Every skilled nursing facility in the US will be subject to a five-claim audit starting THIS WEEK as regulators try to better assess and root out improper payments. Blah. Blah. Blah. The former is the first sentence in an article that is giving warning to skilled nursing facilities (“SNF”). But, we all know that PROPER PAYMENTS get caught in the wide net cast for improper payments. Innocent people get accused of crimes. Health care providers get accused of Medicare and Medicaid fraud or, at least, abhorrent billing.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) announced the nationwide audits, which will be conducted by Medicare Administrative Contractors (“MACs”) on a rolling basis, with the MAC in every region required to pull five Medicare Part A claims from every facility they cover and review them for potential errors.
The results will lead to alleged overpayments, credible allegations of fraud, submittals to the OIG, and False Claims Act (“FCA”) penalties. The effort follows an HHS report that found skilled nursing facilities had the highest rate of improper payments, with nearly a quarter of those tied to insufficient documentation.
Most of the rest of my blog (except for what is important) is cut and pasted from the article (since I am not a journalist and cannot procure quotes):
“We haven’t seen anything like this in the recent past, at least not in the last 10 years,” said Stacy Baker, OTR/L, RAC-CT, director of audit services for Proactive LTC Consulting. “But it’s no surprise to see this sector-wide probe and educate. Looking back on Medicare FFS improper payment data, we’ve never seen SNF improper payment rates this high, and nearly doubling since the 2021 report.”
That rate stood at 15.1% in 2022, almost double the 7.79% rate in 2021. A CMS report blamed missing case-mix group component documentation. Baker billed the new initiative as an attempt to improve poor billing practices that emerged with the implementation of the Patient Driven Payment Model.
But the improper payments can’t be attributed to PDPM alone, said Alicia Cantinieri BSN, vice president of MDS policy and education for Zimmet Healthcare Services.
“That’s probably not the whole reason,” she said on a webinar earlier this month.
She noted that risk areas that could move providers to the front of the audit process include past performance, such as a history of additional documentation requests (“ADR”); frequent errors in Section GG, which sets payment rates for physical therapy, occupational and nursing groups; diagnoses without medical record to support MDS inclusion; and even illegible RN signatures. I bolded “even illegible RN signatures” because I cannot tell you how many times I have seen denials by auditors because they couldn’t read someone’s signature, and, therefore, could not verify their license. Have auditors heard of a phone?
“Keep in mind, there’s lots of low-hanging fruit for payment error aside from PDPM accuracy, such as but not limited to, compliant SNF Certs and Recerts and physician oversight regs,” Baker added. “These components should be included in the Triple Check process as well.”
The CMG for each HIPPS code also must be clearly supported to validate the claim.
The MACs will complete one round of probe and educate for every provider, instead of that usual potential three rounds, as per their traditional TPE program.
It is a good idea for providers to start analyzing data and conducting internal self-audits.
TIPS for an effective ADR response:
- SECURE AN ATTORNEY WHO SPECIALIZES IN THIS TYPE OF LEGAL WORK.
- Develop a process and team now. Assign responsibilities for tasks such as, but not limited to: identifying ADR requests, ensuring timely response to deadlines are met, pulling together medical records and documents required to support the HIPPS code, and reviewing the packet for completeness.
- Make copies. Never ever, ever, ever send originals.
- Organize documentation to make the contractor’s review easy, labeling critical sections such as physician orders, MDS assessments, Section GG documentation and more.
- Allow sufficient time for your lawyers and hired experts, both with clinical and MDS coding expertise, to review the claims and documentation for accuracy. If your attorney believes that your documentation has concerning issues, it is best to SELF-DISCLOSE. Self-disclosure can prevent penalties; whereas if you are caught, penalties will ensue.
Often we read in the news stories of hospitals or health care providers paying inordinate amounts to settle cases in which credible allegations of fraud or allegations of false claims preside. Many times the providers actually committed fraud, waste, or abuse. Maybe medical records were falsified, or maybe the documents were created for Medicaid/care recipients that do not exist. Maybe the services claimed to have been rendered were not. In these cases, the provider can be held liable criminally (fraud) and/or civilly (false claims). And these providers should be held accountable to the government and the taxpayers.
