On May 26, 2021, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced a coordinated law enforcement action against 14 telehealth executives, physicians, marketers, and healthcare business owners for their alleged fraudulent COVID-19 related Medicare claims resulting in over $143 million in false billing. This coordinated effort highlights the increased scrutiny telehealth providers are facing as rapid
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”). 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.
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.
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.
On March 26, 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) reported on the agency’s heightened criminal and civil enforcement activities in connection with COVID-19-related fraud. As of that date, DOJ had publicly charged 474 defendants with criminal offenses in connection with COVID-19-related schemes across 56 federal districts to recover more than $569 million in U.S. government funds.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act is a federal law, enacted on March 29, 2020, designed to provide emergency financial assistance to the millions of Americans who are suffering the economic effects caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The CARES Act provides relief through a number of different programs, including the Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”), Economic Injury Disaster Loans (“EIDL”), the Provider Relief Fund, and Unemployment Insurance (“UI”). With the promulgation of these programs, DOJ has ramped up efforts in identifying and investigating fraud to protect the integrity of the $2.2 trillion in taxpayer funds appropriated under the CARES Act.
Criminal Enforcement Activities
The majority of fraud cases brought by DOJ have originated in the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section, accounting for at least 120 defendants charged with PPP fraud. The PPP allows qualifying small businesses and other organizations to receive loans with a maturity of two years and an interest rate of 1 percent. PPP loan proceeds must be used by businesses for payroll costs, interest on mortgages, rent, and utilities. Most of these defendants are facing charges for allegedly misappropriating loan payments for prohibited purposes, such as luxury purchases, while another significant portion are charged in connection with allegedly inflating payroll expenses in order to obtain larger PPP loans.
DOJ also announced that it has seized over $580 million in fraudulent application proceeds in connection with the EIDL program, which is designed to provide loans to small businesses and agricultural and nonprofit entities. DOJ’s primary concerns with respect to this program have related to fraudulent applications for EIDL advances and loans on behalf of shell or nonexistent businesses.
In response to a rise in UI fraud schemes, DOJ has established the National Unemployment Insurance Fraud Task Force to investigate domestic and international organized crime groups targeting unemployment funds through the use of identity theft. Since the start of the pandemic, over 140 defendants have been publicly charged with federal offenses related to UI fraud.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on January 12, 2021, the first civil settlement to resolve allegations of fraud against the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. SlideBelts Inc. and its president and CEO, Brigham Taylor, have agreed to pay the United States a combined $100,000 in damages and penalties for alleged violations of the False Claims Act (FCA) and the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act (FIRREA).
The CARES Act was enacted in March 2020 to provide emergency financial assistance to individuals and businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The CARES Act established the PPP, which provided $349 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses in order to assist in job retention and business expenses. Since March 2020, Congress has authorized an additional $585 billion in PPP spending to be distributed under the Small Business Administration (SBA).
SlideBelts operates as an online retail company, and filed a petition for relief under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code in August 2019. Between April and June of 2020, while its petition was pending in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of California, SlideBelts and Taylor allegedly made false statements to federally insured financial institutions that the company was not involved in bankruptcy proceedings in order to influence the institutions to grant, and for SBA to guarantee, a PPP loan. SlideBelts received a loan for $350,000 based off of these purported false claims, which SlideBelts repaid in full to the PPP.
The government was able to recover damages and civil penalties from SlideBelts under the FCA for submitting alleged fraudulent claims for payment to the government and under the FIRREA for violations of federal criminal statutes that affect federally insured banks. This settlement is the end result of the first, but not the last, of many civil investigations and, ultimately, litigations relative to the CARES Act in the coming months and years under the FCA. In fact, during a June address to the Chamber of Commerce, Principal Deputy Attorney General Ethan Davis stated, “Going forward, the Civil Division will make it a priority to use the False Claims Act to combat fraud in the Paycheck Protection Program.”
As the SBA prepares to issue a second round of PPP loans, the DOJ is likely to continue to use the FCA and the FIRREA to pursue entities receiving funds on the theory that those entities intend to exploit for their benefit these federal programs.
