AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Nursing home patients hurt, taxpayers ripped off by sales goals, lawsuits say

A nursing home chain with facilities in Georgia routinely gave patients therapy they didn't need in a scheme that sometimes harmed them and defrauded Medicare, government lawsuits say.

What's more, to keep collecting inflated Medicare payments, Life Care Center of America facilities also sought to keep some patients in nursing homes longer than necessary, the company's own employees complained.

Now, the company, with 220 homes nationwide including four facilities in Lawrenceville and one in Thomasville, Ga., has agreed to pay more than $145 million to resolve the issue, the Department of Justice has announced. That's the largest settlement with a skilled nursing facility in the department's history.

As in the Wells Fargo scandal, the Life Care Centers of America complaint involves corporations pressuring employees to meet high-pressure sales goals.

From 2006 to early 2013, the company ignored recommendations of its own therapists and set goals unrelated to patients' actual conditions or needs, the lawsuits allege. Then, the suits claim, Life Care Centers used employee performance evaluations and regular emails or visits by corporate personnel to reinforce the goals, punishing facilities and employees that failed to meet the targets.

In some cases, the therapy created a risk of harm to the patient, according to the suits.

Among other practices, one suit alleges that Life Care would provide unnecessary physical therapy to patients who were confined to beds or chairs, with no prospect of being able to walk. "In many cases, these residents also had cognitive impairments and an inability to comprehend their surroundings," the suit says. "In such cases, the forced therapy is not only a significant discomfort and intrusion to the resident, but it can often have harmful effects..."

The therapists, the suit claimed, "would essentially drag the resident down the hall" and then document that the patient had walked. Patients would then gain a false sense of being able to walk on their own and would fall, suffering injuries, according to the suit.

Two former employees blew the whistle on the company, filing lawsuits in which the federal government later intervened. The whistle-blower reward: $29 million.

In agreeing to the settlement, Life Care Centers of America did not admit liability. The settlement also resolves a lawsuit against Life Care owner Forrest L. Preston, who the government claims was unjustly enriched by the scheme.

It's unclear how much money the facilities improperly received. The Justice Department announcement says that the $145 million settlement was based on the company's ability to pay.




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About the Author

Lois Norder is Senior Editor for Investigations in the newsroom at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.