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Update on Medicare/Medicaid Audits in the Wake of COVID-19

Published in Today’s Wound Clinic:

When I was asked to draft an article for Today’s Wound Clinic, it was approximately two weeks ago. I was asked to write about the current state of Medicare and Medicaid audits. Specifically, I was asked to provide a legal analysis about CMS suspending audits un-related to COVID-19. In the month of April, we have seen the spike of COVID-19, which has overturned our everyday world. We have been instructed by President Trump to “stay home” and “social distance” to decrease the spread of the virus. This “stay at home” instruction is unprecedented and has uprooted many of our most reliable and commonplace businesses, such as hairdressers, bowling alleys, and tattoo parlors.

Here is the answer: The current state of Medicare/Medicaid audits, at the moment, is dictated by COVID-19.

We can divide the post-COVID-19 audit rules into 3 categories:

  1. Those exceptions published by CMS to apply to all health care providers
  2. Those special, verbal exceptions given directly to an individual provider that were not published by CMS
  3. Effective immediately, new guidelines that CMS will follow until CMS believes it no longer needs to follow (by its own choice, of course).

An example of an “effective immediately” guideline is our current state of Medicare/Medicaid audits in the wake of COVID-19. CMS has not suspended all Medicare/Medicaid regulatory audits. But CMS has suspended most audits.

Effective immediately, survey activity is limited to the following (in Priority Order):

  • All immediate jeopardy complaints (cases that represents a situation in which entity noncompliance has placed the health and safety of recipients in its care at risk for serious injury, serious harm, serious impairment or death or harm) and allegations of abuse and neglect;
  • Complaints alleging infection control concerns, including facilities with potential COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses;
  • Statutorily required recertification surveys (Nursing Home, Home Health, Hospice, and ICF/IID facilities);
  • Any re-visits necessary to resolve current enforcement actions;
  • Initial certifications;
  • Surveys of facilities/hospitals that have a history of infection control deficiencies at the immediate jeopardy level in the last three years;
  • Surveys of facilities/hospitals/dialysis centers that have a history of infection control deficiencies at lower levels than immediate jeopardy.

See CMS QSO-20-12-ALL. You can see that these “effective immediately” guidelines are usually published on CMS letterhead. The “effective immediately” guidelines explain why CMS is taking the stated action, the stated action, and that the action is temporary and due to COVID-19.

Here are a few recent “effective immediately” guidelines due to COVID-19:

  • On April 27, 2020, CMS said it would no longer expedite Medicare payments to doctors and be more stringent about accelerating the payments to hospitals as Congressional relief aimed at providers reaches $175 billion.
  • The agency is not accepting any new applications for the loans from Part B suppliers, including doctors, non-physician practitioners and durable medical equipment suppliers. CMS will continue to process pending and new requests from Part A providers, including hospitals, but be stricter with application approvals.
  • CMS expanded the Accelerated and Advance Payment Programs in late March as the pandemic continued to gain strength in the U.S. Since then, the agency has approved over 21,000 applications making up $59.6 billion in accelerated payments to Part A providers and almost 24,000 applications making up $40.4 billion in payments for Part B suppliers.

The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security stimulus package passed by Congress in March benchmarked $100 billion in funds for hospitals. On Friday, President Donald Trump signed legislation with a second round of emergency funding, called the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, that allocates another $75 billion for providers — roughly three-quarters of what major provider trade associations requested.

An initial $30 billion from the fund was distributed between April 10 and April 17 based on Medicare fee-for-service revenue, sparking criticism that put facilities with a smaller proportion of Medicare business, such as children’s and disproportionate share hospitals, at a disadvantage. HHS on Friday began releasing an additional $20 billion in CARES payments to providers based on their 2018 net patient revenue, with more funding to roll out “soon,” the agency said, including $10 billion for hard-hit areas like New York.

How RAC/MAC auditors are compensated dictates their actions and/or aggressiveness.

RAC Auditors are paid by contingency. They are usually compensated approximately 13%, depending on the State. Imagine what 13% is of 1 million. It is $130,000 – more than most people make in a year. If you do not believe that 13% contingency is enough to incentivize a company, which, in turn, incentivize the employees, then you are sorely mistaken.

RACs were established through a demonstration program under the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003 (“MMA”), piloted between 2005 and 2008, and were later made permanent under the Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006, which required CMS to establish Recovery Auditors for all states before 2010.

MACs are not compensated by contingency, per se. CMS decided to structure the MAC contracts with 1-year base performance periods and four, optional, 1-year performance periods at the time. The MMA required that these contracts be recompeted at least once every 5 years. The recent enactment of the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 amended this requirement to authorize a maximum 10-year performance period before MAC contracts must be recompeted. The amendment, which applies to MAC contracts in effect at the time of enactment or entered into on or after enactment, would permit CMS to modify existing MAC contracts or enter into future MAC contracts for 1-year base performance periods and nine optional 1-year performance periods. See Pub. L. No. 114-10, § 509(a)- (b) (April 16, 2015). Therefore, while MACs are not compensated on contingency, MACs are compensated on performance. The less a MAC spends, the more services a MAC allows, the strict oversight a MCA ensues on its providers…all these “performance-based” measures may not be a contingency compensation relationship, but it’s pretty close. Saved money becomes profit for MACs.

Medicare and Medicaid auditors love rules. Even if the rules that auditors are instructed to follow really are not required by actual law. It goes without saying that auditors are not lawyers. Auditors are not trained to decipher whether statutes, regulations or policy are superseded by federal statutes and regulations. The fact is that, more times than one would hope, the auditors are wrong in their assessments that a claim should be denied, not out of malice, but because of a basic misunderstanding of what the law actually requires.

I have all kinds of stories about auditors claiming money is owed, when, really it was not owed because the RAC/MAC auditor failed to follow the actual, correct procedure or misconstrued a regulation. For example, I had a durable medical equipment provider, DME ABC, who was informed by the NSC Supplier Audit and Compliance Unit of Palmetto GBA that it owed $1,075,548.64. Palmetto is one of the MACs for Medicare – durable medical equipment. There was no demand letter. The alleged overpayment amount came to fruition in a telephone conference between the CEO of the company and an employee of Palmetto. Let’s call her Nancy. Nancy told CEO that company owed $1,075,548.64 based on an alleged violation of 42 C.F.R. § 424.58,

Even more disconcerting, was the fact that Palmetto claimed that its alleged, oral overpayment against DME ABC arose from a normal, reoccurring validation process pursuant to 42 C.F.R. §424.57, approved by CMS and in accordance with the requirements of 42 C.F.R. §424.58. No formal letter was necessary was Palmetto’s retort. Not correct; a formal demand letter is always required.

In this case, Palmetto began to backtrack once we pointed out that Palmetto nor Nancy ever sent a formal demand letter with any reconsideration review appeal rights or administrative appeal rights. We knew this was procedurally incorrect because federal law dictates that you receive a formal demand letter with appeal rights and notice of how many days you have to appeal. But out of fear of retribution, DME ABC was willing to write a check without pushing back. Obviously, we did not do so.

I tell this story as an example of how intimidating, scary, and overwhelming auditors can be. If someone off the street asked you for a million dollars, you would laugh them off your doorstep, right? After you tell them to don a mask and maintain social distancing.

But in the new-age world of COVID-19, rules have been broken. This behavior would not be acceptable pre-COVID-19. But this provider honestly was going to pay.

The Trump Administration is issuing an unprecedented array of temporary regulatory waivers and new rules to equip the American healthcare system with maximum flexibility to respond to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Pre-COVID-19 if you were to state “paperwork over patients,” everyone in the industry would agree. There would be snickers and eyes rolling, because no one wanted paperwork to be over patients. But it was. Now the mantra has flipped upside down – now the mantra is: Patients over Paperwork.

Post-COVID-19, if documents are lost or misplaced, or otherwise unusable, DME MACs have the flexibility to waive replacements requirements under Medicare such that the face-to-face requirement, a new physician’s order, and new medical necessity documentation are not required. Suppliers must still include a narrative description on the claim explaining the reason why the equipment must be replaced and are reminded to maintain documentation indicating that the DMEPOS was lost, destroyed, irreparably damaged or otherwise rendered unusable or unavailable as a result of the emergency.

Post-COVID-19, CMS is pausing the national Medicare Prior Authorization program for certain DMEPOS items. CMS is not requiring accreditation for newly enrolling DMEPOS and extending any expiring supplier accreditation for a 90-day time period. CMS is waiving signature and proof of delivery requirements for Part B drugs and Durable Medical Equipment when a signature cannot be obtained because of the inability to collect signatures. 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.

Post-COVID-19, in order to increase cash flow to providers impacted by COVID-19, CMS has expanded the current Accelerated and Advance Payment Program. An accelerated/advance payment is a payment intended to provide necessary funds when there is a disruption in claims submission and/or claims processing. CMS may provide accelerated or advance payments during the period of the public health emergency to any two Medicare providers/suppliers who submits a request to the appropriate MAC and meets the required qualifications. The process of obtaining the funds is a MAC-by-MAC process. Each MAC will work to review requests and issue payments within seven calendar days of receiving the request. Traditionally repayment of these advance/accelerated payments begins at 90 days, however for the purposes of the COVID-19 pandemic, CMS has extended the repayment of these accelerated/advance payments to begin 120 days after the date of issuance of the payment. Providers can get more information on this process here: www.cms.gov/files/document/Accelerated-and-Advanced-Payments-Fact-Sheet.pdf

The Future of Medicare/Medicaid Audits

The beauty of predicting the future is that no one can ever tell you that you are wrong. These are my predictions:

Auditors will deny claims for not having prior authorizations. Auditors will deny claims because the supplier accreditation expired after the 90-day time period. Auditors will deny claims because the percentage of face-to-face time was not met as described per CPT codes.

Obviously, these would be erroneous denials if the denials are within the dates that the COVID-19 pandemic occurred. The problem will be that the auditors will not be able to keep up with all the exceptions, not because the auditors are acting out of malice or dislikes providers. They will be simply trying to do their job. They will simply not be able to take into consideration all the exceptions that were given during the virus. Because, while we do have many written exceptions, if you call CMS with a personal and individualized problem, CMS will, most likely, grant you a needed exception. As long as the exception has the best interest of the consumer at heart. However, this personalized exception will not be written on CMS’s website. In five years, when you undergo a MAC or RAC audit, you better have proof that you received that exception. It will not be enough proof for you to state that you were given the exception over the phone.

So how can you protect yourself from future, erroneous audits?

Write everything down. When you speak to CMS, document concurrently the date, time, name of the person to whom you are speaking, the summary of your conversation, the COVID-19 regulatory exception, sign it and date it.

It is a hearsay exception. Writing down everything does not magically transform your note into the truth. However, writing down everything concurrently does magically allow that note that you wrote to be allowed in a court of law as an exhibit. Had you not written the note contemporaneously with the conversation that you had with CMS, then the attorney on the other side of the case would move to exclude your handwritten or typed note as hearsay.

Hearsay is defined as a statement that (1) the declarant does not make while testifying at the current trial or hearing; and (2) a party offers in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted in a statement. There are too many hearsay exceptions to name in this article.

Just know, for purposes of this article, that any health care provider who is relying on an exception to a normally required regulatory mandate – regardless what it is – either be able to: (1) cite the written exception that was published by CMS to the public; or (2) produce the written or typed contemporaneously written note that you wrote to memorialize the conversation.

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.

CMS Revises and Details Extrapolation Rules

Effective Jan. 2, 2019, the Centers for Medicare & 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 a veritable tsunami in Medicare/Medicaid audits. The auditor collects a small sample of claims to review for compliance, then determines the “error rate” of the sample. 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. 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 or maybe hired a different biller. In order to extrapolate an error rate, contractors must use a “statistically valid random sample” and then apply that error rate on a broader universe of claims, using “statistically valid methods.”

With extrapolated results, auditors allege millions of dollars of overpayments against healthcare providers – sometimes a sum of more than the provider even made during the relevant time period. It is an overwhelming impact that can put a provider and its company out of business.

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

Prior to 2019, CMS offered broad strokes with few details. Its guidance was limited to generally identifying the steps contractors should take: “a) selecting the provider or supplier; b) selecting the period to be reviewed; c) defining the universe, the sampling unit, and the sampling frame; d) designing the sampling plan and selecting the sample; e) reviewing each of the sampling units and determining if there was an overpayment or an underpayment; and, as applicable, f) estimating the overpayment.”

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.

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 a 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 percent 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 critical 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 paid the alleged amounts will be held against you.

Another monumental modification to RAC audits is that the RAC auditor now 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 percent of the provider’s Medicare revenue received within the previous 12 months.

The identification of the claims universe was also redefined. 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: a) some claims/claim lines are discovered to have been subject to a prior review; b) the definitions of the sample unit necessitate eliminating some claims/claim lines; or c) some claims/claim lines are attributed to sample units for which there was no payment.”

How many of you have been involved in an alleged overpayment in which the auditor misplaced or lost documents? I know I have. The new rule also states that the auditors must be able to recreate the sample and maintain all documentation pertinent to the calculation of an alleged overpayment.

High-volume providers should face a lower risk of extrapolation if their audited error rate is less than 50 percent and they do not have a history of noncompliance for the same or similar billing issues, or a historical pattern of noncompliant billing practice.

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.

Warning: Auditors Will Target SNF Patient Conditions, Not Services and Time Rendered

Oct. 1, 2019 marks the beginning of a new era of billing for skilled nursing facilities (SNFs).

Say goodbye to RUG-IV, and hello to the Patient-Driven Payment Model (PDPM).

This is a daunting task, not for the faint of heart. Under PDPM, reimbursement for Medicare Part A patients in SNFs will be driven by patient condition, rather than by therapy minutes provided. Documentation is crucial to a successful Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) audit.

In the past, therapy documentation has been the focus of RAC audits. Now, nursing documentation is front and center. Do not try to maximize case mix index (CMI). But remember, certain documentation can easily lead to higher reimbursement. For example, if you document when a patient is morbidly obese, suffering from diabetes, and taking intravenous medication, this can lead to three times the reimbursement over the first three days. This article will explore the intricacies of RAC audits and how to maximize reimbursement while successfully maneuvering through the process.

Here is the million-dollar question: how will PDPM affect your business?

The answer is four-fold, for the purposes of this article, although this list is not exhaustive.

  1. Managing care: Unlike RUG-IV, which incentivizes ultra-high volumes of therapy to capture maximum payment, PDPM requires you to carefully manage how you deliver services in order to provide the right level of care for each patient. This begs the question of whether you’re getting paid to over-deliver services (or practice “defensive medicine”), or you’re getting audits and recoupments for under-delivering due to poor patient outcomes. For this reason, it can seem like you are getting pulled in two directions.
  2. Financial: PDPM is designed to be budget-neutral. Your reimbursements will decrease. SNFs will be able to offset the loss in therapy reimbursement with higher reimbursement for services already being provided.
  3. Staffing: There is less demand for therapists in a SNF setting. But you will be able to retain the best therapy sources.
  4. Billing: Under PDPM, you will bill using the Health Insurance Prospective Payment System (HIPPS) code that is generated from assessments with ARD. You will still be using a five-digit code, as you did with RUG-IV. But the characters signify different things. For example, under RUG-IV, the first three characters represented the patient’s RUG classification, and the last two were an assessment indicator. With PDPM, the first character represents the patient’s physical therapy (PT) and occupational therapy (OT) component. The second is the patient’s speech language therapy (SLP) component. The third is the nursing component classification. The fourth is the NTA component classification, while the fifth is an AI code.

The upshot to this is that different clinical categories can result in significant reimbursement differences. For example, consider the major joint replacement or spinal surgery clinical category. That clinical category is a major medical service, which can translate to a $42-a-day increase in reimbursement. For a 20-day stay, that clinical category would increase reimbursement by $840. You want to pick up on this type of surgery.

I received a question after a recent program segment asking whether swing beds will be affected by PDPM. In most hospitals, the answer is yes. The exception is critical access hospitals (CAHs), which will remain cost-based for their swing beds.

Final Rule: “Accordingly, all non-CAH swing-bed rural hospitals have now come under the SNF PPS. Therefore, all rates and wage indexes outlined in earlier sections of this final rule for the SNF PPS also apply to all non-CAH swing- bed rural hospitals.”

The latest changes in the MDS for swing-bed rural hospitals appear on the SNF PPS website at: http://www.cms.gov/Medicare/Medicare-Fee-for-Service-Payment/SNFPPS/index.html

Programming Note:

Listen to healthcare attorney Knicole Emanuel every Monday on Monitor Monday, 10-10:30 a.m. EST.

RAC Audits: Alternatives to Litigation

Understanding why there’s a need for auditing the auditors.

I frequently encounter complaints by healthcare providers that when they are undergoing Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC), Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC), and, more recently, the Targeted Probe-and-Educate (TPE) audits, the auditors are getting it wrong. That’s as in, during a RAC audit, the auditor finds claims noncompliant, for example, for not having medical necessity – but the provider knows unequivocally that the determination is dead wrong. So the question that I get from the providers is whether they have any legal recourse against the RAC or MAC finding noncompliance, besides going through the tedious administrative action, which we all know can take upwards of 5-7 years before reaching the third administrative level.

To which, now, upon a recent discovery in one of my cases, I would have responded that the only other option for relief would be obtaining a preliminary injunction in federal court. To prove a preliminary injunction in federal court, you must prove: a) a likelihood of success on the merits; and b) that irreparable harm would be incurred without the injunction; i.e., that your company would be financially devastated, or even threatened with extinction.

The conundrum of being on the brink of financial ruin is that you cannot afford a legal defense if you are about to lose everything.

This past month, I had a completely different legal strategy, with a different result. I am not saying that this result would be reached by all healthcare providers that disagree with the results of their RAC or MAC or TPE audit, but I now believe that in certain extreme circumstances, this alternative route could work, as it did in my case.

When this particular client hired me, I quickly realized that the impact of the MAC’s decision to rescind the client’s Medicare contract was going to do more than the average catastrophic outcomes resulting from a rescission of a Medicare contract. First, this provider was the only provider in the area with the ability to perform certain surgeries. Secondly, his practice consisted of 90 percent of Medicare. An immediate suspension of Medicare would have been devastating to his practice. Thirdly, the consequence of these Medicaid patients not undergoing this particular and highly specialized surgery was dire. This trifecta sparked a situation in which, I believed, that even a Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) employee (who probably truly believed that the negative findings cited by the RAC or MAC were accurate) may be swayed by the exigent circumstances.

I contacted opposing counsel, who was the attorney for CMS. Prior to this situation, I had automatically assumed that non-litigious strategies would never work. Opposing counsel listened to the facts. She asked that I draft a detailed explanation as to the circumstances. Now, concurrently, I also drafted this provider’s Medicare appeal, because we did not want to lose the right to appeal. The letter was definitely detailed and took a lot of time to create.

In the end, CMS surprised me and we got the Medicare contract termination overturned within months, not years, and without expensive litigation.

(Originally published on RACMonitor)

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.

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!!!

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

New case law supports due process for Medicare providers. As first seen on RACMonitor.

Due process is one of the cornerstones of our society. Due process is the universal guarantee and found in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides “No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and is applied to all states by the 14th Amendment. From this basic principle flows many legal decisions determining both procedural and substantive rights.

