Anti-Kickback statutes (AKS) and Stark law are extremely important issues in health care. Violations of these laws yield harsh penalties. Yet, many healthcare professionals have little to no knowledge on the details of these two legal beasts.
The most common question I get regarding AKS and Stark is: Do AKS and Stark apply to private payers? Health care professionals believe, if I don’t accept Medicare or Medicaid, then I don’t need to worry about AKS and Stark. Are they correct??
The general and overly broad response is that the Stark Law, 42 USC § 1395nn, only applies to Medicare and Medicaid. The AKS, 42 USC § 1320a-7b(b)),applies to any federal healthcare program.
Is there a difference between AKS and Stark?
Answer: Yes. As discussed above, the first difference is that AKS applies to all federal healthcare programs. This stark difference (pun intended) makes the simple decision to not accept Medicare and Medicaid, thus allowing you to never worry about AKS, infinitely more difficult.
Let’s take a step back… What are AKS and Stark laws and what do these laws prohibit? When you Google AKS and Stark, a bunch of legal blogs pop up and attempt to explain, in legalese, what two, extremely esoteric laws purport to say, using words like “renumeration,” “knowing and willful,” and “federal healthcare program.” You need a law license to decipher the deciphering of AKS and Stark. The truth is – it ain’t rocket science.
The AKS is a criminal law; if you violate the AKS, you can be prosecuted as a criminal. The criminal offense is getting something of value for referrals. You cannot refer patients to other health care professionals in exchange for money, reduced rent, use of laboratory equipment, referrals to you, health services for your mother, marketing, weekly meals at Ruth’s Chris, weekly meals at McDonalds, oil changes, discounted theater tickets, Uber rides, Costco coupons, cooking lessons, or…anything of value, regardless the value.
Safe harbors (exceptions to AKS) exist. But those exceptions better fit squarely into the definition of the exceptions. Because there are no exceptions beyond the enumerated exceptions.
AKS is much more broad in scope than Stark. Other than Medicare and Medicaid, AKS applies to any health care plan that utilizes any amount of federal funds. For example, AKS applies to Veterans Health Care, State Children’s Health Programs (CHIP), Federal Employees Health Benefit Program, and many other programs with federal funding. Even if you opt to not accept Medicare and Medicaid, you may still be liable under AKS.
Stark law, on the other hand, is more narrow and only applies to Medicare and Medicaid. I find the following “cheat sheet” created by a subdivision of the Office of Inspector General to be helpful in understanding AKS and Stark and the differences between the two:
One other important aspect of Stark is that is considered “strict liability,” whereas AKS requires a proving of a “knowing and willful” action.
Feel free to print off the above chart for your reference. However, see that little asterisk at the bottom of the chart? It applies here as well.
All Medicare/Caid Health Care Professionals: Start Contracting with Qualified Translators to Comply with Section 1557 of the ACA!!
Being a health care professional who accepts Medicare and/ or Medicaid can sometimes feel like you are Sisyphus pushing the massive boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll down, over and over, with the same sequence continuing for eternity. Similarly, sometimes it can feel as though the government is the princess sleeping on 20 mattresses and you are the pea that is so small and insignificant, yet so annoying and disruptive to her sleep.
Well, effective immediately – that boulder has enlarged. And the princess has become even more sensitive.
On May 18, 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published a Final Rule to implement Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Section 1557 of the ACA has been on the books since the ACA’s inception in 2010. However, not until 6 years later, did HSD finally implement regulations regarding Section 1557. 81 Fed. Reg. 31376.
The Final Rule became effective July 18, 2016. You are expected to be compliant with the rule’s notice requirements, specifically the posting of a nondiscrimination notice and statement and taglines within 90 days of the Final Rule – October 16, 2016. So you better giddy-up!!
First, what is Section 1557?
Section 1557 of the ACA provides that an individual shall not, on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability, be
- excluded from participation in,
- denied the benefits of, or
- subjected to discrimination under
all health programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance through HHS, including Medicaid, most Medicare, student health plans, Basic Health Program, and CHIP funds; meaningful use payments (which sunset in 2018); the advance premium tax credits; and many other programs.
Section 1557 is extremely broad in scope. Because it is a federal regulation, it applies to all states and health care providers in all specialties, regardless the size of the practice and regardless the percentage of Medicare/caid the agency accepts.
HHS estimates that Section 1557 applies to approximately 900,000 physicians. HHS also estimates that the rule will cover 133,343 facilities, such as hospitals, home health agencies and nursing homes; 445,657 clinical laboratories; 1300 community health centers; 40 health professional training programs; Medicaid agencies in each state; and, at least, 180 insurers that offer qualified health plans.
So now that we understand Section 1557 is already effective and that it applies to almost all health care providers who accept Medicare/caid, what exactly is the burden placed on the providers? Not discriminating does not seem so hard a burden.
Section 1557 requires much more than simply not discriminating against your clients.
Section 1557 mandates that you will provide appropriate aids and services without charge and in a timely manner, including qualified interpreters, for people with disabilities and that you will provide language assistance including translated documents and oral interpretation free of charge and in a timely manner.
In other words, you have to provide written materials to your clients in their spoken language. To ease the burden of translating materials, you can find a sample notice and taglines for 64 languages on HHS’ website. See here. The other requirement is that you provide, for no cost to the client, a translator in a timely manner for your client’s spoken language.
In other words, you must have qualified translators “on call” for the most common 15, non-English languages in your state. You cannot rely on friends, family, or staff. You also cannot allow the child of your client to act as the interpreter. The clients in need of the interpreters are not expected to provide their own translators – the burden is on the provider. The language assistance must be provided in a “timely manner. “Further, these “on call” translators must be “qualified,” as defined by the ACA.
I remember an English teacher in high school telling the class that there were two languages in North Carolina: English and bad English. Even if that were true back in 19XX, it is not true now.
Here is a chart depicting the number of non-English speakers in North Carolina in 1980 versus 2009-2011:
As you can see, North Carolina has become infinitely more diverse in the last three decades.
And translators aren’t free. According to Costhelper Small Business,
It seems likely that telehealth may be the best option for health care providers considering the cost of in-person translations. Of course, you need to calculate the cost of the telehealth equipment and the savings you project over time to determine whether the investment in telehealth equipment is financially smart.
In addition to agencies having access to qualified translators, agencies with over 15 employees must designate a single employee who will be responsible for Section 1557 compliance and to adopt a grievance procedure for clients. Sometimes this may mean hiring a new employee to comply.
The Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) at HHS is the enforcer of Section 1557. OCR has been enforcing Section 1557 since its inception in 2010 – to an extent.
However, expect a whole new policing of Section 1557 now that we have the Final Rule from HHS.
NC Medicaid Reimbursement Rates for Primary Care Physicians Slashed; Is a Potential NC Lawsuit Looming?
Here is my follow-up from yesterday’s blog post, “NC Docs Face Retroactive Medicaid Rate Cut.”
Nearly one-third of physicians say they will not accept new Medicaid patients, according to a new study. Is this shocking in light of the end of the ACA enhanced payments for primary physicians, NC’s implementation of a 3% reimbursement rate cut for primary care physicians, and the additional 1% reimbursement rate cut? No, this is not shocking. It merely makes economic sense.
Want more physicians to accept Medicaid? Increase reimbursement rates!
Here, in NC, the Medicaid reimbursement rates for primary care physicians and pediatricians have spiraled downward from a trifecta resulting in an epically, low parlay. They say things happen in threes…
(1) With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Medicaid reimbursement rate for certain primary care services increased to reimburse 100% of Medicare Cost Share for services paid in 2013 and 2014. This enhanced payment stopped on January 1, 2015.
(2) Concurrently on January 1, 2015, Medicaid reimbursement rates for evaluation and management and vaccination services were decreased by 3% due to enactments in the 2013 NC General Assembly session.
(3) Concurrently on January 1, 2015, Medicaid reimbursement rates for evaluation and management and vaccination services were decreased by 1% due to enactments in the 2014 NC General Assembly session.
The effect of the trifecta of Medicaid reimbursement rates for certain procedure codes for primary care physicians can be seen below.
As a result, a physician currently receiving 100% of the Medicare rates will see a 16% to 24% reduction in certain E&M and vaccine procedure codes for Medicaid services rendered after January 1, 2015.
Are physicians (and all other types of health care providers) powerless against the slashing and gnashing of Medicaid reimbursement rates due to budgetary concerns?
No! You are NOT powerless! Be informed!!
Section 30(A) of the Medicaid Act states that:
“A state plan for medical assistance must –
Provide such methods and procedures relating to the utilization of, and the payment for, care and services available under the plan (including but not limited to utilization review plans as provided for in section 1396b(i)(4) of this title) as may be necessary to safeguard against unnecessary utilization of such care and services and to assure that payments are consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care and are sufficient to enlist enough providers so that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population in the geographic area.”
