In the ongoing qui tam case, US ex rel Baklid-Kunz v. Halifax Hospital Medical Center, case no. 6:09-cv-1002-Orl-31 (M.D. Fla.), which I have previously featured, the Court recently granted the Government's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment and found that the hospital's compensation arrangement with several oncologists that it employed violated the Stark Law. As there was a "factual issue" regarding whether the Hospital "knowingly" submitted claims for payment from Medicare or Medicaid arising from these Stark violations, the Court did not find --yet-- that the Hospital violated the False Claims Act. False Claims Act liability based on these Stark Law violations, however, remains a real possibility: if the Court or jury later determines that Halifax "knowingly" submitted claims for payment arising from Stark violations, then it could be subject to hundreds of millions of dollars in treble damages and penalties arising under the False Claims Act.
Halifax Hospital and a recent ruling in another Middle District of Florida case, US ex rel Schubert v. All Children's Health System, Inc., case no. 8:11-cv-01687-T-27, involving a Stark Law violation serving as the basis for a False Claims Act violation, demonstrate the incredible breath of the Stark Law, how easy it can be for hospitals to run afoul of it in compensating physicians, the incredible damage exposure to hospitals, and why such claims are especially attractive to relators seeking to bring False Claims Act cases. For example, the relator in Halifax Hospital is reported to be the hospital's former compliance officer.
The Stark Law, 42 USC 1395nn(a), prohibits physicians from referring Medicare/Medicaid patients to a whole host of business entities or "services," including hospitals, clinical labs, durable medical equipment providers, in which the physician or an immediate family member has a financial interest. In turn, hospitals are prohibited from submitting any claim for payment to Medicare or Medicaid that were furnished as a result of a prohibited referral. For example, if a physician has a "financial relationship" with a hospital that violates Stark and refers Medicare patients to the hospital, the hospital may not bill for any services rendered arising from that referral, regardless of whether the patient needed those services, was otherwise entitled to them, or what the services cost. Now, the reference to "financial relationship" does not refer only to some kind of under the table payment or kickback. Rather, the statute interprets "financial relationship" broadly to include "any arrangement involving remuneration between a physician (or an immediate family member of such physician) and an entity" and includes "any remuneration, directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly, in cash or in kind." 42 USC 1395nn(h)(1)(B).
According to the Court, Halifax Hospital ran afoul of Stark Law by employing six oncologists at the hospital for five years and paying them an "incentive bonus" which turned out to violate Stark Law. The Stark Law permits hospitals and other entities to employ physicians and others who might refer Medicare patients to them provided that a "bona fide employment relationship" exists. Whether an employment relationship is bona fide or not depends in large part on whether the entity, such as a hospital, pays the physician "consistent with the fair market value of the services," without regard to the "volume or value of any referrals made by the physicians, as reflected in a "commercially reasonable agreement." 42 USC 1395nn(e)(2). Basically, Halifax Hospital's incentive bonus for its oncologists turned out to be too generous and thus did not satisfy the bona fide employment exception. As a result, Halifax Hospital was prohibited by Stark from submitting Medicare claims for its services that were furnished pursuant to referrals from these ineligible oncologists employed by the hospital.
As a result of Halifax's violations, the Government sought reimbursement of $27,102,000 in Medicare payments generated as a result of these improper referrals. The Hospital did not have any way of lowering this damage figure. By that, I mean the Hospital cannot claim that the referrals were really warranted regardless of the improper bonus; that the bonus payment was immaterial to whether the referral for services was appropriately made; that services were really provided or needed; or that damages were the difference in value between normal referrals that comply with Stark and referrals allegedly made as a result of Stark violations. No, the result is particularly harsh because the services provided were simply not eligible for payment based solely on the ineligible referral source.
The Court found that Stark Law violations can give rise to False Claim Act liability if a hospital or other provider who accepted the illegal referral "falsely certified compliance with the Stark Law" in connection with submitting a claim to a federally funded insurance program such as Medicare. If, as the Government contends in Halifax Hospital, the Hospital is found to have violated the False Claims Act by submitting claims for payment arising from Stark Law violations, then the $27 million damage will be trebled and the hospital would additionally be subject to fines of $5,500 to $11,000 for each separate billing or claim submitted to Medicare. Damages could easily exceed $100 million. One press report stated that the Government was seeking damages in excess of $750 million.
A. Brian Albritton
December 4, 2013