On September 30, 2013, a federal judge ordered Tuomey Healthcare System in Sumter, South Carolina, to pay $238 million in penalties and fines. The hospital system is accused of paying doctors to refer Medicare patients for treatments at the hospital, according to a number of media sources. The judge granted the government’s request to impose Stark law penalties and False Claims Act fines. The lawsuit against Tuomey was initially filed in 2005, by a whistle-blowing physician.
This corrected fine actually lowers the amount originally ordered by the federal judge, reducing it by $39 million. The original judgement was for approximately $277 million. The reduction in the damages was an acknowledgment that there was an error in the calculation of damages by the judge in the case, who awarded more than the government asked for.
After the judge announced the fines, Tuomey began preparing to file an appeal, according to an article on Modern Healthcare. It is alleged that the hospital may be looking to settle.
Judge Ordered Hospital System to Pay Fines for Violating Stark Law and False Claims Act.
In a 2005 federal whistleblower or qui tam lawsuit, a Tuomey physician stated that a series of 19 deal contracts with specialty physicians in the area violated the federal ban on compensating doctors based on the volume and value of patient business they refer, according to Modern Healthcare. This is considered to be a financial conflict, illegal under federal laws.
The hospital has twice lost its case in U.S. District Court. A 2010, jury came to a $45 million split verdict that was overturned on appeal. In May 2013, a second jury found the hospital responsible for more violations than in the first trial, deciding that the hospital violated the Stark law and the False Claims Act.
It’s alleged that between 2005 and 2009, Tuomey collected $39 million in fraudulent Medicare claims.
Open to Settlement.
According to WLTX, the CBS affiliate in Sumter, South Carolina, Tuomey is filing a notice of appeal. It is expected the hospital system is open to settle. According to a former attorney with the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Inspector General’s Office (OIG), it will be up to the government if they will settle. The former attorney also stated that with most of the civil litigation division on furlough it might take some time.
Complying with Stark and Other Anti-Fraud Laws.
The federal government has several tools in its toolbox to combat Medicare fraud. Among those are the Stark Act, Anti-Kickback laws, and Civil Monetary Penalty Laws. Each of these typically focuses on a particular type of behavior that is prone to abuse by health care providers.
Primarily, the Stark laws exist to combat the problems that can arise from physician self-referrals. Self-referrals are cases in which a physician orders a test or service and refers the patient to a provider in which the referring physician has a financial interest. This second provider will then bill Medicare for the service, essentially allowing the referring physician to cash in twice. Click here to read our previous blog on compliance with the Stark law.
Paying Kickbacks or Providing Things of Value in Exchange for Patient Referral Now Recognized as Basis for False Claims Act Cases.
U.S. v. Tuomey is just one of several different cases that has recently been decided that allows qui tam or whistleblower recoveries based on providing kickbacks for patient referrals. “Kickbacks” can include any thing or service of value. It can include, for example, tickets to ball games, free meals, sets of surgical scrubs, gift cards, appliances and free medical supplies. A “referral” can include an actual referral of a patient, a consultation to another physician, an order for x-rays, labs or other diagnostic testing, a prescription for medication, medical equipment or other supplies or services, an order for home health or nursing home services or other medical services.
It is the giving of something of value in exchange for the referral that violates the Stark Act and, many times, state laws. The theory is that this unnecessarily increases the amount of medical services that the government pays for without there being any actual medical need for them.
Now, under the decision in Tuomey and other cases, the claims for medical services (and equipment) that were submitted when the services (and equipment) were based on kickbacks, are considered to be false claims. Whistleblowers (qui tam plaintiffs or “relators”) can now file False Claims Act suits based on these theories and share in the government’s recovery. For example, and by way of demonstration only, if the person who filed the qui tam case in Tuomey received only 20% of the amount awarded to the government, that individual would receive approximately $47.6 million as their share. This is still big money to some of us.
Contact Health Law Attorneys Experienced in Handling Stark Compliance.
If you are involved in referring or providing DHS it is crucial that your arrangements are reviewed for compliance with Stark and other anti-fraud laws.
Violations of these laws can carry severe financial and criminal penalties. One of the best ways to avoid these sanctions is to have your current or potential arrangement reviewed by an attorney who is experienced in these matters.
The Health Law Firm routinely advises healthcare providers on Stark compliance issues for practitioners and providers of all types of DHS. We can advise you on the legality of a particular arrangement and can assist with remedying any perceived compliance issues.
To contact The Health Law Firm, please call (407) 331-6620 or (850) 439-1001 and visit our website at www.TheHealthLawFirm.com.
What do you think of this ruling? Please leave any thoughtful comments below.
Calson, Joe. “Out-of-Court Settlement for Tuomey may be in te Works Following Ruling Against the System.” Modern Healthcare. (October 1, 2013). From: http://bit.ly/15Lj2uF
United State of America ex rel Michael L. Drakeford, M.D. vs. Tuomey d/b/a Tuomey Healthcare System, Inc. Case Number 3:05-cv-02858-MBS. Federal Judge Order and Opinion. September 30, 2013. From: http://www.thehealthlawfirm.com/uploads/Toumey%20Case.pdf
Santaella, Tony. “Tuomey Healthcare Ordered to Pay $276 Million.” WLTX. (October 1, 2013). From: http://www.wltx.com/news/story.aspx?storyid=251321
About the Authors: Lance O. Leider is an attorney with The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida, area. www.TheHealthLawFirm.com The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Avenue, Altamonte Springs, Florida 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620.
George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law. He is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida, area. www.TheHealthLawFirm.com The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Ave., Altamonte Springs, FL 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620.
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