Author: Kathy Lester

MedPAC Issues June 2016 Report to the Congress

MedPAC Issues June 2016 Report to the Congress with Chapter on Improving Efficiency and Preserving Access to Emergency Care in Rural Areas

Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC or the Commission) has issued its June 2016 Report to the Congress.   The June report includes recommended refinements to Medicare payment systems and identifies issues affecting the Medicare program, broader changes in health care delivery, and the market for health care services.

Chapter 7 focuses on preserving access to emergency care in rural areas.  The Commission recognizes that access to inpatient and emergency services in rural areas is threatened because of the dwindling populations.  Declining populations can lead to fewer hospital admissions and reduced efficiencies that can create financial and staff problems for hospitals.  The Report notes that “[d]eclining volume is a concern because low-volume rural hospitals tend to have worse mortality metrics and worse performance on some process measures.” In addition, “low-volume CAHs have the difficult job of competing with each other for a shrinking pool of clinicians who want the lifestyle of operating an outpatient practice during the day, covering inpatient issues that arise at night, and covering the emergency department.”

Under current policies, most rural hospitals are critical access hospitals (CAHs).  They receive a cost-based payment for providing inpatient and outpatient services to Medicare beneficiaries.  To receive these payments, a hospital must maintain acute inpatient services.  In rural areas, many small towns do not have a sufficient population to support such a model.  Yet eliminating these services would mean giving up the supplemental payments that their hospitals receive through the CAH cost-based payment model.

The hospital prospective payment system serves as the payment model for other hospitals.  Rural providers receive supplemental payments, which are also linked to providing inpatient services.

MedPAC highlights the concerns with cost-based payment models:

  • Cost-based payments do not direct payments toward isolated hospitals having the greatest financial difficulty, but rather reward hospitals in high-income areas with higher non-Medicare margins by providing them with higher Medicare payments.
  • Cost-based payments encourage providers to expand service lines with high Medicare and private-payer shares rather than primarily focus on services that are needed on an emergency basis.
  • Cost-based models reduce the incentive for hospitals to control their costs, which can lead to unnecessary growth in capital costs, despite declining volumes.

In light of these challenges, MedPAC sets forth a two of options that would give isolated rural hospitals the option of converting to an outpatient-only model while maintaining their special payment arrangements.  These models seek to ensure access to essential services:

  • Establishing a 24/7 emergency department model; and
  • Adopting a clinic with ambulance services model.

Under the 24/7 emergency department model, the hospital would be paid under the outpatient prospective payment rates and would receive an annual grant/fixed payment from Medicare to cover the standby costs associated with 24/7 emergency services.  The current supplemental payments would be redirected to support this annual grant/fixed payment amount.  If a hospital chose to use inpatient beds as skilled nursing facility (SNF) beds, it would be reimbursed under the Medicare SNF prospective payment system.  The hospital could be required to use the fixed payment for emergency standby capacity, ambulance service losses, telehealth capacity, and uncompensated care in the emergency department.

Under the clinic and ambulance model, hospitals could convert their existing inpatient facilities into primary care clinics.  These clinics would be “affiliated” with an ambulance service.   Medicare would pay the prospective rates for primary care visits and ambulance transports.  Medicare would provide an annual grant/fixed payment to support the capital costs of having a primary care practice, the standby costs of the ambulance service, and uncompensated care costs.

The Commission recognizes that the “low population density would also make it difficult to retain primary care providers and support an ambulance service.”  It could also be difficult to describe the exact level of primary care and ambulance access that is required to receive the fixed Medicare payment.

MedPAC reiterates its position that “supplemental payments beyond the standard PPS rates should be targeted to isolated rural providers that are essential for access to care.”  Thus, it states that a program to support stand-alone emergency departments should be limited to facilities that are a minimum distance in road miles from the nearest hospital.

 

The GAO Releases New Report on Claims Review Programs, Recommending Additional Prepayment Review Authority and Written Guidance on Calculating Savings from Prepayment Review

On Friday, May 13, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) publicly released a new Medicare report entitled, “Claim Review Programs Could Be Improved with Additional Prepayment Reviews and Better Data,” which it shared with the Congress and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in April. The report is addressed to the Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) in response to his request.

The Report examines:

1. The differences, if any, between prepayment and post-payment reviews, and the extent to which the contractors utilize these types of reviews;

2. The extent to which the Medicare claim review contractors focus their reviews on different types of claims; and

3. CMS’s cost per review and the amount of improper payments identified by the claim review contractors per dollar paid by CMS.

In compiling the Report, the GAO reviewed Administration documents, interviewed CMS officials, Recovery Auditors (RAs), and Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs). The GAO also interviewed representatives from 10 Medicare provider/supplier organizations that have experienced claim reviews on both a pre- and post-payment review basis. The AAA worked the GAO by participating in a telephone interview and providing written comments.

The GAO examined three types of contractors – the RAs, the MACs, and the Supplemental Medicare Review Contractor (SMRC). These contractors are responsible for reviewing claims that are at high risk of improper payment and claims that pose the greatest financial risk to Medicare. Only MACs conduct both pre- and post-payment reviews. RAs and the SMRC conduct only post-payment reviews, but RAs did participate in a pre-payment review demonstration project. RAs are paid on a contingent basis from recovered overpayments. During the demonstration, RAs were paid contingency fees based on claim denial amounts.

In its review, the GAO found that few differences exist between pre- and post-payment reviews, but noted that pre-payment reviews “better protect Medicare funds.” The GAO found that CMS is not always able to collect overpayments from post-payment reviews and that post-payment reviews require more administrative resources than pre-payment reviews.

The provider/supplier organizations highlighted two issues that need to be resolved with regard to pre-payment review audits. First, they identified that the option to hold discussions with RAs before payment determinations are made in the context of post-payment reviews can be helpful. These discussions are not part of the pre-payment review process; nor are they part of the MAC process. CMS indicated that it is not practical to have such an option in these contexts because of the timing requirements.

Second, the providers/suppliers noted that pre-payment reviews create cash flow burdens, in light of the appeals process. When appealing a post-payment review, providers/suppliers retain their Medicare payments through the first two rounds of review. If the denial is overturned at a higher level, CMS must pay back the recovered amount with interest accrued. However, for pre-payment reviews, providers/suppliers do not receive payment and CMS does not provide interest on the dollars withheld if the provider/supplier wins on appeal.

MACs have traditionally relied upon post-payment review. MACs will also use post-payment reviews to analyze billing patterns to inform other review activities, such as future pre-payment reviews and educational outreach. CMS has encouraged MACs to perform extrapolation, especially for providers/suppliers that submit large volumes of low-dollar claims with high improper payment rates.

The SMRC reviews often include studies to develop sampling methodologies or other policies that could be rolled out more broadly in the future.

The GAO also found that different contractors focused on different claims during 2013 and 2014. RAs focused on inpatient claim reviews primarily. RAs have the discretion to select the claims they review and the GAO stated that “their focus on reviewing inpatient claims is consistent with the financial incentives associated with the contingency fees they receive, as inpatient claims generally have higher payment amounts compared to other claim types.” The GAO also found that RA claim reviews had higher average identified improper payment amounts per post-payment claim review relative to other claim types in 2013 and 2014. For the upcoming contracts, CMS has indicated that it will more closely monitor RAs to ensure that they are reviewing all types of claims. For DME claims in particular, CMS has increased the contingency fee percentage paid to the RAs for DME, home health agencies, and hospice claims.

In contracts, MAC claim reviews focused primarily on physician and DME claims. DME claims accounted for 29 percent of their reviews in 2013 and 26 percent in 2014, while representing 22 percent of total improper payments in fiscal year 2013 and 16 percent of improper payments in fiscal year 2014. DME claims also had the highest rates of improper payments in both years.

Physician claims is a broadly used term that includes labs, ambulances, and individual physician.

The SMRC focused its claim reviews on studies that CMS directs the contractor to conduct. In 2013, the SMRC reviews focused on outpatient and physician claims, but in 2014 the focus shifted to home health agency claims and certain DME suppliers.

The GAO concluded that both RAs and SMRC generated savings for CMS, but unreliable data prevented comparing these results to those of MACs. CMS paid the RAs an average of $158 per review; the RAs averaged $14 in identified improper payments per dollar paid by CMS in both 2013 and 2014. CMS paid the SMRC an average of $256 per review, and the SMRC averaged $7 in identified improper payments per dollar paid in 2013 and 2014. The higher SMRC costs related to the study costs and extrapolation.

CMS lacks reliable MAC cost and savings data. CMS does not collect reliable data on claim review funding and does not have consistent data on identified improper payments. While CMS has established ways to collect this information, some MACs are not reporting it. MACs also use different methods to calculate and report savings.

The GAO recommended that CMS take two actions:

• In order to better ensure proper Medicare payments and protect Medicare funds, CMS should seek legislative authority to allow the RAs to conduct prepayment claim reviews.

• In order to ensure that CMS has the information it needs to evaluate MAC effectiveness in preventing improper payments and to evaluate and compare contractor performance across its Medicare claim review program, CMS should provide the MACs with written guidance on how to accurately calculate and report savings from prepayment claim reviews.

CMS did not agree with the first recommendation, stating that it has a strategy to move away from “pay and chase” using different policies, such as prior authorization initiatives and enhanced provider enrollment screening. CMS concurred with the second recommendation.

The Importance of Ambulance Cost Survey Data

By Kathy Lester, JD, MPH | Updated November 9, 2015

Tomorrow is in your hands today. This statement is especially true when we think about the evolution of ambulance services. Today, care once reserved for the hospital setting is now delivered at the scene, resulting in better patient outcomes. Yet, despite these advances, the Medicare payment system lags behind. Current rates are based upon a negotiated rulemaking process that did not take the cost of providing services into accounts. While many in the industry strive to further expand the delivery of high-quality care, the inflexibility of the current payment system makes it difficult to compensate the next generation of ambulance service providers appropriately.

To prepare for tomorrow, ambulances services must act today. The AAA has taken a leadership role by setting the groundwork needed to reform the payment system so that it recognizes the continued evolution of ambulance services. The two game changers are (1) designating ambulance suppliers as “providers” of care; and (2) implementing a federal data collection system.

“Emergency care has made important advances in recent decades: emergency 9-1-1 service now links virtually all ill and injured Americans to immediate medical response; organized trauma systems transport patients to advanced, lifesaving care within minutes; and advances in resuscitation and lifesaving procedures yield outcomes unheard of just two decades ago.”
Institute of Medicine: Emergency Medical Services at a Crossroads (2007)

Provider Status

Being deemed a “provider” rather than a “supplier” is the first step toward recognizing the clinical component of ambulance services and appropriately incorporating ambulance services into the broader health care coordination and reform discussions.

Under current law, the term provider refers to hospitals, skilled nursing facilities (SNFs), outpatient rehabilitation facilities, home health agencies, ambulatory surgical centers, end-stage renal disease facilities, organ procurement organizations, and clinical labs. Durable medical equipment entities and ambulance services are designated as suppliers.

When ambulance services were first added to the Medicare benefit, the primary services provided were transportation. As noted already, transportation is only one component of the services provided. The deliver of health care services today make ambulances more like other Medicare providers than suppliers.

Achieving this designation is the first step toward having the federal government recognizing the value of the health care services provided by ambulances.

Cost Collection

The second game changer involves collecting cost data from all types and sizes of ambulances services in all areas of the country. Current Medicare rates are not based on cost. As the Government Accountability Office has recognized in two separate reports, these rates do not cover the cost of providing services to beneficiaries. While the Congress has extended the ambulance add-ons year after year, the lack of a permanent fix makes it difficult to plan. There is also the risk of the add-ons not being extended at some point. In addition, the rates take into account only at the most general level the health care being provided.

In the American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA), the Congress required the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to issue a report evaluating the ability to use current hospital cost reports to determine rates and also to assess the feasibility of obtaining cost data on a periodic basis from all types of ambulance services. Knowing of the strong Congressional interest in obtaining additional cost information, the AAA began working with The Moran Company (a consultant organization with expertise in Medicare cost reporting) to develop recommendations as to how cost data could be most efficiently and effectively collected. The AAA shared these recommendations with CMS and the contractor developing the report. The final report, released in October, supports the AAA’s work and states:

Any cost reporting tool must take into account the wide variety of characteristics of ambulance providers and suppliers. Efforts to obtain cost data from providers and suppliers must also standardize cost measures and ensure that smaller, rural, and super-rural providers and suppliers are represented.

