Will Physician Payment Sunshine Act Data Usher in a New Era of False Claims Act Litigation?

This post was authored by Scot Hasselman, Elizabeth Carder-Thompson, Katie Pawlitz and Jillian Riley.

While attention has been focused on Medicare physician payment data released by CMS yesterday, upcoming Sunshine Act data will shine a new spotlight on financial relationships between physicians and pharmaceutical and medical device companies – with potential FCA implications.

Last week marked the deadline for pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers and group purchasing organizations (GPOs) to register with and submit aggregate 2013 payment and investment interest data to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) on certain financial relationships between themselves and physicians and teaching hospitals, as required by the Physician Payment Sunshine Act.1 In May, manufacturers and GPOs will be required to submit to CMS detailed 2013 payment data. With some exceptions, CMS will be making these data public by September 1, 2014. While the publicly available data are intended to provide more transparency for patients – to allow them to have a better understanding of the financial relationships between physicians and pharmaceutical and medical device companies – patients will certainly not be the only group interested in this public information. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG), Department of Justice (DOJ), and relators’ attorneys will likely utilize these data to initiate investigations and support complaints under the federal False Claims Act (FCA). As with the recent release of the 2012 Medicare Part B Physician Fee Schedule data, members of the media will likely make inferences about certain financial relationships.

The U.S. government recovered $3.8 billion in settlements and judgments from civil cases involving fraud against the government in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2013.2 Fiscal 2014 looks to be a record-breaking year, with ever-increasing civil settlements by major pharmaceutical companies.3

As the reporting deadlines approach, it is worth considering an interesting, and largely unknown, potential implication of the public availability of these data: How will it affect future FCA litigation? The publically available Sunshine Act data could become relevant to FCA litigation in a variety of ways; two in particular are discussed below.

Anti-Kickback Statute Violations

The data could give rise to suspicions of violations of the federal Anti-kickback Statute (AKS). The AKS makes it a criminal offense to knowingly and willfully offer or pay remuneration to induce the referral of, or arrange for the provisions of, federal health care program business.4 In other words, the law prohibits any person or entity from giving, receiving – or offering to give or receive – anything of value in return for or to induce referrals for businesses covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or any other federally funded health care program. Violators of the AKS face imprisonment, criminal, and civil fines, as well as exclusion from federal health care programs.5

It is easy to see how publishing information regarding payments from pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers to physicians and teaching hospitals could implicate the AKS, and by extension, the FCA. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) made explicit that violations of the AKS are also violations of the FCA.6 Any payment from a pharmaceutical or medical device manufacturer to a physician who prescribes a product manufactured by the company providing the payment could be viewed as potentially inappropriate remuneration intended to influence prescribing behavior.

Off-Label Promotion

Publically available information reported as a result of the Sunshine Act may also have off-label promotion implications. Notably, reports to CMS must include the name of the drug or the type of device that forms the basis of the payment.7 Tying the payment to a particular drug or type of device could raise suspicions of off-label promotion. A pharmaceutical or medical device manufacturer that promotes its products for uses for which the product has not yet been approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), i.e., off-label uses, is at risk of FCA liability. A false claim can arise when a manufacturer promotes a product for off-label, non-covered uses (that is, for a use that both has not been approved by FDA and is not covered by the federal health care programs). Payments going to physicians who specialize in an area that is outside the scope of a pharmaceutical or medical device’s approved indication could necessarily raise suspicions that the manufacturer is promoting the product for unapproved uses.

Potential Limits

Besides the risk of government identifying potential issues for further investigation and prosecution as a result of reported Sunshine Act data, private parties may also mine the publically available data. One substantial impediment to relators’ attorneys using Physician Sunshine Payment data in FCA litigation is the limitation that publicly available data cannot form the basis of a whistleblower claim.8 This is known as the public disclosure bar, although the effectiveness of this defense has been diminished with recent FCA amendments.

That said, the Sunshine Act data, even if not the basis of a claim, could nonetheless impact the litigation in many ways. For example, it could provide additional evidence for the government to review in reaching its decision whether to intervene in a qui tam action. Both OIG and DOJ could review the data before it is publicly available to assist in the determination that a given matter warrants intervention. Additionally, the publicly available data – beyond providing flavor in support of an FCA claim and assisting with meeting the heightened pleading standard associated with fraud allegations9 – could be a potential mine for plaintiff attorneys to locate areas of focus. Relators’ attorneys will no doubt track the data to ascertain potential problem drugs or companies about which they can then dedicate efforts to uncovering fraud and abuse in the federal health care system.

Going Forward

It remains to be seen how all of these risks will play out going forward. Courts will have to decide how these new data will fit into FCA litigation. OIG and DOJ will have to determine how much to rely on the new information. And relators’ attorneys will need to make decisions about how many resources to dedicate to mining the Sunshine Act data.

One potential consequence that we are already starting to see occur is that pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers may halt or limit payments to physicians, and/or that physicians themselves will be reluctant to accept such payments, e.g., for research, for expenses associated with training on a device, and the like. Companies may decide to do so for a variety of reasons, including avoiding the administrative burdens associated with tracking and reporting such payments for purposes of the Sunshine Act, fear of FCA litigation, or for public relations reasons. Many physicians simply do not want their names publicized. It remains to be seen how these trends will evolve.
 

1 42 C.F.R. § 403.908(a).
2 DOJ Press Release, available at: http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2013/December/13-civ-1352.html. 3 See, e.g., DOJ Press Release, available at: http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2013/November/13-ag-1170.html.
4 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7.
5 Id.
6 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(g). Note that manufacturers may submit “assumptions documents” as part of Sunshine reporting. Although CMS stated in the preamble to the Sunshine regulations its belief that the contents of such documents “should not be made public,” it acknowledged that it could provide access to the documents during an audit or investigation by other HHS divisions, the Office of Inspector General, or the Department of Justice.
7 42 C.F.R. 403.94(c)(8).
8 31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)(4).
9 Fed. R. Civ. P. Rule 9(b).

D.C. District Court Rules Internal Compliance Investigations Are Not Privileged

On March 6, 2014, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that documents related to internal investigations of possible violations of corporate codes of conduct are not protected from disclosure under either the attorney-client privilege or attorney work product doctrine. The court instead concluded that the company’s investigations were conducted pursuant to “regulatory law and corporate policy,” rather than for the purpose of obtaining legal advice. As discussed in a recent Reed Smith client alert, the ruling serves as timely reminder for health care companies to review internal procedures relating to internal corporate compliance program or code of conduct investigations to maximize the likelihood that appropriate privileges will be honored. For details and analysis, read the full Reed Smith alert.

DOJ Touts $3.8 Billion in FY 2013 False Claims Act Recoveries

The Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced that it recovered $3.8 billion in settlements and judgments in civil False Claims Act cases in fiscal year (FY) 2013, including health care fraud recoveries totaling approximately $2.6 billion. The DOJ notes that about $1.8 billion in recoveries involved alleged false claims for drugs and medical devices under federally insured health programs (with an additional $443 million recovered for state Medicaid programs). The Department also reports that in FY 2013, a record 752 qui tam/whistleblower suits were filed and $2.9 billion was recovered in such suits (with whistleblowers recovering $345 million).

GAO Spotlights Top Provider Types for Criminal/Civil Health Fraud

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report breaks down the provider types most frequently involved with Medicare, Medicaid, and Children’s Health Insurance Program fraud cases in 2010.  Highlights include the following: 

  • Medical facilities (including medical centers, clinics, or practices) and DME suppliers were the most-frequent subjects of criminal health care fraud investigations, comprising about 40% of subjects. Of the 7,848 subjects associated with criminal cases, about 1,100 were charged and 85% of those charged were found guilty or pled guilty or no contest. 
  • Hospitals and medical facilities were the most-frequent subjects investigated in civil health fraud cases (38% of 2,339 subjects), but more than half of the subjects of civil cases were not pursued for various reasons. In 2010, 88% of subjects investigated in civil cases were investigated in qui tam cases. Of these, 52% cases were either voluntarily dismissed by the relator (34%) or were declined by the US Attorney’s Offices or the Department of Justice’s Civil Division (18%).
  • Almost 2,200 individuals and entities were excluded from federal programs for health care fraud convictions and other reasons (including license revocation and program-related convictions). About 60% of excluded individuals were in the nursing profession. 
  • Based on data from 10 state Medicaid Fraud Control Units (MFCU), over 40% of the 2,742 subjects investigated for health care fraud in Medicaid and CHIP in 2010 were home health care providers and health care practitioners. Civil health care fraud cases pursued by these MFCUs in 2010 resulted in judgments and settlements totaling nearly $829 million, with pharmaceutical manufacturers paying more than 60% of that amount.

U.S. District Court Decides Whistleblower Cannot Rely on Stolen Patient Records

Reed Smith’s Life Sciences Legal Update blog discusses a recent decision by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio that may make it much harder for qui tam relators to rely upon stolen medical records or patient information in False Claims Act ("FCA") whistleblower actions. In the decision, Cabotage v. Ohio Hospital for Psychiatry, No. 11-cv-50 (S.D. Ohio July 27, 2012), the district court held that a registered nurse was not permitted to support her allegations of FCA violations by relying on confidential protected health information that she surreptitiously removed from the hospital where she was employed.

Fifth Circuit Upholds Ability of Government Employee Fraud Investigators to Bring Qui Tam False Claims Actions

Reed Smith's Global Regulatory Enforcement Law Blog recently featured a post on the Fifth Circuit’s ruling in United States ex rel. Little v. Shell Exploration & Production Co., in which the Court held that government employees are entitled to bring qui tam actions under the False Claims Act (FCA) – even if their federal job function is to investigate fraud on behalf of the government.

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