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Gov. Ivey Provides Physicians Liability Protections from COVID-19

Gov. Ivey Provides Physicians Liability Protections from COVID-19

Today, Gov. Ivey issued an executive order protecting physicians, their staff, and their practices from lawsuits related to COVID-19. The governor’s order, the eighth such supplemental emergency order issued by her administration since the pandemic began, provides a “safe harbor” for services affected by COVID-19 or Alabama’s response to the pandemic and from other COVID-19 related claims.

“As one of many Alabamians on the front lines of this pandemic, I thank Gov. Ivey for working with the Medical Association to provide this much-needed liability protection for these unprecedented circumstances affecting care provisions that are far beyond any of our control,” Medical Association President John Meigs, Jr., M.D., said.

The order provides immunity for treatment that resulted from, was negatively affected by or was done in response to the COVID-19 pandemic or the State’s response to the pandemic unless proven by clear and convincing evidence that a health professional acted with wanton, reckless, willful, or intentional misconduct – a standard significantly higher than simple negligence. Importantly, the liability protections in today’s order apply retroactively to March 13, 2020, and will remain in place until the COVID-19 public health emergency is terminated.

Protecting physicians, their staff, and medical practices from COVID-19 lawsuits has been a priority of the Medical Association since Alabama entered a state of emergency in mid-March. In addition to the governor’s office, the Association has worked with multiple other organizations on today’s order and appreciates the expertise of the Birmingham law firm of Starnes, Davis and Florie during those negotiations. Click the button below to view a summary of the proclamation.

Posted in: Advocacy, Coronavirus, Legal Watch

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COVID-19 State Liability Protection Bill to Be Filed

COVID-19 State Liability Protection Bill to Be Filed

Alabama State Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) is preparing to file a bill today to provide liability protection to physicians, health facilities and businesses from claims arising from COVID-19 and the state’s response to the pandemic. 

“These are unprecedented times and the Legislature must take swift action to protect physicians and businesses from COVID-19 frivolous lawsuits,” Sen. Orr said.  “We cannot wait to pass this legislation, as every day that goes by without these protections in place could mean these entities have unknown liability exposure for situations and dynamics far beyond their control.”

Medical Association President John Meigs, M.D., thanked Sen. Orr for his willingness to bring forward the legislation. 

“Practices of every specialty of medicine have been affected by this pandemic, from both the care-provision aspects but also the economic and business side.  The association appreciates Senator Orr’s leadership and willingness to bring this critical legislation forward,” Dr. Meigs said. 

The bill has widespread support among the health care and business communities.  The Legislature may meet as few as five legislative days this week but has as many as 14 at its disposal.  Most of the focus this week will be on local bills and the two state budgets, but the Medical Association is also encouraging legislators to take up Sen. Orr’s bill as a top priority.  

Posted in: Advocacy, Legal Watch, Liability

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Summary of Liability Protection from Starnes, Davis Florie, LLP

Summary of Liability Protection from Starnes, Davis Florie, LLP

Starnes, Davis, Florie, LLP has drafted a summary with some guidance on documentation for physicians concerning some protection in response to potential liability issues facing physicians during the COVID-19 declared emergency.  Governor Ivey’s March 13, 2020 Proclamation declared a state public health emergency.  The Proclamation grants certain immunity from lawsuits if a provider in a covered “health care facility” is practicing pursuant to an “alternative standard of care” plan.  The “alternative standard of care” must be set forth in the “health care facility’s” emergency operation plan, and the specific language or “standards of care” may differ from facility to facility.  Starnes suggests documenting the circumstances surrounding each patient and the reasons for clinical decisions.  [LINK to previous article].  Personnel and a facility are entitled to limited immunity when practicing consistent with those methods outlined in the alternative standard of care.  Physicians should look to the hospital for the specific protective language.

The PREP Act provides limited immunity for the administration or use of covered countermeasures to treat, diagnose, cure, prevent, or mitigate COVID-19.  The PREP Act covers providers for the administration or use of any antiviral, any other drug, any biologic, any diagnostic, any other device, or any vaccine used in the treatment of a COVID-19 patient.  

See Summary Here.

This information is not intended to provide legal advice, and no legal or business decision should be based on its content. No representation is made that the quality of legal services to be performed is greater than the quality of legal services performed by other lawyers.  Read full disclaimer.

Posted in: Legal Watch, Uncategorized

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Summary of Telehealth Waivers as of April 1, 2020

Summary of Telehealth Waivers as of April 1, 2020

By: Jim Hoover, Burr & Forman, LLP

The changes made to the requirements for telehealth services since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic have been swift and substantial. For the first several weeks, it seems changes were made almost daily.  As time has passed, the changes to telehealth have stabilized enough that a summary of the current telehealth issues is possible. However, changes may still be forthcoming so the following is a summary of the significant topics related to providing telehealth services as of the date of this article. Physicians should continue to monitor announcements related to telehealth requirements as changes will surely continue to evolve. 

Medicare – On March 30, 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced additional temporary expansion of telehealth services to Medicare beneficiaries. CMS’s announcement of this new reimbursement flexibility builds on its prior expansion of telehealth services to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the March 30, 2020 announcement, CMS announced the following: (1) the patient location requirement was being waived to allow the patient to be in their home or other location; (2) the audio-video link can be something as simple as Skype, FaceTime or Facebook Messenger video calls. However, the audio-video link has to be a real-time audio and a one-to-one video connection, and cannot be public-facing; (3) the patient cost share can be waived at the providers’ discretion; and (4) CMS stated it will not audit to verify that there is an established patient relationship.

CMS announced in its March 30, 2020 announcement that it is now also allowing Medicare beneficiaries to receive care via telehealth by: (1) adding more than 80 services to the list of services payable under the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule when furnished via telehealth, including emergency department visits, initial nursing facility and discharge visits, critical care services, home visits for new and established patients, and physical and operational therapy services; (2) allowing clinicians to provide Virtual Check-In services to new patients in the same manner as they previously could provide only to established patients; (3) allowing licensed clinical social workers, clinical psychologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech language pathologists to provide e-visits; (4) allowing clinicians to provide certain services by audio phone only to their patients; (5) allowing clinicians to provide Remote Patient Monitoring, for acute or chronic conditions, to both new and established patients; (6) removing certain frequency limitations on Medicare telehealth; (7) expanding the use of telehealth to certain home health and hospice services; and (8) expanding the definition of “homebound” so that when a physician determines that a Medicare beneficiary should not leave the home due to suspected or confirmed COVID-19, the patient can qualify for the Medicare Home Health benefit.

Medicare Miscellaneous Issues – Patient consent may be obtained annually and obtained by ancillary staff.  Direct Supervision of services, such as incident-to services, normally require that the supervising/billing physician be in the office suite and immediately available. However, for the duration of the PHE, direct supervision can be provided by real-time interactive audiovisual technology.

Billing

Medicare – As an initial matter, telephone calls are still not the same as telehealth for Medicare purposes. A full list of the Compliant List of Medicare Telehealth and the Medicare Telehealth Code List for 2019-2020 is located on CMS’ website at the following address https://www.cms.gov/Medicare/Medicare-General-Information/Telehealth/Telehealth-Codes.

CMS is allowing payment for certain codes related to telehealth services because as an example, CMS recognizes that some problems can be handled over the phone without a face-to-face, but may require more than the 5-10 minutes. The codes for established patients for physician or other qualified professionals (nurse practitioners or physician assistants) include 99441 (requires 5-10 minutes of medical discussion), 99442 requires 11-20 minutes of medical discussion), 99443 (requires 21-30 minutes of medical discussion). Practitioners should report the E/M code that best describes the nature of the care they are providing. Previous guidance was to use POS 02 that will cause payment to be made at the lower facility rate. Alternatively, providers can choose to use the POS code that most accurately reflects where the service is performed and append modifier 95. This will cause payment to be made at the higher non-facility rate.

Alabama Medicaid – Medicaid normally requires separate credentialing for providers performing telehealth; however, that restriction has been waived for the time period for dates of service from 3/16/2020 – 4/16/2020. Medical providers may bill established patient evaluation and management codes 99211, 99212 and 99213 for telephone consultations. Psychologists and behavioral health professionals should bill 90832, 90834, 90837, 90846, 90847 and H2011. Verbal consent must be obtained and documented in the medical record. These visits will count against the patient’s office visit limit of 14 visits per year.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama – is allowing providers to bill for telephone call treatment of existing patients under the established patient office visit codes for dates of service from 3/16/2020 – 4/16/2020. They are allowing codes up to 99213 with place of service code 02 for telehealth. No modifier is required. The physician should be the one speaking with the patient — not the office staff.

HIPAA – Over the past several weeks, the Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) has issued several notices regarding HIPAA in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic. The OCR issued a Notification of Enforcement Discretion for Telehealth Remote Communications during the COVID-19 Nationwide Public Health Emergency. OCR stated that it would relax its enforcement actions with regard to compliance with certain aspects of HIPAA (and not enforce penalties) in order to allow providers to better treat their patients via telehealth. A health care provider that wants to use audio or video communication technology to provide telehealth to patients during the public health emergency can use any non-public facing remote audio or video communication product that is available to communicate with patients. Health care providers may use applications that allow for video chats, including Apple FaceTime, Facebook Messenger video chat, Google Hangouts video, or Skype, to provide telehealth without risk that OCR might seek to impose a penalty for noncompliance with the HIPAA Rules. However, communication applications that are public facing should not be used. OCR further stated that it would not impose penalties against health care providers for the lack of a Business Associate Agreement with video communication vendors. The above applies to telehealth provided for any reason, regardless of whether the telehealth service is related to the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions related to COVID-19. The OCR also issued additional guidance in the form of frequently asked questions (FAQs) which are available at https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/telehealth-faqs-508.pdf.  

State Licensure – Most states have greatly relaxed or streamlined their licensing requirements and application process to make it easier for physicians to provide telehealth services across state lines. However, the application process and requirements for each state differ so it is extremely important for physicians to check with each state. For example, the state of Tennessee requires the practitioner to complete and submit an application, which can be found at: https://www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/health/documents/cedep/novel-coronavirus/Boards-Executive-Order-Form.pdf. The determination is made on a case by case basis. It appears most applications are being approved by the Tennessee Department of Health because as of the end of March 2020 the Department had received 61 applications and approved 59 applications, denied one, and one was under review. The State of Florida, for purposes of preparing for, responding to, and mitigating any effect of COVID-19, permits health care professionals not licensed in Florida to provide health care services to a patient located in Florida using telehealth, for a period not to exceed 30 days unless extended by order of the State Surgeon General. The exemption applies only to out of state health care professionals holding a valid, clear, and unrestricted license in another state or territory in the United States who are not currently under investigation or prosecution in any disciplinary proceeding in any of the states in which they hold a license.

While the telehealth waivers and notifications have slowed down in recent days, it is still very important for physicians to keep updated on the various requirements from state licensing authorities and payors.

Jim Hoover practices with Burr & Forman LLP and works exclusively within the firms Health Care Industry Group and primarily handles healthcare litigation and compliance matters.

Posted in: Legal Watch, Medicaid, Medicare, Technology

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The Privacy Vulnerabilities of Zoom Software and Potential Alternatives

The Privacy Vulnerabilities of Zoom Software and Potential Alternatives

Over the past month, as more nationwide “Shelter at Home” orders have been issued and more companies have transitioned to telework, the need for online meetings and webinars has skyrocketed. To accommodate this new way of doing business, many have turned to a platform called Zoom. The problem? No one bothered to read the fine print.

For those in the healthcare field, privacy is paramount. Yet, by using Zoom, users are seceding any and all content displayed or vocalized to the company. In Zoom’s own privacy statement, some of the “Customer Content” it collects includes “information you or others upload, provide, or create while using Zoom.”[i]  Additionally, Zoom also collects personal information like your name, physical address, email address, phone number, job title, employer.[ii]  And, even if you don’t make an account with Zoom, it will collect and keep data on what type of device you are using, and your IP address.[iii]

Now, while Zoom has recently updated its privacy policy and is taking steps to make the platform more secure, there are issues beyond the data mining mentioned above. On Monday, for instance, the Boston office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a warning[iv]  saying that it had received multiple reports from Massachusetts schools about trolls hijacking Zoom meetings with displays of pornography, white supremacist imagery and threatening language — malicious attacks known as “zoombombing.”[v]

So, what’s the solution? Below are a few good alternative platforms to use instead Zoom:

  • Apple FaceTime (only available on iPhone and Macs)
  • Skype (available on all devices) (recommended)
  • Google Hangouts (available on all devices)
  • GoToMeeting (available on all devices)
  • Jitsi (available on all devices)
  • RemoteHQ (available on all devices)

[i] https://zoom.us/privacy

[ii] Id; see also https://protonmail.com/blog/zoom-privacy-issues/

[iii] Id.

[iv] https://www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field-offices/boston/news/press-releases/fbi-warns-of-teleconferencing-and-online-classroom-hijacking-during-covid-19-pandemi; see also https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/02/technology/zoom-linkedin-data.html?partner=IFTTT

[v] https://www.adl.org/blog/what-is-zoombombing-and-who-is-behind-it; see also https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/02/technology/zoom-linkedin-data.html?partner=IFTTT

Posted in: Coronavirus, HIPAA, Legal Watch, Management, Scam

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Charting & Documentation During the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic

Charting & Documentation During the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic

The world’s memory of this virus will be different when lawsuits are filed two years from now and juries try the cases two to three years after that. The acuteness of the issues, the confusion, the limited resources and the changing daily directives will not be remembered in any meaningful detail. Accordingly, the Risk Management dogma that has always emphasized charting is more important now than usual. If the standard of care is judged as care “under the same or similar circumstances”, and those circumstances are “delivering care in a COVID-19 pandemic”, how will we show those circumstances in a 2025 jury trial?  We recommend vigilant documentation.

In consideration of Alabama’s sample ventilator allocation guidance, and exemplary language from other states, Starnes, Davis, Florie, LLP. recommends the below language be charted in circumstances where a resource may be diverted away from a patient who could be in need.  The sample language specifically applies to decisions in triaging a patient and any initial treatment decisions regarding a specific (limited) resource.

Sample Language:

In making a clinical judgment regarding the allocation of [resource] during the [COVID-19 pandemic / public health emergency], I have assessed the patient’s history, symptoms, and condition and considered the limited availability of resources and clinical factors associated with the allocation of limited resources.  My clinical judgment, under the totality of the circumstances, is that [clinical decision] is appropriate for this patient as an alternative medical intervention.

We also recommend against language or specific explanations to patients as follows:

·        Language / an explanation to a patient or a patient’s family explicitly referencing financial issues or considerations.

·        Language / an explanation to a patient or patient’s family focusing the considerations on the resource itself as opposed to the specific patient.

·        Language / an explanation to a patient or patient’s family specifically documenting the condition of other patients or the specific condition of other patients receiving resources.

·        Language / an explanation to a patient or a patient’s family specifically quantifying any patient’s likelihood of successful treatment – that being the patient receiving the resource and the patient not receiving the resource.

·        Language / an explanation to a patient or a patient’s family specifically comparing patients or outcomes.

·        Language / an explanation to a patient or a patient’s family specifically referencing medical ethics.  Medical ethics underpins all clinical decisions and does not need to be specifically included in the chart.

This information is not intended to provide legal advice, and no legal or business decision should be based on its content. No representation is made that the quality of legal services to be performed is greater than the quality of legal services performed by other lawyers.  Read full disclaimer.

Posted in: Legal Watch, Members

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Shift in Patient’s Right to Access Medical Records

Shift in Patient’s Right to Access Medical Records

By: Kelli C. Fleming, Burr & Forman

The Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”), the government agency tasked with HIPAA compliance and enforcement, recently announced a change impacting a patient’s right to access his/her medical records—a change which is, given OCR’s history, surprisingly favorable to providers. 

