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United Behavioral Health SLAMMED by Judge for Improperly Denying Behavioral Health Care Services

We have had parity laws between mental and physical health care services on the books for years. Regardless of the black letter law, mental health health care services have been treated with stigma, embarrassment, and of lesser importance than physical health care services. A broken leg is easily proven by an X-Ray; whereas a broken mind is less obvious.

In an unprecedented Decision ripe with scathing remarks against Optum/United Behavioral Health’s (UBH) actions, a Court recently ruled that UBH improperly denied mental health services to insureds and that those improper denials were financially-driven. A slap-on-the-wrist, this Decision was not. More of a public whipping.

In a 106-page opinion, the US District Court, Northern District of California, slammed UBH in a blistering decision finding that UBH purposely and improperly denied behavioral health care benefits to thousands of mentally ill insureds by utilizing overly restrictive guidelines. This is a HUGE win for the mental health community, which often does not receive the parity of services (of physical health) that it is legally is entitled. U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero spared no political correctness in his mordacious written opinion, which is rarity in today’s vitriolic world.

2019- Spero

The Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), saying the insurer denied benefits in violation of the terms of their insurance plans and state law. The Plaintiffs consisted of participants in UBH health care plans and who were denied mental health care services.

Judge Spero found United Behavioral’s guidelines were influenced by financial incentives concerning fully-funded and self-funded ERISA plans:

“While the incentives related to fully insured and self-funded plans are not identical, with respect to both types of plan UBH has a financial interest in keeping benefit expense down … [A]ny resulting shortcomings in its Guideline development process taints its decision-making as to both categories of plan because UBH maintains a uniform set of Guidelines for fully insured and self-funded plans … Instead of insulating its Guideline developers from these financial pressures, UBH has placed representatives of its Finance and Affordability Departments in key roles in the Guidelines development process throughout the class period.”

Surprisingly, this decision came out of California, which is notoriously socially-driven. Attorneys generally avert their eyes when opinions come from the 9th District.

Judge Spero found that UBH violated “generally accepted standards of care” to administer requests for benefits.

The Court found that “many mental health and substance use disorders are long-term and chronic.” It also found that, in questionable instances, the insurance company should err on the caution of placing the patient in a higher level of care. The Court basically cited the old adage – “Better safe than sorry,” which seems a pretty darn good idea when you are talking about mental health. Just ask Ted Bundy.

Even though the Wit Decision involved private pay insurance, the Court repeatedly cited to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Manual. For example, the Court stated that “the CMS Manual explains, [f]or many . . . psychiatric patients, particularly those with long-term, chronic conditions, control of symptoms and maintenance of a functional level to avoid further deterioration or hospitalization is an acceptable expectation of improvement.” It also quoted ASAM criteria as generally accepted standards, as well as LOCUS, which tells me that the law interprets the CMS Manual, ASAM criteria, and LOCUS as “generally accepted standards,” and not UBH’s or any other private pay insurance’s arbitrary standards. In fact, the Court actually stated that its decision was influenced by the fact that UBH’s adopted many portions of CMS’ Manual, but drafted the language in a more narrow way to ensure more denials of mental health benefits.

The Court emphasized the importance of ongoing care instead of acute care that ceases upon the end of the acute crisis. The denial of ongoing care was categorized as a financial decision. The Court found that UBH’s health care policy “drove members to lower levels of care even when treatment of the member’s overall and/or co-occurring conditions would have been more effective at the higher level of care.”

The Wit decision will impact us in so many ways. For one, if a State Medicaid program limits mental health services beyond what the CMS Manual, ASAM criteria, or LOCUS determines, then providers (and beneficiaries) have a strong legal argument that the State Medicaid criteria do not meet generally accepted standards. Even more importantly, if the State Medicaid policies do NOT limit mental health care services beyond what the CMS Manual, ASAM criteria, and LOCUS defines, but an agent of the State Medicaid Division; i.e, a managed care organization (MCO) deny mental health care services that would be considered appropriate under the generally accepted standards, then, again, both providers and beneficiaries would have strong legal arguments overturning those denials.

I, for one, hope this is a slippery slope…in the right direction.

 

New Revisions to the Justice Manual -The New World of Health Care Fraud and Abuse in 2019

So many memos, so little time. Federal prosecutors receive guidance on how to prosecute. Maybe “guidance” is too loose a term. There is a manual to follow, and memos are just guidance until the memos are incorporated into what is known as the Justice Manual. Memos are not as binding as the Justice Manual, but memos are persuasive. For the last 22 years, the Justice Manual has not been revised to reflect the many, many memos that have been drafted to direct prosecutors on how to proceed. Until recently…

Justice Manual Revised

The Justice Manual, which is the manual that instructs federal prosecutors how to proceed in cases of Medicare and Medicaid fraud, has been revised for the first time since 1997. The Justice Manual provides internal Department of Justice (DOJ) rules.

The DOJ has new policies for detecting Medicare and Medicaid fraud and abuse. Some of these policies are just addendums to old policies. Or formal acceptance to old memos. Remember the Yates Memo? The Yates Memo directed prosecutors to indict executives, individually, of fraudulent companies instead of just going after the company.

The Yates Memo has now been codified into the Justice Manual.

