Understanding why there’s a need for auditing the auditors.
I frequently encounter complaints by healthcare providers that when they are undergoing Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC), Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC), and, more recently, the Targeted Probe-and-Educate (TPE) audits, the auditors are getting it wrong. That’s as in, during a RAC audit, the auditor finds claims noncompliant, for example, for not having medical necessity – but the provider knows unequivocally that the determination is dead wrong. So the question that I get from the providers is whether they have any legal recourse against the RAC or MAC finding noncompliance, besides going through the tedious administrative action, which we all know can take upwards of 5-7 years before reaching the third administrative level.
To which, now, upon a recent discovery in one of my cases, I would have responded that the only other option for relief would be obtaining a preliminary injunction in federal court. To prove a preliminary injunction in federal court, you must prove: a) a likelihood of success on the merits; and b) that irreparable harm would be incurred without the injunction; i.e., that your company would be financially devastated, or even threatened with extinction.
The conundrum of being on the brink of financial ruin is that you cannot afford a legal defense if you are about to lose everything.
This past month, I had a completely different legal strategy, with a different result. I am not saying that this result would be reached by all healthcare providers that disagree with the results of their RAC or MAC or TPE audit, but I now believe that in certain extreme circumstances, this alternative route could work, as it did in my case.
When this particular client hired me, I quickly realized that the impact of the MAC’s decision to rescind the client’s Medicare contract was going to do more than the average catastrophic outcomes resulting from a rescission of a Medicare contract. First, this provider was the only provider in the area with the ability to perform certain surgeries. Secondly, his practice consisted of 90 percent of Medicare. An immediate suspension of Medicare would have been devastating to his practice. Thirdly, the consequence of these Medicaid patients not undergoing this particular and highly specialized surgery was dire. This trifecta sparked a situation in which, I believed, that even a Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) employee (who probably truly believed that the negative findings cited by the RAC or MAC were accurate) may be swayed by the exigent circumstances.
I contacted opposing counsel, who was the attorney for CMS. Prior to this situation, I had automatically assumed that non-litigious strategies would never work. Opposing counsel listened to the facts. She asked that I draft a detailed explanation as to the circumstances. Now, concurrently, I also drafted this provider’s Medicare appeal, because we did not want to lose the right to appeal. The letter was definitely detailed and took a lot of time to create.
In the end, CMS surprised me and we got the Medicare contract termination overturned within months, not years, and without expensive litigation.
(Originally published on RACMonitor)
Effective January 2, 2019, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) radically changed its guidance on the use of extrapolation in audits by recovery audit contractors (RACs), Medicare administrative contractors (MACs), Unified Program Integrity Contractors (UPICs), and the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (SMRC).
Extrapolation is the tsunami in Medicare/caid audits. The auditor collects a small sample of claims to review for compliance. She then determines the “error rate” of the sample. For example, if 50 claims are reviewed and 10 are found to be noncompliant, then the error rate is set at 20%. That error rate is applied to the universe, which is generally a three-year time period. It is assumed that the random sample is indicative of all your billings regardless of whether you changed your billing system during that time period of the universe or maybe hired a different biller.
With extrapolated results, auditors allege millions of dollars of overpayments against health care providers…sometimes more than the provider even made during that time period. It is an overwhelming wave that many times drowns the provider and the company.
Prior to this recent change to extrapolation procedure, the Program Integrity Manual (PIM) offered little guidance to the proper method for extrapolation.
Well, Change Request 10067 – overhauled extrapolation in a HUGE way.
The first modification to the extrapolation rules is that the PIM now dictates when extrapolation should be used.
Determining When a Statistical Sampling May Be Used. Under the new guidance, a contractor “shall use statistical sampling when it has been determined that a sustained or high level of payment error exists. The use of statistical sampling may be used after documented educational intervention has failed to correct the payment error.” This guidance now creates a three-tier structure:
- Extrapolation shall be used when a sustained or high level of payment error exists.
- Extrapolation may be used after documented educational intervention (such as in the Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) program).
- It follows that extrapolation should not be used if there is not a sustained or high level of payment error or evidence that documented educational intervention has failed.
