They say that lightning never strikes the same place twice, but tell that to my colleague Bill. Bill has been struck by lightning twice and has lived to tell the story. Granted, he was not physically standing in the same place that he was struck the first time as when he was hit by lightning the second time – so lightning technically didn’t hit the same place twice. But it did strike the same person twice. Maybe Bill is just extremely unlucky, or maybe Bill is extremely lucky because he lived through the incidents.
An intense shock can severely impair most of the body’s vital functions. Cardiac arrest is common. Yet Bill lived. Twice.
No one ever thinks they will get struck by lightning. But it happens. According to the National Weather Service, so far this year, lightning strikes have killed at least 20 people in the US, and that does not even take into consideration the people who were just injured, like my pal Bill.
A lightning strike is a massive electrical discharge between the atmosphere and an earth-bound object. A lightning bolt can heat the surrounding air to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit—that’s five times hotter than the sun—and can contain up to 300kV of energy.
Yet most people do survive, in part because lightning rarely passes through the body.
Instead, a “flashover” occurs, meaning that the lightning zips over the body, traveling via ultra-conductive sweat (and often rainwater), which provides an external voltage pathway around the body. When people do die from a lightning strike, it is usually due to an electrical discharge-induced hear attack. A body hit by lightning will show various signs of trauma.
Like a gunshot, a lightning strike causes both an exit and entrance wound, marking where the current both entered and left the victim. Lichtenberg scarring, which outlines ruptured blood vessels, frequently covers the body in odd, almost beautiful, spiderweb patterns.
Surprisingly enough, many lightning strike survivors do not remember being struck. Instead, the only evidence of the traumatic event is burnt, displaced clothing and marks along the body.
For instance, many lightning strike survivors report memory issues, trouble with concentration and severe headaches, all of which last decades after the initial strike.
Due to the rarity of lightning strike cases, less time and resources have been devoted to better understanding how these strikes impact long-term brain function. An unpublished study by medical doctor Mary Ann Cooper found that there were “significant differences in brain activity between lightning-strike victims and healthy people as they performed mental-aptitude tests.”
Aside from impacting long-term brain function, lightning strikes are also known to blow out eardrums, prompting constant muscle twitches and moderate to severe nerve damage. Overall, the effects of a lightning strike may range from a slight inconvenience to a debilitating, lifelong struggle. In the case of my colleague, you would never be able to tell mind looking at him that he has been hit by lightning twice.
Why is this – extensive – discussion about lightning strikes relevant? – Or is it not?
If you are a health care provider and accept Medicare or Medicaid, the risk of an audit far exceeds your chances of getting struck by lightning. In FY 2016, CMS continued its use of the Affordable Care Act authority to suspend Medicare payments to providers during an investigation of a credible allegation of fraud. CMS also has authority to suspend Medicare payments if reliable information of an overpayment exists. During FY 2016, there were 508 payment suspensions that were active at some point during the fiscal year. Of the 508 payment suspensions, 291 new payment suspensions were imposed during FY 2016.
Medicare and Medicaid audits far exceed lightning strikes. Yet, providers believe in their heart of hearts that and on an audit (or an audit with bad results) will never happen to them, which causes providers to not engage in attorney until after the lightning strikes. Then it’s too late, and you have Lichtenberg scarring across your arm.
There is scene in Breaking Bad in which Saul, the attorney, stops a person from talking. He says, “Give me a dollar. Don’t tell me anything until you give me a dollar. Once money is exchanged, we will have attorney-client privilege.” What Saul was saying is that the exchange of money catalyzed the duty for Saul to keep all conversation confidential.
This was a low-point of legal-fiction television. It made great drama with zero accuracy.
The question is why should you have an attorney on retainer?
The obvious response is that you can have confidential conversations with said attorney at your beck and call. The honest truth is that you do not have to have an attorney on retainer in order for your conversations to be confidential. But is smart to do so, and I will tell you why.
If you call me and I have never represented you and you ask me a legal question, our conversation is legally protected, even if you hire a different attorney.
No – the reason to have an attorney on retainer is to be able to consult him or her with legal questions on a daily basis, and, especially of there is an ongoing audit. Most of my clients do not contact me when they receive the document request. They think, “Oh, this is no big deal. I will give my records to [state] or [federal] – [and/or its contractors] government and they will determine that my [Medicare] or [Medicaid] records are amazing. In fact the [state] or [federal] government my even ask me to educate other providers on what pristine records should look like. I got this. Easy, peasy, lemon-squeezey.” They contact me when they get an accusation of an alleged overpayment of $5 million. Lichtenberg scarring has already occurred.
The smartest clients contact me prior to receiving an alleged overpayment of $12 million or an accusation of fraud. They contact me the moment they receive a notice of an audit or a request for documents…before ever submitting documents to the government.
Because, regardless the type of provider, be it dentist, behavioral counseling, podiatrist, chiropractor, or hospital, understand that every communication with a government auditor and/or contractor is admissible in court – if the communication does not go through an attorney. When the [state/federal] auditor asks to see a record and you say, “Let me get it from my off-site storage facility” – BAM – HIPAA violation. When the state/federal auditor asks to see a record and you say, “Here it is,” and fail to keep a copy for yourself, there can be discrepancy in the future as to what you actually provided. And you are in a “he said she said” battle – never good.
