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Inconsequential Medicare Audits Could Morph into a Whopper of a Whale

Emergency room physicians or health care providers are a discrete breed – whales in a sea of fish. Emergency room doctors have – for the most part – been overlooked by the RAC auditors or TPE, ZPIC, or MAC auditors. Maybe it’s because, even RAC auditors have children or spouses that need ER services from time to time. Maybe it’s because ER doctors use so many different billers. Normally, an ER doctor doesn’t know which of his or her patients are Medicaid or Medicare. When someone is suffering from a a broken leg or heart attack, the ER doctor is not going to stop care to inquire whether the patient is insured and by whom. But should they? Should ER doctors have to ask patients their insurer? If the answer includes any sort of explanation that care differs depending on whether someone is covered by Medicare or Medicaid or has private insurance, then, sadly, the answer may be yes.

ER doctors travel to separate emergency rooms, which are owned by various and distinct entities, and rely on individual billing companies. They do not normally work at only one hospital. Thus, they do not always have the same billers. We all know that not all billers are created equal. Some are endowed with a higher understanding of billing indiocincricies than others.

For example, for CPT codes 99281-99285 – Hospital emergency department services are not payable for the same calendar date as critical care services when provided by the same physician or physician group with the same specialty to the same patient. 

We all know that all hospitals do not hire and implement the same billing computer software programs. The old adage – “you get what you pay for” – may be more true than we think. Recent articles purport that “the move to electronic health records may be contributing to billions of dollars in higher costs for Medicare, private insurers and patients by making it easier for hospitals and physicians to bill more for their services, whether or not they provide additional care.” – Think a comment like that would red-flag ER doctors services by RAC, MAC and ZPIC auditors? The white whale may as well shoot a water spray 30 feet into the air.

Will auditing entities begin to watch ER billing more closely? And what are the consequences? When non-emergency health care providers are terminated by Medicare, Medicaid, or a MAC or MCO’s network, there is no emergency – by definition. Juxtapose, the need for ER health care providers. ER rooms cannot function with a shortage of  physicians and health care providers. Even more disturbing is if the termination is unwarranted and seemingly inconsequential – only affecting under 4 surgeries per month – but acts as the catalyst for termination of Medicare, Medicaid, and private payors across the board.

I have a client named Dr. Ishmael. His big fish became the MAC Palmetto – very suddenly. Like many ER docs, he rotates ERs. He provides services for Medicare, Medicaid, private pay, uninsured – it doesn’t matter to him, he is an ER doctor. He gets a letter from one MAC. In this case, it was Palmetto. Interestingly enough, Palmetto is his smallest insurance payor. Maybe 2 surgeries a month are covered by Palmetto. 90% of his services are provided to Medicaid patients. Not by his choice, but by demographics and circumstance. The letter from Palmetto states that he is being excluded from Palmetto’s Medicare network, effective in 10 days. He will also be placed on the CMS preclusion list in 4 months.

We appeal through Palmetto, as required. But, in the meantime, four other MACs, State Medicaid and BCBS terminate Dr. Ishmael’s billing privileges for Medicare and Medicaid based on Palmetto’s decision. Remember, we are appealing Palmetto’s decision as we believe it is erroneous. But because of Palmetto’s possibly incorrect decision to terminate Dr. Ishmael’s Medicare billing privileges, all of a sudden, 100% of Dr. Ishmael’s services are unbillable and unreimburseable…without Dr. Ishmael or the hospital ever getting the opportunity to review and defend against the otherwise innocuous termination decision.

Here, the hospital executives, along with legal counsel, schedule meetings with Dr. Ishmael. “They need him,” they say. “He is important,” they say. But he is not on the next month’s rotation. Or the next.

They say: “Come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me?”

Billing audits on ER docs for Medicare/caid compliance are distinctive processes, separate from other providers’ audits. Most providers know the insurance of the patient to whom they are rendering services. Most providers use one biller and practice at one site. ER docs have no control over the choice of their billers. Not to mention, the questions arises, who gets to appeal on behalf the ER provider? Doesn’t the hospital reap the benefit of the reimbursements?

But one seemingly paltry, almost, minnow-like, audit by a cameo auditor can disrupt an entire career for an ER doc. It is imperative to act fast to appeal in the case of an ER doc.  But balance speed of the appeal with the importance of preparing all legal arguments. Most MACs or other auditing entities inform other payors quickly of your exclusion or termination but require you to put forth all arguments in your appeal or you could waive those defenses. I argue against that, but the allegations can exist nonetheless.

The moral of the story is ER docs need to appeal and appeal fast when billing privileges are restricted, even if the particular payor only constitutes 4 surgeries a month. As Herman Melville said: “I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.” 

Sometimes, however, it is not a laughing matter. It is an appealable matter.

Medicare/caid Contracts Terminatations: “With” or “Without Cause. You May Need an Injunction

How is it already the second month of 2016? My how the time flies. As you can see below, I have started 2016 with my “best foot forward.”

