When Is a Kickback Not a Kickback? Third Circuit Says It Must Be Linked to Specific False Claim

February 1st, 2018 by Qui Tam

What Happened?

In affirming the district court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of Accredo Health Group, Inc., and its co-defendants, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that a plaintiff alleging a False Claims Act (“FCA”) violation based on an anti-kickback theory must show that (1) a particular patient was exposed to a kickback-tainted referral, and (2) a provider submitted a claim for reimbursement pertaining to that patient.

The Rundown

In United States ex rel. Greenfield v. Medco Health Solutions, Inc., et al., the relator sued Accredo Health Group, a specialty pharmacy that provides home health care for hemophilia patients, and its affiliates (collectively, “Accredo”). Accredo made donations to numerous hemophilia-related charities, two of which, according to the relator’s allegations, recommended Accredo as a provider for hemophilia patients. Relator Greenfield moved for summary judgment before the district court, arguing that Accredo’s donations-for-referrals scheme violated the Anti-Kickback Statute (“AKS)), 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(b), and that the scheme ran afoul of the FCA, 31 U.S.C. § 3729 et seq., because (1) some of the referrals were directed towards Medicare patients, and (2) when submitting Medicare claims for payment, Accredo falsely certified that it had complied with the AKS. Accredo cross-moved for summary judgment on the ground that the record lacked evidence that any Medicare patient had purchased prescriptions because of Accredo’s donations to specific charities.

Without reaching the question whether Greenfield had established a kickback scheme, the district court granted Accredo’s motion for summary judgment, while denying the relator’s motion for the same relief.  It held that an FCA claim based on an anti-kickback theory requires the plaintiff to show that, as a result of the AKS violation, the defendant received payment from the federal government in violation of the FCA. Greenfield could not do that, in the Court’s view, because there was no evidence that any Medicare patient chose Accredo due to its charitable donations.

Greenfield appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Accredo. But it rejected the district court’s imposition of a “but-for” causation requirement. The Court analyzed the language of the AKS, amended in 2010 to provide that “a claim that includes items or services resulting from a violation of [the statute] constitutes a false of fraudulent claim for the purposes of [the FCA].”  According to the Court, the “resulting from” language was too broad to require proof that the Medicare patient would not have chosen the provider but for the kickback. Were the district court’s interpretation correct, the both AKS drafters’ intention to strengthen the government’s ability to punish fraudulent activities, and its revisers’ intention to bolster whistleblower actions based on medical care kickbacks would have been thwarted.

However, the Court held that a plaintiff must still provide evidence of the actual submission of a false claim to prevail at trial.  Demonstrating that a kickback scheme exists is not enough; a plaintiff must establish that the underlying medical care is connected to the breach of the AKS.  Because Greenfield could point to no “record evidence that shows a link between the alleged kickbacks and the medical care received by at least one of Accredo’s . . . federally insured patients,” the district court correctly entered summary judgment for Accredo.

The Take Away

The Court rejected both (1) Greenfield’s position that that taint of a kickback scheme is enough to infect all referrals to Medicare patients, and (2) Accredo’s argument – adopted by the district court – that a plaintiff must prove that federal beneficiaries would not have used the relevant services absent the kickback scheme. Its middle-ground position, requiring evidence that shows a “link” between kickbacks and care, is sure to spawn future litigation regarding how strong and of what character that connection must be.

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