Jury acquits men of all counts in Medicaid fraud case

MM Curator summary

[MM Curator Summary]: A WY behavioral health provider team has been acquitted, but the damage to their business has been done.


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POWELL — Over the span of eight days in a Cheyenne courtroom, federal prosecutors laid out a case that had been a decade in the making, arguing that a Powell treatment center had defrauded Medicaid out of millions of dollars.

After 5 1/2 hours of deliberations, however, a jury rejected the allegations.

The 12-member panel voted unanimously on Thursday to acquit former Northwest Wyoming Treatment Center employees Matthew “Ty” Barrus, Greg Bennett and Devin Dutson, finding them not guilty of all charges brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The men didn’t present a formal defense, as their attorneys felt it wasn’t necessary, but sought to show that Northwest Wyoming Treatment Center provided good care and believed it was in compliance with Medicaid rules.

Barrus, who served as the center’s executive director, said the verdicts brought relief that a 6 1/2- year “nightmare” might have come to an end. He said he was also thankful for the ability to defend himself within a fair judicial system, his defense attorneys and the support of his family and friends, among other things. But Barrus said it was not a victory.

For one thing, he noted that Northwest Wyoming Treatment Center — which was shut down and had all of its assets seized by the federal government years ago — no longer exists.

“We really liked our program and felt that we were successful,” he said, “And it’s been tough.”

Until state and federal investigators came knocking on the center’s door in December 2015, Barrus said they “never thought that we were even close to doing anything wrong.”

Northwest Wyoming Treatment Center provided substance abuse treatment from 2009 to 2016, serving youth between the ages of 12 and 17 who were struggling with addictions to controlled substances.

At its peak, the center had roughly 20 employees, with Barrus as executive director, Bennett as clinical director and Dutson as a therapist.

Most of the center’s clients came from court-ordered placements — many from the Wind River Indian Reservation — and spent months in the program. They were, according to the defendants’ attorneys, “some of the most psychologically damaged, and hard to reach, children in the State of Wyoming.”

Barrus said the clients were addicts dealing with mental issues, trauma, abuse, generational addiction, homelessness and/or risky behavior, and they were there to receive 24/7 residential treatment.

“It was hard work dealing with some of the kids,” he said, noting the circumstances they came from.

But Barrus also called it a privilege, saying they were generally good kids dealing with addictions.

When the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities surveyed the center in December 2015, it noted “strengths in many areas” and re-certified the facility for the three-year maximum.

“The staff at NWTC provides the consistent caring and nurturing that has often been missing in the lives of the clients served,” surveyor David Blondeau wrote in part, adding that the staff were “highly credentialed and utilize state-of-the-art interventions.”

However, roughly a week later, a team of investigators from the Wyoming Department of Health’s Medicaid Program Integrity and law enforcement officers came to the center’s door, as part of an investigation of the organization’s billing practices.

Most of the clients at the nonprofit center were Wyoming Medicaid beneficiaries. Over a period of six years, NWTC billed Medicaid more than $8.5 million for the careit provided to more than 100 clientsand authorities came to believe that much of the billing was excessive and inappropriate, including when compared to other facilities.

In January 2016, Program Integrity demanded that the center repay nearly $1.35 million, which effectively shut the operation down.

Then in March 2019, the U.S. Attorney’s Office moved to seize all of the center’s property — including three buildings, a vacant lot and cash — asserting that the assets represented the proceeds of false and fraudulent bills submitted to Medicaid; the center’s board agreed to forfeit the property. Then in September 2019, federal prosecutors indicted Barrus, Bennett and Dutson on a combined total of 14 felony charges.

A grand jury generally alleged that the men had submitted claims for activities that didn’t qualify as therapeutically necessary substance abuse treatment, for activities not covered by Medicaid and for services the center or their staffers weren’t authorized or licensed to provide.

The indictment also alleged the center had “up-coded” some claims — for instance, by billing what the government saw as group recreational activities at the higher rate for individual treatment. A federal prosecutor asserted earlier this year that NWTC had billed “all day every day for activities that are not covered by Medicaid (including sleeping, eating, playing video games, weightlifting and traveling the state for recreational activities) as if those activities were covered substance abuse treatment.”


Clipped from: https://www.thesheridanpress.com/news/regional-news/jury-acquits-men-of-all-counts-in-medicaid-fraud-case/article_6b5677c4-a488-11ec-932d-5f3d36b8b1ab.html