The Department of Justice has reached settlements with 51 hospitals in 15 states for more than $23 million related to cardiac devices that were implanted in Medicare patients in violation of Medicare coverage requirements, the Department of Justice announced today. These settlements represent the final stage of a nationwide investigation into the practices of hundreds of hospitals improperly billing Medicare for these devices. With these additional agreements, the Justice Department’s investigation has now yielded settlements with more than 500 hospitals totaling more than $280 million.
“These settlements demonstrate the Department’s continued vigilance in pursuing hospitals and health systems that violate Medicare’s national coverage rules,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “We will hold accountable those who do not abide by the government’s rules in order to protect the federal fisc and, more importantly, patient health.”
An implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD, is an electronic device that is implanted near and connected to the heart. It detects and treats chaotic, extremely fast, life-threatening heart rhythms, called fibrillations, by delivering a shock to the heart, restoring the heart’s normal rhythm. It is similar in function to an external defibrillator (often found in offices and other buildings) except that it is small enough to be implanted in a patient’s chest. Only patients with certain clinical characteristics and risk factors qualify for an ICD covered by Medicare.
Medicare coverage for the device, which costs approximately $25,000, is governed by a National Coverage Determination (NCD). The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services implemented the NCD based on clinical trials and the guidance and testimony of cardiologists and other health care providers, professional cardiology societies, cardiac device manufacturers and patient advocates. The NCD provides that ICDs generally should not be implanted in patients who have recently suffered a heart attack or recently had heart bypass surgery or angioplasty. The medical purpose of a waiting period – 40 days for a heart attack and 90 days for bypass/angioplasty – is to give the heart an opportunity to improve function on its own to the point that an ICD may not be necessary. The NCD expressly prohibits implantation of ICDs during these waiting periods, with certain exceptions. The Department of Justice alleged that from 2003 to 2010, each of the settling hospitals implanted ICDs during the periods prohibited by the NCD.
“The settlements announced last October and today demonstrate the Department of Justice’s commitment to protect Medicare dollars and federal health benefits,” said U.S. Attorney Wifredo A. Ferrer of the Southern District of Florida. “Guided by a panel of leading cardiologists and the review of thousands of patients’ charts, the extensive investigation behind the settlements was heavily influenced by evidence-based medicine. In terms of the number of defendants, this is one of the largest whistleblower lawsuits in the United States and represents one of this office’s most significant recoveries to date. Our office will continue to vigilantly protect the Medicare program from potential false billing claims.”
“We will not stand idly by while Medicare coverage rules are ignored,” said Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG). “OIG worked closely with the Department of Justice to ensure such violators made substantial payments to settle these false billing claims.”
The department previously settled with 457 hospitals for more than $250 million.
The settlements announced today involve 51 hospitals, which are listed on the attached chart. Most of the settling defendants were named in a qui tam, or whistleblower, lawsuit brought under the False Claims Act, which permits private citizens to bring lawsuits on behalf of the United States and receive a portion of the proceeds of any settlement or judgment awarded against a defendant. The lawsuit was filed in federal district court in the Southern District of Florida by Leatrice Ford Richards, a cardiac nurse and Thomas Schuhmann, a health care reimbursement consultant. The whistleblowers have received more than $3.5 million from the settlements announced today.
The settlements were the result of a coordinated effort among the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of Florida and HHS-OIG’s Office of Investigations and Office of Counsel to the Inspector General.
This settlement illustrates the government’s emphasis on combating health care fraud and marks another achievement for the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT) initiative, which was announced in May 2009 by the Attorney General and the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The partnership between the two departments has focused efforts to reduce and prevent Medicare and Medicaid financial fraud through enhanced cooperation. One of the most powerful tools in this effort is the False Claims Act. Since January 2009, the Justice Department has recovered a total of more than $27.4 billion through False Claims Act cases, with more than $17.4 billion of that amount recovered in cases involving fraud against federal health care programs.
The claims resolved by these settlements are allegations only and there has been no determination of liability.