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.
The answer resides in the injury, not the quality of the care.
A consumer trips and falls at your long term care facility. It is during her personal care services (PCS). Dorothy, a longtime LPN and one of your most trusted employees, is on duty. According to Dorothy, she was aiding Ms. Brown (the consumer who fell) from the restroom when Ms. Brown sneezed multiple times resulting in a need for a tissue. Dorothy goes to the restroom (only a few feet away) when Ms. Brown’s fourth sneeze sends her reeling backward and falling on her hip.
To report or not to report? That is the question.
What is your answer?
Is Ms. Brown’s fall a Level I, Level II, or a Level III incident? What are your reporting duties?
- If you answered Level II and no requirement to report – you would be correct.
- If you answered Level III and that you must report the incident within 24 hours, you would be correct.
Wait, what? How could both answers be correct? Which is it? A Level II and no reporting it or a Level III and a report due within 24 hours?
It depends on Ms. Brown’s injuries, which is what I find fascinating and a little… how should I put it… wrong?! Think about it…the level of incident and the reporting requirement is not based on whether Dorothy properly provided services to Ms.Brown. No…the answer resides in Ms. Brown’s injuries. Whether Dorothy acted appropriately or not appropriately or rendered sub-par services has no bearing on the level of incident or reporting standards.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) Incident Response and Reporting Manual, Ms. Brown’s fall would fall (no pun intended) within a Level II of response if Ms. Brown’s injuries were not a permanent or psychological impairment. She bruised her hip, but there was no major injury.
However, if Ms. Brown’s fall led to a broken hip, surgery, and a replacement of her hip, then her fall would fall within a Level III response that needs to be reported within 24 hours. Furthermore, even at a Level III response, no reporting would be required except that, in my hypothetical, the fall occurred while Dorothy was rendering PCS, which is a billable Medicaid service. Assuming that Ms. Brown is on Medicaid and Medicare (and qualifies for PCS), Dorothy’s employer can be reimbursed for PCS; therefore, the reporting requirement within 24 hours is activated.
In each scenario, Dorothy’s actions remain the same. It is the extent of Ms. Brown’s injury that changes.
See the below tables for further explanation:
These tables are not exhaustive, so please click on the link above to review the entire Incident Response and Reporting Manual.
Other important points:
- Use the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) guidelines to distinguish between injuries requiring first aid and those requiring treatment by a health professional.
- A visit to an emergency room (in and of itself) is not considered an incident.
- Level I incidents of suspected or alleged cases of abuse, neglect or
exploitation of a child (age 17 or under) or disabled adult must still be reported
pursuant to G.S. 108A Article 6, G.S. 7B Article 3 and 10A NCAC 27G .0610.
Providing residential services to anyone is, inevitably, more highly regulated than providing outpatient services. The chance of injury, no matter the cause, is exponentially greater if the consumer is in your care 24-hours a day. That’s life. But if you do provide residential services, know your reporting mandates or you could suffer penalties, fines, and possible closure.
Lastly, understand that these penalties for not reporting can be subjective, not objective. If Ms. Brown’s fall led to a broken hip that repaired without surgery or without replacement of the hip, is that hip injury considered “permanent?”
In cases of reporting guidelines, it is prudent to keep your attorney on speed dial.
There is a federal regulation that is putting health care providers out of business. It is my legal opinion that the regulation violates the U.S. Constitution. Yet, the regulation still exists and continues to put health care providers out of business.
Because so far, no one has litigated the validity of the regulation, and I believe it could be legally wiped from existence with the right legal arguments.
How is this important?
Currently, the state and federal government are legally authorized to immediately suspend your Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements upon a credible allegation of fraud. This immense authority has put many a provider out of business. Could you survive without any Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements?
The federal regulation to which I allude is 42 CFR 455.23. It is a federal regulation, and it applies to every single health care provider, despite the service type allowed by Medicare or Medicaid. Home care agencies are just as susceptible to an accusation of health care fraud as a hospital. Durable medical equipment agencies are as susceptible as dentists. Yet the standard for a “credible allegation of fraud” is low. The standard for which the government can implement an immediate withhold of Medicaid/care reimbursements is lower than for an accused murderer to be arrested. At least when you are accused of murder, you have the right to an attorney. When you are accused to health care fraud on the civil level, you do not receive the right to an attorney. You must pay 100% out of pocket, unless your insurance happens to cover the expense for attorneys. But, even if your insurance does cover legal fees, you can believe that you will be appointed a general litigator with little to no knowledge of Medicare or Medicaid regulatory compliance litigation.
42 USC 455.23 states that:
“The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending under the Medicaid program against an individual or entity unless the agency has good cause to not suspend payments or to suspend payment only in part.
(2) The State Medicaid agency may suspend payments without first notifying the provider of its intention to suspend such payments.
(3) A provider may request, and must be granted, administrative review where State law so requires.”
In the very first sentence, which I highlighted in red, is the word “must.” Prior to the Affordable Care Act, this text read “may.” From my years of experience, every single state in America has used this revision from “may” to “must” for governmental advantage over providers. When asked for good cause, the state and or federal government protest that they have no authority to make a decision that good cause exists to suspend any reimbursement freeze during an investigation. But this protest is a pile of hooey.
In reality, if anyone could afford to litigate the constitutionality of the regulation, I believe that the regulation would be stricken an unconstitutional.
Here is one reason why: Due Process
The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Bill of Rights provide us our due process rights. Here is the 5th Amendment:
“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
There have been a long and rich history of interpretation of the due process clause. The Supreme Court has interpreted the due process clauses to provide four protections: (1) procedural due process (in civil and criminal proceedings), (2) substantive due process, (3) a prohibition against vague laws, and (4) as the vehicle for the incorporation of the Bill of Rights.
42 CFR 455.23 violates procedural due process.
Procedural due process requires that a person be allowed notice and an opportunity to be heard before a government official takes a person’s life, liberty, or property.
Yet, 42 CFR 455.23 allows the government to immediately withhold reimbursements for services rendered based on an allegation without due process and taking a provider’s property; i.e., money owed for services rendered. Isn’t this exactly what procedural due process was created to prevent???? Where is the fundamental fairness?
42 CFR 455.23 violates substantive due process.
The Court usually looks first to see if there is a fundamental right, by examining if the right can be found deeply rooted in American history and traditions.
Fundamental rights include the right to vote, right for protection from pirates on the high seas (seriously – you have that right), and the right to constitutional remedies. Courts have held that our right to property is a fundamental right, but to my knowledge, not in the context of Medicare/caid reimbursements owed; however, I see a strong argument.
If the court establishes that the right being violated is a fundamental right, it applies strict scrutiny. This test inquires into whether there is a compelling state interest being furthered by the violation of the right, and whether the law in question is narrowly tailored to address the state interest.
Where the right is not a fundamental right, the court applies a rational basis test: if the violation of the right can be rationally related to a legitimate government purpose, then the law is held valid.
Taking away property of a Medicare/caid provider without due process violates substantive due process. The great thing about writing your own blog is that no one can argue with you. Playing Devil’s advocate, I would anticipate that the government would argue that a suspension or withhold of reimbursements is not a “taking” because the withhold or suspension is temporary and the government has a compelling reason to deter health care fraud. To which, I would say, yes, catching health care fraud is important – I am in no way advocating for fraud. But important also is the right to be innocent until proven guilty, and in civil cases, our deeply-rooted belief in the presumption of innocence is upheld by the action at issue not taking place until a hearing is held.
For example, if I sue my neighbor and declare that he is encroaching on my property, the property line is not moved until a decision is in my favor.
Another example, if I sue my business partner for breach of contract because she embezzled $1 million from me, I do not get the $1 million from her until it is decided that she actually took $1 million from me.
So to should be – if a provider is accused of fraud, property legally owned by said provider cannot just be taken away. That is a violation of substantive due process.
42 CFR 455.23 violates the prohibition against vague laws
A law is void for vagueness if an average citizen cannot understand it. The vagueness doctrine is my favorite. According to census data, there are 209.3 million people in the US who are over 24-years. Of those over 24-years-old, 66.9 million have a college degree. 68% do not.
Although here is a quick anecdote: Not so sure that a college degree is indicative of intelligence. A recent poll of law students at Columbia University showed that over 60% of the students, who were polled, could not name what rights are protected by the 1st Amendment. Once they responded “speech,” many forgot the others. In case you need a refresher for the off-chance that you are asked this question in an impromptu interview, see here.
My point is – who is to determine what the average person may or may not understand?
Back to why 42 CFR 455.23 violates the vagueness doctrine…
Remember the language of the regulations: “The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud…”
“Credible allegation of fraud” is defined as an allegation, which has been verified by the State, from any source, including but not limited to the following:
- Fraud hotline complaints.
- Claims data mining.
- Patterns identified through provider audits, civil false claims cases, and law enforcement investigations. Allegations are considered to be credible when they have indicia of reliability and the State Medicaid agency has reviewed all allegations, facts, and evidence carefully and acts judiciously on a case-by-case basis.”
With a bit of research, I was able to find a written podcast published by CMS. It appears to be a Q and A between two workers at CMS discussing whether they should suspend a home health care agency’s reimbursements, similar to a playbook. I assume that it was an internal workshop to educate the CMS employees considering that the beginning of the screenplay begins with a “canned narrator” saying “This is a Medicaid program integrity podcast.”
The weird thing is that when you pull up the website – here – you get a glimpse of the podcast, but, at least on my computer, the image disappears in seconds and does not allow you to read it. I encourage you to determine whether this happens you as well.
While the podcast shimmered for a few seconds, I hit print and was able to read the disappearing podcast. As you can see, it is a staged conversation between “Patrick” and “Jim” regarding suspicion of a home health agency falsifying certificates of medical necessity.
On page 3, “Jim” says, “Remember the provider has the right to know why we are taking such serious action.”
But if your Medicare/caid reimbursements were suddenly suspended and you were told the suspension was based upon “credible allegations of fraud,” wouldn’t you find that reasoning vague?
42 CFR 455.23 violates the right to apply the Bill of Rights to me, as a citizen
This esoteric doctrine only means that the Bill of Rights apply to State governments. [Why do lawyers make everything so hard to understand?]
Here’s a little unabashed, yet well-deserved honor my firm recently obtained. Number 48!! Go Team G&RSM! #Medicaidatty #Medicareatty
“Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani now ranks as the 48th largest law firm in the United States per Law360 in its annual rankings of the 400 largest law firms in the nation. The firm attained this distinction by moving up five spots from the prior year’s rankings and 23 positions from the 2015 list, and currently comprises some 733 attorneys and 304 partners throughout the U.S.
“This distinction represents an important milestone for the firm,” commented Firmwide Managing Partner Dion N. Cominos. “We continue to have good fortune in growing our platform with outstanding lawyers; most importantly, however, the growth has not occurred for its own sake but instead to allow us to best service our clients on a national stage.”
During the last three years, the firm has expanded its U.S. headcount by more than 26 percent and, since 2000, Gordon & Rees has added more than 30 new offices, and now has a major outpost in eight of the 10 largest cities in the United States. In 2017 alone, the firm has opened five new offices: Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Gordon & Rees is a national litigation and business transactions firm with more than 700 lawyers in 43 offices across the United States. Our lawyers provide full service representation to public and private companies ranging from the Fortune 500 to start-ups. Founded in 1974, Gordon & Rees is recognized among the fastest growing and largest law firms in the country and continues to climb the ranks of both The Am Law 200 and The National Law Journal.”
It seems apropos that a US Congressman was named Pete Stark who first sponsored what came to be known as the Stark law, because the Stark law mandates stark penalties for financially driven physician referrals. Get it? Cheesy, I know.
The Stark law (42 U.S.C. 1395nn) prohibits physician referrals of designated health services (DHR) for Medicare and Medicaid if the physician has a financial interest with the “referred to” agency.
For example, Dr. Goneril is an internist. As an investment, he and his partner, Dr. Regan open a local laboratory “Gloucester” and hire Mr. Lear to run Gloucester. Drs. Goneril and Regan are silent partners. Dr. Goneril orders blood work on Patient Cordelia and refers her to Gloucester.
The above example would be a direct violation of the Stark law.
The penalties are severe. If caught, Dr. Goneril would have to repay all money received for services in which he referred Cordelia to Gloucester. In addition, he could be penalized $15,000 for every time he improperly referred Cordelia, plus three times the amount of improper payment he received from the Medicare/caid program, possible termination from the Medicare/caid program, and penalties of up to $100,000 for every time he tried to circumvent the Stark law.
On the federal level, the Department of Justice, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) are tasked with enforcing the Stark law.
Recent years have seen the most Stark law violations since its inception and it is only being enforced more and more.
On June 9, 2015, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a fraud alert regarding the Stark law. Investigations since June 2015 has risen significantly.
Here are some recent Stark settlements (for you to understand the severity):
- Adventist Health System agreed to pay $118.7 million to the federal government and to multiple states.
- Columbus Regional Healthcare System is paying $25 million.
- Citizens Medical Center in Victoria, Texas, agreed to pay $21.75 million.
“O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous. / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.” (King Lear, II, iv).
How do you defend yourself if you are accused of a Stark violation?
First and foremost, hire a qualified health care attorney. There are exceptions to the Stark law which, hopefully, you fall within. Furthermore, there are multiple legal arguments that can abate penalties. You do not always want to settle.There have been a number of agencies, that recently, decided to never settle. Oddly enough, the number of their audits decreased. Maybe the government targets easy money.
Recent article released by my firm (a little horn tooting…Toot! Toot!)
The continued national growth of Gordon & Rees has led to its recognition as the fastest growing law firm among the AmLaw 200 thus far in 2015. (The firm has grown 6.5% since the beginning of the year.)
The firm also leads the way among the nation’s top 200 grossing firms in net partner acquisitions since January and in associate gains over the last nine months. Lateral Link (the report’s author) declares the gain of lateral partners one of the most revealing measures of a firm’s health.
This year the firm has surpassed the 650-attorney mark, and over the past 10 years, lawyer count has grown by 230 percent, the number of offices has grown from eight to 35, and the firm’s national, regional, and local practices have quadrupled — all without merging with other firms or incurring any long-term debt.
Over the last decade, Gordon & Rees has climbed 50 spots in the AmLaw 200, landing at number 126 this past year. The firm is also currently the 71st largest law firm in the United States as recognized by Law360, and ranks No. 26 on the American Lawyer’s Diversity Scorecard.
Here is the full article.
Dealing with Medicaid/Medi-Cal Temporary Suspensions in California – Tips Based on Our Firm’s Experience
Josh Urquhart, a fellow health care attorney at Gordon & Rees’ Denver office, wrote an addendum to my blog from Monday. His comments are on-point and worth reading.
You can find his blog here.
He offers several, specific California- and DHCS-specific tips. However, these tips are analogous to all states and all dentists who accept any government-funded insurance, especially Medicaid.
Here is his last paragraph:
“I know that some of this might be frightening. My first thought after putting pen to paper on this post was to that scene in Empire Strikes Back, when Luke tells Yoda he isn’t afraid, and Yoda tells him ominously “you will be.” But there is a reason for my sturm und drang. As Knicole says, state Medicaid agencies have a good bit of leverage in these overpayment and fraud and abuse investigations, and in my opinion, DHCS falls towards the very top end of that list. This isn’t a time for providers to put their heads in the sand and figure that they’ll deal with any problems with DHCS later down the line if and when something happens. By that point, it very well might be too late – or at the very least, the providers will have missed the best chance (or even the second best chance) to prevent or resolve any problems cheaply and quickly.”
I have to say…it is so nice being a part of a firm with such an amazing wealth of knowledge about health care…and across the entire nation!! At GR, I am now part of a “deep bench” of experienced health care attorneys. (Sorry to toot our horn, but it is really nice!!)
Plus, I learned something new from Josh’s blog. Who knew that “sturm und drang” is an actual phrase and not a sad oversight of spellcheck?? I started to let Josh know of the misspelled phrase until I googled it. Maybe I will try these words on Words with Friends.
April 2015 has turned into a month of change for my family and me.
I am so excited to announce that as of today, I am a partner at Gordon & Rees. Robert Shaw will be joining as a senior counsel and Todd Yoho, our paralegal, will also be joining. So “Team Medicaid” is staying together!! Both Robert and Todd are integral parts of this team.
Yes, I will remain in Raleigh. Yes, I will still maintain this blog!
I did not take this decision lightly. I enjoyed every second of my time at Williams Mullen. The attorneys over at WM are top-notch and will be greatly missed.
However, Gordon & Rees (GR) provides us with a national platform, as it is the 89th largest firm in the country!!!!!
GR has 600+ lawyers in 21 different states!! This national platform will enable us to grow our practice across the country. We (GR) do not have an office in New Mexico yet…
In this type of practice, my clients are health care providers that provide health care to our most needy population. Every time that we “win” for our clients, we are allowing that client/health care provider to continue to accept Medicare/caid and to continue to serve their patients. Now we will have the opportunity to help health care providers all over the country!!! This is such an amazing opportunity, and I feel so blessed.
And it doesn’t stop there!
Concurrent with my transition to GR, my family has purchased a new house!!! We close on April 10th and the movers are coming April 11th. It is almost 5 acres with a four-stall barn and a lighted round ring for evening riding. For those who know me, my family and I have wanted a small horse farm for years. We are so excited! Although, between you and me, I may be taking away my husband’s debit card soon. He believes that prior to our move, we need to have a tractor, a golf cart, hay, fencing, a donkey, and multiple other farming paraphernalia. I disagree.
Oh, and we cannot forget the trial in New Mexico fast approaching…and another trial 2 weeks afterward. This is just how I like it! I love my family, and I love my job!
So, Happy Easter, everyone!!!
My new email is:
The appearance of my blog may change in the near future…but the content will not. I will continue to blog on the ongoing plights of those health care providers who choose to accept Medicaid/care, the Goliaths who stand in their way, the laws and regulations surrounding this esoteric, but so important topic, and the impact of public health on our tax dollars!
“Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” Calvin Coolige.