Category Archives: Out-Patient Care

Lessons Learned: May a Healthcare Professional Say No To Treating Ebola?

May a licensed healthcare professional refuse to treat a patient?  Healthcare providers have legal, ethical and professional duties to address a patient’s needs that fall within the provider’s scope of practice. However, are doctors, and other health care personnel, required to treat any and all patients, even if doing so might cost them their lives? While this is an issue that has arisen with the recent Ebola outbreak, it is not a new issue and has been previously addressed.

History of Refusing to Treat

During the early HIV/AIDS era in the 1980s, when there was little known about the disease, there were physicians and other health care workers who refused to treat HIV infected patients.  Accordingly, in 1992, the American Medical Association declared in an ethics opinion that “A physician may not ethically refuse to treat a patient whose condition is within the physician’s current realm of competence solely because the patient is seropositive for HIV. Persons who are seropositive should not be subjected to discrimination based on fear or prejudice.” AMA Opinion 9.131 (March 1992, updated June 1996 and June 1998).

Similarly, the American Dental Association stated in its Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct that, “[a] dentist has a general obligation to provide care to those in need. A decision not to provide treatment to an individual because the individual has AIDS or is HIV seropositive based solely on that fact is unethical.”  American Dental Association, ADA Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct III § 4.A.1 (2012).

During the recent Ebola outbreak, healthcare personnel were once again refusing to treat infected patients.  Is this acceptable?

EMTALA

The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (“EMTALA”) is a federal law that requires that any patients that present at an emergency department must be stabilized and treated in a non-discriminatory manner, regardless of their insurance status, ability to pay, national origin, race, creed or color.  42 U.S.C. § 1395dd.  Hospitals may not transfer or discharge patients needing emergency treatment except with the informed consent (itself a legal doctrine) or stabilization of the patient, or when their condition requires transfer to a hospital better equipped to administer the treatment.

Since Ebola qualifies as an emergency medical condition, patients with the disease would fall under EMTALA.  See CMS Bulletin (November 21, 2014).  Upon arrival at the emergency department, even if Ebola is suspected, EMTALA would require the patient be medically screened and treated until the emergency condition is resolved or stabilized.  Hospitals lacking the ability to provide care to such patients may transfer the patients to another facility under strict transfer guidelines.  Both individual providers and hospitals have a legal obligation to comply with EMTALA. If found in violation of the act, hospitals and healthcare providers may lose their Medicare provider agreement and be fined up to $50,000 per violation as well as be subject to any lawsuits that may arise.

Pre-existing or Contractual Relationships

Aside from EMTALA which governs treatment of patients in emergent situations within emergency facilities, U.S. law generally allows healthcare providers to accept or decline patients at will.  There are a few exceptions to this rule.  First, many hospital medical staff bylaws, state medical board licensing and discipline requirements and contractual arrangements require physicians to comply with American Medical Association ethics guidelines. These ethics guidelines may well require a physician to provide care to an Ebola patient, such as the AMA opinion cited above.  Additionally, managed care agreements may also require an assessment of the patient.

A second exception concerns a prior-existing provider-patient relationship. Breaking this relationship without transferring care to another provider constitutes “abandonment.”  For example a patient with whom a healthcare professional has previously established a professional relationship may present in the professional’s office with complaints of fever, muscle ache and abdominal pain.  That patient may also have a history showing that he or she recently travelled to an Ebola hot spot or area with a high risk of Ebola.  As with any other patient, the provider must provide treatment and/or refer them to another source for treatment. Otherwise, the healthcare professional is at risk for abandonment of the patient.

However, if a patient with whom the healthcare professional has no pre-existing care relationship presents in the professional’s office with the above-described complaints, and there is no other duty under any other basis (i.e. not an ER physician, or in any other way obligated to treat the patient), then the question becomes is the healthcare professional qualified to treat the patient.  In most situations, the professional typically has the legal right to decide whether to accept the patient or not.

Third, the American with Disabilities Act of 1991 prohibits providers from refusing care to patients on the basis of disability.