One of the long-standing premises of HIPAA has been a patient’s right to access his/her medical records. For years, the HIPAA regulations have limited the fees that providers can charge patients when they request a copy of their medical records to a reasonable, cost-based fee (regardless of the permitted state law fees). HITECH expanded this right a few years ago by allowing patients to exercise their right to access medical records, but designate a third-party to whom the records should be sent (e.g., the patient’s attorney). These requests from patients to send their records to a designated third-party are oftentimes referred to in the industry as “HITECH” requests. 

Subsequent OCR guidance stated that the historical limitation on fees that applied when a patient exercised his/her right to access medical records would also apply to the situation where a patient requested that his/her records be sent to a designated third-party pursuant to a “HITECH” request. As a result, providers were limited in what they could charge third-parties, such as attorneys, seeking access to medical records by way of a “HITECH” request from a patient, as opposed to by way of a HIPAA authorization. 

However, based on a recent court order, such limitation on fees no longer applies to “HITECH” requests. As a result of the recent court decision, OCR has clarified that “the fee limitation set forth at 45 C.F.R. § 164.524(c)(4) will apply only to an individual’s request for access to their own records, and does not apply to an individual’s request to transmit records to a third party.” Thus, as a result of this recent court decision, providers, and their business associates, are no longer bound by the HIPAA-imposed limitation on fees when a patient requests that a copy of his/her medical records be sent to a designated third party (e.g., attorney). For these “HITECH” requests, providers can now charge fees acceptable under state law, without applying the HIPAA fee limitations. These state law fees are oftentimes higher than the HIPAA fees. Further, the court decision clarified that such “HITECH” requests are limited to requests for an electronic health record with respect to PHI maintained in an electronic format.

OCR has been clear that the  HIPAA limitation on fees, however, will continue to apply to patient requests to access their own medical records when the records are delivered directly to the patient. Nonetheless, this shift in guidance is favorable to providers and much welcomed by the healthcare industry.

Kelli Fleming is a Partner at Burr & Forman LLP practicing exclusively in the firm’s healthcare industry group.

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Appropriate Use Criteria for Advanced Diagnostic Imaging

Appropriate Use Criteria for Advanced Diagnostic Imaging

Contributed by: Gregg Everett, Gilpin Givhan

The Protecting Access to Medicare Act (PAMA) was passed in 2014.  PAMA required the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to establish a program that promotes “Appropriate Use Criteria” (AUC) for advanced diagnostic imaging. AUC’s are evidence-based criteria that assist professionals who order and furnish certain imaging services to make the most appropriate treatment decisions for specific clinical conditions. Once the AUC program is fully implemented (2021), payment will only be made for an advanced diagnostic imaging service if the Medicare claim indicates that the ordering professional consulted with a qualified Clinical Decision Support Mechanism (CDSM) about whether the ordered service meets an applicable AUC.  A CDSM is an interactive electronic tool for use by clinicians that communicates AUC information and assists in making appropriate treatment decisions during a patient’s workup.  An ordering professional is a physician or other licensed professional who orders an imaging service.  The settings covered include hospital outpatient departments (which includes the hospital’s ER), ambulatory surgery centers, physicians’ offices and IDTF’s.  

Advanced diagnostic imaging services include MRI’s, CT scans, PET scans and nuclear medicine. The CDSM must be reported on claims for payment using G-codes, modifiers and, eventually, the ordering physician’s NPI. For the period July 1, 2019, through December 31, 2019, only voluntary reporting was required.  Beginning January 1, 2020, an educational and operations testing period will be implemented, which is expected to run through December 31, 2020. For now, CMS will still pay a claim, whether or not the claim correctly includes AUC information. Eventually, CMS must develop outlier criteria (which will require some ordering professionals to obtain prior authorizations) and will not pay those claims that do not have AUC information, unless a specific exception is met. The exceptions include emergency services provided to individuals with emergency medical conditions (EMTALA definition), inpatient care where payment is made under Part A Medicare, or significant hardships, which includes insufficient internet access and EHR or CDSM vendor issues.  

Qualified CDSM’s (only national professional medical specialty societies or other organizations of providers who predominantly provide direct patient care may develop CDSM’s) must be approved by CMS and must meet other criteria, such as providing a certification or other documentation at the time of the order that a qualified CDSM was consulted, and whether or not the service ordered met the requirements of the specific referenced AUC. The regulations also list certain “priority clinical areas” that will be monitored to identify outlier ordering professionals as follows:  coronary artery disease (suspected or diagnosed), suspected pulmonary embolisms, headache (traumatic and non-traumatic), hip pain, low back pain, shoulder pain (including suspected rotator cuff injury), cancer of the lung (primary or metastasis, and suspected or diagnosed), and cervical and back pain. Ordering physicians and settings for these imaging services should begin the process of including AUC’s on Medicare claims in January 2020.

For more information see:

  1. “Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014,” Section 216, (Public Law 113-93), 42 U.S.C. Section 1395m(p) and (q).
  2. 42 CFR Section 414.94 – “Appropriate Use Criteria for Advanced Imaging Services.
  3. “Appropriate Use Criteria (AUC) for Advanced Diagnostic Imaging – Educational and Operations Testing Period—Claims Processing Requirements”; MLN Matters Number MM11268 Revised December 6, 2019.

Posted in: CMS, Legal Watch, Medicare, Members

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Striking Your Best Deal: Things to Look at on the Front End of Negotiating an EHR Vendor Contract

Striking Your Best Deal: Things to Look at on the Front End of Negotiating an EHR Vendor Contract

Article Contributed by Christopher L. Richard, Gilpin Givhan, PC

Backdrop

Imagine you’re selling your practice . . . or leaving your practice . . . or retiring. You want to continue to have access to the patient records you’ve maintained through the practice over the years, and in fact, you have an obligation to do so. Under Rule 540-X-9-.10(1) of the joint guidelines of the Alabama State Board of Medical Examiners and Medical Licensure Commission, physicians are required to retain medical records “for such period as may be necessary to treat the patient and for additional time as may be required for medical-legal purposes.”[1]In addition, you must provide patients notice and a reasonable opportunity to request their records or request that they be transferred to another practice. It used to be you would maintain physical copies of these records in your practice office, a secure storage area, or by some other means. However, your patient records are now stored in an electronic health record (“EHR”) system maintained by a third-party vendor. Your third party vendor is planning to charge you a regular monthly service fee for the entire duration of time you have to keep the records. The alternative is an exorbitant one-time fee for you to obtain a copy of the digital patient records maintained in the EHR system. Neither option is particularly good, but the scenario provides an important opportunity to examine key contractual provisions you and/or your counsel should pay attention to when negotiating EHR and other vendor contracts.

I Have the Need . . . for Legalese

Contracts, especially vendor contracts, can be filled with overly-complicated, legalese-ridden language that tends to earn attorneys their fair share of grief. However, a good portion of this language is born out of experience and necessity. For one, attorneys tend to loathe repeating (or allowing) the same mistakes more than once (“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” as the saying goes). Unfortunately, attorneys cannot anticipate every possible scenario that might unfold, but we often attempt to ensure that contractual provisions at least provide clarity in situations where past ambiguities have turned into disputes.

Secondly, attorneys do their best to memorialize what are often extremely complicated arrangements between their clients. Complicated structures frequently require complicated descriptions. Otherwise, a contract may be lacking in meaningful standards and may be no more useful that the “handshake” agreement that started the contract negotiation process.

With the (perhaps) optimistic notion that attorneys craft documents out of necessity according to the principles above, consider the following contractual provisions that are worth the extra attention in the contract negotiation process.

