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Medicare Investigations for False Claims Act Violations

Whenever you receive correspondence with letterhead from the Department of Justice, Attorney General’s office, you know it’s important and you better take note.

DOJ, AG

A Civil or Criminal Investigative Demand is serious. Getting any communication from the U.S. Department of Justice can be a bit unnerving. That’s particularly true for Medicare and Medicaid providers receiving a Civil Investigative Demand (“CID”) for documents and testimony.  

A CID is a tool used by the Justice Department (“DOJ”) to investigate potential violations of the False Claims Act (“FCA”). See blog. The DOJ can issue a CID whenever the DOJ has “reason to believe that any person may be in possession, custody, or control of any documentary material or information relevant to a false claims law investigation.” The bottom line is that the DOJ uses CIDs to obtain documents and identify potential witnesses so they can bring FCA suits against the recipient or others.

What is the False Claims Act anyway?

It’s a broad statute that punishes many things, one of which is making false statements to the government in connection with a claim for payment from the government. The DOJ often uses CIDs to investigate medical providers who seek payment from Medicare and Medicaid. 

Just because the Investigative Demand is labeled “civil” does not mean that the investigation is only civil; it could take a turn towards criminal. In other words, something sparked the DOJ’s attention, but, perhaps there were no allegations of criminal action, the investigation could start and the investigator could uncover something they consider criminal. An investigation earmarked as civil can turn criminal with the uncovering of one document.

On the other hand, the investigator could review all the documents and conclude that there is not even a civil violation. Very rarely, do the investigators contact you to tell you that the investigation is over and no violation was found. Most of the time, you are put on notice that you are being investigated, then hear nothing from the investigator in perpetuity.

Recently, I had an investigator inform me that the review of. my client was complete, and the file was being closed. But that’s the only time in 22 years that I was informed that nothing noncompliant was found. Usually, time just passes.

If you are found to have violated the FCA, the government can triple the amount of penalties, so the numbers get very high very quickly.

The Justice Department obtained more than $5.6 billion in settlements and judgments from civil cases involving fraud and false claims against the government in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2021. This is the second largest annual total in False Claims Act history, and the largest since 2014. Settlement and judgments since 1986, when Congress substantially strengthened the civil False Claims Act, now total more than $70 billion.

A much lesser known provision of the FCA is the reverse one. Not to blow everyones’ minds, but there is also a “reverse false claims” provision of the False Claims Act.  The reverse false claims provision permits the government or relators to pursue defendants who are alleged to have hidden or reduced an obligation to pay the government through false statements, or who have violated the 60-day payment rule’s obligation to return “identified overpayments.”   These claims typically have been raised in the context of cost reporting, Medicare Part C, or related to alleged failures to fulfill obligations under the 60-day payment rule.  The government and relators have increasingly relied on the reverse false claims provision to support stand-alone claims or have used it in conjunction with affirmative false claims.  However, because the reverse false claims provision is very lightly used compared to affirmative false claims provisions, there is a dearth of case law defining it or exploring its parameters.   The case law that does exist is primarily from district courts and, as the survey of case law contained herein illustrates, there is little guidance from the Circuit Courts or the U.S. Supreme Court.

Intent or deliberate disregard is required to prove the false claims act – reverse and regular.

Failure to respond to a CID completely could warrant criminal contempt. This is especially important to note, as civil investigate demand sounds much less important than a subpoena. But a CID is, in essence, a subpoena. Immediately, implement a “legal hold” upon receipt of the CID, and don’t forget to avoid producing privileged documents.

After the investigation is complete, if there are violations of the FCA uncovered, you will receive correspondence that states in “all-caps” and bold font:

Rule 408 FOR SETTLEMENT PURPOSES ONLY 

FRE 408 prohibits the use of settlement negotiations as evidence. After reviewing the offer, get with your legal counsel to discuss next steps.

What is the Stark Law? And Why Is It Important to You?

It seems apropos that a US Congressman was named Pete Stark who first sponsored what came to be known as the Stark law, because the Stark law mandates stark penalties for financially driven physician referrals. Get it? Cheesy, I know.

The Stark law (42 U.S.C. 1395nn) prohibits physician referrals of designated health services (DHR) for Medicare and Medicaid if the physician has a financial interest with the “referred to” agency.

For example, Dr. Goneril is an internist. As an investment, he and his partner, Dr. Regan open a local laboratory “Gloucester” and hire Mr. Lear to run Gloucester. Drs. Goneril and Regan are silent partners. Dr. Goneril orders blood work on Patient Cordelia and refers her to Gloucester.

The above example would be a direct violation of the Stark law.

The penalties are severe. If caught, Dr. Goneril would have to repay all money received for services in which he referred Cordelia to Gloucester. In addition, he could be penalized $15,000 for every time he improperly referred Cordelia, plus three times the amount of improper payment he received from the Medicare/caid program, possible termination from the Medicare/caid program, and penalties of up to $100,000 for every time he tried to circumvent the Stark law.

