During a July 17, 2018, hearing before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health, United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan testified about HHS’ efforts to review and address obstacles that longstanding fraud and abuse laws pose to shifting the Medicare payment system to a value-based, coordinated care payment system. Deputy Secretary Hargan confirmed that the agency is looking at regulatory reforms to both the physician self-referral law (Stark Law) and the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) as part of HHS’ “Regulatory Sprint to Coordinate Care.”

According to Hargan’s testimony, “the goal of the sprint is to remove regulatory barriers to coordinated care while ensuring patient safety. We want to genuinely engage stakeholders in this effort, and solicit feedback at each stage—but this is a sprint, not a jog. These words were chosen specifically because we want to fix, as quickly as possible, the regulatory processes that have increased provider burden.”

As part of this Sprint, in June the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a broad Stark Law Request for Information (RFI) that solicited public comments on how the Stark Law impedes care coordination and how Stark Law exceptions could be modified or create to promote such coordination as well as on how other exceptions may require regulatory change to reduce regulatory burden. Comments to the Stark Law RFI are due August 24.  We previously reported on the Stark Law RFI here.

In his testimony, Hargan stated that HHS is also looking at the AKS and its intersection with the Stark Law based on feedback from providers who find it “very difficult if not impossible to understand” how to comply with both laws.  Hargan described a four-agency task force that is working together to examine obstacles to coordinate care related to the Stark Law, the AKS, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA)  and rules under 42 CFR Part 2 related to opioid and substance abuse disorder treatment.  This task force is composed of CMS, the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG), the HHS Office of Civil Rights, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to “coordinate amongst themselves to facilitate a coordinated care system” to “reduce duplication, overlap and contradictions” in regulations and “ensure regulatory requirements are aligned.”  As part of this effort, Hargan indicated that HHS would soon issue an RFI on AKS reforms as part of the Sprint.

HHS has already begun exploring changes to the AKS regarding drug pricing.  On July 18, 2018, OIG sent a proposed rule to the Office of Management and Budget entitled “Removal Of Safe Harbor Protection for Rebates to Plans or PBMs Involving Prescription Pharmaceuticals and Creation of New Safe Harbor Protection.”  While the text of the proposed rule is not available at this time, the rule is expected to propose revisions to the AKS discount safe harbor to scale back or exclude rebates from drug manufacturers.

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.

As first reported in the National Law Journal, the US Department of Justice (DOJ), Civil Division, recently issued an important memorandum to its lawyers handling qui tam cases filed under the False Claims Act (FCA) outlining circumstances under which the United States should seek to dismiss a case where it has declined intervention and, therefore, is not participating actively in the continued litigation of the case against the defendant by the qui tam relator. Continue Reading DOJ Issues Memorandum Outlining Factors for Evaluating Dismissal of Qui Tam FCA Cases in Which the Government Has Declined to Intervene

A hospital system in Missouri recently agreed to settle with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) for $34 million to resolve claims related to alleged violations of the Stark Law. On May 18, 2017, DOJ announced a settlement agreement with Mercy Hospital Springfield (Hospital) and its affiliate, Mercy Clinic Springfield Communities (Clinic). The Hospital and Clinic are both located in Springfield, Missouri. The relator’s complaint was filed in the Western District of Missouri’s Southern Division on June 30, 2015.

The complaint’s allegations center on compensation arrangements with physicians who provided services in an infusion center. According to the complaint, until 2009 the infusion center was operated as part of the Clinic, and the physicians who practiced at the infusion center shared in its profits under a collection compensation model. In 2009, ownership of the infusion center was transferred to Mercy Hospital so that it could participate in the 340B drug pricing program, substantially reducing the cost of chemotherapy drugs. The complaint alleges that the physicians “expressed concern about losing a substantial portion of the income they had received under the collection compensation model as a result of the loss of ownership of the Infusion Center.” In response, the Hospital allegedly assured them that they would be “made whole” for any such losses. While it doesn’t provide precise details, the complaint alleges that the Hospital addressed the shortfall by establishing a new work Relative Value Unit (wRVU) for drug administration in the infusion center, which now operated as part of the Hospital. The value of this new wRVU was allegedly calculated by “solving for” the amount of the physician’s loss and “working backwards from a desired level of overall compensation.” Physicians were able to earn the wRVU for the patients they referred to the infusion center. The complaint alleges that the drug administration wRVU rate was 500 percent of the comparable wRVU for in-clinic work. In its announcement of the settlement agreement, DOJ characterized the compensation arrangement as being “based in part on a formula that improperly took into account the value of [the physicians’] referrals of patients to the infusion center operated by [the Hospital].” Continue Reading Physician Compensation Scrutiny Continues in Recent FCA Settlement

This April, providers cheered when a federal district court in the Middle District of Florida found insufficient evidence to support a relator’s theory that a hospital had provided free parking to physicians, in violation of the Stark Law and Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS). In the Report and Recommendation for United States ex rel. Bingham v. BayCare Health Systems, 2017 WL 126597, M.D. Fla., No. 8:14-cv-73, Judge Steven D. Merryday of the Middle District of Florida endorsed magistrate judge Julie Sneed’s recommendation that Plaintiff Thomas Bingham’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment be denied and that Defendant BayCare Health System’s Motion for Summary Judgment be granted. However, as we discussed in a previous FCA blog post regarding these allegations, this type of case encapsulates a worrying and costly trend where courts allow thinly pleaded relator claims in which the government opted not to intervene, to survive past the motion to dismiss stage into the discovery phase of the litigation.

Bingham is a serial relator who practices as a certified real estate appraiser in Tennessee and was unaffiliated with BayCare. In his latest attempt, Bingham alleged that BayCare Health System had violated the Stark Law and the AKS by providing affiliated physicians free parking, valet services and tax benefits to induce physicians to refer patients to the health system. Continue Reading A Hospital’s Deserving Stark and AKS Victory—But At What Cost?

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 November 15, 2016, as part of its 2017 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule update, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services reissued its prohibition on certain unit-based rental arrangements with referring physicians, adopted updates to the list of CPT/HCPCS codes defining certain of the Stark Law’s designated health services and implemented a minor technical change to its instructions for submitting a request for an Stark advisory opinion. These revisions can be found at 81 Fed. Reg. 80170, 80524-36.

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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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In October 2005, Dr. Michael Drakeford filed his qui tam against Tuomey Healthcare System alleging Stark Law and False Claims Act violations. After ten years of investigation and litigation, including two jury trials, two trips to the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, and a staggering judgment of $237 million, on October 16, 2015, the Department of Justice announced that it reached a settlement with Tuomey to pay $72.4 million before its sale to Palmetto Health. Dr. Drakeford received a 25 percent share ($18.1 million) plus an additional $2.5 million payment for attorneys’ costs and fees.

We have previously analyzed the Fourth Circuit’s July decision affirming the 2013 jury verdict and judgment here, and the Tuomey litigation in great detail here.

Consistent with DOJ’s policy announced in the Yates Memorandum (see post), the settlement agreement only releases Tuomey, and does not release any corporate officers, directors or employees. Moreover, the settlement contains some unusual provisions concerning two such officers, noting that Tuomey had agreed to indemnify Jay Cox and Gregg Martin, the CEO and COO respectively during the relevant time period, for their attorney fees and expenses relating to the conduct covered by the settlement. According to the settlement, Tuomey has informed the United States how much Tuomey has already advanced Cox and Martin, and Tuomey assigned to the United States all claims or potential claims Tuomey has or may have against Cox and Martin for reimbursement of fees and costs advanced to them.

Tuomey also entered into a five-year corporate integrity agreement (CIA) with the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General as part of the settlement. The CIA requires that Tuomey retain a law firm as a “Legal IRO” to perform reviews of Tuomey’s process for entering into arrangements with referral sources as well as reviewing specific arrangements.  The CIA also contains a requirement that is starting to appear in more recent CIAs — certifications of compliance from both the compliance officer and the chief executive officer instead of only the compliance officer.

After the federal government’s victory against Tuomey Hospital, we have seen an increasing number of large False Claims Act (FCA) settlements with hospitals involving Stark Law allegations. Despite the intricacies of Stark Law compliance, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has not shown much leniency in its treatment of these cases, as shown by two recent settlements involving Columbus Regional Healthcare System and North Broward Hospital District. This On the Subject explores some “lessons learned” from these settlements as well as DOJ’s emerging interpretation of the Stark Law that may put vertically integrated health systems’ physicians arrangements at risk for scrutiny.

Read the full On the Subject.