Articles Posted in Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs)

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There are many types of Medicare audits, conducted by many types of Medicare contractors: Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs), Unified Program Integrity Contractors (UPICs), the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (SMRC), and others. Sometimes, where a Medicare audit results in a relatively small overpayment demand, a healthcare provider may consider simply paying it and moving on. However, there are several reasons why Medicare audits should be appealed, regardless of the dollar amount at issue, that providers should consider.

First and foremost, the audit results and overpayment determinations issued by Medicare contractors are often erroneous. This may be because the contractor either misunderstands Medicare requirements, misapplies them to a provider’s records, or misapprehends the medical documentation in the first place.

Second, a provider who does not appeal a Medicare audit result may unwittingly signal to the contractors a tacit admission that the audit findings were correct, and that the provider is non-compliant in some way. This may expose the provider to additional, larger audits on the same issues. Further, some contractors are paid a percentage of the overpayments they demand from providers and may have an incentive to conduct further audits. On the other hand, appealing an audit signals that the provider believes it is following Medicare requirements and are entitled to payment.

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When a Medicare contractor denies a claim, whether as part of a pre-pay, post-pay, Targeted Probe and Educate, statistically extrapolated, or other type of review or audit, the provider generally has a right to a lengthy appeal process. The process is complex and often relies on strictly enforced deadlines and requirements. In some circumstances claims can take years to fully progress through the appeals process. However, some limited cases may be eligible for settlement.

There are several entities that perform Medicare audits. The federal agency that oversees Medicare, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), performs few audits itself, but outsources these duties to a series of independent contractors, such as Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), Unified Program Integrity Contractors (UPICs), and the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (SRMC). The vast majority of audits are performed by these contractors, although they will often use CMS’s name or logo in their correspondence and may answer phone calls by saying that they are “with Medicare.”

A healthcare provider’s options in responding to a Medicare audit are available from the very beginning. Sometimes providers receive Additional Document Requests (ADRs) from the contractor demanding information or documentation on a claim or claims. These requests should be reviewed carefully; however, they often contain boilerplate or generic language and it may be difficult to determine which specific documentation the contractor is requesting. Once the contractor reviews any additional documentation and other information that the provider supplies, the contractor will issue its audit findings and determine whether to deny certain claims. Other times, the contractor will audit claims data or other information and issue audit findings without requesting additional information from the provider.

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A phenomenon in Medicare audits that is gaining increased visibility is Medicare contractors “double-dipping” from providers by using overlapping audits. Once viewed as isolated aberrations, it is becoming increasingly common for Medicare contractors to audit and deny the same claims twice in different audits. This practice generally leads to overpayment demands for the same claims, meaning contractors are demanding that providers and suppliers repay the same claims twice. Though profoundly unfair and very likely unlawful, providers may face difficulty challenging such an overlap in the complex and lengthy Medicare appeals process.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) authorizes several types of contractors to conduct audits, such as Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs), Unified Program Integrity Contractors (UPICs), and the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (SRMC). Some contractors are paid a percentage of the amounts they collect from the providers they audit, incentivizing them to over-deny claims and over-collect payments. In some instances, one contractor may not communicate with another, leading both to target the same claims. Alternatively, a contractor may fail to communicate internally or document its own audits properly, leading the same contractor to deny and attempt to collect on the same claims multiple times. As the number of Medicare audits has exploded over the last several years, such missteps have become increasingly common.

Any Medicare provider or supplier who has received more than one Medicare audit or overpayment demand should verify whether any of the claims overlap. Overlaps are found most often in statistically extrapolated audits, although they can occur in any type of audit. Where an overlap is found, a provider may raise the issue in the five levels of the Medicare claims appeal process: Redetermination by the MAC, Reconsideration by a Qualified Independent Contractor (QIC), review by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) employed by Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), review by the Medicare Appeals Council, also within HHS, and review by a judge in a federal court.

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Medicare audits often include a statistical extrapolation to estimate the full extent of an alleged overpayment. Medicare contractors are authorized to review the merits of only a small “sample” of submitted claims and extrapolate the results of that review to a large “universe” of claims to estimate the overpayment amount. This practice can lead contractors to allege overpayments of hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars despite only reviewing and denying a small handful of claims. Medicare contractors generally have broad authority to use a wide array of statistical methods when extrapolating the overpayment amount, which can lead to grossly overestimated overpayment determinations.

When conducting the statistical sampling and extrapolation, the contractor will select the period for review and establish the universe and sample frame. The sample frame is the large group of claims from which the sample is randomly selected, and the universe is the group of claims over which the results of the review are projected. The sample frame and universe may or may not be identical. The universe and sample frame may be defined by specific codes, dates of services, beneficiaries, or some combination thereof. From here, the contractor will select a random sample from the sample frame,  review the claims within the designated sample, and extrapolate the results of the review of the sample to all claims in the established universe.

A statistical extrapolation is subject to appeal, similar to any Medicare overpayment determination. However, there are several issues unique to appealing a statistically extrapolated overpayment. First, it adds increased importance to appealing the denial of each claim in the sample. While an individual claim may not represent significant monetary value on its own, it may represent tens of thousands of dollars after it has been statistically projected over a large universe. Second, there are special procedural rules for appealing an extrapolation. For example, providers are generally prevented from arguing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) that the extrapolation was flawed unless they included specific language in their request for ALJ review.

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After a hiatus during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Medicare audits have resumed in full force. Providers and suppliers should be prepared to respond to audits that were paused during the pandemic, the initiation of new audits, and audits relating to the various pandemic relief programs.

In early 2020, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) directed its contractors to pause audit activities as auditors were unable to work in the office and healthcare providers were reeling from the multiple impacts of the pandemic. CMS both paused in-progress audits and temporarily halted the initiation of new audits.

In late 2020, CMS authorized Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) to resume post-payment audits. Over the last year, CMS has authorized the resumption of nearly every type of audit and the initiation of new audits. As Medicare contractors process these directives and restart their audit activities, Medicare provides are seeing a wave of documentation requests, audit determinations, overpayment demands, and appeal decisions. Audits and claims appeals that have been dormant for a year or longer are suddenly active. New audits are being initiated for the first time in over year. And, in addition to audits by Medicare and other payors, providers must face compliance challenges and potential audits from pandemic relief programs, such as the Provider Relief Fund.

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The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently announced the annual expansion of the Settlement Conference Facilitation (SCF) program. SCF is an alternate dispute resolution mechanism used to resolve Medicare claims appeals. However, because SCF is meant to help reduce the appeal backlog, only appeals filed before a certain date are eligible.  With the latest expansion, appeals involving requests for Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearing or Medicare Appeal Council review filed on or before June 30, 2021 are now eligible for SCF.

Generally, a Medicare claim denial or overpayment demand may be appealed through five successive levels of appeals. First, Redetermination by a Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC), often the same MAC that denied the claims initially. Second, Reconsideration by a Qualified Independent Contractor (QIC). Third, appeal to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) employed by the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA), a subdivision of HHS, where the provider may be entitled to a hearing. Fourth, review by the Medicare Appeals Counsel, also within HHS. Fifth and finally, appeal to a federal district court.

The entire appeals process can take years and create difficulties for healthcare providers or suppliers. The least efficient part of the process has long been the wait for an available ALJ to hear the appeal, which can take three to five years, at which point the only prior review of a contractor’s decisions has been done by other contractors. This has left providers in the difficult position of having significant overpayment demands based on incorrect decisions by contractors but having to wait years for independent review of their cases. In response to this, HHS is now under court order to reduce this backlog of cases.

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Appealing Medicare claim denials and overpayments is a common yet often misunderstood part of providing care to Medicare beneficiaries. Any healthcare provider should be familiar with the appeals process and some common issues that may arise. Although Medicare audits were temporarily suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they have since resumed.

When a Medicare contractor denies a claim, whether as part of a pre-pay, post-pay, or other type of review or audit, the provider generally has a right to a lengthy appeal process. The process often begins before the denial of the claim itself. The provider may receive Additional Document Requests (ADRs) from the contractor demanding information or documentation on a claim or claims. These requests should be reviewed carefully, however they often contain boilerplate language and it may be difficult to determine which specific documentation the contractor is requesting.

Once a claim has been denied, the first level of appeal is Redetermination before the same contractor that made the initial denial. A provider must request Redetermination within 120 days of the claim denial, or the appeal may be forfeit. A shorter deadline applies to stop recoupment on overpayment demands stemming from the denials. The second level of appeal is Reconsideration before a Qualified Independent Contractor (QIC). The QIC is separate from the contractor that initially denied the claims. A provider often has the opportunity to submit additional documentation at Redetermination and Reconsideration. A provider may also retain an expert to review the contractor’s assertion or submit write-ups on the individual claims.

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Despite the ongoing public health emergency from the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (“COVID-19” or “COVID”), the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) were encouraged by the Center for Program Integrity (“CPI”) to resume conducting Recovery Audit Contractor (“RAC”) and Medicare Administrative Contractor (“MAC”) audits. Some of the audits that are of high priority are post-payment reviews of COVID claims submitted prior to March 1, 2020. CMS has not yet stated when they will be auditing claims submitted after March 1, 2020 and throughout the current public health emergency, but experts expect these audits to begin in the coming months.

In fact, the CMS “Coronavirus Disease 2019 Provider Burden Relief FAQ” states that even if the public health emergency continues, it will lift the suspension of audits beginning on August 3, 2020 (though most providers will not see requests for review until at least a month after that). The audits will be done pursuant to existing statutory and regulatory provisions, but any waiver or flexibility allowed for any date of service which is under review will be considered in the audit.

In addition to those audits, CMS has also announced a new requirement to obtain reimbursement for COVID patients. Beginning on September 1, 2020, in order to receive the 20% Medicare reimbursement add-on payment for a COVID patient, the provider must document a positive COVID test in the patient’s chart. This new guidance applies only to Inpatient Prospective Payment Systems (“IPPS”), Long-Term Care Hospitals (“LCTHs”), and Inpatient Rehabilitation Facilities (“IRFs”). The guidance states that CMS will continue to automatically apply the 20% add-on payment for COVID-19 claims and will enforce the requirement through post-payment audits. The 20% add-on payment will be recouped if no positive COVID test is found in the patient’s chart.

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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 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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