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A Federal Regulation Violates the U.S. Constitution and Ruins Careers; Yet It Sits…Vaguely

There is a federal regulation that is putting health care providers out of business. It is my legal opinion that the regulation violates the U.S. Constitution. Yet, the regulation still exists and continues to put health care providers out of business.

Why?

Because so far, no one has litigated the validity of the regulation, and I believe it could be legally wiped from existence with the right legal arguments.

How is this important?

Currently, the state and federal government are legally authorized to immediately suspend your Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements upon a credible allegation of fraud. This immense authority has put many a provider out of business. Could you survive without any Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements?

The federal regulation to which I allude is 42 CFR 455.23. It is a federal regulation, and it applies to every single health care provider, despite the service type allowed by Medicare or Medicaid. Home care agencies are just as susceptible to an accusation of health care fraud as a hospital. Durable medical equipment agencies are as susceptible as dentists. Yet the standard for a “credible allegation of fraud” is low. The standard for which the government can implement an immediate withhold of Medicaid/care reimbursements is lower than for an accused murderer to be arrested. At least when you are accused of murder, you have the right to an attorney. When you are accused to health care fraud on the civil level, you do not receive the right to an attorney. You must pay 100% out of pocket, unless your insurance happens to cover the expense for attorneys. But, even if your insurance does cover legal fees, you can believe that you will be appointed a general litigator with little to no knowledge of Medicare or Medicaid regulatory compliance litigation.

42 USC 455.23 states that:

The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending under the Medicaid program against an individual or entity unless the agency has good cause to not suspend payments or to suspend payment only in part.

(2) The State Medicaid agency may suspend payments without first notifying the provider of its intention to suspend such payments.

(3) A provider may request, and must be granted, administrative review where State law so requires.”

In the very first sentence, which I highlighted in red, is the word “must.” Prior to the Affordable Care Act, this text read “may.” From my years of experience, every single state in America has used this revision from “may” to “must” for governmental advantage over providers. When asked for good cause, the state and or federal government protest that they have no authority to make a decision that good cause exists to suspend any reimbursement freeze during an investigation. But this protest is a pile of hooey.

In reality, if anyone could afford to litigate the constitutionality of the regulation, I believe that the regulation would be stricken an unconstitutional.

Here is one reason why: Due Process

The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Bill of Rights provide us our due process rights. Here is the 5th Amendment:

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

There have been a long and rich history of interpretation of the due process clause. The Supreme Court has interpreted the due process clauses to provide four protections:  (1) procedural due process (in civil and criminal proceedings), (2) substantive due process, (3) a prohibition against vague laws, and (4) as the vehicle for the incorporation of the Bill of Rights.

42 CFR 455.23 violates procedural due process.

Procedural due process requires that a person be allowed notice and an opportunity to be heard before a government official takes a person’s life, liberty, or property.

Yet, 42 CFR 455.23 allows the government to immediately withhold reimbursements for services rendered based on an allegation without due process and taking a provider’s property; i.e., money owed for services rendered. Isn’t this exactly what procedural due process was created to prevent???? Where is the fundamental fairness?

42 CFR 455.23 violates substantive due process.

The Court usually looks first to see if there is a fundamental right, by examining if the right can be found deeply rooted in American history and traditions.

Fundamental rights include the right to vote, right for protection from pirates on the high seas (seriously – you have that right), and the right to constitutional remedies. Courts have held that our right to property is a fundamental right, but to my knowledge, not in the context of Medicare/caid reimbursements owed; however, I see a strong argument.

If the court establishes that the right being violated is a fundamental right, it applies strict scrutiny. This test inquires into whether there is a compelling state interest being furthered by the violation of the right, and whether the law in question is narrowly tailored to address the state interest.

Where the right is not a fundamental right, the court applies a rational basis test: if the violation of the right can be rationally related to a legitimate government purpose, then the law is held valid.

Taking away property of a Medicare/caid provider without due process violates substantive due process. The great thing about writing your own blog is that no one can argue with you. Playing Devil’s advocate, I would anticipate that the government would argue that a suspension or withhold of reimbursements is not a “taking” because the withhold or suspension is temporary and the government has a compelling reason to deter health care fraud. To which, I would say, yes, catching health care fraud is important – I am in no way advocating for fraud. But important also is the right to be innocent until proven guilty, and in civil cases, our deeply-rooted belief in the presumption of innocence is upheld by the action at issue not taking place until a hearing is held.

