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For Florida whistle-blowers, 2010 proved a productive and lucrative year

Florida whistle-blowers have had a most productive and lucrative year bringing corporate wrongdoing to light.

Just ask Sean J. Hellein, whose years of undercover work wearing a camera and a wire for 1,000 hours of recordings helped nail Tampa's WellCare Health Plans for Medicare reimbursement abuse.

WellCare agreed to a proposed $137.5 million settlement with the feds. Hellein, who was initially paid $35,000 a year by WellCare, stands to earn millions from the whistle-blower deal.

Debra Maul of Belleair Beach in Pinellas County was a senior sales representative when she blew the whistle on a Baltimore, Md., drug-testing firm called Ameritox. The company last month agreed to pay $16.3 million to settle a false-claims lawsuit contending it paid kickbacks to doctors to win their business. Maul is due $3.4 million.

Then there is an unusual company in Key West called Ven-A-Care. Somehow, over the past 20 years the four principals of that business have mastered the art of health care whistle-blowing.

Last week, they won their latest round of whistle-blowing against three drug companies when the Justice Department announced settlements with Abbott, Roxane Laboratories and B. Braun Medical worth $421 million.

That translates to a hefty $88.4 million whistle-blower award for the Ven-A-Care team. The Wall Street Journal calls the foursome the "bane of the drug industry" and estimates they've pulled in at least $214 million since 2000 on whistle-blower claims.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. The U.S. Justice Department last month said it has collected $3 billion in settlements this year with the help of whistle-blowers and a Civil War era law known as the False Claims Act. The act allows whistle-blowers to claim a share of any proceeds recovered by Uncle Sam.

Of the $3 billion, $2.5 billion came from the drug industry.

Recent big hauls under the False Claims Act include $669 million of the record-shattering $2.3 billion total the government took from Pfizer over its improper marketing of the painkiller Bextra, which included illegal drug promotions that plied doctors with free golf, massages and resort junkets. Also notable: $302 million from AstraZeneca over the anti-psychotic drug Seroquel, and $192 million from Novartis.

The Washington, D.C., nonprofit Taxpayers Against Fraud named Ven-A-Care its Whistleblower of the Year in 2006.

They look like a clear contender to repeat this year.

Of course, Florida has a close history with a high-profile whistle-blower case that took place a decade ago.

On Dec. 14, 2000 — 10 years ago today — Columbia HCA, the largest for-profit hospital chain in the United States, pleaded guilty to criminal conduct and agreed to pay more than $840 million in criminal fines, civil penalties and damages for unlawful billing practices.

Of that amount, $731.4 million was recovered under the False Claims Act.

The CEO in charge of Columbia HCA during the rise of those unlawful activities resigned under pressure from the hospital chain's board in 1997, while denying any knowledge of the billing practices. That executive was Rick Scott, who becomes Florida's governor next month.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

For Florida whistle-blowers, 2010 proved a productive and lucrative year 12/13/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 13, 2010 9:16pm]
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