There has been a growing trend of strategic joint ventures throughout the healthcare industry with the goal of enhancing expertise, accessing financial resources, gaining efficiencies, and improving performance in the changing environment. This includes, for example, hospital-hospital joint ventures, hospital-payor joint ventures, and hospital joint ventures with various ancillary providers (e.g., ambulatory surgery, imaging, home health, physical therapy, behavioral health, etc.). Extra precautions need to be taken in joint ventures between tax-exempt entities and for-profit companies.

The Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) issued a final adverse determination letter revoking a general acute care hospital’s 501(c)(3) status. Although various details have been redacted, it is clear that the hospital entered into a lease agreement with a for-profit entity in a manner found to be incongruent with its exempt status.

The hospital leased its land, property, and equipment to the for-profit, which specialized in operating rural hospitals. Control of the hospital’s operations (including revenue collection) was given to the for-profit. The for-profit agreed to provide charity care in a manner that was to be consistent with the hospital’s past practice.

IRS § 1.501(c)(3) states that an organization must be organized and operated exclusively for one or more exempt purposes. The regulations further note that an organization is not exempt if it fails to meet either the organizational or operational test. Although an argument was made that the for-profit served an exempt purpose by maintaining the hospital’s land, building, and equipment in order to ensure that it would be available to the public, the IRS noted that there was not enough information to sufficiently make the facts at hand analogous to the authorities that support serving such an exempt purpose.

Ultimately, the IRS revoked the hospital’s status because it was not operated exclusively for a tax-exempt purpose. The lease agreement resulted in the for-profit deriving private benefit that is inconsistent with tax exemption. The IRS noted that the hospital operated in a manner materially different than what was originally represented in the Application of Exemption. Sometime in the 1990s the hospital first transferred management and then operational control to the for-profit. Even though the lease agreement had a provision on providing charity care, the IRS focused on the lack of control the hospital had over its own operations.

In giving an example of a permissible and not-permissible level of control, the IRS brought up the two hospital examples provided in Rev. Rul. 69-545. The IRS stated that the hospital in this instance is more similar to the non-exempt hospital described in Situation 2 of Rev. Rul. 69-545, which was controlled by physicians who had a substantial economic interest in the hospital. By comparison, the exempt hospital in Situation 1 was controlled by independent civic leaders who comprised the board of trustees.

The IRS highlighted Rev. Rul. 98-15, which explored how a joint venture may operate between a non-profit and a for-profit. The IRS further noted that the arrangement between the hospital in this situation and the for-profit missed the mark. The Revenue Ruling on joint ventures makes it clear that the tax-exempt organization must retain control of the joint venture. Safeguards from Rev. Rul. 98-15 (as noted by the IRS) include the following components in the governing documents of a limited liability company formed to run a hospital:

  • The limited liability company will be managed by a governing board that has three individuals chosen by the hospital and two individuals chosen by the for-profit partner.
  • Language that effectively prevents the for-profit from amending the governing documents.
  • Requirement that the hospital be operated in a manner that furthers charitable purposes by promoting health for the broad cross section of its community.
  • Conflict language that states in the event of a conflict between the community benefit standard and any duty to maximize profits, the community benefit standard must win (without regard to the consequences of maximizing profitability).

As joint ventures in the healthcare industry become more prevalent, this final adverse determination letter highlights the importance of properly structuring joint ventures between for-profit entities and tax-exempt organizations by taking into consideration this and other guidance, including Rev. Rul. 98-15 and St. David’s Health Care Sys. v. United States, 349 F.3d 232 (2003).

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.