Sarbanes-Oxley Is Strong Medicine For Health Care Organizations
Although the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 has swiftly become a part of Corporate Americas lexicon, even the most experienced attorneys may not realize that this legislation was first applied to the health care industry.
Later this year, the former CEO and chairman of HealthSouth, the nations largest provider of outpatient surgery, diagnostic imaging and rehabilitation services, is expected to be tried in an Alabama federal court for his role in a $2.7 billion accounting fraud at the Birmingham-based health care companyholding the distinction of being the first chief executive of a major company to be charged criminally with violating Sarbanes-Oxley. This test case will have long-term implications for corporate governance standards and accounting reform, not only for publicly traded health care organizations like HealthSouth but for the private and nonprofit sector as well.
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act also may have a significant direct impact on health care organizations relative to changes in the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. Amendments to the sentencing guidelines (in response to the Act), which took effect Nov. 1, 2004, will place greater responsibility on boards of directors of hospitals and health care organizations and senior management for the oversight of compliance and ethics programs. Failure of the health care provider to establish such programs, self-report and accept responsibility for its own conduct will severely undermine the providers eligibility for compliance credit under these changes.
Going forward, the new sentencing guidelines amendments, many generated in direct response to Sarbanes-Oxley, will significantly impact compliance officers and senior management in a number of ways (see box).
Physician Heal Thyself
The new sentencing guidelines make it clear that oversight of financial controls is not limited to public companies such as HealthSouth. The much-publicized collapse of the Allegheny Health Education and Research Foundation in the late 1990s, the criminal charges of misappropriation and corporate waste that followed, and the more recent allegations of executive abuses at Health MidWest and Allina Health System demonstrate that not-for-profits are just as susceptible toand every bit as much in need offinancial scrutiny. Going forward, nonprofits could avoid a similar fate by proactively holding their principal executive and financial officers to Sarbanes-Oxleys higher standards. This could be accomplished by:
–Implementing measures to ensure the integrity and reliability of the providers financial statements, including appropriate internal controls for financial information released to government agencies and outsiders.
–Creating an audit committee composed entirely of independent directors, with at least one member who is a “financial expert.”
–Having the audit committee pass a resolution whereby it is directly responsible for the appointment, compensation and oversight of the outside auditor (which will report directly to the audit committee).
–Having the audit committee install procedures for the receipt and response to complaints regarding accounting and audit matters, including a mechanism for anonymous employee submissions.