Improved probe and education program targets specific providers within a particular service

Targeted Probe and Education (TPE) is an improved medical review strategy that will focus on specific providers/suppliers within the service rather than all providers and suppliers billing a particular service, according to a CMS news release. The TPE program began as a pilot in one Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) jurisdiction in June 2016 and was expanded in July 2017 to three additional MAC jurisdictions. Based on the success of the pilot programs, CMS plans to expand the TPE program to all MAC jurisdictions in 2017.

Probe and Educate program

The updated medical review strategy arose from an initial medical review strategy known as Probe and Educate, which combined the review of a sample of claims with education to help reduce errors in the claims submission process, but moves from a broader review to a more targeted one. TPE claim selection differs from previous probe and education programs because the TPE claims selection is provider/supplier specific from the outset rather than a review of all providers for a specific service; thus, eliminating providers who are submitting claims that are compliant with Medicare policy from the review process.

Under the Probe and Educate program, MACs focused on review of inpatient hospital admissions related to the two midnight rule and home health eligibility requirements. MACs reviewed selected claims submitted by acute care inpatient hospital facilities, long term care hospitals, and inpatient psychiatric facilities for admissions that occur between October 1, 2013 and March 31, 2014 (see CMS issues additional guidance for “two midnight” rule for inpatient hospital admissions, Health Law Daily, November 5, 2013). MACs continued to conduct “probe and educate” reviews for inpatient stays shorter than two midnights. Under the probe and educate process outlined in an earlier CMS release, MACs reviewed claims to determine if the inpatient stay of less than two midnights was reasonable and necessary (see CMS extends RAC prohibition of reviews of stays longer than 2 midnights, Health Law Daily, February 3, 2014).

The first round of the Probe & Educate program, MACs reviewed home health agency claims to assess compliance with and to promote provider understanding of Medicare home health eligibility requirements, (see HHA claims will be reviewed to confirm understanding of eligibility requirements, Health Law Daily, November 10, 2015). In round two of the program, MACs began a one-year period of claim reviews and provider education and will start submitting additional documentation requests (ADRs) on or after December 15, 2016 (see ‘Probe and Educate’ program for home health eligibility continues, Health Law Daily, December 20, 2016).

TPE process

Based on data analysis, Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) will review claims (1) for items and services that pose the greatest financial risk to the Medicare Trust Fund or have a high national error rate and (2) of providers/suppliers that have the highest claim error rates or billing practices that vary significantly from their peers. Under the TPE, MACs will review the 20 to 40 claims per provider/supplier, per item or service, and per round, for a total of three rounds of review. After each round of review, the MAC will offer the provider individualized, one-on-one education to address errors within the provider’s/supplier’s claims based on the results of the review.

Removal from the review process

Providers/supplier may be removed from the review process after any of the three rounds of probe review, if they demonstrate low error rates or sufficient improvement in error rates. However, providers/suppliers with moderate and high error rates in the first round of reviews will continue on to a second round of reviews, followed by additional provider specific education and those providers/suppliers that continue to have high error rates in the second round of review and education will continue to the third round. Providers/suppliers that continue to have high error rates after three rounds of TJPE may be referred to CMS for additional action.

Know the auditors and audit process, you’ll be audited someday

Providers and suppliers will be audited by CMS at some point, so it is important to understand the various types of audits and the appeals process, according the presenter of a Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) webinar titled “Medicare Audits & Audit Appeals—From A to Z(PIC).” Scott R. Grubman, Esq., of Chilivis Cochran Larkins & Beyer LLP, focused his discussion on recovery audit contractors (RACs) and zone program integrity contractors (ZPICs) and the various steps of the audit appeals process, from the initial determination to judicial review.

RACs

Charged with “identifying and correcting improper payments through detection and collection of overpayments,” the RAC program started as a demonstration project and completed its first audits in 2011-2013. As new RAC contracts were awarded in October 2016, RAC audits will continue into the future. RACs are paid a contingency fee (somewhere between 7 and 17 percent of the recovery), but only when a favorable reconsideration is made, so they have a financial incentive to find and recover overpayments. According to Grubman, RACs “may not work on the side of fairness for providers.” But RACs are limited in the number of claims they can audit per provider per year and must maintain a 95 percent accuracy rate and an overturn rate of less than 10 percent. RAC audits, as well as MAC audits, are desk reviews, contrary to ZPIC audits.

