Office of Inspector General

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently released a report revealing that during OIG’s 2014 and 2015 audits of telehealth claims, more than half of the professional telehealth claims paid by the Medicare program did not have matching originating-site facility claims.

According to the report, Medicare telehealth spending increased from $61,302 in 2001 to $17,601,996 in 2015. Among the 191,118 Medicare paid distant-site telehealth claims (totaling $13,795,384), the OIG randomly sampled 100 of those claims and obtained supporting documentation to determine whether the paid telehealth services were allowable under the Medicare requirements. Approximately a third of the claims did not meet certain Medicare requirements, including:

  • 24 claims were unallowable because beneficiaries received services at non-rural originating sites that did not fall under the demonstration program exception. For proper telehealth Medicare reimbursement, beneficiaries must be located in either: (1) an HPSA that is outside of an MSA or within a rural census tract of an MSA, as of December 31 of the preceding year, or (2) a county that is not included in an MSA as of December 31 of the preceding year. Providers should check whether their patients’ location qualify as an originating site via the Medicare Telehealth Payment Eligibility Analyzer.
  • 7 claims were billed by ineligible institutional providers. Institutional facilities at a distant site may bill Medicare only if: (1) the facility is a CAH that elected the Method II payment option and the practitioner reassigned his or her benefits to the critical access hospital (CAH) or (2) the facility provided medical nutrition therapy (MNT) services.
  • 3 claims were for services provided to beneficiaries at unauthorized originating sites. Telehealth services must be furnished to a beneficiary that is located in one of the following sites: the office of a practitioner, a hospital, a CAH, a rural health clinic, a federally qualified health center, a hospital-based or CAH-based renal dialysis center, a skilled nursing facility, or a community mental health center.
  • 2 claims were for services provided by an unallowable means of communication. Under the Federal regulations, telehealth practitioners must provide telehealth services using an interactive telecommunications system, which excludes telephone, fax, or email. However, CMS provides a carve-out for asynchronous store and forward technology for Federal telemedicine demonstration programs in Alaska and Hawaii.
  • 1 claim was for a non-covered service. Practitioners should refer to the CMS website for the list of telehealth services payable under the Medicare physician fee schedule. Changes to the list are made annually.
  • 1 claim was for services provided by a physician located outside the U.S. Telehealth services are only covered if those services are provided within the U.S.

The OIG largely cited that many of these claims should not have been approved and reimbursed in the first place. For example, the majority of claims related to unallowable geographical locations of the originating sites. Presently, Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) do not have a process of editing these types of errors because claim forms do not have designated field for the originating-site location. The claim forms also do not have a field determining the form of communication used by the practitioner. CMS officials stated that it would be unlikely that the forms would include such designations because those designations would not be applicable to non-telehealth practitioners who use the same claim forms.

The OIG recommended that CMS take the following actions:

  • Conduct periodic post-payment reviews for errors for which telehealth claims edits cannot be implemented;
  • Work with MACs to implement all telehealth claim edits listed in the Manual; and
  • Offer education and training sessions to practitioners on Medicare telehealth requirements and related resources.

To date, there have not been any reported cases of enforcement actions taken against telehealth practitioners and stakeholders. However, practitioners and stakeholders should be aware that qui tam actions under the False Claims Act (FCA) may be brought by whistleblowers. The first FCA case was brought in 2016 where a Connecticut mental health practice allegedly submitted false claims to Medicare for telehealth service provided to patients. The complaint alleged that the physician and mental health practice did not use interactive audio and video communications, but simply treated Medicare beneficiaries over the telephone. Although that settlement only amounted to $36,704, the recent OIG report should signal to telehealth practitioners and stakeholders that OIG is now aware and will most likely hold telehealth service providers more accountable for complying with both Federal and state telehealth laws and regulations.

Therefore, practitioners and stakeholders should familiarize themselves with Medicare telehealth requirements as they will most likely change in the next several months, seen most recently with the passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which expanded coverage of telehealth services under Medicare related to telestroke care, Medicare Advantage, and accountable care organizations.