By George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law
You are a physician, nurse or other health care provider who bills Medicare. You have received that dreaded letter from the Zone Program Integrity Contractor (ZPIC) for Medicare advising you that it is auditing you for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). You know that the words “Program Integrity” by themselves mean that possible fraud is being investigated, at least that is the suspicion giving rise to this particular audit.
To read an earlier blog which I wrote on tips for responding to ZPIC audits, click here.
You have dutifully contacted an experienced health law attorney to aid you in responding to the ZPIC’ s request for records and information. You have obtained all of the requested medical records documentation, authoritative medical journal articles and other information that may be useful in supporting the care you delivered and for which you billed, added explanatory notes (clearly and contemporaneously dated, of course) where necessary or where records were missing, and done all you can to fully and completely respond to the audit.
After the Initial Audit Response and Site Visit.
Now, several weeks later, the ZPIC auditor/investigator contacts you and advises you that he would like you to come to his office to answer a few questions. The ZPIC auditor/investigator states that this is “just routine” and should only take approximately 20 minutes.
After discussing this with your attorney, knowing that you have committed no fraud and that your medical records are in pretty good shape to support your billing, you decide to go to the ZPIC office for the interview. (Note: I know that many attorneys would recommend against this action, but often we advise a client, with the right set of facts, of course, to do this.) What should you expect?
What to Expect When You Show up to Be Interviewed by the ZPIC Auditor.
Although we cannot guarantee you that you will experience the same as we have in the past, this is what happened often enough with us where it seems to be somewhat common practice in such audits.
1. Expect the ZPIC office to be in a building with good security, including magnetic/electronic scanning for guns and weapons, like at the airport or court house. Do not attempt to take any type of weapon inside the building, including pen knives on key chains and tear gas or pepper spray canisters.
2. Bring a valid government identification card with your photograph. If you are with an attorney or a consultant, that person will also need one. One of the first things that will happen is that you will be asked to show your identification cards to prove you are who you say you are.
3. Be sure you have your correct office address on file with Medicare. If the auditors show up at an address you have listed and your practice is not there, you will either get a letter automatically terminating your Medicare billing privileges or you will be called down for this interrogation by the ZPIC. This is a primary reason for such ZPIC interrogations. Be sure your physical office address, including suite number, apartment number, office number, etc., are correctly reflected in the Provider Enrollment and Chain/Ownership System (PECOS), the electronic portal through which Medicare providers enroll in Medicare.
4. You aren’t going to be interviewed by just one person and it isn’t going to be just “20 minutes.”
5. In most cases, there will be three or more auditors/investigators involved in the interview with you. This is why it is a good idea to bring your attorney and her paralegal so that you also have some support, as well. The least number of auditor/investigators that we have ever seen involved in such interviews is two. Don’t be surprised if there are three or four.
6. The questioning and interviewing will take much longer than you expected. Plan on taking the rest of the day off so that you are not rushed and do not feel pressured to get it over with fast. It is not going to be over with fast.
7. Don’t joke around with the ZPIC auditors. This is a very serious matter. Many talented government investigators will attempt to joke and make light of things in order to get you to let your guard down. Do not play into this. Be serious and act seriously at all times.
8. You are not in an endurance contest. Ask for bathroom breaks, water breaks or just a break to talk with your attorney, as many times as you desire. Do this at least once each hour. This will help to keep your blood circulating and keep you alert.
9. You will be confronted with what the ZPIC auditors believe they have found that violates Medicare regulations. This may include, for example, billing services for patients who were dead at the time, billing for services on dates after the patient was no longer qualified to receive them, billing for services that were billed by another provider, etc. Do not guess at why this happened if you did not know for a fact. You can advise the investigator that you will take down the investigation, look into it and provide the information to him or her at a later date.
10. Don’t be surprised if the ZPIC auditor has incorrect information. Often the ZPIC will have confused information on two different Medicare beneficiaries with the same names or whose Medicare numbers were incorrectly recorded. For example, in one recent ZPIC investigator interview with my client, the investigator accused the physician of billing for services provided to a patient who had been deceased for two years. The physician had just seen the patient on a follow-up visit a month prior to the interview. The ZPIC had confused a dead patient who had the same name with the live patient. This is not uncommon.
11. Don’t be surprised if the ZPIC auditor asks you about other Medicare provider’s billings for the same patient. This also happened to a client of mine in a recent case. The ZPIC investigator questioned why the XYZ company would have billed for the same services as those provided by my client, a solo practitioner. My client did not know. He correctly told the auditor that he did not know why the other party had billed Medicare for the same services, but he had provided the services to his patient and he had billed for the services. He could not know whey someone else did something.
12. If there have been intervening factors affecting your billing practices, disclose these to the investigator. In one case, my client had changed software for her electronic health records and billing. One of the reasons this was necessary was because of bugs that made the billings sometimes unreliable. Records more than four (4) years old were no longer available. The client disclosed this.
13. Be sure you are able to reconcile the number of patients seen per day, the number of hours the CPT codes billed to Medicare are supposed to reflect, and that these seem reasonable. If you are billing time-based CPT codes for patients that it would take you 27 hours to see in a day, you are in trouble. You must know this ahead of time and either have a reasonable answer to address the problem (e.g., an incorrect date entry in the billing software caused two days worth of services to accidentally be billed for the same date of service) or correct the over-billing error.
14. Know what rules, regulations and guidelines apply to the billings for the CPT codes you are billing. Check to see if there are local coverage decisions (LCDs) from your area Medicare Administrative Carrier (MAC) or National Coverage Decisions (NCDs) from CMS and know them. Be sure you have followed them and are following them.
15. Know the licensure rules and regulations for your profession, as well as the Medicare guidelines for billing for your profession. Sometimes billing for what an assistant, trainee, or ancillary provider does is allowed, and sometimes it isn’t. If you bill for what an assistant does, be sure you know the rules and are properly billing. The ZPIC investigator certainly will ask questions about this.
16. Your health record entries, assessments, evaluations, progress notes, etc., are required to be made contemporaneously with your delivery of the services. This generally means within 24 hours, as a rule of thumb. Records made a week or a month later are not considered to be reliable or accurate. So be sure you have made and are making your records contemporaneously with seeing the patient or providing the services.
17. Check the location code for the claims you have submitted. Make sure they reflect the correct site that the services were delivered. There could be differences in payments based on the site/location code. You will be asked about this if there are discrepancies.
18. If you identify problems and issues when preparing for your ZPIC interview, go ahead and correct them. This way you will be able to show you have made an honest mistake, have changed your procedures and the mistake(s) will not happen again in the future. Sometimes this may require terminating your billing company, purchasing new software, retaining a professional consultant, asking for an educational site visit from the MAC, and obtaining additional continuing education on billing practices and procedures for you and your staff (some of which CMS offers online).
We have many helpful resources on our webpage and YouTube page. Click here to view our video Q&A on ZPIC audits for more information.
To read an additional blog I wrote on preparing for an audit, click here.
Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late; Consult with a Health Law Attorney Experienced in Medicare and Medicaid Issues Now.
The attorneys of The Health Law Firm represent healthcare providers in Medicare audits, ZPIC audits and RAC audits throughout Florida and across the U.S. They also represent physicians, medical groups, nursing homes, home health agencies, pharmacies, hospitals and other healthcare providers and institutions in Medicare and Medicaid investigations, audits, recovery actions and termination from the Medicare or Medicaid Program.
For more information please visit our website at www.TheHealthLawFirm.com or call (407) 331-6620 or (850) 439-1001.
About the Author: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law. He is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida, area. www.TheHealthLawFirm.com The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Ave., Altamonte Springs, FL 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620.
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