Judge allows United Healthcare Group (UHG’s) Acquisition of Change Healthcare to move forward

https://mailchi.mp/e60a8f8b8fee/the-weekly-gist-september-23-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

On Monday, a federal judge denied the Department of Justice (DOJ)’s attempt to block UHG’s $13B purchase of Change Healthcare, a technology firm specializing in claims processing and data analytics.

The DOJ sought to block the purchase on antitrust grounds, arguing that UHG would have access to technologies that its rivals use to compete, but the judge, writing in a sealed ruling, found the DOJ’s case inadequate. It is unclear at this point whether the DOJ will appeal.

Change will now join UHG’s OptumInsight division, though in response to anticompetitive concerns, the ruling ordered UHG to sell part of Change’s claims payment and editing business, as it had already planned to do. 

The Gist: Antitrust regulators have had much greater success at challenging horizontal healthcare mergers but have struggled to find solid footing to fight vertical deals. 

The UHG-Change case was closely watched in part because of the precedent it would have set in terms of holding “platform” aggregators in check. As UHG and other healthcare titans continue to acquire assets up and down the value chain (physician practices, ambulatory surgery centers, clinics, telehealth capabilities, risk products), it’s increasingly clear that the government will face an uphill climb to question the competitive effects of these vertical M&A activities.

Massachusetts nurse pleads guilty in $100M fraud scheme

A Massachusetts nurse has pleaded guilty in federal court in Boston in connection with a $100 million healthcare fraud scheme, the Justice Department announced Sept. 13. 

Winnie Waruru, a licensed practical nurse, pleaded guilty Sept. 8 to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud, healthcare fraud – aiding and abetting, conspiracy to pay and receive kickbacks, making false statements and making a false statement in a healthcare matter. 

Ms. Waruru was employed by Chelmsford, Mass.-based Arbor Homecare Service. She was charged in February 2021 alongside Faith Newton, who was part owner and operator of the home healthcare company from 2013 to 2017. Ms. Newton has pleaded not guilty, according to the Justice Department. 

Prosecutors allege that the duo used Arbor to defraud MassHealth and Medicare of at least $100 million by committing fraud and paying kickbacks to get referrals. Specifically, prosecutors allege that Arbor billed payers for home health services that were never provided or weren’t medically necessary. Arbor billed MassHealth for Waruru’s skilled nursing visits, many of which she did not perform, according to the Justice Department. 

Ms. Waruru is slated to be sentenced in January.

Healthcare CEO, physicians sentenced to prison for $27M fraud

Thirteen people involved in a $27 million healthcare fraud scheme have been sentenced to a combined 84 years in federal prison, the Justice Department announced Aug. 31. 

The defendants allegedly participated in a fraud scheme that involved Novus Health Services, a Dallas-based hospice agency. The defendants allegedly defrauded Medicare by submitting false claims for hospice services, providing kickbacks for referrals and violating HIPAA to recruit beneficiaries. Novus employees also dispensed controlled substances to patients without the guidance of medical professionals, according to the Justice Department. 

Novus CEO Bradley Harris admitted to the fraud and testified against two physicians who elected to go to trial. Mr. Harris pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and one count of healthcare fraud and aiding and abetting. He was sentenced to 159 months in federal prison in January. 

The 12 others convicted in the scheme include three physicians, four nurses and several executives. 

Read more here

Feds charge 36 in $1.2B healthcare fraud schemes

Thirty-six people across the U.S. were charged for their alleged roles in schemes involving $1.2 billion in fraudulent telemedicine, durable medical equipment, cardiovascular and cancer genetic testing, the Justice Department announced July 20. 

The alleged schemes involved lab owners paying medical professionals illegal kickbacks and bribes in exchange for referring patients. The medical professionals were allegedly working with fraudulent telemedicine and digital medical technology companies. 

“As alleged in court documents, medical professionals made referrals for expensive and medically unnecessary cardiovascular and cancer genetic tests, as well as durable medical equipment,” the Justice Department said. 

Prosecutors allege that in many cases the test results or durable medical equipment were not provided to the patients.

Biden Administration says that all hospitals must provide abortion care in emergencies

https://mailchi.mp/30feb0b31ba0/the-weekly-gist-july-15-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

This week, federal health officials sent hospitals clarification that the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) protects the provision of abortion care during medical emergencies, regardless of state laws. The guidance also offers EMTALA as a possible legal defense for providers against state enforcement of antiabortion laws. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has already sued the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to set aside the guidance, claiming the agency is exceeding its authority.   

