TAMPA — A physicians group suspected of making false claims to the federal government wants its emails back.
In response to a demand made in June 2018, Physician Partners of America turned over to federal investigators some 2,500 emails from more than 500 employees at 35 company locations in Florida and Texas, according to a Justice Department lawsuit filed last month with U.S. District Court in Tampa.
Now, the Tampa company wants to “claw back” seven email chains from these communications, all written by Terri Casey of Palm Harbor. Casey was serving at the time as a senior vice president. Physician Partners contends her emails were privileged communications because she is an attorney.
The Justice Department asks in its lawsuit that a judge reject the company’s arguments and compel Casey to provide testimony in its investigation. Casey doesn’t list a connection to Physician Partners on her current account with the online business network LinkedIn.
“Although Ms. Casey is willing to testify, (Physician Partners) has instructed her not to answer certain questions on the basis of privilege,” the lawsuit said.
The Justice Department is investigating whether the company submitted false claims to federal healthcare programs that were “tainted” by violations of federal anti-kickback laws and by the Stark Law, which prohibits physicians from referring Medicare or Medicaid patients to their own practice or a practice they’re linked to by family or finances.
Investigators are seeking “testimony about how physicians were hired and compensated, and what individuals at PPOA knew about both,” according to the lawsuit. No other details about the Justice Department’s suspicions are provided in the lawsuit.
In an email to the Tampa Bay Times, Casey’s attorney, Jack Fernandez Jr., confirmed that “it is absolutely not accurate that the Department of Justice has sued or is even contemplating suing Ms. Casey, that there are any allegations of wrongdoing whatsoever against her, or that she is even a possible defendant here.”
“Because Ms. Casey is an attorney, the ethical rules require compliance with certain procedures, such as waiting for the court to rule on the enforcement action you are referring to before she speaks to the government,” the email said. “Ms. Casey has not been sued or threatened with a lawsuit in any way in this action and is only one of many potential witnesses.”
Fernandez referred all additional questions on the matter to attorneys representing Physicians Partners of America.
Physician Partners, headquartered at 504 N. Reo St. in Tampa’s Cypress Point area, advertises treatments in pain management, orthopedics and minimally invasive laser spine surgery, among other medical services.
Neither the company nor its attorneys responded this week to requests for comment from the Tampa Bay Times. Three phone calls and three emails each were placed with attorneys representing the company, and emails and voicemail messages were left with each of eight directors at Physician Partners. Voicemails were also left with the main number for the company’s executive office and emailed messages were sent to a general company inbox and the company’s founder, Rodolfo Gari.
The six Department of Justice attorneys who submitted the petition declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.
Investigators have already interviewed Casey but want to ask her questions again because of her intimate knowledge of Physician Partners’ “billing practices, agreements with physicians, participation in recommending or reviewing compensation,” the lawsuit said.
Because Casey had a law license, Physician Partners has argued, she gave the company “privileged legal advice” and fielded healthcare compliance questions that “necessarily involved the review and interpretation of laws and regulations.”
In the contentious emails, Casey “modified the legal language of a (Physician Partners) employment contract provision,” the company said. Physician Partners also seeks to block investigators from asking her questions that pertain to “her mental impressions on whether (the company) was compliant or noncompliant.”
Physician Partners has made headlines in recent months as one of some three dozen Tampa Bay companies to receive $5 million to $10 million in coronavirus relief through the federal Paycheck Protection Program. The money was to be used by the company to protect 403 jobs.
In addition, Physician Partners announced in July that it was offering two types of coronavirus testing — a drive-thru service covered by insurance at its company headquarters and custom “VIP” testing at home or at work for a $300 fee.
In 2013, Physician Partners held a job fair for the hundreds of employees who lost their jobs with the collapse of Tampa-based Laser Spine Institute, a 14-year-old company known for its minimally invasive spinal procedures.