Silence Can Be Deadly: Can You Be Held Responsible for Medicare/caid Billings Errors That You Never Knew Existed?
You submit a claim for medically necessary services for a Medicaid recipient. Let’s say you provide behavioral health care services and prescribe medication for people who suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar. One member of your staff (a PA) prescribes Abilify to a child – perfectly acceptable treatment for schizophrenia. The child suffers a seizure and dies. It is discovered, unbeknownst to you, as the owner of the agency, that the staff member prescribing the medication was not appropriately supervised. You are shocked. You are dismayed. You are terrified.
Sure enough, someone tattles on you and a qui tam lawsuit is filed against your agency.
A qui tam (kwee tam) lawsuit is Latin for “who as well,” a lawsuit brought by a private citizen (popularly called a “whistleblower”) against a person or company who is believed to have violated the law in the performance of a contract with the government or in violation of a government regulation, when there is a statute which provides for a penalty for such violations. The whistleblower in qui tam lawsuits can be awarded a lot of money, which is why whistleblowers bring the lawsuits.
In other words, a qui tam lawsuit filed against you is bad…very bad.
You are looking at six figures, easily, in attorneys’ fees, years of litigation, endless sleepless nights, and a high dose of Prozac. All because one of your staff was not properly licensed and could not prescribe medication without supervision. And you had no idea…
Wait…what? Isn’t “intent” or, legally, “scienter” a requirement to prove fraud?? You mean that I could be prosecuted for fraud when I had zero intent to commit fraud, plus, I didn’t even know it was occurring?
This is what happened to Universal Health Services, Inc.’s subsidiary that provided behavioral health care services in Massachusetts. Universal Health Serv. v. United States ex rel. Escobar, 136 S.Ct. 1989 (2016).
The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that each time a billing party submits a claim, it implicitly communicates that it conformed to the relevant program requirements, such that it was entitled to receive payment. Every claim implicitly promised compliance of every law!
Imagine the slippery slope with this decision – a multi-state company with offices across the nation bills millions to Medicare and Medicaid monthly. Executive management is in Rhode Island. An office in Tampa fails to check the criminal background of its employees for a period of a year, but in all other ways complies with the regulations and renders medically necessary services that entire year. According to the 1st Circuit opinion, the company could be liable for fraud and the false claims act, resulting in millions of dollars of penalties.
Did it matter to the judge in this case that the company was large? What if it were a small company with one office and four staff?
Juxtapose the 7th Circuit which held only express (or affirmative) falsehoods can render a claim “false” or “fraudulent.” In other words, you can only be held liable for fraud if you purposely or affirmatively acted.
The Supreme Court (last year) held that the implied false certification theory can, at least in some circumstances, provide a basis for liability.
The thinking is that a half truth is a lie. Which is correct…but is it fraud? A classic example of an actionable half-truth in contract law is the seller who reveals that there may be two new roads near a property he is selling, but fails to disclose that a third potential road might bisect the property.
The False Claims Act imposes civil liability on “any person who . . . knowingly presents, or causes to be presented, a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval.” §3729(a)(1)(A). Here’s the prob-lem-o: Congress never defined what is “false.”
Here is what the Supreme Court had to say about the unlicensed social worker:
“So too here, by submitting claims for payment using payment codes that corresponded to specific counseling services, Universal Health represented that it had provided individual therapy, family therapy, preventive medication counseling, and other types of treatment. Moreover, Arbour staff members allegedly made further representations in submitting Medicaid reimbursement claims by using National Provider Identification numbers corresponding to specific job titles. And these representations were clearly misleading in context. Anyone informed that a social worker at a Massachusetts mental health clinic provided a teenage patient with individual counseling services would probably—but wrongly—conclude that the clinic had complied with core Massachusetts Medicaid requirements (1) that a counselor “treating children [is] required to have specialized training and experience in children’s services,” 130 Code Mass. Regs. §429.422, and also (2) that, at a minimum, the social worker possesses the prescribed qualifications for the job, §429.424(C). By using payment and other codes that conveyed this information without disclosing Arbour’s many violations of basic staff and licensing requirements for mental health facilities, Universal Health’s claims constituted misrepresentations.””
