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Joan Polacheck advises clients on a variety of health care compliance and regulatory issues, including fraud and abuse, Stark law, Anti-Kickback Law and Medicare reimbursement issues. She represents a broad range of health care industry clients, including hospitals, suppliers, and drug and device companies. Read Joan Polacheck's full bio.

On May 31, 2017, the US Department of Justice announced a Settlement Agreement under which eClinicalWorks, a vendor of electronic health record software, agreed to pay $155 million and enter into a five-year Corporate Integrity Agreement to resolve allegations that it caused its customers to submit false claims for Medicare and Medicaid meaningful use payments in violation of the False Claims Act.

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In a case of first impression, a federal court found that the federal physician self-referral law’s (Stark Law) requirement that financial arrangements with physicians be memorialized in a signed writing could be material to the government’s payment decision. This case raises troubling questions about applying the False Claims Act (FCA) to what many in the industry consider “technical” Stark issues, especially given the Supreme Court’s description of the materiality test as “demanding” and not satisfied by “minor or insubstantial” regulatory noncompliance.

United States ex rel. Tullio Emanuele v. Medicor Associates (Emanuele), in the US District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, involves Medicor Associates, Inc., a private medical group practice (Medicor), and Hamot Medical Center’s (Hamot) exclusive provider of cardiology coverage. Tullio Emanuele, a qui tam relator and former physician member of Medicor, alleged that Hamot, Medicor, and four of Medicor’s shareholder-employee cardiologists (the Physicians) violated the FCA and Stark Law because Hamot’s multiple medical director compensation arrangements with Medicor failed to satisfy the signed writing requirement in the Stark Law’s personal services or fair market value exceptions during various periods of time. The US Department of Justice declined to intervene in the case, but filed a statement of interest in the summary judgment stage supporting the relator’s position. Continue Reading Is the Stark Law’s “Signed Writing” Requirement Material to Payment: One Federal Court Says Yes

On December 7, 2016, the Office of Inspector General of the US Department of Health and Human Services published a final rule containing revisions to both the federal Anti-Kickback Statute safe harbors and the beneficiary inducement prohibition in the civil monetary penalty rules. Effective January 6, 2017, the Final Rule modifies certain existing safe harbors and adds additional safe harbors to the Anti-Kickback Statute and incorporates Affordable Care Act-mandated exceptions into the definition of remuneration under the civil monetary penalty rules.

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On December 7, 2016, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a policy statement increasing its thresholds for gifts that are considered “nominal” for purposes of the patient inducement provisions of the civil monetary penalties law (section 1128A(a)(5) of the Social Security Act) (CMP Law). HHS also announced the new thresholds in the preamble to a final rule issued on December 7, 2016, revising safe harbors under the Anti-Kickback Statute and rules under the CMP Law. 81 Fed. Reg. 88368, 88394 (Dec. 7, 2016).  The previous thresholds for gifts to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries were $10 per item or $50 in the aggregate annually per patient. The new thresholds are $15 per item or $75 in the aggregate annually per patient.

Under the CMP Law, a person who offers or provides any remuneration to a Medicare or Medicaid beneficiary that the person knows or should know is likely to influence the beneficiary’s selection of a particular provider, practitioner or supplier of Medicare or Medicaid payable items or services may be liable for civil money penalties, subject to a limited number of exceptions. The OIG has indicated that gifts of “nominal value” are not required to meet an exception. However, the OIG has not changed its thresholds for what constitutes “nominal value” since issuing its 2002 Special Advisory Bulletin: Offering Gifts and Other Inducements to Beneficiaries, which included thresholds of no more than $10 in value individually or $50 in value in the aggregate annually per patient. To account for inflation, the OIG has now increased its interpretation of “nominal value,” permitting inexpensive gifts (other than cash or cash equivalents) of no more than $15 per item or $75 in the aggregate per patient annually, effective immediately.

The OIG’s policy statement provides that violations of the CMP Law could result in penalties of up to $10,000 per wrongful act; however, HHS increased the penalty to $15,024 per violation in an interim final rule issued earlier this year. 81 Fed. Reg. 61538, 61543 (Sept. 6, 2016). While the new thresholds are still fairly low, they are a welcome update to the longstanding $10/$50 thresholds.

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.

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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

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