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Provider Relief Funds: The Hottest RAC Audit Subject

Reporting the use of PRFs will be an ongoing issue due to the fraud and abuse implications of misusing PRFs.

The federal Provider Relief Fund (PRF) was created under the provisions of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was passed to address the economic harm suffered by healthcare providers that have incurred (or will incur) additional expenses and have lost (or will lose) significant revenue as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. PRF payments have been made from either the “general distribution” tranche or via various “targeted distributions.” PRF payment amounts and whether the providers complied with the terms and conditions will be a hotly contested topic in Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) and Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) audits for years to come. If Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) auditors put out a monthly magazine, like Time, PRF would be on the cover. This will be the hot topic of RAC audits, come Jan. 1, 2021.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) will audit Medicare payments made to hospitals for COVID-19 discharges that qualified for the 20-percent add-on payment under the CARES Act, according to a new item on the agency’s work plan.

To use the PRF funding from either the general or targeted distributions, providers must attest to receiving the funds and agree to all terms and conditions. However, what constitutes a “healthcare-related expense” or how to calculate “lost revenue” is not clearly defined. Similarly, how you net healthcare-related expenses toward lost revenue is also vague and undefined. On Nov. 2, HHS issued a clarification to post-payment reporting guidance for PRF funds.

The current guidance, issued Oct. 22, includes a two-step process for providers to report their use of PRF payments. The guidance specifically cites:

  • Healthcare-related expenses attributable to COVID that another source has not reimbursed and is not obligated to reimburse, which may include general and administrative (G&A) or “healthcare-related operating expenses;” and
  • PRF payment amounts not fully expended on healthcare-related expenses attributable to coronavirus are then applied to lost revenues associated with patient care, net of the healthcare-related expenses attributable to coronavirus calculated under the first step. Recipients may apply PRF payments toward lost revenue, up to the amount of the difference between their 2019 and 2020 actual patient care revenue.

HHS’s newest clarification came from its response to a FAQ, in which it said that healthcare-related expenses are no longer netted against the patient care lost revenue amount cited in the second portion. HHS indicated that a revised notice would be posted to remove the “net of the healthcare-related expenses” language in the guidance. Of course, as of now, we have no guidance regarding when this clarification is to be put into place officially. Yet another moving target for auditors.

Anticipate audits of the use of your PRF payments. CMS is choosing a sample of hospitals across the country that have received PRF payments to verify that such expenditures were for healthcare-related expenses. For each audit, OIG will obtain data and interview HHS/PRF program officials to understand how PRF payments were calculated, and then review actual PRF payments for compliance with CARES Act requirements. OIG will also review whether HHS’s controls over PRF payments ensured that payments were calculated correctly and disbursed to eligible providers.

Audits will also focus on how providers initially applied to receive PRFs, including calculations utilized and how COVID-19 patients are defined. When each hospital ceased netting expenses against lost revenue will now be another hot topic.

Balance billing is another area of interest. The terms and conditions require providers that accept the PRFs not to collect out-of-pocket payments from patients for all care for a presumptive or actual case of COVID-19 that exceeded what they would pay an in-network provider.

More havoc may ensue with any purchases or sales transactions that occur in the next year or so. Providers will need to know how to navigate compliance risks associated with any accepted or transferred PRFs. Tracking and reporting use of the PRFs will also be an ongoing issue due to the fraud and abuse implications of misusing PRFs, and there is limited guidance regarding how use will be audited. Many questions remain unanswered. Many terms remain undefined.

Programming Note: Knicole Emanuel, Esq. is a permanent panelist on Monitor Mondays. Listen to her RAC Report every Monday at 10 a.m. EST.

The Undefined, Definition of “Medical Necessity”

While the Coronavirus pandemic is horrible and seems to be getting worse. COVID has forced slight, positive changes in the telehealth arena and, perhaps, in the widening of the ambiguous definition of “medical necessity” or, as I call it – the undefined, definition of “medical necessity.” Medical necessity is the backbone of rendering health care services. Without it, services should not be provided. Yet, medical necessity is the most litigated topic in all of audits.

On September 1, 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) published a proposed rule that will codify a definition of “medical necessity” for Medicare purposes. So far, the definition of medical necessity varies, depending on the source. The MACs have been given long rein in defining the term on an individual and separate basis, creating disparity in definitions and criteria. The proposed rule’s comment period ended November 2, 2020.

