Just over one year ago, I wrote about the Department of Health and Human Service’s (“HHS”) $105 million award to support 1,333 federally qualified health centers (“Health Centers”) across the United States improve the quality of comprehensive care provided to patients. It seems like déjà vu, as it was announced last month that HHS set aside $125 million in quality improvement grants to be allocated among 1,352 Health Centers. A list of recipients can be found here.

Health Centers receive funding through the Health Resources and Services Administration (“HRSA”), a branch of the federal government with a primary purpose of delivering comprehensive healthcare to patients who cannot otherwise afford such care. Treatments offered at Health Centers, include, without limitation, physician services, homebound visits by nurses in geographic locations where home health agencies are sparse, and clinical psychology services. The overarching goals set by HRSA with respect to Health Centers are to:

  • Make available high quality healthcare treatments and ancillary services, including education and transportation to facilities;
  • Offer care at affordable rates and charge patients in accordance with a practical scale;
  • Have community stakeholders serve on the governing boards to communicate the specific needs of the locality; and
  • Create a patient-centered foundation to address the diverse needs of the medically underserved.

In accordance with those goals, the grants are designed to improve Health Centers. Specifically, the funds will be used for “[e]xpanding access to comprehensive care, improving care quality and outcomes, increasing comprehensive care delivery in a cost-effective way, addressing health disparities, advancing the use of health information technology, and delivering patient-centered care.”

Speaking on the new grants and reflecting on the preceding year, HRSA Administrator George Sigounas, MS, Ph.D., said “[n]early all HRSA-funded health centers demonstrated improvement in one or more clinical quality measures from the year prior, and these funds will support health centers’ work to improve the quality of care they deliver in their communities around the country.”

As healthcare costs continue to rise in many parts of the country, eligible patients have an alternative route to obtain affordable healthcare without the burdens associated with visiting the local hospital. Health Centers are a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy healthcare system.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This post is written in connection with my colleague Vanessa Bongiorno’s recent post, where she eloquently summarized the New York Department of Health’s (“DOH”) findings of the multi-agency study on the impact of regulated adult-use marijuana in New York.

In the report, DOH found that even though marijuana use does contain risks, there are benefits associated with implementing a regulated adult-use marijuana program, including positive impacts on New York’s criminal justice system and an alternative to opioid use, which has long impacted so many New Yorkers and their families. The DOH report concluded with, among other things, a recommendation that New York establishes a workgroup of subject matter professionals with relevant public health experience to debate the details of a regulated marijuana program and offer solutions consistent with reducing harm and educating the public.

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo accepted the recommendation and recently announced the creation of a workgroup to help draft legislation for regulated adult-use marijuana, which will be overseen by Alphonso David, an advisor to the Governor. The workgroup consists of professors of major New York educational institutions, law enforcement representatives, governmental stakeholders, and mental health experts, to name a few. A full list of workgroup members can be found here.

Speaking on the development, Governor Cuomo stated “[t]he next steps must be taken thoughtfully and deliberately. As we work to implement the report’s recommendation through legislation, we must thoroughly consider all aspects of a regulated marijuana program, including its impact on public health, criminal justice and State revenue, and mitigate any potential risks associated with it.”

It is abundantly clear that New York is serious about adopting a regulated marijuana program. While the details of such program are beginning to be hashed out, New York’s long anticipated debate over regulated adult-use marijuana appears to be coming to a resolution.

 

 

Earlier this month the New York State Department of Health released the first results of its recently adopted Medicaid redesign efforts, the Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment (“DSRIP”), in four core areas: (1) metric performance, (2) success of projects, (3) total Medicaid spending and (4) managed care expenditures.   The passing scores stem from the collaborative efforts of the Performing Provider Systems comprised of New York hospitals, providers and other key stakeholders.

In April 2014, New York State and the federal government agreed to a DSRIP framework, pumping approximately $8 billion in state health care savings to target Medicaid reforms. The goal of the DSRIP waiver is to reduce patient hospital usage by 25% over 5 years while improving patient-centered care. The program includes $6.42 billion for DSRIP Planning Grants, Provider Incentive Payments, and administrative costs.

The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services did find, however, that New York still needs to show improvement in certain areas, including preventable hospital readmissions and emergency room visits as well as access to timely appointments.

Speaking on the results, Donna Frescatore, the New York State Medicaid Director, said “[a] passing grade on all four of the milestones proves that we are making monumental progress toward improving care for millions of New Yorkers….While we are on a clear path to success, our work is far from over. In the months and years ahead, we will shift our focus toward improving performance metrics and health outcomes as we work to change the culture of health care.”

