Prohibition on paid referrals not limited to ‘relevant decisionmakers’

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the conviction of an individual under the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) (42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b) whose referral agency had provided referrals to a home health company in exchange for $500 per referral. In affirming the lower court’s decision, the Seventh Circuit found that criminal liability under the AKS is not limited to relevant decisionmakers and that no safe harbors applied (U.S. v. George, August 14, 2018, Rovner, I.).

Referrals for money

The referrer was a certified homemaker employed by Help at Home, a home healthcare agency, beginning in 2007. In 2010, she decided to start a referral agency and signed a work for hire agreement with another home health service, Rosner Home Health Care, Inc. (Rosner), in which she agreed to convince providers, including doctors, case managers, discharge planners, and social workers, to refer patients to Rosner. In exchange, Rosner paid the referrer $500 for each patient referred. In 2015, the referrer was indicted and then found guilty of two counts of violating the AKS and one count of violating the general conspiracy statute (see Receipt of per-patient referrals, knowledge of illegality enough to overcome doubt, Health Law Daily, March 25, 2016).

Appeal

Under the AKS, the government must demonstrate that the referrer knowingly and willfully solicited or received remuneration in return for referring an individual to Rosner to provide or arrange services paid at least in part under Medicare. The referrer appealed her conviction arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support the substantive counts of her conviction falling under the AKS. According to the court, rather than merely demonstrate that evidence could have supported a finding of innocence, the referrer must demonstrate on appeal that the evidence could not have allowed a reasonable trier of fact to find her guilty.

Relevant decisionmakers

The referrer argued that she could not be held liable, as the statute applied only to “relevant decisionmakers,” which she was not. In making this argument, the referrer relied on a previous Fifth Circuit decision in which the court held that payments to a marketing firm distributing advertisement brochures of a provider to physicians did not fall within the AKS because they were not payments made to the relevant decisionmaker in exchange for sending patients to the provider. However, the court cited a subsequent case rejecting an interpretation of that case limiting criminal liability to persons would could be deemed relevant decisionmakers.

Safe harbors

The referrer also argued that she had a reasonable basis to believe she fell within the safe harbor provision of the AKS applying to “any amount paid by an employer to an employee (who has a bona fide employment relationship with such employer) for employment in the provision of covered items or services. However, her written agreement with Rosner specifies that she was acting as an independent referral agency, not an employee. The court also noted that the referrer was paid for referrals, not for the provision of items or services covered by Medicare. Thus, the safe harbor provision did not apply.

No abuse of discretion pill mill trial procedure, sentencing vacated and remanded

The trial court did not abuse its discretion when it admitted expert testimony deemed admissible under Daubert, a federal appellate court has ruled. The testifying physician relied upon several sources that are generally accepted by the medical community when he reviewed the prescribing physician’s patient files, and he applied his methodology reliably. The court also did not err when it gave the pattern jury instructions on deliberate ignorance without tailoring the instruction to the facts of the case, nor when it refused to give the physician’s proposed jury instructions. However, the trial court did err when it applied the firearms increase in the course of sentencing the physician (U.S. v. Roland, June 14, 2018, per curiam).

Pill mill operations

In August 2014, an Atlanta-area physician was charged in a 22-count indictment with conspiracy to dispense controlled substances and related violations. All of the alleged activities arose from his and his co-conspirators’ participation in a “pill mill” scheme involving several pain management clinics in the greater Atlanta area. A jury convicted the physician on one count of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and seven counts of unlawful distribution of controlled substances, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §841. The district court sentenced him to 130 months of imprisonment. On appeal, he challenged his convictions and his sentence.

Expert testimony

The government’s expert witness described the standards set forth in the Federation of State Medical Boards’ model policy for the use of controlled substances to treat pain (FSMB), and he also relied upon several other sources that are generally accepted by the medical community when he reviewed the physician’s patient files. The expert witness summarized each of the guidelines in order to analyze the physician’s prescribing practices, and he then individually compared 96 patients’ files to this analysis, pointing out instances where the physician failed to adhere to the guidelines’ standards. The appellate court found that by commenting on and making conclusions about the physician’s care for each patient based on the review criteria, the expert witness applied his methodology reliably and did so without relying exclusively on his own experience as a prescribing physician. Accordingly, they found that his expert testimony met the required standards, and that the expert testimony was properly admitted.

“Deliberate ignorance” jury instruction

The government had requested that the pattern jury instruction on deliberate ignorance be modified by adding a sentence that “in this example, you would treat the defendant as having knowledge that the package contained a controlled substance.” The physician requested that the district court omit the deliberate ignorance instruction entirely, arguing that the instruction did not make sense based on the theories presented at trial: his theory was that he was deceived by a co-conspirator and did not know that he was working at pill mills, while the government’s theory was that the physician possessed actual knowledge that the clinics were pill mills. Therefore, neither party had raised an argument as to deliberate ignorance. The district court denied both parties’ requests and gave the pattern deliberate ignorance instruction. The appellate court ruled that the trial court did not err in giving the deliberate ignorance jury instruction based on the fact that the evidence presented at trial warranted it because the physician had advised a co-conspirator to lie to the Georgia Composite Medical Board, and because he had explained to his patients that he needed to write the prescriptions in a certain way in order to avoid criminal liability.

Firearms increase at sentencing

The district court cited two reasons for the firearm increase: (1) the co-conspirator’s security guard possessed a firearm while monitoring the parking lots at the clinics; and (2) several firearms were found in the physician’s bedroom at his own clinic. However, the appellate court found that the district court erred in applying §2D1.1(b)(1) of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual, a firearm increase, for two reasons. First, the evidence showed that the co-conspirator alone hired the security guard, and the government presented no evidence that the physician ever interacted with the guard or knew he had a firearm; and second, because the physician was a licensed firearm instructor and his possession of so many firearms was simply a reflection of his hobby.

For the foregoing reasons, the physician’s convictions were upheld, but his sentence was vacated and the matter remanded for resentencing.

U.S. intervenes in UnitedHealth billing scheme suit

The federal government intervened in a qui tam lawsuit alleging that UnitedHealth Group entities (UnitedHealth) and Medicare Advantage organizations (MAOs) with which it contracted, including HealthCare Partners, deliberately concealed from the Medicare Part C program that they had submitted bills not supported by medical documentation, resulting in inflated risk adjustment payments that were never repaid to CMS. The U.S.’s intervention in this False Claims Act (FCA) (31 U.S.C. § 3729, et seq.), U.S. ex rel. Swoben v. Secure Horizons, is emblematic of its “commitment to ensure the integrity of the Medicare Part C program.” It is expected to file a complaint in another risk-adjustment-related FCA case, U.S. ex rel. Poehling v. UnitedHealth Group. Inc., no later than May 16, 2017.

MAOs must submit diagnosis codes for each enrollee for a particular calendar year to CMS (42 U.S.C. § 1395w-23(a)(3)). CMS uses the codes to create Hierarchical Condition Category (HCC) risk scores to adjust the capitated payment rates it pays to each MAO, increasing payment rates to MAOs with patient populations with more severe illnesses and decreasing payments to MAOs with patient populations with less severe illnesses. MAOs typically submit data to CMS and then perform a retrospective review of medical charts to ensure that the charts support the claims submitted. If an MAO discovers a diagnosis code for a patient that was not already submitted, it may do so at that time. However, MAOs are also required to withdraw previously submitted codes that they determine were not supported by medical documentation.

A former employee of Senior Care Action Network (SCAN) Health Plan and a consultant to the risk adjustment industry filed the qui tam suit and the government filed an intervening complaint, alleging that UnitedHealth, HealthCare Partners, and other defendants knowingly concealed the fact that previously submitted codes were not supported by medical documentation, resulting in higher risk adjustment payments. Specifically, the defendants hired coders to perform retrospective reviews, but knowingly concealed information about previously submitted codes so that the coders would not be able to identify codes that were not supported by medical documentation. In addition, certain employees created spreadsheets that did not permit the entry of previously submitted codes that should be withdrawn, as required by CMS.

HHS developing new system to speed PRRB, other appeal processes

HHS and its subagencies continue to struggle with eliminating the backlog of appeals that has led to delays in payments to providers and litigation trying to get HHS to meet statutory requirements for hearing appeals. The two main appeals backlogs relate to Provider Reimbursement Review Board (PRRB) decisions (appeals by providers of final determinations by Medicare contractors) and individual appeals for Medicare coverage, payment, and premiums brought before the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA).

PRRB

CMS is developing a system to electronically track and file PRRB and Medicare Geographic Classification Review Board (MGCRB) decisions, according to CMS officials speaking at a conference sponsored by the American Health Lawyers Association at the end of March. The current appeals process relies heavily on a manual, snail mail process that has added to the time it takes for parties to file all papers in preparation for a hearing. The “Office of Hearings Case and Document Management System (OH CDMS)” should be ready for use by the end of 2017. The OH CDMS will be accessible through the CMS Enterprise portal.

Using the new system, parties may:

  • file appeal requests
  • upload position papers, jurisdictional documents, and other supporting documentation
  • view documents issued by Board or filed by opposing party
  • manage issues raised in individual appeals and providers participating in groups
  • request other actions such as change in representative, expedited judicial review, mediation, etc., and
  • monitor case status

This new system also will be used by CMS Hearing Officers who hear appeals not covered by other CMS or HHS appeal avenues, such as:

  • Risk Adjustment Data Validation (RADV)
  • Medicare Advantage/Prescription Drug Plan (MA/PD)
  • Medicaid State Plan Amendments
  • Retire Drug Subsidy Determinations (RDS)
  • Organ Procurement Organizations (OPO)

The need for a more efficient way of handling all the filings related to an appeal was underscored by a presentation by Sue Anderson, PRRB chairperson. She noted that the PRRB currently has more than 10,000 cases on its docket. In fiscal year 2016, the PRRB issued 27 decisions that closed 66 cases; 147 expedited judicial determinations; and 497 jurisdictional determinations, so it has a long way to go to work through its backlog.

OMHA appeals

Issues with PRRB appeals aren’t even the most serious ones facing HHS. The Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) has a backlog of hundreds of thousands of administrative appeals, and the American Hospital Association is engaged in long-standing litigation with HHS trying to force HHS to hold Administrative Law Judge appeals within 90 days. Currently, these appeals take 10 times longer, and the backlog grows every year. A recent filing by HHS in the litigation shows the seriousness of the issue: as of March 5, 2017, there were 667,326 pending appeals; HHS projects the number of pending appeals to grow to 1,009,768 by the end of FY 2021 (September 30, 2021).

OMHA is looking at a number of ways to deal with the backlog; (see OMHA trying to speed claims appeals process, April 18, 2017). One solution is legislation. Speaking at the Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) Compliance Institute at the end of March, Kimberly Brandt, Chief Oversight Counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, noted that the Senate is considering re-introducing the “Audit & Appeal Fairness, Integrity, and Reforms in Medicare Act.” The bill “seeks to increase coordination and oversight of government audit contractors while implementing new strategies to address growing number of audit determination appeals that delay taxpayer dollars from reaching the correct source,” according to Brandt. The bill also would encourage the use of voluntary alternate dispute resolution process to allow for multiple pending claims with similar issues of law or fact to be settled as a unit, rather than as individual appeals.