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.
Defending Medicare Providers Against FCA or Qui Tam Lawsuits
As a health care partner at Nelson Mullins, I’ve seen my fair share of False Claims Act (FCA) and Qui Tam actions against health care providers. It’s not uncommon for practices to receive unwarranted accusations of false claims, especially when it comes to billing Medicare. But fear not, my friends, for I’m here to provide some guidance on how to defend yourself. These cases are long and tedious, so it is important to maintain a bit of humor throughout the process – that and hire a really good attorney.
First things first, let’s talk about the False Claims Act. This federal law imposes liability on individuals and companies that defraud the government by submitting false claims for payment. Essentially, if you submit a claim for reimbursement from Medicare that you know is false, you could be on the hook for some serious penalties. However, the government has to prove that you had actual knowledge that the claim was false, which can be a tough burden to meet.
Now, let’s talk about Qui Tam actions. These are lawsuits brought by private individuals, also known as “whistleblowers,” on behalf of the government. The whistleblower stands to receive a percentage of any damages recovered by the government, so there’s a financial incentive for them to pursue these cases. Qui Tam actions can be especially tricky because the whistleblower doesn’t have to prove that you had actual knowledge that the claim was false – they just have to show that you submitted a false claim.
So, what can you do to defend yourself against these accusations? Well, for starters, make sure that you’re submitting accurate claims to Medicare. Seems obvious, right? But you’d be surprised at how many practices make mistakes when it comes to billing. Double-check your codes, make sure you’re only billing for services that were actually provided, and make sure your documentation supports the services you’re billing for.
If you do find yourself facing an FCA or Qui Tam action, don’t panic. You have the right to defend yourself, and there are plenty of strategies that can be employed to fight back. For example, you could argue that the government hasn’t met its burden of proof, or that the whistleblower doesn’t have enough evidence to support their claim. And don’t forget about the power of humor – a well-timed joke can go a long way in disarming your accusers. Obviously, I am kidding. The investigators have no humor.
In all seriousness, though, these cases can be incredibly complex and time-consuming, so it’s important to have experienced legal counsel on your side. At Nelson Mullins, we’ve represented numerous health care providers in FCA and Qui Tam actions, and we have the knowledge and expertise to help you navigate these challenges.
So, to sum it up: be accurate in your billing, be prepared to defend yourself, and don’t be afraid to use a little humor to lighten the mood. And if all else fails, just remember the wise words of Mark Twain: “Humor is the great thing, the saving thing after all. The minute it crops up, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments flit away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”
#FalseClaimsAct #Medicare #QuiTam #HealthcareLaw #NelsonMullins #DefendYourself #AccuracyIsKey #HumorIsTheBestMedicine #MarkTwainQuotes
Medicare/caid Fraud, Tattletails, and How To Self Disclose
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.”