You Paid For It: Pinellas County pays thousands in ambulance kickback settlement

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PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Federal allegations of illegal ambulance kickbacks involving Pinellas County government have now resulted in a $92,600 settlement that You Paid For.

That settlement triggered by a federal whistleblower complaint requires the payment of funds by Pinellas County to the whistleblower and his lawyers, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Florida Attorney General.

Pinellas County government leaders have essentially agreed to pay thousands without admitting they did anything wrong. The county is also required under the settlement to cooperate fully with federal investigators as federal prosecutors in Texas continue to look into a massive kickbacks game allegedly undertaken by Paramedics Plus LLC, The private company that operates the Pinellas County’s ambulance system under the county-owned brand name of Sunstar. The county’s contract with Paramedics Plus now amounts to about $50 million a year.

The ambulance kickback scandal originated in a sealed whistleblower lawsuit filed in Texas against Paramedics Plus back in 2014  by a former high-ranking executive of that company. The complaint remained a secret until it was unsealed by a federal judge two months ago. That’s when federal prosecutors in Texas jumped in with their own allegations of systematic corruption based on evidence developed out of the whistleblower complaint.

The Paramedics Plus whistleblower alleged that Paramedics Plus conspired with government emergency management agencies in Pinellas County, Oklahoma, and Texas to defraud Medicaid and Medicare out of millions of dollars in overcharges for ambulance services that were then kicked back to local governments at the expense of federal taxpayers.

Most of that alleged wrongdoing happened in Oklahoma where federal prosecutors claim that millions of dollars enriched not only local governments that oversee ambulance services, but also high-ranking employees of Paramedics Plus through a long-running scheme of kickbacks, bribery and political payoffs.

Pinellas County says that ambulance overcharges here amounted to about $35,000 and were never intended as kickbacks. That practice changed in 2015 when the county amended its contract with Paramedics Plus and removed the “profit cap” provision which federal prosecutors claim enabled illegal kickbacks.

The Pinellas County settlement resulted from secret talks with federal prosecutors and whistleblower lawyers that we first revealed last month. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office was also involved in the secret negotiations.

As part of the agreement, Pinellas County agrees to fully cooperate with the ongoing federal investigation and hand over any related internal documents related to its own investigation.

Pinellas County could still be subject to criminal prosecution under the terms of the settlement signed March 7 by Pinellas County Commission Vice Chairman Ken Welch.

No one in Pinellas County government who has been involved in ambulance services oversight or the settlement was available for comment today.

The top manager in Pinellas County for Paramedics Plus, Mark Postma, says a statement from his company will be forthcoming later today but insists that Paramedics Plus has done nothing wrong or illegal.

8 On Your Side first uncovered the kickback scandal back in February, and we will have more on the latest developments tonight at 6 p.m. in our “You Paid For It” report.

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