On March 2, 2022, the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) Office of the Inspector General (the “OIG”) issued a new advisory opinion (“AO 22-04”) related to a program through which the Requestor would provide certain individuals access to digital contingency management (“CM”) and related tools to treat substance use disorders (“Program”).  The OIG advised that it would not impose administrative sanctions under the Anti-Kickback Statute (“AKS”) or the Beneficiary Inducements Civil Monetary Penalty Law (“CMPL”).

The Requestor, a digital health company, offers a Program that uses smartphone and smart debit card technology to implement CM for individuals with substance use disorders, addressing aspects of these disorders “in ways that conventional counseling and medications often cannot.” The Requestor makes this technology available to individuals who meet certain requirements through contracts with a variety of entities, such as health plans, addiction treatment providers, employee assistance programs, research institutions, and other treatment providers (“Customers”).

Individuals (‘Members”) are Customer- or self-referred, and are subject to a structured interview using the American Society of Addiction Medicine Continuum Triage tool before participation in the Program. The Requestor’s enrollment specialist, under the guidance of a licensed clinical supervisor, determines the type of services and frequency of recovery coaching using an evidence-based, automated algorithm. The Program technology establishes the schedule of expected target behavioral health events, objectively validates whether each expected event has occurred, and, if it has, promptly disburses the exact, protocol-specified incentive to the Member, using (where appropriate) a progressive reinforcement schedule.

The Program is not limited to treatments or federally reimbursable services; it also includes, among other features, support groups, medication reminders, and appointment attendance verification. For those that do include federally reimbursable services, the Requestor advised that such services may be furnished by a Customer. Incentives from the Program are provided to Members via a “smart debit card.” The card includes “abuse and anti-relapse protections (e.g., it cannot be used at bars, liquor stores, casinos, or certain other locations nor can it be used to convert credit to cash at ATMs or gas stations)”, and allows the Requestor to monitor use. Incentives are capped at $200/month and $599/year; individual incentives are typically relatively small, at $1-$3.

The Requestor receives fees from Customers on either a flat monthly basis, per eligible, active Member, or a pay-for-performance model, in which Requestor is paid upon a Member achieving certain agreed-upon targets for abstinence. The Requestor certified that the aggregate fees are consistent with fair market value and do not vary based on the volume or value of business generated under federal health care programs. Instead, fees are based on the service configurations being purchased and the intensity of behavioral targets that are planned for each Member, as well as whether a member is low- or high-risk, and in or out of treatment.

OIG concluded that two stream of remuneration potentially implicate the AKS and CMPL.  First, Customers pay Requestor a fee to provide services, some of which could incentivize a Member to receive a federally billable service. Second, some of the fees Customers pay to Requestor get passed on to Members as CM Incentives for achieving certain behavioral health goals, some of which may involve services that could be billable to Federal health care programs (e.g., a counseling session) by a particular provider or supplier, which could be a Customer. OIG noted its longstanding concerns relating to the offer of incentives intended to induce beneficiaries to obtain federally reimbursable items and services, as such incentives could present significant risks of fraud and abuse.

The OIG concluded that the Program presents a minimal risk of fraud and abuse and declined to impose sanctions, providing four justifications –

  1. The Requestor certified that the Program is based in research, and provided evidence that CM is a “highly effective, cost-efficient treatment for individuals with substance use disorders.” Therefore, the OIG decided that, taken together with the other safeguards present in the Arrangement, the incentives in the Requestor’s Program serve as “part of a protocol-driven, evidence-based treatment program rather than an inducement to seek, or a reward for having sought, a particular federally reimbursable treatment.”
  2. The incentives offered through the Program have a relatively low value and a cap, and largely are unrelated to any federally payable services, especially as the Requestor is not enrolled in and does not bill to federal health care programs for Program services. Therefore, the OIG determined that the risk of the incentives “encouraging overutilization of federally reimbursable services is low.”
  3. The Requestor’s Customer base is not limited to entities that have an incentive to induce receipt of federally reimbursable services. While the OIG acknowledged that there may be instances where an incentive may be given for receiving a federally billable service, the fees do not vary based on volume or value of any federally reimbursable services, and the Customers do not have control of the Program. Therefore, the OIG determined that the risk is low an entity would become a Customer to “generate business or reward referrals.”
  4. Although the incentives loaded onto a smart debit card function as cash equivalents, the OIG found the safeguards included in the Arrangement sufficient to mitigate fraud and abuse concerns. The Requestor, which does not bill federal health care programs or have an incentive to induce overutilization, determines what services an individual needs and what incentives are attached. Additionally, the smart debit card has “anti-relapse protections”, which can signal possible need for intervention. Therefore, the OIG concluded that the remuneration in the form the smart debit card is sufficiently low risk.

AO 22-04 reflects HHS’s continued aims to increase flexibility around substance use disorder treatments.  Just two weeks before, HHS announced two grant programs, totaling $25.6 million, to expand access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder and prevent the misuse of prescription drugs. In a press release, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra is quoted as saying, “At HHS we are committed to addressing the overdose crisis, and one of the ways we’re doing this is by expanding access to medication-assisted treatment and other effective, evidenced-based prevention and intervention strategies.” HHS’ “National Tour to Strengthen Mental Health” is intended to “hear directly from Americans across the country about the challenges they’re facing, and engage with local leaders to strength the mental health and crisis care in our communities”, focused on three aspects: mental health, suicide, and substance use. Further flexibilities should be anticipated in these areas as the Tour continues.

Anyone seeking treatment options for substance misuse should call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357) or visit findtreatment.gov. If you or anyone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741).