Billing & Reimbursement

The Medicare incentive programs with which you and your medical practice are familiar will soon be no more.  As of January 1, 2017, these programs (including the Electronic Health Records (EHR) Meaningful Use Incentive Program, the Physician Quality Reporting System (PQRS), and the Physician Value-Based Modifier Program) will morph into the new Medicare Quality Payment Program (QPP).   The QPP will also include a fourth category of incentives entitled “Clinical Practice Improvement Activities”, which we discuss in more detail below.

The purpose of the QPP is to create one central program that will govern Medicare Part B payments to physicians, while incentivizing physicians to increase quality of care and decrease inefficiencies in the cost of care for Medicare patients.  Participation in the QPP will be mandatory beginning January 1, 2017.  The QPP will either reward or penalize physicians and their practices by adjusting their reimbursement rates under the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule two (2) years after the reporting year.  Therefore, physicians/practices will have their reimbursement rates adjusted in 2019 based on their reporting data for the year 2017.

As we noted in our first blog post in the Series, accessible here, physicians will have the option to choose between two payment tracks under the QPP:  (1) the Merit-Based Incentive Payment System (MIPS); and (2) an Advanced Alternative Payment Model (Advanced APM).  This blog post will discuss the basics of the MIPS and how to qualify for the MIPS in 2017, while our next post will touch on the basics of participation in Advanced APMs.

Basics of the MIPS

Each physician or group practice (you may report individually or as a group) participating in the MIPS in 2017 will earn a “composite performance score” based on the physician/group’s scores within the following four (4) categories:

  1. Quality of Care – 60%
    • Explanation: Scored based on the reporting of “quality measures”, which will be published annually by CMS.  Physicians will be able to choose which quality measures they will report each year.
    • Replaces: PQRS and quality component of the Value-Based Modifier.
  2. Advancing Care Information – 25%
    • Explanation: Scored based on the reporting of EHR use-related measures with which you are familiar from the current EHR Meaningful Use Incentive Program.  However, unlike the existing program, the QPP measures will not have “all-or-nothing” targets.
    • Replaces: EHR Meaningful Use Program.
  3. Clinical Practice Improvement Activities – 15%
    • Explanation: Scored based on attestation by the physician/group that the physician/group has performed certain care coordination, beneficiary engagement, population management and patient safety activities.
    • Replaces:   New Program.
  4. Resource Use – 0%
    • Explanation: Scored based on per capita patient costs and episode-based measures.  CMS collects and analyzes the data from your claims submissions.  No additional reporting will be required.
    • Replaces: Cost component of the Value-Based Modifier.

How to Qualify for 2017

CMS has eased the reporting requirements for the first year of the QPP.  No physician/group will be required to begin collecting data in accordance with the QPP’s requirements on January 1, 2017 (but may elect to do so).  To receive a neutral or positive payment adjustment, physicians/groups will need to report data for only a 90-day performance period during the year.  There are also minimum threshold reporting requirements to avoid a negative payment adjustment and full participation requirements which are more likely to result in a guaranteed positive adjustment.  The table below organizes the requirements in an easy-to-read format:

MIPS Measures Chart

Final Thoughts on Qualifying for the MIPS in 2017

  • Get involved sooner rather than later. CMS has kept reporting requirements minimal in 2017 in order to encourage clinicians to participate in the QPP.  Take advantage of that opportunity to ensure your practice has the right software to report the quality and EHR use-related measures.  Since adjustments will be made based on threshold scores, it may be easier in 2017 to earn a positive adjustment, and even an exceptional bonus, than in later years.
  • Ensure that your current EHR technology meets the requirements for the QPP in 2017, including reporting capabilities for quality measures and EHR use-related measures. The easiest way to do this is to contact your EHR vendor.
  • CMS has given providers plenty of time to report 2017 data. The deadline for reporting 2017 data is March 31, 2018.

As always, if you have questions specific to your practice, please contact a knowledgeable and experienced attorney.

