Yes, you read the title of this post correctly. Under the False Claims Act, a whistleblower is not required to report compliance concerns internally through a company’s internal reporting system before filing a “qui tam” court action. Indeed, the False Claims Act — with its potential “bounty” of 15 to 30 percent of the government’s recovery — may actually encourage employees to file suit in the first instance, to qualify as an “original source,” and bypass the organization’s reporting system altogether, thereby frustrating a key component of an effective compliance program. Whistleblower organizations have recently gone so far as to discourage individuals employed by health care providers from bringing compliance concerns directly to their employer so that they can get a share of the government’s recovery.
A provider or other entity participating in the Medicare or Medicaid programs, however, can mitigate that risk through, among other things, employee training and disciplinary policies encouraging good-faith reporting and the promotion of a culture of compliance, including setting the right “tone from the top.”
Internal Reporting System. The cornerstone of any effective compliance program is developing and implementing a robust internal reporting system that employees can use to raise any compliance concerns on an anonymous basis. Among other things, when compliance concerns are brought to the attention of the organization’s compliance personnel, the organization can investigate the issue and take appropriate steps to prevent or remediate any continued potential misconduct. Likewise, having such a system in place may serve as a defense to liability under the False Claims Act. Even if improper billing is found to have taken place, evidence that the organization has an effective, anonymous internal compliance reporting system may show that the improprieties were not the result of deliberate indifference or reckless disregard for such practices.
False Claims Act. Plainly, the risk of treble damages and per claim penalties under the False Claims Act is a powerful incentive for a health care organization to implement an effective compliance program. What is more, the provision for whistleblower awards under the False Claims Act can be an effective tool to aid the government in detecting and preventing overpayments by Medicare and Medicaid to fraudulent operators and other bad actors. By allowing whistleblowers to file relator actions under seal and potentially share in any of the government’s recovery — as well as to seek damages for any retaliatory employment action — the False Claims incentivizes employees in the health care industry to come forward with information about fraudulent billing, without the fear of reprisal.
The Tension Between The Two. At the same time, a whistleblower’s potential recovery can operate as a countervailing disincentive for an employee to report compliance concerns internally. That is because under the False Claims Act, a qui tam relator is entitled to a “bounty” only if the individual is the “original source” of information to the government about the improper billing practices that are the subject of the relator’s action. On the other hand, if an employee does dutifully report a compliance concern internally through the organization’s reporting system, and the organization itself reports any overpayments to the government or remediates the misconduct itself, the whistleblower may be unable to sue and recover any “bounty.” As noted earlier, this point is not lost on the relator bar.
Overcoming The Tension. How does a provider overcome the entreaties of the relator bar, along with the incentives under the False Claims Act whistleblower provisions, to convince employees with compliance concerns to avail themselves of the company’s internal reporting system? At the outset, the reporting system must be both effective and credible to instill confidence in the system so that employees will take full advantage of it – that is, the organization must deliver on its promise of anonymity and protection of good-faith reporting and must follow through on a timely basis with a thorough investigation and meaningful corrective action, if indicated. Further, a robust reporting system, standing alone, will not be effective unless all other elements of an organization’s compliance program are working effectively as well, starting with a “culture of compliance,” reinforced by the executive team and management, and continuing with inservice compliance training, underscoring the importance of timely reporting and the anonymity and other protections afforded to reporting employees.
Likewise, the organization must have personnel and disciplinary policies that reward good-faith reporting and punish compliance lapses, both for engaging in unlawful conduct as well as for failing to report it. That said, taking any disciplinary action against an employee who files suit as a relator, without ever having reported the compliance concerns in breach of the employee’s duties, is fraught with the risk that the termination or other action will be challenged as retaliation for filing the False Claims Act action, and that the cited ground — failing to report — is allegedly merely pretextual.
However, with the proper messaging and training, coupled with a robust anonymous reporting system, the company can give its employees good reason to “do the right thing” and report compliance concerns to the company in the first instance, despite the lure of a False Claims Act bounty.