Medicare Part B Provider Secures Dismissal of FCA Claims Under First-to-File Bar

On February 27, 2017, the US District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi granted a defense motion to dismiss False Claims Act (FCA) claims in United States ex rel. Dale v. Lincare Holdings, Inc., on the grounds that the claims were precluded by the FCA’s first-to-file bar.

The defendant, Lincare Holdings, Inc., is a national respiratory care provider that serves Medicare Part B patients via the sale and rental of medical oxygen supplies. The relator, a former salesperson for a Lincare subsidiary, filed his complaint on February 23, 2015, under seal, alleging that Lincare implemented a scheme to falsify and manipulate medical necessity testing in order to generate false reports that would allow it to sell oxygen and other Medicare-covered services to patients who were not medically qualified for coverage. The relator alleged that an office manager and nurse instructed employees to direct patients to take a variety of steps, such as raising their arms while attached to an oxygen sensor, in order to generate falsely low arterial oxygen saturation levels. The relator further claimed retaliatory discharge under the FCA. The United States declined to intervene on August 17, 2015, and the complaint was unsealed on August 24, 2015.

Granting a nearly year-old motion to dismiss, the court held that the relator’s FCA claims were precluded by the FCA’s first-to-file bar, finding that the “fraudulent scheme depicted in Relator’s complaint is largely based on the same underlying facts as the [United States ex rel. Robins v. Lincare, Inc.] scheme.”  The first-to-file bar prohibits plaintiffs from being a “related action based on the facts underlying [a] pending action.” 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b)(5).  The Robins suit was filed first in the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts and the court found that there was a “substantial overlap in material facts” underlying the schemes alleged in each case such that the complaints are sufficiently related for purposes of the first-to-file bar. Continue Reading

SDNY Dismisses Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis Complaint on Materiality Grounds Because Government Paid Claims Despite Notice of Alleged Fraud

On March 2, 2017, the US District Court for the Southern District of New York applied the materiality standard announced by the Supreme Court of the United States in Universal Health Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Escobar to dismiss a relator’s complaint because the relator, a former managing director of Moody’s, failed to plead materiality as a matter of law.

In United States ex rel. Kolchinsky v. Moody’s Corp., the district court had previously dismissed with prejudice four of five categories of claims, and dismissed without prejudice the relator’s “Ratings Delivery Service” claim, i.e., that Moody’s provided inaccurate ratings directly to subscribers, including government agencies.  In his Second Amended Complaint, the relator attempted to cure the pleading defects of Ratings Delivery Service claim in a “124-page tome,” but to no avail. Continue Reading

New OIG Exclusion Regulations About to Go into Effect

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently published a final rule regarding its exclusion authorities. The final rule goes into effect March 21, 2017, and expands OIG’s authority to exclude certain individuals and entities from participating in federal health care programs under section 1128 of the Social Security Act.

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DOJ Releases Detailed Criteria for Evaluating Compliance Programs

The Department of Justice (DOJ) doubled-down on emphasizing corporate compliance programs with new guidance from the Criminal Division Fraud Section with the “Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs” (Criteria).  This document, released February 8 without much fanfare, contains a long list of benchmarks that DOJ says it will use to evaluate the effectiveness of an organization’s compliance program.  The Criteria may publicize the factors Hui Chen, the Criminal Division’s 2015 compliance counsel hire, uses to evaluate compliance programs.  The Criteria also provides practical guidance on how organizations can evaluate their compliance programs.  This document operationalizes DOJ’s Principles of Federal Prosecution of Business Organizations (knows as the “Filip Factors”), which stated that the existence and effectiveness of a corporation’s preexisting compliance program is a factor that the DOJ will review in considering prosecution decisions.

The Guidance contains 11 topics that shift the analysis among examining how the alleged misconduct could have occurred, the organization’s response to the alleged misconduct, and the current state of the compliance program.  One entire category, titled “Analysis and Remediation of Underlying Misconduct,” has an obvious focus.  But, the other categories contain questions that touch on each of the three themes.  For example, the “Policies and Procedures” category asks questions about the process for implementing and designing new policies, whether existing policies addressed the alleged misconduct, what policies or processes could have prevented the alleged misconduct, and whether the policies/processes of the company have improved today.  Other categories examine the company’s historic and current risk assessment process and internal auditing, training and communications, internal reporting and investigations, and employee incentives and discipline.  DOJ also discusses management of third parties acting on behalf of the company and, in the case of a successor owner, the due diligence process and on-boarding of the new company into the broader organization. Continue Reading

Fourth Circuit Declines to Address FCA Sampling Dispute as “Issue of Fact” While Affirming That United States Has “Unreviewable Veto Power” to Deny Settlements

On February 14, 2017, after nearly two years of appellate proceedings, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit declined to address the substance of an appeal related to the use of statistical sampling to prove liability in a False Claims Act (FCA) case in United States ex rel. Michaels, et al. v. Agape Senior Community, Inc., et al. (4th Cir., Case No 15-2145). In the same opinion, the appellate court affirmed the district court’s holding that the Attorney General has the power to veto settlements between relators and FCA defendants, even when the United States has elected not to intervene in the case.

We have been reporting on the developments in this high-profile FCA case as it has proceeded in the Fourth Circuit. From the Court’s acceptance of the appeal, to a summary of opening briefs, to amicus briefs filed by hospital trade associations, to the oral arguments last fall, we have keenly followed this case because of its potentially far-reaching implications for FCA defendants. Continue Reading

The FCA and Medical Necessity: An Increasingly Tenuous Relationship

On January 19, 2017, another district court ruled that a mere difference of opinion between physicians is not enough to establish falsity under the False Claims Act.  In US ex rel. Polukoff v. St. Mark’s et al., No. 16-cv-00304 (Jan. 17, 2017 D. Utah), the district court dismissed relator’s non-intervened qui tam complaint with prejudice based on a combination of Rule 9(b) and 12(b)(6) deficiencies.  In so doing, the Polukoff court joined US v. AseraCare, Inc., 176 F. Supp. 3d 1282, 1283 (N.D. Ala. 2016) and a variety of other courts in rejecting False Claims Act claims premised on lack of medical necessity or other matters of scientific judgment.  This decision came just days before statements by Tom Price, President Trump’s pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), before the Senate Finance Committee in which he suggested that CMS should focus less on reviewing questions medical necessity and more on ferreting out true fraud.  Price’s statements, as well as decisions like Polukoff, are welcome developments for providers, who often confront both audits and FCA actions premised on alleged lack of medical necessity, even in situations where physicians vigorously disagree about the appropriate course of treatment.

In Polukoff, the relator alleged that the defendant physician, Dr. Sorensen, performed and billed the government for unnecessary medical procedures (patent formen ovale (PFO) closures). The relator also alleged that two defendant hospitals had billed the government for associated costs.  Specifically, the relator alleged that PFO closures were reasonable and medically necessary only in highly limited circumstances, such as where there was a history of stroke.  Medicare had not issued a National Coverage Determination (NCD) for PFO closures or otherwise indicated circumstances under which it would pay for such procedures.  However, the relator held up medical guidelines issued by the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association (AHA), which, essentially, stated that PFO closures could be considered for patients with “recurring cryptogenic stroke despite taking optimal medical therapy” or other particularized conditions. Continue Reading

Court Rejects Criminal Defendant’s Attempt to Dismiss Indictment Based on Favorable Defense Verdict in Non-Intervened FCA Case

On January 26, 2017, the US District Court for the Western District of Virginia rejected a defendant’s attempt to invoke collateral estoppel principles to dismiss an indictment for fraud.  In United States v. Whyte, the defendant, Whyte, argued that the indictment should be thrown out because a jury had previously found in his favor after trial of a relator’s civil qui tam claims under the False Claims Act (U.S. ex rel. Skinner v. Armet Armored Vehicles and William Whyte, W.D. Va. June 4, 2015), based on allegations of fraud that overlapped with those in the indictment.  Whyte argued that the jury’s verdict established that no fraud was committed, and that the government, as real party in interest in the qui tam case, had the full opportunity to litigate the issues.  Accordingly, Whyte contended that collateral estoppel mandated dismissal.

The district court disagreed, and its opinion rested on the fact that the government did not intervene in the qui tam action.  The court found that the government’s declination meant that the collateral estoppel doctrine’s requirement that the parties to the prior case and the case at bar be identical was absent.  The court acknowledged that party identicality for estoppel purposes can exist where there where “there is such a degree of affinity of interests of the person who was not a formal party to the prior proceeding, as to render the doctrine of collateral estoppel applicable.”  In re Goldschein, 241 B.R. 370, 374 (D. Md. 1999) (citing Va. Hosp. Assoc. v. Baliles, 830 F.2d 1308, 1312 (4th Cir. 1967)).  But it held that in such cases, the non-party must have had the ability to control the prior proceedings.  While the government is a “real party in interest” in a declined qui tam, the court determined that it lacks the ability to control the litigation.  The court reasoned:

By statute, if the government elects not to intervene, it retains no right to control the litigation in any meaningful way.  It may not issues subpoenas, conduct depositions, propound discovery, call witnesses, or cross-examine the defendant’s witnesses. It is entitled to receive pleadings and deposition transcripts, but no more. In instances in which the government elects not to intervene, it cannot reasonably be argued that the government had a ‘full and fair opportunity to litigate’ the issues.

