Medicare Appeals to OMHA Reaches 15,000 Per Week, Yet Decisions Take Years; Hospital Association Sues Over Medicare Backlog
When you are a health care provider and make the business determination to accept Medicare or Medicaid, you are agreeing to deal with certain headaches. Low reimbursement rates and more regulations than you can possibly count make accepting Medicare and Medicaid a daunting experience. Throw in some pre- and post-payment review audits, some inept contractors, and dealing with the government, in general, and you have a trifecta of terrible to-dos.
But having to “pay back” (by reimbursement withholding) an alleged overpayment before an appeal decision is rendered is not a headache which hospitals have agreed to take, says the American Hospital Association. And it said so very definitively, in the form of a Complaint in the U. S. District Court for the District of Columbia
In both Medicaid and Medicare audits, if you get audited and are told to pay back XX dollars, you have a right to appeal that determination. Obviously, with Medicare, you appeal on the federal level and with Medicaid, you appeal to the state level. But the two roads to appeal (the state and federal) are not identical. Robert Frost once said, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” However,the Medicare appeal route is NOT the route less traveled by.
As of February 12, 2014, over 480,000 Medicare appeals were pending for assignment to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), with 15,000 new appeals filed each week. In December 2013, HHS Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) announced a moratorium on assignment of provider appeals to ALJs for at least the next two years, and possibly longer. The average wait-time for a hearing is approximately 24 months, but will undoubtedly increase quickly due to the moratorium. A decision would not come until later. And all the while the parties are waiting, the provider’s reimbursements will be withheld until the alleged overpayment amount is met. Literally, a Medicare appeal could take 3-5 years.
The American Hospital Association is fed up. And who can blame them? On May 22, 2014, the American Hospital Association (AHA) filed a Complaint in the United States District Court in the District of Columbia against Kathleen Selebius, in her official capacity as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), complaining that HHS is noncompliant with federal statutory law because of the Medicare appeal backlog. I am not surprised by AHA’s Complaint; I am only surprised that it took this long for a lawsuit. I am also surprised that more providers, other than hospitals, are not taking action.
AHA is requesting relief under the Mandamus Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1361. The Mandamus Act allows a court to compel an officer or employee of the United States or any agency thereof to perform a duty owed. In this case, the AHA is saying that HHS has a statutory duty to resolve Medicare appeals within 90 days. So, AHA is asking the district court to compel HHS to resolve Medicare appeals by not later than the end of the 90-day period beginning on the date a request for hearing has been timely filed.
And, here, I am obliged to insert a quick, two thumbs-up for our very own Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) in NC for its handling of Medicaid appeals. If you file a contested case at OAH, it will not take 3-5 years.
AHA’s lawsuit is significant because AHA does not restrict the relief requested to only hospital Medicare appeals. AHA requests that the District Court “enter a declaratory judgment that HHS’s delay in adjudication of Medicare appeals violates federal law.” If granted, I would assume that this declaratory judgment would impact all Medicare providers. The only way to ensure all providers are covered by this decision is for all providers to either (1) file a separate action (to include damages, which is not included in AHA’s action for some reason); or (2) to join AHA’s action (and forego damages), but its impact will be broad. I am not sure why AHA did not seek damages; the time value of money is a real damage…the non-ability for the hospitals to invest in more beds because their money is stuck at HHS is a real damage…the loss of the interest on the withheld money, which is obviously benefiting the feds, is a real damage.
AHA’s request is not dissimilar to an arrested individual’s right to a speedy trial. During a criminal trial, the defendant remains incarcerated. Therefore, because we believe our liberty is so important, the defendant has a right to a speedy trial. That way, if he or she is innocent, the defendant would have spent the least number of days imprisoned.
With a Medicare audit appeal, HHS begins immediately withholding reimbursements until the alleged overpayment amount is met, even though through the appeal, that overpayment will most likely be decreased quite substantially. Apparently, across the nation, the percent of overturned Medicare audits through appeal is around 72%, but I could not find out whether the 72% represents ANY amount overturned or the entire 100% of the audit being overturned. Because, in my personal experience, 99.9% of Medicare appeals have SOME reduction in the alleged amount (I would have said 100%, but we are taught not to use definitive remarks as attorneys).
Because the provider’s Medicare money is withheld based on an allegation of an overpayment, the fact that the cases are backlogged at the ALJ level is financially distressing for any provider.Even without the backlog, Medicare appeals take longer than Medicaid appeals. In Medicare, there is four-step appeal process. Going before the ALJ is the 3rd level.
First, a Medicare appeal begins with the Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) for redetermination. The MAC must render a redetermination decision within sixty days.
If unsuccessful, a provider can appeal the MAC’s decision to a Qualified Independent Contractor (“QIC”) for reconsideration. QICs must render a decision within sixty days.
Provided that the amount in controversy is greater than $140 (for calendar year 2014), the next level, and where the backlog begins, is at the level of appeal to an ALJ. The ALJ is required both to hold a hearing and to render a decision within ninety days, which is not happening.
Hence, AHA’s lawsuit. Hopefully AHA will be successful, because a backlog of Medicare appeals at the ALJ level doesn’t help anyone. And audits are not going away.