OIG Exclusion Case Study: The Impact of a False Claims Act Judgment.

OIG Exclusion Case Study(August 23, 2018): In 2008, after learning that a Texas-based laboratory services company was submitting false claims to the Medicare program, a private citizen filed suit, on behalf of the United States, against the laboratory services company under the qui tam provisions of the civil False Claims Act. The qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act (31 U.S.C. §§ 3729 – 3733) allow private parties, commonly referred to as “whistleblowers” or “relators” to sue individuals and entities on behalf of the government if the defendants have “knowingly” submitted false claims to the government for payment.[1] In this case, the United States intervened in the case against the laboratory services company in 2011. In April 2018, the U.S. District Judge hearing the case ruled against the laboratory and its physician owner and awarded the United States $30.5 million for violations of the False Claims Act. Although there are a number of lessons (especially with respect to individual liability) to be learned from the underlying case, the purpose of this article to examine the collateral administrative actions that were taken against the physician owner and the laboratory services company.

I. Parallel Administrative Action — OIG Exclusion Action Overview: 

In a letter dated August 21, 2015, the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General (OIG) proposed to exclude the laboratory services company, and its owner, from participation in Medicare, Medicaid, and other Federal health programs under 1128(b)(7)[2] of the Social Security Act, for a period of 15 years. The OIG based its proposed exclusion action on the submission of claims from August 2009 to January 2010, that the laboratory and its owner (referred to as Petitioners in the administrative case), “ knew or should have known were not provided as claims and were false or fraudulent.”
[3]

II. Why Did the OIG Exercise its Exclusion Authority Under 1128(b)(7)? 

More often than not, when dealing with allegations of the civil False Claims Act, the OIG will choose to exercise its permissive discretion to exclude an individual or entity under Section 1128(b)(7) of the Social Security Act.[4] In this particular case, the OIG did, in fact, exercise its authority to exclude the Petitioners for 15 years.

III. Petitioners’ Appeal of the OIG’s Exclusion Decision: 

In response to the proposed OIG exclusion action, in October 2015, the Petitioners filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Additionally, due to the unavailability of the ALJ first assigned to hear the case, a different ALJ was appointed to handle the hearing on June 2017. Throughout this period (from late 2015 to early March 2018), both sides actively engaged in discovery and a lively exchange of motions ensued. Finally, in late March 2018, the substitute ALJ assigned to take over the case conducted an in-person hearing on the exclusion action.

IV. Issues Considered by the Administrative Law Judge:  

Simply stated, the ALJ hearing the case was required to consider two issues:
ISSUE #1: Did the OIG have a basis to exclude the Petitioners from participating in Medicare, Medicaid and all other federal care programs for 15 years under 42 U.S.C. §1320a-7(b)(7)? As set out under 42 U.S.C. §1320a-7(b)(7), the Secretary may exclude individuals and entities from participation in any federal health care program (as defined in section 1320a-7(b)(f)[5]) if the Secretary determines that individual or entity has committed fraud, kickbacks and / or other prohibited activities.[6]
As the ALJ’s opinion notes, after conducting the administrative hearing in this case, a U.S. District Court with jurisdiction over the parallel civil qui tam case issued a summary judgment decision against the Petitioners, finding the liable for violations of the False Claims Act. Despite the fact that the elements considered by the U.S. District Court were essentially the same as those to be considered by the ALJ when addressing the exclusion action, the ALJ chose not to broadly apply judicial estoppel in this case. This decision appears to have been primarily based on the fact that the time frames considered by the two forums were different. The ALJ also noted that he was charged to conduct a de novo review of the evidence when assessing the exclusion decision by the OIG. The ALJ therefore ruled that it was more appropriate for him to issue a decision based on the merits. Upon consideration of the evidence in this case, the ALJ found that:

(1) Petitioners presented or caused to be presented to an agency of the United States the claims at issue in this case.
(2) The claims Petitioners presented or caused to be presented to Medicare were false.
(3) Petitioners should have known that the claims for services they presented or caused to be presented to Medicare were false. 
(4) Petitioners’ equitable defenses do not serve to undermine the OIG’s basis for excluding them. 
(5) The statute of limitations is not implicated by discussion of Petitioners’ conduct preceding the six-year timeframe that forms the basis of the proposed exclusion.[7]

In light of these findings, after conducting a de novo review of the evidence, the ALJ found that the OIG did, in fact, have a basis for excluding the Petitioners based solely on the claims they submitted within the six-year statute of limitations.
ISSUE #2: Was the 15-year exclusion period reasonable? Therefore, when deciding whether the period of exclusion imposed by the OIG was “reasonable,” the ALJ assessed the following five criteria outlined under 42 C.F.R. §1001.901(b)(1)-(5): [8]

(1) The nature and circumstances surrounding the actions that are the basis for liability, including the period of time over which the acts occurred, the number of acts, whether there is evidence of a pattern and the amount claimed; As the ALJ noted when reviewing the conduct at issue, during the period of time examined by the U.S. District Court, the Petitioners submitted more than 26,000 claims that resulted in more than $10 million in losses to the government. Even if the ALJ limited his review to the relevant conduct during the six-year period covered during this administrative hearing, the Petitioners still submitted 571 improper claims to Medicare. Additionally, despite the Petitioners’ assertions to the contrary, the ALJ found that the Petitioners’ conduct did, in fact, represent a pattern of improper behavior.

