Blood Testing Laboratory to Pay $6 Million to Settle Allegations of Kickbacks and Unnecessary Testing
Quest Diagnostics Inc. has agreed to pay $6 million to resolve a lawsuit by the United States alleging that Berkeley HeartLab Inc., of Alameda, California, violated the False Claims Act by paying kickbacks to physicians and patients to induce the use of Berkeley for blood testing services and by charging for medically unnecessary tests. Quest, which is headquartered in Madison, New Jersey, acquired Berkeley in 2011, and ended the conduct that gave rise to the settlement.
“We rely on doctors to provide honest, independent recommendations regarding clinical testing,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad A. Readler of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “Companies that pay kickbacks to referring doctors corrupt those doctors’ independence, leaving patients vulnerable to expensive and unnecessary testing.”
Physicians refer their patients to independent laboratories like Berkeley to conduct tests on blood samples. According to the government’s complaint, Berkeley paid kickbacks to referring physicians disguised as “process and handling” fees. The complaint also alleged that Berkeley paid kickbacks to patients by routinely waiving copayments owed by certain patients who were legally required to pay for part of their tests. Allegedly, Berkeley paid the kickbacks to induce both the physicians and patients who received them to choose Berkeley over other laboratories. The government’s complaint further alleged that these illegal practices resulted in medically unnecessary cardiovascular tests being charged to federal healthcare programs.
The Anti-Kickback Statute prohibits offering, paying, soliciting or receiving remuneration to induce referrals of items or services covered by federally funded programs. The Anti-Kickback Statute is 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. The Anti-Kickback Statute also prohibits routinely waiving patient copayments to ensure that patients are appropriately incentivized to refuse unnecessary tests.
“The South Carolina U.S. Attorney’s Office has dedicated considerable resources to pursuing fraud cases that divert federal tax payer dollars from important programs, like health care and defense contracting,” said U.S. Attorney Beth Drake of the District of South Carolina. “The goal for our qui tam unit is to protect taxpayers, patients, and soldiers by ensuring that important decisions are made according to medical science and engineering, and not based on dollar signs.”
“This settlement is part of the government’s ongoing efforts to address conduct that allows medical decisions to be influenced by money rather than the best interests of patients,” said U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips of the District of Columbia. “Our office is pleased to defend the integrity of our healthcare system and to demand the return of ill-gotten gains.”
“We will not allow laboratories to provide financial incentives to induce physicians to steer patients their way,” said Special Agent in Charge Derrick L. Jackson of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG) in Atlanta. “The Office of Inspector General will continue to work aggressively to eliminate this type of behavior which ultimately drives up healthcare costs and eliminates fair competition.”
The lawsuit was initially filed by Dr. Michael Mayes under the qui tam, or whistleblower, provisions of the False Claims Act. Under the act, private citizens can bring suit on behalf of the government for false claims and share in any recovery. The act permits the United States to intervene in and take over a whistleblower suit. The United States partially intervened in this and two related actions on March 31, 2015, and is continuing to pursue claims against the remaining defendants: Latonya Mallory, the former CEO of Health Diagnostics Laboratory Inc., and marketing company BlueWave Healthcare Consultants Inc. and its owners, Floyd Calhoun Dent III and Robert Bradford Johnson. Dr. Mayes’ share of the settlement with Quest has not been determined.
On April 9, 2015, the United States announced settlements with two other laboratories - Health Diagnostics Laboratory Inc. of Richmond, Virginia, and Singulex Inc., of Alameda, California - for engaging in conduct similar to that resolved in the settlement with Quest.
The government’s intervention in this matter illustrates the government’s emphasis on combating health care fraud. One of the most powerful tools in this effort is the False Claims Act. Tips and complaints from all sources about potential fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, can be reported to the Department of Health and Human Services, at 800-HHS-TIPS (800-447-8477).
This matter was investigated by the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch, the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the District of South Carolina and the District of Columbia, FBI’s Columbia Field Office and the FBI Healthcare Fraud Unit Major Provider Response Team (MPRT), HHS-OIG, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Office of Inspector General, and the Department of Defense’s Office of Inspector General Defense Criminal Investigative Service.
The cases is captioned United States ex rel. Mayes v. Berkeley HeartLab Inc., et al., Case No. 9:11-CV-01593-RMG (D.S.C.). The claims settled by these agreements and asserted against these companies and individuals are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability.