Plans to regulate limited partnerships

Congress and federal regulators are examining the ethical and legal questions raised by physicians' investments in medical care facilities. A number of steps are expected in the coming months: Congress Rep. Fortney Stark (D) of California will reintroduce a bill to prohibit physicians who will be reimbursed by medicare from referring patients to a medical facility in which they have a financial interest. The bill makes several exceptions, including one for limited partnerships in rural areas.

Sen. John Heinz (R) of Pennsylvania plans to introduce a bill to regulate the relationship, which he considers too cozy, between many opthalmologists (generally eye surgeons) and opticians. At issue: money, patient care, and medical ethics in area of cataract removal.

House oversight and investigations subcommittee will likely hold hearings in the spring on physician limited partnerships. Department of Health and Human Services Inspector general's office is coming out with new regulations, called ``safe harbor'' rules, early next year. The draft regulations, which will be open for public comment, try to define what is legal and what is not legal in operating and investing in limited partnerships. While they are not expected to solve all areas of controversy, they will put some teeth into the criminal and civil aspects of existing law.

If the draft regulations are accepted, a limited partnership would be legal if it met certain criteria, including: offering shares of the partnership to the public, not just physicians; requiring the physician-investor to disclose his ownership in the facility when he refers a patient to it; stipulating that the return on investment must not be based on the number of referrals a doctor-investor makes, but on some other criteria, such as how many shares he owns in the partnership.

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