(April 16, 2018): Chiropractors around the country are again finding their services and claims under intensive scrutiny from Medicare contractors and investigators, despite the fact that only three services even qualify for coverage and payment. Several weeks ago, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released its latest critical assessment of chiropractic services currently being billed to the Medicare program. The agency’s report, entitled “Medicare Needs Better Controls To Prevent Fraud, Waste, And Abuse Related To Chiropractic Services,”[i] reemphasizes the OIG’s prior findings that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) still lacks appropriate safeguards to prevent the submission and payment of improper, sometimes fraudulent claims for chiropractic services to the Medicare program. This article is intended to highlight the government’s concerns and outline the steps that a provider should take to better ensure that any chiropractic services billed to Medicare qualify for coverage and payment.
I. Improper Chiropractic Claims Remain a Problem:
At the outset, it is important to recognize that in recent years, CMS and its program integrity contractors have taken a number of steps to elevate the level of scrutiny placed on questionable chiropractic claims billed to Medicare. Nevertheless, the OIG has taken the position that considerable work still needs to be done in order to better protect the Medicare program from fraudulent, wasteful and abusive chiropractic billings. For example, the average improper payment rate for Medicare Part B services has been estimated at between 9.9%-12.9%. For chiropractic services, the improper payment rate has been estimated to be between 43.9%-54.1%. About half of all chiropractic services covered by Medicare were not supposed to be covered. The OIG has estimated that of the nearly $450 million spent by Medicare on chiropractic services every year, between $257 million and $304 million in improper payments are being made every year for chiropractic services.[ii] Over a six-year period, $2.9 billion was spent by Medicare on chiropractic services. Theoretically, this means that at least $1.27 billion was wasted over those six years.
- Submit claims for services that never occurred.
- Submit claims for services that were medically unnecessary.
- Bill for services covered by Medicare but provided other services such as a massage or acupuncture.
- Falsified patient medical records.
- Provided services to beneficiaries without a valid license.
- Offered incentives to patients to receive unnecessary services.
During this six-year period, 11[iii] of the chiropractors were incarcerated and over 500 chiropractors were excluded from participation in the Medicare and Medicaid programs by the OIG for various reasons. The OIG remains concerned that inadequate oversight is continuing to allow fraudulent chiropractors to hide their improper billings from regulators
II. What Solutions Has CMS Tried?
In an effort to spur more detailed documentation, CMS implemented the initial treatment date requirement for claims. This requirement has been more effective than the AT modifier requirement, as 7 out of 8 contractors do check to ensure this requirement is met. In that respect, this is a successfully implemented requirement. However, when audited, this requirement has largely failed due to inadequate documentation. Approximately 86% of all claims that included an initial treatment date did not adequately document the medical necessity of the services provided. Once again, it appears that chiropractors are aware that the initial date is necessary for payment and will include the date regardless of the quality of their documentation.
At the urging of the OIG, CMS has made significant efforts to better educate chiropractors on the importance of proper documentation and which chiropractic services are actually covered by Medicare Part B. CMS has create publications, seminars, and an educational video for chiropractors to learn about services that are covered under Medicare Part B and how to meet documentation standards. Unfortunately, either through lack of provider participation or because of difficulties in accessing the information, this initiative has largely failed. Many chiropractors and beneficiaries remain ignorant with respect to the medical necessity, documentation and coverage requirements of chiropractic services under Medicare Part B. For example, one of the educational videos created by CMS is supposed to educate chiropractors on how to meet documentation requirements. This video only received 8,898 views between December 2015 and January 2017. Even if we were to assume that every view was by a licensed chiropractor (which is highly unlikely), it only reached a fraction of the chiropractors participating in the Medicare program. CMS will likely need to implement more changes that may lead chiropractors to utilize educational resources and improve documentation.
III. Would A Medical Review Threshold or Service Limit Work?
Approximately 61% of private insurance plans that participate in the federal employee health benefits program (FEHBP) cover chiropractic services. Of the FEHBP private insurance plans that cover chiropractic services, there are limits between 10 and 60 services per year, with the average plan limiting patients to 21 chiropractic services per year. The concept of limiting the number of services a beneficiary has been proposed by the OIG in the past, but CMS did not agree with this solution.
A medical review threshold is a limit on the number or cost of services before a review of medical necessity must be completed to continue coverage of future services. CMS states that contractors may set thresholds for the number of services allowed before medical review, but may not limit the number of services provided. There is no CMS-level medical review threshold, but as mentioned earlier 2 of the 8 contractors have already set medical review thresholds. CMS-level medical review thresholds are already in place for out-patient therapy specialties such as physical therapy and speech-language pathology. The threshold for these two specialties is monetary, at $1,920. After a beneficiary reaches $3,700 in physical therapy or speech -language pathology services, a medical review s needed for the beneficiary to continue treatment.
The OIG conducted a nationwide review of the percentage of “unallowable payments” made for three groups of beneficiaries, divided by the number of services received in a calendar year. The first group received 1-12 chiropractic services in a year, 76% of which were unallowable payments. The second group received between 12-30 chiropractic services in a year, of which 95% were unallowable payments. The final group received more than 30 chiropractic services in a year, of which every single payment was unallowable. It is worth noting that the two contractors that had set a medical review threshold had no beneficiaries in the last category. Based on this assessment, HHS-OIG estimates that a threshold for medical review between 12-30 services would have saved Medicare between $95 million and $447 million between 2013-2015. Additionally, that same threshold would have saved beneficiaries between $24 million and $114 million in out-of-pocket expenses over the same period.
IV. HHS-OIG Recommendations:
In addition to highlighting issue with the current system, OIG’s report provided a few recommendations for CMS to consider implementing:
- Work with contractors to educate chiropractors on the training resources that CMS has already made available to them
- Educate beneficiaries on which chiropractic services are and are not covered by Medicare Part B, and encourage beneficiaries to report chiropractors that are providing services that should not be covered by Medicare.
- Identify chiropractors with high-service denial rates or aberrant billing practices, estimate the amount of overpayments made through a statistically significant sample, and recover the overpayments
- Establish a threshold for the number of services that may be provide before a medical review is needed
V. Chiropractic Basics – Medicare Coverage Limitations:
Chiropractors diagnose and treat subluxation disorders primarily through manual adjustment and manual manipulation of the spine. CMS defines subluxation as “a motion segment, in which alignment, movement integrity, and/or physiological function of the spine are altered although contact between joint surfaces remains intact”[iv] More simply put, a spinal subluxation is a purported misalignment of the spinal column that can cause pain and other symptoms in patients suffering from this misalignment. One question that regularly arises when documenting chiropractic services is:
“How does Medicare expect me to show that evidence of subluxation if present?”
In most instances, a Medicare contractor will review a provider’s documentation to determine if an x-ray has been used, or a physical examination was conducted to document subluxation. Each of these diagnostic methods are discussed below:
• Subluxation determination based on an x-ray. If a provider has determined that a subluxation is present based on an x-ray,[v] a Medicare contractor will likely take into consideration when the x-ray was taken and how much time has elapsed before a course of treatment was initiated. As discussed in Local Coverage Determination (LCD) L34009 published by Noridian Healthcare Solutions, LLC (Noridian), the contractor requires that an x-ray must have been taken at a time “reasonably proximate” to the start of care. Noridian considers an x-ray to be reasonably proximate to the initiation of care if it was taken no more than 12 months prior to or 3 months following the initiation of a course of chiropractic treatment. Understandably, Noridian will typically allow a chiropractor to base his / her subluxation determination on an older x-ray if a beneficiary’s medical records show that the patient has suffered from a chronic subluxation condition (such as scoliosis) for longer than 12 months AND there is a reasonable basis to believe that the chronic condition is permanent.
• Subluxation determination based on an a physical examination. If a provider has determined that a subluxation is present based on a physical examination that has been conducted, a CMS contractor is going to review the medical documentation to determine if two of the following four criteria have been identified during the examination of the patient’s musculoskeletal / nervous system, one of which must be either asymmetry / misalignment or range of motion abnormality. The four criteria examined include:
• Pain/tenderness evaluated in terms of location, quality, and intensity;
• Asymmetry/misalignment identified on a sectional or segmental level;
• Range of motion abnormality (changes in active, passive, and accessory joint movements resulting in an increase or a decrease of sectional or segmental mobility); and
• Tissue, tone changes in the characteristics of contiguous, or associated soft tissues, including skin, fascia, muscle, and ligament.
A limited scope of chiropractic services qualify for coverage under Medicare Part B if they are performed by a licensed, qualified chiropractor. Regrettably, CMS still takes the position that most of the various services offered by a chiropractor are “supportive” in nature rather than “corrective.” In other words, CMS considers most chiropractic services to be “maintenance therapy,” which is not covered under Medicare Part B. As maintenance therapy, CMS does not consider most chiropractic services to be medically necessary.
So what chiropractic services ARE covered under Medicare Part B? Frankly, not many. CMS specifically limits Medicare Part B coverage to hands-on manual manipulation of the spine for symptomatology associated with spinal subluxation. Additionally, qualifying hand-held manual devices (where the thrust of the force of the device is manually controlled) may also be used by chiropractors in performing manual manipulation of the spine. Notably, Medicare does not recognize any additional charges associated the use of such a hand-held device.
When documenting a covered service, a chiropractor must note the precise level of the subluxation. Depending on the number of spinal regions involved, one of three Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) codes can be billed:
• CPT Code 98940 (for treatment of one or two spinal regions);
• CPT Code 98941 (for treatment of three or four spinal regions); and
• CPT Code 98942 (for treatment of all five spinal regions).
The five regions of the, from the cervical area (neck) to the coccyx (tailbone) are illustrated below:
When providing chiropractic services that are intended to provide active / corrective treatment, Medicare requires chiropractors to append the claim with an AT modifier. The AT modifier is intended to denote the fact that “Acute Treatment” for subluxation was provided to the beneficiary. If a chiropractor bills one of the three covered codes without an AT modifier, the service will be automatically denied as not medically necessary when the claim is processed by your Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC).
In most instances, properly coded chiropractic services (limited to 98940, 98941 and 98942) will qualify for payment. Having said that, both CMS contractors and OIG have repeatedly found that just because a claim has been appended with the AT modifier does not mean that the chiropractic services billed were in fact, medically necessary. In multiple audits conducted over the last decade, government reviewers have found that chiropractors have failed to properly document the medical need for services billed to Medicare.
Although Medicare has not placed a limit on the number of chiropractic services that a beneficiary can receive, providers who appear to be billing an excessive number of services will quickly be flagged for medical review by a MAC, a Zone Program Integrity Contractor (ZPIC) or a Uniform Program Integrity Contractor (UPIC). It is essential that you carefully document the medical necessity of any services billed. At present, pre-authorization to confirm the medical necessity of a treatment is only required by two MACs. One contractor sets its threshold for medical review as 12 services per month but no more than 30 services per year. The other sets a threshold of 25 chiropractic services per year.
VI. Documenting Chiropractic Services:
It is important to keep in mind that under Title XVIII of the Social Security Act, §1862(a)(1)(A), services must be medically reasonable and necessary in order to qualify for coverage and payment. Similarly, Title XVIII of the Social Security Act, §1833(e) prohibits Medicare from paying for any claims that lacks the necessary information to process the claim. Therefore, regardless of whether the determination of a subluxation has been based on an x-ray or a physical examination, a chiropractor must ensure that complete and accurate records of the encounter are taken.
Experience has shown that in the event of an audit by a CMS contractor, the MAC, ZPIC or UPIC auditing chiropractic services will primarily base claims on a provider’s failure to properly document the medical necessity of the services billed. It is therefore essential that you review and understand your documentation obligations when billing for chiropractic claims. As a first step, you need to review:
• CMS Medicare Benefit Policy Manual, Pub. 100-2, Chapter 15, Sections 30.5 and 240.
• CMS Medicare Claims Processing Manual, Pub. 100-4 Chapter 12, Section 220.
Moreover, you should continue to periodically review any LCD guidance on chiropractic services that has been issued by your MAC. Again using Noridian’s LCD guidance as an example, during an initial visit, the MAC expects a provider to document the following six categories of information when providing chiropractic services:
A. Documentation Requirements – Initial Visit. The following documentation requirements apply whether the subluxation is demonstrated by x-ray or by physical examination:
#1. Family History / Past Medical History.
• Symptoms causing patient to seek treatment;
• Family history if relevant;
• Past health history (general health, prior illness, injuries, or hospitalizations; medications; surgical history);
• Mechanism of trauma;
• Quality and character of symptoms/problem;
• Onset, duration, intensity, frequency, location and radiation of symptoms;
• Aggravating or relieving factors; and
• Prior interventions, treatments, medications, secondary complaints.
#2. Description of the Present Illness.
• Mechanism of trauma;
• Quality and character of symptoms/problem;
• Onset, duration, intensity, frequency, location, and radiation of symptoms;
• Aggravating or relieving factors;
• Prior interventions, treatments, medications, secondary complaints; and
• Symptoms causing patient to seek treatment.
Importantly, the “symptoms” covered in your description of the patient’s present illness are required to be directly related to the level of subluxation. When describing a patient’s symptoms:
• The symptoms should refer to the spine, muscle, bone, rib and / or joint and be reported as pain, inflammation, or as signs such as swelling, spasticity, etc.
• The symptoms documented must be related to the level of the subluxation that has been cited. A statement on a claim that there is “pain” is insufficient.
Finally, the location of a patient’s pain must be described and the symptoms documented must be related to the level of the subluxation that has been cited. Noridian further requires that the location of pain must be described and whether the particular vertebra listed is capable of producing pain in the area determined.
#3. Evaluation of musculoskeletal/nervous system through physical examination.
#4. Diagnosis. The primary diagnosis must be subluxation, including the level of subluxation, either so stated or identified by a term descriptive of subluxation. Such terms may refer either to the condition of the spinal joint involved or to the direction of position assumed by the particular bone named.
#5. Treatment Plan. The treatment plan should include the following:
• Recommended level of care (duration and frequency of visits);
• Specific treatment goals; and
• Objective measures to evaluate treatment effectiveness.
#6. Date of the initial treatment.
B. Documentation Requirements: Subsequent Visits. The following documentation requirements apply whether the subluxation is demonstrated by x-ray or by physical examination:
• Review of chief complaint;
• Changes since last visit;
• System review if relevant.
#2. Physical exam.
• Exam of area of spine involved in diagnosis;
• Assessment of change in patient condition since last visit;
• Evaluation of treatment effectiveness.
#3. Documentation of treatment given on day of visit. The patient must have a significant health problem in the form of a neuromusculoskeletal condition necessitating treatment, and the manipulative services rendered must have a direct therapeutic relationship to the patient’s condition and provide reasonable expectation of recovery or improvement of function. The patient must have a subluxation of the spine demonstrated by x-ray or physical exam as described above.
It has been more than 20 years since the OIG first identified chiropractic billings as a potential fraud and abuse problem. To their dismay, the AT modifier requirement, initial treatment date documentation requirement, and educational resources have failed to significantly remedy the level of improper claims for chiropractic services being billed to the Medicare program. In light of the OIG’s latest report, chiropractors should expect CMS and its MAC, ZPIC and UPIC contractors to increase their audits of chiropractic claims. Providers should also expect to see oversight through education, medical review, limits to the number of services, and documentation requirements.
What should you do? Get back to basics. When is the last time you compared your medical necessity, documentation, coding and billing practices to those outlined in your respective LCD and the Medicare Benefit Policy Manual.
Need help? Give us a call. Our attorneys are experienced in representing chiropractors in audits and investigations of their Medicaid and private payor claims.
Robert W. Liles, J.D., M.B.A., M.S., serves as Managing Partner at Liles Parker, Attorneys & Counselors at Law. Liles Parker attorneys represent chiropractors and chiropractic practices around the country in connection with Medicare, Medicaid and private payors claims audits. We also represent chiropractors in connection with complaints filed against our clients with the State Chiropractic Board. For a complimentary review and discussion of your issues, you can call Robert at: (202) 298-8750.
[i] Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General. Medicare Needs Better Controls To Prevent Fraud, Waste, And Abuse Related To Chiropractic. A-09-16-02042. February 2018.
[ii] CMS’s Supplementary Appendices for the Medicare Fee-for-Service Improper Payment Reports for 2010–2015.
[iii] In one case, when an audit was initiated against a chiropractic practice, the chiropractor supposedly falsely reported a robbery had taken place and that medical records were stolen from his car. This triggered a fraud investigation that led to a 63-month fraud conviction, over $1 million in restitution, and a 23-year exclusion for the chiropractor.
[iv] Medicare Benefit Policy Manual, Chapter 15, §240.1.2.
[v] Noridian will usually permit a previous CT scan MRI to be used as evidence if a subluxation of the spine is demonstrated.