Blog Archives

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).

Medicaid/care Fraud: You Are Guilty Until Proven Innocent!

Don’t we have due process in America? Isn’t due process something that our founding fathers thought important, essential even? Due process is in our Constitution.

The Fourteenth (governing state governments) and the Fifth Amendment (governing federal government) state that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”

Yet, apparently, if you accept Medicaid or Medicare, due process is thrown out the window. Bye, Felicia!

How is it possible that criminals (burglars, murderers, rapists) are afforded due process but a health care provider who accepts Medicaid/care does not?

Surely, that is not true! Let’s look at some examples.

In Tulsa, a 61-year-old man was arrested for killing his Lebanese neighbor. He pled not guilty. In news articles, the word “allegedly” is rampant. He allegedly killed his neighbor. Authorities believe that he may have killed his neighbor.

And prior to getting his liberty usurped and getting thrown in jail, a trial ensues. Because before we take a person’s liberty away, we want a fair trial. Doesn’t the same go for life and property?

Example A: I recently received a phone call from a health care provider in New Jersey. She ran a pediatric medical daycare. In 2012, it closed its doors when the State of New Jersey accused it of an overpayment of over $12 million and suspended its funds. With its funds suspended, it could no longer pay staff or render services to its clients.

Now, in 2016, MORE THAN FOUR YEARS LATER, she calls to ask advice on a closing statement for an administrative hearing. This tells me (from my amazing Murdoch Mysteries (my daughter’s favorite show) sense of intuition): (1) she was not provided a trial for FOUR YEARS; (2) the state has withheld her money, kept it, and gained interest on it for over FOUR YEARS; (3) in the beginning, she did have an attorney to file an injunction and a declaratory judgment; and (4) in the end, she could not afford such representation (she was filing her closing argument pro se).

Examples B-P: 15 New Mexico behavioral health care agencies. On June 23, 2013, the State of New Mexico accuses 15 behavioral health care agencies of Medicaid fraud, which comprised 87.5% of the behavioral health care in New Mexico. The state immediately suspends all reimbursements and puts most of the companies out of business. Now, MORE THAN THREE YEARS LATER, 11 of the agencies still have not undergone a “Fair Hearing.” Could you imagine the outrage if an alleged criminal were held in jail for THREE YEARS before a trial?

Example Q: Child psychiatrist in rural area is accused of Medicaid fraud. In reality, he is not guilty. The person he hired as his biller is guilty. But the state immediately suspends all reimbursements. This Example has a happy ending. Child psychiatrist hired us and we obtained an injunction, which lifted the suspension. He did not go out of business.

Example R: A man runs a company that provides non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT). One day, the government comes and seizes all his property and freezes all his bank accounts with no notice. They even seize his fiance’s wedding ring. More than TWO YEARS LATER – He has not stood trial. He has not been able to defend himself. He still has no assets. He cannot pay for a legal defense, much less groceries.

Apparently the right to speedy trial and due process only applies to alleged burglars, rapists, and murderers, not physicians and health care providers who render medically necessary services to our most fragile and vulnerable population. Due process??? Bye, Felicia!

What can you, as a health care provider, do if you are accused of fraud and your reimbursements are immediately suspended?

  1. Prepare. If you accept Medicare/caid, open an account and contribute to it generously. This is your CYA account. It is for your legal defense. And do not be stupid. If you accept Medicaid/care, it is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when.
  2. Have your attorney on speed dial. And I am not talking about your brother’s best friend from college who practices general trial law and defends DUIs. I am talking about a Medicaid/care litigation expert.
  3. File an injunction. Suspension of your reimbursements is a death sentence. The two prongs for an injunction are (a) likelihood of success on the merits; and (b) irreparable harm. Losing your company is irreparable harm. Likelihood of success on the merits is on you. If your documents are good – you are good.

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.

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!!

Have an Inkling of a Possible Overpayment, You Must Repay Within 60 Days, Says U.S. District Court!

You are a health care provider.  You own an agency.  An employee has a “hunch” that…

maybe…

perhaps….

your agency was overpaid for Medicare/caid reimbursements over the past two years to the tune of $1 million!

This employee has been your billing manager for years and you trust her…but…she’s not an attorney and doesn’t have knowledge of pertinent legal defenses. You are concerned about the possibility of overpayments, BUT….$1 million? What if she is wrong?  That’s a lot of money!

According to a recent U.S. District Court in New York, you have 60 days to notify and refund the government of this alleged $1 million overpayment, despite not having a concrete number or understanding whether, in fact, you actually owe the money.

Seem a bit harsh? It is.

With the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on March 23, 2010, many new regulations were implemented with burdensome requirements to which health care providers are required to adhere.  At first, the true magnitude of the ACA was unknown, as very few people actually read the voluminous Act and, even fewer, sat to contemplate the unintentional consequences the Act would present to providers. For example, I daresay that few, if any, legislators foresaw the Draconian effect from changing the word “may” in 42 CFR 455.23 to “must.” See blog and blog and blog.

Another boiling frog in the muck of the ACA is the 60-Day Refund Rule (informally the 60-day rule).

What is the 60-Day Refund Rule?

In 2012, CMS proposed the “60-day Refund Rule,” requiring Medicare providers and suppliers to repay Medicare overpayments within 60 days of the provider or supplier identifying the overpayment.  Meaning, if you perform a self audit and determine that you think that you were overpaid, then you must repay the amount within 60 days or face penalties.

If I had a nickel for each time a clients calls me and says, “Well, I THINK I may have been overpaid, but I’m not really sure,” and, subsequently, I explained how they did not owe the money, I’d be Kardashian rich.

It is easy to get confused. Some overpayment issues are esoteric, involving complex eligibility issues, questionable duplicity issues, and issues involving “grey areas” of “non”-covered services.  Sometimes a provider may think he/she owes an overpayment until he/she speaks to me and realizes that, by another interpretation of the same Clinical Coverage Policy that, in fact, no overpayment is owed. To know you owe an overpayment, generally, means that you hired someone like me to perform the self audit.  From my experience, billing folks are all too quick to believe an overpayment is owed without thinking of the legal defenses that could prevent repayment, and this “quick to find an overpayment without thinking of legal defenses” is represented in Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al., the lawsuit that I will be discussing in this blog.  And to the billings folks’ credit, you cannot blame them.  They don’t want to be accused of fraud. They would rather “do the right thing” and repay an overpayment, rather than try to argue that it is not due.  This “quick to find an overpayment without thinking of legal defenses” is merely the billing folks trying to conduct all work “above-board,” but can hurt the provider agency financially.

Nonetheless, the 60-day Refund Rule is apathetic as to whether you know what you owe or whether you hire someone like me.  The 60-Day Refund Rule demands repayment to the federal government upon 60-days after your “identification” of said alleged overpayment.

Section 1128(d)(2) of the Social Security Act states that:

“An overpayment must be reported and returned under paragraph (1) by the later of— (A) the date which is 60 days after the date on which the overpayment was identified; or (B) the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable.”

A recent case in the U.S. District Court of New York has forged new ground by denying a health care providers’ Motion to Dismiss the U.S. government’s and New York State’s complaints in intervention under the False Claims Act (FCA).  The providers argued that the 60-day rule cannot start without a precise understanding as to the actual amount of the overpayment. Surely, the 60-day rule does not begin to run on the day someone accuses the provider of a possible overpayment!

My colleague, Jennifer Forsyth, recently blogged about this very issue.  See Jennifer’s blog.

Basically, in Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al., three hospitals provided care to Medicaid patients. Due to a software glitch [cough, cough, NCTracks] and due to no fault of the hospitals, the hospitals received possible overpayments.  The single state entity for Medicaid in New York questioned the hospitals in 2010, and the hospitals took the proactive step of tasking an employee, Kane, who eventually became the whistleblower, to determine whether, if, in fact, the hospital did receive overpayments.

At this point, arguably, the hospitals were on notice of the possibility of overpayments, but had not “identified” such overpayments per the 60-day rule.  It was not until Kane made preliminary conclusions that the hospitals were held to have “identified” the alleged overpayments.  But very important is the fact that the Court held the hospitals liable for having “identified” the alleged overpayments prior to actually knowing the veracity of the preliminary findings.

Five months after being tasked with the job of determining any overpayment, Kane emails the hospital staff her findings that, in her opinion, the hospitals had received overpayments totaling over $1 million for over 900 claims.  In reality, Kane’s findings were largely inaccurate, as approximately one-half of her alleged findings of overpayments were actually paid accurately.  Despite the inaccurate findings, the Complaint that Kane filed as the whistleblower (she had been previously fired, which may or may not have contributed to her willingness to bring a whistleblower suit), alleged that the hospitals had a duty under the 60-day rule to report and refund the overpayments, even though there was no certainty as to whether the findings were accurate. And the Court agreed with Kane!

Even more astounding, Kane’s email to the hospitals’ management that contained the inaccurate findings contained phrases that would lead one to believe that the findings were only preliminary:

  • “further analysis would be needed to confirm his findings;” and
  • the spreadsheet provided “some insight to the magnitude of the problem” (emphasis added).

The above-mentioned comments would further the argument that the hospitals were not required to notify the Department and return the money 60 days from Kanes’ email because Kane’s own language within the email was so wishy-washy. Her language in her email certainly does not instill confidence that her findings are accurate and conclusive.

But…

The 60-day rule requires notification and return of the overpayments within 60 days of identification.  The definition of “identification” is the crux of Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al. [it depends on what the definition of “is” is].

The Complaint reads, that the hospitals “fraudulently delay[ed] its repayments for up to two years after the Health System knew” the extent of the overpayments” (emphasis added). According to the Complaint, the date that the hospitals “knew” of the overpayment was the date Kane emailed the inaccurate findings.

The hospitals filed a Motion to Dismiss based on the fact that Kane’s email and findings did not conclusively identify overpayments, instead, only provided a preliminary finding to which the hospitals would have needed to verify.

The issue in Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al. is the definition of “identify” under the 60-day rule. Does “identify” mean “possibly, maybe?” Or “I know I owe it?” Or somewhere in between?

The hospitals filed a Motion to Dismiss, claiming that the 60-day rule did not begin to run on the date that Kane sent his “preliminary findings.”  The U.S. District Court in New York denied the hospitals’ Motion to Dismiss and stated in the Order, “there is an established duty to pay money to the government, even if the precise amount due is yet to be determined.” (emphasis added).

Yet another heavy burden tossed upon health care providers in the ever-deepening, regulatory muck involved in the ACA.  As health care providers carry heavier burdens, they begin to sink into the muck.

Important take aways:

  • Caveat: Take precautions to avoid creating disgruntled, former employees.
  • Have an experienced attorney on speed dial.
  • Self audit, but self audit with someone highly experienced and knowledgeable.
  • Understand the ACA. If you do not, read it. Or hire someone to teach you.

CMS Proposes Mandatory Bundled Medicare Reimbursements: Financial Risk on Hospitals!

A new CMS proposal could transform durable medical equipment (DME) Medicare reimbursements to hospitals. The proposal, if adopted, would implement a mandatory bundled Medicare reimbursement for hip and knee replacements or lower extremity joint replacements (LEJRs).

CMS has proposed this change to be piloted in 75 metropolitan areas prior to being implemented nationwide.

This mandatory bundled Medicare reimbursement will be unprecedented, as, thus far, CMS has only implemented voluntary bundled reimbursement rates. However, CMS has stated that its goal is to have at least 50% of all Medicare fee-for-service reimbursement to be paid under an alternative payment model by 2018, and, in order to meet this objective, CMS will need to implement more  mandatory alternative payment models.

Another first is that CMS proposes that hospitals bear the brunt of the financial risk. To date, CMS has not targeted a type of health care provider as being a Guinea pig for new ideas, unlike the other proposed and implemented Bundled Payments for Care Improvement (BPCI) initiative where there are many types of providers that can participate and bear risks.

Will this affect NC hospitals?

Yes.

Of the 75 metropolitan areas chosen as “test sites” for the new bundled payment plan, 3 are located in NC.

1. Asheville
2. Charlotte
3. Durham-Chapel Hill

Apparently, CMS believes that Durham and Chapel Hill are one city, but you got to give it to them…by hyphenating Durham and Chapel Hill, CMS gets both Duke and UNC health systems to participate in the mandatory trial. Other large metro areas included in the trial are Los Angeles, New York City, and Miami.

LEJRs are the most frequent surgeries in the Medicare population. The average Medicare expenditures for LEJRs, including surgery, hospitalization, and recovery, can range from $16,500 to $33,000.

The mandatory bundled reimbursement will become effective January 2, 2016; however, the hospitals will not carry the financial risk until January 1, 2017.  So, hospitals, you got a year and a half to figure it out!!

What exactly will this bundled reimbursement rate include?

Answer: Everything from an inpatient admission billed under MS DRG 469 or 470 until 90 days following discharge.

And we are talking about everything.

Thus, you will be reimbursed per “Episode of Care,” which includes:

“All related items and services paid under Medicare Part A and Part B for all Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries, including physicians’ services, inpatient hospital service, readmissions (subject to limited exceptions), skilled nursing facility services, durable medical equipment, and Part B drugs.”

What should you do if you are a hospital so graciously selected to participate?

1.  Assess your protocol as to discharging patients.  Where do your patients go after being discharged?

2. Determine whether you want to partner with any critical care facilities, skilled nursing agencies, or home health agencies.

3.  Assess your current reimbursement rates and analyze what current delivery patterns must be revamped in order to maintain profitability.

4. Determine future care management and clinical reprogram needs.

5. Analyze ways to provide more efficient delivery components.

6. Communicate with your DME vendors.  Discuss ways to decrease spending and increase efficiency.

7.  Plan all ways in which you will follow the patient after discharge through the 90 day period.

8. Consult your attorney.

If you would like to comment on the proposed rule, you have until September 8, 2015 at 5:00pm.

Attorney/Client Privilege: Its Importance to Health Care Providers, and TIPS to Avoid Potential Pitfalls as to Former Employees

This blog is intended to provide TIPS to health care providers who have any amount of attrition with staff members and why these TIPS as to attorney/client privilege are so important.

First, I’d like to say, for the past few weeks, I have been moving homes and firms, concurrently.  Add in a trial or two into the mix and I haven’t been able to blog as often.  But I’m fairly moved in now (to both) and have one of the trials mostly wrapped up.

The idea for this blog, in particular, actually came to me while Robert Shaw, Senior Counsel, and I were Santa Fe, New Mexico for a trial.

While preparing the witnesses for trial, I re-realized an important aspect of attorney/client privilege that is vital to health care providers if there is any attrition in their staff.

I say “re-realized” because I already knew the importance of attorney/client privilege, but I realized the importance for health care providers to understand its importance, as well…hence, this blog.

If, for whatever reason, your company is forced to lay off staff or, even, if you have staff voluntarily leave your office, you need to read the entirety of this blog and pay special attention to the TIPS at the bottom.

Why?

What if you need to rely on that former employee for testimony in a hearing?

For example, you are CEO of a small or large health care provider company and your Medical Director or Compliance Director leaves your employment and you need the former employee to testify in the future.  Your former employee and your attorney will not be protected by attorney/client privilege.

You may be thinking…so what?

But attorney/client privilege is key in trial.

Let me give you an illustrative example:

You own a dental practice and accept Medicaid.  Lucy is your office manager.  She oversees the Medicaid billing, ensures regulatory compliance, and deals with denials that come from NCTracks.  She also enters the data into NCTracks.  You, as the dentist, provide dental services, but you have little to do with what Lucy does.  You trust her and she does her job well.

DHHS via Program Integrity conducts an audit and determines that you owe $750,000 in alleged overpayments. Maybe the auditor didn’t know that the notation “cavies” means cavities and dinged you for billing for filling a cavity because the auditor could not discern from the service note that a cavity was actually filled.  Or, maybe you coded the service for scraping the wall of a gingival pocket, and the auditor did not understand what “curettage” is in the service note.

