Over the last several months, a handful of federal court decisions—including two rulings this summer on challenges to the admissibility of proposed expert testimony—serve as reminders of the importance of (and parameters around) fair market value (FMV) issues in the context of the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) and the False Claims Act (FCA).

First, a quick level-set.  The AKS, codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(b), is a criminal statute that has long formed the basis of FCA litigation—a connection Congress made explicit in 2010 by adding to the AKS language that renders any claim for federal health care program reimbursement resulting from an AKS violation automatically false/fraudulent for purposes of the FCA.  42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(g).  Broadly, the AKS prohibits the knowing and willful offer/payment/solicitation/receipt of “remuneration” in return for, or to induce, the referral of federal health care program-reimbursed business.  Remuneration can be anything of value and can be direct or indirect.  In interpreting the “in return for/to induce” element, a number of federal courts across the country have adopted the “One Purpose Test,” in which an AKS violation can be found if even just one purpose (among many) of a payment or other transfer of value to a potential referral source is to induce or reward referrals—even if that clearly was not the primary purpose of the remuneration. Continue Reading Recent Developments on the Fair Market Value Front – Part 1

This April, providers cheered when a federal district court in the Middle District of Florida found insufficient evidence to support a relator’s theory that a hospital had provided free parking to physicians, in violation of the Stark Law and Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS). In the Report and Recommendation for United States ex rel. Bingham v. BayCare Health Systems, 2017 WL 126597, M.D. Fla., No. 8:14-cv-73, Judge Steven D. Merryday of the Middle District of Florida endorsed magistrate judge Julie Sneed’s recommendation that Plaintiff Thomas Bingham’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment be denied and that Defendant BayCare Health System’s Motion for Summary Judgment be granted. However, as we discussed in a previous FCA blog post regarding these allegations, this type of case encapsulates a worrying and costly trend where courts allow thinly pleaded relator claims in which the government opted not to intervene, to survive past the motion to dismiss stage into the discovery phase of the litigation.

Bingham is a serial relator who practices as a certified real estate appraiser in Tennessee and was unaffiliated with BayCare. In his latest attempt, Bingham alleged that BayCare Health System had violated the Stark Law and the AKS by providing affiliated physicians free parking, valet services and tax benefits to induce physicians to refer patients to the health system. Continue Reading A Hospital’s Deserving Stark and AKS Victory—But At What Cost?

With health care becoming more consumer-driven, health care providers and health plans are wrestling with how to incentivize patients to participate in health promotion programs and treatment plans. As payments are increasingly being tied to quality outcomes, a provider’s ability to engage and improve patients’ access to care may both improve patient outcomes and increase providers’ payments. In December 2016, the Office of Inspector General of the US Department of Health and Human Services (OIG) issued a final regulation implementing new “safe harbors” for certain patient incentive arrangements and programs, and released its first Advisory Opinion (AO) under the new regulation in March 2017. Together, the new regulation and AO provide guardrails for how patient engagement and access incentives can be structured to avoid penalties under the federal civil monetary penalty statute (CMP) and the anti-kickback statute (AKS).

Read the full article.

Two decisions from the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas limit the extent to which relators can stretch the use of circumstantial evidence to support a False Claims Act case based on an anti-kickback or off-label marketing theory. In two separate decisions on December 10 and December 14 in US ex rel. King v. Solvay Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (SPI)., the court granted SPI’s summary judgment motion finding insufficient evidence for a reasonable juror to support either theory.

