Dueling Ophthalmologists: Accusations of Violations of the False Claims Act for Refusal to Hire?
Today I have a story about dueling ophthalmologists. And, yes, I wrote “dueling,” as in fighting. This is a true story that the 6th Circuit heard about the False Claims Act (“FCA”). With the Appellate Circuit Courts split regarding the issue I will be discussing in this blog, I foresee the U.S. Supreme Court taking an appeal of this case for a final review if the losing ophthalmologist appeals. So, be on the watch. Because this case is defining what the FCA statute does not….remuneration.
Issue: Does renumeration cover (1) just payments and transfers of value; or (2) any act that may be valuable to another?
The case was published March 28, 2023, from the 6th Circuit. United States ex rel. Martin v. Hathaway, No. 22-1463, 2023 WL 2661358 (6th Cir. Mar. 28, 2023). In a rural part of Michigan, there was an ophthalmology group consisting of two physicians, the owner of the practice, Dr. Hathaway, and one employee physician, Dr. Martin. Dr. Martin overheard Dr. Hathaway negotiating a sale to a larger practice, and began to question her employment path. The sale fell through, but she had begun negotiations with the local hospital to become the hospital’s sole ophthalmologist. Well, Drs. Hathaway and Martin were the only ophthalmologists in this area, and Dr. Hathaway knew that if Dr. Martin went in-house to the local hospital Oaklawn that his business would suffer because his now-employee would become a competitor.
The hospital gave her a pending offer. Dr. Hathaway was infuriated. He told the hospital that if it hired Dr. Martin that he would move all his surgeries to another hospital. He even told the local hospital’s CEO that if the Board approved the hiring of Dr. Martin, it would be the “death knell” of his practice because the hospital’s future patients referrals would go to Dr. Martin and not him.
Dr. Hathaway pled with the CEO. It would be a lose-lose if you hire Dr. Martin, he said. It will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up an internal ophthalmology line, while it would force Dr. Hathaway to pull his cases and go elsewhere.
Perhaps due to Dr. Hathaway’s threats, the Board elected to not hire Dr. Martin.
Dr. Martin did not take the rejection well.
She sued Dr. Hathaway, South Michigan, and Oaklawn in a qui tam action under the False Claims Act and Michigan’s False Claims Act. She accused Dr. Hathaway and Oaklawn Hospital of engaging in an illegal fraudulent scheme under the Anti-kickback Statute (“AKS”) and that claims for Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement resulting from the kickbacks violated the False Claims Act.
The definition of remuneration was at stake. The statute does not define renumeration. Does renumeration cover just payments and transfers of value or any act that may be valuable to another. The 6th Circuit held that renumeration only cover payments and other transfers of value.
The Complaint’s main theory of remuneration turns on the Oaklawn Board’s refusal to hire Dr. Martin in return for Dr. Hathaways general commitment to continue sending surgery referrals for his patients to Oaklawn.
You may recall that the FCA uses the word “payment,” whereas the AKS uses the word “remuneration,” which prompts the question whether remuneration means something broader.
The Court held, “no” – money and value needs to be defined as just that…money and value.
Dr. Hathaway gave Oaklawn no payment, no value. Dr. Martin lost in this case, but if she appeals, like I said, I foresee the US Supreme Court to weigh in.