Corporate and Business

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.

While marijuana is legal for medical and, in some instances recreational, use under the laws of 29 states plus the District of Columbia, under federal law it remains illegal. Yet, for the last several years, this lingering federal illegality has not seemed to chill entry into the industry – thanks in large part to the Cole Memorandum. On the heels of the January 4 rescission of the Cole Memorandum, as well as two additional memos related to marijuana enforcement policy, all of that might change.

A federal statute, the Controlled Substances Act (the “CSA”) makes it illegal to manufacture, distribute or dispense marijuana for any purpose. Under the CSA, marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that under federal law marijuana is believed to have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Moreover, the Schedule 1 classification extends to all elements of the cannabis plant, including extracts and derivatives thereof. No exceptions exist in the CSA for medicinal use or use in states where marijuana has been legalized.

However, in 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) issued the Cole Memorandum, which states that its general policy is not to interfere with the medicinal use of marijuana under state law. The Memorandum set forth certain principles underpinning DOJ enforcement of the CSA with respect to marijuana. Although the DOJ said it would continue to prosecute persons or organizations whose conduct interferes with any one or more of these principles, regardless of state law, the memorandum went on to declare that where state law effectively mitigates the concerns of the DOJ, the Department will refrain from prosecution.

Since the change in administration in 2017, there has been an increasing sensitivity to a shift in DOJ policy on enforcing the CSA against “legalized” marijuana businesses. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has publicly discussed his harsh stance on marijuana and the potential for increasing federal enforcement of the federal law regarding marijuana – despite what state law provides. In fact, in May 2017 he sent a letter to certain political leaders advising of his desire to do so.

Sessions has now gone a step further and rescinded the Cole Memorandum, leaving federal prosecutors free to determine to what extent they will enforce the CSA against state-legalized marijuana businesses. A copy of the release can be found here and a copy of the memorandum can be found here.

While likelihood of prosecution will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction based upon the position of the particular U.S. Attorney in charge of the district, it is clear that the rescission will have a broader impact than just the potential of prosecution of those involved in the industry. As discussed in our November 27, 2017 post, Cannabis Business? The Impact of Federal Law Might reach Further than You Think, the CSA and federal illegality of marijuana has a far-reaching impact on those setting up or running marijuana businesses that are legal under state law. It is anticipated that the rescission of the Cole Memorandum will, among other things, further impair the ability of those in the marijuana business to obtain leases, financing, and perhaps even legal assistance.

State and federal representatives of several states have already publicized their positions on the January 4 memorandum, with many being unfavorable. It would not be surprising if political leaders mobilized quickly to protect the cannabis industry, which has already injected over $20 billion into the U.S. economy and is expected to increase that number to about $70 billion by 2021. In the short term, those in the industry can continue to find some comfort in the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment to the federal budget, which continues in effect until January 19 and maintains that federal funds cannot be used to prevent states from “implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana.” In the meantime, we will all be waiting with baited breath to see the responses of state and federal leaders.

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.

Everyone involved, or thinking about becoming involved, in the cannabis business is aware of the conflict between the laws of those states legalizing marijuana and the Controlled Substance Act (the “CSA”).  The CSA is a federal law making it illegal to manufacture, distribute or dispense a controlled substance.  For purposes of the CSA, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance – making it illegal under federal law to be engaged in the marijuana business regardless of what state law provides.

The obvious consequence of this conflict of laws is the potential for federal prosecution for engaging in the marijuana business.  However, the not-so-obvious practical consequences reach further than you might think.  For example,

  • Taxes. Section 280E of the Internal Revenue Code, originally targeted for illegal drug dealers, prohibits cannabis businesses from deducting typical business expenses, such as advertising and rent.
  • Leases.  Most leases have covenants against “illegal activity,” which enables landlords to evict marijuana business tenants.  Moreover, many landlords are unwilling to rent to marijuana businesses, despite their legality under state law, for fear of losing their property in a federal civil asset forfeiture action.
  • Banking. In 2014 the Department of Treasury issued guidance for financial institutions that want to do business with the marijuana industry.  Up until that time, banks were reluctant to deal with the marijuana business due to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), which requires banks to investigate their customers and to refrain from negligently or knowingly doing business with bad actors.  Today, banks are safe if they follow some pretty onerous rules.  Many banks choose not do business with the industry rather than comply with the diligence and monitoring requirements set forth by the Department of Treasury.
  • Commercial loans. Commercial loans are difficult to obtain without providing collateral; however, in a marijuana business, banks are not allowed to seize or possess the primary asset of a marijuana business – the marijuana – under federal law. Often a marijuana business will not have many other assets that are valuable enough to act as security for financing.
  • Trademarks. Because marijuana is illegal under the CSA, and because the United States Patent and Trademark Office will not register a mark if the applicant cannot show lawful use of the mark in commerce, it is nearly impossible to secure federal registration of a marijuana-related mark (although marks for ancillary products might be obtained).
  • Federal Water. Many areas in the western United States are served by the Federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water and power to farmers.  The Bureau has advised that it will report to the Department of Justice any marijuana farmers who use federal water to irrigate their crops.
  • Bankruptcy. At least two courts have held that marijuana businesses cannot take advantage of federal bankruptcy laws.  The rationale is that, because marijuana is illegal under federal law, granting relief under another provision of federal law for the same activity would be “administering the fruits and instrumentalities of Federal criminal activity.”
  • Access to Federal Courts. If you enter into a contract with a marijuana business and need to sue in federal court, will you be able to?  This question has yet to be answered; however, if the prohibition against bankruptcy relief serves as guidance, the outcome is likely not favorable to marijuana businesses.

