Category Archives: Physicians
Laboratories are under scrutiny by the OIG and State Medicaid Departments. Labs get urine samples from behavioral health care companies, substance abuse companies, hospitals, and primary care facilities, who don’t have their own labs. Owners of labs entrust their lab executives to follow procedure on a federal and/or state level for Medicare or Medicaid. Well, what if they don’t. For example, one client paid a urine collector/courier by the mile. That courier service collected urine from Medicaid consumers in NC, sometimes in excess of 90 times a year, when Medicaid only allows 24 per year. I have about 10-15 laboratory clients at the present.
Another laboratory’s urine collector collected the urine, but never brought the urine back to get tested. To which I ponder, where did all those urine specimens go?
Another laboratory had a standing order for over 6 years to test presumptive and definitive testing on 100% of urine samples.
OIG has smelled fraud within laboratories and is widening its search for fraudsters. Several laboratories are undergoing the most serious audits in existence. Not RAC, MAC, or UPIC audits, but audits of even more importance. They received CIDs or civil investigative demands from their State Medicaid Divisions. These requests, like RAC, MAC, or UPIC audits, request lots of documents. In fact, CIDs are legally allowed to request documents for a much longer period of time than RACs, which can only request 3 years back. Most CIDs are fishing for false claims under the False Claims Act (FCA). Stark and Anti-Kickback violations are also included in these investigations. While civil penalties can result in high monetary penalties, criminal violations result in jail time.
As everyone knows, labs must follow CLIA or be CLIA certified, which is the federal standard for which labs. The Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) of 1988 (42 USC 263a) and the associated regulations (42 CFR 493) provide the authority for certification and oversight of clinical laboratories and laboratory testing. Under the CLIA program, clinical laboratories are required to have the appropriate certificate before they can accept human samples for testing. There are different types of CLIA certificates, as well as different regulatory requirements, based on the types and complexity of clinical laboratory tests a laboratory conducts. CLIA, like CMS, has its own set of rules. When entities like CLIA or CMS have their own rules, sometimes those rules juxtapose law, which creates a conundrum for providers. If you own a lab, do you follow CLIA rules or CMS rules or the law? Let me give you an example. According to CLIA, you must maintain documentation regarding samples and testing for two years. So, if CLIA audits a laboratory, the audits requests will only go back for two years. Well, that’s all fine and dandy. Except according to the law, you have to maintain medical documents for 5 or 6 years, depending on the service type.
Recently, one of my labs received a CID for records going back to 2017. That is a 6-year lookback. Had the lab followed CLIA’s rules, the lab would only have documentation going back to 2021. Had the lab followed CLIA’s rules, when OIG knocked on its door, it would have NOT had four years of OIG’s request. Now I do not know, because I have never been in the position that my lab client only retained records for two years…thank goodness. If I were in the position, I would argue that the lab was following CLIA’s rules. But that’s the thing, rules are not laws. When in doubt, follow laws, not rules.
However, that takes me to Medicare provider appeals of RAC, MAC, and UPIC audits. Everything under the umbrella of CMS must follow CMS rules. Remember how I said that rules are not laws? CMS rules, sometimes, contradict law. Yet when a Medicare provider appeals an overpayment or termination, the first four levels of appeal are mandated to follow CMS rules. It is not until the 5th level, which is the federal district court that law prevails. In other words, the RAC, MAC, or UPIC, the 2nd level QIC, the 3rd level ALJ, and the 4th level Medicare Appeal Council, all must follow CMS rules. It is not until you appear before the federal district judge that law prevails.
Receiving a CID does not mean that your investigation will remain civil. Most investigations begin civilly. If the evidence uncovered demonstrates any criminal activity, your civil investigation can quickly turn criminal. I co-defend with a federal criminal attorney if the case has a chance to turn criminal. Believe me, there is a huge difference between federal and state criminal lawyers! Even with the best federal criminal lawyers, you want a Medicare and Medicaid expert lawyer on the team to dispute the regulatory accusations that a criminal attorney may not be as well-versed. I am so thankful that I moved my practice to Nelson Mullins, because we have a huge, yet highly-specialized health care practice. While we have a large number of lawyers, each partner specializes in slightly different aspects of health care. So, when I need a federal criminal attorney to partner-up with me, I just walk down the hall.
Laboratories: Beware! Be ready! Be prepared! Be lawyered up!
Not everyone loves their job. Not everyone has a job. Not everyone does their job. And that includes doctors and lawyers. Not all doctors and lawyers do their jobs well. When a doctor fails to doctor, where does the liability lie? On the facility? On the hospital?
That is exactly what happened in one of my cases. My client, an inpatient substance abuse facility, hired a physician. Upon hire, the doctor signed an employment agreement that stated that he or she would perform the role as a doctor/medical director for the facility. Years passed. There were no complaints, so the executive committee was under the impression that the doctor was fulfilling his duties. The members certainly had no reason to suspect that the doctor was not doctoring according to the employment contract. No, they assumed that a doctor would doctor.
Then a RAC audit happened. As you are well aware, RAC audits go back three years. The facility received a Tentative Notice of Overpayment from the RAC alleging the facility owed almost $10 million. I was hired, and I conducted a review of the facility, its policies, and interviewed all staff. It came to light that the doctor did not review the results of urinalysis tests. Remember, this is a substance abuse facility. Urine tests are essential. The Medicaid recipients provided the samples; they peed in a cup. The labs were ordered. The doctor has a standing order for definitive and presumptive urinalysis tests. The doctor has sole access to the test results electronically. We discovered, much to our horror, that the doctor never looked at the results. For the past three years, she has never informed any patient that they were or were not positive or negative for any substance. In my mind, reviewing the urinalysis results goes hand in hand with substance abuse therapy.
Here, we discovered a breakdown in the facility, but that breakdown was one person not doing his or her job. Sadly for him or her, we – the facility – were able to use the doctor’s failure to doctor to our advantage. We appealed the $10 million alleged overpayment. Our primary defense was throwing the doctor under the bus, and we had every right to do so. Who would have expected your medical director failing to direct or review pertinent tests. In the world of law, respondeat superior, normally, is the general rule. In Latin, respondeat superior means that the superior or the boss or the owner is responsible for those underneath them. In this case, the facility is the superior and the doctor is the inferior, so you would expect the facility to bear any liability of its employees. But, not here. Not in this case. The doctor failed to meet expectations of the job. By not reviewing urinalysis test results, the doctor veered enough off the track to relieve liability from the facility. The doctor’s inactions were the direct cause of the accusation of owing $10 million. The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) agreed. After terminating the doctor, we contemplated suing the physician for damages. However, since we won the alleged overpayment case, we did not do so.
Lately, I have been inundated with Medicare and Medicaid health care providers getting audited for E/M codes. I know Dr. Hirsh has spoken often about the perils of e/m codes. The thing about e/m codes is that everyone uses them. Hospitals, family physicians, urgent care centers, specialists, like cardiologists. Obviously, for a specialist, like cardiology, the higher level codes will be more common. A 99214 will be common compared to a generalist like a primary care physician, where a 99213 may be more common.
Here’s a little secret: the difference between a 99214 and 99213 is subjective. It’s so subjective that I have seen auditors who are hired by private companies to audit on behalf of CMS and are financially incentivized to find fault find 100% error rates. Who finds a 100% error rate? Not one claim out of 150 was compliant. Then, I come in and hire the best independent auditors or coders. There are generally two companies that I always use. The independent auditors are so good. Most importantly, they come in and find a much more probable error rate of almost zero.
Hiring an independent, expert coder to ensure that the RAC, MAC, UPIC, or TPE audits accurately is always part of my defense.
Recently, I learned what I should have known a long time ago, but is essential for our listeners to know. If your medical malpractice is with The Doctors Company, for free, you get $25k of – what TDC calls – Medi-Guard or regulatory compliance protection. In other words, you get audited by a UPIC and are informed that you owe an alleged $5 million, extrapolated, of course, you get $25k to pay an attorney for defense. Sadly, $25k will not come close to paying your whole defense, but it’s a start. No one scoffs at “free” money.
When accused of an alleged overpayment, placed on prepayment review, or accused of a credible allegation of fraud, your reimbursements could be in imminent danger of being suspended or recouped. It is imperative for the health care provider to stay apprised of what penalties they are facing. You want to know: “best case scenario and worst case scenario.”
And, providers, be cognizant of the gravity of your situation. Infringement of the false claims act can result in high penalties or jail, depending on the circumstances and the provider’s attorney. I had a client, who is an M.D. psychiatrist. She asked me what is the worst penalty possible. I am blunt and honest, apparently to a fault. I didn’t miss a beat. “Jail,” I said. She was horrified, called her insurance company, and requested a new attorney. TDC refused to fire me, so the doctor said that she will draft the self-disclosure herself. She also said that she submitted the falsified documents to the UPIC, so she was confident that the UPIC would not notice, but see below, time stamps are a bitch.
When I told the doctor that we needed to self-disclose to OIG because she had some Medicare claims, she screamed, “No! No! NO!” It was a video call and my sound wasn’t up loud, and I just watch her on the screen with her face all contorted and her mouth getting really big, then contract, then get really big, then contract, then get really big and then even bigger. The expert certified coder was present for the call, and he called me afterward asking me: “What was that?” And his wife, who overheard, said, “OMG. I would have lashed out.” I kept my cool. Honestly, I just felt bad for her because I can see the writing on the wall.
Obviously, a new attorney is not going to change the outcome. She falsified 17 dates of service because she wanted the service notes to be “perfect.” Well, providers, there is no such thing as perfect and changing diagnoses and CPT codes and adding details to the notes that, supposedly, you remember from a month ago is not ok.
I did feel bad for her for leaving me. I could have gotten her off without any penalties.
You see, English is not her first language. She misinterpreted an email from the UPIC and thought it said that you can fix any errors before submitting the documents. She fabricated 17 claims before I was hired instructed her to stop. I had a solid defense prepared. I was going to hire an independent auditor to audit her 147 claims with the 17 falsified claims. I would have hoped for a low error rate. Then, I would have conducted a self-audit and self-disclosed the fabrications to the UPIC with the explanation that it was a nonintentional harmless error that we are admitting. Self-disclosure can, sometimes, save you from penalties! However, if she doesn’t self-disclose, she will be caught. Unbeknownst to her, on page 6 of the service notes, it is time and date stamped. It revealed on what day she changed the data and what data she changed. Those of you who would also terminate your attorney because you think you can get by with the fraud without anyone noticing, think hard about whether you would like to suffer the worst penalty – jail – or have your attorney be honest and upfront and get you off without penalties by following the rules and self-disclosing any problems uncovered.
I have no idea what will happen to the doctor, but had she stayed with me, she would have escaped without penalty. When not to fire your attorney!
99214. Is that Jean Valjean’s number? No. It is an E/M code of moderate complexity. Few CPT codes cause goosebumps, chilly air, and a pit in your stomach besides 99214. As I said, 99214 is an E/M code of moderate level of complexity. For a low complexity visit, the code decreases to 99213. Even lower is a 99212, which is considered a straightforward visit. The code goes as high as a 99215, which denotes high complexity. Generally, physicians are good at spotting the 99215s and 99212s; the lowest and highest complexities seem simple to spot. However, the middle complexity codes are a bit subjective. Auditors frequently find 99214s that the auditor thinks should have been a 99213. I am talking about the RACs, MACs, TPEs, UPICs, and other contractors paid with our tax dollars on behalf of CMS. I recently had a BCBS audit, which found that an urgent care center had a 97% error rate. Out of 30 claims, only one claim was considered 99214; 29 claims should have been down coded to a 99213, according to BCBS. Well, my urgent care center disagreed and hired an independent auditor to review the same claims that were audited. The independent audit resulted in vastly different results. According to the independent audit, only 4 of the 30 claims should have been down coded to 99213.
One should ask, how could two separate auditors audit the same documents and issue such disparate results? One reason is that the difference between 99213 and 99214 is subjective. However, subjectiveness was not the only reason for two polar opposite results.
You see, before 2021, facilities had the choice to follow either the 1995 guidelines or the 1997 guidelines for these CPT codes. And, there is a difference between the two guidelines. Instead of choosing either the 1995 or 1997 guidelines, BCBS applied both the 1997 and 1995 guidelines, which falsely created a more stringent criteria for a 99214.
