Legislation to Increase Financial Resources Provided through New Jersey Medicaid Program and to Establish County Option Hospital Fee Pilot Program Quietly Took Effect in April

On April 30, 2019, N.J.S.A. 30:4D-7r et seq., the County Option Hospital Fee Pilot Program Act (“Act”) establishing the County Option Hospital Fee Pilot Program (the “Pilot Program”), went into effect.  The bill was sponsored by Senators Joseph F. Vitale and M. Teresa Ruiz, and Assemblyman Craig J. Coughlin.  Governor Phil Murphy signed the bill on November 1, 2018.    

The Act creates a pilot program which will be overseen by the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Human Services (“DHS”).  The Act will initially allow seven qualified counties to participate in the Pilot Program, and grant them the authority to “impose a local health-care related fee on hospitals.”  The stated purpose of the Pilot Program is “to increase financial resources through the Medicaid program to support local hospitals and to ensure that they continue to provide necessary services to low-income citizens; and to provide participating counties with new fiscal resources.” 

In order to qualify for the Pilot Program, a county must have “a population greater than 250,000,” based on the most current federal census data available as of the effective date of the Act, with a municipality that is classified as a first or second class municipality, or a fourth class municipality with a population greater than 20,000, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40A:6-4.  Furthermore, the municipality must have a Municipal Revitalization score greater than sixty, based on the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs’ calculations. 

Participating counties must submit proposed fees and expenditure reports to the Commissioner to ensure compliance with state and federal law.  Prior to submitting the fees and expenditure reports, the counties are required to “consult with affected hospitals within” their jurisdictions.  After submission, the Commissioner shall provide affected hospitals with twenty-one calendar days to provide comments.  The proposed fees must be “implemented in accordance with the provisions of 42 U.S.C.A. 1396b(w)(3)(A),” and subject to the limitations of 42 C.F.R. 433.68(f)(3).  42 U.S.C.A. 1396b(w)(3)(A) outlines the requirements for a fee to qualify as a “health care related tax,” and requires at least eighty-five percent of the burden of the tax to fall on health care providers.  42 C.F.R. 433.68(f)(3) sets forth the conditions under which a taxpayer will be considered to be held harmless. 

Additionally, a county may exempt a specific hospital from within its jurisdiction from the imposed fee, as long as “the exemption complies with the requirements of 42 C.F.R. 433.68.”  Furthermore, at least ninety percent of the funds collected must be used to benefit hospitals within the collecting county’s jurisdiction, and at least one percent of the fee must be transferred to DHS to cover administrative costs.  The Act is silent with respect to how the remaining nine percent of the collected funds can be utilized. 

The Act explicitly prohibits affected hospitals from passing on the costs of the fee to patients or insurers.  Notably, the Act acknowledges that “funds generated by the fee shall not supplant or offset any current or future State funds allocated to a county participating in the pilot program” and “payments distributed to hospitals . . . shall not supplant or offset any current or future funds paid to hospitals through other State or federal funding mechanisms or pools.”

Based on the requirements set forth in the Act, the counties most likely to be eligible for the Pilot Program are: Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Essex, Hudson, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Passaic.  According to Senator Vitale, “while Medicaid is the safety net that prevents low-income New Jerseyans from falling through the cracks, hospitals need to be well-funded and supported to properly deliver expert care to the community they serve.”  Furthermore, Senator Vitale believes the “pilot program will expand the resources for Medicaid and funnel funds into those facilities that ensure the disadvantaged continue to receive the quality care they need.”

It will be interesting to monitor the health care community and county legislators’ reactions to the actual implementation of this Act.  On the one hand, only seven out of ten potentially eligible counties will be authorized to participate in the Pilot Program, leaving at least three, if not more, counties unable to impose health-care related fees on hospitals within their jurisdictions to raise funds like their sister counties.  On the other hand, hospitals in seven counties will be subject to additional financial burdens, unlike the hospitals in the remaining fourteen counties not qualified or chosen for the Pilot Program.  Furthermore, the Act’s silence with respect to the remaining nine percent of the funds collected through the Pilot Program (requiring at least ninety percent to be distributed to hospitals within a county’s jurisdiction and at least one percent to be transferred to DHS for administrative costs) may become a point of contention for hospitals and counties alike.

