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.
Book provides detailed road map for clinical laboratory professionals who believe they have a valid case to file under the federal qui tam statute, as well as lab owners who want to understand what motivates whistleblowers and what practices to avoid
Several high-profile whistleblower cases uncovering massive fraud have shocked the clinical laboratory industry over the past decade. Media coverage nearly always focuses on the court battle and subsequent renderings of justice. But little is written about what it is like to be a whistleblower who wants to hold a medical laboratory accountable for alleged violations of federal and state laws.
The book takes the reader on a gripping journey into extortion, money laundering, attempted murder, buried gold in a CEO’s backyard, fraudsters hiding money in the Cayman Islands, and, according to the author, an Assistant Attorney General sabotaging her own state’s case and a corrupt state Governor who undermined litigation by his own Attorney General.
“I wrote it to be a true crime thriller, so I’m hoping people who love thrillers will enjoy it as a true crime story,” Riedel said in an exclusive interview with Dark Daily. “For anyone who’s considering filing a whistleblower lawsuit, this is an absolute must read.
“Most whistleblowers get absolutely destroyed,” he explained. “When companies find out who’s trying to attack their business model, they do everything they can to destroy the whistleblower’s life. Many end up bankrupt, unemployable, and divorced.
“There are things you can do to protect yourself and I list those in my rules for whistleblowers. I hope enough people will read it—particularly in Congress and maybe the Department of Justice (DOJ)—to put pressure on the DOJ to change their behavior. They are far too willing to accept what they call ‘affordable civil settlements’ as opposed to punishing companies and people for their theft,” Riedel said.
Riedel became a whistleblower in 2005 when he filed a case under California law that was sealed until 2009. Jerry Brown, California Attorney General at that time, joined the case and unsealed it.
Riedel had acted after his sales representatives informed him that his company, Hunter Laboratories, needed to come up with a way to compete against larger labs’ pricing to survive. Knowing the test-price-discounting practices transpiring within the lab industry in California, Riedel determined he had three choices:
Violate federal and state laws to compete,
Close his business, which would cause him to lay off more than 150 employees and lose most of his life’s savings, or
Try to stop the other companies from participating in fraudulent practices.
“It is very frustrating for honest CEOs of clinical labs to see that they cannot compete well against those lab companies employing fraudulent schemes. Rather than compete on the quality of service of their products as honest companies do, fraudsters compete based on the value of their illegal inducements,” he states on his website. “I felt the pain that many other honest CEO’s and lab owners have had to endure as they try to compete with fraud and watch their life’s work destroyed.”
He chose to try leveling the playing field for all labs and stop taxpayers from being fleeced. After filing that first whistleblower lawsuit in California in 2005, he later filed similar whistleblower lawsuits in other states that had statutes defining how labs were to price lab tests for their Medicaid programs.
Riedel encountered many roadblocks and frustrations during the initial lawsuit, including some genuinely frightening moments. He described one such experience for Dark Daily.
“Quest and Labcorp together went to Blue Shield of California, a major insurance company, and they got our clinical lab kicked out of network. They offered Blue Shield a 10% discount on all their laboratory testing if they would kick Hunter Laboratories out of network,” Riedel explained. “Since [Quest and Labcorp] represented about 70% to 80% of the total outpatient laboratory testing for Blue Shield, it was too good for this insurer to pass up.
“When your lab loses a major insurance carrier like that, you can’t survive. What doctor is going to want to start with a clinical lab that doesn’t have Blue Shield? And existing clients don’t want to subject their patients to having much higher out-of-pocket expenses.
“From that point on, it was like a dagger in our heart,” he added. “We were literally two weeks away from both corporate and personal bankruptcy when we reached our historic settlement with Quest. Had it not been for that settlement, our 150 employees would have lost their jobs, we would have lost our house, and we would have been completely bankrupt. That was very scary, and I had a very hard time dealing with it.”
Uncovering Medical Laboratory Fraud
While performing his research for the whistleblower case, Riedel was astonished by the information and fraud he discovered.
“There was one point where we had to prove that Quest and Labcorp were passing out discounts to some clients that were at or below cost, without giving those same prices to the Medi-Cal program, as required by state law at that time,” Riedel explained. “I personally reviewed over a million documents. It took more than five years, but it was worth it.
“I eventually found three documents that exposed the complete fraud by Quest. These documents showed what Quest had billed Medi-Cal, how much money the company lost client billing and capitation contracts, and how much business they ‘pulled through’ from the government and insurance payers that made up for the staggering losses on deeply discounted client and capitated billing. That was like the silver bullet.”
In the process, Riedel also discovered what it was like to work with the federal Department of Justice.
“The DOJ hates people who file more than one whistleblower lawsuit,” he added. “They don’t like the statute to begin with, and they barely tolerate whistleblowers, so when they find someone who does it time and again, they really don’t like it.”