The urgent care center had been verbose about the fact that they use the 1995 guidelines, not the 1997 guidelines. When the independent contractor audited the records, it used the 1995 guidelines only.
All in all, for an accusation of owing $180k, it cost the urgent care center almost $100k to defend itself against what was obviously a faulty audit. So, I’m thinking why in the world is there insurance for physicians for making a mistake in surgery – medical malpractice, but no insurance for False Claims allegations. I mean, med mal allegations mean there is a victim. But you can be accused of false claims unexpectantly and your practice is changed forever.
Recently, I learned of an insurance company that insures doctors and facilities if they are accused of billing Medicare or Medicaid for false claims. Unlike med mal, an accusation of false claims does not yield a victim (unless you see our tax dollars as people); however, an accusation of billing a False Claim can cost a doctor, facility, a hospital hundreds of thousands of dollars. Which, knowing all things are relative, is pennies on the dollar of the penalties under the FCA.
The company’s name is Curi. That is C-U-R-I. Personally, I had never heard of this company. I googled it after I was placed on the panel. This is an insurance company that pays for attorneys’ fees if you are accused of false claims or an overpayment. Personally, I think every listener should procure this insurance directly after RACMonitor. After 23 years of litigating, I have realized the worst part about defending yourself against accusations that you owe the government money is the huge price tag associated with it.
When I presented this story on RACMonitor, David Glaser made a comment about my segment that I would be remiss to omit. SOME med mal insurance policies cover the legal fees for attorneys for regulatory audits. Please review your policy to see whether your insurance company covers the attorneys’ fees for defense of regulatory audits before purchasing more insurance.
The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) unilaterally issued a Proposed Rule to ban non-compete clauses in employment contracts. See blog. The first question is: Does the FTC have the legal authority to ban non-compete clauses? As a member of the American Society of Medical Association Counsel (“ASMAC”), the president, Greg Pepe, sent out an informal questionnaire to solicit comments by health care attorneys and heads of medical societies.
Greg said, “The respondents were split 50%/50% between medical society attorney members and private practice attorneys who are members. In general, the most common threads were as follows:
- The most common comment was that non-compete provisions in physician employment contracts impede the physician/patient relationship. This comment came up over and over in a number of ways.
- A few comments pointed out that rural areas were disproportionately harmed by non-competes, with physicians having to move away to comply.
- Hospital-based physician groups need non-competes to protect their arrangements.
- Exemptions for non-profits is a loophole that eviscerates the effort.
- ASMAC should be mindful of the divergent interests of its members and their client when considering this kind of commentary.
Very few people offered specific examples of the ways non-competes in physician contracts harmed physicians. If your organization takes steps to comment please keep ASMAC advised.”
I decided that ASMAC’s findings, even if informal, were important enough to post here on my blog. So, thank you, Greg, for heading this up.
I would like to pay particular attention to #4. Because, a week or so ago, I presented on RACMoniter the story about the FTC banning non-compete clauses, but failed to acknowledge the exemptions for non-profits, which is a HUGE exception. There are 6093 hospitals in the U.S. 1228 of the 6093 hospitals are for profit. The vast majority of hospitals are either government run or non-profit. If you notice above, the “anti-banning comment of non-competes” came from hospital-based physician groups (#3). That makes sense.
Most people, when asked, touts that non-compete agreements impede physician-patient relationships. Personally, as an attorney, non-compete agreements represent requiring me not being able to work at another law firm if I decided Practus, LLP, did not work out. Similarly, if I had attended med school and was working at a hospital in Angier, NC, which was in close proximity to my home, and received a better offer at a nearby hospital, why should I be impeded from working? Obviously, families need to have an income, and what if the physician was the sole breadwinner? The non-compete agreement could really adversely affect a family.
Non-compete agreements, also called restrictive covenants, are an increasingly common requirement for employment in many sectors, including health care. Sometimes non-compete agreements appear as a clause within a contract. Other times, they are separate contracts in and of themselves. Though common, the terms of non-compete agreements vary greatly.
Most people, even physicians, when presented with a contract, “fake” review the contract, and sign without digesting – or even reading – the material. Many don’t even know that a non-compete clause exists in their contracts. Until it’s too late.