On the other hand, if you have an attorney on retainer, you can ask any question you need, you can get any advice you desire, and it’s all confidential. It is as though you have Siri in your back pocket. It’s the 411 for legal information. It’s an ATM for legal advice. AND it is all confidential.
Next time you think to yourself, “Self, I will ace any Medicaid or Medicare audit. I don’t need counsel. I can talk to the auditors myself without an attorney. I got this.”
Think again. [Don’t, necessarily, call Saul, but call someone.] Because, like lightning strike victims, you may not even remember the audit. Until you are scarred.
In a January 11, 2018, opinion, a district court in Florida held that once the government learns of possible regulatory noncompliance or mistakes in billings Medicare or Medicaid, but continues to reimburse the provider for later claims – the fact that the government continues to reimburse the provider – can be evidence in court that the alleged documentation errors are minor and that, if the services are actually rendered, despite the minor mistakes, the provider should not be liable under the False Claims Act.
Here is an example: Provider Smith undergoes a post-payment review of claims from dates of service January 1, 2016 – January 1, 2017. It is February 1, 2018. Today, Smith is told by the RAC auditor that he owes $1 million. Smith appeals the adverse decision. However, despite the accusation of $1 million overpayment, Smith continues providing medically necessary services the exact same way, he did in 2016. Despite the supposed outcome of the post-payment review, Smith continues to bill Medicare and Medicaid for services rendered in the exact same way that he did in 2016.
At least, according to UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND STATE OF FLORIDA v. SALUS REHABILITATION, LLC, if Smith continues to be reimbursed for services rendered, this continued reimbursement can be evidence in court that Smith is doing nothing wrong.
Many of my clients who are undergoing post-payment or prepayment reviews decrease or cease all together billing for future services rendered. First, and obviously, stopping or decreasing billings will adversely affect them. Many of those clients will be financially prohibited from defending the post or prepayment review audit because they won’t have enough funds to pay for an attorney. Secondly, and less obvious, at least according to the recent decision in Florida district court mentioned above, continuing to bill for and get reimbursed fo services rendered and billed to Medicare and/or Medicaid can be evidence in court that you are doing nothing wrong.
The facts of the Salus Rehabilitation case, are as follows:
A former employee of a health care system comprising of 53 specialized nursing facilities (“Salus”) filed a qui tam claim in federal court asserting that Salus billed the government for unnecessary, inadequate, or incompetent service.
Break from the facts of the case to explain qui tam actions: A former employee who brings a qui tam action is called the “relator.” In general, the reason that former employees bring qui tam cases is money. Relators get anywhere between 15 -30 % of the award of damages. Many qui tam actions result in multi million dollar awards in damages – meaning that a relator can get rich quickly by tattling on (or accusing) a former employer. Qui tam actions are jury trials (why this is important will be explained below).
Come and listen to a story ’bout a man named Jed
Poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed
Then one day he was shooting for some food,
And up through the ground come a bubbling crude
(Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea)
In the Salus case, the relator (Jed) asserted that Salus failured to maintain a “comprehensive care plan,” ostensibly required by a Medicaid regulation and that this failure rendered Salus’ Medicaid claims fraudulent. Also, Jed asserted that a handful of paperwork defects (for example, unsigned or undated documents) demonstrated that Salus never provided the therapy purported by the paperwork and billed to Medicare. Jed won almost $350 million based on the theory “that upcoding of RUG levels and failure to maintain care plans made [the defendants’] claims to Medicare and Medicaid false or fraudulent.” Oil, that is, black gold, Texas tea. You know Jed was celebrating like it was 1999.
Salus did not take it lying down.
The jury had awarded Jed $350 million. But in the legal world there is a legal tool if a losing party believes that the jury rendered an incorrect decision. It is called a Judgment as a Matter of Law. When a party files a Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, it is decided by the standard of whether a reasonable jury could find in favor of the party opposing the Motion, but it is decided by a judge.
In Salus, the Judge found that the verdict awarding Jed of $350 million could not be upheld. The Judge found that Jed’s burden was to show that the federal government and the state government did not know about the alleged record-keeping deficiencies but, had the governments known, the governments would have refused to pay Salus for services rendered, products delivered, and costs incurred. The Judge said that the record was deplete of any evidence that the governments would have refused to pay Salus. The Judge went so far to say that, theoretically, the governments could have implemented a less severe punishment, such as a warning or a plan or correction. Regardless, what the government MAY have done was not in the record. Specifically, the Judge held that “The resulting verdict (the $350 million to Jed), which perpetrates one of the forbidden “traps, zaps, and zingers” mentioned earlier, cannot stand. The judgment effects an unwarranted, unjustified, unconscionable, and probably unconstitutional forfeiture — times three — sufficient in proportion and irrationality to deter any prudent business from providing services and products to a government armed with the untethered and hair-trigger artillery of a False Claims Act invoked by a heavily invested relator.”
