DOJ focus is on ‘egregious’ and ‘despicable’ health care fraud

In a speech on May 18, 2017, at the American Bar Association’s 27th Annual Institute on Health Care Fraud, Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco stressed that the Department of Justice (DOJ) would continue with keeping health care fraud a priority. The amount of loss to the American tax payer per year due to healthcare fraud is in the billions, with some estimates putting the number close to $100 billion per year.

Blanco stressed the importance of cooperation between the Medicare Strike Force, the U.S. Attorney’s Offices, and federal and state investigative agencies. He noted that the DOJ was employing an in-house data analytics team to review CMS billing data in order to focus on the most aggravated cases quickly. In turn this data is pushed to other federal and state investigative agencies.

Detailing examples of recent work by the Health Care Fraud Unit, Blanco highlighted that October 2016, Tenet Healthcare Corporation, a publicly-traded company and the third largest hospital chain in the United States, entered into a global resolution with the government, agreeing to resolve an investigation of a corporate bribery and fraud scheme at four Tenet-owned hospitals in Georgia and South Carolina. As part of that scheme, the hospitals paid over $12 million in bribes to a chain of prenatal care clinics in exchange for the referral of Medicaid patients.

Under the global resolution: (1) two Tenet subsidiaries pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States and pay kickbacks and bribes in violation of the Anti-Kickback Statute, and forfeited over $146 million in Medicare and Medicaid funds; (2) Tenet entered into a non-prosecution agreement requiring, among other things, an independent compliance monitor for a period of three years over all entities owned, in whole or in part by Tenet; and (3) Tenet and its subsidiaries entered into a civil settlement agreement and paid $368 million to the United States, the State of Georgia and the State of South Carolina (see Corporations, beware: Tenet Healthcare to pay $513M to settle kickback charges, Health Law Daily, October 4, 2016). Subsequently two individuals have pleaded guilty and a former senior executive of Tenet was indicted for the scheme (see DOJ comes for executive in Tenet fraud case, Health Law Daily, February 2, 2017).

CMS has estimated that the total health care spending in the United States in 2015 reached $3.2 trillion, or 17.8 percent of the gross domestic product. As such, the DOJ considered health care fraud as “egregious,” and from Blanco’s viewpoint, “despicable,” because it resulted in depriving medical care for those in actual need. Blanco noted that health care fraud impacts the public’s access to medical care, even the most basic forms, because fraud increases the costs for all.

Equities rest with agency in administrative enforcement actions

Administrative enforcement is quicker than an investigation but still “deadly” for the provider or supplier, concluded Judith Waltz, partner at Foley & Lardner LLP, at the American Health Lawyers Association’s 2017 Institute on Medicare and Medicaid Payment Issues. “Administrative enforcement” means the tools available to HHS, CMS, and the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) without or with limited formal involvement of the Department of Justice, including civil money penalties (CMPs), payment suspensions, and billing privilege or enrollment denials and revocations. In administrative enforcement actions, the equities and more discretion may rest with the agency, and a lesser burden of persuasion applies for the agency to prove its case.

Exclusion regulations

In December 2016 the OIG revised its exclusion regulations (see 81 FR 88334) in part to implement the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148). Waltz explained that the Final rule did the following: (1) expanded its permissive exclusion authority for convictions related to obstruction of an investigation to include audits; (2) added permissive exclusion authority for making false statements, omissions, or misrepresentations in enrollment applications; (3) added early reinstatement for loss of license in a different state; and (4) added a 10-year look-back period for exclusions.

Inflation

Waltz noted that CMPs are being updated annually for inflation pursuant to a final rule issue in December 2016 (see 45 C.F.R. Part 102). For example, a CMP for failing to grant timely access is up to $15,000 per day, $16,312 after inflation, and the CMP for false statements, omissions, or misrepresentations in enrollment or similar documents is up to $50,000 per false statement, $54,732 after inflation. Waltz said, “After inflation, numbers are unbelievable.”

Feds snare 16 hospice providers in $60M Medicare fraud scheme

Sixteen individuals were charged with offenses related to a health care fraud scheme in a federal court in Texas. The scheme alleges that from July 2012 to September 2016, Novus Health Services, owned and operated by the 16 individuals, billed Medicare and Medicaid more than $60 million for fraudulent hospice services, of which more than $35 million was paid to Novus. The individuals submitted false claims for hospice services and continuous care hospice services, recruited ineligible hospice beneficiaries via kickbacks to physicians and health care facilities, and falsified and destroyed documents to conceal these activities. The grand jury indictment was the result of an investigation into Novus by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG), and the Texas Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU).

Scheme

Novus and Optim Health Services, Inc. were operated and co-owned by one of the individuals, a certified public accountant without any medical licenses. Licensed physicians who were paid Novus medical directors provided little to no oversight of Novus’s hospice patients. Some of the indicted individuals were not physicians and they would determine whether a beneficiary would be certified for, recertified for, or discharged from hospice; whether they would be placed on continuous care; and how and to what extent they would be medicated with drugs. These decisions on medical care were often driven by financial interest rather than patient need.

The scheme also involved directing that beneficiaries be placed on continuous care, whether the beneficiaries needed the service or not, and often without any consultation with a physician. Continuous care physician’s orders were falsified and uploaded into Novus’s electronic medical records database. When a beneficiary was on continuous care, the Novus nurses would unnecessarily administer high doses of Schedule II controlled medications such as morphine or hydromorphone. The Schedule II medications were obtained with prescription forms unlawfully pre-signed by medical directors. The investigators found instances when these excessive dosages resulted in serious bodily injury or death to the beneficiaries.

If convicted, each count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and substantive health care fraud count carries a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.

Structure call coverage arrangements to avoid Stark & AKS issues

When compensating physicians for the time they spend on-call, hospitals should draft call coverage agreements with care to avoid potential problems implicating federal laws prohibiting physician self-referral (Stark Law) and kickbacks (Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS)). In a webinar presented by the Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA), Robert G. Homchick, partner at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, and Scott M. Safriet and Adam S. Polsky, partners at HealthCare Appraisers, Inc., discussed changes to the call coverage risk analysis based on court opinions and changes in government implementation of rules.

As with most physician compensation arrangements, the Stark Law (42 U.S.C. §1395nn) is the threshold issue when analyzing call coverage agreements; additionally, if the agreement passes muster under Stark, the AKS (42 U.S.C. §1320a-7b) risks should be relatively modest. Both analyses contain some of the same considerations, such as fair market value (FMV) and commercial reasonableness.

Homchick, Safriet, and Polsky noted the following concerns for call coverage:

  • on-call coverage is becoming more expensive, but hospitals are facing decreased reimbursement; and
  • because traditional methods of securing call coverage no longer apply to all situations, hospitals are becoming more creative to obtain coverage.

To effectively secure coverage, hospitals should consider many options, and determine which is best applied in their situation. Potential coverage options include concurrent coverage, telemedicine, bundling on-call coverage with services beyond the emergency room, on-call coverage payment for employed physicians, and use of the “activation fee” concept.

However, the webinar cautioned that not all arrangements are the same, and in situations where it is truly difficult to secure coverage, a different approach may be necessary. Additionally, hospitals should look into the underlying reasons of why securing that coverage has been difficult—for example, are there shortened response times, a physician shortage in the marketplace, or is coverage restricted or quasi-restricted.