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U.S. sues owner of nation's biggest for-profit hospice chain

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department is suing Chemed Corp and its hospice subsidiaries, including the biggest U.S. for-profit hospice chain, alleging false billings for Medicare hospice services.

The government said on Thursday that its complaint accuses Chemed and its leading hospice subsidiary, Vitas Hospice Services, of being involved in the submission of false claims for crisis care services that proved to be unnecessary, were never actually provided or failed to meet Medicare requirements.

The companies used aggressive marketing tactics and pressured staff to increase the numbers of crisis care claims submitted to Medicare, whether valid or not, according to the Justice Department.

The alleged practices, which also included billings for patients who were not terminally ill, resulted in tens of millions of dollars in Medicare funds being misspent, the government said. The statement did not specify over what period the billings were made.

Chemed officials were not immediately available to comment.

Medicare, a $590 billion-a-year government healthcare program for the elderly and disabled, covers hospice benefits for patients with a life expectancy of six months or less, who elect to receive palliative care that provides relief for pain and stress from terminal illness.

Crisis care is a form of continuous home care for patients with acute symptoms. It bears the highest daily rate a hospice can bill Medicare, which can be hundreds of dollars higher than daily rates for routine hospice services, according to the Justice Department.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Ken Wills)

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