to take “reasonable actions” based on state collections law to recoup overpayments, with a one-year timeframe to return the federal share of identified overpayments to CMS.
Determining when a State “discovers” an overpayment is a critical aspect outlined in the regulations. The discovery is pegged to specific events, such as the state contacting the provider, the provider notifying the state, formal initiation of recoupment, or a federal official identifying the overpayment. Significantly, the regulations focus more on CMS’s relationship with the state than on the state’s relationship with providers.
Recent legal precedents, such as the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision in Professional Home Care Providers v. Wisconsin Department of Health Services, underscore the need for states to operate within the bounds of their granted authority. In this case, the court rejected a Medicaid agency’s “perfection” policy, emphasizing that state law must align with CMS regulations in overseeing overpayment recovery.
As States grapple with revenue shortfalls exacerbated by the pandemic, the potential for increased efforts to recoup overpayments from providers looms large. Legal challenges, exemplified by recent decisions in Massachusetts and Wisconsin, underscore the delicate balance States must strike in these endeavors, emphasizing the limits within which they must operate as they navigate the complex terrain of Medicaid law and financial constraints.
Expect audits. Be ready to defend yourself. Self audits are so important. If you self audit and find a problem and self-disclose, you will not receive penalties. Self-disclosures are key. When I told a group of law students this key information, one asked, has you told a client to self-disclose and they refused? To which I said yes. One time. A female doctor informed me that she falsified 7 medical records, I said that she should disclose. She screamed at me in her language, fired me, and hired a new attorney and withheld the information about falsifying records.
She is jail currently.
For Monitor Monday, today, October 30, 2023, I dressed up as a RAC auditor. BOO!!! I get a spooky 13.5% commission for overzealous auditing tactics. RAC auditors come in every shape and size, color or gender.
In my experience, RACs are garishly incorrect in their assessments. I will reveal three, real life examples where these audit contractors accused healthcare providers of owing money but were found to be dead wrong:
Example 1 – Medical Necessity quibbles:
In a haunting case involving a hospital, the RAC alleged that certain cardiac procedures were billed inappropriately, citing concerns about the medical necessity of these services. They claimed the hospital should refund a repugnant amount for these procedures. However, upon closer examination and an appeal process, it was revealed that the services were indeed medically necessary and aligned with the standard protocols. The ghastly RAC’s accusation was disproven, and the hospital was not required to return any funds. Spine-tingling!
Example 2 – Improper Coding of Diagnosis:
A healthcare provider, particularly a large physician group, was accused by the RAC of using suspicious, improper diagnostic codes, leading to overbilling for certain services provided to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. After a thorough internal audit, it was determined that the codes used were accurate and supported by the patient’s medical records. The RAC’s allegations were unfounded, and no repayment was required. Suspicious. A haunting reminder to spook audits.
Example 3 – Alleged Duplicate Billing:
In a murderous case involving a nursing facility, the RAC identified what they believed were instances of duplicate billing for certain procedures and services. Upon further review, it was revealed that the billing discrepancies were due to the RAC’s misunderstanding of the facility’s billing processes. Mysterious. The facility provided evidence showcasing that the billed services were distinct and not duplicates. Consequently, the RAC’s claim was refuted, and no repayment was deemed necessary. Suspicious.
These examples underscore the critical need for providers to have robust internal compliance measures in place. While RACs serve a vital purpose in identifying billing errors, they are not infallible. Providers need to be equipped to challenge these audit findings, ensuring they are based on accurate and comprehensive information.
It’s crucial for healthcare providers to engage in a proactive approach by conducting their internal audits, maintaining accurate documentation, and being prepared to challenge RAC determinations when necessary. These efforts not only protect providers from unwarranted financial obligations but also ensure that Medicare and Medicaid funds are appropriately allocated.
In conclusion, the relationship between RACs, healthcare providers, and government healthcare programs is complex. The examples provided demonstrate that while RACs play a critical role in safeguarding the integrity of Medicare and Medicaid, their findings are not always accurate. Providers must be diligent in ensuring their billing practices align with regulations and be prepared to contest any erroneous audit findings to maintain fiscal stability and fair reimbursement for services rendered.
From February 2020 through March 2023, enrollment in Medicaid increased by 35.3 percent, or over 22 million individuals. Enrollment in Medicaid increased in every State during COVID. Concurrently, many States report a shortage of providers willing to accept Medicaid. Today NC will be announcing its Medicaid expansion, so the nationwide numbers will rise in the near future. However, as we are introducing over 22 million Americans to Medicaid, the number of physicians, oral surgeons, BH providers, or any health care provider type who accept Medicaid is not increasing. In many places, providers who accept Medicaid is shrinking. See blog.
For example, Arkansas expanded Medicaid in 2014, leading to a surge in Medicaid enrollees. While the expansion successfully reduced the state’s uninsured rate, it also highlighted the shortage of healthcare providers, especially in rural areas. Many residents in these underserved regions face long wait times to see a doctor, limiting their access to timely care.
Nationwide, access to mental health services has been a concern. Medicaid expansion aimed to provide mental health coverage to more people, but there has been a shortage of mental health professionals to meet the growing demand. In many states, there are waitlists regardless the crisis.
Providers continue to face insurmountable challenges. Such challenge is the burden of audits conducted by Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs), Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), and Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) programs. These audits are designed to ensure that healthcare providers comply with the complex web of regulations governing reimbursement and patient care. However, the reality is that these audits often impose an overwhelming burden on providers and their attorneys, making compliance a Herculean task.
The healthcare industry in the United States is governed by a myriad of rules, regulations, and guidelines. From Medicare and Medicaid requirements to state-specific laws, providers must navigate a complex regulatory maze to ensure compliance. RACs, MACs, and TPE programs scrutinize providers’ billing practices, medical necessity of services, and documentation to identify overpayments and potential fraud or abuse.
Healthcare providers, from hospitals to individual practitioners, must allocate significant resources to respond to audits and maintain compliance. The burden starts with the anticipation of an audit, as providers are often left in the dark about when and how they will be audited. This uncertainty can be paralyzing, as it requires providers to divert time, personnel, and financial resources away from patient care to prepare for an audit that may or may not occur.
Once an audit is initiated, providers are faced with a deluge of demands. They must gather and submit an extensive amount of documentation, which can include patient records, billing records, and other relevant materials. The process is not only time-consuming but also disruptive to day-to-day operations. Smaller practices, in particular, may struggle to allocate the necessary personnel and resources to meet these demands, potentially affecting patient care quality.
One of the most significant challenges faced by healthcare providers and their attorneys is the ever-changing nature of healthcare regulations. Keeping up with the latest rules and guidelines is a daunting task, and providers must constantly adapt their practices to remain compliant. The complex interplay between federal and state regulations further complicates matters, as what is compliant at one level may not be at another.
Healthcare attorneys play a critical role in assisting providers through the audit process. However, we too are challenged by the intricate nature of healthcare regulations and the constant need to stay abreast of updates and changes. David would concur, I believe, in my statement that, being a health care regulatory attorney is not a laid-back, calm career choice. We have to continue to educate ourselves at quite a fast pace. Think about how often laws and rules change federally and in 50 States. Tomorrow I am going to Baltimore Maryland for the Fraud and Abuse Conference by the American Health Law Association. I will let you know if I learn anything mind-blowing.
The burden of RAC, MAC, and TPE audits in healthcare is undeniable. While these audits are essential to protect the integrity of the healthcare system, the complex regulatory landscape, coupled with the uncertainty and resource-intensive nature of the audit process, places an overwhelming burden on providers and their attorneys. Healthcare providers are in a constant struggle to balance compliance with the delivery of quality patient care, and their legal representatives are similarly tasked with navigating an ever-changing regulatory maze.
Addressing this burden requires a collaborative effort among stakeholders, including government agencies, healthcare providers, and legal experts. Streamlining audit processes, providing clearer guidance, and ensuring that audits are conducted fairly and transparently can go a long way in alleviating the burden on providers. In the end, the goal should be to strike a balance between safeguarding taxpayer dollars and allowing healthcare providers to focus on what they do best – caring for patients. Or maybe we just need a computer program for audits that is NOT Excel.
In March, the U.S District Court in the Northern District of Texas vacated the requirement that ACA-compliant health plans cover certain U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended preventive services without cost sharing.
The DOJ argued the lower-court ruling from a federal judge in Texas “has no legal justification and threatens the public health.” The Health and Human Services Department estimates the ACA covered preventive services for more than 150 million people in 2020.
I am not taking a stance on the ACA. As a lawyer, I can tell you that to obtain an injunction, you have to prove:
- Likelihood of success on the merits;
- Irreprepable harm;
- Balancing the equities;
- Public interest.
Those standards come from a Supreme Court case called Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 555 U.S. 7 (2008).
I understand that the Texas case vacating that the ACA-compliant health plans cover preventive services has become highly polarizing in politics. Obviously, the Republicans are Plaintiffs in this case and fighting against Obamacare. But I do not care about the politics. My contention with this case is if the government is mandating (well, was mandating before this TX judge’s decision) preventive care to be free, how is that not forcing doctor’s to work for whatever the government deems to be fair. Will they get paid Medicare or Medicaid prices? They should be so lucky. I don’t want to go out on a limb and compare mandating doctors to provide services for Medicare and Medicaid prices, regardless whether that physician is even enrolled in Medicare or Medicaid to slavery, but if the shoe fits…
On another note, the Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) added hospice to the list of CMS approved audit targets. The review will determine if Hospice General Inpatient Care (GIP) was reasonable and necessary to achieve pain control or acute or chronic symptom management which could not be managed in any other setting. Claims that do not meet the indications of coverage and/or medical necessity will be recoded to Routine Hospice Care 0651 and result in an overpayment.” The affected code will be REV code 0656.
On March 31, CMS issued the FY 2024 proposed rule which includes a 2.8% rate increase and the FY 2024 cap of $33,396.55. The proposed rule also includes updates on the Hospice Outcomes & Patient Evaluation (HOPE) tool, CAHPS® tool, the Hospice Special Focus Program, and a proposed addition of hospice physicians to the Medicare enrollment process. For a full analysis of the proposed rule, view NHPCO’s regulatory alert from April 4. Comments are due by May 30, 2023.
Other CMS approved audit targets for 2023 and 2024 are : Ambulance Providers, Ambulatory Surgery Center (ASC), Outpatient Hospital, Inpatient Hospital, Inpatient Hospital, Inpatient Psychiatric Facility, Inpatient, Outpatient, ASC, Physician, IP, OP, SNF, OP Clinics, ORF, CORF, OPH, OP Non-Hospital, SNF, ORF, CORF, Physician, Physician/Non-physician Practitioner (NPP), Physician/NPP, Professional Services (Physician/Non-Physician), and Radiologists/Part B providers.
To name a few.
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.