Last week, (May 22nd) the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) unveiled a new, streamlined appeal process aimed at decreasing the massive Medicare appeal backlog. CMS is hopeful that providers, like you, will choose to settle your Medicare appeal cases instead continuing the litigious dispute. Remember, currently, the backlog at the third level of Medicare appeals, the administrative law judge (ALJ) level, is approximately 5 – 8 years (I will use 8 years for the purpose of this blog). Recoupment can legally begin after level two, so many providers go out of business waiting to be heard at the third level. See blog.
The new “settlement conference facilitation” (SCF) process will allow CMS to make a settlement offer and providers have seven days to accept or proceed with the longer-lasting route. I have a strong sense that, if litigated, a judge would find forcing the decision between accepting a quick settlement versus enduring an 8-year waiting-period to present before an ALJ, coercion. But, for now, it is A choice other than the 8-year wait-period (as long as the provider met the eligibility requirements, see below).
To initiate said SCF process, a provider would have to submit a request in writing to CMS. CMS would then have 15 days to reply. If the agency chooses to take part, a settlement conference would occur within four weeks. Like that underlined part? I read the SCF process as saying, even if the provider qualifies for such process, CMS still has the authority to refuse to participate. Which begs the question, why have a process that does not have to be followed?
The SCF process is directed toward sizable providers with older and more substantial, alleged overpayments. In order to play, you must meet the criteria to enter the game. Here are the eligibility requirements:
In fiscal year (FY) 2016, more than 1.2 billion Medicare fee-for-service claims were processed. Over 119 million claims (or 9.7%) were denied. Of the denied claims, 3.5 million (2.9% of all Medicare denied claims) were appealed. That seems surprisingly low to me. But many claims are denied to Medicare recipients, who would be less inclined to appeal. For example, my grandma would not hire an attorney to appeal a denied claim; it would be fiscally illogical. However, a hospital that is accused of $10 million in alleged overpayments will hire an attorney.
In recent years, the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) and the Council have received more appeals than they can process within the statutorily-defined time frames. From FY 2010 through FY 2015, OMHA experienced an overall 442% increase in the number of appeals received annually. As a result, as of the end of FY 2016, 658,307 appeals were waiting to be adjudicated by OMHA. Under current resource levels (and without any additional appeals), it would take eight years for OMHA and ten years for the Council to process their respective backlogs.
The SCF “Fix”
While I do not believe that the creation of the SCF process is a fix, it is a concerted step in the right direction. Being that it was just enacted, we do not have any trial results. So many things on paper look good, but when implemented in real life end so poorly. For example, the Titanic.
Considering that there is a court case that found Health and Human Services (HHS) in violation of federal regulations that require level three Medicare appeals to be adjudicated in 90 days, instead of 8 years and HHS failed to follow the Order, claiming impossibility, at least HHS is making baby steps. See blog. At some point, Congress is going to have to increase funding to hire additional ALJs. I can only assume that the Hospital Association and American Medical Association are lobbying to get this action, but you know what they say about assuming…
As broached above, I do not like the fact that – if you do not accept whatever amount CMS proposes as settlement – BOOM – negotiation is over and you suffer the 8-year backlog time, undergo recoupments (that may not be appropriate), and incur tens of thousands of attorneys’ fees to continue litigation. Literally, CMS has no incentive to settle and you have every reason to settle. The only incentive for CMS to settle that I can fathom is that CMS wants this SCF program to be a success for the jury of public opinion, therefore, will try to get a high rate of success. But do not fool yourself.
You are the beggar and CMS is the King.
Letter to HHS: RAC Audits “Have Absolutely No Direct Impact on the Medicare Providers” – And I Spotted Elvis!
“Recovery audits have absolutely no direct impact on the Medicare providers working hard to deliver much needed healthcare services to beneficiaries.“
And Elvis Presley is still alive! Oh, and did you know that Bill Clinton never had an affair on Hillary? (since when has her name become one word, like Prince or Beyonce?)
This sentence was written in a March 6, 2018, correspondence from The Council for Medicare Integrity to HHS Secretary Alex Azar.
“Recovery auditing has never been an impediment to the delivery of healthcare services nor is it an intrusion in the physician-patient relationship.” – Kristin Walter of The Council for Medicare Integrity. BTW, Ms. Walter, health care has a space between the two syllables.
The purpose of this letter that was sent from the The Council for Medicare Integrity to Secretary Azar was to request an increase of prepayment reviews for Medicare providers. For those of you so blessed to not know what a prepayment review, prepayment review is a review of your Medicare (or Caid) claims prior to being paid. It sounds reasonable on paper, but, in real life, prepayment review is a Draconian, unjust, and preposterous tool aimed at putting healthcare providers out of business, or if not aimed, is the unknown or accidental outcome of such a review. If placed on prepayment review, your Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements are 100% cut off. Gone. Like the girl in that movie with Ben Affleck, Gone Girl Gone, and, like the girl, not really gone because it’s alive – you provided services and are owed that money – but it’s in hiding and may ruin your life. See blog.
Even if I were wrong, which I am not, the mere process in the order of events of prepayment review is illogical. In the interest of time, I will cut-and-paste a section from a prior blog that I wrote about prepayment review:
In real-life, prepayment review:
- The auditors may use incorrect, inapplicable, subjective, and arbitrary standards.
I had a case in which the auditors were denying 100% ACTT services, which are 24-hour mental health services for those 10% of people who suffer from extreme mental illness. The reason that the auditor was denying 100% of the claims was because “lower level services were not tried and ruled out.” In this instance, we have a behavioral health care provider employing staff to render ACTT services (expensive), actually rendering the ACTT services (expensive), and getting paid zero…zilch…nada…for a reason that is not required! There is no requirement that a person receiving ACTT services try a lower level of service first. If the person qualifies for ACTT, the person should receive ACTT services. Because of this auditor’s misunderstanding of ACTT, this provider was almost put out of business.
Another example: A provider of home health was placed on prepayment review. Again, 90 – 100% of the claims were denied. In home health, program eligibility is determined by an independent assessment conducted by the Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) via Liberty, which creates an individualized plan of care. The provider submitted claims for Patient Sally, who, according to her plan, needs help dressing. The service notes demonstrated that the in-home aide helped Sally dress with a shirt and pants. But the auditor denies every claim the provider bills for Sally (which is 7 days a week) because, according to the service note, the in-home aide failed to check the box to show she/he helped put on Sally’s shoes. The auditor fails to understand that Sally is a double amputee – she has no feet.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes – Who watches the watchmen???
- The administrative burden placed on providers undergoing prepayment review is staggering.
In many cases, a provider on prepayment review is forced to hire contract workers just to keep up with the number of document requests coming from the entity that is conducting the prepayment review. After initial document requests, there are supplemental document requests. Then every claim that is denied needs to be re-submitted or appealed. The amount of paperwork involved in prepayment review would cause an environmentalist to scream and crumple into the fetal position like “The Crying Game.”
- The accuracy ratings are inaccurate.
Because of the mistakes the auditors make in erroneously denying claims, the purported “accuracy ratings” are inaccurate. My daughter received an 86 on a test. Given that she is a straight ‘A’ student, this was odd. I asked her what she got wrong, and she had no idea. I told her to ask her teacher the next day why she received an 86. Oops. Her teacher had accidentally given my daughter an 86; the 86 was the grade of another child in the class with the same first name. In prepayment review, the accuracy ratings are the only method to be removed from prepayment, so the accuracy of the accuracy ratings is important. One mistaken, erroneously denied claim damages the ratings, and we’ve already discussed that mistakes/errors occur. You think, if a mistake is found, call up the auditing entity…talk it out. See below.
- The communication between provider and auditor do not exist.
Years ago my mom and I went to visit relatives in Switzerland. (Not dissimilar to National Lampoon’s European Vacation). They spoke German; we did not. We communicated with pictures and hand gestures. To this day, I have no idea their names. This is the relationship between the provider and the auditor.
Assuming that the provider reaches a live person on the telephone:
“Can you please explain to me why claims 1-100 failed?”
“Don’t you know the service definitions and the policies? That is your responsibility.”
“Yes, but I believe that we follow the policies. We don’t understand why these claims are denied. That’s what I’m asking.”
“Read the policy.”
- The financial burden on the provider is devastating.
If a provider’s reimbursements are 80 – 100% reliant on Medicaid/care and those funds are frozen, the provider cannot meet payroll. Yet the provider is expected to continue to render services. A few years ago, I requested from NC DMA a list of providers on prepayment review and the details surrounding them. I was shocked at the number of providers that were placed on prepayment review and within a couple months ceased submitting claims. In reality, what happened was that those providers were forced to close their doors. They couldn’t financially support their company without getting paid.
Back to the current blog
So to have The Council for Medicare Integrity declare that prepayment review has absolutely no impact on Medicare providers is ludicrous.
Now, I will admit that the RAC (and other acronyms) prepayment and post payment review programs have successfully recovered millions of dollars of alleged overpayments. But these processes must be done right, legally. You can’t just shove an overzealous, for-profit, audit company out the door like an overweight kid in a candy store. Legal due process and legal limitations must be required – and followed.
Ms. Walter does present some interesting, yet factually questionable, statistics:
- “Over the past 5 years alone, Medicare has lost more than $200 billion taxpayer dollars to very preventable billing errors made by providers.”
Not quite sure how this was calculated. A team of compliance auditors would have had to review hundreds of thousands of medical records to determine this amount. Is she referring to money that has been recovered and the appeal process afforded to the providers has been exhausted? Or is this number how much money is being alleged has been overpaid? How exactly were these supposed billing errors “very preventable?” What does that mean? She is either saying that the health care providers could have prevented the ostensible overbillings – or – she is saying that RAC auditors could have prevented these purported overbillings by increased prepayment review. Either way … I don’t get it. It reminds me of Demi Moore in A Few Good Men, “I object.” Judge states, “Overruled.” Demi Moore pleads, “I strenuously object.” Judge states, “Still overruled.” “Very preventable billing errors,” said Ms. Walters. “Still overruled.”
- “Currently, only 0.5 percent of Medicare claims are reviewed, on a post-payment basis, for billing accuracy and adherence to program billing rules. This leaves 99.5 percent of claims immune from any checks and balances that would ensure Medicare payments are correct.”
Again, I am curious as to the mathematic calculation used. Is she including the audits performed, not only by RACs, but audits by ZPICs, CERTS, MACs, including Palmetto, Noridian and CGS, federal and state Program Integrities, State contractors, MFCUs, MICs, MCOs, PERMs, PCG, and HHS? Because I can definitely see that we need more players.
- “The contrast between Medicare review practices and private payers is startling. Despite the dire need to safeguard Medicare dollars, CMS currently allows Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) to review fewer than 30 Medicare claim types (down from 800 claim types initially) and has scaled back to allow a review of a mere 0.5 percent of Medicare provider claims after they have been paid. Considered a basic cost of doing business, the same providers billing Medicare comply, without issue, with the more extensive claim review requirements of private health insurance companies. With Medicare however, provider groups have lobbied aggressively to keep their overpayments, putting intense pressure on CMS to block Medicare billing oversight.”
Did I wake up in the Twilight Zone? Zombies? Let’s compare Medicare/caid to private health care companies.
First, let’s talk Benjamins (or pennies in Medicare/caid). A study was conducted to compare Texas Medicare/caid reimbursement rates to private pay. Since everything is bigger in Texas, including the reimbursement rates for Medicare/caid, I figured this study is demonstrative for the country (obviously each state’s statistics would vary).
According to a 2016 study by the National Comparisons of Commercial and Medicare Fee-For-Service Payments to Hospitals:
- 96%. In 2012, average payments for commercial inpatient hospital stays were higher than Medicare fee-for-service payments for 96% of the diagnosis related groups (DRGs) analyzed.
- 14%. Between 2008 and 2012, the commercial-to-Medicare payment difference had an average increase of 14%.
- 86%. Longer hospital stays do not appear to be a factor for higher average commercial payments. During this period, 86 percent of the DRGs analyzed had commercial-to-Medicare average length-of-stay of ratios less than one.
The “basic cost of doing business” for Medicare/caid patients is not getting appropriate reimbursement rates.
The law states that the reimbursements rates should allow quality of care. Section 30(A) of the Medicare Act requires that each State “provide such methods and procedures relating to the utilization of, and the payment for, care and services available under the plan (including but not limited to utilization review plans as provided for in section 1396b(i)(4) of this title) as may be necessary to safeguard against unnecessary utilization of such care and services and to assure that payments are consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care and are sufficient to enlist enough providers so that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population in the geographic area.” (emphasis added).
Second, billing under Medicare/caid is much more complex than billing third-party payors, which are not required to follow the over-regulated, esoteric, administrative, spaghetti sauce that mandates providers who accept Medicare and/or Medicaid (a whole bunch of independent vegetables pureed into a sauce in which the vegetables are indiscernible from the other). The regulatory burden required of providing Medicare and/or Medicaid services does not compare to the administrative and regulatory burden associated with private pay, regardless of Ms. Walter’s uncited and unreferenced claims that “the more extensive claim review requirements [are with the] private health insurance companies.” We’re talking kumquats to rack of lamb (are kumquats cheap)?
Third, let’s discuss this comment: “provider groups have lobbied aggressively.” RAC auditors, and all the other alphabet soup, are paid A LOT. Government bureaucracy often does not require the same “bid process” that a private company would need to pass. Some government contracts are awarded on a no-bid process (not ok), which does not create the best “bang for your buck for the taxpayers.”
I could go on…but, I believe that you get the point. My readers are no dummies!
I disagree with the correspondence, dated March 6, 2018, from The Council for Medicare Integrity to HHS Secretary Alex Azar is correct. However, my question is who will push back against The Council for Medicare Integrity? All those health care provider associations that “have lobbied aggressively to keep their overpayments, putting intense pressure on CMS to block Medicare billing oversight.”?
At the end of the day (literally), I questioned the motive of The Council for Medicare Integrity. Whenever you question a person’s motive, follow the money. So, I googled “who funds The Council for Medicare Integrity? Unsurprisingly, it was difficult to locate. According to The Council for Medicare Integrity’s website it provides transparency with the following FAQ:
Again, do you see why I am questioning the source of income?
According to The Council for Medicare Integrity, “The Council for Medicare Integrity is a 501(c)(6) non-profit organization. The Council’s mission is to educate policymakers and other stakeholders regarding the importance of healthcare integrity programs that help Medicare identify and correct improper payments.
As a 501(c)(6) organization, the Council files IRS Form 990s annually with the IRS as required by law. Copies of these filings and exemption application materials can be obtained by mailing your request to the Secretary at: Council for Medicare Integrity, Attention: Secretary, 9275 W. Russell Road, Suite 100, Las Vegas, Nevada 89148. In your request, please provide your name, address, contact telephone number and a list of documents requested. Hard copies are subject to a fee of $1.00 for the first page and $.20 per each subsequent page, plus postage, and must be made by check or money order, payable to the Council for Medicare Integrity. Copies will be provided within 30 days from receipt of payment. These documents are also available for public inspection without charge at the Council’s principal office during regular business hours. Please schedule an appointment by contacting the Secretary at the address above.
This website serves as an aggregator of all the verifiable key facts and data pertaining to this important healthcare issue, as well as a resource center to support the provider community in their efforts to comply with Medicare policy.”
I still question the funding (and the bias)…Maybe funded by the RACs??
You are a Medicare health care provider. You perform health care services across the country. Maybe you are a durable medical equipment (DME) provider with a website that allows patients to order physician-prescribed, DME supplies from all 50 states. Maybe you perform telemedicine to multiple states. Maybe you are a large health care provider with offices in multiple states.
Regardless, imagine that you receive 25, 35, or 45 notifications of alleged overpayments from 5 separate “jurisdictions” (the 5th being Region 5 (DME/HHH – Performant Recovery, Inc.). You get one notice dated January 1, 2018, for $65,000 from Region 1. January 2, 2018, you receive a notice of alleged overpayment from Region 2 in the amount of $210.35. January 3, 2018, is a big day. You receive notices of alleged overpayments in the amounts of $5 million from Region 4, $120,000 from Region 3, and two other Region 1 notices in the amount of $345.00 and $65,000. This continues for three weeks. In the end, you have 20 different notices of alleged overpayments from 5 different regions, and you are terrified and confused. But you know you need legal representation.
Do you appeal all the notices? Even the notice for $345.00? Obviously, the cost of attorneys’ fees to appeal the $345.00 will way outweigh the amount of the alleged overpayment.
Here are my two cents:
Appeal everything – and this is why – it is a compelling argument of harassment/undue burden/complete confusion to a judge to demonstrate the fact that you received 20 different notices of overpayment from 5 different MACs. I mean, you need a freaking XL spreadsheet to keep track of your notices. Never mind that an appeal in Medicare takes 5 levels and each appeal will be at a separate and distinct status than the others. Judges are humans, and humans understand chaos and the fact that humans have a hard time with chaos. For example, I have contractors in my house. It is chaos. I cannot handle it.
While 20 distinct notices of alleged overpayment is tedious, it is worth it once you get to the third level, before an unbiased administrative law judge (ALJ), when you can consolidate the separate appeals to show the judge the madness.
Legally, the MACs cannot withhold or recoup funds while you appeal, although this is not always followed. In the case that the MACs recoup/withhold during your appeal, if it will cause irreparable harm to your company, then you need to get an injunction in court to suspend the recoupment/withhold.
According to multiple sources, the appeal success rate at the first and second levels are low, approximately 20%. This is to be expected since the first level is before the entity that determined that you owe money and the second level is not much better. The third level, however, is before an impartial ALJ. The success rate at that level is upwards of 75-80%. In the gambling game of life, those are good odds.
When you have a Medicare appeal, it is not uncommon for the appeal process to last years and years – up to 3-6 years in some cases. There has been a backlog of approximately 800,000+ Medicare appeals (almost 1 million), which, with no change, would take 11 years to vet.
A Federal Court Judge says – that is not good enough!
Judge James Boasburg Ordered that the Medicare appeal backlog be eliminated in the following stages:
- 30% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2017 (approximately a 300,000 case reduction within 1 year);
- 60% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2018;
- 90% reduction from the current backlog by Dec. 31, 2019; and
- Elimination of the backlog of cases by Dec. 31, 2020;
A Medicare appeal has 5 steps. See blog. The backlog is at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level – or, Level 3.
This backlog is largely attributable to the Medicare Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) programs. In 2010, the federal government implemented the RAC program to recoup allegedly improper Medicare reimbursement payments. The RAC program (for both Medicare and Medicaid) has been criticized for being overly broad and burdensome and “nit picking,” insignificant paperwork errors. See blog.
While the RAC program has recovered a substantial sum of alleged overpayments, concurrently, it has cost health care providers an infinite amount of money to defend the allegations and has left Health and Human Services (HHS) with little funds to adjudicate the number of Medicare appeals, which increase every year. The number of Medicare appeals filed in fiscal year 2011 was 59,600. In fiscal year 2013, that number boomed to more than 384,000. Today, close to 1 million Medicare appeals stand in wait. The statutory adjudication deadline for appeals at the ALJ level is 90 days, yet the average Medicare appeal can last over 546 days.
The American Hospital Association (AHA) said – enough is enough!
AHA sued HHS’ Secretary Sylvia Burwell in 2014, but the case was dismissed. AHA appealed the District Court’s Decision to the Court of Appeals, which reversed the dismissal and gave the District Court guidance on how the backlog could be remedied.
Finally, last week, on December 5, 2016, the District Court published its Opinion and set forth the above referenced mandated dates for eliminating the Medicare appeal backlog.
While, administratively, the case was dismissed, the District Court retained “jurisdiction in order to review the required status reports and rule on any challenges to unmet deadlines.”
In non-legalese, the Court said “The case is over, but we will be watching you and can enforce this Decision should it be violated.”
This is a win for all health care providers that accept Medicare.
Throughout my career I have seen more people confuse Medicare and Medicaid than any other two items in my line of work. If I am about to give a presentation on Medicaid, without question, someone will comment, “Oh, that’s important! We will all be on Medicaid someday.” Hmmmm? Really? (I hope not).