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Here’s the story (and why it’s been so long since I’ve blogged):

Santa Claus, whom I love, brought our 10-year-old daughter a zip line for Christmas. (She’s wanted one forever). My wonderful, exceedingly brilliant husband Scott miscalculated the amount of brakes needed for an adult of my weight for a 300-foot zip line. The brakes stopped, albeit suddenly, but adequately, for our 10-year-old.

However, for me…well…I went a bit faster than my 45-pound daughter. The two spring brakes were not adequate to stop my zip line experience and my out-thrown feet broke my crash…into the tree. (It was a miscalculation of basic physics).

On the bright side, apparently, my right leg is longer than my left, so only my right foot was injured.  Or my right foot is overly dominate than my left, which could also be the case.

Also, on the bright side, the zip line ride was AWESOME until the end.

On the down side, I tore the tendon on the bottom of my foot which, according to the ER doctor, is very difficult to tear. Embarrassingly, I had to undergo a psych evaluation because my ER doctor said that the only time he had seen someone tear that bottom tendon on their foot was by jumping off a building. So I have that going for me. I informed him that one could tear such tendon by going on zip line with inadequate brakes. (I passed the psych evaluation, BTW).

Then, while on crutches, I had a 5-day, federal trial in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the week of Martin Luther King, Jr., Tuesday through the next Monday. Thankfully, the judge did not make me stand to conduct direct and cross examinations.

But, up there, in the beautiful State of Indiana, I thought of my next blog (and lamented that I had not blogged in so long…still on crutches; I had not graduated to the gorgeous boot you saw in the picture above).

As I was up in Indiana, I thought, what if someone at the State Medicaid agency doesn’t like you, personally, and terminates your Medicaid contract “without cause?” Or refuses to contract with you? Or refuses to renew your contract?

Maybe you wouldn’t find it important whether your termination is “for cause” or “without cause,” but, in Indiana, and a lot of other states, if your termination is for “without cause,” you have no substantive appeal right, only a procedural appeal right. As in, if you are terminated “without cause,” the government never has to explain the reason for termination to you or a judge. If the government gave you the legally, proper amount of notice, the government can simply say, “I just do not want to do business with you.”

Many jurisdictions have opined that a Medicaid provider has a property right to their Medicaid contract. A health care provider does not have a property right to a Medicaid contract, but, once the state has approved that provider as a Medicaid provider, that provider has a reasonable expectation to continue to provide services to the Medicaid population. While we all know that providing services to the Medicaid population is not going to make you Richy Rich, in some jurisdictions, accepting Medicaid is necessary to stay solvent (despite the awful reimbursement rates).

Here in NC, our Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) have held a property right in maintaining a Medicaid contract once issued and relied upon, which, BTW, is the correct determination, in my opinion. Other jurisdictions concur with our NC ALJs, including the 7th Circuit.

Many times, when a provider is terminated (or not re-credentialed) “without cause,” there is an underlying and hidden cause, which makes a difference on the appeal of such purported “without cause” termination.

Because as I stated above, a “without cause” termination may not allow a substantive appeal, only procedural. In normal-day-speak, for a “without cause,” you cannot argue that the termination or refusal to credential isn’t “fair” or is based on an incorrect assumption that there is a quality of care concern that really does not exist. You can only argue that the agency did not provide the proper procedure, i.e., you didn’t get 60 days notice. Juxtapose, a “for cause” termination, you can argue that the basis for which the termination relies is incorrect, i.e., you are accusing me that my staff member is not credentialed, but you are wrong; she/he is actually credentialed.

So, what do you do if you are terminated “without cause?” What do you do if you are terminated “for cause?”

For both scenarios, you need an injunction.

But how do you prove your case for an injunction?

Proving you need an injunction entails you proving to a judge that: (a) likelihood of success on the merits; (b) irreparable harm; (c) balance of equities; and (d) impact on the community.

The hardest prongs to meet are the first two. Usually, in my experience, irreparable harm is the hardest prong to meet. Most clients, if they are willing to hire my team and me, can prove likelihood of success.  Think about it, if a client knows he/she has horrible documentation, he/she will not spring for an expensive attorney to defend themselves against a termination.

Irreparable harm, however, is difficult to demonstrate and the circumstances surrounding proving irreparable harm creates quite a quandary.

Irreparable, according to case law, cannot only be monetary damages. If you are just out of money and your company is in financial distress, it will not equate to irreparable harm.

Irreparable harm differs slightly from state to state.

Although, most jurisdictions agree that irreparable harm does equate to an imminent threat of your business closing, terminating staff, loss of goodwill, harm to reputation, patients not receiving medically necessary services, unfathamable emotional distress, the weights of loans and credit, understanding that you’ve depleting all savings and checkings, and understanding that you’ve exhausted all possible assets or loans.

The Catch-22 of it all is by the time you meet the prongs of irreparable harm, generally, you do not have the cash to hire an attorney. I suggest to all Medicare and Medicaid health care providers that you need to maintain an emergency fund account for unforeseen situations, such as audits, suspensions, terminations, etc. Put aside money every week, as much as you can. Hope that you never need to use it.

But you will be covered, just in case.