Articles Posted in Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs)

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The Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014 extended the process for exceptions to Medicare’s outpatient therapy caps through March 2015. Exceptions to Medicare’s outpatient therapy caps are allowed for medically necessary and reasonably therapy services. However, claims above $3,700 for physical therapy and speech language pathology services combined, and above $3,700 for occupational therapy services, are subject to manual medical review by recovery audit contractors (RACs). The caps are calculated per beneficiary, per year. While manual medical reviews of outpatient therapy claims above the cap were put on hold last year, existing RACs received approval on January 16, 2015 to resume sending additional documentation requests (ADRs) to Part B providers.

However, CMS recently introduced a new post-payment review system that requires RACs to review outpatient therapy claims using a new manual medical review process. RACs will now be required to review claims using a tiered approach to ADRs. The process allows for 100% review of provider claims above the $3,700 therapy caps (“eligible claims”), but prevents the RACs from requesting large and potentially unmanageable amounts of records at one time.

Beginning in January 2015, the new manual medical review process permits RACs to review 100% of a provider’s eligible claims using a 5-step approach to ADRs. A RAC’s first ADR may only review one claim, but additional ADRs may request records for an increasing percentage of claims. The second ADR may review up to 10% of eligible claims, the third ADR may review up to 25% of eligible claims, and the fourth ADR may review up to 50% of eligible claims. Finally, a RAC’s fifth ADR to a particular provider may review 100% of the provider’s total eligible claims. Please note that the new tiered approach retains the RAC’s cycle of 45 days between ADRs.

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On December 30, 2014, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that they had awarded the Region 5 Recovery Audit Contract (RAC) to Connolly, LLC. CMS contracts with RACs to identify and correct improper payments. Connolly, which has been the RAC for Region C, was awarded the Region 5 contract which covers claims for durable medical equipment, prosthetics, orthotics and supplies (DMEPOS), home healthcare and hospice providers. With the awarding of the new RAC contract focused on DME, home health and hospice providers, these provider types can expect increased scrutiny of their Medicare claims.

CMS also outlined a number of “improvements” to the RAC program that will take effect with each new RAC contract awarded, beginning with the Region 5 contract awarded on December 30, 2014.

One of the “improvements” brought by the new RAC program is that the CMS has reduced the RAC look-back period to 6 months from the date of service for patient status reviews where hospitals submitted the claim within 3 months of the date of service. Previously, the look-back period for RACs was from 3 years and hospitals had to submit a claim within one year from the date of service in order to comply with the timely filing rules, leaving hospitals with the inability to rebill denials from patient status reviews. Another improvement is that the CMS has established new Additional Documentation Request (ADR) limits based on a provider’s compliance with Medicare rules. Specifically, the ADR limits will align with providers’ denial rates (i.e., providers with low denial rates will have lower ADR limits), and ADR limits will be adjusted as a providers’ denial rates decrease.

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In November 2014, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives circulated a “discussion draft,” which proposed significant reforms to the process by which Medicare reimburses hospitals for short stays. Perhaps most notably, the GOP proposal would eliminate the two-midnight rule. Since its enactment, the two-midnight rule has remained controversial among healthcare providers. Under the two-midnight rule, an admission is appropriate only when the patient remains in the hospital for two midnights. However, since its adoption, the rule has created confusion and elicited criticism from providers who claim that it undermines their clinical decision-making process. Acknowledging the issue, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) limited enforcement of the two-midnight rule and solicited stakeholders for suggestions on improving it.

The discussion draft also proposes the establishment of a new Medicare payment system for hospital stays. Under the proposal, the payment system would go into effect in fiscal year 2020 and unify the currently separate inpatient and outpatient payment systems. During the five years before the implementation, CMS would be tasked with developing a transitional, per-diem payment system for short-term hospital stays. Additionally, CMS would restrain Recovery Audit Contractors (RAC) until the new payment system is adopted. This reprieve is important when establishing a new payment system because of the RAC program’s onerous presence in the healthcare industry. Just last year, the RAC program recouped over $3 billion in Medicare overpayments, and audit appeals have created such a backlog that many appellants are waiting over three years for a decision. The backlog of appeals violates the statutory requirement for Administrative Law Judges to decide Medicare appeals within 90 days of the request for hearing.

Also included in the GOP’s discussion draft is a partial elimination of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) moratorium on the expansion of physician-owned hospitals. Currently, the law prohibits new physician-owned hospitals, expansion of existing physician-owned hospitals, and an increase in the percentage of physician ownership in existing physician-owned hospitals. Any reduction of the physician-owned hospital limitation would be welcomed news in the physician community. Further, in an effort to curb costs, the proposal also includes provisions that would promulgate a nationwide bundled payment program. Upon analyzing these proposals, many stakeholders believe that the circulation of the discussion draft indicates the direction of the anticipated Medicare debate in Congress and expect several of these provisions to be at the forefront of discussions in the next congressional session.

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On December 1, 2014, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) launched a three-year pilot program (“the program”) in an effort to curb improper Medicare payments to ambulances providers. Under the program, CMS requires prior authorization for repetitive, scheduled, non-emergent ambulance transport claims billed using the following HCPCS codes: (1) A0425 – BLS/ALS mileage, per mile; (2) A0426 – Ambulance service, Advanced Life Support (ALS), non-emergency transport, Level 1; and (3) A0428 – Ambulance service, Basic Life Support (BLS), non-emergency transport. CMS defines a “repetitive ambulance service” as medically necessary ambulance transportation services that are furnished three or more times in a ten-day period, or at least once per week for at least three weeks. According to CMS, these services are often used by elderly beneficiaries that require transportation for dialysis, cancer, or wound treatment.

The prior authorization the process requires the ambulance provider to request provisional affirmation of coverage by CMS before a service is rendered to a beneficiary and before a claim is submitted for payment. CMS believes that prior authorization will ensure that the ambulance service is medically necessary and meets the applicable Medicare coverage criteria. According to CMS, the Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) will make every effort to review the prior authorization request and postmark decisions letters win ten business days. Each prior authorization decision may affirm up to 40 round trips per request in a 60-day period. The prior authorization request submitted by an ambulance provider must include:

  • The beneficiary’s name, Medicare number, and date of birth;
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On October 29th, the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) hosted its second Appellant Forum in Washington, D.C. OMHA is responsible for the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level of the Medicare administrative process, and thus operates the third level of appeals for Medicare audit denials. The Appellant Forum was intended to provide updates to Medicare audit appellants on the status of OMHA operations and to relay information regarding OMHA initiatives to reduce backlog in the processing of Medicare appeals.

Representatives from Wachler & Associates attended the Appellant Forum and gained valuable information for appellants facing delays in Medicare ALJ appeals. OMHA’s Chief ALJ, Hon. Nancy Griswold, explained the historical backdrop that led to OMHA’s current backlog in appeals and described OMHA’s attempts to find a “holistic solution” to ALJ workload.

Judge Griswold also updated providers on statistics regarding OMHA’s appellant workload. She explained that Medicare Part A and Part B appeals amount to 99% of the appeals pending at the ALJ level. Further, that despite increased productivity by ALJs, OMHA currently receives 4 times the amount of appeals per day as the ALJ’s are able to adjudicate per day. In January 2014, OMHA received 14,000 appeal receipts per week. The unprecedented amount of appeals has caused OMHA to fail to meet its 90-day statutory requirement for adjudication. As of September 2014, the average wait time for an ALJ decision was 514 days, which again marked a significant increase from the fiscal year 2013 average.

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On September 30, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) held a Hospital & Hospital Quality Open Door Forum on a variety of topics pertinent to hospitals. CMS opened the forum with an unexpected update on CMS’ recently announced 68% settlement offer for patient status claim denials. As many providers are already aware, CMS has offered to pay 68% of the net payable value of eligible patient status claim denials in exchange for hospitals’ withdrawal of all pending eligible appeals.

While the September 30 Open Door Forum covered a variety of topics unrelated to the settlement offer, CMS clarified key points regarding the settlement offer and providers should take note.

First and foremost, CMS clarified that Part A patient status denials submitted for re-billing under Part B are eligible for inclusion in the settlement so long as the hospital has not received payment on the rebilled claim. In response to a question, CMS specified that as long as the hospital has not received Part B payment on a rebilled claim on the date that the settlement request is submitted, the claim is eligible for inclusion in the settlement process. CMS indicated that this issue will be discussed in greater detail during the October 9 Open Door Forum. Additionally, CMS indicated that it is not contemplating an extension to the October 31, 2014 filing deadline.

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On Tuesday, September 9, the Medicare Learning Network (MLN) hosted a Conference Call regarding the newly revealed 68% settlement offer from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) for short-stay inpatient status claims. In an effort to ‘more quickly reduce the volume of inpatient status claims’ pending in the appeals process, CMS offered an administrative agreement to any hospital willing to withdraw all of their pending short-stay inpatient status claim denial appeals in exchange for partial payment of 68% of the net allowable amount as long as the date of admission was prior to October 1, 2013 and the claim is either pending appeal or the appeal has been filed and is pending review. In its release, CMS further noted that only acute care hospitals and critical access hospitals are eligible to submit a settlement request; psychiatric hospitals, inpatient rehabilitation facilities, long-term care hospitals, cancer hospitals, and children’s hospitals are not permitted to submit a settlement request.

The purpose of the Conference Call was to provide interested stakeholders an opportunity to speak with CMS representatives in order to ask questions and obtain a better understanding of how this settlement process will work. Wachler & Associates healthcare attorneys participated in the Conference Call and came away with a deeper understanding of how this process works, but there are still unanswered questions. First and foremost, submissions for settlement are due by October 31, 2014. If your entity cannot meet this deadline, you may ask CMS for an extension. Additionally, short-stay inpatient status claims pending at any level of the appeals process are eligible to be submitted for settlement.

In sum, eligible claims must also meet four requirements: (1) they must be pending in the appeals process or within the timeframe to appeal; (2) the date of admission for the claim must have been prior to October 1, 2013; (3) the denial must be based on a patient status review; and (4) the claim must not have been previously withdrawn or re-billed for payment under Part B. During the Conference Call participants requested clarification of whether the rebill for Part B must not have been submitted or whether it must not have been paid. CMS indicated that it would provider further clarification on this issue through the Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) page on CMS’ website for hospitals. In agreeing to settle all claims for the 68%, the entity agrees to the dismissal of all associated claims (the entity may not pick and choose which ones to settle) and agrees that the settlement will serve as the final administrative and legal resolution of all eligible claims. However, this resolution does not resolve any potential False Claims Act reviews by the Department of Justice. Additionally, eligible claims include claims from any Medicare contractor so long as the denial was based on a patient status review.

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In an effort to reduce the amount of cases currently pending appeal, specifically the backlog at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level of appeal, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced an offer to hospital appellants to settle their patient status claim denials currently pending appeal. In exchange for hospitals’ withdrawal of their pending appeals, CMS has offered to pay hospitals 68% of the net payable amount of the claims.

In its announcement, CMS lists a number of conditions that must be met for a hospital to be eligible for settlement, including:

  1. The provider must be either (1) an Acute Care Hospital, including those paid via Prospective Payment System, Periodic Interim Payments, and Maryland waiver, or (2) Critical Access Hospitals (CAH). Those entities which are not eligible for the settlement include: psychiatric hospitals paid under the Inpatient Psychiatric Facilities Prospective Payment System, Inpatient Rehabilitation Facilities (IRFs), long-term care hospitals (LTCHs), cancer hospitals and children’s hospitals.
  2. The claim was not provided to a Medicare Part C (i.e., Medicare Advantage) enrollee.
  3. The claim was denied upon review by a CMS audit contractor (e.g., Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC), Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC), Zone Program Integrity Contractor (ZPIC) or Comprehensive Error Rate Testing Contractor (CERT)).
  4. The claim was denied was based on the CMS contractor’s finding that the patient was inappropriately treated as an inpatient as opposed to outpatient.
  5. The first day of the inpatient admission was before October 1, 2013.
  6. The claim denial was timely appealed, or the provider has not yet exhausted their appeal rights.
  7. The provider did not subsequently rebill and receive payment for the claim under Medicare Part B.

