Retreat probe wrapping up

State AG’s lengthy investigation hinges on resolution of one remaining issue

BRATTLEBORO — A long-running state investigation of the Brattleboro Retreat may soon be finished.

Sixteen months after the Vermont attorney general's probe first made headlines, an official said the inquiry - which came on the heels of a former staffer's Medicaid fraud allegations - is “still active,” but is mostly complete.

“A large majority of that has been concluded, and it's only a single issue that's still under investigation,” said Jason Turner, an assistant attorney general and director of the office's Medicaid Fraud and Residential Abuse Unit.

Turner wouldn't say what issue remains unresolved. But he said he expects the investigation to continue even though Attorney General William Sorrell has left office.

TJ Donovan, the former Chittenden County state's attorney who is starting work as the state's new attorney general, said he couldn't comment specifically on the Retreat issue.

“I expect to be briefed on all matters including investigations, and I'll keep an open mind on everything,” Donovan said in a brief interview just before he took office on Jan. 5.

Sorrell in August 2015 said his office's investigation of the Retreat was “not narrow in scope,” but the exact nature of the probe has remained unclear.

Documents have shown that the state auditor's office requested the attorney general's intervention after reviewing allegations made by Thomas Joseph, a former Retreat employee.

Joseph has alleged millions of dollars in malfeasance at the psychiatric hospital, claiming that the Retreat overcharged patients and retained government money to which it wasn't entitled.

The federal government declined to pursue an investigation, and a federal judge in 2014 threw out a lawsuit filed by Joseph. But a senior state auditor last year wrote that “the matter merits investigation” after finding what he characterized as examples of possibly questionable billing and financial pressures at the Retreat.

That apparently was the end of the auditor's role in the matter.

“We have had no direct involvement in the [attorney general's] investigation beyond the initial evaluation of some of Mr. Joseph's data by a member of my staff,” state Auditor Doug Hoffer said. “Since that time, I have not volunteered my/our services, nor were we asked.”

Turner, while indicating that the investigation is winding down, said he couldn't divulge any specific findings. He also couldn't speculate on when his office will wrap up its work.

“I would say it's our goal to conclude the investigation as soon and as efficiently as possible,” Turner said.

The ongoing investigation has continued to cast a shadow over the Retreat, which seems to have overcome many of its past regulatory troubles.

In late 2015, the federal government released the hospital from a “systems improvement agreement” and restored the facility's “deemed status.” That meant that the Retreat no longer was under direct scrutiny from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for quality and performance issues.

The Retreat also hired a new top administrator in early 2016. Shortly after starting work in Brattleboro, President and Chief Executive Officer Louis Josephson praised Retreat staffers and government regulators for addressing operational issues at the hospital.

“I'm committed to never ever being in that situation again, and I don't see why we should be,” Josephson said in a February interview.

Josephson since has been active in calling for reform and greater investment in the mental health and substance abuse treatment system.

Retreat administrators have said little about the attorney general's probe. A spokesman could say only that “we have been fully cooperating with state officials on this matter but are unable to comment further at this time.”

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