For example, if I sue my neighbor and declare that he is encroaching on my property, the property line is not moved until a decision is in my favor.

Another example, if I sue my business partner for breach of contract because she embezzled $1 million from me, I do not get the $1 million from her until it is decided that she actually took $1 million from me.

So to should be – if a provider is accused of fraud, property legally owned by said provider cannot just be taken away. That is a violation of substantive due process.

42 CFR 455.23 violates the prohibition against vague laws

A law is void for vagueness if an average citizen cannot understand it. The vagueness doctrine is my favorite. According to census data, there are 209.3 million people in the US who are over 24-years. Of those over 24-years-old, 66.9 million have a college degree. 68% do not.

Although here is a quick anecdote: Not so sure that a college degree is indicative of intelligence. A recent poll of law students at Columbia University showed that over 60% of the students, who were polled, could not name what rights are protected by the 1st Amendment. Once they responded “speech,” many forgot the others. In case you need a refresher for the off-chance that you are asked this question in an impromptu interview, see here.

My point is – who is to determine what the average person may or may not understand?

Back to why 42 CFR 455.23 violates the vagueness doctrine…

Remember the language of the regulations: “The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud…”

“Credible allegation of fraud” is defined as an allegation, which has been verified by the State, from any source, including but not limited to the following:

  • Fraud hotline complaints.
  • Claims data mining.
  • Patterns identified through provider audits, civil false claims cases, and law enforcement investigations. Allegations are considered to be credible when they have indicia of reliability and the State Medicaid agency has reviewed all allegations, facts, and evidence carefully and acts judiciously on a case-by-case basis.”

With a bit of research, I was able to find a written podcast published by CMS. It appears to be a Q and A between two workers at CMS discussing whether they should suspend a home health care agency’s reimbursements, similar to a playbook. I assume that it was an internal workshop to educate the CMS employees considering that the beginning of the screenplay begins with a “canned narrator” saying “This is a Medicaid program integrity podcast.”

2018-08-07 -- pic of cms podcast

The weird thing is that when you pull up the website – here – you get a glimpse of the podcast, but, at least on my computer, the image disappears in seconds and does not allow you to read it. I encourage you to determine whether this happens you as well.

While the podcast shimmered for a few seconds, I hit print and was able to read the disappearing podcast. As you can see, it is a staged conversation between “Patrick” and “Jim” regarding suspicion of a home health agency falsifying certificates of medical necessity.

On page 3, “Jim” says, “Remember the provider has the right to know why we are taking such serious action.”

But if your Medicare/caid reimbursements were suddenly suspended and you were told the suspension was based upon “credible allegations of fraud,” wouldn’t you find that reasoning vague?

42 CFR 455.23 violates the right to apply the Bill of Rights to me, as a citizen

This esoteric doctrine only means that the Bill of Rights apply to State governments. [Why do lawyers make everything so hard to understand?]

Health Care Fraud Liability: With Yates Fired – What Happens to the Memo?

“You’re fired!” President Trump has quite a bit of practice saying this line from The Apprentice. Recently, former AG Sally Yates was on the receiving end of the line. “It’s not personal. It’s just business.”

The Yates Memo created quite a ruckus when it was first disseminated. All of a sudden, executives of health care agencies were warned that they could be held individually accountable for actions of the agency.

What is the Yates Memo?

The Yates Memo is a memorandum written by Sally Quillian Yates, former Deputy Attorney General for the U.S. Dept. of Justice, dated September 9, 2015.

It basically outlines how federal investigations for corporate fraud or misconduct should be conducted  and what will be expected from the corporation getting investigated. It was not written specifically about health care providers; it is a general memo outlining the investigations of corporate wrongdoing across the board. But it is germane to health care providers.

See blog.

January 31, 2017, Sally Yates was fired by Trump. So what happens to her memo?

With Yates terminated, will the memo that has shaken corporate America that bears her name go as well? Newly appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote his own memo on March 8, 2017, entitled “Memorandum for all Federal Prosecutors.” it directs prosecutors to focus not on corporate crime, but on violent crime. However, investigations into potential fraud cases and scrutiny on providers appear to remain a top priority under the new administration, as President Donald Trump’s proposed budget plan for fiscal year 2018 included a $70 million boost in funding for the Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control program.

