Today, I am going to talk about RAC audits. I know what you are thinking…don’t you always talk about RACs? Of course, you are going to talk about RAC audits. No. Today, I’m taking this blog in a different direction.
I want to talk about secret, hidden RAC audits. As you are aware, the federal regulations limit RACs from going back more than 3 years to audit claims. Juxtapose the UPICs, TPEs, SMRCs, MACs, OIG, and even State Medicaid agencies. Everyone, but the RACs are allowed more than a 3-year lookback period. Some, like OIG, have long lookback periods. Coincidentally, when a company responds to an RFP or a request for proposal from CMS to act as CMS’ vendor to conduct Medicare audits on America’s Medicare providers, a clause in the proposed contract between CMS and the vendor is highly argued or negotiated. Which clause in the vendor’s contract is most negotiated? I will tell you. The clause that states that the vendor is a RAC is most negotiated. Because if the vendor is called a UPIC instead of a RAC, the vendor has a longer lookback period. Being called a UPIC, suddenly, becomes a commodity. There are no laws mandating UPICs to a 3-year lookback period. All of a sudden, it is not hip to be a RAC.
Look into it. Do your research. The contracts are public record. Ask for Cotiviti’s contracts with CMS. Notice I said contracts, not contract. What I have realized over time is that a vendor may be hired by CMS to be a RAC auditor, but, once the vendor realizes the limit of 3 years, it goes back to CMS and asks if it can be considered an UPIC. Why? A UPIC can do everything that a RAC does; however, it gets an additional 3 years to lookback at claims and that means money. Cha-ching! Even Dr. Ron Hirsh commented today on RACMonitor about this story, which I presented this morning at 10:00am, as I present every Monday morning, live, on the national podcast RACMonitor , hosted by Chuck Buck and produced by MedLearn. If you want to listen to the podcast, click the following link: Nelson Mullins – Monitor Mondays Podcast Featuring Knicole Emanuel; Defeating Statistical Extrapolations, Expansion of Medicaid RACs, IPPS Final Rule, Smart Hospitals, and Physician Advisors Episodes
The podcast is also on video, but I don’t know how to view that. If you do, you would see my baby duck Biscuit on the screen. He joined me this morning to talk about, “What Walks Like a Duck and Quacks Like a Duck, Must be a Duck.” Dr. Hirsh commented that companies like Cotiviti have many, many contracts deeming Cotiviti many different acronyms. If you get a letter from Cotiviti, do not assume it is acting as a RAC. Instead, ask for the contract which allows Cotiviti to do what it purports to want to do.
I’ve noticed this trend in real life, but only for 10-20 individual cases, maybe 30. I have not had the time to draft a FOYIA request, and, quite frankly, my name on a FOYIA request nowadays result in a response that says, something to the effect of, use discovery instead. Even though my personal experiences should not be extrapolated across the country because that would be inappropriate and judgmental, I will give an example and you may extrapolate or not. There is a company that has been doing RAC audits in NC for the last 5-8 years. It is called Public Consulting Group (“PCG”). PCG and I go way back. If you are a longtime listener of RACMonitor, you will recall that Ed Roche and I presented numerous podcasts about the debacle in NM in 2013. The State of NM put 15 Medicaid providers who constituted 87.6% of the BH providers in NM at the time. The consequences were catastrophic; thousands were out of BH services overnight. There is even a documentary about the unraveling of BH in NM in 2013. The reason that these 15 BH providers were put out of business overnight was because of a NM vendor called PCG. PCG issued a report to NM after conducting Medicaid audits on these 15 BH facilities, which accused the 15 facilities of fraud. In 2013, PCG was considered a RAC per contract. Today, when I have a case against PCG and make the 3-year lookback period argument, I get a retort that it’s not a RAC. Instead it’s a UPIC.
To which I say, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it is a duck.
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!
Earlier this year, I reported on the new extrapolation rules for all audits, including RAC, UPIC, TPE, CERT, etc. You know, that alphabet soup. The biggest change was that no extrapolation may be run if the error rate is under 50%. This was an exciting and unexpected new protection for health care providers. Now I have seen it in action and want to tell you about it.
A client of mine, an internal medicine facility in Alabama, received a notice of overpayment for over $3 million. This is the first case in which I saw the 50% error rate rule in action. Normally, I always tell clients that the first two levels of appeals are rubber-stamps. In other words, don’t expect to win. The QIC and the entity that conducted the audit saying you owe money are not going to overturn themselves. However, in this case, we were “partially favorable” at the QIC level. “Partially favorable” normally means mostly unfavorable. However, the partially favorable decision took the error rate from over 50% to under 50%. We re-grouped. Obviously, we were going to appeal because the new extrapolation was still over $1 million. However, before our ALJ hearing, we received correspondence from Palmetto that said our overpayment was $0. Confused, we wrote to the ALJ pointing out that Palmetto said our balance was zero. The Judge wrote back saying that, certainly, the money has already been recouped and the practice would get a refund if he reversed the denials.” “Ok,” we said and attended a telephonic hearing. We were unsuccessful at the hearing, and the ALJ upheld an alleged overpayment of over $1 million. We argued that the extrapolation should be thrown out due to the error rate being under 50%. The Judge still ruled against us, saying that CMS has the right to extrapolate, and the courts have upheld CMS’ ability to extrapolate. Ok, but what about the NEW RULE?
Later, we contacted Palmetto to confirm what the zero-balance meant. The letter read as if we did not owe anything, yet we had an ALJ decision mandating us to pay over a $1million. There was serious juxtaposition. After many hours of chasing answers on hold with multiple telephone answerers of Palmetto, we learned that, apparently, because the error rate dropped below 50% after the QIC level, Palmetto “wrote off” the nominal balance. Since an extrapolation was no longer allowed, the miniscule amount that Palmetto thought we owed wasn’t enough to pursue. However, the letter sent to us from Palmetto did not explain, “hey, we are writing off your overpayment because the error rate fell below 50%.” No, it was vague. We didn’t even know if it were true.
It took us reaching out to Palmetto and getting an email confirmation that Palmetto had written off the alleged overpayment due to the error rate dropping. Even the ALJ misinterpreted the letter, which tells me that Palmetto should revise its notices of write offs.
If Palmetto unilaterally dismisses or writes off any balance that is allegedly owed, the letter should explicitly explain this. Because providers and attorneys are not accustomed to receiving correspondence from a MAC, CMS, Palmetto, or any other auditing entity with GOOD NEWS. If we get GOOD NEWS from an auditing entity, that correspondence should be explicit.
Regardless, this was a huge win for me and my client, who was positively ecstatic with the outcome. Tune in next week, during which I will tell a story of how we battled successfully a qui tam action against a facility of 9 specialists due to a disgruntled employee who tried to blow the whistle on my specialists and their facility…falsely!
Risk adjustment is hugely important in Medicare Advantage (MA). Risk adjustment is intended to financially adjust taking into account the underlying severity of beneficiaries’ health conditions and appropriately compensate private insurers with vastly varying expectations for expenditures. In each year, plans receive higher payments in direct proportion to documented risk: A 5 percent increase in documented risk leads to a 5 percent increase in payment. Yet, because MAO have considerable control over the documentation, it is common for insurers to erroneously document patient risk and receive inflated payments from CMS, at least according to several CMS and OIG Reports.
Enter Risk Adjustment Data Validation (RADV) audits.
These are the main corrective action for overpayments made to Medicare Advantage organizations (MAO) when there is a lack of documentation in the medical record to support the diagnoses reported for risk adjustment
CMS has conducted contract-level RADV audits by selecting about 30 contracts for audit annually (roughly 5 percent of MA contracts). CMS then selects samples from each contract of up to 201 beneficiaries divided into three equal strata (low, average, and high risk). Auditors then comb through each beneficiary’s medical records to determine whether diagnoses that the MA plan submitted are supported by documentation in the medical record. From this process, auditors can calculate an error rate for the sample, which can then be extrapolated to the rest of the contract. For instance, if auditors determine that an insurer overcoded a sample’s risk by 5 percent, auditors could infer that plans under that contract were overpaid by 5 percent. Historically, however, CMS has only sought to collect the overpayments identified for the sample of audited beneficiaries. Not any more!
A CMS Final Rule, published February 1, 2023, addresses extrapolation, CMS’ decision to not apply a fee-for-service (FFS Adjuster) in RADV audits, and the payment years in which these policies will apply. Once it goes into effect on April 3, 2023, CMS estimates it will result in the recoupment of $4.7 billion in overpayments from MA insurers over the next decade.
As for extrapolations, CMS will not extrapolate RADV audit findings for PY 2011-2017 and will begin collection of extrapolated overpayment findings for any CMS and OIG audits conducted in PY 2018 and any subsequent payment year.
The improper payment measurements conducted each year by CMS that are included in the HHS Agency Financial Report, as well as audits conducted by the HHS-OIG, have demonstrated that the MA program is at high risk of improper payments. In fiscal year (FY) 2021 (based on calendar year 2019 payments), OIG calculated that CMS made over $15 billion in Part C overpayments, a figure representing nearly 7 percent of total Part C payments.
The HHS-OIG has also released several reports over the past few years that demonstrate a high risk of improper payments in the MA program.
Looking forward – Expect more MAO audits.
P.S. I will be presenting a webinar on Monday, March 20, 2023, via the Assent platform regarding:
FTC ELIMINATING NON-COMPETE AGREEMENTS HOW THAT WILL AFFECT HOSPITALS AND LTC
DATE : MARCH 20, 2023 | EST : 01:00 PM | PST : 10:00 AM | DURATION : 60 MINUTES
Feel free to sign up and listen!!
Right now, CMS allows physicians to pick to follow the 1995 or 1997 guidelines for determining whether an evaluation and management (“e/m”) visit qualifies for a 99214 versus a 99213. The biggest difference between the two policies is that the 1995 guideline allows you to check by systems, rather than individual organs. Starting January 1, 2023, there are a lot of revisions, including a 2021 guidance that will be used. But, for dates of service before 2021, physicians can pick between 1995 and 1997 guidance.
Why is this an issue?
If you are a family practitioner and get audited by Medicare, Medicaid, or private pay, you better be sure that your auditor audits with the right policy.
According to CPT, 99214 is indicated for an “office or other outpatient visit for the evaluation and management of an established patient, which requires at least two of these three key components: a detailed history, a detailed examination and medical decision making of moderate complexity.”
Think 99214 in any of the following situations:
- If the patient has a new complaint with a potential for significant morbidity if untreated or misdiagnosed,
- If the patient has three or more old problems,
- If the patient has a new problem that requires a prescription,
- If the patient has three stable problems that require medication refills, or one stable problem and one inadequately controlled problem that requires medication refills or adjustments.
The above is simplified and shorthand, so read the 1995 and 1997 guidance carefully.
An insurance company audited a client of mine and clearly used the 1997 guidance. On the audit report, the 1997 guidance was checked as being used. In fact, according to the audit report, the auditors used BOTH the 1997 and 1995 guidance, which, logically, would make a harder, more stringent standard for a 99214 than using one policy.
Now the insurance company claims my client owes money. However, if the insurance company merely applied the 1995 guidance only, then, we believe, that he wouldn’t owe a dime. Now he has to hire me, defend himself to the insurance company, and possibly litigate if the insurance company stands its ground.
Sadly, the above story is not an anomaly. I see auditors misapply policies by using the wrong years all the time, almost daily. Always appeal. Never roll over.
Sometimes it is a smart decision to hire an independent expert to verify that the physician is right, and the auditors are wrong. If the audit is extrapolated, then it is wise to hire an expert statistician. See blog. And blog. The extrapolation rules were recently revised…well, in the last two or three years, so be sure you know the rules, as well. See blog.
Today, I am going to write about a hospital in Tennessee that underwent an audit, and the MAC determined that the hospital owed over $5 million. The hospital challenged both the OIG contractor’s sampling methodology and its determinations on specific claims by requesting a hearing before an ALJ. The District Court decision was published in September 2022. The reason that I want to make you aware of this case, is because there have been numerous Medicare provider appeals unsuccessfully challenging the extrapolation, and the ALJs upholding the extrapolations. In this case, the ALJ found the extrapolation in error, the Council reversed the ALJ on its own motion, and the district court reaffirmed the ALJ, saying the extrapolation was faulty. Whenever good case law is published, we want to analyze the Court’s reasoning so we, as attorneys, can replicate the winning arguments.