Then came the Granston Memo – In a January 10, 2018, memo (the “Granston Memo”), the DOJ directed its prosecutors to more seriously consider dismissing meritless False Claims Act (“FCA”) cases brought by whistleblowers. It lists 7 (non-exhaustive) criteria for determining whether the DOJ should dismiss a qui tam lawsuit.  The reasoning behind the Granston Memo is that whistleblower lawsuits have risen over 600 cases per year, but the government’s involvement has not mirrored the raise. This may indicate that many of the whistleblower lawsuits are frivolous and filed for the purpose of financial gain, even if the money is not warranted. Remember qui tam relators (people who bring lawsuits against those who mishandle tax dollars, are rewarded monetarily for their efforts…and, usually, the reward is not a de minimus amount. In turn, people are incentivized to identify fraud and abuse against the government. At least, according to the Granston Memo, the financial incentive works too well and frivolous lawsuits are too prevalent.

The Granston Memo has also been codified into the Justice Manual.

Talk about an oxymoron…the Yates Memo instructs prosecutors to pursue claims against more people, especially those in the executive positions for acts of the company. The Granston Memo instructs prosecutors to more readily dismiss frivolous FCA allegations. “You’re a wigwam. You’re a teepee. Calm down, you’re just two tents (too tense).” – a horrible joke that my husband often quips. But this horrible quote is apropos to describe the mixed messages from DOJ regarding Medicare and Medicaid fraud and abuse.

The Brand Memo, yet another memo that we saw come out of CMS, instructs prosecutors not to use noncompliance as subject to future DOJ enforcement actions. In other words, agency guidance does not cannot create binding legal requirements. Going forward, the DOJ will not enforce recommendations found in agency guidance documents in civil actions. Relatedly, DOJ will not use noncompliance with agency guidance to “presumptively or conclusively” establish violations of applicable law or regulations in affirmative civil enforcement cases.

The Brand Memo was not incorporated into the Justice Manual. It also was not repudiated.

Medicare/caid Audit Targets Broadened

Going forward, traditional health care providers will not be the only targets – Medicare Advantage plan, EHR companies, and private equity owners – will all be audited and reviewed for fraud and abuse. Expect more audits with wider nets to catch non-provider targets to increase now that the Yates Memo was codified into the Justice Manual.

Anti-Kickback Statute, Stark Law, and HIPAA Narrowed

The Stark Law (42 U.S.C. 1395nn) and the Anti-Kickback Statute (42 U.S.C. §1320a‑7b(b)) exist to minimize unneeded or over-utilization of health-care services payable by the federal government. Stark Law and the Anti-Kickback regulations criminalize, impose civil monetary penalties, or impose other legal sanctions (such as termination from Medicare) against health care providers and other individuals who violate these laws. These laws are esoteric (which is one reason that I have a job) and require careful navigation by specialized legal counsel. Accidental missteps, even minute documentation errors, can lead to harsh and expensive results.

In a health care world in which collaboration among providers is being pushed and recommended, the Anti-Kickback, Stark, and HIPAA laws are antiquated and fail to recognize the current world. Existing federal health-care fraud and abuse laws create a “silo effect” that requires mapping and separating financial interests of health-care providers in order to ensure that patient referrals cannot be tainted by self-interest. Under Stark, a strict liability law, physicians cannot make a referral for the provision of “designated health services” to an entity with which they have a financial relationship (unless one of approximately 30 exceptions applies). In other words, for example, a hospital cannot refer patients to the home health care company that the hospital owns.

Going forward – and this has not happened yet – regulators and the Department will begin to claw back some of the more strict requirements of the Stark, Anti-Kickback, and HIPAA regulations to decrease the “silo effect” and allow providers to collaborate more on an individual’s whole health method. I had an example of this changing of the tide recently with my broken leg debacle. See blog. After an emergency surgery on my leg by an orthopedic surgeon because of a contracted infection in my wound, my primary care physician (PCP) called to check on me. My PCP had nothing to do with my leg surgery, or, to my knowledge, was never informed of it. But because of new technology that allows patient’s records to be accessed by multiple providers in various health care systems or practices, my PCP was informed of my surgery and added it to my chart. This never could have happened 20 years ago. But this sharing of medical records with other providers could have serious HIPAA implications if some restrictions of HIPAA are not removed.

In sum, if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the Justice Manual in a while, now would be an appropriate time to do so since it has been revised for the first time in 22 years. This blog does not enumerate all the revisions to the Justice Manual. So it is important that you are familiar with the changes…or know someone who is.

Ring In the New Year with New Medicare Rules

Change your calendars! 2019 is here!

2019 is the 19th year of the 21st century, and the 10th and last year of the 2010s decade. Next we know it’ll be 2020.

Few fun facts:

  • January 7th is my birthday. And no, you may not ask my age.
  • In February 2019, Nigeria will elect a new president.
  • In June the Women’s World Cup will be held in France.
  • November 5, 2019, USA will have our next election. Three Governor races will occur.

What else do we have in store for 2019? There are a TON of changes getting implemented for Medicare in 2019.

Hospital Prices Go Public

For starters, hospital prices will go public. Prices hospitals charge for their services will all go online Jan. 1 under a new federal requirement. There is a question as to how up-to-date the information will be. For example, a hospital publishes its prices for a Cesarian Section on January 1, 2019. Will that price be good on December 1, 2019? According to the rule, hospitals will be required to update the information annually or “more often as appropriate.”

