Blog Archives

Medicare TPE Audits: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Let’s talk targeted probe-and-educate (TPE) audits. See on RACMonitor as well.

TPE audits have turned out to be “wolf audits” in sheep’s clothing. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) asserted that the intent of TPE audits is to reduce provider burden and appeals by combining medical review with provider education.

But the “education” portion is getting overlooked. Instead, the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) resort to referring healthcare providers to other agencies or contractors for “other possible action,” including audit by a Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC), which can include extrapolation or referral to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) for investigation of fraud. A TPE audit involves up to three rounds of review, conducted by a MAC. Once Congress was instructed that RAC audits are not fair, and providers complained that RAC auditors did not help with education, CMS came up with TPE audits – which, supposedly, had more of an educational aspect, and a more fair approach. But in reality, the TPE audits have created an expensive, burdensome, cyclical pattern that, again, can result in RAC audits. The implementation of TPE audits has been just as draconian and subjective as RAC audits. The penalties can be actually worse than those resulting from RAC audits, including termination from the Medicare program. In this article, I want to discuss the appeal process and why it is important to appeal at the first level of audit.

Chapter Three, Section 3.2.5 of the Medicare Program Integrity Manual (MPIM) outlines the requirements for the TPE process, which leaves much of the details within the discretion of the MAC conducting the review. The MACs are afforded too much discretion. Often, they make erroneous decisions, but providers are not pushing back. A recent one-time notification transmittal provides additional instructions to MACs on the TPE process: CMS Transmittal 2239 (Jan. 24, 2019).

Providers are selected for TPE audit based on data analysis, with CMS instructing MACs to target providers with high denial rates or claim activity that the contractor deems unusual, in comparison to peers. These audits are generally performed as a prepayment review of claims for a specific item or service, though relevant CMS instructions also allow for post-payment TPE audits.

A TPE round typically involves a review of a probe sample of between 20 and 40 claims. Providers first receive notice that they have been targeted by their MAC, followed by additional documentation requests (ADRs) for the specific claims included in the audit.

TPE Audits

The MACs have sole discretion as to which providers to target, whether claims meet coverage requirements, what error rate is considered compliant, and when a provider should be removed from TPE. Health care providers can be exposed to future audits and penalties based merely on the MAC’s resolve, and before the provider has received due process through their right to challenge claim denials in an independent appeals process. In this way, the MACs’ misinterpretation of the rules and misapplication of coverage requirements can lead to further audits or disciplinary actions, based on an erroneous determination that is later overturned. Similarly, while the educational activities are supposedly meant to assist providers in achieving compliance, in reality, this “education” can force providers to appear to acknowledge error findings with which they may disagree – and which may ultimately be determined to be wrong. Often times, the MACs – for “educational purposes” – require the provider to sign documentation that admits alleged wrongdoing, and the provider signs these documents without legal counsel, and without the understanding that these documents can adversely affect any appeal or future audits.

The MACs have the power, based on CMS directive, to revoke billing privileges based on a determination that “the provider or supplier has a pattern or practice of submitting claims that fail to meet Medicare requirements.” 42 C.F.R. § 424.535(a)(8)(ii). This language shows that TPE audit findings can be used as a basis for a finding of abuse of billing privileges, warranting removal from participation in the Medicare program. CMS guidance also gives the MACs authority to refer providers for potential fraud investigation, based on TPE review findings. It is therefore vital that providers submit documentation in a timely fashion and build a clear record to support their claims and compliance with Medicare requirements.

TPE audits promise further education and training for an unsuccessful audit (unsuccessful according to the MAC, which may constitute a flawed opinion), but most of the training is broad in nature and offered remotely – either over the phone, via web conference, or through the mail, with documentation shared on Google Docs. Only on atypical occasions is there an on-site visit.

Why appeal? It’s expensive, tedious, time-consuming, and emotionally draining. Not only that, but many providers are complaining that the MACs inform them that the TPE audit results are not appealable (TPE audits ARE appealable).

TPE reviews and TPE audit overpayment determinations may be appealed through the Medicare appeals process. The first stage of appeal will be to request a redetermination of the overpayment by the MAC. If the redetermination decision is unfavorable, Medicare providers and suppliers may request an independent review by filing a request for reconsideration with the applicable Qualified Independent Contractor (QIC). If the reconsideration decision is unfavorable, Medicare providers and suppliers are granted the opportunity to present their case in a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). While providers or suppliers who disagree with an ALJ decision may appeal to the Medicare Appeals Council and then seek judicial review in federal district court, it is crucial to obtain experienced healthcare counsel to overturn the overpayment determination during the first three levels of review.

Appealing unfavorable TPE audits results sends a message. Right now, the MACs hold the metaphoric conch shell. The Medicare appeals process allows the provider or supplier to overturn the TPE audit overpayment, and reduces the likelihood of future TPE reviews, other Medicare audits, and disciplinary actions such as suspension of Medicare payments, revocation of Medicare billing privileges, or exclusion from the Medicare program. In instances when a TPE audit identifies potential civil or criminal fraud, it is essential that the Medicare provider or supplier engage experienced healthcare counsel to appeal the Medicare overpayment as the first step in defending its billing practices, and thus mitigating the likelihood of fraud allegations (e.g., False Claims Act actions).

CMS and the MACs maintain that TPEs are in the providers’ best interest because education is included. In actuality, TPEs are wolves in sheep’s clothing, masking true repercussions in a cloak of “education.” The Medicare appeal process is a provider’s best weapon.

CMS’ Feeble Attempt to Decrease Medicare Appeal Backlog Will, At Least, Benefit Providers

On August 1, 2015, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) clarified (limited) the scope of Medicare auditors in a published article entitled, “Limiting the Scope of Review on Redeterminations and Reconsiderations of Certain Claims.” (MLN Matters® Number: SE1521).

The limitations apply to Medicare Audit Contractors (MACs) and Qualified Independent Contractors (QICs). This new instruction will apply to audits conducted on or after August 1, 2015, and will not be applied retroactively. Important to note: this instruction does not apply to prepayment review, only post payment reviews.

MLN Matters® Number: SE1521 was published in response to the overwhelming, increasingly, mushroomed backlog of Medicare appeals at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level. Six years ago, prior to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the number of Medicare appeals at the ALJ level was sustainable. Six years later, in 2015, the Medicare appeal backlog has skyrocketed to numbers beyond the comprehension of any adversely affected health care provider, i.e., over 547 days for adjudication!

So in order to combat these overwhelming, bottle-necked and “anything but speedy Medicare appeals,” CMS attempted to rectify the situation by setting new limitations (among other measures) as to the scope of authority that MACs and QICs may present on an audit.  However, these new limitations remind me of the hole that is in my front yard. Yes, a hole. The title of this story is “Inertia: What is Easy to Keep Going, Is Impossible to Pull Back” or “I love my husband’s intentions, but the result looks like the Medicare backlog.”

My wonderful husband and I purchased a small farm at the beginning of the year. If you have been following my blog over the past year, you will know that we have horses, peacocks, a micro pig, two dogs, and a 10-year-old. It is a whirlwind of fun.

Well, included in our purchase was a very shallow, very mosquito-ridden pond. It was about 4-5 inches deep and I never really thought about it. It was a pond. It was not beautiful, but it was not ugly. It was just there.

My husband tells me one day that he is going to “clean out the pond.”

BEFORE (except he already tore up the grass, so I do not have a true before picture):

smallpond

Every day, for three months, I come home to a deeper and deeper pond.

“I’m bound to hit a spring,” he would say. Or “Leroy says that there is a lot of water under our ground.” How Leroy came to this conclusion, I do not know. But, slowly, and almost unperceptively, each day the hole grows wider and deeper.

Until, one day, I come home to this:

AFTER:

hole

It would be funny if it were in your yard. (BTW: For scale, check out the horses (one is white, one is brown) in the top left corner.)

“I love my husband’s intentions, but the result looks like the Medicare backlog.”

You cannot undo digging a hole in your front yard that could swallow an elephant..or maybe two or three elephants. Just like you cannot undo a Medicare appeal backlog that could, potentially, fill my hole with its paperwork. You just have to make do, sit on your front porch, and admire the meteor-like hole that resides in your front lawn.

We (He) have (has) high hopes that our hole will become a lake or a swimming hole. In order to help the cause, I spit in it every time I walk by it. In the alternative, we sometimes aim the sprinkler toward the hole and let it run for a few hours. These are examples of our attempts of reconciling our hole into a beautiful swimming hole.

Similarly, when CMS created these MACs and QICs for Medicare audits, at first, it seemed that the MACs and QICs had no limits as to their scopes of authority to audit. Due to these overzealous and, sometimes, overreaching audits, the appeal backlog increased in number, then multiplied. Similar to the construction of my hole, the appeal backlog grew slowly, at first, then exponentially until the backlog is out of hand and uncontrollable. See blog.

One example of the seemingly limitless authority that the MACs and QICs wielded was that the auditors would provide reasons why claims were noncompliant, the defect could be cured, and the MACs and/or QICs would deny the claim for an entirely different reason.

The auditor would, in essence, be moving the goalposts after you kicked the ball. And the appeal backlog continued to swell.

The ability for the auditors to expand the review of claims beyond which was initially reviewed contributed the massive backlog of Medicare appeals at the ALJ level because more providers appeal an audit with which they disagree (common sense). Just like my hole in my front yard, the backlog of appeals grew, then ballooned until the number of Medicare appeals stuck in the backlog could possibly fill my hole. See blog for the Medicare appeal process and appeal deadlines.

According to the most current statistics available, there is a Medicare appeal backlog of approximately 870,000 appeals.  The average processing time for appeals decided in fiscal year 2015 is 547.1 days.

average time

Look at the balloon effect of “average processing time by fiscal year.” In 2009, the average processing time was 94.9 days (a little over 3 months). Now it is over 540 days (almost a year and a half)!!

“I love my husband’s intentions, but the result looks like the Medicare backlog.”

In an attempt to clear the backlog, CMS released MLN Matters® Number: SE1521, on August 1, 2015, in which “CMS has instructed MACs and QICs to limit their review to the reason(s) the claim or line item at issue was initially denied.” (emphasis added).

An exception, however, is if claims are denied for insufficient documentation and the provider submits documents, the claim may still be denied for lack of medical necessity if the documents submitted do not support medical necessity.

This new instruction found in MLN Matters No. SE1521 is an attempt by CMS to reconcile the huge backlog of Medicare appeals at the ALJ level. It is a small gesture. Quite frankly, this instruction should be self-evident as it is inherently unfair to providers to move the goalposts during an audit. I liken this gesture to my husband aiming the sprinkler toward the hole.

sprinkler

In other words, in my opinion, this feeble gesture alone, will not solve the problem. But, in the meantime, it will benefit providers who have been suffering from the goalposts being moved during an audit.

Once something is so big…

“I love my husband’s intentions, but the result looks like the Medicare backlog.”

Maybe the backlog will be fixed when my hole has transformed to a swimming hole.

Medicare Appeals to OMHA Reaches 15,000 Per Week, Yet Decisions Take Years; Hospital Association Sues Over Medicare Backlog

When you are a health care provider and make the business determination to accept Medicare or Medicaid, you are agreeing to deal with certain headaches.  Low reimbursement rates and more regulations than you can possibly count make accepting Medicare and Medicaid a daunting experience.  Throw in some pre- and post-payment review audits, some inept contractors, and dealing with the government, in general, and you have a trifecta of terrible to-dos.

But having to “pay back” (by reimbursement withholding) an alleged overpayment before an appeal decision is rendered is not a headache which hospitals have agreed to take, says the American Hospital Association.  And it said so very definitively, in the form of a Complaint in the U. S. District Court for the District of Columbia

In both Medicaid and Medicare audits, if you get audited and are told to pay back XX dollars, you have a right to appeal that determination.  Obviously, with Medicare, you appeal on the federal level and with Medicaid, you appeal to the state level.  But the two roads to appeal (the state and federal) are not identical.  Robert Frost once said, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”  However,the Medicare appeal route is NOT the route less traveled by.

As of February 12, 2014, over 480,000 Medicare appeals were pending for assignment to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), with 15,000 new appeals filed each week.  In December 2013, HHS Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) announced a moratorium on assignment of provider appeals to ALJs for at least the next two years, and possibly longer.  The average wait-time for a hearing is approximately 24 months, but will undoubtedly increase quickly due to the moratorium.  A decision would not come until later.  And all the while the parties are waiting, the provider’s reimbursements will be withheld until the alleged overpayment amount is met.  Literally, a Medicare appeal could take 3-5 years.

The American Hospital Association is fed up. And who can blame them?  On May 22, 2014, the American Hospital Association (AHA) filed a Complaint in the United States District Court in the District of Columbia against Kathleen Selebius, in her official capacity as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), complaining that HHS is noncompliant with federal statutory law because of the Medicare appeal backlog.  I am not surprised by AHA’s Complaint; I am only surprised that it took this long for a lawsuit.  I am also surprised that more providers, other than hospitals, are not taking action.

AHA is requesting relief under the Mandamus Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1361.  The Mandamus Act allows a court to compel an officer or employee of the United States or any agency thereof to perform a duty owed.  In this case, the AHA is saying that HHS has a statutory duty to resolve Medicare appeals within 90 days.  So, AHA is asking the district court to compel HHS to resolve Medicare appeals by not later than the end of the 90-day period beginning on the date a request for hearing has been timely filed.

And, here, I am obliged to insert a quick, two thumbs-up for our very own Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH)  in NC for its handling of Medicaid appeals.  If you file a contested case at OAH, it will not take 3-5 years.

AHA’s lawsuit is significant because AHA does not restrict the relief requested to only hospital Medicare appeals.  AHA requests that the District Court “enter a declaratory judgment that HHS’s delay in adjudication of Medicare appeals violates federal law.”  If granted, I would assume that this declaratory judgment would impact all Medicare providers.  The only way to ensure all providers are covered by this decision is for all providers to either (1) file a separate action (to include damages, which is not included in AHA’s action for some reason); or (2) to join AHA’s action (and forego damages), but its impact will be broad.  I am not sure why AHA did not seek damages; the time value of money is a real damage…the non-ability for the hospitals to invest in more beds because their money is stuck at HHS is a real damage…the loss of the interest on the withheld money, which is obviously benefiting the feds, is a real damage.

AHA’s request is not dissimilar to an arrested individual’s right to a speedy trial.  During a criminal trial, the defendant remains incarcerated.  Therefore, because we believe our liberty is so important, the defendant has a right to a speedy trial.  That way, if he or she is innocent, the defendant would have spent the least number of days imprisoned.

With a Medicare audit appeal, HHS begins immediately withholding reimbursements until the alleged overpayment amount is met, even though through the appeal, that overpayment will most likely be decreased quite substantially.  Apparently, across the nation, the percent of overturned Medicare audits through appeal is around 72%,  but I could not find out whether the 72% represents ANY amount overturned or the entire 100% of the audit being overturned.  Because, in my personal experience, 99.9% of Medicare appeals have SOME reduction in the alleged amount (I would have said 100%, but we are taught not to use definitive remarks as attorneys).

Because the provider’s Medicare money is withheld based on an allegation of an overpayment, the fact that the cases are backlogged at the ALJ level is financially distressing for any provider.Even without the backlog, Medicare appeals take longer than Medicaid appeals.  In Medicare, there is four-step appeal process.  Going before the ALJ is the 3rd level.

First, a Medicare appeal begins with the Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) for redetermination.  The MAC must render a redetermination decision within sixty days.

If unsuccessful, a provider can appeal the MAC’s decision to a Qualified Independent Contractor (“QIC”) for reconsideration. QICs must render a decision within sixty days.

Provided that the amount in controversy is greater than $140 (for calendar year 2014), the next level, and where the backlog begins, is at the level of appeal to an ALJ. The ALJ is required both to hold a hearing and to render a decision within ninety days, which is not happening.

Hence, AHA’s lawsuit.  Hopefully AHA will be successful, because a backlog of Medicare appeals at the ALJ level doesn’t help anyone.  And audits are not going away.