You are a health care provider. You own an agency. An employee has a “hunch” that…
your agency was overpaid for Medicare/caid reimbursements over the past two years to the tune of $1 million!
This employee has been your billing manager for years and you trust her…but…she’s not an attorney and doesn’t have knowledge of pertinent legal defenses. You are concerned about the possibility of overpayments, BUT….$1 million? What if she is wrong? That’s a lot of money!
According to a recent U.S. District Court in New York, you have 60 days to notify and refund the government of this alleged $1 million overpayment, despite not having a concrete number or understanding whether, in fact, you actually owe the money.
Seem a bit harsh? It is.
With the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on March 23, 2010, many new regulations were implemented with burdensome requirements to which health care providers are required to adhere. At first, the true magnitude of the ACA was unknown, as very few people actually read the voluminous Act and, even fewer, sat to contemplate the unintentional consequences the Act would present to providers. For example, I daresay that few, if any, legislators foresaw the Draconian effect from changing the word “may” in 42 CFR 455.23 to “must.” See blog and blog and blog.
Another boiling frog in the muck of the ACA is the 60-Day Refund Rule (informally the 60-day rule).
What is the 60-Day Refund Rule?
In 2012, CMS proposed the “60-day Refund Rule,” requiring Medicare providers and suppliers to repay Medicare overpayments within 60 days of the provider or supplier identifying the overpayment. Meaning, if you perform a self audit and determine that you think that you were overpaid, then you must repay the amount within 60 days or face penalties.
If I had a nickel for each time a clients calls me and says, “Well, I THINK I may have been overpaid, but I’m not really sure,” and, subsequently, I explained how they did not owe the money, I’d be Kardashian rich.
It is easy to get confused. Some overpayment issues are esoteric, involving complex eligibility issues, questionable duplicity issues, and issues involving “grey areas” of “non”-covered services. Sometimes a provider may think he/she owes an overpayment until he/she speaks to me and realizes that, by another interpretation of the same Clinical Coverage Policy that, in fact, no overpayment is owed. To know you owe an overpayment, generally, means that you hired someone like me to perform the self audit. From my experience, billing folks are all too quick to believe an overpayment is owed without thinking of the legal defenses that could prevent repayment, and this “quick to find an overpayment without thinking of legal defenses” is represented in Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al., the lawsuit that I will be discussing in this blog. And to the billings folks’ credit, you cannot blame them. They don’t want to be accused of fraud. They would rather “do the right thing” and repay an overpayment, rather than try to argue that it is not due. This “quick to find an overpayment without thinking of legal defenses” is merely the billing folks trying to conduct all work “above-board,” but can hurt the provider agency financially.
Nonetheless, the 60-day Refund Rule is apathetic as to whether you know what you owe or whether you hire someone like me. The 60-Day Refund Rule demands repayment to the federal government upon 60-days after your “identification” of said alleged overpayment.
Section 1128(d)(2) of the Social Security Act states that:
“An overpayment must be reported and returned under paragraph (1) by the later of— (A) the date which is 60 days after the date on which the overpayment was identified; or (B) the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable.”
A recent case in the U.S. District Court of New York has forged new ground by denying a health care providers’ Motion to Dismiss the U.S. government’s and New York State’s complaints in intervention under the False Claims Act (FCA). The providers argued that the 60-day rule cannot start without a precise understanding as to the actual amount of the overpayment. Surely, the 60-day rule does not begin to run on the day someone accuses the provider of a possible overpayment!
My colleague, Jennifer Forsyth, recently blogged about this very issue. See Jennifer’s blog.
Basically, in Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al., three hospitals provided care to Medicaid patients. Due to a software glitch [cough, cough, NCTracks] and due to no fault of the hospitals, the hospitals received possible overpayments. The single state entity for Medicaid in New York questioned the hospitals in 2010, and the hospitals took the proactive step of tasking an employee, Kane, who eventually became the whistleblower, to determine whether, if, in fact, the hospital did receive overpayments.
At this point, arguably, the hospitals were on notice of the possibility of overpayments, but had not “identified” such overpayments per the 60-day rule. It was not until Kane made preliminary conclusions that the hospitals were held to have “identified” the alleged overpayments. But very important is the fact that the Court held the hospitals liable for having “identified” the alleged overpayments prior to actually knowing the veracity of the preliminary findings.
Five months after being tasked with the job of determining any overpayment, Kane emails the hospital staff her findings that, in her opinion, the hospitals had received overpayments totaling over $1 million for over 900 claims. In reality, Kane’s findings were largely inaccurate, as approximately one-half of her alleged findings of overpayments were actually paid accurately. Despite the inaccurate findings, the Complaint that Kane filed as the whistleblower (she had been previously fired, which may or may not have contributed to her willingness to bring a whistleblower suit), alleged that the hospitals had a duty under the 60-day rule to report and refund the overpayments, even though there was no certainty as to whether the findings were accurate. And the Court agreed with Kane!
Even more astounding, Kane’s email to the hospitals’ management that contained the inaccurate findings contained phrases that would lead one to believe that the findings were only preliminary:
- “further analysis would be needed to confirm his findings;” and
- the spreadsheet provided “some insight to the magnitude of the problem” (emphasis added).
The above-mentioned comments would further the argument that the hospitals were not required to notify the Department and return the money 60 days from Kanes’ email because Kane’s own language within the email was so wishy-washy. Her language in her email certainly does not instill confidence that her findings are accurate and conclusive.
The 60-day rule requires notification and return of the overpayments within 60 days of identification. The definition of “identification” is the crux of Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al. [it depends on what the definition of “is” is].
The Complaint reads, that the hospitals “fraudulently delay[ed] its repayments for up to two years after the Health System “knew” the extent of the overpayments” (emphasis added). According to the Complaint, the date that the hospitals “knew” of the overpayment was the date Kane emailed the inaccurate findings.
The hospitals filed a Motion to Dismiss based on the fact that Kane’s email and findings did not conclusively identify overpayments, instead, only provided a preliminary finding to which the hospitals would have needed to verify.
The issue in Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al. is the definition of “identify” under the 60-day rule. Does “identify” mean “possibly, maybe?” Or “I know I owe it?” Or somewhere in between?
The hospitals filed a Motion to Dismiss, claiming that the 60-day rule did not begin to run on the date that Kane sent his “preliminary findings.” The U.S. District Court in New York denied the hospitals’ Motion to Dismiss and stated in the Order, “there is an established duty to pay money to the government, even if the precise amount due is yet to be determined.” (emphasis added).
Yet another heavy burden tossed upon health care providers in the ever-deepening, regulatory muck involved in the ACA. As health care providers carry heavier burdens, they begin to sink into the muck.
Important take aways:
- Caveat: Take precautions to avoid creating disgruntled, former employees.
- Have an experienced attorney on speed dial.
- Self audit, but self audit with someone highly experienced and knowledgeable.
- Understand the ACA. If you do not, read it. Or hire someone to teach you.