The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (OIG) will be lifting its long-standing refusal to accept requests for advisory opinions if the request describes a course of action that is “the same or substantially the same” as a course of action that is either under investigation by OIG, or is the subject of a proceeding involving a governmental agency. As of February 10, 2022, a new final rule issued by the OIG will do away with that restriction and allow entities to request an advisory opinion, even if the requested course of action is the same or substantially the same as one under investigation or is the subject of a proceeding involving a governmental agency. Previously, the OIG’s policy deliberately left unsettled many fraud-and-abuse issues implicated by pending investigations or litigation.
As the final rule points out, however, seeking clarity during a pending investigation or litigation will carry risk: the mere fact that a course of action is the subject of a qui tam case or under investigation “will weigh against the issuance of a favorable advisory opinion because such circumstances generally indicate that the arrangement does not present a sufficiently low risk of fraud and abuse.”
This warning seems to assume that all investigations and litigation have equal merit, which is certainly not the case with matters initiated by self-appointed whistle-blowers under the False Claims Act, who often bring cases with very little merit. Nevertheless, the new rule provides flexibility, and provides opportunities for the OIG to provide guidance to health care companies seeking to develop business opportunities that, for example, a long-pending and/or declined qui tam case may have stymied.