Prior To Means BEFORE: An Amendment to N.C. Gen. Stat 108C-5(i) and Renovating the Leaning Tower of Pisa
The way it works with our three, separate branches of government is that if the court system determines that a statute should be interpreted as ‘A,’ and the legislative branch does not appreciate the way in which the statute was interpreted, then, during the next session, the legislative branch can pass a bill into law that specifically states that the statute is ‘B’ (provided the statutes are consistent with the constitution).
Take the leaning Tower of Pisa. It was built on unsteady ground and within 10 years of its construction, the builders knew it would lean…much like many of our Medicaid and Medicare laws. A beautiful tower, on paper, may not work in real life and on unsteady ground. But once the tower is erected, renovations can occur that will stop the tower from falling over (supposedly, the leaning Tower of Pisa is now stable).
Similarly, when a new law is enacted, no one can predict whether the law will work in real life or be effective in the manner for which it was intended.
N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C-5 was enacted in 2011 and allows the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to audit a small sample of a health care provider’s medical records and extrapolate the error rate against the universe of all of the provider’s records. For example, HMS, one of NC’s hired auditors, asks a Hospital X for all 99222, 99219 and 99235 codes, that is, initial hospital encounter codes, for the period of time of January 1, 2010 – January 1, 2011. After HMS reviews a sample of those medical records, it determines that Hospital X is miscoding at an error rate of 45% (a conclusion which is ALWAYS likely to be wrong, from my experience) for an actual overpayment amount (from just that particular record sample) of $100,000.00. N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C-5 allows HMS to extrapolate the actual overpayment over a universe all of the Hospital’s records for ‘x’ number of years, to reach an alleged overpayment amount of $4,000,000.00 for the audited time period
It really is ridiculous. For example, one of my clients, a behavioral health care provider, who works very hard for his clients, received from the auditor an alleged notice of overpayment of $640,441.00. My associate, Robert Shaw, reviewed the exact same documents that the auditors reviewed and determined that the audit was erroneous. Robert didn’t even have to take it to court. After he drafted correspondence to the auditing company with explanations of why the audit was incorrect, the auditing company admitted that almost every single one of its conclusions was in error, and agreed to accept $258.20 for one claim.
Going back to N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C-5, subsection (i) used to state, “Prior to extrapolating the results of any audits, the Department shall demonstrate and inform the provider that (i) the provider failed to substantially comply with the requirements of State or federal law or regulation or (ii) the Department has credible allegation of fraud concerning the provider.”
Using the plain language of the statute, in court, I would often argue in defense of a health care provider that the extrapolation should be thrown out because DHHS would send a Tentative Notice of Overpayment (TNO) that included the extrapolated amount in the same correspondence in which DHHS was “demonstrating and informing” the health care provider that either: (i) the provider failed to substantially comply with the requirements of State or federal law or regulation or (ii) the Department has a credible allegation of fraud concerning the provider. N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C-5 clearly states that the demonstration and informing should be given to the health care provider prior to extrapolating.
The DHHS attorney would argue that my argument would create absurd results in that DHHS could demonstrate and inform the provider in one correspondence, then one minute later send the extrapolation. The judges at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) agreed with me to a point. They agreed that the first extrapolation should be thrown out because DHHS did not demonstrate and inform prior to extrapolating.
However, when a provider receives an extrapolation, the first level of appeal is an informal reconsideration review within DHHS, Division of Medical Assistance (DMA). The hearing officers are hired by DHHS and do not, generally, have legal backgrounds; although I can think of one exception. After the reconsideration review, DHHS, through its hired vendor, conducts another extrapolation, which usually does not usually result in a severe decrease in alleged overpayment.
So the Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) held that the subsequent extrapolations…the extrapolations after receiving the TNO which provides the provider notice, are legit…that the TNOs satisfy the requirement of DHHS to demonstrate and inform the provider prior to extrapolating
Well, long story short, DHHS did not like having to defend itself for not providing sufficient notice prior to extrapolating.
Enter Session Law 2014-100, otherwise known as the sneaky Appropriations Bill that appropriates more than our budget.
Session Law 2014-100 revises N.C. Gen. Stat 108C-5(i) to state “(i) Prior to extrapolating the results of any audits, the Department shall demonstrate and inform the provider that (i) the provider failed to substantially comply with the requirements of State or federal law or regulation or (ii) the Department has a credible allegation of fraud concerning the provider. Nothing in the subsection shall be construed to prohibit the Department from identifying the extrapolated overpayment amount in the same notice that meets the requirements of this subsection.”
See the difference? Poof! The leaning Tower of Pisa is renovated!
Session Law 2014-100 retroactively became effective July 31, 2014. So, going forward, I can no longer argue that the TNO is not sufficient notice in order to throw out the first extrapolation.
However, I do have more arguments as to how DHHS is not complying with N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C-5 in an effort to throw out the extrapolation. There is more than one way to skin a cat! In fact, I am waiting for a decision from an ALJ on an innovative argument I made the last week.
Perhaps the leaning Tower of Pisa will lean a little more in the future despite the renovations…