Shuttered Hospice Still Owes Thousands For Unpaid Work, Benefits
BY DANIEL GAITAN | firstname.lastname@example.org
CHICAGO – Passages Hospice didn’t just harm vulnerable patients and their families.
The company also ripped off front-line employees, those responsible for caring for the dying.
Passages, which closed in 2014 as its years-long hospice scheme came to light, devastated its dedicated certified nursing assistants. Passages owner and founder, Seth Gillman, is now in federal prison for masterminding the $20 million fraud that exploited some of Illinois’ most defenseless residents.
Many of those who provided Passages’ patient care still haven’t recovered – financially or emotionally.
“It makes me sick, and I’m on anxiety medicine now because of it,” a fired CNA named Taylor told Life Matters Media. Taylor requested that her last name be withheld because she still works in hospice care. Hers is a career choice prompted by a personal conviction that no one should die alone.
“I went into a depression because I thought I let my patients down,” the 38-year-old from the Carbondale area said. “I’m paranoid about doing anything new, because I’m scared that it’s going to happen again.”
Taylor worked for three years at the for-profit company, up until its unexpected closing. She spent most of her time in southern Illinois, driving from nursing home to nursing home to attend to the needs of her dying patients.
Passages didn’t have its own inpatient facility. Instead, the hospice deployed staff to visit patients in nursing homes and private residences statewide.
Taylor’s termination shocked her.
“I was fired in an email the day that they closed,” she said. “At 11:18 at night, I got the email.”
Taylor said Passages still owes her more than $10,000 for two paychecks, along with hundreds of dollars for mileage and vehicle-related expenses and repairs. Add to that her unpaid vacation time and 401K investments that vanished. Funds were taken out of Taylor’s checks to cover her health insurance, but her premiums were not paid in the hospice’s final months.
“They literally ripped us of everything,” Taylor said. “Our pride, some of us lost our homes. One of the guys, his son couldn’t even go to college because of all this.”
She doesn’t believe she will ever see the money. In the days after she was fired, a deeply-held sense of duty to the dying prompted Taylor and a handful of other providers to continue to visit their patients.
“These patients were our family,” she said. “They were heartbroken.”
Passages Founder In Prison
In early 2017, Gillman was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison.
Gillman and some key staffers offered bonuses to Passages’ higher-level employees who participated in a multi-year effort to fraudulently bill Medicare for hospice services.
Passages plotted with area nursing homes to designate some patients with death – including many who were not terminally ill.
This higher level care increased Passages’ Medicare reimbursement. Passages billed Medicare more than $90 million from 2008-2012. About $20 million was for general inpatient care.
Meanwhile, Gillman took home millions and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle that included luxury sports cars and “ingesting cocaine on a daily basis,” according to court testimony.
In the days after Gillman was charged in January 2014, Passages vowed to remain open. A spokesperson told LMM that “nothing has been interrupted.”
Taylor wonders now how anyone could be so “cold and heartless” to do such a thing not only to vulnerable patients and families, but to employees as well.
“We wore that blue in pride, and we were proud of our care,” she said. “It wasn’t the CNAs or the chaplains, the social workers, the case managers or the RNs. We didn’t know.”
Hospice is designed to provide comfort, not cure, to terminally ill patients in their last months or days of life. According to Taylor, most of the corruption festered in northern Illinois. It was hidden from the rank and file.
“I’m paranoid about doing anything new, because I’m scared that it’s going to happen again.”
‘Too Good To Be True’
Taylor’s experience was echoed by other front-line employees, including fired CNA Misty Johnson. She suffered a similar fate.
Johnson worked at Passages from 2011 until its shutdown. She describes the latter part of her tenure as the worst days of her life.
The 39-year-old worked in nursing homes throughout western Illinois- in towns like Jacksonville, Macomb, Pittsfield and Havana. She showered and fed patients, reporting any changes or health concerns to the Passages office.
“I gave them the extra tender loving care that they needed,” Johnson said. “I loved my job.”
However, as she explained, the job was “too good to be true.”
That became evident on Valentine’s Day, 2014.
That morning she drove through a blizzard to a nursing home in Havana. While sitting in her vehicle outside the facility, a colleague broke the news to her over the phone. The closure was confirmed by the nursing home; employees told Johnson that all hospice patients were being transferred to the care of a different company.
“I drove to work thinking I’m going to work, and then ‘by the way, you don’t have a job anymore,’” Johnson recalled.
Johnson said Passages owes her $4,500 for work in February, mileage reimbursement and vacation days.
“The government will get paid before I do,” Johnson said dryly.
That’s also unlikely, as Gillman spent most of the funds on himself.
At Gillman’s, U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin told authorities that they have little chance of collecting anything. Gillman is broke.
“In my mind, it’s fool’s gold,” Durkin said.
“If you knew anything about what was going on, you were immediately fired. They would come up with some excuse to fire you.”
Hostile Work Environment
Johnson met Gillman only once. Their encounter took place soon after she started, at a “little shindig” in Peoria.
“He seemed a little shady, but to me, he was more flamboyant than anything,”
Johnson said. “Most employers will chit chat with their employees. He was really brief.”
Johnson is still angry that Gillman didn’t receive a harsher prison sentence, because he made the whole hospice industry seem corrupt.
Like Taylor, Johnson points to the Chicago area as the center of most of the criminal activity.
Johnson has hard feelings for former nursing director director Carmen Velez, who pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the federal government. She remembers Velez as someone who belittled employees daily.
Some staffers didn’t even last a month. Johnson said some were fired because they had caught on to what the company was doing.
“If you knew anything about what was going on, you were immediately fired. They would come up with some excuse to fire you,” she said.
At his sentencing, Gillman told the court he was “ashamed of what I did, and I am sorry for it and have no excuse,” according to The Chicago Tribune.