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Archive for the ‘Safe Harbor Regulations’ Category

Telemedicine IT Donations and the Anti-kickback Statute – OIG Opinion 18-03

Monday, October 29th, 2018

IT Donation to Facilitate Telemedicine Consultations – Low Risk of Fraud says OIG

telemedicine donation it The Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued Advisory Opinion No. 18-03 in support of an arrangement where a federally qualified health center look-alike (the “Provider”) would donate free information technology-related equipment and services to a county health clinic (the “County Clinic”) to facilitate telemedicine encounters with the County Clinic’s patients (the “Proposed Arrangement”).  The OIG concluded that although the Proposed Arrangement could potentially generate prohibited remuneration under the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (“AKS”) and Civil Monetary Penalties Law (“CMPL”) with the requisite intent to induce or reward referrals of federal health care programs, the OIG would exercise its discretion and not sanction the Provider or the County Clinic (collectively the “Requestors”).

The OIG’s analysis and conclusion of the Proposed Arrangement provides new insight into the government’s position on these type of donations that facilitate telemedicine encounters.  Specifically, how the government views these type of donations with the continued expansion of coverage and reimbursement of telemedicine services under federal health care programs.  The Advisory Opinion indicates support for the development of collaborative telemedicine affiliations and that the potential remuneration from the future referrals can be outweighed by the access to health care services and benefits actually received by rural or remote communities.

The County Clinic is a division of the County Department of Health that furnishes certain confidential sexually transmitted infection testing, treatment and counseling. The Provider has an existing referral relationship with the County Clinic but the facilities are separated by about 80 miles making it difficult for patients to access the Provider.  Under the Proposed Arrangement, the Provider would donate information technology-related equipment and services to the County Clinic to facilitate telemedicine encounters between the Provider and the County Clinic’s patients for certain HIV prevention and treatment services.  The Provider would cover the costs of the equipment, its set up, and maintenance through grant-funding from the State Department of Health.  The Provider would bill the Medicare program for the professional services delivered in the telemedicine encounters.  The County Clinic would house the equipment and bill the state Medicaid program an originating site fee related to the telemedicine encounters. The originating site is not required to provide any personnel or equipment in order to bill for the facility fee (Q3014) (which is only a coverage requirement to provide the telehealth consult).

 

OIG Analysis

Under the Proposed Arrangement, the County Clinic would receive remuneration of the free equipment and services and the Provider would have the opportunity to bill for the telehealth consultation referred by the County Clinic.  As such, the OIG acknowledged that the Proposed Arrangement could potentially generate prohibited remuneration under the federal AKS with the requisite intent to induce or reward referrals of services payable by a federal health care program.  However, the OIG identified the following factors as minimizing the potential risk of fraud and abuse:

  • There are safeguards in place to prevent patient steering to the Provider for treatment; namely use of technology with any other provider is not restricted and patients are given the option to have either a virtual or in-person consultation
  • Not likely to result in patient steering for prescriptions to any pharmacy operated by the Provider or County Clinic
  • There would be no increased cost to any federal health care program
  • Patients would benefit by having increased access to treatment; making it more likely that patients will seek out and receive such services

It is important to keep in mind that under the Proposed Arrangement the County Clinic would not obtain ownership of the equipment, as the Provider would use grant funds awarded by the State Department of Health to cover the costs of the equipment and services and the state agency would retain title and have the authority to recover the equipment at any time.  This could prove to be an important distinction concerning whether and how donating providers can provide information technology-related equipment and services to referring facilities in the other arrangements.

In prior Advisory Opinions (99-14, 04-07 and 11-12) concerning donations of information technology-related equipment and supplies, the OIG similarly concluded that it would not pursue sanctions; however, those proposed arrangements would not have directly resulted in a service payable by a federal health care program, but rather would only potentially result in other items or services to the patient by the donating provider. Under the Proposed Arrangement, both the County Clinic and the Provider would be in a position to submit claims to a federal health care program as a result of the telemedicine encounter and follow-up services.  Nevertheless, the OIG concluded that there would be no increased cost to any federal health care program because the County Clinic would have performed the preliminary tests and referred clinically appropriate patients for in-person consultations and, potentially, follow-up items and services regardless of the Proposed Arrangement.

