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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.

Pierce the Corporate Veil-Can Healthcare Owners Be Personally Liable?

Corporate Boardroom(March 13, 2015): Owners of healthcare companies often wonder whether the government can pierce the corporate veil and try to hold the owners personally liable for overpayment claims when facing ZPIC and MAC contractor audits. This rarely happens, but one way for these contractors to collect overpayment demands is by piercing the corporate veil.  A healthcare provider usually has one or more individual owners. The owners need to organize the provider into an entity such as a corporation or Limited Liability Company (LLC). This is specifically done to limit each individual owner’s personal liability. Owners of incorporated health care providers can only be found personally liable for their companies’ debts to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) in certain very narrow circumstances, one of which is “piercing the corporate veil.”

I.  Will the Government Seek to Pierce the Corporate Veil?

The legal doctrine of piercing the corporate veil allows creditors to reach through the corporate structure and collect their debts from shareholders or similar owners. This doctrine is not unique to healthcare. In fact it is a potential way for all creditors to collect debts from individual entity owners.

CMS and its contractors rarely seek to pierce the corporate veil, and courts also tend to disfavor the practice. Veil piercing depends on facts that by their nature are difficult to prove in court. The burden of proving the facts is always on the creditor. Even though it may be difficult for a creditor to prove these facts exist, it is still important to know how a creditor could pierce a healthcare corporation’s “veil” to prevent individual owner liability. Creditors must prove specific factors to justify imposing liability on owners for a provider’s debts to CMS, including the following:

  1. Defective Incorporation: If the legal statutory requirements for organizing the corporation or LLC are not met, no corporation exists to shield owners from liability.

  2. Ignoring the Separateness of the Corporation: Entering into contracts and otherwise transacting business variously in a corporate name and an individual name can justify piercing the corporate veil. Commingling corporate and individual assets, transferring assets between the provider and an owner without formalities, or transferring assets between the provider and a sister company, can also suggest the owners did not respect the separate nature of the entity, potentially allowing CMS to pierce the corporate veil.

  3. Significant Undercapitalization: A corporation must have a reasonably sufficient amount of capital to pay its expected debts. Undercapitalization is grounds to impose liability on the owners.

  4. Excessive Dividends or Other Payments to Owners: When owners are actually working for a corporation, they can usually pay themselves fair compensation, as long as it is clearly characterized as salary or wages. However, additional dividends and other non-compensation distributions can only be safely taken out by an owner to the extent the distributions reflect profits. If an owner takes non-compensation distributions exceeding profits, these distributions constitute a return of capital and can give rise to an undercapitalization claim by a corporate creditor. If such distributions are made when the corporation is insolvent, the creditors’ claims against the owner will be almost impossible to defend.

  5. Misrepresentation and other Unfair Dealings with Creditors: Deceptive practices such as dishonesty, false statements to corporate creditors, and asset concealment can make owners liable for corporate debts.

  6. Absence or Inaccuracy of Records: If corporate records are missing or inaccurate, this can form a basis to pierce the corporate veil, especially if they hinder a creditor’s collection efforts against the provider.

  7. Failure to Maintain Ongoing Legal Requirements: Each state’s statutes impose annual franchise fees and report-filing requirements on corporations and similar entities. These usually have grace periods and cure provisions, but if they are neglected long enough the corporation or LLC will legally cease to exist, resulting in owner liability.

II.  Case Example:

In United States v. Bridle Path Enterprises, Inc., a Massachusetts federal district court held the owners of a home health agency personally liable for the provider’s Medicare overpayment debt. The provider, Bridle Path, made payments toward the overpayment until they sold all of their assets to another provider. At the time of the sale, $64,807.84 was outstanding on the overpayment liability. The United States sought to hold Bridle Path’s owners personally liable for the Medicare overpayment, using the piercing the corporate veil doctrine. Due to the number of checks Bridle Path wrote to its owners, their home health agency, and their real-estate holding company, the court found that the owners did not treat Bridle Path as a separate corporate entity and pierced the corporate veil to hold the owners liable for the Medicare debt.

 III.  Final Remarks:

If any of the factors above exist, CMS and its Medicare contractors can seek to pierce the corporate veil of a healthcare provider’s company and collect debts from the provider’s owners. These circumstances are not typical for health care providers and are easily avoided by maintaining personal owner dealings separate from all entity business.  Do your practice’s day-to-day operations expose you to unnecessary liability?  If your business was assessed a huge fine and forced into bankruptcy, are you 100% confident that you, as the owner, will be free of individual liability? If you have any questions about this or any other health law issue, call 1-800-475-1906 for a complimentary consultation.

