Texas Department of Insurance-Division of Worker's Compensation Increases Oversight and Enforcement Actions Against Designated Doctors

 

For the past several years the Texas Department of Insurance-Division of Worker's Compensation (TDI-DWC) has steadily increased the number of enforcement actions initiated against Designated Doctors serving the Texas worker's compensation system. The results of such enforcement actions can range widely— from a requirement that the Designated Doctor (DD) complete additional training, the payment of a sizable administrative penalty, to removal of the physician's Designated Doctor (DD) status. Most DD's are likely aware of this trend as it corresponds with broader efforts by DWC to more tightly regulate the worker's compensation process.

To accommodate this augmented activity the Division of Worker's Compensation's enforcement division has expanded its staff through recruitment from other state healthcare agencies, such as the Texas Medical Board. As a by-product of this hiring policy the DWC has adopted and modified many of the procedures commonly used by these other administrative bodies. This includes implementing an informal conference procedure which largely models that used by the Medical Board. Similarly, DWC Staff also frequently forward a proposed settlement agreement to a Designated Doctor prior to an informal conference or other adequate opportunity to respond to alleged deficiencies. This procedure mirrors that used by the Texas Board of Dental Examiners and Texas Board of Nursing.

A DD will often first become aware of a pending enforcement action through a records request from DWC's enforcement division asking for all documentation still in the DD's possession related to one or more specified patients. Alternatively, DWC will send the Designated Doctor official correspondence expressly notifying them an enforcement action has been opened, listing the matters being investigated, and ask for a response. Prior to providing a response, a Designated Doctor in receipt of such a letter from the Division of Worker's Compensation should promptly contact an experienced attorney to discuss their case and determine whether it is advisable to retain legal representation. We have seen many clients unknowingly do irreparable harm to their case by submitting a response first and only seeking legal counsel after they receive a proposed resolution from the enforcement division.

The DWC can initiate an enforcement action against a Designated Doctor for a broad array of different reasons, including submitting Designated Doctor's Evaluations (DDE) late, establishing a date of Maximum Medical Improvement (MMI) or Impairment Rating (IR) with which the Division's Office of the Medical Advisor disagrees, or having an Administrative Law Judge subsequently overturn the DD's findings in a hearing involving an injured worker. In fact, the kind of conduct, issues, errors, and omissions that can be considered a violation of the DWC's Rules is vast and many may seem picayune to the physician or outside observer. Regardless, the enforcement division pursues each issue zealously and makes full use of DWC's broad discretion to regulate its DD's in seeking enforcement action.

Any Designated Doctor who has been targeted for a possible enforcement action by DWC should immediately contact an attorney experienced in representing clients before the agency. The risks of going it alone are substantial and the DWC does not shy from removing physicians as Designated Doctors, particularly not in the overactive regulatory climate which currently prevails. My firm has been very successful in achieving successful outcomes for DD's before DWC and this includes physicians whom the enforcement division sought to have removed from the program. A vigorous rebuttal and/or remedial presentation by a lawyer experienced in advocating before the DWC can make all the difference in the final outcome.

 

The Texas Medical Board, Agreed Orders, and Insurance Provider Networks

 

When a physician is involved in a disciplinary proceeding with the Texas Medical Board, Department of Public Safety, or other governmental entity that will likely result in some variety of Board order, it is critically important to carefully craft the final agreement so as to avoid trouble down the line. All provider networks have standing policies regarding the credentialing of physicians who have been sanctioned by a state agency. Many of them can be particularly harsh and can bar a physician from inclusion in their network if they have an active disciplinary order.

 

Frequently, the physician’s well-meaning but uninformed attorney will obtain, and advise their client to accept, a disciplinary order that imposes a relatively minor sanction. Later, the doctor, as required, discloses the occurrence of the Board Order on their credentialing renewal applications. The Provider networks will then deny re-credentialing on the basis of the disciplinary order. The physician is then put in the difficult position of being fully licensed to practice yet suddenly unable to see a potentially broad section of their former patients. Absence of credentialing with key networks can also jeopardize a physician’s position in a group practice or institutional setting.

 

An experienced attorney with a full understanding of the possible implications of any given outcome can work from the start with the physician and the Texas Medical Board with an eye to ensuring a result that will not damage that doctor’s standing within provider networks and place them in a good position to obtain credentialing with new networks in the future.

