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Medicare CERT Audits and How to Prepare for Them

CERT audits are an unfortunate part of doing business for healthcare providers who accept Medicare. Failing the audit can mean the provider has to pay back overcharges and be subjected to increased scrutiny in the future. 

The best way to be prepared for a CERT audit is to have a compliance strategy in place and to follow it to the letter. Retaining a healthcare lawyer to craft that strategy is essential if you want to make sure that it is all-encompassing and effective. It can also help to hire independent counsel to conduct an internal review to ensure the compliance plan is doing its job. 

When providers are notified of a CERT audit, hiring a Medicare lawyer is usually a good idea. Providers can fail the audit automatically if they do not comply with the document demands. 

What is a CERT Audit?

The Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) program is an audit process developed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). It is administered by private companies, called CERT Contractors, which work with the CMS. Current information about those companies is on the CMS website

The CERT audit compares a sampling of bills for Medicare fee-for-service (FFS) payments, which were sent by the healthcare provider to its Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC), against medical records for the patient. The audit looks at whether there is sufficient documentation to back up the claim against Medicare, whether the procedure was medically necessary, whether it was correctly coded, and whether the care was eligible for reimbursement through the Medicare program.

Every year, the CERT program audits enough of these FFS payments – generally around 50,000 per year – to create a statistically significant snapshot of inaccuracies in the Medicare program.  

The results from those audits are reported to CMS. After appropriately weighing the results, CMS publishes the estimated improper payments or payment errors from the entire Medicare program in its annual report. In 2021, the CMS estimated that, based on data from the CERT audits, 6.26 percent of Medicare funding was incorrectly paid out, totaling $25.03 billion.

The vast majority of those incorrect payments, 64.1 percent, were marked as incorrect because they had insufficient documentation to support the Medicare claim. Another 13.6 percent were flagged as medically unnecessary. 10.6 percent was labeled as incorrectly paid out due to improper coding. 4.8 percent had no supporting documentation, at all. 6.9 percent was flagged as incorrectly paid for some other reason.

The CERT Audit Process  

Healthcare providers who accept Medicare will receive a notice from a CERT Contractor. The notice informs the provider that it is being CERT audited and requests medical records from a random sampling of Medicare claims made by the provider to its MAC.

It is important to note that, at this point, there is no suspicion of wrongdoing. CERT audits examine Medicare claims at random.

Healthcare providers have 75 days to provide these medical records. Failing to provide the requested records is treated as an audit failure. In 2021, nearly 5 percent of failed CERT audits happened because no documentation was provided to support a Medicare claim.

Once the CERT Contractor has the documents, its team of reviewers – which consists of doctors, nurses, and certified medical coders – compares the Medicare claim against the patient’s medical records and looks for errors. According to the CMS, there are five major error categories:

  • No documentation

  • Insufficient documentation

  • Medical necessity

  • Incorrect coding

  • Other

Errors found during the CERT audit are reported to the healthcare provider’s MAC. The MAC can then make adjustments to the payments it sent to the provider.

Potential Repercussions from Errors Found in a CERT Audit

CERT audits that uncover errors in a healthcare provider’s Medicare billings lead to recoupments of overpayments, future scrutiny, and potentially even an investigation for Medicare fraud.

When the CERT audit results are brought to the MAC’s attention, the MAC will adjust the payments that it made to the provider. If the claims led to an overpayment, the MAC will demand that money back.

But Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs) can go further than just demanding restitution for overpayments. They can also require prepayment reviews of all of the provider’s future Medicare claims, and can even suspend the provider from the program, entirely. 

Worse still, CERT audits that uncover indications of Medicare fraud may be reported to a law enforcement agency for further review. This can lead to a criminal investigation and potentially even criminal charges.

Appealing a CERT Audit’s Results

With penalties so significant, healthcare providers should seriously consider hiring a lawyer to appeal the results of a CERT audit.

Appeals are first made to the MAC, requesting a redetermination of the audit results. The request for redetermination has to be made within 120 days of receiving notice of the audit results. However, if the provider wants to stop the MAC from recouping an overpayment in the meantime, it has to lodge the request within 30 days. 

Providers can appeal the results of the redetermination, as well. They can request a reconsideration by a Qualified Independent Contractor within 180 of the redetermination, or within 60 days to stop the MAC’s recoupment process.

Providers who are still dissatisfied can appeal the case to an administrative law judge, then to the Medicare Appeals Council, and finally to a federal district court for review.

How to Handle a CERT Audit

The best way to handle and to prepare for a CERT audit is to hire Medicare audit attorneys to guide you through the process. It would also help to start internal audits within the company.

For providers who have been notified that they are under an audit, getting a lawyer on board immediately is essential. An experienced healthcare attorney can conduct a thorough internal investigation of the claims being audited. This can uncover potential problems before the audit points them out, giving the healthcare provider the time it needs to prepare its next steps.

Providers who are not currently being audited can still benefit from an attorney’s guidance. Whether by drafting a compliance plan that will prepare the provider for an inevitable CERT audit or by conducting an internal investigation to see how well a current compliance plan is performing, a lawyer can make sure that the provider is ready for an audit at a moment’s notice.

Taking these preventative steps soon is important. CMS put the CERT audit program on halt for the coronavirus pandemic, but that temporary hold was rescinded on August 11, 2020. While the CMS has reduced the sample sizes that will be used for its 2021 and 2022 reports, it will likely go back to the original numbers after that. Healthcare providers should prepare for this increased regulatory oversight appropriately.

Oberheiden P.C. © 2022 National Law Review, Volume XII, Number 216

About this Author

Nick Oberheiden Criminal Defense Attorney Oberheiden PC
Federal Criminal Defense Attorney

Dr. Nick Oberheiden focuses his litigation practice on white-collar criminal defense, government investigations, SEC & FCPA enforcement, and commercial litigation. He has defended clients in PPP Loan Fraud cases and COVID-19 investigations. Nick also directs internal corporate investigations and he leads defense teams in whistleblower actions, corporate defense cases, as well as cases involving national security and elected officials.

Clients from more than 45 U.S. states have hired Nick to seek effective protection against government...