The First Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the conviction of Dr. Rita Luthra, a gynecologist in Springfiled, Massachusetts, for violating the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) and for obstruction of a criminal health care investigation. U.S. v. Luthra, Case No. 18-1980 (1st Cir. Aug. 6, 2020). In 2018, she was charged with one count of receiving kickbacks in the form of food and speaker fees from Warner Chilcott, a pharmaceutical company, one count of violating HIPAA, and one count of obstruction of a criminal health care investigation. The kickbacks count was dismissed by the government before trial.
The Indictment alleged that Dr. Luthra was paid speaker fees in order to prescribe the expensive osteoporosis drugs Actonel and Atelvia. The Indictment alleged, however, that there were no speaking engagements or medical education events. Instead, Warner Chilcott was paying for one-on-one chats with the sales representative at Dr. Luthra’s office.
The Indictment further alleged that Dr. Luthra permitted the Warner Chilcott sales representative to access her patient files in order to identify potential recipients of Actonel and Atelvia. When agents questioned Dr. Luthra, she provided false information about her relationship with Warner Chilcott and the sales representative. The Government also alleged Dr. Luthra tried to get her medical assistant to lie to agents but was not charged with this conduct.
A jury convicted Dr. Luthra on both remaining counts – violation of HIPAA and obstruction of a criminal health care investigation.
At sentencing, the government asked for a 21-month sentence. The court imposed a probation sentence. Dr. Luthra appealed.
Dr. Luthra argued on appeal that even though the Warner Chilcott representative accessed patient information, the Government failed to prove she knew about it. The First Circuit did not buy this argument and affirmed the conviction. The panel commented that the lower court “went as far as he could in softening the sanction.”
This case is interesting because the Government rarely charges doctors with HIPAA violations, but this may pave the way for more of these types of prosecutions.