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Lose Your Medicare Appeal at Reconsideration? Don’t Throw in the Towel Just Yet — Consider the Consequences and Your Options.

June 18, 2011 by  
Filed under ALJ Appeal, Featured

(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 and Medicaid Services (CMS) to hear the second level of administrative appeals.

According to statistics kept by Q2Administrators, the contractor selected to serve as the Administrative QIC (AdQIC), most Medicare providers have chosen not to appeal claims denials issued the QIC at the reconsideration level of appeal.  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 Medicare Appeals — ALJ Hearings

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 Providers Not Filing Medicare Appeals Past the Reconsideration Level? 

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 or the products / devices provided to the Medicare beneficiary?” 

The answer to this question isn’t always as easy as it may initially seem.  Having said that, 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 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 Taking Your Medicare Appeal to the ALJ Level

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 Before Declining to Pursue a Medicare Appeal  

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 Medicare 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 in support 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 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.   Neverthless, it is the job of your legal counsel to present the facts in a concise, coherent, persuasive fashion.  If your practice is facing an ALJ hearing, consider the benefits of retaining experienced counsel when considering your options.

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 

 

Has Your “Win” Before an ALJ Been Referred to the Medicare Appeals Council by the AdQIC?

December 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured, Guidance

(December 29, 2010): 

I.    Introduction: 

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.

III.    Official Duties of an AdQIC: 

The role played by Q2A as AdQIC is often misunderstood by both health care providers and attorneys alike.  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 appears to primarily serve as CMS’ appellate counsel, challenging favorable decisions by Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) with which it disagrees.   To be clear, we have seen no evidence that the AdQIC serves as an impartial reviewer of ALJ decisions.  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.

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 this case, the customer is CMS — not health care providers, and frankly, that’s undersandable.  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 argued by the AdQIC:

(1)   Cases where the ALJ has overturned an extrapolation of damages previously imposed by a Zone Program Integrity Contractor (ZPIC), as part of its initial audit.

(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.  The MAC may then remand the case back to the presiding ALJ for reconsideration of the contested points.

IV.     Be Prepared — 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.

V.      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:

  • How much of your law practice is devoted to health law issues?
  • Please describe the extent of your experience handling large, complex administrative appeals of denied Medicare claims.
  • 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.  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.

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, Physian 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 or RAC, give Robert W. Liles for a free consultation.  He can be reached at: 1 (800) 475-1906. 

ZPIC Contractors are Turning Up the Heat.

September 1, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured, Guidance

(September 1, 2010):

I.     Introduction — ZPIC Contractors Are Likely to Participate in Your ALJ Hearing:

As previously discussed, after representing health care providers for many years in administrative hearings, involving well over 10,000 Medicare claims this year alone, it has been our experience that Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) remain a provider’s single best opportunity to present its legal, regulatory and factual arguments in support of payment.  While there are no guarantees, the ALJs we have practiced before have been attentive, knowledgeable, willing to listen to the provider’s viewpoint, and perhaps most importantly, FAIR.  In recent years though, it has become more complicated for a health care provider to present it case during an ALJ hearing.  This is due, at least in part, to the fact that ZPIC auditors are now often showing up at the ALJ hearing to advise the Judge the reason(s) they decided to deny your Medicare claims.

 II.     The Medicare Appeals Hearing Process:

 Once a request for an ALJ hearing is filed, the Court generally takes one of three actions.  It either:\

Conducts the hearing and issues a decision (either Favorable, Partially Favorable or Unfavorable),

Issues an order of dismissal of the appellant’s request for ALJ hearing, or

Remands a case back to the Qualified Independent Contractor (QIC) for additional necessary action.

When appealing individual claims, a Court may choose to rule on behalf of the provider, without the necessity of a hearing.  However, in “big box,” multiple-claim, high dollar cases, a hearing is almost always held unless the appellant requests that the Court base its decision solely on the record, without the benefit fo testimony.  When hearings are held, they are usually conducted by teleconference or video-teleconference.  Upon request, the Court may (but is not required to) grant an “in-person” hearing.  However, it has been our experience that ALJs prefer to conduct hearings by other means.

If a favorable (or, for that matter, unfavorable) ruling is issued by the Court, a number of steps remain before the decision can be effectuated.  Medicare contractors (such as Intermediaries and Carriers — now, combined into entities known as “Medicare Administrative Contractors” (MACs)) do not immediately take action based the decision of the Court.   Instead, once an ALJ issues the Court’s decision regarding a case, a copy of the ruling is sent by the respective Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) to an organization known as the “Administrative Qualified Independent Contractor” (AdQIC).  The AdQIC is then responsible for reviewing the decision and sending it to the responsible MAC for effectuation.

 III.     Rise of the AdQIC — A New Factor to Consider in the Medicare Appeals Process:

In 2004, Q2 Administrators (Q2A) was awarded the first task order to serve as an AdQIC under the new administrative appeals process by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).  As Q2A’s website reflects, in its capacity as an AdQIC, the contractor is required to develop training and standard work protocols, analyze appeal outcomes, recommend improvements to the appeals process and manage case files.

 While the AdQIC does, in fact, perform all of the above functions, the likelihood of their involvement in your case appears to have greatly increased over the past year.  In a number of the cases we have handled, the AdQIC has aggressively sought to overturn both favorable legal arguments and holdings by ALJs invalidating fatally flawed statistical extrapolations applied by a Zone Program Integrity Contractor (ZPIC) or Program SafeGuard Contractor (PSC) in a case.  While AdQICs do not have the authority to file an  appeal with the Medicare Appeals Council (also referred to as the “MAC”  — but not to be confused with Medicare Administrative Contractors which are are referred to by CMS as a “MAC”), they have gotten around this pesky issue by sending notices to the MAC outlining their concerns.  The MAC has then been reviewing the decisions on its own authority.  As a result, the AdQIC has effectively been granted administrative appeal authority, despite the fact that this function is not one of the enumerated tasks outlined for the entity by CMS or by statute.

In light of these developments, it is imperative that you retain counsel who is experienced responding to AdQIC notices (de facto appeals) to the MAC.  Unlike other steps in the administrative appeals process, if your ALJ’s decision is challenged by an AdQIC to the MAC, you will have a short, limited amount of time to respond to the AdQIC’s arguments.  It is strongly recommended that you work with an attorney who is experienced responding to an AdQIC challenge.  An attorney who is knowledgeable of the MAC appeals process can properly advise you of your options at this point in the appeals process.

 While the AdQIC’s new perceived role – as overseer and critic of the ALJs – can make the process even more costly and frustrating than usual, it has been our experience that the AdQIC’s legal arguments often mimic the positions taken by other contractors earlier in the process.   Notably, we have yet to see (or even hear) of an AdQIC “appeal” of an ALJ decision that was unfavorable to the provider.  As a result, we believe it is quite clear that the AdQIC is far from being a “disinterested” party.

 IV.     Don’t Handle a Medicare Appeals Hearing Alone – Hire an Experienced Attorney:  

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 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.  Even if you prevail before an ALJ, depending on the reasons relied on by the Court, there is a real chance that the AdQIC may seek to have the Court’s decision overturned by the MAC.  When hiring an attorney, be sure and ask him the following:

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.

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

How often have you handled MAC appeals?

Can you provide provider references?

V.     Conclusion:

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_lile-150x1501Robert W. Liles and other Liles Parker attorneys have extensive experiences representing Part A and Part B health care providers in connection with Medicare appeals.  Should you  require additional information regarding these issues, call Robert for a free consultation.  He can be reached at: 1 (800) 475-1906.

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