A federal judge in Tampa, Fla., late last week sentenced former Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. executive Robert Whiteside to two years in prison and $7,500 in fines for criminal Medicare fraud.
Whiteside, 49, who most recently served as director of Columbia's single-markets division, is the first company executive sentenced in the wide-ranging, 4-year-old criminal fraud investigation of the Nashville-based healthcare giant.
That investigation, which is ongoing, resulted in the 1997 indictments of Whiteside and two mid-level Columbia executives for conspiracy to commit criminal Medicare fraud. One year later an expanded indictment added another defendant and additional charges of obstructing a federal auditor and conspiracy.
The executives were charged with cheating Medicare and other government health insurance programs out of $3 million in overpayments made to Columbia's 249-bed Fawcett Memorial Hospital in Port Charlotte, Fla., by filing false cost reports and hiding the information from government auditors.
After a two-month trial that ended June 30, a jury in U.S. District Court in Tampa convicted Whiteside and Jay Jarrell, 44, chief executive officer of
Columbia's southwest Florida division. Jarrell is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 22.
The jury acquitted Michael Neeb, 36, but could not reach a verdict on Carl Lynn Dick, 55, who later signed a plea agreement to avoid trial.
Whiteside faced $1.5 million in fines and 30 years in prison. "Under the circumstances, the judge was as fair and compassionate as she could be," Whiteside told the Associated Press. "That was about the best she could do for me."
U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew also sentenced Whiteside to three years' probation and ordered him to pay $645,000 in restitution. However, the judge postponed the payment pending the outcome of the civil fraud whistleblower lawsuit filed against Columbia by Whiteside's former colleague and friend John Schilling, a former Columbia reimbursement specialist.
In that lawsuit, which is pending in Tampa federal court, Schilling and the U.S. Justice Department, which intervened in the case, allege widespread Medicare cost-reporting fraud within Columbia.
Schilling was one of the government's key witnesses in the criminal case against Whiteside and the other three defendants.
Whiteside, who plans to appeal, was ordered to turn himself in Jan. 12, 2000, to begin serving his sentence.
Bucklew recommended to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons that he serve his time at the Federal Prison Camp in Montgomery, Ala.
Linda Quick, president of the South Florida Hospital and Health Association, said the sentence was substantially greater than she anticipated.
"I find it excessive in light of the court cases testing the False Claims Act," she said (See story, p. 8).
Spokesmen for Columbia and the U.S. attorney's office in Tampa declined to comment on the sentence.