Physician Compensation Scrutiny Continues in Recent FCA Settlement

A hospital system in Missouri recently agreed to settle with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) for $34 million to resolve claims related to alleged violations of the Stark Law. On May 18, 2017, DOJ announced a settlement agreement with Mercy Hospital Springfield (Hospital) and its affiliate, Mercy Clinic Springfield Communities (Clinic). The Hospital and Clinic are both located in Springfield, Missouri. The relator’s complaint was filed in the Western District of Missouri’s Southern Division on June 30, 2015.

The complaint’s allegations center on compensation arrangements with physicians who provided services in an infusion center. According to the complaint, until 2009 the infusion center was operated as part of the Clinic, and the physicians who practiced at the infusion center shared in its profits under a collection compensation model. In 2009, ownership of the infusion center was transferred to Mercy Hospital so that it could participate in the 340B drug pricing program, substantially reducing the cost of chemotherapy drugs. The complaint alleges that the physicians “expressed concern about losing a substantial portion of the income they had received under the collection compensation model as a result of the loss of ownership of the Infusion Center.” In response, the Hospital allegedly assured them that they would be “made whole” for any such losses. While it doesn’t provide precise details, the complaint alleges that the Hospital addressed the shortfall by establishing a new work Relative Value Unit (wRVU) for drug administration in the infusion center, which now operated as part of the Hospital. The value of this new wRVU was allegedly calculated by “solving for” the amount of the physician’s loss and “working backwards from a desired level of overall compensation.” Physicians were able to earn the wRVU for the patients they referred to the infusion center. The complaint alleges that the drug administration wRVU rate was 500 percent of the comparable wRVU for in-clinic work. In its announcement of the settlement agreement, DOJ characterized the compensation arrangement as being “based in part on a formula that improperly took into account the value of [the physicians’] referrals of patients to the infusion center operated by [the Hospital].” Continue Reading

False Claims Act Settlement with eClinicalWorks Raises Questions for Electronic Health Record Software Vendors

On May 31, 2017, the US Department of Justice announced a Settlement Agreement under which eClinicalWorks, a vendor of electronic health record software, agreed to pay $155 million and enter into a five-year Corporate Integrity Agreement to resolve allegations that it caused its customers to submit false claims for Medicare and Medicaid meaningful use payments in violation of the False Claims Act.

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Fourth Circuit Decision in Triple Canopy Sets up Another Implied Certification Circuit Split

On May 16, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a decision in US ex rel. Badr v. Triple Canopy, Inc. In this case, the government had contracted with a private security company to provide guards at a military airbase in Iraq. Although the applicable contract required the guards to have certain marksmanship scores, the defendant (as alleged by the relator and the government) failed to employ guards with the requisite qualifications.

The Fourth Circuit’s recent decision is the continuation of a years-long battle between the plaintiffs and Triple Canopy over whether the operative complaint adequately pleads violations of the False Claims Act. The Fourth Circuit previously held that the complaint had done so, but after Triple Canopy petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to Fourth Circuit for reconsideration in light of the high court’s recent Escobar decision.

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A Hospital’s Deserving Stark and AKS Victory—But At What Cost?

This April, providers cheered when a federal district court in the Middle District of Florida found insufficient evidence to support a relator’s theory that a hospital had provided free parking to physicians, in violation of the Stark Law and Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS). In the Report and Recommendation for United States ex rel. Bingham v. BayCare Health Systems, 2017 WL 126597, M.D. Fla., No. 8:14-cv-73, Judge Steven D. Merryday of the Middle District of Florida endorsed magistrate judge Julie Sneed’s recommendation that Plaintiff Thomas Bingham’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment be denied and that Defendant BayCare Health System’s Motion for Summary Judgment be granted. However, as we discussed in a previous FCA blog post regarding these allegations, this type of case encapsulates a worrying and costly trend where courts allow thinly pleaded relator claims in which the government opted not to intervene, to survive past the motion to dismiss stage into the discovery phase of the litigation.

Bingham is a serial relator who practices as a certified real estate appraiser in Tennessee and was unaffiliated with BayCare. In his latest attempt, Bingham alleged that BayCare Health System had violated the Stark Law and the AKS by providing affiliated physicians free parking, valet services and tax benefits to induce physicians to refer patients to the health system. Continue Reading

Is the Stark Law’s “Signed Writing” Requirement Material to Payment: One Federal Court Says Yes

In a case of first impression, a federal court found that the federal physician self-referral law’s (Stark Law) requirement that financial arrangements with physicians be memorialized in a signed writing could be material to the government’s payment decision. This case raises troubling questions about applying the False Claims Act (FCA) to what many in the industry consider “technical” Stark issues, especially given the Supreme Court’s description of the materiality test as “demanding” and not satisfied by “minor or insubstantial” regulatory noncompliance.

