Articles Posted in Medicare

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In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) created separate payments for audio-only telephone evaluation and management (E/M) services. E/M billing codes apply to medical services related to evaluating and managing a patient, such as, hospital visits, preventive services, and office visits. Coding for E/M services can be complicated because many variables are involved in selecting the proper code. For example, the type and complexity of history, examination, and decision making, as well as time spent with the patient are often factors to be considered. Audio-only telephone E/M services were not previously covered by Medicare under the physician fee schedule (PFS). However, beginning with the March 2020 Interim Final Rule with Comment (IFC), CMS found these types of visits to be clinically appropriate and began to cover certain audio-only codes. CMS further expanded the list of covered audio-only codes in the April 2020 IFC.

CMS soon found that audio-only health services became far more popular than CMS expected, and many beneficiaries were not using video technology to communicate from their homes. Since the new E/M codes were established, providers were seeing beneficiaries for more complex evaluation and management services using audio-only technology, when they would normally utilize telehealth video or in-person visits to evaluate the patient. According to CMS, the intensity and complexity of providing an audio-only visit to a beneficiary during the unique circumstances of the COVID-19 PHE was not properly valued as established in the March 2020 IFC. This was especially true when considering these audio-only services were often being used as a complete substitute for office/outpatient Medicare video telehealth visits. Therefore, CMS established new RVUs based on E/M codes in existence prior to the PHE and the time requirements necessary for telephone service-related codes. Because these audio-only visits were being used in replacement of office/outpatient E/M visits, they should be considered telehealth services and added to the Medicare telehealth service list while the PHE is ongoing.

In the CY 2021 PFS proposed rule, CMS elected not to continue covering the audio-only codes when the PHE ends. This is because, outside the circumstances of the COVID-19 PHE, telehealth services generally must be provided using interactive, two-way audio and video technology. Commenters on the proposed rule broadly supported maintaining payment for audio-only provided services. Commenters stated that many beneficiaries may not have access to two-way audio and video technology and that continuing to pay for these E/M services will help vulnerable populations and those with less access to quality healthcare. However, CMS declined to finalize payment of these E/M codes beyond the PHE. The Social Security Act requires telehealth services to be furnished using a telecommunications system. CMS maintains that there is a longstanding policy of interpreting “telecommunications system” to include technology that allows the telehealth visit to be analogous to an in-person visit. Outside the COVID-19 PHE, CMS continues to believe that the longstanding interpretation of telecommunications system excludes the use of audio-only technology for Medicare telehealth services. The PHE declaration must be renewed in 90-day increments and is currently slated to end April 20, 2021. However, HHS and the Biden administration have signaled that they are likely to repeatedly renew the PHE through at least the end of 2021, thereby allowing Medicare telehealth waivers to continue until the end of the year.

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On March 15, 2021, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced it will increase the amount Medicare pays providers for administering the COVID-19 vaccine. For vaccines administered on or after March 15, 2021, the new national average payment rate for physicians, pharmacies, hospitals, and other providers who administer the vaccine of $40 per single-dose vaccine and $80 per two-dose vaccine. The exact payment rates will be based on the type of provider offering the vaccine and will be adjusted based on the location of the provider. For vaccines administered prior to March 15, 2021, Medicare rates will remain $28.39 per single-dose vaccine and $45.33 for both doses of a two-dose vaccine.

These changes in Medicare payment rates are based on new information regarding the costs of vaccine administration for different types of providers and more resources needed to safely administer the vaccine. The goal of CMS is to increase the number of providers offering the vaccine and further emphasize that no beneficiary, whether a beneficiary with private insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid, should pay cost-sharing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The new payment rate is effective for COVID-19 vaccines given on or after March 15, 2021.

In order to receive COVID-19 vaccines at no cost from the federal government, providers cannot charge patients for administration of the vaccine. Providers that receive federally purchased vaccines during the public health emergency must contractually agree to administer COVID-19 vaccines to patients regardless of their ability to pay; Providers are therefore prohibited from charging a patient any amount for administration of the vaccine, including a copay, coinsurance, or deductible, including seeking reimbursement from patients, such as balance billing. CMS provides payment information for various programs, to ensure consistent coverage across payers, such as:

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Imagine a physician wants to rent office space from another physician, but the two refer patients to each other. Or a clinical laboratory wants to contract with a marketer to promote their products. Three of the largest compliance concerns when structuring such an arrangement are the Stark Law, also known as the Physician Self-Referral Law, the Anti-Kickback Statute, often referred to as the AKS, and the Eliminating Kickbacks in Recovery Act, or EKRA. All three regulate referrals and can carry stiff penalties, sometimes criminal penalties. However, each also contains a series of exceptions or safe harbors into which some business structures may fit. Even simple arrangements between healthcare entities can involve complex analysis to comply with these statutes.

The Stark Law, 42 U.S.C. 1395nn, prohibits physicians from referring patients to receive “designated health services” payable by Medicare or Medicaid from entities with which the physician or an immediate family member has a financial relationship, unless an exception applies. Financial relationships include both compensation and ownership or investment interests. Designated health services include clinical laboratory services, PT and OT, DME, some imaging services, and several other services. Some of the most common exceptions to the Stark law include the in-office ancillary exception, fair market value compensation, and bona fide employment relationships. CMS has also recently implemented exceptions related to value-based arrangements.

The AKS, 42 U.S.C. 1320a-7b(b), is a criminal statute that prohibits the knowing and willful payment of “remuneration” to induce or reward patient referrals or the generation of business involving any item or service payable by federal health care programs. Remuneration means far more than cash payments and includes anything of value. If the AKS applies, conduct may still be lawful if it falls into one of several “safe harbors.” Some of the most common safe harbors are the investment interest safe harbor, specific types of rental agreements for office space or equipment, and contracts for personal services that meet certain criteria. Like the Stark Law, CMS has also implemented safe harbors for certain value-based arrangements.

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A revocation of Medicare billing privileges can have devastating impacts on a healthcare provider. Not only does a revocation render the provider unable to bill the Medicare program for a period of time, but it can have wide-ranging impacts on a provider’s practical ability to operate or to practice in their chosen field.

Medicare billing privileges can be revoked for twenty-two enumerated reasons, including non-compliance with Medicare enrollment requirements, felony convictions, and failure to respond to requests for medical records. A recent expansion of CMS’s revocation authority also updated the ability to revoke a provider for an “abuse of billing privileges” to include a pattern or practice of submitting claims that do not meet Medicare requirements. In some cases, the Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) gathers the information and determines to revoke a provider. In other cases, the MAC forwards the information to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and CMS makes the revocation determination. The revocation may be based on a prior interaction with the MAC or CMS, such as a prior audit of the provider. The provider may not necessarily be told during this interaction that it can lead to a revocation of billing privileges.

When CMS or a MAC revokes billing privileges, they will set a reenrollment bar, which dictates how long a provider must wait before it can reapply for Medicare billing privileges. CMS recently expanded its authority to set the reenrollment bar. In general, reenrollment bars may now be set between 1 and 10 years, depending on the circumstances, although certain provisions allow for longer bars. CMS may also decide to place a revoked provider on the CMS Preclusion List. The Preclusion List labels the provider a “bad actor” and cuts off their ability to bill Medicare Part C and Part D. A Medicare revocation or placement on the Preclusion List may also impact contracts outside the Medicare program. For example, commercial carriers may terminate participation agreements with a provider based on a Medicare revocation or placement on the Preclusion List.

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Many Medicare practitioners, providers, and suppliers do not directly bill for the services they supply and similarly do not directly receive reimbursement. Billing and reimbursement may occur through an employment or independent contractor relationship, through a billing company, or through another arrangement. However, each of these arrangements must comply with the Medicare assignment of payment rules that dictate how and to whom the practitioner, provider, or supplier may assign their right to receive reimbursement from Medicare.

The general rule is that Medicare will pay assigned benefits only to the physician, practitioner, or supplier who furnished the service, and not to another person or entity. To reassign payment to another person or entity, an arrangement must meet one of several enumerated exceptions. The most common exceptions are:

Payment to Agent: Medicare may make payment, in the name of the provider, to an agent who furnishes billing or collection services. In general, the agent or billing company may not have a financial interest in the dollar amount billed or the actual collection of payment, and the agent must act under payment disposition instructions which the provider may modify or revoke at any time. Different provisions may apply if the agent merely prepares bills and does not receive payment for the provider or supplier.

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Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) reviews are a popular audit tool for Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) to assess a healthcare provider or supplier’s compliance with Medicare billing requirements. 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.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) initially introduced TPE reviews as a pilot program in only a few jurisdictions. In 2017, CMS expanded the program nationwide and has continued to update and refine the program since its introduction.

A provider who is placed on a TPE review will first receive a Notice of Review letter. This letter will describe the reason that the provider has been placed on TPE review and will provide a brief outline of the process. This letter will not request medical records but will generally indicate that medical records requests will be forthcoming. This letter will likely warn that, if a provider/supplier fails to improve the accuracy of its claims after three rounds, the MAC will refer the provider/supplier to CMS for additional action, such as prepayment review, extrapolation of overpayments, referral to a RAC, or other disciplinary action. Providers should be aware that a TPE can lead to revocation of Medicare billing privileges and placement on the CMS Preclusion List.

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On January 14, 2021, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a final rule codifying a definition for “reasonable and necessary” coverage under Medicare Part A and Part B. CMS hopes codifying the meaning of “reasonable and necessary” will provide clarity and consistency to the current process of coverage determination for items and services under Part A and Part B. The final rule takes effect on March 15, 2021.

The definition of “reasonable and necessary” has three components: an item or service is required to be 1) safe and effective, 2) not experimental or investigational, and 3) appropriate for Medicare patients. Whether an item or service is appropriate for Medicare patients will be based on the duration and frequency deemed appropriate for the item or service and whether the item or service:

  • Is provided in accordance with accepted standards of medical practice
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On January 15, 2021, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) finalized the agency’s “CMS Interoperability and Prior Authorization” rule to improve the prior authorization process and give patients more control in accessing and understanding their health data. Under the rule, certain payers, such as Medicaid and CHIP managed care plans, state Medicaid and CHIP fee-for-service programs (FFS) and those that issue individual market Qualified Health Plans (QHPs) on the federally-facilitated exchanges (FFEs)) must create and utilize technology known as application programing interfaces (APIs). APIs are commonly used in smartphone applications, and when incorporated into electronic health records (EHR), can enable simple and immediate access to health data for providers.

Each payer obligated under this rule must build a documentation search program driven by an API, and make the program public, allowing providers to access health documentation and prior authorization requirements from various EHR platforms. Once a provider determines what each prior authorization requires, the authorization can then be submitted electronically. Moreover, the payers are required to implement, under the already established Patient Access API, laboratory results and other claims and encounter data, as well as information regarding a patient’s pending and active prior authorizations.

Payers must also communicate this data with a patient’s provider if asked, and with other payers, should a patient’s coverage or provider change. This will allow patients, providers, and payers to have all the necessary data when needed, automating the process and reducing the administrative burden on providers. As a result, providers will be less likely to work with incomplete health information and the likelihood of repeat prior authorization requests will decrease, resulting in more time the provider has to spend with the patient. Notably, Medicare Advantage plans are not included in this new rule and not subject to its requirements; however, CMS is continuing to consider whether Medicare Advantage plans should be included.

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On January 15, 2021, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) finalized a rule to help strengthen and streamline the Medicare Advantage and Part D prescription drug programs, with the goal to decrease enrollee cost sharing on expensive prescription drugs. Effective for the 2022 plan year, enrollees will be able to have advance notice and thus compare out-of-pocket costs for various prescription drugs. CMS estimates the final rule will result in $75.4 million in savings to the federal government over ten years.

According to CMS, the rule will provide drug cost transparency regarding out-of-pocket costs, especially for senior citizens, who may be unaware of prescription drug prices, changes in pricing, and on a fixed income. Additionally, Part D plans will have more power to negotiate lower prescription drug prices with drug manufacturers. Under the final rule, Part D plans must offer a real time benefit comparison tool for enrollees to receive information about lower cost alternatives under their plan. Using the tool, which must be offered by Part D plans by January 1, 2023, enrollees can compare cost sharing to find the best priced prescription drugs based on their health requirements. For example, if an enrollee’s provider recommends a certain prescription drug, the enrollee can search and see what the co-pay would be, and see if any similar drugs are more cost effective, allowing the individual to know exactly what he or she will pay before reaching the pharmacy.

Currently, in the Medicare Part D program, enrollees select the plan that best suits their health needs. Plans typically categorize prescription drugs into different tiers. All prescription drugs that fall into a plan’s specialty tier, the tier with the most expensive drugs, have equivalent cost sharing. With the final rule, Part D plans will have the ability to create a “preferred”, specialty tier of more expensive prescription drugs, that have lower cost sharing compared to the other specialty tier. This change will allow Part D plans to negotiate lower prices on the more expensive drugs, resulting in reduced out-of-pocket expenses for enrollees, if the plan categorizes these drugs on the “preferred” specialty tier.

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On January 12, 2021, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued sweeping new directives regarding the procedures the Department will follow when relying on guidance documents, initiating enforcement actions, making jurisdictional determinations, and allowing prior notice and opportunity to be heard on agency determinations. These directives apply to civil and administrative enforcement proceedings and adjudications and take effect immediately.

First, HHS directed that the Department may not use guidance documents to impose binding requirements or prohibitions on persons outside of the executive branch except as authorized by law or expressly incorporated into a contract. That is, noncompliance with a standard or practice found only in a guidance document will not constitute a violation of the applicable statute or regulation. Further, the Department may refer to a guidance document in a civil enforcement action only if it has notified the public of the guidance in advance.

Second, HHS directed that the Department will only apply standards and practices, including in initiating a civil enforcement action or making an agency decision, that have been publicly stated in a way that would not cause unfair surprise. Of note, HHS defined “unfair surprise” to include when the Department initiates litigation following a lengthy period of conspicuous inaction.

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