On April 23, 2019, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it has entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with Rochester Drug Co-Operative, Inc. (RDC), one of the 10 largest wholesale distributors of pharmaceutical products in the US, and filed felony criminal charges against two of RDC’s former senior executives for unlawful distribution of controlled substances (oxycodone and fentanyl) and conspiring to defraud the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). During the relevant time period (2012-2016), RDC’s sales of oxycodone increased by approximately 800 percent (from 4.7 million to 42.2 million tablets) and fentanyl increased by approximately 2,000 percent (from 63,000 to over 1.3 million dosages). The two charged executives are RDC’s former chief executive officer, Laurence F. Doud III, and the company’s former chief compliance officer, William Pietruszewski.

Geoffrey S. Berman, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, noted in a press release that the prosecution is “the first of its kind,” with RDC and its former chief executive officer and former chief compliance officer charged with “drug trafficking, trafficking the same drugs that are fueling the opioid epidemic that is ravaging this country.” Keeping the focus on the C-suite, Mr. Berman emphasized that his office “will do everything in its power to combat this epidemic, from street-level dealers to the executives who illegally distribute drugs from their boardrooms.”

Ray Donovan, the DEA Special Agent in Charge of the investigation, underscored this sentiment:

Today’s charges should send shock waves throughout the pharmaceutical industry reminding them of their role as gatekeepers of prescription medication.  The distribution of life-saving medication is paramount to public health; similarly, so is identifying rogue members of the pharmaceutical and medical fields whose diversion contributes to the record-breaking drug overdoses in America . . . . This historic investigation unveiled a criminal element of denial in RDC’s compliance practices, and holds them accountable for their egregious non-compliance according to the law.”

A consistent theme across the three cases is the alleged deficiency in RDC’s compliance program—as well as the role that the former CEO and compliance chief allegedly played in directing RDC to ignore its obligations to maintain “effective control[s] against diversion of particular controlled substances into other than legitimate medical, scientific, and industrial channels” under 21 USC § 823(b)(1) and reporting suspicious orders under 21 CFR § 1301.74(b). The criminal pleadings include allegations that:


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In a January 10, 2019 decision, the US District Court for the District of Arizona granted summary judgment to Defendants because Relators failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact on the issue of “knowledge” under the False Claims Act (FCA) which, as everyone knows by now, includes deliberate ignorance or reckless disregard. The decision is significant for the simple fact that courts can be reluctant to address scienter on summary judgment, and in many cases prefer to simply let the issue go to trial. Moreover, the court’s opinion makes clear that corrections to claiming issues and improvements to systems that result in better claims submission do not function as evidence of knowledge or recklessness under the FCA. In tort law parlance, “remedial measures” are not evidence of fraud.

In Vassallo v. Rural/Metro Corp., a qui tam lawsuit in which the government declined to intervene (but filed a statement of interest attempting to support the Relator’s opposition to summary judgment), the allegations primarily concerned Defendants’ transition from using internal coders to an outside coding vendor to code claims for ambulance transports. There were some alleged issues with the coding performed by the outside coding company, which Defendants worked to improve and correct during and after the transition. Notably, Defendants had been operating under a Corporate Integrity Agreement (CIA) during the time period at issue, and consistently received positive results from the Internal Review Organization (IRO) with respect to coding, billing and claims submission.

The district court held that no reasonable jury could have found that Defendants acted with deliberate indifference or reckless disregard. Relators contended, among other things, that Defendants’ transition to the outside coding vendor was reckless, and that they completed the transition despite knowing about the vendor’s coding and billing errors and issues. In response, Defendants pointed to evidence regarding their training and oversight efforts, their instructions that the vendor’s coders should undercode if they had any doubt about the correct code to be used, their positive results under the CIA, and their retention of Deloitte to address any continued issues with the vendor’s coding.
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On April 30, 2018, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts dismissed the last remaining state False Claims Act (FCA) claims against long-term care pharmacy provider PharMerica, Inc. on the grounds that neither relator qualified as an “original source” under the applicable pre-2010 version of the FCA, thereby precluding their claims under the

On April 11, 2018, the Eleventh Circuit split from several other circuits on the question whether False Claims Act (FCA) relators can rely on the three-year statute of limitations extension in 31 U.S.C. § 3731(b)(2) in cases where the United States declines to intervene.

Under § 3731(b), an FCA case must be filed within the

On November 8, 2017, the US District Court for the Middle District of Florida dismissed a relator’s non-intervened claims in United States ex rel. Stepe v. RS Compounding LLC for failure to satisfy the particularity requirement of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b). Relator originally filed her complaint under seal on December 16, 2013, under the federal False Claims Act (FCA) and Florida’s analogous statute. Over three years after the complaint was filed, the government elected to partially intervene as to fraudulent pricing allegations relating to TRICARE. Relator amended her complaint in July 2017 and added state false claims counts under the laws of 16 additional states. All 17 states declined to intervene in the case in September 2017.

The complaint alleges that Relator, through her work as a sales representative for defendant RS Compounding, became aware of Defendants’ purported schemes to defraud the government on prescription compound and gel products. The relator alleged that prescription pads were prepopulated for physicians, with RS Compounding’s most expensive compounds pre-checked on the pads and six refills listed by default. Relator further alleged that this scheme involved sales representatives “coaching” physicians to number three different products on the pads, with priority given to products containing ketamine because those products had a higher reimbursement rate from the government.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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