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Medicare TPE Audits: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Let’s talk targeted probe-and-educate (TPE) audits. See on RACMonitor as well.

TPE audits have turned out to be “wolf audits” in sheep’s clothing. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) asserted that the intent of TPE audits is to reduce provider burden and appeals by combining medical review with provider education.

But the “education” portion is getting overlooked. Instead, the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) resort to referring healthcare providers to other agencies or contractors for “other possible action,” including audit by a Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC), which can include extrapolation or referral to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) for investigation of fraud. A TPE audit involves up to three rounds of review, conducted by a MAC. Once Congress was instructed that RAC audits are not fair, and providers complained that RAC auditors did not help with education, CMS came up with TPE audits – which, supposedly, had more of an educational aspect, and a more fair approach. But in reality, the TPE audits have created an expensive, burdensome, cyclical pattern that, again, can result in RAC audits. The implementation of TPE audits has been just as draconian and subjective as RAC audits. The penalties can be actually worse than those resulting from RAC audits, including termination from the Medicare program. In this article, I want to discuss the appeal process and why it is important to appeal at the first level of audit.

Chapter Three, Section 3.2.5 of the Medicare Program Integrity Manual (MPIM) outlines the requirements for the TPE process, which leaves much of the details within the discretion of the MAC conducting the review. The MACs are afforded too much discretion. Often, they make erroneous decisions, but providers are not pushing back. A recent one-time notification transmittal provides additional instructions to MACs on the TPE process: CMS Transmittal 2239 (Jan. 24, 2019).

Providers are selected for TPE audit based on data analysis, with CMS instructing MACs to target providers with high denial rates or claim activity that the contractor deems unusual, in comparison to peers. These audits are generally performed as a prepayment review of claims for a specific item or service, though relevant CMS instructions also allow for post-payment TPE audits.

A TPE round typically involves a review of a probe sample of between 20 and 40 claims. Providers first receive notice that they have been targeted by their MAC, followed by additional documentation requests (ADRs) for the specific claims included in the audit.

TPE Audits

The MACs have sole discretion as to which providers to target, whether claims meet coverage requirements, what error rate is considered compliant, and when a provider should be removed from TPE. Health care providers can be exposed to future audits and penalties based merely on the MAC’s resolve, and before the provider has received due process through their right to challenge claim denials in an independent appeals process. In this way, the MACs’ misinterpretation of the rules and misapplication of coverage requirements can lead to further audits or disciplinary actions, based on an erroneous determination that is later overturned. Similarly, while the educational activities are supposedly meant to assist providers in achieving compliance, in reality, this “education” can force providers to appear to acknowledge error findings with which they may disagree – and which may ultimately be determined to be wrong. Often times, the MACs – for “educational purposes” – require the provider to sign documentation that admits alleged wrongdoing, and the provider signs these documents without legal counsel, and without the understanding that these documents can adversely affect any appeal or future audits.

The MACs have the power, based on CMS directive, to revoke billing privileges based on a determination that “the provider or supplier has a pattern or practice of submitting claims that fail to meet Medicare requirements.” 42 C.F.R. § 424.535(a)(8)(ii). This language shows that TPE audit findings can be used as a basis for a finding of abuse of billing privileges, warranting removal from participation in the Medicare program. CMS guidance also gives the MACs authority to refer providers for potential fraud investigation, based on TPE review findings. It is therefore vital that providers submit documentation in a timely fashion and build a clear record to support their claims and compliance with Medicare requirements.

TPE audits promise further education and training for an unsuccessful audit (unsuccessful according to the MAC, which may constitute a flawed opinion), but most of the training is broad in nature and offered remotely – either over the phone, via web conference, or through the mail, with documentation shared on Google Docs. Only on atypical occasions is there an on-site visit.

Why appeal? It’s expensive, tedious, time-consuming, and emotionally draining. Not only that, but many providers are complaining that the MACs inform them that the TPE audit results are not appealable (TPE audits ARE appealable).

TPE reviews and TPE audit overpayment determinations may be appealed through the Medicare appeals process. The first stage of appeal will be to request a redetermination of the overpayment by the MAC. If the redetermination decision is unfavorable, Medicare providers and suppliers may request an independent review by filing a request for reconsideration with the applicable Qualified Independent Contractor (QIC). If the reconsideration decision is unfavorable, Medicare providers and suppliers are granted the opportunity to present their case in a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). While providers or suppliers who disagree with an ALJ decision may appeal to the Medicare Appeals Council and then seek judicial review in federal district court, it is crucial to obtain experienced healthcare counsel to overturn the overpayment determination during the first three levels of review.

Appealing unfavorable TPE audits results sends a message. Right now, the MACs hold the metaphoric conch shell. The Medicare appeals process allows the provider or supplier to overturn the TPE audit overpayment, and reduces the likelihood of future TPE reviews, other Medicare audits, and disciplinary actions such as suspension of Medicare payments, revocation of Medicare billing privileges, or exclusion from the Medicare program. In instances when a TPE audit identifies potential civil or criminal fraud, it is essential that the Medicare provider or supplier engage experienced healthcare counsel to appeal the Medicare overpayment as the first step in defending its billing practices, and thus mitigating the likelihood of fraud allegations (e.g., False Claims Act actions).

CMS and the MACs maintain that TPEs are in the providers’ best interest because education is included. In actuality, TPEs are wolves in sheep’s clothing, masking true repercussions in a cloak of “education.” The Medicare appeal process is a provider’s best weapon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned.

New Revisions to the Additional Documentation Request (ADR) Process

The ADR rule went into effect Jan. 1, 2019. Original blog post published March 6, 2019, on RACMonitor.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has updated its criteria for additional document requests (ADRs). If your ADR “cycle” is less than 1, CMS will round it up to 1.

What is an ADR cycle?

When a claim is selected for medical review, an ADR is generated requesting medical documentation be submitted to ensure payment is appropriate. Documentation must be received by CGS (A Celerian Group Company)  within 45 calendar days for review and payment determination. Any selected and submitted claim can create an ADR. In other words, a provider is asked to prove that the service was rendered and that the billing was compliant.

It is imperative to understand that you, as the provider, check the Fiscal Intermediary Standard System (FISS) status/location S B6001. Providers are encouraged to use FISS Option 12 (Claim Inquiry) to check for ADRs at least once per week. You will not receive any other form of notification for an ADR.

To make matters even more confusing, there are two different types of ADRs: medical review (reason code 39700) and non-medical review (reason code 39701).

An ADR may be sent by CGS, Zone Program Integrity Contractors (ZPICs), Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs), Supplemental Medical Review Contractors (SMRCs), the Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) contractor, etc. When a claim is selected for review or when additional documentation is needed to complete the claim, an ADR letter is generated requesting that documentation and/or medical records be submitted.

The ADR process is essentially a type of prepayment review.

A baseline annual ADR limit is established for each provider based on the number of Medicare claims paid in the previous 12-month period that are associated with the provider’s six-digit CMS Certification Number (CCN) and the provider’s National Provider Identifier (NPI) number. Using the baseline annual ADR limit, an ADR cycle limit is also established.

After three 45-day ADR cycles, CMS will calculate (or recalculate) a provider’s denial rate, which will then be used to identify a provider’s corresponding “adjusted” ADR limit. Auditors may choose to either conduct reviews of a provider based on their adjusted ADR limit (with a shorter lookback period) or their baseline annual ADR limit (with a longer lookback period).

The baseline, annual ADR limit is one-half of one percent of the provider’s total number of paid Medicare service types for which the provider had reimbursed Medicare claims.

Effective Jan. 1, 2019, providers whose ADR cycle limit is less than 1, even though their annual ADR limit is greater than 1, will have their ADR cycle limit round up to 1 additional documentation request per 45 days, until their annual ADR limit has been reached.

For example, say Provider ABC billed and was paid for 400 Medicare claims in a previous 12-month period. The provider’s baseline annual ADR limit would be 400 multiplied by 0.005, which is two. The ADR cycle limit would be 2/8, which is less than one. Therefore, Provider ABC’s ADR cycle limit will be set at one additional documentation request per 45 days, until their annual ADR limit, which in this example is two, has been reached. In other words, Provider ABC can receive one additional documentation request for two of the eight ADR cycles, per year.

ADR letters are sent on a 45-day cycle. The baseline annual ADR limit is divided by eight to establish the ADR cycle limit, which is the maximum number of claims that can be included in a single 45-day period. Although auditors may go more than 45 days between record requests, in no case shall they make requests more frequently than every 45 days.

And that is the update on ADRs. Remember, the rule changed Jan. 1, 2019.

Medicare Audits: Huge Overhaul on Extrapolation Rules

Effective January 2, 2019, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) radically changed its guidance on the use of extrapolation in audits by recovery audit contractors (RACs), Medicare administrative contractors (MACs), Unified Program Integrity Contractors (UPICs), and the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (SMRC).

Extrapolation is the tsunami in Medicare/caid audits. The auditor collects a small sample of claims to review for compliance. She then determines the “error rate” of the sample. For example, if 50 claims are reviewed and 10 are found to be noncompliant, then the error rate is set at 20%. That error rate is applied to the universe, which is generally a three-year time period. It is assumed that the random sample is indicative of all your billings regardless of whether you changed your billing system during that time period of the universe or maybe hired a different biller.

With extrapolated results, auditors allege millions of dollars of overpayments against health care providers…sometimes more than the provider even made during that time period. It is an overwhelming wave that many times drowns the provider and the company.

Prior to this recent change to extrapolation procedure, the Program Integrity Manual (PIM) offered little guidance to the proper method for extrapolation.

Well, Change Request 10067 – overhauled extrapolation in a HUGE way.

The first modification to the extrapolation rules is that the PIM now dictates when extrapolation should be used.

Determining When a Statistical Sampling May Be Used. Under the new guidance, a contractor “shall use statistical sampling when it has been determined that a sustained or high level of payment error exists. The use of statistical sampling may be used after documented educational intervention has failed to correct the payment error.” This guidance now creates a three-tier structure:

  1. Extrapolation shall be used when a sustained or high level of payment error exists.
  2. Extrapolation may be used after documented educational intervention (such as in the Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) program).
  3. It follows that extrapolation should not be used if there is not a sustained or high level of payment error or evidence that documented educational intervention has failed.

“High level of payment error” is defined as 50% or greater. The PIM also states that the contractor may review the provider’s past noncompliance for the same or similar billing issues, or a historical pattern of noncompliant billing practice. This is HUGE because so many times providers simply pay the alleged overpayment amount if the amount is low or moderate in order to avoid costly litigation. Now those past times that you simply pay the alleged amounts will be held against you.

Another monumental modification to RAC audits is that the RAC auditor must receive authorization from CMS to go forward in recovering from the provider if the alleged overpayment exceeds $500,000 or is an amount that is greater than 25% of the provider’s Medicare revenue received within the previous 12 months.

The identification of the claims universe was also re-defined. Even CMS admitted in the change request that, on occasion, “the universe may include items that are not utilized in the construction of the sample frame. This can happen for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to: (1) Some claims/claim lines are discovered to have been subject to a prior review, (2) The definitions of the sample unit necessitate eliminating some claims/claim lines, or (3) Some claims/claim lines are attributed to sample units for which there was no payment.”

There are many more changes to discuss, but I have been asked to appear on RACMonitor to present the details on February 19, 2019. So sign up to listen!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seema Verna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medicare ACOs: Too Much Risk, Too Quickly?

As seen on RACMonitor.

More than a third of ACOs might leave if the proposed rule takes effect.

The comment period closed for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) proposed rule on Oct. 16. The MSSP has been a controversial program since its inception. The chief concern is that the financial “dis-incentives” will decrease the number of Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). The proposed rule for MSSP intensifies the financial “dis-incentives,” causing even more concern about the number of ACOs.

What is the Medicare Shared Savings Program? It is a voluntary program that is supposed to encourage groups of doctors, hospitals, and other healthcare providers to come together as ACOs to give coordinated, high-quality care to their Medicare patients. Providers can choose among three distinctive tracks, depending on the amount of risk the providers want to bear. The purpose of the MSSP is to diversify risk – of both loss and gain – between the government and the ACOs. For example, Track 1 ACOs do not assume downside risk (shared losses) if they do not lower growth in Medicare expenditures.

CMS created the MSSP in hopes that doctors, hospitals, and other healthcare providers would want to participate, with the incentive of the chance to make more money, rather than remaining in the traditional Medicare relationship. The program turned out to be more successful than anticipated, with the majority of ACOs opting to become Track 1, or the least risky model (one-sided risk).

CMS’s new proposed rule, however, increases the risk placed on the ACOs. Needless to say, providers aren’t happy, and many ACOs in the program warn that they’ll drop out if CMS finalizes its proposal as is.

What are these proposed changes to the MSSP?

Restricting Track 1 Enrollment

ACOs currently have six years to shift to a risk-bearing model from a shared savings-only model (Track 1). The proposed rule would give existing ACOs one year and new ACOs two years to transfer to a risk-bearing model. This one change could cause mass exodus from the MSSP, as many providers are, by nature, risk-averse.

Morphing to Five-Year Agreement Periods

The proposed rule requires CMS and the ACOs to morph into using five-year agreement periods. I am on the fence regarding this change. It could strengthen ACOs’ incentives to reduce spending by breaking the link between ACOs’ performance in the first two years of each agreement period and their future benchmarks. However, this modification could worsen incentives during the first two years of each agreement period. I would love to hear your opinions.

Slashing Shared Savings Rates

The proposed rule purports to slash shared savings rates for upside-risk models from 50 percent to as low as 25 percent. Under the one-sided model years of the glide path, an ACO’s maximum shared savings rate would be 25 percent, based on quality performance, applicable to first-dollar shared savings after the ACO meets the minimum savings rate. The glide path concludes with a maximum 50 percent sharing rate, based on quality performance, and a maximum level of risk, which qualifies a provider as an Advanced APM for purposes of the Quality Payment Program.

Other proposed changes include the following:

  • A bifurcated system for high- and low-revenue ACOs, which functionally would penalize certain ACOs for the size of their patient populations and volume of services.
  • A differential system for experienced versus inexperienced ACOs, which would allow experienced ACOs to choose from a more robust menu of participation options.
  • Dis-incentives to lower spending: ACOs have had little incentive to lower spending because of the link between the spending reductions they achieve and subsequent benchmarks. One could argue that it is astonishing that the MSSP has produced any savings at all. CMS proposes that the MSSP needs to be re-vamped.
  • A modified and more rigorous application review process to screen for good standing among ACOs seeking to renew or re-enter MSSP after termination or expiration of their previous agreement. ACOs in two-sided models would be held accountable for partial-year losses if either the ACO or CMS terminates the agreement during a performance year.

Will there be too much risk too quickly placed on the ACOs? Stay tuned for whether this proposed rule becomes finalized.

The Courts Order Medicare to Stop Recouping Alleged Overpayments Without Due Process!

New case law supports due process for Medicare providers. As first seen on RACMonitor.

Due process is one of the cornerstones of our society. Due process is the universal guarantee and found in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides “No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and is applied to all states by the 14th Amendment. From this basic principle flows many legal decisions determining both procedural and substantive rights.

For Medicare and Medicaid providers, however, due process, in the past, has been nonexistent. Imagine that you are accused of owing $5 million to the government. Perhaps it was a CPT® code error. You disagree. You believe that your documentation was proper and that you filed for reimbursement correctly. You appeal the decision that you owe $5 million. You continue conducting business as normal. Suddenly, you realize the government is recouping the $5 million now. Prior to any hearing before a judge. You haven’t been found guilty. What happened to innocent until proven guilty? What happened to due process?

For Medicare appeals there is a five-step appeal process. The law requires the government not to recoup during the first and second levels of appeal. But the first and second levels are jumping through hoops and are not normally successful. It is at the third level – the appeal to an impartial administrative judge – that the alleged recoupments are overturned.

After the second level, according to the black letter of the law, the government can begin recouping the alleged overpayment.

Sadly, in the past, the courts have held that it is proper for the government to recoup reimbursements after the second level. Even though, no hearing has been held before an impartial judge and you haven’t been found guilty of owing the money.

On Sept. 27, 2018, another U.S. District Court in South Carolina has agreed with courts in Texas by granting a provider’s request for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to prevent the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) from recouping monies until after Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearings have been held (Accident, Injury and Rehabilitation, PC, c/a No. 4:18-cv-02173, September 27, 2018).

A new trend in favor of providers seems to be arising. This is fantastic news for providers across the country!

Accident, Injury & Rehab, PC found that the ALJ stage of the appellate process is the most important for providers, as it provides the first opportunity for plaintiff to cross examine defendant’s witnesses and examine the evidence used to formulate the statistical sample. According to the American Hospital Association (AHA), 66 percent of Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) denials are reversed by an ALJ (I actually believe the percentage is higher). The court found that plaintiff’s procedural due process rights were violated by premature recoupment. The court granted Accident, Injury & Rehab, PC’s preliminary injunction restraining and enjoining the government from withholding Medicare payments during the appeal process.

