Southern District of New York Provides Clarity on “Identifying” Overpayments

false claims act

In early August of 2015, the Southern District of New York (SDNY) provided insight as to when the 60-day clock for returning an overpayment begins to run under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA). This decision is particularly relevant to screening for exclusions because the government has started to penalize providers who submit claims for services provided directly or indirectly by an excluded individual or entity for the greater penalty of submitting a false claim. Simply stated, the government now views claims as legally false if an excluded person provided any part of that claim. This makes providers possibly liable pursuant to the false claims act.

The court’s additional clarity on when the 60-day clock begins to run for false claims act liability may be the OIG’s next tool in retrieving Federal dollars from those providers who fail to screen their employees or contractors monthly. Therefore, those providers could be in receipt of overpayments for monies received from services provided by excluded persons or entities.

I. Background – False Claims Act

The Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act (FERA), enacted in 2009, amended the False Claims Act and added a “reverse false claims” provision. This reverse false claims provision imposes liability of $5,500 to $11,000 per false claim[1] on persons who “knowingly and improperly avoid[] or decrease[] an obligation to pay or transmit money or property to the Government.”[2] The term “knowingly” includes persons who have “actual knowledge of the information,” as well as those who “act in deliberate ignorance” or in “reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the information.” The term “require[s] no proof of specific intent to defraud.”[3] In addition, FERA further clarified that an “obligation means an established duty, whether or not fixed, arising from an express or implied contractual, grantor-grantee, or licensor-licensee relationship, from a fee-based or similar relationship, from statute or regulation, or from the retention of any overpayment.”[4]

The ACA added additional clarification to the overpayment retention provision. Specifically, it required that a person who has received an overpayment must  “report[] and return[]” the overpayment “by the later of (A) the date which is 60 days after the date on which the overpayment was identified; or (B) the date any corresponding cost report is due, if applicable.” An overpayment is defined as any monies “received or retained” under Medicare or Medicaid to which a person is not entitled.[5] Failure to repay an overpayment by the 60-day deadline constitutes a reverse false claim under the False Claims Act. However, Congress failed to define “identified” in the statute, which caused ambiguity about when the 60-day clock begins to run.

II. United States ex rel. Kane v. Healthfirst, Inc., et al.

The United States ex rel. Kane v. Healthfirst, Inc., et al., case arose after relator Robert Kane, a former Continuum employee, conducted an internal investigation of the company. The investigation revealed that 900 specific claims amounting to over $1 million may have been wrongly submitted and paid by Medicaid as a secondary payor.[6]

According to the Complaint, Continuum was questioned about a “small number of claims” that the Comptroller’s office concluded were improperly submitted for Medicaid reimbursement.[7] After several conversations, the parties discovered that the problem was related to a software glitch that caused certain claims to contain a code which automatically referred the claim for additional payment for covered services. Continuum was sent a corrective software patch by the software vendor that would ensure that Continuum would not improperly bill any other secondary payors.[8]

Once the software problem was identified in December 2010, Continuum asked Kane to determine which claims were improperly submitted due to the software malfunction.[9] After reviewing the claims, Kane sent an email containing a spreadsheet identifying over 900 claims dating back to May 2009 and totaling more than $1 million. All of these claims contained the problematic code that caused the billing error to Continuum’s Vice President for Patient Financial Services, Continuum’s Assistant Vice President for Revenue Cycle Operations- Systems, and other Continuum management. Kane’s email stated that further scrutiny was necessary to confirm his findings, but the Defendants alleged that he had identified a large portion of the claims that were incorrectly billed. Kane was fired four days after sending this email. According to the Complaint, Continuum did nothing with the alleged overpayments Kane identified except for reimbursing five of the 900 erroneously submitted claims.[10]

The Comptroller, however, continued to review Continuum’s billing and found more claims which it promptly brought to Continuum’s attention from March 2011 through February 2012.[11] Continuum reimbursed the claims identified by the Comptroller beginning in April 2013 until March 2013. Continuum never brought Kane’s research to the Comptroller’s attention and only repaid around 300 claims after the Government issued a Civil Investigative Demand in June 2012. Due to its “intentional and reckless”[12] delay in repaying the alleged overpayment more than 60 days after they were identified, the Government, through Relator Kane, alleged that Continuum is liable for reverse false claims. Therefore, Continuum was allegedly liable for treble damages plus an $11,000 penalty for each overpayment illegally retained more than 60 days after identification.[13]

III. SDNY Court Defines “Identifying” Overpayments

Continuum responded to these allegations by filing a Motion to Dismiss arguing that Kane’s email merely “provided notice of potential overpayments and did not identify actual overpayments so as to trigger the ACA’s sixty-day report and return clock.”[14] The term “identified” was left undefined by Congress in the text of the ACA, which gave rise to Continuum’s motion.

