Oak Street faces DOJ inquiry into third-party marketing, transportation relationships

Dive Brief:

  • Oak Street Health, a value-based primary care network for adults on Medicare, is facing a Department of Justice inquiry into its relationships with third-party marketing agents and its provision of free transportation for members.
  • The DOJ is investigating whether Oak Street violated the False Claims Act, per a regulatory filing published Monday. On a call with investors Tuesday, management declined to provide additional information into the government’s request, saying it was too early to know for sure what exactly the agency is investigating but that they’re working to comply.
  • Otherwise, the provider had a generally solid third quarter with better-than-expected revenue and well-controlled medical costs, analysts said. Oak Street increased its full-year 2021 guidance following the results, which beat Wall Street expectations with topline revenue of $389 million, up 78% year over year and a quarterly record for the company.

Dive Insight:

The federal government is increasingly cracking down on alleged fraud, especially in the Medicare Advantage program. In privately run MA plans, CMS pays companies on a per-member basis, then adjusts payments based on the acuity or severity of their member’s health status, as supported by provider data like diagnostic codes. Generally, the sicker the member, the higher the plan’s reimbursement.

That’s led to allegations of plans hiking risk scores to overinflate members’ health needs, resulting in higher payments from CMS. Watchdogs have been finding higher incidence of fraud and abuse as the MA program becomes more popular, growing to cover more than 40% of all Medicare beneficiaries.

Oak Street isn’t a traditional plan itself, but enters into full-risk contracts with Medicare Advantage plans, and via CMS’ direct contracting program, in which it assumes full responsibility for patients’ medical expenses in exchange for a fixed per-member, per-month payment. The Chicago-based company is the latest target of a federal inquiry into whether it violated the False Claims Act.

According to the primary care company, the DOJ sent a civil investigative demand on Nov. 1 asking for information about Oak Street’s relationships with third-party marketers and transportation partners.

Oak Street does provide patients transportation to appointments when they need it and has various ways for finding new patients, including community partnerships, but it’s unclear what the DOJ is specifically investigating, CEO Mike Pykosz told investors.

“We have had no meaningful conversations with the government,” Pykosz said. “I’m not really sure what the link is.”

The CEO noted it’s not unusual for such inquiries to take months to resolve, particularly in the hyper-regulated healthcare industry, but said he wouldn’t speculate further.

A civil investigative demand is a form of administrative subpoena, and doesn’t denote any regulatory or legal action itself. However, it is used by the government to kick off investigating potential False Claims violations, and determine whether there’s sufficient evidence to warrant filing an action, according to the National Law Review.

Penalties for violating the act could range from $11,655 to $23,331 per violation, plus triple damages. Total penalties have resulted recently in some significant payouts from MA participants. Notably, in late August, integrated health system Sutter Health agreed to pay $90 million to settle whistleblower allegations of risk adjustment fraud, in the largest False Claims Act settlement against a hospital system in the MA program.

Analysts noted the inquiry, while in early stages, is a point of concern for Oak Street’s future stock performance.

“This creates a new potential risk factor that we are unlikely to get clarity on for some time,” SVB Leerink analyst Whit Mayo wrote in a note.

Oak Street, which also provides services to patients with a range of insurance options, had an otherwise solid quarter, eclipsing $1 billion of year-to-date revenue for the first time in the company’s history.

The highly infectious delta variant did contribute to higher expenses, as it has with other providers.

Oak Street reported $15 million in costs from COVID-19 admissions in the first half of the year, and another $10 million in the third quarter. COVID-19-related expenses surged in the latter half of August and continued into September, but tailed off early into the fourth quarter, CFO Tim Cook said.

The majority of Oak Street’s patients are in northern U.S. markets, however, which experienced coronavirus surges last year during the winter as more people stayed indoors.

“We will see what happens in November and December,” Cook said. “While COVID costs are going to be lower in Q4, unfortunately we’re not in a world where they’re going to be zero.”

In the quarter, the primary care provider’s medical claims expense doubled year over year to almost $310 million. Oak Street’s medical loss ratio of 82.2% was lower than analysts expected, though management said they expected it to be higher in the fourth quarter.

Pykosz and Cook called out medical costs from new patients brought in during 2021 as a system-wide stressor.

Because diagnoses from 2020 claims are used to determine 2021 risk scores, fewer claims last year could mean lower risk scores and lower payments for plans this year. Oak Street’s patients, especially older adults in low-income communities, used fewer services last year during COVID-19, which resulted in lower revenues this year even as costs expanded.

Management said they expected to get back on track in 2022 as patients new to Oak Street this year will contribute to higher reimbursement next year, closing the current medical-cost gap between tenured and new patients.

“This is certainly an outlier year from every other year we’ve had results,” Pykosz said.

Oak Street, which was founded in 2012 and went public in August 2020 at a $9 billion valuation, reported a net loss of almost $110 million in the quarter, compared to a loss of $59 million at the same time last year.

Oak Street continued expanding its membership and network in the quarter, reporting 69% at-risk patient growth and opening 15 new centers in seven new markets.

Oak Street’s competition in the value-based primary care space has ramped up this year, as peers One Medical acquired a rival value-based medical chain and VillageMD got a hefty new investment from drugstore partner Walgreens.

But Pykosz pointed to Oak Street’s exclusive relationship with senior group AARP and its acquisition of specialty telehealth provider RubiconMD as differentiators, while noting there’s room for a number of players in the space.

“At this point we don’t feel there’s a lot of pressure or competitive dynamics pressuring our performance,” Pykosz said.

In the third quarter, Oak Street served 100,500 risk-based patients, representing 76% of its total patient base. The company expects at-risk patient volume to grow to between 111,500 and 113,500 patients this year.

Hospital mergers and acquisitions are a bad deal for patients. Why aren’t they being stopped?

Contrary to what health care executives advertise, hospital mergers and acquisitions aren’t good for patients. They rarely improve access to health care or its quality, and they don’t reduce prices. But the system in place to stop them is often more bark than bite.

During 2019 and 2020, hospitals acquired an additional 3,200 medical practices and 18,600 physicians. By January 2021, almost half of all U.S. physicians were employed by a hospital or health system.

In 2018, the last year for which complete data are available, 72% of hospitals and more than 90% of hospital beds were affiliated with a health care system. Mergers and acquisitions are increasing the number of health care systems while decreasing the number of independently operated hospitals.

When hospitals buy provider practices, it leads to more unnecessary care and more expensive care, which increases overall spending. The same thing happens when hospitals merge or acquire other hospitals. These deals often increase prices and they don’t improve care quality; patients simply pay more for the same or worse care.

Mergers and acquisitions can negatively affect clinician morale as well. Some argue they lead to providers’ loss of autonomy and increase the emphasis on financial targets rather than patient care. They can also contribute to burnout and feeling unsupported.

Considerable machinery is in place at both the federal and state levels to stop “anticompetitive” mergers before they happen. But that machinery is limited by a lack of follow through.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Department of Justice have always had broad authority over mergers. By law, one or both of these entities must review for any antitrust concerns proposed deals of a certain size before the deals are finalized. After a preliminary review, if no competition issues are identified, the merger or acquisition is allowed to proceed. This is what happens in most cases. If concerns are raised, however, the involved parties must submit additional information and undergo a second evaluation.

Some health care organizations seem willing to challenge this process. Leaders involved in a pending merger between Lifespan and Care New England in Rhode Island — which would leave 80% of the state’s inpatient market under one company’s umbrella — are preparing to move forward even if the FTC deems the deal anticompetitive. The companies will simply ask the state to approve the merger despite the FTC’s concerns.

The reality is that the FTC’s reach is limited when it comes to nonprofits, which most hospitals are. While the FTC can oppose anticompetitive mergers involving nonprofits, it cannot enforce action against them for anticompetitive behavior. So if a merger goes through, the FTC has limited authority to ensure the new entity plays fairly.

