HHS Proposes Substantial Changes to the Stark Law and the Anti-Kickback Statute Regulations

On October 9, 2019, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published proposed changes to the physician self-referral law (Stark Law) (Stark Proposed Rule) and the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) and the Beneficiary Inducement Civil Monetary Penalty Law (CMPL) (AKS Proposed Rule).

The proposed rules represent some of the most significant potential changes to these laws in the last decade. HHS Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan said that they “would be a historic reform of how healthcare is regulated in America.” This On the Subject provides a high-level overview of key provisions in the proposed rules. More in-depth analysis will follow at our Regulatory Sprint Resource Page.

The “Sprint”

The Stark Law and AKS Proposed Rules have been promulgated as part of HHS’s “Regulatory Sprint to Coordinated Care,” which was launched in 2018 with the goal of reducing regulatory burden and incentivizing coordinated care. As part of this initiative, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) began scrutinizing a variety of long-standing regulatory requirements and prohibitions to determine whether they unnecessarily hinder the innovative arrangements that policymakers are otherwise hoping to see develop. The agencies took the step of formally seeking public input on this topic by issuing requests for information (RFIs) in June and August 2018. More information about HHS’s Sprint and the RFIs is available on our Regulatory Sprint Resource Page.

The Proposals

The Proposed Rules reflect a coordinated effort between CMS and OIG to address various challenges to the transition to value-based care. Both agencies clearly recognize that the two laws often operate in tandem, but they also emphasize that they are distinct and separate enforcement vehicles. Thus, in some instances OIG’s proposals may be more restrictive that CMS’s, and both agencies state that the AKS may act as a “backstop” to protect against arrangements that meet a Stark Law exception but are nonetheless considered abusive. CMS also proposes to remove compliance with the AKS as a requirement from several Stark Law exceptions, further underscoring the laws’ separateness.

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Third Circuit Perpetuates Tuomey’s Controversial Stark Law “Volume or Value” Standard

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.”

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Remuneration? Not If It’s Fair Market Value, Says Eleventh Circuit

Bingham v. HCA, Inc., a recent Eleventh Circuit case, highlights the centrality of fair market value to Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) analyses. This decision is significant for several reasons and we expect to see Bingham cited by many defendants in future False Claims Act cases. The case is also a reminder that the current regulatory and enforcement environment can result in litigation over arrangements with fair market value payments that involve little, or no, compliance concerns.

One of the most fundamental elements of managing risk under the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) is ensuring remuneration is consistent with fair market value. A recent Eleventh Circuit case highlights the centrality of fair market value to AKS analyses. See Bingham v. HCA, Inc., Case No. 1:13-cv-23671 (11th Cir. 2019). In Bingham, the court held that proving fair market value is an essential element for a relator to survive summary judgment and that relators must plead a lack of fair market value consistent with the Rule 9(b) particularity requirement to allege improper remuneration exists in the first place. The court’s holding is significant for two reasons: (1) it underscores that the plaintiff bears a burden in pleading and proving lack of fair market value, and (2) it suggests that fair market value compensation may be an absolute defense to an AKS allegation. We expect to see Bingham cited by many defendants in future False Claims Act cases, and we will be watching to see how the Eleventh Circuit and other courts continue to evaluate these concepts.

Case Background and Procedural History

We note that it took five years of costly litigation for HCA to reach this decision. Relator, who has filed a number of cases against hospital systems over the years concerning real estate deals, filed his first amended complaint on August 15, 2014. Relator alleged that HCA, through its Centerpoint Medical Center and Aventura Hospital facilities, violated the FCA due to improper space rental arrangements with physicians. Relator alleged that HCA allegedly paid a medical office building developer improper subsidies and that the developer passed the value of these subsidies onto physician tenants who signed 10-year leases through low initial lease rates, restricted use waivers, operating cash-flow shares and free office improvements. Relator also alleged HCA provided direct remuneration to physician tenants at the Aventura facility, including free parking, subsidized common area maintenance, free use permissions and below market rent.

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Healthcare Enforcement Quarterly Roundup – Q2 2019

In this second installment of the Healthcare Enforcement Quarterly Roundup for 2019, we cover several topics that have persisted over the past few years and identify new issues that will shape the scope of enforcement efforts for the remainder of this year and beyond. In this Quarterly Roundup, we discuss DOJ’s guidance on compliance programs and cooperation credit, new US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) rules and enforcement activity on provider religious/conscience opt-out rights, enforcement activity against home health agencies and telemedicine providers, continued federal action to combat the opioid crisis, and resolution of ambiguity in the False Claims Act (FCA) statute of limitations.

Click here to read the full issue of the Healthcare Enforcement Quarterly Roundup.

Click here to download a PDF of the issue.  



Dash to Digital Health? How the Regulatory Sprint to Coordinated Care Could Expand Access to Care

Certain long-standing laws, such as the civil monetary penalty provision prohibiting patient inducements, have hampered providers’ ability to fully leverage remote patient monitoring and other telehealth tools. Many stakeholders are hoping that developments in the Regulatory Sprint to Coordinated Care will begin the rulemaking process to enable greater access to digital health and virtual care products.

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) launched the Regulatory Sprint to Coordinated Care in 2018 with the goal of reducing regulatory burden and incentivizing coordinated care. As part of this initiative, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and other agencies are scrutinizing a variety of long-standing regulatory requirements and prohibitions to determine whether they unnecessarily hinder the innovative arrangements policy-makers are otherwise hoping to see develop. While regulations such as the civil monetary penalty prohibition on patient inducements have significant benefits for reducing fraud and abuse, they can also make it difficult for health systems to deploy digital tools that help patients track, monitor and share health data with their providers.

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