Author: 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.

New SNF PPS Edits Highlight the Importance of Facility Agreements

On April 1, 2019, CMS implemented a new series of Common Working File (CWF) edits that are intended to better identify ground ambulance transports that are furnished in connection with an outpatient hospital service that is properly bundled to the skilled nursing facility (SNF) under the SNF Consolidated Billing regime.

These edits work by comparing the ambulance claim to the associated outpatient hospital claim.  Hospital claims were already subject to CWF edits designed to identify outpatient hospital services that should be bundled to the SNF.  These hospital edits operate by referencing a list of Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System (HCPCS) or Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) codes that correspond to outpatient hospital services that are expressly excluded from SNF Consolidated Billing.  Hospital claims for outpatient services that are submitted with one of these excluded codes bypass the existing CWF edits, and are then sent to the appropriate Medicare Administrative Contractor for further editing and payment.  Hospital claims submitted without one of these codes are denied for SNF Consolidated Billing.

The new ambulance edits will extend these process one step further.  The ambulance claim will be associated with the outpatient hospital claim on the same date.  To the extent that hospital claim is bundled under SNF Consolidated Billing, the associated ambulance claim will also be bundled.  To the extent the hospital claim is unbundled, the associated ambulance claim will be unbundled.

In order for these new edits to work properly, there must be an outpatient hospital in Medicare’s claim history. If the ambulance claim beats the hospital claim into the system, the ambulance claim will be rejected. If and when an outpatient hospital claim with the same date of service enters Medicare’s system, the initial rejection of the ambulance claim will be overturned, and the ambulance claim will be reprocessed using the same edits.

It is important to note that the new edits were designed to reject the ambulance claim as a bundled service unless the hospital claim indicates that it should not be bundled.  In other words, these edits are designed to be “over inclusive.”  This over-inclusiveness creates the potential for ambulance denials in situations that, on their face, would not appear to be bundled.

A few examples will help illustrate this point. Imagine a situation where the patient elects, for whatever reason, to pay out-of-pocket for their hospital care (in a situation where that care would not be bundled to the SNF), and, as a result, the hospital does not submit a bill to Medicare for its services.  Based on how the new edits are designed, your ambulance claim for the transport to that excluded service will be rejected based on the lack of a hospital claim. Or maybe the patient has both Medicare and the V.A., and has elected to have the V.A. be the primary payer for their required hospital care.  Again, there would likely be no outpatient hospital claim submitted to Medicare on that date of service, resulting in the rejection of your ambulance claim.

I can see your point, but those examples are pretty far-fetched.  How big an issue is this really?

I agree those examples are pretty far-fetched.  However, there are other situations that create the same problem.  For example, what about an emergent response to transport an SNF patient to the hospital for necessary emergency services?  Imagine if you are called to respond late at night (e.g., 11:30 p.m.) tonight.  Now imagine that, by the time you get to the patient, load them into the vehicle, and transport them to the ED, it has crossed over midnight into the next day.

What date of service is going to be on the hospital’s claim?  Almost certainly, the hospital will use tomorrow’s date.  As a result, when your claim hits Medicare’s system, there will not be an associated hospital claim, which will result in your claim being rejected as the responsibility of the SNF.  In this situation, Medicare’s edit has worked as intended, but the result is the denial of a claim that should be separately payable by Medicare Part B.

Okay, I can see how this might be annoying,
but I can appeal the claim and likely win on appeal, right? 

Yes and no.  The problem is that you are not likely to win on either of the first two levels of appeal, as they are likely going to rely upon the information in the CWF.  I can see you possibly winning your appeal at the ALJ level…5 to 7 years from now.

In other words, the appeals process is unlikely to provide an acceptable resolution.  Instead, I think the majority of ambulance providers are going to look to the SNFs to make good in these situations.  Of course, the SNFs are likely going to disclaim liability, arguing (correctly) that ambulance transportation to an ED is an excluded service.

This is where the agreement with the SNF comes into play.  One key purpose of contracts is to allocate known risks between the parties.  In this instance, the “risk” that needs to be addressed is the possibility that Medicare might incorrectly reject your claim thinking it is bundled to the SNF.  I would argue that this risk should be absorbed by the SNF.  The transport to the ED should have suspended the patient’s SNF stay, which would have allowed you to receive a separate payment from Medicare.  However, the fact that your claim was rejected is proof positive that the CWF does not reflect the suspension of the patient’s SNF stay.  Indirectly, it also serves as proof that the SNF received a per diem payment for the patient on that date.  To me, the fact that they accepted the per diem payment means they accepted the risk of a bundled ambulance service on that date.  I would also argue that it was their failure to properly suspend the patient’s SNF stay that set in motion your denial.  Either way, I would be looking to the SNF for payment.

Based on my experience, the typical agreement with an SNF does not address this situation.  Frequently, these agreements do not even address the specifics of SNF Consolidated Billing.  Instead, I tend to see general language indicating that the ambulance provider will bill the SNF when payment responsibility lies with the SNF under an applicable federal or state health care program.  I doubt that language is going to convince an SNF to take financial responsibility for the situation discussed above.

The good news is that your existing agreements can easily be revised to address this situation.  The language I would recommend is something along the lines of:

“The parties acknowledge and agree that a denial from Medicare for SNF consolidated billing shall constitute conclusive evidence that a transportation service is the financial responsibility of the facility.” 

In sum, the new SNF Consolidated Billing edits are going to increase the frequency with which we are forced to look to the SNFs for payment.  In most instances, it will be a situation where the SNF is legally responsible under SNF Consolidated Billing.  However, there will also be situations where the over-inclusive nature of the edits results in the claim being incorrectly denied as the SNF’s responsibility.  The question becomes how you want to handle these incorrect denials.  Do you want to appeal and hope CMS reverses its decision?  Or do you want to hold the SNF responsible?  If you want to hold the SNF responsible, you will likely need to revise your agreements with the SNFs.

Have an issue you would like to see discussed in a future Talking Medicare blog?
Please write to me at bwerfel@aol.com.

Summary of March 28, 2019 Ambulance ODF

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) held its latest Open Door Forum on Wednesday, March 28, 2019.  As with past Open Door Forums, CMS started the call with the following announcements:

  1. Ambulance Cost Data Collection – CMS reminded the industry that the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, enacted on February 9, 2018, requires CMS to create a new cost data collection system by December 31, 2019.
  2. Emergency Triage, Treat, and Transport Model – A representative from the Innovation Center within CMS provided an overview of the “Emergency Triage, Treat, and Transport Model” or “ET3.” This is a 5-year pilot program intended to provide ambulance providers with greater flexibility to handle low-acuity 911 calls, by providing Medicare payment for: (a) ambulance transportation to alternative treatment destinations and (b) treatment at the scene. The CMS representative indicated that CMS is in possession of data that suggests that 16% of emergency ambulance transports to a hospital emergency department could have been resolved by transporting the patient to an alternative treatment site, e.g., an urgent care center. CMS estimates that had all of these patients elected to receive care in the lower-acuity setting, it would have saved the Medicare Program approximately $560 million each year. With respect to the operation of the model itself, CMS essentially repeated the information that had been previously provided on its webinars. You can view the AAA Member Advisory on the ET3 Model by clicking here.
  3. Ambulance Inflation Factor – CMS reiterated that the 2019 Ambulance Inflation Factor is 2.3%.

Following the announcements, CMS moved into a Question & Answer period. The majority of the questions related to the ET3 pilot program. As is typical, many questions were not answered on the call; instead, CMS asked the individual to submit their question in writing. However, the following questions were answered on the call:

  1. Payment Rates under ET3 – CMS was asked whether the BLS base rate payment would be the BLS emergency base rate. It was not clear that the CMS representative fully understood the question, although she indicated that it would.
  2. Eligibility for Government Agencies – CMS was asked whether governmental agencies that operate 911 centers would submit applications to participate as part of the RFA process in the Summer of 2019. CMS responded that governmental agencies that operate 911 centers would not submit RFAs, but would rather wait for the Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO), which will be issued after the ambulance providers and suppliers are selected for participation (expected to be the late Fall/Winter of 2019). CMS further confirmed that if the governmental agency also operated its own ambulance service that it would be eligible to apply for both aspects of the ET3 Model.
  3. Limit on Ambulance Providers – CMS was asked whether it would cap the number of ambulance providers and suppliers selected to participate in the program. CMS responded that, at the present time, it has no intent to cap the number of participating ambulance providers and suppliers at any specific number.
  4. Return Transports from Alternative Treatment Destinations – CMS was asked whether the model would provide for ambulance payment for the return transport after a patient was transported to an alternative treatment site. CMS indicated that the model does not provide for payment for the return transport.
  5. Definition of “Telehealth” – CMS confirmed that the model will use the same definition of “telehealth” used in other areas of the Medicare Program. CMS further confirmed that telehealth encounters require both audio and video connections.
  6. Approval of Alternative Treatment Sites – CMS confirmed that state and local regulatory agencies would have final approval over acceptable alternative treatment sites.
  7. Qualified Health Care Practitioner – CMS confirmed that a “qualified health care practitioner” would be an individually enrolled Medicare practitioner, which includes physicians and nurse practitioners. In some instances, it can also include physician’s assistants. CMS confirmed that the definition would not include registered nurses or advance scope paramedics.
  8. NOFO Funding – CMS indicated that, at the present time, it is not prepared to release additional details on the nature or size of the funding opportunities available to governmental agencies and their designees that operate or have authority over 911 centers.
  9. Medicare Advantage and Other Payers – CMS confirmed that the ET3 Model applies only to Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in FFS Medicare. It does not apply to Medicare Advantage enrollees, Medicaid recipients, etc.

Questions? Email Brian at bwerfel@aol.com

HHS OIG Issues Advisory Opinion on Community Paramedicine

HHS OIG Issues Advisory Opinion Permitting Community Paramedicine Program Designed to Limit Hospital Readmissions

On March 6, 2019, the HHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) posted OIG Advisory Opinion 19-03. The opinion related to free, in-home follow-up care offered by a hospital to eligible patients for the purpose of reducing hospital admissions or readmissions.

The Requestor was a nonprofit medical center that provides a range of inpatient and outpatient hospital services. The Requestor and an affiliated health care clinic are both part of an integrated health system that operates in three states. The Requestor had previously developed a program to provide free, in-home follow-up care to certain patients with congestive heart failure (CHF) that it has certified to be at higher risk of admission or readmission to a hospital. The Requestor was proposing to expand the program to also include certain patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). According to the Requestor, the purpose of both its existing program and its proposed expansion was to increase patient compliance with discharge plans, improve patient health, and reduce hospital inpatient admissions and readmissions.

Under the existing program, clinical nurses screen patients to determine if they meet certain eligibility criteria. These include the requirement that the patient have CHF and either: (1) be currently admitted as an inpatient at Requestor’s hospital or (2) be a patient of Requestor’s outpatient cardiology department, and who had been admitted as an inpatient at Requestor’s hospital within the previously 30 days. The clinical nurses would identify those patients at higher risk of hospital admission based on a widely used risk assessment tool. The clinical nurses would also determine whether the patient had arranged to receive follow-up care with Requestor’s outpatient CHF center. Patients that do not intend to seek follow-up care with the CHF center, or who have indicated that they intend to seek follow-up care with another health care provider, would not be informed of the current program. Eligible patients would be informed of the current program, and offered the opportunity to participate. The eligibility criteria for the expanded program for COPD patients would operate in a similar manner.

Eligible patients that elect to participate in the current program or the expanded program would receive in-home follow up care for a thirty (30) day period following enrollment. This follow up care would consist of two visits every week from a community paramedic employed by the Requestor. As part of this in-home care, the community paramedic would provide some or all of the following services:

  • A review of the patient’s medications;
  • An assessment of the patient’s need for follow-up appointments;
  • The monitoring of the patient’s compliance with their discharge plan of care and/or disease management;
  • A home safety inspection; and/or
  • A physical assessment, which could include checking the patient’s pulse and blood pressure, listening to the patient’s lungs and heart, checking the patient’s cardiac function using an electrocardiogram, checking wounds, drawing blood and running blood tests, and/or administering medications.

The community paramedic would use a clinical protocol to deliver interventions and to assess whether a referral for follow-up care is necessary. To the extent the patient requires care that falls outside the community paramedic’s scope of practice, the community paramedic would direct the patient to follow up with his or her physician. For urgent, but non-life threatening conditions, the community paramedic would initiate contact with the patient’s physician.

The Requestor certified that the community paramedics would be employed by the Requestor on either full-time or part-time basis, and that all costs associated with the community paramedic would be borne by the Requestor or its affiliates.  The Requestor further certified that no one involved in the operation of the program would be compensated based on the number of patient’s that enroll in the programs. While one of the states in which the Requestor operates does reimburse for community paramedicine services, Requestor certified that it does not bill Medicaid for services provided under the program.

The question posed to the OIG was whether any aspect of the program violated either the federal anti-kickback statute or the prohibition against the offering of unlawful inducements to beneficiaries.

In analyzing the program, the OIG first determined that the services being offered under the program offer significant benefit to enrolled patients. The OIG specifically cited the fact that one state’s Medicaid program reimbursed for similar services as evidence of this value proposition. For this reason, the OIG concluded that the services constitute “remuneration” to patients. The OIG further concluded that this remuneration could potentially influence a patient’s decision on whether to select Requestor or its affiliates for the provision of federally reimbursable items and services.  Therefore, the OIG concluded that the program implicated both the anti-kickback statute and the beneficiary inducement prohibition.

The OIG then analyzed whether the program would qualify for an exception under the so-called “Promoting Access to Care Exception.” This exception applies to remuneration that improves a beneficiary’s ability to access items and services covered by federal health care programs and which otherwise pose a low risk of harm. The OIG determined that while some aspects of the program would likely fall within this exception, other aspects would not. Specifically, the OIG cited the home safety assessment as not materially improving a beneficiary’s access to care.

Having concluded that there was no specific exception that would permit the arrangement, the OIG then analyzed the arrangement under its discretionary authority, ultimately concluding that the program posed little risk of fraud or abuse. In reaching this conclusion, the OIG cited several factors:

  1. The OIG felt that the potential benefits of the program outweighed the potential risks of an improper inducement to beneficiaries. The OIG cited the fact that beneficiaries must have already selected Requestor or its associated clinic as their provider of services before learning about the program. As the OIG indicated “the risk that the remuneration will induce patients to choose Requestor or the Clinic for CHF- or COPD-related services is negligible because patients already have made this selection.” The OIG also noted that the community paramedic will inform beneficiaries of their right to choose a different provider prior to referring the beneficiary to the Requestor or its clinic for services outside the scope of the program.
  2. The OIG noted that, to the extent the program works as intended, it would be unlikely to lead to increased costs to federal health care programs. As noted above, Requestor had certified that it would not bill federal health care programs for the services of the community paramedic.
  3. The program was designed in a way as to minimize the potential for interference with clinical decision-making.
  4. The Requestor certified that it would not advertise or market the program to the public, thereby minimizing the chances of beneficiaries learning about the program prior to selecting Requestor for their CHF- or COPD-related care.
  5. The OIG noted that the program appeared to be reasonably tailored to accomplish the goal of reducing future hospital admissions. For example, the OIG cited the fact that the Requestor limited inclusion in the program to patients deemed to be at a higher-than-normal risk of hospital admission or readmission, and that it made these determinations using a widely used risk assessment tool.  The OIG noted that these patients would likely benefit from the continuity of care offered under the program. In addition, the OIG noted that the community paramedics would be in a position to keep the patients’ physicians appraised of their health by documenting all of their activities.

Potential Impact on Mobile Integrated Health and/or Community Paramedicine Programs

OIG advisory opinions are issued directly to the requestor of the opinion. The OIG makes a point of noting that these opinions cannot be relied upon by any other entity or individual. Legal technicalities aside, the OIG’s opinion is extremely helpful to the industry, as it lays out the factors the OIG would consider in analyzing similar arrangements. Thus, the opinion is extremely valuable to ambulance providers and suppliers that current operate, or are considering the operation of, similar mobile integrated health and/or community paramedicine programs. 

Update on New SNF Edits

CMS Set to Implement New Common Working File Edits to Identify Ambulance Services Provided in Connection with Outpatient Hospital Services that should be bundled to the SNF under Consolidated Billing.

In a Member Advisory issued last week, the AAA provided an update on a series of new Common Working File (CWF) edits intended to identify ambulance transports furnished in connection with outpatient hospital services that are properly bundled to the skilled nursing facility under the SNF Consolidated Billing regime. These new edits are set to go into effect on April 1, 2019. 

In our discussion of the implementation specifics, we attempted to answer the question of what would happen when an ambulance claim is submitted prior to the receipt of the associated hospital outpatient claim, and where the associated hospital claim eventually hit Medicare’s system. Specifically, we indicated as follows:

“The Transmittal contains further instructions that the CWF be updated to identify previously rejected ambulance claims upon receipt of an associated hospital claim for the same date of service that contains an Exempted Code.  Once identified, the Shared System Maintainer (SSM) is supposed to adjust the previously rejected or denied ambulance claim.  At this point, the nature of that “adjustment” is unclear, i.e., it is unknown whether the SSM will automatically reprocess the ambulance claim for payment.  The AAA is seeking additional clarification from CMS on this important point.”

On March 15, 2019, CMS responded to our request for clarification. Specifically, CMS indicated that it has instructed the SSM and/or its Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) to automatically reprocess claims that were rejected for lack of an associated hospital outpatient claim.

Upon reprocessing, the claims will pass the edits to the extent the associated hospital claim contains a HCPCS or CPT code that indicates that the hospital outpatient service was excluded from SNF Consolidated Billing. Such claims would then be forwarded to the MAC for further editing, and either paid or denied. By contrast, when the associated hospital outpatient claim contains HCPCS or CPT codes that suggest the hospital services should be bundled to the SNF, the claim will be reprocessed and denied by the MAC with a remittance advice code indicating that the SNF is financially responsible.

AAA Webinar on New SNF Consolidated Billing Edits

March 27, 2019 | 2:00 PM Eastern
Speakers: Brian Werfel, Esq.
$99 for Members | $198 for Non-Members

Join AAA Medicare Consultant Brian Werfel, Esq., to go over the new SNF Consolidated Billing edits that go into effect April 1, 2019. These edits are being implemented by CMS in response to 2017 investigation by the HHS Office of the Inspector General that determined that CMS lacked the appropriate claims processing edits to properly identify ambulance transports provided in connection with hospital outpatient services that are not expressly excluded from SNF PPS. The implementation of these new edits will force ambulance providers and suppliers to rethink their current claims submission processes for SNF residents. Ambulance providers and suppliers will need to make a decision on what to do with these claims moving forward. Sign up today to make sure your service is ready!

Register for the Webinar

CMS SNF Edits Go Into Effect – April 1, 2019

CMS Set to Implement New Common Working File Edits to Identify Ambulance Services Provided in Connection with Outpatient Hospital Services that should be bundled to the SNF under Consolidated Billing

On November 2, 2018, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued Transmittal 2176 (Change Request 10955), which would establish a new series of Common Working File (CWF) edits intended to identify ambulance transports furnished in connection with outpatient hospital services that are properly bundled to the skilled nursing facility under the SNF Consolidated Billing regime. These new edits are set to go into effect on April 1, 2019. 

Why these edits are necessary?

In 2017, the HHS Office of the Inspector General conducted an investigation of ground ambulance claims that were furnished to Medicare beneficiaries during the first 100 days of a skilled nursing home (SNF) stay. Under the SNF Consolidated Billing regime, SNFs are paid a per diem, case-mix-adjusted amount that is intended to cover all costs incurred on behalf of their residents.  Federal regulations further provide that, with limited exceptions, the SNF’s per diem payment includes medically necessary ambulance transportation provided during the beneficiary’s Part A stay. The OIG’s report was issued in February 2019.

The OIG conducted a review of all SNF beneficiary days from July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2016 to determine whether the beneficiary day contained a ground ambulance claim line. The OIG excluded beneficiary days where the only ambulance claim line related to: (1) certain emergency or intensive outpatient hospital services or (2) dialysis services, as such ambulance transportation would be excluded from SNF Consolidated Billing. The OIG determined that there were 58,006 qualifying beneficiary days during this period, corresponding to $25.3 million in Medicare payments to ambulance suppliers.

The OIG then selected a random sample of 100 beneficiary days for review. The OIG determined that 78 of these 100 beneficiary days contained an overpayment for the associated ambulance claims, as the services the beneficiary received did not suspend or end their SNF resident status, nor was the transport for dialysis. The OIG determined that ambulance providers were overpaid a total of $41,456 for these ambulance transports. The OIG further determined that beneficiaries (or their secondary insurances) incurred an additional $10,723 in incorrect coinsurance and deductibles.

Based on the results of its review, the OIG estimates that Medicare made a total of $19.9 million in Part B overpayments to ambulance suppliers for transports that should have been bundled to the SNFs under SNF Consolidated Billing regime. The OIG estimated that beneficiaries (and their secondary insurances) incurred an additional $5.2 million in coinsurance and deductibles related to these incorrect payments.

The OIG concluded that the existing edits were inadequate to identify ambulance claims for services associated with hospital outpatient services that did not suspend or end the beneficiary’s SNF resident status, and which were not related to dialysis. The OIG recommended that CMS implement additional edits to identify such ambulance claims.

Overview of new claims processing edits

In response to the OIG’s report, CMS issued Transmittal 2176, which implements a new series of claims processing edits to identify ambulance claims associated with outpatient hospital services that should be bundled to the SNF. As noted above, these edits will go into effect on April 1, 2019.

These new claims processing edits are somewhat complicated. In order to properly understand how these claims edits will work, it is helpful to understand that CMS already has claims processing edits in place to identify hospital outpatient claims that should be bundled to the SNF. These CWF edits operate by referencing a list of Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System (HCPCS) or Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) codes that correspond to outpatient hospital services that are expressly excluded from SNF Consolidated Billing. Hospital claims for outpatient services that are submitted with one of these excluded codes bypass the existing CWF edits, and are then sent to the appropriate Medicare Administrative Contractor for further editing and payment. Hospital claims submitted without one of these codes are denied for SNF Consolidated Billing. For convenience, the list of HCPCS and CPT codes excluded from SNF Consolidated Billing is hereinafter referred to as the “Exempted Codes.”

The new edits for ambulance claims will compare Part B ambulance claims to the associated outpatient hospital claim to see whether or not that hospital claim is excluded from SNF Consolidated Billing.

Specifics related to new claims processing edits

Under these new edits, the CWF will reject an incoming ambulance claim whenever the beneficiary is determined to be in an SNF Part A stay if either:

  1. There is no associated outpatient hospital claims for the same date of service on file; or
  2. There is an associated outpatient hospital claim for the same date of service on file (paid or denied), but where that outpatient hospital claim does not contain at least one Exempted Code.

When an incoming ambulance claim is rejected by the CWF, it will be sent to the applicable Medicare Administrative Contractor and rejected (Part A Ambulance Providers) or denied (Part B Ambulance Suppliers) using the applicable Claim Adjustment Reason Code/Remittance Advice Remark Code for SNF Consolidated Billing.  In other words, the ambulance claim will be denied with an indication that youshould bill the SNF.

The Transmittal contains further instructions that the CWF be updated to identify previously rejected ambulance claims upon receipt of an associated hospital claim for the same date of service that contains an Exempted Code. Once identified, the Shared System Maintainer (SSM) is supposed to adjust the previously rejected or denied ambulance claim. At this point, the nature of that “adjustment” is unclear, i.e., it is unknown whether the SSM will automatically reprocess the ambulance claim for payment. The AAA is seeking additional clarification from CMS on this important point.

Potential concerns for ambulance providers and suppliers

Based on the current experience of hospital providers, the AAA is cautiously optimistic that the new edits can be implemented in a way that proper identifies ambulance transports associated with hospital outpatient claims that should be bundled to the SNF vs. those that correctly remain separately payable by Medicare Part B.

However, the AAA has some concerns with the manner in which CMS intends to apply these edits.  Ambulance providers and suppliers are typically in a position to submit their claims earlier than the corresponding hospital, many of which submit claims on a biweekly or monthly cycle.  This creates a potential timing issue. This timing issue arises because the edits will reject any ambulance claim that is submitted without an associated hospital claim on file.  In other words, even if the hospital outpatient service is properly excluded from SNF Consolidated Billing, the ambulance claim will still be rejected if it beats the hospital claim into the system. The hope is that CMS will subsequently reprocess the ambulance claim once the hospital claim hits the system. However, at this point in time, it is unclear whether these claims will be automatically reprocessed, or whether ambulance providers and suppliers will be forced to appeal these claims for payment.

One option available to ambulance providers and suppliers would be to hold these claims for a period of time, in order to allow the hospitals to submit their claims. By waiting for the hospital to submit its claim, you can ensure that your claims will not be denied solely due to the timing issue. This should eliminate the disruption associated with separately payable claims being rejected and then subsequently reprocessed and/or appealed. It would also give you a degree of certainty when billing the SNF for claims that are denied for SNF Consolidated Billing. However, holding claims carries an obvious downside, i.e., it will disrupt your normal cash flow.

To summarize, the implementation of these new edits will force ambulance providers and suppliers to rethink their current claims submission processes for SNF residents. Ambulance providers and suppliers will need to make a decision on whether to hold claims to minimize the potential for problems, or to continue their existing submission practices and deal with any issues as they arise.

AAA webinar on new SNF Consolidated Billing edits

March 27, 2019 | 2:00 PM Eastern
Speakers: Brian Werfel, Esq.
$99 for Members | $198 for Non-Members

Join AAA Medicare Consultant Brian Werfel, Esq., to go over the new SNF Consolidated Billing edits that go into effect April 1, 2019. These edits are being implemented by CMS in response to 2017 investigation by the HHS Office of the Inspector General that determined that CMS lacked the appropriate claims processing edits to properly identify ambulance transports provided in connection with hospital outpatient services that are not expressly excluded from SNF PPS. The implementation of these new edits will force ambulance providers and suppliers to rethink their current claims submission processes for SNF residents. Ambulance providers and suppliers will need to make a decision on what to do with these claims moving forward. Sign up today to make sure your service is ready!

Register for the Webinar

AAA Releases 2019 State Medicaid Ambulance Rate Survey

The AAA is pleased to release its 2019 State Medicaid Rate Survey. This survey sets forth the fee-for-service Medicaid rates for all 50 states. For each state, the Survey lists the rate paid for each of the following procedure codes:

  • A0428 – BLS Non-Emergency
  • A0429 – BLS Emergency
  • A0426 – ALS Non-Emergency
  • A0427 – ALS Emergency
  • A0433 – ALS-2
  • A0434 – SCT
  • A0225 – Neonate Transport
  • A0998 – Treatment, No Transport
  • A0425 – Mileage
  • A0422 – Oxygen
  • A0382/A0398 – BLS/ALS Routine Disposable Supplies
  • A0420 – Wait Time
  • A0424 – Extra Attendant

Download the Survey

Download the Survey as Spreadsheet

The rates set out in this survey are based on publicly available information provided by the various State Medicaid agencies. While the AAA has taken steps to verify the accuracy of the information on this Survey, it is possible that the rates provided in the Survey may not reflect changes to a state’s reimbursement policies that have not been made publicly available. These rates may not also not reflect any emergency budgetary measures or other temporary reductions imposed by a state.

The AAA’s goal is to make this Survey as accurate as possible. Therefore, if you believe the rates for your state are inaccurate, please contact the AAA at info@ambulance.org or me at bwerfel@aol.com.

CMS Declines to Extend Temporary Moratorium

On January 30, 2019, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that it had elected not to extend its temporary moratoria on the enrollment of new Medicare Part B non-emergency ground ambulance providers and suppliers in the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. These enrollment moratoria expired on January 29, 2019.

Federal District Court Judge Strikes Down the ACA

On December 14, 2018, a federal district court judge for the Northern District of Texas issued a ruling striking down the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on the grounds that the Individual Mandate was unconstitutional, and that the rest of the law cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny without the Individual Mandate.

District Court Judge Reed O’Connor’s decision relates to a lawsuit filed earlier this year by 20 states and two individuals. The plaintiffs argued that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 — which amended the Individual Mandate to eliminate the penalty on individuals that failed to purchase qualifying insurance effect January 1, 2019 — rendered the Individual Mandate unconstitutional. The plaintiffs further argued that the Individual Mandate was inseverable from the rest of the ACA, and, therefore, that the entire ACA should be struck down.

The defendants in this case were the United States of America, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Alex Azar, in his capacity as the Secretary of HHS, and David J. Kautter, in his capacity as the Acting Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). 16 states and the District of Columbia intervened as additional defendants.

In order to properly understand the district court’s ruling, it is necessary to revisit the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision on the constitutionality of the ACA, National Federal of Independent Business v. Sebelius (NFIB). In that case, 26 states, along with several individuals and a business organization challenged the ACA’s Individual Mandate and Medicaid expansion provisions as exceeding Congress’ enumerated powers. In a complicated decision, the majority of Justices ruled that the Individual Mandate was unconstitutional under Congress’ authority to regulate interstate commerce, but that the provision could be salvaged under Congress’ authority to lay and collect taxes. In reaching this conclusion, the majority of Justices focused on the “shared responsibility payment” aspect of the Individual Mandate, which imposed a tax on those individuals that failed to purchase or otherwise obtain qualifying health insurance. The majority of Justices concluded that the shared responsibility payment was a “tax.” It was therefore constitutional under the Congress’ general taxing authority.

In sum, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress lacked the power to compel individuals to buy qualifying health insurance, but that it could constitutionally impose a tax on those that failed to purchase or otherwise obtain qualifying health insurance.

In the current case, the court was asked to reconsider the Individual Mandate in light of the TCJA, which “zeroed” out of the shared responsibility payment, effective January 1, 2019. The plaintiffs argued that the Individual Mandate could no longer be justified as a valid exercise of Congress’ taxing authority. The federal government and its agents did not necessarily contest the plaintiffs’ argument with respect to the Individual Mandate. By contrast, the intervening states and the District of Columbia argued that the Individual Mandate could continue to be construed as a tax because it continues to satisfy the factors set forth by the Supreme Court in NFIB.

Judge O’Connor sided with the plaintiffs, holding that, because the Individual Mandate would no longer trigger a tax beginning in 2019, the Supreme Court’s ruling on this point in NFIB was no longer applicable. He therefore concluded that the Individual Mandate could no longer be upheld under Congress’ taxing authority. Judge O’Connor then fell back on the Supreme Court’s previous holding that the Individual Mandate, as a stand-alone command, remained unconstitutional under the Interstate Commerce Clause. Judge O’Connor then ruled that the Individual Mandate could not be severed from the rest of the ACA. On this point, the judge cited the express provisions of the ACA, as well as the Supreme Court’s decisions in NFIB and King v. Burwell.

What this decision means

On its face, the decision strikes down the Affordable Care Act in its entirety. However, the ruling is likely to be appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Most legal experts expect that, regardless of the decision at the Circuit Court, the case is likely to make its way up to the Supreme Court.

Pending the resolution of these appeals, the Administration has adopted a “business as usual” approach. The White House has already indicated that it will not attempt to enforce the ruling during the appeals process. CMS Administrator Seema Verma recently tweeted that the decision will have “no impact to current coverage or coverage in a 2019 plan.”

The American Ambulance Association will continue to monitor this case as it makes its way through the appeals process, and we will notify our members of any new developments.

CMS Posts 2019 Public Use File

On November 28, 2018, CMS posted the 2019 Ambulance Fee Schedule Public Use Files. These files contain the amounts that will be allowed by Medicare in calendar year 2019 for the various levels of ambulance service and mileage. These allowables reflect a 2.3% inflation adjustment over the 2018 rates.

The 2019 Ambulance Fee Schedule Public Use File can be downloaded from the CMS website by clicking here.

Unfortunately, CMS has elected in recent years to release its Public Use Files without state and payment locality headings. As a result, in order to look up the rates in your service area, you would need to know the CMS contract number assigned to your state. This is not something the typical ambulance service would necessarily have on hand. For this reason, the AAA. has created a reformatted version of the CMS Medicare Ambulance Fee Schedule, which includes the state and payment locality headings. Members can access this reformatted fee schedule here.

View Reformatted Fee Schedule

CMS Announces 2019 Ambulance Inflation Factor

On November 30, 2018, CMS issued Transmittal 4172 (Change Request 11031), which announced the Medicare Ambulance Inflation Factor (AIF) for calendar year 2019.

The AIF is calculated by measuring the increase in the consumer price index for all urban consumers (CPI-U) for the 12-month period ending with June of the previous year. Starting in calendar year 2011, the change in the CPI-U is now reduced by a so-called “productivity adjustment”, which is equal to the 10-year moving average of changes in the economy-wide private nonfarm business multi-factor productivity index (MFP). The MFP reduction may result in a negative AIF for any calendar year. The resulting AIF is then added to the conversion factor used to calculate Medicare payments under the Ambulance Fee Schedule.

For the 12-month period ending in June 2018, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has calculated that the CPI-U has increased 2.9%. CMS further indicated that the CY 2019 MFP will be 0.6%. Accordingly, CMS indicated that the Ambulance Inflation Factor for calendar year 2019 will be 2.3%.

CMS Announces Extension of Prior Authorization Program

On November 30, 2018, CMS issued a notice on its website that it would be extending the prior authorization demonstration project for another year. The extension is limited to those states where prior authorization was in effect for calendar year 2018. The affected states are Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia. The extension will run through December 1, 2019. 

CMS indicated that the extension will provide it with an additional year to evaluate the prior authorization program, and to determine whether the program meets the statutory requirements for nationwide expansion under the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015.

CMS has also updated its Ambulance Prior Authorization FAQs and its Physician/Practitioner Letter to reflect the expansion of the program. The updated FAQ and Physician Letter can be downloaded from the CMS Ambulance Prior Authorization webpage by clicking here.

2017 National and State-Specific Medicare Data

The American Ambulance Association is pleased to announce the publication of its 2017 Medicare Payment Data Report. This report is based on the Physician/Supplier Procedure Summary Master File. This report contains information on all Part B and DME claims processed through the Medicare Common Working File and stored in the National Claims History Repository.

The report contains an overview of total Medicare spending nationwide in CY 2017, and then a separate breakdown of Medicare spending in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the various other U.S. Territories.

For each jurisdiction, the report contains two charts: the first reflects data for all ambulance services, while the second is limited solely to dialysis transports. Each chart lists total spending by procedure code (i.e., base rates and mileage). For comparison purposes, information is also provided on Medicare spending in CY 2016.

2017 National & State-Specific Medicare Data

Questions? Contact Brian Werfel at bwerfel@aol.com.

 

Talking Medicare: CMS Implements Further Dialysis Cuts

Talking Medicare: CMS Implements Further Cuts in Reimbursement for Dialysis Services; Medicare Payment Data Shows Continued Reduction in Overall Spending on Dialysis Transports, but Net Increase in Dialysis Payments in Prior Authorization States

On October 1, 2018, CMS implemented an additional thirteen (13%) cut in reimbursement for non-emergency BLS transports to and from dialysis. This cut in reimbursement was mandated by Section 53108 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. This on top of a ten (10%) cut in reimbursement for dialysis transports that went into effect on October 1, 2013. As a result, BLS non-emergency ambulance transports to and from dialysis that occur on or after October 1, 2018 will be reimbursed at 77% of the applicable Medicare allowable.

In related news, CMS has released its national payment data for calendar year 2017. This data shows a continued reduction in total Medicare payments for dialysis transports. Medicare paid $477.7 million on dialysis transports in 2017, down from $488.9 million in 2016. This continues a downward trend that has seen total payments decline from a high of more than $750 million in 2013 (see accompanying chart to the right). Not coincidentally, it was in 2013 that our industry saw its first reduction in Medicare’s payments for dialysis transports.

The payment reduction is partially the result of the reduction in the amounts paid for dialysis services. However, it is also reflective of an overall decline in the number of approved dialysis transports. For this, we can look primarily to the impact of a four-year demonstration project that requires prior authorization of dialysis transports in 8 states and the District of Columbia.

As a reminder, the original prior authorization states were selected based on higher-than-average utilization rates and high rates of improper payment for these services. In particular, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) had singled out these states as having higher-than-average utilization of dialysis transports in a June 2013 report to Congress. The chart below shows total spending on dialysis in those states in the years immediately preceding the implementation of the prior authorization project up through 2017, the third year of the demonstration project. While the three states had very different trajectories prior to 2015, each showed a significant decrease in total payments for dialysis under the demonstration project.

However, it is the trajectory of these changes that I want to discuss in this month’s blog. In previous blogs, I discussed the impact of the particular Medicare Administrative Contractor on the outcomes under prior authorization. Specifically, I noted that, while dialysis payments dropped in each state, the decline was far more dramatic in the states administered by Novitas Solutions (NJ, PA) than in the South Carolina, which was administered by Palmetto GBA. This trend continued in the second year of the program, which saw prior authorization expanded into five additional states and the District of Columbia. Those states administered by Novitas (DE, MD) saw far greater declines than the states administered by Palmetto (NC, VA, WV).

Given these declines, the data from the third year is somewhat surprising. The states administered by Palmetto continued to see declines in total dialysis payments, with the only exception being West Virginia. However, in the states administered by Novitas, we saw total dialysis payments increase, particularly in New Jersey, which saw nearly a 33% increase in total dialysis payments.

Three years into the prior authorization program, it is starting to become clear that the two MACs have approached the problem of overutilization of dialysis transports using two different approaches. Palmetto appears to have adopted a slow-and-steady approach, with total payments declining in a consistent manner year after year. By contrast, Novitas adopted more of a “shock the system” approach, where it rejected nearly all dialysis transports in the first year, and has adopted a somewhat more lenient approach in subsequent years.

Key Takeaways

 Last year, I wrote that two years of data under the prior authorization program permitted two conclusions: (1) the implementation of a prior authorization process in a state will undoubtedly result in an overall decrease in the total payments for dialysis within that state and (2) the size of that reduction appears to be highly dependent on the Medicare contractor.

With an additional year of data, I think both conclusions remain valid, although I would revise the second to suggest that the initial reduction has more to do with the Medicare contractor. The evidence from the third year of the program suggests that the trends tend to equalize after the first few years. It is also possible that Novitas felt a more aggressive approach was needed in the first few years to address evidence of widespread dialysis overutilization in the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

This has potential implications beyond the demonstration project, as CMS looks towards a possible national expansion of the program. Among other issues, it suggests that the AAA must continue its efforts to work with CMS and its contractors on developing more uniform standards for coverage of this patient population.

What the AAA is Doing

The AAA continues to work on legislation that would restructure this cut to dialysis transport reimbursement. The AAA strongly supports the NEATSA Act (H.R.6269) introduced by Congressman LaHood (R-IL) and Congresswoman Sewell (D-AL) that would restructure the offset so that a majority of the additional reduction would be focused on those ambulance service agencies in which 50% or more of their volume are repetitive BLS nonemergency transports. AAA members and the AAA are working to get a Senate companion bill introduced shortly. The goal of this legislation would be to have the restructured offset go into effect as soon as possible. Thank you to the dozens of AAA members who have already contacted their members of Congress voicing their support for this critical legislation.


Have an issue you would like to see discussed in a future Talking Medicare blog? Please write to me at bwerfel@aol.com

Preliminary Calculation of 2019 Ambulance Inflation Update

Section 1834(l)(3)(B) of the Social Security Act mandates that the Medicare Ambulance Fee Schedule be updated each year to reflect inflation.  This update is referred to as the “Ambulance Inflation Factor” or “AIF”.

The AIF is calculated by measuring the increase in the consumer price index for all urban consumers (CPI-U) for the 12-month period ending with June of the previous year. Starting in calendar year 2011, the change in the CPI-U is now reduced by a so-called “productivity adjustment”, which is equal to the 10-year moving average of changes in the economy-wide private nonfarm business multi-factor productivity index (MFP). The MFP reduction may result in a negative AIF for any calendar year. The resulting AIF is then added to the conversion factor used to calculate Medicare payments under the Ambulance Fee Schedule.

For the 12-month period ending in June 2018, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has calculated that the CPI-U has increased by 2.87%.

CMS has yet to release its estimate for the MFP in calendar year 2019. However, assuming CMS’ projections for the MFP are similar to last year’s projections, the number is likely to be in the 0.5% range.

Accordingly, the AAA is currently projecting that the 2019 Ambulance Inflation Factor will be approximately 2.4%. 

Cautionary Note Regarding these Estimates

Members should be advised that the BLS’ calculations of the CPI-U are preliminary, and may be subject to later adjustment. The AAA further cautions members that CMS has not officially announced the MFP for CY 2019. Therefore, it is possible that these numbers may change. The AAA will notify members once CMS issues a transmittal setting forth the official 2019 Ambulance Inflation Factor.

CMS Announces Revisions to Provider Enrollment Waiver Demonstration (PEWD) Program

CMS Announces Revisions to Provider Enrollment Moratoria Access Waiver Demonstration (PEWD) Program

On August 20, 2018, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) published a notice in the Federal Register that it would be revising the terms of its Provider Enrollment Moratoria Access Waiver Demonstration (PEWD) Program. These revisions became effective on August 20, 2018.

Section 6401(a) of the Affordable Care Act granted CMS the authority to impose temporary moratoria on the enrollment of new Medicare providers and suppliers to the extent doing so was necessary to combat fraud or abuse. Based on this authority, CMS has implemented temporary moratoria on the enrollment of new non-emergency ambulance providers in the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Under the Provider Enrollment Moratoria Access Waiver Demonstration (PEWD) Program, CMS has the authority to grant waivers to statewide enrollment moratorium on a case-by-case basis in response to access to care issues.  However, since the implementation of the PEWD Program in 2016, CMS has identified a handful of technical issues that have complicated the implementation of the PEWD Program.  The revisions in this notice are intended to resolve these technical issues.

The specific revisions CMS is making include:

  1. In December 2016, Congress enacted the 21st Century Cures Act. Section 17004 of that law prohibits payment for items or services furnished within moratoria areas by any newly enrolled provider or supplier that falls within a category of health care provider that is subject to the enrollment moratoria.  This provision became effective on October 1, 2017.  CMS is revising the PEWD Program to waive the requirements of Section 17004 of the Cures Act with respect to providers and suppliers who were granted waivers under the PEWD.
  2. CMS is further revising the PEWD to create a second category of waivers for those providers or suppliers that had submitted an enrollment application prior to the implementation of the moratoria, but who were denied as a result of the implementation of the moratoria. CMS indicated that this new waiver authority was necessary to protect providers and suppliers that spent substantial amounts of time and money preparing for enrollment at the time the enrollment moratoria were county-based, only to be denied once the moratoria were expanded to the entire state.
  3. CMS is revising the PEWD to provide additional discretion regarding the effective date of billing privileges for providers and suppliers granted waivers under the PEWD.

Talking Medicare: DOJ Settlement Highlights Importance of Exclusion Testing

Talking Medicare: Recent DOJ Settlement Highlights Importance of Exclusion Testing

On July 17, 2018, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maine issued a press release on a settlement that had been reached with an ambulance service in Maine. As a result of this settlement, the ambulance service agreed to pay $16,776.74 to resolve allegations that it had submitted false claims to the Medicare and Maine Medicare Programs.

While the Department of Justice’s press release referred to the matter as a civil health care fraud, that headline is somewhat misleading. The ambulance service was not alleged to “up-coded” its claims or to have billed for patients that did not require ambulance transportation. Rather, the ambulance service was accused of using monies paid to it by these federal health care programs to pay the salary and benefits of a woman hired to assist the company’s billing manager. The woman, who was not identified in news reports, had previously been excluded from participation in federal health care programs after surrendering her license as a pharmacy technician after being found to have inappropriately diverted certain controlled substances. The ambulance service apparently failed to conduct an exclusion test on this individual prior to placing her on its payroll. The ambulance service’s side of the story is discussed in greater detail in this article from the local newspaper.

This settlement provides a reminder of the potential liabilities associated with the employment excluded individuals. As the HHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) noted in its May 2013 Special Advisory Bulletin, the effect of exclusion goes beyond direct patient care. The OIG noted that excluded individuals are prohibited from providing transportation services paid by a federal health care program, using the example of ambulance drivers and ambulance dispatchers. The OIG further indicated that excluded individuals cannot provide administrative and/or management services that are payable by federal health care programs, even if these administrative or management services are not separately billable. In the above-referenced case, the prohibition was applied to the wages and benefits payable to the excluded employee.

Do we need to conduct exclusion testing, and, if so, how frequently?

The OIG recommends that all health care providers conduct exclusion testing prior to an individual’s employment, and then periodically thereafter. However, the OIG takes no formal position on how frequently these periodic exclusion checks should be conducted. The OIG does note, however, that it updates its List of Excluded Individuals and Entities (LEIE) on a monthly basis.

Given the potential risks involved, I think monthly testing of all employees should definitely be considered a best practice. The hope is that this case serves as a cautionary tale for other ambulance providers.

Have an issue you would like to see discussed in a future Talking Medicare blog? Please write to me at bwerfel@aol.com.

CMS Extends Moratorium on Non-Emergency Ground Services

CMS Extends Temporary Moratorium on Non-Emergency Ground Ambulance Services in New Jersey and Pennsylvania

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has announced that it intends to extend the temporary moratoria on the enrollment of new Medicare Part B non-emergency ground ambulance providers and suppliers in the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  The extended moratoria will run through January 29, 2019.  Notice of the extension of the temporary moratorium will appear in the Federal Register on August 2, 2018.

Section 6401(a) of the Affordable Care Act granted CMS the authority to impose temporary moratoria on the enrollment of new Medicare providers and suppliers to the extent doing so was necessary to combat fraud or abuse.  On July 31, 2013, CMS used this new authority to impose a moratorium on the enrollment of new ambulance providers in Houston, Texas and the surrounding counties.  On February 4, 2014, CMS imposed a second moratorium on newly enrolling ambulance providers in the Philadelphia metropolitan areas.  These moratoriums were subsequently extended on August 1, 2014, February 2, 2015, July 28, 2015, and February 2, 2016.

On August 3, 2016, CMS announced changes to the moratoria on the enrollment of new ground ambulance suppliers.  Specifically, CMS announced that: (1) the enrollment moratoria would be lifted for the enrollment of new emergency ambulance providers and supplier and (2) the enrollment moratoria on non-emergency ambulance services would be expanded to cover the entire states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas.  At the same time, CMS announced the creation of a new “waiver” program that would permit the enrollment of new non-emergency ambulance providers in these states under certain circumstances.  The revised moratorium on newly enrolling non-emergency ground ambulance providers was subsequently extended on January 9, 2017 and July 28, 2017.

On September 1, 2017, CMS issued a notice on its website indicating that it had elected to lift the moratorium on the enrollment of new Part B non-emergency ambulance suppliers in Texas, effective September 1, 2017.  CMS indicated that this decision was made to assist in the disaster response to Hurricane Harvey.  CMS published formal notice of the lifting of this moratorium on November 3, 2017.

On January 30, 2018, CMS announced an extension of the moratorium on the enrollment of new Part B non-emergency ambulance suppliers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

CMS will need to make a determination on whether to extend or lift the enrollment moratorium on or before January 29, 2019.

Talking Medicare: GAO urges CMS to continue prior authorization

Talking Medicare: GAO urges CMS to continue prior authorization efforts

On May 21, 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report to the U.S. Senate Finance Committee on the use of prior authorization models by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The GAO was asked to examine: (1) the impact of prior authorization on total expenditures, and the potential savings for items or service subject to prior authorization, (2) the reported benefits and challenges of prior authorization, and (3) CMS’ monitoring of these programs, and its plans for future prior authorization. To conduct its study, the GAO looked at payment data and other information provided by CMS. The GAO also interviewed CMS, the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), and selected provider, supplier, and beneficiary groups.

Prior authorization was first implemented by CMS in 2012 for certain power mobility devices (e.g., power wheelchairs) in seven states. Subsequent prior authorization models were implemented for non-emergency hyperbaric oxygen and home health services. Most relevant to our industry, CMS implemented a prior authorization model for repetitive, scheduled, non-emergency ambulance transportation in December of 2014. Originally, this model was implemented in only three states: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. In January of 2016, the prior authorization model was expanded to include the states of Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia.

The GAO’s key finding is that these prior authorization models have been effective in reducing Medicare’s expenditures for various items. The GAO’s analysis of actual expenditures found that the estimated savings from all demonstrations through March of 2017 could be as high as $1.1 to $1.9 billion. Given this fact, it should not be surprising that the GAO is calling on CMS to continue the use of prior authorization.

The majority of the data included in this report relates to non-ambulance services. However, I do want to highlight a few data points noted by the GAO.

From the model’s implementation in December 2014 through March 2017, MACs collectively handled more than 337,000 prior authorization requests, including a total of 3,231 requests for authorization of a repetitive, non-emergency, ambulance patient. This includes 2,620 initial requests, and 611 resubmissions (i.e., subsequent requests for prior authorization following the rejection of the initial request).

The GAO provisional affirmation rate for both initial and resubmitted authorization requests rose in each demonstration between the initial implementation date and March 2017. For example, the GAO noted that the affirmation rate (i.e., the rate at which patients are approved for repetitive ambulance transportation) during the first six months of the non-emergency ambulance model was 28 percent. This rose to 66 percent during the most recent six-month period (October 2016 through March 2017). The GAO noted that MAC officials attributed this increase, in part, to provider and supplier education, which they felt improved the documentation being submitted by providers and suppliers. While this is undoubtedly true, it is also likely the case that the MACs refined their approval process over time.

The GAO estimated the total potential savings from the prior authorization model for ambulance to be nearly $387.5 million from December 2014 through March 2017. Importantly, 90 percent of that savings was attributable to reductions in utilization in the original three states. Moreover, more than half the reduced expenditures took place within the first six months of the demonstration project.

In terms of fitting this report into the larger picture, I think it is best viewed as further confirmation of what we already suspected: namely, that the federal government perceives prior authorization to be an effective tool for combating the perceived overutilization of ambulance to transport patients to and from dialysis. CMS indicated as much when it adopted the program in 2014. Medicare payment data has borne out those expectations. Recently, CMS issued its first interim report on prior authorization’s effectiveness. The GAO’s report adds an independent imprimatur to that belief.

Big picture, all of the stars appear to be lining up for an expansion of prior authorization next year. Stay tuned!!

Have an issue you would like to see discussed in a future Talking Medicare blog? Please write to me at bwerfel@aol.com.

Talking Medicare: A Good Thing Poorly Explained

On April 13, 2018, CMS released two Transmittals, Transmittal 243 and Transmittal 4021, and a related MedLearns Matter Article (MM10550). Collectively, these documents clarify Medicare’s coverage of ambulance transportation of SNF residents in a stay not covered by Part B, but who have Part B benefits, to the nearest supplier of medically necessary services that are not available at the SNF. This clarification relates to both the ambulance transport to the site of medical care, and the return trip.

In order to properly understand the clarification, it is helpful to review Medicare’s coverage of ambulance transportation provided to SNF residents. At the onset, it is important to note that Medicare draws a distinction between the first 100 days of a beneficiary’s SNF stay, and any subsequent days of the same stay. The first 100 days are commonly referred to as the “Part A Period.” Under current Medicare rules, all ambulance transportation provided during the Part A Period is the financial responsibility of the SNF, unless a specific exemption applies. Outside the Part A Period, Medicare’s coverage rules generally mirror the rules applicable to ambulance transports that originate at the patient’s residence. However, there is an exception that relates to transportation to and from therapeutic or diagnostic sites (i.e., those facilities identified with the “D” modifier). This clarification relates to transportation to and from diagnostic sites.

Medicare rules are clear that transportation of an SNF resident outside the Part A Period for the purpose of receiving medically necessary care that could not be provided at the SNF will be covered to the extent the ambulance transportation was both medically reasonable and necessary. This is true regardless of the type of facility to which the patient is transported. In this context, the term “reasonable” refers to the costs of transporting the patient to the site of medical care. Where it is cheaper to bring the patient to the service (e.g., an MRI or CT scan), Medicare will cover the service. Where it is cheaper to bring the service to the patient (e.g., certain minor procedures), Medicare rules indicate that the transportation would not be covered.

In other words, once an SNF resident is outside the Part A Period, Medicare will cover a medically necessary ambulance transport to a diagnostic site provided that it is cheaper to transport the patient to that site than to transport the equipment needed to provide care to the SNF.

As you can imagine, determinations as to the reasonableness of a particular service can be quite subjective. Moreover, these determinations can typically only be made on a case-by-case basis, i.e., it is extremely difficult for Medicare Administrative Contractors to make such decisions without seeing the ambulance trip report and other supporting documentation. As a result, CMS has historically given its MACs broad discretion to make these determinations.

The MACs have elected to utilize this discretion in various ways. Some MACs have essentially elected to rely upon the ambulance provider to make such determinations prior to submitting the claims. These MACs have therefore elected not to implement front-end edits for such claims.

Other MACs have elected to issue an initial denial, and handle reasonableness determinations through the appeals process. These MACs do so by implementing edits into their claims processing system that automatically deny claims submitted with the “ND” modifiers. However, because Medicare coverage rules indicate that transportation from anywhere to an SNF may be covered, these MACs do not have a corresponding edit to deny claims submitted with the “DN” modifiers.

The result is various inconsistencies in the ways claims for these situations are handled. Depending on the MAC jurisdiction in which you operate, a claim for an ambulance transport from an SNF to a diagnostic site (“ND”) for a beneficiary outside the Part A Period may be paid or denied. For those of you that operate in jurisdictions where the MAC denies this claim, you may also see the return trip either paid or denied. Note: if the transportation to the diagnostic site is denied as not being “reasonable,” the return trip should be denied as well.

It is these inconsistencies that CMS is addressing. Essentially, CMS is instructing those MACs that use claims processing edits to deny the “ND” transport to remove those edits. The practical effect is to force the MACs to use some other criteria to determine whether the roundtrip is reasonable (and, therefore, covered by Medicare Part B).

Please note that the coverage rules and clarification summarized above applies only to therapeutic and diagnostic facilities. It does not apply to ambulance transportation to and from a physician’s office. With the narrow exception of emergency ambulance transportation to a physician’s office as an interim stop on the way to a hospital, such transportation has always been and remains a non-covered service.

While I believe the change is, on net, a positive one for the industry, I would caution against reading too much into this clarification. CMS is not indicating that these transports will be covered in all instances. CMS is simply saying that, with respect to the initial processing of claims, it is willing to sacrifice some potential accuracy for the sake of greater national consistency. CMS in not restricting its MACs from using other means to make reasonableness determinations, e.g., the use of development requests, prepayment review, etc. While it is reasonable to assume that most MACs will elect not to utilize these tools, only time will tell if that is indeed what comes to pass. In the meantime, I am going to enjoy one of those rare instances where CMS used common sense, and removed an additional burden on our industry.

Have an issue you would like to see discussed in a future Talking Medicare blog?
Please write to me at bwerfel@aol.com.

Update on Medicare Reimbursement Issues

The AAA would like to take this opportunity to update members on a number of issues related to Medicare reimbursement:

  1. CMS and its contractors have begun adjusting claims for ground ambulance services to reflect the restoration of the temporary add-ons. Section 50203(a) of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 retroactively reinstated the temporary add-ons for ground ambulance services. These add-ons increase the applicable Medicare allowables by 2% in urban areas, 3% in rural areas, and 22.6% in “super rural” areas (over and above the corresponding rural rate), retroactive to January 1, 2018. On a March 7, 2018 Open Door Forum, CMS indicated that it had updated the Medicare Ambulance fee schedule to reflect these higher rates, and that it has provided a Change Request to each of its Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs). The AAA has confirmed that all MACs have successfully implemented the new rates, and that all are paying current claims at the correct rate. The AAA has further confirmed that MACs have started to adjust 2018 claims paid at the original (lower) rates. Unfortunately, neither CMS nor its MACs have committed to a firm timetable for the completion of all required adjustments; however, a number of MACs have indicated that they anticipate completing all required adjustments by the end of the second quarter of 2018.
  1. Further reduction in Medicare’s payment for non-emergency BLS transports to and from dialysis. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 further required CMS to implement an additional 13% reduction in Medicare’s payment for scheduled, non-emergency BLS transports to and from dialysis. This reduction is on top of the existing 10% payment reduction. Collectively, this means that dialysis transports will be reimbursed at a rate that is 23% less than the rate that would otherwise be applicable to BLS non-emergency transports in your area. The AAA. is reminding members that this additional reduction in payments will go into effect for transports on or after October 1, 2018.
  1. CMS has updated its SNF Consolidated Billing file to resolve the error that resulted in certain ambulance claims being incorrectly denied as being the responsibility of the SNF. Each year, CMS updates the SNF Consolidated Billing file provided to MACs. This file contains several lists of Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System (HCPCS) codes, and provides instructions to the MACs on whether these codes: (i) should be accepted for separate payment under Medicare Part B or (ii) should always be denied for inclusion in the SNF Consolidated Billing system. Ambulance HCPCS codes (A0425, A0426, A0427, etc.) have always been included in the first list, as the issue of whether an ambulance transportation is bundled to the SNF is conditioned on the nature of the services that the patient will receive at the destination. To the extent the service the patient will receive at the destination is bundled, the ambulance services to and from that service will also be bundled, and vice versa. Note: there are two exceptions to this general rule. The first is that ambulance transportation to and from dialysis is specifically exempted from the SNF Consolidated Billing regime, and therefore will always be separately billable to Medicare Part B. The second exception relates to the provision of chemotherapy services furnished on an outpatient basis in a hospital. Chemotherapy services are generally bundled to the SNF; however, several years ago, Congress elected to exempt a number of particularly expensive forms of chemotherapy from the SNF bundle. In these instances, while the SNF is not responsible for the payment of the expensive chemotherapy, the SNF remains responsible for payment of the ambulance transportation to and from the hospital. Because ambulance codes may or may not be bundled to the SNF based on the nature of the transport, they are not automatically denied. Instead, the MACs are supposed to use further edits to identify those situations in which the ambulance transport would be bundled vs. separately payable. Unfortunately, in its 2018 update, CMS inadvertently left the ambulance HCPCS codes off the list of codes that are not automatically denied as being bundled to the SNF.  As a result, ambulance providers have indicated that claims were being denied using remark code “OA109.”  In some cases, claims for dates of service in 2016 or 2017 that were previously paid were being recouped. CMS recognized its error fairly quickly, and updated the SNF Consolidated Billing file in mid-February. All MACs were provided with updated instructions by February 27, 2018. Therefore, the issue has been resolved for current claims. What remains to be resolved is how CMS and its MACs will adjust or reprocess claims that were incorrectly denied. Several MACs have notified providers of the issue, and asked that they refrain from appealing the claims. These MACs are indicating that they will automatically adjust/reprocess affected claims. In other instances, the MACs have asked the providers to make a refund of affected claims that were previously paid, promising to then reprocess the entire claim. The AAA is advising members to carefully track the claims that were affected by this mistake, and to follow the instructions issued by their MAC for ensuring their reprocessing.
  1. CMS has delayed the mailing new ID cards to all Medicare beneficiaries. As part of the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015, Congress mandated that CMS remove a beneficiary’s social security number (SSN) from their Medicare ID card by April 2019. As part of this initiative, CMS will be replacing the SSN-based Health Insurance Claim Number (HICN) with the new Medicare Beneficiary Identifier (MBI). CMS has already started mailing cards with the MBI to newly enrolling Medicare beneficiaries. CMS originally announced that it would be mailing new cards to existing Medicare beneficiaries starting in April 2018, but recently indicated that it would delay the mailing of new cards to existing Medicare beneficiaries until May 2018. From May to June, CMS will mail new cards to existing Medicare beneficiaries residing in Alaska, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The mailing program will then be extended to additional states in 5 “waves” over the coming year. To the extent you provide services in the above-mentioned states, you may want to educate crewmembers and other employees on the differences between the HICN and the MBI. You may want to also consider updating your existing patient databases to include the new identifier. As a reminder, CMS will permit claims to be submitted with either the HICN or the MBI during a transition period running through December 31, 2019.  Effective January 1, 2020, claims must be submitted with a patient’s MBI. This requirement applies regardless of whether the date of service occurred prior to the expiration of the transition period.
  1. Extension of prior authorization project for scheduled, repetitive transports. In December 2017, CMS indicated that it would be extending the prior authorization program for an additional year. This program is currently in place for the states of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The extension of the program is limited to those states. CMS has further indicated that it will be making a determination on possible national expansion at some point in the near future. CMS recently released its first interim report on the prior authorization program. As expected, that report indicated that prior authorization has been successful in reducing Medicare expenditures on scheduled, repetitive transports, without any material impact on beneficiary access to and quality of care.

Have any questions about these updates? Contact Brian Werfel at bwerfel@aol.com