Articles Posted in Medicare

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On August 11, 2017, a further development came in the Medicare appeals backlog saga, as the D.C. Circuit Court reached a decision on the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS’) appeal to the case American Hospital Association (AHA) v Burwell. The decision (“Appeal Decision”) handed down last week was decidedly pro-HHS, and is a setback for the AHA and healthcare providers with appeals pending at the administrative law judge (ALJ) level. The Appeal Decision has the potential to completely undo any progress created by the original December decision.

The Circuit Court came to a 2-1 decision, ordering the District Court to reconsider its mandate that HHS completely eliminate the Medicare appeal backlog by the end of 2020. The Circuit Court based its decision on the idea that the District Court decision had the potential of mandating that HHS violate its legal duty to only pay out legitimate Medicare claims. HHS is required to “protect” the Medicare trust fund, and in the process taxpayer dollars. However, HHS is also required by law to process ALJ appeals within 90 days, a duty which has gone unmet for years and was the basis of the District Court’s decision.

The AHA filed its initial suit in 2014, and after being initially dismissed, the AHA received a favorable decision in December 2016, a decision that is now in jeopardy of being undone. The December decision dictated certain yearly “targets” for HHS and the Center of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to meet regarding decreases to the number of backlogged appeals at the ALJ level. HHS objected to these benchmarks, and in fact to any mandated reduction, based on several arguments, including that the backlog cannot be eliminated without arbitrary settlements regardless of the actual merits of the claims.

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In July 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG) revealed its plans to review the $14.6 billion in incentive payments the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) made to hospitals between January 1, 2011 and December 31, 2016, pursuant to Medicare’s electronic health record (EHR) technology program. The OIG plans to review these payments in order to identify errors and inaccuracies which may have resulted in overpayments to hospitals

This announcement comes less than a month after the June report from the OIG, titled “Medicare Paid Hundreds of Millions in Electronic Health Record Incentive Payments That Did Not Comply with Federal Requirements (the “Report”) (an official OIG summary is available here). The Report was based upon a review of EHR Incentive Program payments made to 100 professionals, which found 14 improper payments in the amount of $291,222. Extrapolating these results, the OIG estimated a total of $729.4 million in improper payments to the over 250,000 EHR incentive eligible providers in the CMS system. According to the OIG, the $729 million figure is roughly 12% of the total payments made in connection with the EHR incentive program. A majority of the 14 improper payments discovered during the OIG’s review were based on providers failing to maintain accurate and detailed records—an issue which often arises with Medicare overpayments.

The OIG completed its report by making several recommendations to CMS:

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In early June 2017 the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued its second status report on the Medicare appeals backlog. The December 2016 case American Hospital Association v Burwell, in addition to dictating that HHS clear the backlog by 2020, required that HHS release a quarterly status report every 90 days to detail the progress being made toward eliminating the backlog.

The Burwell case was a significant victory for healthcare providers in their attempts to get the Medicare backlog reduced and have administrative law judge (ALJ) appeals processed within the statutory timeframes. In addition to status reports every 90 days and the complete elimination of the backlog by 2020, HHS is also required to observe several intermediary benchmarks: 30% reduction by the end of 2017, 60% by the end of 2018, 90% by the end of 2019, and then ultimately 100% elimination by the end of 2020.

However, despite these court mandated benchmarks, it has become clear to all parties involved that these goals are unlikely to be met without significant developments; HHS itself has maintained since the requirements were instituted that the elimination of the backlog would not be possible. This prediction is supported by the facts: HHS released its first status report in March, with the somber prediction that a backlog of 1,009,768 appeals would be pending by the end of 2021. June’s report saw a slightly improved projection of 950,520 claims remaining by that time, but this projection is still very far from meeting the court order.

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On September 28, 2016, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) announced that it intends to reopen the hospital inpatient status settlement that was initially released in 2014.  CMS’ announcement means that eligible providers will be able to to settle their inpatient status claims currently pending appeal.  While specific details of the settlement have yet to be released, if the upcoming program has terms similar to CMS’ 2014 68% settlement, it may provide a viable opportunity for eligible providers to resolve their pending appeals without enduring the delay for an administrative law judge (ALJ) hearing due to the appeals backlog.

CMS’ decision to reopen the settlement is the result of the efforts from several actors including the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA), American Hospital Association, RAC Monitor, Steven Greenspan of Optum Executive Health Resources, and Wachler & Associates, P.C.  Specifically, OMHA participated in communications with CMS and supported the proposal for CMS to reopen the 68% settlement.  In addition, the American Hospital Association’s (“AHA”) lawsuit challenging the excessive appeals backlog that has resulted in delays of over two years past the statutory requirement is likely an important factor in CMS’ decision to reopen the appeals backlog.

Furthermore, the combined efforts of RAC Monitor, Steven Greenspan, and Andrew Wachler of Wachler & Associates, P.C. also likely aided in the reopening.  RAC Monitor provided a platform for Steven Greenspan and Andrew Wachler to present the concept of reopening the appeals settlement to RAC Monitor listeners and RAC Monitor listeners responded in full force.  Through these combined efforts, it is hoped that the reopened appeals settlement will help to clear the appeals backlog of the approximately 200,000 inpatient site of service pending of appeals.  Although this solution will not completely eliminate the backlog, it can assist hospitals that chose not to participate in the original settlement and hopefully help other non-eligible providers move through the appeals process at a slightly more efficient rate.

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September 19th saw the Washington D.C. District Court (the Court) pass down a decidedly pro-Medicare provider decision, ultimately holding that the Department for Health and Human Services (HHS) would not be granted a stay of proceedings as they had yet to make significant progress in reducing the Medicare appeals backlog. The case is American Hospital Association (AHA) v. Burwell (acting in her official capacity as HHS Secretary), and it was before the Court for the second time following an Order of Remand by the D.C. Circuit in February of 2016.

The Court’s September 19th decision came as a response to Secretary Burwell (the “Secretary”)’s motion to stay proceedings on remand. The motion was based on the Secretary’s claim that significant progress had been made toward reducing the Medicare appeals backlog. A decision in the Secretary’s favor would have suspended the case until the last day of September, 2017. However, the Court rejected the purported progress by HHS, finding that more extreme measures had to be taken, ultimately concluding the stay in proceedings was not warranted.

The Secretary’s motion for a stay was heavily supplemented with examples of the efforts the government has been taking to reduce the appeals backlog. The Secretary cited administrative actions such as efforts to promote settlements, changes to the administrative appeals process, front-end limitations on provider activity and changes to the Recovery Audit Contractor (“RAC”) Program. Two specific programs mentioned were CMS’ 68% settlement, which resolved 260,000 inpatient hospital claims; and the settlement conference facilitation program, which is projected to reduce the number of appeals pending by 27,000 by the end of the 2020 fiscal year.

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On July 12, 2016, Noridian Healthcare Solutions announced a new policy on denial of related claims, termed “Cross Recovery.”  Noridian purports that this policy will help it to fulfill its obligations to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) by assuring that all Medicare claims are for medically necessary and reasonable services. Whatever the motivation behind Cross Recovery is, it reawakens the specter of related claim denials for Medicare providers, and is a development which should be watched closely in the coming months.

Noridian’s new program comes in the wake of several previously released CMS transmittals regarding the denial of related claims. Though later rescinded, CMS originally introduced a policy which broadly allowed MACs to deny related claims when issuing an adverse determination of an original claim. After receiving feedback from the provider community regarding concerns about the policy, CMS narrowed the scope of “related claims” power to only Part B surgery claims via Transmittal 541. Transmittal 541 allowed for such Part B surgeon services to be recouped following a denial of a Part A inpatient surgical claim as not reasonable and necessary. However, since the issuing of Transmittal 541, MACs have only very rarely invoked their discretion to deny such Part B surgical claims on Transmittal 541 grounds. Noridian’s new Cross Recovery policy may change this trend, and it is yet to be seen whether other MACs will take the opportunity to expand their own related claim denials.

Noridian’s statement (as linked above) was very brief, but significant. The statement cites section 3.2.3(A.) of CMS’ Internet Only Manual 100-008 Chapter 3, which states in relevant part that “MAC[s] and ZPIC[s] have the discretion to deny other “related” claims submitted before or after the claim in question, subject to CMS approval [.]” Noridian announced that it has received such CMS approval to “Cross Recover” professional claims related to denied institutional facet injection services (CPT codes: 64493— 64495; 64635—64636).

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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.