In a long-awaited opinion, on September 9, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in United States v. Aseracare, Inc., et al, unanimously vacated AseraCare’s False Claims Act (FCA) victory and remanded the case for further proceedings. While this might seem a victory only for the Government at first blush, the opinion contains key takeaways for defendants that will likely reach far beyond just this case.
Importantly, even though the Eleventh Circuit vacated the district court’s grant of summary judgment to AseraCare, it affirmed the district court’s conclusion that a clinical judgment of terminal illness warranting hospice benefits under Medicare cannot be deemed false, for purposes of the FCA, when there is only a reasonable disagreement between medical experts as to the accuracy of that conclusion, with no other evidence to prove the falsity of the assessment. The Eleventh Circuit also concluded, however, that the Government should have been allowed to rely on the entire record, not just the trial record, to prove otherwise. The Government was precluded from doing so, the Court found, due to an earlier decision by the district court to bifurcate proceedings into two phases: one on falsity, and the other on the remaining elements of the FCA.
In affirming the district court’s holding regarding clinical judgment, the Eleventh Circuit remarked that it appears to be the “first circuit court to consider the precise question at issue here,” and is an extraordinary move that provides hospice facilities, hospitals, and providers more generally with a degree of assurance that a reasonable disagreement between clinicians in a courtroom, without other evidence of objective falsehood, does not create a jury question and cannot serve as the basis for an action under the FCA: “While there is no question that clinical judgments must be tethered to a patient’s valid medical records, it is equally clear that the law is designed to give physicians meaningful latitude to make informed judgments without fear that those judgments will be second-guessed after the fact by laymen in a liability proceeding.”