Six key steps to reduce the impact of telehealth audits

Telehealth is almost as old as the telephone itself. In 1879 – just three years after Bell patented the telephone – an article in Lancet described the concept and advocated its adoption. 

A law that’s even older can trigger many telehealth audits today. The 1863 False Claims Act (FCA) was enacted to keep profiteering contractors from defrauding the Union army. It can trigger serious problems for hospitals that don’t take proactive steps to make sure their telehealth practices are audit-proof.  

That’s because the 2010 Affordable Care Act updated the FCA to make healthcare providers liable for “retention of any overpayments” from Medicare and Medicaid. This even includes overpayments resulting from accident or error. Indexing penalties for inflation each year, a requirement added in 2015, increased hospital liabilities. This puts liabilities at three times the amount of the overpayment(s) plus $11,803 to $23,607 for each instance. (Some 29 states and the District of Columbia have additional False Claim laws.) 

These laws’ implications and requirements touch every part of the hospital. Keeping the whole organization in compliance means that all departments have to work together. 

New laws, new regs, new worries for telehealth 

Even before COVID, the government audited claims from what was then a smaller, rural telehealth system. Regulators found a trend of incorrect payments to doctors outside rural areas, who were therefore ineligible to receive them. 

Telehealth is on the latest Office of the Inspector General (OIG) work plan, too. The OIG will be addressing remote patient monitoring by telehealth as an area of concern. 

The public health emergency, with its series of 90-day waivers, made it possible for telehealth to grow so fast. Now, as the COVID emergency ebbs, Congress is considering making its current, expanded status permanent. (Two bills were introduced in May. One would enable audio-only telehealth services for Medicare enrollee. The other would expand telehealth for Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Programs.) 

That’s good. But with laws come regulations covering acceptable types, locations and forms of delivery of telehealth services. And with regulations come scrutiny and audits. That can create challenges, especially with the specter of FCA liability in the background. 

The best way to cope with audits is to prevent the need for them in the first place. Here are six steps to follow: 

  1. Know what you’re up against. Keep up to date with all the developing federal and state regulations, waivers, and other requirements. That in itself can take up most, if not all, of your personal and your compliance team’s time.  
    Related: Find out how a team of expert compliance professionals and a nationally respected law firm track and analyze the latest regulatory changes, keep you updated, and give you actionable ways to adapt your process.  
  1. Inventory your waivers. Which waivers do you rely on, in which departments and facilities? Do the providers and staff that they apply to know about them? And who makes sure the requirements are met and documents it? 
  1. Check your records. One of the biggest causes of noncompliance isn’t malice. It’s error. Did an accidental typo in Coding result in an incorrect claim? Does everyone in Billing know which states require what reimbursement levels for telehealth services? Are certain telehealth records missing? Who’s responsible for keeping the signed doctors’ orders and documents that establish medical necessity? Do patients and services meet billing guidelines? Do you have a telehealth compliance policy? Does it need changing? Start conducting spot-checks to find out. 

    Related: Find out about state requirements for telehealth billing.  
  2. Audit your process. Another big cause of noncompliance is miscommunication – particularly the assumption that someone else is taking care of something. So put together an internal audit team, with each department represented. That way, each can learn from the other. Hold an entrance conference to highlight what you learned from your spot checks, define the internal audit’s scope, set expectations, and assign specific tasks and timelines. 
  1. Fix whatever’s broken. Reconvene the internal audit team and communicate the findings. Together, use that input to find opportunities to correct or cure what’s wrong in your process. Then, create a Corrective Action Plan (CAP) that will include needed education, training, policy, and process changes. Monitor your CAP over time, to see how it’s working and to spot anything else that needs fixing. 
  1. Rebill and repay. If your internal audit and CAP were successful, you’ll have discovered missing or insufficient documentation. Report it. You may have also have found instances of incorrect payments. Rebill and repay. Yes, it will cost your hospital money. But not nearly as much as a full-blown government audit. A Department of Justice investigation could end up costing you time, legal fees, and FCA triple damages. 

Patient demand for telehealth isn’t going away. Neither are the costs of noncompliance with telehealth regulations. As the public health emergency expires, fines from regulators and denial of claims from payers are sure to add up. The best way for your healthcare organization to solve these potentially massive financial problems is to work together to prevent them. Proactively partnering with colleagues in all relevant departments, your compliance team can lead the efforts to identify and fix issues before they become major problems. That way, you’ll be able to provide the telehealth services patients want in compliance with what the regulations demand. 

It’s a big effort to keep your compliance champions connected and communicating. See how YouCompli can help you manage the rollout of new regulations and verify best efforts to regulators and your board. YouCompli is the only healthcare compliance software combining actionable regulatory analysis with a simple SaaS workflow.