Anti-Kickback Statute / Stark Law

Last month, Insys Therapeutics, Inc. announced that it reached a settlement-in-principle with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to settle claims that it knowingly offered and paid kickbacks to induce physicians and nurse practitioners to prescribe the drug Subsys and that it knowingly caused Medicare and other federal health care programs to pay for non-covered uses of the drug. The drugmaker agreed to pay at least $150 million and up to $75 million more based on “contingent events.” According to a status report filed by DOJ, the tentative agreement is subject to further approval and resolution of related issues. The settlement does not resolve state civil fraud and consumer protection claims against the company.

The consolidated lawsuits subject to the settlement allege that Insys violated the False Claims Act and Anti-Kickback Statute in connection with its marketing of Subsys, a sub-lingual spray form of the powerful opioid fentanyl. The Food and Drug Administration has approved Subsys for, and only for, the treatment of persistent breakthrough pain in adult cancer patients who are already receiving, and tolerant to, around-the-clock opioid therapy. The government’s complaint alleges that Insys provided kickbacks in the form of arrangements disguised as otherwise permissible activities. Specifically, it alleges that Insys instituted a sham speaker program, paying thousands of dollars in fees to practitioners for speeches “attended only by the prescriber’s own office staff, by close friends who attended multiple presentations, or by people who were not medical professionals and had no legitimate reason for attending.” Many of these speeches were held at restaurants and did not include any substantive presentation. Insys also allegedly provided jobs for prescribers’ friends and relatives, visits to strip clubs, and lavish meals and entertainment. Continue Reading Insys Announces Settlement-in-Principle with DOJ Over Alleged Subsys Kickback Scheme

On August 24, 2018, the Office of Inspector General (OIG), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published a request for information, seeking input from the public on potential new safe harbors to the Anti-Kickback Statute and exceptions to the beneficiary inducement prohibition in the Civil Monetary Penalty (CMP) Law to remove impediments to care coordination and value-based care. The broad scope of the laws involved and the wide-ranging nature of OIG’s request underscore the potential significance of anticipated regulatory reforms for virtually every healthcare stakeholder.

The request for information follows a similar request by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) published on June 25, 2018, regarding the physician self-referral law, commonly known as the Stark Law. Both of these requests are part of HHS’s “Regulatory Sprint to Coordinated Care,” which is being spearheaded by the Deputy Secretary as an effort to address regulatory obstacles to coordinated care.

The Anti-Kickback Statute prohibits offering, paying, soliciting or receiving anything of value in exchange for or to induce a person to make referrals for items and services that are payable by a federal health care program, or to purchase, lease, order or arrange for or recommend purchasing, leasing or ordering any services or items that may be covered by a federal health care program. The beneficiary inducement prohibition in the CMP Law authorizes the imposition of civil money penalties for paying or offering any remuneration to a Medicare or Medicaid beneficiary that the offeror knows or should know is likely to influence the beneficiary’s selection of a particular provider or supplier of Medicare or Medicaid payable items. Many value-based payment models implicate these statutes, and the OIG acknowledges that they are widely viewed as impediments to arrangements that would advance coordinated care.

While the request for information arises in the context of a concerted focus on care coordination and value-based payment, the request is wide-ranging and effectively invites stakeholders to provide comments on a broad range of potential issues under both the Anti-Kickback Statute and the beneficiary inducement prohibition. The OIG solicits comments across four general categories: (1) promoting care coordination and value-based care; (2) beneficiary engagement, including beneficiary incentives and cost-sharing waivers; (3) other regulatory topics, including feedback on current fraud and abuse waivers, cybersecurity-related items and services, and new exceptions required by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018; and (4) the intersection of the Stark Law and the Anti-Kickback Statute.

The OIG encourages individuals and organizations who previously submitted comments to CMS in response to its request for information on the Stark Law to also submit comments directly to OIG, even where those comments may be duplicative, to ensure they are considered by OIG as it exercises its independent authority with respect to the Anti-Kickback Statute and CMP Law.

Comments are due by October 26, 2018.

On August 7, 2018, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a ruling by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida dismissing a qui tam suit against the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Inc. (AHF), finding that the payments made to AHF employees for referring patients to AHF were protected by the employment safe harbor of the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS).

In Jack Carrel, et al. v. AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the relator claimed that AHF, a nonprofit organization that provides medical services to patients with HIV/AIDS, paid kickbacks to employees in exchange for referring HIV-positive patients for health care services billed to federal health care programs in violation of the AKS and both the Florida and federal False Claims Acts (FCA). The relators, each former AHF directors or managers, specifically cited two allegedly representative false claims in which an employee was paid $100 for referring patients to AHF for completing follow up clinical services that were billed to the Ryan White Program. The Department of Justice and the State of Florida declined to intervene.

