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Expect an Increase in Audits of Chiropractic Services!

Chiropractic Services(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:

Chiropractic Services

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:

#1. History.
• 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.

VII.  Conclusion

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 basicsWhen 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.

Chiropractic ServicesRobert 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.

Home Health Pre-Claim Review Demonstration Project Update!

September 20, 2016 by  
Filed under Home Health & Hospice

Pre-Claim Review Demonstration(September 20, 2016): On August 3, 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) implemented its “Pre-Claim Review Demonstration” project in Illinois.  This demonstration project effectively requires that Illinois home health agencies submit home health claims for review by the Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) or face possible penalties (and be forced to have the claim evaluated through the pre-payment process).  As part of the pre-demonstration project, home health agencies are required to submit a complete set of medical records which show that the claim at issue is associated with medically necessary services, meets applicable documentation requirements, qualifies for Medicare coverage and has been coded and billed correctly.  As the demonstration project has been rolled out in Illinois, many home health agencies have experienced problems with the “affirmation” process.  It has been reported that the MAC has allegedly “missed” documentation that has been submitted and that very few of the claims reviewed have been affirmed by the reviewing contractor.  While CMS has not address these specific points, it has acknowledged that additional refinements in the program are required before expansion can continue. Earlier today, CMS announced that the home health pre-claim review demonstration project is temporarily being placed on hold to allow for additional provider education efforts to be conducted.  These provider educational efforts are expected to focus on the main reasons that pre-claim requests have been “non-affirmed” and the documentation that is required to support a home health claim.  Additional information regarding the home health pre-claim demonstration review project is set out below.

I. Background:

Section 402(a)(1)(J) of the Social Security Amendments of 1967[1] authorizes the Secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop demonstration projects that:

“develop or demonstrate improved methods for the investigation and prosecution of fraud in the provision of care or services under the health programs established by the Social Security Act.”[2]

The home health pre-claim review demonstration project was initiated by CMS due to the increase over the last three fiscal years of improper payment rates for home health claims. On June 8, 2016, CMS announced in the Federal Register[3] that five states would be involved in this new project to collect information to compile a “baseline estimate of probable fraud in payments for home health care services in the fee-for-service [FFS] Medicare program.” These five states include Illinois, Florida, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Texas. Furthermore, the goal of the project was to assess the use of pre-claim reviews as a means of reducing Medicare FFS expenditures for home health services by reducing improper payments while maintaining or improving the quality of care experienced by the beneficiary.”[4]

II. Pre-Claim Review Demonstration Process:

Under the pre-claim review demonstration process requires home health agencies are strongly encouraged to request a preliminary confirmation of coverage by submitting home health claims and associated clinical documentation, for review after services have begun but before the final claim for services is submitted for payment. The home health pre-claim review process is designed to better help ensure that applicable medical necessity, documentation, coverage, coding and billing rules are met before a claim is submitted to Medicare for payment.

The pre-claim review process does not create new clinical home health documentation requirements. Rather, home health agencies are only required to submit the same information they currently maintain for payment. As mentioned, they will do so earlier in the process, which will help assure that all relevant coverage and clinical documentation requirements are met before the claim is submitted for payment. CMS contends that the pre-claim review process will not delay care to Medicare beneficiaries and will not alter the Medicare home health benefit.

Home health agencies in one of the five demonstration states have been advised that if they do not submit their claims through the pre-claim review process, those claims will be flagged for prepayment review and will essentially treated like an ADR.  Moreover, after the first three months of the program, even if found to qualify for coverage and payment, CMS intends to reduce payment by 25% on each claim that is not submitted through the pre-claim demonstration review process.

III. Conclusion:

The decision by CMS to postpone the implementation of the pre-claim review demonstration in Florida was influenced, in large part, by the advocacy of supportive political and home health industry groups.  The postponement of the pre-claim review demonstration project is a major victory for health care providers in Florida, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Texas. Unfortunately, However, the implementation of the demonstration project is inevitable so providers should continue to prepare for the impact it will have on their health care practice. The exact start dates for Florida, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Texas have yet to be announced, but the dates will be provided on CMS’ website at least 30 days in advance to the implementation. Providers can expect a staggered start beginning with Florida, which provides additional time for preparation.

Pre-Claim Review DemonstrationRobert W. Liles, M.B.A., M.S., J.D., serves as Managing Partner at Liles Parker, Attorneys & Counselors at Law. Liles Parker is a boutique health law firm, with offices in Washington DC, Houston TX, San Antonio TX, McAllen TX and Baton Rouge LA. Robert represents home health agencies around the country in connection with Medicare audits and compliance matters. Our firm also represents health care providers in connection with federal and state regulatory reviews and investigations. For a free consultation, call Robert at: 1 (800) 475-1900.

 

 

[1] 42 U.S.C. 1395b-1(a)(1)(J).

[2] Id.

[3] 81 Fed. Reg. 37598.

[4] “Pre-Claim Review Demonstration for Home Health Services in Illinois,” available at http://www.palmettogba.com/Palmetto/Providers.Nsf/files/Workshop_Home_Health_PCR_Workshop_Series.pdf/$File/Workshop_Home_Health_PCR_Workshop_Series.pdf

[5] See the Palmetto GBA website for helpful resources, available at http://www.palmettogba.com/palmetto/providers.nsf/docsCat/Providers~JM%20Home%20Health%20and%20Hospice~Home%20Health%20Pre-Claim%20Review.

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.

CMS Announces Home Health Pre-Claim Review Demonstration Project for Five States

July 5, 2016 by  
Filed under Home Health & Hospice

Pre-Claim Review(July 5, 2016) The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has announced a home health pre-claim review demonstration project to be initiated in five states. According to CMS, the purpose of the new project is to prevent improper Medicare payments, enhance quality of care, and deter waste, fraud, and abuse in the Medicare program. This pre-claim review demonstration will impact home health agencies in Illinois, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, and Michigan.

According to the Operational Guide released by CMS, the general contours of this new project will be as follows:

  • Agencies will continue to submit requests for anticipated payment (RAPs) as usual.
  • At some point prior to submission of the claim for the end of episode (EOE) payment, agencies will be required to submit documentation to the Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) that substantiates the beneficiary is homebound, requires intermittent skilled care, and that a physician has certified the beneficiary’s eligibility for home health services.
  • The MAC will render a provisional pre-claim review decision to either affirm or non-affirm coverage of the services within 10 days of receiving the agency’s documentation. The decision letter will contain a rationale for the determination.
  • If the pre-claim review decision is affirmed, the agency can then submit the EOE at the appropriate time and will receive payment as usual.
  • If coverage is non-affirmed upon pre-claim review, the decision letter should contain the reason(s) for that determination. The agency will then have an unlimited number of opportunities to submit additional documentation to further corroborate that the services meet Medicare coverage rules. Those subsequent pre-claim review decisions will either affirm or non-affirm coverage for the claim. MACs will be required to render decisions regarding resubmitted documentation within 20 days of receipt.
  • If an agency submits an EOE after receiving a non-affirmed pre-claim review decision, the EOE will be denied and the RAP will be recouped. The provider will then be able to appeal that denial.
  • CMS has portrayed the pre-claim review process as “voluntary.” However, if an agency submits an EOE without first obtaining an affirmed pre-claim review decision, payment will be immediately stopped and the claim will be subject to pre-payment review. If the reviewer approves the claim upon pre-payment review, the reimbursement for the claim will be reduced 25%. This penalty is non-appealable. If the pre-payment review decision is unfavorable, the RAP will be recouped and the provider may appeal that denial.

CMS and the home health MACs will roll out this demonstration gradually throughout the five target states over the course of six months:

  • Illinois: August 1, 2016
  • Florida: October 1, 2016
  • Texas: December 1, 2016
  • Michigan and Massachusetts: January 1, 2017

In cases where providers do not opt to participate in the pre-claim review process, CMS has stated that the 25% penalty component of the project will be phased in three months after the commencement dates listed above.

According to Palmetto GBA, the home health MAC for Illinois, Florida, and Texas, providers will be able to submit the requested documentation via mail, facsimile, or an online portal.

Home health agencies across the five target states along with other stakeholders have aptly expressed concern as to the need for and potential ramifications of this demonstration project. Agencies are already under enormous pressure, for example, to obtain physician orders within specified timeframes along with appropriate face-to-face documentation from the certifying physicians. The pre-claim review project will only exacerbate those difficulties. In the meantime, agencies will now be expected to continue providing care to beneficiaries without any assurance that they will receive reimbursement for their services.

In our opinion, some of the biggest concerns with this demonstration relate to the timeliness and quality of the pre-claim reviews along with the possibility that the same claims could be subject to multiple audits by different entities.

Although CMS has stated that the MACs will “make every effort” to review pre-claim submissions within 10 days of receipt, there is no assurance they will consistently meet this goal. Unfortunately, the project guidelines announced by CMS do not contain any remedies for providers whose requests may be subject to lengthy processing delays.

The second concern principally relates to the quality of reviews and the adequacy of the explanations provided for “non-affirmed” decisions. Chapter 7 of CMS’ Operational Guide does not contain any requirements as to how detailed those explanations will be. If the MAC’s reasons for “non-affirming” coverage are vague or non-specific, as most unfavorable claim or appeal decisions by Medicare contractors tend to be, then many providers will be left wondering how to improve their documentation or what other records to furnish upon resubmission. This could result in significant delays in reimbursement for many agencies and substantial negative impact on otherwise compliant providers.

CMS has affirmatively stated that claims subject to the pre-claim review process will not be exempt from targeted reviews performed by other entities, such as Zone Program Integrity Contractors. Even the medical review staff at the MAC – the same entity charged with performing the pre-claim reviews – could theoretically initiate targeted medical review of home health agencies. CMS has not indicated whether claims submitted for pre-claim review could also be audited by the Recovery Audit Contractors or the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor. CMS has not offered any justification for the tremendous administrative burdens that serial audits of the same claims could impose on agencies.

In light of this new demonstration project, we recommend that agencies in all of the five states take the following steps to prepare for pre-claim review:

  • CMS has not specified exactly what documentation must be submitted with each pre-claim review request. However, the MACs are currently developing checklists for providers to use when preparing their documentation. Agencies should closely monitor their MAC’s website for this information and review it as soon as it is available. This will likely be an important tool when compiling documentation for submission.
  • Pre-claim review will apply to all home health claims – including recertification episodes – in target states as of the effective dates specified above. For example, initial face-to-face encounter documentation must be submitted with pre-claim review requests for all recertification episodes, even if the face-to-face was performed before the commencement of the demonstration project in that agency’s state. For this reason, providers should not wait to begin reviewing their documentation and searching for ways to improve it. We strongly recommend that providers initiate internal auditing protocols now, irrespective of when the demonstration may begin in their state.
  • Face-to-face documentation will likely play a key role in many pre-claim review decisions. If they have not already done so, we recommend that agencies conduct inservices with their physician referral sources now regarding timeliness and content requirements of face-to-face encounter records. If some physicians consistently refuse to document adequate or timely face-to-face encounters, agencies should consider no longer accepting referrals from those physicians.
  • Agencies should be aware that pre-claim review will likely disrupt their ordinary revenue cycles and begin taking appropriate action.
  • Agencies should regularly review Medicare coverage requirements for home health services as set forth in the Medicare Benefit Policy Manual. Moreover, agencies should familiarize themselves with the local coverage determinations (LCDs) of their MACs, which also contain guidelines for home health care. Palmetto GBA, for example, has LCDs that relate to physical / occupational / speech therapy services and home health care provided to beneficiaries with diabetes mellitus, among other topics.
  • To speed up the pre-claim review process, agencies should submit documentation via the MAC’s secure web portal instead of by mail or fax.
  • We recommend that agencies always utilize the pre-claim review process. The 25% payment reduction is too steep a penalty for non-compliance, particularly since any such claims would still be subject to pre-payment review upon submission of the EOE.

If you have questions regarding this new home health pre-claim review process, you should contact an experienced attorney to discuss additional steps that you could take to minimize the potential negative impact that this initiative will have on your agency.

Pre-Claim ReviewLiles 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.

CMS Issues Rules for Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement (CJR) Model

(January 7, 2015): On November 15, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) finalized regulations on a program that will implement a new payment model under Medicare Parts A and B in which acute care hospitals in certain selected geographic areas will receive retrospective bundled payments for episodes of care for lower joint replacement or reattachment, referred to as the CJR model. The program will affect approximately 800 hospitals in 67 MSAs and will cover the cost of virtually all care that is related to the treatment of Medicare patients receiving joint replacement including the initial hospitalization through 90 days after discharge.

Under the program, CMS will set a target price based on three years of historical data for the costs of such care. The target price will be based on a blend of hospital-specific and regional pricing during the first three years, and moving to 100% regional pricing during years four and five. The target price will be the historical cost data minus 3%. However, hospitals can regain 1% to 1.5% of this amount based upon their performance and improvement scores on two quality measures. Additionally, hospitals that achieve a minimum composite quality score will be eligible to receive a bonus payment if the actual cost of care is less than the target rate. Finally, beginning in year two, hospitals will be at risk to repay Medicare if the actual spending on these cases exceeds the target price.

Hospitals that are located in one of the covered MSAs but that participate in the Bundled Payment Initiative under certain models will be exempt from the CJR model. Additionally, patients who are covered under either the ESRD program, a Medicare managed care program, or a United Mine Workers of America health plan will not be covered.

Since they will, in essence, be financially responsible for the costs of care under the CJR program, hospitals will be permitted to enter into certain types of financial gainsharing arrangements with other downstream providers in the process. These include SNFs, HHAs, LTCHs, IRFs, physician practice groups, physicians, non-physician practitioners and suppliers of outpatient therapy, and may include sharing performance based reconciliation payments and certain types of internal cost savings. Additionally, hospitals may also assign a portion of downside risk to their collaborators. However, CMS will deal directly with hospitals with respect to payment and recoupment responsibilities, which, in turn, will be responsible for any payments to, or recoupments from, their collaborators.

Under the program, CMS will waive the SNF three-day hospital stay requirement beginning in the second performance year – the year in which hospitals become potentially responsible for repaying any funds to the Medicare program, but only for facilities that maintain a three star or better rating over a certain period. This places an even greater premium on facilities to provide quality services and to maintain a high star rating. Additionally, CMS will waive direct supervision requirements for “incident to” physician services, thus enabling clinical staff to make home visits under certain circumstances. Finally, the program provides for certain waivers for telehealth services to be covered by Medicare.

The CJR program provides yet another opportunity for collaboration between hospitals and downstream providers such as SNFs, HHAs, physicians, and others as part of the movement away from volume based to value based payments. This will require downstream providers to maintain a high level of quality, as well as strong case management and other care giving and administrative capabilities. And it will require both creativity and competence in contracting and negotiating skills on the part of all participants. Additionally, it will provide an expansion of Medicare payment for certain types of telehealth services.

