Articles Posted in Medicare

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Two similar and inter-related, but sometimes misunderstood, terms in healthcare law are “in office ancillary” and “incident to.” While both may apply to the same circumstances, they are distinct concepts and should be understood separately.

“In Office Ancillary” services are an exception to the Physician Self-Referral Law, often referred to as the Stark Law. The Stark Law prohibits “physicians” (generally including MDs, DOs, dentists, optometrists, and chiropractors) 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. Generally, under the “in office ancillary” exception, the Stark law does not apply to services that (1) are performed by the referring physician, another physician in the same group practice, or an individual supervised by the referring physicians or another physician in the same group practice; (2) are performed in the same building as the referring physician or their group practice offers services or in another centralized location; and (3) are billed by the performing physician, the supervising physician, or their group practice.

On the other hand, “incident to” is a billing term. Services and supplies billed “incident to” a physician’s professional services are furnished by auxiliary personnel as an integral, although incidental, part of the physician’s personal professional services. Generally, services and supplies commonly furnished in physicians’ offices are covered under the “incident to” provisions. However, to bill services provided by auxiliary personal as “incident to” the physician’s services, among other requirements, the physician must directly supervise the auxiliary personnel. That is, the physician must be present in the same office suite and immediately available to provide assistance and direction while the auxiliary personnel is performing services.

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Effective June 8, 2021, Medicare will pay an additional $35 per dose for administering the COVID-19 vaccine in the home for certain Medicare patients that have difficulties leaving their homes or are hard-to-reach. This $35 dollar payment is in addition to the standard payment for vaccine administration, which varies based on location but is approximately $40 per dose. The additional payment also applies to each dose of a two-dose vaccine if both doses are administered in the home. To be eligible for the at-home additional payment, both the location and the beneficiaries must be certain criteria.

Private residences, temporary lodging, apartments, most units in an assisted living facility (ALF) or group home, and the homes of Medicare beneficiaries have been made provider-based to a hospital during the COVID-19 public health emergency generally qualify as location eligible for the at-home additional payment. However, hospitals, skilled nursing facilities (SNFs), some ALFs, and the communal spaces of apartment buildings or group homes do not qualify for the at-home additional payment.

In addition, to an eligible location, the Medicare beneficiaries must also meet certain criteria. Specifically:

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the Medicare requirements surrounding telemedicine have been greatly relaxed or waived entirely. These temporary waivers, including allowing Medicare coverage of certain audio-only services, have been welcome changes for many providers and patients. With the end of the pandemic in sight, many are wondering if these changes will end or if some of the temporary waivers will become permanent.

The COVID-19 telemedicine waivers were authorized under Section 1135 of the Social Security Act, which allows the Secretary of Health and Human Services to temporarily waive or modify certain Medicare requirements for the duration of a declared public health emergency. The telemedicine waivers include: allowing telehealth services to be provided nationwide, rather than only in certain locations; allowing beneficiaries to receive, and providers to furnish, telehealth services from any setting, including beneficiaries’ and providers’ homes; allowing additional types of providers, such as physical and occupational therapists, to furnish telehealth services; temporarily adding over 146 new telehealth services; and allowing certain services to be furnished using audio-only technology such as telephones, instead of interactive systems involving video technology. As the authority to issue waivers is based on the declaration of a public health emergency, these waivers will end when the declared public health emergency ends.

Likely in response to calls from both providers and patients to make the telemedicine waivers permanent, Congress recently introduced H.R.3447, a bill to amend the Social Security Act to expand accessibility to certain telehealth services under the Medicare program. While the bill in the early stages of the legislative process and will likely be subject to much debate and many changes, it is an encouraging sign that at least some of the telemedicine waivers may become permanent.

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Recently, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced another delay of the implementation of the new rule for Medicare Coverage of Innovative Technology (MCIT) and discussed several concerns it had with the new rule, raising doubts that CMS would ever implement the new rule without significant changes.

The new rule, as currently written, provides for four years of national Medicare coverage of innovative medical devices starting on the date of FDA market authorization or a manufacturer chosen date within two years thereafter. The rule was initially published by CMS on January 14, 2021 and was set to take effect in March 2021. However, shortly after the transition to the Biden Administration, CMS delayed the effective date until May 2021 as part of its general freeze of new regulations pending review. On May 14, 2021, CMS announced it would further delay the implementation of the new rule until December 15, 2021.

In the May 2021 announcement of the delay, CMS expressed its concerns with the new rule. Specially, CMS expressed concern that the rule establishes a four-year commitment to Medicare coverage for all breakthrough devices that have a benefit category without a specific requirement that the device demonstrates a health benefit in the Medicare population or that the benefits outweigh harms. CMS expressed a desire for more evidence of benefits to Medicare beneficiaries prior to Medicare coverage of a device.

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In May 2021, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) added several new items to its work plan. The OIG work plan sets forth various projects including OIG audits and evaluations that are underway or that OIG plans to address during the fiscal year and beyond. These are some of the highlights of the new additions to the work plan of which providers and suppliers should be aware.

First, OIG will audit payments made to healthcare providers under the general distributions of the Provider Relief Fund. This includes approximately $92 billion across all three phases of the general distributions. Provider who received these funds were required to meet certain requirements, such as submitting revenue information and supporting documentation to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), which used this information to determine eligibility and payments. OIG will perform a series of audits of funds related to the three phases of the General Distribution to determine whether payments were: (1) correctly calculated for providers that applied for these payments, (2) supported by appropriate and reasonable documentation, and (3) made to eligible providers.

Second, OIG will conduct a nationwide, three-part study of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on nursing homes. The first part will analyze the extent to which Medicare beneficiaries residing in nursing homes were diagnosed with COVID-19 and describe the characteristics of those who were at greater risk. The second part will describe the characteristics of the nursing homes that were hardest hit by the pandemic (i.e., homes with high numbers of beneficiaries who had COVID-19). The third part will describe the strategies nursing homes used to mitigate the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19.

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Appealing an overpayment demand can be a challenging task for healthcare providers. Whether the demand stems from claim denials or an audit, the appeals process can involve significant amounts of documentation; complex medical, legal, or coding issues; contract or regulatory review; attorneys; and independent experts. The process may also take months or years to resolve. While some providers with strong cases will likely benefit from pursuing the full appeals process, others may ask if there is a quicker and simpler way. Is it possible to settle the overpayment demand for less than the original demand? The answer often depends on the type of payor.

Commercial insurance plans are often the most likely to entertain the possibility of settlement. Commercial plans perform much the same cost/benefit analysis as any other business and, while it may vary greatly from case to case, may be willing to discuss a final settlement of an overpayment demand. However, it is often helpful for the provider to engage with the early levels of whatever appeal process is available, including submitting documentation and refuting the plan’s assertions and arguments, in order to strengthen the provider’s position.

Where Medicaid is the ultimate payor, a provider may find limited flexibility to discuss settlement. In these cases, the provider is likely dealing directly with a state agency or a state contractor. However, because much of the funding for state Medicaid programs is federal funding, state agencies and contractors are often required to answer to federal authorities regarding the use of Medicaid funds. This dynamic often restricts the state’s ability to resolve overpayments with the provider and requires them to fully litigate the alleged overpayment through the available appeals process.

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Federal regulations provide 22 distinct reasons that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) may use to revoke a healthcare provider’s or supplier’s Medicare billing privileges. Any revocation can have devastating impacts on a provider, but the grounds for revocation are often misunderstood. These are some of the most common reasons CMS will assert in revoking Medicare billing privileges.

Noncompliance: CMS may revoke a provider for noncompliance with Medicare enrollment requirements. This is somewhat of a catch-all and is often used when CMS or a contractor alleges technical issues with the myriad of requirements for a provider to maintain Medicare enrollment, such as issues with a provider’s surety bond, insurance policy, or business telephone lines. This reason for revocation is unique in two ways: the contractor often has authority to revoke without asking CMS to make the decision and the provider may have the opportunity to submit a Corrective Action Plan (CAP) demonstrating that they have addressed the issue.

Felony Convictions: CMS may revoke a provider when the provider or any of its owners or managers have been convicted in the last 10 years of any felony that CMS deems detrimental to the Medicare program or beneficiaries. This most often includes financial crimes such as insurance fraud or healthcare fraud but can include many others. A guilty plea or pretrial diversion program may still constitute a conviction. Moreover, even where a provider has previously disclosed the felony conviction, CMS may still use it as a reason to revoke. Where a provider is revoked for a felony, CMS will often make the revocation retroactive and back-date it to the date of the conviction.

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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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