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.

The Supreme Court recently allowed liability through the implied certification theory of the False Claims Act (FCA), which was raised and upheld in Universal Health Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Escobar. The decision provided for a new applicable standard and resolved the split among circuit courts on whether to recognize the theory.

In Escobar, a teenaged patient was receiving health services from a mental health facility. The patient had an adverse reaction to medication prescribed and died of a seizure. The parents later discovered United Health Services sought reimbursement from MassHealth (the Massachusetts State Medicaid Program) for mental health services provided at the facility by individuals who did not meet the standards for licensure and other requirements. The parents then filed a qui tam suit relying on the implied certification theory of liability. The District Court ruled against the parents finding the claims for reimbursement were not expressly false because the facility made no express statement regarding the service providers. United States ex. rel. Escobar v. Universal Health Services, 780 F.3d 504 (1st Cir. 2015). On appeal, the First Circuit rejected the bright line approach and determined that compliance with licensure and other MassHealth regulatory requirements were conditions of payment sufficient to support an FCA suit. United States ex. rel. Escobar v. Universal Health Services., 780 F.3d 504 (1st Cir. 2015)

The Supreme Court held that implied false certification is a proper basis for liability under the False Claims Act where (1) “the claim does not merely request payment, but also makes specific representations about the goods or services provided”, and (2) “the defendant’s failure to disclose noncompliance with material statutory, regulatory, or contractual requirements makes those representations misleading half-truths.” The Court focused on defining the FCA’s materiality standard as whether the government’s knowledge of the noncompliance “would have” affected their payment decision rather than “could have”. The Court further explained that whether an obligation was a condition of payment relates to, but is not dispositive of, materiality.

Now, after Escobar, FCA plaintiffs must overcome a more demanding materiality standard when relying on implied false certification to establish False Claims Act liability.

Special thanks to Law Clerk Joanna Lima for her assistance in preparing this blog post.

Consumers often seek online reviews of a business on platforms such as Yelp, CitySearch, Yahoo and Google Plus Pages before purchasing products or services. This includes patients seeking online reviews of a physician or other licensed professional before seeking treatment. Unfortunately, a practice known as “Astroturfing” has developed where businesses attempt to create an impression of widespread support for their services or products, where little such support exists. This practice is now occurring in the health care industry.

On December 2, 2016, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced a $100,000 settlement with the urgent care medical service provider MedRite, LLC, d/b/a Medrite Urgent Care (“Medrite”). According to the announcement, Medrite paid thousands of dollars to internet advertising companies and freelance writers for positive reviews on consumer opinion websites. However, Medrite never required that reviewers visit a Medrite facility or experience Medrite’s services, and Medrite never disclosed that the reviewers were paid for the review.

The announcement cites New York Executive Law §63 (12) and the General Business Law §349 and 350 which prohibit misrepresentation and deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any business. The announcement further cites the FTC “Guidelines on the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising” (16 CFR Part 255) which state that it is a deceptive practice to solicit endorsement support for a product or service without disclosing material connections between the endorser and the advertiser sponsor. Medrite never disclosed that the reviewers were paid by the review. Under the settlement, Medrite is prohibited from falsely saying that someone promoting its services is an independent party and it cannot pay an endorser unless the payment is disclosed.

Picture1Catholic Health Care Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (CHCS) is the first business associate to be held directly liable for violations under the HIPAA rules. CHCS provided management and information technology services to six nursing homes. According to the OCR Resolution Agreement, OCR received separate notifications from each of the six nursing homes regarding a breach of unsecured electronic protected health information (ePHI) by CHCS resulting from the theft of a CHCS mobile device. The mobile device containing ePHI of 412 nursing home residents was neither encrypted nor password-protected. The settlement includes a monetary payment of $650,000 and a two-year corrective action plan.

OCR’s investigation concluded that:

  1. CHCS failed to conduct an accurate and thorough assessment of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of ePHI held by CHCS; and
  2. CHCS failed to implement appropriate security measures sufficient to reduce the risks and vulnerabilities to a reasonable and appropriate level to comply with the HIPAA Security Rule.

It is important for Business Associates and subcontractors of Business Associates to understand that since enactment of the Omnibus Rule in 2013, Business Associates and their subcontractors can be held directly liable for HIPAA violations, including the failure to conduct appropriate risk assessments and the failure to adopt adequate written policies and procedures to reduce the risk of violations.

The Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”), enforces the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (“HIPAA”). This includes the requirement that Covered Entities (health care providers and health plans) have Business Associate Agreements with their “Business Associates.”

“Business Associates” are persons or entities who “create, receive, maintain or transmit Protected Health Information (“PHI”) in performing services on behalf of a Covered Entity. Furthermore, a subcontractor of a Business Associate that creates, receives, maintains or transmits PHI on behalf of a Business Associate is also a “Business Associate.”

Both Covered Entities and Business Associates are directly liable for failing to have a compliant Business Associate Agreement in place. In addition, Business Associates must have Business Associate Agreements with their subcontractors who create, receive, maintain or transmit PHI on behalf of a Business Associate.

Recent cases of OCR enforcement for failure to have a required Business Associate Agreement include:

  • North Memorial Health Care of Minnesota agreed to pay $1.55 million to settle OCR charges for failing to have a Business Associate Agreement in place when a business associate’s laptop containing thousands of individuals’ PHI was lost.
  • Raleigh Orthopedic Clinic agreed to pay $750,000 and to enter into a Corrective Action Plan in settlement of OCR charges that it failed to have a Business Associate Agreement in place with its Business Associate engaged to transfer x-rays to electronic media.
  • Triple-S Management Corporation agreed to pay $3.5 million to settle OCR charges of multiple violations, including “impermissible disclosure of its beneficiaries’ PHI to an outside vendor without having a required Business Associate Agreement in place.”

To avoid multi-million dollar settlements, Covered Entities must evaluate their relationships with third parties, and Business Associates must evaluate their relationships with subcontractors, to ensure required Business Associate Agreements are in place. Covered Entities and Business Associates should consider adopting written policies and procedures regarding their Business Associates and subcontractors to demonstrate their efforts at compliance.

 

*My thanks to Farrell Fritz summer associate Joanna Lima for her assistance with this blog posting.

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.

The Second Circuit yesterday rejected a Constitutional challenge to New York’s requirement that children be vaccinated to attend public school, and upheld a school’s decision to exclude from class, during a chicken pox outbreak, students with a religious exemption to the vaccination requirement. 

In Phillips v. City of New York, two Catholic parents received a religious exemption from the statutory vaccination requirement for their children. The statute provides an exemption for children of parents who have “genuine and sincere religious beliefs” against vaccination.   A state regulation provides that school officials may exclude children with an exemption from school “in the event of an outbreak … of a vaccine-preventable disease in a school.”  Plaintiffs’ children were excluded from school when a fellow student was diagnosed with chicken pox. 

Plaintiffs first argued that mandatory vaccination violates substantive due process.  The Court upheld New York’s requirement, based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), that school vaccination is a proper exercise of the State’s police powers.  The Second Circuit rejected the argument that an alleged growing body of scientific evidence against vaccinations altered this rule.     

The Court next addressed the exclusion of plaintiffs’ children from school during the chicken pox outbreak, which plaintiffs alleged to be an unconstitutional burden on their free exercise of religion.  The Second Circuit held that the law was neutral and of general applicability, and therefore the State need nor show a compelling government interest, even if there was an incidental burden on religion.  The Court cited the Supreme Court’s statement in Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944), that “[t]he right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”  The Court determined that because the State could exclude unvaccinated children from school altogether, the more limited exclusion during a chicken pox outbreak was Constitutional. 

Another plaintiff on the appeal was not granted a religious exemption from vaccination for her children.  The District Court had adopted the Magistrate Judge’s findings that this plaintiff’s objections to vaccination were health-related and not based on genuine and sincere religious beliefs.  The Second Circuit held that this determination had not been appealed and could not therefore be addressed.

At the end of January, the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS-OIG”) released its 2014 Work Plan.  The Work Plan summarizes new and ongoing reviews and activities that HHS-OIG plans to pursue with respect to HHS programs and operations in the coming year. 
 

Senior HHS-OIG officials outlined agency goals in a video presentation entitled “OIG Outlook 2014.”  In OIG Outlook 2014, HHS-OIG Inspector General Daniel Levinson described “a period of great transition in health care, as insurance marketplace models are introduced, and as payment models transition from volume to value-based.  These transitions intend to produce higher quality of care at lower costs.”  The Inspector General said that agency oversight of new health insurance marketplaces would focus on four primary areas of risk: payment accuracy, eligibility controls, contracting oversight, and privacy and security issues.  He also said the agency would continue to focus on the use of health information technology, including the use of electronic health records. 

Gary Cantrell, Deputy IG for Investigations, outlined the issues facing his investigators for 2014.  Chief areas of concern are prescription drugs and home based services.   With prescription drugs, Cantrell said that in addition to pain medication abuse, which the agency has been combatting over the past few years, investigators have been finding cases of “pure financial greed” involving drugs that are not necessary or sometimes not even dispensed.  In home health and personal care, services are often not being provided, or services are delivered but are not necessary.  The patient harm that often accompanies financial fraud remains a strong focus of administrative efforts.  Cantrell said that investigators would also be monitoring the transitions in health insurance, with an emphasis on identity theft and educating consumers so they are not victims of fraud schemes. 
 
An appendix to the Work Plan identifies work-in-progress and planned reviews for 2014 related to the Affordable Care Act.  For 2014, ACA oversight focuses on operation of the new health insurance marketplaces and the expanding Medicaid program.  Increasingly, HHS-OIG resources are likely to be spent over this year and the coming years on oversight and investigation of the healthcare and insurance industry response to ACA.      
 

Farrell Fritz partner Lou Vlahos recently issued an important advisory report addressing the New York Nonprofit Revitalization Act of 2013 (the “Act”). Nonprofit corporations in New York will need to comply with many of the Act’s provisions by July 1, 2014.

Major new requirements include:

-the adoption of conflict of interest and whistleblower policies;

-creation of an audit committee composed of independent directors; and 

-adherence to guidelines regarding related party transactions.  

Many of these provisions turn best governance practices into statutory mandates.

Nonprofits are advised to consult with legal counsel familiar with the Act’s requirements.  New policies may need to be developed, and corporate bylaws may need to be amended, in order to comply with the new law.