Category Archives: Office of Inspector General
Laboratories are under scrutiny by the OIG and State Medicaid Departments. Labs get urine samples from behavioral health care companies, substance abuse companies, hospitals, and primary care facilities, who don’t have their own labs. Owners of labs entrust their lab executives to follow procedure on a federal and/or state level for Medicare or Medicaid. Well, what if they don’t. For example, one client paid a urine collector/courier by the mile. That courier service collected urine from Medicaid consumers in NC, sometimes in excess of 90 times a year, when Medicaid only allows 24 per year. I have about 10-15 laboratory clients at the present.
Another laboratory’s urine collector collected the urine, but never brought the urine back to get tested. To which I ponder, where did all those urine specimens go?
Another laboratory had a standing order for over 6 years to test presumptive and definitive testing on 100% of urine samples.
OIG has smelled fraud within laboratories and is widening its search for fraudsters. Several laboratories are undergoing the most serious audits in existence. Not RAC, MAC, or UPIC audits, but audits of even more importance. They received CIDs or civil investigative demands from their State Medicaid Divisions. These requests, like RAC, MAC, or UPIC audits, request lots of documents. In fact, CIDs are legally allowed to request documents for a much longer period of time than RACs, which can only request 3 years back. Most CIDs are fishing for false claims under the False Claims Act (FCA). Stark and Anti-Kickback violations are also included in these investigations. While civil penalties can result in high monetary penalties, criminal violations result in jail time.
As everyone knows, labs must follow CLIA or be CLIA certified, which is the federal standard for which labs. The Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) of 1988 (42 USC 263a) and the associated regulations (42 CFR 493) provide the authority for certification and oversight of clinical laboratories and laboratory testing. Under the CLIA program, clinical laboratories are required to have the appropriate certificate before they can accept human samples for testing. There are different types of CLIA certificates, as well as different regulatory requirements, based on the types and complexity of clinical laboratory tests a laboratory conducts. CLIA, like CMS, has its own set of rules. When entities like CLIA or CMS have their own rules, sometimes those rules juxtapose law, which creates a conundrum for providers. If you own a lab, do you follow CLIA rules or CMS rules or the law? Let me give you an example. According to CLIA, you must maintain documentation regarding samples and testing for two years. So, if CLIA audits a laboratory, the audits requests will only go back for two years. Well, that’s all fine and dandy. Except according to the law, you have to maintain medical documents for 5 or 6 years, depending on the service type.
Recently, one of my labs received a CID for records going back to 2017. That is a 6-year lookback. Had the lab followed CLIA’s rules, the lab would only have documentation going back to 2021. Had the lab followed CLIA’s rules, when OIG knocked on its door, it would have NOT had four years of OIG’s request. Now I do not know, because I have never been in the position that my lab client only retained records for two years…thank goodness. If I were in the position, I would argue that the lab was following CLIA’s rules. But that’s the thing, rules are not laws. When in doubt, follow laws, not rules.
However, that takes me to Medicare provider appeals of RAC, MAC, and UPIC audits. Everything under the umbrella of CMS must follow CMS rules. Remember how I said that rules are not laws? CMS rules, sometimes, contradict law. Yet when a Medicare provider appeals an overpayment or termination, the first four levels of appeal are mandated to follow CMS rules. It is not until the 5th level, which is the federal district court that law prevails. In other words, the RAC, MAC, or UPIC, the 2nd level QIC, the 3rd level ALJ, and the 4th level Medicare Appeal Council, all must follow CMS rules. It is not until you appear before the federal district judge that law prevails.
Receiving a CID does not mean that your investigation will remain civil. Most investigations begin civilly. If the evidence uncovered demonstrates any criminal activity, your civil investigation can quickly turn criminal. I co-defend with a federal criminal attorney if the case has a chance to turn criminal. Believe me, there is a huge difference between federal and state criminal lawyers! Even with the best federal criminal lawyers, you want a Medicare and Medicaid expert lawyer on the team to dispute the regulatory accusations that a criminal attorney may not be as well-versed. I am so thankful that I moved my practice to Nelson Mullins, because we have a huge, yet highly-specialized health care practice. While we have a large number of lawyers, each partner specializes in slightly different aspects of health care. So, when I need a federal criminal attorney to partner-up with me, I just walk down the hall.
Laboratories: Beware! Be ready! Be prepared! Be lawyered up!
