On September 6, 2012, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it will join in a whistleblower lawsuit alleging false Medicare billings against Hospice of the Comforter Inc., (HOTCI). The hospice is located in Altamonte Springs, a suburb of the Orlando area, and provides hospice services to local patients.
Allegations in the Lawsuit Against HOTCI.
According to the DOJ, the lawsuit was filed by the former vice president of finance for HOTCI. The case alleges HOTCI submitted false claims to Medicare for hospice care patients who were not terminally ill. The lawsuit also claims an executive at the hospice told employees to admit Medicare recipients for hospice care even before there had been a determination that the patients were eligible for the hospice benefit.
Initial Medicare Audit Allegedly Triggered Discharges.
In an Orlando Sentinel article, the plaintiff states that in an initial audit, in 2010, the government found HOTCI had a billings error rate of eighteen percent (18%), which triggered a second review. The plaintiff is accusing HOTCI of then creating an internal committee to review the eligibility of its Medicare patients. The committee discharged at least 150 patients between 2009 and 2010 as being ineligible for the Medicare hospice benefit.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, a representative from HOTCI said the discharges show that the hospice was taking actions to resolve of the situation on its own and only indicates some hospice patients should have been discharged at a previous point in time – not that they shouldn’t have been admitted at all.
Details of the Medicare Hospice Benefit.
According to the DOJ, the Medicare hospice benefit is available to patients who choose palliative treatment (medical care focused on providing patients with relief from pain and stress) for a terminal illness, and are expected to live six months or less. When an individual is admitted to a hospice facility, that individual is no longer entitled to receive services designed to cure the illness, or curative care.
Under the False Claims Act, Whistleblowers Can Make a Profit.
Should the government win this case, HOTCI could face up to $33 million in penalties, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Whistleblowers stand to gain substantial amounts, sometimes as much as thirty percent (30%), of the award under the False Claims Act (31 U.S.C. Sect. 3730). Such awards encourage employees to come forward and report fraud.
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Santich, Kate. “Feds Join Whistleblower Lawsuit Against Hospice of the Comforter” Orlando Sentinel. (August 28, 2012). From: http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2012-08-28/health/os-whistleblower-lawsuit-hospice-of-the-comforter-20120828_1_hospice-board-members-hospice-care-hospice-founder
Department of Justice. “United States Intervenes in False Claims Act Lawsuit Against Orlando, Florida-area Hospice.” DOJ. (September 6, 2012). From: http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2012/September/12-civ-1080.html
U.S. ex rel. Stone v. Hospice of the Comforter, Inc., No. 6:11-cv-1498-ORL-22-AAB (M.D. Fla) United State District Court for the Middle District of Florida Orlando Division. (September 12, 2012), available at http://www.thehealthlawfirm.com/uploads/US%20v%20Hospice%20of%20the%20Comforter.pdf
About the Author: 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.