Talking Medicare: Recent DOJ Settlement Highlights Importance of Exclusion Testing
On July 17, 2018, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maine issued a press release on a settlement that had been reached with an ambulance service in Maine. As a result of this settlement, the ambulance service agreed to pay $16,776.74 to resolve allegations that it had submitted false claims to the Medicare and Maine Medicare Programs.
While the Department of Justice’s press release referred to the matter as a civil health care fraud, that headline is somewhat misleading. The ambulance service was not alleged to “up-coded” its claims or to have billed for patients that did not require ambulance transportation. Rather, the ambulance service was accused of using monies paid to it by these federal health care programs to pay the salary and benefits of a woman hired to assist the company’s billing manager. The woman, who was not identified in news reports, had previously been excluded from participation in federal health care programs after surrendering her license as a pharmacy technician after being found to have inappropriately diverted certain controlled substances. The ambulance service apparently failed to conduct an exclusion test on this individual prior to placing her on its payroll. The ambulance service’s side of the story is discussed in greater detail in this article from the local newspaper.
This settlement provides a reminder of the potential liabilities associated with the employment excluded individuals. As the HHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) noted in its May 2013 Special Advisory Bulletin, the effect of exclusion goes beyond direct patient care. The OIG noted that excluded individuals are prohibited from providing transportation services paid by a federal health care program, using the example of ambulance drivers and ambulance dispatchers. The OIG further indicated that excluded individuals cannot provide administrative and/or management services that are payable by federal health care programs, even if these administrative or management services are not separately billable. In the above-referenced case, the prohibition was applied to the wages and benefits payable to the excluded employee.
Do we need to conduct exclusion testing, and, if so, how frequently?
The OIG recommends that all health care providers conduct exclusion testing prior to an individual’s employment, and then periodically thereafter. However, the OIG takes no formal position on how frequently these periodic exclusion checks should be conducted. The OIG does note, however, that it updates its List of Excluded Individuals and Entities (LEIE) on a monthly basis.
Given the potential risks involved, I think monthly testing of all employees should definitely be considered a best practice. The hope is that this case serves as a cautionary tale for other ambulance providers.
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