The Department of Justice announced today that it has resolved a $237 million judgment against Tuomey Healthcare System for illegally billing the Medicare program for services referred by physicians with whom the hospital had improper financial relationships. Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the United States will receive $72.4 million and Tuomey, based in Sumter, South Carolina, will be sold to Palmetto Health, a multi-hospital healthcare system based in Columbia, South Carolina.
“Secret sweetheart deals between hospitals and physicians, like the ones in this case, undermine patient confidence and drive up healthcare costs for everybody, including the Medicare program and its beneficiaries,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “This case demonstrates the United States’ commitment to ensuring that doctors who refer Medicare beneficiaries to hospitals for procedures, tests and other health services do so only because they believe the service is in the patient’s best interest, and not because the physician stands to gain financially from the referral. The Department of Justice is determined to prevent the kind of abuses uncovered in this case, and we are willing to take such cases to trial to protect the integrity of the Medicare program.”
The judgment against Tuomey related to violations of the Stark Law, a statute that prohibits hospitals from billing Medicare for certain services (including inpatient and outpatient hospital care) that have been referred by physicians with whom the hospital has an improper financial relationship. The Stark Law includes exceptions for many common hospital-physician arrangements, but generally requires that any payments that a hospital makes to a referring physician be at fair market value for the physician’s actual services, and not take into account the volume or value of the physician’s referrals to the hospital.
The government argued in this case that Tuomey, fearing that it could lose lucrative outpatient procedure referrals to a new freestanding surgery center, entered into contracts with 19 specialist physicians that required the physicians to refer their outpatient procedures to Tuomey and, in exchange, paid them compensation that far exceeded fair market value and included part of the money Tuomey received from Medicare for the referred procedures. The government argued that Tuomey ignored and suppressed warnings from one of its attorneys that the physician contracts were “risky” and raised “red flags.”
On May 8, 2013, after a month-long trial, a South Carolina jury determined that the contracts violated the Stark Law. The jury also concluded that Tuomey had filed more than 21,000 false claims with Medicare. On Oct. 2, 2013, the trial court entered a judgment under the False Claims Act in favor of the United States for more than $237 million. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment on July 2, 2015.
“This case reinforces the need for hospitals to abide by the requirements of the Stark Law,” said U.S. Attorney Thomas G. Walker of the Eastern District of North Carolina.
The case arose from a lawsuit filed on Oct. 4, 2005, by Dr. Michael K. Drakeford, an orthopedic surgeon who was offered, but refused to sign, one of the illegal contracts. The lawsuit was filed under the qui tam, or whistleblower, provisions of the False Claims Act, which permit private individuals to sue on behalf of the government for false claims and to share in any recovery. The act allows the government to intervene and take over the action, as it did in this case. Dr. Drakeford will receive approximately $18.1 million under the settlement.
“The type of abusive compensation arrangements at issue in this case is precisely what the physician self-referral law was designed to prevent,” said Inspector General Dan Levinson of of the Department of Health and Human Services-Office of the Inspector General (HHS-OIG). “Patients need and deserve to know that the hospital services they receive are the product of sound medical judgment, rather than motivated by the physician’s financial interests. The extensive litigation and settlement in this case should send a signal to the hospital industry that these tainted financial relationships simply will not be tolerated.”
As part of the settlement announced today, Tuomey will be required to retain an independent review organization to monitor any arrangements it makes with physicians or other sources of referrals for the duration of the five-year Corporate Integrity Agreement.
This case 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 $25.3 billion through False Claims Act cases, with more than $16.1 billion of that amount recovered in cases involving fraud against federal health care programs. Tips and complaints from all sources about potential fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, including the conduct described in the opinions of the trial and appellate courts in this case, can be reported to the Department of Health and Human Services, at 800-HHS-TIPS (800-447-8477).
The judgment and resolution of the case were the result of a coordinated effort by the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation branch, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of North Carolina and HHS-OIG.
The case is captioned United States ex rel. Drakeford v. Tuomey Healthcare System, Inc., Case No. 3:05-cv-02858 (MBS) (D.S.C.).