What’s more, the FTC has acknowledged it can’t keep up with its workload this year. It modified its antitrust review process to accommodate an increasing number of requests and its stagnant capacity. In July, the Biden administration issued an executive order about economic competition that explicitly acknowledges the negative impact of health care consolidation on U.S. communities. This is encouraging, signaling that the government is taking mergers seriously. Yet it’s unclear if the executive order will give the FTC more capacity, which is essential if it is to actually enforce antitrust laws.

At the state level, most of the antitrust power lies with the attorney general, who ultimately approves or challenges all mergers. Despite this authority, questionable mergers still go through.

In 2018, for example, two competing hospital systems in rural Tennessee merged to become Ballad Health and the only source of care for about 1.2 million residents. The deal was opposed by the FTC, which deemed it to be a monopoly. Despite the concerns, the state attorney general and Department of Health overrode the FTC’s ruling and approved the merger. (This is the same mechanism the Rhode Island hospitals hope to employ should the FTC oppose their merger.) As expected, Ballad Health then consolidated the services offered at its facilities and increased the fees on patient bills.

It’s clear that mechanisms exist to curb potentially harmful mergers and promote industry competition. It’s also clear they aren’t being used to the fullest extent. Unless these checks and balances lead to mergers being denied, their power over the market is limited.

Experts have been raising the alarm on health care consolidation for years. Mergers rarely lead to better care quality, access, or prices. Proposed mergers must be assessed and approved based on evidence, not industry pressure. If nothing changes, the consequences will be felt for years to come.

Cleveland Clinic-owned hospital system pays $21M to settle False Claims allegations

Dive Brief:

  • A Cleveland Clinic-owned hospital system in Akron, Ohio, is paying the federal government $21.3 million to settle claims it illegally billed the Medicare program.
  • Akron General Health System allegedly overpaid physicians well above market value for referring physicians to the system, violating the Anti-Kickback Statute and Physician Self-Referral Law, and then billed Medicare for the improperly referred business, violating the False Claims Act, between August 2010 and March 2016.
  • Along with an AGHS whistleblower, the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, which acquired the system at the end of 2015, voluntarily disclosed to the federal government its concerns with the compensation arrangements, which were enacted by AGHS’ prior leadership, the Department of Justice said Friday.

Dive Insight:

The Anti-Kickback Statute forbids providers from paying for or otherwise soliciting other parties to get them to refer patients covered by federal programs like Medicare, while the Physician Self-Referral Law, otherwise known as the Stark Law, prohibits a hospital from billing for those services. Despite the laws and a bevy of other regulations resulting in a barrage of DOJ lawsuits and been a thorn in the side of providers for decades, fraud is still rampant in healthcare.

Of the more than $3 billion recovered by the government in 2019 from fraud and false claims, almost 90% involved the healthcare industry, according to DOJ data.

“Physicians must make referrals and other medical decisions based on what is best for patients, not to serve profit-boosting business arrangements,” HHS Office of Inspector General Special Agent in Charge Lamont Pugh said in a statement on the AGHS settlement.

Cleveland Clinic struck a deal with AGHS in 2014, agreeing to pay $100 million for minority ownership in the system. The agreement gave the clinic the option to fully acquire AGHS after a year, which it exercised as soon as that period expired in August 2015.

The settlement stems from a whistleblower suit brought by AGHS’s former Director of Internal Audit Beverly Brouse, who will receive a portion of the settlement, the DOJ said. The False Claims Act allows whistleblowers to share in the proceeds of a suit.

As fraud has increased in healthcare over the past decade — the DOJ reported 247 new matters for potential investigation in 2000, 427 in 2010 and 505 in 2019 — the federal government has renewed its efforts to crack down on illegal schemes. That’s resulted in the formation of groups like the Medicare Fraud Strike Force in 2007 and the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit in 2017, which has in turn resulted in the DOJ recovering huge sums in stings, settlements and guilty verdicts.

Some of the biggest settlements reach into the hundreds of millions, and involve billions in false claims.

In 2018, DOJ charged more than 600 people for falsely billing federal programs more than $2 billion; last year federal agencies charged almost 350 people for submitting more than $6 billion in false claims. That last case led to creation of a rapid response strike force to investigate fraud involving major providers in multiple geographies.

Other large settlements include Walgreens’ $270 million fine in 2019 to settle lawsuits accusing the pharmacy giant of improperly billing Medicare and Medicaid for drug reimbursements; hospital operator UHS’ $122 million settlement last summer finalizing a fraudulent billing case with the DOJ after being accused of fraudulently billing Medicare and Medicaid for services at its behavioral healthcare facilities; and West Virginia’s oldest hospital, nonprofit Wheeling Hospital, agreeing in September to pay $50 million to settle allegations it systematically violated the laws against physician kickbacks, improper referrals and false billing.

EHR vendor eClinicalWorks paid $155 million to settle False Claims Act allegations around misrepresentation of software capabilities in 2017, while Florida-based EHR vendor Greenway Health was hit with a $57.3 million fine in 2019 to to settle allegations the vendor caused users to submit false claims to the EHR Incentives Program.

Virginia physician gets 59-year sentence for unneeded patient surgeries, $20M fraud

A Virginia OB-GYN was sentenced May 18 to 59 years in prison for a fraud scheme that caused insurance programs to lose more than $20 million, according to the U.S. Justice Department

Javaid Perwaiz, MD, was sentenced after being convicted last November of 52 counts of healthcare fraud and false statements related to a scheme in which he performed medically unnecessary surgeries, including hysterectomies and improper sterilizations, on his patients. 

From about 2010 to 2019, Dr. Perwaiz often falsely told his patients that they needed the surgeries because they had cancer or could avoid cancer, prosecutors said. Additionally, evidence showed Dr. Perwaiz falsified records for his obstetric patients to induce labor early to ensure he was reimbursed for the deliveries and violated Medicaid’s required 30-day waiting period for elective sterilization procedures by backdating records to make it appear that he had complied with the waiting period. Dr. Perwaiz also billed insurance companies for diagnostic procedures that he only pretended to perform at his office, prosecutors said. 

“Motivated by his insatiable and reprehensible greed, Perwaiz used an arsenal of horrifying tactics to manipulate and deceive patients into undergoing invasive, unnecessary and devastating medical procedures,” Raj Parekh, acting U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, stated. “In many instances, the defendant shattered their ability to have children by using fear to remove organs from their bodies that he had no right to take.”

A lawyer representing Dr. Perwaiz told The New York Times that Dr. Perwaiz is appealing the conviction. 

In analyst call, Clover reveals it doesn’t have the customers it said it did during IPO

Why Clover Health Chose a SPAC, Not an IPO, to Go Public | Barron's

When it planned to go public through a SPAC merger, insurance startup Clover Health told investors that it already had 200,000 direct contracting lives under contract for 2021. But in new guidance shared on Monday, the company now plans to end the year just 70,000 to 100,000 covered lives from direct contracting. 

After telling investors that it would more than quadruple its membership base in a year, insurance startup Clover Health is cutting its projections in half.

The insurance startup now plans to end the year with between 70,000 and 100,000 covered lives from direct contracting, a new payment program launched last by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) services last year, according to its most recent earnings report. 

Last year, when Clover announced plans to go public through a merger with a special-purpose acquisition company backed by “SPAC King” Chamath Palihapitiya, the company told investors it already had 200,000 direct contracting lives under contract for 2021, according to a slide deck.

But its projections call into question the veracity of those shared when the company was looking to go public. In fact, Kevin Fischbeck, an analyst with Bank of America, called out the discrepancy when he asked the company about estimates that it would have nearly half-a-million members covered through direct contracting by 2023.

Clover could only manage a feeble response, with CFO Joe Wagner saying it was “too early to say in future years exactly where we’re going to end up.”

It’s not the only big question that Clover faces about its future. After a scathing report from a short-seller earlier this year, the startup confirmed it had received a request for information from the Department of Justice, which it hadn’t disclosed previously. A day later, the company received notice of an investigation from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

When asked about the current status of the investigation, co-founder and CEO Vivek Garipalli said it was the company’s policy not to comment on pending inquiries.

In an unusual move, the company fielded questions from Reddit during the investor call, alongside those from analysts.

Clover is one of 53 companies selected to participate in CMS’ direct contracting programs in 2021. The value-based payment models were created under the previous administration, which would allow the startup to strike contracts with doctors who are caring for patients under the traditional Medicare program and manage their care.

Under the new administration, CMS has stopped taking applications for the new direct contracting models, which are slated to launch next year. It also paused the rollout of an alternative model that would tie payments to the population health and cost outcomes for all residents of a specific location.

In the meantime, most of Clover’s business still comes from its Medicare Advantage plans, where it has 66,300 members, an 18% increase year-over-year. It brought in $200.3 million in revenue in the first quarter, up 21%, but its net loss jumped more than 70% to $48.4 million.

The company also decreased its revenue projections from what it originally told investors last year. The startup said it expects to bring in revenue of $810 million to $830 million by the end of 2021, a decrease from its previous projections of $880 million. A small portion of that, just $20 million to $30 million, would come from direct contracting.

UnitedHealth’s Surgical Care Affiliates fires back at DOJ in collusion case

Senate narrowly confirms new head of Justice Department's criminal  division, who worked for Russian bank | PBS NewsHour

Surgical Care Affiliates, which is part of UnitedHealth Group’s Optum division, hit back at the Department of Justice’s defense of a federal case accusing SCA of agreeing with competitors to not poach senior-level employees.

In a May 14 proposed reply brief supporting its bid to dismiss the case, SCA argued the Justice Department’s defense is unlawful and violates due process rights.

“The government seeks to criminally prosecute as a per se Sherman Act violation an alleged agreement not to solicit another company’s employees, even though no court in history has ever definitively found such an agreement unlawful under any mode of analysis,” according to the proposed reply brief. “Not only is this kind of agreement not illegal per se, but subjecting a practice to per se condemnation for the first time in a criminal prosecution would violate bedrock guarantees of due process.” [emphasis in original]

In January, a federal grand jury charged SCA and its related entities, which own and operate outpatient medical care centers, with entering and engaging in conspiracies with other healthcare companies to suppress competition between them for the services of senior-level employees. 

In an email statement to Becker’s Hospital Review, SCA said at the time of the charges: “This matter involves alleged conduct seven years before UnitedHealth Group acquired SCA and does not involve any SCA ambulatory surgery centers, their joint owners, physician partners, current leadership or any other UnitedHealth Group companies. SCA disagrees with the government’s position, and will vigorously defend itself against these unjustified allegations.”

The charges are the first from the department’s antitrust division in its ongoing investigation into employee allocation agreements. Violators of the Sherman Act can face a maximum $100 million fine, or twice the gain derived from the crime or twice the loss suffered by victims if the amount is greater than the maximum. 

The Big Tech of Health Care

https://prospect.org/health/big-tech-of-health-care-united-optum-change-merger/

Optum, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth, provides data analytics and infrastructure, a pharmacy benefit manager called OptumRx, a bank providing patient loans called Optum Bank, and more.

It’s not often that the American Hospital Association—known for fun lobbying tricks like hiring consultants to create studies showing the benefits of hospital mergers—directly goes after another consolidation in the industry.

But when the AHA caught wind of UnitedHealth Group subsidiary Optum’s plans, announced in January 2021, to acquire data analytics firm Change Healthcare, they offered up some fiery language in a letter to the Justice Department. The acquisition … will concentrate an immense volume of competitively sensitive data in the hands of the most powerful health insurance company in the United States, with substantial clinical provider and health insurance assets, and ultimately removes a neutral intermediary.”

If permitted to go through, Optum’s acquisition of Change would fundamentally alter both the health data landscape and the balance of power in American health care. UnitedHealth, the largest health care corporation in the U.S., would have access to all of its competitors’ business secrets. It would be able to self-preference its own doctors. It would be able to discriminate, racially and geographically, against different groups seeking insurance. None of this will improve public health; all of it will improve the profits of Optum and its corporate parent.

Despite the high stakes, Optum has been successful in keeping this acquisition out of the public eye. Part of this PR success is because few health care players want to openly oppose an entity as large and powerful as UnitedHealth. But perhaps an even larger part is that few fully understand what this acquisition will mean for doctors, patients, and the health care system at large.

If regulators allow the acquisition to take place, Optum will suddenly have access to some of the most secret data in health care.

UnitedHealth is the largest health care entity in the U.S., using several metrics. United Healthcare (the insurance arm) is the largest health insurer in the United States, with over 70 million members, 6,500 hospitals, and 1.4 million physicians and other providers. Optum, a separate subsidiary, provides data analytics and infrastructure, a pharmacy benefit manager called OptumRx, a bank providing patient loans called Optum Bank, and more. Through Optum, UnitedHealth also controls more than 50,000 affiliated physicians, the largest collection of physicians in the country.

While UnitedHealth as a whole has earned a reputation for throwing its weight around the industry, Optum has emerged in recent years as UnitedHealth’s aggressive acquisition arm. Acquisitions of entities as varied as DaVita’s dialysis physicians, MedExpress urgent care, and Advisory Board Company’s consultants have already changed the health care landscape. As Optum gobbles up competitors, customers, and suppliers, it has turned into UnitedHealth’s cash cow, bringing in more than 50 percent of the entity’s annual revenue.

On a recent podcast, Chas Roades and Dr. Lisa Bielamowicz of Gist Healthcare described Optum in a way that sounds eerily similar to a single-payer health care system. “If you think about what Optum is assembling, they are pulling together now the nation’s largest employers of docs, owners of one of the country’s largest ambulatory surgery center chains, the nation’s largest operator of urgent care clinics,” said Bielamowicz. With 98 million customers in 2020, OptumHealth, just one branch of Optum’s services, had eyes on roughly 30 percent of the U.S. population. Optum is, Roades noted, “increasingly the thing that ate American health care.”

Optum has not been shy about its desire to eventually assemble all aspects of a single-payer system under its own roof. “The reason it’s been so hard to make health care and the health-care system work better in the United States is because it’s rare to have patients, providers—especially doctors—payers, and data, all brought together under an organization,” OptumHealth CEO Wyatt Decker told Bloomberg. “That’s the rare combination that we offer. That’s truly a differentiator in the marketplace.” The CEO of UnitedHealth, Andrew Witty, has also expressed the corporation’s goal of “wir[ing] together” all of UnitedHealth’s assets.

Controlling Change Healthcare would get UnitedHealth one step closer to creating their private single-payer system. That’s why UnitedHealth is offering up $13 billion, a 41 percent premium on the public valuation of Change. But here’s why that premium may be worth every penny.

Change Healthcare is Optum’s leading competitor in pre-payment claims integrity; functionally, a middleman service that allows insurers to process provider claims (the receipts from each patient visit) and address any mistakes. To clarify what that looks like in practice, imagine a patient goes to an in-network doctor for an appointment. The doctor performs necessary procedures and uses standardized codes to denote each when filing a claim for reimbursement from the patient’s insurance coverage. The insurer then hires a reviewing service—this is where Change comes in—to check these codes for accuracy. If errors are found in the coded claims, such as accidental duplications or more deliberate up-coding (when a doctor intentionally makes a patient seem sicker than they are), Change will flag them, saving the insurer money.

The most obvious potential outcome of the merger is that the flow of data will allow Optum/UnitedHealth to preference their own entities and physicians above others.

To accurately review the coded claims, Change’s technicians have access to all of their clients’ coverage information, provider claims data, and the negotiated rates that each insurer pays.

