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:
As the healthcare market witnesses a rise in consolidation, many small medical practices are closing their doors. Whether the physician is retiring, moving, or joining a larger system, closing a practice can be a much larger hassle than most physicians expect. Closing a medical practice involves several steps, including, but not limited to: notifying patients of the intention to retire, making decisions about insurance policies, selling or winding down the medical practice, and fulfilling record keeping responsibilities.
Licensure Board notification. If a physician is retiring and plans to become inactive, they must notify the Composite Medical Board of their intent to do so. The Board does not require physicians to notify them when they retire or close a practice; however, physicians who wish to become inactive must submit a form requesting inactive status. Physicians who are simply leaving a practice or moving have no obligation to inform the Board of their move.
Patient notification. When closing a practice, and thereby ending their physician-patient relationships, a physician must take appropriate steps to avoid claims of “patient abandonment.” Abandonment is defined as the termination of a professional relationship between physician and patient at an unreasonable time and without giving the patient the chance to find an equally qualified replacement. By not ensuring proper procedures are taken, a physician may risk investigation by the Composite Medical Board if a complaint is filed.
Credentialing is used to evaluate physicians for different purposes and is required of almost all physicians. It is utilized by hospitals when evaluating physicians for medical staff positions and hospital privileges and when enrolling in health insurance plans as a participating provider. Unfortunately, this process has not been streamlined and can be very time consuming and complex.
Provider credentialing is meant to verify experience, expertise, and willingness to provide medical care. It is often a complex, ongoing process that can take several months to be completed and approved and is an administrative hassle for employers, insurance companies, and physicians. While credentialing was historically just proof of licensure, modern credentialing goes far beyond proof of diploma and license.
It is important for all medical professionals to have a better understanding of their licensing board and the process for licensure appeals. The Georgia Composite Medical Board (“Board”) governs licensure for physicians, physician’s assistants, pain management clinics, clinical perfusionists, acupuncturists, orthotists and prosthetists, respiratory care professionals, and laser practitioners. The Board also regulates provisional, teacher, institutional, and administrative medical licenses.
The Board consists of thirteen physicians, two consumer members, and one physician assistant (PA) ex-officio member. Beyond licensure, the Board, in compliance with state law, also promulgates rules and regulations that govern the practice of medicine in Georgia. In order to stay in compliance with federal Antitrust laws (see NC State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC), these rules are passed in accordance to legal advice received from the Attorney General’s Board representative and the rules are also subject to the Governor’s executive oversight of all licensing boards (HB 952). All proposed rules are also open to public comment and the Board encourages interested parties to come to the open portions of their monthly Board meetings to listen and comment if desired.
Investigations and Discipline
There are many reasons that a medical professional may find themselves without an active license, including disciplinary action or simply failure to renew their license on time. Professionals are able to renew their license, apply for a new license, apply for reinstatement of a lapsed license and more online on the Board’s website. If a medical professional’s license has lapsed, it is unlawful for them to continue to practice and they must submit a reinstatement form and be approved before resuming.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently released its Medicaid Fraud Control Units Fiscal Year 2015 Annual Report (the “Report”). The Report’s findings highlight 1,553 convictions, 731 civil settlements, and $744 million in criminal and civil recoveries relating to Medicaid fraud and abuse. Fraud and Abuse financial recoveries remain a top priority for the Federal Government and hence a primary objective of Federal law enforcement. Our Georgia business and healthcare law firm follows developments in the world of healthcare law, including fraud and abuse issues.
The Social Security Act (SSA) mandates that, absent certain circumstances, each State operate a Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU). The District of Columbia and forty-nine States currently maintain MFCUs. MFCUs are one of many Federal law enforcement tools in its fraud and abuse arsenal. The statutory mission of MFCUs is to investigate and prosecute Medicaid fraud by health care providers and patient abuse and neglect. HHS’ Office of Inspector General (OIG) certifies, provides oversight of, and assesses performance relative to Federal compliance standards of all MFCUs. The States are responsible for operation of MFCUs and receive reimbursement for a percentage of their costs from the Federal Government, pursuant to the SSA. MFCUs are currently reimbursed for 90% of their costs for the first three years of their operation and 75% thereafter.
Each MFCU employs staff that comprise investigator(s), auditor(s) and attorney(s) to review referrals of potential fraud and abuse involving Medicaid and to make decisions regarding potential civil and/or criminal prosecution. The Report essentially provides the latest annual update on the success of MFCUs in prosecuting Medicaid fraud matters.
A Few Findings of the Report
The Report’s findings include:
How could it not?
The healthcare industry is rapidly evolving. As recently reported in U.S. News and World Report, next on telemedicine’s horizon may be virtual care clinics. In fact, so-called virtual care will likely revolutionize the delivery of health care in the coming years. “Virtual,” in this context, alludes to the fact that care providers, doctors, nurses and therapists, may provide most care from many miles away.
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Various genres of “virtual care” delivery exists already. One notable pioneer is Mercy Virtual. Mercy, based in Chesterfield, Missouri, emphasizes that an objective of its mission is to ensure access to quality care, explaining: “Mercy Virtual’s mission is to connect patients with leading care providers whenever, wherever they need help.” In recent years, many other medical businesses are finding and developing their own niches in the evolving virtual healthcare world. Several of the numerous examples are: Teladoc, which provides online, 24/7 access to primary care physician services; American Well, which claims to offer “telehealth” to more than 100 million people in an online marketplace where customers select their healthcare provider from a list; Carena provides a range of healthcare services that include virtual visits for the employees of self-insured companies; Zipnosis is a platform that, through “phone and video care,” helps patients get answers to their healthcare questions and helps physicians treat primary care ailments; MeVisit enables “e-visits” that allow patients to use their mobile device to connect with a doctor.