Suzanne May, age 61, served as the administrator of a hospice referred to by the Feds as Company 1 for more than a decade She was a both a registered nurse and a certified hospice administrator. She signed a plea deal admitting to fraud on December 3, 2019 and now faces five years in prison followed by three years supervised release, a $250,000.00 fine and to top it off, a $100.00 special assessment. Hopefully, her lawyer can negotiate a deal where the special assessment is knocked off of the overall penalties.
Altering Legal Documents
To keep it short and simple unlike the official documents, Ms. May has admitted to:
- Using white-out on a Certificate of Terminal Illness. If you can’t figure out why that might be a problem, it’s best that you resign now.
- Adding dates to Notices of Election after the clinical records were requested from Medicare. I do not know how Federal Investigators knew when the dates were added.
- Ms. May relieved some patients of the burden of initialing forms by adding their dated initials to forms. The Feds are alleging that it is not possible to sign and date documents after death.
In an impressive display of organizational skills, Company 1 employees, led by Ms. May, kept a log of all changes made to the documents after the request for records was received.
This audit, performed in 2017, followed a 2015 audit in which close to $400,000 was returned to Medicare. As a certified hospice administrator Ms. May knew what was required of the hospice in order to be paid. And, to her credit, she made sure every detail was complete but only after her clinical records were requested by Medicare. Timing is everything.
This post teaches you how to go to jail. Free meals, a warm place to sleep and a break from your needy relatives may be your ticket to jolly holidays. Surely the worst prison food is better than fruit cake and squash casserole.
In no way am I condoning the actions of Ms. May. I also recognize that the criteria for payment is sometimes preposterous. Claims for reasonable and necessary care provided to eligible beneficiaries are denied payment every day but that is a subject for another post.
In this case no patients were harmed as a result of Ms. May’s actions. Nobody dies from a date added to a document after they die. If jail is your ideal vacation, this seems to be the way to go if you don’t want any patients to be hurt along the way.
If you wish to remain home with your loved ones, I assure you that no matter how tempting it is to add a date to a form because the patient didn’t, and you know the correct date and personally witnessed the patient sign the form, it isn’t worth it. When a physician doesn’t date his or her signature and you know when the orders were signed, adding the date seems more like a courtesy than a felony but you would be wrong in making that assumption.
If this sort of behavior was evident on a state survey and a plan of correction to the state was required, it would probably include an educational piece like, ‘The DON will hold an inservice to teach the nurses things that they already know but didn’t do.’
If you are finding these problems during clinical record and billing review despite teaching the nurses repeatedly it’s time to try something new.
Cut your employees some slack. Home health and hospice nurses who provide excellent care to your patients are worth a little extra time. Review their paperwork with them as it arrives at the agency – which usually occurs before the time (and possibly the patient) has passed to get an ethically dated signature. Help them develop habits.
On the other hand, if a nurse blatantly commits fraud, investigate first and then terminate them. You are also obligated to report them to Medicare and their State Board. A good orientation will ensure they know the rules. Protect your nurses and the agency by providing a complete orientation including compliance.
Do not bill (or alternatively, pay back the money) if you have found out that a nurse was taking shortcuts. It is painful to take the right steps but not as painful as the quarter million fine Ms. May will pay (plus the assessment fee).
If you are a visiting nurse, you know the rules. You know what to do and mostly you get it right but it only takes a couple of bad care plans or notices of election to cost an agency tens of thousands of dollars.
More concerning to me is the probability that some nurses are encouraged to ‘do what it takes’ to get billing out the door. Without using the words, ‘go commit fraud’, some employers leave employees feeling like their jobs are on the line if they hold up billing. If you feel that the only way to keep your job is to fill in the blanks omitted by a patient or a physician, I guarantee that unemployment is a better option.
Everything else aside, ask how Medicare knew the documents were altered by Ms. May and friends after the patient died. The Feds are not psychic. They did not have a seance summoning J. Edgar Hoover who revealed the exact time that dates were placed on documents. They obviously knew something that was solid enough for them to request 100 charts.
I’m willing to bet that Company 1 is not the real name of the hospice and that this story has just begun. Until we find out more, do yourself and your patients a favor and do things the right way. If you are preoccupied with compiling charts for an audit, care to your patients will be compromised. I’ve seen it too many times.
As always, your comments are welcome or you can email your thoughts.