Medical practice support can be costly to suppliers, others

In this article, Oklahoma City Healthcare Attorney Mary Holloway Richard discusses the “Anti-Kickback Statute” and potential, federal violations of the statute as it relates to providers in the healthcare industry.

Mary Holloway

Mary Richard is recognized as one of pioneers in health care law in Oklahoma. She has represented institutional and non-institutional providers of health services, as well as patients and their families.

What is the authority for the federal government to oversee providers’ relationships with durable medical equipment (DME) and device suppliers and drug companies, such as educational programs that would seem to benefit the patient? How active is that oversight?

The Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) prohibits remuneration to induce referrals or use of products reimbursement by Medicare, Medicaid or other federal healthcare programs. The federal government, through its investigators and prosecutors, pursue civil remedies including fines for remuneration considered as kickbacks. Remuneration may be cash of in-kind contributions. Under the AKS both civil and criminal charges may result from an investigation by the federal government. Federal policy is designed to prevent relationships that purportedly “lead to excessive or unnecessary treatment,” drive up health care costs and inhibit free market competition. The kickback prohibition applies to all sources of referrals, even patients. For example, where the Medicare and Medicaid programs require patients to pay copays for services, you generally are required to collect that money from your patients. Routinely waiving these copays could implicate the AKS and you may not advertise that you will forgive copayments. However, providers are free to waive a copayment if the provider makes an individual determination that the patient cannot afford to pay or if reasonable collection efforts fail. In addition, providing free or discounted services to uninsured people is not prohibited. The beneficiary inducement statute (42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7a (a) (5)) also imposes civil monetary penalties on physicians who offer remuneration to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries to influence them to use their services.

Is the federal government even active in investigating and prosecuting under the AKS?

Yes. The Office of the Inspector General, counsel for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), estimated in 2018 that for every $1 spent on investigating health care fraud, $4 is recouped. The government has investigated, prosecuted and settled claims with many types of providers and continues to do so. The government does not need to prove patient harm or financial loss to the programs to show that a physician violated the Anti-Kickback Statute. A physician can be guilty of violating the AKS even if the physician actually rendered a medically necessary service. Taking money or gifts from drug or device companies or DME suppliers is not justified by arguing that providers would have prescribed that drug or ordered that wheelchair even without a kickback. An example of unlawful activities comes from the Covidien case. A supplier of vein ablation products in California and Florida, Covidien recently settled its claims with the federal government that it offered or provided free to medical practices, or at discounted rates, practice development assistance, lunch-and-learns, dinners with physicians, and market development support, such as vein screening activities designed to recruit new patients to the practices — all provided free of charge or at discounted rates. This virtually uncompensated support, according to the Department of Justice, was designed to induce the use of certain items or services, leading to excessive and unnecessary treatments and driving up health care costs for everyone.

Are there any clear guidelines for physicians and other providers?

HHS has published guidelines for providers, such as “A Roadmap for New Physicians-Avoiding Medicare and Medicaid Fraud and Abuse,” which I routinely provide to new physicians, advanced-practice nurses and other providers. Failure to follow the guidelines can be costly. For example, the outcome of the Covidien investigation was a civil settlement agreement for violation of the AKS in the amount of $17,477,947, with additional payments in excess of $2 million by the company to the states of California and Florida for claims paid by their Medicaid programs.

How are violations of the AKS usually discovered?

Violations of the AKS are often discovered through “qui tam” actions brought by employees of the practice group or those with knowledge of its practices known as “whistleblowers” or “relators.” To avoid vulnerability to qui tam actions providers are advised to adopt and implement robust compliance policies, including training providers and other personnel regarding behavior that may constitute risk under a federal regulatory analysis. It is also advisable to have operating agreements of the practice’s legal entity and written agreements reviewed by counsel in order to shift legal liability where possible.

 

Published: 4/19/19; by Paula Burkes
Original article: https://newsok.com/article/5629122/medical-practice-support-can-be-costly-to-suppliers-others