United States ex rel. Tullio Emanuele v. Medicor Associates (Emanuele), in the US District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, involves Medicor Associates, Inc., a private medical group practice (Medicor), and Hamot Medical Center’s (Hamot) exclusive provider of cardiology coverage. Tullio Emanuele, a qui tam relator and former physician member of Medicor, alleged that Hamot, Medicor, and four of Medicor’s shareholder-employee cardiologists (the Physicians) violated the FCA and Stark Law because Hamot’s multiple medical director compensation arrangements with Medicor failed to satisfy the signed writing requirement in the Stark Law’s personal services or fair market value exceptions during various periods of time. The US Department of Justice declined to intervene in the case, but filed a statement of interest in the summary judgment stage supporting the relator’s position. Continue Reading

Third Circuit Affirms Dismissal of FCA Suit against Genentech Based on Supreme Court’s Materiality Standard

On May 1, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of United States ex rel. Petratos, et al. v. Genentech, Inc., et al., No. 15-3801 (3d. Cir. May 1, 2017). On appeal from the US District Court for the District of New Jersey, the Third Circuit reinforced the applicability of the materiality standard set forth by the US Supreme Court in Universal Health Services v. Escobar. Per the Court, the relator’s claims implicate “three interlocking federal schemes:” the False Claims Act (FCA), Medicare reimbursement, and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.

The relator, Gerasimos Petratos, was the former head of health care data analytics at Genentech.  He alleged that Genentech suppressed data related to the cancer drug Avastin, thereby causing physicians to certify incorrectly that the drug was “reasonable and necessary” for certain Medicare patients. This standard is drawn from Medicare’s statutory framework: “no payment may be made” for items and services that “are not reasonable and necessary for the diagnosis and treatment of illness or injury.” 42 U.S.C. § 1395y(a)(1)(A) (emphasis added).  In turn, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) consider whether a drug has received FDA approval in determining, for its part, whether a drug is “reasonable and necessary.” Petratos claimed that Genentech “ignored and suppressed data that would have shown that Avastin’s side effects for certain patients were more common and severe than reported.” Petratos further asserted that analyses of these data would have required the company to file adverse-event reports with the FDA and could have triggered the need to change Avastin’s FDA label.

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Another District Court Dismisses Improperly Pled Implied Certification Claims

On March 27, 2017, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed a False Claims Act (FCA) complaint due to failure to satisfy the Supreme Court’s pleading standards for implied certification claims.

In U.S. ex rel. Schimelpfenig v. Dr. Reddy’s Labs. Ltd., the relators alleged that defendant Dr. Reddy’s Labs violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by causing the submission of claims for prescription drugs, which allegedly did not comply with two federal statutes; the Poison Prevention Packaging Act of 1970 (PPPA) and Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA). As alleged by the relators, the defendants that manufactured the drugs failed to issue general conformity certificates for the prescription drugs imported and distributed in the United States, in violation of the CPSIA, and failed to test the packaging of the drugs for child-resistance in violation of the PPPA. The relators alleged that as a result of the noncompliance, drug retailers (also joined as defendants) submitted claims to government payers for federal reimbursement of noncompliant drugs. Continue Reading

District Court Finds Oregon University Immune to FCA Suit Brought by Federal Government

On April 11, 2017, the US District Court for the District of Oregon sided with the Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU), finding that as an arm of the state, OHSU is not subject to liability under the False Claims Act (FCA) even when the claim is brought by the federal government. In United States ex rel. Doughty v. Oregon Health and Sciences University, No. 3:13-CV-1306-BR (April 11, 2017 D. Or.), the district court dismissed the qui tam FCA claims, in which the federal government intervened, but granted leave to file an amended complaint on other grounds.

The United States asserted, among other claims, that after relocating its Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute (VGTI) to its Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPRC), OHSU wrongly applied to VGTI the higher billing rates applicable to ONPRC, allegedly resulting in inflated reimbursement through a National Institutes of Health grant. OHSU filed a motion to dismiss the case on the grounds it is an arm of the state and not a “person” subject to FCA liability. The United States argued that OHSU is a not an arm of the state for purposes of the FCA, and, even if it were, the bar against FCA liability is limited to cases brought by private individuals. Continue Reading

DC Council Introduces False Claims Expansion – Taxpayers Beware!

Last month, a bill (The False Claims Amendment Act of 2017, B22-0166) was introduced by District of Columbia Councilmember Mary Cheh that would allow tax-related false claims against large taxpayers. Co-sponsors of the bill include Chairman Jack Evans and Councilmember Anita Bonds.

Specifically, the bill would amend the existing false claims statute to expressly authorize tax-related false claims actions against persons that reported net income, sales, or revenue totaling $1 million or more in the tax filing to which the claim pertained, and the damages pleaded in the action total $350,000 or more.

The bill was referred to the Committee of the Whole upon introduction, but has not advanced or been taken up since then. Nearly identical bills were introduced by Councilmember Cheh in 2013 and 2016. Continue Reading

Relators Denied Permanent Seal on FCA Case Record after Voluntary Dismissal

On March 20, 2017, the US District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi denied a motion to permanently seal the record of previously dismissed False Claims Act (FCA) claims.  The three relators, who initially brought the claims in US v. Apothetech Rx Specialty Pharmacy Corp., claimed they would face potential reputational damage and retaliatory actions if the case was not permanently sealed. The court ultimately held, however, that such “generalized apprehensions of future retaliation” were not enough to overcome the strong public right of access to judicial proceedings.

The underlying qui tam complaint was initially filed on August 14, 2015, and alleged the defendants engaged in a fraudulent scheme of improperly compensating independently contracted sales representatives for referrals. The relators voluntarily dismissed the complaint a year later in August 2016. Upon dismissal, however, the court temporarily sealed all case records related to the case to permit the relators time to file the present motion to seal.  Continue Reading

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