Steamship was subpoenaed in ambulance probe

Vouchers from hospital to ‘OBFD’ among records sought.

An Oak Bluffs ambulance disembarking in Vineyard Haven in 2020. — Rich Saltzberg

As part of its probe into the Oak Bluffs Fire and EMS Department, the FBI subpoenaed the Steamship Authority in 2019, records show. While it’s unclear if the FBI’s investigation remains active, at that time the agency was investigating alleged medical billing fraud. This was related to off-Island ambulance transfers, such as to Boston hospitals, which used to occur daily. Oak Bluffs Fire and EMS Department no longer provides such off-Island service. Records show transfers to medical aircraft were also under scrutiny. 

Dated August 6, 2019, the subpoena requested testimony before a grand jury. However, the subpoena gave the option of providing records instead of sending a representative of the ferry line to testify. The SSA chose that option. While no indictments appear to have arisen from the probe, legal invoices show the SSA was not alone in receiving a subpoena — numerous members of the Oak Bluffs Fire and EMS Department were called before a federal grand jury in Boston. The invoices also show lawyers for the town spent time preparing department members for their testimony. As The Times previously reported, department employees were also asked to preserve records. However, it’s unclear what these employees may have handed over to the FBI. 

The SSA subpoena asked for records in a specific time period: Jan. 1, 2016, to the date of the subpoena (August 6, 2019). The requested records were emails, recorded telephone voice messages, “all electronic and nonelectronic correspondences, including text messages,” invoices, bills, contracts, checks, payments, “agreements and understandings,” internal notes, memorandums, and “vouchers provided to the OBFD by Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.”

Those records were to be sent to the FBI office in Lakeville. 

Steamship Authority general counsel Terence Kenneally complied with the subpoena. In a letter dated August 21, 2019, Kenneally wrote in part to the FBI, “Following a diligent search, the Authority encloses herewith a thumbnail drive containing responsive documents in electronic formats, which include emails, spreadsheets, invoices, bills (statements), and vouchers. Our search did not produce any recorded telephone messages, text messages, contracts, checks, agreements, or internal notes or memoranda.”

In a second letter, dated August 22, 2019, Kenneally wrote in part, “Enclosed herewith please find a second thumbnail drive containing additional responsive documents in electronic format, which includes vouchers for the period from April 2017 through July 2019. Following a diligent search, it is my understanding that the Authority discarded vouchers that existed before April 2017.”

The SSA voucher program, per the ferry line’s “Customer Policies and Procedures Handbook,” grants government officials from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket discounted travel. 

“Officials and regular employees of the towns and counties of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard (but not consultants or other individuals doing business with a town or county who are not town or county officials or regular employees), when traveling on official government business, are charged fifty percent (50%) of the regular individual fare,” the handbook states.

It’s unclear how, if at all, the SSA vouchers may figure in the FBI’s fraud investigation. 

While the SSA provided the subpoena and related correspondence following a records request, the ferry line declined to provide the thumb drive materials it sent to the FBI. In a letter to The Times, SSA spokesperson Sean Driscoll described that material as restricted under the SSA Enabling Act. Driscoll specifically referred to a clause in the Enabling Act that prohibits the release of customer data. Pursuit of the subpoena material isn’t the first time The Times has sought these ambulance records. In 2017, The Times appealed a similar records denial to the state’s supervisor of records. The supervisor sided with the SSA, and declared the records exempt from disclosure by statute

The Times recently sought similar records through a broader request to the town of Oak Bluffs. Oak Bluffs denied the request through its special town counsel, David Apfel. Apfel argued that giving The Times the records could “prejudice the possibility of effective law enforcement” and furthermore because “federal law enforcement authorities” asked the town not to disclose the subpoena. Elsewhere in his letter, Apfel noted “Neither I nor the town has received any notice from the federal government that the federal investigation has been resolved or otherwise concluded.” The FBI has previously declined to comment on the status of the investigation or any portions of it. The Times has appealed the town’s records denial.

While it’s not clear precisely how much fraudulent activity is alleged to have occurred, figures have been provided from time to time that offer some idea of dollar amounts. 

In January 2020, Oak Bluffs, through its former town administrator, Robert Whritenour, admitted to overcharging Medicare and Medicaid $37,535.07. That money was reimbursed. Whritenour said at the time that larger sums — $158,169.52 for Medicare, and $23,064.97 for Medicaid — the town wasn’t technically liable for.

Sept. 22, 2020, Oak Bluffs select board executive session minutes show that for the years 2014 and 2011, specifically, the town believed its overbilling liability totaled $11,300. 

“They claim the fraud was broader,” the minutes state (regarding the Justice Department). “With respect to all off-Island trips, but they have no evidence, but they are looking for a mileage chart.”

After The Times lodged an Open Meeting Law complaint over those minutes, the select board redrafted them. In the new version of the minutes, the 2014/2011 figures were scrubbed, as are the words “mileage chart.” 

Oak Bluffs Fire and EMS Department no longer provides a routine off-Island ambulance service for the hospital, as it long had provided. A voice message left at Coastal Medical Transportation Systems, the new ambulance provider for the hospital, or one of them, wasn’t immediately returned Wednesday, nor was a message left with hospital spokesperson Marissa Lefebvre. 

Oak Bluffs Fire and EMS Chief Nelson Wirtz, the second chief to run the department after former Fire and EMS Chief John Rose departed in the wake of harassment allegations and with the FBI delving into the ambulance service, told The Times recently that he discontinued the off-Island ambulance service last year. That ambulance service previously fueled the town’s ambulance reserve fund, a pot of money used to pay for fire and police vehicles and equipment, among other things. However, Chief Wirtz said the logistical and human resources toll of off-Island transfers was such that it no longer made sense to provide them.