The next step in the process is to provide CMS with direction and authority to implement the AAA’s cost survey methodology. In brief, the methodology would:

  • Require all ambulance services to report to CMS demographic information, such as organizational type (governmental agency, public safety, private, all volunteer, etc), average duration of transports, number of emergency and nonemergency transports. CMS would use this data to establish organization categories so that the data collected aligns with the type of organization providing it.
  • Require all ambulance services to report cost data, such as labor costs, administrative costs, local jurisdiction costs, through a survey process. During any survey period, CMS would identify a statistically valid sample of ambulance services in each category to be surveyed. These services would have to provide the data or be subject to a five percent penalty. Those ambulance services that provide data will not be asked to do so again until every service in its organization category has submitted the data.

As part of this process, the AAA has begun developing a common language for reporting these data. This work will ensure that the information is collected in a standardized manner. The AAA will also provide assistance to services that may need extra help in completing the surveys.

This information can then be aggregated and used to evaluate the adequacy of Medicare payments and support additional coverage policies. Most importantly, it will allow policy-makers, the AAA, and other stakeholders to reform the current Medicare ambulance payment system so that it incorporates the health care services currently being provided and those that will be in the future.

Conclusion

In order to be prepared for the reimbursement structures of tomorrow, ambulance services need to be designated a providers and recognized for the health care they provide. They also need to participate in a standardized cost collection program that will provide accurate data in the least burdensome way possible. The AAA is leading the effort to help ambulance services prepare for tomorrow.

Prior Auth Expansion to MD, DE, DC, NC, VA, WV

CMS Announces Expansion of Prior Authorization Program for Repetitive Scheduled Non-Emergent Ambulance Transports

October 26, 2015

CMS has announced that consistent with the requirements of the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA), it will expand the current prior authorization demonstration program for repetitive scheduled non-emergent ambulance transports beginning on January 1, 2016, to Maryland, Delaware, the District of Columbia, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. The current demonstration program is operating in three states (New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina).

The demonstration seeks “to test whether prior authorization helps reduce expenditures, while maintaining or improving quality of care, using the established prior authorization process for repetitive scheduled non-emergent ambulance transport to reduce utilization of services that do not comply with Medicare policy.”

The Agency reiterates that the prior authorization process does not create new clinical documentation requirements. Requesting a prior authorization is not mandatory, but CMS encourages ambulance services to submit a request for prior authorization to their MACs along with the relevant documentation to support coverage. If an ambulance service does not request prior authorization, by the fourth round-trip in a 30-day period, the claims will be stopped for pre-payment review.

To be approved, the request must meet all applicable rules and policy, as well as any local coverage determination requirements. The MAC will “make every effort” to review and decide on the request within 10 business days for an initial submission. If an ambulance service requests a subsequent prior authorization after a non-affirmative decision, the MAC will try to review and decide upon the subsequent request within 20 business days. Ambulance services may also request an expedited review.

If granted, the prior authorization may affirm a specified number of trips within a specific amount of time. The maximum number of trips is 40 round trips within a 60-day period.

Member Advisory: CMS Releases the ICD-10 Crosswalk

By Kathy Lester, JD, MPH | AAA Healthcare Regulatory Consultant | October 9, 2015

At the end of last week, CMS posted the ICD-10 crosswalks for medical conditions for ambulance services. The documents can be found here, under the Other Guidance section at the bottom of the webpage.

In creating the crosswalk files, CMS relied upon a program developed by 3M, ICD-10 CTT. The files provide comprehensive crosswalks for both primary and alternative specific codes and are intended to supplement the existing Medical Conditions List.

The AAA has been working with CMS for the past year to create an official document that addresses the medical condition codes upon which some of the Medicare contractors rely for billing and auditing purposes.

While we are pleased that CMS has recognized the need for a crosswalk, we are concerned that the documents posted are a literal crosswalk of the previous ICD-9 list. This document can also be found on the Ambulance Service Center webpage. This approach, which incorporates all potential ICD-10 codes, has resulted in a large number of codes being included in the crosswalk. Some of these codes are inappropriate to use because they require diagnostic skills that extend beyond the scope of ambulance personnel.

The AAA has developed a more streamlined list of condition codes that eliminates those codes that are inappropriate for ambulance services to use.

We continue to work with CMS to refine its crosswalk to ensure that it is useful to ambulance services throughout the country.