Timing key for internal audits, self-disclosure

There is an art to conducting internal compliance audits and determining when to begin a self-disclosure protocol—the ideal compliance program should promote prevention, detection, and resolution of any conduct that fails to comply with the requirements of state and federal health care programs. Knowing when to perform an internal investigation or audit to encourage a healthy program is key, according to Leia C. Olsen, shareholder, Hall Render, who was presenting at a Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) webinar.

Olsen noted that many qui tam actions arise when employees do not feel as though their concerns are being heard and taken seriously. She stressed the importance of having a mechanism for reporting incidents, and timely monitoring identified issues and implementing remedial measures. However, she noted that qui tam suits can potentially be prevented not only by conducting an internal investigation, but also by self-disclosing, which can trigger the public disclosure bar. Self-disclosure of identified wrongdoing is encouraged by the Department of Justice and HHS, but, per the Yates memorandum, all relevant facts must be provided by a company before it can receive credit for cooperating and voluntary self-disclosure. Therefore, it is important to conduct a thorough investigation, collecting all available information and documentation, before self-disclosing.

The 60-day refund rule, promulgated under Sec. 6402 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148), together with the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009 (FERA) (P.L. 111-21), creates False Claims Act (FCA) liability for providers who fail to report and return identified overpayments within 60 days of identifying the overpayment. Therefore, Olsen said, the time to meet the reasonable diligence standard after learning of a potential overpayment is limited. Having a protocol in place to quickly decide whether to self-disclose is critical in securing the greatest amount of cooperation credit.

Atlanta pain clinic feels financial hurt after allegedly bending Medicare rules

Atlanta Medical Clinic (AMC) and its owner agreed to pay $250,000 to settle False Claims Act (FCA) (31 U.S.C. §3729 et seq.) allegations that the clinic billed Medicare for services performed by a suspended physician and for administering drugs that were not approved by the FDA.

Suspended physician

An AMC physician was suspended from the Medicare program in June 2013 for making false statements regarding his criminal history. Despite the suspension, AMC allegedly continued to claim and receive payment for medical services rendered by the physician. Because of the suspension, none of those services were eligible for Medicare reimbursement and, therefore, reimbursement claims related to those services constituted false claims. AMC allegedly circumvented the suspension by submitting claims for services performed by the physician as though they were performed by another physician.

Unapproved drugs

AMC also, allegedly, violated the FCA by seeking and obtaining reimbursement for a Canadian, non-FDA approved knee treatment drug—Orthovisc®. The alleged claims are false because Medicare does not cover the cost of foreign, non-FDA approved treatments.

Applying lessons learned when conducting FCA investigations after Escobar

The Supreme Court opinion in Universal Health Services v. U.S. ex rel Escobar established that the implied certification theory may be a basis for False Claims Act (FCA) (31 U.S.C. §3729) liability if allegations satisfy both the FCA’s materiality and scienter (knowledge) requirements, Joan W. Feldman, partner at Shipman & Goodwin LLP explained during a Health Care Compliance Association webinar on June 26, 2017. She noted that the focus in FCA cases going forward will be whether the government would have refused to pay the allegedly false claim if it had known of the information allegedly omitted or misrepresented.

The Supreme Court’s opinion and remand

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Escobar to answer whether the implied certification theory was viable and if it could only apply when a provider violated a legal requirement that the government explicitly designated as a condition of payment. Although the Court determined that implied certification is a valid theory, it stated that the FCA should not be considered a vehicle for “punishing garden-variety breaches of contract or regulatory violations…” The Court further concluded that “a misrepresentation about legal compliance does not become material simply because the Government labeled the legal requirement as a ‘condition of payment,’ but whether the defendant knowingly violated a requirement the defendant knows is material to the Government’s payment decision.” The Court remanded the case to the First Circuit (see Implied certification liability confirmed, limited to material compliance violations, Health Law Daily, June 16, 2016).

Feldman pointed out that upon remand, the First Circuit identified three factors that had to be considered when evaluating materiality and knowledge: (1) was compliance a condition of payment, (2) was compliance with a specific regulation the essence of the agreement; and (3) did the government pay the claim even though it was aware of the issue?

The First Circuit concluded, if Medicaid’s decision to reimburse Universal Health Service would have been unaffected by knowledge of the regulatory violations, the violations would not be material, and the implied false certification lawsuit could not proceed. In this case, however, the complaint stated that regulatory compliance was a condition of payment, licensing and supervision requirements were central to the regulation of mental health treatment facilities generally, and the factual allegations were limited to reimbursement claims filed during treatment (see Implied false certification lawsuit under the FCA stated a valid cause of action, Health Law Daily, November 29, 2016).

Lessons from Escobar

The Escobar case illustrates that the FCA is nuanced and complex, Feldman said. She noted that courts will closely scrutinize and evaluate materiality on a fact specific, case-by-case basis to determine whether the alleged violations are sufficient to constitute a false claim. Although she said it is not clear how the Supreme Court’s opinion will play out in the courts, she stressed the importance of claimants clearly stating their materiality and knowledge claims under the implied certification theory. She also emphasized the importance of reacting appropriately and promptly to FCA complaints or concerns.

