The Department of Health and Human Services under the Trump administration has taken a deregulatory approach toward healthcare delivery. Its efforts on the payer side includes expanding the availability of individual health insurance policies that don’t conform to the rules of the Affordable Care Act, and more recently liberalizing the use of tax credits to purchase them.
However, the HHS has made one of its boldest proposals on the provider side. Over the summer, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued a request for information (RFI) regarding potentially loosening up the Stark and anti-kickback laws.
Originally signed into law in 1972, the Anti-Kickback Statute barred any sort of renumeration to a provider to induce the referral of a patient. The Stark Law, enacted in 1990, bars doctors from referring Medicare or Medicaid patients to any ‘designated facility’ in which they have any form of a financial relationship. Both laws have been updated – and strengthened – numerous times in the intervening years. The HHS’ proposed changes would signal a shift away from how those laws are interpreted.
According to Mark Hardiman, partner with the Nelson Hardiman healthcare law firm in Los Angeles, the move represents a desire by HHS “to move all payments away from fee-for-service and make the providers at risk on both the upside and downside.”
Although the proportion of fee-for-service payments made to Medicare providers has shrunk in recent years, it still comprises the majority. A total of $392 billion in Medicare fee-for-service payments were made in 2017, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 56 percent of all payments made from the program. Although that’s down from 70 percent of all Medicare payments made a decade prior, the continuing aging of the Baby Boomer population and healthcare cost inflation is putting pressure on CMS and HHS to find ways to continue to pare back costs. Coordinated care initiatives such as accountable care organizations comprise just a small fraction of all Medicare payments, and many providers are balking about taking on too much downside financial risk when forming accountable care organizations.
According to HHS, the intent is to make it easier for providers to implement value-based care initiatives. “Removing unnecessary government obstacles to care coordination is a key priority for this administration,” said HHS Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan of the rationale behind the regulatory review. “We need to change the healthcare system so that it puts value and results at the forefront of care, and coordinated care plays a vital role in this transformation.”
Nonetheless, the hospital sector has been generally supportive of regulatory changes. In testimony to a U.S. House Ways and Means subcommittee over the summer, Michael Lappin, chief integration officer at Advocate Aurora Health, observed that strict liability rules discourage value-based arrangements.
So, what would the healthcare delivery environment resemble with looser regulations governing both laws?
According to Hardiman, the changes HHS is seeking to the regulations are far from sweeping.
“They are really on the margins, and they are not signaling a fundamental shift in the enforcement of the Stark and Anti-Kickback Law,” he said.
Why would there not be a major regulatory unraveling? Hardiman notes that doing so would create chaos in healthcare delivery. Moreover, qui tam(whistleblower) lawsuits in healthcare have become a major source of income for attorneys, and they would object to too much of an unwinding. Data from the non-profit watchdog organization Taxpayers Against Fraud bears that out: Of the more than $3.7 billion in False Claims Act settlements reached in 2017, $2.4 billion involved litigation involving healthcare enterprises. It was the eighth consecutive year that healthcare case settlements topped $2 billion. Hardiman also noted that more and more litigation is being settled for large sums even when the U.S. Justice Department declines to intervene in a case.
Hardiman believes that if the regs are loosened, they would likeliest be in the form of a “series of fraud and abuse waivers.” They would cover initiatives such as managed care ventures or ACOs, making it easier for hospitals and physicians to collaborate on care coordination, as well create models to more equitably share expenses and profits and encourage cross-referrals.
“You are going to see a much more comprehensive definition as to what types of risk-sharing arrangements will not be reviewed as renumeration under the kickback statute,” Hardiman said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see safe harbors around Medicare Advantages, ACOs, and participants in other innovative risk-sharing arrangements.”
Individual physicians and medical groups may also have the opportunity to pay inducements to patients to lose weight or engage in another health-enhancing activity – something they are currently barred from doing under most circumstances.
“Everybody knows we’re heading toward a value-based coordinated care model,” Hardiman said. “And promoting and incentivizing it is still a risky business. You want at least some practical guideposts.”