Is Giving Gift Cards to Medicaid Consumers Suffering Substance Abuse Issues Who Comply with Weekly Criteria To Promote Wellness Against the Anti-Kickback statute (AKS)?
Yes, but who cares?
OIG does not care and even published an opinion stating that OIG would not penalize the practice.
The AKS is a criminal law that prohibits the knowing and willful payment of “remuneration” to induce or reward patient referrals or the generation of business involving any item or service payable by the Federal health care programs (e.g., drugs, supplies, or health care services for Medicare or Medicaid patients). Remuneration includes anything of value and can take many forms besides cash, such as free rent, expensive hotel stays and meals, and excessive compensation for medical directorships or consultancies. In some industries, it is acceptable to reward those who refer business to you. However, in the Federal health care programs, paying for referrals is a crime. The statute covers the payers of kickbacks-those who offer or pay remuneration- as well as the recipients of kickbacks-those who solicit or receive remuneration. Each party’s intent is a key element of their liability under the AKS.
Criminal penalties and administrative sanctions for violating the AKS include fines, jail terms, and exclusion from participation in the Federal health care programs. Physicians who pay or accept kickbacks also face penalties of up to $50,000 per kickback plus three times the amount of the remuneration.
Safe harbors protect certain payment and business practices that could otherwise implicate the AKS from criminal and civil prosecution. To be protected by a safe harbor, an arrangement must fit squarely in the safe harbor and satisfy all of its requirements. Some safe harbors address personal services and rental agreements, investments in ambulatory surgical centers, and payments to bona fide employees.
However, study after study after study have demonstrated that people with substance abuse issues have a higher likelihood of success with monetary incentives. See article as an example.
OIG obviously understands the efficacy of gift cards. Maybe Congress can back up OIG because, you can be sure that, if the proposed rule is passed, litigation will ensue. People will claim that the FTC does not have the legal authority to issue such a rule in violation of the AKS.
I hope everyone had a fantastic Thanksgiving and are now moving toward the Christmas or Hanukkah holiday. As I discussed last week, CMS and its contracted auditors are turning their watchdog eyes toward nursing homes, critical access hospitals (“CAHs”), and acute care hospitals (“ACHs”). You can hear more on this topic on Thursday, December 8th at 1:30 when I present the RACMonitor webinar, “Warning for Acute Care Hospitals: You Are a Target for Overpayment Audits.”
October 2022, OIG published a new audit project entitled, “Potentially Preventable Hospitalizations of Medicare-Eligible Skilled Nursing Facility Residents.”
Residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities are frequently transferred to an Emergency Department as an inpatient when they need acute medical care. A proportion of these transfers may be considered inappropriate and may be avoidable, says OIG.
OIG identified nursing facilities with high rates of Medicaid resident transfers to hospitals for urinary tract infections (“UTIs”). OIG describes UTIs as being “often preventable and treatable in the nursing facility setting without requiring hospitalization.” A 2019 OIG audit found that nursing facilities often did not provide UTI detection and prevention services in accordance with resident’s individualized plan of care, which increases the chances for infection and hospitalization. Each resident should have their own prevention policy for whatever they are prone to get. My Grandma, for example, is prone to UTIs, so her personal POC should have prevention measures for trying to avoid contracting a UTI, such as drinking cranberry juice and routine cleansing. In addition to UTIs, OIG noted that previous CMS studies found that five conditions were related to 78% of the resident transfers to hospitals: pneumonia, congestive heart failure, UTIs, dehydration, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease/asthma. OIG added a sixth condition citing that sepsis is considered a preventable condition when the underlying cause of sepsis is preventable. In my humble opinion, the only condition listed as preventable that is actually preventable is dehydration.
OIG’s new audit project involved a review of Medicare and Medicaid claims related to inpatient hospitalizations of nursing home residents with any of the six conditions noted previously. The audit will focus on whether the nursing homes being audited provided services to residents in accordance with the residents’ care plans and related professional standards (or whether the nursing homes caused preventable inpatient admissions due to non-compliance with care plans and professional standards).
What can you do to prepare for these upcoming audits? Review your facilities’ policies, procedures, and practices germane to the identification of the 6 conditions OIG flagged as preventable. Ensure that your policies and procedures lay out definitive steps to prevent or try to prevent these afflictions. Educate and train your staff of detection, prevention, treatment, and care planning related to the six conditions. Collect and analyze data of trends of frequency and cause of inpatient hospitalizations and determine whether these inpatient hospitalizations could have been prevented and how.
