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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. 

A Look at RACs: What Do Physicians, Home Health, Hospice, and DME Providers Need to Know?

June 25, 2010 by  
Filed under Medicare Audits

RAC Auditors are Reviewing Physician Claims(June 25, 2010): The purpose of this series of articles is to assess the Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) Program from the perspective of physicians, home health, hospice, durable medical equipment (DME) providers, and other relatively small Medicare providers.  As many non-hospital providers will acknowledge, early cries of wolf by law firms and consultants did a fine job of initially publicizing the RAC threat.  Unfortunately, the threat of a RAC audit now appears to be largely ignored by non-hospital providers due to the seemingly widespread sense that RACs will likely continue to focus their efforts on large, institutional Medicare providers – the ultimate “low hanging fruit” in terms of potential Medicare overpayments.

I.     Should Non-Hospital Providers Worry About a RAC Audit?

RACs are, in fact, a real threat to physicians and other small Medicare providers, despite the fact that these particular contractors have passed over these providers in the past.

Over the last six weeks, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has sponsored nationwide conference calls titled “Nationwide RAC 101 Call” specifically aimed at physicians, home health, hospices, and DME providers. Further, CMS conducted two general nationwide conference calls discussing the RAC program that were open to all Medicare providers.

These seemingly innocent informational calls were in fact extraordinarily significant, servicing almost as a “touchstone” for CMS and its RAC auditors.  With the completion of these nationwide teleconferences, outreach has now been completed and CMS can affirmatively state that these non-hospital providers have been given multiple opportunities to learn about the program and prepare for an audit.   All states are now eligible for review.

While CMS must still approve “issues” prior to their widespread review by the RACs, the contractors now have the billing data that they need to analyze and identify possible targets.

II.     What Have Other Provider Experiences with RACs Been?

As physicians and other non-hospital providers prepare for possible audit, it is helpful to review hospitals’ experiences when preparing for and responding to a RAC audit.  On June 22, 2010, the American Hospital Association (AHA) released its findings that the RAC program is having a widespread impact on almost all hospitals, even though many have not even been subjected yet to a RAC audit.[1]  In fact, for the first quarter of 2010 alone:

84% of responding hospitals reported that RACs impacted their organization;

49% of responding hospitals reported increased administrative costs; and

17% of the hospitals using external resources to address RACs hired consultants at an average cost of almost $92,000. 

 So, what do providers and non-hospital Medicare providers need to know about RACs?  This multi-part series will address the following:  First, the purpose and impact of RACs; Second, how to respond to RACs when they come calling; Third, some of the emerging issues for physicians and other small Medicare providers regarding RACs.

III.      What’s a RAC?

The program was created by Section 306 of the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003 (MMA).  Operating under the direction of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), RACs are independent third-party contractors tasked with identifying and correcting improper past Medicare payments.  Each of four RACs has jurisdiction over a separate region of the United States.

After a three year demonstration in which RACs identified $1.03 billion in improper Medicare fee-for-service payments, the program became permanent earlier this year.  CMS created the following table to clarify the role that these contractors are supposed to play compared to others, such as ZPICs.[2]  However, as we will see later in this series, these roles are not clearly delineated and the overlap in the review process can create substantial confusion and waste.

 

Role of Medicare Review Contractors

 

Improper Payment Function

 

 Contractor Performing Function
Preventing future improper payments through pre-pay review and provider education Medicare claims processing contractors
Detecting past improper payments RACs, ZPICs, PSCs
Measuring improper payments CERT [Comprehensive Error Rate Testing]
Performing higher-weighted DRG [diagnosis related group] reviews and expedited coverage reviews QIOs [Quality Improvement Organization]

RACs are incentivized to hunt for evidence of overpayments in high-cost categories of service and to needle out errors that have nothing to do with actual patient care.

IV.     How Are These Types of Contractors Paid?

RACs are paid on a contingency basis so it stands to reason that, during the initial program demonstration, only 4% of improper payments identified were underpayments.  This “bounty hunter” approach also helps to explain why prior audits have focused almost exclusively on high-cost inpatient care services. Recent GAO testimony shed light on this situation and may cause RACs or other contractors to shift their focus to entities that do not have hospitals’ long history of review and compliance, namely physicians and other relatively small Medicare providers.  Finally, a substantial percentage of overpayments collected by RACs during the demonstration program resulted from preventable coding errors, countering the myth that CMS is primarily focused on weeding out unnecessary service claims.

Providers in Region C may want to consider that the AHA found hospitals in that region, encompassing nearly 40% of all U.S. hospitals including those in Texas, Florida, and Virginia, reported the highest number of medical records requested, the highest amount of dollars targeted in medical record requests, and the highest number of denied claims (47% of the $2.47 million in denied claims reported in the first quarter of 2010).

V.     Are There Any Safeguards to Protect Physicians and Other Small Group Providers?

Based on the demonstration program, numerous providers and others have expressed concern that RACs are overly aggressive auditors.  Despite some improvements, concerns about the RAC process are likely to persist.  As recent testimony by the GAO Health Care Director pointed out, the oversight of RACs leaves something to be desired.

Changes have been made to reduce the RACs unintended incentive to drive up fees (through the improper denial of claims). RACs are now required to pay back their contingency fee if the claim is overturned at any level of appeal, rather than just the first level as in the demonstration program.

Additionally, there are some limitations in place regarding the RACs ability to overwhelm providers with record requests.  RACs may not request records more frequently than every 45 days and, for institutional providers, their requests are limited to 1% of all claims submitted for the previous calendar year.  This is an overall limit, however, meaning that a RAC may determine the composition of the records in an additional document request.  They can – and do – request categories of records up to the limit even if the request is disproportionate the provider’s business.

Finally, none of these improvements address the concern that the first several levels of the appeals process do not provide meaningful recourse for the overly aggressive auditing.

robert_w_lile-150x1501Robert W. Liles and Liles Parker attorneys have extensive experience representing health care providers around the country in Medicare appeals cases.  Should you have any questions regarding these issues, don’t hesitate to contact Robert.  For a complementary consultation, you may call us at: 1 (800) 475-1906.


[1] Available at http://www.aha.org/aha/content/2010/pdf/Q1RACTracResults.pdf

[2] Available at http://www.racaudits.com/uploads/RAC_Demonstration_Evaluation_Report.pdf.

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