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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?]

Medicaid Auditors, Nitpicky Nonsense, and Journalistic Mistakes

In my experience with regulatory audits of health care providers, which is substantial, the auditors have zero incentive to perform audits conservatively…or even properly, if I am being completely honest. The audit companies themselves are for-profit entities with Boards of Directors, sometimes with shareholders, and definitely with executives who are concerned with the corporate bottom lines. The actual auditors are salaried employees (or contractors) who are given an audit checklist, which may or may not be correct) and instructions as to which companies to audit.

Think about it – you are hired as an auditor…what happens if you come back to your boss, saying, “Nope. I found no documentation errors.”I liken it to me hiring a housekeeper and that housekeeper showing up at my house and saying, “Your house is so clean. There is nothing for me to clean.” First of all, for those who know me, you know that no housekeeper would ever say that my house did not to be cleaned, but that is neither here nor there. The analogy remains. No employee or hired contractor will tell you that you do not need to hire him or her because he or she is not needed. It is only human nature and logic. Will a dog trainer tell you that your dog is fully trained? Will a personal trainer tell you are perfectly fit? Will a rug maker tell you that you don’t need a rug? Will an auditor tell you that your documents are perfect? If so, they would render themselves obsolete.

Disagree with my opinions on this blog all you want, but if you disagree with the principle that an employee will not argue himself or herself out of a job, then you are living in a fantasy land made up of rainbows and gummy bears.

So let’s begin with the basic logical principles: 2+2=4 and auditors have incentives to find errors.

Now, knowing the basic, underlying fact that auditors have incentives to locate documentation errors, an article was recently published entitled, “Audit says home health care companies overbilled Mass. Medicaid by $23m.” While I am not in a position to critique a journalist’s writing, I disagree with the broad, overreaching statements found in this article. While the article claims that 9 home health companies owe the State of Massachusetts $23 million, my guess is that (if the companies hire a competent attorney) the companies do not owe such a large amount. In my experience, there are many legal defenses to safeguard against allegations in an audit.

The follow-up article may be entitled, “Audit of Home Health Agencies Found to Be Erroneous.”

Here is the first paragraph of that article claiming home care agencies overbilled Medicaid for $23 million:

“The state’s Medicaid program was routinely billed for home health care services that were never provided or were not medically necessary. Providers submitted documents with missing dates and signatures. Sometimes basic information like a patient’s medical history was nowhere to be found.”

Let’s dissect.

First sentence: “The state’s Medicaid program was routinely billed for home health care services that were never provided or were not medically necessary.”

I call bull feces on this one. First, the audit, which is the topic of this article, only audited 9 home health agencies. Unless only 10 home health agencies exist in Massachusetts, an audit of 9 agencies can hardly be considered “routinely billing” Medicaid.

Second, who is making these determinations that the home health services are not medically necessary??? Considering that, in order to render home health services, the provider must obtain prior authorization that the services are medically necessary, I find it a hard pill to swallow that the rendered services are not medically necessary. These are prior authorized services!!

Third, providing home health services is anything but routine. Life happens. The assertion that home health care services were never provided fails to take into consideration – life. For example, a home health aide could present at the client’s home at the regularly scheduled time, but the consumer’s son is present. The son brought McDonald’s, in which case, the aide may render all services, but does not prepare a meal for the client. Or, perhaps, the consumer’s plan states that the aide must bathe the consumer. But the consumer recently had surgery and cannot take a bath or shower for a certain amount of time. In the above examples, services were not rendered, that is true, but did some sort of aberrant billing or fraud occur? I would argue, no.

Second sentence: “Providers submitted documents with missing dates and signatures.”

This sentence is also troubling. Let’s say that a consumer requires home health services and receives prior authorization. The home health aide renders the services. In the subsequent documentation, the home health aide forgets to date the service note. There is no question that the home health services were needed. There is no question that the services were rendered. There is only a missing date written on the service note. Does this circumstance warrant a 100% recoupment for a minor documentation error? If you answer, yes, you may have a fulfilling career as a Medicaid auditor in your future. You also may believe that a documentation error as egregious as a missing date should warrant tearing up the provider’s Medicaid contract and burning it. You may also hate puppy dogs and ice cream.

