Durable Medical Equipment (DME) providers across the country are walking around with large, red and white bullseyes on their backs. Starting back in March 2017, the RAC audits began targeting DME and home health and hospice. DME providers also have to undergo audits by the Comprehensive Error Rate Testing Program (CERT).
The RAC for Jurisdiction 5, Performant Recovery, is a national company contracted to perform Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) audits of durable medical equipment, prosthetic, orthotic and supplies (DMEPOS) claims as well as home health and hospice claims. Medicare Part B covers medically necessary DME. The following are the RAC regions:
Region 1 – Performant Recovery, Inc.
Region 2 – Cotiviti, LLC
Region 3 – Cotiviti, LLC
Region 4 – HMS Federal Solutions
Region 5 – Performant Recovery, Inc.
As you can see from the above map, we are in Region 3. The country is broken up into four regions. But, wait, you say, you said that Performant Recovery is performing RAC audits in region 5 – where is region 5?
Region 5 is the whole country.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) has contracted with Performant Recovery to audit DME and home health and hospice across the whole country.
DME and home health and hospice providers – There is nowhere to hide. If you provide equipment or services within the blue area, region 5, you are a target for a RAC audit.
What are some common findings in a RAC audit for DME?
Without question, the most common finding in a RAC or CERT audit is “insufficient documentation.” The problem is that “insufficient documentation” is nebulous, at best, and absolutely incorrect, at worst. This error is by auditors if they cannot conclude that the billed services were actually provided, were provided at the level billed, and/or were medically necessary. An infuriating discovery was when I was defending a DME RAC audit and learned that the “real” reason for the denial of a claim was that no one went to the consumers door, knocked on it, and verified that a wheelchair had, in fact, been delivered. In-person verification of delivery is not a requirement, nor should it be. Such a burdensome requirement would unduly prejudice DME companies. Yes, you need to be able to show a signed and dated delivery slip, but you do not have to go to the consumer’s house and snap a selfie with the consumer and the piece of equipment.
Another common target for RAC audits is oxygen tubing, oxygen stands/racks, portable liquid oxygen systems, and oxygen concentrators. RAC auditors mainly look for medical necessity for oxygen equipment. Hospital beds/accessories are also a frequent find in a RAC audit. A high use of hospital beds/accessories codes can enlarge the target on your back.
Another recurrent issue that the RAC auditors cite is billing for bundled services separately. Medicare does not make separate payment for DME provider when a beneficiary is in a covered inpatient stay. RAC auditors check whether suppliers are inappropriately receiving separate DME payment when the beneficiary is in a covered inpatient stay. Suppliers can’t bill for DME items used by the patient prior to the patient’s discharge from the hospital. Medicare doesn’t allow separate billing for surgical dressings, urological supplies, or ostomy supplies provided in the hospital because reimbursement for them is wrapped into the Part A payment. This prohibition applies even if the item is worn home by the patient when leaving the hospital.
As always, documentation of the face to face encounter and the prescription are also important.
You can find the federal regulation for DME documentation at 42 CFR 410.38 – “Durable medical equipment: Scope and conditions.”
Once you receive an alleged overpayment, know your rights! Appeal, appeal, appeal!! The Medicare appeal process can be found here.
When you have a Medicare appeal, it is not uncommon for the appeal process to last years and years – up to 3-6 years in some cases. There has been a backlog of approximately 800,000+ Medicare appeals (almost 1 million), which, with no change, would take 11 years to vet.
A Federal Court Judge says – that is not good enough!
Judge James Boasburg Ordered that the Medicare appeal backlog be eliminated in the following stages:
- 30% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2017 (approximately a 300,000 case reduction within 1 year);
- 60% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2018;
- 90% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2019; and
- Elimination of the backlog of cases by Dec. 31, 2020;
A Medicare appeal has 5 steps. See blog. The backlog is at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level – or, Level 3.
This backlog is largely attributable to the Medicare Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) programs. In 2010, the federal government implemented the RAC program to recoup allegedly improper Medicare reimbursement payments. The RAC program (for both Medicare and Medicaid) has been criticized for being overly broad and burdensome and “nit picking,” insignificant paperwork errors. See blog.