Michael CookAnyone seeking further information and assistance in this area should contact Michael Cook of our Firm. Michael has many years of experience in assisting providers in the area of collaboration going back to the initial sub-acute movement, as well as in assisting downstream providers in quality of care issues that are crucial to maintaining their status as a valued participant.  For a free consultation, call Michael at: (202) 298-8750.

Medicare’s Home Health Probe and Educate Program is Underway

December 4, 2015 by  
Filed under Home Health & Hospice

Arbitration(December 4, 2015): The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has directed its contractors to initiate a home health probe and educate program review process with home health agencies around the country. The focus of this program will be to assess agencies’ compliance with the new face-to-face (F2F) documentation requirements that became effective 01/01/15.

CMS has directed its Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) to request records for 5 claims from each home health agency within their jurisdiction to review on a pre-payment basis. This review will apply to claims with dates of service beginning on or after 08/01/15. If the MAC denies one out of the five claims under review, it will send an education letter to the agency summarizing its findings and the process will be complete. However, if more than one of the five claims is denied or if the agency fails to submit documentation in response to the request, then the MAC will send a “detailed” findings letter and repeat the review process with another 5 claims with dates of service on or after the date of the findings letter. The purpose of this second review will presumably be to assess the agency’s compliance with the MAC’s previous education efforts.

As part of the post-review education process, CMS has directed the MACs to offer agency-specific education (to include a one-on-one telephone call with contractor medical review staff) regarding the face-to-face requirements.

Although CMS has not explicitly outlined further consequences for agencies with high error rates determined through this “Probe and Educate” program, it is likely that MACs would continue the review process for delinquent agencies, implement more extensive medical review audits on either a pre-payment or post-payment basis, or refer non-compliant agencies to a Zone Program Integrity Contractor (ZPIC) for investigation. In light of this new ongoing review program, home health agencies should:

  • Continue to obtain supporting F2F documentation on a rolling basis from referring physicians prior to submitting your EOE for the initial certification period. Agencies should not wait until Medicare requests records to obtain F2F documentation from referring physicians.

  • Promptly comply with the MAC’s request for documentation and ensure that all records submitted are complete and accurate. Records should be submitted via the MAC’s online portal or by some trackable method of delivery with signature confirmation.

  • Take advantage of the MAC’s offer to conduct one-on-one education with your agency, even if the review findings are largely positive. As all agencies know, the F2F requirement is extraordinarily vague, and agencies should always take advantage of educational opportunities offered by CMS and the contractors.

  • Contest any and all improper claim denials in the administrative appeals process.

Although the home health probe and educate reviews are, by definition, intended to be educational in nature, they could potentially result in serious consequences for non-compliant agencies. If a MAC has attempted to educate an agency regarding the F2F requirements and a subsequent audit by a MAC or another CMS review contractor determines that the agency has failed to adhere to the previous educational intervention, this could set the stage for an extrapolated overpayment assessment or a payment suspension.

Liles Parker attorneys can assist you with your home health probe and educate obligations.  We also represent home health agencies across the country with all matters related to reimbursement, enrollment, compliance, and corporate formation / transactions. If you have questions or concerns, please contact Adam Bird for a free consultation.

Bird,Adam-WebAdam Bird is a health law attorney with the firm, Liles Parker, Attorneys & Counselors at Law.  Liles Parker has offices in Washington DC, Houston TX, McAllen TX and Baton Rouge LA.  Our attorneys represent home health agencies, hospices and other health care professionals around the country in connection with government audits of Medicaid and Medicare claims, licensure matters and transactional projects.  Need assistance?  For a free consultation, please call: 1 (800) 475-1906.

Medicare’s New Face-to-Face Rules Must be Implemented

October 15, 2015 by  
Filed under Home Health & Hospice

Medicare's new face-to-face rules must be implemented and followed.(October 15, 2015): Many agencies have expressed relief that, effective January 1, 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) mostly eliminated the narrative component of the face-to-face (F2F) requirement.[1] As most agencies across the country readily understand, the narrative rule was hopelessly vague and not interpreted or applied consistently by the Medicare contractors. Unfortunately, the new version of the face-to-face regulation may not afford agencies the relief from improper claim denials that they have been hoping for.  Medicare’s new face-to-face rules must be properly implemented and documented. As a recap, the elements of the new face-to-face requirement are as follows:

 

  • The encounter must be performed by an “allowed” type of provider (e.g. certifying physician, physician who cared for the patient in an acute / post-acute setting, physician assistant, nurse practitioner, etc.).

  • The encounter must still be performed 90 days before the start of care (SOC) or 30 days after SOC. In a case where the physician orders home health for a new condition that was not apparent during an encounter performed 90 days prior to SOC, a new encounter must be performed to address that condition within 30 days after SOC.

