Fraud and Abuse and Stark

Health care fraud prosecutions in the Second Circuit and throughout the country have typically sought forfeiture money judgments against all defendants for the proceeds of the fraud obtained by all members of a health care fraud conspiracy.  The Supreme Court recently curtailed these efforts in Honeycutt v. United States.  In Honeycutt, the Court held that the forfeiture statute only permits a forfeiture money judgment for property a defendant actually acquired as part of the crime, not all proceeds of the conspiracy.

In Honeycutt, defendant Terry Honeycutt managed sales and inventory at his brother’s hardware store.  The brothers were prosecuted for conspiring to sell iodine with the knowledge that it was being used to manufacture methamphetamine.  The government sought a forfeiture money judgment of $269,751.98, constituting the hardware store’s profits.  The defendant’s brother pled guilty and agreed to forfeit $200,000.  The government sought and obtained a forfeiture money judgment against defendant Terry Honeycutt for $69,751.98, even though he did not personally benefit from the hardware store’s profits.  The Sixth Circuit held that the conspiring brothers were “jointly and severally liable for any proceeds of the conspiracy,” joining several circuits, including the Second Circuit, in an expansive view of criminal forfeiture.

Justice Sotomayor’s decision in Honeycutt strictly followed the language of the statute, 21 U.S.C. § 853, which mandates forfeiture of “any property constituting, or derived from, any proceeds the person obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of” certain crimes.  The Court concluded that the provisions of the statute limit forfeiture to property the defendant himself actually acquired, not property obtained by other conspirators.  The Court held that the plain text of the statute and the limitation of forfeiture to property acquired or used by the defendant “foreclose joint and several liability for co-conspirators.”

Prosecutors have routinely sought to forfeit all proceeds of health care fraud and other conspiracies from all co-conspirators.  Thus, minor players in a conspiracy with significant assets could find themselves liable for a forfeiture money judgment well in excess of the proceeds they actually received from their crime.  In Honeycutt, the Supreme Court refused to apply the tort concept of joint and several liability to the forfeiture statutes, and has taken a sweeping tool away from the government.

 

According to the 2016 Kaiser/HERT Employer Health Benefits Survey, the average annual premium for employer-sponsored family health insurance coverage in 2016 was $18,142 – representing a 20% increase since 2011 and a 58% increase since 2006.  As the cost of healthcare coverage has continued to rise dramatically, patients are seeing a reduced level of personal care.  The average wait to schedule an appointment with a doctor in the United States is 24 days – up 30% since 2014.  Meanwhile, physicians report that they spend, on average, only 13 to 24 minutes with a patient and of that time, approximately 37% of it is spent on EHR and other administrative tasks.

 

In 2010, the Affordable Care Act imposed a requirement that most Americans have insurance coverage.  But it also identified direct primary care as an acceptable option.  Whereas concierge and direct-pay medicine had once been limited to a very wealthy consumer base, it was suddenly poised to hit the mainstream.  And it can be a win-win for both physicians and consumers – physicians have the potential to devote more time to each patient and less time to paperwork, and consumers can pay for faster, more personalized attention from a physician instead of paying the pricey premiums now charged in the market for traditional insurance coverage.

 

But is concierge medicine right for every physician?

 

  1. Do you want to continue to participate in Medicare? If so, you will still be required to bill Medicare for your concierge patients and will not be able to charge Medicare patients extra for Medicare covered services.  Nor can you charge a membership fee (aka an access fee) that includes extra charges for services Medicare usually covers.  (The exception is if you do not accept assignment, in which case you can charge up to 15% more than the Medicare-approved amount for a Medicare covered services.)  If Medicare usually covers a service but will not pay for it, you must still provide the patient with an ABN.  And even if you do choose to opt out of Medicare, give extreme care to following the proper procedures or you could be subjected to substantial penalties.

 

  1. You still need to price services at fair market value. Even if you opt out of Medicare, providing “free” services because they are included in the access fee could run afoul of state anti-kickback laws.  Obtain advice regarding your state laws before setting your contract, and set a fair market value at which you provide each service.

 

  1. Check with your state to make your concierge/direct-pay contract is in compliance. Some states – including New York and New Jersey – have questioned whether these arrangements are deemed to be the practice of insurance but even where they are not, certain provisions of state insurance law could apply to your contract.

 

  1. Termination of existing patients. You can expect attrition by many, if not most, of your existing patients when transitioning from a traditional practice to a concierge or direct-pay model.  You will need to comply with state laws and ethical rules with regard to finding alternate care.

