PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Former U.S Attorney Brian Albritton told Pinellas County Commissioners Tuesday that a federal lawsuit alleging ambulance fee kickbacks could have cost taxpayers as much as $1 billion if they lost in court.
Commissioners agreed to settle the case involving Paramedics Plus Sunstar ambulance service for $92,700 and to forgo an estimated $500,000 in uncollected ambulance fees from patients. They will also have to pay legal fees to Albritton who the county secretly hired last year to resolve the case.
Pinellas commissioners discussed the case publicly Tuesday for the first time since Eight On Your Side first broke the story of alleged kickbacks and a federal investigation of Pinellas County’s ambulance contract last month.
That settlement, signed March 7 by Vice-Chair Kenneth Welch, requires the county to pay $92,700 to federal prosecutors, the Florida Attorney General and attorneys for the whistleblower–a former executive with Paramedics Plus. It also requires Pinellas County to turn over all documents and evidence gathered in the course of the county’s own internal investigation, and to cooperate with an ongoing federal investigation and whistleblower action filed against Paramedics Plus in Texas.
Tuesday, Welch objected to the term “kickbacks” cited repeatedly in federal court records as an “incendiary” term. He and other commissioners insist the problem stems from “refunds” triggered by a controversial “profit cap” provision in the county’s contract with Paramedics Plus that was taken out in 2015 when an assistant Pinellas county attorney “had a hunch” it was a problem.
Since 2004, Paramedics Plus has operated as Pinellas County’s exclusive ambulance provider under the county-owned brand name Sunstar. The current county contract with Paramedics Plus amounts to about $50 million a year. In 2014, a former high-ranking executive of Paramedics Plus filed a whistleblower action in Texas that alleged an ongoing ambulance fee kickback scheme that stretched from Pinellas County to Oklahoma and California for over a decade.
The scheme alleged by the whistleblower and federal prosecutors in a related legal action included so-called “profit cap” rebates that essentially funneled overcharges from Medicaid and Medicare to Pinellas County and other local governments that oversee public ambulance contracts. County leaders in Pinellas insist the “rebates” or “kickbacks’ in Pinellas totaled only $35,000 or so and ended up in county bank accounts, not someone’s pockets.
In Oklahoma, the whistleblower suit alleges those kickbacks amounted to as much as $20 million. Federal prosecutors in Texas have cited specific acts of corruption in Oklahoma that include kickbacks, political payoffs and self-enrichment involving Paramedics Plus executives and government overseers in Oklahoma.
In a statement released in response to our questions last month, Paramedics Plus insisted it has done nothing illegal and expects to be vindicated of any wrongdoing. Last Friday, local Paramedics Plus Vice-President Mark Postma reiterated the company’s claim of innocence.
“That’s correct,” Postma told Eight On Your Side.
On February 20, Pinellas County Commission Chair Janet Long told Eight On Your Side in a terse interview that “I think the public will be very satisfied when the news finally comes out about this case.” Tuesday Long said the settlement– which costs Pinellas taxpayers an estimated $600,000 or more in fines and unpaid ambulance fees–is a good deal because the risk of going to court over this matter was too risky. Albritton predicted the cost of taking it to trial–win or lose–would have amounted to $2 million in legal fees alone and possibly $1 billion if the county lost the case.
Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodard says the settlement has no impact on the county’s ongoing $50 million a year contract with Paramedics Plus because the company has not been charged criminally or been found guilty of anything.
Tonight at 6, we’ll have much more on all of this in our You Paid for It investigation.
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