Robert W. Liles is a health care attorney experienced in handling prepayment reviews and audits.The attorneys at Liles Parker, Attorneys & Counselors at Law represent health care suppliers and providers around the country. We specialize in regulatory compliance reviews, Medicare audits, HIPAA Omnibus Rule risk assessments, privacy breach matters, and State Medical Board inquiries. If you have any questions about healthcare provider liability, contact us at:  1 (800) 475-1906.

Medicare Administrative Contractor Changes — MAC Changes and Update.

(July 5, 2012): Recently, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has done some realignment of its Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC or AC) jurisdictions for Medicare Parts A and B. In addition, it has actively sought proposals through a competitive bidding process to get the most cost-effective contractors processing Medicare claims. Because of all of these changes, it can be confusing for affected providers to know which contractors are coming or going. In addition, it is important to keep in mind that the transition of MACs can create problems and inconsistencies in claims processing and Medicare post-payment appeal issues.  As MAC changes take place, it is important that you review the MAC’s guidance and ensure that your documentation, medical necessity, coding and billing requirements are being met

I.  Recent MAC Changes:

The most striking change over the past several months has been the transition of MAC Jurisdiction H (Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Colorado) from TrailBlazer Health Enterprises to Highmark (Novitas Services). TrailBlazer recently lost its bid protest to retain the contract for this jurisdiction. During the transition period, providers in Jurisdiction H should carefully inspect all remittance notices and explanation of benefits forms to ensure that billing, coding, and payment functions continue as expected. In addition, providers appealing Medicare audit results by Health Integrity (the Zone Program Integrity Contractor (ZPIC) for this region) should seek legal advice when filing redetermination appeals, as it may not be obvious to whom an appeal should be sent. Sending the appeal to the wrong location could negatively affect your appeal rights, especially if you are close to the appeal deadline of 120 days.

Last year, CIGNA Government Services lost its contract for many East Coast States, such as North and South Carolina, to Palmetto GBA. While much of this transition was smooth, we have seen instances when appeals information and repayment information related to Medicare post-payment audits was not correctly sent from one contractor to the other. This has resulted in significant time and expense in “putting the pieces back together” when trying to get CIGNA to review its old files and simultaneously identifying what information Palmetto actually does have. Nevertheless, with perseverance, it is possible to recreate a record of payment information during the transition period. Keep this in mind if you are in the middle of an audit with any of these contractors.

II.  Possible Contractors We Will See After the Consolidation:

Finally, CMS is planning on further consolidating all of the Part A and B MACs from 15 right now to just 10 in 2016. While no one knows for sure who will win each contract, expect some of the bigger names now processing claims to win those contracts in the future. These may include:

Call us for additional information on current MAC contract awards, bid protests, and possible restructuring of the MAC system.

It is important for providers and their office managers to keep alert when seeing anything from a MAC. In addition to processing claims, MACs conduct redetermination appeals and may also initiate their own audits of a provider’s claims. While these are usually on a smaller scale than ZPIC audits, they often act as a precursor or probe audit before receiving a much more expansive – and potentially damaging – audit from a ZPIC. As such, it is important to fight these smaller audits as well.

Robert LilesRobert Liles is the managing member of Liles Parker PLLC. Located in our Washington, D.C., office, Robert represents providers in Medicare post-payment audits and appeals, and similar appeals under Medicaid. In addition, Robert counsels clients on regulatory compliance issues, performs gap analyses and internal reviews, and trains healthcare professionals on various legal issues. For a free consultation, call Robert today at:  1 (800) 475-1906.

ZPIC Participation in ALJ Hearings is Increasing

ZPIC contractors are auditing Medicare claims around the country(February 12, 2011):  Over the last year, we have noted an important trend when representing Medicare providers in post-payment overpayment cases at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level of appeal.   Medicare contractors are actively attending and participating in many ALJ hearings.  In fact, it is now common for a Zone Program Integrity Contractor (ZPIC) to participate in these proceedings. The virtual “Courtroom” where ALJ hearings are typically held (most ALJ hearings are now held by teleconference or video-teleconference — few are conducted in person) are no longer attended by only a provider, its attorney and the Judge.   Instead, it is now relatively crowded, requiring the scheduling of experts and the testimony of various clinical specialists — representing not only the provider, but also one or more government Medicare contractors.  Although mostly limited to “big-box” cases where the amount at issue ranges from $100,000 to several million dollars, we have even had ZPIC participation in ALJ hearings involving alleged overpayments of only a few thousand dollars.

