Member Advisory: Follow Up Regarding Recent OIG Report on Questionable Billing Practices for Ambulance Suppliers

HHS OIG Analysis Part 2 of 2 – Read Part One of the Analysis

October 1, 2015

Yesterday, the American Ambulance Association summarized a report from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General (OIG) on certain questionable billing practices by ambulance suppliers.

In this report, the OIG indicated that 1 in 5 ambulance providers had engaged in one or more of the following “questionable billing” practices”:

  • Billing for a transport without a Medicare service being provided at either the origin
  • Billing for excessive mileage for urban transports
  • Billing for a high number of transports per beneficiary
  • Billing using compromised beneficiary ID numbers
  • Billing for an inappropriate or unlikely transport level
  • Billing for a beneficiary that is being shared among multiple ambulance suppliers
  • Billing for transports to/from a partial hospitalization program

In this member advisory, I want to devote additional attention to the questionable billing practice the OIG referred to as “inappropriate or unlikely transport levels”.

The OIG identified 268 out of the 15,614 ambulance suppliers reviewed (2%) that had questionable billing based on the percentage of claims submitted with inappropriate or unlikely combinations of transport levels and destinations.  The OIG summarized its findings as follows:

“We identified two types of transports billed with inappropriate combinations of destinations and transport levels. First, we identified emergency transports that suppliers indicated were to a destination other than a hospital or the site of a transfer between ground and air transports. We also identified specialty care transports that suppliers indicated were to or from destinations other than hospitals, SNFs, or transfer sites.”

The OIG went on to state that a high percentage of an ambulance supplier’s transports with inappropriate or unlikely transport levels (given the destination) could be indicative of “upcoding”.  The OIG identified 268 ambulance suppliers that had particularly high numbers of claims submitted with unlikely or inappropriate transport levels/destinations combinations.  These ambulance suppliers submitted 3% or more of their claims with these suspect combinations, compared to less than 1% for most ambulance suppliers.  The OIG identified 19 companies that used a suspect combination on more than 25% of their claims.

Since the publication of the OIG’s report, the AAA has received numerous inquiries from members asking for guidance on how they can identify whether their company is at risk for submitting claims with these suspect combinations.  Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to that question.  However, based on my experience, I can offer the following general guidelines:

  1. Define the types of claims that would potentially be problematic. The OIG identified two distinct categories of suspect combinations.  The first involves emergency transports.  The OIG indicated that a claim would presumably not qualify for payment of an emergency base rate to the extent the patient was being transported to somewhere other than a hospital or an intercept site (i.e., the “I” modifier).  In other words, the OIG is looking at claims billed for an emergency base rate (HCPCS Codes A0427 or A0429) with a destination modifier that is either an “R” (Residence), “N” (Skilled Nursing Facility), “E” (Other Custodial Facility), “J” (Free-Standing Dialysis Facility).  The second category involved specialty care transports (SCT).  To qualify as SCT, a transport must be “interfacility”, which CMS has defined to be transports between hospitals (including hospital-based dialysis facilities), skilled nursing facilities, or any combination thereof.  Therefore, the OIG would consider a claim to be suspect if the origin or destination modifier was an “R”, “N”, “E”, or “J”.
  2. Investigate the claim submission edits within your billing system. Having defined the types of claims that the OIG would consider suspect, I suggest that you investigate the claims submission edits within your billing system.  Specifically, you want to see whether there is anything currently in place that would make it impossible for you to submit a claim with any of these suspect combinations.  For example, would your billing system prevent you from submitting the following claim:  A0427 HR?  This may require you to attempt to submit test claims with each possible combination to see whether your billing software would reject any or all of these combinations.
  3. To the extent these claim submission edits are not already in place, you should investigate whether your billing software permits you to create them. Assuming your billing system does not currently have edits in place to prevent the submission of claims with these suspect combinations, you want to investigate whether these types of edits can be added.  Many billing software products have optional submission edits that you can enable for certain payers.  Other products may permit you to create specialized edits for these purposes.  You may want to contact your billing vendor to ask whether there is any way to put these edits in place for your Medicare claims.  Assuming your software has the capability of putting these edits in place, it almost certainly makes sense to do so, in order to eliminate the possibility of submitting claims with these suspect combinations going forward.

The suggestions listed in paragraphs #1 and #2 above address the issue of whether it was possible for your company to have inadvertently submitted claims with any of these suspect combinations.  Even if you determine that it was theoretically possible for you to have submitted claims with any of these suspect combinations, it does not necessarily follow that any such claims were actually submitted.  Most ambulance companies have numerous controls in place to guard against inadvertent mistakes in the coding/billing of claims.  For example, while many billing software products permit an ambulance coder to duplicate an earlier transport for the patient, many companies elect not to use this functionality, preferring instead to code each claim from scratch.  This removes one possible mechanism by which these types of inadvertent errors can occur.  Moreover, even if it a claim was submitted with a suspect combination, it does not necessarily follow that the claim was paid by Medicare.  Your Medicare contractor may have its own edits in place to deny claims submitted with these suspect combinations.  Finally, even if a claim was accidentally submitted with a suspect combination and paid by the Medicare contractor, it is possible that you may have caught the error at the time you posted Medicare’s payment.  Assuming that you properly refunded the incorrect payment at that time, there is no need for further concern.


Ambulance supplier should attempt to determine whether their billing software was designed in such a way as to prevent these suspect combinations from being submitted to Medicare.  To the extent you are confident that it is impossible for these claims to be submitted to Medicare, there is nothing further that needs to be done.

To the extent an ambulance supplier determines that their current billing software edits do not make it impossible for such claims to be submitted to Medicare, they should determine whether the necessary edits could be implemented on a go forward basis.  The ambulance supplier will also need to make an organizational determination on whether to investigate its past claims universe.  This determination should be made in consultation with the company’s legal advisers.  Your legal advisers will also guide you on the steps that should be taken if you discover that you remain paid for any claims with any of these suspect combinations.

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), fraud and abuse, Office of Inspector General (OIG)

Brian Werfel

Brian S. Werfel, Esq. is a partner in Werfel & Werfel, PLLC, a New York based law firm specializing in Medicare issues related to the ambulance industry. Brian is a Medicare Consultant to the American Ambulance Association, and has authored numerous articles on Medicare reimbursement, most recently on issues such as the beneficiary signature requirement, repeat admissions and interrupted stays. He is a frequent lecturer on issues of ambulance coverage and reimbursement. Brian is co-author of the AAA’s Medicare Reference Manual for Ambulance, as well as the author of the AAA’s HIPAA Reference Manual. Brian is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Columbia School of Law. Prior to joining the firm in 2005, he specialized in mergers & acquisitions and commercial real estate at a prominent New York law firm. Werfel & Werfel, PLLC was founded by David M. Werfel, who has been the Medicare Consultant to the American Ambulance Association for over 20 years.

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