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CMS Issues New Instructions to its Contractors Regarding the Scope of Claim Appeals

October 14, 2015 by  
Filed under Health Law Provider Updates

Doc Prescription(October 15, 2015): In an effort to stem the ever-increasing tide of claim appeals, CMS recently issued new guidance (MLN Matters SE1521) to its Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) and Qualified Independent Contractors (QICs) regarding the conduct of requests for redetermination and reconsideration, respectively. Effective 08/01/15, MACs and QICs may no longer review claims denied during postpayment audits and develop their own bases for unfavorable appeal decisions. Instead, the contractors are now required to review claims in light of the denial reason set forth by the entity that performed the initial audit. This rule will not be applicable in cases where claims are denied on a post-payment basis because the providers failed to submit medical records.

MLN Matters SE1521 should work to the benefit of providers who are subject to sloppy Zone Program Integrity Program (ZPIC) audits and reviews by recovery auditors, MACs, and the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (SMRC). For example, we often encounter cases where ZPIC audit contractors have erroneously denied claims due to a purported lack of documentation or review claims using a patently unreasonable interpretation of a coverage standard. In years past, the MACs and QICs would simply ignore these flawed denial rationales and develop new bases for their unfavorable decisions. Moving forward, this will no longer be a possibility.

It is important to emphasize that Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) who conduct hearings at the third level of the appeals process are not subject to this rules discussed in MLN Matters SE1521. Medicare regulations are clear that ALJs are free to conduct de novo reviews of claims and are not bound by the decisions of prior adjudicators / auditors.

Unfortunately, MLN Matters SE1521 will not afford any relief to providers who are subject to prepayment reviews of their claims. CMS has made clear that MACs and QICs may still develop their own issues and articulate new reasons for denial in appeals of claims denied on a prepayment basis.

Providers whose claims are reviewed or subjected to a SMERC, RAC or ZPIC audit should contact qualified counsel to ensure that they maximize their chances for success at redetermination and reconsideration given this new guidance.

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 health care professionals around the country in connection with government audits of Medicaid and Medicare claims, administrative appeals of denied claims, licensure matters and transactional projects.  Need assistance?  For a free consultation, please call: 1 (800) 475-1906.

Medicare Administrative Appeals Process – An Overview for New Providers

(August 15, 2012):  Is this your first time being audited by a Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) or a Zone Program Integrity Contractor (ZPIC)?  If so, the brief outline below can provide a handy summary of the Medicare appeals process.

I.  Step 1 — Request for Information:

Medicare AppealsIn most instances, a health care provider will receive notice of a Medicare post-payment audit by mail, either from the provider’s MAC or the ZPIC responsible for handling that region. This initial correspondence is significant. From this letter, a provider can usually surmise whether the initial review is merely a probe audit or an allegedly statistically relevant review.  Perhaps most importantly, a provider can typically learn the scope of the contractor’s review.  While many requests for documentation are limited to medical records and claims-related documentation, we are now seeing an increase in the number of audits where the ZPIC or MAC has also requested copies of “business” records, such as a listing of current and past employees, copies of contracts, and other materials which can assist the government in determining whether a provider is currently (or has) engaged in conduct which might violate the federal Anti-Kickback Statute or the Stark law.

While many providers feel comfortable responding to a MAC or ZPIC’s request for information, they do not always realize that pre-emptive steps can be taken at this point to help them present their documentation in its best light.  Equally important, a provider may not fully appreciate the importance of maintaining an accurate record for the Medicare appeals process.  Efforts to improperly supplement or correct an incomplete medical record can expose a provider to criminal liability. Providers must understand the rules. Don’t inadvertently turn a mere overpayment matter into a criminal case.

II.  1st Level of Appeal – Redetermination:

After assessing the documentation submitted, a MAC or ZPIC will then notify a provider in writing of their results.  Please note, if the initial Medicare audit was conducted by a ZPIC, you will first receive the ZPIC’s results – a demand letter from your MAC will likely arrive within a few days.  The Medicare audit decision letter and its attachments will identify any claims found to qualify for coverage and payment and should discuss why any denied claims did not Medicare’s payment requirements.

The MAC’s demand letter serves as a “revised initial determination.”  Unfortunately, a large part of the Medicare post-payment audits conducted by ZPICs find that the majority of claims should not have been paid.  Upon receipt of the MAC’s demand letter, you have 120 days to file an appeal with your MAC for redetermination. However, to avoid recoupment, you should file this appeal within 30 days of the date written on the MAC’s letter.  Rather than risk having monies recouped, the best practice is just to ensure that your appeal is received within 30 days of the date of the demand letter.  The first level of the Medicare administrative appeals process involves a contractor from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), highlighted on the HHS organizational chart in yellow.

III.  2nd Level of Appeal – Reconsideration:

After receiving a redetermination decision from the MAC (which, like the ZPIC’s finding, is usually unfavorable), you have 180 days to file a request for reconsideration with the Qualified Independent Contractor (QIC) assigned to your area. During this process, the QIC will review the documents you’ve submitted and make an independent determination about the propriety of coverage and payment for the claims at issue. To avoid recoupment at this level, you need to file an appeal within 60 days of the date of the redetermination decision.  Once again, the best practice is to base your filing deadline on the date of the QIC’s decision letter. This level of the Medical administrative appeals process  also involves a CMS contractor, again highlighted on the HHS org chart.

IV. 3rd Level of Appeal – Administrative Law Judge Hearing:

While the QIC sometimes issues favorable decisions, it often agrees with the contractors below and upholds the denial of your Medicare claims. At this point, you should file an appeal with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). This must be done within 60 days from the date of receipt of the QIC’s reconsideration decision letter. Keep in mind, in order to qualify to file the ALJ appeal, you must meet all other statutory requirements (such as an amount in controversy over $130). Notably, it has been our experience that the ALJ level of the Medicare appeals process has been the most reasonable and provider-friendly, although each ALJ is different. This level of appeal goes through the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA), which is highlighted on HHS’ org chart.

V.   4th Level of Appeal – Medicare Appeals Council

If the ALJ decision is unfavorable and you choose to appeal (or in some cases, the decision is provider-favorable and the Administrative QIC (the AdQIC) asks for a review), the next level of the Medicare appeals process is the Medicare Appeals Council (the Council). The Council is made up of senior ALJs with significant skill and experience in Medicare administrative matters. The Council generally looks at errors of law and abuses of discretion, similar to an appellate court. There are also a number of statutory bars that an appellant must overcome to have the Council review its case. The Council is part of the Departmental Appeals Board (DAB), which is highlighted on the HHS chart here.

VI. 5th Level of Appeal – Federal District Court

If a provider has not yet obtained the relief they seek at the lower levels of appeal, they may appeal the unfavorable Medicare claims decision to a Federal District Court (usually the district the provider’s office is in, although it is possible that a provider may also appeal to the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, since the Secretary of HHS is located here). Importantly, the District Court looks at Medicare appeals cases with a high degree of deference to the Agency’s determination. That is, the District Court Judge will often side with CMS and HHS unless the lower ALJ’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious” or “against the substantial weight of the evidence.” In the legal world, these are incredibly difficult standards to overcome, and providers generally do not have a great deal of success in court, especially considering the costs of the litigation. Nevertheless, it is an option that exists for dissatisfied providers. Since the District Court is not a part of HHS, it is not included in HHS’ organizational chart.

VII.  Final Remarks:

As you can imagine, the Medicare appeals process is ultimately much more complicated than this brief outline may suggest.  Representatives of the auditing ZPIC, the MAC and / or the QIC may choose to participate in the ALJ hearing in order to present their arguments in support of denial. Although these proceedings are technically non-adversarial,” these hearings can be both stressful and complicated, especially when both sides support their arguments with statistical and clinical experts. In any event, ALJs are experts at cutting through the smoke and determining whether claims do, in fact, qualify for coverage and payment.

While we recommend that providers avail themselves of the Medicare post-payment appeals process, it is essential that prior to filing an appeal, providers critically examine their claims and associated documentation.  Like it or not, sometimes the Medicare contractors are right – some claims shouldn’t be paid.   At the end of the day, providers need to conduct an honest assessment.  Does a particular claim truly qualify for coverage and payment?  If not, its post-payment denial should not be appealed.  As we always say, “if it’s not yours, give it back.” That is, if you can’t make a good faith argument about why certain claims are payable, they probably aren’t. Similarly, unrelated to the appeals process, have you identified claims that were erroneously paid?  It is often a good idea to consult with qualified health law counsel before reporting and returning an overpayment or going through the Medicare appeals process.