This “sea change” in how the government and its contractors view their role in working to help ensure that alleged overpayments stay in place demands that providers reconsider their decision to represent themselves in ALJ appeals hearings.  While many health care providers feel comfortable handling an ALJ hearing on their own when the only parties on the teleconference or on the video-teleconference are the Judge and the Medicare providers themselves, it is a completely different situation when one or more contractors elects to participate in the hearing and present their denial reasons to the ALJ.  The purpose of this article to examine this trend and discuss a number of considerations that Medicare providers should be taking into account when deciding whether or not to represent themselves at ALJ hearing, without an attorney.

I.  Rights / Limitations of a ZPIC or Other Contractor When Acting as a “Participant” in an ALJ Hearing:

Pursuant to 42 C.F.R. § 405.1010, both representatives from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and its contractors may participate in an ALJ hearing.  Moreover, an ALJ may request that CMS or its contractors participate in a hearing.  As the regulatory provisions provide:

“(a) An ALJ may request, but may not require, CMS and/or one or more of its contractors to participate in any proceedings before the ALJ, including the oral hearing, if any. CMS and/or one or more of its contractors may also elect to participate in the hearing process.

(b) If CMS or one or more of its contractors elects to participate, it advises the ALJ, the appellant, and all other parties identified in the notice of hearing of its intent to participate no later than 10 calendar days after receiving the notice of hearing.

(c) Participation may include filing position papers or providing testimony to clarify factual or policy issues in a case, but it does not include calling witnesses or cross-examining the witnesses of a party to the hearing. (emphasis added).

(d) When CMS or its contractor participates in an ALJ hearing, the agency or its contractor may not be called as a witness during the hearing.

(e) CMS or its contractor must submit any position papers within the time frame designated by the ALJ.

(f) The ALJ cannot draw any adverse inferences if CMS or a contractor decides not to participate in any proceedings before an ALJ, including the hearing.”

While ZPICs and other contractors may not “cross-examine” a Medicare provider or its witnesses during an ALJ hearing, contractors have easily worked around this regulatory obstacle.  Rather than confront a provider directly, a contractor will merely point out their concerns or make a specific point to the Judge.  The presiding ALJ will often then merely ask the provider the same questions first raised by the ZPIC.  As a result, a Medicare contractor never has to cross-examine the provider but his points and questions are still ultimately answered.  For instance, the following very simple exchange might occur during an ALJ hearing:

“ALJ:  I would like to hear the Medicare contractor’s views regarding the medical necessity of this E/M claim.

ZPIC:  Your honor, the 1997 E/M Guidelines clearly reflect the types of situations which would qualify as “High Complexity.”  We don’t believe that the facts here represented that level of complexity.  Additionally, the physician is now alleging that the patient suffered from multiple serious co-morbities which complicated the medical decision-making required.  Where is there proof that the patient had these conditions?

ALJ:  Dr. Smith, can you point out where these medical conditions are documented in the medical records submitted?”

In most instances, a provider should expect ZPIC participation in their ALJ hearing.  Moreover, a provider should expect for the ZPIC to point out weaknesses in the provider’s case.  ALJ’s are seeking to determine the facts and decide whether the claims at issue qualify for coverage and payment.  When a ZPIC raises a concern, most ALJ’s will want to follow-up with the provider in order to obtain an answer regarding the points raised.

Over the last year, we have also seen a marked  increase in the number of ZPIC participation cases, either at the hearing stage or where the ZPIC seeks permission to file a post-hearing brief with the Court.  This can be especially problematic for providers who choose to represent themselves at hearing because the ZPICs have used this as an opportunity to present new evidence and/or new arguments that were never introduced at lower levels of the case or at ALJ hearing.  As a result, the provider is often placed in the position of trying to respond to new arguments, never before presented by the ZPIC or other contractors, at the last minute in the ALJ hearing process.

