Hospitals & Health Systems

This post is the first in a series dedicated to Colorado’s Medicaid finance and payment systems, challenges faced by those programs, and opportunities for expansion.

The Colorado Healthcare Affordability and Sustainability Enterprise (CHASE) oversees Colorado’s hospital provider tax and the use of those taxes to support Medicaid supplemental payments. CHASE uses the largest portion of those taxes to generate payments targeting the cost shortfalls from treating Medicaid and uninsured patients. Broadly speaking, federal regulations (see 42 C.F.R. §§ 447.272, 447.321) allow each class of institutional providers to be paid for Medicaid services (on a fee-for-service basis) to a level that approximates what could have been paid under Medicare payment principles. This is known as the Upper Payment Limit (UPL). For the past several years, CHASE has limited these payments to less than the full amount permitted by federal law out of concerns about potential overpayments and statewide recoupment risks. The Colorado Hospital Association (CHA) is currently advocating for CHASE to increase payments to 100% of the UPL—i.e. “the full UPL.”

Most experienced False Claims Act (FCA) practitioners are all too familiar with the statutory provision requiring defendants to pay whistleblowers’ attorneys’ fees at the end of FCA cases. What is less commonly known is the provision that grants defendants their attorneys’ fees in certain circumstances.

One whistleblower learned about that provision the hard way, when on March 14, 2024, a Mississippi federal judge ordered that he pay over $1 million to cover the defendants’ attorneys’ fees, following grant of summary judgment to defendants in what the judge labeled a “frivolous” qui tam. This blog post looks at the case that led to such a large attorneys’ fees award and considers the types of cases in which these efforts are wise.

As previously reported in this post, criminal trials premised on upcoding evaluation and management (E/M) service codes are extremely rare. The Justice Department took that rare step in Maryland in connection with a practice in which Dr. Ron Elfenbein, a physician, billed Medicare and private payors a Level 4 E/M for patients receiving COVID-19 tests. That billing practice, which at times took place at drive-through COVID testing centers, resulted in Dr. Elfenbein’s indictment and conviction by a jury in Maryland federal court.

But on December 21, 2023, the federal judge who presided over that trial granted Dr. Elfenbein’s motion for judgment of acquittal, vacating the conviction. These motions are commonly made but seldom granted. Why was this particular motion for acquittal granted? And what can the healthcare community learn from this case? Read on for details.

Evaluation and management (E/M) services have been called “the core” of healthcare billing.[1] E/M is a catch-all claim, allowing medical professionals to bill for diagnosing or treating nearly any illness or injury. E/M is also divided into fairly subjective levels depending on complexity, and the differences between levels is often merely a difference of opinion. While the DOJ has brought cases based on disputes over E/M services before, those cases are typically civil and part of a more complex upcoding or unbundling scheme.[2] This is because nearly everything involving some effort expended by a physician could arguably justify that physician believing the E/M service was proper, and therefore criminal cases requiring scienter evidence that proves the case beyond a reasonable doubt are incredibly rare.

Yet one of those rare cases went to trial this month.

On June 14, 2023, a federal jury found that a Georgia physician knowingly violated the False Claims Act following a two-week trial on allegations that he made false claims to the Medicare Program. Now, despite just $1.1 million in improper payments stemming from false claims, a federal court is likely to impose a judgment that exceeds $27 million after adding statutory per-claim penalties and trebling the amount determined by the jury to be false.

Cosmetic surgeries are on the rise. One study of cosmetic surgery data found that body procedures like tummy tucks, buttock augmentation, and liposuction increased by 63 percent from 2020 to 2021.[1] Facelifts were up 54 percent.[2] And breast procedures were up 48 percent.[3] According to that study, Americans spent over $14.6 billion on aesthetic procedures in 2021 with surgical revenues increasing by 63 percent.[4]

On February 27, 2023, a jury in Minnesota federal court rendered a verdict in favor of the United States and against a surgical product distributor following a False Claims Act jury trial that lasted six weeks.[1] The jury identified $43 million in Medicare payments flowing from 64,575 kickback-procured claims.

In the world of qui tams, it is usually the whistleblower pushing cases to trial. But on February 23, 2023, a federal judge in West Virginia set down for trial a hospital’s case against a whistleblower. Now, in a trial set for late March 2023, a jury is set to determine whether a whistleblower and the general counsel for a competing health system engaged in malicious prosecution and tortious interference by filing a qui tam against a West Virginia hospital.

Stories can be powerful tools. Stories can create a sense of connection and have the power to shape the lives of both the storyteller and the listener. Stories also make ideas and experiences relatable and can encourage exploration or action. And it was the stories I heard from members of AHLA’s Women’s Leadership Council that inspired me to write this column as a reminder of the incredible impact of AHLA’s educational mission supported by AHLA’s philanthropic initiatives.

On July 26, 2022, Judge Jeremy Kernodle of the Eastern District of Texas affirmed that certain parts of the Interim Final Rule Part II implementing the No Surprises Act (the Act) were invalid. This ruling is nearly identical to Judge Kernodle’s February decision in Texas Medical Association & Corley v. US Dept. of Health and Human Services. This decision vacated a portion of the Interim Final Rule that required arbitrators to give more weight to the out-of-network rate, including what is called the Qualified Payment Amount (QPA), over other permissible factors. The rule’s requirement ultimately contradicted the Act’s direction that arbitrators consider various factors, and not weight any one more heavily than another.