Federal Aviation Administration officials announced Friday they will investigate Lee County’s medical flight program, after revelations county officials billed patients in violation of federal rules.
Lee County officials admitted Thursday they sent out more than $3 million in bills without meeting federally mandated requirements designed to enhance safety, such as pilot training. Agencies and companies that charge people for flights must comply with those rules, according to the FAA.
“This is something that we will investigate and take appropriate actions based on what the investigation finds,” FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac said Friday.
The county could face fines and sanctions, Salac said.
“We hold their certificate for their operations and we can either suspend that or revoke it,” Salac said, “depending on what the circumstances are.”
County officials stopped the Medstar medical flight program last month without any mention of the violations or improper billing.
County Public Safety chief Kim Dickerson claimed at the time the county grounded its helicopters for six to nine months to apply for an accreditation from an out-of-state company. Its three pilots and director were terminated.
After the News-Press repeatedly questioned Dickerson and Public Safety Director John Wilson about the county’s FAA compliance and improper billings, Dickerson this week sent out an email to commissioners admitting to the violations.
Commissioner Frank Mann said he will look for answers at Tuesday’s commission meeting.
“If (County Manager Karen Hawes) does not bring this up, I certainly will, and ask for a broader understanding of how we find ourselves in such a sorry situation,” Mann said. “There are still many, many unanswered questions here.”
Hawes could not return calls for comment Friday, she said, because she has laryngitis.
Wilson said Friday the county “self-reported” the violations to the FAA at 4 p.m. — after the FAA told The News-Press it planned to investigate the county and county officials were asked to respond to that information. He said he initially called at 9 a.m., but FAA officials were busy. He also said he plans to ask Clerk of Court Charlie Green to audit the program.
Wilson said it is former Medstar director Rob Fulton’s fault the county billed patients in violation of federal rules.
Wilson and Dickerson appointed Fulton as the program’s director after the program’s previous director was blamed for problems with the FAA in an audit that was conducted at the county’s direction in 2011.
While Wilson said he never knew the county was billing for the flights, he was OK with providing free flights to patients. Those flights totaled more than $3.5 million in services the county could have charged for, if they had complied with federal regulations.
“We started operating the helicopter back in late 2011, to give our pilots sufficient time to train so they could show proficiency with operating that particular helicopter when they did the check ride,” Wilson said.
County management, however, failed to provide pilots with the training necessary to conduct flights for a fee, according to the FAA.
It took county officials more than 14 months from the time they purchased the Bell 430 helicopter in November 2010 to take the first step toward meeting some of the requirements needed to bill patients for transports — providing maintenance records, electrical diagrams and similar documents.
The county said it will look to refund $320,586 it collected from patients and their insurers in violation of the federal rules.
Some of that money was paid by Medicare and Medicaid — tax-funded and government-administered health programs. Wilson said the agencies will receive refunds.
The county may also notify some of the people who received bills they don’t have to pay them, he said.
“I would think that would be something that they could do,” Wilson said.
Former Medstar pilot Arnold McAllister said Wilson and Dickerson were confronted during several staff meetings about the county’s failure to meet FAA requirements to bill for flights. He said Wilson and Dickerson assured pilots the county was not billing for the flights.
“We were worried about cutbacks,” McAllister said. “Since we weren’t billing for flights, we weren’t recouping any of our costs.”
As a cost-savings measure, Public Safety management in June proposed cutting the availability of emergency medical flights in half — from 24 hours a day to 12. The move would have allowed the county to cut four full-time positions at a savings of $550,000, according to county budget documents.
Commission Chairman John Manning said he prefers to wait for county management to resolve the issue and report back to the commission. It’s a personnel matter, he said, and commissioners shouldn’t interfere.
“From this commissioner’s perspective, I’ve always taken the approach, according to our county charter, that I don’t talk about personnel matters,” Manning said. “Where it goes from here is the staff will continue to brief me.”
The Republican candidate for Commission District 3, Larry Kiker, said Hawes needs to tell commissioners “a complete story of what happened, how it happened and what their plan of action is.”
“And then when that’s all over,” he said, “I’m going to have another conversation with her and ask her how she is going to ensure to me this is never going to happen again.”
Charlie Whitehead, who is running for the District 3 seat in the Nov. 6 general election without a party affiliation, said the shutdown and improper billings should never have happened.
“You can’t have people sending out illegal bills,” Whitehead said. “You can’t have employees lying to you about why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
Republican candidate for commission District 2, Cecil Pendergrass, said he wants an independent investigation.
“It looks like there’s no accountability as far as management,” Pendergrass said. “It looks like it’s a breakdown of the system.”
“It scares me, as a citizen and a taxpayer,” Pendergrass said.