In a bold and seemingly unprecedented move, Aetna recently sued several California surgery centers for an alleged “fraudulent billing scheme”. The lawsuit alleges that the surgery centers induced physicians to refer patients to the surgery centers with promises that the patients would not have any financial responsibility for their coinsurance and deductibles. Aetna claims that the surgery centers then turned around and submitted charges for reimbursement that were artificially inflated driving up the cost of health insurance coverage.
Aetna’s lawsuit alleges that providers are liable for engaging in a fraudulent and illegal kickback scheme when they waive a patient’s coinsurance and deductible amounts, even if the provider bills the patient but ultimately does not collect from the patient. Aetna is asking the court to require the surgery centers to pay damages, to disgorge their profits, and pay Aetna’s attorney fees. Aetna is also asking the court to issue an injunction preventing such “fee-forgiving” practices, in the future.
Aetna’s theories of liability are somewhat novel and it remains to be determined if they will be successful. Providers should be aware that insurers are increasingly using aggressive litigation tactics to challenge unauthorized discount arrangements between providers and patients. As a result of increased scrutiny by third party payors with respect to charges and waivers of co-pays and deductibles, providers should review their billing and collection practices to ensure contractual, legal and regulatory compliance.