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Tag: Talking Medicare

New SNF PPS Edits Highlight the Importance of Facility Agreements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Talking Medicare: CMS Implements Further Dialysis Cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Takeaways

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

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

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

What the AAA is Doing

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

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Talking Medicare: DOJ Settlement Highlights Importance of Exclusion Testing

Talking Medicare: Recent DOJ Settlement Highlights Importance of Exclusion Testing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Talking Medicare: A Good Thing Poorly Explained

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Preliminary Estimate of 2018 Medicare Rates

A Preliminary Estimate of 2018 Medicare Rates

In this blog, I will provide a preliminary estimate of the Ambulance Inflation Factor (AIF) for calendar year 2018.  The AIF is main factor that determines the increase (or decrease) in Medicare’s payment for ambulance services.

Calculating the 2018 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. For 2018, this means the 12-month period ending on June 30, 2017. Starting in calendar year 2011, the change in the CPI-U is 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 resulting AIF is then applied to the conversion factor used to calculate Medicare payments under the Ambulance Fee Schedule.

The formula used to calculate the change in the CPI-U is limited to positive increases. Therefore, even if the change in the CPI-U was negative over a 12-month period (a rarity in the post-war era), the change in the CPI-U cannot be negative. However, when the MFP reduction is applied, the statute does permit a negative AIF for any calendar year. That is precisely what occurred in 2016, where the change in the CPI-U was 0.1% and the MFP was 0.5%. As a result, the industry saw an overall reduction in its Medicare rates of 0.4%.

Based on current data, it is highly unlikely that the AIF will be negative in 2018. For the 12-month period ending in June 30, 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) currently calculates the change in the CPI-U to be approximately 1.6%.

CMS has yet to release its estimate for the MFP in calendar year 2018. However, assuming CMS’ projections for the MFP are similar to last year’s projections, the 2018 MFP is likely to be in the 0.3% to 0.5% range.

Therefore, at this time, my best guess is that the 2018 Ambulance Inflation Factor will be a positive 1.1% to 1.3%.

Please note that this estimate assumes the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not subsequently revise its inflation estimates. Please note further that this projection is based on the MFP being similar to last year.  To the extent either of these numbers changes in the coming months (up or down), my estimate of the 2018 AIF would need to be adjusted accordingly. Ultimately, the 2018 AIF will be finalized by CMS by Transmittal, which typically occurs in the early part of the 4th quarter.

Impact on the Medicare Ambulance Fee Schedule

Assuming all other factors remained the same, calculating your 2018 Medicare rates would be a relatively simple exercise, i.e., you would simply add 1.1 to 1.3% to your 2017 rates. However, as part of its 2018 Physician Fee Schedule Proposed Rule (issued July 21, 2017), CMS proposed minor changes to the GPCIs. These changes can be viewed by going to the Physician Fee Schedule page on the CMS website, and clicking the link for the “CY 2018 PFS Proposed Rule Addenda” (located in the Downloads section). You would then need to open the file for “Addendum E_Geographic Practice Cost Indicies (GPCIs).”

If the PE GPCI in your area is proposed to increase, you can expect your 2018 Medicare rates to increase by slightly more than 1.1 – 1.3%. If the PE GPCI in your area is proposed to decrease, you can expect your 2018 Medicare rates to increase by slightly less than 1.1 to 1.3%.

If you are looking for a more precise calculation of your rates, you will need to use the following formulas:

Ground Ambulance Services

Medicare Allowable = (UBR x .7 x GPCI) + (UBR x .3)

 Air Ambulance Services

Medicare Allowable = (UBR x .5 x GPCI) + (UBR x .5)

 In this formula, the “UBR” stands for the unadjusted base rate for each HCPCS code. These are calculated by multiplying the national conversation factor by the relative value unit assigned to each base rate. To save some time, estimates for the 2018 unadjusted base rates are reproduced below (using the low-end estimate for the AIF):

Base Rate (HCPCS Code) 2018 Unadjusted Base Rate
BLS non-Emergency (A0428) $224.74
BLS emergency (A0429) $359.58
ALS non-emergency (A0426) $269.68
ALS emergency (A0427) $427.00
ALS-2 (A0433) $618.02
Specialty Care Transport (A0434) $730.39
Paramedic Intercept (A0432) $393.29
Fixed Wing (A0430) $3,049.69
Rotary Wing (A0431) $3,545.72

Plugging these UBRs into the above formulas will result in adjusted base rates for each level of ground and air ambulance service. The final step is to apply whatever temporary adjustments are in effect under the Medicare Ambulance Fee Schedule. For example, in 2017, there were adjustments in place for urban (2%), rural (3%) and super-rural (22.6% over the corresponding rural rate) transports. Note: these temporary adjustments are currently set to expire on December 31, 2017. Therefore, absent further legislation, they should not be added to the adjusted base rates for 2018.

2018 Projected Rates for Mileage:

 At this time, I am estimating the following rates for Medicare mileage:

Base Rate (HCPCS Code) 2018 Unadjusted Base Rate
Ground Mileage – Urban $7.23
Ground Mileage – Rural Miles 1 – 17 $10.84
Ground Mileage – Rural Miles 18+ $7.23
Fixed Wing Mileage – Urban $86.5
Fixed Wing Mileage – Rural $12.98
Rotary Wing Mileage – Urban $23.09
Rotary Wing Mileage – Rural $34.64

Please keep in mind that a number of assumptions went into these projections. The Bureau of Labor Statistics can revise its inflation figures in the coming months. CMS may announce an MFP projection that differs from what we expect. CMS may also announce that it is electing not to finalize its proposed changes to the GPCI (highly unlikely). If any of these assumptions was to change, these projections would need to be revised. Therefore, I would suggest that you view these as rough estimates at best.  The AAA will update members as more information becomes available in the coming months.

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Talking Medicare: Prior Authorization Spending Update

Prior Authorization Data Shows Continued Reduction in Overall Spending on Dialysis Transports; Pendulum Swings Back Slightly in New Jersey and Pennsylvania

In May 2014, CMS announced the implementation of a three-year prior authorization demonstration project for repetitive scheduled non-emergency ambulance transports. This demonstration project was initially limited to the states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. These states were selected based on higher-than-average utilization rates and high rates of improper payment for these services. In particular, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) had singled out these states as having higher-than-average utilization of dialysis transports in a June 2013 report to Congress.

Medicare payment data from calendar year 2015 showed the effect of the demonstration project. Total spending on dialysis transports was $559 million that year, down 22% from the year before.  That correlates to a cost savings to the federal government of $158 million. Telling, $137 million (86%) of those savings came from the three states that participated in the demonstration project.

The chart to the right shows total spending on dialysis in those states in the years immediately preceding the implementation of the prior authorization project up through the first year of the project. While the three states had very different trajectories prior to 2015, each showed a significant decrease in payments under the demonstration project.

We now have Medicare payment data for 2016. This blog will focus on the second year of the prior authorization demonstration project. This includes tracking the effects of prior authorization on the five additional states (DE, MD, NC, VA, and WV) and the District of Columbia, which were added to the demonstration project for 2016.

Existing States

In the first year of the demonstration project, both New Jersey and Pennsylvania saw sizeable reductions (85.5% and 83.5%, respectively) in the total spending on dialysis transports. Both states saw dialysis payments rebound in 2016, with New Jersey increasing by 14.7% and Pennsylvania increasing by 3.7%. The financial community uses the phrase “dead cat bounce[1]” to describe a temporary recovery from a prolonged or pronounced decline. It is possible that explains why payments increased for these states in 2016. However, the more likely explanation is that Novitas, the Medicare Administrative Contractor in both states, recognized that the standards it used were overly restrictive during the first year of the project. If so, the increases in 2016 reflect the pendulum swinging back somewhat. If you accept that Novitas has reached an equilibrium point, total spending on dialysis in these states would be roughly 75% below pre-2015 levels.

By contrast, South Carolina saw total dialysis spending decrease by an additional 7.9% in 2016, over and above the roughly 25% reduction in 2015. Thus, spending in 2016 was roughly 30% lower than pre-2015 levels.

Expansion to New States

The follow charts track dialysis payments in the five states and the District of Columbia that were first subject to prior authorization in 2016.  The chart on the left shows those states where the prior authorization project is administered by Novitas, while the chart on the right shows those states administered by Palmetto.

The phrase expresses the concept that even a dead cat will bounce if dropped from a tall enough height.

As you can see, both Delaware (72.3%) and Maryland (68.0%) showed sizeable reductions in total dialysis payments. Payments in the District of Columbia actually increased by 30%. However, a closer examination of the numbers shows that the increase was largely the result of an increase in the number of emergency transports to a hospital for dialysis, i.e., claims that fell outside the prior authorization project. Payment for scheduled BLS non-emergency transports fell 82.9% in the District, in line with reductions in the other two states.

The reductions in the Palmetto states was far more moderate, with reductions ranging from 27.8% (North Carolina) to 45.4% (Virginia). West Virginia saw a 36.0% decline.

Key Takeaways

 With two years of experience under the prior authorization demonstration project, I think we can safely come to two conclusions:

  1. The implementation of a prior authorization process in a state will undoubtedly result in an overall decrease in the total payments for dialysis within that state; and
  1. The size of that reduction appears to be more dependent on the Medicare contractor than on any perceived level of over utilization.

The first conclusion should come as no surprise. Dialysis transports have long been the subject of scrutiny by the federal government. Moreover, the original states were not selected at random; they were selected based on data that suggested they were particularly suspect to over utilization.

The second conclusion is less intuitive. After all, Medicare coverage standards are intended to be national. While you could argue that a sizable reduction was expected for New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as there was evidence of widespread dialysis fraud in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, there was no basis to suspect widespread over utilization in Maryland or the District of Columbia. In fact, the District had only 58 BLS non-emergency dialysis transports in 2015, i.e., the equivalent of a single patient being transported for 2 months. Rather, the 2016 data suggests that Novitas has simply taken a far harder stance on dialysis than Palmetto.

This has potential implications beyond the demonstration project, which is scheduled to expire at the end of this year. As many of you know, the national expansion of prior authorization is part of the House of Representative’s ambulance relief bill (it is not mentioned in the corresponding Senate bill). The data suggests that the AAA must continue its efforts to work with CMS and its contractors on developing more uniform standards for coverage of this patient population.

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[1] The phrase expresses the concept that even a dead cat will bounce if dropped from a tall enough height.

OIG Looking into SNF Consolidated Billing Claims

Over the past few weeks, we have been contacted by a number of ambulance suppliers that have received letters from the HHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG). These letters indicate that the OIG is conducting a national review of ambulance services that are subject to the consolidated billing provisions of the skilled nursing facility (SNF) prospective payment system. The review covers claims for ambulance services with dates of service from July 2014 through June 2016.

In each case, the ambulance supplier is being asked to provide documentation on a handful of round trip transports of an SNF patient. The letter indicates that these services were furnished to a Medicare beneficiary during the beneficiary’s Part A SNF stay, and therefore “may be subject to consolidated billing.” The letter asks the ambulance supplier to complete a short (3-page) questionnaire related to the identified transports, and to return the completed questionnaire to the OIG within seven business days.

The questionnaire asks some fairly basic questions related to the identified transports, including whether the ambulance supplier actually furnished the identified transports, whether it was paid by Medicare, the point of pickup and destination, and information on who called to request the transport. The questionnaire also asks for information on how the ambulance supplier determined whether the patient was in the Part A period, and what information the ambulance supplier obtained in order to make its determination that the claims were separately payable by Medicare Part B.

The OIG has conducted similar reviews in the past. For example, in August 2009, the OIG issued a report on payments for ambulance transportation provided to SNF beneficiaries during calendar year 2006. That report concluded that 61 of the 114 claims it reviewed (53%) were incorrectly billed to Medicare Part B, as opposed to the SNF. Based on its sample, the OIG estimated that Medicare made $12.7 million in incorrect payments to ambulance suppliers during calendar year 2006.

It is possible that the OIG is simply updating its previous report on SNF Consolidated Billing and ambulance transports. However, there is another possible explanation for the OIG’s renewed interest in these types of transports. Many of the claims the OIG has requested information on relate to transports to what appears to be a physician clinic located on a hospital’s campus. If correct, the SNF would have been responsible for payment for the physician’s services (in addition to the ambulance claims). If so, it is possible that the OIG’s interest was triggered by the lack of a corresponding hospital claim being submitted to Medicare on that date.

If this sounds familiar to you, it should.

In September 2015, the OIG issued a report in which it highlighted seven so-called “questionable billing practices” by ambulance suppliers. One of these billing practices was the existence of an ambulance claim for a particular date of service, but where there was no corresponding hospital claim (or any other claim from a Part A institution) for the beneficiary on that same date. The OIG identified $30.2 million in payments during the first half of 2012 that tested positive for this measure.

In an earlier blog post, we discussed the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (SMRC), StrategicHealthSolutions, LLC. The SMRC is tasked with lowering the improper payment rate and increasing efficiencies of the medical review functions of the Medicare and Medicaid programs. The SMRC has recently started auditing ambulance suppliers, and it appears to be focusing, in large part, on claims where patients were evaluated at a physician’s clinic located on a hospital’s campus. It is possible that the OIG is conducting its own inquiry of this same issue.

This leaves us with a basic question: Is the OIG simply updating an earlier report, or is this sort of audit going to be become the new “normal” for ambulance suppliers? Ultimately, time will tell.

However, regardless of the OIG’s motives, this recent string of audits serves as a valuable reminder to the industry that many hospitals do sublease space to physician practices, and that these independent practices are licensed separately from the hospital. A transport to these independent physician practices would be bundled to the SNF under SNF Consolidated Billing. As an industry, we need to identify these transports when they occur, and be sure to bill the SNF, whenever appropriate. Otherwise, the OIG is likely to continue these sorts of audits.

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

UnitedHealthCare Denials for ALS-2 Claims

Talking Medicare

with Brian S. Werfel, AAA Medicare Consultant

Over the past few weeks, we have received emails from ambulance providers across the country reporting that UnitedHealthCare (UHC) has started to deny claims for the ALS-2 base rate. Affected claims include both commercial and Medicare Advantage claims. These providers are reporting that UHC is requiring the use of Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) Codes to support the ALS-2 level of service.

When these providers call UHC to question the denials, the customer service representative refers them to UHC’s online policies and procedures manual. The section of that manual devoted to the ALS-2 base rate largely mirrors Medicare’s definition. For example, it indicates that ALS-2 can be billed based on three separate administrations of one or more medications by IV push/bolus or continuous infusion, or upon provision of one or more of the designated ALS-2 procedures (e.g., an endotracheal intubation).

However, the manual section then goes on to indicate that “Ambulance Providers or Suppliers are required to report CPT or HCPCS codes… when reporting A0433Ambulance transport services that do not include the services described in criteria 1 or 2 above should be reported with a more appropriate ambulance transport code.

The manual section concludes with links to two lists of CPT codes. The first list, designated as “ALS2 Criteria 1 Codes” relate to the intravenous administration of various medications. These codes fall within the range of: 96365 – 96376. The second list, designated as “ALS2 Criteria 2 Codes” correspond to the various ALS interventions:

CPT Code:                            Description:
31500                                    Endotracheal Intubation, Emergency
31603                                    Under Incision Procedures on Trachea and Bronchi
31605                                    Under Incision Procedures on Trachea and Bronchi
36000                                    Under Intravenous Vascular Introduction & Injection Procedure
36555                                    Central Venous Catheter Placement, Patient Under Five Years
36556                                    Central Venous Catheter Placement, Patient Over Five Years
36568                                    Insertion of Central Venous Access Device
36569                                    PICC Line Insertion
36680                                    Intraosseous Line Infusions
92950                                    Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation
92953                                    Other Therapeutic Cardiovascular Services
92960                                    External Electrical Cardioversion, Non-Emergency
92961                                    External Electrical Cardioversion, Emergency

The ambulance providers have indicated that they have questioned UHC on the necessity of including CPT codes on these claims. These providers argue, correctly, that CMS does not require the use of CPT codes on Medicare claims. Instead, Medicare requires the ambulance provider to document in the billing narrative the justification for billing ALS-2. For example, a provider might list multiple administrations of epinephrine, the use of an intraosseous line, etc.

The fact that UHC is asking for the CPT codes suggests that it does not currently review the billing narratives. Instead, UHC appears to be using the CPT codes to ensure that the ALS-2 criteria are met.

Is UHC correct to insist upon the use of CPT codes? Probably not, at least for its Medicare Advantage claims. However, I think the more appropriate question to ask ourselves is whether it is worth fighting UHC on this issue? If using CPT codes ensure that UHC correctly processes and pays these claims with minimal delay, my opinion is that it is probably easier just to comply with their policy.

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

Understanding CERT

Talking Medicare: Understanding CERT

Every year around this time, our firm receives a steady stream of questions from AAA members about the CERT Program. Typically, the provider has received a notice from what appears to be the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which asks for medical records for one or two patient transports. These providers naturally wonder whether they are being audited, and how they should respond. The intent of this post is to clear up any confusion.

What is the CERT program?

The Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) program is an attempt by CMS to measure the rate of improper payments in the Medicare Fee-for-Service Program. It does so by evaluating a statistically valid random sample of claims to determine whether these claims were properly paid under the applicable Medicare coverage, coding, and billing rules.

In August 2016, CMS awarded responsibility for conducting CERT reviews to AdvanceMed. Therefore, if you receive a letter from AdvanceMed, and that review is asking for only a single claim, it is likely that you are being asked to participate in the FY 2017 CERT review.

What is the National Error Rate for ambulance services?

In its report for Fiscal Year 2016, CMS indicated that the overall improper payment rate was 11.00% across all provider types. CMS estimated that this represented approximately $41.08 billion in improper payments. This is down slightly from the FY 2015 review, which estimated the improper payment rate at 12.09%, representing $43.33 billion in improper payments. The FY 2016 reporting period ran from July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015.

The overall error rate for Part A Providers, i.e., hospitals, nursing homes, etc., was 13.98%. The overall error rate for Part B providers was 11.71%.  In contrast, the error rate for durable medical equipment, prosthetics, orthotics, and supplies (DME) was 46.26%.

The overall error rate for ambulance was 11.7%, or basically the same as the overall Part B error rate. The ambulance error rate was further broken down based on the basis for a payment error. The most common error, comprising more than three-fourths of all errors, was either no documentation or insufficient documentation. The lack of medical necessity for the ambulance comprised only 15.6% of all improperly paid ambulance claims.

Should I freak out if my service is selected for review?

In a word, “No.” The odds of your service being selected under the CERT program are quite low. If you are selected, it is helpful to keep in mind that the focus of this review is not on your billing practices. Rather, the focus is on whether your contractor processed your claim correctly. This is not to say that CMS will not attempt to recoup payment on the claim if it ultimately determines that the claim was paid in error; it will. However, from your perspective, that recoupment is the end of the matter.

In other words, the worst that can happen with a CERT review is that you would have to repay that single claim. It will not result in a large extrapolated overpayment. Nor is the denial of that claim likely to trigger a larger postpayment review. Therefore, other than being sure to respond to the record request in a timely fashion, there is little to fear from CERT.

I hope this helps put your mind at ease!

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

Prior Authorization Data Shows Dramatic Reductions in Spending on Dialysis Transports

In May 2014, CMS announced the implementation of a three-year prior authorization demonstration project for repetitive scheduled non-emergency ambulance transports.  CMS initially elected to limit this demonstration to three states: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.  These states were selected based on higher-than-average utilization rates and high rates of improper payment for these services.  The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) had previously singled out these states as having higher than average utilization of dialysis transports in a June 2013 report to Congress.

This demonstration project went into effect on December 15, 2014.  The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA) subsequently expanded the demonstration project to five additional states and the District of Columbia on January 1, 2016, with a further expansion to all remaining states expected to occur at some time during 2017.  However, national expansion is contingent upon CMS determining that the demonstration project has been effective in reducing Medicare expenditures without jeopardizing patient’s access to necessary medical care.

Every year, CMS also releases data on aggregate Medicare payments for the preceding year.  This file is referred to as the Physician/Supplier Procedure Master File (PSP Master File).  This past month, CMS released the 2016 PSP Master File, which contains information on all Part B and DME claims processed through the Medicare Common Working File with 2015 dates of service.  I will be discussing this report in greater detail in next month’s blog.

This month, I want to focus on the impact the prior authorization project has had on total dialysis payments in the original three target states.  Reproduced below is a chart tracking the total payments for dialysis transports in these three states between 2010 and 2015.  Interestingly, these three states demonstrated very different trajectories prior to last year.

New Jersey saw a sustained, dramatic increase in payments over that time, increasing from approximately $56 million in 2010 to more than $106 million in 2014, an increase of nearly 90% over a 5-year period.  (Note: spending figures for 2014 and 2015 take into account the 10% reduction in payments for dialysis transports).

South Carolina saw a much more moderate increase over that same period, increasing from $51 million in 2010 to slightly more than $60 million in 2014, an increase of roughly 18%.  By contrast, payments in Pennsylvania peaked in 2011 at $69.6 million, and have been in steady decline ever since.

While these states’ trajectories were different prior to 2015, the results for 2015 are fairly similar.  Each state saw a significant reduction in the total expenditures for dialysis once the prior authorization project went into effect. 

 The fact that these states saw a reduction in overall spending on dialysis is not surprising (to me at least, I recognize this came as a shock to many providers in these states).  These states were not selected at random; CMS selected these states based on its belief that they were particularly suspect to overutilization.

What I do find surprising is the relative sizes of the declines in these states.  New Jersey and Pennsylvania both experienced a more than 80% reduction in payments for dialysis.  By contrast, the reduction in South Carolina (approximately 25%) was far less dramatic.

Does this suggest that abuse was more prevalent in New Jersey and Pennsylvania?  Perhaps.  An ongoing federal Medicare Strike Force in the Philadelphia metropolitan area has resulted in a number of convictions against fraudulent providers in these states.  However, the impact has not been limited to these alleged “bad actors.”  Even those companies employing accepted best practices have seen significant reductions in their approved patient populations.

To me, the common factor seems to be the applicable Medicare contractor.  New Jersey and Pennsylvania are both administered by Novitas Solutions, Inc., whereas South Carolina is administered by Palmetto GBA.  While Medicare’s coverage standards are intended to be national, it seems reasonable to conclude that Novitas has taken a far harder stance on dialysis than Palmetto.  Anecdotal evidence from the states that came went live with prior authorization in January 2016 seems to confirm this thesis, although we will not be able to know for sure until the 2016 Medicare payment data is released this time next year.

Those of you that have attended this year’s AAA Regional Conferences, or who participated on AAA webinars this past year have heard me say that the Medicare Administrative Contractor’s stance on dialysis is the most important factor in determining whether an ambulance provider needs to rethink its current approach to its repetitive patient population.  To the extent the MAC takes a fairly lenient stance, providers will likely find that only a few “tweaks” are needed to align their existing practices with a prior authorization regime.  AAA members in these states may even find it worthwhile to even considering expanding the spectrum of patients they accept for transport. If, however, the MAC takes a fairly restrictive stances (as Novitas has clearly done), providers will likely find it necessary to dramatically trim these populations, or to arrange for alternative sources of payment for these transports.

I also encourage AAA members to attend our panel discussion at this year’s Annual Conference & Tradeshow in exciting Las Vegas (November 7 – 9th).  I have the privilege of serving as the moderator for a panel consisting of several providers that are currently operating under the prior authorization project.  These providers will talk about their experiences, and will be able to offer helpful tips on how to best navigate this major shift in Medicare’s coverage rules. (See full Conference Agenda)

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

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