DOJ joins whistleblower suits against Health Management Associates and its CEO

by Ben Vernia | January 13th, 2014

On January 13, the Department of Justice announced that it was intervening in eight whistleblower lawsuits against Health Management Associates, Inc., a Naples, Florida-based operator of hospitals. According to DOJ’s press release:

The government has intervened in eight False Claims Act lawsuits against Health Management Associates Inc. (HMA) alleging that HMA billed federal health care programs for medically unnecessary inpatient admissions from the emergency departments at HMA hospitals and paid remuneration to physicians in exchange for patient referrals, the Justice Department announced today. The government also has joined in the allegations in one of these lawsuits that Gary Newsome, HMA’s former CEO, directed HMA’s corporate practice of pressuring emergency department physicians and hospital administrators to raise inpatient admission rates, regardless of medical necessity. HMA operates 71 hospitals in 15 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and West Virginia.

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The lawsuits allege that HMA’s corporate officers, at the direction of Newsome, exerted significant pressure on doctors in the emergency department to admit patients who could have been placed in observation, treated as outpatients or discharged, and that this resulted in the submission of inflated or false claims to federal health care programs. One lawsuit also alleges that patients were improperly admitted for scheduled surgical procedures that should have been done on an outpatient basis. The complaints further allege that HMA paid kickbacks, either in the form of bonuses or awarded contracts, to physician groups staffing HMA emergency rooms to induce the physicians to admit patients unnecessarily.

In addition, the lawsuits allege that HMA paid kickbacks to other physician groups to induce referrals. For example, HMA allegedly provided improper remuneration, both through the provision of free office space and staffing and through direct payments, to Primary Care Associates, a physician practice group in Port Charlotte, Fla., in exchange for referrals to two HMA hospitals in Florida. HMA also allegedly paid kickbacks to physicians in Lancaster, Pa., by paying inflated prices for physician-owned assets, providing sham medical directorship contracts and selling assets to physicians for below fair market value.

The Anti-Kickback Statute prohibits offering, paying, soliciting or receiving remuneration to induce referrals of items or services covered by Medicare, Medicaid and other federally funded programs. The Stark Statute prohibits a hospital from submitting claims for patient referrals made by a physician with whom the hospital has an improper financial arrangement. Both the Anti-Kickback Statute and Stark Statute are intended to ensure that a physician’s medical judgment is not compromised by improper financial incentives and is instead based on the best interests of the patient.

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