(August 16, 2017): Earlier this summer, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) executed its most extensive “health care fraud takedown” to date, initially arresting 412 licensed healthcare providers, doctors, and nurses alleged to have engaged in fraudulent conduct. As Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated at that time, “We are sending a clear message to criminals across this country: We will find you. We will bring you to justice. And you will pay a very high price for what you have done.” Of the 412 individuals arrested, approximately 120 of the defendants, including doctors, were charged for their roles in prescribing and distributing opioids and other dangerous narcotics. The charges aggressively targeted pain management providers billing Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE for medically unnecessary prescription drugs and compounded medications that often were never even purchased and / or distributed to beneficiaries. Many of the charges brought against pain management professionals have alleged that these individuals have contributed to the nation’s current opioid epidemic through the unlawful distribution of opioids and other prescription narcotics.
I. Pain Management Providers Around the Country are Being Targeted by DOJ:
To be clear, there is, in fact, a significant problem with prescription opioid abuse and diversion. In the first six months of 2017, there have been a number of federal enforcement cases brought against pain management physicians, practices and clinics for a wide variety of opioid-related violations. Several of these include:
February 2017: In this Pennsylvania case, a pain management physician pleaded guilty to selling prescriptions for controlled substances in exchange for cash payments. The government further alleged that many of the customers who went to the clinic were drug dealers or addicts who sold the medications they were prescribed. It was further alleged that neither the defendant nor the other pain management professionals charged in the case conducted medical or mental health examinations as required by law. The government alleged that during the period that this conspiracy took place, the defendant physician illegally sold over $5 million worth of controlled substances.
March 2017: Two Michigan physicians providing care to pain management patients were found guilty by a jury for allegedly running a “pill mill” supplying narcotics to drug-seeking individuals. More specifically, the government argued that the evidence showed that the physicians wrote prescriptions for Schedule II narcotics to individuals outside of the course of professional medical practice and for no legitimate purpose. The government further claimed that the clinic’s physicians prescribed over 1.5 million oxycodone pills and charged customers $250 cash for a 30-day supply of narcotics.
April 2017: In this Louisiana case, a physician and former co-owner of a pain management practice pleaded guilty to several criminal counts. The physician was alleged to have run a “pill mill” where he prescribed controlled substances to drug abusers and seekers for a flat fee, even though there no legitimate medical purpose for the prescriptions.
May 2017: In this Missouri case, a medical resident pleaded guilty to writing over 70 false prescriptions. The government reported that the defendant wrote opioid prescriptions using the names of six separate persons, despite the fact that he did not have a physician-patient relationship with any of them.
June 2017: In this New York case, a criminal complaint was unsealed against a family practice physician with no specialized training in pain management, who is alleged to have written more than 14,000 prescriptions, totaling more than 2.2 million oxycodone pills, between approximately 2012 and 2017. The government has alleged that thousands of illegal prescriptions were written that did not have a legitimate medical purpose.
July 2017: This Tennessee-based pain management practice settled False Claims Act violations for $312,000. The pain practice was alleged to have caused the submission of false claims to Medicare and TennCare for medically unnecessary urine drug tests. The settlement also resolves allegations that the [pain practice] caused the submission of false claims to Medicare and TennCare for non-Food & Drug Administration. . . approved pharmaceuticals. . . “The United States’ investigation was initiated after extensive data analysis identified [the practice] as a potential outlier in the provision of urine drug testing to Medicare patients.”
As you will notice, the standard that DOJ repeatedly cites is that a prescription is illegal if it has no “legitimate medical purpose” and / or is outside the “usual course of his professional practice.” From a practical standpoint, if your prescribing practices fall into one of these categories, DOJ is likely to argue that your practices are below the applicable standard of care and are indicative of a crime. Typical statutory offenses charged in criminal pain management diversion and / or trafficking cases include:
Drug Trafficking (21 U.S.C. §§ 84l). Typically charged when alleging that a party knowingly and intentionally, prescribed controlled substances, not for a legitimate medical purpose and not in the usual course of professional practice.
Health Care Fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1347). It is unlawful for any person to knowingly: (1) defraud any health care benefit program; or (2) obtain by false pretenses any money or property owned or under the control of a health care benefit program. Any person convicted under this statute could be fined and/or imprisoned for a maximum of 10 years. If the offense resulted in serious bodily injury, then the eligible term of imprisonment is increased to 20 years. If the offense resulted in death, then the maximum term of imprisonment is increased to life.
Aggravated Identity Theft (18 U.S.C. § 1028A). Under this statute, whoever during and in relation to any felony enumerated in subsection (c) [predicate offense], . . . knowingly transfers, possesses, or uses without lawful authority a means of identification of another person, shall, in addition to the punishment provided for such [predicate offense], be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 2 years. . .
Examples of the 60 predicate offenses include:
18 U.S.C. 1001 (relating to false statements or entries generally),
18 U.S.C. 1035 (relating to false statements relating to health care matters),
18 U.S.C. 1347 (relating to health care fraud)
18 U.S.C. 1343 (relating to wire fraud)
18 U.S.C. 1341 (relating to mail fraud)
Obstruction of a Federal Audit (18 U.S.C. § 1516). It is illegal to intentionally influence, or obstruct a federal auditor in the course of performing his or her official duties relating to any person or organization receiving more than of $100,000 from the federal government in any one-year period. The penalty for violating this section is the imposition of a fine and/or a maximum of five years imprisonment. A federal auditor is any person employed for the purpose of conducting an audit or quality assurance inspection on behalf of the federal government.
Obstruction of a Criminal Investigation into Health Care Offenses (18 U.S.C. § 1518). It is unlawful to prevent, obstruct, or delay the communication of information relating to a federal health care offense to a criminal investigator. Any person convicted for violating this statute could face a fine and / or up to five years imprisonment.
Prohibition Against Kickbacks (Anti-Kickback Statute) (42 U.S.C. § 1320a–7b(b)). The federal Anti-Kickback Statute makes it a crime to knowingly and willfully offer, pay, solicit, or receive remuneration, directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly, in cash or in kind, to purposefully induce or reward referrals of items or services payable by a federal health care program. Simply put, it is against the law to pay or provide anything of value in an effort to induce referrals or business related to a federal health care program.
II. What is Behind the Current Crackdown on Improper Opioid Prescribing Practices?
The DOJ currently believes that these pain management medications are a large contributing factor to the ongoing opioid epidemic. The DOJ believes that opioid medications are being over prescribed and are not being used for the intended purposes, but are ending up on the streets for illegal sale and use. From 1999 to 2015, more than 183,000 patients died from overdoses related to prescription opioids with over 30,000 of those deaths occurring in 2015. Almost half of those deaths from 2015 being from prescription opioid overdose. With nearly 2 million Americans either abusing or dependent on opioids, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) took significant steps last year to address the growing problem of opioid abuse in this country. In March 2016, the agency published its CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain (CDC Guideline). Since the issuance of the CDC Guideline, a growing number of states have either adopted this voluntary guidance or implemented similar restrictions on the prescribing practices of physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants in their respective states.
III. The Role of Medicare Part D:
Medicare Part D is an optional prescription drug program for Medicare beneficiaries. As of 2016 it covered more than 40 million individuals. While Medicare Part D can be very beneficial when it comes to helping its beneficiaries handle their pain management it can also easily be taken advantage of. While Medicare part D was aimed at providing medication for beneficiaries, it has substantially contributed to the opioid crisis through over prescription as well as the redirection of prescriptions for unlawful and abusive purposes, such as recreational use and the sale of opioids.
The CDC recently posted guidelines for medical prescription providers on how to prescribe opioids to patients with chronic pain. The CDC cautions providers on prescribing patients more than 90mg or more of morphine per day, any higher dosage and the patient becomes at risk for overdose or fatality. A result of over prescription of opioids was one third of all beneficiaries receiving at least one prescription opioid through Medicare Part D in 2016. In total, approximately 14 and a half million people received opioid prescriptions, out of a total of 43.6 million Part D beneficiaries. These 14.4 million prescriptions totaled $4.1 billion for nearly 80 million prescriptions.
Several states such as Alabama and Mississippi have significantly higher proportions of opioid prescriptions for Medicare Part B beneficiaries, 46% and 45% respectively. Approximately 10% of Medicare Part B recipients received one or more opioids on a regular basis, with 5 million beneficiaries receiving opioids for three months or more in 2016. More than half a million beneficiaries received high amounts of opioids through Part D in 2016. All of these beneficiaries received a morphine equivalent dose (MED) of greater than 120mg per day for at least 3 months.
To be clear, the government’s interest in opioid and controlled substance prescribing practices isn’t new. A cursory look at the list of administrative sanctions taken by almost any state’s Medical Board and / or Dental Board will confirm that pain medications have been, and will likely continue to be, a significant problem. Unfortunately, the number of opioid-related complaint referrals has risen over the practices. Nevertheless, prescribing practices of Federal and state regulators are carefully monitoring the opioid prescribing practices of qualified physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, podiatrists and dentists in their respective jurisdiction. Despite the fact that the CDC March 2016 guidance is “voluntary,” we recommend that pain management professionals review their prescribing practices and verify whether their particular practices are consistent with the recommendations set out in the CDC’s March 2016 guidance. Additionally, you should ensure that your opioid prescribing practices also comply with any requirements established by your state legislature and any state licensing authorities.
 United States of America. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Office of Inspector General. HHS OIG Data Brief OEI-02-17-00250.