In early October, an executive at one of the nation’s largest physician-practice management firms handed her bosses the equivalent of a live grenade — a 20-page report that blew up the company and shook the world of managed care for poor patients across California.
For years, she wrote, SynerMed, a behind-the-scenes administrator of medical groups and managed-care contracts, had improperly denied care to thousands of patients — most of them on Medicaid — and falsified documents to hide it.
The violations were “widespread, systemic in nature,” according to the confidential Oct. 5 report by the company’s senior director of compliance, Christine Babu. And they posed a “serious threat to members’ health and safety,” according to the report, which was obtained by Kaiser Health News.
Days later, someone sent the report — labeled as a “draft” — anonymously to California health officials. Within weeks, state regulators had launched an investigation, major health insurers swept in for surprise audits, the company’s chief executive announced the firm would close and doctors’ practices up and down the state braced for a tumultuous transition to new management.
Jennifer Kent, California’s health services and Medicaid director, said her agency received the whistleblower’s report Oct. 8 and, working with health plans, confirmed “widespread deficiencies” at SynerMed, which manages the care of at least 650,000 Medicaid recipients in the state.
“I think it’s pretty egregious actions on the part of that company,” Kent said in an interview this week.
In a Nov. 17 order issued to insurers, state Medicaid officials said “members are currently in imminent danger of not receiving medically necessary health care services” due to SynerMed’s conduct. The state ordered insurers to determine how many enrollees experienced delayed or unfulfilled services.
Consumer advocates expressed alarm at the whistleblower’s findings and questioned why these problems went undetected for so long. Some said it underscores a lack of accountability among companies involved in Medicaid managed care — which receive billions in taxpayer dollars and have expanded significantly under the Affordable Care Act.
Linda Nguy, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty in Sacramento, called the situation “outrageous.”
“It raises questions about oversight by the state and the health plans,” she said.