While the analysis acknowledges the additional reimbursement the County Clinic would receive for serving as the originating site (i.e., the location of the Medicaid beneficiary when the service furnished via a telecommunications system occurs), there is no actual analysis of this facility fee and why it is not considered an increased cost.  To be clear, the County Clinic does not provide the HIV preventative services to be delivered by the Provider via the telemedicine consultation, and therefore, would not have previously received any payments if and when the patient was referred to the Provider for an in-person consultation.

Again, it appears that the OIG is willing to prioritize the health benefits to patients over any secondary or tertiary benefits to the referring provider; especially when such subsequent benefits are unlikely to result in over-utilization and have the potential to decrease costs to federal health care programs.

When is a Referral Mandate for Employed Physicians Permitted under the Stark Law?

Monday, June 4th, 2018

When Employed Physicians be Required to Make Referrals for Designated Health Services

Referral Requirements Employed PhysiciansThe Stark Law Regulations include a provision that dictates the conditions under which an employer of a physician may mandate referrals for designated health services.  Certain specific conditions must be met if an employer wishes to require its employed physicians to make referrals to the employer’s designated health services.  Many institutions assume that an employer may always require an employed physician to make referrals to its ancillary services.  That assumption is not correct.

The Stark regulations provides that a physician’s compensation from a bona fide employer or under a managed care contract or other contract for personal services may be conditioned on the physician’s referrals to a particular provider, practitioner, or supplier.    There are a number of specific requirements that must be present to permit referral requirements including:

  1.  The required referrals can only relate to the physician’s services covered by the scope of the employment or the contract.
  2. The referral requirement must be reasonably necessary to effectuate the legitimate business purposes of the compensation arrangement.
  3. The physician’s compensation must be set in advance for the term of the agreement requiring referrals.
  4.  The physician’s compensation must be consistent with fair market value for services performed (that is, the payment may not take into account the volume or value of anticipated or required referrals).
  5. The arrangement must otherwise comply with an applicable exception under Sec. 411.355 or Sec. 411.357.
  6.  The requirement to make referrals to a particular provider, practitioner, or supplier is set forth in a written agreement signed by the parties.
  7. The requirement to make referrals to a particular provider, practitioner, or supplier may not apply if the patient expresses a preference for a different provider.
  8. The referral requirement may not apply to cases where the patient’s insurer determines the provider, practitioner, or supplier;.
  9. The referral requirement may not apply where the referral is not in the patient’s best medical interests in the judgment of the referring physician.
  10. There can be no requirement that an employed physician make referrals that relate to services that are not provided by the physician under the scope of his or her employment or contract.

This scenario most commonly applies in cases where a hospital or health system employs a physician and requires direction of referrals to the system’s designated health services.  It is not uncommon to see a health system contractually require employed doctors to refer to the hospital or ancillary services of the hospital.  The Stark Law permits the employing hospital to require referrals subject to these conditions.  It is also common to see referral requirements without including in the contract the various conditions that must be present to permit the direction of referrals.  The Stark Law would cast a shadow over a compensation arrangement with an employed physician that requires referrals without subjecting the referrals to the conditions set forth in the Stark regulations.  Failing to subject the required referrals to the Stark Law conditions would seem to make the compensation arrangement illegal.  Any referral made to the hospital’s designated health services may be tainted and reimbursement arising from the illegally required referrals would be prohibited.

Stark Law Provisions Relating to Referral Requirements of Employed Physicians

The following is the exact wording of the portion of the Stark Law that established the various conditions that must be met in order to permit the provider of designated health services to require employed physician’s to refer to its DHS.

42 C.F.R. § 411.354(d)(4)

(4) A physician’s compensation from a bona fide employer or under a managed care contract or other contract for personal services may be conditioned on the physician’s referrals to a particular provider, practitioner, or supplier, provided that the compensation arrangement meets all of the following conditions. The compensation arrangement:
(i) Is set in advance for the term of the agreement.
(ii) Is consistent with fair market value for services performed (that is, the payment does not take into account the volume or value of anticipated or required referrals).(iii) Otherwise complies with an applicable exception under §411.355 or §411.357.(iv) Complies with both of the following conditions:

(A) The requirement to make referrals to a particular provider, practitioner, or supplier is set forth in a
written agreement signed by the parties.