“High level of payment error” is defined as 50% or greater. The PIM also states that the contractor may review the provider’s past noncompliance for the same or similar billing issues, or a historical pattern of noncompliant billing practice. This is HUGE because so many times providers simply pay the alleged overpayment amount if the amount is low or moderate in order to avoid costly litigation. Now those past times that you simply pay the alleged amounts will be held against you.
Another monumental modification to RAC audits is that the RAC auditor must receive authorization from CMS to go forward in recovering from the provider if the alleged overpayment exceeds $500,000 or is an amount that is greater than 25% of the provider’s Medicare revenue received within the previous 12 months.
The identification of the claims universe was also re-defined. Even CMS admitted in the change request that, on occasion, “the universe may include items that are not utilized in the construction of the sample frame. This can happen for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to: (1) Some claims/claim lines are discovered to have been subject to a prior review, (2) The definitions of the sample unit necessitate eliminating some claims/claim lines, or (3) Some claims/claim lines are attributed to sample units for which there was no payment.”
There are many more changes to discuss, but I have been asked to appear on RACMonitor to present the details on February 19, 2019. So sign up to listen!!!
Once You STOP Accepting Medicaid/Care, How Much Time Has to Pass to Know You Will Not Be Audited? (For Past Nitpicking Documentation Errors)
I had a client, a dentist, ask me today how long does he have to wait until he need not worry about government, regulatory audits after he decides to not accept Medicare or Medicaid any more. It made me sad. It made me remember the blog that I wrote back in 2013 about the shortage of dentists that accept Medicaid. But who can blame him? With all the regulatory, red tape, low reimbursement rates, and constant headache of audits, who would want to accept Medicare or Medicaid, unless you are Mother Teresa…who – fun fact – vowed to live in poverty, but raised more money than any Catholic in the history of the recorded world.
What use is a Medicaid card if no one accepts Medicaid? It’s as useful as our appendix, which I lost in 1990 and have never missed it since, except for the scar when I wear a bikini. A Medicaid card may be as useful as me with a power drill. Or exercising lately since my leg has been broken…
The answer to the question of how long has to pass before breathing easily once you make the decision to refuse Medicaid or Medicare? – It depends. Isn’t that the answer whenever it comes to the law?
By Whom and Why You Are Being Investigated Matters
If you are being investigated for fraud, then 6 years.
If you are being investigated by a RAC audit, 3 years.
If you are being investigated by some “non-RAC entity,” then it however many years they want unless you have a lawyer.
If being investigated under the False Claims Act, you have 6 – 10 years, depending on the circumstances.
If investigated by MICs, generally, there is a 5-year, look-back period.
ZPICS have no particular look-back period, but with a good attorney, reasonableness can be argued. How can you be audited once you are no longer liable to maintain the records?
The CERT program is limited by the same fiscal year.
The Alternative: Self-Disclosure (Hint – This Is In Your Favor)
If you realized that you made an oops on your own, you have 60-days. The 60-day repayment rule was implemented by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”), effective March 14, 2016, to clarify health care providers’ obligations to investigate, report, and refund identified overpayments under the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”).
Notably, CMS specifically stated in the final rule that it only applies to traditional Medicare overpayments for Medicare Part A and B services, and does not apply to Medicaid overpayments. However, most States have since legislated similar statutes to mimic Medicare rules (but there are arguments to be made in courts of law to distinguish between Medicare and Medicaid).
New case law supports due process for Medicare providers. As first seen on RACMonitor.
Due process is one of the cornerstones of our society. Due process is the universal guarantee and found in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides “No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and is applied to all states by the 14th Amendment. From this basic principle flows many legal decisions determining both procedural and substantive rights.
For Medicare and Medicaid providers, however, due process, in the past, has been nonexistent. Imagine that you are accused of owing $5 million to the government. Perhaps it was a CPT® code error. You disagree. You believe that your documentation was proper and that you filed for reimbursement correctly. You appeal the decision that you owe $5 million. You continue conducting business as normal. Suddenly, you realize the government is recouping the $5 million now. Prior to any hearing before a judge. You haven’t been found guilty. What happened to innocent until proven guilty? What happened to due process?
