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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.”

Have an Inkling of a Possible Overpayment, You Must Repay Within 60 Days, Says U.S. District Court!

You are a health care provider.  You own an agency.  An employee has a “hunch” that…

maybe…

perhaps….

your agency was overpaid for Medicare/caid reimbursements over the past two years to the tune of $1 million!

This employee has been your billing manager for years and you trust her…but…she’s not an attorney and doesn’t have knowledge of pertinent legal defenses. You are concerned about the possibility of overpayments, BUT….$1 million? What if she is wrong?  That’s a lot of money!

According to a recent U.S. District Court in New York, you have 60 days to notify and refund the government of this alleged $1 million overpayment, despite not having a concrete number or understanding whether, in fact, you actually owe the money.

Seem a bit harsh? It is.

With the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on March 23, 2010, many new regulations were implemented with burdensome requirements to which health care providers are required to adhere.  At first, the true magnitude of the ACA was unknown, as very few people actually read the voluminous Act and, even fewer, sat to contemplate the unintentional consequences the Act would present to providers. For example, I daresay that few, if any, legislators foresaw the Draconian effect from changing the word “may” in 42 CFR 455.23 to “must.” See blog and blog and blog.

Another boiling frog in the muck of the ACA is the 60-Day Refund Rule (informally the 60-day rule).

What is the 60-Day Refund Rule?

In 2012, CMS proposed the “60-day Refund Rule,” requiring Medicare providers and suppliers to repay Medicare overpayments within 60 days of the provider or supplier identifying the overpayment.  Meaning, if you perform a self audit and determine that you think that you were overpaid, then you must repay the amount within 60 days or face penalties.

If I had a nickel for each time a clients calls me and says, “Well, I THINK I may have been overpaid, but I’m not really sure,” and, subsequently, I explained how they did not owe the money, I’d be Kardashian rich.

It is easy to get confused. Some overpayment issues are esoteric, involving complex eligibility issues, questionable duplicity issues, and issues involving “grey areas” of “non”-covered services.  Sometimes a provider may think he/she owes an overpayment until he/she speaks to me and realizes that, by another interpretation of the same Clinical Coverage Policy that, in fact, no overpayment is owed. To know you owe an overpayment, generally, means that you hired someone like me to perform the self audit.  From my experience, billing folks are all too quick to believe an overpayment is owed without thinking of the legal defenses that could prevent repayment, and this “quick to find an overpayment without thinking of legal defenses” is represented in Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al., the lawsuit that I will be discussing in this blog.  And to the billings folks’ credit, you cannot blame them.  They don’t want to be accused of fraud. They would rather “do the right thing” and repay an overpayment, rather than try to argue that it is not due.  This “quick to find an overpayment without thinking of legal defenses” is merely the billing folks trying to conduct all work “above-board,” but can hurt the provider agency financially.

Nonetheless, the 60-day Refund Rule is apathetic as to whether you know what you owe or whether you hire someone like me.  The 60-Day Refund Rule demands repayment to the federal government upon 60-days after your “identification” of said alleged overpayment.

Section 1128(d)(2) of the Social Security Act states that:

“An overpayment must be reported and returned under paragraph (1) by the later of— (A) the date which is 60 days after the date on which the overpayment was identified; or (B) the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable.”

A recent case in the U.S. District Court of New York has forged new ground by denying a health care providers’ Motion to Dismiss the U.S. government’s and New York State’s complaints in intervention under the False Claims Act (FCA).  The providers argued that the 60-day rule cannot start without a precise understanding as to the actual amount of the overpayment. Surely, the 60-day rule does not begin to run on the day someone accuses the provider of a possible overpayment!

My colleague, Jennifer Forsyth, recently blogged about this very issue.  See Jennifer’s blog.

Basically, in Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al., three hospitals provided care to Medicaid patients. Due to a software glitch [cough, cough, NCTracks] and due to no fault of the hospitals, the hospitals received possible overpayments.  The single state entity for Medicaid in New York questioned the hospitals in 2010, and the hospitals took the proactive step of tasking an employee, Kane, who eventually became the whistleblower, to determine whether, if, in fact, the hospital did receive overpayments.

At this point, arguably, the hospitals were on notice of the possibility of overpayments, but had not “identified” such overpayments per the 60-day rule.  It was not until Kane made preliminary conclusions that the hospitals were held to have “identified” the alleged overpayments.  But very important is the fact that the Court held the hospitals liable for having “identified” the alleged overpayments prior to actually knowing the veracity of the preliminary findings.

Five months after being tasked with the job of determining any overpayment, Kane emails the hospital staff her findings that, in her opinion, the hospitals had received overpayments totaling over $1 million for over 900 claims.  In reality, Kane’s findings were largely inaccurate, as approximately one-half of her alleged findings of overpayments were actually paid accurately.  Despite the inaccurate findings, the Complaint that Kane filed as the whistleblower (she had been previously fired, which may or may not have contributed to her willingness to bring a whistleblower suit), alleged that the hospitals had a duty under the 60-day rule to report and refund the overpayments, even though there was no certainty as to whether the findings were accurate. And the Court agreed with Kane!

Even more astounding, Kane’s email to the hospitals’ management that contained the inaccurate findings contained phrases that would lead one to believe that the findings were only preliminary:

  • “further analysis would be needed to confirm his findings;” and
  • the spreadsheet provided “some insight to the magnitude of the problem” (emphasis added).

The above-mentioned comments would further the argument that the hospitals were not required to notify the Department and return the money 60 days from Kanes’ email because Kane’s own language within the email was so wishy-washy. Her language in her email certainly does not instill confidence that her findings are accurate and conclusive.

But…

The 60-day rule requires notification and return of the overpayments within 60 days of identification.  The definition of “identification” is the crux of Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al. [it depends on what the definition of “is” is].

The Complaint reads, that the hospitals “fraudulently delay[ed] its repayments for up to two years after the Health System knew” the extent of the overpayments” (emphasis added). According to the Complaint, the date that the hospitals “knew” of the overpayment was the date Kane emailed the inaccurate findings.

The hospitals filed a Motion to Dismiss based on the fact that Kane’s email and findings did not conclusively identify overpayments, instead, only provided a preliminary finding to which the hospitals would have needed to verify.

The issue in Kane ex rel. United States et al. v. Healthfirst et al. is the definition of “identify” under the 60-day rule. Does “identify” mean “possibly, maybe?” Or “I know I owe it?” Or somewhere in between?

The hospitals filed a Motion to Dismiss, claiming that the 60-day rule did not begin to run on the date that Kane sent his “preliminary findings.”  The U.S. District Court in New York denied the hospitals’ Motion to Dismiss and stated in the Order, “there is an established duty to pay money to the government, even if the precise amount due is yet to be determined.” (emphasis added).

Yet another heavy burden tossed upon health care providers in the ever-deepening, regulatory muck involved in the ACA.  As health care providers carry heavier burdens, they begin to sink into the muck.

Important take aways:

  • Caveat: Take precautions to avoid creating disgruntled, former employees.
  • Have an experienced attorney on speed dial.
  • Self audit, but self audit with someone highly experienced and knowledgeable.
  • Understand the ACA. If you do not, read it. Or hire someone to teach you.