Austin, Texas physician Dennis B. Barson Jr. and his medical clinic administrator are headed to prison. The 10 year prison sentence imposed against Barson on July 27, 2014, like an $8 million plus health care fraud civil settlement announced by the Justice Department on July 24, 2014 illustrate the significant legal risks that physicians and other health care providers face when physician charges are improperly billed to Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare or other federal or state health care programs for services actually provided by non-physician staff. Physicians and others should heed the lessons from these and other similar federal and state health care fraud enforcement actions when deciding how and when it is appropriate to delegate to and bill federal health care programs for physician services where physicians assistants, nurse practitioners or other nursing staff or other non-physicians perform part or all of the procedures billed.
Dr. Barson Prison Sentence Highlights Criminal Risks
On Monday, July 27, 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Melinda Harmon ordered Barson to serve 120 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release and pay restitution of approximately $1.2 million in punishment for his November 5, 2014 on all 20 counts of conspiracy to defraud Medicare of $2.1 million. See, Austin Doctor Heads to Prison for Health Care Fraud.
With Judge Harmon presiding, a Houston jury found Barson and his medical clinic administrator, Dario Juarez, 55 guilty on the Medicare fraud charges last November. Another co-defendant Edgar Shakbazyan entered a guilty plea to the 21-count original indictment on October 27, 2014. Shakbazyan, of Glendale, California, was sentenced to 97 months in prison, while Juarez, of Beeville, Texas received 130 months. Both will also serve three years of supervised release. The jury convictions of Barson and Juarez followed a trial where Department of Justice prosecutors proved the health care fraud charges based on evidence that Barson, Juarez and Shakbazyan fraudulently billed Medicare for rectal sensation tests and electromyogram (EMG) studies of the anal or urethral sphincter never performed. Shakbazyan was additionally charged and plead guilty to conspiracy to pay kickbacks for payments made to recruiters and beneficiaries. According to the testimony at trial, Barson was the only doctor affiliated with the medical clinic located at 8470 Gulf Freeway in Houston. However, Juarez represented himself to be a doctor and was the one who actually saw patients at the clinic. Barson, Juarez and Shakbazyan caused Medicare to be billed for procedures on 429 patients in just two months. The three men also billed Medicare for seeing more than 100 patients on 13 different days, including a high of 156 patients on July 13, 2009.
Barson’s defense attempted to convince the jury that he was a victim of identity theft and was not the perpetrator of the crimes. The jury conviction shows the jurors not believe his story. The criminal charges are the result of a joint investigation conducted by agents of the FBI, Department of Health and Human Services-Office of Inspector General and the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit of the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
Margossian Settlement Shows Even More Common Civil Penalty Risks
Barson’s sentencing is one of a growing series of criminal convictions and sentencing of physicians and other health care providers for health care fraud by participating in arrangements where Medicare, Medicaid or other federal health care programs are billed for services not provided or not provided as required to qualify for reimbursement. On July 24, 2015, for instance, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York and the State of New York announced that that Brooklyn, New York OB/GYN Haroutyoun Margossian, will pay $8, 047, 291.05 as part of a civil settlement with the United States and the State of New York that resolves charges brought under the federal False Claims Act and the New York False Claims Act that Margossian wrongfully billed Medicare and Medicaid for physician services for treatments of women suffering from urinary incontinence that unlicensed and often unsupervised staff, rather than Margossian or another physician, actually administered. Under the terms of the civil settlement agreement, Margossian will pay a total of $8,047,291.06. Contemporaneously with the execution of the civil settlement agreement, the government filed a criminal charge against Margossian for making false statements to Medicare and entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with him. See, Board Certified Obstetrician And Gynecologist Agrees To Civil Fraud Settlement In Conjunction With Deferred Prosecution In Medicare And Medicaid Fraud Investigation.
Health Care Fraud Investigations Raise Other Licensing & Practice Risks
The Barson and Margossian actions are just two, of the already long, and ever-growing criminal convictions, civil sanctions and civil settlements that Federal and state health care fraud fighters already can count as notches of success in their war against health care fraud by physicians and other health care providers. With these successes fueling more investigations, physicians and others considering engaging in billing or other practices in violation of the False Claims Act or other health care fraud laws clearly should be prepared to “do time” for improperly billing physician fees to federal health care programs for services not provided by the billing physician or engage in other inappropriate billing practices. While successfully defending criminal and civil investigations is critical for physicians and others under investigation, targets of audits and investigations also must prepare to deal with a host of other threats to their practices which almost inevitably arise regardless of whether the government investigation leads to a conviction, civil sanctions or a settlement.
As demonstrated by the Margossian settlement, even if physicians, practice management and others swept up into these investigations escape being criminally charged, subjected to civil sanctions or penalties or suspended or excluded from Medicare or other federal health care programs, health care fraud investigations or charges still will carry a heavy cost. Alongside of the growing success of federal and state prosecutors in criminally prosecuting physicians and others for health care fraud, health care fraud warriors are realizing even greater success in securing civil sanctions and settlements, federal program exclusions and other civil and administrative punishments against physicians and other health care providers that the government accuses of violating the False Claims Act or other federal health care fraud rules.
Of course, whether or not health care fraud civil or criminal investigations, ultimately result in any civil or criminal prosecution, conviction or settlement, physicians and other licensed health care providers under suspicion, audit, investigation, charges or other scrutiny for alleged false claims or other health care fraud inevitably must deal with a broad range of other professional fallout as these activities almost always trigger scrutiny or other actions by their employers and medical practices, peer review notifications and investigations by hospitals, managed care organizations and other health care organizations and plans where they have privileges or contracts, and licensing board or other professional disciplinary investigations if not actual discipline.
Act To Strengthen Your Defenses
In the face of these and other enforcement actions, physicians and others should take steps to minimize the risk of an investigation or audit leading to criminal, civil or other charges as well as take steps to help ensure sufficient resources to defend themselves if the government comes knocking.
Of course, the first step of the process should be to take proper, well documented efforts to properly comply with the rules and be prepared to prove it. Physicians and the clinics, hospitals and management working with them should use care to critically evaluate when and what can be defensibly billed as physician services to Medicare or another federal healthcare program taking keeping in mind that the billing party, not the government, generally bears the burden of proving that the amount bill qualifies for coverage. For this reason, physicians and others involved in the process must carefully consider the adequacy of the physician’s involvement in prescribing and delivering services intended to be billed as physician services to Medicare, Medicaid or other federal health care programs to ensure that they deliver and document the services appropriately and that these service billed under the physician’s number as physician services meet all other requirements to qualify for reimbursement as billed. In areas where questions could be raised, physicians and their organizations are strongly urged to take extra care to conduct and retain documentation of their analysis and efforts to verify the compliance of their actions before proceeding, including consulting legal counsel for advice within the scope of attorney-client privilege. Beyond exercising great care to accurately document and properly bill for all services, physicians and others working with them also should familiarize themselves with their obligations and rights under employment agreements, shareholder or partnership agreements, medical staff bylaws, managed care contracts, medical licensing board rules and the Health Care Quality And Improvement Act. In many cases, these arrangements will compel a physician to provide notice of an investigation, audit, allegation or charge, trigger separate investigatory or disciplinary action against the physician, or both. These notice and other obligations may arise and often trigger employment, peer review, licensing board or other investigations before or concurrent with the investigation or prosecution by the government.
Along with the stiff civil sanctions or settlements imposed, physicians and others investigated or charged with health care fraud often incur significant legal and other costs responding to and defending years of government audits and investigations, as well as well as employment, peer review, licensing board and other investigations and disciplinary actions that almost always result from when a physician is accused or investigated for health care fraud even if the government investigation ultimately does not lead to the government filing criminal or civil charges against the physician or other licensed healthcare provider. Since a physician faces a substantial likelihood of being required to respond to and defend him or herself against peer review, licensing board, employment or other nongovernmental investigations or charges as well as the government action, physicians and others also should consider if they can expect to have sufficient funds to pay the legal and other costs of their defense in the event they come under scrutiny taking into account their existing malpractice or other liability insurance coverages, commitments to defend and indemnify under employment, shareholder or partnership, or other agreements, and other resources. Physicians and their organizations concerned about the adequacy of these resources may wish to explore, where available, raising their malpractice policy coverage limits, purchasing other supplemental coverage, and other similar steps to better position themselves to have funds to support and conduct their defense. As part of this process, physicians generally will want to review the adequacy and limits of the coverages that their practices provides, as well as consider the reliability of that coverage in the event that the physician is terminates or leaves the practice as a result of the investigation or otherwise.
When considering the sufficiency of their existing professional liability insurance coverages, physicians generally will want to consider the adequacy of the coverage if the physician remains with the practice as well as if the physician leaves it. The 10 year statute of limitations applicable to False Claims Act claims, physicians billings can come back to haunt a physician 10 years after their submission. With this tremendously long liability period, even in the absence of government investigation, a significant risk exists that a physician may experience a practice relocation or other change that would affect his coverage during this period. When an investigation happens, the possibility that the physician will relocate his practice skyrockets as physicians often experience suspensions of privileges, involuntary employment terminations and other disruptions to their practice in direct response to the investigation or prosecution. Consequently, physicians should consider purchasing tail coverage, maintaining separate, portable professional liability coverage or both to mitigate these risks.
Beyond the availability of the professional liability coverage, physicians and their practices also should consider the adequacy of the coverage provided by their professional liability or other policies. When reviewing these coverages, physicians and practices should consider what coverage, if any, the policies provide for defense of the physician in relation to peer review, licensing, or other disciplinary actions, government investigations or prosecutions, or both. If the policy provides no or limited coverage for costs of defending against these events, both the physician and his associated organization or practice may want to explore purchasing additional riders on the existing policy, purchasing separate coverage or both as well as to raise the limits on the coverages provided in light of the predictable high expenses of defending these events.
While physicians definitely need evaluate their coverages in anticipation of a potential investigation or prosecution, practice leaders, hospitals and other organizations that would be swept up into these investigations generally share an interest in ensuring that the physician possesses adequate resources to defend against a government investigation or prosecution, as their organization and its billings are likely to be adversely impacted if the physician is unable to defend the billings.
For More Advice, Assistance Or More Information
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. Ms. Stamer is a highly regarded practicing attorney with extensive health industry legal and policy experience, also recognized as a knowledgeable and highly popular health industry thought and policy leader, who writes and publishes extensively on health industry concerns. Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, recognized as a “Top” lawyer in Health Care, Labor and Employment and Employee Benefits Law, Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law, and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 27 years experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters. Her experience includes advising and defending hospitals, nursing home, home health, physicians and other health care professionals, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies and programs in response under CMS, OCR, HHS, FDA, IRS, DOJ, DEA, NIH, licensing, and other regulations; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to Board of Medicine, OIG, DOJ, DEA, DOD, DOL, Department of Health, Department of Aging & Disability, IRS, Department of Insurance, and other federal and state regulators; ERISA and private insurance, prompt pay and other reimbursement and contracting; peer review and other quality concerns; and other health care industry investigation, and enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns. This experience includes extensive work advising and defending physicians, practices, hospitals and other health care organizations and others about Medicare and other health care billing and reimbursement practices, as well as advising and defending providers against Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare and other audits, prepayment suspensions, provider exclusions and provider number revocation, and counseling and defending providers, medical staff and peer review committees, hospitals, medical practices and other health care organizations and others in relation to the conduct of audits and investigations, peer review investigations and discipline, employment, licensing board and other associated events.
The scribe for the American Bar Association (ABA) Joint Committee on Employee Benefits annual agency meeting with the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively with health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers, banks and other financial institutions, and others on risk management and compliance with HIPAA and other information privacy and data security rules, investigating and responding to known or suspected breaches, defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, OCR and other federal or state agencies, reporting known or suspected violations, business associate and other contracting, commenting or obtaining other clarification of guidance, training and enforcement, and a host of other related concerns. Her clients include public and private health care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, and others. In addition to representing and advising these organizations, she also has conducted training on Privacy & The Pandemic for the Association of State & Territorial Health Plans, as well as HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, medical confidentiality, insurance confidentiality and other privacy and data security compliance and risk management for Los Angeles County Health Department, ISSA, HIMMS, the ABA, SHRM, schools, medical societies, government and private health care and health plan organizations, their business associates, trade associations and others. 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 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.
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