DOJ’s focus on individual accountability is particularly important with respect to telemedicine. Telemedicine is a burgeoning field, with a projected market increase of 18 percent annually over the next six years, reaching $103 billion in 2024. In light of this recent surge in profitability, DOJ has begun paying extra attention to telemedicine, with at least one recent HHS-OIG report asserting that more than one-third of all telemedicine claims are improper.
The report’s claim is further supported by a recent increase in telemedicine prosecutions. In April 2019, DOJ announced charges against 24 defendants, including owners of various telemedicine companies, for their alleged involvement in a health care fraud scheme resulting in $1.2 billion in loss. This scheme involved the payment of kickbacks and bribes by durable medical equipment (DME) companies to medical professionals working with telemedicine companies, in exchange for the referral of Medicare beneficiaries. DOJ alleges that the defendants paid doctors to prescribe medically unnecessary DME without ever seeing patients or after only a brief telephone conversation. The prosecution involves charges in at least seven districts across the United States, including New Jersey, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and California. Additionally, DOJ prosecuted several other individuals in connection with unrelated telemedicine schemes in late 2018 (see the agency’s press releases here, here and here). In light of this recent trend, companies should exercise extreme caution and consult with regulatory experts prior to opening telemedicine practices. Companies can expect to see increased scrutiny and further prosecution of telemedicine companies moving forward.
Practice Note: DOJ has recently re-emphasized its willingness to exercise significant discretion and reward companies that invest in strong compliance programs. Looking forward, health care companies should maintain detailed and up-to-date documentation of all compliance programs, in case such an FCA case should arise. A lawyer should be consulted if an updated compliance program is needed.