Kusserow on Compliance: A Dozen tips for evaluating hotline vendors

Review current vendor contracts; it may be time to switch

A hotline is a critical part of any effective compliance program. It provides an avenue of communication that permits employees to report sensitive matters outside the normal supervisory channels. The compliance officer bears the responsibility of constantly reviewing and improving the effectiveness of the hotline operation. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, HHS OIG, and DOJ call hotlines critical to an effective compliance program. Most hotlines are operated through vendors. Only a very few organizations have the size, capacity, and resources to manage a 24/7 hotline, as is needed for an effective operation. The following are some best practice tips in selecting or retaining a hotline vendor:


  1. Compare costs of a vendor with the cost to maintain and operate a hotline in-house. A vendor should provide their services at a set (fixed) fee that can be used for comparison purposes. A good rule of thumb is that the cost of a hotline service should be around $1 per employee per year.


  1. Industry Focus. Determine the level of expertise in the health care industry. It is advisable to have a company familiar with and sympathetic to health care issues, rather than focus on employee theft or other generic matters common to all industries. Ask for a breakdown of the types of clients they serve. Do they have a primary focus (transportation, finance, energy, health care)?


  1. Hotline Service Types. In today’s environment, it is advisable to have two levels of service. The first is a Web-based reporting system that prompts individual complainants, as well as the option to call and speak with a live operator. Either approach has its pluses and minuses. Your vendor should provide both approaches in a single service fee.


  1. Vendor Contract Traps. A vendor should keep business with good service, not tricky contract terms. The contract should permit cancelation at any time with a simple 30-day notice.  If you have a current contract, check the termination clauses to see if cancelling a contract is cumbersome. If it is, ask to renegotiate the termination clause and if they decline, then take steps to follow termination procedures in the contract. Usually such procedures are a short window to cancel, before the contract renews.


  1. Hotline Number. Always use and own your own hotline number. To use a vendor number is another common vendor trap. If you advertise their number, to then change would necessitate changing all the places you have advertise the number. If, in such a contract, it is advisable to either renegotiate the agreement to use you own number or change to another vendor, it is worth the pain of making the change.


  1. Background and References. It is advisable to know as much about the vendor as you can. Determine who the key players are in the ownership, management and operation of the service and check out their credentials. Do they have personal history and expertise in hotline operations? Also, ask for client references from any vendor you are considering.


  1. Policies, Procedures, and Protocols. The company should be able to provide expert advice on developing operating protocols for following up an allegations and complaints received through the hotline. This includes providing/signing a Business Associate Agreement to meet HIPAA Protected Health Information requirements (and if they don’t know what that means, forget them).


  1. It is important to insist and have as part of any contract, provision of a full written report within one business day of receipt of the call. For urgent matters, it should be immediate.


  1. Reports Provided. Reports on individual calls should be well written, clear, concise and of high quality. The manner the report is delivered is important. There are security problems with reports provided either by facsimile or email. This could be problematic. Web-based reporting is the most secure, with notification of a report being provided via email.


  1. Like any other vendor, the company should have at least one to three million dollars liability coverage. If your vendor does not have this insurance, consider changing over to one that provides this assurance.


  1. Caller Contact Information. Although anonymity is a must for any hotline, sometimes gaining additional information from callers is important. Vendors should have procedures for providing callers with a means to call back without disclosing their identity. Check that out to see if it meets your needs.


  1. Accessibility to Responsible Parties. Responsiveness of vendors to your hotline needs is very important. If something comes up, will there be a responsible live human being available with who you can communicate issues and concerns? You never want to be lost in a bureaucratic shuffle or IVR system.


For more information on this topic, contact Marvin Mills (mmills@complianceresource.com).


Richard P. Kusserow served as DHHS Inspector General for 11 years. He currently is CEO of Strategic Management Services, LLC (SM), a firm that has assisted more than 3,000 organizations and entities with compliance related matters. The SM sister company, CRC, provides a wide range of compliance tools including sanction-screening.

Connect with Richard Kusserow on LinkedIn.

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Copyright © 2020 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.