aidan-bartos-313782-copy-300x200On August 10, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced victory in another healthcare fraud case. A federal jury convicted registered nurse, Evelyn Mokwuah, 52, of criminal involvement in a $20-million Medicare fraud scheme. Mokwuah owned two home health companies based out of Houston, Beechwood Home Health and Criseven Health Management Corporation. She and these companies were convicted of making fraudulent claims to Medicare for home health services.

Healthcare Fraud Trial Ends Well for Government

There was a four-day trial regarding Mokwuah’s fraudulent activities. She was convicted of four counts of health care fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud. Evidence at trial was based on claims made to Medicare by the two companies between 2008 and 2016. Fraudulent claims were made for home health services that were either not provided or were provided when not medically necessary.

When qui tam cases under the False Claims Act (FCA) are first filed, they are to remain under seal for 60 days. During this time, the case is secret. The defendant is not even served yet, so it likely does not know there is a suit filed against it unless there are quiet rumblings or leaks. During this 60-day period, the government is given an opportunity to investigate the allegations and decide whether to join the suit or not. Once the government makes its decision, the case is unsealed. In certain instances, this is when the defendant is served. However, in many cases, the seal is partially lifted and the defendant is served prior to the whistleblower case being made public.

The truth of the matter, though, is that a qui tam case is never under seal for just 60 days. The FCA, the government can ask for extensions of the seal period if they can show it is for good cause. This happens regularly and continuously to the point where many qui tam cases remain confidential for years.

How Long Do Qui Tam Cases Remain Under Seal?

andres-de-armas-103880-copy-300x200On July 24, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California announced that Celgene Corp., a pharmaceutical manufacturer headquartered in New Jersey, will pay $280 million to numerous states and the federal government to settle claims that it submitted false claims to the federal government and state health programs. From the settlement, $259.3 million will go to the federal government, $20.7 million will be divided among 28 states and the District of Columbia. California is set to receive more than any other state at $4.7 million.

U.S. ex rel. Brown v. Celgene Corp.

The settlement is the result of a whistleblower lawsuit filed by Beverly Brown under the qui tam provision of the False Claims Act. Brown, who was a sales manager at Celgene, brought a lawsuit on behalf of the federal and state governments. She provided evidence that Celgene promoted two cancer drugs, Thalomid and Revlimid, for uses that were not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and therefore not covered by federal healthcare programs.

david-everett-strickler-196946-copy-300x195On July 13, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price, M.D., announced the Department of Justice’s largest ever health care fraud enforcement action. The work of the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, established in 2007, led to 412 defendants being charged with health care fraud offenses based on information they all participated in fraudulent schemes to obtain about $1.3 billion in false billings to Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE. Additionally, HHS has begun the suspension process against 295 health care providers’ licenses.

Hundreds of Individuals Charged With Health Care Fraud

Of the 412 defendants, 115 are physicians, nurses, and other licensed medical professionals. Many of these defendants were charged with federal crimes for prescribing medically unnecessary drugs and compound medications, many of which were not actually distributed to the patients or purchased. Providers could then bill for these unnecessary or unpurchased medications and receive a greater amount of reimbursements from state and federal health services.

andres-de-armas-103880-copy-300x200The Department of Justice (DOJ) for the Eastern District of California announced on July 7 that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (Walmart) paid $1.65 million to resolve accusations related to unlawful medical claims. This is an important suit as it demonstrates that the federal and state governments will go after large retailers for false claims. Pursuing whistleblower suits and securing government funds that were unlawfully obtained remains a top property for the DOJ.

Walmart’s False Claims

Through a qui tam suit brought by a former Walmart pharmacist in the Sacramento area, the California government learned that Walmart was allegedly submitting false claims to the state’s Medi-Cal program in order to increase reimbursements. Supposedly, Walmart would knowingly submit claims that were not supported by a proper and relevant diagnosis or documentation. More specifically, Walmart would submit reimbursement claims for Code 1 drugs that were not based on proper and pre-approved diagnoses. Medi-Cal only reimburses for Code 1 drugs if they were prescribed for approved diagnoses. If a Walmart pharmacy wanted reimbursement for a Code 1 drug for something else, it would need to submit a specific request with the reasoning for a non-approved use. Walmart pharmacists intentionally submitted claims without confirming the approved diagnosis and obtaining the necessary documentation or for non-approved uses.

jimi-filipovski-189724-copy-300x176There are currently two False Claims Act (FCA) qui tam cases against United Health Group (UHG) pending in the Central District of California. The cases are: U.S. ex rel. Benjamin Poehling v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc. and U.S. ex rel. Swoben v. Secure Horizons, et al. The cases were brought by James Swoben, who was previously an employee of Senior Care Action Network Health Plan and a consultant within the risk adjustment industry, and Benjamin Poehling, who was the former finance director of a UHG group that managed the insurer’s Medicare Advantage Plans.

The Qui Tam Cases Against UHG

On May 2, the U.S. intervened in the Swoben False Claims Act suit against UHG based on the allegations the insurer overcharged Medicare Advantage and prescription drug programs. In the DOJ’s complaint, it alleges the insurer knowingly ignored patients’ medical conditions to increase payments it received from Medicare and funded chart reviews to increase the risk adjustment payments it reviewed. However, any information the reviews uncovered regarding misdiagnoses were disregarded to avoid repaying Medicare.

daan-stevens-282446-copy-300x191The U.S. Department of Justice announced on June 28 that PAMC Ltd. and Pacific Alliance Medical Center Inc. have agreed to pay $42 million to settle allegations that they violated provisions of the False Claims Act. The two companies, which operate together as Pacific Alliance Medical Center in Los Angeles, allegedly had unlawful financial relationships with doctors.

Qui Tam Suit Against Pacific Alliance Medical Center

The qui tam lawsuit against the defendants was filed by Paul Chan, who was a manager with one of the defendant businesses. A qui tam suit is a civil lawsuit brought by a private citizen on behalf of the government. The private citizen, known as the relator during the suit, provides information regarding the claims that is not available to the public. If the government receives a settlement or jury award in relation to the relator’s allegations, then he receives part of the monetary recovery. In this case, Chan is set to receive more than $9.2 million.

rhema-kallianpur-275251-copy-300x200To encourage private citizens to come forward regarding fraud against the government, qui tam cases entitle the citizen, also called the relator, to a portion of any settlement or jury award that arises from his or her evidence and allegations. Individuals can bring qui tam cases under the federal False Claims Act when there is fraud against the federal government or can sue under a state-specific false claims act when the fraud is against the state. However, this award has sometimes led individuals to move forward qui tam suits for profit and not altruistic motives. There may be an even more profound issue when attorneys act as both the relator in a qui tam suit and their own lawyer.

Attorney-Relator Cannot Benefit Twice in Qui Tam Suit in Illinois

This issue came up in Illinois when an attorney brought hundreds of qui tam suits against retailer My Pillow Inc. for failing to collect and remit tax on products sold in Illinois. The attorney acted as both the relator in the suit as well as the attorney. This meant the attorney not only received a portion of the judgment against the company, but he also asked for attorney’s fees.

benjamin-child-90768-300x200Qui tam suits often make the news, though you may not be sure of what they are and why they matter. Qui tam suits have to do with fraud against the federal or a state government. In recent years, the U.S. and individual states have made a concerted effort to recapture the money that individuals and businesses have wrongfully obtained or kept from them. By learning more about qui tam suits, you may be better able to recognize fraud when you see it and understand what you can do with this concerning information.

Common Questions Regarding Qui Tam Suits

  • What is a qui tam suit? A qui tam lawsuit is a civil lawsuit brought by a private citizen on behalf of the federal or a state government. It is also known as a whistleblower lawsuit since the private citizen is blowing the whistle on illegal actions against the government.

jerry-kiesewetter-210547-copy-300x199The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on June 7 that the U.S. is intervening in a qui tam suit against Los Angeles and CRA/LA, formerly known as the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, regarding allegations that the city and organization falsely certified that they were compliant with federal accessible housing laws to obtain grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In short, the U.S. is joining a lawsuit that alleges the city and its agency unlawfully gained and misused federal funds. If the U.S. and whistleblowers are successful, the settlement or judgement could amount to millions of dollars.

An FCA Claim Against L.A.

The qui tam suit was brought under the False Claims Act (FCA) by Mei Ling, a Los Angeles resident who uses a wheelchair, and the Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley, (the Council), a local nonprofit. Ling and the Council provided evidence to the court that L.A. and CRA/LA repeatedly lied to HUD about building accessible housing for people with disabilities. Instead, the defendants used federal grants to build housing that violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Fair Housing Act. The whistleblowers also argue that the defendants violated their affirmative duty to provide people with disabilities fair and equal access to public housing.