On April 2, 2018, the magistrate judge for the US District Court for the Southern District of Indiana issued an order refusing qui tam relators’ request to conduct discovery related to claims submitted to Medicare on a nationwide basis in an ongoing False Claims Act (FCA) case.  Importantly, the judge considered whether statistical sampling could be used to establish liability under the FCA for multiple entities affiliated with the defendant when the alleged false claims in the relators’ complaint originated from a single location. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) subsequently submitted a statement of interest defending relators’ discovery request and the use of statistical sampling to establish liability for false claims, which the court has not yet addressed.

In the underlying qui tam case, the relators alleged that Evansville Hospital, a long-term acute care hospital in Indiana, and a physician violated the FCA by submitting claims to Medicare for medically unnecessary lengths of stay in order to maximize Medicare reimbursement. Continue Reading Courts Weigh Appropriateness of Statistical Sampling in Ongoing Case

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 court held that “[a]bsent some evidence….that those patients chose Accredo because of its donations to HANJ/HSI,” the relator could not carry his burden.

On appeal, the government argued that the district court erred to the extent it required proof that patients chose Accredo because of the referrals and recommendations. In the government’s view, all the relator needed to establish was the existence of “a claim that sought reimbursement for medical care that was provided in violation” of the AKS.

The Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, but for different reasons than those offered by the parties, the government, and the district court. The Third Circuit rejected the relator’s and government’s position that the alleged kickbacks tainted all claims as false by virtue of the kickback.  However, the Court declined to read the “resulting from” language in the AKS to require, as advocated by Accredo and found by the district court, that the relator needed to prove the patients purchased prescriptions from Accredo because of Accredo’s donations to HSI and HANJ. Instead, the Court held that the relator “must show, at minimum, that at least one of the 24 federally insured patients for whom Accredo provided services and submitted reimbursement claims was exposed to a referral or recommendation of Accredo by HSI/HANJ in violation of the AKS.” As explained by the Court, “[a] kickback does not morph into a false claim unless a particular patient is exposed to an illegal recommendation or referral and a provider submits a claim for reimbursement pertaining to that patient.”

This decision is helpful confirmation that relators and the government cannot simply rely on an alleged kickback to demonstrate that a defendant who submits claims to Medicare, violated the FCA.  Defending this type of allegation should include examination of the evidence relied upon to show the connection between the alleged kickback and the purported false claim.  Whether other courts will follow the Third Circuit’s reasoning or follow the “resulting from” language in the AKS and require a stronger connection between a kickback and claim remains to be seen.  This issue will be a continued subject of litigation in these cases.

The government’s focus on the US opioid crisis has been consistently expanding over the past year beyond manufacturers to reach prescribers and health care providers who submit claims to federal health care programs for opioid prescriptions. These efforts increasingly include investigations under the False Claims Act and administrative actions, in addition to the more traditional criminal approach to these issues.

With the Trump administration’s public health emergency orders, it is expected for the government’s enforcement activities, including those instigated by relators and their counsel, to grow in this area.

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On January 11, 2018, a federal court in Florida overturned a $350 million False Claims Act (FCA) jury verdict against a nursing home operator, finding “an entire absence of evidence of the kind a disinterested observer, fully informed and fairly guided by Escobar, would confidently expect on the question of materiality.”

In United States ex. rel. Ruckh v. CMC II LLC et al., the relator claimed that a skilled nursing facility and its management company failed to maintain “comprehensive care plans” ostensibly required by Medicare regulations as well as a “handful of paperwork defects” (for example, unsigned or undated documents). In addition, the relator alleged a corporate-wide scheme to bill Medicare for services that were not provided or needed. Continue Reading Escobar Upends $350 Million FCA Verdict

While medical practices are generally aware that relators and the government pursue allegations of false or duplicative claims to federal health care programs, a recent settlement reflects a growing trend of False Claims Act (FCA) allegations concerning the failure to report and return identified overpayments. On October 13, 2017, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it had reached a $450,000 settlement with First Coast Cardiovascular Institute, P.A. (FCCI) of Jacksonville, Florida in a qui tam lawsuit alleging that FCCI failed to promptly return identified overpayments from federal health care programs after the overpayments came to the attention of the practice’s leadership. Continue Reading DOJ Settlement with Florida Medical Practice Serves as a Reminder: Delayed Repayment to Federal Programs Can Have Significant Consequences

In US ex rel. Michaels v. Agape Senior Community, the Department of Justice has assented to a $275,000 settlement after having rejected a $2.5 million settlement two years ago (despite declining to intervene in the case). This case garnered substantial attention because the relators sought to employ statistical sampling to establish liability on hundreds of millions of dollars of allegedly false claims to Medicare and Medicaid.

Previously, the Fourth Circuit heard–on interlocutory appeal–argument as to (1) whether statistical sampling could be used to establish liability in a False Claims Act case; and (2) whether the government could veto a False Claims Act settlement in a case in which the government declines to intervene. The Fourth Circuit ruled that the government did possess the authority to veto a settlement in a non-intervened case, and refused to address whether sampling could be used to establish liability. We discussed the Fourth Circuit’s decision here.

Although the Fourth Circuit declined to reach the question of whether False Claims Act plaintiffs can establish liability by using statistical sampling, the presiding district court judge had already concluded that plaintiffs could not do so. Having represented to the court that they could not marshal the resources to establish liability on a claim-by-claim basis, the court granted partial summary judgment on the vast majority of claims at issue. The relators subsequently settled for the value of the claims originally at issue: approximately one percent of the claims at issue in this case and 11 percent of what the relators and defendants previously agreed to.

The Fourth Circuit was to be the first appellate court to address the sampling issue, and this case demonstrates the importance of this issue. Where plaintiffs in this arena may lack sufficient resources to prove their cases on a claim-by-claim basis, the use of statistical sampling makes it far more cost-effective to prosecute their cases. If appellate courts rule on this issue in the future, and in favor of defendants, such rulings will deprive plaintiffs of this potential shortcut. This would appropriately limit plaintiffs’ recovery to claims plaintiffs actually prove are false by a preponderance of the evidence.

Following on the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) June announcement that it would begin updating its public-facing Work Plan on a monthly basis, OIG released its first update to add 14 new topics to the Work Plan on July 17. As the health care industry knows, OIG Work Plan sets forth various projects that the OIG’s Office of Audit Services (OAS) and Office of Evaluation and Inspections (OEI) are currently undertaking or planning to undertake in the future. Previously, OIG updated its Work Plan to reflect adjustments once or twice each year. In a stated effort to increase transparency in its audit and inspection work, OIG changed its practices to begin issuing monthly updates.

The 14 topics all describe new OAS audit work, much of which is focused on Medicare and Medicaid issues. Several areas appear to lend themselves to data-mining, such cross-checking claims between Medicare Parts A and B or providers of concurrent services. For example, the OIG aims to:

  1. Evaluate whether certain Medicare Part B payments for ambulance services are subject to Medicare Part A skilled nursing facility (SNF) consolidated billing requirements (i.e. the SNF received payment for the ambulance transport as part of the Part A payment, and thus was responsible for paying the ambulance provider);
  2. Compare Medicare Part B and Part A claims to check for overlapping claims between home health agencies and/or hospices and outside providers;
  3. Investigate the validity of Medicare payments for telehealth services provided at distant sites that do not have corresponding originating site claims; and
  4. Examine Medicare payments to hospital outpatient providers for non-physician outpatient services provided under the inpatient prospective payment system.

OIG also proposed two more wide-ranging programmatic reviews. First, OIG plans to conduct a study to identify “common characteristics” of “at risk” home health agency providers in an effort to target pre-and post-payment claim reviews. This OAS study appears to be a follow-up to an OEI study issued in June 2016 of “selected characteristics commonly found in OIG-investigated cases of home health fraud.” Second, OIG plans to review hospital electronic medical record incentive payments for compliance with Medicare’s meaningful use requirements. OIG’s continued examination of EMR incentive payments follows on OAS’ June 2017 report estimating that between May 2011 and June 2014, over $729 million was paid to hospitals and physicians who did not comply with the incentive program requirements.

For a full list of the 14 additional inquiries, visit the OIG’s Work Plan website.

On April 28, 2017, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts dismissed a relator’s qui tam complaint in United States ex rel. Leysock v. Forest Laboratories, Inc. after concluding that the complaint relied on information obtained resulting from deceptive conduct by the relator’s counsel.

In Leysock, the relator alleged that the defendant caused the submission of false claims to Medicare by promoting Forest’s dementia drug, Namenda, for off-label label use. After the United States declined to intervene, Forest filed a motion to dismiss, which the Court denied, largely based upon detailed allegations about eight prescribing physicians who prescribed Namenda for off-label use by Medicare beneficiaries. These allegations, the Court reasoned, were sufficient to satisfy Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b), which in False Claims Act cases typically requires plaintiffs to plead specific allegations regarding the alleged fraud, tying alleged misconduct to the submission of false claims to a government payor.

Through discovery, Forest subsequently learned that relators’ counsel had obtained the information underlying these detailed allegations from a survey conducted by an individual whom relators’ counsel had contracted. This contractor misled the physicians about why he was conducting the survey (not disclosing that he had been retained by the relators in a False Claims Act action) and coaxed the physicians into turning over detailed patient information to the contractor.

In response, the Court concluded that this deception violated Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 4.1(a), which prohibits a lawyer or his agent from knowingly making a false statement of material fact or law to a third person. Consequently, the court concluded, this conduct violated Local Rule 83.6.1 of the United States District Court. As a remedy, the Court struck these allegations, noting that “[the contractor’s] study was conducted solely for the purpose of ensuring that the complaint survived a motion to dismiss,” i.e., to ensure that the complaint satisfied Rule 9(b)’s particularity requirement.

Although the relators’ conduct in this case is unlikely to be repeated in future cases, this case underscores the challenges relators can face in meeting Rule 9(b)’s particularity requirement. These challenges are particularly acute in non-intervened qui tam cases, where the government fails to provide the relator with information about specific false claims that the defendant allegedly submitted or caused to be submitted. Imposing these challenges will continue to chill would-be relators, without firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing, from bringing meritless qui tam cases.

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