Hello! And beware the Ides of March, which is today! I am going to write today about the state of audits today. When I say Medicare and Medicaid audits, I mean, RACs, MACs, ZPICs, UPICs, CERTs, TPEs, and OIG investigations from credible allegations of fraud. Without question, the new Biden administration will be concentrating even more on fraud, waste, and abuse germane to Medicare and Medicaid. This means that auditing companies, like Public Consulting Group (“PCG”) and National Government Services (“NGS”) will be busy trying to line their pockets with Medicare dollars. As for the Ides, it is especially troubling in March, especially if you are Julius Caesar. “Et tu, Brute?”
One of the government’s most powerful tool is the federal government’s zealous use of 42 CFR 455.23, which states that “The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending under the Medicaid program against an individual or entity unless the agency has good cause to not suspend payments or to suspend payment only in part.” (emphasis added). That word – “must” – was revised from “may” in 2011, part of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”).
A “credible allegation” is defined as an indicia of reliability, which is a low bar. Very low.
Remember back in 2013 when Ed Roche and I were reporting on the New Mexico behavioral health care cluster? To remind you, the State of NM accused 15 BH health care providers, which constituted 87.5% of the BH providers in NM, of credible allegations of fraud after the assistant AG, at the time, Larry Heyeck, had just published a legal article re “Credible Allegations of Fraud.” See blog and blog. Unsurprisingly, the suicide rate and substance abuse skyrocketed. There was even a documentary “The Shake-Up” about the catastrophic events in NM set off by the findings of PCG.
I was the lawyer for the three, largest entities and litigated four administrative appeals. If you recall, for Teambuilders, PCG claimed it owed over $12 million. After litigation, an ALJ decided that Teambuilders owed $836.35. Hilariously, we appealed. While at the time, PCG’s accusations put the company out of business, it has re-opened its doors finally – 8 years later. This is how devastating a regulatory audit can be. But congratulations, Teambuilders, for re-opening.
Federal law mandates that during the appeal of a Medicare audit at the first two levels: the redetermination and reconsideration, that no recoupment occur. However, after the 2nd level and you appeal to the ALJ level, the third level, the government can and will recoup unless you present before a judge and obtain an injunction.
Always expect bumps along the road. I have two chiropractor clients in Indiana. They both received notices of alleged overpayments. They are running a parallel appeal. Whatever we do for one we have to do for the other. You would think that their attorneys’ fees would be similar. But for one company, NGS has preemptively tried to recoup THREE times. We have had to contact NGS’ attorney multiple times to stop the withholds. It’s a computer glitch supposedly. Or it’s the Ides of March!
Happy 2021! I bring great news and good tidings. I’m fairly sure that everyone reading is educated in what a preliminary injunction is and how important it can be for a health care provider falsely accused of credible allegations of fraud to lift the mandatory suspension of reimbursements. Finally, over the holidays, a Judge found that an indication of intent is required for an accusation of credible allegations of fraud, unlike past cases in which a mere accusation results in suspensions. 42 CFR §455.23 mandates that a health care provider’s reimbursements be suspended based on “credible allegations of fraud.” Which is a low bar. My client, an oral surgeon, had a disgruntled employee complaint and a baseless PCG audit of $6k. A double threat.
For those who are not in the know: An injunction is an extraordinary legal tool that allows the judge to suspend whatever bad action the government or one of its auditors do.
You have to prove:
- Likelihood of success on the merits
- Irreparable harm
- Balance of equities
- Public Interest.
I would guestimate that only 10-20% of requests for TROs and PIs are granted. Last week, we won for the oral surgeon. Everyone can learn from his success. This is how we won. Let me set the stage. We have an oral surgeon who underwent an infamous PCG audit resulting in an alleged $6k overpayment. PCG concurrently sends his data to program integrity, and one month later and without any notice, his reimbursements are suspended based on a “credible allegation of fraud.” Concurrently, he had a disgruntled employee threatening him.
Remember that the bar to demonstrate “credible allegation of fraud” is amazingly low. It is an “indicia of reliability.” An inaccurate PCG audit and a disgruntled employee, in this case, were the catalyst for the oral surgeon’s Medicaid reimbursements. His practice comprised of 80% Medicaid, so the suspension would cause irreparable harm to the practice.
We filed a TRO, PI, and Motion to Stay. The day before Christmas, we had trial.
The Judge ruled that the Department cannot just blindly rely on an anonymous accusation. There has to be some sort of investigation. It is not OK to accept accusations at face value without any sort of independent fact-checking. The Judge created an additional burden for the Department in cases of accusations of fraud that is not present in the regulation. But it is logical and reasonable to expect the Department to explore the accusations. The Judge emphasized that fraud requires intent. He also pointed out that fraud is not defined in the regulations. He emphasized that billing errors are not intentional acts.
The Judge held that, “[i]n light of the large number of Medicaid beneficiaries treated by the Petitioner’s practice, the rarity of the physician’s skills, and the apparent demand for those services, the relatively small amount of money now or formally in controversy, the lack of evidence of actual fraud and the contrary indications, the high probability that good cause exists for not suspending Petitioner’s Medicaid payments, and the near certainty of irreparable harm to the Petitioner if the relief is not granted, a TRO should be granted.”
