Blog Archives

CMS Rulings Are Not Law; Yet Followed By ALJs

Lack of medical necessity is one of the leading reasons for denials during RAC, MAC, TPE, and UPIC audits. However, case law dictates that the treating physician should be allowed deference with the decision that medical necessity exists because the Medicare and/or Medicaid auditor never had the privilege to see the recipient.

However, recent ALJ decisions have gone against case law. How is that possible? CMS creates “Rules” – I say that in air quotes – these Rules are not promulgated, but are binding on anyone under CMS’ umbrella. Guess what? That includes the ALJs for Medicare appeals. As an example, the “treating physician” Rule is law based on case law. Juxtapose, CMS’ Ruling 93-l. It states that no presumptive weight should be assigned to a treating physician’s medical opinion in determining the medical necessity of inpatient hospital and skilled nursing facility services. The Ruling adds parenthetically that the Ruling does not “by omission or implication” endorse the application of the treating physician rule to services not addressed in the Ruling. So, we get a decision from an ALJ that dismisses the treating physician rule.

The ALJ decision actually said: Accordingly, I find that the treating physician rule, standing alone, provides no basis for coverage.

This ALJ went against the law but followed CMS Rulings.

CMS Rulings, however, are not binding. CMS Rulings aren’t even law. Yet the CMS Rulings, according to CMS, are binding onto the entities that are under the CMS umbrella. This means that the Medicare appeals process, which include the redeterminations, the reconsiderations, the ALJ decisions, and the Medicare Appeals Councils’ decisions are all dictated by these non-law, CMS Rulings, which fly in the face of actual law. ALJs uphold extrapolations based on CMS Rulings because they have to. But once you get to a federal district court judge, who are not bound by CMS, non-law, rulings, you get a real Judge’s decision, and most extrapolations are thrown out if the error rate is under 50%.

Basically, if you are a Medicare provider, you have to jump through the hoops of 4 levels of appeals that is not dictated by law, but by an administration that is rewarded for taking money from providers on the pretense of FWA. Most providers do not have the financial means to make it to the 5th level of appeal. So, CMS wins by default.

Folks, create a legal fund for your provider entity. You have got to appeal and be able to afford it. That is the only way that we can change the disproportionately unfair Medicare appeal process that providers must endure now.

CMS Rulings Can Devastate a Provider, But Should It?

If you could light a torch to a Molotov Cocktail and a bunch of newspapers, you could not make a bigger explosion in my head than a recent Decision from a Medicare administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The extrapolation was upheld, despite an expert statistician citing its shortcomings, based on a CMS Ruling, which is neither law nor precedent. The Decision reminded me of the new Firestarter movie because everything is up in flames. Drew Barrymore would be proud.

I find it very lazy of the government to rely on sampling and extrapolations, especially in light that no witness testifies to its accuracy.

Because this ALJ relied so heavily on CMS Rulings, I wanted to do a little detective work as to whether CMS Rulings are binding or even law. First, I logged onto Westlaw to search for “CMS Ruling” in any case in any jurisdiction in America. Nothing. Not one case ever mentioned “CMS Ruling.” Ever. (Nor did my law school).

What Is a CMS Ruling?

A CMS Ruling is defined as, “decisions of the Administrator that serve as precedent final opinions and orders and statements of policy and interpretation. They provide clarification and interpretation of complex or ambiguous provisions of the law or regulations relating to Medicare, Medicaid, Utilization and Quality Control Peer Review, private health insurance, and related matters.”

But Are CMS Rulings Law?

No. CMS Rulings are not law. CMS Rulings are not binding on district court judges because district court judges are not part of HHS or CMS. However, the Medicare ALJs are considered part of HHS and CMS; thus the CMS Rulings are binding on Medicare ALJs.

This creates a dichotomy between the “real law” and agency rules. When you read CMS Ruling 86-1, it reads as if there two parties with oppositive views, both presented their arguments, and the Administrator makes a ruling. But the Administrator is not a Judge, but the Ruling reads like a court case. CMS Rulings are not binding on:

  1. The Supreme Court
  2. Appellate Courts
  3. The real world outside of CMS
  4. District Courts
  5. The Department of Transportation
  6. Civil Jurisprudence
  7. The Department of Education
  8. Etc. – You get the point.

So why are Medicare providers held subject to penalties based on CMS Rulings, when after the providers appeal their case to district court, that “rule” that was subjected against them (saying they owe $7 million) is rendered moot? Can we say – not fair, equitable, Constitutional, and flies in the face of due process?

The future does not look bright for providers going forward in defending overzealous, erroneous, and misplaced audits. These audits aren’t even backed up by witnesses – seriously, at the ALJ Medicare appeals, there is no statistician testifying to verify the results. Yet some of the ALJs are still upholding these audits.

In the “court case,” which resulted in CMS Ruling 86-1, the provider argued that:

  1. There is no legal authority in the Medicare statute or regulations for HCFA or its intermediaries to determine overpayments by projecting the findings of a sample of specific claims onto a universe of unspecified beneficiaries and claims.
  2. Section 1879 of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395pp, contemplates that medical necessity and custodial care coverage determinations will be made only by means of a case-by-case review.
  3. When sampling is used, providers are not able to bill individual beneficiaries not in the sample group for the services determined to be noncovered.
  4. Use of a sampling procedure violates the rights of providers to appeal adverse determinations.
  5. The use of sampling and extrapolation to determine overpayments deprives the provider of due process.

The CMS Ruling 86-1 was decided by Mr. Henry R. Desmarais, Acting Administrator, Health Care Financing Administration in 1986.

Think it should be upheld?

High Court to Decide Whether Agencies Like CMS Can Flip-Flop Decisions

Do you know anyone who constantly changes his or her mind? Sometimes changing your mind can have drastic consequences. Think about it in the aspects of politics. Imagine that Obama announces that he was switching parties to become a Republican? This would be a huge decision with drastic consequences.

As crazy as it sounds, politicians do switch sides. The most recent switch-hitter that I can recall is Charlie Crist of Florida. Republican Crist served as Florida’s governor from 2007 to 2011. In December 2011, Crist officially changed his party affiliation to Democrat. More famously, Ronald Reagan began his political career as a Democrat. Hillary Clinton used to be a Republican. These changes had profound impact.

Now imagine that the Supreme Court rules one way, then overturns itself. There would be drastic consequences, and it does not happen often (actually the Supreme Court has overturned itself 10 times over the course of history).

Similarly, what if the Center for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) issued a final ruling, caused millions of providers to change the way they bill Medicare or Medicaid, then changed its mind?

Can CMS change its mind after issuing a final ruling?

This is precisely what the Supreme Court will decide.

In Perez v. Mortg. Bankers Ass’n, U.S., No. 13-1041, petition filed 2/28/14, the federal government is asking the Supreme Court to review whether an agency altered its interpretation of a regulation without adhering to the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). In Perez, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued a reinterpretation of a prior ruling without obtaining notice and comment from the public.

If the Supreme Court allows the DOL to uphold its reinterpretation, this holding could have serious ramifications in the health care arena. Medicare and Medicaid are also highly regulated, like labor laws. IF DOL’s reinterpretation stands, then CMS could also issue redeterminations of prior rulings without notice and comment.

Allowing CMS to flip-flop decisions would impact providers who rely on CMS rulings in order for their practices to remain compliant.

As of now, the Supreme Court has not decided whether it will hear arguments on this case. But both petitions filed with the Supreme Court cite a circuit court split in opinions. It is more likely for the Supreme Court to grant review of a case when there is a split of opinion.