Could Florida Actually Elect Rick Scott?

by Jonathan Cohn | November 2, 2010

Maybe President Obama has some regrets about decisions he's made this campaign season and maybe he doesn't. Me, I have at least one very big one. I never got around to writing about the gubernatorial race in Florida.

Not only is it the state where I grew up and where most of my family still lives.* It's also the state where the Republican candidate is former health care executive Rick Scott. 

Fortunately for me and for any Florida voters who may be reading this blog before they head to the polls, Andy Kroll of Mother Jones has published a nice primer on Scott's career. Here are some of the high, er, lowlights: 

$1.7 Billion That's how much the federal government fined Columbia/HCA for Medicare and Medicaid fraud that took place under Rick Scott's watch as CEO. That sum, which ultimately led to Scott's ouster, set a record for the largest fine of its kind in history. To this day, he has yet to fully answer for his inability to spot and stop Columbia/HCA's systemic overbilling. In a recent debate, Scott said only, "I made sure patients were taken care of. I really could have done a better job to hire more internal and external auditors." And while Scott has previously blamed underlings, former Columbia/HCA accountant and FBI informant John Schilling doesn't buy it: "I can’t say what he knew or didn’t know, but he should have known what was making up the majority of the revenues of the company," he told the Palm Beach Post.
Overbilling, again? Just weeks before Florida's GOP gubernatorial primary, pitting Scott against attorney general Bill McCollum, a pair of former doctors who worked for a chain of health clinics founded by Scott alleged improper Medicare billing by the company. One of the former doctors also claimed Solantic, in which Scott is a majority investor, used the their names and medical licenses without telling them to stay within Florida law, according to theFlorida Independent, which broke the story in August. Scott's campaign and Solantic bothdismissed the allegations by the former doctors, saying they were merely a last-gasp effort by McCollum to boost his primary chances. Scott ended up winning the primary by 3 percentage points.

And here's what the Miami Herald's Scott Hiassen and John Dorschner wrote about Scott a few months ago: 

federal investigators found that Scott took part in business practices at Columbia/HCA that were later found to be illegal -- specifically, that Scott and other executives offered financial incentives to doctors in exchange for patient referrals, in violation of federal law, according to lawsuits the Justice Department filed against the company in 2001.
The doctor payments were among 10 different kinds of fraud identified by the Justice Department in its 10-year probe of the company, records show. Three years after Scott left Columbia/HCA, the company admitted wrongdoing, pleading guilty to 14 felonies -- most committed during Scott's tenure -- in addition to paying two sets of fines totaling $1.7 billion.
Scott declined interview requests from The Miami Herald, and though his campaign issued a statement, it did not respond to specific questions about his tenure at Columbia/HCA.
In his statement, Scott said: ``An army of federal investigators spent seven years examining every aspect of this case. If they found any merit in these allegations . . . they would have certainly charged me, or at the very least questioned me -- neither of which ever happened.''
On his campaign website, Scott said that he would have corrected any problems at the company ``immediately'' had he known about them. But a former company insider told The Miami Herald that he warned Scott in a meeting of ``significant problems'' at least six months before Scott's resignation, which came nine days after the FBI raided 33 Columbia hospitals and offices in six states.
The insider, attorney Jerre Frazier, who was brought in by a Columbia/HCA board member to root out the company's problems, said he did not believe Scott personally approved any illegal conduct. But, he said: ``Rick is a bright guy, and he picked up on what was happening.''
The Scott campaign dismissed Frazier as a ``disgruntled former employee.''
Whether or not Scott was aware of his company's questionable conduct, the breadth of the problems raises questions about Scott's leadership, management experts say.

By the way, Scott's opponent is the eminently reasonable and qualified Alex Sink. Florida's voters could do themselves, and the rest of us, a favor by remembering that as they go into the voting booth.

*Disclosure: My father, a physician, has been involved in a legal dispute against Columbia/HCA.

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