In a January 11, 2018, opinion, a district court in Florida held that once the government learns of possible regulatory noncompliance or mistakes in billings Medicare or Medicaid, but continues to reimburse the provider for later claims – the fact that the government continues to reimburse the provider – can be evidence in court that the alleged documentation errors are minor and that, if the services are actually rendered, despite the minor mistakes, the provider should not be liable under the False Claims Act.
Here is an example: Provider Smith undergoes a post-payment review of claims from dates of service January 1, 2016 – January 1, 2017. It is February 1, 2018. Today, Smith is told by the RAC auditor that he owes $1 million. Smith appeals the adverse decision. However, despite the accusation of $1 million overpayment, Smith continues providing medically necessary services the exact same way, he did in 2016. Despite the supposed outcome of the post-payment review, Smith continues to bill Medicare and Medicaid for services rendered in the exact same way that he did in 2016.
At least, according to UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND STATE OF FLORIDA v. SALUS REHABILITATION, LLC, if Smith continues to be reimbursed for services rendered, this continued reimbursement can be evidence in court that Smith is doing nothing wrong.
Many of my clients who are undergoing post-payment or prepayment reviews decrease or cease all together billing for future services rendered. First, and obviously, stopping or decreasing billings will adversely affect them. Many of those clients will be financially prohibited from defending the post or prepayment review audit because they won’t have enough funds to pay for an attorney. Secondly, and less obvious, at least according to the recent decision in Florida district court mentioned above, continuing to bill for and get reimbursed fo services rendered and billed to Medicare and/or Medicaid can be evidence in court that you are doing nothing wrong.
The facts of the Salus Rehabilitation case, are as follows:
A former employee of a health care system comprising of 53 specialized nursing facilities (“Salus”) filed a qui tam claim in federal court asserting that Salus billed the government for unnecessary, inadequate, or incompetent service.
Break from the facts of the case to explain qui tam actions: A former employee who brings a qui tam action is called the “relator.” In general, the reason that former employees bring qui tam cases is money. Relators get anywhere between 15 -30 % of the award of damages. Many qui tam actions result in multi million dollar awards in damages – meaning that a relator can get rich quickly by tattling on (or accusing) a former employer. Qui tam actions are jury trials (why this is important will be explained below).
Come and listen to a story ’bout a man named Jed
Poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed
Then one day he was shooting for some food,
And up through the ground come a bubbling crude
(Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea)
In the Salus case, the relator (Jed) asserted that Salus failured to maintain a “comprehensive care plan,” ostensibly required by a Medicaid regulation and that this failure rendered Salus’ Medicaid claims fraudulent. Also, Jed asserted that a handful of paperwork defects (for example, unsigned or undated documents) demonstrated that Salus never provided the therapy purported by the paperwork and billed to Medicare. Jed won almost $350 million based on the theory “that upcoding of RUG levels and failure to maintain care plans made [the defendants’] claims to Medicare and Medicaid false or fraudulent.” Oil, that is, black gold, Texas tea. You know Jed was celebrating like it was 1999.
Salus did not take it lying down.
The jury had awarded Jed $350 million. But in the legal world there is a legal tool if a losing party believes that the jury rendered an incorrect decision. It is called a Judgment as a Matter of Law. When a party files a Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, it is decided by the standard of whether a reasonable jury could find in favor of the party opposing the Motion, but it is decided by a judge.
In Salus, the Judge found that the verdict awarding Jed of $350 million could not be upheld. The Judge found that Jed’s burden was to show that the federal government and the state government did not know about the alleged record-keeping deficiencies but, had the governments known, the governments would have refused to pay Salus for services rendered, products delivered, and costs incurred. The Judge said that the record was deplete of any evidence that the governments would have refused to pay Salus. The Judge went so far to say that, theoretically, the governments could have implemented a less severe punishment, such as a warning or a plan or correction. Regardless, what the government MAY have done was not in the record. Specifically, the Judge held that “The resulting verdict (the $350 million to Jed), which perpetrates one of the forbidden “traps, zaps, and zingers” mentioned earlier, cannot stand. The judgment effects an unwarranted, unjustified, unconscionable, and probably unconstitutional forfeiture — times three — sufficient in proportion and irrationality to deter any prudent business from providing services and products to a government armed with the untethered and hair-trigger artillery of a False Claims Act invoked by a heavily invested relator.”
