Pinellas County, Pinellas Ambulance Service Settle Allegations of Unlawful Kickbacks, Justice Department Says
Federal authorities alleged that East Texas Medical Center Regional Healthcare System and East Texas Medical Center Regional Health Services and their affiliated ambulance company, Paramedics Plus offered kickbacks to several municipal entities to secure their lucrative ambulance business. One of those was the Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services Authority.
PINELLAS COUNTY – The company that is contracted to provide ambulance service to Pinellas County and its governmental clients have agreed to pay more than $21 million to settle allegations of unlawful kickbacks and improper financial relationships, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
The payment to the government by the seven ambulance industry defendants will settle a False Claims Act lawsuit alleging that they knowingly submitted claims to the Medicare and Medicaid programs that violated the Anti‑Kickback Statute, the Justice Department said. The Anti-Kickback Statute prohibits offering, paying, soliciting, or receiving remuneration to induce referrals of items or services covered by Medicare, Medicaid, and other federally funded programs. The Anti-Kickback Statute is intended to ensure that medical providers’ judgments are not compromised by improper financial incentives and are instead based on the best interests of their patients.
The settlements announced today (Aug. 27) resolve allegations brought in a whistleblower action filed under the False Claims Act in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas by Dr. Stephen Dean. Dean alleged that East Texas Medical Center Regional Healthcare System, Inc. and East Texas Medical Center Regional Health Services, Inc., and their affiliated ambulance company, Paramedics Plus, LLC , offered kickbacks to several municipal entities to secure their lucrative ambulance business, including Emergency Medical Services Authority (“EMSA”), Alameda County, CA; and Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services Authority. (Pinellas County contracts with Paramedics Plus to run its Sunstar ambulance program.) The False Claims Act authorizes private parties to file suit for false claims on behalf of the U.S., and permits the U.S. to intervene in such suits, as it did here in part.
Before intervening in Dean’s lawsuit, the U.S. settled with Alameda County and Pinellas EMSA. Alameda County agreed to pay the government $50,000, and Pinellas EMSA agreed to pay the U.S. $66,000, plus an additional $5,200 to the state of Florida. After filing suit against the ETMC Defendants, Paramedics Plus, EMSA, and its former president and CEO, Herbert Stephen Williamson, the U.S.settled with the ETMC Defendants and Paramedics Plus for $20.649 million and EMSA for $300,000. Williamson agreed to pay the U.S. and the state of Oklahoma $80,000. The latter two settlements were based on the defendants’ ability to pay.
“The United States’ efforts in this case ended abusive practices in the ambulance industry,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad A. Readler for the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “These settlements demonstrate our commitment to ensuring that health care decisions are made based on patient needs, not a health care provider’s financial interests.”
Said U.S. Attorney Joseph D. Brown for the Eastern District of Texas: “Paramedics Plus paid millions of dollars in illegal inducements over the course of a number of years. Williamson allegedly received gifts and also directed Paramedics Plus to make political contributions to local Oklahoma politicians, which EMSA could not do on its own. Sophisticated health care companies do not simply give away millions of dollars to referral sources without expecting something in exchange. Quid pro quo arrangements for the referral of health care business are illegal.”
The matters alleged in Dean’s action were investigated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas, the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, and the states of California, Florida, Indiana, and Oklahoma.
The False Claims Act claims resolved by this settlement are allegations only and there has been no determination of liability. Dean will receive more than $4.9 million as his share of the settlements.
File photos shows a Sunstar Ambulance. Pinellas County contracts with Paramedics Plus to provide ambulance service under the county-owned name of Sunstar.
Justice Department | Paramedics Plus | Ambulance Service | Pinellas Ambulance | Tampabay News
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