“More often as appropriate” is not defined and upon reading it, I envision litigation arising between hospitals and patients bickering over increased rates but were not updated on the public site “more often as appropriate.” This recently created requirement for hospitals to publish its rates “more often as appropriate” will also create unfamiliar penalties for hospitals to face. Because whenever there is a rule, there are those who break them. Just ask CMS.

Skilled Nursing Facility Value-Based Purchasing Program (SNF VBP) Is Implemented

Skilled nursing facilities (SNF) will be penalized or rewarded on an annual basis depending on the SNFs’ performance, which is judged on a “hospital readmissions measure” during a performance period. The rule aims to improve quality of care and lower the number of elderly patients repeatedly readmitted to hospitals. The Medicare law that was implemented in October 2018 will be enforced in 2019.

Basically, all SNFs will receive a “performance score” annually based on performance, which is calculated by comparing data from years prior. The scores range from 0 – 100. But what if you disagree with your score? Take my word for it, when the 2019 scores roll in, there will be many an unhappy SNFs. Fair scoring, correct auditing, and objective reviews are not in Medicare auditors’ bailiwick.

Expansion of Telehealth

Telehealth benefits are limited to services available under Medicare Part B that are clinically appropriate to be administered through telecommunications and e-technology. For 2019, a proposed rule creates three, new, “virtual,” CPT codes that do not have the same restrictions as the current, “traditional” telehealth definition. Now CMS provides reimbursement for non-office visits through telehealth services, but only if the patients present physically at an “originating site,” which only includes physician offices, hospitals, and other qualified health care centers. This prevents providers from consulting with their patients while they are at their home. The brand-new, 2019 CPT codes would allow telehealth to patients in homes.

Word of caution, my friends… Do not cross the streams.

  • CPT #1 – Telephone conference for established patients only; video not required
  • CPT #2 – Review of selfies of patient to determine whether office visit is needed; established patients only
  • CPT #3 – Consult with a specialist or colleague for advice without requiring a specialist visit; patient’s consent required.

These are not the only developments in Medicare in 2019. But these are some highlights. Here is wishing you and yours a very happy New Year, and thank you for reading my blog because if you are reading this then you read the whole blog.

Nursing Home Safety Is Under Scrutiny from CMS – Staff May Be Penalized!

This past Tuesday, CMS unveiled a new initiative aimed at improving safety at nursing homes. While the study did not compare nursing home safety for staff, which, BTW, is staggering in numbers; i.e., more nursing home staff call-in sick or contract debilitating viruses versus the normal population. I question why ER nurses/doctors do not have the same rate of sickness. But that is the source of another blog…

The Committee on Energy and Commerce (“the Committee”) began conducting audits of nursing homes after numerous media reports described instances of abuse, neglect, and substandard care occurring at skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) and nursing facilities (NFs) across the country, including the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills where at least 12 residents died in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

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Under the Civil Money Penalty Reinvestment Program, CMS will create training products for nursing home professionals including staff competency assessment tools, instructional guides, webinars and technical assistance seminars.

These materials aim to help staff reduce negative events (including death), improve dementia care and strengthen staffing quality, including by reducing staff turnover and enhancing performance. A high rate of staff attrition is a product of low hourly wages, which is a product of low Medicare/caid reimbursement rates.

“We are pleased to offer nursing home staff practical tools and assistance to improve resident care and positively impact the lives of individuals in our nation’s nursing homes,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a statement.

Seema Verna

The three-year effort is funded by federal civil penalties, which are fines nursing homes pay the CMS when they are noncompliant with regulations. There is no data as to how much CMS collects from civil fines against nursing homes per year, which is disconcerting considering everything about CMS is public record for taxpayers.

A proposed rule in the works to implement a federal law would allow the CMS to impose enforcement actions on nursing home staff in cases of elder abuse or other illegal activities.

CMS is increasing its oversight of post-acute care settings through this new civil money penalties initiative on nursing home staff and a new verification process to confirm personal attendants actually showed up to care for seniors when they are at home. This directive is targeted at personal care services (“PCS”). A proposed rule would allow CMS to impose enforcement actions on nursing home staff in cases of elder abuse or other illegal activities. The regulation being developed will outline how CMS would impose civil money penalties of up to $200,000 against nursing home staff or volunteers who fail to report reasonable suspicion of crimes. In addition, the proposed regulation would allow a 2-year exclusion from federal health programs for retaliating. It is questionable as to why CMS would penalize staff and/or volunteers rather than the nursing home company. One would think that volunteers may be more rare to find with this ruling.

CMS has been under heightened Congressional pressure to improve safety standards following ongoing media reports of abuse, neglect and substandard care occurring at nursing facilities across the country in recent years – or, at least, reported.

The federal government cited more than 1,000 nursing homes for either mishandling cases related to, or failing to protect residents against, rape, sexual abuse, or sexual assault, with nearly 100 facilities incurring multiple citations.

On October 20, 2017, the Committee sent a bipartisan letter requesting documents and information from Jack Michel, an owner of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills (“Rehabilitation Center”) where at least 12 residents died in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Florida. Excessive heat was the issue. According to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA), the Rehabilitation Center failed to follow adequate emergency management procedures after the facility’s air conditioning system lost power during Hurricane Irma. No generator? Despite increasingly excessive heat, staff at the facility did not take advantage of a fully functional hospital across the street and “overwhelmingly delayed calling 911” during a medical emergency. The facility also had contractual agreements with an assisted living facility and transportation company for emergency evacuation purposes yet did not activate these services. CMS ultimately terminated the Rehabilitation Center from the Medicare and Medicaid programs following an on-site inspection where surveyors found that the facility failed to meet Medicare’s basic health and safety requirements.

The Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) found that, as of 2014, there were 15,600 nursing home facilities in the United States; 69.8 % of U.S. nursing home facilities have for-profit ownership. OIG has been accusing nursing homes of elderly abuse for years, but, only now, does the federal government have a sword for its accusations. Accusations, however, come with false ones. The appeal process for such accusations will be essential.

According to HHS OIG’s 2017 report, nursing facilities continue to experience problems ensuring quality of care and safety for people residing in them. OIG identified instances of substandard care causing preventable adverse events, finding an estimated 22% of Medicare beneficiaries had experienced an adverse event during their nursing stay. The report further states that “OIG continues to raise concerns about nursing home residents being at risk of abuse and neglect. In some instances, nursing home care is so substandard that providers may have liability under the False Claims Act.”

HHS has continuously expressed concerns about nursing home residents being at risk of abuse and neglect.

With the new initiative, nursing homes that do not achieve substantial compliance within six months will be terminated from participating in Medicare and Medicaid. Appeals to come…

Medicare ACOs: Too Much Risk, Too Quickly?

As seen on RACMonitor.

More than a third of ACOs might leave if the proposed rule takes effect.

The comment period closed for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) proposed rule on Oct. 16. The MSSP has been a controversial program since its inception. The chief concern is that the financial “dis-incentives” will decrease the number of Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). The proposed rule for MSSP intensifies the financial “dis-incentives,” causing even more concern about the number of ACOs.

What is the Medicare Shared Savings Program? It is a voluntary program that is supposed to encourage groups of doctors, hospitals, and other healthcare providers to come together as ACOs to give coordinated, high-quality care to their Medicare patients. Providers can choose among three distinctive tracks, depending on the amount of risk the providers want to bear. The purpose of the MSSP is to diversify risk – of both loss and gain – between the government and the ACOs. For example, Track 1 ACOs do not assume downside risk (shared losses) if they do not lower growth in Medicare expenditures.

CMS created the MSSP in hopes that doctors, hospitals, and other healthcare providers would want to participate, with the incentive of the chance to make more money, rather than remaining in the traditional Medicare relationship. The program turned out to be more successful than anticipated, with the majority of ACOs opting to become Track 1, or the least risky model (one-sided risk).

CMS’s new proposed rule, however, increases the risk placed on the ACOs. Needless to say, providers aren’t happy, and many ACOs in the program warn that they’ll drop out if CMS finalizes its proposal as is.

What are these proposed changes to the MSSP?

Restricting Track 1 Enrollment

ACOs currently have six years to shift to a risk-bearing model from a shared savings-only model (Track 1). The proposed rule would give existing ACOs one year and new ACOs two years to transfer to a risk-bearing model. This one change could cause mass exodus from the MSSP, as many providers are, by nature, risk-averse.

Morphing to Five-Year Agreement Periods

The proposed rule requires CMS and the ACOs to morph into using five-year agreement periods. I am on the fence regarding this change. It could strengthen ACOs’ incentives to reduce spending by breaking the link between ACOs’ performance in the first two years of each agreement period and their future benchmarks. However, this modification could worsen incentives during the first two years of each agreement period. I would love to hear your opinions.

Slashing Shared Savings Rates

The proposed rule purports to slash shared savings rates for upside-risk models from 50 percent to as low as 25 percent. Under the one-sided model years of the glide path, an ACO’s maximum shared savings rate would be 25 percent, based on quality performance, applicable to first-dollar shared savings after the ACO meets the minimum savings rate. The glide path concludes with a maximum 50 percent sharing rate, based on quality performance, and a maximum level of risk, which qualifies a provider as an Advanced APM for purposes of the Quality Payment Program.

Other proposed changes include the following:

  • A bifurcated system for high- and low-revenue ACOs, which functionally would penalize certain ACOs for the size of their patient populations and volume of services.
  • A differential system for experienced versus inexperienced ACOs, which would allow experienced ACOs to choose from a more robust menu of participation options.
  • Dis-incentives to lower spending: ACOs have had little incentive to lower spending because of the link between the spending reductions they achieve and subsequent benchmarks. One could argue that it is astonishing that the MSSP has produced any savings at all. CMS proposes that the MSSP needs to be re-vamped.
  • A modified and more rigorous application review process to screen for good standing among ACOs seeking to renew or re-enter MSSP after termination or expiration of their previous agreement. ACOs in two-sided models would be held accountable for partial-year losses if either the ACO or CMS terminates the agreement during a performance year.

Will there be too much risk too quickly placed on the ACOs? Stay tuned for whether this proposed rule becomes finalized.

The Courts Order Medicare to Stop Recouping Alleged Overpayments Without Due Process!

New case law supports due process for Medicare providers. As first seen on RACMonitor.