(B) The requirement to make referrals to a particular provider, practitioner, or supplier does not apply if the patient expresses a preference for a different provider, practitioner, or supplier; the patient’s insurer determines the provider, practitioner, or supplier; or the referral is not in the patient’s
best medical interests in the physician’s judgment.

(v) The required referrals relate solely to the physician’s services covered by the scope of the employment or the contract, and the referral requirement is reasonably necessary to effectuate
the legitimate business purposes of the compensation arrangement. In no event may the physician be required to make referrals that relate to services that are not provided by the physician under the scope of his or her employment
or contract.

Treatment Center Plead Guilty to Anti-kickback Statute Violations Involving Alcohol and Drug Addiction Treatment Centers

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

Substance Abuse Treatment Center Fraud Scheme Results in Guilty Plea

Treatment Center Fraud PleaThe Department of Justice recently announced the guilty plea of two individual alcohol and substance abuse treatment center owners for their participation in what DOJ labeled a “multi-million dollar health care fraud and money laundering scheme.”  The two individuals owned a licensed substance abuse service provider (or treatment center) offering clinical treatment services for persons suffering from alcohol and drug addiction. The treatment center also offered medication-based treatment for opioid addiction.

The government had accused the two owners of paying illegal kickbacks/bribes to “sober homes” in exchange for the referral of the sober homes’ insured residents to treatment program. The sober homes provided safe and drug-free residences for individuals suffering from drug and alcohol addiction. This made them a prime source of potential referrals to the treatment program.

The accusations against these defendants read like a laundry list of thinly veiled kickback schemes.  Some of the specific accusations included:

  1. Providing funds used to purchase or rent several sober home properties under purchase agreements or leases that were in the names of other parties so as to disguise the source of funds.
  2. Paying remuneration for referrals in the form of free or reduced rent, insurance premium payments, and other benefits to individuals with insurance who agreed to reside at the sober homes and attend drug treatment.
  3. Using a separate entity to pay insurance premiums for treatment patients so that the treatment program could continue to bill the patients’ insurance companies for treatment expenses.
  4. Hiring a doctor to serve as the medical director who frequently pre-signed prescriptions that were used to dispense controlled substances.
  5. Continuing to employ the medical director after the doctor’s license was suspended.
  6. Failing to inform the Florida Department of Children and Families that it could not continue to operate when the treatment center lost the medical director.
  7. Submitting insurance claims that falsely stated that testing and treatment was medically necessary.

If the allegations made by the government are to be believed, the treatment center is an illustration of exactly what intentional fraud looks like.  This was not a mistake.  Rather, it appears that the defendants deliberately set up a system intended to generate referrals and providing financial benefits to individuals in a position to make or influence those referrals.  In short, this is what health care fraud looks like.

Providers that we deal with go to great lengths just to make certain that they proactively look for potential risk areas and take affirmative and proactive actions to be certain that they are not making mistakes that could inadvertently result in an overpayment or imputed knowledge.  A great deal of expense goes into assuring that these providers are in complete compliance.   By contrast, cases like the one involving these treatment programs illustrate the very reason why well providers with the best of intentions find it necessary to look over their shoulders.

Investment Interest in Radiation Therapy Anti-kickback Statute Settlement

Sunday, May 20th, 2018

Radiation Therapy Referral Kickback Arrangements with Investors.

Anti-kickback Statute Radiation Therapy InvestmentsA national operator of radiation therapy centers, has agreed to settle a False Claims Act action alleging that it submitted claims violated the Anti‑Kickback Statute by paying of $11.5 million and entering into a 5 year Corporate Integrity Agreement with the Office of Inspector General.  The arrangement involved payments to investors who were allegedly targeted because of their referral potential to the therapy centers.  The challenged arrangement involved a series of leasing companies that accepted investments from referring physicians.  The investment interests resulted in the payment of investment returns that the government considered to be remuneration for referrals in violation of the Anti-Kickback Statute.  The whistleblower who originally raised the issue will receive up to $1.725 million.