II.  The Nature of ZPIC Participation:

Medicare providers should keep in mind that both ZPICs and Program Safeguard Contractors (PSCs) are quite sophisticated and are becoming more and more active in the ALJ hearing process, often replying to arguments presented to the Judge by a Medicare provider.  Moreover, it is not uncommon for a ZPIC to send as many as three professionals to participate in an ALJ hearing — all of whom may ultimately defend the ZPIC’s initial denial of the provider’s Medicare claims.  One of the ZPIC representatives very well may be an attorney.  A ZPIC contractor against whom we regularly litigate often sends a licensed attorney to respond to pro-provider arguments that the claims qualify for payment because they were not reopened in a timely fashion or that even if the claims do not meet all of the applicable coverage requirements, any overpayment would still qualify for “waiver.”  The ZPIC’s attorney may also respond to a number of limited arguments presented by a provider when trying to get a statistical extrapolation declared invalid by an ALJ.   It has been our experience that the ZPIC’s attorney is typically polished, smart and prepared.  When facing an unrepresented physician, the ZPIC’s lawyer would likely easily address any non-medical arguments presented by a Medicare provider.  A second ZPIC or PSC representative likely to participate in an ALJ hearing is the contractor’s statistician.  He is responsible for defending the legitimacy of the statistical sampling and extrapololation methodology employed by the ZPIC or PSC when extrapolating the damages in a case.  While a significant number of physicians and other health care providers are knowledgeable in statistics and mathematics, few know or understand the regulatory requirements which must be met before a contractor may engage in statistical sampling and seek to extrapolate damages.  As a result, few unrepresented providers have been able to convince an ALJ that an extrapolation is invalid.  While the additional cost of engaging a statistical expert to review a ZPICs extrapolation actions can be costly, it is likely required if a provider hopes to have a reasonable chance of challenging an extrapolation.   Finally, it is quite common for a ZPIC to send a third representative (typically a Registered Nurse) to provide clinical testimony in support of the ZPIC’s decision not to cover and pay certain claims, often citing the ZPIC’s own unique interpretation of LCD and LMRP requirements (an interpretation with which we often disagree).  Overall, an unrepresented provider is often unprepared to address and respond to the many legal, statistical and clinical arguments presented by the various ZPIC participants in an ALJ hearing.

While ZPIC and PSC representatives are now regularly participating in ALJ hearings, they are not the only contractors who are prepared to rise to the challenge.   Representatives of the Qualified Independent Contractor (QIC) have also been participating in some ALJ hearings.   In cases we are aware of, the QIC representative has been an attorney working for the contractor.  Nevertheless, there is nothing to prevent a clinician working for the QIC from attending the ALJ hearing and presenting the QIC’s arguments why certain claims did not qualify for coverage and payment.  Additionally, in at least one fairly recent case we handled on behalf of a provider, a Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) clinical reviewer chose to participate in the ALJ hearing.

III.  What are the Differences Between a “Party” to a Hearing and a “Participant” in a Hearing?

As 42 C.F.R. § 405.1010(c) reflects, there are significant differences between a party to an ALJ hearing and a participant in an ALJ hearing.   As we previously discussed, a “participant”  does not have the right to call witnesses or cross-examine parties or their witnesses.  Additionlly, participants do not have the right to object to the issues described in the ALJ’s “Notice of Hearing.”  As CMS has argued, these elements are “cornerstones” of the adversarial process.  In the absence of these cornerstones, a proceeding is not considered to be adversarial, even though multiple Medicare contractor representatives may participate in an ALJ hearing.  As a result, since the proceeding was not adversarial in nature, a provider will be precluded from seeking to have its attorney’s fees paid under the “Equal Access to Justice Act,” even though it ultimately prevailed at hearing.   While perhaps technically correct, the idea that ALJ hearings are truly “non-adversarial” when Medicare contractors choose to join as a “participant” is flatly untrue.   ZPIC lawyers, clinical reviewers and expert statisticians have proven themselves to be highly capable and effective when arguing their positions, despite the fact that their role in the hearing was considered to be “non-adversarial” in nature.  To their credit, even though both sides may be passionate about their position on the issues, all of the ALJs we have practiced before have kept a strict rein on the proceedings.

IV.  Providers Should Consider Engaging Experienced Legal Counsel to Represent them in an ALJ Appeal:

When faced with an administrative overpayment case that is highly complex, involves a significant alleged overpayment or is based on a statistical extrapolation of damages, we recommend that a Medicare provider retain experienced legal counsel to represent the provider’s interests.  While it is possible for an experienced attorney to step in and handle a case at a later level of administrative appeal (such as the QIC and ALJ levels), it becomes more and more difficult to do so in an effective fashion as the case progresses.  We have seen a number of cases where a provider has failed to properly establish the record in a case and important supportive documentation stood the chance of not being admitted in the record because the provider failed to introduce it at lower levels of appeal.  An experienced attorney can help ensure that the record is properly constructed and no important legal defenses or payment arguments have been left out of the case.  Additionally, legal counsel will be able to assess the coverage requirements, identify possible holes in the provider’s case and work with the provider to identify witnesses and obtain supportive evidence to hopefully fill any gaps in the provider’s case.

V.          Conclusion:

As a final point, it essential to remember that the trier of fact, the ALJ responsible for presiding over the provider’s case, is a lawyer, not a clinician.  Arguably, an experienced health law attorney– rather than a clinician — is uniquely trained to analyze the legal issues presented, organize the provider’s facts and present the relevant evidence to the ALJ (another attorney).  Having said that, an experienced attorney is no substitute for a qualified clinician who can directly address the clinical profiles of the beneficiaries and the medical necessity issues presented. Together, a supporting clinician and a skilled attorney can be a formidable team when arguing a Medicare provider’s case.  Moreover, this team is best equipped to respond to any arguments raised by participating ZPIC representatives during the overpayment hearing.

Robert W. Liles defends health care providers in Medicare ZPIC auditsRobert W. Liles serves as Managing Partner at Liles Parker, Attorneys & Counselors at Law. Attorneys in the Firm’s Health Law Practice have extensive experience representing health care providers around the country in ZPIC, PSC and RAC overpayment appeals cases .  Should you have any questions about your case or the overpayment appeals process, please feel free to call us for a complimentary consultation.   We can be reached at 1 (800) 475-1906.

Keeping an Eye on Medicare’s AdQIC

Robert W. Liles represents Medicare providers and suppliers in appeals cases(December 29, 2010): At the outset, it is important to keep in mind that the following observations merely reflect our opinions, nothing more, regarding the participation of an AdQIC in the Medicare appeals areas.  These observations are based on our experiences working on  health care provider post-payment audits of Medicare claims, over many years.

I.     Overview of the AdQIC’s Stated Responsibilities:

Many health care providers are familiar with the revised administrative appeals process for contesting denied Medicare claims.  In exercising their appeal rights, many providers (or their legal counsel) have appealed denied claims through the second level of appeal, submitting their claims and arguments in support of payment to the Qualified Independent Contractor (QIC) responsible for hearing reconsideration appeals. Q2 Administrators (Q2A) is one of the contractors selected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to serve as a QIC.

Notably, Q2A has also been awarded the first task order to serve as Administrative Qualified Independent Contractor (AdQIC). Q2A’s responsibilities as AdQIC are separate and distinct from its responsibilities as one of the general QICs chosen by CMS to serve as the reconsideration reviewer of denied Medicare claims.

The role played by Q2A as AdQIC is often misunderstood by many health care providers.  Officially, Q2A performs its AdQIC duties out of its headquarters in Columbia, South Carolina.  As Q2A’s reflects, in its role as AdQIC, is responsible for performing a number of essential administrative appeal functions.  As AdQIC, QA2 notes that the unit is responsible for:

  • Developing training and standard work protocols.
  • Analyzing appeal outcomes.
  • Recommending improvements to the appeals process.
  • Managing case files.

Sounds fairly innocuous doesn’t it?  Unfortunately, the current AdQIC system represents a major challenge for prevailing providers to overcome.  Rather than merely “analyzing appeal outcomes,” as Q2A’s website reflects, the AdQIC has effectively become CMS’ appellate counsel, challenging favorable decisions by Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) with which it disagrees (typically because the decision is not supported by the record or allegedly incorrectly applies the law).   At this time, we have not seen any cases where an ALJ ruled against a health care provider but the AdQIC chose to appeal the negative determination, irrespective of any action that the provider might choose to take.  Instead, our review of the cases referred to the Medicare Appeals Council (MAC) by the AdQIC suggests that unit is only interested in cases where the presiding ALJ has ruled in favor of the provider.

 II.     So What Does as AdQIC Really Do?

As Q2A’s website reflects, the company’s stated mission is to:

“[P]rovide support and services to the Federal government and other customers that reflect our ideal of ‘Quality to the Next Level.’ Q2A delivers consistent, quality outcomes and solutions for our customers by utilizing sound processes and a stringent quality assurance program. (emphasis added).