For the anti-kickback claim, relators alleged that SPI engaged in a number of activities, such as speaker programs, preceptorships, honorariums, free continuing medical education, and provided gifts such as dinners and event tickets, as part of a national scheme to illegally induce physicians to prescribe SPI’s drugs. In dismissing this claim on December 10, the court first found that the allegations of a nationwide scheme were unsupported because in relator’s response to interrogatories and expert report, only 46 Texas-based physicians were identified as having prescribed SPI’s drugs and as having allegedly received remuneration from SPI. The court observed:

[t]heoretically Relators could survive summary judgment with examples, the examples would have to be linked to remuneration from SPI, some evidence of intent that the remuneration would lead to claims, and claims for prescriptions written by these physicians that a reasonable juror could believe resulted from the unlawful remuneration.  Additionally, to continue a claim on a national-level scheme, Relators would need to demonstrate that kickbacks were provided to physicians in different areas of the country as part of a nationwide scheme to increase prescriptions of the specific Drugs at Issue to patients who are on Medicaid or part of some other government prescription program.

Since relators provided no physician examples outside of Texas, the court ruled the multi-state claims failed.

The court then examined each of the alleged forms of remuneration and found that the evidence was insufficient to find SPI had the requisite “knowing and willful” intent to induce referrals to support an anti-kickback claim under federal or Texas law. For example, the “physician profile interview program” involved sales representatives interviewing physicians prior to the launch of the drug Aceon to obtain information about the physicians’ practice and treatment of hypertension. Physicians were paid $100 for participating in this 30 minute interview. Sales reps were instructed to not mention Aceon during these interviews. Relators offered no evidence that sales reps failed to follow this instruction. Not surprisingly, the court found that the evidence failed to show that SPI intended the program to induce physicians to write prescriptions for a drug they were not told about. For other forms of remuneration, the court found that relators offered no proof that the physicians who received the remuneration actually prescribed SPI’s drugs.

In a separate ruling on December 14, the court granted SPI’s summary judgment motion dismissing relators’ “fraud-on-DrugDex” theory. To be eligible for government reimbursement for an off-label use of a drug, relators alleged that off-label use has to be listed in one of several drug compendia that evaluate whether sufficient clinical research supports that off-label use (see 42 U.S.C. §§ 1396r-8(d)(1)(B)(I); 1396r-8(k)(6)). DrugDex is one of those compendia. Relators alleged that SPI inappropriately influenced and misled DrugDex to include certain uses for Aceon, AndroGel, and Luvox as medically accepted by allegedly suppressing publication of negative research papers and only publishing “smaller” studies. Relators also alleged that SPI “colluded with” DrugDex “so that the uses listed might be deemed eligible for reimbursement under various government health programs.”

The court, however, found no evidence that SPI had a duty to publish negative studies, much less that the evidence showed SPI suppressed their publication. As far as the “collusion” allegation, relators admitted that they did not have evidence of communications between SPI and DrugDex, but rather that “DrugDex invited undue influence and SPI took advantage” of this invitation. While “relators had substantial time to conduct discovery and obtain proof that SPI and DrugDex communicated and that SPI somehow influenced DrugDex,” the court found no such sufficient evidence in the record to put the question to a jury.

These decisions provide some comfort to defendants, including but not limited to pharmaceutical companies and healthcare providers, that courts will require relators to offer more than innuendo and assumptions to support an FCA claim — a serious allegation with potentially significant consequences. The ability of relators to pursue cases through the costly and lengthy discovery process on flimsy allegations takes some of that comfort away. In this case, the relators filed their original complaint in 2003 — 12 years ago. The Department of Justice decided to decline in 2011.

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.

Defending False Claims Act litigation is often a costly budget item. The disposal of weak cases by the government through the intervention decision making process has always been a critical safety valve for non-culpable defendants. Two of the more concerning trends in False Claims Act litigation, however, are (1) the increasing likelihood of relators pursuing factually and legally weak allegations after the government declines to intervene, and (2) courts allowing such cases to survive a Rule 9(b) motion to dismiss. A recent case in the Middle District of Florida involving the unintended consequences of a health system’s adherence to a local zoning obligation serves as a prime example of these troubling trends.