All this to say medical necessity is in the eye of the beholder. Much like beauty. Why then, can RAC and MAC auditors who are not doctors, not firsthand, treating providers, not nurses or LCASs, decide that medical necessity does or does not exist for a patient that they have never seen?

Black’s Law Dictionary (the most prominent legal dictionary) has a super, unhelpful definition of medical necessity: “If not carried out the patient’s situation could worsen. For a patient’s treatment found to be necessary is this specific type of procedure or treatment.”

The American Medical Association (“AMA”), on the other hand, has a more detailed definition, probably unintended to make it all the more confusing:

“Our AMA defines medical necessity as: Health care services or products that a prudent physician would provide to a patient for the purpose of preventing, diagnosing or treating an illness, injury, disease or its symptoms in a manner that is: (a) in accordance with generally accepted standards of medical practice; (b) clinically appropriate in terms of type, frequency, extent, site, and duration; and (c) not primarily for the economic benefit of the health plans and purchasers or for the convenience of the patient, treating physician, or other health care provider.”

CMS’ proposed rule codifies a definition of what makes an item or service medically “reasonable and necessary” under the Social Security Act 1861(a)(1)(A). The rule, if finalized, would codify in regulations a definition of “reasonable and necessary” items and services based on a definition currently used by Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), with an additional element that potentially would include coverage determinations by commercial insurers as a factor in making Medicare coverage determinations.

The Proposed Definition (To be Codified in 42 CFR 405.201)

“We are proposing to codify the longstanding Program Integrity Manual definition of “reasonable and necessary” into our regulations at 42 CFR 405.201(b), with modification. Under the current definition, an item or service is considered “reasonable and necessary” if it is (1) safe and effective; (2) not experimental or investigational; and (3) appropriate, including the duration and frequency that is considered appropriate for the item or service, in terms of whether it is—

  • Furnished in accordance with accepted standards of medical practice for the diagnosis or treatment of the patient’s condition or to improve the function of a malformed body member;
  • Furnished in a setting appropriate to the patient’s medical needs and condition;
  • Ordered and furnished by qualified personnel;
  • One that meets, but does not exceed, the patient’s medical need; and
  • At least as beneficial as an existing and available medically appropriate alternative.” See Proposed Rule.

In addition, CMS adds that it will also utilize commercial payor standards or have an objective panel determine medical necessity if criteria #1 and #2 were met, but not #3. This additional commentary is another example of how subjective and fact-specific determining medical necessity can be. The LCDs will also be consulted.

If adopted, these proposals would arguably lead to the most wide-ranging changes in Medicare’s coverage standards and procedures in decades. The proposal to codify the definition of “reasonable and necessary” applies to all items and services. The inclusion of commercial payor standards may be a wild card.

The definition of medical necessity has not been officially revised – yet. One could imagine that, in the midst of a RAC or MAC audit, auditors and providers will disagree as to the true definition of medical necessity.

Going forward, when you get audited, immediately look and see whether your claim denials were denied due to “lack of medical necessity.” Ask yourself, “Really? Is there no medical necessity in this case…even in the era of COVID?” Because the auditors may be wrong.

Secondly, ensure that the RAC and MAC entity is CMS-certified to review those certain CPT codes for medical necessity. CMS limits audits on medical necessity because of the vagueness of the definition. When auditors find no medical necessity, then providers must push back. And you should push back, legally, of course!

Fairness in Medicare: Post Payment Review in the Courts of Equity

As children, we say things are or are not fair. But what is fair? In law, fairness is “tried” in the courts of equity rather than law. Equitable estoppel and the defense of laches are arguments made in the courts of equity. Is it fair if you’ve been billing Medicare for services that you were told by CMS was billable and reimburse-able – for years – then, unexpectantly, CMS says, “Hey, providers, what you were told was reimburse-able, actually is not. In fact, providers, even though you relied on our own guidance, we will cease and desist from paying you going forward AND…we are now going back three years to retroactively collect the money that we should never have paid you…”

How is this fair? Yet, many of you have probably encountered RAC or MAC audits and a post payment review. What I described is a post payment review. Let me give you an example of a nationwide, claw-back by CMS to providers.

On January 29, 2020, CMS announced that beginning March 1, 2020, MACs will reject claims for HCPCS code L8679 submitted without an appropriate HCPCS/CPT surgical procedure code. Claims for HCPCS code L8679 billed with an appropriate HCPCS/CPT surgical code will be suspended for medical review to verify that coverage, coding, and billing rules have been met.

