Will CMS’s Proposed Rule on “Identified Overpayments” Increase Reverse FCA Cases?

03 January 2023 Health Care Law Today Blog
Author(s): Kara Sweet Lisa M. Noller Lawrence W. Vernaglia

On December 27, 2022, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) published a proposed rule which, in part, seeks to amend the existing regulations for Medicare Parts A, B, C, and D regarding the standard for when an “identified” overpayment must be refunded, pursuant to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the False Claims Act (FCA) reverse false claims provision. As written, the proposed rule would remove the existing “reasonable diligence” standard for identification of overpayments, and add the “knowing” and “knowingly” FCA definition. As a result, an overpayment would be identified when the entity has actual knowledge of an identified overpayment, or acts in reckless disregard or deliberate ignorance of an identified overpayment. And, a provider is required to refund overpayments it is obliged to refund within 60 days of such identified overpayment.

If this proposed rule is finalized, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) should be applying the same intent standard to their evaluation of potential reverse false claims and Civil Monetary Penalty liability.

The Lay of the Land

Currently, the applicable overpayment regulations state:

A person has identified an overpayment when the person has, or should have through the exercise of reasonable diligence, determined that the person has received an overpayment and quantified the amount of the overpayment. A person should have determined that the person received an overpayment and quantified the amount of the overpayment if the person fails to exercise reasonable diligence and the person in fact received an overpayment.

42 C.F.R. § 401.305(a)(2). In the 2016 Final Rule, CMS agreed “the 60-day time period begins when either the reasonable diligence is completed or on the day the person received credible information of a potential overpayment if the person failed to conduct reasonable diligence and the person in fact received an overpayment.” This reasonable diligence standard allows entities to not only determine credibility of allegations, or issues relating to, a potential overpayment but also, when credible, to conduct a properly scoped internal investigation, during which an entity also accurately quantifies any associated overpayment due for refund.

In the proposed rulemaking, CMS is suggesting instead the following standard:

A person has identified an overpayment when the person knowingly receives or retains an overpayment. The term “knowingly” has the meaning set forth in 31 U.S.C. 3729(b)(1)(A).

31 U.S.C. 3729(b)(1)(A) defines “Knowingly” as any circumstance in which “a person, with respect to information—(i) has actual knowledge of the information; (ii) acts in deliberate ignorance of the truth or falsity of the information; or (iii) acts in reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the information.”

The currently proposed provision has similar effect to the language CMS proposed in 2012 and, after consideration of comments, ultimately rejected in the 2014 Final Rule (Medicare Advantage and Part D) and 2016 Final Rule (Medicare Part A and Part B). In that final rulemaking, CMS removed the “actual knowledge,” “reckless disregard,” and “deliberate ignorance” terms in favor of the reasonable diligence standard, leaving practitioners to argue that CMS had lowered requisite intent to a standard less than required by the FCA.

Potential Impact

The FCA is a fraud statute, requiring intent. If a company investigating the credibility, issue, and scope of a matter (i.e., exercising reasonable diligence) also diligently determines the scope of a possible refund obligation, it would be difficult for DOJ to credibly claim an entity has acted recklessly, or with deliberate indifference to repayment under the FCA. DOJ’s general practice has been to bring reverse FCA cases when a provider does not investigate credible allegations and does not refund associated overpayments, after identifying them. For example, in a 2015 case, DOJ attorneys stated in a court conference, “[T]his is not a question ... of a case where the hospital is diligently working on the claims and it's on the sixty-first day and they're still scrambling to go through their spreadsheets, you know, the government wouldn't be bringing that kind of a claim.” United States ex rel. Kane v. Healthfirst, Inc., 120 F. Supp. 3d 370, 389 (S.D. N.Y. 2015). 

It remains to be seen whether this change will result in an increased pursuit of reverse FCA cases. The proposed rule would eliminate an explicit diligence period (generally not to exceed six months, except in particularly complicated analyses, such as under the Physician Self-Referral or “Stark” Law) to ascertain the validity and amount of a potential obligation to refund an overpayment. The proposed rule does not explain whether providers, suppliers, and others still will have an opportunity to conduct a reasonably diligent inquiry into whether any obligation to refund exists at all, prior to the ACA 60-day clock starting to run. Ideally CMS would make clear in any preamble that the government still expects reasonable and professional efforts be undertaken before making refunds, even if that process may take some time to complete   

Absent such clarity, the fact remains that it is difficult to “identify” an obligation to refund, much less any refundable amounts, without first validating the alleged overpayment and quantifying any obligation. 

Additionally, this standard may prompt entities to submit an HHS-OIG self-disclosure before all facts are known. While OIG requires a disclosing party to conduct an internal investigation prior to submission, it is near impossible to thoroughly investigate issues and identify any refund 60 days from learning of a possible issue that might result in a refund (especially when multiple payors are involved). Even if a disclosing party notes within a self-disclosure that an investigation is ongoing, the disclosing party must certify that it will complete its investigation within 90 days of the submission date – which still may not be enough time based on the complexity of the allegations or claims review required. The resulting back-and-forth of incomplete information likely would create unnecessary delays in reaching a resolution and frustration among all parties involved.

We encourage all providers, suppliers, Medicare Advantage organizations, Part D participants, and other stakeholders to submit comments on this proposed rule. The public has until 5 p.m. ET on February 13, 2023 to submit comments, which are accepted, electronically or by mail.

Foley is here to help you address the short- and long-term impacts in the wake of changes. We have the resources to help you navigate these and other important legal considerations related to business operations and industry-specific issues. Please reach out to the authors, your Foley relationship partner, or to our Government Enforcement Defense and Investigations Group or Health Care Practice Group with any questions.

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