While the RAC program has recovered a substantial sum of alleged overpayments, concurrently, it has cost health care providers an infinite amount of money to defend the allegations and has left Health and Human Services (HHS) with little funds to adjudicate the number of Medicare appeals, which increase every year. The number of Medicare appeals filed in fiscal year 2011 was 59,600. In fiscal year 2013, that number boomed to more than 384,000. Today, close to 1 million Medicare appeals stand in wait. The statutory adjudication deadline for appeals at the ALJ level is 90 days, yet the average Medicare appeal can last over 546 days.
The American Hospital Association (AHA) said – enough is enough!
AHA sued HHS’ Secretary Sylvia Burwell in 2014, but the case was dismissed. AHA appealed the District Court’s Decision to the Court of Appeals, which reversed the dismissal and gave the District Court guidance on how the backlog could be remedied.
Finally, last week, on December 5, 2016, the District Court published its Opinion and set forth the above referenced mandated dates for eliminating the Medicare appeal backlog.
While, administratively, the case was dismissed, the District Court retained “jurisdiction in order to review the required status reports and rule on any challenges to unmet deadlines.”
In non-legalese, the Court said “The case is over, but we will be watching you and can enforce this Decision should it be violated.”
This is a win for all health care providers that accept Medicare.
On August 1, 2015, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) clarified (limited) the scope of Medicare auditors in a published article entitled, “Limiting the Scope of Review on Redeterminations and Reconsiderations of Certain Claims.” (MLN Matters® Number: SE1521).
The limitations apply to Medicare Audit Contractors (MACs) and Qualified Independent Contractors (QICs). This new instruction will apply to audits conducted on or after August 1, 2015, and will not be applied retroactively. Important to note: this instruction does not apply to prepayment review, only post payment reviews.
MLN Matters® Number: SE1521 was published in response to the overwhelming, increasingly, mushroomed backlog of Medicare appeals at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level. Six years ago, prior to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the number of Medicare appeals at the ALJ level was sustainable. Six years later, in 2015, the Medicare appeal backlog has skyrocketed to numbers beyond the comprehension of any adversely affected health care provider, i.e., over 547 days for adjudication!
So in order to combat these overwhelming, bottle-necked and “anything but speedy Medicare appeals,” CMS attempted to rectify the situation by setting new limitations (among other measures) as to the scope of authority that MACs and QICs may present on an audit. However, these new limitations remind me of the hole that is in my front yard. Yes, a hole. The title of this story is “Inertia: What is Easy to Keep Going, Is Impossible to Pull Back” or “I love my husband’s intentions, but the result looks like the Medicare backlog.”
My wonderful husband and I purchased a small farm at the beginning of the year. If you have been following my blog over the past year, you will know that we have horses, peacocks, a micro pig, two dogs, and a 10-year-old. It is a whirlwind of fun.
Well, included in our purchase was a very shallow, very mosquito-ridden pond. It was about 4-5 inches deep and I never really thought about it. It was a pond. It was not beautiful, but it was not ugly. It was just there.
My husband tells me one day that he is going to “clean out the pond.”
BEFORE (except he already tore up the grass, so I do not have a true before picture):
Every day, for three months, I come home to a deeper and deeper pond.
“I’m bound to hit a spring,” he would say. Or “Leroy says that there is a lot of water under our ground.” How Leroy came to this conclusion, I do not know. But, slowly, and almost unperceptively, each day the hole grows wider and deeper.
Until, one day, I come home to this:
It would be funny if it were in your yard. (BTW: For scale, check out the horses (one is white, one is brown) in the top left corner.)
“I love my husband’s intentions, but the result looks like the Medicare backlog.”
You cannot undo digging a hole in your front yard that could swallow an elephant..or maybe two or three elephants. Just like you cannot undo a Medicare appeal backlog that could, potentially, fill my hole with its paperwork. You just have to make do, sit on your front porch, and admire the meteor-like hole that resides in your front lawn.
We (He) have (has) high hopes that our hole will become a lake or a swimming hole. In order to help the cause, I spit in it every time I walk by it. In the alternative, we sometimes aim the sprinkler toward the hole and let it run for a few hours. These are examples of our attempts of reconciling our hole into a beautiful swimming hole.