Even better, the Judge ordered that the surgeon did not have to put up a bond, which is normally required by law. By the stroke of the Judge’s pen, the surgeon could go back to work performing medically necessary services to Medicaid recipients, which, by the way is rare for an oral surgeon to accept Medicaid. This is a success for health care providers. Accusations of fraud should require independent corroboration and evidence of intent.
If you are accused of Medicare fraud, your Medicare reimbursements will be immediately cut off without any due process or ability to defend yourself against the allegations. If you accept Medicare and Medicaid then you are held to strict regulations, some of which are highly, Draconian in nature without much recourse, legally, for providers. Many, many a provider have gone bankrupt and been forced out of business due to “credible allegations of fraud.” You see, legally, “credible allegations of fraud” is a low standard to meet. The definition of “credible” is “an indicia of reliability.” “Indicia” is defined as “signs, indications, circumstances which tend to show or indicate that something is probable. It is used in the form of “indicia of title,” or “indicia of partnership,” particularly when the “signs” are items like letters, certificates, or other things that one would not have unless the facts were as the possessor claimed. It can be a disgruntled worker. I am sure that none of the listeners here today have ever dealt with a disgruntled employee. Yes, that is sarcasm.
42 CFR § 405.372 is the regulation outlining the requirements for suspending Medicare payments. 42 CFR § 455.23 is the regulation mandating suspension of Medicaid payments upon credible allegations of fraud.
Pursuant to Medicare regulations, CMS must suspend Medicare reimbursements to a healthcare provider “in whole or in part” if it has been “determined that a credible allegation of fraud exists against a provider or supplier.” 42 C.F.R. § 405.371(a)(2). A credible allegation of fraud is “an allegation from any source, including … civil fraud claims cases, and law enforcement investigations.” 42 C.F.R. § 405.370(a). The decision to suspend Medicare payment or continue a payment suspension is made at the discretion of CMS – not the MAC. If you receive a letter from a MAC alleging fraud, be sure to check whether the letter states that the decision was made in collaboration with CMS. The MACs do not have the authority.
The suspension, however, is not indefinite, although the length is normally a year, which is financially devastating. The regulations allow CMS to maintain the suspension until a “legal action is terminated by settlement, judgment, or dismissal, or when the case is closed or dropped because of insufficient evidence to support allegations of fraud.” 42 C.F.R. §§ 405.370(a) and .372(d)(3); see also § 405.371(b)(3)(ii) (CMS may extend the suspension of payment if the Department of Justice submits a written request that “suspension of payments be continued based on the ongoing investigation and anticipated filing of criminal or civil action or both or based on a pending criminal or civil action or both.”).
When you receive a fraud accusation of any type – it is imperative to send it to your counsel. If you opt to litigate the suspension by asking the Court to enjoin the suspension, your first legal obstacle will be to argue that you do not have to exhaust your administrative remedies before appearing for the injunction. Cases have been decided both in the favor of providers and their suspensions have been lifted and against the providers. These cases usually win or lose on the argument that the suspension of reimbursements is an ancillary subject from the actual investigation of fraud. It is a jurisdictional argument.
It is my opinion that the federal regulations that allow for suspension of payments upon credible allegations of fraud need to be revised. Any of you with lobbyists, we need to revise the regulations to require due process – notice and an opportunity to be heard – prior to the government suspending Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements based on a spurious accusation from an anonymous source.
Back in 2015, I am sure that you all recall the case in New Mexico where NM accused 15 BH care provider of credible allegations of fraud. The providers constituted 87.5% of the BH in NM. I was one of the attorneys representing the larger BH cos. Prior to my involvement, all 15 providers requested good cause. All were denied. Lawmakers think that the good cause exception written into the regulation is enough defense for providers. But when the good cause is almost always denied, it isn’t much help. Write to your congress people. Amend the regulations to require due process.
For the full press release.
This New Mexico settlement…What a long strange trip it’s been!
The litigation started in 2013 (six years ago). I was a partner at another Raleigh, NC law firm. Out of the blue, a woman called me from New Mexico and asked whether I would be willing to fly to New Mexico to testify before the General Assembly regarding Public Consulting Group (PCG) and the company’s extrapolation and audit history.
I did. I testified before the NM General Assembly’s subcommittee for behavioral health care. Sitting next to me was a gentleman from PCG. He happened to be the team leader (not sure what his exact title was) for PCG’s audits in NM and NC. In his defense, he graciously sat there and testified against me while I told some horror stories of PCG audits. See blog.
I met the 15 behavioral health care providers’ CEOs who were accused of credible allegations of fraud. Their stories were so emotional and heart-tugging. These people had dedicated their lives and careers to New Mexico’s most needy population – those on Medicaid and suffering from mental health, substance abuse, and/or developmental disabilities – not for money, but because they cared. Then June 24, 2013, the State of New Mexico accused them all of credible allegations of fraud. NM’s proof? A PCG audit that found no credible allegations of fraud. But Human Services Department (HSD) instructed PCG to remove “no credible allegations of fraud,” and HSD referred the audits to the Attorney General (AG) claiming that credible allegations of fraud existed. Sound like a movie? It could be; it is a conspiracy theory story along the lines of Area 51. Is it a coincidence that Area 51 and the NM behavioral health care debacle both occurred in NM?
“I’d like to get some sleep before I travel
But if you got a warrant, I guess you’re gonna come in.” – Grateful Dead
A timeline of the events, starting in 2013, has been memorialized by multiple news organizations. See Timeline.
“June 24 — An audit paid for by the New Mexico Human Services Department and conducted by Public Consulting Group (PCG) finds that nearly $33.8 million in Medicaid overpayments were made to 15 behavioral health providers in the state.
June 24 — New Mexico Human Services Department notifies the 15 behavioral health providers that there is a “credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending,” and immediately suspends all Medicaid payments.
June 25 — Officials with the New Mexico Human Services Department send initial contracts to five Arizona companies: Agave Health Inc., Valle Del Sol, La Frontera Inc., Southwest Network Inc., and Turqouise Health and Wellness, Inc., to temporarily take over New Mexico behavioral health organizations for a combined price tag of $17.85 million. It’s estimated the move will impact about 30,000 patients. From a July 18 email: “I am following up on the proposed contract between HSD and Open Skies Healthcare (affiliated with Southwest Network, located in Phoenix). On July 3, 2013, I responded to Larry’s [Heyeck, Deputy General Counsel for HSD] June 25 email concerning the contract…”
July 17 – Eight agencies go to U.S. District Court to restore funding.
July 25 – A memo generated by one of the 15 affected providers, TeamBuilders, indicates it will stop taking new clients.
July 25 – A state district judge turns the PCG audit over to New Mexico State Auditor Hector Balderas, and orders the audit protected from public disclosure.
Aug. 21 – In a 15-1 vote New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee objects to the Human Services Department moving $10 million from it’s budget to pay Arizona agencies to take over New Mexico providers due to concerns over secrecy surrounding the process.
Aug. 27 – New Mexico In Depth and the Las Cruces Sun-Newsfile a lawsuit demanding the public release of the PCG audit.
Aug. 28 – Federal officials hold conference call to hear about widespread disruptions to clients of behavioral health providers in transition.
Aug. 29 – An Inspection of Public Records Act request filed by KUNM reveals contract communications between New Mexico Human Services Department officials and Arizona providers as early as May 29, a full month before the audit was released by Public Consulting Group.
Sept. 3 – Public Consulting Group representative Thomas Aldridge tells the New Mexico Legislative Behavioral Health Subcommittee that he helped state officials vet at least one Arizona firm before it even began its audit of agencies in the state.
Sept. 3 — Lawyer Knicole Emanuel testifies to ongoing problems with PCG audits conducted in North Carolina as well as lawsuits triggered by PCG activities. “In some of the PCG audits that I have encountered, PCG has said the Medicaid provider owes $700,000, $800,000, $1.5 million, these exorbitant amounts, and at the end of the day when they look at all the documents, it goes down to like $200 or $300.”
Sept. 10 – The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that political ads defending Gov. Susana Martinez have begun rolling out, framing the behavioral health takeover as a crackdown on Medicaid fraud.”
I litigated 4 administrative appeals. Even after the NM AG came out and stated that there was no fraud, HSD accused the providers of owing alleged overpayments, some upwards of $12 million. These amounts were extrapolated.
In the very first administrative appeal, for The Counseling Center, the extrapolation expert was one of HSD’s attorneys. Upon questions regarding his extrapolation and statistical experience and the foundation for his expertise, he testified that took a class on statistics in college. I guess I could be a bowling expert.
PCG only testified in the first two administrative appeals. I guess after PCG testified that they were never given the opportunity to finish their audit due to HSD and that PCG found no fraud, but HSD removed that language from the report, HSD smartened up and stopped calling PCG as a witness. PCG certainly was not bolstering HSD’s position.
For three of the administrative appeals, we had the same administrative law judge (ALJ), who appeared to have some experience as an ALJ. For one of the appeals, we had a younger gentleman as the ALJ, who, according to LINKEDIN, was a professional photographer.
About 5 years after the accusations of fraud, the AG came out and exonerated all the providers. Apparently, there never was any fraud. Only accusations. These exonerations, however, did not stop the allegations of overpayments to HSD. The exonerations also did not stop these companies from going out of business, being tried as fraudsters in the eyes of the public, losing their companies, firing staff, closing their doors, and losing everything.
This was all done under the administration of Susana Martinez – not saying that politics played a huge role in the act of overthrowing these providers.
The providers all appealed their alleged overpayments and filed a lawsuit against HSD and the State for damages suffered from the original allegation of fraud that was found to be meritless.
After an election and a new administration took control, the State of New Mexico settled with the providers, as you can see from the above press release.
During the long journey over the past 6 years, one of the CEOs, Jose Frietz, passed away. He had started his company Families & Youth, Inc. in 1977. A month before he died on March 2, 2016, the AG exonerated FYI.
In 2013, Larry Heyeck was one of the attorneys for HSD. Multiple times during the witch hunt for Medicaid fraud, it appeared that Heyeck had some sort of personal vendetta against the 15 providers. According to one article, “Heyeck singled out Roque Garcia, former acting CEO of Southwest Counseling Services (Las Cruces), who was a recipient of the payments and asked legislators, “What does this mean? How can this money be accounted for to ensure that it isn’t used for private benefit?” Heyeck then asserted that Garcia had abused agency travel funds largely paid for by Medicaid through lavish travel to resort destinations in a private aircraft.”
Garcia wasn’t the only provider accused of misappropriating Medicaid funds. Shannon Freedle and his wife Lorraine were ostracized for having their abode in Hawaii.