On August 14, 2015, in U.S. ex rel. Bingham v. BayCare Health System, the court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss relator’s claim that BayCare Health System (BayCare) and an independent third party real estate developer, St. Pete MOB, LLC (St. Pete’s)—referred to by relator as BayCare’s “proxy”—entered into a “scheme” to enable BayCare to pass remuneration to physicians in violation of the Stark Law and Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS). According to the relator, the heart of this “scheme” is BayCare’s ground lease to St. Pete’s on a BayCare hospital’s campus to build a medical office building (MOB).

In this ground lease, BayCare provided a non-exclusive easement for MOB tenants to use the hospital’s parking facilities.  As pleaded by the relator, and acknowledged by the court, this easement was included in the lease “to satisfy zoning and other governmental requirements.”  Despite this salient fact, relator turns this legally-required easement into illegal remuneration under the Stark Law and AKS simply by alleging that one of BayCare’s purposes in providing the easement was for St. Pete to avoid incurring the costs to lease additional land and to build a parking garage, and then for St. Pete to “pass some or all of the millions of dollars in savings to physician tenants to encourage them to make or increase referrals.” However, the relator does not appear to have mustered support for this bald conclusion. The relator does not appear to allege that the terms of the physicians’ leases with St. Pete’s are problematic, other than suggesting that amending the leases in 2013 to allow the physicians, staff and patients to use the parking facilities to access the MOB at no charge is another sign of improper remuneration.  The relator also asserts that BayCare provided a “rent concession” to the tenant physicians (even though BayCare is not the landlord) by claiming a tax exemption for what is alleged to be non-exempt property, which saved St. Pete’s about $140,000 in real property taxes. The relator alleges, with little support, that this tax exemption resulted in lower rent charged to the physician tenants and that BayCare is culpable for this alleged remuneration even though St. Pete’s was the lessor.

The legal theory and factual problems with this case are multifold. BayCare’s legal obligation to meet the local zoning requirement for the easement should raise significant challenges for the relator in proving the intent necessary for a criminal AKS violation. Nonetheless, the district court’s unwillingness to dismiss the AKS count demonstrates significant deference to the relator and forces the defendants to continue to expend costs litigating the matter. As for Stark, the relator’s complaint also appears to enjoy the broad benefit of the doubt from the court even though serious questions are presented as to whether the allegations could establish whether either direct or indirect compensation was paid to the physicians.

Notably, Thomas Bingham, the relator, is a serial whistleblower who has been previously successful at extracting settlements in prior FCA matters. Mr. Bingham is a certified real estate appraiser based in Nashville and admits to developing his qui tam allegations, not from insider knowledge, but rather from working with another client in the area, reviewing publically available information, and using “his skills and experience as a commercial real estate appraiser in uncovering the schemes.” He has brought at least two other FCA cases alleging AKS and Stark violations in hospital real estate transactions involving physicians. In 2008, he filed an FCA case against the Healthcare Corporation of America (HCA) and its Chattanooga hospital, Parkridge Medical Center, claiming that Parkridge made rental payments for office space to a physician group in excess of fair market value. This case settled in 2014 with HCA paying $16.5 million to the Government, of which Mr. Bingham received a $2.9 million relator share. Mr. Bingham has filed another FCA case against HCA, this time in Florida, alleging conduct similar to his Tennessee case. His complaint was unsealed on February 23, 2015, after the government declined to intervene. At minimum in his case against BayCare, Mr. Bingham’s admission about having no insider knowledge calls into question his ability to properly qualify as a relator under the FCA’s public disclosure bar.

Unfortunately, in at least some jurisdictions, it seems to be becoming easier for relators to pursue highly questionable fraud claims, after the government declines to intervene. While appellate courts are increasingly being called upon to reverse this trend (the Seventh Circuit’s recent rejection of implied certification claims is an apt example), hospitals and other providers are forced to assume the costly defense of meritless claims and weigh whether to take cases to trial to discourage whistle-blowers or settle matters to mitigate the often outsized risk of a “runaway” jury verdict.