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.

More hospitals poised to require COVID-19 vaccines

It’s “a trickle that will become a torrent,” Ashish Jha, dean at Brown University’s School of Public Health, tweeted.

More hospitals are likely to require employees receive a COVID-19 vaccine, experts said, to further protect the sick and vulnerable patients who rely on them for care.

A Houston-area hospital captured headlines after taking a firm stance on requiring vaccines that prevent severe illness of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 600,000 in the U.S. and ravaged the economy.

Houston Methodist employees who refused the vaccine were either terminated or resigned. A judge earlier this month sided with the hospital and tossed out an employee lawsuit that was seeking to block the mandated inoculation. The ruling may give other hospitals the green light to require the jab, and as more facilities put a similar policy in place, others are likely to follow, experts said.

It’s “a trickle that will become a torrent,” Ashish Jha, professor and dean at Brown University’s School of Public Health, posted Thursday on Twitter.

3 large health systems in Massachusetts to require all workers to be vaccinated.

Given the critical need to protect vulnerable patients, its critical all hospitals do this.

Leading systems will do it soon.

Laggards will get there eventually.

Joining the growing tide of vaccine mandates are a variety of systems and hospitals, including Mass General Brigham in Boston, BJC Healthcare in St. Louis and Inova Health System in Virginia.

Some of the nation’s largest health systems have yet to mandate the shot, including Kaiser Permanente and CommonSpirit Health.

“Vaccination will only be required for Kaiser Permanente employees if a state or county where we operate mandates the vaccine for health care workers,” the company said in an email.

The American Hospital Association continues to hear that a growing number of its members are requiring the vaccine, with some exemptions. However, many member hospitals are waiting until the FDA grants full approval, a time when more safety and efficacy data will be made available.

“Getting vaccinated is especially critical for health care professionals because they work with patients with underlying health conditions whose immune systems may be compromised,” AHA, which has not taken on stance on the requirement, said in a statement.

The mandates raise ethical questions, some say, pointing to the profession’s promise to “do no harm.”

Arthur Caplan, head of medical ethics at New York University School of Medicine, said the codes of ethics that doctors and nurses says to put patients first, do no harm and protect the vulnerable.

“Of course they should be vaccinated,” he said. “If they don’t want to get vaccinated, I think they’re in the wrong profession.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said employment law does not prohibit employers from requiring the jab, essentially giving the green light to employers to put incentives and requirements in place for their workers. The EEOC is the federal agency tasked with ensuring that workplaces do not discriminate.

Some states are going against the tide and signing legislation that bars vaccine mandates, including Florida. The city of San Francisco will require hospital employees and workers in high-risk settings to get the vaccine. San Francisco, like other employers and universities, will require all city workers get inoculated.

The differing policy stances across the country creates additional hurdles for corporations with a large footprint.

3 Ascension Texas hospitals to pay $20.9M for alleged kickbacks

Kickback Definition

Three Ascension hospitals in Texas agreed to pay $20.9 million for allegedly paying multiple physician groups above fair market value for services, according to a recent news release from the HHS’ Office of Inspector General.

The three Texas hospitals are Ascension’s Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin, Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin and Ascension Seton Williamson in Roundrock. Ascension self-disclosed the conduct to the inspector general.

The hospitals allegedly violated the Civil Monetary Penalties Law, including provisions related to physician self-referrals and kickbacks in seven instances, according to the April 30 news release.

Some of the allegations the report outlined include Dell Seton paying an Austin physician practice above fair market value for on-call coverage; Ascension Seton Austin paying an Austin practice above fair market value for transplant on-call coverage and administrative services; and Ascension Seton Williamson paying a practice above fair market value to lease the practice’s employed registered nurses and surgical technologists who assisted in surgeries at the hospital. 

The release did not disclose the physician groups allegedly involved.

Access the full release here

Kansas Heart Hospital accuses former CFO, COO of stealing funds

Binghamton Embezzlement Lawyer | Embezzlement Charges in NY

The Kansas Heart Hospital in Wichita filed a lawsuit against two former executives, claiming they stole money from the facility and improperly used CARES Act funds, according to ABC affiliate KAKE and court documents.  

The lawsuit, filed April 29 in the U.S. District Court in Kansas, accuses the hospital’s former COO Joyce Heismeyer and former CFO Steve Smith of stealing funds between 2015 and 2020. During that time, Kansas Heart Hospital lost more than $31 million, according to the lawsuit.

Ms. Heismeyer and Mr. Smith abruptly stepped down from their roles in fall 2020. The hospital claims the former executives set up large severance payments for themselves before their departures, which prompted an internal investigation.

In its complaint, Kansas Heart Hospital alleges that Ms. Heismeyer and Mr. Smith conspired with the hospital’s former president, Gregory Duick, MD, to divert more than $6 million in hospital funds for undisclosed bonuses and benefits during the five-year period. Additionally, the hospital claims all three sent millions in hospital dollars to an investment account that Dr. Duick owned. 

Kansas Heart Hospital also claims the three caused it to lose out on $4.4 million in CARES Act payments. The funds were returned to avoid a federal audit, the lawsuit alleges, but the former executives said the funds were returned because the hospital hadn’t treated any COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Duick also retired from his role in fall 2020. He is named in the lawsuit but is not a defendant, and did not immediately return KAKE‘s request for comment.

In a statement to KAKE, an attorney for Ms. Heismeyer and Mr. Smith said, “Joyce and Steve vehemently deny the allegations and will aggressively defend themselves and expect to clear their names in court.” Additionally, the statement said, “We are disappointed by the Kansas Heart Hospital’s plan to sue and tarnish the reputations of two long time employees.”

Houston Methodist implements mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations

Houston Methodist's new $700M tower sends a message in competitive market |  FierceHealthcare

Houston Methodist will make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for employees, with the first phase including managers and new hires, the health system said March 31. 

In an email, Marc Boom, MD, president and CEO, told managers new hires are already required to be vaccinated as a condition to joining Houston Methodist, and management is now also required to do the same.

“When we choose to be vaccinated against COVID-19, we are prioritizing safety by helping stop the spread of this deadly virus and keeping our patients, visitors and colleagues safe,” Dr. Boom wrote to managers. “As we move closer to announcing mandatory vaccinations for all employees, we need you to go first — to lead by example and show our employees how important getting vaccinated is.”

At Houston Methodist, 95 percent of management and all executives have already received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Boom said managers who have not done this have until April 15 to receive at least one dose or get an approved exemption. Those who do not comply would first have a discussion with their supervisor, then could face suspension then termination. 

All 26,000 Houston Methodist employees and employed physicians soon will be required to receive at least one shot.

Overall, about 83 percent of the health system’s employees have been vaccinated. 

Marc Harrison: The nation could learn a thing or two from Utahns about keeping people healthy

https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/commentary/2021/03/12/marc-harrison-nation/

Marc HarrisonM.D., is president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare.

We are better served by a system that seeks to keep people healthy, not wait until they get sick.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that there’s a much better way to keep people healthy while reducing stress on our health care system at the same time. This will not only help mitigate risks from any future public health crisis, but also improve the well being and health of people in our community.

Utah’s Intermountain Healthcare, along with our community and health care colleagues, are leading a movement to do just that.

We greatly value and appreciate all our government, community and health care partners that coordinate closely with us to address the pandemic and provide care for our communities. It’s been a statewide team effort and will continue to be a team effort.

The roots of a deeply flawed national health care model that had taken hold long ago proved to create both systemic and personal health risks. According to a recent study, the U.S. had far more people hospitalized, more people with chronic conditions, double the obesity rates and the highest rate of preventable deaths among comparable nations. This was before the pandemic ever started. Our national health system was perfectly designed to be overwhelmed under the COVID-19 stress.

Moreover, many people who have died from COVID-19 were in poor health to begin with or were managing preventable chronic conditions. The flawed national health care system was never designed to support their goal to stay healthy. Instead, it was designed to wait until they got sick and then treat them.

Utah has one of the lowest death rates from COVID-19 in the nation. It’s at least partly true that this can be attributed to the superb care by medical providers in the state. But the data show a more interesting story. People in our state are in better health compared to those in other states.

We play outside more, drink less and smoke less than people in other states. Our rate of obesity is far lower than most other states. It’s no surprise that our recorded COVID-19 death rate is among the lowest in the nation. In fact, three of the top five healthiest states also have the three of the top six lowest recordable death rates from COVID-19. We don’t believe that’s a coincidence.

Over the last several years, Intermountain has focused more resources on keeping people healthy and out of hospitals. Vaccines have long been a critical part of this strategy. And while that garners most of the immediate headlines, we’ve geared our entire system’s strategy to focus on keeping people and communities well.

For example, Intermountain is a world leader in precision genomics medicine that aims to better treat and prevent genetic diseases. The opportunity to participate in the biggest, voluntary research of its kind is available for anyone in our community at no cost. With our community’s help, we can eventually share what we learn with others across the country and the world to help keep everyone healthier.

We are investing in addressing social determinants of health to keep people out of emergency rooms or other clinical settings for unneeded visits. Social determinants of health are influences that affect people’s long-term health, such as stable housing, joblessness, hunger, unsafe neighborhoods and access to transportation.

We’ve been working with and providing funding to multiple local nonprofit agencies that address these issues, and have provided financial support for a three-year pilot in Utah to see how community partnerships can address those influences in low-income ZIP codes. Often, simple and affordable changes can help prevent unnecessary health issues.

We’ve integrated mental health care with primary care because we know that mental health is essential to a person’s overall health. Long before the pandemic hit our shores, we deployed telehealth services that helps care for people closer to their homes and families. It’s not simply a matter of convenience for those we serve, but can lead to better health outcomes for less money.

All of us can’t wait to get back to some sense of normal. But for the nation’s health system, going back to normal shouldn’t be an option. We must do better. And Intermountain is determined to partner with Utahns and do what we all do best – lead the nation and the world by setting a better example.

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

Washington health system rebuked for offering COVID-19 vaccines to ‘major donors’

Overlake Hospital Medical Center (Bellevue, Wash.) | 100 hospitals and  health systems with great orthopedic programs 2017

Overlake Medical Center & Clinics invited about 110 donors who gave more than $10,000 to the Bellevue, Wash.-based health system to receive COVID-19 vaccines, drawing criticism from the state’s governor, according to The Seattle Times

Molly Stearns, the chief development officer at Overlake, emailed the “major donors,” as they were addressed in correspondence, about 500 open appointments in its COVID-19 clinic that were set to open Jan. 23. According to The Seattle Times, donors who received the email got an access code to register for appointments. 

The vaccination appointments weren’t exclusive to donors, but were open to some 4,000 people who were board members, some patients, volunteers, employees and retired health providers, Overlake told the newspaper. All registrants were supposed to meet state-specific eligibility requirements for the vaccine, according to The Seattle Times.

Tom DeBord, Overlake’s COO, told the newspaper that the invitation was sent after the hospital’s scheduling system stopped working properly. To speed up distribution, the system began contacting people whose emails they had access to, which included donors, retirees, some patients and board members.

“We’re under pressure to vaccinate people who are eligible and increase capacity. In hindsight, we could certainly look back and say this wasn’t the best way to do it,” Mr. DeBord told The Seattle Times.

Once Gov. Jay Inslee’s office found out about the “invite-only” appointments, the office asked Overlake to shut down the sign-ups, which the system did.

In a Jan. 27 statement posted to the health system’s website, Overlake said all communications with people invited to sign up for the vaccine “made clear that people must show proof of eligibility under current Washington State requirements to ultimately be vaccinated, no matter who they are or how they are affiliated with us. We recognize we made a mistake by including a subset of our donors and by not adopting a broader outreach strategy to fill these appointments, and we apologize. Our intent and commitment has always been to administer every vaccine made available to us safely, appropriately, and efficiently.”

Read the full report here.

Michael Dowling: No one said it would be easy

Five suggestions for technology companies, venture capitalists | Northwell  Health

Hardly one month into 2021, the pressing priorities facing healthcare leaders are abundantly clear. 

First, we will be living in a world preoccupied by COVID-19 and vaccination for many months to come. Remember: this is a marathon, not a sprint. And the stark reality is that the vaccination rollout will continue well into the summer, if not longer, while at the same time we continue to care for hundreds of thousands of Americans sickened by the virus. Despite the challenges we face now and in the coming months in treating the disease and vaccinating a U.S. population of 330 million, none of us should doubt that we will prevail. Despite the federal government’s missteps over the past year in managing and responding to this unprecedented public health crisis, historians will recognize the critical role of the nation’s healthcare community in enabling us to conquer this once-in-a-generation pandemic.

While there has been an overwhelming public demand for the vaccine during the past couple of weeks, there remains some skepticism within the communities we serve, including some of the most-vulnerable populations, so healthcare leaders will find themselves spending time and energy communicating the safety and efficacy of vaccines to those who may be hesitant. This is a good thing. It is our responsibility to share facts, further public education and influence public policy. COVID-19 has enhanced public trust in healthcare professionals, and we can maintain that trust if we keep our focus on the right things — namely, how we improve the health of our communities.

And as healthcare leaders diligently balance this work, we also have a great opportunity to reimagine what our hospitals and health systems can be as we emerge from the most trying year of our professional lifetimes. How do you want your hospital or system organized? What kind of structural changes are needed to achieve the desired results? What do you really want to focus on? Amid the pressing priorities and urgent decision-making needed to survive, it is easy to overlook the great reimagination period in front of us. The key is to forget what we were like before COVID-19 and reflect upon what we want to be after.

These changes won’t occur overnight. We’ll need patience, but here are my thoughts on five key questions we need to answer to get the right results.

1. How do you enhance productivity and become more efficient? Throughout 2021, most systems will be in recovery mode from COVID’s financial bruises. Hospitals saw double-digit declines in inpatient and outpatient volumes in 2020, and total losses for hospitals and health systems nationwide were estimated to total at least $323 billion. While federal relief offset some of our losses, most of us still took a major financial hit. As we move forward, we must reorganize to operate as efficiently as possible. Does reorganization sound daunting? If so, remember the amount of reorganization we mustered to work effectively in the early days of the pandemic. When faced with no alternative, healthcare moved heaven and earth to fulfill its mission. Crises bring with them great clarity. It’s up to leaders to keep that clarity as this tragic, exhausting and frustrating crisis gradually fades.

2. How do you accelerate digital care? COVID-19 changed our relationship with technology, personally and professionally. Look at what we accomplished and how connected we remain. We were reminded of how high-quality healthcare can go unhindered by distance, commutes and travel constraints with the right technology and telehealth programs in place. Health system leaders must decide how much of their business can be accommodated through virtual care so their organizations can best offer convenience while increasing access. Oftentimes, these conversations don’t get far before confronting doubts about reimbursement. Remember, policy change must happen before reimbursement catches up. If you wait for reimbursement before implementing progressive telehealth initiatives, you’ll fall behind. 

3. How will your organization confront healthcare inequities? In 2020, I pledged that Northwell would redouble its efforts and remain a leader in diversity and inclusion. I am taking this commitment further this year and, with the strength of our diverse workforce, will address healthcare inequities in our surrounding communities head-on. This requires new partnerships, operational changes and renewed commitments from our workforce. We need to look upstream and strengthen our reach into communities that have disparate access to healthcare, education and resources. We must push harder to transcend language barriers, and we need our physicians and medical professionals of color reinforcing key healthcare messages to the diverse communities we serve. COVID-19’s devastating effect on communities of color laid bare long-standing healthcare inequalities. They are no longer an ugly backdrop of American healthcare, but the central plot point that we can change. If more equitable healthcare is not a top priority, you may want to reconsider your mission. We need leaders whose vision, commitment and courage match this moment and the unmistakable challenge in front of us. 

4. How will you accommodate the growing portion of your workforce that will be remote? Ten to 15 percent of Northwell’s workforce will continue to work remotely this year. In the past, some managers may have correlated remote work and teams with a decline in productivity. The past year defied that assumption. Leaders now face decisions about what groups can function remotely, what groups must return on-site, and how those who continue to work from afar are overseen and managed. These decisions will affect your organizations’ culture, communications, real estate strategy and more. 

5. How do you vigorously hold onto your cultural values amid all of this change? This will remain a test through 2021 and beyond. Culture is the personality of your organization. Like many health systems and hospitals, much of Northwell’s culture of connectedness, awareness, respect and empathy was built through face-to-face interaction and relationships where we continually reinforced the organization’s mission, vision and values. With so many employees now working remotely, how can we continue to bring out the best in all of our people? We will work to answer that question every day. The work you put in to restore, strengthen and revitalize your culture this year will go a long way toward cementing how your employees, patients and community come to see your organization for years to come. Don’t underestimate the power of these seemingly simple decisions.

While we’ve been through hell and back over the past year, I’m convinced that the healthcare community can continue to strengthen the public trust and admiration we’ve built during this pandemic. However, as we slowly round the corner on COVID-19, our future success will hinge on what we as healthcare organizations do now to confront the questions above and others head-on. It won’t be quick or easy and progress will be a jagged line. Let’s resist the temptation to return to what healthcare was and instead work toward building what healthcare can be. After the crisis of a lifetime, here’s our opportunity of a lifetime. We can all be part of it.