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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Supervisors Fly to D.C. to Try to Whittle Down Fine

Lobbying: Board seeks to reduce $15.3-million penalty for improper Medicare billings. But critics call $4,000 trip a waste of taxpayers' money.

May 10, 2000|GINA PICCALO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Amid criticism that they are wasting money at a time of financial hardship, all five Ventura County supervisors flew to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday on a $4,000 lobbying trip that many agree is a longshot attempt to reduce a $15.3-million payout owed for years of improper Medicare billings.

Among the most outspoken critics are the attorney for county psychiatrist Jerome Lance, who blew the whistle on billing irregularities, and local taxpayer advocate Jere Robings.

During meetings today and Thursday, county officials hope to rally support from Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer for special legislation that would essentially waive the penalty portion of the settlement--more than $7 million.

But Robings said there is no need for the entire board to meet with the senators. And he noted that the two area congressmen the supervisors also will visit, Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), come home to their districts every week, making them easily accessible to board members.

"This is a real waste of taxpayer money and resources," Robings said.

In a harshly worded letter, attorney Phillip E. Benson, who represented Lance in a whistle-blower's lawsuit involving the Medicare billings, said the county already has received leniency from the federal government and doesn't deserve another break.

"They got the best deal possible," Benson said, referring to the U.S. attorney's June agreement to settle a decade's worth of improper billings for $15.3 million. "Now they're going to try to undo it some more. I think it's absolutely outrageous."

Even Sherman, who agreed to sponsor the House bill, said the odds of the county persuading the federal government to waive its penalty are "a little better than winning the lottery."

"It's a longshot," Sherman said.

County officials dismissed Benson's letter as an attempt to thwart their efforts to save the county the burden of debt.

"[Benson] is entitled to his opinion," Supervisor Judy Mikels said. "But he's dead wrong." The letter, sent Monday to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee that would have to approve any bailout, asks the senator to block efforts by Ventura County to avoid paying the $15.3 million that supervisors agreed to in the settlement. If granted a bailout by the federal government, the board will be "having its cake and eating it too," Benson says.

In order for the legislation to pass, both houses of Congress must agree to bail out the county, Sherman said. However, if one chamber adopts the legislation, "there's a better than 50% chance" the other will follow, he said.

Supervisor Frank Schillo said a $4,000 trip that could potentially save millions is worthwhile. All five supervisors are going in order to demonstrate their unity on this issue, he said.

However, Schillo admitted the county may have better luck increasing its treasury--and offsetting the effect of the Medicare settlement--by lobbying state lawmakers for higher funding for mental health services.

"I think our best bet in the long run is to spend a lot of our time in Sacramento," he said.

Supervisors unanimously agreed to the $15.3-million settlement with the U.S. attorney's office after a six-month investigation found that the county routinely submitted Medicare claims for care provided by a doctor, when in fact a physician did not provide services. Care was provided by lower-paid social workers and nurses.

County lawyers said the false claims were inadvertent, resulting from complex billing rules. But Benson said the county blatantly disregarded Medicare regulations for years. The county could have been hit with up to $100 million in mandated reimbursements and fines, but negotiated the much-lower settlement, the attorney said.

"Overall, Ventura County had obtained an extraordinarily favorable settlement given the enormous risks it would face if it elected, instead, to defend itself at trial," Benson wrote in the letter.

Benson's client is entitled to 17% of the total settlement, and his attorney said he has no intention of agreeing to any reduction in that amount.

Accompanying the supervisors are interim Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford and County Counsel Jim McBride.

This is the second attempt to reduce the payout with a trip to Washington. In February, Hufford, McBride, Health Care Agency Director Pierre Durand, Durand's deputy Mike Powers and lobbyist Tom Walters visited legislators and administration officials.

As a result of that trip, the U.S. Health Care Financing Administration promised to "take a fresh look" at the county's predicament but has not announced any reduction in the settlement amount.

This week's trip will cost about $4,000, including air fare, accommodations, meals and ground transportation, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Bert Bigler said. Air fare for each member of the group averaged $209, he said.

Back-to-back meetings are scheduled through Thursday, including a "ceremonial, nonbusiness meeting," with Clinton administration staff Thursday morning, county officials said.

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