On March 30, 2020, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a blanket waiver of the requirement that hospitals maintain a utilization review (UR) committee and the process to review the medical necessity of Medicare and Medicaid admissions.
This waiver extends for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis and is intended to allow hospitals to utilize UR staff for patient care. Dr. Seema Verma, CMS Administrator, explained, “In a time of crisis, regulations shouldn’t stand in the way of patient care.”
This waiver is a potential relief for hospitals since it temporarily alleviates some of the regulatory requirements they face, but taking advantage of it isn’t mandatory. Dr. Verma explains, “Many healthcare systems won’t need these waivers and they shouldn’t use them if they don’t need them but the flexibilities are there.” It also does not apply to commercial insurers and their patients.
UR involves much more than simply fulfilling the Medicare Conditions of Participation. COVID-19 can be very complicated and often involves many more facets other than respiratory distress or failure. Determining the correct status for non-critically ill patients requires a high-functioning UR process backed by evidence-based medicine. UR, when consistently applied to all cases, is a powerful tool to defend revenue integrity against denials, audits and potentially under-coding. Inpatient or outpatient status affects not only a hospital’s reimbursement, but also patient financial responsibilities and quality reporting. To the extent that hospitals are not re-purposing their utilization review staff for patient care, they should consider maintaining the current UR process.
While patient care remains the primary concern during COVID-19, the financial effects of the crisis will linger for many months afterwards. Because of canceled elective procedures and reserving beds for COVID-19 patients, many hospitals are facing significant revenue decline, and some are even furloughing staff. The next few months will be difficult both clinically and administratively. Maintaining good UR discipline may help hospitals emerge from this emergency in better financial condition and be able to better serve their populations.
Some organizations might consider the UR waiver as a means to reduce personnel expenditure, even if there is no need to repurpose UR personnel for patient care. But waiving their standard UR process may affect hospitals’ long-term institutional knowledge. High-functioning UR processes take significant time and expense to build and maintain. Hospitals that continue with a functioning process will not have to rebuild at the end of the declared emergency, preserving revenue integrity.
It is critical to remember that the waiver does not eliminate the requirement that hospitals submit accurate claims for reimbursement. Nor has the Federal False Claims Act been waived. There is a specific focus by the Department of Justice and Office of Inspector General related to COVID-19 claims. Medicare requires prompt identification via self-auditing and repayment of overpayments due to medical necessity errors. A high functioning UR process helps a hospital correctly submit Medicare claims. Hospitals taking the UR waiver, by eliminating the concurrent review safeguards against placing a patient in the incorrect status, may have to budget for, plan and put into place enhanced post-discharge reviews and refunds of Medicare payments to ensure compliance.
CMS also specified that it is not waiving the requirement that hospitals maintain an effective, ongoing, hospital-wide, data-driven quality assessment and performance improvement program. The metrics driven by hospital inpatient admissions remain important, such as mortality, length of stay, and readmissions. As most quality metrics are related to a correct underlying patient status, the UR process can ensure the continued accuracy of these measurements.
Hospitals should make use of this waiver if they need to repurpose UR personnel into clinical roles. However, there are many potential consequences of using this wavier as discussed above. This is a complicated situation that requires careful analysis, and hospitals should consider carefully before abandoning their existing UR process through this crisis.
To learn more, please visit our COVID-19 resource page at https://www.optum.com/covid-19.html.
¹Department of Justice, “Combatting Coronavirus Fraud”, https://www.justice.gov/coronavirus, accessed 4/16/2020.
Kurt Hopfensperger, MD, JD, is regional vice president for provider relations and education for Optum Physician Advisor Solutions. He is a board-certified Neurologist, an attorney, and a member of the Health Law and Administrative Law sections of the American Bar Association.