Hospitals and Health Care Facilities

On June 14, 2017, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Breckinridge Health, Inc., et al. v. Price affirmed the district court’s finding that HHS could offset the amount of a hospital’s Medicare reimbursement by the Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments received by such hospital.  In its decision, the Sixth Circuit followed the holding of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in its 2012 decision in Abraham Lincoln Memorial Hospital v. Sebelius, where the Seventh Circuit, under similar facts, came to the same conclusion.

 

Breckinridge Health involved various Kentucky Critical Access Hospitals that, as part of Kentucky’s contribution to the DSH program, must pay a 2.5% tax on their gross revenue (the KP-Tax).  The revenue from the KP-Tax is then deposited into the Medical Assistance Revolving Trust under Kentucky law.  Funds from the revolving trust are then used to fund, in part, the DSH payments made to Kentucky hospitals.

 

The hospitals in this case had historically sought and received reimbursement under the Medicare Act’s reasonable cost statute for the full amount of their 2.5% tax payment.  However, for 2009 and 2010, full reimbursement was denied by the Medicare Administrative Contractor.  Instead, each hospital’s tax costs were offset against the amount of Medicaid DSH payments such hospital actually received.  This decision was upheld by the Provider Reimbursement Review Board and later the Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and, finally, the district court.

 

In affirming the district court’s decision, the Sixth Circuit relied on the Seventh Circuit’s rationale in Abraham Lincoln Memorial Hospital.  There, Illinois hospitals paid a tax assessment to the state as a condition of participation in Medicaid “access payments.”  The Seventh Circuit found that the tax assessment was a reasonable cost eligible for Medicare reimbursement.  However, because the payments the Illinois hospitals received from the fund were meant to reduce expenses associated with participation in the program, including the expense of paying the mandatory tax assessment that is a condition to participation, the set off was appropriate because the net economic impact of the access payments must be considered in calculating the reimbursement.

 

Applying the Seventh Circuit’s rationale, the Breckinridge court reasoned that “[b]ecause the DSH payment [the hospitals] received derived from the fund into which the [hospitals’] KP-Tax expenditures were placed, the net effect of the DSH payment is to reduce, at least in part, the costs [the hospitals] incurred in paying the KP-Tax.  Therefore, it constituted a refund notwithstanding the fact that it was not labeled as such.”  In other words, by receiving a return of the economic value of their KP-Tax payments through the disbursement of revolving trust funds, the hospitals essentially had already been reimbursed for their KP-Tax payments and such costs were not eligible to be reimbursed again under the reasonable cost statute.

 

In affirming the district court’s judgment, the Sixth Circuit made clear that the standard of review is to give the judgment of HHS controlling weight unless it is “arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly contrary to the statute.”  However, through its detailed review of HHS’s decision, the Breckinridge court bolsters the rationale arguably justifying the expanding view that DSH payments can properly be set off against the reasonable costs of participation.

The Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MCFU) of the New York State Office of the Attorney General has recently issued restitution demand letters to providers for allegedly entering into percentage-based contracts with their billing agents. The MCFU letters cite the Medicaid Update March 2001, titled “A Message for Providers Using Service Agents as follows:

Billing agents are prohibited from charging Medicaid providers a percentage of the amount claimed or collected. In addition, such payment arraignments, when entered into by a physician, may violate the Education Law and State Education Department’s regulations on unlawful fee-splitting.

A physician will be guilty of misconduct if he or she permits:

any person to share in the fees for professional services, other than: a partner, employee, associate in a professional firm or corporation, professional subcontractor or consultant authorized to practice medicine, or a legally authorized trainee practicing under the supervision of a licensee. This prohibition shall include any arrangement or agreement whereby the amount received in payment for furnishing space, facilities, equipment or personnel services used by a licensee constitutes a percentage of, or is otherwise dependent upon, the income or receipts of the licensee from such practice, except as otherwise provided by law with respect to a facility licensed pursuant to article twenty-eight of the public health law or article thirteen of the mental hygiene law.

See Educ. Law §6530(19)*.

A physician is subject to professional misconduct charges if he or she has

directly or indirectly requested, received or participated in the division, transference, assignment, rebate, splitting, or refunding of a fee for, or has directly requested, received or profited by means of a credit or other valuable consideration as a commission, discount or gratuity, in connection with the furnishing of professional care or service . . .

See Educ. Law §6531.

The prohibition against fee-splitting is related to the state anti-kickback law which prohibits physicians from

[d]irectly or indirectly offering, giving, soliciting, or receiving or agreeing to receive, any fee or other consideration to or from a third party for the referral of a patient or in connection with the performance of professional services . . .

See Educ. Law §6530 (18).

Licensed professionals in New York State must review their contracts to verify that the compensation paid to their agents is not based on a percentage of fees for professional services.

*A similar rule applies to other licensed professionals. See N.Y. Rules of the Board of Regents §29.1(b)(4).

**In addition to the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute at 42 U.S.C. §1320a-7b(b), New York has enacted its own wide-reaching anti-kickback and anti-referral laws and regulations seeking to eliminate fraud and abuse in healthcare on a statewide basis. The state anti-kickback statue is set forth in the Social Services Law (See N.Y. Social Services Law § 366-d). The N.Y. Education Law addresses matters of professional misconduct rather than violations of fraud and abuse laws and regulations.

imagesPA8ET6EQIn our previous post [found here], we explained that, under the Privacy Rule, HIPAA covered entities (health care providers and health plans) must provide individuals and their “personal representatives” with access to the individual’s protected health information. An individual’s personal representative is determined under State law. In this post, we will define who is a “personal representative” under New York law.

Section 18(2) of the New York Public Health Law (PHL) states that, upon written request, a health care provider shall provide an opportunity, within ten days, for a patient to inspect the patient’s information concerning or relating to the examination or treatment of the patient. Upon the written request of any qualified person, a health care provider shall furnish to the qualified person, within a reasonable time, a copy of any patient information requested which the authorized person may inspect. The law provides no specific time period by which copies of medical records must be provided. However, the New York State Department of Health considers 10 to 14 days to be a reasonable time in which a practitioner should respond to such a request.

A “qualified person” under PHL§ 18(1)(g) includes:

  1. the properly identified patient;
  2. a guardian for an incapacitated person appointed under article eighty-one of the mental hygiene law;
  3. a parent of an infant or a guardian of an infant appointed under article seventeen of the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act or other legally appointed guardian of an infant who may request access to a clinical record;
  4. a distributee of any deceased subject for whom no personal representative, as defined in the Estates, Powers and Trusts Law, has been appointed; or
  5. an attorney representing a qualified person or the subject’s estate who holds a power of attorney from the qualified person or the subject’s estate explicitly authorizing the holder to execute a written request for patient information.

PHL§ 18(1)(g) states that a qualified person shall be deemed a “personal representative of the individual” for purposes of HIPAA and its implementing regulations. Although not a “qualified person,” an agent appointed under a patient’s Health Care Proxy may also receive medical information and medical and clinical records necessary to make informed decisions regarding the patient’s health care (See PHL § 2982(3)). Presumably, the holder of a Health Care Proxy would also be a “personal representative of the individual” for purposes of HIPAA, although there is no explicit statement to that effect in PHL § 2982.

There are circumstances where a qualified person may be denied access to inspect or obtain a copy of the patient’s records. In the next post, we will explain those circumstances.

Picture1Under the Privacy Rule, HIPAA covered entities (health care providers and health plans) are required to provide individuals, upon request, with access to their protected health information (PHI) in one or more “designated record sets” maintained by or for the covered entity.

Covered entities are also required to protect the individual’s PHI from unauthorized disclosure. How must a covered entity verify the identity of the individual requesting the PHI so as to comply with the Privacy Rule without at the same time violating it?

Recent guidance from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is somewhat helpful.

According the guidance, the Privacy Rule requires a covered entity to take “reasonable steps” to verify the identity of an individual requesting access (citing 45 CFR 164.514(h)).  OCR confirms the Privacy Rule does not mandate the form of verification, but rather leaves the manner of verification to the professional judgment of the covered entity, provided the verification processes and measures “do not create barriers to or unreasonably delay the individual from obtaining access to her PHI”.  OCR explains that verification may be oral or in writing and states that the type of verification depends on how the individual is requesting or receiving access. For instance, a person may request access in person, by phone, by fax or e-mail, or through a web portal hosted by the covered entity.

OCR suggests that standard request forms ask for basic information about the individual to enable the covered entity to verify the individual is the subject of the information requested.  For those covered entities providing individuals with access to their PHI through web portals, the portals should be set up with appropriate authentication controls, as required by the HIPAA Security Rule (for instance password protection and required periodic password updates).

For individuals who may call requesting access to their PHI, good policy might require verification of the requestors date of birth, address, and perhaps the condition the individual was treated for.

Verifying the authority of an individual’s personal representative is determined under State law. In the next blog post, we will look at the law in New York on who is a qualified person for purposes of access to an individual’s medical records.

On November 10, 2014, the US Department of Health and Human Services released its investigation report regarding the death of actress and comedian Joan Rivers.  The report, called a “Statement of Deficiencies and Plan of Correction”, highlights numerous mistakes and violations made by Yorkville Endoscopy, the treating facility where Ms. Rivers died (Ms. Rivers was identified as “Patient #1”).  Health care providers, facility owners, and administrators can learn some basic but important lessons from the report’s findings. 

1. Have appropriate policies and procedures (“P&Ps”) in place as required by your licensing agency and accrediting body.  Yorkville Endoscopy is licensed by the State of New York as an ambulatory surgery center (“ASC”) under Article 28 of the Public Health Law, and accredited by the American Association for Accreditation of Ambulatory Surgery Facilities.  The State regulatory requirements for an ASC are much more rigorous than the requirements for non-licensed outpatient surgery centers in New York.  P&Ps cover issues including clinical practices, patient consents, procedures, anesthesia, billing, provider credentialing, employment and more.  An administrator, compliance officer, or other responsible party may review the regulations and accreditation standards, consult with the accrediting body, legal counsel or a consultant, and can purchase policy manuals from numerous sources.  

2. Follow your own policies and procedures.  The report cites numerous examples of Yorkville Endoscopy failing to follow its own P&Ps.  For example, the staff failed to follow the “Time Out” policy which helps ensure that the correct procedure is being performed; also, one of the physicians performing the procedures was not credentialed by the facility, in violation of the Physician Credentialing P&P. A facility’s P&P manual should not be gathering dust on a shelf in a back office (same goes for the Compliance Manual).  If a particular policy or procedure is not effective, the facility should develop a new policy or procedure that works better.  A facility that consistently follows its own P&Ps exhibits traits of a compliant and quality oriented organization; while this will not prevent accidents or unexpected occurrences, many issues may be avoided.  All staff, including physicians, should be regularly educated on the facility’s P&Ps.

3. Credentialing protects you.  The federal report stated that one of the physicians performing a procedure on Ms. Rivers was not credentialed by the facility.  Credentialing is a fairly simple process that allows a facility to review a provider’s licensure, education and work history, insurance, and past lawsuits or disciplinary actions before allowing them to treat patients.  This enables a facility to determine whether a provider meets facility requirements in general, and often whether they are qualified for specific procedures.  This helps weed out bad providers up front, limits certain procedures to physicians with an appropriate level of training and experience, and allows the facility to have a record of who is providing services under its roof.

4. Keep the cameras away from the patients.  The report notes that one of the physicians took a photograph of Ms. Rivers with his cell phone while she was under sedation during a procedure.  There is no evidence she consented to this photo.  This is a violation of Ms. Rivers’ right to privacy (under HIPAA and State laws), and violated the facility’s own “Cell Phone Policy.”  Taking photos of patients without their consent exposes the individuals and their facilities to liability, and often results in loss of employment for the offending staff.  Facilities should review their photo and video policies, with an eye toward protection of the privacy of patients, staff and guests.

5. Beware of “VIP Medicine”. Accommodating a VIP in certain ways is reasonable and acceptable, but it is not occasion to ignore important policies and procedures.  The investigation states that Ms. Rivers’ medical record did not contain an informed consent for the nasolaryngoscopy, and contained no documentation of her body weight (needed to calculate anesthesia dosages).  Allowing a VIP to enter though a separate door to increase their privacy, keeping their visit private, or using a private room are certainly appropriate.  However, clinical guidelines should be followed regardless of the star power of the patient.  This means they must be subject to the same clinical oversight, undergo the same process for obtaining informed consent for any procedure, and receive the same pre-procedure screening and testing in accordance with good medical practices.

It is unknown whether compliance with any of the above-noted issues would have resulted in a better outcome for Ms. Rivers – sometimes the negative risks discussed during the informed consent process do occur, and sometimes this results in the death of a patient.  What is clear is that inattention to regulations, failing to follow basic policies and procedures, and violating a patient’s rights suggest a facility and providers that fail to place a high value on quality of care and the safety of their patients.

When does the 60-day clock start for an identified overpayment of federal funds to become a reverse false claim under amendments to the False Claims Act?  A closely watched SDNY qui tam  case may provide an answer. 

In June, the United States and New York intervened in United States v. Continuum Health Partners, Inc., alleging that defendants had knowingly failed to return overpayments owed to Medicaid arising out of a computer glitch.  Defendants have now filed motions to dismiss the Federal and New York State FCA claims. 

In 2009, the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act defined “obligation” in the FCA to include “the retention of an overpayment.”  The following year, in 2010, the Affordable Care Act provided that an overpayment of federal funds must be reported and returned within “60 days after the date on which the overpayment was identified.”  In addition, the ACA amendments provided that the failure to return an overpayment in 60 days constitutes a reverse false claim, subjecting the provider to treble damages and civil penalties under the FCA. 

In their motion to dismiss, Beth Israel Medical Center, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, and Continuum Health Partners argued that there was never an “obligation” to the Federal government, because there must be a present, existing duty to repay.  Defendants asserted that an overpayment is not “identified” unless it has been confirmed and quantified, and the 60 day period does not start until that occurs.  Defendants referenced the process most providers undertake when they become aware of a potential overpayment, including an internal audit, sampling of claims, consultations with physicians and staff, and factual and legal analysis.  This process ordinarily cannot occur within 60 days of initially becoming aware of a potential overpayment. 

The complaint attached an internal summary, by one of Continuum’s employees, of approximately 900 Medicaid claims, totaling over $1 million, that were potential overpayments.  Defendants stressed that this was not a list of actual overpayments, and in fact only 465 of the claims were paid.  As further analysis was required to determine if the claims did result in overpayments, defendants argued that the summary did not “identify” overpayments, and the complaint therefore did not allege any obligation owed the government under the FCA. 

Defendants also argued that the complaint failed to allege any affirmative act of concealment to prevent an overpayment from being disclosed, and that an overpayment from Medicaid is not an obligation owed to the Federal government under the reverse false claim section of the FCA.  In a separate memorandum seeking to dismiss the state FCA claims, defendants incorporated their Federal FCA arguments and also argued that the state reverse false claim provision was enacted after the alleged conduct, and therefore could not be applied retroactively. 

This case is being closely watched, as it raises significant issues on when the government can assert reverse false claim liability for overpayments.  Significantly, in this case, there is no dispute that the overpayments resulted from a computer glitch and not fraud, and that defendants repaid the overpayment to the government.  The complaint alleges that defendants did not make that payment soon enough.  The government intervened to seek treble damages and civil penalties, signaling that it will be aggressively pursuing cases where providers become aware of overpayments and fail — in the government’s view — to promptly reimburse the government. 

The case is pending before SDNY District Judge Edgardo Ramos, and the government opposition papers are due on October 22.

Physicians often practice through a limited liability entity to shield the physician from practice liabilities. In New York, such entities may take the form of a professional service corporation, professional limited liability company, or professional limited liability partnership. Regardless of the type of entity selected, professionals in New York remain “personally and fully liable and accountable for any negligent or wrongful act or misconduct committed by him or her or by any person under his or her direct supervision and control while rendering professional services on behalf of [the entity],” See NY BCL§1505(a); NY LLCL §1205; N.Y. PTR. LAW § 26(c).

The issue of whether certain alleged tortfeasers were under a physician-shareholder’s “direct supervision and control” was recently presented in Schaefer v. Mackinnon, 117235/09, NYLJ 1202669507383, at *1 (Sup., NY, Decided August 27, 2014). In Schaefer, Plaintiffs Frank Schaefer and his wife, Maria Schaefer, brought a medical malpractice suit against Broadway Cardiopulmonary, P.C. and its four shareholders for injuries Mr. Schaefer sustained during a cardiac stress test. Additional defendants include the alleged tortfeasers, David Mackinnon, M.D., a non-shareholder physician, a medical assistant and a medical technologist, all employees of Broadway Cardiopulmonary, P.C.  According to the record, the test was ordered by Dr. Mackinnon, but Dr. Mackinnon did not interview or examine Mr. Schaefer prior to or during the course of testing. The test was administered by the medical technologist who apparently left the room during testing. Mr. Schaefer passed out and fell resulting in injuries.

The defendant shareholders moved for summary judgment arguing they did not directly supervise or control the alleged tortfeasers during the rendering of professional services as the test was performed by the other named defendants and not the shareholders. Plaintiffs opposed the motion stating the shareholders failed to implement guidelines, controls and procedures for proper and safe testing.

In analyzing the issue, Justice Joan B. Lobis looked to the Appellate Divisions ruling in Wise v. Greenwald, 208 A.D.2d 1141 (3rd Dep’t 1994).

“In Wise, the appellate court considered the liability under Section 1505(a) of the Business Corporation Law of a shareholder of a dental practice, whose employee dentist allegedly negligently extracted Wise’s tooth. Indicia of liability included the shareholder’s hiring responsibilities, setting hours of operation, evaluation of employees, and whether any intermediary supervisor lay between the shareholder and employee whose actions were at issue. Id. at 1142. Applying these factors, the Wise Court affirmed the denial of the shareholder’s motion for summary judgment. Id. at 1143.”

Turning to the case at hand, Justice Lobis looked to the testimony of the defendants finding that

• the four shareholders met at least every two months to discuss practice operations;

• all four shareholders signed the office lease, approved of the imaging machine at issue, and ordered medical and office supplies;

• all four shareholders hired and/or evaluated Dr. Mackinnon and the defendant medical technologist;

• one of the shareholders regularly discussed operational issues and staff scheduling with Dr. Mackinnon;

• the shareholders had the power to terminate employees;

• the medical technologist testified he reported directly to one of the shareholders yet he had not been trained or given procedures to follow in operating the imaging machine, he failed to monitor blood pressure, respiration or pulse before the resting portion of the stress test and he was not instructed to remain in the room with the patient during the equipment’s operation.

Based on the record, Justice Lobis found that genuine issues of material fact remain for a jury to determine whether the shareholders are liable for the actions of other persons at the practice.

Direct supervision and control by a shareholder-physician goes beyond supervision of the professional care provided. Shareholder-physicians who take on administrative oversight  responsibilities can be liable if they fail to properly train and control persons rendering professional services for the practice.

