NBC News recently reported on Operation Brace Yourself.  The federal investigation discovered that medical brace manufacturers were allegedly paying kickbacks and bribes to doctors working with fraudulent telemedicine companies in exchange for Medicare patient referrals for medically unnecessary braces.

At least, two dozen people, including doctors and owners of medical equipment companies, were charged in a more than $1 billion Medicare scam. As many as 130 medical equipment companies were implicated in the scam that resulted in a total of $1.2 billion in losses, prosecutors said.  As part of the scheme, doctors profited by prescribing braces to patients they had little to no relationship with. Prescriptions frequently came after doctors had brief conversations via phone or video conference with patients they had never met, prosecutors said.

Investigators uncovered the sprawling plot that targeted elderly and disabled people by setting them up with back, neck and knee braces that they didn’t need, according to federal prosecutors.  The ill-gotten gains were then laundered through shell companies and used to buy exotic cars, yachts and luxury real estate in the United States and overseas, prosecutors said.

The taxpayers should be outraged by this,” Gary Cantrell, who oversees fraud investigations for the Health and Human Services inspector general’s office, said in an interview with NBC News. “These are losses to the Medicare program that we all, as taxpayers, fund.”

“White-collar crime is not victimless,” Sherri Lydon, U.S. attorney for the district of South Carolina, where the probe originated, said at a press conference announcing the indictments. “All taxpayers will endure the rising cost of health care premiums and out-of-pocket costs as a result of fraud on our Medicare system.”

KFGO had a great article about a recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine which indicated that nursing homes often discharge Medicare patients before daily co-payments kick in which suggests that nursing homes send some patients home for financial reasons before they’re medically ready to leave.

“Medicare pays for 100% of postacute care provided by skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) during the first 20 days within a benefit period. However, on the 21st day, most patients become responsible for a daily copayment of more than $150.1 This copayment may present a significant financial burden for some patients—particularly those with limited economic means—and motivate them to discharge from SNFs on the 20th day of care based on their financial resources rather than their recovery status. Skilled nursing facilities may also prematurely discharge some patients to avoid the risk of accruing bad debt from partially uncompensated postacute care. However, it is not known whether patterns of SNF discharge are associated with this change in Medicare payment responsibility on day 20.”

To see how the start of co-payments might impact discharge timing, researchers examined data on more than 4.5million skilled nursing facility discharges from January 2012 through November 2016.

Overall, a total of 220,037 patients were discharged on day 20, more than the 131,558 sent home on day 19 and the 121,339 released on day 21. Compared to patients discharged on days 19 or 21, those sent home on day 21 were more likely to suffer from multiple chronic medical conditions, live in poor neighborhoods, and be racial or ethnic minorities, the study found.

“Our results suggest that skilled nursing facilities are more likely to discharge economically vulnerable patients right before their copay kicks in,” lead study author Dr. Paula Chatterjee of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia said by email.

On day 20, for example, 12.5 percent of patients discharged were black or Hispanic, compared with 8.2 percent one day earlier and 7.5 percent one day later, the study found.

And on day 20, 15.2 percent of patients discharged were living in poverty and 7.7 percent were unemployed. These economically vulnerable patients represented a smaller proportion of those discharged one day earlier or later.

On day 20, however, 42.2 percent of discharges were patients with at least five different chronic health problems, compared with 39.9 percent on day 19 and 40.6 percent on day 21.

At the same time, patients more likely to be discharged on day 20 tended to fit the profile of patients who have had higher rates of hospital use and repeat hospitalizations in other studies, said Dr. Jennifer Goldstein of the Christiana Care Health and Sidney Kimmel Medical College in Philadelphia.

Those characteristics include male sex, African American race, Hispanic ethnicity, low-income demographics and a high burden of disease,” Goldstein, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

The results “raise concerns that patients are forgoing needed medical care because of ability to pay, and/or that skilled nursing facilities are selectively discharging such patients out of concern patients will not be able to afford the copay,” said Dr. Ann Sheehy of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.

“If financial reasons, as opposed to medical readiness, drive skilled nursing facility discharge, this could negatively impact health and safety for the most vulnerable Medicare beneficiaries,” Sheehy, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

Roughly 36% of skilled nursing facilities saw a drop in their overall star ratings after planned fixes to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Nursing Home Compare system took effect last month. About 16% of providers gained at least one star under the ratings overhaul.  Approximately 47% of skilled nursing facilities had no change in their overall rating, but slightly more lost one or more stars on the quality measure, Martin told SNN.

Roughly 48% of providers lost one or more stars in the quality domain, and that’s largely driving the decrease in overall stars.  A building’s five-star score consists of three separate metrics, each of which CMS also ranks from one to five: survey, quality, and staffing.

Staffing had taken center stage in CMS’s ratings overhaul, particularly after a New York Times investigation last summer revealed that operators may have been less than accurate in reporting nurse coverage information. Federal officials responded by slapping 1,400 facilities with one-star ratings on staffing.

Both the staffing measure and the survey measure are important, with survey having the most weight. Still, practically speaking, providers receive one standard survey a year. And improving staffing will require extra funds coming in from somewhere, as well as the effort of finding competent employees in a major workforce crunch.  Improving a SNF’s quality metrics, however, can begin much more quickly.

SNFs can also take steps to improve how they keep track of patients when they are discharged. Readmission penalties are assessed 30 days after hospital discharge, and so SNFs could be on the hook for any complications that arise after a patient leaves their care.

 

A federal jury convicted Philip Esformes, the infamous owner of assisted living facilities and skilled nursing facilities in Florida, of a billion dollar healthcare fraud.  Esformes is guilty of making $1.3 billion in fraudulent claims to Medicare and Medicaid for services that were not provided, weren’t medically necessary or were received through kickbacks. Evidence showed he bribed physicians to admit patients into his facilities and paid off a Florida state regulator for notification of planned inspections.

Esformes was convicted of 20 counts — one of conspiracy to defraud the United States, two of receipt of kickbacks in connection with a federal health care program, four of payment of kickbacks in connection with a federal healthcare program, one of conspiracy to commit money laundering, nine of money laundering, two of conspiracy to commit federal program bribery and one of obstruction of justice.

“Even beyond the vital dollars lost … Esformes exploited and victimized patients by providing inadequate medical care and poor conditions in his nursing homes,” Shimon Richmond, special agent in charge of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General’s Miami Regional Office, said in a statement. “We will continue the fight against such parasites.”

He personally benefited from the fraud and received in excess of $37 million. Esformes’ conspiracy involved a network of 16 assisted living facilities and skilled nursing facilities that he owned in Miami-Dade County.

Prosecutors said for 18 years–from January 1998 through July 2016– he cycled patients through his facilities in poor condition, where they received inadequate or unnecessary treatment, then improperly billed Medicare and Medicaid.

Extravagant purchases included luxury automobiles and a $360,000 watch, the Justice Department said. Prosecutors said he bribed the basketball coach at the University of Pennsylvania in exchange for his assistance in gaining admission for his son into the university. That coach, Jerome Allen, testified Esformes paid him about $300,000 in cash bribes and wire transfers.

A 12-person jury deliberated for four days before agreeing that the 50-year-old entrepreneur was guilty on 20 out of 26 charges. Those include paying and receiving kickbacks, money laundering and conspiracy to commit federal program bribery. Jurors did not, however, reach a verdict on the main count — that Esformes conspired to defraud Medicare.  Prosecutors blasted Esformes following the conclusion of the eight-week trial for the $1.3 billion scheme to defraud both Medicare and Medicaid, calling him a “despicable,” “vampire” who was fueled by “unbounded greed.”

