The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 22, 2013

Billing has state-paid doctor in two places at once

Associated Press

— A highly paid psychiatrist working in state mental health hospitals engaged in a pattern of false billing claims while collecting more than $430,000 in payments beyond his base salary over three years, according to a published report Monday.

State investigative reports show Dr. Robert B. Jones billed the state for on-call services while he was actually working at his private practice and family farm, the Star Tribune reported. As a result, investigators concluded, patients under state care likely failed to receive the treatment they needed.

In one instance, the state’s top psychiatrist, Dr. Alan Radke, failed to reach Jones because it was found that Jones “was in a tractor plowing his fields and didn’t hear the telephone ring.” Yet the newspaper said Radke failed to crack down despite knowing of the billing irregularities.

Jones oversaw psychiatric care for hundreds of patients at several northern Minnesota facilities.

In an interview with the newspaper, Jones denied any wrongdoing and said he didn’t know he was under investigation.

Radke declined to comment.

The state fired Jones in February. Deputy Human Services Commissioner Anne Barry said Jones put two groups of clients in jeopardy at the same time — those under state care and those in his private practice. She said being on call requires being immediately available to serve people with high needs, and he wasn’t.

Jones told the newspaper the reason he received more than $439,000 in on-call pay from 2009 through 2011 was that he was responsible for overall care at six of the state’s community behavioral hospitals, which are small regional mental health facilities with chronic staffing problems.

Yet investigators found that Jones was often working on state time at the for-profit Northern Pines Mental Health Center in Brainerd, a counseling center in Wadena, and for a small treatment team.

Jones’ case is the latest sign of dysfunction in a state system that serves hundreds of psychiatric patients. The Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter was placed on conditional license in 2011 after reports surfaced of repeated patient abuses. Two doctors there were recently rebuked by a judge for misleading him about the care of a patient.

Barry, who assumed direct oversight of the St. Peter hospital last year, has acknowledged difficulty in hiring qualified forensic psychiatrists for state facilities. But she also said the system is improving and said her agency is in negotiations with the University of Minnesota’s medical school to train and recruit new professionals for the system.

Filling in at the St. Peter hospital, Jones told the Legislative Auditor’s examiner, he “came out feeling thoroughly exhausted and yet did not have any sense he had done anything helpful for the patients he had seen.”