HOUSTON – Four Houston-area hospitals have agreed to pay $8.6 million to settle allegations they received kickbacks from various ambulance companies in exchange for rights to the hospitals’ more lucrative Medicare and Medicaid transport referrals. The hospitals are all affiliated with Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), which is based in Nashville, Tennessee, and include Bayshore Medical Center, Clear Lake Regional Medical Center, West Houston Medical Center and East Houston Regional Medical Center.
Acting U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez made the announcement along with Chief Counsel Gregory Demske of the Department of Health and Human Services – Office of Inspector General (DHHS-OIG) and Special Agent in Charge CJ Porter of HHS-OIG, Office of Investigations.
“This settlement demonstrates our office’s commitment to combatting health care fraud,” said Martinez. “Ensuring the integrity of our federal health care programs is one of our highest priorities. We will continue to work to protect the public and hold accountable those who attempt to defraud the system.”
This is the second such announcement this office has made holding accountable medical institutions (hospitals and skilled nursing facilities) for these ambulance “swapping” arrangements. The first such settlement – announced in late 2015 and believed at the time to be the first in the nation of its kind – involved another defendant in this same investigation. Prior to these, virtually all cases focused on the actions of the ambulance companies, rather than the medical institutions they serve.
The Anti-Kickback Statute prohibits offering, paying, soliciting or receiving remuneration to induce referrals of items or services covered by federal health care programs, including Medicare and Medicaid. The settlement announced today resolves allegations that patients at the four hospitals received free or heavily discounted ambulance transports from various ambulance companies in exchange for the hospitals’ referral of other lucrative Medicare and Medicaid business to those same companies. If not for this kickback arrangement, the four hospitals would have been financially responsible for the patient transports at significantly higher rates.
“This settlement emphasizes that both sides of any arrangement where remuneration is paid in exchange for healthcare referrals are responsible for their improper actions – even entities that do not actually bill Medicare or Medicaid for the services,” said Demske. “Any company or individual receiving anything of value in exchange for referrals should understand that their actions may have serious legal and financial consequences.”
Medicaid is funded jointly by the states and the federal government. The State of Texas paid for some of the Medicaid claims at issue and will receive more than $300,000 of the settlement amount.
Three whistleblowers, known as “relators,” filed two lawsuits under the qui tam provision of the False Claims Act which permits private parties to file suit on behalf of the government and obtain a portion of the recovery. The relators’ claims are also resolved by this settlement.
Today’s resolution also marks another achievement for the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team initiative which the Attorney General and the Secretary of Health and Human Services announced in May 2009. The partnership between the two departments has focused efforts to reduce and prevent Medicare and Medicaid financial fraud through enhanced cooperation.
“This settlement serves as an important reminder to the provider community that arrangements that violate the Anti-Kickback Statute will not be tolerated and provides an outstanding example of how law enforcement is able to use investigative tools,” said Porter.
Among the tools instrumental to the settlement were those provided by HHS-OIG’s Chief Data Office, Consolidated Data Analysis Center (CDAC). CDAC provides HHS-OIG and its law enforcement partners with best practices, consultancy and skills development in data mining, predictive analytics and data management and modeling in support of fraud prevention and recovery.
The settlement was the result of a coordinated effort among U.S. Attorney’s Office, DHHS-OIG and the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Shaitelman handled the case.
The claims resolved by this settlement are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability.