Federal health authorities this week revoked the Medicare privileges of a psychiatrist in conjunction with its three-year halt of Medicare funds for the county's Hillcrest mental hospital, where the physician worked, a federal spokeswoman said Friday.
The county was in the process of terminating the Medicare privileges of Dr. Joseph M. Chung when federal action was decided Jan. 22, county spokesman Robert Lerner said Friday. Chung's last day as a county employee was Jan. 30, and he had been removed from direct patient care at the hospital Oct. 1 and reassigned, Lerner said.
Effective Tuesday, Chung was barred for three years from receiving reimbursements from federal Medicare insurance for patients who qualify for the program by action of the inspector general of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, Susan Bibisi, a department spokeswoman, said Friday.
Bibisi said that Chung had failed "in a substantial number of cases to provide care that was appropriate and that met professionally recognized standards of health care."
The official statement from the inspector general's office said that Chung failed to recognize the severity of certain medical problems and therefore demonstrated an unwillingness or lack of ability to comply with his medical obligations.
Chung could not be reached for comment Friday. By regulation, Bibisi could not state where Chung worked, but Lerner on Friday confirmed that Chung had been a psychiatrist at Hillcrest.
Chung was investigated for the inspector general by the nonprofit California Medical Review Inc. organization, as part of the group's probe into the troubled hospital that led to a recommendation to halt Medicare funds.
The inspector general last week slapped Hillcrest with a three-year halt based on the California group's conclusions, a move that would cut 12.3% of the hospital's annual $8.1-million budget. The county obtained a temporary restraining order Thursday against the government's order, pending a hearing Feb. 24 to place a longer hold on the cutoff until the county can appeal it administratively. The funds were to be cut off Sunday.
In related action on Friday, the county grand jury praised the progress made at Hillcrest since the jury criticized the hospital for poor patient care in a report a year ago.
In a letter to the Board of Supervisors released Friday, foreman Betty E. Boone said the jury recommended that Hillcrest remain open and that the board "take aggressive action" to continue state and federal funding. (State funding is not expected to be affected by the actions of the federal Department of Health and Human Services.)
The jury's Health and Social Services Committee made three surprise visits to the hospital in August, in January and last week.
"As a result of the committee reports to (the grand jury, we) believe that the mental health program and facilities of San Diego County will, in the near future, not only meet but exceed California state standards," Boone wrote.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Paul Eckert said Friday he was encouraged by the jury's letter. "This declaration recognizes the degree of patient care we are delivering," Eckert said.
The county seeks to argue in its appeal of the federal action that it has made substantial improvements in Hillcrest's care since the review organization conducted its investigation.
Times Medical Writer Robert Steinbrook in Los Angeles contributed to this story.