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.

This latest installment of the Health Care Enforcement Quarterly Roundup reflects on trends that persisted in 2018 and those emerging trends that will carry us into 2019 and beyond. Leading off with the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) December announcement of its fiscal year 2018 False Claims Act (FCA) recoveries, it remains clear that the health care industry is a primary target of FCA enforcement activity. We also revisit the current state of implementation of DOJ’s Granston Memorandum, substantive revisions to the Yates Memorandum, critical interpretations of the landmark Escobar case (including those expected in the coming year), and continued enforcement activity in the pain management industry.

Click here to read the full issue of the Health Care Enforcement Quarterly Roundup

Click here to download a PDF of the issue. 

In September 2015, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued the Yates memo on individual accountability in the context of corporate investigations. It is no understatement to say that this memo created a near-cottage industry of articles and panels on the memo’s impact on government investigations and officer/director liability.

After the change in administration, a favorite parlor game of the defense bar was wagering on the memo’s survival. And after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein revealed, in September and October 2017, that the Yates memo was under active reconsideration, discussions turned serious about whether the memo would be preserved, diluted or outright reversed and whether the distinctions between criminal and civil False Claims Act matters would receive needed nuance.

Click here to read the full article as published in Law360.

On December 21, just before the government shutdown began, the Civil Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced its fiscal 2018 False Claims Act (FCA) statistics.  According to DOJ, FCA judgments and settlements totaled over $2.8 billion for the year.

While this number is the lowest total since 2009, the reason for this result is related to a drop in non-health care related cases.  In fact, the statistics show that health care remains the top driver of FCA activity, both in the number of cases filed and total dollars recovered; only about $370 million of the $2.8 billion, or about 13 percent, came from non-health care cases. Almost all of the fiscal 2018 number–over $2.5 billion–came from cases involving the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). This appears to be the largest percentage of the total recoveries since DOJ began reporting these statistics in 1987. $1.9 billion of this $2.5 billion came from qui tam cases (also resulting in over $266 million in relator share awards). Indeed, 2018 continued the trend into the ninth consecutive year where health care case recoveries exceeded $2 billion.

The overall number of new FCA matters also fell for the second year in a row; 767 new cases were filed in 2018, with 645 of them filed by relators. Interestingly, the number of new HHS cases also is trending downwards. 2018 saw 506 new HHS cases, 446 of which were filed by relators. In 2017, DOJ reported 550 new HHS cases (495 from relators) and 573 new HHS cases (503 from relators) in 2016, which was the all-time high record of new HHS cases. The 2018 total is consistent with number of new HHS cases filed since 2010.

DOJ’s press release notably emphasized three policy issues outside of dollars that have defined DOJ’s FCA activities in 2018: the continued focus on alleged violations of the Anti-Kickback Statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1320-7b; the movement seek dismissal of unmeritorious cases as discussed in the Granston Memo; and “holding individuals accountable” by seeking monetary resolutions with individuals in addition to corporations. We should expect all three of these trends to continue into 2019.

DOJ’s 2018 False Claims Act statistics can be found here and the press release can be found here.

On November 16, 2018, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in United States ex rel. Hunt v. Cochise Consultancy, Inc., 887 F.3d 1081 (11th Cir. 2018). The question presented to the Court is “whether a relator in a False Claims Act qui tam action may rely on the statute of limitations in 13 U.S.C. § 3731(b)(2) in a suit in which the United States has declined to intervene and, if so, whether the relator constitutes an “official of the United States” for purposes of Section 3731(b)(2).”

Section 3731(b) requires an FCA case be filed either (1) six years after the date on which the violation…is committed, or (2) three years after the date when facts material to the right of action are known or reasonably should have been known by the official of the United States charged with responsibility to act in the circumstances, but in no event more than 10 years after the date on which the violation is committed, whichever is later.

In Cochise Consultancy, Inc., the Eleventh Circuit held that § 3731(b)(2) was available to a relator in a non-intervened case. The court also held that the relevant person whose knowledge triggers the limitations period is an official of the United States.

The Eleventh Circuit’s decision deepens the divide among circuits as to how to apply § 3731(b)(2), creating a three-way circuit split. The decision is a departure from the Fourth Circuit and Tenth Circuit. Both courts determined that § 3731(b)(2) extends the statute of limitations period only if the government is a party. See United States ex rel. Sanders v. N. Am. Bus Indus., Inc., 546 F.3d 288 (4th Cir. 2008); United States ex rel. Sikkenga v. Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Utah, 472 F.3d 702 (10th Cir. 2006).

The decision is also a departure from the Third Circuit and Ninth Circuit. The Third Circuit and Ninth Circuit also held that § 3731(b)(2) is available when the government does not intervene.  However, the three-year period depends on the relator’s knowledge. See United States ex rel. Malloy v. Telephonics Corp., 68 F. App’x 270 (3d Cir. 2003); United States ex rel. Hyatt v. Northrop Corp., 91 F.3d 1211 (9th Cir. 1996).

The Supreme Court’s decision to tackle this issue will provide clarity to businesses subject to the FCA because it will likely provide an answer as to how long a relator has to bring an action when the government has not intervened. It could also do away with any forum shopping that relators currently have the ability to engage in.

The October issue of the journal Science features a series of short articles highlighting a database containing a list of more than 18,000 scientific papers and conference abstracts that have been retracted over the past several decades. An analysis of the database shows that nearly 60 percent of retraction notices mentioned fraud or other kinds of misconduct (the balance of which were retracted because of errors, problems with reproducibility and other issues). The Science article, as well as a link to the searchable database, can be accessed here. Not only does research misconduct have significant potential for reputational harm–potentially career ending for the investigator, with ripple effects for the institution–but as described below, when the associated research is federally funded, such misconduct could have significant legal (and liability) implications.

US health care organizations are used to warnings about the potential for exposure under the federal False Claims Act (FCA) resulting from improper claims submitted to federal payors such as Medicare and Medicaid. Less attention has been paid to the potential for FCA liability resulting from research non-compliance. Recipients of federal grant funding are subject to a variety of complex rules (e.g., the National Institute of Health (NIH)  Grants Policy Statement), as well as the terms and conditions of the Notices of Award.  Just as compliance with Medicare rules can lead to questions about potential FCA exposure for Medicare payments, compliance with federal grant funding rules can lead to the same questions for grant funds.

For example, grant recipients should consider the FCA implications of research misconduct. “Research misconduct” is defined by the Public Health Services’ (PHS’s) final rule, effective  June 2005 (the Rule), as the “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.” 42 C.F.R. § 93.103. The Rule confers upon an organization an affirmative duty to protect PHS funds from misuse by ensuring the integrity of all PHS supported work, and primary responsibility for responding to and reporting allegations of research misconduct. 42 C.F.R. § 93.100(b). The Rule applies to grant funding from a variety of federal agencies, including the Food & Drug Administration, NIH, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, to name a few.

Continue Reading Practice Reminder: Research Misconduct can be a Source of False Claims Act Liability

The False Claims Act (FCA) allows the government to pursue any “alternate remedy available” if the government chooses not to intervene in a qui tam action. See 31 U.S.C. § 3730(c)(5). However, if the government pursues an “alternate remedy,” the FCA gives the qui tam plaintiff the “same rights” in the “alternate” proceeding that the plaintiff would have had if the qui tam action “had continued.” Id. In U.S. v. Couch et al., the question before the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit was whether the FCA allows a qui tam plaintiff to intervene in a criminal forfeiture proceeding when the government chooses to prosecute fraud rather than intervene in the qui tam plaintiff’s action. No. 17-13402 (Oct. 17, 2018). The Eleventh Circuit held that criminal forfeiture law bars qui tam plaintiffs from intervening in related forfeiture proceedings.

Background

The suit stemmed from a qui tam action brought by Lori Carver, a former employee of an Alabama-based pain management company. During her employment, Carver allegedly discovered that the two doctors that ran the clinic, John P. Couch and Xiulu Ruan, submitted false claims to federal health care programs. Carver took her information to the US Attorney’s office, which encouraged her to bring a qui tam action against the doctors and the clinic. Carver brought the qui tam action in 2013 and the case remains pending. Carver is litigating the case herself, because the government chose not to intervene.

With Carver’s information, the government began investigating Dr. Couch and Dr. Ruan. Two years after Carver brought her qui tam action, the government criminally charged both doctors with conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and conspiracy to commit health care fraud. The charges in the indictment partially overlapped with Carver’s qui tam complaint. Thereafter, more defendants and charges were added to the criminal case in subsequent, superseding indictments. A jury ultimately convicted Couch on all charges and Ruan on all but one charge, which resulted in the judge issuing a preliminary forfeiture order.

Carver moved to intervene in the forfeiture proceedings, asserting a right to some of the forfeited assets. Carver primarily argued that the alternate-remedy provision allows her to intervene to claim a share of the assets she would be entitled to if the government had intervened in her qui tam action.

In response, the government argued that Carver did not have standing to intervene under the alternate-remedy provision because her qui tam case is pending—meaning that Carver has not yet established a right to a relator’s share. The government also argued that the FCA does not permit intervention in criminal cases.

The district court denied Carver’s motion to intervene and ruled that the alternate-remedy provision does not permit intervention in criminal cases.

Appeal Before Eleventh Circuit

The Eleventh Circuit took issue with the government’s jurisdictional arguments. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that Carver had standing to assert that the alternative-remedy provision gives her a right to intervene in criminal forfeiture proceedings and claim an interest in the forfeited property.

The Eleventh Circuit rejected the government’s claim that Carver’s potential property interest in the forfeited assets was too “speculative.” While the Eleventh Circuit agreed that no court had yet adjudicated whether Carver was entitled to a relator’s share, it noted that if this were enough to deprive the panel of jurisdiction, “no person claiming a property interest would ever get into federal court.”

Turning to the substantive issues, the Eleventh Circuit noted that whether a criminal fraud prosecution is an “alternate remedy” is an open question. Applying statutory construction to interpret the alternate-remedy provision of the FCA, the Eleventh Circuit held that the three criminal forfeiture statutes at issue each expressly bar third parties from intervening in forfeiture proceedings to claim an interest in property subject to forfeiture: “these criminal forfeiture statutes speak to the precise issue raised in this appeal, and they make plain that [Carver] has no right to intervene.”

The Eleventh Circuit noted that its ruling will not prevent Carver from getting her relator’s share, with the government having provided a related assurance to the court that if Carver is successful in her FCA case, she will be entitled to her share of the judgment, including the restitution already paid, which can be offset against the FCA judgment.

On August 20, 2018, U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio granted summary judgment in favor of The Brink’s Company (Brink’s), concluding that Regional Federal Reserve Banks (RFRB) are not “the Government” for purposes of the federal False Claims Act (FCA).

The relator’s qui tam action was premised on an alleged penny-swapping scheme. Brink’s and other armored carriers regularly enter Coin Terminal Agreements (CTA) with RFRBs to transport and store coins. Pursuant to one such CTA, Brink’s received, weighed, tracked and stored the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s coins and provided similar services to other customers. Although Brink’s maintained electronic records of the coins in its inventory, it did not segregate physical coins by customer.

The relator, a former Brink’s employee, alleged Brink’s violated its contract with the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and defrauded the government by engaging in a penny-swapping scheme with Jackson Metals. In essence, the relator alleged that Brink’s entered into a secret agreement, allowing Jackson Metals to purchase commingled pennies, cull out the pennies minted prior to 1982, and replace them with pennies minted after 1982. Pennies minted prior to 1982 have a higher metallurgical value because of their copper content. The replacement pennies are made from lower-value zinc. The relator argued that this penny-swapping scheme deprived the government of the value of the copper.

In moving for summary judgment, Brink’s argued, in part, that the FCA did not apply because RFRBs are not “the Government” under the FCA. The court agreed. First, Judge Marbley examined the structure of the Federal Reserve. He contrasted the Board of Governors with RFRBs, noting that RFRBs “are ‘private corporations whose stock is owned by the member commercial banks within their district.’” Continue Reading Southern District of Ohio Concludes that Regional Federal Reserve Banks are not “the Government” Under the FCA

On October 1, 2018, the District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed with prejudice a relator’s qui tam suit against Carelink Hospice Services, Inc. (Carelink) for failure to meet the heightened pleading standards mandated by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b). The court’s decision largely rested on the relator’s inability to specifically plead the existence of identifiable false claims—a strong affirmation that, in the Ninth Circuit, courts continue to hold relators to their pleading burdens.

The relator worked for Carelink, a hospice provider, for a three-month period in 2015. As a hospice provider, Carelink needed to provide certifications of terminal illness to justify admissions to the facility and, in turn, receive reimbursements from Medicare for services rendered. The relator, without identifying particular claims for reimbursement or patients, alleged that Carelink violated the FCA by seeking reimbursement for patients who Carelink knew were not terminally ill. The court seized upon the relator’s inability to point to specific claims in rendering its dismissal of the case.

Relying on Rule 9(b)’s particularity requirement, the court dismissed the relator’s complaint due to her failure to identify, with the required specificity, actual false claims. The court noted that the relator “relies on general allegations that Carelink presented false claims” but failed to “identify any reimbursements from Medicare[.]” The court came to this conclusion despite the relator’s citation to four patients about whom she alleged to have raised eligibility concerns. The court reasoned that these allegations, without “describ[ing] the nature of [her] concerns or her basis for believing the four individuals” were not eligible for Medicare reimbursements, were not enough to satisfy Rule 9(b).

The court concluded that the relator “fail[ed] to identify with particularity what ‘claims’ Caremark submitted” that were false because the allegations “do not provide a reasonable basis for [the court] to infer that claims had been submitted on behalf of any particular patient.” The court specifically dispelled the relator’s argument that, based on her extremely limited tenure with Carelink, the Rule 9(b) requirement should be relaxed in her case.

This decision confirms that, in the Ninth Circuit, a relator must allege the existence of specific, particularized, identifiable false claims submitted to the government. This confirmation serves as a strong defense against relators who do not sufficiently allege the “who, what, when, where, and how” of their FCA claims.

In the latest installment of Health Care Enforcement Quarterly Roundup, we examine key enforcement trends in the health care industry that we have observed over the past few months. In this issue, we report on:

  • Practical applications of recent guidance from the US Department of Justice (DOJ)
  • A recent blow to DOJ’s effort to use the federal False Claims Act (FCA) to attack Medicare Advantage reimbursement
  • Continued enforcement efforts at the state and federal level to combat the opioid crisis
  • Potential changes to the Stark Law and Anti-Kickback Statute
  • Continued reporting on how the lower courts have interpreted the landmark Escobar case

Click here to read the full issue of the Health Care Enforcement Quarterly Roundup.

Join us on for a webinar discussion on Tuesday, October 23. will take a deep dive into the trends and issues covered in this installment of the Health Care Enforcement Quarterly Roundup. Click here to register.