In English, this means that: With the act of submitting a Medicaid claim, you are promising that you have followed all rules, including the licensure status required for rendering that service.
The Court held that:
The issue is whether a defendant should face False Claims Act liability only if it fails to disclose the violation of a contractual, statutory, or regulatory provision that the Government expressly designated a condition of payment. The Court concluded that the FCA does not impose this limit on liability. But it also held that not every undisclosed violation of an express condition of payment automatically triggers liability. It matters whether the omission was material.
The Supreme Court determined that not all statutory or regulatory violations are material, disagreeing with the government and the 1st Circuit.
But the Court never made a decision regarding Universal Health Services, Inc. Instead, it vacated the 1st Circuit and remanded the case for reconsideration of whether respondents have sufficiently pleaded a False Claims Act violation. But in doing so, the Court gave guidance as to its opinion. It wrote: “This case centers on allegations of fraud, not medical malpractice.”
What that one sentence tells me is that the Supreme Court does not want to create liability for any and every regulatory omission/mistake on a Medicaid claim. Mistakes happen. People are human. Apparently, even the Supreme Court knows that…
On July 13, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price, M.D., announced the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) biggest-ever health care fraud takedown. 412 health care providers were charged with health care fraud. In total, allegedly, the 412 providers schemed and received $1.3 billion in false billings to Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE. Of the 412 defendants, 115 are physicians, nurses, and other licensed medical professionals. Additionally, HHS has begun the suspension process against 295 health care providers’ licenses.
The charges include allegations of billing for medically unnecessary treatments or services that were not really provided. The DOJ has evidence that many of the defendants had illegal kickback schemes set up. More than 120 of the defendants were charged with unlawfully or inappropriately prescribing and distributing opioids and other narcotics.
While this particular sting operation resulted from government investigations, not all health care fraud is discovered through government investigation. A great deal of fraud is uncovered through private citizens coming forward with incriminating information. These private citizens can file suit against the fraudulent parties on behalf of the government; these are known as qui tam suits.
Being a whistleblower goes against what most of us are taught as children. We are taught not to be a tattletail. I have vivid memories from elementary school of other kids acting out, but I would remain silent and not inform the teacher. But in the health care world, tattletails are becoming much more common – and they make money for blowing that metaphoric whistle.
What is a qui tam lawsuit?
Qui tam is Latin for “who as well.” Qui tam lawsuits are a type of civil lawsuit whistleblowers (tattletails) bring under the False Claims Act, a law that rewards whistleblowers if their qui tam cases recover funds for the government. Qui tam cases are a powerful weapon against Medicare and Medicaid fraud. In other words, if an employee at a health care facility witnesses any type of health care fraud, even if the alleged fraud is unknown to the provider, that employee can hire an attorney to file a qui tam lawsuit to recover money on behalf of the government. The government investigates the allegations of fraud and decides whether it will join the lawsuit. Health care entities found guilty in a qui tam lawsuit will be liable to government for three times the government’s losses, plus penalties.
The whistleblower is rewarded for bringing these lawsuits. If the government intervenes in the case and recovers funds through a settlement or a trial, the whistleblower is entitled to 15% – 25% of the recovery. If the government doesn’t intervene in the case and it is pursued by the whistleblower team, the whistleblower reward is between 25% – 30% of the recovery.
These recoveries are not low numbers. On June 22, 2017, a physician and rehabilitative specialist agreed to pay $1.4 million to resolve allegations they violated the False Claims Act by billing federal health care programs for medically unreasonable and unnecessary ultrasound guidance used with routine lab blood draws, and with Botox and trigger point injections. If a whistleblower had brought this lawsuit, he/she would have been awarded $210,000 – 420,000.
