On July 2, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a $237 million verdict against Toumey Healthcare System (“Toumey) for violations of the federal Stark law (“Stark”) and, consequently, the federal False Claims Act. The verdict marks the latest decision in the government’s longstanding legal battle against Toumey, a community hospital in South Carolina, and serves as a reminder to healthcare providers of the significant liability that can result from compensation arrangements that fail to comply with Stark’s safe harbor requirements.
In this case, the lower court determined that Toumey entered into part-time employment agreements with physicians that violated Stark. The agreements violated Stark’s limitations on physician compensation arrangements by varying with, or taking into account, the volume or value of the physicians’ referrals to the hospital. Under the False Claims Act, claims submitted for payment arising out of referrals prohibited by Stark constitute false claims, and subject providers to treble damages. In this case, the jury found that Toumey knowingly submitted 21,730 false claims, which amounted to $39.3 million in Medicare payments. The court awarded treble damages as well as other penalties.
The Fourth Circuit’s decision analyzed Toumey’s argument that since Toumey relied upon the advice of lawyers in determining that the compensation arrangements were permissible under Stark, Toumey could not have knowingly violated the False Claims Act. In rejecting this argument, the Fourth Circuit highlighted the fact that Toumey consulted with multiple attorneys, one of which raised serious concerns about the compensation arrangements, and that Toumey effectively lawyer-shopped for legal opinions that approved the employment contracts. Accordingly, the case should provide notice to providers to proceed with caution if they are contemplating obtaining multiple legal opinions in order to determine that an arrangement is compliant with health care fraud and abuse laws because of how the opinions may be scrutinized in hindsight.