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.

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.

Is statistical sampling in audits, FCA cases, and recoupment valid?

The government has used random sampling for a very long time as a way to provide sufficient evidence of valid audits and intent or “reckless disregard” False Claims Act (FCA) cases. While the government considers a random sample a valid sample, “’random’” is not necessarily ‘valid’, according to Tracy M. Field, partner, Parker, Hudson, Reiner & Dobbs, LLP and Sandra Miller, partner, Womble Carlyle, Sendridge & Rice LLP. Health care providers must manage and defend against statistical evidence derived from a government audit or presented to a court. Field and Miller presented their viewpoints and practical tips in a session on March 26, 2017, at the Health Care Compliance Association Annual Compliance Institute.

Statistics in audits

Inferential statistics include a probe audit to ensure that there is a good understanding of the population and study design, according to the presenters. By definition, inferential statistics samples items to determine what a population might look like by selecting a random sample. Providing the example of 20 quarters pulled at random from a box of coins, the presenters asked “What do you know about the population based on the sample selected?” Do the quarters represent the actual coin content of the box? Are the sampled items, in this example, coins, providing a normal distribution or a skewed distribution that could be biased? Can the 90 percent confidence interval be “correct” for very imprecise data? Their answer was that we don’t always know how many quarters versus nickels are in the box and what how that concept relates to statistical samplings in claims audits.

Multiple strata. For audits to be more precise, claims are audited by identifying multiple strata. The presenters noted that a sampling unit for an Office of Inspector General (OIG) is a claim, but they stressed that “a beneficiary’s claim is really a cluster of claims which is less precise.” In another example of government audits, the multiple strata involved Current Procedural Terminology® (CPT®) codes but the audits did not take into account the payment variables or the number of claim lines sampled.

Error rates. According to the presenters, the government threshold for error rates is 5 percent in settlements. In addition, for Discovery Samples, OIG uses a 5 percent error rate to determine the full sample size, however, error rates can vary, specifically in Provider Reimbursement Review Board cases. Presenters recommended that providers speak to their legislators regarding audit issues and error rates.

Statistical sampling in False Claims Act cases

In FCA cases, statistics are used to prove the intent of the provider and establish damages. The presenters referred to court cases as they identified questions for providers to ask including whether the case involve medical necessity of the services, whether a realtor can use statistical sampling to prove both liability and damages, whether the sampling reflects patients that may need more rehabilitation, and whether patients are individually considered?

The presenters specifically pointed out the arguments in the brief of the U.S. ex rel Michael and Whitesides v. Agape case before the fourth circuit court, where the defendants argued that “statistical evidence is poorly adapted to providing the falsity and knowledge of elements of FCA liability generally, […] particularly in this case, which involves clinical judgments, such as whether a patient is terminal ill, which is “a highly individualized, context- specific, and uncertain.” In addition, the brief noted that “courts have consistently rejected attempts to use statistical sampling to prove liability in fraud cases.”

Recoupment

The brief in the Agape case explained the recoupment process as an administrative proceeding initiated by a claims processor to recover overpayments through the reduction of future Medicare payments, is a contractual set-off and is far different from an FCA case, according to the presenters. The recovery is limited to the actual amount of the overpayment plus interest while the FCA exposes defendants to treble damages and a fine of at least $5000 per claim. The burden of proof is on the payee to prove that it is entitled to the amount paid.  Further, sampling and extrapolation in recoupment action are authorized by statute if there is evidence of sustained or high level payment error (42 U.S.C. §1395ddd(f)(3)).