The Gist: This latest federal action follows President Biden’s recent executive order directing federal agencies to protect access to reproductive care, and HHS’s warning that pharmacists refusing to dispense medications used to induce abortions could be violating federal civil rights laws. The Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department have also announced that they will enforce data privacy rules and pursue legal action against states that look to restrict patients from traveling to obtain abortion care. 

These quick federal actions, while limited, are an attempt provide clarity for providers trying to deliver lifesaving care in a timely manner, without running afoul of state laws. Some Democrats, however, argue that they don’t go far enough, and are pushing for the President to declare a public health emergency on abortion, though it’s not clear that would provide much patient benefit.

Meanwhile, reports from Texas and other states with restrictive abortion laws reveal physicians are already delaying care for ectopic pregnancies and other life-threatening conditions, setting up all-but-certain legal action when patients experience adverse outcomes.

DOJ files False Claims Act case against dialysis giant Fresenius alleging unnecessary vascular procedures

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with the DOJ’s statement regarding its civil fraud complaint. This story was originally filed June 3.

Updated: July 13, 3:30 p.m.

The federal government filed a civil complaint Tuesday in federal court in Brooklyn against the country’s largest dialysis provider alleging that the company performed unnecessary procedures on dialysis patients.

The Department of Justice has formally intervened and joined the False Claims Act whistleblower lawsuit filed against dialysis giant Fresenius Medical Care, according to court documents filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.

The DOJ’s False Claims Act complaint alleges Fresenius Vascular Care, a business unit of Fresenius Medical Care performed these unnecessary procedures at nine centers across New York City, Long Island and Westchester, and billed the procedures to Medicare, Medicaid, the Federal Health Benefits Program and TRICARE. The complaint seeks damages and penalties under the False Claims Act.

The whistleblower complaint alleges that from about January 1, 2012 through June 30, 2018, Fresenius routinely performed certain procedures on patients with end stage renal disease (ESRD) who were receiving dialysis, without sufficient clinical indication that the patients needed the procedures. Fresenius knowingly subjected ESRD patients—who included elderly, disadvantaged minority, and low-income individuals—to these procedures to increase its revenues, the DOJ complaint states.

A Fresenius spokesperson said the company disputes the allegations contained in both the relators’ complaint and the U.S. government’s complaint and “intends to vigorously defend the litigation.”

“Our network of vascular centers is leading efforts to reduce total healthcare costs and improve patient outcomes by expanding access to innovative and less-invasive procedures. Our policies are intended to result in a high standard of care and compliance with government regulations,” the Fresenius spokesperson said in a statement.

Breon Peace, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, called the company’s alleged conduct “egregious,” claiming that Fresenius “not only defrauded federal healthcare programs but also subjected particularly vulnerable people to medically unnecessary procedures.”

“This Office will hold medical providers accountable for practices that needlessly expose patients to harm for financial gain at taxpayer expense,” Peace said in a statement.


Two doctors allege in a lawsuit that the country’s largest dialysis provider performed potentially thousands of unnecessary, invasive vascular procedures on late-stage kidney disease patients and fraudulently charged Medicare and Medicaid for these procedures.  

The lawsuit, originally filed in 2014 in New York, claims Fresenius Medical Care and its business unit, Azura Vascular Care, violated the federal False Claims Act. The case remained under seal until the court lifted the seal May 9. The federal government has 60 days to file its complaint.

Nineteen states also are included in the lawsuit and potentially could join the case.

The U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York will be taking over with respect to federal False Claims Act fraud claims against Fresenius, according to law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, which is representing the plaintiffs in the case.

The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment at the time.

The plaintiffs, two practicing nephrologists, charge in the complaint that Fresenius performed thousands of end-stage renal disease-related treatments that were “not medically reasonable and necessary” and that “exposed patients to undue and unnecessary risks.”

In a statement provided by a spokesperson, Fresenius declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Fresenius Medical Care North America is the largest dialysis provider in the U.S., operating over 2,600 dialysis units nationwide and treating over 205,000 patients annually. Its business unit, Azura Vascular Care, operates more than 90 vascular care facilities across the country.

Former hospital executive convicted in $1.4B billing scheme

The former leader of a rural hospital chain has been convicted for his role in an elaborate pass-through billing scheme, the Justice Department announced June 27. 

