Four years after a state employee died in 1993, the state was still paying his medical bills as though he were alive and receiving treatment.
When his widow questioned payments for medical services occurring after his death, agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement began asking questions at Unisys, the company that has been handling health care insurance claims for state employees.
On Wednesday, FDLE charged two Unisys employees and two friends with health care fraud. The four are accused of setting up a phony billing scheme that diverted more than $23,500 into their bank accounts during June and July.
Computer-generated checks were sent to post office boxes after Unisys employees with access to computers changed mailing addresses, officials said.
Sharon Thomas and R. Michael Williams, both of Tallahassee, along with LaTonia Brennan, a Unisys employee who resigned in August and moved to Fort Lauderdale, were arrested Wednesday. A fourth suspect was charged, but still is being sought. Thomas was placed on administrative leave from her position at Unisys pending the outcome of the criminal investigation. All are charged with organized fraud.
The payment scheme was similar to ones operated by other Unisys employees indicted by a statewide grand jury looking at how the state health plan operated.
In all, Unisys employees have been charged with bilking more than $24-million from the state's coffers during the past year. Four people are accused of taking about $1-million through phony billings to the employee health care fund, and 26 others are accused of taking $23-million from a Medicaid trust fund that is handled by Unisys.
Several of the Unisys employees, including two of the three arrested Wednesday, had fraud-related criminal records when they were hired by Unisys. Brennan has been arrested for grand theft, credit card fraud, forgery and writing bad checks. Thomas had been arrested for welfare fraud.
Earlier this year, Unisys officials said that, to cut down on fraud, they were doing background checks on employees with access to finances. Unisys officials did not return a telephone call after Wednesday's arrests.
In addition to the fraud indictments, Unisys has been on the ropes for its sloppy handling of legitimate accounts. More than 100,000 state employees, retirees and their families depend on the state plan to handle health insurance claims.
The state has been besieged by complaints from employees and retirees who say bills have been unpaid for more than a year, wrecking their credit and making some services unavailable.
The problems arose after the state took the contract away from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida in 1995 and gave it to Unisys. Earlier this year, after a lengthy investigation of the problem, Unisys agreed to bow out and Blue Cross regained the contract.
Unisys failed to get the discounts on medical services that had been given to Blue Cross, so the total cost for services provided to state employees escalated.
Beginning Jan. 1, Blue Cross will handle claims. Some Blue Cross employees are already at work on the transition. A Blue Cross spokesman said the company routinely makes background checks before hiring.
State officials estimate that the disastrous health care contract and rising costs will cost taxpayers an additional $180-million over the next two years. Some of the costs are likely to be passed on to state employees who have not had insurance premiums raised since 1992.