Under the Biden Administration, the DOJ says the ACA can stand even though there is no longer a tax penalty for not having health insurance.
The Department of Justice, under the Biden Administration, has told the Supreme Court that it has changed its stance on the Affordable Care Act.
The DOJ previously filed a brief contending that the ACA was unconstitutional because the individual mandate was inseverable from the rest of the law.
Following the change in Administration, the DOJ has reconsidered the government’s position and now takes the position that the ACA can stand, even though there is no longer a mandate for consumers to have health insurance or face a tax penalty, according to a February 10 filing.
WHY THIS MATTERS
Hospitals and health systems support the change in position.
“Without the ACA, millions of Americans will lose protections for pre-existing conditions and the health insurance coverage they have gained through the exchange marketplaces and Medicaid. We should be working to achieve universal coverage and preserve the progress we have made, not take coverage and consumer protections away,” said American Hospital Association CEO and president Rick Pollack.
The Supreme Court is expected to return a decision before the end of the term in June.
THE LARGER TREND
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on November 10, 2020 regarding whether the elimination of the tax penalty made the remainder of the ACA invalid under the law.
The DOJ sided with the Trump Administration and Republican states that brought the legal challenge, while 20 Democratic attorneys general supported the ACA and asked the court for quick resolution.
The CEO of a group of Texas-based hospice and home health companies was sentenced Feb. 3 to 15 years in prison for his role in a $150 million healthcare fraud and money laundering scheme, according to the Department of Justice.
Henry McInnis was sentenced more than a year after he was convicted of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, obstruction of justice and healthcare fraud.
From 2009 to 2018, Mr. McInnis and others submitted more than $150 million in false and fraudulent claims for healthcare services. The claims were submitted through Merida Group, a hospice company with dozens of locations in Texas.
Mr. McInnis was CEO of Merida. He had no medical training but acted as the director of nursing for the company. He also enforced a companywide practice of falsifying medical records to conceal the scheme and ordered employees to change medical records to make it appear patients were terminally ill.
Mr. McInnis also paid bribes to physicians to certify unqualified patients for home health and hospice.
Mr. McInnis was sentenced less than two months after the owner of Merida Group, Rodney Mesquias, was sentenced to 20 years in prison and ordered to pay $120 million in restitution.
Health insurers are no longer immune from federal antitrust scrutiny for conduct considered the business of insurance.
The Competitive Health insurance Reform Act of 2020 became law on January 13, a move praised by the Department of Justice but opposed by health insurers.
Health insurers are no longer immune from federal antitrust scrutiny for conduct considered the business of insurance and regulated by state law.
With enactment of the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act, the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission have expanded authority to prosecute alleged anticompetitive behavior, including data sharing between insurers.
The McCarran-Ferguson Act previously afforded immunity by exempting from federal antitrust laws certain conduct considered the “business of insurance.” This exemption has sometimes been interpreted by courts to allow a range of what the Justice Department considered “harmful” anticompetitive conduct in health insurance markets.
The new law aims to promote more competition in health insurance markets by limiting the scope of conduct that’s exempt from antitrust laws. This move was praised by the Trump Justice Department shortly before the former president left office.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT?
The antitrust scrutiny is coming at a time when insurers are under a deadline to meet interoperability standards to share information with patients that meet Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources, or FHIR, standards.
“The McCarran-Ferguson Act recognized that all healthcare is local, and that states should be able to govern their own health insurance markets,” Eyles said in December. “Removal of this exemption adds tremendous administrative costs while delivering absolutely no value for patients and consumers. It will unnecessarily add layers of bureaucracy, destabilize markets, create conflicting federal and state oversight requirements, and lead to costly litigation.”
The National Association of Insurance Commissioners sent a letter to Senate leaders on December 2 voicing its concern for the bill’s passage.
“The premise of the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act is that collusion among health insurance companies is permitted under state law and that the McCarran-Ferguson Act somehow currently protects these practices. This is not true. The McCarran-Ferguson antitrust exemption for health insurance does not allow or encourage conspiratorial behavior but simply leaves oversight of insurance, including health insurance, to the states – and state laws do not allow collusion,” commissioners said.
“The potential for bid rigging, price-fixing and market allocation is of great concern to state insurance regulators and we share your view that such practices would be harmful to consumers and should not be tolerated. However, we want to assure you that these activities are not permitted under state law,” commissioners wrote.
While insurers have not been thrilled with the move, Consumer Reports said the legislation is good for providers who have felt pressured into contract terms that benefit insurers.
THE LARGER TREND
The Justice Department has a track record of successfully enforcing the antitrust laws against health insurers. Over the past five years, the department has enforced the antitrust laws against health insurers involved in transactions valued at over $160 billion.
