Articles Posted in Medicare

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On August 3, 2023, the US Departments of the Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services (Departments) issued proposed rules under the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) to reduce barriers to access to mental health and substance use disorder treatment. The proposed rules emphasize the Departments’ focus on mental health parity and aligns with their overarching goal to better ensure that health plans afford access to mental health or substance use disorder benefits as easily as medical or surgical benefits.

By way of background, in 1996, the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996 was enacted by Congress, requiring parity in aggregate dollar and annual dollar limits for mental health benefits. In 2008, the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (MHPAEA) added additional requirements, expanding the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996. The MHPAEA requires group health plans and insurance issuers to ensure that financial requirements and treatment limitations are not more restrictive for mental health or substance use disorder benefits than medical or surgical benefits. The Consolidated Appropriations Act in 2021 further expanded the MHPAEA by requiring health plans that cover both medical or surgical benefits and mental health or substance use disorder benefits to conduct and document comparative analyses of non-quantitative treatment limitations (NQTL) for both types of benefits.

Although the Departments have issued a fair amount of sub-regulatory guidance regarding the NQTL comparative analysis requirement, the proposed regulations are the first formal regulatory guidance they have issued in about ten years. Recently, audits by the Departments of health plans have directed their focus to MHPAEA compliance. Plan sponsors have expressed frustration with the lack of guidance and varying applications of the existing guidance, complaining that the Departments’ requests are not supported by law, not practical in application, and contradictory.

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On July 21, 2023, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced a new payment model for providers furnishing dementia care, called Guiding an Improved Dementia Experience (GUIDE). A wide range of Medicare Part-B providers and suppliers are eligible to participate, with the exception of durable medical equipment and laboratory suppliers. The model is a comprehensive package of person-centered assessments, care plans, and care coordination. Additionally, this new payment model aims to further enhance the quality of life for people living with dementia by improving dementia care, reducing strain on unpaid caregivers, and helping people with dementia remain in their homes and communities.

GUIDE’s approach to dementia care takes into account staffing considerations, quality standards, and services for beneficiaries and unpaid caregivers. Under the GUIDE model, beneficiaries are required to be screened for psychological and health-related social needs. As a GUIDE participant, providers are required to establish and maintain an interdisciplinary team consisting of a care navigator and a clinician, with the option of including additional members. The care navigator must have training in care planning and dementia assessment while the clinician is required to have dementia proficiency through experience caring for patients 65 years or older and for adults with cognitive impairment. GUIDE participants are required to provide support services alongside caregiver training.

There are two options for providers considering implementing GUIDE:

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On July 13, 2023, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service (CMS) released the Calendar Year 2024 Physician Fee Schedule Proposed Rule, proposing to extend remote supervision. The proposed rule continues to define “direct supervision” by allowing supervising physicians and practitioners the ability to continue “direct supervision” through real-time audio and visual interactive telecommunications through December 21, 2024.

Typically, to be payable under Medicare Part B, specific types of services must be provided under certain levels of “direct supervision” by a practitioner or physician. These services often include many diagnostic tests and other services furnished by auxiliary personnel incident to the services of the billing physician. “Direct supervision” usually requires the “immediate availability” of a supervising professional — both in-person and physical availability. However, during the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE), CMS allowed flexibility in what constituted “direct supervision” by allowing “immediate availability” to include virtual presence using two-way, real-time audio or video technology, instead of requiring physical presence. This policy allowing remote direct supervision was originally set to expire at the end of 2023.

However, due to the increased reliance on virtual direct supervision by physicians and beneficiaries alike, CMS expressed several concerns regarding the expiration of the policy. In its proposed rule, CMS noted that, despite the new patterns of virtual direct supervision that were established and often maintained during the PHE, evidence showing that patient safety is compromised by virtual direct representation is entirely absent. Moreover, telehealth services have overall allowed individuals in rural and undeserved areas to have improved access to care. Expiration of this policy could create substantial barriers to access of many healthcare services, including those furnished incident-to a physician’s service.

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The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently announced the start of a new skilled nursing facility (SNF) 5 Claim Probe & Educate Review Program (SNF P&E Program). In an effort to reduce the SNF improper payment rate, Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) will review a small sample of claims from every Medicare-enrolled SNF in the country that submitted claims for services furnished after October 1, 2019. CMS has stated that each SNF will then be offered education to address any errors identified, with the purpose of helping them avoid future claim denials and adjustments. Claims containing a COVID-19 diagnosis will be excluded from the Program’s review.

