Drug companies seek removal of judge in landmark opioid case

https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/drug-companies-seek-removal-of-judge-in-landmark-opioid-case/2019/09/14/1609f69a-d6f6-11e9-9343-40db57cf6abd_story.html?wpisrc=nl_most&wpmm=1

Drug companies facing more than 2,000 lawsuits over their alleged roles in the opioid epidemic demanded Saturday that the federal judge overseeing the case step aside, questioning his impartiality because he has consistently urged both sides to settle the case.

The request comes after a series of rulings against the companies by U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster in the landmark trial slated to begin Oct. 21.

“Defendants do not bring this motion lightly,” the lawyers wrote in a filing Saturday morning on behalf of some of the nation’s biggest drug distributors and retailers but no drug manufacturers. “Taken as a whole and viewed objectively, the record clearly demonstrates that recusal is necessary.”

The lawyers contended Polster has overstepped his authority and created the appearance of bias. They cited his statements since the beginning of the case encouraging settlement so that money for badly needed drug treatment and other services could go quickly to communities hard hit by the opioid epidemic.

With just two counties “seeking $8 billion in cash for so-called ‘abatement,’ the Court has determined that it, not a jury, has the discretion to decide how much money defendants may pay to government agencies for medical treatment and other addiction-related services and initiatives,” the drug companies wrote.

Polster could not be reached for comment. A telephone call to his assistant Saturday went unanswered.

Lawyers for the more than 2,000 cities, towns, counties and tribal communities suing the drug industry called the attempt to remove Polster a desperate move. The lead plaintiffs’ lawyers said in a statement they “remain confident the judiciary will swiftly respond to yet another attempt by the opioid defendants to delay the trial.”

The plaintiffs have demanded the drug companies, including manufacturers, distributors and retailers, pay billions of dollars for the damage they allegedly caused. Since 1999, more than 200,000 people have died of overdoses of prescription narcotics, and another 200,000 have died from overdoses of heroin and illegal fentanyl, according to government data.

Two Ohio counties, Cuyahoga and Summit, are scheduled to begin trial next month as test cases to determine how other plaintiffs and defendants may fare before a jury.

As of now, they would face off against drug distributors McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and Henry Schein; manufacturers Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceuticals; and retail drugstore chain Walgreens.

Two law professors called the defendants’ motion unusual and saw little chance it would succeed.

The law that authorizes large, consolidated cases like this one — known as “multidistrict litigation” — explicitly recognizes that judges would use the opportunity to encourage settlements, said Carl Tobias, a professor at Richmond University School of Law.

“Judges overseeing MDLs are supposed to encourage settlement and most MDLs end with settlements” for the majority of plaintiffs, Tobias wrote in an email.

Alexandra Lahav, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, agreed.

“It is a highly unusual motion and not one that I think can win,” she wrote in an email. “I am not sure what the strategy is behind bringing it, and filing on Saturday, other than public relations.”

She added, however, “I don’t think there is anything wrong with filing a non-frivolous motion to bring attention to an issue and start a conversation. Given the courts’ historic emphasis on settlement, I just don’t see how that conversation goes anywhere.”

This past week, Purdue Pharma, the company most widely blamed for its role in the crisis, announced a tentative settlement with all the municipalities and about half the state attorneys general who have separately sued members of the drug industry in state courts. If finalized, that agreement would remove Purdue from the first trial.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost (R), whose state backs the Purdue settlement, also has asked to halt the trial, saying the municipalities should allow states to take the lead in the litigation.

In the lead-up to the trial, Polster denied a series of motions filed by the companies seeking to throw out, or limit, the case against them. Those included a defense motion to dismiss arguments that the drug companies conspired with each other to protect their companies from enforcement actions by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Polster also rejected a motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ legal theory that the companies created a “public nuisance” by inundating communities across the nation with enormous amounts of pain pills. And he denied a defense motion to dismiss a strategy to pursue the case under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, originally created to prosecute the Mafia.

This past week, Polster agreed to an unusual plan that would include 30,000 jurisdictions across the United States in any settlement, if they agreed to it. It is aimed at preventing more lawsuits and ensuring that communities everywhere get some money from any settlement.

In their motion, the drug distributors and retail chains said the crucial test is whether a reasonable person would conclude that Polster appeared biased against the defendants.

They cited Polster’s statements inside and outside court “evidencing a personal objective to do something meaningful to abate the opioid crisis, with the funding to be provided through defendants’ settlements,” as well as “numerous improper comments to the media and in public forums about the litigation.”

And they noted Polster’s “apparent prejudgment of the merits and outcome of the litigation and singular focus on, and substantial involvement in, settlement discussions.”

They also protested his decision to limit defendants to 12.5 hours apiece to present their cases during the upcoming trial.

