NewsOK Q&A: Feds paid $60 million in ‘improper’ Medicare payments last year

From NewsOK / by Paula Burkes
Published: September 29, 2017
Click to see full story – Feds paid $60 million in ‘improper’ Medicare payments last year

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Mary Richard is recognized as one of the pioneers in health care law in Oklahoma. She has represented institutional and non-institutional providers of health services, as well as patients and their families.

Q: In 2016 the federal government paid out $60 million in “improper payments” to Medicare and Medicare Advantage plans. What are improper payments?

A: The prohibition against improper payments applies to Medicare and to the Medicare Advantage plans which stand in the place of Parts A and B but offer more choices to patients in the private insurance market. Most are HMOs, PPOs and private fee-for-service plans. “Improper payments” refers to both underpayments and overpayments. The most common payment problems are traced to insufficient documentation of the care provided. Other problems are no documentation, failure to establish medical necessity and incorrect coding. Regulators tell us that the objective is to understanding the ordering practitioner’s reasoning in evaluating and diagnosing a patient, in considering alternative course of action and in selecting a specific treatment plan with the patient. Just as physicians have been trained to document robust informed consent, they are now being called upon to document their thought processes as a way of demonstrating the legitimacy of the treatment.

Q: What action can the federal government take once an improper payment has been identified by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)?

A: The CMS is part of the Department of Health and Human Services and it has an investigative arm known as the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which is the most robust of all federal agencies’ legal and investigative arms. The OIG can investigate a provider and refer the matter to the Department of Justice to bring a criminal or civil action against the provider that can result in repayments, penalties and even incarceration. Such actions also ultimately can result in exclusion from federal payment programs and even loss of the provider’s clinical license to practice. A demand for repayment can be based on an extrapolation of a statistical sample of a provider’s claims submission and payment history.

Q: How can providers avoid making claims that result in improper payments? Are there certain kinds of providers who are at the greatest risk for coding errors?

A: In the face of this regulatory environment, providers would do well to engage in periodic preventive spot audits of their medical records documentation, coding and billing activity. Billing regulations are increasingly complex and require advanced training not only of the practitioner, but also of his or her staff, billing company and supporting professionals such as accountants and attorneys. Continuing education, coding seminars and the like are the order of the day for persons with these responsibilities.

Q: What’s the potential impact of these billing errors on patients and on providers?

A: Improper documentation can be a result of mistakes, faulty documentation or fraud. Some documentation shortcomings can be traced back to the provider’s original training or education. Others relate to the electronic records formatting, which some experts argue fosters copying responses rather than creating medical record entries for each patient. Ideally, eliminating unnecessary claims benefits the health care system financially and so ultimately benefits the patient. However, in my experience, “false claims” often represent a failure on the business side of a medical practice or facility operations in a situation where quality services were actually performed. But once characterized as an overpayment, the amount paid by the Medicare contractor must be returned despite the fact that quality services were provided.