Wow. In other words, the Judge is saying that the verdict, which awarded Jed $350 million, will cause health care providers to NOT accept Medicare and Medicaid if the government is allowed to call every mistake in documentation “fraud,” or a violation of the False Claims Act. The Judge was not ok with this “slippery slope” result. Maybe he/she depends on Medicare…maybe he/she has a family member dependent on Medicaid…who knows? Regardless, this a WIN for providers!!
Legally, the Judge in Salus hung his hat on Universal Health Services, Inc. v. Escobar, 136 S. Ct. 1989 (2016), a Supreme Court case. In Escobar, the Supreme Court held that nit-picky documentation errors are not material and that materiality is required to condemn a provider under the False Claims Act. Escobar “necessarily means that if a service is non-compliant with a statute, a rule, or a contract; if the non-compliance is disclosed to, or discovered by, the United States; and if the United States pays notwithstanding the disclosed or discovered non-compliance, the False Claims Act provides a relator no claim for “implied false certification.”” (emphasis added). In other words, keep billing. If you are paid, then you can use that as evidence in court.
Escobar specifies that a “rigorous” and “demanding” standard for materiality and scienter precludes a False Claims Act claim based on a “minor or unsubstantial” or a “garden-variety” breach of contract or regulatory violation. Instead, Escobar assumes and enforces a course of dealing between the government and a supplier of goods or services that rests comfortably on proven and successful principles of exchange — fair value given for fair value received. Get it?? This is the first time that I have seen a judge be smart and intuitive enough to say – hey – providers are not perfect…and that’s ok. Providers may have insignificant documentation errors. But it is fundamentally unfair to prosecute a provider under the False Claims Act, which the Act is extraordinarily harsh and punitive, for minor, “garden variety” mistakes.
Granted, Salus was decided with a provider being prosecuted under the False Claims Act and not being accused of a pre or post-payment review finding of alleged overpayment.
But, isn’t it analogous?
A provider being accused that it owes $1 million because of minor documentation errors – but did actually provide the medically necessary services – should be afforded the same understanding that Salus was afforded. The mistakes need to be material. Minor mistakes should not be reasons for a 100% recoupment. Because there must be a course of dealing between the government and a supplier of goods or services that rests comfortably on proven and successful principles of exchange — fair value given for fair value received.
Oil has dried up, Jeb.
When you get accused of Medicare or Medicaid fraud or of an alleged overpayment, the federal and state governments have the authority to suspend your reimbursements. If you rely heavily on Medicaid or Medicare, this suspension can be financially devastating. If your Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements are suspended, you have to hire an attorney. And, somehow, you have to be able to afford such legal representation without reimbursements. Sadly, this is why many providers simply go out of business when their reimbursements are suspended.
But, legally, how long can the state or federal government suspend your Medicare or Medicaid payments without due process?
According to 42 C.F.R. 405.371, the federal government may suspend your Medicare reimbursements upon ” reliable information that an overpayment exists or that the payments to be made may not be correct, although additional information may be needed for a determination.” However, for Medicare, there is a general rule that the suspension may not last more than 180 days. MedPro Health Providers, LLC v. Hargan, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 173441 *2.
There are also procedural safeguards. A Medicare provider must be provided notice prior to a suspension and given the opportunity to submit a rebuttal statement explaining why the suspension should not be implemented. Medicare must, within 15 days, consider the rebuttal, including any material submitted. The Medicare Integrity Manual states that the material provided by the provider must be reviewed carefully.
42 CFR 455.23 states that “The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending under the Medicaid program against an individual or entity unless the agency has good cause to not suspend payments or to suspend payment only in part.”
Notice the differences…
Number one: In the Medicare regulation, the word used is “may” suspend. In the Medicaid regulation, the word used is “must” suspend. This difference between may and must may not resonate as a huge difference, but, in the legal world, it is. You see, “must” denotes that there is no discretion (even though there is discretion in the good cause exception). On the other hand, “may” suggests more discretionary power in the decision.
Number two: In the Medicare regulation, notice is required. It reads, “Except as provided in paragraphs (d) and (e) of this section, CMS or the Medicare contractor suspends payments only after it has complied with the procedural requirements set forth at § 405.372.” 405.372 reads the Medicare contractor must notify the provider or supplier of the intention to suspend payments, in whole or in part, and the reasons for making the suspension. In the Medicaid regulation, no notice is required. 455.23 reads “The State Medicaid agency may suspend payments without first notifying the provider of its intention to suspend such payments.”
Number three: In the Medicare regulation, a general limit of the reimbursement suspension is imposed, which is 180 days. In the Medicaid regulation, the regulations states that the suspension is “temporary” and must be lifted after either of the following (1) there is a determination of no credible allegations of fraud or (2) the legal proceedings regarding the alleged fraud are complete.
