A prominent Boston teaching hospital last week agreed to pay $920,000 to settle charges that it misused a federal research grant for a physician who left the facility and the country before the money was awarded.
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center said the settlement is a compromise "to avoid an expensive, protracted trial" of a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a former hospital employee. HHS' inspector general's office joined the suit, which is being handled by the U.S. attorney in Boston.
The hospital said in a statement it "has vigorously denied" the allegations of former employee Michael Boerrigter and added that the government found part of the charges "totally without merit following its investigation."
The government alleged that the hospital misused $368,000 awarded by the National Cancer Institute after Jan Gossen, M.D., the research physician who applied for the grant in 1994, returned to his native Holland for personal reasons.
Guidelines required the researcher to devote at least 50% of his time to the project, which sought to study gene mutations in mice and the relationship of the mutations to cancer.
Though Gossen had moved before the initial award was made, Beth Israel Deaconess accepted the funds, the government alleged. Further, in November 1995 and again in October 1996 the hospital submitted applications to continue the project.
"While the doctor visited Boston occasionally to oversee some work on the project, he did not spend 50% of his time on the project as required, and grant funds were improperly diverted to other projects," according to the U.S. attorney's office.
Under the federal False Claims Act, Boerrigter will receive $156,000 as his share of the settlement.
Boerrigter was a fellow researcher with Gossen at the hospital.
As part of the settlement, the hospital agreed to maintain a compliance program designed to prevent fraud, false statements or misspending of federal research funds.
The case is the latest example of federal crackdowns on such misuse of National Institutes of Health grants and broader scrutiny of teaching hospitals.
Last November, the University of Minnesota settled a federal lawsuit for $32 million, and in March 1998 the University of Chicago settled federal charges for $250,000.
The federal government first signaled that research grants were an area of scrutiny in a $15.5 million settlement with New York University Medical Center in April 1997.
Boston leads the nation in NIH research grants, with $758 million in fiscal 1997, according to the U.S. attorney's office. Beth Israel Deaconess ranked third among Boston hospitals, with $55 million, that year.
U.S. Attorney Donald Stern said the investigation is "a wake-up call to all Boston-area hospitals and universities. We will not tolerate false statements or misappropriations in connection with federal research grants."