Articles Posted in Whistleblowers and Qui Tam Lawsuits

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.

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.

claire-anderson-60670-copy-300x200The Ninth Circuit recently held that a whistleblower could not intervene in a False Claims Act (FCA) suit filed by the U.S. despite it being based on allegations the whistleblower previously made in a lawsuit that was dismissed. This is another a holding that shows relators in qui tam cases do not get second chances. If the FCA cases to which they are a party do not directly lead to a settlement or jury award, the whistleblowers cannot recover any compensation.

Background for the Decision

In 2009, John Prather filed a qui tam action against Sprint and others stating the businesses overcharged the U.S. for wiretapping services. As in all qui tam cases, the U.S. government has time to investigate the allegations and then choose whether to intervene and become a formal party to the case or not intervene. In this case, the U.S. did not intervene and later the district court dismissed the relator’s claim because it determined he was not an original source for the information that led to the allegations.

benjamin-child-17946-copy-300x200A radiation therapy center based in Lancaster agreed to pay $3 million to the federal government to resolve a claim that it committed healthcare fraud for close to 10 years. A qui tam suit based on the federal False Claims Act, filed by former employee Jared Shindler, alleged that Valley Tumor Medical Group submitted fraudulent bills to the federal Medicare, Medi-Cal, and TRICARE programs between Jan. 3, 2006 through Nov. 13, 2015. According to the whistleblower suit, radiation oncology treatments were provided to patients at Valley Tumor’s Ridgecrest location when no physicians were on site, which is required by federal law.

The Case Was Made Public April 20

While the lawsuit was filed in 2015, it was only recently unsealed. That is because qui tam cases are filed under seal so that the government has time to investigate the claim and determine whether to join the suit as a party or decline to join. During this time, the lawsuit must remain a secret from the public, including the defendant. If the relator or government leaks information about the existence of the suit, there can repercussions such as fines or the dismissal of the suit.

freestocks-org-126848-1-copy-300x200The University of California recently announced that it uncovered evidence of a fraudulent health care scheme targeting students. Local health care providers would recruit and encourage students to enroll in fake clinical trials or apply for fake jobs. This allowed them to gain the student’s personal and health plan information. These providers would then write fake prescriptions in the student’s names to ultimately obtain close to $12 million from UC. The university found at least nine individual health care providers were involved.

UC Filed Complaint in Los Angeles County

UC filed a complaint against the allegedly fraudulent health care providers on April 20 in the Los Angeles County Superior Court. Listed as defendants are California Clinical Trials, LLC, Studios Pharmacy, Excel Care Pharmacy, Pharma Pro Solutions, and 17 individuals, including physicians, surgeons, pharmacists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and other medical professionals.

bob-brents-182206-300x240The federal government has once against settled a qui tam claim based on the False Claims Act (FCA) with a medical provider. In April, the government announced it came to an agreement with dermatologist and surgeon Dr. Norman A. Brooks, M.D., for $2,681.400 based on false billings to Medicare. Dr. Brooks owns a medical facility in Encino, California. The federal government continues to aggressively enforce the FCA and health care providers are a main target. Fraudulent claims to Medicare and Medicaid are unfortunately common and can unlawfully keep millions of dollars from the federal government.

Qui Tam Claim Against California Dermatologist

Dr. Brooks’ former employee Janet Burke brought the qui tam lawsuit under the FCA against the physician. Burke alleged that Dr. Brooks would falsely diagnose patients with skin cancer in order to bill Medicare for services and Mohs surgeries he unnecessarily performed. Mohs micrographic surgery is a procedure to remove certain types of skin cancers in certain areas of the body. It is known as the best way to remove Basil Cell Carcinoma and Squamous Cell Carcinoma. It leaves behind the greatest amount of healthy tissue. Dr. Brooks would invoice for this type of surgery because it was more costly and returned a higher reimbursement than other procedures for removing skin cancer or lesions.

jimi-filipovski-189724-copy-300x176Individuals and businesses named in qui tam lawsuits alleging fraud against the government based on the False Claims Act (FCA) have always been at risk for significant financial penalties. If the federal government decides to join the qui tam action against the defendants, this is a sign of a great deal of evidence in the government’s favor. A court ruling against some or all of the defendants or a settlement between them and the government is bound to follow. However, since mid-2016, the financial risk for these defendants has been even higher as the minimum and maximum civil penalties increased. Along with continued enforcement, this could mean the U.S. receives an even greater amount from FCA cases in the 2017 fiscal year.

FCA Claims are Taken Seriously

Under the Obama Administration, qui tam and FCA claims were taken seriously. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recovered more than $4.7 billion from FCA cases in the 2016 fiscal year. As we transition into the Trump Administration and Attorney General Sessions gets to work, it appears as if heavy FCA enforcement will continue. Democrats and Republicans both agree with finding and prosecuting fraud against the government, and Sessions has agreed he will make recovering fraudulently obtained monies a high priority.