What compliance professionals should know about auditing physician compensation arrangements

In an environment of increasing integration and financial relationships with physicians; a rigid and technical regulatory framework; aggressive government enforcement; and disproportionate penalties and enterprise risk under the Stark Law (42 U.S.C §1395nn), it is incumbent for health care organizations to have an audit plan and process for physician compensation arrangements to ensure such arrangements comply with Stark law requirements. In a webinar presented by the Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA), Curtis H. Bernstein, Principal, Pinnacle Healthcare Consulting and Joseph N. Wolfe (Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman, P.C.) provided insight into considerations for managing risks, an overview of the Stark Law and its exceptions, and tips for planning an audit and the audit process.

Managing the risk

Wolfe stressed the importance of ensuring that compensation arrangements with referring physicians are defensible. When it comes to compensation arrangements, organizations should ask, “How will the organization defend itself?” Wolfe recommended that the organization focus on the Stark Law’s technical requirements, which were updated in 2016, and the three tenets of defensibility: (1) fair market value, (2) commercial reasonableness, and (3) not taking into account the value or volume of referrals. Wolfe emphasized the need for health care providers that enter into physician arrangements to ensure that individuals involved in the process have an in depth understanding the Stark regulations and the exceptions

The plan and the process

Bernstein explained that the scope of the audit depends on the size and complexity of the company, prior experience with the process under audit, recent changes in the company or company’s operations, and previously recognized deficiencies, as well as circumstances that may arise during the audit. The audit process involves several steps.

  • A list of currently executed physician contracts must be compiled.
  • Compliance personnel must interview individuals commonly involved in physician relationships. The individuals conducting the audit should understand interview processes, including strategy, documentation, approval, and selection of interviewees.
  • The interviews must be reconciled to currently executed physician contracts. Common issues arising in reconciliation include the use of space, office equipment, and other items by physicians for professional or personal use, and payment for services not provided.
  • Time sheets or other attestation forms must be reviewed for completeness and accuracy.
  • Fair market value and commercial reasonableness must be documented for each agreement. Consider:
    • Who is providing the service?
    • Why are the services required?
    • When are the services performed?
    • How are the services provided?
  • All other terms of agreement and necessary steps must be performed in executing agreements and verified.

Bernstein noted that other items to consider during the process include the compensation structure, the length of a fair market value opinion versus the length of the contract, whether the compensation was set in advance, if the agreements were executed, and whether the agreements expired.

The compliance component

While the basic elements of an effective compliance program apply to physician arrangements, Wolfe explained that as compliance applies specifically to physician arrangements, it should be compensation focused and documentation and governance should support defensibility. He recommended that organizations adopt a compensation philosophy, have a written compensation plan, establish parameters for monitoring compensation, and form a compensation committee. In addition, organizations should (1) ensure that policies align with the new Stark technical requirements; (2) establish a consistent process for obtaining third party valuation opinions; and (3) periodically audit physician compensation arrangements. Finally, organizations should continue to monitor the enforcement climate.

Keys to successful contracting and credentialing: honesty, questions, compliance

Contracting and credentialing are critical aspects when it comes to providers and payment. Insights and suggestions for avoiding missteps and getting the best agreement when it comes to contracting and credentialing were presented by Anna Whites and Nathan Moore, Compliance Officer at Premier Tox Laboratory, in a Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) webinar on September 13, 2017.

Contracts

Whites defined a contract as an agreement that contains every aspect of what each party is required to do, noting that state and federal law outline contractual terms. Because different states have different laws, she recommended ensuring that the state law relied upon in the contract be the state where the individual or entity is located. She stressed the importance of reading the contract, understanding what it contains, and asking questions before signing. “Contract terms govern,” she said, and once the contract is signed, the parties can’t take the conditions back unless the contract provides for modifications as part of the terms. She also warned that the contract may require compliance with terms in other documents, for example, a provider manual.

  • Payor contracts. Provisions of payor contracts usually include services covered, provider types covered, frequency of services, and term and termination. Whites recommended providers pay close attention to these terms to ensure that they are able to meet the specifics of the provisions. Terms in payor contracts also address claims management. Providers should focus on the details of how, when, and where to submit a claim as well as how payment is made (electronically or paper), how medical necessity is defined, and how denials and appeals will be handled. In addition, providers must be aware of fee schedules included in the contract to ensure they know what they will be paid and if they are comfortable with the amount of the payment.
  • Provider contracts with health care entities. Provider contracts include the scope of services, reporting and oversight requirements, licensure and/or credentialing requirements, hours and payment, liability and insurance, and behavioral health carve-outs. Whites pointed out that when entering into a contract, parties must be aware of who is responsible for mistakes and whether tail coverage is provided. She recommended asking many questions about liability and obtaining coverage.
  • Entity provider contract with physicians and other staff. Under these contracts, the terms will include scope of services, who is in charge, who is liable, cost of services and whether the contract is with an employee or independent contractor. Providers need to determine whether employees or independent contractors are better for their organization.

In negotiations of contracts, there should be a discussion between the parties. The discussions should allow for changes and modifications. Parties should consider proposing pilots and new services. White highly recommended engaging an attorney to provide legal oversight of the contract and review the terms and provisions as well as the state and federal requirements.

Moore addressed the compliance oversight component in contracting and provided the following recommendations.

  • Ensure processes are in place to identify nonstardard terms or terms that would not be fulfilled in the organization in day to day operations.
  • Clarify any requirements that seem too rigorous prior to executing the contract.
  • Create awareness and make recommendations on how to fulfill any new requirements by coordinating with the appropriate department head.

