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The Catastrophic Effect of Natural Disasters on Medicare Audits

When natural disasters strike, Medicare and Medicaid audits become less important, and human safety becomes most important. During Hurricane Ian, 16 hospitals were evacuated in Florida alone.  Hospitals and long-term care facilities were without water.

Approximately, 8,000 patients were evacuated from 47 nursing homes and 115 assisted living facilities. Seventy-eight nursing homes lost power and all had to implement emergency plans involving generator power. Did the providers continue to bill during this time? If so, could regulations be followed in the midst of a pandemic.

These natural disasters impact future Medicare and Medicaid audits. Obviously, during natural disasters a hospital may not be able to maintain the two-midnight rule or determine whether a patient is in observation status or in-patient. You may be surprised to hear that there are no automatic audit exceptions during a disaster.

The general rule, which has exceptions, is a 30-day extension for records requests. Broadly speaking, Medicare fee-for-service has three sets of potential temporary adjustments that can be made to address an emergency or disaster situation.  These include: 

  1. Applying flexibilities that are already available under normal business rules. This is on an individual basis;
  2. Waiver or modification of policy or procedural norms by CMS; and
  3. Waiver or modification of certain Medicare requirements pursuant to waiver authority under § 1135 of the Social Security Act.  This waiver authority can be invoked by the Secretary of the DHHS in certain circumstances.

These waivers are not automatic.

Section 1135 of the Social Security Act authorizes the Secretary DHHS to waive or modify certain Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, and HIPAA requirements.  Two prerequisites must be met before the Secretary may invoke the § 1135 waiver authority.  First, the President must have declared an emergency or disaster, and the Secretary must have declared a Public Health Emergency (PHE).

Waivers authorized by the statute apply to Medicare in the context of the following requirements:

  • conditions of participation or other certification requirements applicable to providers;
  • licensure requirements applicable to physicians and other health professionals;
  • sanctions for violations of certain emergency medical standards under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA)
  • sanctions relating to physician self-referral limitations (Stark)
  • performance deadlines and timetables (modifiable only; not waivable); and
  • certain payment limitations under the Medicare Advantage program.

Following a disaster, such as Ian, there is no standing authority for CMS to provide special emergency/disaster relief funding following an emergency or disaster in order to compensate providers for lost reimbursement.  Congress may appropriate disaster-specific special funding for such; but absent such special appropriation, Medicare does not provide funding for financial losses.

In the context of Medicare audits, providers can obtain extensions to audit requests. Audits will only be suspended on a case-by-case basis, which means it is a subjective standard. Natural disasters are awful, and we probably need more comprehensive audit exceptions.

PHE Is an Enigma for Most Providers

As of now, the public health emergency (PHE) for the COVID-19 pandemic will expire July 24, 2020, unless it is renewed. Fellow contributor David Glaser and I have both reported on the potential end date of the PHE. Recent intel from Dr. Ronald Hirsh is that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) may renew the PHE period. Each time the PHE period is renewed, it is effective for another 90 days. Recent news about the uptick in COVID cases may have already alerted you that the PHE period will probably be prolonged.

CMS has given guidance that the exceptions that it has granted during this period of the PHE may be extended to Dec. 1, 2020. There is no indication of the Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) and Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) audits being suspended until December 2020. In fact, we expect the audits to begin again any day. There will be confusion when audits resume and COVID exceptions are revoked on a rolling basis.

I witnessed some interesting developments as a health care attorney during this ongoing pandemic. Three of my physician clients were erroneously placed on the Medicare exclusion lists. One would think that during the pandemic, CMS would move mountains to allow a Harvard-trained ER doctor to work in an ER. Because of the lack of staff, it was actually difficult to achieve an easy fix. This doctor was suspended from Medicare based on an accidental and inadvertent omission of a substance abuse issue more than 10 years ago. He disclosed everything except an 11-year-old misdemeanor. He did not omit the misdemeanor purposely. Instead, this ER physician relies on other hospital staff to submit his Medicare re-credentialing every year, as he should. It just happened that this year, the year of COVID, this doctor got caught up in a mistake that in normal times would have been a phone call away from fixing. We cleared up his issue, but not until he was unable to work for over two months, during the midst of the PHE.

At the time of the announcement of the public health emergency, another company, a home health provider, was placed on prepayment review. I am not sure how many of you are familiar with prepayment review, but this is a Draconian measure that all States and the federal government may wield against health care providers. When you are on prepayment review, you cannot get paid until another independent contracted entity reviews your claims “objectively.” I say objectively in quotes because I have yet to meet a prepayment review audit with which I agreed.

Mostly because of COVID, we were forced to argue for a preliminary injunction, allowing this home heath provider to continue to provide services and get paid for services rendered during the PHE. We were successful. That was our first lawsuit during COVID. I believe we went to trial in April 2020. We had another trial in May 2020, for which we have not received the result, although we have high hopes. I may be able to let you know the outcome eventually. But for now, because of COVID, with a shortage of court reporters willing to work, we will not receive the transcript from the trial until over four weeks after the trial.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, we begin our third COVID trial. For the first time since COVID, it will not be virtual. This is the guidance that conveys to me that RAC and MAC audits will begin again soon. If a civil judge is ordering the parties to appear in person, then the COVID stay-at-home orders must be decreasing. I cannot say I am happy about this most recent development (although audits may be easier if they are conducted virtually).

The upshot is that no one really knows how the next few months will unfold in the healthcare industry. Some hospitals and healthcare systems are going under due to COVID. Big and small hospital systems are in financial despair. A RAC or MAC audit hitting in the wake of the COVID pandemic could cripple most providers. In the rearranged words of Roosevelt, “speak loudly, and carry a big stick.”