Due process is one of the cornerstones of our society. Due process is the universal guarantee and found in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides “No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and is applied to all states by the 14th Amendment. From this basic principle flows many legal decisions determining both procedural and substantive rights.

For Medicare and Medicaid providers, however, due process, in the past, has been nonexistent. Imagine that you are accused of owing $5 million to the government. Perhaps it was a CPT® code error. You disagree. You believe that your documentation was proper and that you filed for reimbursement correctly. You appeal the decision that you owe $5 million. You continue conducting business as normal. Suddenly, you realize the government is recouping the $5 million now. Prior to any hearing before a judge. You haven’t been found guilty. What happened to innocent until proven guilty? What happened to due process?

For Medicare appeals there is a five-step appeal process. The law requires the government not to recoup during the first and second levels of appeal. But the first and second levels are jumping through hoops and are not normally successful. It is at the third level – the appeal to an impartial administrative judge – that the alleged recoupments are overturned.

After the second level, according to the black letter of the law, the government can begin recouping the alleged overpayment.

Sadly, in the past, the courts have held that it is proper for the government to recoup reimbursements after the second level. Even though, no hearing has been held before an impartial judge and you haven’t been found guilty of owing the money.

On Sept. 27, 2018, another U.S. District Court in South Carolina has agreed with courts in Texas by granting a provider’s request for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to prevent the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) from recouping monies until after Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearings have been held (Accident, Injury and Rehabilitation, PC, c/a No. 4:18-cv-02173, September 27, 2018).

A new trend in favor of providers seems to be arising. This is fantastic news for providers across the country!

Accident, Injury & Rehab, PC found that the ALJ stage of the appellate process is the most important for providers, as it provides the first opportunity for plaintiff to cross examine defendant’s witnesses and examine the evidence used to formulate the statistical sample. According to the American Hospital Association (AHA), 66 percent of Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) denials are reversed by an ALJ (I actually believe the percentage is higher). The court found that plaintiff’s procedural due process rights were violated by premature recoupment. The court granted Accident, Injury & Rehab, PC’s preliminary injunction restraining and enjoining the government from withholding Medicare payments during the appeal process.

When the government starts recouping filing a preliminary injunction has been shown it to be the best course.

In the past, most preliminary injunctions asking the court to order the government to stop recoupments until a hearing was held was dismissed based on jurisdiction. In other words, the courts held that the courts did not have the authority to render an opinion as to recoupments prior to a hearing. Now, however, the trend is turning, and courts are starting to rule in favor of the provider, finding a violation of procedural due process based on a collateral claim exception.

There are four criteria in order to win a preliminary injunction. A party seeking a preliminary injunction must establish all for the following criteria: (1) that the party is likely to succeed on the merits; (2) that the party is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary injunction; (3) that the balance of the equity tips in the party’s favor; and (4) that injunction is in the public interest.

There is an esoteric legal theory called exhaustion of administrative remedies. So jurisdiction is the question. There are exceptions to the judicial bar. The Supreme Court of United States articulated a collateral claim exception. The Supreme Court permitted a plaintiff to bring a procedural due process claim requesting an evidentiary area hearing before the termination of disability benefits. There are nonwaivable and waivable jurisdictional elements the nonwaivable requirement is that a claim must be presented to the administrative agency. The waivable requirement is that administrative remedies be exhausted.

The Collateral claim exception is when a party brings a claim in federal court when that “constitutional challenge is entirely collateral to its substantive claim of entitlement.”

The new trend in case law is that the courts are finding that the provider’s right to not undergo recoupment during the appeal process is a collateral issue as to the substantive issue of whether the provider owes the money. Therefore, the courts have found jurisdiction as to the collateral issue.

The proverbial ship has sailed. According to courts in Texas and now South Carolina, CMS cannot recoup monies prior to hearings before ALJs. Providers facing large recoupments should file TROs to prevent premature recoupments and to obtain due process.

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.

RAC Forecast: Increased RAC Audits with a High Likelihood of Recoupments

Data regarding the success of the Medicare RAC program does not lie, right? If the report shows success, then increase the RAC process!! And to anyone who reads the new report to Congress…a success the RAC process is!

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently published its 2016 results of the Medicare Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) program. And CMS was not shy in reporting high rates of returns due to the RAC program. With results as amazing as the report touts, it is clear that the Medicare RACs are hoping that this new report on the hundreds of millions they’ve recovered for Medicare will cause the CMS to reverse course on its decision to limit the number of claims they can review. After reviewing the report to CMS, I will be shocked if Congress does not loosen the limitations placed on RACs in the last couple years. The report acts as marketing propaganda to Congress.

My forecast: increased RAC audits with a high likelihood of recoupments.

The RAC program is divided into 5 regions (currently):

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In 2016, the RAC regions were arranged a bit differently:

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The mission of the RAC program is to identify and correct overpayments made on claims for health care services provided to beneficiaries, to identify underpayments to providers, and to provide information that allows the CMS to implement corrective actions that will prevent future improper payments. As most of my readers are well aware, I have been critical of the RAC program in the past for being overzealous and hyper (overly) – technical, in an erroneous kind of way. See blog. And blog.