Despite Sessions vow to focus on violent crimes, he has been clear that health care fraud remains a high priority. At his confirmation, Sessions said: “Sometimes, it seems to me, Sen. Hirono, that the corporate officers who caused the problem should be subjected to more severe punishment than the stockholders of the company who didn’t know anything about it.” – a quote which definitely demonstrates Sessions aligns with the Yates Memo.

By law, companies, like individuals, are not required to cooperate with the Justice Department during an investigation.  The Yates Memo incentivizes executives to cooperate. However, the concept was not novel. Section 9-28.700 of the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual, states: “Cooperation is a potential mitigating factor, by which a corporation – just like any other subject of a criminal investigation – can gain credit in a case that otherwise is appropriate for indictment and prosecution.”

Even though Trump’s proposed budget decreases the Department of Justice’s budget, generally, the increase in the budget for the Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control program is indicative of this administration’s focus on fraud, waste, and abuse.

Providers accused of fraud, waste, or abuse suffer extreme consequences. 42 CFR 455.23 requires states to suspend Medicaid reimbursements upon credible allegations of fraud. The suspension, in many instances, lead to the death of the agency – prior to any allegations being substantiated. Just look at what happened in New Mexico. See blog. And the timeline created by The Santa Fe New Mexican.

When providers are accused of Medicare/caid fraud, they need serious legal representation, but with the suspension in place, many cannot afford to defend themselves.

I am “all for” increasing scrutiny on Medicare/caid fraud, waste, and abuse, but, I believe that due process protection should also be equally ramped up. Even criminals get due process.

The upshot regarding the Yates Memo? Firing Yates did not erase the Yates Memo. Expect Sessions and Trump to continue supporting the Yates Memo and holding executives personally accountable for health care fraud – no more hiding behind the Inc. or LLC. Because firing former AG Yates, did nothing to the Yates Memo…at  least not yet.

Alphabet Soup: RACs, MICs, MFCUs, CERTs, ZPICs, PERMs and Their Respective Look Back Periods

I have a dental client, who was subject to a post payment review by Public Consulting Group (PCG). During the audit, PCG reviewed claims that were 5 years old.  In communication with the state, I pointed out that PCG surpassed its allowable look back period of 3 years.  To which the Assistant Attorney General (AG) said, “This was not a RAC audit.”  I said, “Huh. Then what type of audit is it? MIC? ZPIC? CERT?” Because the audit has to be one of the known acronyms, otherwise, where is PCG’s authority to conduct the audit?

There has to be a federal and state regulation applicable to every audit.  If there is not, the audit is not allowable.

So, with the state claiming that this post payment review is not a RAC audit, I looked into what it could be.

In order to address health care fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA), Congress and CMS developed a variety of approaches over the past several years to audit Medicare and Medicaid claims. For all the different approaches, the feds created rules and different acronyms.  For example, a ZPIC audit varies from a CERT audit, which differs from a RAC audit, etc. The rules regulating the audit differ vastly and impact the provider’s audit results greatly. It can be as varied as hockey and football; both have the same purpose of scoring points, but the equipment, method of scoring, and ways to defend against an opponent scoring are as polar opposite as oil and water. It can be confusing and overwhelming to figure out which entity has which rule and which entity has exceeded its scope in an audit.

It can seem that we are caught swimming in a bowl of alphabet soup. We have RACs, ZPICs, MICs, CERTs, and PERMs!!

alphabet soup

What are these acronyms??

This blog will shed some light on the different types of agencies auditing your Medicare and Medicaid claims and what restrictions are imposed on such agencies, as well as provide you with useful tips while undergoing an audit and defending the results.

First, what do the acronyms stand for?

  • Medicare Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs)
  • Medicaid RACs
  • Medicaid Integrity Contractors (MICs)
  • Zone Program Integrity Contractors (ZPICs)
  • State Medicaid Fraud Control Units (MFCUs)
  • Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT)
  • Payment Error Rate Measurement (PERM)

Second, what are the allowable scope, players, and look back periods for each type of audit? I have comprised the following chart for a quick “cheat sheet” when it comes to the various types of audits. When an auditor knocks on your door, ask them, “What type of audit is this?” This can be invaluable information when it comes to defending the alleged overpayment.

SCOPE, AUDITOR, AND LOOK-BACK PERIOD
Name Scope Auditor Look-back period
Medicare RACs

Focus:

Medicare zaqoverpayments and underpayments

Medicare RACs are nationwide. The companies bid for federal contracts. They use post payment reviews to seek over and under payments and are paid on a contingency basis. Region A:  Performant Recovery

Region B:  CGI Federal, Inc.