The SNF P&E Program is being implemented primarily because, according to the Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) program, SNF service errors have roughly doubled from 2021 to 2022 and were determined to be the top driver of the overall Medicare Fee-for-Service improper payment rate. CMS maintains that part of the reason for the significant improper payment rate may be misunderstanding by SNFs regarding appropriate billing methods given the shift from the Resource Utilization Group (RUG) IV to the patient driven payment model (PDPM) for claims with dates of service on or after October 1, 2019. The stated goal of the SNF P&E Program, according to CMS, is to assist SNFs in understanding how to bill appropriately under this new payment model and decrease the improper payment rate.

Under the SNF P&E Program, similar to the current Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) medical review program, SNFs will receive one on one provider education at the completion of a small sample of claim reviews. However, instead of the 1-3 rounds of review a provider receives through TPE, each SNF will undergo only 1 round of review. Under this single round, MACs will review 5 claims from each SNF, and then education will be individually provided based on any claim review errors identified in the probe. Review results letters will detail the denial rationales for each claim, as appropriate.

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The many ways in which a provider might be removed from the Medicare program are often a source of confusion and consternation for Medicare-enrolled healthcare providers and suppliers. Sometimes a Medicare revocation or suspension may occur unexpectedly and devastate a provider’s business. Sometimes a provider will voluntarily leave the Medicare program in an attempt to avoid inevitable sanctions. Each of these is a distinct mechanism and should be considered separately.

A revocation of Medicare billing privileges, commonly called a “Medicare revocation,” is a forced removal of a provider’s participation in and ability to bill the Medicare program. There are approximately two dozen grounds on which a provider’s billing privileges may be revoked, from noncompliance with Medicare program requirements (as simple as a missed signature on an insurance policy) up to abuse of billing privileges and patient harm. A revocation may be retroactive and take effect sometime in the past, before the provider is notified, or it may take effect sometime in the future, such as 30 days after the provider is notified. A Medicare revocation will be accompanied by a reenrollment bar of one to twenty years and often placement on the CMS Preclusion List. A Medicare revocation is subject to an appeals process, but most of the process is stacked heavily against the provider and it is important for the provider to be active in their response as early in the process as possible.

A suspension of Medicare billing privileges, commonly called a “Medicare suspension,” is a temporary suspension of a provider’s ability to bill the Medicare program. They are often imposed pursuant to a review or an audit where a Medicare contractor has alleged that the provider has committed some form of fraud. Suspensions are often imposed with immediate effect and sometimes without prior notice to the provider. Although suspensions are meant to be temporary, they are of undefined duration and often last for months without a specific end date, suffocating a provider’s business as effectively as a revocation. Medicare suspensions are technically subject to a truncated appeals process, but, although the suspension appeal process should still be pursued, the process is effectively meaningless and suspensions are generally best addressed through contesting the audit that supposedly identified fraudulent claims. However, it is worth noting that Medicare will often suspend a provider long before giving the provider the results of the underlying audit or the opportunity to appeal those results.

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The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) regularly performs risk and priority analyses of the various HHS programs and identifies areas of focus on a monthly basis. Amongst the items released in June, OIG has included: Nationwide Audits of Medicare Part C High-Risk Diagnosis Codes, Medicare Payments for Clinical Diagnostic Laboratory Tests in 2022, State Medicaid Agencies’ Perspectives of Managed Care Plans’ Referral of Fraud, and Audit of Selected, High-Risk Medicare Hospice General Inpatient Services. Providers should be prepared for the potential of increased audits and scrutiny based on these OIG projects.

Nationwide Audits of Medicare Part C High-Risk Diagnosis Codes have been deemed a work plan item due to the alleged risk of improper payment amounts as a result of miscoded diagnoses. Medicare Advantage (Medicare Part C) organizations are required by law to submit risk adjustment data to CMS, and payments to these organizations are based on this data. Miscoding of diagnoses can result in increased payments to Medicare Advantage organizations. OIG states it will be focusing its audit on diagnoses that it believes are high risk for being miscoded.

OIG has identified Medicare Payments for Clinical Diagnostic Laboratory Tests in 2022 as a work plan item in order to ensure compliance with the Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014 (PAMA). PAMA requires CMS to set payment rates for lab tests, which are based on current private health care market rates. PAMA also requires CMS to publish annual analyses of the top 25 tests based on Medicare Part B spending. OIG plans to review the published CMS data and issue its yearly report by 2024.

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The Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently released the Semiannual Report to Congress for the 6-month period ending from October 1, 2022, to March 21, 2023. The report can provide insight regarding OIG’s current focus and enforcement priorities. Currently, OIG appears to be focused on skilled nursing facilities, COVID-19 related enforcement, and cybersecurity. In the OIG’s report, the OIG presented OIG expected recoveries, criminal and civil actions, and other statistics, including accomplishments for the fiscal year 2023 to date.  Specifically, in its strategic plan, OIG focused on the following: 1)  combatting alleged fraud, waste, and abuse and holding alleged wrongdoers accountable; 2) promoting quality, safety, and value in HHS programs and for HHS beneficiaries; and 3) advancing excellence and innovation.

During this reporting period, the OIG issued 62 audit reports and 19 evaluation reports, with expected recoveries by audit work at $200.1 million and $277.2 million in questioned costs based on OIG’s findings of alleged violations, costs not supported by proper documentation, or unreasonable and unnecessary expenditures of funds. OIG also made 213 new audits and evaluation recommendations. Additionally, the OIG’s investigative work led to $892.3 million in expected investigative recoveries, 345 criminal actions, civil actions against 324 individuals and entities, and exclusions of 1,365 individuals and entities from Federal health care programs.

A top priority for the OIG was to improve nursing home care to better protect nursing home residents by understanding what drives nursing home performance, prioritizing quality of care and quality of life for residents, and establishing that the entities responsible for oversight both detect and remedy any problems quickly. Another goal of the OIG is to protect enrollees from prescription drug abuse and safeguard health care services for individuals suffering from substance abuse disorders.

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The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently announced that it is planning to launch a new iteration of PECOS in Summer 2023. Dubbed “PECOS 2.0”, the new provider system aims to make the Medicare enrollment and revalidation processes faster and more efficient.

According to CMS, PECOS 2.0 will modernize Medicare enrollment management and allow providers to accomplish more tasks electronically. Some of these changes include faster applications using pre-population information, one application to update multiple enrollments, faster and easier revalidation processes, and the ability to track application status in real-time. CMS has also stated that provider data and records in current PECOS will transfer to PECOS 2.0 seamlessly. Applications currently in progress can be continued in PECOS 2.0, and applications previously closed will be available but will include limited information. All records transferred from current PECOS to PECOS 2.0 will be noted as such to make them easily identifiable. Additionally, providers’ login credentials will not be affected, and providers will still be able to log in to PECOS 2.0 using their Identity & Access (I&A) username and password.

With PECOS 2.0, providers will gain the benefit of consolidated applications, which is a combined application that updates and handles multiple enrollments. Consolidated applications will make it easier for providers to submit changes across multiple similar enrollments and multiple Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs). When a provider submits a consolidated application that would normally require sending information to two different MACs, PECOS 2.0 will automatically separate the application and send the appropriate information to the relevant MACs. To ensure compliance with varying state requirements, PECOS 2.0 is also introducing a smart error process check which reviews and validates information for correctness as applications are completed. Moreover, there is no additional fee for consolidated applications. Whether providers choose to submit a consolidated application that covers multiple enrollments or an individual application for each enrollment, the fees will be the same and application fees will be automatically determined by each application.

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Under the Medicare Part C or Medicare Advantage (MA) program, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) contract with Medicare Advantage Organizations (MAOs), typically private insurance companies, that administer MA health plans to Medicare beneficiaries as an alternative to traditional Medicare. Enrollment in MA plan has steadily grown in the last several years, and currently roughly half of all Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled in an MA plan. Further, federal authorities recently accused MAOs of overcharging the Medicare program by millions of dollars. Increased scrutiny of MAOs could lead to more stringent review of claims submitted by providers and MAOs may take greater action against providers through overbearing audits in an effort to offset losses. In any event, providers can likely expect MA plans to increase their audit activity of healthcare providers.

Some of the most popular MA health plans are administered by Humana, UnitedHealthcare, Aetna, BlueCross BlueShield, and Cigna. Audits by MA plans differ from audits conducted by Medicare or those conducted pursuant to commercial insurance plans, but MA plans are governed primarily by the provider’s participation agreement with the MA plan. As part of a provider’s participation contract, MA plans generally have the right to audit a provider’s claims. MA plans may audit providers for a number of reasons, such as suspicions of alleged upcoding, overutilization, irregularities, or fraud and abuse. A provider’s contract with the MA plan will generally prescribe a limited lookback period that restricts how far back in time the plan can review claims for audit purposes. The contract will generally also prescribe the policies and procedures which the plan must follow when conducting audits. However, state laws may affect the extent to which MA plans can audit providers by providing for conflicting maximum lookback periods or imposing other limitations. Notably, health plans may use these audits to retroactively deny a number of claims, which may then be extrapolated over several years of service, resulting in significant alleged overpayments against the provider. This may further result in serious actions such as recoupment, mandatory prior authorization, or even removal from the MA plan’s network of providers. Additionally, certain adverse actions imposed by MA plans may serve as the basis for even further consequences from CMS, such as suspension or termination from the Medicare program. Given the rapid growth of MA plans, providers should be aware of their rights and responsibilities regarding the most common MA plan audits, as well as be proactive in their compliance efforts.

For over 35 years, Wachler & Associates has represented healthcare providers and suppliers nationwide in a variety of health law matters, and our attorneys can assist providers and suppliers in understanding new developments in healthcare law and regulation. If you or your healthcare entity has any questions pertaining to Medicare Advantage audits or healthcare compliance, please contact an experienced healthcare attorney at 248-544-0888 or wapc@wachler.com.

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Under the Medicare Advantage (MA) program, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) makes monthly payments to Medicare Advantage Organizations (MAOs), typically private insurance companies, according to a system of risk adjustment that depends on the health status of each enrollee. Accordingly, MAOs are paid more for providing benefits to enrollees with more severe diagnoses associated with more intensive uses of healthcare resources than to healthier enrollees who would be expected to require fewer resources. To determine the health status of enrollees, CMS relies on MAOs to collect diagnosis codes from their providers and submit these codes to CMS. While the MA plans conduct audits of the claims submitted to them by providers, CMS conducts audits of MAOs because some diagnosis codes are at higher risk for being miscoded, and MA audits that allegedly identify any improper coding may result in overpayment demands from CMS.

Since MAOs receive additional payments when they cover patients with more severe health conditions, this structure presents a potential for fraud and abuse whereby some MAOs may use additional diagnoses to attain high-risk scores, while not necessary reflecting these diagnoses in any documentation. In fact, MA plans have come under scrutiny recently after a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit revealed millions of dollars in overcharges by certain MAOs, specifically health insurers that issue MA plans. A common allegation involves “chart reviews” wherein MA plans find additional diagnosis that are supported by the medical records but were not previously reported or coded. Federal authorities tend to take issue with such diagnoses where they lead to higher cost for the Medicare program but not additional service being provided to the beneficiary. Healthcare providers have historically also encountered significant issues with MA programs. Payment, audits of providers, and claim adjudication are usually governed by contracts that are not necessarily the same amongst MA plans, and which most likely differ from the rules and regulations applicable to traditional Medicare. This is, where providers are audited by MA plans, the audits tend to resemble the commercial insurance audits, rather than traditional Medicare audits.

To provide oversight of the MA program, CMS performs audits of MA plans through the Risk Adjustment Data Validation (RADV) program. RADV audits are designed to identify improper risk adjustment payments made to MAOs in situations where medical diagnoses submitted for payment allegedly were not supported in the beneficiary’s medical record, ensuring that MAOs do not game the system and claim more money than they should. Each year, CMS selects several MA plans for RADV audits to ensure that medical record documentation supports diagnoses submitted for risk adjustment. The RADV audit process generally requires MAOs and their providers to submit a sample of medical records to validate risk adjustment data, in addition to other requirements. In a recently issued final rule, CMS stated that it will only extrapolate audit findings beginning with the plan year 2018 RADV audit, and will not extrapolate audit findings prior to 2018. As MA plans are becoming increasingly popular amongst Medicare beneficiaries while at the same time drawing more scrutiny from government regulators, providers should make efforts to ensure compliance with MA program requirements, as well as be prepared to appeal any denials.

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