Healthcare attorneys advise medical laboratory leaders to ensure staff understand difference between EKRA and other federal fraud laws, such as the Anti-kickback Statute
More than four years have passed since Congress passed the law and yet the Eliminating Kickbacks in Recovery Act of 2018 (EKRA) continues to cause anxiety and confusion. In particular are the differences in the safe harbors between the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) and Stark Law versus EKRA. This creates uncertainty among clinical laboratory leaders as they try to understand how these disparate federal laws affect business referrals for medical testing.
According to a news alert from Tampa Bay, Florida-based law firm, Holland and Knight, “EKRA was enacted as part of comprehensive legislation designed to address the opioid crisis and fraudulent practices occurring in the sober home industry.” However, “In the four years since EKRA’s enactment, US Department of Justice (DOJ) enforcement actions have broadened EKRA’s scope beyond reducing fraud in the addiction treatment industry to include all clinical laboratory activities, including COVID-19 testing.”
It is important that medical laboratory leaders understand this law. New cases are showing up and it would be wise for clinical laboratory managers to review their EKRA/AKS/Stark Law compliance with their legal counsels.
“Keeping in mind that [EKRA is] a criminal statute, clinical laboratories need to take steps to demonstrate that they’re not intending to break the law,” said attorney David Gee, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine, in an exclusive interview with The Dark Report. “[Lab leaders should] think about what they can do to make their sales compensation program avoid the things the government has had such a problem with, even if they’re not sure exactly how to compensate under the language of EKRA or how they’re supposed to develop a useful incentive compensation plan when they can’t pay commissions.” David Gee will be speaking about laboratory regulations and compliance at the upcoming Executive War College in New Orleans on April 25-26, 2023. (Photo copyright: Davis Wright Tremaine.)
How Does EKRA Affect Clinical Laboratories?
The federal EKRA statute—originally enacted to address healthcare fraud in addiction treatment facilities—was “expansively drafted to also apply to clinical laboratories,” according to New York-based law firm, Epstein Becker and Green. As such, EKRA “applies to improper referrals for any ‘service,’ regardless of the payor. … public as well as private insurance plans, and even self-pay patients, fall within the reach of the statute.”
In “Revised Stark Law, Anti-Kickback Statute Rules Are Good News for Labs,” Dark Daily’s sister publication The Dark Report noted that EKRA creates criminal penalties for any individual who solicits or receives any remuneration for referring a patient to a recovery home, clinical treatment facility, or clinical laboratory, or who pays or offers any remuneration to induce a referral.
According to Epstein Becker and Green, EKRA:
- Applies to clinical laboratories, not just toxicology labs.
- Has relevance to all payers: Medicare, Medicaid, private insurance plans, and self-pay.
- Is a criminal statute with “extreme penalties” such as 10 years in prison and $200,000 fine per occurrence.
- Exceptions are not concurrent with AKS.
- Areas being scrutinized include COVID-19 testing, toxicology, allergy, cardiac, and genetic tests.
“For many clinical laboratories, a single enforcement action could have a disastrous effect on their business. And unlike other healthcare fraud and abuse statutes, such as the AKA, exceptions are very limited,” Epstein Becker and Green legal experts noted.
“Therefore, a lab could potentially find itself protected under an AKS safe harbor and still potentially be in violation of EKRA,” they continued. “The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the DOJ have not provided any clarity regarding this statute (EKRA). Without this much needed guidance clinical laboratories have been left wondering what they need to do to avoid liability.”
EKRA versus AKS and Stark Law
HHS compared AKS and the Stark Law (but not EKRA) by noting on its website prohibition, penalties, exceptions, and applicable federal healthcare programs for each federal law:
- AKS has criminal fines of up to $25,000 per violation and up to a five-year prison term, as well as civil penalties.
- The Stark Law has civil penalties only.
- AKS prohibits anyone from “offering, paying, soliciting, or receiving anything of value to induce or reward referrals or generate federal healthcare program business.”
- The Stark Law addresses referrals from physicians and prohibits the doctors “from referring Medicare patients for designated health services to an entity with which the physician has a financial relationship.”
“Specifically, AKS includes a safe harbor for bona fide employees that gives an employer wide discretion in how employees are paid, including permitting percentage-based compensation,” Johnson wrote in a Dark Daily Coding, Billing, and Collections Special Report, titled, “Getting Paid for COVID-19 Test Claims: What Every Clinical Lab Needs to Know to Maximize Collected Dollars.”
EKRA Cases May Inform Clinical Laboratory Leaders
Recent enforcement actions may help lab leaders better understand EKRA’s reach. According to Holland and Knight:
- Malena Lepetich of Belle Isle, Louisiana, owner and CEO of MedLogic LLC in Baton Rouge, was indicted in a $15 million healthcare fraud scheme for “allegedly offering to pay kickbacks for COVID-19 specimens and respiratory pathogen testing.”
- In S-G Labs Hawaii, LLC v. Graves, a federal court concluded the laboratory recruiter’s contract “did not violate EKRA because the recruiter was not referring individual patients but rather marketing to doctors. According to the court, EKRA only prohibits percentage-based compensation to marketers based on direct patient referrals.”
- In another federal case, United States v. Mark Schena, the court’s rule on prohibition of direct and indirect referrals of patients to clinical labs sent a strong signal “that EKRA most likely prohibits clinical laboratories from paying their marketers percentage-based compensation, regardless of whether the marketer targets doctors or prospective patients.”
What can medical laboratory leaders do to ensure compliance with the EKRA law?
In EKRA Compliance, Law and Regulations for 2023, Dallas law firm Oberheiden P.C., advised clinical laboratories (as well as recovery homes and clinical treatment facilities) to have EKRA policies and procedure in place, and to reach out to staff (employed and contracted) to build awareness of statute prohibitions and risks of non-compliance.
One other useful resource for clinical laboratory executives and pathologists with management oversight of their labs’ marketing and sales programs is the upcoming Executive War College on Diagnostics, Clinical Laboratory, and Pathology Management. The conference takes place on April 25-26, 2023, at the Hyatt Regency in New Orleans. A panel of attorneys with deep experience in lab law and compliance will discuss issues associated with EKRA, the Anti-Kickback Statutes, and the Stark self-referral law.
—Donna Marie Pocius