Similarly, when CMS created these MACs and QICs for Medicare audits, at first, it seemed that the MACs and QICs had no limits as to their scopes of authority to audit. Due to these overzealous and, sometimes, overreaching audits, the appeal backlog increased in number, then multiplied. Similar to the construction of my hole, the appeal backlog grew slowly, at first, then exponentially until the backlog is out of hand and uncontrollable. See blog.
One example of the seemingly limitless authority that the MACs and QICs wielded was that the auditors would provide reasons why claims were noncompliant, the defect could be cured, and the MACs and/or QICs would deny the claim for an entirely different reason.
The auditor would, in essence, be moving the goalposts after you kicked the ball. And the appeal backlog continued to swell.
The ability for the auditors to expand the review of claims beyond which was initially reviewed contributed the massive backlog of Medicare appeals at the ALJ level because more providers appeal an audit with which they disagree (common sense). Just like my hole in my front yard, the backlog of appeals grew, then ballooned until the number of Medicare appeals stuck in the backlog could possibly fill my hole. See blog for the Medicare appeal process and appeal deadlines.
According to the most current statistics available, there is a Medicare appeal backlog of approximately 870,000 appeals. The average processing time for appeals decided in fiscal year 2015 is 547.1 days.
Look at the balloon effect of “average processing time by fiscal year.” In 2009, the average processing time was 94.9 days (a little over 3 months). Now it is over 540 days (almost a year and a half)!!
“I love my husband’s intentions, but the result looks like the Medicare backlog.”
In an attempt to clear the backlog, CMS released MLN Matters® Number: SE1521, on August 1, 2015, in which “CMS has instructed MACs and QICs to limit their review to the reason(s) the claim or line item at issue was initially denied.” (emphasis added).
An exception, however, is if claims are denied for insufficient documentation and the provider submits documents, the claim may still be denied for lack of medical necessity if the documents submitted do not support medical necessity.
This new instruction found in MLN Matters No. SE1521 is an attempt by CMS to reconcile the huge backlog of Medicare appeals at the ALJ level. It is a small gesture. Quite frankly, this instruction should be self-evident as it is inherently unfair to providers to move the goalposts during an audit. I liken this gesture to my husband aiming the sprinkler toward the hole.
In other words, in my opinion, this feeble gesture alone, will not solve the problem. But, in the meantime, it will benefit providers who have been suffering from the goalposts being moved during an audit.
Once something is so big…
“I love my husband’s intentions, but the result looks like the Medicare backlog.”
Maybe the backlog will be fixed when my hole has transformed to a swimming hole.
Proposed Federal Legislation Will Provide Relief to Hospitals and Medicare Patients in Need of Post-Acute Care
The Center for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) announced that the new RAC contracts in North Carolina should be ready by the end of the year. This means that, next year, RAC audits on hospitals and other providers will significantly increase in number. Get prepared, providers!!
However, there is proposed federal legislation that could protect hospitals and Medicare patients if passed.
Hypothetical: You present yourself to a hospital. The hospital keeps you in observation for 1 day. You are then formally admitted to the hospital as an inpatient for 2 more days. Under Medicare rules, will Medicare now cover your post-acute care in a skilled nursing facility (SNF)?
Answer: No. Observation days in hospitals do not count toward the Medicare 3-day requirement.
On November 19, 2014, Congressman Kevin Brady introduced draft legislation that would allow hospital observation stays to count toward establishing Medicare eligibility for post-acute services, as well as improve and supervise the RAC program.
You are probably wondering…Why would a hospital keep me in observation for a full day without admitting me as an inpatient when hospitals are reimbursed at a significantly higher rate for inpatient versus outpatient?
Answer: To avoid RAC recoupments.
In recent years, recovery audit contractors (RACs) have been exceedingly aggressive in post payment review audits in challenging hospital claims for short, inpatient stays. The RACs are motivated by money, and all of the RACs are compensated on a contingency basis, which leads to overzealous, sometimes, inaccurate audits. Here in North Carolina, Public Consulting Group (PCG) retains 11.5% of collected audits, and Health Management Systems (HMS) retains 9.75%. See my blog: “NC Medicaid Extrapolation Audits: How Does $100 Become $100,000? Check for Clusters!”