On June 16, 2017, a Pennsylvania-based skilled nursing facility operator agreed to pay roughly $53.6 million to settle charges that it and its subsidiaries violated the False Claims Act by causing the submission of false claims to government health care programs for medically unnecessary therapy and hospice services. The allegations originated in a whistleblower lawsuit filed under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act by 7 former employees of the company. The whistleblower award – $8,040,000 – 16,080,000.
There are currently two, large qui tam cases against United Health Group (UHG) pending in the Central District of California. The cases are: U.S. ex rel. Benjamin Poehling v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc. and U.S. ex rel. Swoben v. Secure Horizons, et al. Both cases were brought by James Swoben, who was an employee and Benjamin Poehling, who was the former finance director of a UHG group that managed the insurer’s Medicare Advantage Plans. On May 2, 2027, the U.S. government joined the Poehling lawsuit.
The charges include allegations that UHG:
- Submitted invalid codes to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that it knew of or should have known that the codes were invalid – some of the dates of services at issue in the case are older than 2008.
- Intentionally avoided learning that some diagnoses codes or categories of codes submitted to their plans by providers were invalid, despite acknowledging in 2010 that it should evaluate the results of its blind chart reviews to find codes that need to be deleted.
- Failed to follow up on and prevent the submissions of invalid codes or submit deletion for invalid codes.
- Attested to CMS each year that the data they submitted was true and accurate while knowing it was not.
UHG would not be in this expensive, litigious pickle had it conducted a self audit and followed the mandatory disclosure requirements.
What are the mandatory disclosure requirements? Glad you asked…
Section 6402(a) of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) creates an express obligation for health care providers to report and return overpayments of Medicare and Medicaid. The disclosure must be made by 60 days days after the date that the overpayment was identified or the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable. Identification is defined as the point in which the provider has determined or should have determined through the exercise of due diligence that an overpayment exists. CMS expects the provider to proactively investigate any credible information of a potential overpayment. The consequences of failing to proactively investigate can be seen by the UHG lawsuits above-mentioned. Apparently, UHG had some documents dated in 2010 that indicated it should review codes and delete the invalid codes, but, allegedly, failed to do so.
How do you self disclose?
According to CMS:
“Beginning June 1, 2017, providers of services and suppliers must use the forms included in the OMB-approved collection instrument entitled CMS Voluntary Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol (SRDP) in order to utilize the SRDP. For disclosures of noncompliant financial relationships with more than one physician, the disclosing entity must submit a separate Physician Information Form for each physician. The CMS Voluntary Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol document contains one Physician Information Form.”
You are a provider, and you accept Medicare and Medicaid. You find out that the person with whom you contracted to provide extraction services for your dental patients has been upcoding for the last few months. -or- You discover that the supervisory visits over the past year have been less than…well, nonexistent. -or- Or your licensed therapist forgot to mention that her license was revoked. What do you do?
What do you do when you unearth a potential, past overpayment to you from Medicare or Medicaid?
Number One: You do NOT hide your head!
Do not be an ostrich. First, being an ostrich will have a direct correlation with harsher penalties. Second, you may miss mandatory disclosure deadlines, which will lead to a more in-depth, concentrated, and targeted audits by the government, which will lead to harsher penalties.
As for the first (harsher penalties), not only will your potential, monetary penalties leap skyward, but knowledge (actual or should have had) could put you at risk for criminal liability or false claims liability. As for increased, monetary penalties, recent Office of Inspector General (OIG) information regarding the self disclosure protocol indicates that self disclosure could reduce the minimum multiplier to only 1.5 times the single damages versus 2-10 times the damages without self disclosure.
As for the second (missing deadlines), your penalties will be exorbitantly higher if you had or should have had actual knowledge of the overpayments and failed to act timely. Should the government, despite your lack of self disclosure, decide to audit your billings, you can count on increased scrutiny and a much more concentrated, in-depth audit. Much of the target of the audit will be what you knew (or should have) and when you knew (or should have). Do not ever think: “I will not ever get audited. I am a small fish. There are so many other providers, who are really de-frauding the system. They won’t come after me.” If you do, you will not be prepared when the audit comes a’knocking on your door – and that is just foolish. In addition, never underestimate the breadth and scope of government audits. Remember, our tax dollars provide almost unlimited resources to fund thousands of audits at a time. Being audited is not like winning the lottery, Your chances are not one in two hundred million. If you accept Medicare and/or Medicaid, your chances of an audit are almost 100%. Some providers undergo audits multiple times a year.
