Blog Archives

RAC Audit Update: Renewed Focus on the Two-Midnight Rule

In RAC news, on June 1, 2021, Cotiviti acquired HMS RAC region 4. Don’t be surprised if you see Cotiviti’s logo on RAC audits where you would have seen HMS. This change will have no impact in the day-to-day contract administration and audit timelines under CMS’ guidance. You will continue to follow the guidance in the alleged, improper payment notification letter for submission of medical documentation and discussion period request. In March 2021, CMS awarded Performant an 8.5 year contract to serve as the Region 1 RAC. 

There really cannot be any deviations regardless the name of the RAC Auditor because this area is so regulated. Providers always have appeal rights regardless Medicare/caid RAC audits. Or any other type of audit. Medicaid RAC provider appeals are found in 42 CFR 455.512. Whereas Medicare provider redeterminations and the 5 levels of appeal are found in 42 CFR Subpart I. The reason that RAC audits are spoken about so often is that the Code of Federal Regulations applies different rules for RAC audits versus MAC, TPE, UPIC, or other audits. The biggest difference is that RAC auditors are limited to a 3 year look back period according to 42 CFR 455.508. Other auditors do not have that same limitation and can look back for longer periods of time. Of course, whenever “credible allegations of fraud” is involved, the lookback period can be for 10 years.

The federal regulations also allow States to request exceptions from the Medicaid RAC program. CMS mandates every State to participate in the RAC program. But there is a federal reg §455.516 that allows exceptions. To my knowledge, no State has requested exceptions out of the RAC Audit program.

RAC auditors have announced a renewed focus on the two-midnight rule for hospitals. Again. This may seem like a rerun and it is. You recall around 2012, RACs began noticing high rates of error with respect to patient status in certain short-stay Medicare claims submitted for inpatient hospital services. CMS and the RACs indicated the inpatient care setting was medically unnecessary, and the claims should have been billed as outpatient instead. Remember, for stays under 2 midnights, inpatient status may be used in rare and unusual exceptions and may be payable under Medicare Part A on a case-by-case basis.

Provider Medicaid Contract Termination Reversed in Court!

First and foremost, important, health care news:

The Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) have full authority to renew post-payments reviews of dates of service (DOS) during the COVID pandemic. The COVID pause is entirely off. It is going to be a mess to wade through the thousands of exceptions. RAC audits of COVID DOS will be, at best, placing a finger on a piece of mercury. I hope that the auditors remember that everyone was scrambling to do their best during the past year and a half. In the upcoming weeks, I will keep you posted.

I am especially excited today. Last week, I won a permanent injunction for a health care facility that but for this injunction, the facility would be closed, its 300 staff unemployed, and its 600 Medicare and Medicaid consumers without access to their mental health and substance abuse providers, their primary care physicians, and the Suboxone clinic. The Judge’s clerk emailed us on Friday. The email was terse although the clerk signified that the email was important by clicking the little, red, exclamation point. It simply stated: After speaking with Judge X, she is dismissing the government’s MTD and granting Petitioner’s permanent injunction. Petitioner’s counsel can send a proposed decision within 10 days. Such a simple email affected so many lives!

We hear Ellen Fink-Samnick MSW, ACSW, LCSW, CCM, CRP, speak about social determinants of health (SDoH) on RACMonitor. Well, this company is minority-owned and the mass percentage of staff and consumers are minorities.

Why was this company on the brink of closing down? The managed care organization (MCO) terminated the company’s Medicaid contract. Medicaid comprised the majority of its revenue. The MCO’s reason was that the company violated 42 CFR §455.106, which states:

“Information that must be disclosed. Before the Medicaid agency enters into or renews a provider agreement, or at any time upon written request by the Medicaid agency, the provider must disclose to the Medicaid agency the identity of any person who:

(1) Has ownership or control interest in the provider, or is an agent or managing employee of the provider; and

(2) Has been convicted of a criminal offense related to that person‘s involvement in any program under Medicare, Medicaid, or the title XX services program since the inception of those programs.”

The former CEO – for years – he relied on professional tax accountants for the company’s taxes and his own personal family’s taxes. His wife, who is a physician, relied on her husband to do their personal taxes as one of his “honey-do” tasks. CEO relied on a sub-par accountant for a couple years and pled guilty to failing to pay personal taxes for two years. The plea ended up in the newspaper and the MCO terminated the facility.

We argued that the company, as an entity, was bigger than just the CEO. Quickly, we filed for a TRO to keep the company open. Concurrently, we transitioned the company from the CEO to Dr. wife. Dr became CEO in a seamless transition. A long-time executive stepped up as HR management.

Yet, according to testimony, the MCO terminated the company’s contract when the newspaper published the article about CEO’s guilty plea. The article was published in a local paper on April 9 and the termination notice was sent out April 19th. It was a quick decision.

We argued that 42 CFR §455.106 didn’t apply because CEO’s guilty plea was:

  1. Personal and not related to Medicare or Medicaid; and
  2. Not a conviction but a voluntary plea agreement.

The Judge agreed. We won the TRO for immediate relief. After a four-day hearing and 22 witnesses for Petitioner, we won the preliminary injunction. At this point, the MCO hired outside counsel with our tax dollars, which I did bring up in the final hearing on the merits.

New outside counsel was super excited to be involved. He immediately propounded a ton of discovery asking for things that he already had and for criminal documents that we had no access to because, by law, the government has possession of and CEO never had. Well, new lawyer was really excited, so he filed motions to compel us to produce these unobtainable documents. He filed for sanctions. We filed for sanctions back.

It grew more litigious as the final hearing on the merits approached.

Finally, we presented our case for a permanent injunction, emphasizing the importance of the company and the smooth transition to the new, Dr. CEO. We won! Because we won, the company is open and providing medically necessary services to our most needy population.

And…I get to draft the proposed decision.

“5 Minutes With” Knicole Emanuel from Practus LLP

I had the pleasure of being interviewed a second time on Legal Buzz. Thanks, Alex!!

The Grey Area Between Civil and Criminal Fraud

This segment is rated ‘F’ for fraud. It is not for the meek of heart. How many of you have read a newspaper or seen the news about Medicare and Medicaid provider fraudsters? There is a grey area between civil and criminal prosecutions of fraud. Some innocent providers get caught in the wide, fraud net because counsel doesn’t understand the idiosyncrasies of Medicare regulations.

Health care fraud GENERALLY exists as one of the following:

  1. Billing for services not rendered;
  2. Billing for a non-covered service as a covered service;
  3. Misrepresenting the DOS
  4. Misrepresenting location of service;
  5. Misrepresenting provider of service
  6. Waiving deductibles and/or co-payments
  7. Incorrect reporting of diagnoses or procedures;
  8. Overutilization of services;
  9. Kickbacks/referrals for money
  10. False or unnecessary issuance of prescription drugs

To err is human. Or so Alexander Pope says. I am here to attest that many of those accused providers are innocent and victims of unspecialized criminal attorneys.

One plastic surgeon knows this only too well. Quick anecdote:

Doctor was audited for removing lesions from the eye area and accused of billing for removing cancerous lesions even when the biopsies came back benign. Yet Medicare instructs physicians to NOT go back and change a CPT code after the fact. The physician is supposed to make an educated guess as to whether the lesion removed is benign or malignant. There are no crystal balls so he makes an educated determination.

Since plastic surgery is highly specialized and the physician is highly educated. Deference should be given to the physician regardless.

This plastic surgeon was accused of upcoding and billing for services not rendered. He performed biopsies around the eye of possible, cancerous lesions. Once removed, he would send the samples to lab. Meanwhile, before knowing whether the samples were cancerous, because he believed them to be cancerous, billed for removal of cancerous lesion to Medicare. Correct coding for skin procedures is not impossible. 

In a Local Coverage Determination (“LCD”), beginning 2008, Medicare instructed physicians to not go back and change codes depending on the pathology. “If a benign skin lesion excision was performed, report the applicable CPT code, even if final pathology demonstrates a malignant or carcinoma diagnosis for the lesion removed. The final pathology does not change the CPT code of the procedure performed.” See LCD: Removal of Benign Skin Lesions, 2008. This plastic surgeon relied on CMS’ Medicare regulations and policies, including the Medicare Provider Manual and LCD 2008, which are published by the government and on which Dr. relied.

Doctor hired two criminal attorneys who did not specialize in Medicare. Doctor gets charged, and attorneys convince him to plead guilty claiming that he cannot fight the government. And that the government will seize his property if he doesn’t settle.

He pled guilty to a crime that he did not do. He paid millions in restitution, was under house arrest for 15 months, the Medical Board revoked his medical license, and he lost his career.

The lesson here is always fight the government. But choose wisely with whom you fight.

Increased Medicare Reimbursements and Nursing Home Audits

HEAR YE, HEAR YE: Medicare reimbursement rate increase!!

On April 27th, CMS proposed a rule to increase Medicare fee-for-service payment rates and policies for inpatient hospitals and long-term care hospitals for fiscal year (FY) 2022. The proposed rule will update Medicare payment policies and rates for operating and capital‑related costs of acute care hospitals and for certain hospitals. The proposed increase in operating payment rates for general acute care hospitals paid under the IPPS that successfully participate in the Hospital Inpatient Quality Reporting (“IQR”) Program and are meaningful electronic health record (“EHR”) users is approximately 2.8%. This reflects the projected hospital market basket update of 2.5% reduced by a 0.2 percentage point productivity adjustment and increased by a 0.5 percentage point adjustment required by legislation.

Secondly, a sample audit of nursing homes conducted by CMS will lead to more scrutiny of nursing homes and long-term care facilities. The sample audit showed that two-thirds of Massachusetts’s nursing homes that receive federal Medicaid and Medicare funding are lagging in required annual inspections — and MA is demonstrative of the country.

237 nursing homes and long-term care facilities in the state, or 63.7% of the total, are behind on their federal health and safety inspections by at least 18 months. The national average is 51.3%.

We cannot blame COVID for everything. Those inspections lagged even before the pandemic, the data shows, but ground to a halt last year when the federal agency discontinued in-person visits to nursing homes as they were closed off to the public to help prevent spread of the COVID.

Lastly, on April 29, 2021, CMS issued a final rule to extend and make changes to the Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement (“CJR”) model. You’ve probably heard Dr. Ron Hirsch reporting on the joint replacement model on RACMonitor. The CJR model aims to pay providers based on total episodes of care for hip and knee replacements to curb costs and improve quality. Hospitals in the model that meet spending and quality thresholds can get an additional Medicare payment. But hospitals that don’t meet targets must repay Medicare for a portion of their spending.

This final rule revises the episode definition, payment methodology, and makes other modifications to the model to adapt the CJR model to changes in practice and fee-for-service payment occurring over the past several years. The changes in practice and payment are expected to limit or reverse early evaluation results demonstrating the CJR model’s ability to achieve savings while sustaining quality. This rule provides the time needed to test modifications to the model by extending the CJR model for an additional three performance years through December 31, 2024 for certain participant hospitals.

The CJR model has proven successful according to CMS. It began in 2016. Hospitals had a “statistically significant decrease” in average payments for all hip and knee replacements relative to a control group. $61.6 million (a savings of 2% of the baseline)

Medicare Appeal Backlog Dissolves and SMRC Audits Escalate

I have good news and bad news today. I have chosen to begin with the good news. The ALJ backlog will soon be no more. Yes, the 4-6 years waiting period between the second and third level will, by sometime in 2021, be back to 90 days, with is the statutory requirement. What precipitated this drastic improvement? Money. This past year, CMS’ budget increased exponentially, mostly due to the Medicare appeals backlog. OMHA was given enough dough to hire 70 additional ALJs and to open six additional locations. That brings the number of ALJs ruling over provider Medicare appeals to over 100. OMHA now has the capability to hear and render decisions for approximately 300,000 appeals per year. This number is drastically higher than the number of Medicare appeals being filed. The backlog will soon be nonexistent. This is fantastic for all providers because, while CMS will continue to recoup the alleged overpayment after the 2nd level, the providers will be able to have its case adjudicated by an ALJ much speedier.

Now the bad news. Remember when the RAC program was first implemented and the RACs were zealously auditing, which is the reason that the backlog exists in the first place. RACs were given free rein to audit whichever types of service providers they chose to target. Once the backlog was out of hand, CMS restricted the RACs. They only allowed a 3 year lookback period when other auditors can go back 6 years, like the SMRC audits. CMS also mandated that the RACs slow down their number of audits and put other restrictions on RACs. Now that OMHA has the capacity to adjudicate 300,000 Medicare appeals per year, expect that those reins that have been holding the RACs back will by 2021 or 2022 be fully loosened for a full gallop.

Switching gears: Two of the lesser known audits that are exclusive to the CMS are the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (“SMRC”) and the Targeted Probe and Educate (“TPE”) audits. Exclusivity to CMS just means that Medicare claims are reviewed, not Medicaid.

The SMRCs, in particular, create confusion. We have seen DME SMRC audits on ventilator claims, which are extremely document intensive. You can imagine the high amounts of money at issue because, for ventilators, many people require them for long periods of time. Sometimes there can 3000 claim lines for a ventilator claim. These SMRC audits are not extrapolated, but the amount in controversy is still high. SMRCs normally request the documents for 20-40 claims. It is a one-time review. It’s a post payment review audit. It doesn’t sound that bad until you receive the request for documents of 20-40 claims, all of which contain 3000 claim lines and you have 45 days to comply.

Lastly, in a rare act, CMS has inquired as whether provider prefer TPE audits or continue with post payment review audits for the remainder of the pandemic. If you have a strong opinion one way or the other, be sure to contact CMS.

Medicare Auditors Fail to Follow the Jimmo Settlement

Auditors are not lawyers. Some auditors do not even possess the clinical background of the services they are auditing. In this blog, I am concentrating on the lack of legal licenses. Because the standards to which auditors need to hold providers to are not only found in the Medicare Provider Manuals, regulations, NCDs and LCDs. Oh, no… To add even more spice to the spice cabinet, common law court cases also create and amend Medicare and Medicaid policies.

For example, the Jimmo v. Selebius settlement agreement dictates the standards for skilled nursing and skilled therapy in skilled nursing facilities, home health, and outpatient therapy settings and importantly holds that coverage does not turn on the presence or absence of a beneficiary’s potential for improvement.

The Jimmo settlement dictates that:

“Specifically, in accordance with the settlement agreement, the manual revisions clarify that coverage of skilled nursing and skilled therapy services in the skilled nursing facility (SNF), home health (HH), and outpatient therapy (OPT) settings “…does not turn on the presence or absence of a beneficiary’s potential for improvement, but rather on the beneficiary’s need for skilled care.” Skilled care may be necessary to improve a patient’s current condition, to maintain the patient’s current condition, or to prevent or slow further deterioration of the patient’s condition.”

This Jimmo standard – not requiring a potential for improvement – is essential for diseases that are lifelong and debilitating, like Multiple Sclerosis (“MS”). For beneficiaries suffering from MS, skilled therapy is essential to prevent regression.

I have reviewed numerous audits by UPICs, in particular, which have failed to follow the Jimmo settlement standard and denied 100% of my provider-client’s claims. 100%. All for failure to demonstrate potential for improvement for MS patients. It’s ludicrous until you stop and remember that auditors are not lawyers. This Jimmo standard is found in a settlement agreement from January 2013. While we will win on appeal, it costs providers money valuable money when auditors apply the wrong standards.

The amounts in controversy are generally high due to extrapolations, which is when the UPIC samples a low number of claims, determines an error rate and extrapolates that error rate across the universe. When the error rate is falsely 100%, the extrapolation tends to be high.

While an expectation of improvement could be a reasonable criterion to consider when evaluating, for example, a claim in which the goal of treatment is restoring a prior capability, Medicare policy has long recognized that there may also be specific instances where no improvement is expected but skilled care is, nevertheless, required in order to prevent or slow deterioration and maintain a beneficiary at the maximum practicable level of function. For example, in the regulations at 42 CFR 409.32(c), the level of care criteria for SNF coverage specify that the “. . . restoration potential of a patient is not the deciding factor in determining whether skilled services are needed. Even if full recovery or medical improvement is not possible, a patient may need skilled services to prevent further deterioration or preserve current capabilities.” The auditors should understand this and be trained on the proper standards. The Medicare statute and regulations have never supported the imposition of an “Improvement Standard” rule-of-thumb in determining whether skilled care is required to prevent or slow deterioration in a patient’s condition.

When you are audited by an auditor whether it be a RAC, MAC or UPIC, make sure the auditors are applying the correct standards. Remember, the auditors aren’t attorneys or doctors.

Medicaid Fraud Control Units Performed Poorly During the Pandemic: Expect MFCU Oversight to Increase

OIG just published its annual survey of how well or poor MFCUs across the country performed in 2020, during the ongoing COVID pandemic. Each State has its own Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (“MFCU”) to prosecute criminal and civil fraud in its respective State. I promise you, you do not want MFCU to be calling or subpoena-ing you unexpectedly. The MFCUs reported that the pandemic created significant challenges for staff, operations, and court proceedings, which led to lower case outcomes in FY 2020. But during this past “lower than expected” recovery year, the MFCUs still recovered over $1 billion from health care providers. It was a 48% drop.

2020 MFCU Statistics at a Glance

As MFCUs initially moved to a telework environment, some staff reported experiencing challenges conducting work because of limitations with computer equipment and network infrastructure. Field work was also limited. To help protect staff and members of the public from the pandemic, MFCUs reported curtailing some in-person field work, such as interviews of witnesses and suspects. These activities were further limited because of an initial lack of personal protective equipment that was needed in order to conduct similar activities in nursing homes and other facilities. Basically, COVID made for a bad recovery year by the MFCUs. Courts were closed for a while as well, slowing the prosecutorial process.

The report further demonstrated how lucrative the MFCU agencies are, despite the pandemic. For every $1 dollar spent on the administration of a MFCU, the MFCUs rake in $3.36. In 2020, the MFCUs excluded 928 individuals or entities. There were 786 civil settlements and judgments; the vast majority of judgments were pharmaceutical manufacturers. Convictions decreased drastically from 1,564 in 2019 to 1,017 convictions in 2020.  Interestingly, looking at the types of providers convicted or penalized, the vast majority were personal care services attendants and agencies. Five times higher than the next highest provider type – nurses: LPN, RNs, NPs, and PAs.

And the award goes to Maine’s MFCU – The Maine MFCU received the Inspector General’s Award for Excellence in Fighting Fraud, Waste, and Abuse for its high number of case outcomes across a mix of case types.

OIG also established the desired performance indicators for 2021. OIG expects the MFCUs to maintain an indictment rate of 19% and a conviction rate of 89.1%.

The OIG Report Foreshadows 2021 MFCU Actions:

  1. Hospice: Expect audits. $0 was recovered in 2020.
  2. Fraud convictions increased for cardiologists and emergency medicine. Expect these areas to be more highly scrutinized, especially given all the COVID exceptions and rule amendments last year.
  3. Expect a MFCU rally. The pandemic may not be over, but with increased vaccines and after a down year, MFCUs will be bulls in the upcoming year as opposed to last year’s forced, lamb-like actions due to the pandemic.

While Medicare is strictly a federal program, Medicaid is funded with federal and State tax dollars. Therefore, each State’s regulations germane to Medicaid can vary. Medicaid fraud can be prosecuted as a federal or a State crime.

More Covered Health Care Services and More Policing under the Biden Administration!

Happy 55th Medicare! Pres. Biden’s health care policies differ starkly from former Pres. Trump’s. I will discuss some of the key differences. The newest $1.9 trillion COVID bill passed February 27th. President Biden is sending a clear message for health care providers: His agenda includes expanding government-run, health insurance and increase oversight on it. In 2021, Medicare is celebrating its 55th year of providing health insurance. The program was first signed into law in 1965 and began offering coverage in 1966. That first year, 19 million Americans enrolled in Medicare for their health care coverage. As of 2019, more than 61 million Americans were enrolled in the program.

Along with multiple Executive Orders, Pres. Biden is clearly broadening the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”), Medicaid and Medicare programs. Indicating an emphasis on oversight, President Biden chose former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead HHS. Becerra was a prosecutor and plans to bring his prosecutorial efforts to the nation’s health care. President Biden used executive action to reopen enrollment in ACA marketplaces, a step in his broader agenda to bolster the Act with a new optional government health plan.

For example, one of my personal, favorite issues that Pres. Biden will address is parity for Medicare coverage for medically necessary, oral health care. In fact, Medicare coverage extends to the treatment of all microbial infections except for those originating from the teeth or periodontium. There is simply no medical justification for this exclusion, especially in light of the broad agreement among health care providers that such care is integral to the medical management of numerous diseases and medical conditions.

The Biden administration has taken steps to roll back a controversial Trump-era rule that requires Medicaid beneficiaries to work in order to receive coverage. Two weeks ago, CMS sent letters to several states that received approval for a Section 1115 waiver – for Medicaid. CMS said it was beginning a process to determine whether to withdraw the approval. States that received a letter include Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin. The work requirement waivers that HHS approved at the end of the previous administration’s term may not survive the new presidency.

Post Payment Reviews—Recovery Audit Contractor (“RAC”) audits will increase during the Biden administration. The RAC program was created by the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003. As we all know, the RACs are responsible for identifying Medicare overpayments and underpayments and for highlighting common billing errors, trends, and other Medicare payment issues. In addition to collecting overpayments, the data generated from RAC audits allows CMS to make changes to prevent improper payments in the future. The RACs are paid on a contingency fee basis and, therefore, only receive payment when recovery is made. This creates overzealous auditors and, many times, inaccurate findings. In 2010, the Obama administration directed federal agencies to increase the use of auditing programs such as the RACs to help protect the integrity of the Medicare program. The RAC program is relatively low cost and high value for CMS. It is likely that the health care industry will see growth in this area under the Biden administration. To that end, the expansion of audits will not only be RAC auditors, but will include increased oversight by MACs, CERTs, UPICs, etc.

Telehealth audits will be a focus for Pres. Biden. With increased use of telehealth due to COVID, comes increased telehealth fraud, allegedly. On September 30, 2020, the inter-agency National Health Care Take Down Initiative announced that it charged hundreds of defendants ostensibly responsible for—among other things—$4.5 billion in false and fraudulent claims relating to telehealth advertisements and services. Unfortunately for telehealth, bad actors are prevalent and will spur on more and more oversight.

Both government-initiated litigation and qui tam suits appear set for continued growth in 2021. Health care fraud and abuse dominated 2020 federal False Claims Act (“FCA”) recoveries, with almost 85 percent of FCA proceeds derived from HHS. The increase of health care enforcement payouts reflects how important government paid health insurance is in America. Becerra’s incoming team is, in any case, expected to generally ramp up law enforcement activities—both to punish health care fraud and abuse and as an exercise of HHS’s policy-making authorities.

With more than $1 billion of FCA payouts in 2020 derived from federal Anti-Kickback Statute (“AKS”) settlements alone, HHS’s heavy reliance on the FCA because it is a strong statute with “big teeth,” i.e., penalties are harsh. For these same reasons, prosecutors and qui tam relators will likely continue to focus their efforts on AKS enforcement in the Biden administration, despite the recent regulatory carveouts from the AKS and an emerging legal challenge from drug manufacturers.

The individual mandate is back in. The last administration got rid of the individual mandate when former Pres. Trump signed the GOP tax bill into law in 2017. Pres. Biden will bring back the penalty for not being covered under health insurance under his plan. Since the individual mandate currently is not federal law, a Biden campaign official said that he would use a combination of Executive Orders to undo the changes.

In an effort to lower the skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs, Pres. Biden’s plan would repeal existing law that currently bans Medicare from negotiating lower prices with drug manufacturers. He would also limit price increases for all brand, biotech and generic drugs and launch prices for drugs that do not have competition.

Consumers would also be able to buy cheaper priced prescription drugs from other countries, which could help mobilize competition. And Biden would terminate their advertising tax break in an effort to also help lower costs.

In all, the Biden administration is expected to expand health care, medical, oral, and telehealth, while simultaneously policing health care providers for aberrant billing practices. My advice for providers: Be cognizant of your billing practices. You have an opportunity with this administration to increase revenue from government-paid services but do so compliantly.

A Study of Contractor Consistency in Reviewing Extrapolated Overpayments

By Frank Cohen, MPA, MBB – my colleague from RACMonitor. He wrote a great article and has permitted me to share it with you. See below.

CMS levies billions of dollars in overpayments a year against healthcare providers, based on the use of extrapolation audits.

The use of extrapolation in Medicare and private payer audits has been around for quite some time now. And lest you be of the opinion that extrapolation is not appropriate for claims-based audits, there are many, many court cases that have supported its use, both specifically and in general. Arguing that extrapolation should not have been used in a given audit, unless that argument is supported by specific statistical challenges, is mostly a waste of time. 

For background purposes, extrapolation, as it is used in statistics, is a “statistical technique aimed at inferring the unknown from the known. It attempts to predict future data by relying on historical data, such as estimating the size of a population a few years in the future on the basis of the current population size and its rate of growth,” according to a definition created by Eurostat, a component of the European Union. For our purposes, extrapolation is used to estimate what the actual overpayment amount might likely be for a population of claims, based on auditing a smaller sample of that population. For example, say a Uniform Program Integrity Contractor (UPIC) pulls 30 claims from a medical practice from a population of 10,000 claims. The audit finds that 10 of those claims had some type of coding error, resulting in an overpayment of $500. To extrapolate this to the entire population of claims, one might take the average overpayment, which is the $500 divided by the 30 claims ($16.67 per claim) and multiply this by the total number of claims in the population. In this case, we would multiply the $16.67 per claim by 10,000 for an extrapolated overpayment estimate of $166,667. 

The big question that normally crops up around extrapolation is this: how accurate are the estimates? And the answer is (wait for it …), it depends. It depends on just how well the sample was created, meaning: was the sample size appropriate, were the units pulled properly from the population, was the sample truly random, and was it representative of the population? The last point is particularly important, because if the sample is not representative of the population (in other words, if the sample data does not look like the population data), then it is likely that the extrapolated estimate will be anything but accurate.

To account for this issue, referred to as “sample error,” statisticians will calculate something called a confidence interval (CI), which is a range within which there is some acceptable amount of error. The higher the confidence value, the larger the potential range of error. For example, in the hypothetical audit outlined above, maybe the real average for a 90-percent confidence interval is somewhere between $15 and $18, while, for a 95-percent confidence interval, the true average is somewhere between $14 and $19. And if we were to calculate for a 99-percent confidence interval, the range might be somewhere between $12 and $21. So, the greater the range, the more confident I feel about my average estimate. Some express the confidence interval as a sense of true confidence, like “I am 90 percent confident the real average is somewhere between $15 and $18,” and while this is not necessarily wrong, per se, it does not communicate the real value of the CI. I have found that the best way to define it would be more like “if I were to pull 100 random samples of 30 claims and audit all of them, 90 percent would have a true average of somewhere between $15 and $18,” meaning that the true average for some 1 out of 10 would fall outside of that range – either below the lower boundary or above the upper boundary. The main reason that auditors use this technique is to avoid challenges based on sample error.

To the crux of the issue, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) levies billions of dollars in overpayments a year against healthcare providers, based on the use of extrapolation audits. And while the use of extrapolation is well-established and well-accepted, its use in an audit is not an automatic, and depends upon the creation of a statistically valid and representative sample. Thousands of extrapolation audits are completed each year, and for many of these, the targeted provider or organization will appeal the use of extrapolation. In most cases, the appeal is focused on one or more flaws in the methodology used to create the sample and calculate the extrapolated overpayment estimate. For government audits, such as with UPICs, there is a specific appeal process, as outlined in their Medical Learning Network booklet, titled “Medicare Parts A & B Appeals Process.”

On Aug. 20, 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS OIG) released a report titled “Medicare Contractors Were Not Consistent in How They Reviewed Extrapolated Overpayments in the Provider Appeals Process.” This report opens with the following statement: “although MACs (Medicare Administrative Contractors) and QICs (Qualified Independent Contractors) generally reviewed appealed extrapolated overpayments in a manner that conforms with existing CMS requirements, CMS did not always provide sufficient guidance and oversight to ensure that these reviews were performed in a consistent manner.” These inconsistencies were associated with $42 million in extrapolated payments from fiscal years 2017 and 2018 that were overturned in favor of the provider. It’s important to note that at this point, we are only talking about appeal determinations at the first and second level, known as redetermination and reconsideration, respectively.

Redetermination is the first level of appeal, and is adjudicated by the MAC. And while the staff that review the appeals at this level are supposed to have not been involved in the initial claim determination, I believe that most would agree that this step is mostly a rubber stamp of approval for the extrapolation results. In fact, of the hundreds of post-audit extrapolation mitigation cases in which I have been the statistical expert, not a single one was ever overturned at redetermination.

The second level of appeal, reconsideration, is handled by a QIC. In theory, the QIC is supposed to independently review the administrative records, including the appeal results of redetermination. Continuing with the prior paragraph, I have to date had only several extrapolation appeals reversed at reconsideration; however, all were due to the fact that the auditor failed to provide the practice with the requisite data, and not due to any specific issues with the statistical methodology. In two of those cases, the QIC notified the auditor that if they were to get the required information to them, they would reconsider their decision. And in two other cases, the auditor appealed the decision, and it was reversed again. Only the fifth case held without objection and was adjudicated in favor of the provider.

Maybe this is a good place to note that the entire process for conducting extrapolations in government audits is covered under Chapter 8 of the Medicare Program Integrity Manual (PIM). Altogether, there are only 12 pages within the entire Manual that actually deal with the statistical methodology behind sampling and extrapolation; this is certainly not enough to provide the degree of guidance required to ensure consistency among the different government contractors that perform such audits. And this is what the OIG report is talking about.

Back to the $42 million that was overturned at either redetermination or reconsideration: the OIG report found that this was due to a “type of simulation testing that was performed only by a subset of contractors.” The report goes on to say that “CMS did not intend that the contractors use this procedure, (so) these extrapolations should not have been overturned. Conversely, if CMS intended that contractors use this procedure, it is possible that other extrapolations should have been overturned but were not.” This was quite confusing for me at first, because this “simulation” testing was not well-defined, and also because it seemed to say that if this procedure was appropriate to use, then more contractors should have used it, which would have resulted in more reversals in favor of the provider.   

Interestingly, CMS seems to have written itself an out in Chapter 8, section 8.4.1.1 of the PIM, which states that “[f]ailure by a contractor to follow one or more of the requirements contained herein does not necessarily affect the validity of the statistical sampling that was conducted or the projection of the overpayment.” The use of the term “does not necessarily” leaves wide open the fact that the failure by a contractor to follow one or more of the requirements may affect the validity of the statistical sample, which will affect the validity of the extrapolated overpayment estimate. 

