Number of False Claims Act Investigations Being Pursued is Currently at an All Time High . . . and is Likely to Go Even Higher Due to Changes to the False Claims Act Under Health Care Reform

November 25, 2010 by  
Filed under False Claims Act, Featured

(November 26, 2010):  As set out in a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Press Release issued earlier this week, during Fiscal Year 2010 (ending September 30, 2010), DOJ secured $3 billion in civil settlements and judgments in connection with cases involving fraud against the government.  Notably, $2.5 billion (approximately 83%) of the recoveries were related to health care fraud cases.  According to DOJ, since January 2009, $5.4 billion has been collected under the False Claims Act and returned to Federal programs (such as the Medicare Trust Fund) and / or the Treasury.   As Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Division Tony West reported:

“Under Attorney General Eric Holder’s leadership, our aggressive pursuit of fraud under the False Claims Act has resulted in the largest two-year recovery of taxpayer dollars in the history of the Justice Department. . . Nowhere is this more apparent than in our success in fighting health care fraud. Since January 2009, the Civil Division, together with the U.S. Attorneys’ offices, commenced more health care fraud investigations, secured larger fines and judgments, and recovered more taxpayer dollars lost to health care fraud than in any other two-year period.” (emphasis added).

While the number of False Claim Act cases commenced during the last two years is at an all time high, this number is likely to further grown due to recent changes to the False Claims Act under Health Care Reform.

Pursuant to Section 6402 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (generally referred to as the “Health Care Reform Act”), Medicare participating providers, including Physicians, Group Practices, Chiropractors, Home Health Agencies, Hospices, Community Mental Health Clinics, and others who bill the identify an “overpayment” must report and return the overpayment, explaining (in writing) how the overpayment occurred within 60 days. As the statute provides:

‘The PPACA states that “[a]ny overpayment retained by a person after the deadline for reporting and returning the overpayment. . . is an obligation [as defined in the False Claims Act.”

Failure to meet this obligation may subject a provider to to monetary penalties of up to $11,000 per claim (in the case, in the form of an “overpayment,” plus treble damages.

As many providers can readily confirm, confirming that an overpayment exists isn’t also that easy, especially in complex cases where a patient has secondary insurance and / or the number of claims processed (as charges, credits and corrections) may be quite large. Additionally, due to the complexity of Medicare coverage and payment rules, two reasonable individuals may disagree as to whether an overpayment is present. In any event, the number of potential whistleblowers (individuals with knowledge of arguable overpayments under Section 6402), will undoubtedly increase.

Health care providers should review their current Compliance Plan to better ensure that internal audit and review mechanisms are in place so that any overpayments can be readily identified and repaid to the government within the 60-day deadline. The decision of where to disclose and return an overpayment, whether to a Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC), the Department of Health and Human Services – Office of inspector General (HHS-OIG), or to DOJ, may differ depending on the facts.  Depending on the size or complexity of an overpayment, a provider may need to contact legal counsel for advise on how to best handle the alleged overpayment. Due to the 60-day deadline, if legal counsel is to be involved, they must should be contacted as soon as possible.

An effective Compliance Plan case assist in the identification and proper handling of overpayments. If your practice has not already implemented an effective Compliance Plan, it should do so immediately.

Robert W. Liles has worked with a wide variety of heath care providers around the country in connection with False Claims Act and / or False Claims Case.  Should your practice need assistance with compliance or overpayment issues.  For a complimentary consultation, please call: 1 (800) 475-1906. 

Providers Should Exercise Caution When Handling Overpayments, More Than Likely You Can’t Keep It, Even if the Payor Doesn’t Want it Back!

July 15, 2010 by  
Filed under False Claims Act, Featured, Medicare Audits

(July 15, 2010):  Since the May 2009 passage of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act (FERA) and subsequent enactment of the PPACA, we’ve heard a lot about how the government looks at Medicare overpayments and how providers should handle them.  Two major misconceptions seem to underlie the public response to provisions clarifying that failure to timely refund Medicare overpayments can result in False Claims Act (FCA) liability.

I.          Historical Overview of the “Overpayment” Issue

Prior to the clarification and statutory reinforcement of the “overpayment” issue provided by PPACA, a number of providers have mistakenly believed that in the absence of a direct demand for repayment, an identified overpayment would belong to the provider.  Notably, this issue is not new.  In fact, the recent enacted provisions have merely reinforced the government’s long-standing position that a provider has a responsibility to voluntarily refund Medicare overpayments without an overpayment determination being made by the government.

As you will recall, the agreement to return any overpayments is fundamental to a provider’s eligibility to participate in the Medicare program.  Section 1866(a)(1)(C) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. § 1395cc) requires participating providers to furnish information about payments made to them and to refund any monies incorrectly paid.  Implemented in 2006, the Medicare Credit Balance Report (CMS-838) is designed to ensure timely compliance with this obligation.

Secondly, PPACA Section 6402 echoes the requirements of CMS’ 2002 proposed rule that providers “must, within 60 days of identifying or learning of the excess payment, return the overpayment to the appropriate intermediary and carrier, at the correct address, and notify the intermediary and carrier, in writing, of the reason for the overpayment.”  (67 Fed. Reg. 3662 (January 25, 2002)).  A conservative reading of that proposed rule arguably suggested that HHS-OIG’s voluntary disclosure protocol may not be “voluntary” after all but a mandatory repayment may be required.  Thus, the government has long sought to clarify when, not if, overpayment refunds would be required.

Despite the publicity resulting from PPACA and its FCA implications, it is important to remember that this issue was addressed over a decade ago.  As set out in the 1998 holding in United States v. Yale University School of Medicine, Civil Action No. 3:97CV02023 (D.Conn.), the government intervened in a qui tam and obtained $1.2 million settlement based on alleged FCA  violations for failing to return credit balances.  In summary, providers who fail to promptly (within 60 days of identification) return an overpayment to the government do so at their own peril.

II.         Handling Non-Federal Overpayments

As an aside, even if the overpayment at issue is not owed to a Federal payor (such as Medicare or Medicaid), it is imperative to remember that virtually no overpayments belong to a provider.  In the case of non-Federal payors (such as a private insurance company), we are aware of numerous instances where the non-Federal payor has notified the provider that due to the administrative burden of applying an overpayment to a beneficiary’s account (typically due to the complexity of the payment history), the non-Federal payor has chosen to either “waive” collection of an overpayment or not to cash a check sent by the provider.  This also regularly occurs when the identified overpayment is under a certain amount (such as $25.00).  When faced with such a situation, a provider must review applicable State law to ascertain how an overpayment must be handled.  For instance, in Texas, Title 6 of the Property Code requires businesses and other entities holding unclaimed property to turn the property over to the Texas Comptroller’s Office after the appropriate abandonment period has expired.  As in most States, violation of these escheat laws can subject a provider to various penalties.

III.        Conclusion

The lesson to be learned here is quite clear – regardless of who the payor is, an overpayment can rarely, if ever, properly be retained by a provider, regardless of the amount in controversy.  A provider must carefully examine both Federal and State statutes when faced with this issue.  The best practice is to return an overpayment to the payor (Federal, State, or private patient), regardless of the amount, upon identification.  Should a provider be unable to identify who is owed an overpayment or cannot locate a valid address to return the overpayment (due to a variety of factors), your State’s escheat law must be considered.

This can be a complicated issue, especially when a large overpayment has been identified and it is owed to a Federal payor.  While time is of the essence, it is strongly recommended that you contact your legal counsel as soon as it appears that a potential large or complicated Federal overpayment has been found.  Your attorney can help guide you through this complex process.

Should you have any questions regarding these issues, don’t hesitate to contact us.  For a complementary consultation, you may call Robert W. Liles or one of our other attorneys at 1 (800) 475-1906.