The AP reports:
In coming weeks, private audit companies will begin scouring mountains of medical records. Their mission: Determine if health care providers erred when billing Medicare and require them to return any overpayments to the federal government. The auditors will keep a tidy percentage for their services.The contractors have shown they're pretty good at their work. In just three years, they've returned more than $300 million to the federal government - and that's just from three states. That experiment is winding down. But a larger, national program will soon take its place.The rollout of "recovery audit contractors" will be gradual. They'll monitor health care providers in 19 states beginning this spring. In October, an additional five states will join.
Health care providers are nearly unanimous in their dislike of the program's continuation, much less its expansion. Many lawmakers have similar sentiments, though it was Congress in 2006 that made the program permanent. A bill sponsored by Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., calls for a one-year moratorium.The program's critics say that contractors have too much incentive to question as many claims as possible. That's because they get to keep about 20 percent of the overpayments."What we have here is bureaucrats and government contractors coming in and trying to second guess what doctors and nurses have done in a hospital setting," said Don May, vice president for policy at the American Hospital Association. "They're playing Monday morning quarterback."
While the contractors are often described as overzealous, that's a compliment as far as one watchdog group is concerned."A little zealotry is what were looking for on the part of the taxpayers," said Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste.
When the program goes national, all contractors must have a medical director on staff. The agency also is limiting how far back auditors can look when reviewing patient records. The limit will be three years, but under no circumstances, before Oct. 1, 2007.Finally, the agency is working on regulations that would defer repayment until after the appeals process is completed. Currently, the money is taken back regardless of the appeal status, which providers say is a financial burden and akin to guilty until proven innocent.But what gets health care providers most upset is when auditors determined a procedure or hospital admission was not medically necessary.May said that there's a "lot of gray area" when it comes to whether a patients needs to be admitted to a hospital or rehab facility. Often the patients have diabetes or other complicating factors that prompt a physician to want closer monitoring."You need a physician looking at these daily if not more so to make sure the patients are being managed effectively," May said.