Virtually every week, our business and healthcare law firm is engaged to provide advice and assistance concerning a physician employment agreement, either as counsel to the physician or for an employer/hospital or medical practice. “Restrictive covenants,” including non-competition agreements, are desired by the majority of employers and therefore included in their proposed form of employment agreement. Physicians most often prefer, however, if they had their druthers, not to be restricted in their ability to work following the expiration or termination of a job. Hence this section of the proposed employment agreement, particularly those with more broad and onerous non-compete provisions, can be the source of tension on the front end of the employment relationship. Restrictive covenants also show up in a variety of other contractual arrangements, including medical practice ownership agreements (e.g., shareholder agreements, operating agreements), joint venture contracts, and medical director agreements.
The FDA has announced that it will begin requiring opioid manufacturers to provide more training for healthcare providers. At present, manufacturers must provide training about long-acting, extended release opioids to prescribers. In the future, the manufacturers of short-term and immediate release opioids will also be required to provide the same type of training. The training will be available to physicians, nurses, and pharmacists.
This change was brought about by the continuing high rate of drug overdose incidents by prescription drug abusers, particularly those abusing opioid painkillers. The training was previously only required by makers of long-acting opioids. However, the FDA stated statistics show that today the vast majority, 90% to be exact, of opioid pain medication prescriptions are for the short-acting variety. It has been found that abusers of opioids are misusing the short-acting, immediate release versions as well as the long-acting types. After becoming addicted to the commonly prescribed short-acting versions of the medication, most abusers graduate to higher doses of the prescription drugs or move to illegal drugs, which present a lower cost alternative.
Georgia physicians seeking licensure in other states hope to benefit soon from a more streamlined process. In fact, a bill was recently introduced in the Georgia House of Representatives to allow Georgia to join the growing number of states participating in the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact. (House Bill 637). Such a bill, if passed by both houses of the legislature and signed into law by the Governor, would greatly simplify the process for Georgia physicians to obtain licenses in other member states, allowing a wider population of patients access to their services and expertise. This type of bill would not change the existing methods of obtaining a license in Georgia but would provide an additional route. Although the bill was not voted on, the effort indicates this type of change may be on the horizon.
The United States only holds about 5% of the world’s population yet is consuming 99% of the word’s hydrocodone, 80% of the world’s oxycodone, and 65% of the world’s hydromorphone; all powerful narcotics. Those statistics show themselves in the most disheartening of ways with an opioid epidemic that has 1.3 million Americans needing hospital care for opioid related issues and over 30,000 dying from opioid overdoses in one year alone, with the number climbing every year. The nation’s opioid crisis also costs the U.S. over $70 billion a year when accounting for healthcare costs, productivity loss, addiction treatment and the costs of criminal justice actions and resources. The nation’s epidemic has garnered a federal response in the form of CDC guidelines that are discouraging primary care physicians from prescribing opioids as a first line of defense (or only line of defense) for patients with chronic pain and instead encouraging the use of non-opioid and even non-drug treatments for pain. A DEA response shortly thereafter indicated production quotas would be enforced for Schedule II pain medications, reducing the production of some medications by a quarter or even a third.
Traditionally a hallmark of success for many physicians, physician ownership of medical practices continues to decline, for now, according to a recent study by the American Medical Association (AMA). The AMA recently issued the results of a survey, entitled Policy Research Perspectives, Updated Data on Physician Practice Arrangements: Physician Ownership Drops Below 50%.
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The survey evaluated, among other things, whether physicians fall into one of four categories as to a physician’s “main” practice: (1) whether the physician is an owner, employee, or independent contractor of the medical practice; (2) the type of medical practice; (3) ownership structure of the practice; and (4) how many physicians are in the practice. The information and data reviewed spanned the period from 2012 to 2016. The survey results confirm a continued trend favoring employment and larger practices. 2016 was the first year with survey results demonstrating that less than half of practicing doctors (about 47%) own their own practice. Surveying over 30,000 physicians, the survey excluded physicians who work less than 20 hours/week providing patient care or are Federal employees.
Prescribing opioids for pain can be a routine part of medical treatment, however, opioids are a national dilemma and though patients may need them for pain management, they are also highly addictive. Some patients being administered these prescriptions are recovering from opioid addictions and face a high-risk of relapse. And, because some more unscrupulous health care providers use “pill mills” to make money, there is a strong push in many states to protect patients. This push has brought about a new idea – patient directives that notify providers NOT to prescribe or administer opioids to them.
Many medical practices and health care services businesses confront circumstances in their business model that justify unique and flexible arrangements with physicians to meet healthcare delivery needs (e.g. call coverage). Unique situations for health care delivery models lead to creative employment situations that may prompt evaluation of whether treatment of physicians as independent contractors (versus employees) makes business and financial sense. Too often, this issue is evaluated short shrift, however, leaving the owners of a medical practice unknowingly exposed to serious financial risks that could have been avoided.
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As with many legal considerations, factual details matter. Therefore, each situation should be examined independently giving due regard to specific facts, rather than relying upon general legal notions one has heard. Each medical practice employer’s situation is inherently different to some degree. Given the fact driven analysis required, what one practice does may not be reliable for another practice. Therefore, medical practice owners and decision makers should not defer too much to what is heard about what others do; others may be wrong. With regard to the question of whether a contracted physician can be properly treated as 1099 versus W2, it is best for a medical practice to consult with its law firm and permit the law firm to fully evaluate the details.
On January 19, 2017, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a press release announcing a deal reached with Costco Wholesale to resolve DOJ’s disputed allegations that Costco violated Federal law in filling prescriptions by lax protocol. The allegations against Costco stem from an investigation by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Diversion Groups based in Seattle, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Detroit.
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Our Atlanta and Augusta-based business law firm closely follows healthcare industry legal developments, including the healthcare fraud and abuse matters. A strong focus of the DEA and supporting Federal and State law enforcement activities is the current epidemic of Opioid abuse in the United States. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), deaths from Opioid overdose in the United States have quadrupled since 1999; and during the same period, sales of these drugs quadrupled. The most common such Opioids are Methadone, Oxycodone and Hydrocodone. “Pill mills” are a principal target of DEA and State law enforcement efforts. To combat pill mills and other circumstances that may give rise to misuse of opioids and controlled substances, the DEA will pursue healthcare providers and entities that fail to strictly follow legal protocols in prescribing or dispensing controlled substances.
The United States Department of Health and Human Resources (HHS) and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) recently issued a joint annual report for 2016 (the Report) providing details about the federal fraud and abuse program and, in particular, annual financial recoveries. Fraud and abuse law enforcement efforts continued to be a top priority for the Federal Government and an important means of defraying the rising costs of our nation’s healthcare delivery system. According to the Report, the Federal Government obtained over $2.5 billion in additional revenue in 2016 by way of health care fraud judgments and settlements.
So much focus is placed on the federal “whistleblower” statute, the Federal False Claims Act, that similar acts, such as various States’ versions of the law, are often not as well known. All have a common thread: they are a tool to recover tax payer money lost to fraudulent acts and serve to deter such fraud. Georgia has two false claims act statutes designed to combat fraud and abuse in Georgia.
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A brief history of this area of law puts the modern Federal and Georgia False Claims Acts in proper light. The Federal False Claims Act was passed during the Civil War era in response to fraud by government contractors who seized the opportunity of intense government spending on the war to defraud the government. An essential concept undergirding the earliest versions of the law was to create a financial incentive for one dishonest contractor — a “relator” — to turn in another. Hence the original law (1863) provided that the relator could be paid up to one-half of the government’s recovery in a false claims act case. The original law survived for decades as a remedial statute designed as a means for the Federal Government to recover what were thought to be, without the law, unrecoverable substantial losses for the treasury that attended dishonest acts. As one court explained: