OIG says no problem with patient gift cards

Important notice regarding frequent ED practice

If you want to give patients gift cards as a way to say "sorry" for that long wait in the ED — or anything else that left them unhappy — feel free. The government says you're not violating any prohibitions on improper remuneration.

The Office of Inspector General in the Department of Health and Human Services recently issued an advisory opinion in response to a specific query from a health system that wanted to issue the gift cards, but it wants to make sure the plan would not violate any rules before issuing an opinion that would have broad application. The OIG opinion technically only applies to that unnamed health system, but such opinions generally are regarded as a broadly applicable clarification of how the OIG would interpret similar situations.

The health system proposed offering $10 gift cards to patients who were left dissatisfied by service shortfalls, such as a delay of more than 30 minutes. The gift cards could be used at local retailers but could not be redeemed for cash or health care services. The health system also planned to track the cards to make sure that no patient received more than $50 in gift cards in one year.

The OIG opinion states that the plan "would not constitute prohibited remuneration" under the anti-kickback statute, which makes it a criminal offense to knowingly and willfully offer, pay, solicit, or receive any remuneration to induce or reward referrals of items or services reimbursable by a federal health care program. Providing gift cards to patients could violate the statute, but the specific plan proposed by the health system is sufficiently limited to avoid that conclusion, the opinion states.

"In these circumstances, we conclude that the gift cards in the proposed arrangement will be nominal in value and will not constitute cash or cash equivalents for purposes of our enforcement," the OIG wrote. For the full OIG opinion, go to oig.hhs.gov/fraud.