Why Auditors Can’t be Unbiased

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Original story posted on: February 19, 2020

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A short lesson on game theory.

Last week on Monitor Mondays, Knicole Emanuel, Esq. reported on the case of Commonwealth v. Pediatric Specialist, PLLC, wherein the Recovery Audit Contractors’ (RACs’) experts were prohibited from testifying because they were paid on contingency. This means that the auditor (or the company for which they work) is paid some percentage of the overpayment findings it reports. 

In this case, as in most nowadays, the overpayment estimate was based upon extrapolation, which means that the auditor extended the overpayment amount found in the sample to that of all claims within the universe from which the sample was drawn. I have written about this process before, but basically, it can turn a $1,500 overpayment on the sample into a $1.5 million overpayment demand.

The key to an effective extrapolation is that the statistical process is appropriate, proper, and accurate. In many audits, this is not the case, and so what happens is, if the provider believes that the extrapolation is not appropriate, they may choose to challenge the results in their appeal. Many times, this is when they will hire a statistician, like me, to review the statistical sampling and overpayment estimate (SSOE), including data and documentation to assist with the appeal. I have worked on hundreds of these post-audit extrapolation mitigation appeals over the years, and even though I am employed by the provider, I maintain a position as an independent fact-finder.  My reports are based on facts and figures, and my opinion is based on those findings. Period.  

So, what is it that allows me to remain independent? To perform my job without undue influence or bias? Is it my incredibly high ethical standards? Check! My commitment to upholding the standards of my industry? Check!  Maybe my good looks? Well, not check! It is the fact that my fees are fixed, and are not contingent on the outcome. I mean, it would be great if I could do what the RACs do and cash in on the outcomes of a case, but alas, no such luck. 

In one large class-action case in which I was the statistical expert, the defendant settled for $122 million. The law firm got something like a quarter or a third of that, and the class members all received some remuneration as well. Me? I got my hourly rate, and after the case was done, a bottle of Maker’s Mark whiskey as a thank you. And I’m not even sure that was appropriate, so I sent it back. I would love to be paid a percentage of what I am able to save a client in this type of appeal. I worked on a case a couple of years ago for which we were able to get the extrapolation thrown out, which reduced the payment demand from $5.9 million to $3,300. Imagine if I got paid even 2 percent of that; it would be nearly $120,000. But that can’t happen, because the moment my work product is tied to the results, I am no longer independent, nor unbiased. I don’t care how honest or ethical you are, contingency deals change the landscape – and that is as true for me, as an expert, as it is for the auditor.

In the pediatric case referenced above, the RAC that performed the audit is paid on a contingency, although I like to refer to it as a “bounty.” As such, the judge ruled, as Ms. Emanuel reported, that their experts could not testify on behalf of the RAC. Why not? Because the judge, unlike the RAC, is an independent arbiter, and having no skin in the game, is unbiased in their adjudication. But you can’t say that about the RAC. If they are being paid a “bounty” (something like 10 percent), then how in the world could they be considered independent and unbiased? 

The short answer is, they can’t. And this isn’t just based on standards of statistical practice; it is steeped in common sense. Look at the appeal statistics; some 50 percent of all RAC findings are eventually reversed in favor of the provider. If that isn’t evidence of an overzealous, biased, bounty-hunting process, I don’t know what is. Basically, as Knicole reported, having their experts prohibited from testifying, the RAC was unable to contest the provider’s arguments, and the judge ruled in favor of the provider.

But, in my opinion, it should not stop here. This is one of those cases that exemplifies the “fruit of the poisonous tree” defense, meaning that if this case passes muster, then every other case for which the RAC did testify and the extrapolation held should be challenged and overturned. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of all of those affected by RAC extrapolated audits. And if there is one, I would love to be the statistical expert – but for a flat fee, of course, and not contingent upon the outcome.

And that’s the world according to Frank.

Frank D. Cohen, MPA, MBB

Frank Cohen is the director of analytics and business Intelligence for DoctorsManagement, a Knoxville, Tenn. consulting firm. He specializes in data mining, applied statistics, practice analytics, decision support, and process improvement. He is a member of the RACmonitor editorial board and a popular contributor on Monitor Monday.

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