Auditors are overzealous. I am not telling you anything you don’t know. Auditors cast wide nets to catch a few minnows. Occasionally, they catch a bass. But, for the most part, innocent, health care providers get caught in the overzealous, metaphoric net. What auditors and judges and basically the human population doesn’t understand is that accusing providers of “credible allegations of fraud” and alleged overpayments, when unfounded, has a profound and negative impact. First, the providers are forced to hire legal counsel at an extremely high cost. Their reputations and names get dragged through the mud because providers are guilty until they are proved innocent. Then, once they prove that there is no fraud or noncompliant documents, the wrongly accused providers are left with no recourse.
The audits generally result in similar reasoning for denials. For instance,
- Lacks medical necessity. Defense: The treating physician rule. Deference must be given to the treating physician, not the desk reviewer who has never seen the patient.
- Canned notes: Defense: While canned notes are not desirable, it is not against the law. There is no statute, regulation, or rule against canned notes. Canned notes are just not best practices. But, in reality, when you serve a certain population, the notes are going to be similar.
- X-rays tend to be denied for the sole reason that there are no identifying notes on the X-ray. Or the printed copy of the X-ray you submit to the auditors is unreadable. Defense/Proactive measure: When you submit an X-ray, include a brief note as to the DOS and consumer.
- Signature illegible; therefore, no proof of provider being properly trained and qualified. Defense: This one is easy; you just show proof of trainings, but to head off the issue, print your name under your signature or have it embedded into your EHR.
- Documentation nitpicking. The time, date, or other small omissions result in many a denial. Defense: There is no requirement for documents to be perfect. The SSA provides defenses for providers, such as “waiver of liability” and “providers without fault.” The “waiver of liability” defense provides that even if payment for claims is deemed not reasonable and necessary, payment may be rendered if the provider did not know and could not have been reasonably expected to know that payment would not be made.
Whenever a client tells me – let’s concede these claims because he/she believes the auditors to be right, I say, let me review it. With so many defenses, I rarely concede any claims. See blog for more details.
Today I want to discuss the Medicare appeal process and its faults. Upon undergoing a Medicare audit by Safeguard or whichever auditor contracted by CMS, a provider usually receives a notice of overpayment. The 5-level appeal process is flawed as the first two levels rubber-stamp the findings. After the second level of appeal – the QIC level to the ALJ – recoupment occurs unless the provider set up an extended repayment schedule (ERS) or files for an injunction in federal court based on a taking of a property right; i.e., the right to reimbursement for services rendered.
Everyone deserves to be paid for medically necessary services rendered. The conundrum here is that the circuit courts are split as to the protections a provider deserves.
Whenever a federal injunction is filed, the Defendant auditor files a Motion to Dismiss based on (1) failure to exhaust administrative remedies and that the Medicare Act requires the administrative process; therefore, the federal court has no jurisdiction. The provider will argue that the federal action is ancillary to the substantive issue of whether the overpayment was in error and that its protected property right is being taken without due process.
A new case rendered October 1, 2021, Integrity Social Work Services, LCSW, LLC. V. Azar, 2021 WL 4502620 (E.D.N.Y 2021) straddles the fence on the issues. The EDNY falls within the 2nd circuit, which is undecidedly split. The 5th Circuit is, as well, split. District courts across the country are split on whether Medicare providers have a protected property interest in Medicare payments subject to recoupment. Several courts have found that the Medicare Act does create such a property right, including NC, 4th Circuit, Texas, Florida, Ohio, and Illinois, to name a few.
This provider was accused of an alleged overpayment of about 1 million. It argued that because it will not receive a prompt ALJ hearing that it will be driven out of business. This is a harsh and unacceptable outcome that readily occurs in about half the states. Providers should be aware of which State in which it resides and whether that State upholds a providers’ property interest in reimbursements for services rendered.
