A year after private equity-backed Noble Health shuttered two rural Missouri hospitals, patients and former employees grapple with a broken local health system or missing out on millions in unpaid wages and benefits.
The hospitals in Audrain and Callaway counties remain closed as a slew of lawsuits and state and federal investigations grind forward.
In March, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey confirmed a civil investigation. He had previously told local talk radio that there was an "ongoing" investigation into "the hospital issue."
Bailey's comment came weeks after the U.S. Department of Labor's Employee Benefits Security Administration notified executives tied to Noble Health, a startup, that they had violated federal laws and asked them to pay $5.4 million to cover unpaid employee health insurance claims, according to a 13-page letter detailing "interim findings" that was obtained by KHN.
The January letter confirms KHN's previous reporting, which was informed by employees and patients who described missing paychecks; receiving unexpected, high-dollar medical bills; and going without care, including cancer treatment. According to the letter from federal investigators, the Noble hospitals and their corporate owners collected employee contributions for medical, dental, and vision insurance in 2021 and 2022 but then failed to fund the insurance plans.
The owners and executives were "aware of the harm to participants and, in some cases, were attempting to resolve individual participant complaints," the letter states, adding that "despite the volume and gravity of complaints and bills received," they failed to respond.
'Tomfoolery' and doing 'everybody dirty'
Marissa Hagedorn, who worked as a hospital laboratory technician, has spent much of the past year starting a new job, caring for her 2-year-old son who was born with spina bifida, and haggling over unpaid medical bills. She told KHN the family owes at least $8,000 for son Ryder's specialty care in St. Louis, with $6,000 of that in collections. As a Noble employee, Hagedorn said, she was told repeatedly that her employee health insurance would cover Ryder's care. It didn't.
Noble has "done everybody dirty," she said. "We just would like for some responsibility to be taken by this company that didn't feel the need to get their act together." Hagedorn's story of unpaid bills, which was first reported by the local newspaper, the Mexico Ledger, is common among former Noble employees a year after the hospitals closed.
A former employee of the Fulton hospital has filed a class-action lawsuit intended to represent hundreds of employees from both hospitals.
The Jan. 13 letter from federal officials called for responses by Jan. 27 from Noble corporate and hospital executives as well as Platinum Neighbors, which last April bought the hospitals and assumed all liabilities. The letter instructs executives to contact the agency "to discuss how you intend to correct these violations, fund participant claims, and achieve compliance."
Former employees say their claims have not yet been paid. A Labor Department spokesperson, Grant Vaught, said the agency could not comment on an ongoing investigation.
Separately, the Kansas Department of Labor is reviewing Noble and Platinum's failure to pay wages and severance to corporate employees. Agency spokesperson Becky Shaffer confirmed that hearings took place in early February on a half-dozen cases totaling more than $1 million in claims for unpaid wages and severance.
Dave Kitchens was among those who filed claims against Noble Health. Kitchens worked briefly as a contract employee and then was hired in October 2021 as a corporate controller, an accounting role in which he was responsible for financial reporting and data analytics. Kitchens provided an audio recording of his hearing to KHN and hopes to eventually get paid more than $90,000 in lost wages, benefits, and severance pay. During the hearing, Kitchens told the administrative judge: "I would just like to be paid what I'm owed."
Kitchens, who is also named as a fiduciary on the federal investigation, said he was not on Noble's executive team. When asked by Kansas Administrative Law Judge James Ward whether he expected Noble or the secondary buyer Platinum to pay his wages, Kitchens responded he had "no idea who was in charge."
"I believe there was some tomfoolery," Kitchens said.
A 'rabbit hole' of responsibility
Noble launched in December 2019 with executives who had never run a hospital, including Donald R. Peterson, a co-founder who prior to joining Noble had been accused of Medicare fraud. Peterson settled that case without admitting wrongdoing and in August 2019 agreed to be excluded for five years from Medicare, Medicaid, and all other taxpayer-funded federal health programs, according to the Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General.
By March 2022, the hospitals had closed and Noble offered explanations on social media, including "a technology issue" and a need to "restructure their operations" to keep the hospitals financially viable. In April, Texas-based Platinum Neighbors paid $2 for the properties and all liabilities, according to the stock purchase agreement.
