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Is Your Medicare Appeal Now at the ALJ Level? What Should You Expect?

February 20, 2011 by  
Filed under ALJ Appeal, Featured

Medicare Appeals can be quite complicated.  Are you prepared?(February 19, 2011):  Over the years, we have represented a wide variety of health care providers in the Medicare appeals process.  Our duties have regularly included representation before Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) presiding out of the Western, Southern, Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic Field Offices of the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals.  (OMHA).

In the course of our work, we have routinely been asked by our health care provider clients for our opinion regarding the “independence” of ALJs from the pressures exerted by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and its contractors (including, but not limited to the Qualified Independent Contractors (QICs), Zone Program Integrity Contractors (ZPICs) and Program Safeguard Contractors (PSCs)).  The purpose of this brief article is to examine this issue in more detail.

I.     Background:  

As many of you will recall, prior to the passage of the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003 (MMA), Medicare appeals of denied claims and services were heard by Judges working for the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) Office of Hearings and Appeals.  For much of that time, the SSA was an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  In 1994, the SSA was officially separated from HHS and was made an independent agency.  Despite the fact that the SSA was no longer part of HHS, its Judges continued to hear Medicare administrative appeals.

Despite the fact that SSA used to a part of HHS (and for a short period was independent of HHS), in our opinion, SSA Judges were generally thought to be “independent” adjudicators of the facts, not impacted by, or bowing to, the effects of outside agency pressures.

II.     Changes to the Medicare Appeals Process After the Passage of the MMA:

With the enactment of the MMA, the responsibility for hearing Medicare appeals of claims denied by ZPICs and PSCs was transferred over to HHS, with the OMHA reporting solely to the Secretary, HHS.  In doing so, the OMHA was placed completely outside of CMS’ organizational structure, ostensibly free from any agency pressures that CMS might informally care to exert.  This also placed the OMHA independent of the various contractors working for CMS.  As a review of the Congressional Record reflects, the issue of independence was carefully considered by Congress and the separation of the OMHA from CMS was consistent with their concerns. (See Congressional Record, V. 149, Pt. 22, November 20, 2003 to November 23, 2003, Page 30400). As set out in the June 23, 2005 issuance of the Federal Register (70 Fed.Reg. 36386), titled “Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals; Statement of Organization, Functions, and Delegations of Authority,” the OMHA is under the direction of a Chief Administrative Law Judge who reports directly to the Secretary, HHS.  This organizational structure was specifically intended to meet the “independence” requirements of the Section 931(b)(2) of the MMA.

III.     What Should You Now Expect When Pursuing a Medicare Appeal Before an ALJ?

In terms of functional authority, ALJs are comparable in many respects, to that of an Article III Judge, who is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

While ALJ’s are not Article III Judges, it has been our experience that they are strongly independent, adjudicating over Medicare proceedings in a formal, professional fashion, similar to what you would expect to encounter in a Federal District Court proceeding.

Pursuant to 42 C.F.R. § 405.1026, ALJs cannot even conduct a hearing if they are prejudiced or partial to any party, or if they have an interest in the matter pending for resolution.  To date, we have not seen an ALJ that has been “prejudiced or partial to any party.”

IV.     What Are Your Chances of Winning?

To be clear, health care providers do not always prevail — every case stands or falls based on its merits.   Moreover, just because you have experienced a positive outcome with a particular ALJ on one occasion does not mean that you should expect a similar result when you are next in front of the same judge.  ALJs are trained to weigh the facts and the evidence.

While in past years it was rare for CMS or its contractors to participate in a Medicare appeals hearing, it is now commonplace for representatives of the Zone Program Integrity Contractor (ZPIC) or the Program Safeguard Contractor (PSC) to now attend the hearing and seek to provide support for their initial denial actions.  As a result, the job of ALJ is now more complicated than ever. Although the proceeding is not supposed to be “adversarial,” it can get quite heated when ZPIC representatives are there trying to defend their denial decisions.  Be prepared.  Have experienced legal counsel represent your interests. 

