How to avoid coding pitfalls for ambulatory services billing

Ambulatory services documentation offers compliance challenges as complex as inpatient services documentation that providers need to be aware of to avoid potential compliance risks while documenting for billing. Ellis Knight, M.D., Senior Vice President/Chief Medical Officer, of the Coker Group, focused on ambulatory coding in an HCCA webinar titled “Clinical Documentation for Compliant Coding—It’s No Longer Just an Inpatient Issue.”

Clinical documentation improvement

Knight noted that coders “speak” a different language than clinicians and therefore clinical documentation improvement (CDI) has been mainly a translational process. Specifically in relation to medical diagnoses, translating what a clinician may write down in the clinical note versus how the coder interprets the clinical note for billing purposes. Historically the focus has been on inpatient documentation, especially documentation to justify diagnostic related group (DRG) assignment and capture of major complications and co-morbidities (MCCs) and complications and co-morbidities (CCs). As a result, the “problem” is that reimbursement occurs with parties arriving at the same diagnosis with different billing codes.

Ambulatory documentation

As such, ambulatory documentation is equally as complex as the inpatient documentation arena, involving thousands of codes. A major complicating factor is that time-frame and volume of patient encounters makes ambulatory CDI a much different work process than inpatient CDI. Knight noted that among the many compliance risks associated with ambulatory CDI, documentation must support: (1) medical necessity of services rendered (CPT codes); (2) specific services and level of care provided to the patient (CPT and HCPCS codes); (3) diagnoses (ICD-10); (4) severity of illness and clinical complexity (HCCs); and (5) quality of care rendered (HEDIS).

For medical necessity, the clinical documentation must justify the ordering of tests, performance of procedures, referrals to specialists or consultants, prescribing of medications and other activities which payers must cover. It must document services and level of services performed, as errors leave practitioners at risk for overbilling the carrier which could result in treble damages under the False Claims Act. Moreover, Knight stressed that it is not enough to just document. HCCs must be documented on an annual basis and addressed, i.e., monitored, evaluated, assessed or treated, in order to be captured. In regards to quality of care, the clinical documentation must include provision of certain quality of care measures, e.g., immunizations, tobacco use, smoking cessation counseling, BMI measurement, obesity counseling, preventive care (colonoscopy, mammography).

FDA user fees reauthorized by House vote

In a bipartisan action, the House of Representatives today passed H.R. 2430, the FDA Reauthorization Act (FDARA) of 2017, by voice vote. FDARA reauthorizes the FDA’s user fee programs for prescription drug, medical device, generic drug, and biosimilar biological products. The current user fee programs are set to expire in September 2017 and account for almost a quarter of the FDA’s funding.

In April 2017, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, along with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, released a discussion draft of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Reauthorization Act of 2017, reauthorizing the FDA’s user fee agreements (see Discussion draft of FDA user fee amendments is on the table, Health Law Daily, April 18, 2017). The draft followed a series of hearings examining the four individual user fee programs – the Generic Drug User Fee Amendments (GDUFA) and the Biosimilar User Fee Act (BsUFA), the Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA), and the Medical Device User Fee Amendments (MDUFA) (see HELP Committee hears ardent support for next round of user fee agreements, Health Law Daily, April 4, 2017 Committee holds optimistic hearing on medical device fees, Health Law Daily, March 29, 2017; PDUFA VI reauthorization would aid 21st Century Cures Act implementation, Health Law Daily, March 23, 2017; and User fee program reauthorizations necessary for product development, Health Law Daily, March 3, 2017).

FDARA is currently before the Senate (see HELP committee advances FDA user fee agreements to Senate floor, Health Law Daily, May 12, 2017).

Feds allege 412 individuals responsible for $1.3B in Medicare fraud

In the largest health care fraud enforcement action by the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, 412 individuals allegedly participated in schemes involving almost $1.3 billion in false billings. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and HHS noted that the charges were levied against the individuals across 41 federal districts and included 115 doctors, nurses, and other licensed medical professionals. Over 120 defendants were named, including doctors for their roles in prescribing and distributing opioids and other dangerous narcotics. Thirty state Medicaid Fraud Control Units participated in the arrests. HHS also initiated suspension actions 295 providers, including doctors, nurses and pharmacists.

The Medicare Fraud Strike Force cases are being prosecuted and investigated by U.S. Attorney’s Offices in the states of Florida, Michigan, New York, Texas, California, Louisiana, and Illinois, along with Medicare Fraud Strike Force teams from the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section, the FBI, DEA, and various state fraud entities. In addition to the Strike Force locations, enforcement actions included cases and investigations brought by an additional 31 U.S. Attorney’s Offices.

