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Provider Relief Funds: The Hottest RAC Audit Subject

Reporting the use of PRFs will be an ongoing issue due to the fraud and abuse implications of misusing PRFs.

The federal Provider Relief Fund (PRF) was created under the provisions of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was passed to address the economic harm suffered by healthcare providers that have incurred (or will incur) additional expenses and have lost (or will lose) significant revenue as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. PRF payments have been made from either the “general distribution” tranche or via various “targeted distributions.” PRF payment amounts and whether the providers complied with the terms and conditions will be a hotly contested topic in Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) and Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) audits for years to come. If Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) auditors put out a monthly magazine, like Time, PRF would be on the cover. This will be the hot topic of RAC audits, come Jan. 1, 2021.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) will audit Medicare payments made to hospitals for COVID-19 discharges that qualified for the 20-percent add-on payment under the CARES Act, according to a new item on the agency’s work plan.

To use the PRF funding from either the general or targeted distributions, providers must attest to receiving the funds and agree to all terms and conditions. However, what constitutes a “healthcare-related expense” or how to calculate “lost revenue” is not clearly defined. Similarly, how you net healthcare-related expenses toward lost revenue is also vague and undefined. On Nov. 2, HHS issued a clarification to post-payment reporting guidance for PRF funds.

The current guidance, issued Oct. 22, includes a two-step process for providers to report their use of PRF payments. The guidance specifically cites:

  • Healthcare-related expenses attributable to COVID that another source has not reimbursed and is not obligated to reimburse, which may include general and administrative (G&A) or “healthcare-related operating expenses;” and
  • PRF payment amounts not fully expended on healthcare-related expenses attributable to coronavirus are then applied to lost revenues associated with patient care, net of the healthcare-related expenses attributable to coronavirus calculated under the first step. Recipients may apply PRF payments toward lost revenue, up to the amount of the difference between their 2019 and 2020 actual patient care revenue.

HHS’s newest clarification came from its response to a FAQ, in which it said that healthcare-related expenses are no longer netted against the patient care lost revenue amount cited in the second portion. HHS indicated that a revised notice would be posted to remove the “net of the healthcare-related expenses” language in the guidance. Of course, as of now, we have no guidance regarding when this clarification is to be put into place officially. Yet another moving target for auditors.

Anticipate audits of the use of your PRF payments. CMS is choosing a sample of hospitals across the country that have received PRF payments to verify that such expenditures were for healthcare-related expenses. For each audit, OIG will obtain data and interview HHS/PRF program officials to understand how PRF payments were calculated, and then review actual PRF payments for compliance with CARES Act requirements. OIG will also review whether HHS’s controls over PRF payments ensured that payments were calculated correctly and disbursed to eligible providers.

Audits will also focus on how providers initially applied to receive PRFs, including calculations utilized and how COVID-19 patients are defined. When each hospital ceased netting expenses against lost revenue will now be another hot topic.

Balance billing is another area of interest. The terms and conditions require providers that accept the PRFs not to collect out-of-pocket payments from patients for all care for a presumptive or actual case of COVID-19 that exceeded what they would pay an in-network provider.

More havoc may ensue with any purchases or sales transactions that occur in the next year or so. Providers will need to know how to navigate compliance risks associated with any accepted or transferred PRFs. Tracking and reporting use of the PRFs will also be an ongoing issue due to the fraud and abuse implications of misusing PRFs, and there is limited guidance regarding how use will be audited. Many questions remain unanswered. Many terms remain undefined.

Programming Note: Knicole Emanuel, Esq. is a permanent panelist on Monitor Mondays. Listen to her RAC Report every Monday at 10 a.m. EST.

The Undefined, Definition of “Medical Necessity”

While the Coronavirus pandemic is horrible and seems to be getting worse. COVID has forced slight, positive changes in the telehealth arena and, perhaps, in the widening of the ambiguous definition of “medical necessity” or, as I call it – the undefined, definition of “medical necessity.” Medical necessity is the backbone of rendering health care services. Without it, services should not be provided. Yet, medical necessity is the most litigated topic in all of audits.

On September 1, 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) published a proposed rule that will codify a definition of “medical necessity” for Medicare purposes. So far, the definition of medical necessity varies, depending on the source. The MACs have been given long rein in defining the term on an individual and separate basis, creating disparity in definitions and criteria. The proposed rule’s comment period ended November 2, 2020.

All this to say medical necessity is in the eye of the beholder. Much like beauty. Why then, can RAC and MAC auditors who are not doctors, not firsthand, treating providers, not nurses or LCASs, decide that medical necessity does or does not exist for a patient that they have never seen?

Black’s Law Dictionary (the most prominent legal dictionary) has a super, unhelpful definition of medical necessity: “If not carried out the patient’s situation could worsen. For a patient’s treatment found to be necessary is this specific type of procedure or treatment.”

The American Medical Association (“AMA”), on the other hand, has a more detailed definition, probably unintended to make it all the more confusing:

“Our AMA defines medical necessity as: Health care services or products that a prudent physician would provide to a patient for the purpose of preventing, diagnosing or treating an illness, injury, disease or its symptoms in a manner that is: (a) in accordance with generally accepted standards of medical practice; (b) clinically appropriate in terms of type, frequency, extent, site, and duration; and (c) not primarily for the economic benefit of the health plans and purchasers or for the convenience of the patient, treating physician, or other health care provider.”

CMS’ proposed rule codifies a definition of what makes an item or service medically “reasonable and necessary” under the Social Security Act 1861(a)(1)(A). The rule, if finalized, would codify in regulations a definition of “reasonable and necessary” items and services based on a definition currently used by Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), with an additional element that potentially would include coverage determinations by commercial insurers as a factor in making Medicare coverage determinations.

The Proposed Definition (To be Codified in 42 CFR 405.201)

“We are proposing to codify the longstanding Program Integrity Manual definition of “reasonable and necessary” into our regulations at 42 CFR 405.201(b), with modification. Under the current definition, an item or service is considered “reasonable and necessary” if it is (1) safe and effective; (2) not experimental or investigational; and (3) appropriate, including the duration and frequency that is considered appropriate for the item or service, in terms of whether it is—

  • Furnished in accordance with accepted standards of medical practice for the diagnosis or treatment of the patient’s condition or to improve the function of a malformed body member;
  • Furnished in a setting appropriate to the patient’s medical needs and condition;
  • Ordered and furnished by qualified personnel;
  • One that meets, but does not exceed, the patient’s medical need; and
  • At least as beneficial as an existing and available medically appropriate alternative.” See Proposed Rule.

In addition, CMS adds that it will also utilize commercial payor standards or have an objective panel determine medical necessity if criteria #1 and #2 were met, but not #3. This additional commentary is another example of how subjective and fact-specific determining medical necessity can be. The LCDs will also be consulted.

If adopted, these proposals would arguably lead to the most wide-ranging changes in Medicare’s coverage standards and procedures in decades. The proposal to codify the definition of “reasonable and necessary” applies to all items and services. The inclusion of commercial payor standards may be a wild card.

The definition of medical necessity has not been officially revised – yet. One could imagine that, in the midst of a RAC or MAC audit, auditors and providers will disagree as to the true definition of medical necessity.

Going forward, when you get audited, immediately look and see whether your claim denials were denied due to “lack of medical necessity.” Ask yourself, “Really? Is there no medical necessity in this case…even in the era of COVID?” Because the auditors may be wrong.

Secondly, ensure that the RAC and MAC entity is CMS-certified to review those certain CPT codes for medical necessity. CMS limits audits on medical necessity because of the vagueness of the definition. When auditors find no medical necessity, then providers must push back. And you should push back, legally, of course!

Fairness in Medicare: Post Payment Review in the Courts of Equity

As children, we say things are or are not fair. But what is fair? In law, fairness is “tried” in the courts of equity rather than law. Equitable estoppel and the defense of laches are arguments made in the courts of equity. Is it fair if you’ve been billing Medicare for services that you were told by CMS was billable and reimburse-able – for years – then, unexpectantly, CMS says, “Hey, providers, what you were told was reimburse-able, actually is not. In fact, providers, even though you relied on our own guidance, we will cease and desist from paying you going forward AND…we are now going back three years to retroactively collect the money that we should never have paid you…”

How is this fair? Yet, many of you have probably encountered RAC or MAC audits and a post payment review. What I described is a post payment review. Let me give you an example of a nationwide, claw-back by CMS to providers.

On January 29, 2020, CMS announced that beginning March 1, 2020, MACs will reject claims for HCPCS code L8679 submitted without an appropriate HCPCS/CPT surgical procedure code. Claims for HCPCS code L8679 billed with an appropriate HCPCS/CPT surgical code will be suspended for medical review to verify that coverage, coding, and billing rules have been met.

At least according to the announcement, it sounded like CMS instructed the MACs to stop reimbursing L8679 going forward, but I read nothing about going back in time to recoup.

In the last few months, my team has been approached by chiropractors and holistic medical providers who received correspondence from a UPIC and their MACs that they owe hundreds of thousands of dollars for L8679 going back three years prior to CMS’ 2020 announcement to cease using the code.

In this particular instance, many of the providers who had been using the L8679 code did so under the direct guidance of CMS, MACs, and other agents over the years. It becomes a fairness question. Should CMS be able to recoup for claims paid for services rendered when CMS had informed the providers it was the correct code for years?

Another factor to consider is that many of these providers are victims of an intentional scheme to sell devices with the false advice that the devices are covered by Medicare. Litigation has already been filed against the company. In a case filed December 6, 2019, in US District Court of the Eastern District of PA, Neurosurgical Care LLC sued Mark Kaiser and his current company, Doc Solutions LLC, claiming that Kaiser’s company falsely marketed the device as being covered by Medicare. Stivax is a “non-narcotic and minimally invasive form of neurostimulation” which is represented as “one of the only FDA approved microchip controlled microstimulation devices for treating back, joint and arthritic pain.”

Recall that, over the years, CMS paid for these approved procedures with no problem. This situation begins to leave the realm of the courts of law and into the court of equity. It becomes an equitable issue. Is there fairness in Medicare?

There may not be fairness, but there is an administrative appeal process for health care providers! Use it! Request redeterminations!

ACO Oversight by CMS Questioned by OIG

No one is free from audits. Even auditors get audited.

When the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) audits auditors, however, the auditors get recommendations for changes, not the million-dollar penalties that healthcare providers receive.

In September 2020, OIG released an audit report of the Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). There were 472 ACOs in America as of 2017, per the report. To those ACOs that were not audited for this September 2020 OIG report, expect audits to come. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has instructed the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) auditors, Unified Program Integrity Contractors (UPICs), and Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) to audit ACOs.

These audits for monetary penalties will be dissimilar from audits by OIG, which wielded recommendations. ACOs are large entities: groups of doctors, hospitals, and other providers that come together to give coordinated high-quality care to Medicare beneficiaries.

In 2017, ACOs served approximately 9 million beneficiaries under the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP). Of all the ACOs, 159 were eligible for shared savings payments, and received approximately $799 million. Of the remaining ACOs, 11 were liable for shared losses, and 302 were neither eligible to receive shared savings payments nor liable for shared losses, because they generally did not reduce healthcare costs (or they chose not to participate).

OIG found weaknesses in the oversight of ACOs, which are required to report data on 31 quality measures through three methods of submission:

  • A patient experience-of-care survey (eight measures);
  • Claims and administrative data (eight measures); and
  • The designated CMS web portal (15 measures).

For the September 2020 OIG Report, 159 ACOs were required to select a CMS-certified vendor of their choice. You can learn more about this by listening to my recent webcast: “SNFs & COVID-19: New Audits Coming Soon.”

These CMS-certified vendors would contact the ACOs’ patients for a survey or poll, kind of like the follow-up surveys that you get after a seminar. Sometimes the students rating the teachers marks the best truth-teller of effectiveness.

The patient survey reported eight points of quality measures to CMS on the ACOs’ behalf. The vendors collected the data through mail and telephone surveys. The auditors would mail a questionnaire, and if that went unanswered, they would place a follow-up telephone call.

Twelve auditors conducted the 2017 audit of the ACOs’ patients. They surveyed approximately 400,000 beneficiaries and reported all patient survey data for those who responded.

Prior to 2019, non-medical home care agencies did not have a role in the Medicare Advantage (MA) landscape. After a variety of policy chances, they now have an opportunity to contract with MA plans through two major pathways.

The OIG report found the following weaknesses in CMS’s supervision of ACOs:

  • CMS did not ensure that its contractor provided feedback reports in time to enable survey vendors to include and evaluate quality assurance plans regarding all of the changes implemented to address issues identified.
  • CMS did not ensure that its contractor reviewed survey instruments translated into other languages.

OIG recommended that CMS increase supervision to confirm changes and collect client feedback. It is my opinion that ACO audits will increase.

Programming Note: Knicole Emanuel, Esq. is a permanent panelist on Monitor Mondays. Listen to her RAC Report every Monday at 10 a.m. EST.

Executive Orders and Presidential Memorandums: A Civics Lesson

Before the informative article below , I have two announcements!

(1) My blog has been “in publication” for over eight (8) years, this September 2020. Yay! I truly hope that my articles have been educational for the thousands of readers of my blog. Thank you to everyone who follows my blog. And…

(2) Knicole Emanuel and her legal team have moved law firms!!! We are now at PractUS, LLP. See the video interview of John Lively, who started my new law firm: here. It’s a pretty cool concept.

Click here: For my new bio and contact information.

Ok – Back to the informative news about the most recent Executive Orders…

My co-panelist on RACMonitor, Matthew Albright, gave a fascinating and informative summary on the recent, flurry of Executive Orders, and, he says, expect many more to come in the near future. He presented the following article on RACMonitor Monitor Monday, August 10, 2020. I found his article important enough to be shared on my blog. Enjoy!!

By Matthew Albright
Original story posted on: August 12, 2020

Presidential Executive Order No. 1 was issued on Oct. 20, 1862 by President Lincoln; it established a wartime court in Louisiana. The most famous executive order was also issued by Lincoln a few years later – the Emancipation Proclamation.

Executive orders are derived from the Constitution, which gives the president the authority to determine how to carry out the laws passed by Congress. The trick here is that executive orders can’t make new laws; they can only establish new – and perhaps creative – approaches to implementing existing laws.

President Trump has signed 18 executive orders and presidential memorandums in the past seven days. That sample of orders and memos are a good illustration of the authority – and the constraints – of presidential powers.

An executive order and a presidential memorandum are basically the same thing; the difference is that a memorandum doesn’t have to cite the specific law passed by Congress that the president is implementing, and a memorandum isn’t published in the Federal Register. In other words, an executive order says “this is what the President is going to do,” and a memorandum says “the President is going to do this too, but it shouldn’t be taken as seriously.”  

Executive orders and memorandums often give instructions to federal agencies on what elements of a broader law they should focus on. One good example of this is the executive order signed a week ago by President Trump that provides new support and access to healthcare for rural communities. In that executive order, the President cited the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as the broad law he was using to improve access to rural communities.

Executive orders also often illustrate the limits of presidential authority, a good example being the series of executive orders and memorandums that the president signed this past Saturday, intended to provide Americans financial relief during the pandemic.

One of the memorandums signed on Saturday delayed the due date for employers to submit payroll taxes. The idea was that companies would in turn decide to stop taking those taxes out of employees’ paychecks, at least until December.  

By looking at the language in the memorandum and seeing what it does not try to do, we can learn a lot about presidential limits.

The memorandum does not give employers or employees a tax break. That power rests unquestionably with Congress. The order only delays when the taxes will be collected. Like the grim reaper, the tax man will come to your door someday, even if you can delay when that “someday” is.  

Also, the tax delay is only for employers, and – again, another illustration of the limits of presidential power – it doesn’t tell employers how they should manage this extra time they have to pay the tax. That is, companies could decide to continue to take taxes out of people’s paychecks, knowing that the taxes will still have to be paid someday.

Another memorandum that the president signed on Saturday concerned unemployment benefits. That order illustrates the division in powers between the federal Executive Branch and the authority of the states.

The memorandum provides an extra $400 in unemployment benefits, but in order for it to work, the states would have to put up one-fourth of the money. The memorandum doesn’t require states to put up the money; it “calls on” them to do it, because the President, unless authorized by Congress, can’t make states pay for something they don’t want.

Executive orders and memorandums are reflective of my current position as the father of two pre-teen girls. I can declare the direction the household should go, I can “call on them” to play less Fortnite and eat more fruit, but my orders and their subsequent implementation often just serve to illustrate the limits – both perceived and real –of my paternal power.

Programming Note: Matthew Albright is a permanent panelist on Monitor Mondays (with me:) ). Listen to his legislative update sponsored by Zelis, Mondays at 10 a.m. EST.