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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.

RAC Audits Will Be Targeting Telehealth

Consults by telephone are becoming more and more prevalent. It only makes sense. In an age in which the population has surged, the ratio of physicians to patients has grown more disparate, and the aging and disabled community continues to increase, telehealth is a viable, logical, and convenient resource. I can tell you that when I have to go to a doctor appointment, my whole day is off-kilter. You have to get dressed, drive there, sit in the waiting room, wait for the doctor in the patient room, talk to your doctor, check-out, drive back to work/home and, usually, have a hour-long telephone call with your insurance company. Doctor visits can take up a whole day.

Enter telehealth.

Telehealth allows a patient who needs to see a health care provider to present to a health care provider over the telephone. No getting dressed, driving, or waiting.

According to a FAIR Health White Paper report, “the use of non-hospital-based provider-to-patient telehealth increased 1,393% from 2014 to 2018, from 0.007% to 0.104% of all medical claim lines. There was a 624% increase in claim lines related to any type of telehealth, from 0.0192% to 0.1394% of all medical claim lines. Non-hospital-based provider-to-patient telehealth accounted for 84% of all telehealth claim lines in 2018.”

According to the numbers in the report, the use of telehealth increased in urban areas, rather than rural areas, at a much greater percentage, which, personally, I found surprising, at first. But when you consider the number of people living in urban areas rather than rural areas, the disparate percentages make sense.

Not surprising, 82% of telehealth claims were associated with individuals aged 51+.

Private insurances are jumping on the band wagon, but, more importantly, government insurers are already on the wagon. And the wagon is gaining a wagon train; CMS is expanding the use of telehealth even as you read this.

On April 5, 2019, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) finalized policies that increased plan choices and benefits, including allowing Medicare Advantage plans to include additional telehealth benefits. Before this year, Medicare recipients could only receive certain telehealth services if they live in rural areas. Now Medicare will pay for telehealth across the country…all from your house.

On July 29, 2019, CMS took the first steps toward welcoming opioid treatment programs (OTPs) into the Medicare program and expanding Medicare coverage of opioid use disorder (OUD) treatment services provided by both OTPs and physician practices. CMS is proposing the use of telehealth for opioid services. More specifically, CMS is proposing telehealth substance abuse counseling, telehealth individual/group therapy.

Enter RAC, ZPIC, UPIC, TPE, MAC, and MFCU audits.

Where there is Medicare money to be made or fraud to be had there are the auditors. The alphabet soup.

In April 2019, one of the largest healthcare fraud rings in U.S. history, involving telemedicine companies was busted. At an alleged amount of $1.2 billion. Durable medical equipments (DME) were also targeted, but this blog focuses on telehealth.

Allegedly, the telehealth companies would inform Medicare beneficiaries that they, for example, qualified for a brace. Using telehealth, the physicians wrote prescriptions for braces. DME would file the claim and pay the telehealth provider and the physician.

The government argued that you have to be seen in-person to determine your need for a brace.

It is important to note that the above-referenced scheme was performed prior to the most recent expansion of telehealth.

With this most recent expansion of telehealth, expect the auditors to be drooling.

Medicare TPE Audits: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

TPE Audits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CMS Revises and Details Extrapolation Rules: Part II

Biggest RACs Changes Are Here: Learn to Avoid Denied Claims

See Part I: Medicare Audits: Huge Overhaul on Extrapolation Rules

Part II continues to explain the nuances in the changes made by CMS to its statistical sampling methodology. Originally published on RACMonitor.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently made significant changes in its statistical sampling methodology for overpayment estimation. Effective Jan. 2, 2019, CMS radically changed its guidance on the use of extrapolation in audits by Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs), Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), Unified Program Integrity Contractors (UPICs), and the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (SMRC).

The RAC program was created through the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 (MMA) to identify and recover improper Medicare payments paid to healthcare providers under fee-for-service (FFS) Medicare plans. The RAC auditors review a small sample of claims, usually 150, and determine an error rate. That error rate is attributed to the universe, which is normally three years, and extrapolated to that universe. Extrapolation is similar to political polls – in that a Gallup poll will ask the opinions of 1-2 percent of the U.S. population, yet will extrapolate those opinions to the entire country.

First, I would like to address a listener’s question regarding the dollar amount’s factor in extrapolation cases. I recently wrote, “for example, if 500 claims are reviewed and one is found to be noncompliant for a total of $100, then the error rate is set at 20 percent.”

I need to explain that the math here is not “straight math.” The dollar amount of the alleged noncompliant claims factors into the extrapolation amount. If the dollar amount did not factor into the extrapolation, then a review of 500 claims with one non-compliant claim is 0.2 percent. The fact that, in my hypothetical, the one claim’s dollar amount equals $100 changes the error rate from 0.2 percent to 20 percent.

Secondly, the new rule includes provisions implementing the additional Medicare Advantage telehealth benefit added by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. Prior to the new rule, audits were limited in the telehealth services they could include in their basic benefit packages because they could only cover the telehealth services available under the FFS Medicare program. Under the new rule, telehealth becomes more prominent in basic services. Telehealth is now able to be included in the basic benefit packages for any Part B benefit that the plan identifies as “clinically appropriate,” to be furnished electronically by a remote physician or practitioner.

The pre-Jan. 2, 2019 approach to extrapolation employed by RACs was inconsistent, and often statistically invalid. This often resulted in drastically overstated overpayment findings that could bankrupt a physician practice. The method of extrapolation is often a major issue in appeals, and the, new rules address many providers’ frustrations and complaints about the extrapolation process. This is not to say that the post-Jan. 2, 2019 extrapolation approach is perfect…far from it. But the more detailed guidance by CMS just provides more ways to defend against an extrapolation if the RAC auditor veers from instruction.

Thirdly, hiring an expert is a key component in debunking an extrapolation. Your attorney should have a relationship with a statistical expert. Keep in mind the following factors when choosing an expert:

  • Price (more expensive is not always better, but expect the hourly rate to increase for trial testimony).
  • Intelligence (his/her CV should tout a prestigious educational background).
  • Report (even though he/she drafts a report, the report is not a substitute for testimony).
  • Clusters (watch out for a sample that has a significant number of higher reimbursed claims. For example, if you generally use three CPT codes at an equal rate and the sample has an abnormal amount of the higher reimbursed claim, then you have an argument that the sample is an invalid example of your claims.
  • Sample (the sample must be random and must not contain claims not paid by Medicaid).
  • Oral skills (can he/she make statistics understandable to the average person?)

Fourthly, the new revised rule redefines the universe. In the past, suppliers have argued that some of the claims (or claim lines) included in the universe were improperly used for purposes of extrapolation. However, the pre-Jan. 2, 2019 Medicare Manual provided little to no additional guidance regarding the inclusion or exclusion of claims when conducting the statistical analysis. By contrast, the revised Medicare Manual specifically states:

“The universe includes all claim lines that meet the selection criteria. The sampling frame is the listing of sample units, derived from the universe, from which the sample is selected. However, in some cases, the universe may include items that are not utilized in the construction of the sample frame. This can happen for a number of reasons, including but not limited to:

  • Some claims/claim lines are discovered to have been subject to a prior review;
  • The definitions of the sample unit necessitate eliminating some claims/claim lines; or
  • Some claims/claim lines are attributed to sample units for which there was no payment.”

By providing detailed criteria with which contractors should exclude certain claims from the universe or sample frame, the revised Medicare Manual will also provide suppliers another means to argue against the validity of the extrapolation.

Lastly, the revised rules explicitly instruct the auditors to retain an expert statistician when changes occur due to appeals and legal arguments.

As a challenge to an extrapolated overpayment determination works its way through the administrative appeals process, often, a certain number of claims may be reversed from the initial claim determination. When this happens, the statistical extrapolation must be revised, and the extrapolated overpayment amount must be adjusted. This requirement remains unchanged in the revised PIM; however, the Medicare contractors will now be required to consult with a statistical expert in reviewing the methodology and adjusting the extrapolated overpayment amount.

Between my first article on extrapolation, “CMS Revises and Details Extrapolation Rules,” and this follow-up, you should have a decent understanding of the revised extrapolation rules that became effective Jan. 2, 2019. But my two articles are not exhaustive. Please, click here for Change Request 10067 for the full and comprehensive revisions.

New Revisions to the Additional Documentation Request (ADR) Process

The ADR rule went into effect Jan. 1, 2019. Original blog post published March 6, 2019, on RACMonitor.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has updated its criteria for additional document requests (ADRs). If your ADR “cycle” is less than 1, CMS will round it up to 1.

What is an ADR cycle?

When a claim is selected for medical review, an ADR is generated requesting medical documentation be submitted to ensure payment is appropriate. Documentation must be received by CGS (A Celerian Group Company)  within 45 calendar days for review and payment determination. Any selected and submitted claim can create an ADR. In other words, a provider is asked to prove that the service was rendered and that the billing was compliant.

It is imperative to understand that you, as the provider, check the Fiscal Intermediary Standard System (FISS) status/location S B6001. Providers are encouraged to use FISS Option 12 (Claim Inquiry) to check for ADRs at least once per week. You will not receive any other form of notification for an ADR.

To make matters even more confusing, there are two different types of ADRs: medical review (reason code 39700) and non-medical review (reason code 39701).

An ADR may be sent by CGS, Zone Program Integrity Contractors (ZPICs), Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs), Supplemental Medical Review Contractors (SMRCs), the Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) contractor, etc. When a claim is selected for review or when additional documentation is needed to complete the claim, an ADR letter is generated requesting that documentation and/or medical records be submitted.

The ADR process is essentially a type of prepayment review.

A baseline annual ADR limit is established for each provider based on the number of Medicare claims paid in the previous 12-month period that are associated with the provider’s six-digit CMS Certification Number (CCN) and the provider’s National Provider Identifier (NPI) number. Using the baseline annual ADR limit, an ADR cycle limit is also established.

After three 45-day ADR cycles, CMS will calculate (or recalculate) a provider’s denial rate, which will then be used to identify a provider’s corresponding “adjusted” ADR limit. Auditors may choose to either conduct reviews of a provider based on their adjusted ADR limit (with a shorter lookback period) or their baseline annual ADR limit (with a longer lookback period).

The baseline, annual ADR limit is one-half of one percent of the provider’s total number of paid Medicare service types for which the provider had reimbursed Medicare claims.

Effective Jan. 1, 2019, providers whose ADR cycle limit is less than 1, even though their annual ADR limit is greater than 1, will have their ADR cycle limit round up to 1 additional documentation request per 45 days, until their annual ADR limit has been reached.

For example, say Provider ABC billed and was paid for 400 Medicare claims in a previous 12-month period. The provider’s baseline annual ADR limit would be 400 multiplied by 0.005, which is two. The ADR cycle limit would be 2/8, which is less than one. Therefore, Provider ABC’s ADR cycle limit will be set at one additional documentation request per 45 days, until their annual ADR limit, which in this example is two, has been reached. In other words, Provider ABC can receive one additional documentation request for two of the eight ADR cycles, per year.

ADR letters are sent on a 45-day cycle. The baseline annual ADR limit is divided by eight to establish the ADR cycle limit, which is the maximum number of claims that can be included in a single 45-day period. Although auditors may go more than 45 days between record requests, in no case shall they make requests more frequently than every 45 days.

And that is the update on ADRs. Remember, the rule changed Jan. 1, 2019.

Medicare Audits: Huge Overhaul on Extrapolation Rules

Effective January 2, 2019, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) radically changed its guidance on the use of extrapolation in audits by recovery audit contractors (RACs), Medicare administrative contractors (MACs), Unified Program Integrity Contractors (UPICs), and the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (SMRC).

Extrapolation is the tsunami in Medicare/caid audits. The auditor collects a small sample of claims to review for compliance. She then determines the “error rate” of the sample. For example, if 50 claims are reviewed and 10 are found to be noncompliant, then the error rate is set at 20%. That error rate is applied to the universe, which is generally a three-year time period. It is assumed that the random sample is indicative of all your billings regardless of whether you changed your billing system during that time period of the universe or maybe hired a different biller.

With extrapolated results, auditors allege millions of dollars of overpayments against health care providers…sometimes more than the provider even made during that time period. It is an overwhelming wave that many times drowns the provider and the company.

Prior to this recent change to extrapolation procedure, the Program Integrity Manual (PIM) offered little guidance to the proper method for extrapolation.

Well, Change Request 10067 – overhauled extrapolation in a HUGE way.

The first modification to the extrapolation rules is that the PIM now dictates when extrapolation should be used.

Determining When a Statistical Sampling May Be Used. Under the new guidance, a contractor “shall use statistical sampling when it has been determined that a sustained or high level of payment error exists. The use of statistical sampling may be used after documented educational intervention has failed to correct the payment error.” This guidance now creates a three-tier structure:

  1. Extrapolation shall be used when a sustained or high level of payment error exists.
  2. Extrapolation may be used after documented educational intervention (such as in the Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) program).
  3. It follows that extrapolation should not be used if there is not a sustained or high level of payment error or evidence that documented educational intervention has failed.

“High level of payment error” is defined as 50% or greater. The PIM also states that the contractor may review the provider’s past noncompliance for the same or similar billing issues, or a historical pattern of noncompliant billing practice. This is HUGE because so many times providers simply pay the alleged overpayment amount if the amount is low or moderate in order to avoid costly litigation. Now those past times that you simply pay the alleged amounts will be held against you.

Another monumental modification to RAC audits is that the RAC auditor must receive authorization from CMS to go forward in recovering from the provider if the alleged overpayment exceeds $500,000 or is an amount that is greater than 25% of the provider’s Medicare revenue received within the previous 12 months.

The identification of the claims universe was also re-defined. Even CMS admitted in the change request that, on occasion, “the universe may include items that are not utilized in the construction of the sample frame. This can happen for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to: (1) Some claims/claim lines are discovered to have been subject to a prior review, (2) The definitions of the sample unit necessitate eliminating some claims/claim lines, or (3) Some claims/claim lines are attributed to sample units for which there was no payment.”

There are many more changes to discuss, but I have been asked to appear on RACMonitor to present the details on February 19, 2019. So sign up to listen!!!

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!!