$12M+ Settlement Recoveries In 2 Health Care Fraud Whistleblower Claims Shows Providers, Owners, Management & Staff Must Manage Compliance & Risks

The Justice Department’s announcement that it will recover more than $11.3 million in False Claims Act recoveries under two settlements announced on November 20, 2012 provides yet another sharp reminder to health care providers of the critical need to carefully manage billing, referral and other practices to manage health care fraud related exposures.

On November 20, the Justice Department announced that Morton Plant Mease Health Care Inc. and its affiliated hospitals (Morton Plant) will pay $10,169,114 to the federal government to resolve allegations that Morton Plant facilities violated the False Claims Act by submitting false claims for services rendered to Medicare patients.  The same day, the Justice Department also announced its achievement of a $1.286 million settlement with Harmony Care Hospital, Inc. and its owner Harmony Care Hospice Inc. (Harmony) and Harmony owner and chief executive officer Daniel J. Burton of allegations that the South Carolina-based company submitted false claims to Medicare for patients under care at its hospice facilities.  

Both settlements show the role that disgruntled current or former employees or other whistleblowers increasingly play in these and other health care fraud investigations as well as the significant exposures that health care providers, their owners and management risk by engaging or failing to investigate and resolve practices that Federal officials consider to violate the False Claims Act or other federal health care fraud laws.

Morton Plan Settlement

The Morton Plant settlement resolves whistleblower allegations that, between July 1, 2006 and July 31, 2008, Morton Plant improperly billed for certain interventional cardiac and vascular procedures as inpatient care when those services should have been billed as less costly outpatient care or as observational status.   See United States ex rel. Randi Ferrare v. Morton Plant Mease Health Care, Inc., No. 08:cv:01689-T-266MSS (M.D. Fl.).

Morton Plant owns and operates, or is affiliated with, Morton Plant Hospital, St. Joseph’s Hospital, Morton Plant North Bay Hospital, St. Anthony’s Hospital, Mease Countryside Hospital and Mease Dunedin Hospital.  These hospitals are part of the BayCare Health System in Florida’s Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

The Morton Plant action arose from a qui tam, or whistleblower, lawsuit filed by Randi Ferrare, a former director of Health Management Services at Morton Plant Hospital.   Under the False Claims Act, private citizens, known as relators, can bring suit on behalf of the United States and share in any recovery.  Ms. Ferrare will receive over $1.8 million as her share of the government’s recovery.

Harmony $1.2 Million Settlement

The Harmony settlement arises out of a qui tam action filed against Harmony Care Hospice Inc. (Harmony) and Harmony owner and chief executive officer Daniel J. Burton have agreed to pay the United States $1,286,999.32 to settle allegations that the South Carolina-based company submitted false claims to Medicare for patients under care at its hospice facilities.

The Harmony settlement resolves a lawsuit filed by former Harmony employees Mona Singletary and Lynda Fulton under the qui tam, or whistleblower, provisions of the False Claims Act.   The qui tam case is captioned United States ex rel. Singletary, et al. v. Harmony Care Hospice, Inc., et al. , Case No. 2:10-cv-01404-PMD (D.S.C.).

Hospices provide palliative care – medical treatment that concentrates on reducing the severity of a disease’s symptoms – to patients who decide to forego curative care of their illness.   Medicare beneficiaries are entitled to hospice care if they have a terminal prognosis of six months or less. The United States alleged that Harmony and Burton knowingly submitted or caused to be submitted false claims for patients who did not have such a prognosis and thus were not eligible for hospice care.

Under the Harmony settlement agreement, its owner and chief executive officer, Burton is individually liable for $200,000 of the settlement amount.  The balance of more than $1 million will be paid by Harmony.  As part of the settlement, Harmony and Burton will enter into a Corporate Integrity Agreement with the Office of Inspector General (OIG), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to address the allegations raised in the qui tam complaint.  Together, Singletary and Fulton will receive $244,529.87 as their share of the government’s recovery.

Whistleblowers Key Prosecutorial Tool

The approximately $2 million paid out to whistleblowers under these two settlements drives home the growing importance that current or former employees, officers or other insiders increasingly play in federal and state health care fraud prosecutions. Whistleblowers like Ferrare, Singletary and Fulton are increasingly common and valuable tools that the federal government uses to find and prosecute alleged health care fraud.  By promoting the availability of qui tam and other recoveries and broadly advertising their payment, federal prosecutors and investigators are priming the pump for future investigations and prosecution. See also Nextcare Inc. $10 Million False Claims Act Settlement Shows Qui Tam Role In False Claims Act Prosecutions; Oklahoma’s Harmon Memorial Hospital, Physician Pay $1.5M Qui Tam Health Care Fraud Settlement.

The two settlements also show the growing zealousness of the federal war on health care fraud.  Both cases were investigated by the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT) initiative, which was announced by Attorney General Eric Holder and Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services in May 2009.

The partnership between the two departments has focused efforts to reduce and prevent Medicare and Medicaid financial fraud through enhanced cooperation.  One of the most powerful tools in that effort is the False Claims Act, which the Justice Department has used to recover more than $10.1 billion since January 2009 in cases involving fraud against federal health care programs. The Justice Department’s total recoveries in False Claims Act cases since January 2009 are over $13.9 billion.  Federal officials have and continue to rack up an ever-increasing list of civil settlements and judgments using the False Claims Act and other civil enforcement tools.  See e.g., See, e.g., Feds Health Fraud Suit Against Psychiatrists Shows Risks Providers Run From Aggressive Referral or Billing Activities; Recent OIG Audit Reports Provide Insights Where Fraud Audits Likely To Look Next; Hospital Chain HCA Inc. Pays $16.5 Million to Settle False Claims Act Allegations That HospitalPharmas Face New Pressure To Put Patients Before Profits After GlaxoSmithKline Record $3 Billion Health Care Fraud, FDCA Conviction & Settlement.

In addition to the high dollar civil judgments and settlements recovered. by the HEAT Task Force, federal prosecutors also are racking up a growing list of criminal convictions and sentences.  See e.g., Health Care Providers Warned To Raise Defenses As Feds Charge 91 Individuals Bilked Medicare For Approximately $430 Million; Detroit-Area Doctor Charged for Role in Alleged $40 Million Medicare Fraud SchemeFive More Individuals Charged in Detroit for Alleged Roles in $24.7 Million Medicare Fraud Scheme; Baton Rouge Area Women Heading To Prison For DME Health Care Fraud Participation; Houston Man Gets 24 Month Prison Sentence For Anti-Kickback & Other Health Care Fraud Convictions.

For instance, along with the Morton Plan and Harmony civil settlements, the Justice Department also announced on November 20, 2012 that a registered nurse pleaded guilty November 20 and a former program coordinator pleaded guilty November 19 for their roles in a $63 million mental health care fraud scheme involving defunct health provider Health Care Solutions Network Inc. (HCSN) in Miami.  See here.

These and other investigations and enforcement actions show that health care providers, their owners, officers, providers and other staff need to take seriously health care reimbursement, referral and other health care fraud and compliance responsibilities, as well as to carefully manage workforces to mitigate exposures to qui tam and other health care fraud exposures.

These activities are intended to send a strong message to health care providers that bill Medicare, Medicaid, or other public or private health care programs that they must be prepared to defend any charges billed to these or other federal health care programs and to defend their other business practices.

Providers Urged To Manage Risks

In response to these threats, health care providers should take steps to strengthen their billing, referral, audit, medical and other recordkeeping and other compliance and risk management practices to enhance their ability to defend or prevent these exposures.  While most providers already are moving to tighten these practices, the move to electronic health records, changing rules and other pressures are undermining the sufficiency of these efforts.  This investigation shows that beyond mere aggressive billing practices, federal officials also are targeting for enforcement physicians and other health care providers that participate in financial or other referral incentive or reward practices prohibited by the anti-kickback, STARK or other relevant law as well as the filing of Medicare, Medicaid or other health claims for undelivered, unnecessary or otherwise uncovered care or services. 

Amid these and other enforcement actions, all health industry players should exercise care to steer clear of activities that might violate federal health care fraud rules as well as consider whether corrective or other action might be necessary to address risks of prior activities that with the benefit of hindsight taking into account the current enforcement climate reflect potential exposures.  Providers should carefully monitor existing Medicare, Medicaid and other federal and state program reimbursement, terms of participation, reimbursement and other guidance; Office of Inspector General (OIG), Justice Department and other agency audit and enforcement activities and other developments that could impact on the defensibility of their billing, referral or other practices and tighten compliance and oversight as necessary to mitigate risks.

In the case of physicians and certain other professionals, these plans need to include both efforts to manage potential government investigation risks and management of their practices to mitigate peer review or other disciplinary or practice regulatory oversight that often arises when the practices and hospitals start tightening oversight and controls on practices as part of their own efforts to protect their organizations from fraud or other audits. 

While almost all health care providers can find room to improve their documentation and tighten other compliance, it also is important that providers also plan for how they will finance the cost of defending an audit or other investigation.  Often, the financial cost of defending these and other charges prevents physicians or other health care providers from lodging effective defenses of legitimate practices.  To help avoid this quagmire, providers generally will want to explore getting special liability coverage, indemnification or other protection as part of their planning arrangements.

For Help With Compliance, Investigations Or Other Needs

If you need help providing compliance or other training, reviewing or responding to these or other health care related risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, may be able to help. Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 24 years experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters. Ms. Stamer has extensive experience advising and assisting health care providers and other health industry clients to establish, audit, administer and defend billing, referral, privacy, staffing and recruitment and other compliance and risk management policies, to health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns. A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns. She also regularly designs and presents risk management, compliance and other training for health care providers, professional associations and others.   Her publications and insights appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.  You can get more information about her health industry experience here. Contact Ms. Stamer at (469) 767-8872 or via e-mail here.

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, compensation, data security and privacy, health care, insurance, and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and other key operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources available at here.

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THE FOLLOWING DISCLAIMER IS INCLUDED TO COMPLY WITH AND IN RESPONSE TO U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT CIRCULAR 230 REGULATIONS.  ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, OR (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.

©2012 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.  All other rights reserved.

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