On February 16, 2023, the Department of Veterans published in the Federal Register the final rule to revise the payment methodology for beneficiary travel by ambulance and other so-called “special modes of transportation. The changes contained within the final rule were first included in a November 5, 2020 proposed rule.
The final rule will become effective on February 16, 2024.
The VA currently pays for beneficiary travel under certain circumstances. To be eligible for reimbursement, the veteran must meet certain eligibility criteria. Specifically, the veteran must be traveling either: (i) for care at a VA health facility or (ii) for care at a non-VA facility that has been previously approved by the VA. The veteran must also meet one of the following additional criteria:
Beneficiary travel covers all modes of transportation, including transportation by private vehicle, common carriers (e.g., taxi, livery, and public transportation), mass transit, etc. Beneficiary travel also covers so-called “special modes of transportation,” which includes air and ground ambulance services, wheelchair vans services, and stretcher vans services.
The rules governing the payment for beneficiary travel services at set forth in 38 C.F.R. § 70.30.
Subpart (a)(4) sets forth the payment methodology for the reimbursement of special modes of transport, and simply provides that payment is based on “[t]he actual cost of a special mode of transportation. In the context of ambulance services, this has historically been interpreted to mean the ambulance provider’s full billed charges.
Provisions of Final Rule
Under the final rule, the VA would revise its existing payment methodology for beneficiary travel by ambulance and other special modes of transportation to no longer reimburse providers for their actual costs, and to instead base reimbursement on:
The revised payment methodology for non-ambulance special modes of transport is intended to be temporary. In its proposed rule, the VA indicated that it would use this payment methodology for a minimum of 90 calendar days after a final rule was posted in the Federal Register. This period of time was intended to allow the VA to gather payment data. If the VA believes that it gathered sufficient payment data during this initial 90-day period, it indicated that it would develop a new payment methodology “using the lowest possible rate.” If the VA determined that it did not have sufficient payment data after the initial 90-day period, it would extend the proposed payment methodology for additional 90-day periods as needed until it believed it had sufficient data. The VA indicated that it did not anticipate needing more than 18 months from the effective date of the final rule to gather sufficient payment data to implement a new payment method
On January 9, 2018, the Department of Veterans Affairs issued an interim final rule that would amend its policy for payment of Millennium Bill claims. The Millennium Bill authorizes the Veterans Administration (VA) to pay for emergency care provided to veterans in non-VA facilities — including emergency ambulance transportation — provided the veteran has no other health insurance that would cover the costs of such emergency care. These changes were necessitated, in part, by a recent decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Appeals (Staab v. McDonald, 28 Vet. App. 50, 2016).
The two major changes being made by the interim final rule are: (1) the expansion of payment eligibility to include veterans who received partial payment or reimbursement from a health plan for their non-VA emergency care and (2) the expansion of payment eligibility for emergency transportation associated with a veteran’s receipt of emergency treatment in a non-VA facility.
These changes went into effect on January 9, 2018.
38 U.S.C. §1725 authorizes the VA to reimburse veterans for the costs of emergency treatment for non-service connected conditions furnished in a non-VA facility, provided certain criteria were met. One requirement was that the veteran be personally liable for the costs of that emergency treatment. As originally enacted in 1999, the statute indicated that the veteran would be personally liable if the veteran: (1) has no entitlement to care or services under a health-plan contract and/or (2) the veteran had no contractual or legal recourse against a third party that would, in part or in whole, extinguish such liability. The VA historically interpreted its payment obligations under the Millennium Bill to be limited to situations where the veteran had no entitlement to coverage under their health insurance or any other contractual or legal recourse against a third party.
The Expansion of Veteran Eligibility for Reimbursement Act of 2010 amended the requirements related to non-health insurance payments to remove the phrase “in part”. As a result, the VA revised its regulations to permit it to make a payment under the Millennium Bill in situations where automobile or other forms of non-health insurance made a partial payment, and where the veteran remained liable for the balance of the health care provider’s bill. However, there was no corresponding change made to the provisions related to health insurance contracts. As a result, the VA continued to view partial payment by a health plan as a bar to payment by the VA.
In Staab, the Court of Appeals adopted a more lenient interpretation of the statute, i.e., a more restrictive view of the VA’s statutory bar on reimbursement. Specifically, the Court held that the reimbursement bar would only apply when the payment from the health plan fully extinguished the veteran’s liability. The practical effect was to place health insurance plans on equal footing with other forms of insurance. The Court remanded the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.
The VA subsequently appealed the Court of Appeals decision. However, on June 14, 2017, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin announced that the Department would drop its appeal. Reversing course, Secretary Shulkin indicated that the VA had drafted regulations to implement the expanded Millennium Bill coverage. Those regulations form the basis of this interim final rule.
The VA revised its regulations at 38 C.F.R. §17.1002(f) to indicate that the VA will make payment under the Millennium Bill to the extent the veteran otherwise qualifies for coverage to the extent that the veteran “does not have coverage under a health-plan contract that would fully extinguish the medical liability for the emergency treatment.” The VA retained the reimbursement bar for situations where the veteran would have been covered under a health plan had the veteran or the provider failed to comply with the requirements of that health plan, e.g., by failing to submit a timely claim. This change will apply to: (1) all claims pending with the VA as of April 8, 2016 or (2) submitted after that date.
The VA historically viewed emergency ambulance transportation to the non-VA facility as part of the overall emergency treatment of the veteran. As a result, the VA believed that a health plan’s payment for the hospital care, in whole or in part, triggered its reimbursement bar. One common situation that impacts ambulance suppliers involves veterans that have Medicare Part A benefits (which cover the costs of their hospital care), but where the veteran has elected to forego paying for Medicare Part B. In these situations, Medicare would pay for the hospital care. The VA took the position that this triggered the reimbursement bar, and therefore prevented it from making payment for the emergency ambulance transportation.
Because the interim final rule expands Millennium Bill coverage to include situations where a health plan makes a partial payment, the VA found it necessary to amend its regulations governing the payment of ambulance claims. Specifically, the VA amended its regulations at 38 C.F.R. 17.1003 to provide that ambulance providers will now be eligible for payment provided the following conditions are met:
The A.A.A. has confirmed that the VA does not consider the coinsurance or deductible obligations imposed by a veteran’s health plan for the purposes of determining whether the veteran’s liability has been fully extinguished by the health plan’s payment.
Therefore, in situations where the veteran has health care coverage, payment by the VA is likely to be limited to situations where the ambulance provider is permitted under state and local laws to bill patients for the difference between their billed charges and the amounts allowed by the health insurer, i.e., those areas that currently permit balance billing. This would also mean that the VA would be unlikely to have any payment responsibility in situations where Medicare has made payment on the ambulance claim (although it leaves open the possibility that the VA may be responsible for non-covered Medicare services such as excess mileage).
When the VA pays under this expanded Millennium Bill authority, its payment will be based on the following methodology:
Payment from the VA is generally considered to be payment-in-full, and extinguishes the veteran’s remaining liability to the provider for unpaid amounts. Note: the veteran would remain liable for unpaid co-payments and deductibles. If the provider does not wish to accept the VA’s payment, it has 30 days from its receipt of such payment to reject and refund the payment.
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The VREASA (Veterans Reimbursement for Emergency Ambulance Services Act) would provide veterans with reimbursement for emergency ambulance services when a Prudent Layperson would have a reasonable expectation that a delay in seeking immediate medical attention will jeopardize the life or health of the veteran.
Currently, prior to reimbursement, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) requires all medical records be provided, including the records of treatment after the emergency service has taken place. Should those records show that it was not a life threatening emergency or a false alarm, the claim for reimbursement is denied. The veteran is stuck with the bill.
Medicare, Medicaid, and other major payers adhere to the “prudent layperson” standard for the reimbursement of emergency ambulance services. The VA is the only major payer to not follow this standard. It is time we ensure our veterans are not stuck with the bill for their emergency ambulance service.
AAA Member, American Medical Response and their VP Federal Reimbursement & Regulatory Affairs, Deb Gault, have been working with Rep. Coffman’s office to get this bill reintroduced.
The House VA Committee hearing started at 7:30 p.m., but it was well-attended and lasted until 10 p.m. The witnesses included Senator John McCain (R-AZ), VA Secretary David Shulkin, and representatives of the VA Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office. Senator McCain and Secretary Shulkin were both warmly welcomed by Members of the Committee on a bipartisan basis.
Chairman Roe (R-TN) emphasized the need to act quickly to extend the authorization for the Veterans Choice Program, which expires on August 7. To that end, the House VA Committee is voting today on a bill to eliminate the sunset of the program’s authorization. In addition, the Committee will consider broader legislation later this year to make comprehensive reforms to the Choice Program. He noted that the VA has additional funds available but will not be able to spend them once the authorization expires. A copy of Chairman Roe’s opening statement is available here.
Secretary Shulkin testified in support of extending the Choice Program, and he clarified that the VA was not seeking additional funding – just the authority to spend funds already obligated. He noted that the VA already is being forced to deny Choice Program coverage to veterans whose episodes of care would extend beyond the August 7 expiration date (e.g., pregnancy).
Secretary Shulkin also urged Congress to support the VA’s efforts to bring appointment scheduling in-house for care coordination purposes. However, the VA OIG witness noted challenges in records going out to community-based providers and coming back to the VA. The GAO witness also underscored the need for the VA to have better systems in place in order to effectively coordinate care, which will take time to procure and implement. Rep. Brownley (D-CA) echoed that point, calling the VA’s information technology systems a “Model T in a Tesla world.” Rep. Esty (D-CT) also urged improvements in the VA’s information systems and expressed concern that veterans are being improperly billed.
Other Members, including Rep. Wenstrup (R-OH) and Rep. Poliquin (R-ME), raised concerns about continuing delays in the processing of claims and payments to providers. Secretary Shulkin agreed that providers deserve to be paid for their services, noting his own experience as a physician in the private sector. He acknowledged that the VA is not processing enough claims electronically today, and he advised that he plans to pursue options outside the VA for systems procurement going forward.
Many Members also raised serious concerns about treatment of PTSD and mental health conditions for veterans, including Rep. Wenstrup (R-OH), Rep. O’Rourke (D-TX), Rep. Sablan (D-MP), Rep. Banks (R-IN), Rep. Rutherford (R-FL) and Rep. Takano (D-CA). Rep. O’Rourke emphasized that suicide among veterans is the most serious crisis, and Secretary Shulkin agreed that it is his number one priority. The Secretary announced that the VA will begin providing urgent mental health care that also will include individuals other than those service members who were honorably discharged. He added that the VA needs 1,000 more mental health providers, as well as telemental health services, and is looking to expand community partnerships to address suicide.
Rep. Banks noted interest among Indiana veterans in greater access to alternative treatments for PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Secretary Shulkin underscored that he is “most concerned about areas like PTSD, where we do not have effective treatments.” He also advised that the VA has established an “Office of Compassionate Innovation” (separate from the VA’s Center for Innovation), which will focus on finding new approaches to health and physical wellness and explore alternative treatment options for veterans when traditional methods fall short.
Rep. Wenstrup inquired about the VA’s GME and residency programs, as well as its associations with academic institutions. Secretary Shulkin responded that the VA is “doubling down” on partnerships with academic medical institutions.
Chairman Roe concluded his remarks by emphasizing the need to extend the Choice Program authorization soon and to consolidate the VA’s community-based care programs. He also expressed support for the VA’s decision to stop developing its own information technology internally.
Asbel Montes, AAA Payment Reform Committee co-chair and all-around reimbursement expert, recently developed some great quick tips on billing the US Department of Veterans Affairs for ambulance services.
Do you have a process in place to identify when a transported individual is a veteran being carried to a non-VA facility? In an emergency condition, it may prove very beneficial for you to have a consistent process within your billing department to ensure that you can identify these patients in order to maximize reimbursement, while also avoid billing the patient inappropriately… READ MORE►
On March 3, 2016, Congressman Charles W. Boustany, Jr., MD, republican representative of Louisana’s 3rd district, introduced the Timely Payment for Veterans’ Emergency Care Act. According to data obtained by Boustany from the VA’s Chief Business Office, the VA has a nationwide emergency claims payment backlog of over $788 million.
When the VA fails to pay these medical bills on time, veterans’ credit ratings are put at risk.