The Integrity Social Work Court found that, yes, jurisdiction in federal court was proper because the claims were ancillary to the substantive claims that would be heard by the ALJ. The provider was asking for a temporary stay of the recoupments until an ALJ hearing was concluded. As you read the case, you get false hope on the ruling. In the end, Judge Peggy Kuo found “Nor is the process to contest an overpayment or a recoupment decision arbitrary, outrageous, or even inadequate.”
Respectfully, I disagree. As does half the other courts. See, e.g., Accident, Injury & Rehab., PC v. Azar, No. 4:18-CV-2173 (DCC), 2018 WL 4625791, at *7 (D.S.C. Sept. 27, 2018); Adams EMS, Inc. v. Azar, No. H-18-1443, 2018 WL 3377787, at *4 (S.D. Tex. July 11, 2018); Family Rehab., Inc. v. Azar, No. 3:17-CV-3008-K, 2018 WL 3155911, at *4-5 (N.D. Tex. June 28, 2018). Juxtapose other courts have found that no such property interest exists. See, e.g., Alpha Home Health Solutions, LLC v. Sec’y of United States Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 340 F. Supp. 3d 1291, 1303 (M.D. Fla. 2018); Sahara Health Care, Inc. v. Azar, 349 F. Supp. 3d 555, 572 (S.D. Tex. 2018); PHHC, LLC v. Azar, No. 1:18-CV-1824, 2018 WL 5754393, at *10 (N.D. Ohio Nov. 2, 2018); In Touch Home Health Agency, Inc. v. Azar, 414 F. Supp. 3d 1177, 1189-90 (N.D. Ill. 2019).
Providers – If you bring a claim to cease the recoupment, also sue on behalf of your Medicare beneficiaries’ property rights to freedom of choice of provider and access to care. Their rights are even stronger than the providers’ rights. I did this in Bader in Indiana and won based on the recipients’ rights.
If you receive a letter from CMS or your State Department terminating your Medicare or Medicaid contract, would that affect you financially? I ask this rhetorical question because providers’ rights to a Medicare or Medicaid contract or to reimbursements for services rendered is a split in the Circuit Courts. Thankfully, I reside in the 4th Circuit, which has unambiguously held that providers and recipients have a property right in reimbursements for services rendered, a Medicare/caid contract and the right to the freedom of choice of provider. If you live in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, I am sorry. You have no rights.
Usually when there is split decision among the Circuit Courts, the Supreme Court weighs in. But, it has not. In fact, it declined to opine. Timing is everything. A 4th Circuit court of Decision giving providers property rights requested the Supreme Court to weigh in and finally end this rift amongst the Circuits. But, sadly, Justice Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020. The Supreme Court declined to review the Fourth Circuit decision on October 13, 2020. Justice Barrett was confirmed by the Senate on October 26, 2020 and was sworn in on October 27, 2020. So, the certiorari was denied – I assume – due to the vacant seat at the time.
In 40 States, managed care manages Medicaid. The contracts they write are Draconian, saying that either party may terminate at will for no cause but for convenience. Termination at will is all fine and good in the private sector. However, Medicare and Medicaid are highly regulated, and when tax dollars and access to care are at issue, property rights are created.
In NC State Court, against the judgment of the 4th Circuit, a November 5, 2021, unpublished case determined that providers have no property rights to a Medicaid contract and an MCO can terminate at whim. Family Innovations v. Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions, No. COA20-681 (June 1, 2021). Unpublished decisions are supposed to carry no weight. Unpublished decisions are not supposed to be controlling. Citation is disfavored.
Yet, in a strange turn of events, our State administrative courts have rendered, in the last week and in violation of 4th Circuit and administrative case law, that the termination-at-will clause in the MCO contract that a provider is forced to sign stands and is enforceable. These were new Judges and obviously were not well-versed in Medicaid law. Both came from employment law backgrounds, which is completely different than the health care world. But their rash and uneducated decisions bankrupt companies and shut down access to care for medically necessary behavioral health care services.
