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Government Finds Hospice Case Error

October 21, 1999

A government agency has found a clerical error _ but no serious wrongdoing _ in the case of a hospice that reported a woman dead when she was very much alive.

Martha Lawler spent the last 10 months of her life in limbo, trying to keep her Social Security and Medicare benefits coming after she was reported dead on April 13, 1998, the same day she fired Odyssey HealthCare as her hospice provider.

An 83-year-old widow who suffered from emphysema, Mrs. Lawler died on Feb. 19 of this year _ but not before she complained to the office of U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.

Her story was reported locally, and nationally by The Associated Press.

In a report released by Lugar on Thursday, the Office of Financial Management of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that Odyssey did falsely report Mrs. Lawler’s death, but said this was merely ``a clerical data entry error.″

The agency said it could not substantiate charges that Odyssey’s representative was verbally abusive.

Mrs. Lawler had been in and out of hospitals since 1992, when she was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Last year, her doctor told the family she should be kept at home and made comfortable. She recommended that Odyssey be engaged to manage her care.

Odyssey case manager Debi Vaughn met with Mrs. Lawler on two occasions. According to Mrs. Lawler’s daughter, Jane Joyal, the case manager told Mrs. Lawler that she would have to change her oxygen supplier and get a new hospital bed.

Mrs. Lawler said she did not want to do it, and did not want Odyssey’s care. According to Mrs. Joyal, Ms. Vaughn begged the family to reconsider, and finally, when she was asked to leave, she said, ``You know, Mrs. Lawler, you will be sorry. ... You do need our services.″

The Office of Financial Management investigators ``were unable to substantiate the allegation of verbal abuse,″ wrote Penny Thompson, director of the office’s Program Integrity Group.

``These results do not mean that the allegation made by Ms. Lawler was untrue. As you can imagine, determining what transpired in a conversation between two individuals in a private home is difficult.″

But an examination of Ms. Vaughn’s file turned up no complaints and several letters of gratitude from families. In telephone interviews, one patient and four families had only compliments for Ms. Vaughn’s work.

As for the data entry mistake, the agency said Odyssey had changed its computer process to ensure that the error would not be made again.

The company did charge the federal government $695.80 for Mrs. Lawler’s care, though investigators found no proof that she had signed an Election of Hospice Services form.

The company has reimbursed that amount to the government. Investigators said they examined the files for 15 other Odyssey patients, and the proper paperwork had been done in each case.

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