It appears that this is not the case for an Ohio hospital that settled a False Claims Act case for $4.1 million last month. Do not get me wrong: The False Claims Act is no joke. Possible penalties imposed by the False Claims Act can be up to $10,000 per claim “plus 3 times the amount of damages which the Government sustains because of the act of that person.” 37 USC §3729. See blog for more explanation.
In the Ohio hospital’s case, the penalty derived from Dr. Abubakar Atiq Durrani, a spinal surgeon, performing spinal surgeries that, allegedly, were not medically necessary.
According to what I’ve read, there is no question that Dr. Durrani actually performed these surgeries. He did. On actual people who exist. Instead, the allegation is that the surgeries were not medically necessary.
I have blogged about medical necessity in the past. Medical necessity is a subjective standard. Medical necessity is defined as reasonable, necessary, and/or appropriate, based on evidence-based clinical standards of care.
But it is still a subjective standard. When you receive news that you suffer from a debilitating disease, what do you do? You get a second opinion. If one doctor recommends brain surgery, what do you do? You get a second opinion.
After that, you grab a handy, dandy Magic 8 Ball and give it a shake. Kidding. Kinda.
My point is that 2 physicians can recommend two different courses of treatment. One physician may practice more defensive medicine, while another may be more cautious. Surgeons will, generally, recommend surgery, more than non-surgeons; it’s what they do.
Going back to Dr. Durrani, who was arrested in 2013 for allegedly “convinc[ing] [patients] they needed spine and neck surgery. However, other doctors later determined those surgeries as unnecessary and damaging to the patient’s health.”
I find two points striking about this case: (1) The allegation that this physician “convinced” people to undergo spine surgery; and (2) The fact that the hospital settled for $4.1 million when no fraud existed or was alleged, only questions as to medical necessity, which is subjective.
As to the first, I am imagining my doctor. I am imagining that I have horrible, chronic back pain. My doctor recommends spinal surgery. There is no way, at all, ever, in this universe, that any doctor would be able to convince me to undergo surgery if I did not want surgery. Period. Who allows themselves to be peer pressured into surgery? Not to knock on my own profession, but I have a sneaky suspicion that this allegation was concocted by the plaintiffs’ attorney(s) and the plaintiffs responded, “Oh, you are right. I was persuaded.”
As to the second…Why did the hospital settle for such a high amount? Couldn’t the hospital have gone to trial and convinced a jury that Dr. Durrani’s surgeries were, in fact, reasonable and/or appropriate, based on evidence-based clinical standards of care?
According to the Magic 8 Ball, “signs point to yes.” Why cave at such a large number where no fraud was alleged?
Whatever happened to Dr. Durrani because of this whole mess? “Following his arraignment, Durrani allegedly fled the United States and remains a fugitive.”
In sum, based on allegations of questionable medical necessity, not fraud, a hospital paid $4.1 million and a U.S. physician fled into hiding…allegedly.
I question this outcome. I even question whether these types of allegations fall within the False Claims Act.
The False Claims Act holds providers liable for (abridged version):
- knowingly presenting a fraudulent claim to the Government;
- knowingly making a fraudulent record or statement to the Government;
- conspiring to do any of the referenced bullet points;
- having possession of Government money and knowingly delivering less than the amount;
- delivering a certified document intending to defraud the Government without completely knowing whether the information was true;
- knowingly buying or receiving as a pledge of debt, public property from the an employee of the Government who does not have the right to pledge that property;
- knowingly making, using, or causing to be made or used, a false record material to an obligation to pay the Government, or knowingly concealing or decreasing an obligation to pay the Government.
I see nothing in the False Claims Act punishing a provider for rendering services that, perhaps, may not be medically necessary.
I actually find questions of medical necessity to be easily defensible. After all, who do we look to for determinations of what are reasonable and/or appropriate services, based on evidence-based clinical standards of care?
Sure, some physicians may have conflicting views as to what is medically necessary. I see it all the time in court. One expert witness physician testifies that the service was medically necessary and another, equally as qualified, physician testifies to the contrary.
Unless I’m missing something (here, folks, is my “CYA”), I just do not understand why allegations of questionable medical necessity caused an U.S. physician to become a fugitive and a hospital to settle for $4.1 million.
It’s as if the hospital shook the Magic 8 Ball and asked whether it would be able to defend itself and received: