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Absent Auditors in Medicare Provider Appeals

(On a personal note, I apologize for how long since it has been my last blog. I was in an accident and spent 3 days in the ICU.)

I’d like to write today about the sheer absurdity about how these RAC, ZPIC, MAC, and other types of audits are being held against health care providers. When an auditor requests documents from a provider and opines that the provider owes a million dollars in alleged overpayments, I would expect that the auditor will show up before an independent tribunal to defend its findings. However, for so many of these Medicare provider appeals, the auditor doesn’t appear to defend its findings.

In my opinion, if the entity claiming that you owe money back to the government does not appear at the hearing, the provider should automatically prevail. A basic legal concept is that the accused should be able to confront its accuser.

I had depositions the last two weeks for a case that involved an opiate treatment program. The two main accusers were Optum and ID Medicaid. When Optum was deposed, they testified that Optum did not conduct the audit of the facility. When ID Medicaid was deposed, it contended that Optum did conduct the audit at issue.

When not one person can vouch for the veracity of an audit, it is ludicrous to force the provider to pay back anything. Auditors cannot hide behind smoke and mirrors. Auditors need to testify to the veracity of their audits.

To poke holes in Medicare audits, you need to know the rules. You wouldn’t play chess without knowing the rules. Various auditor have disparate look-back period, which is the time frame the auditor is allowed to look back and review a claim. For example, RACs may only look back 3 years. Whereas ZPICs have no specific look back period, although I would argue that the older the claim, the less likely it is to be recouped. There is also the federal 48-month limit to look backs absent accusations of fraud.

When appealing the outcome of a MAC or RAC audit, it is necessary for providers to have a specific reason for challenging the auditors’ determinations. Simply being dissatisfied or having generalized complaints about the process is not enough. Some examples of potential grounds for challenging a MAC or RAC determination on appeal include: 

  • Application if inapplicable Medicare billing rules 
  • Misinterpretation of applicable Medicare billing rules 
  • Reliance on unsound auditing methodologies
  • Failure to seek an expert opinion 
  • Ignoring relevant information disclosed by the provider 
  • Exceeding the MAC’s or RAC’s scope of authority 

It is imperative that you arm yourself in defending a Medicare audit, but if the auditor fails to appear at any stage in litigation, then you should call foul and win on a “absent” technicality.

Defenses Against Medicare/caid Audits: Arm Yourself!

Auditors are overzealous. I am not telling you anything you don’t know. Auditors cast wide nets to catch a few minnows. Occasionally, they catch a bass. But, for the most part, innocent, health care providers get caught in the overzealous, metaphoric net. What auditors and judges and basically the human population doesn’t understand is that accusing providers of “credible allegations of fraud” and alleged overpayments, when unfounded, has a profound and negative impact. First, the providers are forced to hire legal counsel at an extremely high cost. Their reputations and names get dragged through the mud because providers are guilty until they are proved innocent. Then, once they prove that there is no fraud or noncompliant documents, the wrongly accused providers are left with no recourse.

            The audits generally result in similar reasoning for denials. For instance,

  1. Lacks medical necessity. Defense: The treating physician rule. Deference must be given to the treating physician, not the desk reviewer who has never seen the patient.
  2. Canned notes: Defense: While canned notes are not desirable, it is not against the law. There is no statute, regulation, or rule against canned notes. Canned notes are just not best practices. But, in reality, when you serve a certain population, the notes are going to be similar.
  3. X-rays tend to be denied for the sole reason that there are no identifying notes on the X-ray. Or the printed copy of the X-ray you submit to the auditors is unreadable. Defense/Proactive measure: When you submit an X-ray, include a brief note as to the DOS and consumer.
  4. Signature illegible; therefore, no proof of provider being properly trained and qualified. Defense: This one is easy; you just show proof of trainings, but to head off the issue, print your name under your signature or have it embedded into your EHR.
  5. Documentation nitpicking. The time, date, or other small omissions result in many a denial. Defense: There is no requirement for documents to be perfect. The SSA provides defenses for providers, such as “waiver of liability” and “providers without fault.” 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 that payment would not be made.

