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CMS Sets Forth New Proposed Rule to Promote Program Efficiency, Transparency, and Burden Reduction

On September 20, 2018, CMS released a new proposed rule in an effort to reduce the regulatory burden on health care providers. Now we have all heard CMS’ attempts to increase transparency and decrease burden on and for providers. But, usually, it ends up being all talk and no walk. So, I decided to investigate exactly how CMS new proposal purports to make a difference.

The proposals fall under three categories: (1) Proposals that simplify and streamline processes; (2) proposals that reduce the frequency of activities and revise timelines; and (3) proposals that are obsolete, duplicative, or that contain unnecessary requirements.

CMS projects savings of nearly $5.2 billion and a reduction of 53 million hours through 2021. That results in saving 6,000 years of burden hours over the next three years.

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  1. Proposals that simplify and streamline processes

Ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs)

ASCs and hospitals have long competed for business. This competition has, at times, led to hospitals providing outpatient surgical services refusing to sign written transfer agreements or to grant admitting privileges to physicians performing surgery in an ACS. CMS’ proposed rule is aimed at making is easier for ACSs to receive and admit patients. Currently, as a condition for coverage an ASC must – (i) Have a written transfer agreement with a hospital that meets the requirements of paragraph (b)(2) of this section; or (ii) Ensure that all physicians performing surgery in the ASC have admitting privileges at a hospital that meets the requirements of paragraph (b)(2) of this section. CMS proposes to remove the above-mentioned requirements.

Furthermore, now, for every patient admitted and/or pre-surgically assessed at an ACS, the ACS must ensure that each patient has a comprehensive medical history and physical assessment not more than 30-days before the date of the scheduled surgery, that, upon admission, each patient undergoes a pre-surgical assessment competed by a physician, and that each patient’s medical history and physical assessment be placed in the patient’s medical record prior to the surgical procedure. Instead, CMS proposes to defer to each individual ASC’s policy and operating physician’s clinical judgment. CMS will still require the documentation of any pre-existing condition and that the documentation including any allergies, medical history, and physical examination be placed in the patient’s file pre-surgery. But, without question, these two proposed rules will lighten the burden on ACSs and its relationships with hospitals.

Expect a heavy dose of comments to be from hospitals. I think that CMS’ thought process behind this is that it costs substantially less to perform surgeries in an ASC rather than a hospital. But I question whether CMS has studied outcome results – I have no empirical evidence; I only question.

Hospice

The federal regulations presently require that hospice staff include an individual with specialty knowledge of hospice medications. The proposed rule eliminates this requirement. I believe that this proposal arose from complaints of high payroll. This proposed change could cut payrolls significantly because salaries can be reduced without specialty knowledge.

In addition, the proposed rule replaces the requirement that hospices provide a copy of medication policies and procedures to patients, families and caregivers with a requirement that hospices provide information regarding the use, storage, and disposal of controlled drugs to the patient or patient representative, and family. This information would be provided in a more user-friendly manner, as determined by each hospice.

Hospitals

CMS’ new proposed rule allows a hospital that is part of a hospital system consisting of multiple separately certified hospitals to elect to have a unified and integrated Quality Assessment and Performance Improvement (QAPI) program for all of its member hospital. The system governing body will be responsible and accountable for ensuring that each of its separately certified hospitals meets all of the requirements of this section.

There is fine print that you will need to review: Each separately certified hospital within the system would have to demonstrate that: the unified and integrated QAPI program was established in a manner that takes into account each member hospital’s unique circumstances and any significant differences in patient populations and services offered in each hospital; and the unified and integrated QAPI program would establish and implement policies and procedures to ensure that the needs and concerns of each of its separately certified hospitals, regardless of practice or location, were given due consideration, and that the unified and integrated QAPI program would have mechanisms in place to ensure that issues localized to particular hospitals were duly considered and addressed.

Again, I believe that this proposed change is all about saving money.

  1. Proposals that reduce the frequency of activities and revise timelines

Home Health

We propose to remove the requirement that Home Health Agencies (HHAs) provide a copy of the clinical record to a patient, upon request, by the next home visit. We propose to retain the requirement that the copy of the clinical record must be provided, upon request, within 4 business days.

Sometimes a patient’s record is voluminous. With the new age of EHR, hard copies are not so easily accessible.

Critical Access Hospitals

CMS’ proposed rule will change the requirement at § 485.635(a)(4) to reflect the current medical practice where providers are expected to update their policies and procedures as needed in response to regulatory changes, changes in the standard of care, or nationally recognized guidelines. The current rule requires a CAH’s professional personnel to review its policies at least annually and the CAH to review as necessary. The proposal is to reduce burden and provide flexibility by requiring the CAH’s, professional personnel, at a minimum, to conduct a biennial review of its policies and procedures instead of an annual review.

Emergency Preparedness

Instead of reviewing emergency preparedness plans annually, CMS proposes to revise these requirements, so that applicable providers and suppliers have increased flexibility with compliance.

  1. Proposals that are obsolete, duplicative, or that contain unnecessary requirements

Hospitals and CAH Swing-Bed Requirements

CMS’ proposed rule removes the cross reference in the regulations for hospital swing-bed providers and for CAH swing-bed providers. The cross-reference gives a resident the right to choose to, or refuse to, perform services for the facility if they so choose. If the resident works, the facility must document it in the resident’s plan of care, noting whether the services are voluntary or paid, and, if paid, providing wages for the work being performed, at prevailing rates.

The new proposal also removes requirement that facilities with more than 120 beds to employ a social worker on full-time basis and in obtaining routine and 24-hour emergency dental care.

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The comment period for this proposed rule ends on November 19, 2018. You can go to the Federal Register to make a formal comment.

Comments may be submitted electronically through the e-Regulation website https://www.cms.gov/Regulations-and-Guidance/Regulations-and-Policies/eRulemaking/index.html?redirect=/eRulemaking.

RAC Forecast: Increased RAC Audits with a High Likelihood of Recoupments

Data regarding the success of the Medicare RAC program does not lie, right? If the report shows success, then increase the RAC process!! And to anyone who reads the new report to Congress…a success the RAC process is!

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently published its 2016 results of the Medicare Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) program. And CMS was not shy in reporting high rates of returns due to the RAC program. With results as amazing as the report touts, it is clear that the Medicare RACs are hoping that this new report on the hundreds of millions they’ve recovered for Medicare will cause the CMS to reverse course on its decision to limit the number of claims they can review. After reviewing the report to CMS, I will be shocked if Congress does not loosen the limitations placed on RACs in the last couple years. The report acts as marketing propaganda to Congress.

My forecast: increased RAC audits with a high likelihood of recoupments.

The RAC program is divided into 5 regions (currently):

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In 2016, the RAC regions were arranged a bit differently:

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The mission of the RAC program is to identify and correct overpayments made on claims for health care services provided to beneficiaries, to identify underpayments to providers, and to provide information that allows the CMS to implement corrective actions that will prevent future improper payments. As most of my readers are well aware, I have been critical of the RAC program in the past for being overzealous and hyper (overly) – technical, in an erroneous kind of way. See blog. And blog.

The Social Security Act (SSA), which allows for RAC programs, also requires that the CMS publish and submit a yearly “self-audit” on the RAC program. Even though we are almost in October 2018, the recent report released to Congress covers 2016 – apparently CMS’ data gathering lags a bit (lot). If I have to get my 2018 taxes to the IRS by April 15, 2019, shouldn’t CMS have a similar deadline? Instead of submitting information for 2016 when it’s almost 2019…

RACs are paid on a contingency fee basis, which incentivize the RACs to discover billing irregularities. The amount of the contingency fee is a percentage of the improper payment recovered from, or reimbursed to, providers. The RACs negotiate their contingency fees at the time of the contract award. The base contingency fees range from 10.4 – 14.4% for all claim types, except durable medical equipment (DME). The contingency fees for DME claims range from 15.4 – 18.9%. The RAC must return the contingency fee if an improper payment determination is overturned at any level of appeal although I am unaware whether the RAC has to return the interested gained on holding that amount as well, which cannot be a minute amount given that the Medicare appeal backlog causes Medicare appeals to last upwards of 5 – 9 years.

