The headlines were shocking.

A hospital that had been closed more than a year received more than $120,000 in federal funds as part of the COVID-19 relief measures for medical providers. 

The money, administered by the U.S. Health and Human Services agency, was intended to offset health care expenses or lost revenue resulting from the pandemic. The agency distributed $50 billion to Medicare facilities and providers based on their net patient revenue. Another $50 billion was earmarked for providers in areas hit hard by the virus, rural providers, or providers serving low-income or uninsured patients. 

The goal was to get the money out to providers quickly. That was important to making sure vital services continued even as efforts to slow the spread of the virus required closing some health care offices, like dentists, and halted elective procedures at hospitals and surgical centers. So the federal agency used 2019 Medicare reimbursement information to distribute about $30 million to bank accounts of providers using information on file.

Jamestown Regional Medical Center in neighboring Fentress County closed in June 2019, leaving residents of that community with no option but to travel more than 30 miles to the nearest hospital. 

The operation was plagued by missed payments to suppliers, missed paychecks to workers, and missed utility bills that resulted in their power being turned off at one point. 

Rennova, the parent company, also owns hospitals in Oneida and Jellico, TN, serving patients in rural areas that depend on their services. The company owes a hefty sum in back taxes, more than $4 million, according to media reports. Yet they reaped more than $7 million in total relief payments from COVID-19 programs.

The payment to Jamestown Regional Medical Center points to a serious problem in oversight of the money appropriated to help providers who are actually providing services. 

HHS said the payment occurred because they only had the reimbursement information. There was nothing flagged in their systems that said, “This hospital is closed. It is not eligible for any Medicare reimbursements.”

If it happened once, you can bet it happened more than that. It could take years to track down all the payments. And then, if the provider is closed and no longer getting reimbursements from Medicare, how do they intend to force repayment? Will there be prosecution of individuals who confirmed receipt of the payment and agreed to the terms and conditions? 

As Congress considers new programs in the wake of the economic and health crisis, we hope they also look at transparency and accountability measures so we can be sure these tax dollars are going for their intended purpose.