Watch the full interview here!
I’m Farshid Kazi, co-founder of DoctusTech and an internist by training with a focus on palliative care.
Levi Wiggins: On another episode of Live with Dr. Kazi! You are a population health expert & co-founder of DoctusTech. And today we’re going to do a bit of a deep dive into the recent case of the Department of Justice and whistleblower Cathy Ormsby against Sutter Health and Affiliates, with their false claims act violations, alleged, and the $90 Million settlement.
What is the first thing you think when you hear about DOJ vs Sutter Health?
Farshid Kazi MD: It makes me sad. I mean, I think a lot of us providers know that there’s a lot of pressure around documentation accuracy, and it felt like it was a Swiss-cheese effect. I have to think that my colleagues in the field of value-based care are trying to do everything right.
Always trying to be accurate and document appropriately. But sometimes, when you set up systems in piecemeal, there’s not a proper safety net to catch when multiple errors happen, the perfect way. And unfortunately, that was what the situation looks like it could have been at Sutter Health.
Levi Wiggins: I mean, in the, the big 45 page piece that the DOJ released, there were a lot of different parts that got highlighted. And I think we were discussing earlier some of the things that they did make perfect sense, like that’s a good idea, right?
Farshid Kazi MD: Yeah. That’s right. You want to bring in your patients once a year, talk about the medical conditions, talk about what’s happening, make sure that everything’s safe at home.
Really try to plan ahead for the following year. So the concept around an annual wellness visit. Completely kosher. It’s actually encouraged and something that us providers look forward to doing. And oftentimes during those visits, you will document HCC diagnoses. These are things that the patients have.
You want to talk about it with the patients. Tell the plans, tell the Medicare, talk about what their medical conditions are, and also think about what you’re going to do preventatively for that following year. And during that visit, you’ll often document HCC diagnoses, and sometimes programs will provide providers with all the information possible so they can properly document during that visit.
But what you want to do is be careful that you’re not helping increase the up documentation or up-coding and making sure on the backend, everything is compliant. And sometimes if you’re just focusing on the documentation, and making sure the diagnoses are in the chart before claims is submitted and not thinking about the compliance piece, that’s kind of where you can end up in Sutter’s situation.
Levi Wiggins: Now, I read that they set a goal to increase their risk adjustment scores by 28%. It seems a little high.
Farshid Kazi MD: Yeah, nationally, the average is around 3%. When you think about risk adjustment going up every year. And so typically, we never try to tell providers, “we have a target on which we want to increase the RAF.”
It’s more about how do we improve our accuracy. So thinking about both up and down. So if you’re having diagnoses that you’re carrying over that are inaccurate, really trying to empower your providers to say, “Hey, this should not be submitted.” Or “this is inaccurate,” is the right way to think about it.
So, setting a goal of 28%, again, not having been in their shoes. Perhaps it was more around increasing their accuracy and not necessarily increasing the score, which would be a no-no.
Levi Wiggins: And how do you feel about a coder coming in after the encounter and adding a few codes that the clinician may have just simply overlooked.
Farshid Kazi MD: You know, what Sutter had in place is no different than multiple groups across the United States. They have work being done before the patient visit, they have worked being done after the patient visit; coders are an integral part of the team to accurately reflect the work that providers are doing with patients.
And the problem comes when you’re suggesting diagnoses to providers who have not necessarily been educated around why that’s being presented in front of them and given them a workflow that allows them to only check boxes to carry diagnosis over so they can get through the workday.
The key really here is, are you giving the right information, educating the providers and allowing them to make a clinical decision? So when you have a coder coming in and suggesting something that wasn’t necessarily documented at the point of care, it becomes a little bit more of a gray area. And you want to be very clear that your provider understands why they’re being suggested that diagnosis.
And then given the power to say yes or no one, either direction.
Levi Wiggins: We talk about a lot of risk adjustment, but the risk to providers that this case seems to indicate is that not just CMS, but also the DOJ is very concerned – this is the first time I’ve seen the, the word mischarging. Talk about the risk to provider groups, now.
Farshid Kazi MD: Yeah. I mean, this is a whistleblower case, right? So we know that the reason that the DOJ looked at this was because someone raised their arms and said, “Hey, this doesn’t feel right.” RADV audits are another way to prevent abuse of the Medicare advantage documentation compliance programs.
But that right now is focused just on payors. Every time we talk to provider groups, or I speak with a colleague, I’m always trying to encourage them to think about compliance more than RAF accuracy, because it’s only a matter of time with the Direct Medicare Contracting model. ACOs taking downside risk that provider groups who are taking on this risk are going to be held accountable in the same way that a payor is.
And so it’s unfair for us to say, look, we submitted a clinical diagnosis without justification. It’s up the plan to figure out whether we are compliant or not. And then we’re shielded by the plan. So right now, all audits through MA plans are happening at the payor level. But I’m really confident it’s only a matter of time before it starts coming back to us provider groups.
So this, if nothing else, should make people a little nervous, or do they have the right processes in place? Are you educating your providers to understand the “why” around risk adjustment? Am I accurately documenting? Do I have the right justification? And am I given the right amount of time to say yes or no to these diagnoses?
If you don’t have the right information, you should not be carrying over any diagnosis. That is just a yes, because it’s going to make your boss happy or make you get through the day easier. So making sure that conversation is happening is integral to making sure that the next piece- which is compliance- is happening.
Levi Wiggins: So as we kind of peer over the garden wall here into Sutter Health’s dealings, obviously, no admission of wrongdoing was made in a $90 million settlement, but from out here, what do you see that they could have, or should have done differently or better?
Farshid Kazi MD: I think if you think about risk adjustment strategies, when you think about it in a pyramid, the foundation on which you build risk adjustment should really be around empowering, educating, and giving knowledge transfer to providers so that they can make clinical decisions.
So what is it that they’re doing? Why are they doing it? And then what should they do if they see a mistake? And so if that foundation was built, I suspect that the providers would be able to stand up and say, “Hey, some of these diagnosis that you’re putting it in front of me are inaccurate!” And a big mistake that was seen not only at Sutter, that I see across the United States, is acute diagnoses are being carried over year over year.
Meaning things like acute stroke, acute heart attack. That should not be coded in a patient the next year – or a malignancy that’s been resolved. And again, being carried over because someone gave a fax paper or a piece of paper to a doctor and said, can you please check yes or no to these diagnoses?
And maybe the provider thought, “Hey, the patient did have this at some point” But didn’t realize that this is not something that happened this year. And that’s up to, again, building the knowledge around what you’re trying to do. Putting the infrastructure in place so that you’re catching and saying, “Look, an acute diagnosis carried over year over year. Let’s go back to this provider. Did this patient really have two strokes? Two consecutive years?”
Maybe it’s yes. Maybe it’s no, but there needs to be a process around catching that. So I think building knowledge, having point of care workflow to empower your docs and then really building a solid foundation around compliance is going to be key.
Levi Wiggins: That’s good. I like that. One thing that we saw in this specific case is they were accused of intentionally coding unsupported diagnoses, and then finding them and not paying back – on purpose. So when we talk about increasing accuracy, talk to me a little bit about the process. I guess how you run a business, looking at money you’ve you’ve gotten and how to give that back in a way that’s ethical and reasonable.
Farshid Kazi MD: Yeah. I mean, it’s really hard to give money back once you’ve gotten it. So the best approach is really, don’t take the money if you’re not deserving of it. So really making sure that before the diagnoses go to claims, and then go to the payors, and then Medicare, you know, with full confidence, that they actually existed in the patient chart.
So one thing I always coach and work with provider groups is saying, what are the diagnoses that are acute? You don’t want to carry over and make sure that’s a no-no. But the second piece is let’s talk a little bit about, at the point of care. As the doctor’s writing the note, is there a way to catch and make sure that there’s compliance there before you even submit the bill?
And if not, let’s make sure we’re doing some audits and charts to give some confidence to you as an organization that you’re not receiving any reimbursements for diagnoses that are inaccurate.
And then the second piece to that is once you’ve done, that is having a retrospective aspect of let’s do some charts on. Let’s look through this and make sure we’re paying back appropriately because compounded over time. That can be a massive bill as well.
Levi Wiggins: Okay. So as we, as we look into the future here I mean, the whistleblower case is, is one avenue. The RADV audits are another avenue. But I guess what, what is, what is the risk level for, for a doctor? Like, what’s the likelihood of getting caught at this point.
Farshid Kazi MD: Yeah. You know, is something morally wrong only if you get caught, right? We could talk about that forever. But to me, it’s a question of do the right thing. The first time around. I think all providers have gone into the field because of that same level of commitment to their patients.
So if you are in value based care, because you care about delivering better care. And you think you can do it at a lower cost. Risk adjustment is a necessary part of that, but do it right the first time. So document accurately. And I think that the two pieces that provider groups should be worried about is there’s a significant risk to them.
That Medicare is going to now start to audit provider groups as the risk is passed from payors to provider groups. And the two things that I see all the time that providers are doing incorrectly is one, they’re carrying over acute diagnoses. And two, when they’re putting the diagnoses in there, they’re not necessarily justifying it.
They’re being told by their group that, “Hey, these diagnoses might exist. Do you agree?” And in order to move through the day, they say yes, but the diagnosis, maybe technically doesn’t meet Medicare guidelines, or doesn’t meet clinical guidelines. And that is not being audited, right? Yeah. And I don’t think that’s going to be very far off from when Medicare says, not only do you have to be compliant from a technical perspective and the pieces of your documentation, but Hey, the definition of the medical problem needs to be there.
Does the patient really actually have that diagnosis?
Levi Wiggins: So we published the white paper on RADV audits, but the principles from that should be just as applicable to provider groups. And I want to just touch on those. One thing. Our paper determined was the provider behavior is the first thing to fix. And that’s, that’s the education piece.
The next thing we, we determined was that proper documentation fixes nearly everything. You know, you mentioned that if you document something that isn’t, you know, maybe it was well-documented, but it wasn’t clinically accurate- that could spell trouble down the road, but right now, we just really need documentation to be on point.
The next thing we’ve determined is that without the proper tools in place, documentation is nearly impossible to get right. Another thing we did determine that certain codes get used erroneously more than others.
That’s also a very large terrifying gun to the head of a business. Is there anything I missed any any big takeaways we want to make sure we’re sharing.
Farshid Kazi MD: No. I think the whole process of auditing and checking is all limited by human capital.
Right? We don’t have enough hours in the day or people to help us check this, but as we enter into this next digital era of healthcare, where we’re in the midst, Technology can help you do that. Not only can you audit some sample size, but you can have good visibility to your entire patient chart and be able to say with full degree of confidence, that every chart that I’m documenting against has some type of technology or eye that’s been placed on it to make sure I’m compliant and making sure I’m not making a human error, which happens.
So utilizing technology to solve for some of the workflow gaps to solve for some of the knowledge gaps we’ll augment, not necessarily replace the strategies that are good compliant organization has. So making sure you build that in, and then having a clear safety net and allow people to be able to raise their hands, if they feel uncomfortable will be the key to making sure you’re compliant and then have, you know, you know, have good nights of sleep at the end because you’re know you’re doing everything right for the right reasons.
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