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Medicare “Site Neutral” Reimbursements Hit Hospitals Hard, But Is It Legal?

Shockingly, not all new rules that emerge from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) are actually compliant with the law. Wait! What? How can CMS publish Final Rules that are not compliant with the law?

This was an eye-opening discovery as a “baby lawyer” back 20 years ago. The government can and does publish and create Rules that, sometimes, exceed its legal authority. Of course, the Agency must follow appropriate rule-making procedure and allow for a comment period (etc.), but CMS does not have to listen to the comments. Theoretically, CMS could publish a Final Rule mandating that all Medicare providers provide 50 hours of free services a year or that the reimbursement rate for all services is $1. Both of my examples violate multiple rules, regulations, and laws, but until an aggrieved party with standing files a lawsuit declaring the Final Rule to be invalid or Congress passes a law that renders the Rule moot, the Rule exists and can be enforced by CMS and its agents.

The Rule-change (the “Site-Neutrality Rule”), which became effective January 1, 2019, reduced Medicare reimbursements to hospitals with outpatient facilities. Medicare will pay hospitals that have outpatient facilities “off campus” at a lower rate — equivalent to what it pays independent physicians for clinic visits. This decrease in Medicare reimbursements hits hard for most hospitals across the country, but, especially, rural hospitals. For the past 10+ years, hospitals have built outpatient facilities to serve more patients, and been reimbursed a higher Medicare reimbursement rate than independent physicians because the services at the hospital’s outpatient facility were connected to an outpatient facility affiliated with a hospital. Now the Site-Neutrality Rule leaves many hospitals trying to catch their breaths after the metaphoric punch to the belly. On the other hand, independent physicians claim that they have been providing the exact, same services as the hospital-affiliated outpatient facilities for years, but have received a lower reimbursement rate. I have no opinion (I do, but my opinion is not the topic in this blog) as to whether physicians and hospitals should be reimbursed equally – this blog is not pro-physician or pro-hospital. Rather, this blog is “pro-holding CMS liable to render Rules that follow the law.” Whether the hospitals or the physicians were receiving a cut in reimbursement rates, I am in favor of the those cuts (and future cuts) abiding by the law. Interestingly, should the AHA win this case, it could set solid, helpful, legal precedent for all types of providers and all types of decreased Medicare/caid reimbursements going forward.

Because of the Site-Neutrality Rule, in 2019, hospitals’ reimbursements will drop approximately $380 million and $760 million in 2020, according to CMS.

Before CMS brags on a decrease in the Medicare budget due to a proposed or Final Rule, it should remember that there is budget neutrality requirement when it comes to Rules implemented by CMS. 42 US.C. § 1395l. Yet, here, for the Site-Neutrality Rule, according to articles and journals, CMS is boasting its Site-Neutrality Rule as saving millions upon millions of dollars for Medicare. Can we say “Budget Non-Neutrality?”

The American Hospital Association filed a lawsuit December 2018 claiming that CMS exceeded its authority by implementing the Final Rule for “site neutral” Medicare reimbursements for hospitals with outpatient facilities. The lawsuit requests an injunction to stop the decrease and an order to repay any funds withheld thus far.

The claim, which, I believe has merit, argues that the Site-Neutrality Rule exceeds CMS’s statutory authority under the Medicare Act because of the budget neutrality mandate, in part – there are other arguments, but, for the sake of this blog, I am concentrating on the budget neutrality requirement. In my humble opinion, the budget neutrality requirement is overlooked by many attorneys and providers when it comes to challenging cuts to Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement rates.

On March 22, 2019, CMS filed a Motion to Dismiss or in the alternative, a Cross Motion for Summary Judgment. On April 5, 2019, AHA (and the rest of the Plaintiffs) responded in opposition. On April 19, 2019, CMS responded to AHA’s response in opposition. The Judge has not ruled on the Motions, as of today, April 25, 2019.

Obviously, I will be keeping a close eye on the progress of this case going forward. In the meantime, more reductions in reimbursement rates are on the horizon…

Recently, CMS recently proposed three new rules that would further update the Medicare payment rates and quality reporting programs for hospices, skilled nursing facilities (SNFs), and inpatient psychiatric facilities.

Stay tuned.

Medicare Reform Proposals Include Eliminating “Incident-to” Rules

There are a lot of concerns related to “incident-to billing. However, for physician practices, “incident-to” billing is a money maker, which, in the world, of sub-par Medicare reimbursement rates is a minute ray of sunshine in an otherwise eclipsed land. Auditors argue that there are fraud and abuse concerns because practices ignore or are confused about the rules and bill everything “incident-toregardless of the conditions being met. This can result in a nasty audit, as well as substantial fines, penalties, and attorneys’ fees. If you bill “incident-to,” just follow the rules…unless those rules are eliminated. Until possible elimination, keep up with the rules, which can differ depending on the auditor in the region.

Recently, people have been pushing for Medicare reform to include disallowing nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs) from billing “incident-to.” Proponents of the suggested amendment claims that the recommendation would save the Medicare program money — approximately $50 to $250 million annually and just under $1 billion over 5 years.

The number of NPs who bill Medicare has more than doubled, from 52,000 to 130,000 from 2010 to 2017

What is “incident-to” billing?

In colloquialism, “incident-to” billing allows non-physician providers (NPPs) to report services “as if” they were performed by a physician. The NPP stands in the shoes of the physician. The advantage is that, under Medicare rules, covered services provided by NPPs typically are reimbursed at 85% of the fee schedule amount; whereas, services properly reported “incident-to” are reimbursed at the full fee schedule value.

In legalize, “incident-to” services under §1861(s)(2)(A) of the Social Security Act are provided by NPPs as a part of the services provided directly by the physician, but billed as if they were in fact performed by the physician. Several, legal, threshold requirements must be satisfied before billing eligibility for these services is established.

Billing using “incident-to” can be a huge money-maker for providers. If billed incorrectly, it can also be a provider’s financial downfall.

“Incident-to” billing can only apply to established patients. Not new patients. Not consults. The other non-negotiable factor is that the physician who is supervising must be on-site. Not a phone call away. Not grabbing a burger at a local eatery. On-site. Although with hospitals, the cafeteria is a viable option. I foresee, in the future, telehealth and Skype may change this on-site requirement. The incident-to rules also require that the services be part of a patient’s normal course of treatment.  The rules require that the physician remains actively involved in the patient’s course of treatment.  There must be direct supervision.  Direct supervision = on-site. The following services cannot be billed as “incident-to:”

  • new patient visits
  • visits in which an established patient is seen for a new problem
  • visits in which the treatment provided or prescribed is not a part of the treatment plan established by a physician
  • services provided in the hospital or ambulatory surgery center.

Do not confuse “incident-to” with Medicare patients versus Medicaid patients. MediCAID’s regulations for the coverage of MD services vary significantly than Medicare’s rules and requires direct contact with the patient with exceptions.

Here is a question that I often get: “When billing “incident-to,” do you bill “incident to” the physician who is physically on-site that day or the physician who is overseeing that patient’s care? Both physicians are in the same group and it is billed under the Group NPI, but not sure which physician to reference for “incident-to.”

Answer: Bill under the MD who is on-site. This was addressed by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in the 2016 Physician Fee Schedule Final Rule.

The Medicare Benefit Policy Manual addresses the “incident-to” rules for each provider type and in any scenario:

  • Section 60 contains policies for services furnished incident to physicians’ services in the physician’s office.
  • Chapter 6, section 20.5 enumerates the policies for therapeutic services furnished “incident-to” physicians’ services in the hospital outpatient setting.
  • Section 80 states the policies for diagnostic tests in the physician’s office
  • Chapter 6, section 20.4 lists the policies for diagnostic tests furnished in the hospital outpatient setting.

Drug Administration under “incident-to”

“The Medicare program provides limited benefits for outpatient prescription drugs. The program covers drugs that are furnished “incident to” a physician’s service provided that the drugs are not usually self-administered by the patients who take them.” Medicare Benefit Policy Manual, 50.2. Injectable drugs, including intravenously administered drugs, are typically eligible for inclusion under the “incident-to” benefit.

The Medicare Administrative Contracts (MACs) (or – auditors) must fully explain the process they will use to determine whether a drug is usually self-administered and thus does not meet the “incident-to” benefit category. The MACs must publish a list of the injectable drugs that are subject to the self-administered exclusion. If there is discrepancy amongst the MACs, a lawsuit could help.

In order to meet all the general requirements for coverage under the “incident-to” provision, an FDA approved drug or biological must:

  • Be of a form that is not usually self-administered;
  • Must be furnished by a physician; and
  • Must be administered by the physician, or by auxiliary personnel employed by the physician and under the physician’s personal supervision

The charge, if any, for the drug or biological must be included in the physician’s bill, and the cost of the drug or biological must represent an expense to the physician.

Summary

“Incident-to” billing is subject to elimination. The difference in billing “incident-to” is a 100% reimbursement rate versus an 85% reimbursement rate. That 15% difference cannot be passed onto the Medicare recipients.

While “incident-to” billing continues to be allowed, it is imperative to keep up with the ever changing rules.

 

 

 

Detroit Hospitals and Funeral Home Under Fire by Medicare and Police

What in the health care is going on in Detroit??

Hospitals in Detroit, MI may lose Medicare funding, which would be financially devastating to the hospitals. Is hospital care in Detroit at risk of going defunct? Sometimes, I think, we lose sight of how important our local hospitals are to our communities.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) notified DMC Harper University Hospital and Detroit Receiving Hospital that they may lose Medicare funding because they are allegedly not in compliance with “physical environment regulations.”

42 C.F.R. § 483.90 “Physical environment” states “The facility must be designed, constructed, equipped, and maintained to protect the health and safety of residents, personnel and the public.”

CMS will give the hospitals time to submit corrective action plan, but if the plans of correction are not accepted by CMS, Medicare will terminate the hospitals’ participation by April 15, 2019 (tax day – a bad omen?).

The two hospitals failed fire safety and infection control. Section 483.90 instructs providers to ensure fire safety by installing appropriate and required alarm systems. Providers are forbidden to have certain flammable goods in the hallways. It requires sprinkler systems to be installed. It requires emergency generators to be installed on the premises. Could you imagine the liability if Hurricane ABC destroys the area and Provider XYZ loses power, which causes Grandma Moses to stop breathing because her oxygen tube no longer disseminate oxygen? Think of the artwork we would have lost! Ok, that was a bad example because there are no hurricanes in Detroit.

Another important criterion of the physical environment regulations is infection control, which, according to the letters from CMS, is the criterion that the two hospitals allegedly have failed. Each hospital underwent a survey on Oct. 18th when the alleged deficiencies were discovered.

“We have determined that the deficiencies are significant and limit your hospital’s capacity to render adequate care and ensure the health and safety of your patients,” stated the Jan. 15 letters to the hospitals from CMS. CMS informed the hospitals they had until Jan. 25 to submit a plan of correction. It is unclear whether the hospitals submitted these plans. Hopefully, both hospitals have a legal team that did draft and submit the plans of correction.

