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.

Hospital appeals settlement recipients identified by CMS

More than 2,000 hospitals that received almost $1.5 billion in total settlement money from CMS for fee-for-service denials based on patient status reviews for admissions prior to October 1, 2013, were identified by name, provider number, total claims settled, and amount of money received. The settlement, which was paid in 2015 at 68 percent of the net allowable amount, gave providers a guaranteed timely payment in exchange for withdrawing pending appeals that were tied up waiting through a large administrative hearing backlog. Settled claims numbers ranged from one to almost 3,000, with amounts paid between $0 and almost $16 million.

The settlement was a one-time offer by CMS to alleviate the burdens on the Medicare appeals system. The agency only settled claims for patients admitted prior to October 1, 2013, because it believed that the two-midnight rule, which began on that date, would reduce future appeals volume (see CMS offers partial payments for certain Part A hospital claims under appeal, Health Law Daily, September 3, 2014; CMS pays $1.3B to settle hospital inpatient claims, Health Law Daily, June 15, 2015).

The administrative hearing backlog remains a problem for CMS, which last month proposed regulations to improve the efficiency of the Medicare appeals process and address the increasing number of backlogged appeals waiting for administrative adjudication (Proposed rule, 81 FR 43789, July 5, 2016). The settlement offer was made nine months after Nancy Griswold, Chief Administrative Law Judge for HHS’ Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA), said that there were 375,000 claims waiting for adjudication and suspended new requests for hearings before an administrative law judge. As of April 2016, however, OMHA had over 750,000 pending appeals. The two-midnight rule, which did not have the desired effect of reducing appeals, has also ended after hospital backlash (see 1.5 percent payment cut overshadows end of Two-Midnight, Health Law Daily, August 3, 2016).

Kusserow on Compliance: GAO issues report critical of Medicare appeals process

The Backlog Saga Continues

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a review of the appeals process for Medicare fee-for-service (FFS) claims and issued a report in June 2016 that was highly critical of the Medicare appeals process. The process consists of four administrative levels of review within HHS, and a fifth level in which appeals are reviewed by federal courts. Appeals are generally reviewed by each level sequentially, as appellants may appeal a decision to the next level depending on the prior outcome. Under the administrative process, separate appeals bodies review appeals and issue decisions under time limits established by law, which can vary by level. They have not been meeting those deadlines for years. In fact, they have 700,000 pending appeals that would take years to clear up, even if new appeals were not filed.

The GAO found that CMS and two other components within HHS that are part of the Medicare appeals process have not made available full-use data collected in three appeal data systems to monitor the Medicare appeals process. It also found variations in how appeals bodies record decisions across the three systems, including the use of different categories to track the type of Medicare service at issue in the appeal. Absent more complete and consistent appeals data, the ability to monitor emerging trends in appeals is limited and is inconsistent with federal internal control standards that require agencies to run and control agency operations using relevant, reliable, and timely information. The GAO recommended that HHS take four actions, including improving the completeness and consistency of the data used by HHS to monitor appeals and implementing a more efficient method of handling appeals associated with repetitious claims.

Following the release of this report Nancy Griswold, Chief Administrative Law Judge, Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA), and Constance B. Tobias, Chair, Departmental Appeals Board (DAB), reported submitting a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on changes to the Medicare claims appeal process as part efforts to eliminate the backlog of appeals currently pending at the OMHA and the DAB. The proposed changes designed to reduce the number of pending appeals and streamline the Medicare appeals process. They also sought increases in the budget for FY 2017 to add resources to work on the backlog problem.

Richard P. Kusserow served as DHHS Inspector General for 11 years. He currently is CEO of Strategic Management Services, LLC (SM), a firm that has assisted more than 3,000 organizations and entities with compliance related matters. The SM sister company, CRC, provides a wide range of compliance tools including sanction-screening.

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