Knowing that the definition of “knowing” may not be Merriam Webster’s definition is also key. The legal definition of “knowing” is more broad that you would think. Section 1128J(d)(4)(A) of the Act defines “knowing” and “knowingly” as those terms are defined in 31 U.S.C. 3729(b). In that statute the terms “knowing” and “knowingly” mean that a person with respect to information—(i) has actual knowledge of the information; (ii) acts in deliberate ignorance of the truth or falsity of the information; or (iii) acts in reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the information. 31 U.S.C. 3729(b) also states that knowing and knowingly do not require proof of specific intent to defraud.
Number Two: Contact your attorney.
It is essential that you have legal counsel throughout the self disclosure process. There are simply too many ways to botch a well-intended, self disclosure into a casus belli for the government. For example, OIG allows three options for self disclosure; however, one option requires prior approval from OIG. Your counsel needs to maintain your self disclosure between the allowable, navigational beacons.
Number Three: Act timely.
You have 60-days to report and pay. Section 1128J(d)(2) of the Social Security Act requires that a Medicare or Medicaid overpayment be reported and returned by the later of (1) the date that is 60 days after the date on which the overpayment was identified or (2) the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable. See blog.
If you have a Medicare issue, please continue to Number Four. If your issue is Medicaid only, please skip Number Four and go to Number Five. If your issue concerns both Medicare and Medicaid, continue with Number Four and Five (skip nothing).
Number Four: Review the OIG Self Disclosure Protocol (for Medicare).
OIG publishes a Self Disclosure Protocol. Read it. Print it. Frame it. Wear it. Memorize it.
Since 2008, OIG has resolved 235 self disclosure provider cases through settlements. In all but one of these cases, OIG released the disclosing parties from permissive exclusion without requiring any integrity measures. What that means is that, even if you self disclose, OIG has the authority to exclude you from the Medicare system. However, if you self disclose, may the odds be ever in your favor!
Number Five: Review your state’s self disclosure protocol.
While every state differs slightly in self disclosure protocol, it is surprising how similar the protocol is state-to-state. In order to find your state’s self disclosure protocol, simply Google: “[insert your state] Medicaid provider self disclosure protocol.” In most cases, you will find that your state’s protocol is less burdensome than OIG’s.
On the state-side, you will also find that the benefits of self disclosure, generally, are even better than the benefits from the federal government. In most states, self disclosure results in no penalties (as long as you follow the correct protocol and do not hide anything).
Number Six: Draft your self disclosure report.
Your self disclosure report must contain certain criteria. Review the Federal Registrar for everything that needs to be included.
It is important to remember that you are only responsible for self disclosures going back six years (on the federal side).
Mail the report to:
330 Independence Avenue, Room 5527
Washington, DC 20201
Or you can self disclose online at this link.
I have blogged about peeing in a cup before…but we will not be talking about dentists in this blog. Instead we will be discussing pain management physicians and peeing in a cup.
Pain management physicians are under intense scrutiny on the federal and state level due to increased urine testing. But is it the pain management doctors’ fault?
When I was little, my dad and I would play catch with bouncy balls. He would always play a dirty little trick, and I fell for it every time. He would toss one ball high in the air. While I was concentrating on catching that ball, he would hurl another ball straight at me, which, every time, smacked into me – leaving me disoriented as to what was happening. He would laugh and laugh. I was his Charlie Brown, and he was my Lucy. (Yes, I have done this to my child).
