In a January 11, 2018, opinion, a district court in Florida held that once the government learns of possible regulatory noncompliance or mistakes in billings Medicare or Medicaid, but continues to reimburse the provider for later claims – the fact that the government continues to reimburse the provider – can be evidence in court that the alleged documentation errors are minor and that, if the services are actually rendered, despite the minor mistakes, the provider should not be liable under the False Claims Act.
Here is an example: Provider Smith undergoes a post-payment review of claims from dates of service January 1, 2016 – January 1, 2017. It is February 1, 2018. Today, Smith is told by the RAC auditor that he owes $1 million. Smith appeals the adverse decision. However, despite the accusation of $1 million overpayment, Smith continues providing medically necessary services the exact same way, he did in 2016. Despite the supposed outcome of the post-payment review, Smith continues to bill Medicare and Medicaid for services rendered in the exact same way that he did in 2016.
At least, according to UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND STATE OF FLORIDA v. SALUS REHABILITATION, LLC, if Smith continues to be reimbursed for services rendered, this continued reimbursement can be evidence in court that Smith is doing nothing wrong.
Many of my clients who are undergoing post-payment or prepayment reviews decrease or cease all together billing for future services rendered. First, and obviously, stopping or decreasing billings will adversely affect them. Many of those clients will be financially prohibited from defending the post or prepayment review audit because they won’t have enough funds to pay for an attorney. Secondly, and less obvious, at least according to the recent decision in Florida district court mentioned above, continuing to bill for and get reimbursed fo services rendered and billed to Medicare and/or Medicaid can be evidence in court that you are doing nothing wrong.
The facts of the Salus Rehabilitation case, are as follows:
A former employee of a health care system comprising of 53 specialized nursing facilities (“Salus”) filed a qui tam claim in federal court asserting that Salus billed the government for unnecessary, inadequate, or incompetent service.
Break from the facts of the case to explain qui tam actions: A former employee who brings a qui tam action is called the “relator.” In general, the reason that former employees bring qui tam cases is money. Relators get anywhere between 15 -30 % of the award of damages. Many qui tam actions result in multi million dollar awards in damages – meaning that a relator can get rich quickly by tattling on (or accusing) a former employer. Qui tam actions are jury trials (why this is important will be explained below).
Come and listen to a story ’bout a man named Jed
Poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed
Then one day he was shooting for some food,
And up through the ground come a bubbling crude
(Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea)
In the Salus case, the relator (Jed) asserted that Salus failured to maintain a “comprehensive care plan,” ostensibly required by a Medicaid regulation and that this failure rendered Salus’ Medicaid claims fraudulent. Also, Jed asserted that a handful of paperwork defects (for example, unsigned or undated documents) demonstrated that Salus never provided the therapy purported by the paperwork and billed to Medicare. Jed won almost $350 million based on the theory “that upcoding of RUG levels and failure to maintain care plans made [the defendants’] claims to Medicare and Medicaid false or fraudulent.” Oil, that is, black gold, Texas tea. You know Jed was celebrating like it was 1999.
Salus did not take it lying down.
The jury had awarded Jed $350 million. But in the legal world there is a legal tool if a losing party believes that the jury rendered an incorrect decision. It is called a Judgment as a Matter of Law. When a party files a Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, it is decided by the standard of whether a reasonable jury could find in favor of the party opposing the Motion, but it is decided by a judge.
In Salus, the Judge found that the verdict awarding Jed of $350 million could not be upheld. The Judge found that Jed’s burden was to show that the federal government and the state government did not know about the alleged record-keeping deficiencies but, had the governments known, the governments would have refused to pay Salus for services rendered, products delivered, and costs incurred. The Judge said that the record was deplete of any evidence that the governments would have refused to pay Salus. The Judge went so far to say that, theoretically, the governments could have implemented a less severe punishment, such as a warning or a plan or correction. Regardless, what the government MAY have done was not in the record. Specifically, the Judge held that “The resulting verdict (the $350 million to Jed), which perpetrates one of the forbidden “traps, zaps, and zingers” mentioned earlier, cannot stand. The judgment effects an unwarranted, unjustified, unconscionable, and probably unconstitutional forfeiture — times three — sufficient in proportion and irrationality to deter any prudent business from providing services and products to a government armed with the untethered and hair-trigger artillery of a False Claims Act invoked by a heavily invested relator.”
Wow. In other words, the Judge is saying that the verdict, which awarded Jed $350 million, will cause health care providers to NOT accept Medicare and Medicaid if the government is allowed to call every mistake in documentation “fraud,” or a violation of the False Claims Act. The Judge was not ok with this “slippery slope” result. Maybe he/she depends on Medicare…maybe he/she has a family member dependent on Medicaid…who knows? Regardless, this a WIN for providers!!
Legally, the Judge in Salus hung his hat on Universal Health Services, Inc. v. Escobar, 136 S. Ct. 1989 (2016), a Supreme Court case. In Escobar, the Supreme Court held that nit-picky documentation errors are not material and that materiality is required to condemn a provider under the False Claims Act. Escobar “necessarily means that if a service is non-compliant with a statute, a rule, or a contract; if the non-compliance is disclosed to, or discovered by, the United States; and if the United States pays notwithstanding the disclosed or discovered non-compliance, the False Claims Act provides a relator no claim for “implied false certification.”” (emphasis added). In other words, keep billing. If you are paid, then you can use that as evidence in court.
Escobar specifies that a “rigorous” and “demanding” standard for materiality and scienter precludes a False Claims Act claim based on a “minor or unsubstantial” or a “garden-variety” breach of contract or regulatory violation. Instead, Escobar assumes and enforces a course of dealing between the government and a supplier of goods or services that rests comfortably on proven and successful principles of exchange — fair value given for fair value received. Get it?? This is the first time that I have seen a judge be smart and intuitive enough to say – hey – providers are not perfect…and that’s ok. Providers may have insignificant documentation errors. But it is fundamentally unfair to prosecute a provider under the False Claims Act, which the Act is extraordinarily harsh and punitive, for minor, “garden variety” mistakes.
Granted, Salus was decided with a provider being prosecuted under the False Claims Act and not being accused of a pre or post-payment review finding of alleged overpayment.
But, isn’t it analogous?
A provider being accused that it owes $1 million because of minor documentation errors – but did actually provide the medically necessary services – should be afforded the same understanding that Salus was afforded. The mistakes need to be material. Minor mistakes should not be reasons for a 100% recoupment. Because there must be a course of dealing between the government and a supplier of goods or services that rests comfortably on proven and successful principles of exchange — fair value given for fair value received.
Oil has dried up, Jeb.
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.