LEGAL GUIDE
Written by attorney Tracy Green | Jun 7, 2013

FAQ: How Do I Respond To A Medicare Audit, Medi-Cal Audit Or Third Party Insurance Audit? Part I

If you are a health care provider with a Medicare or Medi-Cal provider number -- especially in Southern California --chances are you WILL be audited or have an on-site visit at some point over the years. Even if you have third party insurance contracts, you face an increased chance of being audited. The audits and on-site visits (sometimes unannounced) have increased dramatically over the past years and will continue to increase as the state and federal governments face budget problems and there is more use of computer programs to identify red flags or audit issues. In addition, the private insurers who administer Medicare are required by their contracts with the government to audit whether they suspect improprieties or not. Your practice may also be subject to audits from insurance companies and health maintenance organizations (HMOs). The audit must be taken seriously since it can result in an overpayment being assessed and/or adverse administrative history. However, do not panic. Although it can seem like an intimidating event, you can increase your chances of prevailing and not having an unfair overpayment amount assessed if you prepare for any potential audit in advance and handle it properly once the request is made. Here are some strategies and tips for helping you not only survive your audit but being prepared and prevailing to the greatest extent possible: 1. Prepare Your Staff In Advance For Understanding That Audits Are Part Of The Healthcare Business. Providers and the staff often erroneously assume that if they are being paid for claims that everything is correct and they are doing everything right. Not so. Medicare and Medi-Cal pay the provider on a "good faith" basis and reserve the right to audit. Private insurers, on the other hand, often require pre-approval before payment. Thus, it is critical that your entire staff understand that the best defense against audits is good charting, documentation, proper coding, and avoiding any upcoding, billing for services not provided or documented or anything else that may be characterized as fraud or abuse. Once everyone understands that audits are part of the process it also helps them take control of the audit process and not let fear prevent them from handling it professionally. Most Medicare and Medi-Cal audits fall into one of three broad categories: (1) an audit during the application or updating of application process where there is an on-site visit and review of business records and typically only a limited number of claims; (2) prepayment audits (most common in Medicare), in which a review of claims is conducted before Medicare pays the physician, where carriers typically want to look at only one or two claims from each physician; and (3) post-payment audits. In a comprehensive post-payment audit or review, the carrier reviews a small statistical sample of claims and uses the results to calculate a projected overpayment for a period of months or years. 2. Identify In Advance Who Is Authorized To Speak To Auditors And Any Other Person Or Investigator Who Visits The Office In An Announced Or Unannounced Visit. First impressions count and this applies to audits and other visits by regulators or investigators. You will be better prepared if you determine in advance who is permitted to speak to government auditors or regulators. For example, you do not want the receptionist interviewed about your office's policies and procedures since anything he or she says may be used in your audit. Establish a procedure that only an office manager, the provider or the health care lawyer are allowed to meet and discuss anything with the auditor or regulator. The other staff should be limited to contacts about establishing times and dates available for meeting unless and until they are instructed to do so by the designated persons in charge of the audit. There are many horror stories about staff meeting with auditors or regulators while the provider is out of the office and giving misinformation which was later used against the provider. 3. In Order To Anticipate An Audit Or Prevent An Adverse Audit, Understand Fully How The Medicare Or Medi-Cal Program Operates. Providers often assume that billers and office staff know how the Medicare and Medi-Cal programs operate when this is often not the case. Billers are used to working from superbills and entering codes without analyzing whether all the program rules are being followed. It should be understood by all that these programs will only reimburse "reasonable and necessary" services where there is the required documentation -- even if the services were provided. If the documentation is not present in the file -- it will be presumed that the service was not provided or that it was not medically reasonable and necessary. We suggest that the providers have the billers and office managers create a thorough notebook regarding each of the procedure codes billed that contains the printed portions of any relevant manuals about what constitutes 'reasonable and necessary services' as defined by Medicare or Medi-Cal and what documentation is required for these services. It is then necessary to have the providers and anyone who sees patients or provides services read and understand these requirements. In addition, the provider needs to be aware of what your local carrier wants claims forms and patient records to contain because the requirements vary. The provider may have worked in a hospital or private setting where the documentation requirements are different and not realize they are failing to properly document the file. For example, state law and private insurers may allow a physical therapist assistant or physical therapy aide to perform certain tasks in phyical therapy while Medicare's billing and reimbursement policies and procedures may not pay for the same treatment by these assistants or aides for Medicare treated patients. Such information typically is contained in the Medicare manual and the local carrier's local medical review policy which are all available online. Above all else, maintain complete documentation in patient records to substantiate the services billed. Record symptoms and diagnoses, details of the services and level of care provided, and complete progress notes. Medicare considers lack of corresponding documentation as evidence that billed services were not reasonable and necessary. The auditor will consider any related reimbursement as an overpayment and require the provider to refund the applicable amount. There should be periodic internal reviews of files and education to ensure that the documentation is being done properly. Even if this billing and procedure code notebook and research was not done before the audit, prepare it at the beginning of the audit so everyone at the provider's office is prepared and knows the billing and reimburesment policies. Often during the audit, auditors will be mistaken about documentation or medical necessity requirements. 4. Have A Health Care Attorney To Whom You Can Send Any Audit Letters Or Whom You Can Contact Anytime There Is A Visit And Request For An Interview. If you receive a letter or visit from your Medicare or Medi-Cal carrier requesting a number of charts or records, contact your attorney immediately and fax him or her the letter or business cards of the visitors. Even if the attorney only needs to be minimally involved in most of the audit and file preparation, you need an objective person to ensure that the audit is handled in the best manner possible. It is often easier for the health care attorney to speak with the auditors and set up a timetable for any interviews or to ensure that there is sufficient time to respond to the request for documentation. In most cases, thirty or sixty minutes of a qualified health care attorney's time at the beginning of the audit is well worth it since it will reduce the risk of overpayment, help reduce the provider's time and help ensure that the audit goes smoothly and that a good impression is made. Resist the temptation to think that if a health care attorney is involved that an auditor or regulator will think that something is "wrong." In fact, the opposite impression is given: the provider is sophisticated, professional and has an established method for responding to audits. This is especially important in "unannounced" visits where it is easier for a health care attorney to be objective and take control of the situation where an auditor simply shows up and demands records and interviews at that moment. The health care attorney can also address regulatory issues that may be beyond the provider's expertise. Posted by Tracy Green, Esq. Any questions or comments should be directed to: [email protected]. The firm website is http://www.greenassoc.com

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