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Kaiser Foundation: Estimates of the American Health Care Act

This data note reviews the Medicaid estimates included in the American Health Care Act prepared by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and staff at the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT).

via Data Note: Review of CBO Medicaid Estimates of the American Health Care Act — The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation

Medicare Audits: DRG Downcoding in Hospitals: Algorithms Substituting for Medical Judgment, Part 1

This article is written by our good friend, Ed Roche. He is the founder of Barraclough NY, LLC, which is a litigation support firm that helps us fight against extrapolations.

e-roche

The number of Medicare audits is increasing. In the last five years, audits have grown by 936 percent. As reported previously in RACmonitor, this increase is overwhelming the appeals system. Less than 3 percent of appeal decisions are being rendered on time, within the statutory framework.

It is peculiar that the number of audits has grown rapidly, but without a corresponding growth in the number of employees for Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs). How can this be? Have the RAC workers become more than 900 percent more efficient? Well, in a way, they have. They have learned to harness the power of big data.

Since 1986, the ability to store digital data has grown from 0.02 exabytes to 500 exabytes. An exabyte is one quintillion bytes. Every day, the equivalent 30,000 Library of Congresses is put into storage. That’s lots of data.

Auditing by RACs has morphed into using computerized techniques to pick targets for audits. An entire industry has emerged that specializes in processing Medicare claims data and finding “sweet spots” on which the RACs can focus their attention. In a recent audit, the provider was told that a “focused provider analysis report” had been obtained from a subcontractor. Based on that report, the auditor was able to target the provider.

A number of hospitals have been hit with a slew of diagnosis-related group (DRG) downgrades from internal hospital RAC teams camping out in their offices, continually combing through their claims data. The DRG system constitutes a framework that classifies any inpatient stay into groups for purposes of payment.

The question then becomes: how is this work done? How is so much data analyzed? Obviously, these audits are not being performed manually. They are cyber audits. But again, how?

An examination of patent data sheds light on the answer. For example, Optum, Inc. of Minnesota (associated with UnitedHealthcare) has applied for a patent on “computer-implemented systems and methods of healthcare claim analysis.” These are complex processes, but what they do is analyze claims based on DRGs.

The information system envisaged in this patent appears to be specifically designed to downgrade codes. It works by running a simulation that switches out billed codes with cheaper codes, then measures if the resulting code configuration is within the statistical range averaged from other claims.

If it is, then the DRG can be downcoded so that the revenue for the hospital is reduced correspondingly. This same algorithm can be applied to hundreds of thousands of claims in only minutes. And the same algorithm can be adjusted to work with different DRGs. This is only one of many patents in this area.

When this happens, the hospital may face many thousands of downgraded claims. If it doesn’t like it, then it must appeal.

Here there is a severe danger for any hospital. The problem is that the cost the RAC incurs running the audit is thousands of time less expensive that what the hospital must spend to refute the DRG coding downgrade.

This is the nature of asymmetric warfare. In military terms, the cost of your enemy’s offense is always much smaller than the cost of your defense. That is why guerrilla warfare is successful against nation states. That is why the Soviet Union and United States decided to stop building anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems — the cost of defense was disproportionately greater than the cost of offense.

Hospitals face the same problem. Their claims data files are a giant forest in which these big data algorithms can wander around downcoding and picking up substantial revenue streams.

By using artificial intelligence (advanced statistical) methods of reviewing Medicare claims, the RACs can bombard hospitals with so many DRG downgrades (or other claim rejections) that it quickly will overwhelm their defenses.

We should note that the use of these algorithms is not really an “audit.” It is a statistical analysis, but not done by any doctor or healthcare professional. The algorithm could just as well be counting how many bags of potato chips are sold with cans of beer.

If the patient is not an average patient, and the disease is not an average disease, and the treatment is not an average treatment, and if everything else is not “average,” then the algorithm will try to throw out the claim for the hospital to defend. This has everything to do with statistics and correlation of variables and very little to do with understanding whether the patient was treated properly.

And that is the essence of the problem with big data audits. They are not what they say they are, because they substitute mathematical algorithms for medical judgment.

EDITOR’ NOTE: In Part II of this series, Edward Roche will examine the changing appeals landscape and what big data will mean for defense against these audits. In Part III, he will look at future scenarios for the auditing industry and the corresponding public policy agenda that will involve lawmakers.

 

Medicare Fraud: Do MCOs Have Accountability Too?

Dr. Isaac Kojo Anakwah Thompson, a Florida primary care physician, was sentenced in July 2016 to 4 years in prison and a subsequent two years of supervised release. Dr. Thompson pled guilty to health care fraud.  He was further ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $2,114,332.33. Ouch!! What did he do?

According to the Department of Justice, Dr. Thompson falsely reported that 387 of his clients suffered from ankylosing spondylitis when they did not.

Question: How does faking a patient’s disease make a physician money???

Answer: Hierarchal condition category (HCC) coding. Wait, what?

Basically, Medicare Advantage assigns HCC coding to each patient depending on the severity of their illnesses. Higher HCC scores equals substantially higher monthly capitation payments from Medicare to the managed care organization (MCO). In turn, the MCO will pay physicians more who have more extremely sick patients (higher HCC codes).

Ankylosing spondylitis is a form of arthritis that causes inflammation and damage at the joints; eventually, the inflamed spinal joints can become fused, or joined together so they can’t move independently. It’s a rare disease, affecting 1 in 1000 people. And, importantly, it sports a high HCC code.

In this case, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) found it odd that, between 2006-2010, Dr. Thompson diagnosed 387 Medicare Advantage beneficiaries with ankylosing spondylitis and treated them with such rare disease. To which, I say, if you’re going to defraud the Medicare system, choose common, fabricated diseases (kidding – it’s called sarcasm – I always have to add a disclaimer for people with no humor).

According to the Department of Justice, none or very few of Dr. Thompson’s 387 consumers actually had ankylosing spondylitis.

My issue is as follows: Doesn’t the managed care organization (MCO) share in some of the punishment? Shouldn’t the MCO have to repay the financial benefit it reaped from Dr. Thompson?? Shouldn’t the MCO have a duty to report such oddities?

Let me explain:

In Florida, Humana acted as the MCO. Every dollar that Dr. Thompson received was funneled through Humana. Humana would pay Dr. Thompson a monthly capitation fee from Medicare Advantage based on his patient’s hierarchal condition category (HCC) coding. Increasing even just one patient’s HCC code means more bucks for Dr. Thompson. Remember, according to the DOJ, he increased 387 patients’ HCC codes.

Dr. Thompson reported these diagnoses to Humana, which in turn reported them to Medicare. Consequently, Medicare paid approximately $2.1 million in excess capitation fees to Humana, approximately 80% of which went to Dr. Thompson.

In this case, it is reasonable to expect that Humana had knowledge that Dr. Thompson reported abnormally high HCCs for his patients. For comparison, ankylosing spondylitis has an HCC score of 0.364, which is more than an aortic aneurysm and three times as high as diabetes. Plus, look at the amount of money that the MCO paid Dr. Thompson. Surely, it appeared irregular.

What, if anything, is the MCO’s duty to report physicians with an abnormally high number of high HCC codes? If you have knowledge of someone committing a crime and you do nothing, isn’t that called aiding and abetting?

With the publication of the Yates memo, I expect to see CMS holding MCOs and other state agencies accountable for the actions of its providers. Not to say that the MCOs should actively, independently investigate Medicare/caid fraud, but to notify the Human Services Department (HSD) if abnormalities exist, especially if as blatant as one doctor with 387 patients suffering from ankylosing spondylitis.

Medicare Appeal Backlog: Tough Tooties!…Unless…[Think Outside the Box!]

When you are accused of a $12 million dollar overpayment by Medicare, obviously, you appeal it.But do you expect that appeal to take ten years or longer? Are such long, wait periods allowed by law? That is what Cumberland Community Hospital System, Inc. (Cape Fear) discovered in a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision, on March 7, 2016, denying a Writ of Mandamus from the Court and refusing to order the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Burwell to immediately adjudicate Cape Fear’s Medicare appeals to be heard within the Congressional requirement that appeals be heard and decided by Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) within 90 days.

According to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services‘ (CMS) website, an “ALJ will generally issue a decision within 90 days of receipt of the hearing request. Again, according to CMS’ website, this time frame may be extended for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to:

  • The case being escalated from the reconsideration level
  • The submission of additional evidence not included with the hearing request
  • The request for an in-person hearing
  • The appellant’s failure to send a notice of the hearing request to other parties
  • The initiation of discovery if CMS is a party.”

In Cape Fear’s case, the Secretary admitted that the Medicare appeal backlog equates to more than 800,000 claims and would, likely, take over 10 years to adjudicate all the claims. Even the 4th Circuit Court, which, ultimately, dismissed Cape Fear’s complaint, agrees with Cape Fear and calls the Medicare appeal backlog “incontrovertibly grotesque.”

Generally, the rule is that if the ALJ does not render a decision after 180 days of the filing of the case, then the provider has the right to escalate the case to the Medicare Appeals Council, which is the 4th step of a Medicare appeal. See blog for more details on the appeal process.

