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Old Dog, New Tricks: Fraud and Abuse in the Age of Payment Reform

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.




OIG Continues to Refine Guidance on Patient Assistance Programs

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 [...]

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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.




OIG’s 2016 Work Plan: Mixed Results for 2015 and New Data-Mining and Policy Efforts in 2016

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) annual release of a new Work Plan both summarizes the results achieved last year and highlights new areas for examination in the next. This year’s Work Plan reported rising audit results but declining investigative results, in contrast to previous years.

In examining the new topics added to the Work Plan, two themes emerge.  First, many of the new payment audits reflect OIG’s use of data mining to identify providers or suppliers who could potentially be considered “outliers” from the average use of a particular code or procedure. Data mining will also play a significant role in connection with the second theme—a notable increase in OIG’s review of significant, and some controversial, policy issues concerning changes in the country’s health care delivery system, operation of HHS programs and the effectiveness of HHS agency oversight of those changes and programs.

Based on how OIG identified new study topics, the main takeaway from the Work Plan is “know your data.” Whether the issue is Medicare claims or data reporting obligations, the OIG increasingly turns to data analytics to both generate audit or investigative leads or to study HHS program effectiveness.

To access a full analysis of the Work Plan, click here.




OIG Issues Alert About Information Blocking, Warning Providers Who Share Software

Amid bipartisan concerns in Congress and multiple U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) agencies about health “information blocking,” the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently issued an alert reminding the health care industry that health information blocking can impact whether an arrangement satisfies the electronic health record (EHR) items and services safe harbor (42 C.F.R. § 1001.952) (EHR Safe Harbor) under the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) (42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(b)).

The EHR Safe Harbor permits certain health care providers and other donors to pay up to 85 percent of the cost of EHR technology provided to a physician practice or other referral source if the arrangement meets all EHR Safe Harbor elements.  The third element of the EHR Safe Harbor requires that “The donor (or any person on the donor’s behalf) does not take any action to limit or restrict the use, compatibility, or interoperability of the items or services with other electronic prescribing or electronic health records systems (including, but not limited to, health information technology applications, products, or services).”

In the alert, the OIG cautions that information blocking may cause an arrangement that would otherwise satisfy the EHR Safe Harbor to fail to meet the third element. In an April 2015 report cited by the OIG in the alert, the Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology defines information blocking: “Information blocking occurs when persons or entities knowingly and unreasonably interfere with the exchange or use of electronic health information.”

Previously, the OIG expressed concern about this issue in the preamble to its final rule amending the EHR Safe Harbor in 2013, stating, “[D]onors must offer interoperable products and must not impede the interoperability of any electronic health record software they decide to offer . . . Agreements between a donor and a vendor that preclude or limit the ability of competitors to interface with the donated software would cause the donation to fail to meet the condition at 42 CFR 1001.952(y)(3), and thus preclude protection under the electronic health records safe harbor.” (78 Fed. Reg. 79202, 79209 [December 27, 2013]).

The alert cites several examples of information blocking that would threaten protection under the EHR Safe Harbor.  For example, if a provider limits the use or interoperability of software by agreeing with the potential referral source to prevent a competitor from interfacing with the software, the safe harbor requirements would not be satisfied.  Likewise, if the software vendor agrees with a provider to charge high interface fees to outside providers or suppliers or to competitors, the safe harbor requirements may not be satisfied.

In order to avoid running afoul of the AKS (and resulting False Claims Act [FCA] claims), health care providers considering the roll-out of below-cost EHR technology to physician practices or other referral sources should take care to avoid health information access restrictions that unreasonably interfere with access to information for continuity of care or other appropriate purposes and, thereby, threaten EHR Safe Harbor protection.




DOJ Pursues Both Sides of an Alleged Kickback Arrangement Under the FCA

As many health lawyers know, the government usually only pursues the person or entity that offers or pays allegedly improper remuneration, even though the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) also applies to those to solicit or receive it.  This uneven enforcement pattern occurs for a variety of reasons — the alleged payor is the focus of the relator’s complaint and resulting investigation, the amount of time that this investigation and resolution takes can create practical and legal problems in pursuing additional defendants, and the increasing number of qui tam cases stretches the government’s limited resources.

