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

On May 31, 2017, the US Department of Justice announced a Settlement Agreement under which eClinicalWorks, a vendor of electronic health record software, agreed to pay $155 million and enter into a five-year Corporate Integrity Agreement to resolve allegations that it caused its customers to submit false claims for Medicare and Medicaid meaningful use payments in violation of the False Claims Act.

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This April, providers cheered when a federal district court in the Middle District of Florida found insufficient evidence to support a relator’s theory that a hospital had provided free parking to physicians, in violation of the Stark Law and Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS). In the Report and Recommendation for United States ex rel. Bingham v. BayCare Health Systems, 2017 WL 126597, M.D. Fla., No. 8:14-cv-73, Judge Steven D. Merryday of the Middle District of Florida endorsed magistrate judge Julie Sneed’s recommendation that Plaintiff Thomas Bingham’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment be denied and that Defendant BayCare Health System’s Motion for Summary Judgment be granted. However, as we discussed in a previous FCA blog post regarding these allegations, this type of case encapsulates a worrying and costly trend where courts allow thinly pleaded relator claims in which the government opted not to intervene, to survive past the motion to dismiss stage into the discovery phase of the litigation.

Bingham is a serial relator who practices as a certified real estate appraiser in Tennessee and was unaffiliated with BayCare. In his latest attempt, Bingham alleged that BayCare Health System had violated the Stark Law and the AKS by providing affiliated physicians free parking, valet services and tax benefits to induce physicians to refer patients to the health system. Continue Reading A Hospital’s Deserving Stark and AKS Victory—But At What Cost?

With health care becoming more consumer-driven, health care providers and health plans are wrestling with how to incentivize patients to participate in health promotion programs and treatment plans. As payments are increasingly being tied to quality outcomes, a provider’s ability to engage and improve patients’ access to care may both improve patient outcomes and increase providers’ payments. In December 2016, the Office of Inspector General of the US Department of Health and Human Services (OIG) issued a final regulation implementing new “safe harbors” for certain patient incentive arrangements and programs, and released its first Advisory Opinion (AO) under the new regulation in March 2017. Together, the new regulation and AO provide guardrails for how patient engagement and access incentives can be structured to avoid penalties under the federal civil monetary penalty statute (CMP) and the anti-kickback statute (AKS).

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On December 7, 2016, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a policy statement increasing its thresholds for gifts that are considered “nominal” for purposes of the patient inducement provisions of the civil monetary penalties law (section 1128A(a)(5) of the Social Security Act) (CMP Law). HHS also announced the new thresholds in the preamble to a final rule issued on December 7, 2016, revising safe harbors under the Anti-Kickback Statute and rules under the CMP Law. 81 Fed. Reg. 88368, 88394 (Dec. 7, 2016).  The previous thresholds for gifts to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries were $10 per item or $50 in the aggregate annually per patient. The new thresholds are $15 per item or $75 in the aggregate annually per patient.

Under the CMP Law, a person who offers or provides any remuneration to a Medicare or Medicaid beneficiary that the person knows or should know is likely to influence the beneficiary’s selection of a particular provider, practitioner or supplier of Medicare or Medicaid payable items or services may be liable for civil money penalties, subject to a limited number of exceptions. The OIG has indicated that gifts of “nominal value” are not required to meet an exception. However, the OIG has not changed its thresholds for what constitutes “nominal value” since issuing its 2002 Special Advisory Bulletin: Offering Gifts and Other Inducements to Beneficiaries, which included thresholds of no more than $10 in value individually or $50 in value in the aggregate annually per patient. To account for inflation, the OIG has now increased its interpretation of “nominal value,” permitting inexpensive gifts (other than cash or cash equivalents) of no more than $15 per item or $75 in the aggregate per patient annually, effective immediately.

The OIG’s policy statement provides that violations of the CMP Law could result in penalties of up to $10,000 per wrongful act; however, HHS increased the penalty to $15,024 per violation in an interim final rule issued earlier this year. 81 Fed. Reg. 61538, 61543 (Sept. 6, 2016). While the new thresholds are still fairly low, they are a welcome update to the longstanding $10/$50 thresholds.

While there are a number of executive policies that will be affected by the presidential election, there are several reasons to expect modest change in the government’s approach to False Claims Act (FCA) actions. The most significant reason for this expectation is that the vast majority of FCA cases are filed by relators on behalf of the government and the Department of Justice (DOJ) has historically viewed itself as obligated to conduct an investigation into those cases. There is little reason to suspect the financial motivations that encourage relators and relators’ counsel to continue to bring cases under the FCA will diminish. That said, the possibility of repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could remove or change some of the ACA’s FCA amendments that enhanced the ability of certain individuals to qualify as a relator. The composition of the Supreme Court may have the most significant impact on the FCA given the Court’s increasing interest in this area.

Continue Reading Predictions on False Claims Act Enforcement in the Trump Administration

On October 28, 2016 in an unpublished opinion, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas that granted summary judgment to Omnicare, Inc. in a qui tam action. We discussed the decision of the district court here.

The relator alleged, among other claims, that Omnicare violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by writing off debt owed by skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) and offering prompt-payment discounts in exchange for referrals to Omnicare’s pharmacy business, in violation of the Anti-Kickback Statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(b)(2) (AKS).

The Fifth Circuit agreed with the district court that the evidence offered by the relator regarding the debt write-off practices did not support a finding that Omnicare offered benefits to SNFs that were designed to induce Medicare and Medicaid referrals. The court found that, at best, the evidence, which consisted primarily of company emails, supported a finding that “Omnicare did not want unresolved settlement negotiations to negatively impact its contract negotiations with SNF clients” and was “avoiding confrontational collection practices that might discourage SNFs from continuing to do business with Omnicare.” In addtion, the court found no evidence that the SNFs were told that they were receiving special benefits, noting that if the “purported benefits were designed to encourage SNFs to refer Medicare and Medicaid patients to Omnicare, one might expect to find evidence showing that the SNFs at least knew about the benefits.”Moreover, the court found that the relator offered no evidence that prompt-payment discounts were offered to the SNFs for the “illegitimate purpose of inducing referrals rather than the legitimate purpose of inducing payments.”

The court invoked the principle that there is no AKS violation where “the defendant merely hopes or expects referrals from benefits that were designed for other purposes” and noted that “although Omnicare may have hoped for Medicare and Medicaid referrals, absent any evidence that Omnicare designed its settlement negotiations and debt collection practices to induce such referral, Relator cannot show an AKS violation.”

Although the Fifth Circuit’s decision was not published, it stands as an affirmation of the district court’s admonition that “an accusation of a multimillion-dollar fraud must be supported by more than a few ambiguous e-mails.”

The past three months have seen a flurry of advisory opinion activity from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG). The majority of this activity focuses on patient assistance programs (PAPs) as donors and organizations continue to have questions about OIG’s most recent PAP guidance. While none of these opinions or modifications are dramatically new on their face, together they provide valuable insight into the types of facts that can mitigate the OIG’s general concerns with tailored disease funds.

Typically, sponsored by pharmaceutical manufacturers and/or independent charity organizations with industry donors, PAPs provide financial assistance or free prescription drugs to low income individuals. Some PAPs are also structured to provide assistance to patients with a specific disease, like cancer or Crohn’s disease. As PAPs have the potential to be used by manufacturers to subsidize the purchase of their own products, or to improperly steer a patient’s drug selection, they can trigger scrutiny under the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) and Beneficiary Inducement Civil Monetary Penalty (CMP), among other laws. Not surprisingly, the OIG is more comfortable with bona fide charitable programs that are not drug-specific and that reflect other characteristics demonstrating a broad patient focus, rather than those reflecting a drug or pharmaceutical manufacturer focus.

Historically, the OIG has treated PAPs as important safety nets for patients who face chronic illnesses and high drug costs. The OIG issued a special advisory bulletin (SAB) in 2005 confirming that PAPs could help ensure patients had access to and could afford their medically necessary drugs. The OIG’s guidance evolved with its May 2014 SAB, which addressed the growing trend of independent charity PAPs establishing or operating specific disease funds that limit assistance to a subset of available products. The OIG articulated a concern with such PAPs, and indicated that it would view such programs as having a higher baseline risk of abuse when their assistance was limited to only a subset of available FDA-approved products for treatment of the disease. The OIG advised PAPs to define disease funds in accordance with widely recognized clinical standards and in a manner that covered a broad spectrum of products and manifestations of the disease (e.g., without reference to specific symptoms, drug stages, treatment types, severity of symptoms or other “narrowing” factors).