V.     Conclusion:

The current administrative Medicare appeals system has been specifically designed to insulate ALJs from the actual and / or implied pressures which could conceivably be exerted by CMS and its various contractors.  When appearing before an ALJ, it is important to remember that the process has become significantly more complicated now that CMS contractors are now regularly attending and participating in the process.  In light of these changes, it is recommended that you engage experienced legal counsel to represent your interests in an ALJ hearing.  Although the system and its Judges are set up to provide a fair opportunity for you to present your case and be heard, it is much more difficult to prevail when up to three representatives of the ZPIC (a lawyer, a statistician and a clinician) are also participating in the proceedings, providing support and explanations for their prior Medicare claim denial decisions.

robert_w_lile-150x1501Robert W. Liles and other Liles Parker attorneys have extensive experience representing both Part A and Part B providers and suppliers in the Medicare appeals process, including hearings at the ALJ stage of appeal.  Please feel free to contact Robert for a complimentary consultation.  He can be reached at: 1 (800) 475-1906.

 

 

 

 

Be Prepared — ZPIC and QIC Representatives Are Increasing their Participation in ALJ Appeal Hearings.

February 12, 2011 by  
Filed under ALJ Appeal

ZPIC auditors will likely attend your ALJ hearing.  Are you ready?(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.  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 Medicare contractors attend ALJ hearings involving alleged overpayments of only a few thousand dollars.

This proverbial “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 the ZPIC’s challenge to be much more pointed that the example cited above.  In any event, the bottom line is simple, under the current rules, it remains quite easy for a 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 cases where a ZPIC has chosen 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.          Who will show up from the ZPIC’s or PSC’s office?

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 interpetation withwhich 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.          Depending on the specifics of a case, many providers would be better off engaging experienced legal counsel to represent their interests 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 defense lawyer — 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).  Together, a supporting clinician and a skilled attorney can be a formidable team when presenting 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_lile-150x1501Robert W. Liles and other Liles Parker attorneys in the Firm’s Health Law Practice have extensive experience representing Part A and Part B health care providers and suppliers 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 Roberts for a complimentary consultation.   He can be reached at 1 (800) 475-1906.

Health Data Insights Begins Medical Necessity Reviews

August 30, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured, Guidance

(August 30, 2010):

I.      Introduction — “Medical Necessity” Issues Presented:

Health Data Insights (HDI), the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) responsible for auditing health care providers in Region D, has announced it will immediately begin reviews on previously approved projects which involve the medical necessity of selected inpatient DRG payments.  A complete list of the medical necessity “issues” currently being examined by HDI can be found on its Website.

 II.     Scope of Responsibilities Assigned to Health Date Insights:

RACs, such as HDI, contract with the CMS to perform post-payment reviews of Medicare claims to find overpayments (and theoretically, underpayments in return for a percentage (from 9 percent to 12.5 percent) of the amounts recovered. Put simply, they “eat what they kill.” HDI was awarded responsibility for handling Region D audits.  Region D consists of 17 States and 3 U.S. territories (Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, Guam, American Samoa and Northern Marianas).  HDI’s contingency fee contract award dollar amount is 9.49% according to CMS.  The 29 DRGs where HDI will be examining “medical necessity” requirements, include certain procedures related to:

Nervous System Disorders

Respiratory

Cardiac Procedures

Cardiovascular Diseases

Cardiovascular, Other

Gastrointestinal Disorders

Musculoskeletal Disorders

Endocine, Nutritional & Metabolism Disorders

Kidney & Urinary Tract Disorders, and

Blood & Immunological Disorders

III.     Provider Concerns:

A continuing concern of health care providers is that the RAC determinations of medical necessity will be performed by personnel with little, if any, specific knowledge of the specific claims at issue. Given the RAC business model, providers remain worried that audits will not reflect a fair and reasonable application of applicable coverage requirements. This is especially worrisome in light of the fact that approximately 41 percent of overpayments in the demonstration project were due to medical necessity determinations.

III.      Audit and Appeal Considerations:

As set out CMS’ June 2010 reported entitled “The Medicare Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) Program — Update to the Evaluation of the 3-Year Demonstration,” as of 03/09/10, the cumulative number of claims with overpayment determinations identified by RACs has grown to 598,238.  Notably, only 76,073 of these overpayments were appealed by health care providers.  Of the claims appealed, over half were decided in favor of the health care provider.  Interestingly, HDI had one of the highest number of claims denials overturned on appeal, in favor of the appealing provider. Four basic steps to be taken when preparing for a RAC audit include:

(1)               Monitor issues of interest to the government and its contractors.  Are the services you provide currently under scrutiny by RACs and other Medicare contractors?  You should keep abreast of current enforcement initiatives and mistakes made by other providers.  Learn from their mistakes. 

(2)               Know where your current weaknesses are and fix them.  This typically requires that you conduct an internal audit of your coding, billing and operational practices.  Take care when engaging an outside “consultant.”  We have seen numerous cases where the consultant conducts an internal assessment and identifies multiple problems with the provider’s prior and current practices. Unfortunately, few consultants consider the fact that their adverse report to the provider will likely not be privileged.  As a result, if the provider is ever investigated, the report could easily serve as a roadmap for the government. Prior to conducting an internal audit – call your attorney!   

(3)               Know your rights. If your practice is audited, know your rights both during the audit and once the audit results are issued by the contractor.  There is a fine line between exercising your rights as a provider and being perceived by a contractor as refusing to cooperate in their review.  You should immediately call your attorney to clarify which actions must be taken if your practice is subjected to a site visit by a Medicare contractor.  The best practice would be for you to call your attorney today and discuss how you should respond in the event of a site visit.  CMS takes allegations of non-cooperation very seriously.  Should the contractor argue that you refused to cooperate in their efforts, you could find the action taken by the contractor is to seek a revocation of your Medicare number.  This is an especially sensitive issue.

(4)               Have a firm understanding of how the Medicare appeals process works.  Depending on the amount in controversy, you may choose to handle Medicare claims denials internally.  As the use of data-mining increases, Medicare contractor reliance on provider profiling will continue to increase.  While mere errors or mistakes should be returned to the government (or not appealed is properly denied by the contractor), should you find that claims were improperly denied, we recommend that you appeal such denials. RACs and other Medicare contractors will likely focus on providers with high error rates.

While every case is different, health care providers should consider the following when faced with a RAC audit:

  • The scope of RAC audits is expanding.  In the past, hospitals and other “low-hanging fruit” were the focus of HDI and other RACs around the country.  As a result, some physicians, small practice groups, clinics and other smaller providers have grown complacent in their compliance efforts.  This is a mistake, as more issues are identified and approved, the RACs will be expanded the scope of their reviews.  Now is the time to get your practice in order.
  • ZPICs and PSCs continue to represent a greater danger to small physician practices and health care provider groups. Zone Program Integrity Contractors (ZPICs) and Program SafeGuard Contractors (PSCs) are not subject to the time, audit and service scope limitations imposed on RACs.  The implementation of effective compliance efforts will help reduce the likelihood of liability should the practice be audited by a ZPIC, PSC or RAC.
  • Beware of “canned” consultant solutions.  As a search on Google will readily attest, consulting firms around the country are touting the latest RAC audit “tool” or audit response “template.”   We recommend that you exercise caution when retaining any organization that “guarantees” results or seeks to dissuade you from engaging legal counsel support.
  • Retain experienced health care counsel. Under the current appeal structure, there is a significant likelihood that your case will eventually be heard by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).  Importantly, ALJs are lawyers — not typically clinicians.  In defending your case, it is strongly recommended that you retain legal counsel, regardless of whether you ultimately decide to work with a consultant or employ a clinician as an expert witness.  Legal counsel will be best situated to understand and argue the various legal arguments which may prove essential in winning your case.

While RACs have not represented much of a threat to individual physicians and small practice groups in the past, the future is likely to be quite different.  Physicians must already contend with audits by ZPICs, PSCs, Medicaid Integrity Contractors (MICs), Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU) investigators and Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) contractors.  The expansion of the RAC program will further increase the need for statutory and regulatory compliance.  Physicians and small practice groups and organizations should avoid the misconception that their limited size and / or relative billings will keep them “off the radar,” thereby limiting their chances of being audited.

IV.     ZPICs and PSCs are Continuing to Rely on Statistical Sampling in an Effort to Extrapolate Damages:

In our practice, we have seen a marked increase in the number of solo physicians and small providers groups who have been subjected to pre-payment and post-payment audits of their Medicare billings.