In summary, be prepared for audits of inpatient hospitalizations with explanations of attempted prevention. You cannot prevent all afflictions, but you can have policies in place to try. As always, it’s the thought that counts, as long as, it’s written down.
Happy Halloween. This year I am dressing as Freddy Krueger and my daughter, who is 17, says, “that’s so 80’s.” I guess some younger kids will just think I’m a spooky lady in a green and red sweater with knives for fingers. In honor of Halloween, I would like to tell you three ghost stories, of Medicare money that has vanished never to be found.
First, a ghoulish report from OIG states that CMS has not done enough to recoup Medicare payments found in 12 hospitals. Nothing like a report saying “CMS isn’t getting enough money” to make CMS “trick or treat” with more audits. According to the OIG report, CMS is short staffed, like almost every employer in America. Apparently, CMS claims to have too many phantoms instead of employees to track down every dollar, which I must say, makes me superstitious. If CMS is claiming to not have enough resources to track down money that has been targeted at 12 hospitals, how is it conducting the other audits nation-wide?
Among the 12 hospitals, supposedly, there is an eerie $82 million allegedly owed to CMS.
OIG recommended recouping all the money, but, according to OIG, CMS has provided insufficient information. Specifically, CMS did not provide information on the status of appeals hospitals levied against OIG’s overpayment findings. CMS didn’t provide information on the reason for the appeal or status of the action. Personally, I am just happy the hospitals appealed.
The second ghost story entails CMS’ continual audit of providers, especially the Medicare Advantage plans, which are nightmares. CMS has agreed to release the audits of 90 MA plans conducted between 2011 and 2013. These records are expected to demonstrate more than $600 million in MA overpayments due to alleged upcoding. Chilling!
Finally, a NC hospital system, Atrium Health, publicly announced that in 2019 it provided $640 million to Medicare patients that were never paid for. You would think this spine chilling unless you knew the tax breaks associated with the charity. But for the same year that Atrium’s website says it recorded the $640 million loss on Medicare, the hospital system claimed $82 million in profits from Medicare and an additional $37.2 million in profits from Medicare Advantage in a federally required financial document. Sleight of hand and hocus pocus!
Apparently, CMS also must undergo audits and it did, but I am not sure I believe the results. But that would be par for the course; I generally don’t find any audit results to be accurate. OIG audited CMS. OIG tried to verify that CMS actually collected all the funds from alleged Medicare overpayments. According to the audit, OIG was able to verify that verify that CMS had collected $120 million of the $498 million in overpayments. CMS told auditors that it has collected $272 million but auditors said the agency failed to properly document the recovery of $152 million.
Without question, when there is a Medicare alleged overpayment and the provider appeals, you have 5 levels of appeal. The first two levels, redetermination and reconsideration, are basically rubber stamp approval of the original decision. But after the 2nd level, rubber stamp and before you go to the third level, recoupment begins of the alleged amount owed, even though you haven’t completed litigation AND you may receive a decision at the third level that the money is not owed. Nonetheless, the recoupment begins.
In my experience, I have never had an instance that CMS forgot to prematurely recoup. I’m sure if there were instances of CMS forgetting to prematurely recoup the provider were ecstatic. Elated. But they were also probably nervous as heck, because we all know that, eventually, the government gets its money.
In fact, one of the recommendations from CMS’ audit, was that OIG suggested that CMS revise 42 CFR §405.980, which is the federal regulation that allows for reopening initial determinations, redeterminations, reconsiderations, decisions, and reviews. The regulation already allows QICs, ALJs, the contractor – anyone who makes decisions about Medicare audits – the ability to reopen a decision already made. There are time frames for doing so.
For example, “A party may request that a contractor reopen its initial determination or redetermination within 1 year from the date of the initial determination or redetermination for any reason.” 42 CFR 405.980(c)(1). Although I’ve never understood this section. Why would a party request its audit to be reopened instead of just appealing to the next level? I doubt reopening an initial determination would yield better results. But really the purpose of §405.980 is that the government can choose to reopen a decision and, later on, after you think you won your case and owe nothing, this regulation allows them to change their mind.
This just goes to show you, the laws are written in favor of the government. It truly is a David and Goliath battle.
Hello and Happy birthday Medicare and Medicaid. You are now 56 years old. Medicaid was never supposed to be long-lasting or a primary insurance that it has become. Over 81 million citizens rely on Medicaid. President Lyndon Johnson signed both landmark social programs into law on July 30, 1965.
I have two newsflashes to discuss today. (1) Nursing homes will be targeted by audits because few surveys occurred during COVID, according to a newly published OIG Report; and (2) long-term care facilities, in general, are decreasing in number while the need escalates.
First, the OIG, Addendum to OEI-01-20-00430, published July 2021, “States’ Backlogs of Standard Surveys of Nursing Homes Grew Substantially During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which is an audit of a mass number of nursing homes across the country.
Nationally, 71 percent of nursing homes (10,913 of 15,295) had gone at least 16 months without a standard survey as of May 31, 2021. By State, the backlogs for standard surveys ranged from 22 percent to 96 percent of nursing homes. Expect a surge of standard audits.
Second, enrollment in fee-for-service (FFS) Medicare and Medicaid has skyrocketed in recent years, especially due to COVID and longer life-expectancies. This equates to more consumers. It means a need for more providers willing to accept the low reimbursement rates offered by Medicare and Medicaid. More providers plus more consumers equals more RAC and MAC audits. Medicare remains the nation’s largest single purchaser of health care, with home health care services accounting for a decent chunk of spending. Of the $3.2 trillion spent on personal health care in 2019, Medicare accounted for 23% — or $743 billion — of that total.
There were 11,456 home health agencies operating in 2020. That total is down slightly compared to the 11,571 agencies operating in 2019. The number of home health agencies has actually been declining since 2013. Before that, the industry had experienced several years of substantial growth in terms of new agencies opening. The decline in agencies has been most concentrated in Texas and Florida. The number of skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) is also decreasing, though not quite as fast.
My humble opinion? The government needs to be more aware of how aggressive Medicare and Medicaid auditors are. How overzealous. Congress needs to pass legislation to protect the providers who accept Medicare and Medicaid. Like the military, we should be saying, “thank you for your service.”
Medicaid Fraud Control Units Performed Poorly During the Pandemic: Expect MFCU Oversight to Increase
OIG just published its annual survey of how well or poor MFCUs across the country performed in 2020, during the ongoing COVID pandemic. Each State has its own Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (“MFCU”) to prosecute criminal and civil fraud in its respective State. I promise you, you do not want MFCU to be calling or subpoena-ing you unexpectedly. The MFCUs reported that the pandemic created significant challenges for staff, operations, and court proceedings, which led to lower case outcomes in FY 2020. But during this past “lower than expected” recovery year, the MFCUs still recovered over $1 billion from health care providers. It was a 48% drop.
As MFCUs initially moved to a telework environment, some staff reported experiencing challenges conducting work because of limitations with computer equipment and network infrastructure. Field work was also limited. To help protect staff and members of the public from the pandemic, MFCUs reported curtailing some in-person field work, such as interviews of witnesses and suspects. These activities were further limited because of an initial lack of personal protective equipment that was needed in order to conduct similar activities in nursing homes and other facilities. Basically, COVID made for a bad recovery year by the MFCUs. Courts were closed for a while as well, slowing the prosecutorial process.
The report further demonstrated how lucrative the MFCU agencies are, despite the pandemic. For every $1 dollar spent on the administration of a MFCU, the MFCUs rake in $3.36. In 2020, the MFCUs excluded 928 individuals or entities. There were 786 civil settlements and judgments; the vast majority of judgments were pharmaceutical manufacturers. Convictions decreased drastically from 1,564 in 2019 to 1,017 convictions in 2020. Interestingly, looking at the types of providers convicted or penalized, the vast majority were personal care services attendants and agencies. Five times higher than the next highest provider type – nurses: LPN, RNs, NPs, and PAs.
And the award goes to Maine’s MFCU – The Maine MFCU received the Inspector General’s Award for Excellence in Fighting Fraud, Waste, and Abuse for its high number of case outcomes across a mix of case types.
OIG also established the desired performance indicators for 2021. OIG expects the MFCUs to maintain an indictment rate of 19% and a conviction rate of 89.1%.
The OIG Report Foreshadows 2021 MFCU Actions:
- Hospice: Expect audits. $0 was recovered in 2020.
- Fraud convictions increased for cardiologists and emergency medicine. Expect these areas to be more highly scrutinized, especially given all the COVID exceptions and rule amendments last year.
- Expect a MFCU rally. The pandemic may not be over, but with increased vaccines and after a down year, MFCUs will be bulls in the upcoming year as opposed to last year’s forced, lamb-like actions due to the pandemic.
While Medicare is strictly a federal program, Medicaid is funded with federal and State tax dollars. Therefore, each State’s regulations germane to Medicaid can vary. Medicaid fraud can be prosecuted as a federal or a State crime.
Our old friends from Public Consulting Group (PCG) were found to have accepted improper Medicaid payments in New Jersey.
Those of you who have followed my blog will remember that PCG has been the “watchdog” and auditor of Medicaid claims in many, many states, including North Carolina, New Mexico, and New York. The story of PCG’s motus operandi is like an old re-run of Friends – it never seems to end. PCG audits health care provider records, usually about 150 claims, and determines an error rate based on a desk review by an employee who may or may not have the requisite experience in health care or regulatory compliance issues. The error rates are normally high, and PCG extrapolates the number across a universe of three years (generally). The result is an alleged overpayment of millions of dollars. Of course, it varies state to state, but PCG is paid on a contingency basis, usually 12 – 15%. See blog.
In a November 2017 Office of Inspector General (OIG) Report, OIG found that, in New Jersey, PCG, which was the contractor for New Jersey doctored records.
Isn’t that called fraud?
OIG found that New Jersey did not follow Federal regulations and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) guidance when it developed its payment rates for Medicaid school-based services and, as a result, claimed $300.5 million in unallowable costs. Among OIG’s findings, OIG determined that PCG improperly altered school employees’ responses to time studies to timestudies to indicate that their activities were directly related to providing Medicaid services when the responses indicated the activities were unrelated.
OIG recommended that New Jersey repay $300.5 million in federal Medicaid reimbursements. If you are a taxpayer in New Jersey,
you know that you are hanging Sec. Carole Johnson in effigy…at least, in your mind.
According to the New Jersey Medicaid website, PCG receives and processes billing agreements from newly Medicaid-enrolled LEAs, which is the acronym for “Local Education Agency.”
Here are PCG’s duties:
The New Jersey State Agency claims Federal Medicaid reimbursement for health services provided by schools under Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) through its Special Education Medicaid Initiative (SEMI). The State Department of Treasury (Treasury), the administrative manager for SEMI, hired PCG, on a contingency fee basis (shocker) to develop SEMI payment rates and submit claims on behalf of schools, which are overseen by the State Department of Education (DOE). Figure 1 (below) illustrates how New Jersey processes and claims Medicaid school-based services.
But notice the last bullet point in the list of PCG’s duties above. “provides ongoing Medicaid legal and regulatory compliance monitoring.” Of itself?
Only costs related to providing Medicaid-covered services may be included in payment rates for Medicaid services. But, remember, PCG is paid on contingency. See below.
So is it surprising that PCG raised the reimbursement rates? Why wouldn’t they? If you were paid on contingency, wouldn’t you determine the rates to be higher?
OIG’s report states that New Jersey, through a contractor (PCG), increased the payment rates retroactively to July 2003 from $552 to $1,451 for evaluation services and from $21 to $50 for rehabilitation services. This significant increase raised the question of whether the State was again using unallowable costs.
According to OIG, out of 1,575 responses from school employees, PCG recoded 235 employee responses in order to receive payment from Medicaid. Of those 235 recoded responses, OIG determined that 203 claims were incorrectly recoded by PCG. My math isn’t the best, but I am pretty sure that is approximately a 85% error rate. Shall we extrapolate?
Examples of improper activity code alterations included a social worker indicated that they were “scheduling students to see the [social worker].” Social worker coded this activity as “general administration” – correctly by the way. PCG altered the code to indicate that the employee was providing health care services in order to get paid for that time.
PCG incorporated learning disabilities teacher-consultant salaries in the evaluation rate. These salaries are unallowable because teacher-consultants provide special education services, not health-related services.
In a description of its rate-setting methodology, PCG stated that it excluded costs associated with learning disabilities teacher-consultants because they do not perform any medical services and are not medical providers as customarily recognized in the State’s Medicaid program. However, OIG found that PCG did not remove all learning disabilities teacher-consultant salaries when calculating payment rates
OIG calculated the amount of just that one issue – learning disabilities teacher-consultant salaries incorrectly incorporated – as more than $61 million. What’s 13% of $61 million (assuming that PCG’s contingency rate is 13%)? $7,930,000.