ZPICs

Grubman warns to be careful when going through a ZPIC audit. ZPICs are tasked, for example, to investigate potential fraud and abuse and to refer parties for CMS administrative actions or for law enforcement; conduct investigations (not just as desk audits, but through interviews and onsite visits, too) and data analysis under the CMS Fraud Prevention System; and to identify the need for administrative actions such as payment suspensions. While RACs typically look at unintentional overpayments, ZPICs respond to intentional overpayments.

Audit process

Whatever the auditor that reviews the claim, an initial determination is first made as to whether the item and services are covered and the amount payable. The auditor then notifies the provider/supplier of the decision following specific notice requirements. A provider or supplier may appeal that decision, following this chronology:

1. Redetermination. A request for a redetermination must be filed within 120 calendar days from receipt of the initial determination, and within 30 calendar days to avoid CMS starting to recoup the overpayment. (Grubman suggests starting the count on the date listed on the determination, not receipt, to avoid running into any issues.) The redetermination involves an “independent review” performed by the same contractor (but a different individual). New issues may be raised by the contractor during redetermination, but a redetermination must be issued within 60 days from receipt of request.
2. Reconsideration. Within 180 days of the redetermination (or within 60 days to avoid recoupment), a party may file a request for reconsideration, which is an independent review of the evidence and findings conducted by a qualified independent contractor (QIC). QICs are bound by national coverage determinations (NCDs), CMS rulings, precedential Medicare Council decisions, and applicable laws and regulations. (Local coverage determinations (LCDs) and CMS program guidance is not binding but given substantial deference.) A QIC has 60 days to issue its reconsideration, and if the deadline isn’t met, the appellant can escalate to the next level of appeal.
3. Administrative law judge (ALJ). If the amount at issue exceeds $160, a request for an ALJ decision may be filed within 60 days of the reconsideration (recoupment cannot be avoided). A hearing is typically held either in person, video conference, or telephone, and parties may submit evidence and/or present witnesses. An ALJ decision is a de novo review and ALJs have wide discretion over the hearing. ALJs are bound by the same NCDs and laws and regulations and must give deference to non-binding authority as with reconsiderations. An ALJ must issue a decision within 90 days, however, there exists an immense backlog in issuing decisions, which has even become the subject of a legal challenge (see Court sets a timeline for Medicare claims backlog, December 6, 2016).
4. Medicare Appeals Council. Within 60 calendar days of the ALJ’s decision, a review by the Medicare Appeals Council may be requested. The Council’s review is limited to those issues the appellant claims to disagree with. Briefs are filed by the parties but no new evidence is provided. Typically a decision is made with no oral arguments and must be made within 90 calendar days.
5. Judicial review: Within 60 calendar days of receipt of the Council’s decision, a suit may be filed in the district court where the provider/supplier resides or has its principal place of business, with the Secretary of HHS named as defendant.

HHS developing new system to speed PRRB, other appeal processes

HHS and its subagencies continue to struggle with eliminating the backlog of appeals that has led to delays in payments to providers and litigation trying to get HHS to meet statutory requirements for hearing appeals. The two main appeals backlogs relate to Provider Reimbursement Review Board (PRRB) decisions (appeals by providers of final determinations by Medicare contractors) and individual appeals for Medicare coverage, payment, and premiums brought before the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA).

PRRB

CMS is developing a system to electronically track and file PRRB and Medicare Geographic Classification Review Board (MGCRB) decisions, according to CMS officials speaking at a conference sponsored by the American Health Lawyers Association at the end of March. The current appeals process relies heavily on a manual, snail mail process that has added to the time it takes for parties to file all papers in preparation for a hearing. The “Office of Hearings Case and Document Management System (OH CDMS)” should be ready for use by the end of 2017. The OH CDMS will be accessible through the CMS Enterprise portal.

