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Medicare Audits – TPE Audits Are Here, But For How Long?

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the expansion of Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) audits. At first glance, this appears to be fantastic news coming on the heels of so much craziness at Health and Human Services (HHS). We have former-HHS Secretary Price flying our tax dollars all over. Dr. Don Wright stepping up as our new Secretary. The Medicare appeal backlog fiasco. The repeal and replace Obamacare bomb. Amidst all this tomfoolery, health care providers are still serving Medicare and Medicaid patients, reimbursement rates are in the toilet, which drives down quality and incentivizes providers to not accept Medicare or Medicaid (especially Caid), and providers are undergoing “Audit Alphabet Soup.” I actually had a client tell me that he receives audit letters requesting documents and money every single week from a plethora of different organizations.

So when CMS announced that it was broadening its TPE audits, it was a sigh of relief for many providers. But will TPE audits be the benign beasts they are purporting  to be?

What is a TPE audit? (And – Can We Have Anymore Acronyms…PLEASE!)

CMS says that TPE audits are benevolent. CMS’ rhetoric indicates that these audits should not cause the toner to run out from overuse. CMS states that TPE audits will involve “the review of 20-40 claims per provider, per item or service, per round, for a total of up to three rounds of review.” See CMS Announcement. The idea behind the TPE audits (supposedly) is education, not recoupments. CMS states that “After each round, providers are offered individualized education based on the results of their reviews. This program began as a pilot in one MAC jurisdiction in June 2016 and was expanded to three additional MAC jurisdictions in July 2017. As a result of the successes demonstrated during the pilot, including an increase in the acceptance of provider education as well as a decrease in appealed claims decisions, CMS has decided to expand to all MAC jurisdictions later in 2017.” – And “later in 2017” has arrived. These TPE audits are currently being conducted nationwide.

Below is CMS’ vision for a TPE audit:

TPE3

Clear? As mud?

The chart does not indicate how long the provider will have to submit records or how quickly the TPE auditors will review the documents for compliance. But it appears to me that getting through Round 3 could take a year (this is a guess based on allowing the provider 30 days to gather the records and allowing the TPE auditor 30 days to review).

Although the audit is purportedly benign and less burdensome, a TPE audit could take a whole year or more. Whether the audit reviews one claim or 20, having to undergo an audit of any size for a year is burdensome on a provider. In fact, I have seen many companies having to hire staff dedicated to responding to audits. And here is the problem with that – there aren’t many people who understand Medicare/caid medical billing. Providers beware – if you rely on an independent biller or an electronic medical records program, they better be accurate. Otherwise the buck stops with your NPI number.

Going back to CMS’ chart (above), notice where all the “yeses” go. As in, if the provider is found compliant , during any round, all the yeses point to “Discontinue for at least 12 months.” I am sure that CMS thought it was doing providers a favor, but what that tells me is the TPE audit will return after 12 months! If the provider is found compliant, the audit is not concluded. In fact, according to the chart, the only end results are (1) a referral to CMS for possible further action; or (2) continued TPE audits after 12 months. “Further action” could include 100% prepayment review, extrapolation, referral to a Recovery Auditor, or other action. Where is the outcome that the provider receives an A+ and is left alone??

CMS states that “Providers/suppliers may be removed from the review process after any of the three rounds of probe review, if they demonstrate low error rates or sufficient improvement in error rates, as determined by CMS.”

I just feel as though that word “may” should be “will.” It’s amazing how one word could change the entire process.

Knicole Emanuel Featured on Hospital Finance Podcast – Medicare Appeal Backlog (Legal Update)

On September 6, 2017, I appeared on the Besler Hospital Finance Podcast regarding:

Update on the Medicare appeals backlog [PODCAST]

Feel free to listen to the podcast, download it, and share with others!

 

“Ought Implies Can” – Court Reverses Decision Forcing HHS to Eliminate Medicare Appeal Backlog

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.

deflatedWiping 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.

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.

 

All Medicare/Caid Health Care Professionals: Start Contracting with Qualified Translators to Comply with Section 1557 of the ACA!!

Being a health care professional who accepts Medicare and/ or Medicaid can sometimes feel like you are Sisyphus pushing the massive boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll down, over and over, with the same sequence continuing for eternity. Similarly, sometimes it can feel as though the government is the princess sleeping on 20 mattresses and you are the pea that is so small and insignificant, yet so annoying and disruptive to her sleep.

Well, effective immediately – that boulder has enlarged. And the princess has become even more sensitive.

boulder

On May 18, 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published a Final Rule to implement Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Section 1557 of the ACA has been on the books since the ACA’s inception in 2010. However, not until 6 years later, did HSD finally implement regulations regarding Section 1557. 81 Fed. Reg. 31376.

The Final Rule became effective July 18, 2016. You are expected to be compliant with the rule’s notice requirements, specifically the posting of a nondiscrimination notice and statement and taglines within 90 days of the Final Rule – October 16, 2016. So you better giddy-up!!

First, what is Section 1557?

Section 1557 of the ACA provides that an individual shall not, on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability, be

  • excluded from participation in,
  • denied the benefits of, or
  • subjected to discrimination under

all health programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance through HHS, including Medicaid, most Medicare, student health plans, Basic Health Program, and CHIP funds; meaningful use payments (which sunset in 2018); the advance premium tax credits; and many other programs.

Section 1557 is extremely broad in scope. Because it is a federal regulation, it applies to all states and health care providers in all specialties, regardless the size of the practice and regardless the percentage of Medicare/caid the agency accepts.

HHS estimates that Section 1557 applies to approximately 900,000 physicians. HHS also estimates that the rule will cover 133,343 facilities, such as hospitals, home health agencies and nursing homes; 445,657 clinical laboratories; 1300 community health centers; 40 health professional training programs; Medicaid agencies in each state; and, at least, 180 insurers that offer qualified health plans.

So now that we understand Section 1557 is already effective and that it applies to almost all health care providers who accept Medicare/caid, what exactly is the burden placed on the providers? Not discriminating does not seem so hard a burden.

Section 1557 requires much more than simply not discriminating against your clients.

Section 1557 mandates that you will provide appropriate aids and services without charge and in a timely manner, including qualified interpreters, for people with disabilities and that you will provide language assistance including translated documents and oral interpretation free of charge and in a timely manner.

In other words, you have to provide written materials to your clients in their spoken language. To ease the burden of translating materials, you can find a sample notice and taglines for 64 languages on HHS’ website. See here. The other requirement is that you provide, for no cost to the client, a translator in a timely manner for your client’s spoken language.

In other words, you must have qualified translators “on call” for the most common 15, non-English languages in your state. You cannot rely on friends, family, or staff. You also cannot allow the child of your client to act as the interpreter. The clients in need of the interpreters are not expected to provide their own translators – the burden is on the provider. The language assistance must be provided in a “timely  manner. “Further, these “on call” translators must be “qualified,” as defined by the ACA.

I remember an English teacher in high school telling the class that there were two languages in North Carolina: English and bad English. Even if that were true back in 19XX, it is not true now.

Here is a chart depicting the number of non-English speakers in North Carolina in 1980 versus 2009-2011:

languages

As you can see, North Carolina has become infinitely more diverse in the last three decades.

And translators aren’t free. According to Costhelper Small Business,

Typical costs:
  • Interpreting may take place in person, over the phone or via video phone.
  • In-person interpreters typically cost $50-$145 per hour. For example, American Language Services offers interpreters starting at $100 per hour (or $125 for sign language) and a two-hour minimum is required.
  • Phone interpreters typically cost $1.25-$3 per minute. Language Translation, Inc. offers a flat fee of $1.88 per minute for phone interpreting, for example.
  • Video interpreters typically range from $1.75 to $7 per minute. For instance, LifeLinks offers video interpreting from $2.25 per minute for any language and $2.95 for sign language. A 15-minute minimum is common for phone or video interpreting.

It seems likely that telehealth may be the best option for health care providers considering the cost of in-person translations. Of course, you need to calculate the cost of the telehealth equipment and the savings you project over time to determine whether the investment in telehealth equipment is financially smart.

In addition to agencies having access to qualified translators, agencies with over 15 employees must designate a single employee who will be responsible for Section 1557 compliance and to adopt a grievance procedure for clients. Sometimes this may mean hiring a new employee to comply.

The Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) at HHS is the enforcer of Section 1557. OCR has been enforcing Section 1557 since its inception in 2010 – to an extent.

However, expect a whole new policing of Section 1557 now that we have the Final Rule from HHS.

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.

The Yates Memo: It May Be the Second Coming for Individual Executives

The Yates memo? Sadly, we aren’t talking about William Butler Yates, who is one of my favorite poets:

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand…Part of The Second Coming

Ok, so maybe it is a little melodramatic to compare the Yates memo from the Office of the Deputy Attorney General to the end of the world, the drowning of innocence, and The Second Coming, but I made analogies in past blogs that had stretched and, dare I say, hyberbolized the situation.

What is the Yates memo?

The Yates memo is a memorandum written by Sally Quillian Yates, Deputy Attorney General for the U.S. Dept. of Justice, dated September 9, 2015.

It basically outlines how federal investigations for corporate fraud or misconduct should be conducted  and what will be expected from the corporation getting investigated. It was not written specifically about health care providers; it is a general memo outlining the investigations of corporate wrongdoing across the board. But it is germane to health care providers.

By far the most scary and daunting item discussed within the Yates memo is the DOJ’s interest in indicting individuals within corporations as well as the corporate entities itself, i.e., the executives…the management. Individual accountability.

No more Lehman Brothers fallout with former CEO Dick Fuld leaving the catastrophe with a mansion in Greenwich, Conn., a 40+ acre ranch in Sun Valley, Idaho, as well as a five-bedroom home in Jupiter Island, Fla.  Fuld may have or may not have been a player in the downfall of Lehman Brothers. But the Yates Memo was not published back in 2008.

The Yates Memo outlines 6 steps to strengthen audits for corporate compliance:

  1. To be eligible for any cooperation credit, corporations must provide to the DOJ all relevant facts about individuals involved in corporate misconduct.
  2. Both criminal and civil corporate investigations should focus on individuals from the inception of the investigation.
  3. Criminal and civil attorneys handling corporate investigations should be in routine communication with one another.
  4. Absent extraordinary circumstances, no corporate resolution will provide protection from criminal or civil liability for any individuals.
  5. Corporate cases should not be resolved without a clear plan to resolve related individual cases before the statute of limitations expires and declinations as to individuals in such cases must be memorialized.
  6. Civil attorneys should consistently focus on individuals as well as the company and evaluate whether to bring suit against an individual based on considerations beyond that individual’s ability to pay.

So why write about now – over 6 months after it was disseminated?

First, since its dissemination, a few points have been clarified that were otherwise in question.

About a month after its publication, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell emphasized the Yates memo’s requirement that corporations must disclose all relevant facts regarding misconduct to receive cooperation credit. Caldwell went so far to say that companies must affirmatively seek relevant facts regarding misconduct.

For example, Hospital X is accused of Medicare fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA) in the amount of $15 million. The Yates memo dictates that management at the hospital proactively investigate the allegations and report its findings to the federal government. The memo mandates that the hospital “show all its cards” and turn itself in prior to making any defense.

The problem here is that FWA is such a subjective determination.

What if a hospital bills Medicare for inplantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD, for patients that had coronary bypass surgery or angioplasty within 90 days or a heart attack within 40 days? What if the heart attack was never documented? What if the heart attack was so minor that it lasted under 100 milliseconds?

The Medicare National Coverage Determinations are so esoteric that your average Medicare auditor could very well cite a hospital for billing for an ICD even when the patient’s heart attack lasted under 100 milliseconds.

Yet, according to the Yates memo, the hospital is required to present all relevant facts before any defense. What if the hospital’s billing person is over zealous in detecting mis-billings? The hospital could very well have a legal defense as to why the alleged mis-billing is actually compliant. What about a company’s right to seek counsel and defend itself? The Yates memo may require the company to turn over attorney-client privilege.

The second point that has been clarified since the Yates’ memo’s publication came from Yates herself.

Yates remarks that there will be a presumption that the company has access to identify culpable individuals  unless they can make an affirmative showing that the company does not have access to it or are legally prohibited from producing it.

Why should this matter? It’s only a memo, right?

Since its publication, the DOJ codified it into the revised U.S. Attorneys’ Manual, including the two clarifying remarks. Since its inception, the heads of companies have been targeted.

A case was brought against David Bostwick, the founder, owner and chief executive officer of Bostwick Laboratories for  allegedly provided incentives to treating physicians in exchange for referrals of patients who would then be subjected to these tests.

When the pharmaceutical company Warner Chilcott was investigated for health care fraud prosecutors also went after W. Carl Reichel, the former president, for his alleged involvement in the company’s kickback scheme.

Prior to the Yates’ memo, it was uncommon for health care fraud investigations to  involve criminal charges or civil resolutions against individual executives.

The Second Coming?

It may feel that way to executives of health care companies accused of fraud, waste, and abuse.

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!!

CMS Ramps Up Medicare Audits: A Pig and Pony Show?

Monday, February 22, 2016, The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that it plans to increase onsite visits and monitoring of health care providers. One of the top priorities for CMS is to verify that provider enrollment and address are correct…

Because, as you know, providers with correct addresses on file are less likely to commit Medicare fraud. Medicare Fraud 101 – Give CMS the wrong address. Really? (While I applaud their valiant effort, the fraud that I have witnessed has not been a health care provider using a fake address to provide fake services…that is too Ponzi, too shallow in thought…too easily detected. Oh no, the fraud I have encountered were providers with actual practices with correct addresses, but embellishing on the amount of services provided to an actual Medicare enrollee to cushion their pockets. This is much more difficult to detect.

But CMS has its reasons for sniffing out fake addresses. CMS’ address hunt-down comes on the heels of a report from June 2015 out of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which determined that approximately 22% of Medicare provider addresses are “potentially ineligible.” Additionally, last March (2015) CMS decreased the amount of audits conducted by Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), which are one of the entities that investigate Medicare provider eligibility.

Whenever the GAO finds potential errors, CMS usually puts on the whole dog and pony show…or, maybe, for a change, a pig and pony show…

With all these political talks about donkeys and elephants, I would like to take a moment and blog about a pig. Some of you know that I own a pet pig. She is 4 1/2 years old and about 30 pounds. See below.

oink

Isn’t she cute?! Some of you will remember my last blog about Oink was “Our Medicaid Budget: Are We Just Putting Lipstick on a Pig?

The reason I bring up Oink is that she is the smartest, most animated animal I have ever encountered. She is also the best “sniffer-outer” I have ever encountered. Her keen sense of smell is well beyond any human’s sense of smell. If you liken Oink to CMS and Medicare fraud to a Skittle, the Skittle would have no chance.

These upcoming and increased number of audits is CMS’ way of sniffing out fraud. However, CMS’ sense of smell is not up to snuff like Oink’s sense of smell.

Searching for erroneous addresses in order to detect fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA) will, inevitably, be over-inclusive. Meaning, many of the erroneous addresses will not be committing Medicare fraud. Some erroneous addresses exist because providers simply moved to another location and either failed to inform CMS or CMS’ database was not updated with the new address. Other erroneous addresses exist because health care providers went out of business and never informed CMS. A new company leases the property and it appears to CMS that fraudulent billing was occurring a couple years ago out of, for example, what is now a Jimmy John’s.

Searching for erroneous addresses in order to detect FWA will, inevitably, be under-inclusive. Meaning, that many providers committing Medicare fraud do so with accurate office addresses.

My contention is that if you want to find FWA, you need to dig deeper than an incorrect address. Sniffing out Medicare fraud is a bit more in depth than finding improper addresses. That would be like tossing handfuls of Skittles on the ground and expecting Oink to only find the green ones.

In fiscal year 2014, Medicare paid $554 billion for health care and related services. CMS estimates that $60 billion (about 10 percent) of that total was paid improperly (not only because of incorrect addresses).

CMS is responsible for developing provider and supplier enrollment procedures to help safeguard the program from FWA. CMS contracts with Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) and the National Supplier Clearinghouse (NSCs) to manage the enrollment process. MACs are responsible for verifying provider and supplier application information in Provider Enrollment, Chain and Ownership System (PECOS) before the providers and suppliers are permitted to enroll into Medicare. CMS currently contracts with 12 MACs, each of which is responsible for its own geographic region, known as a “jurisdiction.

As you can see, we live in Jurisdiction 11. These MACs act as the “sniffer-outers” for CMS.

According to the GAO June 2015 report, about 23,400 (22 percent) of the 105,234 addresses that GAO initially identified as a Commercial Mail Receiving Agency (CMRA), vacant, or invalid address are potentially ineligible for Medicare providers and suppliers. “About 300 of the addresses were CMRAs, 3,200 were vacant properties, and 19,900 were invalid. Of the 23,400 potentially ineligible addresses, [GAO] estimates that, from 2005 to 2013, about 17,900 had no claims associated with the address, 2,900 were associated with providers that had claims that were less than $500,000, and 2,600 were associated with providers that had claims that were $500,000 or more per address.”

In other words, out of 105,234 addresses, only 2,600 actively billed Medicare for over $500,000 from 2005 through 2013 (8 years). Had CMS narrowed the scope and looked at practices that billed over $500,000 since 2010, I fancy the the number would have been much lower, because, as discussed above, many of these providers either moved or went out-of-business.

Now, 2,600 is not a nominal number. I am in no way undermining CMS’ efforts to determine the accuracy of providers’ addresses; I am not insinuating that these efforts are unnecessary or a complete waste of time. I think verification of health care providers’ addresses is an important aspect of detecting FWA. Instead, I believe that, as discussed above, verifying providers’ addresses is a poor, under and over-inclusive attempt at searching for FWA. Because, as I stated at the beginning of this blog, the people who are intentionally trying to defraud the system, are not going to intentionally give an erroneous address. It is just too easy for the government to discover the error. No, the people who are intentionally defrauding the state will have a legitimate office.

For example, in my opinion, it is unlikely that anyone intentionally trying to defraud the system will inform the government that they provide health care services from the following places:

UPS2demolished2

fast food2

Again, if I liken CMS’ search for FWA by detecting inaccurate addresses to Oink, it would be like tossing a handful of Skittles on the ground and expecting Oink to only find the green ones.

If CMS audits are to Oink as fraud is to Skittles, then I think there is a less intrusive, less inclusive way to detect FWA rather than throwing out packets of Skittles for Oink. All that does is make Oink eat too much.

If you are one of the Medicare providers that get caught into CMS’ widely  thrown net, be sure to know your rights! Know the appeal steps!

“Red Rover, Red Rover, Send Lab Services Right Over!” And How To Self Audit

Medicare is the largest payor of clinical lab services in the nation. Clinical lab services include everything from blood counts to urinalyses, and every letter of the alphabet in between. Lab services are performed by hospitals, independent labs, physicians, or other institutions.

Medicare Part B (which covers lab services) has had increased enrollment over the past few years, but the amount billed to Part B over the past few years has increased at a much higher rate. In other words, the amount of lab services billed to Part B has increased disproportionately to the increase in enrollment. Any number of factors could contribute to this: defensive practice of medicine, more reliance on laboratory testing, more labs…

Regardless, the higher billing amounts in lab services has now won the prestigious award of “Increased CMS Scrutiny!” (sarcasm, people). And the crowd goes wild!!!!

Mid-2014, the U.S. Office of Inspector General (OIG) published a study entitled, “Questionable Billing for Medicare Part B Clinical Laboratory Services.” OIG determined that Medicare allowed $1.5 billion to be paid for claims with questionable billing. It recommended that CMS: (1) review the labs identified with questionable billing and take appropriate action; (2) review program integrity strategies and determine whether such strategies are adequate; and (3) ensure that claims with invalid and ineligible ordering-physician numbers are not being paid.

In normal and expectant government time frames, the “dinosauric beast” has now determined, a little over a year later, that laboratory service claims warrant enhanced scrutiny. And a little over 85 years after its discovery, we finally determine that Pluto isn’t a planet.

CMS zoomed in their lens of scrutiny on lab services multiple times over a decade ago. Each “CMS zoom” resulted in millions and millions of money given to the federal government, which perpetuates the feds to zoom more and more…it’s easy money.

For example, in 2000, OIG issued Project LabScam, which resulted in substantial settlements against Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings, SmithKline Beecham, Met/Path, Damon, Roche, and Allied.

In 2002, OIG found that Medicare incorrectly paid $7.4 million for lab services with invalid ordering UPINs and $15.3 million for lab service claims with inactive ordering UPINs.

What does this mean to providers of lab services today?

It means you need to be prepared for an audit.

When I was young, one of my favorite games was “Red Rover.” Children would grasp arms and form a straight line facing the other team, which was doing the same. I would yell, “Red River, Red Rover, send Holly right over!” At which time, little Holly would be released from her line and prepare to run, full speed, into my line of little kids’ arms. Inevitably, once we saw where Holly was running, we would tighten up our grasps on one another’s arms to prepare for the impact.

Similarly, in preparation for upcoming audits, lab service providers need to tighten up.

How?

The best way to be certain of your risks in a potential audit is to hire a professional consultant or an experienced attorney to review a large sample of your documents. This allows an outsider to provide an unbiased opinion as to your risk. You may have the best billing manager in the world, but, when it comes to a self audit, he or she already believes that his or her documentation is stellar and that the organization of such documents is self evident. Having an outsider audit your records is worth its weight in gold and the best way to tighten up pre-audit.

The second best way to be certain of your risks in a potential audit is to self audit. Even if you hire a consultant or an attorney for a one time, third-party audit, you still want to self-audit multiple times a year. Every now and then you need to kick the old tires.

How do you self audit?

FYI: My general explanation of how to self audit will be appropriate for all health care service provider types. I will describe some more detailed ways to self audit that will be specific to lab services.

In order to self audit, I teach the IAKA method, not to be confused with IKEA.

  • Identify common risks
  • Audit a sample of your documents
  • Keep record of each step of your audit, including findings
  • Act on the findings.

Identify

What are the common red flags in your industry?

For lab services, common red flags may be high average allowed amounts per ordering physician, high percentage of claims with ineligible ordering-physician numbers, high percentage of claims with compromised beneficiary numbers, and high percentage of duplicate lab tests.

Here’s an area to look into that you may not otherwise consider in a self audit: what percentage of your lab clients live outside 100 miles? This may sound hoaky, but I had a lab service client flagged because 92% of the clients resided over 150 miles away. There was a perfectly reasonable explanation for such anomaly, the lab was located in a large, prestigious hospital in a rural area and people came from miles away to the hospital, but the statistic still flagged it.

Another specific item to review is, on average, how much does each physician bill in the laboratory? Do you have 4 physicians who bill, on average, $60,000+ per ordering physician? Because, for an independent lab, that would be very high.

Audit

For the actual self audit, you want to break up the audit into two categories: standards and procedures and document compliance.

For standards and procedures, you are reviewing whether you are properly orienting new hires, the specific training you implement, your criminal background check procedures, HIPAA training, your license renewal processes, your certification renewal processes, etc.

For document compliance, you are reviewing for physician signatures and dates.

NOTE: It is not required, but it is extremely prudent to print the name of the signator underneath all signatures. I have seen auditors ding providers on “physicians not being licensed/credentialed” because the auditor could not read the name of the physician. 

You are also reviewing for medical necessity, eligible ordering-physician numbers, distance the client is to the lab, amount prescribed to that particular client, amount prescribed by that particular physician, whether that test prescribed for the same client within a 12 month period, coding compliance, etc.

Keep Record

It is imperative that you keep meticulous records while you conducting the audits. You want to be able to show an auditor that you caught a mistake and that you implemented a plan of correction to remedy the mistake going forward. And that, in actuality, you remedied the mistake going forward. This documentation is essential for possible defenses to alleged potential overpayments, false claims, and, even, alleged criminal actions. Your documentation skills could be the difference between paying millions in penalties, or, in the extreme case, jail.

Act

I got ahead of myself in the prior section by saying that you need to document the way in which you fix the mistake. But I cannot emphasize it enough. Acting on your findings is important, obviously, but documenting the actions is more important. Ever hear the saying, “If it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen?” Take that as gospel.

Be prepared. Be proactive. Be ready. Tighten up!