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.”
“You’re fired!” President Trump has quite a bit of practice saying this line from The Apprentice. Recently, former AG Sally Yates was on the receiving end of the line. “It’s not personal. It’s just business.”
The Yates Memo created quite a ruckus when it was first disseminated. All of a sudden, executives of health care agencies were warned that they could be held individually accountable for actions of the agency.
What is the Yates Memo?
The Yates Memo is a memorandum written by Sally Quillian Yates, former Deputy Attorney General for the U.S. Dept. of Justice, dated September 9, 2015.
It basically outlines how federal investigations for corporate fraud or misconduct should be conducted and what will be expected from the corporation getting investigated. It was not written specifically about health care providers; it is a general memo outlining the investigations of corporate wrongdoing across the board. But it is germane to health care providers.
January 31, 2017, Sally Yates was fired by Trump. So what happens to her memo?
With Yates terminated, will the memo that has shaken corporate America that bears her name go as well? Newly appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote his own memo on March 8, 2017, entitled “Memorandum for all Federal Prosecutors.” it directs prosecutors to focus not on corporate crime, but on violent crime. However, investigations into potential fraud cases and scrutiny on providers appear to remain a top priority under the new administration, as President Donald Trump’s proposed budget plan for fiscal year 2018 included a $70 million boost in funding for the Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control program.
Despite Sessions vow to focus on violent crimes, he has been clear that health care fraud remains a high priority. At his confirmation, Sessions said: “Sometimes, it seems to me, Sen. Hirono, that the corporate officers who caused the problem should be subjected to more severe punishment than the stockholders of the company who didn’t know anything about it.” – a quote which definitely demonstrates Sessions aligns with the Yates Memo.
By law, companies, like individuals, are not required to cooperate with the Justice Department during an investigation. The Yates Memo incentivizes executives to cooperate. However, the concept was not novel. Section 9-28.700 of the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual, states: “Cooperation is a potential mitigating factor, by which a corporation – just like any other subject of a criminal investigation – can gain credit in a case that otherwise is appropriate for indictment and prosecution.”
Even though Trump’s proposed budget decreases the Department of Justice’s budget, generally, the increase in the budget for the Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control program is indicative of this administration’s focus on fraud, waste, and abuse.
Providers accused of fraud, waste, or abuse suffer extreme consequences. 42 CFR 455.23 requires states to suspend Medicaid reimbursements upon credible allegations of fraud. The suspension, in many instances, lead to the death of the agency – prior to any allegations being substantiated. Just look at what happened in New Mexico. See blog. And the timeline created by The Santa Fe New Mexican.
When providers are accused of Medicare/caid fraud, they need serious legal representation, but with the suspension in place, many cannot afford to defend themselves.
I am “all for” increasing scrutiny on Medicare/caid fraud, waste, and abuse, but, I believe that due process protection should also be equally ramped up. Even criminals get due process.
The upshot regarding the Yates Memo? Firing Yates did not erase the Yates Memo. Expect Sessions and Trump to continue supporting the Yates Memo and holding executives personally accountable for health care fraud – no more hiding behind the Inc. or LLC. Because firing former AG Yates, did nothing to the Yates Memo…at least not yet.
Here is the article (my opinions will be forthcoming):
SANTA FE – The Attorney General’s Office has cleared a third behavioral health agency of Medicaid fraud, and it’s reaching out to audit firms for help in investigating the remaining dozen referred by the Human Services Department two years ago.
Attorney General Hector Balderas said Wednesday that he has issued requests for proposals from audit firms to help with the investigations, to speed up the process.
A spokesman for Balderas, meanwhile, said the AG’s Office has completed its investigation into Raton-based Service Organization for Youth and found no Medicaid fraud on the part of the agency, although there was overbilling.
The AG’s Office referred the case back to the Human Services Department to pursue the overbilling, according to spokesman James Hallinan. The alleged amount was not immediately available.
As an outgrowth of the SOY investigation, a former therapist for the agency was charged six weeks ago by the AG’s Office with Medicaid fraud. She allegedly provided false billing information to SOY.
The Human Services Department in 2013 referred to the attorney general 15 nonprofits that provided services to the mentally ill and addicted, saying an audit it commissioned had found $36 million in overbilling, mismanagement and possible fraud.
Two of the providers – The Counseling Center of Alamogordo and Santa Fe-based Easter Seals El Mirador – had previously been cleared of fraud by the AG’s Office and are in disputes with HSD about what, if anything, they owe for alleged overbilling.
Former Attorney General Gary King, who left office at the end of December, had said it could take up to six years to complete the probes. Balderas said that was too long and got approval from the Legislature during the regular session to shift $1.8 million out of a consumer protection fund to hire extra help.
The request for proposals “is a critical infusion of resources to expedite the behavioral health Medicaid fraud investigations,” Balderas said Wednesday in a statement. He said expanding the pool of experts to work with his staff “will allow our investigation to proceed even more quickly and efficiently, which has always been my priority.”
The request for proposals, issued last week, requires that bidders respond by June 30.
After the Human Services Department cut off Medicaid funding to the providers and referred them to the AG’s Office, it brought in five Arizona companies to take over a dozen of them. SOY, however, had its Medicaid funding restored by HSD and continued to operate, with technical assistance from one of the Arizona firms.
The report on the SOY investigation was not immediately available from Balderas’ office. Hallinan said it was being reviewed before release to ensure that it didn’t affect the criminal proceedings against the former SOY therapist.
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.
Jason DeBruyn of the Triangle Business Journal wrote:
Computer Sciences Corporation, the company that designed, developed and is operating the Medicaid claims payment system in North Carolina, is facing a health care fraud lawsuit brought by the U.S. attorney’s office in New York.
That lawsuit has no immediate impact in North Carolina, though Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC) built the system in this state – called NCTracks – using 32 percent of the code used in New York City. Initially, CSC had hoped to duplicate as much as 73 percent of the New York City code in North Carolina.
NCTracks has been the target of several attacks from health care providers who say they have not been paid on time. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, where NCTracks is housed, faces a lawsuit that could incorporate 70,000 health care providers and end up with damages exceeding $100 million. NCTracks has been the target of at least three searing audits.
The New York lawsuit, brought by Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, alleges billing fraud schemes that used computer programs to automatically alter billing data, including the use of a defaulting program to systematically falsify diagnosis codes submitted to Medicaid.
“As alleged, CSC and the City created computer programs that systematically, and fraudulently, altered billing data in order to get paid by Medicaid as quickly as possible and as much as possible,” Bharara said through a statement. “Billing frauds like those alleged undermine the integrity of public healthcare programs like Medicaid.”
Although this lawsuit makes no mention of activity in North Carolina, Knicole Emanuel, an attorney with Williams Mullen in Raleigh who represents providers in the lawsuit against DHHS, says it “will almost certainly cause the federal government to peer a bit closer at all CSC’s billing software systems in other states (including North Carolina).”
Representatives from DHHS did not immediately comment on the New York lawsuit.
It’s a heart-stopping moment, but it happens regularly: A Medicaid provider, who never had any problems with the State of North Carolina, receives a letter from the North Carolina Attorney General’s Medicaid Investigations Division, or “MID”, informing her that she is the subject of an investigation of Medicaid billing practices. The MID’s core mission is to investigate and prosecute health care fraud committed by Medicaid providers. If you receive a letter from MID, it is an extremely serious matter and can instantly change everything you. You need to know what MID is, how you might become the subject of an investigation, and what to do if you are.
What is MID? MID is a subdivision of the North Carolina Department of Justice that is tasked primarily with investigating Medicaid fraud. MID has two main divisions, civil and criminal. The civil division investigates cases in which a provider may have made a false statement in order to obtain reimbursement payments. The civil division uses special powers granted by the North Carolina False Claims Act to investigate providers, determine if there is enough evidence to show a false statement resulting in reimbursement payments from Medicaid, and thereafter file a civil lawsuit to recover the money.
MID’s criminal division employs prosecutors whose job is to investigate, file criminal charges against, and convict providers who have intentionally and willfully obtained reimbursement payments under false pretenses. The MID website itself describes Medicaid fraud to include circumstances in which providers intentionally bill Medicaid for services not actually provided, use an improper procedure code to bill for a higher priced service when a lower priced service was provided, bill for non-covered services by describing the services as covered services, misrepresent a patient’s diagnosis and symptoms and bill Medicaid for a service that is medically unnecessary, or falsifies medical records. Any such acts could result in criminal prosecution.
As a responsible Medicaid provider, you might conclude that you would never have to worry about an MID investigation. After all, MID is tasked with investigating fraud, and the vast majority of providers honestly and lawfully provide services and submit reimbursement requests for those services. However, the new reality in Medicaid is that many honest providers can and do find themselves dealing with an MID investigation. A prime example, which happens frequently, is when DHHS finds a “credible allegation of fraud” regarding the provider. One would conclude that a “credible allegation of fraud” would be limited to hard evidence that a provider intentionally obtained reimbursements based on false information or some other bad act. However, the Medicaid regulations define a “credible allegation of fraud” to include the results of claims data mining. In other words, a “credible allegation of fraud” can be based simply on a computer analysis of a provider’s billings to Medicaid, and this has indeed been the basis of DHHS’ referral of cases to MID for investigation. For this reason, a number of honest providers have indeed found themselves the subject of an MID investigation, having to contend with the difficulty that such an investigation brings.
There are several key things that providers must know about an MID investigation. If you find yourself the subject of such an investigation, keep the following in mind:
• The first and most important: get a lawyer. The stakes in an MID investigation are extremely high, to include the potential for conviction of a crime. Proceeding without advice of counsel is very risky. Everyone who is subject of an investigation has substantial and important rights, but it takes an expert in this area of the law (and not necessarily me or my firm) to competently advise someone who is the subject of an MID investigation.
• Always remember that the State’s investigators and lawyers only work for the State. MID is staffed with competent, dedicated investigators and attorneys, and my dealings with them show that they are straightforward people. However, their job is to investigate fraud, and if you are the subject of an investigation, they have received information indicating that you may have committed fraud. You therefore should exercise caution when speaking with them, you are under no obligation to answer questions, and you certainly are under no such obligation without first hiring an attorney.
• Ensure that all your records are properly preserved. Part of MID’s investigation will certainly be a request to inspect and copy your records related to Medicaid billing, such as patient files, employee timesheets, records relating to claims submissions, and contracts with service providers. Any loss of such records will have to be explained, and if a loss occurs after a provider has received notice of an investigation, the provider could be accused of having destroyed records. It is therefore crucial that you preserve your records, both the ones on paper and the electronic data containing relevant information.
• Do not discuss the investigation or your Medicaid billing practices with anyone except your lawyer. Because you are the subject of an investigation that is based on information that may indicate you committed fraud, you must be careful about what you say. If you discuss matters with anyone but your lawyer, those persons could be compelled to testify about what you said, and it is not uncommon for someone to misquote, misunderstand, or otherwise misreport what someone has said. Speaking only with your lawyer is the safest course.
• Finally, be patient with the process. Being the subject of an MID investigation is stressful and frustrating, but MID currently is backlogged with a huge number of cases. This means that it will take time for the investigation to conclude. Expert counsel can help you through this process, but recognize that it will take a long time for it to conclude.