Understanding Prepayment Review in 2015

April 29, 2015 by  
Filed under Featured, Medicare Audits

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Medicare Prepayment FormThe Centers for Medicare & Medicaid (CMS) has instituted several methods to help combat the increase in waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal and state health care programs. One of the most recent trends involves pre-payment review of claims. In this process, government contractors will review a claim for problems before the claim may be paid. Unlike the traditional postpayment review process, if a health care provider is placed under prepayment review, there is very little you can do other try to identify the nature of deficiencies noted so that remedial action can be taken. Moreover, health care providers in prepayment review face expensive complications, including possible exclusion from Federal healthcare programs, if the problems which caused them to be subject to prepayment review go uncorrected. The key is to truly understand the prepayment review process and what you can do to minimize any potential problems.

I.  The Prepayment Review Process Comes to Life

In 2012, CMS introduced the Recovery Audit Prepayment Review Demonstration, which allows Recovery Auditors (RACs) to conduct prepayment reviews on certain types of claims that historically result in high rates of improper Medicare payments. The demonstration focused on eleven states: California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Prepayment Claim Review Programs apply to the National Correct Coding Initiative (NCCI), Medically Unlikely Edits (MUEs), and Medical Review (MR).

NCCI Edits are performed by Medicare Audit Contractors (MACs). CMS developed the NCCI to promote national correct coding methods and to control improper coding that leads to inappropriate payment in Medicare Part B claims. NCCI edits prevent improper payments when incorrect code combinations are reported. NCCI edits are updated quarterly.

MACs also perform MUEs, which were created to reduce the paid claim error rate for Medicare claims. MUEs and NCCIs are automated prepayment edits. MACs analyze whether the procedure on the submitted claim complies with MUE policy.

MRs are performed by MACs, Zone Program Integrity Contractors (ZPICs), and Supplemental Medical Review Contractors (SMRCs). These contractors identify suspected billing problems through error rates produced by the Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) Program, vulnerabilities identified through the Recovery Audit Program, analysis of claims data, and evaluation of other information, such as complaints. CMS, MACs, and other claim review contractors target MR activities at identified problem areas appropriate for the severity of the problem. A MAC can place a provider with identified problems submitting correct claims on prepayment review. If this happens, a percentage of the provider’s claims undergo MR before the MAC authorizes payment. Once providers re-establish the practice of billing correctly, prepayment review ends at the discretion of the contractor.

II.  Prepayment Review

A Medicare contractor will place a provider on prepayment review if they suspect the provider is billing the Medicare program inappropriately. Rather than paying these providers upon the submission of claims, the contractors require the providers to submit medical records and other documentation to support the claims. The records and documentation are then manually reviewed by nurses and other licensed practitioners. The submitted claims are then either approved or denied based on the manual review. Providers generally remain on prepayment review until their average rate of claims approval reaches a sufficiently high percentage, which is usually 80%.

CMS has directed its contractors to consider excluding physicians and other providers from Medicare and Medicaid if they have been on prepayment review for extended periods of time without correcting their “inappropriate behavior.” Exclusion from participation in Federal healthcare programs typically leads to other adverse consequences, such as loss of hospital privileges and being dropped from managed care networks.

Providers must make exhaustive efforts to avoid ending up on prepayment review and potentially facing exclusion. To do so, providers need to understand what contractors have the authority to put a provider on prepayment review, and what the contractors are looking for.

III.  Providers and Prepayment Review – A Real Concern

Unfortunately, even the mere allegation of fraud leads to prepayment review. This, in turn, can harm even the most innocent provider. Last year in New Mexico, fifteen behavioral health care providers were put on prepayment review based on “credible allegations of fraud.” Because their Medicaid reimbursements were suspended, the providers could not afford to pay their staff, rent, or other bills. The providers tried suing the state and sought an injunction that would restore funding. The providers argued that they had been denied due process by not being told what the precise charges were against them, and that at the end of the day those suffering the most were their patients. However, they were denied the injunction.