OIG recommended that New Jersey Medicaid:
- refund $300,452,930 in Federal Medicaid reimbursement claimed based on payment rates that incorporated unallowable costs,
- work with CMS to determine the allowable amount of the remaining $306,233,377 that we have set aside because the rates included unallowable costs that we cannot quantify, and
- revise its payment rates so they comply with Federal requirements.
PCG disagreed with OIG’s findings.
Another recommendation that OIG SHOULD have found – Get rid of PCG.
Interestingly, how OIG and who OIG targets for audits is much more transparent than one would think. OIG tells you in advance (if you know where to look).
Prior to June 2017, the Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) OIG updated its public-facing Work Plan to reflect those adjustments once or twice each year. In order to enhance transparency around OIG’s continuous work planning efforts, effective June 15, 2017, OIG began updating its Work Plan website monthly.
Why is this important? I will even take it a step further…why is this information crucial for health care providers, such as you?
These monthly reports provide you with notice as to whether the type of provider you are will be on the radar for Medicare and Medicaid audits. And the notice provided is substantial. For example, in October 2017, OIG announced that it will investigate and audit specialty drug coverage and reimbursement in Medicaid – watch out pharmacies!!! But the notice also states that these audits of pharmacies for speciality drug coverage will not begin until 2019. So, pharmacies, you have over a year to ensure compliance with your records. Now don’t get me wrong… you should constantly self audit and ensure regulatory compliance. Notwithstanding, pharmacies are given a significant warning that – come 2019 – your speciality drug coverage programs better be spic and span.
Another provider type that will be on the radar – bariatric surgeons. Medicare Parts A and B cover certain bariatric procedures if the beneficiary has (1) a body mass index of 35 or higher, (2) at least one comorbidity related to obesity, and (3) been previously unsuccessful with medical treatment for obesity. Treatments for obesity alone are not covered. Bariatric surgeons, however, get a bit less lead time. Audits for bariatric surgeons are scheduled to start in 2018. Considering that 2018 is little more than a month away, this information is less helpful. The OIG Work Plans do not specific enough to name a month in which the audits will begin…just sometime in 2018.
Where do you find such information? On the OIG Work Plan website. Click here. Once you are on the website, you will see the title at the top, “Work Plan.” Directly under the title are the “clickable” subjects: Recently Added | Active Work Plan Items | Work Plan Archive. Pick one and read.
You will see that CMS is not the only agency that OIG audits. It also audits the Food and Drug Administration and the Office of the Secretary, for example. But we are concerned with the audits of CMS.
Other targeted providers types coming up:
- Security of Certified Electronic Health Record Technology Under Meaningful Use
- States’ Collection of Rebates on Physician-Administered Drugs
- States’ Collection of Rebates for Drugs Dispensed to Medicaid MCO Enrollees
- Adult Day Health Care Services
- Oversight of States’ Medicaid Information Systems Security Controls
- States’ MCO Medicaid Drug Claims
- Incorrect Medical Assistance Days Claimed by Hospitals
- Selected Inpatient and Outpatient Billing Requirements
And the list goes on and on…
Do not think that if your health care provider type is not listed on the OIG website that you are safe from audits. As we all know, OIG is not the only entity that conducts regulatory audits. The States and its contracted vendors also audit, as well as the RACs, MICs, MACs, CERTs…
Never forget that whatever entity audits you, YOU HAVE APPEAL RIGHTS!
On July 13, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price, M.D., announced the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) biggest-ever health care fraud takedown. 412 health care providers were charged with health care fraud. In total, allegedly, the 412 providers schemed and received $1.3 billion in false billings to Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE. Of the 412 defendants, 115 are physicians, nurses, and other licensed medical professionals. Additionally, HHS has begun the suspension process against 295 health care providers’ licenses.
The charges include allegations of billing for medically unnecessary treatments or services that were not really provided. The DOJ has evidence that many of the defendants had illegal kickback schemes set up. More than 120 of the defendants were charged with unlawfully or inappropriately prescribing and distributing opioids and other narcotics.
While this particular sting operation resulted from government investigations, not all health care fraud is discovered through government investigation. A great deal of fraud is uncovered through private citizens coming forward with incriminating information. These private citizens can file suit against the fraudulent parties on behalf of the government; these are known as qui tam suits.
Being a whistleblower goes against what most of us are taught as children. We are taught not to be a tattletail. I have vivid memories from elementary school of other kids acting out, but I would remain silent and not inform the teacher. But in the health care world, tattletails are becoming much more common – and they make money for blowing that metaphoric whistle.
What is a qui tam lawsuit?
Qui tam is Latin for “who as well.” Qui tam lawsuits are a type of civil lawsuit whistleblowers (tattletails) bring under the False Claims Act, a law that rewards whistleblowers if their qui tam cases recover funds for the government. Qui tam cases are a powerful weapon against Medicare and Medicaid fraud. In other words, if an employee at a health care facility witnesses any type of health care fraud, even if the alleged fraud is unknown to the provider, that employee can hire an attorney to file a qui tam lawsuit to recover money on behalf of the government. The government investigates the allegations of fraud and decides whether it will join the lawsuit. Health care entities found guilty in a qui tam lawsuit will be liable to government for three times the government’s losses, plus penalties.
The whistleblower is rewarded for bringing these lawsuits. If the government intervenes in the case and recovers funds through a settlement or a trial, the whistleblower is entitled to 15% – 25% of the recovery. If the government doesn’t intervene in the case and it is pursued by the whistleblower team, the whistleblower reward is between 25% – 30% of the recovery.
These recoveries are not low numbers. On June 22, 2017, a physician and rehabilitative specialist agreed to pay $1.4 million to resolve allegations they violated the False Claims Act by billing federal health care programs for medically unreasonable and unnecessary ultrasound guidance used with routine lab blood draws, and with Botox and trigger point injections. If a whistleblower had brought this lawsuit, he/she would have been awarded $210,000 – 420,000.
On June 16, 2017, a Pennsylvania-based skilled nursing facility operator agreed to pay roughly $53.6 million to settle charges that it and its subsidiaries violated the False Claims Act by causing the submission of false claims to government health care programs for medically unnecessary therapy and hospice services. The allegations originated in a whistleblower lawsuit filed under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act by 7 former employees of the company. The whistleblower award – $8,040,000 – 16,080,000.
There are currently two, large qui tam cases against United Health Group (UHG) pending in the Central District of California. The cases are: U.S. ex rel. Benjamin Poehling v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc. and U.S. ex rel. Swoben v. Secure Horizons, et al. Both cases were brought by James Swoben, who was an employee and Benjamin Poehling, who was the former finance director of a UHG group that managed the insurer’s Medicare Advantage Plans. On May 2, 2027, the U.S. government joined the Poehling lawsuit.
The charges include allegations that UHG:
- Submitted invalid codes to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that it knew of or should have known that the codes were invalid – some of the dates of services at issue in the case are older than 2008.
- Intentionally avoided learning that some diagnoses codes or categories of codes submitted to their plans by providers were invalid, despite acknowledging in 2010 that it should evaluate the results of its blind chart reviews to find codes that need to be deleted.
- Failed to follow up on and prevent the submissions of invalid codes or submit deletion for invalid codes.
- Attested to CMS each year that the data they submitted was true and accurate while knowing it was not.
UHG would not be in this expensive, litigious pickle had it conducted a self audit and followed the mandatory disclosure requirements.
What are the mandatory disclosure requirements? Glad you asked…
Section 6402(a) of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) creates an express obligation for health care providers to report and return overpayments of Medicare and Medicaid. The disclosure must be made by 60 days days after the date that the overpayment was identified or the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable. Identification is defined as the point in which the provider has determined or should have determined through the exercise of due diligence that an overpayment exists. CMS expects the provider to proactively investigate any credible information of a potential overpayment. The consequences of failing to proactively investigate can be seen by the UHG lawsuits above-mentioned. Apparently, UHG had some documents dated in 2010 that indicated it should review codes and delete the invalid codes, but, allegedly, failed to do so.
How do you self disclose?
According to CMS:
“Beginning June 1, 2017, providers of services and suppliers must use the forms included in the OMB-approved collection instrument entitled CMS Voluntary Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol (SRDP) in order to utilize the SRDP. For disclosures of noncompliant financial relationships with more than one physician, the disclosing entity must submit a separate Physician Information Form for each physician. The CMS Voluntary Self-Referral Disclosure Protocol document contains one Physician Information Form.”