Kickback-Tainted Medicare/Medicaid Claims for Reimbursement Actionable Under FCA, New York Federal Judge Holds
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (“SDNY”) recently issued an opinion making clear that liability now arises under the False Claims Act (“FCA”) whenever claims for reimbursement of prescription drugs are submitted under Medicare Part B, Medicare Part D, or state Medicaid programs in connection with which a provider has received a kickback (referred to herein as a kickback-tainted claim). The SDNY’s decision was based on an interpretation of an amendment to the Anti-Kickback Statute made by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“PPACA”) in 2010, which implicates claims arising under the False Claims Act (“FCA”).
The FCA allows a private citizen whistleblower (referred to as a relator) with knowledge of fraud against the federal government to file a qui tam lawsuit on behalf of himself and the United States. Because the FCA provides for treble damages and significant civil penalties, as well as attorneys’ fees and costs, recoveries are often in the multi millions of dollars, providing a strong deterrent to companies and individuals against committing fraud on the government. In addition, whistleblowers are entitled to an award of between 15% and 30% of any amount recovered, providing an equally strong incentive for those with knowledge of such fraud to come forward. Health care fraud is particularly rampant, having given rise to over 70 percent of all FCA recoveries over the past decade.
U.S. ex rel. Kester v. Novartis, involved a common form of health care fraud involving kickbacks, where monetary payments or other financial incentives are unlawfully provided to doctors, hospitals, or pharmacies in exchange for referrals or for the prescription of pharmaceutical drugs or supplies. Specifically, in this case, the government alleged that Novartis had paid kickbacks to certain pharmacies for promoting two Novartis pharmaceuticals (Myfortic and Exjade) in violation of the Anti-Kickback Statute (“AKS”), which prohibits pharmacies from accepting kickbacks in exchange for purchasing or recommending a drug covered by a federal health care program, such as Medicare and Medicaid.
In 2010, the PPACA amended the AKS with the intention of assigning liability under the FCA for violations of the kickback statute. The FCA prohibits making a fraudulent claim for payment to the Government or submitting false information material to such a claim. The AKS amendment expressly provided that a “claim that includes items or services resulting from a violation of [the AKS] constitutes a false or fraudulent claim for purposes of [the FCA].” 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(g). Novartis argued, however, that the “resulting from” language in the amendment limited, rather than expanded, the reach of the FCA, asserting that liability could not be established without showing that the claims for reimbursement were actually caused by the receipt of a kickback―”i.e. where a pharmacy convinced a physician . . . to prescribe a drug that he would not have otherwise prescribed, or convinced a patient . . . to order a refill that he would not otherwise have ordered.” Such a strict “but-for” causation requirement not only would have made it difficult to show liability, it would have significantly reduced any recovery to only those situations where “the decision to provide medical treatment is caused by a kickback scheme.”
The SDNY rejected this unduly narrow interpretation, relying on the legislative history of the PPACA, which it reasoned was aimed at expanding the reach of the FCA, and the Second Circuit’s framework for analyzing false claims set forth in Mikes v. Straus, 274 F.3d 687 (2d Cir. 2001). In Mikes, the Second Circuit held that a party violates the FCA when it falsely certifies compliance with a statute, regulation, or contract that is a precondition to payment. Mikes also held that false certifications did not need to take the form of express statements certifying compliance, but rather could be implied when the underlying statute or regulation expressly requires a party to comply in order to be paid. Under such circumstances, knowingly submitting a noncompliant claim for payment will constitute a violation of the FCA. To this end, the SDNY held in Novartis that the PPACA expressly made compliance with the AKS a precondition to payment under Federal health care programs. Consequently, any kickback-tainted claim for reimbursement submitted to the government is a violation of the FCA under this reasoning. Thus, whereas previously, a whistleblower had to have evidence of an express certification of compliance with the law, now, in order to establish an FCA violation involving kickbacks, a whistleblower need only show that a claim for reimbursement was submitted to the Government in connection with which kickbacks were received.