Whenever a client tells me – let’s concede these claims because he/she believes the auditors to be right, I say, let me review it. With so many defenses, I rarely concede any claims. See blog for more details.

New Report Points to More Audits of Hospitals

Hospitals across the nation are seeing lower profits, and it’s all because of a sudden, tsunami of Medicare and Medicaid provider audits. Whether it be RAC, MAC, UPIC, or Program Integrity, hospital audits are rampant. Billing errors, especially ‘supposed bundling,’ are causing a high rate of insurance claims denials, hurting the finances of hospitals and providers.

A recent report from American Hospital Association (AHA) found “Under an optimistic scenario, hospitals would lose $53 billion in revenue this year. Under a more pessimistic scenario, hospitals would lose $122 billion thanks to a $64 billion decline in outpatient revenue”*[1]

The “Health Care Auditing and Revenue Integrity—2021 Benchmarking and Trends Report” is an insider’s look at billing and claims issues but reveals insights into health care costs trends and why administrative issues continue to play an outsize role in the nation’s high costs in this area. The data used covers 900+ facilities, 50,000 providers, 1500 coders, and 700 auditors – what could go wrong?

According to the report,

  • 40% of COVID-19-related charges were denied and 40% of professional outpatient audits for COVID-19 and 20% of hospital inpatient audits failed.
  • Undercoding poses a significant revenue risk, with audits indicating the average value of underpayment is $3,200 for a hospital claim and $64 for a professional claim.
  • Overcoding remains problematic, with Medicare Advantage plans and payers under scrutiny for expensive inpatient medical necessity claims, drug charges, and clinical documentation to justify the final reimbursement.
  • Missing modifiers resulted in an average denied amount of $900 for hospital outpatient claims, $690 for inpatient claims, and $170 for professional claims.
  • 33% of charges submitted with hierarchical condition category (HCC) codes were initially denied by payers, highlighting increased scrutiny of complex inpatient stays and higher financial risk exposure to hospitals.

The top fields being audited were diagnoses, present on admission indicator, diagnosis position, CPT/HCPCS coding, units billed, and date of service. The average outcome from the audits was 70.5% satisfactory. So, as a whole, they got a ‘C’.

While this report did not in it of itself lead to any alleged overpayments and recoupments, guess who else is reading this audit and salivating like Pavlov’s dogs? The RACs, MACs, UPICs, and all other alphabet soup auditors. The 900 facilities and 50,000 health care providers need to be prepared for audits with consequences. Get those legal defenses ready!!!!


[1] * https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/hospitals/kaufman-hall-hospitals-close-between-53-and-122b-year-due-to-pandemic

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.

Medicare/caid Contracts: When the Contract Can Benefit the Provider

Today I pose a very important question for you. Do your participation contracts that you sign with Medicare/caid, MCOs, MACs – do they even matter? Are these boilerplate contracts worth the ink and the paper? The answer is yes and no. To the extent that the contracts are written aligned with the federal and State regulations, the contracts are enforceable. To the extent that the contracts violate the federal regulations, those clauses are unenforceable. The contract can even, at times, be more stringent or contain more limitations than the federal regulations. One thing is for sure, these contracts can be your worst enemy or your savior, depending on the clauses.

An Idaho client-provider of mine has been the victim of Optum-“black-hole-ism.” In this case, the “black-hole-ism” will save my client from paying $500k it does not owe. My client is the leading substance abuse (SA) provider in Idaho. Optum is managing Medicaid dollars, which makes it the Agent of the “single State agency,” the Department of Health of Idaho. 42 C.F.R. 431.10. See blog.

The Optum provider contract states that – “It is agreed that the parties knowingly and voluntarily waive any right to a Dispute if arbitration is not initiated within one year after the Dispute Date.” What a great clause. If only all contracts had this limiting clause.

In our dispute, Optum avers we owe $500k. The first demand we received was dated December 2018 for DOS 2016-2017. Notice Optum was timely back in 2018. That was when the client hired my team, and we submitted a rebuttal and initiated the informal appeal to Optum. Here’s where Optum gets sloppy. Months pass. A year passes. I hear crickets in the background. A year and a half passes. Who knows why Optum took a year and a half to respond? COVID happened. Black-hole-ism? Bureaucracy and red tape? Apathy? Ineptness?

Finally, we get a response in September 2020. We respond in October 2020. Our new response included a novel argument that was not included in the 2018 rebuttal. Our argument went something like: “Na Na Na Boo Boo, you’re too late per 7.1 Optum contract.” If we could have included a raspberry, we would done so.

Remember the clause? “It is agreed that the parties knowingly and voluntarily waive any right to a Dispute if arbitration is not initiated within one year after the Dispute Date.”

Well, 2020 is 3-4 years after the initial DOS at issue: 2016-2017. This time, the boilerplate contract is our friend.

Since there is also an arbitration clause, which is not your friend, we will be wholly dependent on an arbitrator to interpret the one-year, limiting clause as a logical, reasonable person. But I will be shocked if even an arbitrator doesn’t throw out this case with prejudice.

Take Medicare or Medicaid? Why You Should Have an Attorney on Retainer

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.

lightning

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.

lightning-strike-effects-lichtenberg-figures

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.

Medicare and Medicaid RAC Audits: How Auditors Get It Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. A Flawed Sample Equals a Flawed Extrapolation

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

  1. A Simple Misunderstanding

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

  1. The Erroneous Extrapolation

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

  1. That Darn Purple Ink!

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

The moral of the story — appeal all audit results.

Appealing Adverse Decisions: Should We Reconsider the Medicaid Provider Reconsideration Review?

What if you had to appeal traffic citations through the police officer who pulled you over before you could defend yourself before an impartial judge? That would be silly and a waste of time. I could not fathom a time in which the officer would overturn his/her own decision.

“No, officer, I know you claim that I was speeding, but the speed limit on Hwy 1 had just increased to 65. You were wrong when you said the speed limit was 55.”

“Good catch, citizen. You’re right; I’m wrong. Let’s just rip up this speeding ticket.”

Not going to happen.

The same is true when it comes to decisions by the Department of Health and Human Service (DHHS) to sanction or penalize a Medicaid provider based on alleged provider abuse (otherwise known as documentation errors). If DHHS determines that you owe $800,000 because your service notes are noncompliant, I am willing to bet that, upon its own reconsideration, the decision will be upheld. Asking for reconsideration review from the very same entity that decided the sanction or penalty is akin to doing something over and over and expecting different results (definition of insanity?).

But – are informal reconsideration reviews required by law to fight an adverse decision before you may appear before an administrative law judge?

The reason that you should care whether the reconsideration reviews are required by law is because the process is time consuming, and, often, the adverse determination is in effect during the process. If you hire an attorney, it is an expensive process, but one that you will not (likely) win. Generally, I am adverse to spending time and money on something that will yield nothing.

Before delving into whether reconsideration reviews are required by law, here is my caveat: This issue has not been decided by our courts. In fact, our administrative court has rendered conflicting decisions. I believe that my interpretation of the laws is correct (obviously), but until the issue is resolved legally, cover your donkey (CYA), listen to your attorney, and act conservatively.

Different laws relate to whether the adverse decision is rendered by the DHHS or whether the adverse decision is rendered by a managed care organization (MCO). Thus, I will divide this blog into two sections: (1) reconsiderations to DHHS; and (2) reconsiderations to an MCO.

Appealing DHHS Adverse Determinations

When you receive an adverse decision from DHHS, you will know that it is from DHHS because it will be on DHHS letterhead (master of the obvious).

DHHS letterhead

10A NCAC 22F .0402 states that “(a) Upon notification of a tentative decision the provider will be offered, in writing, by certified mail, the opportunity for a reconsideration of the tentative decision and the reasons therefor. (b) The provider will be instructed to submit to the Division in writing his request for a Reconsideration Review within fifteen working days from the date of receipt of the notice. Failure to request a Reconsideration Review in the specified time shall result in the implementation of the tentative decision as the Division’s final decision.”

As seen above, our administrative code recommends that a Medicaid provider undergo the informal reconsideration review process through DHHS to defend a sanction or penalty before presenting before an impartial judge at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). I will tell you, having gone through hundreds upon hundreds of reconsideration reviews, DHHS does not overturn itself. The Hearing Officers know who pay their salaries (DHHS). The reconsideration review ends up being a waste of time and money for the provider, who must jump through the “reconsideration review hoop” prior to filing a petition for contested case.

Historically, attorneys recommend that provider undergo the reconsideration review for fear that an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at OAH would dismiss the case based on failure to exhaust administrative remedies. But upon a plain reading of 10A NCAC 22F .0402, is it really required? Look at the language again. “Will be offered” and “the opportunity for.” And what is the penalty for not requesting a reconsideration review? That the tentative decision becomes final – so you can petition to OAH the final decision.

My interpretation of 10A NCAC 22F .0402 is that the informal reconsideration review is an option, not a requirement.

Now, N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 states that “[i]t is the policy of this State that any dispute between an agency and another person that involves the person’s rights, duties, or privileges, including licensing or the levy of a monetary penalty, should be settled through informal procedures. In trying to reach a settlement through informal procedures, the agency may not conduct a proceeding at which sworn testimony is taken and witnesses may be cross-examined. If the agency and the other person do not agree to a resolution of the dispute through informal procedures, either the agency or the person may commence an administrative proceeding to determine the person’s rights, duties, or privileges, at which time the dispute becomes a “contested case.””

It is clear that our State’s policy is that a person who has a grievance against an agency; i.e., DHHS, attempts informal resolution prior to filing an appeal at OAH. Notice that N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 is applicable to any dispute between “an agency and another person.” “Agency” is defined as “an agency or an officer in the executive branch of the government of this State and includes the Council of State, the Governor’s Office, a board, a commission, a department, a division, a council, and any other unit of government in the executive branch. A local unit of government is not an agency.”

Clearly, DHHS is an “agency,” as defined. But an MCO is not a department; or a board; or a commission; or a division; or a unit of government in the executive branch; or a council. Since the policy of exhausting administrative remedies applies to DHHS, are you required to undergo an MCO’s reconsideration review process?

Appealing an MCO Adverse Determination

When you receive an adverse decision from an MCO, you will know that it is from an MCO because it will be on the MCO’s letterhead (master of the obvious).

For example:

trillium

There is a reason that I am emphasizing the letterhead. It is because DHHS contracts with a number of vendors. For example, DHHS contracts with Public Consulting Group (PCG), The Carolina Center for Medical Excellence (CCME), HMS, Liberty, etc. You could get a letter from any one of DHHS’ contracted entities – a letter on their letterhead. For example, you could receive a Tentative Notice of Overpayment on PCG  letterhead. In that case, PCG is acting on behalf of DHHS. So the informal reconsideration rules would be the same. For MCOs, on the other hand, we obtained a Waiver from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to “waive” certain rules and to create the MCOs. Different regulations apply to MCOs than DHHS. In fact, there is an argument that N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 does not apply to the MCOs because the MCOs are not an “agency.” Confusing, right? I call that job security.

Are you required to undergo the MCO’s internal reconsideration review process prior to filing a petition for contested case at OAH?

Your contract with the MCO certainly states that you must appeal through the MCO’s internal process. The MCO contracts with providers have language in them like this:

Dispute Resolution and Appeals: “The CONTRACTOR may file a complaint and/or appeals as outlined in the LME/PIHP Provider Manual promulgated by LME/PIHP pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. 122C-151.3 and as provided by N.C. Gen. Stat. Chapter 108C.”

I find numerous, fatal flaws in the above section. Whoever drafted this section of the contract evidently had never read N.C. Gen. Stat. 122C-151.3, which plainly states in subsection (b) “This section does not apply to LME/MCOs.” Also, the LME/PIHP does not have the legal authority to promulgate – that is a rule-making procedure for State agencies, such as DHHS. The third fatal flaw in the above section is that the LME/MCO Provider Manual is not promulgated and certainly was not promulgated not pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. 122C-151.3, does not apply to LME/MCOs.