Using the new system, parties may:

  • file appeal requests
  • upload position papers, jurisdictional documents, and other supporting documentation
  • view documents issued by Board or filed by opposing party
  • manage issues raised in individual appeals and providers participating in groups
  • request other actions such as change in representative, expedited judicial review, mediation, etc., and
  • monitor case status

This new system also will be used by CMS Hearing Officers who hear appeals not covered by other CMS or HHS appeal avenues, such as:

  • Risk Adjustment Data Validation (RADV)
  • Medicare Advantage/Prescription Drug Plan (MA/PD)
  • Medicaid State Plan Amendments
  • Retire Drug Subsidy Determinations (RDS)
  • Organ Procurement Organizations (OPO)

The need for a more efficient way of handling all the filings related to an appeal was underscored by a presentation by Sue Anderson, PRRB chairperson. She noted that the PRRB currently has more than 10,000 cases on its docket. In fiscal year 2016, the PRRB issued 27 decisions that closed 66 cases; 147 expedited judicial determinations; and 497 jurisdictional determinations, so it has a long way to go to work through its backlog.

OMHA appeals

Issues with PRRB appeals aren’t even the most serious ones facing HHS. The Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) has a backlog of hundreds of thousands of administrative appeals, and the American Hospital Association is engaged in long-standing litigation with HHS trying to force HHS to hold Administrative Law Judge appeals within 90 days. Currently, these appeals take 10 times longer, and the backlog grows every year. A recent filing by HHS in the litigation shows the seriousness of the issue: as of March 5, 2017, there were 667,326 pending appeals; HHS projects the number of pending appeals to grow to 1,009,768 by the end of FY 2021 (September 30, 2021).

OMHA is looking at a number of ways to deal with the backlog; (see OMHA trying to speed claims appeals process, April 18, 2017). One solution is legislation. Speaking at the Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) Compliance Institute at the end of March, Kimberly Brandt, Chief Oversight Counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, noted that the Senate is considering re-introducing the “Audit & Appeal Fairness, Integrity, and Reforms in Medicare Act.” The bill “seeks to increase coordination and oversight of government audit contractors while implementing new strategies to address growing number of audit determination appeals that delay taxpayer dollars from reaching the correct source,” according to Brandt. The bill also would encourage the use of voluntary alternate dispute resolution process to allow for multiple pending claims with similar issues of law or fact to be settled as a unit, rather than as individual appeals.

OMHA trying to speed claims appeals process

The Medicare appeals backlog, which at its pinnacle had more than 650,000 claims waiting for adjudication before an administrative law judge (ALJ), is shrinking, according to Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) chief ALJ Nancy Griswold. Griswold told attendees at the Health Care Compliance Association’s (HCCA) Compliance Institute that OMHA is pursuing a number of initiatives to reduce the backlog and speed claim resolution. Joined by Andrew B. Wachler of Wachler & Associates, Griswold discussed policy and regulatory changes to the appeals process, and Wachler shared best practices.

OMHA is doing a demonstration project using voluntary formal telephone discussions with durable medical equipment (DME) suppliers in Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) Jurisdictions C & D. These discussions give the supplier an opportunity to present facts and additional documentation to support resolution of the appeal. According to Griswold, over 5,000 appeals have favorably resolved through the demonstration project, while more than 16,000 have been remanded to reopen or resolve the claim favorably. The agency is also working on settlement conference facilitation (resolving more than 10,000 appeals since June 2014), adjudication through statistical sampling, and use of a senior attorney on the record.

Griswold also discussed OMHA’s plans for the Electronic Case Adjudication Processing Environment (ECAPE). Release 1, which consists of a public portal for case intake and appellants, is scheduled for Spring 2017, with additional releases planned through Summer 2018.

Wachler explained that preparation is key for attorneys representing clients in appeals before OMHA, and explained that best practices include prominently listing the Medicare Appeal Number, ensuring that all information submitted is accurate and consistent, documenting proof of service, submitting only one request per Medicare Appeal Number, and keeping track of all due dates. He also recommended that attorneys wait until an ALJ is assigned to the case before attaching evidentiary submissions or additional filings; rather than submitting that information to OMHA Central Operations, Wachler says it can be directly submitted to the ALJ.