Investigations

Feldman provided the details of several steps in conducting an FCA investigation, including where to start, maintaining attorney client-privilege, working with the government, planning and conducting an investigation, and mitigating the risk of a FCA qui tam action. She emphasized the importance of maintaining confidentiality throughout the investigation. In addition, she

  • Where to start. When confronted with a false claim allegation, providers must respond promptly. The date and time that the allegation was made must be documented and the allegation must be communicated to leadership. Legal counsel experienced with false claims should be engaged and the Medicare administrative contractor or Medicaid agency must be notified. The compliance officer must assign responsibility for the investigation but must limit the number of individuals in the sphere of knowledge and communication. Accountability and follow-up are essential as well as the preservation of documents.
  • Maintaining attorney client privilege. Consult with counsel to protect the attorney-client privilege. Ensure document production is done with counsel who creates a privilege log for documents that will not be turned over to the government. Interview witnesses separately to protect communications.
  • Working with the government. When working with the government compliance officers must be cooperative, responsive, and timely; yet maintain an advocate position for the organization. They must understand the issue, facts, and relevant law as well as the settlement if there is one. Feldman encouraged compliance officers not to be intimated by the government or assume its position is correct. She explained that the government only knows the case from the qui tam relator. She told compliance officers to “push back” and advocate the organization’s position with facts and laws when presented with the government’s case.
  • Planning the investigation. An investigative plan must be developed, a timeline created, and records of the investigation must be maintained, including the process, interview notes, and witness log. Witnesses must be identified and interviews must be scheduled.
  • Conducting the investigation. The attorney should conduct the investigation and may have deputized staff to assist. When a complaint of subpoena is received, litigation hold must be communicated throughout the organization. Documents are reviewed and interviews conducted. When appropriate, engage auditors or experts. Leadership should be kept informed throughout the process.

Additional tips

Other advice Feldman provided included circling back to complainant, avoiding whistleblower retaliation, and being mindful of the collateral effect of an investigation on employees. In addition, she emphasized that concerns raised by an individual must be taken seriously. Compliance officers should give them full attention and document the concern and how it was addressed. If the individual is not satisfied with the findings, the compliance officer should document why no further action will be taken and notify counsel. If attention is not given when a concern is raised, the individual may pursue an action.

Billions in ‘transfers of value’ to physicians, hospitals by industry get DOJ attention

In calendar year (CY) 2015, over $7.5 billion in “transfers of value” were made by pharmaceutical companies to physicians and hospitals through the federal Open Payments program, which in turn has caused the Department of Justice (DOJ) to focus on this area while investigating fraud in the health care system. In an HCCA sponsored seminar titled “Sunshine, Open Payments, and Potential Conflicts of Interest,” Senior Compliance Executive C.J. Wolf, M.D., of Healthicity, noted that under the Open Payments program, CMS has now accumulated over 28 million records of transfer of value. Within this vast repository of data, CMS uses it to uncover outliers in payments, and as a result, industry and providers, alike, are very interested in how the open payment system affects their operations.

Open Payments

Under Section 6002 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), manufacturers must disclose to CMS payments made to physicians and teaching hospitals. Manufacturers and group purchasing organizations must also report ownership and investment interests held by physicians. The HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) included these aspects into its list of priorities in its 2017 Work Plan, with Medicare and Medicaid payments high on the list (see Focus remains on Medicare, Medicaid payments in 2017 OIG Work Plan, Health Law Daily, November 10, 2016).

The 2017 Work Plan also stressed that the OIG will also determine how much Medicare paid for drugs and durable medical equipment, prosthetics, orthotics, and supplies (DMEPOS) ordered by physicians who had financial relationships with manufacturers and group purchasing organizations.

Wolf noted the DOJ has taken a keen interest in this area of open payments, as evidenced by actions such as Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc., and its subsidiary IVAX, LLC, agreeing to pay a total of $27.6 million to the federal government and the State of Illinois in a settlement regarding allegations of false billing practices under the False Claims Act (see Teva Pharmaceutical to pay federal and state government $27.6 million to resolve false billing allegations, Health Law Daily, March 11, 2014).

Conflicts of interest

There are 11 payment “categories” that must be reported under the Open Payments program: (1) consulting fees, (2) honoraria, (3) gift, (4) entertainment, (5) food and beverage, (6) travel and lodging, (7) education, (8) charitable contribution, (9) royalty or license, (10) grant, and (11) research.

As part of the transparency initiatives under the ACA, the dollars that physicians receive from industry is reported and documented. Physicians and providers should be aware that these categories touch upon even compensation for serving as faculty or as a speaker for a non-accredited and noncertified continuing education program.

Because the Open Payments program also includes ownership interests that physicians or their immediate family members have in various companies and the data is then made available to the public each year, reporting often is paramount.