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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

United States Files False Claims Act Lawsuit Against Las Vegas Hospice and Related Entities for Billing Medicare and Medicaid for Ineligible Patients

The United States has filed suit against Creekside Hospice II LLC, Skilled Healthcare Group Inc. (SKG), its holding company, and Skilled Healthcare LLC (SKH), an administrative services subsidiary of SKG that operates Creekside (collectively the Creekside entities), alleging that these entities knowingly submitted ineligible claims for hospice services and inflated claims for patient visits to government health care programs, the Justice Department announced today. 

“The Medicare hospice benefit is intended to provide pain management and other palliative care to patients nearing the end of life, to help make them as comfortable as possible,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Joyce R. Branda for the Civil Division.  “Too often, however, companies abuse this critical service by using aggressive marketing tactics to pressure patients who do not need, and may be ill-served, by these services in order to get higher reimbursements from the government.  The department will take swift action to protect taxpayer dollars and make sure that Medicare benefits are available to those who truly need them.”

The Medicare and Medicaid hospice benefits are 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 Medicare or Medicaid patients receive hospice services, they no longer receive services designed to cure their illnesses. 

The government’s complaint alleges that the Creekside entities knowingly submitted or caused the submission of false claims for hospice care for patients who were not terminally ill.  According to the complaint, the companies allegedly directed staff to enroll patients in the hospice program regardless of the patients’ eligibility for hospice benefits, sometimes by instructing staff to change records after the hospice submitted claims for payment to indicate that all requirements had been met.  Management from Creekside, SKG and SKH also allegedly instructed employees to alter medical records to make it appear that doctors at the hospice had conducted personal visits with the patients, when in fact they had not occurred, in order to ensure reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid.  The complaint alleges that Creekside management aggressively discouraged staff from permitting patients or their families to revoke their elections to accept hospice benefits.  The complaint also alleges that staff at Creekside were discouraged from documenting known improvements in a patient’s health in the medical record, called “Chart Killers” by the hospice, to ensure that Medicare or Medicaid would pay the hospice’s claim. 

Further, the complaint alleges that the Creekside entities knowingly submitted or caused the submission of inflated claims to Medicare for services performed by the medical director.  The government alleges that the companies repeatedly used billing codes that resulted in higher payment by Medicare than were justified by the services actually performed.  As a result of the conduct alleged in the complaint, the government contends that the Creekside entities misspent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars from the Medicare and Medicaid programs.  

“In order to protect the financial integrity of the Medicare and Medicaid programs, upon which so many of our senior American citizens rely, both the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have made combating healthcare fraud an enforcement priority,” said U.S. Attorney Daniel G. Bogden for the District of Nevada.  “This type of fraud will not be tolerated and DOJ and HHS will act swiftly when it does occur to pursue False Claims Act suits against violators.”

The United States filed its complaint in two consolidated lawsuits brought under the whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act and the Nevada False Claims Act by Joanne Cretney-Tsosie, a clinical manager for Creekside, and Veneta Lepera, a former clinical manager for Creekside.  Under these statutes, a private citizen can sue for fraud on behalf of the United States and the state of Nevada, respectively, and share in any recovery.  The federal and state governments are entitled to intervene in such a lawsuit, as they have done in this case.

The United States’ suit is part of the government’s emphasis on combating health care fraud and marks another achievement for the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT) initiative, which was announced in May 2009 by the Attorney General and the Secretary of Health and Human Services.  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 this effort is the False Claims Act.  Since January 2009, the Justice Department has recovered a total of more than $23.1 billion through False Claims Act cases, with more than $14.8 billion of that amount recovered in cases involving fraud against federal health care programs. 

This matter was investigated by the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Nevada, the Nevada Attorney General’s Office and the HHS Office of Inspector General.  The claims asserted against Creekside Hospice, SKG and SKH are allegations only and there has been no determination of liability.

The lawsuit is captioned United States and State of Nevada v. Creekside Hospice II, LLC, Skilled HealthCare Group, Inc. and Skilled Healthcare, LLC. (D. Nev.) 

Updated November 25, 2014