 

  1. Compliance with HIPAA. To the extent you are not participating in insurance or Medicare, you might not be a “covered entity” under HIPAA; however, there are many state privacy and confidentiality laws that you will still be required to comply with.

 

In some instances, transitioning to a concierge or direct-pay business model could be a win-win for both doctors and patients.  However, there are many legal issues that require careful consideration as you set up your practice.  There are many consulting firms that specialize in planning this transition, and a good attorney can help you avoid any pitfalls and ensure compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.

The Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MCFU) of the New York State Office of the Attorney General has recently issued restitution demand letters to providers for allegedly entering into percentage-based contracts with their billing agents. The MCFU letters cite the Medicaid Update March 2001, titled “A Message for Providers Using Service Agents as follows:

Billing agents are prohibited from charging Medicaid providers a percentage of the amount claimed or collected. In addition, such payment arraignments, when entered into by a physician, may violate the Education Law and State Education Department’s regulations on unlawful fee-splitting.

A physician will be guilty of misconduct if he or she permits:

any person to share in the fees for professional services, other than: a partner, employee, associate in a professional firm or corporation, professional subcontractor or consultant authorized to practice medicine, or a legally authorized trainee practicing under the supervision of a licensee. This prohibition shall include any arrangement or agreement whereby the amount received in payment for furnishing space, facilities, equipment or personnel services used by a licensee constitutes a percentage of, or is otherwise dependent upon, the income or receipts of the licensee from such practice, except as otherwise provided by law with respect to a facility licensed pursuant to article twenty-eight of the public health law or article thirteen of the mental hygiene law.

See Educ. Law §6530(19)*.

A physician is subject to professional misconduct charges if he or she has

directly or indirectly requested, received or participated in the division, transference, assignment, rebate, splitting, or refunding of a fee for, or has directly requested, received or profited by means of a credit or other valuable consideration as a commission, discount or gratuity, in connection with the furnishing of professional care or service . . .

See Educ. Law §6531.

The prohibition against fee-splitting is related to the state anti-kickback law which prohibits physicians from

[d]irectly or indirectly offering, giving, soliciting, or receiving or agreeing to receive, any fee or other consideration to or from a third party for the referral of a patient or in connection with the performance of professional services . . .

See Educ. Law §6530 (18).

Licensed professionals in New York State must review their contracts to verify that the compensation paid to their agents is not based on a percentage of fees for professional services.

*A similar rule applies to other licensed professionals. See N.Y. Rules of the Board of Regents §29.1(b)(4).

**In addition to the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute at 42 U.S.C. §1320a-7b(b), New York has enacted its own wide-reaching anti-kickback and anti-referral laws and regulations seeking to eliminate fraud and abuse in healthcare on a statewide basis. The state anti-kickback statue is set forth in the Social Services Law (See N.Y. Social Services Law § 366-d). The N.Y. Education Law addresses matters of professional misconduct rather than violations of fraud and abuse laws and regulations.

The Supreme Court recently allowed liability through the implied certification theory of the False Claims Act (FCA), which was raised and upheld in Universal Health Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Escobar. The decision provided for a new applicable standard and resolved the split among circuit courts on whether to recognize the theory.

In Escobar, a teenaged patient was receiving health services from a mental health facility. The patient had an adverse reaction to medication prescribed and died of a seizure. The parents later discovered United Health Services sought reimbursement from MassHealth (the Massachusetts State Medicaid Program) for mental health services provided at the facility by individuals who did not meet the standards for licensure and other requirements. The parents then filed a qui tam suit relying on the implied certification theory of liability. The District Court ruled against the parents finding the claims for reimbursement were not expressly false because the facility made no express statement regarding the service providers. United States ex. rel. Escobar v. Universal Health Services, 780 F.3d 504 (1st Cir. 2015). On appeal, the First Circuit rejected the bright line approach and determined that compliance with licensure and other MassHealth regulatory requirements were conditions of payment sufficient to support an FCA suit. United States ex. rel. Escobar v. Universal Health Services., 780 F.3d 504 (1st Cir. 2015)

The Supreme Court held that implied false certification is a proper basis for liability under the False Claims Act where (1) “the claim does not merely request payment, but also makes specific representations about the goods or services provided”, and (2) “the defendant’s failure to disclose noncompliance with material statutory, regulatory, or contractual requirements makes those representations misleading half-truths.” The Court focused on defining the FCA’s materiality standard as whether the government’s knowledge of the noncompliance “would have” affected their payment decision rather than “could have”. The Court further explained that whether an obligation was a condition of payment relates to, but is not dispositive of, materiality.

Now, after Escobar, FCA plaintiffs must overcome a more demanding materiality standard when relying on implied false certification to establish False Claims Act liability.

Special thanks to Law Clerk Joanna Lima for her assistance in preparing this blog post.

The Supreme Court held last week that in a federal health care fraud prosecution, the Sixth Amendment prevents the government from obtaining a pretrial freeze of assets that were untainted by the alleged crime and that defendant sought to use to pay her lawyer.

In Luis v. United States, the government alleged that the defendant had been engaged in paying kickbacks and conspiring to commit health care violations, and had fraudulently obtained close to $45 million.  The government sought a pretrial order restraining $2 million under 18 U.S.C. § 1345, which allows a restraint on property obtained as a result of health care fraud or “property of equivalent value.”  Here, however, the property the government sought to restrain was not connected with the alleged crime, and defendant sought to use those funds to hire counsel to defend her in the criminal case.

The Supreme Court held that the pretrial restraint of legitimate, untainted assets needed to retain counsel of choice violates the Sixth Amendment. Justice Breyer’s plurality opinion first emphasized that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is “fundamental” and “guarantees a defendant the right to be represented by an otherwise qualified attorney whom that defendant can afford to hire.” The government argued that the important interests of keeping assets available for statutory penalties and compensation of victims justified the restraint.

Justice Breyer found controlling the fact that the funds at issue were untainted by the alleged crimes, so they belonged to the criminal defendant “pure and simple.” In contrast, tainted funds—assets connected to a crime—may be subject to pretrial restraint.  The Court, for example, has held that tainted funds subject to forfeiture may be restrained pretrial even if the defendant seeks to use those funds to pay a lawyer. Caplin & Drysdale v. United States, 491 U.S. 617 (1989); United States v. Monsanto, 491 U.S. 600 (1989).  A significant factor in the forfeiture cases was that title to forfeited property passes to the government at the time of the crime.  The government, however, had no present interest in the defendant’s untainted funds in the case before the Court.

While in some circumstances a party without a present interest may restrain property, here the criminal defendant sought to use the funds to hire counsel, and the Sixth Amendment right to counsel does not permit such a restraint.  Justice Breyer noted that accepting the government’s position could erode the right to counsel, as Congress may provide more statutory provisions allowing for restraint of untainted assets equivalent in value to the criminal proceeds.

The decision did not break along usual lines for the Court. The plurality opinion authored by Justice Breyer was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsberg and Sotomayor.  Justice Thomas concurred in the judgment, writing that he would not engage in any balancing and would hold strictly that the Sixth Amendment does not allow a pretrial asset freeze infringing the right to counsel.  Justices Kennedy, Alito and Kagan dissented, asserting on various grounds that where the government has established probable cause to believe that it will eventually recover all of the defendant’s assets, she has no right to use them pretrial to pay for a lawyer.

In the end, the decision draws a clear Constitutional line between: (1) tainted funds, which may be subject to pretrial restraint, and (2) innocent or untainted funds needed to pay for counsel, which may not.

Earlier this month, EDNY Judge Joanna Seybert examined the elements of Aggravated Identify Theft in an interesting context: a motion to unseal grand jury minutes in a health care fraud prosecution, United States v. Cwibeker

Defendants were charged with billing Medicare for fictitious or non-compensable treatments of residents of assisted living facilities.  Defendants would allegedly visit residents at the facilities, not provide Medicare-reimbursable services, and then generate a list of patients they allegedly visited.  Defendants would then use the list to submit fictitious claims to Medicare.  Significantly, defendants legally obtained the personal information from residents in the first instance; the alleged subsequent unlawful use of the information formed the basis of the criminal charges. 

Defendant Cwibeker argued that patients had consented to use of their personal information, and non-consent is an element of the Aggravated Identity Theft charge.  Thus, the grand jury minutes should be unsealed because this element was likely not disclosed.  

The Court first noted the long-established policy of maintaining secrecy of the grand jury.  The Court next looked to the Supreme Court’s three part analysis for allowing disclosure.  A party must show: (1) the material sought is needed to avoid a possible injustice; (2) the need for disclosure is greater than the need for continued secrecy; and (3) the request is structured to cover only the material needed. 