My answer is no. There are less drastic measures to be implemented other than a 100% recoupment – for example, a plan of correction could be required.

Third sentence: “Sometimes basic information like a patient’s medical history was nowhere to be found.”

I have major issues with this sentence. Ever hear of the saying, “You only get what you ask for?” All health care providers, including home health care providers, maintain massive amounts of documentation, whether it be electronic or paper. Furthermore, one client file could have years and years of documentation. When an auditor comes to an agency, the auditor normally presents with a list of consumer names and dates of service.

For example, the auditor wants to review the documentation for Barack Obama, date of service 11/8/12. The provider hands over the service note, the plan of care, the prior authorization, etc. Information not found on the documents provided to the auditor: place of birth, past drug use, including, marijuana and cocaine, smoking history, exercise regimen, marital status, immunizations, list of surgical procedures…you get the picture.

The article goes on to state, “Executives at all of the companies reached by the Globe said they are appealing the audit findings and chalked up most of the violations to minor paperwork issues that were overblown by state auditors.”

“There’s mistakes here, I understand that,” said Debra Walsh, administrator at Able Home Care. “[But] how did a missing address escalate to a sanction? That doesn’t make any sense.”

She’s right. It doesn’t make logical, reasonable, human sense. But it does make sense when you remember that the auditors are sent to the agencies with an audit checklist and a list of consumers with dates of service. If the checklist requires an address of the provider and the consumer to be present on the service note, regardless whether the regulations, rules or law require an address to be present on a service note, and there is no address present on the service note, then the auditor will find noncompliance. Strict adherence to the “Stepford Auditors’ Handbook” is required, not strict adherence to the law.

Looking at the sunny side – Most audit findings are easy-greasy to defend with legal arguments. Have you seen the TV show, “What Not To Wear?” The first, initial meeting of the targeted person on “What Not To Wear” is the original audit results “before a good legal defense.” It’s exaggerated, ugly, and quite shocking.

Then Stacy and Clinton come to the rescue and teach the scraggly, poorly-dressed individual fashion tips and the former frumpy individual is transformed into a fashionable chichi – or a much more palatable overpayment amount.

(In this analogy, my team and I are Stacy and Clinton. I will be Stacy).

One of my favorite examples of a “before” and “after” audit results is the following:

Before (frumpy individual):

""before2
After (fashionable chichi):
photo (3)
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Next time you see an article claiming that a health care provider overbilled the government for Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements, check and see whether the determination was appealed by the provider(s).

The appeal may demonstrate an entirely new perspective on such alleged overpayments than the original audit, because, remember, an auditor would not maintain a job if he or she found compliance.

Health Care Integration: A Glimpse Into My Crystal Ball

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.

Let’s investigate:

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?

medicare paying

 

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?

  1. Clinical laboratory services;
  2. Physical therapy services;
  3. Occupation therapy services;
  4. Radiology services (including MRIs, Ultrasounds, and CAT scans);
  5. Radiation therapy and supplies;
  6. Durable medical equipment and supplies;
  7. Parenteral and enteral nutrients, equipment, and supplies;
  8. Prosthetics, orthotics, and prosthetic devices and supplies;
  9. Home health services;
  10. Outpatient prescription drugs; and
  11. 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 (Recent) History of PCS Rates and Why There Is Parity of Rates Between Home Health and Long Term Care Facilities

Think of this blog as a history lesson…

As I was preparing my Power Point for speaking at the NC Association of Long Term Care Facilities (NCALTCF), I ran across a number of interesting issues on which I could blog. If you are attending the annual NCALTCF conference September 8-10, this will be a prelude to a portion of my presentation. I will be speaking on September 8th.

I am reviewing the history of personal care services (PCS) rates, and I realize that a few years ago, the parity of PCS rates for home health care providers and long-term care facilities (LTCF) occurred. The issue? Why the parity? I am curious. I remember vividly the parity change in 2012. But, I wonder, why did it occur?

Home health care companies provide PCS to people within their own homes (obviously a much-needed and growing service). Long term care facilities (LTCF) provide PCS within a facility.

But LTCFs have higher overhead due to mortgage/rent, 24-hour staff, monthly bills, more regulatory compliance issues, a cafeteria or kitchen, etc. Whereas, a home health care company does not incur these expenses. Why NOT pay LTCF a higher PCS reimbursement rate?

The answer is…we did, in North Carolina. And the federal government found that we violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Here is the percentage breakdown of people receiving home health, assisted living, nursing homes, hospice, and day service centers, on a national basis in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

LTCF pie chart

 

Notice the green, home health section. Home health has grown at a very rapid rate since 2000. But assisted living (blue) is still predominant.

Back before 2010 and in an attempt to help adult care homes that provide assistance with dementia patients, the General Assembly provided an enhanced Medicaid rate for those facilities.

For decades, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) warned us that the ADA requires that Medicaid reimbursements apply equally to all, including those living in institutional facilities and those who live with family. CMS informed us that we were in violation of Olmstead v. L.C., a Supreme Court decision decided in 1999. In Olmstead, the Supreme Court decided mental illness is a form of disability and that institutional isolation of a person with a disability is a form of discrimination under Title II of the ADA. See Olmstead v. L.C., 527 U.S. 581 (1999) (Remember the Prince song?)

In 2010, Disability Rights filed a complaint with the federal government complaining about NC’s disparate PCS rates between LTCF and home health. In 2011, the US Department of Justice investigated and agreed with Disability Rights. NC was violating Olmstead by providing two different reimbursement rates.

The General Assembly (GA) tackled the issue in 2012. The GA decreased the LTCF’s enhanced PCS rate to the home health’s rate in order to comply with federal law. Although there was a limit as to the number of hours of PCS per month, the GA wrote in an extra 50 hours per month for people suffering from dementia.

Disability Rights originally made the 2010 complaint to the federal government with honest, well-meaning intentions. Disability Rights wanted better care for the mentally ill. And Olmstead had wonderful results for the mentally ill. Now people suffering from mental illness can remain in their homes, if desired (although sometimes a legal battle is required).

But the unknown, unintentional consequence of Olmstead for the owners of LTCFs is that the PCS rate became paired with the home health PCS rate, which keeps declining. For example, prior to October 1, 2013, the PCS rate was $15.52 (now it is $13.88).

The federal minimal wage is $7.25. People who are paid minimum wage, generally, are not licensed professionals.

Most members of a LTCF staff are licensed. Many are certified nurse assistants (CNAs). Most are required to attend yearly continuing education classes. Should these CNAs and licensed professionals make only $6.00 more than minimum wage? Are not professional licensees worth more?

Not to mention…let’s talk about what LTCF staff actually does on a day-to-day basis. My Grandma Carson resides in a LTCF. Thankfully, she still lives in her own independent living house on the LTCF grounds because she can maintain her independent living, but many residents of LTCF cannot. LTCF staff assists in activities of daily living (ADLs), such as toileting, eating, ambulating, and grooming. When my great-grandmother could no longer feed herself, the wonderful staff at Glenaire in Cary, NC fed her. Should a person feeding an elderly person (and bathing and helping go to the bathroom) NOT be paid well-over minimum wage?

Well…the reimbursement rate may be $13.88 (a tad over $6.00 above minimum wage), but a PCS worker for a home health agency AND a LTCF does not earn $13.88/hour, they earn less. Companies are created to earn a profit. There is nothing wrong with earning a profit.

In fact, starting January 1, 2014, PCS workers in home health are now eligible for minimum wage. “ARE NOW ELIGIBLE.” As in, last year, PCS workers could have earned LESS than minimal wage.

In the future, I hope that health care providers who provide PCS services are paid more; I also hope that, in the future, the PCS rate increases. Someday, I will be the recipient of a PCS worker.