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Letter to HHS: RAC Audits “Have Absolutely No Direct Impact on the Medicare Providers” – And I Spotted Elvis!

Recovery audits have absolutely no direct impact on the Medicare providers working hard to deliver much needed healthcare services to beneficiaries.

And Elvis Presley is still alive! Oh, and did you know that Bill Clinton never had an affair on Hillary? (since when has her name become one word, like Prince or Beyonce?)

This sentence was written in a March 6, 2018, correspondence from The Council for Medicare Integrity to HHS Secretary Alex Azar.

“Recovery auditing has never been an impediment to the delivery of healthcare services nor is it an intrusion in the physician-patient relationship.” – Kristin Walter of The Council for Medicare Integrity. BTW, Ms. Walter, health care has a space between the two syllables.

The purpose of this letter that was sent from the The Council for Medicare Integrity to Secretary Azar was to request an increase of prepayment reviews for Medicare providers. For those of you so blessed to not know what a prepayment review, prepayment review is a review of your Medicare (or Caid) claims prior to being paid. It sounds reasonable on paper, but, in real life, prepayment review is a Draconian, unjust, and preposterous tool aimed at putting healthcare providers out of business, or if not aimed, is the unknown or accidental outcome of such a review. If placed on prepayment review, your Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements are 100% cut off. Gone. Like the girl in that movie with Ben Affleck, Gone Girl Gone, and, like the girl, not really gone because it’s alive – you provided services and are owed that money – but it’s in hiding and may ruin your life. See blog.

Even if I were wrong, which I am not, the mere process in the order of events of prepayment review is illogical. In the interest of time, I will cut-and-paste a section from a prior blog that I wrote about prepayment review:

In real-life, prepayment review:

  • The auditors may use incorrect, inapplicable, subjective, and arbitrary standards.

I had a case in which the auditors were denying 100% ACTT services, which are 24-hour mental health services for those 10% of people who suffer from extreme mental illness. The reason that the auditor was denying 100% of the claims was because “lower level services were not tried and ruled out.” In this instance, we have a behavioral health care provider employing staff to render ACTT services (expensive), actually rendering the ACTT services (expensive), and getting paid zero…zilch…nada…for a reason that is not required! There is no requirement that a person receiving ACTT services try a lower level of service first. If the person qualifies for ACTT, the person should receive ACTT services. Because of this auditor’s misunderstanding of ACTT, this provider was almost put out of business.

Another example: A provider of home health was placed on prepayment review. Again, 90 – 100% of the claims were denied. In home health, program eligibility is determined by an independent assessment conducted by the Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) via Liberty, which creates an individualized plan of care. The provider submitted claims for Patient Sally, who, according to her plan, needs help dressing. The service notes demonstrated that the in-home aide helped Sally dress with a shirt and pants. But the auditor denies every claim the provider bills for Sally (which is 7 days a week) because, according to the service note, the in-home aide failed to check the box to show she/he helped put on Sally’s shoes. The auditor fails to understand that Sally is a double amputee – she has no feet.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes – Who watches the watchmen???

  • The administrative burden placed on providers undergoing prepayment review is staggering.

In many cases, a provider on prepayment review is forced to hire contract workers just to keep up with the number of document requests coming from the entity that is conducting the prepayment review. After initial document requests, there are supplemental document requests. Then every claim that is denied needs to be re-submitted or appealed. The amount of paperwork involved in prepayment review would cause an environmentalist to scream and crumple into the fetal position like “The Crying Game.”

  • The accuracy ratings are inaccurate.

Because of the mistakes the auditors make in erroneously denying claims, the purported “accuracy ratings” are inaccurate. My daughter received an 86 on a test. Given that she is a straight ‘A’ student, this was odd. I asked her what she got wrong, and she had no idea. I told her to ask her teacher the next day why she received an 86. Oops. Her teacher had accidentally given my daughter an 86; the 86 was the grade of another child in the class with the same first name. In prepayment review, the accuracy ratings are the only method to be removed from prepayment, so the accuracy of the accuracy ratings is important. One mistaken, erroneously denied claim damages the ratings, and we’ve already discussed that mistakes/errors occur. You think, if a mistake is found, call up the auditing entity…talk it out. See below.

  • The communication between provider and auditor do not exist.

Years ago my mom and I went to visit relatives in Switzerland. (Not dissimilar to National Lampoon’s European Vacation). They spoke German; we did not. We communicated with pictures and hand gestures. To this day, I have no idea their names. This is the relationship between the provider and the auditor.

Assuming that the provider reaches a live person on the telephone:

“Can you please explain to me why claims 1-100 failed?”

“Don’t you know the service definitions and the policies? That is your responsibility.”

“Yes, but I believe that we follow the policies. We don’t understand why these claims are denied. That’s what I’m asking.”

“Read the policy.”

“Not helpful.”

  • The financial burden on the provider is devastating.

If a provider’s reimbursements are 80 – 100% reliant on Medicaid/care and those funds are frozen, the provider cannot meet payroll. Yet the provider is expected to continue to render services. A few years ago, I requested from NC DMA a list of providers on prepayment review and the details surrounding them. I was shocked at the number of providers that were placed on prepayment review and within a couple months ceased submitting claims. In reality, what happened was that those providers were forced to close their doors. They couldn’t financially support their company without getting paid.

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Back to the current blog

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So to have The Council for Medicare Integrity declare that prepayment review has absolutely no impact on Medicare providers is ludicrous.

Now, I will admit that the RAC (and other acronyms) prepayment and post payment review programs have successfully recovered millions of dollars of alleged overpayments. But these processes must be done right, legally. You can’t just shove an overzealous, for-profit, audit company out the door like an overweight kid in a candy store. Legal due process and legal limitations must be required – and followed.

Ms. Walter does present some interesting, yet factually questionable, statistics:

  • “Over the past 5 years alone, Medicare has lost more than $200 billion taxpayer dollars to very preventable billing errors made by providers.”

Not quite sure how this was calculated. A team of compliance auditors would have had to review hundreds of thousands of medical records to determine this amount. Is she referring to money that has been recovered and the appeal process afforded to the providers has been exhausted? Or is this number how much money is being alleged has been overpaid? How exactly were these supposed billing errors “very preventable?” What does that mean? She is either saying that the health care providers could have prevented the ostensible overbillings – or – she is saying that RAC auditors could have prevented these purported overbillings by increased prepayment review. Either way … I don’t get it. It reminds me of Demi Moore in A Few Good Men, “I object.” Judge states, “Overruled.” Demi Moore pleads, “I strenuously object.” Judge states, “Still overruled.” “Very preventable billing errors,” said Ms. Walters. “Still overruled.”

  • “Currently, only 0.5 percent of Medicare claims are reviewed, on a post-payment basis, for billing accuracy and adherence to program billing rules. This leaves 99.5 percent of claims immune from any checks and balances that would ensure Medicare payments are correct.”

Again, I am curious as to the mathematic calculation used. Is she including the audits performed, not only by RACs, but audits by ZPICs, CERTS, MACs, including Palmetto, Noridian and CGS, federal and state Program Integrities, State contractors, MFCUs, MICs, MCOs, PERMs, PCG, and HHS? Because I can definitely see that we need more players.

  • “The contrast between Medicare review practices and private payers is startling. Despite the dire need to safeguard Medicare dollars, CMS currently allows Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) to review fewer than 30 Medicare claim  types (down from 800 claim types initially) and has scaled back to allow a review of a mere 0.5 percent of Medicare provider claims after they have been paid. Considered a basic cost of doing business, the same providers billing Medicare comply, without issue, with the more extensive claim review requirements of private health insurance companies. With Medicare however, provider groups have lobbied aggressively to keep their overpayments, putting intense pressure on CMS to block Medicare billing oversight.”

Did I wake up in the Twilight Zone? Zombies? Let’s compare Medicare/caid to private health care companies.

First, let’s talk Benjamins (or pennies in Medicare/caid). A study was conducted to compare Texas Medicare/caid reimbursement rates to private pay. Since everything is bigger in Texas, including the reimbursement rates for Medicare/caid, I figured this study is demonstrative for the country (obviously each state’s statistics would vary).

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According to a 2016 study by the National Comparisons of Commercial and Medicare Fee-For-Service Payments to Hospitals:

  • 96%. In 2012, average payments for commercial inpatient hospital stays were higher than Medicare fee-for-service payments for 96% of the diagnosis related groups (DRGs) analyzed.
  • 14%. Between 2008 and 2012, the commercial-to-Medicare payment difference had an average increase of 14%.
  • 86%. Longer hospital stays do not appear to be a factor for higher average commercial payments. During this period, 86 percent of the DRGs analyzed had commercial-to-Medicare average length-of-stay of ratios less than one.

The “basic cost of doing business” for Medicare/caid patients is not getting appropriate reimbursement rates.

The law states that the reimbursements rates should allow quality of care. Section 30(A) of the Medicare Act requires that each State “provide such methods and procedures relating to the utilization of, and the payment for, care and services available under the plan (including but not limited to utilization review plans as provided for in section 1396b(i)(4) of this title) as may be necessary to safeguard against unnecessary utilization of such care and services and to assure that payments are consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care and are sufficient to enlist enough providers so that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population in the geographic area.” (emphasis added).

Second, billing under Medicare/caid is much more complex than billing third-party payors, which are not required to follow the over-regulated, esoteric, administrative, spaghetti sauce that mandates providers who accept Medicare and/or Medicaid (a whole bunch of independent vegetables pureed into a sauce in which the vegetables are indiscernible from the other). The regulatory burden required of providing Medicare and/or Medicaid services does not compare to the administrative and regulatory burden associated with private pay, regardless of Ms. Walter’s uncited and unreferenced claims that “the more extensive claim review requirements [are with the] private health insurance companies.” We’re talking kumquats to rack of lamb (are kumquats cheap)?

Third, let’s discuss this comment: “provider groups have lobbied aggressively.” RAC auditors, and all the other alphabet soup, are paid A LOT. Government bureaucracy often does not require the same “bid process” that a private company would need to pass. Some government contracts are awarded on a no-bid process (not ok), which does not create the best “bang for your buck for the taxpayers.”

I could go on…but, I believe that you get the point. My readers are no dummies!

I disagree with the correspondence, dated March 6, 2018, from The Council for Medicare Integrity to HHS Secretary Alex Azar is correct. However, my question is who will push back against The Council for Medicare Integrity? All those health care provider associations that “have lobbied aggressively to keep their overpayments, putting intense pressure on CMS to block Medicare billing oversight.”?

At the end of the day (literally), I questioned the motive of The Council for Medicare Integrity. Whenever you question a person’s motive, follow the money. So, I googled “who funds The Council for Medicare Integrity? Unsurprisingly, it was difficult to locate. According to The Council for Medicare Integrity’s website it provides transparency with the following FAQ:

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Again, do you see why I am questioning the source of income?

According to The Council for Medicare Integrity, “The Council for Medicare Integrity is a 501(c)(6) non-profit organization. The Council’s mission is to educate policymakers and other stakeholders regarding the importance of healthcare integrity programs that help Medicare identify and correct improper payments.

As a 501(c)(6) organization, the Council files IRS Form 990s annually with the IRS as required by law. Copies of these filings and exemption application materials can be obtained by mailing your request to the Secretary at: Council for Medicare Integrity, Attention: Secretary, 9275 W. Russell Road, Suite 100, Las Vegas, Nevada 89148. In your request, please provide your name, address, contact telephone number and a list of documents requested. Hard copies are subject to a fee of $1.00 for the first page and $.20 per each subsequent page, plus postage, and must be made by check or money order, payable to the Council for Medicare Integrity. Copies will be provided within 30 days from receipt of payment. These documents are also available for public inspection without charge at the Council’s principal office during regular business hours. Please schedule an appointment by contacting the Secretary at the address above.

This website serves as an aggregator of all the verifiable key facts and data pertaining to this important healthcare issue, as well as a resource center to support the provider community in their efforts to comply with Medicare policy.”

I still question the funding (and the bias)…Maybe funded by the RACs??

Medicaid Reimbursement Rates: What Goes Down Never Goes Up!

It is a timeless joke. What goes down, but never goes up? Medicaid rates!

Having a Medicaid card is as useful as holding a lottery ticket. Sure, maybe you’ll hit the jackpot and find a quality health care provider with whom you share some common connection, but, most likely, you will receive nothing but false hope. 10% of nothing is nothing.

For health care providers that do accept Medicaid – how many of you are accepting new patients? Or maybe the better question is – how many of you are profitable from your Medicaid patients?

The fact of the matter is that Medicaid pays crap. See blog. And blog.

