Councilman fears ambulance service could collapse under fraud fine

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013

WILLISTON, S.C. (WRDW) -- The big news has spread through the small town of Williston. The federal government has accused the Williston Rescue Squad of Medicare fraud.

"When the FBI came into Williston Rescue Squad headquarters, it looked like a, you know, bees coming out of a hive,” said Barnwell County Councilman Keith Sloan of District 3. “I understand they have a job to do."

Right now, Sloan says the ambulance service is under contract with the county, and they have been since 2001. He says it's how people in Barnwell County, Bamberg County and even some in Aiken County get to the hospital.

"They were voted the state's best large squad last year. They provide outstanding service to our citizens,” he said.

A United States Department of Justice news release claims the squad billed Medicare for routine, non-emergency ambulance rides that were not medically necessary and then created false documents to cover their tracks.

The full settlement says the squad stole more than $6.5 million from the government.

“The United States has a valid claim against [Williston Rescue Squad] in the amount of $6,563,586 plus penalties of between $5,500 and $11,000 per claim, and the United States may pursue its claim in the case, action or proceeding referenced in the first clause of this paragraph, as well as in any other case, action or proceeding,” the document reads.

A worker at the U.S. Renal Care center in South Aiken blew the whistle under the whistle-blower provisions of the False Claim Act. According to the release, Sandra McKee is a clinical social worker at the facility and would regularly receive patients transported by the Williston Rescue Squad ambulances. More than a year ago, she blew the whistle on the fraud.

The release says, “McKee will receive $160,000 as her share of the government’s recovery.”

The Rescue Squad has agreed to pay an $800,000 fine to the United States to resolve the allegations that it violated the False Claims Act.

"$800,000 is almost one full year of revenue, and I don't see how they can overcome it,” Sloan said.

Sloan says he believes the Rescue Squad didn't defraud the government intentionally or maliciously. He says a fixable paperwork error was likely to blame.

"What I am saying is that it never pays to take a sledgehammer to drive a tack, and I think that's the situation. It made headlines, it sounds good, but the greater good is not served by the actions they've taken,” Sloan said.

He adds that if the ambulance service is forced to fold, it would be bad for more than 40,000 people.

"Our best alternative is to put the red lights on top of the hearse,” Sloan said. “We have no other alternatives."

News 12 reached out to the Aiken whistle-blower, but McKee has been told not to comment by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

News 12 received a statement from the Williston Rescue Squad’s current director, Phil Clarke. News 12 is told the former director, Robert Bowers, along with other leaders, resigned more than a year ago because of the FBI investigation.

The statement reads as follows: “Back in 2011, the government identified various billing concerns at the Williston Rescue Squad, which arose from claims submitted from the WRS Transport division from 2008 to 2011. These claims related primarily to the transport of dialysis patients. Once these concerns were identified, Williston fully cooperated with the government, which resulted in a settlement agreement in which there was no admission of liability by Williston. However, to resolve the government’s concerns and to bring closure to the process, Williston agreed to make certain payments to the government. Williston is committed, more than ever, to serving the community of Barnwell and has emerged from this incident a stronger and more focused company concentrating on what it has always done best, emergency medical services.”

Clarke tells News 12 the company will make its first payment to the government on March 15 in the amount of $10,000. Then, he says, they will make a payment in the same amount on the first day of each month for the next five years.

He also says any fraud committed by the company was not done with “vicious intent.”

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