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A Long Summer


There are a lot of jokes about 2020 not being such a good year. For me, it is the year that I lost my mother at the tender age of 89 just weeks before her 90th birthday. To be honest, my math skills led me to believe she was 90 and on her way to her 91st birthday. Oh well.

Throughout this long summer while hanging out with Mama, I realized that we were living through history. Like the 1918 Spanish Flu, the Covid pandemic is an event that will continue to influence history for decades. I knew I should be writing about it but honestly, is there anything left to write? Maybe.

I lived through one aspect of Covid that isn’t getting as much attention as the number of cases and the mortality rate. My mother was ill since February and it had nothing to do with Covid. How she was treated and if she was treated had everything to do with Covid. In the end, I wonder if Covid will totally transform our healthcare industry.

My mother, always social, had very few visitors in the months prior to her death. I did not encourage visitors and when people asked if they could visit, I usually refused. I had two parents and my Dad, with Dementia, simply can’t remember to wear a mask correctly. It was uncomfortable for him and also, Mama. Covid would have been a death sentence for either of them. Even after it became clear that my mother was terminal, I would not have wished a Covid death on her. And who would have cared for her and my Dad if my son or I became sick?

Hiring help was similarly difficult. We got very lucky when an aide who is otherwise unemployed became available. She is sitting out the semester in college due to the pandemic and we are learning from the news that she may have made the very best decision. Agency help would have meant an aide that possibly went to different homes and it would be unfair to limit someone’s ability to work. Covid has changed the economic status of many Americans.

At times, I received a lot of encouragement to send Mama to the hospital. Each time her condition exacerbated, I called the local ERs and learned that nobody was allowed to stay with her in the Emergency room and if admitted, only one person who tested negative for Covid could stay with her. This person was not interchangeable. That meant my Dad who would forget rules about leaving the room would not be able to visit and either me or my son would not be able to see her.

Chances are we would have dropped her off at the ER like so much dry cleaning that got lost and we would have never seen her again. I could not do that and I had her written power of attorney for healthcare so it did not happen.

But there were friends and relatives who made life easier. I have a cousin who is a physician who visited. His approach to Mom’s care was like mine – as long as something was not painful or invasive, Mama got it. No extensive treatment or ‘heroics’ (as she called them) were attempted. If Mama were around or if she is reading this blog post, she would tell me to add to it that there is nothing heroic about shoving a tube down the throat of a senior octogenarian simply to prolong a heartbeat. And Mama is always right.

A cousin who is a nurse along with her daughter provided the very best palliative care – chocolate peanut butter cookies from the Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart collaboration cookbook aptly named From Crook to Cook.

Another local cousin dropped off meals. It was gourmet meals on wheels. Like kids playing a joke on neighbors, the doorbell would ring and nobody would be at the door but when I would look down, there was dinner. There are no words to express how grateful we were for the care packages.

Cards were also delightful especially to mother. The beauty of cards is that they can be set aside when appropriate and read repeatedly when someone is awake.

I tell you all of this because unless a treatment is found for Covid very soon, everyone will have a friend or relative with Covid or another illness that prevents visits. You can still let them know that you care. Snoop, Martha and Cousin Tillie would want you to find a way to bring chocolate comfort.

Still, I would have hired help earlier had it not been for Covid. I would have maybe, just maybe, taken Mom to the hospital when she first had a GI bleed just to see if the problem was easily correctable. I would have had hospice come in earlier. As it was, I had access to a hospice client who gives excellent care and they were on call for me whether they knew it or not. Thanks Audubon.

Humana saved a ton of money on my mother without changing the outcome of her illness. I realize this a luxury because not everyone can take a break from life to provide total care to an elderly patient but I wonder how many people are not accessing healthcare because of the pandemic. Are outcomes in general significantly changed?

But that’s just my story of how Mama saw a return on investment on my nursing school tuition.

Covid has affected every aspect of our lives from how we work and shop to how we educate our children, socialize and even experience illnesses. Politics has played an inappropriate role in determining our response to Covid.

I hope you’re keeping some sort of record. 102 years after the Spanish Flu, it is the personal accounts of the patients and the healthcare workers, and even the San Francisco Anti-Mask league of 1919 that tell the story of the Spanish flu. Some numbers are just too high to comprehend.

If you are keeping some sort of record, please consider sharing all or part of it with us. You can email me here.

COVID-19 for Visiting Nurses

How should home health and hospice visiting employees address Covid19 and protect staff and patients?

Read more

Company 1


Take heed

Suzanne May, age 61, served as the administrator of a hospice referred to by the Feds as Company 1 for more than a decade She was a both a registered nurse and a certified hospice administrator. She signed a plea deal admitting to fraud on December 3, 2019 and now faces five years in prison followed by three years supervised release, a $250,000.00 fine and to top it off, a $100.00 special assessment. Hopefully, her lawyer can negotiate a deal where the special assessment is knocked off of the overall penalties.

Altering Legal Documents

To keep it short and simple unlike the official documents, Ms. May has admitted to:

  1. Using white-out on a Certificate of Terminal Illness. If you can’t figure out why that might be a problem, it’s best that you resign now.
  2. Adding dates to Notices of Election after the clinical records were requested from Medicare. I do not know how Federal Investigators knew when the dates were added.
  3. Ms. May relieved some patients of the burden of initialing forms by adding their dated initials to forms. The Feds are alleging that it is not possible to sign and date documents after death.

In an impressive display of organizational skills, Company 1 employees, led by Ms. May, kept a log of all changes made to the documents after the request for records was received.

This audit, performed in 2017, followed a 2015 audit in which close to $400,000 was returned to Medicare. As a certified hospice administrator Ms. May knew what was required of the hospice in order to be paid. And, to her credit, she made sure every detail was complete but only after her clinical records were requested by Medicare. Timing is everything.

Look Again

This post teaches you how to go to jail. Free meals, a warm place to sleep and a break from your needy relatives may be your ticket to jolly holidays. Surely the worst prison food is better than fruit cake and squash casserole.

In no way am I condoning the actions of Ms. May. I also recognize that the criteria for payment is sometimes preposterous. Claims for reasonable and necessary care provided to eligible beneficiaries are denied payment every day but that is a subject for another post.

In this case no patients were harmed as a result of Ms. May’s actions. Nobody dies from a date added to a document after they die. If jail is your ideal vacation, this seems to be the way to go if you don’t want any patients to be hurt along the way.

If you wish to remain home with your loved ones, I assure you that no matter how tempting it is to add a date to a form because the patient didn’t, and you know the correct date and personally witnessed the patient sign the form, it isn’t worth it. When a physician doesn’t date his or her signature and you know when the orders were signed, adding the date seems more like a courtesy than a felony but you would be wrong in making that assumption.

If this sort of behavior was evident on a state survey and a plan of correction to the state was required, it would probably include an educational piece like, ‘The DON will hold an inservice to teach the nurses things that they already know but didn’t do.’

If you are finding these problems during clinical record and billing review despite teaching the nurses repeatedly it’s time to try something new.

Cut your employees some slack. Home health and hospice nurses who provide excellent care to your patients are worth a little extra time. Review their paperwork with them as it arrives at the agency – which usually occurs before the time (and possibly the patient) has passed to get an ethically dated signature. Help them develop habits.

On the other hand, if a nurse blatantly commits fraud, investigate first and then terminate them. You are also obligated to report them to Medicare and their State Board. A good orientation will ensure they know the rules. Protect your nurses and the agency by providing a complete orientation including compliance. 

Do not bill (or alternatively, pay back the money) if you have found out that a nurse was taking shortcuts. It is painful to take the right steps but not as painful as the quarter million fine Ms. May will pay (plus the assessment fee).

If you are a visiting nurse, you know the rules. You know what to do and mostly you get it right but it only takes a couple of bad care plans or notices of election to cost an agency tens of thousands of dollars.

More concerning to me is the probability that some nurses are encouraged to ‘do what it takes’ to get billing out the door. Without using the words, ‘go commit fraud’, some employers leave employees feeling like their jobs are on the line if they hold up billing. If you feel that the only way to keep your job is to fill in the blanks omitted by a patient or a physician, I guarantee that unemployment is a better option.

Everything else aside, ask how Medicare knew the documents were altered by Ms. May and friends after the patient died. The Feds are not psychic. They did not have a seance summoning J. Edgar Hoover who revealed the exact time that dates were placed on documents. They obviously knew something that was solid enough for them to request 100 charts.

I’m willing to bet that Company 1 is not the real name of the hospice and that this story has just begun. Until we find out more, do yourself and your patients a favor and do things the right way. If you are preoccupied with compiling charts for an audit, care to your patients will be compromised. I’ve seen it too many times.

