NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Feds Go After Doctors -- And Their Lawyers

April 20, 1999

In an effort to root out Medicare fraud, government lawyers are employing some questionable tactics, legal observers report. Wire taps and undercover agents -- heretofore used to fight organized crime -- are being directed against doctors suspected of accepting kickbacks for referring their patients to nursing homes, hospitals or specialists. High-level health-care executives are also being targeted, according to reports.

  • Such tactics are being employed because the law says the government must prove that those accused of accepting payments for patient referrals did so "knowingly and willfully" -- which is often difficult to prove.
  • Formerly, the hard-ball strategies had been reserved for investigations of drug kingpins and mob bosses.
  • Moreover, attorneys who counsel physicians and others charged with accepting kickbacks -- who thought conversations with their clients were privileged -- now may be targeted as conspirators.
  • Providers convicted of taking kickbacks cannot participate in Medicare, Medicaid or other federal health programs for five years -- long enough to destroy a medical practice.

Those convicted of criminal fraud also face stiff fines and prison terms.

Health-care companies are reportedly turning over their top executives and even whole subsidiaries to the government so they can continue taking Medicare and Medicaid patients. Also, reports of a federal probe can send the stocks of health-care firms plunging as investors panic.

Prosecutors have more federal money and now new tactics, as well as an edict from Attorney General Janet Reno to fight health-care fraud as their second highest priority -- second only to violent crime. In the process, the Clinton administration is charged with being willing to sacrifice the doctrine of attorney-client privilege.

Source: Ursula Himali, "Treating Doctors Like Mobsters," Investor's Business Daily, April 20, 1999.


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