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.
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.
Last month, Insys Therapeutics, Inc. announced that it reached a settlement-in-principle with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to settle claims that it knowingly offered and paid kickbacks to induce physicians and nurse practitioners to prescribe the drug Subsys and that it knowingly caused Medicare and other federal health care programs to pay for non-covered uses of the drug. The drugmaker agreed to pay at least $150 million and up to $75 million more based on “contingent events.” According to a status report filed by DOJ, the tentative agreement is subject to further approval and resolution of related issues. The settlement does not resolve state civil fraud and consumer protection claims against the company.
The consolidated lawsuits subject to the settlement allege that Insys violated the False Claims Act and Anti-Kickback Statute in connection with its marketing of Subsys, a sub-lingual spray form of the powerful opioid fentanyl. The Food and Drug Administration has approved Subsys for, and only for, the treatment of persistent breakthrough pain in adult cancer patients who are already receiving, and tolerant to, around-the-clock opioid therapy. The government’s complaint alleges that Insys provided kickbacks in the form of arrangements disguised as otherwise permissible activities. Specifically, it alleges that Insys instituted a sham speaker program, paying thousands of dollars in fees to practitioners for speeches “attended only by the prescriber’s own office staff, by close friends who attended multiple presentations, or by people who were not medical professionals and had no legitimate reason for attending.” Many of these speeches were held at restaurants and did not include any substantive presentation. Insys also allegedly provided jobs for prescribers’ friends and relatives, visits to strip clubs, and lavish meals and entertainment. Continue Reading Insys Announces Settlement-in-Principle with DOJ Over Alleged Subsys Kickback Scheme
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.
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.