On Monday, August 4, 2014, The Department of Justice announced that Community Health Systems (“CHS”), the nation’s largest operator of acute care hospitals, agreed to pay $98.15 million to settle nine whistleblower lawsuits alleging that the company violated the False Claims Act between January 2005 and December 2010. The whistleblowers alleged that CHS knowingly billed Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE for medically unnecessary inpatient admissions rather than the lower outpatient or observation rates at 119 hospitals. Additionally, allegations were made that services were rendered to patients at one of CHS’s hospitals in Laredo, Texas by a physician who was offered a medical directorship in violation of the physician self-referral law, known as the Stark Law.
Under the settlement, CHS entered into a five-year Corporate Integrity Agreement requiring it to retain independent review organizations to review the accuracy of the claims for inpatient services under federal health care programs, and to engage in significant compliance efforts over the next five years.
The allegations against CHS are particularly notable in light of new regulations such as the two-midnight rule, which took effect October 1, 2013. The two-midnight rule requires that physicians deem a patient’s condition as serious enough to require at least two overnight stays in order to qualify for Medicare reimbursement under inpatient rates. Patients who aren’t formally admitted may remain under outpatient or observation status. Emergency and internal medicine physicians often struggle to get the right designation and status for the patient. The federal government has delayed enforcement of the rule until March 31, 2015 at which time hospitals may face financial penalties if auditors determine the hospital could have met the patient’s needs in an outpatient setting.