One of the main reasons that the district court agreed that the extrapolation was faulty was because no testimony supporting the OIG contractor’s extrapolation process or the implementation of its statistical sampling methodology were submitted to that hearing on June 11, 2020, and the contractor did not appear. It’s the mundane scene with an ALJ level appeal and the auditor failing to appear to prove the audit’s veracity. See blog.
In addition to finding that additional claims satisfied Medicare coverage & payment requirements, the ALJ also found that OIG’s statistical extrapolation process did not comply with § 1893 of the Social Security Act, nor with the MPIM’s guidance on statistical extrapolation.
The ALJ held that HHS policy requires that the OIG’s audit must be able to be recreated and that as the audit’s sampling frame utilized data from outside of the audit, the audit could not be recreated.
The Council subsequently reviewed the ALJ’s decision on its own motion and reversed that decision in part, finding that the ALJ’s determination that the sampling process was invalid was an error of law. The Council then concluded that the OIG contractor’s statistical extrapolation met all applicable Medicare legal and regulatory requirements.
The hospital appealed to the federal district court. The district court’s review consists of determining whether, in light of the record as a whole, the Secretary’s determination is supported by “substantial evidence.”
According to the Court, the hospital amply demonstrated that the Council did not have the authority to overturn the decision of the ALJ on own-motion review. Accordingly, the hospital’s Motion for Summary Judgement was GRANTED and the extrapolation was thrown out.
Extrapolated audits are the worst.
These audits under sample and over extrapolate – almost to the point that some audits allege that you owe more than you were paid. How is that fair in our judicial system? I mean, our country was founded on “due process.” That means you have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If the government attempts to pursue your reimbursements at all, much less a greater amount than what you received, you are required notice and a hearing.
Not to mention that OIG conducted a Report back in 2020 that identified numerous mistakes in the extrapolations. The Report stated: “CMS did not always provide sufficient guidance and oversight to ensure that these reviews were performed in a consistent manner.” I don’t know about you, but that is disconcerting to me. It also stated that “The test was associated with at least $42 million in extrapolated overpayments that were overturned in fiscal years 2017 and 2018. If CMS did not intend that the contractors use this procedure, these extrapolations should not have been overturned. Conversely, if CMS intended that contractors use this procedure, it is possible that other extrapolations should have been overturned but were not.“
I have undergone hundreds of Medicare and Medicaid audits with extrapolations. You defend against these audits twofold: 1) by hiring an expert statistician to debunk the extrapolation; and 2) by using the provider as an expert clinician to discredit the denials. However, I am always dismayed…maybe that’s not the right word…flabbergasted that no one ever shows up on the other side. It is as if CMS via whatever contractor conducted the extrapolated audit believes that their audit needs no one to prove its veracity. As if we attorneys and providers should just accept their findings as truth, and they get the benefit of NOT hiring a lawyer and NOT showing up to ALJ trials.
In the above picture, the side with the money is CMS. The empty side is the provider.
In normal trials, as you know, there are two opposing sides: a Plaintiff and a Defendant, although in administrative law it’s called a Petitioner and a Respondent. Medicaid provider appeals also have two opponents. However, in Medicare provider appeals, there is only one side: YOU. An ALJ will appear, but no auditor to defend the merits of the alleged overpayment that you, as a provider, are accused of owing.
In normal trials, if a party fails to appear, the Judge will almost automatically rule against the non-appearing party. Why isn’t it the same for Medicare provider appeals? If a Medicare provider appears to dispute an alleged audit, the Judge does not rule automatically in favor of the provider. Quite the opposite quite frankly. The CMS Rules, which apply to all venues under the purview of CMS, which includes the ALJ level and the Medicare Appeals Council level, are crafted against providers, it seems. Regardless the Rules create a procedure in which providers, not the auditors, are forced to retain counsel, which costs money, retain a statistician in cases of extrapolations, which costs money, go through years of appeals through 5 levels, all of which the CMS Rules apply. Real law doesn’t apply until the district court level, which is a 6th level – and 8 years later.
