Articles Posted in Fraud & Abuse

Published on:

One of the largest areas of debate in healthcare regulatory compliance is the Eliminating Kickbacks in Recovery Act (EKRA). Despite the many question marks by healthcare providers around how to comply with EKRA, the statute also carries some of the stiffest penalties for failing to do so. Enacted in 2018, EKRA provides criminal penalties for paying, receiving, or soliciting any remuneration in return for referrals to recovery homes, clinical treatment facilities, or laboratories. Although initially intended to apply only to substance abuse and recovery, EKRA was written so broadly that it applies to all clinical laboratory services, not just in connection with substance abuse and recovery. It is unclear if Congress intended this effect, as the expansion to all lab services was included a mere 6 days before the final version of the law passed. Regardless, a violation of EKRA may be punished by fines up to $200,000, imprisonment of up to 10 years, or both, for each occurrence.

EKRA is often compared to other federal regulatory statutes, such as the Physician Self-Referral Law (commonly called the Stark Law) and the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS). However, EKRA is written incredibly broadly and may prohibit conduct that might otherwise be permissible under the Stark Law and AKS. The Stark Law and AKS also have volumes of regulations and decades of enforcement, such that it is generally well understood how these statutes function, how government agencies view and enforce them, and how to structure arrangements to comply with them. EKRA, on the other hand, has no regulations and few enforcement actions, often leaving healthcare providers with only the bare text of what is potentially a very broad statute.

Recent enforcement actions are beginning to show that EKRA is likely as broad as it appears. Initially, enforcement actions under EKRA were limited to allegations regarding substance abuse and recovery services, as originally intended. But this summer, the Department of Justice (DOJ) charged a clinical lab with an alleged multi-million-dollar healthcare fraud scheme, which included allegations that the lab violated EKRA by paying for referrals for COVID-19 testing, showing a willingness to enforce the full breadth of EKRA on clinical lab services.

Published on:

On July 20, 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a special fraud alert targeting remuneration paid to physicians and other practitioners by telemedicine companies. As telemedicine use has increased exponentially over the last two years, so too have the proliferation of telemedicine marketing arrangements and the prosecution of these arrangements by OIG and federal law enforcement. OIG issued the fraud alert in conjunction with the announcement of a new $1.2 billion enforcement action regarding alleged telemedicine fraud.

Generally, the arrangements at issue involve a telemedicine company that may recruit both patients and physicians (or other practitioners). The telemedicine company then pays the physician to review some form of medical record, possibly contact the patient, and order some product or service, generally durable medical equipment (DME) or laboratory testing. OIG has taken the position that the fees paid to physicians and practitioners under these arrangements may constitute unlawful “remuneration” meant to induce or reward referrals under the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS). Pursuant to the AKS, it is unlawful to knowingly and willfully solicit, receive, offer, or pay any remuneration to induce or reward, among other things, referrals for, or orders of, items or services reimbursable by a federal health care program.

OIG drafted the alert as a notice to physicians and other practitioners to be wary of certain characteristics in these arrangements. OIG outlined several ‘suspect characteristics’ that it believes may increase the risk of fraud and abuse in telemedicine arrangements:

Published on:

This spring, the Department of Justice (DOJ) intervened in a two-year-old qui tam whistleblower lawsuit against a hospital and oncology practice in Memphis, Tennessee. DOJ accused the hospital of violating the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) and the False Claims Act (FCA) by paying the oncology practice for its patient referrals. The hospital and the practice have maintained that the complex series of contracts between them represented a lawful business relationship meant to create a new cancer treatment center.

The AKS is a criminal statute that prohibits the knowing and willful payment of “remuneration” to induce or reward patient referrals or the generation of business involving any item or service payable by federal health care programs. Remuneration goes beyond cash payments and includes anything of value. If the AKS applies, conduct may still be lawful if it falls into one of several “safe harbors.” Some of the most common safe harbors are the investment interest safe harbor, specific types of rental agreements for office space or equipment, and contracts for personal services that meet certain criteria. The AKS is often enforced in conjunction with the FCA, which imposes civil liability for knowingly submitting false claims to the government. Importantly, the FCA carries severe consequences, including treble damages and a per-claim penalty that increases each year with inflation ($12,537 per claim for 2022).

In this case, the arrangement between the hospital and practice involved several distinct agreements. First, the hospital purchased many of the assets of the practice, including offices and equipment. Second, the hospital leased approximately 200 physician and non-physician employees from the practice. These first two agreements were supported by fair market value (FMV) opinions. Third, the hospital paid the physicians for management services under a Management Services Agreement (MSA). Lastly, the hospital made a several-million-dollar investment in a for-profit research entity controlled by the practice’s owners.