However, on October 7, 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a settlement with an alleged kickback recipient over three years after it settled with the alleged payor.  PharMerica Corporation, identified by the DOJ as the nation’s second-largest provider of pharmaceutical services to long-term care facilities, agreed to pay $9.25 million to settle allegations that, from 2001 to 2008, the company knowingly solicited and received kickbacks from Abbott Laboratories in the form of rebates, educational grants and other financial support in exchange for recommending that physicians prescribe Abbott’s anti-epileptic drug Depakote to nursing home patients where PharMerica provided pharmacy services.

PharMerica noted in a press release that it denied the government’s allegations and fully cooperated with the DOJ throughout the investigation.  Of note, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) did not require an amendment to PharMerica’s current corporate integrity agreement to add provisions concerning AKS compliance as part of this resolution.

This settlement comes over three years after Abbott entered into an FCA settlement agreement with the DOJ and several individual states in May 2012, which, along with addressing separate allegations related to the promotion of Depakote, settled allegations related to its arrangement with PharMerica. Abbott also did not admit to any wrongdoing in its settlement.  Both the PharMerica and Abbott settlements are the product of lawsuits filed in federal court in the Western District of Virginia under the whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act.

The pursuit of the settlement with PharMerica may indicate a growing interest by DOJ in pursuing AKS allegations against both the alleged offeror and the alleged recipient of prohibited remuneration under the FCA.




DOJ’s “Yates Memorandum” Calls for Increased Focus on Individuals in Investigating Allegations of Both Criminal and Civil Corporate Wrongdoing

On September 9, 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released a memorandum to prosecutors nationwide regarding “Individual Accountability for Corporate Wrongdoing,” authored by Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates.  Dubbed the “Yates Memorandum,” this missive consolidates both long-standing DOJ policy and newly minted guidance for prosecutors and civil enforcement attorneys that could significantly alter the course of both criminal and civil investigations under the False Claims Act (FCA) particularly for health care entities.  The day after releasing the memo, Yates spoke at NYU School of Law, where she noted that DOJ’s mission is “not to recover the largest amount of money from the greatest number of corporations,” but rather, “to seek accountability from those who break our laws and victimize our citizens.”

At its core, the Yates Memorandum calls for a substantially increased focus on individual accountability for corporate wrongdoing and amendment of prior Department policies that have become standard operating procedures in both criminal and civil investigations.  While this is nothing new for FCA defendants, the renewed focus on individuals – and the corresponding guidance in the Yates Memorandum – will have an immediate and lasting impact on internal investigations, pre-intervention negotiations, litigation and any extra-judicial resolution of the case.

Leaving aside the policy statements that deal solely with internal DOJ operations, the Yates Memorandum outlines three key areas of focus that will be relevant for FCA defendants facing exposure from an investigation or qui tam litigation:

Increased Focus on Individuals

As part of this increased focus, corporations will be incentivized to tailor internal investigations to include a hard look at individuals.  First, the DOJ will limit or decline to provide “cooperation credit” unless the corporation “completely disclose[s] to the Department all relevant facts about individual misconduct.”  While the application of cooperation credit in criminal cases is more commonplace, the Yates Memorandum makes clear that this principle will apply equally in the civil context.  Citing the FCA, the Department’s position on “full cooperation” under 31 U.S.C. 3729(a)(2) will be “at minimum, all relevant facts about responsible individuals must be provided.”  The Yates Memorandum also directs prosecutors and civil attorneys to proactively investigate individuals “at every step of the process – before, during, and after any corporate cooperation.”  By focusing on individuals from the inception of the investigation, the DOJ hopes to “increase the likelihood that individuals with knowledge of the corporate misconduct will cooperate with the investigation and provide information against individuals higher up the corporate hierarchy.”

The implications of these directives will impact all stages of the corporate response to an FCA investigation.  While the DOJ recognizes that investigations must be “tailored to the scope of the wrongdoing,” corporations should anticipate a need to expand internal investigations to gather facts and potentially assess the roles played by individuals in the overarching corporate wrongdoing at issue.  As the corporation seeks to resolve the corporate liability, the Yates Memorandum suggests that defense attorneys will be under increased pressure to focus attention [...]

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Recent Advisory Opinion Shows OIG’s Growing Acceptance of Financial Integration Among Related Entities

On July 20, the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services (OIG) posted a new Advisory Opinion (the Opinion) addressing a health system’s restructured arrangement to lease employees, and provide other operational and management services, to a related psychiatric hospital (the Arrangement). The Opinion is a notable departure from other recent statements and enforcement actions, and signals a greater flexibility in how related entities may share non-clinical employees and operational expenses. It also shows the OIG’s willingness to consider more practical factors, such as cost reporting requirements and the systemic benefits from integrated entities behaving in cost-efficient ways, when determining the risk presented by an arrangement.

The Opinion concerns a nonprofit health system (System) with a membership interest in the psychiatric hospital (Center). The Center is also part of the System’s integrated health network.  The System and the Center are potential referral sources to each other. Currently, both parties have an existing arrangement, whereby the Center leases non-clinician employees and obtains certain other operational and management services from the System, paying the System’s fully loaded costs (e.g., salary, benefits, overhead expenses) plus a two percent administration fee. The Arrangement would continue the same relationship, but the Center would no longer pay the System the administration fee. The parties have asserted, and OIG verified, that the administrative fee is an unallowable cost under applicable Medicare cost-reporting rules, and would not be reimbursable by the Medicare program.

The OIG noted that the new Arrangement, where the System would provide the same services for less aggregate compensation, could raise fair market value (FMV) issues. Such a discount could be considered remuneration in exchange for the Center’s referrals. In addition, the aggregate compensation under the Arrangement can’t be set in advance as the System’s costs, and Center’s needs, may change during the term. Given these issues, the Arrangement would not meet the requirements of the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) safe harbor for personal services and management contracts. Nonetheless, given the totality of the circumstances, the OIG concluded that the Arrangement would present a low risk of fraud and abuse and thus OIG would not impose sanctions.

The Opinion described several mitigating factors that, from OIG’s perspective, decreased the Arrangement’s risk of fraud and abuse. Not only did the parties attempt to structure the Arrangement to be in compliance with Medicare cost-reporting rules for related parties, there was also no evidence that the Arrangement was structured to, or actually would, induce referrals. Moreover, the parties pointed to the cost efficiencies of health system integration that would be promoted by the Arrangement, and to the potential indirect benefits (by way of cost savings) to federal health care programs.

The Opinion’s more flexible approach to analyzing the Arrangement stands in contrast to the OIG’s other recent activities, all of which express a consistent concern with payments between independent actors that are not consistent with FMV. For example, the OIG issued a fraud alert focusing on improper physician financial arrangements on June 9, 2015 [...]

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Reverse False Claims and Corporate Integrity Agreements: Cephalon Decision Highlights Unsettled Law, Delivers Flawed Result

In U.S. ex rel. Boise v. Cephalon, Inc. (July 21, 2015), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held that relators stated a claim under the 31 U.S.C. 3729(a)(1)(G)—otherwise known as the “reverse false claims” provision of the False Claims Act (FCA)—based on alleged violations of a Corporate Integrity Agreement (CIA).

Cephalon’s CIA provided that failure to comply with its obligations “may” lead to monetary penalties, and that the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) could demand penalties (which were stipulated at various dollar amounts in the CIA) after determining that penalties were appropriate. The relators alleged that Cephalon promoted medications off-label and paid unlawful kickbacks in violation of the CIA, entitling the OIG to stipulated penalties. They further claimed that by failing to report the violations and making false certifications of compliance, Cephalon improperly avoided its obligation to pay penalties in violation of § 3729(a)(1)(G).

