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?
Earlier this year, DOJ and OIG independently issued guides focused on evaluating compliance program effectiveness. The guides approach the topic from different perspectives but cover overlapping themes and work well in tandem. We reviewed the guides and compiled the reference tool to aid organization executives and boards of directors to measure compliance program effectiveness and, in turn, wisely invest resources.
On September 18, 2017, the Tenth Circuit reversed a decision of the US District Court for the District of Utah in United States ex rel. Little v. Triumph Gear Sys., Inc. In doing so, the Tenth Circuit concluded that the False Claims Act’s first-to-file bar extends to situations where relators’ counsel substitute parties prior to the initial complaint even being unsealed.
In this case, relator Joe Blyn brought a qui tam action against a government contractor, alleging that he witnessed instances of fraud. The initial complaint named Blyn and three John Does as relators. The following year, Blyn and the John Does “vanished” from the action with Blyn’s counsel, David Little, instead naming himself, and Kurosh Motaghed as the sole relators. After the court unsealed the action, Triumph moved to dismiss the amended complaint, arguing that the substitution of parties triggered the “first-to-file” bar, which prevents private parties from intervening in existing actions or filing related actions based on the facts of the underlying action. The district court denied Triumph’s motion to dismiss, ruling that replacing the relator in this manner did not contemplate an “intervention” for purposes of 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b)(5).
The Tenth Circuit reversed. The court noted that had Little merely added himself and Motgahed as relators and maintained Blyn as a third relator, such an addition would have merely been an amendment permissible under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15, which would not have triggered the first-to-file bar. As it happened, however, Blyn did not amend the complaint – Little and Motaghed did. And because amendments under Rule 15 may only be made by parties, the Tenth Circuit concluded that Little’s and Motaghed’s actions constituted an “intervention.”
Once Blyn was removed from the complaint, the court determined, the district court lacked jurisdiction over the case. Consequently, Little’s subsequent reinstatement of Blyn as a relator was ineffective. This case thus demonstrates the power and breadth of the first-to-file bar, and how defendants can use it effectively to address follow-on complaints.
Following on the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) June announcement that it would begin updating its public-facing Work Plan on a monthly basis, OIG released its first update to add 14 new topics to the Work Plan on July 17. As the health care industry knows, OIG Work Plan sets forth various projects that the OIG’s Office of Audit Services (OAS) and Office of Evaluation and Inspections (OEI) are currently undertaking or planning to undertake in the future. Previously, OIG updated its Work Plan to reflect adjustments once or twice each year. In a stated effort to increase transparency in its audit and inspection work, OIG changed its practices to begin issuing monthly updates.
The 14 topics all describe new OAS audit work, much of which is focused on Medicare and Medicaid issues. Several areas appear to lend themselves to data-mining, such cross-checking claims between Medicare Parts A and B or providers of concurrent services. For example, the OIG aims to:
- Evaluate whether certain Medicare Part B payments for ambulance services are subject to Medicare Part A skilled nursing facility (SNF) consolidated billing requirements (i.e. the SNF received payment for the ambulance transport as part of the Part A payment, and thus was responsible for paying the ambulance provider);
- Compare Medicare Part B and Part A claims to check for overlapping claims between home health agencies and/or hospices and outside providers;
- Investigate the validity of Medicare payments for telehealth services provided at distant sites that do not have corresponding originating site claims; and
- Examine Medicare payments to hospital outpatient providers for non-physician outpatient services provided under the inpatient prospective payment system.
OIG also proposed two more wide-ranging programmatic reviews. First, OIG plans to conduct a study to identify “common characteristics” of “at risk” home health agency providers in an effort to target pre-and post-payment claim reviews. This OAS study appears to be a follow-up to an OEI study issued in June 2016 of “selected characteristics commonly found in OIG-investigated cases of home health fraud.” Second, OIG plans to review hospital electronic medical record incentive payments for compliance with Medicare’s meaningful use requirements. OIG’s continued examination of EMR incentive payments follows on OAS’ June 2017 report estimating that between May 2011 and June 2014, over $729 million was paid to hospitals and physicians who did not comply with the incentive program requirements.
For a full list of the 14 additional inquiries, visit the OIG’s Work Plan website.
On July 10, 2017, US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a December 3, 2014, district court dismissal of False Claims Act (FCA) claims against Salish Kootenai College (College), a tribal college of the Salish Kootenai Tribes (Tribe). United States ex rel. Cain v. Salish Kootenai College, Inc. (July 10, 2017). The 9th Circuit directed the district court to reconsider whether the College is subject to liability under the FCA under a different standard than used by the district court.
The district court had entered its order dismissing claims by the qui tam relators that the College filed false progress reports to the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Indian Health Service in order to retain grant funding from the agencies, holding that the College was an arm of the Tribe and shared the Tribe’s sovereign immunity, which had not been waived by the Tribe or Congress. (The district court also dismissed claims against the members of the College board of directors and the College foundation. Relators, however, only appealed the dismissal of claims against the College.)
The court of appeals disagreed with the district court’s framing of the question. The central question is not, as the district court found, whether the College enjoyed tribal immunity and whether such immunity had been waived. Rather, the central issue in a FCA case is whether the College is a “person” within the meaning of the FCA, and, thus subject to liability under the FCA. Accordingly, the court undertook a two-part analysis to decide the question: (1) whether the Tribe is a person under the FCA or a sovereign not subject to the FCA, and, if the latter; (2) whether the College is an arm of the Tribe that shares the Tribe’s sovereign status for purposes of the FCA. Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Remands False Claims Act Case against Tribal College for Determination of Sovereign Status
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.
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 District Court Finds Oregon University Immune to FCA Suit Brought by Federal Government
Released on March 27, 2017, the Compliance Program Resource Guide (Resource Guide), jointly prepared by the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) reflects the result of a “roundtable” meeting on January 17, 2017, of OIG staff and compliance professionals “to discuss ways to measure the effectiveness of compliance programs.” The resulting Resource Guide document catalogues the roundtable’s brainstorming discussions to “…provide a large number of ideas for measuring the various elements of a compliance program…to give health care organizations as many ideas as possible, to be broad enough to help any type of organization, and let the organization choose which ones best suit its needs.”
Here are a few main takeaways from the Resource Guide:
- Ideas for Auditing: The Resource Guide contributes to the critical conversation about how to evaluate compliance program effectiveness by listing additional ideas on what to audit and how to audit those areas. The items listed in the Resource Guide generally center on ideas on auditing and monitoring compliance program elements, such as periodically reviewing training and policies and procedures to ensure that they are up-to-date, understandable to staff and accurately reflect the business process as performed in practice. Legal and compliance can use this document to identify those particular elements that may be most applicable to their individual organization.
Organizations would also benefit from considering the questions listed in the new compliance program guidance issued in February by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) Criminal Division’s Fraud Section, “Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs” (DOJ Guidance), as part of examining compliance program effectiveness. (We covered the DOJ Guidance previously.) Health care organizations may also use the various provider-specific compliance program guidance documents created by OIG over the years as another source for ideas on what to measure.
- Not a Mandate: The Resource Guide is very clear that it is not intended to be a “best practice”, a template, or a “‘checklist’ to be applied wholesale to assess a compliance program.” This clarification is an important one since there is the potential for the Resource Guide to be (incorrectly) viewed by qui tam relators or others as creating de facto compliance program requirements or OIG recommendations.
- How to Measure: The Resource Guide does not delve into how or who should undertake or contribute to the effectiveness review. Who conducts the review is a question that may have legal significance given the nature of a particular issue. General counsel and the chief compliance officer should consider this issue as part of the organization’s ongoing compliance program review. It may be valuable to include the organization’s regular outside white collar counsel to comment on such critical, relevant legal considerations as the proper conduct of an internal investigation; preserving the attorney-client privilege in appropriate situations; coordinating communications between legal, compliance and internal audit personnel; and applying “lessons learned” from the practices of qui tam relators and their counsel. Outside consultants may also have useful expertise and insight to contribute. In some situations, the organization may want to undertake a compliance program assessment conducted under attorney-client privilege as part of advising the executive team and the board audit and compliance committee.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the Resource Guide is the extent to which it serves as a catalyst for closer, coordinated consideration of the metrics by which compliance program effectiveness may be measured by legal and compliance personnel and the audit and compliance committee. The Resource Guide is one of several resources that can be referenced by the general counsel and the chief compliance officer as they work together to support the organization’s audit and compliance committee in reviewing compliance program effectiveness.
The Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently published a final rule regarding its exclusion authorities. The final rule goes into effect March 21, 2017, and expands OIG’s authority to exclude certain individuals and entities from participating in federal health care programs under section 1128 of the Social Security Act.
On January 26, 2017, the US District Court for the Western District of Virginia rejected a defendant’s attempt to invoke collateral estoppel principles to dismiss an indictment for fraud. In United States v. Whyte, the defendant, Whyte, argued that the indictment should be thrown out because a jury had previously found in his favor after trial of a relator’s civil qui tam claims under the False Claims Act (U.S. ex rel. Skinner v. Armet Armored Vehicles and William Whyte, W.D. Va. June 4, 2015), based on allegations of fraud that overlapped with those in the indictment. Whyte argued that the jury’s verdict established that no fraud was committed, and that the government, as real party in interest in the qui tam case, had the full opportunity to litigate the issues. Accordingly, Whyte contended that collateral estoppel mandated dismissal.
The district court disagreed, and its opinion rested on the fact that the government did not intervene in the qui tam action. The court found that the government’s declination meant that the collateral estoppel doctrine’s requirement that the parties to the prior case and the case at bar be identical was absent. The court acknowledged that party identicality for estoppel purposes can exist where there where “there is such a degree of affinity of interests of the person who was not a formal party to the prior proceeding, as to render the doctrine of collateral estoppel applicable.” In re Goldschein, 241 B.R. 370, 374 (D. Md. 1999) (citing Va. Hosp. Assoc. v. Baliles, 830 F.2d 1308, 1312 (4th Cir. 1967)). But it held that in such cases, the non-party must have had the ability to control the prior proceedings. While the government is a “real party in interest” in a declined qui tam, the court determined that it lacks the ability to control the litigation. The court reasoned:
By statute, if the government elects not to intervene, it retains no right to control the litigation in any meaningful way. It may not issues subpoenas, conduct depositions, propound discovery, call witnesses, or cross-examine the defendant’s witnesses. It is entitled to receive pleadings and deposition transcripts, but no more. In instances in which the government elects not to intervene, it cannot reasonably be argued that the government had a ‘full and fair opportunity to litigate’ the issues.
The court further opined that any contrary holding would render meaningless the government’s statutory election decision. “If the government were bound by private actors prosecuting FCA cases in its name, there would be no purpose to Congress’s decision to permit the government to elect to intervene, or to decline to intervene. Under Whyte’s proposed interpretation, the government would be forced to be a party regardless of its intervention decision.”
The court’s characterization of the government’s lack of control over a declined qui tam case fails to address the statutory tools available to the government. Among other things, the government can seek a stay of discovery if the discovery being conducted by the relator is interfering with a parallel criminal investigation or prosecution; it frequently files statements of interest in declined qui tams espousing its views on the legal issues in play in the case; it can object to a settlement between the relator and the defendant and must consent to any dismissal of the action by the relator; the government can settle a case over the objection of the relator and has a broad right to dismiss any FCA case. Further, a declination decision is not final–the government can later seek to intervene for “good cause” as the case progresses. Whether these examples suffice to establish “control” for collateral estoppel principles is a question that the Whyte court would presumably answer in the negative, but the notion that the government lacks any control over an FCA case in which it has declined to intervene ignores the many avenues pursuant to which the government can (and does) exert control. And the irony here is that while the defendant escaped civil fraud liability notwithstanding the lower preponderance of the evidence standard of proof applicable to such claims, he now must face criminal fraud charges which the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt.