The Miami Herald
SATURDAY, AUGUST 21, 1999
Herald Staff Writer
The professor who tipped the government about massive billing problems at Nova Southeastern University’s community mental health center will receive more than $500,000 for his troubles, under a settlement approved Friday by a federal judge.
“I feel vindicated,” said Alan Kent, who filed a whistle-blower case against the university that helped spark a federal investigation. “I didn’t go into this for the money. I went into it to change some things that were wrong.”
The university, based in Davie, has admitted no wrongdoing in the case but agreed in February to pay nearly $4.2 million to the state and federal governments for overbilling Medicaid, Medicare and other government programs in its mental health centers around Broward.
An investigation found that more than half the bills that auditors sampled were questionable, and problems ranged from simple overbilling to billing for services that should have been provided by licensed personnel but were provided by unpaid – and sometimes unsupervised – students instead.
University attorney Tom Panza denied all of Kent’s charges Friday. He said the original issue that Kent brought up regarding billing was only a small discrepancy that was immediately corrected and that senior administrators were unaware of Kent’s early complaints.
“You’ve got technical issues that have nothing to do with quality of services,” he said.
Kent, a psychologist at the mental health center, said he first noticed problems in early 1996 when he found bills were being submitted in his name for patients he did not know. In some cases, he said, patients seen by his students were being billed as though he had seen them himself. In other cases, his billing number was used for patients treated in a program he no longer worked for, he said.
He said he brought his concerns to the program’s administrator, only to have his fears downplayed.
The university stopped giving patients consent forms alerting them they were being treated by students, he said. Instead they hung a sign in the clinic saying it was possible a patient might be seen by a student. One patient complained about a bill in Kent’s name because he did not know who Kent was; the patient was shocked to learn he had been seen by a student, Kent said.
And Kent said he was concerned about the quality of care delivered in NSU’s clinics because there wasn’t enough staff to adequately supervise students, he said. Sometimes students worked in satellite clinics with no on-site licensed supervision, he said.
I started to get concerned about being held personally liable,” said Kent, who said he continued to complain to administrators. “I brought all this information to administrators, but I kept being brushed aside. I was threatened with being fired if I did not sign off.”
NSU began an internal investigation of Kent’s charges but dismissed them as without merit. That infuriated Kent, who said he felt embarrassed when a memo, written by Panza, was circulated throughout the university saying his charges were unfounded.
Kent said he decided to go outside. He went to the state Department of Children and Families, but nothing came of his efforts.
FBI takes action
In late 1996, Kent visited the FBI, touching off the federal investigation. He later filed suit under a provision of the federal False Claims Act that allows for whistle-blower claims.
The state agreed to a settlement in February, but the U. S. Attorney’s Office did not approve it until now. Under the terms of the settlement approved Friday, Kent will get 17 percent of the total, which works out to $538,780.76.
The federal government will get almost $2.2 million in cash, and the state will receive psychological services valued at $2 million.
Kent said he felt so harassed for speaking up that he left the university in late 1997. He is now an administrator at a large Seattle medical practice.
Panza denied that Kent was harassed, saying he was promoted to clinic director. And he accused Kent of starting the lawsuit solely to improve his bottom line.
“This was economically driven by him. It wasn’t some moral purpose,” Panza said. “This institution has to pay $4 million for the privilege of providing all these services to the community all these years.”
Kent feels the settlement itself clears his name.
“I don’t think Nova would pay out.. if they were completely innocent of everything,” he said.
The whistleblower in this lawsuit was represented by Nolan & Auerbach, a Fort Lauderdale, FL law firm.