Blog Archives

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.

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.