Christus Pays $12.24M Settlement Resolves False Claims Act Charges From “Donations” To New Mexico

September 11, 2017

CHRISTUS St. Vincent Regional Medical Center (St. Vincent) and its partner, CHRISTUS Health (CHRISTUS), have agreed to pay $12.24 million, plus interest  to resolve charges by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and U.S Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG) they violated the False Claims Act by making illegal donations to county governments that the counties used to fund the state share of Medicaid payments to the hospital.  The settlement announced  September 1, 2017 highlights the needs for States and private healthcare providers to use care to ensure that creative partnerships don’t violate federal Medicare or other program requirements as well as the risk that the False Claims Act or other whistleblower rules will incentivize disgruntled employees or other service providers to bring aggressive conduct to the attention of federal officials.

The settlement resolves allegations made in U.S. ex rel. Stepan v. Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center Corp. et al., Civil Action No. 11-cv-572 (D.N.M.) that St. Vincent and CHRISTUS allegedly caused the State of New Mexico to present false Medicaid claims in violation of the False Claims Act by making non-bona fide donations to the State of New Mexico that New Mexico improperly used to fulfill the requirement that the State pay 25% “matching” share  to fund the New Mexico Sole Community Provider Program (SCP) between 2001 and 2009.

Under the now defunct SCP Program, federal law required that New Mexico fund 25% of the costs of the SCP program to qualify for reimbursement from the federal government for approximately 75 percent of its health care expenditures under the SCP program. Under federal law, New Mexico’s 25 percent “matching” share of SCP program payments had to consist of state or county funds, and not impermissible “donations” from private hospitals. Congress enacted this restriction on the use of private hospital funds to satisfy state Medicaid obligations to curb possible abuses and ensure that states have sufficient incentive to curb rising Medicaid costs.

The charges resolved by the settlement originally were brought in a qui tam lawsuit filed by a former Los Alamos County, New Mexico Indigent Healthcare Administrator .  The whistleblower will receive $2.249 million as her share of the recovery in this case.

The prosecution and its settlement drive home both the importance for States receiving Medicaid funds and private health care partners providing services to patients reimbursed by these funds to use care to comply with all applicable program requirements, as well as the continuing risk of exposure and resulting liability from whistleblower claims brought by unhappy employees or others looking to use their knowledge of questionable conduct to realize profitable recoveries.

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 health industry and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications. Ms. Stamer works with health industry and related businesses and their management, employee benefit plans, governments and other organizations deal with all aspects of human resources and workforce, internal controls and regulatory compliance, change management and other performance and operations management and compliance. For additional information about Ms. Stamer, see here, e-mail her here or telephone Ms. Stamer at (214) 452-8297.

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NOTICE: These statements and materials are for general informational and purposes only. They do not establish an attorney-client relationship, are not legal advice or an offer or commitment to provide legal advice, and do not serve as a substitute for legal advice. Readers are urged to engage competent legal counsel for consultation and representation in light of the specific facts and circumstances presented in their unique circumstance at any particular time. No comment or statement in this publication is to be construed as legal advise or an admission. The author reserves the right to qualify or retract any of these statements at any time. Likewise, the content is not tailored to any particular situation and does not necessarily address all relevant issues. Because the law is rapidly evolving and rapidly evolving rules makes it highly likely that subsequent developments could impact the currency and completeness of this discussion. The presenter and the program sponsor disclaim, and have no responsibility to provide any update or otherwise notify any participant of any such change, limitation, or other condition that might affect the suitability of reliance upon these materials or information otherwise conveyed in connection with this program. Readers may not rely upon, are solely responsible for, and assume the risk and all liabilities resulting from their use of this publication.

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HHS/DOJ Partner With Private Health Plans To Further Ramp Up Health Care Fraud Heat!

July 30, 2012

Health care providers and payers should ensure that practices for billing private payers can withstand the scrutiny of federal and state health care fraud enforcers after the July 26, 2012 announcement of a ground-breaking new public-private antifraud initiative between federal and state health care fraud fighters and a private insurers under which  private insurers will share an unprecedented amount of private health claims data, fraud detection practices, and other coöperation with federal and state official fraud prevention and prosecution efforts.

