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Medicare Appeals Backlog: Is HHS In Danger of Being Held in Contempt?

Four months after the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Final Rule went in effect (March 2017) attempting to eliminate the Medicare appeal backlog and 6 months before United States District Court for the District of Columbia’s first court-imposed deadline (end of 2017) of reducing the Medicare appeal backlog by 30%, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are woefully far from either. According to HHS’ June 2017 report on the Medicare appeal backlog, 950,520 claims will remain in the backlog by 2021. This is in stark contrast to the District Court’s Order that HHS completely eliminate the backlog by 2020. So will HHS be held in contempt? Throw the Secretary in jail? That is what normally happened when someone violates a Court Order.

Supposedly, HHS’ catastrophic inability to decrease the Medicare appeal backlog is not from a lack of giving the ole college try. But, in its June 2017 report, HHS blames funding.

CMS issued a new Final Rule in January 2017, which took effect March 2017, in hopes of reducing the massive Medicare provider appeal backlog that has clogged up the third level of appeal of Medicare providers’ adverse actions. In the third level of appeal, providers make their arguments before an administrative law judge (ALJ). For information on all the Medicare appeal levels, click here.

The Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) claims that it currently can adjudicate roughly 92,000 appeals annually. The current backlog is approximately 667,326 appeals that HHS estimates will grow to 950,520 by 2021. The average number of days between filing a Petition with OMHA and adjudicating the case is around 1057.2 days. 

HHS had high hopes that these changes would eliminate the backlog. In HHS’ Final Rule Fact Sheet, it states “with the administrative authorities set forth in the final rule and the FY 2017 proposed funding increases and legislative actions outlined in the President’s Budget, we estimate that that the backlog of appeals could be eliminated by FY 2020.” The changes made to the Medicare appeals process by the January 2017 Final Rule is the following:

Changes to the Medicare Appeals Process

The changes in the final rule are primarily focused on the third level of appeal and will:

  • Designate Medicare Appeals Council decisions (final decisions of the Secretary) as precedential to provide more consistency in decisions at all levels of appeal, reducing the resources required to render decisions, and possibly reducing appeal rates by providing clarity to appellants and adjudicators.
  • Allow attorney adjudicators to decide appeals for which a decision can be issued without a hearing and dismiss requests for hearing when an appellant withdraws the request. That way ALJs can focus on conducting hearings and adjudicating the merits of more complex cases.
  • Simplify proceedings when CMS or CMS contractors are involved by limiting the number of entities (CMS or contractors) that can be a participant or party at the hearing.
  • Clarify areas of the regulations that currently causes confusion and may result in unnecessary appeals to the Medicare Appeals Council.
  • Create process efficiencies by eliminating unnecessary steps (e.g., by allowing ALJs to vacate their own dismissals rather than requiring appellants to appeal a dismissal to the Medicare Appeals Council); streamlining certain procedures (e.g., by using telephone hearings for appellants who are not unrepresented beneficiaries, unless the ALJ finds good cause for an appearance by other means); and requiring appellants to provide more information on what they are appealing and who will be attending a hearing.
  • Address areas for improvement previously identified by stakeholders to increase the quality of the process and responsiveness to customers, such as establishing an adjudication time frame for cases remanded from the Medicare Appeals Council, revising remand rules to help ensure cases keep moving forward in the process, simplifying the escalation process, and providing more specific rules on what constitutes good cause for new evidence to be admitted at the OMHA level of appeal.

In early June 2017, HHS issued its second status report on the Medicare appeals backlog and the outlook does not look good.

CMS held a call on June 29, 2017, to discuss recent regulatory changes intended to streamline the Medicare administrative appeal processes, reduce the backlog of pending appeals, and increase consistency in decision-making across appeal levels.

Now HHS is in danger of violating a Court Order.

In December 2016, the District Court for the District of Columbia held in American Hospital Association v Burwell case Ordered HHS to release to status reports every 90 days and the complete elimination of the backlog by 2020, HHS is also required to observe several intermediary benchmarks: 30% reduction by the end of 2017, 60% by the end of 2018, 90% by the end of 2019, and then ultimately 100% elimination by the end of 2020.

BUT LITTLE TO NOTHING HAS CHANGED.

HHS itself has maintained since the requirements were instituted that the elimination of the backlog would not be possible. June’s report projects 950,520 claims will remain by 2021, but this projection is still very far from meeting the court order.

HHS blames funding.

But even significant increase of funding (from about $107 million in 2017, to $242 million in 2018) will not cure the problem! I find it very disturbing that $242 million could not eliminate the Medicare appeal backlog. So what will happen when HHS fails to meet the Court’s mandate of a 30% reduction of the backlog by the end of 2017? Hold the Secretary in contempt?

The court in Burwell drafted a “what if” into the Decision—the Court stated: “if [HHS] fails to meet [these] deadlines, Plaintiffs may move for default judgment or to otherwise enforce the writ of mandamus.”  This allows the Court authority to enforce its Decision, but it has not motivated HHS to try any innovative procedures to reduce the backlog. So far no additional actions have been attempted, and the backlog remains.

If HHS is in violation of the Court Order at the end of 2017, the Court could issue harsh penalties. (Or the Court could do nothing and be a complete disappointment).

Medicare/caid Fraud, Tattletails, and How To Self Disclose

On July 13, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price, M.D., announced the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) biggest-ever health care fraud takedown. 412 health care providers were charged with health care fraud. In total, allegedly, the 412 providers schemed and received $1.3 billion in false billings to Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE. Of the 412 defendants, 115 are physicians, nurses, and other licensed medical professionals. Additionally, HHS has begun the suspension process against 295 health care providers’ licenses.

The charges include allegations of billing for medically unnecessary treatments or services that were not really provided. The DOJ has evidence that many of the defendants had illegal kickback schemes set up. More than 120 of the defendants were charged with unlawfully or inappropriately prescribing and distributing opioids and other narcotics.

While this particular sting operation resulted from government investigations, not all health care fraud is discovered through government investigation. A great deal of fraud is uncovered through private citizens coming forward with incriminating information. These private citizens can file suit against the fraudulent parties on behalf of the government; these are known as qui tam suits.

Being a whistleblower goes against what most of us are taught as children. We are taught not to be a tattletail. I have vivid memories from elementary school of other kids acting out, but I would remain silent and not inform the teacher. But in the health care world, tattletails are becoming much more common – and they make money for blowing that metaphoric whistle.

What is a qui tam lawsuit?

Qui tam is Latin for “who as well.” Qui tam lawsuits are a type of civil lawsuit whistleblowers (tattletails) bring under the False Claims Act, a law that rewards whistleblowers if their qui tam cases recover funds for the government. Qui tam cases are a powerful weapon against Medicare and Medicaid fraud. In other words, if an employee at a health care facility witnesses any type of health care fraud, even if the alleged fraud is unknown to the provider, that employee can hire an attorney to file a qui tam lawsuit to recover money on behalf of the government. The government investigates the allegations of fraud and decides whether it will join the lawsuit. Health care entities found guilty in a qui tam lawsuit will be liable to government for three times the government’s losses, plus penalties.

The whistleblower is rewarded for bringing these lawsuits. If the government intervenes in the case and recovers funds through a settlement or a trial, the whistleblower is entitled to 15% – 25% of the recovery. If the government doesn’t intervene in the case and it is pursued by the whistleblower team, the whistleblower reward is between 25% – 30% of the recovery.

These recoveries are not low numbers. On June 22, 2017, a physician and rehabilitative specialist agreed to pay $1.4 million to resolve allegations they violated the False Claims Act by billing federal health care programs for medically unreasonable and unnecessary ultrasound guidance used with routine lab blood draws, and with Botox and trigger point injections. If a whistleblower had brought this lawsuit, he/she would have been awarded $210,000 – 420,000.

On June 16, 2017, a Pennsylvania-based skilled nursing facility operator agreed to pay roughly $53.6 million to settle charges that it and its subsidiaries violated the False Claims Act by causing the submission of false claims to government health care programs for medically unnecessary therapy and hospice services. The allegations originated in a whistleblower lawsuit filed under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act by 7 former employees of the company. The whistleblower award – $8,040,000 – 16,080,000.

There are currently two, large qui tam cases against United Health Group (UHG) pending in the Central District of California. The cases are: U.S. ex rel. Benjamin Poehling v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc. and U.S. ex rel. Swoben v. Secure Horizons, et al. Both cases were brought by James Swoben, who was an employee and Benjamin Poehling, who was the former finance director of a UHG group that managed the insurer’s Medicare Advantage Plans. On May 2, 2027, the U.S. government joined the Poehling lawsuit.

The charges include allegations that UHG:

  • Submitted invalid codes to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that it knew of or should have known that the codes were invalid – some of the dates of services at issue in the case are older than 2008.
  • Intentionally avoided learning that some diagnoses codes or categories of codes submitted to their plans by providers were invalid, despite acknowledging in 2010 that it should evaluate the results of its blind chart reviews to find codes that need to be deleted.
  • Failed to follow up on and prevent the submissions of invalid codes or submit deletion for invalid codes.
  • Attested to CMS each year that the data they submitted was true and accurate while knowing it was not.

UHG would not be in this expensive, litigious pickle had it conducted a self audit and followed the mandatory disclosure requirements.

What are the mandatory disclosure requirements? Glad you asked…

Section 6402(a) of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) creates an express obligation for health care providers to report and return overpayments of Medicare and Medicaid. The disclosure must be made by 60 days days after the date that the overpayment was identified or the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable. Identification is defined as the point in which the provider has determined or should have determined through the exercise of due diligence that an overpayment exists. CMS expects the provider to proactively investigate any credible information of a potential overpayment. The consequences of failing to proactively investigate can be seen by the UHG  lawsuits above-mentioned. Apparently, UHG had some documents dated in 2010 that indicated it should review codes and delete the invalid codes, but, allegedly, failed to do so.

How do you self disclose?

According to CMS:

“Beginning June 1, 2017, providers of services and suppliers must use the forms included in the OMB-approved collection instrument entitled CMS Voluntary Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol (SRDP) in order to utilize the SRDP. For disclosures of noncompliant financial relationships with more than one physician, the disclosing entity must submit a separate Physician Information Form for each physician. The CMS Voluntary Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol document contains one Physician Information Form.”

“Bye Felicia” – Closing Your Doors To a Skilled Nursing Facility May Not Be So Easy – You Better Follow the Law Or You May Get “Sniffed!”

There are more than 15,000 nursing homes across the country. Even as the elderly population balloons, more and more nursing homes are closing. The main reason is that Medicare covers little at a nursing home, but Medicare does cover at-home and community-based services; i.e., personal care services at your house. Medicare covers nothing for long term care if the recipient only needs custodial care. If the recipient requires a skilled nursing facility (SNF), Medicare will cover the first 100 days, although a co-pay kicks in on day 21. Plus, Medicare only covers the first 100 days if the recipient meets the 3-day inpatient hospital stay requirement for a covered SNF stay. For these monetary reasons, Individuals are trying to stay in their own homes more than in the past, which negatively impacts nursing homes. Apparently, the long term care facilities need to lobby for changes in Medicare.

Closing a SNF, especially if it is Medicare certified, can be tricky to maneuver the stringent regulations.  You cannot just be dismissive and say, “Bye, Felicia,” and walk away. Closing a SNF can be as legally esoteric as opening a SNF. It is imperative that you close a SNF in accordance with all applicable federal regulations; otherwise you could face some “sniff” fines. Bye, Felicia!

Section 6113 of the Affordable Care Act dictates the requirements for closing SNFs. SNF closures can be voluntary or involuntary. So-called involuntary closures occur when health officials rule that homes have provided inadequate care, and Medicaid and Medicare cut off reimbursements. There were 106 terminations of nursing home contracts in 2014, according to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Regardless, according to law, the SNF must provide notice of the impending closure to the State and consumers (or legal representatives) at least 60 days before closure. An exception is if the SNF is shut down by the state or federal government, then the notice is required whenever the Secretary deems appropriate. Notice also must be provided to the State Medicaid agency, the patient’s primary care doctors, the SNF’s medical director, and the CMS regional office. Once notice is provided, the SNF may not admit new patients.

Considering the patients who reside within a SNF, by definition, need skilled care, the SNF also has to plan and organize the relocation of its patients. These relocation plans must be approved by the State.

Further, if the SNF violates these regulations the administrator of the facility and will be subject to civil monetary penalty (CMP) as follows: A minimum of $500 for the first offense; a minimum of $1,500 for the second offense; and a minimum of $3,000 for the third and subsequent offenses. Plus, the administrator could be subject to higher amounts of CMPs (not to exceed ($100,000) based on criteria that CMS will identify in interpretative guidelines.

If you are contemplating closing a SNF, it is imperative that you do so in accordance with the federal rules and regulations. Consult your attorney. Do not be dismissive and say, “Bye, Felicia.” Because you could get “sniffed.”

Durable Medical Equipment and Home Health and Hospice Targeted in Region 5!

Durable Medical Equipment (DME) providers across the country are walking around with large, red and white bullseyes on their backs. Starting back in March 2017, the RAC audits began targeting DME and home health and hospice. DME providers also have to undergo audits by the Comprehensive Error Rate Testing Program (CERT).

bullseye

The RAC for Jurisdiction 5, Performant Recovery, is a national company contracted to perform Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) audits of durable medical equipment, prosthetic, orthotic and supplies (DMEPOS) claims as well as home health and hospice claims. Medicare Part B covers medically necessary DME. The following are the RAC regions:

Region 1 – Performant Recovery, Inc.

Region 2 – Cotiviti, LLC

Region 3 – Cotiviti, LLC

Region 4 – HMS Federal Solutions

Region 5 – Performant Recovery, Inc.

racregions

As you can see from the above map, we are in Region 3. The country is broken up into four regions. But, wait, you say, you said that Performant Recovery is performing RAC audits in region 5 – where is region 5?

Region 5 is the whole country.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) has contracted with Performant Recovery to audit DME and home health and hospice across the whole country.

dmemap

DME and home health and hospice providers – There is nowhere to hide. If you provide equipment or services within the blue area, region 5, you are a target for a RAC audit.

What are some common findings in a RAC audit for DME?

Without question, the most common finding in a RAC or CERT audit is “insufficient documentation.” The problem is that “insufficient documentation” is nebulous, at best, and absolutely incorrect, at worst. This error is by auditors if they cannot conclude that the billed services were actually provided, were provided at the level billed, and/or were medically necessary. An infuriating discovery was when I was defending a DME RAC audit and learned that the “real” reason for the denial of a claim was that no one went to the consumers door, knocked on it, and verified that a wheelchair had, in fact, been delivered. In-person verification of delivery is not a requirement, nor should it be. Such a burdensome requirement would unduly prejudice DME companies. Yes, you need to be able to show a signed and dated delivery slip, but you do not have to go to the consumer’s house and snap a selfie with the consumer and the piece of equipment.

Another common target for RAC audits is oxygen tubing, oxygen stands/racks, portable liquid oxygen systems, and oxygen concentrators.  RAC auditors mainly look for medical necessity for oxygen equipment. Hospital beds/accessories are also a frequent find in a RAC audit. A high use of hospital beds/accessories codes can enlarge the target on your back.

Another recurrent issue that the RAC auditors cite is billing for bundled services separately. Medicare does not make separate payment for DME provider when a beneficiary is in a covered inpatient stay. RAC auditors check whether suppliers are inappropriately receiving separate DME payment when the beneficiary is in a covered inpatient stay.  Suppliers can’t bill for DME items used by the patient prior to the patient’s discharge from the hospital. Medicare doesn’t allow separate billing for surgical dressings, urological supplies, or ostomy supplies provided in the hospital because reimbursement for them is wrapped into the Part A payment. This prohibition applies even if the item is worn home by the patient when leaving the hospital.

As always, documentation of the face to face encounter and the prescription are also important.

You can find the federal regulation for DME documentation at 42 CFR 410.38 – “Durable medical equipment: Scope and conditions.”

Once you receive an alleged overpayment, know your rights! Appeal, appeal, appeal!! The Medicare appeal process can be found here.

Merger of Cardinal and Eastpointe: Will [Should] It Go Through?

What if, right before your wedding day, you discover a secret about your betrothed that changes the very fabric of your relationship. For example, you find out your spouse-to-be is actually gay or a heroin addict. Not that there is anything bad about being gay or a heroin addict, but these are important facts to know and accept [or reject] about your future mate prior to the ringing of the wedding bells. The same is true with two companies that are merging to become one. The merged entity will be liable for any secrets either company is keeping. In this hypothetical, Eastpointe just found out that Cardinal has been cheating – and the wedding is set for July 1!

Cardinal Innovations and Eastpointe, two of our managed care organizations (MCO) charged with managing Medicaid behavioral health care funds plan to merge, effective July 1, 2017. Together the monstrous entity would manage Medicaid behavioral funds for 32 counties.

Last week the State Auditor published a scathing Performance Audit on Cardinal. State Auditor Beth Wood found more than $400,000 in “unreasonable” expenses, including corporate retreats at a luxury hotel in Charleston, S.C.; chartering planes to fly to Greenville, Rocky Mount and Smithfield; providing monthly detailing service for the CEO’s car; and purchasing alcohol, private and first-class airline tickets and other items with company credit cards.

Cardinal’s most significant funding is provided by Medicaid. Funding from Medicaid totaled $567 million and $587 million for state fiscal years 2015 and 2016, respectively. In other words, the State Auditor found that Cardinal is using our tax dollars – public money obtained by you and me – for entertainment, while concurrently, denying behavioral health care services and terminating providers from its catchment area. Over 30% of my salary goes to taxes. I do not accept Cardinal mismanaging my hard earned money – or anyone else’s. It is unacceptable!

“The unreasonable spending on board retreats, meetings, Christmas parties and travel goes against legislative intent for Cardinal’s operations, potentially resulting in the erosion of public trust,” the audit states.

Eastpointe, however, is not squeaky clean.

A June 2015 Performance Audit by the State Auditor found that its former chief financial officer Bob Canupp was alleged to have received kickbacks worth a combined $547,595. It was also alleged that he spent $143,041 on three agency vehicles without a documented business purpose. Canupp, chief executive Ken Jones and other employees also were determined to have used Eastpointe credit cards to make $157,565 in “questionable purchases.” There has not been an audit, thus far, on Eastpointe’s management of public funds. One can only hope that the results of the Cardinal audit spurs on Beth Wood to metaphorically lift the skirts of all the MCOs.

Given the recent audit on Cardinal, I would like to think that Eastpointe is hesitant to merge with such an entity. If a provider had mismanaged Medicaid funds like the State Auditor found that Cardinal did, without question, the authorities would be investigating the provider for Medicaid fraud, waste, and abuse. Will Eastpointe continue with the merger despite the potential liability that may arise from Cardinal’s mismanagement of funds? Remember, according to our State Auditor, “Cardinal could be required to reimburse the State for any payroll expenditures that are later disallowed because they were unauthorized.” – Post-payment review!!

Essentially, this is a question of contract.

We learned about the potential merger of Cardinal and Eastpointe back in January 2017, when Sarah Stroud, Eastpointe’s chief executive, announced in a statement that the agency plans to negotiate a binding agreement within weeks. The question is – how binding is binding?

Every contract is breakable, but there will be a penalty involved in breaching the contract, usually monetary. So – fantastic – if Eastpointe does back out of the merger, maybe our tax dollars that are earmarked for behavioral health care services for Medicaid recipients can pay the penalty for breaching the contract.

Another extremely troubling finding in Cardinal’s State Audit Report is that Cardinal is sitting on over $70 million in its savings account. The audit states that “[b]ased on Cardinal’s accumulated savings, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) should consider whether Cardinal is overcompensated. For FY 2015 and 2016, Cardinal accumulated approximately $30 million and $40 million, respectively, in Medicaid savings. According to the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS), Cardinal can use the Medicaid savings as they see fit.”

As Cardinal sees fit??!!?! These are our tax dollars. Cardinal is not Blue Cross Blue Shield. Cardinal is not a private company. Who in the world thought it a good idea to allow any MCO to use saved money (money not spent on behavioral health care services for Medicaid recipients) to use as it sees fit. It is unconscionable!

Because of my blog, I receive emails almost daily from mothers and fathers of developmentally disabled or mentally handicapped children complaining about Cardinal’s denials or reductions in services. I am also told that there are not enough providers within the catchment area. One mother’s child was approved to receive 16 hours of service, but received zero services because there was no available provider. Another family was told by an MCO that the family’s limit on the amount of services was drastically lower than the actual limit. Families contact me about reduced services when the recipient’s condition has not changed. Providers contact me about MCO recoupments and low reimbursement rates.

Cardinal, and all the MCOs, should be required to use our tax dollars to ensure that enough providers are within the catchment areas to provide the medically necessary services. Increase the reimbursement rates. Increase necessary services.