(2) The degree of culpability; When considering the Petitioners’ degree of culpability, the ALJ found that the physician owner and the lab were “highly culpable.The ALJ further found that the Petitioners were not victims of careless billing by others. Rather, he ruled that the physician owner was closely involved in the lab’s operations and exercised significant control over the organization’s billing staff. As the ALJ wrote: “There is nothing in the record to suggest Petitioners were simply absentee landlords who had no agency concerning their billing scheme. . . “

(3) Whether the individual or entity has a documented history of criminal, civil or administrative wrongdoing (The lack of any prior record is to be considered neutral);  Although the recent U.S. District Court ruling against the Petitioners for more than $30 million squarely fits within this regulatory factor, the judgment could not have been considered at the time of the exclusion action by the OIG because it had not been rendered at that time. As a result, there was no prior history of wrongdoing that the OIG could have considered. Having said that, there is nothing in the regulation that limits the OIG’s consideration of improper wrongdoing to only actions that have resulted in a judgment. Therefore, the ALJ held that it was proper for the OIG to consider the Petitioners documented conduct when it assessed the 15-year period of exclusion.  

(4) The individual or entity has been the subject of any other adverse action by any Federal, State or local government agency or board, if the adverse action is based on the same set of circumstances that serves as the basis for the imposition of the exclusion; Although the ALJ in this case declined to consider the U.S. District Court ruling as res judicata, the OIG still argued that the ALJ consider the ruling on the False Claims Act constituted an “adverse action.” After considering the positions advanced by the parties, the ALJ held that the requirements set out under 42 C.F.R. §1001.901(b)(4)[9] had not been met, primarily because the ALJ was not persuaded that a ruling by a Federal U.S. District Court could be considered an adverse action by a “agency or board.” Based on this assessment, the ALJ chose not to consider this factor in his analysis of the reasonableness of a “15-year” exclusion.

(5) Other Matters as Justice May Require. Several points were advanced by the Petitioners when addressing this factor. First, Petitioners argued that the Medicare program need no protection from them. Noting that they had improperly billed the Medicare program for millions of dollars, the ALJ concluded that should not be trusted to access program funds. The Petitioners also argued that if they excluded from participation, it would negatively impact patient access to lab care. The ALJ noted that the Petitioners failed to show that there was lack of laboratory facilities in the Houston area. Therefore, Petitioners absence would not negatively impact patients. In fact, the ALJ concluded that the Medicare “will undoubtedly be better off without them.” After considering the evidence, the ALJ found that an exclusion period of 15 years was reasonable in this case. Notably, the ALJ stated that the “circumstances surrounding Petitioners’ billing scheme indicate Petitioners are highly untrustworthy.” The ALJ further found that the mitigating evidence presented by the Petitioners kept the period of exclusion from be much lengthier than the 15-year period of excluded assessed by the OIG.

V. Points Learned from this Exclusion Case: 

Point #1.  Impact of a False Claims Act Judgment. The administrative collateral risks associated with violations of the False Claims Act cannot be underestimated. In this case, where the False Claims Act violations went to trial and resulted in a judgment, the OIG had no reason to waive its permissive exclusion authority. How could this have been avoided? It is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of cases brought by whistleblowers / relators under the civil False Claims Act are not intervened by the government and result in the dismissal of the case. Of the False Claims Act cases that are intervened, most result in a settlement with the government. When settling a False Claims Act case, defense counsel will often seek to wrap-up any outstanding administrative risks (such as exclusion) as well. In order to waive its permissive exclusion authority, the OIG typically requires that health care providers and entities enter into a Corporate Integrity Agreement (CIA) as part of the settlement. In this case, for whatever reason, the False Claims Act case was not settled and went to trial, resulting in a significant judgment and the imposition of a 15-year exclusion.  

Point #2: Issue Preclusion is a Real Possibility. As you will recall, the U.S. District Court in the associated False Claims Act case granted the OIG’s Motion for Summary Judgment. In asserting its arguments in the administrative hearing, the OIG urged the ALJ to narrowly apply estoppel and rely on the District Court’s finding that the claims submitted by the Petitioners were false. The ALJ cited several reasons for not adopting the District Court’s holding in this regard. Nevertheless, it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine a slightly different set of facts, where issue preclusion may have been granted. For instance, if the judgment was final and the time period of the claims at issue were the same, the ALJ may have been persuaded to apply estoppel in this case.

Point #3: ALJs will Give Broad Deference to the OIG When Assessing the Reasonableness of an Exclusion Action. It is important to remember that when making this type of determination, an ALJ is limited to a significant extent and cannot substitute his judgment for that of the OIG. Instead, the ALJ can only consider whether the period of exclusion was within a “reasonable range.”[10] As discussed in the Federal Register more than 25 years ago:

The OIG’s broad discretion is also reflected in the language of § 1001.2007(a)(2), restricting the ALI’s authority to review the length of an exclusion imposed by the OIG. Under that section, the ALI’s authority is limited to reviewing whether the length is unreasonable. So long as the amount of time chosen by the OIG is within a reasonable range, based on demonstrated criteria, the ALI has no authority to change it under this rule. We believe that the deference § 1001.2007(a)(2) grants to the OIG is appropriate, given the OIG’s vast experience in implementing exclusions under these authorities.[11]

VI. Conclusion: 

This case illustrates the collateral impact of a False Claims Act judgment on the participation status of a health care provider. While the judgment itself is serious, being excluded from participation in federal health care programs is as serious, if not more serious, than the judgment. As excluded parties, the physician owner and the lab are effectively out of business. Moreover, the physician owner may find it difficult to obtain employment from another provider due to his exclusion status. Unfortunately, there is a very real chance that these actions are merely the proverbial “tip of the iceberg” in terms of what lies ahead for the physician owner and the lab. The exclusion action qualifies as an adverse action and will be reported to the National Practitioner Databank (if it has not already been reported). Additionally, to the extent that the physician owner and the lab are participating providers in any private payor insurance programs, it is very likely that they have an affirmative obligation to notify the plans of both the False Claims Act judgment and the exclusion action (depending on how their participation agreement is worded). This can result in both private payor audits of similar claims and in termination of a provider’s participation in the payor’s plan.  
How should you react if faced with a similar situation? Contact your health lawyer and make sure that you are prepared to address the various collateral administrative adverse actions that may flow from a False Claims Act judgment and / or an being excluded from participation in federal health care programs. Considering your options at the initiation of a False Claims Act investigation may help you avoid some of the consequences discussed above.

 

OIG ExclusionRobert W. Liles serves as Managing Partner at the health law firm, Liles Parker, Attorneys and Counselors at Law. Liles Parker attorneys represent health care providers and suppliers around the country in connection with UPIC audits, ZPIC audits, OIG investigations and Medicare exclusion actions. Is your practice facing alleged violations of the False Claims Act? We can help. For a free initial consultation regarding your situation, call Robert at: 1 (800) 475-1906.

 

[1] Under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act, whistleblowers can are entitled to receive 15% to 25% of any recovery if the United States intervenes in the case, or 25% to 30% if the government declines to intervene in the case that the whistleblower has brought. Defendants who violate the civil False Claims Act are liable for three times the government’s damages plus significant civil penalties for each false claim that was improperly submitted for payment.

[2] Section 1128(b)(7) of the Social Security Act

[3] ALJ decision, citing Petitioner’s Request for Hearing, Ex. A at 2.

[4] In those cases where the OIG concludes that exclusion is not necessary in order to protect the integrity of the Medicare program, it will typically require that the individual and / or entity enter into a Corporate Integrity Agreement (CIA). The purpose of the CIA is to strengthen the provider’s compliance program and reduce the level of risk to the Medicare program.

[5] Under 42 U.S.C. §1320a-7(b)(f), “Federal health care program” is defined as:

(1) any plan or program that provides health benefits, whether directly, through insurance, or otherwise, which is funded directly, in whole or in part, by the United States Government (other than the health insurance program under Chapter 89 of Title 5); or

(2) any State health care program, as defined in section 1320a-7(h).

[6] The Secretary has delegated the authority to impose an exclusion to the OIG, pursuant to: 42 C.F.R. §1001.901(a).

[7] 42 C.F.R. §1001.901(b)(1)-(5).

[8] An abbreviated set of these five criteria were set out in the OIG’s Final Rule, ”Medicare and State Health Care Programs: Fraud and Abuse; Revisions to the Office of Inspector General’s Civil Monetary Penalty Rule.” See 81 Fed. Reg. 88,334 (Dec. 7, 2016). The full regulatory language of 42 C.F.R. §1001.901(b)(1)-(5) reads as follows:

“(b) Length of exclusion. In determining the length of an exclusion imposed in accordance with this section, the OIG will consider the following factors—

(1) The nature and circumstances surrounding the actions that are the basis for liability, including the period of time over which the acts occurred, the number of acts, whether there is evidence of a pattern and the amount claimed;

(2) The degree of culpability;

(3) Whether the individual or entity has a documented history of criminal, civil or administrative wrongdoing (The lack of any prior record is to be considered neutral);

(4) The individual or entity has been the subject of any other adverse action by any Federal, State or local government agency or board, if the adverse action is based on the same set of circumstances that serves as the basis for the imposition of the exclusion; or

(5) Other matters as justice may require.”

[9] Under 42 C.F.R. §1001.901(b)(4), an “individual or entity has been the subject of any other adverse action by any Federal, State or local government agency or board, if the adverse action is based on the same set of circumstances that serves as the basis for the imposition of the exclusion.”

[10] Craig Richard Wilder, DAB No. 2416 at 8.

[11] Federal Register Final Rule, “Health Care Programs; Fraud and Abuse; Amendments to OIG Exclusion and CMP Authorities Resulting from Public Law 100-93. 57 Fed. Reg. 3298, 3321 (January 29, 1992).