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.
My mom taught me a song when I was young called, “A Hole in the Bucket.” It is a maddening song about a lazy husband named Henry who begins the song telling his wife Liza that “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza….” To which Liza sings, “Then fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry…”
The song continues with Henry singing excuses and impediments to his ability to fix the hole in the bucket and Liza explaining to Henry how to overcome these excuses. The song goes around and around until, in order to fix the bucket, Henry would have to sharpen an ax on a stone that “is too dry,” and the only way to wet the stone is with the bucket that has a hole. “There’s a hole in the bucket…” And the songs starts anew and can be sung continuously, never-ending.
My husband and daughter audibly groan when I begin such song.
And you can’t blame them! It is discouraging and frustrating when something is caught in a never-ending circle with no end and no conclusion. It is human nature to try to resolve issues; it is also ingrained in Americans’ minds that hard work yields results. When hard work yields nothing but a big, fat goose-egg, it is exacerbating.
Kind of like claims in NCTracks…
When NCTracks went live on July 1, 2013, providers immediately began to complain the claims were being erroneously denied and they were receiving no reimbursements. Folks with whom I spoke with were at their wits-ends, spending hours upon hours trying to discern why claims were being denied and what process they could undertake to fix “the hole in the bucket.”
The problem persisted so long and I was contacted by so many providers that I instigated the NCTracks class action lawsuit, which is still pending on appeal, to the best of my knowledge, at my former firm. Although it was dismissed at the Business Court level, I believe it is on appeal. See blog.
Providers complained that, when they contacted CSC’s Help Desk regarding denied claims, the customer service representatives would have little to no understanding of the claims process and instruct them to re-file the denied claims, which created a perpetual cycle of unadjudicated claims.
“It was infuriating!” One provider explained. “It was as if we were caught in the spin cycle with no hope of stopping. I wanted to yell, ‘I’m dry all ready!!'”
“I was spending 20+ a week on NCTracks billing problems,” another said.
To which, I said, “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.”
Over two years after the “go live” date, the Department has now (finally) informed providers that there is an informal reconsideration review process for denials from CSC.
The September 2015 Medicaid Bulletin states that:
“This article provides a detailed explanation of the N.C. Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) procedures for Informal Reconsideration Review of adverse claim actions (denials, disallowances and adjustments) made by its fiscal agent, CSC.”
The Bulletin provides a 30 day time period during which a provider can appeal a denied claim:
“Time Limit for Submission of Request
- A provider may request a reconsideration review within 30 calendar days from receipt of final notification of payment, payment denial, disallowances, payment adjustment, notice of program reimbursement and adjustments. If no request is received within the respective 30 calendar day period, DMA’s action will become final.”
(emphasis in original).
You must request reconsideration review within 30 calendar days of the final notification. BUT what exactly is “final notification?” The initial denial? The second denial after re-submitting? The third? Or, what if, your claim is pending…for months…is that a denial? When CSC tells you to re-submit, does the time frame in which to file a reconsideration review start over? Or do you have to appeal every single denial for every single claim, even if the claim is re-submitted and re-denied 10 times?
This new informal appeal process is as clear as mud.
Notice the penalty for NOT appealing within 30 days…”DMA’s action will become final.”
This means that, if you fail to appeal a denial within 30 days, then the claim is denied and you cannot request a reconsideration review. Theoretically, there is a legal argument that, once the “final decision” is rendered, even if it were rendered due to you failing to request a reconsideration review, you would have 60 days to appeal such final decision to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). Although, acting as the Devil’s advocate, there is an argument that your failure to request a reconsideration review and taking the appeal straight to OAH is “failing to exhaust your administrative remedies.” See blog. Which could result in your appeal being dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. This goes to show you the importance of having your attorney involved at the earliest juncture, otherwise you could risk losing appeal rights.
Let’s think about the “time limit for submission of request” in a real-life hypothetical.
You keep receiving denials for dialysis claims for no apparent reason. You received 20 denials on September 4, 2015. You contact a CSC customer service representative on September 8, 2015, four days later, due to Labor Day weekend. The customer service representative instructs you to re-file the claims because you must include the initial date of treatment in order to have the claims processed and paid (which was not required with HP Enterprises’ system). Is this the “final notification?” It does not seem so, since you are allowed to re-submit…
You revise all 20 claims to include the first treatment date on the claim and re-submit them on September 9, 2015. Since you re-submitted prior to the September 10th cutoff, you expect payment by September 16, 2015, 12 days after the initial denial.
You receive your explanation of benefits (EOBs) and 5 claims were adjudicated and paid, while 15 were denied again.
You contact CSC customer service and the representative instructs you to re-submit the 15 claims. The rep does not know why the claims were denied, but she/he suggests that you review the claims and re-submit. After hours of investigative work, you believe that the claims were denied because the NPI number was wrong…or the incorrect address was processed…or…
You miss the September 17th cut-off because you were trying to figure out why these claims were denied. you submit them for payment for the September 29th checkwrite date (25 days after the initial denial).
At this point, if any claims are denied, you wouldn’t know until October 6th, 32 days after the initial denial.
In my scenario, when is the final adjudication?
If the answer is that the final adjudication is at the point that the provider tries all possible revisions to the claims and continues to re-submit the claims until he/she cannot come up with another way to re-submit, then there is never final adjudication. As in, the provider could continue various changes to the billing ad nauseam and re-submit…and re-submit…and re-submit…”There’s a hole in the bucket!”
If the answer is that the final adjudication is the initial denial, then, in my scenario, the provider would be required to appeal every single denial, even for the same claim and every time it is denied.
You can imagine the burden to the provider if my second scenario is correct. You may as well hire a full-time person whose only task is to appeal denied claims.
Regardless, this new “Informal Reconsideration Review” purports to create many more questions than answers.
So may rules are enacted with good intentions, but without the “real life” analysis. How will this actually affect providers?
“There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.”
“Then fix it.”
Remember July 1, 2013? Providers across North Carolina probably still suffer PTSD at the mention of the “go-live” date for NCTracks. If you remember July 1, 2013, you probably also remember that my former firm filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the physicians in NC who suffered losses from NCTracks’ inception.
There was oral argument at the NC Business Court.
“Ultimately, the burden of proving that administrative remedies are inadequate in this action rests on Plaintiffs. Jackson, 131 N.C. App. at 186. Although sympathetic to the apparently difficult administrative process, the Court concludes that, particularly in light of the fact that not a single Plaintiff has attempted to use the available administrative procedures to resolve their Medicaid reimbursement claims, Plaintiffs have simply failed to satisfy this burden. Accordingly, Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) should be GRANTED.”
While I understand the logic applied to come to this decision, I do not necessarily agree with the outcome. There are exceptions to the exhaustion of administrative remedies, which, in my humble opinion, are present here.
(This blog contains my own opinions as to the NCTracks ruling and not those of my present or former firms. It is not intended to claim any ruling was incorrect or inconsistent with case law, rules, and statutes).
(Try to read the foregoing sentences in a fast-paced, tiny, whispery voice, like a pharmaceutical commercial).
Regardless, where does this decision leave the physicians in NC who suffered under an, admittedly, botched, beginning of NCTracks? (Even DHHS recognized the imperfections at the beginning).
First, what is the doctrine of failure of administrative remedies? (I was going to start with what is NCTracks, but you do not know what NCTracks is, you probably should begin reading some of my earlier blog posts: blog; and blog; and blog).
In a nutshell, the exhaustion doctrine dictates that if a party disagrees with an adverse action of a state agency that the party must exhaust its administrative remedies before asking for relief from a civil court judge.
Law 101: The Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) has limited jurisdiction. It only has jurisdiction over those matters specifically granted to it by statute. If you have an issue with a final adverse decision of a state agency, you sue at OAH. In other words, if you want to sue a state agency, such as DHHS, or any of its agents, like an MCO, you sue at OAH, not Superior Court. An Administrative Law Judge, or ALJ, presides over the court. While OAH is more informal than Superior Court, OAH follows the rules of civil procedure unless an administrative rule exists.
If a Superior Court were to find that the party failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, then the court would find that the party lacked subject matter jurisdiction; i.e., the court is holding that it does not have the authority to determine the legal question at issue.
You would be back to square one, and, potentially, miss an appeal deadline.
In the Medicaid world this is similar to a managed care organization (MCO) having an informal review process internally which would be required prior to bringing a Petition for Judicial Review at OAH.
Were you to bring a Petition for Judicial Review at OAH prior to attending an informal reconsideration review at the MCO, the ALJ would, most likely, dismiss the case for failure to exhaust your administrative remedies.
But in the NCTracks case, the Plaintiffs sued DHHS and Computer Science Corporation (CSC). CSC is, arguably, not a state agency. The only way in which you could sue CSC at OAH would be for an ALJ to determine that CSC is an agent of a state agency. And, who knows? Maybe CSC is an agent of DHHS. Judge McGuire does not address this issue in his Order.
Many of you may wonder why I opine that CSC is not an agent of the state, yet surmise that the MCOs are agents of DHHS. Here is my reasoning: DHHS, in order to bestow or delegate its powers of administering behavioral health to the MCOs, was required to request a Waiver from the federal government. Unlike with CSC, DHHS merely contracted with CSC; no Waiver was required. That Waiver (two Waivers, really, the 1915(b) and 1915(c)) allow the MCOs to step into the shoes of DHHS….to a degree…and only as far as was requested and approved by CMS…no more. I view CSC as a contractor or vendor of DHHS, while the MCOs are limited agents.
Going back to NCTracks…
One can surmise that, because Judge McGuire dismissed the entire lawsuit and did not keep CSC as a party, Judge McGuire opined that CSC is an agent of DHHS. But there is a possibility that the providers sue in OAH and an ALJ determines that OAH is not a proper venue for CSC. Then what? Back to Superior Court and/or Business Court?
Why do you have to exhaust your administrative remedies? It does seem too burdensome to jump through all the hoops.
The rationale behind requiring parties to exhaust their administrative remedies is that those entities (such as OAH) that hear these specialized cases over and over and develop an expertise to decide the certain esoteric matters that arise under their jurisdiction. Also, the doctrine of separation of powers dictates that an agency created by Congress should be allowed to carry out its duties without undue interference from the judiciary.
For example, Judges Don Overby and Melissa Lassiter, ALJs at the NC OAH have, without question, presided over more Medicaid cases than any Superior Court Judge in the state (unless a Superior Court is a former ALJ, like Judge Beecher Gray). The thinking is that, since Overby and Lassiter, or, ALJs, generally, have presided over more Medicaid cases than the average judge, that the ALJs have formed expertise in area. Which is probably true. It cannot be helped. When you hear the same arguments over and over, you tend to research the answers and form an opinion.
So there is the “why,” what about the exceptions?
There are exceptions to the general rule of having to exhaust your administrative remedies that may or may not be present in the NC tracks case. If you ask me, exceptions are present. If you ask Judge McGuire vis-à-vis his Order, there are no exceptions that were applicable.
One such exception to the general rule that you must exhaust your administrative remedies is if bringing a case at the informal administrative level would be futile. If you can prove futility, then you are not required to exhaust your administrative remedies. Another exception is if you are requesting monetary damages that cannot be awarded at the administrative law level.
Where the administrative remedy is inadequate, a plaintiff is not required to exhaust that remedy before turning to the courts. Shell Island, 134 N.C. App. at 222. The burden of establishing the inadequacy of an administrative remedy is on the party asserting inadequacy. Huang v. N.C. State Univ., 107 N.C. App. 110, 115 (1992).
What DHHS argued, in order to have the case dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and Judge McGuire agreed with, is:
that adequate administrative remedies exist for all health care providers when NCTracks improperly denies claims.
This holding is not without questions.
Some providers re-bill denied claims over and over. There is a question as to when do you appeal? The first denial? The second? The Fourteenth? At which point do you accept the denial from NCTracks as a “final agency decision?” Do you use the “3 strikes and you’re out” rule? Do you give NCTracks a mulligan? Or do you wait until NCTracks “fouls out” with a 6th denial?
Another question that remains hanging in the wake of the NCTracks dismissal is how will providers handle the sheer volume of denials. Some providers receive voluminous denials. Some RAs can be hundreds of pages long.
Let’s contemplate this argument in a hypothetical. You run a nephrology practice. The bulk of your patients are Medicaid (90% Medicaid, although 50% are dual eligible with Medicaid/Medicare). You have approximately 500-700 patients, who come see your doctors because they are in need of dialysis. You know that if a person does not receive dialysis that there is a chance that the person can enter Stage 5 (end stage renal disease) and die quickly. However, upon July 1, 2013, when NCTracks went live, you stopped receiving Medicaid payments completely. Do you stop accepting and treating your Medicaid patients? Obviously you do not stop accepting Medicaid patients? But your practice cannot sustain itself. Even if you continue to treat Medicaid patients, at some point, you will be out of business, failing to meet payroll, and being forced to involuntarily not treat your patients.
Your patients in need of dialysis come to the office 3x per week. A single hemodialysis treatment typically costs up to $500 or more — or, about $72,000 or more per year for the typical three treatments per week.
Let’s approximate with 500 patients. 500 patients multiplied by 3x per week is 1,500 per week. That is 1,500 denials per week. What Judge McGuire is saying is that your office is burdened with appealing 1,500 denials per week. Or 6,000 denials per month. Or 72,000 appeals per year.
Which of your office staff will be charged with appealing at OAH 72,000 denials per year? The physicians? You, the office manager (because you obviously have nothing else to do)? The receptionist? Hire someone new? For how much? How will you recoup the cost of appealing 72,000 denials per year? How many hours does it cost to appeal one? Hire an attorney?
Obviously, my example is one of an extreme case with 100% denials. But the sentiment holds true even for 30%, 40%, or 50% of denials. The sheer volume would be overwhelming.
And you can imagine the backlog that would be created at OAH.
Judge McGuire’s decision that plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies issue appears to be based, in part, that because no plaintiff had tried to go to OAH, plaintiffs could not convince him that the administrative remedy was non-functional.
“Significantly, none of the Plaintiffs even attempted to use the administrative procedures to address the failure to pay claims and other issues they allegedly encountered in attempting to use NCTracks. Instead, Plaintiffs allege that the administrative process would have been futile and inadequate to provide the relief they seek.” See Abrons Family Practice v. DHHS and CSC, ¶ 36 (emphasis added).
Well, first of all, when I moved to Gordon & Rees, I left this case in the capable hands of my former partners, so I have no special intelligence, but I wager that this is not the end.
There are choices. They could:
(1) Appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals;
(2) File an insurmountable number of petition’s at OAH; or
(3) Do nothing.
For some reason, I have my doubts that #3 will occur.
What do you think??? What should the Plaintiffs do now in the wake of this dismissal?