Risks to Directors and Trustees of Health Care & Life Sciences Companies: Corporate Compliance in a Distressed Economy

By Valerie Gutmann
In Compliance
November 5, 2009
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conf4“Risks to Directors and Trustees of Health Care & Life Sciences Companies: Corporate Compliance in a Distressed Economy,” was sponsored by Seton Hall Law’s Center for Health & Pharmaceutical Law & Policy, Epstein Becker & Green P.C., and Navigant Consulting, Inc. The program urged profit and nonprofit health care organizations to prioritize effective corporate compliance programs, particularly in today’s economy.

Moderated by Professor Kathleen Boozang, the program featured keynote speaker Mark Anderson, the New Jersey Medicaid Inspector General, as well as presentations by Lynn Shapiro Snyder and Hervé Gouraige of Epstein Becker & Green P.C. and Sandra Piersol and Geoffrey Kaiser of Navigant Consulting, Inc.

The participants focused on the financial challenges and potential exposure for board members of health care and life sciences entities in maintaining an effective compliance program in order to minimize noncompliant behavior and corporate liability risks.  Current trends in HHS Corporate Integrity Agreements (CIA’s) have shown a movement toward imposing personal liability on boards of directors for failure to ensure that a company has an effective corporate compliance program.

Inspector Anderson first addressed the 2007 statute governing the New Jersey Office of Medicaid Inspector General, focusing in particular on the statute’s broad definitions of “fraud” and “abuse,” which allows his office broad discretion.  Asking the key question, “is your compliance compliant?”, he emphasized that effective compliance programs go beyond simple written policies and procedures, but are specific to the entity’s need to prevent fraud and abuse, and are supported at every level of management — with the tone set “at the top.”  He concentrated on one specific element of compliance programs — self-disclosure of problems within one’s own organization — and stressed that self-disclosure is essential to compliance and is in the company’s best interest, as his office provides incentives to health care entities to self-disclose.  These incentives include forgiveness or reduction of interest payments, waiver of penalties and/or sanctions, timely resolution of overpayment, and a decrease in likelihood of imposition of an OMIG Corporate Integrity Program.

conf1Lynn Shapiro Snyder, Co-Chair of the Health Care Fraud Practice Group at Epstein Becker & Green, spoke about the looming threat of enforcement activities aimed at board members of health care and life sciences entities, and noted that, until recently, the risk has been reputational rather than legal.  She highlighted the blurred line between governance and management obligations, and questioned whether boards need their own consultants to determine whether to sign off on a company’s compliance program.  Later, suggesting a simple, cost-effective way to examine the effectiveness of a compliance program, she recommended that compliance officers file (and follow) a “dummy report” within their own organization, thereby bringing to light gaps and issues in the company’s program.

conf3Sandra Piersol, a Director with the Healthcare Disputes and Investigators practice at Navigant Consulting, addressed how directors and trustees can determine whether they have an effective corporate compliance program.  Discussing the seven elements of an effective compliance program, she emphasized ensuring that the compliance officer has direct access to the board of directors, setting the “tone at the top,” and the need for ongoing training and communication.  She provided a list of structural and operational questions to be considered when examining whether an entity’s corporate compliance program is effective, and concluded with the recommendation that boards should request the performance of an objective and comprehensive review of the program activities performed by persons independent of the compliance program.

conf5Hervé Gouraige, Co-Group Leader of the National Litigation Practice at Epstein Becker & Green, spoke about the risk to board members of personal liability for an ineffective compliance program.  After an overview of the law as it relates to board oversight of compliance, Gouraige discussed the requirement that companies have a process established to address compliance risks within the organization.  Second, he underscored that the process must be executed by the chief compliance officer and monitored by the board.  Finally, he explained that the board must be involved in the selection of a chief compliance officer who is capable of, and willing to, stand up to the board.  He stressed that the chief compliance officer should not also be the general counsel, due to the conflicting duties and obligations of those positions.  He also suggested that there be a separate board committee — which includes the CEO, general counsel, and chief compliance officer — to monitor the compliance program.  Annually, this committee should meet without the CEO and general counsel as well.  Finally, Gouraige suggested that in order to learn about — and address — problems before a prosecutor does, compliance officers periodically spot check internal emails between employees.

conf2Geoffrey Kaiser, Managing Director in the Healthcare Dispute, Compliance and Investigations Practice at Navigant Consulting, focused on the benefits of having an effective compliance program.  He noted that, although it is difficult to quantify the harm avoided by any program, an effective program can reduce or mitigate the risk of violations, particularly through education, which is a cost-effective way to sensitize employees to risk.  Second, having an effective voluntary information and reporting system allows a board of directors to introduce corrective measures proactively.  Third, having an effective corporate compliance program in place can influence prosecutorial discretion.  In addition, having an effective compliance program can reduce the severity of penalties facing an organization at sentencing — not only affecting the amount of the fine, but also the range in which the fine will be imposed.

conf6Overall, each speaker highlighted the cost-effectiveness and benefits of devoting resources to an effective compliance program.  Inspector Anderson, stating that the economic environment cannot dictate compliance policies, emphasized that cutting such programs is short-sighted and a future compliance violation could potentially decimate a company in the long run.  Gouraige explained that it would be a terrible mistake to cut compliance, due to the “wisdom of the long-term investment.”  The speakers, in a question and answer session moderated by Professor Boozang, addressed effective ways to increase board attention to corporate compliance, including focusing on corporate compliance as one of the many legal requirements required by boards and underscoring the investment — rather than the cost — of implementing an effective corporate compliance program.  As attendee Eve Costopoulos of Merck aptly stated, “if you don’t pay today, you’ll pay tomorrow.”

All Photos by Sean Sime

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