Office of Inspector General

Earlier this year, DOJ and OIG independently issued guides focused on evaluating compliance program effectiveness. The guides approach the topic from different perspectives but cover overlapping themes and work well in tandem. We reviewed the guides and compiled the reference tool to aid organization executives and boards of directors to measure compliance program effectiveness and, in turn, wisely invest resources.

Read the full article “Breaking Down the 2017 DOJ and OIG Compliance Guides.”

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.

Released on March 27, 2017, the Compliance Program Resource Guide (Resource Guide), jointly prepared by the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) reflects the result of a “roundtable” meeting on January 17, 2017, of OIG staff and compliance professionals “to discuss ways to measure the effectiveness of compliance programs.” The resulting Resource Guide document catalogues the roundtable’s brainstorming discussions to “…provide a large number of ideas for measuring the various elements of a compliance program…to give health care organizations as many ideas as possible, to be broad enough to help any type of organization, and let the organization choose which ones best suit its needs.”

Here are a few main takeaways from the Resource Guide:

  • Ideas for Auditing: The Resource Guide contributes to the critical conversation about how to evaluate compliance program effectiveness by listing additional ideas on what to audit and how to audit those areas. The items listed in the Resource Guide generally center on ideas on auditing and monitoring compliance program elements, such as periodically reviewing training and policies and procedures to ensure that they are up-to-date, understandable to staff and accurately reflect the business process as performed in practice. Legal and compliance can use this document to identify those particular elements that may be most applicable to their individual organization.

Organizations would also benefit from considering the questions listed in the new compliance program guidance issued in February by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) Criminal Division’s Fraud Section, “Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs” (DOJ Guidance), as part of examining compliance program effectiveness. (We covered the DOJ Guidance previously.) Health care organizations may also use the various provider-specific compliance program guidance documents created by OIG over the years as another source for ideas on what to measure.

  • Not a Mandate: The Resource Guide is very clear that it is not intended to be a “best practice”, a template, or a “‘checklist’ to be applied wholesale to assess a compliance program.” This clarification is an important one since there is the potential for the Resource Guide to be (incorrectly) viewed by qui tam relators or others as creating de facto compliance program requirements or OIG recommendations.
  • How to Measure: The Resource Guide does not delve into how or who should undertake or contribute to the effectiveness review. Who conducts the review is a question that may have legal significance given the nature of a particular issue. General counsel and the chief compliance officer should consider this issue as part of the organization’s ongoing compliance program review. It may be valuable to include the organization’s regular outside white collar counsel to comment on such critical, relevant legal considerations as the proper conduct of an internal investigation; preserving the attorney-client privilege in appropriate situations; coordinating communications between legal, compliance and internal audit personnel; and applying “lessons learned” from the practices of qui tam relators and their counsel. Outside consultants may also have useful expertise and insight to contribute. In some situations, the organization may want to undertake a compliance program assessment conducted under attorney-client privilege as part of advising the executive team and the board audit and compliance committee.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the Resource Guide is the extent to which it serves as a catalyst for closer, coordinated consideration of the metrics by which compliance program effectiveness may be measured by legal and compliance personnel and the audit and compliance committee. The Resource Guide is one of several resources that can be referenced by the general counsel and the chief compliance officer as they work together to support the organization’s audit and compliance committee in reviewing compliance program effectiveness.

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently published a final rule regarding its exclusion authorities. The final rule goes into effect March 21, 2017, and expands OIG’s authority to exclude certain individuals and entities from participating in federal health care programs under section 1128 of the Social Security Act.

Read full article.

The good, reassuring news about that “old dog” fraud and abuse as it enters an age of payment reform is that criminal liability for fraud still requires a specific intent to defraud the federal health care programs, anti-kickback liability still requires actual knowledge of at least the wrongfulness, if not the illegality, of the financial transaction with a referral source, and civil False Claims Act liability for Stark Law violations still requires actual knowledge, a reckless disregard for, or deliberate ignorance of the Stark Law violation. This should mean that good faith and diligent efforts to comply with law, including seeking and following legal counsel, still go a long way in managing an organization’s and individual executive’s risk under the fraud and abuse laws. The bad, unsettling news about fraud and abuse in an age of payment reform, however, is that (1) anxiety about reform and stagnating and declining physician incomes are propelling a spike in transactions between health systems and physicians at a time when qui tam plaintiffs and the law firms that represent them are aggressively challenging the legitimacy and common structures for these transactions; and (2) the Stark Law is largely indifferent to the good faith intentions of health systems to integrate and enter into coordinated care arrangements with physicians, and continues to impose on health systems heavy burdens of proof that the arrangements comply with ambiguous standards like fair market value, volume or value and commercial reasonableness. While financial transactions incident to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) innovative care delivery and payment initiatives, such as accountable care organizations (ACOs), medical homes and bundled payment arrangements can be protected by the fraud and abuse/Stark waivers discussed in Part B below, there are many other common transactions and arrangements with physicians still operating in a fee-for-service environment  (such as practice acquisitions, employment, “gainsharing,” service line co-management, pay-for-quality and non-ACO clinically integrated networks) that are not protected by the waivers. During this period of transition to transformation of the health delivery and payment system, the key areas of risk for health systems are their burdens of proof on the ‘big three” issues of:

  • Fair market value,
  • Volume or value, and
  • Commercial reasonableness.

Each is discussed separately below, and the industry practices for managing these risks. Please note that none of these practices are necessarily “best” or “normative” practices, but are what we have observed.

Read the full article here.

On April 18, 2016, Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson announced the publication of updated guidance on how the Office of Inspector General (OIG) makes decisions about using its permissive exclusion authority and requiring integrity obligations when presented with a False Claims Act (FCA) settlement. This document is noteworthy not only to defendants in FCA cases but also to the health care industry in evaluating their compliance program activities. Continue Reading OIG Issues New Exclusion and CIA Guidance

The past three months have seen a flurry of advisory opinion activity from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG). The majority of this activity focuses on patient assistance programs (PAPs) as donors and organizations continue to have questions about OIG’s most recent PAP guidance. While none of these opinions or modifications are dramatically new on their face, together they provide valuable insight into the types of facts that can mitigate the OIG’s general concerns with tailored disease funds.

Typically, sponsored by pharmaceutical manufacturers and/or independent charity organizations with industry donors, PAPs provide financial assistance or free prescription drugs to low income individuals. Some PAPs are also structured to provide assistance to patients with a specific disease, like cancer or Crohn’s disease. As PAPs have the potential to be used by manufacturers to subsidize the purchase of their own products, or to improperly steer a patient’s drug selection, they can trigger scrutiny under the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) and Beneficiary Inducement Civil Monetary Penalty (CMP), among other laws. Not surprisingly, the OIG is more comfortable with bona fide charitable programs that are not drug-specific and that reflect other characteristics demonstrating a broad patient focus, rather than those reflecting a drug or pharmaceutical manufacturer focus.

Historically, the OIG has treated PAPs as important safety nets for patients who face chronic illnesses and high drug costs. The OIG issued a special advisory bulletin (SAB) in 2005 confirming that PAPs could help ensure patients had access to and could afford their medically necessary drugs. The OIG’s guidance evolved with its May 2014 SAB, which addressed the growing trend of independent charity PAPs establishing or operating specific disease funds that limit assistance to a subset of available products. The OIG articulated a concern with such PAPs, and indicated that it would view such programs as having a higher baseline risk of abuse when their assistance was limited to only a subset of available FDA-approved products for treatment of the disease. The OIG advised PAPs to define disease funds in accordance with widely recognized clinical standards and in a manner that covered a broad spectrum of products and manifestations of the disease (e.g., without reference to specific symptoms, drug stages, treatment types, severity of symptoms or other “narrowing” factors).

Consistent with this guidance, the OIG began issuing new advisory opinions and modifications of previous opinions in January 2015. The OIG’s opinions and modifications posted in the past three months are also consistent with this standard, but importantly add nuanced factors and exceptions that appear to show a more refined stance on specific disease funds. In December, the OIG posted a modification of Advisory Opinion 07-11, concerning a PAP that provided support for patients experiencing a specific symptom of cancer. In January, the OIG posted two new advisory opinions that addressed a PAP tailored to support patients with two specific diseases (a type of cancer and a type of chronic kidney disease) and a PAP providing support to needy patients with Stage 3 or Stage 4 of a specific disease, respectively. Also in January, the OIG posted a modification of Advisory Opinion 04-15, which addressed a PAP that maintained a disease fund limited to patients with certain metastatic cancers. While all of these specific disease funds may appear inconsistent with the OIG’s 2014 SAB, in each instance the OIG found that the tailored funds presented a low risk of abuse and merited a favorable opinion given the safeguards each employed.

In its Modification of Advisory Opinion 04-15, the OIG noted two factors that minimized the risk that the tailored disease fund could be leveraged by donors. First, the specific symptom of cancer was treatable by 62 different drugs made by 26 different manufacturers, so the program would not be supporting only one specific manufacturer or drug by tailoring its assistance to patients with the symptom. Second, and most importantly to the OIG, the PAP would not limit assistance through the fund just to drugs to treat that symptom; instead, the PAP would provide assistance for all medications prescribed for the qualifying patient’s underlying cancer and related symptoms. By certifying that the PAP would extend its support to underlying and related medical needs of patients with this symptom, the disease fund essentially agreed to expand the practical impact of the fund.

This “broadening” of support from otherwise narrowly defined disease funds can also be seen in the OIG’s other recent advisory opinions on the subject. In Opinions 15-16 and 15-17, for example, the OIG noted its favorable opinion was based in part on the PAPs’ representations that there were several different drugs made by various manufacturers currently available to treat each of the specific diseases and that the PAPs would, at a minimum, assist patients with all FDA-approved drugs to treat each disease (and, for the fund supporting patients with Stages 3 or 4 of the disease, would not limit the financial assistance to drugs expressly approved for advanced stages of the disease). In its Modification of Opinion 07-11, the PAP also noted that its support would not be limited to drugs expressly approved for the metastatic stage of the cancer. These opinions also include PAP certifications that if any of the PAP’s future disease funds would result in supporting only one FDA-approved drug treatment or one manufacturer, the PAP will also support the other medical needs of patients with the disease, including co-payment support for all prescription medication prescribed for the management and treatment of the patient’s disease (like pain and anti-nausea medications).

While the OIG continues to reiterate the potential risks posed by disease funds that are tailored to specific symptoms, severity of symptoms, method of drug administration, stages of a disease, or types of drug treatment, its recent opinions and modifications illustrate several exceptions to this general position. This recent flurry of OIG activity may be a good prompt for organizations with PAPs to review any specific disease funds in light of these most recent opinions.

After the federal government’s victory against Tuomey Hospital, we have seen an increasing number of large False Claims Act (FCA) settlements with hospitals involving Stark Law allegations. Despite the intricacies of Stark Law compliance, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has not shown much leniency in its treatment of these cases, as shown by two recent settlements involving Columbus Regional Healthcare System and North Broward Hospital District. This On the Subject explores some “lessons learned” from these settlements as well as DOJ’s emerging interpretation of the Stark Law that may put vertically integrated health systems’ physicians arrangements at risk for scrutiny.

Read the full On the Subject.

On May 6, 2015, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) released a report on overpayments attributed to incorrect physician place-of-service coding. The report determined that Medicare potentially overpaid physicians approximately $33.4 million for incorrectly coded services that were provided from January 2010 through September 2012.

As part of their claims submissions, physicians and other Medicare suppliers are required to report the setting in which they furnish services. This setting designation (either “facility” or “non-facility”) is a decisive reimbursement factor as Medicare only reimburses physicians for overhead expenses if their services are provided in a non-facility setting (e.g., physician offices and independent clinics). The OIG report compared same-day physician and facility claims to determine how often physicians performed services in facility locations but incorrectly coded the services as performed in non-facility locations. Of $33.4 million in estimated overpayments, approximately 75 percent were made for services provided in a hospital outpatient setting but coded as a non-facility claim. The other roughly 25 percent of the overpayments were made for miscoded services provided in ambulatory surgery centers.

The OIG attributed the overpayments to physician-level internal control weaknesses as well as insufficient Medicare contractor post-payment reviews. The OIG recommended that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) direct its Medicare contractors to initiate and monitor recoveries of the overpayments identified by the report (as of December 2014, $1.75 million of the 2010 overpayments had already been recovered). Other recommendations included more comprehensive education efforts and directives for Medicare contractors to perform similar place-of-service audits on high-risk physician services and recover any resulting overpayments.

Given the report’s recommendations, physician practices and employers should ensure they are proactively managing compliance to include periodic internal audits of place-of-service coding. By doing so, providers can better protect themselves from potential overpayment liability and can make more timely decisions about corrective actions and government disclosures.

Read the full report: “Incorrect Place-of-Service Claims Resulted in Potential Medicare Overpayments Costing Millions”

Two Circuit Courts of Appeals recently came out on opposite ends of the False Claim Act’s (FCA’s) public disclosure bar.  On February 19, 2015, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of claims related to allegations of fraudulently inflated pharmaceutical prices, holding that the information underlying the suit had been publicly disclosed in the media and elsewhere and that the relator failed to qualify as an original source.  U.S. ex rel. Morgan v. Express Scripts, Inc., No. 14-1029, 2015 WL 728029 (3rd Cir. Feb. 19, 2015) (unpublished).  On February 25, 2015, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reinstated a claim against a hospital related to allegedly fraudulent Medicaid and Medicare charges, holding that the allegations, though previously known to government auditors, had not been publicly disclosed.  U.S. ex rel. Whipple v. Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hospital Authority, No. 13-6645, 2015 WL 774887 (6th Cir. Feb. 25, 2015).  These different outcomes demonstrate the fact-intensive nature of the inquiry under the public disclosure bar.

In Express Scripts, the pharmacist-relator alleged that certain pharmaceutical industry defendants profited from artificially inflated Average Wholesale Prices (AWPs).  In affirming dismissal, the Third Circuit agreed with the district court’s finding that the allegations underlying the case had been widely disclosed, including by the news media and in previously-filed lawsuits (including one in which the relator served as an expert).  Thus, the relator needed to be an “original source” of the information for his suit to proceed.  The Third Circuit held that the relator could not meet this standard.  The relator, who was never an employee of any of the defendants, purportedly identified the alleged fraud by performing an “eyeball” comparison of two publicly available price lists.  Moreover:

The mere fact that Morgan quantified the AWP differential does not remove his allegations from the public disclosure realm.  Morgan’s 4.16 percent differential simply indicates an AWP based on a 25 percent markup over wholesale acquisition cost, a markup disclosed in a Congressional report predating Morgan’s complaint.  The report’s disclosure of a specific, industry-wide markup shift provided Morgan with all the “essential elements” needed to arrive at a 4.16 percent price differential.

In Whipple, the Sixth Circuit confronted a different and more thorny public disclosure issue.  The court, applying the pre-Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act version of the public disclosure bar, determined that the information underlying the complaint’s allegations had not been publicly disclosed, even though the allegations of improper billing had already been the subject of an audit and investigation conducted by the United States Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG) and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ contractor charged with investigating fraud and waste.  The defendant hospital had also conducted an internal investigation through its own outside counsel and auditors.  The hospital had submitted a voluntary refund check as a result of these audits, and the OIG had administratively closed its investigation before the relator brought suit.

Nonetheless, distinguishing between disclosure to the “government” and disclosure to the “public,” the Sixth Circuit held that the prior investigations and audits did not bar the relator’s suit under the public disclosure bar: “The public-disclosure bar ‘clearly contemplates that the information be in the public domain in some capacity and the Government is not the equivalent of the public domain.’”  The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the disclosure to the OIG’s auditor separately qualified as a public disclosure, noting the auditor was acting as an agent of the government and had an obligation to keep the underlying information confidential.

While the Sixth Circuit states that its opinion in Whipple follows the majority view of whether disclosures to the government qualify as public disclosures, critics argue that a defendant’s disclosure to the government on whose behalf a relator attempts to bring suit should be sufficient to invoke the bar, particularly where the government has already resolved the issue that is the subject of the disclosure.  However, the Whipple court may have come to the opposite conclusion had the post-2010 FCA applied.  Now, relators are barred from bringing an action if substantially the same allegations or transactions were “publicly disclosed in a congressional, GAO, or other Federal report, hearing, audit, or investigation” unless an original source (emphasis added).  Federal audits and investigations are often not publicized to the general public, especially if the audit or investigation is closed.  Of course, regardless of where a court comes out on the applicability of the public disclosure bar in a given case, evidence of disclosures to the government can, and should, still be used to defeat essential elements of a relator’s FCA claim.