Beginning in 2017, the RAC contracts had an amendment not previously found in past contracts. Now the RACs are to wait 30-days before reporting the alleged overpayment to the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs). The thought process behind this revision to the RAC contracts is that the 30-day wait period allows the providers to informally discuss the findings with the RACs to determine the provider has additional records germane to the audit that could change the outcome of the audit. Theoretically, going forward, providers should receive notification of an alleged overpayment from the RACs rather than the MACs.

And the 2016 results are (drum roll, please):

RACs uncovered $404.46 million in overpayments and $69.46 million in underpayments in fiscal year 2016, for a total of $473.92 million in improper payments being corrected. This represents a 7.5% increase from program corrections in FY 2015, which were $440.69 million.

63% of overpayments identified in 2016 (more than $278 million) were from inpatient hospital claims, including coding validation reviews.

RACs received $39.12 million in contingency fees.

After factoring in contingency fees, administrative costs, and amounts overturned on appeal, the RAC program returned $214.09 million to the Medicare trust funds in 2016.

CMS has implemented several elements to verify RAC accuracy in identifying improper payments. The Recovery Audit Validation Contractor (RVC) establishes an annual accuracy score for each RAC. Supposedly, if we are to take the CMS report as accurate and unbiased, in FY 2016, each RAC had an overall accuracy score of 91% or higher for claims adjusted from August 2015 through July 2016. I am always amazed at the government’s ability to warp percentages. I had a client given a 1.2% accuracy rating during a prepayment review that would rival J.K. Rowling any day of the year. Robert Galbraith, as well.

To address the backlog of Medicare appeals, CMS offered a settlement process that paid hospitals 68% of what they claimed they were owed for short-term inpatient stays. – I am not confident that this money was accounted for in the overall results of the RAC program in the recent report.

135,492 claims were appealed by healthcare providers. But the RAC report to Congress notes: “appealed claims may be counted multiple times if the claim had appeal decisions rendered at multiple levels during 2016.” Undeniably, if this number is close to accurate, there was a significant down swing of appeals by providers in 2016. (I wonder whether the hospital settlement numbers were included).

Of the total appealed claims, 56,724, or 41.9%, were overturned with decisions in the provider’s favor. (Fact check, please!). In my experience as a Medicare and Medicaid regulatory compliance litigator, the success rate for Medicare and Medicaid alleged overpayments is remarkably higher (but maybe my clients just hired a better attorney (wink, wink!).

With results this good, who needs more RAC auditing? We do!! If the report shows success, then increase the RAC process!! 

Medicare and Medicaid in the News: An Overview

With so much news about Medicare and Medicaid, I decided to do a general update of Medicare and Medicaid in the news. To the best of my ability, I am trying not to put my own “spin” on the stories, but just relay what is happening. Besides, Hurricane Florence is coming, and we have to hunker down. FYI: There is no more water at Costco.

Here is an overview of current “hot topics” for Medicare and Medicaid:

Affordable Care Act

On September 5, 2018, attorneys argued in TX district court whether the Affordable Care Act should be repealed. The Republican attorneys, who want the ACA repealed will argue that the elimination of the tax penalty for failure to have health insurance rendered the entire law unconstitutional because the Supreme Court upheld the ACA in 2012 by saying its requirement to carry insurance was a legitimate use of Congress’ taxing power. We await the Court’s decision.

Patient Dumping

In Maine, two hospitals illegally turned away emergency room patients in mental health crises and sometimes had them arrested for trespassing. The hospitals are Central Maine Medical Center and St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, and they have promised to address and change these policies. It is likely that the hospitals will be facing penalties. Generally, turning away a patient from an ER is over $100,000 per violation.

Kickbacks

Six San Francisco Bay Area medical professionals have been indicted for an alleged kickback scheme in which three paid and three received kickbacks for healthcare referrals in home health.

Medicaid Work Requirements

In June, Arkansas became the first state to implement a work requirement into its Medicaid program. The guinea pig subjects for the work requirement were Medicaid expansion recipients aged 30-49, without children under the age of 18 in the home, did not have a disability, and who did not meet other exemption criteria. On a monthly basis, recipients must work, volunteer, go to school, search for work, or attend health education classes for a combined total of 80 hours and report the hours to the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) through an online portal. Recipients who do not report hours any three months out of the year lose Medicaid health coverage until the following calendar year. September 5th was the reporting deadline for the third month of the policy, making today the first time that recipients can lose Medicaid coverage as a result of the work requirement. There are 5,426 people who missed the first two reporting deadlines, which is over half of the group of 30-49 year olds subject to the policy beginning in June. If these enrollees do not do not log August hours or an exemption into the portal by September 5th, they will lose Medicaid coverage until January 2019.

Accountable Care Organizations

According to a report in late August, accountable care organizations (ACOs) that requires physicians to take on substantial financial risk saved Medicare just over $100 million in the model’s first year, the CMS said in a report released Monday.

Lower Medicare Drug Costs

Back in May, the Trump administration published a “blueprint” for lowering drug costs. Advocacy groups are pushing back, saying that his plan will decrease access to drugs.

Balance Billing

Balance billing is when a patient presents at an emergency room and needs emergency medical services before the patient is able to determine whether the surgeon at the hospital is “in-network” with his insurance…most likely, because the patient is unconscious and no one has time to check for insurance networks. More and more states are passing laws to protect consumers from balance billing. An example of balance billing was Drew Calver, whose health plan paid $56,000 for his 4-day emergency stay at St. David’s Medical Center. Once he was discharged, he received a bill from the hospital for $109,000. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) regulates company plans that practice this. The hospital eventually reduced the bill to $332.

Patient Abandonment

During a fire, staff at two Santa Rosa, California-based nursing homes “abandoned their residents, many of them unable to walk and suffering from memory problems, according to a legal complaint filed by the California Department of Social Services.” The Department of Social Services accused the staff members of being unprepared for the emergency fire.

Makes you wonder what could possibly happen in the fast-approaching hurricane. At least with a hurricane, we have days advance notice. Granted there is no more water in the stores or gasoline at the pumps, but Amazon Prime, one-day service still works…for now.

Licensing and Tax Implications of Telemedicine; Will the Regulations Inhibit Telemedicine’s Ability to Thrive?

My husband and I recently decided to try new insurance. It is always hard to change from what you know, so we were a bit hesitant. But the insurance costs under half of what we were paying, and it seemed that nothing was covered with our old insurance. So we took the leap. The absolute best thing about our new insurance is that we have 24/7 access to a physician for prescriptions. For example, I was ill last week, so at about midnight on Tuesday, I called the 24/7 hotline for anti-nausea medicine. A doctor called me within 30 minutes, listened to my complaints, and I had a prescription to be picked from my local Costco within minutes. Obviously, I waited to pick up my prescription the next day when Costco opened, but you see my point. Technology is amazing and scary. Had I preferred, I could have opted to talk to my tele-doctor through Facetime, but, quite frankly, I doubt he would have enjoyed that image of me sick with vomit in my hair. But if my issue were a rash or a questionable mole, Facetime would have worked.

There I am – last Tuesday – at midnight, talking to my new tele-doctor. I don’t even know his name. Most likely, next time I call the 24/7 hotline I will talk to someone else. I may never speak to my prescribing provider again. Nor would I know if I did.

But it worked. It was efficient. Oh, and did I say “free?” We pay a monthly premium and the cost of the prescription was $9.75, but no cost of a doctor visit. I didn’t have to drive to an office. I spoke to the doctor while laying on bed. This is telehealth.

I found myself wondering why doesn’t every health insurance implement this system of free access to a doctor 24/7, the ability to get a prescription at any time, and at nominal cost?? Medicare and Medicaid recipients would benefit highly from telehealth.

And I wondered so much (and couldn’t sleep) that I decided to research. My Melatonin works less and less as time passes. I guess I am getting resistant.

The tele-doctor that wrote me a prescription for anti-nausea was not a North Carolinian. I know this for a fact because when I said to tele-doctor, “I cannot believe that you work at midnight.” He said, “Oh, it’s only 9:00 here.” Based on his sentence, I deduced that tele-doctor was somewhere on the west coast. (I could be a PI).

How could tele-doctor write me a prescription when I live in North Carolina and he lives in CA, OR, or WA? Does he have to be licensed in NC to prescribe to me? And what about the tax implications on providing a medical service in a different state?

One thing that I need to make clear for my readers is that this blog is made possible by the standoff in our U.S. Congress that failed to pass legislature regarding telemedicine in its 2017-2018 session, the first week of August 2018. The opioid bill (which is what it has been dubbed) was to boost telemedicine by breaking down state law barriers disallowing telemedicine or imposing high taxes on telemedicine, which inhibits its growth. In case you are curious, Massachusetts has been named the worst state in which to perform telemedicine. Apparently, Massachusetts has many laws suppressing the advancement of telemedicine.

According to (hopefully not fake) news, what ultimately sunk this year’s wide-ranging health bill was a philosophical disagreement over the funding of community hospitals, which, apparently is a hot topic to debate between the Senate and the House.

As for the telemedicine elements of the failed bill, word on the street is that it could return in a standalone bill come January. Consult your horoscope or 8-ball for more information.

Telemedicine – How Does It Work Legally?

The World Health Organization’s has defined telemedicine as “The delivery of healthcare services, where distance is a critical factor, by all healthcare professionals using information and communication technologies for the exchange of valid information for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease and injuries, research and evaluation, and for the continuing education of healthcare providers, all in the interests of advancing the health of individuals and their communities.”

The type of telemedicine in which I participated is considered “real time telemedicine.” I had a consultation with no delay in communication at a distance.

While real estate tax is relatively simple, other taxes are not. Sales and use taxes, income taxes, and business privilege taxes are complex because of the interstate commerce issues. If my tele-doctor lives in CA and provides taxable services to me in North Carolina, does California or North Carolina benefit from the tax? Is the tax due where the provider lives or the consumer? And, BTW, Dr. Tele-health did not ask my location or state of residence. How will he do his taxes?

One of the pinnacle, legal cases that speaks to jurisdictional issues, such as interstate tax issues, is the Supreme Court case, International Shoe Co. V. Washington (I hated this case in law school). According to International Shoe:

  • A state may only impose a tax if it has a substantial nexus to the persons and transactions that would be subject to tax. (Now you see why I hate this case. What is substantial nexus? This case creates a riddle.) Oh, and it gets better.
  • The tax must be a fairly apportioned to reduce the prospect of double taxation.
  • A state cannot adapt a tax that discriminates against interstate commerce.
  • Any tax must be fairly related to services provided by the state. (Can you hear the Charlie Brown teacher reciting this?)

Wait, what?

Because we are the United States of America and believe in States remaining sovereign over its own people, unsurprisingly, the tax laws in every state differ – dramatically.

Telemedicine providers need to be cautious of income tax, unrelated business income tax, sales and use tax, sales tax, and use tax and be knowledgable about the state-by-state  licensing requirements for telehealth. Most states require that a physician is licensed in the state where their patient is located, which presents a problem for telehealth. Some states have exceptions carved out for telehealth.

Here is the Cliffnotes version:

Income Tax

The telehealth professional will be paid, and income will be reported to the IRS on a 1099. Most states have income tax, but some do not. Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas,Washington and Wyoming do not have income tax.

Even more complicated for the telehealth providers, is the question of whether the “source” of the income received by the surgeon is the country or state where the provider is located or the country or state where the patient is located. You can see why this is an important issue to the state, which wants to collect the most income tax possible, and to the physician, who doesn’t want to pull a Martha Stewart.

The current IRS definition of “patient” originated in 1968. The current definition of a “patient” contemplates a bricks-and-mortar structure at which patients receive treatment. Even though the IRS’ definition of “patient” is prehistoric, there have been several subsequent private letter rulings (PLRs) permitting the term “patient” to extend to recipients of services conducted by providers, even though performed at a variety of locations.

Unrelated Business Income (UBI)

The IRS defines UBI as income from a trade or business that is regularly carried on by a tax-exempt organization and that is not substantially related to the organization’s exempt purpose.

To date, the IRS has not issued any guidance or rulings regarding telemedicine UBI, specifically. For now, tax-exempt healthcare organizations participating in telemedicine are subject to the IRS rules and principles that apply more broadly to UBI and healthcare activities – some of which, frankly, don’t neatly fit, and some of which require careful documentation to avoid triggering UBI status.

One problem with UBI (like income tax) is the IRS’ definition of “patient.” The IRS’ definition does not contemplate telemedicine because the setting is not traditional.

In PLR 8122013, a tax-exempt hospital was not liable for UBI tax on its provision of laboratory services to patients of private physicians because such services contributed importantly to meeting the health needs of the community. In discussing Rev. Rul. 68-376, the IRS noted: “[I]t is important that the Service take cognizance of the changes in health care delivery brought about by modern technology. For example, the technology is now in place for a hospital to monitor the results of an electrocardiogram attached to a patient who is 80 miles away. The point is that who is legitimately considered a patient of a hospital today is not necessarily the same as 12 years ago, when the cited revenue ruling was published.” This shows, at the very least, that the IRS understands the definition of “patient” needs to be updated, even if no steps are taken to do so.

Sales and Use Tax

Sales and use taxes are typically imposed upon tangible personal property. Medical services provided in a traditional face-to-face setting would not trigger any sales and use tax issues. However, many states have adopted legislation that defines some intangible items to be treated like tangible personal property. For example, the data transmission component of telemedicine services could be subject to sales and use tax, which would mean that my “free” telehealth consult could have a tax implication of which I was unaware.

Sales Tax

If a provider renders health care services to someone in a foreign state, that provider may be liable to collect sales tax. Quite recently, I noticed this issue, not with telehealth, but with the internet sales of durable medical equipment. Providers who sell equipment, prescriptions, or vitamins over the internet need to be mindful of cross-state, sales tax.

The potential sales tax arises from the data transmission component of telemedicine. For example, in New Jersey, the sales tax expressly exempts services of of a physician. Juxtapose Connecticut, which has an administrative ruling that the provision of medical records through an online service is a taxable service.

Licensing Issues

This issue – cross-state licensing issues – really deserves a blog of its own. I will discuss this issue with the author of this blog. Much like an attorney, physicians and other health care providers have to be licensed in the state in which they practice.Most states require that a physician is licensed in the state where their patient is located.  Telehealth challenges states’ borders. Some states have attempted to solve this problem by creating a limited telemedicine license for which out-of state physicians can apply. However, this solution doesn’t exist in all states.

The Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB), is a non-profit representing more than 70 medical and osteopathic boards. It also has about 17 states as members. FSMB is a proponent of allowing physicians to practice beyond state lines.

Partly due to the efforts of FSMB, approximately nineteen states have passed legislation to adopt the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, which allows physicians to obtain a license to practice medicine in any Compact state through a simplified application process. The state medical boards retain their licensing and disciplinary authority, but agree to share information for licensing purposes.

The state boards of medicine recognize that standard of care is also largely a state-by-state analysis, sometimes even a community-by-community expectation. Some states, such as California, passed policy requiring the standard of care in telemedicine services to be the same as if providing the service in person.

All in all, I was happy with my very first telehealth experience. I do recognize, however, that there are legal barriers preventing telehealth and regulatory risks for the health care providers to contemplate before jumping on the telehealth boat. But, as a consumer…I’m hooked!

 

 

Hasty and Careless Termination Decisions Can Put Medicare/caid Providers Out of Business

When action happens in the Medicare/caid world, it happens quickly. Sometimes you do not receive adequate notice to coordinate continuity of care for your consumers or patients. For example, on August 3, 2018, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that at midnight on August 18, 2018, it would be terminating the contract between CMS and ESEC, LLC, an Oklahoma-based surgery center.

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CMS provided ESEC 15 days notice of complete termination of Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. Now I do not know the details of ESEC’s financial reliance on Medicare or Medicaid, but, these days, few providers are solely third-party pay or cash-only. I can only assume that ESEC is scrambling to initiate a lawsuit to remain afloat and open for business. Or ESEC is praying for a “rescind” by correcting whatever issues it purportedly had. Personally, I would not count on a possible rescind. I would be proactively seeking legal intervention.

Here are some examples of recent terminations and the notice received by the providers:

  • Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center’s heart transplant program lost federal funding August 17, 2018. The hospital will no longer be able to bill Medicare and Medicaid for heart transplants.
  • Effective August 9, 2018, Brookwood Baptist Medical Center’s Medicare contract was terminated. The notice was published July 25, 2018.
  • As of August 12, 2018, The Grandview Nursing & Rehabilitation Facility’s Medicare contract was terminated. Notice of the termination was published August 1, 2018.
  • As of September 1, 2018, Compassus-Kansas City, a hospice company, will lose its Medicare contract. Notice was provided August 17, 2018.
  • On August 3, 2018, CMS announced that it was terminating Deligent Health Services Inc.’s Medicare and Medicaid contact, effective December 5, 2017. (That is quite a retroactive timeframe).

Can Careless Judy put a healthcare provider out of business?

This happens all the time. Sure, ESEC probably had knowledge that CMS was investigating it. However, CMS has the authority to issue these public notices of termination without holding a hearing to determine whether CMS’ actions are accurate. What if Careless Judy in Program Integrity made a human error and ESEC actually does meet the standards of care. But you see, Careless Judy accidentally used the minimum standards of care from 2008 instead of 2018. It’s an honest mistake. She had no malice against ESEC. But, my point is – where is the mechanism that prevents a surgical ambulatory center from going out of business – just because Careless Judy made a mistake?

To look into whether any legal mechanism exists to prevent Careless Judy from putting the ambulatory center out of business, I turn to the legal rules.

42 CFR 488.456 governs terminations of provider agreements. Subsection (a) state that termination “ends – (1) Payment to the facility; and (2) Any alternative remedy.”

Subsection (b) states that CMS or the State may terminate the contract with the provider if the provider “Is not in substantial compliance with the requirements of participation, regardless whether immediate jeopardy is present.” On the bright side, if no immediate jeopardy exists then CMS or the State must give 15 days notice. If there is found to be immediate jeopardy, the provider get 2 days. But who determines what is “substantial compliance?” Careless Judy?

42 CFR 489.53 lists the reasons on which CMS may rely to terminate a provider. Although, please note, that the regulations use the word “may” and not “must.” So we have some additional guidance as to when a provider’s contract may be terminated, but it still seems subjective. Here are the reasons:

  1. The provider is not complying with the provisions of title XVIII and the applicable regulations of this chapter or with the provisions of the agreement.
  2. The provider or supplier places restrictions on the persons it will accept for treatment and it fails either to exempt Medicare beneficiaries from those restrictions or to apply them to Medicare beneficiaries the same as to all other persons seeking care.
  3. It no longer meets the appropriate conditions of participation or requirements (for SNFs and NFs) set forth elsewhere in this chapter. In the case of an RNHCI no longer meets the conditions for coverage, conditions of participation and requirements set forth elsewhere in this chapter.
  4. It fails to furnish information that CMS finds necessary for a determination as to whether payments are or were due under Medicare and the amounts due.
  5. It refuses to permit examination of its fiscal or other records by, or on behalf of CMS, as necessary for verification of information furnished as a basis for payment under Medicare.
  6. It failed to furnish information on business transactions as required in § 420.205 of this chapter.
  7. It failed at the time the agreement was entered into or renewed to disclose information on convicted individuals as required in § 420.204 of this chapter.
  8. It failed to furnish ownership information as required in § 420.206 of this chapter.
  9. It failed to comply with civil rights requirements set forth in 45 CFR parts 80, 84, and 90.
  10. In the case of a hospital or a critical access hospital as defined in section 1861(mm)(1) of the Act that has reason to believe it may have received an individual transferred by another hospital in violation of § 489.24(d), the hospital failed to report the incident to CMS or the State survey agency.
  11. In the case of a hospital requested to furnish inpatient services to CHAMPUS or CHAMPVA beneficiaries or to veterans, it failed to comply with § 489.25 or § 489.26, respectively.
  12. It failed to furnish the notice of discharge rights as required by § 489.27.
  13. The provider or supplier refuses to permit copying of any records or other information by, or on behalf of, CMS, as necessary to determine or verify compliance with participation requirements.
  14. The hospital knowingly and willfully fails to accept, on a repeated basis, an amount that approximates the Medicare rate established under the inpatient hospital prospective payment system, minus any enrollee deductibles or copayments, as payment in full from a fee-for-service FEHB plan for inpatient hospital services provided to a retired Federal enrollee of a fee-for-service FEHB plan, age 65 or older, who does not have Medicare Part A benefits.
  15. It had its enrollment in the Medicare program revoked in accordance to § 424.535 of this chapter.
  16. It has failed to pay a revisit user fee when and if assessed.
  17. In the case of an HHA, it failed to correct any deficiencies within the required time frame.
  18. The provider or supplier fails to grant immediate access upon a reasonable request to a state survey agency or other authorized entity for the purpose of determining, in accordance with § 488.3, whether the provider or supplier meets the applicable requirements, conditions of participation, conditions for coverage, or conditions for certification.

As you can see from the above list of possible termination reasons, many of which are subjective, it could be easy for Careless Judy to terminate a Medicare contract erroneously, based on inaccurate facts, or without proper investigation.

The same is true for Medicaid; your contract can be terminated on the federal or state level. The difference is that at the state level, Careless Judy is a state employee, not a federal.

42 CFR 498.5 governs appeal rights for providers contract terminations. Subsection (b) states that “Any provider dissatisfied with an initial determination to terminate its provider agreement is entitled to a hearing before an ALJ.”

42 CFR 498.20 states that an initial determination by CMS (like a contract termination) is binding unless it is reconsidered per 42 CFR 498.24.

A Stay of the termination should suspend the termination until the provider can obtain a hearing by an impartial tribunal until the appeal has been completed. The appeal process and supposed automatic Stay of the termination is the only protection for the provider from Careless Judy. Or filing an expensive injunction.

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 Reform: As Addictive as Fortnite

Do you have a kid addicted to Fortnite? The numbers are rising…

For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past year, this is how Fortnite is explained on the internet:

“In short, it’s a mass online brawl where 100 players leap out of a plane on to a small island and then fight each other until only one is left. Hidden around the island are weapons and items, including rifles, traps and grenade launchers, and players must arm themselves while exploring the landscape and buildings. It’s also possible to collect resources that allow you to build structures where you can hide or defend yourself. As the match progresses, the playable area of land is continually reduced, so participants are forced closer and closer together. The last survivor is the winner.”

More than 40 million people play Fortnite. According to the May 2018 Medicaid Enrollment Report, 73,633,050 Americans are enrolled in Medicaid or CHIP, so government-assisted health insurance definitely trumps Fortnite on participation.

Recently, the General Assembly passed and the Governor signed two Bills into law pertaining to Medicaid reform: (1) HB 403 (Session Law 2018-48); and (2) HB 156 (Session Law 2018-49). Notice that the Session Laws are one digit separate from each other. That is because Governor Cooper signed these two bills consecutively and on the same day. But did he read them? I do not know the answer, but I do know this: Medicaid reform in NC has become a Fortnite. The MCOs, provider-led entities, ACOs, auditors, DHHS…everyone is vying for a piece of the very large Medicaid budget, approximately $3.6 billion – or 16% of NC’s total budget. It is literally a firehose of money if you can manage to be a player in the Medicaid Fortnite – a fight to eliminate everyone but you. Unlike Fortnite, the pay-off for winning Medicaid Fortnite is financially lucrative. But it is a fight with few winners.

Session Law 2018-48 is entitled, “An Act to Modify the Medicaid Transformation Legislation.”

Session Law 2018-49 is entitled, “An Act to Require Medicaid Prepaid Health Plans to Obtain a License from the Department of Insurance and to Make Other Changes Pertaining to Medicaid Transformation and the Department of Insurance.”

Don’t you like how the House decided to use the term “transformation” instead of “reform?” The term “reform” had been over-utilized.

Recently, the North Carolina Medical Society announced that it is throwing its metaphoric hat in the ring to become “Carolina Complete Health,” a provider-led patient-care center.

The New Laws

Session Law 2018-48

Session Law 2018-48 defines provider-led entity (PLE) as an entity that meets the following criteria: (1) A majority of the entity’s ownership is held by an individual or entity that has its primary business purpose the operation of a capitated contract for Medicaid; (2) A majority of the entity’s governing body is composed of licensed physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, or psychologist and have experience treating Medicaid beneficiaries; (3) Holds a PHP license issued by the Department of Insurance (see Session Law 2018-49).

Services covered by PHP’s will include physical health services, prescription drugs, long-term services and supports, and behavioral health care services for North Carolina Health Choice recipients. The PHP’s will not cover services currently covered by the managed care organizations (MCOs).

Session Law 2018-48 allows for 4 contracts with PHPs to provide services for Medicaid and NC Health Choice (statewide contracts). Plus, it allows up to 12 regional contracts.

What is the future of behavioral health and the MCO system?

For now, they will still exist. The double negative wording of the new Session Law makes it seem like the MCOs will have less authority, but the MCOs will continue to cover for services described in subdivisions a, d, e, f, g, j, k, and l of this subdivision.

Session Law 2018-48 also creates new entities called BH IDD Tailored Plans. Session Law 2018-48 carves out developmentally disabled services (or IDD). It mandates that DHHS create a detailed plan for implementation of a new IDD program under the 1115 Waiver. Services provided by the new Tailored Plans shall pay for and manage services currently offered under the 1915(b)(c) Waiver.

Here’s the catch for providers: “Entities operating BH IDD Tailored Plans shall maintain closed provider networks for behavioral health, intellectual and developmental disability, and traumatic brain injury services and shall ensure network adequacy.” (emphasis added). Fortnite continues with providers jockeying to be included in the networks.

For the next four years only an MCO may operate a BH IDD Tailored Plan. This tells me that the MCOs have sufficiently lawyered up with lobbyists. After the term of the initial contracts, the Tailored Plans will be the result of RFPs issued by DHHS and the submission of competitive bids from nonprofit PHPs.

DHHS was to report to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee with a plan for the implementation of the Tailored Plans by June 22, 2018. – Sure would’ve loved to be a fly on that wall.

Starting August 31, 2018, DHHS is authorized to take any actions necessary to implement the BH IDD Tailored Plans in accordance with all the requirements in this Act.

Session Law 2018-49

A provider-led entity must meet all the following criteria: (1) A majority of the entity’s ownership is held by an individual or entity that has as its primary business purpose operating a capitated contract with with Medicaid providers; and (2) A majority of the governing body is composed of individuals who are licensed as physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, or psychologists and all of whom have experienced treating Medicaid beneficiaries.

Session Law 2018-49 requires that all PHPs apply for a license with the Commissioner of Insurance. With the application, all entities would need to provide proof of financial stability and other corporate documents. This new law definitely increases the authority of the Commissioner of Insurance (Mike Causey).

The remaining portion of the law pertains to protection against insolvency, continuation of healthcare services in case of insolvency, suspension or revocation of licenses, administrative procedures, penalties and enforcement, confidentiality of information, and that sort.

Session Law 2018-49 also applies to the current opioid crisis. It allows a “lock-in programs” for those consumers who use multiple pharmacies and multiple doctors to “lock them in” to one pharmacy and one doctor.

Besides the “lock-in” program, Session Law 2018-49 is basically a law that brings the Department of Insurance into the Medicaid arena.

Let Fortnite begin!

COA Dismisses AHA 340B Lawsuit!

The 340B drug program is a topic that needs daily updates. It seems that something is happening constantly. Like a prime time soap opera or The Bachelor, the 340B program is all the talk at the water cooler. From lawsuits to legislation to executive orders – there is no way of knowing the outcome, so we all wait with bated breath to watch who will hold the final rose.

On Tuesday, July 17, 2018, the metaphoric guillotine fell on the American Hospital Association (AHA) and on hospitals across the country. The Court of Appeals (COA) dismissed AHA’s lawsuit.

The Background 

On November 1, 2017, the US Department of Health and Human Services released a Final Rule implementing a payment reduction for most covered outpatient drugs billed to Medicare by 340B-participating hospitals from the current Average Sales Price (ASP) plus 6% rate to ASP minus 22.5%, which represents a payment cut of almost 30%.

Effective January 1, 2018, the 30% slash in reimbursement rates became reality, but only for locations physically connected to participating hospitals. CMS is expected to broaden the 30% reduction to all 340B-participating entities in the near future.

What is the 340B drug program? The easiest explanation for the 340B program is that government insurance, Medicare and Medicaid, do not want to pay full price for medicine. In an effort to reduce costs of drugs for the government payors, the government requires that all drug companies enter into a rebate agreement with the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as a precondition for coverage of their drugs by Medicaid and Medicare Part B. If a drug manufacturer wants its drug to be prescribed to Medicare and Medicaid patients, then it must pay rebates.

The Lawsuit

The American Hospital Association (“AHA”) filed for an injunction last year requesting that the US District Court enjoin CMS from implementing the 340B payment reduction. On the merits, AHA argues that the HHS’s near-30% rate reduction constitutes an improper exercise of its statutory rate-setting authority.

The US District Court did not reach an opinion on the merits; it dismissed the case, issued December 29, 2017, based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The District Court found that: Whenever a provider challenges HHS, there is only one potential source of subject matter jurisdiction—42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Medicare Act places strict limits on the jurisdiction of federal courts to decide ‘any claims arising under’ the Act.

The Supreme Court has defined two elements that a plaintiff must establish in order to satisfy § 405(g). First, there is a non-waivable, jurisdictional requirement that a claim for benefits shall have been “presented” to the Secretary. Without presentment, there is no jurisdiction.

The second element is a waivable requirement to exhaust administrative remedies. I call this legal doctrine the Monopoly requirement. Do not pass go. Go directly to jail. Do not collect $200. Unlike the first element, however, a plaintiff may be excused from this obligation when, for example, exhaustion would be futile. Together, § 405(g)’s two elements serve the practical purpose of preventing premature interference with agency processes, so that the agency may function efficiently and so that it may have an opportunity to correct its own errors, to afford the parties and the courts the benefit of its experience and expertise, and to compile a record which is adequate for judicial review. However, there are ways around these obsolete legal doctrines in order to hold a state agency liable for adverse decisions.

Following the Dec. 29, 2017, order by the District Court, which dismissed the lawsuit on jurisdictional grounds, the plaintiffs (AHA) appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals (COA), which promptly granted AHA’s request for an expedited appeal schedule.

In their brief, AHA contends that the District Court erred in dismissing their action as premature and that their continued actual damages following the Jan. 1 payment reduction’s effective date weighs heavily in favor of preliminary injunctive relief. More specifically, AHA argues that 30% reduction is causing irreparable injury to the plaintiffs “by jeopardizing essential programs and services provided to their communities and the vulnerable, poor and other underserved populations, such as oncology, dialysis, and immediate stroke treatment services.”

By contrast, the government’s brief rests primarily on jurisdictional arguments, specifically that: (1) the Medicare Act precludes judicial review of rate-setting activities by HHS; and (2) the District Court was correct that no jurisdiction exists.

Oral arguments in this appeal were May 4, 2018.

AHA posted in its newsletter that the COA seemed most interested in whether Medicare law precludes judicial review of CMS’ rule implementing the cuts. AHA says it hopes a ruling will be reached in the case sometime this summer.

In a completely different case, the DC District Court is contemplating a request to toll the time to file a Section 340B appeal.

AHA v. Azar, a case about RAC audits and the Medicare appeal backlog. During a March 22, 2018, hearing, the COA asked AHA to submit specific proposals that AHA wishes the COA to impose and why current procedures are insufficient. It was filed June 22, 2018.

In it proposal, AHA pointed out that HHS is needlessly causing hospitals to file thousands of protective appeals by refusing to toll the time for hospitals to file appeals arising out of the reduction in reimbursement that certain 340B hospitals. In order to avoid potential arguments from the government that 340B hospitals that do not administratively appeal the legality of a reduced rate will be time barred from seeking recovery if the court holds that the reduction in payments is unlawful, AHA proposed that the Secretary agree to toll the deadline for such appeals until resolution of the 340B litigation—an arrangement that would preserve the 340B hospitals’ right to full reimbursement in the event the 340B litigation is not successful. HHS has refused to toll the time, meaning that Section 340B hospitals will have to protect their interests in the interim by filing thousands upon thousands of additional claim appeals, which will add thousands upon thousands of more appeals to the current ALJ-level backlog.

The Decision

In a unanimous decision, three judges from the COA sided with HHS and ruled the hospitals’ suit was filed prematurely because hospitals had not formally filed claims with HHS because they were not yet experiencing cuts.

Basically, what the judges are saying is that you cannot ask for relief before the adverse action occurs. Even though the hospitals knew the 30% rate reduction would be implemented January 1, 2018, they had to wait until the pain was felt before they could ask for relief.

The lawsuit was not dismissed based on the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies. The Decision noted that in some cases plaintiffs might be justified in seeking judicial review before they have exhausted their administrative remedies, but that wouldn’t be the solution here.

Hindsight is always 20-20. I read the 11 page decision. But I believe that AHA failed in two ways that may have changed the outcome: (1) Nowhere in the decision does it appear that the attorneys for AHA argued that the subject matter jurisdiction issue was collateral to the merits; and (2) The lawsuit was filed pre-January 1, 2018, but AHA could have amended its complaint after January 1, 2018, to show injury and argue that its comments were rejected (final decision) by the rule being implemented.

But, hey, we will never know.

A Comparison of All the #1 European Health Care Systems in the World

The United States currently spends more per person on health care than any other developed country. So when my daughter and I recently vacationed the “Highlights of Europe” tour, I was interested in learning about the varied health care systems, country-by-country. We visited England, France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy. It was awesome!! She turned 13 during the trip, and she starts 8th grade next week. Where does the time go?

While I do not protest to know all the answers, during our vacation, I researched the diverse countries’ healthcare system and methods of payment, but, most importantly, I interviewed people. I interviewed people who were begging for money. I interviewed my taxi drivers. I interviewed the bus drivers. I interviewed people on the streets. I interviewed shop owners. I interviewed the hotel concierge. I interviewed bartenders and waiters.

This blog is intended to memorialize my findings. It has not been fact checked. In other words, if a person told me something about the healthcare system and their personal experiences, I did not go back and review that country’s laws to determine whether that person was telling the truth or that the person’s rendition of their experience was compliant with the law. I did this for a reason. Sometimes what the laws dictate as to healthcare is not what actually occurs in reality. I wanted personal perspectives. I wanted an opinion from citizens of other countries as to how healthcare was or was not working in their country. I did not want to meet health care policy, rules, regulations. I wanted the cold, hard, real truth.

At least one person in every country – Austria, The Netherlands, France, England, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy told me, “[Country name] has the best health care in the world.” Obviously, they cannot all be right. And I certainly heard the worst case scenarios in country’s that claimed to be the best in the world.

This is what I learned:

ENGLAND

England has the best health care system in the world! England’s healthcare system is drastically different from the USA’s. England’s National Health Service (NHS) is a free healthcare program for all permanent residents of United Kingdom. Reading the fine print, however, the NHS is not completely free. There are charges associated with eye tests, dental care, prescriptions, and many aspects of personal care.

England relies on primary care more so than specializations. Mental health services, for example, are largely treated by the general practitioners (GPs). Provider trusts, fed by taxes, compensate most health care, the main examples in the hospital trust and the ambulance trusts which send the money allocated to them by commissioning trusts. Hospitals normally receive the lion’s share of NHS funding as hospital’s have the most expenses.

Our taxi driver (Jim) told me that paperwork is minimal with the NHS, which makes it super easy to use. Although he was quick to point out that the health care system in England does vary in quality and timeliness depending on where you live, but I believe we can say the same about the USA. Jim also told me that he and his family has had problems with wait-times to be seen by specialists. Jim’s wife suffered persistent and serious acid reflux. Her general practitioner referred her to a gastroenterologist. However, she could not get an appointment until 20 weeks later. But, in the end, she was seen, and had no waiting period on the day of her appointment. Generally, Jim is happy with the NHS. The costs are minimal, and, he believes that the quality of care is high.

The hotel concierge (let’s call him Blake) was extremely open about his experiences with the health care system in England. It appears from his enthusiasm that health care is just as big of a political issue in England than it is in the US. He told me that he has never waited more than four hours in an emergency room. Apparently, his children frequent it. However, I do place an asterisk on Blake’s comment. You will see below that Alice from France waited for 7 hours at the ER in the UK with her husband. Some of the stories that I heard contradicted each other.

Blake also told me that for traumatic experiences, such a broken arm due to a car accident, which his youngest daughter recently endured, the wait time is significantly less than when his best buddy got drunk at the pub and broke his finger. Blake also told me that, for day-to-day, general, “I have a tummy ache” appointments, English citizens do not get to choose appointment times. You leave a voice mail message for the nurse and the nurse informs you when you need to present yourself. While this may sound inconvenient, Blake stated that there are no wait times. I know that I have waited many an hour to see my general practitioner.

Dental insurance, on the other hand, is a whole new can of worms. Basically, general practitioners are free, but dentists are not. The wait times to see a dentist are extensive, and, if you do not have private dental insurance, the wait times can be even longer. My take-away? If I were a dentist, I’d move the the UK. This also explains a lot about English actors and actresses.

We cannot analyze any country’s health care system without taking into account the taxes that you must pay in order to maintain such a health care system, no matter how poor or amazing that health care system is. Income taxes in the UK are 40% if you make more than 46,351 pounds. Once you hit 150,000 pounds, then your taxes increase to 45%. Almost half of your wages are taken by the government, but you get, essentially, free health care. Does it balance out?

THE NETHERLANDS

The Netherlands has the best health care system in the world! Every person that I asked in Amsterdam, informed me that Dutch health care is among the best in the world. It seemed that the Dutch took pride in their health care system. So, I wanted details. If Dutch health care is the best, why doesn’t everyone else mimic it?

I learned that everyone who lives or works in the Netherlands is legally obligated to take out standard health insurance. All insurers offer the same standard package. The standard insurance package includes general practitioners, some medications, dental care until the age of 18, nutritional and dietary care, medical aids, mental health services, and much more. It does not cover over-the-counter aspirin or cosmetic surgery procedures. But neither does insurance in America.

In Amsterdam, my daughter and I rented bicycles for two days. It was an absolute blast. The rental process, however, took a bit longer than expected. The gentleman behind the counter needed our passport numbers, information on our hotel, credit card information, and provided us with an instruction program on how to properly secure the bicycles. Given the length of the process, I took the opportunity to ask him about health care.

Let’s call the bicycle rental agent Stefan.

Stefan explained that the Dutch believe in misery first. According to him, regardless the affliction, general practitioners will tell you to take an aspirin and come back in two weeks if you are not dead. I am fairly sure that he was exaggerating. But I have always been of the opinion that exaggerations have some form of truth.

In the Netherlands, the general practitioners are called huisarts, which are expected to know all aspects of medicine. I liken the huisarts to attorneys who practice general law. What attorney could know all aspects of family law and criminal law? The answer is none. A generalist knows a tad about everything, but nothing much about anything.

Preventive care is rare in the Netherlands, certainly in terms of women’s health. For example, in the US, France, and Spain, it is typical to get a test for cervical cancer at least every 2 to 3 years. Here, in Amsterdam, insurance will only pay for one every 5 years. Hormone replacement therapy is also rare here, as most GPs are still following outdated guidelines, based on a flawed study from 2002.

It seems as though I am overly negative as to the health care in the Netherlands. All I can write is that I began this blog with an open mind because if any country has mastered health care then we should learn from it. I was also swayed by my interviewees.

While other countries maintained high income taxes to pay for “free health care,” the Netherlands does not use tax dollars to pay for health care. Every Dutch resident is required to buy their own health insurance on top of the taxes they pay to the government.