At least according to the announcement, it sounded like CMS instructed the MACs to stop reimbursing L8679 going forward, but I read nothing about going back in time to recoup.

In the last few months, my team has been approached by chiropractors and holistic medical providers who received correspondence from a UPIC and their MACs that they owe hundreds of thousands of dollars for L8679 going back three years prior to CMS’ 2020 announcement to cease using the code.

In this particular instance, many of the providers who had been using the L8679 code did so under the direct guidance of CMS, MACs, and other agents over the years. It becomes a fairness question. Should CMS be able to recoup for claims paid for services rendered when CMS had informed the providers it was the correct code for years?

Another factor to consider is that many of these providers are victims of an intentional scheme to sell devices with the false advice that the devices are covered by Medicare. Litigation has already been filed against the company. In a case filed December 6, 2019, in US District Court of the Eastern District of PA, Neurosurgical Care LLC sued Mark Kaiser and his current company, Doc Solutions LLC, claiming that Kaiser’s company falsely marketed the device as being covered by Medicare. Stivax is a “non-narcotic and minimally invasive form of neurostimulation” which is represented as “one of the only FDA approved microchip controlled microstimulation devices for treating back, joint and arthritic pain.”

Recall that, over the years, CMS paid for these approved procedures with no problem. This situation begins to leave the realm of the courts of law and into the court of equity. It becomes an equitable issue. Is there fairness in Medicare?

There may not be fairness, but there is an administrative appeal process for health care providers! Use it! Request redeterminations!

ACO Oversight by CMS Questioned by OIG

No one is free from audits. Even auditors get audited.

When the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) audits auditors, however, the auditors get recommendations for changes, not the million-dollar penalties that healthcare providers receive.

In September 2020, OIG released an audit report of the Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). There were 472 ACOs in America as of 2017, per the report. To those ACOs that were not audited for this September 2020 OIG report, expect audits to come. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has instructed the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) auditors, Unified Program Integrity Contractors (UPICs), and Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) to audit ACOs.

These audits for monetary penalties will be dissimilar from audits by OIG, which wielded recommendations. ACOs are large entities: groups of doctors, hospitals, and other providers that come together to give coordinated high-quality care to Medicare beneficiaries.

In 2017, ACOs served approximately 9 million beneficiaries under the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP). Of all the ACOs, 159 were eligible for shared savings payments, and received approximately $799 million. Of the remaining ACOs, 11 were liable for shared losses, and 302 were neither eligible to receive shared savings payments nor liable for shared losses, because they generally did not reduce healthcare costs (or they chose not to participate).

OIG found weaknesses in the oversight of ACOs, which are required to report data on 31 quality measures through three methods of submission:

  • A patient experience-of-care survey (eight measures);
  • Claims and administrative data (eight measures); and
  • The designated CMS web portal (15 measures).

For the September 2020 OIG Report, 159 ACOs were required to select a CMS-certified vendor of their choice. You can learn more about this by listening to my recent webcast: “SNFs & COVID-19: New Audits Coming Soon.”

These CMS-certified vendors would contact the ACOs’ patients for a survey or poll, kind of like the follow-up surveys that you get after a seminar. Sometimes the students rating the teachers marks the best truth-teller of effectiveness.

The patient survey reported eight points of quality measures to CMS on the ACOs’ behalf. The vendors collected the data through mail and telephone surveys. The auditors would mail a questionnaire, and if that went unanswered, they would place a follow-up telephone call.

Twelve auditors conducted the 2017 audit of the ACOs’ patients. They surveyed approximately 400,000 beneficiaries and reported all patient survey data for those who responded.

Prior to 2019, non-medical home care agencies did not have a role in the Medicare Advantage (MA) landscape. After a variety of policy chances, they now have an opportunity to contract with MA plans through two major pathways.

The OIG report found the following weaknesses in CMS’s supervision of ACOs:

  • CMS did not ensure that its contractor provided feedback reports in time to enable survey vendors to include and evaluate quality assurance plans regarding all of the changes implemented to address issues identified.
  • CMS did not ensure that its contractor reviewed survey instruments translated into other languages.

OIG recommended that CMS increase supervision to confirm changes and collect client feedback. It is my opinion that ACO audits will increase.

Programming Note: Knicole Emanuel, Esq. is a permanent panelist on Monitor Mondays. Listen to her RAC Report every Monday at 10 a.m. EST.

