UMDNJ may no longer be under the monitor's supervision, ostensibly because of internal reforms of its management, but a recent story on NJ.com from the Newark Star-Ledger questioned the success of these reforms.
The state's medical university was overcharging the federal government by millions of dollars, even while under federal oversight for similar violations of the law, according to internal reports.
Those documents show administrators at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey inflated medical expenditures by at least $21 million a year -- boosting Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates. The abuses were allowed to continue even after a consultant repeatedly warned them about the problem.
It is unclear how long the overbillings took place, but reports obtained by The Star-Ledger show they occurred as recently as last year, despite the fact the school was undergoing an administrative shake-up following earlier reports of widespread financial abuse. Those earlier abuses included the university's deliberate $4.5 million overbilling of Medicare, which was the spark that led to a 2005 federal investigation and the appointment of a federal monitor.
The new allegations raise questions about the impact and pace of reforms at UMDNJ and its University Hospital in Newark nearly a year after they emerged from the monitor's oversight.
U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said he was troubled by the revelations. He said part of the reason his office agreed to end the federal oversight last year was the assurance by both the state and the university that there would be continuing efforts to resolve UMDNJ's long-standing internal problems.
As to the specific problems uncovered,
At issue were inflated rates paid to physicians on the UMDNJ faculty, as well as free support services -- such as office space and clerical help -- that the hospital provided to doctors in private medical practices. Those costs were submitted to federal officials to generate higher reimbursement levels than were warranted, according to the documents. The extra money was used to plug holes in the medical school's budget.
In addition, the final report by the federal monitor raised a series of issues:
The allegations in the Star-Ledger article lead to announcements that a NJ State Senate Committee will investigate the university (see article here), and the US attorney opened a new inquiry, involving subpoenas served on the institution, and for its president and executive vice president to appear before a grand jury (see article here).
Questions about the validity of the university's Medicare cost reports and possible violations of federal law -- as well as other allegations of financial abuses lodged by former medical school officials -- were also underscored by the federal monitor in a final report issued to UMDNJ administrators in December.
That confidential document, reviewed by the newspaper, raised red flags over charges of legal and ethical breaches that were to have been addressed by the university. The monitor, former federal judge Herbert J. Stern, said in the report that outside auditors were pressured to 'gloss over' findings that physicians were being paid more than market rates would dictate. As a result, the final report 'substantially understated problems which continue to exist.'
Among the monitor's other findings:
--Nurses working at the privately operated Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, another UMDNJ teaching affiliate, were on the university payroll -- and getting state benefits -- despite having no teaching responsibilities.
--On cost reports submitted to federal officials, UMDNJ improperly included the services of nurse practitioners and physician assistants who were employed in private practices.
--University Hospital was allegedly double billing for emergency room services when patients were waiting in the ER for an available hospital bed.
--UMDNJ retained and paid for legal representation of faculty members and other employees in disputes "tangentially related" to the university and "outside the scope of employment."
Of course, these latest reports involve allegations, not facts proven in a court of law. Nonetheless, they do suggest that the management of the country's largest health care university has not been reformed all that much. A corporate culture of deception and sleaze still seems to envelop the institution's executive suites. One wonders whether contributing to its entrenchment are 1) the "anechoic effect," which still has confined discussion of UMDNJ's woes to the local media and a few blogs; and 2) the lack of negative consequences so far suffered by any individual UMDNJ managers. Although UMDNJ as an institution was "punished" by a deferred prosecution agreement, individual managers, not the institution as a whole, were responsible for any misbehavior. While individual managers escape punishment, I doubt that the many honest people who work at UMDNJ can escape demoralization, and that ultimately it is the students and patients who will suffer.