The Justice Department has joined a California whistleblower’s lawsuit that accuses insurance giant UnitedHealth Group of fraud in its popular Medicare Advantage health plans.
Justice officials filed legal papers to intervene in the suit, first brought by whistleblower James Swoben in 2009, on Friday in federal court in Los Angeles. On Monday, they sought a court order to combine Swoben’s case with that of another whistleblower.
Swoben has accused the insurer of “gaming” the Medicare Advantage payment system by “making patients look sicker than they are,” said his attorney, William K. Hanagami. Hanagami said the combined cases could prove to be among the “larger frauds” ever against Medicare, with damages that he speculates could top $1 billion.
UnitedHealth spokesman Matt Burns denied any wrongdoing by the company. “We are honored to serve millions of seniors through Medicare Advantage, proud of the access to quality health care we provided, and confident we complied with program rules,” he wrote in an email.
Matt Burns also said that “litigating against Medicare Advantage plans to create new rules through the courts will not fix widely acknowledged government policy shortcomings or help Medicare Advantage members and is wrong.”
Medicare Advantage is a popular alternative to traditional Medicare. The privately run health plans have enrolled more than 18 million elderly and people with disabilities — about a third of those eligible for Medicare — at a cost to taxpayers of more than $150 billion a year.
Although the plans generally enjoy strong support in Congress, they have been the target of at least a half-dozen whistleblower lawsuits alleging patterns of overbilling and fraud. In most of the prior cases, Justice Department officials have decided not to intervene, which often limits the financial recovery by the government and also by whistleblowers, who can be awarded a portion of recovered funds. A decision to intervene means that the Justice Department is taking over investigating the case, greatly raising the stakes.
“This is a very big development and sends a strong signal that the Trump administration is very serious when it comes to fighting fraud in the health care arena,” says Patrick Burns, associate director of Taxpayers Against Fraud in Washington, a nonprofit supported by whistleblowers and their lawyers. He says the “winners here are going to be American taxpayers.”
Patrick Burns also contends that the cases against UnitedHealth could potentially exceed $1 billion in damages, which would place them among the top two or three whistleblower-prompted cases on record.
“This is not one company engaged in episodic bad behavior, but a lucrative business plan that appears to be national in scope,” Patrick Burns says.