Executives at AmeriPath must feel a little like Richard Jewell.
The Riviera Beach. Fla.-based manager of pathology practices was exonerated this month after being accused of overcharging Medicare $2.95 million. But like the onetime Atlanta bombing suspect, AmeriPath was found innocent too late to spare its reputation.
Just before Thanksgiving, the company disclosed that it had received a refund request from Medicare after a review of 1996 billing records at its Fort Lauderdale, Fla., lab. The company's stock plummeted 45% on the news and was unanimously downgraded by analysts. In addition, five class-action lawsuits were filed on behalf of shareholders.
AmeriPath mounted a vigorous defense, hiring two independent coding experts who concluded that all services had been properly billed.
Less than three weeks later, AmeriPath announced that the refund request had been rescinded, though the company did agree to repay a disputed overcharge of $204, "in the interest of bringing closure."
AmeriPath Chief Financial Officer Robert Wynn says investigators for the Medicare intermediary, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, appeared to use outdated codes in their review, which led to the massive error. Susan Towler, a spokeswoman for the Jacksonville-based insurer, says the company can't comment because of Medicare privacy rules.
AmeriPath stock recovered, even exceeding its price before the adverse announcement. But Wynn estimates the company spent $150,000 in its defense, not including fighting the lawsuits, which were still pending last week.
Whodunit. According to congressional Republicans, all those health plans' pulling out of Medicare risk markets is the result of a grand conspiracy orchestrated by HCFA.
At a forum last week on healthcare issues in 1999, both Kathy Means, the top GOP health analyst at the Senate Finance Committee, and John McManus, health aide to Rep. William Thomas (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Ways and Means health subcommittee, expressed concern about HCFA's subversion of Medicare+Choice, which opened the program to competition.
"A number of the Republicans think HCFA has a bias against Medicare+Choice because it's competing to entice beneficiaries away from fee-for-service (Medicare)," Means said.
According to the theory, HCFA's alleged slant has led to decisions that over-regulate or underpay health plans, causing numerous HMOs to pull out of markets and reducing beneficiaries' choices.
HCFA was low-key in its response. "Our goal is not to convince beneficiaries that managed care or traditional Medicare is a preferred option," a spokesman says.
There was no word on whether GOPers have talked with Oliver Stone about a movie deal.
Breaking the silence barrier. As much of the world prepares for the holiday season, an idealistic, Israeli-born doctor at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in Philadelphia is helping to launch a medical society to improve healthcare and the chances for peace in the Middle East.
Earlier this month, the Middle East Medical Society was born at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, with the modest goal of encouraging Middle Eastern doctors to talk to one another. The group hopes the exchanges not only allow the latest scientific information to be shared but also help pierce the cultural and political divides in the region.
"If I work with you for a common goal, I can learn about you," says Raz Winiarsky, a 31-year-old orthopedic surgery resident at Penn who founded the group. "Our aim is to create a dialogue . . . and let the politicians take it from there."
For Winiarsky, the society is a way to help bridge a cultural chasm he experienced as a youngster growing up in Israel. "I'd never met a Palestinian and never spent more than five minutes with a Muslim or an Arab person," he says. Worried by the seemingly constant chaos in the Middle East, Winiarsky's family moved to the U.S. when he was 10.
As a pilot project, Penn medical education courses will be beamed over the Internet to a Palestinian medical school in Gaza. Soon the group will offer a consulting service for doctors in the region through its World Wide Web site at www.memed.org. "Through telecommunications you can break political barriers," Winiarsky says.
Going postal. Ever wonder what's in the holiday mail, alongside the fruitcakes and gingerbread reindeer? Each day, thousands of pounds of used needles, IV poles and other sharp bits of medical waste are sent through the U.S. Postal Service system to be incinerated.
Small generators of medical waste, such as home nursing agencies and hotels with the occasional diabetic guest, use mail-back systems to dispose of medical waste safely.
Houston-based Sharps Compliance says that each day it sends up to 1,125 pounds of waste to the incinerator via the U.S. Postal Service.
Joseph Taylor, general manager for Becton Dickinson & Co., the giant maker of needles, syringes and other disposable supplies, says that the system is cheap and easy. About $50 gets you a 5-gallon container designed to hold several weeks' worth of needles, a liner to prevent leaks and a sturdy box complete with prepaid postage and the address of an incinerator. After the waste is incinerated, the user receives proof of destruction in the mail. "The process is actually very safe," a Sharps Compliance spokeswoman says.
Quotable. "Healthcare has been an issue with us at least since the Clintons arrived six years ago and will be with us long after they leave-whenever that is."-Sara Fritz, managing editor of Congressional Quarterly Weekly, at a forum on healthcare issues for 1999.