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HCA-Healthcare May Be Facing Another Charge

March 16, 2001|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

WASHINGTON — Lawyers for two whistle-blowers alleged Thursday that No. 1 U.S. hospital chain HCA-The Healthcare Co., which has already paid more than $800 million to settle various Medicare fraud charges, has also engaged in a separate scheme to defraud the Medicare system of more than $400 million.

The lawyers said the Justice Department was expected to file a 1,000-page complaint late Thursday or today, said Stephe Meagher and Peter Chatfield, lawyers representing whistle-blowers working with the government. The complaint was not released publicly Thursday and Justice Department officials refused to comment on it. But the lawyers for former hospital employees said the alleged scheme involved false claims by the company in its annual cost reports.

They said the Justice Department also might file separate amended complaints involving alleged kickbacks and improper physician investment arrangements when the company was known as Columbia-HCA Healthcare Corp. The lawyers had no estimate of how much money might be involved in that alleged scheme.

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said the court papers could be filed late Thursday night but not made available until today.

An HCA spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Shares of HCA, which owns about 200 hospitals, rose 10 cents to close at $36.40 on the New York Stock Exchange.

HCA in December announced a tentative $95-million agreement to settle outstanding federal criminal allegations over Medicare billing. The government's investigation of the company dated to 1997.

In May, the company announced a $745-million civil settlement that resolved a number--but not all--of the issues involving allegations of fraudulent conduct at its hospitals and other facilities.

The Justice Department was expected to name in its complaint 104 hospitals, including 23 in California that were owned by HCA or its corporate predecessors from 1987 to 1997 and that were allegedly involved in the fraudulent billings, said a lawyer involved in the case.

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