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.

Understanding the GAO’s Recent Report on Medicare Prepayment and Postpayment Reviews

On May 13, 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) publicly released a report on the comparative effectiveness of the various audit programs used by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and its various contractors. This report was requested by Senator Orrin Hatch, the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who had asked the GAO to examine: (1) the differences between prepayment and postpayment reviews and the extent to which CMS contractors utilize each, (2) the extent to which contractors focus their reviews on particular types of claims, and (3) CMS’ cost per review, and the amount of improper payments identified by contractors for each dollar they are paid.

To briefly summarize the GAO’s findings:

  • The Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) generally limited themselves to conducting postpayment reviews. The GAO attributed this to the fact that the RACs were paid contingency fees based on recovered overpayments, i.e., because prepayment reviews result in a claim never being paid in the first place, there is no “overpayment” to be recovered, and, therefore, no contingency fees to be paid. The GAO did note that from 2012 to 2014, CMS conducted a demonstration project in which the RACs conducted prepayment reviews (and were paid contingency fees based on the dollar amount of denied claims), which CMS considered to be a success.
  • The Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) generally limited themselves to conducting prepayment reviews.
  • Each contractor also tended to specialize in certain types of claims. For example, the GAO noted that during 2013 and 2014, the RACs tended to focus primarily on inpatient hospital claims. The GAO found that the MACs tended to focus on physician and durable medical equipment claims. Note: the GAO included claims for ambulance services within the larger category of “physician” claims.
  • The RACs identified a total of $4.5 billion in improper payments during 2013 and 2014. For their work, the RACs were paid contingency fees totaling $312 million, a return of approximately $14 in improper payments for every dollar paid to the RACs.
  • CMS lacked reliable data on the costs and effectiveness of its MACs program integrity reviews.

The GAO made two specific recommendations. First, it recommended that CMS seek legislation that would permit its RACs to conduct prepayment claims reviews. Second, it recommended that CMS develop written guidance on how its MACs should calculate the savings attributable to prepayment claims reviews. CMS disagreed with the first recommendation, believing it unnecessary in light of other programs intended to move CMS away from “pay and chase”, including prior authorization and enhanced provider enrollment screening. CMS agreed with the second recommendation.

Focus on the RACs

For the years 2013 – 2014, the GAO found that the RACs focused primarily on hospital inpatient claims. For example, the GAO found that 78% of the FY 2013 claims reviewed by the RACs were hospital inpatient claims. While this number declined to 47% in FY 2014, that decline was largely attributable to CMS, under its own authority and subsequent legislation, prohibiting the RACs from reviewing certain inpatient stays during the first part of FY 2014. If you look only at postpayment reviews, the numbers were even higher, 87% in FY 2013 and 64% in FY 2014.

So why were the RACs focused on hospital inpatient claims, largely to the exclusion of other types of claims? The GAO believes the answer lies in how the RACs are compensated for their work. Recall that the RACs are paid contingency fees (of between 9% – 17.5%) based on the amount of the recovered overpayments. Given this fee structure, the GAO believed it was logical for the RACs to focus on claims with higher average dollar amounts per claim. The following chart shows the average amount of the improper payment identified by the RACs on a per-claim basis:

As you can see, the average overpayment for an inpatient hospital claim was more than $3,000 in FY 2013, compared with slightly more than $300 for a physician (or ambulance) claim. Assuming a 10% contingency fee, this means the RAC could expect to receive $300 for each inpatient hospital claim it reviewed, compared with $30 for a physician claim. Given these financial incentives, the RACs decision to focus on inpatient hospital claims makes sense.

Focus on the MACs

In contrast to the RACs, the Medicare Administrative Contractors focused their program integrity activities almost exclusively on prepayment reviews. The following chart shows the breakdown of MAC reviews by provider type:

As you can see, the MAC largely focused on physician and DME claims, with physician claims (including ambulance claims) accounting for 49% of MAC reviews in FY 2013 and 55% of MAC reviews in FY 2014.

The efficacy of these reviews is unclear. This is largely due to the failure by CMS to collect consistent data on the savings from prepayment claims denials. At least 3 MACs failed to provide data on the specific funds they spent on prepayment and postpayment reviews. Instead, these MACs reported their costs as part of their broader claims processing activities. MAC also used different methods for calculating the savings from prepayment reviews. For example, 2 MACs used the billed amounts by providers to calculate total savings from denied claims, despite the Medicare allowables being significantly lower than the amounts normally billed by providers. 9 MACs used the total Medicare allowable, without differentiating between Medicare’s payment and the payments made by secondary insurers and/or patients. The remaining 5 MACs compared denied claims to similar claims that were paid to estimate what Medicare saved on claims denied as part of prepayment reviews.

Impact on Ambulance Providers and Suppliers

The key finding in this report is the GAO’s belief that prepayment reviews are generally more cost-effective in preventing improper Medicare payments. The GAO believes this is because prepayment reviews “limit the need to recover overpayments through the “pay and chase” process, which requires administrative resources and is not always successful.”

While the GAO and CMS are in agreement that Medicare should move away from postpayment reviews, they appear to disagree on how, exactly, to implement that transition. The GAO’s report makes clear its belief that CMS should devote greater resources to prepayment reviews, with the GAO specifically recommending that CMS seek legislative authority to empower its RACs to take a greater role in conducting prepayment reviews. By contrast, CMS appears to favor prior authorization programs.

Only time will tell which of these views gains prominence. In the meantime, ambulance providers and suppliers should expect to see the RACs take an increasing interest in our industry.


Have an issue you would like to see discussed in a future Talking Medicare blog? Submit your question!

Indian Health Service Issues Final Rule on Payments to Non-Contracted Providers

On March 21, 2016, the Indian Health Service (IHS), an agency with the Department of Health and Human Services, issued a final rule with comment period titled “Payment for Physician and Other Health Care Professional Services Purchased by Indian Health Programs and Medicare Charges Associated with Non-Hospital-Based Care.” This final rule will change the way the Indian Health Service pays for Purchased/Referred Care (PRC), formerly known as Contract Health Services (CHS). The provisions of this final rule will become effective on May 20, 2016.

Under current regulations, payment for PRC services is based on rates established by arms-length negotiations between the physician or other health care provider (including ambulance providers and suppliers) and the IHS, Tribe, Tribal Organization or urban Indian organizations (collectively referred to hereinafter as I/T/U programs). In the absence of an agreement, the health care provider is generally paid its full billed charges.

Provisions of Final Rule

The final rule amends the regulations at 42 C.F.R. 136.1 e. seq. to provide that payment for PRC services will now be based on Medicare payment methodologies. Specifically, payments would generally be set at the lowest of: (1) the amount provided for such service under the applicable Medicare fee schedule or Medicare waiver, (2) the amount negotiated with a specific provider or its agent, or the amount negotiated by a repricing agent, if applicable, or (3) the rate for such service paid by the health care provider’s or supplier’s “Most Favored Customer” (MFC). For these purposes, IHS has indicated that the MFC rate will be evidenced by commercial price lists or paid invoices and other related pricing and discount data.

While the previous paragraph sets forth the general rate-setting regime, a number of important exceptions will apply. First, any negotiated rate between the parties must be equal to or better than the provider’s or supplier’s MFC rate. The AAA is interpreting this requirement to require the provider or supplier to offer better (i.e. lower pricing) to the I/T/U program than it offers to any nongovernmental entities, including insurance plans. However, IHS indicated that this restriction would not apply to the extent the I/T/U program determines that the negotiated rate is otherwise fair and reasonable, and is otherwise in the best interests of the I/T/U (as determined by the I/T/U). Second, in the event that no agreement exists, and the Medicare Fee Schedule amount is greater than the provider’s or supplier’s MFC rate (i.e. the provider or supplier has voluntarily elected to accept a rate lower than the corresponding Medicare allowable from at least one nongovernmental entity), then the rate may not exceed the MFC rate, but may be lower than the MFC rate.

The final rule can be viewed in its entirety here.

CMS Releases Medicare Provider Utilization and Payment Data for CY 2014 for Ambulance Suppliers, Physicians and Other Part B Organizations

On May 5, 2016, CMS publicly released the “Medicare Provider Utilization and Payment Data: Physician and Other Supplier Public Use File,” which provides information on the services and procedures provided to Medicare beneficiaries by ambulance suppliers, physicians and other healthcare provider groups.  The data file is based on calendar year 2014 data. This release follows on last year’s release of payment data for calendar year 2012.

The database lists all individual and organizations providers by National Provider Identifier (NPI), and provides information on utilization, total payments and submitted charges.  It can also be searched by Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System (HCPCS) code and place of service.

The Public Use File can be obtained here. Please note that you will need to download the desired file and then import it into an appropriate database or statistical software program.  CMS is indicating that Microsoft Excel is not sufficient for these purposes, and that importing it into Excel may result in an incomplete loading of data.

A number of news organizations have already created searchable databases that will allow you to search the CY 2012-2013 data by physician/organizational name, provider specialty, city, state, etc.  It is expected that these news organizations will be updating their websites to incorporate the CY 2014 data in the coming weeks. The searchable database created by the Wall Street Journal can be accessed here.

HHS Office of Civil Rights Announces Phase 2 HIPAA Audit Review Program

On March 21, 2016, the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Health and Human Services announced Phase 2 of its HIPAA Audit Program.  The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH) required HHS to perform periodic audits of covered entities and business associates to assess their compliance with the HIPAA Privacy, Security and Breach Notification Rules.  These rules are enforced by the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

Background on Phase 1

In 2011, OCR implemented a pilot audit program to assess the controls and processes covered entities have adopted to meet their HIPAA obligations.  The pilot audit program was conducted in three phases.  OCR first developed a set of audit protocols that it would use to evaluate covered entities’ compliance.  This protocol was then tested using a limited number of audits.   The final step involved using the revised audit protocols on a larger number of covered entities.  Ultimately, 115 covered entities were selected for review, and all audits were concluded by December 31, 2012.

