Correction to This Article
A Jan. 6 article incorrectly described the sponsorship of an annual Florida conference attended by private Medicare contractors and Medicare officials. The meeting is sponsored by the contractors themselves, not their trade group.

Medicare Officials' Attendance at Lavish Contractor Meetings Probed

By Gilbert M. Gaul
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 6, 2006

Medicare officials responsible for overseeing $300 million awarded annually to private contractors regularly attended conferences sponsored by the groups at lavish beach and mountain resorts, according to a Senate panel reviewing the contractors.

In a letter sent Wednesday to the head of the agency that runs Medicare, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee wrote that one such Florida conference "appeared to be more of a party than a diligent working meeting."

Photos of the conference site at the Don CeSar Beach Resort near St. Petersburg "suggest a cruise ship atmosphere," wrote Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). "The pictures depict a luxurious resort, lavish dinners, dessert buffets, and Hawaiian dance parties -- all in a tropical beach locale."

Grassley asked Medicare Administrator Mark B. McClellan to provide a detailed accounting of travel and expenditures for employees who have attended conferences since 2003, including who covered the costs. The request singles out two physicians -- Steven Jencks and William Rollow -- who oversee the contractors, known as Quality Improvement Organizations.

Barry M. Straube, acting chief medical officer for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which administers the huge government insurance program, said the agency is "taking the concerns raised very seriously" and will respond promptly.

The Finance Committee began investigating the contractors last summer after The Washington Post reported that the groups rarely looked into patient complaints and that some executives received lavish pay and perks.

Medicare pays 53 state-based QIOs to investigate complaints about poor quality and to improve care provided by doctors, hospitals and nursing homes. The groups receive little scrutiny and are prohibited by statute from sharing most of their findings with patients. Medicare audits the performance of the QIOs but has declined to make that information public.

The conferences in question were sponsored by the American Health Quality Association, a QIO trade group. David G. Schulke, the association's chief executive, said the Florida meeting consisted of substantive sessions. "It is inappropriate to draw conclusions and insinuate impropriety based purely on the meeting location or pictures of a networking reception held after meeting hours," he said.

A review of the organization's Web site shows that the trade group sponsors a range of conferences and meetings annually, often at popular and expensive resorts. According to agendas for those sessions, as well as interviews with current and former QIO executives, Medicare officials regularly attend the gatherings.

Sarah A. Grimm, a former top executive for the Missouri QIO, wrote in an e-mail to The Post that there appeared to be "a great deal of competition" within Medicare's regional offices to attend the Florida conference. Grimm said she stopped going to the sessions because she found many "lacking in substance" or too expensive.

According to the trade group's Web site, a leadership retreat last July was held at the 1,200-acre Silverado Country Club and Resort in Napa, Calif., which received a four-diamond rating from AAA. The resort features two 18-hole golf courses, a spa and the largest tennis complex in Northern California. A single room costs $250 per night.

Other conferences have been held at the Broadmoor Hotel and Resort in Colorado Springs and at the 400-acre Ocean Edge Resort and Golf Club on Cape Cod. The latter featured a murder-mystery dinner and championship golf, according to the Web site.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company