Hospice of the Comforter Inc. (HOTCI) has agreed to pay $3 million to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by submitting false claims to the Medicare program for hospice services provided to patients who were not eligible for the Medicare hospice benefit, the Justice Department announced today. HOTCI is headquartered in Altamonte Springs, Fla., and provides hospice services to patients residing in Seminole, Osceola and Orange counties in Florida.
“This settlement is a result of the Justice Department’s continuing efforts to prevent the abuse of the taxpayer-funded Medicare hospice program, which is intended to provide comfort and care to terminally ill persons during the last six months of their lives,” said Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division Stuart F. Delery. “We will pursue those who seek to misuse this important benefit for their own enrichment.”
The government alleged that between December 2005 and December 2010, HOTCI engaged in practices that resulted in billing Medicare for patients who were not terminally ill. Specifically, HOTCI allegedly directed its staff to admit all referred patients without regard to whether they were eligible for the Medicare hospice benefit, falsified medical records to make it appear that certain patients were eligible for the benefit when they were not, employed field nurses without hospice training, established procedures to limit physicians’ roles in assessing patients’ terminal status and delayed discharging patients when they became ineligible for the benefit.
As part of this settlement, HOTCI has agreed to enter into a Corporate Integrity Agreement with the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services that provides for procedures and reviews to be put in place to promptly detect and prevent future conduct similar to that which gave rise to the settlement. In addition, HOTCI’s former Chief Executive Officer Robert Wilson has agreed to a three-year, voluntary exclusion from Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health care programs.
“This settlement represents a fair and appropriate resolution of this troubling matter,” said Acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida A. Lee Bentley III. “Hospice providers in our district should be on notice that our office will do what it takes to protect our citizens from this kind of misconduct.”
“Hospice care is a sacred trust from which no provider should fraudulently profit,” said Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Daniel R. Levinson. “Claiming tax dollars for people who are not terminally ill ?? and therefore ineligible for hospice care ?? cannot be tolerated.”
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 Attorney General Eric Holder and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. 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 $16.7 billion through False Claims Act cases, with more than $11.9 billion of that amount recovered in cases involving fraud against federal health care programs.
The allegations settled today arose from a lawsuit filed by a former HOTCI employee, Douglas Stone, under the qui tam, or whistleblower, provisions of the False Claims Act. Under the act, private citizens can bring suit on behalf of the government for false claims and share in any recovery. Stone’s share of the recovery has not been determined.
This matter was handled by the Justice Department’s Civil Division, Commercial Litigation Branch; the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida and the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General.
The case is United States ex rel. Stone v. Hospice of the Comforter Inc ., No. 6:11-cv-1498-ORL-22-DAB (M.D. Fla.). The claims settled by this agreement are allegations only; there has been no determination of liability.