In the case of post-payment reviews, the vast majority of Medicare audits we have worked on have included the statistical extrapolation of damages by ZPICs and PSCs.  We expect RACs to follw suit as the number of their audits increase.  In defending a post-payment audit, it is essential that you examine the statistical methodology utilized and identify any flaws in the contractor’s approach.  We have successfully convinced both Qualified Independent Contractors (QICs) and ALJs to invalidate statistical extrapolations based on mistakes in the process committed by the ZPIC or PSC.  Arguments can be legal and / or methodology-based.  In many cases, it is necessary to engage the assistance of a qualified statistical expert.  Should you succeed – be ready to defend this decision before the Medicare Appeals Counsel (MAC).  Over the past year, practically every invalidation of the statistical extrapolation of damages was appealed to the MAC by the Administrative QIC (AdQIC).

V.      Summary:

Health care providers must be proactive in their efforts to better comply with applicable Medicare coding and billing practices.  Should your practice be placed on pre-payment audit or have its post-payment Medicare claims reviewed, we recommend that you immediately contact your health care attorney for assistance.

robert_w_lile-150x1501 Robert W. Liles and other Liles Parker attorneys have extensive experience representing health care providers around the country in large Medicare administrative overpayment appeals cases.  We would be happy to discuss your case, give our initial assessment and provide client references for you to call.  Should you have questions regarding RAC, ZPIC or PSC audit processes, you may contact us for a complimentary consultation.  We 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.

Hang on tight — 2010 could be rough . . .

March 1, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured, Guidance

(March 1, 2010):  The number of auditors, reviewers, investigators and prosecutors going after health care providers is increasing and signals an alarming, unprecedented effort by the government to uncover and recover alleged overpayments to health care providers.

 Health care providers now face not only simple repayment demands, but also civil False Claims Act cases and criminal Medicare / Medicaid fraud claims identified by various new government contractors. Regrettably, we have seen unintentional mistakes, incomplete documentation and technical errors cited as the basis for seeking the repayment of millions of dollars, representing Medicare services rendered long ago, in some cases as many seven years before the demand letter was sent.  Perhaps most troubling is the fact that no one, including the ZPIC and / or PSC conducting the medical review, doubts that the medical services were rendered and in most cases, the Medicare beneficiary benefited from the care and treatment provided.  Today, every health care provider must beware of:

  •  “RACs” or Recovery Audit Contractors.
  • “ZPICs” or Zone Program Integrity Contractors.
  • “MICs” Medicaid Integrity Contractors.
  • “MCFU” Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.
  • “HHS-OIG” Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General.
  • “DOJ” U.S. Department of Justice, and
  • “HEAT” Healthcare Fraud Prevention & Enforcement Task Force (in a number of U.S. Attorney’s Offices around the country).

 RACs and the havoc they are expected to wreak is old news, quite frankly. The newest players in town, ZPICs, MICs and HEAT Teams should be at the top of your current list of concerns.  As you will recall,   CMS consolidated functions of all Program Safeguard Contractors (PSCs) and Medicare Prescription Drug Integrity Control (MEDIC) contracts into ZPIC contracts.  ZPICs are designed to combine claims data (FIs, Regional Home Health Intermediary, Carrier, DMERC) and other data to create a platform for documenting complex data analysis.  While RACs (until recently) have focused solely on recovering money, ZIPCs also look for fraud.

MICs are just now revving up around the country.  Unburdened by many of the restrictions placed on RACs, providers with a heavy Medicaid beneficiary base should diligently review their Medicaid coding and billing efforts to better ensure compliance with applicable statutory and regulatory requirements. 

 HEAT Teams are made up of top level law enforcement and professional staff from DOJ and HHS.  HEAT was implemented to prevent fraud and enforce current anti-fraud laws and prevent waste that focuses on improving data and information sharing between the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services and law enforcement agencies.  HEAT is working to strengthen program integrity activities to monitor and ensure compliance and enforcement.  HEAT’s tools to identify fraud include hotlines and web sites for healthcare workers and ordinary citizens.  Furthermore, HEAT officials are helping state Medicaid officials conduct better audits and provide better monitoring to detect fraudulent activities.

How should you respond?  The best response is to follow the rules.  If you don’t already have an effective Compliance Plan in place, we recommend you take steps to immediately implement one. 

Liles Parker attorneys represent health care providers around the country in complex Medicare overpayment appeals cases.  Should you have any questions regarding your case, give us a call.  We can you our initial assessment and provide client references.  You may call us for a complimentary consultation at:  1 (800) 475-1906.

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