Hospital Wants To Pay And Move On

December 9, 2002
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GREENVILLE — United Memorial Health System, seeking to remove a cloud of suspicion and move forward on a planned expansion, is willing to own up and pay up for any billing errors related to a federal criminal indictment on fraud charges.

Bill Gonzalez, the former chief executive at Spectrum Health who assumed interim CEO duties at United Memorial two months ago, is inviting prosecutors to spell out any improper billing to the federal government. Without conceding any wrongdoing, the hospital is willing to accept responsibility for any errors identified, pay back the fees and pay a reasonable fine in order to have the criminal prosecution dropped.

The criminal case has become burdensome for staff, costly to defend and threatens United Memorial’s very existence, Gonzalez said.

“Let’s get away from this onerous, criminal indictment. What we’re saying is that if the hospital committed any errors that can be shown, whatever they might be, then this hospital is ready to stand up and own up to them and pay the fines,” Gonzalez said. “We want to correct anything that was deficient. We want to pay back anything that was paid in error.

“We just want to get this over with and discuss any reasonable claims they can show us. We’re just not willing to admit to wrongdoing we do not believe occurred,” he said.

Under a federal indictment issued in October 2001, United Memorial and two of its physicians, Drs. Matthew DeWys and Daniel Seward, are accused in connection with the billing of the federal government for unnecessary medical procedures.

The fraud indictment stems from the case of Jeffrey Askanazi, an anesthesiologist and physician who ran a pain clinic in Greenville and practiced at several area hospitals, including United Memorial Health Center in Greenville. He was convicted in December 1998 on several charges of billing Medicaid, Medicare and private insurers for unnecessary pain-management procedures and for anesthesia procedures he did not perform.

The government’s investigation of Askanazi began following the July 1996 death of a patient that led to him resigning his privileges from United Memorial, which has been under investigation since 1998.

DeWys and Seward are not accused of submitting improper bills or receiving any financial gain. Both served on the hospital’s Medical Executive Committee that reviewed Askanazi’s practice, and DeWys served on the peer review committee that gave Askanazi privileges at United Memorial.

Askanazi was sentenced in 1999 to three years in prison and ordered to pay $411,000 in restitution and a $25,000 fine, according to court records. He also lost his medical license.

Federal prosecutors argue that United Memorial billed the government for facility fees for procedures they claim Askanazi should not have performed. The indictment cites 18 different allegations of improper billing, totaling about $13,000.

An assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, Glenn Martin, said he could not comment on the hospital’s overture.

In seeking to get the case settled, United Memorial leaders are insistent they did nothing wrong and will concede to nothing.

“We are not willing to plead to a criminal charge we do not believe has any basis in fact,” said Franz Mogdis, chairman of the United Memorial board of directors. “We’re just not willing to admit to wrongdoing we do not believe occurred.”

A trial, twice delayed during 2002, is scheduled to begin Jan. 8 in Kalamazoo before U.S. District Court Judge Richard Enslen.

Gonzalez, after joining United Memorial in September, said he quickly concluded the government’s case is “ill-conceived and unfounded” and potentially could force the hospital to close, he said.

“It is a terribly unconscionable use of public resources to try to destroy a small community’s hospital,” he said.

Gonzalez concluded early in his six-month stint as interim CEO that United Memorial was a “jewel” that has been set back in the last few years by the criminal investigation and charges.

The public appeal to settle the case comes as United Memorial Health System is beginning to plan $6.4 million in upgrades at its two hospitals, United Memorial Health Center in Greenville and Kelsey Memorial Health Center in Lakeview. The vision is to make United Memorial — which owns several physician practices, including offices in northeastern Kent County — more of a regional medical center, Gonzalez said.

“Now is the time to rally around this hospital and to protect it from outside interests and to complete the building of this hospital,” he said.

Included in the plan is a new emergency department in Lakeview and a new birthing unit and upgraded surgical suites in Greenville.           

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