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.