Regarding the simulation testing, the report stated that “one MAC performed this type of simulation testing for all extrapolation reviews, and two MACs recently changed their policies to include simulation testing for sample designs that are not well-supported by the program integrity contractor. In contrast, both QICs and three MACs did not perform simulation testing and had no plans to start using it in the future.” And even though it was referenced some 20 times, with the exception of an example given as Figure 2 on page 10, the report never did describe in any detail the type of simulation testing that went on. From the example, it was evident to me that the MACs and QICs involved were using what is known as a Monte Carlo simulation. In statistics, simulation is used to assess the performance of a method, typically when there is a lack of theoretical background. With simulations, the statistician knows and controls the truth. Simulation is used advantageously in a number of situations, including providing the empirical estimation of sampling distributions. Footnote 10 in the report stated that ”reviewers used the specific simulation test referenced here to provide information about whether the lower limit for a given sampling design was likely to achieve the target confidence level.” If you are really interested in learning more about it, there is a great paper called
“The design of simulation studies in medical statistics” by Burton et al. (2006). 

Its application in these types of audits is to “simulate” the audit many thousands of times to see if the mean audit results fall within the expected confidence interval range, thereby validating the audit results within what is known as the Central Limit Theorem (CLT).

Often, the sample sizes used in recoupment-type audits are too small, and this is usually due to a conflict between the sample size calculations and the distributions of the data. For example, in RAT-STATS, the statistical program maintained by the OIG, and a favorite of government auditors, sample size estimates are based on an assumption that the data are normally (or near normally) distributed. A normal distribution is defined by the mean and the standard deviation, and includes a bunch of characteristics that make sample size calculations relatively straightforward. But the truth is, because most auditors use the paid amount as the variable of interest, population data are rarely, if ever, normally distributed. Unfortunately, there is simply not enough room or time to get into the details of distributions, but suffice it to say that, because paid data are bounded on the left with zero (meaning that payments are never less than zero), paid data sets are almost always right-skewed. This means that the distribution tail continues on to the right for a very long distance.  

In these types of skewed situations, sample size normally has to be much larger in order to meet the CLT requirements. So, what one can do is simulate the random sample over and over again to see whether the sampling results ever end up reporting a normal distribution – and if not, it means that the results of that sample should not be used for extrapolation. And this seems to be what the OIG was talking about in this report. Basically, they said that some but not all of the appeals entities (MACs and QICs) did this type of simulation testing, and others did not. But for those that did perform the tests, the report stated that $41.5 million of the $42 million involved in the reversals of the extrapolations were due to the use of this simulation testing. The OIG seems to be saying this: if this was an unintended consequence, meaning that there wasn’t any guidance in place authorizing this type of testing, then it should not have been done, and those extrapolations should not have been overturned. But if it should have been done, meaning that there should have been some written guidance to authorize that type of testing, then it means that there are likely many other extrapolations that should have been reversed in favor of the provider. A sticky wicket, at best.

Under the heading “Opportunity To Improve Contractor Understanding of Policy Updates,” the report also stated that “the MACs and QICs have interpreted these requirements differently. The MAC that previously used simulation testing to identify the coverage of the lower limit stated that it planned to continue to use that approach. Two MACs that previously did not perform simulation testing indicated that they would start using such testing if they had concerns about a program integrity contractor’s sample design. Two other MACs, which did not use simulation testing, did not plan to change their review procedures.” One QIC indicated that it would defer to the administrative QIC (AdQIC, the central manager for all Medicare fee-for-service claim case files appealed to the QIC) regarding any changes. But it ended this paragraph by stating that “AdQIC did not plan to change the QIC Manual in response to the updated PIM.”

With respect to this issue and this issue alone, the OIG submitted two specific recommendations, as follows:

  • Provide additional guidance to MACs and QICs to ensure reasonable consistency in procedures used to review extrapolated overpayments during the first two levels of the Medicare Parts A and B appeals process; and
  • Take steps to identify and resolve discrepancies in the procedures that MACs and QICs use to review extrapolations during the appeals process.

In the end, I am not encouraged that we will see any degree of consistency between and within the QIC and MAC appeals in the near future.

Basically, it would appear that the OIG, while having some oversight in the area of recommendations, doesn’t really have any teeth when it comes to enforcing change. I expect that while some reviewers may respond appropriately to the use of simulation testing, most will not, if it means a reversal of the extrapolated findings. In these cases, it is incumbent upon the provider to ensure that these issues are brought up during the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) appeal.

Programming Note: Listen to Frank Cohen report this story live during the next edition of Monitor Mondays, 10 a.m. Eastern.