He was a slender-framed man, mid- to late-sixties, with a kind of ridden-hard-put-away-wet complexion. It was clear the years had not always been good to him, but being the kind soul that he was, he had plenty of friends. It was a beautiful summer day to spend with friends for a barbecue, but he arrived feeling puzzled why he collapsed at home earlier in the day.
He stopped at the keg and poured himself a beer in a red solo cup, and as he approached his friends with a smile, he did it again, this time which such gusto that his beer went flying and the thud he made when he hit the ground made everyone gasp.
He laid motionless for a moment face down on the ground while his friends rushed to his aid. An ambulance was summoned as others rolled him over onto his back. He began to move – slowly at first – then more purposefully. As sirens approached, he asked his friends, "What just happened?’
A bit later, he arrived in the Emergency Room, awake, alert, pleasant, and seemed – on the surface at least – fine. His vital signs were normal – perfect, in fact. About the only things immediately noticeable was his thin frame, his coffee-stained teeth, and a clump of grass in his hair that the nurse kindly removed. He was placed in the gurney, an IV was started, blood was drawn, and EKG was performed as a few "hellos" and "what happeneds" were exchanged, then off to the CT scanner he went to rule out an intra-cranial process. It was normal and his EKG showed a first-degree AV block and incomplete left bundle branch block without evidence of acute injury or prior heart attack.
He returned from the CT scanner and was examined a bit more closely. A loud, blowing, holosystolic murmur was heard by the medical student. In fact, it was loud enough to create a "thrill" – a palpable vibration on the thin man’s chest. The medical student seemed pleased with himself, then ordered his first echo which revealed a relatively weak heart with a few chamber walls that didn’t move so well, and a very leaky heart valve. He was admitted, placed on telemetry, and seen by a cardiology consultant. Closer inspection of the echo revealed a dilated left ventricle with a posterior wall motion defect and a central jet of mitral regurgitation large enough to fill the left atrium with a mosaic of color that extended to the pulmonary veins. It was clear he’d need surgery, so a diagnostic catheterization was performed. It showed three-vessel coronary artery disease and confirmed severe mitral regurgitation. His medications were adjusted and surgery consulted. A date for surgery was arranged at the neighboring hospital the following week and all seemed well.
But he had different plans.
As he settled down for dinner, he felt suddenly flushed, lightheaded, and broke out in a sweat. With that, the telemetry alarm sounded and soon the room was full of people, crash carts, and hysteria. His dinner table was shoved aside and he was laid flat as his chest was made bare. He didn’t know what all the excitement was about, but heard the words "He’s fibrillating!" and then felt the cool metal discs covered with cold goo applied to his chest. "What are you do…?" and with that, he felt his chest and arms jerk violently just before he passed out. "Shit, he’s still fibrillating!" someone shouted. So they charged again and shocked him, this time to sinus rhythm. The anesthesiologists who had arrived on the scene of the arrest took no chances: he was intubated and expeditiously transferred to the ICU.
Upon arrival to the ICU, the patient was clearly recovering well and quickly extubated the next day. Beta blockers were administered additional anti-anginal and anticoagulants given. Once stabilized, he was transferred to the surgical hospital and underwent urgent bypass surgery with mitral valve replacement. At the time, the surgeon could see considerable endocardial scar.
His recovery was uncomplicated, but four days after his surgery, he still required external pacing. Cardiac electrophysiology was consulted to consider an ICD placement, given his history of sinus node dysfunction, cardiac arrest, diminished LV function, and the visible presence of endocardial scar during surgery.
The electrophysiologist reviewed the case and noted that the patient’s original in-house arrhythmia at the time of his "arrest" was actually an organized, rapid ventricular tachycardia that was then shocked into ventricular fibrillation by an asynchronous defibrillation attempt. An echocardiogram performed post-operatively showed a very low EF of 23%, but a good repair of his valve and he appeared to be progressing quite nicely in his cardiac rehabilitation. Still, it was felt he was at high risk for another arrhythmic event, so a wearable defibrillator as ordered as they waited out his conduction system a bit longer to see if it would recover function. It never did.
So 10 days later after the sinus node failed to recover, the electrophysiologist had a choice: implant a pacemaker, or implant a defibrillator? It shouldn’t be a difficult decision in this case, should it?
But the electrophysiologist knew he’d be committing fraud if he implanted a defibrillator and billed Medicare for the device and procedure. That’s because Medicare’s 2005 National Coverage Decision requires doctors to wait 90 days and then "reassessing" the patient’s heart function later before implanting a defibrillator once the heart is revascularized surgically.
But he wondered about the extra risk of infection created by two surgeries (one for a pacemaker and one later to upgrade the device to an implantable defibrillator) instead of one. He wondered if anyone ever considered the frequent venous occlusions that preclude later upgrade of pacemakers to defibrillators via the same side as the original pacemaker implant. Even if he implanted a defibrillator lead at the same time he implanted the original pacemaker, wouldn’t he be committing fraud if a more expensive defibrillator lead were billed to Medicare instead of a pacemaker lead? And what about the added cost, inconvenience, and poor compliance rates of patients issued wearable defibrillators as they wait out the 90-day waiting period for an ICD? Finally, what are the ethics of asking his patient to sign a form that obligates the patient to pay for his defibrillator if Medicare fails to do so when the actual costs involved to implant a defibrillator are closely held institutional secrets?
So he wrote his note. He documented his rationale thoroughly.
Then proceeded to commit fraud.