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Happytown: Another Tallahassee Medicare scandal

Feds sue hospice provider tied to Florida Senate President Don Gaetz for Medicare fraud

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We’ve been trying to place our stethoscopes over what the heart of the medical insurance conundrum really is in the state of Florida – hemming and hawing over why it is that the state would refuse $51 billion in federal money for a Medicaid expansion (the federal government has never defaulted on its majority share of the Medicaid burden before, so this new anti-federalism is suspect); staring into space for whatever lobby it is that is more powerful than the hospitals that supported the acceptance of the federal money; flicking lighters under Gov. Rick Scott’s ass to try and force him to budge and call a special session to reconsider the matter – and then the kaleidoscopic nightmare just got worse.

Last week, just as the federal government released shocking numbers showing immense disparities between the amount individual Medicare-funded hospitals charged for the same procedures, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the nation’s largest hospice provider in the country, Vitas Hospice Services (and Vitas Healthcare Corp.), for Medicare fraud. What’s more, Vitas was co-founded by current Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville – who is worth more than $25 million – though Gaetz sold his interest in the company back in 2004. Still, the suit alleges more than 11 years of misdeeds, leaving a healthy two-year window for Gaetz to bank off the indigent and dying. Or, at least the imaginary indigent and dying.

According to the suit, Vitas (which operates in 18 states including Florida) “misspent tens of millions” in taxpayer funds by overbilling Medicare, sometimes for services people weren’t even entitled to. The specifics are pretty egregious: Vitas encouraged a quota system for crisis care billings that ended up with company’s charges being six times the national average; nurses would be sent to provide crisis care to patients who didn’t need it (they were playing bingo or getting their hair done, of course), yet still Vitas would bill Medicare for the service, even when it wasn’t provided.

Gaetz backpedaled when confronted by the Associated Press with the allegations, saying his interest in the company was long gone, his hands absolutely clean. But then, creepily, he added that it was “heartbreaking” that the company would have “to deal with a complaint like this.” Charming! Not necessarily as heartbreaking as it is expected, though. You may recall that Gov. Scott got into similar hot water when he ran Columbia/HCA, paid a record-breaking $1.7 billion fine, and still bought his way into the governor’s office.

The health care problem we’ve been looking for is apparently right before us – getting rich off of us – in Tallahassee. Sick.

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