The Third Circuit Rejects the Anti-Kickback Statute “Tainted Claims” Theory
A key area of dispute in False Claims Act (FCA) cases based on Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) violations is what degree of connection plaintiffs must allege between alleged kickbacks and “false claims.” The AKS states that “a claim that includes items or services resulting from a violation of this section constitutes a false or fraudulent claim for purposes of [the FCA].”
The government and relators typically argue that the mere fact that claims were submitted during the period of alleged kickbacks is sufficient. Defendants argue that the law requires plaintiffs to specifically identify claims “resulting from” an alleged kickback – i.e., that there is proof that the alleged kickback caused the referral or recommendation of the item or service contained in the claim. The Third Circuit’s recent decision in United States ex rel. Greenfield v. Medco Health Systems, Inc. articulated a middle of the road approach. In affirming summary judgment for the defendants, the Court held that to prevail, plaintiffs must establish that a claim submitted to a federal health care program was “exposed to a referral or recommendation” in violation of the AKS.
The relator, a former area vice president for Accredo, a specialty pharmacy that sells blood clotting drugs and provides nursing assistants to hemophiliacs in their homes, filed a qui tam suit alleging that Accredo violated the AKS and FCA in connection with donations to two charitable organizations that assist the hemophiliac community: Hemophilia Services, Inc. (HSI) and Hemophilia Association of New Jersey (HANJ). During the time Accredo made monetary donations to HSI and HANJ, the HANJ website allegedly listed Accredo as one of four “approved providers” or “approved vendors” and directed users to “remember to work with our HSI [approved] providers.” In 2010, Accredo notified both charities that it was decreasing its donation the following year. In response, HSI allegedly engaged in activities to persuade Accredo to restore its donation level to previous years, including encouraging its members to contact Accredo to protest the funding cut. The relator was involved in purportedly analyzing the return on investment for returning to previous donation levels. After the relator’s report allegedly projected a significant decline in business in New Jersey if donation levels were not restored, Accredo restored the donation level and relator filed his suit.
The government declined to intervene in this case, but the relator continued the litigation. He argued the expansive view: that the donations amounted to kickbacks, and since Accredo certified compliance with the AKS when submitting Medicare claims, the FCA was violated and, therefore, every claim submitted by Accredo was false. The district court granted summary judgment to Accredo. The district court declined to decide whether the relator had established an AKS violation, but instead held that the relator did not show sufficient evidence of causation of an FCA violation. The district court held that the relator’s evidence that Accredo submitted claims for 24 federal beneficiaries during the relevant time period, by itself, “did not provide the link between defendants’ 24 federally insured customers and the donations.” The court held that “[a]bsent some evidence….that those patients chose Accredo because of its donations to HANJ/HSI,” the relator could not carry his burden.
On appeal, the government argued that the district court erred to the extent it required proof that patients chose Accredo because of the referrals and recommendations. In the government’s view, all the relator needed to establish was the existence of “a claim that sought reimbursement for medical care that was provided in violation” of the AKS.
The Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, but for different reasons than those offered by the parties, the government, and the district court. The Third Circuit rejected the relator’s and government’s position that the alleged kickbacks tainted all claims as false by virtue of the kickback. However, the Court declined to read the “resulting from” language in the AKS to require, as advocated by Accredo and found by the district court, that the relator needed to prove the patients purchased prescriptions from Accredo because of Accredo’s donations to HSI and HANJ. Instead, the Court held that the relator “must show, at minimum, that at least one of the 24 federally insured patients for whom Accredo provided services and submitted reimbursement claims was exposed to a referral or recommendation of Accredo by HSI/HANJ in violation of the AKS.” As explained by the Court, “[a] kickback does not morph into a false claim unless a particular patient is exposed to an illegal recommendation or referral and a provider submits a claim for reimbursement pertaining to that patient.”
This decision is helpful confirmation that relators and the government cannot simply rely on an alleged kickback to demonstrate that a defendant who submits claims to Medicare, violated the FCA. Defending this type of allegation should include examination of the evidence relied upon to show the connection between the alleged kickback and the purported false claim. Whether other courts will follow the Third Circuit’s reasoning or follow the “resulting from” language in the AKS and require a stronger connection between a kickback and claim remains to be seen. This issue will be a continued subject of litigation in these cases.