Even though New York received passing scores on its first report card, the state must continue to demonstrate improvement going forward to avoid financial penalties associated with failing to meet the requisite benchmarks.  It will be interesting to see if New York meets the 25% hospital usage reduction by March 31, 2020, the date the DSRIP waiver ends.

The full report can be found here.

As we have discussed in an earlier blog post, the federal administrative agencies have been placing greater emphasis on being more transparent and promoting “interoperability”.

As such, on April 24, 2018, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) proposed changes to its Inpatient Prospective Payment System and Long-Term Care Hospital Prospective Payment System to promote better access to patient electronic health information and increase pricing transparency. For example, while hospitals are already required to make pricing information publicly available, the proposed rules impose more stringent guidelines, including a requirement that hospitals post pricing information on the internet. Seema Verma, the CMS Administrator, stated “[t]oday’s proposed rule demonstrates our commitment to patient access to high quality care while removing outdated and redundant regulations on providers. We envision a system that rewards value over volume and where patients reap the benefits through more choices and better outcomes.”

Critical to the proposed changes is a complete overhaul of the Medicare and Medicaid Electronic Health Records Incentive Programs, which is commonly known as the “Meaningful Use” program, by executing on the following core principles:

  1. Having a program that is more flexible and less burdensome;
  2. Placing greater emphasis and encouraging the exchange of health information between providers and patients; and
  3. Incentivizing providers to streamline the process for patients to be able to access their medical records electronically.

A rebranding would not be complete without, of course, a name change; in fact, CMS has proposed changing the “Meaningful Use” program to “Promoting Interoperability”. Interoperability, which means “the ability of computer systems or software to exchange and make use of information,” has been missing from the healthcare industry as technology has been advancing at an unprecedented rate. In a system where healthcare is central to our lives, it appears the final goal is to have a system where patients could have access to a virtual portal where all of their health information from various providers would be available, thus promoting patient-centered care where providers have greater insight into their patient’s medical history—invariably resulting in more thoughtful care. It is refreshing to see government, which is commonly known to always be a step behind private industry, taking the initiative to modernize its infrastructure. At this point in history a patient should be able to obtain his health information on a whim via his mobile device or even see a new physician while not having to deal with the administrative nightmares associated therewith.

While it is unclear if the final goal of “interoperability” will be reached, CMS’ proposed changes are definitely an encouraging step forward.

For more information, please see the CMS fact sheet.

 

 

Filefax, Inc. (“Filefax”), an Illinois company that intimately handled sensitive Personal Health Information (“PHI”), paid $100,000 to the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) to settle potential violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”). The payment stemmed from, when still in business, Filefax allegedly improperly disclosing the PHI of approximately 2,150 people when not properly securing such information in an unlocked truck on Filefax property, as well as granting access to PHI to people who should not have been granted access. Pursuant to the Resolution Agreement, the court appointed receiver for Filefax did not admit liability on behalf of Filefax but, however, did agree to enter into a Corrective Action Plan to help mitigate potential exposure.

On its face, the Filefax case may appear to be just like other settlements with HHS resulting from a HIPAA violation, but this case is different for one critical reason—Filefax is no longer in business!

Yes, Filefax, a company no longer operating and which was involuntarily dissolved on August 11, 2017, settled these potential violations of HIPAA, making it clear that, just because the doors close, HIPAA still applies. Roger Severino, director of the Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”), the HHS enforcement arm of HIPAA, stated “[c]overed entities and business associates need to be aware that OCR is committed to enforcing HIPAA regardless of whether a covered entity is opening its doors or closing them. HIPAA still applies.”

Business owners, especially those that handle PHI on a day-to-day basis, must continue to take seriously the rules and guidelines HHS sets forth with respect to HIPAA and are on notice that penalties may still apply even if you are no longer conducting business. The Filefax case should serve as a stark warning to all business owners that you cannot escape liability and/or penalties under HIPAA by closing your doors.

2018 Government Shutdown

Just as everyday Americans were preparing their lives for a second United States government shutdown since the turn of the New Year, President Donald J. Trump signed into law a bipartisan (well, as bipartisan as it gets with this Congress) budget deal, focusing on some of the core issues facing us today and, in particular, those directly impacting healthcare.

While pundits, analysts and deficit hawks will argue back and forth about the excessive spending and items that Congress and the administration missed on this deal, one issue that Congress finally started allocating resources to and which hits home for so many people is the opioid crisis—allocating $6 billion to help combat this tragic public health emergency.  Enough is enough when more than 110 babies have tragically died since 2010 due to either being born dependent on opioids or for lack of care from their parents.

Some other important items, among others, in the budget deal include:

  • Re-authorizing community health centers, which serve over 25 million people, for an additional 2 years with approximately $7 billion in funding;
  • Allocating $4 billion to help Veterans Administration hospitals provide the care that our veterans rightfully deserve; and
  • Extending the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for 10 years.

Just after reaching the deal, House Speaker Paul Ryan said “[u]ltimately, neither side got everything it wanted in this agreement, but we reached a bipartisan compromise that puts the safety and well-being of the American people first.” Even though it took a second, but brief, government shutdown and many continuing resolutions to light a fire under Congress to pass a budget, the budget they passed is an important step forward for our Country, especially when it comes to improving our healthcare system.

On January 5, 2018, the United States Department of Health and Human Services released for public comment a draft Trusted Exchange Framework, which seeks to accomplish interoperability with respect to patients’ Electronic Health Information (“EHI”) through the creation of Health Information Networks (“HINs”). The 21st Century Cures Act, which Congress enacted in 2016, has the goal of creating a trusted exchange focusing on streamlining patient EHI and establishing a network designed to “achieve a system where individuals are at the center of their care and where providers have the ability to securely access and use health information from different sources.” The Trusted Exchange Framework is the federal government’s attempt to achieve that goal.

The draft Trusted Exchange Framework is broken down into two parts:

Part A—Principles for Trusted Exchange

Part B—Minimum Required Terms and Conditions for Trusted Exchange

Part A sets forth and relies on six principles:

(1) Standardization (adherence to industry standards and best practices);

(2) Transparency (an open free flowing exchange);

(3) Cooperation and Non-Discrimination (collaboration from all stakeholders);

(4) Privacy, Security, and Patient Safety (data protection and integrity);

(5) Access (conveniently obtain EHI); and

(6) Data-driven Accountability (streamlined process for a cohort of patients to help lower cost of care).

These principles are guidelines qualified HINs need to follow to help build a trusting relationship between participants and patients and, without adherence to this foundation, a new modernized system cannot properly flourish.

Part B sets forth the minimum required terms and conditions participants must adopt and follow to ensure a trusted exchange of EHI. This is accomplished through a trusted exchange framework and common agreement (“TEFCA”). The TEFCA seeks to ensure, among other things, that there is “[c]ommon authentication processes of trusted health information network participants, [a] common set of rules for trusted exchange, and [a] minimum core of organizational and operational policies to enable the exchange of EHI among networks.” A sample TEFCA can be found in the draft Trusted Exchange Framework.

In sum, it is clear that the federal government is finally taking a serious look at how our healthcare system can become more efficient and modernized in our ever-changing society. Putting into place a final Trusted Exchange Framework, with input from all stakeholders, is a great step towards reaching that goal.

The deadline for public comment is February 18, 2018.

Stemming from the recent drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which has had life-lasting effects for many of its residents, including children, due to unsafe lead-related toxicity levels in the drinking water, New York State Governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, announced that various New York municipalities were awarded $20 million dollars in the aggregate to replace lead service lines as part of the New York Clean Water Infrastructure Act of 2017 (the “Act”). The Lead Service Line Replacement Program (the “LSLRP”), a critical part of the Act, provides $2,445,452 to Long Island, including $611,363 to the City of Glen Cove and $611,363 to the Town of Hempstead. Other awardees include New York City ($5,323,904), Buffalo ($567,492), as well as many other cities, towns and counties throughout the state.  In his press release, Governor Cuomo stated “[t]hese critical improvements to New York’s drinking water infrastructure are vital to protecting public health and to laying the foundation for future growth and economic prosperity in these communities”.

The LSLRP was introduced in 2017 and is intended to provide funding to municipalities to replace residential lead service lines, especially those that have corroded, from the public water system. The program empowers the New York State Department of Health to award funds to certain municipalities determined by the “percentage of children with elevated blood levels, median household income, and the number of homes built before 1939”. In fact, homes built before 1930 are more likely to contain lead in its pipes because at that time the government neither regulated this area nor the applicable construction practices.

In addition to the Act, New York has increased its attention to this cause, especially focused on children, who are most at risk for lead-related negative health effects, by requiring health providers to test every child for lead in his or her blood when reaching 1 and 2 years old. Further, in 2016, Governor Cuomo took a bold step by requiring all public schools to test their water for lead as well as mandating those results be made public.

