$55M fraud scheme earns 84 months in prison

Involvement in a $55 million health fraud scheme earned a medical clinic owner 84 months in prison. She pleaded guilty in October 2015 to using her two Brooklyn, New York-based clinics, Prime Care on the Bay LLC and Bensonhurst Mega Medical Care PC to submit false and fraudulent claims to Medicare and Medicaid.

Scheme

According to the guilty plea, the owner and various co-conspirators paid kickbacks to induce patients to come to the clinics. She then submitted false claims for services induced by these kickbacks or provided by unlicensed staff. She also wrote checks from the clinics’ accounts to third-party companies that were ostensibly vendors, but were actually not providing services. These payments were used to generate cash for the kickbacks. The owner was ordered to forfeit over $29 million.

Several other co-conspirators have pleaded guilty to their part in the scheme. These include the former medical directors of both clinics, six therapists, three drivers, a former patient who received kickbacks, and the owner of several of the vendor companies used to launder funds.

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.

Know the auditors and audit process, you’ll be audited someday

Providers and suppliers will be audited by CMS at some point, so it is important to understand the various types of audits and the appeals process, according the presenter of a Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) webinar titled “Medicare Audits & Audit Appeals—From A to Z(PIC).” Scott R. Grubman, Esq., of Chilivis Cochran Larkins & Beyer LLP, focused his discussion on recovery audit contractors (RACs) and zone program integrity contractors (ZPICs) and the various steps of the audit appeals process, from the initial determination to judicial review.

RACs

Charged with “identifying and correcting improper payments through detection and collection of overpayments,” the RAC program started as a demonstration project and completed its first audits in 2011-2013. As new RAC contracts were awarded in October 2016, RAC audits will continue into the future. RACs are paid a contingency fee (somewhere between 7 and 17 percent of the recovery), but only when a favorable reconsideration is made, so they have a financial incentive to find and recover overpayments. According to Grubman, RACs “may not work on the side of fairness for providers.” But RACs are limited in the number of claims they can audit per provider per year and must maintain a 95 percent accuracy rate and an overturn rate of less than 10 percent. RAC audits, as well as MAC audits, are desk reviews, contrary to ZPIC audits.

ZPICs

Grubman warns to be careful when going through a ZPIC audit. ZPICs are tasked, for example, to investigate potential fraud and abuse and to refer parties for CMS administrative actions or for law enforcement; conduct investigations (not just as desk audits, but through interviews and onsite visits, too) and data analysis under the CMS Fraud Prevention System; and to identify the need for administrative actions such as payment suspensions. While RACs typically look at unintentional overpayments, ZPICs respond to intentional overpayments.

Audit process

Whatever the auditor that reviews the claim, an initial determination is first made as to whether the item and services are covered and the amount payable. The auditor then notifies the provider/supplier of the decision following specific notice requirements. A provider or supplier may appeal that decision, following this chronology:

1. Redetermination. A request for a redetermination must be filed within 120 calendar days from receipt of the initial determination, and within 30 calendar days to avoid CMS starting to recoup the overpayment. (Grubman suggests starting the count on the date listed on the determination, not receipt, to avoid running into any issues.) The redetermination involves an “independent review” performed by the same contractor (but a different individual). New issues may be raised by the contractor during redetermination, but a redetermination must be issued within 60 days from receipt of request.
2. Reconsideration. Within 180 days of the redetermination (or within 60 days to avoid recoupment), a party may file a request for reconsideration, which is an independent review of the evidence and findings conducted by a qualified independent contractor (QIC). QICs are bound by national coverage determinations (NCDs), CMS rulings, precedential Medicare Council decisions, and applicable laws and regulations. (Local coverage determinations (LCDs) and CMS program guidance is not binding but given substantial deference.) A QIC has 60 days to issue its reconsideration, and if the deadline isn’t met, the appellant can escalate to the next level of appeal.
3. Administrative law judge (ALJ). If the amount at issue exceeds $160, a request for an ALJ decision may be filed within 60 days of the reconsideration (recoupment cannot be avoided). A hearing is typically held either in person, video conference, or telephone, and parties may submit evidence and/or present witnesses. An ALJ decision is a de novo review and ALJs have wide discretion over the hearing. ALJs are bound by the same NCDs and laws and regulations and must give deference to non-binding authority as with reconsiderations. An ALJ must issue a decision within 90 days, however, there exists an immense backlog in issuing decisions, which has even become the subject of a legal challenge (see Court sets a timeline for Medicare claims backlog, December 6, 2016).
4. Medicare Appeals Council. Within 60 calendar days of the ALJ’s decision, a review by the Medicare Appeals Council may be requested. The Council’s review is limited to those issues the appellant claims to disagree with. Briefs are filed by the parties but no new evidence is provided. Typically a decision is made with no oral arguments and must be made within 90 calendar days.
5. Judicial review: Within 60 calendar days of receipt of the Council’s decision, a suit may be filed in the district court where the provider/supplier resides or has its principal place of business, with the Secretary of HHS named as defendant.

Feds allege 412 individuals responsible for $1.3B in Medicare fraud

In the largest health care fraud enforcement action by the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, 412 individuals allegedly participated in schemes involving almost $1.3 billion in false billings. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and HHS noted that the charges were levied against the individuals across 41 federal districts and included 115 doctors, nurses, and other licensed medical professionals. Over 120 defendants were named, including doctors for their roles in prescribing and distributing opioids and other dangerous narcotics. Thirty state Medicaid Fraud Control Units participated in the arrests. HHS also initiated suspension actions 295 providers, including doctors, nurses and pharmacists.

The Medicare Fraud Strike Force cases are being prosecuted and investigated by U.S. Attorney’s Offices in the states of Florida, Michigan, New York, Texas, California, Louisiana, and Illinois, along with Medicare Fraud Strike Force teams from the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section, the FBI, DEA, and various state fraud entities. In addition to the Strike Force locations, enforcement actions included cases and investigations brought by an additional 31 U.S. Attorney’s Offices.

Charges

The charges focus on Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE billing schemes for medically unnecessary prescription drugs and compounded medications that often were never purchased or distributed to beneficiaries. According to court documents, patient recruiters, beneficiaries and other co-conspirators were allegedly paid cash kickbacks in return for supplying beneficiary information to providers, so that the providers could then submit fraudulent bills to Medicare for services that were medically unnecessary or never performed. The fraud schemes also involved medical professionals who unlawfully distributed opioids and other prescription narcotics.

For example, in the Southern District of Florida, a total of 77 defendants were charged with offenses relating to their participation in various fraud schemes involving over $141 million in false billings for services including home health care, mental health services, and pharmacy fraud. The DOJ highlighted one case where the owner and operator of a purported addiction treatment center and home for recovering addicts and one other individual were charged in a scheme involving the submission of over $58 million in fraudulent medical insurance claims for purported drug treatment services. The allegations included recruiting patients to move to South Florida in order to bill insurance companies. Patients were provided kickbacks in the form of gift cards, free airline travel, casino trips, and drugs.

Seven defendants in Louisiana were charged in connection with health care fraud, wire fraud, and kickback schemes involving more than $207 million in fraudulent billing. In another instance, a pharmacist was charged with submitting and causing the submission of $192 million in false and fraudulent claims to TRICARE and other health care benefit programs for dispensing compounded medications that were not medically necessary and often based on prescriptions induced by illegal kickback payments