Health Care Litigation

On June 16, 2023, the Supreme Court (the “Court”) in United States ex rel. Polansky v. Executive Health Resources affirmed the federal government’s power to dismiss a False Claims Act (“FCA”) action brought under the qui tam provisions whenever it chooses to intervene. Polansky is the second FCA case this summer in which the Court has ruled in favor of the federal government—i.e., the Department of Justice, acting through the Attorney General (“DOJ”). Writing for an 8-1 majority, Justice Kagan explained that DOJ receives considerable deference, even over the objection of the individual who raised the action (i.e., the relator or whistleblower), to dismiss cases that are inconsistent with DOJ’s interests.

In a unanimous opinion, the United States Supreme Court (“Court”) recently held that the False Claims Act’s (“FCA”) scienter requirement refers to a defendant’s knowledge and subjective beliefs, rather than what a hypothetical reasonable person could have known or believed.  As supported by the text of the FCA itself and by its common‑law roots, the Court explained that the “focus is what a defendant thought when submitting a claim—not what a defendant may have thought after submitting it.”  Consequently, the Court vacated the holding of the Seventh Circuit and remanded the matter for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion.  Because the Seventh Circuit had affirmed a Federal district court’s grant of the defendants’ motions for summary judgment, the Court’s opinion effectively revives the FCA claim against the defendants.

In an important decision limiting the reach of the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute (42 U.S.C. 1320a-7b(b)) (“AKS”) and its application to violations of the False Claims Act (31 U.S.C. 3729, et seq.) (“FCA”), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (“Sixth Circuit”) recently contended that, “[w]hile the word remuneration may be broad, it customarily requires a payment or transfer of some kind,” and mandated “but-for” causation standard for determining whether claims paid by Federal health care programs were tainted by an AKS violation such that they violated the FCA.  See U.S. ex rel. Martin et al. v. Hathaway, et al., Case No. 22-1463, at 11 (6th Cir.) (appeal from 1:19-cv-00915, ECF Doc. No. 108 (W.D. Mich.)) (emphasis added).

In recent years, there have been only a handful of corporate integrity agreements (“CIAs”) and integrity agreements (“IAs”) that have included a “conditional exclusion release” of the Office of the Inspector General for the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ (“HHS-OIG”) permissive exclusion authority under 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7(b)(7) (“Permissive Exclusion Authority”).[1]  Inclusion of a conditional exclusion release is atypical, as HHS-OIG’s historical practice has been to provide an outright release of its Permissive Exclusion Authority in exchange for a CIA or IA.  It appears, based on an IA executed last month and the other recent CIAs and IAs, that a trend may be emerging.

Specifically, in December 2022, HHS-OIG entered into an IA with a Georgia-based physician, Aarti D. Pandya, M.D., and his practice, Aarti D. Pandya, M.D. P.C. (collectively, “Dr. Pandya”).  In atypical fashion, however, HHS-OIG required the IA to be for five years (as opposed to three years) and held Dr. Pandya to a conditional exclusion release contingent upon Dr. Pandya’s satisfactory completion of the IA (as opposed to outright providing a release of its Permissive Exclusion Authority).  This IA signals to the industry that HHS-OIG is not bound by precedent and that, perhaps, a belt and suspenders approach to resolving conduct allegedly violating the False Claims Act (“FCA”) may be emerging as HHS-OIG’s new norm.

This past week, the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) denied UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company’s (UnitedHealthcare) petition for a writ of certiorari (Petition) challenging, in part, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’s (CMS) Overpayment Rule, which requires Medicare Advantage (MA) plans, such as UnitedHealthcare, to return identified “overpayments” to CMS within 60 days.  With this denial, the Overpayment Rule remains in full force and effect, and UnitedHealthcare, among other MA plans, must comply or potentially face False Claims Act (FCA) liability.

Recently, in Siegel v. Snyder, Slip.Op. 07624, New York’s Appellate Division, Second Department interpreted New York’s peer review/quality assurance confidentiality statute in a manner that may require modifications to the standard documentation of such meetings.  New York’s Education Law 6527(3) shields from disclosure “the proceedings [and] the records relating to performance of a medical or a quality assurance review function or participation in a medical . . . malpractice prevention program,” as well as testimony of any person in attendance at such a meeting when a medical or quality assurance review function or medical malpractice prevention program was performed (see Logue v Velez, 92 NY2d 13, 16-17).  Public Health Law 2805-m(2) affords similar protection from disclosure for “records, documentation or committee actions or records” required by law, which includes peer review activity.

Over the past few weeks, we have covered recent updates to the False Claims Act (“FCA”), first discussing the recent recension of the “Brand Memo” and the resulting restoration of the Department of Justice’s willingness to use sub-regulatory guidance to bring FCA enforcement actions. In our second post, we outlined S.B. 2428’s proposal to shift the burden of proving materiality to defendants, provide for discovery reimbursement, address deference standards in motions to dismiss brought by the government in qui tam complaints, and extend whistleblower anti-retaliation protections. In this final post of our three-part series, we close out our discussion of the FCA with a review of a recent Seventh Circuit decision endorsing the use of an “objective reasonableness” defense in litigation brought under the FCA. We also highlight other recent court activity affecting enforcement of the FCA.

This is the second installment in our series of posts covering recent developments in False Claims Act (“FCA”) doctrine and practice, with the first post discussing the rescission of the “Brand Memo” and restoring the role of sub-regulatory guidance in FCA enforcement actions. A third post, to come later this week, will address recent federal court cases construing the FCA.

In July 2021, Senator Chuck Grassley led a bipartisan group of senators in introducing S.B. 2428, the “False Claims Amendments Act of 2021,” which aims to address legal developments in FCA doctrine that, according to the bill’s sponsors, made it “more difficult for plaintiffs and whistleblowers to succeed in lawsuits against government contractors engaged in fraud.” S.B. 2428 proposes amendments to the FCA in four key areas more fully described below:

  • to shift the burden to defendants to disprove plaintiffs’ showing of materiality of alleged FCA misconduct;
  • to provide a means by which the government can seek reimbursement for costs incurred for responding to burdensome discovery requests;
  • to resolve a Circuit Court split regarding the appropriate standard of review for evaluating government’s (c)(2)(A) motions to dismiss qui tam complaints; and
  • to extend the FCA’s anti-retaliation whistleblower protections.

The False Claims Act (“FCA”) is a punitive civil statute that acts as the federal government’s primary tool for combatting fraud in government health care programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Tricare. In fiscal year 2020 alone, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) obtained more than $2.2 billion in FCA settlements and judgments (not including potential recoveries from pending cases or ongoing negotiations); the largest of these many recoveries came in the health care and pharmaceutical sectors, with several recoveries totaling over $100 million each.

Given the frequency of FCA application in the health care context, and despite this vast body of law and commentary spanning more than a century and a half since the FCA’s inception, novel applications and interpretations of the law still arise, especially as the health care industry evolves and new modes of payment and care delivery come to the fore. In 2021, the FCA has once again been the focal point of government attention, with a DOJ memorandum, proposed federal legislation, and recent federal court decisions adding new context and authority to guide future applications of the law.

This post is the first of three covering recent FCA updates, and in it we discuss the re-emergence of federal guidance as a tool in the belt of the DOJ in enforcing the FCA.

The U.S. Department of Justice (the “DOJ”) recently settled whistleblower False Claims Act (“FCA”) allegations against The University of Miami (“UMiami”) for $22 million, which resolves claims from three separate lawsuits related to billing practices at UMiami’s off-campus hospital-based facilities (“Off-Campus Hospital Facilities”) and fraudulent claims for laboratory services.