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.”
Anti-Kickback statutes (AKS) and Stark law are extremely important issues in health care. Violations of these laws yield harsh penalties. Yet, many healthcare professionals have little to no knowledge on the details of these two legal beasts.
The most common question I get regarding AKS and Stark is: Do AKS and Stark apply to private payers? Health care professionals believe, if I don’t accept Medicare or Medicaid, then I don’t need to worry about AKS and Stark. Are they correct??
The general and overly broad response is that the Stark Law, 42 USC § 1395nn, only applies to Medicare and Medicaid. The AKS, 42 USC § 1320a-7b(b)),applies to any federal healthcare program.
Is there a difference between AKS and Stark?
Answer: Yes. As discussed above, the first difference is that AKS applies to all federal healthcare programs. This stark difference (pun intended) makes the simple decision to not accept Medicare and Medicaid, thus allowing you to never worry about AKS, infinitely more difficult.
Let’s take a step back… What are AKS and Stark laws and what do these laws prohibit? When you Google AKS and Stark, a bunch of legal blogs pop up and attempt to explain, in legalese, what two, extremely esoteric laws purport to say, using words like “renumeration,” “knowing and willful,” and “federal healthcare program.” You need a law license to decipher the deciphering of AKS and Stark. The truth is – it ain’t rocket science.
The AKS is a criminal law; if you violate the AKS, you can be prosecuted as a criminal. The criminal offense is getting something of value for referrals. You cannot refer patients to other health care professionals in exchange for money, reduced rent, use of laboratory equipment, referrals to you, health services for your mother, marketing, weekly meals at Ruth’s Chris, weekly meals at McDonalds, oil changes, discounted theater tickets, Uber rides, Costco coupons, cooking lessons, or…anything of value, regardless the value.
Safe harbors (exceptions to AKS) exist. But those exceptions better fit squarely into the definition of the exceptions. Because there are no exceptions beyond the enumerated exceptions.
AKS is much more broad in scope than Stark. Other than Medicare and Medicaid, AKS applies to any health care plan that utilizes any amount of federal funds. For example, AKS applies to Veterans Health Care, State Children’s Health Programs (CHIP), Federal Employees Health Benefit Program, and many other programs with federal funding. Even if you opt to not accept Medicare and Medicaid, you may still be liable under AKS.
Stark law, on the other hand, is more narrow and only applies to Medicare and Medicaid. I find the following “cheat sheet” created by a subdivision of the Office of Inspector General to be helpful in understanding AKS and Stark and the differences between the two:
One other important aspect of Stark is that is considered “strict liability,” whereas AKS requires a proving of a “knowing and willful” action.
Feel free to print off the above chart for your reference. However, see that little asterisk at the bottom of the chart? It applies here as well.
Come one! Come all! Step right up to be one of the first 6 states to test the new Medicare-Medicaid Affordable Care Act (ACO) pilot program.
Let your elderly population be the guinea pigs for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Let your most needy population be the lab rats for CMS.
On December 15, 2016, CMS announced its intent to create Medicare/caid ACOs. Currently, Medicare ACOs exist, and if your physician has opted to participate in a Medicare ACO, then, most likely, you understand Medicare ACOs. Medicare ACOs are basically groups of physicians – of different service types – who voluntarily decide (but only after intense scrutiny by their lawyers of the ACO contract) to collaborate care with the intent of higher quality and lower cost care. For example, if your primary care physician participates in a Medicare ACO and you suffer intestinal issues, your primary care doctor would coordinate with a GI specialist within the Medicare ACO to get you an appointment. Then the GI specialist and your physician would share medical records, including test results and medication management. The thought is that the coordination of care will decrease duplicative tests, ensure appointments are made and kept, and prevent losing medical records or reviewing older, moot records.
Importantly, the Medicare beneficiary retains all benefits of “normal” Medicare and can choose to see any physician who accepts Medicare. The ACO model is a shift from “fee-for-service” to a risk-based, capitated amount in which quality of care is rewarded.
On the federal level, there have not been ACOs specially created for dual-eligible recipients; i.e., those who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid…until now.
The CMS is requesting states to volunteer to participate in a pilot program instituting Medicare/Medicaid ACOs. CMS is looking for 6 brave states to participate. States may choose from three options for when the first 12-month performance period for the Medicare-Medicaid ACO Model will begin for ACOs in the state: January 1, 2018; January 1, 2019; or January 1, 2020.
Any state is eligible to apply, including the District of Columbia. But if the state wants to participate in the first round of pilot programs, intended to begin 2018, then that state must submit its letter of intent to participate by tomorrow by 11:59pm. See below.
I tried to research which states have applied, but was unsuccessful. If anyone has the information, I would appreciate it if you could forward it to me.
Participating in an ACO, whether it is only Medicare and Medicare/caid, can create a increase in revenue for your practices. Since you bear some risk, you also reap some benefit if you able to control costs. But, the decision to participate in an ACO should not be taken lightly. Federal law yields harsh penalties for violations of Anti-Kickback and Stark laws (which, on a very general level, prohibits referrals among physicians for any benefit). However, there are safe harbor laws and regulations specific to ACOs that allow exceptions. Regardless, do not ever sign a contract to participate in an ACO without an attorney reviewing it.
Food for thought – CMS’ Medicare/caid ACO Model may exist only “here in this [Obama] world. Here may be the last ever to be seen of [healthcare.gov] and their [employee mandates]. Look for it only in [history] books, for it may be no more than a [Obamacare] remembered, a [health care policy] gone with the wind…”
As, tomorrow (January 20, 2017) is the presidential inauguration. The winds may be a’changing…
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?