Yet I have seen States blatantly violate the “temporary” requirement. Consider the New Mexico situation. All the behavioral health care providers who were accused of Medicaid fraud have been cleared by the Attorney General. The regulation states that the suspension must be lifted upon either of the following – meaning, if one situation is met, the suspension must be lifted. Well, the Attorney General has cleared all the New Mexico behavioral health care providers of fraud. Criterion is met. But the suspension has not been lifted. The Health Services Department (HSD) has not lifted the suspension. This suspension has continued for 4 1/2 years. It began June 24, 2013. See blog, blog, and blog. Here is a timeline of events.
Why is there such a disparity in treatment with Medicare providers versus Medicaid providers?
The first thing that comes to mind is that Medicare is a fully federal program, while Medicaid is state-run. Although a portion of the funds for Medicaid comes from the federal government.
Secondly, Medicare patients pay part of costs through deductibles for hospital and other costs. Small monthly premiums are required for non-hospital coverage. Whereas, Medicaid patients pay nothing.
Thirdly, Medicare is for the elderly, and Medicaid is for the impoverished.
But should these differences between the two programs create such a disparity in due process and the length of reimbursement suspensions for health care providers? Why is a Medicare provider generally only susceptible to a 180 day suspension, while a Medicaid provider can be a victim of a 4 1/2 year suspension?
Parity, as it relates to mental health and substance abuse, prohibits insurers or health care service plans from discriminating between coverage offered for mental illness, serious mental illness, substance abuse, and other physical disorders and diseases. In short, parity requires insurers to provide the same level of benefits for mental illness, serious mental illness or substance abuse as for other physical disorders and diseases.
Does parity apply to Medicare and Medicaid providers?
Most of Medicare and Medicaid law is interpreted by administrative law judges. Most of the time, a health care provider, who is not receiving reimbursements cannot fund an appeal to Superior Court, the Court of Appeals, and, finally the Supreme Court. Going to the Supreme Court costs so much that most normal people will never present before the Supreme Court…it takes hundreds and hundreds upon thousands of dollars.
In January 1962, a man held in a Florida prison cell wrote a note to the United States Supreme Court. He’d been charged with breaking into a pool hall, stealing some Cokes, beer, and change, and was handed a five-year sentence after he represented himself because he couldn’t pay for a lawyer. Clarence Earl Gideon’s penciled message eventually led to the Supreme Court’s historic 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright ruling, reaffirming the right to a criminal defense and requiring states to provide a defense attorney to those who can’t afford one. But it does not apply to civil cases.
Furthermore, pro bono attorneys and legal aid attorneys, although much-needed for recipients, will not represent a provider.
So, until a health care provider, who is a gaga-zillionaire, pushes a lawsuit to the Supreme Court, our Medicare and Medicaid law will continue to be interpreted by administrative law judges and, perhaps, occasionally, by Superior Court. Do not take this message and interpret that I think that administrative law judges and Superior Court judges are incapable of interpreting the laws and fairly applying them to certain cases. That is the opposite of what I think. The point is that if the case law never gets to the Supreme Court, we will never have consistency in Medicare and Medicaid law. A District Court in New Mexico could define “temporary” in suspensions of Medicare and/or Medicaid reimbursements as 1 year. Another District Court in New York could define “temporary” as 1 month. Consistency in interpreting laws only happens once the Supreme Court weighs in.
Until then, stay thirsty, my friend.
All health care providers are under serious scrutiny, that is, if they take Medicaid. In Atlanta, GA, a dentist, Dr. Oluwatoyin Solarin was sentenced to a year and six months for filing false claims worth nearly $1 million. She pled guilty, and, I would assume, she had an attorney who recommended that she plead guilty. But were her claims actually false? Did she hire a criminal attorney or a Medicaid attorney? Because the answers could be the difference between being behind bars and freedom.
Dr. Solarin was accused of billing for and receiving payments for dental claims while she was not at the office. U.S. Attorney John Horn stated that “Solarin cheated the Medicaid program by submitting fraudulent claims, even billing the government for procedures she allegedly performed at the same time she was out of the country.”
I receive phone calls all the time from people who are under investigation for Medicare/caid fraud. What spurred on this particular blog was a phone call from (let’s call him) Dr. Jake, a dentist. He, similar to Dr. Solarin, was under investigation for Medicaid fraud by the federal government. By the time Dr. Jake called me, his investigation was well on its way, and his Medicaid reimbursements had been suspended due to credible allegations of fraud for almost a year. He was accused of billing for and receiving payments for dental services while he was on vacation…or sick…or otherwise indisposed. He hired one of the top criminal attorneys, who advised him to take a plea deal for a suspended jail sentence and monetary recompense.
But, wait, he says to me. I didn’t do anything wrong. Why should I have to admit to a felony charge and be punished for doing nothing wrong?
I said, let me guess, Jake. You were the rendering dentist – as in, your NPI number was on the billed claim – but you hired a temporary dentist to stand in your place while you were on vacation, sick, or otherwise indisposed?
How did you know? Jake asks.
Because I understand Medicaid billing.
