Troy A. BarskyRoma Sharma

On November 28, 2016, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued an unfavorable advisory opinion (No. 16-12) that addresses the permissibility, under the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS), of a laboratory’s proposal to label test tubes and collect specimen containers at no cost to, and for the benefit of, dialysis facilities. The OIG found that the arrangement may violate the AKS, potentially subjecting the laboratory to civil monetary penalties and exclusion from Medicare.

The laboratory in question provides testing services to dialysis patients pursuant to service contracts with dialysis facilities. Testing services provided by the laboratory are reimbursed by Medicare. Under the proposed arrangement, the laboratory would provide some of the dialysis facilities with free labeling services; the laboratory would label test tubes and specimen collection containers that would later be used by those dialysis facilities when sending specimens to the laboratory for testing. These labeling services would be provided to the dialysis facilities at no cost.

The OIG analyzed the applicability of the personal services and management contracts AKS safe harbor and found that the safe harbor would not apply. The safe harbor requires that the compensation paid for services be consistent with fair market value in an arms-length transaction. In the proposed arrangement, however, the dialysis facilities would not pay any compensation to the laboratory for the labeling services despite the value of those services to the dialysis facilities. As a result, the OIG determined that the proposed arrangement is inconsistent with fair market value, rendering the safe harbor inapplicable.

Under a factual analysis, the OIG found that the laboratory’s provision of services to dialysis facilities at no cost would be a tangible benefit to the dialysis facilities. The advisory opinion states that from such arrangements, an inference arises that the service is offered to induce the referral of business. In addition, an inference arises that the free labeling services would be intended to influence the dialysis facilities’ selection of a laboratory – an inference supported by the representation by the laboratory that the labeling services would be offered when necessary to retain or obtain business from dialysis facilities.

Interestingly, the same laboratory sought an advisory opinion of a factually identical arrangement in 2008 (No. 08-06) at a time when Medicare employed a composite rate reimbursement system for laboratory testing services. At that time, the OIG issued an unfavorable advisory opinion of the arrangement. Medicare now employs a bundled payment system in which all laboratory tests related to end-stage renal disease (ESRD) are reimbursed as part of the ESRD prospective payment system bundle (ESRD PPS). Reviewing the arrangement under the ESRD PPS, the 2016 advisory opinion found that OIG’s previous analysis of the arrangement applies, particularly since physicians are currently able to order separate laboratory tests unrelated to a patient’s ESRD. Due to this fact, the labeling services may constitute prohibited remuneration intended to induce or reward referrals for services reimbursed by Medicare. The arrangement viewed under both the composite rate reimbursement system and the ESRD PPS raise AKS concerns.

The AKS risk may be lessened in circumstances where laboratories bill for fewer separately reimbursable tests; however, the offering of such free services remains a concern. This advisory opinion highlights challenges laboratories may face in providing free services to entities with which they contract. As payment models shift toward bundled payments and value-based care, it remains important for providers to consider fraud and abuse risks that may arise.