The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the expansion of Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) audits. At first glance, this appears to be fantastic news coming on the heels of so much craziness at Health and Human Services (HHS). We have former-HHS Secretary Price flying our tax dollars all over. Dr. Don Wright stepping up as our new Secretary. The Medicare appeal backlog fiasco. The repeal and replace Obamacare bomb. Amidst all this tomfoolery, health care providers are still serving Medicare and Medicaid patients, reimbursement rates are in the toilet, which drives down quality and incentivizes providers to not accept Medicare or Medicaid (especially Caid), and providers are undergoing “Audit Alphabet Soup.” I actually had a client tell me that he receives audit letters requesting documents and money every single week from a plethora of different organizations.
So when CMS announced that it was broadening its TPE audits, it was a sigh of relief for many providers. But will TPE audits be the benign beasts they are purporting to be?
What is a TPE audit? (And – Can We Have Anymore Acronyms…PLEASE!)
CMS says that TPE audits are benevolent. CMS’ rhetoric indicates that these audits should not cause the toner to run out from overuse. CMS states that TPE audits will involve “the review of 20-40 claims per provider, per item or service, per round, for a total of up to three rounds of review.” See CMS Announcement. The idea behind the TPE audits (supposedly) is education, not recoupments. CMS states that “After each round, providers are offered individualized education based on the results of their reviews. This program began as a pilot in one MAC jurisdiction in June 2016 and was expanded to three additional MAC jurisdictions in July 2017. As a result of the successes demonstrated during the pilot, including an increase in the acceptance of provider education as well as a decrease in appealed claims decisions, CMS has decided to expand to all MAC jurisdictions later in 2017.” – And “later in 2017” has arrived. These TPE audits are currently being conducted nationwide.
Below is CMS’ vision for a TPE audit:
Clear? As mud?
The chart does not indicate how long the provider will have to submit records or how quickly the TPE auditors will review the documents for compliance. But it appears to me that getting through Round 3 could take a year (this is a guess based on allowing the provider 30 days to gather the records and allowing the TPE auditor 30 days to review).
Although the audit is purportedly benign and less burdensome, a TPE audit could take a whole year or more. Whether the audit reviews one claim or 20, having to undergo an audit of any size for a year is burdensome on a provider. In fact, I have seen many companies having to hire staff dedicated to responding to audits. And here is the problem with that – there aren’t many people who understand Medicare/caid medical billing. Providers beware – if you rely on an independent biller or an electronic medical records program, they better be accurate. Otherwise the buck stops with your NPI number.
Going back to CMS’ chart (above), notice where all the “yeses” go. As in, if the provider is found compliant , during any round, all the yeses point to “Discontinue for at least 12 months.” I am sure that CMS thought it was doing providers a favor, but what that tells me is the TPE audit will return after 12 months! If the provider is found compliant, the audit is not concluded. In fact, according to the chart, the only end results are (1) a referral to CMS for possible further action; or (2) continued TPE audits after 12 months. “Further action” could include 100% prepayment review, extrapolation, referral to a Recovery Auditor, or other action. Where is the outcome that the provider receives an A+ and is left alone??
CMS states that “Providers/suppliers may be removed from the review process after any of the three rounds of probe review, if they demonstrate low error rates or sufficient improvement in error rates, as determined by CMS.”
I just feel as though that word “may” should be “will.” It’s amazing how one word could change the entire process.
Electronic health records or EHR have metamorphosed health care. Choosing a vendor can be daunting and the prices fluctuate greatly. As a provider, you probably determine your EHR platform on which vendor’s program creates the best service notes… or which creates the most foolproof way of tracking time… or which program is the cheapest.
But…what’s in YOUR contract can be legally deadly.
Regardless how you choose your EHR vendor, you need to keep the following legal issues in mind when it comes to EHR and the law:
Regulatory and Clinical Coverage Policy Compliance
Most likely, your EHR vendor does not have a legal degree. Yet, you are buying a product and assuming that the EHR program complies with applicable regulations, rules, and clinical coverage policies – whichever are applicable to your type of service. Well, guess what? These regulations, rules, and clinical coverage policies are not stagnant. They are amended, revised, and re-written more than my chickens lay eggs, but a little less often, because my chickens lay eggs every day.
Think about it – The Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) publishes a monthly Medicaid Bulletin. Every month DMA provides more insight, more explanations, more rules that providers will be held accountable to follow.
Does your EHR program update every month?
You need to review your contract and determine whether the vendor is responsible for regulatory compliance or whether you are. If you are, should you put so much faith in the EHR program?
You are required to maintain your records (depending on your type of service) anywhere from 5-10 years. Let’s say that you sign a four year contract with EHR Vendor X. The four years expires, and you hire a new EHR vendor. You are audited. But Vendor X does not allow you access to the records because you no longer have a contract with them – not their problem!
You need to ensure that your EHR contract allows you access to your documents (because they are your documents) even in the event of the contract expiring or getting terminated. The excuse that “I don’t have access to that” does not equal a legal defense.
This is otherwise known as the “Blame Game.” If there is a problem with regulatory compliance, as in, the EHR records do not follow the regulations, then you need to know whether the EHR vendor will take responsibility and pay, or help pay, for attorneys’ fees to defend yourself.
Like it or not, the EHR vendor does not undergo audits by the state and federal government. The EHR vendor does not undergo post and pre-payment reviews for regulatory compliance. You do. It is your NPI number that is held accountable for regulatory compliance.
You need to check whether there is an indemnification clause in the EHR contract. In other words, if you are accused of an overpayment because of a mistake on the part of the vendor, will the vendor cover your defense? My guess is that there is no indemnification clause.
HIPAA laws require that you minimize the access to private health information (PHI) and prevent dissemination. With hard copies, this was easy. You could just lock up the documents. With EHR, it becomes trickier. Obviously, you have access to the PHI as the provider. But who can access your EHR on the vendor-side? Assuming that the vendor has an IT team in case of computer issues, you have to consider to what exactly does that team have access.
I recently attended a legal continuing education class on data breach and HIPAA compliance for health care. One of the speakers was a Special Agent with the FBI. This gentleman prosecutes data breaches for a living. He said that hackers will pay over $500 per private medical document. Health care companies experienced a 72% increase in cyberattacks between 2013 and 2014. Stolen health care information is 10 times more valuable than your credit card information.
Obviously, I am exaggerating here. I do not believe that The Walking Dead is real and in our future. But here is my point – You are held accountable for maintaining your medical records, even in the face of an act of God or terrorism.
Example: It was 1996. Provider Dentist did not have EHR; he had hard copies. Hurricane Fran flooded Provider Dentist’s office, ruining all medical records. When Provider Dentist was audited, the government did not accept the whole “there was a hurricane” excuse. Dentist was liable for sever penalties and recoupments.
Fast forward to 2017 and EHR – Think a mass computer shutdown won’t happen? Just ask Delta about its August 2016 computer shutdown that took four days and cancelled over 2000 flights. Or Medstar Health, which operates 10 hospitals and more than 250 outpatient facilities, when in March 2016, a computer virus shut down its emails and…you guessed it…its EHR database.
So, what’s in YOUR contract?
How many times have you heard, “Third time’s a charm?”If that is true, then what is the fifth time? The sixth time?
In an October 3, 2016, advisory report, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) recommends that the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) heighten its scrutiny on personal care services (PCS) in states across the country. The OIG claims “that home health has long been recognized as a program area vulnerable to fraud, waste, and abuse.” Past OIG reports have focused on Medicare. This new one focuses on Medicaid.
OIG is a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and is charged with identifying and combating waste, fraud, and abuse in the HHS’s more than 300 programs. But, evidently, OIG is not happy, happy, happy, when HHS disregards its findings, which appears to be what has happened for a number of years.
PCS are nonmedical services for people who need assistance with activities of daily living (ADLs), such as bathing, eating, and toileting. Most of the time, PCS are allowing the person to remain in his or her home, instead of being institutionalized. However, according to OIG, PCS is fraught with fraud.
PCS is an optional service for Medicaid, i.e., states can choose to cover the cost of PCS with government funds. But, on the federal level, PCS is provided, if medically necessary, in all states.
The OIG report summarizes Medicaid fraud schemes from November 2012 through August 2016. OIG goes on to say that the fraud in this report is merely replicate of Medicare fraud found in a prior reports. In other words,OIG is basically saying that it has found Medicare fraud in home health in multiple, past reports and that CMS has not followed through appropriately. In fact, this report makes over five times, in recent years, that OIG has instructed CMS to increase its regulatory oversight of Medicare/caid personal care services. How many times does it take for your spouse to ask you to take out the trash until you take out the trash? Third time’s a charm??
Mark my words…in the near future, there will be heightened investigations and increased audits on home health.
Here are some scenarios that can trigger an audit of home health:
- High percentage of episodes for which the beneficiary had no recent visits with the supervising physician;
- High percentage of episodes that were not preceded by a hospital or nursing home stay;
- High percentage of episodes with a primary diagnosis of diabetes or hypertension;
- High percentage of beneficiaries with claims from multiple home health agencies; and
- High percentage of beneficiaries with multiple home health readmissions in a short period of time.
While the above-mentioned scenarios do not prove the existence of Medicare/caid fraud, they are red flags that will wave their presence before health care investigators’ faces.
Here are the states (and cities) which will be targets:
Notice that North Carolina is not highlighted. Notice that Florida is highlighted and contained numerous “hotspots.” Certainly that has nothing to do with the abnormal number of people on Medicare…
Regardless, North Carolina will get its share of Medicare PCS audits. Especially, considering that we have the 7th most number of Medicare beneficiaries in the country – that should have gotten us highlighted per se.
Since the OIG Portfolio report issued in 2012, OIG has opened more than 200 investigations involving fraud and patient harm and neglect in the PCS program across the country. “Given the significant vulnerabilities in the PCS program, including a lack of internal controls, and that PCS fraud continues to be a persistent problem, OIG anticipates that its enforcement efforts will continue to involve PCS cases.”Report.
Fifth time is a ______?? (Sure thing).
Monday, February 22, 2016, The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that it plans to increase onsite visits and monitoring of health care providers. One of the top priorities for CMS is to verify that provider enrollment and address are correct…
Because, as you know, providers with correct addresses on file are less likely to commit Medicare fraud. Medicare Fraud 101 – Give CMS the wrong address. Really? (While I applaud their valiant effort, the fraud that I have witnessed has not been a health care provider using a fake address to provide fake services…that is too Ponzi, too shallow in thought…too easily detected. Oh no, the fraud I have encountered were providers with actual practices with correct addresses, but embellishing on the amount of services provided to an actual Medicare enrollee to cushion their pockets. This is much more difficult to detect.
But CMS has its reasons for sniffing out fake addresses. CMS’ address hunt-down comes on the heels of a report from June 2015 out of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which determined that approximately 22% of Medicare provider addresses are “potentially ineligible.” Additionally, last March (2015) CMS decreased the amount of audits conducted by Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), which are one of the entities that investigate Medicare provider eligibility.
Whenever the GAO finds potential errors, CMS usually puts on the whole dog and pony show…or, maybe, for a change, a pig and pony show…
With all these political talks about donkeys and elephants, I would like to take a moment and blog about a pig. Some of you know that I own a pet pig. She is 4 1/2 years old and about 30 pounds. See below.
Isn’t she cute?! Some of you will remember my last blog about Oink was “Our Medicaid Budget: Are We Just Putting Lipstick on a Pig?”
The reason I bring up Oink is that she is the smartest, most animated animal I have ever encountered. She is also the best “sniffer-outer” I have ever encountered. Her keen sense of smell is well beyond any human’s sense of smell. If you liken Oink to CMS and Medicare fraud to a Skittle, the Skittle would have no chance.
These upcoming and increased number of audits is CMS’ way of sniffing out fraud. However, CMS’ sense of smell is not up to snuff like Oink’s sense of smell.
Searching for erroneous addresses in order to detect fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA) will, inevitably, be over-inclusive. Meaning, many of the erroneous addresses will not be committing Medicare fraud. Some erroneous addresses exist because providers simply moved to another location and either failed to inform CMS or CMS’ database was not updated with the new address. Other erroneous addresses exist because health care providers went out of business and never informed CMS. A new company leases the property and it appears to CMS that fraudulent billing was occurring a couple years ago out of, for example, what is now a Jimmy John’s.
Searching for erroneous addresses in order to detect FWA will, inevitably, be under-inclusive. Meaning, that many providers committing Medicare fraud do so with accurate office addresses.
My contention is that if you want to find FWA, you need to dig deeper than an incorrect address. Sniffing out Medicare fraud is a bit more in depth than finding improper addresses. That would be like tossing handfuls of Skittles on the ground and expecting Oink to only find the green ones.
In fiscal year 2014, Medicare paid $554 billion for health care and related services. CMS estimates that $60 billion (about 10 percent) of that total was paid improperly (not only because of incorrect addresses).
CMS is responsible for developing provider and supplier enrollment procedures to help safeguard the program from FWA. CMS contracts with Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) and the National Supplier Clearinghouse (NSCs) to manage the enrollment process. MACs are responsible for verifying provider and supplier application information in Provider Enrollment, Chain and Ownership System (PECOS) before the providers and suppliers are permitted to enroll into Medicare. CMS currently contracts with 12 MACs, each of which is responsible for its own geographic region, known as a “jurisdiction.