In its motion, Continuum contended that the court should adopt a definition of “identified” as “classified with certainty.” The Government responded that instead “an entity ‘has identified an overpayment’ when it ‘has determined, or should have determined through the exercise of reasonable diligence, that [it] has received an overpayment.’” The Government’s definition would essentially define “identified” as when “a person is put on notice that a certain claim may have been overpaid.”[15]

In an effort to ascertain the plain meaning of “identify,” the court consulted dictionary definitions, but it found that the wide range of definitions alone were not particularly helpful. Next, the court utilized canons of construction, reviewed the ACA’s legislative history, and considered the legislative purpose behind including a mandate to return overpayments within the ACA. The court found the legislative history particularly revealing and noted that Congress chose to adopt the Senate’s version of the bill which contained “identified” instead of the House Bill which employed the term “known.” After a thorough evaluation, the court concluded that “identified” should be defined as the moment “when a provider is put on notice of a potential overpayment, rather than when an overpayment is conclusively ascertained, [which] is compatible with the legislative history of the False Claims Act and FERA.”[16]

The court tempered its decision in stating that “the mere existence of an ‘obligation’ does not establish a violation of the False Claims Act.” Instead, the court held that a reverse false claim is only triggered when “an obligation is knowingly concealed or knowingly and improperly avoided or decreased.” Therefore, the court advised that prosecutorial discretion be employed to avoid filing enforcement actions against “well-intentioned providers working with reasonable haste to address overpayments” because this would be “inconsistent with the spirit of the law.”

IV. Takeaways

This decision is significant because it is the first opinion interpreting the term “identify” as it is used in relation to the ACA’s 60-day overpayment reporting requirement. While it is only binding in the Southern District of New York, it will likely guide other court opinions as they arise.

Providers should be aware that they could be liable for overpayments 60 days after they are “put on notice of a potential overpayment.” Therefore, providers should act with “reasonable haste” in reviewing potential overpayments to demonstrate good faith compliance.

Finally, providers must continue to screen their employees and contractors against the Federal and state exclusion lists monthly. The Government has only recently begun to pursue excluded individuals for False Claims Act violations. The new interpretation of “identify” as being “on notice” could provide the Government with a brand new tactic to retrieve federal monies. One of the reasons we strongly advocate that providers check all federal and state exclusion lists monthly is to find potential exclusions and demonstrate maximum compliance before an exclusion problem arises.

V. Conclusion

Failing to screen thoroughly and verify potential matches each month is not a way to avoid liability. It is unlikely that OIG would excuse overpayment liability if a provider claimed he was not “on notice” about an employee’s excluded status if that provider failed to properly screen and verify employees. Further, if a provider has identified a potential match, then he must work diligently to verify this match and return any monies received for services provided by this employee if he is excluded because the initial identification date could potentially start the 60-day clock for false claims act liability. [17]

Ashley Hudson

Ashley Hudson, Associate Attorney at Liles Parker, LLP and former Chief Operating Officer for Exclusion Screening, LLC, is the author of this article. Feel free to contact us at 1-800-294-0952 or online for a free consultation.


[1] Opinion and Order at 9 n.12, United States ex rel. Kane v. Healthfirst, Inc., et al., No. 11-2325 (S.D.N.Y Aug. 3, 2015).

[2] 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(1)(G) (2011).

[3] Id. § 3729(b)(1).

[4] Id. § 3729(b)(3) (emphasis added).

[5] 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7k(d)(4)(B) (2010).

[6] Complaint-in-Intervention of the United States of America at 11, United States ex rel. Kane v. Healthfirst, Inc., et al., No. 11-2325 (S.D.N.Y. June 27, 2014).

[7] Id. at 10.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.at 11.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Opinion and Order at 11, United States ex rel. Kane v. Healthfirst, Inc., et al., No. 11-2325 (S.D.N.Y Aug. 3, 2015).

[13] Id. at 8.

[14] Id. at 17.

[15] Id.  (emphasis added).

[16] Id. at 23.

[17] Exclusion Screening, LLC is not a law firm and does not provide legal advice. As such, this is not intended, and should not be taken, as legal advice. We strongly recommend that you seek the advice of counsel whenever decisions that may have legal consequences are made.

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