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

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.

Read the full article.

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. Continue Reading Is the Stark Law’s “Signed Writing” Requirement Material to Payment: One Federal Court Says Yes

On May 1, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of United States ex rel. Petratos, et al. v. Genentech, Inc., et al., No. 15-3801 (3d. Cir. May 1, 2017). On appeal from the US District Court for the District of New Jersey, the Third Circuit reinforced the applicability of the materiality standard set forth by the US Supreme Court in Universal Health Services v. Escobar. Per the Court, the relator’s claims implicate “three interlocking federal schemes:” the False Claims Act (FCA), Medicare reimbursement, and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.

The relator, Gerasimos Petratos, was the former head of health care data analytics at Genentech.  He alleged that Genentech suppressed data related to the cancer drug Avastin, thereby causing physicians to certify incorrectly that the drug was “reasonable and necessary” for certain Medicare patients. This standard is drawn from Medicare’s statutory framework: “no payment may be made” for items and services that “are not reasonable and necessary for the diagnosis and treatment of illness or injury.” 42 U.S.C. § 1395y(a)(1)(A) (emphasis added).  In turn, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) consider whether a drug has received FDA approval in determining, for its part, whether a drug is “reasonable and necessary.” Petratos claimed that Genentech “ignored and suppressed data that would have shown that Avastin’s side effects for certain patients were more common and severe than reported.” Petratos further asserted that analyses of these data would have required the company to file adverse-event reports with the FDA and could have triggered the need to change Avastin’s FDA label.

Continue Reading Third Circuit Affirms Dismissal of FCA Suit against Genentech Based on Supreme Court’s Materiality Standard

The good, reassuring news about that “old dog” fraud and abuse as it enters an age of payment reform is that criminal liability for fraud still requires a specific intent to defraud the federal health care programs, anti-kickback liability still requires actual knowledge of at least the wrongfulness, if not the illegality, of the financial transaction with a referral source, and civil False Claims Act liability for Stark Law violations still requires actual knowledge, a reckless disregard for, or deliberate ignorance of the Stark Law violation. This should mean that good faith and diligent efforts to comply with law, including seeking and following legal counsel, still go a long way in managing an organization’s and individual executive’s risk under the fraud and abuse laws. The bad, unsettling news about fraud and abuse in an age of payment reform, however, is that (1) anxiety about reform and stagnating and declining physician incomes are propelling a spike in transactions between health systems and physicians at a time when qui tam plaintiffs and the law firms that represent them are aggressively challenging the legitimacy and common structures for these transactions; and (2) the Stark Law is largely indifferent to the good faith intentions of health systems to integrate and enter into coordinated care arrangements with physicians, and continues to impose on health systems heavy burdens of proof that the arrangements comply with ambiguous standards like fair market value, volume or value and commercial reasonableness. While financial transactions incident to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) innovative care delivery and payment initiatives, such as accountable care organizations (ACOs), medical homes and bundled payment arrangements can be protected by the fraud and abuse/Stark waivers discussed in Part B below, there are many other common transactions and arrangements with physicians still operating in a fee-for-service environment  (such as practice acquisitions, employment, “gainsharing,” service line co-management, pay-for-quality and non-ACO clinically integrated networks) that are not protected by the waivers. During this period of transition to transformation of the health delivery and payment system, the key areas of risk for health systems are their burdens of proof on the ‘big three” issues of:

  • Fair market value,
  • Volume or value, and
  • Commercial reasonableness.

Each is discussed separately below, and the industry practices for managing these risks. Please note that none of these practices are necessarily “best” or “normative” practices, but are what we have observed.

Read the full article here.

In many industries, but especially health care, the amount of regulation and guidance issued by the responsible agencies is tremendous and continues to grow.  The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is no exception.  In a recent appeal by a home health agency, the Tenth Circuit examined the “pace [of CMS’] frenetic lawmaking,” finding that CMS applied a homebound status definition and documentation requirement that did not exist at the time the claims were submitted.

In Caring Hearts Personal Home Services., Inc. v. Burwell, No. 14-3243, 2016 BL 171256, (May 31, 2016), CMS litigated an alleged overpayment of about $800,000 for medically unnecessary home health services through the entire administrative process.  The services were provided in 2008, but, according to the Tenth Circuit, CMS applied the more restrictive 2010 version instead.  CMS took the position in this litigation that the 2010 changes simply clarified the prior rule and made it more consistent with the governing statute.  The Administrative Law Judge, the Department Appeals Board and even the United States District Court took the same view.  On appeal the Tenth Circuit disagreed.

The Tenth Circuit found that the 2008 version of the regulation applied to the claims, that Caring Hearts home health services and documentation content complied with that regulation, and that the statute did not clearly support CMS’ litigation position.  In 2008, CMS’s homebound definition stated that, “[g]enerally speaking, a patient will be considered homebound if they [sic] have a condition due to an illness or injury that restricts their ability to leave the place of residence except with the aid of: supportive devices such as crutches, canes, wheelchairs, and walkers … .”  In 2010, CMS added a second, more restrictive requirement – the patient must also “normal[ly]” be unable “to leave home” even with a wheelchair and any attempt to leave home must also “require a considerable and taxing effort.”  As for documentation requirements, no requirements existed in 2008.  The specific requirements CMS said the agency did not comply with were not created until 2010.

While Caring Hearts was dealt the lemon of defending this case, the opinion yields some potentially valuable lemonade in useful lessons and precedents for the rest of the health care community.  First, due to the way the case was argued below, the Tenth Circuit was not presented with a direct Chevron challenge to CMS’ homebound definition or documentation requirements.  While the court took some pains to say that it was not opining on whether the current homebound definition or documentation requirements were consistent with the statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1395f(a)(8), the opinion lays out a roadmap to this challenge.

Second, the court had the unusual opportunity to opine on section of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1395pp.  This section creates, according to the Tenth Circuit, “a sort of good faith affirmative defense” that permits payment for claims that are not payable for specific reasons, including for patients who do not qualify as homebound, if the provider did not know, and could not reasonably have been expected to know, that payment would not be made for such items or services.  In this case, the agency argued that it could not have been expected to know CMS’ interpretation of the 2008 rules, and therefore, CMS should deem the claims payable under 42 U.S.C. § 1395pp.  The Tenth Circuit agreed with the agency’s argument in vacating the district court decision.

The 42 U.S.C. § 1395pp defense could be a relevant point to make in many cases involving medical necessity or clinical judgment issues that the government has shown interest in pursuing under the False Claims Act other than homebound status, such as hospice eligibility and the appropriateness of inpatient status for a patient under the current “two midnight” rule.  For example, in U.S. ex rel. Paradies v. AseraCare, Inc., the court ruled, in considering hospice eligibility, that the difference of opinion in clinical judgment between medical experts alone cannot support a falsity claim under the False Claims Act (FCA).  Similarly, a provider’s good faith reliance on a contemporaneous medical opinion of a physician that the patient was homebound or hospice eligible could support finding the claim payable under 42 U.S.C. § 1395pp.  The standard “could not reasonably have been expected to know” appears to be less demanding that the FCA’s “reckless disregard or deliberate ignorance” standard.

However, this case does not lessen the burden the health care industry faces in achieving full compliance with voluminous federal regulatory requirements.  The Tenth Circuit noted that “currently about 37,000 separate guidance documents can be found on CMS’s website — and even that doesn’t purport to be a complete inventory.”  And this is only one federal program.

On March 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a grant of summary judgment by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in favor of Kaner Medical Group and its owner, David Kaner, in a qui tam suit brought under the False Claims Act (FCA).  United States ex rel. Johnson v. Kaner Med. Grp., 2016 WL 873816 (5th Cir. Mar. 7, 2016).  The suit was filed by a former employee of the group, who alleged that the group submitted false claims for reimbursement to Medicare and TRICARE, and that she was terminated in retaliation for raising concerns regarding the group’s billing practices.

The relator’s FCA claims were based on the group’s practice of entering the National Provider Identifier (NPI) of the provider who referred a patient to the group’s allergy clinic on Medicare claims in a box that, according to instructions from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), should have contained the NPI of the provider who supervised the work carried out at the allergy clinic on the day the patient received the service.  The district court found that, although the summary judgement record indicated the possibility that a large number of the group’s claims forms had incorrect provider information, the evidence did not show that the performing medical assistants lacked the requisite supervision or that the services were rendered under circumstances that would cause the group not to be entitled to payment.  U.S. ex rel. Johnson v. Kaner Med. Grp., 2015 WL 631651 (N.D. Tex. Feb. 12, 2015).  Instead, the record “provide[d] evidence that defendants perhaps were negligent in their indications on some of the forms of healthcare provider information.”

In affirming the district court, the appeals court found that the relator presented no evidence that the group acted “knowingly,” i.e., with actual knowledge of information or in deliberate ignorance or reckless disregard with respect to the truth or falsity of the information.  Instead, the appeals court agreed with the district court that the record indicated that “at most, [the group’s] misunderstanding of CMS’s requirements was negligent, which is not sufficient to attach liability under the FCA.”  As the court found in favor of the group on summary judgment, it also found that the relator did not engage in protected activity under the whistleblower protections of the FCA, and affirmed the dismissal of her retaliation claim.

As the outcome in this case demonstrates, the fact that a health care provider has improperly billed Medicare is not enough to support an FCA claim.  Among other things, a plaintiff must raise a genuine dispute of material fact that a defendant knowingly asked Medicare to pay amounts it does not owe.  As the court noted, the FCA “is not a general ‘enforcement device’ for federal statutes, regulations and contracts. . . but the Government’s ‘primary litigation tool’ for recovering losses resulting from fraud.”

On February 11, 2016, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued the much-anticipated final rule concerning Section 6402(a) of the Affordable Care Act, the so-called “60 Day Rule.” This section requires Medicare and Medicaid providers, suppliers and managed care contractors to report and return an overpayment by the later of “60 days after the date upon which the overpayment was identified or the date any corresponding cost report was due, if applicable.” CMS delayed adopting the rule to address public comments concerning, among other things, (1) the meaning of “identify” (i.e., what starts the 60-day clock); and (2) the length of the “lookback period.” This rule is of critical importance to healthcare providers seeking to avoid liability for reverse false claims under the False Claims Act (FCA).

Under the new regulation, 42 C.F.R. § 401.305, the 60-day clock starts when a provider has identified an overpayment, which is defined as “when the person has, or should have through the exercise of reasonable diligence, determined that the person has received an overpayment and quantified the amount of the overpayment. A person should have determined that the person received an overpayment and quantified the amount of the overpayment if the person fails to exercise reasonable diligence and the person in fact received an overpayment.” Backing off from the proposed 10-year lookback period, CMS finalized a six-year lookback period.

The key element of the final rule clarifies that the 60-day clock does not start to tick while the provider is conducting its “reasonable diligence” into whether the provider has received an overpayment and is quantifying the amount of the overpayment. While this concept was discussed in the proposed rule’s preamble, many commenters expressed concern about the meaning of the proposed rule’s “reckless disregard or deliberate ignorance of the overpayment” standard and whether it allowed time for the provider to take the steps necessary to determine whether it received an overpayment and, if so, its amount. In addition, some viewed the court’s interpretation of the statute in United States ex rel. Kane v. Healthfirst, Inc. (see our prior blog post), as stating that the 60-day clock began as soon as the provider was “put on notice” of a potential overpayment. CMS’ final rule clearly states that this interpretation of Kane is incorrect – providers have the ability to conduct “reasonable diligence” into the fact and amount of the overpayment prior to the 60-day time period starting. However, CMS does not view the reasonable diligence period as never-ending. The preamble discusses a six-month time frame as a “benchmark” for how long the reasonable diligence should take absent “extraordinary circumstances” such as a physician self-referral law (Stark Law) issue. The rule also says that the 60-day clock begins on the day the provider received the information about the potential overpayment and failed to exercise reasonable diligence.

These “should have determined” and “reasonable diligence” concepts have implications for how the government and defendants will interpret the FCA’s reverse false claims provision, which is how the 60-day rule is enforced. Under the FCA, a person can be liable for “knowingly concealing or knowingly or improperly avoiding or decreasing” an obligation to the government. An overpayment that is not reported and returned within 60 days of identification becomes an “obligation.” Thus, we should expect that the government will be interested in examining whether a provider did or did not exercise reasonable diligence in evaluating this claim.

Look for additional forthcoming analysis on this rule on our Health Care Compliance and Defense Resource Center.

On August 3, 2015, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York issued  an opinion interpreting the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) so-called “60-day rule.”  In United States of America ex rel. Kane v. Continuum Health Partners, Inc., Case No. 11-2325.  The court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the government’s False Claims Act (FCA) complaint alleging failure to timely report and refund overpayments pursuant to the 60-day rule, in violation of the FCA’s “reverse false claims” provision.  In doing so, the district court provided the first guidance on what it means for an overpayment to be “identified” by a provider, thereby triggering the ACA’s 60-day repayment period under 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7k(d).  The court held that the 60-day clock for an “identified overpayment” starts running “when a provider is put on notice of a potential overpayment, rather than the moment when an overpayment is conclusively ascertained.”

Continuum Health became closely-watched after the government decided to intervene—a first for reverse false claims cases based solely on the ACA’s 60-day rule—and after the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) decided in February to delay further guidance on the meaning of “identified” under Medicare Parts A and B for at least another year.  In a previous post, we set out the case’s statutory and factual background, the arguments advanced by the defendants in their motion to dismiss and the government’s responses.

On Monday, the court rejected the defendants’ argument that the relator’s e-mail did not “identify” overpayments within the meaning of the ACA (and thus that they did not mature into an “obligation” under the FCA), because the e-mail only described potential, not actual, overpayments.  In holding that notice of potential overpayments is sufficient to trigger the 60-day clock, the court acknowledged the practical difficulties this interpretation presents:

[I]t is certainly the case that the Government’s interpretation of the ACA can potentially impose a demanding standard of compliance in particular cases, especially in light of the penalties and damages available under the FCA. Under the definition of “identified” proposed by the Government, an overpayment would technically qualify as an “obligation” even where a provider receives an email like Kane’s, struggles to conduct an internal audit, and reports its efforts to the Government within the sixty-day window, but has yet to isolate and return all overpayments sixty-one days after being put on notice of potential overpayments. The ACA itself contains no language to temper or qualify this unforgiving rule; it nowhere requires the Government to grant more leeway or more time to a provider who fails timely to return an overpayment but acts with reasonable diligence in an attempt to do so.

Nonetheless, the court held these concerns were mitigated because merely establishing an overpayment does not itself establish an FCA violation—a relator or the government must also prove knowing concealment or knowing and willful avoidance or decreasing of the repayment obligation under the FCA’s reverse false claims provision, 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(1)(G).  “Therefore, prosecutorial discretion would counsel against the institution of enforcement actions aimed at well-intentioned healthcare providers working with reasonable haste to address erroneous overpayments.  Such actions would be inconsistent with the spirit of the law and would be unlikely to succeed.”

In addition, the court interpreted “avoidance” as used in § 3729(a)(1)(G) to include both “the act of evading or escaping” and “behavior where an individual is put on notice of a potential issue, is legally obligated to address it, and does nothing.”  Given that the procedural posture of this case was a motion to dismiss, the court did not make a determination about whether the facts supported a conclusion that the defendants “avoided” the obligation.  The court simply found that the government alleged sufficient facts to adequately plead this claim.

This decision—particularly until CMS issues its final rule, which could help to clarify this issue—shows that how providers address and investigate whether they have received an overpayment is coming under increasing scrutiny by the government under the auspices of the FCA.  Furthermore, given the court’s recognition of the practical difficulties with its approach to the meaning of “identified”—and its reliance on the amorphous concept of “prosecutorial discretion” to alleviate such difficulties (discretion which, in any event, does not apply to relators)—this decision is by no means the last word from the courts on this issue, which will continue to be hotly contested in overpayment cases at the district court and, ultimately, appellate level.

There has been a flurry of judicial and administrative activity regarding the Stark Law in recent weeks, bringing both promises of reprieve for the health care industry in complying with the technicalities of the law, and reminders of the need for executive vigilance when evaluating and approving transactions with referring physicians.

  • On July 15, 2015, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a notice of proposed rulemaking to amend the Stark regulations and to solicit comments from the health care industry on whether the Stark Law is a barrier to health care reform. Among other proposed amendments, CMS proposes: (1) to add two new compensation exceptions, (2) to expand the grace period for the signature requirement of various exceptions in some instances, and (3) to extend the six-month holdover provision of various exceptions. CMS also made several agency policy statements, including clarifying that signed writings do not need to be formal agreements and that the one-year term requirement of certain exceptions is satisfied when an arrangement in fact lasts for at least one year.  For a detailed overview of the proposed rule and its implications, see the Special Report. CMS’s proposals to relax the technical requirements of various Stark Law exceptions, if implemented, would be a welcome reprieve to the health care industry by addressing the potentially draconian consequences of such seemingly innocent situations as a late signature on an agreement with a referring physician.  Comments on the proposed rule are due September 8, 2015.
  • On July 2, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a $237 million False Claims Act judgment based on Stark Law violations related to part-time employment contracts between a hospital system and referring physicians in United States ex rel. Drakeford v. Tuomey, rejecting the defendant’s request for a new trial based on multiple errors by the trial court and its constitutional challenges to the trial court’s award of damages and penalties. We previously posted about this decision. (For more details, see here.) The ruling raises questions related to the advice of counsel defense and scienter, and the meaning and application of the Stark Law’s “volume or value” standard.
  • On June 12, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down CMS’s regulatory prohibition on “per-click” equipment rental arrangements with referring physicians, but upheld CMS’s prohibition on “under arrangements” transactions. We previously posted about this decision. As we noted in that post, while it is not clear how CMS will respond to the ruling, if at all, per-click equipment rental arrangements still face scrutiny by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) under the federal anti-kickback statute.  The OIG has not taken the position that such per-click equipment rentals automatically create liability under the anti-kickback statute, but the risk of such potential liability under the federal anti-kickback statute (as well as state anti-kickback statutes) should be carefully considered.