The court denied Cephalon’s motion to dismiss, in which it argued that the penalty obligations in the CIA were contingent, inasmuch as the OIG could choose whether or not to demand payment of penalties. As such, Cephalon argued they could not give rise to reverse false claims because, absent a demand from OIG, there was no “obligation” to avoid within the statute’s meaning. After comparing other district courts’ treatment of this issue, the court concluded that Cephalon’s obligation to pay stipulated penalties was not contingent, and instead existed regardless of OIG’s payment demand. In reaching this conclusion, the court emphasized that in stipulating penalties, “Cephalon and the government have already negotiated and contracted for the remedies that arise upon a breach of the CIA.”

The result in this case is unsound, as it sets up a potentially endless cycle of FCA liability. Defendants often must enter into CIAs with the OIG in connection with settling FCA claims.  CIAs impose onerous and expensive obligations, typically for five years, as part of the price of resolution and avoiding exclusion.  Under the reasoning of Cephalon, a CIA serves not just as a compliance mechanism but is itself a potential source of new FCA allegations by enterprising relators. Thus, a defendant may close one FCA door while at the same time opening another.

Moreover, in Cephalon, the alleged off-label promotion and kickbacks that the relators say give rise to the CIA violations are, according to the relators’ complaint, also a basis for “non-reverse” false claims under other provisions under the FCA (e.g., presentment, false records, conspiracy). In these circumstances, expanding the scope of potential FCA liability based on the same underlying conduct through a CIA-based reverse false claims theory is unduly expansive and at the same time unnecessarily duplicative. Indeed, to prevail on whether Cephalon failed to properly report or certify compliance under the CIA, the relator still needs to prevail on whether the off-label promotion or kickbacks occurred in the first place.

Cephalon is by no means the only, or the last, word on this issue. In U.S. ex rel. Booker v. Pfizer, Inc., [...]

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Overview of Recent Stark Law Developments

There has been a flurry of judicial and administrative activity regarding the Stark Law in recent weeks, bringing both promises of reprieve for the health care industry in complying with the technicalities of the law, and reminders of the need for executive vigilance when evaluating and approving transactions with referring physicians.

  • On July 15, 2015, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a notice of proposed rulemaking to amend the Stark regulations and to solicit comments from the health care industry on whether the Stark Law is a barrier to health care reform. Among other proposed amendments, CMS proposes: (1) to add two new compensation exceptions, (2) to expand the grace period for the signature requirement of various exceptions in some instances, and (3) to extend the six-month holdover provision of various exceptions. CMS also made several agency policy statements, including clarifying that signed writings do not need to be formal agreements and that the one-year term requirement of certain exceptions is satisfied when an arrangement in fact lasts for at least one year.  For a detailed overview of the proposed rule and its implications, see the Special Report. CMS’s proposals to relax the technical requirements of various Stark Law exceptions, if implemented, would be a welcome reprieve to the health care industry by addressing the potentially draconian consequences of such seemingly innocent situations as a late signature on an agreement with a referring physician.  Comments on the proposed rule are due September 8, 2015.
  • On July 2, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a $237 million False Claims Act judgment based on Stark Law violations related to part-time employment contracts between a hospital system and referring physicians in United States ex rel. Drakeford v. Tuomey, rejecting the defendant’s request for a new trial based on multiple errors by the trial court and its constitutional challenges to the trial court’s award of damages and penalties. We previously posted about this decision. (For more details, see here.) The ruling raises questions related to the advice of counsel defense and scienter, and the meaning and application of the Stark Law’s “volume or value” standard.
  • On June 12, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down CMS’s regulatory prohibition on “per-click” equipment rental arrangements with referring physicians, but upheld CMS’s prohibition on “under arrangements” transactions. We previously posted about this decision. As we noted in that post, while it is not clear how CMS will respond to the ruling, if at all, per-click equipment rental arrangements still face scrutiny by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) under the federal anti-kickback statute.  The OIG has not taken the position that such per-click equipment rentals automatically create liability under the anti-kickback statute, but the risk of such potential liability under the federal anti-kickback statute (as well as state anti-kickback statutes) should be carefully considered.
  • [...]

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