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UnitedHealth Group, Inc. vs. the United States of America: The case for CDI, part 2

Brian-Murphy

ACDIS Director Brian Murphy

By Brian D. Murphy

In Part 1 of this series I introduced the developing story of UnitedHealth Group, Inc. vs. the United States of America, and my intent to write a series of articles on this civil fraud action. Why? Because I find this to be an incredibly interesting case with broad ramifications for CDI and coding departments.

So let’s review the basic at the facts of the case, starting with the who and when. [more]

UnitedHealth Group, Inc. versus the United States of America: The case for CDI

Brian-Murphy

ACDIS Director Brian Murphy

By Brian Murphy

The work of a CDI professional can at times seem isolating and unimportant. Does it matter if a query gets answered? When we educate physicians and tell them what they document matters, are they listening?

Then a case comes along and demonstrates not just that the CDI profession does matter—but that it matters a lot.

That point was driven home to me while reading a May 16, 2017 court document, United States of America ex rel. Benjamin Poehling v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc., in which the Department of Justice (DOJ), alleges that UnitedHealth artificially increased Medicare Advantage (MA) reimbursement/Hierarchical Condition Category assignment by mining for non-supported diagnoses that were not documented/reported by the physician or through chart documentation.

The case is a qui tam—a lawsuit brought forward by a private individual. The plaintiff is Benjamin Poehling, the former Director of Finance for UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement (and its predecessor Ovations), which was the group at United that managed its MA plans and its Medicare Part D prescription drug programs.

The lawsuit seeks to recover more than $1 billion under the False Claims Act. The total damages sought are unspecified but it’s a large case with a lot at stake.

This case has received quite a bit of coverage, too, from big newspapers like the New York Times and popular healthcare websites like Beckers Hospital Review and HealthLeaders Media.

There is a lot more to this case than this 103-page court document, though. In addition to Poehling’s case (filed in February 2017), another whistleblower, James Swoben, a former employee of Senior Care Action Network Health Plan and a consultant to the risk-adjustment industry, came forward with similar allegations in March.

In a very recent development, UnitedHealth Group’s lawyers are seeking to get the case dismissed, claiming that they are not required to validate the accuracy of diagnostic data submitted by healthcare providers.

I need to reiterate that, at this point, the claims asserted against UnitedHealth Group are only allegations and there have been no determinations of liability. It remains to be seen whether the case will even reach court.

However, the case ultimately resolves, it’s a very interesting, real-world, big-dollar example of the business of healthcare, raising the question of who is ultimately responsible for the accuracy of submitted diagnoses to Medicare (coders, CDI, administrative contractors, physicians?). It calls into question the oft-repeated adage that coders must code what the physician documents. It brings into even greater prominence the process of clinical validation, for which ACDIS recently released a new white paper.

Reading through these articles and the original court document, I thought to myself, if only UnitedHealth Group had a robust, compliant CDI process in place, this suit could have been prevented. More than anything, United States of America vs. UnitedHealth Group Inc. is confirmation that your work as a CDI professional matters, and that the broader CDI profession matters.

I plan to share my thoughts on this case in a series of blog posts here and I welcome your thoughts and commentary.

Editor’s note: To read the summary of the case, visit the DOJ website by clicking here. To read the court document in its entirety, click here. Brian Murphy is Director of the Association of Clinical Documentation Improvement Specialists (ACDIS). He can be reached at bmurphy@acdis.org.