A federal jury in Tacoma awards former Harrison Medical Center billing supervisor nearly $1.4 million for retaliation and wrongful firing in a Medicare fraud investigation

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A federal jury in Tacoma has awarded almost $1.4 million to the former billing manager at Harrison Medical Center, finding that the woman was fired in retaliation after reporting billing irregularities.

The eight-member jury heard three days of testimony in U.S. District Court before returning the verdict in favor of Lori Cook, an experienced billing supervisor who was hired as billing manager for Harrison Home Care, a subsidiary of the medical center, which is headquartered in Bremerton and supports clinics on the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas.

Harrison is a subsidiary of CHI Franciscan Health, said spokesman Scott Thompson.

Cook took over a large backlog of Medicare billing when she took the job in 2011 — after 37 years of experience at other hospitals — and during her efforts to pare it down discovered “irregularities in Harrison’s billing which could have Medicare fraud implications,” according to court documents.

Cook undertook an investigation and told her supervisor, Dianne Wasson, that Harrison had for years apparently been running Medicare revenue-reporting software daily, when software instructions said it should be run only once a month.

She had continued that practice when she was hired in 2011 until finding out that it was resulting in a potential “systematic upcharging” of Medicare revenue, according to the lawsuit.

Cook claimed that, after reporting the discovery, she was blamed for the problem, placed on leave, told she may have committed Medicare fraud, and was fired. Cook responded with a whistle-blower complaint.

Harrison argued that her lawsuit should be dismissed because the company never submitted any false Medicare claims to the government for payment.

However, the jury found that Cook’s actions investigating and reporting the problem were protected under the False Claims Act, and that the company knew her actions were protected but retaliated anyway. It awarded her $939,192 in lost future wages, and $222,547 each for claims of emotional damages and lost past wages.

Thompson, the spokesman for Harrison, said the company is “disappointed in the jury’s verdict” and is weighing options, including asking the judge to enter a verdict in Harrison’s favor notwithstanding the jury’s findings.

Otherwise, he said, the company had no comment.

Cook’s, attorney, Robert Fulton of Seattle, said the verdict “was a great relief for my client.” Fulton, who will ask the court for attorney’s fees in addition to the verdict, declined further comment pending Harrison’s anticipated motion for reconsideration.