As a result, the fifteen providers ended up filing for bankruptcy. Because the behavioral health care providers served 87% of New Mexico’s Medicaid recipients, the state of New Mexico had to bring in providers from Arizona to service residents. This caused state infighting, as New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee objected to the New Mexico Human Services Department moving $10 million from its budget to pay Arizona agencies to take over New Mexico providers. The deal with the Arizona providers eventually went through, and 2 of the fifteen New Mexico providers were ordered to make repayments to Medicaid.

IV.  What Can Providers Do?

Unfortunately, health care providers may not be able to ignore the fact that being placed on prepayment review has become an inevitability. So what is a practitioner to do faced with this ordeal? Well, the best way for a provider to avoid a tragic situation that befell the providers in New Mexico is to have an ironclad and effective compliance plan that is followed by all provider employees and affiliates. It is best to prepare for the worst and have solid documentation of accuracy to show auditors than to lose one’s livelihood over false allegations of fraud. Have you implemented your effective compliance plan?   If not, you increase the risk that your claims may not be paid for the services you have provided. Even if you do have a compliance plan in place, the plan may no longer be up to date or may simply be ineffective. It is imperative that you take action now to reduce the risks that come along with the prepayment review process. Give us a call today and we would be more than happy to assist you with the prepayment review process as well as implementing an effective compliance plan for your organization.

Robert LilesRobert Liles, Esq., serves as Managing Partner at Liles Parker, Attorneys & Counselors at Law.  Liles Parker attorneys represent a variety of health care providers around the country in connection with both regulatory and transactional legal projects. For a free consultation, call Robert at (800) 475-1906.

GAO Testimony Recommends Stronger Contractor Oversight to Prevent Medicare Fraud, Abuse, and Waste

June 23, 2010 by  
Filed under Medicare Audits

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(June 23, 2010): In her June 15, 2010 testimony before Congress, GAO Health Care Director Kathleen M. King made clear that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) continue to face substantial challenges to preventing Medicare and Medicaid fraud, waste, and abuse.  Among the most significant of these challenges is lack of adequate oversight of the myriad contractors CMS relies on to process, pay, and audit the millions of daily Medicare claims.

King raised specific concerns about the national recovery audit contracting program’s failure to provide adequate post-payment review of large categories of claims.  Recall that recovery audit contractors (RACs) are private bounty hunters. 

“Because RACs are paid on a contingent fee based on the dollar value of the improper payments identified, during the demonstration RACs focused on claims from inpatient hospital stays, which are generally more costly services.” 

Therefore, GAO recommends that CMS direct othercontractors to focus on items and services known to have high levels of improper payments, such as home health and durable medical equipment.   What was it that RACs were supposed to be doing again?  Recall too that experience has shown that both ZPICs and PSCs do not necessarily strictly adhere to medical review standards established by CMS.  Instead, we have seen these contractors apply their own unwritten standards, often denying claims based on conjecture and speculation.

Finally, King’s testimony suggests that the RAC program alone does not resolve known improper payment vulnerabilities.  Where RACs have identified vulnerabilities, CMS still lacks policies and procedures to ensure that it “promptly (1) evaluates findings of RAC audits, (2) decides on the appropriate response and a time frame for taking action based on established criteria, and (3) acts to correct the vulnerabilities identified.”  GAO’s recommendations in this respect seem to fall under the category of “This isn’t happening now?” 

Should you have any questions regarding these issues, don’t hesitate to contact us.  For a complementary consultation, you may call Robert W. Liles or one of our other attorneys at 1 (800) 475-1906.

Counsel for HHS-OIG Discusses the Impact of Health Care Reform on Enforcement with Congress

June 22, 2010 by  
Filed under Medicare Audits

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(June 22, 2010):  In his testimony last week before the Health and Oversight Subcommittees of the House Committee on Ways and Means, Lewis Morris, Chief Counsel to the Inspector General (OIG) of Health and Human Services (HHS), emphasized the increasing speed and intensity of HHS-OIG’s multi-pronged health care fraud enforcement efforts.  Morris’ testimony reinforces the need for Medicare providers and suppliers to aggressively prepare for a knock on the door from HHS-OIG or one of its many enforcement partners.

Morris highlighted numerous new enforcement tools available under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), paying particular attention to innovations in data access and use.  These measures include consolidating and sharing data across agencies, as well as deploying new technology that allows “investigators to complete in a matter of days analysis that used to take months with traditional investigative tools.” 

He further praised the enhanced accountability measures contained in PPACA, such as HHS-OIG’s ability to impose civil monetary penalties for “failing to grant [upon reasonable request] timely access to HHS-OIG for investigations, audits, or evaluations.”  Notably, PPACA Section 6408 provides for a penalty of $15,000 for each day for failure to grant access.

Morris’ testimony also reminded the health care community that:

  • PPACA allows the HHS Secretary to suspend payments to providers or suppliers based on credible evidence of fraud.  At the same time, it expands the types of conduct constituting Federal health care fraud offenses under Title 18.
  • HHS-OIG has improved access to information from entities directly or indirectly involved in providing medical items or services payable by any Federal program.

Perhaps most significantly:

  • Medicare and Medicaid program integrity contractors (i.e., ZPICs and PSCs) are required to provide performance statistics, “including the number and amount of overpayments recovered, number of fraud referrals, and the return on investment of such activities.” (emphasis added).

 While not surprising, it is nonetheless disconcerting that ZPICs and PSCs are essentially being “graded” based on the amount of overpayments recovered,” along with the number of enforcement actions handled and referred to law enforcement.  Based on these performance measures, is there any real difference between ZPICs and RACs?  While RACs may be compensated directly based on the amount of overpayments collected (and ZPICs are not), it is crystal clear that the government’s expectations of ZPICs are quite similar.  Now, more than ever before, it is essential that providers implement effective compliance measures to cover their practices and clinics.

Should you have any questions regarding these issues, don’t hesitate to contact us.  For a complementary consultation, you may call Robert W. Liles or one of our other attorneys at 1 (800) 475-1906.

Responding to a Search Warrant of Your Practice or Clinic.

June 1, 2010 by  
Filed under HEAT Enforcement

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(June 1, 2010):  I.  Introduction:

Like most honest health care providers, you may believe that “search warrants” are only executed by the government in connection with the investigation of nefarious characters and criminals.  Unfortunately, that just isn’t the case.  The Federal government has increasingly utilized search warrants as a first-strike investigative tool.  In fact, the execution of a search warrant may very well be the first notice a health care provider has that their practice or clinic is under investigation.

Allegations of wrongdoing may arise from a wide variety of sources.  Health care providers may have been reported by disgruntled current or former employees, dissatisfied patients, or others familiar with the practice’s operations.  Notably, recent criticism aimed at RACs for their failure to identify and refer possible criminal wrongdoing to the government for further investigation may have generated a new period of significant enforcement.  It appears that Zone Protection Integrity Contractors (ZPICs) around the country have recently intensified their activities, going well beyond the typical overpayment audits normally seen.  We have seen a marked increase in the number of unannounced site visits, Medicare suspension actions and Medicare number revocation cases.  We fully anticipate the number of criminal referrals to DOJ to increase as well.

In assessing this issue, it is important to remember that prior to obtaining a search warrant, an Assistant U.S. Attorney has gone before a Federal Magistrate and has shown “probable cause” that a crime has been committed or is being committed.  Once issued, the search warrant may greatly help DOJ build its case.  Search warrants are preferable to subpoenas and other investigative tools because:

The health care provider will likely be caught completely off-guard, thereby reducing the possibility that documents may be lost, destroyed or otherwise be missing before it can be secured as part of the investigation.  In executing a search warrant, the government can preserve the documentation and electronic evidence to the greatest extent possible.

The government may use the execution of a search warrant as an opportunity to segregate possible witnesses and see if they can interview the employees and obtain statements before the practice and its employees have an opportunity to obtain counsel.

The combination of force and surprise will have an enormous psychological effect on your employees.  There will be absolutely no question about the seriousness and gravity of the government’s investigation.  This is often very intimidating, often resulting in significant damage to the practice, ranging from employee resignations to adverse publicity and media attention.

Finally, the scope of the search warrant will likely be sufficiently broad that the practice or clinic will have a difficult time determining the focus of the government’s investigation.

Once a search warrant is executed, the issue becomes how to best respond.  The purpose of this advisory is to provide an overview of the Federal search warrant process so that your interests can be protected.

II.  Responding to a Federal Search Warrant:

  A.  Before the search.

If the government were to execute a search warrant on your practice today, would you be ready?  Have your employees been briefed on how to respond if Federal agents show up at your practice or clinic?  If your answer to either of these questions is “no,” you should take immediate steps to better ensure that you are ready if this event were to occur.  Understandably, no health care provider likes to think that they would learn of an investigation in such a fashion.  Nevertheless, it occurs practically every day.  You should work with your attorney to draft procedures for responding to a search warrant that are tailored for your practice or clinic. 

B.  At the time of a search.

Please remember that these steps are not all inclusive.  Upon the execution of a Federal search warrant, you should immediately contact your attorney so that the specific facts and circumstances of your situation can be fully assessed and taken into consideration.  In responding to a search warrant, you should:

At the outset, it is important that you avoid taking any actions that could be misconstrued by the government as an obstruction to their search.  That does not mean that you cannot ask questions – merely that you should not obstruct their search.

 Try and ensure that patient care activities are not jeopardized. Typically, law enforcement will be sensitive to these issues and will try to avoid direct patient care areas.  Nevertheless, you may need to bring this issue to their attention.  You may find that legal counsel can often work with law enforcement to resolve an unreasonable intrusion in this regard.

 Ask for a copy of the search warrant and give it to your lawyer.  Your lawyer will try and prevent them from seizing any documents or items that appear to be outside of the scope of their warrant.  Importantly, search warrants are supposed to provide a specific description of the information or items to be search.  If a search warrant is ambiguous overly broad, your counsel may choose to seek to quash to the search.

 Regarding the search warrant itself, your lawyer will try and note the issuance date of the warrant and the date it was executed. Additionally, counsel will ask to check the identification of the leading agent handling the search, along with the identification of any other participating agencies (e.g. IRS, HHS-OIG).

 While your lawyer may request to see the affidavit upon which the search warrant is based, you should not be surprised if it was sealed by the Court and cannot be obtained. If counsel has not yet arrived, call your lawyer to discuss whether there may be any grounds to object to the search.  Should you object, inform the lead agent of your objection. Should the search continue, record the date and time of their arrival and departure.

 If they will allow it, try and accompany agents on the search.  Try to note which areas were searched and which documents or items were seized.  

 You may have documents that qualify as attorney-client privileged materials.  Should agents try to take documents that may be considered privileged, you should immediately object and notify the agents that the documents they are seizing are privileged. 

 Try and obtain a receipt from the agents for any items or documents that are seized. When possible, get copies of original documents before they are removed.

  C.  Handling employee issues.

The execution of a search warrant is an extremely stressful situation and can create confusion and stress on a practice’s employees. You should quickly move to restore order and re-assure employees that the situation is under control.

While a search warrant can be used to seize documents or other items, it cannot be used to force employees to participate in an interrogation.  Due to the many sensitivities in this area, it is strongly recommended that you have counsel advise employees of the situation.  While the government cannot force employees to answer questions, you must take care when you are briefing employees on the situation. While you must not tell employees that they are not allowed to talk with an agent, it is appropriate to tell employees that they have no obligation to answer any questions.  While individuals have a Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, your practice or clinic does not enjoy such a privilege.

When possible, send employees home for the day or have them work in another part of the facility.  Finally, you should notify employees that any questions regarding the location of certain records should be directed to a specific management official so that any inquiries can be properly and consistently handled.

  D.  After the search.

Document retention issues should be carefully handled. It is our view that all document destruction should immediately stop, even if the activity would be consistent with pre-search document retention policies used by the practice or clinic.  Once an investigation is initiated, you should diligently work to avoid even an appearance that obstruction of justice may be occurring. 

Should you have any questions regarding these issues, don’t hesitate to contact us.  For a complementary consultation, you may call Robert W. Liles or one of our other attorneys at 1 (800) 475-1906.

Medicare Audits: Is There an Unintended Aspect to RAC Behavior That May Benefit Some Providers? Are RACs Looking the Other Way When They Run Across Evidence of Fraud?

March 13, 2010 by  
Filed under Medicare Audits

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(March 13, 2010): When debating the the fundamental unfairness of the RAC program — one interesting point was heavily discussed.  As recently reported, CMS is now “training” RACs to identify and report evidence of fraud that may be identified as they conduct medical reviews.   The government’s recent interest in making sure that they properly trained likely stems from the fact that they reported a mere handful of possible fraud case to the government, despite the fact that the program is far from new at this point.  The reason for their hesitation is clear — it’s either a mere overpayment (and they can keep part of the recovery) or it’s something more serious, possibly requiring referral to HHS-OIG or DOJ.  Keep in mind, RACs are a private enterprise seeking to make money.  While no one is questioning that they mean well and want to be good corporate citizens, the fact remains that a fraud referral very well may mean that they don’t recovery for an otherwise good case.  In the RAC context, the term “improper payments” does not mean fraud. Honest billing errors, poor documentation, or even the lack of a doctor’s signature on a visit note could prompt Medicare or a RAC to claim that a provider had been overpaid and to demand reimbursement. Providers accused of fraud, by contrast, are suspected of intentionally overbilling the government. If convicted, they not only have to return the money but could be subject to jail time for the worst offenses.

RACs are supposed to alert the appropriate authorities when they encounter fraud. However, RACs have no incentive to do so.  Remember RACs are bounty hunters.  RACs do not get paid for telling the government that they have uncovered fraud.  Think about this, because Medicare prohibits RACs to continue reviewing billings from a provider suspected of fraud, the RAC can actually lose money by making fraud allegations.

Naturally, RACs referred only two cases of suspected Medicare fraud during from 2005 to 2008.  Although a new report from the Department of Health and Human Services indicates that RACs are being trained on fraud detection and where to refer fraud cases, the financial deterrent is still there.

Just a thought . . .

Should you have any questions regarding these issues, don’t hesitate to contact us.  For a complementary consultation, you may call Robert W. Liles or one of our other attorneys at 1 (800) 475-1906.

You’ve Got to be Kidding. . . the Government Wants More “Bounty Hunters” Conducting Medicare Audits?

March 12, 2010 by  
Filed under Medicare Audits

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(March 12, 2010): Yesterday, the White House announced that President Obama  intends to back additional bipartisan plans to stamp out waste in government-run medical programs for the elderly and needy.  The White House said this new effort to root out improper payments in the Medicare and Medicaid programs could double taxpayer savings over the next three years to at least $2 billion.

“We cannot afford nor should we tolerate this waste of taxpayer dollars,” the White House said.   The government believes that approximately $54 billion was lost through improper Medicare and Medicaid payments in 2009. Medicare is the government-run program covering elderly Americans and Medicaid is for the country’s poorest.

President Obama is seeking to crack down on waste and fraud as his administration strives to secure an overhaul of the $2.5 trillion healthcare system to contain costs and expand coverage to tens of millions of more Americans.  The action endorses Republican-backed proposals on alleged health care wrongdoers.

Similar to the current RAC reimbursement scheme, the proposed new plan will offer private auditors a share of the money that they recoup in order to encourage them to work harder to uncover improper payments under Medicare and Medicaid.   President Obama is also expected to back bipartisan legislation to expand the ability of government agencies to undertake these so-called payment recapture audits by providing more funds.  No additional information on how this will impact CMS was given.

