Category Archives: Physicians
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.
EHR Incentive Payments: If the Practice is Accepting Them, There Better Be a Legal Assignment Contract!
Under the Medicare EHR incentive program, CMS makes incentive payments to individual providers, not to practices or groups. The same is true for Medicaid. According to CMS, the incentive payment is based on the provider’s meaningful use of the EHRs and does not constitute reimbursement for the expenses incurred in establishing EHRs. Prior to actual receipt of an incentive payment, a recipient may assign the payment to a third party, typically, the practice group of which the recipient is a member.
This is a question of equity. Legally, the incentive payments are made to physicians not practice groups. But if the facility bears the burden of the price tag of the computer software, which price tags are not nominal, shouldn’t the facility receive the incentive payments? CMS has made it clear that the incentive payments are not intended to subsidize the price of the software program and updates. Instead, the incentive payments are intended to reward the use of such computer software.
The facilities, generally, pay for the EHR incentive program software programs. Some programs can be as high as $50,000/month. And updated regulatory compliance is not guaranteed. See blog. Plus, the practice group can be held liable for non-compliance issues found in the EHR technology. If the facility is audited and any non-compliance is under-covered, most physicians will be indemnified by the facility for any alleged overpayment, and the facility will be on the hook for any alleged overpayment (depending on the employment relationship). This increased burden on the practice group is why many physicians assign their incentive payments to the facilities. But it has to be done in a legally compliant manner.
Recently, however, I have been contacted by multiple health care facilities which have accepted the EHR incentive payments on behalf of its employed physicians, but did not have adequate, legal assignment contracts to receive the EHR incentives on behalf of the providers. These facilities relied on old, outdated, generic, employment contracts as the basis for the facilities accepting these payments on behalf of the physicians. Not having appropriate assignment contracts with the physicians can make the facilities liable to the physicians for the money accepted on their behalf.
Generic employee contracts that simply state that the facility can bill for and receive reimbursements on behalf of the physicians do not constitute adequate legal authority to accept EHR incentive payments on behalf of physician-employees.
Facilities, in order to legally accept the incentive payments on behalf of their employee-physicians must (1) determine whether their physicians are eligible professionals; and (2) execute a legally binding assignment contract.
Eligible Professionals (“EPs”) must first determine whether they are exactly that – eligible professionals.
Eligible professionals under the Medicare EHR Incentive Program include:
- Doctor of medicine or osteopathy
- Doctor of dental surgery or dental medicine
- Doctor of podiatry
- Doctor of optometry
Who is an Eligible Professional under the Medicaid EHR Incentive Program?
Eligible professionals under the Medicaid EHR Incentive Program include:
- Physicians (primarily doctors of medicine and doctors of osteopathy)
- Nurse practitioner
- Certified nurse-midwife
- Physician assistant who furnishes services in a Federally Qualified Health Center or Rural Health Clinic that is led by a physician assistant.
To qualify for an incentive payment under the Medicaid EHR Incentive Program, an eligible professional must meet one of the following criteria:
- Have a minimum 30% Medicaid patient volume*
- Have a minimum 20% Medicaid patient volume, and is a pediatrician*
- Practice predominantly in a Federally Qualified Health Center or Rural Health Center and have a minimum 30% patient volume attributable to needy individuals
* Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) patients do not count toward the Medicaid patient volume criteria.
Eligible for Both Programs?
Eligible professionals eligible for both the Medicare and Medicaid EHR Incentive Programs must choose which incentive program they wish to participate in when they register. Before 2015, an EP may switch programs only once after the first incentive payment is initiated. Most EPs will maximize their incentive payments by participating in the Medicaid EHR Incentive Program.
EPs can switch programs as often as they desire–until they receive their first payment. After receiving their first payment, they may only switch once between programs prior to 2015.
If you are part of a practice, each eligible professional may qualify for an incentive payment if each eligible professional successfully demonstrates meaningful use of certified EHR technology. Each eligible professional is only eligible for one incentive payment per year, regardless of how many practices or locations at which he or she provide services.
Hospital-based eligible professionals are not eligible for incentive payments. An eligible professional is considered hospital-based if 90% or more of his or her services are performed in a hospital inpatient (Place Of Service code 21) or emergency room (Place Of Service code 23) setting.
What language needs to be included in any assignment contracts?
A recent study by the American Hospital Association (AHA) found federal programs, including meaningful use, have cost health systems and post-acute care (PAC) providers nearly $39 billion a year. Small practices in particular have been hit hard by the added costs and administrative burden brought on by changing regulations. Studies have shown that small, specialty, non-hospital, facilities have carried the brunt of the financial burden for the EHR requirements.
Under the Medicaid incentive program, an EP may reassign incentive payments to “an entity promoting the adoption of certified EHR technology.” This term is defined as:
State-designated entities that are promoting the adoption of certified EHR technology by enabling oversight of the business, operational and legal issues involved in the adoption and implementation of certified EHR technology or by enabling the exchange and use of electronic clinical and administrative data between participating providers, in a secure manner, including maintaining the physical and organizational relationship integral to the adoption of certified EHR technology by eligible providers.
The Assignment Contract
At a minimum, the assignment language should address the following issues:
(1) Is the EP assigning all or a portion of the incentive payments to the facility? Be specific.
(2) Be clear on whether the facility or the EP must furnish the documentation necessary to establish meaningful use each year. In other words, denote who will be entering the data into the CMS or Medicaid website.
(3) Indicate whether the EP will consult with the facility in order to determine which incentive program will yield the higher possible payments – or – whether the decision rests with the facility.
(4) The assignment language should state, accurately, whether the facility expects to be designated as an “entity promoting the adoption of certified EHR technology.”
(5) The contract should state, accurately, whether there is or will be a valid contractual arrangement allowing the facility to bill for the EP’s services. Basically, if there is already an employment contract in place, this assignment contract can act as an addendum or exhibit to the original employment contract.
(6) Define the term of assignment with a start date and an end date.
Only after the the facility determines that the physicians are eligible to receive the EHR incentive payments AND a valid assignment contract is executed, can the facility legally accept the incentive payments on behalf of its physicians. If the facility accepts the incentive payments and the physicians are not eligible, the facility will owe money to the government. If the facility accepts the incentive payments without an assignment contract, the physicians could demand the payments from the practice.
Interestingly, how OIG and who OIG targets for audits is much more transparent than one would think. OIG tells you in advance (if you know where to look).
Prior to June 2017, the Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) OIG updated its public-facing Work Plan to reflect those adjustments once or twice each year. In order to enhance transparency around OIG’s continuous work planning efforts, effective June 15, 2017, OIG began updating its Work Plan website monthly.
Why is this important? I will even take it a step further…why is this information crucial for health care providers, such as you?
These monthly reports provide you with notice as to whether the type of provider you are will be on the radar for Medicare and Medicaid audits. And the notice provided is substantial. For example, in October 2017, OIG announced that it will investigate and audit specialty drug coverage and reimbursement in Medicaid – watch out pharmacies!!! But the notice also states that these audits of pharmacies for speciality drug coverage will not begin until 2019. So, pharmacies, you have over a year to ensure compliance with your records. Now don’t get me wrong… you should constantly self audit and ensure regulatory compliance. Notwithstanding, pharmacies are given a significant warning that – come 2019 – your speciality drug coverage programs better be spic and span.
Another provider type that will be on the radar – bariatric surgeons. Medicare Parts A and B cover certain bariatric procedures if the beneficiary has (1) a body mass index of 35 or higher, (2) at least one comorbidity related to obesity, and (3) been previously unsuccessful with medical treatment for obesity. Treatments for obesity alone are not covered. Bariatric surgeons, however, get a bit less lead time. Audits for bariatric surgeons are scheduled to start in 2018. Considering that 2018 is little more than a month away, this information is less helpful. The OIG Work Plans do not specific enough to name a month in which the audits will begin…just sometime in 2018.
Where do you find such information? On the OIG Work Plan website. Click here. Once you are on the website, you will see the title at the top, “Work Plan.” Directly under the title are the “clickable” subjects: Recently Added | Active Work Plan Items | Work Plan Archive. Pick one and read.
You will see that CMS is not the only agency that OIG audits. It also audits the Food and Drug Administration and the Office of the Secretary, for example. But we are concerned with the audits of CMS.
Other targeted providers types coming up:
- Security of Certified Electronic Health Record Technology Under Meaningful Use
- States’ Collection of Rebates on Physician-Administered Drugs
- States’ Collection of Rebates for Drugs Dispensed to Medicaid MCO Enrollees
- Adult Day Health Care Services
- Oversight of States’ Medicaid Information Systems Security Controls
- States’ MCO Medicaid Drug Claims
- Incorrect Medical Assistance Days Claimed by Hospitals
- Selected Inpatient and Outpatient Billing Requirements
And the list goes on and on…
Do not think that if your health care provider type is not listed on the OIG website that you are safe from audits. As we all know, OIG is not the only entity that conducts regulatory audits. The States and its contracted vendors also audit, as well as the RACs, MICs, MACs, CERTs…
Never forget that whatever entity audits you, YOU HAVE APPEAL RIGHTS!