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Medicare TPE Audits: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Let’s talk targeted probe-and-educate (TPE) audits. See on RACMonitor as well.

TPE audits have turned out to be “wolf audits” in sheep’s clothing. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) asserted that the intent of TPE audits is to reduce provider burden and appeals by combining medical review with provider education.

But the “education” portion is getting overlooked. Instead, the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) resort to referring healthcare providers to other agencies or contractors for “other possible action,” including audit by a Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC), which can include extrapolation or referral to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) for investigation of fraud. A TPE audit involves up to three rounds of review, conducted by a MAC. Once Congress was instructed that RAC audits are not fair, and providers complained that RAC auditors did not help with education, CMS came up with TPE audits – which, supposedly, had more of an educational aspect, and a more fair approach. But in reality, the TPE audits have created an expensive, burdensome, cyclical pattern that, again, can result in RAC audits. The implementation of TPE audits has been just as draconian and subjective as RAC audits. The penalties can be actually worse than those resulting from RAC audits, including termination from the Medicare program. In this article, I want to discuss the appeal process and why it is important to appeal at the first level of audit.

Chapter Three, Section 3.2.5 of the Medicare Program Integrity Manual (MPIM) outlines the requirements for the TPE process, which leaves much of the details within the discretion of the MAC conducting the review. The MACs are afforded too much discretion. Often, they make erroneous decisions, but providers are not pushing back. A recent one-time notification transmittal provides additional instructions to MACs on the TPE process: CMS Transmittal 2239 (Jan. 24, 2019).

Providers are selected for TPE audit based on data analysis, with CMS instructing MACs to target providers with high denial rates or claim activity that the contractor deems unusual, in comparison to peers. These audits are generally performed as a prepayment review of claims for a specific item or service, though relevant CMS instructions also allow for post-payment TPE audits.

A TPE round typically involves a review of a probe sample of between 20 and 40 claims. Providers first receive notice that they have been targeted by their MAC, followed by additional documentation requests (ADRs) for the specific claims included in the audit.

TPE Audits

The MACs have sole discretion as to which providers to target, whether claims meet coverage requirements, what error rate is considered compliant, and when a provider should be removed from TPE. Health care providers can be exposed to future audits and penalties based merely on the MAC’s resolve, and before the provider has received due process through their right to challenge claim denials in an independent appeals process. In this way, the MACs’ misinterpretation of the rules and misapplication of coverage requirements can lead to further audits or disciplinary actions, based on an erroneous determination that is later overturned. Similarly, while the educational activities are supposedly meant to assist providers in achieving compliance, in reality, this “education” can force providers to appear to acknowledge error findings with which they may disagree – and which may ultimately be determined to be wrong. Often times, the MACs – for “educational purposes” – require the provider to sign documentation that admits alleged wrongdoing, and the provider signs these documents without legal counsel, and without the understanding that these documents can adversely affect any appeal or future audits.

The MACs have the power, based on CMS directive, to revoke billing privileges based on a determination that “the provider or supplier has a pattern or practice of submitting claims that fail to meet Medicare requirements.” 42 C.F.R. § 424.535(a)(8)(ii). This language shows that TPE audit findings can be used as a basis for a finding of abuse of billing privileges, warranting removal from participation in the Medicare program. CMS guidance also gives the MACs authority to refer providers for potential fraud investigation, based on TPE review findings. It is therefore vital that providers submit documentation in a timely fashion and build a clear record to support their claims and compliance with Medicare requirements.

TPE audits promise further education and training for an unsuccessful audit (unsuccessful according to the MAC, which may constitute a flawed opinion), but most of the training is broad in nature and offered remotely – either over the phone, via web conference, or through the mail, with documentation shared on Google Docs. Only on atypical occasions is there an on-site visit.

Why appeal? It’s expensive, tedious, time-consuming, and emotionally draining. Not only that, but many providers are complaining that the MACs inform them that the TPE audit results are not appealable (TPE audits ARE appealable).

TPE reviews and TPE audit overpayment determinations may be appealed through the Medicare appeals process. The first stage of appeal will be to request a redetermination of the overpayment by the MAC. If the redetermination decision is unfavorable, Medicare providers and suppliers may request an independent review by filing a request for reconsideration with the applicable Qualified Independent Contractor (QIC). If the reconsideration decision is unfavorable, Medicare providers and suppliers are granted the opportunity to present their case in a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). While providers or suppliers who disagree with an ALJ decision may appeal to the Medicare Appeals Council and then seek judicial review in federal district court, it is crucial to obtain experienced healthcare counsel to overturn the overpayment determination during the first three levels of review.

Appealing unfavorable TPE audits results sends a message. Right now, the MACs hold the metaphoric conch shell. The Medicare appeals process allows the provider or supplier to overturn the TPE audit overpayment, and reduces the likelihood of future TPE reviews, other Medicare audits, and disciplinary actions such as suspension of Medicare payments, revocation of Medicare billing privileges, or exclusion from the Medicare program. In instances when a TPE audit identifies potential civil or criminal fraud, it is essential that the Medicare provider or supplier engage experienced healthcare counsel to appeal the Medicare overpayment as the first step in defending its billing practices, and thus mitigating the likelihood of fraud allegations (e.g., False Claims Act actions).

CMS and the MACs maintain that TPEs are in the providers’ best interest because education is included. In actuality, TPEs are wolves in sheep’s clothing, masking true repercussions in a cloak of “education.” The Medicare appeal process is a provider’s best weapon.

Medicare Audits – TPE Audits Are Here, But For How Long?

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the expansion of Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) audits. At first glance, this appears to be fantastic news coming on the heels of so much craziness at Health and Human Services (HHS). We have former-HHS Secretary Price flying our tax dollars all over. Dr. Don Wright stepping up as our new Secretary. The Medicare appeal backlog fiasco. The repeal and replace Obamacare bomb. Amidst all this tomfoolery, health care providers are still serving Medicare and Medicaid patients, reimbursement rates are in the toilet, which drives down quality and incentivizes providers to not accept Medicare or Medicaid (especially Caid), and providers are undergoing “Audit Alphabet Soup.” I actually had a client tell me that he receives audit letters requesting documents and money every single week from a plethora of different organizations.

So when CMS announced that it was broadening its TPE audits, it was a sigh of relief for many providers. But will TPE audits be the benign beasts they are purporting  to be?

What is a TPE audit? (And – Can We Have Anymore Acronyms…PLEASE!)

CMS says that TPE audits are benevolent. CMS’ rhetoric indicates that these audits should not cause the toner to run out from overuse. CMS states that TPE audits will involve “the review of 20-40 claims per provider, per item or service, per round, for a total of up to three rounds of review.” See CMS Announcement. The idea behind the TPE audits (supposedly) is education, not recoupments. CMS states that “After each round, providers are offered individualized education based on the results of their reviews. This program began as a pilot in one MAC jurisdiction in June 2016 and was expanded to three additional MAC jurisdictions in July 2017. As a result of the successes demonstrated during the pilot, including an increase in the acceptance of provider education as well as a decrease in appealed claims decisions, CMS has decided to expand to all MAC jurisdictions later in 2017.” – And “later in 2017” has arrived. These TPE audits are currently being conducted nationwide.

Below is CMS’ vision for a TPE audit:

TPE3

Clear? As mud?

The chart does not indicate how long the provider will have to submit records or how quickly the TPE auditors will review the documents for compliance. But it appears to me that getting through Round 3 could take a year (this is a guess based on allowing the provider 30 days to gather the records and allowing the TPE auditor 30 days to review).

Although the audit is purportedly benign and less burdensome, a TPE audit could take a whole year or more. Whether the audit reviews one claim or 20, having to undergo an audit of any size for a year is burdensome on a provider. In fact, I have seen many companies having to hire staff dedicated to responding to audits. And here is the problem with that – there aren’t many people who understand Medicare/caid medical billing. Providers beware – if you rely on an independent biller or an electronic medical records program, they better be accurate. Otherwise the buck stops with your NPI number.

Going back to CMS’ chart (above), notice where all the “yeses” go. As in, if the provider is found compliant , during any round, all the yeses point to “Discontinue for at least 12 months.” I am sure that CMS thought it was doing providers a favor, but what that tells me is the TPE audit will return after 12 months! If the provider is found compliant, the audit is not concluded. In fact, according to the chart, the only end results are (1) a referral to CMS for possible further action; or (2) continued TPE audits after 12 months. “Further action” could include 100% prepayment review, extrapolation, referral to a Recovery Auditor, or other action. Where is the outcome that the provider receives an A+ and is left alone??

CMS states that “Providers/suppliers may be removed from the review process after any of the three rounds of probe review, if they demonstrate low error rates or sufficient improvement in error rates, as determined by CMS.”

I just feel as though that word “may” should be “will.” It’s amazing how one word could change the entire process.