Consistent with this guidance, the OIG began issuing new advisory opinions and modifications of previous opinions in January 2015. The OIG’s opinions and modifications posted in the past three months are also consistent with this standard, but importantly add nuanced factors and exceptions that appear to show a more refined stance on specific disease funds. In December, the OIG posted a modification of Advisory Opinion 07-11, concerning a PAP that provided support for patients experiencing a specific symptom of cancer. In January, the OIG posted two new advisory opinions that addressed a PAP tailored to support patients with two specific diseases (a type of cancer and a type of chronic kidney disease) and a PAP providing support to needy patients with Stage 3 or Stage 4 of a specific disease, respectively. Also in January, the OIG posted a modification of Advisory Opinion 04-15, which addressed a PAP that maintained a disease fund limited to patients with certain metastatic cancers. While all of these specific disease funds may appear inconsistent with the OIG’s 2014 SAB, in each instance the OIG found that the tailored funds presented a low risk of abuse and merited a favorable opinion given the safeguards each employed.

In its Modification of Advisory Opinion 04-15, the OIG noted two factors that minimized the risk that the tailored disease fund could be leveraged by donors. First, the specific symptom of cancer was treatable by 62 different drugs made by 26 different manufacturers, so the program would not be supporting only one specific manufacturer or drug by tailoring its assistance to patients with the symptom. Second, and most importantly to the OIG, the PAP would not limit assistance through the fund just to drugs to treat that symptom; instead, the PAP would provide assistance for all medications prescribed for the qualifying patient’s underlying cancer and related symptoms. By certifying that the PAP would extend its support to underlying and related medical needs of patients with this symptom, the disease fund essentially agreed to expand the practical impact of the fund.

This “broadening” of support from otherwise narrowly defined disease funds can also be seen in the OIG’s other recent advisory opinions on the subject. In Opinions 15-16 and 15-17, for example, the OIG noted its favorable opinion was based in part on the PAPs’ representations that there were several different drugs made by various manufacturers currently available to treat each of the specific diseases and that the PAPs would, at a minimum, assist patients with all FDA-approved drugs to treat each disease (and, for the fund supporting patients with Stages 3 or 4 of the disease, would not limit the financial assistance to drugs expressly approved for advanced stages of the disease). In its Modification of Opinion 07-11, the PAP also noted that its support would not be limited to drugs expressly approved for the metastatic stage of the cancer. These opinions also include PAP certifications that if any of the PAP’s future disease funds would result in supporting only one FDA-approved drug treatment or one manufacturer, the PAP will also support the other medical needs of patients with the disease, including co-payment support for all prescription medication prescribed for the management and treatment of the patient’s disease (like pain and anti-nausea medications).

While the OIG continues to reiterate the potential risks posed by disease funds that are tailored to specific symptoms, severity of symptoms, method of drug administration, stages of a disease, or types of drug treatment, its recent opinions and modifications illustrate several exceptions to this general position. This recent flurry of OIG activity may be a good prompt for organizations with PAPs to review any specific disease funds in light of these most recent opinions.

As many health lawyers know, the government usually only pursues the person or entity that offers or pays allegedly improper remuneration, even though the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) also applies to those to solicit or receive it.  This uneven enforcement pattern occurs for a variety of reasons — the alleged payor is the focus of the relator’s complaint and resulting investigation, the amount of time that this investigation and resolution takes can create practical and legal problems in pursuing additional defendants, and the increasing number of qui tam cases stretches the government’s limited resources.

However, on October 7, 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a settlement with an alleged kickback recipient over three years after it settled with the alleged payor.  PharMerica Corporation, identified by the DOJ as the nation’s second-largest provider of pharmaceutical services to long-term care facilities, agreed to pay $9.25 million to settle allegations that, from 2001 to 2008, the company knowingly solicited and received kickbacks from Abbott Laboratories in the form of rebates, educational grants and other financial support in exchange for recommending that physicians prescribe Abbott’s anti-epileptic drug Depakote to nursing home patients where PharMerica provided pharmacy services.

PharMerica noted in a press release that it denied the government’s allegations and fully cooperated with the DOJ throughout the investigation.  Of note, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) did not require an amendment to PharMerica’s current corporate integrity agreement to add provisions concerning AKS compliance as part of this resolution.

This settlement comes over three years after Abbott entered into an FCA settlement agreement with the DOJ and several individual states in May 2012, which, along with addressing separate allegations related to the promotion of Depakote, settled allegations related to its arrangement with PharMerica. Abbott also did not admit to any wrongdoing in its settlement.  Both the PharMerica and Abbott settlements are the product of lawsuits filed in federal court in the Western District of Virginia under the whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act.

The pursuit of the settlement with PharMerica may indicate a growing interest by DOJ in pursuing AKS allegations against both the alleged offeror and the alleged recipient of prohibited remuneration under the FCA.

On July 20, the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services (OIG) posted a new Advisory Opinion (the Opinion) addressing a health system’s restructured arrangement to lease employees, and provide other operational and management services, to a related psychiatric hospital (the Arrangement). The Opinion is a notable departure from other recent statements and enforcement actions, and signals a greater flexibility in how related entities may share non-clinical employees and operational expenses. It also shows the OIG’s willingness to consider more practical factors, such as cost reporting requirements and the systemic benefits from integrated entities behaving in cost-efficient ways, when determining the risk presented by an arrangement.

The Opinion concerns a nonprofit health system (System) with a membership interest in the psychiatric hospital (Center). The Center is also part of the System’s integrated health network.  The System and the Center are potential referral sources to each other. Currently, both parties have an existing arrangement, whereby the Center leases non-clinician employees and obtains certain other operational and management services from the System, paying the System’s fully loaded costs (e.g., salary, benefits, overhead expenses) plus a two percent administration fee. The Arrangement would continue the same relationship, but the Center would no longer pay the System the administration fee. The parties have asserted, and OIG verified, that the administrative fee is an unallowable cost under applicable Medicare cost-reporting rules, and would not be reimbursable by the Medicare program.

The OIG noted that the new Arrangement, where the System would provide the same services for less aggregate compensation, could raise fair market value (FMV) issues. Such a discount could be considered remuneration in exchange for the Center’s referrals. In addition, the aggregate compensation under the Arrangement can’t be set in advance as the System’s costs, and Center’s needs, may change during the term. Given these issues, the Arrangement would not meet the requirements of the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) safe harbor for personal services and management contracts. Nonetheless, given the totality of the circumstances, the OIG concluded that the Arrangement would present a low risk of fraud and abuse and thus OIG would not impose sanctions.

The Opinion described several mitigating factors that, from OIG’s perspective, decreased the Arrangement’s risk of fraud and abuse. Not only did the parties attempt to structure the Arrangement to be in compliance with Medicare cost-reporting rules for related parties, there was also no evidence that the Arrangement was structured to, or actually would, induce referrals. Moreover, the parties pointed to the cost efficiencies of health system integration that would be promoted by the Arrangement, and to the potential indirect benefits (by way of cost savings) to federal health care programs.

The Opinion’s more flexible approach to analyzing the Arrangement stands in contrast to the OIG’s other recent activities, all of which express a consistent concern with payments between independent actors that are not consistent with FMV. For example, the OIG issued a fraud alert focusing on improper physician financial arrangements on June 9, 2015 (previously discussed here. The alert encourages physicians to “ensure that [their] arrangements reflect fair market value for bona fide services.” Similarly, the OIG has recently settled with several leased-employee physicians compensated by Fairmont Diagnostic Center and Open MRI Inc. (Fairmont) following Fairmont’s False Claims Act settlement concerning these arrangements. The OIG alleged that full time Fairmont employees, placed in certain physicians’ offices for study-related tasks, were actually performing office functions on the physician’s behalf, which constituted improper remuneration intended to induce referrals. Given this sustained regulatory focus on FMV compensation, health care entities should pay particular attention to the business justifications of their arrangements.