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.
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.” 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.
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 April 13, 2021, a New York-based chiropractor, was sentenced to nine years in prison, and ordered to pay close to $20 million, for running what the federal government alleged was a large scale scheme to defraud Medicare and other third party insurers. The sentencing stems from a case originally filed under seal on August 29, 2018, in which the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York alleged that two New York chiropractors – James and Jeffery Spina – improperly owned and controlled multiple medical practices and engaged in submission of fraudulent health care claims from 2011 until September 2017.
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.
On January 14, 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reported its False Claims Act (FCA) statistics for fiscal year (FY) 2020. More than $2.2 billion was recovered from both settlements and judgments in 2020, the lowest level since 2008 and almost $1 billion less than was recovered in 2019. The total recoveries in 2020 reflect the first of many anticipated resolutions of fraud enforcement actions in the COVID-19 world, and over 80% of all recoveries—amounting to almost $1.9 billion—came from the health care and life sciences industries.
HIGHEST NUMBER OF NEW FILINGS EVER REPORTED
Significantly, 2020 saw the largest number of new FCA matters initiated in a single year. The government initiated new FCA matters at its highest rate since 1994, with 250 new cases brought in 2020. Strikingly, the number of government-initiated cases against health care entities more than doubled from 2019 to 2020 and was at the highest level ever reported. Likewise, qui tam relators filed 672 new matters in FY 2020, an increase over FY 2019 and the fifth highest number of cases in reported history. Qui tam relators filed, on average, almost 13 new cases a week. Of the 672 qui tam cases filed, 68% were related to health care.
QUI TAM FILINGS CONTINUE TO BE THE DRIVER
Total recoveries from qui tam-initiated actions generated almost $1.7 billion. While the largest recoveries continue to come from cases where the government intervenes, cases pursued by relators post-declination generated more than $193 million in FY 2020, the fifth largest annual recovery in non-intervened cases since 1986. These cases continue to be rewarding for relators; over $309 million in relators’ share awards were paid in FY 2020, of which more than $261 million were paid in cases pursued against health care entities.
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