By A.J. Plunkett
With less than two weeks to go before the February 19 public comment deadline, so far only The Joint Commission (TJC) and the Center for Improvement in Healthcare Quality (CIHQ) are among the hospital accrediting organizations (AO) to formally respond to CMS’ concerns about conflict of interest.
CMS published a request for information in mid-December, asking the public to weigh in on whether AOs that also offer consulting services have, or at least create, a public perception of conflict of interest. The request was made ahead of potential new regulations, according to CMS.
As of February 8, CMS has posted only about 80 comments from people or organizations responding to the request. Many of the comments said that TJC and other AOs keep sufficient firewalls to avoid conflicts of interest and expressed concern that more regulation would make hospitals and other healthcare facilities less safe.
“Why do you continue to make things more difficult for facilities to meet compliance standards? This would have a negative impact on facilities to maintain regulation. Facilities are having a difficult time to maintain compliance with the ever decreasing amount the health care facilities are reimbursed for services,” said one member of the public.
However, another public commenter said that she was against the practice of AOs “providing consulting as I have personally seen questionable interactions, both overt and implied.” That included one hospital system that was encouraged to use a product from an AO affiliate to improve survey scores, and the cross-marketing of services across the AO platforms.
TJC provided a 14-page response to CMS’ request for information, noting that TJC and its affiliates, Joint Commission Resources (JCR) and the Joint Commission Center for Transforming Healthcare, are all not-for-profit companies with separate organizations and boards of directors. The comment was introduced by a letter from Margaret VanAmringe, MHS, executive vice president of Public Policy and Government Relations.
The response provides a history of its efforts to avoid conflicts of interest, outlining the creation of an organizational and cultural firewall decades ago that prohibits and prevents consultants from JCR and surveyors from TJC communicating about clients.
“The structures and processes implemented and monitored by The Joint Commission and JCR to prevent any sharing of confidential consulting information with Joint Commission accreditation personnel are necessary for preventing any real or perceived conflict with the provision of consulting services. Firewall Policies and Procedures have been tested by independent, external auditors and by the Government Accountability Office (GAO),” wrote TJC in its comment.
While the firewall policy has evolved along with TJC and JCR over the years, the commission’s response noted that “what has never changed is the core principle addressed by the policy – to protect the integrity of The Joint Commission accreditation process. The policy was tested by GAO investigators in 2006, with a final report issued December 2006 that concluded:
‘Despite The Joint Commission’s control over JCR, the two organizations have taken steps designed to protect facility-specific information. In 1987, the organizations created a Firewall—policies designed to establish a barrier between the organizations to prevent improper sharing of this information. For example, the Firewall is intended to prevent JCR from sharing the names of hospital clients with The Joint Commission. Beginning in 2003, both organizations began taking steps intended to strengthen this Firewall, such as enhancing monitoring of compliance.
Ensuring the independence of The Joint Commission’s accreditation process is vitally important. To prevent the improper sharing of facility-specific information, it would be prudent for The Joint Commission and JCR to continue to assess the Firewall and other related mechanisms.’”
TJC also offered a point-by-point rebuttal to specific concerns CMS outlined in its request for information.
CIHQ, meanwhile, kept its comments to just over one page, in a letter written by Richard Curtis, the Texas-based AO’s chief executive officer. CIHQ was formally approved as an AO in 2013 following the extended CMS application process.
Like TJC, Curtis noted that CMS already requires AOs to demonstrate that they have sufficient protections against conflicts of interest as part of that initial and renewal applications. “CIHQ respectfully questions why additional rules would be required,” wrote Curtis.
And like other commenters, Curtis said more regulations could hurt healthcare organizations trying to comply with standards and improve patient safety.
“Some AOs – including CIHQ – offer a variety of support services to their accredited providers to help them understand standards and regulations, and provide tools to help them develop compliant processes. These take the form of standards interpretation, education programs, template policies, and documentation tools. These services do not assess a provider’s compliance, but rather provide information to the provider to help them comply. We are concerned that an overly expansive definition of what constitutes consulting would rob providers of vital sources of assistance that do not pose a conflict of interest.”
CMS will continue to take comments until February 19. Note that comments may be made public.
Comments should refer to file code CMS-3367-NC. CMS will not accept fax copies of comments. They can be submitted electronically by following the “submit a comment” instructions on http://www.regulations.gov, by regular mail or by overnight express mail.
To find out more about what information CMS hopes to learn, and specifics on how to comment, read the rule at http://federalregister.gov/d/2018-27506.