Monthly Archives: February 2019

Recent Case Law May Change the Relationship Between Hospitals and Physicians Forever!

No, this is not a Shakespearean blog post. The Hamlet in this case is not the Prince of Denmark; it is a hospital system who hired a doctor, Dr. Hernandez as an independent contractor and whose private practice flopped. When the hospital at which he had privileges refused to hire him as an employee, Hernandez sued Hamlet under the False Claims Act (FCA) and Unfair Trade Practices- AND WON!!

Relationships between hospitals and physicians may forever be changed.

In an October 2018 decision, Hamlet H.M.A., LLC V. Hernandez, the NC Court of Appeals ruled that a hospital can be liable to a physician for Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices (UDTP) – causing a new level of care to be needed in negotiations between hospitals and physicians.

Dr. Hernandez accepted a position with Sandhills Regional Medical Center. The original offer was for Dr. Hernandez to set up his own independent practice and to be an independent contractor for the hospital. The offer guaranteed a minimum collection amount for the first 18 months of the 36-month contract. The base salary was $325,000, with a bonus based on worked RVUs. Dr. Hernandez countered and asked to be considered as an employee instead of as an independent contractor. Sandhills sent an email offering a base salary of $275,000 as an employee. As any reasonable, logical person would do, Dr. Hernandez responded with an email stating that it would be irrational to accept a base salary so much lower in order to obtain employee status. The hospital offered an “employee status option” at the end of 18 months.

Dr. Hernandez then sent Sandhills an email asking to extend the time period of guaranteed income to 24 months, rather than 18 months. Plaintiff replied that it could not extend the period of guaranteed income, but raised the monthly salary from $47,616.82 to $49,500.00 and also added a signing bonus of $30,000.00. After further negotiations, the parties entered into a Physician Recruitment Agreement on March 9, 2011.

Dr. Hernandez’s private practice flopped, and at the end of the first 18-month period, he requested to exercise the employment option in his contract and to become an employee of Sandhills. But Sandhills did not give Dr. Hernandez an employment contract.

On August 29, 2014, Sandhills filed a complaint against Dr. Hernandez alleging breach of contract and demanding repayment of the entire amount paid to Dr. Hernandez, a total of 21 payments amounting to $902,259.66. Dr. Hernandez filed an answer with counterclaims for breach of contract, fraud, unfair or deceptive trade practices, and unjust enrichment. A jury trial was held in Superior Court in Richmond County at the end of August and the beginning of September 2016. The jury returned a verdict for Sandhills for $334,341.14 (a random number).

Dr. Hernandez countered sued the hospital for Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices (UDTP) alleging that the hospital fraudulently induced him to enter into the contract with the hospital as an independent contractor. His allegations that the hospital violated UDTP because the hospital offered a lower salary to be considered an employee was shocking and unprecedented. Most likely, Sandhills never even contemplated that it could be held liable under UDTP because of a disparity in salary offered to Dr. Hernandez depending on his employment status. Most likely, the man or woman who sent the email to Dr. Hernandez with the disparate salaries never asked its general counsel whether the action could penalize the hospital. Who would have thought to?

One exception to UDTP is the “learned profession” exception. Basically, the courts have held that if the two parties to an agreement are learned professionals and the topic of the contract has to do with the parties’ speciality; i.e, medicine, in this case, then the parties cannot allege UDTP because both parties were knowledgeable. The issue of first impression presented by Hamlet is whether the “learned profession” exception set forth in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 75-1.1(b) applies to a dispute between a physician and a hospital relating to alleged false claims made by the hospital to induce the physician to enter into an employment contract. If the learned profession exception were to apply, then Dr. Hernandez’s UDTP claim against Sandhill would be dismissed.

Dr. Hernandez alleged that the hospital made false representations to induce him to enter into a contract. The Court held that the fact that he is a physician does not change the nature of the negotiation of a business contract. The Court found that the “learned profession” exception does not apply to any negotiation just because the two parties are physicians. For example, if a physician and a hospital were to contract to buy a beach house, then the exception would not apply because the nature of the contract (were something go awry and cause an UDTP lawsuit) because buying a beach house has nothing to do with being a physician or hospital. Similarly, here, the Court held that an employment contract had nothing to do with rendering medicine. Therefore, the exception did not apply. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s directed verdict against Dr. Hernandez.

This decision definitely creates more tension between hospitals and physicians. Now, in negotiations with employees and independent contractors, hospitals need to be mindful that UDTP claims can be alleged against them. This case is recent precedent for an unfamiliar modern world of health care negotiations.

New Revisions to the Justice Manual -The New World of Health Care Fraud and Abuse in 2019

So many memos, so little time. Federal prosecutors receive guidance on how to prosecute. Maybe “guidance” is too loose a term. There is a manual to follow, and memos are just guidance until the memos are incorporated into what is known as the Justice Manual. Memos are not as binding as the Justice Manual, but memos are persuasive. For the last 22 years, the Justice Manual has not been revised to reflect the many, many memos that have been drafted to direct prosecutors on how to proceed. Until recently…

Justice Manual Revised

The Justice Manual, which is the manual that instructs federal prosecutors how to proceed in cases of Medicare and Medicaid fraud, has been revised for the first time since 1997. The Justice Manual provides internal Department of Justice (DOJ) rules.

The DOJ has new policies for detecting Medicare and Medicaid fraud and abuse. Some of these policies are just addendums to old policies. Or formal acceptance to old memos. Remember the Yates Memo? The Yates Memo directed prosecutors to indict executives, individually, of fraudulent companies instead of just going after the company.

The Yates Memo has now been codified into the Justice Manual.

Then came the Granston Memo – In a January 10, 2018, memo (the “Granston Memo”), the DOJ directed its prosecutors to more seriously consider dismissing meritless False Claims Act (“FCA”) cases brought by whistleblowers. It lists 7 (non-exhaustive) criteria for determining whether the DOJ should dismiss a qui tam lawsuit.  The reasoning behind the Granston Memo is that whistleblower lawsuits have risen over 600 cases per year, but the government’s involvement has not mirrored the raise. This may indicate that many of the whistleblower lawsuits are frivolous and filed for the purpose of financial gain, even if the money is not warranted. Remember qui tam relators (people who bring lawsuits against those who mishandle tax dollars, are rewarded monetarily for their efforts…and, usually, the reward is not a de minimus amount. In turn, people are incentivized to identify fraud and abuse against the government. At least, according to the Granston Memo, the financial incentive works too well and frivolous lawsuits are too prevalent.

The Granston Memo has also been codified into the Justice Manual.

Talk about an oxymoron…the Yates Memo instructs prosecutors to pursue claims against more people, especially those in the executive positions for acts of the company. The Granston Memo instructs prosecutors to more readily dismiss frivolous FCA allegations. “You’re a wigwam. You’re a teepee. Calm down, you’re just two tents (too tense).” – a horrible joke that my husband often quips. But this horrible quote is apropos to describe the mixed messages from DOJ regarding Medicare and Medicaid fraud and abuse.

The Brand Memo, yet another memo that we saw come out of CMS, instructs prosecutors not to use noncompliance as subject to future DOJ enforcement actions. In other words, agency guidance does not cannot create binding legal requirements. Going forward, the DOJ will not enforce recommendations found in agency guidance documents in civil actions. Relatedly, DOJ will not use noncompliance with agency guidance to “presumptively or conclusively” establish violations of applicable law or regulations in affirmative civil enforcement cases.

The Brand Memo was not incorporated into the Justice Manual. It also was not repudiated.

Medicare/caid Audit Targets Broadened

Going forward, traditional health care providers will not be the only targets – Medicare Advantage plan, EHR companies, and private equity owners – will all be audited and reviewed for fraud and abuse. Expect more audits with wider nets to catch non-provider targets to increase now that the Yates Memo was codified into the Justice Manual.

Anti-Kickback Statute, Stark Law, and HIPAA Narrowed

The Stark Law (42 U.S.C. 1395nn) and the Anti-Kickback Statute (42 U.S.C. §1320a‑7b(b)) exist to minimize unneeded or over-utilization of health-care services payable by the federal government. Stark Law and the Anti-Kickback regulations criminalize, impose civil monetary penalties, or impose other legal sanctions (such as termination from Medicare) against health care providers and other individuals who violate these laws. These laws are esoteric (which is one reason that I have a job) and require careful navigation by specialized legal counsel. Accidental missteps, even minute documentation errors, can lead to harsh and expensive results.

In a health care world in which collaboration among providers is being pushed and recommended, the Anti-Kickback, Stark, and HIPAA laws are antiquated and fail to recognize the current world. Existing federal health-care fraud and abuse laws create a “silo effect” that requires mapping and separating financial interests of health-care providers in order to ensure that patient referrals cannot be tainted by self-interest. Under Stark, a strict liability law, physicians cannot make a referral for the provision of “designated health services” to an entity with which they have a financial relationship (unless one of approximately 30 exceptions applies). In other words, for example, a hospital cannot refer patients to the home health care company that the hospital owns.

Going forward – and this has not happened yet – regulators and the Department will begin to claw back some of the more strict requirements of the Stark, Anti-Kickback, and HIPAA regulations to decrease the “silo effect” and allow providers to collaborate more on an individual’s whole health method. I had an example of this changing of the tide recently with my broken leg debacle. See blog. After an emergency surgery on my leg by an orthopedic surgeon because of a contracted infection in my wound, my primary care physician (PCP) called to check on me. My PCP had nothing to do with my leg surgery, or, to my knowledge, was never informed of it. But because of new technology that allows patient’s records to be accessed by multiple providers in various health care systems or practices, my PCP was informed of my surgery and added it to my chart. This never could have happened 20 years ago. But this sharing of medical records with other providers could have serious HIPAA implications if some restrictions of HIPAA are not removed.

In sum, if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the Justice Manual in a while, now would be an appropriate time to do so since it has been revised for the first time in 22 years. This blog does not enumerate all the revisions to the Justice Manual. So it is important that you are familiar with the changes…or know someone who is.