As many health care providers will readily attest, over the past year, it appears that there has been a marked increase in PSC and ZPIC audits, almost all of which are accompanied by demands for extrapolated damages.  Once again, this points to the importance of self-assessment and an effective compliance strategy.  Asked to comment on this new “risk” to health care providers, Robert W. Liles, Managing Partner at Liles Parker, Attorneys and Counselors at Law, responded:

”Our firm has represented a number of health care providers around the country.  We have aggressively fought to have improper claims denial overturned.  This new risk will increase the likelihood that providers who have not been subjected to RAC audits in the past may now find themselves being examined by RAC-like auditors in the future.  Coupled with existing PSC and ZPIC audits, sole practitioners, small practice groups and clinics will find their coding and billing practice under the spotlight.  Unfortunately, based on recent cases we have handled, it appears that PSCs and ZPICs are increasingly imposing their own views regarding what is required, well beyond the four corners of CMS-authorized provisions set out under LCDs and LMRPs covering the services at issue.  Fortunately, when faced with the facts, ALJs have applied a reasonable approach and most of the claims at issue have been found to be payable.  We recommend that health care providers carefully review their documentation practices to lessen the likelihood that ZPICs, PSCs, RACs and these new third-party reviewers can successfully argue that the claims don’t qualify for coverage.”

Should you have any questions regarding these issues, don’t hesitate to contact us.  For a complementary consultation, you may call Robert W. Liles or one of our other attorneys at 1 (800) 475-1906.

Hold on Tight – 2010 Could be Rough for Providers. . .

February 27, 2010 by  
Filed under HEAT Enforcement

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(February 27, 2010): The number of auditors, reviewers, investigators and prosecutors going after health care providers is increasing and signals an alarming, unprecedented effort by the government to uncover and recover alleged Medicare overpayments to health care providers.

Health care providers now face not only simple repayment demands, but also civil False Claims Act cases and criminal Medicare / Medicaid fraud claims identified by various new government contractors. Regrettably, we have seen unintentional mistakes, incomplete documentation and technical errors cited as the basis for seeking the repayment of millions of dollars, representing Medicare services rendered long ago, in some cases as many seven years before the demand letter was sent.  Perhaps most troubling is the fact that no one, including the ZPIC and / or PSC conducting the medical review, doubts that the medical services were rendered and in most cases, the Medicare beneficiary benefited from the care and treatment provided.  Today, every health care provider must beware of:

  • “RACs” — Recovery Audit Contractors.
  • “ZPICs” — Zone Program Integrity Contractors.
  • “MICs” — Medicaid Integrity Contractors.
  • “MCFU” — Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.
  • “HHS-OIG” — Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General.
  • “DOJ” — U.S. Department of Justice, and
  • “HEAT” — Healthcare Fraud Prevention & Enforcement Task Force (in a number of U.S. Attorney’s Offices around the country).

RACs and the havoc they are expected to wreak is old news, quite frankly. The newest players in town, ZPICs, MICs and HEAT Teams should be at the top of your current list of concerns. As you will recall,   CMS consolidated functions of all Program Safeguard Contractors (PSCs) and Medicare Prescription Drug Integrity Control (MEDIC) contracts into ZPIC contracts.  ZPICs are designed to combine claims data (FIs, Regional Home Health Intermediary, Carrier, DMERC) and other data to create a platform for documenting complex data analysis.  While RACs (until recently) have focused solely on recovering money, ZIPCs also look for fraud.

MICs are just now revving up around the country.  Unburdened by many of the restrictions placed on RACs, providers with a heavy Medicaid beneficiary base should diligently review their Medicaid coding and billing efforts to better ensure compliance with applicable statutory and regulatory requirements.

HEAT Teams are made up of top level law enforcement and professional staff from DOJ and HHS.  HEAT was implemented to prevent fraud and enforce current anti-fraud laws and prevent waste that focuses on improving data and information sharing between the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services and law enforcement agencies.  HEAT is working to strengthen program integrity activities to monitor and ensure compliance and enforcement.  HEAT’s tools to identify fraud include hotlines and web sites for healthcare workers and ordinary citizens.  Furthermore, HEAT officials are helping state Medicaid officials conduct better audits and provide better monitoring to detect fraudulent activities.

