Hospitals and Health Care Facilities

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.

It’s flu season again. Your PCP at WPMG is thinking of you!

So began the health care provider’s text message that prompted this month’s Second Circuit decision applying the Telephone Consumer Protection Act to a flu shot reminder, Latner v. Mount Sinai Health System, Inc.

Plaintiff had gone to defendant West Park Medical Group (WPMG) in 2003 for a routine health examination. While there, he provided contact information including his cell phone number, and signed, among other forms, a notification record that consented to defendants using his health information “for payment, treatment and hospital operations purposes.”

In 2011, defendants hired a third party to send mass messages, including flu shot reminder texts for WPMG. In 2014, plaintiff received the text message above, which also stated: Please call us at 212-247-8100 to schedule an appointment for a flu shot. Defendants had sent flu shot reminder texts to all active patients of WPMG who had visited the office within the prior three years. Plaintiff had visited the office in 2011, declining immunizations.

Plaintiff alleged a violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which makes it unlawful to send texts or place calls to cell phones through automated telephone dialing systems, unless the recipient consents or an exemption applies.

The Second Circuit engaged in a two-step process to decide that the defendants did not violate the TCPA. First, the Court held that the flu shot reminder text message was within the scope of an FCC Telemarketing Rule providing that written consent was not needed for text messages that deliver a health care message made by, or on behalf of, a HIPAA covered agency.

The Court next determined that, although the FCC Telemarketing Rule exempts written consent, text messages within the healthcare exception are still covered by the TCPA’s general consent requirement. The Court held, however, that plaintiff had given his prior express consent by providing his cell phone number, acknowledging receipt of privacy notices, and agreeing that defendants could share his information for treatment purposes and to recommend possible treatment alternatives or health-related benefits and services.

The lesson of this case: the pile of forms you sign on the clipboard in the waiting room may lead to texted health care messages down the road.

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.

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 our previous post, Medical Marijuana 103: Patient and Practitioner Regulations in New York State, we discussed that patients certified for medical marijuana use can designate up to two caregivers. Caregivers can assist patients who are unable to pick up medical marijuana at a dispensing facility or are unable to administer medical marijuana to themselves properly.

Previously the Medical Marijuana Program only allowed for designated caregivers to be natural persons. On October 5, 2017, however, the New York State Department of Health (“DOH”) issued emergency regulations that expand the definition of caregiver to allow certain facilities to be designated caregivers. By expanding the definition in this way, patients who are located in or reside at certain facilities can designate their facility as their caregiver, thus making it easier for such patients to obtain medical marijuana.

The new regulations define a designated caregiver as either a natural person or a facility. The term “facility” is further defined as, among others, hospitals, adult day care facilities, community mental health residences, and private and public schools. In addition, each division, department, component, floor or other unit of a parent facility may be designated as a “facility” for purposes of being designated a caregiver.

Just like natural persons, facilities will need to register with the DOH in order to be designated a caregiver for purposes of the Medical Marijuana Program. Once registered with the DOH facilities will be authorized to lawfully possess, acquire, deliver, transfer, transport and/or administer medical marijuana to certified patients residing in, or attending, that facility.

The DOH considered alternatives prior to issuing the emergency regulations, stating:

The Department could have chosen to keep the status quo and not allow patients to designate facilities as designated caregivers. The Department could have also allowed certified patients to designate an individual within the facility to be a caregiver. However, these options are not viable since patients in facilities may be cared for by multiple staff members in the course of a day. Certified patients have severe debilitating or life-threatening conditions and the regulatory amendments would help to prevent adverse events associated with abrupt discontinuation of a treatment alternative that may be providing relief for certified patients in these facilities.”

The regulations were published in the New York State Register on October 25, 2017. The DOH will accept comments from the public for a minimum of 45 days following the date of publication. After publication in the Register and receipt of public comment, the agency may either adopt, revise or withdraw the proposal. This change is just one of the latest revisions implemented by the DOH in an attempt to strengthen and expand New York’s struggling Medical Marijuana Program.

Few, if any, in the medical industry are unfamiliar with the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (“AKS”).  Under AKS, those giving or receiving compensation for referrals for items or services reimbursed by the federal healthcare programs are subject to criminal prosecution.  The statute is intended to prevent exploitation of the federal healthcare system, avoid unnecessary inflation of program costs and encourage fair competition in the industry.

AKS prohibits, among other things, the knowing and willful payment or receipt of any form of compensation to induce or reward referrals involving any item or service payable by federal healthcare programs.  “Federal healthcare programs” include more than just Medicare and Medicaid – “any plan or program providing health care benefits, whether directly through insurance or otherwise, that is funded directly, in whole or part, by the United States government (other than the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program), or any state health care program” is included.  This means that remuneration for referrals in connection with items and services that are reimbursable under TRICARE, the Veterans Administration, Federal Employees’ Compensation Act, and block grant programs are all subject to prosecution under AKS.


Where items or services are not reimbursable by a federal healthcare program, providers and referring parties are not subject to AKS prosecution.  However, due to an emerging trend in prosecution, the absence of reimbursement from federal healthcare programs should no longer leave providers and referral sources with a sense of security that they cannot be prosecuted for kickback arrangements.


Prosecutors are increasingly bringing charges against payers and recipients of remuneration for referrals in the medical arena under the Travel Act.  The Travel Act criminalizes the use of the United States mail and interstate or foreign travel for the purpose of engaging in certain specified criminal acts.  The Travel Act typically enforces two categories of state laws – laws prohibiting commercial bribery (i.e. corrupt dealings to secure an advantage over business competitors) and laws addressing illegal remuneration, including specific provisions regarding improper payments in connection with referral for services.


In two very recent high profile cases, prosecutors brought charges against those allegedly involved in kickback schemes under the both AKS and the Travel Act – Biodiagnostic Laboratory Services in New Jersey and Forest Park Medical Center in Texas.  Both cases have resulted in several plea bargains, yet both have charges under AKS and the Travel Act that are still pending.  While no court has directly ruled on the merits of prosecuting kickback schemes for medical services and items under the Travel Act, it is noteworthy that, in the Forest Park Medical Center case, the charges under the Travel Act survived a motion to dismiss at the district court level just last month.


All parties involved in referral arrangements for medical items or services should be on heightened alert as a result of this development.  Whereas AKS can only be used to prosecute parties to a kickback arrangement where federal healthcare program funds are at issue, the use of the Travel Act may broaden prosecutors’ reach to the private payor sector, even where federal healthcare programs are not involved.

Trypanophobia—the fear of needles—played a significant role in a case brought against Rite Aid Pharmacy under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In Stevens v. Rite Aid Corp., the Second Circuit overturned a jury verdict awarding substantial damages to a Rite Aid pharmacist who was terminated after he said he could not perform immunization injections because of a needle phobia.

In 2011, Rite Aid and other large pharmacy chains started requiring pharmacists to perform immunizations to fill an unmet need for vaccinations in the healthcare market. Rite Aid revised its pharmacist job description to include immunizations as one of the essential duties and responsibilities for pharmacists and required that each pharmacist hold a valid immunization permit.

Pharmacist Christopher Stevens asserted that his needle phobia was a disability under the ADA and sought a reasonable accommodation so that he would not have to perform immunizations.  Rite Aid responded that the ADA did not apply to trypanophobia, no reasonable accommodation was required, and he would be fired if he did not complete immunization training. When Stevens advised Rite Aid he could not complete the training, he was terminated for refusing to perform customer immunizations, an essential function of his job.

The Second Circuit first noted that, under the ADA, an employee must be qualified to perform the essential functions of his job, with or without reasonable accommodation. Even viewing all evidence in the light most favorable to Stevens, the Court held that immunization injections were an essential job requirement for Rite Aid pharmacists. The company made a business decision to require pharmacists to perform immunizations, revised its job description to require immunization certification and licensure, and included immunizations in the list of “essential duties and responsibilities” for Rite Aid pharmacists. The Court found jury sympathy for Stevens’s phobia to be understandable, but held that “his inability to perform an essential function of his job as a pharmacist is the only conclusion that could be drawn from the evidence.”

The Court next determined that Stevens had not established that Rite Aid could have provided a reasonable accommodation, emphasizing that the issue was whether a reasonable accommodation would have allowed Stevens to perform the essential function of immunization, not whether he could perform his other non-immunization duties as a pharmacist.

The Second Circuit reversed the judgment in favor of Stevens, holding that performing immunization injections was an essential job requirement, and Stevens presented no evidence of a reasonable accommodation that would have allowed him to do them.

The Stevens case highlights two important points under the ADA. An employer’s written job description including the essential duties and responsibilities of a position can be strong evidence to support an ADA argument concerning the essential functions of the job. Moreover, a reasonable accommodation is directed to allowing the employee to perform the essential functions of the job, not simply finding other things that the employee can do.

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.