When the government starts recouping filing a preliminary injunction has been shown it to be the best course.

In the past, most preliminary injunctions asking the court to order the government to stop recoupments until a hearing was held was dismissed based on jurisdiction. In other words, the courts held that the courts did not have the authority to render an opinion as to recoupments prior to a hearing. Now, however, the trend is turning, and courts are starting to rule in favor of the provider, finding a violation of procedural due process based on a collateral claim exception.

There are four criteria in order to win a preliminary injunction. A party seeking a preliminary injunction must establish all for the following criteria: (1) that the party is likely to succeed on the merits; (2) that the party is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary injunction; (3) that the balance of the equity tips in the party’s favor; and (4) that injunction is in the public interest.

There is an esoteric legal theory called exhaustion of administrative remedies. So jurisdiction is the question. There are exceptions to the judicial bar. The Supreme Court of United States articulated a collateral claim exception. The Supreme Court permitted a plaintiff to bring a procedural due process claim requesting an evidentiary area hearing before the termination of disability benefits. There are nonwaivable and waivable jurisdictional elements the nonwaivable requirement is that a claim must be presented to the administrative agency. The waivable requirement is that administrative remedies be exhausted.

The Collateral claim exception is when a party brings a claim in federal court when that “constitutional challenge is entirely collateral to its substantive claim of entitlement.”

The new trend in case law is that the courts are finding that the provider’s right to not undergo recoupment during the appeal process is a collateral issue as to the substantive issue of whether the provider owes the money. Therefore, the courts have found jurisdiction as to the collateral issue.

The proverbial ship has sailed. According to courts in Texas and now South Carolina, CMS cannot recoup monies prior to hearings before ALJs. Providers facing large recoupments should file TROs to prevent premature recoupments and to obtain due process.

Safety-Net Hospitals Penalized for Too Many Readmissions – Fair or Not Fair?

Since 2012, Medicare has penalized hospitals for having too many patients end up back in their care within a month. Mind you, these re-admissions are not the hospitals’ fault. Many of the re-admissions are uninsured patients and who are without primary care. Without an alternative, they present back at the hospitals within 30 days. This penalty on hospitals is called the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP) and is not without controversy.

For example, if hospitals are not allowed to turn away patients for their lack of ability to pay, then penalizing the hospital for a readmission (who the hospital cannot turn away) seems fundamentally unfair. Imagine someone at the Center for  Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) yelling at you: “You cannot turn away any patients by law! But if you accept a patient for readmission, then you will be penalized!!” The logic is incongruous. The hospital is found in a Catch-22. Damned if they do; damned if they don’t.

The Emergency Medical and Treatment Labor Act (EMTLA) passed by Congress in 1986 explicitly forbids the denial of care to indigent or uninsured patients based on a lack of ability to pay. It also prohibits “patient dumping” a practice in which a hospital orders unnecessary transfers while care is being administered and prohibits the suspension of care once it is initiated.

Even non-emergent care is generally required, depending on the hospital. Public hospitals may not deny patient care based on ability to pay (or lack thereof). Private hospitals may, in non-emergency situations, deny or discontinue care.

The most recent HRRP report, which concentrated on Connecticut hospitals, which will penalize CT hospitals for too many readmissions starting October 1, 2018, shows: 27 of the 29 hospitals evaluated — or 93% — will be penalized in the 2019 fiscal year (Oct. 1, 2018 – Oct. 1, 2019) that began Oct. 1, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of CMS data. $566 million in total penalties will be required, depending on the severity of the violations.

Here is the formula used to determine penalties for readmission within 30 days to a hospital:

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No hospital that was audited received the maximum penalty of 3%, but 9 CT hospitals will have their Medicare reimbursements reduced by 1% or more. They are: Waterbury Hospital at 2.19%, Bridgeport Hospital at 2.01%, Bristol Hospital at 1.91%, Manchester Memorial Hospital at 1.74%, Johnson Memorial Hospital in Stafford Springs at 1.71%, Midstate Medical Center in Meriden at 1.37%, St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport at 1.21%, Griffin Hospital in Derby at 1.17%, and Yale New Haven Hospital at 1.03%.

There is controversy over the HRRP.

Observation status does not count.

Interestingly, what is not evaluated in the Hospital Readmission Reduction Program may be just as important, or more so, than what it is evaluated. -And what is not evaluated in the HRRP has morphed our health care system into a plethora of observation only admissions.

Patients who are admitted under observation status are excluded from the readmission measure. What, pray tell, do you think the result has been because of the observation status being excluded??

  • More in-patient admissions?
  • More observation status admissions?
  • No change?

If you guessed more observation status admissions, then you would be correct.

Most hospitals have developed clinical decision units, which are typically short-stay observation areas designed to care for patients in less than 24-hours. The difference between inpatient and observation status is important because Medicare pays different rates according to each status. Patients admitted under observation status are considered outpatients, even though they may stay in the hospital for several days and receive treatment in a hospital bed. Medicare requires a three-day hospital inpatient stay minimum before it will cover the cost of rehabilitative care in a skilled nursing care center. However, observation stays, regardless of length, do not count toward Medicare’s requirement.

30-Day readmission period is arbitrary.

Why 30-days? If a patient is readmitted on the 30th day, the hospital is penalized. But if the patient is readmitted on Day 31, the hospital is not penalized. There just isn’t a lucid, common sense reason except that 30 is a nice, round number.

The HRRP disproportionately discriminates against hospitals that have high volume of uninsured.

HRRP does not adjust for socioeconomic status. This means that the HRRP may be penalizing hospitals, such as safety-net hospitals, that care for disadvantaged populations.

When other laws, unintentionally or intentionally, discriminate between socioeconomic status, often an association or group brings a class action lawsuit in federal court asking the judge to declare the law unconstitutional due to discrimination. Discrimination can be proven in court by how the law of supply or how the law is written.

Here, the 27 hospitals, which will be receiving penalties for fiscal year 2019, serve a high population of low income patients. The result of which hospitals are getting penalized is an indication of a discriminatory practice, even if it is unintentional.

The Upshot from Knicole:

These hospitals should challenge the HRRP legally. Reimbursements for services render constitute a property right. Usurping this property right without due process may be a violation of our Constitution. For $566 million…there should be a fair fight.

 

CMS Sets Forth New Proposed Rule to Promote Program Efficiency, Transparency, and Burden Reduction

On September 20, 2018, CMS released a new proposed rule in an effort to reduce the regulatory burden on health care providers. Now we have all heard CMS’ attempts to increase transparency and decrease burden on and for providers. But, usually, it ends up being all talk and no walk. So, I decided to investigate exactly how CMS new proposal purports to make a difference.

The proposals fall under three categories: (1) Proposals that simplify and streamline processes; (2) proposals that reduce the frequency of activities and revise timelines; and (3) proposals that are obsolete, duplicative, or that contain unnecessary requirements.

CMS projects savings of nearly $5.2 billion and a reduction of 53 million hours through 2021. That results in saving 6,000 years of burden hours over the next three years.

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  1. Proposals that simplify and streamline processes

Ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs)

ASCs and hospitals have long competed for business. This competition has, at times, led to hospitals providing outpatient surgical services refusing to sign written transfer agreements or to grant admitting privileges to physicians performing surgery in an ACS. CMS’ proposed rule is aimed at making is easier for ACSs to receive and admit patients. Currently, as a condition for coverage an ASC must – (i) Have a written transfer agreement with a hospital that meets the requirements of paragraph (b)(2) of this section; or (ii) Ensure that all physicians performing surgery in the ASC have admitting privileges at a hospital that meets the requirements of paragraph (b)(2) of this section. CMS proposes to remove the above-mentioned requirements.

Furthermore, now, for every patient admitted and/or pre-surgically assessed at an ACS, the ACS must ensure that each patient has a comprehensive medical history and physical assessment not more than 30-days before the date of the scheduled surgery, that, upon admission, each patient undergoes a pre-surgical assessment competed by a physician, and that each patient’s medical history and physical assessment be placed in the patient’s medical record prior to the surgical procedure. Instead, CMS proposes to defer to each individual ASC’s policy and operating physician’s clinical judgment. CMS will still require the documentation of any pre-existing condition and that the documentation including any allergies, medical history, and physical examination be placed in the patient’s file pre-surgery. But, without question, these two proposed rules will lighten the burden on ACSs and its relationships with hospitals.

Expect a heavy dose of comments to be from hospitals. I think that CMS’ thought process behind this is that it costs substantially less to perform surgeries in an ASC rather than a hospital. But I question whether CMS has studied outcome results – I have no empirical evidence; I only question.

Hospice

The federal regulations presently require that hospice staff include an individual with specialty knowledge of hospice medications. The proposed rule eliminates this requirement. I believe that this proposal arose from complaints of high payroll. This proposed change could cut payrolls significantly because salaries can be reduced without specialty knowledge.

In addition, the proposed rule replaces the requirement that hospices provide a copy of medication policies and procedures to patients, families and caregivers with a requirement that hospices provide information regarding the use, storage, and disposal of controlled drugs to the patient or patient representative, and family. This information would be provided in a more user-friendly manner, as determined by each hospice.

Hospitals

CMS’ new proposed rule allows a hospital that is part of a hospital system consisting of multiple separately certified hospitals to elect to have a unified and integrated Quality Assessment and Performance Improvement (QAPI) program for all of its member hospital. The system governing body will be responsible and accountable for ensuring that each of its separately certified hospitals meets all of the requirements of this section.

There is fine print that you will need to review: Each separately certified hospital within the system would have to demonstrate that: the unified and integrated QAPI program was established in a manner that takes into account each member hospital’s unique circumstances and any significant differences in patient populations and services offered in each hospital; and the unified and integrated QAPI program would establish and implement policies and procedures to ensure that the needs and concerns of each of its separately certified hospitals, regardless of practice or location, were given due consideration, and that the unified and integrated QAPI program would have mechanisms in place to ensure that issues localized to particular hospitals were duly considered and addressed.

Again, I believe that this proposed change is all about saving money.

  1. Proposals that reduce the frequency of activities and revise timelines

Home Health

We propose to remove the requirement that Home Health Agencies (HHAs) provide a copy of the clinical record to a patient, upon request, by the next home visit. We propose to retain the requirement that the copy of the clinical record must be provided, upon request, within 4 business days.

Sometimes a patient’s record is voluminous. With the new age of EHR, hard copies are not so easily accessible.

Critical Access Hospitals

CMS’ proposed rule will change the requirement at § 485.635(a)(4) to reflect the current medical practice where providers are expected to update their policies and procedures as needed in response to regulatory changes, changes in the standard of care, or nationally recognized guidelines. The current rule requires a CAH’s professional personnel to review its policies at least annually and the CAH to review as necessary. The proposal is to reduce burden and provide flexibility by requiring the CAH’s, professional personnel, at a minimum, to conduct a biennial review of its policies and procedures instead of an annual review.

Emergency Preparedness

Instead of reviewing emergency preparedness plans annually, CMS proposes to revise these requirements, so that applicable providers and suppliers have increased flexibility with compliance.

  1. Proposals that are obsolete, duplicative, or that contain unnecessary requirements

Hospitals and CAH Swing-Bed Requirements

CMS’ proposed rule removes the cross reference in the regulations for hospital swing-bed providers and for CAH swing-bed providers. The cross-reference gives a resident the right to choose to, or refuse to, perform services for the facility if they so choose. If the resident works, the facility must document it in the resident’s plan of care, noting whether the services are voluntary or paid, and, if paid, providing wages for the work being performed, at prevailing rates.

The new proposal also removes requirement that facilities with more than 120 beds to employ a social worker on full-time basis and in obtaining routine and 24-hour emergency dental care.

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The comment period for this proposed rule ends on November 19, 2018. You can go to the Federal Register to make a formal comment.

Comments may be submitted electronically through the e-Regulation website https://www.cms.gov/Regulations-and-Guidance/Regulations-and-Policies/eRulemaking/index.html?redirect=/eRulemaking.

RAC Forecast: Increased RAC Audits with a High Likelihood of Recoupments

Data regarding the success of the Medicare RAC program does not lie, right? If the report shows success, then increase the RAC process!! And to anyone who reads the new report to Congress…a success the RAC process is!

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently published its 2016 results of the Medicare Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) program. And CMS was not shy in reporting high rates of returns due to the RAC program. With results as amazing as the report touts, it is clear that the Medicare RACs are hoping that this new report on the hundreds of millions they’ve recovered for Medicare will cause the CMS to reverse course on its decision to limit the number of claims they can review. After reviewing the report to CMS, I will be shocked if Congress does not loosen the limitations placed on RACs in the last couple years. The report acts as marketing propaganda to Congress.

My forecast: increased RAC audits with a high likelihood of recoupments.

The RAC program is divided into 5 regions (currently):

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In 2016, the RAC regions were arranged a bit differently:

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The mission of the RAC program is to identify and correct overpayments made on claims for health care services provided to beneficiaries, to identify underpayments to providers, and to provide information that allows the CMS to implement corrective actions that will prevent future improper payments. As most of my readers are well aware, I have been critical of the RAC program in the past for being overzealous and hyper (overly) – technical, in an erroneous kind of way. See blog. And blog.

The Social Security Act (SSA), which allows for RAC programs, also requires that the CMS publish and submit a yearly “self-audit” on the RAC program. Even though we are almost in October 2018, the recent report released to Congress covers 2016 – apparently CMS’ data gathering lags a bit (lot). If I have to get my 2018 taxes to the IRS by April 15, 2019, shouldn’t CMS have a similar deadline? Instead of submitting information for 2016 when it’s almost 2019…

RACs are paid on a contingency fee basis, which incentivize the RACs to discover billing irregularities. The amount of the contingency fee is a percentage of the improper payment recovered from, or reimbursed to, providers. The RACs negotiate their contingency fees at the time of the contract award. The base contingency fees range from 10.4 – 14.4% for all claim types, except durable medical equipment (DME). The contingency fees for DME claims range from 15.4 – 18.9%. The RAC must return the contingency fee if an improper payment determination is overturned at any level of appeal although I am unaware whether the RAC has to return the interested gained on holding that amount as well, which cannot be a minute amount given that the Medicare appeal backlog causes Medicare appeals to last upwards of 5 – 9 years.

Beginning in 2017, the RAC contracts had an amendment not previously found in past contracts. Now the RACs are to wait 30-days before reporting the alleged overpayment to the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs). The thought process behind this revision to the RAC contracts is that the 30-day wait period allows the providers to informally discuss the findings with the RACs to determine the provider has additional records germane to the audit that could change the outcome of the audit. Theoretically, going forward, providers should receive notification of an alleged overpayment from the RACs rather than the MACs.

And the 2016 results are (drum roll, please):

RACs uncovered $404.46 million in overpayments and $69.46 million in underpayments in fiscal year 2016, for a total of $473.92 million in improper payments being corrected. This represents a 7.5% increase from program corrections in FY 2015, which were $440.69 million.

63% of overpayments identified in 2016 (more than $278 million) were from inpatient hospital claims, including coding validation reviews.

RACs received $39.12 million in contingency fees.

After factoring in contingency fees, administrative costs, and amounts overturned on appeal, the RAC program returned $214.09 million to the Medicare trust funds in 2016.

CMS has implemented several elements to verify RAC accuracy in identifying improper payments. The Recovery Audit Validation Contractor (RVC) establishes an annual accuracy score for each RAC. Supposedly, if we are to take the CMS report as accurate and unbiased, in FY 2016, each RAC had an overall accuracy score of 91% or higher for claims adjusted from August 2015 through July 2016. I am always amazed at the government’s ability to warp percentages. I had a client given a 1.2% accuracy rating during a prepayment review that would rival J.K. Rowling any day of the year. Robert Galbraith, as well.

To address the backlog of Medicare appeals, CMS offered a settlement process that paid hospitals 68% of what they claimed they were owed for short-term inpatient stays. – I am not confident that this money was accounted for in the overall results of the RAC program in the recent report.

135,492 claims were appealed by healthcare providers. But the RAC report to Congress notes: “appealed claims may be counted multiple times if the claim had appeal decisions rendered at multiple levels during 2016.” Undeniably, if this number is close to accurate, there was a significant down swing of appeals by providers in 2016. (I wonder whether the hospital settlement numbers were included).

Of the total appealed claims, 56,724, or 41.9%, were overturned with decisions in the provider’s favor. (Fact check, please!). In my experience as a Medicare and Medicaid regulatory compliance litigator, the success rate for Medicare and Medicaid alleged overpayments is remarkably higher (but maybe my clients just hired a better attorney (wink, wink!).

With results this good, who needs more RAC auditing? We do!! If the report shows success, then increase the RAC process!!