As recounted in our recent analysis of the 2018-19 New York State Budget (“Enacted Budget”), the Enacted Budget included new restrictions on fiscal intermediaries participating in the Consumer Directed Personal Assistance Program (“CDPAP”) designed to prevent the dissemination of “false or misleading” advertisements.  Effective April 1, 2018, the newly enacted § 365-f(4-c) of the New York Social Services Law requires fiscal intermediaries to seek pre-approval for advertisements directed at Medicaid program recipients before they are released, and imposes escalating penalties for non-compliance – including revocation of the fiscal intermediary’s license to provide services after two or more false or misleading advertisements are distributed.

By way of background, the CDPAP program is a Medicaid program that allows chronically ill or physically disabled individuals to exercise a greater degree of control and choice with respect to the provision of essential services ranging from assistance with activities of daily living (ADLs) to skilled nursing services.  The program – which allows recipients to hire almost anyone other than their spouse, child or parent to provide these services – provides a marked level of independence over traditional home care models where recipients must accept whatever provider is sent by the program’s vendor.  In addition to freedom of choice, CDPAP aides are able to perform a host of services that ordinarily can only be performed by nurses or certified home health aides.

Unlike traditional home care models, CDPAP aides are employed by the consumer.  Fiscal intermediaries help consumers facilitate their role as employer by: providing wage and benefit processing for consumer directed personal assistants; processing income tax and other required wage withholdings; complying with workers’ compensation, disability and unemployment requirements; maintaining personnel records; ensuring health status of assistants prior to service delivery; maintaining records of service authorizations or reauthorizations; and monitoring the consumer’s/designated representative’s ability to fulfill the consumer’s responsibilities under the program.

On June 26, 2018, the Consumer Directed Personal Assistance Association of New York State, Inc. and various  fiscal intermediary members (collectively plaintiffs) filed a complaint against the New York State Department of Health (DOH) and its Commissioner Howard Zucker (Commissioner) (collectively defendants) in the Northern District of New York, alleging in sum and substance that § 365-f(4-c) violates their right to commercial free speech as protected by the New York and United States Constitutions.  Plaintiffs sought a temporary and permanent injunction enjoining defendants from implementing the new restrictions and a declaration that § 365-f(4-c) is unconstitutional.  See Consumer Directed Personal Assistance Association of New York State, Inc. et al v. Zucker et al, Index. No. 1:18-cv-00746.

More specifically, the plaintiffs allege that the advertisements regarding CDPAP are protected commercial speech because they concern a lawful activity and express the plaintiffs’ support for self-direction and consumer choice provided by the program and the requirement that they submit their advertisements for approval burdens, restricts and otherwise infringes upon those rights.  plaintiffs also claim that the DOH lacks a substantial interest in reviewing the advertisements and that prior approval of advertisements does not advance any legitimate governmental interest – particularly in light of the fact that the state already has laws governing false and deceptive advertising (i.e., General Business Law § 349).  Furthermore, the plaintiffs maintain that even if the DOH had a legitimate interest in preventing false and misleading advertisements, requiring prior approval is not sufficiently narrowly tailored to serve that interest.

As explained below, because plaintiffs moved for, and were denied, a preliminary injunction – prohibiting the DOH from implementing § 365-f(4-c)  until the legality of the new law can be fully decided – we now more or less know how this case will ultimately be decided.  In this case, as in all cases where preliminary relief is sought, it does not bode well for plaintiffs that the court denied the preliminary injunction, given that such relief is only withheld where the movant fails to establish a clear or substantial likelihood that they will ultimately be able to succeed on the merits.

In concluding that plaintiffs failed to establish a sufficient likelihood of success, the court applied the four-part inquiry laid out by the Supreme Court in Central Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n of N.Y., 447 U.S. 557 (1980)), to determine whether § 365-f(4-c) is an impermissible regulation of commercial free speech in violation the First Amendment: “[1] whether the expression is protected by the First Amendment. For commercial speech to come within that provision, it at least must concern lawful activity and not be misleading. Next, we ask [2] whether the asserted governmental interest is substantial. If both inquiries yield positive answers, we must determine [3] whether the regulation directly advances the governmental interest asserted, and [4] whether it is not more extensive than is necessary to serve that interest.”

The parties did not dispute the first element.  With respect to the second element, the plaintiffs argued that had the State’s true purpose been to regulate false or misleading advertisement, such a purpose would be substantial, but here the true purpose for instituting the new restrictions was to decrease awareness of the CDPAP program in order to limit the State’s own expenditures on the program.  According to the plaintiffs, the evidence of the DOH’s ulterior motive was evident from the fact that the restrictions were passed as part of the Enacted Budget.  The court was not distracted by this argument, finding instead that where, as here, the statute’s intentions are facially obvious they need not consider such “extra-textual ‘evidence.’”  Even if the court had considered the issue, the fact that the restrictions were passed as part of the 2018-19 Executive Budget is hardly evidence that the restrictions are fiscally motivated.  Indeed, the Governor traditionally uses the budget process to advance his policy agenda, and the inclusion of § 365-f(4-c) appears to be no exception to that rule.  It is also worth noting that requiring vendors of Medicaid services to submit advertisements for approval is not a new phenomenon in New York.  Indeed, Managed Long Term Care plans have long been subject to such requirements – both as part of their contracts with the State and in regulation.  We are unaware of any claim that such a program was intended to, or has resulted in a decrease in enrollment in these plans.

The court also gave short shrift to the plaintiffs’ arguments regarding the fourth element – whether the restrictions were more extensive than necessary.  Although the plaintiffs and the court would agree that less restrictive means are available, the standard does not require that the Legislature implore the least restrictive means conceivable, only one that is reasonable and in proportion to the interest to be served.

Ultimately, the resolution of this case will likely turn on the evidence marshaled by both sides in support of the third element – whether the regulation directly advances the State’s interest in preventing false and misleading advertising by CDPAP fiscal intermediaries.  As noted by the court, for purposes of this element, “a governmental body seeking to sustain a restriction on commercial speech must demonstrate that the harms it recites are real and that its restriction will in fact alleviate them to a material degree.”  The State need not “produce empirical data . . . accompanied by a surfeit of background information” in order to meet its burden in this respect, and can rely instead on “reference to studies and anecdotes pertaining to different locales altogether.”

Here, the DOH tendered an affidavit of Donna Frescatore, the Medicaid Director of New York State and Deputy Commissioner of DOH to meet its burden.  Deputy Commissioner Frescatore noted, inter alia, that CDPAP recipients must be able to rely on the materials they receive to evaluate and choose the best available options and that false and misleading advertising not only complicates this process, it often leads ineligible individuals to request services, burdening local authorities.  Mrs. Frescatore also identified a host of “[e]xamples of advertisements that misstate, misrepresent, or overstate what the [Fiscal Intermediaries] and CDPAP provide have: [1] failed to explain that Medicaid eligibility is required to receive services; [2] suggested that CDPAP pays people to stay at home; [3] stressed that no training is required, without explaining that the consumer is responsible for training their assistants through CDPAP; [4] failed to explain that the service has to be a Medicaid covered service to be obtained through CDPAP; and [5] included services like dog walking and escort services when in actuality, such services are rarely, if ever,. . . covered by Medicaid.”

At oral argument, the DOH confirmed to the court that these were examples of advertisements that the DOH had actually seen – a contention they will now have to prove.  Should the DOH be unable to substantiate these claims, they may well find themselves unable to meet their burden on this issue.  Indeed, the court noted that while these representations are sufficient standing alone at this early point in the litigation, a different result may be warranted upon a more fully developed record.  For now, we will have to await the completion of discovery and the likely filing of a summary judgment motion(s) to know how this case will ultimately come down, a process that generally takes eight months to a year to complete in the Northern District of New York.

Having failed to secure the desired preliminary injunction, § 365-f(4-c) remains the law of the land.  In September of 2018, the DOH issued specific guidance on the program for all advertising by fiscal intermediaries on or after November 1, 2018.  According to the guidance, “inaccurate descriptions of the CDPAP program or the roles and responsibilities of CDPAP participants, designated representatives, fiscal intermediaries, and/or aides will be considered false or misleading.”  The guidance further prohibits cold-calling and door-to-door solicitation.

Advertisements may be submitted by email, however if the advertisement is a website, a hard-copy must also be submitted.  The DOH will have thirty days to review the advertisements, the advertisements may not be utilized by the provider until approved by the DOH or thirty days has passed without response from the DOH.  In the event an adverse decision is issued, the fiscal intermediary will have thirty days to appeal the decision, if the decision is upheld, however, the fiscal intermediary will be required to pay a penalty.

Advertising materials that were used prior to November 1, 2018 are not required to be submitted for review.  That being said, however, providers have the option of submitting such materials by December 31, 2018 for review and inclusion in the DOH’s “amnesty” program.  In the event that voluntarily submitted advertisement is found to be false or misleading the fiscal intermediary will be required to discontinue use of the advertisement within thirty days, but the advertisement will not count for purposes of determining whether to revoke the fiscal intermediary’s license for distributing two or more false or misleading advertisements.

If you have any questions or would like additional information on any of the above referenced issues, please do not hesitate to contact Farrell Fritz’s Regulatory & Government Relations Practice Group at 518.313.1450 or NYSRGR@FarrellFritz.com.

 

Last week, in LeadingAge New York, Inc. v. Shah, the New York Court of Appeals addressed Department of Health regulations limiting executive compensation and administrative expenditures by healthcare providers receiving state funds. The Court upheld limits related to state funding, but struck down a limit that applied regardless of the source of funding.

In 2012, Governor Cuomo directed agencies providing state funding to service providers to regulate provider use of state funds for executive compensation and administrative costs. DOH responded with regulations restricting state-funded expenditures on administrative expenses and executive compensation for certain defined “covered providers.”

The regulations had two “hard caps,” one limiting administrative expenses to 15% of covered operating expenses paid with State funds, and one limiting the use of State funds for executive compensation to $199,000, absent a waiver. The regulations also had one “soft cap,” providing for penalties to a covered provider if executive compensation exceeded $199,000 from any source of funding, with specified exceptions concerning comparable provider compensation and board approval. Covered executives included those for whom salary and benefits were administrative expenses, and excluded clinical and program personnel.

Several petitioners challenged the regulations, including nursing homes, assisted-living programs, home-care agencies and trade associations.

The Court of Appeals grounded its decision in the separation of powers doctrine, which requires that “the Legislature make the critical policy decisions, while the executive branch’s responsibility is to implement those policies.” Chief Judge DiFiore looked to the Court’s prior decision in Boreali v. Axelrod for guidance in finding “the difficult-to-define line between administrative rule-making and legislative policy-making.”

The Court first reviewed the function of DOH, which manages state funds earmarked for public health, oversees the Medicaid program, and contracts with private entities. The Court said that DOH carries out these functions with the goal of ensuring that the limited public funding available be directed as efficiently as possible toward high-quality services.

The Court concluded that the hard cap regulations on both administrative expenses and executive compensation did not exceed DOH’s authority. The Legislature directed that DOH oversee the efficient expenditure of state health care funds. The hard caps are tied to the specific goal of efficiently directing state funds toward quality medical care for the public by limiting the extent to which state funds may be used for non-service-related salaries and disproportionately high administrative budgets. The Court found the hard cap regulations to be directly tied to the Legislative policy goal without subverting it in favor of unrelated public policy interests.

In contrast, the Court struck down the soft cap regulation, which restricted executive compensation over $199,000 regardless of funding source, because it represented “an unauthorized excursion by DOH beyond the parameters set by the Legislature.” The Court found that while the hard cap regulations capped the use of public funding, the soft cap imposed an overall cap on executive compensation, regardless of the funding source. “The soft cap thus pursues a policy consideration – limited executive compensation – that is not clearly connected to the objectives outlined by the Legislature but represents a distinct ‘value judgment.’” The soft cap restriction on executive compensation was not “sufficiently tethered” to the enabling legislation which largely concerned state funding. The Court concluded that the soft cap regulation exceeded DOH’s administrative authority as it envisioned the additional goal of limiting executive compensation as a matter of public policy.

All members of the Court of Appeals agreed that the hard cap on administrative expenditures was permissible, but the dissenting Judges differed on executive compensation.  Judge Garcia would have stricken both hard and soft caps on executive compensation, because they represented a “policy choice about reasonable compensation aimed at influencing corporate behavior,” which is “law-making beyond DOH’s regulatory authority.”  In contrast, Judge Wilson would had found both limits to be permissible.  He criticized the majority’s reliance on Boreali, and saw the proper analysis to be whether the regulation exceeded the executive power.  He would have used that rationale to uphold the hard cap on executive compensation, and also would have found the soft cap permissible because it advance the statutory goals of preventing providers from circumventing the hard cap and advising providers the State may allocate taxpayer funds away from undesireable or inefficient vendors and toward competitors who provide superior value.

At least where State funds are at issue, LeadingAge provides the Governor and executive agencies with broad authority to police and restrict the use of State funding.

 

            New York State does not require hospitals to insure medical malpractice claims, either through the purchase of commercial medical malpractice insurance or the establishment of an adequately funded self-insurance program.  New York has never required such insurance.  There are many hospitals which did not insure medical malpractice claims in the past, and a number that currently do not.

