WASHINGTON — HCA-The Healthcare Co., the biggest U.S. hospital chain, defrauded Medicare of almost $650 million by inflating cost reports and paying doctors kickbacks to refer patients, the U.S. government said.
The allegations are in complaints filed late Thursday. HCA collected about $450 million more than it was entitled to on inflated cost reports alone, according to exhibits filed as part of the complaints. Another $194 million in claims were paid for patients referred by doctors who received kickbacks, the exhibits show. The government may seek triple damages.
The complaints may speed completion of a settlement by HCA, pushing the company's total settlement costs to more than $1 billion. HCA already has agreed to pay a record $840 million in fines and payments to settle other allegations in the five-year-old health-care fraud case.
"These are new claims. This is a hard-dollar number," said Stephen Meagher, an attorney for whistle-blowers James Alderson and John Schilling. "To those who say there's nothing new here, they're burying their heads in the sand."
Meagher, whose lawsuits involve cost reports, said the total settlement cost may be closer to $2 billion.
"The government would never ask for only $400 million back, because to do so would be to give the company the use of that money for a decade without any penalty," he said.
Analysts and HCA downplayed the significance of the filing, which has been expected for a month.
"I think it's a continuation of what's already out there," said Merrill Lynch & Co. analyst Albert Rice, who has a "buy" rating on the stock. "My sense is the worst of this is behind the company."