Columbus Regional delays capital campaign for cancer center expansion

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 20, 2013 

Facing a federal whistle-blower lawsuit alleging billing fraud against the John B. Amos Cancer Center and its physician group, Columbus Regional Healthcare System has decided to delay the fundraising efforts for a planned cancer center expansion.

Last month, Columbus Regional was preparing to announce and launch a $20 million capital campaign to be led by Aflac President and CEO Dan Amos and his wife, Kathelen. The Federal False Claims Act suit, filed by the center's administrative director Richard Barker in federal court, alleges that the center and its physicians -- including respected Medical Director Andrew Pippas -- repeatedly and knowingly overbilled government insurers.

"The Columbus Regional Healthcare System leadership is not ready to move forward with fund raising initiatives to support the John B. Amos Cancer Center at this time," according to a statement released Friday by Columbus Regional spokesperson Frank Austin after being asked by the Ledger-Enquirer last week about the expansion.

The statement did not connect the delay to the lawsuit.

Dan Amos, a major financial contributor to the center named for his late uncle, declined to comment, except to say he continues to support the John B. Amos Cancer Center and its vision of providing the best cancer care for the community.

During a July 2 interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Columbus Regional President and Chief Executive Officer Charles A. Stark talked about the proposed expansion, calling it "John B. Amos Cancer Center 2."

The expansion was brought before the Columbus Regional Board of Directors on July 11 and the board was supportive of the decision to delay fundraising efforts, Austin said Friday.

Stark, through Austin, declined an interview request for this story.

The new building plans, according to Stark's earlier interview, called for a pediatric oncology clinic on the first floor and a new infusion center for chemotherapy treatment and pharmacy on the second floor.

The third floor was going to be sealed off for future growth.

The new building would be connected to the existing center by a glass walkway.

The plans also called for additional physicians and turning the current infusion center into exam rooms and offices.

"As we grow and recruit more medical oncologists to meet the needs of the community they have a place to have offices and see patients," Stark said on July 2.

The expansion has been in the works since September.

A cancer center advisory committee, consisting of physicians, architects, staff and local business leaders, is chaired by Kathelen Amos.

It has been planning for the center's design and the private fundraising efforts needed to build it.

Friday's statement from Columbus Regional indicated that process would continue.

"We intend to make good use of the coming months developing and evaluating designs for an expansion at the John B. Amos Cancer Center," the statement read. "We believe this will help potential donors visualize the project and assess their opportunities to participate."

The release puts no timetable for a decision to move forward.

There have been no major developments in the case, which is in U.S. District Court, Middle District of Georgia, since Judge Clay Land unsealed it in late May and the defendants were notified in June.

Barker, who has worked at the center since late September 2011 and is currently on administrative leave, is suing under the Federal False Claim Act -- commonly called a qui tam action -- and stands to be compensated up to 30 percent of money the government recovers or is awarded in damages.

The financial impact to Columbus Regional, if proven at trial, could reach more than $100 million, said Barker's attorney, Jamie Bennett of Ashcraft & Gerel based in Landover, Md.

Barker has sued Columbus Regional Healthcare System, The Medical Center, the John B. Amos Cancer Center and Regional Oncology LLC, Dr. Thomas "Jack" Tidwell and the Columbus Radiation Oncology Treatment Center, formerly the Tidwell Cancer Treatment Center.

The defendants have until the end of this month to file responses, including motions to dismiss the case.

If Land does not dismiss the suit, then it will move through the federal courts much like any other civil matter.

In addition to overbilling government insurers, the suit alleges that Pippas, facing a sharp drop in compensation after being told to change his coding practices to reflect lower reimbursement rates, "enlisted the advocacy" of Dan Amos.

Amos sent an email to retired Aflac executive and former Columbus Regional board member George Jeter expressing concern that Pippas could leave the center over a contract dispute.

In the email, sent on April 22, 2013, and copied to Joey Loudermilk, Aflac executive vice president and general counsel and a Columbus Regional board member, Amos wrote, "I am not willing to make another financial commitment only to find out a year later that Andy is leaving due to the lack of commitment to him on the hospital's part."

Amos said in a recent interview he did not know about the coding issues alleged in the suit.

Amos also said he never talked directly to Stark about Pippas' compensation, as the suit alleges. Stark has said he was aware of the email.

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