On May 17, 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced the establishment of a COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force (“Task Force”) to ramp up enforcement efforts against COVID-19-related fraud.[1]

Organized and led by Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, the Task Force convened its first meeting on May 28 and aims to “marshal the resources of the [DOJ] in partnership with agencies across government to enhance enforcement efforts against COVID-19 related fraud.”[2]  The Task Force will involve coordination among several DOJ components, including the Criminal and Civil Divisions, the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  “Key interagency partners” have also been invited to join the Task Force, including the Department of Labor, the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Homeland Security, the Social Security Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Small Business Administration, the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Relief, and Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, among others.
Continue Reading U.S. Department of Justice Announces Interagency Task Force to Combat COVID-19 Relief Fraud

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) recently issued Advisory Opinion No. 21-02, regarding a joint investment by a health system, a manager, and certain surgeons in an ambulatory surgery center (“ASC”) (the “Proposed Arrangement”). According to a national survey, most hospitals and health systems are planning to increase their investments in ASCs and anticipate converting hospital outpatient departments to ASCs. Many hospitals with ASCs operate the ASCs as physician joint ventures. As payors and patients continue to show interest in having outpatient procedures performed in ASCs, there is an expected trend to see an increase in investments and joint ventures in ASCs therefore making the Advisory Opinion particularly noteworthy.

In their request to OIG, the health system and the manager (“Requestors”) specifically inquired whether the Proposed Arrangement would constitute grounds for sanctions under the Federal Anti-Kickback statute (“AKS”). Based upon the facts provided in the request for the Advisory Opinion and a supplemental submission, the OIG reached the favorable conclusion that due to the low risk of fraud and abuse, the OIG would not impose sanctions on the health system or the manager in connection with the Proposed Arrangement.

The Proposed Arrangement

Under the Proposed Arrangement, the health system, five orthopedic surgeons, three neurosurgeons employed by the health system, and a manager, would invest in a new ASC. The health system would own 46 percent of the ASC, the surgeons would collectively own 46 percent of the ASC, and the manager would own 8 percent of the ASC. The manager certified that no physician has had, or would have, ownership in the manager that provides management and other services to the ASC. Furthermore, the ASC would operate in a medical facility owned by a real estate company jointly owned by the health system, the surgeons, and the manager. The ASC would enter into space and equipment leases as well as service arrangements with the health system and the real estate company.

OIG’s Analysis

Based on the following criteria, the OIG determined that the following safeguards in the Proposed Arrangement would mitigate the risk and that, as such, the OIG would not impose administrative sanctions in connection with the Proposed Arrangement:

Health System and Physician Investor Interest

(1) Although one or more of the neurosurgeons would fail to meet the Hospital-Physician ASC Safe Harbor Provision requirement that a physician investor derive at least one-third of his or her medical practice income for the previous fiscal year or previous 12-month period from the performance of ASC-qualified procedures, the health system certified that the neurosurgeons would use the ASC on a regular basis as part of their medical practices. Additionally, the health system certified that the surgeons would rarely refer patients to each other.

(2) The Proposed Arrangement would contain certain safeguards to reduce the risk that the health system would make or influence referrals to the ASC or the surgeons. For example, the health system certified that any compensation paid by the health system to affiliated physicians for services furnished would be consistent with fair market value and would not be related, directly or indirectly, to the volume or value of any referrals. In addition, the health system certified that it would refrain from any actions designed to require or encourage affiliated physicians to refer patients to the ASC or the surgeons and would not track referrals made to the ASC.


Continue Reading OIG Issues Favorable Advisory Opinion on Ambulatory Surgery Center Joint Venture

On April 8, 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced the first charges brought in connection with alleged fraud on the Accelerated and Advance Payment Program, administered by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”).[1]  According to the indictment, Francis Joseph, M.D., a Colorado physician, has been charged with misappropriating nearly $300,000 from three different COVID-19 relief programs: the Accelerated and Advance Payment Program, the Provider Relief Fund, and the Paycheck Protection Program.[2]

Accelerated and Advance Payment Program

The Accelerated and Advance Payment Program is intended to provide emergency funds by way of expedited payments to health care providers and suppliers when there is a disruption in claims submission or claims processing.  While CMS has historically utilized this program to provide targeted relief in response to national emergencies or natural disasters affecting certain portions of the country, the program was expanded in March 2020 to apply to a broader group of Medicare Part A providers and Part B suppliers nationwide due to the financial impact of COVID-19.[3]

According to the indictment, Dr. Joseph allegedly submitted an Advance Payment Request Form for a medical practice of which he had relinquished control, and then transferred approximately $92,000 from the medical practice’s operating account to a personal bank account (approximately $87,000 of that amount was paid by the Medicare Administrative Contractor as an advance payment the previous day).

Provider Relief Fund

The Provider Relief Fund is a $178 billion measure appropriated under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act that offers aid to providers who were financially impacted by COVID-19 and treatment and other assistance to individuals suffering from COVID-19.

The indictment marks the second time that DOJ has brought charges related to misuse of Provider Relief Fund distributions (DOJ announced the first charges in February 2021 against a home health provider).  According to the indictment, Dr. Joseph’s former medical practice met the criteria for a Provider Relief Fund distribution of $31,782, but Dr. Joseph allegedly transferred those funds from the medical practice’s operating account to a personal bank account.


Continue Reading U.S. Department of Justice Announces First Charges Brought Under the Accelerated and Advance Payment Program

On April 29, 2021, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will begin accepting applications for the second round of its COVID-19 Telehealth Program (the “Program”). However, the application filing window will only be open for a very short seven day period and will close on May 6, 2021. To give all applicants an equal opportunity to have their applications reviewed, the FCC announced that all applications filed during this period will be reviewed once the application filing window has closed.

Initially, in March 2020, Congress appropriated $200 million for the first round of the COVID-19 Telehealth Program funding under the CARES Act. An additional $249.95 million was provided to the FCC in December 2020, under the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA), to helping address inequities in access to health care service. The COVID-19 Telehealth Program was designed to help health care providers purchase telecommunications equipment, broadband connectivity, and other devices necessary for providing telehealth services to rural, low-income and underserved populations.

The Program is limited to nonprofit and public health care providers (47 U.S.C. § 254(h)(7)(B)) that fall within the following categories:

  1. Post-secondary educational institutions offering health care instruction, teaching hospitals, and medical schools;
  2. Community health centers or health centers providing health care to migrants;
  3. Local health departments or agencies;
  4. Community mental health centers;
  5. Not-for-profit hospitals;
  6. Rural health clinics;
  7. Skilled nursing facilities; or
  8. Consortia of health care providers consisting of one or more entities falling into one of the first seven categories.


Continue Reading The Federal Communications Commission Announces Narrow Window to Apply for Second Round of COVID-19 Telehealth Program Funding – Applications Due May 6, 2021

In this episode of the Diagnosing Health Care Podcast:  The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) and the Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) of the Department of Health and Human Services have at last published their long-awaited companion final rules advancing value-based care. The rules present significant changes to the regulatory framework of

In this episode of the Diagnosing Health Care Podcast, dive into the Biden Administration’s first 100 days in office and the potential executive orders, regulations, and new legislation with noteworthy health care policy implications.

Epstein Becker Green attorneys Ted Kennedy, Philo Hall, and Paulina Grabczak discuss President Biden’s priorities, including his COVID-19

On Tuesday, September 1, 2020, the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”) proposed 2021 aggregate production quotas (APQs) for controlled substances in schedules I and II of the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) and an Assessment of Annual Needs (“AAN”) for the List I Chemicals pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, and phenylpropanolamine. This marks the second year that DEA has issued APQs pursuant to Congress’s changes to the CSA via the SUPPORT Act.  After assessing the diversion rates for the five covered controlled substances, DEA reduced the quotas for four: oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone and fentanyl.

DEA recently increased the APQ to allow for the additional manufacture of certain controlled substances in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to provide greater access to these medications for patients on ventilator treatment.  According to DEA, that increased demand has been factored into the proposed APQs for 2021.

Comments are due by October 1, 2020.  Because DEA’s APQs determine the amount of quota DEA can allocate to individual manufacturers in 2021, adversely impacted parties should file comments soon.

Background on APQs

The CSA requires the establishment of aggregate production quotas for schedule I and II controlled substances, and an assessment of annual needs for the list I chemicals ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and phenylpropanolamine.  These aggregate quotas limit the quantities of these substances to be manufactured – and with respect to the listed chemicals, imported –  in the United States in a calendar year, to provide for the estimated medical, scientific, research, and industrial needs of the United States, for lawful export requirements, and for the establishment and maintenance of reserve stocks.

Changes in Setting APQs Under The SUPPORT Act

The Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities Act (“SUPPORT Act”) signed into law October 24, 2018, provided significant changes to the process for setting APQs.  First, under the CSA, aggregate production quotas are established in terms of quantities of each basic class of controlled substance, and not in terms of individual pharmaceutical dosage forms prepared from or containing such a controlled substance.  However, the SUPPORT Act provides an exception to that general rule by giving the DEA the authority to establish quotas in terms of pharmaceutical dosage forms if the agency determines that doing so will assist in avoiding the overproduction, shortages, or diversion of a controlled substance.

Additionally, the SUPPORT Act changed the way the DEA establishes APQs with respect to five “covered controlled substances”: fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, oxymorphone, and hydromorphone.  Under the SUPPORT Act, when setting the APQ for any of the “covered controlled substances,” DEA must estimate the amount of diversion.  The SUPPORT Act requires DEA to make appropriate quota reductions “as determined by the [DEA] from the quota the [DEA] would have otherwise established had such diversion not been considered.”  Furthermore, when estimating the amount of diversion, the DEA must consider reliable “rates of overdose deaths and abuse and overall public health impact related to the covered controlled substance in the United States,” and may take into consideration other sources of information the DEA determines reliable.

Estimating Diversion  

In accordance with this mandate under the SUPPORT Act, in setting the proposed APQs for 2021 DEA requested information from various agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”), including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”), regarding overdose deaths, overprescribing, and the public health impact of covered controlled substances.  DEA also solicited information from each state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (“PDMP”), and any additional analysis of prescription data that would assist DEA in estimating diversion of covered controlled substances.

After soliciting input from these sources, DEA extracted data on drug theft and loss from its internal databases and seizure data by law enforcement nationwide.  DEA then calculated the estimated amount of diversion by multiplying the strength of the active pharmaceutical ingredient (“API”) listed for each finished dosage form by the total amount of units reported to estimate the metric weight in kilograms of the controlled substance being diverted.


Continue Reading Deadline Looms for Responding to DEA’s Proposed Aggregate Production Quotas for 2021

Earlier this summer, Ethan P. Davis, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) delivered remarks addressing DOJ’s top priorities for enforcement actions related to COVID-19 and indicating that DOJ plans to “vigorously pursue fraud and other illegal activity.”[1] As discussed below, Davis’s remarks not only highlighted principles that will guide enforcement efforts of the Civil Fraud Section under the False Claims Act (FCA) and of the Consumer Protection Branch (CPB) under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE), they also provide an indication of how DOJ might approach enforcement over the next few years.

DOJ’S KEY CONSIDERATIONS & ENFORCEMENT STRATEGY FOR COVID-19

Davis highlighted two key principles that would drive DOJ’s COVID-related enforcement efforts: the energetic use of “every enforcement tool available to prevent wrongdoers from exploiting the COVID-19 crisis” and a respect of the private sector’s critical role in ending the pandemic and restarting the economy.[2] Under that framework, DOJ plans to pursue fraud and other illegal activity under the FCA, which Davis characterizes as “one of the most effective weapons in [DOJ’s] arsenal.”[3]

However, as DOJ pursues FCA cases, it will also seek to affirmatively dismiss qui tam claims that  DOJ finds meritless or that interfere with agency policy and programs.[4] DOJ also plans to collect certain information from qui tam relators regarding third-party litigation funders during relator interviews.[5] DOJ’s emphasis on qui tam cases—cases brought under the FCA by relators or whistleblowers—for COVID-related enforcement highlights the impact such matters have on DOJ’s enforcement agenda.[6]

  1. DOJ will consider dismissing cases that involve regulatory overreach and are not otherwise in the interest of the United States.

Although Davis emphasized that the majority of qui tam cases would be allowed to proceed, in order to “weed out” cases that lack merit or that DOJ believes should not proceed, DOJ will consider dismissing cases that “involve regulatory overreach or are otherwise not in the interest of the United States.”[7] This is consistent with the principles reflected in the 2018 Granston Memo that instructed DOJ attorneys to consider “whether the government’s interests are served” when considering whether cases should proceed and listed considerations for seeking alternative grounds for dismissal of FCA cases.[8] Davis gave examples throughout his speech of actions DOJ might consider dismissing:

  • Cases based on immaterial or inadvertent mistakes, such as technical mistakes with paperwork
  • Cases based on honest misunderstandings of rules, terms, and conditions
  • Cases based on alleged deviations from non-binding guidance documents
  • Cases against entities that reasonably attempted to comply with guidance and “in good faith took advantage of the regulatory flexibilities granted by federal agencies in the time of crisis.”[9]

DOJ litigators have been advised to inform relators of the possibility of dismissal.[10] Additionally, qui tam suits based on behaviors temporarily permitted during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in circumstances in which agencies exercised discretion to waive or not enforce certain requirements, might
“fail as a matter of law for lack of materiality and knowledge.”[11]

  1. DOJ will now include a series of questions during relator interviews to identify third-party litigation funders.

During each relator interview, DOJ has instructed line attorneys to ask a series of questions to identify whether the relator or their counsel has a third-party litigation funding agreement,[12] which is an agreement in which a third party—such as a commercial lender or a hedge fund—finances the cost of litigation in return for a portion of recoveries.[13] Under the new policy detailed in Davis’s speech, if a third-party funder is disclosed, DOJ will ask for the following:

  • the identity of the third-party litigation funder,
  • information regarding whether information of the allegations has been shared with the third party,
  • whether the relator or their counsel has a written agreement with the third party, and
  • whether the agreement between the relator or their counsel and the third party includes terms that entitles the third-party funder to exercise direct or indirect control over the relator’s litigation or settlement decisions.

Relators must inform DOJ of changes as the case proceeds through the course of litigation.[14] While Davis characterizes these changes as a “purely information-gathering exercise for the purpose of studying the issues,” the questions are in furtherance of DOJ’s ongoing efforts to uncover the potential negative impacts third-party litigation financing may have in qui tam actions. [15] The questions Davis referenced in his remarks reflect DOJ’s concerns with third-party litigation funding as expressed by Deputy Associate Attorney General Stephen Cox in a January 2020 speech.[16] Davis emphasized that DOJ particularly sought to evaluate the extent to which third-party litigation funders were behind qui tam cases DOJ investigates, litigates, and monitors; the extent of information sharing with third-party funders; and the amount of control third-party funders exercised over the litigation and settlement decisions.[17] While the Litigation Funding Transparency Act of 2019 has remained inactive since its introduction in February 2019 by Senator Grassley[18] and the 2018 proposal by the U.S. Court’s Advisory Committee on Civil Rights’ Multidistrict Litigation Subcommittee to require disclosure of third-party litigation funding remains under consideration,[19] DOJ’s plans to include this line of questioning potentially signals DOJ’s intention to take more concrete and significant steps to address third-party litigation funding in the future.


Continue Reading False Claims Act Enforcement During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond

On July 20, 2020, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a six-month extension of its enforcement discretion policy for certain regenerative medicine products requiring pre-market review due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Included in a final guidance document entitled, “Regulatory Considerations for Human Cells, Tissues, and Cellular and Tissue-Based Products: Minimal Manipulation

On March 17, 2020, the Office for Civil Rights’ (“OCR”) announced that—for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency—it would exercise enforcement discretion and waive any potential penalties for HIPAA violations relating to health care providers’ use of “everyday communications technologies” in the provision of services via telehealth (the “HIPAA Waiver”). This move has resulted in a drastic increase in the number of telehealth encounters. The HIPAA Waiver has enabled many providers to immediately leverage these technologies to render services via telehealth for the first time, without the need to expend significant resources to quickly ramp up a HIPAA-compliant telehealth platform. A summary of the HIPAA Waiver can be found in a recent blog post. While the HIPAA Waiver applies only temporarily, it is likely that the increased reliance on telehealth evidenced over the past three months is here to stay.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the regulatory landscape of telehealth was the topic of a June 17, 2020 hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee.  As Chairman Lamar Alexander acknowledged during his opening statement, the health care sector and government “have been forced to cram 10 years’ worth of telehealth experience into just the past three months.” Indeed, this “cramming” has resulted in thirty-one temporary changes to telehealth policy at the federal level. Of these temporary changes, Chairman Alexander included the OCR enforcement discretion / HIPAA waiver as one of the three changes he considers most important. However, of the three changes the Chairman views as most important, he declined to include the enforcement discretion in the temporary changes he believes should be made permanent, and instead called upon his colleagues to consider whether to extend the HIPAA waiver.[1]


Continue Reading Every HIPAA Waiver Has Its Thorn