Phase 2

Phase 2 of the HIPAA Audit Program will focus on the policies and procedures adopted and employed by entities to meet the requirements of the Privacy, Security, and Breach Notification Rules.  OCR has indicated that these audits will be conducted primary through desk audits (i.e., document submissions), although by a limited number of on-site audits will also be conducted.

Unlike Phase 1, which focused exclusively on covered entities, OCR is indicating that Phase 2 will involve audits of both covered entities and their business associates.

As with the initial pilot audit program, Phase 2 will consist of several stages.  The first stage involves verification of a covered entity’s or business associate’s address and contact information.  A sample address verification letter can be viewed by clicking here.  OCR has indicated that emails will be sent to entities requesting accurate contact information for the entity.  OCR will then transmit a “pre-audit questionnaire” to the entity.  These questionnaires will be used to gather data about the size, type, and operations of potential auditees.  Based on this data, OCR will create potential audit subject pools.

Note: OCR has indicated that if an entity fails to respond to OCR’s request to validate its contact information and/or fails to return the pre-audit questionnaire, OCR will use publicly available information about the entity to create its audit subject pool.  As a result, an entity that fails to respond may still be selected for audit and/or compliance review.  OCR is specifically reminding entities to check their email “junk” or “spam” folders for any communications from OCR.

Once OCR has developed its audit subject pools, it will randomly select auditees from these pools.  Auditees will then be notified by OCR of their participation.  OCR has indicated that the first set of audits will focus on covered entities, with a subsequent round of audits focused on business associates.  These audits will focus on compliance with specific requirements of the Privacy, Security, or Breach Notification Rules.  Auditees will be notified of the scope of their audit in a document request letter.  Both of these rounds will be desk audits.  OCR indicated that all desk audits will be completed by the end of December 2016.

A third round of on-site audits will take place after the completion of the desk audits, and will examine a broader scope of requirements under HIPAA.  OCR further indicated that desk auditees may also be subject to on-site audits.

If an entity is selected for audit, OCR will notify them by email.  The email will introduce the OCR audit team, explain the audit process, and discuss OCR’s expectations in greater detail.  The email notification letter will also include initial requests for documentation.  OCR has indicated that it will expect entities to respond to these documentation requests within ten (10) business days.  Documents will be submitted through a new secure online portal.  Once received, OCR’s auditors will review the submitted information and inform the entity of its draft findings.  The entity will then have ten (10) business days to respond with written comments, if any.  OCR will then review the entity’s comments and issue a final audit report within thirty (30) business days.

OCR has indicated that the audits are primarily intended as a compliance improvement activity.  OCR will use aggregated data to better understand compliance with respect to particular aspects of the HIPAA rules.  The goal being to understand what types of technical assistance and/or corrective actions would be most helpful.  In other words, OCR is indicating that the goal of these audits is to improve its understanding of the state of compliance, and not to penalize specific companies for violations.  However, OCR indicated that should an audit reveal a serious compliance issue, OCR may initiate a further compliance review of the company.

OCR indicated that it will not post a list of the audited entities, nor will its findings be available in a format that would clearly identify the audited entity.  However, OCR noted that audit notification letters and other information regarding these audits may be discoverable under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Additional information from OCR regarding the Phase 2 HIPAA Audit Program can be obtained by clicking here.

CMS Implements Cycle 2 Revalidation Program

By Brian S. Werfel, Esq. AAA Medicare Consultant

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CMS recently announced the start of its Cycle 2 Revalidation Program. This program affects all enrolled Medicare providers and suppliers.

In Cycle 1, which was conducted from 2011 through 2015, the so-called “trigger” to revalidate was a formal request to do so by your Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC). For Cycle 2, CMS is adopting a new approach. CMS will be assigning revalidation due dates, i.e., dates by which the provider or supplier must revalidate. These due dates will be the last day of a particular calendar month. These due dates are based on the provider’s or supplier’s last successful revalidation or the date of the provider’s or supplier’s initial enrollment with Medicare. In other words, providers or suppliers that last revalidated in 2011 are likely to have new revalidation due dates in 2016, providers or suppliers that revalidated in 2012 are likely to have 2017 due dates, etc. The first set of due dates is May 31, 2016.

CMS has indicated that it will notify providers or suppliers by email within 2-3 months of their due date. These emails will include the following subject line: Urgent: Medicare Provider Enrollment Revalidation Request. If the email is returned as undeliverable, the MAC is instructed to send a paper revalidation notice to at least two of your reported addresses: correspondence address, special payments address, or primary practice address.

Providers or suppliers will be permitted to submit revalidations up to 6 months prior to their scheduled due date. Revalidations can be submitted either on paper or by using the online Provider Enrollment, Chain, and Ownership System (PECOS).

If a provider or supplier fails to submit a timely revalidation packet, CMS has indicated that the entity’s Medicare billing privileges will be deactivated. The entity will be required to submit a complete enrollment application to “reactive” its billing privileges. However, CMS has indicated that no payments will be made for services provided during the interim period.

If you have not received an email from your MAC asking that you revalidate, it is likely that your revalidation due date is more than 3 months out, or has not even been assigned. However, it is possible that the requests to revalidate may have been sent to invalid email addresses, or may have been routed to your email “spam” folder. It is also possible that paper revalidation notices may have been sent to obsolete physical addresses.

For these reasons, the AAA is strongly encouraging members to check the CMS revalidation webpage. That webpage includes a lookup tool that you can use to determine whether your organization has been assigned a revalidation due date. Currently, CMS has assigned due dates through the end of October 2016. Providers and suppliers that have yet to be assigned due dates will display as “TBD”. You can also download the entire list of currently enrolled providers and suppliers into an Excel spreadsheet. This option may be particularly helpful for organizations that bill under multiple Medicare PTANs (which can have separate revalidation due dates) and for billing agents that intend to assist their clients with the revalidation process.

In sum, the new process appears to be a vast improvement over how revalidations were handled during Cycle 2. Assuming things work as intended, AAA members should have a minimum of 2 months prior notice of the need to revalidate, and potentially up to 6 months prior notice. This should be more than enough time to submit the revalidation and avoid any potential disruptions to your ability to bill Medicare.

Medicare Revalidations: Will CMS Get Cycle 2 right?

The Affordable Care Act imposed a new set of screening and enrollment requirements for participation in the Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP programs. These included additional screening criteria, new disclosures, an enhanced period of oversight for newly enrolled providers and suppliers, and the payment of a new enrollment fee ($554 in 2016). To implement these new requirements, CMS was required to revalidate all existing Medicare providers and suppliers between 2011 and 2015. CMS referred to this first 5-year revalidation period as “Cycle 1.”

As many of you will no doubt recall, Cycle 1 did not go as smoothly as the provider/supplier community (or CMS) had hoped. Looking back, it seems reasonable to conclude that the initial revalidation cycle put the Medicare Administrative Contractors in an impossible situation. The MACs were required, on relatively short notice, to develop policies and procedures that would hopefully permit the thousands of enrolled Medicare providers and suppliers in their jurisdictions to revalidate enrollment information on a relatively compressed time-scale.

The procedure adopted by most of the MACs was to instruct providers and suppliers not to revalidate unless and until instructed to do so by the MAC. Upon receipt of a revalidation request, the provider or supplier would then have sixty (60) days to gather up the required information and submit it to MAC for review. While seemingly reasonable in theory, this procedure proved to be a disaster in practice.

The problem, in a nutshell, was that the MACs (and the Carriers and Fiscal Intermediaries before them) had largely ignored the existing requirements related to revalidation. The enrollment information these MACs had on file for many ambulance suppliers was outdated. For example, the ambulance supplier may have moved its base of operations during the previous decade, but, for whatever reason, neglected to notify its MAC of this address change. As a result, the request to revalidate would end up being sent to an invalid address. In many cases, an ambulance supplier would tell us that the first indication they had that their MAC wanted them to revalidate was the discovery that their provider number had been suspended. When they would contact their MAC to inquire as to why, they would be told that they had failed to revalidate within the required timeframe. In many cases, it was weeks or months before these problems could be rectified, and the provider’s or supplier’s billing number reinstated.

Even if the provider or supplier received the revalidation request, other problems could easily arise.

Many providers or suppliers submitted their revalidation submissions on paper, only to discover the MAC failed to register their receipt. Other times, the MAC would confuse the submission with the name of a similar sounding ambulance provider. Minor mistakes on the enrollment form would lead to a prolonged series of requests for additional information, etc. The end result was endless hours spent on what was intended to be a simple formality.

In sum, Cycle 1 would charitably be described as a difficult time for ambulance providers and suppliers. The question that remained to be answered was whether CMS would learn from its mistakes and change the process the next time around, or whether it would continue the existing process despite its known limitations?

Well, CMS recently published its plans for the second 5-year cycle of revalidations (creatively titled “Cycle 2”), and a preliminary review suggests that CMS has made numerous improvements to the process.

[quote_right]Your organization’s obligation to revalidate will no longer be based on a written request from your MAC. Instead, CMS will assign a due date by which each and every enrolled provider or supplier must revalidate.[/quote_right]The most significant change is to the trigger for each provider’s or supplier’s obligation to revalidate. Your organization’s obligation to revalidate will no longer be based on a written request from your MAC. Instead, CMS will assign a due date by which each and every enrolled provider or supplier must revalidate. This due date will always be the last day of a calendar month (e.g., June 30, 2016, July 31, 2016, etc.). CMS indicated that your assigned due date will likely stay the same though subsequent review cycles.

Beginning March 1, 2016, CMS will make available a listing off all currently enrolled providers and suppliers (excepting DME suppliers). Ambulance organizations due for revalidation within 6 months will display a due date. All other ambulance providers and suppliers will show a “TBD” (To Be Determined) in the due date field.

