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Increased Medicare Reimbursements and Nursing Home Audits

HEAR YE, HEAR YE: Medicare reimbursement rate increase!!

On April 27th, CMS proposed a rule to increase Medicare fee-for-service payment rates and policies for inpatient hospitals and long-term care hospitals for fiscal year (FY) 2022. The proposed rule will update Medicare payment policies and rates for operating and capital‑related costs of acute care hospitals and for certain hospitals. The proposed increase in operating payment rates for general acute care hospitals paid under the IPPS that successfully participate in the Hospital Inpatient Quality Reporting (“IQR”) Program and are meaningful electronic health record (“EHR”) users is approximately 2.8%. This reflects the projected hospital market basket update of 2.5% reduced by a 0.2 percentage point productivity adjustment and increased by a 0.5 percentage point adjustment required by legislation.

Secondly, a sample audit of nursing homes conducted by CMS will lead to more scrutiny of nursing homes and long-term care facilities. The sample audit showed that two-thirds of Massachusetts’s nursing homes that receive federal Medicaid and Medicare funding are lagging in required annual inspections — and MA is demonstrative of the country.

237 nursing homes and long-term care facilities in the state, or 63.7% of the total, are behind on their federal health and safety inspections by at least 18 months. The national average is 51.3%.

We cannot blame COVID for everything. Those inspections lagged even before the pandemic, the data shows, but ground to a halt last year when the federal agency discontinued in-person visits to nursing homes as they were closed off to the public to help prevent spread of the COVID.

Lastly, on April 29, 2021, CMS issued a final rule to extend and make changes to the Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement (“CJR”) model. You’ve probably heard Dr. Ron Hirsch reporting on the joint replacement model on RACMonitor. The CJR model aims to pay providers based on total episodes of care for hip and knee replacements to curb costs and improve quality. Hospitals in the model that meet spending and quality thresholds can get an additional Medicare payment. But hospitals that don’t meet targets must repay Medicare for a portion of their spending.

This final rule revises the episode definition, payment methodology, and makes other modifications to the model to adapt the CJR model to changes in practice and fee-for-service payment occurring over the past several years. The changes in practice and payment are expected to limit or reverse early evaluation results demonstrating the CJR model’s ability to achieve savings while sustaining quality. This rule provides the time needed to test modifications to the model by extending the CJR model for an additional three performance years through December 31, 2024 for certain participant hospitals.

The CJR model has proven successful according to CMS. It began in 2016. Hospitals had a “statistically significant decrease” in average payments for all hip and knee replacements relative to a control group. $61.6 million (a savings of 2% of the baseline)

A Study of Contractor Consistency in Reviewing Extrapolated Overpayments

By Frank Cohen, MPA, MBB – my colleague from RACMonitor. He wrote a great article and has permitted me to share it with you. See below.

CMS levies billions of dollars in overpayments a year against healthcare providers, based on the use of extrapolation audits.

The use of extrapolation in Medicare and private payer audits has been around for quite some time now. And lest you be of the opinion that extrapolation is not appropriate for claims-based audits, there are many, many court cases that have supported its use, both specifically and in general. Arguing that extrapolation should not have been used in a given audit, unless that argument is supported by specific statistical challenges, is mostly a waste of time. 

For background purposes, extrapolation, as it is used in statistics, is a “statistical technique aimed at inferring the unknown from the known. It attempts to predict future data by relying on historical data, such as estimating the size of a population a few years in the future on the basis of the current population size and its rate of growth,” according to a definition created by Eurostat, a component of the European Union. For our purposes, extrapolation is used to estimate what the actual overpayment amount might likely be for a population of claims, based on auditing a smaller sample of that population. For example, say a Uniform Program Integrity Contractor (UPIC) pulls 30 claims from a medical practice from a population of 10,000 claims. The audit finds that 10 of those claims had some type of coding error, resulting in an overpayment of $500. To extrapolate this to the entire population of claims, one might take the average overpayment, which is the $500 divided by the 30 claims ($16.67 per claim) and multiply this by the total number of claims in the population. In this case, we would multiply the $16.67 per claim by 10,000 for an extrapolated overpayment estimate of $166,667. 

The big question that normally crops up around extrapolation is this: how accurate are the estimates? And the answer is (wait for it …), it depends. It depends on just how well the sample was created, meaning: was the sample size appropriate, were the units pulled properly from the population, was the sample truly random, and was it representative of the population? The last point is particularly important, because if the sample is not representative of the population (in other words, if the sample data does not look like the population data), then it is likely that the extrapolated estimate will be anything but accurate.

To account for this issue, referred to as “sample error,” statisticians will calculate something called a confidence interval (CI), which is a range within which there is some acceptable amount of error. The higher the confidence value, the larger the potential range of error. For example, in the hypothetical audit outlined above, maybe the real average for a 90-percent confidence interval is somewhere between $15 and $18, while, for a 95-percent confidence interval, the true average is somewhere between $14 and $19. And if we were to calculate for a 99-percent confidence interval, the range might be somewhere between $12 and $21. So, the greater the range, the more confident I feel about my average estimate. Some express the confidence interval as a sense of true confidence, like “I am 90 percent confident the real average is somewhere between $15 and $18,” and while this is not necessarily wrong, per se, it does not communicate the real value of the CI. I have found that the best way to define it would be more like “if I were to pull 100 random samples of 30 claims and audit all of them, 90 percent would have a true average of somewhere between $15 and $18,” meaning that the true average for some 1 out of 10 would fall outside of that range – either below the lower boundary or above the upper boundary. The main reason that auditors use this technique is to avoid challenges based on sample error.

