Kentucky Cardiologists Agree to Pay $380,000 to Settle False Claims Act Allegations Based on Illegal Referrals
WASHINGTON—The Department of Justice announced today that two cardiologists based in London, Kentucky, have agreed to pay $380,000 to resolve allegations that they violated the False Claims Act by entering into sham management agreements with Saint Joseph Hospital, also based in London, Kentucky, in exchange for the referral of cardiology procedures and other healthcare services to Saint Joseph.
“Physicians who place their financial interests above the well-being of their patients will be held accountable,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Joyce R. Branda for the Civil Division. “The Department of Justice is committed to preventing illegal financial relationships that undermine the integrity of our public healthcare programs.”
Satyabrata Chatterjee and Ashwini Anand jointly owned Cumberland Clinic, a physician group that provided cardiology services. The government alleged that St. Joseph Hospital entered into sham agreements with Chatterjee and Anand, under which the physicians were paid to provide management services but did not in fact do so. The government further alleged that, in exchange for the sham agreements, Chatterjee and Anand agreed to enter into an exclusive agreement with St. Joseph to refer Cumberland Clinic patients to the hospital for cardiology and other services in violation of the Stark Law and the Anti-Kickback Statute. The Stark Law forbids a hospital from billing Medicare for certain services referred by physicians who have a financial relationship with the entity. 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.
“Financial relationships between healthcare providers that put profits over patients are a threat to the programs upon which millions of Americans depend,” said U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey for the Eastern District of Kentucky. “We will continue to use all the tools available to us to safeguard our federally funded healthcare programs from those who seek to profit from them through illegal means.”
In addition to payment of the settlement amount, which was based on Chatterjee and Anand’s financial ability to pay, Chatterjee and Anand have agreed to enter into integrity agreements with the Department of Health and Human Services-Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG), which obligate them to undertake substantial internal compliance reforms and to commit to a third-party review of their claims to federal health care programs for the next three years.
“Physicians who accept kickbacks in exchange for referrals undermine the integrity of the medical profession,” said Special Agent in Charge Derrick L. Jackson of the HHS-OIG Atlanta region. “OIG will continue to protect both patients and taxpayers by holding physicians and hospitals accountable for improper claims.”
The government previously entered into a $16.5 million settlement with Saint Joseph Hospital for the allegedly sham management contracts the hospital executed with Chatterjee and Anand, as well as for allegedly billing for unnecessary and excessive cardiology procedures by other members of Chatterjee and Anand’s cardiology practice.
The settlement announced today stems from a complaint filed by three Lexington, Kentucky, cardiologists pursuant to the whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act, which permit private persons to bring a lawsuit on behalf of the United States. The act permits the United States to intervene in the lawsuit and take over the allegations, as the government did in this case. The three whistleblowers, Drs. Michael Jones, Paula Hollingsworth and Michael Rukavina, will collectively receive $68,400.
This settlement illustrates 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 $22.5 billion through False Claims Act cases, with more than $14.3 billion of that amount recovered in cases involving fraud against federal health care programs.
The investigation was conducted by the FBI, HHS-OIG, the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Kentucky. The claims settled by this agreement are allegations only and there has been no determination of liability.
The lawsuit is captioned United States ex rel. Jones, Hollingsworth, and Rukavina v. St. Joseph Health System et al., no. 11-cv-81-GFVT (E.D.Ky.)