Litigation involving out of network claims by providers, also referred to as “non-participating” or “non-par”, continues to be rampant into 2019. Complexity of plan administration, increased state and federal rule making, and rising costs are resulting in increased litigation. A recurring issue: unpaid claims disputes.
Many physicians come to the conclusion that some contracts aren’t worth entering. More and more physicians are opting out of participating provider contracts or have chosen not to participate in the first place. Reimbursement is usually the prime reason. The law that controls much of the litigation surrounding these disputes is the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). ERISA is a federal law that sets minimum standards for most plans along with fiduciary responsibilities for plan sponsors. Under ERISA, a “Summary Plan Description” must be created for each plan that sets forth the rights and benefits of each plan member and importantly, how out-of-network reimbursement is determined.
Multiple health care businesses have scored wins this year in their fight to prevent CMS from recouping payments before having an opportunity for an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearing. The similarity? They each sought a temporary injunction in federal court. Arguing that the alleged recoupments would cause the businesses to close, employees to lose their jobs and patients would be forced to change their providers, the businesses were granted temporary injunctions enjoining CMS from starting recoupment until the ALJ appeal stage had reached a conclusion.
One of the biggest challenges faced by addiction treatment providers today, especially in Palm Beach County, Florida, arises in the context of unprecedented pressure by law enforcement via the Sober Home Task Force, newspapers and insurers. The threat of being targeted by law enforcement is an enormous thing in itself. Add to that the mainstream media’s insatiable desire for readers, the industry’s drop into insurer red flagging and recoupment, the political football nature of addiction and addiction treatment, and treatment providers can lapse into a state of paralyzed tunnel vision, a sort of mass hypnosis. Here’s the problem: providers dealing with the current compliance crisis environment have a lot to lose if they take their eye off the bigger picture. The more absorbed they become in “crisis mode,” the more likely they will miss important addiction treatment compliance details in an increasingly regulated and changing industry. Losing the ability to see the entire picture (and trends) and quickly adapting to it can have costly (and even deadly) consequences.
The addiction treatment industry is like any other healthcare provider—enormously and increasingly regulated, highly scrutinized and always dynamic. The moment it took on features of traditional healthcare (e.g. lab and physician services), it left the relatively warm and fuzzy comfort of behavioral health providers, sorta. “Sorta” because medical behavioral health (e.g. psychology and counseling) has not had it easy in the past 10 years, as it came under crushing price compression with managed care driven networks and other price cutting middlemen that have often been owned or controlled by insurance companies. Addiction treatment providers in the pure behavioral health space were “saved” from all this till about three years ago because they were out of network and not the focus of insurer driven price cuts. As payors (and their price cut incentivized middle men) looked for more ways to drive up profits, the competitive and disorganized addiction treatment sector became a natural (and unprepared) sector to hit. And they hit it hard! Clearly, the Perfect Storm. Addiction treatment providers now have no option but to learn to swim hard and fast in the ever changing river of the healthcare business industry.
So, you’ve received a letter from the Zone Program Integrity Contractor or “ZPIC” to review for the accuracy and justification of services reimbursed by the Medicare program. In other words, a dreaded ZPIC Audit or ZPIC Investigation. Now What?!
First, remain calm. Chances are an audit by ZPIC will go well if you have been diligent in completing patients’ medical records, justifying medical necessity, and your billing is accurate and well supported by the patients’ medical records. Even if errors are discovered, most errors do not represent fraud, that is, the errors were not committed knowingly, willfully and intentionally. Still, a ZPIC audit can be daunting and if Medicare has noticed a pattern of billing that it considers suspect, or there has been a complaint against you, the ZPIC audit will be rigorous, and often adversarial. The ZPIC’s job is to protect the program from potential fraud. It will conduct data analysis, including statistical outliers within a well-defined group, or other analysis to detect patterns within claims or groups of claims that might suggest improper billing. Data analysis can be undertaken as part of a general review of claims pre or post submission, or in response to information about specific problems arising from complaints, provider or beneficiary input, fraud alerts, CMS reports, Medicare Area Contractors, or independent governmental or nongovernmental agencies.
As many know, out-of-network providers have much different appeal rights with commercial plans than in-network providers. It is important to understand each health plan’s appeal procedure as well as time requirements for an appeal may vary. However, the appeal process is still one of the most important tools providers have to get paid in the current environment of reduced reimbursements, caps on the number and frequency of services, bundled payments based on specific codes, delayed payments, daily errors in claims processing leading to denied claims, claw backs, and the list goes on.
One of the most commonly overlooked components of a managed care contract is the definitions section despite the fact that what is contained here will affect the contracted provider on a daily basis. Contract terms that are too generic so that they are not clearly defined and understood as they relate to a particular area of practice can have a direct influence on clinical decision making. A patient may need a higher level of care but be approved for a lower level only. The provider knows that a patient may suffer if the level approved will not treat the illness or that the patient’s condition could deteriorate without a higher level of care.
Let’s take, for example, the definition of medical necessity in a contract. Who decides medical necessity? Is it the provider or is it the managed care organization (MCO)? Many contracts state that the term “medical necessity” relates only to the issue of reimbursement. Further, that the approval or denial of a claim is “for reimbursement purposes only” and should not affect the provider’s judgment on whether treatment is appropriate to treat the illness, symptoms or complaints of the patient.
Commercial plans continue their audit activity in 2016 demanding many changes and adjustments yet giving little in return. The 2015 audits have not been completed for the majority of substance abuse providers in South Florida, yet the commercial plans have arbitrarily stopped paying new claims even though it takes them at least 6 months to complete a post payment audit. If and when a provider finally gets an audit result, payors are imposing requirements that just are impossible to meet.
Payors do not appear to be paying attention to the public health crisis of substance abuse addiction and the ever growing need for treatment. The assumption is being made by the payors that all providers in this space are over utilizing services and engaged in fraudulent practices, despite the reality that many providers are doing just the contrary.
By now, it’s not news in Florida that drug and alcohol recovery providers are staring devastation in the face as payers continue to mount non-payment offensives. As payers one by one march on the industry and starve providers of cash flow for operations, many providers can be expected to shut down. To make matters worse, as the popular media continues to act as a conduit for gross misrepresentations of industry providers, the public’s affection for the industry can’t be expected to improve. This makes the future look especially bleak for the industry, and yet the silence and stillness of providers is baffling.
Given the breadth of the payer problem (many simply aren’t paying providers), why are we not seeing a slew of lawsuits filed by providers? In nearly 30 years as a Florida healthcare lawyer, I’ve never seen a healthcare sector so hammered by insurance companies. And I’ve never seen it unanswered in court.
I read an article in a local paper the other day. It was about (a) a guy who owned a treatment center (who has not been charged with committing a crime), (b) a lawsuit filed by a large insurance company against a toxicology lab that the insurer owes millions, and (c) the fact that insurance companies pay a lot for toxicology lab testing. I scratched my head, wondering how there was anything newsworthy there. The “story” being sold by the paper, however, created a story with a villain (the providers of services to people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction) and a “victim” (people receiving care for addiction). I can’t resist responding.
There’s a difference between something that’s interesting and worthy of comment vs. a journalistic attempt to concoct controversy and intrigue that people might buy. There’s not much of the former, but a lot of the latter. People in recovery being victimized by horrible, greedy people is an interesting story. Unfortunately, it’s off the mark and really not helpful to anyone.
There are three pretty safe assumptions we can almost all agree on: first, there are a lot of people who want to live life without active addiction. Second, many of them think they need help to create a better life. Third, some providers of help to people in recovery make a bunch of money providing that service.
While your healthcare business may be compliant with billing regulations and coding, this does not mean that your payer is compliant and has paid you correctly per your contract. Providers know that Fraud and Abuse has been one of the largest areas of focus for payers and the government over the past 20 years. Due to this attention, many healthcare businesses engage auditors to audit their compliance of claims quarterly or annually. However, in addition to compliance audits, a provider should be auditing their payer interaction to create a dynamic blueprint of denial management and payment recovery. The AMA states that a 5% denial rate for an average family practice equates to about $30,000 walking of the door. A good benchmark for payer compliance would be a denial rate of 5-10%. Often times, practices and healthcare businesses operate with a much higher rate, and even in the 20-30% range without even knowing it.
When auditing the payer interaction, several components should be included in the review including:
Denial rate percentage
Aging of claims paid for 30 day, 60 day, 90 day, over 120 day period as an Aggregate
Aging of claims paid for 30 day, 60 day, 90 day, over 120 day period by each Payer
Claims denied categorized by denial reason as an Aggregate for previous 12 months
Claims denied categorized by denial reason by each Payer for previous 12 months
Claims that have been appealed, the date submitted, the date of the outcome, the outcome by each Payer
Claims not paid according to fee schedule as an Aggregate for previous 12 months
Claims not paid according to fee schedule by each Payer for previous 12 months
Health law is the federal, state, and local law, rules, regulations and other jurisprudence among providers, payers and vendors to the healthcare industry and its patient and delivery of health care services; all with an emphasis on operations, regulatory and transactional legal issues.