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KanCare Company Fires Back At Ex-Employee Over Its Business Practices

An incendiary lawsuit over the business practices of one of the companies running KanCare, the Brownback administration’s privatization of Kansas’ $3 billion Medicaid program, just got more explosive.

The company, Sunflower State Health Plan Inc., responded forcefully Monday to a lawsuit accusing it of unethical behavior, saying the plaintiff – an executive who was fired – was trying to extort it.

In a counterclaim filed in federal court in Kansas City, Kan., Sunflower and its parent company, Centene Corp., alleged the former executive demanded a $3 million payment from the company in return for not reporting it to the Kansas attorney general’s Medicaid fraud unit.

Calling her allegations “spurious,” Sunflower says it “refused to be extorted” and instead provided copies of her allegations and demand to the director of Kansas Medicaid Services, the director of the Kansas Division of Health Care Finance, the Kansas Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI.

The counterclaim seeks unspecified damages from the former employee, Jacqueline Leary, for abuse of process and defamation.

Responding to Sunflower’s allegations, Leary’s attorney, Lewis Galloway, called the company’s counterclaim “paper thin” and its extortion allegation “the most ludicrous thing ever.”

“I have a very serious and specific concern about lawyers behaving this way,” Galloway said in a phone interview, referring to Sunflower’s attorneys. “If they truly believe that I am, in my practice, engaging in some type of extortion, they have a professional and ethical responsibility to make that known to the bar. Now they didn’t do that, obviously.”

Sunflower’s attorneys did not return calls seeking comment.

Sunflower’s counterclaim came in response to Leary’s accusation that Sunflower and its parent, Clayton, Mo.-based Centene, ordered employees to shift KanCare members away from high-cost providers as a cost-saving measure. Centene filed a similar counterclaim against Leary on Monday.

Leary, a former vice president of network development and contracting at Sunflower, contends she was fired after she objected to the directive, saying it was unethical and possibly illegal.

KanCare, which put private companies in charge of managing the state’s Medicaid program, was launched by Gov. Sam Brownback in January 2013. The program moved nearly all of the state’s Medicaid enrollees into health plans run by Sunflower and two other managed care organizations, Amerigroup and UnitedHealthcare.

Leary filed her lawsuit in October, shortly after it was reported that the three companies running KanCare collectively lost $76.2 million in 2014 after incurring losses of $110 million in 2013.

Leary claimed that Sunflower officials ordered her to steer Sunflower members away from providers that had contracted to be reimbursed at rates higher than 100 percent of standard Kansas Medicaid rates.

The company insists she was fired for poor job performance. In its counterclaim, Sunflower says Leary failed to resolve unspecified medical provider issues, chose to go shopping instead of assisting in preparing for a mid-year review and “consistently exhibited a lack of professionalism, organization and responsiveness in her job position.”

It says that Centene ordered its own independent investigation of Sunflower, “which resulted in a conclusion that there was no wrong doing on the part of (Sunflower),” according to the counterclaim.

It also notes that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration ruled against Leary in September, finding there was credible evidence she was fired for poor performance and not in retaliation for voicing her concerns about Sunflower’s business practices.

Galloway, Leary’s attorney, said he planned to seek dismissal of the counterclaim and take the case to trial.

“The last thing I’ll tell you is this,” he said. “We’ll try this case through a Kansas jury and, for her damages, we will seek many multiples of the amount that was included in the demand letter that we authored a year ago next month.”

“This will be a long and probably ugly fight,” he added.

Dan Margolies, editor of the Heartland Health Monitor team, is based at KCUR.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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