Why have RACs targeted short-stay admissions in hospitals? As mentioned, one-day inpatient stays are paid significantly more than similar outpatient stays. Because of the financial incentives, RACs often focus audits on whether the short-stay is appropriate because this focus will yield a larger overpayment. As a result, hospitals become hesitant to admit patients as an “inpatient” status and, instead, keep the patient in outpatient observation for longer periods of time.
Keeping a person in observation status rather than admitting the person could impact the person’s health and well-being, but it will also impact whether a Medicare patient can receive post-acute care in a SNF (or, rather, whether Medicare will pay for it).
In order for a Medicare patient to receive covered, skilled nursing care after a hospital stay, Medicare requires a 3-day inpatient stay. With the onslaught of RAC audits, hospitals become leery to admit a person as an inpatient. When hospitals are tentative about admitting people, it can adversely affect a person’s post-acute care services.
To give you an idea of how overzealous these RACs are when it comes to auditing Medicare providers, there are over 800,000 pending Medicare appeals. That means that, across the country, RACs and other auditing companies have determined that over 800,000 providers and hospitals that accept Medicare were improperly overpaid for services rendered due to billing errors, etc. Over 800,000 providers and hospitals disagree with the audit results and are appealing. Now, obviously, all 800,000 appeals are hospitals appealing audits findings short-stay admissions not meeting criteria, but enough of them exist to warrant Congressman Brady’s proposed bill.
The proposed bill will significantly impact RAC audits of short-stay admissions in hospitals. But the proposed bill will also extend the current short moratorium on RAC audits on short-stay admissions in hospitals. Basically, the RACs became so overzealous and the Medicare appeals backlog became so large that Congress placed a short moratorium on RACs auditing short-stay admissions under the two-midnight rule through the end of March 2015. The proposed bill will lengthen the moratorium just in time for NC’s new RACs to begin additional hospital audits.
The moral of the story is…you get too greedy, you get nothing…
Remember “The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs?”
A man and his wife owned a very special goose. Every day the goose would lay a golden egg, which made the couple very rich. “Just think,” said the man’s wife, “If we could have all the golden eggs that are inside the goose, we could be richer much faster.” “You’re right,” said her husband, “We wouldn’t have to wait for the goose to lay her egg every day.” So, the couple killed the goose and cut her open, only to find that she was just like every other goose. She had no golden eggs inside of her at all, and they had no more golden eggs.
Too much greed results in nothing.
Similar to the husband and wife who killed the goose who laid the golden eggs, overzealous and inaccurate audits cause Congress to propose a temporary moratorium on RACs conducting audits on short-term hospital stays until the reimbursement rates are implemented within the same proposed bill (which, in essence will lengthen the moratorium until the rates within the bill are implemented, which also includes additional methods to settle RAC disputes).
The proposed bill, entitled, “The Hospitals Improvements for Payment Act of 2014,” (HIP) would revamp the way in which short hospital stays are reimbursed and how observation days are counted toward Medicare’s 3-day rule for post-acute care; thereby alleviating these painful hospital audits for short inpatient stays. Remember my blog: “Medicare Appeals to OMHA Reaches 15,000 Per Week, Yet Decisions Take Years; Hospital Association Sues Over Medicare Backlog.”
HIP would create a new payment model called the Hospital Prospective Payment System (HPPS) that would apply to short-term hospital stays.
What is a “short stay?” According to the proposed bill, a short stay is a: (1) stay that is less than 3 days; (2) stay that has a national average length of stay less than 3 days; or (3) stay that is “among the most highly ranked discharges that have been denied for reasons of medical necessity.”
Proposed HIP would also require the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to establish a new base rate of payment, which will be calculated by blending the base operating rate for short stays and an equivalent base operating rate for overnight hospital outpatient services.
The draft bill would also repeal the 0.2 percent ($200 million per year) reduction that CMS implemented with the two-midnight rule, which is the standard that presumes hospital stays are reasonable if the stay covers two midnights.
The proposed bill also mandates more government supervision as to the RACs.
This proposed bill comes on the cusp of an increased amount of RAC audits in NC on hospitals. As previously discussed, our new RAC contracts will be awarded before the end of this year. So our new RACs will come in with the new year…
The moral of the story?
Expect hospital RAC audits to increase dramatically in the next year, unless this bill is passed.
Throughout my career I have seen more people confuse Medicare and Medicaid than any other two items in my line of work. If I am about to give a presentation on Medicaid, without question, someone will comment, “Oh, that’s important! We will all be on Medicaid someday.” Hmmmm? Really? (I hope not).
It’s confusing. I get it. They sound the same and both are heavily regulated with esoteric rules and regulations.
For the record, MediCARE covers those who qualify for Medicare and are 65 years of age or older. MediCAID serves low-income parents, children, seniors, and people with disabilities.
By providers, I am asked frequently, “What is the difference between a Medicaid audit appeal and a Medicare audit appeal?”
The easy “Audit 101” answer is that Medicaid audit appeals are quicker (although in the legal world, nothing is truly fast) than Medicare audits and that the Medicaid administrative appeal process is easier (or has fewer steps) than the Medicare appeal process.
In Medicaid you have an informal appeal, an appeal to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), and, if you are so inclined, judicial review to the Superior Courts. Obviously you can appeal the judicial review, but most appeals stop at the OAH level.
So, with Medicaid audit appeals, you have 2 levels…maybe 3.
In Medicare audits appeals, there are 5 levels. You have more of a Dante-ish order of events.
In the “Divine Comedy,” Dante writes of three levels of afterlife: (1) Inferno (2) Purgatorio; and (3) Paradiso.
If Dante stopped at those 3 levels, the “Divine Comedy” would be more similar to Medicaid audit appeals, not Medicare audit appeals. But Dante does not stop at 3 levels.
Purgatory, which is the place that the human soul must purge its sins and climb up to be worthy of Heaven, is divided into three sections: (1) Antepurgatory; (2) Purgatory proper; and (3) the Earthly Paradise. (I am giving the Cliff’s Notes version for the purpose of this blog. Obviously, there were other mountains symbolizing the 7 deadly sins and other layers, but I will leave that for English class).
In recent times, Purgatory has come to mean a state of suffering or torment that is meant to be temporary.
Regardless, the “Divine Comedy” and its multi-layers to achieve Paradiso is more akin to the Medicare appeal audit process.
Here are the levels in a Medicare audit appeal process:
3. Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)
4. Review by the Appeals Council
5. Judicial Review
Nowadays many providers undergoing Medicare audits are getting stuck waiting for #3 to occur. Purgatory.
So long is the hold up before step #3 that Congressman Jim McDermott, 7th District, Washington, wrote a letter to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius expressing concerns.
In a letter dated March 18, 2014, Congressman McDermott writes that he is concerned with the backlog of appeals pending in the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA).
According to Congressman McDermott, 357,000 Medicare appeals are pending at OMHA. If OMHA decided to set a one-year deadline to hear the pending actions and not counting new actions that would be filed, OMHA would have to preside over 1,027.4 hearings a day, including weekends and holidays.
For as long as I know, OMHA has expedited Medicare recipients appeals. However, while Congressman McDermott commends OMHA for the expeditions, he states that the expeditions are not fast enough, even for Medicare recipients.
Congressman McDermott makes several suggestions as to how to decrease the current workload on OMHA.
First, he asks that the “two midnights policy” not be implemented. Instead, he suggests to revamp the recovery audit contractor (RAC) program. Congressman McDermott states that too many issues are still not resolved for the Policy to be implemented and that the implementation will only add to OMHA’s workload.
Second, Congressman McDermott suggests more accountability for the RACs. He states that there is no associated penalty if a RAC collects money from a provider and the decision is overturned on appeal.
To this suggestion, I say, “Bravo, Congressman McDermott!” My suggestion is that the RACs to pay the provider’s attorneys’ fees if overturned on appeal. It seems only fair that the provider not have to pay legal fees if the provider shows that the RAC was incorrect in its assessment.
Thirdly, Congressman McDermott suggests to ensure the newly instated pause on document requests corrects the problems. CMS has recognized inherent problems with the RAC program and has issued a pause of document requests. Well, Congressman McDermott says make sure you fix the problem before lifting the pause. Logical.
Without question, the backlog at OMHA needs to be addressed. Some Medicare providers have complained of not having their cases heard for years. Imagine waiting to be heard in front of a judge for years….not knowing…
It is hard enough for providers to go through a Medicare audit. Much less appeal and then…………………………………………….wait in Purgatory.