The point is that it is difficult to concentrate on more than one thing. When the Affordable Care Act (ACA) came out, it was as if the federal government wielded 500, metaphoric, bouncy balls at every health care provider. You couldn’t comprehend it in its entirety. There were different deadlines for multiple changes, provider requirements, employer requirements, consumer requirements…it was a bloodbath! [If you haven’t seen the brothers who trick their sister into thinking it’s a zombie apocalypse, you have to watch it!!]
A similar “metaphoric ball frenzy” is occurring now with urine testing, and pain management physicians make up the bulk of prescribed urine testing. The urine testing industry has boomed in the past 4-5 years. This could be caused by a number of factors:
- increase use of drugs (especially heroine and opioids),
- the tightening of regulations requiring physicians to monitor whether patients are abusing drugs,
- increase of pain management doctors purchasing mass-spectrometry machines and becoming their own lab,
- simply more people are complaining of pain, and
- the pharmaceutical industry’s direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA).
Medicare’s spending on 22 high-tech tests for drugs of abuse hit $445 million in 2012, up 1,423% in five years. “In 2012, 259 million prescriptions were written for opioids, which is more than enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills.” See article.
According to the American Association of Pain Management, pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined. The chart below depicts the number of chronic pain sufferers compared to other major health conditions.
In the world of Medicare and Medicaid, where there is profit being made, the government comes a-knockin’.
But should we blame the pain management doctors if recent years brought more patients due to increase of drug use? The flip side is that we do not want doctors ordering urine tests unnecessarily. But aren’t the doctors supposed to the experts on medical necessity??? How can an auditor, who is not a physician and never seen the patient opine to medical necessity of a urine test?
The metaphoric ball frenzy:
There are so many investigations into urine testing going on right now.
Ball #1: The machine manufacturers. A couple of years ago, Carolina Liquid Chemistries (CLC) was raided by the federal government. See article. One of the allegations was that CLC was misrepresenting their product, a urinalysis machine, which caused doctors to overbill Medicare and Medicaid. According to a source, the federal government is still investigating CLC and all the physicians who purchased the urinalysis machine from CLC.
Ball #2: The federal government. Concurrently, the federal government is investigating urine testing billed to Medicare. In 2015, Millennium Health paid $256 million to resolve alleged violations of the False Claims Act for billing Medicare and Medicaid for medically unnecessary urine drug and genetic testing. I wonder if Millennium bought a urinalysis machine from CLC…
Ball #3: The state governments. Many state governments are investigating urine testing billed to Medicaid. Here are a few examples:
New Jersey: July 12, 2016, a couple and their diagnostic imaging companies were ordered to pay more than $7.75 million for knowingly submitting false claims to Medicare for thousands of falsified diagnostic test reports and the underlying tests.
Oklahoma: July 10, 2016, the Oklahoma attorney general’s office announced that it is investigating a group of laboratories involved in the state’s booming urine testing industry.
Tennessee: April 2016, two lab professionals from Bristol, Tenn., were convicted of health care fraud in a scheme involving urine tests for substance abuse treatments.
If you are a pain management physician, here are a few recommendations to, not necessarily avoid an audit (because that may be impossible), but recommendations on how to “win” an audit:
- Document, document, document. Explain why the urine test is medically necessary in your documents. An auditor is less likely to question something you wrote at the time of the testing, instead of well after the fact.
- Double check the CPT codes. These change often.
- Check your urinalysis machine. Who manufactured it? Is it performing accurately?
- Have an experienced, knowledgeable, health care attorney. Do not wait for the results of the audit to contact an attorney.
And, perhaps, the most important – Do NOT just accept the results of an audit. Especially with allegations involving medical necessity…there are so many legal defenses built into regulations!! You turn around and throw a bouncy ball really high – and then…wallop them!!
Throughout the history of health care, payors and payees of Medicare/caid have existed in separate silos. In fact, the two have combated – the relationship has not always been stellar.
Looking into my crystal ball; however, all will not be as it is now [that’s clear as mud!].
Now, and in the upcoming years, there will be a massive shift to integrate payors and payees under the same roof. Competition drives this movement. So does the uncertainty in the health care market. This means that under one umbrella may be the providers and the paying entities.
