Office of Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services
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Recent Advisory Opinion Shows OIG’s Growing Acceptance of Financial Integration Among Related Entities

On July 20, the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services (OIG) posted a new Advisory Opinion (the Opinion) addressing a health system’s restructured arrangement to lease employees, and provide other operational and management services, to a related psychiatric hospital (the Arrangement). The Opinion is a notable departure from other recent statements and enforcement actions, and signals a greater flexibility in how related entities may share non-clinical employees and operational expenses. It also shows the OIG’s willingness to consider more practical factors, such as cost reporting requirements and the systemic benefits from integrated entities behaving in cost-efficient ways, when determining the risk presented by an arrangement.

The Opinion concerns a nonprofit health system (System) with a membership interest in the psychiatric hospital (Center). The Center is also part of the System’s integrated health network.  The System and the Center are potential referral sources to each other. Currently, both parties have an existing arrangement, whereby the Center leases non-clinician employees and obtains certain other operational and management services from the System, paying the System’s fully loaded costs (e.g., salary, benefits, overhead expenses) plus a two percent administration fee. The Arrangement would continue the same relationship, but the Center would no longer pay the System the administration fee. The parties have asserted, and OIG verified, that the administrative fee is an unallowable cost under applicable Medicare cost-reporting rules, and would not be reimbursable by the Medicare program.

The OIG noted that the new Arrangement, where the System would provide the same services for less aggregate compensation, could raise fair market value (FMV) issues. Such a discount could be considered remuneration in exchange for the Center’s referrals. In addition, the aggregate compensation under the Arrangement can’t be set in advance as the System’s costs, and Center’s needs, may change during the term. Given these issues, the Arrangement would not meet the requirements of the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) safe harbor for personal services and management contracts. Nonetheless, given the totality of the circumstances, the OIG concluded that the Arrangement would present a low risk of fraud and abuse and thus OIG would not impose sanctions.

The Opinion described several mitigating factors that, from OIG’s perspective, decreased the Arrangement’s risk of fraud and abuse. Not only did the parties attempt to structure the Arrangement to be in compliance with Medicare cost-reporting rules for related parties, there was also no evidence that the Arrangement was structured to, or actually would, induce referrals. Moreover, the parties pointed to the cost efficiencies of health system integration that would be promoted by the Arrangement, and to the potential indirect benefits (by way of cost savings) to federal health care programs.

The Opinion’s more flexible approach to analyzing the Arrangement stands in contrast to the OIG’s other recent activities, all of which express a consistent concern with payments between independent actors that are not consistent with FMV. For example, the OIG issued a fraud alert focusing on improper physician financial arrangements on June 9, 2015 [...]

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New Fraud Alert Shows OIG Focus on Physicians

On June 9, 2015, the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services (OIG) issued a new fraud alert concerning physician compensation arrangements and compliance with the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS). While the fraud alert itself does not break new ground interpreting the AKS, it signals OIG’s steadily increasing scrutiny and enforcement activity of physicians and physician arrangements.

The fraud alert encourages physicians who enter into compensation arrangements, such as medical directorships, to “ensure that those arrangements reflect fair market value for bona fide services the physicians actually provide” by “carefully consider[ing] the terms and conditions of medical directorships and other compensation arrangements before entering into them.” Payments that take into account the volume or value of referrals, do not reflect fair market value for the services performed, or compensate the physician in ways that are unrelated to providing services—such as subsidizing office staff costs—raise compliance risks, according to the OIG. Similarly, not providing the services called for under the arrangement can also create liability issues.

Rather than provide new or updated AKS guidance to the health care community, however, this fraud alert’s purpose appears to be to publicize a series of 12 settlements under the OIG’s Civil Monetary Penalties Law (CMPL) authorities obtained over the past two years with individual physicians who had medical director arrangements with Fairmont Diagnostic Center and Open MRI Inc. (Fairmont), an imaging facility in Houston owned and operated by Dr. Jack L. Baker. In 2012, Dr. Baker and Fairmont entered into a $650,000 False Claims Act settlement concerning allegations that Dr. Baker and Fairmont paid illegal compensation to physicians through medical director agreements to induce patient referrals. As part of the settlement, Dr. Baker agreed to be excluded from federal health care programs for six years. Following the settlement, OIG pursued “spin-off” CMPL cases against some of the physicians who had these suspect medical director agreements. In total, the OIG collected over $1.4 million in penalties from 11 physicians and excluded one physician for three years. The settlement amounts ranged from $50,000 to $195,016.

The fraud alert highlights that the OIG is stepping up its own administrative enforcement activities of physicians separate from the government’s more traditional False Claims Act efforts. With a large budget increase this year, the OIG is able to hire more lawyers who can investigate and bring CMPL cases. The OIG has displayed additional signs of interest in physicians, including a ramped-up issuance of guidance. After a somewhat lengthy span without issuing much guidance, the OIG has issued a new fraud alert specifically addressing physician issues each year for the past three years. In 2013, the OIG warned the industry about its concerns with physician-owned distributors and other joint ventures. In 2014, the OIG cautioned labs and physicians about labs making certain suspect specimen collection and other payments to physicians.

We should expect to see more OIG scrutiny of physicians and their financial arrangements with the recipients of their [...]

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