Pros, cons for compliance officers’ expanding role

Kristin Jenkins, compliance and quality officer at JPS Health Network in Fort Worth, TX, says that if she has learned any single lesson from the business ethics debacles of the past year, it is the value of remaining focused as a compliance professional.

At the same time, she says, the expanding role of compliance officers makes that an increasingly delicate balancing act.

"I believe the expanding role of compliance officers will bring with it many new conflicts of interest," she argues. Nevertheless, Jenkins encourages other compliance officers to accept expanded responsibility. For one thing, expanding her responsibilities has given her a better perspective on day-to-day problems that arise for middle management and senior management.

According to Jenkins, ethical complications can arise when the role of a compliance officer expands past a "pure compliance program." Some of those complications are obvious, she told participants in a Health Care Compliance Association audio conference Sept. 24.

For example, when she took over the area of medical records, that included coding. "I could not very well audit my own coders and look objective," she says. "These are issues that I don't see as solvable internally."

However, other conflicts that arise every day are manageable if compliance officers focus on disclosure, says Jenkins.

For example, compliance officers who are responsible for a quality program in an organization also may be responsible for accreditation from the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO).

"If you have JCAHO come into your organization and look for your compliance with their standards, you are obligated to be as upfront and complete in your responses and as accurate as possible in a business-ethics sense," she says.

As a compliance officer, that would be no problem, she says, because compliance officers would be monitoring pieces of those standards or conducting audits that may relate to JCAHO standards as well as others.

However, when a team is there to accredit an organization and performance evaluations are tied to JCAHO, there may be a conflict because compliance officers may have an incentive to be less than forthcoming in order to benefit themselves.

"Discussion and disclosure is key in managing your business ethics," argues Jenkins. By that, she means actually discussing the pros and cons of a specific course of action, she says. "This is so difficult for leaders sometimes to do, to talk about the potential downfalls and potential risks of a course of action."

Jenkins says that some board members tend to get caught up too much in the risks. But she adds that most sophisticated leaders in an organization will understand that operating a business carries inherent risks. "They each have their own level of willingness to engage in that risk," she says.

According to Jenkins, compliance officers can avoid many business-ethics issues simply by being upfront about potential risks.

"You have a room full of people who can engage what they believe will be the right thing to do," she says. "That many heads are usually better than one."

Jenkins says those discussions can be extremely beneficial to everyone in the organization and also can provide the board with a new level of information so that if something does happen in the future, they understand and have made an informed decision to accept that risk.

"I believe that compliance officers are the COOs and CEOs of the future," Jenkins maintains. She says they are uniquely positioned to develop relationships with boards and understand issues across an organization.

"I believe the government had an intent to create a new generation of leaders in health care when they began recommending or prescribing the engagement of a compliance officer in health care organizations," she argues.

Jenkins says that she believes the government wanted individuals at a high level who would understand the issues facing entities and who had a focus at the outset of their executive careers on business ethics as well as business practicalities.