Larry Heyeck, had an article published in the December 2012’s American Bar Association’s “The Health Lawyer” discussing the effect of 42 CFR 455.23 on Medicaid fraud and suspensions of Medicaid reimbursements. It was entitled, “Medicaid Payment Holds Due to Credible Allegations of Fraud.” Seem apropos?
By 2016, all 15 providers were cleared of allegations of fraud, but most were out of business.
Now – December 4, 2019 – a press release is disseminated to show that the last of the providers settled with the State of New Mexico. What the press release fails to express is the struggle, the financial and non-financial damages, the emotional turmoil, and the devastation these companies have endured over the past 6 years. No amount of money could ever right their catastrophic, past 6-years or the complete demise of their companies based on erroneous allegations of fraud.
“Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me; Other times, I can barely see; Lately, it occurs to me; What a long, strange trip it’s been.” – Grateful Dead
“Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law this week a bill (SB41) that ensures service providers accused of overbilling or defrauding Medicaid can review and respond to allegations of wrongdoing before state action is taken.” – Tripp Jennings, New Mexico In Depth.
For those of you who don’t know, in 2013, the State of New Mexico, suspended the Medicaid reimbursements of 15 behavioral health care providers based on “credible allegations of fraud.” 42 CFR 455.23. The Attorney General eventually determined that no fraud existed as to ANY of the 15 behavioral health care providers. These providers constituted 87.5% of the behavioral health care providers in New Mexico, which is predominantly Medicaid and has the highest suicide rate of any state, if you consider the Native American population.
There was no due process. The providers were informed of the immediate Medicaid suspension in a group meeting without ever being told what exactly the “fraud” was that they allegedly committed. They were informed by, then assistant Attorney General, Larry Hyeck, that fraud existed and because of the ongoing investigation nothing could be divulged to those accused. Supposedly, the evidence for such “fraud” was based on an independent audit performed by Public Consulting Group (PCG). However, according to testimony from an employee of PCG at the administrative hearing of The Counseling Center (one of the 15 accused behavioral health care providers), PCG was not allowed by the Human Services Department of NM (HSD) to complete its audit. According to this employee’s testimony, it is PCG’s common practice to return to the providers which are the subject of the audit a 2nd or even 3rd time to ensure that all the relevant documents were collected and reviewed. Human error and the sheer amount of medical records involved in behavioral health care suggest that a piece of paper or two can be overlooked, especially because this audit occurred in 2013, before most of the providers had adopted electronic medical record systems. Add in the fact that PCG’s scanners were less than stellar and that the former Governor Susan Martinez, Optum’s CEO, and the HSD Secretary -at the time- had already vetted 5 Arizona companies to overtake the 15 NM behavioral health care companies – even prior to PCG’s determination – and the sum equals a pre-determined accusation of fraud. PCG’s initial report stated that no credible allegations of fraud existed. However, PCG was instructed to remove that sentence.
Almost all the providers were forced out of business. The staff were terminated or told to be employed by the new 5 AZ companies. The Medicaid recipients lost their mental health services. One company remained in business because they paid the State for fraud that they never committed. Another company held on by a very thin thread because of its developmental disability services. But the former-CEO became taxed and stepped down and many more left or were let go. The 13 other providers were financially ruined, including the largest behavioral health care provider in NM, which serviced over 700 Medicaid recipients and employed hundreds of clinical staff. It had been servicing NM’s poor and those in need of mental health services for over 30 years. Another company had been in business over 40 years (with the same CEO). The careers and live’s work were crumbled in one day and by one accusation that was eventually proven to be wrong.
No one ever foresaw this amount of abuse of discretion to occur by government agents.
Now, today, in 2019, the new Governor of NM, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, signed a law introduced by Senator Mary Kay Papen, a long proponent and advocate that the 15 behavioral health care providers were unjustly accused and forced out of business, that will protect Medicaid providers in NM from ever being subjected to the unjust and arbitrary suspension of Medicaid funds and unfounded allegations of Medicaid fraud.
Even though 42 C.F.R. 455.23 requires a state to suspend Medicaid funding upon “credible allegations of fraud,” NM has taken the first step toward instituting a safeguard for Medicaid providers. Already too few health care providers accept Medicaid – and who can blame them? The low reimbursement rates are nothing compared to the regulatory scrutiny that they undergo merely for accepting Medicaid.
NM SB41 contradicts the harsh language of 42 CFR 455.23, which mandates that a State “must” suspend payments upon a credible allegation of fraud. NM SB41 provides due process for Medicaid providers accused of fraud. Which begs the question – why hasn’t anyone brought a declaratory action to determine that 42 CFR 455.23 violates due process, which happens to be a constitutional right?
Part of the due process enacted by New Mexico is that a suspension of Medicaid reimbursements should be released upon a post of a surety bond and that the posting of a surety bond shall be deemed good cause to not suspend payments during the investigation. Although the new law also states that the Medicaid reimbursement suspension must be released within 10 days of the posting of the surety bond “in the amount of the suspended payment.” After 4 administrative hearings in New Mexico, I can assure you that the provider and HSD will have two disparate views of the “amount of the suspended payment.” And by disparate, I mean REALLY disparate.
Regardless, I view this new law as a giant leap in the direction of the Constitution, which was actually enacted in 1789. So is it apropos that 230 years later NM is forced to enact a law that upholds a legal right that was written and enacted into law 230 years ago?
