In Kane v. Healthfirst, Inc. et al., a New York federal court became the first court to interpret when the clock starts running on the 60 days allowed to report and return an overpayment of Medicare and Medicaid funds under the Affordable Care Act. The Affordable Care Act requires a person who receives an overpayment of Medicare or Medicaid funds to report and return the overpayment within 60 days of the “date on which the overpayment was identified.” 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7k(d)(2)(A). Any overpayment that is kept beyond the 60 days may be a reverse false claim under the False Claims Act, which imposes liability for any person who “knowingly and improperly avoids or decreases an obligation to pay or transmit money or property to the Government.” 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(1)(G).

Kane is significant for health care providers because the Affordable Care Act does not define the term “identified,” nor has the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) defined this term in the Medicaid context. However, CMS has issued a final rule that applies to Medicare Advantage and the Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Program stating that an overpayment is identified when there is actual knowledge of the existence of an overpayment or if a person or entity acts in deliberate ignorance of, or with reckless disregard to the overpayment’s existence. 79 Fed. Reg. 29,844 (May 23, 2014). CMS has also issued a proposed rule applicable to Medicare providers and suppliers that adopts the same definition of “identified” that the agency adopted for Medicare Parts C and D. 77 Fed. Reg. 9,179 (Feb. 16, 2012). In this proposed rule, CMS noted that a provider or supplier may receive information about a potential overpayment that creates an obligation to inquire about whether or not there is an overpayment. If the inquiry reveals an overpayment, the 60-day deadline to report and return the overpayment runs from the date that the inquiry reveals the overpayment. CMS cautions that a failure to make a reasonable inquiry after receiving information about a potential overpayment could result in the provider knowingly retaining an overpayment. Id.

The Kane litigation arose out of a software glitch that mistakenly generated codes telling providers that they could seek additional payment from secondary payors such as Medicaid. The providers should have been told that they could not seek secondary payment for the services, except for co-payments from certain patients. As a result of this software glitch, three hospitals that were part of a network of non-profit hospitals incorrectly submitted claims to Medicaid.

Approximately 21 months after the hospitals began to bill improperly for Medicaid services, the New York State Comptroller’s office approached the hospitals with questions about the incorrect billing, ultimately revealing that there was a software problem. After the problem was discovered, an employee, relator Kane, was assigned to investigate what claims had been improperly billed to Medicaid. Five months after the Comptroller told the hospital network about the software problem, Kane informed management about 900 potential claims that contained the erroneous billing code. Kane indicated that further analysis would be needed to confirm his findings. The parties did not dispute that Kane’s listing of the incorrect billings was overly inclusive and included claims that were improperly billed as well as some claims that were billed appropriately.

Acknowledging that CMS’ rules do not technically apply in the context of Medicaid, the Kane court nonetheless adopted CMS’ interpretation of the term “identified” that the agency adopted for Medicare Parts C and D and proposed to adopt for Medicare suppliers and providers. Thus, the court concluded that Kane’s e-mail triggered the 60-day timeframe to report and return overpayments. The court reasoned that Kane had put the hospital network on notice of potential overpayments, rejecting the hospitals’ argument that the court should adopt a definition of “identified” that means “classified with certainty.”

As the first court to interpret the term “identified” under the 60-day rule, Kane is an important decision for health care providers. It is possible that other courts will also side with CMS’ interpretation of “identified.” Thus, absent further guidance from CMS or the courts, health care providers should proceed to investigate carefully and quickly all allegations of alleged overpayments and document their efforts, in order to defend against any possible violation of the 60-day rule.