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.
False Claims Act: The Medicare Horror Story
What the heck is the False Claims Act and why is it important to you?
When it comes to Medicaid and Medicare, the ghoulish phrase “False Claims Act” is frequently thrown around. If you google False Claims Act (FCA) under the “news” option, you will see some chilling news article titles.
- Pediatric Services of America, units to pay $6.88 in False Claims
- NuVasive, Inc. Agrees to Pay $13.5 Million to Resolve False Claims
- California Oncologist Pays $736k to Settle False Claims Allegations
False claims cases tend to be high dollar cases for health care providers; many times the amounts are at issue that could potentially put the provider out of business. FCA is spine-chilling, and many health care providers would rather play the hiding child rather than the curious investigator in a horror story. Come on, let’s face it, the curious characters usually get killed. But, this is not a horror story, and it is imperative that providers are informed of the FCA and potential penalties.
I have blogged about post payment reviews that use extrapolation, which result in astronomical alleged overpayments. See blog and blog. Interestingly, these alleged overpayments could also be false claims. It is just a matter of which governmental agency is pursuing it (or person in the case of qui tem cases).
But the ramifications of false claims allegations are even more bloodcurdling than the astronomical alleged overpayments. It is important for you to understand what false claims are and how to prevent yourself from ever participating in a false claim, knowingly or unknowingly.
First, what is a false claim?
A false claims occurs when you knowingly present, or cause to be presented, to the US Government a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval. (abridged version).
The false claim does not have to be billed with actual knowledge that it is false or fraudulent. The false claim does not even have to be fraudulent; it can be merely false. The distinction lies in that a fraudulent claim is one that you intentionally alter. A false claim could merely be incorrect information. Saying it another way, the false claim can be a false or incorrect claim that you had no actual knowledge was false. That is hair-raising.
What is the penalty? It is:
A civil penalty of not less than $5,500 and not more than $11,000 per claim, plus 3 times the amount of the claim. You can see why these are high dollar cases.
The federal government recovered a jaw-dropping $5.7 billion in 2014 under the False Claims Act (FCA). In 2013, the feds recovered $5 billion under the FCA. Expect 2015 to be even higher. Since the inception of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), FCA investigations have increased.
Overwhelmingly, the recoveries are from the health care industry.
Everyone knows that the Medicare Claims Processing Manual is esoteric, verbose, and vague. Let’s face it: just Chapter 1 “General Billing Requirements” alone is 313 pages! Besides me, who reads the Medicare Claims Processing Manual cover to cover? Who, besides me, needs to know that Medicare does not cover deported beneficiaries or the exceptions to the Anti-markup Payment Limitation?
Not to mention, the Manual is not law. The Manual does not get approved by Congress. The Manual is guidance or policy.
However, in FCA cases, you can be held liable for items in the Medicare Claims Processing Manual of which you were not aware. In other words, in FCA cases, you can be found liable for what you should have known.
Real life hypotheticals:
Hospital submits claims to Medicare and received payment for services rendered in a clinical trial involving devices to improve organ transplants. Unbeknownst to the hospital, the Manual prohibits Medicare reimbursements for non-FDA approved services.
Physician A has reciprocal arrangement with Physician B. A undergoes personal surgery and B serves A’s Medicare Part B patients while A is recovering. A returns and bills Medicare and is paid for services rendered by B 61 days+ after A left the office.
A physician accepts assignment of a bill of $300 for covered Medicare services and collects $80 from the enrollee. Physician neglects to depict on the claim form that he/she collected anything from the patient. Medicare’s allowable amount is $250, and since the deductible had previously been met, makes payment of $200 to the physician.
These are just a few examples of situations which could result in a FCA allegation.
But do not fret! There are legal defenses written into the Social Security Act that provides protection for health care providers!
1. Check whether you have insurance coverage for FCA.
2. Have an attorney on hand with FCA experience.
3. Read portions of the Medicare Claims Billing Manual which are pertinent to you.
Most importantly, if you are accused of billing false claims, get your advocate sooner rather than later! Do not engage in any conversations or interviews without counsel!
Appeal all findings!