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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.

boulder

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:

languages

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,

Typical costs:
  • Interpreting may take place in person, over the phone or via video phone.
  • In-person interpreters typically cost $50-$145 per hour. For example, American Language Services offers interpreters starting at $100 per hour (or $125 for sign language) and a two-hour minimum is required.
  • Phone interpreters typically cost $1.25-$3 per minute. Language Translation, Inc. offers a flat fee of $1.88 per minute for phone interpreting, for example.
  • Video interpreters typically range from $1.75 to $7 per minute. For instance, LifeLinks offers video interpreting from $2.25 per minute for any language and $2.95 for sign language. A 15-minute minimum is common for phone or video interpreting.

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.

The New White Collar Exemptions: The Final Rule, (an exception), and the Possible Consequences

On May 18, 2016, the US Department of Labor (DOL) announced the Final Rule amending the “white collar” overtime exemptions to increase the number of employees eligible for overtime, effective December 1, 2016. Got overtime? There is no phase-in; it is immediately effective on December 1st.

We all know that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) placed heavier burdens on employers with the employer mandate for employee health insurance. But, the burdens didn’t stop with the ACA!! Oh, no!  In 2014, President Obama signed an Executive Order directing the Department of Labor to update the regulations defining which white collar workers are protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) minimum wage and overtime standards. How else could we financially burden employers? We could mandate employers pay overtime to salaried workers!!! Oh, we already do? Let’s raise the overtime salary threshold exemptions so more employees receive overtime!!

aca-white-collar-highres

You ask, “How is the DOL Final Rule on white collar exemptions germane to my health care agency/practice?” Answer: Do you have employees? If yes, the Final Rule is applicable to you. If no, there is no need to read this blog (unless you are a salaried employee and want to receive more overtime).

The new, increased salary threshold for executives, administration, and professionals exemptions swells from $455/week to $913/week or $23,660/year to $47,476/year. The number for the ceiling is actually less than what was proposed by $800/week. These numbers are based on 40th percentile of full-time employees (salaried) in the lowest wage region, which happens to be the South. Don’t get your knickers in a knot.

Furthermore, the exemption for the highly compensated employee will jump from $100,000 to $134,004 (odd number). This number is $12,000 more than the proposed amount. Well, that just dills my pickle!

The Final Rule also requires that the salary threshold for executives, administration, and professionals be reviewed every three years in order to maintain the salary exemption comparable to the 40th percentile of full-time employees (salaried) in the lowest wage census region – the South.

Finally, the salary basis test will be amended to allow employers to use non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments, such as commissions, to satisfy the requirements up to 10% of the salary threshold.

The allowance of non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments was meant to soften the blow of the increased salary thresholds. That’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine/a trapdoor on a canoe.

VERY IMPORTANT EXCEPTION

The Secretary of DOL issued a time-limited non-enforcement policy for providers of Medicaid-funded services for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities in residential homes and facilities with 15 or fewer beds. From December 1, 2016 to March 17, 2019, the Department will not enforce the updated salary thresholds.

BUT THE REST OF US BEWARE!!

Do your math!! If the 10% maximum allowance is exceeded, you could find yourself in a world of hurt! We are talking misclassification claims! Also, ensure you know the proper distinctions between discretionary and non-discretionary bonuses!

What likely consequences will arise from this Final Rule? There are a number of possibilities:

  1. Employers will raise employees’ salaries to the new levels;
  2. Employers will pay more overtime;
  3. Employers will convert the salaried employees to hourly;
  4. Employers will change benefits or other operation costs to compensate for the increased burden.

Well, that’s just lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut!

High Court to Decide Whether Agencies Like CMS Can Flip-Flop Decisions

Do you know anyone who constantly changes his or her mind? Sometimes changing your mind can have drastic consequences. Think about it in the aspects of politics. Imagine that Obama announces that he was switching parties to become a Republican? This would be a huge decision with drastic consequences.

As crazy as it sounds, politicians do switch sides. The most recent switch-hitter that I can recall is Charlie Crist of Florida. Republican Crist served as Florida’s governor from 2007 to 2011. In December 2011, Crist officially changed his party affiliation to Democrat. More famously, Ronald Reagan began his political career as a Democrat. Hillary Clinton used to be a Republican. These changes had profound impact.

Now imagine that the Supreme Court rules one way, then overturns itself. There would be drastic consequences, and it does not happen often (actually the Supreme Court has overturned itself 10 times over the course of history).

Similarly, what if the Center for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) issued a final ruling, caused millions of providers to change the way they bill Medicare or Medicaid, then changed its mind?

Can CMS change its mind after issuing a final ruling?

This is precisely what the Supreme Court will decide.

In Perez v. Mortg. Bankers Ass’n, U.S., No. 13-1041, petition filed 2/28/14, the federal government is asking the Supreme Court to review whether an agency altered its interpretation of a regulation without adhering to the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). In Perez, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued a reinterpretation of a prior ruling without obtaining notice and comment from the public.

If the Supreme Court allows the DOL to uphold its reinterpretation, this holding could have serious ramifications in the health care arena. Medicare and Medicaid are also highly regulated, like labor laws. IF DOL’s reinterpretation stands, then CMS could also issue redeterminations of prior rulings without notice and comment.

Allowing CMS to flip-flop decisions would impact providers who rely on CMS rulings in order for their practices to remain compliant.

As of now, the Supreme Court has not decided whether it will hear arguments on this case. But both petitions filed with the Supreme Court cite a circuit court split in opinions. It is more likely for the Supreme Court to grant review of a case when there is a split of opinion.