Class Action Lawsuit Alleges Right to Inpatient Hospital Stays: Hospitals Are Damned If They Do…and Don’t!
Hospitals – “Lend me your ears; I come to warn you, not to praise RACs. The evil that RACs do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their appeals; So let it be with lawsuits.” – Julius Caesar, with modifications by me.
A class action lawsuit is pending against U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) alleging that the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) encourages (or bullies) hospitals to place patients in observation status (covered by Medicare Part B), rather than admitting them as patients (covered by Medicare Part A). The Complaint alleges that the treatments while in observation status are consistent with the treatments if the patients were admitted as inpatients; however, Medicare Part B reimbursements are lower, forcing the patient to pay more out-of-pocket expenses without recourse.
The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut refused to dismiss the class action case on February 8, 2017, giving the legal arguments within the Complaint some legal standing, at least, holding that the material facts alleged warrant investigation.
The issue of admitting patients versus keeping them in observation has been a hot topic for hospitals for years. If you recall, Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) specifically target patient admissions. See blog and blog. RAC audits of hospital short-stays is now one of the most RAC-reviewed issues. In fiscal year 2014, RACs “recouped” from hospitals $1.2 billion in allegedly improper inpatient claims. RACs do not, however, review outpatient claims to determine whether they should have been paid as inpatient.
On May 4, 2016, CMS paused its reviews of inpatient stays to determine the appropriateness of Medicare Part A payment. On September 12, 2016, CMS resumed them, but with more stringent rules on the auditors’ part. For example, auditors cannot audit claims more than the six-month look-back period from the date of admission.
Prior to September 2016, hospitals would often have no recourse when a claim is denied because the timely filing limits will have passed. The exception was if the hospital joined the Medicare Part A/Part B rebilling demonstration project. But to join the program, hospitals would forfeit their right to appeal – leaving them with no option but to re-file the claim as an outpatient claim.
With increased scrutiny, including RAC audits, on hospital inpatient stays, the class action lawsuit, Alexander et al. v. Cochran, alleges that HHS pressures hospitals to place patients in observation rather than admitting them. The decision states that “Identical services provided to patients on observation status are covered under Medicare Part B, instead of Part A, and are therefore reimbursed at a lower rate. Allegedly, the plaintiffs lost thousands of dollars in coverage—of both hospital services and subsequent skilled nursing care—as a result of being placed on observation status during their hospital stays.” In other words, the decision to place on observation status rather than admit as an inpatient has significant financial consequences for the patient. But that decision does not affect what treatment or medical services the hospital can provide.
While official Medicare policy allows the physicians to determine the inpatient v. observation status, RAC audits come behind and question that discretion. The Medicare Policy states that “the decision to admit a patient is a complex medical judgment.” Ch. 1 § 10. By contrast, CMS considers the determination as to whether services are properly billed and paid as inpatient or outpatient to be a regulatory matter. In an effort to avoid claim denials and recoupments, plaintiffs allege that hospitals automatically place the patients in observation and rely on computer algorithms or “commercial screening tools.”
In a deposition, a RAC official admitted that if the claim being reviewed meets the “commercial screening tool” requirements, then the RAC would find the inpatient status is appropriate, as long as there is a technically valid order. No wonder hospitals are relying on these commercial screening tools more and more! It is only logical and self-preserving!
This case was originally filed in 2011, and the Court of Appeals overturned the district court’s dismissal and remanded it back to the district court for consideration of the due process claims. In this case, the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs could establish a protected property interest if they proved their allegation “that the Secretary—acting through CMS—has effectively established fixed and objective criteria for when to admit Medicare beneficiaries as ‘inpatients,’ and that, notwithstanding the Medicare Policy Manual’s guidance, hospitals apply these criteria when making admissions decisions, rather than relying on the judgment of their treating physicians.”
HHS argues that that the undisputed fact that a physician makes the initial patient status determination on the basis of clinical judgment is enough to demonstrate that there is no due process property interest at stake.
The court disagreed and found too many material facts in dispute to dismiss the case.
Significant discovery will be explored as to the extent to which hospitals rely on commercial screening tools. Also whether the commercial screening tools are applied equally to private insureds versus Medicare patients.
Significant discovery will be explored on whether the hospital’s physicians challenge changing a patient from inpatient to observation.
Significant discovery will be explored as to the extent that CMS policy influences hospital decision-making.
Hospitals need to follow this case closely. If, in fact, RAC audits and CMS policy is influencing hospitals to issue patients as observation status instead of inpatient, expect changes to come – regardless the outcome of the case.
As for inpatient hospital stays, could this lawsuit give Medicare patients the right to appeal a hospital’s decision to place the patient in observation status? A possible, future scenario is a physician places a patient in observation. The patient appeals and gets admitted. Then hospital’s claim is denied because the RAC determines that the patient should have been in observation, not inpatient. Will the hospitals be damned if they do, damned if they don’t?
In the meantime:
Hospitals and physicians at hospitals: Review your policy regarding determining inpatient versus observation status. Review specific patient files that were admitted as inpatient. Was a commercial screening tool used? Is there adequate documentation that the physician made an independent decision to admit the patient? Hold educational seminars for your physicians. Educate! And have an attorney on retainer – this issue will be litigated.
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.
Another Win for the Good Guys! RAC Auditors Cannot Look Back Over 3 Years!!! (BTW: We Already Knew This -Shhhhh!)
I love being right – just ask my husband.
I have argued for years that government auditors cannot go back over three years when conducting a Medicaid/Care audit of a health care provider’s records, unless there are credible allegations of fraud. See blog.
42 CFR 455.508 states that “[a]n entity that wishes to perform the functions of a Medicaid RAC must enter into a contract with a State to carry out any of the activities described in § 455.506 under the following conditions:…(f) The entity must not review clams that are older than 3 years from the date of the claim, unless it receives approval from the State.”
Medicaid RAC is defined as “Medicaid RAC program means a recovery audit contractor program administered by a State to identify overpayments and underpayments and recoup overpayments.” 42 CFR 455. 504.
From the definition of a Medicaid RAC (Medicare RAC is similarly defined), albeit vague, entities hired by the state to identify over and underpayments are RACs. And RACs are prohibited from auditing claims that are older than 3 years from the date of the claim.
In one of our recent cases, our client, Edmond Dantes, received a Tentative Notice of Overpayment from Public Consulting Group (PCG) on May 13, 2015. In a Motion for Summary Judgment, we argued that PCG was disallowed to review claims prior to May 13, 2012. Of the 8 claims reviewed, 7 claims were older than May 13, 2012 – one even went back to 2009!
The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) agreed. In the Order Granting Partial Summary Judgment, the ALJ opined that “[s]tatutes of limitation serve an important purpose: to afford security against stale demands.”
Accordingly, the ALJ threw out 7 of the 8 claims for violating the statute of limitation. With one claim left, the amount in controversy was nominal.
A note as to the precedential value of this ruling:
Generally, an ALJ decision is not binding on other ALJs. The decisions are persuasive. Had DHHS appealed the decision and the decision was upheld by Superior Court, then the case would have been precedent; it would have been law.
Regardless, this is a fantastic ruling , which only bolsters my argument that Medicaid/care auditors cannot review claims over 3 years old from the date of the claim.
So when you receive a Tentative Notice of Overpayment, after contacting an attorney, look at the reviewed claims. Are those reviewed claims over 3 years old? If so, you too may win on summary judgment.
Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) have been prevalent in traditional Medicare and Medicaid for years now. However, RACs have not knocked on the doors of providers who accept Medicare Advantage yet, despite the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requiring them to do so by 2010. Are RACs going to target Medicare Advantage? Keep reading…
RACs are like the Big Bad Wolf in the “Three Little Pigs.” “Little pig, little pig, let me in!” “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin!” “Then I’ll huff and puff and blow your house down!”
According to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), “the Recovery Audit Program’s mission is to identify and correct Medicare improper payments through the efficient detection and collection of overpayments made on claims of health care services provided to Medicare beneficiaries, and the identification of underpayments to providers so that the CMS can implement actions that will prevent future improper payments in all 50 states.”
But the above explanation fails to paint the whole picture.
RACs are compensated by contingency fees. In other words, the more claims they find noncompliant, the more money they are paid. Plus, RACs extrapolate their findings. If a RAC finds $6000 in noncompliant claims, then they extrapolate that number across a universe (usually three years) and come up with some exorbitant number. See blog and blog. The financial incentives create overzealous auditors.
What type of providers accept Medicare Advantage? Advantage providers include optical providers, some durable medical equipment (DME), dentists, nutritionists, and some providers of wellness programs. The Medicare Advantage recipients usually pay a premium. Approximately 15.8 million people rely on Medicare Advantage policies.
CMS has been looking to implement the RAC program on Medicare Advantage for months…if not years. Now, it appears, that the RAC program will be leashed on Medicare Advantage very soon.
“And I’ll blow your house down!!”
CMS released a request for information in December 2015 on how to incorporate RACs into Medicare Advantage, but made little progress until recently.
My “sources” (ha – like I am a journalist) have informed me that the RAC program will soon be released on the Medicare Advantage providers. So be forewarned!!
Caught with your pants down!
By now, however unwanted, health care providers are intimately acquainted with RAC audits. If you are one of the lucky providers who has not had the pleasure of undergoing a RAC audit and accept Medicare/caid, then you should go buy lottery tickets.
For Medicare providers, the RAC audits have been targeted to only Parts A and B. However, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) proposes to expand the RAC audits to Medicare Advantage. CMS has published the proposal and seeks comments by February 1, 2016.
I am reminded of the Bubonic Plague from the 14th century.
As these Medicare audits continue to spread nationwide, to more CPT codes, and to more health care services, providers are warned to wash your hands. It is the best way to prevent acquiring a Medicare audit.
So far, there is no indication when the RAC audits for Medicare Advantage will begin. However, remember that RAC auditors are financially incentivized to audit and find errors. Thus, those RAC auditors will be chomping at the bit to get going.
Wouldn’t you if you were compensated 9-13% of amount found to be owed back to the state?
More to come…
Medicare Alert: Mere Documentation Mistakes May Lead to Termination of Your Medicare Enrollment Contract
Another new CMS rule, released yesterday, increases Medicare provider oversight for fraud, waste, and abuse even more. See CMS Press Release below.
Now CMS can revoke enrollment of Medicare providers who are found to engage in abusive billing practices by billing for services that do not meet the Medicare requirements.
Well, that sounds great on its face. We don’t want Medicare providers billing for services that do not meet the Medicare requirements. We all agree.
Here’s the problem with this very broad new rule…
Who determines whether the Medicare services meet Medicare requirements? A recover audit contractor (RAC) who is paid on contingency fee? See “NC Medicaid RACs Paid to Find Errors by Providers, No Incentive to Find Errors by DMA.” Even though that blog is speaking about NC RACs, it is analogous to Medicare RACs.
I foresee two longterm consequences of this new rule:
1. North Carolina will adopt the same rules for Medicaid billing errors. And we know how accurate those alleged billing errors have been…See “The Exaggeration of Tentative Notices of Overpayment.”
2. On the federal level, Medicare providers are going to start seeing more terminations of their Medicare contracts for supposed billing mistakes. Perhaps without due process. Then providers will have to fight to prove that a property right has been violated.
We shall see…
Here is the CMS press release:
New CMS rules enhance Medicare provider oversight;strengthens beneficiary protections
CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner today announced new rules that strengthen oversight of Medicare providers and protect taxpayer dollars from bad actors. These new safeguards are designed to prevent physicians and other providers with unpaid debt from re-entering Medicare, remove providers with patterns or practices of abusive billing, and implement other provisions to help save more than $327 million annually.
“The changes announced today are common-sense safeguards to preserve Medicare for generations to come, while making the rules more consistent for all providers that work with us,” Administrator Tavenner said. “The Administration is committed to using all appropriate tools as part of its comprehensive program integrity strategy shaped by the Affordable Care Act.”
CMS Deputy Administrator and Director of the Center for Program Integrity, Shantanu Agrawal, M.D., said, “CMS has removed nearly 25,000 providers from Medicare and the new rules help us stop bad actors from coming back in as we continue to protect our patients. For years, some providers tried to game the system and dodge rules to get Medicare dollars; today, this final rule makes it much harder for bad actors that were removed from the program to come back in.”
CMS is using new authorities created by the Affordable Care Act to clamp down on Medicare fraud, waste and abuse. CMS currently has in place temporary enrollment moratoria on new ambulance and home health providers in seven fraud hot spots around the country. The moratoria are allowing CMS to target its resources in those areas, including use of fingerprint-based criminal background checks. These and other successes continue to protect the Medicare Trust Funds. CMS has demonstrated that removing providers from Medicare has a real impact on savings. For example, the Fraud Prevention System, a predictive analytics technology, identified providers and suppliers who were ultimately revoked, and prevented $81 million from being paid.
New changes announced today allow CMS to:
- Deny enrollment to providers, suppliers and owners affiliated with any entity that has unpaid Medicare debt; this will prevent people and entities that have incurred substantial Medicare debts from exiting the program and then attempting to re-enroll as a new business to avoid repayment of the outstanding Medicare debt.
- Deny or revoke the enrollment of a provider or supplier if a managing employee has been convicted of a felony offense that CMS determines to be detrimental to Medicare beneficiaries. The recently implemented background checks will provide CMS with more information about felony convictions for high risk providers or suppliers.
- Revoke enrollments of providers and suppliers engaging in abuse of billing privileges by demonstrating a pattern or practice of billing for services that do not meet Medicare requirements.
Prior To Means BEFORE: An Amendment to N.C. Gen. Stat 108C-5(i) and Renovating the Leaning Tower of Pisa
The way it works with our three, separate branches of government is that if the court system determines that a statute should be interpreted as ‘A,’ and the legislative branch does not appreciate the way in which the statute was interpreted, then, during the next session, the legislative branch can pass a bill into law that specifically states that the statute is ‘B’ (provided the statutes are consistent with the constitution).
