Articles Posted in COVID-19

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More of the long-promised enforcement actions related to COVID-19 pandemic relief and healthcare programs have started to unfold. This time it is demands from the Health Resources and Services Administration (“HRSA”) that providers repay funds they have received for providing COVID-19 testing to the uninsured during the pandemic.

As part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress provided funding for testing of patients without health insurance. The funding of testing for the uninsured was overseen by HRSA under the COVID-19 Claims Reimbursement to Health Care Providers and Facilities for Testing, Treatment, and Vaccine Administration for the Uninsured Program. HRSA contracted with Optum to administer the program directly. Generally referred to as “HRSA funding” for testing of the uninsured, this system functioned as a claims reimbursement program wherein eligible healthcare providers submitted claims to HRSA/Optum for reimbursement, made certain attestations, and Optum reimbursed providers’ claims.

Recently, healthcare providers who billed and received reimbursements under this program have begun to receive “assessment” letters from HRSA. HRSA has generally insisted that these are not “audits,” but “assessments.” These letters generally indicate that HRSA made payments to the provider in error and demand that the provider make immediate repayment. The letters generally do not provide denial reasons or explain the nature of the “error,” and do not contain allegations of fraud. They simply demand repayment. The letters also generally do not provide for an appeal process. Where a provider receives a letter, HRSA generally also suspends payment to the provider, pending the completion of an assessment.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to recede, efforts by commercial insurance carriers to claw back millions of dollars paid out for COVID-19 testing services are steadily increasing, creating an ongoing audit risk for healthcare providers, especially clinical labs. In many cases, efforts to get people tested, slow the pandemic, and ask questions later have turned into accusations of over-billing and demands that providers repay the insurance carriers.

Early in the pandemic, Congress required commercial insurers to cover certain claims for COVID-19 testing. However, Congress did not provide the insurers with funds to cover the cost of this mandate and some insurers have pushed back against lab claims for COVID-19 testing. As public opinion and political fervor over the urgency of testing has subsided, commercial insurers are taking advantage of the opportunity to audit COVID-19 testing claims, dispute payments they have made to the labs, and demand that labs make repayment, often for significant portions of the lab’s COVID-19 testing volume. These disputes generally focus on the same issues.

First, insurers may audit labs based on the requirement for an “individualized clinical assessment,” including whether the practitioner was authorized, whether the order for testing was within the scope of state law, whether the assessment was conducted by telemedicine or by a questionnaire, whether the ordering provider used a standing order, and what rules apply where a state does not or did not require an order for COVID-19 testing.

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On July 15th, 2022, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) extended the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency by another 90 days. The Public Health Emergency has allowed HHS and various federal agencies to issue waivers of regulatory requirements to ensure that providers have greater flexibility with several issues, including reporting requirements and telehealth reimbursement as the Pandemic grew increasingly dangerous.

The Public Health Emergency has existed since January 27th of 2020. After the last extension of the Public Health Emergency in April of 2022, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra assured that there will also be a 60-day notice to providers nationwide when HHS decides to terminate the Public Health Emergency.

Although the Public Health Emergency has been extended, it is important to note that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service (CMS) has already started to end some of the regulatory flexibilities implemented during the Public Health Emergency. We discussed the termination of some of these blanket waivers in a previous blog post. Providers who are relying on any of the regulatory waivers should verify whether the waivers remain in effect or have been ended prior to the end of the Public Health Emergency.

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A new study supports the growing perception that clinical laboratories will see an increase in audits from commercial insurance companies as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes. These audits will likely focus on a few particular areas of the COVID-19 testing services that clinical labs have developed and provided over the past two years.

The study reviewed lab revenue in Hawaii from May to December 2020 and is likely applicable to labs in other insurance markets. The study indicated strong growth in lab revenue from PCR tests and significant profit margins from PCR tests. Because federal law, namely the CARES Act, requires commercial insurers to cover COVID-19 testing without co-pays or other costs to the beneficiary, this increase in lab revenue will generally translate to higher costs for insurance companies. Further, when Congress passed the CARES Act, it did not provide funding to insurance companies for this coverage mandate. Many have long predicted that this would lead to increased costs for insurers, which would likely be passed on to members through higher premiums. Many insurance companies have pushed back against this coverage mandate since it was enacted.

Part of the pushback from commercial insurance companies has been to audit labs in an effort to deny claims for COVID-19 testing and to claw-back funds paid to labs for COVID-19 testing. These audits tend to focus on one or more of several issues: testing for a covered purpose, testing for travel, individualized clinical assessments, standing orders, posted cash prices, and collection codes. Some labs are particularly vulnerable to these audits because, during the pandemic, many labs rushed to invest and develop COVID-19 testing capability and capacity. Meanwhile, guidance regarding the CARES Act and the circumstances under which insurance companies are required to cover COVID-19 testing came out piecemeal and changed frequently as it developed. Due to these factors, labs may have high volumes of tests that represent a good-faith, best effort at complying with the CARES Act at the time the tests were performed, but may have compliance vulnerabilities as the law is currently understood.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought seismic changes to the clinical lab industry. High demand for COVID-19 testing services, tremendous amounts of funding, and rapidly changing government regulations have created opportunity for clinical labs, but also new compliance and audit challenges. As the dust settles and government entities and commercial insurers review lab claims for COVID-19 testing over the past two years, these are some of the audit and compliance challenges labs may face.

Early in the pandemic, Congress required commercial insurers to cover certain claims for COVID-19 testing. However, Congress did not provide the insurers with funds to cover the cost of this mandate and some insurers have pushed back against lab claims for COVID-19 testing. Under the federal coverage mandate, insurers are generally required to cover tests that are for the diagnosis of COVID-19 where there is an “individual clinical assessment” by an authorized provider that testing is appropriate. Testing for travel, return to work/school, and general screening purposes is generally not required to be covered, although insurers may choose to cover it. Insurers that chose to cover only what they are legally required to cover may audit labs for providing testing for an uncovered purpose. Testing for travel is sometimes a contentious issue because, depending on the circumstances, it may constitute uncovered general screening, or, in the case of people who were exposed while travelling or who were unable to social distance per CDC guidelines while traveling, may constitute circumstances where testing would be covered.

Further, insurers may audit labs based on the requirement for an “individualized clinical assessment,” including whether the practitioner was authorized, whether the order for testing was within the scope of state law, whether the assessment was conducted by telemedicine or by a questionnaire, and what rules apply where a state does not or did not require an order for COVID-19 testing.

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As telemedicine becomes an increasingly popular method for connecting patients with healthcare providers, many providers are becoming interested in expanding the reach of their telehealth practices across state lines. Although technological advancements have helped providers communicate with patients remotely, state and federal regulations add additional considerations for practicing across multiple states.

Generally, healthcare providers will provide telehealth services to patients located within their own state. Most states allow for telehealth services and will allow state-licensed providers to provide telehealth services within the state in which they are licensed. State licensure requirements become more complex when an out-of-state provider wishes to provide telehealth services to a patient located in another state.

Telehealth services are generally considered to be performed at the patient’s physical location, which usually means that the provider must be licensed in the patient’s home state. Although the COVID-19 pandemic caused several states to temporarily waive some licensing requirements for cross-state telehealth services, many of those waivers has since expired.

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On March 15, 2022, President Biden signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act, otherwise known as the “Omnibus Bill.” Included in the many provisions introduced by the Omnibus Bill is an extension of Medicare coverage of professional consultations, office visits, and office psychiatry services conducted via telemedicine for 151 days following the termination of the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE).

As part of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, administrative and legislative changes waived the traditional location and technology requirements necessary to qualify for Medicare coverage for the duration of the PHE. In addition to extending these waivers, the Omnibus Bill expands the types of practitioners eligible to provide telehealth services to patients. Prior to the PHE, Medicare covered telehealth services only if offered by physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, nurse-midwives, clinical psychologists, clinical social workers, registered dieticians, or certified registered nurse anesthetics. The Omnibus Bill adds to the list of qualifying practitioners occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, and audiologists. Other changes under the Bill include delaying in-person requirements for the provision of mental health services and extending coverage of telehealth services rendered by federally qualified health centers to provide telehealth services for the same 151-day post-PHE time period.

While these changes may be welcomed by many healthcare providers as supplying necessary resources for both telehealth patients and providers, it remains to be seen whether coverage flexibilities established during the PHE will become permanent moving forward. The Omnibus Bill requires the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission to provide Congress with a report by June 15, 2023 on the expansion of telehealth services as a result of the PHE. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) is similarly required to provide Congress with a report by June 15, 2023 on program integrity risks associated with Medicare telehealth services. Additionally, HHS must post quarterly data, beginning on July 1, 2022, on Medicare claims for telemedicine services. Healthcare providers should be cognizant of these developments and take steps to ensure compliance is maintained as these and other legislative and regulatory changes unfold.

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On April 7, 2022, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a memorandum stating that several COVID-19 blanket waivers for certain healthcare services will be ending soon. Specifically, CMS will terminate blanket waivers of regulatory requirements that apply to skilled nursing facilities (SNFs), inpatient hospices, intermediate care facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities (ICF/IIDs), and end stage renal disease (ESRD) facilities.

CMS has expressed concern “about how residents’ health and safety has been impacted by the regulations that have been waived, and the length of time for which they have been waived.” Findings from onsite surveys conducted at the facilities previously mentioned “have revealed significant concerns with resident care that are unrelated to infection control (e.g., abuse, weight-loss, depression, pressure ulcers, etc.).” In response to these findings, CMS is removing certain operational flexibilities which do not directly relate to infectious disease control. The termination of these blanket waivers will not have any effect on other applicable blanket waivers, such as those for hospitals and critical access hospitals (CAHs).

Terminations of blanket waivers will occur in two groups and become effective either 30 days or 60 days from publication of the memorandum. CMS instructs all affected healthcare providers to “take immediate steps so that they may return to compliance with the reinstated requirements” within these timeframes. The specific blanket waivers ending under both timeframes are as follows:

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Healthcare providers who missed a Provider Relief Fund (PRF) reporting deadline may get a second chance. In response to overwhelming industry outcry over its attempts to clawback PRF payments, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), which currently administers the PRF, will being accepting applications from providers who missed a reporting deadline to file a late report. Requests to file a late report must be filed between April 11 and April 22 and must include an “extenuating circumstance” justifying the request.

The PRF is a $178 billion fund created by Congress through the CARES Act and administered to provide financial relief to healthcare providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. HHS has subdivided the PRF into various general and targeted distributions. These distributions were paid to providers in several waves between April 2020 and the present. The first payments under the PRF, in April 2020, were unsolicited and were deposited directly into providers’ bank accounts without prior application or notification. While this infusion of cash was likely a welcome relief at the time, it came with strings attached. The two major requirements for a provider to keep the PRF payment were to only use the funds for specific COVID-related purposes and to file a report with HRSA justifying use of the funds.

The first of these reports were due on September 30, 2021, but that date was later extended into early December 2021. In March 2022, HRSA began sending letters to providers who had not filed reports indicating that they were now required to return the full amount of any PRF funds received within 30 days. After significant outcry from providers, representatives, and industry groups, HRSA has backtracked and will now accept requests to file late reports.

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On February 22, 2022, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hosted a webinar detailing its current transition plans for medical devices marketed pursuant to either Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) or Enforcement Policies during the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE). The primary purposes of the webinar were to help prepare manufacturers and other stakeholders for the upcoming transition back to normal operations, provide examples illustrating the transition policies, and outline the 180-day transition period timeline. Providers that may be affected are encouraged to be proactive and take steps to understand FDA’s proposed plan and become prepared to handle the upcoming transition.

The FDA’s transition plans and policies are laid out in two recent draft guidance documents, Transition Plan for Medical Devices Issued EUAs During the COVID-10 PHE (EUA Transition Plan) and Transition Plan for Medical Devices That Fall Within Enforcement Policies Issued During the COVID-19 PHE (Enforcement Policy Transition Plan), which are to be implemented with a focus on four key principles:

  • an orderly, transparent transition with consistent FDA-manufacturer interactions,
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