FACTS: The Agency for Health Care Administration (“AHCA”) is responsible for administering Florida’s Medicaid program and conducting investigations and audits of paid claims to ascertain if Medicaid providers have been overpaid. With regard to investigations of physicians, section 409.9131, Florida Statutes, provides that AHCA must have a “peer” evaluate Medicaid claims before the initiation of formal proceedings by AHCA to recover overpayments. Section 409.9131(2)(c) defines a “peer” as “a Florida licensed physician who is, to the maximum extent possible, of the same specialty or subspecialty, licensed under the same chapter, and in active practice.” Section “109.9131(2)(a) deems a physician to be in “active practice” if he or she has “regularly provided medical care and treatment to patients within the past two years.”
Alfred Murciano, M.D., treats patients who are hospitalized in Level III neonatal intensive care units and pediatric intensive care units in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach County hospitals. His practice is limited to pediatric infectious disease. He has been certified by the American Board of Pediatrics in two areas: General Pediatrics and Pediatric Infectious Diseases. AHCA initiated a review of Medicaid claims submitted by Dr. Murciano between September 1, 2008, and August 31, 2010, and referred those claims to Richard Keith O’Hern, M.D., for peer review. Dr. O’Hern practiced medicine for 37 years, and was engaged in a private general pediatric practice until he retired in December of 2012. During the course of his career, he was certified by the American Board of Pediatrics in General Pediatrics, completed a one-year infectious disease fellowship at the The University of Florida, and treated approximately 16,000 babies with infectious disease issues. However, he was never board certified in pediatric infectious diseases, and at the time he reviewed Dr. Murciano’s Medicaid claims, Dr. O’Hern would have been ineligible for board certification in pediatric infectious diseases. In addition, Dr. O’Hern would have been unable to treat Dr. Murciano’s hospitalized patients in Level III NICUs and PICUs.
After Dr. O’Hern’s review, AHCA issued a Final Agency Audit Report alleging Dr Murciano had been overpaid by $l,051.992.99, and that he was required to reimburse AHCA for the overpayment. In addition, AHCA stated it was seeking to impose a fine of $210,398.60.
OUTCOME: Dr. Murciano argued at the formal administrative hearing that Dr O’Hern was not a “peer” as that term is defined in section 409.9131(20)(c). The ALJ agreed and issued a Recommended Order on May 22, 2014, recommending that AHCA’s case be dismissed because it failed to satisfy a condition precedent to initiating formal proceedings. While recognizing that AHCA is not required to retain a reviewing physician with the exact credentials as the physician under review, the ALJ concluded Dr. O’Hern was not of the same specialty as Dr. Murciano.
On July 31, 2014, AHCA rendered a Partial Final Order rejecting the ALJ’s conclusion that Dr. O’Hern was not a “peer.” In the course of ruling that it has substantive jurisdiction over such conclusions and that its interpretation of section 409.9131(2)(c), Florida Statutes, is entitled to deference, AHCA stated that it interprets the statute “to mean that the peer must practice in the same area as Respondent, hold the same professional license as Respondent, and be in active practice like Respondent.” AHCA concluded that “Dr. O’Hern is indeed a ‘peer’ of Respondent under the Agency’s interpretation of Section 409.9131(2)(c), Florida Statutes, because he too has a Florida medical license, is a pediatrician and had an active practice at the time he reviewed Respondent’s records. That Dr. O’Hern did not hold the same certification as Respondent, or have a professional practice identical to Respondent in no way means he is not a ‘peer’ of Respondent.” AHCA’s rejection of the ALJ’s conclusion of law regarding Dr. O’Hern’s “peer” status caused AHCA to remand the case back to the ALJ to make the factual findings on the claimed overpayments that were not made in the Recommended Order because of the ALJ’s conclusion that Dr. O’Hern did not qualify as a “peer.”
On August 18, 2014, the ALJ issued an Order respectfully declining AHCA’s remand. AHCA then filed a Petition for writ of Mandamus in the First District Court of Appeal, asking the court to direct the ALA to accept the remand and to enter findings of fact and conclusions of law with regard to each overpayment claim. The court assigned case number 1D14-3836 to AHCA’s Petition, and the case is pending.
AHCA v. Alfred Murciano, M.D., DOAH Case No. 13-0795MPI (Recommended Order May 22, 2014), AHCA Rendition No. 14-687-FOF-MDO (Partial Final Order July 31, 2014)
About the Author: The forgoing case summary was prepared by and appeared in the DOAH case notes of the Administrative Law Section newsletter, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Dec. 2014), a publication of the Administrative Law Section of The Florida Bar.