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

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 Department of Justice (DOJ) doubled-down on emphasizing corporate compliance programs with new guidance from the Criminal Division Fraud Section with the “Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs” (Criteria).  This document, released February 8 without much fanfare, contains a long list of benchmarks that DOJ says it will use to evaluate the effectiveness of an organization’s compliance program.  The Criteria may publicize the factors Hui Chen, the Criminal Division’s 2015 compliance counsel hire, uses to evaluate compliance programs.  The Criteria also provides practical guidance on how organizations can evaluate their compliance programs.  This document operationalizes DOJ’s Principles of Federal Prosecution of Business Organizations (knows as the “Filip Factors”), which stated that the existence and effectiveness of a corporation’s preexisting compliance program is a factor that the DOJ will review in considering prosecution decisions.

The Guidance contains 11 topics that shift the analysis among examining how the alleged misconduct could have occurred, the organization’s response to the alleged misconduct, and the current state of the compliance program.  One entire category, titled “Analysis and Remediation of Underlying Misconduct,” has an obvious focus.  But, the other categories contain questions that touch on each of the three themes.  For example, the “Policies and Procedures” category asks questions about the process for implementing and designing new policies, whether existing policies addressed the alleged misconduct, what policies or processes could have prevented the alleged misconduct, and whether the policies/processes of the company have improved today.  Other categories examine the company’s historic and current risk assessment process and internal auditing, training and communications, internal reporting and investigations, and employee incentives and discipline.  DOJ also discusses management of third parties acting on behalf of the company and, in the case of a successor owner, the due diligence process and on-boarding of the new company into the broader organization. Continue Reading DOJ Releases Detailed Criteria for Evaluating Compliance Programs

According to a report released last week, the Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control Program (HCFAC) returned over $3.3 billion to the federal government or private individuals as a result of its health care enforcement efforts in fiscal year (FY) 2016, its 20th year in operation. Established by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) under the authority of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), HCFAC was designed to combat fraud and abuse in health care. The total FY 2016 return represents an increase over the $2.4 billion amount reported by the agencies for FY 2015.

The report serves as a useful resource to understand the federal health care fraud enforcement environment. It highlights costs and returns of federal health care fraud enforcement, providing not only amounts recovered from settlements and awards related to civil and criminal investigations but also outlining funds allocated for each departmental function covered by the HCFAC appropriation. Total HCFAC allocations to HHS for 2016 totaled $836 million (approximately $255 million of which was allocated to the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG)) and allocations to DOJ totaled $119 million. The report touts a return on investment of $5 for every dollar expended over the last three years.

The report also includes summaries of high-profile criminal and civil cases involving claims of violations of the False Claims Act (FCA), among other claims. The cases include OIG and HHS enforcement actions as well as some of those pursued by the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, which is an interagency task force composed of OIG and DOJ analysts, investigators, and prosecutors. Successful criminal and civil investigations touch virtually all areas of the health care industry from various health care providers to pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturers and health maintenance organizations, among others.

The report follows an announcement by the DOJ last December declaring FY 2016’s recovery of more than $4.7 billion in settlements and judgments from civil cases involving fraud and false claims in all industry sectors to be its third highest annual recovery, the bulk of which, $2.5 billion, resulted from enforcement in the health care industry.

The law is uncertain. One example of this uncertainty is how the “Yates memo” is to be applied in civil cases — in particular, what constitutes “cooperation” and how cooperation may benefit a company under investigation for False Claims Act violations. On September 29, 2016, DOJ attempted (for a second time) to address the lack of clarity surrounding cooperation in civil matters. While DOJ provided some more detail on what it viewed as “full cooperation,” and indicated that “new guidance” had been issued within DOJ on cooperation in civil enforcement matters, it still failed to give concrete guidance on how such cooperation may benefit a company in a FCA or other civil resolution. In essence, DOJ is saying “Trust Us” to companies considering the potential benefits of cooperation.

Read the full article here.

One of the more concerning trends for the defense bar in False Claims Act cases is an uptick in parallel criminal and civil proceedings. While the pursuit of parallel proceedings is long-standing DOJ policy, the last few years have seen a “doubling down” by the government on the use of these proceedings — for instance, the 2014 Department of Justice policy requiring an automatic criminal division review of each qui tam complaint and the 2015 Yates Memorandum’s requirement for defendants to identify all culpable individuals to obtain “cooperation” credit in reaching a resolution with the government. From the defense side, parallel proceedings raise important and troublesome issues, including protecting the defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights while mounting a robust defense in the civil case. But, as shown in recent decisions from the Eastern District of Kentucky and Southern District of New York, parallel proceedings may also prove challenging to DOJ when a judge is impatient with the progress of case on its docket or when the relator is not on board with how the government would like the case to proceed.

Continue Reading The Perils of Parallel Proceedings: To Stay or Not to Stay

On June 29, 2016, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) issued an anticipated interim final rule that substantially increases penalties under the False Claims Act (FCA).  Under the interim final rule, minimum penalties per claim will dramatically spike from the current $5,500 to $10,781, and the maximum penalties per claim will jump from $11,000 to $21,563.  As we previously reported, the substantial increase in FCA penalties has been expected since the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) issued a similar interim final rule in May 2016.  The massive increase in FCA penalties comes in response to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, which requires agencies to adjust penalties for inflation over the past 30 years.

The increased FCA penalties are set to go into effect on August 1, 2016 and will apply to claims after November 2, 2015.  As we have observed, the increased FCA penalties may raise constitutional concerns regarding defendants’ due process rights and under the Eighth Amendment’s bar on excessive fines.  With FCA cases increasingly involving tens of thousands of claims, the application of these increased penalties could easily result in circumstances where punitive recoveries are dramatically out of proportion with single damages.

There is a 60-day comment period associated with the interim final rule, which is available here.

On June 9, 2016, Acting Associate Attorney General Bill Baer delivered a speech regarding the impact of the Yates Memorandum’s focus on individual accountability and corporate cooperation at the American Bar Association’s 11th National Institute on Civil False Claims Act and Qui Tam Enforcement.  The focus of the speech was on the interplay between the Yates Memorandum and investigations and litigation under the False Claims Act (FCA), underscoring the fact that the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) focus on individuals is not limited to the criminal context. Continue Reading Acting Associate Attorney General Remarks on Yates Memorandum and False Claims Act

On May 27, 2016, the US Department of Justice said it will appeal to the Eleventh Circuit its loss in the False Claims Act (FCA) case against hospice chain AseraCare Inc. The government’s decision to appeal comes as no surprise, and it means that the substantial attention this case has received will continue.

As a reminder, this case, U.S. ex rel. Paradies v. AseraCare, Inc., focused on whether AseraCare fraudulently billed Medicare for hospice services for patients who were not terminally ill. AseraCare argued (and the district court ultimately agreed) that physicians could disagree about a patient’s eligibility for end-of-life care and such differences in clinical judgment are not enough to establish FCA falsity.

The government appealed three orders issued by the US District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. We previously posted about each of these three orders.

The first order on appeal is the district court’s May 20, 2015 decision bifurcating the trial, with the element of falsity to be tried first and the element of scienter (and the other FCA elements) to be tried second. The government had unsuccessfully sought reconsideration of this decision.  This is the first instance in which a court ordered an FCA suit to be tried in two parts.

The second order on appeal is the district court’s October 26, 2015 decision ordering a new trial, explaining that the jury instructions contained the wrong legal standard on falsity. This order came after two months of trial on the element of falsity and after a jury verdict largely in favor of the government.

The third order on appeal is the district court’s March 31, 2016 decision, after sua sponte reopening summary judgment, granting summary judgment in favor of AseraCare. In dismissing the case, the court explained that mere differences in clinical judgment are not enough to establish FCA falsity, and the government had not produced evidence other than conflicting medical expert opinions.

The government must file its opening brief 40 days after the record is filed with the Eleventh Circuit. We will be watching this case throughout the appellate process.

Last week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced charges against a former hospital CFO, two orthopedic surgeons, a chiropractor, and a health care marketer for their alleged roles in a series of fraudulent referral and billing schemes.  According to the DOJ, these referral schemes paid illegal kickbacks to physicians for spinal surgery referrals and caused “nearly $600 million in fraudulent billings over an eight-year period.”  These charges underscore the federal government’s recent emphasis on greater individual accountability for fraudulent healthcare schemes and the potential for those involved to face significant liability.

According to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the schemes generally involved paying tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks for referrals to two California hospitals, Pacific Hospital in Long Beach and Tri-City Regional Medical Center in Hawaiian Gardens, for spinal surgeries.  Those hospitals then billed those surgeries to California’s workers’ compensation system, the U.S. Department of Labor, and workers’ compensation insurers.  The schemes implicated dozens of surgeons, orthopedic specialists, chiropractors, marketers, and other medical professionals.

These charges are the latest development in an ongoing coordinated government investigation dubbed “Operation Spinal Cap.”   The investigation is specifically focused on providers and other individuals who may have been involved in these spinal surgery-related schemes.

In early 2014, the ex-CEO of Pacific Hospital was indicted and pleaded guilty to paying illegal kickbacks and federal conspiracy charges.  He was also the subject of a qui tam suit and a suit by the County of Los Angeles on state false claims grounds.  According to those cases, the CEO used a network of shell corporations, physician-owned distributorships, and sham contracts to facilitate the referral and billing schemes.

Notably, not all improper kickback payments are clear-cut cash transactions.  The schemes described above are alleged to have used multiple vehicles for providing and concealing kickback payments. For example, the U.S. Attorney’s Office statement described several “bogus contracts” deployed as part of the Pacific Hospital referral scheme.  These included agreements where physicians were paid for a “right to purchase” their medical practices, but the option was never exercised; operations-based agreements that compensated physicians at rates above fair market value; agreements for consulting or directorship work that was never performed; and even lease agreements that paid doctors for space that was never or rarely used.  Corporations should be mindful of these improper arrangements when structuring their compliance programs and evaluating their financial relationships with physicians.

Pacific Hospital’s former CFO, whose case was unsealed last Tuesday, was allegedly responsible for, among other things, tracking the referrals from and payments to physicians.  He pleaded guilty to participating in a conspiracy that engaged in paying kickbacks in connection with a federal healthcare program and in mail fraud, among other charges.  The charges brought against the individuals are varied.  For example, one orthopedic surgeon was charged with filing a false tax return; his plea agreement admits he did not report his kickback payments as income on his taxes.  Additionally, a health care marketer who admitted to recruiting doctors to make referrals pled guilty to conspiring to commit mail fraud.

While the crimes charged vary, they are consistent with the federal government’s recent enhanced focus on individual actors and their roles in health care fraud schemes.  The government’s focus on individuals was notably described in Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates’ recent memo, which focused on themes of cooperation and individual accountability for involvement in corporate crimes (see our former pieces on the Yates memo here and here.

A copy of the DOJ’s Press Release on these charges can be found here.