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Elin Baklid-Kunz TAF Whistleblower of the Year, Marlan Wilbanks Lawyer of the Year

Elin Baklid-Kunz is the Taxpayers Against Fraud (TAF) whistleblower of the year.

And her lawyer, Marlan Wilbanks, is the TAF lawyer of the year.

Elin Baklid-Kunz and Marlan Wilbanks

Elin Baklid-Kunz and Marlan Wilbanks

The two received their awards earlier this week at the 14th Annual Taxpayers Against Fraud Education Fund Awards Dinner held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Baklid-Kunz blew the whistle on false claims made by Halifax Hospital Medical Center and Halifax Staffing Inc. Earlier this year, Halifax paid $85 million to settle the allegations.

Wilbanks represented Baklid-Kunz in the false claims action.

Wilbanks and the law firms for which he has been a partner have helped recover over a billion dollars back to the American taxpayers in cases against large corporations, including Forest  Laboratories, Bank of America/Countrywide, Columbia HCA, Suntrust Mortgage, JPMorgan Chase, First Tennessee Bank, PNC, Clark Atlanta University, Northside Hospital, Citimortgage, Olsen Corporation, St. Joseph’s Hospital, Piedmont Hospital, Resurgens Surgery Center, Memorial Health, Adventist Hospital, C. R. Bard, Inc., and Proseed, Inc.

According to Taxpayers Against Fraud, Halifax allegedly violated the Stark Law by creating an “incentive compensation pool” for oncology doctors in which the incentive bonuses were, on average, larger than doctor’s salaries.

Every referral made by an oncologist in the “pool” was tracked by Halifax. In addition to violating the Stark law, Halifax allegedly engaged in unnecessary surgeries as well as thousands of unnecessary hospital admissions billed to Medicare and Medicaid.

After emigrating to the U.S. from Norway as a young adult, Baklid-Kunz began her career as a Food and Nutrition Services Coordinator at Halifax Health Medical Center, while also working towards her Masters of Business Administration at Stetson University.

After completing her MBA in 1998, Mrs. Baklid-Kunz was promoted to a financial analyst position within Halifax and then, in 2005, she was promoted to the Compliance Department.

In 2008 she was made Director of Physician Services for Halifax Health Systems.

While Baklid-Kunz was at Halifax, Congress passed the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, a law which mandated that, beginning January 1, 2007, companies doing more than $5 million worth of business with Medicare or Medicaid educate their employees about the basic mechanics of the False Claims Act.

As the company’s compliance officer in 2007, Baklid-Kunz not only had to make herself familiar with the False Claims Act, but she was also responsible for teaching other employees about the scope and mechanics of the False Claims Act.

According to TAF, after being promoted to Director of Physician Services in 2008, Baklid-Kunz became concerned that contracts Halifax maintained with some physicians violated the Stark Law.

She also encountered an internal audit that showed Halifax neurosurgeons were performing procedures at four times the national average and that other surgeons at the Hospital were performing medically unnecessary surgeries and admitting patients who did not meet admissions criteria.

Baklid-Kunz raised her concerns with top management at Halifax, but she was brushed off by her superiors who told her that “loyalty should be with Halifax and not with the government.”

Baklid-Kunz had invested over 15 years of her life at Halifax. Her family in Norway was worried that she could lose her job and career.

But Baklid-Kunz knew that the fraud was massive, that Halifax was clearly breaking the law, and that the internal documents she had seen made clear that they knew it.

Baklid-Kunz knew that as a former compliance officer, and now Director of Physician Services, she might be the person thrown under the bus if she blew the whistle.

“I kept hoping someone else would do it,” she told a reporter after it was all over. “But sometimes you have to be that someone.”

In the end, she simply thought about the patients. “What if those unnecessary surgeries had been to my mother or father?” she thought.

In 2009 Baklid-Kunz filed a False Claims Act lawsuit, under seal, in the Northern District of Georgia.

In 2011, after investigating her allegations, the U.S. Department of Justice joined the part of her case that alleged Halifax had violated the Stark Law.

Prior to trial, Halifax was hit with sanctions for destroying medical records related to the case, despite a three-year old records retention order from the court – a behavior the judge in the case called “reprehensible.”

“While all this was going on, Ms. Baklid-Kunz discovered what so many whistleblowers before her had learned: as soon as you stand up, speak up, and lawyer up to do the right thing, you are going to be shunned at work,” TAF director Patrick Burns said. “People she used to interact with on a regular basis would no longer even acknowledge her in the hallway.”

Though Halifax could not fire her without violating federal law, the hospital took away most of her substantive work. She was no longer to be trusted because she had put the law and public safety ahead of corporate profit.

“Not everyone in life gets to know who their true friends are,” she told the Associated Press. “But I have gotten to know who my true friends are.”

In March 2014, on the eve of trial, Halifax settled the Department of Justice joined part of the case for $85 million.

The U.S. Department of Justice awarded Ms. Baklid-Kunz a 24.5 percent relator share –$20.8 million – to be split between herself and her legal team.

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