Change also provides other services, including handling the actual payments from insurers to physicians, reimbursing for services rendered. In this role, Change has access to all of the data that flows between physicians and insurers and between pharmacies and insurers—both of which give insurers leverage when negotiating contracts. Insurers often send additional suggestions to Change as well; essentially their commercial secrets on how the insurer is uniquely saving money. Acquiring Change could allow Optum to see all of this.

Change’s scale (and its independence from payers) has been a selling point; just in the last few months of 2020, the corporation signed multiple contracts with the largest payers in the country.

Optum is not an independent entity; as mentioned above, it’s owned by the largest insurer in the U.S. So, when insurers are choosing between the only two claims editors that can perform at scale and in real time, there is a clear incentive to use Change, the independent reviewer, over Optum, a direct competitor.

If regulators allow the acquisition to take place, Optum will suddenly have access to some of the most secret data in health care. In other words, if the acquisition proceeds and Change is owned by UnitedHealth, the largest health care corporation in the U.S. will own the ability to peek into the book of business for every insurer in the country.

Although UnitedHealth and Optum claim to be separate entities with firewalls that safeguard against anti-competitive information sharing, the porosity of the firewall is an open question. As the AHA pointed out in their letter to the DOJ, “[UnitedHealth] has never demonstrated that the firewalls are sufficiently robust to prevent sensitive and strategic information sharing.”

In some cases, this “firewall” would mean asking Optum employees to forget their work for UnitedHealth’s competitors when they turn to work on implementing changes for UnitedHealth. It is unlikely to work. And that is almost certainly Optum’s intention.

The most obvious potential outcome of the merger is that the flow of data will allow Optum/UnitedHealth to preference their own entities and physicians above others. This means that doctors (and someday, perhaps, hospitals) owned by the corporation will get better rates, funded by increased premiums on patients. Optum drugs might seem cheaper, Optum care better covered. Meanwhile, health care costs will continue to rise as UnitedHealth fuels executive salaries and stock buybacks.

UnitedHealth has already been accused of self-preferencing. A large group of anesthesiologists filed suit in two states last week, accusing the company of using perks to steer surgeons into using service providers within its networks.

Even if UnitedHealth doesn’t purposely use data to discriminate, the corporation has been unable to correct for racially biased data in the past.

Beyond this obvious risk, the data alterations caused by the Change acquisition could worsen existing discrimination and medical racism. Prior to the acquisition, Change launched a geo-demographic analytics unit. Now, UnitedHealth will have access to that data, even as it sells insurance to different demographic categories and geographic areas.

Even if UnitedHealth doesn’t purposely use data to discriminate, the corporation has been unable to correct for racially biased data in the past, and there’s no reason to expect it to do so in the future. A study published in 2019 found that Optum used a racially biased algorithm that could have led to undertreating Black patients. This is a problem for all algorithms. As data scientist Cathy O’Neil told 52 Insights, “if you have a historically biased data set and you trained a new algorithm to use that data set, it would just pick up the patterns.” But Optum’s size and centrality in American health care would give any racially biased algorithms an outsized impact. And antitrust lawyer Maurice Stucke noted in an interview that using racially biased data could be financially lucrative. “With this data, you can get people to buy things they wouldn’t otherwise purchase at the highest price they are willing to pay … when there are often fewer options in their community, the poor are often charged a higher price.”

The fragmentation of American health care has kept Big Data from being fully harnessed as it is in other industries, like online commerce. But Optum’s acquisition of Change heralds the end of that status quo and the emergence of a new “Big Tech” of health care. With the Change data, Optum/UnitedHealth will own the data, providers, and the network through which people receive care. It’s not a stretch to see an analogy to Amazon, and how that corporation uses data from its platform to undercut third parties while keeping all its consumers in a panopticon of data.