As always, your comments are welcome or you can email your thoughts.

Breaking Bad with Mama

The hidden damage of patient falls.

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The Real Reason your Claim was Denied


A good mystery is a delight but they should be reserved for leisure time reading. It should not be an element of Requests for Additional Information (ADRs) from Palmetto GBA or any other Medicare contractor. And yet, they are. Below are some examples that have come across my desk in recent months as the Targeted Probe and Educate (TPE) process marches forward. I admit that at times I am truly challenged.

There are two denial codes in particular that keep showing up and really, they could mean anything. The first is:

5F023 – No Plan of Care or Certification

Believe it not, there are some people who think this means that no plan of care or certification was included with the submission of documents. If it is found when the biller is checking claims status, he or she may simply fax over the plan of care thinking they are helping the agency get paid faster. There goes one round of appeals.

If they had taken the time to look up this reason for denial on Palmetto GBA’s website they may have found an explanation that confirmed their initial impression. It is prefaced by the following:

The services billed were not covered because the home health agency (HHA) did not have the plan of care (POC) established and approved by a physician, as required by Medicare, included in the medical records submitted for review and/or the service(s) billed were not covered because the documentation submitted did not include the physician’s signed certification or recertification.

So, when a letter arrives in the mail two days after the resubmission of the plan of care, agencies may be surprised to find out their claim was denied because the physician’s Face-to-Face encounter did not support homebound status in his clinic note. Maybe because it is not a requirement for their patients to be homebound so they don’t think about it.

You would think they would make a code just for homebound status so that the reason codes for denials would correspond with the reasons for denial. That’s what I would do.

To be fair, nobody is doubting homebound status. Rather, they are saying that the physician did not fully support homebound status.

Another claim denied for having no certification or plan of care was explained the same way. The Face-to-Face encounter documentation did not support homebound status. The physician documented that the beneficiary was having recurrent dizziness, continued incisional pain, low back pain and bilateral knee pain. The medication list included percocet, alprazolam and hydroxyzine. And yet, a reviewer at Palmetto does not understand how dizziness, knee pain, back pain and incisional pain might reduce the ability of a patient to leave the home and tolerate the outing with aplomb.

5FF2F – The physician certification was invalid because the required face‐to‐face encounter was missing/incomplete/untimely.

As an additional bonus, there is no shortage of claims denied for reason code 5FF2F – The physician certification was invalid because the required face‐to‐face encounter was missing/incomplete/untimely.

So which is it? Is the Face-to-Face missing or untimely or incomplete? Responding to a denial is not the time for guesswork.

On one appeal, Palmetto GBA asserted:

… The face to face encounter note indicated that the beneficiary required the use of a wheelchair, thus satisfying criterion one of the face to face requirements. However, criterion two was not met. There was no indication of a normal inability to leave the home or how leaving the home would require a considerable or taxing effort.

The physician wrote in the encounter documentation that the patient had a catheter, a prior CVA, dilated cardiomyopathy and he ordered a hospital bed and an alternating pressure mattress for the prevention of skin breakdown.  An overnight pulse oximetry was ordered to determine if the patient qualified for supplemental oxygen. There was a previous stroke resulting in weakness and difficulty with speech. Could anyone (in their 90’s) have this combination of conditions and find it NOT taxing to leave home?

The physician does not follow the patient home and determine how the patient tolerated the outing.  He or she doesn’t call the patient in the morning like the dentist who performed a root canal.  

In all of the denial letters, the Medicare Benefit Policy Manual, Chapter 7, is referenced.  Section 30.5.1.2 of that manual states:

The certifying physician and/or the acute/post-acute care facility medical record (if the patient was directly admitted to home health) for the patient must contain information that justifies the referral for Medicare home health services. This includes documentation that substantiates the patient’s: 

Need for the skilled services; and 
Homebound status; 

The key word here is ‘substantiate’.  According to the Manual, the physician does not need to document specifically how the patient tolerated the outing from home.  Rather, there must be sufficient information to substantiate that a patient can not leave home without a considerable or taxing effort. 

Don’t get angry.  I’m mad enough for us all and it isn’t healthy.

Call a consultant if you need help.  (My number, 225-253-4876, is a good start.)

Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out how they will handle Medical Review in PDGM.  Could it be we get a break the way we did when PPS was first implemented?

Questions and comments are always welcome.  Look for the comments section or email me at your convenience.


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