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Remuneration? Not If It’s Fair Market Value, Says Eleventh Circuit

Bingham v. HCA, Inc., a recent Eleventh Circuit case, highlights the centrality of fair market value to Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) analyses. This decision is significant for several reasons and we expect to see Bingham cited by many defendants in future False Claims Act cases. The case is also a reminder that the current regulatory and enforcement environment can result in litigation over arrangements with fair market value payments that involve little, or no, compliance concerns.

One of the most fundamental elements of managing risk under the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) is ensuring remuneration is consistent with fair market value. A recent Eleventh Circuit case highlights the centrality of fair market value to AKS analyses. See Bingham v. HCA, Inc., Case No. 1:13-cv-23671 (11th Cir. 2019). In Bingham, the court held that proving fair market value is an essential element for a relator to survive summary judgment and that relators must plead a lack of fair market value consistent with the Rule 9(b) particularity requirement to allege improper remuneration exists in the first place. The court’s holding is significant for two reasons: (1) it underscores that the plaintiff bears a burden in pleading and proving lack of fair market value, and (2) it suggests that fair market value compensation may be an absolute defense to an AKS allegation. We expect to see Bingham cited by many defendants in future False Claims Act cases, and we will be watching to see how the Eleventh Circuit and other courts continue to evaluate these concepts.

Case Background and Procedural History

We note that it took five years of costly litigation for HCA to reach this decision. Relator, who has filed a number of cases against hospital systems over the years concerning real estate deals, filed his first amended complaint on August 15, 2014. Relator alleged that HCA, through its Centerpoint Medical Center and Aventura Hospital facilities, violated the FCA due to improper space rental arrangements with physicians. Relator alleged that HCA allegedly paid a medical office building developer improper subsidies and that the developer passed the value of these subsidies onto physician tenants who signed 10-year leases through low initial lease rates, restricted use waivers, operating cash-flow shares and free office improvements. Relator also alleged HCA provided direct remuneration to physician tenants at the Aventura facility, including free parking, subsidized common area maintenance, free use permissions and below market rent.

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First of Its Kind: Drug Wholesaler Accepts DPA and Two Executives Face Criminal Charges in SDNY For Illegal Distribution of Opioids

On April 23, 2019, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it has entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with Rochester Drug Co-Operative, Inc. (RDC), one of the 10 largest wholesale distributors of pharmaceutical products in the US, and filed felony criminal charges against two of RDC’s former senior executives for unlawful distribution of controlled substances (oxycodone and fentanyl) and conspiring to defraud the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). During the relevant time period (2012-2016), RDC’s sales of oxycodone increased by approximately 800 percent (from 4.7 million to 42.2 million tablets) and fentanyl increased by approximately 2,000 percent (from 63,000 to over 1.3 million dosages). The two charged executives are RDC’s former chief executive officer, Laurence F. Doud III, and the company’s former chief compliance officer, William Pietruszewski.

Geoffrey S. Berman, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, noted in a press release that the prosecution is “the first of its kind,” with RDC and its former chief executive officer and former chief compliance officer charged with “drug trafficking, trafficking the same drugs that are fueling the opioid epidemic that is ravaging this country.” Keeping the focus on the C-suite, Mr. Berman emphasized that his office “will do everything in its power to combat this epidemic, from street-level dealers to the executives who illegally distribute drugs from their boardrooms.”

Ray Donovan, the DEA Special Agent in Charge of the investigation, underscored this sentiment:

Today’s charges should send shock waves throughout the pharmaceutical industry reminding them of their role as gatekeepers of prescription medication.  The distribution of life-saving medication is paramount to public health; similarly, so is identifying rogue members of the pharmaceutical and medical fields whose diversion contributes to the record-breaking drug overdoses in America . . . . This historic investigation unveiled a criminal element of denial in RDC’s compliance practices, and holds them accountable for their egregious non-compliance according to the law.”