Despite receiving approval for nearly $20 million in federal covid-19 relief money before it closed the hospitals -- funds whose use is still not fully accounted for -- Noble had stopped paying its bills, according to court records. Contractors, including nursing agencies, a lab that ran covid tests and landscapers, have filed lawsuits seeking millions.
In Audrain County, where community members still hope to reopen the hospital or build a new one, county leaders filed suit for the repayment of a $1.8 million loan they made to Noble. Former Missouri state senator Jay Wasson also filed suit in September, asking for repayment of a $500,000 loan.
Two Noble Health real estate entities filed bankruptcy petitions this year. One Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing names the Fulton hospital property in Callaway County as an asset and lists nearly $4.9 million in liabilities. A third bankruptcy filing by FMC Clinic includes Noble Health as a codebtor.
In the U.S. District Court of Kansas, Central Bank of the Midwest is suing Nueterra Capital over a $9.6 million loan Noble used to buy the Audrain hospital. The bank alleges Nueterra, a private equity and venture capital firm that in 2022 included Noble as part of its portfolio, signed off as the guarantor of the loan.
Federal investigators listed nearly a dozen people or entities connected to Noble Health as fiduciaries who they say are personally responsible for paying back millions in unpaid medical claims. The letter also detailed Noble Health's ownership for the first time. The owners included William A. Solomon with a 16.82% share, Thomas W. Carter with a 16.82% share, The Peterson Trust with a 19.63%, and NC Holdings Inc. with 46.72%.
NC Holdings is also listed on the stock sale agreement with Platinum along with several signatures including Jeremy Tasset, chief executive of Nueterra Capital.
Tasset did not respond to a request for comment for this article. In an email to KHN in March 2022, the Nueterra Capital CEO wrote, "We are a minority investor in the real estate and have nothing to do with the operations of the hospitals." In May 2022, Tasset wrote in an email to KHN that "everything was sold (real estate included) to Platinum Neighbors, a subsidiary of Platinum Team Management."
It is unclear who owns and controls The Peterson Trust, which federal investigators identified. Peterson, who is listed on Noble's state registration papers as a director and in other roles, didn't respond to requests for comment for this article. He previously told KHN that his involvement in Noble didn't violate his exclusion, in his reading of the law.
He said he owned 3% of the company, citing guidance from the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Federal regulators may exclude companies if someone who is banned has ownership of 5% or more.
In March 2022, Peterson created Noble Health Services, which federal investigators note in their letter was "established to restructure the ownership of multiple Noble entities." Peterson dissolved that company in July 2022, according to a Missouri business filing.
In September, Peterson posted on LinkedIn that he was "sitting in the Emirates Air lounge in Dubai" to finish up due diligence on "launching a new business."
A 2013 OIG advisory states that "an excluded individual may not serve in an executive or leadership role" and "may not provide other types of administrative and management services ... unless wholly unrelated to federal health care programs."
KHN examined the federal system meant to stop health care business owners and executives from repeatedly bilking government health programs and found that it failed to do so.
The OIG keeps a public list of people and businesses it has banned from all federal health care programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid. KHN's review found a system devoid of oversight and rife with legal gray areas.
In the wake of KHN's reporting, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat who is the chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, said "it's imperative that federal watchdogs can ensure bad actors are kept out of Medicare." Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said the government needs to do more and "it's also up to private-sector entities to do a better job checking against the exclusions list."
"We can't just depend on one or the other to do everything," Grassley said.
In recent months, the Missouri hospitals appear to have been sold twice more, according to public records. Oregon-based Saint Pio of Pietrelcina notified state officials of a change of ownership in December and requested an extension of the hospital licenses, which was denied. In January, Audrain County officials, in its lawsuit, revealed another owner named Pasture Medical, which registered as a Wyoming company on Dec. 27, 2022.
"We haven't come out of the rabbit hole on this one," said Steve Bollin, director of the division of regulation and licensure for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. Bollin's agency, which conducts inspections and approves hospital changes in ownership, said he would support his agency doing financial reviews.
"It's probably not a bad idea that someone takes a little bit deeper dive. We don't have that many changes of ownership, but we would need appropriate staffing to do that, including some really good CPAs [certified public accountants]."
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.