When Dr. Howard Oliver isn’t posing as an expert on the death of actress Natalie Wood, the Southern California forensic pathologist is signing off on drug rehabilitation treatment for hundreds of patients, sight unseen, at publicly-funded clinics under investigation for fraud.
A yearlong probe by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and CNN earlier identified what they described as widespread Medi-Cal fraud among clinics providing rehab services. Their report zeroed in on 56 clinics that may have ripped off the state’s version of Medicaid for $94 million by allegedly rounding up clients from foster care, board-and-care homes and off the street who don’t have addictions or need rehabilitation and submitting paperwork based on their participation in the program.
Dr. Oliver approved treatment at 19 clinics, 16 of which were suspended by the state, according to a follow-up story by Will Evans and Christina Jewett at CIR last week. The state’s Department of Justice is currently investigating those cases.
By CIR’s count, the doctor has approved treatment for more than 1,550 patients while acting as medical director under private contract. As medical director, he is frequently the only medical attention his patients see and, for the most part, they don’t see him. He pops into the office, signs a stack of forms and hits the road.
Oliver acknowledged he doesn’t see most patients, and justified it by explaining to reporters that even “a brick can undergo counseling.” He also admitted that it is possible he was signing off on patients who don’t actually exist, allowing the clinic to collect its money from the government, but justified that too. “I have certain duties. But my duty is not the policeman,” he said.
Oliver has been on the state’s radar since at least 2007, when Rebecca Lira, deputy director in the Licensing and Certification Division of the Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs (ADP), wrote a letter to the Medical Board of California alerting them to his activities. She noted that he was medical director for 69 certified rehab programs providing services to 2,256 patients, and was listed as a prospective medical director at 29 others that were pending.
“This raises a serious concern that patients are not being appropriately assessed based upon the individual need of each patient and that Dr. Oliver is compromising the quality of care for these patients,” Lira wrote. ADP duties were transferred to the Department of Health Care Services in July of this year.
In addition to acting as a roving medical director, Oliver operates an occupational medicine clinic in the high desert town of Apple Valley. He also performs the occasional autopsy at “1-800-Autopsy, Inc.,” whose motto is, “The Deceased Must be Protected and Given a Voice.”