(ANTIMEDIA) A federal investigation into America’s largest chain of psychiatric hospitals, which began with the Department of Health and Human Services in 2013, has since broadened to include the FBI and the Department of Defense, Buzzfeed News reported Wednesday.
The federal government has been looking into whether United Health Services (UHS) systematically keeps patients in their facilities for as long as their insurance will pay, regardless of whether or not the patient still needs to be admitted.
But Buzzfeed News, which has been covering the story since last December, has learned through sources involved with the investigation that the FBI and the Department of Defense have also joined the probe and are looking into UHS’s billings to Tricare — the insurance plan for active military and their families.
“Putting together a successful prosecution will require the testimony of patients, intake coordinators, nurses, social workers, providers, and executives,” an agent on the case reportedly told Buzzfeed News, saying the federal government is actively seeking witnesses.
These allegations of fraud were raised last week at a UHS shareholders meeting in Pennsylvania. That meeting had been scheduled to vote on changing the board’s multiple-class voting system. That system gives UHS CEO and chairperson Alan Miller 80 percent of the voting power even though he owns only 15 percent of the shares.
“Insiders have total control of Universal Health Services, despite owning just a small fraction of the company,” New York City Comptroller Scott. M. Stringer told Buzzfeed News in a statement. “That puts every investor — including New York City Pension Funds — at risk. From federal criminal investigations to damning exposés, it’s clear why shareholders are calling for change.”
The proposal to change the company’s voting structure was rejected, with 90 percent of the votes cast against it.
As the meeting proceeded, nurses from a nearby UHS-owned facility were protesting outside. That facility, Brooke Glen Behavioral Hospital, was recently the recipient of a citation from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). That department found workers were being exposed to “serious physical injuries such as from bites, bruises or strains” at the hospital.
Two of the protesting nurses told Buzzfeed News they had direct experience with holding patients psychiatric longer than necessary at the behest of UHS doctors.
“If they’re on Medicare or Medicaid, they’ll milk it,” says Valerie Riling, who has worked at Brooke Glen for nearly two years. “We’re not doing right by our patients.”
Brandi George, a nurse at Brooke Glen for the last three years, feels for the patients, as well. “They have lives and jobs,” she says. “And there’s no good medical reason for keeping them.”
George, who began as a mental health technician, added, “They’ll admit people just to fill a bed.”
In total, staff at 15 UHS facilities have told Buzzfeed News that they have been directed to keep psychiatric patients until their insurance days are up. The order often comes in the phrase “Don’t leave days on the table,” UHS employees say.
An FBI spokesperson declined to comment on the UHS investigation but says the bureau actively pursues such severe accusations of fraud.
In these instances, says FBI spokesperson John Althen, a hospital will “ignore the recommendations of its own clinicians to discharge patients, pressure the clinicians to keep patients in a hospital as long as a patient’s insurance policy will pay for treatment, or employ clinicians who are complicit in the scheme.”
This isn’t the first time UHS has been accused of such practices. In 2012, the company settled a lawsuit filed by the federal government against one of its youth facilities in Virginia. In that case, the government again claimed UHS was holding patients longer than necessary in order to maximize insurance payments.
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