For Medicare appeals there is a five-step appeal process. The law requires the government not to recoup during the first and second levels of appeal. But the first and second levels are jumping through hoops and are not normally successful. It is at the third level – the appeal to an impartial administrative judge – that the alleged recoupments are overturned.
After the second level, according to the black letter of the law, the government can begin recouping the alleged overpayment.
Sadly, in the past, the courts have held that it is proper for the government to recoup reimbursements after the second level. Even though, no hearing has been held before an impartial judge and you haven’t been found guilty of owing the money.
On Sept. 27, 2018, another U.S. District Court in South Carolina has agreed with courts in Texas by granting a provider’s request for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to prevent the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) from recouping monies until after Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearings have been held (Accident, Injury and Rehabilitation, PC, c/a No. 4:18-cv-02173, September 27, 2018).
A new trend in favor of providers seems to be arising. This is fantastic news for providers across the country!
Accident, Injury & Rehab, PC found that the ALJ stage of the appellate process is the most important for providers, as it provides the first opportunity for plaintiff to cross examine defendant’s witnesses and examine the evidence used to formulate the statistical sample. According to the American Hospital Association (AHA), 66 percent of Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) denials are reversed by an ALJ (I actually believe the percentage is higher). The court found that plaintiff’s procedural due process rights were violated by premature recoupment. The court granted Accident, Injury & Rehab, PC’s preliminary injunction restraining and enjoining the government from withholding Medicare payments during the appeal process.
When the government starts recouping filing a preliminary injunction has been shown it to be the best course.
In the past, most preliminary injunctions asking the court to order the government to stop recoupments until a hearing was held was dismissed based on jurisdiction. In other words, the courts held that the courts did not have the authority to render an opinion as to recoupments prior to a hearing. Now, however, the trend is turning, and courts are starting to rule in favor of the provider, finding a violation of procedural due process based on a collateral claim exception.
There are four criteria in order to win a preliminary injunction. A party seeking a preliminary injunction must establish all for the following criteria: (1) that the party is likely to succeed on the merits; (2) that the party is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary injunction; (3) that the balance of the equity tips in the party’s favor; and (4) that injunction is in the public interest.
There is an esoteric legal theory called exhaustion of administrative remedies. So jurisdiction is the question. There are exceptions to the judicial bar. The Supreme Court of United States articulated a collateral claim exception. The Supreme Court permitted a plaintiff to bring a procedural due process claim requesting an evidentiary area hearing before the termination of disability benefits. There are nonwaivable and waivable jurisdictional elements the nonwaivable requirement is that a claim must be presented to the administrative agency. The waivable requirement is that administrative remedies be exhausted.
The Collateral claim exception is when a party brings a claim in federal court when that “constitutional challenge is entirely collateral to its substantive claim of entitlement.”
The new trend in case law is that the courts are finding that the provider’s right to not undergo recoupment during the appeal process is a collateral issue as to the substantive issue of whether the provider owes the money. Therefore, the courts have found jurisdiction as to the collateral issue.
The proverbial ship has sailed. According to courts in Texas and now South Carolina, CMS cannot recoup monies prior to hearings before ALJs. Providers facing large recoupments should file TROs to prevent premature recoupments and to obtain due process.
Premature Recoupment of Medicare or Medicaid Funds Can Feel Like Getting Mauled by Dodgeballs: But Is It Constitutional?
State and federal governments contract with many private vendors to manage Medicare and Medicaid. And regulatory audits are fair game for all these contracted vendors and, even more – the government also contracts with private companies that are specifically hired to audit health care providers. Not even counting the contracted vendors that manage Medicaid or Medicare (the companies to which you bill and get paid), we have Recovery Act Contractors (RAC), Zone Program Integrity Contractors (ZPICs), Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), and Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) auditors. See blog for explanation. ZPICs, RACs, and MACs conduct pre-payment audits. ZPICs, RACs, MACs, and CERTs conduct post-payment audits.
It can seem that audits can hit you from every side.
“Remember the 5 D’s of dodgeball: Dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge.”
Remember the 5 A’s of audits: Appeal, argue, apply, attest, and appeal.”
