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.

Behavioral health fraud perpetrators plead guilty to $1M Medicaid scheme

Two men, who created and managed a company that provided mental health care to Medicaid patients and collected over $1 million in Medicaid payments, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud. The president of Coastal Bay Behavioral Health, Inc. (Coastal Bay) acknowledged in the plea agreements that the other participant was an “excluded provider,” who was prohibited from billing federal health care programs due to a 2011 conviction for health care fraud. Each man faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

Although the president was aware that he was employing an excluded provider, he did not disclose this fact to the state Medicaid program. Using an alias, the provider performed a variety of functions, including hiring and firing individuals, seeing patients, and performing other managerial tasks. Coastal Bay received $1.2 million in reimbursements from Medicaid because of the provider’s alleged fraud, according to court papers.

The provider and his family received significant financial benefits due to his involvement in Coastal Bay. Specifically, the provider had access to a Coastal Bay credit card, which he used to make routine purchases at restaurants, furniture stores, gas stations, and other places in North Carolina, even though Coastal Bay had no operations in North Carolina. In addition, the provider and his immediate family received more than $10,000 in direct payment withdrawals from the Coastal Bay business account.

$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.