Just because it is written, does not make it right.

If N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 does not apply to MCOs, because MCOs are not an agency, then the State policy of attempting to resolve disputes through informal methods before going to OAH does not apply.

There is no other statute or rule that requires a provider to exhaust an MCO’s internal review process prior to filing a petition for contested case.

What does that mean IN ENGLISH??

What it means is that the MCOs contract and provider manual that create an informal one or two-step reconsideration process is not required by law or rule. You do not have to waste your time and money arguing to the MCO that it should overturn its own decision, even though the reconsideration review process may be outlined in the provider manual or your procurement contract.

OAH has agreed…and disagreed.

In Person-Centered Partnerships, Inc. v. NC DHHS and MeckLINK, No. 13 DHR 18655, the court found that “[n]either the contractual provisions in Article II, Section 5.b of the Medicaid Contract nor MeckLINK’s “Procedures for implementation of policy # P0-09 Local Reconsideration Policy” states that reconsideration review is mandatory and a prerequisite to filing a contested case.”

In another case, OAH has held that, “[c]ontract provisions cannot override or negate the protections provided under North Carolina law, specifically the appeal rights set forth in N.C. Gen. Stat. Chapter 108C. Giesel, Corbin on Contracts § 88.7, at 595 (2011) (When the law confers upon an individual a right, privilege, or defense, the assumption is that the right, privilege or defense is conferred because it is in the public interest. Thus, in many cases, it is contrary to the public interest to permit the holder of the right, privilege, or defense to waive or to bargain it away. In these situations, the attempted waiver or bargain is unenforceable.”)” Essential Supportive Services, LLC v. DHHS and its Agent Alliance Behavioral Healthcare, No. 13 DHR 20386 (NCOAH) (quoting Yelverton’s Enrichment Services, Inc., v. PBH, as legally authorized contractor of and agent for N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, 13-CVS-11337, (7 March 2014)).

However, most recently, OAH ruled in the opposite way. A provider was terminated from an MCO’s catchment area, and we immediately filed a preliminary injunction to cease the termination. As you can see from the above-mentioned cases, OAH had not considered the reconsideration review mandatory. But, this time, the Judge found that the “contractual provision in [the MCO’s] contract with Petitioner, which provides for a local reconsideration review, is a valid and binding provision within the contract.”

So, again, the law is as clear as two and two adding up to five.

For now, when you are disputing an adverse determination by an MCO requesting a reconsideration review before going to OAH is a good CYA.

Going back to the traffic example at the  beginning of the blog, my husband was pulled for speeding a few weeks ago. I was surprised because, generally, he does not speed. He is a usually conscientious and careful driver. When the officer came to his window, he was genuinely confused as to the reason for the stop. In his mind, he was driving 73 mph, only 3 miles over the speed limit. In fact, he had the car on cruise control. Turns out he confused the sign for HWY 70, as a speed limit sign. The speed limit was actually 55 mph.

We did not appeal the decision.

Another Win for the Good Guys! RAC Auditors Cannot Look Back Over 3 Years!!! (BTW: We Already Knew This -Shhhhh!)

I love being right – just ask my husband.

I have argued for years that government auditors cannot go back over three years when conducting a Medicaid/Care audit of a health care provider’s records, unless there are credible allegations of fraud. See blog.

42 CFR 455.508 states that “[a]n entity that wishes to perform the functions of a Medicaid RAC must enter into a contract with a State to carry out any of the activities described in § 455.506 under the following conditions:…(f) The entity must not review clams that are older than 3 years from the date of the claim, unless it receives approval from the State.”

Medicaid RAC is defined as “Medicaid RAC program means a recovery audit contractor program administered by a State to identify overpayments and underpayments and recoup overpayments.” 42 CFR 455. 504.

From the definition of a Medicaid RAC (Medicare RAC is similarly defined), albeit vague, entities hired by the state to identify over and underpayments are RACs. And RACs are prohibited from auditing claims that are older than 3 years from the date of the claim.

In one of our recent cases, our client, Edmond Dantes, received a Tentative Notice of Overpayment from Public Consulting Group (PCG) on May 13, 2015. In a Motion for Summary Judgment, we argued that PCG was disallowed to review claims prior to May 13, 2012. Of the 8 claims reviewed, 7 claims were older than May 13, 2012 – one even went back to 2009!

The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) agreed. In the Order Granting Partial Summary Judgment, the ALJ opined that “[s]tatutes of limitation serve an important purpose: to afford security against stale demands.”

Accordingly, the ALJ threw out 7 of the 8 claims for violating the statute of limitation. With one claim left, the amount in controversy was nominal.

A note as to the precedential value of this ruling:

Generally, an ALJ decision is not binding on other ALJs. The decisions are persuasive. Had DHHS appealed the decision and the decision was upheld by Superior Court, then the case would have been precedent; it would have been law.

Regardless, this is a fantastic ruling , which only bolsters my argument that Medicaid/care auditors cannot review claims over 3 years old from the date of the claim.

So when you receive a Tentative Notice of Overpayment, after contacting an attorney, look at the reviewed claims. Are those reviewed claims over 3 years old? If so, you too may win on summary judgment.

There Is Only One Head Chef in the Medicaid Kitchen, Part Deux!

In a groundbreaking decision published today by the Court of Appeals (COA), the Court smacked down Public Consulting Group’s (PCG), as well as any other  contracted entity’s, authority to wield an “adverse decision” against a health care provider. This solidifies my legal argument that I have been arguing on this blog and in court for years!

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is the “single state agency” charged with managing Medicaid. Federal law requires that that one agency manage Medicaid with no ability to delegate discretionary decisions. Case law in K.C. v. Shipman upheld the federal law. See blog.

Yet, despite K.C. v. Shipman, decided in 2013, in Court, DHHS continued to argue that it should be dismissed from cases in which a contracted vendor rendered the adverse decision to recoup, terminate, or suspend a health care provider. DHHS would argue that it had no part of the decision to recoup, terminate, or suspend, that K.C. Shipman is irrelevant to health care provider cases, and that K.C. v. Shipman is only pertinent to Medicaid recipient cases, to which I countered until I was “blue in the face” is a pile of horse manure.

DHHS would argue that my interpretation would break down the Medicaid system because DHHS cannot possibly review and discern whether every recoupment, termination, and/or suspension made by a contracted vendor was valid (my words, not theirs). DHHS argued that it simply does not have the manpower, plus if it has the authority to contract with a company, surely that company can determine the amount of an alleged overpayment…WRONG!!

In fact, in DHHS v. Parker Home Care, LLC, the COA delineates the exact process for the State determining an overpayment with its contracted agent PCG.

  1. DHHS may enter into a contract with a company, such as PCG.
  2. A private company, like PCG, may perform preliminary and full investigations to collect facts and data.
  3. PCG must submit its findings to DHHS, and DHHS must exercise its own discretion to reach a tentative decision from six options (enumerated in the NC Administrative Code).
  4. DHHS, after its decision, will notify the provider of its tentative decision.
  5. The health care provider may request a reconsideration of the tentative decision within 15 days.
  6. Failure to do so will transform the tentative decision into a final determination.
  7. Time to appeal to OAH begins upon notification of the final determination by DHHS (60 days).

Another interesting part of this decision is that the provider, Parker Home Care, received the Tentative Notice of Overpayment (TNO) in 2012 and did nothing. The provider did not appeal the TNO.

However, because PCG’s TNO did not constitute a final adverse decision by DHHS (because PCG does not have the authority to render a final adverse decision), the provider did not miss any appeal deadline. The final adverse decision was determined to be DHHS’ action of suspending funds to collect the recoupment, which did not occur until 2014…and THAT action was timely appealed.

The COA’s message to private vendors contracted with DHHS is crystal clear: “There is only one head chef in the Medicaid kitchen.”