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The Courts Order Medicare to Stop Recouping Alleged Overpayments Without Due Process!

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.

RAC Forecast: Increased RAC Audits with a High Likelihood of Recoupments

Data regarding the success of the Medicare RAC program does not lie, right? If the report shows success, then increase the RAC process!! And to anyone who reads the new report to Congress…a success the RAC process is!

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently published its 2016 results of the Medicare Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) program. And CMS was not shy in reporting high rates of returns due to the RAC program. With results as amazing as the report touts, it is clear that the Medicare RACs are hoping that this new report on the hundreds of millions they’ve recovered for Medicare will cause the CMS to reverse course on its decision to limit the number of claims they can review. After reviewing the report to CMS, I will be shocked if Congress does not loosen the limitations placed on RACs in the last couple years. The report acts as marketing propaganda to Congress.

My forecast: increased RAC audits with a high likelihood of recoupments.

The RAC program is divided into 5 regions (currently):

2018-09-26 -- RACMapImage.png

In 2016, the RAC regions were arranged a bit differently:

Screen Shot 2018-09-26 at 3.47.10 PM

The mission of the RAC program is to identify and correct overpayments made on claims for health care services provided to beneficiaries, to identify underpayments to providers, and to provide information that allows the CMS to implement corrective actions that will prevent future improper payments. As most of my readers are well aware, I have been critical of the RAC program in the past for being overzealous and hyper (overly) – technical, in an erroneous kind of way. See blog. And blog.

The Social Security Act (SSA), which allows for RAC programs, also requires that the CMS publish and submit a yearly “self-audit” on the RAC program. Even though we are almost in October 2018, the recent report released to Congress covers 2016 – apparently CMS’ data gathering lags a bit (lot). If I have to get my 2018 taxes to the IRS by April 15, 2019, shouldn’t CMS have a similar deadline? Instead of submitting information for 2016 when it’s almost 2019…

RACs are paid on a contingency fee basis, which incentivize the RACs to discover billing irregularities. The amount of the contingency fee is a percentage of the improper payment recovered from, or reimbursed to, providers. The RACs negotiate their contingency fees at the time of the contract award. The base contingency fees range from 10.4 – 14.4% for all claim types, except durable medical equipment (DME). The contingency fees for DME claims range from 15.4 – 18.9%. The RAC must return the contingency fee if an improper payment determination is overturned at any level of appeal although I am unaware whether the RAC has to return the interested gained on holding that amount as well, which cannot be a minute amount given that the Medicare appeal backlog causes Medicare appeals to last upwards of 5 – 9 years.

Beginning in 2017, the RAC contracts had an amendment not previously found in past contracts. Now the RACs are to wait 30-days before reporting the alleged overpayment to the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs). The thought process behind this revision to the RAC contracts is that the 30-day wait period allows the providers to informally discuss the findings with the RACs to determine the provider has additional records germane to the audit that could change the outcome of the audit. Theoretically, going forward, providers should receive notification of an alleged overpayment from the RACs rather than the MACs.

And the 2016 results are (drum roll, please):

RACs uncovered $404.46 million in overpayments and $69.46 million in underpayments in fiscal year 2016, for a total of $473.92 million in improper payments being corrected. This represents a 7.5% increase from program corrections in FY 2015, which were $440.69 million.

63% of overpayments identified in 2016 (more than $278 million) were from inpatient hospital claims, including coding validation reviews.

RACs received $39.12 million in contingency fees.

After factoring in contingency fees, administrative costs, and amounts overturned on appeal, the RAC program returned $214.09 million to the Medicare trust funds in 2016.

CMS has implemented several elements to verify RAC accuracy in identifying improper payments. The Recovery Audit Validation Contractor (RVC) establishes an annual accuracy score for each RAC. Supposedly, if we are to take the CMS report as accurate and unbiased, in FY 2016, each RAC had an overall accuracy score of 91% or higher for claims adjusted from August 2015 through July 2016. I am always amazed at the government’s ability to warp percentages. I had a client given a 1.2% accuracy rating during a prepayment review that would rival J.K. Rowling any day of the year. Robert Galbraith, as well.

To address the backlog of Medicare appeals, CMS offered a settlement process that paid hospitals 68% of what they claimed they were owed for short-term inpatient stays. – I am not confident that this money was accounted for in the overall results of the RAC program in the recent report.

135,492 claims were appealed by healthcare providers. But the RAC report to Congress notes: “appealed claims may be counted multiple times if the claim had appeal decisions rendered at multiple levels during 2016.” Undeniably, if this number is close to accurate, there was a significant down swing of appeals by providers in 2016. (I wonder whether the hospital settlement numbers were included).

Of the total appealed claims, 56,724, or 41.9%, were overturned with decisions in the provider’s favor. (Fact check, please!). In my experience as a Medicare and Medicaid regulatory compliance litigator, the success rate for Medicare and Medicaid alleged overpayments is remarkably higher (but maybe my clients just hired a better attorney (wink, wink!).