The Social Security Act (SSA), which allows for RAC programs, also requires that the CMS publish and submit a yearly “self-audit” on the RAC program. Even though we are almost in October 2018, the recent report released to Congress covers 2016 – apparently CMS’ data gathering lags a bit (lot). If I have to get my 2018 taxes to the IRS by April 15, 2019, shouldn’t CMS have a similar deadline? Instead of submitting information for 2016 when it’s almost 2019…

RACs are paid on a contingency fee basis, which incentivize the RACs to discover billing irregularities. The amount of the contingency fee is a percentage of the improper payment recovered from, or reimbursed to, providers. The RACs negotiate their contingency fees at the time of the contract award. The base contingency fees range from 10.4 – 14.4% for all claim types, except durable medical equipment (DME). The contingency fees for DME claims range from 15.4 – 18.9%. The RAC must return the contingency fee if an improper payment determination is overturned at any level of appeal although I am unaware whether the RAC has to return the interested gained on holding that amount as well, which cannot be a minute amount given that the Medicare appeal backlog causes Medicare appeals to last upwards of 5 – 9 years.

Beginning in 2017, the RAC contracts had an amendment not previously found in past contracts. Now the RACs are to wait 30-days before reporting the alleged overpayment to the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs). The thought process behind this revision to the RAC contracts is that the 30-day wait period allows the providers to informally discuss the findings with the RACs to determine the provider has additional records germane to the audit that could change the outcome of the audit. Theoretically, going forward, providers should receive notification of an alleged overpayment from the RACs rather than the MACs.

And the 2016 results are (drum roll, please):

RACs uncovered $404.46 million in overpayments and $69.46 million in underpayments in fiscal year 2016, for a total of $473.92 million in improper payments being corrected. This represents a 7.5% increase from program corrections in FY 2015, which were $440.69 million.

63% of overpayments identified in 2016 (more than $278 million) were from inpatient hospital claims, including coding validation reviews.

RACs received $39.12 million in contingency fees.

After factoring in contingency fees, administrative costs, and amounts overturned on appeal, the RAC program returned $214.09 million to the Medicare trust funds in 2016.

CMS has implemented several elements to verify RAC accuracy in identifying improper payments. The Recovery Audit Validation Contractor (RVC) establishes an annual accuracy score for each RAC. Supposedly, if we are to take the CMS report as accurate and unbiased, in FY 2016, each RAC had an overall accuracy score of 91% or higher for claims adjusted from August 2015 through July 2016. I am always amazed at the government’s ability to warp percentages. I had a client given a 1.2% accuracy rating during a prepayment review that would rival J.K. Rowling any day of the year. Robert Galbraith, as well.

To address the backlog of Medicare appeals, CMS offered a settlement process that paid hospitals 68% of what they claimed they were owed for short-term inpatient stays. – I am not confident that this money was accounted for in the overall results of the RAC program in the recent report.

135,492 claims were appealed by healthcare providers. But the RAC report to Congress notes: “appealed claims may be counted multiple times if the claim had appeal decisions rendered at multiple levels during 2016.” Undeniably, if this number is close to accurate, there was a significant down swing of appeals by providers in 2016. (I wonder whether the hospital settlement numbers were included).

Of the total appealed claims, 56,724, or 41.9%, were overturned with decisions in the provider’s favor. (Fact check, please!). In my experience as a Medicare and Medicaid regulatory compliance litigator, the success rate for Medicare and Medicaid alleged overpayments is remarkably higher (but maybe my clients just hired a better attorney (wink, wink!).

With results this good, who needs more RAC auditing? We do!! If the report shows success, then increase the RAC process!! 

Medicare and Medicaid Regulations Suspended During Natural Disasters

My blog (below) was published on RACMonitor.

CMS provides Medicare waivers for providers dealing with natural disasters.

I live in North Carolina, and as most of you have seen on the news, we just underwent a natural disaster. Its name is Hurricane Florence. Our Governor has declared a state of emergency, and this declaration is extremely important to healthcare providers that accept Medicare and Medicaid and are located within the state of emergency. Once a state of emergency is implemented, the 1135 Waiver is activated for Medicare and Medicaid providers, and it remains activated for the duration of the state of emergency. The 1135 Waiver allows for exceptions to normal regulatory compliance regulations during a disaster. It is important to note that, during the disaster, a state of emergency must be officially “declared” in order to activate the 1135 Waiver.

About a year ago, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) finalized the 1135 Waiver to establish consistent emergency preparedness requirements for healthcare providers participating in Medicare and Medicaid, to increase patient safety during emergencies, and to establish a more coordinated response to natural and manmade disasters. The final rule requires certain participating providers and suppliers to plan for disasters and coordinate with federal, state, tribal, regional, and local emergency preparedness systems to ensure that facilities are adequately prepared to meet the needs of their patients during disasters and emergency situations.

The final rule states that Medicare and Medicaid participating providers and suppliers must do the following prior to a natural disaster capable of being foreseen:

  • Conduct a risk assessment and develop an emergency plan using an all-hazards approach, focusing on capacities and capabilities that are critical to preparedness for a full spectrum of emergencies or disasters specific to the location of a provider or supplier;
  • Develop and implement policies and procedures, based on the plan and risk assessment;
  • Develop and maintain a communication plan that complies with both federal and state law, and ensures that patient care will be well-coordinated within the facility, across healthcare providers, and with state and local public health departments and emergency systems; and
  • Develop and maintain training and testing programs, including initial and annual trainings, and conduct drills and exercises or participate in an actual incident that tests the plan.