For Medicare and Medicaid providers, however, due process, in the past, has been nonexistent. Imagine that you are accused of owing $5 million to the government. Perhaps it was a CPT® code error. You disagree. You believe that your documentation was proper and that you filed for reimbursement correctly. You appeal the decision that you owe $5 million. You continue conducting business as normal. Suddenly, you realize the government is recouping the $5 million now. Prior to any hearing before a judge. You haven’t been found guilty. What happened to innocent until proven guilty? What happened to due process?

For Medicare appeals there is a five-step appeal process. The law requires the government not to recoup during the first and second levels of appeal. But the first and second levels are jumping through hoops and are not normally successful. It is at the third level – the appeal to an impartial administrative judge – that the alleged recoupments are overturned.

After the second level, according to the black letter of the law, the government can begin recouping the alleged overpayment.

Sadly, in the past, the courts have held that it is proper for the government to recoup reimbursements after the second level. Even though, no hearing has been held before an impartial judge and you haven’t been found guilty of owing the money.

On Sept. 27, 2018, another U.S. District Court in South Carolina has agreed with courts in Texas by granting a provider’s request for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to prevent the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) from recouping monies until after Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearings have been held (Accident, Injury and Rehabilitation, PC, c/a No. 4:18-cv-02173, September 27, 2018).

A new trend in favor of providers seems to be arising. This is fantastic news for providers across the country!

Accident, Injury & Rehab, PC found that the ALJ stage of the appellate process is the most important for providers, as it provides the first opportunity for plaintiff to cross examine defendant’s witnesses and examine the evidence used to formulate the statistical sample. According to the American Hospital Association (AHA), 66 percent of Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) denials are reversed by an ALJ (I actually believe the percentage is higher). The court found that plaintiff’s procedural due process rights were violated by premature recoupment. The court granted Accident, Injury & Rehab, PC’s preliminary injunction restraining and enjoining the government from withholding Medicare payments during the appeal process.

When the government starts recouping filing a preliminary injunction has been shown it to be the best course.

In the past, most preliminary injunctions asking the court to order the government to stop recoupments until a hearing was held was dismissed based on jurisdiction. In other words, the courts held that the courts did not have the authority to render an opinion as to recoupments prior to a hearing. Now, however, the trend is turning, and courts are starting to rule in favor of the provider, finding a violation of procedural due process based on a collateral claim exception.

There are four criteria in order to win a preliminary injunction. A party seeking a preliminary injunction must establish all for the following criteria: (1) that the party is likely to succeed on the merits; (2) that the party is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary injunction; (3) that the balance of the equity tips in the party’s favor; and (4) that injunction is in the public interest.

There is an esoteric legal theory called exhaustion of administrative remedies. So jurisdiction is the question. There are exceptions to the judicial bar. The Supreme Court of United States articulated a collateral claim exception. The Supreme Court permitted a plaintiff to bring a procedural due process claim requesting an evidentiary area hearing before the termination of disability benefits. There are nonwaivable and waivable jurisdictional elements the nonwaivable requirement is that a claim must be presented to the administrative agency. The waivable requirement is that administrative remedies be exhausted.

The Collateral claim exception is when a party brings a claim in federal court when that “constitutional challenge is entirely collateral to its substantive claim of entitlement.”

The new trend in case law is that the courts are finding that the provider’s right to not undergo recoupment during the appeal process is a collateral issue as to the substantive issue of whether the provider owes the money. Therefore, the courts have found jurisdiction as to the collateral issue.

The proverbial ship has sailed. According to courts in Texas and now South Carolina, CMS cannot recoup monies prior to hearings before ALJs. Providers facing large recoupments should file TROs to prevent premature recoupments and to obtain due process.

Medicare and Medicaid RAC Audits: How Auditors Get It Wrong

Here is an article that I wrote that was first published on RACMonitor on March 15, 2018:

All audits are questionable, contends the author, so appeal all audit results.

Providers ask me all the time – how will you legally prove that an alleged overpayment is erroneous? When I explain some examples of mistakes that Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) and other health care auditors make, they ask, how do these auditors get it so wrong?

First, let’s debunk the notion that the government is always right. In my experience, the government is rarely right. Auditors are not always healthcare providers. Some have gone to college. Many have not. I googled the education criteria for a clinical compliance reviewer. The job application requires the clinical reviewer to “understand Medicare and Medicaid regulations,” but the education requirement was to have an RN. Another company required a college degree…in anything.

Let’s go over the most common mistakes auditors make that I have seen. I call them “oops, I did it again.” And I am not a fan of reruns.

  1. Using the Wrong Clinical Coverage Policy/Manual/Regulation

Before an on-site visit, auditors are given a checklist, which, theoretically, is based on the pertinent rules and regulations germane to the type of healthcare service being audited. The checklists are written by a government employee who most likely is not an attorney. There is no formal mechanism in place to compare the Medicare policies, rules, and manuals to the checklist. If the checklist is erroneous, then the audit results are erroneous. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) frequently revises final rules, changing requirements for certain healthcare services. State agencies amend small technicalities in the Medicaid policies constantly. These audit checklists are not updated every time CMS issues a new final rule or a state agency revises a clinical coverage policy.

For example, for hospital-based services, there is a different reimbursement rate depending on whether the patient is an inpatient or outpatient. Over the last few years there have been many modifications to the benchmarks for inpatient services. Another example is in behavioral outpatient therapy; while many states allow 32 unmanaged visits, others have decreased the number of unmanaged visits to 16, or, in some places, eight. Over and over, I have seen auditors apply the wrong policy or regulation. They apply the Medicare Manual from 2018 for dates of service performed in 2016, for example. In many cases, the more recent policies are more stringent that those of two or three years ago.

  1. A Flawed Sample Equals a Flawed Extrapolation

The second common blunder auditors often make is producing a flawed sample. Two common mishaps in creating a sample are: a) including non-government paid claims in the sample and b) failing to pick the sample randomly. Both common mistakes can render a sample invalid, and therefore, the extrapolation invalid. Auditors try to throw out their metaphoric fishing nets wide in order to collect multiple types of services. The auditors accidentally include dates of service of claims that were paid by third-party payors instead of Medicare/Medicaid. You’ve heard of the “fruit of the poisonous tree?” This makes the audit the fruit of the poisonous audit. The same argument goes for samples that are not random, as required by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG). A nonrandom sample is not acceptable and would also render any extrapolation invalid.

  1. A Simple Misunderstanding

A third common blooper found with RAC auditors is simple misunderstandings based on lack of communication between the auditor and provider. Say an auditor asks for a chart for date of service X. The provider gives the auditor the chart for date of service X, but what the auditor is really looking for is the physician’s order or prescription that was dated the day prior. The provider did not give the auditor the pertinent document because the auditor did not request it. These issues cause complications later, because inevitably, the auditor will argue that if the provider had the document all along, then why was the document not presented? Sometimes inaccurate accusations of fraud and fabrication are averred.

  1. The Erroneous Extrapolation

Auditors use a computer program called RAT-STATS to extrapolate the sample error rate across a universe of claims. There are so many variables that can render an extrapolation invalid. Auditors can have too low a confidence level. The OIG requires a 90 percent confidence level at 25 percent precision for the “point estimate.” The size and validity of the sample matters to the validity of the extrapolation. The RAT-STATS outcome must be reviewed by a statistician or a person with equal expertise. An appropriate statistical formula for variable sampling must be used. Any deviations from these directives and other mandates render the extrapolation invalid. (This is not an exhaustive list of requirements for extrapolations).

  1. That Darn Purple Ink!

A fifth reason that auditors get it wrong is because of nitpicky, nonsensical reasons such as using purple ink instead of blue. Yes, this actually happened to one of my clients. Or if the amount of time with the patient is not denoted on the medical record, but the duration is either not relevant or the duration is defined in the CPT code. Electronic signatures, when printed, sometimes are left off – but the document was signed. A date on the service note is transposed. Because there is little communication between the auditor and the provider, mistakes happen.

The moral of the story — appeal all audit results.