The University of Missouri's medical school dean is stepping down amid a federal investigation into potential Medicare billing fraud by two radiology professors.
The university health system announced Friday that Dr. Robert Churchill, a 25-year university employee and former radiology department chairman, will retire in October. The university also fired the two radiologists at the center of the federal probe.
The moves come as the U.S. attorney's office in Kansas City continues a seven-month investigation the school said involves Medicare violations by Dr. Kenneth Rall and Dr. Michael Richards. Rall stepped down as radiology department chairman in December, but he remained a professor.
Department of Justice spokesman Don Ledford said the agency doesn't discuss pending investigations, or even acknowledge such inquiries. An internal investigation by the school found that the two doctors falsely said they reviewed X-rays but instead relied solely on resident physicians, a violation of Medicare and hospital rules.
"This is a difficult day for the University of Missouri Health system and for me personally," said Dr. Hal Williamson Jr., the system's vice chancellor. "We were shocked and disappointed to learn about this, because any kind of fraud is inconsistent with our values, our mission and our commitment to patient care."
Williamson emphasized that Churchill, who was hired as dean in October 2009 at a base salary of $480,000, was not involved in wrongdoing but will resign because he "does not want to allow distractions."
Churchill and Rall did not immediately respond to telephone messages seeking comment, and an attorney for Richards said she had not yet seen the university's statement.
The alleged misconduct did not adversely affect patient care nor were "any unnecessary tests ordered," Williamson said. The health system plans a review of its radiology operations by independent experts "with a goal of making this impossible to happen again," he said.
School officials have yet to determine how much Medicare money was involved or how long the fraud lasted, Williamson added.
The Columbia Daily Tribune reported in January that the university health system provided radiology services to Women's and Children's Hospital patients without physicians ordering those services, according to a 2010 internal university audit.
The newspaper also reported that Rall left Columbia 25 years earlier after he was charged in 1986 with embezzling money from business partners in a check-kiting scheme. He was convicted of misdemeanor stealing but had faced felony charges for a purported Medicaid fraud scheme involving patients. The case fell apart after an assistant county prosecutor said he lost evidence days before trial, the newspaper reported.
Rall was hired back at the medical school in 1998 by Churchill, who was serving the first of two stints as interim dean. By 2011, Rall had been named Boone County Medical Society Doctor of the Year in 2011.
Churchill subsequently defended hiring his colleague, explaining that "Dr. Rall paid his debt for this charge more than 20 years ago" and was "highly respected by his peers."
Earlier Friday, the university system's Board of Curators met in a hastily scheduled closed meeting under a legal exemption that allows such secret sessions to discuss certain business contracts, personnel decisions or privileged conversations with university lawyers.
And Columbia campus chancellor Brady Deaton scrapped his plans to attend the annual Southeastern Conference spring meetings in Destin, Fla. _ the school's first since its decision last year to leave the Big 12 Conference _ to deal with an unspecified but urgent matter back home.
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