Health Care Employer’s Discrimination Triggers Medicare, EEOC Prosecutions

Health care employers and organizations should review and tighten their employment and other discrimination policies and risk management in light of recent employment discrimination enforcement actions targeting health care organization staffing decisions by the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

OCR Race Discrimination Medicare Action

A new OCR Voluntary Resolution Agreement with Shiawassee County Medical Facility reminds health care providers of the frequently underappreciated Medicare/Medicaid program participation risks of certain types of employment discrimination to be careful not to allow patient preferences to lead them into the trap of violating the prohibition against race, color, and national origin under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or other federal nondiscrimination laws when making patient staffing assignments.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in the administration of any federally-funded program based on race, color, or national origin.   OCR’s longstanding “Guidelines for Compliance of Hospitals with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” make clear that OCR interprets Title VI prohibits assignment of hospital staff based on the racial preference of the patient.

A newly announced OCR investigation and Resolution Agreement Shiawassee County Medical Care Facility, a 136-bed Medicare and Medicaid certified skilled nursing facility, illustrates the need for Medicare and Medicaid certified health care providers of all types to ensure their compliance with Title VI and, in particular, to refrain from making any staff assignments based on racial considerations.

The Resolution Agreement between OCR and Shiawassee, a 136-bed Medicare and Medicaid certified skilled nursing facility, resolved charges that the facility violated Title VI by giving a nursing staff instruction to not assign African-American staff to a Caucasian Resident. Based on an investigation, OCR found Shiawassee needed to change its policies and procedures to bring them into full compliance with Title VI.  To implement fully the prohibition against consideration of race in staff assignments, Shiawassee signed a with OCR which calls for the appointment of a Title VI Coordinator to oversee Shiawassee’s overall compliance with Title VI including special responsibilities for the investigation and adjudication of any Title VI complaints filed internally with Shiawassee.  In addition, Shiawassee must train its workforce on Title VI, and submit reports to OCR regarding compliance.

The Shiawassee charges and Resolution agreement follow a similar Agreement in August 2014 between OCR and Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan , which also resolved OCR charges arising from that facilities staff assignment based on a patient’s racial preference.  Read the Hurley Agreement here.

Phoenix EEOC ADA Discrimination Action

The HHS against Shiawassee enforcement action coincides with an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announcement of its filing of disability discrimination lawsuit under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) against another health care provider, ValleyLife of Phoenix, Arizona. EEOC charges that ValleyLife engaged in illegal disability discrimination in violation of the ADA when it allegedly fired employees with disabilities instead of providing them with reasonable accommodations when their eligibility for family leave ended under the Family & Medical Leave Act ended and allegedly failed to keep employees’ medical records confidential.  See EEOC v. ValleyLife, Civil Action No. 2:15-cv-00340-GMS (N.Az).

In EEOC v. ValleyLife,  the EEOC charges that ValleyLife fired employees with disabilities rather than provide them with reasonable accommodations due to its inflexible leave policy.  The policy compelled the termination of employees who had exhausted their paid time off and/or any unpaid leave to which they were eligible under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).   According to the EEOC, ValleyLife fired supervisor, Glenn Stephens, due to his need for further surgery when his FMLA leave eligibility ended.  EEOC claims this termination violated the ADA because ValleyLife did not engage in any interactive process to determine whether any accommodations (including additional leave) were possible.  Stephens had worked for ValleyLife for over ten years at the time of his termination.  The EEOC contends that ValleyLife’s failure to offer extended leave or other accommodation to Stephens when his leave eligibility ended violated the ADA, which protects workers from discrimination based upon disability and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental impairments of disabled employees unless doing so would cause an undue hardship.

The suit also alleges that ValleyLife commingled medical records in employee personnel files and failed to maintain these medical records confidential in violation of the medical record confidentiality requirements of the ADA, which requires employees’ to keep medical documents confidential and separate from other personnel records.

The lawsuit seeks lost wages and compensa­tory and punitive damages for the alleged victims, as well as appropriate injunctive relief to prevent discriminatory practices in the future.