To the crux of the issue, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) levies billions of dollars in overpayments a year against healthcare providers, based on the use of extrapolation audits. And while the use of extrapolation is well-established and well-accepted, its use in an audit is not an automatic, and depends upon the creation of a statistically valid and representative sample. Thousands of extrapolation audits are completed each year, and for many of these, the targeted provider or organization will appeal the use of extrapolation. In most cases, the appeal is focused on one or more flaws in the methodology used to create the sample and calculate the extrapolated overpayment estimate. For government audits, such as with UPICs, there is a specific appeal process, as outlined in their Medical Learning Network booklet, titled “Medicare Parts A & B Appeals Process.”

On Aug. 20, 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS OIG) released a report titled “Medicare Contractors Were Not Consistent in How They Reviewed Extrapolated Overpayments in the Provider Appeals Process.” This report opens with the following statement: “although MACs (Medicare Administrative Contractors) and QICs (Qualified Independent Contractors) generally reviewed appealed extrapolated overpayments in a manner that conforms with existing CMS requirements, CMS did not always provide sufficient guidance and oversight to ensure that these reviews were performed in a consistent manner.” These inconsistencies were associated with $42 million in extrapolated payments from fiscal years 2017 and 2018 that were overturned in favor of the provider. It’s important to note that at this point, we are only talking about appeal determinations at the first and second level, known as redetermination and reconsideration, respectively.

Redetermination is the first level of appeal, and is adjudicated by the MAC. And while the staff that review the appeals at this level are supposed to have not been involved in the initial claim determination, I believe that most would agree that this step is mostly a rubber stamp of approval for the extrapolation results. In fact, of the hundreds of post-audit extrapolation mitigation cases in which I have been the statistical expert, not a single one was ever overturned at redetermination.

The second level of appeal, reconsideration, is handled by a QIC. In theory, the QIC is supposed to independently review the administrative records, including the appeal results of redetermination. Continuing with the prior paragraph, I have to date had only several extrapolation appeals reversed at reconsideration; however, all were due to the fact that the auditor failed to provide the practice with the requisite data, and not due to any specific issues with the statistical methodology. In two of those cases, the QIC notified the auditor that if they were to get the required information to them, they would reconsider their decision. And in two other cases, the auditor appealed the decision, and it was reversed again. Only the fifth case held without objection and was adjudicated in favor of the provider.

Maybe this is a good place to note that the entire process for conducting extrapolations in government audits is covered under Chapter 8 of the Medicare Program Integrity Manual (PIM). Altogether, there are only 12 pages within the entire Manual that actually deal with the statistical methodology behind sampling and extrapolation; this is certainly not enough to provide the degree of guidance required to ensure consistency among the different government contractors that perform such audits. And this is what the OIG report is talking about.

Back to the $42 million that was overturned at either redetermination or reconsideration: the OIG report found that this was due to a “type of simulation testing that was performed only by a subset of contractors.” The report goes on to say that “CMS did not intend that the contractors use this procedure, (so) these extrapolations should not have been overturned. Conversely, if CMS intended that contractors use this procedure, it is possible that other extrapolations should have been overturned but were not.” This was quite confusing for me at first, because this “simulation” testing was not well-defined, and also because it seemed to say that if this procedure was appropriate to use, then more contractors should have used it, which would have resulted in more reversals in favor of the provider.   

Interestingly, CMS seems to have written itself an out in Chapter 8, section 8.4.1.1 of the PIM, which states that “[f]ailure by a contractor to follow one or more of the requirements contained herein does not necessarily affect the validity of the statistical sampling that was conducted or the projection of the overpayment.” The use of the term “does not necessarily” leaves wide open the fact that the failure by a contractor to follow one or more of the requirements may affect the validity of the statistical sample, which will affect the validity of the extrapolated overpayment estimate. 

Regarding the simulation testing, the report stated that “one MAC performed this type of simulation testing for all extrapolation reviews, and two MACs recently changed their policies to include simulation testing for sample designs that are not well-supported by the program integrity contractor. In contrast, both QICs and three MACs did not perform simulation testing and had no plans to start using it in the future.” And even though it was referenced some 20 times, with the exception of an example given as Figure 2 on page 10, the report never did describe in any detail the type of simulation testing that went on. From the example, it was evident to me that the MACs and QICs involved were using what is known as a Monte Carlo simulation. In statistics, simulation is used to assess the performance of a method, typically when there is a lack of theoretical background. With simulations, the statistician knows and controls the truth. Simulation is used advantageously in a number of situations, including providing the empirical estimation of sampling distributions. Footnote 10 in the report stated that ”reviewers used the specific simulation test referenced here to provide information about whether the lower limit for a given sampling design was likely to achieve the target confidence level.” If you are really interested in learning more about it, there is a great paper called
“The design of simulation studies in medical statistics” by Burton et al. (2006). 

Its application in these types of audits is to “simulate” the audit many thousands of times to see if the mean audit results fall within the expected confidence interval range, thereby validating the audit results within what is known as the Central Limit Theorem (CLT).

