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HCA Inc., the largest for-profit hospital chain in the US, reaches a settlement with the Justice Department over allegations of having defrauded the government. HCA is owned by the family of Senate majority leader Bill Frist. As part of the agreement, the company pleads guilty to 14 criminal counts and agrees to pay more than $840 million in criminal fines, civil penalties, and damages. It is the largest fraud settlement in US history. The Justice Department’s investigation found that the company had employed a variety of schemes to falsely charge or overcharge for services provided to patients covered by federal health plans. HCA billed Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal health care programs for lab tests that were not medically necessary or ordered by physicians. It billed the government for non-reimbursable expenses by disguising them as reimbursable “community education” expenses or as “management fees.” Other violations included using incorrect diagnostic codes when billing the government in order to increase its revenue, billing for services rendered to patients who did not qualify to receive them, and billing for services that were never performed. Of the total amount settled upon, $95 million is for violations committed by two HCA subsidiaries, Columbia Homecare Group Inc. and Columbia Management Companies Inc. The two companies had engaged in cost report fraud, fraudulent billing, paying kickbacks to doctors for referrals, and paying kickbacks in connection with the purchase and sale of home health agencies. (CBS News 12/14/2000; US Department of Justice 12/14/2002) Not all of the Justice Department’s allegations are resolved in the settlement. In spring 2003, HCA will reach another settlement over allegations of fraudulent cost reporting and kickbacks to physicians for referrals (see June 26, 2003).
HCA, the country’s largest for-profit hospital chain, announces that it has struck a deal with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) over unaudited Medicare and Medicaid billings. The company—which paid more than $840 million in criminal fines, civil penalties, and damages in 2000 for fraudulent reportings to Medicare (see December 14, 2000), and which is still being investigated—will pay CMS $250 million to zero out its account with the agency. (Gerome 3/28/2002) But according to numerous government whistle-blowers, the amount is far too low. In a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services, Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-IA) will later accuse Medicare officials of “seeking to allow HCA to resolve more than $1 billion of liability to the Medicare program for only $250 million, based on little to no evidence supporting this low figure.” Even more troubling, notes the Senator, Medicare has agreed not to audit the company’s cost reports that have been piling up since 1997 when the agency stopped processing HCA bills because of the lawsuit. “One would expect a company with such a track record to be subjected to heightened scrutiny.… [Instead,] the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is proposing to excuse HCA from an even routine review of thousands of Medicare cost reports,” Grassley writes. He says the deal is “too lenient.” John R. Phillips, one of the attorneys involved in the lawsuit against HCA, later says the deal was quietly arranged between HCA and CMS head Thomas A. Scully. “The $250 million was a total sellout by Scully, who totally negotiated it behind Justice’s back,” he says. (Pear 11/19/2002) Similarly, Grassley, in a June 25 letter to a Justice Department lawyer, says comments by Scully “have given me great concern that there is an active, ongoing effort underway to change or modify enforcement [on Medicare fraud] policy that in my view could significantly undermine the [law].” (Office of Senator Charles Grassley 7/25/2002) Scully, during his confirmation hearings, had pledged he would “aggressively enforc[e] the fraud statutes” (see May 29, 2001).
HCA Inc. and the US Justice Department sign a settlement agreement, resolving allegations that the company paid kickbacks to physicians and submitted false cost reports and fraudulent bills to Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal health programs. Under the terms of the agreement, HCA, the country’s largest for-profit hospital chain, will pay the US government $631 million in civil penalties and damages. Additionally, under a separate agreement that was negotiated more than a year ago, HCA will pay the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) $250 million to resolve “outstanding cost report issues.” Critics of that settlement have alleged that the CMS head—a former lobbyist for the hospital industry—cut the deal behind the Justice Department’s back saving HCA several hundred million dollars (see March 28, 2002-November 2002). (CBS News 12/18/2002; O'Harrow 12/19/2002; US Department of Justice 6/26/2003; Nashville Business Journal 6/26/2003; New York Times 6/27/2003) These amounts, when combined with the $840 million settlement reached in December of 2000 (see December 14, 2000), make this the government’s single largest fraud settlement in US history. The $1.7 billion settlement concludes a nine-year investigation that began when whistle-blower James Alderson, a former chief financial officer of one of its former hospitals, filed a lawsuit alleging that the company’s cost reports to the government were fraudulent. During the course of the investigation, authorities discovered a second set of books marked “confidential,” revealing that the company had inflated reimbursable costs billed to government health programs. (Phillips & Cohen 12/18/2002; Eichenwald 12/18/2002)
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