Physicians are feeling the economic burn of the down economy perhaps more than the average American. Not surprisingly, creative physician joint ventures are proliferating in the healthcare industry as a means of stabilizing revenue streams and referral patterns. Unfortunately, many of these arrangements may raise questions under applicable fraud and abuse laws. One such proposed arrangement was the subject of the most recent (and negative) Advisory Opinion issued by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The arrangement involved a proposed management services agreement for pathology services pursuant to which a physician-owned management company would provide pathology laboratory management services to a pathology lab. Under the management services agreement, the management company would provide all pathology services, utilities, furniture, fixtures, space and laboratory equipment. In addition, the management company would provide both marketing and billing services. For all of these services, the pathology lab would pay the management company a "usage" fee based on a percentage of the lab’s revenue. Moreover, the management company would offer ownership interests to physicians in a position to refer to the pathology lab.

Noting that the arrangement could not meet any of the available safe harbors under the federal anti-kickback statute and citing the fact that the management fee would fluctuate with the volume or value of services performed by the pathology lab, the OIG found that the arrangement would pose a substantial risk of fraud and abuse and, therefore, refused to bless it.

When revenue is flat and costs are increasing, it is hard to blame physicians for at least considering potentially lucrative joint venture proposals. Of course, many such arrangements may be perfectly legal and may even be eligible for safe harbor protection under the various healthcare laws. That being said, physicians must always be mindful that penalties for violating federal and state laws can be catastrophic. For example, violation of the federal anti-kickback statute is a felony a felony, punishable by a fine of up to $25,000, up to five years in jail, or both as well as potential false claims liability. Therefore, when it comes to joint venture arrangements, the best course is to proceed with caution.