Articles Posted in Compliance

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The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) contracts with a Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (SMRC), which performs a variety of Medicare and Medicaid audit and medical review tasks. Noridian Healthcare Solutions, which is also a Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC), was selected as the SMRC in 2018. The SMRC conducts nationwide medical reviews of Medicare Parts A and B, DMEPOS, and Medicaid claims for compliance with coverage, coding, payment, and billing requirements. The focus of the medical reviews may include areas identified by CMS data analysis, the Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) program, professional organizations, and federal oversight agencies. At the request of CMS, the SMRC may also carry out other special projects.

SMRC audits are referred to as projects and there are three categories of SMRC project reviews:

  • Healthcare Fraud Prevention Partnership (HFPP) Review: Based on fraud, waste, and abuse trends identified by the HFPP.
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The Eliminating Kickbacks in Recovery Act (“EKRA”) is an incredibly broad and incredibly vague criminal statute that continues to create compliance issues for clinical laboratories. Many arrangements between clinical laboratories and other entities that were previously compliant, or which are currently authorized under other federal statutes, may be unlawful under EKRA.

Congress enacted EKRA in 2018 and, throughout its drafting, it was intended to address patient brokering and kickback schemes in addiction treatment and recovery. For example, EKRA was targeted at individuals who received kickbacks for steering patients into sober living and recovery homes. However, shortly before EKRA was passed and with little consideration of the implications, the words “or laboratory” were inserted into the draft such that EKRA now likely applies to all referrals to clinical laboratories, regardless of payor and regardless of whether the testing relates to addiction treatment or recovery.

EKRA broadly prohibits paying, offering, receiving, or soliciting any remuneration in return for referrals to recovery homes, clinical treatment facilities, or laboratories. Further, EKRA is a criminal statute, the penalties for violation of which, up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $200,000, cannot be taken lightly. Like two other major federal healthcare fraud, waste, and abuse laws, the Anti-Kickback Statute and the Physician Self-Referral Law (commonly known as the Stark Law), EKRA contains a few exceptions. However, they are far fewer in number and often narrower than their counterparts in the older statutes.

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Healthcare companies were once again the leading source of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) False Claims Act (FCA) settlements and judgments last year. According to a DOJ news release, healthcare companies paid almost 90% of fraud settlement proceeds under the FCA in 2021. The Justice Department obtained more than $5.6 billion in total settlements and judgments under the FCA in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2021, which is the second largest annual total in the FCA’s history. Over $5 billion of that number relates to matters involving the healthcare industry, including hospitals, pharmacies, laboratories, drug and medical device manufacturers, managed care providers, hospice organizations, and physicians.

The largest settlements under the FCA were those reached with prescription drugmakers for their role in the opioid epidemic. A significant number of settlements also related to the Medicare Advantage Program, which pays a capitated amount to private health insurers for each patient enrolled in their plan according to a risk calculation. Other settlements involved claims of illegal kickbacks, claims of providing unnecessary medical services, and lawsuits filed under the FCA’s whistleblower provisions.

The DOJ’s healthcare fraud enforcement is more vigorous compared to other industries, in part due to the unique nature of the business of healthcare. The Department’s enforcement efforts attempt to restore funds to federal programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE, as well as prevent further losses by deterring others from engaging in fraudulent behavior. In many cases, the Department may be motivated to protect patients from medically unnecessary or potentially harmful actions. Providers should be aware that overpayment allegations are common, especially given the substantial effect that widespread healthcare fraud can have on individuals and entities throughout the US. The regulatory and business risks in healthcare are unlike other fields, in large part due to the web of complex and often vague regulatory and statutory restrictions, such as Stark law, the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS), the Eliminating Kickbacks in Recovery Act (EKRA), and the Corporate Practice of Medicine doctrine (CPOM), among others. Healthcare providers should remain proactive in ensuring operations comply with the many different standards of practice governed by federal and state laws and regulations.