The list of currently enrolled providers/suppliers can be obtained here. On that same webpage is a searchable tool that permits you to look up your organization by its name and/or NPI. The MAC will also send a revalidation notice via email or regular mail within 2-3 months of a provider’s or supplier’s revalidation due date.

CMS will accept revalidation submissions up to six months prior to an organization’s due date. CMS further indicated that “unsolicited revalidations” (defined to be revalidation applications submitted more than six months prior to the provider’s or supplier’s due date) will be rejected.

As in the past, revalidations can be submitted either on paper using the CMS-855 form or through the Provider Enrollment, Chain, and Ownership System (PECOS).

The other significant change to the process involves situations where the provider or supplier failed to revalidate in a timely fashion. During Cycle 1, this failure would result in the deactivation of the ambulance service’s PTAN. However, the MAC would typically permit you to submit a corrective action plan (i.e., a completed revalidation), and upon its approval, reinstate your billing privileges retroactively back to the date of suspension. However, for Cycle 2, CMS is indicating that if your PTAN is deactivated, you will be required to complete a new enrollment application. While you will ultimately have your PTAN reactivated, the effective date of that reactivation will be the date you submitted a new and complete application. You will not be able to submit claims to Medicare for dates of service that occurred during the resultant gap in coverage.

The new process appears to be a vast improvement over Cycle 1. Assuming everything works as intended (always a big if when CMS and its MACs are involved), ambulance organizations should have more than adequate notice of their revalidation due date. While I would suggest checking the CMS list monthly, even quarterly checks would give a provider at least 90 days to submit the revalidation request. Compared to the theoretical 60 days provided during Cycle 1 (which, in many instances, shrank to 30 days by the time the notices were actually received by the provider or supplier), this is a vast improvement.

In the past, it was convenient to blame the failure to submit these revalidations in a timely fashion on the bureaucratic inefficiency of your MAC. Under the new process, we should have more than adequate notice, meaning any failure to revalidate is likely to be our own fault.

Which leads me to my final suggestion for getting through the Cycle 2 revalidation process without any major problems….

GET YOUR REVALIDATION IN ON TIME!


 

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

Calculating Excess Mileage

The American Ambulance Association receives many questions from members for our expert consultants. Starting in February 2016, we will share responses to common questions on our blog. Have a more complex question? Contact an AAA expert directly.
Medicare | Human Resources & Operations | Labor Relations

Ask An AAA Expert: Ambulance Service Needs Some Direction on Mileage

[dropcap1]Q:[/dropcap1] Our service operates in a large metropolitan area. Within the city limits is a major university medical center. This hospital operates the only Level 1 Trauma Center within 100 miles. It is also the only hospital to offer interventional cardiology services and certain other advanced services within a 50-mile radius. As a result, patients from outlying areas are frequently transferred to this hospital. As the medical center’s contracted ambulance provider, we are often asked to transport patients long distances back to their towns of origin, either to their residences or to a skilled nursing centers (SNF). There are approximately a half a dozen SNFs located within a short distance (approximately five miles) of the hospital. Can you help us determine whether all of the mileage for these long distance transports will be covered by Medicare? If all of the mileage is not covered, can you help us determine the portion of the mileage that would be covered?

[dropcap1]A:[/dropcap1] In this inaugural edition of Ask the Medicare Consultant, we tackle one of the more difficult aspects of Medicare billing: how to determine the number of covered miles for long-distance hospital discharges.

The starting point for answering this question is to recognize that Medicare’s coverage rules will differ depending upon whether the patient is: (1) being returned to his or her residence, (2) is being returned to an SNF where he or she previously resided, or (3) is being transported to an SNF for an initial admission.

Where the patient is being returned to a residence (or a SNF at which they were previously admitted as a resident), Medicare’s coverage rules are relatively straightforward. Section 10.3.1 of Chapter 10 of the Medicare Benefit Policy Manual provides that:

“Ambulance service from an institution to the beneficiary’s home is covered when the home is within the locality of such institution, or where the beneficiary’s home is outside the locality of such institution, but the institution, in relation to the home, is the nearest one with appropriate facilities.”

For these purposes “locality” means the area surrounding the hospital from which patients would normally travel to that hospital for medical care. See Section 10.3.5 of Chapter 10 of the Medicare Benefit Policy Manual. Therefore, to the extent the patient’s residence falls within the “catchment area” of the hospital, the Manual makes clear that all of the mileage back to the patient’s residence will be covered.

To the extent the patient’s residence falls outside the hospital’s catchment area, the test is whether that hospital was the nearest appropriate facility (in relation to the patient’s residence) for the treatment of the patient’s medical condition.

Consider a patient that went to his local hospital with a complaint of chest pain, and who was ultimately diagnosed with a major cardiac blockage requiring bypass surgery. The patient was then transferred to the university medical center for that surgery (the only facility offering interventional cardiology within a 50-mile radius). The patient is now ready to be discharged back to his residence, a distance of 45 miles.

In this instance, the patient’s residence falls outside the catchment area of the medical center. However, the medical center was the nearest appropriate facility for the treatment of the patient’s medical condition. Accordingly, all of the mileage to this patient’s residence would be covered.

Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult to apply this test in practice, because the patient’s medical condition does not always manifest itself while at home. For example, what if this cardiac patient did not reside in the area, but rather was in the area visiting a son or daughter? Let’s further assume that the patient actually resided a few hundred miles away, in another major urban center (e.g., Chicago).

The university medical center would clearly not be the nearest appropriate facility when measured in relation to the patient’s home. Therefore, at the onset, it is clear that there is some non-covered mileage. The question then becomes, “how many miles?”

The test indicates that the covered mileage is the mileage from the patient’s residence to the nearest appropriate facility for that treatment. For these purposes, let’s also assume that there is a hospital that offers interventional cardiology located 10 miles from the patient’s residence. Therefore, in this example, the first 10 miles would be covered, and the remaining mileage would be non-covered.

A good rule of thumb: if all of mileage from the patient’s residence to the university medical center would have been covered (whether or not the patient actually traveled to that facility by ambulance), then all of the mileage back to that residence will also be covered.

The test for discharges to a SNF for an initial admission is a bit more complicated. The starting point is Section 10.3 of Chapter 10 of the Medicare Benefit Policy Manual, which provides that “only mileage to the nearest appropriate facility equipped to treat the patient is covered.”

In the original question, it was indicated that there were a number of SNFs located within a short distance of the university medical center. For the purposes of convenience, let’s assume that the nearest SNF is located across the street from the hospital, the next closest is located one mile away, the next closest is located two miles away, etc.

Thus, if the patient is transported to the SNF across the street, the entire mileage would be covered.

If the patient was transported to the next closest SNF, we cannot determine whether all of the mileage is covered without first determining whether the closer SNF had a bed available on that date. Note: a facility is not considered an “appropriate facility” if it does not have an available bed at the time of the transport. In other words, if the closer SNF had a bed on that date, then only the mileage to that SNF would be covered. The extra mileage, approximately 9/10ths of a mile, would not be covered. If, however, that closer facility did not have a bed available at the time, then the SNF to which the patient was transported would be the “nearest appropriate facility,” and all of the mileage would be covered.

Now imagine that the patient was taken the SNF two miles from the hospital. To properly calculate the covered mileage, we would need to know whether: (1) the SNF across the street had a bed available and (2) whether the SNF 1 mile from the hospital had a bed available).

[quote_left]“Does CMS really expect me to call one or more SNFs on every hospital discharge?”[/quote_left]And so on and so on…

At this point, you are probably asking yourself, “How can I possibly know if each of these closer SNFs had a bed available on that date? Does CMS really expect me to call one or more SNFs on every hospital discharge?”

The short answer: Yes, a literal interpretation of the Medicare coverage rules would require you to make those phone calls.

It goes without saying that this sort of process would be burdensome. Depending on the actual miles traveled, it may not even be possible to identify each and every closer SNF. For example, the original question alludes to transports of 50 or more miles. There could be dozens of SNFs located within a shorter distance. Calling each and every one of them is simply impractical.

In a perfect world, the hospital staff would notify you at the time they schedule the call that the patient is being transported beyond the nearest appropriate facility. However, in order to notify you, the hospital would have to know whether the nearby SNFs had a bed available on that date. The only way they could know that information would be to have called themselves. But why would the hospital call? The hospital likely gave the patient a choice, i.e., you can do your rehab in a nearby SNF or you can elect to go to an SNF in your hometown where you can be closer to your friends and family. As you would expect, the patient then elected to go closer to home.

So what to do?

One solution used by a number of ambulance providers is to draw a circle around the hospital that incorporates a sufficient number of SNFs so that they can be reasonably confident that there would be an available bed on any given day. In the original example, let’s assume that is the six SNFs located within five miles of the hospital. These ambulance providers have elected not to question any mileage below this threshold. Instead, they will bill up to five miles for coverage without any questions. These providers then assume that anything over that five-mile threshold is going to be excess mileage, which will need to be billed to the patient.

Please note that I am not suggesting that the first five miles would always be covered. Rather, these providers are engaged in a cost/benefit analysis. They are balancing the chances of having some portion of those five miles disallowed during a Medicare audit against the time and effort involved in calling each of these SNFs.

Please also keep in mind that this mileage circle would vary based on the local geography. In some areas, you may need to go out to 10, 20, or even 30 miles before you can incorporate a sufficient number of SNFs so that you can be assured that at least one would have an available bed on any given date. Of course, the larger the circle, the greater the potential that you may end up billing for substantial amounts of non-covered mileage. Thus, the decision to adopt a mileage parameter is one that should be made in consultation with your legal advisors.


 

Have a Medicare billing question? Do you suspect other AAA members are struggling with the same issues? If so, please let us know.

 

CMS Issues Final Rule on the Reporting and Return of Medicare Overpayments

On February 12, 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a final rule titled “Medicare Program; Reporting and Returning Overpayments.”  This final rule would implement Section 6402(a) of the Affordable Care Act, which imposed a 60-day requirement on Medicare providers and suppliers to report and return overpayments.  The provisions of this final rule will go into effect on March 16, 2016.

The final rule implements changes that were first proposed as part of a February 16, 2012 proposed rule.  The final rule can be viewed in its entirety by clicking here.

Background

Section 6402(a) of the Affordable Care Act requires health care providers and suppliers to report and return a Medicare overpayment within 60 days of the date such overpayment is “identified”.  Any overpayment not returned within this timeframe would become an “obligation” under the False Claims Act.  As a result, any ambulance service that is found to have knowingly retained an overpayment beyond the 60 day period could be subject to False Claims Act liability.  In addition, violations may also subject an ambulance company to civil monetary penalties and possible exclusion from the Medicare program.

Provisions of Proposed Rule

Definition of an “Overpayment”

In the final rule, CMS defined an overpayment as “any funds that a person has received or retained under title XVIII of the Act to which the person, after applicable reconciliation, is not entitled under such title.”  CMS noted that this definition is mirrors the definition of an overpayment that appeared in Section 6402(a) of the Affordable Care Act.
CMS cited examples of certain common overpayments in the proposed rule, including:

  • Payments for non-covered services;
  • Payments in excess of the applicable Medicare allowable
  • Errors and nonreimbursable expenditures included on a cost report;
  • Duplicate payments; and
  • Payment from Medicare when another payor had primary responsibility.

For ambulance providers and suppliers, another common area of overpayments would be payment for excessive mileage.

Note: in the final rule, CMS clarified that, in instances where the paid amount exceeds the appropriate payment to which a provider or supplier is entitled, the “overpayment” would be limited to the difference between the amount that was paid and the amount that should have been paid.  For example, if the overpayment was the result of a claim incorrectly being billed as an ALS emergency, rather than a BLS emergency, the overpayment is not the entire amount of Medicare’s payment.  Rather, the overpayment is limited to the difference in Medicare’s payment for the two base rates.

When an Overpayment has been “Identified”

In its proposed rule, CMS indicated that an overpayment would be “identified” if the ambulance provider or supplier: (1) had actual knowledge of the existence of the overpayment or (2) acted in reckless disregard or deliberate ignorance of the existence of the overpayment.  CMS indicated that this definition was intended to prevent providers and suppliers from deliberately avoiding activities that might uncover the existence of potential overpayments, such as self-audits and outside compliance checks.

CMS further stated its belief that the Proposed Rule would, in some instances, place an affirmative burden on providers and suppliers to investigate whether a potential overpayment exists.  Specifically, CMS indicated that “in some cases, a provider or supplier may receive information concerning a potential overpayment that creates an obligation to make a reasonable inquiry to determine whether an overpayment exists.”  If the provider or supplier then fails to reasonably inquire, it could be found to have acted with reckless disregard or deliberate ignorance.

In the final rule, CMS indicated that an overpayment will be deemed to have been identified to the extent “a person has, or should have through the exercise of reasonable diligence, determined that the person has received an overpayment and quantified the amount of the overpayment.”

Thus, the final rule makes two important changes to the standard of when an overpayment is identified.  The first change is to clarify that an overpayment has not been identified unless and until the provider or supplier is able to quantify the amount of the overpayment.

The second change was to remove the language related to “reckless disregard” and “deliberate ignorance”.  CMS replaced these terms with a standard of “reasonable diligence”.  Under the new standard, an overpayment is identified on the date you can actually quantify the size of the overpayment, or the date on which you would have been able to quantify the overpayment had you proceeded with reasonable diligence to investigate the possibility of an overpayment.  For these purposes, CMS indicated that reasonable diligence would be established to the extent you can demonstrate a timely, good faith investigation of any credible report of a possible overpayment.  Note: CMS indicated that an investigation should take no more than 6 months from the date of receipt of credible information, except in extraordinary circumstances.

To see the impact of these changes, consider the following scenario:

You receive an anonymous report on your compliance hotline that a recent change to your billing software has resulted in the mileage for all Medicare claims being rounded up to the next whole number (as opposed to being submitted with fractions of a mile).  Based on this report, you begin an investigation, and quickly come to the conclusion that the anonymous report is correct.  However, it requires an addition 4 months to review every claim submitted to Medicare since that software change, and to calculate the actual amounts you were overpaid.

Under the standard first proposed by CMS, it was unclear whether the 60-day clock to return over payment started on the day you confirmed the software problem, or whether you have time to look at your entire claims universe to calculate the actual amounts you were overpaid.  By contrast, under the standard set forth in the final rule, it is clear that the overpayment would not be “identified” until you can quantify the actual amounts you had been overpaid.  In the above example, you completed your investigation within 6 months, meaning you would have satisfied the new “reasonable diligence” standard.  Therefore, assuming you make a timely report and refund of the amounts you were overpaid, you would have no liability under the False Claims Act.

Situations in Which a Provider or Supplier would have a Duty to Inquire

In the proposed rule, CMS provided some examples of situations where a provider or supplier would be deemed to have received a credible information regarding a potential overpayment, including the following situations:

  • Where a review of billing records indicates that you were incorrectly paid a higher rate for certain services;
  • Where you learn that the patient died prior to the date of service on a claim that has been submitted for payment;
  • Where you discover that the services were provided by an unlicensed or excluded individual;
  • Where an internal audit discovers the presence of an overpayment.
  • Where you are informed by a government agency of an audit that discovered a potential overpayment, and where you fail to make a reasonable inquiry;

In the final rule, CMS confirmed its belief that official findings from a government agency (or its contractors) would constitute credible evidence of a potential overpayment, and would therefore trigger a provider’s or supplier’s obligation to conduct an investigation with reasonable diligence.  If the provider or supplier ultimately agrees with the Medicare contractor’s findings, it would qualify as having “identified” an overpayment, which would trigger the 60-day period for reporting and refunding that overpayment.  CMS further indicated that when the provider confirms the audit’s findings, the provider or supplier may be deemed to have credible evidence of additional overpayments (i.e., claims presenting the same issues, but which fall outside the contractor’s audit period) that may require further investigation.   CMS did agree, however, that where the provider or supplier elects to appeal the contractor’s findings, it would be reasonable to hold off on conducting an investigation into similar claims until such time as the overpayment identified by the Medicare contractor has worked its way through the administrative appeals process.

Counting 60-Day Period

In the final rule, CMS indicated that the 60-day period for reporting and returning the overpayment would start on the date the overpayment is first identified (i.e., the date the overpayment is first quantified following a reasonably diligent inquiry.  However, in the event a person fails to conduct a reasonably diligent inquiry, the 60-day period will be deemed to run from the date the provider or supplier first received a credible report of a possible overpayment (assuming the provider or supplier was, in fact, overpaid).

Process for Reporting Overpayments

In its February 2012 proposed rule, CMS had indicated that it would require ambulance providers and suppliers to report and return overpayments using the existing process for voluntary refunds.  At that time, CMS also proposed that the overpayment report contain 13 required elements, including a brief statement of the reason for the overpayment, and a description of the steps the provider or supplier intended to take to ensure that the same error would not occur again.  At the time, CMS further indicated that it would develop a uniform reporting form that would replace the various forms currently in use by its Medicare contractors.

In the final rule, CMS abandoned this formulaic approach to the reporting of overpayments.  Instead, CMS elected to permit providers or suppliers to use any of the following to report an overpayment:

  • An applicable claims adjustment;
  • Credit balance;
  • Self-Reported Refund; or
  • Any other reporting process set forth by the applicable Medicare contractor.

In addition to the processes currently used by Medicare contractors, providers or suppliers can also satisfy the reporting obligations of the final rule by making a disclosure under the OIG’s Self-Disclosure Protocol or the CMS Voluntary Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol.  Note: these processes are generally reserved for situations that involve something more than an isolated billing error.

When reporting an overpayment that was calculated using a statistical sampling methodology, CMS indicated that the provider or supplier must describe the actual process used to obtain a statistically valid sample, and the extrapolation methodology used.

Statute of Limitations

In the final rule, CMS adopted a 6-year “lookback period”.  CMS further clarified that this lookback period is measured from the date the provider or supplier identifies the overpayment.  As a result, an overpayment must be reported and returned only to the extent the overpayment is identified within 6 years of the date the overpayment was received.  Overpayments identified beyond the 6-year lookback period would not be subject to the new regulations.

The 6-year lookback period represents a substantial reduction from the 10-year lookback period originally proposed by CMS.  That 10-year period was intended to coincide with the outer limit of the statute of limitations for False Claims Act violations.  However, after considering comments from healthcare providers and suppliers, CMS agreed that a 6-year lookback period was more appropriate.  CMS noted that the change would significantly reduce the burden these new regulations imposed on providers and suppliers.

Change to Regulations Governing Reopenings

To facilitate the reporting and refunding of overpayments under these new regulations, CMS elected to revise its rules regarding reopenings.  CMS will now permit its Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) to reopen an initial determination (i.e., a paid claim) for the purpose of reporting and returning an overpayment.

While seemingly minor, this change is needed to ensure that Medicare’s payment files properly reflect that an overpayment has been refunded.  Otherwise, it would be possible for a claim that had previously been refunded to be selected by a Medicare auditor for postpayment review.  This could lead to the auditor attempting to recoup amounts that had previously been voluntarily refunded.

