Tag Archives: Administrative Law Judge

Medicare Appeal Backlog Finance Strategy

HOSPITALS LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS TO THE MEDICARE APPEAL BACKLOG CRISIS

Part IV — Finance Strategy for Hospitals to Cope with the Medicare Appeals Backlog

This is the fourth part of a series covering the Medicare appeal backlog. In Part I, we examined a few backlog statistics. We concluded that the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) does not have the capacity to handle this case load.  It can process only around 72,000 appeals per year, which is less than one-fifth of the needed capacity. As of July 2014, the backlog had risen to over 800,000 appeals. Now it is said to be well over 1,000,000 appeals. (Does anyone really know?) Appeals are taking more than ten times longer than the statutory framework of 10 months to resolve.  That is more than 10 years!

MEDICARE-APPEALS-BACKLOG-BAR.001Figure 1 Medicare Appeals are Running Far Slower Than the Statutory Limit. This ties up hospital claims money for very long periods of time.

We suggested that one way to cut down the number of appeals would be to use audit contractors who make mistakes only 1-2% of the time, instead of 66% of the time, as is the case now. Although this would dramatically reduce the number of appeals, it seems as though we are asking too much.

Another option would be to charge the auditors a tax for each denied claim that is reversed on appeal, and hand that money over to the provider (not to the government). Or we could have the auditor be forced to refund all of the provider’s legal fees spent during the appeal. Even though this is a satisfying fantasy, none of it is going to happen.

In Part II we examined the proposal to insert a new actor into the appeals process. Under new proposals, Attorney Adjudicators (AAs) will take over part of the Administrative Law Judge’s (ALJ) work. We concluded that under the current proposals, even if they are adopted, it is unclear how this would help with the backlog except incrementally. In reality, it would take hiring a very large number of Administrative Law Judges to make substantial cuts in the current appeals backlog.

In Part III we examined proposals for bulk settlement through an alternative dispute resolution process called “Settlement Conference Facilitation” (SCF). We concluded that even if the program was doubled, it would amount to a solution for less than one-third of 1% of the backlog. This option is a form of “throwing in the towel”. That is, OMHA wants to have the appeals simply erased, and is willing to pay out around 66% of the amount in question, which happens to be the average rate for over-turned denials.

The problem with this approach is that it simply skips the carefully thought-out process of litigation. Since the claims themselves are not analyzed in this process, and no ruling is made on whether or not they are valid, this option would allow much fraud to slip through the system, and it would deprive the healthcare community of vital feedback information needed to take corrective actions in filing subsequent claims. It is a type of administrative ground hog day.

Finance strategies

Today we will look at some of the financial aspects of the backlog. Here, we find that hospitals are well aware of their problem. A large amount of their money is being held up in the appeals backlog, and we have shown that at least two-thirds of this money eventually will come back because the auditors are doing such a poor and inaccurate job in their work.

So now lets look at some of the strategies available for hospitals to adjust to a situation in which a large amount of their claims money is improperly withheld from them, and for indeterminate amounts of time. Some hospitals keep these future denial reversals on the books as account receivables for a while, before they are retired in to the bad debt pile.

For hospitals, in 2016, we can estimate there will be around 1,600,000 claims available for appeal. At current rates, approximately 708,000 will be appealed.

Given that there are 77 ALJs available to handle all of this appeals work, this is a rate of around 9,200 claim appeals per ALJ per year, which of course it far too many, and does not take into consideration either the standing backlog or other provider appeals. So there will be continued delays. Indeed, we see that in the first quarter of 2016, 75% of appeals to the ALJ were taking longer than the 90 days provided for in the statute.

We know that in 2015 approximately $1.3 billion was paid to 1,900 hospitals and that represented 68% of the value of the claims under appeal. These payments were made providing the hospital would withdraw its appeal. There was an average of 158 claims per hospital in this tranche. These numbers define an approximate value of $6,375 dollars per claim appeal.

We know that there are 4,818 hospitals registered with Medicare. So using ratio analysis, we can estimate that in 2016 the value of these claims to be held will be approximately $4.8 billion dollars for around 761,250 claim appeals.

