Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens said his office is investigating a Norcross drug rehabilitation clinic that recently had its license revoked by the state.
Narconon of Georgia stands accused of billing a patient’s insurer $166,275 for doctor visits that never occurred and treatment that was never provided, according to the mother of a recent client.
“It’s almost like a case of identity theft if there were services that were not rendered but were billed for,” Hudgens told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which, along with our news partners, Channel 2 Action News and WSB Radio, has investigated the rehab facility over the last several months.
Narconon denies any wrongdoing and says it follows standard billing procedures for rehabilitation facilities.
The state Department of Community Health has been looking into Narconon for a decade regarding complaints that the clinic – licensed only for outpatient care — was illegally operating a residential facility. In December, the DCH announced the facility’s license revocation based partly on findings by the AJC. Narconon of Georgia has appealed.
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An investigation by the insurance commissioner could have more serious consequences for the clinic, which bases its treatment on the teachings of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Unlike the DCH, “We have teeth,” said Hudgens, who has assigned a team of investigators under the supervision of Fraud Division Chief Drew Lane. “We have been successful in getting fraud prosecuted.”
Insurance fraud carries a punishment of up to 10 years in prison.
The insurance commissioner’s investigation arises from a complaint by Mary Morton of Rome, who said she discovered unauthorized claims to her insurer, United Health Care, for partial hospitalization and “intensive outpatient services” rendered to her 19-year-old daughter, who enrolled in Narconon of Georgia in March 2012.
Morton said she was told at the time her insurance wouldn’t cover her daughter’s treatment. So she paid Narconon of Georgia $15,000 – in advance and for the total cost of treatment, according to her contract — along with another $1,600 per month for housing.
A few months later Morton, visiting her daughter, was confronted by then-clinic director Mary Rieser, who told her United Health Care had yet to reimburse Narconon.
“And I asked her, ‘If they reimbursed at all they would reimburse us, because we paid in full,’” Morton told the AJC. “And she said she wasn’t aware of what our contract was.”
Later that day Rieser told Morton not to worry – Narconon would cover the costs of the doctor’s visits.
“I just thought that was very strange,” she said.
When Morton got home she pulled up her account online.
“They were billing an average of $4,800 a week of intensive care,” she said. “Not sure what that really was, because there wasn’t any [intensive care].”
And the doctor visits never occurred, according to Morton, who shared copies of the charges with the AJC.
“She had been sent home for a total of three weeks for disciplinary action. They billed for the whole time she was at home,” Morton said.
Morton’s daughter left Narconon of Georgia in late October yet United Health Care was billed for treatments in November, according to documents provided by her mother.
“They’re double and triple billing for things that never occurred, and the end result is she didn’t get any better,” Mary Morton said.
Two doctors were named in the claims: Lisa Robbins at the Robbins Health Care Alliance in Stone Mountain and Casey Locarnini at Dunwoody Urgent Care Clinic.
Robbins, in a statement sent through a spokesman, said she “never authorized Narconon or anyone associated with Narconon to bill any insurance. We have not seen any of Narconon’s students in several years.”
That includes Morton’s daughter.
“If they indeed did bill under Dr. Robbins, this is insurance fraud,” according to the statement.
Locarnini’s attorney, Doug Chalmers, said his client served notice “a number of weeks ago … that he was terminating his contract with Narconon.” Chalmers said his firm was hired to investigate the “billing issues.”
Narconon of Georgia, responding through its attorney, Barbara Marschalk, said it follows “customary and usual billing practices and procedures and that [its] payment terms are clearly explained.”
According to Marschalk’s statement, her client believes the media has been “manipulated by persons who are biased against Narconon and who believe they can profit by stirring up negative publicity just before a trial on completely unrelated issues.”
That trial begins in a few weeks in DeKalb County State Court. Narconon of Georgia is accused of being liable for the 2008 death of Patrick Desmond, who overdosed on a mix of alcohol and opiates while a patient at the clinic. Desmond’s parents say they were duped into believing the facility provided in-patient care – as mandated by a Florida drug court – even though it lacked the proper license.
Those accusations will go uncontested due to the withdrawal of Narconon of Georgia’s response, as ordered by Judge Stacey Hydrick in November. She ruled the nonprofit “intentionally, willfully and repeatedly provided false and misleading responses to plaintiff’s discovery requests regarding issues relevant to the resolution of this case.”
Narconon of Georgia, operating in Norcross since 2001, remains open as it prepares to appeal its license revocation. That process could take several months.