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The Undefined, Definition of “Medical Necessity”

While the Coronavirus pandemic is horrible and seems to be getting worse. COVID has forced slight, positive changes in the telehealth arena and, perhaps, in the widening of the ambiguous definition of “medical necessity” or, as I call it – the undefined, definition of “medical necessity.” Medical necessity is the backbone of rendering health care services. Without it, services should not be provided. Yet, medical necessity is the most litigated topic in all of audits.

On September 1, 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) published a proposed rule that will codify a definition of “medical necessity” for Medicare purposes. So far, the definition of medical necessity varies, depending on the source. The MACs have been given long rein in defining the term on an individual and separate basis, creating disparity in definitions and criteria. The proposed rule’s comment period ended November 2, 2020.

All this to say medical necessity is in the eye of the beholder. Much like beauty. Why then, can RAC and MAC auditors who are not doctors, not firsthand, treating providers, not nurses or LCASs, decide that medical necessity does or does not exist for a patient that they have never seen?

Black’s Law Dictionary (the most prominent legal dictionary) has a super, unhelpful definition of medical necessity: “If not carried out the patient’s situation could worsen. For a patient’s treatment found to be necessary is this specific type of procedure or treatment.”

The American Medical Association (“AMA”), on the other hand, has a more detailed definition, probably unintended to make it all the more confusing:

“Our AMA defines medical necessity as: Health care services or products that a prudent physician would provide to a patient for the purpose of preventing, diagnosing or treating an illness, injury, disease or its symptoms in a manner that is: (a) in accordance with generally accepted standards of medical practice; (b) clinically appropriate in terms of type, frequency, extent, site, and duration; and (c) not primarily for the economic benefit of the health plans and purchasers or for the convenience of the patient, treating physician, or other health care provider.”

CMS’ proposed rule codifies a definition of what makes an item or service medically “reasonable and necessary” under the Social Security Act 1861(a)(1)(A). The rule, if finalized, would codify in regulations a definition of “reasonable and necessary” items and services based on a definition currently used by Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), with an additional element that potentially would include coverage determinations by commercial insurers as a factor in making Medicare coverage determinations.

The Proposed Definition (To be Codified in 42 CFR 405.201)

“We are proposing to codify the longstanding Program Integrity Manual definition of “reasonable and necessary” into our regulations at 42 CFR 405.201(b), with modification. Under the current definition, an item or service is considered “reasonable and necessary” if it is (1) safe and effective; (2) not experimental or investigational; and (3) appropriate, including the duration and frequency that is considered appropriate for the item or service, in terms of whether it is—

  • Furnished in accordance with accepted standards of medical practice for the diagnosis or treatment of the patient’s condition or to improve the function of a malformed body member;
  • Furnished in a setting appropriate to the patient’s medical needs and condition;
  • Ordered and furnished by qualified personnel;
  • One that meets, but does not exceed, the patient’s medical need; and
  • At least as beneficial as an existing and available medically appropriate alternative.” See Proposed Rule.

In addition, CMS adds that it will also utilize commercial payor standards or have an objective panel determine medical necessity if criteria #1 and #2 were met, but not #3. This additional commentary is another example of how subjective and fact-specific determining medical necessity can be. The LCDs will also be consulted.

If adopted, these proposals would arguably lead to the most wide-ranging changes in Medicare’s coverage standards and procedures in decades. The proposal to codify the definition of “reasonable and necessary” applies to all items and services. The inclusion of commercial payor standards may be a wild card.

The definition of medical necessity has not been officially revised – yet. One could imagine that, in the midst of a RAC or MAC audit, auditors and providers will disagree as to the true definition of medical necessity.

Going forward, when you get audited, immediately look and see whether your claim denials were denied due to “lack of medical necessity.” Ask yourself, “Really? Is there no medical necessity in this case…even in the era of COVID?” Because the auditors may be wrong.

Secondly, ensure that the RAC and MAC entity is CMS-certified to review those certain CPT codes for medical necessity. CMS limits audits on medical necessity because of the vagueness of the definition. When auditors find no medical necessity, then providers must push back. And you should push back, legally, of course!

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.