Government Health Care Fraud Fighters Partner With Private Insurers

The Federal health care fraud fighting departmental duo of the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) Justice (DOJ) last week expanded their network of fraud fighting resources by launching a “ground-breaking” partnership among the federal government, State officials, several leading private health insurance organizations, and other health care anti-fraud groups to prevent health care fraud. HHS and DOJ say the following organizations and government agencies are among the first to join this partnership:

  • America’s Health Insurance Plans
  • Amerigroup Corporation
  • Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association
  • Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana
  • Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
  • Coalition Against Insurance Fraud
  • Federal Bureau of Investigations
  • Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General
  • Humana Inc.
  • Independence Blue Cross
  • National Association of Insurance Commissioners
  • National Association of Medicaid Fraud Control Units
  • National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association
  • National Insurance Crime Bureau 
  • New York Office of Medicaid Inspector General
  • Travelers
  • Tufts Health Plan
  • UnitedHealth Group
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • U.S. Department of Justice
  • WellPoint, Inc.

HHS & DOJ Say Partnering With Private Insurers Will Give Ongoing Anti-Fraud Efforts Even More Punch

In announcing the new partnership on July 26, 2012, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Attorney General Eric Holder touted this new voluntary, collaborative public-private arrangement as the “next step” in the Obama administration’s efforts to combat health care fraud.

“This partnership is a critical step forward in strengthening our nation’s fight against health care fraud,” said Attorney General Holder.  “This Administration has established a record of success in combating devastating fraud crimes, but there is more we can and must do to protect patients, consumers, essential health care programs, and precious taxpayer dollars.  Bringing additional health care industry leaders and experts into this work will allow us to act more quickly and effectively in identifying and stopping fraud schemes, seeking justice for victims, and safeguarding our health care system.”

 “This partnership puts criminals on notice that we will find them and stop them before they steal health care dollars,” Secretary Sebelius said.  “Thanks to this initiative today and the anti-fraud tools that were made available by the health care law, we are working to stamp out these crimes and abuse in our health care system.”

Partnership Allows Feds To Use Private Payer Claims Data, Knowledge & Other Fraud Detection Resources

According to HHS and DOJ, the new partnership is designed to share information and best practices in order to improve detection and prevent payment of fraudulent health care billings. Its goal is to reveal and halt scams that cut across a number of public and private payers. HHS and DOJ say the partnership will private insurers to share their anti-fraud insights more easily with investigators, prosecutors, policymakers and other stakeholders and law enforcement officials more effectively to identify and prevent suspicious activities, better protect patients’ confidential information and use the full range of tools and authorities provided by the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act (Affordable Care Act) and other statutes to combat and prosecute illegal actions.

One unprecedented element of this partnership will involve the sharing of information on specific schemes, utilized billing codes and geographical fraud hotspots between the public and private partners.  The partners say the planned sharing of claims data and other information will help partners prevent, detect and respond to potential health care billing fraud by:

  • Helping partners to take action, to prevent losses to both government and private health plans before they occur;
  • Improving their ability to spot and stop payments billed to different insurers for care delivered to the same patient on the same day in two different cities;
  • In the future to use sophisticated technology and analytics on industry-wide healthcare data to predict and detect health care fraud schemes. 

Presumably, this will involve the extension of the use of state-of-the-art technology and data mining practices like those the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) already uses to review claims, to track suspected fraud trends and flag suspected fraudulent activity.

Partnership Expands Use & Reach of New Affordable Care Act & Other Health Care Fraud Detection & Enforcement Tools & Collaboration

The partnership builds upon and extends the reach and use of expanded legal tools created by the Affordable Care Act and other laws that Federal and state officials are using in their highly publicized war against health care fraud, waste and abuse in Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and, increasingly, private insurance plans.  Using these and other new tools, convictions under the Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control Program increased by over 27% (583 to 743) between 2009 and 2011, and the number of defendants facing criminal charges filed by federal prosecutors in 2011 increased by 74% compared with 2008 (1,430 vs. 821).