The upshot? If you have managed care companies in charge of your Medicaid or Medicare contracts, review your contracts now. Is there a termination-at-will clause? Because if there is, you too could lose your contract at any time. Depending on where you reside, you may or may not have property rights in the Medicare Medicaid contract. This is an issue that the Supreme Court must decide. Too many providers are getting erroneously and discriminatorily terminated for no reason and given no due process.
We must bring litigation to thwart the Courts that uphold termination-at-will clauses. Especially, in the era of COVID, we need our health care providers. We certainly do not need the MCOs, which kill access to care.
Hospitals across the nation are seeing lower profits, and it’s all because of a sudden, tsunami of Medicare and Medicaid provider audits. Whether it be RAC, MAC, UPIC, or Program Integrity, hospital audits are rampant. Billing errors, especially ‘supposed bundling,’ are causing a high rate of insurance claims denials, hurting the finances of hospitals and providers.
A recent report from American Hospital Association (AHA) found “Under an optimistic scenario, hospitals would lose $53 billion in revenue this year. Under a more pessimistic scenario, hospitals would lose $122 billion thanks to a $64 billion decline in outpatient revenue”*
The “Health Care Auditing and Revenue Integrity—2021 Benchmarking and Trends Report” is an insider’s look at billing and claims issues but reveals insights into health care costs trends and why administrative issues continue to play an outsize role in the nation’s high costs in this area. The data used covers 900+ facilities, 50,000 providers, 1500 coders, and 700 auditors – what could go wrong?
According to the report,
- 40% of COVID-19-related charges were denied and 40% of professional outpatient audits for COVID-19 and 20% of hospital inpatient audits failed.
- Undercoding poses a significant revenue risk, with audits indicating the average value of underpayment is $3,200 for a hospital claim and $64 for a professional claim.
- Overcoding remains problematic, with Medicare Advantage plans and payers under scrutiny for expensive inpatient medical necessity claims, drug charges, and clinical documentation to justify the final reimbursement.
- Missing modifiers resulted in an average denied amount of $900 for hospital outpatient claims, $690 for inpatient claims, and $170 for professional claims.
- 33% of charges submitted with hierarchical condition category (HCC) codes were initially denied by payers, highlighting increased scrutiny of complex inpatient stays and higher financial risk exposure to hospitals.
The top fields being audited were diagnoses, present on admission indicator, diagnosis position, CPT/HCPCS coding, units billed, and date of service. The average outcome from the audits was 70.5% satisfactory. So, as a whole, they got a ‘C’.
While this report did not in it of itself lead to any alleged overpayments and recoupments, guess who else is reading this audit and salivating like Pavlov’s dogs? The RACs, MACs, UPICs, and all other alphabet soup auditors. The 900 facilities and 50,000 health care providers need to be prepared for audits with consequences. Get those legal defenses ready!!!!
A ZPIC audited a client of mine a few years ago and found an alleged overpayment of over $7 million. Prior to them hiring my team, they obtained a preliminary injunction in federal court – like I always preach to do – remember, that between the levels 2 and 3 of a Medicare provider appeal, CMS can recoup the alleged overpayment. This is sheer balderdash; the government should not be able to recoup funds that the provider, most likely, doesn’t owe. But this is the law. I guess we need to petition Congress to change this tomfoolery.
Going back to the case, an injunction stops the premature recoupments, but it does nothing regarding the actual alleged overpayments. In fact, the very reason that you can go to federal court based on an administrative action is because the injunction is ancillary to the merits of the contested case. Otherwise, you would have to exhaust your administrative remedies.
Here, we asserted, the premature recoupments (1) violated its rights to procedural due process, (2) infringed its substantive due-process rights, (3) established an “ultra vires” cause of action, and (4) entitled it to a “preservation of rights” injunction under the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. §§ 704–05. We won the battle, but not the war. To date, we have no date for an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) – or level 3 – hearing on the merits.
For those of you who have participated in a third-level, Medicare provider appeal will know that, many times, no one shows for the other side. The other side being the entity claiming that you owe $7million. For such an outlandish claim of $7 million, would you not think that the side protesting that you owe $7 million would appear and try to prove it? At my most recent ALJ hearing, no one appeared for the government. Literally, my client – a facility in NJ that serves the MS population – me and the ALJ were the only participants. Are the auditors so falsely confident that they believe their audits speaks for itself?
In this particular case, the questionable issue was whether the MS provider’s consumers met the qualifications for the skilled rehabilitation due to no exacerbated physical issues. However, we all know from the Jimmo settlement, that having exacerbated issues or improvement is not a requirement to requiring skilled rehab versus exercising with your spouse. The ALJ actually said – “I cannot believe this issue has gotten this far.” I agree.
Audits have now resumed to 100% capacity – or even 150% capacity. All audits that were suspended during COVID are reinstated. As you all know, RAC and MAC audits were reinstated back in August. CMS announced that Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) audits would resume on Sept. 1, 2021. Unlike RAC audits, the stated goal of TPE audits is to help providers reduce claim denials and appeals with one-on-one education, focused on the documentation and coding of the services they provide. However, do not let the stated mission fool you. Failing a TPE audit can result in onerous actions such as 100 percent prepay review, extrapolation, referral to a RAC, or other action, a carefully crafted response to a TPE audit is critical. TPEs can be prepay or post-pay.
Speaking of prepayments, these bad babies are back in full swing. CareSource is one of the companies contracted with CMS to conduct prepayment reviews and urgent care centers seem to be a target. Prepayment review is technically and legally not a penalty; therefore being placed on prepayment review is not appealable. But do not believe these legalities – prepay is Draconian in nature and puts many providers out of business, especially if they fail to seek legal counsel immediately and believe that they will pass without any problem. When it comes to prepay, believing that everything will be ok, is a death trap. Instead get a big stick.
42 CFR §447.45 requires 90% of clean claims to be paid to a provider within 30 days of receipt. 99% must be paid within 90 days. The same regulations mandate the agency to conduct prepayment review of claims to ensure that the claims are not duplicative, the consumer is eligible for Medicare, or that the number of visits and services delivered are logically consistent with the beneficiary’s characteristics and circumstances, such as type of illness, age, sex, and service location. This standard prepayment review is dissimilar from a true prepayment review.
Chapter 3 of the Medicare Program Integrity Manual lays out the rules for a prepayment review audit. The Manual states that MACs shall deal with serious problems using the most substantial administrative actions available, such as 100 percent prepayment review of claims. Minor or isolated inappropriate billing shall be remediated through provider notification or feedback with reevaluation after notification. The new prepay review rules comments closed 9/13/21, so it will take effect soon.
If a 100% prepay is considered the most substantial administrative action, then why is it not considered an appealable sanction? I have, however, been successful in obtaining an injunction enjoining the suspension of payments without appealing being placed on prepay.
When requesting documentation for prepayment review, the MACs and UPICs shall notify providers when they expect documentation to be received. It is normally 30-days. The Manual does not allow for time extensions to providers who need more time to comply with the request. Reviewers shall deny claims when the requested documentation to support payment is not received by the expected timeframe. Any audit, but especially prepay audits can lead to termination under 42 CFR §424.535. You may choose to speak softly, but always carry a big stick.
“Get thee to a nunnery!” screamed Hamlet to Ophelia in frustration of his mother marrying Claudius so quickly after his father’s death. Similarly any provider who has undergone a Medicare appeal understands the frustration of getting the appeal to the administrative law judge level (the 3rd level). It takes years to do so, and it is the imperative step instead of the lower level rubber stamps. “Get thee to an ALJ!”
Per regulation, once you appeal an alleged Medicare overpayment, no recoupment of the disputed funds occurs until after you receive the second level review, which is usually the QIC upholding the overpayment. It is no secret that the Medicare provider appeals’ level one and two are basically an automatic approval process of the decision to recoup. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Hence, the importance of the ALJ level.
