The Department of Justice sent another strong warning to physicians and other health care provides not to violate the False Claims Act by making improper patient referrals in violation of the Anti-Kickback Statute and the Stark Law, billing federal health care programs for medically unnecessary laboratory testing or other services or both when charged six Texas physicians with federal health care fraud this week. The prosecution of the physicians for laboratory tests arranged and billed through management services organizations also reminds physicians and other providers that reliance upon management services or other third-party service providers generally does not protect a physician participating in prohibited laboratory or other testing, durable medical equipment, facility, physical therapy or other health care billing or referral arrangements from liability.
Charges Against Texas Physicians
This week, the Justice Department added the following six physicians as defendants to criminal charges filed in a False Claims Act complaint filed in January 2022 against former True Health Diagnostics LLC (THD) CEO Christopher Grottenthaler, former Boston Heart Diagnostics Corporation (BHD) CEO Susan Hertzberg, former LRH CEO Jeffrey Madison, and others:
- Doyce Cartrett, Jr., M.D., of Silsbee, Texas, allegedly received over $320,000 from LRH and two management services organizations or “MSOs,” Ascend MSO of TX LLC (Ascend) and Eridanus MG LLC (Eridanus), in return for his referrals.
- Elizabeth Seymour, M.D., of Corinth, Texas, allegedly received over $280,000 from two MSOs, Ascend and Eridanus, in return for her referrals.
- Emanuel Paul “E.P.” Descant, II, M.D., of Spring, Texas, allegedly received over $125,000 from two MSOs, North Houston MSO and Tomball Medical Management Inc., in return for his referrals.
- Frederick Brown, M.D., of Missouri City, Texas, allegedly received over $190,000 from two MSOs, Ascend and Indus MG LLC (Indus), in return for his referrals.
- Heriberto Salinas, M.D., of Cleburne, Texas, allegedly received over $75,000 from two MSOs, Ascend and Herculis MG LLC (Herculis), in return for his referrals.
- Hong Davis, M.D., of Lewisville, Texas, allegedly received over $70,000 from two MSOs, Ascend and Herculis, in return for her referrals.
The complaint in United States, et al. ex rel. STF, LLC v. True Health Diagnostics, LLC, et al., No. 4:16-cv-547 (E.D. Tex.) charges that small Texas hospitals including Rockdale Hospital dba Little River Healthcare (LRH), THD, BHD, the six physicians and others conspired to pay physicians to induce referrals to the hospitals for laboratory testing performed by THD or BHD. The charges stem from allegations made under the qui tam or whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act by STF LLC by Felice Gersh, M.D. and Chris Riedel. The United States intervened in the qui tam action in December 2021.
The complaint alleges the charged hospitals paid a portion of their laboratory profits to recruiters, who in turn kicked back those funds to the referring physicians through MSOs allegedly set up by the recruiters to make payments to referring physicians. The Justice Department charges the alleged kickbacks were disguised as investment returns but actually were based on, and offered in exchange for, the physicians’ referrals. The complaint alleges that laboratory tests resulting from this referral scheme were billed to various federal health care programs, and that the claims not only were tainted by improper inducements but, in many cases, also involved tests that were not reasonable and necessary.
The Justice Department reports that before adding charges against the six physicians to the complaint this week, the Justice Department recovered more than $31 million relating to conduct involving BHD, THD and LRH, including False Claims Act settlements with 29 physicians, two health care executives and a laboratory company.
Health Care Fraud Liability Under False Claims Act, Anti-Kickback Statute, Stark Law
The Anti-Kickback Statute prohibits offering, paying, soliciting or receiving remuneration to induce referrals of items or services covered by Medicare, Medicaid and other federally-funded programs. The Stark Law forbids a hospital or laboratory from billing Medicare for certain services referred by physicians that have a financial relationship with the hospital or laboratory. The Anti-Kickback Statute and the Stark Law seek to ensure that medical providers’ judgments are not compromised by improper financial incentives and are instead based on the best interests of their patients.
The False Claims Act prohibits health care providers from billing federal health care programs for services resulting from referrals prohibited by the Anti-Kickback Statute or the Stark law.
Under the False Claims Act, a private party can file an action on behalf of the United States and receive a portion of the recovery. The False Claims Act also allows the Justice Department to intervene in such lawsuits and add claims and defendants, as happened in this litigation. The qui tam case is captioned United States, et al. ex rel. STF, LLC v. True Health Diagnostics, LLC, et al., No. 4:16-cv-547 (E.D. Tex.). If a defendant is found liable for violating the act, the United States may recover three times the amount of its losses plus applicable penalties.
The United States’ pursuit of this lawsuit illustrates the government’s emphasis on combating health care fraud generally with a special emphasis on physicians. For instance, U.S. Attorney Brit Featherston is quoted as saying, “Schemes that funnel health care referrals do not work without the participation of physicians. … They are not merely passive players in these elaborate schemes, but an integral part, without which the scheme could not exist. Our office is committed to rooting out health care fraud by pursuing all players involved the scheme, from the laboratories and their leaders to the marketers and the physicians who make it all possible. Naming these physicians in the complaint is evidence of that commitment.”
Given this clear warning, physicians and other prescribers, as well as recruiting, billing and management services organizations, laboratories and others involved in recruiting and marketing, providing or billing for laboratory or other services to double check the appropriateness of their referral and other practices keeping in mind that the Anti-Kickback Statute and Stark Law prohibitions against direct and indirect compensation can reach to a wide range of subtle value and benefits in addition to the obvious payment of cash or gifts delivered in a multitude of ways. The prosecution of these physicians for referrals made and compensation delivered under management services contracts also clearly warns physicians and other providers against expecting their reliance upon billing, management services or other staff or management service providers to shield them from liability if an improper referral or payment happens.
We hope this update is helpful. For more information about the these or other health or other legal, management or public policy developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.
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About the Author
Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of health industry and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.
A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, Vice Chair of the American Bar Association (“ABA”) International Section Life Sciences and Health Committee, Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Scribe for the ABA JCEB Annual Agency Meeting with HHS-OCR, past chair of the the ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and current co-Chair of its Welfare Benefit Committee, Ms. Stamer is most widely recognized for her decades of pragmatic, leading edge work, scholarship and thought leadership on health and managed care industry legal, public policy and operational concerns.
Ms. Stamer’s work throughout her 30 plus year career has focused heavily on working with health care and managed care, health and other employee benefit plan, insurance and financial services and other public and private organizations and their technology, data, and other service providers and advisors domestically and internationally with legal and operational compliance and risk management, performance and workforce management, regulatory and public policy and other legal and operational concerns.
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