Lastly, states may have their own laws outlining when providers can and cannot refuse to treat certain patients. For example, the Rhode Island Department of Health recently released a statement providing that, “In Rhode Island, licensed healthcare professionals in active practice are obligated to treat and/or care for Ebola patients, while minimizing the risk of Ebola transmission to self and others.”  The statement notes that failure to comply is a potential breach of the state’s healthcare licensing laws and could result in sanctions.

Personal Safety

Healthcare providers also operate along ethical principles concerning their duty to treat.  The general guideline acts to ensure that the provider does not feel threatened for his or her personal safety.  In fact, the preparedness protocols that were designed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) presents a mission to care for those in need, but has an underlying theme of safety as the number one priority.  The protocols emphasize that all healthcare workers involved in the care of Ebola patients:  (i) must have received repeated training and demonstrated competency in performing all Ebola-related infection control practices and procedures; (ii) should have no skin exposed; and (iii) must have an onsite manager at all times overseeing the safe care of Ebola patients in a facility.  Notably, the CDC has also stated that the risk of transmission of Ebola, in and of itself, does not provide a basis for the relaxation of a health professional’s duty to help a patient as the risk of disease transmission is understood and can be readily mitigated.

Ultimately, the decision to treat an Ebola patient is fact dependent, based on the overall safety of the healthcare professional.  For example, a healthcare worker may be situated in a rural area without proper equipment and without any safety mechanisms in place.  If the professional is confronted with a patient diagnosed with Ebola and in the active stages of the disease, the ethical concerns may be trumped by treatment concerns.  Similarly, a leading medical ethicist, Dr. Joseph J. Fins, has stated that a medical team should not try to resuscitate an Ebola patient whose heart has stopped beating.  Dr. Finns explained that the risks of cardiopulmonary resuscitation efforts are too great for health care workers and even for some Ebola patients whose heartbeat is restored.

On the other hand, a healthcare professional may work in a health system that is ripe with safety protocols and mechanisms available.  If that professional is confronted with a patient diagnosed with Ebola, the concern for personal safety may not outweigh the ethical duty to treat.  Ultimately, it will be a decision for the healthcare professional to make concerning his or her personal safety.

National Guidelines

Conflicting laws, ethical guidelines and varying circumstances have created great uncertainty about the duty to treat.  In fact, the decision whether the duty to treat trumps safety concerns has sparked a thorny debate at hospitals across the country along with a call for national guidelines.  See U.S. Hospitals Weigh Staff Safety, WSJ (October 31, 2014).

For more information on legal concerns in the treatment of Ebola or related clinical legal issues, please feel free to contact Daniel Meier or any member of our health care practice group for a further discussion.

One Of The Country’s Largest Hospital Organizations to Pay $98.15 Million Settlement on False Claims Act Allegations

On Monday, August 4, 2014, The Department of Justice announced that Community Health Systems (“CHS”), the nation’s largest operator of acute care hospitals, agreed to pay $98.15 million to settle nine whistleblower lawsuits alleging that the company violated the False Claims Act between January 2005 and December 2010. The whistleblowers alleged that CHS knowingly billed Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE for medically unnecessary inpatient admissions rather than the lower outpatient or observation rates at 119 hospitals. Additionally, allegations were made that services were rendered to patients at one of CHS’s hospitals in Laredo, Texas by a physician who was offered a medical directorship in violation of the physician self-referral law, known as the Stark Law.

Under the settlement, CHS entered into a five-year Corporate Integrity Agreement requiring it to retain independent review organizations to review the accuracy of the claims for inpatient services under federal health care programs, and to engage in significant compliance efforts over the next five years.

The allegations against CHS are particularly notable in light of new regulations such as the two-midnight rule, which took effect October 1, 2013. The two-midnight rule requires that physicians deem a patient’s condition as serious enough to require at least two overnight stays in order to qualify for Medicare reimbursement under inpatient rates. Patients who aren’t formally admitted may remain under outpatient or observation status. Emergency and internal medicine physicians often struggle to get the right designation and status for the patient. The federal government has delayed enforcement of the rule until March 31, 2015 at which time hospitals may face financial penalties if auditors determine the hospital could have met the patient’s needs in an outpatient setting.

For more information on the CHS settlement, the two-midnight rule, the Stark Law, the Anti-Kickback Statute, or related fraud and abuse issues, please feel free to contact Daniel Meier or any member of our health care practice group for a further discussion.

You can find a more extensive discussion about the CHS settlement, the impact of observation status on patients and the two-midnight rule in the following Client Bulletin.

OIG Publishes Special Fraud Alert Regarding Laboratory Payments To Referring Physicians – Some Arrangements May Violate the Anti-Kickback Statute

The laboratory market has become quite competitive in recent years, raising compliance concerns and investigations into lab relationships with referring physicians. Accordingly, on June 25, 2014, the OIG released a Special Fraud Alert (the “Fraud Alert”) which provides guidance about two different types of suspect arrangements: (1) Blood-Specimen Collection; and (2) Registry Payments. The concerns raised here by the OIG involve referring physicians receiving payments from laboratories who may not even be aware that these arrangements are violating the Anti-Kickback Statute due to their complicated nature.

The OIG explained that it is concerned about arrangements in which a lab pays a physician more than fair market value (“FMV”) for the physician’s services or for services the lab does not actually need or for which the physician is compensated. The four major concerns typically associated with kickbacks involving labs include: (1) corruption of medical judgment; (2) overutilization; (3) increased costs to the Federal health care programs and beneficiaries; and (4) unfair competition. These concerns arise because arrangements with labs could induce physicians to order tests from a lab that provides them with payment, rather than utilizing laboratories that provide the best, most clinically appropriate service. Indeed, the choice of which laboratory to use and whether to even order lab tests are decided by or at least strongly influenced by the physician. Continue reading

HHS DAB Upholds Revocation of Clinic’s Medicare Provider Number

On February 20, 2014, the US Department of Health and Human Services, Departmental Appeals Board upheld CMS’ revocation of the Medicare provider number of a clinic/group practice.

In Advanced Care Medical Center v CMS (Docket No. C-13-1383/Decision No. CR3124), the DAB, Civil Remedies Division upheld CMS’ revocation of Advanced Care’s Medicare provider number.

The matter began with an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General which revealed that Advanced Care entered into a contract with a doctor, allowing him to bill for services under it’s billing number in exchange for a set reimbursement, and the doctor submitted bills under Petitioner’s billing number.   Continue reading

Office of Inspector General Issues Strategic Plan

The Office of the Inspector General (“OIG”) issued a 2014-2018 strategic plan including outlining the visions, goals, and priorities of that office for the upcoming several years. The plan sets forth four goals: 1. Fight fraud, waste and abuse; 2. Promote quality, safety, and value; 3. Secure the future; and 4. Advance excellence and innovation. Each goals is identified with several priority areas that support the stated goal. The report can be found at the OIG’s website http://go.us.gov/WdbV

HRSA Announces Merger of NPDB and HIPDB

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) has announced that the Healthcare Integrity and Protection Data Bank (HIPDB) and the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) will merge on May 6, 2013.  On that date, the HIPDB will close down, and all future reporting must be done through the NPDB.

While the databases are merging, there has been no change in the reporting requirements.  Any user who was previously required to report information to the HIPDB must now do so through the NPDB. All information currently in the HIPDB will now be available through the NPDB. Continue reading

OIG Publishes Special Fraud Alert regarding Physician-Owned Distributors (“PODs”) – Describes PODs as “Inherently Suspect”

Over the last several years, there has been a noted proliferation in the growth of physician-owned distributors (“PODs”). Along with this growth has come increased scrutiny and speculation as to the legality of PODs, with highly vocal critics and proponents on both sides of the debate. In fact, the Office of the Inspector General’s (“OIG”) 2013 Work Plan noted that the OIG planned to examine PODs in connection with reports of high utilization of spinal implants by hospitals associated with PODs.

Accordingly, on March 26, 2013, the OIG released a Special Fraud Alert (the “Fraud Alert”) which provides long-awaited guidance concerning the legality of PODs. Continue reading