The court further opined that any contrary holding would render meaningless the government’s statutory election decision.  “If the government were bound by private actors prosecuting FCA cases in its name, there would be no purpose to Congress’s decision to permit the government to elect to intervene, or to decline to intervene.  Under Whyte’s proposed interpretation, the government would be forced to be a party regardless of its intervention decision.”

The court’s characterization of the government’s lack of control over a declined qui tam case fails to address the  statutory tools available to the government. Among other things, the government can seek a stay of discovery if the discovery being conducted by the relator is interfering with a parallel criminal investigation or prosecution; it frequently files statements of interest in declined qui tams espousing its views on the legal issues in play in the case; it can object to a settlement between the relator and the defendant and must consent to any dismissal of the action by the relator; the government can settle a case over the objection of the relator and has a broad right to dismiss any FCA case.  Further, a declination decision is not final–the government can later seek to intervene for “good cause” as the case progresses.  Whether these examples suffice to establish “control” for collateral estoppel principles is a question that the Whyte court would presumably answer in the negative, but the notion that the government lacks any control over an FCA case in which it has declined to intervene ignores the many avenues pursuant to which the government can (and does) exert control.  And the irony here is that while the defendant escaped civil fraud liability notwithstanding the lower preponderance of the evidence standard of proof applicable to such claims, he now must face criminal fraud charges which the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

Federal Health Care Fraud and Abuse Enforcement Made a Strong Showing in FY 2016

According to a report released last week, the Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control Program (HCFAC) returned over $3.3 billion to the federal government or private individuals as a result of its health care enforcement efforts in fiscal year (FY) 2016, its 20th year in operation. Established by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) under the authority of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), HCFAC was designed to combat fraud and abuse in health care. The total FY 2016 return represents an increase over the $2.4 billion amount reported by the agencies for FY 2015.

The report serves as a useful resource to understand the federal health care fraud enforcement environment. It highlights costs and returns of federal health care fraud enforcement, providing not only amounts recovered from settlements and awards related to civil and criminal investigations but also outlining funds allocated for each departmental function covered by the HCFAC appropriation. Total HCFAC allocations to HHS for 2016 totaled $836 million (approximately $255 million of which was allocated to the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG)) and allocations to DOJ totaled $119 million. The report touts a return on investment of $5 for every dollar expended over the last three years.

The report also includes summaries of high-profile criminal and civil cases involving claims of violations of the False Claims Act (FCA), among other claims. The cases include OIG and HHS enforcement actions as well as some of those pursued by the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, which is an interagency task force composed of OIG and DOJ analysts, investigators, and prosecutors. Successful criminal and civil investigations touch virtually all areas of the health care industry from various health care providers to pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturers and health maintenance organizations, among others.

The report follows an announcement by the DOJ last December declaring FY 2016’s recovery of more than $4.7 billion in settlements and judgments from civil cases involving fraud and false claims in all industry sectors to be its third highest annual recovery, the bulk of which, $2.5 billion, resulted from enforcement in the health care industry.

First Circuit Deems Request for Leave to File Fourth Amended Complaint Futile

On December 23, 2016, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit issued an opinion in United States ex rel. D’Agostino v. ev3, Inc. (Case No. 16-1126), affirming the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts’s denial of a relator’s motion for leave to file a fourth amended complaint under the False Claims Act (FCA).

The relator, a former sales representative at ev3, a medical device developer and manufacturer, alleged that his former employer and its subsidiary, Micro Therapeutics, Inc., violated provisions of the FCA by selling two products, the Onyx Liquid Embolic System (Onyx) and the Axium Detachable Coil System (Axium), to hospitals seeking reimbursements by the government through the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

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Relying on Escobar, Ninth Circuit Tosses Implied Certification Case

On January 12, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a government contractor, where a relator had asserted that the contractor had violated material contractual requirements.

In United States ex rel. Kelly v. SERCO, Inc., defendant SERCO provided project management, engineering design and installation support services for a range of government projects to the US Department of Defense, Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR). The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) requires that government contracts of this nature contain a clause requiring the contractor to implement a cost and progress tracking tool called an “earned value management system” (EVMS), which is “a project management tool that effectively integrates the project scope of work with cost, schedule and performance elements for optimum project planning and control,” 48 C.F.R. § 2.101, and that this EVMS comply with ANSI-748, a national standard for EVMS. SECRO’s monthly cost reports allegedly did not comply with this standard. After the government declined to intervene, the relator pursued a claim against SERCO arguing that its failure to comply with ANSI-748 amounted to a fraud against the government. Continue Reading

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