Taxes in the Netherlands is exorbitant. If you make over 66,421 euros, taxes are 52% of your income. These taxes, remember, do not include health insurance.

In Amsterdam, there was a pub across the river from our hotel Movenpick. A group of guys were “celebrating” an upcoming wedding and were drinking bottles upon bottles of wine at the river’s edge. Multiple times members of the group ended up swimming.

So, imagine my surprise when one of the intoxicated gentlemen sat at our table and ensued with a semi-intelligent conversation about health care. We will call him Henry. Henry had recently been married and his wife gave birth last year to a premature baby. I completely related because my daughter was born at 28 weeks and 2 pounds and 2 ounces. I asked Henry about the health care coverage for his premature baby girl’s birth and subsequent surgeries. He told me that, besides the meals that he ate during the two-month stay in the hospital, once his new daughter and wife were free to leave, his hospital bill was zero. His daughter endured a two-month stay in the neonatal department, his wife had a two-month, inpatient hospital stay, his daughter underwent multiple surgeries for her lungs and heart, and his daughter had 24-hour care for 60 days. All for zero euros. All children in the Netherlands are automatically insured by the government.

While I see the downside of paying 52% of your income to the Dutch government and having to pay for health insurance, I do see the benefit of Dutch insurance if you have a medical emergency, like a premature baby.

FRANCE

France has the best health care system in the world! In a 2000 World Health Organization (WHO) comparison of 191 different countries’ health care, France came out at number one. And they are not afraid to tell you. Even though the WHO ranking is from 2000, the French still tout its outcome because there have been no other such rankings since then. The French believe in the universal right to health care.

The entire population must pay compulsory health insurance.

Our two-hour ride on the Eurostar from Paris to London gave me a unique opportunity to ask other passengers about health care, especially since there is bar in one of the cabins. People congregated there to drink, eat, and talk, plus one nosy American asking about health care. The following are summaries of the stories I heard:

Nancy, who is from Devon, England and has lived in France with her family since 2006 thinks that French health care is the best. Since she moved to France her family has, unfortunately, undergone 6 operations. Her husband had cancer a couple of years ago and the Oncopole (oncologist) encouraged alternative therapies and even told him the taxi drivers (bringing patients home from the hospital) often go straight to a rebouteuse (a healer) after radiotherapy. A lot of doctors practice homeopathy, which is fantastic, according to Nancy. She also said that doctors prescribe “sacks full of medicine.” The good news is that Nancy’s husband is in remission.

Alice, a former British citizen, who moved to France told me the French health care system saved her husband’s life. Five years ago, her husband started to feel ill while visiting the UK. They couldn’t get a family/general practitioner to come to their home (I thought, my doctor wouldn’t come to my home in the US either). Over the phone, the general practitioner said, “take an aspirin and rest.” They also went to the ER but gave up after 7 hours waiting as her husband was in extreme pain (Juxtapose Blake’s recount that he never waited over 4 hours in the ER in the UK). A few days later they flew home, and her husband could not walk. Within an hour of arriving in France, her husband was admitted to a hospital. He was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney failure and stage 5 equates to dialysis. Needless to say, Alice is a French health care fan.

My daughter and I used a tour group company for our mommy-daughter vacation, and, while in France, I heard one person tout that health care is free in France. I will contend, from my travels, that French health care is great, but not completely free. I saw a presumably-homeless, elderly gentleman with no legs begging for money. In extremely, broken Frenglish and impromptu sign language, I asked the gentleman why he didn’t have health coverage and was he a French citizen? To the best of my ability, I interpreted his responses to indicate that, yes, he is a French citizen, but that free, French health care does not include prosthetics.

Taxes are approximately 41% if you make over $72,617. Whereas, in the US, if you make over $72,000 your tax bracket is 15.55%, barring extraordinary circumstances.

ITALY

Italy has the best health care system in the world! From my travels, I gathered that Italians believe that their health care system is the best (over France’s – I believe that there is a bit of a friendly rivalry). In 2000, the World Health Organization (WHO) ranked Italy as the 2nd best health care system in the world, right under France. In 2012, WHO found Italy’s life expectancy to be 82.3 years.

Italy has a regionally organized National Health Service (“SSN” – Servizio Sanitario Nazionale) that provides citizens with free or low-cost healthcare. It’s funded through national income taxes and regional VAT, and generally the standard of care is very high. I was pleased to discover that foreign citizens living in Italy with a regular stay permit are entitled to all the same treatment and rights as Italian citizens. Retirement 2035 – here I come!

For a country with the best health care in the world, I saw the most homeless, medically-challenged beggars than any other country. Maybe there are more homeless, medically-challenged beggars in Italy than other country because the weather is so nice, the gelato is so delicious, the population is greater, mental health care is worse, or the food is so amazing…I do not know. But I saw the most homeless, medically challenged beggars in Italy than anywhere else. Oddly, the afflictions were the same. Their feet were misshapen and curled inward to a degree that did not allow them to walk. It was heartbreaking. I googled it and discovered that medical articles have been written on the anomaly of foot deformities in southern Italy.

Taxes in Italy are as follows:

  • 23% for amounts up to $36,000
  • 33% for the next band from $36,001 to $39,300
  • 39% for amounts between $39,301 and $119,200
  • 45% for amounts $119,201 and over.

I met Valentina in Roma. Europe has strict hourly limits for bus drivers and our original bus driver, apparently, over-drove. Valentina stepped in and was very chatty, unlike the original bis driver who spoke no English. Considering our group consisted of 21 English-speaking vacationers and one couple fluent in Spanish and English, a bus driver who only spoke French was unhelpful.

Valentina told me that in Italy, mainly in the south, public hospitals are very crowded and offer very limited and sometimes hasty assistance, so that patients are too soon sent to rehabilitation centers, very few of which are public. This almost entirely private field is financially sustained by the National Health Service, which pays a per diem for a patient’s clinic stay. If a patient still needs rehabilitation after 2 months in a rehabilitation clinic or center, reimbursement from the National Health Service will be in any case cut by about 40%. Private insurance is very rare and usually is not involved in rehabilitation.

In private rehabilitation centers, physicians often have to deal with overworked nurses and angry, worried patients and relatives.

Valentina said that her mother went to her general practitioner complaining of frequent headaches, depression, anxiety, dizziness, and recurrent fatigue. Her general practitioner, diagnosed her as “a hysteric neurotic,” and she was prescribed anxiolytics. Her headaches continued. When she finally was able to see a specialist, her magnetic resonance image report showed that she had several cerebral metastatic lesions from an otherwise silent neoplasia – basically, a death sentence.

SWITZERLAND

Switzerland has the best health care system in the world! The Swiss health care system is regulated by the Swiss Federal Law on Health Insurance. There are no free state-provided health services, but private health insurance is compulsory for all persons residing in Switzerland (within three months of taking up residence or being born in the country) (country #2 on my options for retirement).

Like every country we visited, Switzerland has a universal health care system, requiring all to buy insurance. Switzerland holds a special place in my heart. My mother’s mother, Martha Zuin (imagine an umlaut over the ‘u’), immigrated to the US from Switzerland, so I still have family living in Switzerland.

The plans in Switzerland resemble those in the United States under the Affordable Care Act: offered by private insurance companies, community-rated and guaranteed-issue, with prices varying by things like breadth of network, size of deductible and ease of seeing a specialist. Almost 40% of people get subsidies offsetting the cost of premiums, on a sliding scale pegged to income. Although these plans are offered on a nonprofit basis, insurers can also offer coverage on a for-profit basis, providing additional services and more choice in hospitals. For these voluntary plans, insurance companies may vary benefits and premiums; they also can deny coverage to people with chronic conditions. Most doctors work on a national fee-for-service scale, and patients have considerable choice of doctors, unless they’ve selected a managed-care plan.

Both Swiss and German systems cost their countries about 11 percent of GDP.

Mia, the hotel clerk at Lake Maggiore, is a Swiss resident. She informed me that insurance premiums are not adequately adjusted to income, and they have doubled in price since 1996, while salaries have risen by just one-fifth. It comes as no surprise, then, that just over a quarter of the population needed government assistance to pay their premiums in 2014. She says that over 1/2 of Swiss residents owe money for medical bills.

You can be blacklisted from reimbursement for health insurance in Switzerland.  Some 30,000 blacklisted patients so far have lost their right to be reimbursed for medical services under basic insurance and can be refused care, save for emergencies. A policy initially designed to encourage people to pay up has instead come under fire for going against the principle of basic health coverage for all. In 2017, EHR became mandatory for most, which increased the costs for many health care visits.

Research told me that Switzerland is the second most expensive country for health care other than USA with The Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, and Denmark closely following.

GERMANY

Germany has the best health care system in the world! The German health care system and Switzerland’s have a lot in common. According to interviewees, Germany has slightly better access to health care, especially with respect to costs. Switzerland has higher levels of cost-sharing, but its outcomes are hard to beat — arguably the best in the world – for real.

A majority of Germans (86%) get their coverage primarily though the national public system, with others choosing voluntary private health insurance. Most premiums for the public system are based on income and paid for by employers and employees, with subsidies available but capped at earnings of about $65,000. Patients have a lot of choice among doctors and hospitals, and cost sharing is quite low. It’s capped for low-income people, reduced for care of those with chronic illnesses, and nonexistent for services to children. There are no subsidies for private health insurance, but the government regulates premiums, which can be higher for people with pre-existing conditions. Private insurers charge premiums on an actuarial basis when they first enroll a customer, and subsequently raise premiums only as a function of age — not health status. Most physicians work in a fee-for-service setting based on negotiated rates, and there are limits on what they can be paid annually.

Though mostly public, the German health insurance system is not a state-run system like the National Health Service in the United Kingdom. In fact, more than 100 different health insurers, known as sickness funds, compete for members in Germany’s comparatively decentralized system. These sickness funds are non-profit, non-governmental organizations that operate autonomously. Most Germans’ health insurance contributions are deducted from their paychecks by their employers. The amount, however, is capped at 14.6% of a person’s salary, split fifty-fifty between the employer and the employee, so 7.3% each way. But coverage is not dependent on the employer, so when Germans change or lose their jobs, nothing changes in their health insurance. Recent changes in health care have allowed the wealthy to obtain higher quality and more efficient health care services. Anyone who makes over 57,600 euros/year can opt out of public health care and pay for private health care. Doctors are more prone to be more attentive of their privately-insured patients.

We met Emma at a beer garden; she was our waitress. Emma was as equally inquisitive about American health care as I was about German health care. She said that she could not get her head wrapped around HIPAA. Privacy, she indicated, is not a hot topic issue in Germany. Emma said that doctors in Germany “get it wrong a lot.” When I asked her what she meant, she said that she went to her general practitioner for chest pain. Whereas, in America, chest pain is considered serious, Emma said that her doctor did not even place a stethoscope on her chest. Instead, he told her to go home, rest, and take an Ibuprofen. Emma’s friend had a baby with a problem in one eye. She went to several doctors and they told her nothing can be done. She finally went to a specialist in Spain and received a concrete diagnostic and special glasses for the 7 month-old-baby, because the eye movement was related to the eye condition.

AUSTRIA

Austria has the best health care system in the world! If European health care were on a bell curve, Austria would be at the bottom (hmmmmm…..although I have not compared Austria to the US). Dr. Clemens Martin Auer is the President of the European Health Forum Gastein and Director General at the Austrian Federal Ministry of Health.

Austriapres

Dr. Auer is focused on digital health and access to drugs. Talking to people in other European countries, who complained about over prescribing, Austria, apparently, has a high cost issue barring many people from receiving prescriptions.

In Austria, the health care system is largely financed by social security contributions and taxes, to a lesser part also by private sources, such as prescription charges, compulsory personal contributions, per-diem charges for hospital stays or contributions to private health insurance.

Each month a contribution will be taken from your tax payment, which is worked out according to how much you earn. This gives you access to basic healthcare including treatment in hospitals, medication, dental care, and some specialist appointments. If you make over 31,000 euros, you pay 41% tax.

According to Tobias, the man I met in Innsbruck, people wait months to see a specialist. So, if you have a cold, you are good, but of you have cancer, then get on the waiting list. Tobias also told me that people do not go to hospitals unless they have a severe injury or serious surgery. Instead, the general practitioners are heavily relied on. I am not sure I like the idea of going to a generalist for everything. If I have stark knee pain, I want to see an orthopedic, not a general internist. But I am learning that free health care may not equate to the best health care.

CMS Initiates Process to Decrease the Medicare Appeal Backlog: But You May Have to Beg!

Last week, (May 22nd) the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) unveiled a new, streamlined appeal process aimed at decreasing the massive Medicare appeal backlog. CMS is hopeful that providers, like you, will choose to settle your Medicare appeal cases instead continuing the litigious dispute. Remember, currently, the backlog at the third level of Medicare appeals, the administrative law judge (ALJ) level, is approximately 5 – 8 years (I will use 8 years for the purpose of this blog). Recoupment can legally begin after level two, so many providers go out of business waiting to be heard at the third level. See blog.

The new “settlement conference facilitation” (SCF) process will allow CMS to make a settlement offer and providers have seven days to accept or proceed with the longer-lasting route. I have a strong sense that, if litigated, a judge would find forcing the decision between accepting a quick settlement versus enduring an 8-year waiting-period to present before an ALJ, coercion. But, for now, it is A choice other than the 8-year wait-period (as long as the provider met the eligibility requirements, see below).

To initiate said SCF process, a provider would have to submit a request in writing to CMS. CMS would then have 15 days to reply. If the agency chooses to take part, a settlement conference would occur within four weeks. Like that underlined part? I read the SCF process as saying, even if the provider qualifies for such process, CMS still has the authority to refuse to participate. Which begs the question, why have a process that does not have to be followed?

The SCF process is directed toward sizable providers with older and more substantial, alleged overpayments. In order to play, you must meet the criteria to enter the game. Here are the eligibility requirements:

2018-05-29 -- Pic of eligibility

The Backlog

In fiscal year (FY) 2016, more than 1.2 billion Medicare fee-for-service claims were processed. Over 119 million claims (or 9.7%) were denied. Of the denied claims, 3.5 million (2.9% of all Medicare denied claims) were appealed. That seems surprisingly low to me. But many claims are denied to Medicare recipients, who would be less inclined to appeal. For example, my grandma would not hire an attorney to appeal a denied claim; it would be fiscally illogical. However, a hospital that is accused of $10 million in alleged overpayments will hire an attorney.

In recent years, the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) and the Council have received more appeals than they can process within the statutorily-defined time frames. From FY 2010 through FY 2015, OMHA experienced an overall 442% increase in the number of appeals received annually. As a result, as of the end of FY 2016, 658,307 appeals were waiting to be adjudicated by OMHA. Under current resource levels (and without any additional appeals), it would take eight years for OMHA and ten years for the Council to process their respective backlogs.

The SCF “Fix”

While I do not believe that the creation of the SCF process is a fix, it is a concerted step in the right direction. Being that it was just enacted, we do not have any trial results. So many things on paper look good, but when implemented in real life end so poorly. For example, the Titanic.

Considering that there is a court case that found Health and Human Services (HHS) in violation of federal regulations that require level three Medicare appeals to be adjudicated in 90 days, instead of 8 years and HHS failed to follow the Order, claiming impossibility, at least HHS is making baby steps. See blog. At some point, Congress is going to have to increase funding to hire additional ALJs. I can only assume that the Hospital Association and American Medical Association are lobbying to get this action, but you know what they say about assuming…

As broached above, I do not like the fact that – if you do not accept whatever amount CMS proposes as settlement – BOOM – negotiation is over and you suffer the 8-year backlog time, undergo recoupments (that may not be appropriate), and incur tens of thousands of attorneys’ fees to continue litigation. Literally, CMS has no incentive to settle and you have every reason to settle. The only incentive for CMS to settle that I can fathom is that CMS wants this SCF program to be a success for the jury of public opinion, therefore, will try to get a high rate of success. But do not fool yourself.

You are the beggar and CMS is the King.