Often, the sample sizes used in recoupment-type audits are too small, and this is usually due to a conflict between the sample size calculations and the distributions of the data. For example, in RAT-STATS, the statistical program maintained by the OIG, and a favorite of government auditors, sample size estimates are based on an assumption that the data are normally (or near normally) distributed. A normal distribution is defined by the mean and the standard deviation, and includes a bunch of characteristics that make sample size calculations relatively straightforward. But the truth is, because most auditors use the paid amount as the variable of interest, population data are rarely, if ever, normally distributed. Unfortunately, there is simply not enough room or time to get into the details of distributions, but suffice it to say that, because paid data are bounded on the left with zero (meaning that payments are never less than zero), paid data sets are almost always right-skewed. This means that the distribution tail continues on to the right for a very long distance.  

In these types of skewed situations, sample size normally has to be much larger in order to meet the CLT requirements. So, what one can do is simulate the random sample over and over again to see whether the sampling results ever end up reporting a normal distribution – and if not, it means that the results of that sample should not be used for extrapolation. And this seems to be what the OIG was talking about in this report. Basically, they said that some but not all of the appeals entities (MACs and QICs) did this type of simulation testing, and others did not. But for those that did perform the tests, the report stated that $41.5 million of the $42 million involved in the reversals of the extrapolations were due to the use of this simulation testing. The OIG seems to be saying this: if this was an unintended consequence, meaning that there wasn’t any guidance in place authorizing this type of testing, then it should not have been done, and those extrapolations should not have been overturned. But if it should have been done, meaning that there should have been some written guidance to authorize that type of testing, then it means that there are likely many other extrapolations that should have been reversed in favor of the provider. A sticky wicket, at best.

Under the heading “Opportunity To Improve Contractor Understanding of Policy Updates,” the report also stated that “the MACs and QICs have interpreted these requirements differently. The MAC that previously used simulation testing to identify the coverage of the lower limit stated that it planned to continue to use that approach. Two MACs that previously did not perform simulation testing indicated that they would start using such testing if they had concerns about a program integrity contractor’s sample design. Two other MACs, which did not use simulation testing, did not plan to change their review procedures.” One QIC indicated that it would defer to the administrative QIC (AdQIC, the central manager for all Medicare fee-for-service claim case files appealed to the QIC) regarding any changes. But it ended this paragraph by stating that “AdQIC did not plan to change the QIC Manual in response to the updated PIM.”

With respect to this issue and this issue alone, the OIG submitted two specific recommendations, as follows:

  • Provide additional guidance to MACs and QICs to ensure reasonable consistency in procedures used to review extrapolated overpayments during the first two levels of the Medicare Parts A and B appeals process; and
  • Take steps to identify and resolve discrepancies in the procedures that MACs and QICs use to review extrapolations during the appeals process.

In the end, I am not encouraged that we will see any degree of consistency between and within the QIC and MAC appeals in the near future.

Basically, it would appear that the OIG, while having some oversight in the area of recommendations, doesn’t really have any teeth when it comes to enforcing change. I expect that while some reviewers may respond appropriately to the use of simulation testing, most will not, if it means a reversal of the extrapolated findings. In these cases, it is incumbent upon the provider to ensure that these issues are brought up during the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) appeal.

Programming Note: Listen to Frank Cohen report this story live during the next edition of Monitor Mondays, 10 a.m. Eastern.

RAC Report: PET Scans, Helicopter Transportation, and Hospice, Oh My!

The RACs are on attack! The “COVID Pause Button” on RAC audits has been lifted. The COVID Pause Button has been lifted since August 2020. But never have I ever seen CMS spew out so many new RAC topics in one month of a new year. Happy 2021.

Recovery audit contractors (“RACs”) will soon be auditing positron emission tomography (PET) scans for initial treatment strategy in oncologic conditions for compliance with medical necessity and documentation requirements.

Positron emission tomography (“PET”) scans detect early signs of cancer, heart disease and brain disorders. An injectable radioactive tracer detects diseased cells. A combination PET-CT scan produces 3D images for a more accurate diagnosis.

According to CMS’ RAC audit topics, “(PET) for Initial Treatment Strategy in Oncologic Conditions: Medical Necessity and Documentation Requirements,” will be reviewed as of January 5, 2021. The PET scan audits will be for outpatient hospital and professional service reviews. CMS added additional 2021 audit targets to the approved list:

  1. Air Ambulance: Medical Necessity and Documentation Requirements,[1]. This complex review will be examining rotatory wing (helicopter) aircraft claims to determine if air ambulance transport was reasonable and medically necessary as well as whether or not documentation requirements have been met.
  2. Hospice Continuous Home Care: Medical Necessity and Documentation Requirements,[2] and
  3. Ambulance Transport Subject to SNF Consolidated Billing.[3]

Upcoming HHS secretary Xavier Becerra plans to get his new tenure underway quickly.

In False Claims Act (“FCA”) news, Medicare audits of P-Stim have ramped up across the country. A Spinal Clinic in Texas agreed to pay $330,898 to settle FCA allegations for allegedly billing Medicare improperly for electro-acupuncture device neurostimulators. CMS claims that “Medicare does not reimburse for acupuncture or for acupuncture devices such as P-Stim, nor does Medicare reimburse for P-Stim as a neurostimulator or as implantation of neurostimulator electrodes.”

Finally, is your staff getting medical records to consumers requesting their records quickly enough? Right to access to health records is yet another potential risk for all providers, especially hospitals due to their size. A hospital system agreed to pay $200,000 to settle potential violations of the HIPAA Privacy Rule’s right of access standard. This is HHS Office for Civil Rights’ 14th settlement under its Right of Access Initiative. The first person alleged that she requested medical records in December 2017 and did not receive them until May 2018. In the second complaint, the person asked for an electronic copy of his records in September 2019, and they were not sent until February 2020.

