Important Lessons For Health Care Providers From Michigan State Settlement Of OCR Larry Nassar Sexual Abuse Investigation

August 12, 2019

Health care providers should review and tighten their policies and practices for conducting therapies or other  procedures on children and other procedures on any patient involving the exposure of the breasts, genitalia or rectum where a patient is fully or partially disrobed as well as sexual assault, abuse and harassment policies and procedures  in light of a resolution agreement between the Board of Trustees of Michigan State University (“MSU”) d/b/a Michigan State University and MSU HealthTeam (“MSU HealthTeam”) and MSU Health Care, Inc. (“MSU Health Care”) announced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) arising from a civil rights compliance review OCR initiated after federal and state criminal investigations found that an osteopathic physician Larry Nassar sexually abused gymnasts and others while employed as an associate professor by MSU.

OCR opened a compliance review of MSU to determine if its doctors’ offices and clinics violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”) and Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Section 1557”) after federal and state criminal investigations found Nassar sexually abused hundreds of women and girls under his care over decades while an associate professor at MSU.

Considered alone or in conjunction with the growing awareness and concern fueled by the #me too movement, widespread publicity about the sexual misconduct of Nassar  alleged Bill Cosby, billionaire Jeffrey Einstein, who died in prison while awaiting trial last Saturday and others, and OCR’s reaffirmation of its commitment to vigorously enforce civil rights laws in connection with its May 24, 2019 proposal of changes to its Section 1557 implementing regulations, the Resolution Agreement sends a strong signal to health care organizations and individual physician and other health care providers of the advisability of proactively preventing and managing their exposure to potential sexual abuse, assault and harassment complaints brought by patients, caregivers, employees and others.

The OCR investigation that led to the Resolution Agreement arose from a compliance review OCR started after Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 125 years in prison on February 5, 2018, after entering a guilty plea to seven counts of felony criminal sexual conduct in the first degree in Eaton County, Michigan.  He also has been convicted to various other federal and state sexual offenses.  Additionally, the former dean of MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, William Strampel, was convicted of felony misconduct stemming from a charge that he used his public office to sexually harass students and a separate charge of willfully neglecting to monitor Nassar after an earlier investigation.

Title IX and Section 1557 are two of a multitude of federal laws prohibiting sex discrimination enforced by OCR, Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally assisted education programs or activities while Section 1557 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, age and disability in certain health programs or activities.

The Resolution Agreement resolves potential additional enforcement action by OCR against MSU arising from the investigation commenced in response to the Nassar convictions as well as enforcement actions OCR had initiated against the MSU Entities for failing to comply with an earlier OCR resolution agreement.

In return for OCR’s agreement to close its investigation, the Resolution Agreement requires the MSU Entities to implement specific procedures for conducting examinations and procedures involving children as well as procedures and therapies conduct on patients of any age and gender s where the patient is disrobed, in full or in part, and there is exposure of the breasts, genitalia or rectum (“sensitive examinations”) as well as strengthen its other policies, notices and practices impacting the prevention, investigation and redress of sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment and other sex discrimination against patients, staff, employees and others.

Notably, to help safeguard patients from future sexual assault or abuse, the Resolution Agreement requires the MSU Entities to adopt, communicate to patients and staff and enforce specific policies patient privacy, chaperones and informed consent and patient privacy including

  • Requiring that staff always follow Universal Precautions with conducting “sensitive examinations,” which the Resolution Agreement defines as “procedures or therapies where the Patient is disrobed, in full or in part, and there is exposure of the breasts, genitalia or rectum);
  • Require that staff provide the patient with: an explanation of the required examination, procedure or therapy before beginning the procedure and secure informed consent from the patient or if the patient lacks decision making capacity, the consent of the patient’s guardian before conducting any sensitive examination;
  • Always honor the Patient’s request to have a parent, relative or friend present as a support person present during any sensitive examination;
  • Requiring a chaperone for all sensitive examinations;
  • For sensitive examinations of patients of 10 years of age or greater that the chaperone be an authorized member of the health care team and in other cases allow patients and/or their parent or other support person, as well as providers to request a chaperone at any time;
  • Require that physical examinations of an infant, toddler or child always be performed in the presence of a patient or guardian unless the parent or guardian or, if the parent is unavailable or in situations involving suspected abuse, mental health or other instances where the parental presence would interfere with the examination, another member of the health care team;
  • Require the use of a chaperone for sensitive examinations be documented in the patient record or where a patient declines or refuses a chaperone for an examination where one is required, require that the provider document the offer and its declination in the record and have the patient or guardian sign a waiver;
  • Always honor a patient’s request to have a chaperone present even when the patient also has a support person present when conducting a sensitive examination; and
  • Allow the patient’s wishes and comfort to determine the sex of the chaperone and accommodate, to the extent practicable, a patient’s request for a same sex chaperone

Moreover, the Resolution Agreement also dictates that the MSU Entities ensure that staff always provide patients undergoing sensitive examinations with an appropriate gown, privacy for undressing and dressing, and sensitive draping to maximize physical privacy.

In addition to these specified required procedures for the actual conduct of sensitive medical examinations, the Resolution Agreement also requires that the MSU Entities significantly strengthen their policies, notifications, procedures, and training regarding sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and sex discrimination including to:

  • Revise their existing non-discrimination notices and sexual misconduct policies to clarify Title IX’s and Section 1557’s prohibitions against sex discrimination, including sex discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual abuse and sexual assault, against men and women;
  • In the revised non-discrimination notices and sexual misconduct policies clearly communicate that patient, staff or individuals who believe they are victims of sexual harassment, abuse, assault or other sexual harassment are “encouraged” to report their concerns to the designated MSU Entities’ Title IX and Section 1557 compliance team, the MSU police and OCR and explains the procedures for making those reports;
  • Conspicuously post and distribute the revised nondiscrimination and sexual misconduct policy notices which clearly communicate the clarified non-discrimination and sexual harassment policies;
  • Improve their processes for notifying students, staff, patients and others about reporting and for investigating and resolving Title IX and Section 1557 complaints (including for MSU-students, non-MSU-student patients, faculty and staff) including specific requirements concerning reporting to and coordination between MSU Entities’ compliance staff and law enforcement;
  • Designate a responsible official to coordinate the acceptance, investigation and resolution of Title IX and Section 1557 complaints;
  • Conduct all-staff training, planning and coordination between MSU Entities’ compliance and investigation teams and law enforcement, and provide bi-annual reports to OCR during the three year term of the agreement;
  • Require that all grievances or complaints alleging sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment or other sex discrimination filed by any patient, staff or other individual related to the MSU Health Team, be reviewed and investigated by, or under the supervision of, a dedicated independent health care investigator approved by OCR, who MSU may only terminate for cause with OCR’s consent.

While neither exhaustive nor binding on any other health care providers, the conditions (CR imposed against MSU under the Resolution Agreement are concrete steps other health care organizations and providers, academic institutions and other organizations and individuals at risk of claims directly or vicariously should consider using as part of their efforts to prevent and defend themselves against potential exposures to sexual misconduct charges.

With the #metoo movement and other widespread media coverage of the Nassar, Jeffery Epstein, Bill Cosby and other sex scandals fueling growing awareness and discussion about sexual abuse, assault and harassment, physicians and other individual health care providers as well as the health care systems, clinics and other health industry organizations, educational institutions and businesses generally face heightened risks of accusations by patients, caregivers, employees, and others of sexual misconduct.  Whether founded in fact, hypersensitivity, or independent agenda, recent history proves the potentially financially costly civil judgments or settlements, as well as career if not freedom ending consequences health care providers and institutions if unable to defend these claims. In addition to the criminal sentences imposed upon Nassar and, for instance, MSU previous entered into a civil settlement with more than 300 alleged victims of 332 women and girls who alleged they were Nassar sexual assault victims. See MSU reaches $500M settlement with Nassar victims.  This huge civil liability and the fact that MSU accepteed it rather than risk a potential jury verdict reflects the significance of the this liability risk.

