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Inconsequential Medicare Audits Could Morph into a Whopper of a Whale

Emergency room physicians or health care providers are a discrete breed – whales in a sea of fish. Emergency room doctors have – for the most part – been overlooked by the RAC auditors or TPE, ZPIC, or MAC auditors. Maybe it’s because, even RAC auditors have children or spouses that need ER services from time to time. Maybe it’s because ER doctors use so many different billers. Normally, an ER doctor doesn’t know which of his or her patients are Medicaid or Medicare. When someone is suffering from a a broken leg or heart attack, the ER doctor is not going to stop care to inquire whether the patient is insured and by whom. But should they? Should ER doctors have to ask patients their insurer? If the answer includes any sort of explanation that care differs depending on whether someone is covered by Medicare or Medicaid or has private insurance, then, sadly, the answer may be yes.

ER doctors travel to separate emergency rooms, which are owned by various and distinct entities, and rely on individual billing companies. They do not normally work at only one hospital. Thus, they do not always have the same billers. We all know that not all billers are created equal. Some are endowed with a higher understanding of billing indiocincricies than others.

For example, for CPT codes 99281-99285 – Hospital emergency department services are not payable for the same calendar date as critical care services when provided by the same physician or physician group with the same specialty to the same patient. 

We all know that all hospitals do not hire and implement the same billing computer software programs. The old adage – “you get what you pay for” – may be more true than we think. Recent articles purport that “the move to electronic health records may be contributing to billions of dollars in higher costs for Medicare, private insurers and patients by making it easier for hospitals and physicians to bill more for their services, whether or not they provide additional care.” – Think a comment like that would red-flag ER doctors services by RAC, MAC and ZPIC auditors? The white whale may as well shoot a water spray 30 feet into the air.

Will auditing entities begin to watch ER billing more closely? And what are the consequences? When non-emergency health care providers are terminated by Medicare, Medicaid, or a MAC or MCO’s network, there is no emergency – by definition. Juxtapose, the need for ER health care providers. ER rooms cannot function with a shortage of  physicians and health care providers. Even more disturbing is if the termination is unwarranted and seemingly inconsequential – only affecting under 4 surgeries per month – but acts as the catalyst for termination of Medicare, Medicaid, and private payors across the board.

I have a client named Dr. Ishmael. His big fish became the MAC Palmetto – very suddenly. Like many ER docs, he rotates ERs. He provides services for Medicare, Medicaid, private pay, uninsured – it doesn’t matter to him, he is an ER doctor. He gets a letter from one MAC. In this case, it was Palmetto. Interestingly enough, Palmetto is his smallest insurance payor. Maybe 2 surgeries a month are covered by Palmetto. 90% of his services are provided to Medicaid patients. Not by his choice, but by demographics and circumstance. The letter from Palmetto states that he is being excluded from Palmetto’s Medicare network, effective in 10 days. He will also be placed on the CMS preclusion list in 4 months.

We appeal through Palmetto, as required. But, in the meantime, four other MACs, State Medicaid and BCBS terminate Dr. Ishmael’s billing privileges for Medicare and Medicaid based on Palmetto’s decision. Remember, we are appealing Palmetto’s decision as we believe it is erroneous. But because of Palmetto’s possibly incorrect decision to terminate Dr. Ishmael’s Medicare billing privileges, all of a sudden, 100% of Dr. Ishmael’s services are unbillable and unreimburseable…without Dr. Ishmael or the hospital ever getting the opportunity to review and defend against the otherwise innocuous termination decision.

Here, the hospital executives, along with legal counsel, schedule meetings with Dr. Ishmael. “They need him,” they say. “He is important,” they say. But he is not on the next month’s rotation. Or the next.

They say: “Come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me?”

Billing audits on ER docs for Medicare/caid compliance are distinctive processes, separate from other providers’ audits. Most providers know the insurance of the patient to whom they are rendering services. Most providers use one biller and practice at one site. ER docs have no control over the choice of their billers. Not to mention, the questions arises, who gets to appeal on behalf the ER provider? Doesn’t the hospital reap the benefit of the reimbursements?

But one seemingly paltry, almost, minnow-like, audit by a cameo auditor can disrupt an entire career for an ER doc. It is imperative to act fast to appeal in the case of an ER doc.  But balance speed of the appeal with the importance of preparing all legal arguments. Most MACs or other auditing entities inform other payors quickly of your exclusion or termination but require you to put forth all arguments in your appeal or you could waive those defenses. I argue against that, but the allegations can exist nonetheless.

The moral of the story is ER docs need to appeal and appeal fast when billing privileges are restricted, even if the particular payor only constitutes 4 surgeries a month. As Herman Melville said: “I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.” 

Sometimes, however, it is not a laughing matter. It is an appealable matter.