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Hernando-Pasco Hospice agrees to pay $1 million to settle billing suit

Published Jul. 23, 2013

TAMPA — Hernando-Pasco Hospice has agreed to pay $1 million to settle allegations that it billed the Medicare and Medicaid programs for patients who did not need end-of-life care, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida announced Monday.

The not-for-profit Hernando-Pasco Hospice, which goes by HPH Hospice, is accused of admitting ineligible patients in order to meet targets imposed by its management team, federal authorities said in a statement.

Medicare's hospice benefit is for patients with a life expectancy of six months or less. These patients choose to stop receiving treatments aimed at curing their terminal illness, opting for palliative services to address their pain and stress. Medicare reimburses for different levels of hospice care.

"The hospice industry provides medical care to our most vulnerable citizens. This settlement should send a message to providers that misconduct of this kind will not be tolerated," A. Lee Bentley, III, acting U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, said in a statement.

HPH spokeswoman Robin Kocher called the allegations "absolutely false" but said the organization agreed to settle to avoid a costly legal battle. In a statement, HPH CEO Tom Barb noted that his organization has taken a number of steps, including hiring three full-time registered nurses to review and monitor all admission documentation.

"We have elected to settle this suit because we believe it is in the best interest of our patients and families to avoid the time and cost inherent in going to court," Barb said.

The settlement also resolves allegations that HPH Hospice billed the government at higher rates than it was entitled to receive, and that it had provided "illegal kickbacks" by giving free services to skilled nursing facilities in exchange for patient referrals.

The case covers the period between January 2005 and December 2010.

Federal prosecutors say HPH Hospice "instructed staff to make false or misleading statements in patients' medical records to make them appear eligible when they were not." The allegations stem from a 2010 lawsuit filed by two former HPH Hospice employees, Heather Numbers and Greg Davis, under the whistle-blower provisions of the False Claims Act.

Davis resigned and Numbers was fired; Kocher would not say why.

The two whistle-blowers, both longtime social workers at HPH Hospice, will share $250,000 of the settlement.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374.

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