Many health care providers rely on a worked relative value unit (“wRVU”) based compensation model when structuring financial relationships with physicians. While wRVUs are considered an objective and fair method to compensate physicians, payments made on a wRVU basis do not always offer a blanket protection from liability under the Federal Stark Law.  As recent settlements demonstrate, wRVU based compensation arrangements that are poorly structured or improperly implemented can result in significant liability.

The wRVU physician compensation model is particularly favored for its low level of risk under the Stark Law, which prohibits physicians from making certain financially motivated referrals. While the Stark Law prohibits physician compensation based on referrals, it does permit physicians to earn certain productivity bonuses for personally performed services.  wRVUs are an accepted method in calculating performance or productivity bonuses for services personally performed by the physician.[1]

How wRVU based compensation can become problematic is illustrated by a recent $34 million settlement between the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and defendants Mercy Hospital Springfield (the “Hospital”) and Mercy Clinic Springfield (the “Clinic”), an oncology infusion center. After the infusion center was transferred from the Clinic to the Hospital in order to take advantage of inpatient hospital reimbursement and 340B drug pricing, the physicians allegedly wanted to be “made whole” for the compensation they previously earned at the Clinic. The resulting contractual arrangements with the physicians contemplated the provision of a productivity bonus tied to the physicians’ drug administration wRVUs.

However, according to the complaint, “the new work RVU for drug administration in the hospital department” was not calculated based on physician work, clinical expense, or malpractice overhead, but rather was “solved for” by working backwards from a desired level of overall compensation.” Moreover, according to the complaint, the compensation amount for the physician supervision work at the infusion center was approximately 500 percent of the wRVU for in-clinic work where the physician was actively involved in patient care. The DOJ contended that this was a violation of the Stark Law, as the compensation was not fair market value, nor was it commercially reasonable. Additionally, the complaint included allegations of both Stark and Anti-kickback Statute violations for the funds transferred as “management fees” from the Hospital to the Clinic to fund the higher physician compensation amounts, as the fees also allegedly were not fair market value nor commercially reasonable.

The Mercy settlement is only the most recent example of a health system incurring liability for improper wRVU-based compensation arrangements. In an analogous settlement made in 2015, Broward Health in Florida agreed to pay $70 million to resolve a whistleblower lawsuit that alleged Stark Law violations.  In part, it was alleged that Broward Hospital permitted high-volume referring physicians to artificially inflate their wRVUs and, in turn, their compensation.[2]  Allegedly, this was accomplished through unbundling procedures, not considering modifiers that would reduce the compensation for multiple procedures performed, and giving wRVU credits for unsupervised PAs and NPs.  These tactics allegedly resulted in so-called “implausible” wRVU numbers for certain physicians.

These settlements are not an expression of the government’s disapproval of wRVU based compensation arrangements. Rather, these are examples of alleged arrangements that artificially increased a physician’s compensation for referrals, in a manner that is not consistent with fair market value and commercial reasonableness.  Thus, it is important to ensure that wRVU based compensation arrangements are properly structured as well as properly implemented.

Endnotes:

[1] See 42 C.F.R. § 411.352(i)(3)(i) (permitting group practice productivity bonuses based on a per-wRVU basis).

[2] See Relator’s Compl., United States ex rel. Reilly v. N. Broward Hosp. et al., No. 10-60590, ¶ 11 (S.D. Fla. Sept. 16, 2015), ECF No. 75.

On April 18, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida adopted a magistrate judge’s recommendation to grant summary judgment in favor of defendant BayCare Health System (“BayCare”) in a False Claims Act whistleblower suit that focused on physician lease agreements in a hospital-owned medical office building, thereby dismissing the whistleblower’s suit.

The whistleblower, a local real-estate appraiser, alleged that BayCare improperly induced Medicare referrals in violation of the federal Anti-Kickback Statute and the Stark Law because the lease agreements with its physician tenants included free use of the hospital parking garage and free valet parking for the physician tenants and their patients, as well as certain benefits related to the tax-exempt classification of the building. The brief ruling affirms the magistrate judge’s determination that the whistleblower failed to present sufficient evidence to establish either the existence of an improper financial relationship under the Stark Law or the requisite remuneration intended to induce referrals under the Anti-Kickback Statute.

The alleged violation under both the Anti-Kickback Statute and the Stark Law centered on the whistleblower’s argument that the lease agreements conferred a financial benefit on physician tenants – primarily, because they were not required to reimburse BayCare for garage or valet parking that was available to the tenants, their staff and their patients.  However, the whistleblower presented no evidence to show that the parking was provided for free or based on the physician tenants’ referrals.  To the contrary, BayCare presented evidence stating that the garage parking benefits (and their related costs) were factored into the leases and corresponding rental payments for each tenant.  Further, BayCare presented evidence to support that the valet services were not provided to, or used by, the physician tenants or their staff, but were offered only to patients and visitors to “protect their health and safety.”

In light of the evidence presented by BayCare, and the failure of the whistleblower to present any evidence that contradicted or otherwise undermined BayCare’s position, the magistrate judge found that: (i) no direct or indirect compensation arrangement existed between BayCare and the physician tenants that would implicate the Stark Law, and (ii) BayCare did not intend for the parking benefits to induce the physician tenants’ referrals in violation of the Anti-Kickback Statute.

Continue Reading New Ruling on Hospital-Physician Real Estate/Leasing Compliance

A recent settlement demonstrates the importance of compliant structuring of lending arrangements in the health care industry. The failure to consider health care fraud and abuse risks in connection with lending arrangements can lead to extremely costly consequences.

On April 27, 2017, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced that it reached an $18 Million settlement with a hospital operated by Indiana University Health and a federally qualified health center (“FQHC”) operated by HealthNet. United States et al. ex rel. Robinson v. Indiana University Health, Inc. et al., Case No. 1:13-cv-2009-TWP-MJD (S.D. Ind.).  As alleged by Judith Robinson, the qui tam relator (“Relator”), from May 1, 2013 through Aug. 30, 2016, Indiana University Health provided HealthNet with an interest free line of credit, which consistently exceeded $10 million.  It was further alleged that HealthNet was not expected to repay a substantial portion of the loan and that the transaction was intended to induce HealthNet to refer its OB/GYN patients to Indiana University.

While neither Indiana University Health nor HealthNet have made any admissions of wrongdoing, each will pay approximately $5.1 million to the United States and $3.9 million to the State of Indiana. According to the DOJ and the Relator, the alleged conduct violated the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute and the Federal False Claims Act.

For more details on the underlying arrangement and practical takeaways . . .

Continue Reading Avoiding Fraud and Abuse in Health Care Lending Arrangements

On March 15, 2017, the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania issued an opinion that sheds insight on how courts view the “writing” requirement of various exceptions under the federal physician self-referral law (or “Stark Law”). The ruling involved the FCA qui tam case, United States ex rel. Emanuele v. Medicor Assocs., No. 1:10-cv-245, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 36593 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 15, 2017), involving a cardiology practice (Medicor Associates, Inc.) and the Hamot Medical Center. The Court’s detailed discussion of the Stark Law in its summary judgment opinion provides guidance as to what may or may not constitute a “collection of documents” for purposes of satisfying a Stark Law exception.

This opinion is of particular note because it marks the first time that a physician arrangement has been analyzed since the Stark Law was most recently amended in November 2015, at which time the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) clarified and codified its longstanding interpretation of when the writing requirement is satisfied under various exceptions.

Arrangements Established by a “Collection of Documents”

Both the “professional services arrangement” and “fair market value” exceptions were potentially applicable, and require that the arrangement be “in writing” and signed. However, two of the medical directorships were not reduced to a formal written agreement. The Defendants identified the following collection of documents as evidence that the writing requirement was satisfied:

  • Emails regarding a general initiative between Hamot and Medicor for cardiac services, but without any specific information regarding directorship positions, duties or compensation.
  • Letter correspondence between Hamot and Medicor discussing the potential establishment of a director position for the women’s cardiac program.
  • Internal summary that identified a Medicor physician as the director of the women’s cardiac program.
  • Unsigned draft Agreement for Medical Supervision and Direction of the Women’s Cardiac Services Program.
  • A one page letter appointing a Medicor physician as the CV Chair and identifying a three-year term that expired June 30, 2008.

The Court said that although “these kinds of documents may generally be considered in determining whether the writing requirement is satisfied, it is essential that the documents outline, at an absolute minimum, identifiable services, a timeframe, and a rate of compensation.” (emphasis added). In addition, the Court noted that CMS requires that at least one of the documents in the collection be signed by each party. After confirming that these “critical” terms were missing from the documents described above, the Court concluded that no reasonable jury could find that either arrangement was set forth in writing in order to satisfy Stark’s fair market value exception or personal service arrangement exception.

Expired Arrangements

Other directorships were initially memorialized in signed, formal written contracts, but they all terminated pursuant to their terms on December 31, 2006 and were not formally extended or renewed in writing on or prior to their termination. Thereafter, Medicor continued to provide services and Hamot continued to make payments under the agreements. The parties eventually executed a series of “addendums” to extend the term of each arrangement, although these addenda had a prior effective date. During the timeframe between when the agreements expired and when the addenda were executed, invoices were continuously submitted and paid.

Plaintiff argued that the failure to execute timely written extensions in advance of renewals resulted in a failure of all six arrangements to meet the “writing” requirement under a relevant Stark Law exception. The Court disagreed, explaining that there is no requirement that the “writing” be a single formal agreement and CMS has provided guidance as to the type of collection of documents that could be considered when determining if the writing requirement is met at the time of the physician referral. In this case, the Defendants specifically relied upon the invoices from Medicor to Hamot and the checks that were sent in payment thereof.

In deciding that a reasonable jury could find that there was a sufficient collection of documents, the Court denied Plaintiff/Relator’s motion for summary judgment with respect to these six ‘expiring” directorships, and the case will proceed to trial on these claims.

Hospitals should carefully consider this opinion when auditing Stark Law compliance of their physician arrangements. A more detailed article analyzing this case will be published in the July edition of Compliance Today.