In its recently released 2014 Work Plan, the OIG has announced that it will investigate hospital billing for Kwashiorkor. Kwashiorkor is a form of severe protein malnutrition that generally affects children living in tropical and subtropical parts of the world during periods of famine or insufficient food supply. This syndrome is characterized by retarded growth, changes in skin and hair pigment, edema, and pathologic changes in the liver.
This extreme form of malnutrition, however, is very rare in the United States, which is why Kwashiorkor billing at hospitals is a target of the OIG. Because a diagnosis of Kwashiorkor on a claim also substantially increases a hospital’s reimbursement from Medicare, the OIG stated it would review Medicare payments based on Kwashiorkor claims to determine whether the diagnosis is adequately supported by documentation in the medical record.
Recently, for example, the OIG found that Wellspan York Hospital incorrectly billed Medicare inpatient claims with Kwashiorkor, resulting in overpayments of $204,000 over two years. The hospital attributed the errors to a misinterpretation of the coding guidelines for malnutrition because of a lack of clarity in the guidance. Other hospitals, like Mercy Medical Center, have attributed Kwashiorkor errors to encoder software which incorrectly assign diagnoses of protein malnutrition to ICD-9-CM 260 (Kwashiorkor).
In light of the increased OIG focus on Kwashiorkor claims, hospitals should strengthen its controls to ensure that coding software and staff comply with Medicare billing requirements. Additionally, if there is in fact a Kwashiorkor diagnosis, hospitals should ensure that the medical record (e.g. discharge summary) substantiates the use of a Kwashiorkor diagnosis code.