Monday, May 03, 2010

Board Member Blows Whistle on Health Insurance Company's Accounting

We previously posted about some of the travails of for-profit health insurance company/ managed care organization Wellcare.  In August, 2009, we posted about Wellcare's "admission" that it had made numerous questionable campaign contributions.  In May, 2009 we posted about WellCare's submission to a deferred prosecution agreemeent based on charges that it defrauded state programs by inflating its expenses. In 2007, we posted about how the state of Connecticut stopped WellCare from running a plan for poor children after the company refused to reveal what it was paying physicians, and why it was failing to pay for particular services. So WellCare has been cited for three different kinds of unethical behavior in 2007-09.

Here's a story about Wellcare with a new twist in the Wall Street Journal:
A prominent director at WellCare Health Plans Inc. resigned Wednesday and raised questions about accounting practices at the Medicare and Medicaid company.

Regina Herzlinger, the head of the board's audit committee and a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, said internal audits found WellCare overbilled the Illinois Medicaid program by $1 million in 2009 and potentially overcharged states for almost $500,000 worth of maternity care. Additionally, the Tampa, Fla., company ran afoul of Georgia's requirements that it account for each patient visit for which it paid providers, resulting in a $610,000 fine, she said.

Ms. Herzlinger said those problems, which the company corrected last year and this year after an internal auditor discovered them, are evidence of weak accounting practices. Ms. Herzlinger said she had hoped to provide oversight, as chairwoman of the audit committee, but that the board didn't renominate her for re-election at this year's annual meeting of shareholders. Ms. Herzlinger alleges that the board forced her out for asking questions about accounting problems and corporate-governance practices.

Wellcare offered the response one might expect:
WellCare said good corporate-governance practices require it to bring in new board members periodically to provide a fresh perspective. The company said the accounting errors Ms. Herzlinger identified were relatively small and the company's own internal controls identified them, indicating that its processes are working well. The company said the board chose not to renominate Ms. Herzlinger.

'At any company, you are always going to have these kinds of immaterial amounts pop up,' said Thomas Tran, WellCare's chief financial officer, who added that it is important to 'address them and document them and learn from them to change your processes.'

That might have been more convincing were Wellcare not to have the track-record discussed above.

Every now and then we have discussed cases of whistle-blowers from within health care organizations, but I cannot remember another instance in which the whistle-blower was on the board of directors.  In our post of August, 2009, we noted Prof Herzlinger's position on the Wellcare board, and urged her, as a main stream health policy expert, "to acknowledge that health care leadership may be unaccountable, opaque, dishonest, and sometimes flagrantly corrupt."  We also urged her to "pay a bit more attention to the mischief being committed by those who answer to her."  From this new story, it looked like she did just that, and hopefully made a contribution to more transparent and honest governance of health care organizations.  Good for her!

It is time for the often well-paid and not over-worked members of the board of directors of health care corporations to take some responsibility for the actions of the corporations over which they are supposed to exercise stewardship.

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