The Government Is No Friend to Investigated Physicians

Healthcare reform aside, physicians are increasingly buried under the weight of nonstop regulatory scrutiny and compliance requirements.  Even the most compliant physician will find, however, that the government is no gentleman when it comes to efforts to ferret out wrongdoing.

Physicians are most commonly confronted with the regulatory process by a phone call from an investigator or perhaps a written request for information.  Board of Medicine issues usually begin with the so called “45 day letter,” which invites a physician suspected of wrongdoing to submit a written response to an allegation of wrongdoing.  EMTALA violations are reported to the Department of Health and the Office of Inspector General, both of which will initiate contact with the physician in writing.

Though physicians may think a simple explanation will convince an investigator or attorney to back off, that is seldom the case.  Physicians wrongly think that the point of such investigations is to determine the truth.  They must instead accept that, once investigators and prosecuting lawyers have contacted them, there is already a belief that wrong doing has occurred.  Physicians would do well to understand that the job of the investigator and prosecutor involves just two things:  (1)  Seeing if the physician’s response is so convincing as to cause them to reevaluate their suspicion (it seldom is); and (2) to see if they think they have enough to justify a prosecution.  The investigator and prosecutor have a job, to find wrongdoing and to punish it!  They are not philosophers or social workers.  They are not counselors to have a really nice conversation with.  They are not to be trusted because their job is at odds with physicians who are the targets (or even witnesses) of their investigations.  If physicians can remember one thing, it is that they need the support of lawyers and others who know their way over this unfriendly terrain.

Innocent physicians caught in the investigative/prosecutorial process may feel impatient and frustrated.  “I’ve done nothing wrong, so surely if I just tell the truth everything will be ok.”  It’s just not that way; and it’s just not that simple!  Discussions with the government will take time and will require patience.  What physicians have to keep in mind is that, though they are innocent until proven guilty, if they are targets of an investigation, the investigator and prosecutor already suspect them of wrongdoing.  It’s a bit of an uphill climb!

Remarkably, even the best legal representation will not necessarily resolve matters quickly.  By the time physicians are aware they are being investigated, in many instances months have been spent working that case, and prosecutors are simply not inclined to immediately walk away from all that hard work.

Surprising still is that prosecutors will try to get a settlement, even when your lawyer tells you there is no wrongdoing.   Recall that the prosecutor has a job—find the bad guy and win the case.  If the prosecutor can get you to settle, particularly by paying money, they will call it a “win” and move on to the next case.  It is nauseating but true that sometimes it makes sense to settle, even when there is no wrongdoing, given the legal and related expenses.  But when settling is not an option because it causes a cascade of unacceptable consequences (e.g. a Board of Medicine investigation, a medical malpractice suit, becoming sanctioned by Medicare and perhaps even losing medical staff membership and managed care contracts), physicians have no option but to fight.

Probably most surprising, physicians who vigorously defend themselves may find that they never “win.”  That is, they are never told by a prosecuting lawyer that the government is giving up.  Physicians who have been the targets of government investigations will find that the sound of victory is often silence.  Government prosecutors simply get quiet!  You just stop hearing from them.

The best physician defendant is one well armed with guidance to traverse an inherently adversarial environment.


EMTALA Violation? EMTALA Issues Can be a Source of Confusion for Physicians & Medical Staffs

EMTALA (the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act) was passed by Congress in 1986.  The purpose behind the law was to ease the burden of public or so called charity hospitals from having to treat indigent patients because other hospitals refused to treat such patients due to their inability to pay.  EMTALA is a non-discrimination law rather than a law establishing standards of care.  The scope of the law is very limited.  A hospital’s obligation is to (1) provide an appropriate screening to determine whether an emergency condition exits and (2) if there is an emergency condition the facility cannot transfer a patient until the patient is stabilized or if other conditions of law are met.

A physician’s obligation under EMTALA essentially compels a physician who is on call to go to the hospital’s emergency department and to examine and treat a patient as necessary to satisfy the hospital’s screen and stabilize duty.  Contrary to what some hospitals claim (and what some medical staffs decide), there is no obligation under EMTALA to see or treat a patient in a physician’s office.  A positive or negative outcome has no bearing on the issue of EMTALA compliance.  The futility of providing treatment to screen and stabilize is no defense to an EMTALA violation claim.  Physicians who fail to comply with EMTALA can expect an investigation from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of HHS and can face a civil monetary penalty of up to $50,000.  Physicians who are found not to comply with EMTALA often face regulatory action (licensing board) and medical malpractice suits.

  1. Medical Screening Examination (MSE) Requirement

42 USC §1395dd (a) requires a hospital to provide for an appropriate screening examination within the capability of the hospital’s emergency department, including ancillary services routinely available to the emergency department, to determine whether or not an emergency medical condition exists.  The law proscribes the basic elements of an appropriate MSE, but does not go so far as to dictate the clinical particulars that must be implemented.

  1. Stabilizing Treatment Requirement

Subsection (b) provides in pertinent part:

…the hospital must provide either –

(A) within the staff and facilities available at the hospital, such further medical examination and such treatment as may be required to stabilize the medical condition, or

(B) for transfer of the individual to another medical facility in accordance with subsection (c).

Under subsection (c) a patient who has not been stabilized may be transferred only if the individual (or his/her representative) understands the risk involved with the transfer and requests in writing transfer to another medical facility and a physician has a signed certification that based on the information available at the time of the transfer, the medical benefits reasonably expected from the provision of appropriate medical treatment at another facility outweigh the increased risks to the individual…

The terms “to stabilize” and “stabilized” are defined in Subsection (e), but are subjective or situational in nature.  The definition depends on the risks associated with the transfer and requires the transferring physician faced with an emergency to make a fast on-the-spot risk analysis.  Federal Appeals courts have supported the position that “stabilize” for the purposes of transfer is a relative concept that depends on the situation.

  1. The Transfer

Under subsection (c) of the law, a patient who has not been stabilized cannot be transferred unless there is a signed certification based on the information available at the time of transfer, the medical benefits reasonably outweigh the risk to the individual from effecting the transfer and only if the receiving facility has agreed to accept transfer of the individual and to provide appropriate medical treatment.  Only unstable patients require a certification and consent of the receiving hospital.  A patient who has been stabilized in the emergency room of the transferring hospital may be transferred to a receiving hospital without a certification and without an express written agreement of the receiving hospital.  Stabilized patients may be transferred without any such limitation.

Conclusion

Medical staffs must be completely aware of EMTALA’s provisions to (1) ensure their members comply, and (2) have meaningful dialogue with hospital administrations, whose business objectives may conflict to some extent with those of the medical staff members.  Physicians who are accused of EMTALA violations, either at the medical staff level, or as a result of an OIG investigation, need prompt and thorough guidance.