Any providers reading, who retain lobbyists, this Medicare appeal process needs to change legislatively.
Always challenge the extrapolation! It is my personal opinion that extrapolation is used too loosely. What I mean is that sample sizes are usually too small to constitute a valid representation of the provider’s claims. Say a provider bills 10,000 claims. Is a sample of 50 adequate?
In a 2020 case, Palmetto audited .0051% of claims by Palm Valley, and Palm Valley challenged CMS’ sample and extrapolation method. Palm Valley Health Care, Inc. v. Azar, No. 18-41067, 2020 BL 14097 (5th Cir., Jan. 15, 2020). As an aside, I had 2 back-to-back extrapolation cases recently. The provider, however, did not hire me until the ALJ level – or the 3rd level of Medicare provider appeals. Unfortunately, no one argued that the extrapolation was faulty at the first 2 levels. We had 2 different ALJs, but both ALJs ruled that the provider could not raise new arguments; i.e., that the extrapolation was erroneous, at the 3rd level. They decided that all arguments should be raised from the beginning. This is just a reminder that: (a) raise all defenses immediately; and (b) don’t try the first two levels without an attorney.
Going back to Palm Valley.
The 5th Circuit held that while the statistical sampling methodology may not be the most precise methodology available, CMS’ selection methodology did represent a valid “complex balance of interests.” Principally, the court noted, quoting the Medicare Appeals Council, that CMS’ methodology was justified by the “real world constraints imposed by conflicting demands on limited public funds” and that Congress clearly envisioned extrapolation being applied to calculate overpayments in instances like this. I disagree with this result. I find it infuriating that auditors, like Palmetto, can scrutinize providers’ claims, yet circumvent similar accountability. They are being allowed to conduct a “hack” job at extrapolating to the financial detriment of the provider.
Interestingly, Palm Valley’s 5th Circuit decision was rendered in 2020. The dates of service of the claims Palmetto audited were July 2006-January 2009. It just shows how long the legal battle can be in Medicare audits. Also, Palm Valley’s error rate was 53.7%. Remember, in 2019, CMS revised the extrapolation rules to allow extrapolations in 50% or higher error rates. If you want to read the extrapolations rules, you can find them in Chapter 8 of the Medicare Program Integrity Manuel (“MPIM”).
On RACMonitor, health care attorney, David Glaser, mentioned that there is a difference in arguments versus evidence. While you cannot admit new evidence at the ALJ level, you can make new arguments. He and I agreed, however, even if you can dispute the extrapolation legally, a statistical report would not allowed as new evidence, which are important to submit.
Lastly, 42 CFR 405.1014(a)(3) requires the provider to assert the reasons the provider disagrees with the extrapolation in the request for ALJ hearing.
Lack of medical necessity is one of the leading reasons for denials during RAC, MAC, TPE, and UPIC audits. However, case law dictates that the treating physician should be allowed deference with the decision that medical necessity exists because the Medicare and/or Medicaid auditor never had the privilege to see the recipient.
However, recent ALJ decisions have gone against case law. How is that possible? CMS creates “Rules” – I say that in air quotes – these Rules are not promulgated, but are binding on anyone under CMS’ umbrella. Guess what? That includes the ALJs for Medicare appeals. As an example, the “treating physician” Rule is law based on case law. Juxtapose, CMS’ Ruling 93-l. It states that no presumptive weight should be assigned to a treating physician’s medical opinion in determining the medical necessity of inpatient hospital and skilled nursing facility services. The Ruling adds parenthetically that the Ruling does not “by omission or implication” endorse the application of the treating physician rule to services not addressed in the Ruling. So, we get a decision from an ALJ that dismisses the treating physician rule.
The ALJ decision actually said: Accordingly, I find that the treating physician rule, standing alone, provides no basis for coverage.
This ALJ went against the law but followed CMS Rulings.
CMS Rulings, however, are not binding. CMS Rulings aren’t even law. Yet the CMS Rulings, according to CMS, are binding onto the entities that are under the CMS umbrella. This means that the Medicare appeals process, which include the redeterminations, the reconsiderations, the ALJ decisions, and the Medicare Appeals Councils’ decisions are all dictated by these non-law, CMS Rulings, which fly in the face of actual law. ALJs uphold extrapolations based on CMS Rulings because they have to. But once you get to a federal district court judge, who are not bound by CMS, non-law, rulings, you get a real Judge’s decision, and most extrapolations are thrown out if the error rate is under 50%.
Basically, if you are a Medicare provider, you have to jump through the hoops of 4 levels of appeals that is not dictated by law, but by an administration that is rewarded for taking money from providers on the pretense of FWA. Most providers do not have the financial means to make it to the 5th level of appeal. So, CMS wins by default.
Folks, create a legal fund for your provider entity. You have got to appeal and be able to afford it. That is the only way that we can change the disproportionately unfair Medicare appeal process that providers must endure now.
If you could light a torch to a Molotov Cocktail and a bunch of newspapers, you could not make a bigger explosion in my head than a recent Decision from a Medicare administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The extrapolation was upheld, despite an expert statistician citing its shortcomings, based on a CMS Ruling, which is neither law nor precedent. The Decision reminded me of the new Firestarter movie because everything is up in flames. Drew Barrymore would be proud.
I find it very lazy of the government to rely on sampling and extrapolations, especially in light that no witness testifies to its accuracy.
Because this ALJ relied so heavily on CMS Rulings, I wanted to do a little detective work as to whether CMS Rulings are binding or even law. First, I logged onto Westlaw to search for “CMS Ruling” in any case in any jurisdiction in America. Nothing. Not one case ever mentioned “CMS Ruling.” Ever. (Nor did my law school).
What Is a CMS Ruling?
A CMS Ruling is defined as, “decisions of the Administrator that serve as precedent final opinions and orders and statements of policy and interpretation. They provide clarification and interpretation of complex or ambiguous provisions of the law or regulations relating to Medicare, Medicaid, Utilization and Quality Control Peer Review, private health insurance, and related matters.”
But Are CMS Rulings Law?
No. CMS Rulings are not law. CMS Rulings are not binding on district court judges because district court judges are not part of HHS or CMS. However, the Medicare ALJs are considered part of HHS and CMS; thus the CMS Rulings are binding on Medicare ALJs.
This creates a dichotomy between the “real law” and agency rules. When you read CMS Ruling 86-1, it reads as if there two parties with oppositive views, both presented their arguments, and the Administrator makes a ruling. But the Administrator is not a Judge, but the Ruling reads like a court case. CMS Rulings are not binding on:
- The Supreme Court
- Appellate Courts
- The real world outside of CMS
- District Courts
- The Department of Transportation
- Civil Jurisprudence
- The Department of Education
- Etc. – You get the point.
So why are Medicare providers held subject to penalties based on CMS Rulings, when after the providers appeal their case to district court, that “rule” that was subjected against them (saying they owe $7 million) is rendered moot? Can we say – not fair, equitable, Constitutional, and flies in the face of due process?
The future does not look bright for providers going forward in defending overzealous, erroneous, and misplaced audits. These audits aren’t even backed up by witnesses – seriously, at the ALJ Medicare appeals, there is no statistician testifying to verify the results. Yet some of the ALJs are still upholding these audits.
In the “court case,” which resulted in CMS Ruling 86-1, the provider argued that:
- There is no legal authority in the Medicare statute or regulations for HCFA or its intermediaries to determine overpayments by projecting the findings of a sample of specific claims onto a universe of unspecified beneficiaries and claims.
- Section 1879 of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395pp, contemplates that medical necessity and custodial care coverage determinations will be made only by means of a case-by-case review.
- When sampling is used, providers are not able to bill individual beneficiaries not in the sample group for the services determined to be noncovered.
- Use of a sampling procedure violates the rights of providers to appeal adverse determinations.
- The use of sampling and extrapolation to determine overpayments deprives the provider of due process.
The CMS Ruling 86-1 was decided by Mr. Henry R. Desmarais, Acting Administrator, Health Care Financing Administration in 1986.
Think it should be upheld?