Wow. In other words, the Judge is saying that the verdict, which awarded Jed $350 million, will cause health care providers to NOT accept Medicare and Medicaid if the government is allowed to call every mistake in documentation “fraud,” or a violation of the False Claims Act. The Judge was not ok with this “slippery slope” result. Maybe he/she depends on Medicare…maybe he/she has a family member dependent on Medicaid…who knows? Regardless, this a WIN for providers!!
Legally, the Judge in Salus hung his hat on Universal Health Services, Inc. v. Escobar, 136 S. Ct. 1989 (2016), a Supreme Court case. In Escobar, the Supreme Court held that nit-picky documentation errors are not material and that materiality is required to condemn a provider under the False Claims Act. Escobar “necessarily means that if a service is non-compliant with a statute, a rule, or a contract; if the non-compliance is disclosed to, or discovered by, the United States; and if the United States pays notwithstanding the disclosed or discovered non-compliance, the False Claims Act provides a relator no claim for “implied false certification.”” (emphasis added). In other words, keep billing. If you are paid, then you can use that as evidence in court.
Escobar specifies that a “rigorous” and “demanding” standard for materiality and scienter precludes a False Claims Act claim based on a “minor or unsubstantial” or a “garden-variety” breach of contract or regulatory violation. Instead, Escobar assumes and enforces a course of dealing between the government and a supplier of goods or services that rests comfortably on proven and successful principles of exchange — fair value given for fair value received. Get it?? This is the first time that I have seen a judge be smart and intuitive enough to say – hey – providers are not perfect…and that’s ok. Providers may have insignificant documentation errors. But it is fundamentally unfair to prosecute a provider under the False Claims Act, which the Act is extraordinarily harsh and punitive, for minor, “garden variety” mistakes.
Granted, Salus was decided with a provider being prosecuted under the False Claims Act and not being accused of a pre or post-payment review finding of alleged overpayment.
But, isn’t it analogous?
A provider being accused that it owes $1 million because of minor documentation errors – but did actually provide the medically necessary services – should be afforded the same understanding that Salus was afforded. The mistakes need to be material. Minor mistakes should not be reasons for a 100% recoupment. Because there must be a course of dealing between the government and a supplier of goods or services that rests comfortably on proven and successful principles of exchange — fair value given for fair value received.
Oil has dried up, Jeb.
Often we read in the news stories of hospitals or health care providers paying inordinate amounts to settle cases in which credible allegations of fraud or allegations of false claims preside. Many times the providers actually committed fraud, waste, or abuse. Maybe medical records were falsified, or maybe the documents were created for Medicaid/care recipients that do not exist. Maybe the services claimed to have been rendered were not. In these cases, the provider can be held liable criminally (fraud) and/or civilly (false claims). And these providers should be held accountable to the government and the taxpayers.
It appears that this is not the case for an Ohio hospital that settled a False Claims Act case for $4.1 million last month. Do not get me wrong: The False Claims Act is no joke. Possible penalties imposed by the False Claims Act can be up to $10,000 per claim “plus 3 times the amount of damages which the Government sustains because of the act of that person.” 37 USC §3729. See blog for more explanation.
In the Ohio hospital’s case, the penalty derived from Dr. Abubakar Atiq Durrani, a spinal surgeon, performing spinal surgeries that, allegedly, were not medically necessary.
According to what I’ve read, there is no question that Dr. Durrani actually performed these surgeries. He did. On actual people who exist. Instead, the allegation is that the surgeries were not medically necessary.
I have blogged about medical necessity in the past. Medical necessity is a subjective standard. Medical necessity is defined as reasonable, necessary, and/or appropriate, based on evidence-based clinical standards of care.
But it is still a subjective standard. When you receive news that you suffer from a debilitating disease, what do you do? You get a second opinion. If one doctor recommends brain surgery, what do you do? You get a second opinion.
After that, you grab a handy, dandy Magic 8 Ball and give it a shake. Kidding. Kinda.
My point is that 2 physicians can recommend two different courses of treatment. One physician may practice more defensive medicine, while another may be more cautious. Surgeons will, generally, recommend surgery, more than non-surgeons; it’s what they do.
Going back to Dr. Durrani, who was arrested in 2013 for allegedly “convinc[ing] [patients] they needed spine and neck surgery. However, other doctors later determined those surgeries as unnecessary and damaging to the patient’s health.”
I find two points striking about this case: (1) The allegation that this physician “convinced” people to undergo spine surgery; and (2) The fact that the hospital settled for $4.1 million when no fraud existed or was alleged, only questions as to medical necessity, which is subjective.
As to the first, I am imagining my doctor. I am imagining that I have horrible, chronic back pain. My doctor recommends spinal surgery. There is no way, at all, ever, in this universe, that any doctor would be able to convince me to undergo surgery if I did not want surgery. Period. Who allows themselves to be peer pressured into surgery? Not to knock on my own profession, but I have a sneaky suspicion that this allegation was concocted by the plaintiffs’ attorney(s) and the plaintiffs responded, “Oh, you are right. I was persuaded.”
As to the second…Why did the hospital settle for such a high amount? Couldn’t the hospital have gone to trial and convinced a jury that Dr. Durrani’s surgeries were, in fact, reasonable and/or appropriate, based on evidence-based clinical standards of care?
According to the Magic 8 Ball, “signs point to yes.” Why cave at such a large number where no fraud was alleged?
Whatever happened to Dr. Durrani because of this whole mess? “Following his arraignment, Durrani allegedly fled the United States and remains a fugitive.”
In sum, based on allegations of questionable medical necessity, not fraud, a hospital paid $4.1 million and a U.S. physician fled into hiding…allegedly.
I question this outcome. I even question whether these types of allegations fall within the False Claims Act.
The False Claims Act holds providers liable for (abridged version):
- knowingly presenting a fraudulent claim to the Government;
- knowingly making a fraudulent record or statement to the Government;
- conspiring to do any of the referenced bullet points;
- having possession of Government money and knowingly delivering less than the amount;
- delivering a certified document intending to defraud the Government without completely knowing whether the information was true;
- knowingly buying or receiving as a pledge of debt, public property from the an employee of the Government who does not have the right to pledge that property;
- knowingly making, using, or causing to be made or used, a false record material to an obligation to pay the Government, or knowingly concealing or decreasing an obligation to pay the Government.
I see nothing in the False Claims Act punishing a provider for rendering services that, perhaps, may not be medically necessary.
I actually find questions of medical necessity to be easily defensible. After all, who do we look to for determinations of what are reasonable and/or appropriate services, based on evidence-based clinical standards of care?
Sure, some physicians may have conflicting views as to what is medically necessary. I see it all the time in court. One expert witness physician testifies that the service was medically necessary and another, equally as qualified, physician testifies to the contrary.
Unless I’m missing something (here, folks, is my “CYA”), I just do not understand why allegations of questionable medical necessity caused an U.S. physician to become a fugitive and a hospital to settle for $4.1 million.
It’s as if the hospital shook the Magic 8 Ball and asked whether it would be able to defend itself and received:
Recently a Michigan physician was arrested for committing over $35 million in Medicare fraud. (Probably some Medicaid fraud too, but Medicaid payments have not been reviewed). I have always said in this blog that I am against fraud. When someone is committing Medicare or Medicaid fraud, I say, prosecute to the highest degree allowable by law!
Here is one of many articles: link.
Providers who commit fraud are making good providers undergo harassing audits, harsh recoupments, and needless attorneys’ fees to fight the injustices.
Dear DHHS, This (the below-referenced story) is what Medicare/caid fraud looks like. It is obvious. It is disgusting. Fraud is NOT forgetting to date a service note. Fraud is NOT inadvertently inserting the incorrect billing code. Stop focusing on documentation nit-picking and find the REAL fraud! From, Me.