RAC Audits Expected During the COVID Pandemic

Even though the public health emergency (“PHE”) for the COVID pandemic is scheduled to expire July 24, 2020, all evidence indicates that the PHE will be renewed. I cannot imagine a scenario in which the PHE is not extended, especially with the sudden uptick of COVID.

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

Remember the emergency-room physician whom I spoke about on the June 29 on Monitor Mondays? The physician whose Medicare enrollment was revoked due to a computer error or an error on the part of CMS. What normally would have been an easy fix, because of COVID, became more difficult. Because of COVID, he was unable to work for three months. He is back up and running now. The point is that COVID really messed up so many aspects of our lives.

The extension of PHE, technically, has no bearing on RAC and MAC audits coming back. Word on the street is that RAC and MAC audits are returning August 2020.

This month, July 2020, CMS released, “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Provider Burden Relief Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).” (herein afterward referred as “CMS July 2020 FAQs”).

The question was posed to CMS: “Is CMS suspending most Medicare-Fee-for-Service (FFS) medical review during the PHE for the COVID-19 pandemic? The answer is, according to CMS, “As states reopen, and given the importance of medical review activities to CMS’ program integrity efforts, CMS expects to discontinue exercising enforcement discretion beginning on Aug. 3, 2020, regardless of the status of the public health emergency. If selected for review, providers should discuss with their contractor any COVID-19-related hardships they are experiencing that could affect audit response timeliness. CMS notes that all reviews will be conducted in accordance with statutory and regulatory provisions, as well as related billing and coding requirements. Waivers and flexibilities in place at the time of the dates of service of any claims potentially selected for review will also be applied.” See CMS July 2020 FAQs.

Monday, July 13, 2020, we began our fourth “COVID-virtual trial.” The Judges with whom I have had interaction have taken a hard stance to not “force” someone to appear in person. It appears, at least to me, that virtual trials are the wave of the future. This is the guidance that conveys to me that RAC and MAC audits will begin again in August. Virtual audits may even be the best thing that ever happened to RAC and MAC audits. Maybe now the auditors will actually read the documents that the provider gives them.

Another specific issue addressed in the CMS’ July 2020 FAQs is that given the nature of the pandemic and the inability to collect signatures during this time, CMS will not be enforcing the signature requirement. Typically, Part B drugs and certain Durable Medical Equipment (DME) covered by Medicare require proof of delivery and/or a beneficiary’s signature. Suppliers should document in the medical record the appropriate date of delivery and that a signature was not able to be obtained because of COVID-19. This exception may or may not extend until Dec. 31, 2020.

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

Programming Note: Knicole Emanuel is a permanent panelist on Monitor Mondays. Listen to her live reporting every Monday at 10 a.m. EST.

PHE Is an Enigma for Most Providers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knicole Emanuel Appears on the Hospital Finance Podcast – Suspension of Audits

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To listen, please click here.

Highlights of this episode include:

  • Background on why CMS will forego all audits unrelated to the coronavirus.
  • What types of audits will CMS continue during the coronavirus pandemic?
  • What providers need to know about complying with current audits, such as TPE audits.
  • How providers can protect themselves by documenting exceptions such as two-day admissions.
  • And more…

Mike Passanante: Hi, this is Mike Passanante and welcome back to the award-winning Hospital Finance Podcast®.

As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, the government has suspended most auditing activities for providers. To sort out what that means for hospitals, I’m joined by Knicole Emanuel. Knicole is an attorney at Potomac Law Group in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she concentrates on Medicare and Medicaid regulatory compliance litigation. Knicole, welcome to the show.

Knicole Emanuel: Thank you and thank you for having me.

Mike: Knicole, the government announced that it is suspending survey activities. Practically what does that mean for providers?

Knicole: Well, so right now because of the Coronavirus, CMS has decided to forego audits that are unrelated to the coronavirus. So actually effective April 3, 2020. The only audits that will be conducted will be those audits that are germane to all immediate Jeopardy complaints. Those kind of cases that represent a situation in which an entities non-compliance has placed the health and safety of recipients in its care at risk for serious injury. So we’re talking about potential serious injury or serious harm.

Another audit that’s going to continue would be complaints alleging infection control concerns because that would obviously be impacted by the coronavirus. Any sort of statutorily required recertification surveys are going to be conducted. I would assume that they’re going to be conducted telephonically. They’re not going to be going on-site and revisits necessary to resolve current enforcement actions. That’s important because when this Coronavirus all came about, there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, perhaps thousands upon thousands of healthcare providers already in the middle of TPE audits or RAC audits or MAC audit. And they’d already had on-site visits, they’d already had maybe perhaps a lower accuracy rating. And they’re going to be stuck in this cycle of being stuck in the audit until they can get a resurvey because with this coronavirus the penalties that they’re enduring, whether it’s a suspension of admission, or whether it’s a monetary penalty. These penalties are being administered even if they cannot have a secondary or a revisit of the audit to get them off of the penalty that they’re currently on. So it’s really important that people who are in the middle of audit and when all this came down to get them off of the audit cycle so they can go back to providing care.

Mike: So essentially, there are a number of activities that are suspended. But it’s important for providers to know that there is a subset of activities that will continue even during this period.

Knicole: Correct. But they’re all going to be activities that are of the utmost importance. The items that take lower priority are going to be pushed down.

Mike: Okay, and you mentioned the TPE audits a second ago. So that’s the targeted probe and education. Are they going to continue during this time period as far as you know?

Knicole: Well, so as far as I know, they are not going to continue as in they’re not going to start new TPE audit. Now the question then becomes, “Well, I received a document request a month ago for a TPE audit. Do I need to comply now?” And the conservative safe answer is to go ahead and keep complying with these document requests. Although the deadlines for these document requests, those are going to be extended. I’m sure you’ll be able to get extensions for trying to comply with those. And in reality, if you contact the people who are conducting the audit, you may find that the entire audit in general is put on pause. But don’t assume it’s put on pause. Try to make sure you comply, unless you find out it’s on pause. And if you get something over the email or over a phone that says that your TPE audit is paused currently, follow up with an email and get it in writing. Because future audit, they’re not going to remember that your particular audit was with pause during the coronavirus.

Mike: That’s great advice, Knicole. Do you have any other recommendations for providers as they’re navigating through this time?

Knicole: Yes, I do. There are a number of providers right now that are asking for exceptions, and I can give examples. So for example, in the hospital setting, there are hospitals that are asking for waivers for the inpatient admission standards or the two-day admission, or the moon rules. All those kind of things are asking for exceptions, and a lot of the hospital, A lot of the providers are getting the exceptions they need to allow people to have to stay longer in their hospitals because they have nowhere to discharge them. They can’t go back to their nursing homes where the coronavirus may or may not be. And so, because they’re getting all these exceptions, five years from now when you’re undergoing an audit, no one is going to remember that you had this exception that this particular consumer can stay in my hospital for two extra days or five extra days. And five years from now, you may get audited and say, “Well, you got to recoup all this money because you let them stay in for too long of a time.” When in reality, you are given an exception, write all the exceptions down. Keep one place, keep a computer program, keep a hard copy, whatever you want to do, and notebook, if that you want to get down to not having any technology involved. But keep track of all of these exceptions that you get as little as they may be because if you’re getting an exception for one person, and that one person can stay longer than the two-day allowance for the outpatient stays, and you multiply that by, okay, well, now you’ve got to take that exception and extrapolate it again, 200 people over the course of a year, that’s a lot of money we’re talking about. So you need to make sure you keep track of all the exceptions, no matter how small. And keep track of them somewhere that you’re not going to lose them. If your attrition rate is high with executives, you need to make sure that the next people in line had that knowledge so that in future audit, you can explain that you did not abide by the regulations for good reason. You had an exception, but no one’s keeping track of all these exceptions.

Mike: And so, it’s great advice, Knicole. And I know you’ve got a great blog of your own that people can follow. If people wanted to read more about what’s going on here on that blog or get in touch with you, how can they do that?

Knicole: Well, you’re more than welcome to go onto my blog, which is Medicare and Medicaid law. It is at medicaidlawnc.com. You can also contact me at any time. I’m at Potomac Law Group. I help providers across the country and not only in North Carolina, but in 33 states. And so, I am pretty well versed on all the exceptions that I’m seeing. It’s really fast-paced right now. It’s scary. It’s surreal. But it is really important to make sure that everything is written down because in the future– I mean, that old saying that old adage for nurses, if it’s not written, it doesn’t exist, is really going to matter in the future years.

Mike: Knicole, thanks for adding some clarity around this very complex issue. We appreciate you coming back to the show today.

Knicole: Absolutely. Thank you.

Inconsequential Medicare Audits Could Morph into a Whopper of a Whale

Emergency room physicians or health care providers are a discrete breed – whales in a sea of fish. Emergency room doctors have – for the most part – been overlooked by the RAC auditors or TPE, ZPIC, or MAC auditors. Maybe it’s because, even RAC auditors have children or spouses that need ER services from time to time. Maybe it’s because ER doctors use so many different billers. Normally, an ER doctor doesn’t know which of his or her patients are Medicaid or Medicare. When someone is suffering from a a broken leg or heart attack, the ER doctor is not going to stop care to inquire whether the patient is insured and by whom. But should they? Should ER doctors have to ask patients their insurer? If the answer includes any sort of explanation that care differs depending on whether someone is covered by Medicare or Medicaid or has private insurance, then, sadly, the answer may be yes.

ER doctors travel to separate emergency rooms, which are owned by various and distinct entities, and rely on individual billing companies. They do not normally work at only one hospital. Thus, they do not always have the same billers. We all know that not all billers are created equal. Some are endowed with a higher understanding of billing idiosyncrasies than others.

For example, for CPT codes 99281-99285 – Hospital emergency department services are not payable for the same calendar date as critical care services when provided by the same physician or physician group with the same specialty to the same patient. 

We all know that all hospitals do not hire and implement the same billing computer software programs. The old adage – “you get what you pay for” – may be more true than we think. Recent articles purport that “the move to electronic health records may be contributing to billions of dollars in higher costs for Medicare, private insurers and patients by making it easier for hospitals and physicians to bill more for their services, whether or not they provide additional care.” – Think a comment like that would red-flag ER doctors services by RAC, MAC and ZPIC auditors? The white whale may as well shoot a water spray 30 feet into the air.

Will auditing entities begin to watch ER billing more closely? And what are the consequences? When non-emergency health care providers are terminated by Medicare, Medicaid, or a MAC or MCO’s network, there is no emergency – by definition. Juxtapose, the need for ER health care providers. ER rooms cannot function with a shortage of  physicians and health care providers. Even more disturbing is if the termination is unwarranted and seemingly inconsequential – only affecting under 4 surgeries per month – but acts as the catalyst for termination of Medicare, Medicaid, and private payors across the board.

I have a client named Dr. Ishmael. His big fish became the MAC Palmetto – very suddenly. Like many ER docs, he rotates ERs. He provides services for Medicare, Medicaid, private pay, uninsured – it doesn’t matter to him, he is an ER doctor. He gets a letter from one MAC. In this case, it was Palmetto. Interestingly enough, Palmetto is his smallest insurance payor. Maybe 2 surgeries a month are covered by Palmetto. 90% of his services are provided to Medicaid patients. Not by his choice, but by demographics and circumstance. The letter from Palmetto states that he is being excluded from Palmetto’s Medicare network, effective in 10 days. He will also be placed on the CMS preclusion list in 4 months.

We appeal through Palmetto, as required. But, in the meantime, four other MACs, State Medicaid and BCBS terminate Dr. Ishmael’s billing privileges for Medicare and Medicaid based on Palmetto’s decision. Remember, we are appealing Palmetto’s decision as we believe it is erroneous. But because of Palmetto’s possibly incorrect decision to terminate Dr. Ishmael’s Medicare billing privileges, all of a sudden, 100% of Dr. Ishmael’s services are nonbillable and nonreimburseable…without Dr. Ishmael or the hospital ever getting the opportunity to review and defend against the otherwise innocuous termination decision.

Here, the hospital executives, along with legal counsel, schedule meetings with Dr. Ishmael. “They need him,” they say. “He is important,” they say. But he is not on the next month’s rotation. Or the next.

They say: “Come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me?”

Billing audits on ER docs for Medicare/caid compliance are distinctive processes, separate from other providers’ audits. Most providers know the insurance of the patient to whom they are rendering services. Most providers use one biller and practice at one site. ER docs have no control over the choice of their billers. Not to mention, the questions arises, who gets to appeal on behalf the ER provider? Doesn’t the hospital reap the benefit of the reimbursements?

But one seemingly paltry, almost, minnow-like, audit by a cameo auditor can disrupt an entire career for an ER doc. It is imperative to act fast to appeal in the case of an ER doc.  But balance speed of the appeal with the importance of preparing all legal arguments. Most MACs or other auditing entities inform other payors quickly of your exclusion or termination but require you to put forth all arguments in your appeal or you could waive those defenses. I argue against that, but the allegations can exist nonetheless.

The moral of the story is ER docs need to appeal and appeal fast when billing privileges are restricted, even if the particular payor only constitutes 4 surgeries a month. As Herman Melville said: “I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.” 

Sometimes, however, it is not a laughing matter. It is an appealable matter.

Why Auditors Can’t be Unbiased

Last week on Monitor Mondays, Knicole Emanuel, Esq. reported on the case of Commonwealth v. Pediatric Specialist, PLLC, wherein the Recovery Audit Contractors’ (RACs’) experts were prohibited from testifying because they were paid on contingency. This means that the auditor (or the company for which they work) is paid some percentage of the overpayment findings it reports.

In this case, as in most nowadays, the overpayment estimate was based upon extrapolation, which means that the auditor extended the overpayment amount found in the sample to that of all claims within the universe from which the sample was drawn. I have written about this process before, but basically, it can turn a $1,500 overpayment on the sample into a $1.5 million overpayment demand.

The key to an effective extrapolation is that the statistical process is appropriate, proper, and accurate. In many audits, this is not the case, and so what happens is, if the provider believes that the extrapolation is not appropriate, they may choose to challenge the results in their appeal. Many times, this is when they will hire a statistician, like me, to review the statistical sampling and overpayment estimate (SSOE), including data and documentation to assist with the appeal. I have worked on hundreds of these post-audit extrapolation mitigation appeals over the years, and even though I am employed by the provider, I maintain a position as an independent fact-finder.  My reports are based on facts and figures, and my opinion is based on those findings. Period.

So, what is it that allows me to remain independent? To perform my job without undue influence or bias? Is it my incredibly high ethical standards? Check! My commitment to upholding the standards of my industry? Check!  Maybe my good looks? Well, not check! It is the fact that my fees are fixed, and are not contingent on the outcome. I mean, it would be great if I could do what the RACs do and cash in on the outcomes of a case, but alas, no such luck.

In one large class-action case in which I was the statistical expert, the defendant settled for $122 million. The law firm got something like a quarter or a third of that, and the class members all received some remuneration as well. Me? I got my hourly rate, and after the case was done, a bottle of Maker’s Mark whiskey as a thank you. And I’m not even sure that was appropriate, so I sent it back. I would love to be paid a percentage of what I am able to save a client in this type of appeal. I worked on a case a couple of years ago for which we were able to get the extrapolation thrown out, which reduced the payment demand from $5.9 million to $3,300. Imagine if I got paid even 2 percent of that; it would be nearly $120,000. But that can’t happen, because the moment my work product is tied to the results, I am no longer independent, nor unbiased. I don’t care how honest or ethical you are, contingency deals change the landscape – and that is as true for me, as an expert, as it is for the auditor.

In the pediatric case referenced above, the RAC that performed the audit is paid on a contingency, although I like to refer to it as a “bounty.” As such, the judge ruled, as Ms. Emanuel reported, that their experts could not testify on behalf of the RAC. Why not? Because the judge, unlike the RAC, is an independent arbiter, and having no skin in the game, is unbiased in their adjudication. But you can’t say that about the RAC. If they are being paid a “bounty” (something like 10 percent), then how in the world could they be considered independent and unbiased?

The short answer is, they can’t. And this isn’t just based on standards of statistical practice; it is steeped in common sense. Look at the appeal statistics; some 50 percent of all RAC findings are eventually reversed in favor of the provider. If that isn’t evidence of an overzealous, biased, bounty-hunting process, I don’t know what is. Basically, as Knicole reported, having their experts prohibited from testifying, the RAC was unable to contest the provider’s arguments, and the judge ruled in favor of the provider.

But, in my opinion, it should not stop here. This is one of those cases that exemplifies the “fruit of the poisonous tree” defense, meaning that if this case passes muster, then every other case for which the RAC did testify and the extrapolation held should be challenged and overturned. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of all of those affected by RAC extrapolated audits. And if there is one, I would love to be the statistical expert – but for a flat fee, of course, and not contingent upon the outcome.

And that’s the world according to Frank.

Frank Cohen is a frequent panelist with me on RACMonitor. I love his perspective on expert statistician witnesses. He drafted based off a Monitor Monday report of mine. Do not miss both Frank and me on RACMonitor, every Monday.

Inconsequential Medicare Audits Could Morph into a Whopper of a Whale

Emergency room physicians or health care providers are a discrete breed – whales in a sea of fish. Emergency room doctors have – for the most part – been overlooked by the RAC auditors or TPE, ZPIC, or MAC auditors. Maybe it’s because, even RAC auditors have children or spouses that need ER services from time to time. Maybe it’s because ER doctors use so many different billers. Normally, an ER doctor doesn’t know which of his or her patients are Medicaid or Medicare. When someone is suffering from a a broken leg or heart attack, the ER doctor is not going to stop care to inquire whether the patient is insured and by whom. But should they? Should ER doctors have to ask patients their insurer? If the answer includes any sort of explanation that care differs depending on whether someone is covered by Medicare or Medicaid or has private insurance, then, sadly, the answer may be yes.

ER doctors travel to separate emergency rooms, which are owned by various and distinct entities, and rely on individual billing companies. They do not normally work at only one hospital. Thus, they do not always have the same billers. We all know that not all billers are created equal. Some are endowed with a higher understanding of billing idiosyncrasies than others.

For example, for CPT codes 99281-99285 – Hospital emergency department services are not payable for the same calendar date as critical care services when provided by the same physician or physician group with the same specialty to the same patient. 

We all know that all hospitals do not hire and implement the same billing computer software programs. The old adage – “you get what you pay for” – may be more true than we think. Recent articles purport that “the move to electronic health records may be contributing to billions of dollars in higher costs for Medicare, private insurers and patients by making it easier for hospitals and physicians to bill more for their services, whether or not they provide additional care.” – Think a comment like that would red-flag ER doctors services by RAC, MAC and ZPIC auditors? The white whale may as well shoot a water spray 30 feet into the air.

Will auditing entities begin to watch ER billing more closely? And what are the consequences? When non-emergency health care providers are terminated by Medicare, Medicaid, or a MAC or MCO’s network, there is no emergency – by definition. Juxtapose, the need for ER health care providers. ER rooms cannot function with a shortage of  physicians and health care providers. Even more disturbing is if the termination is unwarranted and seemingly inconsequential – only affecting under 4 surgeries per month – but acts as the catalyst for termination of Medicare, Medicaid, and private payors across the board.

I have a client named Dr. Ishmael. His big fish became the MAC Palmetto – very suddenly. Like many ER docs, he rotates ERs. He provides services for Medicare, Medicaid, private pay, uninsured – it doesn’t matter to him, he is an ER doctor. He gets a letter from one MAC. In this case, it was Palmetto. Interestingly enough, Palmetto is his smallest insurance payor. Maybe 2 surgeries a month are covered by Palmetto. 90% of his services are provided to Medicaid patients. Not by his choice, but by demographics and circumstance. The letter from Palmetto states that he is being excluded from Palmetto’s Medicare network, effective in 10 days. He will also be placed on the CMS preclusion list in 4 months.

We appeal through Palmetto, as required. But, in the meantime, four other MACs, State Medicaid and BCBS terminate Dr. Ishmael’s billing privileges for Medicare and Medicaid based on Palmetto’s decision. Remember, we are appealing Palmetto’s decision as we believe it is erroneous. But because of Palmetto’s possibly incorrect decision to terminate Dr. Ishmael’s Medicare billing privileges, all of a sudden, 100% of Dr. Ishmael’s services are nonbillable and nonreimburseable…without Dr. Ishmael or the hospital ever getting the opportunity to review and defend against the otherwise innocuous termination decision.

Here, the hospital executives, along with legal counsel, schedule meetings with Dr. Ishmael. “They need him,” they say. “He is important,” they say. But he is not on the next month’s rotation. Or the next.

They say: “Come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me?”

Billing audits on ER docs for Medicare/caid compliance are distinctive processes, separate from other providers’ audits. Most providers know the insurance of the patient to whom they are rendering services. Most providers use one biller and practice at one site. ER docs have no control over the choice of their billers. Not to mention, the questions arises, who gets to appeal on behalf the ER provider? Doesn’t the hospital reap the benefit of the reimbursements?

But one seemingly paltry, almost, minnow-like, audit by a cameo auditor can disrupt an entire career for an ER doc. It is imperative to act fast to appeal in the case of an ER doc.  But balance speed of the appeal with the importance of preparing all legal arguments. Most MACs or other auditing entities inform other payors quickly of your exclusion or termination but require you to put forth all arguments in your appeal or you could waive those defenses. I argue against that, but the allegations can exist nonetheless.

The moral of the story is ER docs need to appeal and appeal fast when billing privileges are restricted, even if the particular payor only constitutes 4 surgeries a month. As Herman Melville said: “I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.” 

Sometimes, however, it is not a laughing matter. It is an appealable matter.