Friday, September 28, 2012

Bad Lee County medical flights bills keep coming

The federal rule violations and improper billing practices of Lee County extend beyond those officials admitted to earlier this month.

County officials, in response to requests from The News-Press, said Thursday another $357,000 was billed for medical flights without meeting the legally required federal safety mandates.

“It adds even more to this pathetic saga,” Commissioner Frank Mann said. “The answers we get just beg more questions and none of the answers we’ve received so far have been satisfactory.”

EMS Chief Kim Dickerson claimed the county broke federal rules by billing for $3 million in medical flights between Feb. 8 and May 25 in a statement she released earlier this month.

But the erroneous bills actually date back to Oct. 27 and continued after May 25, the entire time the county was flying its primary helicopter without the necessary certifications, according to a statement from Public Safety Finance Manager David Kainrad.

During that period, 29 flights were billed without legal authority. About $54,000 the county collected has been returned and the remaining $303,000 in charges will be canceled, according to Kainrad.

A county-contracted billing company, Intermedix, took credit for the faulty charges. In a Sept. 25 letter from Vice President of Client Services Darryl Hartung, the company writes it “mistakenly” billed for 29 flights. He did not return calls for comment Thursday.

But before Intermedix could even know to charge patients, EMS Lt. Mark Hammel had to review patient care reports and send them to the company, former flight paramedic Jason Ausman said.

“We fill the whole thing out on the computer and when we submit it, our supervisor reviews it and sends it to the billing company, “Ausman said.

Hammel did not return calls for comment Thursday.

Kainrad said the county was sending patient care reports to the billing company not to bill patients, but rather to track the county’s revenue losses.

“We decided it was going to be too difficult to pick and choose which flights would be sent over,” Kainrad said. “If nothing else (we sent Intermedix the reports) just to keep track of any revenue loss that occurred from operating the aircraft.”

Both the county and Intermedix knew they were prohibited from charging for flights in the county’s primary helicopter, until the county met federal safety mandates, including pilot training.

In an effort to collect fees without meeting federal safety mandates, Kainrad said he asked Intermedix late last year to bill for medical flights at ground ambulance rates.

“The billing vendor, Intermedix , said they were not comfortable doing that,” Kainrad said.

The company, however, followed up with several calls and a Jan. 23 letter to FAA attorney’s claiming federal rules didn’t apply to the publicly owned aircraft.

That contention was shot down by an FAA attorney who wrote the county needs the federal certification, because “whatever the amount, the company would be receiving compensation for transporting patients,” according to the May 4 letter the FAA sent to Intermedix.

Intermedix discovered in March that it had erroneously billed patients for $187,000 in flights that occurred between Oct. 27, 2011, and Feb. 9, Kainrad said. It refunded $43,000.

The company didn’t realize that it improperly billed another $170,000 after May 25 until just recently, Kainrad said.

The county suspended its medical flight program, Medstar, in August. Officials at that time claimed the move was part of an effort to seek a voluntary accreditation.

Three pilots and the program’s manager were terminated, because they weren’t the “right mix” of people, Dickerson claimed at the time.

County Manager Karen Hawes later admitted the failure to meet federal safety standards played a role in her decision to suspend the program. She now wants commissioners to consider hiring a company for the emergency service.

The FAA has since launched an investigation into the county’s Medstar program and billing practices. Federal inspectors met with county officials Tuesday.

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