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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!!

Dealer Has an Ace: Do You Take the “Insurance?” CMS Incentivizes Hospitals to Drop Appeals

Medicare appeals are at an all-time high. Back in January 2014, the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) stated that a health care provider with a Medicare appeal, may not have the case assigned to a judge for at least two years, and may wait even longer for the appeal to be heard.

Since the beginning of 2014, the Medicare appeal backlog has only grown. With the passing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which increased the amount of regulatory audits on providers in an attempt to partially fund the Act, more and more providers are finding themselves audited and in disagreement with the overzealous results. More and more providers are fighting the audit results and filing Medicare appeals at OMHA.

Now, because in large part of the massive backlog, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is offering hospitals an “administrative agreement mechanism.” In other words, if the hospitals agree to dismiss the appeal, CMS will agree to partial repayment for the claims at issue. Specifically, the hospital will be reimbursed for 68% of the disputed claims.
Notice the offer from CMS only pertains to hospitals. CMS has made no such offer to long-term care facilities (LTCF), which have been vocal when it comes to aggravation resulting from the Medicare appeal backlog.

For CMS’s offer, if a hospital is owed $1 million, then CMS will agree to reimburse the hospital $680,000 if the hospital dismisses the appeal.

What if the hospital has multiple appeals? CMS will only offer this meagre, olive branch if no other appeals are pending. As in, you must dismiss all lawsuits in order to receive the partial payout.

Personally, I call this a raw deal.

Think of blackjack. The purpose of blackjack is to have two cards’ sums equal 21. Only with 2 cards equaling 21 does the player receive more than the bet. You bet $100 and hit 21 with an ace and a king? You get paid $150.

“Insurance” is a side bet which you can take when the dealer’s face up card shows an ace and only pays 2:1. You bet half your bet for insurance; so if you placed a $100 blackjack bet, your insurance bet should be $50. If the dealer hits blackjack, you lose your $100 bet but get paid on the insurance. On a $50-insurance bet, you’d win $100, and lose your $100 bet. If the dealer doesn’t have a blackjack, your insurance bet is forfeited. Either way, by making an insurance bet, you lose money.. You do not have the chance to win 100% of a blackjack payout.

This is essentially what CMS is offering. You are holding an ace and CMS is holding an ace. Will you take the partial payout?

Many of these pending appeals by hospitals are a result of auditors’ determinations that a Medicare recipient was received as an inpatient instead of (as the auditor believes proper) an outpatient.

One of the reasons that I believe the 68% payout from CMS is a raw deal is because the auditors are not always right. Why take 68% when you are owed 100%?

My question is: Are these auditors M.D.s?

When I present myself at a hospital emergency room, I hope that the decision for me to be admitted as inpatient or outpatient hospital admission is a complex medical decision contemplated by my doctor based on medical necessity, not an insurance auditor. After the physician determines that a patient needs to be admitted, an auditor is second guessing a physician’s decision that was made in “real time” with multiple variables at issue.

The Social Security Act (SSA) provides numerous defenses for a provider to assert against an auditor challenging the medical necessity of a service, in this case whether the patient is admitted into the hospital as inpatient. The rendering physician’s medical decision should be upheld absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.

Some people suggest that the auditors’ emphasis on inpatient stays versus outpatient stays will cause hospitals to err on the side of caution and just keep patients in observation status to avoid inpatient status.

We need to prevent the hospitals from fearing to admit patients as inpatient due to overzealous audits and mistaken determinations from non-M.D.s who believe the patient should have been outpatient. I say, go all in. Do not take the “insurance.” Do not take the 68%, if you deserve 100%.