Notice those three key goals:
- Quality of care
- Sufficient to enlist enough providers
- So that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population in the geographic area
Courts across the country have held that low Medicaid reimbursement rates which are set due to budgetary factors and fail to consider federally mandated factors, such as access to care or cost of care, are in violation of federal law. Courts have further held that Medicaid reimbursement rates cannot be set based solely on budgetary reasons.
For example, U.S. District Court Judge Adalberto Jordan held in a 2014 Florida case that:
“I conclude that while reimbursement rates are not the only factor determining whether providers participate in Medicaid, they are by far the most important factor, and that a sufficient increase in reimbursement rates will lead to a substantial increase in provider participation and a corresponding increase to access to care.”
“Given the record, I conclude that plaintiffs have shown that achieving adequate provider enrollment in Medicaid – and for those providers to meaningfully open their practices to Medicaid children – requires compensation to be set at least at the Medicare level.
Judge Jordan is not alone. Over the past two decades, similar cases have been filed in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Texas, and D.C. [Notice: Not in NC]. These lawsuits demanding higher reimbursement rates have largely succeeded.
There is also a pending Supreme Court case that I blogged about here.
Increasing the Medicaid reimbursement rates is vital for Medicaid recipients and access to care. Low reimbursement rates cause physicians to cease accepting Medicaid patients. Therefore, these lawsuits demanding increased reimbursement rates benefit both the Medicaid recipients and the physicians providing the services.
According to the above-mentioned study, in 2011, “96 percent of physicians accepted new patients in 2011, rates varied by payment source: 31 percent of physicians were unwilling to accept any new Medicaid patients; 17 percent would not accept new Medicare patients; and 18 percent of physicians would not accept new privately insured patients.”
It also found this obvious fact: “Higher state Medicaid-to-Medicare fee ratios were correlated with greater acceptance of new Medicaid patients.”
Ever heard the phrase: “You get what you pay for.”?
A few months ago, my husband brought home a box of wine. Yes, a box of wine. Surely you have noticed those boxes of wine at Harris Teeter. I tried a sip. It was ok. I’m no wine connoisseur. But I woke the next morning with a terrible headache after only consuming a couple of glasses of wine. I’m not sure whether the cheaper boxed wine has a higher level of tannins, or what, but I do not get headaches off of 2 glasses of wine when the wine bottle is, at least, $10. You get what you pay for.
The same is true in service industries. Want a cheap lawyer? You get what you pay for. Want a cheap contractor? You get what you pay for.
So why do we expect physicians to provide the same quality of care in order to receive $10 versus $60? Because physicians took the Hippocratic Oath? Because physicians have an ethical duty to treat patients equally?
While it is correct that physicians take the Hippocratic Oath and have an ethical duty to their clients, it’s for these exact reasons that many doctors simply refuse to accept Medicaid. It costs the doctor the same office rental, nurse salaries, and time devoted to patients to treat a person with Blue Cross Blue Shield as it does a person on Medicaid. However, the compensation is vastly different.
Why? Why the different rates if the cost of care is equal?
Unlike private insurance, Medicaid is paid with tax dollars. Each year, the General Assembly determines our Medicaid budget. Reducing Medicaid reimbursement rates, by even 1%, can affect the national Medicaid budget by billions of dollars.
But, remember, rates cannot be set for merely budgetary reasons…
Is a potential lawsuit looming in NC’s not so distant future???
I am constantly amazed at the amount of knowledge that I do not know. And how quickly the knowledge I have becomes obsolete due to changes. To quote Lewis Carroll’s “Alice and Wonderland,” “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” My other favorite quote series from Lewis Carroll is the following scene:
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, or you wouldn’t have come here.”
So too, must I be mad, I think, at times, for dealing with Medicaid and Medicare law. The statutes and regulations are vast and ever-changing. You can easily miss a policy change that was disseminated by an update posted on the web. But, I am a lawyer…I read a lot. But providers are held accountable as well for every revision and every update.
Just when you think you understand the State Plan, the Department of Health and Human Service (DHHS) asks the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) for an amendment.
In this blog, I am going to discuss 2 issues. (1) What is the State Plan and why is it important; and (2) how can providers stay abreast of the ever-changing Medicare/caid world and policies.
(1) Our State Plan
What is our State Plan in Medicaid? Is it law? Guidance? Does NC have to follow the State Plan? Can NC amend the State Plan?
These are all good questions.
