Electronic records creating a 'new era' of health care fraud
Derek Lewis was working as an electronic health records specialist for the nation’s largest hospital chain when he heard about software defects that might even “kill a patient.”
The doctors at Midwest (City) Regional Medical Center in Oklahoma worried that the software failed to track some drug prescriptions or dosages properly, posing a “huge safety concern,” Lewis said. Lewis cited the alleged safety hazards in a whistleblower lawsuit that he and another former employee of Community Health Systems (CHS) filed against the Tennessee-based hospital chain in 2018.
The suit alleges that the company, which had $14 billion in annual revenue in 2018, obtained millions of dollars in federal subsidies fraudulently by covering up dangerous flaws in these systems at the Oklahoma hospital and more than 120 others it owned or operated at the time.
The whistleblowers also allege that Medhost, the Tennessee firm that developed the software, concealed defects during government-mandated reviews that were supposed to ensure safety.
Both CHS and Medhost have denied the allegations and moved to dismiss the suit. The motions are pending. Last month, Department of Justice lawyers wrote in court filings that they were still investigating the matter and had not yet decided whether to take over the case.
The lawsuit is one of dozens filed by whistleblowers, doctors and hospitals alleging that some electronic health records (EHR) software used in hospitals and medical offices has hidden flaws that may pose a danger to patients — and that a substantial chunk of the $38 billion in federal subsidies went to companies that deceived the government about the quality of their products, an ongoing Fortune-KHN investigation shows. The subsidies were designed to persuade hospitals and doctors’ offices to install software that would track the medical history of every patient and share the information seamlessly with other health care providers.
But the software makers allegedly gamed the system, repeatedly. Three major EHR vendors have made multimillion-dollar settlement deals — totaling $357 million — over Justice Department investigations which include allegations that they rigged or otherwise gamed the government’s certification test. At least two other companies are under investigation.
Beyond those cases, federal officials have paid hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to doctors and hospitals that could not show they were even qualified to receive them, according to federal officials. Nearly 28% of doctors and 5% of hospitals who attested to meeting government standards later failed audits. Federal officials told Fortune and KHN that they have clawed back $941 million in improper subsidies.
“We’re entering an entirely new area of health care fraud,” John O’Brien, senior counsel with the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, said in a July 2017 video announcing a $155 million False Claims Act settlement with eClinicalWorks, one of the nation’s leading sellers of EHRs for physicians.
The concern is not just over wasteful spending of tax dollars. EHRs monitor the medicines people take and their vital signs, so software glitches that prevent doctors from accessing files quickly, that mix up patients or send vital test results to the wrong file can contribute to serious injuries, or even deaths.
In March, Fortune and KHN revealed that thousands of injuries, deaths or near misses tied to software defects, user errors and other problems have piled up in various government-sponsored and private repositories.
“Ultimately, it’s about patients getting the right care,” Andrew Vanlandingham, the HHS inspector general’s senior counselor for health information technology, said in an interview. He said that investigators are “gearing up” for more scrutiny of the important industry, including closer monitoring to make sure that records software is safe.