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First Circuit Holds Healthcare Facility’s Use of Unlicensed Staff Violates the False Claims Act

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On March 17, 2015, the First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a District Court decision, holding that a counseling services’ failure to comply with state licensing requirements is a condition to payment under the False Claims Act.

The False Claims Act qui tam case at issue, US ex rel. Escobar v. Universal Health Services, Inc., was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. The suit alleges that Julio Escobar and Carmen Correa’s daughter, Yarushka Rivera, who died of a seizure in 2009, was treated by unlicensed and unsupervised staff at Arbor Counseling Services, a facility owned and operated by Universal Health.

Universal Health, according to the complaint, provided mental health services by unlicensed, unaccredited, and unsupervised therapists in violation of regulations set by MassHealth, a healthcare program administered by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Under MassHealth, mental health providers are required to employ qualified staff members as a condition to payment.

An unlicensed therapist employed by United Health then prescribed Trileptal to Rivera. Trileptal is a behavioral medication allegedly known to cause seizures after abrupt withdrawal. On May 13, 2009, Rivera suffered a fatal seizure after the unlicensed Universal Health therapist discontinued the medication.

In March 2014, the District Court dismissed the suit, concluding that Escobar’s claims were not actionable under the FCA because licensing requirements involve conditions for participation, rather than payment. Further, the District Court held that the FCA is designed to address financial fraud on the government rather than police general regulatory compliance.

The First Circuit, in reversing the District Court’s decision, held that Universal Health’s claims for reimbursement were within the meaning of the FCA. The Court of Appeals reasoned that services are only reimbursable when MassHealth standards are met.

In arriving at this decision, the First Circuit “ask[ed] simply whether the defendant, in submitting a claim for reimbursement, knowingly misrepresented compliance with a material precondition of payment.”

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