Musings on 2014 Medicare Payment Data (Part 1)

by Brian S. Werfel, AAA Medicare Consultant | Updated February 2, 2016

Every year, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) releases data on Medicare payments for the preceding year.The 2015 Physician/Supplier Procedure Master File (PSP Master File) was released in late November 2015.This report contains information on all Part B and DME claims processed through the Medicare Common Working File with 2014 dates of service.

The headline number is that Medicare spent $4.968 million on ambulance services in 2014.This represents a slight increase (0.67%) over the amounts spent on ambulance services in 2013.

Over the next few blog posts, I will be digging a bit deeper into these numbers to highlight a few long-term trends that I believe are noteworthy.

Increase in Medicare Ambulance Volume Trails Increase in Medicare Enrollment

The number of allowed ambulance services has grown steadily since 2007.Using data from the annual PSP Master Files, the number of allowed ambulance transports increased from approximately 17.5 million transports in 2007 to 20.8 million transports in 2014.The Office of the Inspector General and other government agencies have pointed to numbers like these as evidence that ambulance services face an increasing program integrity problem.

While a superficial analysis might suggest that this growth is problematic, I would argue that this growth must be viewed in its proper context.Over this same period of time, CMS Medicare Enrollment Reports show that the Medicare beneficiary population has grown from 44.1 million beneficiaries to approximately 54 million beneficiaries.All things being equal, one would expect the volume of ambulance transports to increase as the total beneficiary population increases.

When one compares the growth of ambulance volume to the growth of the Medicare population, a different narrative becomes apparent.As the chart on the right shows, with the exception of 2011, the increase in ambulance transports has consistently trailed the overall growth of the Medicare population since 2010.This reflects the fact that the earliest members of the Baby Boomer generation started to turn 65 in 2010.In other words, once you adjust for the increase in the Medicare population, ambulance transport volume has been essentially flat over the past 5 years.

Something to keep in mind the next time someone cites the increase in ambulance transports as proof that our industry has failed to adequately police itself.


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

Question of a “Lifetime”

“Does Medicare still accept a lifetime signature for ambulance claims?”

As the AAA’s Medicare Consultant, I am frequently contacted by members seeking guidance on some of the more complicated aspects of Medicare billing. By a wide margin, the most common question we get is whether Medicare contractors will accept a so-called “lifetime signature.” Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question.

The Medicare regulations at 42 C.F.R. §424.36 provide that the beneficiary’s signature is required in order to authorize a healthcare provider to submit a claim to Medicare. The regulation then provides for two exceptions to that general rule. The first states that the beneficiary’s signature is not required if the beneficiary has died. The second states that, if the beneficiary is physically or mentally incapable of signing for themselves, the healthcare provider may obtain an alternative signature on the beneficiary’s behalf from one of the following individuals:

  1. The beneficiary’s legal guardian;
  2. A relative or any other person who receives social security or other governmental benefits on the beneficiary’s behalf;
  3. A relative or other person who arranges for the beneficiary’s treatment or exercises other responsibility for his or her affairs;
  4. A representative of an agency or institution that did not furnish the services for which payment is being claimed, but which did furnish other healthcare services or assistance to the beneficiary; or
  5. A representative of a Part A provider or nonparticipating hospital claiming payment for its services may sign for the beneficiary if, after making reasonable efforts, it is unable to locate or obtain a signature one any of the other authorized individuals referenced above. Note: this option is not available to Part B ambulance suppliers.

This regulation provides guidance on who may sign in order to permit a healthcare provider to submit a claim to Medicare. However, it does not speak to when that signature must be obtained. To answer that question, you must look to a separate regulation, 42 C.F.R. §424.40. That regulation sets forth the situations under which a request for payment (i.e., a patient’s signature) may be effective for more than one claim. Subpart (d) provides that a signed request for payment retained in a Part B supplier’s file may be effective indefinitely. It is this provision that ambulance suppliers have historically relied upon as justification for the use of a lifetime signature.

To understand how these provisions were intended to interact, it is helpful to keep in mind that the signature requirement applies to all Medicare claims, not only ambulance claims. This includes claims for services that can be provided on a non-assigned basis (e.g., physician claims). For these types of claims, the beneficiary’s signature is required to effectuate the assignment of benefits from the beneficiary to the healthcare provider, without which the healthcare provider would be limited to billing the beneficiary directly for its services. In other words, the beneficiary signature requirement was intended to perform a necessary administrative function.

However, in 2007 and 2008, CMS revised the beneficiary signature requirement for ambulance providers and suppliers. As part of these changes, CMS indicated that the beneficiary’s signature on a claim (or other documentation) served as proof that the ambulance services were actually rendered to the beneficiary. In other words, CMS clarified its belief that the beneficiary signature requirement performed a program integrity function.

This shift in CMS’ understanding of the purpose behind the beneficiary signature had far-reaching implications on the validity of the lifetime signature. When understood as a simple assignment mechanism, the lifetime signature is relatively non-controversial. After all, if the patient was willing to consent today to the submission of a claim to Medicare, why shouldn’t they also be able to consent to any future services rendered by that same healthcare provider? However, a patient’s signature obtained today would not establish that any future transports actually took place.

It is this shift in CMS’ stated position regarding the underlying purpose of the beneficiary signature requirement that has led a number of Medicare contractors to no longer accept a lifetime signature for ambulance transports. These contractors argue that a signature obtained prior to the actual date of transport cannot prove that the transport was actually provided. Frankly, I find it difficult to argue with their logic.

The problem is that, while CMS has announced its new position on the purpose of the beneficiary’s signature, it has yet to revise its regulations to specifically exclude ambulance providers and suppliers from relying upon a lifetime signature.

At some point, CMS will be forced to reconcile this apparent contradiction. In the meantime, ambulance providers and suppliers are forced to operate in something of a grey area. Operationally, the lifetime signature makes life a lot easier for our crews and billing office. However, relying upon the lifetime signature puts us at risk of having claims denied as part of an audit. The recent implementation of a prior authorization process for repetitive patients (currently in 8 states and the District of Columbia) has brought this issue to the forefront, as many ambulance services previously relied upon a lifetime signature for their dialysis and other repetitive patients.

So What Should You Do?

As a best practice, I strongly recommend that ambulance providers and suppliers instruct their crewmembers to attempt to obtain the patient’s actual signature or a valid alternative at the time of transport. Doing so should limit the situations in which the lifetime signature might come into play.

The question then becomes how to handle those claims where, for whatever reason, the crew was unable to obtain the patient’s signature or a valid alternative at the time of transport. In these situations, submitting the claim based on a previously obtained lifetime signature is an option. You will need to make a business decision on whether that option is the right one for your organization.

Some factors you should consider in making that decision:

  1. Has your Medicare Administrative Contractor indicated that it will no longer accept a lifetime signature for ambulance claims?
  2. Are you located in one of the states (or DC) where the MAC is currently operating a prior authorization process for repetitive patients? Are you currently under any other type of prepayment review?
  3. If claims are denied for lack of a valid patient signature, are you comfortable with potentially having to appeal all the way up to an Administrative Law Judge?

Depending on how you answer these questions, you may decide that the risks associated with relying upon the lifetime signature are too great. If so, whenever the crew fails to satisfy the patient signature requirement at the time of transport, and assuming you are otherwise unable to satisfy the new alternative for ambulance transports, you will need to send the patient a signature request form (and hold the claim until that request is returned).

So back to the original question: Does Medicare accept a lifetime signature for ambulance transport?
Answer: it depends on who you ask.

AAA members, do you have an issue you would like to see discussed in a future Talking Medicare blog post? Please write to me at bwerfel@aol.com.

2016 AIF: A Step Backward

By Brian S. Werfel, AAA Medicare Consultant | Updated November 25, 2015

Each year, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) determine the following year’s Ambulance Inflation Factor (AIF), a figure that has deep revenue implications for ambulance services of all sizes. CMS recently announced that the 2016 AIF will be a disappointing – 0.4%.

In this inaugural edition of the Talking Medicare blog, I explore the ins and outs of the AIF, including the impact of the Multi-Factor Productivity Index on our industry’s Medicare payments.

Background

First, some background. The Affordable Care Act revised the formula by which CMS calculates the annual adjustment to Medicare’s reimbursement rates for ambulance services. Prior to 2011, Medicare’s payment for ambulance services increased each year by an amount equal to the percentage increase in the consumer price index for all urban consumers (CPI-U) for the 12-month period ending in June of the previous year (i.e., for 2016, the 12-month period ending on June 30, 2015). Starting in 2011, the CPI-U increase is reduced by the so-called Multi-Factor Productivity Index (MFP).

What to Expect Next Year

For 2016, the change in the CPI-U was equal to 0.1%. In a transmittal issued November 17, 2015, CMS indicated that it estimates the MFP will be 0.5% next year. As a result, CMS calculated the Ambulance Inflation Factor (AIF) to be – 0.4% next year.

Yes, you read that correctly. Your Medicare reimbursement rates will decrease next year!

MFP’s Impact Over Time

The MFP represents a permanent reduction in the amounts paid by the Medicare Program for ambulance services. And, unlike other recent reimbursement hits our industry has faced, this reduction compounds itself over time.

What do I mean by that? Quite simply, I mean that the lower rates become part of the baseline against which the next year’s AIF is calculated. As a result, the gap between our industry’s costs of providing ambulance services and Medicare’s reimbursement for those services grows larger every year.

To give you a sense of the impact of MFP over time, this chart shows the payment of an ALS emergency transport in New York City over the past several years. In 2010, the Medicare allowable rate for this transport was $491.06. In 2016, the Medicare allowable rate for that same transport will be $517.02, an increase of 5.3%. However, without the MFP, the Medicare allowable would have been $544.22, or 10.8%. In other words, our Medicare increase would have been more than twice as much in the absence of the MFP.

Keep in mind that the AIF was created to ensure that Medicare reimbursement keeps pace with the increased costs of providing ambulance services to your community. By that yardstick, the current process for calculating the Ambulance Inflation Factor is clearly inadequate.

One of the key issues facing our industry is our ongoing fight for permanent Medicare ambulance relief. The recent AIF simply highlights the need for a better method of ensuring that Medicare’s payments keep pace with our costs.

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

Need Some Help?

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Preliminary Calculation of 2016 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 2015, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has calculated that the CPI-U has increased by 0.12%.

CMS has yet to release its estimate for the MFP in calendar year 2016. However, assuming CMS’ projections for the MFP are similar to last year’s projections, the number is likely to be in the 0.6% range.

Accordingly, the AAA is currently projecting that the 2016 Ambulance Inflation Factor will be approximately ~0.5%.

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 2016. Therefore, it is possible that these numbers may change. However, at this point in time, it appears likely that the 2016 AIF will result in a decrease in Medicare payments for air and ground ambulance services.

The AAA will notify members once CMS issues a transmittal setting forth the official 2016 Ambulance Inflation Factor.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Member Advisory: OIG Issues Report on Questionable Billing Practices for Ambulance Suppliers

HHS OIG Analysis Part 1 of 2 – Read Part Two of the Analysis


On September 29, 2015, the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a report titled “Inappropriate Payments and Questionable Billing for Medicare Part B Ambulance Transports” (OEI-09-12-00351).  The report, conducted by the Office of Evaluation and Inspections (OEI), looked at claims data for 7.3 million ambulance transports furnished during the first half of 2012.  The OIG reviewed this claims data to determine whether claims were billed appropriately to the Medicare program.

Summary of the OIG’s Findings

The OIG determined that Medicare paid $24.2 million in the first half of 2012 for ambulance transports that did not meet certain program requirements for payment.  The OIG identified an additional $30.2 million paid for transports for which the beneficiary did not receive Medicare services at either the pick-up or drop-location, or anywhere else.  Finally, the OIG determined that 1 in 5 ambulance suppliers met certain criteria that indicated they may have engaged in questionable billing practices.  According to the OIG, more than half of all questionable transports were provided to beneficiaries residing in 4 metropolitan areas.

Detailed OIG Findings

Medicare paid $24.2 million for ambulance transports that did not meet certain Medicare requirements justifying payment.  This included transports to a non-covered destination, as well as transports to a covered destination but where the level of service was inappropriate. 

The OIG determined that Medicare paid $17.4 million for ambulance transports to non-covered destinations.  This amount also include return trips following treatment at the non-covered destination.  These transports represented 0.6% of all Medicare payments during the first half of 2012.

The OIG indicated that transports to a physician’s office were the most common type of non-covered destination.  Payments for transports to and from a physician’s office accounted for $8.7 million in improper payments.  Medicare also paid $5.8 million for transports of beneficiaries to and from community mental health centers or psychiatric facilities (other than duly-licensed psychiatric hospitals).  Other transports to non-covered destinations included independent laboratories, diagnostic or therapeutic sites (i.e., “D” modifiers), non-SNF nursing facilities, long-term care and hospice facilities.

The OIG determined that Medicare paid $7 million for transports with inappropriate combinations of the level of service billed and the type of destination.  This included $4.3 million in payments for specialty care transports (SCT) where either the origin or destination was something other than a hospital, SNF, or intercept site.  The majority of these inappropriate SCT transports involved transports between the patient’s SNF or residence and a free-standing dialysis facility.  The OIG also determined that Medicare paid $2.7 million for emergency transports where the destination was not a hospital.

Medicare paid $30.2 million for ambulance transports for which the beneficiary did not receive Medicare services at any origin or destination. 

The OIG identified $30.2 million in payments for ambulance transports where the beneficiary did not appear to receive any Medicare services at either the origin or destination within 1 day of the date of transport.  To account for the possibility that the ambulance supplier may have submitted a claim with the wrong origin or destination, the OIG only flagged a claim as questionable if its records determined that the beneficiary did not receive Medicare services at any other facility type within 1 day of the transport.  The OIG stated its belief that, since there was no record of the beneficiary receiving Medicare services at or close to the date of transport, the OIG believed that it was likely that Medicare inappropriately paid for the ambulance transports.  The OIG did note the possibility that these transports occurred during an inpatient hospital or SNF stay, and therefore may have been the responsibility of the inpatient facility.  These transports represented 1.1% of all Medicare payments during the first half of 2012.

The OIG determined that 1 in 5 ambulance suppliers had questionable billing

As part of the methodology used for this report, the OIG developed a set of 7 measure that it believed could be evidence of questionable billing practices.  These seven measures were:

  1. No Medicare service provided at either the origin or destination – The OIG believes that a high percentage of an ambulance supplier’s for which the beneficiary did not receive Medicare services at either the origin or destination could be indicative of either: (a) billing for transports to non-covered destinations or (b) billing for transports that were not provided.
  2. Excessive mileage for urban transports – The OIG believes that high average mileage for transports within an urban area could be indicative of either: (a) billing for more miles than the ambulance supplier actually drove or (b) billing for mileage beyond the nearest appropriate facility.
  3. High number of transports per beneficiary – The OIG believes that a high average of per-beneficiary transports could be indicative of billing for transports that were not medically necessary.
  4. Compromised Beneficiary Number – The OIG believes that a high percentage of an ambulance supplier’s transports provided to beneficiary with compromised beneficiary ID numbers could be indicative of billing for transports that were not medically necessary, or which were not provided.
  5. Inappropriate or unlikely transport level – The OIG believes that a high percentage of an ambulance supplier’s transports with inappropriate or unlikely transport levels (given the destination) could be indicative of “upcoding”.
  6. Beneficiary sharing – The OIG believes that when multiple ambulance suppliers all provide dialysis transports to the same beneficiary that it could be evidence of the misuse of a beneficiary’s ID number, or it could be evidence that the beneficiary is shopping his or her ID number for kickbacks.
  7. Transports to or from partial hospitalization programs – The OIG believes that transports to and from a partial hospitalization program (PHP) is unlikely to be medically necessary because beneficiary’s that meet Medicare’s coverage requirements for PHP services generally do not qualify for ambulance transportation.

The OIG indicated that 21% of ambulance suppliers met one of the seven measures it developed for identifying questionable billing practices.  17% of ambulance suppliers met only 1 of the 7 measures, while 4% met 2-4 of these measures.  No ambulance suppliers met more than 4 of these measures.

The OIG identified 2,038 out of the 15,614 ambulance suppliers reviewed (13%) that had questionable billing based on the percentage of their transports where the beneficiary did not receive Medicare services at either the origin or destination.  The OIG flagged an ambulance supplier’s billing as questionable if 3% or more of its transports involved situations where no Medicare service was billed at the destination.  46 ambulance suppliers had 95% or more of their transports involve situations where the beneficiary did not receive Medicare services at either the origin or destination.  By contrast, the median for all ambulance suppliers was zero transports where the beneficiary did not receive services at either the origin or destination.

The OIG identified 642 out of the 15,614 ambulance suppliers reviewed (4%) that had questionable billing based on the average mileage they billed for beneficiaries residing in urban areas.  The OIG indicated that the typical ambulance supplier average 10 miles for an urban transport.  By contrast, the average mileage for the 642 suppliers identified by the OIG was 34 miles.  The OIG identified 48 suppliers with an average urban mileage of more than 100 miles.

The OIG identified 533 out of the 15,614 ambulance suppliers reviewed (3%) that had questionable billing based on the average number of transports per beneficiary.  Beneficiaries transported by the typical ambulance supplier that provided dialysis transports received an average of 4 ambulance transports during the first 6 months of 2012.  Beneficiaries transported by the 533 suppliers identified by the OIG received an average of 21 transports during the first half of 2012.

The OIG identified 358 out of the 15,614 ambulance suppliers reviewed (2%) that had questionable billing based on the percentage of their transports that were associated with compromised beneficiary ID numbers.  In studying this measure, the OIG excluded ambulance suppliers that did not bill for any transports involving the use of compromised beneficiary ID numbers.  Among those suppliers that billed any transports that involved the use of a compromised ID number, only 1% of the typical supplier’s involved the compromised ID numbers.  The 358 suppliers identified by the OIG used a compromised ID number for at least 7% of their claims.  31 suppliers used a compromised ID number for more than 95% of their submitted claims.

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 unlikely or inappropriate transport levels and destinations.  For the typical supplier that billed any claims with an inappropriate combination of transport level and destination, these claims accounted for less than 1% of all claims submitted in the first half of 2012.  For the 268 suppliers identified by the OIG, these claims accounted for more than 3% of all claims submitted in the first half of 2012.  The OIG identified 19 suppliers that used an inappropriate or unlikely combination on at least 25% of the claims they submitted during the first half of 2012.

Finally, the OIG noted that the ambulance suppliers that tested “positive” for any of the questionable billing practices it identified were disproportionately likely to provide BLS non-emergency transports (including dialysis).  The OIG noted that BLS non-emergency transports accounted for only 36% of transports billed by providers that did not meet any of its questionable billing measures, while BLS non-emergency transports accounted for 65% of all claims submitted by those suppliers it identified as having at least one questionable billing practice.

More than half of questionable ambulance transports were provided to beneficiaries residing in 4 metropolitan areas

The OIG determined that questionable billing was concentrated in the metropolitan areas of Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia.  These 4 areas accounted for 18% of all ambulance transports during the first half of 2012, but 52% of all questionable transports.  Collectively, these areas accounted for $104 million of the $207 million in Medicare payments for “questionable” ambulance transports during the first half of 2012.

The OIG also determined that, on average, ambulance suppliers that provided transports to beneficiaries in these 4 metropolitan areas transported more Medicare beneficiaries and received more in Medicare payments than suppliers in other metropolitan areas.  For example, the average ambulance supplier in Los Angeles received a total of $105,696 in Medicare payments, compared with an average of $16,137 in Medicare payments per supplier in other metropolitan areas.  The numbers in NY ($85,606), Philadelphia ($56,667), and Houston ($34,951) were also far in excess of the national average.

