Buying, Selling, and Investing in Telehealth Companies: Navigating Structural and Compliance Issues | Foley & Lardner LLP

A multi-part series highlighting the unique health regulatory aspects of Telemedicine mergers and acquisitions, and financing transactions

Investors in the telehealth space and buyers and sellers of telehealth companies need to account for a set of health regulatory considerations that are unique to deals in this sector. As all parties to potential telehealth transactions analyze their long term role in the telehealth marketplace, two of the central issues to any transaction are compliance and structure – both in terms of structuring the telehealth transaction itself and due diligence issues that arise related to a target’s structure.

The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with strained health care staffing and provider availability, have accelerated the growth of the telehealth, and start-ups and traditional health systems alike are competing for access to patient populations in the telehealth space. However, as we adjust to life with COVID-19 as the norm, the expiration of the federal Public Health Emergency (PHE) looms, and the national economy contracts, we expect that the remainder of 2022 and into 2023 will see consolidation as the telehealth market begins to saturate and the long-term viability of certain platforms are tested. Telehealth companies, health systems, pharma companies and investors are all in potential positions to take advantage of this consolidation in a ripening M&A sector (while startups in the telehealth space continue to seek venture and institutional capital).

This is the first post in a series highlighting the unique health regulatory aspects of telehealth transactions. Future installments of this series are expected to cover licensure and regulatory approvals, compliance / clinical delivery models, and future market developments.

Telehealth Transaction Structure Considerations

The structure of any given telehealth transaction will largely depend on the business of the telehealth organization at play, but also will depend on the acquirer / investor. Regardless of whether a party is buying, selling or investing in a telehealth company, structuring the transaction appropriately will be important for all parties involved. While a standard stock purchase, asset purchase or merger may make sense for many of these transactions, we have also seen a proliferation of, affiliation arrangements, joint ventures (JV), alliances and partnerships. These varieties of affiliation transactions can be a good choice for health systems that are not necessarily looking to manage or develop an existing platform, but instead are looking to leverage their patient populations and resources to partner with an existing technology platform. An affiliation or JV is more popular for telehealth companies operating purely as a technology platform (with no core business involving clinical services being provided). For parties in the traditional healthcare provider sector that provide clinical services, an affiliation or JV, which is easier to unwind or terminate than a traditional M&A transaction, can allow the parties to “test the waters” in a new, combined business venture. The affiliation or JV can take a variety of forms, including technology licensing agreements; the creation of a new entity to house the telehealth mission, which then has contractual arrangements with the both the JV parties; and exclusivity arrangements relating to use of the technology and access to patient populations.

While an affiliation or JV offers flexibility, can minimize the need for a large upfront investment, and can be an attractive alternative to a more permanent purchase or sale, there can be increased regulatory risk. Entrepreneurs, investors, and providers considering any such arrangement should bear in mind that in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and proliferation of telehealth, the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS-OIG) has expressed a heightened interest in investigating so called “telefraud” and recently issued a special fraud alert regarding suspect arrangements, discussed in this prior post. Further, the OIG’s guidance on contractual joint ventures that would run afoul of the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) should be front of mind and parties should strive to structure any affiliation or JV in a manner that meets or approximates an AKS safe harbor.

Target Telehealth Company Structure Compliance

Where telehealth companies are providing clinical services, and are not purely technology platforms, structuring and transaction diligence should focus on whether the target is operating in compliance with corporate practice of medicine (CPOM) laws. The CPOM doctrine is intended to maintain the independence of physician decision-making and reduce a “profits over people” mentality, and prevent physician employment by a lay-owned corporation unless an exception applies. Most states that have adopted CPOM impose similar restrictions on other types of clinical professionals, such as nurses, physical therapists, social workers, and psychologists. Telehealth companies often attempt to utilize a so-called “friendly PC” structure to comply with CPOM, whereby an investor-owned management services organization (“MSO”) affiliates with a physician-owned professional corporation (or other type of professional entity) (a “PC”) through a series of contractual agreements that foster a close working relationship between the MSO, PC, and PC owner and whereby the MSO provides management services, and sometimes start-up financing. The overall arrangement is intended to allow the MSO to handle the management side of the PC’s operations without impeding the professional judgment of the PC or the medical practice of its physicians and the PC owner.

CPOM Compliance Considerations and Diligence for Telehealth Companies

A sophisticated buyer will want to confirm that the target’s friendly PC structure is not only formally established, but is also operationalized properly and in a manner that minimizes fraud and abuse risk. If CPOM compliance gaps are identified in diligence this may, at worst, tank the deal and, at best, cause unexpected delays in the transaction timeline, as restructuring may be required or advisable. The buyer may also request additional deal concessions, such as a purchase price reduction and special indemnification coverage (with potentially a higher liability limit and an escrow as security). Accordingly, a telehealth company anticipating a sale or fund raise would be well served to engage in a self-audit to identify any CPOM compliance issues and undertake necessary corrective actions prior to the commencement of a transaction process.

Below are nine key questions with respect to CPOM compliance and related fraud and abuse issues that a buyer/investor in a telehealth transaction should examine carefully (and that the target should be prepared to answer):

  1. Does target have a PC that is properly incorporated or foreign qualified in all states where clinical services are provided (based on the location of the patient)?
  2. Does the PC owner (and any directors and officers of the PC, to the extent different from the PC owner) have a medical license in all states where the PC conducts business (to the extent in-state licensure is required)? To the extent the PC has multiple physician owners and directors/officers, are all such individuals licensed as required under applicable state law?
  3. Does the PC(s) have its own federal employer identification number, bank account (including double lockbox arrangement if enrolled in federal healthcare programs), and Medicare/Medicaid enrollments?
  4. Does the PC owner exercise meaningful oversight and control over the governance and clinical activities of the PC? Does the PC owner have background and expertise relevant to the business (e.g., a cardiologist would not have appropriate experience to be the PC owner of a PC that provides telemental health services)?
  5. Are the physicians and other professionals providing clinical services for the business employed or contracted through a PC (rather than the MSO)? Employment or independent contractor agreements should be reviewed, as well as W-2s, and payroll accounts.
  6. Is the PC properly contracted with customers (to the extent services are provided on a B2B basis) and payors?
  7. Do the contractual agreements between the MSO and PC respect the independent clinical judgment of the PC owner and PC physicians and otherwise comply with state CPOM laws.
  8. Do the financial arrangements between the MSO, PC, and PC owner comply with AKS, the federal Stark Law, and corollary state laws and fee-splitting prohibitions, to the extent applicable?
  9. Is the PC owner or any other physician performing clinical services for the PC an equity holder in the MSO? If so, are these equity interests tied to volume/value of referrals to the PC or MSO (i.e., if the MSO provides ancillary services such as lab or prescription drugs) or could equity interests be construed as an improper incentive to generate healthcare business (e.g., warrants that can only be exercised upon attainment of certain volume)?

Telehealth companies considering a sale or financing transaction, and potential buyers and investors, would be well served to spend time on the front end of a potential transaction assessing the above issues to determine potential risk areas that could impact deal terms or necessitate any friendly PC structuring.

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