Should you have any questions regarding these issues, don’t hesitate to contact us.  For a complementary consultation, you may call Robert W. Liles or one of our other attorneys at 1 (800) 475-1906.

 

Are ZPICs Tougher than RACs when Conducting a Medicare audit?

February 27, 2010 by  
Filed under ZPIC Audits

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(February 27, 2010):  The Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) program is an integral part of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS’) “benefit integrity” efforts which seek to identify and recoup alleged overpayments paid to Medicare providers. While the RAC program is still being expanded in many of the country (to cover not only hospitals but also other providers and types of Medicare claims), health care providers should be aware that the Zone Program Integrity Contractors (ZPICs) are already active in many areas and are actively auditing physicians, home health agencies, hospices, DME companies, therapy clinics, chiropractors and other small to mid-sized health care providers.  Despite the “hype” surrounding RACs, at this time, ZPICs represent a significantly greater risk to non-hospital providers than do RACs.  The purpose of this article to examine a number of the differences between these Medicare contractor programs.

What are the chances of your practice being reported by a ZPIC or RAC to HHS-OIG or DOJ for possible fraud violations?

While both contractor programs are designed to “find and prevent waste, fraud and abuse in Medicare,” the fact is that to date, ZPICs have been much more likely than RACs to report possible incidents of “fraud” that are identified while conducting a medical review.  Frankly, it makes sense.  RACs make money by identifying alleged overpayments – not by making a fraud referral to law enforcement.  Notably, as a result of recent criticism by HHS-OIG, CMS will be requiring RACs to be much more diligent in the future about making referrals to law enforcement when it appears that a health care provider’s conduct represents fraud rather than merely an overpayment.  CMS has provided training to RACs on how to identify fraud in the near future.  Importantly, a RAC denial of claims which results in a provider repayment will not necessarily prevent HHS-OIG from investigating and making a referral to DOJ for possible prosecution, as appropriate, if there are allegations of fraud or abuse arising out of the alleged overpayment. 

Notably, recent letters by ZPICs in South Texas and in other parts of the country have been seeking copies of business related records (copies of contracts, agreements with Medical Directors, lease agreements and more), along with its request for claims-related medical documentation.  Importantly, the contractor is assessing the provider’s business relationships to help verify that referral and other business relationships do not violate the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute.  To reduce the possiblity of civil or criminal liability, it is essential that Medicare providers take affirmative steps to better ensure that their practices are compliant with applicable statutory and regulatory requirements.  2011 will be the “Year of Compliance.”  All providers, regardless of size, should take steps to implement an effective Compliance Program.  Should you not have an compliance program in place, give us a call — we can help. 

What is different about ZPICs and their predecessors, Program Safeguard Contractors (PSCs)?

Both ZPICs and Program Safeguard Contractors (PSCs) readily point out that they are not “bounty hunters.”   ZPICs are not paid contingency fees like RACs and are paid directly by CMS on a contractual basis.  Nevertheless, common sense tells us that if ZPICs aren’t successful at identifying alleged overpayments, the chances of a particular contractor getting their contract with CMS renewed are pretty slim.  Experience has shown that both ZPICs and PSCs don’t always appear to strictly adhere to medical review standards established by Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) and approved by CMS.  In our opinion, there appear to have been cases where these contractors applied their own unwritten standards, often denying claims based on conjecture and speculation rather than a strict application of the applicable LCD or LMRP. 

In any event, over the last year, both ZPICs and PSCs have been increasingly placing health care providers on pre-payment review, conducting post-payment audits, recommending suspensions of payment.  Additionally, in many cases they have been extrapolating the alleged damages based on a sample of claims reviewed. Finally, as discussed above, identified instances of potential fraud are being referred by ZPICs and PSCs to HHS-OIG for possible investigation, referral for prosecution and / or administrative sanction.

What sources of coding / billing data are used by ZPICs?

