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.”
By: Edward M. Roche, the founder of Barraclough NY LLC, a litigation support firm that helps healthcare providers fight against statistical extrapolations.
In the first article in this series, we covered how a new governor of New Mexico recently came into power and shortly thereafter, all 15 of the state’s nonprofit providers for behavioral health services were accused of fraud and replaced with companies owned by UnitedHealthcare.
When a new team is brought in to take over a crisis situation, one might expect that things would improve. The replacement companies might be presumed to transfer to New Mexico newer and more efficient methods of working, and patient services would become better and more efficient. Out with the old, in with the new. The problem in New Mexico is that this didn’t happen – not at all.
The corporate structure in New Mexico is byzantine. UnitedHealth Group, Inc. is a Minnesota corporation that works through subsidiaries, operating companies and joint ventures to provide managed healthcare throughout the United States. In New Mexico, UnitedHealth worked through Optum Behavioral Health Solutions and United Behavioral Health, Inc. OptumHealth New Mexico is a joint venture between UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company and United Behavioral Health, according to the professional services contract signed with the State of New Mexico.
And that’s not all. OptumHealth is not the company providing the services. According to the contract, It was set up to act as a bridge between actual providers of health services and a legal entity called the State of New Mexico Interagency Behavioral Health Purchasing Collaborative. This Collaborative combines together 16 agencies within the state government.
OptumHealth works by using subcontractors to actually deliver healthcare under both Medicaid and Medicare. Its job is to make sure that all claims from the subcontractors are compliant with state and federal law. It takes payment for the claims submitted and then pays out to the subcontractors. But for this service, OptumHealth takes a 28-percent commission, according to court papers.
This is a nice margin. A complaint filed by whistleblower Karen Clark, an internal auditor with OptimumHealth, indicated that from October 2011 until April 2012, OptumHealth paid out about $88.25 million in Medicaid funds and got a commission of $24.7 million. The payments went out to nine subcontractors. Clark claimed that from Oct. 1, 2011 until April 22, 2013, the overall payouts were about $529.5 million, and the 28-percent commission was about $148.3 million.
In spite of the liberal flow of taxpayer money, things did not go well. Clark’s whistleblower suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, claimed that OptumHealth knew of massive fraud but refused to investigate. Clark says she was eventually fired after she uncovered the malfeasance. It appears that even after learning of problems, OptumHealth kept billing away, eager to continue collecting that 28-percent commission.
Clark’s complaint details a number of problems in New Mexico’s behavioral health sector. It is a list of horrors: there were falsified records, services provided by unlicensed providers, use of improper billing codes, claims for services that never were provided, and many other problems. Allegedly, many client files contained no treatment plans or treatment notes, or even records of what treatments had been provided and s services billed for times when offices were closed. The suit also claims that some services were provided by probationers instead of licensed providers, and a number of bills were submitted for a person who was outside the United States at the time.
The complaint further alleges that one provider received $300,000 in payments, but had submitted only $200,000 worth of claims. When Clark discovered this she allegedly was told by her supervisor at OptumHealth that it was “too small to be concerned about”. It also is alleged that a) insight-oriented psychotherapy was billed when actually the client was being taught how to brush their teeth; b) the same services were billed to the same patient several times per month, and files were falsified to satisfy Medicaid rules; c) interactive therapy sessions were billed for patients who were non-verbal and unable to participate; d) individual therapy was claimed when group therapy was given; e) apart from Medicaid, other sources allegedly were billed for exactly the same services; and f) developmentally disabled patients were used to bill for group therapy from which they had no capacity to benefit. Clark also stated that investigations of one provider for false billing were suspended because they were “a big player in the state”.
Other alleged abuse included a provider that submitted claims for 15-20 hours per day of group therapy for 20 to 40 children at a time, and for numerous psychotherapy services never provided. The complaint also describes one individual provider that supposedly worked three days per week, routinely billing Medicaid for twelve 30-minute individual psychotherapy sessions; 12 family psychotherapy sessions; 23 children in group therapy; and 32 children in group interactive psychotherapy each day.
A number of other abuses are detailed in the complaint: a) some providers had secretaries prescribing medication; b) one provider claimed that it saw 30 patients each 90 minutes per day for psychotherapeutic treatment; c) some individuals allegedly submitted claims for 30 hours per day of treatment; and d) some facilities had no credentialed psychotherapist at any of its facilities. Remember that all of these subcontractors are providing behavioral (psychiatric and psychological) services. Clark found that others submitted bills claiming the services were performed by a medical doctor, but there were none at their facility.
And in one of the most stunning abuses imaginable, one provider allegedly diagnosed all of their patients as having autism. Clark believes this was done because it allowed billing under both medical and mental health billing codes.
These are only a few of the apparent problems we see in New Mexico’s behavioral services.
You would think that once all of this had been brought to light, then public authorities such as the state’s Attorney General’s office would be eager to investigate and begin to root out the abusers. But that isn’t what happened.
James Hallinan, a spokesman for that office, stated that “based on its investigation, the Office of the Attorney General determined it would be in the best interest of the State to decline to intervene in the case.”
While it was making this decision, Clark’s allegations remained under court seal. But now they can be shown.
(*) Hallinan, James, spokesman for Attorney General’s office, quoted by Peters, J. and Lyman, A. Lawsuit: $14 million in new Medicaid fraud ignored in botched behavioral health audits, January 8, 2016, NM Political Report, URL: http://nmpoliticalreport.com/26519/lawsuit-optumhealth-botched-audits-of-nm-providers/ accessed March 22, 2016.
This article is based on US ex rel. Karen Clark and State of New Mexico ex rel. Karen Clark and Karen Clark, individually vs. UnitedHealth Group, Inc., United Healthcare Insurance Company, United Behavioral Health, Inc., and OptumHealth New Mexico, Complaint for Damages and Penalties, United States District Court for the District of New Mexico, No. 13-CV-372, April 22, 2013 held under court seal until a few weeks ago.
By: Ed Roche, founder of Barraclough NY LLC, a litigation support firm that helps healthcare providers fight against statistical extrapolations
It was published in RACMonitor.
Healthcare providers sometimes can get caught up in a political storm. When this happens, audits can be used as a weapon to help preferred providers muscle into a market. This appears to have happened recently in New Mexico.
Let’s go back in time.
On Sept. 14, 2010, Susana Martinez was in Washington, D.C. She was looking for campaign contributions to run for the governorship of New Mexico. She visited the office of the government lobbying division of UnitedHealth Group and picked up a check for $25,000.
The next day, Martinez published an editorial claiming that Bill Richardson’s administration in New Mexico was tolerating much “waste, fraud and abuse” in its Medicaid program. Eventually, she was elected as the 31st governor of New Mexico and took office Jan. 1, 2011.
According to an email trail, by the fall of 2012, Martinez’s administration was busy exchanging emails with members of the boards of directors of several healthcare companies in Arizona. During this same period, the Arizonans made a number of contributions to a political action committee (PAC) set up to support Martinez. At the same time, officers from New Mexico’s Human Services Department (HSD) made a number of unannounced visits to Arizona.
The lobbying continued in earnest. Hosted in part by UnitedHealth money, the head of HSD visited Utah’s premier ski resort, and the bill was paid for by an organization financed in part by UnitedHealth. The governor’s chief of staff was treated to dinner at an expensive steakhouse in Las Vegas. There is suspicion of other contacts, but these have not been identified. All of these meetings were confidential.
The governor continued to publicly criticize health services in New Mexico. She focused on 15 mental health providers who had been in business for 40 years. They were serving 87 percent of the mental health population in New Mexico and had developed an extensive delivery system that reached all corners of the state.
Martinez honed in on one mental health provider because the CEO used a private aircraft. He was accused of using Medicaid funds to finance a lavish lifestyle. None of this was true. It turned out that the owner had operations all over the state and used the plane for commuting, but it made for good sound bites to feed the press.
The state decided to raise the pressure against the providers. Public Consulting Group (PCG), a Boston-based contractor, was called in to perform an audit of mental health services. In addition to taking samples and performing analyses of claims, PCG was asked to look for “credible allegations of fraud.”
In legal terms, the phrase “credible allegations of fraud” carries much weight. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it can be used to justify punitive actions against a provider. It is surprising that only “allegations” are necessary, not demonstrated proof. The reality is that in practical terms, a provider can be shut down based on allegations alone.
In a letter regarding its work, PCG stated that “there are no credible allegations of fraud.” Evidently, that was the wrong answer. PCG was kicked out of New Mexico and not allowed to complete its audit. HSD took over.
The PCG letter had been supplied to HSD in a Microsoft Word format. In a stunning act, HSD removed the statement concluding that there were “no credible allegations of fraud.” HSD continued to use the PCG letter, but only in this altered form.
HSD continued to insist publicly that there were credible allegations of fraud. Since PCG had been kicked out before completing the audit, a HSD staff attorney took the liberty of performing several statistical extrapolations that generated a repayment demand of more than $36 million. During testimony, the attorney admitted that the extent of his experience with statistics was an introductory course he had taken years earlier in college.
Two years later, statistical experts from Barraclough NY LLC who are elected fellows of the American Statistical Association examined HSD’s work and concluded that it was faulty and unreliable. They concluded there was zero credibility in the extrapolations.
But for the time being, the extrapolations and audits were powerful tools. On June 24, 2013, all of the aforementioned 15 nonprofits were called into a meeting with HSD. All were accused of massive fraud. They were informed that their Medicaid payments were to be impounded. The money needed to service 87 percent of New Mexico’s mental health population was being cut off.
The next day, UnitedHealth announced a $22 million investment in Santa Fe. We have not been able to track down the direct beneficiaries of these investments. However, we do know that the governor’s office immediately issued a press release on their behalf.
The 15 New Mexico providers were being driven out of business. This had been planned well in advance. Shortly thereafter, the government of New Mexico, through HSD, [approved] issued $18 million in no-bid contracts to five Arizona-based providers affiliated with UnitedHealth. These are the same companies that had been contributing to the governor’s PAC.
These five Arizona companies then took over all mental health services for New Mexico. Their first step was to begin cutting back services. To give one example: patients with two hours therapy per week were cut back to 10 fifteen-minute sessions per year.It was the beginning of a mental health crisis in New Mexico.
As of today, two of the Arizona providers have abandoned their work in New Mexico. A third is in the process of leaving. What is the result? Thousands of New Mexico mental health patients have been left with no services. Entire communities have been completely shut [cut] off. The most vulnerable communities have been hit the hardest.
Through litigation, the 15 original providers forced the New Mexico Attorney General to examine the situation. It took a long time. All of the providers now are out of business. The Attorney General reported a few weeks ago that there were never any credible allegations of fraud.
This should mean that the impounded money would be returned to the 15 providers. After all, the legal reason why it was impounded in the first place has been shown to be false. One would think that the situation could return to normal.
The original 15 should be able to continue their business, and hire back the more than 1,500 persons they had been forced to lay off. Once the impounded monies are returned to the providers, they will be able to pay their legal bills, which now add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Unfortunately, that is not happening. HSD still is claiming that the $36 million extrapolation is due, and that actually, the providers owe the state money. The New Mexico government is not budging from its position. The litigation continues.
Meanwhile, New Mexico now is tied with Montana in having the highest suicide rate in the continental United States.