A new policy recently issued by the Justice Department states that the Department will not use its enforcement authority to effectively convert agency guidance documents into binding rules. The new policy has broad ramifications and applies to government enforcement actions as well as civil lawsuits. The policy prohibits Department components from issuing guidance documents that effectively bind the public without undergoing formal rulemaking.

The term “guidance documents” includes any agency statement of general applicability and future effect, such as Medicare billing manuals, special fraud alerts, and frequently asked questions. The Department may continue to use guidance documents to simply explain or paraphrase legal mandates from existing statutes or regulations, but guidance documents cannot create binding requirements that do not already exist by statute or formal regulation.

While the new policy is viewed favorably by most in the health care industry and gives health care providers a new tool to fend off allegations of wrong doing, it may lead to confusion as providers try to interpret complex and confusing statutes and rules.