But, this Michigan physician…of all the possible fraudulent Medicare/Medicaid schemes….this man takes the cake.
Dr. Farid Fata, an oncologist, falsely diagnosed people WITHOUT cancer (healthy adults) as having cancer, subjecting these healthy adults to chemotherapy, and reaping the monetary benefit of expensive procedures. In my mind, Dr. Farid Fata should spend the rest of his life behind bars. And, if possible, throw a little radiation in his cell every now and then.
If greed is the inordinate desire to possess wealth far beyond the dictates of basic survival and comfort and to the detriment of anyone else, Dr. Farat exemplifies greed.
Remember the moral: “It is not wise to be too greedy.” –Aesop.
This moral comes from “A Dog and its Shadow,” in which a dog crosses over a river with a bone in his mouth. He sees his own shadow in the water, but shadow’s bone is twice the size of the bone in his mouth. (Obviously, an optical illusion). In an effort to snatch the bigger bone, the dog lets go of his own bone, and attacks the other dog (shadow), to get the bigger bone. The dog loses both bones – the shadow-bone, because it is a shadow; and his own, because the stream sweeps it away.
Dr. Fata wanted his own bone, as well as any other bone he could possibly swipe.
In the meantime, Dr. Fata, in complete opposition of his Hippocratic Oath, injured hundreds of patients by subjecting them to unnecessary treatments.
In the end, Dr. Fata loses all bones.
What treatments did Dr. Farat perform?
- Chemotherapy treatments to healthy adults;
- Positron Emission Tomograph (PET) scans and a variety of cancer and hematology treatments for patients who did not need them;
- The administration of unnecessary chemotherapy to patients in remission;
- Deliberate misdiagnosis of patients as having cancer to justify unnecessary cancer treatment;
- Administration of chemotherapy to end-of-life patients who will not benefit from the treatment;
- Deliberate misdiagnosis of patients without cancer to justify expensive testing;
- Fabrication of other diagnoses such as anemia and fatigue to justify unnecessary hematology treatments; and
- Distribution of controlled substances to patients without medical necessity or are administered at dangerous levels.
Prosecutors say Fata was motivated by money, billing Medicare for false claims, all the while, living here:
That is quite a bone!!!!
Dr. Fata faced a federal magistrate. He was arraigned Monday on a federal health care fraud indictment. Dr. Fata is being held at Wayne County Jail on a $9 million bond.
Dr. Fata became a naturalized American citizen in 2009. He was a prominent oncologist. Dr. Fata could very well had done well in his life with his wife with his own bones that collected. Apparently, an oncologist-sized bone was not good enough for Dr. Fata. Oh no, he wanted his oncologist-sized bone SUPER-SIZED.
And super-sized he will get! He faces:
- 20 years in jail;
- Deportation (if any crimes occurred prior to 2009);
- Possible bankruptcy;
- Possible fines
- Loss of his medical license;
- Potential loss of family (If my husband intentionally committed these acts, I doubt I could ever stay with him…of course, my husband never would!!!)
- Inevitable civil suits (If Dr. Fata diagnosed my with cancer and I discovered he purposely diagnosed me with a terminal disease to benefit monetarily….a very, large civil lawsuit would be filed immediately. In fact, I am sure plaintiffs’ lawyers all over are salivating).
Yet, personally, I do not think the 20 years, even including all the incidental consequences, is enough punishment. Think of the people who believed they suffered from cancer, underwent chemo, became ill (when they would otherwise have been healthy)…
The Italian poet, Durante degli Alighieri, simply referred to as “Dante,” in “Purgatory,” reserved the fourth circle of Purgatory for the greedy. Also, some of the greedy were bound and laid face down on the ground for having concentrated too much on earthly thoughts.
In my mind, 20 years is not nearly long enough for Dr. Fata.
Maybe, as Dante wrote, Dr. Fata should be bound and laid face down for 20 years. Or, perhaps, he should be forced to undergo years of chemotherapy…one year for every healthy adult he forced to undergo unneccessary chemotherapy.