Why is this a concern? First – Any healthcare entity that submits claims to the federal government, whether it be a provider or payor, must comply with the fraud and abuse statutes. As such, there is a potential to run afoul of federal and state regulations regulating the business of health care. Payors know their rules; providers know their rules…And those rules are dissimilar; and, at times, conflicting. The opportunity to screw up is endemic.
Second – With the new responsibilities mandated by the Yates Memo, these new relationships could create awkward situations in which the head of the payor department could have knowledge (or should have knowledge) of an [alleged] overpayment, but because of the politics at the company or self-interest in the preservation of his or her career, the head may not want to disclose such overpayment. With the 60-day rule, the head’s hesitation could cost the company.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) reinvented health care in so many ways. Remember, the ACA is supposed to be self-funding. Taxes were not to increase due to its inception. Instead, health care providers fund the ACA through post payment and prepayment audits, ZPIC audits, CERTs, MFCU, MICs, RACs, and PERMs.
The ACA also made a whole new commercially-insured population subject to the False Claims Act. False statements are now being investigated in connection with Medical Loss Ratios, justifications for rate increases, risk corridor calculations, or risk adjustment submissions.
CMS imposes a duty to detect fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA). But what if you’re looking at your own partners?
The chart above depicts “old school” Medicare payment options for physicians and other health care providers. In our Brave New World, the arrows will be criss-crossed (applesauce), because when the payors and the payees merge, the reimbursements, the billing, and the regulatory supervision will be underneath the same roof. It’ll be the game of “chicken” taken to a whole new level…with prison and financial penalties for the loser.
Since 2011, kickback issues have exponentially grown. The Anti-Kickback Statute makes it a criminal offense for a provider to give “remuneration” to a physician in order to compensate the physician for past referrals or to induce future referrals of patients to the provider for items or services that are reimbursed, in whole or in part, by Medicare or Medicaid.
Imagine when payors and payees are owned by the same entity! Plus, the ACA amended the kickback statutes to eliminate the prong requiring actual knowledge or intent. Now you can be convicted of anti kickback issues without any actual knowledge it was ever occurring!!
Now we have the “one purpose test,” which holds that a payment or offer of remuneration violates the Anti-Kickback Statute so long as part of the purpose of a payment to a physician or other referral source by a provider or supplier is an inducement for past or future referrals. United States v. Borrasi, 2011 WL 1663373 (7th Cir. May 4, 2011).
There are statutory exceptions. But these exceptions differ depending on whether you are a payor or payee – see the potential criss-cross applesauce?
And, BTW, which types of health care services are bound by the anti kickback statutes?
- Clinical laboratory services;
- Physical therapy services;
- Occupation therapy services;
- Radiology services (including MRIs, Ultrasounds, and CAT scans);
- Radiation therapy and supplies;
- Durable medical equipment and supplies;
- Parenteral and enteral nutrients, equipment, and supplies;
- Prosthetics, orthotics, and prosthetic devices and supplies;
- Home health services;
- Outpatient prescription drugs; and
- Inpatient and outpatient hospital services.
Imagine a building. Inside is a primary care physician (PCP), a pediatrician, a home health agency, and a psychiatrist. Can the PCP refer to the home health agency? Can a hospital refer to a home care agency? What if one of the Board of Directors sit on both entities?
The keys to avoiding the anti kickback pitfalls is threefold: (1) fair market value (FMV); (2) arm’s length transactions; and (3) money cannot be germane to referrals.
However, there is no one acceptable way to determine FMV. Hire an objective appraiser. While hiring an objective appraiser does not establish accuracy, it can demonstrate a good faith attempt.
Number One Rule for Merging/Acquiring/Creating New Partnerships in our new Brave New World of health care?
Your attorney should be your new BFF!! (Unless she already is).