Credentialing

Credentialing generally takes place when joining a new practice, becoming a participating provider, adding new providers to an existing group, updating information for carriers, and at the start of a new practice, Whites said. Credentialing involves collecting and verifying information about a provider’s professional qualifications, such as relevant training, licensure, certification and/or registration to practice in a health field, and academic background. Information collected before the process begins includes such documents as a copy of state licensure, a copy of board certification, proof of current malpractice coverage, a statement of disclosure of ownership and control interest statement, and a summary of any prior malpractice or disciplinary action. During the credentialing process, payors assess whether a provider meets certain criteria related to professional competence and conduct, Whites explained. Relevant factors may include location, cultural diversity, ability to speak other languages, treatment provided to children, availability, crisis training such as ability to provide care in emergency and address behavioral issues, and ability to refer and admit (to other hospitals or entities).

Whites recommended providers to be aware of specific degree requirements of the payor or network, state requirements regarding credentialing, and billing regulations that may limit reimbursable services to certain provider types. When permitted, Whites suggested submitting a resume. She also stressed that it is a provider’s right to: (1) request a status of the application, (2) review information that the payor used to deny or defer credentialing, and (3) correct any inconsistencies between the information obtained by the provider.

Credentialing issues

Whites and Moore identified issues and areas providers must be aware of to ensure that they are in compliance with requirements. Some of those areas include:

  • Cooperate in CMS audits and sites visits to ensure providers are properly enrolled, credentialed, and operating. Not cooperating may result in revocation of provider agreement.
  • Maintain compliance with payor requirements, good intentions are irrelevant to CMS.
  • Regularly review credentialing and licensing to ensure they are up to date.
  • Screen for excluded providers on available sources, prior to employment of individuals or contracting with vendors and maintain screening records for seven years. Develop a removal and notification process.
  • Ensure that providers are properly enrolled in Medicare and Medicaid enrollment systems.
  • Be aware of billing issues such as out-of-network denials, nonpayment for new provider types, and services that payors will not pay for because they were provided by a noncredentialed provider.
  • Ensure that providers are aware of coverage and payment rules regarding telemedicine.

Conclusion

Whites emphasized transparency and clarity in responses in contracting and credentialing. She stressed that providers must be honest because information is much more readily available to parties seeking it, for example, from the national databank. She noted that there are severe penalties for errors in credentialing and pointed out that CMS can exclude providers for multiple years. On the other hand, she said there are unintended negative consequences related to credentialing that arise from such things as not updating an address, not disclosing working with an excluded entity, and being responsible for a prior owner’s bad actions.

Continuous improvement in compliance can proceed systematically

Provider organizations should not dread continuous improvement in compliance and can apply several techniques to simple problems to bring about simple solutions. In a Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) webinar entitled “Continuous Improvement in Compliance,” presenter Alan Wileman, Corporate Compliance Manager at Shriners Hospitals for Children, discussed applying principles from Lean and Six Sigma to improve function and eliminate waste in company functioning.

Improvement methodologies

Wileman noted that compliance goals evolve, and that the OIG uses subjective terms for compliance matters such as “reasonable,” “appropriate,” and “meaningful.” What is meaningful or reasonable for one compliance area may not be sufficient for another area or at a later date. Overall, lowering risk is the focus of many compliance tasks, but there may be better ways to bring about that desired result.

Improvement methodologies such as Lean, Six Sigma, and project management have been proven to streamline procedures, eliminate waste, and bring value. Lean ideas and practices originally derived from industrial manufacturing, and have one main purpose: eliminating waste. Six Sigma is often grouped with Lean concepts, and focuses on eliminating error waste by removing variation in procedures. According to Six Sigma, there may be multiple ways to do the same thing, but there is always a best way to do so that reduces variation. Project management focuses on clearly defined terms, roles, and goals in order to successfully complete a project—a non-routine operation with a definite beginning, end, and goal.

Waste

According to Wileman, there are several types of waste. Among those discussed included talent, inventory, waiting, defects, and motion. Compliance departments should ensure that a particular task is being completed by the employee whose strengths play to that area. Motion waste comes from requiring employees to move around the work area too much in unnecessary ways, when communication could effectively be conducted in a non-face-to-face manner or when a workplace could be reorganized to provide a better workflow.

Toolkit

Reorganization also applies to employees’ personal workspaces, which should be uncluttered and only contain the necessary, crucial supplies. Wileman suggests adding the “5S” strategy to an operation’s compliance toolkit. The five elements are: sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain. These elements ensure that a workspace is stocked as necessary, arranged to promote efficiency, neat, organized consistently with other spaces, and sustained in this manner. For tasks, the “DMAIC” acronym is made up of the elements define, measure, analyze, improve, and control. Once a problem is clearly defined, it is easier to map out the process, identify the cause of the problem, implement the solution, and maintain the solution over time.

Essential resources for health care providers & attorneys during hurricane season

Hurricane season has arrived and health care providers in affected areas are focusing on providing services to injured individuals and rebuilding damage to facilities, but not necessarily on compliance with Medicare and Medicaid laws and regulations. To assist providers, federal and state agencies are temporarily waiving some regulatory requirements and providing other emergency services. While active hurricane recovery efforts are underway, Health Law Daily will feature links to federal and state resources.

Federal information:

State- and commonwealth-specific information: