Extrapolated audits are the worst.
These audits under sample and over extrapolate – almost to the point that some audits allege that you owe more than you were paid. How is that fair in our judicial system? I mean, our country was founded on “due process.” That means you have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If the government attempts to pursue your reimbursements at all, much less a greater amount than what you received, you are required notice and a hearing.
Not to mention that OIG conducted a Report back in 2020 that identified numerous mistakes in the extrapolations. The Report stated: “CMS did not always provide sufficient guidance and oversight to ensure that these reviews were performed in a consistent manner.” I don’t know about you, but that is disconcerting to me. It also stated that “The test was associated with at least $42 million in extrapolated overpayments that were overturned in fiscal years 2017 and 2018. If CMS did not intend that the contractors use this procedure, these extrapolations should not have been overturned. Conversely, if CMS intended that contractors use this procedure, it is possible that other extrapolations should have been overturned but were not.“
I have undergone hundreds of Medicare and Medicaid audits with extrapolations. You defend against these audits twofold: 1) by hiring an expert statistician to debunk the extrapolation; and 2) by using the provider as an expert clinician to discredit the denials. However, I am always dismayed…maybe that’s not the right word…flabbergasted that no one ever shows up on the other side. It is as if CMS via whatever contractor conducted the extrapolated audit believes that their audit needs no one to prove its veracity. As if we attorneys and providers should just accept their findings as truth, and they get the benefit of NOT hiring a lawyer and NOT showing up to ALJ trials.
In the above picture, the side with the money is CMS. The empty side is the provider.
In normal trials, as you know, there are two opposing sides: a Plaintiff and a Defendant, although in administrative law it’s called a Petitioner and a Respondent. Medicaid provider appeals also have two opponents. However, in Medicare provider appeals, there is only one side: YOU. An ALJ will appear, but no auditor to defend the merits of the alleged overpayment that you, as a provider, are accused of owing.
In normal trials, if a party fails to appear, the Judge will almost automatically rule against the non-appearing party. Why isn’t it the same for Medicare provider appeals? If a Medicare provider appears to dispute an alleged audit, the Judge does not rule automatically in favor of the provider. Quite the opposite quite frankly. The CMS Rules, which apply to all venues under the purview of CMS, which includes the ALJ level and the Medicare Appeals Council level, are crafted against providers, it seems. Regardless the Rules create a procedure in which providers, not the auditors, are forced to retain counsel, which costs money, retain a statistician in cases of extrapolations, which costs money, go through years of appeals through 5 levels, all of which the CMS Rules apply. Real law doesn’t apply until the district court level, which is a 6th level – and 8 years later.
Any providers reading, who retain lobbyists, this Medicare appeal process needs to change legislatively.
It’s a miracle! HHS has reduced the Medicare appeals backlog at the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) level by 75 %, which puts the department on track to clear the backlog by the end of the 2022 fiscal year. The department had 426,594 appeals bottlenecked on backlog. An audit from 2016 could get heard by an ALJ in 2021. However, movement has occurred.
According to the latest status report, HHS has 86,063 pending appeals remaining at the Office of Medicare Hearing and Appeals (“OMHA”).
In 2018, a federal Judge ruled in favor of the American Hospital Association (“AHA”) and its hospital Plaintiffs and Ordered HHS to eliminate the backlog of appeals by the end of FY 2022 and provided the department with a number of goals. According to the ruling, HHS had to reduce the backlog by 19 percent by the end of FY 2019, 49 percent by the end of FY 2020, and 75 percent by the end of FY 2021. Originally, the Order scheduled the timeframe for disseminating the backlog much shorter, but CMS claimed impossibility.
On another note, lately, I’ve seen a lot of supposed audit results based on local coverage determinations (“LCDs”) or policy manuals. This is unacceptable. In a January 4, 2022, decision from the NC Court of Appeals, the Court held that when a State agency implements an unpromulgated rule, the rule may not be enforced. Hendrixson v. Div. of Soc. Servs., 2022-NCCOA-10, ¶ 9. The Hendrixson case piggybacks the Supreme Court, which held that LCDs are unenforceable against providers. Azar v. Allina Health Services, 139 S. Ct. 1804, 204 L. Ed. 2d 139 (2019).
In Hendrixson v. Division of Social Services, the Court held that people eligible for Medicare Part B must apply and enroll and that if the applicant fails to enroll, Medicaid pays no portion of the costs for medical services that would have been covered by Medicare Part B, as you know Medicare Part B provides coverage for certain hospital outpatient services, physician services, and services not covered by Part A. See Bruton, 134 N.C. App. at 42, 516 S.E.2d at 635; 42 U.S.C. § 1395k (2019); 42 C.F.R. § 407.2 (2020). Enrollment in Medicare Part B is generally not automatic, see 42 C.F.R. §§ 407.4-407.40 (2020), and requires the patient to pay insurance premiums to enroll, after which the federal government pays most of the reasonable costs, with patients paying the remaining cost and an annual deductible. See Bruton, 134 N.C. App. at 42, 516 S.E.2d at 635; 42 U.S.C. §§ 1395l, 1395r-1395s (2019); 42 C.F.R. § 407.2 (2020). “Together, the part B premiums, deductibles and coinsurance are generally referred to as ‘Part B cost-sharing.’” Bruton, 134 N.C. App. at 42, 516 S.E.2d at 635. At your hospital or health care entity, do you have someone dedicated to properly enrolling consumers into Medicare Part B? If not, you may want to consider as a financial investment. Additionally, while you do not want to ignore the LCDs, the LCDs or Manuals cannot be a basis for any alleged recoupment or other sanction. As a general canon, any unpromulgated rule cannot be the basis of any penalty.
 The ALJ level is the third level in Medicare provider audits, but the first time that providers are allowed to present evidence to an independent tribunal.
“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.”
Reporting the use of PRFs will be an ongoing issue due to the fraud and abuse implications of misusing PRFs.
The federal Provider Relief Fund (PRF) was created under the provisions of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was passed to address the economic harm suffered by healthcare providers that have incurred (or will incur) additional expenses and have lost (or will lose) significant revenue as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. PRF payments have been made from either the “general distribution” tranche or via various “targeted distributions.” PRF payment amounts and whether the providers complied with the terms and conditions will be a hotly contested topic in Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) and Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) audits for years to come. If Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) auditors put out a monthly magazine, like Time, PRF would be on the cover. This will be the hot topic of RAC audits, come Jan. 1, 2021.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) will audit Medicare payments made to hospitals for COVID-19 discharges that qualified for the 20-percent add-on payment under the CARES Act, according to a new item on the agency’s work plan.
To use the PRF funding from either the general or targeted distributions, providers must attest to receiving the funds and agree to all terms and conditions. However, what constitutes a “healthcare-related expense” or how to calculate “lost revenue” is not clearly defined. Similarly, how you net healthcare-related expenses toward lost revenue is also vague and undefined. On Nov. 2, HHS issued a clarification to post-payment reporting guidance for PRF funds.
The current guidance, issued Oct. 22, includes a two-step process for providers to report their use of PRF payments. The guidance specifically cites:
- Healthcare-related expenses attributable to COVID that another source has not reimbursed and is not obligated to reimburse, which may include general and administrative (G&A) or “healthcare-related operating expenses;” and
- PRF payment amounts not fully expended on healthcare-related expenses attributable to coronavirus are then applied to lost revenues associated with patient care, net of the healthcare-related expenses attributable to coronavirus calculated under the first step. Recipients may apply PRF payments toward lost revenue, up to the amount of the difference between their 2019 and 2020 actual patient care revenue.
HHS’s newest clarification came from its response to a FAQ, in which it said that healthcare-related expenses are no longer netted against the patient care lost revenue amount cited in the second portion. HHS indicated that a revised notice would be posted to remove the “net of the healthcare-related expenses” language in the guidance. Of course, as of now, we have no guidance regarding when this clarification is to be put into place officially. Yet another moving target for auditors.
Anticipate audits of the use of your PRF payments. CMS is choosing a sample of hospitals across the country that have received PRF payments to verify that such expenditures were for healthcare-related expenses. For each audit, OIG will obtain data and interview HHS/PRF program officials to understand how PRF payments were calculated, and then review actual PRF payments for compliance with CARES Act requirements. OIG will also review whether HHS’s controls over PRF payments ensured that payments were calculated correctly and disbursed to eligible providers.
Audits will also focus on how providers initially applied to receive PRFs, including calculations utilized and how COVID-19 patients are defined. When each hospital ceased netting expenses against lost revenue will now be another hot topic.
Balance billing is another area of interest. The terms and conditions require providers that accept the PRFs not to collect out-of-pocket payments from patients for all care for a presumptive or actual case of COVID-19 that exceeded what they would pay an in-network provider.
More havoc may ensue with any purchases or sales transactions that occur in the next year or so. Providers will need to know how to navigate compliance risks associated with any accepted or transferred PRFs. Tracking and reporting use of the PRFs will also be an ongoing issue due to the fraud and abuse implications of misusing PRFs, and there is limited guidance regarding how use will be audited. Many questions remain unanswered. Many terms remain undefined.
Programming Note: Knicole Emanuel, Esq. is a permanent panelist on Monitor Mondays. Listen to her RAC Report every Monday at 10 a.m. EST.
New case law supports due process for Medicare providers. As first seen on RACMonitor.
Due process is one of the cornerstones of our society. Due process is the universal guarantee and found in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides “No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and is applied to all states by the 14th Amendment. From this basic principle flows many legal decisions determining both procedural and substantive rights.
For Medicare and Medicaid providers, however, due process, in the past, has been nonexistent. Imagine that you are accused of owing $5 million to the government. Perhaps it was a CPT® code error. You disagree. You believe that your documentation was proper and that you filed for reimbursement correctly. You appeal the decision that you owe $5 million. You continue conducting business as normal. Suddenly, you realize the government is recouping the $5 million now. Prior to any hearing before a judge. You haven’t been found guilty. What happened to innocent until proven guilty? What happened to due process?
For Medicare appeals there is a five-step appeal process. The law requires the government not to recoup during the first and second levels of appeal. But the first and second levels are jumping through hoops and are not normally successful. It is at the third level – the appeal to an impartial administrative judge – that the alleged recoupments are overturned.
After the second level, according to the black letter of the law, the government can begin recouping the alleged overpayment.
Sadly, in the past, the courts have held that it is proper for the government to recoup reimbursements after the second level. Even though, no hearing has been held before an impartial judge and you haven’t been found guilty of owing the money.
On Sept. 27, 2018, another U.S. District Court in South Carolina has agreed with courts in Texas by granting a provider’s request for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to prevent the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) from recouping monies until after Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearings have been held (Accident, Injury and Rehabilitation, PC, c/a No. 4:18-cv-02173, September 27, 2018).
A new trend in favor of providers seems to be arising. This is fantastic news for providers across the country!
Accident, Injury & Rehab, PC found that the ALJ stage of the appellate process is the most important for providers, as it provides the first opportunity for plaintiff to cross examine defendant’s witnesses and examine the evidence used to formulate the statistical sample. According to the American Hospital Association (AHA), 66 percent of Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) denials are reversed by an ALJ (I actually believe the percentage is higher). The court found that plaintiff’s procedural due process rights were violated by premature recoupment. The court granted Accident, Injury & Rehab, PC’s preliminary injunction restraining and enjoining the government from withholding Medicare payments during the appeal process.
When the government starts recouping filing a preliminary injunction has been shown it to be the best course.
In the past, most preliminary injunctions asking the court to order the government to stop recoupments until a hearing was held was dismissed based on jurisdiction. In other words, the courts held that the courts did not have the authority to render an opinion as to recoupments prior to a hearing. Now, however, the trend is turning, and courts are starting to rule in favor of the provider, finding a violation of procedural due process based on a collateral claim exception.
There are four criteria in order to win a preliminary injunction. A party seeking a preliminary injunction must establish all for the following criteria: (1) that the party is likely to succeed on the merits; (2) that the party is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary injunction; (3) that the balance of the equity tips in the party’s favor; and (4) that injunction is in the public interest.
There is an esoteric legal theory called exhaustion of administrative remedies. So jurisdiction is the question. There are exceptions to the judicial bar. The Supreme Court of United States articulated a collateral claim exception. The Supreme Court permitted a plaintiff to bring a procedural due process claim requesting an evidentiary area hearing before the termination of disability benefits. There are nonwaivable and waivable jurisdictional elements the nonwaivable requirement is that a claim must be presented to the administrative agency. The waivable requirement is that administrative remedies be exhausted.
The Collateral claim exception is when a party brings a claim in federal court when that “constitutional challenge is entirely collateral to its substantive claim of entitlement.”
The new trend in case law is that the courts are finding that the provider’s right to not undergo recoupment during the appeal process is a collateral issue as to the substantive issue of whether the provider owes the money. Therefore, the courts have found jurisdiction as to the collateral issue.
The proverbial ship has sailed. According to courts in Texas and now South Carolina, CMS cannot recoup monies prior to hearings before ALJs. Providers facing large recoupments should file TROs to prevent premature recoupments and to obtain due process.
Premature Recoupment of Medicare or Medicaid Funds Can Feel Like Getting Mauled by Dodgeballs: But Is It Constitutional?
State and federal governments contract with many private vendors to manage Medicare and Medicaid. And regulatory audits are fair game for all these contracted vendors and, even more – the government also contracts with private companies that are specifically hired to audit health care providers. Not even counting the contracted vendors that manage Medicaid or Medicare (the companies to which you bill and get paid), we have Recovery Act Contractors (RAC), Zone Program Integrity Contractors (ZPICs), Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), and Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) auditors. See blog for explanation. ZPICs, RACs, and MACs conduct pre-payment audits. ZPICs, RACs, MACs, and CERTs conduct post-payment audits.
It can seem that audits can hit you from every side.
“Remember the 5 D’s of dodgeball: Dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge.”
Remember the 5 A’s of audits: Appeal, argue, apply, attest, and appeal.”
Medicare providers can contest payment denials (whether pre-payment or post-payment) through a five-level appeal process. See blog.
On the other hand, Medicaid provider appeals vary depending on which state law applies. For example, in NC, the general process is an informal reconsideration review (which has .008% because, essentially you are appealing to the very entity that decided you owed an overpayment), then you file a Petition for Contested Case at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). Your likelihood of success greatly increases at the OAH level because these hearings are conducted by an impartial judge. Unlike in New Mexico, where the administrative law judges are hired by Human Services Department, which is the agency that decided you owe an overpayment. In NM, your chance of success increases greatly on judicial review.
In Tx, providers may use three methods to appeal Medicaid fee-for-service and carve-out service claims to Texas Medicaid & Healthcare Partnership (TMHP): electronic, Automated Inquiry System (AIS), or paper within 120 days.
In Il, you have 60-days to identify the total amount of all undisputed and disputed audit
overpayment. You must report, explain and repay any overpayment, pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. Section 1320a-7k(d) and Illinois Public Aid Code 305 ILCS 5/12-4.25(L). The OIG will forward the appeal request pertaining to all disputed audit overpayments to the Office of Counsel to the Inspector General for resolution. The provider will have the opportunity to appeal the Final Audit Determination, pursuant to the hearing process established by 89 Illinois Adm. Code, Sections 104 and 140.1 et. seq.
You get the point.”Nobody makes me bleed my own blood. Nobody!” – White Goodman
Recoupment During Appeals
Regardless whether you are appealing a Medicare or Medicaid alleged overpayment, the appeals process takes time. Years in some circumstances. While the time gently passes during the appeal process, can the government or one of its minions recoup funds while your appeal is pending?
The answer is: It depends.
Before I explain, I hear my soapbox calling, so I will jump right on it. It is my legal opinion (and I am usually right) that recoupment prior to the appeal process is complete is a violation of due process. People are always shocked how many laws and regulations, both on the federal and state level, are unconstitutional. People think, well, that’s the law…it must be legal. Incorrect. Because something is allowed or not allowed by law does not mean the law is constitutional. If Congress passed a law that made it illegal to travel between states via car, that would be unconstitutional. In instances that the government is allowed to recoup Medicaid/care prior to the appeal is complete, in my (educated) opinion. However, until a provider will fund a lawsuit to strike these allowances, the rules are what they are. Soapbox – off.
Going back to whether recoupment may occur before your appeal is complete…
For Medicare audit appeals, there can be no recoupment at levels one and two. After level two, however, the dodgeballs can fly, according to the regulations. Remember, the time between levels two and three can be 3 – 5 years, maybe longer. See blog. There are legal options for a Medicare provider to stop recoupments during the 3rd through 5th levels of appeal and many are successful. But according to the black letter of the law, Medicare reimbursements can be recouped during the appeal process.
Medicaid recoupment prior to the appeal process varies depending on the state. Recoupment is not allowed in NC while the appeal process is ongoing. Even if you reside in a state that allows recoupment while the appeal process is ongoing – that does not mean that the recoupment is legal and constitutional. You do have legal rights! You do not need to be the last kid in the middle of a dodgeball game.
Don’t be this guy:
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) posted its December 2017 list of health care services that the Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) will be auditing. As usual, home health is on the chopping block. So are durable medical equipment providers. For whatever reason, it seems that home health, DME, behavioral health care, and dentists are on the top of the lists for audits, at least in my experience.
Number one RAC audit issue:
Home Health: Medical Necessity and Documentation Review
To be eligible for Medicare home health services, a beneficiary must have Medicare Part A and/or Part B per Section 1814 (a)(2)(C) and Section 1835 (a)(2)(A) of the Social Security Act:
- Be confined to the home;
- Need skilled services;
- Be under the care of a physician;
- Receive services under a plan of care established and reviewed by a physician; and
- Have had a face-to-face encounter with a physician or allowed Non-Physician Practitioner (NPP).
Medical necessity is the top audited issue in home health. Auditors also love to compare the service notes to the independent assessment. Watch it if you fail to do one activity of daily living (ADL). Watch it if you do too many ADLs out of the kindness of your heart. Deviations from the independent assessment is a no-no to auditors, even if you are going above and beyond to be sweet. And never use purple ink!
Number two RAC audit issue:
Annual Wellness Visits (AWV) billed within 12 months of the Initial Preventative Physical Examination (IPPE) or Annual Wellness Examination (AWV)
This is a simple mathematical calculation. Has exactly 12 months passed? To the day….yes, they are that technical. 365 days from a visit on January 7, 2018 (my birthday, as an example) would be January 7, 2019. Schedule any AWV January 8, 2019, or beyond.
Number three RAC audit issue:
Ventilators Subject to DWO requirements on or after January 1, 2016
This will be an assessment of whether ventilators are medically necessary. Seriously? Who gets a ventilator who does not need one? I was thinking the other day, “Self? I want a ventilator.”
Number four RAC audit issue:
This will be an assessment of whether cardiac pacemakers are medically necessary. Seriously? Who gets a pacemaker who does not need one? I was thinking the other day, “Self? I want a pacemaker.” Hospitals are not the only providers targets for this audit. Ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs) also will be a target. As patient care continues its transition to the outpatient setting, ASCs have quickly grown in popularity as a high-quality, cost-effective alternative to hospital-based outpatient care. In turn, the number and types of services offered in the ASC setting have significantly expanded, including pacemakers.
Number five RAC audit issue:
Evaluation and Management (E/M) Same Day as Dialysis
Except when reported with modifier 25, payment for certain evaluation and management services is bundled into the payment for dialysis services 90935, 90937, 90945, and 90947
It is important to remember that if you receive a notice of overpayment, you need to appeal immediately. The first level of appeal is redetermination, usually with the Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC). Medicare will not begin overpayment collection of debts (or will cease collections that have started) when it receives notice that you requested a Medicare contractor redetermination (first level of appeal).
See blog for full explanation of Medicare provider appeals.
But all is not lost… it all lies in the possibility…
A few weeks ago I blogged about Health and Human Services (HHS) possibly being held in contempt of court for violating an Order handed down on Dec. 5, 2016, by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg. See blog.
The District Court Judge granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of the American Hospital Association in AHA v. Burwell. He ordered HHS to incrementally reduce the backlog of 657,955 appeals pending before the agency’s Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals over the next four years, reducing the backlog by 30% by the end of 2017; 60% by the end of 2018; 90% by the end of 2019; and to completely eliminate the backlog by Dec. 31, 2020.
This was a huge win for AHA – and Medicare providers across the country. Currently, when a provider appeals an adverse decision regarding Medicare, it costs an inordinate amount of attorneys’ fees, and the provider will not receive legal relief for upwards of 6 – 10 years, which can cause financial hardship, especially if the adverse action is in place during the appeal process. Yet the administrative appeal process was designed (poorly) to conclude within 1 year.
With the first deadline (the end of 2017) fast approaching and HHS publicly announcing that the reduction of 30% by the end of 2017 is impossible, questions were posed – how could the District Court hold HHS, a federal agency, in contempt?
We got the answer.
On August 11, 2017, the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia overturned the District Court; thereby lifting the requirement to reduce the Medicare appeal backlog.
Wiping tear from face.
The first paragraph of the Ruling, indicates the Court’s philosophic reasoning, starting with a quote from Immanuel Kant (not to be confused with Knicole Emanuel), CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON 548 (Norman Kemp Smith trans., Macmillan 1953) (1781) (“The action to which the ‘ought’ applies must indeed be possible under natural conditions.”)
First paragraph of the decision:
“”Ought implies can.” That is, in order for law – man-made or otherwise – to command the performance of an act, that act must be possible to perform. This lofty philosophical maxim, ordinarily relevant only to bright-eyed college freshmen, sums up our reasoning in this case.”
The Appeals Court determined that the District Court commanded the Secretary to perform an act – clear the backlog by certain deadlines – without evaluating whether performance was possible.
The Medicare backlog skyrocketed in 2011 due to the federally-required Medicare Recovery Audit Program (RAC). With the implementation of the RAC program, the number of appeals filed ballooned from 59,600 in fiscal year 2011 to more than 384,000 in fiscal year 2013. These appeals bottlenecked to the third level of appeal, which is before an administrative law judge (ALJ). As of June 2, 2017, there was a backlog of 607,402 appeals awaiting review at this level. On its current course, the backlog is projected to grow to 950,520 by the end of fiscal year 2021.
There is a way for a provider to “skip” the ALJ level and “escalate” the claim, but it comes at a cost. Several procedural rights must be forfeited.
It is important to note that the appellate decision does not state that the District Court does not have the authority to Order HHS to eliminate the appeals backlog.
It only holds that, because HHS claims that compliance is impossible, the District Court must rule on whether compliance is possible before mandating the compliance. In other words, the Appeals Court wants the lower court to make a fact-finding decision as to whether HHS is able to eliminate the backlog before ordering it to do so. The Appeals Court is instructing the lower court to put the horse in front of the cart.
The Appeals Court explicitly states that it is suspect that the Secretary of HHS has done all things possible to decrease the backlog. (“We also share the District Court’s skepticism of the Secretary’s assertion that he has done all he can to reduce RAC-related appeals.”) So do not take the Appeals Court’s reversal as a sign that HHS will win the war.
I only hope that AHA presents every possible legal argument once the case is remanded to District Court. It is imperative that AHA’s attorneys think of every possible legal misstep in this remand in order to win. Not winning could potentially create bad law, basically, asserting that the Secretary has no duty to fix this appeals backlog. Obviously, the Secretary is exactly the person who should fix the backlog in his own agency. To hold otherwise, would thwart the very reason we have a Secretary of HHS. Through its rhetoric, the Appeals Court made it clear that it, too, has severe reservations about HHS’ claim of impossibility. However, without question, AHA’s suggestion to the District Court that a timeframe be implemented to reduce the backlog is not the answer. AHA needs to brainstorm and come up with several detailed proposals. For example, does the court need to include a requirement that the Secretary devote funds to hire additional ALJs? Or mandate that the ALJs work a half day on Saturday? Or order that the appeal process be revised to make the process more efficient? Clearly, the mere demand that HHS eliminate the backlog within a certain timeframe was too vague.
From here, the case will be remanded back to the District Court with instructions to the Judge to determine whether the elimination of the Medicare appeal backlog is possible. So, for now, HHS is safe from being held in contempt. But the Secretary should take heed from the original ruling and begin taking steps in fixing this mess. It is highly likely that HHS will be facing similar deadlines again – once the District Court determines it is possible.