Articles Posted in Fraud & Abuse

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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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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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Medicare audits often include a statistical extrapolation to estimate the full extent of an alleged overpayment. Medicare contractors are authorized to review the merits of only a small “sample” of submitted claims and extrapolate the results of that review to a large “universe” of claims to estimate the overpayment amount. This practice can lead contractors to allege overpayments of hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars despite only reviewing and denying a small handful of claims. Medicare contractors generally have broad authority to use a wide array of statistical methods when extrapolating the overpayment amount, which can lead to grossly overestimated overpayment determinations.

When conducting the statistical sampling and extrapolation, the contractor will select the period for review and establish the universe and sample frame. The sample frame is the large group of claims from which the sample is randomly selected, and the universe is the group of claims over which the results of the review are projected. The sample frame and universe may or may not be identical. The universe and sample frame may be defined by specific codes, dates of services, beneficiaries, or some combination thereof. From here, the contractor will select a random sample from the sample frame,  review the claims within the designated sample, and extrapolate the results of the review of the sample to all claims in the established universe.

A statistical extrapolation is subject to appeal, similar to any Medicare overpayment determination. However, there are several issues unique to appealing a statistically extrapolated overpayment. First, it adds increased importance to appealing the denial of each claim in the sample. While an individual claim may not represent significant monetary value on its own, it may represent tens of thousands of dollars after it has been statistically projected over a large universe. Second, there are special procedural rules for appealing an extrapolation. For example, providers are generally prevented from arguing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) that the extrapolation was flawed unless they included specific language in their request for ALJ review.

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On November 8, 2021, the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a revised and renamed Provider Self-Disclosure Protocol. The OIG “Health Care Fraud Self-Disclosure Protocol” (SDP) is the first revision to the SDP since 2013. The Self-Disclosure Protocol is available only for matters that involve potential violations of federal criminal, civil, or administrative law for which civil monetary penalties (CMPs) are authorized. The OIG’s updated website provides that “Self-disclosure gives persons the opportunity to avoid the costs and disruptions associated with a Government-directed investigation and civil or administrative litigation.” The SDP expects that “the disclosing party should ensure that the conduct has ended or, at least, in the case of an improper kickback arrangement, that corrective action will be taken and the improper arrangement will be terminated within 90 days of submission to the SDP.” The Protocol also expects providers to complete all other necessary corrective action by the time of disclosure.

The following are several key takeaways from the revised SDP and highlight information that providers should be aware of before beginning the self-disclosure process:

  • Minimum Settlement Amounts Doubled. The revised SDP doubles the minimum settlement amounts required to resolve matters accepted into the SDP. When the matter is related to kickbacks, the minimum settlement amount has been increased from $50,000 to $100,000. For all other matters, the minimum settlement amount has been increased from $10,000 to $20,000. These increases follow the increased CMP maximum imposed by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018.
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Recent allegations by the Department of Justice (DOJ) against Kaiser Permanente (Kaiser) highlight some of the tensions in proper medical coding and in internal documentation review. DOJ recently intervened in a series of whistleblower lawsuits that alleged that internal chart reviews and amendment of medical records by Kaiser constituted improper upcoding of claims for Medicare Advantage beneficiaries. DOJ accused Kaiser of coercing its employees to retroactively change or add codes in order to increase reimbursement rates. Ultimately, DOJ claimed that the alleged upcoding resulted in an estimated 75% error rate.

DOJ alleged that Kaiser physicians changed medical records often months after care was provided in order to increase Medicare Advantage reimbursement. A whistleblower claimed that more than 50% of Kaiser physicians said that they were coerced to add diagnoses that they never considered, let alone evaluated or treated. Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that Kaiser targeted codes for atherosclerosis of the aorta as having a “high rate of reimbursement.” The whistleblower claimed that Kaiser told its facilities that 40% of their bonuses would be based on how often they coded atherosclerosis of the aorta, pointing to an email between executives that identified this upcoding as a “$40M opportunity.”

The lawsuit focuses on retroactive additions and changes to patients’ medical records. These retroactive changes are usually done during retrospective chart reviews, which are typically used promote proper coding and reimbursement for services performed. Although the practice of internally reviewing charts to identify and address documentation or coding issues is common and generally permissible, the changes should be supported by proper documentation and some documentation elements must be documented at the time of service. In this case, DOJ alleged that Kaiser’s changes were not supported by documentation and that Kaiser only performed retroactive chart reviews on patients that could receive risk-adjustment payments.