It’s confusing. I get it. They sound the same and both are heavily regulated with esoteric rules and regulations.
For the record, MediCARE covers those who qualify for Medicare and are 65 years of age or older. MediCAID serves low-income parents, children, seniors, and people with disabilities.
By providers, I am asked frequently, “What is the difference between a Medicaid audit appeal and a Medicare audit appeal?”
The easy “Audit 101” answer is that Medicaid audit appeals are quicker (although in the legal world, nothing is truly fast) than Medicare audits and that the Medicaid administrative appeal process is easier (or has fewer steps) than the Medicare appeal process.
In Medicaid you have an informal appeal, an appeal to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), and, if you are so inclined, judicial review to the Superior Courts. Obviously you can appeal the judicial review, but most appeals stop at the OAH level.
So, with Medicaid audit appeals, you have 2 levels…maybe 3.
In Medicare audits appeals, there are 5 levels. You have more of a Dante-ish order of events.
In the “Divine Comedy,” Dante writes of three levels of afterlife: (1) Inferno (2) Purgatorio; and (3) Paradiso.
If Dante stopped at those 3 levels, the “Divine Comedy” would be more similar to Medicaid audit appeals, not Medicare audit appeals. But Dante does not stop at 3 levels.
Purgatory, which is the place that the human soul must purge its sins and climb up to be worthy of Heaven, is divided into three sections: (1) Antepurgatory; (2) Purgatory proper; and (3) the Earthly Paradise. (I am giving the Cliff’s Notes version for the purpose of this blog. Obviously, there were other mountains symbolizing the 7 deadly sins and other layers, but I will leave that for English class).
In recent times, Purgatory has come to mean a state of suffering or torment that is meant to be temporary.
Regardless, the “Divine Comedy” and its multi-layers to achieve Paradiso is more akin to the Medicare appeal audit process.
Here are the levels in a Medicare audit appeal process:
3. Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)
4. Review by the Appeals Council
5. Judicial Review
Nowadays many providers undergoing Medicare audits are getting stuck waiting for #3 to occur. Purgatory.
So long is the hold up before step #3 that Congressman Jim McDermott, 7th District, Washington, wrote a letter to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius expressing concerns.
In a letter dated March 18, 2014, Congressman McDermott writes that he is concerned with the backlog of appeals pending in the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA).
According to Congressman McDermott, 357,000 Medicare appeals are pending at OMHA. If OMHA decided to set a one-year deadline to hear the pending actions and not counting new actions that would be filed, OMHA would have to preside over 1,027.4 hearings a day, including weekends and holidays.
For as long as I know, OMHA has expedited Medicare recipients appeals. However, while Congressman McDermott commends OMHA for the expeditions, he states that the expeditions are not fast enough, even for Medicare recipients.
Congressman McDermott makes several suggestions as to how to decrease the current workload on OMHA.
First, he asks that the “two midnights policy” not be implemented. Instead, he suggests to revamp the recovery audit contractor (RAC) program. Congressman McDermott states that too many issues are still not resolved for the Policy to be implemented and that the implementation will only add to OMHA’s workload.
Second, Congressman McDermott suggests more accountability for the RACs. He states that there is no associated penalty if a RAC collects money from a provider and the decision is overturned on appeal.
To this suggestion, I say, “Bravo, Congressman McDermott!” My suggestion is that the RACs to pay the provider’s attorneys’ fees if overturned on appeal. It seems only fair that the provider not have to pay legal fees if the provider shows that the RAC was incorrect in its assessment.
Thirdly, Congressman McDermott suggests to ensure the newly instated pause on document requests corrects the problems. CMS has recognized inherent problems with the RAC program and has issued a pause of document requests. Well, Congressman McDermott says make sure you fix the problem before lifting the pause. Logical.
Without question, the backlog at OMHA needs to be addressed. Some Medicare providers have complained of not having their cases heard for years. Imagine waiting to be heard in front of a judge for years….not knowing…
It is hard enough for providers to go through a Medicare audit. Much less appeal and then…………………………………………….wait in Purgatory.