Prepare Employment Discrimination Defenses

The OCR action against Shiawassee and the EEOC suit against ValleyLife remind health industry employers of the need to use care to monitor and manage employment discrimination risks.  Health care organizations should avoid the temptation to assume that their organizations can rely upon patient preferences or other common industry concerns to defend against claims of disability, race or other discrimination.  Instead, health care organizations should review and update their policies and practices to ensure that they properly comply with applicable employment and other federal and state disability discrimination law and are operationalized in a manner to create and keep appropriate documentation to defend staffing decisions against potential claims of illegal discrimination under the ADA, Civil Rights, or other laws that could adversely impact their organization’s eligibility to participate in Medicare, Medicaid or other federal programs, trigger judgments or penalties, or both.

Health care organizations also need to exercise care to ensure that their patient access, care and other policies also comply and are administered to withstand scrutiny under Medicare terms of participation, the ADA, the Civil Rights Act and other federal discrimination laws.   These health industry employers should both evaluate their existing policies and practices, as well as their processes for conducting and documenting investigations and other activities associated with the administration of FMLA or other disability accommodation, patient and other staffing and other activities to position their organization to identify potential exposures and position themselves to defend their decisions against OCR, EEOC or other government agency investigations, private plaintiff claims or both.

For More Information Or Assistance

If you need assistance reviewing or responding to these or other health care related risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, may be able to help. Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law, and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 26 years experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters. Her experience includes advising hospitals, nursing home, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to Board of Medicine, Department of Aging & Disability, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, Department of Labor, IRS, HHS, DOD and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns.  The scribe for the American Bar Association (ABA) Joint Committee on Employee Benefits annual agency meeting with the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights,  Ms. Stamer has worked extensively with health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers, banks and other financial institutions, and others on risk management and compliance with HIPAA and other information privacy and data security rules, investigating and responding to known or suspected breaches, defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, OCR and other federal or state agencies, reporting known or suspected violations, business associate and other contracting, commenting or obtaining other clarification of guidance, training and enforcement, and a host of other related concerns.  Her clients include public and private health care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, and others.  In addition to representing and advising these organizations, she also has conducted training on Privacy & The Pandemic for the Association of State & Territorial Health Plans,  as well as  HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, medical confidentiality, insurance confidentiality and other privacy and data security compliance and risk management for  Los Angeles County Health Department, ISSA, HIMMS, the ABA, SHRM, schools, medical societies, government and private health care and health plan organizations, their business associates, trade associations and others.

A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns. Her insights on these and other related matters appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.  You can get more information about her health industry experience here. If you need assistance responding to concerns about the matters discussed in this publication or other health care concerns, wish to obtain information about arranging for training or presentations by Ms. Stamer, wish to suggest a topic for a future program or update, or wish to request other information or materials, please contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer, see here.

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, compensation, data security and privacy, health care, insurance, and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and other key operational concerns.

Other Helpful Resources & Other Information

We hope that this information is useful to you.   If you found these updates of interest, you also be interested in one or more of the following other recent articles published on the Coalition for Responsible Health Care Reform electronic publication available here, our electronic Solutions Law Press Health Care Update publication available here, or our HR & Benefits Update electronic publication available hereYou also can get access to information about how you can arrange for training on “Building Your Family’s Health Care Toolkit,”  using the “PlayForLife” resources to organize low-cost wellness programs in your workplace, school, church or other communities, and other process improvement, compliance and other training and other resources for health care providers, employers, health plans, community leaders and others here. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail by creating or updating your profile here. You can reach other recent updates and other informative publications and resources.

Examples of some of these recent health care related publications include:

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here. For important information concerning this communication click here.THE FOLLOWING DISCLAIMER IS INCLUDED TO COMPLY WITH AND IN RESPONSE TO U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT CIRCULAR 230 REGULATIONS.  ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, OR (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.

©2015 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C. Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.

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