April 6, 2018 Departments Work to Stamp out Pill Mills and Opioid Overprescribing
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Attorney General Jeff Sessions today released a fiscal year (FY) 2017 Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control Program report showing that for every dollar the federal government spent on healthcare related fraud and abuse investigations in the last three years, the government recovered $4. Additionally, the report shows that the departments’ FY 2017 Takedown event was the single largest healthcare fraud enforcement operation in history.
In FY 2017, the government’s healthcare fraud prevention and enforcement efforts recovered $2.6 billion in taxpayer dollars from individuals and entities attempting to defraud the federal government and Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. Some of these fraudulent practices include:
- Providers operating “pill mills” out of their medical offices.
- Providers submitting false claims to Medicare for ambulance transportation services.
- Clinics submitting false claims to Medicare and Medicaid for physical and occupational therapy.
- Drug companies paying kickbacks to providers to prescribe their drugs, and pharmacies soliciting and receiving kickbacks from pharmaceutical companies for promoting their drugs.
- Companies misrepresenting capabilities of their electronic health record software to customers.
“Taxpayers work hard every day to help fund government programs for our fellow Americans,” Attorney General Sessions said. “But too many trusted medical professionals like doctors, nurses and pharmacists have chosen to violate their oaths and exploit this generosity to line their pockets, sometimes for millions of dollars. At the Department of Justice, we have taken historic new actions to incarcerate these criminals and recover stolen funds, including executing the largest healthcare fraud enforcement action in American history. These achievements are important, but the department’s work is not finished. We will keep up this pace and continue to prosecute fraudsters so that we can give financial relief to taxpayers.”
“Today’s report highlights the success of HHS and DOJ’s joint fraud-fighting efforts,” said HHS Secretary Azar. “By holding individuals and entities accountable for defrauding our federal health programs, we are protecting the programs’ beneficiaries, safeguarding billions in taxpayer dollars, and, in the case of pill mills, helping stem the tide of our nation’s opioid epidemic.”
The Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT) effort, use data analytics and surveillance to crack down on, prevent and prosecute healthcare fraud. While the program continues to be very successful, the return on investment fluctuates from year to year, in part because cases resulting in large settlements take multiple years to complete. Additionally, there has been a reduction in large monetary settlements as many of the large pharmaceutical manufacturers have entered into Corporate Integrity Agreements with the HHS Office of the Inspector General to establish protections against fraudulent activities.
With teams comprised of law enforcement agents, prosecutors, attorneys, auditors, evaluators and other staff, last year DOJ opened 967 new criminal healthcare fraud investigations of which federal prosecutors filed criminal charges in 439 cases involving 720 defendants. A total of 639 defendants were convicted of healthcare fraud related crimes. In FY 2017, the DOJ and HHS joint Medicare Fraud Strike Force filed 253 indictments and charges against 478 defendants who allegedly billed federal healthcare programs more than $2.3 billion. The Strike Force obtained more than 290 guilty pleas, litigated 33 jury trials and won guilty verdicts against 40 defendants. The Fraud Strike Force secured prison sentences for more than 300 defendants, with an average sentence of 50 months. Since its inception in 2007, Strike Force prosecutors filed more than 1,660 cases charging more than 3,490 defendants who collectively billed the Medicare program more than $13 billion.
Beyond criminal prosecution, the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) remains vigilant in excluding providers and suppliers who committed fraud or engaged in the abuse or neglect of patients in federal health programs. A total of 3,244 individuals and entities were excluded in FY 2017. Others were excluded as a result of licensure revocations. These exclusions help to safeguard beneficiaries from future harm that could otherwise be inflicted by such convicted individuals or entities. HHS can also suspend Medicare payments to providers during investigations of credible allegations of fraud. During FY 2017, there were 551 related payment suspensions. More than 4 million claims are reviewed by Medicare each day; resulting in more than one billion claims processed annually for timely payments to healthcare providers and suppliers. Given the volume of claims processed by Medicare each day and the significant cost associated with conducting medical review of an individual claim, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services uses automated edits to help prevent improper payments without the need for manual intervention. The National Correct Coding Initiative consists of edits designed to reduce improper payments in Medicare Part B, and this program saved Medicare $186.9 million during the first nine months of FY 2017.
As the opioid epidemic continues to devastate communities and families across the nation, both DOJ and HHS are responding with new approaches. One out of every three beneficiaries received prescription opioids through Medicare Part D in 2016. Additionally, 401 prescribers were found to have questionable prescribing patterns for beneficiaries at serious risk of opioid misuse or overdose, based on an OIG analysis. Last July, DOJ and HHS announced the largest ever healthcare fraud enforcement action, involving 412 charged defendants across 41 federal districts, including 115 doctors, nurses and other licensed medical professionals, for their alleged participation in healthcare schemes involving approximately $1.3 billion in false billings. Of those charged, more than 120 defendants, including doctors, were charged for their roles in prescribing and distributing opioids and other dangerous narcotics.
In August, Attorney General Sessions announced the formation of the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, a new DOJ pilot program that will use data to help combat and prosecute individuals and entities involved in illegal activities that fuel the crisis. As part of that task force, the department funded 12 experienced assistant United States attorneys for a three-year term to focus solely on investigating and prosecuting healthcare fraud related to prescription opioids, including pill mill schemes and pharmacies that unlawfully divert or dispense prescription opioids for illegitimate purposes. Those prosecutors have already charged several with unlawful distribution of opioids, and their continued success is crucial in combatting this deadly epidemic.
For more details on the Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control Program and today’s report, visit: https://oig.hhs.gov/publications/docs/hcfac/FY2017-hcfac.pdf