Will the FTC’s Proposed Rule become permanent? So far, there have been 4.91k comments. One anonymous person posted: “I am completely in favor of forbidding noncompete agreements.” A woman posted: “I am a veterinarian and have worked close to 40 years. I have been an associate and a practice owner. I see no justification for non-competes and in fact feel it harms the entire profession. Non-competes are pervasive and notoriously difficult to fight. For many years now I have worked for corporations and have watched colleagues both attempt to negotiate non-competes and bear the brunt of legal battles if they attempt to challenge the non-compete. Should you really have to move your entire family to acquire a job? How do I harm a company by working for their competitor?”
A guy wrote: “These should’ve been banned a long time ago. Job mobility is important if we “really” believe in our economic system. Ban NDAs.”
A physician wrote: “As a physician I have suffered significant financial and personal hardship relating to a non-compete agreement. As a result of a non-compete I had to move across the country (twice). I suffered significant loss of income as a result of this not withstanding the expense of relocating twice within a year. My self and my family also suffered significant psycho-social ramifications and de-stabilization. I now also face another non-compete agreement that will essentially render me unable to leave my next position without tremendous harm to my life-long earning potential, credibly rendering me an indentured servant. The presence of a non-compete also removes any leverage an employee such as myself might have to negotiate agains unacceptable working or wage conditions.”
Unlike the commenters from ASMAC, which was split 50-50, it appears that many comments support banning non-compete agreements, but, remember, the not-for-profit exception!! The comment period is open through Mar 10, 2023.
Today I want to talk about upcoming Medicare audits targeted toward Acute Care Hospitals.
In September 2022, OIG reported that “Medicare Part B Overpaid Critical Access Hospitals and Docs for Same Services.” OIG Reports are blinking signs that flash the future Medicare audits to come. This is a brief blog so be sure to tune in on December 8th for the RACMonitor webinar: Warning for Acute Care Hospitals: You’re a Target for Overpayment Audits. I will be presenting on this topic in much more depth. It is a 60-minute webinar.
For OIG’s report regarding the ACHs, OIG audited 40,026 Medicare Part B claims, with half submitted by critical access hospitals and the rest submitted by health care practitioners for the same services provided to beneficiaries on the same dates of service (“DOS”). OIG studied claims from March 1, 2018, to Feb. 28, 2021, and found almost 100% noncompliance, which constituted almost $1million in overpayments to providers.
According to the OIG Report, CMS didn’t have a system to edit claims to prevent and detect any duplicate claims, as in the services billed by an acute hospital and by a physician elsewhere. Even if the physician reassigned his/her rights to reimbursement to the ACH.
As you know, a critical access hospital cannot bill Part B for any outpatient services delivered by a health care practitioner unless that provider reassigns the claim to the facility, which then bills Part B. However, OIG’s audit found that providers billed and got reimbursed for services they did perform but reassigned their billing rights to the critical access hospital.
The question is – why did the physicians get reimbursed even if they assigned their rights to reimbursement away? At some point, CMS needs to take responsibility as to the lack having a system to catch these alleged overpayments. If the physicians were reimbursed and had no reason to know that they were getting reimbursed for services that they assigned to an ACH, there is an equitable argument that CMS cannot take back money based on its own error and no intent by the physician.
On a different note, I wanted to give a shout out to ASMAC, which is the American Society of Medical Association Counsel; Attorneys Advocating for America’s Physicians. It is comprised of general counsels (GCs) of health care entities and presidents of State Medical Societies. ASMAC’s topics at conferences are cutting-edge in our industry of defending health care providers, interesting, and on-point by experts in the fields. I was to present there last week in Hawaii on extrapolations in Medicare and Medicaid provider audits. Thankfully, all their conferences are not in Hawaii; that is too far of a trip for someone on the East Coast. But you should look into the association, if ASMAC sounds like it would benefit you or you could benefit them, join.
A ZPIC audited a client of mine a few years ago and found an alleged overpayment of over $7 million. Prior to them hiring my team, they obtained a preliminary injunction in federal court – like I always preach to do – remember, that between the levels 2 and 3 of a Medicare provider appeal, CMS can recoup the alleged overpayment. This is sheer balderdash; the government should not be able to recoup funds that the provider, most likely, doesn’t owe. But this is the law. I guess we need to petition Congress to change this tomfoolery.