One option would be to finance this amount. Such a bridge loan might come into play when triggered by the appeals process exceeding the statutory time limit, combined with the expectation that they will be resolved either with a bulk settlement, or with an ALJ hearing.

Since the backlog is greatly expanded to more than 130 months, instead of the statutory 10, then it is reasonable to use a 10 year mortgage type calculation, similar to a rolling home equity loan. So at a 3.5% interest rate, the payments would be only $48,000 per month for carrying the $4.8 billion that would be in play. If the interest rate were only 5%, then still the carry payments would be only $52,000 per month. Mere pennies, considering that these interest payments could be shared between all hospitals taken as a whole.

This type of arrangement could be set up through a forward-looking financial institution.  Alternatively, hospitals as a purchasing group could enter into a joint self-insurance arrangement so that each could draw upon the pool as needed. The interest payments, minus administrative expenses, would simply expand the amount of funds available to draw upon.

As soon as any settlement was paid out via a bulk negotiation, such as the 68% rule, or through an ALJ hearing, then the hospital would pay back the pool. In the meantime, for those many months that a hospital has its claims held, it will be able to make use of the money that it could expect, but at a small interest rate. For some hospitals, this might be well worth it.

This seems to be a reasonable opportunity for any financial intermediary who is interested in developing new products addressing new markets, particularly ones like Medicare appeals which seem to be rapidly expanding.

This type of financial solution will do nothing to relieve the appeals backlog, but it might help to make the financial pain more bearable for hospitals.

In Part V we will look at investments in IT as a strategy for many hospitals in building their capacities for both filing more acceptable claims, and also for better handling the information aspects of the claims appeals process when required. We will look at investments in Electronic Health Records (EHRs), patient portal software, e-prescribing and lab integration IT investments. For each of these massive investments, we will examine how it will have an impact on the backlog.

Note: Also appeared in RACmonitor.

Medicare Appeals System Crashing

A new report(*) by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), shows that the Medicare Appeals system is crashing because the number of appeals filed exceeds the capacity of the Administrative Law system.  The number of cases filed has exploded, but there has been inadequate improvement in capacity.

Levels of Appeals

There are four levels of appeals.

Level 1 – Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs)

Level 2 – Qualified Independent contractors (QICs)

Level 3 – Administrative Law Judges (ALJs)

Level 4 – Medicare Appeals Council (MAC)

Number Appeals Rising

For the period 2010 -2014, there has been a substantial growth in appeals.  Here is the data:

Level 1     +62%

Level 2    +238%

Level 3    +936% <— look at that number!

Level 4    +267%

The greatest increase in appeals has taken place in that place where the appeal is the most complicated: Appeals to Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) increased by almost 1,000 percent.

This data indicates that providers increasing are dis-satisfied with the results of their audit. They are more likely to appeal. Also, they are considerably less satisfied with the decisions of the QICs.

So this places an incredible burden at the ALJ level. The +936% increase at Level 3 (ALJ) represents a change from 41,733 appeals in 2010 to 432,534 appeals filed in 2014.

ALJ Time/Appeal

An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) gets the same benefits as other Federal Employees. Each year they get 26 vacation days, and 10 holidays. This leaves 329 working days per year for them to do their work.

The maximum number of cases recommended per month for an ALJ is 60, but the average is much lower.

At 60 hearings/month, taking into account the number of holidays, that is approximately 2.2 hearings per day for an ALJ.

There are 77 ALJs and this should lead to a total of 168 hearings/day; and 55,474 hearings/year.

If the number of appeals has risen to 432,534 hearings per year, and each gets a hearing, and the ALJs are working at the unrealistic maximum rate of 60 hearings per month, then in order to meet this new load, a minimum of 599 ALJs need to be on the job.

That is ten times the number of ALJs needed.

But this number assumes a sustained rate of 60 hearings per month, and that is unrealistic.  A better number is 45 hearings per month.

If this number is used, then 821 ALJs are needed, based only only the 2014 data, which already is obsolete, as the number is increasing.

 

NOTES

(*) See U.S. Government Accountability Office, Medicare Fee-for-Service: Opportunities Remain to Improve Appeals Process, May, 2016, 88 pps., Document number GAO-16-366.

Federal Precision Standards for Medicare and Medicaid Statistical Sampling and Extrapolations

As we have seen from other entries to this blog, Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) operating under the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid ServicesRecovery Audit Program who are involved in conducting Medicare and Medicaid audits of health care providers have been granted an incredible bit of leeway in acceptable standards for their work.   It is not uncommon to see precision that is far more than +/- 20%, and even when the precision is as poor as +/- 49%, the Medicare Appeals Council (MAC) as well as Federal Courts will not throw out the extrapolation.

So the question that arises is this:  Are contractors free to employ any accuracy they wish in their work, or are there standards that have been suggested or published by the Federal Government?

As it turns out, there appears to be some guidance from two sources.

Source One:

In the May 5, 2010, report by the Acting Administrator and Chief Operating Officer of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)  On page 3 of that report, the section titled “Precision-level requirements” states:

“[Office of Management and BudgetOMB Circular A-123, Appendix C, states that Federal agencies must produce a statistically valid error estimate that meets precision levels of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points with a 90-percent confidence interval or plus or minus 3 percentage points with a 95-percent confidence interval.”

There is a note in the document: Under these assumptions, the minimum sample size needed to meet the precision requirements can be approximated by the following formula, which is used in the examples:

BLOG_ACCURACY_FORMULA.001Where n is the required minimum sample size and P is the estimated percentage of improper payments (Note: This sample size formula is derived from Sampling of Populations: Methods and Applications (3rd edition); Levy, P. S. & Lemeshow, S. (1999); New York: John Wiley & Sons; at page 74. The constant 2.706 is 1.645 squared.

Source Two:

In the CMS-issued Federal Register, 72 Fed. Reg. 50490, 50495 (Aug. 31, 2007), the error estimate should meet precision levels of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points with a 90-percent confidence interval, and the State error estimates should meet precision levels of plus or minus 3 percentage points with a 95-percent confidence interval.”

So it appears that these standards, which are fairly good, have been twice promulgated by the Federal Government.

The question is:  Why are they routinely ignored by Administrative Law Judges (ALJs), and the Medicare Appeals Council (MAC)?

 

John Balko & Associates d/b/a Senior Healthcare Associates v. Kathleen Sebelius Secretary U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

John Balko & Associates operates Senior Healthcare Associates (SHA)and is located in Hermitage, Pennsylvania.    The company was audited and received a demand letter for approximately $680,000 dollars.  The case went through a number of appeals and eventually the Medicare Appeals Council (MAC) ruling was appealed for review by a Federal District Court.

This is a case filed April 30, 2012 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.  (The PACER number is Case 2:12-cv-00572-AJS)  The case went through several stages prior to being appealed.  (See figure.)

BALKO_CHRONOLOGY.001

Source: Memorandum Opinion re: Parties’ Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment, files 12/28/2012, and Barraclough analysis.

A number of arguments were made that established clearly that the statistical work was faulty, and from a scientific point of view was completely invalid.

BALKO_ARGUMENTS_1.001BALKO_ARGUMENTS_2.001Arthur J. Schwab the United States District Judge wrote in his opinion “Balko is not entitled to the best possible statistical sample of claims that it submitted . . . Instead, Balko is only entitled to a statistically valid random sample.”  (Memorandum Opinion, p. 23.)

Question:  Is a “statistical valid random sample” one that is so poor that it lacks any scientific credibility?

What has happened in this case does not bode well for health care providers.   Here, statistical work that is demonstrably faulty and inferior and definitely not scientifically valid has been signed off on by the Medicare Appeals Council (MAC), and by the Federal Court that reviewed the case.

This type of sloppy scientific work never would be accepted in any other type of case before a Federal Court in which scientific evidence is evaluated in conformity with Rule 702 “Testimony by Expert Witnesses” of the Federal Rules of Evidence.   The question is why is this type of poor and inadequate scientific work OK for audits of health care providers but not OK anywhere else?

Barraclough NY LLC supplies experts for litigation support in Medicare and Medicaid appeals cases.

Documents reviewed:

John Balko & Associates d/b/a Senior Healthcare Associates, Plaintiff, v. Kathleen Sebelius Secretary U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, defendant. United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.  Case 2:12-cv-00572-AJS.

  1. Complaint (Filed 04/30/12)
  2. Answer to Complaint (Filed 08/20/2012)
  3. Brief in Support of Motion [for Summary Judgment] (Filed 11/15/2012)
  4. Brief in Opposition to Motion (Filed 12/04/12)
  5. Concise Statement of Material Facts (filed 11/16/12)
  6. Memorandum Opinion re: Parties’ Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment (Filed 12/28/2012)
  7. Judgment (Filed 04/08/14)
  8. Opinion of the Court (Filed 02/12/2014)

Note: There is another write-up of this ruling by Paige Fillingame at King & Spalding LLP with a free link to the ruling.

 

In Statistical Extrapolations, “Precision Not Required” by Medicare Appeals Council (MAC)

The case of Michael King, M.D. and Kinston Medical Specialists, P.A. before the Department of Health and Human Services, Departmental Appeals Board, Medicare Appeals Council (MAC), Docket M-10-321 offers one of the most distressing cases of acceptance of an unreliable statistical extrapolation.

MAC_King_Case.001

 Of particular note in this case is how the precision changed as the case moved from the original sampling through the Qualified Independent Contractor QIC reconsideration until after the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) decision.

MAC_KING_PRECISION.001Another way to see this is to examine the range of precision allowed by the MPIM and that accepted in this case by the MAC.

MAC_KING_PRECISION_RANGE.001At Barraclough, we have been involved in a number of Medicare appeals, and unfortunately, we must report to you that this case is not atypical.

In our view, the type of statistical work routinely accepted by the Medicare Appeals Council (MAC) does not meet Federal Evidence Standards Rule 702Testimony by Expert Witnesses“.

A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if:

(a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;

(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;

(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and

(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.

So here is our question:  Is =/- 40% a case of “reliably applied”?

 

The Case of John Sanders, M.D. – Medicare Appeals Council (MAC) Throws Out Extrapolation

This is a case in which the extrapolation was thrown out.

Here, the Medicare Appeals Council agreed with the “determination that the sampling was sufficiently flawed to preclude calculation of an overpayment by extrapolation”.

Although the appellant had made a number of arguments attacking the statistical extrapolation, the MAC relied on two errors in throwing out the extrapolation:

“The errors are: 1) the PSC provided the independent statistical expert with sample data which assigned some claims to the wrong stratum; and 2) the PSC provided the independent expert with a second CD containing an Excel set of sample data with significant discrepancies from the first set of data, and the PSC was unable to clarify the discrepancies, to identify which set of data was applicable, or to explain the significance of the second set of data.”

This provides at least three check points when providing litigation support to a health care provider:

First, always have the statistical expert carefully check that all claims in any strata strictly fit the definition of the strata;

Second, look for any instance in which inconsistent records have been handed over by the contractor; and

Third, demand detailed explanations from the contractor for each and every inconsistency found in the data.

The case is: In the case of John Sanders, M.D. (May 12, 2011). Medicare Appeals Council (MAC).

Unfortunately, it has been our experience at Barraclough that these arguments do not always result in an extrapolation being thrown out.   Rulings are inconsistent with each other – sometimes this argument works, sometimes it does not.

RECOVERY AUDIT CONTRACTORS (RACs) MOVING TO SEMI-AUTOMATED REVIEWS

The Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) have been moving towards big data analysis of claims from health care providers.   According to the CMS report “Recovery Auditing in Medicare and Medicaid for Fiscal year 2012“, more than 67% of all audits are done through “semi-automated” reviews.

Health Care Providers have been unsuccessful in getting judicial review of the complex algorithms used in these automated reviews.   For example, it is impossible to determine how fair is the targeting process.   When auditors are asked to provide this information, health care providers are told that this information is a “trade secret“, and in any case is not reviewable by the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).

How successful are automated reviews?  The data shows that 91% of the claw-backs from health care providers were the result of so-called “complex reviews”, not dependent upon the semi-automatic review process.

In writing about semi-automated reviews, CMS states:

“The first part is the identification of a billing aberrancy through an automated review using claims data.  This aberrancy has a high index of suspicion to be an improper payment. The second part includes a Notification Letter that is sent to the provider explaining the potential billing error that was identified.  The letter also indicates that the provider has 45 days to submit documentation to support the original billing.”