            Historically, the lack of insurance was often a matter of choice.  A number of community hospitals in the New York City area did not insure medical practice claims because they believed they would always be able to pay claims out of operations.  Others chose not to insure because they believed the lack of insurance improved their negotiating position with medical malpractice plaintiffs.  The hospitals would warn plaintiffs to settle their claims for what the hospitals considered reasonable amounts. If they did not, the hospitals would tell them that they would not be able to pay their claims and might have to resort to chapter 11 bankruptcy, where their malpractice claims would be general unsecured claims and receive pennies on the dollar.

            Attending physicians typically have malpractice insurance that covers claims against them individually for services they perform at the hospitals where they practice.  But physicians who are full-time employees of hospitals often do not have any individual malpractice insurance coverage; rather, they are dependent on their employers for it.

            Some hospitals, after “going bare” for a period of time and experiencing a large number of malpractice claims, are unable to purchase commercial medical malpractice insurance.  It is unclear whether they could have taken advantage of state programs established to enable them to purchase insurance for themselves and/or their physicians.  Although some of these hospitals set up self-insured programs, the programs were often inadequately funded.  When the hospitals experienced financial difficulties, the self-insurance reserves would often be used, in whole or in substantial part, to fund operating expenses.

            The lack of medical malpractice insurance or adequate self-insurance, needless to say, can be tragic for patients.  Patients may well be uninformed when admitted to a hospital that it is without medical malpractice insurance coverage or a sufficiently funded self-insurance program to fully compensate them if they are negligently injured during treatment or surgery.  Narratives of serious injuries caused by medical malpractice make for difficult reading, and an even worse ending if they cannot recover the damages to which they are entitled.

            Lack of malpractice insurance further raises issues for trade creditors, service providers and other unsecured creditors of the hospitals if the hospitals experience financial difficulties and file chapter 11.  Serious uninsured medical malpractice claims and large numbers of such claims, when added to the claims of other creditors, can greatly reduce the recovery of both malpractice claimants and business creditors in the chapter 11 cases of these hospitals.

            For more information, please contact Marty Bunin at 646-329-1982 or MBunin@FarrellFritz.com

In United States ex rel. Wood v. Allergan, Inc., the Second Circuit addressed the issue of whether a violation of the False Claims Act’s “first-to-file” rule compels dismissal of an action or whether it can be cured by the filing of an amended or supplemental pleading. The Court’s acceptance of the interlocutory appeal was addressed here in a post last year. In August, the Second Circuit reversed the District Court, holding that a violation of the first-to-file bar cannot be remedied by amending or supplementing the complaint.

Relator John Wood brought FCA claims against Allegan, a pharmaceutical company that develops and manufactures eye care prescription drugs. Wood alleged that Allergan violated the FCA and the Anti-Kickback Statute by providing large quantities of free medical products to physicians to entice them to prescribe Allergan drugs. When Wood brought his action, two other actions alleging similar FCA violations were pending.

The Initial Qui Tam Complaint Violated the “First-to-File” Bar

The FCA’s “first-to-file” rule states that once a qui tam action has been brought, no person other than the Government may intervene or bring a related action based on the same facts. The first-to-file rule ensures that only one relator shares in the Government’s recovery and encourages potential relators to file their claims promptly. Because two prior actions were pending when Wood filed his qui tam complaint, it ran afoul of the first-to-file bar.

The Wood complaint, however, was under seal, and while it remained under seal, the two prior actions were dismissed. When the government declined to intervene in the Wood action and the case was unsealed, there were no longer any prior-filed pending actions. Wood thereafter filed a third amended complaint. Allergan moved to dismiss on several grounds, including the “first-to-file” bar, because when the Wood qui tam complaint was commenced, there were two pending actions alleging the same factual allegations.

The Second Circuit first held that the first-to-file rule applied, rejecting Wood’s argument that the earlier actions failed to adequately allege an FCA claim. Even if Wood’s allegations were broader than the prior complaints, the claims were related, as the alleged schemes were sufficiently similar, and the Government would have been equipped to investigate them. In addition, the Court rejected as unworkable the argument that the Judge in a later-filed case could address the sufficiency of an earlier-filed case pending before a different Judge, potentially even before the first Judge had done so.

An Amended Pleading Cannot “Cure” a First-to-File Violation

In Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Carter, the Supreme Court had held that “an earlier suit bars a later suit while the earlier suit remains undecided but ceases to bar that suit once it is dismissed,” dismissing the later filed action without prejudice. Wood therefore would have been able to commence a new action once the two prior actions had been dismissed. However, due to the passage of time, statutes of limitation would have barred a new action.  Wood argued that the first-to-file bar could be “cured” by amending or supplementing the complaint after dismissal of the earlier actions. Other Circuits have split on this question.

The Second Circuit followed a D.C. Circuit decision to hold that Wood’s “action was incurably flawed from the moment he filed it.” The Court found that the plain language of the FCA provides that no individual may bring a related action when an FCA action is pending, and that the plain language required dismissal. The Court determined that Wood’s position—a first-to-file violation can be cured by a later amendment—is inconsistent with the language of the statute. The Court reasoned that the statute bars a person from bringing a related action when a prior FCA action is pending; it does not provide for the second action to be stayed until the first-filed action is no longer pending. An amended or supplemented pleading could not change the fact that Wood brought the action when another related action was pending.

The Court also posited several inefficiencies from Wood’s suggested approach: inequities among Relators with later-filed complaints depending on the happenstance of when their complaint was dismissed or whether their case was stayed; questions as to which later-filed case would proceed; and a potential lineup of later-filed cases waiting to take the place of a dismissed earlier action. Finally, the Court found support in legislative history, indicating that the primary, if not sole, purpose of the first-to-file rule is to help the Government uncover and fight fraud. The Court found it unlikely that Congress would have invited an inefficient process prone to anomalous outcomes, dependent on the chance considerations of one Court’s backlog and another Court’s timeliness of dismissal.

This Second Circuit decision, following the D.C. Circuit, now conflicts with a First Circuit decision finding the argument that amendment cannot cure a first-to-file violation to be “untenable.”  The Supreme Court may be called on to decide this Circuit split.

As the battle over the future of the Affordable Care Act (the “ACA”) continues, New York State scored a big victory earlier this month with the federal court decision of UnitedHealthcare of New York, Inc., et al. v. Vullo.

The controversy centered on New York State’s risk adjustment program, which is designed to prevent insurers from competing for only the healthiest enrollees. The program requires insurers with enrollees of above-average health for any given plan year to make payments into a common fund.   Those funds are, in turn, used to subsidize insurers who incurred higher claim costs due to having enrollees of below-average health.

 

From 1993 through 2013, New York State had its own risk adjustment program. When the ACA was enacted in 2010, it called for the development of a federal risk adjustment program (the “FRAP”), which the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) was authorized to develop. Although states meeting certain requirements are permitted to administer the FRAP themselves, New York State opted to have HHS implement the FRAP on its behalf.

 

In 2016, HHS published an interim final rule addressing the implementation of the FRAP, wherein HHS acknowledged that certain issuers, including some new and smaller issuers, owed substantial risk adjustment charges that they did not anticipate and encouraged states to examine local approaches to ease these growing pains in the new health insurance market landscape. In response, the New York State Superintendent of Financial Services promulgated an emergency regulation allowing the Superintendent to collect up to 30% of the funds received by carriers in New York State from the FRAP and to redistribute such funds to other carriers in the State pursuant to a State-specific risk adjustment methodology.

The plaintiffs in the action were health insurance companies who offer insurance policies in New York State and who have been, and expect to continue to be, the recipients of risk adjustment payments under the FRAP. The plaintiffs objected to New York State’s emergency regulation, which in part required insurers to turn over funds they had received from the FRAP to the Superintendent so the Superintendent could redistribute such funds to other insurers in New York. The insurers’ primary argument was that the New York State regulation is preempted by the ACA.

 

The District Court for the Southern District of New York found that, under the plain language of the ACA, state regulations are not preempted unless they “prevent the application” of the ACA, which the New York State regulation does not do. The Court further found that there was nothing in the ACA requiring New York State to obtain HHS approval of its emergency regulation. Moreover, statements made by HHS and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services made clear that states are intended to have an ongoing role in risk adjustment policies. All of this, according to the Court, was evidence that the ACA does not preempt the New York State regulation. Accordingly, the Court dismissed the action, allowing the Superintendent to redistribute the FRAP funds paid to New York insurers as the Superintendent deems appropriate.

The recent New York Court of Appeals decision in Stega v. New York Downtown Hospital provides strong support for defamation claims arising out of witness testimony in investigations and quasi-judicial hearings. In Stega, the Court held that statements made in administrative proceedings that allegedly defame a person are not absolutely immune where the person has no recourse to challenge the accusations.

The plaintiff, Dr. Jeanetta Stega, a medical scientist and employee of New York Downtown Hospital, was chair of the hospital’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). She assisted Dr. Leonard Farber in arranging a clinical trial of a compound Luminant Bio-Sciences had developed to treat patients with metastatic cancer, which included human subjects. Dr. Stega recused herself from the Downtown Hospital IRB decision approving the trial.

The clinical study went awry as conflicts developed between Dr. Farber and Luminant. Dr. Farber made several allegations against Dr. Stega, including that she had stolen Luminent study money from him, that she had taken funds that did not belong to her, and that the drug compound was toxic and unsafe for patients. Downtown Hospital accused plaintiff of taking funds that did not belong to her and engaging in a conflict of interest by seeking IRB approval when she was a member of the IRB board. Downtown Hospital terminated Dr. Stega after concluding that she had violated the hospital’s conflict of interest policy and improperly taken Luminent money.

Dr. Stega submitted a complaint to the FDA. FDA inspectors interviewed Dr. Stega as well as officials from Downtown Hospital. The FDA inspection report included statements from the Downtown Hospital Acting Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Stephen Friedman, that Dr. Stega was terminated because she channeled Luminent funds to a research group using her home address and added patients to the study that the IRB would not approve, and because the IRB and their approvals were tainted.

After becoming aware of the FDA inspection report, Dr. Stega commenced a defamation action against Downtown Hospital, Dr. Friedman, and others.   Defendants contended that Dr. Friedman’s statements were protected by an absolute privilege because the FDA inspection was a quasi-judicial proceeding.

The Court of Appeals, in a decision by Judge Fahey, held that the statements were not protected by absolute privilege. The Court held that, for absolute immunity to apply in a quasi-judicial context, the process must make available a remedy for the allegedly defamed party to challenge the defamatory statements. The Court focused on the fact that Dr. Stega was not entitled to participate in the FDA’s review and therefore could not challenge Dr. Friedman’s accusations against her. As the FDA investigation process did not provide Dr. Stega with procedural safeguards to contest what was said against her, absolute privilege did not apply. In the Court’s words, “The absolute privilege against defamation applied to communications in certain administrative proceedings is not a license to destroy a person’s character by means of false, defamatory statements.”

Judges Rivera and Garcia dissented, arguing that whether an absolute privilege applies in a quasi-judicial proceeding depends on the nature of the proceedings rather than the status of the subject of the communication. Judge Rivera opined that the majority decision undermined the public policy of encouraging greater openness in communications with government officials. The dissenters would have applied absolute immunity, on the ground that the statements were made in a quasi-judicial proceeding, a federal investigation regarding clinical trials involving human subjects and treatment of life-threatening conditions.   The interesting oral argument before the Court of Appeals can be found here.

For the question of whether absolute immunity applies, the Stega decision places the focus on the allegedly defamed person rather than the nature of the proceedings.  Witnesses who are giving statements or testimony in administrative proceedings and investigations should be counseled to take care in what they say and how they say it, as absolute immunity may not protect them if their comments lead to a defamation claim.

In a decision last week that could affect $12 billion that insurers assert is owed by the federal government, the Federal Circuit decided that HHS was not required to pay amounts required by statute because Congress had repealed or suspended those obligations through riders to appropriations bills. In Moda Health Plan, Inc. v. United States, the Federal Circuit rejected one insurer’s claim that it was statutorily and contractually owed close to $210 million under the government risk corridors program.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) established health benefit exchanges in each state for individuals and small groups to purchase health coverage. Insurers, however, faced significant risk if they offered plans in the exchange, because they lacked reliable data to estimate the cost of providing care for an expanding pool of individuals seeking coverage. To mitigate that risk and discourage insurers from setting higher premiums to offset that risk, the ACA established the risk corridors program.

Under the risk corridors program, participating plans whose costs of coverage exceeded the premiums received would be paid a share of their excess costs by HHS (“payments out”), and plans whose premiums exceeded their costs would pay to HHS a share of their profits (“payments in”). HHS promulgated regulations providing that health plans would receive payments in from HHS or make payments out to HHS in the formulas set forth in the statute. Congress, however, provided in riders to appropriations bills that none of the funds appropriated for HHS in fiscal years 2015 through 2017 could be used for payments under the risk corridors program. The Congressional purpose was to make the risk corridor program budget neutral, so that HHS would not pay out more than it collected under the program. CMS reported that in the three year period of 2014-2016, payments in to HHS fell short of payments out by more than $12 billion. For that reason, HHS paid only prorated portions of the payments out to insurers.

Moda Health Plans sued under the Tucker Act, seeking almost $210 million, constituting the unpaid amounts it claimed it was owed under the risk corridors program under the ACA. Moda argued that the ACA itself obligated HHS to pay insurers the full amount under the risk corridors program, regardless of the amount of payments in, and that HHS breached its contractual agreement to pay the full amount required by the statute. The Federal Circuit rejected both arguments.

The Court agreed with Moda that the ACA obligated the government to pay the full amount of the risk corridors payments, but held that the Congressional appropriations riders effected a suspension of that obligation for each of the relevant years. The Court first held that the statute was mandatory with respect to payments out, and could not be read to require such payments to be budget neutral. Thus, the plain language of the statute created an obligation of the government to pay the full amount for payments out under the risk corridors program.

The Court held, however, that through HHS appropriations riders, Congress repealed or suspended the obligation to make any payments out if they exceeded payments in. Repeals by implication are generally disfavored, but the Court held that the appropriations riders adequately expressed Congress’s intent to suspend payments on the risk corridors program beyond the sum of payments in. Congress clearly indicated its intent to limit the funding of payments out to payments in, thus requiring the risk corridors program to be budget neutral. As a result, no taxpayer funds would be used for the risk corridors payments, and the government would not pay out more than it collected from insurers under the program.

The Federal Circuit also rejected Moda’s claim for HHS’s breach of an implied-in-fact contract. Absent clear indication, legislation and regulation cannot establish the government’s intent to bind itself in a contract. The Court held that the overall scheme of the risk corridors program lacked the trappings of a contractual arrangement.

The Moda Health Plan decision may affect billions of dollars that insurers claim they are owed by the federal government. The Supreme Court may be the next stop for the risk corridors program issues decide by the Federal Circuit, and the Justices may have yet another chance to examine the Affordable Care Act and Congressional intent.

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.

A hospital victimized by the sale of adulterated and mislabeled drug products successful obtained a Court order imposing restitution of over $825,000 earlier this month. EDNY Judge I. Leo Glasser’s decision in United States v. Tighe provides a helpful summary of restitution standards, and applies them to the response efforts of Yale-New Haven Hospital (“YNHH”) to protect patients from potential harm from mold-contaminated IV bags.

Defendants Pled Guilty To Selling Mold-Contaminated IV Bags

In Tighe, the two defendants were the owner and the director of pharmacy at Med Prep Consulting, Inc., a medical drug repackager. They pled guilty to wire fraud for failing to comply with professional standards for drug sterility and by introducing adulterated and misbranded drugs into the marketplace. YNHH sought restitution as one of the healthcare provider victims to whom Med Prep sold drug products.

The allegations of the superseding information were alarming. YNHH discovered visible floating particles in four IV bags of magnesium sulphate that were sold and labeled as sterile by Med Prep. The four IV bags were found to be contaminated with mold. Med Prep had sent YNHH four shipments of contaminated magnesium sulphate drug product. The defendants and Med Prep failed to meet acceptable industry standards in handling sterile drugs, including:

  • Air filters in Med Prep’s cleanroom repeatedly failed inspections over five years.
  • A cart was regularly pushed from Med Prep’s unsanitary warehouse (which contained mold) into the purportedly sterile cleanroom without being sterilized.
  • Med Prep continued to clean surfaces with non-sterile isopropyl alcohol, which is inadequate to kill mold spores.
  • Med Prep replaced expiration dates set by manufacturers with unsupported dates.

Mandatory Restitution for Health Care and Other Fraud

The Mandatory Victim Restitution Act (“MVRA”), 18 USC § 3663A, provides that, for all offenses against property, including fraud, the Court shall order that the defendant make restitution to the victim. Restitution under the MVRA is only available to a statutorily defined victim of the offense, and only for losses that were directly and proximately caused by the offense for which the defendant has been convicted.

Also, where the victim has not suffered injury or death, the MVRA only allows restitution for (1) “damage to or loss or destruction of property,” and (2) “necessary … expenses incurred during participation in the investigation or prosecution of the offense or attendance at proceedings related to the offense.” Although the necessary expenses category lacks definition, Judge Glasser quoted the Second Circuit admonition in United States v. Maynard that it “takes a broad view of what expenses are ‘necessary.’”

Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Restitution Claim

In addressing YNHH’s restitution claim, the Court first recognized that the MVRA applied to the fraud claim and that YNHH was a statutory victim entitled to restitution. While defendants asserted that YNHH’s losses were not proximately caused by the offense, the Court rejected this argument because it was made after the 14-day time period to object to the presentence report. The presentence report had found that the defendants’ conduct directly and proximately caused the contamination at YNHH and the financial losses YNHH incurred. The Court also determined that the defendants’ failure to timely object was strategic, because a timely objection could have undercut their arguments that they were remorseful and accepted responsibility.

The Court next addressed whether YNHH’s losses were (i) “damages to or loss or destruction of property” and (ii) “necessary … expenses incurred during participation in the investigation or prosecution of the offense or attendance at proceedings related to the offense.”

Damages to Property

The Court first determined that YNHH’s “straightforward” losses to property were recoverable, including:

  • The cost of drug products returned to Med Prep; and
  • The cost of terminating all consigned medication housed at Med Prep.

The Court accepted YNHH’s undisputed assertions as to the value of the recalled drug products and the consigned products that were terminated.

Legal Fees and Costs

YNHH also sought recovery of legal fees and costs associated with the collection, review and preservation of documents requested by the government. The Second Circuit has held that “necessary expenses” for restitution can include attorney fees and accounting costs. Here, the Court found these expenses were recoverable because they related to YNHH’s responses to various subpoenas issued by the Department of Justice in connection with the case.

Responses to the Discovery of Contaminated Drug Products

The most interesting question addressed by the Court was whether expenses incurred as a result of YNHH’s responses to the discovery of the contaminated drug products were subject to restitution. These included:

  • Patient and physician notification
  • Purchase of anti-fungal prophylactic medication
  • Patient disease surveillance
  • Hospital administrative time responding to the contamination
  • Pharmacy in-house admixture services and additional staffing
  • Pharmacy response to the contamination

The District Court first noted the Second Circuit’s “broad view” of necessary expenses for restitution, and held that these were necessary expenses for restitution. YNHH needed to sequester and inventory the contaminated drug product from Med Prep, examine the sequestered drug product for mold, and notify patients potentially affected by the contamination. The expenses were necessary to protect YNHH’s ongoing, legitimate interest in the health of its patients and its duty to protect that interest. In addition, YNHH had a need to purchase anti-fungal medication and an obligation to monitor potentially exposed patients. YNHH’s interest in its patients’ health also required it to participate in various regulatory responses, and it needed to replace the drugs that had been contaminated. 

Fraud Victims Should Take the “Broad View” in Seeking Restitution for Losses and Expenses Due to Fraud

Judge Glasser’s decision in United States v. Tighe provides a strong basis for victims of fraud to seek restitution for a broad array of monetary losses arising out of fraud and their involvement in addressing the consequences of the fraud and assisting in the government’s prosecution.

The Department of Justice issued two memoranda at the start of 2018 that may have important effects on health care fraud investigations and prosecutions under the False Claims Act.

The first, Factors for Evaluating Dismissal Pursuant to 31 U.S.C. 3730(c)(2)(A), was issued by Michael Granston, Director of the DOJ Commercial Litigation Branch, Fraud Section, and encourages DOJ attorneys to seek dismissal of a relator’s complaint if the government is declining to intervene in the case.  The memorandum describes the statute authorizing dismissal as “an important tool to advance the government’s interests, preserve limited resources, and avoid adverse precedent”, and it provides a non-exhaustive list of factors that DOJ attorneys should use as a basis for dismissal:

  • Does the qui tam complaint lack merit, whether based on an inherently defective legal theory or frivolous factual allegations?
  • Does the qui tam action duplicate a pre-existing government investigation and add no useful information?
  • Does the qui tam action threaten to interfere with an agency’s policies or the administration of its programs?
  • Is dismissal necessary to protect the government’s litigation prerogatives?
  • Is dismissal necessary to safeguard classified information?
  • Are the government’s costs in monitoring or participating in a qui tam action continued by the relator likely to exceed any expected gain?
  • Do the relator’s actions frustrate the government’s efforts to conduct a proper investigation?

The government has sought to dismiss declined qui tam complaints in the past, but more often has allowed the relator to go ahead with the case.  The Granston Memorandum emphasizes the advantages to the government in ending non-intervened qui tam cases early, particularly for saving government resources and avoiding adverse decisions from the Court.  If aggressively followed, this policy may result in less False Claims Act cases proceeding to litigation.

The second memorandum, Limiting Use of Agency Guidance Documents In Affirmative Civil Enforcement Cases, was issued by former Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, and follows a November 2017 memorandum from Attorney General Sessions that prohibited DOJ components from issuing guidance documents that would effectively bind the public without undergoing the rulemaking process.  The Brand Memorandum extends this concept to government False Claims Act theories based on a failure to follow agency guidance documents.  “Department litigators may not use noncompliance with guidance documents as a basis for proving violations of applicable law” in affirmative civil enforcement cases.  The policy seeks to avoid allowing guidance documents to create binding requirements that do not exist by statute or regulation.  The government must prove noncompliance with the statute or regulation, and cannot use noncompliance with an agency guidance document as a substitute.  The Brand Memorandum will limit government theories of False Claims Act liability that are based on the violation of agency guidance documents as opposed to the relevant statute or regulation.