Michigan is a state in which if Medicare funds are terminated, then Michigan will terminate Medicaid funds automatically. So termination of Medicare funding can be catastrophic. Concurrently, Scott Steiner, chief of Detroit Receiving Hospital, is resigning (shocker).

Detroit must have something in the water when it comes to health care issues in the news because, also in Detroit, a police task force Monday removed 26 fetuses from a Detroit Medical Center (DMC) morgue, all of which were allegedly mishandled by Perry Funeral Home. Twenty of the bodies taken from the DMC cooler had dates-of-birth listed from 1998 and earlier, with six dating to the 1970s. The earliest date of birth of a discovered fetus was Aug. 11, 1971.

State authorities are looking into another case of dozens of infant remains allegedly hidden for years in a DMC hospital. News articles do not mention the DMC hospital’s name, but one cannot help but wonder whether the two incidents – (1) Detroit hospitals failing infection control specifications; and (2) decomposing bodies found in a hospital – are intertwined.

Detroit has to be winning a record here with health care issues – Medicare audit failures in hospitals, possible loss of Medicare contracts, possible suspension of Medicaid reimbursements, and, apparently decomposing fetuses in funeral homes and hospitals.

AHA Obtains a Permanent Injunction against HHS!!! Raises the Price of Drugs!

Obtaining injunctions against the government is the best part of my job. I love it. I thrive on it. Whenever there is a reduction in Medicare/caid reimbursements rates, I secretly hope someone hires me to get an injunction to increase the reimbursement rates. But injunctions are expensive. So I am always happy whenever a provider obtains an injunction against the government, even if I were not hired to obtain it.

On December 27, 2018, Judge Rudolph Contreras, United States District Judge, ordered the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) to increase the Medicare reimbursements rates for outpatient drugs under the 340B Drug Program. A permanent injunction!!!

In November 2017, HHS reduced the Medicare reimbursement rates for outpatient drugs acquired through the 340B Program from average sales price (“ASP”) plus 6% to ASP minus 22.5%. Medicare Program: Hospital Outpatient Prospective Payment and Ambulatory Surgical Center Payment Systems and Quality Reporting Programs, 82 Fed. Reg. 33,558, 33,634 (Jul. 20, 2017) (codified at 42 C.F.R. pt. 419).

HHS reduced Medicare reimbursements worth billions of dollars to private institutions. HHS has the authority to set Medicare reimbursement rates. But one should question a 30% reduction. Drug prices haven’t dropped.

Plaintiff – the American Hospital Association (AHA) – sued HHS when HHS cut outpatient pharmaceuticals by 30%. HHS contends that the rate adjustment was statutorily authorized and necessary to close the gap between the discounted rates at which Plaintiffs obtain the drugs at issue—through Medicare’s “340B Program”—and the higher rates at which Plaintiffs were previously reimbursed for those drugs under a different Medicare framework.

AHA asked the Court to vacate the HHS’ rate reduction, require HHS to apply previous reimbursement rates for the remainder of this year, and require HHS to pay Plaintiffs the difference between the reimbursements they have received this year under the new rates and the reimbursements they would have received under the previous rates.

HHS argued that AHA failed to exhaust its administrative remedies. See blog.

What is the 340B Drug Program?

In 1992, Congress established what is now commonly referred to as the “340B Program.” Veterans Health Care Act of 1992, Pub L. No. 102-585, § 602, 106 Stat. 4943, 4967–71. The 340B Program allows participating hospitals and other health care providers (“covered entities”) to purchase certain “covered outpatient drugs” from manufacturers at or below the drugs’ “maximum” or “ceiling” prices, which are dictated by a statutory formula and are typically significantly discounted from those drugs’ average manufacturer prices. See 42 U.S.C. § 256b(a)(1)–(2).3 Put more simply, this Program “imposes ceilings on prices drug manufacturers may charge for medications sold to specified health care facilities.” Astra USA, Inc. v. Santa Clara Cty., 563 U.S. 110, 113 (2011). It is intended to enable covered entities “to stretch scarce Federal resources as far as possible, reaching more eligible patients and providing more comprehensive services.” H.R. Rep. No. 102-384(II), at 12 (1992); see also Medicare Program: Hospital Outpatient Prospective Payment System and Ambulatory Surgical Center Payment Systems and Quality Reporting Programs (“2018 OPPS Rule”), 82 Fed. Reg. 52,356, 52,493 & 52,493 n.18 (Nov. 13, 2017) (codified at 42 C.F.R. pt. 419). Importantly, and as discussed in greater detail below, the 340B Program allows covered entities to purchase certain drugs at steeply discounted rates, and then seek reimbursement for those purchases under Medicare Part B at the rates established by OPPS.

HHS provided a detailed explanation of why it believed this rate reduction was necessary. First, HHS noted that several recent studies have confirmed the large “profit” margin created by the difference between the price that hospitals pay to acquire 340B drugs and the price at which Medicare reimburses those drugs. Second, HHS stated that because of this “profit” margin, HHS was “concerned that the current payment methodology may lead to unnecessary utilization and potential over-utilization of separately payable drugs.” It cited, as an example of this phenomenon, a 2015 Government Accountability Office Report finding that Medicare Part B drug spending was substantially higher at 340B hospitals than at non-340B hospitals. The data indicated that “on average, beneficiaries at 340B . . . hospitals were either prescribed more drugs or more expensive drugs than beneficiaries at the other non-340B hospitals in GAO’s analysis.” Id. at 33,633. Third, HHS expressed concern “about the rising prices of certain drugs and that Medicare beneficiaries, including low-income seniors, are responsible for paying 20 % of the Medicare payment rate for these drugs,” rather than the lower 340B rate paid by the covered hospitals.

The Court found that Plaintiff – AHA – did not need to exhaust its administrative remedies because there was no administrative remedy to exhaust. HHS had ruled that 340B drugs were to be recompensed at 30% lower rates. There is no appeal route for a rule made. There is no reconsideration review of a rule made. Therefore, the Court found that exhaustion of administrative remedies would be futile because no administrative remedies existed.

But the most important finding the Court made was that the 30% reduction in Medicare reimbursement rates for 340B drugs was arbitrary, capricious and outside the Secretary’s legal scope. The Court made the brash decision to determine the reimbursement rate for 340B drugs was arbitrary, but could not decide a remedy.

A remedy for an erroneous rule is to strike the rule and have the government repay the 340B drug reimbursements at the amount that should have been paid. But the Court does not order this. Instead the Court asks for each side to brief what remedy they think should be used. They have 30 days to brief their side.

Ring In the New Year with New Medicare Rules

Change your calendars! 2019 is here!

2019 is the 19th year of the 21st century, and the 10th and last year of the 2010s decade. Next we know it’ll be 2020.

Few fun facts:

  • January 7th is my birthday. And no, you may not ask my age.
  • In February 2019, Nigeria will elect a new president.
  • In June the Women’s World Cup will be held in France.
  • November 5, 2019, USA will have our next election. Three Governor races will occur.

What else do we have in store for 2019? There are a TON of changes getting implemented for Medicare in 2019.

Hospital Prices Go Public

For starters, hospital prices will go public. Prices hospitals charge for their services will all go online Jan. 1 under a new federal requirement. There is a question as to how up-to-date the information will be. For example, a hospital publishes its prices for a Cesarian Section on January 1, 2019. Will that price be good on December 1, 2019? According to the rule, hospitals will be required to update the information annually or “more often as appropriate.”

“More often as appropriate” is not defined and upon reading it, I envision litigation arising between hospitals and patients bickering over increased rates but were not updated on the public site “more often as appropriate.” This recently created requirement for hospitals to publish its rates “more often as appropriate” will also create unfamiliar penalties for hospitals to face. Because whenever there is a rule, there are those who break them. Just ask CMS.

Skilled Nursing Facility Value-Based Purchasing Program (SNF VBP) Is Implemented

Skilled nursing facilities (SNF) will be penalized or rewarded on an annual basis depending on the SNFs’ performance, which is judged on a “hospital readmissions measure” during a performance period. The rule aims to improve quality of care and lower the number of elderly patients repeatedly readmitted to hospitals. The Medicare law that was implemented in October 2018 will be enforced in 2019.

Basically, all SNFs will receive a “performance score” annually based on performance, which is calculated by comparing data from years prior. The scores range from 0 – 100. But what if you disagree with your score? Take my word for it, when the 2019 scores roll in, there will be many an unhappy SNFs. Fair scoring, correct auditing, and objective reviews are not in Medicare auditors’ bailiwick.

Expansion of Telehealth

Telehealth benefits are limited to services available under Medicare Part B that are clinically appropriate to be administered through telecommunications and e-technology. For 2019, a proposed rule creates three, new, “virtual,” CPT codes that do not have the same restrictions as the current, “traditional” telehealth definition. Now CMS provides reimbursement for non-office visits through telehealth services, but only if the patients present physically at an “originating site,” which only includes physician offices, hospitals, and other qualified health care centers. This prevents providers from consulting with their patients while they are at their home. The brand-new, 2019 CPT codes would allow telehealth to patients in homes.

Word of caution, my friends… Do not cross the streams.

  • CPT #1 – Telephone conference for established patients only; video not required
  • CPT #2 – Review of selfies of patient to determine whether office visit is needed; established patients only
  • CPT #3 – Consult with a specialist or colleague for advice without requiring a specialist visit; patient’s consent required.

These are not the only developments in Medicare in 2019. But these are some highlights. Here is wishing you and yours a very happy New Year, and thank you for reading my blog because if you are reading this then you read the whole blog.

RAC Forecast: Increased RAC Audits with a High Likelihood of Recoupments

Data regarding the success of the Medicare RAC program does not lie, right? If the report shows success, then increase the RAC process!! And to anyone who reads the new report to Congress…a success the RAC process is!

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently published its 2016 results of the Medicare Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) program. And CMS was not shy in reporting high rates of returns due to the RAC program. With results as amazing as the report touts, it is clear that the Medicare RACs are hoping that this new report on the hundreds of millions they’ve recovered for Medicare will cause the CMS to reverse course on its decision to limit the number of claims they can review. After reviewing the report to CMS, I will be shocked if Congress does not loosen the limitations placed on RACs in the last couple years. The report acts as marketing propaganda to Congress.

My forecast: increased RAC audits with a high likelihood of recoupments.

The RAC program is divided into 5 regions (currently):

2018-09-26 -- RACMapImage.png

In 2016, the RAC regions were arranged a bit differently:

Screen Shot 2018-09-26 at 3.47.10 PM

The mission of the RAC program is to identify and correct overpayments made on claims for health care services provided to beneficiaries, to identify underpayments to providers, and to provide information that allows the CMS to implement corrective actions that will prevent future improper payments. As most of my readers are well aware, I have been critical of the RAC program in the past for being overzealous and hyper (overly) – technical, in an erroneous kind of way. See blog. And blog.

The Social Security Act (SSA), which allows for RAC programs, also requires that the CMS publish and submit a yearly “self-audit” on the RAC program. Even though we are almost in October 2018, the recent report released to Congress covers 2016 – apparently CMS’ data gathering lags a bit (lot). If I have to get my 2018 taxes to the IRS by April 15, 2019, shouldn’t CMS have a similar deadline? Instead of submitting information for 2016 when it’s almost 2019…

RACs are paid on a contingency fee basis, which incentivize the RACs to discover billing irregularities. The amount of the contingency fee is a percentage of the improper payment recovered from, or reimbursed to, providers. The RACs negotiate their contingency fees at the time of the contract award. The base contingency fees range from 10.4 – 14.4% for all claim types, except durable medical equipment (DME). The contingency fees for DME claims range from 15.4 – 18.9%. The RAC must return the contingency fee if an improper payment determination is overturned at any level of appeal although I am unaware whether the RAC has to return the interested gained on holding that amount as well, which cannot be a minute amount given that the Medicare appeal backlog causes Medicare appeals to last upwards of 5 – 9 years.

Beginning in 2017, the RAC contracts had an amendment not previously found in past contracts. Now the RACs are to wait 30-days before reporting the alleged overpayment to the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs). The thought process behind this revision to the RAC contracts is that the 30-day wait period allows the providers to informally discuss the findings with the RACs to determine the provider has additional records germane to the audit that could change the outcome of the audit. Theoretically, going forward, providers should receive notification of an alleged overpayment from the RACs rather than the MACs.

And the 2016 results are (drum roll, please):

RACs uncovered $404.46 million in overpayments and $69.46 million in underpayments in fiscal year 2016, for a total of $473.92 million in improper payments being corrected. This represents a 7.5% increase from program corrections in FY 2015, which were $440.69 million.

63% of overpayments identified in 2016 (more than $278 million) were from inpatient hospital claims, including coding validation reviews.

RACs received $39.12 million in contingency fees.

After factoring in contingency fees, administrative costs, and amounts overturned on appeal, the RAC program returned $214.09 million to the Medicare trust funds in 2016.

CMS has implemented several elements to verify RAC accuracy in identifying improper payments. The Recovery Audit Validation Contractor (RVC) establishes an annual accuracy score for each RAC. Supposedly, if we are to take the CMS report as accurate and unbiased, in FY 2016, each RAC had an overall accuracy score of 91% or higher for claims adjusted from August 2015 through July 2016. I am always amazed at the government’s ability to warp percentages. I had a client given a 1.2% accuracy rating during a prepayment review that would rival J.K. Rowling any day of the year. Robert Galbraith, as well.

To address the backlog of Medicare appeals, CMS offered a settlement process that paid hospitals 68% of what they claimed they were owed for short-term inpatient stays. – I am not confident that this money was accounted for in the overall results of the RAC program in the recent report.

135,492 claims were appealed by healthcare providers. But the RAC report to Congress notes: “appealed claims may be counted multiple times if the claim had appeal decisions rendered at multiple levels during 2016.” Undeniably, if this number is close to accurate, there was a significant down swing of appeals by providers in 2016. (I wonder whether the hospital settlement numbers were included).

Of the total appealed claims, 56,724, or 41.9%, were overturned with decisions in the provider’s favor. (Fact check, please!). In my experience as a Medicare and Medicaid regulatory compliance litigator, the success rate for Medicare and Medicaid alleged overpayments is remarkably higher (but maybe my clients just hired a better attorney (wink, wink!).

With results this good, who needs more RAC auditing? We do!! If the report shows success, then increase the RAC process!! 

A Federal Regulation Violates the U.S. Constitution and Ruins Careers; Yet It Sits…Vaguely

There is a federal regulation that is putting health care providers out of business. It is my legal opinion that the regulation violates the U.S. Constitution. Yet, the regulation still exists and continues to put health care providers out of business.

Why?

Because so far, no one has litigated the validity of the regulation, and I believe it could be legally wiped from existence with the right legal arguments.

How is this important?

Currently, the state and federal government are legally authorized to immediately suspend your Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements upon a credible allegation of fraud. This immense authority has put many a provider out of business. Could you survive without any Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements?

The federal regulation to which I allude is 42 CFR 455.23. It is a federal regulation, and it applies to every single health care provider, despite the service type allowed by Medicare or Medicaid. Home care agencies are just as susceptible to an accusation of health care fraud as a hospital. Durable medical equipment agencies are as susceptible as dentists. Yet the standard for a “credible allegation of fraud” is low. The standard for which the government can implement an immediate withhold of Medicaid/care reimbursements is lower than for an accused murderer to be arrested. At least when you are accused of murder, you have the right to an attorney. When you are accused to health care fraud on the civil level, you do not receive the right to an attorney. You must pay 100% out of pocket, unless your insurance happens to cover the expense for attorneys. But, even if your insurance does cover legal fees, you can believe that you will be appointed a general litigator with little to no knowledge of Medicare or Medicaid regulatory compliance litigation.

42 USC 455.23 states that:

The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending under the Medicaid program against an individual or entity unless the agency has good cause to not suspend payments or to suspend payment only in part.

(2) The State Medicaid agency may suspend payments without first notifying the provider of its intention to suspend such payments.

(3) A provider may request, and must be granted, administrative review where State law so requires.”

In the very first sentence, which I highlighted in red, is the word “must.” Prior to the Affordable Care Act, this text read “may.” From my years of experience, every single state in America has used this revision from “may” to “must” for governmental advantage over providers. When asked for good cause, the state and or federal government protest that they have no authority to make a decision that good cause exists to suspend any reimbursement freeze during an investigation. But this protest is a pile of hooey.

In reality, if anyone could afford to litigate the constitutionality of the regulation, I believe that the regulation would be stricken an unconstitutional.

Here is one reason why: Due Process

The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Bill of Rights provide us our due process rights. Here is the 5th Amendment:

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

There have been a long and rich history of interpretation of the due process clause. The Supreme Court has interpreted the due process clauses to provide four protections:  (1) procedural due process (in civil and criminal proceedings), (2) substantive due process, (3) a prohibition against vague laws, and (4) as the vehicle for the incorporation of the Bill of Rights.

42 CFR 455.23 violates procedural due process.

Procedural due process requires that a person be allowed notice and an opportunity to be heard before a government official takes a person’s life, liberty, or property.

Yet, 42 CFR 455.23 allows the government to immediately withhold reimbursements for services rendered based on an allegation without due process and taking a provider’s property; i.e., money owed for services rendered. Isn’t this exactly what procedural due process was created to prevent???? Where is the fundamental fairness?

42 CFR 455.23 violates substantive due process.

The Court usually looks first to see if there is a fundamental right, by examining if the right can be found deeply rooted in American history and traditions.

Fundamental rights include the right to vote, right for protection from pirates on the high seas (seriously – you have that right), and the right to constitutional remedies. Courts have held that our right to property is a fundamental right, but to my knowledge, not in the context of Medicare/caid reimbursements owed; however, I see a strong argument.

If the court establishes that the right being violated is a fundamental right, it applies strict scrutiny. This test inquires into whether there is a compelling state interest being furthered by the violation of the right, and whether the law in question is narrowly tailored to address the state interest.

Where the right is not a fundamental right, the court applies a rational basis test: if the violation of the right can be rationally related to a legitimate government purpose, then the law is held valid.

Taking away property of a Medicare/caid provider without due process violates substantive due process. The great thing about writing your own blog is that no one can argue with you. Playing Devil’s advocate, I would anticipate that the government would argue that a suspension or withhold of reimbursements is not a “taking” because the withhold or suspension is temporary and the government has a compelling reason to deter health care fraud. To which, I would say, yes, catching health care fraud is important – I am in no way advocating for fraud. But important also is the right to be innocent until proven guilty, and in civil cases, our deeply-rooted belief in the presumption of innocence is upheld by the action at issue not taking place until a hearing is held.

For example, if I sue my neighbor and declare that he is encroaching on my property, the property line is not moved until a decision is in my favor.

Another example, if I sue my business partner for breach of contract because she embezzled $1 million from me, I do not get the $1 million from her until it is decided that she actually took $1 million from me.

So to should be – if a provider is accused of fraud, property legally owned by said provider cannot just be taken away. That is a violation of substantive due process.

42 CFR 455.23 violates the prohibition against vague laws

A law is void for vagueness if an average citizen cannot understand it. The vagueness doctrine is my favorite. According to census data, there are 209.3 million people in the US who are over 24-years. Of those over 24-years-old, 66.9 million have a college degree. 68% do not.

Although here is a quick anecdote: Not so sure that a college degree is indicative of intelligence. A recent poll of law students at Columbia University showed that over 60% of the students, who were polled, could not name what rights are protected by the 1st Amendment. Once they responded “speech,” many forgot the others. In case you need a refresher for the off-chance that you are asked this question in an impromptu interview, see here.

My point is – who is to determine what the average person may or may not understand?

Back to why 42 CFR 455.23 violates the vagueness doctrine…

Remember the language of the regulations: “The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud…”

“Credible allegation of fraud” is defined as an allegation, which has been verified by the State, from any source, including but not limited to the following:

  • Fraud hotline complaints.
  • Claims data mining.
  • Patterns identified through provider audits, civil false claims cases, and law enforcement investigations. Allegations are considered to be credible when they have indicia of reliability and the State Medicaid agency has reviewed all allegations, facts, and evidence carefully and acts judiciously on a case-by-case basis.”

With a bit of research, I was able to find a written podcast published by CMS. It appears to be a Q and A between two workers at CMS discussing whether they should suspend a home health care agency’s reimbursements, similar to a playbook. I assume that it was an internal workshop to educate the CMS employees considering that the beginning of the screenplay begins with a “canned narrator” saying “This is a Medicaid program integrity podcast.”

2018-08-07 -- pic of cms podcast

The weird thing is that when you pull up the website – here – you get a glimpse of the podcast, but, at least on my computer, the image disappears in seconds and does not allow you to read it. I encourage you to determine whether this happens you as well.

While the podcast shimmered for a few seconds, I hit print and was able to read the disappearing podcast. As you can see, it is a staged conversation between “Patrick” and “Jim” regarding suspicion of a home health agency falsifying certificates of medical necessity.

On page 3, “Jim” says, “Remember the provider has the right to know why we are taking such serious action.”

But if your Medicare/caid reimbursements were suddenly suspended and you were told the suspension was based upon “credible allegations of fraud,” wouldn’t you find that reasoning vague?

42 CFR 455.23 violates the right to apply the Bill of Rights to me, as a citizen

This esoteric doctrine only means that the Bill of Rights apply to State governments. [Why do lawyers make everything so hard to understand?]

Breaking Down the Barriers to Telehealth: CMS’s Latest Rural Health Strategy

CMS unveils new rural healthcare strategy via telehealth.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) wants to reduce hospital readmissions and unnecessary ER visits with its newly unveiled Rural Health Strategy.

Currently, there are significant barriers to accessing telehealth. While physicians and providers have to answer to their respective healthcare boards within the states in which they are licensed, if you provide telemedicine, you are held accountable and ordered to follow the federal rules and regulations (of which there are many!) – and the rules and regulations of every state in which you provide services. For example, say Dr. Hyde resides in New York and provides medication management via telehealth. Patient Jekyll resides in New Jersey. Dr. Hyde must comply with all rules and regulations of the federal government, New York, and New Jersey.

Currently, 48 state medical boards, plus those of Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, require that physicians engaging in telemedicine be licensed in the state in which a patient resides. Fifteen state boards issue a special purpose license, telemedicine license or certificate, or license to practice medicine across state lines to allow for the practice of telemedicine. There are 18 States that only allow Medicaid recipients to receive telemedicine services. One state requires only private insurance companies to reimburse for services provided through telemedicine. Twenty-eight states, plus D.C., require both private insurance companies and Medicaid to cover telemedicine services to the same extent as face-to-face consultations.

As you can see, telehealth can leave hospitals and providers wondering whether they took a left at Albuquerque.

Getting paid for telemedicine has been an issue for many hospitals and medical providers – not only in rural areas, but in all areas. However, according to CMS, rural hospitals and providers feel the pain more acutely. We certainly hope that the progress CMS initially achieves with rural providers and telehealth will percolate into cities and across the nation.

The absolute top barrier to providing and getting reimbursed for telehealth is the cross-state licensure issue, and according to CMS’s Rural Health Strategy, the agency is seeking to reduce the administrative and financial burdens.

Through interviews with providers and hospitals across the country and many informal forums, CMS has pinpointed eight methods to increase the use of telehealth:

  1. Improving reimbursement
  2. Adapting and improving quality measures and reporting
  3. Improving access to services and providers
  4. Improving service delivery and payment models
  5. Engaging consumers
  6. Recruiting, training, and retaining the workforce
  7. Leveraging partnerships/resources
  8. Improving affordability and accessibility of insurance options

What this new Rural Health Strategy tells me, as a healthcare attorney and avid “keeper of the watchtower” germane to all things Medicare and Medicaid, is that the current barriers to telehealth may come tumbling down. Obviously, CMS does not have the legal authority to change the Code of Federal Regulations, which now requires that telehealth physicians be licensed in the state in which a patient resides, but CMS has enough clout, when it comes to Medicare and Medicaid, to make Congress listen.

My crystal ball prediction? Easier and more telehealth is in everyone’s future.

*My blog was published on RACMonitor on June 7, 2018.

Suspension of Medicare Reimbursements – Not Over 180 Days! Medicaid – Indefinite?!

When you get accused of Medicare or Medicaid fraud or of an alleged overpayment, the federal and state governments have the authority to suspend your reimbursements. If you rely heavily on Medicaid or Medicare, this suspension can be financially devastating. If your Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements are suspended, you have to hire an attorney. And, somehow, you have to be able to afford such legal representation without reimbursements. Sadly, this is why many providers simply go out of business when their reimbursements are suspended.

But, legally, how long can the state or federal government suspend your Medicare or Medicaid payments without due process?

According to 42 C.F.R. 405.371, the federal government may suspend your Medicare reimbursements upon ” reliable information that an overpayment exists or that the payments to be made may not be correct, although additional information may be needed for a determination.” However, for Medicare, there is a general rule that the suspension may not last more than 180 days. MedPro Health Providers, LLC v. Hargan, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 173441 *2.

There are also procedural safeguards. A Medicare provider must be provided notice prior to a suspension and given the opportunity to submit a rebuttal statement explaining why the suspension should not be implemented. Medicare must, within 15 days, consider the rebuttal, including any material submitted. The Medicare Integrity Manual states that the material provided by the provider must be reviewed carefully.

Juxtapose Medicaid:

42 CFR 455.23 states that “The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending under the Medicaid program against an individual or entity unless the agency has good cause to not suspend payments or to suspend payment only in part.”

Notice the differences…

Number one: In the Medicare regulation, the word used is “may” suspend.  In the Medicaid regulation, the word used is “must” suspend. This difference between may and must may not resonate as a huge difference, but, in the legal world, it is. You see, “must” denotes that there is no discretion (even though there is discretion in the good cause exception). On the other hand, “may” suggests more discretionary power in the decision.

Number two: In the Medicare regulation, notice is required. It reads, “Except as provided in paragraphs (d) and (e) of this section, CMS or the Medicare contractor suspends payments only after it has complied with the procedural requirements set forth at § 405.372.” 405.372 reads the Medicare contractor must notify the provider or supplier of the intention to suspend payments, in whole or in part, and the reasons for making the suspension. In the Medicaid regulation, no notice is required. 455.23 reads “The State Medicaid agency may  suspend payments without first notifying the provider of its intention to suspend such payments.”

Number three: In the Medicare regulation, a general limit of the reimbursement suspension is imposed, which is 180 days. In the Medicaid regulation, the regulations states that the suspension is “temporary” and must be lifted after either of the following (1) there is a determination of no credible allegations of fraud or (2) the legal proceedings regarding the alleged fraud are complete.

Yet I have seen States blatantly violate the “temporary” requirement. Consider the New Mexico situation. All the behavioral health care providers who were accused of Medicaid fraud have been cleared by the Attorney General. The regulation states that the suspension must be lifted upon either of the following – meaning, if one situation is met, the suspension must be lifted. Well, the Attorney General has cleared all the New Mexico behavioral health care providers of fraud. Criterion is met. But the suspension has not been lifted. The Health Services Department (HSD) has not lifted the suspension. This suspension has continued for 4 1/2 years. It began June 24, 2013. See blog, blog, and blog. Here is a timeline of events.

Why is there such a disparity in treatment with Medicare providers versus Medicaid providers?

The first thing that comes to mind is that Medicare is a fully federal program, while Medicaid is state-run. Although a portion of the funds for Medicaid comes from the federal government.

Secondly, Medicare patients pay part of costs through deductibles for hospital and other costs. Small monthly premiums are required for non-hospital coverage. Whereas, Medicaid patients pay nothing.

Thirdly, Medicare is for the elderly, and Medicaid is for the impoverished.

But should these differences between the two programs create such a disparity in due process and the length of reimbursement suspensions for health care providers? Why is a Medicare provider generally only susceptible to a 180 day suspension, while a Medicaid provider can be a victim of a 4 1/2 year suspension?

Parity, as it relates to mental health and substance abuse, prohibits insurers or health care service plans from discriminating between coverage offered for mental illness, serious mental illness, substance abuse, and other physical disorders and diseases. In short, parity requires insurers to provide the same level of benefits for mental illness, serious mental illness or substance abuse as for other physical disorders and diseases.

Does parity apply to Medicare and Medicaid providers?

Most of Medicare and Medicaid law is interpreted by administrative law judges. Most of the time, a health care provider, who is not receiving reimbursements cannot fund an appeal to Superior Court, the Court of Appeals, and, finally the Supreme Court. Going to the Supreme Court costs so much that most normal people will never present before the Supreme Court…it takes hundreds and hundreds upon thousands of dollars.

In January 1962, a man held in a Florida prison cell wrote a note to the United States Supreme Court. He’d been charged with breaking into a pool hall, stealing some Cokes, beer, and change, and was handed a five-year sentence after he represented himself because he couldn’t pay for a lawyer. Clarence Earl Gideon’s penciled message eventually led to the Supreme Court’s historic 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright ruling, reaffirming the right to a criminal defense and requiring states to provide a defense attorney to those who can’t afford one. But it does not apply to civil cases.

Furthermore, pro bono attorneys and legal aid attorneys, although much-needed for recipients, will not represent a provider.

So, until a health care provider, who is a gaga-zillionaire, pushes a lawsuit to the Supreme Court, our Medicare and Medicaid law will continue to be interpreted by administrative law judges and, perhaps, occasionally, by Superior Court. Do not take this message and interpret that I think that administrative law judges and Superior Court judges are incapable of interpreting the laws and fairly applying them to certain cases. That is the opposite of what I think. The point is that if the case law never gets to the Supreme Court, we will never have consistency in Medicare and Medicaid law. A District Court in New Mexico could define “temporary” in suspensions of Medicare and/or Medicaid reimbursements as 1 year. Another District Court in New York could define “temporary” as 1 month. Consistency in interpreting laws only happens once the Supreme Court weighs in.

Until then, stay thirsty, my friend.

Look into My Crystal Ball: Who Is Going to Be Audited by the Government in 2017?

Happy New Year, readers!!! A whole new year means a whole new investigation plan for the government…

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) publishes what is called a “Work Plan” every year, usually around November of each year. 2017 was no different. These Work Plans offer rare insight into the upcoming plans of Medicare investigations, which is important to all health care providers who accept Medicare and Medicaid.

For those of you who do not know, OIG is an agency of the federal government that is charged with protecting the integrity of HHS, basically, investigating Medicare and Medicaid fraud, waste, and abuse.

So let me look into my crystal ball and let you know which health care professionals may be audited by the federal government…

crystal-ball

The 2017 Work Plan contains a multitude of new and revised topics related to durable medical equipment (DME), hospitals, nursing homes, hospice, laboratories.

For providers who accept Medicare Parts A and B, the following are areas of interest for 2017:

  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy services: provider reimbursement
  • Inpatient psychiatric facilities: outlier payments
  • Skilled nursing facilities: reimbursements
  • Inpatient rehabilitation hospital patients not suited for intensive therapy
  • Skilled nursing facilities: adverse event planning
  • Skilled nursing facilities: unreported incidents of abuse and neglect
  • Hospice: Medicare compliance
  • DME at nursing facilities
  • Hospice home care: frequency of on-site nurse visits to assess quality of care and services
  • Clinical Diagnostic Laboratories: Medicare payments
  • Chronic pain management: Medicare payments
  • Ambulance services: Compliance with Medicare

For providers who accept Medicare Parts C and D, the following are areas of interest for 2017:

  • Medicare Part C payments for individuals after the date of death
  • Denied care in Medicare Advantage
  • Compounded topical drugs: questionable billing
  • Rebates related to drugs dispensed by 340B pharmacies

For providers who accept Medicaid, the following are areas of interest for 2017:

  • States’ MCO Medicaid drug claims
  • Personal Care Services: compliance with Medicaid
  • Medicaid managed care organizations (MCO): compliance with hold harmless requirement
  • Hospice: compliance with Medicaid
  • Medicaid overpayment reporting and collections: all providers
  • Medicaid-only provider types: states’ risk assignments
  • Accountable care

Caveat: The above-referenced areas of interest represent the published list. Do not think that if your service type is not included on the list that you are safe from government audits. If we have learned nothing else over the past years, we do know that the government can audit anyone anytime.

If you are audited, contact an attorney as soon as you receive notice of the audit. Because regardless the outcome of an audit – you have appeal rights!!! And remember, government auditors are more wrong than right (in my experience).