Thank you, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Senator Papen, Patsy Romero, and Shawn Mathis for your amazing effort on getting this legislation passed.
And – look forward to my webcast on RACMonitor on Monday, April 8, 2019, detailing how courts across the country are revising their views and granting federal injunctions stopping premature recoupments when a Medicare/caid provider is accused of an overpayment. Due process is on a come-back.
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.
Once You STOP Accepting Medicaid/Care, How Much Time Has to Pass to Know You Will Not Be Audited? (For Past Nitpicking Documentation Errors)
I had a client, a dentist, ask me today how long does he have to wait until he need not worry about government, regulatory audits after he decides to not accept Medicare or Medicaid any more. It made me sad. It made me remember the blog that I wrote back in 2013 about the shortage of dentists that accept Medicaid. But who can blame him? With all the regulatory, red tape, low reimbursement rates, and constant headache of audits, who would want to accept Medicare or Medicaid, unless you are Mother Teresa…who – fun fact – vowed to live in poverty, but raised more money than any Catholic in the history of the recorded world.
What use is a Medicaid card if no one accepts Medicaid? It’s as useful as our appendix, which I lost in 1990 and have never missed it since, except for the scar when I wear a bikini. A Medicaid card may be as useful as me with a power drill. Or exercising lately since my leg has been broken…
The answer to the question of how long has to pass before breathing easily once you make the decision to refuse Medicaid or Medicare? – It depends. Isn’t that the answer whenever it comes to the law?
By Whom and Why You Are Being Investigated Matters
If you are being investigated for fraud, then 6 years.
If you are being investigated by a RAC audit, 3 years.
If you are being investigated by some “non-RAC entity,” then it however many years they want unless you have a lawyer.
If being investigated under the False Claims Act, you have 6 – 10 years, depending on the circumstances.
If investigated by MICs, generally, there is a 5-year, look-back period.
ZPICS have no particular look-back period, but with a good attorney, reasonableness can be argued. How can you be audited once you are no longer liable to maintain the records?
The CERT program is limited by the same fiscal year.
The Alternative: Self-Disclosure (Hint – This Is In Your Favor)
If you realized that you made an oops on your own, you have 60-days. The 60-day repayment rule was implemented by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”), effective March 14, 2016, to clarify health care providers’ obligations to investigate, report, and refund identified overpayments under the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”).
Notably, CMS specifically stated in the final rule that it only applies to traditional Medicare overpayments for Medicare Part A and B services, and does not apply to Medicaid overpayments. However, most States have since legislated similar statutes to mimic Medicare rules (but there are arguments to be made in courts of law to distinguish between Medicare and Medicaid).
There is a federal regulation that is putting health care providers out of business. It is my legal opinion that the regulation violates the U.S. Constitution. Yet, the regulation still exists and continues to put health care providers out of business.
Because so far, no one has litigated the validity of the regulation, and I believe it could be legally wiped from existence with the right legal arguments.
How is this important?
Currently, the state and federal government are legally authorized to immediately suspend your Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements upon a credible allegation of fraud. This immense authority has put many a provider out of business. Could you survive without any Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements?
The federal regulation to which I allude is 42 CFR 455.23. It is a federal regulation, and it applies to every single health care provider, despite the service type allowed by Medicare or Medicaid. Home care agencies are just as susceptible to an accusation of health care fraud as a hospital. Durable medical equipment agencies are as susceptible as dentists. Yet the standard for a “credible allegation of fraud” is low. The standard for which the government can implement an immediate withhold of Medicaid/care reimbursements is lower than for an accused murderer to be arrested. At least when you are accused of murder, you have the right to an attorney. When you are accused to health care fraud on the civil level, you do not receive the right to an attorney. You must pay 100% out of pocket, unless your insurance happens to cover the expense for attorneys. But, even if your insurance does cover legal fees, you can believe that you will be appointed a general litigator with little to no knowledge of Medicare or Medicaid regulatory compliance litigation.
42 USC 455.23 states that:
“The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending under the Medicaid program against an individual or entity unless the agency has good cause to not suspend payments or to suspend payment only in part.
(2) The State Medicaid agency may suspend payments without first notifying the provider of its intention to suspend such payments.
(3) A provider may request, and must be granted, administrative review where State law so requires.”
In the very first sentence, which I highlighted in red, is the word “must.” Prior to the Affordable Care Act, this text read “may.” From my years of experience, every single state in America has used this revision from “may” to “must” for governmental advantage over providers. When asked for good cause, the state and or federal government protest that they have no authority to make a decision that good cause exists to suspend any reimbursement freeze during an investigation. But this protest is a pile of hooey.
In reality, if anyone could afford to litigate the constitutionality of the regulation, I believe that the regulation would be stricken an unconstitutional.
Here is one reason why: Due Process
The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Bill of Rights provide us our due process rights. Here is the 5th Amendment:
“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
There have been a long and rich history of interpretation of the due process clause. The Supreme Court has interpreted the due process clauses to provide four protections: (1) procedural due process (in civil and criminal proceedings), (2) substantive due process, (3) a prohibition against vague laws, and (4) as the vehicle for the incorporation of the Bill of Rights.
42 CFR 455.23 violates procedural due process.
Procedural due process requires that a person be allowed notice and an opportunity to be heard before a government official takes a person’s life, liberty, or property.