For those hospitals with eligible claims, CMS has provided instructions on its website detailing the process for hospitals to participate in the settlement offer. In order to take advantage of the settlement offer, hospitals must submit their settlement requests by October 31, 2014.

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In a report released on July 9, 2014, the Senate Special Committee on Aging criticized the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) for the increase in improper payments in the Medicare program, despite the increasing amount of audit activity and the resulting burden on Medicare providers.

The report noted that despite an increase in the number of contractors conducting pre and post-payment audits and in audits themselves, there has not been a reduction in the total rate of improper payments made to providers. In 2013, the rate jumped to 10.1%, from 8.5% in 2012. This was the highest rate in the last five years, despite significant efforts to combat improper payments.

The report also found numerous inefficiencies in the Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) program and with other contractors more generally. For instance, the report noted that often times different audit contractors audit the same provider for claims that have been previously reviewed. This results in duplicative document requests that burden providers. The report recognized that providers often times providers must respond to documentation requests from contractors with their own unique timelines and specifications for proper documentation submission. The inconsistencies among contractors lead to significant confusion and, in some cases, denial of properly billed claims. Also noted was a problem well-recognized by the provider community, the withholding of Medicare funds during the later stages of the appeals process, despite the often the two, three even four year delay before providers receive an administrative law judge (ALJ) hearing decision. According to the report, one large hospital system has over $200 million withheld until its matters are adjudicated. The report recognized that for many providers, the ALJ level of appeal is successful. As an example, the report noted that for another health system, there was a 97% success rate for appeals at the ALJ level. The withholding of funds, especially when they have been properly billed, presents an enormous burden on all healthcare providers, even potentially forcing smaller providers to close their doors because they are unable to absorb the loss in revenue.

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Recently, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced its new pilot program – Settlement Conference Facilitation (SCF) Pilot – to provide an alternative dispute resolution process for settling appealed Medicare claims denials. Through the SCF program, providers have the opportunity to discuss with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) the potential of a mutually agreeable resolution to the claims appealed to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearing. According to HHS, the settlement conference facilitator, who is an employee of the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA), will use mediation principles to assist the appellant and CMS in reaching a mutual settlement agreement. If a settlement is reached between the appellant and CMS, the facilitator will draft the settlement document to be signed at the settlement conference by both parties. Once a binding settlement agreement has been executed, any pending ALJ hearing requests for the claims covered by the settlement agreement will be dismissed and no further appeal rights will be attached to those claims. On the other hand, if the parties are unable to reach a settlement agreement and the facilitator believes further efforts to reach an agreement will be unsuccessful, the SCF process will be concluded and the appealed claims will return to the ALJ level of appeal in the order the hearing request was originally received by OMHA.

Initially, HHS is limiting eligibility for the SCF pilot program to claims by Medicare Part B providers who have filed requests for ALJ hearing in 2013 and are not currently assigned to an ALJ. For those eligible providers, the request for SCF must include all of the provider’s pending ALJ appeals for the same item or service (i.e., all claims for the same item or service in which ALJ hearing requests were submitted in 2013). Appellants must include all appeals included in the applicable ALJ hearing requests, and may not request an SCF for some claims and proceed to the ALJ hearing for the remaining claims. Additional SCF eligibility requirements include that at least 20 claims must be at issue or, if fewer than 20 claims are at issue, at least $10,000 must be in controversy. Also, the amount of each individual claim must be less than $100,000. For claims subject to statistical sampling, the extrapolated overpayment amount at issue must be less than $100,000; however, HHS states that it will continue to explore expanding the SCF pilot program for larger extrapolated overpayment cases.

Although the SCF process is only available for a limited group of claims at this time, those providers whose appeals are currently ineligible (e.g., Part A providers) for the SCF pilot program may nonetheless view these developments as a silver lining as countless appealed claims are currently awaiting ALJ hearings to be scheduled – claims in which CMS has likely recouped all of the alleged overpayment amount. With the substantial volume of claims currently backlogged at OMHA causing two to three year delays before the appealed claims are finally adjudicated, appellants may soon be provided a forum to reach mutually agreeable resolutions with CMS and receive the timely payment in which the provider is entitled.