Care appeals

What about after 3,650 days? Get a big pie in the face?

The United States Code is even less vague than CMS’ website. Without question 42 U.S.C. states that for a:

“(1)Hearing by administrative law judge; (A)In general

Except as provided in subparagraph (B), an administrative law judge shall conduct and conclude a hearing on a decision of a qualified independent contractor under subsection (c) of this section and render a decision on such hearing by not later than the end of the 90-day period beginning on the date a request for hearing has been timely filed.”

(emphasis added). And, BTW, subsection (B) is irrelevant here. It contemplates when a party moves for or stipulates to an extension past the 90-day period.

So why did Cape Fear lose? How could the hospital lose when federal administrative code specifically spells out mandatory 90-day limit for a decision by an ALJ? Ever heard of a statute with no teeth? [i.e., HIPAA].

No one will be surprised to read that I have my opinions. First, a writ of mandamus was not the legal weapon to wield. It is an antiquated legal theory that rarely makes itself useful in modern law. I remember the one and only time I filed a writ of mandamus in state court in an attempt to hold a State Agency liable for willfully violating a Court’s Order. I appeared before the judge, who asked me, “Do you know how long I have been on this bench?” To which I responded, “Yes, Your Honor, you have been on the bench for X number of years.” He said, “Do you know how many times I have granted a writ of mandamus?” I said, “No, Your Honor.” “Zero,” he said, “Zero.” The point is that writs of mandamus are rare. A party must prove to the court that he/she has a clear and indisputable right to what is being asked of the court.

Secondly, in my mind, Cape Fear made a disastrous mistake in arguing that it has a clear right for its Medicare appeals to be adjudicated immediately. Think about it…there are 800,000+ Medicare appeals pending before the ALJs. What judge would ever order the administrative court to immediately drop all other 799,250 pended claims (Cape Fear had 750 claims pending) and to adjudicate only Cape Fear’s claims? It is the classic slippery slope…if you do this for Cape Fear, then you need to order the same for the rest of the pended claims.

In this instance, it appears that Cape Fear requested too drastic a measure for a federal judge to order. The claims were doomed from the beginning.

However, I cannot fault Cape Fear for trying since the code is crystal clear in requiring a 90-day turnaround time. The question becomes…what is the proper remedy for a gross disregard, even if unwillful, of the 90-day turnaround period?

This would have taken thinking outside the box.

Medicare providers have some rights. I discuss those rights frequently on this blog. But the population that the courts inevitably want to insulate from “David and Goliath situations” are the recipients. Unlike the perceived, “big, strong, and well-attorneyed” hospital, recipients often find themselves lacking legal representation to defend their statutorily-given right to choose their provider and exercise their right to access to care.

Had Cape Fear approached the same problem from a different perspective and argued violations of law on behalf of the beneficiaries of Cape Fear’s quality health care services, a different result may have occurred.

Another way Cape Fear could have approached the same problem, could have been a request for the Court to Cape Fear’s funds owed for service rendered to be released pending the litigation.

As always, there is more than one way to skin a cat. I humbly suggest that when you have such an important case to bring…BRING IT ALL!!

Have an Inkling of a Possible Overpayment, You Must Repay Within 60 Days, Says U.S. District Court!

You are a health care provider.  You own an agency.  An employee has a “hunch” that…

maybe…

perhaps….

your agency was overpaid for Medicare/caid reimbursements over the past two years to the tune of $1 million!

This employee has been your billing manager for years and you trust her…but…she’s not an attorney and doesn’t have knowledge of pertinent legal defenses. You are concerned about the possibility of overpayments, BUT….$1 million? What if she is wrong?  That’s a lot of money!

According to a recent U.S. District Court in New York, you have 60 days to notify and refund the government of this alleged $1 million overpayment, despite not having a concrete number or understanding whether, in fact, you actually owe the money.

Seem a bit harsh? It is.

With the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on March 23, 2010, many new regulations were implemented with burdensome requirements to which health care providers are required to adhere.  At first, the true magnitude of the ACA was unknown, as very few people actually read the voluminous Act and, even fewer, sat to contemplate the unintentional consequences the Act would present to providers. For example, I daresay that few, if any, legislators foresaw the Draconian effect from changing the word “may” in 42 CFR 455.23 to “must.” See blog and blog and blog.

Another boiling frog in the muck of the ACA is the 60-Day Refund Rule (informally the 60-day rule).

What is the 60-Day Refund Rule?

In 2012, CMS proposed the “60-day Refund Rule,” requiring Medicare providers and suppliers to repay Medicare overpayments within 60 days of the provider or supplier identifying the overpayment.  Meaning, if you perform a self audit and determine that you think that you were overpaid, then you must repay the amount within 60 days or face penalties.

If I had a nickel for each time a clients calls me and says, “Well, I THINK I may have been overpaid, but I’m not really sure,” and, subsequently, I explained how they did not owe the money, I’d be Kardashian rich.

It is easy to get confused. Some overpayment issues are esoteric, involving complex eligibility issues, questionable duplicity issues, and issues involving “grey areas” of “non”-covered services.  Sometimes a provider may think he/she owes an overpayment until he/she speaks to me and realizes that, by another interpretation of the same Clinical Coverage Policy that, in fact, no overpayment is owed. To know you owe an overpayment, generally, means that you hired someone like me to perform the self audit.  From my experience, billing folks are all too quick to believe an overpayment is owed without thinking of the legal defenses that could prevent repayment, and this “quick to find an overpayment without thinking of legal defenses” is represented in Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al., the lawsuit that I will be discussing in this blog.  And to the billings folks’ credit, you cannot blame them.  They don’t want to be accused of fraud. They would rather “do the right thing” and repay an overpayment, rather than try to argue that it is not due.  This “quick to find an overpayment without thinking of legal defenses” is merely the billing folks trying to conduct all work “above-board,” but can hurt the provider agency financially.

Nonetheless, the 60-day Refund Rule is apathetic as to whether you know what you owe or whether you hire someone like me.  The 60-Day Refund Rule demands repayment to the federal government upon 60-days after your “identification” of said alleged overpayment.

Section 1128(d)(2) of the Social Security Act states that:

“An overpayment must be reported and returned under paragraph (1) by the later of— (A) the date which is 60 days after the date on which the overpayment was identified; or (B) the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable.”

A recent case in the U.S. District Court of New York has forged new ground by denying a health care providers’ Motion to Dismiss the U.S. government’s and New York State’s complaints in intervention under the False Claims Act (FCA).  The providers argued that the 60-day rule cannot start without a precise understanding as to the actual amount of the overpayment. Surely, the 60-day rule does not begin to run on the day someone accuses the provider of a possible overpayment!

My colleague, Jennifer Forsyth, recently blogged about this very issue.  See Jennifer’s blog.

Basically, in Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al., three hospitals provided care to Medicaid patients. Due to a software glitch [cough, cough, NCTracks] and due to no fault of the hospitals, the hospitals received possible overpayments.  The single state entity for Medicaid in New York questioned the hospitals in 2010, and the hospitals took the proactive step of tasking an employee, Kane, who eventually became the whistleblower, to determine whether, if, in fact, the hospital did receive overpayments.

At this point, arguably, the hospitals were on notice of the possibility of overpayments, but had not “identified” such overpayments per the 60-day rule.  It was not until Kane made preliminary conclusions that the hospitals were held to have “identified” the alleged overpayments.  But very important is the fact that the Court held the hospitals liable for having “identified” the alleged overpayments prior to actually knowing the veracity of the preliminary findings.

Five months after being tasked with the job of determining any overpayment, Kane emails the hospital staff her findings that, in her opinion, the hospitals had received overpayments totaling over $1 million for over 900 claims.  In reality, Kane’s findings were largely inaccurate, as approximately one-half of her alleged findings of overpayments were actually paid accurately.  Despite the inaccurate findings, the Complaint that Kane filed as the whistleblower (she had been previously fired, which may or may not have contributed to her willingness to bring a whistleblower suit), alleged that the hospitals had a duty under the 60-day rule to report and refund the overpayments, even though there was no certainty as to whether the findings were accurate. And the Court agreed with Kane!

Even more astounding, Kane’s email to the hospitals’ management that contained the inaccurate findings contained phrases that would lead one to believe that the findings were only preliminary:

  • “further analysis would be needed to confirm his findings;” and
  • the spreadsheet provided “some insight to the magnitude of the problem” (emphasis added).

The above-mentioned comments would further the argument that the hospitals were not required to notify the Department and return the money 60 days from Kanes’ email because Kane’s own language within the email was so wishy-washy. Her language in her email certainly does not instill confidence that her findings are accurate and conclusive.

But…

The 60-day rule requires notification and return of the overpayments within 60 days of identification.  The definition of “identification” is the crux of Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al. [it depends on what the definition of “is” is].

The Complaint reads, that the hospitals “fraudulently delay[ed] its repayments for up to two years after the Health System knew” the extent of the overpayments” (emphasis added). According to the Complaint, the date that the hospitals “knew” of the overpayment was the date Kane emailed the inaccurate findings.

The hospitals filed a Motion to Dismiss based on the fact that Kane’s email and findings did not conclusively identify overpayments, instead, only provided a preliminary finding to which the hospitals would have needed to verify.

The issue in Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al. is the definition of “identify” under the 60-day rule. Does “identify” mean “possibly, maybe?” Or “I know I owe it?” Or somewhere in between?

The hospitals filed a Motion to Dismiss, claiming that the 60-day rule did not begin to run on the date that Kane sent his “preliminary findings.”  The U.S. District Court in New York denied the hospitals’ Motion to Dismiss and stated in the Order, “there is an established duty to pay money to the government, even if the precise amount due is yet to be determined.” (emphasis added).

Yet another heavy burden tossed upon health care providers in the ever-deepening, regulatory muck involved in the ACA.  As health care providers carry heavier burdens, they begin to sink into the muck.

Important take aways:

  • Caveat: Take precautions to avoid creating disgruntled, former employees.
  • Have an experienced attorney on speed dial.
  • Self audit, but self audit with someone highly experienced and knowledgeable.
  • Understand the ACA. If you do not, read it. Or hire someone to teach you.

Medicaid Expansion, Polarization, and Diving Head-First Into the Unknown

I have always believed in the concept to think first, act second. I rarely react; I try to act. In politics, generally, this mantra is not followed. If a public poll states that the public is in favor of X, then the leaders need to consider X. If it is an election year, then the politicians will do X.

I’m reminded of an awful book I read a couple of years ago. I can’t remember the name of it, but it began with a young teen-age couple at a lake. The boyfriend dives off of a dock into the lake and dies because his head hit a rock underneath the water. (I do not suggest reading the book). But I remember thinking… “How tragic,” then… “Why in the world would this guy dive head-first into a lake without knowing the depth or pitfalls? This was a preventable death.”

This is a perfect example of why we should think first, act second.

However, in politics, the polarization of the two parties, Republican and Democrat, sometimes causes politicians to RE-act according to the party lines. Nowhere is this polarization more prevalent than the concept of Medicaid expansion. See my blog: “To Expand, Or Not To Expand, A Nationwide Draw?” It seems that if a state has a Republican governor, without question, that state will refuse to expand (I know there are few exceptions, but there are few). If a state elected a Democratic governor, then the state has elected to expand Medicaid.

Are these issues so black and white? Or have we become so politically polarized that true intellect and research no longer matters? Doesn’t that actual state of the state matter in deciding to expand?

For example, according to a 50-state survey by USA Today, North Dakota is the best run state. North Dakota has zero budget deficit, and an unemployment rate of 3.1%, the lowest of all 50 states. North Dakota has opted to expand Medicaid.

On the other hand, according to the same study, North Carolina has an unemployment rate of 9.5%, which is the 4th highest in the nation. What does high unemployment mean? A large number of Medicaid recipients.

North Dakota has approximately 82,762 Medicaid recipients, according to the Kaiser Foundation for FYE 2010. Conversely, North Carolina, for the same year, had 1,813,298 Medicaid recipients.

So my question is: Can, or should, a state with 1.8 million Medicaid recipients adopt the same Medicaid eligibility rules as a state with 82,000 Medicaid recipients?

And how can we know the consequences of expansion prior to deciding to expand? Because, after all, shouldn’t we think first, act second? Who wants to dive into an unknown lake?

But issues that apparently no one had contemplated are cropping up…

States across America are seeing unexpected Medicaid costs increase. According to the Associated Press, prior to Medicaid expansion there were millions of Americans who were eligible for Medicaid but who, for whatever reason, had never signed up. Now that there has been so much publicity about health care, those former un-insured but Medicaid-eligible people are signing up in droves.

In California, State officials say about 300,000 more already-eligible Californians are expected to enroll than was estimated last fall.  See article.

Rhode Island has enrolled 5000-6000 more than its officials expected. In Washington State, people who were previously eligible represent about one-third of new Medicaid enrollments, roughly 165,000 out of a total of nearly 483,000.

While the Feds are picking up the costs for Medicaid recipients now eligible because of the expansion (at least for a few years), state budgets have to cover these new Medicaid recipients signing up who had been eligible in the past.

For states blue or red, the burden of these unanticipated increased costs will be on the shoulders of the states (with federal contribution).

Going back to the extremely polarized view of Medicaid expansion (Democrats expanding and Republicans not expanding)…maybe it’s not all black and white. Maybe we should shed our elephant or donkey skins and actually research our own states. How many Medicaid recipients do we have? What does our budget cover now?

Maybe we should research the consequences before diving in the lake.