Two nurse practitioners, with Medicare patients based in Montana, recently pled guilty to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud. The two NPs were among 345 other healthcare professionals charged in a nationwide healthcare fraud and opioid action undertaken by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) in September 2020. This alleged fraudulent activity has resulted in charges for defendants in various healthcare professions, including, genetic testing laboratories, pharmacies, and durable medical equipment (DME) companies.
Since September 2020, DOJ has been investigating a largescale telefraud scheme which alleges that a marketing network brought in hundreds of thousands of unaware participants through the use of telemarketing calls, direct mail, television advertisements, and internet advertisements. The telemedicine executives charged in the action allegedly paid healthcare providers to request DME, medications, and laboratory and diagnostic testing that were medically unnecessary and either without any patient interaction or with only a short telephone conversation with patients the providers had never met or seen. Often, the test results, medications, or DME ordered were not provided to the beneficiaries, were not medically necessary or of use to the beneficiaries, or were the result of false diagnoses. The two individual NPs pled guilty to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud through their involvement in a plan related to DME, specifically braces used in orthotics. The two NPs received illegal payments from telemedicine companies in exchange for signing orders for braces received by unlicensed telemarketers with no formal training. Medicare patients received the braces without having been seen by a healthcare provider. The orthotics ordered by the nurses for Medicare patients were not medically necessary, and Medicare will only pay for services that are medically necessary and reasonable and supplies used to diagnose and treat a patient’s condition.
Since 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS OIG) has recorded a significant increase in telefraud, healthcare fraud related to telemedicine. Prior to the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE), Medicare only reimbursed providers for telehealth services for routine appointments in specific circumstances. In addition, the telehealth visit was required to be a real-time, two-way interactive communication using video technology, with a patient and provider who had a previous established relationship. However, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) expanded Medicare’s telehealth benefits and allows for the billing of evaluation and management (E/M) audio-only telemedicine visits for the duration of the COVID-19 PHE.
Telemedicine presents unique fraud risks due to the absence of direct patient contact, and even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic as the federal government has relaxed telemedicine requirements, the volume of telemedicine services has increased significantly, and shifting federal requirements do not always align with state law requirements. The increased use of telemedicine services poses significant potential challenges to providers, including the provider-patient relationship, proper billing and coding, recording keeping, and ensuring medical necessity. Providers should be conscious of potential fraud schemes and monitor telemedicine protocols.
For over 35 years, Wachler & Associates has represented healthcare providers and suppliers nationwide in a variety of health law matters, and our attorneys can assist providers and suppliers in understanding new developments in telehealth or Medicare regulation. If you or your healthcare entity has any questions pertaining to healthcare compliance, please contact an experienced healthcare attorney at 248-544-0888 or firstname.lastname@example.org.