Region C:  Connolly, Inc.

Region D:  HealthDataInsights, Inc.

Three years after the date the claim was filed.
Medicaid RACs

Focus:

Medicaid overpayments and underpayments

Medicaid RACs operate nationwide on a state-by-state basis. States choose the companies to perform RAC functions, determine the areas to target without informing the public, and pay on a contingency fee basis. Each state contracts with a private company that operates as a Medicaid RAC.

In NC, we use PCG and HMS.

Three years after the date the claim was filed, unless the Medicaid RAC has approval from the state.
MICs

Focus:

Medicaid overpayments and education

MICs review all Medicaid providers to identify high-risk areas, overpayments, and areas for improvement. CMS divided the U.S. into five MIC jurisdictions.

New York (CMS Regions I & II) – Thomson Reuters (R) and IPRO (A) • Atlanta (CMS Regions III & IV) – Thomson Reuters (R) and Health Integrity (A) • Chicago (CMS Regions V & VII) – AdvanceMed (R) and Health Integrity (A) • Dallas (CMS Regions VI & VIII) – AdvanceMed (R) and HMS (A) • San Francisco (CMS Regions IX & X) – AdvanceMed (R) and HMS (A)

MICs are not paid on a contingency fee basis.

MICs  may review a claim as far back as permitted under the laws of the respective states (generally a five-year look-back period).
ZPICs

Focus:

Medicare fraud, waste, and abuse

ZPICs investigate potential Medicare FWA and refer these cases to other entities.

Not random.

CMS, which has divided the U.S. into seven ZPICs jurisdictions.

Only investigate potential fraud.

ZPICs are not paid on a contingency fee basis.

ZPICs have no specified look-back period.
MFCUs

Focus:

Medicaid fraud, waste, and abuse

MFCUs investigate and prosecute (or refer for prosecution) criminal and civil Medicaid fraud cases. Each state, except North Dakota, has an MFCU.

Contact info for NC’s:

Medicaid Fraud Control Unit of North Carolina
Office of the Attorney General
5505 Creedmoor Rd
Suite 300
Raleigh, NC   27612

Phone: (919) 881-2320

website

MFCUs have no stated look-back period.
CERT

Focus:

Medicare improper payment rate

CERT companies indicate the rate of improper payments in the Medicare program in an annual report. CMS runs the CERT program using two private contractors (which I am yet to track down, but I will). The look back period is the current fiscal year (October 1 to September 30).
PERM

Focus:

Medicaid improper payment rate

PERM companies research improper payments in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. They extrapolate a national error rate. CMS runs the PERM program using two private contractors(which I am yet to track down, but I will). The look back period is the current fiscal year (the complete measurement cycle is 22 to 28 months).

 As you can see, the soup is flooded with letters of the alphabet. But which letters are attached to which audit company determines which rules are followed.

It is imperative to know, when audited, exactly which acronym those auditors are

Which brings me back to my original story of my dental provider, who was audited by a “non-RAC” entity for claims 5 years old.

What entity could be performing this audit, since PCG was not acting as its capacity as a RAC auditor? Let’s review:

  • RAC: AG claims no.
  • MIC: This is a state audit, not federal. No.
  • MFCU: No prosecutor involved. No.
  • ZPIC: This is a state audit, not federal. No allegation of fraud. No.
  • CERT:This is a state audit, not federal. No.
  • PERM: This is a state audit, not federal. No.

Hmmmm….

If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and acts like a duck, it must be a duck, right?

Or, in this case, a RAC.

Is Health Care Fraud on the Rise? Or Just the Accusations??

Recent stories in the news seem to suggest that health care fraud is running rampant.  We’ve got stories about Eric Leak‘s Medicaid agency, Nature’s Reflections, funneling money to pay athletes, a seizure of property in Greensboro for alleged Medicaid fraud, and, in Charlotte, a man was charged with Medicaid fraud and sentenced to three years under court supervision and ordered to pay $3,153,074. And these examples are local.

Health care fraud with even larger amounts of money at stake has been prosecuted in other states.  A nonprofit up in NY is accused of defrauding the Medicaid system for over $27 million.  Overall, the federal government opened 924 criminal health care fraud investigations last year.

What is going on? Are more people getting into the health care fraud business? Has the government become better at detecting possible health care fraud?