  • The records of the certifying physician or the physician who cared for the patient in an acute or post-acute setting must corroborate the patient’s homebound status and need for intermittent skilled services. The records must also validate that the encounter occurred within the appropriate timeframe, was performed by an “allowed” type of provider, and was related to the primary reason why the patient was admitted to home health.

  • An agency may provide information to the physician for incorporation into his / her medical records that substantiates a patient’s homebound status and skilled need. However, the physician must sign off on this information, incorporate it into his / her medical records, and the information must be consistent with and supported by the entries in the physician’s own records.

  • Physicians are required to provide the supporting documentation of the face-to-face encounter to the home health agency and / or CMS upon request.

As many agencies already understand, however, Medicare’s new face-to-face rules may end up being just as problematic as the older version of the rules. Ultimately, the face-to-face requirement is a significant burden on agencies because it places the validity of the agency’s claim and its reimbursement in the hands of a separate, independent physician. And as most agencies will readily attest, it is oftentimes difficult enough to persuade physicians to timely date and sign orders, must less write (or re-write, as the case may be) medical record entries to confirm the eligibility of a patient for home health services. Although CMS has stated that physicians who demonstrate a pattern of refusing to comply with this new rule may be subject to certain consequences, those penalties – such as denial of the claim submitted by the physician to bill for the face-to-face encounter or the initiation of a physician-specific probe review by a Medicare contractor – are not nearly as severe as those potentially faced by the home health agency, particularly in cases involving payment suspensions or extrapolated overpayments.

In addition, although CMS has provided some examples of face-to-face records that it would considerable acceptable, the new “supporting documentation” component of the rule is just as vague as the narrative requirement. This new standard may be subject to just as much inconsistent interpretation as the old rule.

Experience has shown that the Medicare contractors are willing to take advantage of the vague nature of the face-to-face requirement in order to deny otherwise appropriate claims for home health services. Home health agencies must therefore be proactive in working to achieve effective compliance with the face-to-face rule. Here are some tips for agencies that may be struggling with the implementation of this new rule:

  • Conduct an inservice with your referral sources regarding this new requirement. This will be a great opportunity provide physicians with valuable resources – such as a “cheat sheet” that summarizes the major elements of the rule and examples of correct face-to-face documentation.

  • Conduct periodic re-training with physicians as appropriate. Don’t expect that they will remember all of the different parts of this potentially complicated rule after just one inservice.

  • The face-to-face documentation must be complete before you bill the end of episode (EOE) claim to Medicare. So don’t be afraid to ask physicians to add late entries to their documentation in order to substantiate homebound status and skilled need, if appropriate, before you bill. Remember that any such amendments / corrections must comply with applicable Medicare requirements for late entries. Excessive or inappropriate late entries may subject physicians to increased scrutiny, audits, or investigations.

  • Obtain face-to-face documentation from physicians before you bill every applicable final claim to Medicare. Do not simply hope that the physicians are documenting the face-to-face encounters appropriately. In addition, agencies may find that physician documentation is lost or unavailable if they are subject to a post-payment audit several years after the claims were initially paid.

  • Consider no longer accepting referrals from physicians who refuse to document face-to-face encounters correctly.

These basic steps should help your agency to achieve and maintain ongoing compliance with the new version of the face-to-face regulation. Once again, it is absolutely imperative that you take proactive measures to ensure that your claims will not be subject to denial simply because a referring physician may not have appropriately documented a face-to-face encounter.

Liles Parker attorneys have extensive experience assisting agencies across the country with compliance programs and government audits / investigations. Contact Adam Bird for a free consultation if you have a question or concern about any laws, regulations, or policies regarding home health services.

Bird,Adam-WebAdam Bird is a health law attorney with the firm, Liles Parker, Attorneys & Counselors at Law.  Liles Parker has offices in Washington DC, Houston TX, McAllen TX and Baton Rouge LA.  Our attorneys represent home health agencies, hospices and other health care professionals around the country in connection with government audits of Medicaid and Medicare claims, licensure matters and transactional projects.  Need assistance?  For a free consultation, please call: 1 (800) 475-1906.

 

[1] The narrative rule still applies in cases where a patient is referred to home health for skilled management and evaluation of his / her care plan.

CMS Awards Zone 6 ZPIC Contract to SafeGuard Services

Audit(August 15, 2015): The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has awarded the contract for Zone Program Integrity Contractor (ZPIC) services for Zone 6 to SafeGuard Services, LLC. Zone 6 encompasses Maryland, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. SafeGuard is the current program safeguard contractor (PSC) in this jurisdiction, and its functions as a ZPIC will be similar to its duties as a PSC. SafeGuard is also the ZPIC for Zone 1 (California, Nevada, and Hawaii) and Zone 7 (Florida).

As the new Zone 6 ZPIC, SafeGuard will be responsible for investigating suspected waste, fraud, and abuse among Medicare providers. ZPICs have the authority to conduct unannounced, onsite inspections of providers’ facilities, perform pre-payment and post-payment reviews of claims, impose payment suspensions, recommend to CMS that a provider’s billing privileges be revoked, and refer providers to law enforcement for investigation. In our experience, SafeGuard is among the most aggressive ZPICs in the country.

