Have You Screened Your Medical Billing Employees Lately? HHS-OIG is Aggressively Targeting Health Care Providers That Employ Individuals Who Have Been Excluded from Participation in Federal Health Benefits Programs

Robert W. Liles, Esq., Liles Parker December 27th, 2010

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 Earlier this month, HHS-OIG announced that it had assessed significant civil monetary penalties against a health care provider that employed seven individuals who the provider “knew or should have known” had been excluded from  participation in Federal health care programs. These individuals were alleged to have  furnished items and services for which the provider was paid by Federal health care programs.

 The provider paid $376,432 to resolve these allegations.  As Lewis Morris, Chief Counsel to the Office of Inspector General stated:

“Providers self-disclosing such violations will ultimately pay lower settlement amounts. . . But in cases initiated by the government — such as this one — providers will, as a matter of course, be required to pay more to resolve the matter.’ 

As Mr. Morris further noted: 

“This case illustrates yet again that OIG will pursue CMPs when providers have employed an excluded person for the furnishing of items or services paid for by Federal health care programs,”

 Notably, this matter was referred to HHS-OIG for investigation by the State Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU).

 Lessons to be Learned:

 This case illustrates a number of important lessons for all health care providers who participate in Federal Health Benefits Program, regardless of size.  These lessons include:

Screening employees is easy and quick: It takes very little effort for a provider to screen current and prospective employees against HHS-OIG list of excluded parties and GSA’ s list of parties who have been debarred from participation in Federal contracts.  Notably, the failure to screen employees can be quite costly.

 No mention of actual fraud or overpayment was mentioned in this case.  Nevertheless, the employment of excluded individuals was found to be quite serious by HHS-OIG:   HHS-OIG won’t hesitate to pursue civil monetary penalties against a provider who employs excluded individuals, despite the fact that no mention is made of any wrongful billings.  Regular screenings of your employees should be made to ensure that none of your employees have been excluded from participation.

The government is serious about self-disclosing problems:   HHS-OIG’s Chief Counsel went out of his way to point out that provider’s who self-disclose will ultimately pay a lower amount of damages to the government.  While we recognize the government’s preference in this regard, should you identify a problem, you should contact legal counsel before making a self-disclosure.  HHS-OIG’s voluntary disclosure protocol has a number of requirements that should be fully assessed prior to deciding to make a disclosure under the program.  To be clear, if you owe money to the government, you must pay it back.  The issue to be resolved is how to go about returning any monies to which you are not entitled. Depending on the circumstances, a provider may be better off working with their Medicare Administrative Contractor to resolve a problem.   In other cases, HHS-OIG’s protocol may be the best option.  Every situation is different and should be carefully assessed before action is taken.

Federal and State law enforcement teams are coordinating their actions and findings:   Notably, these violations were first identified by a State MFCU who then contacted HHS-OIG.  Similarly, we are seeing State Medical Boards advising ZPICs of actions they are taking against licensed health care providers.  In several cases, the State Medical Board found that the provider was either not providing adequate supervision over subordinate Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants.  The ZPIC has then used this as a basis to argue that the claims did not qualify for Medicare coverage.   

In summary, health care providers should continually be reviewing their compliance efforts to ensure that basic mistakes such as the ones in this case (failure to properly screen employees) do not occur.

Robert W. Liles, Esq. owns a private law firm, Liles Parker, which focuses on fraud defense, internal audits, compliance, and regulatory matters. Robert serves as General Compliance Counsel for the American Medical Billing Association.

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