There are 5 levels of Medicare appeals available to providers:
- Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)
- Departmental Appeals Board (DAB) Review
- Federal Court (Judicial) Review
The third level is the level in which you present your case to an ALJ, who is an impartial independent tribunal. Unfortunately, right now, it takes about five years between levels two and three, although with CMS hiring 70 new ALJs, the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) is optimistic that the backlog will quickly dissipate. Last week, I attended an ALJ hearing for a client based on an audit conducted in 2016. Five years later, we finally presented to the ALJ. When the ALJ was presented with our evidence which clearly demonstrated that the provider should not pay anything, he actually said, “I’m shocked this issue got this far.” As in, this should have been reversed before this level. “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!”
In many cases, a premature recoupment of funds in dispute will financially destroy the health care provider, which should not be the purpose of any overpayment nor the consequence of any fraud, waste, and abuse program. We are talking about documentation nit-picking. Not fraud. Such as services notes signed late, according to best practices. Or quibbles about medical necessity or the definition of in patient and the two-midnight rule.
You have all probably read my blogs about the Family Rehab case that came out in TX in 2019. A Court found that Family Rehab, a health care facility, which faced a $7 million alleged overpayment required an injunction. The Judge Ordered that CMS be enjoined from prematurely recouping Medicare reimbursements from Family Rehab. Now, be mindful, the Judge did not enjoin CMS the first time Family Rehab requested an injunction; Superior Court initially dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction based on failure to exhaust its administrative remedies. But instead of giving up, which is what most providers would do when faced with a dismissed injunction request due to emotional turmoil and finances. “To be, or not to be: that is the question:” Instead, Family Rehab appealed the dismissal to the Court of Appeals and won. The 5th Circuit held that Superior Court does have jurisdiction to hear a collateral challenge on both procedural due process grounds as well as an ultra vires action. On remand, Family Rehab successfully obtained a permanent injunction.
The clinical issues supposedly in support of the overpayment are silly. In Family Rehab’s case, the ZPIC claims homebound criteria was not met when it is clearly met by a reasonable review of the documents.
Homebound is defined as:
The patient must either:
- Because of illness or injury, need the aid of supportive devices such as crutches, canes, wheelchairs, and walkers; the use of special transportation; or the assistance of another person in order to leave their place of residence
- Have a condition such that leaving his or her home is medically contraindicated.
If the patient meets one of the Criteria One conditions, then the patient must ALSO meet two additional requirements in Criteria Two below:
- There must exist a normal inability to leave home;
- Leaving home must require a considerable and taxing effort.
In one of the claims that the ZPIC found no homebound status, the consumer was legally blind and in a wheelchair! The injunction hinged on the Court’s finding that because the ALJ stage is critical in decreasing the risk of erroneous deprivation, an injunction was necessary. I look forward to the ALJ hearing. “The rest is silence.”
Every time a regulation is revised, Medicare and Medicaid audits are altered…sometimes in the providers’ favor, most times not. Since COVID, payment parity has created a large discrepancy in reimbursement rates for Medicare across the country.
Payment parity is a State-specific, Governor decision depending on whether your State is red or blue.
Payment parity laws require that health care providers are reimbursed the same amount for telehealth visits as in-person visits. During the ongoing, pandemic, or PHE, many states implemented temporary payment parity through the end of the PHE. Now, many States are implementing payment parity on a permanent basis. As portrayed in the below picture. As of August 2021, 18 States have implemented policies requiring payment parity, 5 States have payment parity in place with caveats, and 27 States have no payment parity.
On the federal level, H.R. 4748: Helping Every American Link To Healthcare Act of 2021 was introduced July 28, 2021. HR 4748 allows providers to furnish telehealth services using any non-public facing audio or video communication product during the 7-year period beginning the last day of the public health emergency. Yay. But that doesn’t help parity payments.
For example, NY is one of the states that has passed no parity regulation, temporary or permanent. However, the Governor signed an Executive Order mandating parity between telehealth and physical services. Much to the chagrin of the providers, the managed long-term care organizations reduced the Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements for social adult day care centers drastically claiming that the overhead cost of rendering virtual services is so much lower., which is really not even accurate. You have to ensure that your consumers all have access to technology. About four-in-ten adults with lower incomes do not have home broadband services (43%) or a desktop or laptop computer (41%). And a majority of Americans with lower incomes are not tablet owners.
