August 5, 2021

“Can you provide a quick guide to the Stark Value-Based Exceptions?”

While these Rules are difficult to summarize and the devil is in the details, the following is a summary of the Stark Value-Based Rules that became effective on January 19, 2021:

A Value-Based Arrangement is intended to compensate the physician Value‑Based Participants of a Value Based Enterprise for achieving the Value‑Based Purposes of the Value-Based Activity for a Target Patient Population, rather than basing that payment on the items or services furnished by the physicians.

CMS stated in the Preamble to the January 19, 2021 Rules that the anticipated benefits from the Value-Based Rules are to:  improve care coordination for patients; reduce cost to payers and patients from poorly coordinated, duplicative care; improve quality of care and outcomes; achieve substantial reduction in Stark Law compliance costs; and reduce administrative complexity and related waste.

Whether the Value-Based Rules will achieve any or all of these benefits remains to be seen.  What is clear is that the Value-Based Rules have requirements that are significantly different from the requirements in fee-for-service arrangements that were governed by the Stark Rules that have been previously in effect.  The Value-Based Rules have different requirements depending on the level of financial risk assumed by the physician Value-Based Participants.

The Stark exceptions for Value-Based Arrangements went into effect on January 19, 2021 and are found at § 411.357(aa)(1)-(3).  While each Value-Based Exception needs to be considered to determine which will apply,  there are several elements that all of the exceptions have in common: (i) the Value-Based Definitions found at 42 C.F.R. § 411.351; (ii) as the Value-Based Enterprise (“VBE”) and/or VBE participants increase the financial risk assumed, the applicable Stark Value‑Based Exception will allow for increased flexibility; (iii) the traditional definition of Fair Market Value is not required by any of the Stark Value-Based Rules; (iv) the remuneration to the VBE participants cannot constitute an inducement to limit services; (v) the remuneration to the VBE participants cannot be conditioned on the referral of patients who are not part of Target Patient Population; (vi) if remuneration is conditioned on referrals to a particular provider, then the referral arrangement must be in writing, signed by the parties, and must include the three exceptions contained in the Stark directed referral rules; and (vii) records of the compensation methodology used must be retained for six years and provided to HHS upon request.

The Stark Rules then categorize the Value-Based Exceptions based on the level of financial risk assumed with the greatest flexibility provided to a VBE that accepts Full Financial Risk which means the Value-Based Enterprise is responsible on a prospective basis for the cost of all patient care, items and services covered by the applicable payor for each patient in the Target Patient Population for a specified period of time (such as accepting capitation).

The next greatest amount of flexibility is permitted for Value-Based Arrangements with meaningful downside risk to the physicians.  Meaningful Downside Financial Risk requires the physicians to be responsible to repay or forego no less than 10% of the Total Value of the remuneration the physician receives under the Value-Based Arrangement.  Examples of this model provided by CMS in the Preamble to the January 19, 2021 Rules include:  a $50,000 payment, plus $25,000 for Value-Based Activities as long as the entire $25,000 is conditioned on achieving a specified Value-Based Activity for a Target Patient Population; and a $100,000 payment with a $20,000 withhold, so long as the withhold is only payable upon completing the Value-Based Activities for the Target Patient Population.

There is also a Value-Based Exception in which the Physicians are not placed at financial risk.  This is referred to in the regulations as the Value-Based Arrangements Exception, 42 C.F.R.  § 411.357(aa)(3).  This exception protects remuneration paid to the physician participants in the Value-Based Arrangement regardless of whether it is in cash or in kind.  However, due to the fact that the physicians are not at financial risk and are not required to be paid at Fair Market Value, this exception has the most detailed regulatory requirements of any of the Stark Value-Based Rules.

In addition to the terms described above, this exception requires that the Value-Based Arrangement must be set forth in writing that is signed by the parties and describes: (i) the Value‑Based Activities to be undertaken; (ii) how the Value-Based Activities are expected to further the Value‑Based Purposes of the Value-Based Enterprise; (iii) the target patient population; (iv) the type or nature of remuneration; (v) the methodology that is to be used to determine that remuneration; and (vi) the Outcome Measures against which remuneration is assessed.

CMS also requires that at least annually, or at least once if the arrangement is in effect for less than one year, the Outcome Measures must be monitored to determine: (i) whether the parties have provided the Value-Based Activities required by the Value-Based Arrangement; (ii) whether and how the continuation of the Value-Based Activities will further the Value-Based Purposes of the VBE; and (iii) the progress toward the attainment of the Outcome Measures against which the recipient of the remuneration will be assessed.

If this monitoring determines that the Value-Based Activity is not expected to further the Value‑Based Purposes of the VBE, then the VBE has two options in order to maintain compliance with the Stark Law:  (1) terminate the arrangement within 30 consecutive calendar days of the date of completion of the monitoring indicating that the Value-Based Activity was ineffective; or (2) modify the Arrangement to terminate the ineffective Value-Based Activity within 90 consecutive calendar days of completion of the monitoring and, if they choose, replace that Value-Based Activity with a different Value-Based Activity with prospective applicability.

While several differences exist between the Stark Value-Based Exceptions and the OIG Value‑Based Safe Harbors that also went into effect on January 19, 2021, this exception is the greatest point of departure from the OIG Value-Based Safe Harbors (42 C.F.R. § 1001.952(ee)-(kk)).  If a physician is not at financial risk, then the OIG Safe Harbors only protect in-kind remuneration.  (As stated above, the Stark exception protects remuneration in the form of cash or in-kind services.)  That said, payments of cash remuneration in a non-risk setting (such as a cost‑sharing arrangement) may be protected by the amended personal services and management contracts and outcomes-based arrangements safe harbor that was added by the January 19, 2021 Safe Harbor Regulations (see 42 C.F.R. § 1001.952(d)(2)).