One of the many relief efforts contained in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the “CARES Act”), signed into law on March 27th, 2020, is a hiatus of sequestration as it applies to Medicare payments. Section 4408 of the CARES Act exempts Medicare from the effects of sequestration from May 1, 2020, through December 31, 2020. It also postpones the sunset of sequestration as it applies to Medicare from the end of 2029 to the end of 2030.
As background, on January 2, 2013, “sequestration,” automatic spending cuts applicable to all categories of the Federal budget, went into effect. Sequestration included a 2.0% reduction in most Medicare spending, and as a result of its implementation, many providers experienced reductions in their reimbursement. In addition to traditional fee-for-service Medicare payments, some Medicare Advantage plans reduced reimbursement under their contracts with providers to reflect the effect of sequestration, effectively passing on to providers the reductions in premiums recovered by such plans due to sequestration. Even non-Medicare reimbursement was affected for many providers whose participation agreements with plans contained fee schedules based off of Medicare reimbursement.
While this suspension of sequestration is certainly good news for providers participating in traditional fee-for-service Medicare, and plans offering Medicare Advantage products, the effect the suspension will have on reimbursement for providers participating in Medicare Advantage or commercial lines of business which rely on Medicare rates is slightly less clear.
On April 10, 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) provided additional details regarding its plan to provide billions in relief to providers in an effort to off-set healthcare-related expenses resulting from the Coronavirus (“COVID-19”) outbreak.
Passed into law on March 27, 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also called the “CARES Act”, provided $100 billion in funding for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund (the “Fund”). The Fund is a pre-existing resource overseen by the Office of Financial Planning & Analysis within HHS. The $100 billion added via the CARES Act was made available to qualifying healthcare providers to reimburse them for “health care related expenses or lost revenues that are attributable to [COVID-19]”. The CARES Act stipulated that the $100 billion would be made available to public entities, Medicare or Medicaid enrolled suppliers and providers and other entities as may be further specified in regulations or guidance, provided that any such provider must “provide diagnoses, testing or care for individuals with possible or actual cases of COVID-19”. Monies received from the Fund may not be used to cover expenses that have already been reimbursed through other sources or that other sources are obligated to reimburse. Little other detail regarding the funding or mechanism for disbursal was provided in the CARES Act itself.
In a new issuance on its website, found here, HHS provided additional details on the program. HHS noted that $30 billion out of the appropriated $100 billion will be distributed immediately via direct deposit, starting April 10, 2020. Further, HHS clarified that the money is “payment” and not a loan, and thus will not need to be repaid. The initial $30 billion tranche is being made available only to providers that received Medicare fee-for-service payments in 2019. The payments are being distributed according to the Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN) of the billing organization.
Among the many concerns arising from rampant spread of COVID-19, are provider concerns regarding potential liability for care provided during the pandemic due to limited medical resources. Providers and policy makers have discussed such concerns particularly given the currently limited number of available ventilators and qualified technicians as compared to the numbers of patients who may need access to such equipment. Congress and states have provided varying levels of liability protection, though such protections are themselves limited.
Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act”), Congress provided liability protection to volunteer health care professionals providing health care services during the current public health emergency.  Specifically, the CARES Act exempts volunteer health care professionals from liability under federal or state law for any harm caused by an act or omission, unless the harm was caused by willful or criminal misconduct, gross negligence, reckless misconduct, conscious flagrant indifference, or under the influence of alcohol or intoxicating drugs, in providing health care services during the public health emergency with respect to the coronavirus. This provision preempts state or local laws that provide such volunteers with lesser protection from liability.
Notably, Congress chose not to extend liability protection to non-volunteer health care professionals, affording no wide-spread federal protection to those employed or contracted professionals treating patients during the emergency. Certain states, however, have extended liability protection to employed or contracted health care professionals through state orders. For example, Governor Cuomo of New York, through executive order, waived certain state laws to provide immunity from civil liability to certain health care professionals for any injury or death alleged to have been sustained directly as a result of an act or omission by such professional in providing medical services during the pandemic, unless such injury or death was caused by the professional’s gross negligence.