Meanwhile, the government alleged, Esformes provided access to assisted living residents “for any healthcare provider willing to pay a kickback” — including pharmacies, home health agencies, physician groups, therapy companies, partial hospitalization programs, laboratories and diagnostic companies — even though many of the services for which they were paid were not medically necessary or were never provided.

Esformes plans to appeal according to defense attorney Roy Black, said the Associated Press, which also reported that Black suggested that prosecutors may have overstated the amount of money involved in the case.  Esformes, 50, originally faced 26 charges. He was convicted of:

  • nine counts of money laundering,
  • one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering,
  • four counts of payment of kickbacks in connection with a federal healthcare program,
  • two counts of receipt of kickbacks in connection with a federal healthcare program,
  • two counts of conspiracy to commit federal program bribery,
  • one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States and
  • one count of obstruction of justice.

At the Esformes trial, some witnesses testified that conditions in the facilities were poor and care inadequate but that the businessman was able to conceal this information from authorities by bribing Bertha Blanco, a 30-year employee of the Agency for Health Care Administration, which oversees the licensure of assisted living and skilled nursing facilities in Florida, to provide advance notice of surprise inspections.

 

 

 

Dr. Hooshang D. Poor has admitted to Medicare fraud and is facing an indefinite suspension of his medical license faces allegations of sexual assault.  Dr. Poor is facing civil action stemming from an alleged Sept. 16, 2016, assault on a licensed practical nurse who claims Poor groped her from behind while they were working together at the Kindred Nursing and Rehabilitation Tower Hill Nursing Home.

Poor has had other legal troubles in his decades-long medical career.  Last month, Poor agreed to pay $680,000 to resolve allegations of Medicare and Medicaid fraud.

“As a result of Poor’s assault on her, the (nurse) has been seriously and permanently injured, and continues to suffer at present from psychological disease, which impairs and affects all aspects of her life,” the suit states.

The nurse has incurred past expenses for medical treatment and will likely incur more expenses in the future, the suit claims. It also states she has lost income.

Following the assault, the nurse had to avoid coming into contact with Poor when they both still worked at Kindred and since then she has had to avoid him at other nursing homes where she has been employed, which “has caused her to suffer continual emotional upset and interfered with her employment opportunities and schedule,” according to the lawsuit.

The suit states that the nurse promptly reported the assault to the nursing home’s human resources office. It’s unclear if the assault was reported to police.

The Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine indefinitely suspended Poor’s medical license on Dec. 20, 2018, after finding that he negligently treated two patients and kept inadequate medical records for four patients.

McKnight’s recently reported that the Government Accountability Office strongly urged the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to respond to recommendations made in the GAO January 2018 report on assisted living.  It has already been more than a year!

The GAO said it will continue to monitor actions taken by the Department of Health and Human Services in response to its recommendation, one of 404 “priority recommendations” — 54 of them at HHS — that were open as of April 7. The agency said it sent letters to the heads of the HHS, Veterans Affairs, and Defense departments “urging them to continue focusing on these issues.”

The 2018 report, “Medicaid Assisted Living Services: Improved Federal Oversight of Beneficiary Health and Welfare is Needed” contained a to-do list for CMS including reporting of deficiencies in care and services provided to Medicaid beneficiaries in assisted living communities.

Investigators recommended that CMS Administrator Seema Verma:

  1. Provide guidance and clarify requirements for states regarding their monitoring and reporting of deficiencies in assisted living communities.
  2. Establish standard Medicaid reporting requirements that all states could use to annually report information on critical incidents.
  3. Ensure that all states submit annual reports for home- and community-based services waivers on time, as required.

These all seem reasonable and CMS has somewhat addressed #1 and 2.

 

 

What a surprise!  The Trump Administration and the Republicans are paying back one of their most significant donors; the nursing home industry lobbyists.  Kaiser Health News released a study showing that nursing facilities have seen their fines drop by more than 30% during the Trump administration.

The industry has been vocal demanding Trump to move away from penalizing providers for each day out of compliance with a regulation. Instead, facilities are issued a single fine for two-thirds of infractions. The average fine dropped from $41,260 to $28,405.

The report notes examples of preferential treatment for nursing homes including an 18-month moratorium on imposing monetary fines for most violations. Trump also revoked a rule that barred nursing homes from requiring residents to sign pre-dispute mandatory arbitration agreements.

Fines need to be large enough to change facility behavior,” said Robyn Grant, director of public policy and advocacy at the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, a nonprofit based in Washington. “When that’s not the case and the fine is inconsequential, care generally doesn’t improve.”

 

 

Tennessee Health Management nursing company has agreed to pay $9.8 million to settle allegations that it forged physician’s signatures to certify patients’ entry into its facilities. For violating the False Claims Act, THM has agreed to pay almost $5.5 million to the U.S. government and $4.3 million to the state of Tennessee, the Department of Justice reported.   Instead of prohibiting them from receiving any more tax payer money, CMS is allowing the company to enter a federal corporate integrity agreement to improve practices and avoid further such conduct.  That is ridiculous considering how long THM participated in this illegal conduct.

For at least an eight-year period, Tennessee Health Management submitted pre-admission evaluations to both the state and federal authorities, with photocopied or pre-written signatures from physicians. Doctors must conduct a patient-placement evaluation prior to an individual entering a nursing home.

 

The Department of Justice accused Conway Lakes Health & Rehabilitation Center of arranging to pay an orthopedic surgeon to illegally refer Medicare patients for post-surgery services at the SNF.  That is an illegal kickback.  That orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Kenneth Krumins, allegedly took part in a similar scheme with a related home health agency, the DOJ said.  Nursing home management then disguised those payments to Krumins by giving him a “sham” title as medical director of the facility.

“Disguising intricate kickback arrangements through directorships and other misrepresented positions corrupts physician decision making and undermines the public’s trust in the healthcare system,” Shimon Richmond, a special agent with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General, said in a statement.

The arrangements clearly violated physician-referral rules, commonly called the Stark Law, and anti-kickback statutes. Krumins has agreed to pay $500,000 to settle the allegations, while Conway Lakes, its administrator, management company and others must pay another $1 million. Claims were brought forward by a former employee and whistleblower, who will share in $267,000 of the proceeds.

 

McKnights reported on the ongoing saga between National Health Corp. and one of its former nurse leaders, Mary Lea Byrd. In 2012, she filed a complaint, alleging that NHC violated the False Claims Act in numerous ways.  Byrd has now filed an amended complaint, alleging that the skilled nursing provider illegally retaliated against her whistleblowing actions, eventually forcing her to resign. National Health Corp. — whose affiliates operate 76 skilled nursing centers — had moved to dismiss the complaint, because they believe it was barred by the three-year statute of limitations for violations of the False Claims Act.

In her original complaint, Byrd — who was hired as a director of nursing at a Farragut, TN, SNF in 1998 — alleged that NHC required patients to bring medication from home, upcoded claims, billed for services not rendered, and kept patients on services when they no longer qualified for skilled care. She alleges that, after she surfaced those allegations, NHC retaliated in various ways on at least five separate occasions, increasing pressure on her to quit. In September 2017, she felt she had “no choice but to resign,” giving her 30-day notice.

After the case was unsealed in 2017, Byrd filed an amended complaint, naming “National Health Corp.” rather than the original NHC. Those two are affiliated related entities, with common ownership and common control to the national for-profit chain. National Health Corp. argued that its access to a copy of the original complaint was not enough to make it aware that this particular retaliation claim had been filed, a contention with which a U.S. District Court of Eastern District of Tennessee judge disagreed last week.

To say that an organization so closely intertwined with another would not be aware of ongoing litigation arising from a FCA claim is, at best, a stretch,” wrote Judge Pamela L. Reeves.