With results this good, who needs more RAC auditing? We do!! If the report shows success, then increase the RAC 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.

dodgeball.jpg

“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.

soapbox

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:

stock-vector-cartoon-boy-getting-pelted-by-dodge-balls-189985841

 

RAC Audit Preview: And Those on The Chopping Block Are…(Drum Roll, Please)

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:

Cardiac Pacemakers

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.

How Does OIG Target Provider Types for Audits and Who Needs to Worry?

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:

  • Telehealth
  • 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!

Medicare Audits – TPE Audits Are Here, But For How Long?

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:

TPE3

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.

Going forward:

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?

damned

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.

Federal Court Orders HHS to Eliminate Medicare Appeal Backlog!

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.

Medicare Audits: DRG Downcoding in Hospitals: Algorithms Substituting for Medical Judgment, Part 1

This article is written by our good friend, Ed Roche. He is the founder of Barraclough NY, LLC, which is a litigation support firm that helps us fight against extrapolations.

e-roche

The number of Medicare audits is increasing. In the last five years, audits have grown by 936 percent. As reported previously in RACmonitor, this increase is overwhelming the appeals system. Less than 3 percent of appeal decisions are being rendered on time, within the statutory framework.

It is peculiar that the number of audits has grown rapidly, but without a corresponding growth in the number of employees for Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs). How can this be? Have the RAC workers become more than 900 percent more efficient? Well, in a way, they have. They have learned to harness the power of big data.

Since 1986, the ability to store digital data has grown from 0.02 exabytes to 500 exabytes. An exabyte is one quintillion bytes. Every day, the equivalent 30,000 Library of Congresses is put into storage. That’s lots of data.

Auditing by RACs has morphed into using computerized techniques to pick targets for audits. An entire industry has emerged that specializes in processing Medicare claims data and finding “sweet spots” on which the RACs can focus their attention. In a recent audit, the provider was told that a “focused provider analysis report” had been obtained from a subcontractor. Based on that report, the auditor was able to target the provider.

A number of hospitals have been hit with a slew of diagnosis-related group (DRG) downgrades from internal hospital RAC teams camping out in their offices, continually combing through their claims data. The DRG system constitutes a framework that classifies any inpatient stay into groups for purposes of payment.

The question then becomes: how is this work done? How is so much data analyzed? Obviously, these audits are not being performed manually. They are cyber audits. But again, how?

An examination of patent data sheds light on the answer. For example, Optum, Inc. of Minnesota (associated with UnitedHealthcare) has applied for a patent on “computer-implemented systems and methods of healthcare claim analysis.” These are complex processes, but what they do is analyze claims based on DRGs.

The information system envisaged in this patent appears to be specifically designed to downgrade codes. It works by running a simulation that switches out billed codes with cheaper codes, then measures if the resulting code configuration is within the statistical range averaged from other claims.

If it is, then the DRG can be downcoded so that the revenue for the hospital is reduced correspondingly. This same algorithm can be applied to hundreds of thousands of claims in only minutes. And the same algorithm can be adjusted to work with different DRGs. This is only one of many patents in this area.

When this happens, the hospital may face many thousands of downgraded claims. If it doesn’t like it, then it must appeal.

Here there is a severe danger for any hospital. The problem is that the cost the RAC incurs running the audit is thousands of time less expensive that what the hospital must spend to refute the DRG coding downgrade.

This is the nature of asymmetric warfare. In military terms, the cost of your enemy’s offense is always much smaller than the cost of your defense. That is why guerrilla warfare is successful against nation states. That is why the Soviet Union and United States decided to stop building anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems — the cost of defense was disproportionately greater than the cost of offense.

Hospitals face the same problem. Their claims data files are a giant forest in which these big data algorithms can wander around downcoding and picking up substantial revenue streams.

By using artificial intelligence (advanced statistical) methods of reviewing Medicare claims, the RACs can bombard hospitals with so many DRG downgrades (or other claim rejections) that it quickly will overwhelm their defenses.

We should note that the use of these algorithms is not really an “audit.” It is a statistical analysis, but not done by any doctor or healthcare professional. The algorithm could just as well be counting how many bags of potato chips are sold with cans of beer.

If the patient is not an average patient, and the disease is not an average disease, and the treatment is not an average treatment, and if everything else is not “average,” then the algorithm will try to throw out the claim for the hospital to defend. This has everything to do with statistics and correlation of variables and very little to do with understanding whether the patient was treated properly.

And that is the essence of the problem with big data audits. They are not what they say they are, because they substitute mathematical algorithms for medical judgment.

EDITOR’ NOTE: In Part II of this series, Edward Roche will examine the changing appeals landscape and what big data will mean for defense against these audits. In Part III, he will look at future scenarios for the auditing industry and the corresponding public policy agenda that will involve lawmakers.

 

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.