When my car breaks down, I go to a mechanic, not a podiatrist. The same is true for health care providers undergoing investigation for Medicare/caid fraud – you need a Medicare/caid expert. A criminal attorney,most likely, will not understand the Medicare/caid policy on locum tenens. Or the legal limitations of Medicaid suspensions and the administrative route to get the suspension lifted. Or the good cause exception to suspensions.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating that, when under criminal, health care fraud investigation, you should not hire a criminal attorney. Absolutely, you will want a criminal attorney. But you will also want a Medicare/caid attorney.
What is Locum tenens? It is a Latin phrase that means temporary substitute. Physicians and dentists hire locum tenens when they go on vacation or if they fall ill. It is similar to a substitute teacher. Some days I would love to hire a locum tenens for me. When a doctor or dentist hires a temporary substitute, usually that substitute is paid by the hour or by the services rendered. If the payor is Medicare or Medicaid, the substitute is not expected to submit the billing and wait to be reimbursed. The substitute is paid for the day(s) work, and the practice/physician/dentist bills Medicare/caid, which is reimbursed. For billing purposes, this could create a claim with the rendering NPI number as Dr. Jake, while Dr. Sub Sally actually rendered the service, because Dr. Jake was in the Bahamas. It would almost look like Dr. Jake were billing for services billing the government for procedures he allegedly performed at the same time he was out of the country.
Going back to Dr. Jake…had Dr. Jake hired a Medicare/caid attorney a year ago, when his suspension was first implemented, he may have be getting reimbursed by Medicaid this whole past year – just by asking for a good cause exception or by filing an injunction lifting the suspension. His Medicaid/care attorney could have enlightened the investigators on locum tenens, and, perhaps, the charges would have been dropped, once the billing was understood.
Going back to Dr. Solarin who pled guilty to accusations of billing for services while out of the country…what if it were just a locum tenens problem?
Don’t we have due process in America? Isn’t due process something that our founding fathers thought important, essential even? Due process is in our Constitution.
The Fourteenth (governing state governments) and the Fifth Amendment (governing federal government) state that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”
Yet, apparently, if you accept Medicaid or Medicare, due process is thrown out the window. Bye, Felicia!
How is it possible that criminals (burglars, murderers, rapists) are afforded due process but a health care provider who accepts Medicaid/care does not?
Surely, that is not true! Let’s look at some examples.
In Tulsa, a 61-year-old man was arrested for killing his Lebanese neighbor. He pled not guilty. In news articles, the word “allegedly” is rampant. He allegedly killed his neighbor. Authorities believe that he may have killed his neighbor.
And prior to getting his liberty usurped and getting thrown in jail, a trial ensues. Because before we take a person’s liberty away, we want a fair trial. Doesn’t the same go for life and property?
Example A: I recently received a phone call from a health care provider in New Jersey. She ran a pediatric medical daycare. In 2012, it closed its doors when the State of New Jersey accused it of an overpayment of over $12 million and suspended its funds. With its funds suspended, it could no longer pay staff or render services to its clients.
Now, in 2016, MORE THAN FOUR YEARS LATER, she calls to ask advice on a closing statement for an administrative hearing. This tells me (from my amazing Murdoch Mysteries (my daughter’s favorite show) sense of intuition): (1) she was not provided a trial for FOUR YEARS; (2) the state has withheld her money, kept it, and gained interest on it for over FOUR YEARS; (3) in the beginning, she did have an attorney to file an injunction and a declaratory judgment; and (4) in the end, she could not afford such representation (she was filing her closing argument pro se).
Examples B-P: 15 New Mexico behavioral health care agencies. On June 23, 2013, the State of New Mexico accuses 15 behavioral health care agencies of Medicaid fraud, which comprised 87.5% of the behavioral health care in New Mexico. The state immediately suspends all reimbursements and puts most of the companies out of business. Now, MORE THAN THREE YEARS LATER, 11 of the agencies still have not undergone a “Fair Hearing.” Could you imagine the outrage if an alleged criminal were held in jail for THREE YEARS before a trial?
Example Q: Child psychiatrist in rural area is accused of Medicaid fraud. In reality, he is not guilty. The person he hired as his biller is guilty. But the state immediately suspends all reimbursements. This Example has a happy ending. Child psychiatrist hired us and we obtained an injunction, which lifted the suspension. He did not go out of business.
Example R: A man runs a company that provides non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT). One day, the government comes and seizes all his property and freezes all his bank accounts with no notice. They even seize his fiance’s wedding ring. More than TWO YEARS LATER – He has not stood trial. He has not been able to defend himself. He still has no assets. He cannot pay for a legal defense, much less groceries.
Apparently the right to speedy trial and due process only applies to alleged burglars, rapists, and murderers, not physicians and health care providers who render medically necessary services to our most fragile and vulnerable population. Due process??? Bye, Felicia!
What can you, as a health care provider, do if you are accused of fraud and your reimbursements are immediately suspended?
- Prepare. If you accept Medicare/caid, open an account and contribute to it generously. This is your CYA account. It is for your legal defense. And do not be stupid. If you accept Medicaid/care, it is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when.
- Have your attorney on speed dial. And I am not talking about your brother’s best friend from college who practices general trial law and defends DUIs. I am talking about a Medicaid/care litigation expert.
- File an injunction. Suspension of your reimbursements is a death sentence. The two prongs for an injunction are (a) likelihood of success on the merits; and (b) irreparable harm. Losing your company is irreparable harm. Likelihood of success on the merits is on you. If your documents are good – you are good.
When you are accused of a $12 million dollar overpayment by Medicare, obviously, you appeal it.But do you expect that appeal to take ten years or longer? Are such long, wait periods allowed by law? That is what Cumberland Community Hospital System, Inc. (Cape Fear) discovered in a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision, on March 7, 2016, denying a Writ of Mandamus from the Court and refusing to order the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Burwell to immediately adjudicate Cape Fear’s Medicare appeals to be heard within the Congressional requirement that appeals be heard and decided by Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) within 90 days.
According to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services‘ (CMS) website, an “ALJ will generally issue a decision within 90 days of receipt of the hearing request. Again, according to CMS’ website, this time frame may be extended for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to:
- The case being escalated from the reconsideration level
- The submission of additional evidence not included with the hearing request
- The request for an in-person hearing
- The appellant’s failure to send a notice of the hearing request to other parties
- The initiation of discovery if CMS is a party.”
In Cape Fear’s case, the Secretary admitted that the Medicare appeal backlog equates to more than 800,000 claims and would, likely, take over 10 years to adjudicate all the claims. Even the 4th Circuit Court, which, ultimately, dismissed Cape Fear’s complaint, agrees with Cape Fear and calls the Medicare appeal backlog “incontrovertibly grotesque.”
Generally, the rule is that if the ALJ does not render a decision after 180 days of the filing of the case, then the provider has the right to escalate the case to the Medicare Appeals Council, which is the 4th step of a Medicare appeal. See blog for more details on the appeal process.
What about after 3,650 days? Get a big pie in the face?
The United States Code is even less vague than CMS’ website. Without question 42 U.S.C. states that for a:
“(1)Hearing by administrative law judge; (A)In general
Except as provided in subparagraph (B), an administrative law judge shall conduct and conclude a hearing on a decision of a qualified independent contractor under subsection (c) of this section and render a decision on such hearing by not later than the end of the 90-day period beginning on the date a request for hearing has been timely filed.”
(emphasis added). And, BTW, subsection (B) is irrelevant here. It contemplates when a party moves for or stipulates to an extension past the 90-day period.
So why did Cape Fear lose? How could the hospital lose when federal administrative code specifically spells out mandatory 90-day limit for a decision by an ALJ? Ever heard of a statute with no teeth? [i.e., HIPAA].
No one will be surprised to read that I have my opinions. First, a writ of mandamus was not the legal weapon to wield. It is an antiquated legal theory that rarely makes itself useful in modern law. I remember the one and only time I filed a writ of mandamus in state court in an attempt to hold a State Agency liable for willfully violating a Court’s Order. I appeared before the judge, who asked me, “Do you know how long I have been on this bench?” To which I responded, “Yes, Your Honor, you have been on the bench for X number of years.” He said, “Do you know how many times I have granted a writ of mandamus?” I said, “No, Your Honor.” “Zero,” he said, “Zero.” The point is that writs of mandamus are rare. A party must prove to the court that he/she has a clear and indisputable right to what is being asked of the court.
Secondly, in my mind, Cape Fear made a disastrous mistake in arguing that it has a clear right for its Medicare appeals to be adjudicated immediately. Think about it…there are 800,000+ Medicare appeals pending before the ALJs. What judge would ever order the administrative court to immediately drop all other 799,250 pended claims (Cape Fear had 750 claims pending) and to adjudicate only Cape Fear’s claims? It is the classic slippery slope…if you do this for Cape Fear, then you need to order the same for the rest of the pended claims.
In this instance, it appears that Cape Fear requested too drastic a measure for a federal judge to order. The claims were doomed from the beginning.
However, I cannot fault Cape Fear for trying since the code is crystal clear in requiring a 90-day turnaround time. The question becomes…what is the proper remedy for a gross disregard, even if unwillful, of the 90-day turnaround period?
This would have taken thinking outside the box.
Medicare providers have some rights. I discuss those rights frequently on this blog. But the population that the courts inevitably want to insulate from “David and Goliath situations” are the recipients. Unlike the perceived, “big, strong, and well-attorneyed” hospital, recipients often find themselves lacking legal representation to defend their statutorily-given right to choose their provider and exercise their right to access to care.
Had Cape Fear approached the same problem from a different perspective and argued violations of law on behalf of the beneficiaries of Cape Fear’s quality health care services, a different result may have occurred.
Another way Cape Fear could have approached the same problem, could have been a request for the Court to Cape Fear’s funds owed for service rendered to be released pending the litigation.
As always, there is more than one way to skin a cat. I humbly suggest that when you have such an important case to bring…BRING IT ALL!!
How is it already the second month of 2016? My how the time flies. As you can see below, I have started 2016 with my “best foot forward.”
Here’s the story (and why it’s been so long since I’ve blogged):
Santa Claus, whom I love, brought our 10-year-old daughter a zip line for Christmas. (She’s wanted one forever). My wonderful, exceedingly brilliant husband Scott miscalculated the amount of brakes needed for an adult of my weight for a 300-foot zip line. The brakes stopped, albeit suddenly, but adequately, for our 10-year-old.
However, for me…well…I went a bit faster than my 45-pound daughter. The two spring brakes were not adequate to stop my zip line experience and my out-thrown feet broke my crash…into the tree. (It was a miscalculation of basic physics).
On the bright side, apparently, my right leg is longer than my left, so only my right foot was injured. Or my right foot is overly dominate than my left, which could also be the case.
Also, on the bright side, the zip line ride was AWESOME until the end.
On the down side, I tore the tendon on the bottom of my foot which, according to the ER doctor, is very difficult to tear. Embarrassingly, I had to undergo a psych evaluation because my ER doctor said that the only time he had seen someone tear that bottom tendon on their foot was by jumping off a building. So I have that going for me. I informed him that one could tear such tendon by going on zip line with inadequate brakes. (I passed the psych evaluation, BTW).
Then, while on crutches, I had a 5-day, federal trial in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the week of Martin Luther King, Jr., Tuesday through the next Monday. Thankfully, the judge did not make me stand to conduct direct and cross examinations.
But, up there, in the beautiful State of Indiana, I thought of my next blog (and lamented that I had not blogged in so long…still on crutches; I had not graduated to the gorgeous boot you saw in the picture above).
As I was up in Indiana, I thought, what if someone at the State Medicaid agency doesn’t like you, personally, and terminates your Medicaid contract “without cause?” Or refuses to contract with you? Or refuses to renew your contract?
Maybe you wouldn’t find it important whether your termination is “for cause” or “without cause,” but, in Indiana, and a lot of other states, if your termination is for “without cause,” you have no substantive appeal right, only a procedural appeal right. As in, if you are terminated “without cause,” the government never has to explain the reason for termination to you or a judge. If the government gave you the legally, proper amount of notice, the government can simply say, “I just do not want to do business with you.”
Many jurisdictions have opined that a Medicaid provider has a property right to their Medicaid contract. A health care provider does not have a property right to a Medicaid contract, but, once the state has approved that provider as a Medicaid provider, that provider has a reasonable expectation to continue to provide services to the Medicaid population. While we all know that providing services to the Medicaid population is not going to make you Richy Rich, in some jurisdictions, accepting Medicaid is necessary to stay solvent (despite the awful reimbursement rates).
Here in NC, our Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) have held a property right in maintaining a Medicaid contract once issued and relied upon, which, BTW, is the correct determination, in my opinion. Other jurisdictions concur with our NC ALJs, including the 7th Circuit.
Many times, when a provider is terminated (or not re-credentialed) “without cause,” there is an underlying and hidden cause, which makes a difference on the appeal of such purported “without cause” termination.
Because as I stated above, a “without cause” termination may not allow a substantive appeal, only procedural. In normal-day-speak, for a “without cause,” you cannot argue that the termination or refusal to credential isn’t “fair” or is based on an incorrect assumption that there is a quality of care concern that really does not exist. You can only argue that the agency did not provide the proper procedure, i.e., you didn’t get 60 days notice. Juxtapose, a “for cause” termination, you can argue that the basis for which the termination relies is incorrect, i.e., you are accusing me that my staff member is not credentialed, but you are wrong; she/he is actually credentialed.
So, what do you do if you are terminated “without cause?” What do you do if you are terminated “for cause?”
For both scenarios, you need an injunction.
But how do you prove your case for an injunction?
Proving you need an injunction entails you proving to a judge that: (a) likelihood of success on the merits; (b) irreparable harm; (c) balance of equities; and (d) impact on the community.
The hardest prongs to meet are the first two. Usually, in my experience, irreparable harm is the hardest prong to meet. Most clients, if they are willing to hire my team and me, can prove likelihood of success. Think about it, if a client knows he/she has horrible documentation, he/she will not spring for an expensive attorney to defend themselves against a termination.
Irreparable harm, however, is difficult to demonstrate and the circumstances surrounding proving irreparable harm creates quite a quandary.
Irreparable, according to case law, cannot only be monetary damages. If you are just out of money and your company is in financial distress, it will not equate to irreparable harm.
Irreparable harm differs slightly from state to state.
Although, most jurisdictions agree that irreparable harm does equate to an imminent threat of your business closing, terminating staff, loss of goodwill, harm to reputation, patients not receiving medically necessary services, unfathamable emotional distress, the weights of loans and credit, understanding that you’ve depleting all savings and checkings, and understanding that you’ve exhausted all possible assets or loans.
The Catch-22 of it all is by the time you meet the prongs of irreparable harm, generally, you do not have the cash to hire an attorney. I suggest to all Medicare and Medicaid health care providers that you need to maintain an emergency fund account for unforeseen situations, such as audits, suspensions, terminations, etc. Put aside money every week, as much as you can. Hope that you never need to use it.
