The U.S. Justice Department said Friday that it has joined a third "whistleblower" fraud lawsuit against Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., the nation's largest hospital chain.
The latest complaint, unsealed Friday in U.S. District Court in Tampa, Fla., alleges that Columbia paid kickbacks to a company that operates wound-treatment centers in Columbia hospitals and then illegally billed Medicare for the kickbacks.
Columbia spokesman Jeff Prescott didn't directly address the allegations in the new lawsuit but said it contained Medicare cost reporting issues similar to those raised in the other whistleblower lawsuits.
Joseph "Mickey" Parslow, chief financial officer at Columbia's 330-bed Southwest Florida Regional Medical Center in Fort Myers, filed the lawsuit against Columbia last June. The lawsuit also names Curative Health Services, based in Hauppauge, N.Y., as a defendant.
The lawsuit alleges that since 1993, about 42 Columbia hospitals have charged Medicare for excessive management fees the company paid to Curative, which manages wound-care centers at more than 175 hospitals nationwide. The suit said the fees were designed to reimburse Curative for wound-healing products for which Medicare didn't pay.
According to the lawsuit, Columbia paid Curative a $400 fee per patient for management services. The lawsuit claims the fee was a disguised kickback for patient referrals.
The lawsuit further alleges that Columbia hospitals included the inflated management fees in their Medicare cost reports.
Columbia also is involved in settlement talks with the Justice Department in two other whistleblower lawsuits. Both involve allegations that Columbia deliberately inflated its Medicare cost reports to defraud the government.
Columbia is the subject of a separate criminal fraud investigation by the government.