On June 20, 2016, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas granted summary judgment in defendants’ favor on all but her retaliation claims in relator’s False Claims Act (FCA) suit against defendants Vista Hospice Care, Inc. and VistaCare, Inc. The court found that the relator, a former social worker at Defendants’ facility, failed to provide any evidence of a corporate scheme to admit Medicare beneficiaries before they were eligible. The decision echoed principles announced by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama in US ex rel. Paradies v. AseraCare, Inc., which we have been following on this blog (and which is now on appeal to the Eleventh Circuit).
The relator relied on two types of evidence: (1) expert testimony that physicians incorrectly certified certain patients’ eligibility; and (2) Defendants’ implementation of corporate policies designed to incentivize improper admissions.
The relator’s expert identified a population of 12,000 patients who had been discharged in the relevant period and were on hospice for a total of at least 365 days. The expert then selected a stratified sample of 291 patients for evaluation by a second expert. The first expert then extrapolated the second expert’s analysis to form an opinion as to the total number of claims submitted for the 12,000 patients that were allegedly false.
The court rejected this approach. First, the court cast doubt on extrapolation evidence, refusing to find it reliable. The court stated that “[i]n this context, statistical sampling of the type done by [the expert] . . . cannot establish liability for fraud in submitting claims for ineligible patients, as the underlying determination of eligibility for hospice is inherently subjective, patient-specific, and dependent on the judgment of involved physicians.” The court concluded that “proof regarding one claim does not meet Relator’s burden of proof regarding other claims involving different patients, different medical conditions, different caregivers, different facilities, different time periods, and different physicians.”
Second, the court found that the manner in which the expert chose the stratified sample of 291 patients was “fundamentally flawed” because the sample the expert relied on was not randomly selected and did not control for variables the expert identified as important, such as geographical differentiation, different clinical staffs and doctors or disease type. Thus, the court prohibited the relator from presenting evidence beyond the 291 patients.
The court also rejected the evidence the relator presented as to these 291 patients. The court concluded that the relator’s expert’s mere disagreement with a certifying physician’s assessment of hospice eligibility was insufficient to prove a violation of the FCA. Rather, “[b]ecause a physician must use his or her clinical judgment to determine hospice eligibility, an FCA claim . . . must be predicated on the presence of an objectively verifiable fact at odds with the exercise of that judgment, not a matter of questioning subjective clinical analysis.” For example, a relator must show that a physician “never reviewed the patient’s medical condition nor saw the patient, or that the physician did not actually believe that if the patient’s disease ran its normal course, the patient had a prognosis of six months or less.” Here, the fact that the expert simply reached different conclusions than the certifying physicians as to the necessity of admitting certain patients was insufficient.
As to Defendants’ alleged improper implementation of certain corporate policies, the relator pointed to those policies (1) encouraging admission of patients earlier than competitors and before determining eligibility, (2) requiring multiple layers of review before discharging patients, and (3) instructing staff to document evidence supporting eligibility for eligible patients. According to the relator, these policies supported an inference that Defendants billed for ineligible patients. But the court found that making that inference would be improper, finding that “[w]hat Relator is missing here is a causal link between Defendants’ policies, a few instances where medical information was allegedly falsified, and actual false or fraudulent certifications and claims.”
As this case underscores, FCA claims dependent on issues of clinical judgment are met with skepticism by the courts, in recognition of the fact that the FCA is not a tool to arbitrate good faith clinical disputes. Attempts by FCA plaintiffs to extrapolate to prove broad liability are also being closely scrutinized, particularly where, as here, the unique clinical elements underlying each claim are not generalizable across a broad universe.