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. 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. 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 from private Medicare or Medi-Cal 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.
5. Read Any Letters Or Lists Carefully And Make Sure You Understand What Is Requested And See If There Are Any Patterns. This is another reason to send an audit or similar letter to your health care attorney so you understand what is requested. For example, assume that records for specific dates of service are requested as to a certain number of patients. Make sure that you also send in any other documentation that would support the services rendered on that day. This could include laboratory results, X-ray reports, photographs, consultations from other physicians, etc.
When reviewing the audit letter, especially if the letter requests multiple charts, see if there seems to be some type of underlying pattern or theme in the chart notes. Were the requested patient charts all billed for one particular code, all referred by a certain physician, or is there some other pattern? This will assist you in better addressing the concerns of the audit -- which may not be told to you directly by the auditors.
6. Determine With Your Health Care Attorney Whether You Need An Expert Witness Or Coding Expert During The Audit Process. Your attorney and you should consider hiring a coding expert to review the charts, preferably before you submit them to the auditor or carrier. If the expert cannot complete the review before the deadline for producing the records, the attorney will ask for an extension or simply have the expert conduct his review at the same time that the carrier does. Your attorney should have the review done under the attorney work product privilege so that the results will be confidential. One excellent preventative measure is to have a coding expert review charts periodically so that you know that your practice is in compliance with billing and record requirements. This can also be part of a compliance plan.
7. Take Control Of The Audit. Make Sure Records Are Complete. Review Charts And Records Carefully Before Copying Them Or Providing Them To Auditors. The auditors or regulators do their best to put the burden on the provider to prove that the services were properly documented and coded. Remember that the auditors are often not medical personnel even if they have some medical training. The auditors will often ask for the charts right away in unannounced visits.
Take your time and ensure that all reports, notes and other information are in the chart before you produce or copy it. Look for other records such as sign in sheets that will also be relevant to the audit. One of the most important things to do in preparing to respond to an audit is to ensure that the records are complete. One of the best ways to do this is to meticulously compare each medical record with its corresponding billing record. Remember, the billings are where the government’s investigation began. You can ensure that there are records for each of the dates billed, identify coding issues and have a better idea how to proceed in the audit.
Another important step is to make sure you produce the complete records. It is not enough to have them but you need to produce them and have records of the production. If you fail to produce records requested, you can be penalized financially or with adverse action against your provider number. If the auditor or regulator agrees you do not need to produce certain records or documentation, you or your health care attorney should document this agreement. It is important to document what is produced since you will be creating an administrative record. All records and documentation produced should be accompanied by a memorandum or letter itemizing the records produced and either delivered in person or with a return receipt or overnight service as proof of delivery.
8. Do Not Alter The Records. If you need to supplement the records, make sure you do not back date or alter the records. Altering records can cause problems much worse than overpayments -- Medical Board complaints and discipline. Seek the advice of counsel when it comes to supplementing records or there is any issue about missing records.
9. Understand What Circumstances Might Can Trigger An Audit. Audits can provide an education. They can be stressful, especially if the outcome is unfavorable. However, they can offer tremendous amounts of information and educational opportunities for your office. Try to remain positive while you go through this process. What are some common triggers of audits?
■ High or excessive use of specific CPT codes. Sometimes excessive use of certain ICD-9 codes may also trigger audits. Generally, doctors who are outside the bell curve with regard to billing practices may get flagged on internal carrier audit screens.
If your practice tends to be more specialized (perhaps you specialize more in geriatric patients), you will, by the nature of your practice, be billing certain codes more frequently than the other doctors in the community who have a more broader-based practice pattern. You will want to explain these issues to the auditors. Do not be afraid to bill for specialized services or think that you will avoid an audit by underbilling or billing at the lower code. Just be extra careful in the documentation. Do not alter proper billing protocols just to try to stay under the radar. Bill for what you did and let the chart defend you.
Importantly, don't stress to the auditors how you provide services for "free" and underbill. That does not help your audit in most circumstances. Are you billing for codes where you are using new technology? Did you change your practice patterns to become more specialized so that your billing patterns changed? Did you add new diagnostic or therapeutic machines to the practice? Did you purchase a practice? If so, you may flag out on a statistical basis. Explain your billing and practice changes to the auditors and the best defense is a well-documented file. Use the research notebook described above to ensure you are complying with all the documentation and medical necessity requirements.
■ Do you have an unhappy patient or patient's family? If you have an unhappy patient, review the bill if the patient had a bad outcome or received an unexpectedly large bill. Sometimes collection practices or a bad outcome can prompt a patient to launch a complaint that generated the audit. To avoid such problems in the future, make sure the patient knows upfront about the costs. Speak with the biller or collection service to alter methods of collections. Consider formulating a payment plan with the patient or allow patients to pay with a credit card. If one of the patients was unhappy, raise this with the auditors.
■ Do you have disgruntled current or former employees? All it takes is a complaint from a current or former employee to trigger a fraud audit or other review. The employee may try to get revenge and the best way to prevent this from occurring is to do the following: have a compliance plan that requires the employee to report suspected fraud and abuse during employment; conduct exit interviews where employees are asked about any suspected fraud or abuse; have written employee policies and maintain personnel files; have regular office meetings to review policies; address small issues before they escalate to large ones; make everyone in the office feel like part of the team; and educate the employees regarding billing and documentation requirements so that they do not mistakenly think that something is being done improperly. If you suspect that a current or former employee triggered the audit, bring the disgruntled employee up in the audit andy why he or she is not credible since the auditor may not identify the complainant.
■ Are You Overusing Pre-Printed Forms Or Template Shortcuts? Be careful with the use of templates especially in electronic records. Although templates are acceptable charting methods, they can look very repetitive, especially when it comes to routine care and services. Each chart note should clearly reflect the chief complaint, history, examination and treatment you rendered on that date for that patient. Cutting and pasting templates/macros from previous dates of service and simply using that language again in subsequent chart notes does not necessarily indicate what happened on that specific date of service. It makes for a bigger charts but once it looks repetitive or like filler, it can cause an issue with the audit where your office might be characterized as a "mill" or you are questioned about the amount of time spent with the patient.
Look for these triggers and others as they will help you defend the audit. Do not be afraid of negative facts or problems that you have found. If there are weaknesses or mistakes, discuss with your health care attorney whether you should concede certain issues at the audit level for credibility reasons. Do not assume that if you admit certain problems that the auditors will be fair to you or not seek overpayment. You need to have a strategy and having an outside objective person such as a health care attorney can be useful so you do not make a tactical mistake that could cause later problems or result in an overpayment.
10. Be Professional. Treat the auditors with respect even when you disagree with them or their position. This is another reason to have an objective health care attorney for you to rely upon. It is easy to get emotional and defensive when your medical services seem like they are under attack and you already feel underpaid by the carriers.
11. Maintain A Notebook Of Administrative And Professional Records. In advance of the audit, have a notebook or file with all the key documents you need for an audit. You will be prepared and then update these on an annual basis at the beginning of the year. These records include but are not limited to the following: --All Medicare and Medi-Cal applications and supplemental applications (see if there is an issue with failure to update these applications); --Malpractice insurance, workers' compensation insurance; liability insurance and any other insurance required by the programs; --Copies of all licenses held by providers and staff; --Other business documentation required by the programs such as office leases, contracts with laboratories, contracts with suppliers, etc. (this will depend upon the type of provider); --Equipment lists where the equipment is diagnostic or used for billing; and --Any other documentation required by the program and its manuals.
12. Request An Exit Conference Or Meeting Upon The Conclusion Of The Audit. Depending on the type of audit or visit, you want to have an exit conference or meeting where you can address any outstanding issues in the audit. You also may want to or submit a letter that is reviewed or drafted by your health care attorney showing that you have fully complied with all record requests and documenting any positions regarding coding, billing, medical necessity or other issues that have arisen. Having an excellent record of your submissions will be important to obaining a favorable result and creating a good record if there is a subsequent hearing.
13. Conclusion. Audits happen to all providers. It does not necessarily mean you are a bad provider or that you should immediately leave the Medicare or Medi-Cal programs. With increasing financial pressures on health programs and practices, it is important to be forward thinking and create compliance plans and self-audit so your practice does not get assessed an overpayment. During the audit, do your best to turn a potentially negative situation into a positive learning experience to correct any legitimate problems that the audit may uncover as well as to minimize the chance of future audits. Being stubborn and continuing to bill improperly will not help your practice. The carrier may still monitor your subsequent claims to see if your billing practices have actually changed and comply with the program's rules and regulations. Be proactive, anticipate audits in advance and handle audits intelligently and you will prevail to the greatest extent possible!
Any questions or comments should be directed to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Tracy Green is a principal at Green and Associates in Los Angeles, California. They focus their practice on the representation of professionals, particularly health care professionals including individual physicians, corporate providers and group practices.