South Texas Health Care Providers Remain Under Considerable Scrutiny by HEAT Prosecutors and Investigators – Compliance Isn’t Optional – It’s Essential in 2011.

January 7, 2011 by  
Filed under Featured, HEAT Enforcement

(January 6, 2011):  Three Houston-area residents, one of whom is a physician, were sentenced to prison on January 4th for their roles in a multi-million dollar durable medical equipment (DME) Medicare fraud scheme.  Each of the three defendants were also ordered to pay restitution to the Federal government, in amounts ranging from $29,052 to $1.4 million.

I.     Background of DME Fraud Case:

According to DOJ, a Houston-area DME company improperly billed Medicare for power wheelchairs and orthotic devices, beginning in 2003 and continuing until late 2009.  In addition to the three co-conspirators sentenced today, a total of eight other individuals were convicted for their participation in the fraudulent scheme.  One of the eight included the owner of the DME company.

At trial, Federal prosecutors were able to show that a variety of fraudulent actions had been taken by members of the group, ranging from the payment of illegal kickbacks to the prescription of medically unnecessary devices.

II.     Medicare Strike Force Efforts to Combat DME Fraud in Texas are Expanding:

Notably, this was just the latest case investigated by members of the DOJ / HHS-OIG / MFCU Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT).  This strike force is responsible for investigating and prosecuting cases throughout South Texas.  As DOJ noted:

“Since their inception in March 2007, Strike Force operations in seven districts have obtained indictments of more than 850 individuals who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for more than $2.1 billion. In addition, HHS’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, working in conjunction with the HHS-OIG, are taking steps to increase accountability and decrease the presence of fraudulent providers.”

Both Federal and State investigators are aggressively targeting non-compliant providers.  South Texas providers who take the time to review and update their current Compliance Plan should also conduct a gap analysis to better ensure that their operational and billing practices fully comply with applicable statutory and regulatory requirements.

Robert W. Liles is Managing Partner at Liles Parker.  Robert and other firm attorneys  have extensive experience representing health care providers in alleged Medicare overpayment and fraud cases.  Should you have questions about our services, give us a call for a free consultation.  We can be reached at 1 (800) 475-1906.

Home Health Agency “Patient Recruiter” Sentenced to 63 Months in Prison for Allegedly Committing Health Care Fraud

October 18, 2010 by  
Filed under HEAT Enforcement

(October 18, 2010):  The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan, working with the FBI and HHS-OIG has announced the sentencing of yet another defendant convicted of home health fraud.  As the Department of Justice’s Press Release reflects, the defendant, a nurse who worked as a patient recruiter and operator of a Detroit-area home health agency, allegedly solicited Medicare beneficiaries for the home health agency where he worked and “offered them cash kickbacks in exchange for their Medicare patient information and signatures on medical documents.”  The defendant also allegedly:

admitted that he knew the beneficiaries he recruited were neither homebound nor in need of physical therapy services.”  Finally, the defendant allegedly “admitted in court papers that he knew [the home health agency] used the beneficiaries’ Medicare information to bill Medicare for physical therapy that was medically unnecessary and / or never performed.” (emphasis added).

 As a result, it was estimated that $6.96 million in “false or fraudulent claims [were submitted] to the Medicare program.”   In this case, the defendant was sentenced to 63 months in prison for his actions.

 Commentary:  Over the last few months, a number of criminal prosecutions have been brought against “patient recruiters” working for home health agencies who have allegedly been involved in wrongdoing.  In most cases, the defendants have been alleged to have improperly used the Medicare information of these patients to improperly bill for services that were not medically necessary and / or were not rendered.  In light of these cases, it is recommended that home health agencies carefully review their marketing practices to verify that the conduct of their employees or contractors does not violate applicable statutory and regulatory requirements.  It is also recommended that home health agency Compliance Officers work with outside counsel to engage outside billing / coding personnel to conduct periodic home health claims reviews so that the propriety of the skilled nursing services billed can be properly verified.

Liles Parker attorneys represent home health agencies and their officers in Medicare audits and investigations.  Please call 1 (800) 475-1906 for a free consultation.

President Obama’s 2011 Funding Request Provides for Expansion of the HEAT Program to Additional Cities

October 4, 2010 by  
Filed under HEAT Enforcement

(October 4, 2010):  As DOJ has recently noted in its own blog, over the last Fiscal Year, DOJ (including its 94 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices),  HHS’ Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG), and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), have been extraordinarily active in jointly pursuing  health care providers allegedly engaging in fraud as part of  the HEAT program.  As DOJ notes, the mission of the HEAT program is:

  • To marshal significant resources across government to prevent waste, fraud and abuse in the Medicare and Medicaid programs and crack down on the fraud perpetrators who are abusing the system and costing us all billions of dollars.
  • To reduce skyrocketing health care costs and improve quality of care by ridding the system of perpetrators who are preying on Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.
  • To highlight best practices by providers and public sector employees who are dedicated to ending waste, fraud and abuse in Medicare.
  • To build upon existing partnerships that already exist between the two agencies, including our Medicare Fraud Strike Forces to reduce fraud and recover taxpayer dollars.

Together, DOJ, HHS-OIG and CMS have accomplished the following over the last Fiscal Year:

  • Filed charges against more than 800 defendants.
  • Obtained 583 criminal convictions.
  • Opened 886 new civil health care fraud matters.
  • Obtained 337 civil administrative actions against parties committing health care fraud.

Through these coordinated efforts, more than $2.5 billion was recovered.  Importantly, these successes have not gone unnoticed.  President Obama’s FY 2011 budget request  includes an additional $60.2 million in funding for the HEAT program initiative. 

Commentary:  In light of the government’s continuing efforts, we strongly recommend that our clients review their current compliance efforts to ensure that they take into account any and all risk areas that have been identified or associated with their areas of practice.  Providers should work to ensure that their operations and billing activitivies fully comply with applicable statutory and regulatory billing and coding requirements.

Should you have questions, please give us a call for a complimentary consultation.  We can be reached at 1 (800) 475-1906.

 

Medicare Fraud Strike Force Operation Leads to Charges against 94 Defendants, including 4 in South Texas

July 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured, HEAT Enforcement

(July 17, 2010): Yesterday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced charges against 94 physicians, medical assistants, and health care company owners and executives in connection with alleged false Medicare claims amounting to more than $251 million.  24 defendants from Miami account for approximately $103 million of that amount.  Four defendants were charged in Houston for their alleged roles in a $3 million scheme to submit fraudulent claims for durable medical equipment (DME).   Other arrests were made in Baton Rouge, Brooklyn, and Detroit.   

The offenses charged include conspiracy to defraud the Medicare program, criminal false claims, violations of the anti-kickback statutes, and money laundering.  The charges are based on a variety of fraud schemes, including physical therapy and occupational therapy schemes, home health care schemes, HIV infusion fraud schemes and durable medical equipment (DME) schemes.

Announcing the arrests, Attorney General Eric Holder said, “With today’s arrests, we’re putting would-be criminals on notice: Health care fraud is no longer a safe bet.  It’s no longer easy money.  If you choose to engage in health care fraud, you will be found; you will be stopped; and you will be brought to justice.”

The operation was conducted by the joint DOJ-HHS Medicare Fraud Strike Force, multi-agency teams 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.  Strike Force teams are operating in seven cities in the United States: the five aforementioned cities, Los Angeles, and Tampa.  AG Holder noted that the ongoing Strike Force initiative in South Florida has resulted in the indictments of 810 organizations and individuals since March 2007 and uncovered $1.85 billion in improperly billed claims.

The Strike Forces are a part of Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT), which is made up of top level law enforcement and professional staff from the DOJ and HHS and their operating divisions.  HEAT is dedicated to joint efforts across government to both prevent fraud and enforce current anti-fraud laws around the country.

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.

Texas Psychiatrist Indicted and Arrested

July 9, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured, HEAT Enforcement

(July 9, 2010):  On June 14, 2010 the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas announced that a Federal Grand Jury had returned a 99-count indictment against a pain management physician who operated clinics in San Antonio and El Paso.  The physician was charged with 21 counts of health care fraud, 20 counts of false statements relating to health care fraud matters, 21 counts of mail fraud, 16 counts of wire fraud, 4 counts of unlawful distribution of a controlled substances and 16 counts of money laundering.  The indictment alleges that the physician “caused to be submitted claims for reimbursement of peripheral nerve injections, facet injection procedures and Level Four office visits–typically involving 25 minutes of face-to-face time between patient and physician–which never were performed.”  Instead, the U.S. Attorney’s Office alleges that the physician performed “prolotherapy” on his patients — a procedure that Federal health care benefit programs do not reimburse. 

Notably, an indictment is merely a charge and is not considered to be evidence of guilt. In issuing this indictment, the Texas HEAT task force, comprised of Federal prosecutors and investigative agencies,  have continued to ramp up efforts to investigate and prosecute allegations of health care fraud.  Notably, the use of “prolotherapy,” a relatively new therapeutic approach, has been supported by some of the best known clinics and physicians in the country. 

While this case has yet to fully develop, it again points out that health care providers must take care when utilizing new approaches, despite the fact the therapeutic technique may be considered to be state-of-the-art.  Unfortunately, Medicare may take years to recognize and cover some techniques.  In the mean time, it is essential that providers take care when coding and billing for procedures that may not clearly qualify for coverage under applicable Medicare and / or contractor guidance.

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.

Responding to a Search Warrant of Your Practice or Clinic.

June 1, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured, HEAT Enforcement

(June 1, 2010):  I.  Introduction:

Like most honest health care providers, you may believe that “search warrants” are only executed by the government in connection with the investigation of nefarious characters and criminals.  Unfortunately, that just isn’t the case.  The Federal government has increasingly utilized search warrants as a first-strike investigative tool.  In fact, the execution of a search warrant may very well be the first notice a health care provider has that their practice or clinic is under investigation.

Allegations of wrongdoing may arise from a wide variety of sources.  Health care providers may have been reported by disgruntled current or former employees, dissatisfied patients, or others familiar with the practice’s operations.  Notably, recent criticism aimed at RACs for their failure to identify and refer possible criminal wrongdoing to the government for further investigation may have generated a new period of significant enforcement.  It appears that Zone Protection Integrity Contractors (ZPICs) around the country have recently intensified their activities, going well beyond the typical overpayment audits normally seen.  We have seen a marked increase in the number of unannounced site visits, Medicare suspension actions and Medicare number revocation cases.  We fully anticipate the number of criminal referrals to DOJ to increase as well.

In assessing this issue, it is important to remember that prior to obtaining a search warrant, an Assistant U.S. Attorney has gone before a Federal Magistrate and has shown “probable cause” that a crime has been committed or is being committed.  Once issued, the search warrant may greatly help DOJ build its case.  Search warrants are preferable to subpoenas and other investigative tools because:

The health care provider will likely be caught completely off-guard, thereby reducing the possibility that documents may be lost, destroyed or otherwise be missing before it can be secured as part of the investigation.  In executing a search warrant, the government can preserve the documentation and electronic evidence to the greatest extent possible.

The government may use the execution of a search warrant as an opportunity to segregate possible witnesses and see if they can interview the employees and obtain statements before the practice and its employees have an opportunity to obtain counsel.

The combination of force and surprise will have an enormous psychological effect on your employees.  There will be absolutely no question about the seriousness and gravity of the government’s investigation.  This is often very intimidating, often resulting in significant damage to the practice, ranging from employee resignations to adverse publicity and media attention.

Finally, the scope of the search warrant will likely be sufficiently broad that the practice or clinic will have a difficult time determining the focus of the government’s investigation.

Once a search warrant is executed, the issue becomes how to best respond.  The purpose of this advisory is to provide an overview of the Federal search warrant process so that your interests can be protected.

II.  Responding to a Federal Search Warrant:

  A.  Before the search.

If the government were to execute a search warrant on your practice today, would you be ready?  Have your employees been briefed on how to respond if Federal agents show up at your practice or clinic?  If your answer to either of these questions is “no,” you should take immediate steps to better ensure that you are ready if this event were to occur.  Understandably, no health care provider likes to think that they would learn of an investigation in such a fashion.  Nevertheless, it occurs practically every day.  You should work with your attorney to draft procedures for responding to a search warrant that are tailored for your practice or clinic. 

B.  At the time of a search.

Please remember that these steps are not all inclusive.  Upon the execution of a Federal search warrant, you should immediately contact your attorney so that the specific facts and circumstances of your situation can be fully assessed and taken into consideration.  In responding to a search warrant, you should:

At the outset, it is important that you avoid taking any actions that could be misconstrued by the government as an obstruction to their search.  That does not mean that you cannot ask questions – merely that you should not obstruct their search.

 Try and ensure that patient care activities are not jeopardized. Typically, law enforcement will be sensitive to these issues and will try to avoid direct patient care areas.  Nevertheless, you may need to bring this issue to their attention.  You may find that legal counsel can often work with law enforcement to resolve an unreasonable intrusion in this regard.

 Ask for a copy of the search warrant and give it to your lawyer.  Your lawyer will try and prevent them from seizing any documents or items that appear to be outside of the scope of their warrant.  Importantly, search warrants are supposed to provide a specific description of the information or items to be search.  If a search warrant is ambiguous overly broad, your counsel may choose to seek to quash to the search.

 Regarding the search warrant itself, your lawyer will try and note the issuance date of the warrant and the date it was executed. Additionally, counsel will ask to check the identification of the leading agent handling the search, along with the identification of any other participating agencies (e.g. IRS, HHS-OIG).

 While your lawyer may request to see the affidavit upon which the search warrant is based, you should not be surprised if it was sealed by the Court and cannot be obtained. If counsel has not yet arrived, call your lawyer to discuss whether there may be any grounds to object to the search.  Should you object, inform the lead agent of your objection. Should the search continue, record the date and time of their arrival and departure.

 If they will allow it, try and accompany agents on the search.  Try to note which areas were searched and which documents or items were seized.  

 You may have documents that qualify as attorney-client privileged materials.  Should agents try to take documents that may be considered privileged, you should immediately object and notify the agents that the documents they are seizing are privileged. 

 Try and obtain a receipt from the agents for any items or documents that are seized. When possible, get copies of original documents before they are removed.

  C.  Handling employee issues.

The execution of a search warrant is an extremely stressful situation and can create confusion and stress on a practice’s employees. You should quickly move to restore order and re-assure employees that the situation is under control.

While a search warrant can be used to seize documents or other items, it cannot be used to force employees to participate in an interrogation.  Due to the many sensitivities in this area, it is strongly recommended that you have counsel advise employees of the situation.  While the government cannot force employees to answer questions, you must take care when you are briefing employees on the situation. While you must not tell employees that they are not allowed to talk with an agent, it is appropriate to tell employees that they have no obligation to answer any questions.  While individuals have a Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, your practice or clinic does not enjoy such a privilege.

When possible, send employees home for the day or have them work in another part of the facility.  Finally, you should notify employees that any questions regarding the location of certain records should be directed to a specific management official so that any inquiries can be properly and consistently handled.

  D.  After the search.

Document retention issues should be carefully handled. It is our view that all document destruction should immediately stop, even if the activity would be consistent with pre-search document retention policies used by the practice or clinic.  Once an investigation is initiated, you should diligently work to avoid even an appearance that obstruction of justice may be occurring. 

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.

Hold on Tight – 2010 Could be Rough for Providers. . .

February 27, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured, HEAT Enforcement

(February 27, 2010): The number of auditors, reviewers, investigators and prosecutors going after health care providers is increasing and signals an alarming, unprecedented effort by the government to uncover and recover alleged Medicare overpayments to health care providers.

Health care providers now face not only simple repayment demands, but also civil False Claims Act cases and criminal Medicare / Medicaid fraud claims identified by various new government contractors. Regrettably, we have seen unintentional mistakes, incomplete documentation and technical errors cited as the basis for seeking the repayment of millions of dollars, representing Medicare services rendered long ago, in some cases as many seven years before the demand letter was sent.  Perhaps most troubling is the fact that no one, including the ZPIC and / or PSC conducting the medical review, doubts that the medical services were rendered and in most cases, the Medicare beneficiary benefited from the care and treatment provided.  Today, every health care provider must beware of:

  • “RACs” — Recovery Audit Contractors.
  • “ZPICs” — Zone Program Integrity Contractors.
  • “MICs” — Medicaid Integrity Contractors.
  • “MCFU” — Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.
  • “HHS-OIG” — Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General.
  • “DOJ” — U.S. Department of Justice, and
  • “HEAT” — Healthcare Fraud Prevention & Enforcement Task Force (in a number of U.S. Attorney’s Offices around the country).

RACs and the havoc they are expected to wreak is old news, quite frankly. The newest players in town, ZPICs, MICs and HEAT Teams should be at the top of your current list of concerns. As you will recall,   CMS consolidated functions of all Program Safeguard Contractors (PSCs) and Medicare Prescription Drug Integrity Control (MEDIC) contracts into ZPIC contracts.  ZPICs are designed to combine claims data (FIs, Regional Home Health Intermediary, Carrier, DMERC) and other data to create a platform for documenting complex data analysis.  While RACs (until recently) have focused solely on recovering money, ZIPCs also look for fraud.

MICs are just now revving up around the country.  Unburdened by many of the restrictions placed on RACs, providers with a heavy Medicaid beneficiary base should diligently review their Medicaid coding and billing efforts to better ensure compliance with applicable statutory and regulatory requirements.

HEAT Teams are made up of top level law enforcement and professional staff from DOJ and HHS.  HEAT was implemented to prevent fraud and enforce current anti-fraud laws and prevent waste that focuses on improving data and information sharing between the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services and law enforcement agencies.  HEAT is working to strengthen program integrity activities to monitor and ensure compliance and enforcement.  HEAT’s tools to identify fraud include hotlines and web sites for healthcare workers and ordinary citizens.  Furthermore, HEAT officials are helping state Medicaid officials conduct better audits and provide better monitoring to detect fraudulent activities.

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.