On November 8, 2017, the US District Court for the Middle District of Florida dismissed a relator’s non-intervened claims in United States ex rel. Stepe v. RS Compounding LLC for failure to satisfy the particularity requirement of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b). Relator originally filed her complaint under seal on December 16, 2013, under the federal False Claims Act (FCA) and Florida’s analogous statute. Over three years after the complaint was filed, the government elected to partially intervene as to fraudulent pricing allegations relating to TRICARE. Relator amended her complaint in July 2017 and added state false claims counts under the laws of 16 additional states. All 17 states declined to intervene in the case in September 2017.

The complaint alleges that Relator, through her work as a sales representative for defendant RS Compounding, became aware of Defendants’ purported schemes to defraud the government on prescription compound and gel products. The relator alleged that prescription pads were prepopulated for physicians, with RS Compounding’s most expensive compounds pre-checked on the pads and six refills listed by default. Relator further alleged that this scheme involved sales representatives “coaching” physicians to number three different products on the pads, with priority given to products containing ketamine because those products had a higher reimbursement rate from the government. Continue Reading Dismissed in Florida: Former Compounding Pharmacy Sales Representative’s FCA Whistleblower Suit

On October 23, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed itself by determining that proximate cause—and not the “but-for” causation test that the court adopted 25 years ago—is the appropriate standard to determine causation in a claim under the False Claims Act (FCA). United States v. Luce, No. 16-4093 (7th Cir. Oct. 23, 2017).

The United States brought suit against defendant Robert S. Luce under the FCA and the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act (FIRREA) in 2011 based upon Fair Housing Act (FHA) certifications included in annual verification reports that Luce and his subordinates signed on behalf of the mortgage company he owned and operated. Although Luce had been indicted in 2005 for an unrelated matter, the mortgage company continued to submit certifications stating that no officers of the company were then subject to criminal proceedings. Only in February 2008, after almost three years had passed since the defendant’s indictment, did the company notify an inspector with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) of the indictment. HUD issued a Referral for Suspension/Disbarment of the company shortly thereafter. Continue Reading Seventh Circuit Reevaluates and Adopts More Stringent FCA Causation Standard

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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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

On January 19, 2017, another district court ruled that a mere difference of opinion between physicians is not enough to establish falsity under the False Claims Act.  In US ex rel. Polukoff v. St. Mark’s et al., No. 16-cv-00304 (Jan. 17, 2017 D. Utah), the district court dismissed relator’s non-intervened qui tam complaint with prejudice based on a combination of Rule 9(b) and 12(b)(6) deficiencies.  In so doing, the Polukoff court joined US v. AseraCare, Inc., 176 F. Supp. 3d 1282, 1283 (N.D. Ala. 2016) and a variety of other courts in rejecting False Claims Act claims premised on lack of medical necessity or other matters of scientific judgment.  This decision came just days before statements by Tom Price, President Trump’s pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), before the Senate Finance Committee in which he suggested that CMS should focus less on reviewing questions medical necessity and more on ferreting out true fraud.  Price’s statements, as well as decisions like Polukoff, are welcome developments for providers, who often confront both audits and FCA actions premised on alleged lack of medical necessity, even in situations where physicians vigorously disagree about the appropriate course of treatment.

In Polukoff, the relator alleged that the defendant physician, Dr. Sorensen, performed and billed the government for unnecessary medical procedures (patent formen ovale (PFO) closures). The relator also alleged that two defendant hospitals had billed the government for associated costs.  Specifically, the relator alleged that PFO closures were reasonable and medically necessary only in highly limited circumstances, such as where there was a history of stroke.  Medicare had not issued a National Coverage Determination (NCD) for PFO closures or otherwise indicated circumstances under which it would pay for such procedures.  However, the relator held up medical guidelines issued by the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association (AHA), which, essentially, stated that PFO closures could be considered for patients with “recurring cryptogenic stroke despite taking optimal medical therapy” or other particularized conditions. Continue Reading The FCA and Medical Necessity: An Increasingly Tenuous Relationship

On January 26, 2017, the US District Court for the Western District of Virginia rejected a defendant’s attempt to invoke collateral estoppel principles to dismiss an indictment for fraud.  In United States v. Whyte, the defendant, Whyte, argued that the indictment should be thrown out because a jury had previously found in his favor after trial of a relator’s civil qui tam claims under the False Claims Act (U.S. ex rel. Skinner v. Armet Armored Vehicles and William Whyte, W.D. Va. June 4, 2015), based on allegations of fraud that overlapped with those in the indictment.  Whyte argued that the jury’s verdict established that no fraud was committed, and that the government, as real party in interest in the qui tam case, had the full opportunity to litigate the issues.  Accordingly, Whyte contended that collateral estoppel mandated dismissal.

The district court disagreed, and its opinion rested on the fact that the government did not intervene in the qui tam action.  The court found that the government’s declination meant that the collateral estoppel doctrine’s requirement that the parties to the prior case and the case at bar be identical was absent.  The court acknowledged that party identicality for estoppel purposes can exist where there where “there is such a degree of affinity of interests of the person who was not a formal party to the prior proceeding, as to render the doctrine of collateral estoppel applicable.”  In re Goldschein, 241 B.R. 370, 374 (D. Md. 1999) (citing Va. Hosp. Assoc. v. Baliles, 830 F.2d 1308, 1312 (4th Cir. 1967)).  But it held that in such cases, the non-party must have had the ability to control the prior proceedings.  While the government is a “real party in interest” in a declined qui tam, the court determined that it lacks the ability to control the litigation.  The court reasoned:

By statute, if the government elects not to intervene, it retains no right to control the litigation in any meaningful way.  It may not issues subpoenas, conduct depositions, propound discovery, call witnesses, or cross-examine the defendant’s witnesses. It is entitled to receive pleadings and deposition transcripts, but no more. In instances in which the government elects not to intervene, it cannot reasonably be argued that the government had a ‘full and fair opportunity to litigate’ the issues.

The court further opined that any contrary holding would render meaningless the government’s statutory election decision.  “If the government were bound by private actors prosecuting FCA cases in its name, there would be no purpose to Congress’s decision to permit the government to elect to intervene, or to decline to intervene.  Under Whyte’s proposed interpretation, the government would be forced to be a party regardless of its intervention decision.”

The court’s characterization of the government’s lack of control over a declined qui tam case fails to address the  statutory tools available to the government. Among other things, the government can seek a stay of discovery if the discovery being conducted by the relator is interfering with a parallel criminal investigation or prosecution; it frequently files statements of interest in declined qui tams espousing its views on the legal issues in play in the case; it can object to a settlement between the relator and the defendant and must consent to any dismissal of the action by the relator; the government can settle a case over the objection of the relator and has a broad right to dismiss any FCA case.  Further, a declination decision is not final–the government can later seek to intervene for “good cause” as the case progresses.  Whether these examples suffice to establish “control” for collateral estoppel principles is a question that the Whyte court would presumably answer in the negative, but the notion that the government lacks any control over an FCA case in which it has declined to intervene ignores the many avenues pursuant to which the government can (and does) exert control.  And the irony here is that while the defendant escaped civil fraud liability notwithstanding the lower preponderance of the evidence standard of proof applicable to such claims, he now must face criminal fraud charges which the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

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.

On December 23, 2016, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit issued an opinion in United States ex rel. D’Agostino v. ev3, Inc. (Case No. 16-1126), affirming the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts’s denial of a relator’s motion for leave to file a fourth amended complaint under the False Claims Act (FCA).

The relator, a former sales representative at ev3, a medical device developer and manufacturer, alleged that his former employer and its subsidiary, Micro Therapeutics, Inc., violated provisions of the FCA by selling two products, the Onyx Liquid Embolic System (Onyx) and the Axium Detachable Coil System (Axium), to hospitals seeking reimbursements by the government through the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

Continue Reading First Circuit Deems Request for Leave to File Fourth Amended Complaint Futile

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.”