According to the report, “Cardinal paid about $1.9 million in FY 2015 employee bonuses and $2.4 million in FY 2016 employee bonuses. The average bonus per employee was about $3,000 in FY 2015, and $4,000 in FY 2016. The bonuses were coded to Cardinal’s administrative portion of Medicaid funding source in both years.” Cardinal employs approximately 635 employees.

Good to know that Cardinal is thriving. Employees are overpaid and receive hefty bonuses. Executives are buying alcohol, private and first-class airline tickets and other items with company credit cards. It hosts lavish Christmas parties and retreats. It sits on a $70 million savings account. While I receive reports from families and providers that Medicaid recipients are not receiving medically necessary services, that there are not enough providers within the catchment area to render the approved services, that the reimbursement rates for the services are too low to attract quality providers, that more expensive services are denied for incorrect reasons, and that all the MCOs are recouping money from providers that should not be recouped.

If I were Eastpointe, I would run, regardless the cost.

Hospital May Lose Its Medicare Contract, Threatens CMS

Hospital is shocked to learn that its Medicare contract with Health and Human Services may be terminated by April 16, 2017. Medicaid services may also be adversely affected. The hospital was notified of the possible Medicare contract termination on March 27, 2017, and is faced with conceivably losing its Medicare contract within a month of notification. Legal action cannot act fast enough – unless the hospital requests an emergency temporary restraining order, motion to stay, and preliminary injunction and files it immediately upon learning that its Medicare contract is terminated.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) threatened Greenville Memorial Hospital, part of Greenville Health System, in South Carolina, that Medicare reimbursements will cease starting April 16, 2017. According to CMS, Memorial’s emergency department is not compliant with Medicare regulations.

A public notice in the Greenville News says: “Notice is hereby given that effective April 15, 2017, the agreement between GHS Greenville Memorial Hospital, 701 Grove Road, Greenville, S.C. 29605 and the Secretary of Health and Human Service, as a provider of Hospital Services and Health Insurance for the Aged and Disabled Program (Medicare) is to be terminated. GHS Greenville Memorial Hospital does not meet the following conditions of participation. 42 CFR 482.12 Governing Body, 42 CFR 482.13 Patients’ Rights and 42 CFR 482.23 Nursing Services.”

“The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has determined that GHS Greenville Memorial Hospital is not in compliance with the conditions of coverage. The Medicare program will not make payment for hospital services to patients who are admitted after April 16, 2017.”

The findings came after an onsite audit was conducted on March 13, 2017. Memorial was notified of the report on March 27, 2017.

Memorial must have submitted a corrective action plan by April 3, 2017, but it has not been released.

The emergency department at Memorial treats about 300 patients per day. An employee of Memorial estimates that the termination would lose net revenue from Medicare and Medicaid could potentially reach around $495 million. Greenville Memorial received $305 million in Medicare funding and $190 million from Medicaid in the most recent fiscal year, accounting for nearly six in 10 patients, officials said.

While CMS and Memorial refuse to discuss the details of the alleged noncompliance, CMS’ public notice cites three CFR cites: 42 CFR 482.12 Governing Body, 42 CFR 482.13 Patients’ Rights and 42 CFR 482.23 Nursing Services.

42 CFR 482.12 requires that hospitals have governing bodies and plans to follow Medicare regulations. Subsection (f) specifically requires that if a hospital has an emergency department that the hospital must follow 42 CFR 482.55 “Conditions of Participation,” which states that “The hospital must meet the emergency needs of patients in accordance with acceptable standards of practice.

(a) Standard: Organization and direction. If emergency services are provided at the hospital –

  1. The services must be organized under the direction of a qualified member of the medical staff;
  2. The services must be integrated with other departments of the hospital;
  3. The policies and procedures governing medical care provided in the emergency service or department are established by and are a continuing responsibility of the medical staff.

(b) Standard: Personnel.

  1. The emergency services must be supervised by a qualified member of the medical staff.
  2. There must be adequate medical and nursing personnel qualified in emergency care to meet the written emergency procedures and needs anticipated by the facility.”

The Memorial audit stemmed from a March 4, 2017, death of Donald Keith Smith, 48, who died as a result of traumatic asphyxiation. After an altercation, the patient was placed on a gurney, supposedly, face-down. South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Controls Site Survey Agency investigated the hospital after the death and the audit found that hospital security officers improperly restrained Smith, strapping him face down to a gurney during an altercation, rendering him unable to breathe. The death was ruled a homicide.

Memorial terminated the security officers involved in the death.

Now the hospital is faced with its own potential death. The loss of Medicare and, perhaps, Medicaid reimbursements could financially kill the hospital. Let’s see what happens…

Class Action Lawsuit Alleges Right to Inpatient Hospital Stays: Hospitals Are Damned If They Do…and Don’t!

Hospitals – “Lend me your ears; I come to warn you, not to praise RACs. The evil that RACs do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their appeals; So let it be with lawsuits.” – Julius Caesar, with modifications by me.

A class action lawsuit is pending against U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) alleging that the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) encourages (or bullies) hospitals to place patients in observation status (covered by Medicare Part B), rather than admitting them as patients (covered by Medicare Part A). The Complaint alleges that the treatments while in observation status are consistent with the treatments if the patients were admitted as inpatients; however, Medicare Part B reimbursements are lower, forcing the patient to pay more out-of-pocket expenses without recourse.

The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut refused to dismiss the class action case on February 8, 2017, giving the legal arguments within the Complaint some legal standing, at least, holding that the material facts alleged warrant investigation.

The issue of admitting patients versus keeping them in observation has been a hot topic for hospitals for years. If you recall, Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) specifically target patient admissions. See blog and blog. RAC audits of hospital short-stays is now one of the most RAC-reviewed issues. In fiscal year 2014, RACs “recouped” from hospitals $1.2 billion in allegedly improper inpatient claims. RACs do not, however, review outpatient claims to determine whether they should have been paid as inpatient.

On May 4, 2016, CMS paused its reviews of inpatient stays to determine the appropriateness of Medicare Part A payment. On September 12, 2016, CMS resumed them, but with more stringent rules on the auditors’ part. For example, auditors cannot audit claims more than the six-month look-back period from the date of admission.

Prior to September 2016,  hospitals would often have no recourse when a claim is denied because the timely filing limits will have passed. The exception was if the hospital joined the Medicare Part A/Part B rebilling demonstration project. But to join the program, hospitals would forfeit their right to appeal – leaving them with no option but to re-file the claim as an outpatient claim.

With increased scrutiny, including RAC audits, on hospital inpatient stays, the class action lawsuit, Alexander et al. v. Cochran, alleges that HHS pressures hospitals to place patients in observation rather than admitting them. The decision states that “Identical services provided to patients on observation status are covered under Medicare Part B, instead of Part A, and are therefore reimbursed at a lower rate. Allegedly, the plaintiffs lost thousands of dollars in coverage—of both hospital services and subsequent skilled nursing care—as a result of being placed on observation status during their hospital stays.” In other words, the decision to place on observation status rather than admit as an inpatient has significant financial consequences for the patient. But that decision does not affect what treatment or medical services the hospital can provide.

While official Medicare policy allows the physicians to determine the inpatient v. observation status, RAC audits come behind and question that discretion. The Medicare Policy states that “the decision to admit a patient is a complex medical judgment.” Ch. 1  § 10. By contrast, CMS considers the determination as to whether services are properly billed and paid as inpatient or outpatient to be a regulatory matter. In an effort to avoid claim denials and recoupments, plaintiffs allege that hospitals automatically place the patients in observation and rely on computer algorithms or “commercial screening tools.”

In a deposition, a RAC official admitted that if the claim being reviewed meets the “commercial screening tool” requirements, then the RAC would find the inpatient status is appropriate, as long as there is a technically valid order. No wonder hospitals are relying on these commercial screening tools more and more! It is only logical and self-preserving!

This case was originally filed in 2011, and the Court of Appeals overturned the district court’s dismissal and remanded it back to the district court for consideration of the due process claims. In this case, the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs could establish a protected property interest if they proved their allegation “that the Secretary—acting through CMS—has effectively established fixed and objective criteria for when to admit Medicare beneficiaries as ‘inpatients,’ and that, notwithstanding the Medicare Policy Manual’s guidance, hospitals apply these criteria when making admissions decisions, rather than relying on the judgment of their treating physicians.”

HHS argues that that the undisputed fact that a physician makes the initial patient status determination on the basis of clinical judgment is enough to demonstrate that there is no due process property interest at stake.

The court disagreed and found too many material facts in dispute to dismiss the case.

Going forward:

Significant discovery will be explored as to the extent to which hospitals rely on commercial screening tools. Also whether the commercial screening tools are applied equally to private insureds versus Medicare patients.

Significant discovery will be explored on whether the hospital’s physicians challenge changing a patient from inpatient to observation.

Significant discovery will be explored as to the extent that CMS policy influences hospital decision-making.

Hospitals need to follow this case closely. If, in fact, RAC audits and CMS policy is influencing hospitals to issue patients as observation status instead of inpatient, expect changes to come – regardless the outcome of the case.

As for inpatient hospital stays, could this lawsuit give Medicare patients the right to appeal a hospital’s decision to place the patient in observation status? A possible, future scenario is a physician places a patient in observation. The patient appeals and gets admitted. Then hospital’s claim is denied because the RAC determines that the patient should have been in observation, not inpatient. Will the hospitals be damned if they do, damned if they don’t?

damned

In the meantime:

Hospitals and physicians at hospitals: Review your policy regarding determining inpatient versus observation status. Review specific patient files that were admitted as inpatient. Was a commercial screening tool used? Is there adequate documentation that the physician made an independent decision to admit the patient? Hold educational seminars for your physicians. Educate! And have an attorney on retainer – this issue will be litigated.

NC DHHS’ New Secretary – Yay or Nay?

Our newly appointed DHHS Secretary comes with a fancy and distinguished curriculum vitae. Dr. Mandy Cohen, DHHS’ newly appointed Secretary by Gov. Roy Cooper, is trained as an internal medicine physician. She is 38 (younger than I am) and has no known ties to North Carolina. She grew up in New York; her mother was a nurse practitioner. She is also a sharp contrast from our former, appointed, DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos. See blog.

cohen

Prior to the appointment as our DHHS Secretary, Dr. Cohen was the Chief Operating Officer and Chief of Staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Prior to acting as the COO of CMS, she was Principal Deputy Director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight (CCIIO) at CMS where she oversaw the Health Insurance Marketplace and private insurance market regulation. Prior to her work at CCIIO, she served as a Senior Advisor to the Administrator coordinating Affordable Care Act implementation activities.

