A recent whistleblower case led to the filing of a false claims act complaint against Community Health Network (CHN) by the United States of America Department of Justice on January 7, 2020. The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, alleges that CHN compensated providers significantly over fair market value (FMV) in order to roll up referrals from the provider’s practices in violation of the Stark Law, which prohibits a hospital from billing Medicare for services referred by a physician with whom the hospital has a financial relationship that does not meet any statutory or regulatory exception.
In its complaint, the government alleges that CHN had employment relationships with numerous physicians that did not meet any Stark Law exception, because the compensation paid to the providers by CHN was well above FMV. In addition to the excessive compensation allegation, the complaint alleges that CHN conditioned the physician’s incentive or bonus compensation based on the physician meeting a target of hospital downstream revenue specific to the physician.
According to the complaint, CHN wanted to tie physicians with existing business in lucrative specialties to CHN. A number of the recruited physicians already had medical staff privileges at CHN hospitals and were already referring patients to CHN hospitals. The government complaint states that the physician integration strategy was defensive in nature meaning that CHN recruited and employed the providers to secure their referrals and out of concern that referrals would otherwise leak to CHN’s competition.
The whistleblower provided information to the government suggesting that CHN knew the compensation exceeded FMV and had withheld details of the proposed compensation from FMV consultants in order to obtain a more favorable FMV analysis. The whistleblower also claimed to have documentation showing that CHN executives calculated the provider’s excessive compensation based on the value of expected referrals. The January 6, 2020 amended complaint claims that CHN ignored the consultant’s warnings that the proposed compensation was in excess of FMV.
While the Stark law strictly prohibits a hospital from paying a physician in excess of FMV, the calculation of FMV is subjective and influenced by a wide variety of factors. There can be good reasons for paying a physician in excess of what other doctors are paid. The rationale for paying a physician in excess of what other doctors are paid should be objective, legitimate and well documented.
Hospitals should obtain a FMV analysis of physician compensation arrangements, make sure that the valuator has the necessary information and understands any unique circumstances. Hospitals should consider obtaining the FMV analysis in draft form under attorney-client privilege, in case the valuator failed to consider a relevant factor and meet with the valuator to discuss the valuation, before the analysis is finalized. Finally, it is imperative that hospitals consult with legal counsel throughout the valuation process to assure compliance with legal and regulatory requirements.