Charges

The charges focus on Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE billing schemes for medically unnecessary prescription drugs and compounded medications that often were never purchased or distributed to beneficiaries. According to court documents, patient recruiters, beneficiaries and other co-conspirators were allegedly paid cash kickbacks in return for supplying beneficiary information to providers, so that the providers could then submit fraudulent bills to Medicare for services that were medically unnecessary or never performed. The fraud schemes also involved medical professionals who unlawfully distributed opioids and other prescription narcotics.

For example, in the Southern District of Florida, a total of 77 defendants were charged with offenses relating to their participation in various fraud schemes involving over $141 million in false billings for services including home health care, mental health services, and pharmacy fraud. The DOJ highlighted one case where the owner and operator of a purported addiction treatment center and home for recovering addicts and one other individual were charged in a scheme involving the submission of over $58 million in fraudulent medical insurance claims for purported drug treatment services. The allegations included recruiting patients to move to South Florida in order to bill insurance companies. Patients were provided kickbacks in the form of gift cards, free airline travel, casino trips, and drugs.

Seven defendants in Louisiana were charged in connection with health care fraud, wire fraud, and kickback schemes involving more than $207 million in fraudulent billing. In another instance, a pharmacist was charged with submitting and causing the submission of $192 million in false and fraudulent claims to TRICARE and other health care benefit programs for dispensing compounded medications that were not medically necessary and often based on prescriptions induced by illegal kickback payments

Economic, job losses predicted with BCRA

The Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), the Senate alternative to the American Health Care Act (AHCA), would lead to significantly larger job losses and reductions in states’ economies by 2026, if passed into law. Both bills seek to partially repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148). According to an issue brief by the Commonwealth Fund, both the draft BCRA and the AHCA, which passed the House earlier (see The AHCA strikes back, May 4, 2017), would have similar effects on the number of uninsured Americans. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that this draft version of the BCRA would lead to 22 million fewer insured Americans by 2026, roughly the same as the 24 million uninsured estimated for the AHCA (see BCRA would curb Medicaid spending growth, increase uninsured numbers, Health Law Daily, June 30, 2017; Revised AHCA costlier with same number of uninsured, Health Law Daily, March 24, 2017).

The issue brief noted that, generally, federal health funds are used to purchase health care, with fiscal effects from these purchases spreading throughout the rest of the economy by creating jobs and other economic growth. Federal health funds pay hospitals, doctors’ offices, and other providers; these facilities use revenue to pay their employees and buy goods and services, such as rent or equipment. In turn, health care employees or other businesses (and eventually their workers) use their income to purchase consumer goods like housing, transportation, or food. An analogous effect is when federal taxes are reduced, the expectation is that consumers or businesses retain income and purchase goods and services, invest, or save.

Impact on jobs

The Commonwealth Fund noted that Medicaid expansion states would be hardest hit under the BCRA. In terms of job creation or losses, the proposed BCRA would add over 750,000 jobs in 2018, but employment would then deteriorate. It is projected that in 2026, under the BCRA, there would be 1.45 million fewer jobs with the health care sector bearing the brunt of the losses at over 900,000 fewer jobs. State coffers would be reduced by $162 billion.

BCRA would repeal a number of taxes along with a phase-in of coverage-related spending reductions, including Medicaid. The tax repeals would increase federal deficits by more than $50 billion in 2018 and 2019. However, as noted, the number of jobs outside of the health care sector in 2018 would rise. Health care sector jobs would fall immediately with the loss of 30,000 jobs.

By 2026, 1.45 million fewer people would have jobs. Additionally, gross state products would drop by $162 billion and business output would be $265 billion lower, while overall 919,000 jobs would be lost in health care. The issue brief estimated that more than 534,000 jobs in other sectors, including construction, real estate, finance, retail trade, and public employment, would be lost by 2026.

States that expanded Medicaid were estimated to have deeper and faster losses. Having earned more federal funds under the ACA, these states lose more when Medicaid matching rates are cut. In addition to cutting funds to states that expanded health insurance for low-income Medicaid populations, BCRA also increases funding to states that did not expand Medicaid. Nonetheless, the issue brief noted that states that did not expand Medicaid, like Florida and Maine, would also experience job and economic losses after a few years. For instance, Florida would have the sixth highest level of job loss in the nation by 2026.