In response to AHF’s initial motion to dismiss on May 8, 2015, the district court dismissed all but two of the relators’ claims for lack of particularity, but permitted the claims related to payments to employees for referrals to proceed into discovery. In June 2017, after the conclusion of discovery, the district court granted summary judgment to AHF on the remaining two claims based on the applicability of employee safe harbor. Under the AKS employee safe harbor (42 U.S.C. § § 1320a-7b(b)(3)(B); 42 C.F.R. 1001.152(i)), the definition of “remuneration” excludes “any amount paid by an employer to an employee, who has a bona fide employment relationship with the employer, for employment in the furnishing of any item or service for which payment may be made in whole or in part under Medicare, Medicaid or other Federal health care programs.”  Continue Reading Circuit Court Affirms Payments for Referrals Made to Employees are Protected by the AKS Safe Harbor

During a July 17, 2018, hearing before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health, United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan testified about HHS’ efforts to review and address obstacles that longstanding fraud and abuse laws pose to shifting the Medicare payment system to a value-based, coordinated care payment system. Deputy Secretary Hargan confirmed that the agency is looking at regulatory reforms to both the physician self-referral law (Stark Law) and the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) as part of HHS’ “Regulatory Sprint to Coordinate Care.”

According to Hargan’s testimony, “the goal of the sprint is to remove regulatory barriers to coordinated care while ensuring patient safety. We want to genuinely engage stakeholders in this effort, and solicit feedback at each stage—but this is a sprint, not a jog. These words were chosen specifically because we want to fix, as quickly as possible, the regulatory processes that have increased provider burden.”

As part of this Sprint, in June the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a broad Stark Law Request for Information (RFI) that solicited public comments on how the Stark Law impedes care coordination and how Stark Law exceptions could be modified or create to promote such coordination as well as on how other exceptions may require regulatory change to reduce regulatory burden. Comments to the Stark Law RFI are due August 24.  We previously reported on the Stark Law RFI here.

In his testimony, Hargan stated that HHS is also looking at the AKS and its intersection with the Stark Law based on feedback from providers who find it “very difficult if not impossible to understand” how to comply with both laws.  Hargan described a four-agency task force that is working together to examine obstacles to coordinate care related to the Stark Law, the AKS, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA)  and rules under 42 CFR Part 2 related to opioid and substance abuse disorder treatment.  This task force is composed of CMS, the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG), the HHS Office of Civil Rights, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to “coordinate amongst themselves to facilitate a coordinated care system” to “reduce duplication, overlap and contradictions” in regulations and “ensure regulatory requirements are aligned.”  As part of this effort, Hargan indicated that HHS would soon issue an RFI on AKS reforms as part of the Sprint.

HHS has already begun exploring changes to the AKS regarding drug pricing.  On July 18, 2018, OIG sent a proposed rule to the Office of Management and Budget entitled “Removal Of Safe Harbor Protection for Rebates to Plans or PBMs Involving Prescription Pharmaceuticals and Creation of New Safe Harbor Protection.”  While the text of the proposed rule is not available at this time, the rule is expected to propose revisions to the AKS discount safe harbor to scale back or exclude rebates from drug manufacturers.

A key area of dispute in False Claims Act (FCA) cases based on Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) violations is what degree of connection plaintiffs must allege between alleged kickbacks and “false claims.” The AKS states that “a claim that includes items or services resulting from a violation of this section constitutes a false or fraudulent claim for purposes of [the FCA].”

The government and relators typically argue that the mere fact that claims were submitted during the period of alleged kickbacks is sufficient. Defendants argue that the law requires plaintiffs to specifically identify claims “resulting from” an alleged kickback – i.e., that there is proof that the alleged kickback caused the referral or recommendation of the item or service contained in the claim. The Third Circuit’s recent decision in United States ex rel. Greenfield v. Medco Health Systems, Inc. articulated a middle of the road approach.  In affirming summary judgment for the defendants, the Court held that to prevail, plaintiffs must establish that a claim submitted to a federal health care program was “exposed to a referral or recommendation” in violation of the AKS.

The relator, a former area vice president for Accredo, a specialty pharmacy that sells blood clotting drugs and provides nursing assistants to hemophiliacs in their homes, filed a qui tam suit alleging that Accredo violated the AKS and FCA in connection with donations to two charitable organizations that assist the hemophiliac community: Hemophilia Services, Inc. (HSI) and Hemophilia Association of New Jersey (HANJ).  During the time Accredo made monetary donations to HSI and HANJ, the HANJ website allegedly listed Accredo as one of four “approved providers” or “approved vendors” and directed users to “remember to work with our HSI [approved] providers.” In 2010, Accredo notified both charities that it was decreasing its donation the following year. In response, HSI allegedly engaged in activities to persuade Accredo to restore its donation level to previous years, including encouraging its members to contact Accredo to protest the funding cut. The relator was involved in purportedly analyzing the return on investment for returning to previous donation levels. After the relator’s report allegedly projected a significant decline in business in New Jersey if donation levels were not restored, Accredo restored the donation level and relator filed his suit.

The government declined to intervene in this case, but the relator continued the litigation. He argued the expansive view: that the donations amounted to kickbacks, and since Accredo certified compliance with the AKS when submitting Medicare claims, the FCA was violated and, therefore, every claim submitted by Accredo was false. The district court granted summary judgment to Accredo.  The district court declined to decide whether the relator had established an AKS violation, but instead held that the relator did not show sufficient evidence of causation of an FCA violation. The district court held that the relator’s evidence that Accredo submitted claims for 24 federal beneficiaries during the relevant time period, by itself, “did not provide the link between defendants’ 24 federally insured customers and the donations.” The court held that “[a]bsent some evidence….that those patients chose Accredo because of its donations to HANJ/HSI,” the relator could not carry his burden.

On appeal, the government argued that the district court erred to the extent it required proof that patients chose Accredo because of the referrals and recommendations. In the government’s view, all the relator needed to establish was the existence of “a claim that sought reimbursement for medical care that was provided in violation” of the AKS.

The Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, but for different reasons than those offered by the parties, the government, and the district court. The Third Circuit rejected the relator’s and government’s position that the alleged kickbacks tainted all claims as false by virtue of the kickback.  However, the Court declined to read the “resulting from” language in the AKS to require, as advocated by Accredo and found by the district court, that the relator needed to prove the patients purchased prescriptions from Accredo because of Accredo’s donations to HSI and HANJ. Instead, the Court held that the relator “must show, at minimum, that at least one of the 24 federally insured patients for whom Accredo provided services and submitted reimbursement claims was exposed to a referral or recommendation of Accredo by HSI/HANJ in violation of the AKS.” As explained by the Court, “[a] kickback does not morph into a false claim unless a particular patient is exposed to an illegal recommendation or referral and a provider submits a claim for reimbursement pertaining to that patient.”

This decision is helpful confirmation that relators and the government cannot simply rely on an alleged kickback to demonstrate that a defendant who submits claims to Medicare, violated the FCA.  Defending this type of allegation should include examination of the evidence relied upon to show the connection between the alleged kickback and the purported false claim.  Whether other courts will follow the Third Circuit’s reasoning or follow the “resulting from” language in the AKS and require a stronger connection between a kickback and claim remains to be seen.  This issue will be a continued subject of litigation in these cases.

In a two-page memorandum, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a broad policy statement prohibiting the use of agency guidance documents as the basis for proving legal violations in civil enforcement actions, including actions brought under the False Claims Act (FCA). The extent to which these policy changes ultimately create relief for health care defendants in FCA actions is unclear at this time. That said, the memo provides defendants with a valuable tool in defending FCA actions, either brought by DOJ or relator’s counsel, that attempt to use alleged noncompliance with agency sub-regulatory guidance as support for an FCA theory.

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As first reported in the National Law Journal, the US Department of Justice (DOJ), Civil Division, recently issued an important memorandum to its lawyers handling qui tam cases filed under the False Claims Act (FCA) outlining circumstances under which the United States should seek to dismiss a case where it has declined intervention and, therefore, is not participating actively in the continued litigation of the case against the defendant by the qui tam relator. Continue Reading DOJ Issues Memorandum Outlining Factors for Evaluating Dismissal of Qui Tam FCA Cases in Which the Government Has Declined to Intervene

Eventually, any health care organization with an effective compliance program is very likely to discover an issue that raises potential liability and requires disclosure to a government entity. While we largely discuss False Claims Act (FCA) litigation and defense issues on this blog, a complementary issue is how to address matters that raise potential liability risks for an organization proactively.

On August 11, 2017, a group of affiliated home health providers in Tennessee (referred to collectively as “Home Health Providers”) entered into an FCA settlement agreement with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG) for $1.8 million to resolve self-disclosed, potential violations of the Stark Law, the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute, and a failure to meet certain Medicare coverage and payment requirements for home health services. This settlement agreement underscores the strategic considerations that providers must weigh as they face self-disclosing potential violations to the US government. Continue Reading DOJ Settlement with Home Health Providers Underscores Strategic Considerations for Self-Disclosure

Over the last several months, a handful of federal court decisions—including two rulings this summer on challenges to the admissibility of proposed expert testimony—serve as reminders of the importance of (and parameters around) fair market value (FMV) issues in the context of the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) and the False Claims Act (FCA).

First, a quick level-set.  The AKS, codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(b), is a criminal statute that has long formed the basis of FCA litigation—a connection Congress made explicit in 2010 by adding to the AKS language that renders any claim for federal health care program reimbursement resulting from an AKS violation automatically false/fraudulent for purposes of the FCA.  42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(g).  Broadly, the AKS prohibits the knowing and willful offer/payment/solicitation/receipt of “remuneration” in return for, or to induce, the referral of federal health care program-reimbursed business.  Remuneration can be anything of value and can be direct or indirect.  In interpreting the “in return for/to induce” element, a number of federal courts across the country have adopted the “One Purpose Test,” in which an AKS violation can be found if even just one purpose (among many) of a payment or other transfer of value to a potential referral source is to induce or reward referrals—even if that clearly was not the primary purpose of the remuneration. Continue Reading Recent Developments on the Fair Market Value Front – Part 1

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 Physician Compensation Scrutiny Continues in Recent FCA Settlement