Verdict expected in dispute over rural health clinic funding

Friday, September 24th 2004, 5:48 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A federal jury could decide whether the Oklahoma Health Care Authority denied six rural health clinics federal dollars as a way to punish the clinics that became politically active.

The jury's decision, which is expected Friday, could end a four-year legal battle.

The clinics claim the authority has shorted them millions of dollars on Medicaid reimbursement after they formed a lobbying group and publicly criticized the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.

If a verdict is reached, it would mark the second time in less than two years that a jury has decided the Oklahoma City federal court case.

In April 2003, a jury awarded $34.4 million to the clinics. Four months later, U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton ruled the evidence didn't support the verdict and overturned what is believed to have been the largest civil award in the federal Western District of Oklahoma.

The retrial began Sept. 13, again in front of Heaton.

This time, the attorneys for the mental health clinics asked for more than $14.5 million, but told the eight-member civil jury that the case was about much more than money.

``You eight folks decide the course for things in Oklahoma in the future,'' attorney Steven E. Holden argued. ``Either the government runs us, or we run the government.''

The six clinics formed part of the Oklahoma Private Mental Health Provider Association in the late 1990s as a lobbying effort and questioned the Health Care Authority.

Plaintiffs' attorneys say the authority cut the reimbursement rate for outpatient clinics by more than half as a result of the criticism.

The authority also denied the clinics access to public meetings and public records, the attorneys added.

The clinics have sued OHCA's chief operating officer Mike Fogarty; the agency's director of behavioral services, Terrie Fritz; and Dana Brown, a former agency lobbyist.

Attorneys for the agency officials say the cuts were simply a way to deal with budget cuts. Each defense attorney also reminded the jury that the clinics must show the individual defendants tried to suppress their First Amendment rights.

``They're not suing the government,'' Lester said. ``They're suing individuals.''

Any judgment against the defendants would be paid by that person in combination with funds from a private insurance company that provides liability coverage for state agencies, Health Care Authority Spokesman Nico Gomez said.