It is clear that federal law creates many obstacles to establishing and effectively managing a marijuana business.  Those in the industry should plan carefully and seek legal advice as to how to best mitigate the risks arising from the conflict between state and federal laws.

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.

In our July 10, 2017 post, Concierge Medicine – Is it for you?, we cautioned that Medicare compliance concerns do not fall away when moving to a concierge or direct-pay model.  HHS has determined that concierge-style agreements are permitted as long as Medicare requirements are not violated.  Unless a physician has opted out of Medicare, the predominant requirement is that an access or membership fee cannot be charged to a Medicare patient for services that are already covered by Medicare.  But how does a concierge physician know where to draw the line?  The relevant authorities have issued very limited guidance in this area.

In March 2004, an OIG Alert was issued reminding Medicare participating providers that they may not charge Medicare patients fees for services already covered by Medicare.  OIG used, as an example, a case involving physician’s charge of $600 for a “Personal Health Care Medical Care Contract” that covered, among other things, coordination of care with other providers, a comprehensive assessment and plan for optimum health, and extra time spent on patient care.  Because some of these services were already reimbursable by Medicare, the physician was found to be in violation of his assignment agreement and was subjected to civil money penalties.  The physician entered into a settlement with OIG and was required to stop offering these contracts.

In 2007, OIG settled another case involving a physician engaged in a concierge-style practice.  There, the physician, who also had not opted out of Medicare, asked his patients to enter into a contract under which the patients paid an annual fee. Under the contract, the patient was to be provided with an annual comprehensive physical examination, coordination of referrals and expedited referrals, if medically necessary, and other service amenities.  The physician was similarly found to have violated the Civil Monetary Penalties Law by receiving additional payment for Medicare-covered services and agreed to pay $106,600 to resolve his liability.

As demonstrated by these settlements, violations of a physician’s assignment agreement results in substantial penalties and exclusion from Medicare and other Federal health care programs.  It would behoove a concierge physician to tailor contracts offered to Medicare patients.  Fees charged under such contracts should relate only to noncovered services and amenities.  For example, fees could relate to additional screenings by the concierge physician that are not covered by Medicare or amenities such as private waiting rooms.

According to the GAO’s 2005 Report on Concierge Care Characteristics and Considerations for Medicare, HHS OIG has not issued more detailed guidance on concierge care because its role is to carry out enforcement, not to make policy.  However, physicians with specific concerns regarding the structure of their concierge care agreements or practices may request an advisory opinion from HHS addressing their concerns.  Advisory opinions are legally binding on HHS and the party so long as the arrangement is consistent with the facts provided when seeking the opinion.

Next week, look for the release of Medical Marijuana 105, the fifth post in a series of posts discussing the current state of law in New York regarding medical marijuana.  To read the latest post in the series, Medical Marijuana 104:  Responsibilities of Health Insurers, click here.

On August 15, 2017, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, issued a press release reporting that almost $105 million dollars will be bestowed upon 1,333 health centers across the United States, including its territories; and Washington D.C. Secretary Price stated “Americans deserve a healthcare system that’s affordable, accessible, of the highest quality, with ample choices, driven by world-leading innovations, and responsive to the needs of the individual patient. Supporting health centers across the country helps achieve that mission.”

According to the Health Resources & Services Administration, also known as HRSA, federally qualified health centers (FQHC) “are community-based and patient-directed organizations that deliver comprehensive, culturally competent, high-quality primary health care services.”  The main function of a health center is to provide health services to underprivileged patients where affordable healthcare is either lacking or nonexistent. Services include, but are not limited to, mental health support, substance abuse aid, dental health and many other services. While there are numerous requirements for an organization to qualify as a FQHC, one interesting qualification is that the organization must elect members of the community to serve on its governing board—ensuring that the community has a role when it comes to its own healthcare.

Even though the concept of a health center may be foreign to many in the United States, health centers play an important role in our society.  HRSA has concluded that, based on data from its Uniform Data System, almost 26 million individuals (which equals 1 in every 12 people living in the United States) depended on a health center for health services in 2016, including more than 330,000 veterans. The study also found that 1 in every 3 people living in poverty relied on a health center in 2016.

Living in a politically toxic climate on the topic of healthcare and its reforms, as we currently do today, brings in a breath of fresh air to see our tax dollars being put to good use. Health centers have served as a unique and beneficial service for the underserved and underprivileged for the last 50 years, and the federal government’s continued support appears to be unwavering.

In follow-up to our prior blog post, Concierge Medicine – Is it for you?, we recognize that while a concierge or direct-pay practice might be a good choice for a physician or physician practice group, patients do not necessarily feel the same way.  When patients hear that a medical practice is a “concierge” or “direct-pay” practice, they often think of prohibitively high out of pocket costs.  One way for a concierge or direct-pay practice to be more enticing to patients is to structure its billing methods so patients may be able to obtain reimbursement from their health savings account (HSA) or flexible spending account (FSA) for some of the associated costs.  Generally, access fees will not be reimbursable through either a HSA or FSA.  But costs incurred for qualified medical services actually rendered to the patient may be.  Here are some quick rules of thumb for when HSA and/or FSA reimbursement may be applicable to cover such costs:

 

Fees for Qualified Medical Services:  Any fees charged for qualified medical care (generally defined under the Internal Revenue Code to include the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease) are generally reimbursable under a HSA or FSA, to the extent not reimbursed by the patient’s insurance.

 

Access Fees or Subscription Fees:  Fees related solely to having access to a physician will not be reimbursable under either a HSA or FSA.  This is because they are not fees for qualified medical services, but rather are more akin to insurance premiums (which are also not reimbursable under a HSA or FSA).  Such non-reimbursable fees would include fees for admission as a patient, monthly retainer fees, fees for a reduced wait time, fees for 24 hour access to a physician, or any other fees not directly related to the rendering of medical services.

 

Prepaid Fees for Qualified Medical Services:  If an access fee or subscription fee includes a prepaid fee for a qualified medical service (for example, the annual fee includes the cost of a comprehensive physical examination), any costs attributable to that medical service that are not reimbursed by insurance may be reimbursable under a HSA or FSA, but not until such time as the service is actually rendered to the patient.

 

In order for patients to be able to take advantage of reimbursement from their HSA or FSA, they must have appropriate supporting documentation for the qualified medical service.  Documentation should include the patient’s name, the date of service, the type of service, and the fair market value charge attributable to just the medical service portion of the patient’s bill.

 

In sum, concierge and direct-pay practices can work for physicians on account of the upfront fees paid by patients.  However, if such fees include prepayment for medical services, it will not only encourage patients to take advantage of preventative care but may also enable them to recoup part of their upfront costs from their HSA or FSA once such services have been rendered.

 

Next week, look for the release of Medical Marijuana 102, a follow-up blog post to Veronique Urban’s Medical Marijuana 101:  The State of the Law in NY.  This will be the second blog post in a series of articles discussing the current state of the law in New York regarding medical marijuana.

Effective March 1, 2017, the New York State Department of Financial Services promulgated regulations to help protect against cybercriminals and their efforts to exploit sensitive electronic data. These cybersecurity regulations apply to all individuals and entities that “operate under a license, registration, charter, certificate, permit, accreditation or similar authorization under the Banking Law, the Insurance Law or the Financial Services Law”, with a few exceptions.  This will undoubtedly result in insurance companies and other related healthcare entities, which hold sensitive patient health information, beefing up their internal and external rules and policies.  New York’s proactive stance should be taken with the utmost seriousness seeing that there are more than 400 cyberattacks each day over the internet, or almost 3 every minute.

The United States Congress has enacted a similar law to protect health information, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”). However, because HIPAA was enacted and modified years prior to cybersecurity becoming a prominent threat to our society, HIPAA does not provide as much protection to patients’ electronic data as the New York regulations do.  HIPAA does provide important guidelines and safeguards to ensure the integrity and confidentiality of protected health information, but does not elaborate on many of the issues presented in New York’s cybersecurity regulations.

New York’s cybersecurity regulations require all “Covered Entities”, as defined in the regulations, to maintain a cybersecurity program to guard the confidentiality of Nonpublic Information, which includes a risk assessment and a comprehensive cybersecurity policy.  In addition, Covered Entities are now required to designate an individual to serve as the Chief Information Security Officer (“CISO”).  The CISO is tasked with overseeing, implementing and enforcing the Covered Entity’s cybersecurity policy, and is required to report, in writing and at least annually, to the Covered Entity’s Board of Directors or similar governing body.  The CISO’s report must include, as applicable, information on “(1) the confidentiality of Nonpublic Information and the integrity and security of the Covered Entity’s Information Systems; (2) the Covered Entity’s cybersecurity policies and procedures; (3) material cybersecurity risks to the Covered Entity; (4) overall effectiveness of the Covered Entity’s cybersecurity program; and (5) material Cybersecurity Events involving the Covered Entity during the time period addressed by the report.”

Compliance with the cybersecurity regulations will be transitioned over a two-year period with full compliance required by March 1, 2019.