The Affordable Care Act and other legislative changes and related programs have significantly strengthened the powers of HHS, DOJ and other federal and state agencies to investigate and prosecute health care fraud.  Among other things, these amendments and programs included :

  • Qui tam and other whistleblower incentives and programs that encourage employees, patients, competitors and others to report suspicious behavior;
  • Require providers, plans to self-identify, self-report and self-correct false claims and certain other non-compliance;
  • Increase the federal sentencing guidelines for health care fraud offenses by 20-50% for crimes that involve more than $1 million in losses;
  • Create penalties for obstructing a fraud investigation or audit;
  • Make it easier for the government to recapture any funds acquired through fraudulent practices;
  • Make it easier for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate potential fraud or wrongdoing at facilities like nursing homes;
  • Under the risk-based provider enrollment rules, providers and suppliers wishing to take part in Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP who federal officials view as posing a higher risk of fraud or abuse now must undergo licensure checks, site visits and other heightened scrutiny including ongoing monitoring as part of the new Automated Provider Screening (APS) system CMS implemented in December 2011.  The APS uses existing information from public and private sources to automatically and continuously verify information submitted on a provider’s Medicare enrollment application including licensure status Secretary to impose a temporary moratorium on newly enrolling providers or suppliers of a particular type or in certain geographic areas if necessary to prevent or combat fraud, waste, and abuse. 
  • Increased information sharing and coördination of investigations and enforcement among states, CMS, and its law enforcement partners at the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and DOJ including the highly publicized activities of the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT), a joint effort between HHS and DOJ to fight health care fraud.
  • The power of CMS, in consultation with OIG, to suspend Medicare payments and require States to suspend Medicaid and SCHIP payments to providers or suppliers during the investigation of a credible allegation of fraud;
  • The deployment and use of the sophisticated data collection and mining technologies of CMS’ new Fraud Prevention System, which since June 30, 2011 has used advanced predictive modeling technology to screen all Medicare fee-for-service claims before payment and target investigative resources on areas that this profile identifies as reflecting heightened risks of health care fraud vulnerability to allow regulators and prosecutors to more efficiently identify and respond to suspected fraudulent claims and emerging trends;
  • Focused fraud prevention, detection and enforcement activities on Home Health agencies, Durable Medical Equipment, Prosthetics, Orthotics, and Supplies (DMEPOS) suppliers and certain other categories of providers and suppliers that federal officials view as historically presenting heightened concerns;
  • Expansion of the overpayment detection and recovery activities ofthe Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) program to Medicaid, Medicare Advantage, and Medicare Part D programs; and
  • Various other tools.

Health Plan Partnership Latest Wrinkle In Fed’s Efforts To Use Private Whistleblower & Other Resources To Find Fraud

The partnership with the health plans is the latest wrinkle in a growing network of private relationships and outreach that HHS and DOJ use to discover health care fraud.  By partnering with health plans, HHS and DOJ have recruited the health plans to help federal officials find and redress potential fraud in public and private health plans. 

HHS and DOJ already know the value of getting private citizens to watch for and report suspected illegal behavior.  Indeed, expended qui tam and other whistleblower activities already are paying off big for federal officials.  For example, a former executive’s qui tam claim helped bring about the settlement announced in June, 2012 under which Christus Spohn Health System Corporation recently  paid more than $5 million to settle Justice Departmentclaims that it profited from violations of the False Claims Act by inappropriately admitted patients to inpatient status for outpatient procedures.  The investigation leading to the settlement began in March 2008 after Christus – Shoreline’s former director of case management filed a lawsuit under seal under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act alleging the six hospitals were submitting false claims to the Medicare program by billing for services that should have been performed on an outpatient basis as if they were more expensive inpatient services. The allegations stated that these hospitals were routinely billing outpatient surgical procedures as if they required an inpatient level of care even though the patients often were discharged from the hospital in less than 24 hours.   The federal False Claims Act empowers private citizens with knowledge of fraud against the United States to present those allegations to the United States by bringing a lawsuit on behalf of the United States under seal. If the government’s investigation substantiates those allegations, then the private citizen is entitled to share in any recovery. In this case, that person will receive 20% of the $5,100,481.74 recovery.   

With qui tam and other reports of suspected fraud an increasingly frequent and valuable tool in the federal and state wars on health care fraud, officials have added a wide range of programs encouraging and in some cases financially rewarding individuals and businesses that report circumstances leading to fraud convictions.  The partnership with health plans reflects the latest wrinkle in these efforts.

Health Care Providers & Health Plans Must 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.  In light of the growing qui tam risks, health care providers also should tighten internal investigation, exit interview and other human resources and business partner oversight, reporting and investigation policies and practices to help find and redress potential fraud or other qui tam, retaliation and similar  exposures early and more effectively.  

For More Information Or Assistance

If you need help 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 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 help 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.

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 including:

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


Newly Enacted FERA Amendments To False Claims Act Signal New Risks For Health Industry Organizations & Others

May 26, 2009

Health care providers and other parties covered by the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. § 3729 (FCA), now face expanded whistleblower and other liability under amendments to the FCA enacted under the “Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009”(FERA).  The amendments increase the likelihood both that whistleblowers will turn in health care providers and other individuals and organizations that file false claims in violation of the FCA and the liability that violators may incur for that misconduct.

Signed into law by President Obama last Wednesday (May 20, 2009), FERA immediately upon enactment:

  • Amends the whistleblower protections afforded to employees, contractors and agents who suffer retaliation for taking lawful efforts to stop violations of the FCA and to make it easier for those individuals to pursue retaliation claims;
  • Expands liability under for making false or fraudulent claims to the federal government under the FCA;
  • Applies liability under the FCA for presenting a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval (currently limited to such a claim presented to an officer or employee of the federal government); and
  • Requires persons who violate such Act to reimburse the federal government for the costs of a civil action to recover penalties or damages 

Concurrent with President Obama’s signature of FERA into law, the U.S. Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Health & Human Services (HHS) jointly announced the expansion of federal health care fraud enforcement efforts.  On May 20, 2009, HHS and DOJ announced their activation of a new interagency team to combat health care fraud highlights the increasing need for health care providers and health plans to review and tighten their practices for dealing with Medicare and other federal programs to survive scrutiny under federal health care fraud initiatives.  Coupled with FERA and the already significant increase in federal health care fraud detection and enforcement activities in recent years and a proposed 50 percent increase in funding for these activities included in President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget, health care providers and payers must be prepared to defend their dealing with Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health care programs.

The expanded protections afforded under FERA to whistleblowers and others suffering retaliation for opposing or reporting illegal actions can be expected to serve as a key tool in these efforts. These new retaliation safeguards are designed further increase the likelihood that employees and other insiders will help government officials ferret out false claims and other fraud. Specifically with regard to retaliatory action claims Section 4(d) of FERA amends 31 U.S.C.§ 3730(h) to provide for the recovery of “all relief necessary to make that employee, contractor, or agent whole” where that individual is discharged, demoted, suspended, threatened, harassed, or in any other manner discriminated against in the terms and conditions of employment because of lawful acts he does or takes on behalf of an individual in furtherance of other efforts to stop a violation of the FCA. 

FERA expressly provides that relief to victims of retaliation will include “reinstatement with the same seniority status that employee, contractor, or agent would have had but for the discrimination, 2 times the amount of back pay, interest on the back pay, and compensation for any special damages sustained as a result of the discrimination, including litigation costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees.” 

The FERA amendments to the FCA, the new TEAMS enforcement effort announced simultaneously with its signature into law mean that health care industry organizations and others covered by the FCA must implement appropriate fraud prevention, detection, redress and other procedures to help defend against possible FCA or other health care fraud claims and investigations.

The attorneys at Curran Tomko Tarski, LLC have extensive experience representing and advising health industry and other clients against FCA and other federal health care and fraud laws. 

For More Information

We hope that this information is useful to you. If you need assistance with auditing or defending health care fraud concerns or other health care compliance, risk management, transactions or operations concerns, please contact Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Partners Cynthia Marcotte Stamer at (214) 270-2402, CStamer@CTTLegal.com; Michael T. Tarski at (214) 270-1420 or MTarski@CTTLegal.com; Edwin J. Tomko at (214) 270-1405 or ETomko@CTTLegal.com.

You can review other recent health care and internal controls resources and additional information about the health industry and white collar experience of the Curran Tomko Tarski LLP attorneys at http://www.CTTLegal.com. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile at CTTLegal.com or e-mailing this information to CStamer@CTTLegal.com.


HIPAA Complaint Basis For Texas Whistleblower Claim

April 4, 2009

In a March 19, 2009 ruling, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas recently recognized that the Texas Whistleblower Act prohibits health care organizations run by the State of Texas from retaliating against employees for making good faith complaints of violations of the Privacy Rules of the Health Insurance Portability Act (“HIPAA”).Nevertheless, the court dismissed the wrongful discharge lawsuit brought by a former Terrell State Hospital security guard who alleged he was wrongfully fired for complaining to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights (”OCR”) that the Hospital violated the HIPAA Privacy Rules because the plaintiff had failed to present sufficient proof that he was terminated in retaliation for filing a HIPAA complaint.

 

Illustrative of a growing number of state law retaliatory discharge claims brought be employees claiming to have been retaliated against for complaining about alleged violations of HIPAA’s Privacy Rules, Faulkner v. Department of State Health Servs., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22419 (N.D. Tex. Mar. 19, 2009), involved claims made by plaintiff Anthony Faulkner (”Faulkner”) that the Texas Department of State Health Services (”DSHS”); Terrell State Hospital; Texas DSHS Commissioner David L. Lakey, M.D.; Terrell State Hospital Superintendent Fred Hale; and Terrell State Hospital Risk Management Coordinator Clent Holmes, R.N. violated the Whistleblower Act and the First and Fourteenth Amendments by firing him seven days after he complained to OCR that Terrell State Hospital violated the HIPAA Privacy Rule by leaving admissions logs containing patient names and admission dates in a public area.

The Texas Whistleblower Act generally prohibits a state or local governmental entity from terminating or taking any other adverse personnel action against a public employee who in good faith reports a violation of law by the employing governmental entity or another public employee to an appropriate law enforcement authority.See Tex. Gov’t Code § 554.002(a).While the Court affirmed that the Texas Whistleblower Act permits a public employee of the State of Texas discharged or otherwise retaliated against for complaining in good faith to OCR that his public employer or its employee violated the HIPAA Privacy Rules, the Court nevertheless granted summary judgment to the defendants.

According to the court, Faulkner’s failure to introduce evidence rebutting defendant’s affidavit that he was terminated for repeatedly violating rules requiring him to report suspected abuse of patients precluded him from proving his termination was in retaliation for his filing of the HIPAA complaint.Meanwhile, the court also ruled that Faulkner’s claims against the individual defendants should be dismissed as the Whistleblower Act only creates a cause of action against governmental entities and not their employees. Having found Faulkner’s constitutional claims also without merit, the District Court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

While the defendants were able to overcome Faulkner’s retaliatory discharge claim, the decision highlights the need for health care providers and other HIPAA covered entities to take appropriate precautions to defend against potential wrongful discharge, retaliation or other claims by employees or other service providers for complaining of possible HIPAA violations or for attempting to exercise other HIPAA-protected rights.HIPAA covered entities now should avoid engaging in actions that might unnecessarily fuel claims of retaliation.  They also should carefully document and preserve evidence necessary to demonstrate the legitimacy of their disciplinary actions on an ongoing basis.

We hope you found this information helpful. If your organization needs assistance with understanding or managing its responsibilities or liabilities under HIPAA or other health care or employment laws or wishes to inquire about HIPAA training or other services and experience of Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, please contact Ms. Stamer via e-mail at Cstamer@Solutionslawyer.net or by telephoning Ms. Stamer at 469.767.8872.You also can review other helpful resources and register to receive other updates at CynthiaStamer.com.


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