Gerber: Court watching pays off

Gerber: Court watching pays off

December 9th, 2012 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Reporters have a lot of high-tech tools at their disposal these days. Still, nothing beats old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting: knocking on doors, combing through public records, building sources and sticking with a story until you have all the facts.

That's how reporter Todd South, who covers courts for the newspaper, recently broke a big story.

South reported Nov. 30 that the federal government is investigating Life Care Centers of America, a nursing-home company based in Cleveland, Tenn., for a suspected nationwide, multi-million dollar Medicare fraud scheme.

Last spring, South got a tip from a source about the case. He kept an eye on the federal court docket. He spotted a hearing for USA v. Life Care scheduled for Sept. 14 and showed up.

It was a Friday afternoon and federal court was "dead as a church," South said. He was the only non-lawyer in the courtroom and clearly the lawyers didn't want anyone else there - especially not a reporter.

A federal prosecutor asked the judge to clear the courtroom because the case was sealed. South asked that he be allowed to call Bud Jackson, an attorney with the Chambliss, Bahner and Stophel law firm, who represents the newspaper.

Jackson zipped over to federal court. He had to borrow a co-workers's coat because he wasn't expecting to be in court that day.

Jackson petitioned the court to allow the newspaper to intervene in the case and requested that the courtroom be open to the newspaper when the hearing resumed. He also asked the court to unseal the records.

After several filings by Jackson and the federal prosecutors arguing whether the hearings should be open and records unsealed, the judge allowed both, granting Jackson's request.

The files were unsealed on Nov. 30.

The federal judge who unsealed the case made it clear is his written opinion that federal prosecutors kept the fraud case under seal for too long.

"The length of time this case has remained under seal borders on the absurd," U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice wrote.

Life Care Centers disputes the allegations and claims its therapy methods saved Medicare $400 million from 2006 to 2010.

But regardless of whether Life Care Centers or the government prevails in the case, it should not have been hidden

from the public.

Here's why:

• Federal prosecutors allege that Life Care Centers has bilked the government of hundreds of millions of dollars since at least 2006, and that the practice "represents corporate policy throughout Life Care's skilled nursing facilities."

• The government alleges the fraud involved patients receiving unnecessary and often harmful therapy treatments for the highest possible Medicare reimbursement.

• Many Americans trust Life Care Centers to care for their loved ones. The company has more than 200 facilities in 28 states.

• It appears that government prosecutors may have been using the threat of the case going public to get Life Care Centers to ante up at the settlement table. Prosecutors began settlement negotiations with the company in June 2010.

• Taxpayers foot the bill for big, complex cases like this one, and have a right to know how their money is being spent. Prosecutors had assistance from lawyers in seven U.S. attorneys' offices, 10 Health and Human Services agents and four lawyers with the Commercial Litigation Branch of the Department of Justice. By the time the case was unsealed, investigators had interviewed more than 150 witnesses across the nation, issued 35 subpoenas and received 200,000 documents from Life Care Centers. That kind of legal work does not come cheap.

• This started as a whistleblower case, and the reason such cases are kept sealed is so investigators can gather information without the alleged perpetrator being able to conceal or destroy evidence. Prosecutors began negotiating a possible fine and unveiled details of their investigation through records requests in 2010. The only party not privy to the dealings was the public.

• Medicare is funded with public money, and between 2006 and 2011 Medicare paid $4.2 billion to Life Care Centers. If the government believes even some of that money was obtained fraudulently, the public has a right to watch the case unfold. And let's not forget that how to pay for health care - and who pays - is one of the hottest public policy topics in American today.

For local readers, this story is important for another reason: The company is based right here in Cleveland, Tenn., and is one of the area's big employer.

The Times Free Press will continue to cover the case. Stay tuned. Keep reading.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her Send suggestions