On February 8, 2019, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it obtained a temporary restraining order (TRO) in the Middle District of Tennessee against two pharmacies, their owner and three pharmacists from dispensing controlled substances, including opioids. The DOJ simultaneously unsealed a complaint alleging violations of the False Claims Act and Controlled Substances Act against the same parties. DOJ’s press release is available here.

The DOJ described this action as part of a coordinated effort by the Prescription Interdiction & Litigation (PIL) Task Force to deploy its criminal, civil and regulatory tools to address the opioid epidemic in the United States. The complaint alleges that the pharmacies and pharmacists filled numerous prescriptions for controlled substances outside the usual course of professional practice and in violation of the pharmacists’ corresponding responsibility to ensure that prescriptions were written for a legitimate medical purpose. In particular, the complaint alleges that the defendants routinely dispensed controlled substances and ignored “red flags” of diversion and abuse, such as unusually high dosages of oxycodone and other opioids, dangerous combinations of opioid prescriptions other controlled substances and patients travelling extremely long distances to get and fill prescriptions. The complaint also asserts that the pharmacies falsely billed Medicare for illegally dispensed prescriptions.

“Pharmacies and pharmacists have a legal obligation to dispense controlled substances properly, so as not to put patients’ health at risk,” said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt for the Department of Justice’s Civil Division. “The Department of Justice will use every available tool to stop individuals and entities responsible for the improper distribution of controlled substances.”

While the DOJ has previously obtained TROs and a permanent injunction against physicians for prescribing opioids upon filing a complaint, this is the first case in which the agency has taken this combination compliant and TRO action against a pharmacy and pharmacists.

On January 31, 2019, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a notice of proposed rulemaking (the Proposed Rule) as part of ongoing administration drug pricing reform efforts. The Proposed Rule would modify a regulatory provision that had previously protected certain pharmaceutical manufacturer rebates from criminal prosecution and financial penalties under the federal Anti-Kickback Statute.

Specifically, the Proposed Rule would exclude from “safe harbor” protection rebates and other discounts on prescription pharmaceutical products offered by pharmaceutical manufacturers to Medicare Part D plan sponsors or Medicaid Managed Care Organizations (MCOs), unless the price reduction is required by law (such as rebates required under the Medicaid Drug Rebate Program). The proposed exclusion would apply to rebates offered directly to Part D plan sponsors and Medicaid MCOs, as well as those negotiated by or paid through a pharmacy benefit manager (PBM). HHS stated that it does not intend for the revisions in this Proposed Rule to negatively impact protection of prescription pharmaceutical product discounts offered to other entities such as wholesalers, hospitals, physicians, pharmacies and third party payors in other federal health care programs. The proposed effective date of this regulatory modification is January 1, 2020, although HHS has sought comments regarding whether this allows sufficient time for parties to restructure existing arrangements.

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The Office of Inspector General, Department of Health and Human Services posted an unusual negative Advisory Opinion (AO 18-14) on a drug company’s proposal to provide free drugs to hospitals for use with pediatric patients suffering from a form of epilepsy. Of particular interest is OIG’s reliance on a longstanding, but rarely used, authority to justify finding and relying on public information about the drug at issue, including pricing information, to support its unfavorable conclusion. This advisory opinion might counsel future opinion requestors to withdraw their opinion request once OIG indicates the opinion will be unfavorable.

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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 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 public disclosure bar. Critically, neither relator had firsthand, “direct” knowledge of the alleged fraud scheme.

In 2007, two relators (employees of a pharmaceutical company) filed suit alleging that their employer had offered financial incentives to two long-term care pharmacy providers (LTCPs) in exchange for the pharmacy providers’ promotion of prescriptions of a specific antidepressant. Specifically, the relators alleged that their employer offered significant discounts and rebates to LTCP customers in exchange for increased promotion of the antidepressant, and that market-tier discounts were offered in exchange for the performance level of each LTCP. The relators alleged that further kickbacks in the form of research and educational grants, gifts, and payment for advertising initiatives were offered to the LTCPs in exchange for purchase and recommendation of the antidepressant. Relators’ knowledge, however, was sourced from two other co-workers; neither relator was directly involved in the alleged scheme.