It appears that Governor Cuomo and the New York State legislature have learned the very valuable lessons their counterparts in Michigan have taught us, and the important steps our government has since taken will help ensure the better health and quality of life for all of us that live in the Empire State.

The New York State Department of Labor (the “DOL”) issued an emergency regulation clarifying its minimum-wage rules regarding home care employees. The emergency regulation provides that sleep and meal times for home care aides who work shifts of 24 hours or more are not counted as hours worked. Recently, there has been a ringing dissonance between the DOL and decisions set forth by the New York State Appellate Divisions, First and Second Departments, regarding whether home care workers should be paid for an entire 24-hour shift, including sleep and meal time. In fact, the DOL expressly cited the fact that the emergency regulation is being promulgated in direct reaction to decisions issued by the New York State Appellate Divisions. For reference, the decisions triggering the emergency regulation are: Moreno v. Future Care Health Servs., Inc., 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6462 (2d Dept Sept. 13, 2017); (2d Dep’t Sept. 13, 2017); Andreyeyeva v. New York Health Care, Inc., 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6408 (2d Dep’t Sept. 13, 2017); and Tokhtaman v. Human Care, LLC, 149 A.D.3d 476 (1st Dep’t Apr. 11, 2017).

The above-referenced decisions effectively flipped the New York home care industry on its head, each holding, in sum, that home care workers were entitled to pay for all 24 hours worked, including sleep and meal time. Enter the DOL, on October 5, 2017, who quickly put any remaining ambiguity to rest once and for all stating “that hours worked may exclude meal periods and sleep times for home care aides who work shifts of 24 hours or more”. The DOL reasoned that “[t]his regulation is needed to preserve the status quo, prevent the collapse of the homecare industry, and avoid institutionalizing patients who could be cared for at home, in the face of recent decisions by the State Appellate divisions that treat meal periods and sleep time [as hours worked]”.

The emergency regulation is expected to return the home care industry back to normalcy and prevent home care agencies from ceasing to provide “vital, lifesaving care” to thousands of New Yorkers who depend on it. The DOL explained that this “emergency adoption amends the relevant regulations to codify the Commissioner’s longstanding and consistent interpretations that such meal periods and sleep times do not constitute hours worked for purposes of minimum wage and overtime requirements”. And so, the longstanding rule about sleeping on the job still stands: you won’t get paid for it in New York.

Note:  Special thanks to our law clerk, Nicholas G. Moneta, for his assistance in drafting this blog post.

In the wake of some of the worst storms our country has ever faced, as seen in the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Irma in Florida, and now Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, it is important to understand some of the actions the United States federal government can take to assist victims of Mother Nature. How broad is the federal government’s authority? Who is that authority bestowed upon? Well, one such mechanism is the declaration of a Public Health Emergency by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) under Section 319 of the Public Health Service Act (“PHSA”).

Under Section 319 of the PHSA, the Secretary of HHS is empowered to declare a public health emergency, after consulting with public health officials, when the public is faced with either a (1) disease or disorder; or (2) public health emergency exists, including, but not limited to, an epidemic or bioterrorist attack.  Upon making such a declaration, the Secretary of HHS is authorized and empowered to “take such action as may be appropriate to respond to the public health emergency, including making grants, providing awards for expenses, and entering into contracts and conducting and supporting investigations into the cause, treatment, or prevention of a disease or disorder.” The Secretary’s expanded authority is not perpetual and only remains in effect for 90 days, or until the emergency ceases to exist if sooner than 90 days, with the option of a one-time renewal for an additional 90 days that can be made on the basis of new or the same facts underlying the initial declaration. However, once a declaration, and any renewal, if applicable, is made, the Secretary of HHS must inform the Congress, in writing, within 48 hours.

Practically speaking, what actions can the HHS Secretary take? Some discretionary actions include, but are not limited to: (1) waiving certain prescription and dispensing requirements under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act; (2) waiving or modifying particular requirements under Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act; and (3) appointing temporary personnel for up to one year. These actions, in addition to others, help bring emergency relief to those in need.

On September 19, 2017, now former Secretary of HHS, Tom Price, declared a Public Health Emergency under Section 319 of the PHSA for the benefit of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands following the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, and stated, in his press release, that “[d]eclaring a public health emergency for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will aid in the department’s response capabilities – particularly as it relates to ensuring that individuals and families in those territories with Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) maintain access to care.”  While this declaration is limited in scope, the actions authorized thereunder will help start the long recovery for the people who reside in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Please kindly consider how you can get involved to help the people who have been negatively impacted by the devastation caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.