After a 24-day trial, Jorge Perez, 62, of Miami, was convicted of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and wire fraud, healthcare fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering of proceeds greater than $10,000.

Prosecutors said Mr. Perez conspired with others to bill for $1.4 billion of medically unnecessary laboratory testing services. He used rural hospitals as billing shells to submit claims for services that were mostly performed at outside laboratories. 

The evidence presented at trial showed that Mr. Perez and other defendants targeted and obtained control of financially distressed rural hospitals through management agreements and purchases. They targeted rural hospitals because they often get higher reimbursement rates for laboratory testing from private insurers, according to the Justice Department. 

The defendants promised to save the rural hospitals from closure by turning them into laboratory testing sites, but instead billed for fraudulent laboratory testing. Through the scheme, Mr. Perez and others made it appear the laboratory testing was performed at the rural hospitals when, in most cases, it was done by outside testing laboratories owned by defendants, prosecutors said. 

“After private insurance companies began to question the defendants’ billings, they would move on to another rural hospital, leaving the rural hospitals they took over in the same or worse financial status as before,” the Justice Department said. At least three of the hospitals were forced to close. 

Ricardo Perez, 59, of Miami, was also convicted of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and wire fraud, healthcare fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering of proceeds greater than $10,000 on June 27. He is Jorge Perez’s brother, according to Kaiser Health News

Ex-healthcare CFO sentenced for role in fraud scheme

The former CFO of Pacific Hospital’s physician management arm was sentenced to 15 months in prison June 24 for a tax offense related to a kickback scheme, according to the Justice Department

The sentencing came about four years after George Hammer was charged. In 2018, he pleaded guilty to one count of filing a false tax return. 

Mr. Hammer allegedly supported a kickback scheme that resulted in the submission of more than $500 million in bills for kickbacks for surgeries. He allegedly supported the kickback scheme by facilitating payments to people receiving kickbacks and bribes pursuant to sham contracts that were used to conceal illicit payments, according to the Justice Department. 

The Department of Justice notes that Mr. Hammer was a salaried employee and did not profit directly from the kickbacks and bribes. 

Twenty-two defendants, including the owner of Pacific Hospital in Long Beach, Calif., have been convicted for participating in the scheme.

Hospitals urge Justice Department to probe insurers over routine denials

The American Hospital Association, on behalf of its nearly 5,000 healthcare organizations, is urging the Justice Department to probe routine denials from commercial health insurance companies. 

Specifically, the AHA is asking the Justice Department to establish a task force to conduct False Claims Act investigations into the insurers that routinely deny payments to providers, according to a May 19 letter to the department. 

The request from the AHA comes after HHS’ Office of Inspector General released a report April 27 that found Medicare Advantage Organizations sometimes delayed or denied enrollees’ access to services although the provider’s prior authorization request met Medicare coverage rules. 

“It is time for the Department of Justice to exercise its False Claims Act authority to both punish those MAOs that have denied Medicare beneficiaries and their providers their rightful coverage and to deter future misdeeds,” the AHA said in a letter to the Justice Department. “This problem has grown so large — and has lasted for so long — that only the prospect of civil and criminal penalties can adequately prevent the widespread fraud certain MAOs are perpetrating against sick and elderly patients across the country.”

Read the full letter here.

Fired Mercyhealth exec sentenced for wire fraud, tax evasion

A former vice president of Janesville, Wis.-based Mercyhealth was sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison May 4 for wire fraud and tax evasion in relation to a $3.1 million kickback scheme, according to the U.S Justice Department.

Barbara Bortner, 57, Mercyhealth’s former vice president of marketing and public relations, pleaded guilty to the scheme in October 2021. 

Ms. Bortner was charged in September 2021. She admitted getting kickbacks from Ryan Weckerly, owner of a marketing agency hired by the health system, from 2015 to 2020.

Prosecutors said Ms. Bortner and Mr. Weckerly created a scheme in which Mr. Weckerly’s marketing agency, Morningstar Media Group, inflated invoices sent to Ms. Bortner for marketing work he did for Mercyhealth. In exchange, Ms. Bortner receive kickbacks from the funds received.

Prosecutors also said Ms. Bortner agreed to maintain Morningstar Media as its primary marketing group in exchange for the kickbacks.

Mr. Weckerly pleaded guilty in November 2021 and will be sentenced May 17.

Mercyhealth fired Ms. Bortner in August 2021, weeks before the charges were filed against her. Mercyhealth said the fraud didn’t affect patient care.