Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Courts Increasingly Find That Defendants Did Not Knowingly Submit False Claims When They Followed Plausible Interpretations of Ambiguous Regulations

Dear Readers:

There have been several dramatic examples in the last few months where courts have either granted summary judgment in favor of False Claim Act ("FCA") defendants or even overturned jury verdicts in favor of relators. See e.g., U.S. ex rel Purcell v. MWI Corporation, Civ. No.14-5210, slip. op.(D.C. Cir. Nov. 24, 2015) (overturning jury verdict); U.S. v. Aseracare Inc., Civ. No. 2:12-CV-245-KOB, slip. op. (N.D. Ala. November 3, 2015)(overturning jury verdict); U.S. ex rel Phalp v. Lincare Holdings Inc. and Lincare Inc. d/b/a Diabetic Experts of America, __ F.Supp.3d__, 2015 WL 4528955 (S.D. Fla. July 13, 2015)(granting summary judgment for defendants); US ex rel Donegan v. Anesthesia Associates of Kansas City, 2015 WL 3616640 (W.D. Mo. June 9, 2015)(granting summary judgment for defendant). In each of these FCA cases, the court found that the defendant did not submit false claims to Medicare or other government agencies because the regulations which the defendants allegedly violated were ambiguous (or silent) and the defendants had adopted a plausible interpretation of that regulation, even if that interpretation was later found to be erroneous. The decisions have fallen two ways: because the regulations at issue which the defendants allegedly violated were ambiguous and the defendants adopted a plausible interpretation of them, these courts have found that either the defendant did not violate the regulation at issue and submit a false claim or if it did submit a false claim, the defendant did not do so knowingly. See Fried Frank's recent alert addressing the Purcell case; Sidley and Austin's recent blog post on Aseracare, and my blog post on Donegan.

Another case recently decided by U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg of the Northern District of Georgia should be added to this list: U.S. ex rel Saldivar v. Fresenius Medical Care Holdings, Inc., 2015 WL 7293156 (N.D. Ga October 30,  2015). In Fresenius, the Court issued an interesting summary judgment order in a FCA qui tam case addressing whether and when a Medicare provider can be said to "know" that its Medicare billing practices were false. In an incredibly thorough (40 pages) and well-researched opinion, the Court found that the defendant did not have knowledge that its billing practices violated Medicare, even though the Court previously found that defendant had, in fact, submitted false billings. Well worth the read, the Court's ruling contains a number of "nuggets" that may be helpful to defendants in FCA cases relating to Medicare regulations.

The relator in Fresenius alleged that the owner of the largest chain of renal dialysis facilities, Fresenius Medical Care North America, billed Medicare for using and administering the "overfill" of two injectable drugs used in the treatment of patients suffering from end stage renal disease. In the vials containing these two drugs, the drug manufacturer always included a small amount more of the medicine beyond the stated amount on the vial, i.e., "overfill." Whereas Medicare normally only reimbursed Fresenius for the stated drug amount contained in a vial, Fresenius captured that extra bit of overfill from the vials and later administered it to patients. Fresenius billed Medicare for using and administering the overfill to its patients. 

Prior to January 1, 2011, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ("CMS") had not expressly prohibited Medicare providers such as Fresenius from billing for overfill. Not long before that date, CMS issued a regulation specifically prohibiting providers from billing for overfill and stating further that "the prohibition against billing for overfill was not a new policy" but instead "a clarification of existing policy." The relator alleged that Fresenius violated the FCA by administering overfill to patients and billing Medicare during 2005 to 2010, a period in which the relator contended that Fresenius should have known that Medicare prohibited it from billing for overfill.  

Granting summary judgment in favor of Fresenius, the Court found that the company did not violate the FCA because "no reasonable jury could find that Fresenius acted knowingly or recklessly" in billing Medicare for administering overfill to patients during the period at issue. In handing down its decision, the Court 
  • Bifurcated the summary judgment motions, addressing initially whether Fresenius billing Medicare for overfill constituted a "false claim." After granting summary judgment in favor of the government and finding that such billings were false, the Court permitted additional discovery and a second summary judgment motion addressing whether Fresenius "knew" or was reckless in submitting false claims. Though it initially granted partial summary judgment on the "falsity" question, the Court observed later: "If the Court had been, at that time, presented with the record as it is now developed, the Court would likely not have reached the falsity element at all. Whether overfill administration was reimbursable from 2006 through 2010 is not clear on the face of any one statute or regulation. And although, as explained in this Order, there were those in the industry who believed overfill administration was not reimbursable during that time, given the ambiguity in the Medicare rules and the record now presented, no reasonable jury could decide that Fresenius was reckless, let alone acted with actual knowledge that overfill was not reimbursable."
  • Found that Fresenius did not know that billing for overfill was false nor was it reckless in failing to recognize such billings were false. In the initial part of its analysis and at the end, the Court emphasized that Medicare rules or regulations were "silent" as to the issue of whether a provider, such as Fresenius, could bill for overfill. Notwithstanding CMS's statement that its 2011 regulation forbidding providers from billing overfill was simply a "clarification" of existing policy, the Court observed that nothing unequivocally prohibited providers from using and billing for overfill.
  • Acknowledged that Medicare did have a policy prohibiting billing for "discarded overfill" -- a close question that simply gave rise to an ambiguity as to whether overfill could be used and billed. The Court explained: "One could have deduced from the Medicare policy on discarded drugs that overfill was free, and thus should not be billed even if administered. But one could alternatively, reasonably assume that by prohibiting overfill billing only when overfill is discarded, Medicare implicitly recognized that overfill can be billed when administered."
  • Examined numerous sources as to Fresenius' knowledge about overfill and billing in order to determine if Fresenius acted recklessly: 
    • Statements by Fresenius' executives over the years reflecting that they believed billing for overfill was permissible;
    • Open knowledge among staff about the policy to use and bill overfill, including knowledge by the Monitor of a Medicare Consent Decree of a company acquired by Fresenius;
    • Advice by the company's lawyers that billing for overfill did not violate Medicare rules;
    • Previous FCA qui tam cases brought against the company that made similar allegations and which had either been dismissed by the relator or which the company had addressed and was then dismissed or abandoned by the relator;
    • Periodic reviews by HHS-OIG of the company's billing practices, its knowledge from those reviews that Fresenius was billing overfill, and the OIG's failure to object; and
    • Statements made by the company to Medicare showing it was openly using/billing overfill.
  • Refused to accord any real weight to a fiscal intermediary's 2005 negative comments on overfill. The Court noted that the "closest" that Fresenius "got to a warning" that billing for overfill might be improper was a 2005 document from its Medicare fiscal intermediary (n/k/a as a "Medicare Administrative Contractors") primarily addressing "wastage" but also stating that providers could not bill for "wasted overfill." Even this, the Court observed, did not "tip the scales in favor of a finding of recklessness." The fiscal intermediary's document, the Court explained, was "several steps removed from an authoritative interpretation of CMS rules or regulations" and the Court cited several cases emphasizing the "limited authority" of a fiscal intermediary. Moreover, the document itself did not qualify as "official" policy of the fiscal intermediary.
  • Most importantly, the Court rejected the relator's argument that Fresenius had sufficient information at its disposal that it should have connected the dots and concluded from these different sources that it could not bill Medicare for administering overfill. Observing that a failure to put such information together may have been "arguably negligent," the Court found that it did not support a finding of recklessness. Fresenius had adopted a plausible interpretation of Medicare rules and regulations that was consistent with its communications with the OIG and CMS and some in the industry.
Fresenius together with the other cases cited above stand for strict enforcement of the FCA's knowledge requirement. As the D.C. Circuit explained in Purcell,"innocent mistakes made in the absence of binding interpretive guidance [should not be] converted into FCA liability, thereby avoiding the potential due process problems posed by penalizing a private party for violating a rule without first providing adequate notice of the substance of the rule." 

A. Brian Albritton
December 1, 2015

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