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Class Action Lawsuit Alleges Right to Inpatient Hospital Stays: Hospitals Are Damned If They Do…and Don’t!

Hospitals – “Lend me your ears; I come to warn you, not to praise RACs. The evil that RACs do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their appeals; So let it be with lawsuits.” – Julius Caesar, with modifications by me.

A class action lawsuit is pending against U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) alleging that the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) encourages (or bullies) hospitals to place patients in observation status (covered by Medicare Part B), rather than admitting them as patients (covered by Medicare Part A). The Complaint alleges that the treatments while in observation status are consistent with the treatments if the patients were admitted as inpatients; however, Medicare Part B reimbursements are lower, forcing the patient to pay more out-of-pocket expenses without recourse.

The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut refused to dismiss the class action case on February 8, 2017, giving the legal arguments within the Complaint some legal standing, at least, holding that the material facts alleged warrant investigation.

The issue of admitting patients versus keeping them in observation has been a hot topic for hospitals for years. If you recall, Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) specifically target patient admissions. See blog and blog. RAC audits of hospital short-stays is now one of the most RAC-reviewed issues. In fiscal year 2014, RACs “recouped” from hospitals $1.2 billion in allegedly improper inpatient claims. RACs do not, however, review outpatient claims to determine whether they should have been paid as inpatient.

On May 4, 2016, CMS paused its reviews of inpatient stays to determine the appropriateness of Medicare Part A payment. On September 12, 2016, CMS resumed them, but with more stringent rules on the auditors’ part. For example, auditors cannot audit claims more than the six-month look-back period from the date of admission.

Prior to September 2016,  hospitals would often have no recourse when a claim is denied because the timely filing limits will have passed. The exception was if the hospital joined the Medicare Part A/Part B rebilling demonstration project. But to join the program, hospitals would forfeit their right to appeal – leaving them with no option but to re-file the claim as an outpatient claim.

With increased scrutiny, including RAC audits, on hospital inpatient stays, the class action lawsuit, Alexander et al. v. Cochran, alleges that HHS pressures hospitals to place patients in observation rather than admitting them. The decision states that “Identical services provided to patients on observation status are covered under Medicare Part B, instead of Part A, and are therefore reimbursed at a lower rate. Allegedly, the plaintiffs lost thousands of dollars in coverage—of both hospital services and subsequent skilled nursing care—as a result of being placed on observation status during their hospital stays.” In other words, the decision to place on observation status rather than admit as an inpatient has significant financial consequences for the patient. But that decision does not affect what treatment or medical services the hospital can provide.

While official Medicare policy allows the physicians to determine the inpatient v. observation status, RAC audits come behind and question that discretion. The Medicare Policy states that “the decision to admit a patient is a complex medical judgment.” Ch. 1  § 10. By contrast, CMS considers the determination as to whether services are properly billed and paid as inpatient or outpatient to be a regulatory matter. In an effort to avoid claim denials and recoupments, plaintiffs allege that hospitals automatically place the patients in observation and rely on computer algorithms or “commercial screening tools.”

In a deposition, a RAC official admitted that if the claim being reviewed meets the “commercial screening tool” requirements, then the RAC would find the inpatient status is appropriate, as long as there is a technically valid order. No wonder hospitals are relying on these commercial screening tools more and more! It is only logical and self-preserving!

This case was originally filed in 2011, and the Court of Appeals overturned the district court’s dismissal and remanded it back to the district court for consideration of the due process claims. In this case, the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs could establish a protected property interest if they proved their allegation “that the Secretary—acting through CMS—has effectively established fixed and objective criteria for when to admit Medicare beneficiaries as ‘inpatients,’ and that, notwithstanding the Medicare Policy Manual’s guidance, hospitals apply these criteria when making admissions decisions, rather than relying on the judgment of their treating physicians.”

HHS argues that that the undisputed fact that a physician makes the initial patient status determination on the basis of clinical judgment is enough to demonstrate that there is no due process property interest at stake.

The court disagreed and found too many material facts in dispute to dismiss the case.

Going forward:

Significant discovery will be explored as to the extent to which hospitals rely on commercial screening tools. Also whether the commercial screening tools are applied equally to private insureds versus Medicare patients.

Significant discovery will be explored on whether the hospital’s physicians challenge changing a patient from inpatient to observation.

Significant discovery will be explored as to the extent that CMS policy influences hospital decision-making.

Hospitals need to follow this case closely. If, in fact, RAC audits and CMS policy is influencing hospitals to issue patients as observation status instead of inpatient, expect changes to come – regardless the outcome of the case.

As for inpatient hospital stays, could this lawsuit give Medicare patients the right to appeal a hospital’s decision to place the patient in observation status? A possible, future scenario is a physician places a patient in observation. The patient appeals and gets admitted. Then hospital’s claim is denied because the RAC determines that the patient should have been in observation, not inpatient. Will the hospitals be damned if they do, damned if they don’t?

damned

In the meantime:

Hospitals and physicians at hospitals: Review your policy regarding determining inpatient versus observation status. Review specific patient files that were admitted as inpatient. Was a commercial screening tool used? Is there adequate documentation that the physician made an independent decision to admit the patient? Hold educational seminars for your physicians. Educate! And have an attorney on retainer – this issue will be litigated.