The Court denied the motion, holding that non-consent of the defendant’s purported patients for releasing the information is not an element of the Aggravated Identity Theft offense, which provides that whoever “knowingly transfers, possesses or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person,” is subject to an additional two years in prison. The Court found that consent of the victim has no bearing on “without lawful authority”  under the statute, as it is the improper use of the information that forms the offense.  The Court distinguished a Seventh Circuit case where the person whose identity was appropriated was a participant in the fraud.  In Cwibeker, the Medicare recipients whose identification was misappropriated were victims, with no knowledge of or participation in the alleged fraud. 

This case highlights again the need for vigilance concerning patients’ personal information.  Courts will hold persons who seek to profit from the improper use of such information accountable.  Providers must take all available steps to safeguard patient information, however, as those who allow such information to fall into the wrong hands will also be held accountable.

An interesting SDNY settlement agreement resolves some False Claims Act allegations, but leaves others for another day.  Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNS) paid just under $35 million to the United States and New York State to settle allegations that VNS improperly billed Medicaid for 1,740 members whose needs did not qualify for a managed care plan.  The government alleged that these members were improperly referred by social adult day care centers (SADCC), or received services primarily from SADCCs, many of which provided substandard and minimal care.   

In the settlement agreement, VNS admitted that 1,740 Medicaid long term care  program members were referred by SADCCs or used SADCC services, and were not eligible to be members of the plan; and that various SADCCs in the provider network did not provide services that qualified as “personal care services” under the long term care program contract with New York’s Department of Health. 

The settlement agreement has a unique “Remaining Investigation” provision.  Most FCA settlement agreements are designed to settle all claims against the defendants.  The VNS settlement agreement, however, provides that it resolves only part of the United States investigation. Examples of allegations that are part of the “Remaining Investigation” are redacted in the publicly-filed document.  In a provision that could lead to interesting questions of interpretation, VNS agrees  “to cooperate with the Remaining Investigation,” but without waiving attorney-client or joint defense privileges, work product protections, or factual or legal defenses covering claims the government may bring against VNS.  The issue of whether VNS is satisfying its duty of cooperation under the agreement while maintaining assertions of privilege and factual and legal defenses will be difficult to sort out if it is ever litigated.  The settlement agreement carves out any potential claims against the president of the corporation that administered the managed health care plan, so that individual could be the focus of the “Remaining Investigation.”  In addition, the Court approved keeping the relator’s complaint and the government’s complaint-in-intervention under seal.

During the pendency of the “Remaining Investigation,” VNS agrees to monitor and further revise standards for credentialing SADCCs; only credential SADCCs that have necessary certificates; monitor SADCCs to ensure compliance with credentialing; ensure that SADCCs provide proper personal care services; and prohibit marketing practices directed at enrolling members through SADCCs.

Columbia University agreed to pay $9 million this week in settlement of a SDNY False Claims Act case alleging that it had submitted false claims in connection with federal grants funding AIDS and HIV related work.  Columbia was the grant administrator on behalf of ICAP, an entity that received millions of dollars in federal grants for support and services for HIV prevention and treatment.  The government’s complaint alleged that the federal grants at issue required that recipients charge grants only for work actually performed as part of that grant.  It further alleged that Columbia charged for work that was not devoted to the programs that grants funded, and did not have a suitable means of verifying that the employees actually performed the work charged to a particular grant. 

A settlement was approved by the Court earlier this week.  In keeping with the SDNY practice of requiring defendants to stipulate to an agreed statement of facts, Columbia admitted that ICAP allocated salaries and wages of employees among various grants without using a suitable means of verifying whether the charges were based on an employee’s actual effort for that grant. Columbia admitted that certain reports were inaccurate and for a number of years, ICAP mischarged grant agreements for work that was not allocable to them. 

SDNY U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara made clear that the government will target not-for-profits, and a charitable intent will not allow potential defendants to avoid False Claims Act damages.  After praising Columbia for its work combatting AIDS and HIV, Bharara said that “Grantees are required to use federal money for the purpose for which the grant was given and nothing else. … Educational institutions, like everyone else, should be held accountable.”  Federal grant recipients must take care to ensure compliance with all the requirements of their grant agreements, or they could face treble damages and penalties under the False Claims Act. 

 

Leslie Caldwell, DOJ Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, spoke to the qui tam relators’ bar at a Taxpayers Against Fraud conference last month, stating a new DOJ policy for criminal and civil division coordination of qui tam cases, starting with intake. 

Taxpayers Against Fraud is an organization of whistleblowers and their counsel, which seeks to combat fraud against the government.  Caldwell encouraged TAF members to reach out to the criminal division, and its 40 attorney Health Care Fraud unit, in qui tam cases that could potentially involve criminal conduct.  Stating that “qui tam cases are a vital part of the Criminal Division’s future efforts,” she outlined a newly implemented procedure so that all new qui tam cases will be shared by the Civil Division with the Criminal Division as soon as they are filed.  “Those prosecutors then coordinate swiftly with the Civil Division and U.S. Attorney’s Offices about the best ways to proceed in the parallel investigations.”   

Early civil-criminal coordination of qui tam cases has been standard practice for some time in several U.S. Attorney’s Offices, including locally in the Eastern District of New York.  As early as 1997, Attorney General Janet Reno issued a Memorandum on Coordination of Parallel Criminal, Civil and Administrative Proceedings.  In the 1997 Memo, Attorney General Reno recognized the necessity of coordinating criminal, civil and administrative investigative and litigative resources,  stating that “every United States Attorney’s office and each Department Litigating Division should have a system for coordinating the criminal, civil and administrative aspects of all white-collar crime matters within the office.”  In 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder updated this policy in a Memorandum on Coordination of Parallel Criminal, Civil, Regulatory and Administrative Proceedings.   Attorney General Holder stressed that this coordination should operate at all stages of fraud investigations, including intake, investigation and resolution. 

Healthcare providers can expect DOJ to continue to expand its aggressive efforts in combatting healthcare fraud.  DOJ has signaled that it intends to increase its coordination of civil and criminal investigations and remedies for maximum deterrence and collection of healthcare dollars.  Providers facing scrutiny from the government will need to be aware that, behind the scenes, there is likely an organized and coordinated effort that includes civil, criminal, regulatory, and administrative resources.

When does the 60-day clock start for an identified overpayment of federal funds to become a reverse false claim under amendments to the False Claims Act?  A closely watched SDNY qui tam  case may provide an answer. 

In June, the United States and New York intervened in United States v. Continuum Health Partners, Inc., alleging that defendants had knowingly failed to return overpayments owed to Medicaid arising out of a computer glitch.  Defendants have now filed motions to dismiss the Federal and New York State FCA claims. 

In 2009, the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act defined “obligation” in the FCA to include “the retention of an overpayment.”  The following year, in 2010, the Affordable Care Act provided that an overpayment of federal funds must be reported and returned within “60 days after the date on which the overpayment was identified.”  In addition, the ACA amendments provided that the failure to return an overpayment in 60 days constitutes a reverse false claim, subjecting the provider to treble damages and civil penalties under the FCA. 

In their motion to dismiss, Beth Israel Medical Center, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, and Continuum Health Partners argued that there was never an “obligation” to the Federal government, because there must be a present, existing duty to repay.  Defendants asserted that an overpayment is not “identified” unless it has been confirmed and quantified, and the 60 day period does not start until that occurs.  Defendants referenced the process most providers undertake when they become aware of a potential overpayment, including an internal audit, sampling of claims, consultations with physicians and staff, and factual and legal analysis.  This process ordinarily cannot occur within 60 days of initially becoming aware of a potential overpayment. 

The complaint attached an internal summary, by one of Continuum’s employees, of approximately 900 Medicaid claims, totaling over $1 million, that were potential overpayments.  Defendants stressed that this was not a list of actual overpayments, and in fact only 465 of the claims were paid.  As further analysis was required to determine if the claims did result in overpayments, defendants argued that the summary did not “identify” overpayments, and the complaint therefore did not allege any obligation owed the government under the FCA. 

Defendants also argued that the complaint failed to allege any affirmative act of concealment to prevent an overpayment from being disclosed, and that an overpayment from Medicaid is not an obligation owed to the Federal government under the reverse false claim section of the FCA.  In a separate memorandum seeking to dismiss the state FCA claims, defendants incorporated their Federal FCA arguments and also argued that the state reverse false claim provision was enacted after the alleged conduct, and therefore could not be applied retroactively. 

This case is being closely watched, as it raises significant issues on when the government can assert reverse false claim liability for overpayments.  Significantly, in this case, there is no dispute that the overpayments resulted from a computer glitch and not fraud, and that defendants repaid the overpayment to the government.  The complaint alleges that defendants did not make that payment soon enough.  The government intervened to seek treble damages and civil penalties, signaling that it will be aggressively pursuing cases where providers become aware of overpayments and fail — in the government’s view — to promptly reimburse the government. 

The case is pending before SDNY District Judge Edgardo Ramos, and the government opposition papers are due on October 22.