Screening questions may seem benign, but may come with some unintended consequences. During a medical appointment last year, I asked…
As a CMIO, there’s a lot of pressure on you to make sure that the healthcare information technology systems that are being implemented provide a solid return on investment. For many years, EHRs were promoted as a way to improve coding and charge capture. This led to physicians billing higher Evaluation & Management codes, which of course raised suspicion with auditors.
It also led to note bloat, as organizations created macros and templates that would ensure that clinical documentation was compliant with even the most rigorous audits. That meant that a certain percentage of notes actually became less useful than before since they were hard to read and full of nonsense that was required to support billing.
Fast forward to the Meaningful Use era and the rise of value-based care, when more organizations began entering into risk-based contracts. That meant that they needed to get a handle on how sick their patients really were to get the most money to care for those patients.
The Hierarchical Condition Category (HCC) coding paradigm had been created in 2004 and started to rise in prominence over the rest of the decade. HCC codes are tied to ICD-10 diagnosis codes. When combined with demographic information such as age or gender, those HCC codes are used to create a Risk Adjustment Factor (RAF) score for each patient. RAF scores can be used to predict costs, which were tied to payments. The higher your RAF scores, the more money you could bring in.
EHRs were also promoted as the solution to playing the RAF game. They were enhanced to remind physicians to document well so that HCC scores could be assigned and to make sure that they were documenting on those conditions at least annually. ICD-10 selection screens were enhanced to more prominently display codes that would lead to creation of a more complex patient picture.
Professional organizations also got into the game. My own organization published a series of “practice hacks” to encourage physicians to use team-based strategies to improve risk adjustment, essentially leveraging staff to massage documentation in the EHR with a goal of achieving higher payments. Sometimes this led to medical assistants or coders assigning additional codes as charts were reviewed following visits. Often these updates were not approved by a physician.
Practices that bet heavily on participation in Medicare Advantage plans became really good at playing these coding games. Technology made it easy to add highly specific billing codes to better capture patient complexity and to add those codes to the chart, even in visits where they might not have been actually managed.
As consulting clinicians, we could tell if organizations were playing these games. You would see a note for a straightforward visit for a self-limited illness and it would end up with six or eight diagnoses for chronic conditions, all with “continue current management” noted in the assessment and plan. As expected, payments to these organizations rose. However, when dealing with governmental payers, there’s always a piper who will get paid.
CMS is starting to play a mournful tune for many physicians and care delivery organizations with the release of a new rule that calls for organizations to pay back what could be billions of dollars in what CMS now considers overpayments. Auditors will be going after providers who may have indicated that patients were sicker than they actually were, or that they required higher levels of care than the charts can actually substantiate.
CMS won’t just be going after the overpayments, though. It will be using a revised Risk Adjustment Data Validation tool that uses the overpayments that are found during actual audits to extrapolate repayments for all the claims that were submitted during a given year for a given diagnostic subgroup or set of codes. The incorporation of extrapolated repayments applies to the 2018 plan year and subsequent payment periods.
CMS predicts that it will recover $479 million for the 2018 payment year alone, with a forecast of $4.7 billion in repayments over the next decade. An accompanying CMS press release quotes HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra as stating, “For years, federal watchdogs and outside experts have identified the Medicare Advantage program as one of the top management and performance challenges facing HHS, and today we are taking long overdue steps to conduct audits and recoup funds. These steps will make Medicare and the Medicare Advantage program stronger.”
CMS plans to focus its audit strategy on Medicare Advantage Organizations that have been “identified as being at the highest risk for improper payments.” I’ve been involved in consulting engagements at organizations that took fairly substantial liberties in their coding, so it will be interesting to see who winds up on the wall of shame first.
For the tech teams that support organizations that are heavily involved in Medicare Advantage, get ready to be on the looking for requests to look at current functionality and compare it to other features that may be available from EHR vendors or might be on the near-term horizon. It’s also an opportunity for startups to try to fill the gaps, making sure that care that is documented actually gets delivered, even if it’s through lower-cost third parties or use of technology.
For historically conservative organizations that might be quaking in their boots over this, it might lead to requests to restrict access to certain functionalities or workflows or to change the approval workflows when a coder or other personnel want to suggest that a visit’s coding should be changed.
This will also be a win for consulting organizations, who will now be out selling services to help organizations understand their audit risk and how to reduce it, as well as to help support them during the inevitable audit and request for repayments. It’s just one more example of how the complexity of the US healthcare system leads to gamesmanship as everyone tries to get a larger share of the money that makes up the healthcare pie.
Speaking of pie, this week’s pastry therapy includes Blueberry Sour Cream Scones, courtesy of King Arthur Baking. I got a little crazy with the powdered sugar drizzle, but they were the perfect addition to a chilly Sunday morning.
What’s your favorite weekend breakfast food? Leave a comment or email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.