Identifying ‘60-day rule’ overpayments during routine auditing

The need to identify, report, and return Medicare and Medicaid overpayments to CMS under the “60-day rule” and the ability to understand and prepare for the risks posed by routine auditing are essential for all medical providers. At a recent Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) webinar, Jean Acevedo, LHRM, CPC, CHC, CENTC, Senior Consultant, Acevedo Consulting, Inc., and Lester J. Perling, Esq., CHC, partner, Broad and Cassel LLP, discussed these topics and offered their recommendations.

The 60-day rule

Section 6402(a) of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148) established new section 1128J of the Social Security Act, which requires providers and suppliers who submit claims to Medicare and Medicaid to report and return “identified” overpayments to CMS within 60-days or face potential liability under the federal False Claims Act. These requirements were implemented by CMS in a February 12, 2016 Final rule (81 FR 7653) (see CMS finally codifies the 60-day Parts A and B overpayment return rule, February 12, 2016; and Comments, questions, concerns? Weighing in on the 60-day overpayment Final rule, March 2, 2016).

According to Perling, the Final rule sets forth the following parameters for understanding the 60-day overpayment requirement:

  • Definition of an “identified” overpayment. Providers are responsible for overpayments that they “know or should have known”about through the exercise of “reasonable diligence.” Providers that deliberately choose not to investigate when they are made aware of the existence of potential overpayments, would be held liable under the FCA.
  • Exercising “reasonable diligence”. Reasonable diligence requires that providers (1) implement proactive compliance activities to monitor for the receipt of overpayments; and (2) undertake investigations “in a timely manner” in response to obtaining “credible information” of a potential overpayment.
  • “Timely” defined. CMS considers a “timely” investigation to be at the most six months from receipt of the credible information, except in extraordinary circumstances.
  • When does the 60-day period begin? The 60-day period does not begin to run until the provider has had a chance to undertake follow-up activities and quantify the amount of the overpayment.
  • Lookback period. The 60-day rule applies to overpayments identified within six years after they were received.
  • Repayment options. Providers may use claims adjustment, credit balance, the HHS Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) Self-Disclosure Protocol, or other appropriate processes to report or return overpayments. Regardless of the process used, the refund should include an explanation or the statistical sampling methodology used if the overpayment was extrapolated.

Routine baseline audit

Acevedo next discussed the annual baseline audit performed as part of the organization’s compliance program. She recommended that it be done under the attorney/client and work/product privileges in order to help insulate the organization from exposure.

Physical therapy case study

Acevedo next presented an audit case study of a physical therapy department. She stressed the need for the auditor (whether in-house or an outside contractor) to examine the three critical physical therapy documents: (1) the initial evaluation and plan of treatment; (2) the treatment notes; and (3) the clinician’s progress report.

In preforming the audit, she recommended that the auditor take note of the fact that health care professionals are creatures of habit and that, for example, they will either include all necessary elements in the plan of treatment, the treatment notes, and the progress report, or not (i.e., they are usually consistently good, or consistently bad at recordkeeping). She also cautioned that while this document audit may be time consuming, and it is important that the auditor be thorough and not just review the most recent treatment notes and progress reports.

If the auditor finds that therapy documents are deficient or erroneous, Acevedo suggested that the auditor STOP and do two things: (1) consider the possibility that an overpayment situation exists and the timeline that may kick in under the 60-day rule; and (2) alert the attorney and the owner of the practice. She cautioned, however, about jumping to conclusions and leaving a paper trail of written concerns that may amount to “breadcrumbs” for a government investigator or a whistleblower to follow.

Prospective v. retrospective audits

Perling stressed that whether the audit is prospective (i.e., occurs prior to submission of a claim) or retrospective (post claim submission) it does not matter as the finding of negative result or high error rate in either would potentially activate the 60-day rule requirements.

Issues to consider when auditing

Perling suggested taking the necessary steps prior to audit to create an attorney/client privilege that will be recognized and respected by any government investigator.

Perling also discussed whether the standards the auditor is relying on are authoritative or merely guidance. Perling believes that statutes and regulations are clearly authoritative, but that “not everything CMS publishes is authoritative.” For example, while CMS Manuals and Local Coverage Determinations are binding on the Medicare contractor, they are not binding on an administrative law judge. The real question, according to Perling, is “whether the Department of Justice or a whistleblower will think a standard is authoritative.”

Final thoughts

In closing, Perling and Acevedo offered three reminders: (1) educate before auditing; (2) the routine annual audit should review current compliance with standards, not past deficiencies; and (3) audits are still required for effective compliance programs. The danger, according to Acevedo, “is putting your head in the sand.”