EDNY Judge Brian Cogan recently addressed the False Claims Act public disclosure bar and original source rule in a decision based on a qui tam Relator’s claims that defendants marketed a test to measure the levels of a certain hormone knowing that the test was flawed. In United States ex rel. Patriarca v. Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics, Inc., Relator alleged that Medicare suffered significant losses because medical professionals ordered treatments based on the test’s inaccurate results.
The Background of PTH Testing
Judge Cogen started his opinion with a lengthy discussion of the medicine that led to Relator’s complaint. Patients with chronic kidney disease may have high levels of parathyroid hormone (“PTH”), which can lead to bone disease. Vitamin D analogs are used to treat high levels of PTH, but overdosing of these analogs can lead to serious health consequences. Accurate diagnosis of PTH levels is therefore critical.
In 1987, Nichols Diagnostics produced a PTH test, the “IRMA Test,” that was performed manually and required a several-hour long incubation period. The test was approved by the FDA and became the industry standard.
The Siemens Test, used to measure PTH levels, was a Second Generation PTH test, measuring the whole PTH molecule and large fragments of the molecule. The Siemens Test was purportedly aligned with the IRMA test. Third Generation tests report only the level of whole PTH molecules and omit the fragments, so Second Generation tests report PTH levels roughly twice that of Third Generation tests.
Later versions of the Nichols Tests “drifted” upward, consistently overstating patient’s PTH levels, leading to medically unnecessary prescriptions and surgeries. After a qui tam action relating to the tests’ inaccuracy and a substantial settlement with the government, Nichols withdrew its tests from the market.
In his qui tam complaint, filed in 2011, Relator alleged the Siemens Test had materially “drifted” from the IRMA test. Relator based his allegation primarily on separate parallel experiments he conducted. Relator compared the Siemens Test to the PTH test developed by his own company, the Scantibodies Test, a Third Generation test.
Public Disclosures of PTH Testing Issues
In the 2006 Souberbielle Study, European scientists studied various PTH tests, including the Siemens Test, compared them to the IRMA Test, and published their findings. The study concluded, among other things, that the values yielded by Second Generation tests varied widely. The study also determined that clinicians should monitor a patient’s PTH levels over a series of tests, as opposed to making clinical decisions on the basis of a single finding. The study also showed a significant differential between the Siemens and Scantibodies Tests.
An article published in 2007 noted that: (1) industry guidelines were based on the IRMA Test; (2) the absolute results obtained from various PTH tests varied from those of the IRMA Test; and (3) the 2006 Souberbielle Study documented this variability. Based on these observations, the author recommended that nephrologists use a single laboratory for results and look at trends in PTH as opposed to single values.
A 2009 study published by the relator who brought the successful Nichols qui tam action disclosed the results of parallel testing of various PTH tests. The study concluded that the Siemens Test generated results that were on average 36% higher than the Scantibodies Test. This was nearly the same differential as that disclosed in the 2006 Souberbielle Study.
Relator argued in his qui tam complaint that the upward drift he observed in the Siemens Test caused physicians to prescribe hundreds of millions of dollars of medically unnecessary Vitamin D, and to conduct untold numbers of medically unnecessary parathyroidectomies. Relator also alleged that Medicare paid for a portion of the cost of the Siemens Test, for prescribed Vitamin D and its analogs, and for surgeries related to elevated PTH levels.
The Public Disclosure Bar
Judge Cogan first addressed the FCA’s public disclosure bar, which bars claims for conduct that has already been made public. The bar discourages “opportunistic plaintiffs” with no significant information of their own who may bring “parasitic lawsuits.”
Prior to the 2010 FCA amendments, the public disclosure bar applied where a qui tam action was “based upon the public disclosure of allegations or transactions.” The Second Circuit and the majority of circuits had held that a relator’s claim was “based upon” the public disclosure if the allegations in the complaint were “substantially similar” to the publicly disclosed information. The 2010 FCA amendment generally followed this majority approach and identified the inquiry as whether “substantially the same allegations or transactions as alleged in the action or claim were publicly disclosed.”
The Second Circuit has applied a broad view of the public disclosure bar. Under that standard, earlier disclosures will bar a relator’s claim if they were sufficient to set the government squarely upon the trail of the alleged fraud. The bar is triggered if material elements of the fraud have been publicly disclosed, and does not require that the alleged fraud, itself, have been disclosed. Also, merely providing more specific details about what happened or translating technical information into digestible form does not negate substantial similarity. Public disclosures under the FCA include the news media and disclosures in scientific and scholarly journals.
After summarizing this caselaw, the Court held that before the Relator filed his complaint: (1) the variation between PTH tests was widely known; (2) physicians were advised to adjust their course of treatment accordingly; (3) Second Generation tests, such as the Siemens Test, were known to yield higher absolute results than Third Generation tests, such as the Scantibodies Test; and 4) the average difference between the Siemens and Scantibodies tests had been published in several studies. As a result, the public disclosure bar applied to Relator’s claims.
The Original Source Rule
Having decided that the public disclosure bar applied, the Court examined whether Relator qualified as an “original source” despite the earlier public disclosures. The FCA definition of “original source” was amended in 2010.
Under the pre-amendment version of the FCA, an original source was “an individual who has direct and independent knowledge of the information on which the allegations are based and has voluntarily provided the information to the Government before filing an action under this section which is based on the information.” Under the 2010 version, an “original source” is an individual who “has knowledge that is independent of and materially adds to the publicly disclosed allegations or transactions, and who has voluntarily provided the information to the Government before filing an action under this section.”
Judge Cogan outlined various approaches Courts have taken in deciding whether a Relator is an original source: the new information “materially adds to what has already been revealed through public disclosures” (First Circuit); the Relator’s “key facts” are not “already thoroughly revealed” (Eighth Circuit); Relator’s information must “add value” (D.C. Circuit); Relator must bring “more than expertise or a novel analysis to the table” (S.D.N.Y.).
The Court determined that Relator was not an original source. First, over the course of years, the Siemens and Scantibodies tests had been repeatedly compared to each other in a number of published studies. Second, Relator’s findings did not materially depart from earlier ones and were not sufficiently or qualitatively different from the publicly disclosed information. The Court dismissed Relator’s complaint.
The last several years have brought increasing numbers of qui tam actions brought by Relators who are aware of the potentially significant recoveries those actions can bring. The public disclosure bar and the original source rule provide qui tam defendants with arguments to fend off these cases if they are brought by opportunistic relators who are seeking to trade on public information.