Bill McCollum's campaign for governor recently began bashing his Republican rival for heading a hospital company that paid a record $1.7 billion fraud fine for bilking Medicare and Medicaid.
But McCollum seemed to have a different perspective 12 years ago when he was a congressman and pushed legislation that, critics said, would have "gutted" a federal whistleblower act and was designed to halt federal investigations of hospitals — namely Columbia/HCA, which was run at one point by his new political rival, Rick Scott.
Speaking at the time, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the "McCollum bill is not designed to stop the prosecution of innocent mistakes. Rather, it would make fraud easier to accomplish more often. And it would establish new 'look-the-other-way' loopholes, including for ongoing cases such as Columbia/HCA."
McCollum called Grassley's comments political "hogwash," saying his bill was an innocuous way to stop overzealous federal prosecutors from "blackmailing" hospitals and punishing them for simple errors.
"In our zeal to crack down on health care fraud and abuse, we must be careful not to throw our nets so wide that we ensnare honest providers who are making inadvertent billing mistakes," McCollum said March 19, 1998, when he introduced his Health Care Claims Guidance Act in the U.S. House of Representatives.
By making whistleblower cases harder to file, McCollum's legislation could have cost taxpayers $6.3 billion over a decade because it encouraged fraud and allowed for more Medicare and Medicaid overbilling from health companies, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Though McCollum's bill ultimately failed, it now lives on as a prime example of how his numerous votes and quotes in 20 years in Congress can haunt him on the Florida gubernatorial campaign trail.
During the federal investigation of Columbia/HCA, from 1997 to 2000, McCollum never said a negative word publicly about the hospital chain or Rick Scott, according to the Congressional Record and news databases.
Sparked by whistleblower complaints, the investigation into Columbia/HCA ultimately forced the company to agree to a settlement with the federal government. The company admitted a variety of transgressions, from submitting false reimbursement claims to billing the government on behalf of patients who didn't qualify for services.
Before and after the settlement, McCollum was only quoted as defending hospitals under investigation. Months after McCollum filed the whistleblower legislation, he received $3,000 in congressional campaign contributions in a single day from Columbia/HCA executives, according to published reports and the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog group.
Today, as the state's attorney general, McCollum fashions himself as a Medicaid fraud fighter. And he has made Scott and Columbia/HCA into a poster child of fraud.
Over the weekend, the campaign posted two press releases with the headlines "Rick Scott Linked to Healthcare 'Fraud' " and "Fraud Files: Rick Scott Oversees Massive Taxpayer Fraud, Now Misleads Florida Voters."
"Rick Scott not only oversaw fraud, Rick Scott is a fraud," the campaign said in one statement.
Scott, who was never charged or deposed as part of the federal investigation, was forced from his leadership role by the company's board months after the inquiry became public in 1997.
Almost as soon as Scott entered the race this spring, McCollum's campaign began sending talking points to surrogates mentioning Scott's rocky tenure of Columbia/HCA.
Scott's spokeswoman, Jen Baker, said Scott wanted to fight the investigation, but the board wanted to settle. Baker said Columbia/HCA wasn't the only hospital targeted by federal investigators. It was the most high-profile, however, because it was the largest private chain. The company controlled 340 hospitals, 135 surgery centers and 550 home health locations in 37 states.
With so many hospitals facing investigations during the Clinton administration, the American Hospital Association, which received major backing from Columbia/HCA, fought back in Congress with the legislation that McCollum helped sponsor.
"Bill McCollum's inconvenient truth is that he strenuously defended HCA against the Clinton witch hunt until he saw an opportunity to score cheap political points," Baker said. "What a shock … career politician Bill McCollum is a hypocrite."
At its height, 212 co-sponsors signed on to McCollum's bill, including then-Rep. Karen Thurman, now the Florida Democratic Party chairwoman.
Noting the bipartisan support, McCollum spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said McCollum's legislation at least led federal prosecutors to stop hounding health providers for technical violations.
"This was a huge waste of federal prosecutorial resources chasing people with no intent of committing fraud — which is not the case of Columbia HCA under Rick Scott," Campbell said.
Though McCollum described the legislation as a way to protect health care providers from unfair prosecutions, it also made big changes to the False Claims Act, which was originally passed during the Civil War to stop fraud.
Gutted in 1983, the act was revived in 1986 and, according to news accounts in 1998, accounted for $4 billion in fraud recoveries and prevented an estimated $300 million in fraud. The act gives whistleblowers a financial incentive to bring claims.
McCollum's legislation would have forced whistleblowers to meet a higher standard of evidence to file fraud claims, boosted the amount of fraud a company had to commit in order to trigger a claim and it wiped out whistleblower suits retroactively.
John Schilling, the Florida whistleblower who brought one of the complaints that led federal investigators to Columbia/HCA, said he's a Republican and he doesn't know whom to vote for in the governor's race.
"I don't trust Rick Scott," Schilling said. "But McCollum tried to gut the whistleblower act and stop the investigation. So I can't vote for him either."
Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.