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The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently announced additional audits of certain healthcare providers that received funding from the Provider Relief Fund (PRF). These audits will focus on whether hospitals that received PRF payments have complied with the surprise billing provisions of the PRF terms and conditions. HHS has long promised “significant enforcement” related to the PRF, a promise which is beginning to take effect.

The PRF was created by Congress through the CARES Act and was designed to provide financial relief to healthcare providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Acceptance of a PRF payment is conditioned on, among other things, the provider agreeing to use the funds only for healthcare related expenses and lost revenue attributable to coronavirus, and to file reports demonstrating compliance with the conditions of the payment.

Providers who received and retained payments through the PRF are required to file reports justifying their use of the funds. Providers must report information on healthcare-related expenses attributable to coronavirus, lost revenue attributable to coronavirus, other pandemic assistance received, and administrative data. Providers who received more than $500,000 in aggregate payments are required to report some data elements in greater detail, including specific information regarding operations, personnel, supplies, equipment, facilities, and several other categories. Some providers will be required to report significant amounts of financial information in significant detail, which may require time to compile or calculate.

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A phenomenon in Medicare audits that is gaining increased visibility is Medicare contractors “double-dipping” from providers by using overlapping audits. Once viewed as isolated aberrations, it is becoming increasingly common for Medicare contractors to audit and deny the same claims twice in different audits. This practice generally leads to overpayment demands for the same claims, meaning contractors are demanding that providers and suppliers repay the same claims twice. Though profoundly unfair and very likely unlawful, providers may face difficulty challenging such an overlap in the complex and lengthy Medicare appeals process.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) authorizes several types of contractors to conduct audits, such as Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs), Unified Program Integrity Contractors (UPICs), and the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (SRMC). Some contractors are paid a percentage of the amounts they collect from the providers they audit, incentivizing them to over-deny claims and over-collect payments. In some instances, one contractor may not communicate with another, leading both to target the same claims. Alternatively, a contractor may fail to communicate internally or document its own audits properly, leading the same contractor to deny and attempt to collect on the same claims multiple times. As the number of Medicare audits has exploded over the last several years, such missteps have become increasingly common.

Any Medicare provider or supplier who has received more than one Medicare audit or overpayment demand should verify whether any of the claims overlap. Overlaps are found most often in statistically extrapolated audits, although they can occur in any type of audit. Where an overlap is found, a provider may raise the issue in the five levels of the Medicare claims appeal process: Redetermination by the MAC, Reconsideration by a Qualified Independent Contractor (QIC), review by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) employed by Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), review by the Medicare Appeals Council, also within HHS, and review by a judge in a federal court.

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Late last year, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a significant Advisory Opinion regarding a proposed joint venture (JV) between a therapy services provider and an owner of various long-term care (LTC) facilities. OIG concluded that it viewed the Proposed Arrangement as presenting a significant risk of fraud and abuse and potentially designed to permit the therapy services provider to pay the LTC owner a share of the profits derived from referrals for therapy services made by the LTC owner’s facilities. The opinion reiterates OIG’s longstanding concern that joint ventures formed between healthcare providers or suppliers and referral sources can present risk under the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS).

Under the Proposed Arrangement, a therapy services provider would form a JV with an owner of LTC facilities where the JV would provide therapy services to the LTC facilities. The JV would contract out the bulk of operations (all clinical and non-clinical employees, space, and equipment) to the therapy services provider in exchange for a fair market value fee. The LTC owner would hold a 40% interest in the JV and the therapy services provider would hold the remaining 60% interest. The LTC owner’s investment in the JV would be based, at least in part, on the JV’s expected business from the LTC owner’s facilities. The LTC owner’s facilities were not required to contract with the JV or otherwise make or direct referrals to the JV, although the therapy services provider certified that it expected the LTC owner’s facilities to do so, and during the initial phases of the JV all of the JV’s revenues would be generated by services provided to the LTC owner’s facilities.