 

Outside of an outright dismissal, this can oftentimes be done through an order that is remedial, not disciplinary in nature. Such an order could provide for additional CME hours or the payment of an administrative penalty. This can be particularly appropriate where the allegations relate to inadequate record-keeping, over-billing, or a minor violation of a standing Agreed Order. An added benefit of such an agreement is that they typically terminate as soon as the penalty is paid or the extra CME hours are completed removing them from the purview of many provider networks’ policies excluding physician’s who are under active Board Orders. Such an agreement also does not involve any restrictions on a physician’s practice or prescribing authority, another plus both on its own and when dealing with insurance networks.

 

Another option may be to seek a confidential rehabilitative order. This often applies to physicians with chemical dependency or intemperate use issues. Such a confidential order remains secret as long as the physician remains in compliance and does not have to be reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank or disclosed to provider networks.

 

Either of the above choices typically requires careful preparation of the client and their case for presentation to the Medical Board. It may involve the gathering of extensive mitigating and remedial evidence. The key point is to convince the Board that the licensee has recognized and accepted responsibility for their error and has taken the remedial steps necessary to prevent any reoccurrence of the underlying allegations such that a minor order would be warranted in their case.

 

This difficult task is best accomplished by an attorney familiar with the Texas Medical Board and its procedures and who is also aware of the potential consequences a given order can have on a physician’s credentialing status in provider networks. Trying for the best resolution rather than a merely acceptable one will pay off later by avoiding the additional stress, attorney’s fees, and lost patients that travel with credentialing denials.

  

Medicare/Medicaid Exclusion Waivers: Sole Community Physicians

 

Once the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Inspector General decides to exclude a physician or nurse from participation in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, that health care professional’s career and employment options grow considerably narrower. For a physician in an institutional setting that accepts patients from these programs, this will likely render them unemployable. Exclusion can easily cause a similar mortal blow to a laboriously-built private practice. Nurses will likewise find their options for employment in the health care field considerably shrink if not disappear.

 

Fortunately for physicians, and at least in theory nurses, they may be able to obtain an exclusion waiver as the “sole community physician” in their area. 42 C.F.R. § 402.308. The law defines sole community physician as “a physician who is the only physician who provides primary care services to Federal or State health care program beneficiaries within a defined service area.” Id. at  § 1001.2(d). In broad outline, the law permits the OIG to waive a physician’s exclusion if they find that their exclusion would cause hardship to local Medicare/Medicaid beneficiaries. “Hardship” in turn can be found where that physician is the sole community physician or “the sole source of essential specialized services in the Medicare community.” Id. at § 402.308.

 

As an example, I am currently representing a physician from a rural area who would almost certainly be excluded if there was no waiver provision. But, this physician is the only source for at least one hundred miles in all directions for certain basic medical imaging and diagnostic studies as well as essential heart and vascular procedures. Our strategy has been to develop evidence and documentation establishing his status as a sole community physician which can then be used if and when OIG decides in favor of exclusion.

 

Procedurally, the way this process works is indirect. A physician cannot present their argument and evidence directly to the Office of Inspector General and ask for a waiver. The law is drawn such that only another state or federal agency can appeal for a waiver as to a particular physician. This means that the physician must make their case to the applicable agency who then, if they agree, applies for a waiver with the OIG. Typically, the OIG will accept the judgment of the waiver-seeking agency, but there is no law that says they must.  

 

The waiver provision underlines the need for any physician facing a possible Medicare/Medicaid exclusion to speak with an experienced attorney so that they can properly weigh their options. This is an unforgiving area of the law and only the right attorney can steer a physician through the pitfalls to an outcome where they can still successfully practice medicine.

The Need to Plea Carefully: Criminal Convictions and Medicare/Medicaid Exclusion

 

A recurring scenario in my office goes like this: A physician contacts me about a letter they have received from the Office of the Inspector General stating that they are investigating whether or not the doctor has been involved in conduct that warrants exclusion from the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Oftentimes this concerns the physician’s plea of guilty or nolo contendre to a crime involving these or other government programs or that has some other connection to health care. This is very frustrating to both me and the physician as under federal law even if they do not directly involve a federal program, if any of these crimes is a felony, the client has a serious chance of being summarily excluded.

 

Under the Social Security Act, the Office of the Inspector General must exclude a physician from Medicare and Medicaid participation for:

 

  • Conviction for any criminal offense related to a federal or state health care program;
  • Conviction for a crime relating to patient abuse;
  • Conviction for a felony connected to health care and involving fraud, theft, embezzlement, breach of fiduciary responsibility, or other financial misconduct; and
  • Conviction for a felony involving a controlled substance.

 

42 U.S.C. § 1320(a)(7).

 

The last two exclusion rules are the result of Congressional lobbying efforts by the OIG aimed at cutting down federal payments to “bad” physicians thereby saving program costs. The end product has been a set of broadly drafted laws that permit the OIG to exclude a physician who has been convicted for any of a wide array of crimes that can somehow be related back to health care. It should also press properly informed physicians into more carefully weighing their options when considering a plea.

 

Keep in mind that under the applicable federal law even a plea of nolo contendre will amount to a felony conviction. The same applies to pleas involving probation, community supervision, or deferred adjudication. Perhaps most important to remember is that an exclusion under any of the four grounds outlined above is both mandatory and for a minimum of five years. The impact on a physician’s practice and employment prospects caused by a five year exclusion is generally devastating if not fatal. Also note that under federal law, if a physician is excluded from one federal program, they are automatically excluded from all federal programs.

 

Unfortunately, most criminal defense attorneys are not aware of these serious consequences while they hammer out a plea for their physician clients. The fact is a physician should try and plea to a misdemeanor whenever possible, as an exclusion for most misdemeanors is neither mandatory nor for five years. Once a physician has been convicted of a felony related to health care, their only avenue for avoiding the mandatory exclusion is through obtaining a sole community provider waiver. See Title 42 CFR § 402.38. This is done by filing an appeal with the appropriate state agency and arguing that the physician who is to be excluded is the role provider of certain medical services to Medicare/Medicaid patients within a defined geographic area. If they state agency agrees, they will then request a waiver of exclusion from the OIG. This is a narrow exception; if like most doctors, the physician practices in a urban area, he or she will likely be ineligible unless their practice is extremely specialized.

 

The bottom-line is that any physician facing criminal charges would be prudent with contacting an attorney knowledgeable in the applicable federal law and experienced before the Office of the Inspector General. In this way, the physician can be completely informed of the potential consequences of any particular plea. Failure to do so, can result in a plea that effectively foreclose their ability to avoid federal exclusion.

 

It is also worth keeping in mind that a criminal conviction will almost certainly cause an inquiry and possible sanction by state licensing boards, professional/credentialing societies, provider networks, and institutions where the physician holds credentials. Thus Medicare/Medicaid exclusion mirrors the general characterization of medical and professional licensing law as a veritable house of cards where the removal of one can cause the rest to quickly follow suit. This is an area where the retention of an experienced attorney can make all the difference.     

Surrendered Licenses & OIG Medicare Exclusions

Consider this scenario: You lose your medical (nursing, pharmacist, etc.) license to practice, so you move states in order to escape the ramifications of a surrendered or revoked license. 

Unfortunately, the ramifications of your lost professional registration may follow you in the form of an exclusion. An individual subject to an exclusion is significantly limited in her ability to work in the health care profession nationwide. The purpose of the exclusion remedy is to protect beneficiaries of Federal health care programs from incompetent practitioners and from inappropriate or inadequate care. In the broadest sense, a section 1128 exclusion prevents individuals and entities from participation in Medicare, Medicaid and State health care programs. However, this does not affect your rights to participate as a beneficiary (i.e., if you break your arm and Medicaid normally pays, then you can still collect these benefits). 

According to 1128(b)(4) of the Social Security Act, an individual may be excluded from participation in any Federal health care program if that person’s license was revoked, suspended, or otherwise lost, or because it was surrendered while a formal disciplinary proceeding was pending before an authority and the proceeding concerned the individual's professional competence, professional performance, or financial integrity. The Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) will generally send you a letter informing you that you may be excluded from health care programs including:

  • Medicare
  • Medicaid
  • Veterans Administration
  • TRICARE, etc. 

The Social Security Act allows the OIG to exercise discretion when deciding whether or not to exclude individuals from participating in Federal health care programs. Even if the OIG decides to exclude you, they also have discretion to determine the length of the exclusion. Of course there are guidelines and considerations, such as:

  1. the nature of the act that gave rise to the exclusion;
  2. length of license suspension;
  3. criminal history, and;
  4. the availability of other sources of the type of health care services furnished by the individual. 

As to the last factor, the OIG will go so far as to consider whether you are the only provider who takes Medicare or Medicaid in a specific zip code. For example, if there are two therapists in a given zip code and only the excluded individual accepts Medicare, then the OIG will consider that factor as a mitigating factor when determining the length of the exclusion. 

If the OIG still decides to exclude you, then you still have a shot at obtaining a waiver. In this case, the OIG must receive a written request for the individual directly responsible for administering the State health care program. The OIG will grant a waiver if it determines that the imposition of the exclusion would not be in the public interest. Furthermore, the waiver is only applicable to the program for which the waiver is requested.

If you have been sent a letter informing you that you may be excluded, contact us immediately, as you only have 30 days to respond to the OIG in order to submit information to them.