Robert LilesRobert Liles 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.

Lose Your Appeal at Reconsideration? Consider an ALJ Hearing

If you lose a Medicare appeal at Reconsideration, you can file for an ALJ Hearing.(June 18, 2011): As a review of the last several quarters of Medicare appeals statistics reflects, an overwhelming percentage of Medicare providers appealing alleged overpayments through the Medicare administrative appeals process have chosen to “throw in the towel,” so to speak, when they have lost at the reconsideration level.  As you will recall, at the reconsideration level, Medicare claims are assessed by a Qualified Independent Contractor (QIC) selected by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to hear the second level of administrative appeals.

According to statistics kept by Q2 Administrators, the contractor selected to serve as the Administrative QIC (AdQIC), most Medicare providers have chosen not to appeal claims denials issued by the QIC at the reconsideration level.  Nationwide, in the last eight quarters, the percentage of Part B QIC cases not being appealed has risen to an astounding 86%. This trend is also occurring in Part A QIC cases, where the numbers of non-appealed cases have grown from roughly half to 75%

The purpose of this article is to examine possible reasons why Medicare providers have chosen not to appeal claims denials to the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) to be heard by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).  We also examine points to be considered by providers if choosing to be represented by legal counsel in the ALJ hearing process.

I.  The Third Level of Appeal: ALJ Hearing:

For 2011, if at least $130 remains in controversy following a QIC’s denial decision at the reconsideration level, a Medicare provider may request an ALJ hearing within 60 days of receipt of the reconsideration denial decision. ALJ hearings are intended to be non-adversarial proceedings aimed at determining the facts so that questions of coverage and payment may be properly addressed.  It has been our experience that the ALJ level of appeal is a provider’s best opportunity to present its arguments in support of coverage and payment.

ALJ hearings are usually held by video-teleconference or by telephone, but you may also ask for an in-person hearing. While an ALJ hearing is the third level of the administrative appeals process, it is the first time that a provider is given an opportunity to testify, clarify points missed by reviewers at lower level of appeal and answer any questions that may be raised by the ALJ.

 II.  Why Are Most Medicare Providers Not Appealing Reconsideration Denials? 

When facing an overpayment determination levied by a Zone Program Integrity Contractor (ZPIC), a Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) or in some instances a Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC), the first question to be addressed by a Medicare provider is:

“Based on the record and the facts, should we have been paid for the services rendered and / or the products / devices provided to this Medicare beneficiary?” 

The answer to this question isn’t always as easy as it may initially seem.  Were the services medically reasonable and necessary?  Did you properly document the services? When faced with this question, the basic rule we recommend that providers follow is fairly simple – if it doesn’t belong to you, give it back.  In such a situation, a provider should examine the various reasons why the claim allegedly does not qualify for coverage and payment and should take steps to better ensure that any deficiencies are remedied. Additionally, any other overpayments noted must be promptly repaid to the government, with the 60 day period mandated under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

In cases where a provider (or their representative) contends that a claim does, in fact, qualify for payment, it typically appeals an overpayment assessment issued by a ZPIC, RAC or MAC.  Nevertheless, as previously discussed, the vast majority of providers who lose an appeal at the reconsideration level choose not to further appeal the denial. In speaking with Medicare providers, the primary reasons for not appealing any further include:

  • Cost / benefit considerations. By the time a provider reaches the ALJ level, the provider has already endured the time, expense and frustration of unsuccessfully arguing its case through two levels of appeal.  By this time, many providers conclude that the amount in controversy does not justify the time and expense of further appealing the QIC’s denial to the ALJ level.
  • Many providers are intimidated by the hearing process and do not feel comfortable participating in an ALJ hearing.  Despite the fact that ALJ hearings are typically conducted by teleconference, the process can still be quite intimidating.  ALJs almost always place testifying providers and their designated “experts” under oath before taking their testimony.  Additionally, if a provider has introduced new evidence into the record, it will be required to show “good cause” for its admission at this late stage of the proceedings.  Finally, most providers find that the ALJ handling their case is quite knowledgeable and typically has extensive experience analyzing coverage requirements and assessing the adequacy of a provider’s documentation.  Providers who have failed to adequately prepare for the hearing are likely to find that the process can be quite difficult.
  • The ALJ hearing process has become considerably more complicated due to the participation of ZPIC personnel. Over the past year, the ALJ hearing process has become quite complicated when dealing with large, “big box” overpayment cases.  For instance, in cases when damages have been extrapolated, it is quite common for representatives of the ZPIC who issued the initial denial decision to attend the hearing as a “participant.”  When this occurs, ZPIC representatives often include an attorney representing the ZPIC, a statistician who will be prepared to support the extrapolation applied in the case, and a clinician (typically a Registered Nurse) who will testify why the claims allegedly do not qualify for coverage.
  • In cases where a provider’s third-party biller has agreed to handle claims appeals, few billers have agreed to pursue a denial past the reconsideration level of appeal.    

III.  Consequences of Not Filing for ALJ Hearing:

Assuming that no extended repayment plan has been established and the alleged overpayment has not already been repaid, the MAC will initiate recoupment of the alleged overpayment 30 days after the QIC issues its denial decision. Unfortunately, this will occur regardless of whether a request for ALJ hearing is filed in a timely fashion.

Should a provider choose not to further appeal, its important to recognize that its “claims denial ratio” will increase.  As the government and its contractors increasingly rely on “data mining” when identifying potential targets for audit, providers with a high error rate will likely find their practices subject to further scrutiny.

 IV.  Don’t Give Up on Properly Billed Claims – Consider Your Options:  

As Medicare claims audit and assessment efforts increase (through CMS’ use of ZPICs, PSCs and RACs), health care providers will be under increasing pressure to ensure that all statutory and regulatory medical necessity, documentation, coding and billing requirements are met.  Despite a provider’s best efforts to remain compliant, it may find that its practice or clinic is alleged to have been overpaid by a Medicare contractor. Should that occur, we strongly recommend that you retain qualified, experienced legal counsel to represent your interests as early in the appeals process as possible.

Should you choose to handle the appeal yourself and lose at the reconsideration level, contact experienced legal counsel before deciding to discontinue the appeal.  Depending on the facts, you may find that it is both cost-effective and advisable to have your case handled at the ALJ level by experienced legal counsel.  When retaining counsel,  there are several important questions that you should ask:

  • How much of your law practice involves health law issues?

  • Please describe the extent of your experience handling large, complex administrative appeals of denied Medicare claims.

  • Please describe your experience in challenging statistical extrapolations applied to an alleged overpayment in a case.

  • How often have you responded to AdQIC appeals of favorable ALJ decisions?

  • How often have you handled MAC appeals?

  • 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.

V.  Conclusion:

 In addition to representing a wide variety of providers in the administrative appeals process, our Firm has been retained by a number of other law firms to assist them with large, complex administrative appeals.  After representing health care providers for many years in administrative hearings, involving literally tens of thousands of claims, it has been our experience that the ALJ level of appeal is the single best opportunity that a provider has to present its arguments in support of payment.

 While there are no guarantees in litigation, working with qualified clinical personnel, experienced legal counsel can effectively present a provider’s arguments to an ALJ assigned to hear the provider’s case.  Keep in mind, the trier of fact is an attorney – not a clinician or a consultant. Experience, coupled with an in-depth knowledge of the statutory and regulatory requirements at issue, may prove essential in proving your case. The ALJs we have practiced before have been attentive, knowledgeable, willing to listen to the provider’s viewpoint, and perhaps most importantly, fair If facing an ALJ hearing, consider the benefits of retaining experienced counsel when considering your options.

ALJ Hearing AttorneyRobert W. Liles, J.D., M.B.A., M.S. serves as Managing Partner at Liles Parker, Attorneys & Clients at Law.  Liles Parker attorneys have extensive experience representing Home Health, Hospice, CMHC, DME, Ambulance, Physician Practices, Nursing Homes, SNFs, and PT / ST / OT Therapy providers in the Medicare administrative appeals process. Our attorneys also work with providers to help better ensure that their Compliance Program addresses applicable statutory and regulatory requirements.   Need assistance?  Call us for a complimentary initial consultation.  We can be reached at:  1 (800) 475-1006.