As you can see, we live in Jurisdiction 11. These MACs act as the “sniffer-outers” for CMS.
According to the GAO June 2015 report, about 23,400 (22 percent) of the 105,234 addresses that GAO initially identified as a Commercial Mail Receiving Agency (CMRA), vacant, or invalid address are potentially ineligible for Medicare providers and suppliers. “About 300 of the addresses were CMRAs, 3,200 were vacant properties, and 19,900 were invalid. Of the 23,400 potentially ineligible addresses, [GAO] estimates that, from 2005 to 2013, about 17,900 had no claims associated with the address, 2,900 were associated with providers that had claims that were less than $500,000, and 2,600 were associated with providers that had claims that were $500,000 or more per address.”
In other words, out of 105,234 addresses, only 2,600 actively billed Medicare for over $500,000 from 2005 through 2013 (8 years). Had CMS narrowed the scope and looked at practices that billed over $500,000 since 2010, I fancy the the number would have been much lower, because, as discussed above, many of these providers either moved or went out-of-business.
Now, 2,600 is not a nominal number. I am in no way undermining CMS’ efforts to determine the accuracy of providers’ addresses; I am not insinuating that these efforts are unnecessary or a complete waste of time. I think verification of health care providers’ addresses is an important aspect of detecting FWA. Instead, I believe that, as discussed above, verifying providers’ addresses is a poor, under and over-inclusive attempt at searching for FWA. Because, as I stated at the beginning of this blog, the people who are intentionally trying to defraud the system, are not going to intentionally give an erroneous address. It is just too easy for the government to discover the error. No, the people who are intentionally defrauding the state will have a legitimate office.
For example, in my opinion, it is unlikely that anyone intentionally trying to defraud the system will inform the government that they provide health care services from the following places:
Again, if I liken CMS’ search for FWA by detecting inaccurate addresses to Oink, it would be like tossing a handful of Skittles on the ground and expecting Oink to only find the green ones.
If CMS audits are to Oink as fraud is to Skittles, then I think there is a less intrusive, less inclusive way to detect FWA rather than throwing out packets of Skittles for Oink. All that does is make Oink eat too much.
Medicare is the largest payor of clinical lab services in the nation. Clinical lab services include everything from blood counts to urinalyses, and every letter of the alphabet in between. Lab services are performed by hospitals, independent labs, physicians, or other institutions.
Medicare Part B (which covers lab services) has had increased enrollment over the past few years, but the amount billed to Part B over the past few years has increased at a much higher rate. In other words, the amount of lab services billed to Part B has increased disproportionately to the increase in enrollment. Any number of factors could contribute to this: defensive practice of medicine, more reliance on laboratory testing, more labs…
Regardless, the higher billing amounts in lab services has now won the prestigious award of “Increased CMS Scrutiny!” (sarcasm, people). And the crowd goes wild!!!!
Mid-2014, the U.S. Office of Inspector General (OIG) published a study entitled, “Questionable Billing for Medicare Part B Clinical Laboratory Services.” OIG determined that Medicare allowed $1.5 billion to be paid for claims with questionable billing. It recommended that CMS: (1) review the labs identified with questionable billing and take appropriate action; (2) review program integrity strategies and determine whether such strategies are adequate; and (3) ensure that claims with invalid and ineligible ordering-physician numbers are not being paid.
In normal and expectant government time frames, the “dinosauric beast” has now determined, a little over a year later, that laboratory service claims warrant enhanced scrutiny. And a little over 85 years after its discovery, we finally determine that Pluto isn’t a planet.
CMS zoomed in their lens of scrutiny on lab services multiple times over a decade ago. Each “CMS zoom” resulted in millions and millions of money given to the federal government, which perpetuates the feds to zoom more and more…it’s easy money.
For example, in 2000, OIG issued Project LabScam, which resulted in substantial settlements against Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings, SmithKline Beecham, Met/Path, Damon, Roche, and Allied.
In 2002, OIG found that Medicare incorrectly paid $7.4 million for lab services with invalid ordering UPINs and $15.3 million for lab service claims with inactive ordering UPINs.
What does this mean to providers of lab services today?
It means you need to be prepared for an audit.
When I was young, one of my favorite games was “Red Rover.” Children would grasp arms and form a straight line facing the other team, which was doing the same. I would yell, “Red River, Red Rover, send Holly right over!” At which time, little Holly would be released from her line and prepare to run, full speed, into my line of little kids’ arms. Inevitably, once we saw where Holly was running, we would tighten up our grasps on one another’s arms to prepare for the impact.
Similarly, in preparation for upcoming audits, lab service providers need to tighten up.
The best way to be certain of your risks in a potential audit is to hire a professional consultant or an experienced attorney to review a large sample of your documents. This allows an outsider to provide an unbiased opinion as to your risk. You may have the best billing manager in the world, but, when it comes to a self audit, he or she already believes that his or her documentation is stellar and that the organization of such documents is self evident. Having an outsider audit your records is worth its weight in gold and the best way to tighten up pre-audit.
The second best way to be certain of your risks in a potential audit is to self audit. Even if you hire a consultant or an attorney for a one time, third-party audit, you still want to self-audit multiple times a year. Every now and then you need to kick the old tires.
How do you self audit?
FYI: My general explanation of how to self audit will be appropriate for all health care service provider types. I will describe some more detailed ways to self audit that will be specific to lab services.
In order to self audit, I teach the IAKA method, not to be confused with IKEA.
- Identify common risks
- Audit a sample of your documents
- Keep record of each step of your audit, including findings
- Act on the findings.
What are the common red flags in your industry?
For lab services, common red flags may be high average allowed amounts per ordering physician, high percentage of claims with ineligible ordering-physician numbers, high percentage of claims with compromised beneficiary numbers, and high percentage of duplicate lab tests.
Here’s an area to look into that you may not otherwise consider in a self audit: what percentage of your lab clients live outside 100 miles? This may sound hoaky, but I had a lab service client flagged because 92% of the clients resided over 150 miles away. There was a perfectly reasonable explanation for such anomaly, the lab was located in a large, prestigious hospital in a rural area and people came from miles away to the hospital, but the statistic still flagged it.
Another specific item to review is, on average, how much does each physician bill in the laboratory? Do you have 4 physicians who bill, on average, $60,000+ per ordering physician? Because, for an independent lab, that would be very high.
For the actual self audit, you want to break up the audit into two categories: standards and procedures and document compliance.
For standards and procedures, you are reviewing whether you are properly orienting new hires, the specific training you implement, your criminal background check procedures, HIPAA training, your license renewal processes, your certification renewal processes, etc.
For document compliance, you are reviewing for physician signatures and dates.
NOTE: It is not required, but it is extremely prudent to print the name of the signator underneath all signatures. I have seen auditors ding providers on “physicians not being licensed/credentialed” because the auditor could not read the name of the physician.
You are also reviewing for medical necessity, eligible ordering-physician numbers, distance the client is to the lab, amount prescribed to that particular client, amount prescribed by that particular physician, whether that test prescribed for the same client within a 12 month period, coding compliance, etc.
It is imperative that you keep meticulous records while you conducting the audits. You want to be able to show an auditor that you caught a mistake and that you implemented a plan of correction to remedy the mistake going forward. And that, in actuality, you remedied the mistake going forward. This documentation is essential for possible defenses to alleged potential overpayments, false claims, and, even, alleged criminal actions. Your documentation skills could be the difference between paying millions in penalties, or, in the extreme case, jail.
I got ahead of myself in the prior section by saying that you need to document the way in which you fix the mistake. But I cannot emphasize it enough. Acting on your findings is important, obviously, but documenting the actions is more important. Ever hear the saying, “If it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen?” Take that as gospel.
Be prepared. Be proactive. Be ready. Tighten up!
When you, as a health care provider, undergo a regulatory Medicare or Medicaid audit, your liability insurance could be your best friend or your worst enemy. It is imperative that you understand your liability coverage prior to ever undergoing an audit.
There are two very important issues that you need to know about your liability insurance:
1. Whether your liability insurance covers your choice of attorney; and
2. Whether your liability insurance covers settlements and/or judgments.
I cannot express the importance of these two issues when it comes to regulatory audits, paybacks and recoupments. Let me explain why…
Does your liability insurance cover attorneys’ fees for your choice of provider?
I have blogged numerous times over the past years about the importance of knowing whether your liability insurance covers your attorneys’ fees. I have come to realize that whether your liability insurance covers your attorneys’ fees is less important than knowing whether your liability insurance covers your choice of attorney. Believe it or not, when it comes to litigating regulatory issues in the Medicare/Medicaid, attorneys are not fungible.
A client of mine summed it up for me today. She said, “I wouldn’t go to my dentist for a PAP smear.”
Case in point, here are some examples of misconceptions that attorneys NOT familiar with the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) might think:
• Myth: Getting the case continued is a breeze, especially if all the parties consent to it.
• Reality: Generally, OAH is reluctant to continue cases, except for good cause, especially when a case has pended for a certain amount of time. (This has been a more recent trend and could change in the future).
• Myth: When my case is scheduled for trial on X date, it will be a cattle call and we will only determine when the case will be actually heard, so I don’t need to prepare for trial. (This is true in superior court).
• Reality: Incorrect. Most likely, you will be heard. OAH has a number of administrative law judges (ALJs) who are assigned cases. Generally, they only schedule one case per day, although there are exceptions.
• Myth: Since we are going to trial next week, the other side must not intend to file a motion to dismiss or motion for summary judgment. I don’t need to prepare any counter arguments.
• Reality: The administrative rules allow attorneys to orally file motion the day of trial.
You can imagine how devastating attorney misconceptions can be to your case. An attorney with these misconceptions could very well appear unprepared at a trial, which could have catastrophic consequences on you and your company.
Review your liability insurance. Determine whether your liability insurance covers attorneys’ fees. Then determine whether it covers your choice of attorney.
Does your liability insurance cover settlements and/or judgments?
Recently, a client was informed that the agency allegedly owes over $400,000 to the auditing agency. We will call him Jim. Jim came to me, and I instructed him to determine whether his liability insurance covers attorneys’ fees. It turned out that his insurance did cover attorneys’ fees, but only a certain attorney. Jim had overlooked our first issue.
Despite the fact that his insurance would not cover my fees, he opted to stick with me. (Thanks, Jim).
Regardless, once settlement discussions arose between us and the auditing entity, which in this particular case was Palmetto, I asked Jim for a copy of his liability insurance. If his liability insurance covers settlements, then we have all the incentive in the world to settle and skip an expensive hearing.
I was shocked at the language of the liability insurance.
According to the contract, insurance company would pay for attorneys’ fees (just not mine). Ok, fine. But the insurance company would contribute nothing to settlements or judgments.
What does that mean?
Insurance company could provide Jim with bargain basement attorneys, the cheapest it could find, with no regard as to whether the attorney were a corporate, litigation, real estate, tax, bankruptcy, or health care lawyer BECAUSE…
The insurance company has no skin in the game. In other words, the insurance company could not care less whether the case settles, goes to trial, or disappears. Its only duty is to pay for some lawyer.
Whereas if the insurance company were liable for, say, 20% of a settlement or judgment, wouldn’t the insurance company care whether the hired lawyer were any good?
Print off your liability insurance. Read it. Does your liability insurance cover attorneys’ fees for your choice of provider?
Does your liability insurance cover settlements and/or judgments?
This is a story from NC Health News by Rose Hoban…a follow up blog to come…
In the 2014 state budget passed last August, state lawmakers inserted what could be considered a poison pill for Medicaid providers: a 3 percent pay cut that for specialists could be effective retroactively to January 2014.
Primary care providers such as pediatricians, internists and family doctors will see the same pay cut, effective back to Jan. 1, 2015.
But the cut is only now being implemented.
“All of us were optimistic that the cut wouldn’t happen,” said Karen Smith, a family doctor in Raeford who runs her own practice.
Smith said she and other physicians have been writing, calling and talking to legislators, working to convince them not to implement the cut.
But she and thousands of other primary care providers received notification late last week that on March 1 they would begin seeing the 3 percent cut.
And for specialists, the reduction will go back 14 months.
“It’s quite a hit,” said Elaine Ellis, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Medical Society.
Failed shared-savings plan behind the problem
The origin of the 3 percent cut goes back to the 2013 budget for Medicaid, the program that covers health care for low-income children, some of their parents, pregnant women and low-income seniors. In 2013, the federal government paid North Carolina 65.5 percent of every dollar billed for Medicaid-eligible care, while the state covered the other 34.5 percent (The rate, which changes annually, is 65.9 percent for 2015).
In 2013, the Medicaid budget had grown to close to $4 billion in state dollars, and lawmakers at the General Assembly were looking for ways to trim costs. So they devised a “shared-savings” program, in which Medicaid providers would take a 3 percent rate cut that would be collected by the state Department of Health and Human Services. If doctors and hospitals saved money by operating more efficiently, DHHS would share those savings back with the providers, effectively reducing the amount of the 3 percent cut.
But DHHS needed federal approval to initiate the program, which would have been complicated. The agency never submitted a plan to the federal government, so neither part of the program was initiated.
That created a problem for lawmakers, who had calculated the savings from the rate cut into their state budget. When lawmakers returned to Raleigh in 2014 to adjust the state’s biennial budget, they implemented the rate cut retroactively to Jan 1, 2014 for specialists. Primary care providers, such as Karen Smith, had their rate cut put off until the beginning of 2015.
Officials from the Medical Society have been gathering numbers from around the state and are finding that some specialty practices could owe tens of thousands of dollars that would need to be repaid to state coffers.
The need for retroactive payment is in part a logistical problem: The computerized Medicaid management information system, known as NCTracks, has not been able to process the cuts. NCTracks has had technical issues since it was rolled out in mid-2013; at that time, glitches in the system created months of delays and tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid services for providers.
“Requiring these [specialist] medical practices to pay back 3 percent of what the state has already paid them for the last 14 months would wreak havoc with the finances of these businesses – really, any business would struggle to recover from such a financial blow,” Robert Schaaf, a Raleigh radiologist and president of the Medical Society, wrote Monday in a press release.
And primary care doctors like Smith are also fretting over paying back 3 percent of what she earned from Medicaid for the past two months.
“Practices such as my own are functioning on an operating budget that’s month by month,” said Smith, who said that a great many of her patients are Medicaid recipients.
“We simply do not have that type of operating reserve to allow for that,” she said.
The cuts will be especially tough for rural providers, who have high numbers of Medicaid patients, said Greg Griggs from the N.C. Academy of Family Practitioners (The Academy of Family Practitioners is a North Carolina Health News sponsor).
“It’s one thing to make the cuts going forward, but to take money back, especially for that period of time, is pretty significant for people who’ve been willing to take care of our most needy citizens,” Griggs said.
“It’s pretty bad,” he said, “and its not like Medicaid pays extraordinarily well to begin with.”
In addition to the state cut is a federal cut of 1 percent to Medicaid reimbursements for primary care providers that went into effect on Jan. 1.
As part of the Affordable Care Act, primary care providers like Smith got a bump in reimbursement last year, but that ran out with the new year. Smith said that legislators in other states found ways to keep paying that enhanced rate for primary care doctors.
“We were hoping our legislators would do the same,” she said.
Instead, Smith finds herself talking to her staff about possible reductions, and she’s hearing from providers in her area that they’re throwing in the towel.
“I already have colleagues who’ve left practice of medicine in this area,” she said. “My personal physician is no longer in this area. Another colleague who was a resident three years in front of me told me he cannot deal with the economics of practicing like this anymore.”
Smith acknowledged that North Carolina’s Medicaid program has a slightly higher reimbursement to physicians than surrounding states. But she said many of her patients are quite ill.
“We are in the stroke belt,” she said, referring to the high rate of strokes in eastern North Carolina. “When we look at how sick our patients are compared to other states, is it equivalent? Are we measuring apples to apples?
All right, peeps, a forewarning…there will, most likely, not be a blog post next week from yours truly.
You have read my blogs in the past regarding the flagrant violations of due process against 15 behavioral health care providers in New Mexico when they were all accused of credible allegations of fraud. If not, see below.
See “New Mexico Affords No Due Process Based on a PCG Audit!;” “NC Medicaid: Are New Mexico and North Carolina Fraternal Twins? At Least, When It Comes to PCG!;” and “Because of PCG Audit, New Mexico Freezes Mental Health Services.”
The first administrative action as to an alleged overpayment is going forward this week, and I am flying to New Mexico early tomorrow morning. Including travel, the administrative action will last all week…hence the probability of no blog.
I tell you what…PCG is PCG is PCG is PCG. New Mexico or North Carolina. The motus operandi is the same. (Public Consulting Group).
Details to follow the trial.
Normally I am “silver lining” type of person. You know…the whole, “The sun will come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there’ll be sun,” mentality…
But when it comes to North Carolina Medicaid audits conducted by Public Consulting Group (PCG) or HMS, I have failed to find the silver linings. You, as a health care provider, receive a Tentative Notice of Overpayment (TNO) for $1 million and go through various stages of acceptance: surprise, horror, anger, befuddlement, and fear. In order to defend yourself, you have to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for an attorney (hopefully one that understands Medicaid audits). Then spend countless hours compiling all the documents for the attorney to review and use at the reconsideration review. Then take off a day to attend the reconsideration review, losing even more clinical hours, only to disagree with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Hearing Officer’s decision. Spend more money in legal fees to appeal the DHHS decision to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). Possibly hire an extrapolation expert at even more expense. Only to prove, finally, that the PCG and/or HMS audit was erroneous and you owe nothing. Or $100. Or $1000.
