09:01 PM PDT on Friday, November 5, 2010

By LORA HINES and IMRAN GHOR
The Press-Enterprise

Arrowhead Regional Medical Center for at least two years waived or reduced copayments and deductibles for hospital and San Bernardino County employees, hospital-affiliated doctors and others.

The discounts were allowed under a policy dated May 23, 2008, and signed by hospital Chief Financial Officer Frank Arambula. San Bernardino County Administrative Officer Greg Devereaux ended the practice in April after he discovered it never received required approval from the county Board of Supervisors.

County spokesman David Wert said Friday that no one knows when the policy started. Hospital officials have not kept track of how many waivers were granted or how much money went uncollected, he said.

Devereaux said the hospital could have waived copayments for all county employees, including members of the Board of Supervisors. It’s unclear whether any of the supervisors used the policy.

Arrowhead Regional is the county-operated hospital in Colton. The 456-bed hospital has about 1,000 employees and an estimated annual budget of $380 million.

On Thursday, federal and San Bernardino County investigators served a search warrant at the hospital and seized unspecified documents, officials at the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office said.

Supervisor Neil Derry said he contacted authorities about eight months ago after he received credible information about alleged “improprieties” regarding free services provided at the hospital. He would not identify who allegedly received free services or what services were provided.

On Friday, hospital spokesman Jorge Valencia didn’t answer questions about whether appointed or elected county officials or members of their staffs received free medical care or treatment.

“The director of (the hospital) has urged hospital staff to remain focused on patient care,” Valencia said in a written statement. “The District Attorney’s Office and the county (Thursday) both stated that the investigation does not involve the quality of patient care or treatment, and the hospital has no reason to believe this matter will affect patient attitudes toward (the hospital).”

Agencies involved in Thursday’s search repeatedly have declined to provide details about the investigation or what could happen next. Agents from the FBI and investigators from the county district attorney’s office, identified as members of the San Bernardino County Joint Corruption Task Force, removed boxes of documents.

Request said from DA

Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, said authorities executed a warrant signed by a state court judge at the request of the San Bernardino County district attorney, to whom he referred questions.

County district attorney spokeswoman Susan Mickey on Friday would not provide more information about the task force, its mission or when it was formed.

The task force includes investigators from the district attorney’s public integrity unit, which has led investigations into former county Assessor Bill Postmus and members of his staff over the past three years. Those investigations have expanded to include a November 2006 lawsuit settlement in which the county paid a Rancho Cucamonga developer $102 million and county efforts to select a developer for 1,200 acres of surplus flood control land.

Devereaux, who saw the hospital search warrant, said the county is still in the dark about what might be the focus of the investigation.

“From the information we have, there is no clear or common thread in terms of what they asked for,” he said.

PAYMENT POLICY

Arrowhead’s revoked copayment and deductible policy also included immediate family members of the hospital and county employees and affiliated doctors. Waiver approvals depended on how much insurance reimbursed the hospital.

Administrators also could grant exceptions, such as financial hardships, according to the policy. The policy forbade the hospital from misrepresenting to insurers whether it billed or collected copayments.

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