Riedel is considering writing a second book and is trying to decide which qui tam lawsuits will provide the best subject matter.
“I am currently investigating what would be a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit against an insurance company and that is going to be, by far, the biggest of the cases I have ever been involved in. That might make a good book all by itself,” he said.
Riedel finds his work fighting fraud against the government rewarding and plans to continue his efforts in the future.
“Even though it’s risky—and the book details how my life was almost destroyed when the Blood Brothers counter attacked—I enjoy the investigative work and legal challenges. For me, it is very fulfilling, and I am proud to carry the torch for taxpayers,” he says in a statement on his website.
The 368-page book should be of interest to clinical laboratory personnel, healthcare professionals, those considering becoming a whistleblower, and basically anyone involved in medical laboratory testing.
This fourth edition of the annual event will be held virtually with free registration for pathologists and clinical laboratory professionals
In its fourth year, stakeholders in the clinical laboratory community have promoted thought leadership around the Lab Industry at the Project Santa Fe Foundation’s Clinical Lab 2.0 Workshop. Clinical Lab 2.0 (CL 2.0) which identifies new opportunities for medical labs to add value as the healthcare industry transitions from fee-for-service to value-based delivery models. But how does this concept apply during the era of COVID-19? That’s a key question participants will discuss at the 2020 Clinical Lab 2.0 Workshop, a virtual event scheduled for Oct. 26-27 with a focus on Population Health.
“This workshop will help all clinical laboratory leaders and pathologists to better understand, ‘How do we manage a pandemic, identifying high risk pool, where are the care gaps, and how do we better manage in the future proactively?’” said Khosrow Shotorbani, MBA, MT (ASCP), co-founder of the CL2.0 initiative and a regular speaker at the Executive War College, in an exclusive interview with Dark Daily. He is President and Executive Director of the Project Santa Fe Foundation, the organization that promotes the Clinical 2.0 Movement.
The coronavirus pandemic has “truly elevated the value of the clinical laboratory and diagnostics as one essential component of the care continuum,” he noted. “The value of the SARS-CoV-2 test became immense, globally, and the mantra became ‘test to trace to treat.’”
Project Santa Fe Foundation’s website defines Clinical Laboratory 2.0 as an effort to demonstrate “the power of longitudinal clinical lab data to proactively augment population health in a value-based healthcare environment.” The “goals are to improve the clinical outcomes of populations, help manage population risk, and reduce the overall cost of delivering healthcare,” the CL 2.0 website states.
“It’s about harnessing lab test results and other data that have predictive value and can help us proactively identify individuals that need care,” explained Shotorbani. “In the context of population health or value-based care, our labs potentially can utilize the power of this data to risk-stratify a population for which we are responsible or we can identify gaps in care.”
Clinical Lab 2.0 and the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic
In the context of COVID-19, “Clinical Lab 2.0 argues that there is a hidden universe of value that can help augment what happens between COVID-19 testing and COVID-19 tracing to convert this reactive approach—meaning we wait for the person to get ill—versus considering who may be most at risk if they were to become infected so that our clinical laboratories can help caregivers create proactive isolation or quarantine strategies,” he added.
Shotorbani then explained how clinical laboratories have data about comorbidities such as diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and immunosuppression that are associated with more serious cases of COVID-19. “This clinical lab data can be harnessed, associated with demographic and risk data such as age and zip codes to help physicians and others identify patients who would be most at risk from a COVID-19 infection,” he noted.
“Historically, the primary focus of a clinical laboratory was very much on the clinical intervention, contacting the care manager physician, and identifying who’s at risk,” he said. But with COVID-19, Shotorbani sees opportunities to forge relationships with public health specialists to encourage what he describes as “consumer engagement.”
“As medical laboratory professionals, we must evolve to accommodate and support the needs of consumers as they take a more active role in their health,” he continued. “This is moving past simply providing lab test results, but to then be a useful diagnostic and therapeutic resource that helps consumers understand their health conditions and what the best next steps are to manage those conditions.”
Khosrow Shotorbani (above) is President, Executive Director, of the Project Santa Fe Foundation and one of the leaders of the Clinical Laboratory 2.0 movement. He is hopeful that the prominent role of medical laboratories in responding to the coronavirus pandemic will lead to an ongoing “seat at the table” in the higher echelons of healthcare organizations. In normal times, “we reside in basements, and we’re done when we release a result,” he said during an exclusive interview with Dark Daily. “COVID-19 was a kick in the rear to get us upstairs to the C-suite, because healthcare CEOs are under the gun to demonstrate more SARS-CoV-2 testing capacity.” Looking ahead, “we want to make sure that our clinical laboratories stay in that seat and design a future delivery model above and beyond COVID-19, maybe even help health systems, hospitals, and other providers drive their strategies.” (Photo copyright: Albuquerque Business First.)
