Federal lawsuit accuses Hospice of the Comforter of Medicare fraud

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SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. —

One of the largest hospice organizations in central Florida is under fire, for allegedly wasting tax dollars.

The federal government has filed a lawsuit against Hospice of the Comforter, based in Altamonte Springs, accusing it of Medicare fraud.

The allegations arose in 2011 when a whistle-blower came forward.

On Tuesday, WFTV reporter Bianca Castro spoke with a former nurse who told investigators she saw the fraud, first-hand.

Dora Santiago is caring for her mother, who's slowly losing her battle with Alzheimer's.

Recently, she qualified for hospice care, paid for by Medicare.
   
"If they didn't cover that, and they offered me ... I cannot afford to have a service like that," said Santiago.

Santiago said the cost for service is about $1,000 a month.

Now, one of the most recognized hospices in the region is accused of billing Medicare for those types of services, for patients not even terminally ill.

"It's not ethical, it's not ethical," said Elly Barton.

Barton worked as a crisis care nurse for Hospice of the Comforter for four years. She said she witnessed some of the allegations laid out in the federal lawsuit.

The suit says the company used "creative" record keeping to overbill Medicare thousands, possibly millions of dollars.

It says that patients not terminally ill were suddenly diagnosed with cancer without medical proof.

Barton said she quit after what she saw.     

"There were some patients that I took care of that had a nurse in the home for 30 days," said Barton.  "Yes, 30 days of around the clock nursing care. And crisis care is meant to be two or three days."

Records show top administrators got big bonus checks based on how many patients they had on the books.

That doesn't sit well with Barton.

"That's dishonest. That's being completely dishonest. How can they live with something like that?" said Barton.

If the government wins this case, Hospice of the Comforter could be forced to pay back millions of dollars in fines and damages.

Lawyers for the hospice said their client followed all medical guidelines.