OIG’s Recommendations

In this report, the OIG makes a number of recommendations to CMS to reduce the number of inappropriate payments and questionable billing practices.  These recommendations include:

  1. Expanding the temporary moratoria on new enrollments to additional metropolitan area. The OIG is recommending that CMS consider whether the existing moratoria (in place in Houston and Philadelphia) should be expanded to NY and Los Angeles.CMS concurred with this recommendation, and stated that it will continue to monitor these geographic areas, and will impose additional temporary moratoria if warranted.
  2. Require ambulance suppliers to include the National Provider Identifier (NPI) of the certifying physician on non-emergency claims that require a certification. The OIG is recommending that when a physician certification is required (e.g., for dialysis transports), that the physician’s NPI be listed on the claim.  The OIG notes that the NPI of the ordering physician is already required for laboratory and DME claims.  The OIG also recommended that the physician’s NPI be listed on PCS forms.CMS concurred with the recommendation, and indicated that it will explore the best way to implement this recommendation.
  3. Implement new claims processing edits, or improve existing edits, to prevent inappropriate payments for ambulance transports. The OIG is recommending that CMS update its edits to prevent payment: (a) for transports to non-covered destinations and (b) for transports with inappropriate combinations of the destination and the level of service billed (e.g., emergency transports to a patient’s residence).CMS partially concurred with the recommendation, but indicated that it wanted to review the data on the claims identified by the OIG in the report before taking any actions.
  4. Increase CMS’ monitoring of ambulance billing. The OIG is recommending that CMS continue to monitor the billing of ambulance claims using the measures of questionable billing that the OIG developed.CMS appeared to concur with the recommendation, indicating that it would continue its current monitoring.  However, the OIG indicated that its recommendation was not to continue monitoring at the current levels, but rather to increase the monitoring of ambulance claims.
  5. Determine the appropriateness of the claims billed by the ambulance suppliers identified in this report and take appropriate action. The OIG indicated that it would be providing CMS with a separate memorandum that lists the claims it identified that did not meet Medicare billing requirements.  The OIG was suggesting that CMS or its contractors should take a closer look at these providers, for example by reviewing medical records or performing unannounced site visits to determine whether additional actions are appropriate.CMS partially concurred with the recommendation, but indicated that it wanted to review the data on the claims identified by the OIG in the report before taking any actions.

Member Advisory: OIG Issues Report on Questionable Billing Practices for Ambulance Suppliers

HHS OIG Analysis Part 1 of 2 – Read Part Two of the Analysis


On September 29, 2015, the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a report titled “Inappropriate Payments and Questionable Billing for Medicare Part B Ambulance Transports” (OEI-09-12-00351).  The report, conducted by the Office of Evaluation and Inspections (OEI), looked at claims data for 7.3 million ambulance transports furnished during the first half of 2012.  The OIG reviewed this claims data to determine whether claims were billed appropriately to the Medicare program.

Summary of the OIG’s Findings

The OIG determined that Medicare paid $24.2 million in the first half of 2012 for ambulance transports that did not meet certain program requirements for payment.  The OIG identified an additional $30.2 million paid for transports for which the beneficiary did not receive Medicare services at either the pick-up or drop-location, or anywhere else.  Finally, the OIG determined that 1 in 5 ambulance suppliers met certain criteria that indicated they may have engaged in questionable billing practices.  According to the OIG, more than half of all questionable transports were provided to beneficiaries residing in 4 metropolitan areas.

Detailed OIG Findings

Medicare paid $24.2 million for ambulance transports that did not meet certain Medicare requirements justifying payment.  This included transports to a non-covered destination, as well as transports to a covered destination but where the level of service was inappropriate. 

The OIG determined that Medicare paid $17.4 million for ambulance transports to non-covered destinations.  This amount also include return trips following treatment at the non-covered destination.  These transports represented 0.6% of all Medicare payments during the first half of 2012.

The OIG indicated that transports to a physician’s office were the most common type of non-covered destination.  Payments for transports to and from a physician’s office accounted for $8.7 million in improper payments.  Medicare also paid $5.8 million for transports of beneficiaries to and from community mental health centers or psychiatric facilities (other than duly-licensed psychiatric hospitals).  Other transports to non-covered destinations included independent laboratories, diagnostic or therapeutic sites (i.e., “D” modifiers), non-SNF nursing facilities, long-term care and hospice facilities.

The OIG determined that Medicare paid $7 million for transports with inappropriate combinations of the level of service billed and the type of destination.  This included $4.3 million in payments for specialty care transports (SCT) where either the origin or destination was something other than a hospital, SNF, or intercept site.  The majority of these inappropriate SCT transports involved transports between the patient’s SNF or residence and a free-standing dialysis facility.  The OIG also determined that Medicare paid $2.7 million for emergency transports where the destination was not a hospital.

Medicare paid $30.2 million for ambulance transports for which the beneficiary did not receive Medicare services at any origin or destination. 

The OIG identified $30.2 million in payments for ambulance transports where the beneficiary did not appear to receive any Medicare services at either the origin or destination within 1 day of the date of transport.  To account for the possibility that the ambulance supplier may have submitted a claim with the wrong origin or destination, the OIG only flagged a claim as questionable if its records determined that the beneficiary did not receive Medicare services at any other facility type within 1 day of the transport.  The OIG stated its belief that, since there was no record of the beneficiary receiving Medicare services at or close to the date of transport, the OIG believed that it was likely that Medicare inappropriately paid for the ambulance transports.  The OIG did note the possibility that these transports occurred during an inpatient hospital or SNF stay, and therefore may have been the responsibility of the inpatient facility.  These transports represented 1.1% of all Medicare payments during the first half of 2012.

The OIG determined that 1 in 5 ambulance suppliers had questionable billing

As part of the methodology used for this report, the OIG developed a set of 7 measure that it believed could be evidence of questionable billing practices.  These seven measures were:

  1. No Medicare service provided at either the origin or destination – The OIG believes that a high percentage of an ambulance supplier’s for which the beneficiary did not receive Medicare services at either the origin or destination could be indicative of either: (a) billing for transports to non-covered destinations or (b) billing for transports that were not provided.
  2. Excessive mileage for urban transports – The OIG believes that high average mileage for transports within an urban area could be indicative of either: (a) billing for more miles than the ambulance supplier actually drove or (b) billing for mileage beyond the nearest appropriate facility.
  3. High number of transports per beneficiary – The OIG believes that a high average of per-beneficiary transports could be indicative of billing for transports that were not medically necessary.
  4. Compromised Beneficiary Number – The OIG believes that a high percentage of an ambulance supplier’s transports provided to beneficiary with compromised beneficiary ID numbers could be indicative of billing for transports that were not medically necessary, or which were not provided.
  5. Inappropriate or unlikely transport level – The OIG believes that a high percentage of an ambulance supplier’s transports with inappropriate or unlikely transport levels (given the destination) could be indicative of “upcoding”.
  6. Beneficiary sharing – The OIG believes that when multiple ambulance suppliers all provide dialysis transports to the same beneficiary that it could be evidence of the misuse of a beneficiary’s ID number, or it could be evidence that the beneficiary is shopping his or her ID number for kickbacks.
  7. Transports to or from partial hospitalization programs – The OIG believes that transports to and from a partial hospitalization program (PHP) is unlikely to be medically necessary because beneficiary’s that meet Medicare’s coverage requirements for PHP services generally do not qualify for ambulance transportation.

The OIG indicated that 21% of ambulance suppliers met one of the seven measures it developed for identifying questionable billing practices.  17% of ambulance suppliers met only 1 of the 7 measures, while 4% met 2-4 of these measures.  No ambulance suppliers met more than 4 of these measures.

The OIG identified 2,038 out of the 15,614 ambulance suppliers reviewed (13%) that had questionable billing based on the percentage of their transports where the beneficiary did not receive Medicare services at either the origin or destination.  The OIG flagged an ambulance supplier’s billing as questionable if 3% or more of its transports involved situations where no Medicare service was billed at the destination.  46 ambulance suppliers had 95% or more of their transports involve situations where the beneficiary did not receive Medicare services at either the origin or destination.  By contrast, the median for all ambulance suppliers was zero transports where the beneficiary did not receive services at either the origin or destination.

The OIG identified 642 out of the 15,614 ambulance suppliers reviewed (4%) that had questionable billing based on the average mileage they billed for beneficiaries residing in urban areas.  The OIG indicated that the typical ambulance supplier average 10 miles for an urban transport.  By contrast, the average mileage for the 642 suppliers identified by the OIG was 34 miles.  The OIG identified 48 suppliers with an average urban mileage of more than 100 miles.

The OIG identified 533 out of the 15,614 ambulance suppliers reviewed (3%) that had questionable billing based on the average number of transports per beneficiary.  Beneficiaries transported by the typical ambulance supplier that provided dialysis transports received an average of 4 ambulance transports during the first 6 months of 2012.  Beneficiaries transported by the 533 suppliers identified by the OIG received an average of 21 transports during the first half of 2012.

The OIG identified 358 out of the 15,614 ambulance suppliers reviewed (2%) that had questionable billing based on the percentage of their transports that were associated with compromised beneficiary ID numbers.  In studying this measure, the OIG excluded ambulance suppliers that did not bill for any transports involving the use of compromised beneficiary ID numbers.  Among those suppliers that billed any transports that involved the use of a compromised ID number, only 1% of the typical supplier’s involved the compromised ID numbers.  The 358 suppliers identified by the OIG used a compromised ID number for at least 7% of their claims.  31 suppliers used a compromised ID number for more than 95% of their submitted claims.