Where is the silver lining in that process?
That you owe nothing in the end? But you paid exhorbent amounts to the attorney.
Well, there could be a silver lining… (maybe even two)…
Recently, the IRS released a couple private letter rulings as to whether paid overpayments could be tax-deductible.
OK, what the heck is a private letter ruling?
According to Wikipedia, private letter rulings “(PLRs), in the United States, are written decisions by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in response to taxpayer requests for guidance. A private letter ruling binds only the IRS and the requesting taxpayer. Thus, a private ruling may not be cited or relied upon as precedent.”
The most important part of the above-referenced definition of a PLR is that the PLR is binding only on the IRS and the requesting taxpayer. Obviously, this means that if the IRS wrote 2500 PLRs saying that paid overpayments in Medicaid audits are tax-deductible, those 2500 PLRs are not binding as to you (unless you were one of the 2500 taxpayers asking for a PLR).
Regardless, PLRs are demonstrative as to how the IRS determines [whatever is determines in the PLR]. Because, despite the fact that PLRs are not binding on all taxpayers, I would find it odd if the IRS issued 2500 PLRs stating that the paid overpayments are tax-deductible, then the IRS turn around and refuse to allow you to treat the overpayment as a tax deduction. Although, I am sure stranger things have happened.
In the first PLR, which, BTW, is not fun to read. Who uses all this legalese??? Taxpayer B asks whether (1) the money he paid to the insurance company could be deducted as a loss incurred in a trade or business; and (2) the money paid to a Government Entity E and Government Entity F in the tax years in which the installment payments are made under the settlement agreement can be deducted. (I made Taxpayer B a male because the PLR makes him a male. I have no idea as to the gender of Taxpayer B).
In Year 1, the Insurance Company sued … Taxpayer B for insurance fraud, demanding both compensatory and punitive damages. In the second year, the state of New Jersey indicted Taxpayer B… for insurance fraud. Taxpayer B agreed to pay $X in restitution to Government Entity E and Government Entity F.
Taxpayer B has represented (a) that he previously included in his gross income in prior tax years the amounts he now seeks to deduct and (b) that he and all other defendants in [both] lawsuits are jointly and severally liable for the amounts due under the settlement agreement because the language of the settlement agreement imposes joint liability upon the defendants and New Jersey law imposes joint and several liability upon members of a limited liability company.
So…can Taxpayer B deduct the money paid to the insurance company and the government as a business loss????
Or, in other words, could you (a health care provider who accepts Medicaid) deduct any money paid to PCG or HMS arising our of a regulatory audit as a business loss?
According to the PLR:
We conclude that Taxpayer B may deduct the payments he made to the Insurance Company and to Government Entity E and Government Entity F in the years the payments were made or will be made, provided that he received or will receive no contribution from any other party and included the amounts he paid or will pay in his gross income in prior tax years.
The second PLR is basically identical to the first, except that Taxpayer A is at issue. For the PLR, click here.
So what does this mean? Why should North Carolina Medicaid providers care that 2 taxpayers were able to deduct the monies paid to the government/insurance companies as a business loss?
Because, these PLRs are demonstrative that, perhaps, the IRS would view regulatory audit paybacks to PCG or HMS as an allowable tax deduction as a business loss.
So, you receive a TNO in the amount of $1 million. You spend $20,000 litigating the $1 million to $1000. I know, it sucks, right?? (Not that the amount was decreased by $999,000, but that it cost $20,000 to reduce the amount $999,000).
The silver lining? Maybe you can deduct the $1000 paid as a business loss.
But what about the $20,000 attorneys’ fees???
Let me preface this with:
I am no tax expert. I know Medicaid, not tax. If you want real tax advice, go to a real tax attorney. But, I did find…Publication 529, which states the following:
You can usually deduct legal expenses that you incur in attempting to produce or collect taxable income or that you pay in connection with the determination, collection, or refund of any tax.
You can also deduct legal expenses that are:
- Related to either doing or keeping your job, such as those you paid to defend yourself against criminal charges arising out of your trade or business,
- For tax advice related to a divorce if the bill specifies how much is for tax advice and it is determined in a reasonable way, or
- To collect taxable alimony.
A definitive answer?
But…a possible two silver linings! The sun will come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there’ll be sun!!!!