Going back to the case, an injunction stops the premature recoupments, but it does nothing regarding the actual alleged overpayments. In fact, the very reason that you can go to federal court based on an administrative action is because the injunction is ancillary to the merits of the contested case. Otherwise, you would have to exhaust your administrative remedies.
Here, we asserted, the premature recoupments (1) violated its rights to procedural due process, (2) infringed its substantive due-process rights, (3) established an “ultra vires” cause of action, and (4) entitled it to a “preservation of rights” injunction under the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. §§ 704–05. We won the battle, but not the war. To date, we have no date for an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) – or level 3 – hearing on the merits.
For those of you who have participated in a third-level, Medicare provider appeal will know that, many times, no one shows for the other side. The other side being the entity claiming that you owe $7million. For such an outlandish claim of $7 million, would you not think that the side protesting that you owe $7 million would appear and try to prove it? At my most recent ALJ hearing, no one appeared for the government. Literally, my client – a facility in NJ that serves the MS population – me and the ALJ were the only participants. Are the auditors so falsely confident that they believe their audits speaks for itself?
In this particular case, the questionable issue was whether the MS provider’s consumers met the qualifications for the skilled rehabilitation due to no exacerbated physical issues. However, we all know from the Jimmo settlement, that having exacerbated issues or improvement is not a requirement to requiring skilled rehab versus exercising with your spouse. The ALJ actually said – “I cannot believe this issue has gotten this far.” I agree.
This segment is rated ‘F’ for fraud. It is not for the meek of heart. How many of you have read a newspaper or seen the news about Medicare and Medicaid provider fraudsters? There is a grey area between civil and criminal prosecutions of fraud. Some innocent providers get caught in the wide, fraud net because counsel doesn’t understand the idiosyncrasies of Medicare regulations.
Health care fraud GENERALLY exists as one of the following:
- Billing for services not rendered;
- Billing for a non-covered service as a covered service;
- Misrepresenting the DOS
- Misrepresenting location of service;
- Misrepresenting provider of service
- Waiving deductibles and/or co-payments
- Incorrect reporting of diagnoses or procedures;
- Overutilization of services;
- Kickbacks/referrals for money
- False or unnecessary issuance of prescription drugs
To err is human. Or so Alexander Pope says. I am here to attest that many of those accused providers are innocent and victims of unspecialized criminal attorneys.
One plastic surgeon knows this only too well. Quick anecdote:
Doctor was audited for removing lesions from the eye area and accused of billing for removing cancerous lesions even when the biopsies came back benign. Yet Medicare instructs physicians to NOT go back and change a CPT code after the fact. The physician is supposed to make an educated guess as to whether the lesion removed is benign or malignant. There are no crystal balls so he makes an educated determination.
Since plastic surgery is highly specialized and the physician is highly educated. Deference should be given to the physician regardless.
This plastic surgeon was accused of upcoding and billing for services not rendered. He performed biopsies around the eye of possible, cancerous lesions. Once removed, he would send the samples to lab. Meanwhile, before knowing whether the samples were cancerous, because he believed them to be cancerous, billed for removal of cancerous lesion to Medicare. Correct coding for skin procedures is not impossible.
In a Local Coverage Determination (“LCD”), beginning 2008, Medicare instructed physicians to not go back and change codes depending on the pathology. “If a benign skin lesion excision was performed, report the applicable CPT code, even if final pathology demonstrates a malignant or carcinoma diagnosis for the lesion removed. The final pathology does not change the CPT code of the procedure performed.” See LCD: Removal of Benign Skin Lesions, 2008. This plastic surgeon relied on CMS’ Medicare regulations and policies, including the Medicare Provider Manual and LCD 2008, which are published by the government and on which Dr. relied.
Doctor hired two criminal attorneys who did not specialize in Medicare. Doctor gets charged, and attorneys convince him to plead guilty claiming that he cannot fight the government. And that the government will seize his property if he doesn’t settle.
He pled guilty to a crime that he did not do. He paid millions in restitution, was under house arrest for 15 months, the Medical Board revoked his medical license, and he lost his career.
The lesson here is always fight the government. But choose wisely with whom you fight.
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.