Articles Posted in Health Law

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The Trump Administration is slated to announce a plan, in the next few days, to cover the COVID-19 vaccine (when it is approved) under Medicare and Medicaid. According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), it is Congress’s intent that Medicare beneficiaries have access to the vaccine once it is approved, free of cost sharing, to protect the most at-risk populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Congress attempted to mandate free COVID-19 vaccine coverage for all Americans in March with the CARES Act. According to the Trump Administration it is the intent that all Americans, including those receiving employer sponsored health insurance, receive the vaccine for free. However, certain hurdles are preventing Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries from receiving the vaccine cost-free. Under the current rules, Medicare and Medicaid are not permitted to cover the cost of drugs authorized through emergency use protocols. Because this policy cannot be circumvented by Emergency Order, CMS, on October 28, 2020, released an Interim Final Rule with Comment Period (IFC) that established that any vaccine that receives Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorization, either through an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) or licensed under a Biologics License Application (BLA), will be covered under Medicare as a preventive vaccine at no cost to beneficiaries. Under the IFC, Medicare would reimburse vaccine administration at a rate of $28.39 for single-dose vaccines. For vaccines requiring a series of doses, Medicare would reimburse $16.94 for the first dose and $28.30 for subsequent doses.

In March, the White House initiated Operation Warp Speed (OWS), a national program to accelerate the development and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine as well as COVID-19 diagnostics and treatments. The program is a joint operation between the federal government, scientific organizations, and the private sector, with the goal being to produce and distribute 300 million doses of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines by January 2021. OWS will identify and select the most promising vaccine and other treatment candidates and offer coordinated government support to encourage their development. The OWS program has already invested in more than 5 vaccine candidates that have reached Phase 3 clinical trials to produce as many vaccines as possible. Investing in the vaccine candidates as well as their production will reduce the time it takes for delivery when the vaccines are available. Despite the White House’s desire to expedite vaccine distribution, the FDA will not speed up their approval process and will make solely scientific-based decisions.

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On October 21, 2020, Purdue Pharma pled guilty to three criminal charges as part of their $8 billion settlement surrounding the drug OxyContin, a drug that Purdue produced. The charges included: one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States and to violate the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and two counts of conspiracy to violate the Anti-Kickback Statute. OxyContin was one of the highly addictive opioids that has been blamed for starting the national opioid epidemic, which has been linked to over 470,000 deaths in the United States in the past twenty years.

In addition to admitting that Purdue purposefully impeded the Drug Enforcement Administration, Purdue also admitted to violating the Anti-Kickback Statute. The Anti-Kickback Statute prohibits any physician or other individual from knowingly offering, paying, or soliciting remuneration to induce business payable by Medicare or Medicaid. Through a misleading program, Purdue induced physicians with payments to write more OxyContin prescriptions. Purdue also induced physicians to utilize an electronic health record that would influence the prescription of pain medicine, especially OxyContin.

In addition to admission of the above criminal charges, Purdue also entered a civil settlement with the government. The settlement will resolve the allegation that Purdue caused false claims to be submitted to government programs, in violation of the False Claims Act. It also civilly resolved Anti-Kickback Statute violations.

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On October 22, 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) announced changes to the allowable uses of a Provider Relief Fund (“PRF”) payment and also expanded the categories of providers eligible to receive a payment in the Phase 3 General Distribution. The PRF is a $175 billion fund created by Congress in the CARES Act and administered by HHS to provide financial relief to healthcare providers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Acceptance of a PRF payment is conditioned on the acceptance by the provider of certain restrictions on how the payment may be used and the filing of reports in which the provider demonstrates compliance with these restrictions. One such restriction is that the funds may be used for “lost revenue attributable to the coronavirus.” When HHS first released the reporting requirements for PRF payments, it indicates that such lost revenues would be demonstrated by a negative change in year-over-year net patient care revenue from 2019 to 2020. Many saw this as placing an arbitrary cap on the amount of financial relief that struggling providers could receive from the PRF. In response to feedback, HHS has amended this requirement. Regarding use of the PRF payment to cover lost revenue attributable to coronavirus, HHS now requires that, “after reimbursing healthcare related expenses attributable to coronavirus that were unreimbursed by other sources, providers may use remaining PRF funds to cover any lost revenue, measured as a negative change in year-over-year actual revenue from patient care related sources.” (emphasis added).

HHS also announced expansion of the categories of providers who are eligible to apply for payments as part of the Phase 3 General Distribution of the PRF. The PRF previously included $30 billion Phase 1 and $20 billion Phase 2 General Distributions to eligible providers, primarily those that bill Medicare or Medicaid. The $20 billion Phase 3 General Distribution, announced October 1, 2020, was intended to provide financial relief to for providers who were either excluded from the initial two phases, or who were eligible under the first two phases but require additional funding to cover ongoing financial losses accrued during the pandemic. On October 22, 2020, HHS announced it was expanding Phase 3 eligibility to include the following providers, regardless of whether they accept Medicare or Medicaid:

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Medicare Administrative Contractor (“MAC”) CGS announced that beginning in October 2020, it would conduct post-payment reviews of hospice general inpatient (GIP) claims. Specifically, the reviews will be conducted if the claims were for 7 or more days of service, utilized revenue code 0656, and were submitted before March 1, 2020. These claims are particularly being targeted by CGS because GIP claims encompass a level of care intended for short term interventions, wherein symptoms can be controlled within 48 to 72 hours from the GIP setting. As such, if the claims were for 7 days or longer, CGS will flag the claim for review.

Common reasons for a denial following a hospice post payment review include: (1) Documentation does not indicate the patient had a terminal prognosis of 6 months or less; (2) Basic patient information is missing from the Notice of Election; (3) The physician narrative statement is not a true clinical narrative; (4) Failure to meet Face-to-Face requirements; and (5) The documentation did not support that the GIP level of care was reasonable or necessary.

An uptick in post-payment reviews leading to full-blown audits is to be expected for all provider types. As of August 3, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) announced that its suspension of Medicare claim audits would be lifted. Due to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (“COVID-19”), CMS had suspended most audits on March 30, specifically pre- and post-payment reviews conducted by MACs. As such, providers should be vigilant about following their compliance plans. Not only are Medicare audits resuming, but private payors have also resumed audits. Specifically, laboratories are expected to see a large amount of private payor audits surrounding COVID-19 testing.

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Recently, the White House announced it will not postpone implementation of the hospital price transparency rule, set to take effect on January 1, 2021.  Based on President Trump’s Executive Order on Improving Price and Quality Transparency in Healthcare, issued on June 24, 2019, CMS released the “Ambulatory Surgical Center (ASC) Price Transparency Requirements for Hospitals to Make Standard Charges Public Final Rule.” The rule allows patients to access hospital pricing information easily so that they have an idea of potential charges prior to receiving a bill and thus can shop for lower cost services.

Under the rule, hospitals are required to publish negotiated rates, gross charges, and discounted cash prices in a public, online format. The data must be free, in an easily accessible format, include a description of each item or service, and be updated yearly. Furthermore, hospitals must create a minimum of 300 “shoppable” healthcare services and display them in a consumer-friendly manner. Shoppable services are services that are often offered by multiple providers, so patients can research ahead of time and compare these services among various providers and make informed decisions on quality and cost. The goal is that as consumers have more price transparency and are more able to shop for their healthcare services, competition among hospitals and insurance providers will potentially increase and reduce healthcare costs as a result.

Hospitals oppose the transparency rule, claiming that it violates hospitals’ First Amendment rights and that CMS does not have the power to require hospitals to disclose their negotiated prices. Hospitals also claim the rule will increase administrative work, requiring more compliance costs. Although the American Hospital Association filed suit over the rule, a federal judge upheld it in June, concluding that CMS can mandate that hospitals reveal their negotiated prices. The AHA appealed the decision and oral arguments are scheduled for October 15.

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On October 6, 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released guidance giving hospitals until December 9, 2020 to comply with COVID-19 reporting requirements or risk termination from the Medicare and Medicaid Programs. CMS also released reporting requirements for influenza data, which are currently optional but which CMS plans to make mandatory in the coming weeks.

The COVID-19 reporting requirements were initially published in guidance by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on July 29, 2020 and were incorporated into a Final Rule on September 2, 2020. Hospitals are required to report, on a daily basis, several data elements relating to their COVID-19 response. These data points include inpatient bed and ICU bed capacity and occupancy, total number of ventilator and total number of ventilators in use, total suspected or confirmed positive COVID-19 patients, numbers of COVID-19 patients receiving certain treatments, emergency department overflow, and the previous day’s COVID-19 deaths. CMS indicates this information is used to coordinate the federal response to the virus.

Beginning October 7, 2020, hospitals that are not in compliance with the reporting requirements or that are not reporting currently began receiving notifications from CMS. These letters gave hospitals three weeks to bring their reporting into compliance. Hospitals that do not come into compliance will continue to receive a series of enforcement letters. On December 9, 2020, hospitals that have been out of compliance with the reporting requirements for 14 weeks (beginning September 2, 2020, the release of the Final Rule) will be sent by CMS a letter terminating them from the Medicare and Medicaid programs. The termination will be effective within 30 days of the date of the notification of termination. Any terminated hospital will have the right to appeal, the ability come into compliance to avoid termination, and the opportunity to avail themselves of a 30-day reasonable assurance period under 42 CFR § 489.57. CMS indicates that the 14-week compliance window only applies to current enforcement. Future enforcement actions related to these reporting requirements will be subject to a shorter process.