Proposed Federal Legislation Will Provide Relief to Hospitals and Medicare Patients in Need of Post-Acute Care

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) announced that the new RAC contracts in North Carolina should be ready by the end of the year.  This means that, next year, RAC audits on hospitals and other providers will significantly increase in number. Get prepared, providers!!

However, there is proposed federal legislation that could protect hospitals and Medicare patients if passed.

Hypothetical: You present yourself to a hospital. The hospital keeps you in observation for 1 day. You are then formally admitted to the hospital as an inpatient for 2 more days. Under Medicare rules, will Medicare now cover your post-acute care in a skilled nursing facility (SNF)?

Answer: No. Observation days in hospitals do not count toward the Medicare 3-day requirement.

On November 19, 2014, Congressman Kevin Brady introduced draft legislation that would allow hospital observation stays to count toward establishing Medicare eligibility for post-acute services, as well as improve and supervise the RAC program.

You are probably wondering…Why would a hospital keep me in observation for a full day without admitting me as an inpatient when hospitals are reimbursed at a significantly higher rate for inpatient versus outpatient?

Answer: To avoid RAC recoupments.

In recent years, recovery audit contractors (RACs) have been exceedingly aggressive in post payment review audits in challenging hospital claims for short, inpatient stays. The RACs are motivated by money, and all of the RACs are compensated on a contingency basis, which leads to overzealous, sometimes, inaccurate audits. Here in North Carolina, Public Consulting Group (PCG) retains 11.5% of collected audits, and Health Management Systems (HMS) retains 9.75%.  See my blog: “NC Medicaid Extrapolation Audits: How Does $100 Become $100,000? Check for Clusters!”

Why have RACs targeted short-stay admissions in hospitals? As mentioned, one-day inpatient stays are paid significantly more than similar outpatient stays. Because of the financial incentives, RACs often focus audits on whether the short-stay is appropriate because this focus will yield a larger overpayment. As a result, hospitals become hesitant to admit patients as an “inpatient” status and, instead, keep the patient in outpatient observation for longer periods of time.

Keeping a person in observation status rather than admitting the person could impact the person’s health and well-being, but it will also impact whether a Medicare patient can receive post-acute care in a SNF (or, rather, whether Medicare will pay for it).

In order for a Medicare patient to receive covered, skilled nursing care after a hospital stay, Medicare requires a 3-day inpatient stay.  With the onslaught of RAC audits, hospitals become leery to admit a person as an inpatient.  When hospitals are tentative about admitting people, it can adversely affect a person’s post-acute care services.

To give you an idea of how overzealous these RACs are when it comes to auditing Medicare providers, there are over 800,000 pending Medicare appeals. That means that, across the country, RACs and other auditing companies have determined that over 800,000 providers and hospitals that accept Medicare were improperly overpaid for services rendered due to billing errors, etc. Over 800,000 providers and hospitals disagree with the audit results and are appealing. Now, obviously, all 800,000 appeals are hospitals appealing audits findings short-stay admissions not meeting criteria, but enough of them exist to warrant Congressman Brady’s proposed bill.

The proposed bill will significantly impact RAC audits of short-stay admissions in hospitals.  But the proposed bill will also extend the current short moratorium on RAC audits on short-stay admissions in hospitals.  Basically, the RACs became so overzealous and the Medicare appeals backlog became so large that Congress placed a short moratorium on RACs auditing short-stay admissions under the two-midnight rule through the end of March 2015.   The proposed bill will lengthen the moratorium just in time for NC’s new RACs to begin additional hospital audits.

The moral of the story is…you get too greedy, you get nothing…

Remember “The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs?”

A man and his wife owned a very special goose. Every day the goose would lay a golden egg, which made the couple very rich.  “Just think,” said the man’s wife, “If we could have all the golden eggs that are inside the goose, we could be richer much faster.”  “You’re right,” said her husband, “We wouldn’t have to wait for the goose to lay her egg every day.”  So, the couple killed the goose and cut her open, only to find that she was just like every other goose. She had no golden eggs inside of her at all, and they had no more golden eggs.

Too much greed results in nothing.

Similar to the husband and wife who killed the goose who laid the golden eggs, overzealous and inaccurate audits cause Congress to propose a temporary moratorium on RACs conducting audits on short-term hospital stays until the reimbursement rates are implemented within the same proposed bill (which, in essence will lengthen the moratorium until the rates within the bill are implemented, which also includes additional methods to settle RAC disputes).

The proposed bill, entitled, “The Hospitals Improvements for Payment Act of 2014,” (HIP) would revamp the way in which short hospital stays are reimbursed and how observation days are counted toward Medicare’s 3-day rule for post-acute care; thereby alleviating these painful hospital audits for short inpatient stays. Remember my blog: “Medicare Appeals to OMHA Reaches 15,000 Per Week, Yet Decisions Take Years; Hospital Association Sues Over Medicare Backlog.”

HIP would create a new payment model called the Hospital Prospective Payment System (HPPS) that would apply to short-term hospital stays.

What is a “short stay?” According to the proposed bill, a short stay is a: (1) stay that is less than 3 days; (2) stay that has a national average length of stay less than 3 days; or (3) stay that is “among the most highly ranked discharges that have been denied for reasons of medical necessity.”

Proposed HIP would also require the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to establish a new base rate of payment, which will be calculated by blending the base operating rate for short stays and an equivalent base operating rate for overnight hospital outpatient services.

The draft bill would also repeal the 0.2 percent ($200 million per year) reduction that CMS implemented with the two-midnight rule, which is the standard that presumes hospital stays are reasonable if the stay covers two midnights.

The proposed bill also mandates more government supervision as to the RACs.

This proposed bill comes on the cusp of an increased amount of RAC audits in NC on hospitals. As previously discussed, our new RAC contracts will be awarded before the end of this year. So our new RACs will come in with the new year…

The moral of the story?

Expect hospital RAC audits to increase dramatically in the next year, unless this bill is passed.

Hello, 2014! And Hello 3% Decrease in Medicaid Reimbursements (But Call the Decrease “Shared Savings”)

Tomorrow is the first Medicaid checkwrite for 2014 (and its my birthday too).  Happy New Year! Happy birthday!! (I’m turning 29 for the 10th year).  For New Years, my husband and I had a very quiet evening eating crab legs at home. Yum! I am sure many of you made New Years resolutions…work harder…lose weight…get paid 3% less….WHAT?

With the first Medicaid checkwrite tomorrow, due to Session Law 2013-360, many health care providers will receive 3% less in Medicaid reimbursements.  You will receive a 3% cut if you are the following types of providers:

  • Inpatient hospital.
  • Physician, excluding primary care until January 1, 2015.
  • Dental.
  • Optical services and supplies.
  • Podiatry.
  • Chiropractors.
  • Hearing aids.
  • Personal care services.
  • Nursing homes.
  • Adult care homes.
  • Dispensing drugs.

(This is the exact list as found in Session Law 2013-360.  I am well aware that the list is grammatically-challenged, but I did not write it).  Both the federal government and NC are calling this 3% withholding “Shared Savings Plan with Provider.” 

How is this “shared savings with providers” when the government is withholding money from providers??? Sure, supposedly, there will  be a “pay for performance payment” to some providers, but most providers will just be reimbursed 3% less.

How is this fair?  How is this “shared savings?” 

Here’s an example:

Say I work at Harris Teeter and my manager comes up to me and says, “Hey, Knicole, Harris Teeter is really concerned with our overhead costs.  Salaries seem to be a big cost, and we want to “share the savings” with you.  So we are going to cut your pay by 3%.  If we, subjectively, determine, at the end of the year, that you are working hard and saving us money, then we will give you a performance reward.  It will not be all the money we retained, but it will be some amount.  This way Harris Teeter profits off the interest of the 3% we retain all year, plus the amount we never give you.”

Folks, the above example is called a decrease in pay and a swift kick in the bottom.  It is not “shared savings.”

In DHHS’ shared savings scheme, the money will go to:

“The Department of Health and Human Services shall use funds withheld from payments for drugs to develop with Community Care of North Carolina (CCNC) a program for Medicaid and Health Choice recipients based on the ChecKmeds NC program. The program shall include the following:

  1. At least 50 community pharmacies by June 30, 2015.
  2. At least 500 community pharmacies in at least 70 counties by June 30, 2016.
  3. A per member per month (PMPM) payment for care coordination and population health services provided in conjunction with CCNC.
  4. A pay for performance payment.”

Session Law 2013-360.

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), “[a] shared savings methodology typically comprises four important concepts: a total cost of care benchmark, provider payment incentives to improve care quality and lower total cost of care, a performance period that tests the changes, and an evaluation to determine the program cost savings during the performance period compared to the benchmark cost of care and to identify the improvements in care quality.”

Employers chop salaries all the time in order to maximize profit.  Back in 2011, Sony proposed 11% salary cuts for executives due to such a terrible fiscal year.  But guess what is different between Sony’s 11% cut and Medicaid’s 3%?  I know…I know…a lot….but what difference am I thinking about?

Sony sought shareholder approval.

I guess you can make the argument that the General Assembly sought voter approval because our citizens voted for all the legislators in the General Assembly.  But I think that argument is weak.  No legislator ran his or her campaign on: “Vote for Me! If you are a Medicaid provider, I plan to decrease your salary by 3%!”

Better yet, with the Sony salary cut, executives had the option to seek employment elsewhere.  What is a Medicaid provider’s option? Move?  Not take Medicaid? (Sadly, I see this as a more viable option).

On a legal note, I question the constitutionality of our new shared savings plan.  Wouldn’t the decrease of 3% in Medicaid reimbursements be considered an unlawful taking without due process.  In essence, could one argue that the decrease of 3% in Medicaid reimbursements is just a way for the State to decrease Medicaid reimbursements without going through the proper lawful process?

Then again, maybe we won’t need to worry about the 3% decrease at all…given NCTracks’ track record, it is plausible that NCTracks will not be able to adjust the Medicaid reimbursements by 3%.