Medicare providers can contest payment denials (whether pre-payment or post-payment) through a five-level appeal process. See blog.
On the other hand, Medicaid provider appeals vary depending on which state law applies. For example, in NC, the general process is an informal reconsideration review (which has .008% because, essentially you are appealing to the very entity that decided you owed an overpayment), then you file a Petition for Contested Case at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). Your likelihood of success greatly increases at the OAH level because these hearings are conducted by an impartial judge. Unlike in New Mexico, where the administrative law judges are hired by Human Services Department, which is the agency that decided you owe an overpayment. In NM, your chance of success increases greatly on judicial review.
In Tx, providers may use three methods to appeal Medicaid fee-for-service and carve-out service claims to Texas Medicaid & Healthcare Partnership (TMHP): electronic, Automated Inquiry System (AIS), or paper within 120 days.
In Il, you have 60-days to identify the total amount of all undisputed and disputed audit
overpayment. You must report, explain and repay any overpayment, pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. Section 1320a-7k(d) and Illinois Public Aid Code 305 ILCS 5/12-4.25(L). The OIG will forward the appeal request pertaining to all disputed audit overpayments to the Office of Counsel to the Inspector General for resolution. The provider will have the opportunity to appeal the Final Audit Determination, pursuant to the hearing process established by 89 Illinois Adm. Code, Sections 104 and 140.1 et. seq.
You get the point.”Nobody makes me bleed my own blood. Nobody!” – White Goodman
Recoupment During Appeals
Regardless whether you are appealing a Medicare or Medicaid alleged overpayment, the appeals process takes time. Years in some circumstances. While the time gently passes during the appeal process, can the government or one of its minions recoup funds while your appeal is pending?
The answer is: It depends.
Before I explain, I hear my soapbox calling, so I will jump right on it. It is my legal opinion (and I am usually right) that recoupment prior to the appeal process is complete is a violation of due process. People are always shocked how many laws and regulations, both on the federal and state level, are unconstitutional. People think, well, that’s the law…it must be legal. Incorrect. Because something is allowed or not allowed by law does not mean the law is constitutional. If Congress passed a law that made it illegal to travel between states via car, that would be unconstitutional. In instances that the government is allowed to recoup Medicaid/care prior to the appeal is complete, in my (educated) opinion. However, until a provider will fund a lawsuit to strike these allowances, the rules are what they are. Soapbox – off.
Going back to whether recoupment may occur before your appeal is complete…
For Medicare audit appeals, there can be no recoupment at levels one and two. After level two, however, the dodgeballs can fly, according to the regulations. Remember, the time between levels two and three can be 3 – 5 years, maybe longer. See blog. There are legal options for a Medicare provider to stop recoupments during the 3rd through 5th levels of appeal and many are successful. But according to the black letter of the law, Medicare reimbursements can be recouped during the appeal process.
Medicaid recoupment prior to the appeal process varies depending on the state. Recoupment is not allowed in NC while the appeal process is ongoing. Even if you reside in a state that allows recoupment while the appeal process is ongoing – that does not mean that the recoupment is legal and constitutional. You do have legal rights! You do not need to be the last kid in the middle of a dodgeball game.
Don’t be this guy:
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) posted its December 2017 list of health care services that the Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) will be auditing. As usual, home health is on the chopping block. So are durable medical equipment providers. For whatever reason, it seems that home health, DME, behavioral health care, and dentists are on the top of the lists for audits, at least in my experience.
Number one RAC audit issue:
Home Health: Medical Necessity and Documentation Review
To be eligible for Medicare home health services, a beneficiary must have Medicare Part A and/or Part B per Section 1814 (a)(2)(C) and Section 1835 (a)(2)(A) of the Social Security Act:
- Be confined to the home;
- Need skilled services;
- Be under the care of a physician;
- Receive services under a plan of care established and reviewed by a physician; and
- Have had a face-to-face encounter with a physician or allowed Non-Physician Practitioner (NPP).