Obviously, the minutiae of this final rule deviates depending on the type of provider. The waivers and modifications apply only to providers located in the declared “emergency area” (as defined in section 1135(g)(1) of the Social Security Act, or SSA) in which the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has declared a public health emergency, and only to the extent that the provider in question has been affected by the disaster or is treating evacuees.

Some examples of exceptions available for providers during a disaster situation under the 1135 Waiver are as follows:

  • CMS may allow Critical Access Hospitals (CAHs) to exceed the 25-bed limit in order to accept evacuees.
  • CMS can temporarily suspend a pending termination action or denial of payment sanction so as to enable a nursing home to accept evacuees.
  • Normally, CAHs are expected to transfer out patients who require longer admissions to hospitals that are better equipped to provide complex services to those more acutely ill. The average length of stay is limited to 96 hours. However, during a natural disaster, the CAH may be granted a 1135 Waiver to the 96-hour limit.
  • Certification for a special purpose dialysis facility can be immediate.
  • Relocated transplant candidates who need to list at a different center can transfer their accumulated waiting time without losing any allocation priority.
  • For home health services, normally, the patient must be confined to his or her home. During a state of emergency, the place of residence may include a temporary alternative site, such as a family member’s home, a shelter, a community, facility, a church, or a hotel. A hospital, SNF, or nursing facility would not be considered a temporary residence.

In rare circumstances, the 1135 Waiver flexibilities may be extended to areas beyond the declared emergency area. A limitation of the 1135 Waiver is that, during a state of emergency, an Inpatient Prospective Payment System- (IPPS)-excluded psychiatric or rehabilitation unit cannot be used for acute patients. A hospital can submit a request for relief under 1135 Waiver authority, and CMS will determine a course of action on a case-by-case basis. A hospital could also apply for certification of portions of its facility to act as a nursing facility. Hospitals with fewer than 100 beds, located in a non-urbanized area, may apply for swing bed status and receive payment for skilled nursing facility services.

If a provider’s building is devastated during a state of emergency, the 1135 Waiver allows the provider to maintain its Medicare and Medicaid contract, despite a change of location – under certain circumstances and on a case-by-case basis. Factors CMS will consider are as follows: (1) whether the provider remains in the same state with the same licensure requirements; (2) whether the provider remains the same type pf provider after relocation; (3) whether the provider maintains at least 75 percent of the same medical staff, nursing staff, and other employees, and whether they are contracted; (4) whether the provider retains the same governing body or person(s) legally responsible for the provider after the relocation; (5) whether the provider maintains essentially the same medical staff bylaws, policies, and procedures, as applicable; (6) whether at least 75 percent of the services offered by the provider during the last year at the original location continue to be offered at the new location; (7) the distance the provider moves from the original site; and (8) whether the provider continues to serve at least 75 percent of the original community at its new location.

The 1135 Waiver does not cover state-run services. For example, the 1135 Waiver does not apply to assisted living facilities. The federal government does not regulate assisted living facilities. Instead, assisted living is a state service under the Medicaid program. The same is true for clinical laboratory improvement amendment (CLIA) certification and all Medicaid provider rules. The 1135 Waiver also does not allow for the 60 percent rule to be suspended. The 60 percent Rule is a Medicare facility criterion that requires each Inpatient Rehabilitation Facility (IRF) to discharge at least 60 percent of its patients with one of 13 qualifying conditions.

In conclusion, when the governor of your state declares a state of emergency, the 1135 Waiver is activated for healthcare providers. The 1135 Waiver provides exceptions and exclusions to the normal regulatory requirements. It is important for healthcare providers to know and understand how the 1135 Waiver affects their particular types of services prior to a natural disaster ever occurring.

Hasty and Careless Termination Decisions Can Put Medicare/caid Providers Out of Business

When action happens in the Medicare/caid world, it happens quickly. Sometimes you do not receive adequate notice to coordinate continuity of care for your consumers or patients. For example, on August 3, 2018, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that at midnight on August 18, 2018, it would be terminating the contract between CMS and ESEC, LLC, an Oklahoma-based surgery center.

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CMS provided ESEC 15 days notice of complete termination of Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. Now I do not know the details of ESEC’s financial reliance on Medicare or Medicaid, but, these days, few providers are solely third-party pay or cash-only. I can only assume that ESEC is scrambling to initiate a lawsuit to remain afloat and open for business. Or ESEC is praying for a “rescind” by correcting whatever issues it purportedly had. Personally, I would not count on a possible rescind. I would be proactively seeking legal intervention.

Here are some examples of recent terminations and the notice received by the providers:

  • Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center’s heart transplant program lost federal funding August 17, 2018. The hospital will no longer be able to bill Medicare and Medicaid for heart transplants.
  • Effective August 9, 2018, Brookwood Baptist Medical Center’s Medicare contract was terminated. The notice was published July 25, 2018.
  • As of August 12, 2018, The Grandview Nursing & Rehabilitation Facility’s Medicare contract was terminated. Notice of the termination was published August 1, 2018.
  • As of September 1, 2018, Compassus-Kansas City, a hospice company, will lose its Medicare contract. Notice was provided August 17, 2018.
  • On August 3, 2018, CMS announced that it was terminating Deligent Health Services Inc.’s Medicare and Medicaid contact, effective December 5, 2017. (That is quite a retroactive timeframe).

Can Careless Judy put a healthcare provider out of business?

This happens all the time. Sure, ESEC probably had knowledge that CMS was investigating it. However, CMS has the authority to issue these public notices of termination without holding a hearing to determine whether CMS’ actions are accurate. What if Careless Judy in Program Integrity made a human error and ESEC actually does meet the standards of care. But you see, Careless Judy accidentally used the minimum standards of care from 2008 instead of 2018. It’s an honest mistake. She had no malice against ESEC. But, my point is – where is the mechanism that prevents a surgical ambulatory center from going out of business – just because Careless Judy made a mistake?

To look into whether any legal mechanism exists to prevent Careless Judy from putting the ambulatory center out of business, I turn to the legal rules.

42 CFR 488.456 governs terminations of provider agreements. Subsection (a) state that termination “ends – (1) Payment to the facility; and (2) Any alternative remedy.”

Subsection (b) states that CMS or the State may terminate the contract with the provider if the provider “Is not in substantial compliance with the requirements of participation, regardless whether immediate jeopardy is present.” On the bright side, if no immediate jeopardy exists then CMS or the State must give 15 days notice. If there is found to be immediate jeopardy, the provider get 2 days. But who determines what is “substantial compliance?” Careless Judy?

42 CFR 489.53 lists the reasons on which CMS may rely to terminate a provider. Although, please note, that the regulations use the word “may” and not “must.” So we have some additional guidance as to when a provider’s contract may be terminated, but it still seems subjective. Here are the reasons:

  1. The provider is not complying with the provisions of title XVIII and the applicable regulations of this chapter or with the provisions of the agreement.
  2. The provider or supplier places restrictions on the persons it will accept for treatment and it fails either to exempt Medicare beneficiaries from those restrictions or to apply them to Medicare beneficiaries the same as to all other persons seeking care.
  3. It no longer meets the appropriate conditions of participation or requirements (for SNFs and NFs) set forth elsewhere in this chapter. In the case of an RNHCI no longer meets the conditions for coverage, conditions of participation and requirements set forth elsewhere in this chapter.
  4. It fails to furnish information that CMS finds necessary for a determination as to whether payments are or were due under Medicare and the amounts due.
  5. It refuses to permit examination of its fiscal or other records by, or on behalf of CMS, as necessary for verification of information furnished as a basis for payment under Medicare.
  6. It failed to furnish information on business transactions as required in § 420.205 of this chapter.
  7. It failed at the time the agreement was entered into or renewed to disclose information on convicted individuals as required in § 420.204 of this chapter.
  8. It failed to furnish ownership information as required in § 420.206 of this chapter.
  9. It failed to comply with civil rights requirements set forth in 45 CFR parts 80, 84, and 90.
  10. In the case of a hospital or a critical access hospital as defined in section 1861(mm)(1) of the Act that has reason to believe it may have received an individual transferred by another hospital in violation of § 489.24(d), the hospital failed to report the incident to CMS or the State survey agency.
  11. In the case of a hospital requested to furnish inpatient services to CHAMPUS or CHAMPVA beneficiaries or to veterans, it failed to comply with § 489.25 or § 489.26, respectively.
  12. It failed to furnish the notice of discharge rights as required by § 489.27.
  13. The provider or supplier refuses to permit copying of any records or other information by, or on behalf of, CMS, as necessary to determine or verify compliance with participation requirements.
  14. The hospital knowingly and willfully fails to accept, on a repeated basis, an amount that approximates the Medicare rate established under the inpatient hospital prospective payment system, minus any enrollee deductibles or copayments, as payment in full from a fee-for-service FEHB plan for inpatient hospital services provided to a retired Federal enrollee of a fee-for-service FEHB plan, age 65 or older, who does not have Medicare Part A benefits.
  15. It had its enrollment in the Medicare program revoked in accordance to § 424.535 of this chapter.
  16. It has failed to pay a revisit user fee when and if assessed.
  17. In the case of an HHA, it failed to correct any deficiencies within the required time frame.
  18. The provider or supplier fails to grant immediate access upon a reasonable request to a state survey agency or other authorized entity for the purpose of determining, in accordance with § 488.3, whether the provider or supplier meets the applicable requirements, conditions of participation, conditions for coverage, or conditions for certification.

As you can see from the above list of possible termination reasons, many of which are subjective, it could be easy for Careless Judy to terminate a Medicare contract erroneously, based on inaccurate facts, or without proper investigation.

The same is true for Medicaid; your contract can be terminated on the federal or state level. The difference is that at the state level, Careless Judy is a state employee, not a federal.

42 CFR 498.5 governs appeal rights for providers contract terminations. Subsection (b) states that “Any provider dissatisfied with an initial determination to terminate its provider agreement is entitled to a hearing before an ALJ.”

42 CFR 498.20 states that an initial determination by CMS (like a contract termination) is binding unless it is reconsidered per 42 CFR 498.24.

A Stay of the termination should suspend the termination until the provider can obtain a hearing by an impartial tribunal until the appeal has been completed. The appeal process and supposed automatic Stay of the termination is the only protection for the provider from Careless Judy. Or filing an expensive injunction.