False Claims Act cases do not often go to trial, so they are noteworthy when they do.  EDNY Judge John Gleeson has scheduled an FCA jury trial in October, United States ex rel. Ryan v. Lederman.  Earlier this year, the Court granted summary judgment to the government in part and scheduled the remaining issues for trial. 

Dr. Gilbert Lederman was Director of Radiation Oncology at Staten Island University Hospital (“SIUH”), where he performed various radiological procedures, usually for cancer treatment.  One such treatment was stereotactic radiosurgery, a form of radiation therapy that focuses high-power energy on a small area of the body.  Elizabeth Ryan filed a qui tam action in 2004, alleging that Lederman and SIUH had improperly billed the federal government for health services under Medicare, because stereotactic radiosurgery was not “reasonable and necessary.”  The government intervened in 2008.  SIUH had also been a defendant in the case, but settled all claims against it later that year for $25 million. 

Under local medical review policies (“LMRP”), now called “local coverage determinations,” treatment of below the neck diseases such as lung carcinoma with stereotactic radiosurgery was considered “investigational.”  The government alleged, and Lederman did not dispute, that he had submitted claims for at least 300 below-the-neck stereotactic radiosurgeries.   

Summary Judgment Establishes Claims Were False; Knowledge Issue Set For Trial

In its summary judgment decision, the Court first determined that the claims were “false” on two grounds.  Lederman had submitted false claims because the LMRPs excluded coverage for stereotactic surgery performed below the neck.  Lederman argued that the LMPRs provided only guidance, but the Court held that local coverage determinations are mandatory for the areas they cover.  In addition, the Court held that Lederman had misrepresented the procedures performed, because they were not coded as below-the-neck procedures. 

The False Claims Act requires a knowing submission of a false claim, however, so the Court next looked to whether Lederman had acted “knowingly.”   The Court found the government’s case persuasive, but not sufficient for summary judgment, necessitating a trial on that issue. 

With respect to common law claims of payment based on mistake of fact and unjust enrichment, however, there is no knowledge element, so the Court granted summary judgment to the government on those claims. 

The Court scheduled a trial on the issues of: (1) whether Lederman acted with a culpable mental state for FCA liability, and (2) the amount of damages on the government’s common law claims, and possibly also the FCA claims. 

Court Finds Jury Trial Appropriate, Bifurcates Liability and Damages

Recently, Judge Gleeson addressed two procedural issues in advance of trial, Lederman’s request for a jury trial and the bifurcation of liability and damages. 

The relator’s complaint contained a jury demand, but the government’s complaint-in-intervention did not.  Lederman did not demand a jury in answering the government’s complaint.  The Court held that he could rely on the relator’s jury demand, rejecting the government’s argument that, once it intervened, the original complaint ceased to operate and it could not be bound by the relator’s jury demand. 

Earlier this month, the Court decided that it would bifurcate the trial, trying first the issue of Ledermen’s mental state for FCA liability, and then the issue of damages on the common law claims and, if necessary, on the FCA claims.  The jury trial is scheduled for October 20.


A recent article in the New York Times examined the growth of noncompete agreements, noting “Noncompete clauses are now appearing in far-ranging fields beyond the worlds of technology, sales and corporations with tightly held secrets, where the curbs have traditionally been used. From event planners to chefs to investment fund managers to yoga instructors, employees are increasingly required to sign agreements that prohibit them from working for a company’s rivals.”

Health professionals, and especially physicians, have for countless years been required to execute noncompetes and other restrictive covenants as part of their partnership agreements or employment agreements with professional practices, healthcare facilities and institutional providers.  While nothing new, noncompetes and restrictive covenants continue to be an important consideration in any professional partnership or employment situation.

There are certain key points which the parties must carefully consider regardless of which side of the transaction they are on.  New York courts will consider the following when determining the enforceability of a noncompete or restrictive covenant:  (a) the practice/employer’s need to protect legitimate business interests (such as patient lists, payor contracts and payment rates, and the terms of its business arrangements), (b) the individual/employee’s need to earn a living, (c) the public’s need to access the services of physicians and other health professionals, and (d) the reasonability of the time, scope and geographic areas restricted by the agreement. 

Common restrictions include non-solicitation of a practice’s patients and employees for a period of time following separation; prohibition on the practice of medicine (or the individual’s specialty) within a certain mile radius of the office or practice site(s) (or within certain zip codes) for a period of time.  Moonlighting during the term of employment or affiliation may also be restricted.  Parties to these agreements may consider ways to make the restrictions less burdensome, which could include severance payments or full or partial release from the restrictions if the individual is terminated without cause or his/her employment agreement is not renewed.  Commonly, a practice or employer may be entitled to injunctive relief (court order) and liquidated (monetary) damages for violations of the restrictions. 

Employers and employees should recognize that reasonable restrictions are enforceable, but also that litigation over enforceability can be expensive and time-consuming.  The parties to an employment agreement for a cardiologist might recognize that a restriction on practicing cardiology for 6 months within 5 miles from the practice’s offices in Uniondale may be considered reasonable and likely to be enforced, while a restriction on the practice of all medicine for 5 years in the counties of Nassau, Suffolk and Queens may not be considered reasonable; they can negotiate the restrictions accordingly.

Discussion of noncompetes and restrictive covenants should be part of an overall discussion with competent legal counsel regarding potential employment and partnership agreements.  The restrictions should be carefully reviewed and understood before executing agreements, as their impact may be felt by the parties for years after execution of the agreement.

The New York Court of Appeals decided last week, in Handler v. DiNapoli, that the State Comptroller has the authority to review the billing records of a non-participating provider receiving funds from the State’s primary health benefit plan, even though the payment of state funds is made indirectly.

New York State provides health insurance to its employees, retirees, and their dependents.  The plan at issue, the Empire Plan, is funded by New York State.  United Healthcare Insurance of New York (United) contracts with the State to process and pay claims by Empire Plan beneficiaries.  United processes and pays the claim, and then the State reimburses United and pays it an administrative fee.

When non-participating providers provide a service to Empire Plan members, they charge market rates and bill the patient directly.  United reimburses the patient for 80% of the actual fee or the “customary and reasonable charge” for the service, whichever is lower.  The patient must then pay these funds to the provider  and also pay the remaining 20%.  Non-participating providers have a legal duty to collect co-payments from the patients.

The New York Comptroller sought to examine the billing records of non-participating providers to determine if they had waived Empire Plan member co-payments.  The Court provided an illustration of how failure to collect the co-payment “inflates a claim’s cost and adversely impacts the State’s fisc.”  If a non-participating provider charges $100 for a service, receives $80, and does not collect the $20 co-payment, then the service was provided for $80.  In that case, the State should have only paid $64, and has overpaid by $16.

The providers gave the Comptroller access to their records upon request.  After auditing a random sampling, the Comptroller concluded that the providers had routinely waived the co-payment, extrapolated the sample amount to the universe of claims, and sought recovery of overpayments of $787,000 in one instance and $900,000 in another.  The providers then filed suit, challenging the Comptroller’s authority to audit their records because they did not receive state funds directly, but rather through United.

The Court of Appeals upheld the Comptroller’s authority, stating that the fact that a third party is a conduit for the funds does not change the character of the state funds.  The Court found that limiting the Comptroller’s authority would make its task of auditing state funds impossible; there would be no other way to determine whether providers had required a co-payment.  The Court also noted that the providers certainly knew that the payments were state funds and required the collection of co-payments.

This decision confirms that the Comptroller has wide authority to audit when state funds are at issue, even where the state does not contract with the entity being audited.  Litigants will have to try to fit themselves into some of the areas where the Court states the Comptroller may not act, such as performing the administrative duties of another State agency or overseeing activities that, while financial in nature, have no impact on the state fisc.