Kusserow on Compliance: Stark Law continues to be questioned

CMS kicked off the New Year by announcing plans to convene an inter-agency group to focus on how to minimize the regulatory barriers of the Stark Law that began in 1989 and underwent expansion in the 1990s. Providers have raise concerns from the beginning of the implementation of the Stark Law. The agencies involved in the review will include: CMS, the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG), HHS General Counsel, and the Department of Justice (DOJ). Since the announcement, there has been considerable speculation as to how serious this effort will be and how soon something will materialize from it. The subject came up during a hearing on March 21 concerning the implementation of physician payment policies under the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA). CMS called for the need to consider such reforms as the agency pushes toward a value-based healthcare system. The Stark Law has been viewed by much of the industry as creating real barriers to meeting new government policy objectives.

CMS testimony noted that the Stark Law “has a really big impact on how relationships are structured in the healthcare space, which prohibits physicians from referring a Medicare or Medicaid patient to a provider with which the physicians have financial ties.” The testimony went on to state that the health care system has so many fractured silos with many rules and regulations that govern every part of the health care system and that both MACRA and Stark are important pieces of it. It was noted that the President’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 includes a line item calling for the “physician self-referral law” to be reformed “to better support and align with alternative payment models [APM] and to address overutilization.”

The Stark Law prohibits doctors from referring Medicare patients to hospitals, labs and colleagues with whom they have financial relationships, unless they fall under certain exceptions. It also prevents hospitals from paying providers more when they meet certain quality measures, such as reducing hospital-acquired infections, while paying less to those who miss the goals. The result is the law is viewed as making it difficult for physicians to enter innovative payment arrangements because they are not susceptible to fair market value assessment, a Stark requirement. These prohibitions are seen as interfering with key factors related to value-based care. Unlike the Anti-Kickback Statute, which is enforced by the OIG, the Stark law is considered regulatory and falls under CMS jurisdiction. From a regulatory standpoint, there is only so much that CMS can do to make substantive changes. Any real changes in the law will have to come from Congress.

This is not the first time the CMS has tried to move the easing of rules concerning the Stark law.  In 2015, CMS published a Proposed rule relaxing aspects of the Stark law, including easing of some of the strict liability features of the law and CMS’ burden in dealing with the interpretation of key terms, requirements, and other issues.  After reviewing an enormous amount of self-disclosures, CMS realized that a large part of its docket involved arrangements that may technically violate the statute but do not actually pose significant risks of abuse. Therefore, it appears that CMS seeks to reduce the number of self-disclosures reported. However, the proposed update is also intended to account for recent changes relating to health care reform and advancements in patient care and payment methodologies. CMS wanted to ensure that Stark does not inhibit Affordable Care Act (ACA) reforms and these are the same concerns driving the latest initiative.

 

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.

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Copyright © 2018 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.

Kusserow on Compliance: Changes in the Stark Law

Over the years, the Stark law has evolved considerably from regulatory requirements to use by the DOJ in enforcement of the False Claims Act. Unlike the Anti-Kickback Statute, which is enforced by the OIG, the Stark law is considered regulatory and under CMS jurisdiction. The Stark law was designed to prohibit doctors from referring Medicare patients to hospitals, labs, and colleagues with whom they have financial relationships, unless they fall under certain exceptions. Stark prevents hospitals from paying providers more when they meet certain quality measures, such as reducing hospital-acquired infections, while paying less to those who miss the goals. Providers have registered numerous concerns that the Stark Law is inhibiting their ability to participate in Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148) reforms. The CMS Administrator, Verma, has acknowledged the difficulty of reconciling the Stark Law’s restrictions with the current shift to value based payment structures, noting that that the Stark Law “was developed a long time ago” with current payment systems and operations being different, requiring some changes in the rules. This is not the first time CMS has tried to move the easing of rules concerning the Stark law. In 2015, CMS published a Proposed rule relaxing aspects of the Stark law, including easing of some of the strict liability features of the law and the CMS burden in dealing with the interpretation of key terms, requirements, and other issues.  After reviewing an enormous amount of self-disclosures, CMS realized that a large part of its docket involved arrangements that may technically violate the statute but do not actually pose significant risks of abuse, thus necessitating some changes and clarifications.

Inter-Agency Group formed to focus on easing Stark Barriers

During a January, 2018 American Hospital Association webinar, the CMS Administrator announced plans to convene an inter-agency group consisting of CMS, the OIG, HHS General Counsel, and the DOJ to focus on how to minimize the regulatory barriers of the Stark law that began in 1989 and underwent expansion in the 1990s. Verma noted that the review is in line with CMS’s “Patients Over Paperwork” initiative, which is in accord with the President’s Executive Order that directs federal agencies to “cut the red tape” to reduce burdensome regulations.

Congress Acts

Regardless of the results of the inter-agency review, the fact remains that only so much can be done by regulatory policy changes. All real changes must be made in the law will necessarily have to come from Congress. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 imposed changes on laws related to health care fraud and abuse. On one side they quadrupled fines and doubled potential prison time from five to ten years for violation of the Anti-Kickback Statute.  The Civil Monetary Penalties (CMP) law penalties were doubled. On the other side, Congress moved to reduce some of the burdens by codifying CMS regulatory guidance. Some specific relief involved expired leases and personal services contracts that, if otherwise compliant, will remain protected as long as the terms and conditions continue unchanged.

 

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 Google+ or LinkedIn.

Subscribe to the Kusserow on Compliance Newsletter

Copyright © 2017 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.

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.

House committee gives its approval to Medicare Advantage telehealth bill

A bill—The Increasing Telehealth Access in Medicare (ITAM)—aimed at improving access to Medicare Advantage telehealth services received approval from the House Ways and Means Committee on September 13, 2017. The unanimous approval came alongside the committee’s unanimous passage of a bill (H.R. 3726) to simply physician self-referral prohibitions and a bill (H.R. 3729) to continue Medicare add-on payments for ambulance services.

ITAM

The bipartisan bill, Increasing Telehealth Access in Medicare (ITAM) (H.R. 3727), introduced by Representatives Diane Black (R-Tenn) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif), seeks to encourage the use of telehealth by making it a basic benefit—rather than a supplemental service—for Medicare Advantage beneficiaries. Although critics of telehealth warn that the service presents a risk of overutilization in a fee-for-service reimbursement model, proponents of the new ITAM bill note that by pairing telehealth with Medicare advantage, that concern is “flipped on its head.”

Telehealth

A related bill, in the Senate, known as the Furthering Access to Stroke Telemedicine Act (S. 431), would permit any site exclusively administering acute care stroke treatment to be included in the list of eligible Medicare sites for telemedicine services, without regard for the site’s geographic location. In May of 2017, the Senate Finance Committee unanimously passed the Creating High-Quality Results and Outcomes Necessary to Improve Chronic (CHRONIC) Care Act (S. 870), a bill designed to expand telehealth access for Medicare beneficiaries with chronic conditions while increasing the incentives for accountable care organizations (ACOs) to provide those services.