Federal investigators probing Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. might finally know what they're looking for.
That's what several observers said after federal agents raided Columbia's regional office in El Paso, Texas, Feb. 17. They seized data from a single computer hard drive in the office's information services department.
In a statement, Columbia Senior Vice President Victor Campbell said that although investigators tried to reach Columbia attorneys prior to the search, the raid took place within 30 minutes of the call, which didn't give Columbia enough time to ascertain the importance of events.
Campbell said Columbia continues to cooperate with federal investigators and the raid doesn't indicate a change in the parties' relationship.
Columbia spokesman Jeff Prescott said the company was told that the government's computer expert needed the information quickly before he left town. Prescott added that this was the first time the company had heard investigators needed this specific information.
The warrant was the first served since the federal government raided several Columbia facilities nationwide last July. The raids are part of the government's ongoing fraud investigation of the nation's largest hospital chain.
A U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman would not discuss what investigators told Columbia about the search warrant and wouldn't comment on events.
But some observers said they believe that after months of sifting through truckloads of papers from the July raid, federal agents know what they're looking for. That's why they made the quick hit on a single computer.
Healthcare attorney Scott Becker said the shotgun approach of the July raid suggested that the government had to take as many documents as it could. Now that investigators have reviewed the documents, it's possible they've narrowed the scope of the investigation. "The things they may be looking for now aren't usually in the main filing cabinet," said Becker, a partner at Ross & Hardies, Chicago.
In an explanation of the latest raid, he said, "If you ask in a nice guy kind of way, people don't feel compelled to turn over everything."
Prescott said Columbia would have provided the information quickly had the federal government let the company know what it needed.
Healthcare attorney Crane Pomerantz said federal investigators generally have a good idea of what they're after when issuing search warrants. Usually, investigators have spoken to a credible witness who points them to the information needed. Then, investigators typically go to a judge with the witness' statement and get a search warrant.
Pomerantz, an attorney with Boston-based Schwartz, Shaw & Griffith, said getting a warrant doesn't take long and that it's possible investigators were able to get it in a short amount of time.
Last October investigators subpoenaed billing records for 30 pneumonia patients treated from 1991 to 1996 at two Aurora, Colo., hospitals owned by Columbia.
Also during that month, three Columbia hospitals in Florida opened their books -- without having been issued a search warrant or subpoena -- to federal investigators who looked at billing practices in the home health divisions (Oct. 20, 1997, p. 6).