I believe that the answer is that the federal and state governments have determined that it “pays” high dividends to invest in health care fraud investigations.  More and more money is being allocated to the fraud investigative divisions.  More money, in turn, yields more health care fraud allegations…which yields more convictions….and more money to the government.

Believe me, I understand the importance of detecting fraud.  It sickens me that those who actually defraud our Medicaid and Medicare systems are taking medically necessary services away from those who need the services.  However, sometimes the net is cast so wide…so far…that innocent providers get caught in the net.  And being accused of health care fraud when you innocent is a gruesome, harrowing experience that (1) you hope never happens; and (2) you have to be prepared in case it does.  I have seen it happen.

As previously stated, in fiscal year (FY) 2014, the federal government opened 924 new criminal health care fraud  investigations.  That’s 77 new fraud investigations a month!!  This number does not include civil investigations.

In FY 2012, the Department of Justice (DOJ) opened 2,016 new health care fraud investigations (1,131 criminal, 885 civil).

The Justice Department launched 903 new health-care fraud prosecutions in the first eight months of FY 2011, more than all of FY 2010.

These numbers show:

  • an 85% increase over FY 2010,
  • a 157% increase over FY 2006
  • and 822% over FY 1991.

And the 924  investigations opened in fiscal 2014 only represent federal investigations.  Concurrently, all 50 states are conducting similar investigations.

What is being recovered? Are the increased efforts to detect health care fraud worth the effort and expenditures?

Heck, yes, it is worth it to both the state and federal governments!

Government teams recovered $4.3 billion in FY 2013 and $19.2 billion over the last five years.  While still astronomically high, the numbers dropped slightly for FY 2014.  In FY 2014, according to the Annual Report of the Departments of Health and Human Services and Justice, the federal government won or negotiated over $2.3 billion in health care fraud judgments and settlements.  Due to these efforts, as well as efforts from preceding years, the federal government retrieved $3.3 billion from health care fraud investigations.

So the federal and state governments are putting more money into investigating health care fraud.  Why?

The Affordable Care Act.

Obviously, the federal and state governments conducted health care fraud investigations prior to the ACA.  But the implementation of the ACA set new mandates to increase fraud investigations. (Mandates, which were suggestions prior to the ACA).

In 2009, Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13520, which was targeted to reduce improper payments and to eliminate waste in federal programs.

On March 23, 2010, President Obama signed the ACA into law.  A major part of the ACA is focused on cost containment methods. Theoretically, the ACA is supposed to be self-funding.  Detecting fraud, waste and abuse in the Medicare/Medicaid system helps to fund the ACA.

Unlike many of the other ACA provisions, most of the fraud and abuse provisions went into effect in 2010 or 2011. The ACA increases funding to the Healthcare Fraud and Abuse Control Program by $350 million over the next decade. These funds can be used for fraud and abuse control and for the Medicare Integrity Program.

The ACA mandates states to conduct post payment and prepayment reviews, screen and audit providers, terminate certain providers, and create provider categories of risk.

While recent articles and media seem to indicate that health care fraud is running rampant, the substantial increase in accusations of health care fraud really may be caused by factors other than more fraud is occurring.

The ACA mandates have an impact.

And, quite frankly, the investigation units may be a bit overzealous to recover funds.

What will happen if you are a target of a criminal health care fraud investigation?

It depends whether the federal or state government is conducting the investigation.

If the federal government is investigating you, most likely, you will be unaware of the investigation.  Then, one day, agents of the federal government will come to your office and seize all property deemed related to the alleged fraud.  Your accounts will be frozen.  Whether you are guilty or not will not matter.  What will matter is you will need an experienced, knowledgeable health fraud attorney and the funds with which to compensate said attorney with frozen accounts.

If the state government is conducting the investigation, it is a little less hostile and CSI-ish.  Your reimbursements will be suspended with or without your notice (obviously, you would notice the suspension once the suspension occurred).  But the whole “raid on your office thing” is less likely.

There are legal remedies available, and the “defense” should begin immediately.

Most importantly, if you are a health care provider and you are not committing fraud, you are not safe from accusations of fraud.

Your insurance, most likely, will not cover attorneys’ fees for alleged intention fraud.

The attorney of your choice will not be able to accept funds that are “tainted” by alleged fraud, even if no fraud occurred.

Be aware that if, for whatever reason, you are accused, you will need to be prepared…for what you hope never happens.