In 2010, the United States declined to intervene and the case was unsealed. Two years later, in 2012, the Court dismissed all federal claims and 18 state law based claims. Subsequently the other defendants (including the relators’ former employer) entered into settlement agreements, leaving PharMerica facing state FCA claims under Louisiana, Michigan, and Texas law.

On September 29, 2017, PharMerica moved to dismiss the remaining three claims on several grounds, including that each claim was precluded by each applicable state’s public disclosure bar. This argument was based, in part, on the fact that it was undisputed that the fraud allegations at issue had been publicly disclosed in a 2002 case before the Eastern District of Louisiana. Therefore, to avoid dismissal, relators needed to establish that they met the standards of the pre-2010 original source exception to the public disclosure bar in order for their claims to survive. This exception required, in relevant part, that the relator have direct and independent knowledge of the publicly-disclosed information.

The Court rejected the relators’ arguments that they qualified for the original source exception. First, the Court noted that Louisiana, Michigan and Texas each have public disclosure bars and original source exceptions that are substantively identical to the corresponding provisions of the federal FCA. The Court further noted that the “first-to-file” bar did not block relator’s claims, as the 2002 lawsuit that publicly disclosed the alleged fraud scheme was dismissed in 2006, a year before the relators filed their complaint. It was further found to be undisputed that relators’ knowledge of the alleged scheme was independent of the 2002 lawsuit, thereby establishing that the relators had “independent” knowledge of the scheme.

The fatal flaw in relators’ argument was that neither had direct knowledge of the information on which the allegations are based,” as required by the pre-2010 FCA. Neither relator had a direct role in the alleged scheme, and both had learned of the scheme in a second-hand fashion from colleagues with direct knowledge. Furthermore, neither relator saw any corroborating documents until over a year after the alleged scheme had concluded, and those documents were viewed as part of “collateral research and investigation,” not in the regular course of their job duties. In dismissing the remaining claims, the Court cited precedent requiring that, under the pre-2010 FCA, an individual must be a “close observer” of the alleged fraud in order to qualify as having “direct” knowledge for the original source exception.

This ruling highlights the long reach of changes to statutory language. Revisions to the FCA’s statutory language in 2010 removed the requirement of “direct” knowledge of the information for the original source exception, thereby broadening the pool of potential relators. While this revision occurred roughly eight years ago, legacy cases subject to the pre-2010 statutory language are still working their way through the Courts. Had the relators in this case been subject to the current version of the FCA, it appears unlikely that the Court would have dismissed their claims on the basis of the public disclosure bar.

The case is United States ex rel. Banigan and Templin v. PharMerica, Case No. 07-cv-12153, before the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

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.

Earlier this week, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) launched a new front in its effort to combat the opioid crisis and explicitly stated that it will deploy the False Claims Act (FCA) as part of its offensive. In a press release and parallel speech delivered by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on February 28, 2018, DOJ announced the creation of the Prescription Interdiction & Litigation (PIL) Task Force.

According to DOJ, the PIL Task Force will combat the opioid crisis at every level of the distribution system, from manufacturers to distributors (including pharmacies, pain management clinics, drug testing facilities and individual physicians). DOJ will use all available civil and criminal remedies to hold manufacturers accountable, building on its existing coordination with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure proper labeling and marketing.  Likewise, DOJ will use civil and criminal actions to ensure that distributors and pharmacies are following US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) rules implemented to prevent diversion and improper prescribing. Finally, DOJ will use the FCA and other enforcement tools to pursue pain-management clinics, drug testing facilities and physicians that make opioid prescriptions. Continue Reading New DOJ Task Force to Take on Opioid Crisis Using the FCA and Other Enforcement Tools

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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The government’s focus on the US opioid crisis has been consistently expanding over the past year beyond manufacturers to reach prescribers and health care providers who submit claims to federal health care programs for opioid prescriptions. These efforts increasingly include investigations under the False Claims Act and administrative actions, in addition to the more traditional criminal approach to these issues.

With the Trump administration’s public health emergency orders, it is expected for the government’s enforcement activities, including those instigated by relators and their counsel, to grow in this area.

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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