Amidst all this confusion on reimbursement rates, last week, HHS released $25.5 billion on provider relief funds and promised increased audits. Smaller providers will be reimbursed at a higher rate than larger ones, the department said. Which leads me tov think: and perhaps be audited disproportionately more.
The first deadline for providers to report how they used grants they have already received is coming up at the end of September, but HHS on Friday announced a two-month grace period. HHS has hired several firms to conduct audits on the program.
Remember on June 3, 2021, CMS announced that MACs could begin conducting post-payment reviews for dates of service on or after March 1, 2020. Essentially, auditors can review any DOS with or without PHE exceptions applicable, but the PHE exceptions (i.e., waivers and flexibilities) continue, as the PHE was extended another 90 days and likely will be again through the end of this year.
I’m currently defending an audit spanning a 4-month period of June 2020 – September 2020. Interestingly, even during the short, 4 month, period, some exceptions apply to half the claims. While other apply to all the claims. It can get tricky fast. Now imagine the auditors feebly trying to remain up to speed with the latest policy changes or COVID exceptions.
Here, in NC, there was a short period of time during which physician signatures may not even be required for many services.
In addition to the MAC and SMRC audits, the RAC has shown an increase in audit activities, as have the UPICs and most state Medicaid plans. Commercial plan audits have also been on the rise, though they were under no directive to cease or slow audit functions at any time during the PHE.
Lastly, audit contractors have increasingly hinted to the use of six-year, lookback audits as a means for providers that have received improper payments to refund overpayments due. This 6- year lookback is the maximum lookback period unless fraud is alleged. It is important to note that the recoupments are not allowed once you appeal, so appeal!
Today I want to discuss EHR – electronic health records and RAC audits. We all remember the government pushing providers into purchasing EHR. It’s known as the meaningful use (MU) program, which is now known as the Promoting Interoperability Programs. CMS initially provided 10 incentives to accelerate the adoption of EHRs to meet program requirements. Now, physicians who fail to participate in MU will receive a penalty in the form of reduced Medicare reimbursements, at a minimum. Multiple audits at a maximum. Physicians must use certified electronic health records technology (CEHRT) and demonstrate meaningful use through an attestation process at the end of each MU reporting period to avoid the penalty.
Audits for MU can equal tens of thousands of dollars. The monetary amount is not as high as other RAC audits for medical records. One of my clients is a pediatric facility in Georgia. His facility received an alleged overpayment of $34,000 for two of his physicians not meeting the meaningful use criteria 8 and 9. We were going to fight it, but the two physicians who were dinged had quit and would not testify positively on behalf of my client. Plus, attorneys’ fees would surpass the penalty. Criteria 8 and 9 constitute proving your consumer have email and actually open their emails to check their health care internet folders, which are ridiculous criteria.
On September 2, 2020, CMS published the Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 Medicare Hospital Inpatient Prospective Payment System (IPPS) for Acute Care Hospitals and Long-Term Care Hospital (LTCH) Prospective Payment System (PPS) Final Rule which included program requirements for calendar year (CY) 2021. In this final rule, CMS continued its advancement of EHR utilization, focusing on burden reduction, and improving interoperability, and patient access to health information.
Meaningful use’s not anticipated consequence is ramping up RAC audits. Many RAC auditors are using EHR to claim “copy and paste.” Obviously, the point of EHR is to morph all service notes into a certain standard-looking note. But standard-looking notes scream copy and paste to RAC auditors. Maybe RAC auditors haven’t digested meaningful use yet.
On August 2, 2021 CMS released the Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 Medicare Hospital Inpatient Prospective Payment System for Acute Care Hospitals and Long-term Care Hospital Prospective Payment System Final Rule. For more information on the proposed changes, visit the Federal Register.
COVID affected EHR audits too.
The deadline for eligible hospitals and critical access to submit a hardship exception application is September 1, 2021.