Law & Medicine

Office of Inspector General


 

Question: Which one of the following statements is incorrect?

A. Office of Inspector General (OIG) is a federal agency of Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) that investigates statutory violations of health care fraud and abuse.

B. The three main legal minefields for physicians are false claims, kickbacks, and self-referrals.

C. Jail terms are part of the penalties provided by law.

D. OIG is also responsible for excluding violators from participating in Medicare/Medicaid programs, as well as curtailing a physician’s license to practice.

E. A private citizen can file a qui tam lawsuit against an errant practitioner or health care entity for fraud and abuse.

Answer: D. Health care fraud, waste, and abuse consume some 10% of federal health expenditures despite well-established laws that attempt to prevent and reduce such losses. The three key fraud and abuse laws that affect physicians are the False Claims Act (FCA), Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS), and Physician Self-Referral Law (Stark law). The Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General, as well as the Department of Justice and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services are charged with enforcing these and other laws like the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act. Their web pages, referenced throughout this article, contain a wealth of information for the practitioner.

The term “Office of Inspector General” (OIG) refers to the oversight division of a federal or state agency charged with identifying and investigating fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement within that department or agency. There are currently 73 separate federal offices of inspectors general, which employ armed and unarmed criminal investigators, auditors, forensic auditors called “audigators,” and a variety of other specialists. An Act of Congress in 1976 established the first OIG under HHS. Besides being the first, HHS-OIG is also the largest, with a staff of approximately 1,600. A majority of resources goes toward the oversight of Medicare and Medicaid, as well as programs under other HHS institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration.1

HHS-OIG has the authority to seek civil monetary penalties, assessments, and exclusion against an individual or entity based on a wide variety of prohibited conduct affecting federal health care programs. Stiff penalties are regularly assessed against violators, and jail terms are not uncommon; however, it has no direct jurisdictions over physician licensure or nonfederal programs. The government maintains a pictorial list of its most wanted health care fugitives2 and provides an excellent set of Physician Education Training Materials on its website.3

False Claims Act (FCA)

In the health care arena, violation of FCA (31 U.S.C. §§3729-3733) is the foremost infraction. False claims by physicians can include billing for noncovered services such as experimental treatments, double billing, billing the government as the primary payer, or regularly waiving deductibles and copayments, as well as quality of care issues and unnecessary services. Wrongdoing also includes knowingly using another patient’s name for purposes of, say, federal drug coverage, billing for no-shows, and misrepresenting the diagnosis to justify services, as well as other claims. In the modern doctor’s office, the EMR enables easy check-offs on a preprinted form as documentation of actual work done. However, fraud is implicated if the information is deliberately misleading such as for purposes of upcoding. Importantly, physicians are liable for the actions of their office staff, so it is prudent to oversee and supervise all such activities. Naturally, one should document all claims that are sent and know the rules for allowable and excluded services.

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