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HHS Issues Final Rule to Address Record High Medicare Appeals Backlog

Medicare appeals backlog(January 20, 2017): The Medicare appeals backlog has reached its all-time worst. If you’re a healthcare provider or supplier waiting for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at the Office of Medicare Hearings and Medicare Appeals (OMHA) – the third level of the Medicare appeals process – you’ve likely been waiting years to have your case heard or, at least, you’re expecting such a wait. This wait time has persisted despite that ALJs are statutorily required to issue a decision within 90 days of receipt of a hearing request. The reasons for the backlog depend on who you ask: the American Hospital Association (AHA) and others have contended that the Recovery Audit Program is the “primary culprit in creating and sustaining” the backlog because Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) “receive a cut of any improper payments they recover […] and can challenge claims going back as far as three years.”  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) agrees that the Recovery Audit Program has contributed to the backlog, but believes there are other reasons as well, like an increase in Medicare beneficiaries and a growing practice among some providers to appeal virtually every claim denial through ALJ review (coupled with only modest increases in funding for the agency, thereby limiting their ability to address the growing number of appeals and backlog).

I.  Statistical Overview of the Medicare Appeals Backlog:

In any event, the statistics are astounding:

  • The number of ALJ appeals filed grew 936%, from 41,733 to 432,534, between fiscal years (FY) 2010 and 2014.
  • By the end of FY2014, 767,422 appeals were pending at ALJ.
  • ALJ decisions are issued well after the 90-day statutory deadline: in FY2014, it took OMHA an average of 415 days to process an ALJ appeal; in FY2015, it took OMHA an average of 662 days to process an ALJ appeal; and in FY2016, it took OMHA an average of 877 days to process an ALJ appeal.

The backlog has been a significant source of frustration for healthcare providers and suppliers (and their representatives) stuck in the lingering appeals process – and not just because it takes so long to achieve a final judgment by the Secretary. The delay often has significant financial consequences because Medicare can statutorily recover the alleged overpayment shortly after a second level (reconsideration) appeal decision issues, despite that the appeals process is not over and despite that the first two levels of appeal are littered with problems (e.g., we see chronic misapplication of Medicare coverage and payment rules by appeals contractors at the first two levels of appeal).

II.  Order by the U.S. District Court:

Thanks to the efforts of AHA and other plaintiffs who sought relief in court, we may see the backlog resolve over the next few years. On 12/05/2016, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ordered that the HHS Secretary reduce the backlog according to the following timeline:

  • 30% reduction from the current backlog of cases pending at the ALJ level by 12/31/2017;
  • 60% reduction by 12/31/2018;
  • 90% reduction by 12/31/2019; and
  • 100% reduction by 12/31/2020.

III.  Other HHS Efforts to Address the Medicare Appeals Backlog:

In an effort to meet these mandated backlog reduction timelines, HHS issued a final rule on 01/17/2017 titled “Medicare Program: Changes to the Medicare Claims and Entitlement, Medicare Advantage Organization Determination, and Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage Determination Appeals Procedures”. The final rule includes an assortment of initiatives to reduce the backlog which become effective 03/17/2017, including:

  • Giving select Medicare Appeals Council decisions precedential effect. The final rule provides that designated “Medicare Appeals Council decisions […] have precedential effect and are binding on all CMS components, on all HHS components that adjudicate matters under the jurisdiction of CMS, and on the Social Security Administration to the extent that components of the Social Security Administration adjudicate matters under the jurisdiction of CMS.” This is significant because, currently, even if the Medicare Appeals Council interprets a Medicare authority or provision in a specific way in a decision, that interpretation only applies to the case at hand (even though the decision represents the final decision of the Secretary). In other words, an Appellant can’t contend that the interpretation of a Medicare authority or provision in a previous Medicare Appeals Council matter is binding in their case as well, even if the facts and issues are very similar. HHS hopes the precedential nature of Medicare Appeals Council decisions as of 03/17/2017 will create consistency in the appeals process. It’s possible, though, that the discretion given to the Departmental Appeals Board (DAB) Chair to decide which cases have precedential effect may impact how effective this change will ultimately be.
  • Expanding the pool of adjudicators at OMHA to include attorney adjudicators. An attorney adjudicator is a licensed attorney employed by OMHA with knowledge of Medicare coverage and payment laws and guidance, and authorized to take the actions on requests for ALJ hearing and requests for reviews of QIC dismissals. HHS estimates that the expansion of the pool of adjudicators at OMHA could redirect approximately 24,500 appeals per year to attorney adjudicators who would be able to process these appeals at a lower cost than would be required if only ALJs were used to address the same workload.
  • Creating process efficiencies. These include, for example, allowing ALJs to vacate their own dismissals rather than requiring Appellants to appeal a dismissal to the Medicare Appeals Council and using telephone hearings for certain Appellants.

For more information on these and numerous other initiatives, please refer to the Federal Register. The hope is that the finalization of this rule and the Secretary’s accountability to the District Court – the Court retained jurisdiction of the case to review the quarterly status reports the Secretary is required to prepare and to rule on any challenges to unmet deadlines – will achieve the intended result: complete elimination of the backlog by 2020.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has taken steps in the past to improve the appeals process, and these steps have not always achieved the intended result. For example, with regard to appeals stemming from a post-payment review, CMS directed redetermination (first level) and reconsideration (second level) appeals contractors – effective August 2015 – to restrict their review on appeal to (in most cases) only the issues alleged by the reviewing contractor (i.e., the contractor that requested the records and issued the initial audit results). The purpose was to avoid a moving ball – where one Medicare contractor alleges one issue and the Appellant addresses it, but then another contractor alleges another issue, requiring the Appellant to then address a different issue with regard to the same claim. However, we have seen the redetermination and reconsideration appeals contractors repeatedly disregard this CMS directive and continue to try and add new denial reasons to the administrative record. We have also seen the initial auditing contractors increasingly allege more than one denial reason, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at providers and suppliers. It seems that Medicare is hoping for at least one denial reason to persist through the appeals process.

Judicial oversight is the difference this time around and could be the key to reducing the backlog. We’ll be monitoring HHS’s progress closely and hoping for expeditious relief for our current and future clients, and healthcare providers and suppliers everywhere.

Lorraine Ater, JDHealthcare Lawyer is a health law attorney with the firm Liles Parker.  She is also a Certified Medical Compliance Officer (CMCO) and a Certified Medical Reimbursement Specialist (CMRS).  Lorraine represents healthcare providers and suppliers around the country in connection with Medicare audits and appeals.  Liles Parker is a boutique health law firm with offices in Washington, DC; across the State of Texas; and in Baton Rouge, LA.  Need assistance?  For a free consultation, please call: (202) 298-8750.

 

Sources:

AHA v. Burwell, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 126840 (D.D.C. Sept. 19, 2016).

AHA v. Burwell, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167291, 2016 WL 7076983 (D.D.C. Dec. 5, 2016).

Federal Register, Volume 82, Number 10, Pages 4974-5140, “Medicare Program: Changes to the Medicare Claims and Entitlement, Medicare Advantage Organization Determination, and Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage Determination Appeals Procedures” (01/17/2017). Available at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/01/17/2016-32058/medicare-program-changes-to-the-medicare-claims-and-entitlement-medicare-advantage-organization.

HHS, “FACT SHEET: HHS Issues Final Rule to Improve the Medicare Appeals Process”.

HHS, OMHA, “Average Processing Time By Fiscal Year” (11/18/2016). Available at https://www.hhs.gov/about/agencies/omha/about/current-workload/average-processing-time-by-fiscal-year/index.html#.

CMS Seeks to Overhaul Medicare Claims Appeal Process

(July 18, 2016): The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has announced a series of proposed changes to the Medicare claims appeal process. The new rules primarily impact the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level of review, and CMS has indicated that the purpose of these changes is to help reduce the backlog of pending ALJ hearing requests. As many Medicare providers are aware, the claim appeal process consists of five steps:

  1. A request for redetermination by a Medicare Administrative Contractor;
  2. A request for reconsideration by a Qualified Independent Contractor;
  3. A request for a hearing before an ALJ;
  4. A request for review by the Medicare Appeals Council; and
  5. A request for review in Federal district court

Due to the frenetic auditing activities of CMS’ contractors in recent years – particularly the recovery audit contractors – this system has become overloaded with appeals. This is particularly true with respect to ALJ hearing requests filed with the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA), where the enormous backlog has prevented OMHA from fulfilling its legal duty to decide appeals within 90 days. As of April 30, 2016 CMS estimates that there are more than 750,000 pending hearing requests. And the backlog only appears to be worsening: the average processing timeframe for an ALJ appeal has increased from 661 days to 819 days between 2015 and 2016.

CMS has stated that the changes to the claim appeals process have two main objectives: to streamline the ALJ hearing process and to increase the number of available adjudicators. Although these new changes impact most of CMS’ existing ALJ appeal regulations, the most significant revisions are summarized below.

  • The Medicare Appeals Council may render binding decisions. In many types of appeal systems, lower courts are required to follow the decisions of higher appellate courts. For example, the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court are binding on all other Federal courts.

The Medicare Appeals Council is the highest level of appeal within the Department of Health and Human Services, and it is responsible for reviewing ALJ decisions. The Council’s decisions are currently not binding on ALJs or any of CMS’ contractors. The new rules would change this and permit the Council to designate certain decisions as precedential, which means that all of CMS’ contractors and the ALJs would be required to follow them. CMS believes that permitting the Council to render binding decisions would streamline the appeals process and allow for uniformity of some coverage and procedural issues.

  • Attorney Adjudicators will assist with appeals processing. ALJs do not just conduct hearings and write decisions, they also perform a variety of other tasks related to each case, such as: determining if the provider’s appeal is timely, valid, and complete; reviewing the record to ensure all pertinent case materials are present; and determining if good cause exists to admit new evidence offered by a provider.

CMS’ new rules would create new positions within OMHA called “Attorney Adjudicators,” who will be responsible for assisting ALJs with pending appeals. These new decision makers would perform most of the ancillary tasks currently undertaken by ALJs, thereby allowing the judges to focus on holding hearings and issuing decisions.

  • The amount in controversy requirement will increase for some providers. In order to file an ALJ hearing request, the current “amount in controversy” must be at least $150. When determining whether this requirement has been met under the existing regulations, an ALJ will consider the amount billed by the provider to Medicare for the item / service / claim in question.

The new regulation will change the amount in controversy rule for providers who are reimbursed according to a fee schedule, such as physicians, labs, or suppliers of durable medical equipment. In those cases, the amount in controversy will be changed from the amount billed to the amount allowed per the fee schedule. CMS believes that this will reduce the number of appeals submitted to OMHA. It is important to note that, under this new proposed rule, providers will still be permitted to bundle claims together to meet the amount in controversy requirement for an ALJ appeal. For providers who are not reimbursed based on a fee schedule, the amount in controversy rule will continue to be determined according to the amount billed for the claim or service.

These are only three examples of the changes sought by CMS. Many other aspects of the ALJ hearing process will also change, such as when new evidence may be admitted into the record, how cases involving statistical sampling and extrapolation should be handled, and how CMS’ contractors may participate in an ALJ hearing.

In practice, some of these changes may work to the detriment of providers. For example, deeming certain Council decisions precedential would mean that the contractors and ALJs would be required to follow those decisions in identical or similar cases. This could deprive ALJs of independence and flexibility to decide cases based on the unique facts and circumstances of each appeal. CMS does not appear to have offered an estimate as to how many appeals may be affected by this portion of the new rules.

Similarly, the involvement of attorney adjudicators in the process may increase the procedural hurdles encountered by providers during the appeals process. Failure to adhere to most of the procedural requirements for an ALJ hearing request may result in dismissal of the appeal. This increased focus on procedural aspects of the process will likely lead to more providers seeking assistance from attorneys to navigate the increasingly complex hearing process.

Time will tell whether these adjustments to the claim appeal regulations will actually help alleviate the backlog of pending ALJ appeals. The most direct way for CMS to accomplish that result would be to rein in the contractors responsible for the never-ending stream of audits as opposed to tweaking the rules for appeals.

If you have questions about the Medicare claims appeal process or need help with an appeal, you should contact an experienced attorney to discuss your questions and explore your options.

Medicare Claim AppealLiles Parker attorneys assist providers across the country with all matters related to claim appeals, reimbursement, enrollment, compliance, and corporate formation / transactions. If you have questions or concerns about a pending Medicare claim appeal, please contact Adam Bird for a free consultation.  He can be reached at:  1 (800) 475-1906.

Update on American Hospital Association v. Burwell

ALJ Appeals(February 23, 2016):  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently issued a decision the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level of the administrative appeals process that breathes new life into efforts to resolve the backlog of ALJ appeals cases currently pending around the country.  The case, American Hospital Association v. Burwell, was originally filed by the American Hospital Association (AHA) to obtain a court order to force ALJs in the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) to adjudicate ALJ appeals within the 90 days mandated by law. The lower court initially refused AHA’s request and dismissed the case. On appeal, the D.C. Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision and remanded the case for further consideration. The appellate court instructed the district court to weigh all of the facts in favor of and against the AHA’s request and to issue a new decision. Although the case has now been returned to the lower court for further review, the D.C. Circuit appeared to suggest in its own decision how the district court should decide the case. The appellate court wrote, “…the clarity of the statutory duty [for Medicare ALJs to hear and decide cases within 90 days] likely will require issuance of the writ [ordering ALJs to timely adjudicate appeals] if the political branches have failed to make meaningful progress within a reasonable period of time – say, the close of the next full appropriations cycle.”

The importance of this decision for Medicare providers whose claim appeals are or may be stuck in “limbo” at OMHA cannot be overstated. The D.C. Circuit has clearly acknowledged the mandatory duty of ALJs to hear and decide claim appeals within 90 days. The court also strongly implied that the order sought by the AHA should be issued in the relatively near future unless Congress acts in the interim.

Meanwhile, the logjam at OMHA has continued to grow even since the AHA first filed suit. According to the agency’s own statistics, the average processing time for ALJ appeals hearing requests increased from 661 days in 2015 to 791 days in the first quarter of 2016. This fact may contribute to the court’s decision as to whether to order the ALJs to begin timely processing of cases.

It is likely that industry and trade groups representing other types of Medicare providers will take action to capitalize on the AHA’s success. CMS will also almost certainly step up efforts to lobby Congress to help fix the issue and to resolve the backlog of pending ALJ appeals. Ultimately, whether the ALJ appeala backlog is resolved by court order or through meaningful efforts by Congress and CMS, this is spectacular news for Medicare providers across the country.

ALJ AppealsLiles Parker attorneys assist providers across the country with all matters related to claim appeals, reimbursement, enrollment, compliance, and corporate formation / transactions. If you have questions or concerns about a pending Medicare claim appeal, please contact Adam Bird for a free consultation.  He can be reached at:  1 (800) 475-1906.