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Eric B. Gordon advises clients on fraud and abuse and compliance issues and health care transactions. He is partner-in-charge of the California Health Industry Practice Group. Eric represents a wide range of clients, including proprietary and tax-exempt hospital systems, medical groups, academic medical centers and faculty practice groups, pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers, and group purchasing organizations. Read Eric B. Gordon's full bio.

On June 25, 2018, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) published a request for information, seeking input from the public on how to address any undue regulatory impact and burden of the physician self-referral law (Stark Law) on value-based and other coordinated care arrangements designed to improve quality and lower cost. While the overall focus of CMS’s request for information is on the Stark Law’s actual or perceived barriers to innovation, the request also gives the health care industry a unique opportunity to comment on and request revisions or clarifications for any significant Stark Law provision, including the provisions regarding fair market value, volume or value, and commercial reasonableness, as well as the Stark “group practice” definition.

As part of its focus to shift from a fee-for-service to a value-based health care delivery system, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) launched a “Regulatory Sprint to Coordinated Care,” which is focused on identifying regulatory barriers to coordinated care. CMS identified aspects of the Stark Law that may create obstacles to participation in integrated delivery models, alternative payment models, and other arrangements incentivizing improvements in outcomes and reductions in costs, and is seeking input on revisions or additions to exceptions to the Stark Law.

The Stark Law is largely indifferent to the good faith intentions of health systems to integrate and enter into coordinated care arrangements with physicians, and continues to impose on health systems burdens of proof that the arrangements comply with ambiguous standards like fair market value, volume or value and commercial reasonableness. While financial transactions incident to CMS’s innovative care delivery and payment initiatives, such as accountable care organizations (ACOs), medical homes and bundled payment arrangements can be protected by certain fraud and abuse/Stark Law waivers, there are other common transactions and arrangements with physicians still operating in a fee-for-service environment (such as practice acquisitions, employment, “gainsharing,” service line co-management, pay-for-quality and non-ACO clinically integrated networks) that are not protected by the waivers. CMS’s request for information provides a welcome opportunity for the health care industry to educate CMS on the obstacles the Stark Law presents for innovative coordinated care arrangements with physicians.

In its request, CMS posed 20 specific requests for information on novel financial arrangements and alternative payment models, the applicability of current Stark Law exceptions to such arrangements, and what additional exceptions or revisions to the Stark Law are necessary to protect coordinated care arrangements from Stark Law liability. These requests, however, are so far ranging that they effectively invite comments on just about any Stark Law provision that a stakeholder believes warrants revision or clarification.

Comments are due by 5 pm EDT on August 24, 2018. If you would like assistance in preparing comments, please contact one of the authors or your regular McDermott lawyer.

On July 12, 2016, the US Senate Finance Committee held a hearing to “examine ways to improve and reform the Stark Law” as a follow up to releasing a white paper on June 30 titled Why Stark, Why Now? Suggestions to Improve the Stark Law to Encourage Innovative Payment Models. The white paper summarizes comments and recommendations gathered during a roundtable discussion held by the Senate Finance Committee and the US House Committee on Ways and Means in December 2015 as well as written comments submitted by roundtable participants and other stakeholders on topics taken up by the roundtable in the weeks following the meeting.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Senator Orrin Hatch commented in a press release that “[t]he health care industry has changed significantly since Stark was first implemented, and while the original goals of the Stark law were appropriate, today it is presenting a real burden for hospitals and doctors trying to find new ways to provide high quality care while reducing costs as they work to implement recent health care reforms. . . [The] paper reflects critical feedback from the stakeholder community on the law’s ambiguities, its unintended consequences and the need for reform, and I am hopeful it jumpstarts the discussion on how Congress can modernize the law to make it work for patients, providers and taxpayers.”

Congress’ attention to Stark Law reform would address the significant False Claims Act exposure Stark Law violations can pose, which has been a very active topic for relators and government investigations in recent years.

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Health systems routinely employ physicians, either directly or through corporate affiliates. Media reports and anecdotal evidence suggest such practices routinely, perhaps uniformly, result in net practices losses for the system when measured solely based on physician practice revenues. Does this fact have any legal import under the Stark Law?

Read the full article from Bloomberg BNA Health Care Fraud Report™.

In 1989, Congress enacted the Ethics in Patient Referrals Act. Twenty-five years later, in United States ex rel. Drakeford v. Tuomey, the Fourth Circuit upheld the largest False Claims Act (FCA) judgment predicated on Stark Law violations to date: $237 million. Writing in concurrence, Judge Wynn summarized the situation as “[a]n impenetrably complex set of laws and regulations that will result in a likely death sentence for a community hospital in an already medically underserved area,” concluding that “even for well-intentioned health care providers, the Stark Law has become a booby trap rigged with strict liability and potentially ruinous exposure—especially when coupled with the False Claims Act.”

