Blog Archives

Don’t Like the Reimbursement Rates? Maybe Litigation Is the Answer!

The Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates are a disgrace to health care providers nationwide. The low reimbursement rates are the reason why so many providers refuse to accept Medicare and/or Medicaid patients. Yet, with the pandemic, it is estimated that 100 million people will be on Medicaid by next year. Having a Medicaid card to wave around is useless if providers refuse to accept it.

Hospitals in Nebraska are not putting up with it – and they should not put up with it! Not only can hospitals NOT turn away any person; thus being forced to accept Medicaid and Medicare … and uninsured patients, but the overhead for a hospital is astronomical.

Saying more than half of the state’s hospitals are operating in the red, the Nebraska Hospital Association is calling for a 9.6% increase to Medicaid reimbursement rates this year, and 7.7% next year, after seeing a 2% bump each of the last two years.

The Hospital Association has never demanded this high of a rate increase. Inflation has significantly impacted the costs for Nebraska hospitals. The association says drug costs are up 35%, labor costs are up 20%, supplies are up 15-20%, and food and utilities are up 10%. Overall, it says inflation is up more than 20% per patient compared to the pre-pandemic level. The cost of labor has spiked, especially during the pandemic when emergency room nurses were in such short supply and such demand. Some hospitals were forced to pay nurses $10k a week! Traveling nurses became a “thing,” which allowed nurses to jump around hospitals for the best pay. In no way, I am not campaigning for lower salaries for nurses. Nurses are essential. However, the reimbursement rates are supposed to reflect society’s needs.

The Nebraska Hospital Association is completely in the right to sue for higher reimbursement rates. I commend them. I beseech more association groups to do the same. The dental, pediatric, primary care, home health, long term care facilities, behavioral health care, and other associations across the country should follow suit.

The legal argument is clear. Under §1902(a)(30)(A) of the Social Security Act, State Medicaid programs must ensure that provider payments are “consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care and are sufficient to enlist enough providers” to provide access to care and services comparable to those generally available. On November 2, 2015, CMS issued a regulation (42 CFR Part 447) under this authority requiring State Medicaid programs to demonstrate that their Medicaid fee-for-service (FFS) non-waiver payment rates ensure sufficient access to care. See blog.

Hospitals lose money on Medicare and Medicaid patients. Considering the legal requirement of reimbursement rates to be consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care, I am shocked that MORE associations haven’t litigated this issue. Perhaps the providers within these associations, who pay high yearly memberships, should demand that associations fund this type of litigation.

I have no doubt that the cost of litigation dissuades most associations from making the expensive decision to litigate for better rates. But isn’t litigating for higher reimbursement rates the job of the associations? The cost would be prohibitive for single provider facilities. And, aren’t we always more strong when we band together?

Medicare and Medicaid Reimbursement Rates Suck: Is Litigation the Answer?

One way to raise Medicaid reimbursement rates would be to bring litigation against the State Medicaid agency in charge of managing Medicaid under §30(A) of the Social Security Act (“SSA”).

That’s what the pharmacy associations in the State of Washington did in April 2021. The associations alleged that, per a 2016 CMS Rule, State Medicaid agencies must consider two types of costs when it comes to reimbursement rates; i.e., (1) the ingredient costs; and (2) the professional dispensing fee, when creating a Medicaid reimbursement rate. They argued that Washington’s Medicaid reimbursement rates were less than half of the surrounding States.

The case never went to trial. In July 2021, the parties filed a Joint Motion for Voluntary Remand and Dismissal Without Prejudice. It was so ordered that this matter was remanded back to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”). It was further ordered that this matter was dismissed without prejudice with the parties to bear their own costs and fees. The Order was signed by Judge Ricardo S. Martinez. National Association of Chain Drug Stores et al v. Becerra et al, 2:21CV00576. I have no idea what has happened since leaving the court system. If anyone knows, I would love to know. Has Washington’s Medicaid reimbursement rates increased for pharmacies?

Section 30(A) of the Social Security Act (“SSA”) describes reimbursement rates as being high enough “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.” Yet, statistics show that only 70% of health care providers accept Medicaid or Medicare. In mental health, in particular, there is a shortage of providers, especially minority providers. In other words, government health is failing its providers and consumers. See blog.

Exactly what Section 30(A) requires of States in terms of payments to Medicaid providers has been the subject of considerable litigation. There is little consistency in the Courts’ interpretation of §30(A). While some Courts have held that provider costs should be considered, other Courts disagree.

Providers have reasonable complaints about the Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates. The reimbursement rates are wholly inadequate; in fact, the reimbursement rates, in some cases, do not even cover the cost of rendering the services. Yet “quality of care” and “equality of access” are promised in Section 1902(a)(30)(A) of the SSA. For example, in 2020 hospitals received only 88 cents for every dollar spent caring for Medicaid patients. This amounted to a $24.8 billion underpayment. Low reimbursement rates limit access to quality care and contribute to poor health outcomes for Medicaid beneficiaries, who are disproportionately minority. Research suggests that increasing Medicaid primary care rates by $45 per service would reduce access-to-care inequities by at least 70%.

Medicaid reimbursement rates suck. Medicare reimbursement rates suck. Plus, providers must succumb to tedious audits. There is little upside to accepting Medicare and Medicaid, except charity.

I do not believe that the reason “why” matters when it comes to reimbursement rates. If the government chooses to regulate health care, the health care the government regulates should be adequate.

Other service types should choose to litigate over the low reimbursement rates.

The State of Florida recently looked into its Medicaid reimbursement rates. “According to the latest Physician Workforce Annual Report published by the Florida Department of Health, the most common reason that physicians do not accept Medicaid is low reimbursement.” In total, the report found that 44% of physicians who do not accept Medicaid patients do so due to the unacceptably low reimbursement offered by the program.

Other associations have likewise filed litigation in hopes of increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates. I highly encourage providers to discuss bringing litigation to increase Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates to their respective associations Litigation, unlike lobbying, is swifter to change. Public opinion has weight.

Medicare Providers: Are Your Claims Clean?

The federal regulations mandate that 90% of “clean claims” must be paid to the providers by 30-days. 42 CFR § 447.45. But, what if (the payor) doesn’t pay within 30-days? What if your claims are unclean? The problem is – who determines what is a clean claim? Your payor? Your MAC? If you bill 100 claims and are paid for 50 because 50 claims are denied as not being “clean,” how do you know whether 50 claims were actually unclean? If you disagree with whoever’s determination it is that says your claims aren’t clean, where do you appeal that decision? Can you appeal that determination? The answer is no. In an egregious case, you could litigate and argue that the MAC or whomever is not conducting their job properly.

The Medicare and Medicaid billing, reimbursement, and appeals processes are clear as mud and run contrary to American values and concepts, such as due process and property rights.

CMS codified a rule – “90% of clean claims must be paid to the provider by 30-days,” but never codified an appeal process to dispute decisions. A clean claim is defined as one that can be processed without obtaining additional information from the provider of the service or from a third-party. It includes a claim with errors originating in the State’s claims system. It does not include a claim from the provider who is under investigation for fraud or abuse, or a claim under review for medical necessity.

“Clean” does not mean perfect because the Social Security Act states that claims do not have to be 100% perfect to be “clean.” There is no rule or law that requires claims to be perfect. CMS’ failure to create a definition of clean or an appeal process for the determination of clean, places providers in a very uncomfortable position that their reimbursements are predicated on another entity’s subjective decision as whether the provider billed “clean” claims and no way to refute the allegations or defend themselves from what might be erroneous determinations that the claims were not “clean.”

In CMS Manuel System, Pub. 100-04 Medicare Claims Processing, dated July 20, 2007, CMS uses the phrase “other-than-clean” to describe an unclean claim. CMS also states that “other-than-clean” claims should be notified to the provider within 45 days. As in, you should be told of your uncleanliness within 45-days.

In Southern Rehabilitation Group, PLLC. v. Burwell, 683 Fed. Appx. 354 (6th Cir. 2017), a provider of inpatient rehabilitation health care services brought action against DHHS alleging fraud and other wrongful conduct, such not making timely payments (within 30-days), in processing claims for reimbursement under Medicare. DHHS argued that the unpaid claims were not “clean.” The Court held that the phrase under “clean claims” provision of the Medicare Act referring to treatment that “prevents timely” payment refers to treatment that delays it. The Court allowed DHHS to call claims “not clean,” and the provider had no recourse.

It just seems that so many determinations in Medicare/caid are subjective:

  • “Credible” allegations of fraud. See blog.
  • “Clean” claims
  • Service notes are “compliant.”
  • The patient should not have been designated as “inpatient”
  • 75% “compliant” for three consecutive months. See blog.
  • Managed Care Organizations terminating your contract. See blog.

Many determinations that adversely affect providers have no mechanism to disagree, push back, or appeal.

Defenses Against Medicare Audits: Arm Yourself!

To defend against RAC, MAC, or TPE audits, we always fight clinically claim by claim. We show that the clinical records do support the service billed despite what an auditor says. But there are other more broad defenses that apply to providers found in the Social Security Act (SSA), even if the clinical arguments are weak.

When faced with an alleged overpayment, look to the SSA. Within the SSA, we have three, strong, provider defenses:

  1. Waiver of liability
  2. Providers without fault
  3. Treating physician rule

The “waiver of liability” defense provides that, even if payment for claims is deemed not reasonable and necessary, payment may be rendered if the provider did not know, and could not have been reasonably expected to know payment would not be made. SSA, § 1879(a); 42 U.S.C. §1395pp; see also Medicare Claims Processing Manual (CMS-Pub. 100-04), Chapter 30, §20. If a provider could not have been reasonably expected to know payment would not be made as the services were medically necessary and covered by Medicare.

Section 1870 of the SSA states that payment will be made to a provider, if the provider was without “fault” with regard for the billing for and accepting payment for disputed services. As a general rule, a provider would be considered without fault if he/she exercised reasonable care in billing for and accepting payment; i.e., the provider complied with all pertinent regulations, made full disclosure of all material facts, and on the basis of the information available, had a reasonable basis for assuming the payment was correct. Here, there is no allegation of fraud; medically necessary services were rendered. The doctors performed a medically necessary service and should be paid for the service despite nominal documentation nit-picking. The SSA does not require Medicare documents to be perfect; there is no requirement of error-free.

            It is well-settled law that the treating physician’s medical judgment as to the medical necessity of the services provided should prevail absent substantial contradictory evidence. Meaning, the doctor who actually physically or virtually treat the consumer has a better vantage point than any desk review audit. Therefore, substantial deference should be given to the treating physician. This is especially important in proving medical necessity.

Lastly, even though this is not in the SSA, question the expertise of your auditors. If you are an MD and provide bariatric services, the auditor should be similarly qualified. Likewise, a dental hygienist should not audit medical necessity for a dental practice. Even if, clinically, your records are not stellar, you still have the broad legal defenses found in the SSA.

RAC Forecast: Increased RAC Audits with a High Likelihood of Recoupments

Data regarding the success of the Medicare RAC program does not lie, right? If the report shows success, then increase the RAC process!! And to anyone who reads the new report to Congress…a success the RAC process is!

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently published its 2016 results of the Medicare Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) program. And CMS was not shy in reporting high rates of returns due to the RAC program. With results as amazing as the report touts, it is clear that the Medicare RACs are hoping that this new report on the hundreds of millions they’ve recovered for Medicare will cause the CMS to reverse course on its decision to limit the number of claims they can review. After reviewing the report to CMS, I will be shocked if Congress does not loosen the limitations placed on RACs in the last couple years. The report acts as marketing propaganda to Congress.

My forecast: increased RAC audits with a high likelihood of recoupments.

The RAC program is divided into 5 regions (currently):

2018-09-26 -- RACMapImage.png

In 2016, the RAC regions were arranged a bit differently:

Screen Shot 2018-09-26 at 3.47.10 PM

The mission of the RAC program is to identify and correct overpayments made on claims for health care services provided to beneficiaries, to identify underpayments to providers, and to provide information that allows the CMS to implement corrective actions that will prevent future improper payments. As most of my readers are well aware, I have been critical of the RAC program in the past for being overzealous and hyper (overly) – technical, in an erroneous kind of way. See blog. And blog.

The Social Security Act (SSA), which allows for RAC programs, also requires that the CMS publish and submit a yearly “self-audit” on the RAC program. Even though we are almost in October 2018, the recent report released to Congress covers 2016 – apparently CMS’ data gathering lags a bit (lot). If I have to get my 2018 taxes to the IRS by April 15, 2019, shouldn’t CMS have a similar deadline? Instead of submitting information for 2016 when it’s almost 2019…

RACs are paid on a contingency fee basis, which incentivize the RACs to discover billing irregularities. The amount of the contingency fee is a percentage of the improper payment recovered from, or reimbursed to, providers. The RACs negotiate their contingency fees at the time of the contract award. The base contingency fees range from 10.4 – 14.4% for all claim types, except durable medical equipment (DME). The contingency fees for DME claims range from 15.4 – 18.9%. The RAC must return the contingency fee if an improper payment determination is overturned at any level of appeal although I am unaware whether the RAC has to return the interested gained on holding that amount as well, which cannot be a minute amount given that the Medicare appeal backlog causes Medicare appeals to last upwards of 5 – 9 years.

Beginning in 2017, the RAC contracts had an amendment not previously found in past contracts. Now the RACs are to wait 30-days before reporting the alleged overpayment to the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs). The thought process behind this revision to the RAC contracts is that the 30-day wait period allows the providers to informally discuss the findings with the RACs to determine the provider has additional records germane to the audit that could change the outcome of the audit. Theoretically, going forward, providers should receive notification of an alleged overpayment from the RACs rather than the MACs.

And the 2016 results are (drum roll, please):

RACs uncovered $404.46 million in overpayments and $69.46 million in underpayments in fiscal year 2016, for a total of $473.92 million in improper payments being corrected. This represents a 7.5% increase from program corrections in FY 2015, which were $440.69 million.

63% of overpayments identified in 2016 (more than $278 million) were from inpatient hospital claims, including coding validation reviews.

RACs received $39.12 million in contingency fees.

After factoring in contingency fees, administrative costs, and amounts overturned on appeal, the RAC program returned $214.09 million to the Medicare trust funds in 2016.

CMS has implemented several elements to verify RAC accuracy in identifying improper payments. The Recovery Audit Validation Contractor (RVC) establishes an annual accuracy score for each RAC. Supposedly, if we are to take the CMS report as accurate and unbiased, in FY 2016, each RAC had an overall accuracy score of 91% or higher for claims adjusted from August 2015 through July 2016. I am always amazed at the government’s ability to warp percentages. I had a client given a 1.2% accuracy rating during a prepayment review that would rival J.K. Rowling any day of the year. Robert Galbraith, as well.

To address the backlog of Medicare appeals, CMS offered a settlement process that paid hospitals 68% of what they claimed they were owed for short-term inpatient stays. – I am not confident that this money was accounted for in the overall results of the RAC program in the recent report.

