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Don't Let Health Care Providers Use the Improvement Standard to Deny Medicare Coverage

istock_000017145240_extrasmall_sm.jpgHave you or a loved one been denied Medicare-covered services because you're "not improving"? Many health care providers are still not aware that Medicare is required to cover skilled nursing and home care even if a patient is not showing improvement. If you are denied coverage based on this outdated standard, you have the right to appeal.

For decades, the so-called "improvement" standard was applied to determine whether patients were entitled to Medicare coverage. The standard, which is not in Medicare law, only permitted coverage if the skilled treatment was deemed to contribute to improving the patient's condition, which can be difficult to achieve for many ill seniors.

Three years ago, in the case of Jimmo v. Sebelius, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) agreed to a settlement in which it acknowledged that there's no legal basis to the "improvement" standard and that both inpatient skilled nursing care and outpatient home care and therapy may be covered under Medicare as long as the treatment helps the patient maintain his or her current status or simply delays or slows his or her decline. In other words, as long as the patient benefits from the skilled care, which can include nursing care or physical, occupational, or speech therapy, then the patient is entitled to Medicare coverage.

Medicare will cover up to 100 days of care in a skilled nursing facility following an inpatient hospital stay of at least three days and will cover home-based care indefinitely if the patient is homebound.

Unfortunately, despite the Jimmo settlement, the word hasn't gotten out entirely to the hospitals, visiting nursing associations, skilled nursing facilities, and insurance intermediaries that actually apply the rules. As a result, the Jimmo plaintiffs and CMS have now agreed to a court-ordered corrective action plan, which includes the following statement:

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) reminds the Medicare community of the Jimmo Settlement Agreement (January 2014), which clarified that the Medicare program covers skilled nursing care and skilled therapy services under Medicare's skilled nursing facility, home health, and outpatient therapy benefits when a beneficiary needs skilled care in order to maintain function or to prevent or slow decline or deterioration (provided all other coverage criteria are met). Specifically, the Jimmo Settlement required manual revisions to restate a "maintenance coverage standard" for both skilled nursing and therapy services under these benefits:

Skilled nursing services would be covered where such skilled nursing services are necessary to maintain the patient's current condition or prevent or slow further deterioration so long as the beneficiary requires skilled care for the services to be safely and effectively provided.

Skilled therapy services are covered when an individualized assessment of the patient's clinical condition demonstrates that the specialized judgment, knowledge, and skills of a qualified therapist ("skilled care") are necessary for the performance of a safe and effective maintenance program. Such a maintenance program to maintain the patient's current condition or to prevent or slow further deterioration is covered so long as the beneficiary requires skilled care for the safe and effective performance of the program.

The Jimmo Settlement may reflect a change in practice for those providers, adjudicators, and contractors who may have erroneously believed that the Medicare program covers nursing and therapy services under these benefits only when a beneficiary is expected to improve. The Settlement is consistent with the Medicare program's regulations governing maintenance nursing and therapy in skilled nursing facilities, home health services, and outpatient therapy (physical, occupational, and speech) and nursing and therapy in inpatient rehabilitation hospitals for beneficiaries who need the level of care that such hospitals provide."

"The CMS Corrective Statement is intended to make it absolutely clear that Medicare coverage can be available for skilled therapy and nursing that is needed to maintain an individual's condition or slow deterioration," says Judith Stein, Executive Director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy and a counsel for the plaintiffs. "We are hopeful this will truly advance access to Medicare and necessary care for people with long-term and debilitating conditions."

While this doesn't change the rights Medicare patients have always had, it should make it somewhat easier to enforce them. If you or a loved one gets denied coverage because the patient is not "improving," then it may be advantageous to appeal.

To read the court order implementing the new corrective action plan, click here.

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