Yet, 42 CFR 455.23 allows the government to immediately withhold reimbursements for services rendered based on an allegation without due process and taking a provider’s property; i.e., money owed for services rendered. Isn’t this exactly what procedural due process was created to prevent???? Where is the fundamental fairness?
42 CFR 455.23 violates substantive due process.
The Court usually looks first to see if there is a fundamental right, by examining if the right can be found deeply rooted in American history and traditions.
Fundamental rights include the right to vote, right for protection from pirates on the high seas (seriously – you have that right), and the right to constitutional remedies. Courts have held that our right to property is a fundamental right, but to my knowledge, not in the context of Medicare/caid reimbursements owed; however, I see a strong argument.
If the court establishes that the right being violated is a fundamental right, it applies strict scrutiny. This test inquires into whether there is a compelling state interest being furthered by the violation of the right, and whether the law in question is narrowly tailored to address the state interest.
Where the right is not a fundamental right, the court applies a rational basis test: if the violation of the right can be rationally related to a legitimate government purpose, then the law is held valid.
Taking away property of a Medicare/caid provider without due process violates substantive due process. The great thing about writing your own blog is that no one can argue with you. Playing Devil’s advocate, I would anticipate that the government would argue that a suspension or withhold of reimbursements is not a “taking” because the withhold or suspension is temporary and the government has a compelling reason to deter health care fraud. To which, I would say, yes, catching health care fraud is important – I am in no way advocating for fraud. But important also is the right to be innocent until proven guilty, and in civil cases, our deeply-rooted belief in the presumption of innocence is upheld by the action at issue not taking place until a hearing is held.
For example, if I sue my neighbor and declare that he is encroaching on my property, the property line is not moved until a decision is in my favor.
Another example, if I sue my business partner for breach of contract because she embezzled $1 million from me, I do not get the $1 million from her until it is decided that she actually took $1 million from me.
So to should be – if a provider is accused of fraud, property legally owned by said provider cannot just be taken away. That is a violation of substantive due process.
42 CFR 455.23 violates the prohibition against vague laws
A law is void for vagueness if an average citizen cannot understand it. The vagueness doctrine is my favorite. According to census data, there are 209.3 million people in the US who are over 24-years. Of those over 24-years-old, 66.9 million have a college degree. 68% do not.
Although here is a quick anecdote: Not so sure that a college degree is indicative of intelligence. A recent poll of law students at Columbia University showed that over 60% of the students, who were polled, could not name what rights are protected by the 1st Amendment. Once they responded “speech,” many forgot the others. In case you need a refresher for the off-chance that you are asked this question in an impromptu interview, see here.
My point is – who is to determine what the average person may or may not understand?
Back to why 42 CFR 455.23 violates the vagueness doctrine…
Remember the language of the regulations: “The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud…”
“Credible allegation of fraud” is defined as an allegation, which has been verified by the State, from any source, including but not limited to the following:
- Fraud hotline complaints.
- Claims data mining.
- Patterns identified through provider audits, civil false claims cases, and law enforcement investigations. Allegations are considered to be credible when they have indicia of reliability and the State Medicaid agency has reviewed all allegations, facts, and evidence carefully and acts judiciously on a case-by-case basis.”
With a bit of research, I was able to find a written podcast published by CMS. It appears to be a Q and A between two workers at CMS discussing whether they should suspend a home health care agency’s reimbursements, similar to a playbook. I assume that it was an internal workshop to educate the CMS employees considering that the beginning of the screenplay begins with a “canned narrator” saying “This is a Medicaid program integrity podcast.”
The weird thing is that when you pull up the website – here – you get a glimpse of the podcast, but, at least on my computer, the image disappears in seconds and does not allow you to read it. I encourage you to determine whether this happens you as well.
While the podcast shimmered for a few seconds, I hit print and was able to read the disappearing podcast. As you can see, it is a staged conversation between “Patrick” and “Jim” regarding suspicion of a home health agency falsifying certificates of medical necessity.
On page 3, “Jim” says, “Remember the provider has the right to know why we are taking such serious action.”
But if your Medicare/caid reimbursements were suddenly suspended and you were told the suspension was based upon “credible allegations of fraud,” wouldn’t you find that reasoning vague?
42 CFR 455.23 violates the right to apply the Bill of Rights to me, as a citizen
This esoteric doctrine only means that the Bill of Rights apply to State governments. [Why do lawyers make everything so hard to understand?]
They say that lightning never strikes the same place twice, but tell that to my colleague Bill. Bill has been struck by lightning twice and has lived to tell the story. Granted, he was not physically standing in the same place that he was struck the first time as when he was hit by lightning the second time – so lightning technically didn’t hit the same place twice. But it did strike the same person twice. Maybe Bill is just extremely unlucky, or maybe Bill is extremely lucky because he lived through the incidents.
An intense shock can severely impair most of the body’s vital functions. Cardiac arrest is common. Yet Bill lived. Twice.
No one ever thinks they will get struck by lightning. But it happens. According to the National Weather Service, so far this year, lightning strikes have killed at least 20 people in the US, and that does not even take into consideration the people who were just injured, like my pal Bill.
A lightning strike is a massive electrical discharge between the atmosphere and an earth-bound object. A lightning bolt can heat the surrounding air to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit—that’s five times hotter than the sun—and can contain up to 300kV of energy.
Yet most people do survive, in part because lightning rarely passes through the body.