But you will be covered, just in case.
Recent stories in the news seem to suggest that health care fraud is running rampant. We’ve got stories about Eric Leak‘s Medicaid agency, Nature’s Reflections, funneling money to pay athletes, a seizure of property in Greensboro for alleged Medicaid fraud, and, in Charlotte, a man was charged with Medicaid fraud and sentenced to three years under court supervision and ordered to pay $3,153,074. And these examples are local.
Health care fraud with even larger amounts of money at stake has been prosecuted in other states. A nonprofit up in NY is accused of defrauding the Medicaid system for over $27 million. Overall, the federal government opened 924 criminal health care fraud investigations last year.
What is going on? Are more people getting into the health care fraud business? Has the government become better at detecting possible health care fraud?
I believe that the answer is that the federal and state governments have determined that it “pays” high dividends to invest in health care fraud investigations. More and more money is being allocated to the fraud investigative divisions. More money, in turn, yields more health care fraud allegations…which yields more convictions….and more money to the government.
Believe me, I understand the importance of detecting fraud. It sickens me that those who actually defraud our Medicaid and Medicare systems are taking medically necessary services away from those who need the services. However, sometimes the net is cast so wide…so far…that innocent providers get caught in the net. And being accused of health care fraud when you innocent is a gruesome, harrowing experience that (1) you hope never happens; and (2) you have to be prepared in case it does. I have seen it happen.
As previously stated, in fiscal year (FY) 2014, the federal government opened 924 new criminal health care fraud investigations. That’s 77 new fraud investigations a month!! This number does not include civil investigations.
In FY 2012, the Department of Justice (DOJ) opened 2,016 new health care fraud investigations (1,131 criminal, 885 civil).
The Justice Department launched 903 new health-care fraud prosecutions in the first eight months of FY 2011, more than all of FY 2010.
These numbers show:
- an 85% increase over FY 2010,
- a 157% increase over FY 2006
- and 822% over FY 1991.
And the 924 investigations opened in fiscal 2014 only represent federal investigations. Concurrently, all 50 states are conducting similar investigations.
What is being recovered? Are the increased efforts to detect health care fraud worth the effort and expenditures?
Heck, yes, it is worth it to both the state and federal governments!
Government teams recovered $4.3 billion in FY 2013 and $19.2 billion over the last five years. While still astronomically high, the numbers dropped slightly for FY 2014. In FY 2014, according to the Annual Report of the Departments of Health and Human Services and Justice, the federal government won or negotiated over $2.3 billion in health care fraud judgments and settlements. Due to these efforts, as well as efforts from preceding years, the federal government retrieved $3.3 billion from health care fraud investigations.
So the federal and state governments are putting more money into investigating health care fraud. Why?
The Affordable Care Act.
Obviously, the federal and state governments conducted health care fraud investigations prior to the ACA. But the implementation of the ACA set new mandates to increase fraud investigations. (Mandates, which were suggestions prior to the ACA).
In 2009, Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13520, which was targeted to reduce improper payments and to eliminate waste in federal programs.
On March 23, 2010, President Obama signed the ACA into law. A major part of the ACA is focused on cost containment methods. Theoretically, the ACA is supposed to be self-funding. Detecting fraud, waste and abuse in the Medicare/Medicaid system helps to fund the ACA.
Unlike many of the other ACA provisions, most of the fraud and abuse provisions went into effect in 2010 or 2011. The ACA increases funding to the Healthcare Fraud and Abuse Control Program by $350 million over the next decade. These funds can be used for fraud and abuse control and for the Medicare Integrity Program.
The ACA mandates states to conduct post payment and prepayment reviews, screen and audit providers, terminate certain providers, and create provider categories of risk.
While recent articles and media seem to indicate that health care fraud is running rampant, the substantial increase in accusations of health care fraud really may be caused by factors other than more fraud is occurring.
The ACA mandates have an impact.
And, quite frankly, the investigation units may be a bit overzealous to recover funds.
What will happen if you are a target of a criminal health care fraud investigation?
It depends whether the federal or state government is conducting the investigation.
If the federal government is investigating you, most likely, you will be unaware of the investigation. Then, one day, agents of the federal government will come to your office and seize all property deemed related to the alleged fraud. Your accounts will be frozen. Whether you are guilty or not will not matter. What will matter is you will need an experienced, knowledgeable health fraud attorney and the funds with which to compensate said attorney with frozen accounts.
If the state government is conducting the investigation, it is a little less hostile and CSI-ish. Your reimbursements will be suspended with or without your notice (obviously, you would notice the suspension once the suspension occurred). But the whole “raid on your office thing” is less likely.
There are legal remedies available, and the “defense” should begin immediately.
Most importantly, if you are a health care provider and you are not committing fraud, you are not safe from accusations of fraud.
Your insurance, most likely, will not cover attorneys’ fees for alleged intention fraud.
The attorney of your choice will not be able to accept funds that are “tainted” by alleged fraud, even if no fraud occurred.
Be aware that if, for whatever reason, you are accused, you will need to be prepared…for what you hope never happens.