Articles Posted in Compliance

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On July 6, 2016, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS),  published a final rule implementing changes to the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), as amended by the Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 2000 (DATA 2000). The final rule will go into effect August 8, with perhaps the most significant modification being the increase in the number of patients that a physician can treat with buprenorphine, a medication which is prescribed as part of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction.

Under the CSA buprenorphine is a Schedule III drug, which is defined by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a drug with “a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence.” DATA 2000 allows for qualified physicians to obtain a waiver to prescribe buprenorphine without needing to register as an opioid treatment center. Prior to the passage of the final rule, a physician whose waiver request was approved could initially prescribe buprenorphine to only 30 patients at a time, with this cap rising to 100 after the physician has complied with the program for one year and filed a request for the patient increase. This final rule will significantly raise the maximum number of patients allowed, from 100 to 275.

For a practitioner to be qualified to treat any patients with buprenorphine, they must: be a physician; possess a valid license to practice medicine; be registered with the DEA; have the ability to refer patients to addiction counseling and other ancillary services; and have completed a required training regime. In order to be eligible to treat 275 patients with buprenorphine, a physician needs to be currently authorized to treat 100 patients, and must hold “additional credentialing.” Additional credentialing is defined within the final rule as “board certification in addiction medicine or addiction psychiatry by the American Board of Addiction Medicine or the American Board of Medical Specialties or certification by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine, the American Board of Addiction Medicine, or the American Society of Addiction Medicine.”

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Recently, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) published an alert spotlighting recent fraud, waste, and abuse in the home healthcare setting.  Specifically, the alert focused on various types of violations and improper conduct alleged against home health agencies (HHAs), individual physicians, and heads of home-visiting physician groups.

The OIG alleges that HHAs have been entering into improper referral and/or compensation arrangements with physicians in violation of the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS).  These AKS violations involve HHAs paying money to physicians in return for referrals of the physicians’ Medicare patients to the HHAs for home health services. The converse also occurs, with physicians soliciting referrals to the HHAs in return for monetary compensation.  Not all compensation arrangements between HHAs and physicians are prohibited, as is noted by the OIG, but an arrangement may implicate the AKS if even a single purpose of the arrangement is to remunerate physicians for referring (including past and future referrals) Medicare or Medicaid patients to the HHA.  Additionally, even in the absence of patient referrals, any compensation arrangement between HHAs and physicians is required to be commercially reasonable and based on the fair market value of the services rendered.

In addition to the alleged AKS violations, other federal laws were said to have been violated by HHAs and physicians pursuant to these compensation schemes.  Examples outlined in the OIG alert include: HHAs billing for nursing home services rendered to Medicare patients who were not actually confined to the home; physicians falsely certifying patients as homebound; physicians billing for up-coded levels of home visit evaluation and management (E/M) services; and physicians billing for care plan oversight (CPO) services that were not actually provided.

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On June 28, 2016, CMS held its second special open-door forum (ODF) regarding the Pre-Claim Review Demonstration for home health services (the “Demonstration”). The Demonstration will take place in six states (Illinois, Florida, Texas, Michigan and Massachusetts), all initiating by January 1, 2017, with the earliest start being August 1, 2016 in Illinois. However, as the initial implementation date approaches, home health agencies (HHAs) continue to express concerns regarding the Demonstration. CMS maintains that this Demonstration will benefit HHAs in the long run, but no matter whether or not they agree, HHAs across the country, particularly those located within the six Demonstration states, are paying close attention to the new developments.

The interest in the Demonstration was made evident by CMS’ statement that there had been 2,600 participants in the first open door forum on the Demonstration, which took place on June 14, 2016. CMS also gave repeated notice regarding its Demonstration FAQ page, which had been updated as recently as four days prior to the second ODF, and may be updated again before the Demonstration begins. Following these preliminary remarks during the second ODF, as well as a rehashing of the Demonstration’s basic tenets, CMS went right to the question and answer period.  The moderators were uncertain about some issues, such as to whether an electronic referral order would fulfill the plan of care requirement—but on other questions CMS was very sure and adamant in their answers.

The main focus of the ODF, due to the continued interest of HHAs, was the plan of care requirement.  During the second ODF, CMS clarified that in order for a pre-claim review request (PCRR) to be approved, HHAs must submit a physician signed and dated plan of care. Several callers commented that this would impose an undue hardship onto HHAs because of the difficulty already associated with physicians signing plans of care. The HHAs explained that requiring signed plans of care prior to submitting their PCRR would be substantially burdensome and had the potential to lead to delayed or unfiled PCRRs.  The HHAs also opined that despite CMS’ insistence that the Demonstration would not alter documentation requirements, demanding signed plans of care so early in the certification period appears to heighten the requirements as set out in the current regulations.  Relevantly, Chapter 7, Section 30.2.4 of the Medicare Benefit Policy Manual states the following: “The plan of care must be signed and dated by a physician […] before the claim […] is submitted for the final percentage payment.” Despite this, CMS held firm to its stance that the Demonstration did nothing to limit coverage and imposed no new requirements, citing that beneficiaries had always needed to be under a physician’s care. And while technically true, there is undoubtedly a new encumbrance upon HHAs’ Medicare reimbursement, as the Demonstration would require that the plan of care is submitted not only prior to the final claim, but also prior to the PCRR.

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On June 14, 2016 between 2 and 3pm EST, CMS had a special open-door forum (ODF) regarding its pre-claim review demonstration for home health services (the “Demonstration”) which will take place in Illinois, Florida, Texas, Michigan and Massachusetts (listed chronologically by implementation date; see our prior blog post on the Demonstration for more information regarding the details of CMS’ pre-claim review process). During the ODF, home health agencies (HHAs) had the opportunity to learn more about the Demonstration and to ask CMS questions regarding pre-claim reviews.  In addition to the questions, some HHAs took the opportunity to raise concerns they had regarding the Demonstration.

CMS started by addressing the basics of the program, specifically that HHAs will be required to submit a pre-claim review request prior to submitting the final bill for payment.  CMS then restated that the Demonstration’s goal is to assure that HHA services are medically necessary and reasonable; to determine this, the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) reviewing the pre-claim review requests will evaluate the submitted documentation to assure that the beneficiary: 1) is confined to home at time of service; 2) is under a physician’s care; 3) receives care pursuant to a plan of care approved by the physician; 4) is in need of skilled services; and 5) has had a face-to-face encounter with his or her certifying physician and the physician’s observations support the certification for home health services.

The statements from the ODF’s participants varied from logistical questions to expressions of concern over the impending Demonstration. On the logistical side, after CMS stated that a unique tracking number (UTN) would be provided once a pre-claim review was approved, participants requested guidance on where to place the UTN on the final bill. CMS explained that an operational guide for the Demonstration would be released within “the next few weeks.” The guide is to include information on what fields to put certain information (including UTNs) into, along with other procedural and administrative guidance for the Demonstration’s roll-out. CMS also answered a question on whether there would be specific forms provided for HHAs to fill out when filing the pre-claim review request: CMS stated that while no document was available yet, one would be made available in the future, and that the forms themselves would generally be furnished by the individual  MACs in each region, rather than CMS itself.

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On June 9, 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) publicly released its report on the Medicare system, highlighting the deficiencies within the Medicare audit and appeals process; a bill currently in the Senate would address many of these problems by reforming CMS’ procedures.

The GAO report, titled “Opportunities Remain to Improve Appeals Process,” focuses on the rising amount of Medicare appeals in recent years and the strain it has put on the system. The increase has been almost unprecedented—between the fiscal years (FYs) 2010 and 2014, the number of ALJ hearings ballooned from 41,733 to 432,534, or a 936% increase. Further, while the statutory time frame for an ALJ hearing to be completed is 90-days, GAO found that in FY 2014 96% of ALJ appeals were not completed within the 90-day limit.

GAO also reported on the insufficiency of data collected by CMS during the Medicare appeals process. The data currently being collected does not report on the reasoning for the appeals, or the amount of money over which the appeals are being made. GAO found this to interfere with the observation and documentation of trends within the appeals system, leading to inconsistencies with Federal regulations. The lack of data has also led to repetitive appeals, with CMS arguing the same issues over and over, with nearly identical appeals remaining separate all the way to the 3rd and 4th levels of appeals.

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On June 8, 2016, CMS finalized its plan for the implementation of a 3-year “demonstration” of Medicare pre-claim review for home health services. The trial will be carried out in 5 states: Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan and Texas—all of which CMS terms as having “high incidences of fraud and improper payments” with regard to home health services. When CMS released the plan proposal in February, it was met with negative feedback from providers and Congress during the comment period, but CMS decided to go forward regardless, and it is important for home health agencies (HHAs) to adapt to the new requirements or else risk penalties or denial of payments.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 59% of home health service payments in 2015 were improper, up 41.7% from 2013’s improper payment rate of 17.3%. CMS hopes that pre-claim reviews will cut down on incorrect payments, not only caused by fraud, but also due to more prevalent causes such as insufficient documentation to support the medical necessity of the services, which is cited by CMS as the largest cause of erroneous funding.

The demonstration will require HHAs to submit pre-claim review requests to Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs). These requests will include the same documentation normally provided to prove that the billed services meet the standards of Medicare reasonability and medical necessity, only submitted prior to the filing of the final claim.  The HHA should begin treatment of the patient while awaiting a determination on the pre-claim filing.  The HHA should submit the pre-claim review request after the Request for Anticipated Payment (RAP) is processed and within thirty (30) days of the first treatment provided to the patient, and the request should be submitted before the final claim is submitted for payment.  According to CMS, MACs “will make every effort” to issue a decision on a pre-claim review request within ten (10) business days for an initial request and twenty (20) business days for a resubmitted request following a non-affirmative decision. When a pre-claim request is approved, the HHA will be given a unique pre-claim tracking number which the HHA must submit with the claim itself to assure full and proper reimbursement.

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The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) recently released OIG Advisory Opinion No. 15-15, in which the OIG determined that an arrangement involving an acute care hospital (“Hospital”), radiology practice and family medicine clinic (“Clinic”) would not generate prohibited remuneration under section 1129B(b) of the Social Security Act, the Federal anti-kickback statute (“AKS”).

Under the arrangement, the Clinic refers patients and certain diagnostic tests to the Hospital, and thus the Clinic’s physicians are referral sources for the Hospital. The radiology practice contracts with the Hospital to supervise radiology services and provide professional interpretations of all radiologic imaging taken at the Hospital, and members of the radiology practice can influence referrals to the Hospital. The Clinic includes technologists who provide radiologic imaging services for the Clinic’s patients, and the Clinic transmits the resulting images to the radiology practice to interpret the images and is thus a referral source for the radiology practice. The radiology practice’s radiologists interpret the images and dictate reports, but send the dictated reports to the Hospital and the Hospital’s employees transcribe the reports on behalf of the radiologists, who send the final reports back to the Clinic. The radiology practice pays the Hospital a “flat rate per line of transcription” fee that is fair market value for the service, and the Clinic pays no portion of any transcription cost. The Clinic bills third-party payors, including Medicare and Medicaid, for the technical component, and the radiology practice bills these payors for the professional component of the radiology services. The OIG also noted that the Hospital is located in a sparsely populated region, the Clinic is in a rural community in that region, and that the radiology practice is the only radiology practice within a 100-mile radius of the Clinic or Hospital.

Crucial to the OIG’s finding, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (“CMS”) Medicare Claims Processing Manual provides that with regards to the professional component of a radiology service, the interpretation of the diagnostic procedure includes a written report. Further, CMS advised the OIG that transcription costs are considered indirect expenses under the methodology establishing resource-based practice expense relative value units (RVUs), meaning that such costs are not separately identified but are included in both the professional and technical components for each service. As such, CMS’ position is that when the technical component and professional component are provided and billed by different entities, the two providers may determine who will pay for transcription costs.

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The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) recently announced a proposed rule primarily aimed at discharge planning requirements for hospitals and other service providers, including home health agencies (HHAs).

As part of the Improving Medicare Post-Acute Care Transformation Act of 2014 (IMPACT), hospitals, other inpatient facilities, and HHAs are required to develop an individual discharge plan for each patient based on a variety of factors, including individual patient needs. The proposed CMS rule would require these facilities and providers to develop discharge plans for patients within 24 hours of either admission or registration, as well as require that those plans be completed before the patient is discharged or transferred to another facility. In addition, providers and facilities would be required to provide discharge instructions to patients, enact a medication reconciliation process, and provide medical records to another facility if the patient is transferred.

As it specifically relates to HHAs, the proposed rule intends to impose several requirements that will affect HHA’s processes for discharging or transferring patients. CMS explained that its purpose for the rule is to “…better prepare patients and caregivers to be active participants in self-care” and to “…focus on person-centered care to increase patient-participation in post-discharge care decision making.” Examples of the proposals that CMS believes will help them reach these goals include, requiring the physician responsible for the home health plan of care to be involved in the ongoing establishment of the discharge plan, require that the discharge plan address the patient’s goals and treatment preferences, require that the evaluation be included in the clinical record and all relevant patient information available to or generated by the HHA to be incorporated into the discharge plan to facilitate its implementation. HHAs and other entities affected by the proposed rule must submit their comments on the proposals by January 4, 2016.

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The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced a $69.5 million settlement with the North Broward Hospital District (the “District”) arising out of allegations that the District violated the federal Stark law and False Claims Act by entering into improper financial relationships with employed physicians.

The lawsuit alleged that the District provided compensation to nine employed physicians that exceeded fair market value for the physicians’ services, and instead rewarded the physicians for their referrals of patients to the District. The compensation arrangements were alleged to violate the federal Stark law, which prohibits physician referrals of Medicare and Medicaid services to entities with which the physician has a financial relationship, unless an exception applies. Stark exceptions related to physician compensation and employment arrangements require, in addition to other requirements, that the physician’s compensation is consistent with fair market value and not determined in a manner that takes into account the volume or value of the physician’s referrals. By submitting claims pursuant to referrals that violated the Stark law, the District also submitted claims in violation of the False Claims Act.

The lawsuit against the District was originally filed by a whistleblower pursuant to the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act, which allow private individuals to sue on behalf of the government and share in the recovery. The whistleblower in this case brought the lawsuit after the District offered to employ him under terms that he believed may violate the Stark law. The DOJ announced that the whistleblower will receive over $12 million for his role in the case. The DOJ also announced that the recovery marks another achievement for the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT) initiative, which is a partnership between the U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Resources that has been instrumental in the government’s recovery of $16 billion from fraud in the federal health care programs since 2009.

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On July 2, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a $237 million verdict against Toumey Healthcare System (“Toumey) for violations of the federal Stark law (“Stark”) and, consequently, the federal False Claims Act. The verdict marks the latest decision in the government’s longstanding legal battle against Toumey, a community hospital in South Carolina, and serves as a reminder to healthcare providers of the significant liability that can result from compensation arrangements that fail to comply with Stark’s safe harbor requirements.

In this case, the lower court determined that Toumey entered into part-time employment agreements with physicians that violated Stark. The agreements violated Stark’s limitations on physician compensation arrangements by varying with, or taking into account, the volume or value of the physicians’ referrals to the hospital. Under the False Claims Act, claims submitted for payment arising out of referrals prohibited by Stark constitute false claims, and subject providers to treble damages. In this case, the jury found that Toumey knowingly submitted 21,730 false claims, which amounted to $39.3 million in Medicare payments. The court awarded treble damages as well as other penalties.

The Fourth Circuit’s decision analyzed Toumey’s argument that since Toumey relied upon the advice of lawyers in determining that the compensation arrangements were permissible under Stark, Toumey could not have knowingly violated the False Claims Act. In rejecting this argument, the Fourth Circuit highlighted the fact that Toumey consulted with multiple attorneys, one of which raised serious concerns about the compensation arrangements, and that Toumey effectively lawyer-shopped for legal opinions that approved the employment contracts. Accordingly, the case should provide notice to providers to proceed with caution if they are contemplating obtaining multiple legal opinions in order to determine that an arrangement is compliant with health care fraud and abuse laws because of how the opinions may be scrutinized in hindsight.