Attendees at the Health Care Compliance Association’s Health Care Enforcement Compliance Institute are reporting that, Michael Granston, Director, Civil Frauds, Commercial Litigation Branch of the Civil Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ), announced a significant shift in policy for the DOJ in dealing with False Claims Act (FCA) complaints that are deemed “frivolous” on the merits. Acknowledging the burden on the resources of all parties caused by the litigation of frivolous FCA matters, Mr. Granston reportedly stated that, going forward, once it has determined that the allegations of a qui tam complaint lack merit, the DOJ will more aggressively exercise its discretion to move to dismiss the case rather than leave to the qui tam relator in every instance the option of whether to continue the litigation. Senior management—including boards of directors, in-house corporate counsel and chief compliance officers—should take notice of this new, potentially meaningful, opportunity to extricate FCA defendants from burdensome qui tams pursued by relators purely for settlement value. Continue Reading DOJ Announces Significant Shift Towards Affirmative Dismissal Of “Frivolous” Qui Tam Complaints: A New Exit Strategy For Defendants?
Amandeep (Aman) S. Sidhu focuses his practice on complex commercial disputes with an emphasis on regulated industries, including health care-related investigations and litigation. He represents hospitals and health care companies in investigations and defense of qui tam whistleblower litigation involving federal False Claims Act (FCA), Stark Laws and Anti-Kickback Statute in federal district courts throughout the United States. Aman regularly supports settlement negotiations with the US Department of Justice for clients in multiple jurisdictions, including negotiation of corporate integrity agreements with the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General. Aman also represents health care and life sciences companies in the navigation of state and federal investigations, including responding to congressional inquiries. Aman serves on the Firm's Diversity/Inclusion Committee, Pro Bono and Community Service Committee and Associate Development Committee. Read Amandeep Sidhu's full bio.
While medical practices are generally aware that relators and the government pursue allegations of false or duplicative claims to federal health care programs, a recent settlement reflects a growing trend of False Claims Act (FCA) allegations concerning the failure to report and return identified overpayments. On October 13, 2017, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it had reached a $450,000 settlement with First Coast Cardiovascular Institute, P.A. (FCCI) of Jacksonville, Florida in a qui tam lawsuit alleging that FCCI failed to promptly return identified overpayments from federal health care programs after the overpayments came to the attention of the practice’s leadership. Continue Reading DOJ Settlement with Florida Medical Practice Serves as a Reminder: Delayed Repayment to Federal Programs Can Have Significant Consequences
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.
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 Fourth Circuit Declines to Address FCA Sampling Dispute as “Issue of Fact” While Affirming That United States Has “Unreviewable Veto Power” to Deny Settlements
Last week, a 2-1 split panel on the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of U.S. ex rel. Harper, et al. v. Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, Case No. 15-4406 (6th Cir. Nov. 21, 2016). The Sixth Circuit’s decision comes nearly eleven months after the US District Court, Northern District of Ohio dismissed the relators’ False Claims Act (FCA) complaint, which alleged reverse false claims arising from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) leases executed by the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District (MWCD). In this case, the Sixth Circuit became the first appellate court to address the requisite mental state for the so-called “reverse false claims” theory of liability, 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(1)(G), under which a defendant is liable if it “knowingly conceals or knowingly and improperly avoids or decreases an obligation to pay or transmit money or property to the Government.”
The case involves a 1949 land grant from the United States to MWCD, a political subdivision of the state of Ohio responsible for developing reservoirs and dams to control flooding. The 1949 deed included a provision reverting the land to the United States if MWCD “alienated or attempted to alienate it, or if MWCD stopped using the land for recreation, conservation, or reservoir-development purposes.” Starting in 2011, MWCD began selling rights to conduct fracking on the land. Opposed to fracking, the three relators filed this FCA action based on a theory that the 1949 deed’s reversion clause was triggered by MWCD’s sale of fracking rights, thereby resulting in reverse false claims and conversion when MWCD “knowingly withholding United States property from the federal government.” The United States declined to intervene in the case.