A consistent theme across the three cases is the alleged deficiency in RDC’s compliance program—as well as the role that the former CEO and compliance chief allegedly played in directing RDC to ignore its obligations to maintain “effective control[s] against diversion of particular controlled substances into other than legitimate medical, scientific, and industrial channels” under 21 USC § 823(b)(1) and reporting suspicious orders under 21 CFR § 1301.74(b). The criminal pleadings include allegations that:

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The Third Circuit Rejects the Anti-Kickback Statute “Tainted Claims” Theory

A key area of dispute in False Claims Act (FCA) cases based on Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) violations is what degree of connection plaintiffs must allege between alleged kickbacks and “false claims.” The AKS states that “a claim that includes items or services resulting from a violation of this section constitutes a false or fraudulent claim for purposes of [the FCA].”

The government and relators typically argue that the mere fact that claims were submitted during the period of alleged kickbacks is sufficient. Defendants argue that the law requires plaintiffs to specifically identify claims “resulting from” an alleged kickback – i.e., that there is proof that the alleged kickback caused the referral or recommendation of the item or service contained in the claim. The Third Circuit’s recent decision in United States ex rel. Greenfield v. Medco Health Systems, Inc. articulated a middle of the road approach.  In affirming summary judgment for the defendants, the Court held that to prevail, plaintiffs must establish that a claim submitted to a federal health care program was “exposed to a referral or recommendation” in violation of the AKS.

The relator, a former area vice president for Accredo, a specialty pharmacy that sells blood clotting drugs and provides nursing assistants to hemophiliacs in their homes, filed a qui tam suit alleging that Accredo violated the AKS and FCA in connection with donations to two charitable organizations that assist the hemophiliac community: Hemophilia Services, Inc. (HSI) and Hemophilia Association of New Jersey (HANJ).  During the time Accredo made monetary donations to HSI and HANJ, the HANJ website allegedly listed Accredo as one of four “approved providers” or “approved vendors” and directed users to “remember to work with our HSI [approved] providers.” In 2010, Accredo notified both charities that it was decreasing its donation the following year. In response, HSI allegedly engaged in activities to persuade Accredo to restore its donation level to previous years, including encouraging its members to contact Accredo to protest the funding cut. The relator was involved in purportedly analyzing the return on investment for returning to previous donation levels. After the relator’s report allegedly projected a significant decline in business in New Jersey if donation levels were not restored, Accredo restored the donation level and relator filed his suit.

The government declined to intervene in this case, but the relator continued the litigation. He argued the expansive view: that the donations amounted to kickbacks, and since Accredo certified compliance with the AKS when submitting Medicare claims, the FCA was violated and, therefore, every claim submitted by Accredo was false. The district court granted summary judgment to Accredo.  The district court declined to decide whether the relator had established an AKS violation, but instead held that the relator did not show sufficient evidence of causation of an FCA violation. The district court held that the relator’s evidence that Accredo submitted claims for 24 federal beneficiaries during the relevant time period, by itself, “did not provide the link between defendants’ 24 federally insured customers and the donations.” The [...]

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Another Court Grants Summary Judgment to FCA Defendant Based on Escobar’s Materiality Standard

On April 6, 2018, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted a motion for summary judgment filed by a waste company in an implied certification case under the False Claims Act (FCA), holding that the relator failed to satisfy the Supreme Court’s materiality standard announced in the landmark Escobar case.

The claims in U.S. ex rel. Cressman v. Solid Waste Services, Inc. arose from waste company employees discharging leachate, a liquid that passes through or is generated by trash, onto a grassy area at a transfer station, rather than sending the leachate to a treatment plant.  The relator reported the leachate discharge to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which conducted an investigation.  The waste company cooperated in the investigation, conducted its own investigation, and took corrective steps in response to the allegations.  The company also entered into a consent decree in connection with which it paid a civil penalty.

The relator then filed his qui tam action under the FCA, in which the government declined to intervene.  The relator asserted that the defendant waste company was liable under the FCA because it submitted claims for payment to federal agencies without disclosing its violation of environmental regulations arising from the leachate discharge incident. (more…)




Ninth Circuit Case Provides New Insight into Government Action Bar

When is a new qui tam lawsuit derivative of a lawsuit in which the government has already intervened? The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit answered that question on December 1, 2017, when it decided United States ex rel. Bennett v. Biotronik, Inc. In doing so, the Ninth Circuit addressed the “government action bar” contained in 31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)(3), which states that a relator may not bring a qui tam suit “based upon allegations or transactions which are the subject of a civil suit . . . in which the Government is already a party.”  31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)(3).

The Ninth Circuit in Bennett was faced with False Claims Act (FCA) claims predicated on facts that had already been the basis of a prior qui tam action against the defendant, Biotronik. The government had since settled and dismissed several (but not all) claims in the prior action. The district court dismissed the relator’s complaint based upon the government action bar. In affirming the district court’s dismissal, the Ninth Circuit reached two relevant conclusions. (more…)




Recent Developments on the Fair Market Value Front – Part 1

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. (more…)




Relying on Escobar, Ninth Circuit Tosses Implied Certification Case

On January 12, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a government contractor, where a relator had asserted that the contractor had violated material contractual requirements.

In United States ex rel. Kelly v. SERCO, Inc., defendant SERCO provided project management, engineering design and installation support services for a range of government projects to the US Department of Defense, Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR). The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) requires that government contracts of this nature contain a clause requiring the contractor to implement a cost and progress tracking tool called an “earned value management system” (EVMS), which is “a project management tool that effectively integrates the project scope of work with cost, schedule and performance elements for optimum project planning and control,” 48 C.F.R. § 2.101, and that this EVMS comply with ANSI-748, a national standard for EVMS. SECRO’s monthly cost reports allegedly did not comply with this standard. After the government declined to intervene, the relator pursued a claim against SERCO arguing that its failure to comply with ANSI-748 amounted to a fraud against the government. (more…)




First 60 Day Rule Overpayment Case Ends with Almost $3 Million Settlement

As part of a settlement agreement reached on August 23, three hospitals and their former parent system agreed to pay $2.95 million to resolve state and federal False Claims Act (FCA) allegations that they failed to investigate and repay overpayments from the New York Medicaid program in a timely manner under the so-called “60 Day Rule.” The allegations were originally made by a former employee via a 2011 qui tam suit, United States of America ex rel. Kane v. Continuum Health Partners, Inc.

Under the 60 Day Rule, enacted as part of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, providers are required to report and return overpayments within 60 days of identification. When “identification” happens has been the subject of much debate, and was one of the main issues in the decision issued by the US District Court in the Southern District of New York last year, which denied Continuum’s motion to dismiss the government’s complaint. Despite repaying all of the improper claims, the government alleged in Kane that Continuum and the hospitals “fraudulently delay[ed] repayments” for up to two years after it had identified them. As has become the custom in the Southern District of New York, the settlement agreement contains certain admissions by Continuum concerning the covered conduct, including that beginning in 2009, a software compatibility issue caused them to mistakenly submit improper claims to the New York Medicaid program, the billing errors were brought to their attention over the course of late 2010 and early 2011, and that Continuum began to reimburse Medicaid for the 444 improper claims in February 2011 and concluded repayment in March 2013.

While Kane was the first court to directly grapple with the issue of when a provider had “identified” an overpayment, the Kane court’s interpretation of “identify” has been essentially supplanted by the final rule released by Medicare in February 2016. The final rule makes clear that a provider can conduct “reasonable diligence” into whether it has received an overpayment and can quantify the amount of such overpayment without triggering the 60-day clock. Even with the final rule, there continue to be significant questions about what constitutes “reasonable diligence” and how the rule intersects with the FCA’s reverse false claims cause of action, which only is triggered by knowingly concealing or knowingly and improperly avoiding or decreasing an overpayment retained in violation of the rule.

The Kane case and settlement confirm the interest of the government and relators in examining overpayment and 60 Day Rule issues under the FCA. The potential ramifications can be significant — the settlement amount is more than triple the $844,000 in overpayments Continuum originally received from (and repaid to) Medicaid. It may be advisable for providers to review their policies and procedures for addressing and resolving potential overpayment issues and maintaining documentation of those efforts to defend their actions if questioned by the government.




Second Circuit Deals Blow to Off-Label Marketing Claims

On May 17, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a relator’s False Claims Act (FCA) claims predicated on allegations that Pfizer “improperly marketed Lipitor, a popular statin, as appropriate for patients whose risk factors and cholesterol levels fall outside the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Guidelines.”  In United States ex rel. Polansky v. Pfizer, Inc. the relator, Polansky, claimed that the Guidelines were incorporated into the drug’s FDA label and were thus mandatory.  He further alleged that Pfizer induced doctors to prescribe the drug outside the Guidelines, and induced pharmacists to fill such “off-label” prescriptions that were, in turn, reimbursed by government payors.  Polansky claimed that requests for reimbursement for these prescriptions impliedly, but falsely, certified that the prescriptions were for on-label uses.

The Second Circuit rejected the relator’s theory at its most basic level, finding that the Lipitor label did not mandate compliance with the NCEP Guidelines, which were clearly advisory in nature.  The fact that the Guidelines were mentioned in the label did not render them mandatory.  Quoting the district court, the Second Circuit wrote, “we cannot accept plaintiff’s theory that what scientists at the National Cholesterol Education Program clearly intended to be advisory guidance is transformed into a legal restriction simply because the FDA has determined to pass along that advice through the label.”  In short, the Second Circuit held that prescribing outside of the Guidelines was not an off-label use.

Because the fundamental premise of the relator’s claims disintegrated, the court did not need to wade into other challenges Pfizer had raised to the relator’s claims.  However, the court noted that it was “skeptical” of relator’s theory of liability as a broader legal matter, observing that “it is unclear just whom Pfizer could have caused to submit a ‘false or fraudulent’ claim: The physician is permitted to issue off-label prescriptions; the patient follows the physician’s advice, and likely does not know whether the use is off-label; and the script does not inform the pharmacy at which the prescription will be filled whether the use is on-label or off.  We do not decide the case on this ground, but we are dubious of Polanky’s assumption that any one of these participants in the relevant transactions would have knowingly, impliedly certificated that any prescription for Lipitor was an on-label use.”

The Polansky case is not the first time the Second Circuit has rejected an off-label marketing theory as a basis for liability.  In December 2012, in the case of United States v. Coronia, the court overturned, on First Amendment grounds, the criminal conviction (under the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act) of a pharmaceutical sales representative for promoting off-label use of a drug.

The Polansky court concluded its May 17 opinion by signaling that future FCA claims predicated on purported off-label marketing theories would receive serious scrutiny:

“The False Claims Act, even in its broadest application, was never intended to be used as a back-door regulatory regime to restrict practices that [...]

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RehabCare Settles False Claims Act Allegations for $125 Million

RehabCare, the nation’s largest provider of nursing home rehabilitation services, agreed to pay $125 million on January 12 to settle claims under the False Claims Act (FCA) in connection with allegations that it caused its skilled nursing facility customers to submit false claims to Medicare for therapy services. In connection with the settlement, RehabCare entered into a corporate integrity agreement (CIA) with the Office of Inspector General (OIG). The provider’s companies, RehabCare Group, Inc. and RehabCare Group East, Inc. (RehabCare), have been subsidiaries of Kindred Healthcare, Inc. (Kindred) since their merger in 2011 with a Kindred subsidiary. In a press release, Kindred stated that it agreed to the settlement without any admission of wrongdoing in order to provide clarity for contract customers, shareholders and government oversight entities.

The government’s unsealed Complaint in Intervention alleged that RehabCare manipulated the amount and type of patient therapy to achieve a higher Medicare reimbursement level than was warranted for the patient. Skilled nursing facilities are reimbursed by Medicare by resource utility groups (RUGs), which reflect the anticipated costs associated with providing nursing and rehabilitation services to beneficiaries with similar characteristics or resource needs. A patient’s RUG is assigned based upon the time and type of therapy provided to the patient during a seven-day reference period, and the amount of reimbursement is tied to the RUG level that is determined during that reference period.

The CIA, which applies to both RehabCare and Kindred, has a five-year term and, among other requirements, provides for the development of staff training regarding the accurate use of RUGs, documentation of therapy services, coordination of care and other requirements for the provision of therapy. In addition, Kindred must engage an independent review organization to conduct annual medical necessity and appropriateness reviews related to contracted rehabilitation services. The CIA also requires the submission of annual reports that include certifications as to compliance with applicable federal health care program requirements and with the CIA from several executives of RehabCare and with executives of Kindred who have direct oversight responsibilities for RehabCare, including the compliance officer, CEO and CFO of Kindred.

The case was originally brought via a qui tam lawsuit filed by two former employees of RehabCare.  These individuals will receive approximately $24 million as their share of the recovery.

A copy of the DOJ press release is available here.




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