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Self Disclosure Protocol: What Is It? And Do I Have To?

You are a provider, and you accept Medicare and Medicaid. You find out that the person with whom you contracted to provide extraction services for your dental patients has been upcoding for the last few months. -or- You discover that the supervisory visits over the past year have been less than…well, nonexistent. -or- Or your licensed therapist forgot to mention that her license was revoked. What do you do?

What do you do when you unearth a potential, past overpayment to you from Medicare or Medicaid?

Number One: You do NOT hide your head!

man with head in sand

Do not be an ostrich. First, being an ostrich will have a direct correlation with harsher penalties. Second, you may miss mandatory disclosure deadlines, which will lead to a more in-depth, concentrated, and targeted audits by the government, which will lead to harsher penalties.

As for the first (harsher penalties), not only will your potential, monetary penalties leap skyward, but knowledge (actual or should have had) could put you at risk for criminal liability or false claims liability. As for increased, monetary penalties, recent Office of Inspector General (OIG) information regarding the self disclosure protocol indicates that self disclosure could reduce the minimum multiplier to only 1.5 times the single damages versus 2-10 times the damages without self disclosure.

As for the second (missing deadlines), your penalties will be exorbitantly higher if you had or should have had actual knowledge of the overpayments and failed to act timely. Should the government, despite your lack of self disclosure, decide to audit your billings, you can count on increased scrutiny and a much more concentrated, in-depth audit. Much of the target of the audit will be what you knew (or should have) and when you knew (or should have). Do not ever think: “I will not ever get audited. I am a small fish. There are so many other providers, who are really de-frauding the system. They won’t come after me.” If you do, you will not be prepared when the audit comes a’knocking on your door – and that is just foolish. In addition, never underestimate the breadth and scope of government audits. Remember, our tax dollars provide almost unlimited resources to fund thousands of audits at a time. Being audited is not like winning the lottery, Your chances are not one in two hundred million. If you accept Medicare and/or Medicaid, your chances of an audit are almost 100%. Some providers undergo audits multiple times a year.

Knowing that the definition of “knowing” may not be Merriam Webster’s definition is also key. The legal definition of “knowing” is more broad that you would think. Section 1128J(d)(4)(A) of the Act defines “knowing” and “knowingly” as those terms are defined in 31 U.S.C. 3729(b). In that statute the terms “knowing” and “knowingly” mean that a person with respect to information—(i) has actual knowledge of the information; (ii) acts in deliberate ignorance of the truth or falsity of the information; or (iii) acts in reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the information. 31 U.S.C. 3729(b) also states that knowing and knowingly do not require proof of specific intent to defraud.

Number Two: Contact your attorney.

It is essential that you have legal counsel throughout the self disclosure process. There are simply too many ways to botch a well-intended, self disclosure into a casus belli for the government. For example, OIG allows three options for self disclosure; however, one option requires prior approval from OIG. Your counsel needs to maintain your self disclosure between the allowable, navigational beacons.

Number Three: Act timely.

You have 60-days to report and pay. Section 1128J(d)(2) of the Social Security Act requires that a Medicare or Medicaid overpayment be reported and returned by the later of (1) the date that is 60 days after the date on which the overpayment was identified or (2) the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable. See blog.

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If you have a Medicare issue, please continue to Number Four. If your issue is Medicaid only, please skip Number Four and go to Number Five. If your issue concerns both Medicare and Medicaid, continue with Number Four and Five (skip nothing).

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Number Four: Review the OIG Self Disclosure Protocol (for Medicare).

OIG publishes a Self Disclosure Protocol. Read it. Print it. Frame it. Wear it. Memorize it.

Since 2008, OIG has resolved 235 self disclosure provider cases through settlements. In all but one of these cases, OIG released the disclosing parties from permissive exclusion without requiring any integrity measures. What that means is that, even if you self disclose, OIG has the authority to exclude you from the Medicare system. However, if you self disclose, may the odds be ever in your favor!

Number Five: Review your state’s self disclosure protocol.

While every state differs slightly in self disclosure protocol, it is surprising how similar the protocol is state-to-state. In order to find your state’s self disclosure protocol, simply Google: “[insert your state] Medicaid provider self disclosure protocol.” In most cases, you will find that your state’s protocol is less burdensome than OIG’s.

On the state-side, you will also find that the benefits of self disclosure, generally, are even better than the benefits from the federal government. In most states, self disclosure results in no penalties (as long as you follow the correct protocol and do not hide anything).

Number Six: Draft your self disclosure report.

Your self disclosure report must contain certain criteria. Review the Federal Registrar for everything that needs to be included.

It is important to remember that you are only responsible for self disclosures going back six years (on the federal side).

Mail the report to:

DHHS/OIG/OCIG
Grantee Self-Disclosures
330 Independence Avenue, Room 5527
Washington, DC 20201

Or you can self disclose online at this link.

Federal Court Orders HHS to Eliminate Medicare Appeal Backlog!

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.

CMS Clarifying Medicare Overpayment Rules: The Bar Is Raised (Yet Again) for Health Care Providers

Have you ever watched athletes compete in the high jump? Each time an athlete is successful in pole vaulting over the bar, the bar gets raised…again…and again…until the athlete can no longer vault over the bar. Similarly, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) continue to raise the bar on health care providers who accept Medicare and Medicaid.

In February, CMS finalized the rule requiring providers to proactively investigate themselves and report any overpayments to CMS for Medicare Part A and B. (The Rule for Medicare Parts C and D were finalized in 2014, and the Rule for Medicaid has not yet been promulgated). The Rule makes it very clear that CMS expects providers and suppliers to enact robust self auditing policies.

We all know that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was intended to be self-funding. Who is funding it? Doctors, psychiatrists, home care agencies, hospitals, long term care facilities, dentists…anyone who accepts Medicare and Medicaid. The self-funding portion of the ACA is strict; it is infallible, and its fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA) detection tools…oh, how wide that net is cast!

Subsection 1128J(d) was added to Section 6402 of the ACA, which requires that providers report overpayments to CMS “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.”

Identification of an overpayment is when the person has, or reasonably should have through the exercise of reasonable diligence, determined that the person received an overpayment. Overpayment includes referrals or those referrals that violate the Anti-Kickback statute.

CMS allows providers to extrapolate their findings, but what provider in their right mind would do so?

There is a six-year look back period, so you don’t have to report overpayments for claims older than six years.

You can get an extension of the 60-day deadline if:

• Office of Inspector General (OIG) acknowledges receipt of a submission to the OIG Self-Disclosure Protocol
• OIG acknowledges receipt of a submission to the OIG Voluntary Self-Referral Protocol
• Provider requests an extension under 42 CFR §401.603

My recommendation? Strap on your pole vaulting shoes and get to jumping!

CMS Releases Final Rule On Return of Overpayments

Written by: David Leatherberry, partner in Gordon &Rees‘ San Diego office

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services released its final rule today on the return of overpayments. The final rule requires providers and suppliers receiving funds under the Medicare/Medicaid program to report and return overpayments within 60 days of identifying the overpayment, or the date a corresponding cost report is due, whichever is later. As published in the February 12, 2016 Federal Register, the final rule clarifies the meaning of overpayment identification, the required lookback period, and the methods available for reporting and returning identified overpayments to CMS. See https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2016/02/12/2016-02789/medicare-program-reporting-and-returning-of-overpayments.

Identification

The point in time in which an overpayment is identified is significant because it triggers the start of the 60-day period in which overpayments must be returned. CMS originally proposed that an overpayment is identified only when “the person has actual knowledge of the existence of the overpayment or acts in reckless disregard or deliberate ignorance of the overpayment.” The final rule changes the meaning of identification, stating that “a person has identified an overpayment when the person has or should have, through the exercise of reasonable diligence, determined that the person has received an overpayment and quantified the amount of the overpayment. The change places a burden on healthcare providers and suppliers to have reasonable policies and programs in place which monitor the receipt of Medicare/Medicaid payments.

6-Year Lookback Period

The final rule also softens the period for which health care providers and suppliers may be liable for the return of overpayments. As the rule was originally proposed, CMS required a 10-year lookback period, consistent with the False Claims Act. Now, overpayments must be reported and returned only if a person identifies the overpayment within six years of the date the overpayment was received.

Guidance in Reporting and Returning Overpayments

The final rule provides that providers and suppliers must use an applicable claims adjustment, credit balance, self-reported refund, or other appropriate process to satisfy the obligation to report and return overpayments. If a health care provider or supplier has reported a self-identified overpayment to either the Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol managed by CMS or the Self-Disclosure Protocol managed by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the provider or supplier is considered to be in compliance with the provisions of this rule as long as they are actively engaged in the respective protocol.

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.