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 unlikely or inappropriate transport levels and destinations.  For the typical supplier that billed any claims with an inappropriate combination of transport level and destination, these claims accounted for less than 1% of all claims submitted in the first half of 2012.  For the 268 suppliers identified by the OIG, these claims accounted for more than 3% of all claims submitted in the first half of 2012.  The OIG identified 19 suppliers that used an inappropriate or unlikely combination on at least 25% of the claims they submitted during the first half of 2012.

Finally, the OIG noted that the ambulance suppliers that tested “positive” for any of the questionable billing practices it identified were disproportionately likely to provide BLS non-emergency transports (including dialysis).  The OIG noted that BLS non-emergency transports accounted for only 36% of transports billed by providers that did not meet any of its questionable billing measures, while BLS non-emergency transports accounted for 65% of all claims submitted by those suppliers it identified as having at least one questionable billing practice.

More than half of questionable ambulance transports were provided to beneficiaries residing in 4 metropolitan areas

The OIG determined that questionable billing was concentrated in the metropolitan areas of Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia.  These 4 areas accounted for 18% of all ambulance transports during the first half of 2012, but 52% of all questionable transports.  Collectively, these areas accounted for $104 million of the $207 million in Medicare payments for “questionable” ambulance transports during the first half of 2012.

The OIG also determined that, on average, ambulance suppliers that provided transports to beneficiaries in these 4 metropolitan areas transported more Medicare beneficiaries and received more in Medicare payments than suppliers in other metropolitan areas.  For example, the average ambulance supplier in Los Angeles received a total of $105,696 in Medicare payments, compared with an average of $16,137 in Medicare payments per supplier in other metropolitan areas.  The numbers in NY ($85,606), Philadelphia ($56,667), and Houston ($34,951) were also far in excess of the national average.

OIG’s Recommendations

In this report, the OIG makes a number of recommendations to CMS to reduce the number of inappropriate payments and questionable billing practices.  These recommendations include:

  1. Expanding the temporary moratoria on new enrollments to additional metropolitan area. The OIG is recommending that CMS consider whether the existing moratoria (in place in Houston and Philadelphia) should be expanded to NY and Los Angeles.CMS concurred with this recommendation, and stated that it will continue to monitor these geographic areas, and will impose additional temporary moratoria if warranted.
  2. Require ambulance suppliers to include the National Provider Identifier (NPI) of the certifying physician on non-emergency claims that require a certification. The OIG is recommending that when a physician certification is required (e.g., for dialysis transports), that the physician’s NPI be listed on the claim.  The OIG notes that the NPI of the ordering physician is already required for laboratory and DME claims.  The OIG also recommended that the physician’s NPI be listed on PCS forms.CMS concurred with the recommendation, and indicated that it will explore the best way to implement this recommendation.
  3. Implement new claims processing edits, or improve existing edits, to prevent inappropriate payments for ambulance transports. The OIG is recommending that CMS update its edits to prevent payment: (a) for transports to non-covered destinations and (b) for transports with inappropriate combinations of the destination and the level of service billed (e.g., emergency transports to a patient’s residence).CMS partially concurred with the recommendation, but indicated that it wanted to review the data on the claims identified by the OIG in the report before taking any actions.
  4. Increase CMS’ monitoring of ambulance billing. The OIG is recommending that CMS continue to monitor the billing of ambulance claims using the measures of questionable billing that the OIG developed.CMS appeared to concur with the recommendation, indicating that it would continue its current monitoring.  However, the OIG indicated that its recommendation was not to continue monitoring at the current levels, but rather to increase the monitoring of ambulance claims.
  5. Determine the appropriateness of the claims billed by the ambulance suppliers identified in this report and take appropriate action. The OIG indicated that it would be providing CMS with a separate memorandum that lists the claims it identified that did not meet Medicare billing requirements.  The OIG was suggesting that CMS or its contractors should take a closer look at these providers, for example by reviewing medical records or performing unannounced site visits to determine whether additional actions are appropriate.CMS partially concurred with the recommendation, but indicated that it wanted to review the data on the claims identified by the OIG in the report before taking any actions.

Novitas Issues Guidance for Ambulance Providers, Facilities and Beneficiaries Regarding Expansion of Prior Authorization Project for Repetitive Patients

September 17, 2015

Novitas Solutions, Inc. (Novitas) recently issued a series of guidance documents on the expansion of the prior authorization demonstration project for repetitive scheduled non-emergency ambulance transports. This demonstration project is currently operating in the states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.

The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (Pub. Law 114-10), enacted on April 16, 2015, requires that this program be expanded into the remaining states of MAC Regions L (Delaware, Maryland, and the District of Columbia) and M (North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia), effective January 1, 2016. The program will be further expanded to cover all remaining states starting on January 1, 2017.

Novitas is the Medicare Administrative Contractor for MAC Region L, and therefore will be responsible for implementing this program in Delaware, Maryland and the District of Columbia. These guidance documents are intended to educate ambulance services, health care professionals and facilities, and beneficiaries located in these states on the programs requirements.

Guidance Document for Ambulance Services

On August 17, 2015, Novitas issued a “Dear Ambulance Company” letter that provides guidance to ambulance companies on how the program will operate. As noted in the letter, participation is voluntary.

However, ambulance services that elect not to seek prior authorization for repetitive patients (defined as a patient that is transported by non-emergency ambulance for the same service either: (1) three or more times in a 10-day period or (2) once a week for three straight weeks) will find that claims for these patients will be subject to a prepayment review. For this reason, it is anticipated that most ambulance services will elect to seek prior authorization for their repetitive patient population.

The letter further summarizes the documentation requirements needed to request prior authorization for a patient. These include the submission of a prior authorization cover sheet (which can be found on Novitas’ website), a valid Physician Certification Statement (PCS) signed by the beneficiary’s attending physician within sixty (60) days of the requested first transport date, and all other medical records supporting medical necessity.

Novitas will review the submitted documentation and issue either a prior authorization covering all transports within a set date range, or a rejection. To the extent an application is rejected, the provider will be entitled to resubmit the application with additional documentation to support medical necessity.

Guidance Document for Health Care Professionals and Facilities

On August 24, 2015, Novitas issued a “Dear Healthcare Provider/Facility” letter that provides guidance to physicians, healthcare practitioners, and facilities on how the prior authorization project will operate. This letter includes bolded language that indicates that these individuals and facilities must provide certain records to the transporting ambulance service and/or the beneficiary. The letter specifically includes a statement that “[a]ttending physicians must provide a physician certification statement (PCS) and medical records that support medical necessity.” Members may want to download copies of this letter for distribution to physicians and facilities from which they may need to obtain PCS forms and other medical records.

Guidance Document for Beneficiaries

On August 20, 2015, Novitas issued a “Dear Medicare Beneficiary” letter that is intended to educate Medicare beneficiaries on the operation of the prior authorization project. The letter indicates that the pre-approval process is intended to allow the beneficiary to know whether his or her transports will be covered by Medicare prior to the provision of services. The letter indicates that either the beneficiary or the ambulance service can obtain a prior authorization, but notes that the ambulance provider will typically be the one submitting requests. Members may want to download copies of this letter for distribution to beneficiaries and their families.

AAA to hold Prior Authorization Workshop on October 2, 2015

The AAA will be holding a one-day workshop devoted exclusively to the prior authorization program. The workshop will take place on October 2, 2015 at the AAA Headquarters located in McLean, Virginia. This workshop will feature representatives from both Novitas and Palmetto (the MAC for Region M), who will be able to provide additional details on how the project will operate in their areas. Dr. William Rogers from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will also be in attendance to offer CMS’ perspective on this new program. This is a wonderful opportunity for CEOs and senior ambulance executives in the affected states to hear first-hand how this project will impact their ambulance services.

CMS Extends Ambulance Enrollment Moratoria

On July 25, 2015, CMS issued a notice extending the temporary moratorium for enrollment of new ambulance suppliers in the Texas counties of Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery and Waller, as well as in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties of Bucks, Delaware, Montgomery (Pennsylvania), Burlington, Camden and Gloucester (New Jersey). This notice will appear in the Federal Register on July 28, 2015.

CMS Issues Proposed Rule for Calendar Year 2016

On July 8, 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) published a display copy of a proposed rule titled “Medicare Program; Revisions to Payment Policies under the Physician Fee Schedule and Other Revisions to Part B for CY 2016”.  The proposed rule makes a number of changes to the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule.  It also makes certain changes to the Medicare Ambulance Fee Schedule.  These proposed changes are summarized below.

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CMS Releases Medicare Provider Utilization and Payment Data for CY 2013

On June 1, 2015, CMS publicly released the “Medicare Provider Utilization and Payment Data: Physician and Other Supplier Public Use File”, which provides information on the services and procedures provided to Medicare beneficiaries by ambulance suppliers, physicians and other healthcare provider groups. The data file is based on calendar year 2013 data. This release follows on last year’s release of payment data for calendar year 2012.

The database lists all individual and organizations providers by National Provider Identifier (NPI), and provides information on utilization, total payments and submitted charges. It can also be searched by Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System (HCPCS) code and place of service.

The Public Use File can be obtained by clicking here: http://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/Medicare-Provider-Charge-Data/Physician-and-Other-Supplier.html. Please note that you will need to download the desired file and then import it into an appropriate database or statistical software program. CMS is indicating that Microsoft Excel is not sufficient for these purposes, and that importing it into Excel may result in an incomplete loading of data.

A number of news organizations have already created searchable databases that will allow you to search the 2012 data by physician/organizational name, provider specialty, city, state, etc. It is expected that these news organizations will be updating their websites to incorporate the 2013 data in the coming weeks. The searchable database created by the Wall Street Journal can be accessed by clicking here: http://projects.wsj.com/medicarebilling/?mod=medicarein.