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Data Mining in Medicare Fraud: Usage and Effects on Healthcare Providers

June 27, 2012 by  
Filed under Compliance, Health Law Articles

I.   Medicare Fraud Introduction

Medicare FraudRecently, a psychologist in Missouri was indicted and arrested on two counts of healthcare fraud and forgery. At the heart of this case was the fact that the psychologist allegedly submitted claims to Medicare and Medicaid that were virtually impossible for a single individual to perform. In fact, the indictment stated that the physician worked every day except for Christmas from mid-2008 to early 2012, when he was arrested. In other words, he worked three and a half years straight, seven days a week, with only 4 Christmases away from the practice. Obviously, this data raised a few red flags for Medicare fraud fighters. As both interest and concern in the provision of national health care has risen, the current administration has aggressively pursued fraudsters who have improperly billed Medicare, Medicaid and private health plan payors. Not surprisingly, additional funding has accompanied these increased investigative and prosecutorial efforts.

As the government has increased its pressure on fraudulent providers, both law enforcement organizations such as the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG) and contractors of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) have become increasingly adept at identifying and pursuing fraudulent and / or potentially fraudulent billing activities by abusive health care providers.

II.     How is the Government Identifying Fraud and Potential Fraud?

Generally, the two primary targeting tools used by CMS contractors and law enforcement to identify wrongdoing are:  (1) Data Mining, and (2) Complaints.  This article focuses on the first targeting tool – data mining. We will address “complaints” in detail in a later article.

At the outset, it is important to keep in mind that the government has been accumulating utilization, coding and billing data since the passage of the Medicare and Medicaid programs in 1965 as part of Title XVIII of the Social Security Act.  Over the past 40 years, the government has carefully studied this data, identifying trends and noting irregularities. Both HHS-OIG and CMS contractors (including, but not limited to Zone Program Integrity Contractors (ZPICs), Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs), and Medicaid Integrity Contractors (MICs)) are able to effectively use data mining to analyze various aspects of the coding and billing data submitted by billing health care providers. These entities employ experts in database management and use  sophisticated techniques to “slice and dice” the Medicare and Medicaid billing and coding data.  In doing so, they are able to compare providers by practice area, geography, time, and a practically endless number of other factors. They can then effectively identify any “outliers” which may be present when their billing patterns are compared to those of their peers.

For instance, in the case described above, data mining was clearly used to review the psychologist’s claims history and determine that what he was billing was likely both impossible and fraudulent.  Nevertheless, it is important to always keep in mind that although data mining may strongly suggest that a provider is engaging in improper conduct, at the end of the day, an outlier is merely a provider whose billing patterns differ from those of his / her peers.  A review of the documentation must still be conducted to ascertain whether, in fact, fraudulent conduct has occurred.  While ZPICs and MICs handle the majority of the data mining work being conducted, when the data appears to suggest that fraudulent conduct is taking place, providers should expect HHS-OIG and possibly the Department of Justice or the Federal Bureau of Investigations to step into investigation.  Unfortunately, while data mining can detect aberrant patterns in billing data, it can’t explain them, and often times, this leaves well-intentioned providers facing scrutiny if their billing history appears aberrant for an otherwise innocent reason.  For instance, a specialist who is renowned in his area of practice may be referred serious, highly complex patients by his peers. This could result in his billing patterns appearing to be different from those of similarly-situated physicians.  Despite the fact that there is an innocent explanation for the specialist’s billing patterns, the data alone may appear to suggest that fraud is taking place.  Health care providers should take affirmative steps to determine whether their coding and billing patterns are “normal” or whether their practices are irregular when compared to other providers.

To be clear, just because your coding and billing practices differ from those of your peers does not necessarily mean that you are engaging in improper conduct.  Nevertheless, if you are an outlier, we strongly recommend that you carefully analyze your internal practices in an effort to identify why your utilization history differs from those of your peers.  Perhaps you are, in fact, improperly coding or billing for services rendered.  If so, you will need to determine the scope of any overpayment and work with your legal counsel to promptly reimburse the government.  As we have repeatedly advised our clients, “If it isn’t yours, give it back.” Upon review, if your coding and billing practices appear skewed, you need to be ready to explain why your utilization rate is different if audited by a CMS contractor or investigated by law enforcement.

III.        Helpful Tools When Conducted an Internal Assessment

If you are a Compliance Officer, part of your responsibilities includes the identification and repayment of any improper billings. While you can’t completely eliminate the risk of an audit, there are several tools that can help your organization determine how your utilization rates compare to those of your peers.  Among these tools is one of our personal favorites – DecisionHealth’s “E/M Bell Curve Data Book,” which gives a visual overview of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS’) Evaluation and Management (E/M) data rates for 59 different specialties. For instance, a general practitioner can look at his established patient office visits (CPT© codes 99211 – 99215) and compare his utilization rates to the national average for the same CPT© codes. This data can be extremely useful in assessing an office’s billing practices and patterns and give confidence to a provider whose rates are similar to the national average.

Another effective tool, especially for non-E/M practices, such as home health agencies and hospices, is the “The Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care,” which provides a variety of data tools to evaluate Medicare spending by county. Not only does this interactive website have average-spending-per-Medicare-beneficiary maps, it also has a tool which allows providers to examine national and state benchmarks for a variety of statistics. These include Medicare reimbursements, hospice, skilled nursing facility, and home health agency utilization rates, surgical procedures and more. Applied correctly, this data can be instrumental in a practice’s self-evaluation and gives providers significant insight into their own billing patterns.

IV.        How Should You Respond to an Audit?

Staying fully compliant with all of Medicare’s and / or Medicaid’s rules and regulations can be a quite a challenge.  Nevertheless, as a participating provider, you have affirmatively agreed to meet that obligation.  As providers are constantly reminded, serving as a participating provider is a privilege, not a right.  Unfortunately, even with the best tools, physicians, group practices, clinics, home health agencies and other providers may still find themselves subject to Medicare post-payment and / or pre-payment audits by a ZPIC (and now by a RAC). Reviewers and auditors employed by Medicare contractors are highly experienced, knowledgeable and skilled in assessing the propriety of a claim.  They have years of experience handling audits and are quite good at identifying deficiencies in your documentation, regardless of how minor you may believe those  deficiencies might be.  While it is essential to understand your obligations as a Medicare participant, it is equally important to understand how and why practices get audited.  As discussed in earlier articles, while you may not be able to avoid an audit, you can do your very best to help ensure that upon review, a CMS contractor will find that your practices fully meet Medicare rules and regulations.  The development, implementation and adherence to an effective Compliance Plan is the single best step you can take to avoid regulatory problems.

Robert LilesRobert Liles is the managing member of Liles Parker PLLC. Located in our Washington, D.C., office, Robert represents providers in Medicare post-payment audits and appeals, and similar appeals under Medicaid. In addition, Robert counsels clients on regulatory compliance issues, performs gap analyses and internal reviews, and trains healthcare professionals on various legal issues. For a free consultation, call Robert today at 1-800-475-1906.

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