OIG concluded that the Proposed Arrangement would not satisfy any AKS safe harbors, including the small entity investment safe harbor, because the Arrangement likely violates the investor test, the revenue test, and the investment offer test. Moreover, OIG referred to its landmark 2003 Special Advisory Bulletin on Contractual Joint Ventures, which includes a detailed list of characteristics that OIG considers suspect when present under a contractual JV. Since the JV described in the Proposed Arrangement included several of these previously outlined suspect characteristics, OIG further determined that the proposed JV presents significant risk of fraud and abuse. This Advisory Opinion serves as a useful reminder of the regulatory framework applicable to joint ventures between healthcare providers and entities in a position to refer or generate business for the joint venture. Providers considering joint ventures should ensure that they are structured to comply with AKS and OIG guidance.

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On January 10, 2022, the Departments of Labor (DOL), Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Treasury (DOT) (collectively, the Departments) jointly issued FAQs regarding the implementation of required insurance coverage for at-home COVID-19 tests under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). Pursuant to the new guidance, insurance plans and issuers must provide coverage over the counter (OTC) COVID-19 tests without cost-sharing requirements, prior authorization, individualized clinical assessment, or other medical management requirements with respect tests purchased on or after January 15, 2022 and during the public health emergency. This new requirement is in addition to the existing requirement that insurers cover COVID-19 testing where there is an individualized clinical assessment by an authorized provider.

With respect to OTC COVID-19 tests obtained without a healthcare provider’s involvement, plans and issuers must provide coverage for the cost of the test at no expense to the participant, beneficiary, or enrollee, unless the conditions of a safe harbor discussed below are met. While plans or issuers are encouraged to reimburse sellers of OTC tests directly, they are not required to do so. Some plans or issuers may require beneficiaries to provide upfront payment and then submit a claim for reimbursement after the fact.

If a plan or issuer provides direct coverage of OTC COVID-19 tests, it generally may not limit coverage to only tests provided through preferred pharmacies or other retailers. However, under a safe harbor, the Departments have indicated they will not take enforcement action related to OTC test coverage against a plan or issuer that provides coverage for such tests by arranging for direct coverage through both its primary pharmacy network and a direct-to-consumer shipping program, and otherwise limits reimbursement for OTC tests from non-preferred pharmacies or other retailers to no less than the actual price, or $12 per test, whichever is lower. Under this safe harbor, plans and issuer may not impose any prior authorization or other medical management requirements on beneficiaries and may not require any upfront out of pocket payments by beneficiaries. Additionally, under this safe harbor, the direct-to-consumer shipping program may be provided through one or more in-network provider(s) or another entity designated by the plan or issuer.

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The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) included several new items in its work plan update in January 2021. The OIG work plan outlines the projects that OIG plans to implement over the foreseeable future. Such projects typically include OIG audits and evaluations. Below are the highlights from the work plan update that providers and suppliers should take notice of.

First, OIG will perform a nationwide audit to determine whether hospitals that received Provider Relief Fund (PRF) payments and attested to the associated terms and conditions complied with the balance billing requirement for COVID – 19 inpatients. Under the PRF terms and conditions, hospitals are eligible for PRF distribution payments if they attest to specific requirements, including a requirement that providers, such as hospitals, must not pursue the collection of out-of-pocket payments from presumptive or actual COVID – 19 patients in excess of what the patients otherwise would have been required to pay if the care had been provided by in-network providers. OIG plans to assess how bills were calculated for out-of-network patients admitted for COVID-19 treatment, review supporting documentation for compliance, and assess procedural controls and monitoring to ensure compliance with the balance billing requirement.

Second, OIG will perform a nationwide review of Medicare beneficiary hospice eligibility. OIG indicated that a number of recent compliance audits have identified findings related to beneficiary eligibility. In its review, OIG plans to focus on those hospice beneficiaries that haven’t had an inpatient hospital stay or an emergency room visit in certain periods prior to their start of hospice care.