Published on:

There are many types of Medicare audits, conducted by many types of Medicare contractors: Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs), Unified Program Integrity Contractors (UPICs), the Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (SMRC), and others. Sometimes, where a Medicare audit results in a relatively small overpayment demand, a healthcare provider may consider simply paying it and moving on. However, there are several reasons why Medicare audits should be appealed, regardless of the dollar amount at issue, that providers should consider.

First and foremost, the audit results and overpayment determinations issued by Medicare contractors are often erroneous. This may be because the contractor either misunderstands Medicare requirements, misapplies them to a provider’s records, or misapprehends the medical documentation in the first place.

Second, a provider who does not appeal a Medicare audit result may unwittingly signal to the contractors a tacit admission that the audit findings were correct, and that the provider is non-compliant in some way. This may expose the provider to additional, larger audits on the same issues. Further, some contractors are paid a percentage of the overpayments they demand from providers and may have an incentive to conduct further audits. On the other hand, appealing an audit signals that the provider believes it is following Medicare requirements and are entitled to payment.

Published on:

As a result of the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, private equity (PE) investment activity saw a significant decline in many industries throughout the remainder of 2020. However, PE investments in healthcare have been viewed by some as a form of safe haven as the U.S. economy began to revitalize in the second half of 2020. While total deal value decreased by 7% from 2019 to 2020, total deal count increased by 10% as more investors looked to add-on existing platforms rather than seeking out new, larger targets of interest. Healthcare providers should be aware of some potential considerations when entering into PE investments or engaging in merger and acquisition activity.

A significant amount of deal activity materialized as a response to the numerous forced shutdowns caused by the pandemic. According to one survey conducted by the Alliance of M&A Advisors, while PE deals in other sectors experienced varying degrees of depressed activity levels through the Summer of 2020, healthcare transactions had the highest successful close rate of any industry (approximately 32%). Reported deal activity returned to 97% of pre-COVID levels by December 2020. Entering 2021, the PE transactions market remained very active, in large part due to PE firms being able to obtain cheap debt financing due to low interest rates. The transition to a new presidential administration and anticipated tax increases also caused many providers to contemplate exits ahead of potential increases in capital gains rates. Some areas worth noting that have garnered particularly strong preference amongst PE investors are behavioral and mental health, home health, and health technology services. While primary care has historically seen less PE activity than other healthcare segments, this seems to be changing as value-based care and capitated payment models become more popular.

Regarding business concerns relative to PE activity, there are many issues that are unique to the healthcare industry and providers should make sure that they have a clear understanding of how deals with PE investors may implicate these considerations. At the most basic level, states with corporate practice of medicine laws may restrict what types of entities or individuals may own or control a medical practice. Also, complex corporate structures and those that involve cross-ownership or ownership of multiple types of providers may implicate federal or state fraud and abuse laws, such as the Stark Law, Anti-Kickback Statute, and EKRA. As a practical consideration, long-time healthcare providers entering ventures with PE entities should ensure they understand how control of operations and the flow of revenues are allocated in the resulting structure. Moreover, the Executive Order issued by President Biden in July 2021 directs law enforcement to “focus in particular on … healthcare markets (which includes prescription drugs, hospital consolidation, and insurance), and the tech sector.” This may well result in heightened scrutiny of PE transaction in the healthcare industry and may also lengthen the timeline for closing deals in order to ensure compliance.

Published on:

Physician referrals for clinical laboratory services are a common focus of federal regulatory and enforcement actions. Numerous statutes and their implementing regulations, including the Stark Law, Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS), and the Eliminating Kickbacks in Recovery Act (EKRA), may be implicated where a physician refers clinical lab services to an entity in which the physician has a financial interest. However, the “in-office ancillary” exception to the Stark Law provides an important exception.

The Physician Self-Referral Law, often referred to as the Stark Law, prohibits “physicians” (generally including MDs, DOs, dentists, optometrists, and chiropractors) from referring patients to receive “designated health services” payable by Medicare or Medicaid from entities with which the physician or an immediate family member has a financial relationship, unless an exception applies. Financial relationships include both compensation and ownership or investment interests. Designated health services include clinical laboratory services, PT and OT, DME, some imaging services, and several other services. Some of the most common exceptions to the Stark Law include the in-office ancillary exception, fair market value compensation, and bona fide employment relationships. CMS has also recently implemented exceptions related to value-based arrangements.

“In Office Ancillary” services are an exception to the Stark Law. Generally, under the “in office ancillary” exception, the Stark Law does not apply to services that (1) are performed by the referring physician, another physician in the same group practice, or an individual supervised by the referring physicians or another physician in the same group practice; (2) are performed in the same building as the referring physician or their group practice offers services or in another centralized location; and (3) are billed by the performing physician, the supervising physician, their group practice, or a subsidiary that is wholly owned by the group practice.

Published on:

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) contracts with a Supplemental Medical Review Contractor (SMRC), which performs a variety of Medicare and Medicaid audit and medical review tasks. Noridian Healthcare Solutions, which is also a Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC), was selected as the SMRC in 2018. The SMRC conducts nationwide medical reviews of Medicare Parts A and B, DMEPOS, and Medicaid claims for compliance with coverage, coding, payment, and billing requirements. The focus of the medical reviews may include areas identified by CMS data analysis, the Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) program, professional organizations, and federal oversight agencies. At the request of CMS, the SMRC may also carry out other special projects.

SMRC audits are referred to as projects and there are three categories of SMRC project reviews:

  • Healthcare Fraud Prevention Partnership (HFPP) Review: Based on fraud, waste, and abuse trends identified by the HFPP.
Published on:

The Eliminating Kickbacks in Recovery Act (“EKRA”) is an incredibly broad and incredibly vague criminal statute that continues to create compliance issues for clinical laboratories. Many arrangements between clinical laboratories and other entities that were previously compliant, or which are currently authorized under other federal statutes, may be unlawful under EKRA.

Congress enacted EKRA in 2018 and, throughout its drafting, it was intended to address patient brokering and kickback schemes in addiction treatment and recovery. For example, EKRA was targeted at individuals who received kickbacks for steering patients into sober living and recovery homes. However, shortly before EKRA was passed and with little consideration of the implications, the words “or laboratory” were inserted into the draft such that EKRA now likely applies to all referrals to clinical laboratories, regardless of payor and regardless of whether the testing relates to addiction treatment or recovery.

EKRA broadly prohibits paying, offering, receiving, or soliciting any remuneration in return for referrals to recovery homes, clinical treatment facilities, or laboratories. Further, EKRA is a criminal statute, the penalties for violation of which, up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $200,000, cannot be taken lightly. Like two other major federal healthcare fraud, waste, and abuse laws, the Anti-Kickback Statute and the Physician Self-Referral Law (commonly known as the Stark Law), EKRA contains a few exceptions. However, they are far fewer in number and often narrower than their counterparts in the older statutes.

Published on:

Healthcare companies were once again the leading source of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) False Claims Act (FCA) settlements and judgments last year. According to a DOJ news release, healthcare companies paid almost 90% of fraud settlement proceeds under the FCA in 2021. The Justice Department obtained more than $5.6 billion in total settlements and judgments under the FCA in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2021, which is the second largest annual total in the FCA’s history. Over $5 billion of that number relates to matters involving the healthcare industry, including hospitals, pharmacies, laboratories, drug and medical device manufacturers, managed care providers, hospice organizations, and physicians.

The largest settlements under the FCA were those reached with prescription drugmakers for their role in the opioid epidemic. A significant number of settlements also related to the Medicare Advantage Program, which pays a capitated amount to private health insurers for each patient enrolled in their plan according to a risk calculation. Other settlements involved claims of illegal kickbacks, claims of providing unnecessary medical services, and lawsuits filed under the FCA’s whistleblower provisions.

The DOJ’s healthcare fraud enforcement is more vigorous compared to other industries, in part due to the unique nature of the business of healthcare. The Department’s enforcement efforts attempt to restore funds to federal programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE, as well as prevent further losses by deterring others from engaging in fraudulent behavior. In many cases, the Department may be motivated to protect patients from medically unnecessary or potentially harmful actions. Providers should be aware that overpayment allegations are common, especially given the substantial effect that widespread healthcare fraud can have on individuals and entities throughout the US. The regulatory and business risks in healthcare are unlike other fields, in large part due to the web of complex and often vague regulatory and statutory restrictions, such as Stark law, the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS), the Eliminating Kickbacks in Recovery Act (EKRA), and the Corporate Practice of Medicine doctrine (CPOM), among others. Healthcare providers should remain proactive in ensuring operations comply with the many different standards of practice governed by federal and state laws and regulations.

Published on:

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently announced additional audits of certain healthcare providers that received funding from the Provider Relief Fund (PRF). These audits will focus on whether hospitals that received PRF payments have complied with the surprise billing provisions of the PRF terms and conditions. HHS has long promised “significant enforcement” related to the PRF, a promise which is beginning to take effect.

The PRF was created by Congress through the CARES Act and was designed to provide financial relief to healthcare providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Acceptance of a PRF payment is conditioned on, among other things, the provider agreeing to use the funds only for healthcare related expenses and lost revenue attributable to coronavirus, and to file reports demonstrating compliance with the conditions of the payment.

Providers who received and retained payments through the PRF are required to file reports justifying their use of the funds. Providers must report information on healthcare-related expenses attributable to coronavirus, lost revenue attributable to coronavirus, other pandemic assistance received, and administrative data. Providers who received more than $500,000 in aggregate payments are required to report some data elements in greater detail, including specific information regarding operations, personnel, supplies, equipment, facilities, and several other categories. Some providers will be required to report significant amounts of financial information in significant detail, which may require time to compile or calculate.

Contact Information