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services released its final rule today on the return of overpayments. The final rule requires providers and suppliers receiving funds under the Medicare/Medicaid program to report and return overpayments within 60 days of identifying the overpayment, or the date a corresponding cost report is due, whichever is later. As published in the February 12, 2016 Federal Register, the final rule clarifies the meaning of overpayment identification, the required lookback period, and the methods available for reporting and returning identified overpayments to CMS. See https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2016/02/12/2016-02789/medicare-program-reporting-and-returning-of-overpayments.
The point in time in which an overpayment is identified is significant because it triggers the start of the 60-day period in which overpayments must be returned. CMS originally proposed that an overpayment is identified only when “the person has actual knowledge of the existence of the overpayment or acts in reckless disregard or deliberate ignorance of the overpayment.” The final rule changes the meaning of identification, stating that “a person has identified an overpayment when the person has or should have, through the exercise of reasonable diligence, determined that the person has received an overpayment and quantified the amount of the overpayment. The change places a burden on healthcare providers and suppliers to have reasonable policies and programs in place which monitor the receipt of Medicare/Medicaid payments.
6-Year Lookback Period
The final rule also softens the period for which health care providers and suppliers may be liable for the return of overpayments. As the rule was originally proposed, CMS required a 10-year lookback period, consistent with the False Claims Act. Now, overpayments must be reported and returned only if a person identifies the overpayment within six years of the date the overpayment was received.
Guidance in Reporting and Returning Overpayments
The final rule provides that providers and suppliers must use an applicable claims adjustment, credit balance, self-reported refund, or other appropriate process to satisfy the obligation to report and return overpayments. If a health care provider or supplier has reported a self-identified overpayment to either the Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol managed by CMS or the Self-Disclosure Protocol managed by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the provider or supplier is considered to be in compliance with the provisions of this rule as long as they are actively engaged in the respective protocol.
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:
People screw up. We are human; hence the term, “human error.”
But how to handle said mistakes in health care records after the fact, which could be the target in a Medicare/caid audit?
This is a very important, yet extremely “fine-lined” topic. Imagine a tightrope walker. If you fall off one way, you fall to the abyss of accusations of fraud. You fall off the other way and you fall into the ocean of the False Claims Act. Fixing document errors post date of service (DOS) is a fine line with catastrophic consequences on both sides.
In NC, our administrative code provides guidance.
“SECTION .1400 – SERVICE RECORDS
10A NCAC 13J .1401 REQUIREMENT
(a) The agency shall develop and implement written policies governing content and handling of client records.
(b) The agency shall maintain a client record for each client. Each page of the client record shall have the client’s name. All entries in the record shall reflect the actual date of entry. When agency staff make additional, late, or out of sequence entries into the client record, the documentation shall include the following applicable notations: addendum, late entry, or entry out of sequence, and the date of the entry. A system for maintaining originals and copies shall be described in the agency policies and procedures.
(c) The agency shall assure that originals of client records are kept confidential and secure on the licensed premises unless in accordance with Rule .0905 of this Subchapter, or subpoenaed by a court of legal jurisdiction, or to conduct an evaluation as required in Rule .1004 of this Subchapter.
(d) If a record is removed to conduct an evaluation, the record shall be returned to the agency premises within five working days. The agency shall maintain a sign out log that includes to whom the record was released, client’s name and date removed. Only authorized staff or other persons authorized by law may remove the record for these purposes.
(e) A copy of the client record for each client must be readily available to the appropriate health professional(s) providing services or managing the delivery of such services.
(f) Client records shall be retained for a period of not less than five years from the date of the most recent discharge of the client, unless the client is a minor in which case the record must be retained until three years after the client’s 18th birthday. When an agency ceases operation, the Department shall be notified in writing where the records will be stored for the required retention period.”
What NOT to do:
- Erase notations and write the revision
- Add a check mark that was not previously there
- Forge a staff’s initials
- Back date the revision
When it comes to alteration of medical records for Medicare/caid patients after the DOS, you are walking on a tightrope. Catastrophe is below, not a net. So tiptoe carefully.
Call an attorney with specific questions.
What the heck is the False Claims Act and why is it important to you?
When it comes to Medicaid and Medicare, the ghoulish phrase “False Claims Act” is frequently thrown around. If you google False Claims Act (FCA) under the “news” option, you will see some chilling news article titles.
- Pediatric Services of America, units to pay $6.88 in False Claims
- NuVasive, Inc. Agrees to Pay $13.5 Million to Resolve False Claims
- California Oncologist Pays $736k to Settle False Claims Allegations
False claims cases tend to be high dollar cases for health care providers; many times the amounts are at issue that could potentially put the provider out of business. FCA is spine-chilling, and many health care providers would rather play the hiding child rather than the curious investigator in a horror story. Come on, let’s face it, the curious characters usually get killed. But, this is not a horror story, and it is imperative that providers are informed of the FCA and potential penalties.
I have blogged about post payment reviews that use extrapolation, which result in astronomical alleged overpayments. See blog and blog. Interestingly, these alleged overpayments could also be false claims. It is just a matter of which governmental agency is pursuing it (or person in the case of qui tem cases).
But the ramifications of false claims allegations are even more bloodcurdling than the astronomical alleged overpayments. It is important for you to understand what false claims are and how to prevent yourself from ever participating in a false claim, knowingly or unknowingly.
First, what is a false claim?
A false claims occurs when you knowingly present, or cause to be presented, to the US Government a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval. (abridged version).
The false claim does not have to be billed with actual knowledge that it is false or fraudulent. The false claim does not even have to be fraudulent; it can be merely false. The distinction lies in that a fraudulent claim is one that you intentionally alter. A false claim could merely be incorrect information. Saying it another way, the false claim can be a false or incorrect claim that you had no actual knowledge was false. That is hair-raising.
What is the penalty? It is:
A civil penalty of not less than $5,500 and not more than $11,000 per claim, plus 3 times the amount of the claim. You can see why these are high dollar cases.
The federal government recovered a jaw-dropping $5.7 billion in 2014 under the False Claims Act (FCA). In 2013, the feds recovered $5 billion under the FCA. Expect 2015 to be even higher. Since the inception of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), FCA investigations have increased.
Overwhelmingly, the recoveries are from the health care industry.
Everyone knows that the Medicare Claims Processing Manual is esoteric, verbose, and vague. Let’s face it: just Chapter 1 “General Billing Requirements” alone is 313 pages! Besides me, who reads the Medicare Claims Processing Manual cover to cover? Who, besides me, needs to know that Medicare does not cover deported beneficiaries or the exceptions to the Anti-markup Payment Limitation?
Not to mention, the Manual is not law. The Manual does not get approved by Congress. The Manual is guidance or policy.
However, in FCA cases, you can be held liable for items in the Medicare Claims Processing Manual of which you were not aware. In other words, in FCA cases, you can be found liable for what you should have known.
Real life hypotheticals:
Hospital submits claims to Medicare and received payment for services rendered in a clinical trial involving devices to improve organ transplants. Unbeknownst to the hospital, the Manual prohibits Medicare reimbursements for non-FDA approved services.
Physician A has reciprocal arrangement with Physician B. A undergoes personal surgery and B serves A’s Medicare Part B patients while A is recovering. A returns and bills Medicare and is paid for services rendered by B 61 days+ after A left the office.
A physician accepts assignment of a bill of $300 for covered Medicare services and collects $80 from the enrollee. Physician neglects to depict on the claim form that he/she collected anything from the patient. Medicare’s allowable amount is $250, and since the deductible had previously been met, makes payment of $200 to the physician.
These are just a few examples of situations which could result in a FCA allegation.
But do not fret! There are legal defenses written into the Social Security Act that provides protection for health care providers!
1. Check whether you have insurance coverage for FCA.
2. Have an attorney on hand with FCA experience.
3. Read portions of the Medicare Claims Billing Manual which are pertinent to you.
Most importantly, if you are accused of billing false claims, get your advocate sooner rather than later! Do not engage in any conversations or interviews without counsel!
Appeal all findings!