Medical necessity is the top audited issue in home health. Auditors also love to compare the service notes to the independent assessment. Watch it if you fail to do one activity of daily living (ADL). Watch it if you do too many ADLs out of the kindness of your heart. Deviations from the independent assessment is a no-no to auditors, even if you are going above and beyond to be sweet. And never use purple ink!
Number two RAC audit issue:
Annual Wellness Visits (AWV) billed within 12 months of the Initial Preventative Physical Examination (IPPE) or Annual Wellness Examination (AWV)
This is a simple mathematical calculation. Has exactly 12 months passed? To the day….yes, they are that technical. 365 days from a visit on January 7, 2018 (my birthday, as an example) would be January 7, 2019. Schedule any AWV January 8, 2019, or beyond.
Number three RAC audit issue:
Ventilators Subject to DWO requirements on or after January 1, 2016
This will be an assessment of whether ventilators are medically necessary. Seriously? Who gets a ventilator who does not need one? I was thinking the other day, “Self? I want a ventilator.”
Number four RAC audit issue:
This will be an assessment of whether cardiac pacemakers are medically necessary. Seriously? Who gets a pacemaker who does not need one? I was thinking the other day, “Self? I want a pacemaker.” Hospitals are not the only providers targets for this audit. Ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs) also will be a target. As patient care continues its transition to the outpatient setting, ASCs have quickly grown in popularity as a high-quality, cost-effective alternative to hospital-based outpatient care. In turn, the number and types of services offered in the ASC setting have significantly expanded, including pacemakers.
Number five RAC audit issue:
Evaluation and Management (E/M) Same Day as Dialysis
Except when reported with modifier 25, payment for certain evaluation and management services is bundled into the payment for dialysis services 90935, 90937, 90945, and 90947
It is important to remember that if you receive a notice of overpayment, you need to appeal immediately. The first level of appeal is redetermination, usually with the Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC). Medicare will not begin overpayment collection of debts (or will cease collections that have started) when it receives notice that you requested a Medicare contractor redetermination (first level of appeal).
See blog for full explanation of Medicare provider appeals.
Interestingly, how OIG and who OIG targets for audits is much more transparent than one would think. OIG tells you in advance (if you know where to look).
Prior to June 2017, the Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) OIG updated its public-facing Work Plan to reflect those adjustments once or twice each year. In order to enhance transparency around OIG’s continuous work planning efforts, effective June 15, 2017, OIG began updating its Work Plan website monthly.
Why is this important? I will even take it a step further…why is this information crucial for health care providers, such as you?
These monthly reports provide you with notice as to whether the type of provider you are will be on the radar for Medicare and Medicaid audits. And the notice provided is substantial. For example, in October 2017, OIG announced that it will investigate and audit specialty drug coverage and reimbursement in Medicaid – watch out pharmacies!!! But the notice also states that these audits of pharmacies for speciality drug coverage will not begin until 2019. So, pharmacies, you have over a year to ensure compliance with your records. Now don’t get me wrong… you should constantly self audit and ensure regulatory compliance. Notwithstanding, pharmacies are given a significant warning that – come 2019 – your speciality drug coverage programs better be spic and span.
Another provider type that will be on the radar – bariatric surgeons. Medicare Parts A and B cover certain bariatric procedures if the beneficiary has (1) a body mass index of 35 or higher, (2) at least one comorbidity related to obesity, and (3) been previously unsuccessful with medical treatment for obesity. Treatments for obesity alone are not covered. Bariatric surgeons, however, get a bit less lead time. Audits for bariatric surgeons are scheduled to start in 2018. Considering that 2018 is little more than a month away, this information is less helpful. The OIG Work Plans do not specific enough to name a month in which the audits will begin…just sometime in 2018.
Where do you find such information? On the OIG Work Plan website. Click here. Once you are on the website, you will see the title at the top, “Work Plan.” Directly under the title are the “clickable” subjects: Recently Added | Active Work Plan Items | Work Plan Archive. Pick one and read.
You will see that CMS is not the only agency that OIG audits. It also audits the Food and Drug Administration and the Office of the Secretary, for example. But we are concerned with the audits of CMS.
