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Medicare Appeals Backlog: Is HHS In Danger of Being Held in Contempt?

Four months after the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Final Rule went in effect (March 2017) attempting to eliminate the Medicare appeal backlog and 6 months before United States District Court for the District of Columbia’s first court-imposed deadline (end of 2017) of reducing the Medicare appeal backlog by 30%, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are woefully far from either. According to HHS’ June 2017 report on the Medicare appeal backlog, 950,520 claims will remain in the backlog by 2021. This is in stark contrast to the District Court’s Order that HHS completely eliminate the backlog by 2020. So will HHS be held in contempt? Throw the Secretary in jail? That is what normally happened when someone violates a Court Order.

Supposedly, HHS’ catastrophic inability to decrease the Medicare appeal backlog is not from a lack of giving the ole college try. But, in its June 2017 report, HHS blames funding.

CMS issued a new Final Rule in January 2017, which took effect March 2017, in hopes of reducing the massive Medicare provider appeal backlog that has clogged up the third level of appeal of Medicare providers’ adverse actions. In the third level of appeal, providers make their arguments before an administrative law judge (ALJ). For information on all the Medicare appeal levels, click here.

The Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) claims that it currently can adjudicate roughly 92,000 appeals annually. The current backlog is approximately 667,326 appeals that HHS estimates will grow to 950,520 by 2021. The average number of days between filing a Petition with OMHA and adjudicating the case is around 1057.2 days. 

HHS had high hopes that these changes would eliminate the backlog. In HHS’ Final Rule Fact Sheet, it states “with the administrative authorities set forth in the final rule and the FY 2017 proposed funding increases and legislative actions outlined in the President’s Budget, we estimate that that the backlog of appeals could be eliminated by FY 2020.” The changes made to the Medicare appeals process by the January 2017 Final Rule is the following:

Changes to the Medicare Appeals Process

The changes in the final rule are primarily focused on the third level of appeal and will:

  • Designate Medicare Appeals Council decisions (final decisions of the Secretary) as precedential to provide more consistency in decisions at all levels of appeal, reducing the resources required to render decisions, and possibly reducing appeal rates by providing clarity to appellants and adjudicators.
  • Allow attorney adjudicators to decide appeals for which a decision can be issued without a hearing and dismiss requests for hearing when an appellant withdraws the request. That way ALJs can focus on conducting hearings and adjudicating the merits of more complex cases.
  • Simplify proceedings when CMS or CMS contractors are involved by limiting the number of entities (CMS or contractors) that can be a participant or party at the hearing.
  • Clarify areas of the regulations that currently causes confusion and may result in unnecessary appeals to the Medicare Appeals Council.
  • Create process efficiencies by eliminating unnecessary steps (e.g., by allowing ALJs to vacate their own dismissals rather than requiring appellants to appeal a dismissal to the Medicare Appeals Council); streamlining certain procedures (e.g., by using telephone hearings for appellants who are not unrepresented beneficiaries, unless the ALJ finds good cause for an appearance by other means); and requiring appellants to provide more information on what they are appealing and who will be attending a hearing.
  • Address areas for improvement previously identified by stakeholders to increase the quality of the process and responsiveness to customers, such as establishing an adjudication time frame for cases remanded from the Medicare Appeals Council, revising remand rules to help ensure cases keep moving forward in the process, simplifying the escalation process, and providing more specific rules on what constitutes good cause for new evidence to be admitted at the OMHA level of appeal.

In early June 2017, HHS issued its second status report on the Medicare appeals backlog and the outlook does not look good.

CMS held a call on June 29, 2017, to discuss recent regulatory changes intended to streamline the Medicare administrative appeal processes, reduce the backlog of pending appeals, and increase consistency in decision-making across appeal levels.

Now HHS is in danger of violating a Court Order.

In December 2016, the District Court for the District of Columbia held in American Hospital Association v Burwell case Ordered HHS to release to status reports every 90 days and the complete elimination of the backlog by 2020, HHS is also required to observe several intermediary benchmarks: 30% reduction by the end of 2017, 60% by the end of 2018, 90% by the end of 2019, and then ultimately 100% elimination by the end of 2020.

BUT LITTLE TO NOTHING HAS CHANGED.

HHS itself has maintained since the requirements were instituted that the elimination of the backlog would not be possible. June’s report projects 950,520 claims will remain by 2021, but this projection is still very far from meeting the court order.

HHS blames funding.

But even significant increase of funding (from about $107 million in 2017, to $242 million in 2018) will not cure the problem! I find it very disturbing that $242 million could not eliminate the Medicare appeal backlog. So what will happen when HHS fails to meet the Court’s mandate of a 30% reduction of the backlog by the end of 2017? Hold the Secretary in contempt?

The court in Burwell drafted a “what if” into the Decision—the Court stated: “if [HHS] fails to meet [these] deadlines, Plaintiffs may move for default judgment or to otherwise enforce the writ of mandamus.”  This allows the Court authority to enforce its Decision, but it has not motivated HHS to try any innovative procedures to reduce the backlog. So far no additional actions have been attempted, and the backlog remains.

If HHS is in violation of the Court Order at the end of 2017, the Court could issue harsh penalties. (Or the Court could do nothing and be a complete disappointment).