E/M Codes and When You Should NOT Fire Your Attorney!
Lately, I have been inundated with Medicare and Medicaid health care providers getting audited for E/M codes. I know Dr. Hirsh has spoken often about the perils of e/m codes. The thing about e/m codes is that everyone uses them. Hospitals, family physicians, urgent care centers, specialists, like cardiologists. Obviously, for a specialist, like cardiology, the higher level codes will be more common. A 99214 will be common compared to a generalist like a primary care physician, where a 99213 may be more common.
Here’s a little secret: the difference between a 99214 and 99213 is subjective. It’s so subjective that I have seen auditors who are hired by private companies to audit on behalf of CMS and are financially incentivized to find fault find 100% error rates. Who finds a 100% error rate? Not one claim out of 150 was compliant. Then, I come in and hire the best independent auditors or coders. There are generally two companies that I always use. The independent auditors are so good. Most importantly, they come in and find a much more probable error rate of almost zero.
Hiring an independent, expert coder to ensure that the RAC, MAC, UPIC, or TPE audits accurately is always part of my defense.
Recently, I learned what I should have known a long time ago, but is essential for our listeners to know. If your medical malpractice is with The Doctors Company, for free, you get $25k of – what TDC calls – Medi-Guard or regulatory compliance protection. In other words, you get audited by a UPIC and are informed that you owe an alleged $5 million, extrapolated, of course, you get $25k to pay an attorney for defense. Sadly, $25k will not come close to paying your whole defense, but it’s a start. No one scoffs at “free” money.
When accused of an alleged overpayment, placed on prepayment review, or accused of a credible allegation of fraud, your reimbursements could be in imminent danger of being suspended or recouped. It is imperative for the health care provider to stay apprised of what penalties they are facing. You want to know: “best case scenario and worst case scenario.”
And, providers, be cognizant of the gravity of your situation. Infringement of the false claims act can result in high penalties or jail, depending on the circumstances and the provider’s attorney. I had a client, who is an M.D. psychiatrist. She asked me what is the worst penalty possible. I am blunt and honest, apparently to a fault. I didn’t miss a beat. “Jail,” I said. She was horrified, called her insurance company, and requested a new attorney. TDC refused to fire me, so the doctor said that she will draft the self-disclosure herself. She also said that she submitted the falsified documents to the UPIC, so she was confident that the UPIC would not notice, but see below, time stamps are a bitch.
When I told the doctor that we needed to self-disclose to OIG because she had some Medicare claims, she screamed, “No! No! NO!” It was a video call and my sound wasn’t up loud, and I just watch her on the screen with her face all contorted and her mouth getting really big, then contract, then get really big, then contract, then get really big and then even bigger. The expert certified coder was present for the call, and he called me afterward asking me: “What was that?” And his wife, who overheard, said, “OMG. I would have lashed out.” I kept my cool. Honestly, I just felt bad for her because I can see the writing on the wall.
Obviously, a new attorney is not going to change the outcome. She falsified 17 dates of service because she wanted the service notes to be “perfect.” Well, providers, there is no such thing as perfect and changing diagnoses and CPT codes and adding details to the notes that, supposedly, you remember from a month ago is not ok.
I did feel bad for her for leaving me. I could have gotten her off without any penalties.
You see, English is not her first language. She misinterpreted an email from the UPIC and thought it said that you can fix any errors before submitting the documents. She fabricated 17 claims before I was hired instructed her to stop. I had a solid defense prepared. I was going to hire an independent auditor to audit her 147 claims with the 17 falsified claims. I would have hoped for a low error rate. Then, I would have conducted a self-audit and self-disclosed the fabrications to the UPIC with the explanation that it was a nonintentional harmless error that we are admitting. Self-disclosure can, sometimes, save you from penalties! However, if she doesn’t self-disclose, she will be caught. Unbeknownst to her, on page 6 of the service notes, it is time and date stamped. It revealed on what day she changed the data and what data she changed. Those of you who would also terminate your attorney because you think you can get by with the fraud without anyone noticing, think hard about whether you would like to suffer the worst penalty – jail – or have your attorney be honest and upfront and get you off without penalties by following the rules and self-disclosing any problems uncovered.
I have no idea what will happen to the doctor, but had she stayed with me, she would have escaped without penalty. When not to fire your attorney!
The Horror Story of 99214 and Insurance to Assist
99214. Is that Jean Valjean’s number? No. It is an E/M code of moderate complexity. Few CPT codes cause goosebumps, chilly air, and a pit in your stomach besides 99214. As I said, 99214 is an E/M code of moderate level of complexity. For a low complexity visit, the code decreases to 99213. Even lower is a 99212, which is considered a straightforward visit. The code goes as high as a 99215, which denotes high complexity. Generally, physicians are good at spotting the 99215s and 99212s; the lowest and highest complexities seem simple to spot. However, the middle complexity codes are a bit subjective. Auditors frequently find 99214s that the auditor thinks should have been a 99213. I am talking about the RACs, MACs, TPEs, UPICs, and other contractors paid with our tax dollars on behalf of CMS. I recently had a BCBS audit, which found that an urgent care center had a 97% error rate. Out of 30 claims, only one claim was considered 99214; 29 claims should have been down coded to a 99213, according to BCBS. Well, my urgent care center disagreed and hired an independent auditor to review the same claims that were audited. The independent audit resulted in vastly different results. According to the independent audit, only 4 of the 30 claims should have been down coded to 99213.
One should ask, how could two separate auditors audit the same documents and issue such disparate results? One reason is that the difference between 99213 and 99214 is subjective. However, subjectiveness was not the only reason for two polar opposite results.
You see, before 2021, facilities had the choice to follow either the 1995 guidelines or the 1997 guidelines for these CPT codes. And, there is a difference between the two guidelines. Instead of choosing either the 1995 or 1997 guidelines, BCBS applied both the 1997 and 1995 guidelines, which falsely created a more stringent criteria for a 99214.
The urgent care center had been verbose about the fact that they use the 1995 guidelines, not the 1997 guidelines. When the independent contractor audited the records, it used the 1995 guidelines only.
All in all, for an accusation of owing $180k, it cost the urgent care center almost $100k to defend itself against what was obviously a faulty audit. So, I’m thinking why in the world is there insurance for physicians for making a mistake in surgery – medical malpractice, but no insurance for False Claims allegations. I mean, med mal allegations mean there is a victim. But you can be accused of false claims unexpectantly and your practice is changed forever.
Recently, I learned of an insurance company that insures doctors and facilities if they are accused of billing Medicare or Medicaid for false claims. Unlike med mal, an accusation of false claims does not yield a victim (unless you see our tax dollars as people); however, an accusation of billing a False Claim can cost a doctor, facility, a hospital hundreds of thousands of dollars. Which, knowing all things are relative, is pennies on the dollar of the penalties under the FCA.
The company’s name is Curi. That is C-U-R-I. Personally, I had never heard of this company. I googled it after I was placed on the panel. This is an insurance company that pays for attorneys’ fees if you are accused of false claims or an overpayment. Personally, I think every listener should procure this insurance directly after RACMonitor. After 23 years of litigating, I have realized the worst part about defending yourself against accusations that you owe the government money is the huge price tag associated with it.
When I presented this story on RACMonitor, David Glaser made a comment about my segment that I would be remiss to omit. SOME med mal insurance policies cover the legal fees for attorneys for regulatory audits. Please review your policy to see whether your insurance company covers the attorneys’ fees for defense of regulatory audits before purchasing more insurance.