A federal district court recently issued a rare order denying the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) motion to intervene in a qui tam suit after the government’s initial declination months earlier. See United States ex rel. Odom v. Southeast Eye Specialists, PLLC, 3:17-cv-00689 (M.D. Tenn. Feb. 24, 2021). The False Claims Act allows the government to intervene in a case in which it previously declined to intervene upon “a showing of good cause.” Although DOJ does so not frequently seek to intervene after previously declining to do so, courts are generally deferential to the government’s shift in position. This decision provides important precedent for defendants in the position of arguing that a late intervention by DOJ is not appropriate.
The Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently ruled on a summary judgment motion in a case that has been pending in the federal courts since 2002, involving alleged conduct by the defendant drug manufacturer from 1996-2004, when the pharmaceutical industry and compliance programs were vastly different than they are in 2020. U.S. ex rel. Gohil v. Sanofi U.S. Services Inc’s, No. 02-cv-02964 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 12, 2020). In its ruling, the court adopted an expansive definition of remuneration and a low bar to satisfy the causation element of FCA claims premised on underlying alleged violations of the Anti-Kickback Statute. On this basis, the court is allowing the relator to proceed to trial on allegations that his former employer caused the submission of false claims by paying kickbacks in the form of fees to physicians to participate in advisory boards and speaker programs, educational grants, and meals and gift baskets, while granting summary judgment for the defendant based on allegations related to preceptorships and other alleged kickbacks.
On July 10, 2020, a federal magistrate judge in the District of Minnesota issued a 39-page decision sanctioning DOJ (and the defendants) for various discovery violations in an FCA case based on alleged violations of the Anti-Kickback Statute.
As previously reported here, the Defendants Paul Ehlen (“Ehlen”), the majority owner of Precision Lens, and Cameron-Ehlen Group (conducting business as Precision Lens) (collectively, the “defendants”) are involved in the distribution of intraocular lenses and other products for ophthalmic surgeries. DOJ alleges that the defendants provided physicians with expensive trips, meals, and other in-kind remunerations at no cost or below fair market value. DOJ further alleges that, in exchange, these physicians purchased the Defendants’ products and used them during surgeries, which were subsequently billed to Medicare, in violation of the Anti-Kickback Statute and the False Claims Act. DOJ and the defendants filed motions seeking sanctions against the other in connection with inadequate preparation of 30(b)(6) designees and potential spoliation of information, documents, and electronically stored information. DOJ also filed a motion to compel the production of additional potentially relevant documents.
DOJ has announced that ResMed Corp., a manufacturer of durable medical equipment (DME) that treats sleep apnea and other chronic respiratory diseases, has agreed to pay $37.5 million to settle claims under the False Claims Act based on allegations that ResMed paid kickbacks to DME suppliers, healthcare providers, and other entities in violation of the federal Anti-Kickback Statute. In particular, DOJ alleged that ResMed “(a) provided DME companies with free telephone call center services and other free patient outreach services that enabled these companies to order resupplies for their patients with sleep apnea, (b) provided sleep labs with free and below-cost positive airway pressure masks and diagnostic machines, as well as free installation of these machines, (c) arranged for, and fully guaranteed the payments due on, interest-free loans that DME suppliers acquired from third-party financial institutions for the purchase of ResMed equipment, and (d) provided non-sleep specialist physicians free home sleep testing devices.”
Earlier this month, a federal judge in Minnesota held that DOJ was required to articulate the factual basis for its allegation that Defendants’ claims for payment resulted from kickbacks, rejecting the argument that such information was irrelevant based on a legal presumption of causation. The Government alleges that defendants Precision Lens and Paul Ehlen provided kickbacks to physicians, including “lavish hunting, fishing and golf trips, private plane flights, frequent-flyer miles and other items of value,” to induce them to use products that Defendants supplied. The Government further alleges that these kickbacks violated the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS), causing the submission of false claims to the Government.
On November 15, 2019, Sutter Health (“Sutter”) and Sacramento Cardiovascular Surgeons Medical Group Inc. (“Sacramento”) agreed to pay a total of $46 million to resolve FCA claims based on whistleblower allegations made by a former Sutter compliance officer that Sutter provided kickbacks to Sacramento physicians in exchange for referring patients to Sutter. The settlement also resolved Stark Law allegations relating to above fair market value payments made by certain of Sutter’s hospitals to Sacramento physicians. The underlying FCA complaint was filed in 2014 by a former Sutter compliance officer. The settlement only resolves some of the fraud allegations included in the former compliance officer’s complaint.
On November 20, 2019, the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts announced that The Assistance Fund (“TAF”), an independent charity patient assistance program (“PAP”), agreed to settle allegations that it violated the False Claims Act and agreed to pay $4 million to the government. That amount was calculated on an ability to pay basis. TAF is the third charity to settle in this ongoing, industry-wide investigation led by the District of Massachusetts. To date, the government has collected approximately $10 million from charity PAPs and over $800 million from eight drug manufacturers.
On September 30, 2019, a judge in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted a motion to dismiss in an intervened FCA qui tam suit, finding that the relators, the United States, and the state of Illinois failed to satisfy Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b)’s heightened pleading requirements for fraud claims. The suit targeted an entity referred to as C&M Specialty Pharmacy (“C&M”), which provides specialized medication for complex medical conditions.
On July 16, 2019, the United States District Court for the Central District of California granted in part and denied in part motions to dismiss a declined FCA suit against defendants Providence Health & Services (“Providence”), its affiliates, and J.A. Thomas and Associates, Inc. (“JATA”), a clinical documentation consultant. The suit alleges that Providence perpetrated an upcoding scheme whereby it trained its doctors to describe medical conditions with language that would support increasing the severity levels of the DRGs that Providence reported to Medicare, leading to inflated Medicare reimbursements.
Last week, the Eleventh Circuit issued an opinion holding that a Relator bringing an FCA claim premised on an AKS violation – at least when relating to lease arrangements – must show that the financial arrangements were not at fair market value. See Bingham v. HCA, Inc., Case No. 1:13-cv-23671 (11th Cir. 2019). Significantly, this ruling provides that proving fair market value (or lack thereof) is not a burden imposed solely on defendants as part of a safe harbor defense, but is instead an essential element to establishing the existence of remuneration in the first instance. In the same opinion, the court also held that a Relator cannot rely upon information gleaned in discovery to satisfy Rule 9(b)’s pleading requirements.