Cigna settles Medicare Advantage fraud allegations for over $172 million

by Ben Vernia | October 2nd, 2023

On September 29, the Department of Justice announced that the Cigna health insurance company has agreed to pay more than $172 million to settle allegations (some of which were brought by a whistleblower) that the company submitted false diagnosis codes for Medicare Advantage patients, in order to increase the company’s payments from the program. According to DOJ’s press release:

The Cigna Group, headquartered in Connecticut, has agreed to pay $172,294,350 to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by submitting and failing to withdraw inaccurate and untruthful diagnosis codes for its Medicare Advantage Plan enrollees in order to increase its payments from Medicare.

Under the Medicare Advantage (MA) Program, also known as Medicare Part C, Medicare beneficiaries have the option of obtaining their Medicare-covered benefits through private insurance plans called MA Plans. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) pays the MA Plans a fixed monthly amount for each beneficiary who enrolls. CMS adjusts these monthly payments to account for various “risk” factors that affect expected health expenditures for the beneficiary, to ensure that MA Plans are paid more for those beneficiaries expected to incur higher healthcare costs and less for healthier beneficiaries expected to incur lower costs. To make these adjustments, CMS collects “risk adjustment” data, including medical diagnosis codes, from the MA Plans.

Cigna owns and operates MA Organizations that offer MA Plans to beneficiaries across the country. The United States alleged that Cigna submitted inaccurate and untruthful patient diagnosis data to CMS in order to inflate the payments it received from CMS, failed to withdraw the inaccurate and untruthful diagnosis data and repay CMS, and falsely certified in writing to CMS that the data was accurate and truthful. The settlement announced today resolves these allegations.

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The United States alleged that, for payment years 2014 to 2019, Cigna operated a “chart review” program, pursuant to which it retrieved medical records (also known as “charts”) from healthcare providers documenting services they had previously rendered to Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in Cigna’s plans. Cigna retained diagnosis coders to review those charts to identify all medical conditions that the charts supported and to assign the beneficiaries diagnosis codes for those conditions. Cigna relied on the results of those chart reviews to submit additional diagnosis codes to CMS that the healthcare providers had not reported for the beneficiaries to obtain additional payments from CMS. However, Cigna’s chart reviews also did not substantiate some diagnosis codes that were reported by providers and previously submitted by Cigna to CMS. Cigna did not delete or withdraw these inaccurate and untruthful diagnosis codes, however, which would have required Cigna to reimburse CMS. Thus, the United States alleged that Cigna used the results of its chart reviews to identify instances where Cigna could seek additional payments from CMS, while improperly failing to use those same results when they provided information about instances where Cigna was overpaid.

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The United States further alleged that Cigna reported diagnosis codes to CMS that were based solely on forms completed by vendors retained and paid by Cigna to conduct in-home assessments of plan members. The healthcare providers (typically nurse practitioners) who conducted these home visits did not perform or order the diagnostic testing or imaging that would have been necessary to reliably diagnose the serious, complex conditions reported, and were in many cases prohibited by Cigna from providing any treatment during the home visits for the medical conditions they purportedly found. The diagnoses at issue were not supported by the information documented on the forms completed by the vendors and were not reported to Cigna by any other healthcare provider who saw the patient during the year in which the home visit occurred. Nevertheless, Cigna submitted these diagnoses to CMS to claim increased payments, and falsely certified each year that the diagnosis data it submitted was “accurate, complete, and truthful.”

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The United States further alleged that, for payment years 2016 to 2021, Cigna knowingly submitted and/or failed to delete or withdraw inaccurate and untruthful diagnosis codes for morbid obesity to increase the payments it received from CMS for numerous beneficiaries enrolled in its MA plans.  The medical records for individuals diagnosed as morbidly obese typically include one or more Body Mass Index (BMI) recordings. Individuals with a BMI below 35 cannot properly be diagnosed as morbidly obese. However, Cigna submitted or failed to delete inaccurate and untruthful diagnosis codes for morbid obesity for individuals lacking a BMI of 35 or above, and these codes increased the payments made by CMS.

In connection with the settlement, Cigna entered into a five-year Corporate Integrity Agreement (CIA) with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG). The CIA requires that Cigna implement numerous accountability and auditing provisions. On an annual basis, top executives and members of the Board of Directors must make certifications about Cigna’s compliance measures, Cigna must conduct annual risk assessments and other monitoring, and an independent review organization will conduct multi-faceted audits focused on risk adjustment data.

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The whistleblower, a former part-owner of a Cigna contractor, will receive $8,174,000 of the settlement (a 4.72% relator’s share of the overall amount, though the relator had brought only home-care allegations in his qui tam suit.)

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