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On December 14, 2021, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), announced the release of an approximately $9 billion distribution in Provider Relief Fund (PRF) Phase 4 payments to healthcare providers who have experienced lost revenues and expenses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This distribution is part of a previously announced $25.5 billion funding for healthcare providers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which also included an allocation of $8.5 billion from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) for providers who provide services to rural Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), or Medicare beneficiaries. According to HHS’ state-by-state breakdown of the Phase 4 payments, these new payments have been received by more than 69,000 providers in all 50 states, Washington D.C., and eight territories. The average payment under this new distribution is $58,000 for small providers, $289,000 for medium providers, and $1.7 million for large providers.

PRF Phase 4 payments are based on providers’ lost revenue and expenditures between July 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, in conformity with the requirements of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2020 (CRRSAA). PRF Phase 4 is intended to reimburse smaller providers for their lost revenues and pandemic-related expenses at a higher rate compared to larger providers. This characteristic stems from the Biden Administration’s ongoing policy focus on social equity, as smaller providers tend to operate on thinner margins and often serve vulnerable or isolated communities when compared to larger providers. Because Medicaid, CHIP, and Medicare patients tend to be lower income and have greater and more complex medical needs, HRSA is distributing 25% of PRF Phase 4 funding as bonus payments for providers who serve these individuals. HRSA will price these bonus payments at the generally higher Medicare rates in an attempt to promote equity amongst providers serving low-income children, pregnant women, people with disabilities, and seniors. Similar to the ARP Rural payments announced in November 2021, HRSA is using Medicare reimbursement rates to calculate these Phase 4 payments in an effort to mitigate disparities due to varying Medicaid reimbursement rates.

HHS has also updated the Terms and Conditions for Phase 4 and ARP Rural payments to require that PRF payments are being properly used in response to the financial impact of COVID-19. Recipients who receive greater than $10,000 are required to notify HHS of any merger or acquisition activity with another healthcare provider. Providers who report a merger or acquisition may be more likely to be audited.

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Late last year, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released new guidance for hospital co-location. Co-location occurs when two Medicare certified hospitals or a Medicare certified hospital and another healthcare entity are located on the same campus or in the same building and share space, staff, or services. Hospitals, especially in rural areas, may co-locate to achieve greater efficiencies and improve patient care.

All co-located hospitals must demonstrate independent compliance with the hospital Conditions of Participation. Specifically, each hospital’s space, contracted services, staffing and emergency services must independently comply with the hospital Conditions of Participation. Where hospitals share space, patient record confidentiality and infection prevention and control are particular areas of concern. Where hospitals contract for services, it is important to note that these services are provided under the oversight of the hospital’s governing body and would be treated as any other service provided directly by the hospital. Where hospitals share staff, each must independently meet the Conditions of Participation, including adequate staff training, education, and oversight. Lastly, a co-locating entity that does not provide emergency services may generally transfer emergency patients to the entity with which it co-locates, such as a rehab hospital that co-locates with an acute care hospital. However, in this scenario, the non-emergency provider must have policies and procedures in place to address potential emergency scenarios typical of the patient population for which it routinely cares and ensure staffing that would enable it to provide safe and adequate initial treatment of an emergency prior to transfer.

CMS also provided new guidance for survey procedures for co-located hospitals. In general, survey procedures for co-located hospitals are the same as for any other hospital, as each must independently comply with the Conditions of Participation. However, where a survey of one co-located entity identifies an alleged deficiency, it may be imputed to the other co-located entity and may lead to a survey of or complaint against the other co-located entity. For example, where two hospitals share a storage room and a leaky pipe drips water onto and damages the supplies of one hospital, CMS indicated that this may lead to a complaint against the other hospital because the deficiency was found in the shared space.

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