In U.S. ex rel. J. William Bookwalter, III, M.D. et al. v. UPMC et al., the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit endorsed two controversial interpretations of the Stark Law’s “volume or value” standard, known as the correlation theory and the practice “loss” theory. Specifically, the court held that the relators had made out a plausible allegation of an indirect compensation arrangement between surgeons and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC)-affiliated hospitals. The court held that the relators were entitled to proceed to discovery because of the correlation between the amount of the productivity-based compensation paid to the surgeons and the volume of the surgeons’ referrals for inpatient hospital services (e.g., operating room and hospital room and board). Repeatedly invoking the concept of “where there is smoke, there might be fire,” the court also stated that the fact that at least three of the surgeons allegedly received compensation in excess of the hospital’s collections for their professional services supported the plausibility of the relators’ allegation that the compensation “takes into account” the volume or value of the physicians’ referrals to the hospitals.
If this holding sounds familiar, that is because it is based on the same logic advanced by the Fourth Circuit in U.S. ex rel. Drakeford v. Tuomey, the infamous Stark Law/False Claims Act (FCA) case that first put the hospital industry on notice that common productivity-based compensation to hospital-employed surgeons could implicate the Stark Law. While distinguishable from Tuomey, UPMC has important implications for hospitals and health systems that employ surgeons.
Summary of Allegations and Procedural History
In UPMC, the plaintiffs alleged that the UPMC hospitals where the neurosurgeons performed cases each had an indirect compensation arrangement with the surgeons and thus triggered the Stark Law’s prohibitions against referrals and the associated Medicare claims for reimbursement. Based on this alleged Stark Law violation, the plaintiffs claimed that the hospitals violated the FCA by submitting false claims for hospital services referred by the surgeons. The surgeons were paid a base salary and a productivity bonus of $45 per work RVU above a specified target. If a surgeon did not hit the target, her base compensation would be reduced the following year. The government had intervened in and settled another aspect of the case, but declined to intervene on these allegations.
The compensation arrangement between the surgeons and the UPMC hospitals was evaluated as a potential indirect compensation arrangement because the surgeons were employed by UPMC-affiliated medical practices, not directly by the UPMC hospitals. For Stark Law purposes, an indirect compensation arrangement requires, among other things, that the compensation paid to the physician “varies with” or “takes into account” the volume or value of the physician’s referrals to the hospital. In this case, the plaintiffs alleged that the compensation greatly exceeded fair market value and that at least three surgeons were paid more than the hospital collected for their services. The plaintiffs also asserted that “[e]very time . . . [the surgeons] performed a surgery or other procedure at the UPMC Hospitals, the Physicians made a referral for the associated hospital claims pursuant to the Stark Statute.”