Novel scheme by medical laboratory company to induce patients to collect and return their own specimen for testing is central to a federal whistleblower case alleging violations of the Anti-Kickback Statute
Handing out gift cards only to patients who return a specimen to a clinical laboratory company for colorectal cancer screening is a unique approach that is now at the center of a federal qui tamcase filed by a retired Indiana pathologist.
The defendant in this whistleblower lawsuit is Exact Sciences Laboratories and its parent company Exact Sciences Corporation (NASDAQ:EXAS). Last month, a federal judge ruled the court case will proceed following attempts by the defendant’s attorneys to have the case dismissed.
The plaintiffs (United States of America ex rel. Niles Rosen, MD) allege Exact Sciences Laboratories violated the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) and False Claims Act by offering $75 gift cards to induce patients to return self-collected fecal samples for the lab’s Cologuard at-home colon cancer screening kit through its Patient Compliance Program.
Exact Sciences refuted the allegations and moved to have the case dismissed claiming it “had a good faith belief that its [Patient Compliance Program] complied with the law and thus lacked the requisite intent for a violation of the AKS,” according to court documents. The court denied Exact Sciences’ motion to dismiss.
“We are grateful for the hard work and courage of those private citizens who bring evidence of fraud to the Department’s attention, often putting at risk their careers and reputations,” said Brian Boynton, JD (above), Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General and head of the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Division in a February 7, 2023, DOJ statement. “Our ability to protect citizens and taxpayer funds continues to benefit greatly from their actions.” Clinical laboratory managers will want to follow this and other qui tam cases claiming violation of anti-kickback laws. (Photo copyright: Department of Justice.)
Was Exact Sciences’ Patient Compliance Program a Kickback?
Cologuard is a non-invasive testing kit utilized by people to screen for colorectal cancer in the privacy of their own homes. It is intended for those over the age of 45 who are at low or average risk for the disease. Exact Sciences regularly runs television advertisements urging individuals to be screened for colorectal cancer using the Cologuard test.
Following a physician’s order, and after receiving the testing kit in the mail, individuals collect a stool sample using the specimen container in the kit and return the sample to Exact Sciences Laboratories (ESL) for analysis. The test works by looking for certain DNA markers and blood in the stool sample.
According to Report on Medicare Compliance from the Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA), in 2017, a gastroenterologist ordered the Cologuard kit for Rosen, the whistleblower, but Rosen chose not to return a stool sample to ESL. A few months later, ESL sent Rosen a letter offering him a $75 Visa gift card if he performed the at-home specimen collection and then returned it to ESL by March 22, 2018. Persuaded by the offer, Rosen collected a sample, returned it to ESL, and received the gift card.
As part of its Patient Compliance Program, ESL analyzed Rosen’s sample and received $499 from Medicare for performing the test. The complaint filed against Exact Sciences states Medicare paid Exact Sciences more than $160 million for a total of 334,424 Cologuard tests in 2018 while the company offered “unlawful cash equivalent inducements directly to Medicare beneficiaries,” COSMOS reported.
“It was a straight-up kickback,” Rosen’s attorney Marlan Wilbanks, JD, Senior Partner at Atlanta law firm Wilbanks and Gouinlock, told COSMOS. “You can’t offer cash or cash equivalents to anyone to induce them to use a government service.”
DOJ Elects to Not Intervene in Lawsuit
In February 2020, Exact Sciences received a civil investigation demand by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) regarding the gift card incentive. The DOJ later filed a notice that it had elected to decline intervention in the lawsuit. This action did not prevent Rosen from continuing with the lawsuit. Accordingly, in April of 2021, he filed an amended complaint against Exact Sciences alleging violations of the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute and False Claims Act.
Rosen is seeking a monetary award for himself, and on behalf of the US government, for civil penalties, treble damages, fees, and costs.
According to Report on Medicare Compliance, Exact Sciences “refuted the allegations and asserted, among other things, that the arrangement qualifies for the preventive care safe harbor to the anti-kickback statute (AKS) and that the complaint fails for many reasons.”
Exact Sciences also noted in its motion to dismiss that “encouraging a patient to have a medical service that was already ordered by a provider isn’t an inducement under the AKS.”
At this time, the case remains unresolved and continues in federal court.
DOJ Recovers Billions of Taxpayer Dollars from AKS Violations
A qui tam lawsuit or action is a method available for individuals to help the government circumvent fraud and recover money for taxpayers. Types of fraud included in these cases often pertain to Medicare and Medicaid services, defense contractor fraud, and procurement fraud.
According to the DOJ, over $1.9 billion was recovered as a result of qui tam lawsuits pursued by either the government or whistleblowers during fiscal year 2022. The number of these types of lawsuits has increased dramatically over the years with a total of 652 qui tam cases filed in 2022 alone.
Thus, clinical laboratory professionals should be aware that this type of novel scheme to generate more patients could possibly lead to legal issues. Dark Daily would like to credit Laboratory Economics for calling attention to this fascinating case of alleged illegal inducement involving a medical laboratory company.
United States of America ex rel. Niles Rosen, MD, v. Plaintiff, Exact Sciences Corporation and Exact Sciences Laboratories, LLC [entry of an order staying discovery]