135,492 claims were appealed by healthcare providers. But the RAC report to Congress notes: “appealed claims may be counted multiple times if the claim had appeal decisions rendered at multiple levels during 2016.” Undeniably, if this number is close to accurate, there was a significant down swing of appeals by providers in 2016. (I wonder whether the hospital settlement numbers were included).

Of the total appealed claims, 56,724, or 41.9%, were overturned with decisions in the provider’s favor. (Fact check, please!). In my experience as a Medicare and Medicaid regulatory compliance litigator, the success rate for Medicare and Medicaid alleged overpayments is remarkably higher (but maybe my clients just hired a better attorney (wink, wink!).

With results this good, who needs more RAC auditing? We do!! If the report shows success, then increase the RAC process!! 

Accused of a Medicare or Medicaid Overpayment? Remember That You May Fall Into an Exception That Makes You NOT Liable to Pay!!

In today’s health care world, post-payment review audits on health care providers who accept Medicare and/or Medicaid have skyrocketed. Part of the reason is the enhanced fraud, waste, and abuse detections that were implanted under ObamaCare. Then the snowball effect occurred. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Systems (CMS), which is the single federal agency designated by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), via authority from Congress, to manage Medicare and Medicaid nationwide, started having positive statistics to show Congress.

Without question, the recovery audit contractors (RACs) have recouped millions upon millions of money since 2011, when implemented. Every financial report presented to Congress shows that the program more than pays for itself, because the RACs are paid on contingency.

Which pushed the snowball down the hill to get bigger and bigger and bigger…

However, I was reading recent, nationwide case law on Medicare and Medicaid provider overpayments reviews (I know, I am such a dork), and I realized that many attorneys that providers hire to defend their alleged overpayments have no idea about the exceptions found in Sections 1870 and 1879 of the Social Security Act (SSA). Why is this important? Good question. Glad you asked. Because of this legal jargon called stare decisis (let the decision stand). Like it or not, in American law, stare decisis is the legal doctrine that dictates once a Court has answered a question,the same question in other cases must elicit the same response from the same court or lower courts in that jurisdiction. In other words, if “Attorney Uneducated” argues on behalf of a health care provider and does a crappy job, that decision, if it is against the provider, must be applied similarly to other providers. In complete, unabashed, English – if a not-so-smart attorney is hired to defend a health care provider in the Medicare and/or Medicaid world, and yields a bad result, that bad result will be applied to all health care providers subsequently. That is scary! Bad laws are easily created through poor litigation.

A recent decision in the Central District of California (shocker), remanded the Medicare overpayment lawsuit back to the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level because the ALJ (or the provider’s attorney) failed to adequately assess whether the exceptions found in Sections 1870 and 1879 of the SSA applied to this individual provider. Prime Healthcare Servs.-Huntington Beach, LLC v. Hargan, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 205159 (Dec., 13, 2017).

The provider, in this case, was a California hospital. The overpayment was a whopping total of $5,380.30. I know, a small amount to fight in the court of law and expend hundreds of thousands of attorneys’ fees. But the hospital (I believe) wanted to make legal precedent. The issue is extremely important to hospitals across the county – if a patient is admitted as inpatient and a contractor of CMS determines in a post payment review that the patient should have been admitted as an outpatient – is the hospital liable for the difference between the outpatient reimbursement rate and the inpatient reimbursement rate? To those who do not know, the inpatient hospital rates are higher than outpatient. Because the issue was so important and would have affected the hospital’s reimbursement rates (and bottom line) in the future, the hospital appealed the alleged overpayment of $5,380.30. The hospital went through the five levels of Medicare appeals. See blog. It disagreed with the ALJ’s decision that upheld the alleged overpayment and requested judicial review.

Judicial review (in the health care context): When a health care providers presents evidence before an ALJ and the ALJ ruled against the provider.The provider appeals the ALJ decision to Superior Court, which stands in as if it is the Court of Appeals. What that means is – that at the judicial review level, providers cannot present new evidence or new testimony. The provider’s attorney must rely on the   official record or transcript from the ALJ level. This is why it is imperative that, at the ALJ level, you put forth your best evidence and testimony and have the best attorney, because the evidence and transcript created from the ALJ level is the only evidence allowed from judicial review.

The exceptions found in Sections 1870 and 1879 of the SSA allow for a provider to NOT pay back an alleged overpayment, even if medical necessity does not exist. It is considered a waiver of the provider’s overpayment. If a Court determines that services were not medically necessary, it must consider whether the overpayment should be waived under Sections 1870 and 1879.

Section 1879 limits a provider’s liability for services that are not medically necessary when it has been determined that the provider “did not know, and could not reasonably have been expected to know, that payment would not be made for such services.” 42 U.S.C. 1395pp(a). A provider is deemed to have actual or constructive knowledge of non-coverage based on its receipt of CMS notices, the Medicare manual, bulletins, and other written directives from CMS. In other words, if CMS published guidance on the issue, then you are out of luck with Section 1879. The Courts always hold that providers are responsible for keeping up-to-date on rules, regulations, and guidance from CMS. “Ignorance of the law is no defense.”

Section 1870 of the SSA permits providers to essentially be forgiven for overpayments discovered after a certain period of time so long as the provider is “without fault” in causing the overpayment. Basically, no intent is a valid defense.

Sections 1879 and 1870 are extraordinary, strong, legal defenses. Imagine, if your attorney is unfamiliar with these legal defenses.

In Prime Healthcare, the Court in the Central District of California held that the ALJ’s decision did not clearly apply the facts to the exceptions of Sections 1870 and 1879. I find this case extremely uplifting. The Judge, who was Judge Percy Anderson, wanted the provider to have a fair shake. Hey, even if the services were not medically necessary, the Judge wanted the ALJ to, at the least, determine whether an exception applied. I feel like these exceptions found in Sections 1870 and 1879 are wholly underutilized.

If you are accused of an overpayment…remember these exceptions!!!

Appeal! Appeal! Appeal!

Medicaid Managed Care Organizations: They Ain’t No Jesus!

Many of my clients come to me because a managed care organization (MCO) terminated or refused to renew their Medicaid contracts. These actions by the MCOs cause great financial distress and, most of the time, put the health care provider out of business. My team and I file preliminary injunctions in order to maintain status quo (i.e., allow the provider to continue to bill for and receive reimbursement for services rendered) until an administrative law judge (ALJ) can determine whether the termination (or refusal to contract with) was arbitrary, capricious, or, even, authorized by law.

With so many behavioral health care providers receiving terminations, I wondered…Do Medicaid recipients have adequate access to care? Are there enough behavioral health care providers to meet the need? I only know of one person who could feed hundreds with one loaf of bread and one fish – and He never worked for the MCOs!

On April 25, 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released its massive Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) managed care final rule (“Final Rule”).

Network adequacy is addressed. States are required to develop and make publicly available time and distance network adequacy standards for primary care (adult and pediatric), OB/GYN, behavioral health, adult and pediatric specialist, hospital, pharmacy, and pediatric dental providers, and for additional provider types as determined by CMS.

Currently, 39 states and the District of Columbia contract with private managed care plans to furnish services to Medicaid beneficiaries, and almost two thirds of the 72 million Medicaid beneficiaries are enrolled in managed care.

Access to care has always been an issue. Our Code of Federal Regulations require adequate access to quality health care coverage for Medicaid/care recipients. See blog. And blog.

However, Section 30A of the Social Security Act, while important, delineates no repercussions for violating such access requirements. You could say that the section “has no teeth,” meaning there is no defined penalty for a violation. Even more “toothless” is Section 30A’s lack of definition of what IS an adequate network? There is no publication that states what ratio of provider to recipient is acceptable.

Enter stage right: Final Rule.

The Final Rule requires states to consider certain criteria when determining adequacy of networks in managed care. Notice – I did not write the MCOs are to consider certain criteria in determining network adequacy. I have high hopes that the Final Rule will instill accountability and responsibility on our single state entity to maintain constant supervision on the MCOs [insert sarcastic laughter].

The regulation lists factors states are to consider in setting standards, including the ability of providers to communicate with limited English proficient enrollees, accommodation of disabilities, and “the availability of triage lines or screening systems, as well as the use of telemedicine, e-visits, and/or other evolving and innovative technological solutions.” If states create exceptions from network adequacy standards, they must monitor enrollee access on an ongoing basis.

The Final Rule marks the first major overhaul of the Medicaid and CHIP programs in more than a decade. It requires states to establish network adequacy standards in Medicaid and CHIP managed care for providers. § 457.1230(a) states that “[t]he State must ensure that the services are available and accessible to enrollees as provided in § 438.206 of this chapter.” (emphasis added).

Perhaps now the MCOs will be audited! Amen!

Have an Inkling of a Possible Overpayment, You Must Repay Within 60 Days, Says U.S. District Court!

You are a health care provider.  You own an agency.  An employee has a “hunch” that…

maybe…

perhaps….

your agency was overpaid for Medicare/caid reimbursements over the past two years to the tune of $1 million!

This employee has been your billing manager for years and you trust her…but…she’s not an attorney and doesn’t have knowledge of pertinent legal defenses. You are concerned about the possibility of overpayments, BUT….$1 million? What if she is wrong?  That’s a lot of money!

According to a recent U.S. District Court in New York, you have 60 days to notify and refund the government of this alleged $1 million overpayment, despite not having a concrete number or understanding whether, in fact, you actually owe the money.

Seem a bit harsh? It is.

With the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on March 23, 2010, many new regulations were implemented with burdensome requirements to which health care providers are required to adhere.  At first, the true magnitude of the ACA was unknown, as very few people actually read the voluminous Act and, even fewer, sat to contemplate the unintentional consequences the Act would present to providers. For example, I daresay that few, if any, legislators foresaw the Draconian effect from changing the word “may” in 42 CFR 455.23 to “must.” See blog and blog and blog.

Another boiling frog in the muck of the ACA is the 60-Day Refund Rule (informally the 60-day rule).

What is the 60-Day Refund Rule?

In 2012, CMS proposed the “60-day Refund Rule,” requiring Medicare providers and suppliers to repay Medicare overpayments within 60 days of the provider or supplier identifying the overpayment.  Meaning, if you perform a self audit and determine that you think that you were overpaid, then you must repay the amount within 60 days or face penalties.

If I had a nickel for each time a clients calls me and says, “Well, I THINK I may have been overpaid, but I’m not really sure,” and, subsequently, I explained how they did not owe the money, I’d be Kardashian rich.

It is easy to get confused. Some overpayment issues are esoteric, involving complex eligibility issues, questionable duplicity issues, and issues involving “grey areas” of “non”-covered services.  Sometimes a provider may think he/she owes an overpayment until he/she speaks to me and realizes that, by another interpretation of the same Clinical Coverage Policy that, in fact, no overpayment is owed. To know you owe an overpayment, generally, means that you hired someone like me to perform the self audit.  From my experience, billing folks are all too quick to believe an overpayment is owed without thinking of the legal defenses that could prevent repayment, and this “quick to find an overpayment without thinking of legal defenses” is represented in Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al., the lawsuit that I will be discussing in this blog.  And to the billings folks’ credit, you cannot blame them.  They don’t want to be accused of fraud. They would rather “do the right thing” and repay an overpayment, rather than try to argue that it is not due.  This “quick to find an overpayment without thinking of legal defenses” is merely the billing folks trying to conduct all work “above-board,” but can hurt the provider agency financially.

Nonetheless, the 60-day Refund Rule is apathetic as to whether you know what you owe or whether you hire someone like me.  The 60-Day Refund Rule demands repayment to the federal government upon 60-days after your “identification” of said alleged overpayment.

Section 1128(d)(2) of the Social Security Act states that:

“An overpayment must be reported and returned under paragraph (1) by the later of— (A) the date which is 60 days after the date on which the overpayment was identified; or (B) the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable.”

A recent case in the U.S. District Court of New York has forged new ground by denying a health care providers’ Motion to Dismiss the U.S. government’s and New York State’s complaints in intervention under the False Claims Act (FCA).  The providers argued that the 60-day rule cannot start without a precise understanding as to the actual amount of the overpayment. Surely, the 60-day rule does not begin to run on the day someone accuses the provider of a possible overpayment!

My colleague, Jennifer Forsyth, recently blogged about this very issue.  See Jennifer’s blog.

Basically, in Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al., three hospitals provided care to Medicaid patients. Due to a software glitch [cough, cough, NCTracks] and due to no fault of the hospitals, the hospitals received possible overpayments.  The single state entity for Medicaid in New York questioned the hospitals in 2010, and the hospitals took the proactive step of tasking an employee, Kane, who eventually became the whistleblower, to determine whether, if, in fact, the hospital did receive overpayments.

At this point, arguably, the hospitals were on notice of the possibility of overpayments, but had not “identified” such overpayments per the 60-day rule.  It was not until Kane made preliminary conclusions that the hospitals were held to have “identified” the alleged overpayments.  But very important is the fact that the Court held the hospitals liable for having “identified” the alleged overpayments prior to actually knowing the veracity of the preliminary findings.

Five months after being tasked with the job of determining any overpayment, Kane emails the hospital staff her findings that, in her opinion, the hospitals had received overpayments totaling over $1 million for over 900 claims.  In reality, Kane’s findings were largely inaccurate, as approximately one-half of her alleged findings of overpayments were actually paid accurately.  Despite the inaccurate findings, the Complaint that Kane filed as the whistleblower (she had been previously fired, which may or may not have contributed to her willingness to bring a whistleblower suit), alleged that the hospitals had a duty under the 60-day rule to report and refund the overpayments, even though there was no certainty as to whether the findings were accurate. And the Court agreed with Kane!

Even more astounding, Kane’s email to the hospitals’ management that contained the inaccurate findings contained phrases that would lead one to believe that the findings were only preliminary:

  • “further analysis would be needed to confirm his findings;” and
  • the spreadsheet provided “some insight to the magnitude of the problem” (emphasis added).

The above-mentioned comments would further the argument that the hospitals were not required to notify the Department and return the money 60 days from Kanes’ email because Kane’s own language within the email was so wishy-washy. Her language in her email certainly does not instill confidence that her findings are accurate and conclusive.

But…

The 60-day rule requires notification and return of the overpayments within 60 days of identification.  The definition of “identification” is the crux of Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al. [it depends on what the definition of “is” is].

The Complaint reads, that the hospitals “fraudulently delay[ed] its repayments for up to two years after the Health System knew” the extent of the overpayments” (emphasis added). According to the Complaint, the date that the hospitals “knew” of the overpayment was the date Kane emailed the inaccurate findings.

The hospitals filed a Motion to Dismiss based on the fact that Kane’s email and findings did not conclusively identify overpayments, instead, only provided a preliminary finding to which the hospitals would have needed to verify.

The issue in Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al. is the definition of “identify” under the 60-day rule. Does “identify” mean “possibly, maybe?” Or “I know I owe it?” Or somewhere in between?

The hospitals filed a Motion to Dismiss, claiming that the 60-day rule did not begin to run on the date that Kane sent his “preliminary findings.”  The U.S. District Court in New York denied the hospitals’ Motion to Dismiss and stated in the Order, “there is an established duty to pay money to the government, even if the precise amount due is yet to be determined.” (emphasis added).

Yet another heavy burden tossed upon health care providers in the ever-deepening, regulatory muck involved in the ACA.  As health care providers carry heavier burdens, they begin to sink into the muck.

Important take aways:

  • Caveat: Take precautions to avoid creating disgruntled, former employees.
  • Have an experienced attorney on speed dial.
  • Self audit, but self audit with someone highly experienced and knowledgeable.
  • Understand the ACA. If you do not, read it. Or hire someone to teach you.

Dealer Has an Ace: Do You Take the “Insurance?” CMS Incentivizes Hospitals to Drop Appeals

Medicare appeals are at an all-time high. Back in January 2014, the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) stated that a health care provider with a Medicare appeal, may not have the case assigned to a judge for at least two years, and may wait even longer for the appeal to be heard.

Since the beginning of 2014, the Medicare appeal backlog has only grown. With the passing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which increased the amount of regulatory audits on providers in an attempt to partially fund the Act, more and more providers are finding themselves audited and in disagreement with the overzealous results. More and more providers are fighting the audit results and filing Medicare appeals at OMHA.

Now, because in large part of the massive backlog, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is offering hospitals an “administrative agreement mechanism.” In other words, if the hospitals agree to dismiss the appeal, CMS will agree to partial repayment for the claims at issue. Specifically, the hospital will be reimbursed for 68% of the disputed claims.
Notice the offer from CMS only pertains to hospitals. CMS has made no such offer to long-term care facilities (LTCF), which have been vocal when it comes to aggravation resulting from the Medicare appeal backlog.

For CMS’s offer, if a hospital is owed $1 million, then CMS will agree to reimburse the hospital $680,000 if the hospital dismisses the appeal.

What if the hospital has multiple appeals? CMS will only offer this meagre, olive branch if no other appeals are pending. As in, you must dismiss all lawsuits in order to receive the partial payout.

Personally, I call this a raw deal.

Think of blackjack. The purpose of blackjack is to have two cards’ sums equal 21. Only with 2 cards equaling 21 does the player receive more than the bet. You bet $100 and hit 21 with an ace and a king? You get paid $150.

“Insurance” is a side bet which you can take when the dealer’s face up card shows an ace and only pays 2:1. You bet half your bet for insurance; so if you placed a $100 blackjack bet, your insurance bet should be $50. If the dealer hits blackjack, you lose your $100 bet but get paid on the insurance. On a $50-insurance bet, you’d win $100, and lose your $100 bet. If the dealer doesn’t have a blackjack, your insurance bet is forfeited. Either way, by making an insurance bet, you lose money.. You do not have the chance to win 100% of a blackjack payout.

This is essentially what CMS is offering. You are holding an ace and CMS is holding an ace. Will you take the partial payout?

Many of these pending appeals by hospitals are a result of auditors’ determinations that a Medicare recipient was received as an inpatient instead of (as the auditor believes proper) an outpatient.

One of the reasons that I believe the 68% payout from CMS is a raw deal is because the auditors are not always right. Why take 68% when you are owed 100%?

My question is: Are these auditors M.D.s?

When I present myself at a hospital emergency room, I hope that the decision for me to be admitted as inpatient or outpatient hospital admission is a complex medical decision contemplated by my doctor based on medical necessity, not an insurance auditor. After the physician determines that a patient needs to be admitted, an auditor is second guessing a physician’s decision that was made in “real time” with multiple variables at issue.

The Social Security Act (SSA) provides numerous defenses for a provider to assert against an auditor challenging the medical necessity of a service, in this case whether the patient is admitted into the hospital as inpatient. The rendering physician’s medical decision should be upheld absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.

Some people suggest that the auditors’ emphasis on inpatient stays versus outpatient stays will cause hospitals to err on the side of caution and just keep patients in observation status to avoid inpatient status.

We need to prevent the hospitals from fearing to admit patients as inpatient due to overzealous audits and mistaken determinations from non-M.D.s who believe the patient should have been outpatient. I say, go all in. Do not take the “insurance.” Do not take the 68%, if you deserve 100%.

How EPSDT Allows Medicaid Recipients Under the Age of 21 To Receive More Services Than Covered By NC State Plan

EPSDT. What in the heck is EPSDT?

EPSDT is an acronym for the “Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment (EPSDT).” It only applies to Medicaid beneficiaries under the age of 21. As in, if you are 21, EPSDT does not apply to you. The point of EPSDT is to allow beneficiaries under the age of 21 to receive medically necessary services not normally allowed by the NC Medicaid State Plan. (These beneficiaries under the age of 21 I will call “children” for the sake of this blog, despite 18+ being a legal adult).

The definition of each part of the acronym is below:

Early:……. Assessing and identifying problems early
Periodic:…… Checking children’s health at periodic, age-appropriate intervals
Screening:…. Providing physical, mental, developmental, dental, hearing, vision, and other screening tests to detect potential problems
Diagnostic:…. Performing diagnostic tests to follow-up when a risk is identified, and
Treatment:…. Control, correct or reduce health problems found.

Federal Medicaid law at 42 U.S.C.§ 1396d(r) [1905(r) of the Social Security Act] requires state Medicaid programs to provide EPSDT for beneficiaries under 21 years of age. Within the scope of EPSDT benefits under the federal Medicaid law, states are required to cover any service that is medically necessary “to correct or ameliorate a defect, physical or mental illness, or a condition identified by screening,” whether or not the service is covered under the North Carolina State Medicaid Plan.

The services covered under EPSDT are limited to those within the scope of the category of services listed in the federal law at 42 U.S.C. § 1396d (a) [1905(a) of the Social Security Act].

For example, EPSDT will not cover, nor is it required to cover, purely cosmetic or experimental treatments.

Again, EPSDT allows for exceptions to Medicaid policies for beneficiaries under the age of 21. For example, if the DMA clinical policy for dental procedures does not cover a certain procedure, if the dentist determines that the procedure is medically necessary for a beneficiary under the age of 21, then the dentist can request prior approval under EPSDT simply by filling out a “non-covered services form” along with the other supporting documentation to establish medical necessity. More likely than not, the “non-covered procedure” would be approved.

Medical necessity is an interesting term. Medical necessity is not defined by statute. The American Medical Association (AMA) defines medical necessity as:

“Health care services or products that a prudent physician would provide to a patient for the purpose of preventing, diagnosing, treating or rehabilitating an illness, injury, disease or its associated symptoms, impairments or functional limitations in a manner that is: (1) in accordance with generally accepted standards of medical practice; (2) clinically appropriate in terms of type, frequency, extent, site and duration; and (3) not primarily for the convenience of the patient, physician, or other health care provider.”

But, legally, the courts have construed medical necessity broadly when it comes to EPSDT. As in, generally speaking, if a doctor will testify that a procedure or service is medically necessary, then, generally speaking, a judge will accept the medical necessity of the procedure or service.

It seems as though I am degrading the intelligence of the judges that take the face value testimony of the doctors. But I am not.

Judges, like I, are not doctors. We do not have the benefit of a medical education. I say benefit because any education is a benefit, in my opinion.

It would be difficult for anyone who is not a doctor to disagree with the testimony of a physician testifying to medical necessity. I mean, unless the person stayed in a Holiday Inn Express the night before. (I know…bad joke).

Some courts, however, have ruled that the decision as to whether a procedure is medically necessary must be a joint effort by the state and the treating physician. Obviously, for courts that follow the “joint decision for medical necessity” holdings, less procedures would be allowed under EPSDT because, more likely than not, the state will disagree with a treating physician (I say this only from my own experience representing the state when the state disagreed with EPSDT treatments despite the treating physician testifying that the procedure was medically necessary).

For example, the 11th Circuit has held that both the state and the treating physician have a role in determining whether a procedure or treatment is medically necessary to correct or ameliorate a medical condition. The 11th circuit disagreed with the Northern District of Georgia’s determination that the state MUST provide the amount of services which the treating physician dreamed necessary. Moore v. Medows, No. 08-13926, 2009 WL 1099133 (11th Cir. Apr. 24, 2009).

Regardless, in practice, EPSDT is interpreted broadly. A long, long time ago, I worked at the Attorneys’ Generals office. A mother requested hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) for her autistic children (and I had to oppose her request because that was my job).

For those of you who do not know what HBOT is (I sure didn’t know what HBOT is prior to this particular case)…

“Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) is the use of high pressure oxygen as a drug to treat basic pathophysiologic processes and their diseases. HBOT has acute and chronic drug effects. Acutely, HBOT has been proven to be the most powerful inhibitor of reperfusion injury, which is the injury that occurs to tissue deprived of blood supply when blood flow is resumed. This is thought to be one of the primary mechanisms of hyperbaric oxygen therapy effects in acute global ischemia, anoxia, and coma. Chronically, HBOT acts as a signal inducer of DNA to effect trophic (growth) tissue changes.” See http://www.hbot.com/hbot.

I went and saw a hyperbaric oxygen treatment chamber in preparation of my case. It’s pretty intimidating. It is a large chamber made of thick metal. It looks like you could get inside, have it submerged under the ocean, and explore. It appears similar to a submarine. And, interestingly, it is most often used for divers who get the bends.

It is highly controversial as to whether HBOT cures, remedies or ameliorates autistic symptoms. I had two experts testifying that HBOT was experimental, and, therefore, not covered by Medicaid, even with EPSDT. (Remember, back then I was at the AG’s office).

Yet, despite the fact that HBOT was still controversial as to whether it ameliorates the symptoms of autism, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) used the EPSDT doctrine to rule that the mother’s children could receive HBOT and Medicaid must pay for the services.

That is the power of EPSDT. HBOT was clearly not covered by Medicaid for the purpose of ameliorating symptoms of autism. But, for the children named in the Petition who were under 21, Medicaid paid nonetheless.

HBOT allows beneficiaries under the age of 21 to receive medically necessary services that would not normally be allowed under the North Carolina Medicaid State Plan.

Importantly, EPSDT provides for private rights of action under 1983. At least all the federal circuit court of appeals have held such.

Oh, and, BTW, NCTracks will soon also be in charge of EPSDT determinations.