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CMS Advisory Opinion Approves Proposed Hospital Expansion under Stark Law’s Whole Hospital Exception

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) recently released a favorable advisory opinion, CMS AO-2013-03, that interprets the “whole hospital” exception to the physician self-referral prohibition commonly known as the Stark Law. CMS determined that the proposed arrangement, which adds a new observation unit and 14 observation beds to a physician-owned hospital, complies with the “whole hospital” exception’s restriction on facility expansions.

In general, the Stark Law prohibits the referral of Medicare patients for designated health services (“DHS”) to an entity in which the referring physician has a financial relationship. The law also prohibits the entity that furnishes DHS as a result of a prohibited referral from billing Medicare, the beneficiary, or any other entity.

The Stark Law contains several exceptions to which the self-referral prohibition does not apply, including the “whole hospital” exception under Section 1877(d)(3). The “whole hospital” exception allows referring physicians to have physician ownership or investment interests in a hospital provided that the referring physician is authorized to perform services at the hospital and the ownership or investment interest is in the hospital itself.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) adds an additional restriction to the “whole hospital” exception. Section 6001(a)(3) limits the expansion of such hospitals’ facility capacity by requiring that “the number of operating rooms, procedure rooms, and beds for which the hospital is licensed at any time on or after [March 23, 2010] is no greater than the number of operating rooms, procedure rooms, and beds for which the hospital is licensed as of such date.”

The preamble to the final rule implementing this section, however, clarified that the term “for which the hospital is licensed” only referred to beds, and that the prohibition applied to operating and procedure rooms whether licensed or not. Thus, physician-owned hospitals that rely on the “whole hospital” exception to the Stark Law are prohibited from increasing the number of operating rooms, procedure rooms, or licensed beds in that hospital.

In the Advisory Opinion, the hospital certified that the new beds would not be used as operating rooms or procedure rooms. Most importantly, the State in which the hospital is located does not require observation beds to be licensed by the State.

CMS acknowledged the preamble discussed above, and pointed to the fact that the Hospital will not pay any “license fees” or change its current number of licensed beds under the State’s regulatory scheme. Accordingly, CMS concluded that the addition of the observation unit and 14 observation beds will not result in any new “licensed” beds, and that the proposed arrangement does not violate the Stark Law and ACA restriction against facility expansion.

In this case, state specific licensing laws affected CMS’s analysis of the “whole hospital” exception. The Advisory Opinion demonstrates the widespread risks inherent in any arrangement that involves physicians who have financial relationships with entities to which they refer DHS. Wachler & Associates has represented healthcare providers and suppliers in Stark Law matters since the law’s inception. We pride ourselves on staying up to date with Stark Law regulations, interpretations, and advisory opinions. If you or your healthcare entity have any questions regarding the Stark Law or Anti-Kickback Statute, or wish to have your arrangement reviewed by our Stark Law attorneys, please contact our health care lawyers at 248-544-0888 or wapc@wachler.com.