The U.S. Department of Justice is probing Providence St. Joseph Health's Swedish Health Services in a civil investigation, the not-for-profit integrated health system revealed in its recent quarterly earnings report.
The DOJ requested documents from Seattle-based Swedish related to certain arrangements, joint ventures and physician organizations, according to the report. Providence St. Joseph said that the investigation will not have a "material adverse effect" on its financials.
"Like all large institutions, Swedish is subject periodically to investigations and lawsuits," Swedish said in a statement. "Per our policy, we are not able to discuss the specifics of any investigation. However, Swedish fully cooperates with all investigations."
Renton, Wash.-based Providence St. Joseph also disclosed in the earnings report malpractice allegations against certain affiliates, although the "probable recoveries in these proceedings and the estimated costs and expenses of defense will be within applicable insurance limits or will not materially adversely affect the business or properties of the system," the organization said.
The DOJ said in a statement that it does not confirm, deny or comment on investigations.
In 2014, HHS' Office of Inspector General audited Swedish Health's Swedish Medical Center–First Hill, an acute-care hospital in Seattle. It found that about two-thirds of 257 inpatient and outpatient claims from 2010 to 2012 did not fully comply with Medicare billing requirements, resulting in net overpayments of nearly $937,500.
Also, Swedish Health was accused in 2017 of asking neurosurgeons to increase patient volume and perform unnecessary surgeries.
The recent investigation involving Swedish may relate to a delicate balance providers must strike with their affiliates.
Health systems have been carefully navigating around the Stark law, which aims to curb Medicare and Medicaid spending by prohibiting physicians and hospitals from making referrals based on their financial self-interest. But the 1989 statutes conflict with outcome-oriented care, providers argue as the law dissuades them from incentive-based arrangements.
The Stark law offers little, if any, room for error and carries significant financial penalties, experts said. Maintaining compliance and abiding audits can drain resources.
Through six months of Providence St. Joseph Health's 2019 fiscal year, it reported an operating income of $250 million on operating revenue of $12.6 billion, up from $30 million of operating income on $12 billion of operating revenue over the same period prior. The health system reported $41 million in restructuring costs, as it aims to streamline operations and boost productivity.
For 2018, the organization drew just $3 million in operating income last year on $24.4 billion in total operating revenue. Excluding asset impairment, severance and consulting costs related to restructuring, the system said its 2018 operating income would have been $165 million. The restructuring costs are being spread across 2018 and 2019.
As it restructures, Providence St. Joseph has been expanding its non-acute portfolio, forming a for-profit population health management company, launching its second, $150 million venture fund and buying a revenue-cycle management company based on blockchain technology.