Instead, a “flashover” occurs, meaning that the lightning zips over the body, traveling via ultra-conductive sweat (and often rainwater), which provides an external voltage pathway around the body. When people do die from a lightning strike, it is usually due to an electrical discharge-induced hear attack. A body hit by lightning will show various signs of trauma.
Like a gunshot, a lightning strike causes both an exit and entrance wound, marking where the current both entered and left the victim. Lichtenberg scarring, which outlines ruptured blood vessels, frequently covers the body in odd, almost beautiful, spiderweb patterns.
Surprisingly enough, many lightning strike survivors do not remember being struck. Instead, the only evidence of the traumatic event is burnt, displaced clothing and marks along the body.
For instance, many lightning strike survivors report memory issues, trouble with concentration and severe headaches, all of which last decades after the initial strike.
Due to the rarity of lightning strike cases, less time and resources have been devoted to better understanding how these strikes impact long-term brain function. An unpublished study by medical doctor Mary Ann Cooper found that there were “significant differences in brain activity between lightning-strike victims and healthy people as they performed mental-aptitude tests.”
Aside from impacting long-term brain function, lightning strikes are also known to blow out eardrums, prompting constant muscle twitches and moderate to severe nerve damage. Overall, the effects of a lightning strike may range from a slight inconvenience to a debilitating, lifelong struggle. In the case of my colleague, you would never be able to tell mind looking at him that he has been hit by lightning twice.
Why is this – extensive – discussion about lightning strikes relevant? – Or is it not?
If you are a health care provider and accept Medicare or Medicaid, the risk of an audit far exceeds your chances of getting struck by lightning. In FY 2016, CMS continued its use of the Affordable Care Act authority to suspend Medicare payments to providers during an investigation of a credible allegation of fraud. CMS also has authority to suspend Medicare payments if reliable information of an overpayment exists. During FY 2016, there were 508 payment suspensions that were active at some point during the fiscal year. Of the 508 payment suspensions, 291 new payment suspensions were imposed during FY 2016.
Medicare and Medicaid audits far exceed lightning strikes. Yet, providers believe in their heart of hearts that and on an audit (or an audit with bad results) will never happen to them, which causes providers to not engage in attorney until after the lightning strikes. Then it’s too late, and you have Lichtenberg scarring across your arm.
There is scene in Breaking Bad in which Saul, the attorney, stops a person from talking. He says, “Give me a dollar. Don’t tell me anything until you give me a dollar. Once money is exchanged, we will have attorney-client privilege.” What Saul was saying is that the exchange of money catalyzed the duty for Saul to keep all conversation confidential.
This was a low-point of legal-fiction television. It made great drama with zero accuracy.
The question is why should you have an attorney on retainer?
The obvious response is that you can have confidential conversations with said attorney at your beck and call. The honest truth is that you do not have to have an attorney on retainer in order for your conversations to be confidential. But is smart to do so, and I will tell you why.
If you call me and I have never represented you and you ask me a legal question, our conversation is legally protected, even if you hire a different attorney.
No – the reason to have an attorney on retainer is to be able to consult him or her with legal questions on a daily basis, and, especially of there is an ongoing audit. Most of my clients do not contact me when they receive the document request. They think, “Oh, this is no big deal. I will give my records to [state] or [federal] – [and/or its contractors] government and they will determine that my [Medicare] or [Medicaid] records are amazing. In fact the [state] or [federal] government my even ask me to educate other providers on what pristine records should look like. I got this. Easy, peasy, lemon-squeezey.” They contact me when they get an accusation of an alleged overpayment of $5 million. Lichtenberg scarring has already occurred.
The smartest clients contact me prior to receiving an alleged overpayment of $12 million or an accusation of fraud. They contact me the moment they receive a notice of an audit or a request for documents…before ever submitting documents to the government.
Because, regardless the type of provider, be it dentist, behavioral counseling, podiatrist, chiropractor, or hospital, understand that every communication with a government auditor and/or contractor is admissible in court – if the communication does not go through an attorney. When the [state/federal] auditor asks to see a record and you say, “Let me get it from my off-site storage facility” – BAM – HIPAA violation. When the state/federal auditor asks to see a record and you say, “Here it is,” and fail to keep a copy for yourself, there can be discrepancy in the future as to what you actually provided. And you are in a “he said she said” battle – never good.
On the other hand, if you have an attorney on retainer, you can ask any question you need, you can get any advice you desire, and it’s all confidential. It is as though you have Siri in your back pocket. It’s the 411 for legal information. It’s an ATM for legal advice. AND it is all confidential.
Next time you think to yourself, “Self, I will ace any Medicaid or Medicare audit. I don’t need counsel. I can talk to the auditors myself without an attorney. I got this.”
Think again. [Don’t, necessarily, call Saul, but call someone.] Because, like lightning strike victims, you may not even remember the audit. Until you are scarred.
When you get accused of Medicare or Medicaid fraud or of an alleged overpayment, the federal and state governments have the authority to suspend your reimbursements. If you rely heavily on Medicaid or Medicare, this suspension can be financially devastating. If your Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements are suspended, you have to hire an attorney. And, somehow, you have to be able to afford such legal representation without reimbursements. Sadly, this is why many providers simply go out of business when their reimbursements are suspended.
But, legally, how long can the state or federal government suspend your Medicare or Medicaid payments without due process?
