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.
Gift Cards Violate AKS? Maybe NOT!!!
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.
A New Associate Joins Practus’ Health Care Team: Ryan Hargrave!!
Attorney Ryan Hargrave joined the Practus Health Care Litigation team on June 1, 2022. Ryan comes from a career of litigation in the State of North Carolina. He began his career in 2016 as a Prosecutor for the State of North Carolina, Guilford County. There he gained valuable experience from which he used as he moved to defending clients. He served as the Lead Trial Attorney at Triad Legal Group before joining Graystar Legal as the Senior Associate Attorney.
Ryan obtained his undergraduate degree at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC., where he received a B.A. in Political Science and a minor in Biology. Ryan has always had a keen interest in health care which has followed him throughout his career. He is locally known as the “Drug Lawyer” for his focus in the defense of drug-related crimes. He has a reputable proficiency in Cannabis Law, Criminal Law, and Civil Law across State and Federal Courts. Ryan has extensive trial experience that he brings to the Health Care Litigation team at Practus.
Ryan lives in North Carolina with his family, spending his time working out, making financial investments, and beginning his non-profit business, “Colored Money”. His non-profit will focus on teaching young boys and girls the value of money as a vehicle to achieve wealth, making smart investments, and how to achieve financial freedom. He is a big Georgia football fan and even has an English Bulldog that could serve as the team’s mascot.
Note from me:
I expect Ryan to dovetail and expand my Medicare and Medicaid regulatory compliance practice because his litigation experience will directly help me in litigation natters, but, also, his criminal litigation experience will also allow us to represent more White Collar Crime clients, including Medicare and Medicaid fraud accusations, False Claims Act, Stark, and Anti-Kickback alleged violations.
We are happy that he is here!
More Covered Health Care Services and More Policing under the Biden Administration!
Happy 55th Medicare! Pres. Biden’s health care policies differ starkly from former Pres. Trump’s. I will discuss some of the key differences. The newest $1.9 trillion COVID bill passed February 27th. President Biden is sending a clear message for health care providers: His agenda includes expanding government-run, health insurance and increase oversight on it. In 2021, Medicare is celebrating its 55th year of providing health insurance. The program was first signed into law in 1965 and began offering coverage in 1966. That first year, 19 million Americans enrolled in Medicare for their health care coverage. As of 2019, more than 61 million Americans were enrolled in the program.
Along with multiple Executive Orders, Pres. Biden is clearly broadening the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”), Medicaid and Medicare programs. Indicating an emphasis on oversight, President Biden chose former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead HHS. Becerra was a prosecutor and plans to bring his prosecutorial efforts to the nation’s health care. President Biden used executive action to reopen enrollment in ACA marketplaces, a step in his broader agenda to bolster the Act with a new optional government health plan.
For example, one of my personal, favorite issues that Pres. Biden will address is parity for Medicare coverage for medically necessary, oral health care. In fact, Medicare coverage extends to the treatment of all microbial infections except for those originating from the teeth or periodontium. There is simply no medical justification for this exclusion, especially in light of the broad agreement among health care providers that such care is integral to the medical management of numerous diseases and medical conditions.
The Biden administration has taken steps to roll back a controversial Trump-era rule that requires Medicaid beneficiaries to work in order to receive coverage. Two weeks ago, CMS sent letters to several states that received approval for a Section 1115 waiver – for Medicaid. CMS said it was beginning a process to determine whether to withdraw the approval. States that received a letter include Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin. The work requirement waivers that HHS approved at the end of the previous administration’s term may not survive the new presidency.
Post Payment Reviews—Recovery Audit Contractor (“RAC”) audits will increase during the Biden administration. The RAC program was created by the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003. As we all know, the RACs are responsible for identifying Medicare overpayments and underpayments and for highlighting common billing errors, trends, and other Medicare payment issues. In addition to collecting overpayments, the data generated from RAC audits allows CMS to make changes to prevent improper payments in the future. The RACs are paid on a contingency fee basis and, therefore, only receive payment when recovery is made. This creates overzealous auditors and, many times, inaccurate findings. In 2010, the Obama administration directed federal agencies to increase the use of auditing programs such as the RACs to help protect the integrity of the Medicare program. The RAC program is relatively low cost and high value for CMS. It is likely that the health care industry will see growth in this area under the Biden administration. To that end, the expansion of audits will not only be RAC auditors, but will include increased oversight by MACs, CERTs, UPICs, etc.
Telehealth audits will be a focus for Pres. Biden. With increased use of telehealth due to COVID, comes increased telehealth fraud, allegedly. On September 30, 2020, the inter-agency National Health Care Take Down Initiative announced that it charged hundreds of defendants ostensibly responsible for—among other things—$4.5 billion in false and fraudulent claims relating to telehealth advertisements and services. Unfortunately for telehealth, bad actors are prevalent and will spur on more and more oversight.
Both government-initiated litigation and qui tam suits appear set for continued growth in 2021. Health care fraud and abuse dominated 2020 federal False Claims Act (“FCA”) recoveries, with almost 85 percent of FCA proceeds derived from HHS. The increase of health care enforcement payouts reflects how important government paid health insurance is in America. Becerra’s incoming team is, in any case, expected to generally ramp up law enforcement activities—both to punish health care fraud and abuse and as an exercise of HHS’s policy-making authorities.
With more than $1 billion of FCA payouts in 2020 derived from federal Anti-Kickback Statute (“AKS”) settlements alone, HHS’s heavy reliance on the FCA because it is a strong statute with “big teeth,” i.e., penalties are harsh. For these same reasons, prosecutors and qui tam relators will likely continue to focus their efforts on AKS enforcement in the Biden administration, despite the recent regulatory carveouts from the AKS and an emerging legal challenge from drug manufacturers.
The individual mandate is back in. The last administration got rid of the individual mandate when former Pres. Trump signed the GOP tax bill into law in 2017. Pres. Biden will bring back the penalty for not being covered under health insurance under his plan. Since the individual mandate currently is not federal law, a Biden campaign official said that he would use a combination of Executive Orders to undo the changes.
In an effort to lower the skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs, Pres. Biden’s plan would repeal existing law that currently bans Medicare from negotiating lower prices with drug manufacturers. He would also limit price increases for all brand, biotech and generic drugs and launch prices for drugs that do not have competition.
Consumers would also be able to buy cheaper priced prescription drugs from other countries, which could help mobilize competition. And Biden would terminate their advertising tax break in an effort to also help lower costs.
In all, the Biden administration is expected to expand health care, medical, oral, and telehealth, while simultaneously policing health care providers for aberrant billing practices. My advice for providers: Be cognizant of your billing practices. You have an opportunity with this administration to increase revenue from government-paid services but do so compliantly.
Health Care Integration: A Glimpse Into My Crystal Ball
Throughout the history of health care, payors and payees of Medicare/caid have existed in separate silos. In fact, the two have combated – the relationship has not always been stellar.
Looking into my crystal ball; however, all will not be as it is now [that’s clear as mud!].
Now, and in the upcoming years, there will be a massive shift to integrate payors and payees under the same roof. Competition drives this movement. So does the uncertainty in the health care market. This means that under one umbrella may be the providers and the paying entities.
Why is this a concern? First – Any healthcare entity that submits claims to the federal government, whether it be a provider or payor, must comply with the fraud and abuse statutes. As such, there is a potential to run afoul of federal and state regulations regulating the business of health care. Payors know their rules; providers know their rules…And those rules are dissimilar; and, at times, conflicting. The opportunity to screw up is endemic.
Second – With the new responsibilities mandated by the Yates Memo, these new relationships could create awkward situations in which the head of the payor department could have knowledge (or should have knowledge) of an [alleged] overpayment, but because of the politics at the company or self-interest in the preservation of his or her career, the head may not want to disclose such overpayment. With the 60-day rule, the head’s hesitation could cost the company.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) reinvented health care in so many ways. Remember, the ACA is supposed to be self-funding. Taxes were not to increase due to its inception. Instead, health care providers fund the ACA through post payment and prepayment audits, ZPIC audits, CERTs, MFCU, MICs, RACs, and PERMs.
The ACA also made a whole new commercially-insured population subject to the False Claims Act. False statements are now being investigated in connection with Medical Loss Ratios, justifications for rate increases, risk corridor calculations, or risk adjustment submissions.
CMS imposes a duty to detect fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA). But what if you’re looking at your own partners?
The chart above depicts “old school” Medicare payment options for physicians and other health care providers. In our Brave New World, the arrows will be criss-crossed (applesauce), because when the payors and the payees merge, the reimbursements, the billing, and the regulatory supervision will be underneath the same roof. It’ll be the game of “chicken” taken to a whole new level…with prison and financial penalties for the loser.
Since 2011, kickback issues have exponentially grown. The Anti-Kickback Statute makes it a criminal offense for a provider to give “remuneration” to a physician in order to compensate the physician for past referrals or to induce future referrals of patients to the provider for items or services that are reimbursed, in whole or in part, by Medicare or Medicaid.
Imagine when payors and payees are owned by the same entity! Plus, the ACA amended the kickback statutes to eliminate the prong requiring actual knowledge or intent. Now you can be convicted of anti kickback issues without any actual knowledge it was ever occurring!!
Now we have the “one purpose test,” which holds that a payment or offer of remuneration violates the Anti-Kickback Statute so long as part of the purpose of a payment to a physician or other referral source by a provider or supplier is an inducement for past or future referrals. United States v. Borrasi, 2011 WL 1663373 (7th Cir. May 4, 2011).
There are statutory exceptions. But these exceptions differ depending on whether you are a payor or payee – see the potential criss-cross applesauce?
And, BTW, which types of health care services are bound by the anti kickback statutes?
- Clinical laboratory services;
- Physical therapy services;
- Occupation therapy services;
- Radiology services (including MRIs, Ultrasounds, and CAT scans);
- Radiation therapy and supplies;
- Durable medical equipment and supplies;
- Parenteral and enteral nutrients, equipment, and supplies;
- Prosthetics, orthotics, and prosthetic devices and supplies;
- Home health services;
- Outpatient prescription drugs; and
- Inpatient and outpatient hospital services.
Imagine a building. Inside is a primary care physician (PCP), a pediatrician, a home health agency, and a psychiatrist. Can the PCP refer to the home health agency? Can a hospital refer to a home care agency? What if one of the Board of Directors sit on both entities?
The keys to avoiding the anti kickback pitfalls is threefold: (1) fair market value (FMV); (2) arm’s length transactions; and (3) money cannot be germane to referrals.
However, there is no one acceptable way to determine FMV. Hire an objective appraiser. While hiring an objective appraiser does not establish accuracy, it can demonstrate a good faith attempt.
Number One Rule for Merging/Acquiring/Creating New Partnerships in our new Brave New World of health care?