ZPICS are required to use a variety of techniques, both proactive and reactive, to address any potentially fraudulent practices.  Proactive techniques will include the ZPIC IT Systems that will combine claims data (fiscal intermediary, regional home health intermediary, carrier, and durable medical equipment regional carrier data) and other source of information to create a platform for conducting complex data analyses. By combining data from various sources, ZPICs have been able to assemble a fairly comprehensive picture of a beneficiary’s claim history regardless of where the claim was processed. The primary source of this data is reportedly CMS’ National Claims History (NCH) database.

How do ZPICs conduct medical reviews?

ZPICs conduct medical reviews of charts to determine, among other things, whether the service submitted was actually provided, and whether the service was medically reasonably and necessary.  Based upon their findings, ZPICs may approve, downcode or deny a claim.  To date, we have never seen a ZPIC conclude that a claim should have been coded at a higher level, only a lower level.  Regrettably, ZPICs are not required to have a physician review a claim in order to deny coverage.  In most of the cases on which we have worked, the contractor’s medical reviewer has been a Registered Nurse.   While some Federal courts have found that a treating physician’s opinion should be given paramount weight, others have ruled that the opinion of a treating physician should not be given any special consideration.  Generally, ZPICs have completely disregarded the “Treating Physician Rule,” despite the fact that a patient’s treating physician was the only provider to have actually seen and assessed the patient at issue. 

How should you respond to a ZPIC audit?

In responding to a ZPIC audit, it is important to remember that although they may not technically be “bounty hunters,” in our opinion, they are in the business of finding fault.   Moreover, they are quite adept at identifying “technical” errors, many of which they will readily cite when denying your Medicare claims.  Unfortunately, it is not at all uncommon for a ZPIC to find that 75% — 100 % of the sample of claims reviewed did not qualify for coverage and payment by Medicare.  After extrapolating the damages to the universe of claims at issue, health care providers often find that they are facing alleged overpayments of between $150,000 and several million dollars.  In many cases, the assessment is far in excess of the provider’s ability to pay.  As such, the administrative appeal becomes a “bet the farm” matter for the health care provider.  If the assessment remains, the provider will have no choice but to declare bankruptcy. 

It is also important to remember that ZPIC enforcement actions are not limited to merely overpayment assessments.  In recent months, ZPICs have been increasingly conducting unexpected site visits of health care provider’s offices and facilities, often requesting immediate access to a limited number of claims and the medical records supporing the services billed to Medicare.  Typically, they then require that a provider send supporting documention covering a wider list of claims within 30 days of their visit.  In other cases, should a ZPIC identify serious problems when reviewing the medical records requested, they may recommend to CMS that the provider’s Medicare billing privileges be suspended.  From a practical standapoint, few providers are diversified (in terms of payor mix) to the point that they can easily do without Medicare reimbursement.  The practical effect of a Medicare suspension is therefore that provider cannot continue in business throughout the 180-day initial period of suspension typically imposed by CMS.   Finally, in a limited number of cases, after a ZPIC or PSC has visited an office, the provider will subsequently learn that the contractor has recommended that the provider’s Medicare number be revoked.  In a fairly recent case we are aware of (not involving a client of the Firm), the contractor claimed that the provider failed to cooperate, a clear violation of the provider’s “Conditions of Participation” with Medicare.  As a result, the contractor recommended (and CMS approved) the revocation of the provider’s Medicare number.    Short of exclusion from participation in the Medicare program, this is arguably the most serious and far-reaching administrative action that can be taken against a Medicare provider.     

In light of the seriousness of the situation, regardless of whether you are contacted by a RAC, a ZPIC or a PSC, you must take great care when responding to the contractor’s request for business records, claims information or medical records.  Administrative enforcement actions can be extraordinarily serious.  Therefore, is essential that you engage an experienced attorney and law firm to represent your interest. 

Liles Parker attorneys have extensive experience representing health care providers around the country in connection with ZPIC audits and reviews by other Medicare providers.  Should you have any questions regarding these issues, don’t hesitate to contact us.  For a complementary consultation, you may call Robert W. Liles or one of our other attorneys at 1 (800) 475-1906.