The State Plan is a contract between North Carolina and the federal government describing how NC will administer its State Plan, i.e., Medicaid program. The State Plan describes who can be covered by Medicaid, what services are available, and, basically, assures the federal government that we will abide by certain rules and regulations. NC must follow the State Plan or risk losing federal funding for Medicaid, which would be BAD.
Quite often, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) will issue a State Plan Amendment (SPA) to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). DHHS has to post all proposed amendments on its website “10 Day Posting for Submission to CMS.” This internet site should be in your “favorites,” and you should check it regularly.
For example, February 27th, DHHS asked to reduce Medicaid reimbursements methodologies for Chiropractic Services, Podiatry Services and Optometry Services to 97% of the July 1, 2013, rate, effective January 1, 2014 (yes, retroactively).
Just in 2014, there have been approximately 10 SPA requests. So, these SPAs are relatively common.
So, question #2…how can you keep up?
(2) Keeping abreast of all changes
As much as I would love to throw my computer out the window (I am on the 16th floor) and watch it crash, computers and technology can be very helpful. And technology makes it easy for everyone, even busy health care providers, to stay current on changes, amendments, and revisions to Medicaid/care policies and law.
Here is the secret: (shhhhhhhhh!!)
If you want to keep current on NCTracks, all you have to do is set a Google alert with the search term “NCTracks,” and you will receive daily email alerts on all internet articles on NCTracks. It is that easy.
So how do you set up a Google Alert? I have drafted a set by step process, otherwise entitled “Google Alerts for Dummies.”
1. Go to Google.
2. At the top of the page you will see the words: “You,” “Search,” “Images,” “Maps,” “Play,” “Youtube,” “News,” “Gmail,” and “More.” Click on “More.”
3. When the box drops, at the very bottom, you will see “even more.” Click on “even more.”
4. Scroll down to specialized search and click on “Alerts.”
5. Type in whatever search term you like, such as “Medicaid,” or “Knicole Emanuel.”
6. Decide how often you want to be alerted and your email address.
You will now be alerted about your topic. See? Easy!!
Now, because of this blog, you have learned two or more impossible things before lunch.
Remember my post on March 14, 2013, stating that NCGS 108C-7 violates federal law? Well, obviously I wrote that blog without pursuing a legal case and without having a judge decide whether NCGS 108C-7 actually violates federal law.
But there may be some validity to my claim that 108C-7 violates federal law.
Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States wrote an opinion regarding another North Carolina Medicaid statute: NCGS 108A-57. Wos v. E.M.A. In Wos v. E.M.A., the Supreme Court held that the NC Medicaid statute 108A-57 is pre-empted by the Supremacy Clause in the Constitution.
By way of background, the case originated from a mom and dad bringing a medical malpractice claim against the doctor and hospital that delivered their child, E.M.A. E.M.A. suffered multiple serious injuries during birth, leaving her deaf, blind, and unable to sit, walk, crawl, or talk. She also suffers mental retardation and seizures. Due to these birth injuries, Medicaid paid $1.9 in hospital costs, surgeries and health care on behave of E.M.A. In November 2006, the NC Court approved a settlement for $2.8 million. If you think that the settlement seems low, it is low. Apparently the settlement was based on the amount of malpractice insurance the defendants possessed.
A representative from Medicaid (DMA) informed the parents that Medicaid would seek reimbursement for the $1.9 million expended.
“E. M. A. and her parents then filed this action under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U. S. C. §1983, in the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief, arguing that the State’s reimbursement scheme violated the Medicaid anti-lien provision, §1396p(a)(1) .”
After appeal after appeal and all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, North Carolina fought E.M.A. and her parents, saying that the State was entitled to Medicaid reimbursement as required under NCGS 108A-57.
The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed .
In the words of the Supreme Court (as to why the NC Statute was pre-empted):
“Instead, North Carolina has picked an arbitrary number—one-third—and by statutory command labeled that portion of a beneficiary’s tort recovery as representing payment for medical care. Pre-emption is not a matter of semantics. A State may not evade the pre-emptive force of federal law by resorting to creative statutory interpretation or description at odds with the statute’s intended operation and effect. ”
Interesting that the Supreme Court picked the word “arbitrary.”
In light of the Wos v. E.M.A. decision, I think it would be prudent to question other Medicaid statutes. Most likely other Medicaid statutes, similarly, violate federal law. Maybe…..108C-7.
See my March 14, 2013, blog for my legal reasons that 108C-7 violates federal law.