Beware of slow document production as slow document production can lead to penalties. And be on the lookout for the next RAC Report.

Remember, never accept the results of a Medicare or Medicaid audit. It is always too high. Believe me, after 21 years of my legal practice, I have yet to agree with the findings if a Tentative notice of Overpayment by any governmental contracted auditor, whether it is PCG, NGS, the MACs, MCOs, or Program Integrity – in any of our 50 States. That is quite a statement about the general, quality of work of auditors. Remember Teambuilders? How did $12 million become $896.35? See blog.

1  CMS, “0200-Air Ambulance: Medical Necessity and Documentation Requirements,” proposed RAC topic, January 5, 2021, http://go.cms.gov/35Jx1co.
2 CMS, “0201-Hospice Continuous Home Care: Medical Necessity and Documentation Requirements,” proposed RAC topic, January 5, 2021, http://go.cms.gov/3oRUyiY.
3 CMS, “0202- Ambulance Transport Subject to SNF Consolidated Billing,” proposed RAC topic, January 5, 2021, http://go.cms.gov/2LOMEbw.

NC’s DHHS’ Secretary’s Handling of COVID-19: Yay or Nay?

I posted/wrote the below blog in 2017. I re-read my February 10, 2017, blog, which was entitled “NC DHHS’ New Secretary – Yay or Nay?” with the new perspective of COVID-19 being such a hot potato topic and sparking so much controversy. Interestingly, at least to me, I still stand by what I wrote. You have to remember that viruses are not political. Viruses spread despite your bank account, age, or location. Sure, variables matter. For example, I am statistically safer from COVID because I live on a small, horse farm in North Carolina rather than an apartment in Manhattan.

The facts are the facts. Viruses and facts are not political.

I was surprised that more people did not react to my February 10, 2017, blog, which is re-posted below – exactly as it was first posted. For some reason (COVID-19), people are re-reading it.

___________________________________

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 (COO) 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

Update on Medicare/Medicaid Audits in the Wake of COVID-19

Published in Today’s Wound Clinic:

When I was asked to draft an article for Today’s Wound Clinic, it was approximately two weeks ago. I was asked to write about the current state of Medicare and Medicaid audits. Specifically, I was asked to provide a legal analysis about CMS suspending audits un-related to COVID-19. In the month of April, we have seen the spike of COVID-19, which has overturned our everyday world. We have been instructed by President Trump to “stay home” and “social distance” to decrease the spread of the virus. This “stay at home” instruction is unprecedented and has uprooted many of our most reliable and commonplace businesses, such as hairdressers, bowling alleys, and tattoo parlors.

Here is the answer: The current state of Medicare/Medicaid audits, at the moment, is dictated by COVID-19.

We can divide the post-COVID-19 audit rules into 3 categories:

  1. Those exceptions published by CMS to apply to all health care providers
  2. Those special, verbal exceptions given directly to an individual provider that were not published by CMS
  3. Effective immediately, new guidelines that CMS will follow until CMS believes it no longer needs to follow (by its own choice, of course).

An example of an “effective immediately” guideline is our current state of Medicare/Medicaid audits in the wake of COVID-19. CMS has not suspended all Medicare/Medicaid regulatory audits. But CMS has suspended most audits.

Effective immediately, survey activity is limited to the following (in Priority Order):

  • All immediate jeopardy complaints (cases that represents a situation in which entity noncompliance has placed the health and safety of recipients in its care at risk for serious injury, serious harm, serious impairment or death or harm) and allegations of abuse and neglect;
  • Complaints alleging infection control concerns, including facilities with potential COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses;
  • Statutorily required recertification surveys (Nursing Home, Home Health, Hospice, and ICF/IID facilities);
  • Any re-visits necessary to resolve current enforcement actions;
  • Initial certifications;
  • Surveys of facilities/hospitals that have a history of infection control deficiencies at the immediate jeopardy level in the last three years;
  • Surveys of facilities/hospitals/dialysis centers that have a history of infection control deficiencies at lower levels than immediate jeopardy.

See CMS QSO-20-12-ALL. You can see that these “effective immediately” guidelines are usually published on CMS letterhead. The “effective immediately” guidelines explain why CMS is taking the stated action, the stated action, and that the action is temporary and due to COVID-19.

Here are a few recent “effective immediately” guidelines due to COVID-19:

  • On April 27, 2020, CMS said it would no longer expedite Medicare payments to doctors and be more stringent about accelerating the payments to hospitals as Congressional relief aimed at providers reaches $175 billion.
  • The agency is not accepting any new applications for the loans from Part B suppliers, including doctors, non-physician practitioners and durable medical equipment suppliers. CMS will continue to process pending and new requests from Part A providers, including hospitals, but be stricter with application approvals.
  • CMS expanded the Accelerated and Advance Payment Programs in late March as the pandemic continued to gain strength in the U.S. Since then, the agency has approved over 21,000 applications making up $59.6 billion in accelerated payments to Part A providers and almost 24,000 applications making up $40.4 billion in payments for Part B suppliers.

The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security stimulus package passed by Congress in March benchmarked $100 billion in funds for hospitals. On Friday, President Donald Trump signed legislation with a second round of emergency funding, called the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, that allocates another $75 billion for providers — roughly three-quarters of what major provider trade associations requested.

