March 2, 2023

I heard that CMS added a new kind of provider – A Rural Emergency Hospital (“REH”).  Is this a new category of hospital? Does the Stark Law treat it like a hospital for purposes of physician investment?

You have asked several questions and so I will take them one at a time.

A Rural Emergency Hospital or REH is a new provider type that became effective on January 1, 2023.  In order to qualify to become an REH, a provider must have been either a Critical Access Hospital (“CAH”), or a rural hospital with not more than 50 beds, and must have been participating in Medicare as of the date of the December 27, 2020 enactment of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, and satisfy the new REH Conditions of Participation (which closely align with the current CAH Conditions of Participation).

Please do not be confused by the name of this new provider. An REH is not a “Hospital” for purposes of the Medicare Program or the Stark Law.  Rather, an REH is a new kind of provider.  The REH payment rules are unique as is the manner in which the Stark Law applies to an REH. 

An REH is defined as an entity that operates for the purpose of providing emergency department services, observation care, and other outpatient medical and health services specified by the Secretary in which the annual per patient average length of stay does not exceed 24 hours.

The time calculation for determining the length of stay of a patient receiving REH services begins with the registration, check-in or triage of the patient (whichever occurs first) and ends with the discharge of the patient from the REH. The discharge occurs when the physician or other appropriate clinician has signed the discharge order, or at the time the outpatient service is completed and documented in the medical record.

The REH must not provide inpatient services, except those furnished in a unit that is a distinct part licensed as a skilled nursing facility to furnish post-hospital extended care services.  This prohibition on providing inpatient services to a rural population is thought to be the major factor discouraging many eligible CAHs and rural hospitals with not more than 50 beds, from converting to an REH.

An REH is not a hospital and is not reimbursed in the same manner as a hospital.  Rather an REH is reimbursed at the then-current Medicare Hospital Outpatient Prospective Payment System (“OPPS”) rate PLUS 5%.  The REH is also entitled to a beneficiary copayment (which is not to take the additional 5% reimbursement into account).  In addition, an REH will be paid a monthly facility fee.

An REH is required to provide radiology and other outpatient services which fall within the Stark definition of a Designated Health Service (“DHS”).  Therefore, the Stark Law applies, and a physician may not have a compensation arrangement with, or an investment interest in, an REH unless an exception to the Stark Law can be satisfied.

Initially, CMS proposed a special exception for physician investment in an REH which was based on the whole hospital exception.  However, those regulations were never finalized.  Rather, CMS will require an REH to comply with the same compensation arrangement exceptions as any other entity that provides a DHS.

When it comes to whether a physician may have an investment interest in an REH, remember, an REH had to have been a critical access hospital or rural hospital with not more than 50 beds, and there is currently a broad exception to the Stark Law for physician investment in an entity that is located in a rural area.  Therefore, the rural provider exception should be available to most, if not all, REHs.   See 42 C.F.R. § 411.356(c)(1). 

However, an REH does not automatically qualify for this rural provider exception   Rather, this exception requires that in addition to the REH being located in a “rural” area, at least 75% of the REH’s services must be furnished to individuals who reside in a “rural” area.

Effective January 1, 2023, CMS also revised the definition of “Rural” for purposes of the Stark Law to state that a “Rural” area is any area that is not defined as “urban” under 42 C.F.R. § 412.64(b)

42 C.F.R. § 412.64(b) then states that a rural area is essentially any area located outside of a Metropolitan Statistical Area or a Metropolitan Division (in the case where a Metropolitan Statistical Area is divided into Metropolitan Divisions), as defined by the Executive Office of Management and Budget.  However, there are exceptions so you need to check the regulations.

Adding to the confusion is that CMS has stated in the preamble to the Stark regulations that the rural provider test “differs from the rural/urban test that a hospital uses for wage index purposes.”

CMS has also amended each compensation arrangement exception that applies to a Federally Qualified Health Center (“FQHC”) and Rural Health Clinic (“RHC”), to state that as of January 1, 2023, that exception will also apply to an REH.

Please keep in mind that your analysis of whether you should organize an REH should not rely solely on the new REH Medicare rule.   Some states (Pennsylvania for example) do not permit free-standing Emergency Departments.  Unfortunately, regardless of whether Medicare will recognize an REH as a provider, an REH cannot operate in a state unless it is licensed, and in order to be licensed, the state must either permit a free-standing Emergency Department, or adopt new rules licensing an REH.

Therefore, there are some states where REHs cannot lawfully operate under state law and as a result do not have the opportunity to achieve the enhanced reimbursement available to an REH.  If you are in such a state you must wait for your state to create a license category that will recognize either a free-standing Emergency Department or an REH.  But do not lose hope, even where currently prohibited, state licensure bodies are under pressure from rural providers to create a license category for an REH – but until they do, an REH will not be permitted to operate in some states.

If you want to learn more about the Stark Law, the False Claims Act, the Anti-Kickback Statute, recent developments like REHs, and other current issues in Hospital-Physician compliance, consider joining Dan Mulholland and Henry Casale at our next Hospital‑Physician Contracts and Compliance Clinic that will be held in Phoenix on November 16-18, 2023.

If you cannot wait until November for more information on these and many other health law related topics, check out HortySpringer’s Health Law Expressions “Kickback Chronicles” podcast episodes with Henry Casale and Hala Mouzaffar.