Boston, Massachusetts - A national electronic health records (EHR) technology vendor based in Watertown, Massachusetts, athenahealth Inc. (Athena), has agreed to pay $18.25 million to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by paying unlawful kickbacks to generate sales of its EHR product, athenaClinicals, the Justice Department announced Thursday.
In a complaint filed in conjunction with today’s settlement, the United States alleged that Athena violated the False Claims Act and the Anti-Kickback Statute through three marketing programs. First, Athena invited prospective and existing customers to “Concierge Events,” providing free tickets to and amenities at sporting, entertainment, and recreational events, including trips to the Masters Tournament and the Kentucky Derby with complimentary travel and luxury accommodations, meals, and alcohol. Second, Athena paid kickbacks to its existing customers under a “Lead Generation” program designed to identify and refer new prospective clients to Athena. Under this program, Athena paid up to $3,000 to existing customers for each new client that signed up for Athena services, regardless of how much time, if any, the existing customer spent speaking to or meeting with the new client. Finally, Athena entered into deals with competing vendors that were discontinuing their EHR technology offerings to refer their clients to Athena. Under such deals, Athena paid remuneration to the competitor based on the value and volume of practices that were successfully converted into Athena clients.
“This resolution demonstrates the department’s continued commitment to hold EHR companies accountable for the payment of unlawful kickbacks in any form,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian Boynton for the Department of Justice’s Civil Division. “EHR technology plays an important role in the provision of medical care, and it is critical that the selection of an EHR platform be made without the influence of improper financial inducements.”
“Across the country, physicians rely on electronic health records software to provide vital patient data. Kickbacks corrupt the market for health care services and risk jeopardizing patient safety,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling for the District of Massachusetts. “We will aggressively pursue organizations that fail to play by the rules; EHR companies are no exception.”
“If the benefits of Electronic Health Records are to be fully realized, patients must be confident providers have selected the most effective system – not the one paying the largest kickbacks. Time and again, we’ve seen fraudulent activity undermine the integrity of medical decisions, subvert the health marketplace, and waste taxpayer dollars,” said Phillip M. Coyne, Special Agent in Charge for the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “We will continue to hold accountable those who provide illegal incentives in order to influence the decision-making of health care providers.”
“It is illegal for companies to extend invitations to all-expense-paid sporting, entertainment, and recreational events, and other perk-filled offers to its prospective customers to win business and boost their bottom line through illegal kickback schemes,” said Joseph R. Bonavolonta, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Boston Division. “Today’s agreement by Athena to pay $18.25 million should send a strong message to anyone thinking about engaging in this type of illegal activity. The FBI will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to do everything in our power to safeguard our government health care programs and the taxpayers picking up the bill.”
The settlement resolves allegations in a lawsuit filed by Geordie Sanborn and a separate lawsuit filed by Cheryl Lovell and William McKusick; both matters are pending in federal court in Boston, Massachusetts. The lawsuits were filed under the qui tam, or whistleblower, provisions of the False Claims Act, which permit private individuals to sue on behalf of the government for false claims and to share in any recovery. The Act allows the government to intervene and take over the action, as it did in these two cases. The whistleblower share to be awarded in connection with the settlement has not been determined.
The government’s pursuit of these matters illustrates the government’s emphasis on combating health care fraud. One of the most powerful tools in this effort is the False Claims Act. Tips and complaints from all sources about potential fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement can be reported to the Department of Health and Human Services, at 800‑HHS‑TIPS (800-447-8477).
This matter is being handled by the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch (Fraud Section) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts, with assistance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General; and the U.S. Postal Service, Office of Inspector General. The two lawsuits are captioned United States ex rel. Sanborn. v. athenahealth, Inc., No. 17-cv-12125 (D. Mass.) and United States ex rel. Lovell and McKusick v. athenahealth, Inc., No. 17-cv-12543 (D. Mass.). The claims resolved by the settlement are allegations only and there has been no determination of liability.