Did she ever practice medicine?

Prior to acting as Senior Advisor to the Administrator, Dr. Cohen was the Director of Stakeholder Engagement for the CMS Innovation Center, where she investigated new payment and care delivery models.

Dr. Cohen received her Bachelor’s degree in policy analysis and management from Cornell University, 2000. She obtained her Master’s degree in health administration from Harvard University School of Public Health, 2004, and her Medical degree from Yale University School of Medicine, 2005.

She started as a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital from 2005 through 2008, then was deputy director for comprehensive women’s health services at the Department of Veterans Affairs from July 2008 through July 2009. From 2009 through 2011, she was executive director of the Doctors for America, a group that promoted the idea that any federal health reform proposal ought to include a government-run “public option” health insurance program for the uninsured.

Again, I was perplexed. Did she ever practice medicine? Does she even have a current medical license?

This is what I found:

physicianprofile

It appears that Dr. Cohen was issued a medical license in 2007, but allowed it to expire in 2012 – most likely, because she was no longer providing medical services and was climbing the regulatory and political ladder.

From what I could find, Dr. Cohen practiced medicine (with a fully-certified license) from June 20, 2007, through July 2009 (assuming that she practiced medicine while acting as the deputy director for comprehensive women’s health services at the Department of Veterans Affairs).

Let me be crystal clear: It is not my contention that Dr. Cohen is not qualified to act as our Secretary to DHHS because she seemingly only practiced medicine (fully-licensed) for two years. Her political and policy experience is impressive. I am only saying that, to the extent that Dr. Cohen is being touted as a perfect fit for our new Secretary because of her medical experience, let’s not make much ado of her practicing medicine for two years.

That said, regardless Dr. Cohen’s practical medical experience, anyone who has been the COO of CMS must have intricate knowledge of Medicare and Medicaid and the essential understanding of the relationship between NC DHHS and the federal government. In this regard, Cooper hit a homerun with this appointment.

Herein lies the conundrum with Dr. Cohen’s appointment as DHHS Secretary:

Is there a conflict of interest?

During Cooper’s first week in office, our new Governor sought permission, unilaterally, from the federal government to expand Medicaid as outlined in the Affordable Care Act. This was on January 6, 2017.

To which agency does Gov. Cooper’s request to expand Medicaid go? Answer: CMS. Who was the COO of CMS on January 6, 2017? Answer: Cohen. When did Cohen resign from CMS? January 12, 2017.

On January 14, 2017, a federal judge stayed any action to expand Medicaid pending a determination of Cooper’s legal authority to do so. But Gov. Cooper had already announced his appointment of Dr. Cohen as Secretary of DHHS, who is and has been a strong proponent of the ACA. You can read one of Dr. Cohen’s statements on the ACA here.

In fact, regardless your political stance on Medicaid expansion, Gov. Cooper’s unilateral request to expand Medicaid without the General Assembly is a violation of NC S.L. 2013-5, which states:

SECTION 3. The State will not expand the State’s Medicaid eligibility under the Medicaid expansion provided in the Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148, as amended, for which the enforcement was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in National Federation of Independent Business, et al. v. Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al., 132 S. Ct. 2566 (2012). No department, agency, or institution of this State shall attempt to expand the Medicaid eligibility standards provided in S.L. 2011-145, as amended, or elsewhere in State law, unless directed to do so by the General Assembly.

Obviously, if Gov. Cooper’s tactic were to somehow circumvent S.L. 2013-5 and reach CMS before January 20, 2017, when the Trump administration took over, the federal judge blockaded that from happening with its stay on  January 14, 2017.

But is it a bit sticky that Gov. Cooper appointed the COO of CMS, while she was still COO of CMS, to act as our Secretary of DHHS, and requested CMS for Medicaid expansion (in violation of NC law) while Cohen was acting COO?

You tell me.

I did find an uplifting quotation from Dr. Cohen from a 2009 interview with a National Journal reporter:

“There’s a lot of uncompensated work going on, so there has to be a component that goes beyond just fee-for service… But you don’t want a situation where doctors have to be the one to take on all the risk of taking care of a patient. Asking someone to take on financial risk in a small practice is very concerning.” -Dr. Mandy Cohen

New Revisions to Stark Law: Beware the “Per-Click Lease” – Maybe?

Scenario: You have an arrangement with your local hospital. You are a urologist and your practice owns a laser machine. You lease your laser machine to Hospital A, and your lease allows you to receive additional, but fair market value, money depending on how often your machine is used. Legal?

A new Final Ruling from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) provides murky guidance.

CMS finalized the 2017 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule (PFS) rule, which took effect on January 1, 2017. There have been few major revisions to the Stark Law since 2008…until now. The Stark Law is named for United States Congressman Pete Stark (D-CA), who sponsored the initial bill in 1988. Politicians love to name bills after themselves!

Absent an exception, the Stark Law prohibits a physician from referring Medicare patients for certain designated health services (“DHS”), for which payment may be made under Medicare, to any “entity” with which the physician (or an immediate family member) has a “financial relationship.” Conversely, the statute prohibits the DHS-furnishing entity from filing claims with Medicare for those referred services.

Despite the general prohibition on potentially self-interested referrals, the Stark Law permits Medicare referrals by physicians to entities in which they have a financial interest in certain limited circumstances. But these circumstances are limited and must be followed precisely and without deviation.

These exceptions are created by legally excluding some forms of compensation agreements and ownership interests from the definition of “financial relationship,” thus allowing both the relationships and the referrals. See 42 U.S.C. § 1395nn(b)-(e).

One of such exceptions to the Stark Law is the equipment lease exception.

This equipment lease exception to Stark law allows a financial relationship between physicians and hospitals for the lease of equipment, only if the lease (1) is in writing; (2) assigns the use of the equipment exclusively to the hospital; (3) lasts for a term of at least one year; (4) sets rental charges in advance that are consistent with fair market value and “not determined in a manner that takes into account the volume or value of any referrals or other business generated between the parties”; (5) satisfies the standard of commercial reasonableness even absent any referrals; and (6) meets “such other requirements as the Secretary may impose by regulation as needed to protect against program or patient abuse.”

For example, like the scenario above, a urology group owns and leases a laser machine to Hospital A. As long as the lease meets the criteria listed above, the urologists may refer Medicare patients to Hospital A to their hearts’ content – even though the urologists benefit financially from their own referrals.

However, what if the monetary incentive is tied to the amount the machine is actually used – or the “per-click lease?”

In a court case decided in January 2015, Council for Urological Interests v. Burwell, a D.C. circuit court decided that CMS’ ban on per-click leases was unreasonable.

In CMS’ Final Ruling, effective January 1, 2017, CMS again re-issued the per-click lease ban. But CMS’ revised ban appears to be more parochial in scope. CMS states that it “did not propose and [is] not finalizing an absolute prohibition on rental charges based on units of service furnished” and that “[i]n general, per-unit of service rental charges for the rental of office space or equipment are permissible.” As CMS had previously stated, the per-click ban applies only “to the extent that such charges reflect services provided to patients referred by the lessor to the lessee.”

Considering how unclear the Final Rule is – We are banning per-click leases, but not absolutely – expect lawsuits to clarify. In the meantime, re-visit your equipment leases. Have your attorney review for Stark compliance – because for the first time since 2008, major amendments to Stark Law became effective January 1, 2017.

Step Right Up! CMS Announces New Medicare-Medicaid ACO Model

Come one! Come all! Step right up to be one of the first 6 states to test the new Medicare-Medicaid Affordable Care Act (ACO) pilot program.

experiment

Let your elderly population be the guinea pigs for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Let your most needy population be the lab rats for CMS.

On December 15, 2016, CMS announced its intent to create Medicare/caid ACOs. Currently, Medicare ACOs exist, and if your physician has opted to participate in a Medicare ACO, then, most likely, you understand Medicare ACOs. Medicare ACOs are basically groups of physicians – of different service types – who voluntarily decide (but only after intense scrutiny by their lawyers of the ACO contract) to collaborate care with the intent of higher quality and lower cost care.  For example, if your primary care physician participates in a Medicare ACO and you suffer intestinal issues, your primary care doctor would coordinate with a GI specialist within the Medicare ACO to get you an appointment. Then the GI specialist and your physician would share medical records, including test results and medication management. The thought is that the coordination of care will decrease duplicative tests, ensure appointments are made and kept, and prevent losing medical records or reviewing older, moot records.

Importantly, the Medicare beneficiary retains all benefits of “normal” Medicare and can choose to see any physician who accepts Medicare. The ACO model is a shift from “fee-for-service” to a risk-based, capitated amount in which quality of care is rewarded.

On the federal level, there have not been ACOs specially created for dual-eligible recipients; i.e., those who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid…until now.

The CMS is requesting states to volunteer to participate in a pilot program instituting Medicare/Medicaid ACOs. CMS is looking for 6 brave states to participate. States may choose from three options for when the first 12-month performance period for the Medicare-Medicaid ACO Model will begin for ACOs in the state: January 1, 2018; January 1, 2019; or January 1, 2020.

Any state is eligible to apply, including the District of Columbia. But if the state wants to participate in the first round of pilot programs, intended to begin 2018, then that state must submit its letter of intent to participate by tomorrow by 11:59pm. See below.

dual-acos

I tried to research which states have applied, but was unsuccessful. If anyone has the information, I would appreciate it if you could forward it to me.

Participating in an ACO, whether it is only Medicare and Medicare/caid, can create a increase in revenue for your practices. Since you bear some risk, you also reap some benefit if you able to control costs. But, the decision to participate in an ACO should not be taken lightly. Federal law yields harsh penalties for violations of Anti-Kickback and Stark laws (which, on a very general level, prohibits referrals among physicians for any benefit). However, there are safe harbor laws and regulations specific to ACOs that allow exceptions. Regardless, do not ever sign a contract to participate in an ACO without an attorney reviewing it. 

Food for thought – CMS’ Medicare/caid ACO Model may exist only “here in this [Obama] world. Here may be the last ever to be seen of [healthcare.gov] and their [employee mandates]. Look for it only in [history] books, for it may be no more than a [Obamacare] remembered, a [health care policy] gone with the wind…”

As, tomorrow (January 20, 2017) is the presidential inauguration. The winds may be a’changing…