Important Contract Provisions

Ownership of Records; Rights to Use.  It should go without saying that you and your patients are the owners of your patient records, regardless of whether they are stored in, or on, your vendor’s software and/or hardware. Be wary of any contractual language that seems to give ownership rights in your patient records to the EHR vendor. By that same token, consider what rights your EHR vendor reserves to use and/or disclose information stored on their system. When intense scrutiny of tech company privacy practices is layered on top of HIPAA and increasingly restrictive state, federal, and international privacy laws, it’s worth an extra look to ensure you’re not allowing your EHR vendor to take any actions that would impact your obligations under applicable privacy laws.

Indemnification/Hold Harmless/Limitation of Liability.  Experience tends to show that contracting parties will listen and respond to reasonable concerns, especially when they are trying to earn your business. The same principles apply to the remedies provisions of vendor contracts. For instance, the initial contract presented may require you to “indemnify, defend, and hold harmless” the vendor against a host of liabilities that may be incurred by you or the vendor. It is almost always a reasonable request to have the indemnification language be mirrored between the parties. In other words, if you are required to indemnify the vendor for your negligence, gross negligence, or willful misconduct, they should be willing to indemnify you for their similar conduct.

In addition, the contract may limit the amount of damages recoverable to the total amount of payments you make for the vendor’s services under the contract, or the number of payments in a given time period (e.g., one year or the term of the contract). These limitations are not uncommon, and they are not necessarily unreasonable. However, it’s not the kind of limitation you want to discover after you’ve encountered some significant financial harm and are expecting the other party to cover all the costs.  Similarly, it would be untenable to accept unlimited potential liability to your EHR vendor when they are putting fairly extensive limits on their liability to you.

Termination Provisions.   Now, back to where we started: what happens when you are attempting to terminate your practice or a relationship with an EHR vendor? As an initial matter, it’s worthwhile to consider your options to terminate the contract before the term is over. All too often, I’ve seen clients stuck in long-term contracts with little or no option to terminate. Obviously this is a matter of economics for the vendor. They have up-front investment costs that have to be recouped over the life of the contract, which hopefully (for them) is a long term. However, consider options to terminate the contract for “good cause.” It’s also worthwhile to consider including an illustrative list of items that constitute “good cause,” in an effort to avoid arguing about what “good cause” means when you elect to terminate the contract. In addition, consider a no-fault termination provision, which may be acceptable to both parties if there is a reasonable notice period before the contract can be terminated.

Lastly, consider what your options are to preserve the records or get them out of the EHR system upon termination of the contract. In the example above, you may be caught between a rock (continued EHR service fees for the required record retention period) and a hard place (a costly one-time fee to obtain a copy of the records). Again, these deal points can (and should) be negotiated on the front end of the arrangement with the EHR vendor, especially if you foresee a change in your practice (e.g., retirement) in the near future. An acceptable solution likely looks different for each individual physician or practice, and their respective vendors, and could vary based on the timing (early vs. end of contract term) and reasons (retiring vs. transferring to new vendor) for terminating services. Concepts like these should be considered to address this issue and other contractual issues on the front end of the agreement, rather than when the relationship has soured or ended.

Conclusion

The contracting process can be tedious, frustrating, and at times can seem unnecessary, especially if both parties “seem to be on the same page.” However, there are great benefits to a well-conceived contractual relationship. These may include robust and meaningful standards of performance. They may also include reasonable provisions and limitations on indemnification, liability, and damages, or even a plan for what happens when the relationship is terminated. At any rate, they should be tailored to meet the parties’ needs and should be a help, rather than a hindrance. They simply require some attention from the parties on the front end of the contract.Please note that the information provided in this article does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials contained herein are for general informational purposes only.  Readers are encouraged to contact their attorney to obtain advice with respect to contract negotiations or any other particular legal matter.


[1] Although there is no specific retention period, the Board of Medical Examiners suggests keeping patient records for at least 10 years or otherwise consulting with the malpractice liability carrier to determine an appropriate record retention period.

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Top 4 Dos and Don’ts For Audits and Investigations

Top 4 Dos and Don’ts For Audits and Investigations

In the spirit of college football season and the inevitable argument about which four college football teams are in the college football playoffs, this article addresses the undisputed top 4 dos and don’ts that physicians should follow during an audit or investigation.  I have represented countless medical practices and individual physicians with a variety of federal payor audits, false claims investigations and DEA investigations.  The following top 4 dos and don’ts are the top issues I see frequently repeated, oftentimes to the detriment of the provider under investigation.

# 4 – Keep an Exact Copy of Everything Produced or Viewed Most of the time I am not retained until after the practice has turned over the requested documents and, in some cases, has also turned over non-requested documents. The usual response by the practice, when asked why it did not keep a copy of what was released, is something along the lines of “we did nothing wrong” or “we know what we turned over and can make a copy if needed.”  However, when I ask for the documents produced, the practice oftentimes cannot replicate what was produced. This puts the practice at a competitive disadvantage from the start. It also makes citing to a particular document extremely difficult when legal counsel does not know (1) if a particular document was actually produced, or (2) if it was produced, where in the mountain of records the document is located. Defending the practice’s conduct or fighting a recoupment becomes challenging without a copy of the documents. Thus, the practice should go ahead and make an exact copy of what is produced and maintain the copy until the practice is reasonably sure nothing will come from the audit or investigation. It is also recommended that the practice hire legal counsel before producing records, so as to ensure that only responsive documents are produced.

# 3 – Review All of the Medical Records Before Producing.  While this seems like a no brainer, I cannot state the number of times a medical practice has printed what it believes to be the entire medical record only to learn when receiving a recoupment demand or allegation of false claims that the entire medical record was not produced.  Another common issue in this age of electronic medical records (“EMR”) is that the printed record looks substantially different than the electronic record.  Some EMR systems will print a paper copy differently if the “print” function is used versus the “print screen” function.  I have experienced numerous occasions when the paper copy looks suspicious or incomplete, particularly the patient’s history or prescription records, because of the way the EMR prints the record.  On a related note, if the practice wishes to use a consultant to conduct a simulated audit, it is important to make sure that the consultant either has access to the EMR or that the printed paper records are complete and identical to the electronic records.

# 2 – Maintain Signature Logs of Alabama Medicaid Patients.  The Alabama Medicaid Agency requires that providers maintain evidence that the patient actually attended the appointment.  It does this by requiring providers to keep a signature on file to prove the patient’s attendance at each appointment. I have represented quite a few physicians and practices in Medicaid audits, and I do not recall an audit that did not request copies of the patients’ signatures.  However, the signature requirement is not well known by Alabama providers, as many of my clients are unaware of the requirement and fail to keep a copy of the signatures. While there are other ways to prove that a patient attended the visit, it is very simple to satisfy the signature requirement and avoid having to gather other forms of proof–simply use the removable signature logs and paste the patient’s signature into the record for that particular visit.

#1 Never, Ever, Ever Voluntarily Surrender A License/Permit/Participation Without First Obtaining Advice of Counsel.  Without question, the undisputed defending champion and current #1 is never ever voluntarily surrender a license, permit or participation in a payor’s program without first obtaining advice of counsel. I have heard on multiple occasions that a particular investigator says something along the lines of the following to a licensee “Things will go much easier if you voluntarily surrender your license.”  I have never in my experience seen where things have gone easier for the physician when he/she has voluntarily surrendered his/her license. However, it does is make things easier for the licensing body, so the statement above is true as phrased. The voluntary surrender substantially compromises the physician’s ability to defend his/her case, as the physician has lost any leverage he/she may have had – the agency already has what it wants – the physician’s license.  Most licensing agencies have due process requirements that must be followed before it can revoke, suspend, or take any adverse action on a license.  One of the most important due process requirements is giving the physician the right to a hearing where the physician can be represented by counsel and present evidence. The hearing process affords the physician the ability to test the agency’s evidence and interpretation of its regulations, which are oftentimes flawed.  The hearing process also gives the physician the ability to reach a compromised resolution of the matter, oftentimes allowing the physician to keep his/her license.  By voluntarily surrendering a license, the physician loses such rights and ability.


Jim Hoover practices with Burr & Forman LLP and works exclusively within the firm’s Health Care Industry Group. Jim primarily handles healthcare litigation and compliance matters.

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