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Medicare Official Is Placed on Leave

Md. Board Alleges Lies About Courses

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 9, 2005; Page A02

A Maryland physician accused of falsifying documents showing that he had fulfilled requirements for continuing medical education has been placed on administrative leave from his high-ranking post in the federal Medicare program.

Sean R. Tunis, who also works as a part-time emergency room doctor at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, has been accused by the state Board of Physicians of unprofessional conduct and making false statements about his credentials.

Sean Tunis is on leave from his job with the federal Medicare program. (Pbs "religion & Ethics Newsweekly")

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Tunis, 47, declined interview requests yesterday.

On Thursday, he was placed on leave with pay from his job as Medicare's chief medical officer and director of the Office of Clinical Standards and Quality, said Gary Karr, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

In those posts, Tunis plays a major role in determining which treatments and medical devices will be covered by the $394 billion health program for the elderly and the disabled. Most recently, Tunis was directly involved in agency decisions to cover certain brain scans to diagnose Alzheimer's and surgically implanted defibrillators for patients with weakened hearts. The battery-operated defibrillators and surgery to implant them could cost Medicare $3 billion a year.

Tunis, whose government salary is between $107,000 and $162,000, reports directly to CMS Administrator Mark B. McClellan, who had no comment.

A source with knowledge of the case said investigators in the inspector general's office at the Department of Health and Human Services have begun a preliminary inquiry, although an office spokeswoman said she could not confirm that.

Mercy Medical Center spokesman Dan Collins said officials there are aware of the charges but will not comment or take any action until final resolution of the case.

"My understanding of the situation regarding Dr. Tunis is not anything impacting his quality of care," Collins said.

In a 15-page "charging document," the Maryland board said Tunis falsely claimed to have completed 50 credit hours of continuing medical education. Maryland physicians must meet the requirement every two years for license renewal. To fulfill the requirement, doctors often attend conferences, take courses online, review academic journals or participate in hospital educational sessions called "grand rounds."

In several instances, Tunis listed medical conferences he claimed to have attended in his licensing renewal applications. But board investigators found that either the conference did not take place, Tunis was not registered or he had incorrect information about the event, such as the wrong city.

Tunis submitted false claims on three license renewal forms to Mercy, according to the charges, and twice refused to submit original documents to the board despite subpoenas for the records. The charges were first reported in the Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper.

Tunis, who began working for the federal agency in 2000, acknowledged in a letter to the Maryland board that he had altered two documents because he was under pressure to meet a deadline and could not immediately locate the actual records.

"I was fully confident that I was reconstructing records" for education credits "I had legitimately obtained," he wrote. In the letter, he accused a "disgruntled CMS subordinate" of making false accusations against him.

The original complaint was filed anonymously in July 2002. State investigators did not name the person, who later identified himself to the board.

Karen Wulff, a policy analyst for the board, said a few hundred physicians face charges of unprofessional conduct each year, but charges of false representation on a license renewal or filing false reports are rare.

A graduate of Stanford University School of Medicine, Tunis faces sanctions ranging from a fine or suspension to revocation of his license. A closed administrative hearing has been scheduled for July, a spokeswoman for the state board said.

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