“None of these are pathologists or come from the lab,” Shotorbani said. “They represent the C-suite and higher organization constituents. These are the healthcare executives who are dealing with their organization’s pain points. As clinical labs, we want to align ourselves to those organizational objectives.”
Pathologist Mark Fung, MD, PhD, will then present a CL 2.0 model for managing COVID-19 or other infectious disease pandemics, followed by a response from the other panelists. Fung is Vice Chair for Population Health in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. He is also on the Project Santa Fe Foundation (PSFF) board of directors.
“Lab 2.0 is a thought leadership organization,” Shotorbani said. “We are developing a template and abstract of this model of clinical laboratory services that other labs can follow while applying some of their own intuition as they make it operational.”
This will be the first Clinical Lab 2.0 Workshop to be held virtually and registration this year will be free for members of the clinical laboratory community, Shotorbani said. In the past “there has been a hefty tuition to get into this because it’s a very high-touch workshop, especially for senior leaders. But given the critical topic that we’re facing, we felt it was important to waive the cost.”
Cutler alleged that “Cigna-HealthSpring has knowingly defrauded the United States through an intentional and systematic pattern and practice of submitting to CMS invalid diagnosis codes derived from in-home health assessments.” He claimed this took place “from at least 2012 until at least 2017,” and likely thereafter.
Cigna has denied the allegations. “We are proud of our industry-leading Medicare Advantage program and the manner in which we conduct our business,” the insurer stated in an email to HealthPayerIntelligence. “We will vigorously defend Cigna against all unjustified allegations,” Cigna stated.
As the lawsuit explains, Medicare Advantage (MA) plans are administered by private insurers under Medicare Part C. “Rather than pay providers directly based on the medical services provided, Medicare Part C pays MA Organizations a monthly capitated rate for each covered beneficiary, and tasks the MA Plan with paying providers for services rendered to plan members,” the lawsuit states. “MA insurers are generally paid more for providing benefits to beneficiaries with higher-risk scores—generally older and sicker people—and less for beneficiaries with lower-risk scores, who tend to be younger and healthier.”
The lawsuit notes that CMS relies on information—specifically ICD codes—from the insurers to calculate the risk scores.
Cigna’s 360 Program as Described in Lawsuit
Cutler alleged that Cigna defrauded CMS through its “360 Program,” in which primary care providers (PCPs) were encouraged to perform enhanced annual wellness visits that included routine physical exams. He claimed that “Cigna-HealthSpring designed the program so that, in practice, the 360 assessment was a mere data-gathering exercise used to improperly record lucrative diagnoses to fraudulently raise risk scores and increase payments from CMS.”
Cigna-HealthSpring, he alleged in the court documents, offered PCPs financial bonuses to perform the 360 program exams, especially on patients deemed most likely to yield high-risk scores. However, many clinicians declined, so the insurer recruited third-party contract providers, including THM, to send nurse practitioners (NPs) or registered nurses (RNs) to the homes of MA plan members.
For each visit, the NPs and RNs were given health reports listing the beneficiary’s previous diagnoses. “Cigna-HealthSpring intended the document to serve as a ‘cheat-sheet’ list of conditions and diagnoses it expected 360 contractors to capture during the in-home visit,” Cutler alleges. “The list of diagnoses did not indicate the date they were reported or any other information concerning their status.”
During each visit, which typically lasted 30-60 minutes, “NPs and RNs relied primarily on the patient’s self-assessment, i.e., subjectively reported information, as well as current medications to the extent available and, during certain time periods and for certain plan members, limited [clinical] laboratory findings,” Cutler alleged.
NPs were expected to record 20 or more diagnoses per visit, he wrote, including diagnoses based on “weak links” involving medications. “For example, Cigna-HealthSpring encouraged contractors to record atrial fibrillation, deep vein thrombosis, and pulmonary embolus based on the presence of certain classes of anti-coagulation medications on members’ medication lists or in their homes,” he stated.
He also alleged that “Cigna-HealthSpring, in purposeful violation of CMS rules, designed its 360 form to force NPs to capture diagnoses that were uncertain, probable, or merely suspected.”
These diagnoses were subsequently submitted as risk-adjustment data to CMS, he alleged, adding up to “hundreds of thousands of false claims from its six contractors during the relevant period. Although the exact amount will be proven at trial, the United States has paid billions of dollars in improper, inflated payments to Defendants under the MA Plan as a result of this scheme.”
The Federal False Claims Act “allows a private citizen to step into the shoes of and pursue a claim on behalf of the government,” explained the Boyers Law Group of Coral Gables, Fla., in an article for HG.org, which states, the lawsuit “may proceed with or without the assistance of the government.”
If the government chooses to intervene, the whistleblower, known formally as the “relator,” can receive 15% to 25% of the proceeds recovered in the action, the law firm explained in another article for HG.org, adding that, in most cases, the government does not intervene, which increases the potential award to 30%.
In the Cigna case, the US Attorney’s office notified the court on Feb. 25, 2020, that the government had decided not to intervene “at this time.”
Significance for Clinical Laboratories
Regardless of how this case proceeds, medical laboratory managers should remember that they are subject to legal action if internal whistleblowers identify policies or procedures that violate federal fraud and abuse laws. And because it involves coding, it is also a reminder of the importance of documenting diagnoses and clinical laboratory test orders as protection against fraud allegations.
Another benefit of carefully documenting each lab test order is that labs can make the information available when auditors from government or private payers show up and want documentation on the medical necessity of each lab test claim.
Health News (KHN) recently
reported on investigations by the OIG into hospitals allegedly offering
unusually high salaries and other perks to specialists because they attract highly
Wheeling, KHN reported, paid one anesthesiologist $1.2
million per year, which, Rau notes, is higher than the salaries of 90% of the
pain management specialists around the country. Rau went on to describe how
Wheeling also paid one obstetrician-gynecologist $1.3 million per year, and a
cardiothoracic surgeon $770,000 per year along with 12 weeks of vacation time.
In each of those cases, the whistleblower who prompted the qui tam investigation reported
that the specialists’ various departments were frequently in the red, reported KHN.
“The problem, according to the government, is that the
efforts run counter to federal self-referral bans and anti-kickback laws that
are designed to prevent financial considerations from warping physicians’
clinical decisions,” wrote Rau.
Wheeling not only contests the lawsuits brought against it,
but also has filed a countersuit against the whistleblower. KHN said the
hospital claims “its generous salaries were not kickbacks but the only way it
could provide specialized care to local residents who otherwise would have to
travel to other cities for services such as labor and delivery that are best
provided near home.”
OIG’s Fraud and Abuse Laws: A Roadmap for Physicians
The KHN article mentions
five laws the OIG lists on
its website that are particularly important for physicians to be aware of. They
False Claims Act: states that it’s illegal to file false Medicare or Medicaid claims.
Anti-Kickback Statute: states that paying for referrals is illegal, that physicians can’t provide free or discounted services to uninsured people, and that money and gifts from drug and device makers to physicians are prohibited.
Stark Law(physician self-referral): says that referrals to entities with whom the physician has a familial or financial relationship are off-limits.
Exclusion Statue: describes who cannot participate in federal programs, such as Medicare.
Civil Monetary Penalties Law: authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Services, which operates the OIG, to impose penalties in cases of fraud and abuse that involve Medicare or Medicaid.
“Together, these rules are intended to remove financial
incentives that can lead doctors to order up extraneous tests and treatments
that increase costs to Medicare and other insurers and expose patients to
unnecessary risks,” KHN said.
Other Hospitals Under Investigation
Wheeling Hospital is not the only healthcare institution
facing investigation. The Dallas
Morning News (DMN) reported on a case involving Forest
Park Medical Center (FPMC) in Dallas that resulted in the conviction of
seven defendants, including four doctors. Prosecutors outlined the scheme in
court, saying that FPMC illegally paid for surgeries.
“Prosecutors said the surgeons agreed to refer patients to
the Dallas hospital in exchange for money to market their practices,” DMN
reported, adding “Patients were a valuable commodity sold to the highest
bidder, according to the government.”
One of the convicted physicians, Michael Rimlawi, MD,
told DMN, “I’m in disbelief. I thought we had a good system, a fair
system.” His statement may indicate the level to which some healthcare
providers at FPMC did not clearly understand how anti-kickback laws work.
“The verdict in the Forest Park case is a reminder to
healthcare practitioners across the district that patients—not payments—should
guide decisions about how and where doctors administer treatment,” US Attorney Erin Nealy Cox told DMN.
These four incidents involved hospitals in Tennessee,
Montana, Pennsylvania, and New York. This demonstrates that kickback schemes
take place nationwide. And they show that violations of the Stark Law, the
False Claims Act, and the Anti-Kickback Statute can happen in numerous ways.
Whether in a clinical laboratory or an enterprisewide health
network, violating laws written to prevent money—rather than appropriate
patient care—from being the primary motivator in hiring decisions, may result
in investigation, charges, fines, and even conviction.
“If we’re going to solve the healthcare pricing problem,
these kinds of practices are going to have to go away,” Vikas Saini, MD, President
of the Lown Institute, a Massachusetts
nonprofit that advocates for affordable care, told KHN.
Though these recent OIG investigations target hospitals,
clinical laboratory leaders know from past experience that they also must be
vigilant and ensure their hiring practices do not run afoul of anti-kickback