The court’s opinion did not quarrel with this assessment: “we do not discount the concerns raised by our concurring colleague regarding the result in this case. But having found no cause to upset the jury’s verdict in this case and no constitutional error, it is for Congress to consider whether changes to the Stark Law’s reach are in order.”

This is not the first time that serious concerns have been raised about the breadth, complexity, and inscrutability of the Stark Law as currently implemented. As part of the Balanced Budget Act (BBA) of 1995, Congress voted to repeal the Stark Law as applied to compensation arrangements, but the BBA was vetoed by President Bill Clinton. More recently, the law’s namesake, former Representative Fortney “Pete” Stark, has urged its repeal.

This article is not intended to summarize all the facts of Tuomey or its extended procedural history, which have been recounted elsewhere. Rather, we seek to comment on three key aspects of the case: (1) the defendant’s advice of counsel/ scienter defense; (2) the court’s application of the “takes into account” prong to Tuomey’s physician employment agreements; and (3) certain inherent tensions in the Stark Law that the Tuomey odyssey underscores.

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The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently published a notice of proposed rulemaking to amend its regulations implementing and interpreting the Stark Law. CMS also used this proposed rule to state its positions on certain questions of Stark Law interpretation and application, and to solicit comments from the industry on whether the Stark Law is a barrier to health care delivery and payment innovation, and whether the industry needs more guidance on how the Stark Law applies to physician compensation. Notably, the proposed rule adds two new Stark Law exceptions—one for financial assistance to practices to recruit primary care non-physician practitioners and one for “time-share” arrangements. Comments on the proposed rule are due September 8, 2015.

Read the full Special Report.

The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s May 2013 decision that Tuomey Healthcare System, Inc., a hospital and health system based in Sumter, South Carolina, submitted 21,730 false claims, claims prohibited by the Stark Law, to the Medicare program. The court rejected Tuomey’s request for a new trial based on multiple errors by the trial court and Tuomey’s constitutional challenges to the trial court’s award of damages and civil penalties totaling $237 million. Although concurring with the Fourth Circuit’s opinion, Judge Wynn described this case as “troubling,” explaining that “even for well-intentioned health care providers, the Stark Law has become a booby trap rigged with strict liability and potentially ruinous exposure–especially when coupled with the False Claims Act.” United States ex rel. Drakeford v. Tuomey, No. 13-2219, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 11460, at *69 (4th Cir. Jul. 2, 2015) (Wynn, J., concurring).

Read the full Special Report.

Over the last month the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have each taken actions that suggest an increasing appetite to examine the financial relationships between physicians and recipients of those physicians’ referrals under the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS). By announcing new OIG and DOJ enforcement actions and the new OIG fraud alert, the agencies are signaling to the health care industry that physician financial relationships are one of their priority areas. These announcements should prompt organizations to review their physician arrangements and contracting policies to help ensure compliance with the AKS as well as the Physician Self-Referral (“Stark”) Law. Continue Reading Recent DOJ and OIG Actions Show Growing Federal Scrutiny of Physician Financial Arrangements

A 2008 rule change from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS)—which effectively prohibited referring physician-owned companies from furnishing hospital services “under arrangements”—has withstood a challenge by a urology trade association. On June 12, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (D.C. Circuit) held that the 2008 rule change, which redefined an “entity furnishing designated health services” to include entities that perform the services, not just bill for them, constituted a reasonable construction of the Stark Law and was entitled to deference. The appellate court, however, held that CMS’ prohibition on “per-click” equipment rental arrangements lacked a rational basis in light of the agency’s “tortured reading” of a relevant conference report, which, the court noted, was “the stuff of caprice.” Accordingly, the court struck down CMS’ 2008 prohibition on per-click equipment rental arrangements involving referring physician-owned equipment leasing companies. Continue Reading Court Upholds CMS’ Prohibition on ‘Under-Arrangements’ Transactions, Strikes Down CMS’ Prohibition on ‘Per-Click’ Equipment Rental Arrangements

Health care fraud enforcement continues to be a priority for the federal government and is poised to expand even more. As a result, health care providers and suppliers should anticipate greater oversight activities from auditors and investigators. Ensuring that your compliance program is up-to-date and up-to-task in proactively identifying problems and making timely decisions about corrective actions and potential disclosures is key to protecting the organization.

BIGGER BUDGETS FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT AND PROGRAM INTEGRITY

In the fiscal 2015 budget, Congress more than doubled the appropriation to the Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control (HCFAC) program to $672 million. This means that the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) received a large infusion of new funding at a time when many agencies continue to face flat or declining appropriations. CMS program integrity functions received more than $477 million for Medicare oversight, including Parts C and D. OIG and DOJ received more than $67 million and $60 million, respectively, from HCFAC. Continue Reading Fraud Enforcement Trends for 2015: Over the Horizon