About the Author

Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of health industry and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications including extensive experience advising and representing health care systems and providers about sexual abuse, assault, harassment, discrimination and other personal and professional misconduct policies, training and other prevention and investigation, peer review and other discipline, mitigation and charges defense, as well extensively published and conducted workshops on “Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘N Role:  Preventing and Addressing Personal Misconduct In Healthcare,” “What To Do When Your Employee’s Life Becomes Your Business,” and other educational training and publications for health industry clients and others on these concerns.

In these and other legal, management, governmental affairs work and speaking and publications, Ms. Stamer When working with these and other clients, Ms. Stamer merges a talent for creative problem solving with her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience to help her clients develop and use legally defensible, pragmatic, client-centric law, performance and risk management tools and processes to manage people, performance, quality, compliance, risk and other operational needs on a real-time, “on demand” basis as well as outsourced general, operations, regulatory affairs or other special counsel capacity on an interim, special project, or ongoing basis.  Her clients have included domestic and international hospitals, health care systems, clinics, skilled nursing, long term care, rehabilitation and other health care providers and facilities; medical staff, accreditation, peer review and quality committees and organizations; billing, utilization management, management services organizations, group purchasing organizations; pharmaceutical, pharmacy, and prescription benefit management and organizations; consultants; investors; technology, billing and reimbursement and other services and product vendors; products and solutions consultants and developers; investors; managed care organizations, insurers, self-insured health plans and other payers; and other health industry clients.

Her involvement encompasses helping health care systems and organizations, group and individual health care providers, health plans and insurers, health IT, life sciences and other health industry clients prevent, investigate, discipline and defend sexual assault, abuse, harassment and other organizational, provider and employee misconduct and other performance and behavior; manage Section 1557, Civil Rights Act and other discrimination and accommodation, and other regulatory, contractual and other compliance; vendors and suppliers; contracting and other terms of participation, medical billing, reimbursement, claims administration and coordination, Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, Medicare/Medicaid Advantage, ERISA and other payers and other provider-payer relations, contracting, compliance and enforcement; Form 990 and other nonprofit and tax-exemption; fundraising, investors, joint venture, and other business partners; quality and other performance measurement, management, discipline and reporting; physician and other workforce recruiting, performance management, peer review and other investigations and discipline, wage and hour, payroll, gain-sharing and other pay-for performance and other compensation, training, outsourcing and other human resources and workforce matters; board, medical staff and other governance; strategic planning, process and quality improvement; meaningful use, EMR, HIPAA and other technology,  data security and breach and other health IT and data; STARK, antikickback, insurance, and other fraud prevention, investigation, defense and enforcement; audits, investigations, and enforcement actions; trade secrets and other intellectual property; crisis preparedness and response; internal, government and third-party licensure, credentialing, accreditation, HCQIA and other peer review and quality reporting, audits, investigations, enforcement and defense; patient relations and care;  internal controls and regulatory compliance; payer-provider, provider-provider, vendor, patient, governmental and community relations; facilities, practice, products and other sales, mergers, acquisitions and other business and commercial transactions; government procurement and contracting; grants; tax-exemption and not-for-profit; privacy and data security; training; risk and change management; regulatory affairs and public policy; process, product and service improvement, development and innovation, and other legal and operational compliance and risk management, government and regulatory affairs and operations concerns. to establish, administer and defend workforce and staffing, quality, and other compliance, risk management and operational practices, policies and actions; comply with requirements; investigate and respond to Board of Medicine, Health, Nursing, Pharmacy, Chiropractic, and other licensing agencies, Department of Aging & Disability, FDA, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, Department of Labor, IRS, HHS, DOD, FTC, SEC, CDC and other public health, Department of Justice and state attorneys’ general and other federal and state agencies; JCHO and other accreditation and quality organizations; private litigation and other federal and state health care industry actions: regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; enforcement;  and other strategic and operational concerns.

Author of leading works on a multitude of health care, health plan and other health industry matters, the American Bar Association (ABA) International Section Life Sciences Committee Vice Chair, a Scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) Annual OCR Agency Meeting and a former Council Representative, Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, former Vice President and Executive Director of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Board President of Richardson Development Center (now Warren Center) for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, past North Texas United Way Long Range Planning Committee Member, and past Board Member and Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, and a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her extensive publications and thought leadership as well as leadership involvement in a broad range of other professional and civic organizations. For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

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