The government has intervened in a whistleblower lawsuit against Hospice of the Comforter Inc. (HOTCI) alleging false Medicare billings, the Justice Department announced today. HOTCI provides hospice services to patients residing in the vicinity of Orlando, Fla.
The Medicare hospice benefit is available for patients who elect palliative treatment (medical care focused on providing patients with relief from pain and stress) for a terminal illness, and have a life expectancy of six months or less if their disease runs its normal course. When an individual is admitted to a hospice facility, that individual is no longer entitled to receive curative care (services designed to cure his or her illness).
The lawsuit, filed by HOTCI’s former vice-president of finance, Douglas Stone, alleges that HOTCI knowingly submitted false claims to Medicare for hospice care for patients who were not terminally ill. Specifically, the lawsuit contends that HOTCI’s chief executive officer verbally instructed HOTCI employees to admit Medicare recipients for hospice care even where there had not yet been a determination that they were eligible for the hospice benefit. The lawsuit also alleges that, after being notified that it would be audited by its Medicare contractor, HOTCI formed an internal committee to review the eligibility of its Medicare patients and discharged at least 150 patients in 2009-2010 as being ineligible for the Medicare hospice benefit.
“The hospice benefit is intended only for people who qualify for and require such care,” said Stuart F. Delery, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division of the Department of Justice. “We will continue to protect this important component of the Medicare program by ensuring that entities providing hospice care are only treating, and billing for, qualified patients.”
“Some of the most vulnerable people in our district rely on hospice services,” said Robert O’Neill, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida. “It is critically important that Medicare remains solvent in order to provide hospice benefits, and that we confront those whose practices in this area put economic gain before patient care.”
The lawsuit was filed under the qui tam , or whistleblower, provisions of the False Claims Act, which permit private parties to sue on behalf of the United States for the submission of false claims to the government. The private plaintiffs are entitled to receive a share of any funds recovered through the lawsuit. The False Claims Act authorizes the United States to intervene in such a lawsuit and take over primary responsibility for litigating it. The False Claims Act permits the government to recover three times its damages plus civil penalties.
The government’s intervention in this action is part of the government’s emphasis on combating health care fraud and another step for the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT) initiative, which was announced by Attorney General Eric Holder and Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services in May 2009. The partnership between the two departments has focused efforts to reduce and prevent Medicare and Medicaid financial fraud through enhanced cooperation. One of the most powerful tools in that effort is the False Claims Act, which the Justice Department has used to recover more than $9.3 billion since January 2009 in cases involving fraud against federal health care programs. The Justice Department’s total recoveries in False Claims Act cases since January 2009 are over $13 billion.
This matter was investigated by the Commercial Litigation Branch of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General. The claims asserted against HOTCI are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability.
The lawsuit is captioned United States ex rel. Stone v. Hospice of the Comforter, Inc., No. 6:11-cv-1498-ORL-22-AAB (M.D. Fla).