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Prohibition on Beneficiary Inducements Hinders Rural Hospital Efforts to Aid Communities During COVID-19 Outbreak

During times of national or local crisis, people often look to the pillars of their communities, local employers, charities and other publicly-supported institutions, to provide much needed resources and stability.  In many rural communities, the local hospital fits into all three categories being one of the largest (if not they largest) local employer, charity and publicly-supported institution in the community (other than the local government).  As a result, people often look to hospitals during times of crisis, not just for healthcare services but also for the other resources needed in their lives (e.g., food, housing, financial assistance, etc.).

It’s Time to Establish (or Re-Constitute) an Ethics Committee

With the potential of scarce resources resulting from the COVID-19 virus, rural hospitals should consider taking immediate action to establish or reconstitute a hospital ethics committee. Although relatively common in large urban hospitals, in our experience ethics committees are relatively rare in rural hospitals. In rural settings, “typical” ethics issues such as end-of-life decisions are often resolved through informal interactions among patients, families, physicians, and administration. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to (if it has not already) raise not-so-typical issues for hospitals that will require a more structured approach. It is likely that hospitals will face issues never before considered about how to ethically apportion scarce resources such as masks, gowns, respirators, ICU beds, and ventilators.

New Blanket Waivers of the Stark Law During COVID-19 Outbreak

On March 30, 2020, Alex M. Azar II, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, under the authority given to him under Section 1135(b) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. §1320b-5)[1], issued a series of waivers of the Stark Law (42 U.S.C. §1395nn).[2] Unlike the case-by-case waivers of the Stark Law that Secretary Azar previously gave the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) authority to issue to individual designated health services providers based on their specific request[3], the Stark Law waivers issued by the Secretary on March 30 apply to all designated health services providers.  As a result, these Stark Law waivers are referred to as blanket waivers.

DC Federal Court Limits Former OCR Guidance on Medical Record Fees

The DC Federal District Court issued an opinion in Ciox Health, LLC v. Azar, et al., Case No. 18-CV-00040 (D.D.C. January 23, 2020) that reverses portions of guidance issued by the Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) in 2016 related to the fees that a healthcare provider may charge for medical records that are requested by a patient and directed to a third party.  The original HIPAA Privacy Rule included provisions that a “covered entity” (1) must provide patients the right to access his or her protected health information (“PHI”) within a designated record set and (2) could only charge a reasonable cost-based fee for such access. In 2009, the HITECH Act amended HIPAA to provide that a patient could request that the patient’s access to PHI maintained in an electronic health record (“EHR”) be directed to a third party.  In 2013, the Omnibus Rule further broadened the third party directive and allowed patients to make this third party directive for access to PHI contained in any format.  Lastly, in 2016, OCR issued guidance that applied the fee limitation from the original HIPAA Privacy Rule to situations in which the patient directs the PHI to a third party.

Updated Tools for Your HIPAA Toolkit: Medical Record Fees

A Missouri federal court granted a motion to dismiss this week in a case against a provider and medical record processing company.  In the case, a patient alleged that a “search and retrieval” fee imposed in response to a patients request for access to medical records violated the Missouri Merchandizing Practices Act.  In dismissing the claim, the court only addressed Missouri law as the allegations did not involve alleged violations of HIPAA.  The outcome in this Missouri case is similar to the outcome in an unrelated  Tennessee case against the same medical records company that was dismissed earlier this summer.  The Tennessee case alleged multiple violations of Tennessee law relating to the fees imposed for access to medical records, using HIPAA as the standard for medical records fees.  In dismissing the case, the Tennessee court found that neither HIPAA nor Tennessee law provide a private cause of action for excessive medical record fees.  The Tennessee case is pending appeal.

Updated Tools for Your HIPAA Toolkit: Security Risk Assessment

In the wake of the record setting $16 Million dollar settlement and resolution agreement with Anthem, Inc, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) released a new version of their Security Risk Assessment tool.  The new tool and recent settlement agreement renew the emphasis of OCR on the performance of HIPAA Security Risk Assessments by covered entities and their business associates.  

Ramifications for Missouri Physicians of Enhanced Mo HealthNet OPI Program

Effective March 1, 2018, the Missouri Department of Social Services (“MDSS”) – Mo HealthNet Division (“Mo HealthNet”) began working collaboratively with the Missouri Department of Mental Health and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to enhance the Mo HealthNet Opioid Prescription Intervention (“OPI”) Program. 

Pass Through Deduction in New Tax Bill Unlikely to Slow Trend Toward Industry Consolidation

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 signed into law on December 22, 2017 by President Trump added a new deduction for noncorporate taxpayers (i.e. S corporations, partnerships, sole proprietorships, and trusts) who have qualified business income.  This deduction, found in section 199A of the Internal Revenue Code, is also referred to as the “business pass-through income deduction.” 

No Good Deed…: Allowing Part-Time Employees to Make Health FSA Contributions May Trigger ACA Penalties

When it comes to health coverage, many employers draw a distinction between full-time and part-time employees. To be eligible to enroll in the employer’s health plan, an employee must work a minimum number of hours per pay period. But many of those same employers then allow even part-time employees to contribute to a health flexible spending account (“health FSA”). After all, doing so costs the employer nothing (and even saves a modest amount in employment taxes), and why not at least give those employees an opportunity to pay some of their medical expenses on a pre-tax basis? Unfortunately, this paternalistic approach may now subject an employer to substantial daily penalties under the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”).