Hospitals and other organizations are finding ways to pay physicians for referrals in ways that don’t always look like kickbacks

Hospitals nationwide are being scrutinized by the federal Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for allegedly violating federal anti-kickback statutes. This will be of interest to clinical pathology laboratories that have been under a similar spotlight for various referral-kickback schemes and arrangements in the last few years, which Dark Daily repeatedly covered.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) recently reported on investigations by the OIG into hospitals allegedly offering unusually high salaries and other perks to specialists because they attract highly profitable business.

In the KHN article, titled, “Hospitals Accused of Paying Doctors Large Kickbacks in Quest for Patients,” Senior Correspondent Jordan Rau describes one investigation of salaries that involved certain high-profile specialists at Wheeling Hospital, in Wheeling, W.Va.

Wheeling, KHN reported, paid one anesthesiologist $1.2 million per year, which, Rau notes, is higher than the salaries of 90% of the pain management specialists around the country. Rau went on to describe how Wheeling also paid one obstetrician-gynecologist $1.3 million per year, and a cardiothoracic surgeon $770,000 per year along with 12 weeks of vacation time.

In each of those cases, the whistleblower who prompted the qui tam investigation reported that the specialists’ various departments were frequently in the red, reported KHN.

“The problem, according to the government, is that the efforts run counter to federal self-referral bans and anti-kickback laws that are designed to prevent financial considerations from warping physicians’ clinical decisions,” wrote Rau.

Wheeling not only contests the lawsuits brought against it, but also has filed a countersuit against the whistleblower. KHN said the hospital claims “its generous salaries were not kickbacks but the only way it could provide specialized care to local residents who otherwise would have to travel to other cities for services such as labor and delivery that are best provided near home.”

“We are confident that, if this case goes to a trial, there will be no evidence of wrongdoing—only proof that Wheeling Hospital offers the Northern Panhandle Community access to superior care, [and] world class physicians and services,” KHN reported Gregg Warren (above), Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations at Wheeling Hospital, saying in a statement. (Photo copyright: LinkedIn.)

OIG’s Fraud and Abuse Laws: A Roadmap for Physicians

The KHN article mentions five laws the OIG lists on its website that are particularly important for physicians to be aware of. They include the:

  • False Claims Act: states that it’s illegal to file false Medicare or Medicaid claims.
  • Anti-Kickback Statute: states that paying for referrals is illegal, that physicians can’t provide free or discounted services to uninsured people, and that money and gifts from drug and device makers to physicians are prohibited.
  • Stark Law(physician self-referral): says that referrals to entities with whom the physician has a familial or financial relationship are off-limits.
  • Exclusion Statue: describes who cannot participate in federal programs, such as Medicare.
  • Civil Monetary Penalties Law: authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Services, which operates the OIG, to impose penalties in cases of fraud and abuse that involve Medicare or Medicaid.

“Together, these rules are intended to remove financial incentives that can lead doctors to order up extraneous tests and treatments that increase costs to Medicare and other insurers and expose patients to unnecessary risks,” KHN said.

Other Hospitals Under Investigation

Wheeling Hospital is not the only healthcare institution facing investigation. The Dallas Morning News (DMN) reported on a case involving Forest Park Medical Center (FPMC) in Dallas that resulted in the conviction of seven defendants, including four doctors. Prosecutors outlined the scheme in court, saying that FPMC illegally paid for surgeries.

“Prosecutors said the surgeons agreed to refer patients to the Dallas hospital in exchange for money to market their practices,” DMN reported, adding “Patients were a valuable commodity sold to the highest bidder, according to the government.” 

One of the convicted physicians, Michael Rimlawi, MD, told DMN, “I’m in disbelief. I thought we had a good system, a fair system.” His statement may indicate the level to which some healthcare providers at FPMC did not clearly understand how anti-kickback laws work.

“The verdict in the Forest Park case is a reminder to healthcare practitioners across the district that patients—not payments—should guide decisions about how and where doctors administer treatment,” US Attorney Erin Nealy Cox told DMN.

Know What Is and Is Not a Kickback

Both the Wheeling Hospital investigation and the Forest Park Medical Center case make it clear that kickbacks don’t always look like kickbacks. Becker’s Hospital Review published an article titled “Four Biggest Anti-Kickback Settlements Involving Hospitals in 2018” that details cases in which hospitals chose to settle.

These four incidents involved hospitals in Tennessee, Montana, Pennsylvania, and New York. This demonstrates that kickback schemes take place nationwide. And they show that violations of the Stark Law, the False Claims Act, and the Anti-Kickback Statute can happen in numerous ways.

Whether in a clinical laboratory or an enterprisewide health network, violating laws written to prevent money—rather than appropriate patient care—from being the primary motivator in hiring decisions, may result in investigation, charges, fines, and even conviction.

“If we’re going to solve the healthcare pricing problem, these kinds of practices are going to have to go away,” Vikas Saini, MD, President of the Lown Institute, a Massachusetts nonprofit that advocates for affordable care, told KHN.

Though these recent OIG investigations target hospitals, clinical laboratory leaders know from past experience that they also must be vigilant and ensure their hiring practices do not run afoul of anti-kickback legislation.

—Dava Stewart

Related Information:

Hospitals Accused of Paying Doctors Large Kickbacks in Quest for Patients

A Roadmap for New Physicians: Fraud and Abuse Laws

Surgeons, hospital owner convicted in massive kickback scheme involving Forest Park Medical Center

Four Biggest Anti-Kickback Settlements Involving Hospitals in 2018

Clinical Laboratory Compliance Practices Under Pressure as Federal Spotlight Is Aimed at Common Fraud and Abuse Schemes; Penalties for Violations Surge

Biodiagnostic Laboratory Services Leaders Sentenced to Prison in $100-Million Lab Test Kickback Scheme That Also Led to Convictions of 38 Physicians Does New Opioid Law Require Clinical Laboratories to Change How They Pay Sales Employees?