An initial $30 billion from the fund was distributed between April 10 and April 17 based on Medicare fee-for-service revenue, sparking criticism that put facilities with a smaller proportion of Medicare business, such as children’s and disproportionate share hospitals, at a disadvantage. HHS on Friday began releasing an additional $20 billion in CARES payments to providers based on their 2018 net patient revenue, with more funding to roll out “soon,” the agency said, including $10 billion for hard-hit areas like New York.

How RAC/MAC auditors are compensated dictates their actions and/or aggressiveness.

RAC Auditors are paid by contingency. They are usually compensated approximately 13%, depending on the State. Imagine what 13% is of 1 million. It is $130,000 – more than most people make in a year. If you do not believe that 13% contingency is enough to incentivize a company, which, in turn, incentivize the employees, then you are sorely mistaken.

RACs were established through a demonstration program under the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003 (“MMA”), piloted between 2005 and 2008, and were later made permanent under the Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006, which required CMS to establish Recovery Auditors for all states before 2010.

MACs are not compensated by contingency, per se. CMS decided to structure the MAC contracts with 1-year base performance periods and four, optional, 1-year performance periods at the time. The MMA required that these contracts be recompeted at least once every 5 years. The recent enactment of the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 amended this requirement to authorize a maximum 10-year performance period before MAC contracts must be recompeted. The amendment, which applies to MAC contracts in effect at the time of enactment or entered into on or after enactment, would permit CMS to modify existing MAC contracts or enter into future MAC contracts for 1-year base performance periods and nine optional 1-year performance periods. See Pub. L. No. 114-10, § 509(a)- (b) (April 16, 2015). Therefore, while MACs are not compensated on contingency, MACs are compensated on performance. The less a MAC spends, the more services a MAC allows, the strict oversight a MCA ensues on its providers…all these “performance-based” measures may not be a contingency compensation relationship, but it’s pretty close. Saved money becomes profit for MACs.

Medicare and Medicaid auditors love rules. Even if the rules that auditors are instructed to follow really are not required by actual law. It goes without saying that auditors are not lawyers. Auditors are not trained to decipher whether statutes, regulations or policy are superseded by federal statutes and regulations. The fact is that, more times than one would hope, the auditors are wrong in their assessments that a claim should be denied, not out of malice, but because of a basic misunderstanding of what the law actually requires.

I have all kinds of stories about auditors claiming money is owed, when, really it was not owed because the RAC/MAC auditor failed to follow the actual, correct procedure or misconstrued a regulation. For example, I had a durable medical equipment provider, DME ABC, who was informed by the NSC Supplier Audit and Compliance Unit of Palmetto GBA that it owed $1,075,548.64. Palmetto is one of the MACs for Medicare – durable medical equipment. There was no demand letter. The alleged overpayment amount came to fruition in a telephone conference between the CEO of the company and an employee of Palmetto. Let’s call her Nancy. Nancy told CEO that company owed $1,075,548.64 based on an alleged violation of 42 C.F.R. § 424.58,

Even more disconcerting, was the fact that Palmetto claimed that its alleged, oral overpayment against DME ABC arose from a normal, reoccurring validation process pursuant to 42 C.F.R. §424.57, approved by CMS and in accordance with the requirements of 42 C.F.R. §424.58. No formal letter was necessary was Palmetto’s retort. Not correct; a formal demand letter is always required.

In this case, Palmetto began to backtrack once we pointed out that Palmetto nor Nancy ever sent a formal demand letter with any reconsideration review appeal rights or administrative appeal rights. We knew this was procedurally incorrect because federal law dictates that you receive a formal demand letter with appeal rights and notice of how many days you have to appeal. But out of fear of retribution, DME ABC was willing to write a check without pushing back. Obviously, we did not do so.

I tell this story as an example of how intimidating, scary, and overwhelming auditors can be. If someone off the street asked you for a million dollars, you would laugh them off your doorstep, right? After you tell them to don a mask and maintain social distancing.

But in the new-age world of COVID-19, rules have been broken. This behavior would not be acceptable pre-COVID-19. But this provider honestly was going to pay.

The Trump Administration is issuing an unprecedented array of temporary regulatory waivers and new rules to equip the American healthcare system with maximum flexibility to respond to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Pre-COVID-19 if you were to state “paperwork over patients,” everyone in the industry would agree. There would be snickers and eyes rolling, because no one wanted paperwork to be over patients. But it was. Now the mantra has flipped upside down – now the mantra is: Patients over Paperwork.

Post-COVID-19, if documents are lost or misplaced, or otherwise unusable, DME MACs have the flexibility to waive replacements requirements under Medicare such that the face-to-face requirement, a new physician’s order, and new medical necessity documentation are not required. Suppliers must still include a narrative description on the claim explaining the reason why the equipment must be replaced and are reminded to maintain documentation indicating that the DMEPOS was lost, destroyed, irreparably damaged or otherwise rendered unusable or unavailable as a result of the emergency.

Post-COVID-19, CMS is pausing the national Medicare Prior Authorization program for certain DMEPOS items. CMS is not requiring accreditation for newly enrolling DMEPOS and extending any expiring supplier accreditation for a 90-day time period. CMS is waiving signature and proof of delivery requirements for Part B drugs and Durable Medical Equipment when a signature cannot be obtained because of the inability to collect signatures. Suppliers should document in the medical record the appropriate date of delivery and that a signature was not able to be obtained because of COVID-19.

Post-COVID-19, in order to increase cash flow to providers impacted by COVID-19, CMS has expanded the current Accelerated and Advance Payment Program. An accelerated/advance payment is a payment intended to provide necessary funds when there is a disruption in claims submission and/or claims processing. CMS may provide accelerated or advance payments during the period of the public health emergency to any two Medicare providers/suppliers who submits a request to the appropriate MAC and meets the required qualifications. The process of obtaining the funds is a MAC-by-MAC process. Each MAC will work to review requests and issue payments within seven calendar days of receiving the request. Traditionally repayment of these advance/accelerated payments begins at 90 days, however for the purposes of the COVID-19 pandemic, CMS has extended the repayment of these accelerated/advance payments to begin 120 days after the date of issuance of the payment. Providers can get more information on this process here: www.cms.gov/files/document/Accelerated-and-Advanced-Payments-Fact-Sheet.pdf

The Future of Medicare/Medicaid Audits

The beauty of predicting the future is that no one can ever tell you that you are wrong. These are my predictions:

Auditors will deny claims for not having prior authorizations. Auditors will deny claims because the supplier accreditation expired after the 90-day time period. Auditors will deny claims because the percentage of face-to-face time was not met as described per CPT codes.

Obviously, these would be erroneous denials if the denials are within the dates that the COVID-19 pandemic occurred. The problem will be that the auditors will not be able to keep up with all the exceptions, not because the auditors are acting out of malice or dislikes providers. They will be simply trying to do their job. They will simply not be able to take into consideration all the exceptions that were given during the virus. Because, while we do have many written exceptions, if you call CMS with a personal and individualized problem, CMS will, most likely, grant you a needed exception. As long as the exception has the best interest of the consumer at heart. However, this personalized exception will not be written on CMS’s website. In five years, when you undergo a MAC or RAC audit, you better have proof that you received that exception. It will not be enough proof for you to state that you were given the exception over the phone.

So how can you protect yourself from future, erroneous audits?

Write everything down. When you speak to CMS, document concurrently the date, time, name of the person to whom you are speaking, the summary of your conversation, the COVID-19 regulatory exception, sign it and date it.

It is a hearsay exception. Writing down everything does not magically transform your note into the truth. However, writing down everything concurrently does magically allow that note that you wrote to be allowed in a court of law as an exhibit. Had you not written the note contemporaneously with the conversation that you had with CMS, then the attorney on the other side of the case would move to exclude your handwritten or typed note as hearsay.

Hearsay is defined as a statement that (1) the declarant does not make while testifying at the current trial or hearing; and (2) a party offers in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted in a statement. There are too many hearsay exceptions to name in this article.

Just know, for purposes of this article, that any health care provider who is relying on an exception to a normally required regulatory mandate – regardless what it is – either be able to: (1) cite the written exception that was published by CMS to the public; or (2) produce the written or typed contemporaneously written note that you wrote to memorialize the conversation.

Suspension of Audits During the Coronavirus?

49B70E0C-5089-4D23-925D-54A09DC51563

Effective immediately, survey activity is limited to the following (in Priority Order):

  • All immediate jeopardy complaints (cases that represents a situation in which entity noncompliance has placed the health and safety of recipients in its care at risk for serious injury, serious harm, serious impairment or death or harm) and allegations of abuse and neglect;
  • Complaints alleging infection control concerns, including facilities with potential COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses;
  • Statutorily required recertification surveys (Nursing Home, Home Health, Hospice, and ICF/IID facilities);
  • Any re-visits necessary to resolve current enforcement actions;
  • Initial certifications;
  • Surveys of facilities/hospitals that have a history of infection control deficiencies at the immediate jeopardy level in the last three years;
  • Surveys of facilities/hospitals/dialysis centers that have a history of infection control deficiencies at lower levels than immediate jeopardy.

See CMS QSO-20-12-ALL.

Obviously, there are so many questions. Providers across the country are asking whether they need to comply with document requests. Are TPE audits continuing? Do they need to comply with ongoing ADRs?

Every bulletin that CMS publishes instigates more detailed and complex questions. With all these relaxed guidelines, won’t RACs, etc. have a field day when this is all over? Of course they will.

General Recommendations:

  • Be proactive.
  • Document everything.
  • Deadlines will be extended.
  • Exceptions will be made.
  • Keep all email correspondence.
  • Maintain copies of everything that you submit. (Do not rely on electronic computer software programs).
  • Keep track of CMS updates.

Email me questions, and I will try to respond.

Also, feel free to reach out to the government: QSOG_EmergencyPrep@cms.hhs.gov.

Effective date: 30 days from the memo, which equals April 3, 2020.

 

 

State Agencies Must Follow the State Medicare Plan! Or Else!

Accused of an alleged overpayment? Scrutinize the Department’s procedure to determine that alleged overpayment. One step out of line (in violation of any pertinent rule) by the Department and the overpayment is dismissed.

Ask yourself: Did the State follow Medicare State Plan Agreement? (The Plan germane in your State).

In a Mississippi Supreme Court case, the Mississippi Department of Medicaid (“DOM”) alleged that a hospital owed $1.2226 million in overpayments. However, the Court found that DOM failed to follow proper procedure in assessing the alleged overpayment. Since the DOM failed to follow the rules, the $1.2226 million alleged overpayment was thrown out.

The Court determined that the DOM, the single state agency charged with managing Medicare and Medicaid, must follow all pertinent rules otherwise an alleged overpayment will be thrown out.

Two cases premised on the notion that the DOM must follow all pertinent rules were decided in MS – with polar opposite endings.

  • Crossgates River Oaks Hosp. v. Mississippi Div. of Medicaid, 240 So. 3d 385, 388 (Miss. 2018); and
  • Cent. Mississippi Med. Ctr. v. Mississippi Div. of Medicaid, No. 2018-SA-01410-SCT, 2020 WL 728806, at *2–3 (Miss. Feb. 13, 2020).

In Crossgates, the hospitals prevailed because the DOM had failed to adhere to the Medicare State Plan Agreement. Applying the same legal principles in Cent. MS Med. Ctr, the DOM prevailed because the DOM adhered to the Medicaid State Plan.

It is as simple as the childhood game, “Simon Says.” Do what Simon (State Plan) says or you will be eliminated.

Crossgates

In the 2018 MS Supreme Court case, the Court found that the MS Department failed to follow the Medicare State Plan Agreement in determining an overpayment for a provider, which meant that the overpayment alleged was arbitrary. The thinking is as follows: had the Department followed the rules, then there may not be an overpayment or the alleged overpayment would be a different amount. Since the Department messed up procedurally, the provider got the whole alleged overpayment dismissed from Court. It is the “fruit of the poisonous tree” theory. See Crossgates River Oaks Hosp. v. Miss. Div. of Medicaid, 240 So. 3d 385 (Miss. 2018).

While Courts generally afford great deference to an agency’s interpretation of its regulations, once the agency violates a procedural rule, it is not entitled to that deference. The Court found that the DOM’s interpretation of Attachment 4.19–B of the State Plan was inconsistent with the relevant regulation. Crossgates River Oaks Hosp. v. Mississippi Div. of Medicaid, 240 So. 3d 385, 388 (Miss. 2018).

Throughout these proceedings, the DOM never articulated an explanation for its failure to exclude the radiology and laboratory charges or for its use of a blended rate in place of actual costs, absent altering or amending the State Plan. The clear language of the State Plan establishes that DOM’s choice to reduce payments to the Hospitals was arbitrary, capricious, and not supported by substantial evidence.

Central MS Medical Center

Juxtapose the Central Mississippi Medical Center case, which, by the way has not been released for publication. Atop the header for the case is the following warning:

“NOTICE: THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN RELEASED FOR PUBLICATION IN THE PERMANENT LAW REPORTS. UNTIL RELEASED, IT IS SUBJECT TO REVISION OR WITHDRAWAL.”

With that caveat, the MS Supreme Court held that Medicaid State Plans that are accepted by CMS reign supreme and must be followed. In this case, the MS State Plan required the DOM to use the Medicare Notice of Program Reimbursement (NPR) to establish the final reimbursement.

According to the Supreme Court, the agency followed the rules. Thus, the agency’s adverse determination was upheld. It does not matter what the adverse determination was – you can insert any adverse determination into the equation. But the equation remains stedfast. The State must follow the State Plan in order to validate any adverse decision.

RAC Audits: Alternatives to Litigation

Understanding why there’s a need for auditing the auditors.

I frequently encounter complaints by healthcare providers that when they are undergoing Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC), Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC), and, more recently, the Targeted Probe-and-Educate (TPE) audits, the auditors are getting it wrong. That’s as in, during a RAC audit, the auditor finds claims noncompliant, for example, for not having medical necessity – but the provider knows unequivocally that the determination is dead wrong. So the question that I get from the providers is whether they have any legal recourse against the RAC or MAC finding noncompliance, besides going through the tedious administrative action, which we all know can take upwards of 5-7 years before reaching the third administrative level.

To which, now, upon a recent discovery in one of my cases, I would have responded that the only other option for relief would be obtaining a preliminary injunction in federal court. To prove a preliminary injunction in federal court, you must prove: a) a likelihood of success on the merits; and b) that irreparable harm would be incurred without the injunction; i.e., that your company would be financially devastated, or even threatened with extinction.

The conundrum of being on the brink of financial ruin is that you cannot afford a legal defense if you are about to lose everything.

This past month, I had a completely different legal strategy, with a different result. I am not saying that this result would be reached by all healthcare providers that disagree with the results of their RAC or MAC or TPE audit, but I now believe that in certain extreme circumstances, this alternative route could work, as it did in my case.

When this particular client hired me, I quickly realized that the impact of the MAC’s decision to rescind the client’s Medicare contract was going to do more than the average catastrophic outcomes resulting from a rescission of a Medicare contract. First, this provider was the only provider in the area with the ability to perform certain surgeries. Secondly, his practice consisted of 90 percent of Medicare. An immediate suspension of Medicare would have been devastating to his practice. Thirdly, the consequence of these Medicaid patients not undergoing this particular and highly specialized surgery was dire. This trifecta sparked a situation in which, I believed, that even a Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) employee (who probably truly believed that the negative findings cited by the RAC or MAC were accurate) may be swayed by the exigent circumstances.

I contacted opposing counsel, who was the attorney for CMS. Prior to this situation, I had automatically assumed that non-litigious strategies would never work. Opposing counsel listened to the facts. She asked that I draft a detailed explanation as to the circumstances. Now, concurrently, I also drafted this provider’s Medicare appeal, because we did not want to lose the right to appeal. The letter was definitely detailed and took a lot of time to create.

In the end, CMS surprised me and we got the Medicare contract termination overturned within months, not years, and without expensive litigation.

(Originally published on RACMonitor)

Medicare TPE Audits: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing (Part II)

Let’s talk targeted probe-and-educate (“TPE”) audits – again.

I received quite a bit of feedback on my RACMonitor article regarding Medicare TPE audits being a “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.” So, I decided to delve into more depth by contacting providers who reached out to me to discuss specific issues. My intent is to shed the sheep’s clothing and show the big, pointy ears, big, round eyes, and big, sharp teeth that the MACs will hear, see, and eat you through the Medicare TPE audits. So, call the Woodsman, arm yourself with a hatchet, and get ready to be prepared for TPE audits. I cannot stress enough the importance of being proactive.

The very first way to rebut a TPE audit is to challenge the reason you were selected, which includes challenging the data supporting the reason that you were chosen. A poor TPE audit can easily result in termination of your Medicare contract, so it is imperative that you are prepared and appeal adverse results. 42 C.F.R. § 424.535, “Revocation of enrollment in the Medicare program” outlines the reasons for termination. Failing the audit process – even if the results are incorrect – can result in termination of your Medicare contract. Be prepared and appeal.

In 2014, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) began the TPE program that combines a review of a sample of claims with “education” to allegedly reduce errors in the Medicare claims submission process; however, it took years to get the program off the ground. But off the ground it is. It seems, however, that CMS pushed the TPE program off the ground and then allowed the MACs to dictate the terms. CMS claims that the results of the TPE program are favorable, basing its determination of success on the decrease in the number of claim errors after providers receive education. But providers undergoing the TPE audit process face tedious and burdensome deadlines to submit documents and to undergo the “education” process. These 45-day deadlines to submit documents are not supported by federal law or regulation; they are arbitrary deadlines. Yet, these deadlines must be met by the providers or the MACs will aver a 0% accuracy. Private payors may create and enforce arbitrary deadlines; they don’t have to follow federal Medicare regulations. But Medicare and Medicaid auditors must obey federal regulations. A quick search on Westlaw confirms that no provider has challenged the MACs’ TPE rules, at least, litigiously.

The TPE process begins by the MAC selecting a CPT/HCPC code and a provider. This selection process is a mystery. How the MACs decide to audit sleep studies versus chemotherapy administration or a 93675 versus a 93674 remains to be seen. According to one health care provider, which has undergone multiple TPE audits and has Noridian Healthcare Solutions as its MAC informed me that, at times, they may have 4 -5 TPE audits ongoing at the same time. CMS has touted that TPE audits do not overlap claims or cause the providers to undergo redundant audits. But if a provider bills numerous CPT codes, the provider can undergo multiple TPE audits concurrently, which is clearly not the intent of the TPE audits, in general. The provider has questioned ad nauseam the data analysis that alerted Noridian to assign the TPE to them in the first place. Supposedly, MACs target providers with claim activity that contractors deem as unusual. The usual TPE notification letter contains a six-month comparison table purportedly demonstrating the paid amount and number of claims for a particular CPT/HCPC code, but its accuracy is questionable. See below.

2019-06-07 -- TPE

This particular provider ran its own internal reports, and regardless of how many different ways this provider re-calculated the numbers, the provider could not figure out the numbers the TPE letter was alleging they were billing. But, because of the short turnaround deadlines and harsh penalties for failing to adhere to these deadlines, this provider has been unable to challenge the MAC’s comparison table. The MACs have yet to share its algorithm or computer program used to govern (a) which provider to target; (b) what CPT code to target; and (c) how it determines the paid amount and number of claims.

Pushing back on the original data on which the MACs supposedly relied upon to initially target you is an important way to defend yourself against a TPE audit. Unmask the wolf from the beginning. If you can debunk the reason for the TPE audit in the first place, the rest of the findings of the TPE audit cannot be valid. It is the classic “fruit of the poisonous tree” argument. Yet according to a quick search on Westlaw, no provider has appealed the reason for selection yet. For example, in the above image, the MAC compared one CPT code (78452) for this particular provider for dates of services January 1, 2017, through June 30, 2017, and then compared those claims to dates July 1, 2017, through December 31, 2017. Why? How is a comparison of the first half of a year to a second end of a year even relevant to your billing compliance? Before an independent tribunal, this chart, as supposed evidence of wrongdoing, would be thrown out as ridiculous. The point is – the MACs are using similar, yet irrelevant charts as proof of alleged, aberrant billing practices.

Another way to defend yourself is to contest the auditors/surveyors background knowledge. Challenging the knowledge of the nurse reviewer(s) and questioning the denial rate in relation to your TPE denials can also be successful. I had a dentist-client who was audited by a dental hygienist. Not to undermine the intelligence of a dental hygienist, but you can understand the awkwardness of a dental hygienist questioning a dentist’s opinion of the medical necessity of a service. If the auditor/surveyor lacks the same level of education of the health care provider, an independent tribunal will defer to the more educated and experienced decisions. This same provider kept a detailed timeline of their interactions with the hygienist reviewer(s), which included a summary of the conversations. Significantly, notes of conversations with the auditor/surveyor would normally not be allowed as evidence in a Court of law due to the hearsay rules. However, contemporaneous notes of conversations written in close time proximity of the conversation fall within a hearsay exception and can be admitted.

Pushing back on the MACs and/or formally appealing the MAC’s decisions are/is extremely important in getting the correct denial rate.  If your appeal is favorable, the MACs will take into your appeal results into account and will factor the appeal decision into the denial rate.

The upshot is – do not accept the sheep’s clothing. Understand that you are under target during this TPE “educational” audit. Understand how to defend yourself and do so. Call the Woodsman. Get the hatchet.

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.