If you receive correspondence from SafeGuard Services or any other ZPIC, we strongly recommend that you contact an experienced health care attorney as soon as possible. You should never assume that ZPIC audits or inspections are merely “routine.”

Liles Parker attorneys assist all types of providers across the country with responses to Zone 6 ZPIC investigations, audits, and other administrative actions. If you have questions or concerns about a ZPIC investigation, please contact our office for a free consultation.

Liles Parker has offices in Washington DC, Houston TX, McAllen TX and Baton Rouge LA.  Our attorneys represent health care professionals around the country in connection with ZPIC audits of Medicare claims, licensure matters and transactional projects.  Need assistance?  For a free consultation, please call: 1 (800) 475-1906.

 

The FY 2016 Budget Proposes Medicare Appeals Process Reforms

Medicare appeals process changes are on the horizon.

(February 27, 2015):  On February 2, 2015, President Obama released his fiscal year 2016 budget proposal. This latest proposal affects a significant number of Federal health care programs and includes over $1 trillion allocated to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). More than 85 percent of HHS’s budget is devoted to programs that fall under the purview of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).  The administration’s primary health care focus is expanding access to care and providing higher quality of care. It attempts to accomplish this goal through a series of budget increases coupled with a greater emphasis on efficient practices. For example, the budget proposes several reforms to the Medicare program that purport to save roughly $423.1 billion over the next 10 years.  Medicare appeals process reforms are among the changes impacted by the 2016 budget.  As discussed later in this article, the RAC audit changes that are anticipated will likely result in an increased likelihood that your health care company may be in the proverbial crosshairs.

I.  Administration Goals:

The FY 21016 budget continues to prioritize cutting waste, fraud, and abuse in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. As outlined in HHS’ budget brief, the President’s proposal includes $201 million in investments in program integrity for FY 2016 and $4.6 billion over ten years. These investments include continuing to fund the full Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control (HCFAC) discretionary cap adjustment, increasing mandatory Medicaid Integrity Program funding, and providing more funding to recovery auditors to undertake more corrective actions that will help reduce improper payments. In total, program integrity investments are estimated to yield roughly $21.7 billion in savings to Medicare and Medicaid over ten years. In addition, the Budget supports efforts to monitor and prevent fraud, waste and abuse in the private health insurance market including the Health Insurance Marketplace

II.  Medicare Appeals Process Reforms:

Health care providers should pay particular attention to the budget proposals that affect the Medicare appeals process, an area that has caused significant frustration over the last several years: Medicare and Medicaid contractors and appeals. In December 2013, the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) declared that it would stop assigning administrative law judge (ALJ) appeals. The Medicare appeals system had become severely backlogged with pending appeals, due in large part to a significant increase in Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) reviews of claims. CMS tried to alleviate this backlog through a RAC Audit “Pause”. This pause would allow RACs to complete their remaining claim audits and allow CMS to continue to refine and improve the RAC audit  Audit Program. Nevertheless, frustration with the arduous Medicare appeals process led three hospitals and the nation’s largest hospital association to sue HHS. In a subsequent effort to address the backlog and resulting delays, CMS presented a global settlement offer to hospitals to resolve certain backlogged claims on during Labor Day 2014.

As part of its ongoing efforts to improve the efficiency of the Medicare appeals system – and to reduce the backlog of appeals awaiting adjudication at OMHA – HHS proposes additional funding, administrative actions, and legislative proposals. For example,

  • $36 million is allocated for CMS to engage in discussion with providers to resolve disputes and additional funding for greater participation in ALJ Hearings at OMHA;
  • $270 million is allocated for OMHA, of which $140 million is in budget authority and $130 million is from legislative proposals. This figure constitutes a $53 million increase from FY 2015.

The Budget also expands adjudicatory capacity in new field offices in order to address the backlog for a number of appeals and maintain the quality and accuracy of its decisions. It also includes a package of legislative proposals that provide new authority and additional funding to address the backlog.  A summary of the Medicare appeals process reforms is as follows:

  • Provide OMHA and Departmental Appeals Board (DAB) Authority to Use Recovery Audit Contractor Collections – this would allow program recoveries to fully fund related appeals at OMHA and the DAB;
  • Establish a Refundable Filing Fee – a refundable, per claim filing fee for providers, suppliers, and State Medicaid agencies, including those acting as a representative of a beneficiary, at each level of Medicare appeal, would be instituted. This filing fee would allow HHS to invest in the appeals system in hopes of improving responsiveness and efficiency. Notably, these fees would be returned to appellants who receive a fully favorable appeal determination;
  • Establish Magistrate Adjudication for Claims with Amount in Controversy Below New ALJ Amount in Controversy Threshold – appealed claims below the federal district court amount in controversy threshold ($1,460 in CY 2015 and updated annually) would be heard by attorney adjudicators. This would allow ALJs to hear claims that are more complex and/or include higher dollar amounts.
  • Expedite Procedures for Claims with No Material Fact in Dispute – OMHA could issue decisions without holding a hearing if there is no material fact in dispute;
  • Increase Minimum Amount in Controversy for Administrative Law Judge Adjudication of Claims to Equal Amount Required for Judicial Review – the minimum amount in controversy required for adjudication by an ALJ would be increased to the Federal Court amount in controversy requirement ($1,460 in 2015). Appeals not reaching the minimum amount in controversy will be adjudicated by a Medicare magistrate;
  • Remand Appeals to the Redetermination Level with the Introduction of New Evidence – appeals where new documentary evidence is submitted at the second level of appeal or above would be remanded down to the first level of review. This could incentivize appellants to include all evidence early in the appeals process and ensure the same record is review and considered at subsequent levels of appeal; and
  • Sample and Consolidate Similar Claims for Administrative Efficiency – the Secretary HHS could adjudicate appeals through the use of sampling and extrapolation techniques. Additionally, the Secretary would be authorized to consolidate appeals into a single administrative appeal at all levels of the Medicare appeals process. Parties who are appealing claims included within an extrapolated overpayment, or consolidated previously, will be required to file one appeal request for any such claims in dispute.

III.  Final Remarks:

HHS insists that these proposal will allow OMHA to alleviate the ongoing backlog of appealed claims within the Medicare appeals system. However, these measures are not addressing one of the most significant problems with the entire process – the contractors themselves. No where in the budgetary proposals has HHS identified measures that would address the problem areas that RACs are historically known to create. For example, RACs are still reimbursed on a contingency fee arrangement. This arrangement create adverse incentives whereby RACs pursue (and generally deny) as many claims as possible. Yet, the contractors are not punished for adverse results that may be later overturned at any one of the appeals levels, in particular at the ALJ stage.

Has your hospital, practice, Home Health Agency, Hospice, DME Company, or PT / OT / ST Clinic been audited by a RAC or Zone Program Integrity Program (ZPIC)? Liles Parker regularly counsels health care providers on how best to proactively prepare for an audit and mitigate audit risks. As long as RACs are incentivized to pursue as many claims as possible, the likelihood of an audit of your practice is not “if” but “when.” If you have any questions or concerns regarding any ongoing – or future – RAC or ZPIC audit, please do not hesitate to give us a call at 1 (800) 475-1906.

Saltaformaggio, RobertRobert Saltaformaggio, Esq., serves as an Associate at Liles Parker, Attorneys & Counselors at Law.  Liles Parker attorneys represent health care providers around the country in connection with Medicare and Medicaid audits by ZPICs, RACs and specialty contractors. The firm also represents health care providers in connection with HIPAA Omnibus Rule risk assessments, privacy breach matters, State Licensure Board inquiries and regulatory compliance reviews.  For a free consultation, call Robert at:  1 (800) 475-1906

CMS Implements RAC Program Improvements

(January 9th, 2015) Health care providers increasingly complain that the Recovery Audit Program creates numerous administrative and financial burdens for those participating in the federal Medicare program. Providers continue to advocate for numerous changes to the program, especially those that will reduce their burden when dealing with Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs). In response to these concerns, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has implemented a number of RAC program improvements that took effect on December 30, 2014.

 

I. The Recovery Audit Program:

Congress created the RAC as an effort to identify and recover improper Medicare payments paid to health care providers. RACs accomplish this mission by detecting and collecting overpayments made on claims to health care services provided to Medicare beneficiaries, as well as by identifying underpayments to providers. Each RAC is responsible for identifying overpayments and underpayments in a geographically assigned area, which is approximately one quarter of the country. Moreover, RACs are responsible for highlighting common billing errors, trends (recently, for example, improper face-to-face documentation), and other Medicare payment issues to CMS.  After a successful three year demonstration, the program expanded and went national in 2009. RACs have since returned more than $8.9 billion to the Medicare Trust Fund while returning more than $800 million in underpayments to providers.

II. RAC Program Improvements Under the New Recovery Audit Contract:

Health care providers have voiced their concerns over many details of the Recovery Audit Program since its inception. For example, RACs are paid on a “contingency fee” basis. Providers contend that this reimbursement method incentivizes RACs to focus their audits on high-dollar inpatient claims. Furthermore, this payment structure incentivizes the contractors to deny as many claims as possible, with little regard for the accuracy of their denials. The volume of inappropriate denials has subsequently led to widespread delays in the Medicare appeals process. To date, there is at least a two-year delay for appeals to be heard at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level.

While Congressional action may be the most vital tool to improve the Recovery Audit Program, CMS has begun to take measures to listen to provider concerns and feedback. On December 30, 2014, CMS awarded the first national recovery audit contract to Connolly, LLC[1].

The contract pertains to Region 5, which is national in scope and will allow Connolly to audit Medicare claims for Durable Medical Equipment and Home Health and Hospice (DME/HH-H). Since 2006, Connolly has also served as the exclusive RAC for Region C, which covers 17 states and territories in the southern part of the United States.

With this new contract, CMS announced that a number of new changes would take effect in the program.

