Articles Posted in Compliance

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The sale of goods in physicians’ offices can afford patients greater accessibility to healthcare products while simultaneously enhancing quality of care. However, these transactions may pose ethical dilemmas for physicians along with the potential to negatively affect the physician-patient relationship. Physicians should be aware of these potential pitfalls. Specifically, both the sale of health-related and non-health-related goods by physicians may present a financial conflict of interest Such sales may also carry a risk of patient exploitation by placing undue pressure on patients. Local statutes, regulations, and board of medicine rules may further affect the practice.

The American Medical Association, (AMA) has cautioned that, in general, physicians should not sell non-health-related products from their offices. However, the AMA has expressed approval that physicians may sell low-cost non-health-related goods from their offices for the benefit of community organizations, provided that: (1) the goods are low-cost, (2) the physician takes no share in profit from their sale, (3) such sales are not a regular part of the physician’s business, (4) sales are conducted in a dignified manner, and (5) sales are conducted in such a way as to assure that patients are not pressured into making purchases. The most common examples are seasonable fundraisers for community organizations such as the local chapter of the Girl Scouts.

Although the details may vary from state to state, physicians may generally sell health-related goods from their offices. In response to the risk of patient exploitation, the physician may be required to limit sales to products that serve the immediate and pressing needs of their patients. In other words, physicians should only sell health-related products that align with their practice area. For example, it may be appropriate for a patient treated for a broken leg to purchase crutches from that same physician’s office where the patient was treated. Physicians who choose to sell health-related products from their offices should not sell any health-related products whose claim of benefit lacks scientific validity.

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Two similar and inter-related, but sometimes misunderstood, terms in healthcare law are “in office ancillary” and “incident to.” While both may apply to the same circumstances, they are distinct concepts and should be understood separately.

“In Office Ancillary” services are an exception to the Physician Self-Referral Law, often referred to as the Stark Law. The Stark Law prohibits “physicians” (generally including MDs, DOs, dentists, optometrists, and chiropractors) from referring patients to receive “designated health services” payable by Medicare or Medicaid from entities with which the physician or an immediate family member has a financial relationship, unless an exception applies. Generally, under the “in office ancillary” exception, the Stark law does not apply to services that (1) are performed by the referring physician, another physician in the same group practice, or an individual supervised by the referring physicians or another physician in the same group practice; (2) are performed in the same building as the referring physician or their group practice offers services or in another centralized location; and (3) are billed by the performing physician, the supervising physician, or their group practice.

On the other hand, “incident to” is a billing term. Services and supplies billed “incident to” a physician’s professional services are furnished by auxiliary personnel as an integral, although incidental, part of the physician’s personal professional services. Generally, services and supplies commonly furnished in physicians’ offices are covered under the “incident to” provisions. However, to bill services provided by auxiliary personal as “incident to” the physician’s services, among other requirements, the physician must directly supervise the auxiliary personnel. That is, the physician must be present in the same office suite and immediately available to provide assistance and direction while the auxiliary personnel is performing services.

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On June 11, 2021, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released long-awaited updates on the reporting requirements for entities that received payments from the Provider Relief Fund (PRF). HHS also pushed back the deadline for some recipients of PRF payments to use the funds. The PRF is a $175 billion fund created by Congress through the CARES Act and administered by HHS to provide financial relief to healthcare providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. HHS has subdivided the PRF into various general and targeted distributions.

Initially, the PRF reporting portal had been scheduled to open on January 15, 2021, with the first reports initially being due on February 15, 2021. However, HHS has repeatedly pushed these dates back. For the last several months, provides have been able to register and log into the reporting portal, but have been unable to file reports. Moreover, PRF recipients had previously been told that all PRF payments must be used by June 30, 2021. As June 30, 2021 approached, and no new reporting guidance or timeline had been released, providers and industry groups began to call for HHS to push back the deadline by which PRF funds must be used.

The new reporting guidance pushed this date back for some, but not all, recipients. The deadline to use the funds, as well as the reporting deadline, is now dependent on when the recipient received the payment.

