On March 26, 2013, the Office of Inspector General ("OIG") of the United States Department of Health and Human Services ("HHS") issued a Special Fraud Alert ("SFA") regarding the potential for Physician-Owned Distributorships ("PODs") to violate the federal Anti-Kickback Statute ("AKS"). While the OIG has provided guidance previously on the potential for physician-owned entities to create AKS and other fraud and abuse issues, this SFA focuses on the "specific attributes of PODs" that the OIG believes makes these entities "inherently suspect under the anti-kickback statute. With the increase in prevalence of these types of entities, this is an important development that has even piqued the interest of the Wall Street Journal.
At the heart of the OIG's new SFA is the agency's belief that any "opportunity for a referring physician to earn a profit" could be unlawful remuneration under the AKS. Previously, the OIG's has highlighted a number of questionable features for physician-owned entities, such as:
1. Selecting investors for their potential to generate business;
2. Requiring investors that retire or move from the service area to divest their ownership; and
3. Distributing outsized returns compared to the level of risk in the investment.
In particular, the OIG believes that physician-owned entities, particularly PODs, with these features may lead to issues including:
• Corruption of medical judgment;
• Increased costs to Federal and State Medical Programs; and
• Unfair competition.
In this new SFA, the OIG, recognizing that whether an entity is lawful under the AKS is dependent on the intent of the parties involved, includes a number of features that the agency believes provide evidence of the intent to induce illegal remuneration.
• The size of the investment offered to each physician varies with the expected or actual volume or value of devices used by the physician.
• Distributions are not made in proportion to ownership interest, or physician-owners pay different prices for their ownership interests, because of the expected or actual volume or value of devices used by the physicians.
• Physician-owners condition their referrals to hospitals or ASCs on their purchase of the POD's devices through coercion or promises, for example, by stating or implying they will perform surgeries or refer patients elsewhere if a hospital or an ASC does not purchase devices from the POD, by promising or implying they will move surgeries to the hospital or ASC if it purchases devices from the POD, or by requiring a hospital or an ASC to enter into an exclusive purchase arrangement with the POD.
• Physician-owners are required, pressured, or actively encouraged to refer, recommend, or arrange for the purchase of the devices sold by the POD or, conversely, are threatened with, or experience, negative repercussions (e.g., decreased distributions, required divestiture) for failing to use the POD's devices for their patients.
• The POD retains the right to repurchase a physician-owner's interest for the physician's failure or inability (through relocation, retirement, or otherwise) to refer, recommend, or arrange for the purchase of the POD's devices.
• The POD is a shell entity that does not conduct appropriate product evaluations, maintain or manage sufficient inventory in its own facility, or employ or otherwise contract with personnel necessary for operations.
• The POD does not maintain continuous oversight of all distribution functions.
• When a hospital or an ASC requires physicians to disclose conflicts of interest, the POD's physician-owners either fail to inform the hospital or ASC of, or actively conceal through misrepresentations, their ownership interest in the POD.
While the OIG considers the factors above evidence of intent, the agency does not consider the list a "blueprint for how to structure a lawful POD" and other PODs without these characteristics may violate the AKS. In particular, the OIG mentions concerns with PODs that:
• Exclusively serve its physician-owners rather than a POD that also sells to Ambulatory Surgical Centers ("ASCs") and Hospitals and
• Purport to designs and sell their own devices, particularly when the physician-owners are the sole users of the device.
Because both sides of a transaction are liable for violations of the AKS, the SFA indicates Hospitals and ASCs that have arrangements with PODs to provide devices are also at risk if one purpose of the arrangement is to secure physician referrals to the facilities.
Following OIG's release of this SFA, the Physician-owners, managers, and partners of existing PODs, as well as individuals and/or entities considering forming a new POD, should contact their legal counsel to begin to examine the structure of their entities in order to, at minimum, ensure the entities do not include any of the features the OIG highlight above. Likewise, hospitals and ASCs should examine agreements with PODs to ensure they are not structured to generate referrals from the physician-owners.
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