III. RAC Program Improvements are Intended to Help With Provider Interaction:

CMS believes that the new changes will “result in a more effective and efficient program, by enhanced oversight, reduced provider burden, and more program transparency.”  A significant improvement to the program will limit the look-back period for patient status reviews. Previously, RACs had a three-year look-back period in which to audit claims. Under the changes, CMS will restrict this look-back period to only six months from the date of service for patient status reviews. However, hospitals must submit the claim within three months of the date of service for this to take effect.

Providers also have voiced their concerns regarding the timeframe for RACs to complete a review of a claim. This timeframe forced providers to wait 60 days before being notified of the outcome of their complex reviews. Now, that period has been cut in half – RACs will only have 30 days to complete complex reviews and notify the provider of their findings. This should give providers more immediate feedback on the outcome so that they can assess how to proceed in case of a negative finding.

The changes further the “discussion period” process but with a very significant improvement. RACs had been required to stop the discussion period once they were notified of an appeal by a provider. Under the new changes, RACs must now wait 30 days following their determination, which will allow the provider to request a discussion with the RAC before sending the claim to a Medicare Administrative Contractor for adjustment. This development should allow providers not to be forced to choose between initiating a discussion and an appeal, and they can be assured that modifications to the improper payment determination will be made prior to the claim being sent for adjustment. RACs will also be forced to adhere to a process for confirming receipt of provider correspondence, including discussion requests, within three days of receipt.

CMS has also made adjustments to the RACs’ contingency fee model of payment. Formerly, RACs were paid immediately upon denial and recoupment of the claim. RACs now must wait to be reimbursed their contingency fee until after the second level of appeal has been exhausted. This delay in payment should help assure leery providers that the decision made by the contractor was correct based on Medicare’s statutes, guidelines, coverage determination, regulations, and manuals.

Notably, several of the changes relate to the volume of reviews. These changes should help providers who have felt over-burdened by inpatient status reviews. First, reviews will be diversified across all claim types (e.g. inpatient, outpatient, etc.) so that providers with multiple claim types are not disproportionately impacted by an audit in one claim type. Second, providers unfamiliar to the RAC program will have review limits applied incrementally to allow them to adjust to reviews. Finally, providers with a low level of denial rates will have a lower level of review while providers with high denial rates will have higher ADR limits. Even more, the rates will be adjusted as a provider’s denial rate declines.

IV. Enhancing CMS’ Oversight and Implementing Performance Standards:

CMS also increased its oversight over the Recovery Audit Program and instituted several performance standards for the RACs. For example, providers have voiced concerns that the contractors were not penalized for high appeal overturn rates. RACs must now maintain an overturn rate of less than 10% at the first level of appeal. If they don’t, they will be placed on a corrective action plan, including decreasing ADR limits or ceasing certain kinds of reviews until the problem is corrected.

In addition, for automated reviews, RACs must maintain a 95% accuracy rate. If they fail to do so, there will be a progressive reduction in their ADR limits. CMS will also continue to use a validation contractor to assess RAC identifications and will improve the new issue review process to help ensure the accuracy of RAC automated reviews.

V. Final Remarks:

It will be interesting to see if any of the proposed changes have a positive effect on the relationship between Medicare providers and the RACs. However, providers should be aware – these updates and improvements will not go in effect for a particular RAC until a new contract has been awarded. Thus, these changes will only affect those DME / HH-H providers under the jurisdiction of Connolly. CMS did announce that the Region 3 contract would be in place at the end of 2014; however, there is no particular contractor in place at this time. Furthermore, CMS’ website reflects that Regions 1, 2, and 4 will not be awarded new contracts until the summer of 2015.

Nevertheless, Medicare providers will continue to face the ongoing administrative and financial burdens created by RACs. You should be prepared to effectively handle an audit of your claims when – not if – the ADR is made. Despite your best efforts to follow the Medicare statutes, guidelines, and regulations, your organization will be subjected to a prepayment review or a full-blown, post-payment audit. Should you receive a request for records from a RAC, advanced preparation can help ensure your organization’s compliance with applicable documentation, coding and billing requirements. Let us help you prepare for this complicated process. If you are currently dealing with a RAC audit, or would like to know how you can best prepare for one, give us a call today.

Saltaformaggio, RobertRobert Saltaformaggio, Esq., serves as an Associate at Liles Parker, Attorneys & Counselors at Law.  Liles Parker attorneys represent health care practices around the country in connection with Medicare, Medicaid and private payor audits.  The firm also represents health care providers in connection with HIPAA Omnibus Rule risk assessments, privacy breach matters, State Licensure Board inquiries and regulatory compliance reviews.  For a free consultation, call Robert at:  1 (800) 475-1906

[1] The contract pertains to Region 5, which is national in scope and will allow Connolly to audit Medicare claims for Durable Medical Equipment and Home Health and Hospice (DME/HH-H). Since 2006, Connolly has also served as the exclusive RAC for Region C, which covers 17 states and territories in the southern part of the United States.

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