New Jersey becomes Eighth State to Pass Death with Dignity Legislation

On March 25, 2019, both the New Jersey Assembly and the New Jersey Senate passed the Medical Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act (the “Act”).  The final version of the bill was sponsored by Assemblyman John J. Burzichelli and Assemblyman Tim Eustace.  Governor Phil Murphy signed the bill into law on April 12, 2019 stating, “Today’s bill signing will make New Jersey the eighth state to allow terminally ill patients the dignity to make their own end-of-life decisions – including medical aid in dying.  We must give these patients the humanity, respect, and compassion they deserve.”

The Act “permits qualified terminally ill patient[s] to self-administer medication to end [their] live[s] in [a] humane and dignified manner.”  New Jersey is now only the eighth state in the country to allow competent, terminally-ill adults to exercise their “right to die.”  Under the Act, “terminally ill” is defined as a patient who “is in the terminal stage of an irreversibly fatal illness, disease, or condition with a prognosis, based upon reasonable medical certainty.” 

Furthermore, qualified patients choosing to exercise their rights under this Act will be required to submit their request in writing, stating, among other things, that they have been fully informed of any available alternatives.  Two individuals, one who must not be a relative, entitled to any portion of the patient’s estate, or the patient’s doctor, must witness and attest the voluntariness of the patient’s request. 

A “right-to-die” bill was first introduced in New Jersey in 2012.  Proponents of the Act believe it gives adults the right to control their lives, die with dignity if they so choose, and decrease their prolonged pain and suffering.  Proponents of the Act also believe that there are enough safeguards in place to protect vulnerable, elderly adults. For example, the Act requires a patient to make several requests prior to receiving a prescription.  Additionally, not all terminally-ill patients who request and receive the medication will actually end up self-administering the medication – some patients simply like having the option of requesting such medication. 

Opponents of the bill argue that once a “right-to-die” bill is passed, New Jersey will be unable to outlaw the practice.  Further, they argue that vulnerable adults may misuse the Act, while certain adults may feel pressured to end their lives, viewing themselves as burdens to their families.  A 2015 Rutgers-Eagleton poll found that sixty-three percent of New Jersey residents support the passing of a “right-to-die” bill. 

It will be interesting to monitor the effects of these statutes on physicians, psychologically and professionally.  It is debatable whether providing such medications to terminally ill patients in pain can be reconciled with a physician’s Hippocratic oath to do no harm.  It will also be interesting to see what, if any, pressure will be placed upon doctors to provide such services to patients given that many may have moral objections to administering such medications.

United States Department of Health and Human Services Pushes for the Elimination of Certificate of Need Laws among States in an Effort to Decrease Healthcare Costs

In December 2018, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) issued a report entitled “Reforming America’s Healthcare System Through Choice and Competition” (the “Report”) in which HHS recommended “state action to repeal or scale back Certificate of Need laws.”  This recommendation was motivated by HHS’s desire to decrease healthcare costs through competition, by allowing additional competitors into certain healthcare markets. 

Most states adopted Certificate of Need laws following the enactment of the Health Planning Resources Development Act of 1974 (the “Act”).  The Act required states to create agencies or programs to oversee the creation or expansion of healthcare facilities.  The enactment of the Act was motivated by the assumption that healthcare costs were rising due to the overbuilding of healthcare facilities.  Specifically, due to an abundance of hospitals and other healthcare facilities, these facilities were unable to fill their beds, resulting in fixed costs being met through higher charges to patients.  Therefore, under the Act, a Certificate of Need would only be issued following the demonstration of actual need or demand by the entity seeking to expand an existing facility or build a new facility.  

Congress repealed the Act in 1986 for various reasons.  To date, fifteen states have eliminated their Certificate of Need requirements altogether.  New Jersey continues to maintain its Certificate of Need requirements.  Furthermore, between 2011 and 2016, the items covered under New Jersey’s Certificate of Need laws increased from twelve (12) to twenty-six (26), placing it amongst the top five most restrictive states when it comes to issuing a Certificate of Need. 

Based on the Report, Certificate of Need laws, in actuality, impose costs, including loss of beneficial competition; fail to improve healthcare quality or access; and foster unintended competition problems.  According to the Report, repealing Certificate of Need laws leads to “greater competition [which] incentivizes providers to become more efficient” and “hospitals faced with a more competitive environment have better management practices.”  Further, “evidence suggests [Certificate of Need] laws are ineffective,” and “[t]here is no compelling evidence suggesting that [Certificate of Need] laws improve quality or access, inefficiently or otherwise.”  Lastly, Certificate of Need laws impose costly barriers to provider entry and interfere “with market forces that normally determine the supply of facilities and services,” which can lead to the suppression of supplies, misallocation of resources, and shielding of “incumbent healthcare providers from competition from new entrants.” 

Since the publication of the Report, several states, including Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, and Alaska, have proposed legislation to either reduce the scope of Certificate of Need laws or to repeal them altogether.  Interestingly enough, moving in the opposite direction, Indiana has introduced legislation that would create a new Certificate of Need law. 

With legislators across the aisle concerned about the increasingly high costs of healthcare, and the Report’s arguments that Certificate of Need laws have been ineffective, the Report may serve as a catalyst to repealing individual Certificate of Need requirements in various states, including New Jersey. 

Dental Practice and Private Equity-backed Dental Support Organization Settle With Government Regarding Allegations of Improper Billing and Violations of the Corporate Practice of Dentistry

ImmediaDent of Indiana, LLC (“ImmediaDent”), the operator of nine dental care practices in Indiana, and Samson Dental Partners, LLC (“Samson”), the provider of administrative support services to ImmediaDent, have agreed to pay $5.1 million to settle allegations of improper Medicaid billing and violations of the Indiana corporate practice of dentistry.  As part of the settlement, the two companies will pay approximately $3.4 million to the federal government and $1.78 million to the State of Indiana.

ImmediaDent owns and operates thirty-three dental locations in Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio.  Kansas-based Samson provides management, administrative, and other support services to ImmediaDent, but does not have an ownership interest in ImmediaDent.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office intervened in this matter after Dr. Jihaad Abdul-Majid filed a qui tam, or whistleblower, suit in February 2013 against ImmediaDent and Samson in federal court.  According to the complaint, Dr. Abdul-Majid worked for ImmediaDent from July 2011 to March 2012.  His efforts to speak out against the alleged false billing practices he witnessed resulted in the termination of his employment.

Allegations constituting improper Medicaid billing by the two entities included billing tooth extractions as surgical extractions and billing for “deep cleanings” that were never performed or were not medically necessary.  Further, Samson was accused of violating Indiana’s law prohibiting the corporate practice of dentistry, Ind. Code §25-14-1-23.  See also Orthodontic Affiliates, P.C. v. OrthAlliance, Inc., 210 F. Supp. 2d 1054, 1059 (N.D. Ind. 2002).  Specifically, it was alleged that Samson improperly influenced ImmediaDent’s medical professionals and staff by rewarding employees for reaching production goals, disciplining employees for failing to meet production objectives, and exerting influence over staff in a manner that compromised their clinical judgment.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, both companies refused to enter into corporate integrity agreements, which would have required oversight of the company by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General (“OIG”).  Corporate integrity agreements typically last for a period of five years and require companies to hire additional compliance staff, develop compliance training, have annual external reviews performed, and submit performance reports to the OIG.  Due to both entities’ refusal to enter into corporate integrity agreements, the OIG has determined that ImmediaDent and Samson “pose a continuing high risk to the federal health care programs and their beneficiaries.”

There is a small, but growing trend, of federal and state governments filing claims against management companies of medical and dental practices, and, in some instances, the private equity firms that invest in these management companies, for the alleged misdeeds of the billing providers.  Even though the firms do not have direct equity interests in the providers themselves, federal and state governments are more closely scrutinizing the influence that the firms have in the providers through the management relationships and trying to argue that such influence is so great that the management companies and the firms should also be liable for the liabilities of the providers.  It is important that management companies and private equity firms take great care in their relationships with health care providers to remain at arms’-length, so as to try to avoid being implicated in these actions.