The Medicare Advantage program, which allows private insurance companies to offer and administer Medicare benefits, continues to be an area of sharp scrutiny for False Claims Act (FCA) enforcement despite some significant recent setbacks in pursuing FCA liability against Medicare Advantage Plans (MA Plans or Plans).  In 2018, several district court decisions raised obstacles to the pursuit of FCA liability against MA Plans, and those decisions have continued to affect FCA enforcement efforts in the first half of 2019.  Despite those setbacks, however, the prevalence of government enforcement actions involving Medicare Advantage illustrates that it remains an area of focus for the Department of Justice (DOJ).

The Focus on Medicare Advantage

Unlike traditional fee-for-service Medicare, MA Plans are compensated on a monthly basis through a fixed payment for each member.  The amount of the monthly payment – known as a capitation payment – is determined for each payment year through a process called “risk adjustment” and is based on each individual member’s demographic information and data reflecting the member’s medical condition, as documented during the 12 months preceding the payment year.  A member’s condition and medical diagnoses must be supported by a valid medical record.


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On December 11, 2018, the United States announced that it has elected to intervene in a False Claims Act (FCA) lawsuit filed against Sutter Health and its affiliated entity Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF) alleging that the defendants defrauded the Medicare Advantage program by submitting false patient information to the government. The whistleblower, a former employee of PAMF, alleges that Sutter “has taken and continues to take hundreds of millions of dollars in inflated capitation payments” by submitting “risk adjustment data Sutter knows to be inaccurate, incomplete or false.”

Medicare Advantage Plans

Medicare Advantage, formally known as Medicare Part C, allows private insurance companies, acting as “Medicare Advantage Organizations (MAOs),” to offer insurance plans and administer Medicare benefits. MAOs contract with healthcare providers such as Sutter to provide Medicare services to the plans’ enrollees. Instead of receiving reimbursement on a traditional fee-for-service basis, MAOs provide benefits under a capitated payment system, whereby government reimbursement is based on each individual beneficiary’s risk adjustment data.


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In U.S. ex rel. Poehling v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc., the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California partially granted UnitedHealth’s motion to dismiss the government’s FCA claims, which were based on the allegation that UnitedHealth’s attestations as to the truth and accuracy of the risk adjustment data submitted were false because the district court found that the government had failed to plead the attestations were material to the payment decision, as required by the Supreme Court’s decision in  Escobar.  The district court declined to dismiss the remaining claims, including an FCA claim added by the government after its complaint in the similar Swoben case was dismissed (which we discussed here), which alleged a violation of the reverse false claims provisions due to failure to delete invalid diagnosis codes without reference to the attestation.  The district court did grant the government leave to amend, with the second amended complaint to be filed by February 26, 2018.

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Background

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California recently dismissed a complaint-in-intervention filed by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in U.S. ex rel. Swoben v. Secure Horizons.  As previously reported, in this significant test case, DOJ filed its complaint on May 1, 2017, as to the UnitedHealth Group parties (collectively, UnitedHealth), marking the first time that DOJ joined a whistleblower suit alleging FCA violations regarding Medicare Advantage.  The complaint alleged that the “risk adjustment” payments, which account for the severity of patient conditions as compared to an average Medicare fee-for-service beneficiary, were boosted by ignoring questionable diagnoses.


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The DOJ’s recent complaint-in-intervention in US ex rel. Poehling v. United Health Group—one of two qui tam cases against United Health currently pending in the Central District of California—emphasizes the government’s view that, in order to avoid FCA liability based on allegedly inflated risk adjustment scores for Medicare Advantage members, health plans must follow up on any information they know or have reason to know indicating that providers are submitting or have submitted invalid codes to the health plan.

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