By Lindsay Dosen, senior vice president of legal and compliance, Vatica Health
As more physician groups move into value-based care (VBC), many are encountering risk adjustment compliance issues they aren’t prepared for. Some of these issues can have serious legal and financial consequences if left unchecked. Preparing for these issues will enable physician practices to successfully transition to, and thrive in, a VBC environment by reducing compliance risk, improving patient outcomes and boosting financial performance. This article focuses on three common VBC compliance risks that PCPs should be aware of—along with recommendations on how best to mitigate them.
Risk 1: Unsubstantiated HCC codes
With the traditional fee-for-service payment models that PCPs have historically operated under, health plans—not PCPs—have primarily focused on accurately capturing Hierarchical Condition Category (HCC) codes for purposes of risk adjustment. However, under VBC arrangements (depending on the type of gain-sharing relationship), PCPs must focus on accurately capturing and documenting HCC codes. Underreporting or missing codes could translate to lost revenue for the PCP. Overreporting or submitting HCC codes that are inaccurate or unsubstantiated could subject the PCP to legal liability and regulatory penalties.
While this has been a major issue for health plans in recent years, this is also becoming a significant compliance risk for PCPs, as regulatory agencies have increased scrutiny of the risk adjustment programs and activities of both health plans and healthcare providers. These regulatory actions often assert violations of the False Claims Act (FCA) based on the government’s position that the risk adjustment payments were artificially inflated due to inaccurate or unsubstantiated diagnoses codes. Violations of the FCA can result in multi-million-dollar fines, not to mention lasting damage to a physician group’s public image and reputation, even when the violations were committed in error and without intentional wrongdoing by the PCP.
Fortunately, there are ways PCPs can protect against this compliance risk. First, PCPs should avoid payment structures that base payment on either a higher number of codes or higher-value codes. These types of payment arrangements are construed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) as problematic because they incentivize over coding and upcoding. Second, PCPs should provide training that reinforces the importance of compliant and accurate coding and that educates their staff about the potential legal, regulatory and financial risks associated with submitting inaccurate or unsubstantiated codes. Last, PCPs should invest in compliance programs that review coding and documentation to ensure accuracy.
Risk 2: Improper medical record review and sign-off
Another common VBC compliance issue that PCPs face is medical record compliance. You would think that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recommended medical record review and sign-off process would be simple and straightforward. And it is—but only if the right person is doing it.
CMS outlines specific requirements as it relates to medical record documentation and risk adjustment diagnosis codes. Submissions with documentation issues could impact the validity of the medical record in a Risk Adjustment Data Validation (RADV) audit, leading to a potential discrepancy for the audited CMS-HCC findings. For a diagnosis to be risk adjustment-eligible, it must result from a face-to-face encounter with an approved provider type. The medical record must have, among other things, a valid signature and credentials for the approved provider. For PCPs, that means not just anyone in the practice can sign off on a medical record. A CMS risk adjustment-approved physician must be present during the face-to-face encounter. The record must also be signed by the CMS risk adjustment-approved provider. Learn more here.
This is an issue that can be easily remedied with proper education and training. PCPs should take steps to make sure that their staff clearly understands the importance of following the CMS guidance related to medical record documentation for risk adjustment. PCPs and their teams should read and be familiar with these compliance guidelines and should develop and implement policies and procedures to ensure compliance.
Risk 3: Vendor non-compliance
A third VBC issue is the misconception that a PCP’s responsibility for compliance is limited to only activities within the practice. If a PCP is working with an outside vendor that is non-compliant, the PCP may also be held liable for the vendor’s compliance violations.
The best way to mitigate this risk is to vet prospective vendors thoroughly in advance to ensure they have a clean compliance record and a strong compliance program in place. When selecting a risk adjustment vendor, PCPs should conduct due diligence to include, without limitation, reviewing information about the vendor’s compliance and security programs, any applicable coding policies and procedures, mechanisms for reporting suspected fraud, waste and abuse, exclusion screening, and any prior enforcement or legal actions taken against the vendor. In addition, a thorough review should be completed of the vendor’s operations related to the services being provided, including coding. Finally, PCPs should be thoughtful when structuring any fee arrangements with the vendor so as not to encourage over coding or upcoding. Payments under the arrangement should be based on the scope and quality of the services performed, without fluctuation (including bonuses or penalties) tied to the value or volume of the diagnosis codes captured.
Final recommendation: appoint a compliance lead
These three issues are examples of the compliance risks that PCPs operating in VBC are faced with every day. However, they are also examples of how an effective compliance program can help PCPs successfully navigate these issues and substantially reduce risk in VBC arrangements. An important way to ensure the PCP has an effective compliance program is to appoint a compliance lead for the practice. The compliance lead should stay up to date on compliance requirements and guidelines, develop policies and procedures to ensure compliance, provide training, promote awareness, and monitor and enforce compliance within the organization. An effective compliance program, led by a person with knowledge and expertise related to the compliance risks and regulatory requirements that are applicable to VBC, can greatly mitigate the compliance and financial risks to the practice. With compliance adequately addressed, PCPs can focus on delivering efficient, high-quality care to patients, which leads to successful financial performance in a VBC arrangement.