By Cason Liles
(February 6, 2019): The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of Inspector General (OIG) is an independent, objective law enforcement and investigative agency that is responsible for protecting the financial integrity of the more than 300 programs that are administered by HHS. Collectively, these programs represent approximately 24% of the Federal budget. Although OIG is responsible for investigating allegations of fraud, waste and abuse related to literally hundreds of HHS programs, most of OIG’s investigative and enforcement activities arise out the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Simply put, OIG’s mission is fighting fraud, waste and abuse. In the pursuit of this mission, OIG aggressively investigates allegations of wrongdoing to identify and recover improper payments made to health care providers, suppliers and other parties who have engaged in fraudulent, wasteful or abusive conduct. One of the key tools used by OIG to protect patients and safeguard the financial integrity of the Medicare and Medicaid programs is its authority to exclude individuals and entities from participation in Medicare, Medicare and other Federal health care benefit programs. This article examines a number of the exclusion-related enforcement actions taken by the OIG in Fiscal Year (FY) 2018.
I. An Overview of FY 2018 Exclusion Actions:
At the outset, it is important to keep in mind that “exclusion” actions aren’t new. They were first mandated in 1977 as part of the “Medicare-Medicaid Anti-Fraud and Abuse Amendments,” Public Law 95-142. The responsibility for imposing mandatory and permissive exclusion actions rests with OIG. As in prior years, OIG aggressively exercised its exclusion authorities in FY 2018 and excluded 2,712 individuals and entities from participating in Federal health care benefit programs. A number of the more noteworthy exclusion actions taken in FY 2018 are outlined below:
II. Noteworthy Civil Monetary Penalty and Affirmative Exclusion Actions Taken by OIG in FY 2018:
Oklahoma. (January 2018). Assisted Living Facility Settles Case Involving Excluded Individual. In this case, an Oklahoma assisted living facility (ALF) improperly employed an excluded individual who was hired to work as an “Admissions Specialist.” As a result of the organization’s wrongful employment of this excluded individual (likely caused by a failure to properly screen all of its staff), the ALF may have faced significant civil monetary penalties (CMPs). Ultimately, the ALF entered into a settlement agreement with OIG and agreed to pay more than $96,000. This case illustrates the importance of screening ALLemployees, not merely direct patient caregivers such as physicians, nurses, medical assistants and other licensed health care professionals.
Oklahoma. (February 2018). Management Company Settles Case Involving Excluded Individual. An organization that owns and manages a skilled nursing facility in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, was alleged to have hired a licensed practical nurse (LPN) who was excluded from participating in any Federal health care program. An OIG investigation found that this individual had provided items or services that were reimbursed by Federal health care programs. This resulted in the skilled nursing facility entering into a settlement agreement with OIG and agreed to pay more than $140,000 to the government.
New Jersey. (March 2018). Pharmacy and Owner Settle Case Involving Excluded Individual. In this New Jersey case, a pharmacy and its owner were alleged to have employed a pharmacist who was excluded from participating in Federal health care benefit programs. Upon investigation it was found that this excluded pharmacist had provided items or services to patients that were reimbursed by Federal health care programs. The pharmacy entered into a settlement agreement with OIG and agreed to pay more than $300,000 to the government.
Pennsylvania. (March 2018). Physician Agrees to Voluntary Exclusion. In this case, a Pennsylvania physician accepted an exclusion from participation in all Federal health care programs for 10 yearsunder 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7(b)(6)(B).OIG alleged that the physician had issued opioid prescriptions to patients that were in excess of their needs and fell substantially short of the professionally recognized standards of care. This cause illustrates just how serious the OIG currently is when dealing with these opioid-related issues.
New Jersey. (September 2018). New Jersey Health Center Pays Penalties for Improperly Employing an Excluded Individual. In this New Jersey case, a community health center was alleged to have improperly employed a physician who was excluded from participation in Federal health care benefit programs. Notably, the excluded physician was found to be working in quality assurance and risk management. Additionally, the excluded physician had provided items and services that were ultimately billed to Federal health care programs. As a result of this wrongful hire, the community health center entered into a settlement agreement with OIG that required the organization to pay more than $98,000.
Illinois. (September 2018). Psychologist Agrees to 20-Year Exclusion. In this Illinois case, a licensed psychologist was alleged to have billed for psychological services that were either: (1) not provided as claimed; (2) false or fraudulent because the dates of service billed were times when either the patient was hospitalized, OR the psychologist was travelling out of the state. Based on the allegations, the psychologist agreed to be excluded from participation in all Federal health care programs for a period of 20 years under 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7(b)(7).
Tennessee. (September 2018). Advanced Practice Nurse (APRN) Agrees to 10-Year Exclusion.In this Tennessee case, an advanced practice nurse (APRN) agreed to be excluded from participation in Federal health care benefit programs for 10 yearsunder 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7(b)(6)(B) and42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7(b)(6). Importantly, this particular exclusion action was imposed due the APRN’s inappropriate opioid prescribing practices. It is also worth noting that the OIG further alleged that the APRN prescribed controlled substances without appropriately documenting: (1) A clear objective finding of a chronic pain source to justify the ongoing and increasing prescribing; (2) Attempts to identify the etiology of reported pain; (3) A thorough history or adequately inquiring into potential substance abuse history; or (4) A written treatment plan with regard to the use of the prescriptions. If OIG audits your controlled substance prescribing practices, the agency will be looking for each of these items in the record.
III. Noteworthy Exclusion Self-Disclosures Reported to OIG in 2018:
Hawaii. (January 2018). General Hospital Self-Discloses Employment of Excluded Individual. After voluntarily self-disclosing the employment of an excluded individual, a Hawaii based hospital agreed to pay $100,000 for accusations of violating the Civil Monetary Penalties Law. OIG alleged that the hospital knew or should have known that the individual had been excluded from participation as a provider in Federal health care benefit programs.
Rhode Island. (March 2018). Nursing Home Self-Discloses Employment of Excluded Individual. A nursing home in Rhode Island learned that it had improperly employed an individual who was excluded from participation in Federal health care benefit programs. After subsequently choosing self-disclosing of this employment to OIG, the nursing and rehabilitation center agreed to pay more than $42,000 to resolve violations of the Civil Monetary Penalties Law.
Ohio. (April 2018). Ohio County Health District Self-Discloses the Improper Employment of Excluded Individual. In this Ohio case, a County Health District agreed to pay more than $55,000 for alleged violations of the Civil Monetary Penalties Law. The County Health District voluntarily disclosed that it had improperly employed an individual that it knew or should have known was excluded from participation in Federal health care benefit programs.
Texas. (September 2018). Rehabilitation Center in Texas Self-Discloses Employment of Excluded Individual. In this Texas case, arehabilitation and care center learned that their organization had unwittingly hired an individual that had been excluded from participation in Federal health benefits programs. To their credit, the rehabilitation center self-disclosed the violation directly to OIG. Ultimately, the rehabilitation center was required to pay more than $129,000 in civil monetary penalties to the government in connection with this wrongful employment.
IV. Points to Consider:
As several of the cases above reflect, opioid related audits and investigations are increasingly resulting in OIG exercising its permissive exclusion authority under 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7(b)(6). It is important to keep in mind that this statutory provision can be applied to practically any situation where a health care provider’s services “fail to meet professionally recognized standards of health care.” Now, more than ever before, it is imperative that health care providers remain up-to-date with respect to the standards of care applicable in their specific field of practice. Additionally, their compliance with applicable standards of care must be fully and accurately documented their actions in the patient’s medical records.
Health care providers and suppliers MUST ensure that they are taking the appropriate steps to ensure that their employees, agents, contractors and vendors have not been excluded from participation in Federal health benefit programs. Based on the OIG’s actions in 2018, we should fully expect for the agency to continue to increasingly focus on exclusion-related administrative actions in 2019.
Is your practice or health care organization meeting its screening obligations? Call the experienced staff at Exclusion Screening for help with your screening needs.