The next step is up to the Department of Justice, which has jurisdiction over the acquisition (through an informal agreement, the DOJ monitors health insurance and other industries, while the FTC handles hospital mergers, pharmaceuticals, and more). The longer the review takes, the more likely it is that the public starts to realize that, as Dartmouth health policy professor Dr. Elliott Fisher said, “the harms are likely to outweigh the benefits.”

There are signs that the DOJ knows that to approve this acquisition is to approve a new era of vertical integration. In a document filed on March 24, Change informed the SEC that the DOJ had requested more information and extended its initial 30-day review period. But the stakes are high. If the acquisition is approved, we face a future in which UnitedHealth/Optum is undoubtedly “the thing that ate American health care.”

Executives, physicians at Texas hospital sentenced in $200M scheme

Kickback Definition

Fourteen defendants have been sentenced to more than 74 years in prison combined and ordered to pay $82.9 million in restitution for their roles in a $200 million healthcare scheme designed to get physicians to steer patients to Forest Park Medical Center, a now-defunct hospital in Dallas, the U.S. Justice Department announced March 19. 

More than 21 defendants were charged in a federal indictment in 2016 for their alleged involvement in a bribe and kickback scheme that involved paying surgeons, lawyers and others for referring patients to FPMC’s facilities. Those involved in the scheme paid and/or received $40 million in bribes and kickbacks for referring patients, and the fraud resulted in FPMC collecting $200 million. 

Several of the defendants, including a founder and former administrator of FPMC, were convicted at trial in April 2019 and sentenced last week. Other defendants pleaded guilty before trial.  

Hospital manager and founder Andrew Beauchamp pleaded guilty in 2018 to conspiracy to pay healthcare bribes and commercial bribery, then testified for the government during his co-conspirators’ trial. He admitted that the hospital “bought surgeries” and then “papered it up to make it look good.” He was sentenced March 19 to 63 months in prison. 

Wilton “Mac” Burt, a founder and managing partner of the hospital, was found guilty of conspiracy, paying kickbacks, commercial bribery in violation of the Travel Act and money laundering. He was sentenced March 17 to 150 months in prison. 

Four surgeons, a physician and a nurse were among the other defendants sentenced last week for their roles in the scheme. Access a list of the defendants and their sentences here

Michigan healthcare CEO gets 15 years in prison for $150M fraud

IIG trade finance fund caught in alleged Ponzi scheme | Global Trade Review  (GTR)

The CEO of a chain of medical clinics in Michigan and Ohio was sentenced March 3 to 15 years in prison and ordered to pay $51 million in restitution for his role in a $150 million healthcare fraud scheme, according to the U.S. Justice Department

Mashiyat Rashid was sentenced after pleading guilty in 2018 to money laundering and conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and wire fraud. Twenty other defendants, including 12 physicians, have been convicted for their involvement in the scheme. 

Mr. Rashid, who served as CEO of Tri-County Wellness Group from 2008 to 2016, developed and approved a corporate policy to administer unnecessary back injections to patients in exchange for prescriptions of over 6.6 million doses of medically unnecessary opioids, according to the Justice Department. 

Many patients experienced pain from the unnecessary injections, and some developed adverse conditions, including open holes in their backs, according to testimony at Mr. Rashid’s trial. Physicians at the clinics denied patients, including those addicted to opioids, medication until they agreed to get the injections, according to court documents. 

According to evidence presented at trial, Mr. Rashid only hired physicians who were willing to administer the unnecessary injections in exchange for a split of the Medicare reimbursements for the procedures. Tri-County Wellness Group was paid more for facet joint injections than any other medical clinic in the U.S., according to the Justice Department. 

Proceeds of the fraud were used to fund private jets and to buy luxury cars, real estate and tickets to NBA games, prosecutors said. Mr. Rashid was ordered to forfeit to the U.S. government $11.5 million in proceeds traceable to the healthcare fraud scheme, including commercial and residential real estate and Detroit Pistons season tickets. 

Department of Justice tells Supreme Court it supports Affordable Care Act

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/department-justice-tells-supreme-court-it-supports-affordable-care-act

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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.

They were led by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is Biden’s pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services.