On the federal level, the Department of Justice, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) are tasked with enforcing the Stark law.

Recent years have seen the most Stark law violations since its inception and it is only being enforced more and more.

On June 9, 2015, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a fraud alert regarding the Stark law. Investigations since June 2015 has risen significantly.

Here are some recent Stark settlements (for you to understand the severity):

  • Adventist Health System agreed to pay $118.7 million to the federal government and to multiple states.
  • Columbus Regional Healthcare System is paying $25 million.
  • Citizens Medical Center in Victoria, Texas, agreed to pay $21.75 million.

“O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous. / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.” (King Lear, II, iv).

How do you defend yourself if you are accused of a Stark violation?

First and foremost, hire a qualified health care attorney. There are exceptions to the Stark law which, hopefully, you fall within. Furthermore, there are multiple legal arguments that can abate penalties. You do not always want to settle.There have been a number of agencies, that recently, decided to never settle. Oddly enough, the number of their audits decreased. Maybe the government targets easy money.

Is Health Care Fraud on the Rise? Or Just the Accusations??

Recent stories in the news seem to suggest that health care fraud is running rampant.  We’ve got stories about Eric Leak‘s Medicaid agency, Nature’s Reflections, funneling money to pay athletes, a seizure of property in Greensboro for alleged Medicaid fraud, and, in Charlotte, a man was charged with Medicaid fraud and sentenced to three years under court supervision and ordered to pay $3,153,074. And these examples are local.

Health care fraud with even larger amounts of money at stake has been prosecuted in other states.  A nonprofit up in NY is accused of defrauding the Medicaid system for over $27 million.  Overall, the federal government opened 924 criminal health care fraud investigations last year.

What is going on? Are more people getting into the health care fraud business? Has the government become better at detecting possible health care fraud?

I believe that the answer is that the federal and state governments have determined that it “pays” high dividends to invest in health care fraud investigations.  More and more money is being allocated to the fraud investigative divisions.  More money, in turn, yields more health care fraud allegations…which yields more convictions….and more money to the government.

Believe me, I understand the importance of detecting fraud.  It sickens me that those who actually defraud our Medicaid and Medicare systems are taking medically necessary services away from those who need the services.  However, sometimes the net is cast so wide…so far…that innocent providers get caught in the net.  And being accused of health care fraud when you innocent is a gruesome, harrowing experience that (1) you hope never happens; and (2) you have to be prepared in case it does.  I have seen it happen.

As previously stated, in fiscal year (FY) 2014, the federal government opened 924 new criminal health care fraud  investigations.  That’s 77 new fraud investigations a month!!  This number does not include civil investigations.

In FY 2012, the Department of Justice (DOJ) opened 2,016 new health care fraud investigations (1,131 criminal, 885 civil).

The Justice Department launched 903 new health-care fraud prosecutions in the first eight months of FY 2011, more than all of FY 2010.

These numbers show:

  • an 85% increase over FY 2010,
  • a 157% increase over FY 2006
  • and 822% over FY 1991.

And the 924  investigations opened in fiscal 2014 only represent federal investigations.  Concurrently, all 50 states are conducting similar investigations.

What is being recovered? Are the increased efforts to detect health care fraud worth the effort and expenditures?

Heck, yes, it is worth it to both the state and federal governments!

Government teams recovered $4.3 billion in FY 2013 and $19.2 billion over the last five years.  While still astronomically high, the numbers dropped slightly for FY 2014.  In FY 2014, according to the Annual Report of the Departments of Health and Human Services and Justice, the federal government won or negotiated over $2.3 billion in health care fraud judgments and settlements.  Due to these efforts, as well as efforts from preceding years, the federal government retrieved $3.3 billion from health care fraud investigations.

So the federal and state governments are putting more money into investigating health care fraud.  Why?

The Affordable Care Act.

Obviously, the federal and state governments conducted health care fraud investigations prior to the ACA.  But the implementation of the ACA set new mandates to increase fraud investigations. (Mandates, which were suggestions prior to the ACA).

In 2009, Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13520, which was targeted to reduce improper payments and to eliminate waste in federal programs.

On March 23, 2010, President Obama signed the ACA into law.  A major part of the ACA is focused on cost containment methods. Theoretically, the ACA is supposed to be self-funding.  Detecting fraud, waste and abuse in the Medicare/Medicaid system helps to fund the ACA.

Unlike many of the other ACA provisions, most of the fraud and abuse provisions went into effect in 2010 or 2011. The ACA increases funding to the Healthcare Fraud and Abuse Control Program by $350 million over the next decade. These funds can be used for fraud and abuse control and for the Medicare Integrity Program.

The ACA mandates states to conduct post payment and prepayment reviews, screen and audit providers, terminate certain providers, and create provider categories of risk.

While recent articles and media seem to indicate that health care fraud is running rampant, the substantial increase in accusations of health care fraud really may be caused by factors other than more fraud is occurring.

The ACA mandates have an impact.

And, quite frankly, the investigation units may be a bit overzealous to recover funds.

What will happen if you are a target of a criminal health care fraud investigation?

It depends whether the federal or state government is conducting the investigation.

If the federal government is investigating you, most likely, you will be unaware of the investigation.  Then, one day, agents of the federal government will come to your office and seize all property deemed related to the alleged fraud.  Your accounts will be frozen.  Whether you are guilty or not will not matter.  What will matter is you will need an experienced, knowledgeable health fraud attorney and the funds with which to compensate said attorney with frozen accounts.

If the state government is conducting the investigation, it is a little less hostile and CSI-ish.  Your reimbursements will be suspended with or without your notice (obviously, you would notice the suspension once the suspension occurred).  But the whole “raid on your office thing” is less likely.

There are legal remedies available, and the “defense” should begin immediately.

Most importantly, if you are a health care provider and you are not committing fraud, you are not safe from accusations of fraud.

Your insurance, most likely, will not cover attorneys’ fees for alleged intention fraud.

The attorney of your choice will not be able to accept funds that are “tainted” by alleged fraud, even if no fraud occurred.

Be aware that if, for whatever reason, you are accused, you will need to be prepared…for what you hope never happens.

Halbig: Court Holds Clear Language of the ACA Prohibits Health Care Subsidies in Federally-Run Exchanges

Remember my post, “The Great and Powerful ACA: Are High, Inflated Premiums Hiding Behind the Curtain?” I warned of the possible consequences of Halbig v. Burwell…and it happened.

Halbig v. Burwell was decided earlier today.

The Halbig court held that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) went too far in extending subsidies to those who buy insurance through the federally run, Healthcare.gov website.

The Halbig court ruled that the subsection of the ACA that allows high insurance premium tax credits, according to the plain language of the statute, only applies to those individuals enrolled “through an exchange established by the state.” (emphasis added). Therefore, if Halbig is upheld on en banc review by the D. C. Circuit (see below) or on appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court, residents who reside in two-thirds (or 36) of the states that did not establish state-run health care exchanges (including NC), will not benefit from the health care subsidies.

Looking at the decision through a purely objective, legal lens, I believe the federal court of appeals is correct in its ruling. I also agree that the ruling will have drastic and devastating consequences for the ACA and the people who would have benefited from the health care subsidies.

However, the law governing statutory construction and interpretation is clear. Statutory interpretation is the process by which courts interpret legislation.

For years, the U.S. Supreme Court has been explicit on statutory interpretation. “We begin with the familiar canon of statutory construction that the starting point for interpreting a statute is the language of the statute itself. Absent a clearly expressed legislative intention to the contrary, that language must ordinarily be regarded as conclusive.” Consumer Product Safety Commission et al. v. GTE Sylvania, Inc. et al., 447 U.S. 102 (1980).

In other words, if the words of a statute are unambiguous, then the statutory interpretation ends. The clear words of the statute must be followed.

Let me give an example of ambiguous language:

A magazine printed the following: “Rachel Ray enjoys cooking her family and her dogs.” If that were true, Rachel Ray’s family and dogs would be very upset. I am sure what the editor meant to write was “Rachel Ray enjoys cooking, her family, and her dogs.”

It is amazing how important a comma is.

The Halbig court held that the section of the ACA allowing health care subsidies only apply to those enrolled in an exchange established by the state is not ambivalent. Thus, according to statutory interpretation rules, the judicial inquiry ends.

So what happens now?

A request for an en banc ruling by the D. C. Circuit is the next step for Department of Justice. An en banc ruling is a decision made by all the justices, or the entire bench, of an appeals court, instead of a panel selected by the bench. In this case, three federal judges sat on the panel and the case was decided 2-1. An appeals court can only overrule a decision made by one of its panels if the court is sitting en banc.

Looking beyond any en banc ruling, the case could, potentially, be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, especially in light of the importance of the decision and the fact that a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the opposite way literally hours after Halbig was announced. See David King, et al. v. Burwell, et al.

The Fourth Circuit found the ACA ambiguous, and it states, “For reasons explained below, we find that the applicable statutory language is ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations. Applying deference to the IRS’s determination, however, we uphold the rule as a permissible exercise of the agency’s discretion. We thus affirm the judgment of the district court.”

Bizarre that two courts hold opposing positions on the same issue and publish both decisions on the same day.  It reminds of the old Sam the Sheepdog cartoon, “Duh! Which way did he go? Which way did he go, George?”

Finally, in closing, and on a personal note, I would like to dedicate this blog to my lab-doberman mix, Booker T, who, sadly, passed Sunday.  He was my best friend for over 14 years.  You will be greatly missed, Booker T.  Rest in peace.

Booker T