Health Law Advisor

Thought Leaders On Laws And Regulations Affecting Health Care And Life Sciences

OCR Hones in on Smaller HIPAA Breaches

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The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”), the agency tasked with enforcing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (“HIPAA”), recently announced that it will redouble its efforts to investigate smaller breaches of Protected Health Information (“PHI”) that affect fewer than five-hundred (500) individuals.

It has been widely known that OCR opens an investigation for every breach affecting more than 500 individuals; this announcement describes OCR’s new initiative to investigate smaller breaches as well.  OCR stated that in determining when it will open an investigation, it will evaluate a number of factors, such as: (1) the size of the breach, (2) whether the PHI was stolen or improperly disposed of, (3) whether an entity reports multiple breaches, (4) whether numerous entities are reporting breaches of a particular type, and (5) whether the breach involved unauthorized access to an IT system.  The announcement also notes that OCR may consider lack of breach reports for a region, suggesting that OCR is interested in investigating the potential of under reporting.

The announcement emphasized that OCR can determine both large scale trends among HIPAA regulated entities, and entity-specific compliance issues that must be addressed by investigating breaches.  The announcement also serves as a warning to persons and/or entities subject to HIPAA to ensure that their breach reporting and other HIPAA compliance efforts are up-to-date and ready to withstand any potential scrutiny from OCR.

CMS Issues Proposed Rule Advancing Care Coordination through Three New Mandatory Episode Payment Models and Introducing a Cardiac Rehabilitation Incentive Payment Model

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If your organization has missed an opportunity to participate in the voluntary Medicare Bundled Payments for Care Initiatives and/or the mandatory CJR program, CMS’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation has issued a proposed rule introducing three new mandatory Episode Payment Models (EPMs) and a Cardiac Rehabilitation incentive payment model intended to be tested with a broad scope of hospitals which may not have otherwise participated in innovative payment model testing.

In the proposed rule issued August 2, 2016, CMS introduced EPMs for Acute Myocardial infarction (AMI), Coronary Surgery Bypass Graft (CABG) and Surgical Hip/Femur Fracture Treatment- Excluding Lower Joint Replacement (SHFFT) and a Cardiac Rehabilitation incentive model to be tested for five performance years, beginning July 1, 2017 and continuing through December 31, 2021. CMS estimates Medicare savings of $170 million over the five-year test period.

These new EPMs were selected to compliment care episodes addressed in other voluntary BPCI models and the mandatory Comprehensive Joint Replacement program with different patient populations due to the clinical conditions and non-elective treatment nature of the episodes chosen. As the clinical characteristics of these EPMs include both planned and unplanned treatment needs and underlying chronic conditions, the EPMs will be tested over a broader and complementary array of hospitals and MSA regions, to further promote care redesign models that focus on coordination and alignment of care in a largely fragmented acute to post acute care spectrum. It is hoped that with testing these new EPMs and the Cardiac Rehabilitation incentive model with a broader scope of hospitals with aligned post-acute providers will promote the rapid development of evidence-based knowledge CMS is striving to obtain.

These AMI, CABG and SHFFT EPMs were selected due to the high volume of these procedures among beneficiaries with common chronic conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, which contribute to the episode and impact high readmission rates. With these EPMs, CMMI is furthering its goals of testing innovative payment models to reduce cost and improve care transition efficiencies and long term outcomes throughout the care continuum. The same quality measures applied to Comprehensive Joint Replacement will be applied to SHFFT. The Cardiac Rehabilitation incentive model is designed to encourage treatment, reduce barriers to high –value care and increase utilization of cardiac rehabilitation and intensive cardiac services which have been shown to improve long term outcomes, but appear to be underutilized. (For example, CMS estimates that 35% of AMI patients older than 50 receive cardiac rehabilitation services). The Cardiac Rehabilitation incentive payment will be made to the selected hospitals with AMI and CABG EPMs for cardiac rehabilitation services provided during the EPM as they are already engaging in managing such episodes.