This case involves a garden variety claim of a kickback by investment interest.  The typical investment case involves targeting potential investors who are in a professional position to make referrals to the company in which they are asked to invest.  The referral source has a financial incentive to increase referrals.  This might be an excellent financial investment scenario, but the problem is that the investment return might well be an illegal kickback; which is potentially a federal felony.

Whistleblower Settlements Increase Compliance Risk for Providers

Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

Recent Fraud Settlements Emphasize Risk of Whisttleblowers

Dermatology Risk Areas Fraud and AbuseOne of the reasons why compliance officers and health care attorneys read fraud settlements is to identify the issues that the government is focused on.  The cases that the government decides to pursue are very indicative of the areas of fraud enforcement that they feel are important.  These are not the only issues that should be considered, but government enforcement actions certainly tell us what types of arrangements the government considers important.

The misfortune of the defendants involved in these cases hold a potential learning experience for everyone else.  Others have an opportunity to focus on their own operations to identify whether they are at risk in any of the areas involved in these cases.

An ancillary lesson that these settlements hold is that each was initially raised by a whistleblower.  The False Claims Act gives whistleblowers a portion of the settlement in cases where the government decides to intervene.  This in effect creates a universe of potential claimants that can include almost anyone with original knowledge of the alleged practice.

Common whistleblowers include former or disgruntled employees.  It really does not matter of the employee is or was the worst employee in the world, they can still bring an action as a whistleblower.  Not only are they protected by a host of laws, they can also profit greatly if the claim is eventually decided in their favor.  Whistleblowers often receive awards in the millions of dollars.  This makes the area ripe for plaintiff’s attorneys who often take these cases on a contingency fee basis.  This makes it a relatively low-cost proposition for a whistleblower to bring a case forward, at least from the perspective of attorney fees.

Health Care Compliance Resource Portal Launched by OIG

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018

Office Inspector General Launches New Compliance Resource Portal

by John H. Fisher, II, JD, CHC, CCEP

At a recent Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) compliance institute, the Office of Inspector General announced it had launched a new resource portal focused on compliance issues.  A trip to the OIG’s web site, and sure enough, there is a brand spankin’ new compliance portal.  You can check out the portal at OIG Portal.

On first brush through the portal, it appears most of the items that are accessible already existed prior to the launch of the portal.  The portal creates some organization that did not previously exist to guide providers to various compliance resources the OIG has made available.

 

Contents  Listing of the OIG Compliance Portal

  • Toolkits
  • Provider Compliance Resource and Training
  • Advisory opinions
  • Voluntary Compliance and Exclusions Resources
  • Special Fraud Alerts, Other Guidance, and Safe Harbors
  • Resources for Health Care Boards
  • Resources for Physicians
  • Accountable Care Organizations

This is a site that compliance officers will want to have bookmarked in their browser.  We are likely to see new developments in compliance posted on the portal.  For example, it already references a toolkit on identification of opioid misuse risk will be coming soon to the portal.

When you get a chance, check out the new OIG resource and the tools that are available on the site.  It is definitely something with which people in compliance should have familiarity.  As usual, if you have any questions regarding compliance or other health care legal issues, please don’t hesitate to contact your Ruder Ware health care attorney.

Health Law Firm Opens Green Bay Office

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018

Green Bay Health Care Lawyer – Opening Office in Green Bay Wisconsin

I just wanted to let readers of our health care blog know that Ruder Ware will be opening a Green Bay office and that three Green Bay attorneys will be joining our firm. This will provide us with a presence in the Green Bay/Appleton Markets that will enhance our community presence and enable us to better serve our client in eastern Wisconsin. Our health care and compliance practice with be greatly enhanced as a result of this move.

This move will provide a local platform through which we can better serve our health care clients.

Health Care Law Practice – Green Bay Health Lawyers Ruder Ware

Ruder Ware has a long history of representing health care clients.  The firm recognizes that the highly regulated and complex nature of the industry demands the attention of a team of attorneys who, as a group, monitor constantly evolving laws and regulations and their impact on our health care clients.  At Ruder Ware, we offer a full-service solution to clients as our focus team consists of health care, business, employment, and litigation attorneys with knowledge of the health care industry.   As a result, we are able to take best practices from other industries and apply them to the health care industry, thereby increasing the ability to respond promptly to the rapidly changing health care environment.

Members of the focus team have served on the governing bodies of various health care organizations.  This service has provided our attorneys with the opportunity to counsel the health care community.  

Our dedicated team of attorneys represents health care providers in various matters including:

 Health Care Business Transactions and Corporate Law

Our attorneys have substantial expertise representing various health care providers such as:

Below is the official press release:

Media Contact:
Jamie Schaefer
COO
Ruder Ware, L.L.S.C.
P: 715.845.4336
E: jschaefer@ruderware.com

For Immediate Release

Attorneys Ronald Metzler, Christopher Pahl, and Chad Levanetz to join
Ruder Ware at its new Green Bay Office

WAUSAU, WI – April 27, 2018 – Ruder Ware is pleased to announce the opening of its Green Bay office and that Attorneys Ronald Metzler, Christopher Pahl, and Chad Levanetz will be joining the firm. The new office will be located at 222 Cherry Street, Green Bay, Wisconsin, which is the current location of Metzler, Timm, Treleven, S.C.

Attorney Ron Metzler – Having practiced law for over 30 years, Ron is a well-respected and well-known commercial attorney with close ties to the banking industry.

Attorney Chris Pahl – With his strong ties to the Green Bay community, Chris has built his practice around real estate development and condominium law as well as commercial transactions and estate planning.

Attorney Chad Levanetz – A seasoned litigation attorney, Chad counsels clients in the areas of real estate, construction, and general business disputes.

Stew Etten, Ruder Ware managing partner, stated, “Ruder Ware is always looking for outstanding attorneys to join our firm. With the opportunity to add Attorneys Metzler, Pahl, and Levanetz, the time was right to open a Green Bay office. We’re very excited to have attorneys of their caliber join our team of professionals.”

About Ruder Ware
Founded in 1920, Ruder Ware is the largest law firm headquartered north of Madison. With offices in Wausau, Eau Claire, and Green Bay over 40 attorneys provide legal and business advice to clients with operations of all sizes. Areas of practice include: Employment, Benefits & Labor Relations, Litigation & Dispute Resolution, Business Transactions, Trusts & Estates, and Fiduciary Services. Ruder Ware, Business Attorneys for Business Success. www.ruderware.com

Media Contact:
Jamie Schaefer
COO
Ruder Ware, L.L.S.C.
P: 715.845.4336
E: jschaefer@ruderware.com

Gainsharing Arrangement Addressed in New Advisory Opinion

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

 OIG Advisory Opinion 17-09

OIG Advisory Opinion Gain SharingThe Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) recently released a new advisory opinion (Advisory Opinion 17-09 – January 5, 2018), addressing a gainsharing arrangement between a group of neurosurgeons and a health center.  Under the proposed arrangement, a neurosurgery group agreed to implement measures to reduce the costs associated with a defined scope of surgical procedures.  As part of its agreement with the health center, the neurosurgeons were to participate in a portion of the cost savings that resulted from the implementation of the measures.

The OIG has historically issued around a dozen Advisory Opinions addressing gainsharing arrangements.  However, the OIG had not issued an advisory opinion in the gainsharing area since the passage of the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (known as MACRA) in 2015.  That law made modifications to Civil Monetary Penalty provisions that are applicable in the gainsharing area by removing some of the impediments to gainsharing arrangements that previously existing in the Civil Monetary Penalty laws.

Gainsharing arrangements have emerged as a way to align the economic interests of hospitals and physicians in efforts to work together to reduce cost and enhance quality of care.  A gainsharing arrangements provides doctors with economic incentives to adhere to practices that reduce the hospital’s costs associated with defined procedures or treatment courses.  Under traditional fee-for-service reimbursement, a financial incentive is created for physicians to provide more service to maximize reimbursement.  A properly structured gainsharing arrangement creates incentives for appropriate levels of service and rewards physicians for efficiencies and quality outcomes.  Interests are aligned because the facility and the physician, who is often the engine driving the level of care, share in the savings.

Prior to the passage of MACRA in 2015, the OIG expressed suspicion about gainsharing through Special Advisory Bulletins as well as advisory opinions.  This has the effect of chilling the proliferation of gainsharing arrangements because providers were cautious about potential regulatory issues. A major impediment prior to 2015 was the CMP law that restricted hospitals from compensating physicians in order to induce a reduction or limitation on services provided to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.  MACRA clarified that the CMP law was only violated if the payment to the physician is for purposes of reducing services that are medically necessary.  This subtle yet significant change opened the door for the proliferation of gainsharing arrangements.

Coming full circle to Advisory Opinion 17-09, the OIG concluded that the specific gainsharing arrangement described in the opinion would not result in sanctions under the Civil Monetary Penalty rules or the Federal Anti-kickback Statute.  The OIG acknowledged that both the CMP laws and the Anti-kickback had potential implication but that the structural issues of the particular arrangement between the neurosurgeons and the health system would not result in the OIG pursuing sanctions.

By their very nature, Advisory Opinions only apply to the requesting party.  However, we can gain useful concepts from the analysis and conclusions of the OIG relating to the specific facts that formed the basis of their opinions.

Fair market value will always remain an issue in gainsharing arrangements.  The Federal Stark Law, Anti-kickback Statutes, and applicable state laws will require adherence to fair market value standards when payment is made between a referring party and the provider of a service. Advisory Opinion 17-09 provides us with some useful guidance regarding some of the consideration that should go into establishing fair market value and structuring a gainsharing arrangements.  Fair market value concepts in these arrangements are often subtle and must be well thought out to avoid regulatory issues. In addition, concepts of commercial reasonableness, which has emerged as a related but distinct issue impacting payments must be considered in addition to fair market value.

Advisory Opinion 17-09 is worth a review to anyone involved in structuring gainsharing arrangements. By no means should 17-09 be the only guidance that you rely upon because the opinion only touches on a few considerations that were relevant to the structure of the specific arrangement.  Some important factors to keep on your radar when structuring a gainsharing arrangement relate to the determination of baselines that are used to measure cost savings through program implementation.  The frequency and method of calculating available gainsharing amounts is subtle but important for regulatory compliance.  Of course the specific protocols or description of the method for reducing costs should be described in detail, together with a method for determining the level of compliance with those protocols.  Another issue that often arises in these arrangements involves the scope of costs that are allocated to the program.  It is important that costs allocated be reasonable to avoid potential disguised kickbacks.

If you require additional information regarding this article, gainsharing arrangements, or health care issues in general, please contact us through the contact section of this blog.

Self Disclosure Process – Voluntary Self Disclosure Decisions are not Always Easy

Monday, February 13th, 2017

Provider Self Disclosure Decisions – Voluntary Disclosure Process

The HHS Office of Inspector General offers providers and opportunity to self-disclose certain violations in exchange for avoiding some of the more draconian penalties that may otherwise apply under applicable regulations.  Even though the OIG’s self-disclosure offer can be very compelling, the decision on whether to utilize the OIG’s self-disclosure protocols is often very difficult.

Unfortunately, it is not always clear whether a violation of a regulatory requirement has occurred.  Those involved in health care law are familiar with the level of ambiguity that often exists with respect to specific billing rules and other regulatory standards.  On the other hand, the potential liability for making the wrong call about whether an infraction has actually occurred can be quite significant.  Clearly, if a provider is deciding whether they have violated a regulation, they have knowledge that the situation has occurred.  The failure to act once knowledge is obtained or imputed can lead to sanctions being multiplied.  For example, failing to repay a known overpayment within 60 days can triple the amount of penalties and add up to $22,000 per claim to the price tag.

The current regulatory scheme places a very high price tag on being “wrong” about whether a regulatory violation is present.  The potential high damages for an incorrect decision forces a provider to take an overly expansive view of when (or whether) a regulatory infraction has occurred.

Clearly not every situation where there has been a billing error amounts to fraud or wrongdoing requiring use of the self-disclosure protocol.  Many over-payments that are identified through audit can be dealt with at the intermediary level.  Where investigation raises questions about whether incorrect bills are “knowingly” submitted, the self-disclosure process may provide some mitigation of potential loss.  Situations where the provider perhaps “should have known” raise more difficult issues of analysis.

The Office of Inspector General’s self-disclosure process is available when there is a potential violation of Federal law that could result in the imposition of Civil Monetary Penalties. A simple determination that a billing error may have led to an overpayment is generally not covered by the protocol.  It is only when the error presents potential CMPs that the protocol can be used to self-disclose the violation to the Federal government.  For example, self-disclosure might be considered where an overpayment is not repaid within 60 days after discovery by the provider or where there is a violation of the anti-kickback statute discovered.

To complicate matters even further, once a provider obtains actual knowledge that a billing error occurs, it is always possible that the government will take the position that the infraction “should have” been known to the provider at an earlier date.  This impacts when the 60 day clock that triggers the application of the False Claims Act begins to run.  Once you discover an error, you would like to think that you have 60 days to self disclose and avoid the damage inflating False Claims Act.  Whether you should have discovered the infraction earlier through a properly functioning compliance program will always overshadow these cases.  The only thing that a provider can really do to reduce the stress of this type of impossible situation is to have a strong compliance program in place well in advance.

The situation is also complicated because a potential whistle-blower may view a situation much differently than a provider who finds what it believes to be an innocent mistake through the audit process.  A provider may sincerely believe that there was no “wrongdoing” and that a simple mistake has been identified.  Finding such a mistake may actually be evidence that the provider’s compliance efforts are working.  On the other hand, there is a whole legal profession out there now that is advertising for people to come forward as whistleblowers.  With potential recovery under the False Claims Act of 3 times the over-payment plus up to $22,000 per claim, whistleblower lawyers have strong incentive to attempt to turn what the provider believes to be an innocent mistake into a false claim. The damage calculation creates a big payday for whistleblower plaintiffs and their lawyer, who take these cases on a contingency fee basis.

Generally speaking, when errors are discovered, the providers best bet is to be forthright and deal with the matter “head on.”  A complete internal investigation should be conducted to determine the precise nature of the issues and to identify the extent of wrongdoing.  Based on the outcome of the investigation, the provider can determine whether a simple repayment can be used or whether there may be reason to go through the formal self-disclosure process.

Anyone who has worked with reimbursement rules will realize that payment policies, rules and regulations are not always clear.  It is often difficult to determine whether there is even a violation of applicable rules or whether an overpayment actually exists.  Legal ambiguities further complicate the self-disclosure decision.  The precise nature of any legal ambiguities involved in the specific case need to be completely documented.  If a decision is made that there has been no wrongdoing, the legal analysis should be laid out in writing and in detail and a reasonable judgment should be made regarding the interpretation of applicable legal standards.  If self-disclosure is made in situations involving legal ambiguities, those ambiguities should be explained in detail as part of the self-disclosure.

In the end, a provider facing potential self- disclosure must follow a reasonable process to make a reasoned decision in the face of significant risk and uncertainty.  Perhaps most importantly, it is never a good alternative to pretend that the situation will never be discovered or brought to light.  These cases can arise in strange and unexpected ways.  It is best to assume that a discovered compliance violation will eventually be brought to light.  In most cases it is advantageous for the provider to affirmatively bring the matter forward rather than waiting for the government or a whistleblower to bring a claim.  When that happens, it is much more difficult to resolve the issue.

John H. Fisher, CHC, CCEP is a health care attorney at the Ruder Ware law firm.  John is actively involved representing clients on legal and compliance issues.  He has represented clients in creating compliance programs and in a variety of operational issues.  He also assists providers in addressing risk areas and potential compliance issues including preparing self-disclosure and working with the government to resolve disclosed compliance issues and overpayment.  John consults as a subject matter expert and provider legal backup to other attorneys and law firms from around the country on specialized compliance, regulatory and health care issues.  John has followed legal issues impacting health care provider for over 25 years.  As such, he is knowledgeable on the current legal standards as well as the historic perspective that is often relevant to an appropriate analysis.  

Ambulatory Surgery Center Exclusions – ASC Safe Harbor Compliance

Monday, February 13th, 2017

Excluding Non-performing Positions from a Physician Owned Surgery Center

Many surgery centers are eventually faced with decisions about how to treat investing physicians who do not perform as many procedure procedures in the surgery center as others.  Under-performing physicians can create political issues in ASCs because investors who perform more surgeries or higher value procedures at the center feel that the other investors are taking a ride on their efforts. Over time, higher producers may start to view those with lower surgery levels as “dead wood”. This dynamic is a perfect set up for violating the anti-kickback statute which specifically prohibits basing investment offering on the actual or expected volume or value of referrals.

​The anti-kickback statute standards that apply to surgery centers are somewhat counter-intuitive. The safe harbors that protect ASC investment interests actually require an investor to make certain levels of referral in order to receive the benefits of the safe harbor. This is different from other types of services which consider additional referrals to be suspect.

​The conditions included in the ambulatory surgery center safe harbors act as a proxy for determining when an investing referrer actually uses the ASC as a natural extension of his or her office practice. If the investor does not meet the Safe harbor threshold they may still use the ASC is a natural extension of their office. The Safe harbor merely provides absolute protection if the thresholds are met.

Where the specific requirements of the safe harbor is not met, the referring physician may still be using the facility as an extension of his or her medical practice. It might just be that the nature of the practice does not support as many referrals as other types of practices.  This does not necessarily mean that the lower volume provider presents any additional risk of violating the anti-kickback statute than a provider that comes closer to meeting the safe harbor standards.

Depending on the practice type, the lower level of referrals might very well still be indicative that the physician uses the facility as an extension of his or her practice.  This may not be what the higher referring physicians wish to hear.   In reality, they may feel that lower volume providers are taking a ride on their higher profitability that is created by there more lucrative practice.  In these cases, strict adherence to the one-third tests for multi specialty ambulatory surgery centers can support the positions of the high-volume surgeons to the detriment of the lower volume surgeons who still realistically create very little risk under the anti-kickback statute. However it becomes convenient that those who are responsible for more income being produced by the ASC can rely upon the number of procedures and percentage of income tests to exclude physicians who legitimately use the ASC is an extension of practice from participation but who have lower surgical volumes.

These types of cases run significant risk of being challenged under the anti-kickback statute by excluded investors or governmental enforcement agencies.  Great care must be taken in surgery centers that contain this dynamic to assure that frustrations of higher volume producers do not lead to actions that create regulatory risk for the surgery center.

Many operating agreements that govern the rules relating to ambulatory surgery center ownership actually create legal compliance risk.  It is critical that the procedures for excluding providers be established in advance, are uniformly followed, and do not raise any inference that additional referrals are being required in order to maintain an investment interest. Efforts to bring investors closer to compliance with safe harbor standards can easily be “turned inside out” and be re-characterized as requiring additional referrals.

Once investors own interests in an ambulatory surgery center, it is very difficult to force redemption without creating a lot of legal risk.  ASCs that use the failure to meet safe harbor standards as a reason to exclude investors run substantial risk.  The ASC Safe Harbor provisions exist to protect arrangements from further scrutiny where they contain elements that the federal government has indicated are reflective of there being a lower level of risk of abuse.  The safe harbors were never intended to be used as a tool to replace a complete risk analysis presented by investors who do not meet all of the terms of the safe harbor.  In this respect, the ASC Safe Harbors are different from other safe harbor provisions under the anti-kickback statute.  The primary difference involves that fact that the safe harbor actually requires certain levels of referrals to be made to the ASC.

With other safe harbors, structuring an arrangement to come close to a safe harbor can be a valid risk mitigation approach.  This is not the case with the ASC safe harbor because requiring investors in an ASC to come closer to the referral threshholds in the ASC Safe Harbor actually invoke the referral prohibition.  Forcing this doctor out of the ASC for simply not meeting the safe harbor creates a violation.

John H. Fisher

Health Care Counsel
Ruder Ware, L.L.S.C.
500 First Street, Suite 8000
P.O. Box 8050
Wausau, WI 54402-8050

Tel 715.845.4336
Fax 715.845.2718

Ruder Ware is a member of Meritas Law Firms Worldwide

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