The Act will help the department build on those successes by requiring health insurers to play by the same rules as competitors in other industries. It will clarify when health insurers qualify for the McCarran-Ferguson exemption, and it will enable the Antitrust Division to spend resources more efficiently to achieve desired results, the Justice Department said.
On January 13, Trump signed into law the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act of 2020, which limits the antitrust exemption available to health insurance companies under the McCarran-Ferguson Act. The act, sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore), passed the House of Representatives on Sept. 21, 2020 and passed the Senate on Dec. 22.
The owner of two pharmacies and a management company in Florida pleaded guilty Jan. 25 to his role in a $931 million healthcare fraud scheme. He is the seventh defendant to plead guilty in the scheme, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Larry Smith pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud, and his sentencing is set for Oct. 25. In his written plea agreement, Mr. Smith admitted to conspiring with others to defraud pharmacy benefit managers into paying for fraudulent prescriptions. As part of the plea agreement, Mr. Smith agreed to pay restitution of $24.9 million and forfeit approximately $3.1 million.
An indictment charged Mr. Smith and others with a nationwide conspiracy to defraud pharmacy benefit managers by submitting $931.4 million in bills for fraudulent prescriptions purchased from a telemarketing company. After improperly soliciting patient information, the marketing companies received approvals through telemedicine prescribers then sold the prescriptions to pharmacies in exchange for kickbacks, said Derrick Jackson, special agent in charge at HHS’ Office of Inspector General in Atlanta.
In September 2018, HealthRight, a telemedicine company, and its CEO Scott Roix pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud for their roles in the scheme. They agreed to pay $5 million in restitution. Mr. Roix’s sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 25.
Mihir Taneja, Arun Kapoor, Maikel Bolos and Sterling-Knight Pharmaceuticals also pleaded guilty in December 2020, according to the Justice Department.
At the last minute, President Donald Trump granted pardons to several individuals convicted in huge Medicare swindles that prosecutors alleged often harmed or endangered elderly and infirm patients while fleecing taxpayers.
“These aren’t just technical financial crimes. These were major, major crimes,” said Louis Saccoccio, chief executive officer of the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association, an advocacy group.
The list of some 200 Trump pardons or commutations, most issued as he vacated the White House this week, included at least seven doctors or health care entrepreneurs who ran discredited health care enterprises, from nursing homes to pain clinics. One is a former doctor and California hospital owner embroiled in a massive workers’ compensation kickback scheme that prosecutors alleged prompted more than 14,000 dubious spinal surgeries. Another was in prison after prosecutors accused him of ripping off more than $1 billion from Medicare and Medicaid through nursing homes and other senior care facilities, among the largest frauds in U.S. history.
“All of us are shaking our heads with these insurance fraud criminals just walking free,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. The White House argued all deserved a second chance. One man was said to have devoted himself to prayer, while another planned to resume charity work or other community service. Others won clemency at the request of prominent Republican ex-attorneys general or others who argued their crimes were victimless or said critical errors by prosecutors had led to improper convictions.
Trump commuted the sentence of former nursing home magnate Philip Esformes in late December. He was serving a 20-year sentence for bilking $1 billion from Medicare and Medicaid. An FBI agent called him “a man driven by almost unbounded greed.” Prosecutors said that Esformes used proceeds from his crimes to make a series of “extravagant purchases, including luxury automobiles and a $360,000 watch.”
Esformes also bribed the basketball coach at the University of Pennsylvania “in exchange for his assistance in gaining admission for his son into the university,” according to prosecutors.
Fraud investigators had cheered the conviction. In 2019, the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association gave its annual award to the team responsible for making the case. Saccoccio said that such cases are complex and that investigators sometimes spend years and put their “heart and soul” into them. “They get a conviction and then they see this happen. It has to be somewhat demoralizing.”
Tim McCormack, a Maine lawyer who represented a whistleblower in a 2007 kickback case involving Esformes, said these cases “are not just about stealing money.”
“This is about betraying their duty to their patients. This is about using their vulnerable, sick and trusting patients as an ATM to line their already rich pockets,” he said. He added: “These pardons send the message that if you are rich and connected and powerful enough, then you are above the law.”
The Trump White House saw things much differently.
“While in prison, Mr. Esformes, who is 52, has been devoted to prayer and repentance and is in declining health,” the White House pardon statement said.
The White House said the action was backed by former Attorneys General Edwin Meese and Michael Mukasey, while Ken Starr, one of Trump’s lawyers in his first impeachment trial, filed briefs in support of his appeal claiming prosecutorial misconduct related to violating attorney-client privilege.
Trump also commuted the sentence of Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor who had served four years in federal prison for fraud. That case also ensnared U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who was acquitted in the case and helped seek the action for his friend, according to the White House.
Prosecutors had accused Melgen of endangering patients with needless injections to treat macular degeneration and other unnecessary medical care, describing his actions as “truly horrific” and “barbaric and inhumane,” according to a court filing.
Melgen “not only defrauded the Medicare program of tens of millions of dollars, but he abused his patients — who were elderly, infirm, and often disabled — in the process,” prosecutors wrote.
These treatments “involved sticking needles in their eyes, burning their retinas with a laser, and injecting dyes into their bloodstream.”
Prosecutors said the scheme raked in “a staggering amount of money.” Between 2008 and 2013, Medicare paid the solo practitioner about $100 million. He took in an additional $10 million from Medicaid, the government health care program for low-income people, $62 million from private insurance, and approximately $3 million in patients’ payments, prosecutors said.
In commuting Melgen’s sentence, Trump cited support from Menendez and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). “Numerous patients and friends testify to his generosity in treating all patients, especially those unable to pay or unable to afford healthcare insurance,” the statement said.
In a statement, Melgen, 66, thanked Trump and said his decision ended “a serious miscarriage of justice.”
“Throughout this ordeal, I have come to realize the very deep flaws in our justice system and how people are at the complete mercy of prosecutors and judges. As of today, I am committed to fighting for unjustly incarcerated people,” Melgen said. He denied harming any patients.
Faustino Bernadett, a former California anesthesiologist and hospital owner, received a full pardon. He had been sentenced to 15 months in prison in connection with a scheme that paid kickbacks to doctors for admitting patients to Pacific Hospital of Long Beach for spinal surgery and other treatments.
“As a physician himself, defendant knew that exchanging thousands of dollars in kickbacks in return for spinal surgery services was illegal and unethical,” prosecutors wrote.
Many of the spinal surgery patients “were injured workers covered by workers’ compensation insurance. Those patient-victims were often blue-collar workers who were especially vulnerable as a result of their injuries,” according to prosecutors.
The White House said the conviction “was the only major blemish” on the doctor’s record. While Bernadett failed to report the kickback scheme, “he was not part of the underlying scheme itself,” according to the White House.
The White House also said Bernadett was involved in numerous charitable activities, including “helping protect his community from COVID-19.” “President Trump determined that it is in the interests of justice and Dr. Bernadett’s community that he may continue his volunteer and charitable work,” the White House statement read.
Others who received pardons or commutations included Sholam Weiss, who was said to have been issued the longest sentence ever for a white collar crime — 835 years.“Mr. Weiss was convicted of racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering, and obstruction of justice, for which he has already served over 18 years and paid substantial restitution. He is 66 years old and suffers from chronic health conditions,” according to the White House.
John Davis, the former CEO of Comprehensive Pain Specialists, the Tennessee-based chain of pain management clinics, had spent four months in prison. Federal prosecutors charged Davis with accepting more than $750,000 in illegal bribes and kickbacks in a scheme that billed Medicare $4.6 million for durable medical equipment.
Trump’s pardon statement cited support from country singer Luke Bryan, said to be a friend of Davis’.
“Notably, no one suffered financially as a result of his crime and he has no other criminal record,” the White House statement reads.
“Prior to his conviction, Mr. Davis was well known in his community as an active supporter of local charities. He is described as hardworking and deeply committed to his family and country. Mr. Davis and his wife have been married for 15 years, and he is the father of three young children.”
CPS was the subject of a November 2017 investigation by KHN that scrutinized its Medicare billings for urine drug testing. Medicare paid the company at least $11 million for urine screenings and related tests in 2014, when five of CPS’ medical professionals stood among the nation’s top such Medicare billers.
A Florida healthcare executive is appealing $43 million in financial penalties after President Donald Trump commuted his 20-year prison sentence in December, according to law.com.
Philip Esformes, who operated a chain of skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities in Florida, was sentenced Sep. 12 to 20 years in prison. The sentencing came roughly five months after a 12-person jury found him guilty of more than 20 charges, including paying and receiving kickbacks, money laundering and bribery. He was convicted after an eight-week trial for his role in a $1.3 billion Medicare and Medicaid fraud case.
President Trump in late December commuted Mr. Esformes’ prison sentence. The communication left other aspects of his sentence intact, including restitution.
Mr. Esformes still must forfeit $38 million and owes about $5 million in restitution, according to McKnight’s Senior Living. In the appeal of the financial penalties, lawyers cite the federal government’s “inability to show a single instance of fraudulent billing,” according to the report.
President Donald Trump commuted a 20-year sentence for a Florida healthcare executive who was convicted for his role in a $1.3 billion Medicare fraud case. It was the largest healthcare fraud scheme ever charged by the U.S. Justice Department.
In April 2019, Philip Esformes, who operated a network of more than 30 skilled nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Florida, was found guilty of 20 charges, including paying and receiving kickbacks, money laundering and bribery, according to the Department of Justice. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and ordered to pay $44.2 million in forfeiture and restitution. The commutation doesn’t overturn the restitution order.
Mr. Esformes was among several people President Trump granted a full pardon or commutation of all or some of their sentences. In a Dec. 22 news release, the White House said Mr. Esformes is in declining health.
Moses D. deGraft-Johnson, MD, pleaded guilty Dec. 18 to 56 counts of healthcare fraud, conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and aggravated identity theft, according to the Department of Justice.
Between late 2015 and his arrest in February of this year, Dr. deGraft-Johnson, who owned and operated the Heart and Vascular Institute of North Florida in Tallahassee, performed invasive surgical procedures on patients who didn’t need them or altered patients’ medical records to reflect procedures he didn’t perform.
As part of his plea deal, Dr. deGraft-Johnson acknowledged consistently performing two invasive diagnostic angiography procedures on hundreds of patients, whether medically necessary or not. When the patients returned for follow-up office visits, Dr. deGraft-Johnson submitted fraudulent claims to their insurance companies stating he performed atherectomies during the appointments. Using this scheme, the physician admitted he claimed to have performed more than 3,000 of these surgical procedures to clear blockages in arteries in as many as 845 of his patients’ legs.
In court documents released in February, prosecutors provided several examples of Dr. deGraft-Johnson’s fraud. In one case, he claimed to have done 14 procedures during a seven-hour period. Prosecutors said the procedures would have taken roughly 28 hours, according to The New York Times. In another example, he allegedly claimed to have performed 13 atherectomies on patients in Florida when he was traveling abroad.
Dr. deGraft-Johnson submitted false claims to insurers for the surgeries he didn’t perform and for the unnecessary procedures. As of Dec. 18, the investigation revealed he received at least $29 million through the fraud scheme.
The owner of an Atlanta-based home healthcare provider was sentenced to five years and three months in prison for defrauding Medicaid out of nearly $1 million, the U.S. Justice Department said Dec. 2.
Diandra Bankhead, owner and operator of Elite Homecare, admitted to submitting thousands of claims for services that were never provided to children in the Georgia Pediatric Program between September 2015 and April 2018. Children who are eligible for services under the program typically suffer from physical and cognitive disabilities.
Ms. Bankhead and Elite Homecare submitted more than 5,400 claims to Georgia Medicaid, receiving $1.2 million in reimbursement. About $1 million was determined to be fraudulent, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said Ms. Bankhead defrauded Medicaid in several ways, including submitting fraudulent credentialing information to become a Georgia Pediatric Program provider, submitting claims for in-home nursing services provided to families who had not hired Elite and submitting claims in which employees provided more than 24 hours of services in a day.
“It is outrageous that Bankhead profited off children who suffered from significant physical and cognitive disabilities,” said U.S. Attorney Byung Pak. “For years her scheme exploited Medicaid-eligible children and their families by billing for services never performed and for children never seen, diverting critical resources from those who needed them most.”
Ms. Bankhead pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of healthcare fraud in August 2019. She was also ordered to pay $999,999 in restitution.
Federal agencies have charged 345 people across the country, including more than 100 providers and four telehealth executives, with submitting more than $6 billion in fraudulent claims to payers. Of that, $4.5 billion was connected to telemedicine schemes and about $800 million each to substance abuse treatment and illegal opioid distribution.
More than 250 medical professionals had their federal healthcare billing privileges revoked for being involved in the scams, according to a statement released Wednesday.
The U.S. Department of Justice also said it is creating a new rapid response strike force to investigate fraud cases involving major providers that operate in multiple jurisdictions.
Telehealth fraud has increased significantly since 2016, the HHS Office of Inspector General said. As providers have quickly pivoted many services to virtual care during the COVID-19 pandemic, attempts at fraud will likely follow.
One of the cases outlined Wednesday included false claims for COVID-19 testing while another involved a COVID-19 related scheme to defraud insurers out of more than $4 million.
The telehealth fraud allegedly involved a marketing network that lured hundreds of thousands of people into a criminal scheme with phone calls, direct mail, TV ads and online pop-up ads. Telemedicine executives then paid doctors to order unneeded medical equipment, testing or drugs with either no patient interaction or only a brief call.
Those were either not given to the patients or were worthless to them. The proceeds were then laundered through international shell corporations and banks.
The scheme is similar to one DOJ prosecuted in April 2019involving fraudulent telehealth companies that pushed unneeded braces on Medicare beneficiaries in exchange for kickbacks from durable medical equipment companies.
The massive bust included the work of 175 HHS OIG agents and analysts and targeted myriad fraud operations across the U.S. and its territories.
One of the larger scams involved 29 defendants in the Middle District of Florida. A telemedicine company and medical professionals working for it billed Medicare for medical equipment for patients they never spoke to.
In New Jersey, laboratory owners paid marketers to get DNA samples at places like senior health fairs. Doctors on telemedicine platforms then ordered medically unnecessary and not reimbursable genetic testing.