LegalEase: Patients’ right to freedom of choice of providers

Avoid fraud and implications of violations

By Elizabeth E. Hogue, Esq.
Burtonsville, MD

Regulators have indicated they are serious about patients’ right to freedom of choice of providers. Specifically, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published draft supplemental compliance guidance for hospitals. This supplemental guidance includes requirements related to patients’ right to freedom of choice of providers as described here:

Specifically, the OIG directly addressed the compliance issues related to freedom of choice in the following:

"When referring to home health agencies, hospitals must comply with Section 1861(ee)(2) (D) and (H) of the Act, requiring that Medicare participating hospitals, as part of the discharge planning process, (i) share with each beneficiary a list of Medicare-certified home health agencies that serve the beneficiary’s geographic area and that request to be listed, and (ii) identify any home health agency in which the hospital has a disclosable financial interest or that has a financial interest in the hospital."

Based upon that, the OIG has indicated a clear willingness to treat violations of the requirements of the Balanced Budget Act as a form of fraud and/or abuse of the programs.

The OIG also indicated that it has authority to exclude any individual or entity from participation in the federal health care programs if the they provide unnecessary items or services (i.e., items or services in excess of the needs of patients or substandard items; or services, i.e., items or services of a quality which fails to meet professionally recognized standards of health care).

The OIG further stated that neither knowledge or intent is required for exclusion under this provision. The exclusion can be based upon unnecessary or substandard items or services provided to any patient, even if that patient is not a Medicare or Medicaid beneficiary.

The OIG went on to state that violations of Medicare hospital conditions of participation (COPs), including those that govern discharge planning, or any other applicable standards of care may result in either over- or underutilization of services and sanctions by the OIG.

It is logical to add that applicable standards of care also include the requirements of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. Consequently, hospitals that violate applicable standards of care related to patients’ right to freedom of choice of providers and discharge planning may be subject to sanctions by the OIG.

It also is important for all providers to be aware that there now is an impressive array of tools available to them for use in dealing with referral issues, including:

  • Assisting patients to pursue violations of their common law rights to freedom of choice of providers regardless of payer source or type of care rendered primarily through the use of signed statements that describe violations.
  • Assisting patients to pursue violations of two federal statutes that guarantee Medicare and Medicaid patients, except waiver patients, the right to freedom of choice of providers primarily through the use of signed statements that describe violations.
  • Reporting to the Centers for Medicare & Medi-caid Services regional and central offices on violations of patients’ right to freedom of choice of providers by providers who participate in the Medicare/Medicaid programs.
  • Reporting to state surveyors about violations of patients’ rights. The surveyors treat such information as complaints and conduct surveys of hospital and other providers that may result in statements of deficiencies, corrective action, and follow-up surveys.
  • Reporting to the OIG on violations of patients’ rights to freedom of choice of providers and/or violations of applicable standards of care, which may result in sanctions against providers.

Providers also should be aware that a number of these avenues are available to providers who do not participate in the Medicare Program. Although the OIG’s supplemental guidance focuses on hospitals’ compliance, it also is important for providers to bear in mind that other types of providers sometimes violate patients’ right to freedom of choice of providers, including physicians.

It is reasonable to conclude that the OIG would be willing to sanction all types of providers for violations of patients’ right to freedom of choice of providers. There are an increasing number of avenues for both patients and providers to pursue violations of patients’ right to freedom of choice of providers. Providers of all types should be proactive when they encounter such violations.

[A complete list of Elizabeth Hogue’s publications is available by contacting Elizabeth E. Hogue, Esq., 15118 Liberty Grove, Burtonsville, MD 20866. Phone: (301) 421-0143. Fax (301) 421-1699. E-mail: ehogue5@Comcast.net.]