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At the beginning of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (“COVID-19”) pandemic, Congress created the Provider Relief Fund (“PRF”) through the CARES Act in order to help providers who were financially impacted by COVID-19. In total, Congress approved $175 million for the PRF, to be distributed by the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”). Up until October 1, 2020, there were two phases for general funding, and multiple targeted allocations. The Phase 1 General Distribution allocated $30 billion to eligible providers, and the Phase 2 General Distribution allocated $20 billion to eligible providers. In addition to those general distribution, HHS also provided several targeted allocations, including to areas which were highly impacted by COVID-19, rural healthcare providers, and skilled nursing facilities

On October 1, 2020, HHS announced it would be allocating an additional $20 billion as its Phase 3 General Distribution. This Phase 3 General Distribution is intended for providers who were either excluded from the initial two phases, or who were eligible under the first two phases but require additional funding to cover ongoing financial losses accrued during the pandemic. The application period for this funding opened on October 5, 2020 and will end on November 6, 2020. HHS urges providers to apply as soon as possible. The applications are accepted on a rolling basis, so HHS asks that providers not apply the last day or week that the application period is open.

The following providers are eligible for Phase 3 General Distribution funding: (1) Providers who have previously received, rejected or accepted a General Distribution PRF payment; (2) behavioral health providers, including those that have previously received funding; and (3) healthcare providers that began practicing January 1, 2020 through March 31, 2020. All providers who receive payments must attest to receiving the payment and accept the associated Terms and Conditions.

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The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released the proposed Outpatient Prospective Payment System (OPPS) 2021 Rule on August 4th 2020. CMS uses the OPPS to decide the amount a hospital will receive for outpatient care for Medicare beneficiaries. Prior to the OPPS, payments for Medicare outpatient services were calculated using hospitals’ costs. Now, using the OPPS, payments for healthcare services are based on certain relative weights, a conversion factor, and geographic and input price adjustments. The goal of the proposed rule is to increase the opportunities for patient choice in healthcare, allow patients to be more active consumers in their healthcare, strengthen the power and success of Medicare, and decrease the burdens on providers. CMS is expected to release the final rule in December. The public comment period ended on October 5th 2020. The key changes in the proposed rule include:

  • Increasing Healthcare Options for Beneficiaries: One important change in the proposed rule is the complete removal of the Inpatient Only list (IPO) by 2024. Traditionally, the procedures and services on this list are only offered in the inpatient setting and thus not paid for under The Outpatient Prospective Payment System. The removal of the IPO would make about 300 services eligible to be paid for by Medicare in hospital outpatient situations. This change would also increase the amount of procedures that would be covered by Medicare in Ambulatory Surgical Centers (ASCs), offering patients more choice in deciding where to receive care and reducing any bias in CMS payment policies that might favor a certain type of care location compared to another.
  • 2021 OPPS Payment Methodology: Participating hospitals and certain healthcare providers can purchase specific Medicare covered outpatient medications at discounted prices under Section 340B of the Public Health Service Act (340B). In the 2018 OPPS final rule, a policy was adopted that Medicare would pay an adjusted Average Sale Price (ASP) minus 22.5% for specific drugs that are payable separately or biologicals obtained through 340B. The 2021 OPPS updates would change this to a proposed rate of ASP minus 28.7% for the same drugs and biologicals.
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Payment for the Medicare home health benefit depends on a series of complex criteria that must be supported by documentation in the medical record, including a face-to-face encounter, homebound status, and need for skilled services. The requirements for home health documentation change frequently and give rise to some of the common pitfalls in home health audits.

First, the face-to-face encounter requirement requires that a qualified provider, usually the certifying physician, have an encounter with the beneficiary within a certain timeframe, for reasons related to the reason that the beneficiary requires home health, and properly document the beneficiary’s need for home health. Until 2015, the qualified provider was required to include a “brief narrative” supporting the need for home health. This requirement has since been dropped in favor of a more holistic review of the medical record, and the signature and organizational requirements have changed as well in recent years.

Second, the documentation must support that the beneficiary is homebound. Homebound status turns on a complex test. To qualify for homebound status, the beneficiary must: (1) because of illness or injury, need the aid of supportive devices, special transportation, or another person in order to leave their residence or have a condition such that leaving home is medically contraindicated; and (2) exhibit a normal inability to leave home and leaving home must require a considerable and taxing effort. Over time, CMS has adjusted language to tighten these requirements. Certain infrequent absences from the home, such as for religious services or doctor’s appointments, will not disqualify a beneficiary.

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On Wednesday, September 30, 2020, the Senate passed the bipartisan government funding bill that will relax Medicare loan repayments in the wake of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (“COVID-19”) pandemic. The House passed this bill the week prior to the Senate vote, and the President signed the bill into law the very same day that the Senate approved the bill.

Providers who initially received a loan through the CARES Act Advanced and Accelerated Payment Program (“AAP”) will now have one year from when the loan was issued before recoupment will begin. This gives providers much more time to repay these loans, as opposed to the initial 120-day recoupment period that was previously intact. Furthermore, the extension speaks to the AAP’s intent—AAP loans were meant to keep Medicare-reimbursed providers financially stable during the nationwide pandemic, which is still ongoing.

In addition to the recoupment period being extended, the recoupment rate will also be lowered. Initially, it would have been 100% recoupment until the loan was repaid. Moving forward, after the one year passes and recoupment begins, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) will recoup 25% for the first 11 months and then 50% for the following 6 months. Lastly, the interest rate on the AAP loans has been lowered from 9.6% to 4%.

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