According to 42 C.F.R. 405.371, the federal government may suspend your Medicare reimbursements upon ” reliable information that an overpayment exists or that the payments to be made may not be correct, although additional information may be needed for a determination.” However, for Medicare, there is a general rule that the suspension may not last more than 180 days. MedPro Health Providers, LLC v. Hargan, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 173441 *2.
There are also procedural safeguards. A Medicare provider must be provided notice prior to a suspension and given the opportunity to submit a rebuttal statement explaining why the suspension should not be implemented. Medicare must, within 15 days, consider the rebuttal, including any material submitted. The Medicare Integrity Manual states that the material provided by the provider must be reviewed carefully.
42 CFR 455.23 states that “The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending under the Medicaid program against an individual or entity unless the agency has good cause to not suspend payments or to suspend payment only in part.”
Notice the differences…
Number one: In the Medicare regulation, the word used is “may” suspend. In the Medicaid regulation, the word used is “must” suspend. This difference between may and must may not resonate as a huge difference, but, in the legal world, it is. You see, “must” denotes that there is no discretion (even though there is discretion in the good cause exception). On the other hand, “may” suggests more discretionary power in the decision.
Number two: In the Medicare regulation, notice is required. It reads, “Except as provided in paragraphs (d) and (e) of this section, CMS or the Medicare contractor suspends payments only after it has complied with the procedural requirements set forth at § 405.372.” 405.372 reads the Medicare contractor must notify the provider or supplier of the intention to suspend payments, in whole or in part, and the reasons for making the suspension. In the Medicaid regulation, no notice is required. 455.23 reads “The State Medicaid agency may suspend payments without first notifying the provider of its intention to suspend such payments.”
Number three: In the Medicare regulation, a general limit of the reimbursement suspension is imposed, which is 180 days. In the Medicaid regulation, the regulations states that the suspension is “temporary” and must be lifted after either of the following (1) there is a determination of no credible allegations of fraud or (2) the legal proceedings regarding the alleged fraud are complete.
Yet I have seen States blatantly violate the “temporary” requirement. Consider the New Mexico situation. All the behavioral health care providers who were accused of Medicaid fraud have been cleared by the Attorney General. The regulation states that the suspension must be lifted upon either of the following – meaning, if one situation is met, the suspension must be lifted. Well, the Attorney General has cleared all the New Mexico behavioral health care providers of fraud. Criterion is met. But the suspension has not been lifted. The Health Services Department (HSD) has not lifted the suspension. This suspension has continued for 4 1/2 years. It began June 24, 2013. See blog, blog, and blog. Here is a timeline of events.
Why is there such a disparity in treatment with Medicare providers versus Medicaid providers?
The first thing that comes to mind is that Medicare is a fully federal program, while Medicaid is state-run. Although a portion of the funds for Medicaid comes from the federal government.
Secondly, Medicare patients pay part of costs through deductibles for hospital and other costs. Small monthly premiums are required for non-hospital coverage. Whereas, Medicaid patients pay nothing.
Thirdly, Medicare is for the elderly, and Medicaid is for the impoverished.
But should these differences between the two programs create such a disparity in due process and the length of reimbursement suspensions for health care providers? Why is a Medicare provider generally only susceptible to a 180 day suspension, while a Medicaid provider can be a victim of a 4 1/2 year suspension?
Parity, as it relates to mental health and substance abuse, prohibits insurers or health care service plans from discriminating between coverage offered for mental illness, serious mental illness, substance abuse, and other physical disorders and diseases. In short, parity requires insurers to provide the same level of benefits for mental illness, serious mental illness or substance abuse as for other physical disorders and diseases.
Does parity apply to Medicare and Medicaid providers?
Most of Medicare and Medicaid law is interpreted by administrative law judges. Most of the time, a health care provider, who is not receiving reimbursements cannot fund an appeal to Superior Court, the Court of Appeals, and, finally the Supreme Court. Going to the Supreme Court costs so much that most normal people will never present before the Supreme Court…it takes hundreds and hundreds upon thousands of dollars.
In January 1962, a man held in a Florida prison cell wrote a note to the United States Supreme Court. He’d been charged with breaking into a pool hall, stealing some Cokes, beer, and change, and was handed a five-year sentence after he represented himself because he couldn’t pay for a lawyer. Clarence Earl Gideon’s penciled message eventually led to the Supreme Court’s historic 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright ruling, reaffirming the right to a criminal defense and requiring states to provide a defense attorney to those who can’t afford one. But it does not apply to civil cases.
Furthermore, pro bono attorneys and legal aid attorneys, although much-needed for recipients, will not represent a provider.
So, until a health care provider, who is a gaga-zillionaire, pushes a lawsuit to the Supreme Court, our Medicare and Medicaid law will continue to be interpreted by administrative law judges and, perhaps, occasionally, by Superior Court. Do not take this message and interpret that I think that administrative law judges and Superior Court judges are incapable of interpreting the laws and fairly applying them to certain cases. That is the opposite of what I think. The point is that if the case law never gets to the Supreme Court, we will never have consistency in Medicare and Medicaid law. A District Court in New Mexico could define “temporary” in suspensions of Medicare and/or Medicaid reimbursements as 1 year. Another District Court in New York could define “temporary” as 1 month. Consistency in interpreting laws only happens once the Supreme Court weighs in.
Until then, stay thirsty, my friend.