Law & Medicine

Office of Inspector General


Dr. S.Y. Tan, emeritus professor of medicine and former adjunct professor of law at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu

Dr. S.Y. Tan

FCA is an old law that was first enacted in 1863. It imposes liability for submitting a payment demand to the federal government where there is actual or constructive knowledge that the claim is false. Intent to defraud is not a required element but knowing or showing reckless disregard of the truth is. However, an error that is negligently committed is insufficient to constitute a violation. Penalties include treble damages, costs and attorney fees, and fines of $11,000 per false claim, as well as possible imprisonment and criminal fines. A so-called whistle-blower may file a lawsuit on behalf of the government and is entitled to a percentage of any recoveries. Whistle-blowers may be current or ex-business partners, hospital or office staff, patients, or competitors. The fact that a claim results from a kickback or is made in violation of the Stark law (discussed below) may also render it fraudulent, thus creating additional liability under FCA.

HHS-OIG, as well as the Department of Justice, discloses named cases of statutory violations on their websites. A few random 2019 examples include a New York licensed doctor was convicted of nine counts in connection with Oxycodone and Fentanyl diversion scheme; a Newton, Mass., geriatrician agreed to pay $680,000 to resolve allegations that he violated the False Claims Act by submitting inflated claims to Medicare and the Massachusetts Medicaid program (MassHealth) for care rendered to nursing home patients; and two Clermont, Fla., ophthalmologists agreed to pay a combined total of $157,312.32 to resolve allegations that they violated FCA by knowingly billing the government for mutually exclusive eyelid repair surgeries.

Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS)

AKS (42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b[b]) is a criminal law that prohibits the knowing and willful payment of “remuneration” to induce or reward patient referrals or the generation of business involving any item or service payable by federal health care programs. Remuneration includes anything of value and can take many forms besides cash, such as free rent, lavish travel, and excessive compensation for medical directorships or consultancies. Rewarding a referral source may be acceptable in some industries, but is a crime in federal health care programs.

Moreover, the statute covers both the payers of kickbacks (those who offer or pay remuneration) and the recipients of kickbacks. Each party’s intent is a key element of their liability under AKS. Physicians who pay or accept kickbacks face penalties of up to $50,000 per kickback plus three times the amount of the remuneration and criminal prosecution. As an example, a Tulsa, Okla., doctor earlier this year agreed to pay the government $84,666.42 for allegedly accepting illegal kickback payments from a pharmacy, and in another case, a marketer agreed to pay nearly $340,000 for receiving kickbacks in exchange for prescription referrals.

A physician is an attractive target for kickback schemes. The kickback prohibition applies to all sources, even patients. For example, where the Medicare and Medicaid programs require patients to be responsible for copays for services, the health care provider is generally required to collect that money from the patients. Advertising the forgiveness of copayments or routinely waiving these copays would violate AKS. However, one may waive a copayment when a patient cannot afford to pay one or is uninsured. AKS also imposes civil monetary penalties on physicians who offer remuneration to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries to influence them to use their services. Note that the government does not need to prove patient harm or financial loss to show that a violation has occurred, and physicians can be guilty even if they rendered services that are medically necessary.

There are so-called safe harbors that protect certain payment and business practices from running afoul of AKS. The rules and requirements are complex, and require full understanding and strict adherence.4

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