The battle against those who steal taxpayer dollars through Medicare fraud and other health care fraud took a step forward this week. The Senate is now considering the “Health Care Fraud Enforcement Act,” which will enhance the government’s tools used to investigate and remedy Medicare and Medicaid fraud.
After a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday on “Effective Strategies for Preventing Health Care Fraud,” Senators Leahy, Kaufman, Specter, Kohl, Schumer, and Klobuchar sponsored the new anti-fraud measure.
Excerpts of the Senate announcement follow:
The bill makes straightforward but critical improvements to the federal sentencing guidelines, to health care fraud statutes, and to forfeiture, money laundering, and obstruction statutes, all of which would strengthen prosecutors’ ability to combat this particularly destructive form of fraud. These improvements include:
o Sentencing increases: The bill directs the Sentencing Commission to increase the guidelines range for health care fraud offenses and clarifies that the full potential scope of the fraud should be considered at sentencing.
o Redefining “health care fraud offense”: The bill includes all health care crimes within the definition of “health care fraud offense,” regardless of where they are codified. (ERISA, drug marketing, and kickback crimes are currently not included) This change will make available to law enforcement the full range of antifraud tools, including criminal forfeiture and obstruction penalties, to combat these offenses.
o Improving whistleblower claims: Kickbacks lead to unnecessary and risky medical care and pervert the doctor-patient relationship. This bill clarifies that all payments made pursuant to illegal kickbacks are false for purposes of the False Claims Act.
o Creating a common-sense mental state requirement for health care fraud offenses: Some courts have held that defendants must be aware that their conduct violates a specific provision of criminal law in order to be held accountable. This bill restores the original intent of Congress that a person is guilty of a health care offense if he knowingly does what the law forbids.
o Increasing funding: Money spent on health care fraud prevention and enforcement is returned manifold through costs savings and civil and criminal recoveries. This bill authorizes a modest, yet significant, increase in federal antifraud spending of $20,000,000 per year through 2016.
The new bill would add to legislation earlier this year to strengthen law enforcement statutes aimed at fraud, the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act.
Of particular importance to qui tam whistleblower cases under the False Claims Act, the nation’s major whistleblower law, the new bill removes any ambiguity that “kickbacks” violate the False Claims Act. The official summary discusses kickbacks in section 2(c):
Section 2(c). Kickbacks
All too often, health care providers secure business by paying illegal kickbacks, which needlessly increase health care risks and costs. When a doctor’s independent judgment is compromised by a kickback, the patient faces the risk that the doctor is making decisions that are not in the patient’s best interest. In addition, excessive payments to doctors increase health care costs, may result in unfair competition, and may compromise medical research independence and the standards of scientific integrity.
The Department of Justice has had success both prosecuting illegal kickbacks and pursuing False Claims Act (FCA) matters predicated on underlying violations of the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS). Nevertheless, defendants in such FCA cases continue to mount legal challenges. A court recently held that, even though a device company may have paid a kickback to a doctor to use a particular medical device, the bill for the procedure to implant the device was not false because the claim was submitted by the innocent hospital, and not by the doctor. United States ex rel. Thomas v. Bailey, 2008 WL 4853630 (E.D. Ark.) (Nov. 6, 2008). In other words, a claim that results from a kickback and that is false when submitted by a wrongdoer is laundered into a “clean” claim when an innocent third party finally submits the claim to the government for payment. This has the effect of insulating both the payor and the recipient of the kickback from FCA liability. This obstacle to a successful FCA action particularly limits Department’s ability to recover from pharmaceutical and device manufacturers, because in such instances the claims arising from the illegal kickbacks typically are not submitted by the physicians that received the kickbacks, but by pharmacies and hospitals that had no knowledge of the underlying unlawful conduct.
This section remedies the problem by amending the AKS to ensure that all claims resulting from illegal kickbacks are false, even when the claims are not submitted directly by the wrongdoers themselves. (Notably, in such circumstances, neither AKS nor FCA liability will lie against an innocent third party that submitted the claim but lacked the requisite intent required under those statutes.)
The full text of the bill is below: