VENTURA COUNTY: FBI Probe Intensifies
Days after the U.S. attorney's office agreed to a $15.3 million settlement in Ventura County's Medicare overbilling case, the FBI said it will step up its own investigation and decide whether any county mental health officials should face criminal prosecution, the Los Angeles Times reports. "We didn't want to do anything on the criminal side that would impact the civil side," said the FBI's David Nesbitt, noting that witnesses who overlap both cases "are 'lawyered' up" now, but "[o]nce it is closed, we can start talking to some folks." The criminal investigation is "at a preliminary stage," he said, adding that the FBI will likely take the next six months to decide whether to pursue the criminal charges. Even as the FBI revealed an eight-month-long inquiry into the county's Medicare billing practices over an eight-year period ended 1998, the "state prosecutor who reviewed Ventura County billing practices for violations of state law said he found no real problems." However, federal billing guidelines are stricter than state rules, said Deputy Attorney General John Dratz Jr., adding that while "there were violations of Medicare rules, there were no violations of (state) Medi-Cal rules." At the same time, Dratz said he "questioned" the likelihood of criminal prosecutions, saying he "saw no intentional acts to defraud." He said, "The most I see is negligence, or an inattention to medical regulations" (Kelley, 7/24). For its part, Ventura County "is doing everything it can" to steer its Medicare billing into compliance, as last month a committee of psychiatrists, social workers and mental health clinic administrators began meeting daily to cull through billing practices and identify those in conflict with Medicare regulations. Consultants are working with the county to revamp forms and train doctors to properly complete the paperwork (Saillant, Los Angeles Times, 7/25).
Full Slate Tomorrow
Smarting from the "slam by the U.S. attorney's office," Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn said he will ask Mental Health Board members tomorrow "to drop what he says is its political agenda and focus on serving the mentally ill," the Los Angeles Times reports. Hoping to increase the authority of the 13-member citizens board, Flynn said, "I want to see the official board become more powerful. To be a community board ... and to be only interested in the client and services to the client." The Mental Health Board "has been at odds" with the county's mental health department "for some time," most recently brought to the fore with board chair John Chaudier's calls to remove Director David Gudeman. Chaudier, who blasted Gudeman Friday for "withholding information about changes" in the department, plans to take his grievances to tomorrow's supervisors' meeting. Flynn dismissed the concerns as more of the same "old battles," and reiterated his interest in "giving them more authority in issues like housing and having them help move specific projects along" (Johnson, 7/26).