The EPM episodes will begin with acute admission at an anchor hospital for the applicable MS-DRG for the EPM upon discharge, and continue for 90- day period post discharge. Similar to CJR , acute care hospitals bear the financial risk for AMI, CABG and SHFFT EPMS, which include the inpatient admission(s), all related Medicare Part A and B services, including hospital, post-acute and physician services within the 90-day period. Eligible beneficiaries admitted to the anchor hospital for the applicable EPM will automatically be included within the applicable EPM. Hospitals and providers will be paid under Medicare FFS and after the first performance year, calculation of the actual episode payments will be reconciled against an established historical EPM quality adjusted target. Hospitals will bear upside and downside risk for the episodes after performance year two. The Cardiac Rehabilitation incentive will be paid to AMI and CABG EPM hospitals at a per cardiac rehabilitation/ intensive cardiac rehabilitation service level based on threshold treatments provided per AMI/ CABG episode post discharge.

While complementing current BPCI and CRJ programs, CMS is addressing potential advantages and disadvantages to certain overlapping of programs, geographic regions (MSAs) and hospitals. For example, acute care hospitals participating in BPCI Models 2 and 4 for hip and femur procedures and for all three BPCI cardiac episodes (AMI, PCI and CABG) will not be included for selection for the new EPMs. SHFFT EPMs will be implemented in the same 67 geographic MSAs where the CJR model is currently implemented. AMI and CABG EPMs will be implemented together in 98 MSAs selected based on specific criteria to avoid overlap with other payment initiatives such as BPCI models and AMI/ CABG procedure volumes.

Hospitals and certain ACOs may share gains with other providers under the AMI, CABG and SHFFT models as EPM collaborators. Similar to other model programs, the adoption of certain waivers are also proposed, such as adopting waivers of the telehealth originating and geographic site requirements and allowing for in-home telehealth visits for the three EPMs; EPM-specific limits for post-discharge home nursing visits and the SNF 3-day stay waiver, and expanding the practitioners allowed to perform certain cardiac rehabilitation services. Hospitals’ aligning with post acute providers and programs to effectively manage their EPM patients’ post acute transition and treatment adherence and monitoring will be critical to the EPM program success.

The selected MSAs and hospitals will be announced with the publication of the final rule. CMS is requesting public comment on the proposed rule and on any alternatives considered, by October 3, 2016.

“Good Faith” Off-Label Promotions Saved Ex-Acclarent Execs from Felony Misbranding Indictments

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Where does the line fall between good faith and criminal intent? That was the question that a Massachusetts federal jury faced in July as it deliberated criminal charges against William Facteau and Patrick Fabian, ex-Acclarent executives, who were indicted on multiple charges of fraud and misbranding a medical device. Acclarent’s device, the Relieva Stratus Microflow Spacer (“Stratus”), was cleared by the FDA for use as a spacer to maintain an opening in the sinus. Although the FDA expressly rejected Acclarant’s request to expand the indicated use of the device to include delivery of drugs, the government alleged that Acclarent promoted Stratus as a delivery method for the steroid drug Kenalog.

The arguments at trial focused on whether, in the defense’s view, Acclarent had done no more than claim that it had a good faith belief that it could promote the proven success of Stratus for delivering Kenalog, or the government’s position that the company’s leadership deliberately evaded the FDA’s requirements in order to put a product on the market without adequate data. The defense highlighted how, after receiving clearance for Stratus as a spacer, Acclarent asked the FDA to expand the indications for use to include the delivery of Kenalog, a corticosteroid. The FDA would not approve the expanded indication without multiple clinical trial data. The government, on the other hand, emphasized that Acclarent withheld this information when promoting Stratus to Ethicon, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson that bought Acclarent in 2010. After the deal closed and Ethicon realized Stratus lacked FDA clearance to deliver steroids, Ethicon ordered Acclarent to stop all off-label promotions to doctors and to notify the FDA. While Acclarent did contact the FDA, evidence shows that Facteau and Fabian continued encouraging sales representatives to promote Stratus for the delivery of Kenalog. An Acclarent sales representative testified that sales training focused on how to promote the use of Stratus with Kenalog without directly promoting the off-label use, and the videos used to train physicians showed Stratus being used to deliver a white substance resembling the steroid.

Ultimately, after six weeks of trial and almost three days of deliberations, the jury decided that good faith won over the alleged criminal intent. Fabian and Facteau were acquitted of all felony charges but convicted of ten misdemeanor counts of misbranding and adulteration of Stratus. The jury concluded that while the off-label promotion rules were broken, there was not enough evidence to conclude that the defendants had the intent to mislead or defraud doctors or the FDA. The misdemeanor convictions were based on statutes that impose strict liability, for which no finding of a criminal intent is required. A misdemeanor violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act (“FDCA”) has a maximum sentence of a year in prison per count, a year of supervised release, and a fine of either $100,000 or double the gross gain or loss.

When the dust settled from the jury’s verdict, Facteau and Fabian submitted a formal request for acquittal of the misdemeanor convictions. If the federal judge denies their request for judgment, the ex-Acclarent executives will seek a new trial. The outcome of this case may affect how medical device manufacturers deal with FDA oversight, particularly where a manufacturer seeks to market a device for a specific use but only has data addressing a more basic purpose. At the same time, the outcome may serve as an indication to the FDA that bringing similar criminal charges for off-label promotion in the future may prove more difficult than anticipated.

This post was written with assistance from Megan E. Robertson, a 2016 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

8th Circuit: Assigned Non-Competes Are Enforceable — Under Certain Facts

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Our colleagues James P. Flynn, Paul A. Gomez, Purvi B. Maniar and Yael Spiewak of Epstein Becker Green have published a blog post on the Trade Secrets & Noncompete Blog that will be of interest to our readers: “Assignment Lessons: 8th Circuit Finds Assigned Non-Competes Enforceable — Under Certain Facts.”

Following is an excerpt:

The 8th Circuit’s recent decision in Symphony Diagnostic Servs. No. 1 v. Greenbaum, No. 15-2294, __ F.3d __ (8th Cir. July 6, 2016), upheld the enforceability of non-compete and confidentiality agreements assigned by Ozark Mobile Imaging to Mobilex as part of Mobilex’s purchase of Ozark’s assets.  Although the 8th Circuit is careful to ground its analysis in that case’s specific factual and legal framework, this decision is helpful in providing some guidance to those dealing with the assignability of rights under non-compete and confidentiality agreements.

The non-compete and confidentiality agreements at issue were (1) “free standing” and (2) assignment did not “materially change the obligations of the employee” nor (3) were the agreements dependent upon “qualities specific to the employer.” Symphony Diagnostic Servs. It is also notable that the agreements contained no language regarding assignability, i.e. they did not expressly restrict or permit assignment. Symphony Diagnostic Servs. No. 1 v. Greenbaum, 97 F. Supp. 3d 1126 (W.D. Mo. March 16, 2015).  Under those factual circumstances, the 8th Circuit, applying Missouri law, concluded that a Missouri court would find the agreements assignable and enforceable.

There are lessons for both those seeking to enforce or to avoid enforcement of non-compete and confidentiality agreements following the acquisition of a business via an asset purchase.

Read the full alert here.

Disruptor Meets Regulator, and Regulator Wins: Lessons Learned from Theranos

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On July 7, 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) imposed several administrative penalties on Theranos, a clinical laboratory company that proposed to revolutionize the clinical laboratory business by performing multiple blood tests using a few drops of blood drawn from a finger rather than from a traditional blood draw that relies on needles and tubes. However, after inspecting the laboratory, CMS concluded that the company failed to comply with federal law and regulations governing clinical laboratories and it posed an immediate jeopardy to patient health and safety. CMS has revoked the CLIA certification of the company’s California lab, imposed a civil monetary penalty of $10,000 per day until all deficiencies are corrected, barred Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement for its services, and excluded its founder and CEO from owning or operating a clinical laboratory for two years.

Although Theranos’s history has received an outsize amount of media attention, its experience with regulatory agencies highlights several important issues for start-up and emerging health care entities:

What Do Regulators Want?

It is no surprise that health care is one of the most highly regulated sectors of the U.S. economy, and that noncompliance with health care laws and regulations can result in penalties that can cripple an organization or force it to shut down. As a result, even in an environment that encourages innovation, health care organizations must understand the scope of regulatory oversight at the federal and state levels, and the range of remedies available to regulators for noncompliance. Every organization should also have a protocol in place for responding to regulatory inquiries or inspections.

What Do Health Care Providers and Payors Want?

Adopting a new health care technology is an intensely data-driven process. This is especially the case with clinical laboratories, which are subject to rigorous requirements for proficiency, quality assurance, and training. This burden is greater for laboratory-developed tests, commonly known as “home brew” tests, because they are currently exempt from FDA oversight.

In most cases, the innovator sponsors clinical studies subject to peer review and publication to demonstrate the efficacy of the new technology. These trials can also generate the clinical and cost data needed to convince practitioners that the test has reliable diagnostic or clinical value, and to persuade payors that the test is medically necessary.

However, Theranos declined requests to sponsor studies or disclose data. This was a red flag for many clinicians. In the interim, a group of independent investigators published a study based on a small sample of patients and found that the Theranos’s results were more variable than the results obtained from the same blood samples sent to laboratories using standard equipment. These variations were significant enough that they had the potential to affect clinical decision-making and jeopardize patients.

Who Is Investing in the Venture?

For start-up companies, committed investors are indispensable. Although early-stage investors are accustomed to risk, they also depend on reliable data to gauge whether health care professionals will adopt a new technology, and whether health plans will cover and pay for that technology. In Theranos’s case, several investors with experience in health care start-ups did not invest in the company because it did not release data on its proprietary technology and did not conduct or sponsor well-controlled clinical trials.

Who’s on Board?

The critical role of health care regulations demands that a company’s management and board be familiar with the key challenges and potential barriers to entry under the applicable regulatory framework. Nevertheless, at the time of the CMS survey Theranos’s board reportedly lacked individuals with specific experience in health care operations or clinical laboratories; however, it included two former Secretaries of State (one of whom had also been the dean of a business school), two former U.S. senators, the CEO of a bank, and retired military officers. While it is unclear how much the board knew of potential regulatory risks, the fact that CMS determined that the company had not made a “credible allegation of compliance” in response to any of the deficiencies in the initial survey report is an indicator that CMS did not believe that the company’s management and directors may not have appreciated the regulatory requirements or how to avoid or minimize these significant risks.

FCA Penalty Spike Confirmed by DOJ

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Entities that provide goods and services to the federal government, including health care providers and life sciences companies, should take note of the new civil monetary penalty amounts applicable to False Claims Act (“FCA”) violations. After much anticipation, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) issued an interim final rule on June 30, 2016 confirming speculation that the penalty amounts will increase twofold.

The new minimum per-claim penalty amount will increase from $5,500 to $10,781, and the maximum per-claim penalty amount will increase from $11,000 to $21,563. The DOJ penalty increase mirrors the penalty spike announced by the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board (“Railroad Board”) in May of this year and discussed in our previous blog post.

The new penalty amounts will take effect August 1, 2016 and will apply to all violations that occurred after November 2, 2015.  This November date was the date that Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 (the “Act”), which is the legislation that requires federal agencies that handle FCA cases to update their penalty amounts to adjust for inflation.

After this first adjustment, the Act allows DOJ and other federal agencies to make additional annual adjustments to penalty amounts based on the Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers (CPI-U). Guidance on these annual adjustments is slated to be issued by the Office of Management and Budget this December.

If you would like to comment on this interim final rule, you must act quickly as the deadline for comments is August 29, 2016.

This post was written with assistance from Olivia Seraphim, a 2016 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

NY High Court Rejects Expansion of Common-Interest Doctrine

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In 2008, Ambac v. Countrywide defendants Bank of America Corporation and Countrywide Financial Corporation merged into a wholly-owned subsidiary of Bank of America.  In discovery, Bank of America withheld communications between Bank of America and Countrywide that occurred before the merger, on the basis that they were privileged attorney-client communications that were protected from disclosure under the common-interest doctrine.  In 2014, the New York Appellate Division, First Department, acknowledged that “New York courts have taken a narrow view of the common-interest [doctrine], holding it applies only with respect to legal advice in pending or reasonably anticipated litigation,” but rejected the litigation requirement.   Ambac v. Countrywide, 123 A.D.3d 129 (1st Dep’t 2014).

Last week, the Court of Appeals overturned the First Department decision and restated the narrower scope of the common-interest doctrine under New York law:

“Under the common interest doctrine, an attorney-client communication that is disclosed to a third party remains privileged if the third party shares a common legal interest with the client who made the communication and the communication is made in furtherance of that common legal interest.  We hold today, as the courts in New York have held for over two decades, that any such communication must also relate to litigation, either pending or anticipated, in order for the exception to apply.”

Ambac v. Countrywide.  The Court of Appeals noted that multiple jurisdictions take a more expansive approach to the doctrine, and commented that the Second Circuit (the federal appellate court with jurisdiction over New York) “ha[s] made clear that actual or ongoing litigation is not required” to invoke the common-interest doctrine, but does “not appear to have expressly decided whether there must be a threat of litigation in order to invoke the exception.”  Ambac v. Countrywide (citing Shaeffler v. United States, 806 F.3d 34 (2d Cir. 2015)).

Takeaways:

  • The scope of protections under the common-interest doctrine varies significantly depending on jurisdiction and governing law.
  • In order to be protected under the common-interest rule under New York law, communications among merger counterparties, including health care entities,  must be made in furtherance of a common legal interest and relate to pending or anticipated litigation.

Supreme Court: False Claims Act & Materiality Requirement

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Stuart GersonThe U.S. Supreme Court has rendered a unanimous decision in the hotly-awaited False Claims Act case of Universal Health Services v. United States ex rel. Escobar.  This case squarely presented the issue of whether liability may be based on the so-called “implied false certification” theory.  Universal Health Service’s (“UHS) problem originated when it was discovered that its contractor’s employees who were providing mental health services and medication were not actually licensed to do so. The relator and government alleged that UHS had filed false claims for payment because they did not disclose this fact and thus had impliedly certified that it was in compliance with all laws, regulations, etc.  The District Court granted UHS’s motion to dismiss because no regulation that was violated was a material condition of payment. The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed, holding that every submission of a claim implicitly represents regulatory compliance and that the regulations themselves provided conclusive evidence that compliance was a material condition of payment because the regulations expressly required facilities to adequately supervise staff as a condition of payment.

The Supreme Court vacated and remanded the matter in a manner that represents a compromise view of implied false certification.

The Court recognized the vitality of the implied false certification theory but also held that the First Circuit erred in adopting the government’s expansive view that any statutory, regulatory, or contractual violation is material so long as the defendant knows that the Government would be entitled to refuse payment were it aware of the violation.

Instead, the Court held that the claims at issue may be actionable because they do more than merely demand payment; they fall squarely within the rule that representations that state the truth only so far as it goes, while omitting critical qualifying information, can be actionable misrepresentations.   Here, UHS and its contractor, both in fact and through the billing codes it used, represented that it had provided specific types of treatment by credentialed personnel.  These were misrepresentations and liability did not turn upon whether those requirements were expressly designated as conditions of payment.

The Court next turned to the False Claims Act’s materiality requirement, and stated that statutory, regulatory, and contractual requirements are not automatically material even if they are labeled conditions of payment. Nor is the restriction supported by the Act’s scienter requirement. A defendant can have “actual knowledge” that a condition is material even if the Government does not expressly call it a condition of payment. What matters is not the label that the Government attaches to a requirement, but whether the defendant knowingly violated a requirement that the defendant knows is material to the Government’s payment decision.

The FCA’s materiality requirement is demanding. An undisclosed fact is material if, for instance, “[n]o one can say with reason that the plaintiff would have signed this contract if informed of the likelihood” of the undisclosed fact.   When evaluating the FCA’s materiality requirement, the Government’s decision to expressly identify a provision as a condition of payment is relevant, but not automatically dispositive. A misrepresentation cannot be deemed material merely because the Government designates compliance with a particular requirement as a condition of payment. Nor is the Government’s option to decline to pay if it knew of the defendant’s noncompliance sufficient for a finding of materiality. Materiality also cannot be found where noncompliance is minor or insubstantial.

Moreover, if the Government pays a particular claim in full despite its actual knowledge that certain requirements were violated, that is very strong evidence that those requirements are not material. The FCA thus does not support the Government’s and First Circuit’s expansive view that any statutory, regulatory, or contractual violation is material so long as the defendant knows that the Government would be entitled to refuse payment were it aware of the violation.

The materiality requirement, stringently interpreted, and the fact that the First Circuit’s expansive view was rejected suggest that the game is far from over and that there still are viable defenses, facts allowing, to cases premised upon the implied false certification theory.

 

District Court Invalidates Payment of Cost-Sharing Subsidies, Setting Up Additional Legal Tests for the Affordable Care Act

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In its recent decision in U.S. House of Representatives v. Burwell,[1] the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Obama administration’s payment of cost-sharing subsidies for enrollees in plans offered through the Affordable Care Act’s Exchanges is unauthorized for lack of Congressional appropriation. The decision would affect future cost-sharing subsidies, though the court immediately stayed the decision pending its outcome on appeal.[2]

In its decision, the court found in favor of the members of the House of Representatives, based upon its interpretation of the applicable law. Specifically, the court found that, when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, including Sections 1401 (premium subsidies) and 1402 (cost-sharing subsidies), it permanently appropriated funds for the former but not the latter.

The court examined prior Office of Management and Budget submissions to the House Appropriations Committee, finding that the administration had explicitly acknowledged the lack of appropriated funds for the cost-sharing reduction payments. After the Republican-controlled Congress declined the administration’s appropriations requests for the cost-sharing reduction funds, President Obama signed an appropriations bill without it. Treasury subsequently paid the cost-sharing subsidies to issuers without an appropriation. As of December 2015, 56.4% of Exchange plan enrollees were receiving the subsidies.[3]

The court rejected the administration’s arguments that, under King v. Burwell, the Act must be read for its intended effect. While King identified “three key reforms”—guaranteed coverage and community rating, individual mandate and premium tax credits—the court found that King did not treat the section 1402 cost-sharing reduction provisions as integral to those reforms. Moreover, King found the Exchange statute nonfunctional due to drafting failure and thus in need of saving. By contrast, the district court found that, here, Congress’s simple failure to appropriate cannot be remedied by a court.

The case will almost certainly be appealed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ultimately, if the ruling is affirmed, absent a Congressional fix, new legal problems would arise for the Affordable Care Act’s Exchanges. Regardless of an appropriation, the Act still requires issuers to reduce cost-sharing for eligible enrollees, which would likely shield consumers but leave issuers financially exposed.

Moreover, notwithstanding the apparent lack of appropriation, the Act requires the government to pay issuers for the cost-sharing subsidies. This raises questions concerning the government’s ability to recoup payments already made. Should the government elect to discontinue the payments going forward, issuers could seek legal redress.

Notably, an affirmation of the district court could impact Exchange premiums. Many issuers have already raised premium rates for 2017, citing a high proportion of costlier, sicker enrollees. Should the courts ultimately place the burden on issuers to subsidize cost sharing, these costs are also likely to be shifted to premiums.

______

[1] House of Representatives v. Burwell, No. 14-1967 (D.D.C. May 12, 2016), available at https://ecf.dcd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2014cv1967-73.

[2] In an earlier, controversial ruling in this proceeding, the same court allowed members of the Republican majority of the U.S. House of Representatives to proceed with the suit against the Secretaries of Treasury and Health and Human Services. The administration had argued that the House members did not standing to sue, but the court disagreed and declined to dismiss the suit.

[3] According to CMS, as of December 31, 2015, the ten highest states by percentage of Exchange plan enrollees receiving cost sharing subsidies were Mississippi (76.7%), Alabama (72.2%), Florida (70.1%), Georgia (68.1%), Hawaii (67.90%), North Carolina (63.9%), South Dakota (63.3%), Idaho (62.9%), Tennessee (62.7%) and Utah (62.6%). See CMS, Effectuated Enrollment Snapshot (Mar. 11, 2016), https://www.cms.gov/Newsroom/MediaReleaseDatabase/Fact-sheets/2016-Fact-sheets-items/2016-03-11.html.

Recent California Court Decision Provides Useful Guidance for Management Services Organizations (MSOs)

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The California Court of Appeals, Second Appellate District (the “Court”) in Epic Medical Management, LLC v. Paquette rendered an decision that was published earlier this year that is helpful to those who engage in provision of management services to physicians or medical groups (possibly other professionals as well) including, without limitation, hospitals, health systems or private equity backed organizations.  In this case, although not directly ruling on the legality of the arrangement, the Court states that if it had so ruled, it would have determined that a comprehensive management services agreement for management of a physician’s practice, which used a percentage-based compensation structure, does not violate California’s anti-kickback statute under Section 650 of the California Business & Professions Code or related fee-splitting or corporate practice of medicine prohibitions.  This decision is most directly relevant to practice, operations and investments in California, but it may also be of use as a point of reference, for context or for its potential persuasive value in other jurisdictions, particularly where corporate practice of medicine prohibitions still remain on the stronger side of the spectrum. 

A physician (“Physician”) and a lay management services company that was at least partially owned by physicians (“Company”) entered into what appears to be a fairly comprehensive management services agreement for the “non-medical aspects of [Physician’s] medical practice” (“Agreement”).  The services to be provided by the Company to the Physician included office space, equipment, non-physician personnel (including nurses), establishment of a marketing plan and marketing services, billing and collection services, accounting services and other support services.  The Agreement provided that the Physician would pay the Company a management fee for all of these services of one hundred twenty percent (120%) of the aggregate costs the Company incurred in providing all of the management services per month, not to exceed fifty percent (50%) of the collected professional revenue plus twenty five percent (25%) of the collected surgical revenues.  However, the compensation arrangement that the parties actually engaged in consisted of the Company charging and the Physician paying a fee of 50% of the revenue for office medical services, 25% of revenue for surgical services and 75% of pharmaceutical-related revenues.  Notably, it later was determined that this formula likely actually provided less profit to the Company than if the parties had stuck to their original compensation terms, as written in the Agreement. 

The parties performed under the Agreement for about 3.5 years until the relationship turned sour and the Physician terminated the Agreement.  The parties entered into arbitration and the arbitrator concluded that the Physician breached by not paying a portion of the management fees that were due (under the compensation structure, as modified by conduct of the parties).  The Physician moved to vacate the determination and award of management fees, arguing in part that the portion of the payments made to the Company under the modified compensation arrangement violated anti-referral prohibitions in California Business & Professions Code Section 650, among other things.  This argument was based in part on a relatively small number of patient referrals made by the Company to the Physician during the term of the Agreement. 

The trial court reviewing the arbitration award denied the Physician’s motion to vacate.  The trial court’s decision was based, in part on rationale that any illegality (if any) resulting from the small number of referrals of patients made by the Company to the Physician under the Agreement and the modified compensation structure was only “technical”, and not material enough to result in a violation.   

At the Second Appellate District level, the Physician argued that California has an absolute public policy against making payments to anyone making referrals, but the Court noted that Business & Professions Code Section 650 (b), expressly permits such payments in circumstances similar to those at issue and reflected in the Agreement.  Based in part on this, the Court concluded that there was no clear or likely contravention of public policy that would render the underlying arbitration award reviewable. 

However, the Court went further and stated that if the arbitration decision and award were reviewable, it would find that the Agreement did not violate the law

The language under Section 650(b) states, in part that “payment or receipt of consideration for services other than referral of patients which is based on a percentage of gross revenue or similar type of contractual arrangement shall not be unlawful if the consideration is commensurate with the value of the services furnished…”.

The Court noted that the only way that the Agreement could have been found illegal is if it had been demonstrated and a finding had been made that the compensation paid to the Company was not commensurate with management services rendered under the Agreement, but there was no such demonstration or finding.  Moreover, the Court also stated that the terms of the Agreement showed a delineation between the medical elements of the practice that the Physician controlled and the non-medical elements that the Physician engaged the Company to handle.  The Court further noted that the Company exercised no control over the Physician’s practice, notwithstanding the modified, percentage-based compensation structure that the parties apparently actually engaged in and comprehensive services provided. 

The Court’s decision provides useful and recent guidance to hospitals, health systems, private equity investors and others who may engage in similar types of management services agreements in connection with their respective growth, alignment and investment strategies.