Take the leaning Tower of Pisa. It was built on unsteady ground and within 10 years of its construction, the builders knew it would lean…much like many of our Medicaid and Medicare laws. A beautiful tower, on paper, may not work in real life and on unsteady ground. But once the tower is erected, renovations can occur that will stop the tower from falling over (supposedly, the leaning Tower of Pisa is now stable).
Similarly, when a new law is enacted, no one can predict whether the law will work in real life or be effective in the manner for which it was intended.
N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C-5 was enacted in 2011 and allows the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to audit a small sample of a health care provider’s medical records and extrapolate the error rate against the universe of all of the provider’s records. For example, HMS, one of NC’s hired auditors, asks a Hospital X for all 99222, 99219 and 99235 codes, that is, initial hospital encounter codes, for the period of time of January 1, 2010 – January 1, 2011. After HMS reviews a sample of those medical records, it determines that Hospital X is miscoding at an error rate of 45% (a conclusion which is ALWAYS likely to be wrong, from my experience) for an actual overpayment amount (from just that particular record sample) of $100,000.00. N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C-5 allows HMS to extrapolate the actual overpayment over a universe all of the Hospital’s records for ‘x’ number of years, to reach an alleged overpayment amount of $4,000,000.00 for the audited time period
It really is ridiculous. For example, one of my clients, a behavioral health care provider, who works very hard for his clients, received from the auditor an alleged notice of overpayment of $640,441.00. My associate, Robert Shaw, reviewed the exact same documents that the auditors reviewed and determined that the audit was erroneous. Robert didn’t even have to take it to court. After he drafted correspondence to the auditing company with explanations of why the audit was incorrect, the auditing company admitted that almost every single one of its conclusions was in error, and agreed to accept $258.20 for one claim.
Going back to N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C-5, subsection (i) used to state, “Prior to extrapolating the results of any audits, the Department shall demonstrate and inform the provider that (i) the provider failed to substantially comply with the requirements of State or federal law or regulation or (ii) the Department has credible allegation of fraud concerning the provider.”
Using the plain language of the statute, in court, I would often argue in defense of a health care provider that the extrapolation should be thrown out because DHHS would send a Tentative Notice of Overpayment (TNO) that included the extrapolated amount in the same correspondence in which DHHS was “demonstrating and informing” the health care provider that either: (i) the provider failed to substantially comply with the requirements of State or federal law or regulation or (ii) the Department has a credible allegation of fraud concerning the provider. N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C-5 clearly states that the demonstration and informing should be given to the health care provider prior to extrapolating.
The DHHS attorney would argue that my argument would create absurd results in that DHHS could demonstrate and inform the provider in one correspondence, then one minute later send the extrapolation. The judges at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) agreed with me to a point. They agreed that the first extrapolation should be thrown out because DHHS did not demonstrate and inform prior to extrapolating.
However, when a provider receives an extrapolation, the first level of appeal is an informal reconsideration review within DHHS, Division of Medical Assistance (DMA). The hearing officers are hired by DHHS and do not, generally, have legal backgrounds; although I can think of one exception. After the reconsideration review, DHHS, through its hired vendor, conducts another extrapolation, which usually does not usually result in a severe decrease in alleged overpayment.
So the Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) held that the subsequent extrapolations…the extrapolations after receiving the TNO which provides the provider notice, are legit…that the TNOs satisfy the requirement of DHHS to demonstrate and inform the provider prior to extrapolating
Well, long story short, DHHS did not like having to defend itself for not providing sufficient notice prior to extrapolating.
Enter Session Law 2014-100, otherwise known as the sneaky Appropriations Bill that appropriates more than our budget.
Session Law 2014-100 revises N.C. Gen. Stat 108C-5(i) to state “(i) Prior to extrapolating the results of any audits, the Department shall demonstrate and inform the provider that (i) the provider failed to substantially comply with the requirements of State or federal law or regulation or (ii) the Department has a credible allegation of fraud concerning the provider. Nothing in the subsection shall be construed to prohibit the Department from identifying the extrapolated overpayment amount in the same notice that meets the requirements of this subsection.”
See the difference? Poof! The leaning Tower of Pisa is renovated!
Session Law 2014-100 retroactively became effective July 31, 2014. So, going forward, I can no longer argue that the TNO is not sufficient notice in order to throw out the first extrapolation.
However, I do have more arguments as to how DHHS is not complying with N.C. Gen. Stat. 108C-5 in an effort to throw out the extrapolation. There is more than one way to skin a cat! In fact, I am waiting for a decision from an ALJ on an innovative argument I made the last week.
Perhaps the leaning Tower of Pisa will lean a little more in the future despite the renovations…