Because we live in a society in which we need money to live, if Medicaid pays less than the cost, health care providers will not accept Medicaid. And you cannot blame them. It’s happening all over the country. In Utah, dentists are un-enrolling in Medicaid, i.e., refusing their Medicaid patients. See article. Pennsylvania has a shortage of psychiatrists..even more so who accept Medicaid. See article. “Some 55% of doctors in major metropolitan areas refuse to take new Medicaid patients, according to a 2014 report by Merritt Hawkins. The Department of Health and Human Services reported that same year that 56% of Medicaid primary-care doctors and 43% of specialists weren’t available to new patients.” See article.

Medicaid is failing our most vulnerable and many more. Medicaid, as it exists now, fails every taxpayer, every health care provider who accepts it, and every family member of a developmentally disabled person who is dependent on Medicaid.

The cost of the Medicaid program is expected to rise from $500 billion to $890 billion by 2024, according to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Yet – throwing more money at a dysfunctional program does not equate to Medicaid recipients gaining access to quality care. The increased money is not going to the services for Medicaid recipients. The ballooned Medicaid budget is not earmarked to elevate the current, inadequate Medicaid reimbursements, which would induce more health care providers to accept Medicaid. The higher the cost of Medicaid, the more the government slashes the reimbursement rates. Yet our government is willing to throw Medicaid dollars at managed care organizations (MCOs) to release the burden of managing such shortfalls and turn a blind eye when our taxpayers’ money is not used to provide Medicaid medically necessary services to recipients, but to compensate CEOs $400,000 or allow alleged extortion.

For example, in obstetrics, if the national Medicaid reimbursement rate for ob/gyn visits is $1.00, here, in NC, Medicaid reimburses ob/gyns 88¢. Which is why only 34% of North Carolina ob/gyns accept Medicaid.

If it is imperative for the Medicaid reimbursements to increase (to, at the very least, cost, if not a slight profit), then how do we accomplish such an insurmountable task?

There are two options: (1) lobbying (which, obviously, has not been successful thus far); and (2) litigation.

Section 30(A) of the Medicaid Act requires that a state provide Medicaid reimbursement rates at a level to “assure that payments are consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care and are sufficient to enlist enough providers so that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population…”

In an article entitled “Nurse Staffing Levels and Medicaid Reimbursement Rates in Nursing Facilities,” written by Charlene Harrington, James H. Swan, and Helen Carrillo, the authors found that the Medicaid nursing home reimbursement rates were linked to quality of care, as to both RN hours and total nursing hours.

“Resident case mix was a positive predictor of RN hours and a negative predictor of total nursing hours. Higher state minimum RN staffing standards was a positive predictor of RN and total nursing hours while for-profit facilities and the percent of Medicaid residents were negative predictors.” Id.

Numerous other articles have been published in the last few years that cite the direct correlation between reimbursement rates and quality of care.

How do we stop Medicaid reimbursement rates from dropping and the executives of those companies charged with managing Medicaid funds from lining their own pockets?

According to the Supreme Court, suing under the Supremacy Clause is not the answer.

In Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Services, providers of habilitative Medicaid services sued the State of Idaho for Medicaid reimbursements rates being too low as to violate Section 30(A) of the Medicaid Act.

In the Armstrong decision from last year, the Supreme Court, Scalia found that, in enacting §1902(a)(30)(A) Congress had empowered the HHS Secretary to withhold all Federal funds from states that violate federal law. According to Armstrong, this “express provision of an administrative remedy” shows that Congress intended that the Secretary be the enforcer – not the courts. In other words, the Supreme Court held that

“The sole remedy Congress provided for a State’s failure to comply with Medicaid’s requirements—for the State’s “breach” of the Spending Clause contract—is the withholding of Medicaid funds by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.” Armstrong.

In other words, according to Armstrong, the sole remedy for health care providers who demand higher Medicaid reimbursement rates, will be for the Secretary of HHS to withhold Medicaid funds from the state. Such a drastic measure would undoubtedly cause the state such a budgetary shortfall that the state would soon be in a position in which it could not reimburse health care providers at all. Therefore, the providers go from receiving woefully low reimbursement rates to receiving none at all. That seems hardly the situation that the Supreme Court would want.

There are still litigation options for health care providers to sue in order to increase the Medicaid reimbursement rate. Just not through the Supremacy Clause.

I have a joke: What goes down, but never goes up?