A whistleblower suit unsealed Thursday in federal court alleges Wichita-based Via Christi Health engaged in an illegal scheme to maximize Medicare reimbursements.
The lawsuit was filed in November 2016 but only unsealed after the government declined to intervene. It was brought by Mazen Shaheen, a cardiologist who formerly practiced in the Wichita area.
The suit, which seeks triple damages under the federal False Claims Act, alleges Via Christi defrauded Medicare by performing unnecessary cardiac tests and procedures, often on the same patient.
Via Christi officials did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Also named in the lawsuit are Kansas Heart Hospital LLC, which, along with Via Christi, owns an acute care hospital in Wichita; Cardiovascular Consultants of Kansas, a cardiology practice in Wichita; and two cardiologists who practice with Cardiovascular Consultants, Dr. Bassem M. Chehab and Dr. Jason Tauke.
None of them could be reached for comment.
The lawsuit says that Shaheen graduated from the American University of Beirut Medical School in 2003 and is board certified in internal medicine, echocardiography, nuclear cardiology, cardiology and interventional cardiology. It says that, through his cardiology practice and participation in the Wichita medical community, he “was ideally situated to investigate the fraudulent conduct alleged in this Complaint.”
Attempts to reach Shaheen were unsuccessful. His attorneys at the Kansas City law firm of Miller Schirger did not return calls seeking comment.
The unsealing of the complaint came after the United States gave notice of its decision not to intervene in the case.
Under the False Claims Act, private citizens can bring lawsuits on behalf of the United States if they have reason to think the defendant knowingly submitted fraudulent claims to the government.
The Department of Justice is required to investigate the allegations and then decide whether to intervene in the case, decline to intervene or, in rare cases, seek the case’s dismissal. (A recent internal memo from a top Justice Department attorney advises prosecutors to seek to have “meritless” False Claims Act cases dismissed.)
The Department of Justice intervenes in fewer than a quarter of all False Claims Act cases, sometimes because it doesn’t have the resources to pursue them. Once the department declines to intervene, the person who brought the case can pursue it on his or her own, although the government often asks that it be kept apprised of filings in the case. The person is entitled to anywhere between 25 percent and 30 percent of any recovery.
Shaheen’s complaint alleges that Via Christi has a bonus program that it uses to incentivize physicians to make referrals to its hospitals. It says Via Christi improperly sent patients to Cardiovascular Consultants of Kansas and to Chehab and Tauke for cardiology consultations as part of its incentive program.
The complaint alleges that Chehab and Tauke performed unnecessary tests and procedures, including placing stents in patients’ arteries and performing multiple catheterizations and echocardiograms on the same patient. It says one patient underwent nine echocardiograms in a one-year period and another underwent six echocardiograms in a one-month period.
Via Christi is owned by St. Louis-based Ascension Health, the largest Catholic health system in the country with operations in 22 states and the District of Columbia. It operates nine hospitals and employs more than 6,000 people in Kansas.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.