Last month, an appellate court admonished some of the defendants for a legal attack on Polster over an unrelated question. The panel of appellate judges said their claim that Polster’s “assurances are not entitled to our respect because [he] has been deceptive or duplicitous … is a very serious allegation and we find no merit to it.”

 

 

Sutter Health faces class-action lawsuit over pricing: 4 things to know

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/finance/sutter-health-faces-class-action-lawsuit-over-pricing-4-things-to-know.html?oly_enc_id=2893H2397267F7G

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A class-action lawsuit alleging Sutter Health violated California’s antitrust laws by using its market power to overcharge patients is slated to open Sept. 23, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Four things to know:

1. The lawsuit dates back to 2014. Self-funded employers and union trusts initially filed the case, which was later joined with a lawsuit brought in 2018 by California’s attorney general.

2. In March, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said a six-year investigation revealed Sutter restricted health insurers from providing consumers with more low-cost health plan options, and the health system set excessively high out-of-network prices. Sutter also allegedly restricted publication of provider cost information, which impeded transparency.

3. Sutter could be liable for as much as $2.7 billion. The plaintiffs are seeking up to $900 million in damages, and that amount can be tripled under California’s antitrust law, according to the Los Angeles Times.

4. Sutter denies the allegations. Regarding the lawsuit, a health system spokesperson released the following statement to the Los Angeles Times:

“This lawsuit irresponsibly targets Sutter’s integrated system of hospitals, clinics, urgent care centers and affiliated doctors serving millions of patients throughout Northern California. While insurance companies want to sell narrow networks to employers, integrated networks like Sutter’s benefit patient care and experience, which leads to greater patient choice and reduces surprise out-of-network bills to our patients.”

Access the full Los Angeles Times article here.

 

 

 

Judge approves $55M sale of Hahnemann residency programs

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/hospital-transactions-and-valuation/judge-approves-55m-sale-of-hahnemann-residency-programs.html

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Bankruptcy judge approves sale of Hahnemann residency slots
 
This week a Federal judge ruled that the owner of Hahnemann University Hospital could move forward with the sale of the system’s more than 550 residency slots as part of a plan to pay off creditors. The training slots will be sold to a consortium of health systems led by Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals for $55M. Hahnemann had previously agreed to sell the positions to Reading, PA-based Tower Health before they were outbid by the Jefferson consortium, who will keep the majority of the positions—and new physician labor—in the Philadelphia area.

The judge noted the difficulty of the decision, saying it was the kind of case that would “cause a judge to lie awake at night”. The ruling is huge win for debtors, and a blow to the Federal government, which strongly opposed the sale and has seven days to appeal.

Should it stand, the case could set the precedent that residents and the positions they hold are an asset that can be negotiated for and sold. Interns and residents provide low-cost labor that is essential for 24/7 coverage in many large hospitals, and the complex system of allocating and funding of residency training slots is a funds transfer from the Federal government to health systems.

Allowing hospitals to sell those slots to the highest bidder could undermine the stability of urban hospitals, particularly those who are investor-owned, as owners look to maximize short-term profits.

 

 

 

Moody’s Outlook Darkens for Team Health

https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/finance/moodys-outlook-darkens-team-health?spMailingID=16126344&spUserID=MTg2ODM1MDE3NTU1S0&spJobID=1701043585&spReportId=MTcwMTA0MzU4NQS2

UnitedHealth will cancel two-thirds of Team Health’s in-network contracts over the next 11 months.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

Moody’s Investors Service on Friday downgraded the outlook for Team Health from stable to negative.

UnitedHealth has also significantly reduced its payments to Team Health for out-of-network services.

Team Health has accused UnitedHealth of ‘aggressive and inappropriate behavior.’

Team Health Holdings Inc.’s ongoing contract fight with UnitedHealth Group Inc. is hurting the bond status on the Knoxville-based hospital staffing and management company.

Moody’s Investors Service on Friday downgraded the outlook for Team Health from stable to negative, after affirming the company’s B3 Corporate Family Rating and B3-PD Probability of Default Rating.

“The change of outlook reflects rising uncertainty around Team Health’s ability to reduce leverage given its recently disclosed dispute with UnitedHealth Group Inc., one of its largest commercial payors,” Moody’s said.

Moody’s also affirmed the B2 rating on Team Health’s senior secured credit facilities and Caa2 rating on its unsecured notes.

UnitedHealth told Team Health last month that it will cancel two-thirds of its in-network contracts with Team Health between October 2019 until July 2020.

UnitedHealth has also significantly reduced its payments to Team Health for out-of-network services, Moody’s noted.

Team Health provided a statement to HealthLeaders suggesting that it is lawyering up in preparation for more litigation with UnitedHealth.

“As Team Health continues to see more aggressive and inappropriate behavior by payors to either reduce, delay, or deny payments, we have increased our investment in legal resources to address specific situations where we believe payor behavior is inappropriate or unlawful,” the company said.

“To date, Team Health has been successful in getting reasonable reimbursements as a result of that litigation effort. Immediately following their most recent termination, United reached out to Team Health and we have begun negotiations,” Team Health said.

The hospital company said that, so far in 2019, it has successfully resolved eight lawsuits and has filed another 13 lawsuits.

“As United continues to arbitrarily terminate contracts, we expect to file more lawsuits for unfair payment practices and unjust enrichment – and despite United’s urgings we will not surprise bill patients to make up the difference,” Team Health said.

While Moody’s said it believes that Team Health and United will eventually reconcile, “modified contracts are likely to come with lower reimbursement rates for Team Health, which will reduce profitability.”

“Further, a drawn-out negotiation process may lead to disruption to hospital customers and contract losses,” Moody’s said.

“While there is a range of potential outcomes for Team Health, the company’s very high leverage raises the risk that even a modest reduction in profitability will significantly raise debt/EBITDA,” Moody’s said.

TeamHealth’s pro forma debt to EBITDA was estimated by Moody’s at approximately 8.2 times on June 30.

Moody’s noted that the B3 rating is supported by Team Health’s ability to generate positive cash flow of more than $100 million a year, and that the company’s liquidity remains solid.

“The company has a sizable cash balance ($299.4 million as of 6/30/2019), near full availability of its $400 million revolver and no near-term debt maturities,” Moody’s said.

“The company has also shown early signs of progress in executing its business turnaround. This affords the company some flexibility to absorb a modest negative development with respect to contract negotiations with UnitedHealth,” Moody’s said.

Even with that, Moody’s said, the reduced payments from UnitedHealth and potentially other insurers will create a “meaningful decline in free cash flow (that) will likely lead to a rating downgrade.”

“Reduced free cash flow would not only limit the company’s ability to repay debt, but also its ability to execute its tuck-in acquisition strategy,” Moody’s said.

“As United continues to arbitrarily terminate contracts, we expect to file more lawsuits for unfair payment practices and unjust enrichment – and despite United’s urgings we will not surprise bill patients to make up the difference.”

 

 

 

Ex-California hospital CEO will admit new charges related to $950M fraud scheme

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/legal-regulatory-issues/ex-california-hospital-ceo-will-admit-new-charges-related-to-950m-fraud-scheme.html

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Michael Drobot, former owner and CEO of Pacific Hospital in Long Beach, Calif., is currently imprisoned for his role in a kickback scheme, and prosecutors say he has now agreed to plead guilty to new charges.

Mr. Drobot pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and paying illegal kickbacks in 2014. He admitted paying millions of dollars in bribes to physicians in exchange for referring thousands of patients to his hospital for spinal surgeries. He was one of several defendants charged for their roles in the kickback scheme, which resulted in the submission of more than $950 million in fraudulent claims.

In January 2018, Mr. Drobot was sentenced to more than five years in prison and ordered to forfeit $10 million to the government, which included the profits from the sale of a 1965 Aston Martin, a 1958 Porsche and a 1971 Mercedes-Benz. Federal prosecutors allege Mr. Drobot violated the order by transferring the Aston Martin to an auction company. Profits from the sale of the vehicle were allegedly transferred to Mr. Drobot’s personal bank account and used for personal expenses, according to MyNewsLA.com.

Prosecutors charged Mr. Drobot with wire fraud, engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from unlawful activity and criminal contempt of court. He is expected to plead guilty to the new charges, which carry a maximum sentence of 50 years, in coming weeks, according to the report.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michigan surgeon accused of $60M billing fraud

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/legal-regulatory-issues/michigan-surgeon-accused-of-60m-billing-fraud.html?origin=rcme&utm_source=rcme

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An indictment unsealed July 10 charges Vasso Godiali, MD, with orchestrating a $60 million healthcare fraud scheme and laundering proceeds from the scheme, according to the Department of Justice.

Dr. Godiali, a vascular surgeon, allegedly submitted false claims to Medicaid, Medicare and Blue Cross of Michigan for services that weren’t provided and exploited Modifier 59 to improperly unbundle claims. Dr. Godiali allegedly claimed he was performing several separate procedures when he was only entitled to a single reimbursement for a single procedure, according to the Justice Department.

The indictment further alleges Dr. Godiali used six corporations to launder roughly $49 million in proceeds from the healthcare fraud scheme, according to the Justice Department.

Dr. Godiali faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for the healthcare fraud charge and a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for money laundering, according to the Justice Department.