You may have heard that a transformation of Medicare’s physician payment program is in the works.  However, you may not know that the structure of the new program, called the “Quality Payment Program”, has been finalized and will begin its first reporting year on January 1, 2017.  Now is the time for you and your practice to get up to speed on the new Quality Payment Program.  This post is the first in a new Blog Series that we will be publishing on Fox Rothschild’s Physician Law Blog to help you and your practice prepare for Medicare’s Quality Payment Program.

In October, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a Final Rule setting forth the structure of the Quality Payment Program and the parameters for its first year of operation.  The purpose of the Quality Payment Program is to create one central program that will govern Medicare Part B payments to physicians, while incentivizing physicians to increase quality of care and decrease inefficiencies in the cost of care for Medicare patients.  The Quality Payment Program will consolidate the existing Medicare incentive programs (which include the Electronic Health Records (EHR) Meaningful Use Incentive Program, the Physician Quality Reporting System (PQRS), and the Physician Value-Based Modifier Program), along with a new program incentivizing clinical improvement activities, into a single payment program that will either reward or penalize physicians by adjusting their reimbursement rates under the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule.

In each reporting year under the Program, physicians will be required to qualify for one of two (2) payment tracks:  (1) the Merit-Based Incentive Payment System (MIPS); or (2) the Advanced Alternate Payment Model (Advanced APM) model.  The MIPS is the default payment track, and will be the track used by most physicians over the next five years.  Qualification for the Advanced APM model requires participation in a CMS-approved Advanced APM.  The long-term goal of CMS is for most physicians and practices to participate in Advanced APMs.

While calendar year 2017 will be the first reporting year under the Quality Payment Program, payment adjustments for physician performance in 2017 will not be made until the 2019 calendar year.  This two-year gap between reporting and payment adjustment has been carried over from the existing incentive programs and may eventually be shortened.  However, for now, the gap will allow a smoother transition from Medicare existing incentive programs, which have collected data over the last two years for incentive payments in 2017 and 2018, respectively.  To be clear, incentive payments based on data reported under existing incentive programs in 2015 and 2016 will still be made.

The good news is that CMS has eased the reporting requirements for the first year of the Program.  For example, no physician will be required to begin collecting data in accordance with the Program’s requirements on January 1, 2017.  To receive a neutral or positive adjustment to reimbursements in 2019, physicians will need to report data and perform certain practice activities for a 90-day performance period during the year.

Stay tuned to the Physician Law Blog for upcoming posts on what you and your practice need to know about the Quality Payment Program (QPP).  The next posts in the QPP Blog Series will be:

  1. Basics of the MIPS and How to Qualify in 2017
  2. Basics of Advanced APMs and How to Qualify in 2017
  3. Details of the MIPS Scoring System

In the interim, if you would like to learn more about the QPP, we encourage you to check out the excellent website CMS has developed on the QPP, which can be found at this link:  https://qpp.cms.gov

As always, if you have questions regarding the applicability of the QPP to you and your practice, we advise you to consult with a knowledgeable attorney.

There are big changes coming to the Medicare incentive programs as we know them.  Beginning on January 1, 2017, the new Quality Payment Program (the “Program”) will replace all existing Medicare incentive programs with a comprehensive incentive model.  The Program will involve a modified set of EHR Meaningful Use requirements, new quality of care metrics, new cost efficiency goals and “clinical practice improvement activities” (for which physicians will be rewarded for care coordination, beneficiary engagement and patient safety).  The Program will also have a separate track for incentive payments associated with participation in Advanced Alternative Payment Models (such as Accountable Care Organizations) (“APMs“).

Congress provided for the development of the Program in the 2015 Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (the “MACRA”).  Under the MACRA, the Program must be “budget-neutral” each year.  In other words, the rewards paid by Medicare to well-performing physicians and practices must be equally offset by the penalties levied against poor-performing providers.  The rewards will continue to take the form of payment adjustments to the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule.  The first year of payment adjustments will be 2019, based on data from the 2017 reporting year.  For 2019, the reward paid to (or penalty levied against) any provider may not exceed a 4% adjustment to the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule.  However, in subsequent years, the limits are set to increase, reaching a maximum of 9% in 2022.

The potential for substantial penalties under the Program has led to concerns that the Program will make it difficult for smaller practices with higher numbers of Medicare patients to be financially viable.  Foreseeing these economic issues, Congress earmarked $100 million over five years to help small practices successfully participate in the Program.

In June, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) announced that the first $20 million of these earmarked funds will be awarded by the end of 2016.  The recipients of the funding will be organizations that provide education, training and consultation on the Program to small practices.  In particular, these organizations will assist small practices in understanding what quality measures, EHR options and clinical practice improvement activities are most appropriate for their practices.  The organizations will also help small practices evaluate their options for joining an APM.  HHS has not announced when the organizations will begin training and educating small practices.

While the intention behind such training and education is laudable, it does not lay to rest the concern that small practices serving substantial Medicare populations will be under greater pressure and financial strain to continue to operate independently.  After all, the Program itself must remain budget-neutral.  If practices improve their compliance and quality of care metrics, payment adjustments will have to be reduced or compliance standards raised.  In the long-term, this may lead to small practices being forced to join an APM in order to continue to serve Medicare patients.

Stay tuned for updates on the Program from CMS, including details on the final regulations for the Program.  If you have specific questions about how the Program may affect your practice, be sure to contact a knowledgeable healthcare attorney.

Called by some the “King of Nursing Homes” for his many low-income nursing home patients in northeast Illinois, Dr. Venkateswara Kuchipudi was recently convicted for referring patients to Sacred Heart Hospital in Chicago in exchange for kickbacks.  Kuchipudi became the fifth physician and tenth defendant to be convicted for a massive Medicare and Medicaid fraud scheme that led to the closure of Sacred Heart Hospital.

Kuchipudi’s arrangement was not overly complicated.  He struck a deal with the Owner and CEO of Sacred Heart Hospital (who was recently sentenced to 4.5 years in prison) to refer all of his Medicare patients requiring hospital care to Sacred Heart in exchange for the Hospital’s assignment of an exclusive team of health care practitioners to treat Kuchipudi’s patients both inside and outside the Hospital.  In some instances, Kuchipudi referred patients to Sacred Heart for admission, despite the fact that other hospitals were closer in distance to the patients’ nursing homes and had better staffing and access to routine procedures, such as x-rays and lab work.

The arrangement allowed Sacred Heart Hospital to greatly increase its collections, netting the hospital owner upwards of $29 million over three years, while Kuchipudi was able to bill Medicare approximately $1.6 million for services provided by his exclusive team of Sacred Heart professionals.

Kuchipudi argued that his goal was to improve patient care and that he had no idea the arrangement could be construed as involving kickbacks for referrals.  The government countered by arguing that the anti-kickback statute is violated as long as at least one of the purposes of the arrangement is to induce referrals.  The jury sided with the government on 10 of the 12 charges.

Kuchipudi was convicted of one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States and nine counts of illegally soliciting or receiving benefits in return for referrals of patients covered under a federal health care program.  He was acquitted of two counts involving mileage reimbursements paid by the Hospital to one of the physician assistants assigned to treat Kuchipudi’s patients at nursing homes.

This case is another example of the federal government’s crackdown on fraud, waste and abuse in federal health care programs, and shows that violations of the federal anti-kickback statute can involve kickbacks in a form other than direct payment for referrals.  It underscores the need for physicians to carefully review their hospital and other provider relationships to be sure such arrangements do not – even inadvertently – run afoul of these complicated statutes.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires Medicare providers to return overpayments within 60 days of the date they are identified in order to avoid liability under the False Claims Act.  Four years ago, CMS issued a proposed rule to implement this statutory requirement that would have placed a substantial burden on providers to identify and return overpayments within the 60-day period.  Last week, CMS issued its long-awaited “final rule” on the matter. The final rule is substantially less burdensome than the proposed rule would have been and offers providers a clearer view of their obligations to investigate and report overpayments.

Here are five key aspects of the final 60-Day Overpayment Rule that physicians and medical practices should keep in mind:

  1. What It Means to Identify an Overpayment

CMS clarifies that identifying an overpayment requires reasonable diligence and quantification of the overpayment.  Specifically, a provider has “identified” an overpayment when the provider “has or should have, through the exercise of reasonable diligence, determined that it has received an overpayment and can quantify the amount of the overpayment.”  In contrast, the proposed rule would have held providers to a “deliberate ignorance” or knowledge standard regarding the existence of an overpayment and would have included no leeway for quantification of the overpayment.

  1. The New Timeframe In Which Providers Must Identify Overpayments

One of the biggest questions that arose from the proposed rule was: “When does the 60-day clock to identify overpayments start ticking?”  The proposed rule called for providers to act with “all deliberate speed” to identify overpayments once they became aware of a possible billing error.  In its final rule, CMS provides a clearer answer to the question.  Providers will have up to 6 months to investigate a possible overpayment before the 60-day reporting period begins.

  1. The “Look-Back Period” Is Shortened

Part of a provider’s obligation with respect to overpayments under the ACA is to search through past records for overpayments after a provider identifies that it has received at least one overpayment.  CMS originally proposed a requirement that providers “look back” 10 years in their records for other overpayments in order to comply with this rule.  Acknowledging the unreasonable burden such a time period would impose on providers (both in effort and cost), in the final rule CMS has reduced the duration of the look-back period to 6 years.

  1. Documentation of Reasonable Diligence Is Advisable

In prefatory comments to the rule, CMS stated that it is “certainly advisable” for providers to document their diligence in investigating possible overpayments.  While documenting an investigation may not make a provider’s diligence “reasonable” per se, it may provide strong evidence of the provider’s efforts.

  1. Proactive Compliance

CMS emphasizes in the final rule that “reasonable diligence” requires not only reactive activities, such as a good faith investigation of potential overpayments by qualified individuals, but also “proactive compliance activities conducted in good faith by qualified individuals to monitor for the receipt of overpayments.”

The full text of the final rule may be accessed here:  https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2016/02/12/2016-02789/medicare-program-reporting-and-returning-of-overpayments.

Be sure to consult experienced legal counsel if you would like further guidance on the Medicare 60-Day Overpayment Rule, including what steps your practice should take to proactively and reactively address potential overpayments.

Under the federal Affordable Care Act, physicians and other providers have only 60 days to refund overpayments to the Medicare program before they face potential liability under the False Claims Act.  In addition, if CMS or the Medicare Area Contractor (MAC) identifies an overpayment, physicians have a limited period of time to respond or reply to the overpayment demand before CMS begins to recoup the overpayment.  A useful tool for understanding this process is this recently revised Medicare Learning on Medicare Overpayments.

Commercial payors are actively looking for ways to reduce payments to out-of-network providers.  One area of focus is discounts and waivers of patient copayments and deductibles by out-of-network providers.  In the eyes of these payors, coinsurance/copayments are essential to incentivizing patients to use in-network providers, and discounts on (or waivers of) coinsurance/copayments by out-of-network providers often result in higher costs to payors.

To challenge these discounts, some payors have denied reimbursement on claims where the patient’s copayment/coinsurance has been waived by an out-of-network provider.  Others have taken legal action, bringing cases for fraud and other claims, and arguing that they are not required to pay for items or services for which the patient is not billed.  There has been a special focus by some payors on instances where the provider “overstates” its charges in order to recoup the discounts or waivers of coinsurance/copayments it offers to patients.

The legal landscape is evolving on this issue; however, there are cases on the docket that may address certain aspects of this issue sooner rather than later.  Stay tuned to Fox Rothschild’s Physician Law Blog for updates.

In the interim, here are a few tips to keep in mind when considering whether to offer discounts on (or waivers of) coinsurance/copayments with respect to out-of-network plans:

  1. Consider offering the discounts solely in return for prompt payment by the patient. Under the federal Anti-Kickback Statute and other state anti-kickback laws, discounts could be considered remuneration to patients in exchange for purchasing of health care services.  However, the U.S. Office of Inspector General (OIG) has acknowledged that discounts for prompt payments of coinsurance/copayments may be permissible if they are not intended to induce purchases of services.  Note that the amount of such discounts should correspond to the savings in collection and billing costs of the Practice.
  1. Consider disclosing to payors your intent to offer the discounts to patients.  Based on recent case law, if a payor is aware of the out-of-network provider’s intent to offer discounts to patients, the payor is less likely to have a case for fraud against the provider.  See North Cypress Medical Center Operating Co. v. Cigna Healthcare, 781 F.3d 182, 205 (5th 2015) (available online here: http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/12/12-20695-CV0.pdf).  However, simply notifying payors of your intent to offer a discount would not address the risk of violating the federal anti-kickback statute and other state anti-kickback laws.  In addition, payors could deny your future claims based on the theory that the payor has no obligation to pay where the patient incurred no liability.  Therefore, payors should be notified only after discussing all options with your legal counsel.
  1. Avoid overstating charges for services provided.  If you offer discounts or waivers of coinsurance/copayments for services provided to patients of payors with which you are out-of-network, avoid charging the payors for the full cost of the services.  In addition, ensure that the charges reported to the payor reflect both the amount of coinsurance/copayment paid by the patient and any discount or waiver which you provide to the patient. Overcharging payors may be illegal under your state’s insurance laws, and, with respect to federal government payors, may lead to liability under the federal False Claims Act.
  1. Beware of “most-favored nation” clauses in your in-network provider contracts.   A most-favored nation clause requires a provider to charge a payor the lowest price it charges to any payor for a service.  If you charge payors with which you are out-of-network less to avoid overstating charges, you could also be required by your in-network payor contracts to charge the same rates for services billed in-network.

Finally, offering discounts or waivers of coinsurance/copayments is a complicated and unresolved legal issue.  You should consult a knowledgeable attorney to discuss the latest developments before taking any actions.

A new study in the BMJ suggests that the more services a physician provides to his or her patients, the less likely the physician is to be sued for malpractice.  The study examined the use of resources by attending physicians in several Florida acute care hospitals during a ten-year period from 2000-2009, in relation to the number of malpractice claims brought against the physicians in the year following care.  Researchers found that physicians who billed higher than average hospital charges were sued less often than lower-billing physicians.

The study builds on evidence that most physicians in the United States report practicing “defensive medicine”, commonly understood to be “medical care provided to patients solely to reduce the threat of malpractice liability rather than to further diagnosis or treatment.”  Prior to this study, no research had been published on whether greater resource use by physicians is associated with reduced claims for malpractice.

The researchers focused on physicians from seven specialties, including obstetrics, which tends to have a higher rate of malpractice claims than other specialties.   The evidence clearly showed that a physician’s risk of being sued for malpractice was reduced among those who performed and billed for more services.  However, the authors noted that the data only show a correlation.  Further research is necessary to understand why higher spending is linked to a lower risk of malpractice claims.

Perhaps the greatest value from this study is that the results corroborate the belief that defensive medicine reduces the likelihood of claims for malpractice.  Interestingly, the authors note that the effectiveness of defensive medicine could be a reason why efforts to reduce physician spending have been difficult.

The full study is available online at:  http://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h5516-0.

The long-anticipated implementation of ICD-10 coding finally began this past Thursday, October 1, 2015.  As of that date, government and commercial payors ceased to accept claims under the old coding system (ICD-9).  The transition has been five years in the making due to a government delay in 2012.

The new system has five times the codes of the prior system, including everything from “problems in relationship with in-laws” to “pedestrian injured in collision with roller skater” to “burn due to water-skis on fire”.  The hope is that the breadth and detail of the new codes will provide greater accuracy and increase reimbursement rates.  However, the complexity of ICD-10 could also cause substantial delays in reimbursement from both the provider side and the insurer side.  While CMS and other insurers are committed to ensuring that the implementation of the new system is completed, it is up to each provider to prepare for and manage the transition in their own practice.

Here are a few tips for your practice during the transition:

  • Mitigate the risk of longer-than-expected reimbursement times by setting aside a reserve fund to cover interim operating expenses, such as payroll, in the event of a one to two week delay in reimbursement during the next few months.
  • Whenever your staff has specific claims questions, contact the appropriate payor sooner rather than later.
  • If you haven’t already, consult your practice management and EHR software vendors to find out how they recommend using their technology with the new coding system.
  • In an effort to speed up the learning curve, consider asking your billing and coding staff to dual code a few charts each day.  This will give them additional opportunities to train, while reducing the need for extra training sessions down the line.

You may have heard some years ago that the Affordable Care Act established a “60-day overpayment rule” that requires a provider to report and return any overpayment from a federal health care program (such as Medicare or Medicaid) within 60 days of “the date on which the overpayment was identified” by the provider (for certain institutional providers, the overpayment must be returned by the later of 60 days or the date on which a corresponding cost report is due to the applicable federal health care program).   Failure to return the overpayment within the required time period (60 days for physician practices) subjects the provider to liability under the False Claims Act and a fine of up to $11,000 per claim plus treble damages.

In an effort to clarify the rule, in 2012, CMS proposed that a provider has “identified” an overpayment when the provider has either “actual knowledge of the existence of the overpayment” or acted in “reckless disregard or deliberate ignorance of the overpayment”.  77 Fed. Reg. 9179, 9182-83.  However, CMS received so much negative feedback regarding its proposed interpretation of the rule that it decided to delay final guidance until 2016.  In the interim, the first court to review the 60-day overpayment rule has had an opportunity to give its opinion.

 

The Court’s Decision

In U.S. ex rel. Kane v. Continuum Health Partners, Inc., the U.S. Department of Justice, along with an ex-employee whistleblower, brought suit against Continuum Health Partners, Inc. on the grounds that Continuum failed to report and return over 900 Medicaid overpayments within 60 days of identification.   The government argued that Continuum “identified” the overpayments when the ex-employee (who was charged with investigating a software glitch in the billing system) emailed a spreadsheet of over 900 potential Medicaid overpayments to upper management of Continuum.   Continuum argued that it should not have been responsible to report or return the overpayments until it determined the precise amounts of the overpayments.

The Court sided with the federal government, denying Continuum’s motion to dismiss the case.  The Court held that Continuum “identified” the overpayments for purposes of the 60-day overpayment rule when Continuum was put on notice that the overpayments were likely to exist.  The Court explained that the spreadsheet provided by the whistleblower did not need to “conclusively establish each erroneous claim” and it did not need to “provide the specific amount owed” in order to put Continuum on notice of each overpayment, and thereby start the 60-day reporting clock.

 

What The Case Means for Providers

The Court’s decision in Continuum is not the last word on this issue.  The Court left open what it means to be “put on notice” that an overpayment is likely to exist.  Also, as noted, CMS may issue new guidance on the rule next year.  Nonetheless, the decision can provide useful guidance for providers who have discovered a potential overpayment and want to know how to comply with the rule.

The Court explained that a provider has a duty to investigate and report an overpayment within 60 days after the provider has been put on notice that the overpayment is likely to exist.  The Court also noted that a provider should not be liable under the False Claims Act for failing to return an overpayment within 60 days, if the provider (i) has reported the overpayment, (ii) is diligently investigating it, and (iii) does not intend to withhold repayment once the proper amount has been established.

In sum, the main message of the Court’s opinion is to Take Action and Report the Overpayment.  If you discover a potential overpayment, begin investigation in a reasonable timeframe.  If you are unable to determine whether the claim actually resulted in an overpayment within the 60-day time period, err on the side of caution by reporting and returning the potential overpayment.  If the overpayment(s) are substantial in amount, you may consider withholding repayment; however, be sure to report to CMS (or the applicable federal health program administrator) as much information regarding the claim as possible, including your intention to return each overpayment once the amount to be repaid is established.

Finally, before taking any action, be sure to consult your legal counsel regarding the best options for you and your practice.