South Carolina Family Practice Chain, Its Co-Owner, and Its Laboratory Director Agree to Pay the United States $2 Million to Settle Alleged False Claims Act Violations for Illegal Medicare Referrals and Billing for Unnecessary Medical Services
Family Medicine Centers of South Carolina LLC (FMC), has agreed to pay the United States $1.56 million, and FMC’s principal owner and former chief executive officer, Dr. Stephen F. Serbin, and its former Laboratory Director, Victoria Serbin, have agreed to pay $443,000 to resolve a False Claims Act lawsuit alleging that they submitted and caused the submission of false claims to the Medicare and TRICARE programs. FMC is a physician-owned chain of family medicine clinics located in and around Columbia, South Carolina, whose practices include Springwood Lake Family Practice, Woodhill Family Practice, Midtown Family Medicine, Saluda Pointe Family Medicine, Lake Murray Family Medicine, and the now closed Rice Creek Family Medicine.
The settlements announced today resolve allegations that FMC, as directed by Dr. Serbin, submitted claims to the Medicare Program that violated the physician self-referral prohibition, commonly known as the Stark Law, which is intended to ensure that a physician’s medical judgment is not compromised by improper financial incentives. The Stark Law forbids a clinic from billing Medicare for certain services ordered by physicians who have a financial relationship with the entity. In this case, the government alleged that the Stark Law was violated by FMC’s incentive compensation plan that paid FMC’s physicians a percentage of the value of laboratory and other diagnostic tests that they personally ordered through FMC, which FMC then billed to Medicare. Dr. Serbin, FMC’s co-owner and chief executive, allegedly initiated this program and reminded FMC’s physicians that they needed to order tests and other services through FMC in order to increase FMC’s profits and to ensure that their take-home pay remained in the upper level nationwide for family practice doctors.
“Financial arrangements that compensate physicians for referrals can sometimes encourage physicians to make decisions based on financial gain rather than patient needs,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad A. Readler of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The Department of Justice is committed to preventing illegal financial relationships that undermine the integrity of our public health programs and drive up the cost of healthcare for taxpayers.”
The settlements also resolve allegations that FMC, Dr. Serbin, and Victoria Serbin submitted and caused the submission of false claims to Medicare and TRICARE for medically unnecessary laboratory services by creating custom laboratory panels comprised of diagnostic tests not appropriate for routine measurement, performing these tests without an order from the treating physician, implementing standing orders to assure these custom panels were performed with defined frequency and not in reaction to clinical need, and programming FMC’s billing software to systematically change certain billing codes for laboratory tests to ensure payment by Medicare.
“Healthcare decisions should be made by physicians based on medical science and not with regard to maximizing the doctor’s own income,” said U.S. Attorney Beth Drake for the District of South Carolina. “Our goal in bringing this case was not only to recover money for improper healthcare claims, but also to deter similar conduct and promote health care affordability.”
The allegations settled today arose from a lawsuit filed by a physician formerly employed by FMC, Dr. Catherine A. Schaefer, under the 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. Dr. Schaefer will receive $340,510.
As part of the settlement announced today, FMC and the Serbins have also agreed to enter into a Corporate Integrity Agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG), which ensures the Serbins will have no management role in FMC for five years and obligates FMC to undertake other substantial internal compliance reforms, including hiring an independent review organization to conduct annual claims reviews.
“Patients and taxpayers should expect that doctors’ best medical judgement is not clouded by improper financial incentives,” said Special Agent in Charge Derrick L. Jackson for HHS-OIG. “We will work tirelessly with our law enforcement partners to preserve government health funds by bringing violators to justice.”
“We applaud the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina for holding this provider accountable for its actions,” said Deputy Director Guy Kiyokawa of the Defense Health Agency. “The provider’s actions impacted American service members, veterans and their families, diverting valuable resources through unnecessary tests. The Defense Health Agency continues to work closely with the Justice Department and other state and federal agencies to investigate all those who participated in these nefarious, fraudulent practices.”
This case was handled by the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina, HHS-OIG and the Defense Health Agency.
The litigation and settlement of 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).
The claims resolved by this settlement are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability. The case is captioned United States ex rel. Schaefer v. Family Medicine Centers of South Carolina, LLC, Stephen F. Serbin, M.D. and Victoria Serbin, No. 3:14-cv-342-MBS (D.S.C.).