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Senior and Post-Acute Healthcare News and Topics

CMS Proposes Reintroduction of Pre-Payment Review for Home Health (with a twist)

In a memo set for release today, CMS is proposing to reintroduce pre-payment review (with a twist) for Home Health claims.  The memo version is here: HHA Pre Payment Recall, CMS first introduced pre-payment review in August 2016, starting in Illinois.  The process required agencies to submit claim-related data BEFORE receiving final payment or face an adjustment in their payment of minus 25%.  This reduction could not be appealed. Providers could resubmit additional data to achieve full affirmation of their claim PRIOR to submitting final billing for the claim.  After a certain threshold of claims was reviewed and determined proper, the pre-payment process would sunset for the agency.

The initial trial that began in Illinois was such a debacle for agencies and the industry due to the time delays and criterion laxity, slowing cash flow and increasing administrative burden that Congress finally stepped in and put the program on hiatus.  The Illinois experiment was so initially bad that further expansion to other states (Florida was next), never occurred.

In this new proposal which will open for comment (60 days) after publication in the Federal Register, CMS is keeping the program design constant with a couple of twists.

  1. Providers/Agencies in the demonstration states of Illinois, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas will be able to choose whether to submit data to the MAC (Medicare Administrative Contractor) for review on a pre-claim or post-claim/payment basis.
  2. Providers/Agencies may opt-out of the payment review (pre or post) by accepting payments at a discounted rate – minus 25%.

As with the former program, providers/agencies will need to meet an acceptable level of affirmed claim submissions (pre or post) to move to an episodic review standard.  In effect, after the agency has been subject to sufficient claim reviews and found to be compliant with required documentation and billing standards, the agency transitions to an “every so often” sampling of claims.  As before, providers that fail to submit data or elect pre or post payment reviews will see claim payments automatically discounted by 25%.

The rationale from CMS to return to this review process is the same as before; assurance of claim accuracy and fraud reduction.  CMS continues to believe that HHAs are sloppy and negligent enough in their claims process that improper payments are too high (as a percent of all claims) and or fraud, still prevalent enough to warrant a program of systematic review. Of course, as of now, CMS can offer no assurance that the next incarnation of claim reviews will go smoother than the 2016 experience.  The belief is that lessons were learned and steps put in-place by the MAC to smooth out reviews and not harm agency financial status or create undue additional burden.  Frankly, I hold no such expectation or belief that the process will be markedly better.

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May 31, 2018 Posted by | Home Health | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CMS Proposes New SNF Payment Model

Last Friday, CMS released the contents of its annual proposed rule updating the SNF PPS plus (as always), fine tuning certain related programmatic elements. Final Federal Register Publication is set for May 8.  (Anyone wishing the PDF version may download it from the Reports and Other Documents page on this site or access it here SNF Proposed Rule 4 2018 ).  The most watched information for providers is the proposed rate adjustment though lately, for the post-acute segments of health care, other elements pertaining to payment model changes have eclipsed rate “watching”.

Last year’s proposed rule for the SNF PPS contained the release of RCS-1.  After extensive commentary, CMS pulled back RCS-1, shelving it for some conceptual remake.  We now, as of Friday, know the remake – PDPM for short (Patient Driven Payment Model). As with all yearly releases similar, a comment period has begun, lasting until (if not otherwise extended) the last week of June (June 26).

PDPM as proposed, is designed to replace the current SNF payment methodology known as RUGs IV.  Unless date changes, etc. are made by CMS post commentary review, the effective date of the change (from RUGs to PDPM) is 10/1/19 (next October).   PDPM as an outgrowth of RCS-1 and received commentary, is a simplified payment model designed to be more holistic in patient assessment, capture more clinical complexity, eliminate or greatly reduce the therapy focus by eliminating the minute levels for categorization, and simplifying via reduction, the assessment process and schedule (reduced to three possible assessments/MDS tasks). Below is a summary of PDPM core attributes/features as proposed.  On this site in the Reports and Other Documents page is the PDPM Calculation Worksheet that provides additional details beyond the reference points below PDPM Calculation for SNFs.

  • PDPM uses five, case-mix adjusted components for classification and thus, payment: PT, OT, Speech, Non-Therapy Ancillary and Nursing.
  • For each of these components, there are separate groups which a resident may be assigned, based on MDS data.  For example, there are 16 PT groups, 16 OT groups, 12 Speech groups, 6 Non-Therapy Ancillary groups and 25 Nursing groups.
  • Each resident, by assessment, is classified into one of the group elements within the component categories. This means that every resident falls into a group within the five case-mix components of PT. OT, Speech, Non-Therapy Ancillary and Nursing.
  • Each separate case-mix component has its own case-mix adjusted indexes and corresponding per diem rates.
  • Three of the components, PT, OT and Non-Therapy Ancillary have variable per diem features that allow for changes in rates due to changing patient needs during the course of the stay.
  • The full per diem rate is calculated by adding the PT, OT, and Non-Therapy Ancillary rates (variable) to the non-adjusting or non-variable Nursing and Speech components.
  • Therapy utilization may include group and/or concurrent treatment sessions provided no more than 25% of the total therapy utilization (by minutes) is classified as group or concurrent.
  • PT, OT, and Speech classification by group within their respective components do not include any function of “time”.  The sole denominator of how much/little therapy a resident receives is the necessity determined by the assessment process and by the clinical judgment of the care team.  In this regard, the minimum and maximum levels are based on resident need not on a predetermined category (RUG level).
  • Diagnoses codes from the hospital on admission (via ICD-10) are important and accuracy on the initial MDS (admission) are imperative.
  • Functional measures for Therapy (PT, OT) are derived from Section GG vs. Section G as provided via RCS-1.
  • The Non-Therapy Ancillary component allows facilities to capture additional acuity elements and thus payment, for additional existing comorbidities (e.g., pressure ulcers, COPD, morbid obesity, etc. ) plus a modifier for Parenteral/IV feeding.
  • There are only three Medicare/payment assessments (MDS) required or predicated starting in October of 2019 – admission, change of condition/payment adjustment and discharge. NOTE: All other required MDS submissions for other purposes such as QRP, VBP, Quarterly, etc. remain unchanged.

For SNFs, the takeaways are pretty straight-forward. First, clinical complexity appears to be the focus of increased payment opportunity.  Second, therapies are going to change and fairly dramatic as utilization does not involved minutes and more is better, when clinically appropriate but less is always relevant (if that makes sense).  The paperwork via MDS submissions is definitely less but assessment performance in terms of accuracy and clinical judgment is increased.   MDS Coordinators, those that are exceptional clinicians and can educate and drive a team of clinicians, will be prized as never before.  RUG style categorization is over so the focus is not on maximizing certain types of care and thus payment but on being clinically savvy, delivering high quality and being efficient.  The latter is what I have been preaching now for years.  Those SNFs that have been trending in this direction, caring for clinically complex patients, not shunning the use and embrace of nursing RUGs, and being on the ball in terms of their assessments and QMs are likely to see some real benefits via the PDPM system.

More on this new payment model and strategies to move forward will be in upcoming posts.

May 1, 2018 Posted by | Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is a Paradigm Shift Starting in Senior Living?

A number of years ago, post-acute/senior living analysts, etc. started warning of a coming paradigm shift for skilled nursing and home health.  I started writing and advising about this shift well over a decade ago.  The signs were obvious.

  • Rapid expenditure growth as a percentage of Medicare/Medicaid outlays.
  • MedPac warnings to Congress of rising profit margins in these industry segments.
  • Increasing reports from the OIG and other agencies substantiating billing abuse and likely, widespread fraud.
  • Rapid agency and outlet growth.
  • Rising per unit prices and cap rates.
  • For SNFs REIT deals and rental rates that were clearly, unsustainable given the market conditions and policy trends.
  • Overall reimbursement dynamics including passage of the Affordable Care Act that foretold stable to shrinking Medicare reimbursement.
  • Increasing Medicare Advantage penetration.
  • Increasing Medicaid funding problems at the state level and increasing conversions of state programs to Managed Medicaid platforms.

The handwriting was on the wall and even without a clear crystal ball, I began warning those that would listen (from clients to students to industry watchers) that the post-acute provider segments of SNF and Home Health would face stiff headwinds and the unprepared and unimaginative, suffer losses and operating struggles unlike any in recent times.  As much as I loathe the “I told you so” speeches or references, the proof today is in the news constantly.  One need (only) reference Genesis, HCR/ManorCare, Skyline, Signature, Kindred, Amedysis, Gentiva, etc. (I could go on) now versus ten years ago (or less) for validation.  The paradigm of ratchet-up fee for service Medicare encounters, particularly therapy related, increase outlet span, more is better, bigger is better, don’t worry about quality metrics, and find ways to minimize top line operating costs, etc. ended with a resounding THUD (you (and I) knew it would).

To the question posed as the title: Is Seniors Housing/Living starting a similar paradigm shift?  Because such shifts start gradual and pick up momentum as the “trend” winds strengthen, its easy to claim “no” or to ignore the bits and pieces that are the harbingers; a nod to a point-in-time. Lately, I have had an increasing number of conversations with learned folks and those heavily invested in the “housing” elements (independent and assisted) of senior living.  To a one, they all remained bullish for principally ONE reason – demographics.  Each points forward to a rising or swelling tide of senior citizens; byproduct of the great Baby Boom. With confidence, I hear an argument for a demand proposition that current and even near term supply, won’t meet.  This is in spite of the current reality that supply is greater than demand and occupancy is declining consistently, not increasing.  The Brookdale argument is thus: Give it time, the residents are coming and occupancy will improve.  I am skeptical.

The economist in me is uncertain that other factors aren’t more in-play than accounted for or buffered by the “demographics” justification.  For example, the notion that this Baby Boomer customer is the same customer that has been consuming and driving the current seniors housing paradigm is I’ll argue, a false premise.  Their sheer numbers alone won’t guarantee supply consumption.  Students of economics and history will find lessons aplenty such as the death of steam locomotion, coal power generation (though not fully dead), wired television, cassette format video and audio, etc.  The customer bases for these products or industries never shrunk and in fact, they grew in number and purchasing power.  Other dynamics shifted the demand curve ever so slightly for alternatives initially, then rapidly as the same came to the market and price points shifted. The fallacy is that demographics by number alone mean a sustainable market.

Seniors housing has a very elastic demand curve.  The crux of price elasticity is that the greater or higher the price, the smaller the number of buyers.  For the demographics of the coming wave of future seniors to be a demand boon for seniors housing, they (the seniors) must have purchasing power to consume the supply of product at the price levels current and future.  This group must also have limited or no more than present, alternatives to the product (a fixed base residence).  As their power to consume is measured by wealth, wealthier folks demand more alternatives and have more options.  For example, a woman with a million dollar net worth and a $200,000 annual income can arguably buy 90% of the new automobile models (personal use) produced in a given year. She may buy a Rolls Royce or a Honda Fit.  A woman with a ten thousand dollar net worth and a $20,000 annual income probably can’t buy any of the new automobile models and will need to use public transportation or acquire a very, very used car. As is the economic constant, shifts in wealth and substitution products across the price spectrum will influence supply or products and the prices thereof.  Today, there is a bit of a supply inequity in seniors housing and as such, occupancy has trended down.

The supply inequity is seen via the homogeneity of the product, especially product that has come on the market within the last decade.  Where occupancy is consistently high, the product is market or less than market, priced.  Value-based products with or without services are more occupied than their above market competitors today.  Fewer in number, their supply is consumed plus and in constant demand.  I know today of no market or below market (subsidized or rent controlled) seniors housing that is good condition, in a good location (not crime ridden, etc.) that isn’t full or close to full – constantly.

To be clear, I am not anti or even really too bearish (yet) about seniors housing, assisted or independent.  I was never totally bearish about the SNF and Home Health sector, just the paradigm that was operative.  I believe that strategically aligned, market-sensitive product and providers will always do well.  Unfortunately however, I also believe that too many seniors housing units and operators are “me too” driven, emphasizing a “same-same” approach.  I find it hard to believe that the look-alike, feel alike, same amenities, different location or even similar location can be justified by “coming” demographics when similar providers, at similar price-points are at five-year occupancy lows.  All too often, I am reminded of conversations I had with SNF operators telling me their justification for acquisition and the price per bed paid was: “We are different.  We’re going to drive Medicare census to 40 plus percent, raise acuity and RUG levels, utilize technology to be superefficient, etc.”  And when I would say “how” and show me where “you” had done this before and maintained high-quality, etc. and negotiated far better rates with the growing Medicare Advantage market, I got the typical ‘ignore’ response.  Suffice to say, I was never proven wrong.

Because I will be asked, here’s what I am seeing that suggests the beginning of a paradigm shift for seniors housing – biggest for Assisted Living but still palpable and impactful for Independent Living.

  • While the demographics are good, the economics of the demographics are not as good.  Baby Boomers will simply not have the same economic wealth and thus purchasing power of their parents and grandparents.  While some will have done well, the decades of their work and maturation cycle did not see the same kind of wealth and economic expansion that occurred for their parents.  One simple measure very much tied to seniors housing is worth review – residential real estate.  Most Boomers will have had multiple homes and have consumed large portions of their equity to “buy-up” or to adjust lifestyle.  Their parents did not (home equity loans didn’t exist).  Most Boomers also will have started with a more expensive home basis than their parents and thus, will not see the value appreciation.  For example, I know many seniors that bought their home for $40K and sold it for $400K – appreciation of ten-fold.  For a $100,000 Boomer investment to reap the same, the appreciation would need to be $1,000,000.  This is just price.  If I factored in life-cycle cost, the net is far worse (higher interest rates, taxes, etc. over the ownership period).
  • Seniors housing is not getting cheaper.  In many regards, driven by market forces to be more opulent, bigger, better, more amenities, etc., it is getting more price inefficient (cost per square foot needed to sustain).  As the price rises, the product demand becomes more elastic and the number of consumers economically capable of consuming, fewer.
  • Alternative products are increasing and ala carte service providers, expanding. Where staying “at-home” was not much of an option a decade or so ago, it is becoming easier with technology and  service availability that suppports, aging in-place.
  • Planned development communities that are geared toward active, younger seniors are consuming a market segment between 65 and 80.  These communities have club houses, maintenance services, etc., and are typified by private homes, developed to accommodate early level disabilities (no stairs, grab bars in bathrooms, etc.).
  • Because of the point prior, the migration age to seniors housing is increasing accompanied by additional disability.  The more frail and disabled this cohort becomes, the more difficult it is for the provider to keep costs low as operations must support the true needs of the resident.  This is a real problem for Assisted Living as occupancy today is often predicated on catering to a much more frail and debilitated client, many who as little as five years prior, would have resided in a nursing facility.
  • Lastly, the market trends and information are illustrative of the harbingers of a paradigm shift.
    • Weakening cap rates and per unit values
    • Over-built markets with product, still coming into a market already below 90% occupied and trending lower.
    • Brookdale  (enough said)
    • Chinese investors pulling back from the sector – more cautious investing
    • Period over period occupancy declines in the industry – Assisted now at just over 85%!
    • Per NIC 22 of the top 31 markets saw occupancy decline, quarter over quarter
    • Rising cost of capital and fewer starts (finally).  This may actually be a good thing as the sector needs some leveling forces.
    • Rising labor costs.  Again, this may be a good thing.
    • Federal and state-to-state pressure for Assisted Living regulatory actions.  Again, this may be a good thing as too many ALFs are over their-skis in terms of capability to take care of their resident populations.
    • For providers reliant on Medicaid-waiver clients to bolster occupancy, we are seeing rate “reductions” consistently in these programs and know of more to come (no increases yet).

In an upcoming article, I’ll offer some thought on what is working and why and where the market will be for seniors housing and why over the next decade or two.

 

April 26, 2018 Posted by | Assisted Living, Senior Housing | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

SNFs and the Medicaid Conundrum

What do Morningside Ministries in San Antonio, Genesis Healthcare, Signature Healthcare, HCR ManorCare, and Syverson Health and Rehab in Wisconsin have in common?  Answer: A terminal relationship with Medicaid. While Genesis isn’t “dead” yet, it is fundamentally on life support with a stock price of $1.50 per share and a Medicaid payer mix averaging 73%.  HCR ManorCare is in bankruptcy. Morningside Ministries closed a facility in San Antonio as it simply could not survive on the Texas Medicaid payment at its Chandler Estate facility.  Syverson in Wisconsin is among a slow growing list of SNFs that cannot financially exist under Wisconsin’s Medicaid system – the poorest payer in relation to cost in the nation.

For the vast majority of SNFs nationwide, Medicaid is a conundrum; a Catch 22 of epic proportion.  It is by far, the dominant payer source for LTC among the elderly and thus, the largest payment source for SNF residents when they enter an SNF or fall back on, shortly (typically within 6 months) after their admission.  For the average SNF (and majority of the universe), an unwillingness to openly accept a Medicaid resident equates to an empty bed and no (zero) revenue.  This phenomenon is the Medicaid conundrum – damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario.

Few SNFs have the reputational excellence, the referral base, capacity limitation and payer source alternatives to minimize or limit, their Medicaid admissions.  Those that do typically are less than 75 beds in capacity and all private rooms, located within an affluent or fairly affluent community, are attached or part of a referral source such as a retirement community or a hospital system, have high star ratings and a good survey/compliance history, and have strong amenity features and equally strong customer reviews/experiences to market.  In such rare or atypical circumstances, the facility is able to control its Medicaid exposure to less than a third of its payer mix.

At greater than a third or so of its payer mix, the SNF is forced to undertake operational strategies and approaches anathema to resident interests and thus, business stability.  First, the SNF must minimize its fixed expenses if possible.  In organizations/facilities where rent payments and debt payments were high comparatively and no opportunity to reduce these payments available, the SNF was vulnerable to any vacancy and to any substantive changes in other payer sources.  This is the demise scenario for HCR ManorCare, Signature and Genesis. Too much of their revenue component was allocated to fixed rent/occupancy costs.

Second, with high Medicaid census, the SNF is forced to be vigilant on variable expenses, predominantly staffing hours and staff mix (professional licensed to unlicensed).  While expense vigilance is good in any business, SNF staff to resident ratios (gross) and by acuity adjusted, are corollary to good care results.  Too few staff, care suffers.  Too few licensed staff and care really suffers.  Today, the regulatory/compliance environment is keenly focused on staff numbers, compliments by license, and competency levels.  In fact, the Phase II implementation of the new(er) COPs for SNFs (new since fall 2016) require facilities to conduct an assessment of resident care needs and conditions and to assure that the same are matched with staff adequate in number and competence to provide care for identified needs and conditions.  Citations today, classified as jeopardy or actual harm, come with instant fines/forfeitures attached, starting at the date of the violation.  It does not take long for an Immediate Jeopardy citation to accumulate a fine of tens of thousands of dollars.

Third, higher Medicaid census requires revenue offsets via other payers such as private insurance, private pay (resident funds), and/or Medicare and Medicare replacement.  The Catch 22 is that the higher the Medicaid census, the greater the reliance the facility has on these other payers.  A facility thus, experiencing any kind of quality or reputation problems, will experience difficulty attracting these higher payers, in sufficient number, to offset the Medicaid “payment effect”.  Vacancies increase and feeling pressure that any occupant is better than none, Medicaid census slowly increases.  Depending on the fixed cost level for the facility, coverage of rent or debt may become problematic (Signature, Genesis, etc.) whereby the attainable EBITDAR is less than the rent or occupancy payment due (coverage below 1).

For the large majority of the industry, the Medicaid Conundrum is worsening as the overall revenue perspective/outlook tightens while operating costs are slowly but steadily increasing, due to:

  • Wage inflation.  An improving economy and employment outlook at the $15 an hour and under labor strata has place wage pressure on SNFs.  The lower to middle end of the SNF workforce is in high demand in many markets meaning that employers are competing for the same basic labor hours across multiple industries.  A typical SNF CNA may find today, equal or better wage opportunities at a Costco or Wal-Mart with “better” working conditions (no customer fannies to wipe, drool to manage, etc.), less physical demanding and more “fun” in terms of atmosphere.  Given the 24 hour/365 labor demands of a SNF, a $.50 increase in hourly compensation can quickly equate to     in a 100 occupied bed facility.  If the facility is in Missouri or Kansas, this increase in operating cost is juxtaposed with a Medicaid rate cut.
  • New Conditions of Participation for SNFs (federal regulations) are phasing in and the cost of compliance is increasing.  Regulatory requirements for facility assessments that drive staff hours and mix plus more emphasis on documentation, training, physician and pharmacy engagement, etc. are adding to operating cost.  Again, this is occurring while rates are flat or in some states, decreasing.

And, while operating costs are slowly increasing, revenue make-up/alternatives to Medicaid are eroding.

  • Other payment sources, particularly Medicare, are not increasing fast enough (if at all), to soak-up the expense increase or Medicaid rate reduction.  In the case of Medicare, an increasing number of SNF days are paid for by Medicare Advantage (replacement) plans.  These plans do not operate EXACTLY like fee-for-service Medicare in so much that they may pay less per diem (and do) and may manage utilization (length of stay) to minimize overall expenditure risk of the plan.  In some markets, the Medicare Advantage beneficiaries are equal to or greater in number for an SNF than the fee-for-service beneficiaries.
  • Shifting care and referral pattern trends have reduced the overall need for a utilization thereto, of SNF beds.  Simply, there is less overall demand for SNF beds than total supply.  Occupancy levels nationally have shrunk year over year for the past decade and additional shrinkage is forecasted until closures reduce supply closer to demand.  In certain areas, the supply may be as much as one-third greater than the demand/need.  Medicaid waiver programs that now pay for community based housing alternatives (Assisted Living and support services) have dented demand along with a shift in post-acute referral to outpatient and home health for non-complicated, orthopedic rehabilitation post surgery.

For the SNF industry, Medicaid has become an addiction no different from nicotine.  Facilities simply cannot survive without it yet it is ruining their health (operationally).  The alternatives to Medicaid are to close shop.  The facilities most reliant, cannot break the cycle as the steps necessary to rebase and retool an SNF revenue and quality model are expensive and long.  Genesis will not get there.  HCR ManorCare couldn’t and didn’t.  The damage of too high of fixed costs and too much reliance on government reimbursement, particularly Medicaid and then an increasing Medicare rate to offset the loss, was a Fools Paradox after all.

Ending this cyclical nightmare is going to require forces and changes to the current paradigm that are yet, on the drawing board.

  • Wholesale changes to the Medicaid funding process are required.  Either more money must flow into the system from the Federal side or the State side (less likely) or the product cost must reduce (see next point).
  • The biggest driver of product cost for an SNF is regulation.  Without wholesale regulatory reform, it is unlikely the system (Medicaid) can find enough funding to adequately compensate an SNF for the cost of care.  The net will be poorer care (calling for thus, more regulation) or more closures leaving service gaps for the most vulnerable older adults.
  • Increasing advances in different product/service options and designs that are cheaper alternatives to institutional care can and will, continue.  Again, speeding the implementation of alternatives requires incentive and regulatory reform but there is no question, certain home and community based options are cheaper than SNF options.
  • Closure of poor performing facilities and constriction on supply is needed.  The industry must shrink and government needs to take an active role to reduce the overall supply and particularly, the supply tied to poor performing facilities.  Fewer beds equal higher occupancy, more efficiencies and enhance funding options (easier to derive funding models tied to actual, organic demand vs. tied to bed capacity and “forecasts” based on flawed assumptions of days of care).

Until these steps are taken, the conundrum will remain entrenched and most facilities, will continue to wrestle with Medicaid addiction problems.  Cold turkey is not an option for nearly all and when no hope remains, facility demise will continue to be the final resort.  Watchers of my home state of Wisconsin will see the most tragic examples as the state has a thriving economy, low unemployment and the worst Medicaid system in the nation.  With paltry additions of funding like 2%, when costs are climbing by double, more closures are certain.

March 30, 2018 Posted by | Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bundled Payment Hiatus….or, Demise?

Within the last few days, CMS/HHS sent a proposed rule to OMB (Office of Management and Budget) that would cancel the planned January 2018 roll-out of the (mandatory) cardiac and traumatic joint repair/replacement bundles.  Specifically, CMS was adding bypass and myocardial infarction DRGs to the BPCI (Bundled Payments for Care Improvement) along with DRGs pertaining to traumatic upper-femur fracture and related joint repair/replacement.  The original implementation date was March, then delayed to May, again delayed to October and then to January 2018.  Additionally, the proposed rule (text yet available) includes refinement proposals for the current mandatory CJR bundles (elective hip and knee replacements).  It is widely suspected that the mandatory nature of the CJR will revert to a voluntary program in 2018.

The question that begs current is this step a sign of hiatus for episodic payments or an all-out demise.  Consider the following;

  • The current head of HHS, Tom Price is a physician who has been anti the CMS Innovation Center’s approach to force-feeding providers, new payment methodologies.  While Price is on the record as favoring payment reform he is also adamant that the same needs to incorporate the industry stakeholders in greater number and length than what CMS has done to date (with the BPCI).
  • Evidence of true savings and care improvement has not occurred, at least to date.  This is definitely true of the large-scale initiatives.  The voluntary programs, in various phases, are demonstrating some success but wholesale success is simply not there or not yet confirmed by data.
  • Providers have railed against bundle complexity and in particular, the short-comings evident for cardiac DRGs which are inherently far more complex than the orthopedic DRGs, at least those that are non-traumatic.

My answer to the question is “hiatus” for quite some time.  While there is no question that value-based care and episodic payments are part of the go-forward reality for Medicare, timing is everything.  There are multiple policy issues at play including the fate of the ACA.  A ripple effect due to whatever occurs with the ACA (repeal, revamp, replace, etc.) will permeate Medicare (to what extent is yet to be determined). I anticipate the current voluntary programs to continue and CMS to return to the drawing board waiting for more data and greater clarity on “where to go” with respect to value-based care programs.

Finally, because bundled payments did have some implications for the post-acute sectors of health care, this possible change in direction will have an impact, albeit small. The cardiac bundles had little to no impact for SNFs or HHAs and only minor impact perhaps, for IRFs (Skilled Nursing, Home Health and Inpatient Rehab respectively).  Traumatic fractures and joint repair/replacement had some impact for inpatient providers, particularly Skilled and IRFs as rarely can these patients transition home or outpatient from the surgical stay.  Some inpatient care is customary and frankly, warranted.

CJR sun-setting may have some broader ramifications.  Right now, CJR has shifted the market dynamic away from a traditional SNF or IRF stay to home health and outpatient.  The results are evidenced by a fairly noticeable referral shift away from SNFs and concomitant Medicare census declines coupled with length of stay pressures (shorter).  Home health and outpatient has benefitted.  Yet to determine is whether this trend is ingrained and evidence of a new paradigm; one that may be permanent.  If the latter is the case, CJR shifting to a voluntary program may not change the current picture much, if any.  My prediction is that the market and the payers have moved to a new normal for voluntary joint replacements and as such, CJR or not, the movement away from inpatient stays and utilization is here to stay.

August 15, 2017 Posted by | Home Health, Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SNF M&A: The Provider Number Trap

Over my career, I have done a fair amount of M&A work….CCRCs, SNFs, HHAs, Physician practices, hospice, etc. While each “deal” has lots of nuances, issues, etc. none can be as confusing or as tricky to navigate as the federal payer issues; specifically, the provider number.  For SNFs, HHAs, and hospices, an acquisition not properly vetted and structured can bite extremely hard post-closing, if provider liabilities existed pre-close and were unknown and/or unknowable.  Even the best due diligence cannot ferret out certain provider number related liabilities.

The Medicare provider number is the unique reference number assigned to each participating provider.  When initially originating as a provider, the organization must apply for provider status, await some form of accreditation (for SNFs it is via a state survey and for HHAs and hospice, via private accreditation) and then ultimate approval by Medicare/DHHS.  As long as the provider that has obtained the number, remains in good standing with CMS (hasn’t had its provider status/agreement revoked), the provider may participate in and bill, Medicare and Medicaid (as applicable).

Provider numbers are assignable under change of control, providing the assuming party is eligible to participate in the Medicare program (not banned, etc.).  Change of control requires change of ownership or control at the PROVIDER level, not the facility or building level.  The building in the case of an SNF, is not the PROVIDER – the operator of the SNF is.  For example, if Acme SNF is owned and operated by Acme, Inc., then Acme, Inc. is the Provider so long as the SNF license in Acme’s state is to Acme, Inc.  Say Acme decides to sell the SNF property to Beta REIT and in turn, Beta leases the facility back to Acme.  Acme no longer owns the building but remains the Provider as it continues to hold the license, etc. consistent with the operations of the SNF.  Carrying this one step further.  Acme decides it no longer wants to run the SNF but wishes to keep the building.  It finds Zeta, LLC, an SNF management/operating company, to operate the SNF and leases the operations to Zeta.  Zeta receives a license from the state for the SNF and now Zeta is the PROVIDER, even though Acme, Inc. continues to own the building.

In the example above regarding Zeta, the typical process in such a change of control involving the operations of a SNF is for Zeta to assume the provider number of Acme.  The paperwork filed with CMS is minimal and occurs concurrent to the closing creating change of control (sale, lease, etc.).  What Zeta has done is avoid a lengthier, more arduous process of obtaining a new provider number, leaving Acme’s number with Acme and applying as a new provider at the Acme SNF location. While taking this route seems appealing and quick, doing so comes with potential peril and today, the peril is expansive and perhaps, business altering.

When a provider assumes the provider number of another entity at change of control, the new provider assumes all of the former provider’s related liabilities, etc. attached to the number.  CMS does not remove history or “cleanse” the former provider’s history. The etc. today is the most often overlooked;

  • Star ratings
  • Quality measures including readmission history
  • Claim error rate
  • MDS data (submitted)
  • Federal survey history
  • Open ADRs
  • Open or pending, probes and RAC audits

The above is in addition to, any payments owed to the Federal government and any fines, forfeitures, penalties, etc.  The largest liability is or relates to, the False Claims Act and/or allegations of fraud.  These events likely preceded the change of control by quite a distance and are either impossible to know at change of control or discoverable with only great, thorough due diligence.  The former in my experience such as whistleblower claims may not arise or be known until many months after the whistleblower’s allegation.  During the interim, silence is all that is heard.  Under Medicare and federal law, no statute of limitation exists for fraud or False Claims.  While it is possible via indemnification language in the deal, to arrest a False Claims Act charge and ultimately unravel the “tape” to source the locus of origin and control at the time of the provider number, the same is not quick and not without legal cost.  Assuming the former provider is even around or can be found (I have seen cases where no such trail exists), winning an argument with CMS that the new provider is blameless/not at fault is akin to winning the Battle of Gettysburg – the losses incalculable.  Remember, the entity that a provider is dealing with is the Federal government and as such, responsive and quick aren’t going to happen.  Check the current status of the administrative appeal backlog as a reference for responsive and quick.

Assuming no payment irregularities occur, the list preceding is daunting enough for pause.  Assuming an existing provider number means assuming all that goes with it.  On the Federal side, that is a bunch.  The assuming party gets the compliance history of the former provider, including the Star rating (no, the rating is not on the SNF facility but on the provider operating the SNF).  As I have written before, Star ratings matter today.  Inheriting a two Star rating means inheriting a “dog that doesn’t hunt” in today’s competitive landscape.  It also means that any work that is planned to increase the Star rating will take time especially if the main “drag” is survey history.  The survey history comes with the provider number.  That history is where RAC auditors visit and surveyors start whenever complaints arise and/or annual certification surveys commence.

The Quality Measures of the former provider beget those of the assuming provider.  This starts the baseline for Value Based Purchasing.  It also sets the bar for readmission risk expectations, network negotiations and referral pattern preference under programs such as Bundled Payments.   Similarly, all of the previous MDS data submissions come with that same provider number, including those that impact case-mix rates under Medicaid (if applicable).  And, not exhaustively last but sufficient for now, all claims experience transfers.  This includes the precious error rate that if perilously close to the limit, can trip with one more error to a pre-payment probe owned, by the assuming provider.  Only extreme due diligence can discover the current error rate – perhaps.

Avoiding the peril of all of the above and rendering the pursuit or enforcement of indemnification (at the new provider’s expense) a moot issue is simple: Obtain a new provider number.  It is a bit time-consuming and does come with a modicum of “brain damage” (it is a government process) but in comparison to what can (and does) happen, a very, very fractional price to pay.  In every transaction I have been directly involved with, I have obtained a new provider number.  In more than one, it has saved a fair amount of go-forward headache and hassle, particularly on the compliance end.  Today, I’d shudder to proceed without a new provider number as the risks of doing so are enormous, particularly in light of the impact of Star ratings, quality measures and survey history.  Additionally, the government has never been more vigilant in scrutinizing claims and generating ADRs.  Inheriting someone else’s documentation and billing risks genuinely isn’t smart today.

While inappropriate for this post, I could list a plethora of examples and events where failure to obtain a new provider number and status has left the assuming provider with an absolute mess.  These stories are now, all too common.  Even the best due diligence (I know because my firm does it), cannot glean enough information to justify such a sweeping assumption of risk. Too much cannot be known and even that which can, should be rendered inconsequential by changing provider status.  Reliance on a definitive agreement and litigation to sort responsibilities and liabilities is not a prudent tactic. Time and resources are (always) better spent, applying for and receiving, a new provider number and provider status.

February 1, 2017 Posted by | Home Health, Hospice, Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CMS Issues Proposed Home Health Rule for 2015

Just ahead of the Fourth of July holiday, CMS released its proposed home health rule changes for FY 2015.  As common, the proposal includes rate changes/modifications and clarifications and adjustments to Conditions of Participation.  The proposed rule continues a path for CMS and the industry of rate reduction/rate rebasing and movement toward greater emphasis on “pay for performance” or should I say, payment reductions for inadequate quality reporting.  Following is my summary analysis of key provisions in the proposed rule.

Rate/PPS Update: The target is a payment reduction/spending reduction of .3% or $58 million.  This is exclusive of the 2% sequestration cuts.  This proposal also includes the effect of year 2 of a 4 year rebasing effort to the HH PPS schedule.  The rate mechanics flow as such: A 2.2% increase/payment update less rebasing updates to the national 60 day episode payment rate, less the national per visit rate conversion, less the non-routine supplies conversion factor.  The 2.2% increase incorporates a market basket update of 2.6% less the productivity factor of .4%, totaling an increase of 2.2% prior to the adjustments. The Non-Routine Supply reduction is 2.8% and the national 60 day per episode payment includes a planned decrease of $80.95 to $2,922.76.

Face to Face Requirement: CMS is proposing a simplification to the current requirement, eliminating the current narrative note requirement from the encounter.  Physicians and/or the discharging facility must still document in the patient’s medical record the need for home-based care (skilled).  Re-certifications will still require a face-to-face encounter.  CMS also is proposing to eliminate payment to the physician for any face-to-face encounter if the such encounter occurs when the patient is NOT eligible for coverage under the HH Medicare benefit.

Wage Index Changes: Wage indexes inflate or deflate nationalized rates based on relevant location, labor costs.  CMS is proposing to update the Home Health Wage Index based on more current data from the Office of Management and Budget (data known as the CBSA or Core Based Statistical Area).  The proposed changes would phase-in over a one-year transition period, moving on a blended basis of 50% current Wage Index data and 50% 2015 (updated) data.  What we know so far is that providers feeling the biggest shifts are those that reside in the 37 counties presently considered part of an urban area shifting to rural and the 105 counties considered rural shifting to an urban area.  For further information on this topic, contact me (via the contact page on this site) or see the actual proposed rule.

Quality Reporting: CMS is proposing to set a minimum submission level of OASIS assessments for 2015 at 70% (less than this level imputes a 2% payment reduction to the provider) and then in subsequent years, move the percentage required for submission up by 10% (e.g., 80% in 2016).

Therapy Reassement Time Frames: The proposed rule would shift the requirement for a licensed therapist to re-assess the therapy plan of care and need from “as close to day 13 and day 19 as possible” to every calendar 14 days.

Coverage for Insulin: CMS is seeking clarification and input into the current list of coverage codes for insulin care (table 28) as to their adequacy in determining the need for skilled care for insulin management in the home. The program does not cover care for individuals capable of self-administration or who have another “person” willing to provide insulin administration as needed.

Revised Definitions for Speech Language Pathologists: Provides clarification that a Speech Language Pathologist is someone who has a graduate degree (accredited) in Speech/Language Pathology, or: is licensed by his/her state and has completed 350 hours of supervised clinical time, or; has at least 9 months experience unsupervised, or; has completed a national competency exam approved by the Secretary of HHS.

Value-Based Purchasing: CMS is offering for comment, a proposed Value Based Purchasing demonstration program in up to 8 states, similar to the hospital program.  In this approach, agencies would  receive a 5% to 8% adjustment in payment for  meeting performance criteria across a designate performance period.

July 9, 2014 Posted by | Home Health | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Obamacare/ACA: Implications for Consumers

Having jumped around just a bit in the last few weeks “topically”, this post may seem a bit disjointed.  It is meant as a continuation of a series I’ve compiled on the various implications providers, consumers, etc. can/will experience under the Affordable Care Act (a/k/a Obamacare).  Given the news cycle of late and the recent roll-out of the insurance exchanges under the ACA, many readers may think this post somewhat non-relevant.  Begging to differ, the implications for consumers under the ACA are expansive and the surface today is all that is visible.

Setting aside what we know of the exchange access problems and the individual enrollment glitches, the crux of the ACA implications for consumers is cost and ultimately access.  The ACA fundamentally resurfaces the consumer insurance landscape and changes the rules in terms of how individuals access insurance, how prices for insurance coverage are determined, and what coverage levels individuals can experience.  Promoted as simple, one-size premise approach to accessing coverage, the ACA for consumers doesn’t come anywhere close to its promised result.  In fact, consumers can expect a dizzying array of complex choices, cost levels and limited provider and carrier choices (depending on location) than ever before.

The biggest initial jolt for most consumers under the ACA is what will occur within employer sponsored health plans.  Employer plans represent the largest source of insurance for consumers, though the participation rate continues to decrease.  At present, 59% of individuals receive their health insurance coverage via employer sponsored plans. Given the provisions within the ACA that impact employer plans directly, the projected number of employers that will opt to drop health insurance as a benefit is actually minimal (less than 5%).  Where the ACA impact becomes onerous is cost pushed back to the individual.  Employer plans are subject to an ACA tax in 2014.  Additionally, with or without the employer mandate, fully insured plans via group insurance providers are expected to experience premium increases ranging from 10%  to 65%.  Why the big difference?  Regional differences account for some of the increase and the majority, plan design changes mandated by the ACA.  For example, plans formerly offered as high-deductible plans with Medical Savings Accounts can no longer qualify as compliant under the ACA.  The mandated plan changes such as full wellness coverage, affordability requirements, and eligibility expansion (must cover individuals working 30 hours or more) are the fundamental drivers to the added premium cost.

For most consumers covered today via an employer sponsored plan, their first reaction to premium levels in 2014 is akin to sticker shock.  Two things are certain to occur.  First, premiums paid by consumers via their employer plan will rise and in virtually all cases, by minimally 10%.  Second, their plans will change, some for the positive and some for the negative.  The positive will occur in a trade-off fashion: Richer benefits but at a higher premium.  The negative will occur as employers reduce plan benefits to the ACA minimum as a means of offsetting premium increases and where possible, increase employee cost share.  Across my client base, the vast majority of which fall in the large employer category under the ACA and presently offer health insurance to their employees, the projected premium increase in 2014 is 15% on average.  Eighty plus percent of this group plans on passing along, in the form of cost to the insured, 80 to 90% of the increase.

Certain for consumers, regardless of where they access insurance or how, save those who fit an expanded Medicaid eligibility definition and/or qualify for near full-subsidy in an exchange purchase, is that their health insurance will cost more and thus, their net expendable income will decrease.  It is this latter element that represents the biggest impact for consumers and the biggest impact for the economy current.  Wage inflation is negligible across virtually all industries.  Only certain regions and certain industries are clamoring for labor (oil and gas for example in North Dakota) and thus, scarcity produces rising wages to a modest extent.  Presuming a 10% increase in premium cost for an employee covered under an employer plan and an inflationary wage adjustment in 2014 of 2%, the net (simple) decrease to income is 8%.  Taking this just a step closer to reality, assume a 14% increase in premium and no wage adjustment or an adjustment of say, 1.5%.  The net (simple) decrease to income is 12.5% to 14%.  What occurs for a consumer when a change in incomes is so profound is behavioral change.  Consider the following as plausible;

  • Forestalled large-scale purchases such as homes, major appliances and automobiles.
  • Reduced savings and increased consumer debt.
  • A continued lag on employment (job) recovery.
  • A continued lag on GDP recovery and growth as consumer consumption accounts for approximately 65% of GDP.

For consumers not participating in employer sponsored plans, a similar sticker-shock will occur for all but those that achieve coverage via Medicaid expansion and/or full subsidy through an exchange.  What we are already seeing for this group is an evaporation of their current private options and/or premium increases routinely above 25%.  For those whose access to coverage is through an exchange, enrollment today is problematic.  More problematic is the cost, especially sans complete subsidy.  While premiums on their face seem somewhat reasonable, out-of-pocket costs plus premiums for the “bronze” or low-level options equate to 60% of total.  For example, a bronze premium for a 40-year-old in Illinois averages $180 per month or $2,160 per year.  A bronze plan leaves an out-of-pocket exposure of 40% of health costs save wellness benefits (an annual physical, certain wellness tests).  In North Dakota, the cost jumps to $215 per month.  This is for an individual only.

Breaking this down to include subsidies, here’s what a nationalized approach looks like using the Silver plan option (middle of the road, 70% of costs covered, average deductible of $2,500 and out-of-pocket maximums of $6,000) under the ACA.

  • At 200% of the Federal Poverty Limit, the cost of a Silver plan for an individual ($22,980 annual income) is $1,452 per year and for a family plan, the premium is $2,964 – rates include all subsidies.  This equals a total possible cost annually for an individual of $7,452 dollars (premium of $1,452 plus out-of-pocket maximum of $6,000).
  • At 300% of the Federal Poverty Limit, the premium for a Silver plan ranges from $2,772 to $3,276 (range is due to regional pricing differences among carrier options plus income levels and subsidies between 200% and 300%) and for a family, the premium is $6.078 – all subsidies included.  The 300% income threshold for an individual is $34,470. At this premium level, the cost exposure is approximately $9,000 per year (premium plus max out-of-pocket).
  • At 400% of the Federal Poverty Limit, the premium for a Silver plan ranges from $2,772 to $4,368 (regional differences and income plus subsidy levels between 300 and 400% of the FPL).  The premium for a family is $8,952 – rates include all subsidies.  The individual income limit is $45,960.

Per the Kaiser Family Foundation and separately, from a study completed by Deloitte, each of the above options is more expensive for an individual (total cost plus deductible including subsidized premiums) than a typical employer sponsored plan offering.  For example, one of my client companies with 300 employees, 225 participants presently offers a single premium, 80/20 plan for $85 per month. They are a very typical company (health care provider) in their industry (just to dispel any reader’s notion that the company is unique in demographics).  In comparison, a better plan costs a single employee $1,020 annually versus a subsidized plan for the lowest income group (200% of the FPL) at $1,452 per year.

The Consumer Conclusion?  My summary is more, unanticipated cost and fewer options than most expected.  The real implication for the consumer is the economic impact.  The U.S. labor trend is weak and wage inflation minimal.  In such an environment, insurance increases that can’t be offset by wage inflation, reduce consumer income.  Reductions in a consumer’s ability to consume via an increase in health insurance cost will create one of two reactions (three in some cases).  First, if the consumer stays insured or participating in an employer plan, a reduction in net income available will reduce consumption in all areas.  Second, the consumer opts to drop coverage or inclusion, instead paying the minimal penalty.  The third option for those presently privately insured, is that they either drop coverage or alter coverage to lower levels as a means of offsetting higher premium costs.  What is most disconcerting to me is that the exposure in terms of coverage gaps via out-of-pocket costs under all ACA scenarios is growing and this impact is undoubtedly, negative for economic growth and consumer economic health.

October 18, 2013 Posted by | Policy and Politics - Federal | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Obamacare/ACA: Implications for Providers

This is the second post of a four-part series on the status and implications of the continuing roll-forward/roll-out of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare).  In this post, the context is the implications for providers, given the evolving state of the ACA and some of the current uncertainty of its future.

Important to note: Affirmatively, the ACA has fundamentally changed the health care landscape for providers, regardless of its ultimate fate.  Unraveling the Act in its entirety is virtually impossible.  The ACA as drafted and passed, is a singular layer of law that provides the framework for an incredibly deep-set of regulatory/administrative law provisions.  Illustratively, the ACA is like an onion; broad layers on the outside leading to more intricate, narrow layers on the inside.  It is essentially, an enabling piece of legislation rather than a single or for that matter, bifurcated or trifurcated law focused on enabling, funding and enforcement.  The ACA is written to cause other agencies and entities to exist, to promulgate rules and to cause Congress to fund via a prescriptive mechanism, the evolution of what the ACA was passed to create.  Complex, I know – hence the thousand plus page bill.

Because the ACA ties providers, insurers, employers and individuals ultimately together, the implication for providers is a function of the elements of the law directed at providers (really quite minimal) and all other elements that pertain directly to insurers, employers, individuals and to another extent, government itself.  The latter is where the ACA creates another level of entitlement within the government, primarily through Medicaid expansion and the insurance exchanges.  In short, logically separating the pieces, providers vs. all other groups impacted, clears the picture for providers.

Because the ACA doesn’t structurally change healthcare or for that matter, the major regulatory or payment components, provider implications at the core, are truly minimal.  Arguably, without the ACA, providers would still see a similar level of regulatory activity and reimbursement changes.  These issues are truly separate from the ACA as remember, the ACA doesn’t touch Medicare, Medicaid (other than to expand it) or reform or modify, any other federal conditions of participation.  It didn’t even address the physician payment formula (known as the SGR).  Regardless of the political rhetoric, the ACA only served to create a methodology for spending reductions to offset its associated implementation costs, greater output to states for Medicaid spending, and a series of provider taxes (DME) as a method for internal funding transfers.

What providers experience today in terms of increased fraud vigilance, RACs, rate rebasing, pay for performance (quality measures), changes in HIPAA, Medicare reimbursement cuts, etc. are events non-organic to the ACA.  True, the ACA codified some additional elements such as Accountable Care Organizations and bundled payment demonstrations, etc. but not in any great detail.  The reality is that the ACA didn’t need to exist for these events to occur as the administrative levels within government (Department of Health, CMS, etc.) can create, and has, this level of regulation and activity via agency fiat or other legislative (normative) functions within Congress (budget appropriations, etc.).  These issues and events are all or were all, in motion prior to ACA passage.  Providers would have seen them with or without and perhaps, in quicker time increments as the ACA has muddied the picture rather than made it clearer.

The driving element for providers isn’t the ACA but the changing structural nature of our society, our economy and the federal mechanism for funding and paying for, entitlements.  The ACA doesn’t change these issues or even address them indirectly.  Providers face cuts, regulatory oversight, other regulatory initiatives to make healthcare more “efficient” and outcome driven because of the federal funding issues, growth in entitlements and budget allocation for entitlement spending.  In federal parlance, the cost of and growth of entitlements are too large and too “ineffective” to continue (the last point arguable of course).  Too much money is spent for too little care or ineffectively so and too many people are ending-up in the entitlement pool for government to remain solvent or achieve equilibrium.  Taking away the ACA, the issues remain.  Keeping the ACA, the issues remain.  The ACA didn’t address them nor changed the entitlement window or programmatic elements driving the fiscal course one iota (other again, than to expand certain elements such as Medicaid).

The real implications for providers arise when insurers and consumers fully integrate into the picture.  Today, this is the government’s dilemma.  In the desire of the drafters to create more insureds, improve access, and redistribute the health care pie, the ACA became the poster for “unintended consequences”.  For example, look at the shift in union/labor support for the ACA.  Because the ACA includes a “tax” on benefit rich insurance plans (Cadillac plans) and sets a definitional limit on employee eligibility for firms to provide mandate coverage at 30 hours per work week, the law is directly oppositional to union positions (full-time employment at 40 hours and “privately’ negotiated benefit plans).  The ACA does not exempt collective bargaining plans from tax imposition if the same plans meet the “Cadillac” definition.  Similarly, businesses that wish to avoid the ACA’s employer mandate on insurance benefit plan structure, can do so by reducing their employee work week to under 30 hours.

Why this is the crux of the ACA implication for providers is simple.  Pushing aside current Medicare and Medicaid demand, the remaining demand is “all other”.  This ” all other” category is dominated by privately insured individuals.  The ACA exists to morph this category via mandates on employer plans, mandates on private insurance offerings, and mandates (via taxes or penalties) on individuals to purchase/access insurance.  Assuming, as is presently the case, that nothing more changes in the ACA as written, providers are certain to face the following;

  • Companies that formerly offered insurance benefits to their employees, dropping their plans and opting to pay the ACA penalty.  This will shift more individuals into the expensive private market place purchasing, if they can, higher cost insurance with lower benefit levels.
  • Companies will reduce their work-week hour requirement below to the 30 hour threshold and thus, limit their insurance benefit plan requirements under the ACA. Again, employees formerly insured will now enter the private marketplace, the exchange or Medicaid.
  • Medicaid will expand and the numbers of participants will swell.  The payments from Medicaid will not increase proportionately and thus, while providers may experience less bad debt (although not total elimination), the trade-off is patients with an inadequate payment source.  I know few provider types, perhaps other than hospitals via default, who willingly want to see more patients with Medicaid as their primary payer.
  • Exchange plans, when available, will not come cheap (although subsidies exist for income qualified participants) and in some states, may involve only one plan offering.  We don’t know much about the Federal exchange participants yet.  What we do know is that the elements within the ACA that mandated benefits for private insurance plans, upped the dependent coverage age for adult children, removed pre-existing condition limits and lifetime benefit limits, raises the cost of insurance to levels where affordability is questionable.  The trade for affordability is coverage levels (higher copayments, deductibles, etc.).

When these issues arise, and they are or have to a certain extent already, providers see different consumer behavior.  Lacking insurance or facing reduced benefit levels, individuals will alter their consumption behavior; including the consumption of health care services.  Simply having access to insurance isn’t going to mean for the most directly impacted middle-class/working class, that one can afford it.  While the ACA expands benefits and access via Medicaid and subsidies to the “working poor” (125% or under the Federal poverty limit), it doesn’t protect the cost for anyone else.  Further, its provisions shift financial burdens and incentives among private, non-union benefit plans so much so that many employers will significantly alter their insurance offerings, negatively impacting their employee insureds.  Negative impacts of this type mean individuals behave differently, purchase differently, and access care differently so as to minimize personal financial exposure.  Providers will see demand slack.

The expansion of Medicaid presents a completely different picture for providers.  Picture a group that has previously had minimal to no access to care.  This group is awarded a rich benefit plan typical of any government entitlement program.  Having likely delayed or refrained from using or accessing care other than in a circumstance of urgency, they now have immediate benefits and immediate (perceived) access.  The analogy best suited is a person wins the lottery; sudden wealth and a former lifestyle of delayed or no consumptive gratification.  The likely demand from this new group of Medicaid recipients, once they become aware of their purchasing power via the government, is for care.  The question is, what care and how infirmed and debilitated is this group?  Will providers accept this group?  Can they afford to accept this group?

In answer to the above, we’ll see.  What I know is that as of today, given the present payment mechanisms and levels under Medicaid, few providers will willingly open their doors.  This is particularly true for physicians – the portal to all other care.  Hospitals who have somewhat embraced the Medicaid expansion in general, are today just realizing the somewhat perverse implication that may arise if physicians abdicate Medicaid further – a growing flux in emergency care visits, already a problem for Medicaid and the under/non-insured market.  The ACA doesn’t address this complication and in all cases, makes it worse by expanding a program that is viewed by  providers as a poor payer.

What providers can expect in terms of ACA implications is a fundamental shift in consumer behavior toward health care.  Its not the governmental implication of what the ACA does directly to providers; it is what the ACA does to insurers, employers and consumers.  As the impacts for insurers are employers are shifts in the cost of benefits paradigm (negatively), both will react to reduce exposure and to insulate against financial erosion.  This means providers need to understand that insurance plans will offer less coverage at higher prices, the same coverage with higher cost-share, and employers will reduce employee coverage either directly or indirectly via higher premium levels/cost share.  These elements when applied in an economic element, shift behavior away from consumption, reducing demand for non-essential health care services or toward cheaper alternatives.  Medicaid expands but within the same framework, pouring newly benefit rich consumers into the marketplace.  The problem is that these new consumers, full of pent-up demand, only bring payment at fractional levels of costs.  Plenty of consumption possibilities but at a loss to most if not all providers.

Moving one step forward, socially and economically the picture for providers can be truly unsettling.  The picture for society perhaps even more concerning.  More people, less covered plus more people better covered but via a poor payer (Medicaid) equals less care, not more.  For the Medicaid folks, what good does it do to have a great benefit plan but access to limited providers?  For the insured group, what good does it do to have insurance but at a price and cost-share point that constrains access or places the insured at-risk for accessing the system(s) from a financial perspective?  Providers will see the end result of this social/economic shift and the end result is less core demand and patient flow, demand for services with a less than adequate payment, the risk of more bad debt from those insureds with higher cost-share levels, and a greater reliance on urgent/emergent access for those whose only access is via this portal.

September 6, 2013 Posted by | Policy and Politics - Federal | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

False Claims Act: Providers Beware

Lately I have fielded a growing number of questions regarding various applications/uses of the False Claims Act and Medicare billing inquiries.  What is disconcerting about these inquiries is their source; too many from providers or provider organizations.  One in particular arises out of an acquisition and this bears special note and comment which, I have provided toward the end of the post.

To start, the False Claims Act in summarized fashion for healthcare providers relates as follows;

(a) Any person who (1) knowingly presents, or causes to be presented, to an officer or employee of the United States Government or a member of the Armed Forces of the United States a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval; (2) knowingly makes, uses, or causes to be made or used, a false record or statement to get a false or fraudulent claim paid or approved by the Government; (3) conspires to defraud the Government by getting a false or fraudulent claim paid or approved by the Government;. . . or (7) knowingly makes, uses, or causes to be made or used, a false record or statement to conceal, avoid, or decrease an obligation to pay or transmit money or property to the Government, is liable to the United States Government for a civil penalty of not less than $5,000 and not more than $10,000, plus 3 times the amount of damages which the Government sustains because of the act of that person . . . .

(b) For purposes of this section, the terms “knowing” and “knowingly” mean that a person, with respect to information (1) has actual knowledge of the information; (2) acts in deliberate ignorance of the truth or falsity of the information; or (3) acts in reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the information, and no proof of specific intent to defraud is required.

What this boils down to for providers is that a False Claim Act violation can occur either via deliberate act such as knowingly submitting a claim that is false or when a provider fails to seek knowledge that is common, acting in reckless disregard to the truth or circumstances surrounding the claim.  This latter element creates major risk for providers in terms of their use of outside contractors to provide Medicare covered services under Parts A or B.

Taking the two major facets of the genesis of False Claims Act violations separately, the first element of a deliberate act is fairly straightforward.  The majority of risk here occurs when providers bill for services not provided or not required by the patient. For example, in reviewing recent False Claims Act cases in hospice, the deliberate act(s) consist of placing people into the Medicare Hospice benefit that are by disease state, not terminal and/or in other instances, billing for continuous care and not providing the service.  In SNFs and arising out of the latest OIG report on SNF Medicare billing practices, upcoding patients to higher RUG categories where services were not provided and/or, not required.  Each example is a fairly clear, deliberate act or activity to garner reimbursement (bill the government) for care not required or not provided.

The second facet is more nuanced in so much that a provider can be only tangentially connected yet still guilty of completing a False Claims Act violation.  This element occurs when providers utilize third-party contractors to provide certain services yet fail to use due care to determine whether such services were actually provided and/or warranted.  In this situation, a provider of a Part A or Part B covered service using a third-party contractor to provide some element of a care service, cannot eliminate the False Claim Act liability by hiding under a veil of a contractual relationship or agreement; especially if the provider caused the contractual relationship to exist and benefitted by the contract (logical).  Not knowing a violation occurred or could occur via not employing basic due diligence and standards is considered a willful act under the False Claims Act and thus, a violation subject to remedy and penalty.

Getting more concrete: A provider (SNF, Home Health, etc.) for example, under Part A uses a therapy contractor to provide physical, occupational and/or speech therapy. The contractor provides certain information to the provider, as required by contract, to generate Part A claims.  At a later date, claims are reviewed or probed via a ZPIC or RAC process and determined that the same are suspect and unjustified.  The provider states that the contractor is to blame yet, cannot substantiate that it took any due care to audit the contractor’s work or to review claims for accuracy and integrity.  The contractor in this case may or may not be tangentially liable for the False Claims Act violation, based on the provisions of the contract, but the provider is “totally”. Why?  The provider is the organization that fraudulently or falsely billed Medicare and caused the violation, even though its claim that it did nothing knowingly or intentionally (all the contactor) is used as a defense. The False Claims Act does not require deliberate action in perpetrating the event merely a disregard of the truth or the events (hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil).

With the CMS OIG directly stating its intent to spend more time reviewing SNF claims, particularly those that fall into high therapy RUG categories, and the industry-wide reliance on third-party therapy contractors, SNFs need to pay particular attention to the definitions within the False Claims Act.  Of principal importance is the requirement or lack thereof, of direct action.  Merely a failure to hold contractors accountable and to exercise due diligence as part of the claims submission/billing process can lead to a False Claims Act violation.  As I have written before, the simple action (or in this case, inaction) of failing to benchmark RUG levels against national and regional data, to employ an outside resource to periodically test claims, and to monitor the basic provision of care from contractors is all that is required to fit into the category of “reckless disregard” for the truth or accuracy of claims submitted.

Lastly, as mentioned initially, False Claims Act violations that arise from an acquisition, while rare, can occur.  I know of one specific case and the circumstances are daunting and troubling.  When an acquirer assumes a provider number from an acquired provider, the assumption comes with liability for prior acts.  As no statute of limitation exists for fraud, the acquirer is thus the same provider as the original provider via assumption of the former provider number and status.  CMS does not differentiate as to the circumstantial aspects of liability for fraudulent actions between providers.  While a purchase agreement may stipulate limitations on liabilities arising from prior actions of the former provider, CMS’ enforcement and remedies don’t translate similarly.  In other words, CMS will seek enforcement and issue remedies against the current provider, even if the acts were committed by the former provider.  The sole remedy for the acquirer is contractual, removed entirely from CMS.  As contractual disputes require time and remedy through arbitration or court proceedings, enforcement and other remedies from CMS do not.  The actions taken by CMS are independent of the contract between the seller and the acquirer.  Again, the “we didn’t know” defense is useless as the assumption is on the part of CMS, “you chose to assume the provider number and the liabilities that inure thereto (such that they existed)”.

My best advice to acquirers, and I have gone down this road many times, is to obtain new provider status via application and issuance of a new provider number.  I know this process can be a bit timely and bureaucratic but nonetheless, it stands as the only surefire way to immunize the acquirer from former actions of the seller, at least where Medicare. billing irregularities and False Claims Act violations are concerned.  The alternative remedy is extensive and thorough pre-closing due diligence on claims and frankly, this process is more tedious, onerous, and expensive than obtaining a new provider number.  Additionally, sellers can get “cranky” from the required probing to complete a thorough due diligence of claim activity, such that deals can easily morph negative.  Finally, never and I mean never, assume a contract during the acquisition, especially where the contract is for a third-party provision of care and services tangential to Medicare/Medicaid claims.  Negotiate new; for safety sake.

November 27, 2012 Posted by | Home Health, Hospice, Policy and Politics - Federal | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment