Abbott Labs, Sisters of Charity Paying More Than $9M In Two Anti-Kickback Settlements

The Justice Department’s recovery of more than $9 million in two physician kickback settlements during the last week of December, 2013 sends another strong warning to health care providers and physicians of the risks of structuring physician compensation or other arrangements that run afoul of the federal Anti-kickback Statute, STARK Law or False Claims Act   Health care providers and physicians or others who may be receiving or seeking compensation or other benefits prohibited by these and other federal or state health care fraud laws should seek advice and assistance from experienced qualified legal counsel to structure or review any proposed or existing transactions that could create these risks.

The two settlements both stem from alleged payments of kickbacks to physicians to induce referrals in contravention of federal health care fraud laws.

On December 31, 2013, DOJ announced that Butte, Montana based St. James Healthcare (St. James) and its Denver-based parent company, Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health System (Sisters of Charity), have agreed to pay $3.85 million to resolve allegations that they violated the Anti-Kickback Statute, the Stark Law and the False Claims Act by improperly providing financial benefits to physicians and physician groups that made referrals to the hospital.  Colorado Health Care Organization and One of Its Montana Hospitals to Pay $3.85 Million for Allegedly Providing Financial Benefits to Referring Physicians and Physician Groups.

The St. James settlement announcement follows DOJ’s December 27, 2013 announcement that pharmaceutical giant Abbot Laboratories has agreed to pay the United States $5.475 million to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by paying kickbacks to induce doctors to implant the company’s carotid, biliary and peripheral vascular products. U.S. Department of Justice.  Abbott Laboratories Pays U.S. $5.475 Million to Settle Claims That Company Paid Kickbacks to Physicians.

St. James/Sisters of Charity Settlement

The settlement with St. James and Sisters of Charity resolves DOJ charges that they provided various improper financial incentives to physicians and physician groups involved in a joint venture with St. James to own and run a medical office building on the St. James campus.  These incentives included a payment to the joint venture that increased the share values for the physicians and physician groups in the joint venture and resulted in below fair market value lease rates for the physicians renting space in the medical office building.  Additional incentives provided by St. James and Sisters of Charity included below fair market value lease rates for the land upon which the medical office building was constructed and other below fair market value arrangements related to shared facilities, use and maintenance.  These issues were disclosed by St. James and Sisters of Charity to the government.  To resolve their liability, St. James and the Sisters of Charity will pay $3.85 millions to the U.S. Government.

In announcing the settlement, U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana Michael W. Cotter cautioned other heath care providers to review their own transactions and to take the rules seriously, stating.  “We are encouraged that hospitals like St. James Healthcare are taking these issues seriously by reviewing their operations and making disclosures to the government where necessary.”

Abbott Laboratories Settlement

The Abbott Laboratories settlement requires it to pay the U.S. $5.475 million to resolve allegations that Abbott Laboratories knowingly paid prominent physicians for teaching assignments, speaking engagements and conferences with the expectation that these physicians would arrange for the hospitals with which they were affiliated to purchase Abbott’s carotid, biliary and peripheral vascular products in violation of the Anti-Kickback Act and caused the submission of false claims to Medicare for the procedures using these Abbott products .

The settlement resolves allegations originally brought in a lawsuit filed by Steven Peters and Douglas Gray, former Abbott employees, under the qui tam provision of the False Claims Act.  See United States ex rel. Peters et al. v. Abbott Laboratories, Inc., Civil Action No. 3:09-CV-430 (E.D. Tenn.).   The False Claims Act allows whistleblowers to file suit on behalf of the United States for false claims and share in any recovery   Whistleblower claims are a major tool in the enforcement efforts and success of the DOJ in its campaign to find and prosecute health care fraud.  As part of the Abbott Laboratory’s settlement, the two whistleblowers will receive a total payment of more than $1 million.

Settlements Reflect Heightened Enforcement Risks For Health Care Providers Participating In Kickback Arrangements

Health care providers offering or providing illegal or otherwise aggressive inducements to physicians or others for referrals of health care services covered by Medicare, Medicaid or other federal health care programs should heed the settlements as a warning.  The two settlements illustrate the growing emphasis on the investigation and enforcement of Anti-Kickback, STARK and False Claims Act laws against health care providers by the DOJ and Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). The Anti-Kickback Statute prohibits the provision of remuneration with the intent to induce referrals of government health care program business unless the transaction falls within one of the safe harbors or otherwise qualifies as exempt from the prohibition.  The Stark Law restricts financial relationships that hospitals or other designated health care providers may enter into with physicians who refer patients to them unless the arrangement meets the criteria to qualify as exempt from the prohibition. When either of these two prohibitions is violated, billing for services for care rendered creates additional fraud law exposures.  Federal law prohibits payment by federal health care programs of medical claims that result from arrangements that violate the Anti-Kickback Statute or the Stark Law. The settlements announced this week both stemmed from civil prosecutions by the Justice Department.  However, violations of these health care fraud laws also may result in criminal prosecutions.

DOJ, HHS and other federal and state agencies acting through the Medicare Fraud Strike Force activities conducted as part of the Health Care Fraud Prevention & Enforcement Action Team (HEAT), federal RAC audits and other actions hunting for, and increasingly finding an prosecuting health care providers and others who participate in transactions that violate these and other federal health care fraud laws as part of efforts to control health care costs and expenditures.  HEAT is a joint initiative between the Department of Justice and HHS to focus their efforts to prevent and deter fraud and enforce current anti-fraud laws around the country.  The joint Department of Justice-HHS Medicare Fraud Strike Force is a multi-agency team of federal, state and local investigators designed to combat Medicare fraud through the use of Medicare data analysis techniques and an increased focus on community policing.  Since its announcement, the Strike Force has used the combined resources of agents from the FBI, HHS-Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG), multiple Medicaid Fraud Control Units, and other state and local law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute a rising number of organizations and individuals throughout the industry for alleged violations of Federal health care fraud prohibitions.

The effectiveness of these Federal efforts to deter, find and prosecute false claims and other perceived abuses of Federal health care law has been significantly strengthened since Congress passed the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act (Affordable Care Act).  Among other things, ACA empowered HHS to:

  • Suspend payments to providers and suppliers based on credible allegations of fraud in Medicare and Medicaid;
  • Impose a temporary moratorium on Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP enrollment on providers and suppliers when necessary to help prevent or fight fraud, waste, and abuse without impeding beneficiaries’ access to care.
  • Strengthen and build on current provider enrollment and screening procedures to more accurately assure that fraudulent providers are not gaming the system and that only qualified  health care providers and suppliers are allowed to enroll in and bill Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP;
  • Terminate providers from Medicaid and CHIP when they have been terminated by Medicare or by another state Medicaid program or CHIP;
  • Require provider compliance programs, now required under the Affordable Care Act, that will ensure providers are aware of and comply with CMS program requirements.

In its Abbott Laboratories settlement announcement, DOJ touted the HEAT efforts with resulting in the recovery of a total of more than $17 billion through False Claims Act cases, with more than $12.2 billion of that amount recovered in cases involving fraud against federal health care programs.

Act To Manage Risks

In response to the growing emphasis and effectiveness of Federal officials in investigating and taking action against health care providers and organizations, health care providers covered by federal false claims, referral, kickback and other health care fraud laws should consider auditing the adequacy of existing practices, tightening training, oversight and controls on billing and other regulated conduct, reaffirming their commitment to compliance to workforce members and constituents and taking other appropriate steps to help prevent, detect and timely redress health care fraud exposures within their organization and to position their organization to respond and defend against potential investigations or charges.

For More Information Or Assistance

If you need assistance 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. Her experience includes advising hospitals, nursing home, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to Board of Medicine, Department of Aging & Disability, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, HHS, DOD and other 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. Her presentations and programs include How to Ensure That Your Organization Is In Compliance With Regulations Governing Discrimination, as well as a wide range of other workshops, programs and publications on discrimination and cultural diversity, as well as a broad range of compliance, operational and risk management, and other health industry matters.

Her insights on these and other related matters appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, 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. If you need assistance responding to concerns about the matters discussed in this publication or other health care concerns, wish to obtain information about arranging for training or presentations by Ms. Stamer, wish to suggest a topic for a future program or update, or wish to request other information or materials, please contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer, see  here.

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©2014 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.

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