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Medicare Fraud and Why; Part II

Last week I published a post regarding Medicare fraud that is occurring in the post-acute industry.  The post is available at .  At the end, I indicated that I would provide a follow-up post; a closer piece more succinct on why the fraud trend is heating up and what the drivers for this trend are.  In short, while the two posts (this one and the one from last week) can  stand-alone, readers with interest in this topic are advised to read both.

In the previous post, I indicated that Medicare in and of itself is an instigator of some of the recent fraud activity.  The very nature of the program, how it pays, what it pays for and how its claim adjudication processes and benefit structures are configured establishes an environment that is a veritable Petri dish for providers looking to “game the system”.  By design, Medicare itself is uniquely flawed as it creates an incentive environment for ramping-up procedures, utilization and acuity thus leaving wide interpretive room retrospectively about the necessity of the care provided to any one or any group of patients.  Similarly, as the predominant payment methodology under Medicare is prospective, not based on a series of medical necessity tests, any third-party utilization review administered by qualified individuals will invariably find payments made for procedures, care, diagnostics, medications,, that proved, knowing the final outcome of the care provided to a patient or group of patients, to be unnecessary or perhaps, greater in amount than what was truly required.  The assessment tools and tools of predetermination of need or necessity that drive prospective payments under Medicare, while lengthy, bureaucratic and ill-defined, rely extensively on human judgement and input that is subjective in many regards.  The playing field thus is truly wide-open and when combined with the implied incentive that more achieves higher payment, a clear or even abstract environment is present for fraud.

Behind the process of payment and the benefit administration elements of Medicare lies a whole series of laws and agency administrative codes that seek to define what is fraudulent behavior where Medicare is concerned.  Truly, this body of work is the purview of lawyers. In my years of travel throughout the healthcare industry, rare do I encounter folks at the operations levels, administrative levels, clinical levels or financial levels of healthcare organizations that completely grasp the depth and nuances of these laws.  In fact, because the topic and information is arcane and uniquely legal, I often encounter multiple consultants and even lawyers, that don’t understand it.  Frankly, I have spent time with consultants from large, well established practices whose content knowledge in this subject area is poor to non-existent and thus, outright wrong.

Taking the foregoing and placing it into an evolving conclusion, the puzzle starts to become clearer as to why “fraud” is spreading as rapidly as it is.  First, Medicare itself begets a certain level of activity that is specious.  Second, the laws that define fraud are convoluted and constantly evolving.  Third, the people at the organization level rarely understand the laws and to be honest, their jobs are not charged with “knowing” the depths of what Medicare and its associated agencies, consider as fraud.  Finally, all too many third parties that organizations rely on routinely for expertise are no more versed in compliance and the fraud laws than the organizations themselves.

In its most simplified form (lawyers please hold the laughs as my role is to employ wherever possible the KISS principle), fraud under Medicare can be boiled down as follows.

  • Anti-Kickback: Forbids any individual or organization that is involved in the provision of care reimbursed or covered under Medicare or Medicaid  from receiving a financial incentive or inducement associated with a referral, the provision of service, utilization or marketing of a service.  The Anti-Kickback provision has been broadly employed to cover contractors, lease arrangements, referral arrangements, purchasing arrangements, etc.  A growing and today, somewhat common use of the Anti-Kickback laws are the relationships between SNFs and Hospices, vendor relationships with SNFs, pharmaceutical and equipment suppliers, provider organizations, and lease arrangements between Medicare providers.  Most interesting to note is the after-practice or after-violation OIG activity where Anti-Kickback language arises following a Whistleblower action of some form.  In short, I am seeing more  activity here not as a de novo action started by CMS but following after, a Qui Tam suit.  Because of the breadth of activity that falls under Anti-Kickback, it isn’t surprising that this area is the most misunderstood by providers.  For example, I routinely see situations where SNFs  enter into or seek, agreements with diagnostic providers (radiology, laboratory, etc.) for fee levels below Medicare fee-screens or allowable levels.  Equally not surprising, I’ve watched this activity escalate concurrent with reimbursement cuts under Part A.
  • False Claims Act: Defines as a violation, any activity where a person or organization, intentionally and/or knowingly, causes payment to be made or seeks to cause payment to me made under Medicare or Medicaid for care that is improperly provided, provided illegally, unneccessary, etc.  Common applications or violations include upcoding, services not rendered, bundling or unbundling, services rendered illegally or unprofessional (not within a prescribed professional practice standard), phantom patients, kickbacks or inducements (see Anti-Kickback), and improper certifications or false certifications.  In most recent periods, like application under Anti-Kickback laws, the False Claims Act violations of significant magnitude seem to arise from Qui Tam actions.  Again, this areas of fraud is broadening rapidly as the methodology used by providers to create additional patient volume can and has run afoul of the False Claims Act (reference AseraCare’s most recent Qui Tam suit).  This area is a literal mine field for many post-acute providers and rapidly becoming an extremely hot interest area within the Medicare Hospice arena and the SNF arena.  What I see that is most disturbing for providers is their near complete failure to understand that a contract arrangement for services provided under Part A imputes False Claim Act liability to both parties.  Case in point: SNFs and therapy contract agreements.  Even though the therapy company may be completely at fault for upcoding therapy RUGs and thereby creating a scenario for violation under the False Claims Act, the SNF cannot escape the liability and culpability for the same violation under the Act as it is the Part A provider and the entity that generated the fraudulent claim to Medicare.  I am seeing the same application of False Claim Act provisions in the relationships between SNFs and Hospices where both parties were overtly engaged in certifying a resident as terminal when no such terminal condition truly existed.  In these situations, there is often dual application as the reimbursement crosses Medicare and Medicaid.
  • Stark Laws (collective): Created and then adapted via a series of additional laws, Stark fundamentally covers physician self-referral for Medicare and Medicaid patients.  At the core is a theme of separating physician interests where, given a physician’s ability to direct patient flow, ownership or financial benefit arising out of a referral is a prohibited activity.  Stark governs ownership, investment and beneficial compensation arrangements between physicians and other Medicare and Medicaid providers.  As is true with all Medicare/Medicaid fraud related laws, Stark is complicated.  The law is loaded with nuances that arose across Stark’s three phases (Stark I, II and III) that cover an inordinately wide range of activities that are part and parcel to physician practices and their relationships under Medicare and Medicaid.  Stark also has a series of “safe harbors”; practices that on their face may be violations but when conducted in certain ways and manners, the practice is not a violation.  The establishment of these safe harbors principally arose to deal with issues where certain practices crossed between Stark and the Anti-Kickback laws.  Examples of existing safe harbors are physician investments in joint-ventures in underserved areas, practitioner recruitment in underserved areas, physician investments in their own group practices (provided the practice group meets Stark definitions), and specialty referral relationships where the referral from a primary care physician to a specialist includes a fundamental understanding that the specialists will refer the patient back to the original primary care physician for continued care (money or other inducements cannot be a part of this referral process).  Within the post-acute industry, the most common Stark violations I see are the relationships between contracted physicians serving as Medical Directors in Hospices, Home Health Agencies and Nursing Homes where the compensation relationships are not properly structured to avoid compensation ties to referrals or to avoid improper compensation limits (inducements) above and beyond market and Medicare norms.

A quick review of the above laws and their simplified descriptions suggests that conducting or continuing certain practices is a proverbial “dance with the devil”.  The question posed thus, is why does fraud rise to the level that it does and seemingly, on a broad basis within organizations that have the resources to understand the laws and their implications?  The answer is: Market and Economics.  Consider the following;

  • Literally today in the U.S., there are more providers and capacity than true organic demand, when demand is correlated to “paying demand”.  Arguably, demand is probably sufficient enough to fill all capacity but when placed into the context of demand that pays in amounts equal or greater than the fixed and variable cost of providing the service, the “desired demand” is less than the current provider capacity.  If one were to re-frame demand to include payment equal to or greater than the fixed and variable costs of service plus a margin, the remaining demand is shaved lower yet again.  It is this level of demand that produces considerable competition among providers, often to levels where provider survival is at stake unless new sources of paying patients can be developed.  When cases such as the recent Qui Tams involving Vitas and Asercare arise,  one can quickly understand the inherent pressure within these organizations of developing new sources of patients, even if doing so runs afoul of Medicare anti-fraud laws.  In essence, the risk of organizational failure, poor performance, reduction in corporate value, etc. is greater than the risk of being inviolate of one or Medicare anti-fraud laws.  Taken marginally deeper, the truth is that there are simply not enough core (by definition under the Medicare hospice benefit) hospice patients at any one point in time, with adequate payment, to meet the overall capacity in the industry.  The same holds true for home health and is becoming more apparent in the SNF sector.
  • Market areas and their demographics and economic conditions change faster than healthcare providers can react and thus, what was at one point a good market may no longer be (one need only look at Michigan and in particular the Detroit area and corridor areas).  Operationally, even for remote office agencies such as found in home health and hospice, healthcare service provision involves a certain level of fixed investment and for certain, infrastructure investment.  Providers that have witnessed market fortunes change and thus, paying volumes shift, are stressed to replace dying or dwindling volumes with other volumes.  All too often, I watch once unthought of marketing practices, taboo relationships, referral relationships, and specious coding practices develop almost in concert with market changes.  The alternative?  Shutter offices, lay-off people, write down investments or abandon buildings.  For providers that have gone this route, the pain can be almost unbearable as trying to exit a now dead or severely decayed market is far from fluid; potential users or buyers of infrastructure don’t tend to relish the opportunity to enter a decaying or impaired environment.
  • While in former periods of economic decline, healthcare remained mostly immune from too much spill-over impact, the latest decline and continued stagnation violated past experience.  The reason is less one-side economically and more about a wider incorporation of elements that are causes and effects of the current economic circumstances.  Simply stated: This current period of recession and stagnation contains more elements of public policy causes than market forces.  This is particularly true for healthcare.  Though past economic periods evidenced rise and fall, recovering for market purposes in almost predictable fashion post fall, such is not the current case,  fundamentally due to the public policy issues that are dogging a normative recovery.  What this recession showed clearer than any other is that our economy is structurally unsound and our core time-held ideologies regarding the role of entitlements in a first-world leading society awash in smoke and mirrors; promises that are unsustainable and moreover, fiscally impossible to fund.  Thus, for providers, two forces are at work today (and for the immediate future) to constrain any real growth in payments and volume.  First, without a more robust growth in employment (non-governmental) and overall economic activity, those without health insurance will remain greater in number than historic (a payer source reduction) and programs reliant on tax revenues for funding,  facing mounting deficits (Medicaid and Medicare).  In economic periods when unemployment remains high, pressure mounts on governments to take-on a greater responsibility of social welfare, during a period where revenues via taxation sources are declining or on-balance, stable but lower than normal levels.  As the burden falls on entitlements, deficits increase to shift resources toward these programs.  Different in this period is that the balance sheet room to simply create more “credit” or “dollars” ( deficits) to shift toward entitlements is functionally non-existent.  The recipe today that on the economic front drives an element of fraudulent behavior is this.  One part fewer paying patients as benefit levels for health coverage have evaporated or waned.  Another part diminished resources from patients to pay for services, even where some level of benefit may still be intact.  Two parts an outlook of Medicare cuts and reductions.  One part current cuts to Medicaid payments, a program that already under-compensates providers for their costs of care.  And finally, three parts Washington policy makers awash in dysfunction, lacking fiscal clarity at each turn and an inability to generate traction on any programmatic plans of common sense that would create some level of stability and reassurance (the three parts are the House, the Senate, and White House).  To weather the malaise and compensate for what is and likely what will be, providers turn to paths creative.  The paths I too often see are by destination, a road to fraud.  Whether the activity is upcoding for patients that do not fit a higher level of reimbursement to engaging in contract negotiations at rates below Medicare allowable amounts to help offset reimbursement reductions, to billing at certain levels and providing care below the level billed to create a margin, each activity (and I could list many others) is at least in major part, a direct reflection on the current economy that is overlaid on healthcare.

January 14, 2012 - Posted by | Home Health, Hospice, Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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