Other targeted providers types coming up:
- Security of Certified Electronic Health Record Technology Under Meaningful Use
- States’ Collection of Rebates on Physician-Administered Drugs
- States’ Collection of Rebates for Drugs Dispensed to Medicaid MCO Enrollees
- Adult Day Health Care Services
- Oversight of States’ Medicaid Information Systems Security Controls
- States’ MCO Medicaid Drug Claims
- Incorrect Medical Assistance Days Claimed by Hospitals
- Selected Inpatient and Outpatient Billing Requirements
And the list goes on and on…
Do not think that if your health care provider type is not listed on the OIG website that you are safe from audits. As we all know, OIG is not the only entity that conducts regulatory audits. The States and its contracted vendors also audit, as well as the RACs, MICs, MACs, CERTs…
Never forget that whatever entity audits you, YOU HAVE APPEAL RIGHTS!
The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the expansion of Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) audits. At first glance, this appears to be fantastic news coming on the heels of so much craziness at Health and Human Services (HHS). We have former-HHS Secretary Price flying our tax dollars all over. Dr. Don Wright stepping up as our new Secretary. The Medicare appeal backlog fiasco. The repeal and replace Obamacare bomb. Amidst all this tomfoolery, health care providers are still serving Medicare and Medicaid patients, reimbursement rates are in the toilet, which drives down quality and incentivizes providers to not accept Medicare or Medicaid (especially Caid), and providers are undergoing “Audit Alphabet Soup.” I actually had a client tell me that he receives audit letters requesting documents and money every single week from a plethora of different organizations.
So when CMS announced that it was broadening its TPE audits, it was a sigh of relief for many providers. But will TPE audits be the benign beasts they are purporting to be?
What is a TPE audit? (And – Can We Have Anymore Acronyms…PLEASE!)
CMS says that TPE audits are benevolent. CMS’ rhetoric indicates that these audits should not cause the toner to run out from overuse. CMS states that TPE audits will involve “the review of 20-40 claims per provider, per item or service, per round, for a total of up to three rounds of review.” See CMS Announcement. The idea behind the TPE audits (supposedly) is education, not recoupments. CMS states that “After each round, providers are offered individualized education based on the results of their reviews. This program began as a pilot in one MAC jurisdiction in June 2016 and was expanded to three additional MAC jurisdictions in July 2017. As a result of the successes demonstrated during the pilot, including an increase in the acceptance of provider education as well as a decrease in appealed claims decisions, CMS has decided to expand to all MAC jurisdictions later in 2017.” – And “later in 2017” has arrived. These TPE audits are currently being conducted nationwide.
Below is CMS’ vision for a TPE audit:
Clear? As mud?
The chart does not indicate how long the provider will have to submit records or how quickly the TPE auditors will review the documents for compliance. But it appears to me that getting through Round 3 could take a year (this is a guess based on allowing the provider 30 days to gather the records and allowing the TPE auditor 30 days to review).
Although the audit is purportedly benign and less burdensome, a TPE audit could take a whole year or more. Whether the audit reviews one claim or 20, having to undergo an audit of any size for a year is burdensome on a provider. In fact, I have seen many companies having to hire staff dedicated to responding to audits. And here is the problem with that – there aren’t many people who understand Medicare/caid medical billing. Providers beware – if you rely on an independent biller or an electronic medical records program, they better be accurate. Otherwise the buck stops with your NPI number.
Going back to CMS’ chart (above), notice where all the “yeses” go. As in, if the provider is found compliant , during any round, all the yeses point to “Discontinue for at least 12 months.” I am sure that CMS thought it was doing providers a favor, but what that tells me is the TPE audit will return after 12 months! If the provider is found compliant, the audit is not concluded. In fact, according to the chart, the only end results are (1) a referral to CMS for possible further action; or (2) continued TPE audits after 12 months. “Further action” could include 100% prepayment review, extrapolation, referral to a Recovery Auditor, or other action. Where is the outcome that the provider receives an A+ and is left alone??
CMS states that “Providers/suppliers may be removed from the review process after any of the three rounds of probe review, if they demonstrate low error rates or sufficient improvement in error rates, as determined by CMS.”
I just feel as though that word “may” should be “will.” It’s amazing how one word could change the entire process.
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.