March 25, 2015 Advisory Opinion No. 15-04 addresses a proposed arrangement involving a clinical/anatomic lab’s desire to position itself as the single lab recommended by practices.
The proposal arises in the context of the OIG Advisory Opinion process, which allows the OIG to opine on its view of how the federal anti-kickback statute might view a proposed arrangement. Though Advisory Opinions are not “law,” they do provide good insight into prosecutorial intent.
The clinical/anatomic lab (“Lab”) wanted to have agreements with physician practices to provide all their lab services. To deal with the fact that some commercial insurers have exclusive arrangements with labs, the Lab proposed that if a practice patient’s insurer required the patient to use another lab, the Lab would waive all fees for the affected practice patients and would not bill the patient, the medical practice or the patient. The Lab would provide its services to these “exclusive patients” for free, while billing all other patients (and/or their insurers, including governmental payers) its fee scheduled or contracted rates. The proposed arrangement would allegedly simplify things for the practices and keep lab results uniform. A practice patient would be required to use the Lab. The Lab’s services would simply be offered by the practices to their patients. The Lab stated that the provision of free services to certain practice patients would not provide any financial benefit to the practices, although the lab would provide the practice a limited-use interface. Samples would not be drawn in physician offices.
As premiums and deductibles rise and coverage shrinks, more and more patients have difficulty paying for their health care. You can provide financial relief to your patients if you wish, but you should only do so in accordance with a uniform hardship policy.
As a general rule, the practice should not routinely waive co-pays or deductibles, or offer discounts based on a patient’s statement that the patient is suffering from financial hardship. If the practice does routinely offer discounts or waivers of deductibles without properly investigating a patient’s financial wherewithal, the practice runs the risk of violating its payor contracts, being accused of committing insurance fraud, and/or paying an illegal kickback to induce patients to come to the practice. Some payor contracts require the practice to bill the payor the lowest rate that the practice bills any of its patients, a so-called “most favored nation provision.” Typical Medicare participation agreements are subject to this type of provision. If the practice waives deductibles or co-pays, then insurers often take the position that the amount being billed by the practice to the insurer ought to be reduced by the amount waived. In addition, a regulator could conceivably accuse the practice of waiving co-pays and deductibles as a means of inducing patients to seek treatment from the practice in violation of anti-kickback laws.
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