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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).

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.

Medicaid Managed Care Organizations: They Ain’t No Jesus!

Many of my clients come to me because a managed care organization (MCO) terminated or refused to renew their Medicaid contracts. These actions by the MCOs cause great financial distress and, most of the time, put the health care provider out of business. My team and I file preliminary injunctions in order to maintain status quo (i.e., allow the provider to continue to bill for and receive reimbursement for services rendered) until an administrative law judge (ALJ) can determine whether the termination (or refusal to contract with) was arbitrary, capricious, or, even, authorized by law.

With so many behavioral health care providers receiving terminations, I wondered…Do Medicaid recipients have adequate access to care? Are there enough behavioral health care providers to meet the need? I only know of one person who could feed hundreds with one loaf of bread and one fish – and He never worked for the MCOs!

On April 25, 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released its massive Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) managed care final rule (“Final Rule”).

Network adequacy is addressed. States are required to develop and make publicly available time and distance network adequacy standards for primary care (adult and pediatric), OB/GYN, behavioral health, adult and pediatric specialist, hospital, pharmacy, and pediatric dental providers, and for additional provider types as determined by CMS.

Currently, 39 states and the District of Columbia contract with private managed care plans to furnish services to Medicaid beneficiaries, and almost two thirds of the 72 million Medicaid beneficiaries are enrolled in managed care.

Access to care has always been an issue. Our Code of Federal Regulations require adequate access to quality health care coverage for Medicaid/care recipients. See blog. And blog.

However, Section 30A of the Social Security Act, while important, delineates no repercussions for violating such access requirements. You could say that the section “has no teeth,” meaning there is no defined penalty for a violation. Even more “toothless” is Section 30A’s lack of definition of what IS an adequate network? There is no publication that states what ratio of provider to recipient is acceptable.

Enter stage right: Final Rule.

The Final Rule requires states to consider certain criteria when determining adequacy of networks in managed care. Notice – I did not write the MCOs are to consider certain criteria in determining network adequacy. I have high hopes that the Final Rule will instill accountability and responsibility on our single state entity to maintain constant supervision on the MCOs [insert sarcastic laughter].

The regulation lists factors states are to consider in setting standards, including the ability of providers to communicate with limited English proficient enrollees, accommodation of disabilities, and “the availability of triage lines or screening systems, as well as the use of telemedicine, e-visits, and/or other evolving and innovative technological solutions.” If states create exceptions from network adequacy standards, they must monitor enrollee access on an ongoing basis.

The Final Rule marks the first major overhaul of the Medicaid and CHIP programs in more than a decade. It requires states to establish network adequacy standards in Medicaid and CHIP managed care for providers. § 457.1230(a) states that “[t]he State must ensure that the services are available and accessible to enrollees as provided in § 438.206 of this chapter.” (emphasis added).

Perhaps now the MCOs will be audited! Amen!

CMS Releases Final Rule On Return of Overpayments

Written by: David Leatherberry, partner in Gordon &Rees‘ San Diego office

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services released its final rule today on the return of overpayments. The final rule requires providers and suppliers receiving funds under the Medicare/Medicaid program to report and return overpayments within 60 days of identifying the overpayment, or the date a corresponding cost report is due, whichever is later. As published in the February 12, 2016 Federal Register, the final rule clarifies the meaning of overpayment identification, the required lookback period, and the methods available for reporting and returning identified overpayments to CMS. See https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2016/02/12/2016-02789/medicare-program-reporting-and-returning-of-overpayments.

Identification

The point in time in which an overpayment is identified is significant because it triggers the start of the 60-day period in which overpayments must be returned. CMS originally proposed that an overpayment is identified only when “the person has actual knowledge of the existence of the overpayment or acts in reckless disregard or deliberate ignorance of the overpayment.” The final rule changes the meaning of identification, stating that “a person has identified an overpayment when the person has or should have, through the exercise of reasonable diligence, determined that the person has received an overpayment and quantified the amount of the overpayment. The change places a burden on healthcare providers and suppliers to have reasonable policies and programs in place which monitor the receipt of Medicare/Medicaid payments.

6-Year Lookback Period

The final rule also softens the period for which health care providers and suppliers may be liable for the return of overpayments. As the rule was originally proposed, CMS required a 10-year lookback period, consistent with the False Claims Act. Now, overpayments must be reported and returned only if a person identifies the overpayment within six years of the date the overpayment was received.

Guidance in Reporting and Returning Overpayments

The final rule provides that providers and suppliers must use an applicable claims adjustment, credit balance, self-reported refund, or other appropriate process to satisfy the obligation to report and return overpayments. If a health care provider or supplier has reported a self-identified overpayment to either the Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol managed by CMS or the Self-Disclosure Protocol managed by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the provider or supplier is considered to be in compliance with the provisions of this rule as long as they are actively engaged in the respective protocol.