Unpaid nurses eyeing options | AspenTimes.com

Unpaid nurses eyeing options

Allyn Harvey

A Glenwood Springs attorney said Monday that six local nurses who claim they are owed nearly $50,000 in back pay may need to go to federal court if they hope to get their money.

Attorney Ira Karet, who is suing Home Health Care of the Rockies owner Ted McWhorter on behalf of two of McWhorter’s former partners, said the fact that McWhorter lives in Louisiana and owns several firms there turns what would normally be a local case into a federal case.

“One reason it may belong in federal court is diversity of jurisdiction – the different parties in the case live in different districts, different parts of the country,” Karet said.

And Karet is not alone in that opinion. John Swanson, who spent several years as a debt collector, agrees that the best thing for the nurses to do is seek a judgment from the federal court system. Swanson is a friend of nurse Hellen Doane, and has been representing all of the nurses who are involved.

“Right now, it is my opinion that a state court action would allow nothing other than the opportunity for Mr. McWhorter to delay paying these nurses. I believe the appropriate arena is federal court,” Swanson said.

The nurses, who live as near as Snowmass Village and Basalt and as far away as Grand Junction and Avon, claim they have yet to be paid for hundreds of hours of work last fall at the Carbondale home of Trevor, April and Saige Blotske. They are especially interested in finding out what happened to more than $27,000 sent earlier this month by the Blotskes’ insurer, Aetna US Healthcare, to McWhorter’s firm for work they did between Sept. 24 and Oct. 31.

“He owes me more than $35,000, but we’ve all got checks that he has written on insufficient funds,” said Doane, who managed Saige’s nursing until yesterday.

Doane said she has forwarded the necessary paperwork to her co-workers to build a case in federal court, and has little doubt that that’s where it will land. “I’ve got it out for that man,” she said.

Saige was born in November 1998 with a genetic condition that is life threatening and requires constant care through early childhood. McWhorter’s firm began with the family last April, sending nurses to work 12-hour shifts for three days and seven nights a week since last spring. The nurses were subcontractors with Home Health Care until Christmas Day, when the company dropped the Blotskes from its caseload. Insurance dispute Doane, who has worked for McWhorter for several years, said he owes her for work on two other jobs performed since last spring, but with the others, the missing pay is for work at the Blotskes between Sept. 24 and Dec. 25. Two nurses, Mary Hoza and Susanne Jamason, are owed more than $5,000 each; the other three – Susan Drinkard, Karen Gentry and Laurie Cross – are owed between $200 and $1,700, she said.

McWhorter doesn’t deny that he owes the nurses money, but he does deny that Aetna and Medicaid have reimbursed him for work done since Sept. 24.

“We haven’t been paid for any of the work those nurses did,” he said in an interview last week.

McWhorter insists he has only received two checks from Aetna – for $6,737 and $8,030 – that are for work the nurses have already been paid for, despite documentation indicating otherwise. And most of that money is simply being forwarded to Medicaid, which was improperly billed for nursing last April and May that should have been paid by private insurance.

“Whatever money we’ve received so far is to pay back Medicaid for what the Blotskes got and shouldn’t have gotten,” he said.

He also says the money from Aetna is also being used to pay nurses on other cases, “because we advanced money to the Blotske case.” In December, however, McWhorter told the Times, “We will continue to make money elsewhere and put money into the [Blotske] nurses’ pockets as fast as we can.”

McWhorter speculated the Blotskes have misread their insurance forms, and what they thought were $27,000 in payments were really denials of payment. He promised to continue pressing Aetna – which he called “not very organized” – and Medicaid to untangle the mess with the Blotske’s case.

But “Explanation of Benefit” forms from Aetna sent to the Blotskes in early January indicate Home Health Care of the Rockies has been reimbursed $27,083.63 for 24-hour nursing care last year between Sept. 24. and Oct. 31, and $6,675 for work between April 12 and Aug. 1. None refer to payments in the amounts cited by McWhorter. The forms also tally the uncovered portions of Saige’s home care, which add up to $9,243 for September and October, and $47,697.62 for April through July.

April Blotske said Monday that Home Health Care has yet to bill the family’s second insurer, American Family Insurance, which agreed to pay for four hours of daytime nursing per week for up to 40 weeks. Playing ostrich “Mr. McWhorter exhibits typical debtor behavior – he plays ostrich and won’t acknowledge the problem. He knows there is a problem, but he won’t deal with it,” Swanson said.

The dispute between McWhorter and the nurses is just one of several that has consumed McWhorter’s business operations here.

In 1996, McWhorter was successfully sued for unpaid wages by nurse Dottie Anderson. In 1997, the volunteer board at Hospice of the Rockies, a nonprofit set up by McWhorter to open a hospice in Glenwood Springs, resigned en masse, according to one of the board members.

Currently, he is facing two suits by his former partners, Alexandra and Patrick Piot – one in Pitkin County for unpaid wages and one in Garfield County for fraud and defamation. McWhorter’s Eunice, La.-based home health provider, Private Duty of Louisiana, Inc. is also named in the fraud case.

Attorney Karet, who represents the Piots on the fraud case, said the federal court system may be able to force McWhorter to pay the nurses even if he closes Home Health Care of the Rockies and never returns to Colorado. Another option available in federal court that is not possible in state court is to force Home Health Care into bankruptcy and give the court jurisdiction over any remaining assets.

In the event of a court-ordered bankruptcy, Karet reckons the nurses would be put at the top of the list of creditors, above straight damage claims like the one filed by the Piots.

“The law gives wages a priority because it involves labor. Normally, you don’t expect there to be any risk in receiving your pay when you go to work for somebody,” Karet said.

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