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Effective June 8, 2021, Medicare will pay an additional $35 per dose for administering the COVID-19 vaccine in the home for certain Medicare patients that have difficulties leaving their homes or are hard-to-reach. This $35 dollar payment is in addition to the standard payment for vaccine administration, which varies based on location but is approximately $40 per dose. The additional payment also applies to each dose of a two-dose vaccine if both doses are administered in the home. To be eligible for the at-home additional payment, both the location and the beneficiaries must be certain criteria.

Private residences, temporary lodging, apartments, most units in an assisted living facility (ALF) or group home, and the homes of Medicare beneficiaries have been made provider-based to a hospital during the COVID-19 public health emergency generally qualify as location eligible for the at-home additional payment. However, hospitals, skilled nursing facilities (SNFs), some ALFs, and the communal spaces of apartment buildings or group homes do not qualify for the at-home additional payment.

In addition, to an eligible location, the Medicare beneficiaries must also meet certain criteria. Specifically:

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On May 28, 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released guidance indicating that employers could, under certain circumstances, offer incentives to employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and offer the vaccine to employees’ family members. The EEOC largely confined its analysis to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). However, employers who are also healthcare providers must also consider whether these benefits to employees or their family members implicate prohibitions on payment for referrals.

The Physician Self-Referral Law (also known as the Stark Law), the Anti-Kickback Statutes (AKS), and the Eliminating Kickbacks in Recovery Act (EKRA) all prohibit various forms of payment for referrals. The Stark Law prohibits “physicians” (generally including MDs, DOs, dentists, optometrists, and chiropractors) from referring patients to receive “designated health services” payable by Medicare or Medicaid from entities with which the physician or an immediate family member has a financial relationship, unless an exception applies. The AKS is a criminal statute that prohibits the knowing and willful payment of “remuneration” to induce or reward patient referrals or the generation of business involving any item or service payable by federal health care programs. EKRA provides criminal penalties for paying, receiving, or soliciting any remuneration in return for referrals to recovery homes, clinical treatment facilities, or clinical laboratories. All three and can carry stiff penalties, sometimes criminal penalties.

Healthcare employers who provide incentives to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to employees with the ability to make referrals to the employer or that offer benefits to such employees’ family members should account for these statutes. Depending on how the incentive is structured, it may fit into the bona fide employment exception to the Stark Law or one of the other exceptions or safe harbors in these rules. It is also important to note that, due to federal funding, the vaccine itself it available free-of-charge, but that administration of the vaccine and the convenience thereof may still represent things of value, as well as the value of any incentives, in cash or otherwise.

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The Corporate Practice of Medicine refers to the practice of medicine by a corporate entity, rather than an individual practitioner. That is, the corporate entity employs physicians. Many states prohibit the corporate practice of medicine or otherwise regulate what types of entities may employ physicians. The rationale is often a desire that medical decision-making remain with the physician and should not be influenced by a non-physician employer. These regulations are the reasons that physician “employment” is often organized into physician groups or profession corporations.

Each state treats the corporate practice of medicine differently, but there are three general approaches. First, some states fully prohibit the corporate practice of medicine. These states do not allow physicians to be employed by non-physicians and only allow physicians to form professional corporations, professional associations, or professional limited liability companies (PLLCs) that are owned exclusively by physicians. For example, Michigan generally requires that all shareholders in a professional corporation or PLLC that engages in the practice of medicine must be licensed physicians. Some states may allow other types of licensed health professionals to own a professional entity that employs physicians.

Second, some states have no restrictions on the corporate practice of medicine or otherwise allow physicians to be employed by entities controlled by non-physicians.

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Recently, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced another delay of the implementation of the new rule for Medicare Coverage of Innovative Technology (MCIT) and discussed several concerns it had with the new rule, raising doubts that CMS would ever implement the new rule without significant changes.

The new rule, as currently written, provides for four years of national Medicare coverage of innovative medical devices starting on the date of FDA market authorization or a manufacturer chosen date within two years thereafter. The rule was initially published by CMS on January 14, 2021 and was set to take effect in March 2021. However, shortly after the transition to the Biden Administration, CMS delayed the effective date until May 2021 as part of its general freeze of new regulations pending review. On May 14, 2021, CMS announced it would further delay the implementation of the new rule until December 15, 2021.

In the May 2021 announcement of the delay, CMS expressed its concerns with the new rule. Specially, CMS expressed concern that the rule establishes a four-year commitment to Medicare coverage for all breakthrough devices that have a benefit category without a specific requirement that the device demonstrates a health benefit in the Medicare population or that the benefits outweigh harms. CMS expressed a desire for more evidence of benefits to Medicare beneficiaries prior to Medicare coverage of a device.

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In May 2021, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) added several new items to its work plan. The OIG work plan sets forth various projects including OIG audits and evaluations that are underway or that OIG plans to address during the fiscal year and beyond. These are some of the highlights of the new additions to the work plan of which providers and suppliers should be aware.

First, OIG will audit payments made to healthcare providers under the general distributions of the Provider Relief Fund. This includes approximately $92 billion across all three phases of the general distributions. Provider who received these funds were required to meet certain requirements, such as submitting revenue information and supporting documentation to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), which used this information to determine eligibility and payments. OIG will perform a series of audits of funds related to the three phases of the General Distribution to determine whether payments were: (1) correctly calculated for providers that applied for these payments, (2) supported by appropriate and reasonable documentation, and (3) made to eligible providers.

Second, OIG will conduct a nationwide, three-part study of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on nursing homes. The first part will analyze the extent to which Medicare beneficiaries residing in nursing homes were diagnosed with COVID-19 and describe the characteristics of those who were at greater risk. The second part will describe the characteristics of the nursing homes that were hardest hit by the pandemic (i.e., homes with high numbers of beneficiaries who had COVID-19). The third part will describe the strategies nursing homes used to mitigate the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19.

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Appealing an overpayment demand can be a challenging task for healthcare providers. Whether the demand stems from claim denials or an audit, the appeals process can involve significant amounts of documentation; complex medical, legal, or coding issues; contract or regulatory review; attorneys; and independent experts. The process may also take months or years to resolve. While some providers with strong cases will likely benefit from pursuing the full appeals process, others may ask if there is a quicker and simpler way. Is it possible to settle the overpayment demand for less than the original demand? The answer often depends on the type of payor.

Commercial insurance plans are often the most likely to entertain the possibility of settlement. Commercial plans perform much the same cost/benefit analysis as any other business and, while it may vary greatly from case to case, may be willing to discuss a final settlement of an overpayment demand. However, it is often helpful for the provider to engage with the early levels of whatever appeal process is available, including submitting documentation and refuting the plan’s assertions and arguments, in order to strengthen the provider’s position.

Where Medicaid is the ultimate payor, a provider may find limited flexibility to discuss settlement. In these cases, the provider is likely dealing directly with a state agency or a state contractor. However, because much of the funding for state Medicaid programs is federal funding, state agencies and contractors are often required to answer to federal authorities regarding the use of Medicaid funds. This dynamic often restricts the state’s ability to resolve overpayments with the provider and requires them to fully litigate the alleged overpayment through the available appeals process.

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Federal regulations provide 22 distinct reasons that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) may use to revoke a healthcare provider’s or supplier’s Medicare billing privileges. Any revocation can have devastating impacts on a provider, but the grounds for revocation are often misunderstood. These are some of the most common reasons CMS will assert in revoking Medicare billing privileges.

Noncompliance: CMS may revoke a provider for noncompliance with Medicare enrollment requirements. This is somewhat of a catch-all and is often used when CMS or a contractor alleges technical issues with the myriad of requirements for a provider to maintain Medicare enrollment, such as issues with a provider’s surety bond, insurance policy, or business telephone lines. This reason for revocation is unique in two ways: the contractor often has authority to revoke without asking CMS to make the decision and the provider may have the opportunity to submit a Corrective Action Plan (CAP) demonstrating that they have addressed the issue.

Felony Convictions: CMS may revoke a provider when the provider or any of its owners or managers have been convicted in the last 10 years of any felony that CMS deems detrimental to the Medicare program or beneficiaries. This most often includes financial crimes such as insurance fraud or healthcare fraud but can include many others. A guilty plea or pretrial diversion program may still constitute a conviction. Moreover, even where a provider has previously disclosed the felony conviction, CMS may still use it as a reason to revoke. Where a provider is revoked for a felony, CMS will often make the revocation retroactive and back-date it to the date of the conviction.

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