Two former Lester E. Cox Medical Center employees claim they were fired because they cooperated with a federal investigation into possible criminal activity by hospital officials.
The two claim Cox used an illegal method to jack up Medicare reimbursements for patients, and paid kickbacks to doctors who referred patients to their dialysis center, but did no other work for the money.
In a civil suit filed today in U. S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, Roger Cochran, Nixa, an intensive care unit critical care nurse with the hospital for the past 22 years, and Dennis Morris, Springfield, the hospital's administrative director of Ozarks Dialysis since 1995, claim they were fired in May in a violation of the Federal Whistleblowers Protective Act.
Morris said he was fired despite the hospital offering him a number of important positions, including manager of a new bone and joint center. Only a month before Morris's dismissal, he was offered a position as assistant administrator of the Ferrell-Duncan Clinic.
Neither man had ever received a negative evaluation, according to the lawsuit.
The problems started seven years ago during a meeting of the Policy Committee of Ozarks Dialysis, which consisted of senior level administrators from Cox and administrators and physicians from the Ferrell-Duncan Clinic. Cochran and Morris were both at the meeting, though neither had a vote, when the committee voted to use Method II, a billing mechanism by which reimbursement from Medicare was increased for each patient, the petition said. Hospital officials never checked to see if they could legally use that method, according to the lawsuit.
Cochran and Morris claim that hospital officials were arranging kickbacks to doctors who referred patients to Ozarks Dialysis, but made it appear that the payments were for work the doctors had actually done.
Beginning in 1996, the lawsuit said, Cox began paying nephrologists $1,000 per patient referred to Ozark Dialysis. Cochran and Morris said they told Ferrell-Duncan Clinic officials that the doctors were not doing the work for which they were being paid. Beginning in April 2004, the doctors had to fill out work vouchers, but Cochran and Morris say they were still not doing the work their paperwork indicated they were doing.
After a court decision brought billing plans like Method II under fire, Cox asked Morris to attend a meeting with its lawyers. "The attorneys questioned Dennis Morris for several hours regarding his knowledge of Method II and his knowledge of defendant's payments to physicians," the lawsuit says. Morris questioned the legality of Method II.
At that point, the lawsuit says, Cox officials began "soliciting complaints from former and current employees regarding Roger Cochran and Dennis Morris. These complaints were intended to provide a pretext for their eventual termination."
In March 2005, Cochran was called in for a three-hour meeting with Cox's lawyer who indicated "serious allegations" had been made against him. "When he asked her what the allegations were, she refused to disclose any, saying they were made in private."
The lawyer then asked Cochran for the names and titles of anyone with whom he had worked at Ozarks Dialysis, but would not tell him why she wanted them, the petition said. "She also questioned Roger Cochran about his knowledge regarding Method II and asked if he knew of any individuals with knowledge of it. Roger Cochran asked the general counsel whether she had any complaints or concerns regarding patient care and safety. She responded that she did not."
On April 7, 2005, the petition said, the lawyer met with Morris, questioning him about Cochran. "She asked if Dennis Morris, as Roger Cochran's supervisor, had ever observed anything about Roger Cochran that indicated he created a hostile work environment. Dennis Morris responded that he had not."
The next day Cochran met with an investigator for the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services and an FBI special agent, to talk about "his knowledge of the potential criminal conduct described above."
At that point, Cochran says he was told that the federal officials were conducting a "criminal investigation" regarding people associated with Cox and Ferrell-Duncan Clinic. "They also informed him that the investigation was not intended to close or bankrupt the hospital, but rather to bring to justice any administrators and staff who have knowingly violated federal healthcare laws." Cochran says he cooperated with the federal investigators and answered all of their questions.
On April 21, Morris met with an investigator for the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Inspector General and an FBI agent, talking about the same potential criminal activity.
On May 4, Cochran sent a letter, through his attorney, to Cox saying that he had cooperated with the federal investigation. Two days later, Cox officials demanded that Cochran "immediately provide a list of all compliance issues he had raised and the names of the individuals to whom he reported the issues."
On May 9, Cochran offered to meet with Cox officials, a representative of the Cox board and and an FBI agent. In his letter to Cox officials, he said he was afraid they would retaliate against him.
The letters continued to fly furiously back and forth. On May 10, a lawyer for Cox asked to meet with Cochran "regarding compliance issues." Cochran responded, asking if the purpose of the meeting was to fire him.
Cochran, who had been on a family medical leave, returned to work May 16 at the Monett dialysis unit. "While at the unit, he was told that he could not return to work until he went to human resources to turn in appropriate paperwork. The director of human resources and Robert Ferguson, vice president of Ferrell-Duncan Clinic awaited him. The director said there were employment issues that needed to be discussed, according to the petition. Cochran asked what she was talking about.
"The issue is: you're fired," she answered, according to the lawsuit. "Give Bob your name tag." Cochran handed the name tag to Ferguson, who followed Cochran to his car to get the keys to the dialysis units.
It was Morris' turn the next day, the lawsuit said. Ferguson told Morris he needed to meet with him and with the director of human resources. Morris asked Ferguson if he was going to be fired. "This thing has taken on a life of its own," Ferguson said, according to the lawsuit.
Morris cleaned out his desk, then called Ferguson and asked if he was sure he wanted to do this. Morris said he had a family and needed the job. Ferguson said, "It is out of my hands. This is an upper management decision."
Morris went ahead and met with Ferguson and the human resources director, who outlined three reasons why Morris was being fired. Even Ferguson said one of those was "thin," according to the lawsuit.
Both of them told Morris the decision to fire him was made at the highest level and that there was nothing in his personnel file that would justify it, the petition said. He was given the option to resign or be fired. He said he needed time to think about it, but the next day said he was not going to resign. He was fired later that day.
Cochran and Morris are asking that Cox be determined to be in violation of the Federal Whistleblower Protection Act, pay them for lost wages, reinstate them at the level they were at before their firings, and pay for damages and attorneys' fees.
Cochran and Morris are asking for a jury trial.