The Sixth Circuit concluded that “knowingly” in the context of § 3729(a)(1)(G) applies “both the existence of a relevant obligation and the defendant’s own avoidance of that obligation.” In other words, to be liable, the defendant must have known it had (or have acted in deliberate ignorance or reckless disregard of) an obligation to the United States and known that it was avoiding (or have acted in deliberate ignorance or reckless disregard of) that obligation. Continue Reading Split Sixth Circuit Panel Affirms Dismissal of Reverse False Claims Case Involving Fracking Leases
On October 5, 2016, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit remanded a “reverse” False Claims Act (FCA) case to the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for further proceedings. The court’s decision in United States ex rel. Custom Fraud Investigations, LLC v. Victaulic Company, Case No. 15-2169 (3d Cir., Oct. 5, 2016), breathes new life into a case that was previously dismissed by the district court in September 2014, and provides extensive discussion about how reverse claims operate in the era of the 2009 Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act (FERA) amendments.
The case involves nondiscretionary import regulations—set forth in the Tariff Act of 1930—that apply to the pipe fitting industry. These regulations mandate that pipe fittings manufactured outside the United States must be marked with the country of origin; in contrast, pipe fittings manufactured in the United States are typically unmarked. Failure to properly mark foreign-manufactured pipe fittings results in a 10 percent ad valorem that accrues from the time of importation. Furthermore, if improperly marked goods are discovered by customs officials, the importer has three options: (1) re-export the goods; (2) destroy the goods; or (3) mark them properly to be released for sale in the United States. Since customs officials largely rely on importers to self-report any duties that are owed at the time of import, it is possible for improperly marked pipe fittings to enter the United States’ stream of commerce. To the extent that improperly marked pipe fittings are discovered after they have entered the market, the 10 percent ad valorem is due immediately, retroactive to the date of importation.
Each year, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) issues a Work Plan that summarizes new and ongoing OIG reviews and areas of focused attention for the coming year and beyond. The current Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 Work Plan was issued in November 2015 and supplemented by a Mid-Year Update in April 2016. OIG considers work planning a “dynamic process” with adjustments made throughout the year to meet priorities and in response to new issues as necessary. Accordingly, the Work Plan provides health care providers and related entities with a “roadmap” of issues that are currently being addressed or will be addressed in the coming year by OIG. As we look towards OIG’s issuance of the FY 2017 Work Plan in a few months, we are revisiting OIG’s FY 2016 plans, projections, results and mid-year updates that reflect the trajectory of ongoing and future examinations and enforcement priorities. Continue Reading OIG Work Plan: A Roadmap to Identify Health Care Compliance Risk
On June 29, 2016, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) issued an anticipated interim final rule that substantially increases penalties under the False Claims Act (FCA). Under the interim final rule, minimum penalties per claim will dramatically spike from the current $5,500 to $10,781, and the maximum penalties per claim will jump from $11,000 to $21,563. As we previously reported, the substantial increase in FCA penalties has been expected since the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) issued a similar interim final rule in May 2016. The massive increase in FCA penalties comes in response to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, which requires agencies to adjust penalties for inflation over the past 30 years.
The increased FCA penalties are set to go into effect on August 1, 2016 and will apply to claims after November 2, 2015. As we have observed, the increased FCA penalties may raise constitutional concerns regarding defendants’ due process rights and under the Eighth Amendment’s bar on excessive fines. With FCA cases increasingly involving tens of thousands of claims, the application of these increased penalties could easily result in circumstances where punitive recoveries are dramatically out of proportion with single damages.
There is a 60-day comment period associated with the interim final rule, which is available here.
In late March, three major health care trade associations filed amicus briefs in support of the defendant-appellees in U.S. ex rel. Michaels v. Agape Senior Community, et al., Record No. 15-2145 (4th Cir.). As we have previously reported, the relator in Agape is pursuing an interlocutory appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit regarding the use of statistical sampling to prove False Claims Act (FCA) liability. In their respective briefs, the American Hospital Association (AHA), Catholic Health Association (CHA) and American Health Care Association (AHCA), did not mince words – a reversal of the District Court’s ruling that sampling cannot be used to prove FCA liability would have catastrophic consequences for the thousands of hospitals and health care providers throughout the United States.
In their joint brief, AHA and CHA noted that their member hospitals “submit thousands of claims to Medicare and Medicaid every day based on physicians’ medical judgments about patient conditions and courses of treatment.” On behalf of its members, AHA and CHA affirmed that “statistical analyses are no substitute for the on-the-ground medical context a treating physician knows, understands, and relies upon in making treatment decisions for a given patient.” The crux of the AHA/CHA argument is as follows: if the government and relators want to benefit from the treble damages and statutory penalty provisions of the FCA, then they must accept the “essential safeguard against its abuse: each claim must be separately proved.” The alternative, suggested AHA/CHA, is a “Trial by Formula” approach that was firmly rejected by the Supreme Court of the United States in Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011), and further explained just last month in Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, No. 14-1146 (Mar. 22, 2016). With the majority of FCA qui tam cases being handled by relators directly—with limited oversight from a non-intervening United States—AHA/CHA argue that allowing statistical sampling to prove FCA liability would “shortcut” a physician’s clinical judgment. Moreover, they observe that “[p]erversely, the bigger the relator’s allegations, the lower his burden of proof would become; the result would be more health care providers forced into costly defense of meritless FCA suits and more in terrorem settlements,” diverting resources from patient care and increasing health care costs for everyone.
As we previously reported in October 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is considering an interlocutory appeal regarding the use of statistical sampling to prove liability under the False Claims Act (FCA). The Fourth Circuit’s resolution of this case, U.S. ex rel. Michaels v. Agape Senior Community, et al., Record No. 15-2145 (4th Cir.), could have broad-sweeping implications for FCA defendants. In short, while courts have regularly permitted the use of statistical sampling to determine damages in FCA cases, the use of sampling to prove FCA liability is a relative rarity and the question has never been considered by a circuit court. The first question on appeal goes directly to this point. The second question on appeal—which could also have a significant impact on the FCA landscape—is whether the United States has unreviewable “veto authority” under 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b)(1) to reject a settlement in FCA cases where it has elected not to intervene.
In opening briefs filed last week, the relators expound upon a cross-section of cases where statistical sampling has been permitted to prove damages. Then, citing to the Supreme Court’s touchstone Daubert opinion, the relators seek to stretch the use of sampling beyond damages and directly to the issue of FCA liability, asserting that the question is not “whether statistical sampling and extrapolation, in and of itself, is appropriate, but whether the statistical sampling is conducted in a scientifically proven and accepted manner . . . .” The relators’ position throughout the case has been that the sheer volume of claims at issue—approximately 50,000–60,000 claims across 10,000–19,000-plus patients—could not be individually reviewed by an expert to determine medical necessity without incurring exorbitant costs that exceed the estimated damages in the case. The relators pinned that cost at upwards of $35 million based on each of their experts spending “four to nine hours reviewing each patient’s chart.”
With top-end estimated damages of $25 million, the relators argued that they should be permitted to review a sample of claims, extrapolate across the universe, and draw inferences about FCA liability from the results. Agape firmly rejected the relators’ position, contending that “determining eligibility for hospice care requires an exercise of subjective clinical judgment that takes into account a myriad of facts and circumstances unique to each patient.” The district court agreed, leading the relators to proceed forward based on the ruling that sampling could not be used to prove liability, including preparations for an “informational bellwether” trial (over Agape’s objections) to present evidence regarding a small sample of claims. At the same time, the parties engaged in a series of mediation sessions. In the first two sessions, the United States participated and a resolution was not reached. At the mediator’s request, the third session excluded the United States and resulted in Agape obtaining a settlement agreement to resolve all of the relators’ claims for $2.5 million.
With the district court set to approve Agape’s settlement, the United States objected on the basis of its 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b)(1) authority, which provides that a qui tam action “may be dismissed only if the court and the Attorney General give written consent to the dismissal and their reasons for consenting.” While the district court noted that “a compelling case could be made here that the Government’s position is not, in fact, reasonable,” it was “constrained to deny the motion to enforce the settlement” based on the plain language in 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b)(1). Both Agape and the relators are aligned in their rejection of the district court’s ruling on this settlement-related question.
With a significant number of qui tam cases added to the books each year, resolution of this settlement-related issue will be instructive for parties navigating non-intervened whistleblower suits. Together with the overarching question of whether statistical sampling can be used to prove FCA liability, the Fourth Circuit’s ruling on the issues presented in Agape could change the way that qui tam cases are litigated (and resolved pre-trial) going forward.
We will closely monitor this case and continue to report on further developments.