On its face, Q2A’s mission expressly reflects where its interests lie – the company’s focus is on delivering “consistent, quality outcomes and solutions” for its “customers.”  In the case, the customer is CMS, not health care providers.  As the “Frequently Asked Questions” section Q2A’s website reflects:

Question:  What happens after I receive a favorable (emphasis added) ALJ Decision? 

Answer:  Favorable rulings by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) do not result in immediate payment of claims.

Once an ALJ rules favorably on an appeal, the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) forwards the decision and case file to the Administrative Qualified Independent Contractor (AdQIC).

The AdQIC subsequently has 10 days to update the appeals tracking system and to decide whether the case requires further review by the Medicare Appeal Council or is sent to the Medicare contractor for payment. The AdQIC’s review cannot begin until it receives the case file. Regulations do not require the OMHA to forward case files within a given amount of time.

If the AdQIC refers the case to the Medicare Appeals Council, the Medicare contractor that processed the original claim is notified. Effectuations (payment of claims) made by the contractor are then contingent upon the Medicare Appeal Council’s decision.

For ALJ decisions that require no further review, the AdQIC sends an effectuation notice to the contractor, who must then pay specified claim amounts within 30 days. Effectuations in which the contractor must calculate the amount may take up to 60 days.

While an AdQIC doesn’t have the authority to appeal a favorable ALJ decision to the MAC, it can (and often will) refer a case (where the provider prevailed) to the MAC and ask that the Council review the decision.  Two primary points of contention have been typically been appealed by the AdQIC:

(1)   Cases where the ALJ has overturned an extrapolation of damages.

(2)   Cases where the ALJ has held that a provider is not liable for alleged overpayments associated with one or more claims under Section 1870 of the Social Security Act.

In many (but not all) cases, the MAC will, in fact, open and review an ALJ’s favorable decision.  We have handled cases where the MAC chose not to review a favorable case holding, depsite the fact that it was referred by the AdQIC.  When the MAC chooses to review a holding, it may issue its own judgment or it may choose to remand the case back to the presiding ALJ for his / her reconsideration of the contested points.

III.     Don’t Go Into This Process Alone – Retain Experienced Legal Counsel:  

As Medicare claims audit and assessment efforts increase (through CMS’ use of ZPICs, RACs and PSCs), health care providers will be under increasing pressure to ensure that statutory and regulatory coding and billing requirements are met.  Despite your best efforts to remain compliant, you may find that your practice or clinic is subjected to review.  Should that occur, we strongly recommend that you retain qualified, experienced legal counsel to represent your interests.  In a number of cases, we have been retained by other law firms to assist with administrative appeals.  When working with other law firms, the level of our involvement has varied from case to case.

IV.     When is a “Win” Truly a “Win”?

Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more difficult each year to rely on a favorable ALJ ruling.  Over the past year, the AdQIC has become more aggressive than ever in challenging holdings with which it disagrees.  As a result, it is important that your counsel plan for beyond the ALJ level when asserting defenses to the government’s arguments.  While a number of arguments may be persuasive to an ALJ, the same arguments may also automatically generate a referral by an AdQIC to the MAC. When hiring an attorney to handle your Medicare claims case, be sure and ask prospective counsel the following:

  1. How much of your law practice is devoted to health law issues?
  2. Please describe the extent of your experience handling large, complex administrative appeals of denied Medicare claims.
  3. How often have you responded to AdQIC appeals of favorable ALJ decisions?
  4. How often have you handled MAC appeals?
  5. Can you provide provider references?

Hopefully, your practice will not face a large administrative appeal of denied Medicare claims.  However, should such an event occur, you need to be ready to respond to the contractor’s audit.  While there are no guarantees in this business, knowledge of the rules and experience handling administrative appeals may prove essential to increasing the likelihood of your success.

Robert W. Liles defends health care providers in Medicare auditsRobert W. Liles, J.D. represented healthcare providers and suppliers around the country.  Liles Parker attorneys have extensive experience handling complex Medicare administrative appeals.  Our attorneys have represented Home Health Agencies, Hospice Companies, Ambulance Companies, Chiropractic Clinics, Physical / Occupational / Speech Therapy Clinics, Nursing Homes, Physician Practices (E/M Claims), Psychology Practices, DME Companies and a wide variety of other Medicare Part A and Part B providers.  Should your practice or clinic be audited by a ZPIC, RAC or PSC, give us a call for a free consultation.  We can be reached at: 1 (800) 475-1906.