New U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) statistics released in January 2018 show that False Claims Act (FCA) whistleblowers who are not joined by the DOJ in their lawsuits reaped $898 million in proceeds in 2017, far greater than the $425 million initially reported by the DOJ. However, in a coincidental turn of events, just hours after the new statistics were released a Florida federal court judge overturned a $350 million FCA verdict against a nursing home operator, Salus Rehabilitation, LLC. Accordingly, the DOJ statistics will likely be revised again to reflect 2017 proceeds of $548 million for whistleblowers.
The ruling in the Salus Rehabilitation case is itself worthy of attention. The Salus whistleblower alleged record-keeping violations and a scheme to boost Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement by exaggerating the medical needs of nursing home residents. Overriding a jury verdict, U.S. District Court Judge Steven D. Merryday ruled that a whistleblower’s allegations that the provider defrauded Medicaid were not sufficient to sustain a hefty FCA judgment. He wrote “… the evidence and the history of this action establish that the federal and state governments regard the disputed practices with leniency or tolerance or indifference or perhaps with resignation to the colossal difficulty of precise, pervasive, ponderous, and permanent record-keeping in the pertinent clinical environment.”
In making his ruling, Judge Merryday relied heavily on Universal Health Services v. Escobar, a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established a set of requirements that must be met before a FCA judgment can be brought against a provider. Among the requirements are that the government and whistleblowers must show the government would not have paid the underlying claims if it knew of the regulatory violations alleged. The Escobar decision found that continued government reimbursement after fraud allegations are made is strong evidence that the allegations are not material. Judge Merryday noted that in the Salus case the government continued to pay for services rendered and stated that the whistleblower did not provide enough evidence to prove that Medicaid reimbursement would have stopped even if the government were aware of paperwork problems at the Salus facility. Clearly, the Salus decision is a victory for providers.