All posts by Amy E. McCracken

The Looming Crisis – Illegal Administration of Schedule II Controlled Substances in Nursing Homes

Not a week goes by without some mention of the opioid crisis and opioid litigation, including the recent settlement proposal by Purdue Pharma to pay $270 million to resolve a case pending with the State of Oklahoma. Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin®, has had over 1,000 lawsuits filed against it by State and local governments alleging that it caused the opioid crisis. On April 5, 2019, the Illinois Attorney General filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma LP and Purdue Pharma Inc. over their alleged roles in the opioid crisis. According to the lawsuit, more than 2,000 Illinois residents died in 2017 alone due to opioid overdoses.

Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) representatives recently advised State regulators that it is turning up the heat to aggressively crack down on a common practice among physicians or practitioners, nurses, and pharmacists who provide Schedule II controlled substances to residents of long-term care facilities (“LTCFs”). The practice involves the admission of a resident to a LTCF after hours and the administration of a Schedule II controlled substance without a valid prescription.

Often, due to the after-hours admission and without a valid prescription, the nurse removes the Schedule II controlled substance from the facility’s emergency box or narcotics box and administers it to the resident. Although convenient for the nurse administering the drug, this practice violates federal law and State law, and can result in any number of legal actions against the physician or practitioner, nurse, administrator, facility, or pharmacist by the DEA, Department of Justice, federal Office of Inspector General, State Department of Professional Regulation, State Medicaid department, and State Department of Public Health, among other federal and State agencies.  All health care providers and practitioners should ensure that they are following the law when prescribing, dispensing, or administering controlled substances.

Certificate of Need Laws: Desirable or Destructive

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is making headlines in Alaska, supporting a move to repeal that state’s certificate of need (CON) law. CON laws require health care providers to establish that a need exists for the services the provider seeks to provide. If there is no need, the provider is not allowed to establish its business.

The goals of CON laws are to reduce health care costs, reduce redundancy, and to improve access to care. CON laws are designed to ensure that health care is available in poor or rural communities, not just cities and wealthy areas. A 1974 federal law (repealed in 1987) required all states to enact CON laws.

The FTC argues that CON laws hurt competition and do not live up to the goals of protecting consumers from unexpected health care costs. The FTC says that CON laws create barriers to entry into the market which limits consumer choice and may stifle innovation.

With the weight of the FTC behind the repeal movement, is Alaska’s law doomed? Maybe not. The FTC criticized Illinois’ CON law in 2008, and the law is still in force, going strong.

Collecting and maintaining fingerprints or other biometric data can lead to huge liability if not handled correctly

Recently, the Illinois Supreme Court considered the consequences of violating the Biometric Information Privacy Act (“Act”). The Act has been on the books for ten years, and during that time, the use of biometric data, such as finger prints, voice prints, or facial recognition, has grown by leaps and bounds. It is possible to unlock an iPhone merely by looking at it—using facial geometry.

As health care facilities move to biometric methods of identifying staff or clients, they will need to consider the ramifications of doing so. The Act requires entities that collect biometric data to first obtain informed consent, in writing, by the individual or their representative. In addition, the entity must have a policy and procedure for destroying the biometric data in accordance with the Act.

According to the Supreme Court, failure to abide by these procedures causes damage to the person whose biometric data was gathered. As a result, the entity can face liability in the amount of $1,000 to $5,000 per violation, or actual damages, plus attorneys’ fees. Considering the real risk of identity theft in this digital age, actual damages could easily exceed the statutory amounts.

Will increasing regulatory oversight improve quality of care in the nation’s nursing homes?

Last month I wrote about the hearing to be held by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations regarding federal efforts to ensure quality of care and resident safety in nursing homes.

The Director of Health Care for the GAO focused his opening remarks on the GAO study of nursing homes that concluded in 2015. The next year, CMS instituted sweeping regulatory changes. So it remains to be seen how CMS’ new requirements of participation will impact the issues found in the GAO report. Ruth Ann Dorrill, Regional Inspector General, HHS OIG noted that the OIG previously made two recommendations to CMS to improve quality of care in nursing homes. First, to provide guidance to nursing homes about detecting and reducing harm to be included in facility Quality Assurance and Performance Improvement programs. Second, to instruct State Agencies to review facility practices for identifying and reducing adverse events, and link related deficiencies specifically to resident safety practices. CMS implemented these recommendations on adverse events in nursing homes as of August 2018.

The focus on deficiencies by the State Agencies is disappointing. Deficiencies result in civil money penalties, further reducing the resources available to care for nursing home residents. Ms. Dorrill testified that nursing home residents often have care needs similar to patients in hospitals. However, nursing homes are not reimbursed at the same rate as hospitals and, yet, are expected to provide similar care. It seems as though the residents are getting lost in the ever increasing cycle of regulation and enforcement. Regulatory oversight sounds good on paper, but does it work?

What’s on the federal regulatory horizon for nursing homes?

The federal government cannot agree on whether to increase or decrease regulatory burdens on nursing facilities. Yesterday, the United States House Committee on Ways and Means and the Subcommittee on Health wrote to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services urging further reduction of regulatory burdens on health systems, hospitals, and nursing homes. Tomorrow, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will hold a hearing examining federal efforts to ensure quality of care and resident safety in nursing homes.

The Ways and Means Committee’s letter noted that providers with post-acute care beds devote 8.1 full-time employees to compliance with regulatory requirements. Over half of those employees are clinical staff who could otherwise be caring for residents. The letter applauded recent efforts to reduce the regulatory burden and urged further reductions.

In contrast, the Committee on Energy and Commerce suggests that CMS isn’t doing enough to ensure quality care in the nation’s nursing homes. The Committee’s background report recites a number of news reports in which seniors died or were abused in nursing homes. Three witnesses have been invited to testify: Kate Goodrich, M.D., Chief Medical Officer of CMS; Ruth Ann Dorrill, Regional Inspector General, HHS OIG; and John Dicken, Director, Health Care GAO. Topics to be addressed include efforts made to ensure that nursing homes are meeting the federal regulatory standards and CMS’ oversight of state agencies that work with CMS to inspect nursing homes. The undertone of the Committee’s background report is that CMS needs to increase enforcement, including higher civil money penalties and exclusion from participation in federal health care programs.

It is hard to see how higher monetary penalties will improve quality care as it further reduces the resources available to care for residents.

Supreme Court to Consider Implied Certification theory of FCA

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case involving the implied certification theory under the False Claims Act. Implied false certification occurs when an entity has previously undertaken to expressly comply with a law, rule, or regulation, and that obligation is implicated by submitting a claim for payment even though a certification of compliance is not required in the process of submitting the claim. Many relators have tried to use this theory to turn a regulatory violation into a false claim–with its concomitant treble damages and statutory damages.

There has long been a split in the circuits regarding the viability of the implied certification theory. As recently as June 2015, the Seventh Circuit rejected the theory, stating that the “FCA is simply not the proper mechanism for government to enforce violations of conditions of participation contained in—or incorporated by reference into—a PPA [Program Participation Agreement].” Rejection of this theory recognizes that there administrative procedures designed to address regulatory violations.

In contrast, the Ninth Circuit has embraced the implied certification theory, stating “”[i]t is the false certification of compliance which creates liability when certification is a prerequisite to obtaining a government benefit.” The problem in the health care arena is that facilities promise to comply with a myriad of regulations when entering into PPAs, and certify compliance when submitting bills. Thus, under this theory, every single regulatory violation can turn into a false claim.

The health care industry will be closely watching the Supreme Court’s ruling on this important issue.

CMS released its Focused Dementia Care Surveyor Worksheets

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released its Focused Dementia Care Surveyor Worksheets on November 27, 2015. The Worksheets were developed for a pilot project in 2014 as part of CMS’ continuing effort to reduce the use of antipsychotic medication. The Worksheets are to be used by surveyors in reviewing dementia care at post-acute care facilities. The Worksheets were released so that facilities can use these tools to assess their own practices in providing resident care.

The Worksheets contain specific topics for review, and state that failure of the facility to perform certain practices will result in a deficiency of F309. F309 addresses quality of care, and requires that each resident receive (and the facility provide) the necessary care and services to attain or maintain the highest practicable physical, mental, and psychosocial well-being, in accordance with the comprehensive assessment and plan of care.

Facilities that serve individuals with dementia should have policies and procedures based upon nationally-recognized dementia care guidelines, such as CMS’ Hand in Hand series, the OASIS program, the University of Iowa program, the VA Program (STAR), Johns Hopkins’ DICE program, Alzheimer’s Association materials, NHQCC or other QIO guidelines, Advancing Excellence medication management tools, or the AHCA toolkit.

The Worksheets also evaluate supervision, staff training, and Quality Assessment and Assurance, as well as the care provided to specific residents. All facilities that serve individuals with dementia should obtain and use the Worksheets to evaluate their own practices.

Final AKS and Stark Waivers in Connection With the Shared Savings Program

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued the final rule regarding waivers of the application of the physician self-referral law, the Federal anti-kickback statute, and the civil monetary penalties (CMP) law provision relating to beneficiary inducements to specified arrangements involving accountable care organizations (ACOs) under section 1899 of the Social Security Act (the Act) (the “Shared Savings Program”). For purposes of the Shared Savings Program, providers must integrate in ways that potentially implicate fraud and abuse laws addressing financial arrangements between sources of Federal health care program referrals and those seeking such referrals. The Shared Savings Program focuses on coordinating care between and among providers, including those who are potential referral sources for one another—potentially in violation of the fraud and abuse laws.

In order to provide flexibility for ACOs and their constituent parts, the following five waivers have been created:

  • ACO pre-participation waiver – waives the physician self-referral law and the Federal anti-kickback statute that applies to ACO-related start-up arrangements in anticipation of participating in the Shared Savings Program, subject to certain limitations, including limits on the duration of the waiver and the types of parties covered.
  • ACO participation waiver – waives the physician self-referral law and the Federal anti-kickback statute that applies broadly to ACO-related arrangements during the term of the ACO’s participation agreement under the Shared Savings Program and for a specified time thereafter.
  • Shared savings distributions waiver – waives the physician self-referral law and the Federal anti-kickback statute that applies to distributions and uses of shared savings payments earned under the Shared Savings Program.
  • Compliance with the physician self-referral law waiver – waives the Federal anti-kickback statute for ACO arrangements that implicate the physician self-referral law and satisfy the requirements of an existing exception.
  • Patient incentive waiver – waives the Beneficiary Inducements CMP and the Federal anti-kickback statute for medically related incentives offered by ACOs, ACO participants, or ACO providers/suppliers under the Shared Savings Program to beneficiaries to encourage preventive care and compliance with treatment regimes.

The waivers apply uniformly to each ACO, ACO participant, and ACO provider/supplier participating in the Shared Savings Program. The waivers are self-implementing; parties need not apply for a waiver. Rather, parties that meet the applicable waiver conditions are covered by the waiver.

Health Care Workers May Think Twice Before Becoming a Relator

The Federal False Claims Act (and many similar state false claims acts) allow an individual—called a “relator”—to file a lawsuit on behalf of the United States Government. If successful, the relator stands to collect a portion of the amount collected. Since the False Claims Act provides for treble damages and statutory penalties of up to $11,000 per false claim, the reward to the relator can be considerable.

Complaints by relators must filed under seal. This allows the Government time to investigate the relator’s allegations before deciding whether to intervene in the case. Cases in which the Government intervenes tend to have higher judgments or settlements. Once the Government makes this decision, the complaint is unsealed and the case can move forward.

Earlier this week, an Alabama judge ruled that the relators could not keep their identities secret, even though they voluntarily dismissed their lawsuit against Great Bend Regional Hospital. Frank Coyle and Randy Bruce argued that their careers in health care may be damaged if their identities are revealed. However, the court agreed with the Government, that the reason for sealing the complaint is for the limited purpose of protecting the Government’s investigative process.

It may have been a bad choice for Coyle and Bruce to ask for anonymity. If they had merely dismissed their case, the dismissal may have been a mere footnote or back page news item. By seeking anonymity and losing, it is front page news. When filing a case, relators may think that they will no longer have to work once they win millions of dollars. As these relators have learned, you don’t always win. And there are consequences to your actions.

ACOs are More Important Than Ever for LTC Facilities

On January 26, 2015, the United States Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) announced its timeline for shifting Medicare reimbursements from volume-based criteria to value-based criteria. HHS has adopted a framework that categorizes health care payments according to how providers receive payment to provide care:

•  Category 1—fee-for-service with no link of payment to quality
•  Category 2—fee-for-service with a link of payment to quality
•  Category 3—alternative payment models built on fee-for-service architecture
•  Category 4—population-based payment

In Monday’s announcement, HHS disclosed its initiative to drive more of the Medicare payments to categories 3 and 4. This is the first time in history that HHS has set explicit goals for alternative payment models and value-based payments.  HHS declared: “Improving the quality and affordability of care for all Americans has always been a pillar of the Affordable Care Act, alongside expanding access to such care. The law gives us the opportunity to shape the way health care is delivered to patients and to improve the quality of care system-wide while helping to reduce the growth of health care costs.”

By the end of 2016, HHS has set a goal of tying 30 percent of traditional, fee-for-service, Medicare payments to quality or value through alternative payment models, such as Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) or bundled payment arrangements. By the end of 2018, the goal is 50 percent of these payments.

An ACO is an organization of health care providers that agree to be accountable for the quality, cost, and overall care of a group of Medicare beneficiaries. Reimbursement is tied to quality metrics to reduce the total cost of care for the assigned population of patients. Hospitals and physicians have been forming ACOs, and HHS’s most recent initiative should drive even more dollars in this direction.

However, in our experience, long-term care facilities (LTC Facilities) have been slow to adopt the ACO model. Refusal to join an ACO could result in fewer referrals from hospitals and other providers, since ACO members will refer to the facility (or facilities) within the ACO. LTC Facilities with high ratings for their Quality Measures (on Nursing Home Compare) and low re-hospitalization rates will be more attractive to ACOs.  Now is the time to join an ACO, before it is too late.