In a lawsuit unsealed this month in federal court, five ambulance companies have entered into civil settlements with the Department of Justice requiring them to collectively pay more than $11.5 million in payments to the United States to resolve kickback allegations. The settling defendants include three Orange-County based companies – Pacific Ambulance, Inc. and Bowers Companies, Inc., (both of which were subsequently acquired by Rural/Metro Corporation after the alleged misconduct occurred) and Care Ambulance Service, Inc.; and two San Diego-based companies – Balboa Ambulance Service, Inc., and E.R. Ambulance, Inc.
In Carlisle v. Pacific Ambulance et al., Case No. 3:09-cv-02628-L-BLM (S.D. Cal.), the settlements resolve allegations that the defendants engaged in so-called “swapping” kickback schemes by providing deeply discounted – and often below cost – ambulance services to hospitals and/or skilled nursing facilities in exchange for exclusive rights to the facilities’ more lucrative Medicare patient referrals. Such swapping arrangements can lead to overutilization of medical services and inflated charges to the Medicare program. The government alleges that the arrangements in this case resulted in false claims for Medicare Part B transports which in essence subsidized the discounted trips.
The Anti-Kickback Statute prohibits payment arrangements that are intended to influence health care referrals. The statute generally prohibits anyone from offering, paying, soliciting or receiving remuneration to induce referrals of items or services covered by federal health care programs, including Medicare.
“Today’s settlements resolve a thorough investigation of the practices by ambulance companies that offered significant discount services to facilities in exchange for patient referrals,” said Glenn R. Ferry, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) Los Angeles Region. “The OIG takes this type of activity very seriously and welcomes the public’s assistance in identifying any health care businesses that engage in similar types of schemes.”
These settlements resolve a False Claims Act lawsuit filed in the Southern District of California by Kelvin Carlisle, a competitor in the San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles County ambulance marketplaces. The whistleblower or qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act permit the whistleblower to recover a portion of the proceeds obtained by the federal government. As part of the resolution of the suit, Mr. Carlisle will receive in excess of $1.7 million.
These settlements illustrate the government’s emphasis on combating health care fraud. One of the most powerful tools in this effort is the False Claims Act. Since January 2009, the Justice Department has recovered a total of more than $24 billion through False Claims Act cases, with more than $15.3 billion of that amount recovered in cases involving fraud against federal health care programs. “It is a priority of this office to combat abuses that drive up the cost of health care and waste taxpayer dollars,” said Laura E. Duffy, United States Attorney for the Southern District of California. “We will continue to work closely with our investigative partners to pursue those who refuse to play by the rules and offer kickbacks to induce health care referrals.”
The case was investigated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.