CHS Cites ‘Shifting’ Standards in Fraud Allegation Settlement

This interview with Reuben Guttman, who practices law with Guttman, Buschner & Brooks PLLC in Washington DC. and who represented three Plaintiff-Relators in United States ex rel. Doghramji v. Community Health Systems Inc., was conducted by John Commins, Senior Editor with HealthLeaders Media. The interview was published online on August 6, 2014.

An attorney representing one of the whistleblowers alleging that Community Health Systems committed fraud says that as a nation, “we have a healthcare delivery system where doctors and individual decision making, to some degree, have been shoved to the side by corporate managers.”

Community Health Systems, Inc. and federal prosecutors have agreed to a $98.1 million payout to settle system-wide fraud allegations levelled by whistleblowers against the Franklin, TN-based for-profit hospital chain.

While they have agreed on a settlement, CHS and federal prosecutors disagree on what prompted 119 hospitals in the nation’s largest acute care hospital chain to allegedly overbill Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE from 2005-2010 for inpatient services for patients who may not have needed to be hospitalized.

CHS Chairman and CEO Wayne T. Smith said the hospital chain was struggling “to operate in a complex and everchanging regulatory environment.”

“The question of when a patient should be admitted to a hospital is, and always has been, a matter of medical judgment by the individual physician responsible for a patient’s care,” Smith said in a media release.

“Unfortunately, shifting and often ambiguous standards make it extremely difficult for physicians and hospitals to consistently comply with the regulations. We are committed to doing our best, despite these challenges. Because this is an industry-wide issue, we hope the government will work to devise sound and reasonable rules for the important decision about whether to admit an individual for inpatient care, and we appreciate the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with the government over these incredibly complicated issues.”

A CHS spokesperson amplified Smith’s point by saying that the shifting standards, “such as the two-midnight rule, which has had numerous updates, clarifications, and additional guidance attached to it since it was issued in August 2013… make it difficult for ALL providers to consistently comply with regulations.”

Federal prosecutors said flatly that the fraud allegations stemmed from a “deliberate corporate-driven scheme.”

“Charging the government for higher-cost inpatient services that patients do not need wastes the country’s healthcare resources,” said Assistant Attorney General Stuart F. Delery for the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “In addition, providing physicians with financial incentives to refer patients compromises medical judgment and risks depriving patients of the most appropriate healthcare available.”

Even though the settlement terms don’t include a guilty plea, Daniel R. Levinson, inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services said that “in an effort to ensure the company’s fraudulent past is not its future, CHS agreed to a rigorous multi-year Corporate Integrity Agreement requiring that the company commit to compliance with the law.”

CHS had already set aside $102 million to cover the settlements and legal bills.

The settlement also resolves several whistle-blower lawsuits levelled by CHS employees in hospitals in several states. The whistleblowers’ share of the settlement has yet to be determined, DOJ said.

Reuben Guttman, representing whistleblower James Doghramji, MD, a former emergency physician at CHS’s Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia, spoke with HealthLeaders Media about the settlement. The following is an edited transcript.

HLM: CHS CEO Wayne Smith says that the billing irregularities are due to complex and shifting federal requirements. Do you buy that?

RG: I don’t think he has a legitimate point. This is a company that is crying out for additional scrutiny and oversight and this is a poster child for a Congressional investigation. In theory, doctors are supposed to make decisions.

In practice, people like Mr. Smith and companies like CHS have set up a dynamic where individual patient medical necessity is secondary to marketing and money. We are at a point where we have a healthcare delivery system where doctors and individual decision making to some degree have been shoved to the side by corporate managers.

This is a story about a company that was gobbling up suburban hospitals for no medical rationale. It’s not that they can run them better or that they were providing significant expertise. It was just about extracting cash from the Medicare/Medicaid system.

CHS was designing its admissions criteria on a centralized basis. CHS in Nashville was tracking exactly what was going on in all of these hospitals. They knew the economics at a micro level. I don’t think plausible deniability exists here.

HLM: Do you have a sense of the value of the alleged fraud versus what CHS is paying for?

RG: If you actually look the cash flow for this company, this is a very significant amount of money that they have put off. It is probably not significant in relation to the actual cost to the United States government or individual payers or what the government could extract if they tried the case, but it is a number that pushed the edge of the envelop in terms of paying something that is significant but allows the company to go forward.

The most significant thing about these cases is that they make the wrongdoing to some degree transparent as a catalyst perhaps for Congressional oversight. The reality is that unfortunately, many of these settlements are nothing more than the fee for a license to continue to break the law. What is apparent to us is that a lot of large companies are gaming the system and thinking ‘what is the likelihood of getting caught, and if we get caught what is the penalty?’ The penalty becomes part of the game.

We have to have a penalty system that is hard to calculate in advance and that will make it more difficult. But in reality you have to change the healthcare delivery system in the sense that we rely on the integrity of these types of corporations that have put medical decision making secondary to making money.

You can see when a train wreck is about to occur when you look at the debt service for a company. You are not going to create additional sick people. There are only a certain number of sick people. This is a situation that is going to be ripe for fraud.

HLM: Was there a smoking gun for prosecutors or whistleblowers in this case?

RG: In all of these cases, the complexity of the cases, you don’t find smoking guns. It requires you to find the smoke and the pieces to the gun and put it all together. Then, the trick for somebody who is doing lots of fraud cases is to look at the facts that aren’t there, or the rules that don’t exist, or to see what appears to be facially neutral practices are driving impropriety.

For example, if you have an innocuous practice that says when somebody comes into an emergency room and there is a rule that says they should be put on an IV, you can look at that and say that is not a smoking gun, putting someone on an IV.

But wait a second, when you put someone on an IV that means you are going to streamline them into an admissions situation as opposed to giving them bottles of water, maybe they will be OK, and we will send them home. You have to look at facially neutral practices and how they are driving an unlawful result. That is the trick to uncovering fraud. It’s extraordinarily complicated.

You have two things that are going on. One is you have companies engaged in these facially neutral practices that have an unlawful result for the purpose of deceiving regulators. Two, more significantly, it is a way of creating a cult and convincing people internally that they don’t have to worry about it because nobody internally is putting the pieces together. People who are paid well generally don’t want to do it.

This is the simple question you need to ask: What person or entity knowingly exposes somebody to infectious diseases in order to make a buck? That is the cutting question, because the reality is that while hospitals are places to get well they are also places that are dangerous because there are infectious diseases in hospitals. You don’t want to admit somebody unless it is medically necessary.

There are corporate executives who are knowingly and recklessly putting people at risk. That is unconscionable.

HLM: Do you feel this is a fairly widespread practice in the hospital sector?

RG: I wouldn’t be surprised.

A CHS spokesperson reached for comment late Tuesday said “This investigation was not about the quality of care provided or the location of the care that was provided for any patient–or even how long patients were in the hospital. It is about whether the hospital could rely on the physician’s signed orders in the medical chart to establish the patient status as inpatient–and then bill for the exact care that was provided. It is about the “status” of the patient–inpatient or observation–while that patient was in the hospital.