Regardless, you receive a Notice of Overpayment on May 4, 2015.  On May 7, 2015, Lucy tells you that she is having her first baby and wants to be stay at home mother.  You congratulate her and begin your search for another office manager.  You end up hiring Bill.

By the time that you need to get ready to defend your $750,000 overpayment with your attorney, Lucy has given birth to Annie and hasn’t worked for you for over a year.

But your attorney, in order to defend the overpayment, will need Lucy to testify at court.  Before a witness testifies in court, your attorney must meet with him or her to prepare the witness for direct examination and cross examination by opposing counsel. (If your attorney does not, instruct him or her to do so).

When I am in a situation such as the one I have outlined above.  I am extremely careful.  Because there is no attorney/client privilege between “Lucy” and me because she is a former employee, I am very precise in my prep.  For example, I would never discuss legal strategy with Lucy.  I would never show privileged information; I would never try to “lead” Lucy’s opinion. Leading a witness’s opinion could come across like, “Lucy, If I ask you on the stand whether your opinion is that curettage means scraping a gingival pocket, you would agree, correct?” Instead, I would ask, “Lucy, what do you understand curettage to mean and how would you normally code the procedure?”

Why?

Any attorney worth his or her salt knows that attorney/client privilege does not attach to a former employee.

Why does that matter?

Any opposing attorney worth his or her salt will cross exam Lucy as to every detail possible involving the meeting between Lucy and me. And I mean every detail.

For example:

Q: “You met with Ms. Emanuel in preparation for this meeting, correct?”

A: “Yes.”

Q: “When exactly was that?”

A: “Two weeks ago.”

Q: “What documents did Ms. Emanuel show you?”

A: “She showed me my direct examination.”

Q: “What do you mean? A hard copy of the questions that you would be asked?”

A: “Yes.”

Q: “Ms. Emanuel, I expect that you have no problem providing me with a copy of what you showed Lucy?”

Me: “Not at all.”

Boom! By Lucy testifying that I showed her my hard copy of my direct examination questions, opposing counsel is entitled to review my draft questions along with any notes I may have notated on that hard copy of Lucy’s direct testimony.  What happens if I have privileged notes contained within my questions? My attorney notes contained within the questions are now discoverable by the other side.

[BTW: I would never show Lucy my actual list of questions, unless I fully anticipated giving my list to opposing counsel.]

But you can see the potential pitfalls. Anything discussed or shown to Lucy by your counsel will be discoverable by opposing counsel.  What if your counsel, without thinking, tells Lucy that he or she thinks this is a weak case? Or tells Lucy that he or she hopes the other side doesn’t pick up on…..X?

Even if the attorney prepping Lucy states something disparaging about opposing counsel, or God forbid, the judge, those remarks are discoverable and Lucy must testify to those comments on the stand.

On one occasion, I actually had opposing counsel question my witness about our conversation during a 10 minute break, during which I was smart enough not to speak about the case.  My witness answered, “We discussed that I think you are b$#@!”  But counsel’s question was valid and allowable.  Because just as easily, during the break, I could have said, if I were not worth my salt, “Lucy, I did not like how you answered that question.  You need to say…..X.”

Judges do not look favorable on coached testimony.

TIPS:

As a health care provider, what measures can you take that if you are forced to call former employees as witnesses, you are poised for the best result?

1. Try to maintain a cordial relationship with former employees.

I know this can be difficult as every provider needs to terminate staff or has disgruntled employees.  But, even if you are firing staff, try to do so in a professional, amicable manner. Explain that it is a business decision, not personal (regardless the reason).  Give the soon-to-be-fired employee notice, such as 30 days, if possible.  If you would recommend the employee to a colleague, let the employee know and to whom.  These small steps can help your future in case of trial.

2. Re-hire the employee.

In my opinion, this avenue has an aura of attempted deceit, and I do not recommend this route unless you are re-hiring the employee in good faith.  For example, if you truly did not want to fire the staff member and you genuinely could use that person back in your office, or, if, in the case of Lucy, she decides that she wants to come back to work of her own volition and you still have the need.

An employee is protected by attorney/client privilege, generally.

3. Be knowledgeable or hire a knowledgeable attorney.

If you are concerned that your attorney may disclose something otherwise confidential in witness prep of a former employee, have a lengthy discussion with your attorney prior to the preparation session.  Sit in with your attorney during the prep of the former attorney.

Along the same lines as above, come to an understanding with your attorney which documents may be considered “hot docs” and essential to the case, and, which should not be discussed with a former employee at all.

4. Test the waters.

Prior to your attorney contacting Lucy, call Lucy yourself. Have a chat.  Catch up. Ask Lucy whether she is willing to testify on your behalf.  If Lucy starts cussing you out, you may want to think of alternative witnesses.  If there are no alternative witnesses, you may want to discuss with your attorney whether an affidavit or deposition could substitute for Lucy’s testimony at trial.

5. Pay for Lucy’s time

There is nothing wrong or unethical about compensating Lucy for her trial preparation and appearance at trial.  Obviously, this compensation is discoverable by opposing counsel and questions can be asked about the compensation situation.  But I believe it is better to have a happy Lucy, who feels that her time is valuable, rather than an increasingly frustrated Lucy, as each second ticks along.

6. Think ahead

If you know you will be terminating an employee or if you receive notice that an employee  is leaving, think about the most important aspects of his or her job and memorialize the procedures.  For example, in the case of Lucy, ask Lucy to draft a memo to the file as to her procedures in billing Medicaid.  Have her write which service notes are billed for which codes and the reasons in support and how she manually enters data into NCTracks.  It may seem tedious, but these notes will be invaluable during any future litigation.

Along the same vein as above, if possible, have Lucy train Bill prior to her leaving.  That way, if Lucy is an undesirable witness, Bill can testify that he follows the same protocol as Lucy because Lucy trained him and he follows her protocol.

Hopefully, these TIPS will be helpful to you in the future in the case of employees leaving your practice.  Print off the blog and review it whenever an employee is leaving.

Study Shows the ACA Will Not Lead Physicians to REDUCE the Number of Medicaid Recipients, Supply and Demand, and Get Me My Pokemon Cards!

A recent “study” by Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins is entitled “Doctors Likely to accept New Medicaid Patients as Coverage Expands.”  (I may or may not have belly laughed when I read that title).  See my blog “Medicaid Expansion: Bad for the Poor.”

The beginning of the article reads, “The upcoming expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) won’t lead physicians to reduce the number of new Medicaid patients they accept, suggests a study in the November issue of Medical Care, published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, a part of Wolters Kluwer Health.”

The study was published October 16, 2013. (BTW: From what I can discern from the article, the title actually means that physicians will be forced to accept more Medicaid patients because there will not be additional physicians accepting Medicaid).  Odd title.

According to this study, the ACA will not cause doctors to reduce the number of Medicaid patients.  What does this study NOT say?  Nothing indicates that the ACA, which will allow millions more of Americans to become eligible for Medicaid, will cause MORE physicians to accept Medicaid.  Nor does the study state that the ACA will cause physicians to accept MORE Medicaid recipients.

Am I the only person who understands supply and demand?

Anyone remember the 1999 Toys.R.Us.com debacle? On-line shopping was just heating up.  I was in law school, and I, as well as millions of others, ordered Christmas presents on-line from Toys R Us.  I ordered a bunch of Pokemon trading cards for a nephew…remember those? Me either…I just bought them for my nephew.  Toys R Us promised delivery by December 10th. 

Toys R Us was, apparently, a very popular store that year, because Toys R Us is unable to package and ship orders in time to meet the December 10th deadline.  Nor could Toys R Us meet the deadline of Christmas.  Employees were working through the weekends.  About two days before Christmas, and just in time to create last-minute havoc during Christmas time, Toys R Us sends out thousands of emails saying, “We’re sorry.”

Obviously, Toys R Us was slammed by the media, and thousands of consumers were highly ticked off…including me.

I had to go to the mall (a place to which I detest going) on Christmas Eve (the worst day to shop of the entire year, except Black Friday, which I also avoid) to get my nephew a present.

Toys R Us learned its lesson.  It outsourced its shipping to Amazon.com, which, obviously, has the whole shipping thing down pat.

Hypothetical:

50 million people are currently eligible for (and receive) Medicaid services (these numbers are purely fictional, as I do not know the real numbers…I basically estimated 1 million per state, which, I am sure, is an underestimation).  Say there are 3.5 million physicians that accept Medicaid (70,000/state, which is probably a high estimation, when we are considering only physicians and not health care providers, generally). 

Our hypothetical yields 14.28 Medicaid recipients per physician.  Or a ratio of 14.28:1.

Media state that, if NC expanded Medicaid, that 587,000 more North Carolinians would be eligible for Medicaid if NC expanded Medicaid.

Using NC as a state average, 29.35 million more people would be eligible for Medicaid if all states expanded Medicaid (obviously not all states are expanding Medicaid, but, in my hypothetical, all states are expanding Medicaid).  This equals a total of 79.35 million people in America on Medicaid.

But….no additional physicians….

Because, remember, according to the Lippincott study, the upcoming expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) won’t lead physicians to reduce the number of new Medicaid patients they accept.  But the ACA does not lead more physicians to accept Medicaid or physicians to accept more Medicaid patients.

This brings the ratio to 22.67:1.  8 1/2 new patients per one physican…and, BTW, that one physician may not be accepting new Medicaid patients or may not have the capacity to accept more Medicaid patients.  It’s a Toys R Us disaster!!!  No one is getting their Pokemon trading cards!!!

Why not? Why won’t the ACA lead more physicians to accept Medicaid?  Why won’t the ACA lead physicians to accept more Medicaid recipients?

Didn’t the ACA INCREASE Medicaid reimbursement rates?  Wouldn’t higher reimbursement rates lead more physicians to accept Medicaid and physicians to accept more Medicaid recipients???  I mean, didn’t you hear Obama tout that Medicaid rates would be increased to Medicare rates?  I know I did.

One average, Medicaid pays approximately 66% of Medicare reimbursement rates.  Obviously, every state differs as to the Medicaid reimbursement rate.

The ACA, however, slashes the Medicare budget by 716 million from 2013 to 2022.  The cuts are across-the-board changes in Medicare reimbursement formulas for a variety of Medicare providers, including hospitals, nursing homes, home health agencies, and hospice agencies.   Furthermore, the ACA creates the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which is intended to determine additional Medicare reimbursement rate cuts. IPAB will be creating a new Medicare spending target; it will be comprised of 15 unelected bureaucrats.  The board will be able to make suggestions to Congress to reign in Medicare spending, and one of the biggest tools the IPAB has is cutting physician reimbursement rates.

It’s the old smoke and mirrors trick…We will raise Medicaid rates to Medicare rates…pssst, decrease the Medicare rate so we can meet our own promise!!

While I am extremely happy to hear that, at least according to the Lippincott study, the ACA will not lead physicians to reduce the number of Medicaid patients they accept, I am concerned that the ACA will not lead more physicians to accept Medicaid and physicians to accept more Medicaid recipients.

In fact, the study states that “[t]he data suggested that changes in Medicaid coverage did not significantly affect doctors’ acceptance of new Medicaid patients. “[P]hysicians who were already accepting (or not accepting) Medicaid patients before changes in Medicaid coverage rates continue to do so,” Drs Sabik and Gandhi write.  I bet the Drs. did not ask, “Would you continue to accept Medicaid, if you knew that your practice would endure more audits, post-payment reviews, possible prepayment reviews, and, in general, suspensions of reimbursements if anyone alleges Medicaid fraud, irrespective of the truth?”

Which tells me…hello…more Medicaid recipients, not more doctors!! Even if the physicians already accepting Medicaid COULD accept additional Medicaid recipient patients, each physician only has a certain amount of capacity.  To my knowledge, the ACA did not increase the number of hours in a day.  Supply and demand, people!!

Where are my Pokemon cards???!!!