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Two recent settlements illustrate some of the compliance challenges facing clinical laboratories that perform urine drug testing (UDT). Both settlements involve a clinical laboratory resolving allegations that the lab violated the False Claims Act (FCA).

In the first case, the Department of Justice (DOJ) alleged that the lab performed and then billed federal health care programs for both presumptive testing and confirmatory testing. DOJ alleged that the lab was performing both tests at approximately the same time and providing both results to providers simultaneously. DOJ alleged that this rendered one test or the other medically unnecessary: either there was no result to confirm because the presumptive test came back negative, or the presumptive test was unnecessary because the provider already had the confirmatory test in hand. The lab agreed to pay $16 million to resolve these allegations.

In the second case, a physician practice referred UDTs to its in-house clinical laboratory. DOJ alleged that the physicians ordered excessive and unnecessary UDTs for patients without any individualized assessment of clinical need and caused these claims to be submitted to federal healthcare programs. The physicians agreed to pay $3.9 million to resolve these allegations.

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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 October 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 plans to compare the average sales price (ASP) for certain drugs with their corresponding average manufacturer price (AMP) to assess Medicare Part B drug reimbursement. Since Congress established the ASP as the basis for Medicare Part B drug reimbursement, OIG is empowered to monitor market prices to limit excessive Medicare payment amounts. In fact, the Social Security Act requires that OIG compares the ASPs with AMPs, and if the ASP for a drug exceeds the AMP by 5% in the two previous quarters or three previous four quarters, HHS may substitute the reimbursement amount with a lower calculate rate. The memo produced from this investigation will report the number of drugs OIG identified that meet the criteria for substitution of a lower reimbursement amount. Ultimately, providers and suppliers should be aware of the findings in this memo, as they could lead to reduced Medicare Part B reimbursements.

Second, OIG announced their plans for additional oversight of the 50 state Medicaid Fraud Control Units (MFCUs). MFCUs are state agencies that investigate and prosecute Medicaid provider fraud and complaints of patient abuse or neglect in Medicaid-funded facilities, although approximately 75% of MFCU funding comes from the federal government. OIG will conduct on-site reviews of a sample of MFCUs. OIG did not specify which or how many MFCUs they would review. Additionally, OIG will provide guidance regarding Federal regulations, policy and performance through data collection and analysis. Finally, the OIG will provide technical assistance and training to improve MFCU management and operations.

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As part of the 2022 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule Proposed Rule, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has proposed to significantly expand its authority to deny or revoke a provider’s or supplier’s Medicare billing privileges.

First, CMS proposed to modify the conditions that it considers when determining whether to revoke a provider for an “abuse of billing privileges.” CMS currently has the authority to revoke a provider’s or supplier’s enrollment for an “abuse of billing privileges,” defined as a pattern or practice of submitting claims that do not meet Medicare requirements. CMS has previously asserted that as few as three non-compliance claims can constitute such a pattern, However, in the current proposal, CMS expressed concern that the existing factors it uses to make such a determination may prevent it from acting against providers or suppliers who enroll in Medicare and engage in short-term periods of high-volume, non-compliant billing. CMS proposed to revise one factor, the percentage of submitted claims that were denied, to instead focus on the percentage of claim denials out of claim submissions during a limited period, such as a single month. CMS also proposed to remove three factors the agency deems largely irrelevant to determining the existence of a pattern or practice of improper billing. Specifically, the agency proposed to remove factors that focus on the reason for the claim denial, the length of time over which the pattern has continued, and the length of time a provider or supplier has been enrolled in Medicare. CMS proposed one new factor that considers the type of improper billing along with any aggravating or mitigating conditions in each case.

CMS also proposed to expand its authority to deny or revoke a provider’s or supplier’s enrollment if any healthcare, administrative, or management services personnel furnishing services payable by any federal health care program is excluded by the OIG, such as a billing specialist, accountant, or human resources specialist. CMS asserted that this proposal would align its authority with a 2013 OIG Special Advisory Bulletin prohibiting a provider or supplier from employing excluded individuals to furnish management or administrative services payable by any federal health care program.

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The August 12, 2021 issue of the Medical Learning Network (MLN) Connects newsletter indicates that CMS is planning to resume the Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) audit program. CMS temporarily suspended pre-payment reviews under the TPE program in response to the Covid-19 public health emergency (PHE) in March 2020. While CMS authorized Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) to resume post-payment audits in August 2020, TPE pre-payment reviews generally remained suspended.

The MLN Newsletter does not offer specific information as to when CMS will officially resume TPE audits. The Newsletter also does not indicate whether CMS will focus on new TPE audits or whether the agency intends to resume existing TPE reviews that were suspended at the beginning of the PHE. In a June 2021 Q&A by Palmetto GBA, one of the MACs, Palmetto stated that they “do not have an expected date for TPE to return.” Other MACs have yet to update their websites to reflect CMS’s announcement. However, it appears CMS has given the MACs the go-ahead to resume paused TPE reviews and initiate new reviews.

A TPE review consists of up to three rounds of claims review, with education to the provider after each round. A provider or supplier navigating a TPE review should take care to comply with the program’s requirements and timelines and should be aware of the potential consequences of a review. A TPE review can take months or years to resolve and can have devastating impacts on a provider’s business, up to and including revocation of Medicare billing privileges and placement on the CMS Preclusion List. Closely monitoring the process of the TPE review can be critical to a successful resolution. For more information about TPE reviews, please see our previous blog on Responding to a Targeted Probe and Educate Review.

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The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) issued an updated August 2021 Code on Interaction with Health Care Professionals, which takes effect January 1, 2022. Section 7 of the PhRMA Code’s guidance on speaker programs largely echoes a Special Fraud Alert regarding health care speaker programs which was issued by the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) in November 2020. The focus here is on programs where health care professionals (HCPs) participate in company-sponsored speaker programs in order to help educate and inform other health care professionals about the benefits, risks, and appropriate uses of company medicines. Similarly to the Special Fraud Alert, the PhRMA Code raises significant concerns about companies offering or paying remuneration (and HCPs soliciting or receiving remuneration) in connection with speaker programs in violation of health care fraud and abuse laws, such as the Anti-Kickback Statute.

A primary focus of the PhRMA Code’s speaker program guidance involves situations where attendees of such programs are offered meals incident to attendance. In general, the Code explains that incidental meals of modest value may be offered to attendees of company-sponsored speaker programs, subject to some non-exhaustive principles. The purpose of the speaker program should be to present substantive educational information designed to help address a bona fide educational need among attendees, taking into account recent substantive changes in relevant information or the importance of the availability of such educational programming. According to the PhRMA Code, only those with a bona fide educational need for the information should be invited and incidental meals furnished to attendees must be modest as judged by local standards, as well as subordinate in focus to the educational presentation. Companies should not pay for or provide alcohol in connection with the speaker program. Speaker programs should occur in a venue and manner conducive to informational communication, and a company representative should be physically present. Luxury resorts, high-end restaurants, and entertainment, sporting, or other recreational venues or events are cautioned against. Repeat attendance at a speaker program on the same or substantially the same topic is generally not appropriate, unless the attendee has a bona fide educational need to receive the information presented, including attendance by speakers as participants after speaking at such programs. Friends, significant others, family members, and other guests of a speaker or an invited attendee are not appropriate attendees unless such individuals have an independent, bona fide educational need to receive the information presented. To note, the PhRMA Code does not address attendance at a speaker program that does not include an incidental meal to the attendee.

The PhRMA Code also sets out four general principles that apply to companies’ retention of HCPs as speakers at company-sponsored speaker programs. First, HCPs may be engaged by companies as speakers for company-sponsored speaker programs to help educate and inform other HCPs who have an independent, bona fide educational need to receive information about the benefits, risks, and appropriate uses of company medicine and related disease states. Second, company decision regarding the selection or retention of HCPs as speakers should be made based on defined criteria such as general medical expertise, reputation, knowledge, experience regarding a particular therapeutic area, and communication skills. Third, HCPs engaged by the company as speakers should also participate in company-sponsored speaker training programs because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) holds companies accountable for the presentation of their speakers. Finally, any compensation or reimbursement made to HCPs in conjunction with a speaking arrangement (including company-sponsored speaker training) should be reasonable, based on fair market value, and should not take into account the volume or value of past business that may have been, or potential future business that could be, generated for the company by the HCP. The PhRMA Code further cautions companies and speakers to be clear about the distinction between health care professional speaker programs and continued medical education programs. Health care providers should keep these guidelines in mind when designing company-sponsored HCP speaker programs.

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