June 24, 2024

Top Arkansas psychiatrist accused of falsely imprisoning patients, Medicaid fraud

William VanWhy says he was emotionally overwhelmed when he checked himself into the mental health unit at Northwest Medical Center in Arkansas last year. Four days later, he was still in the locked unit but desperate to leave.

“I wasn’t getting any medical care at all,” VanWhy, 32, said.

Mental health patients in Arkansas can be held against their will for up to 72 hours if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others. But to keep them longer than that, a medical provider must file a court petition and get a judge’s consent.

No plea was filed in VanWhy’s case, and eventually his partner, with the help of a lawyer, managed to get a court order to release him.

A few hours later, a sheriff’s deputy walked into the hospital with the warrant in hand and VanWhy’s husband by his side. In the elevator, they bumped into a nurse from his unit.

“I’m glad it’s going away,” the nurse said, according to body camera footage obtained by NBC News. “Don’t do that again.”

VanWhy was released about 20 minutes later. “Oh my God. You saved my life,” he told the deputy, the body camera footage shows.

The man who headed the unit at the time, Dr. Brian Hyatt, was one of the most prominent psychiatrists in Arkansas and the chairman of the board that regulates physicians. But he is now under investigation by state and federal authorities who are investigating allegations ranging from Medicaid fraud to false imprisonment.

VanWhy’s release was the second time in two months that a patient was released from the Hyatt unit only after a sheriff’s deputy showed up with a court order, according to court records.

“I think they were running a scheme to keep people as long as possible, to bill their insurance as long as possible before kicking them out the door, and then filling the bed with someone else,” said Aaron Cash, a lawyer representing VanWhy.

Dr. Brian Hyatt describes the additional access safety door in one of the psychiatric medical rooms at Northwest Medical Center-Springdale in 2018.Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

VanWhy and at least 25 other former patients sued Hyatt, alleging that they were held against their will in a unit for days and sometimes weeks. And Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin’s office has accused Hyatt of running an insurance scam, claiming he would treat patients he rarely saw and then bill Medicaid at “the highest severity code on each patient,” according to a search warrant affidavit.

As the lawsuits mounted, Hyatt remained chairman of the Arkansas State Medical Board. But it is got off the table in late May after Drug Enforcement Administration agents executed a search warrant at his private practice.

“I am not resigning because of any wrongdoing on my part but so that the Board can continue its important work without delay or distraction,” he wrote in a letter. “I will continue to defend myself in the proper forum against the false allegations being made against me.”

Northwestern Medical Center in Springdale “abruptly terminated” Hyatt’s contract in May 2022, according to the attorney general’s search warrant affidavit.

In April, the hospital agreed to pay $1.1 million in a settlement with the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office. Northwestern Medical Center was unable to provide sufficient documentation to justify hospitalization of 246 patients held in the Hyatt unit, according to the attorney general’s office.

As part of the settlement, the hospital denied any wrongdoing.

“We believe that hospital personnel complied in all respects with Arkansas law, which relies heavily on the treating physician’s assessment of the patient, including decisions related to involuntary commitment,” Northwest Health spokeswoman Aimee Morell said in a statement.

“While it is not our practice to comment on pending litigation matters, I can share that last spring, we took several actions to ensure the safety of our patients, including hiring new providers responsible for the clinical care of our behavioral health patients in early May 2022,” Morrell added.

Hyatt, 50, has not been charged with a crime. Neither he nor his lawyer responded to multiple requests for comment.

But his legal team provided a statement to Arkansas Business last month.

“Dr. Hyatt maintains his innocence and denies the allegations made against him,” the statement said in part. “Despite his career as an outstanding clinician, Dr. Hyatt has become the target of a vicious, orchestrated attack on his character and service. He looks forward to defending himself in court.”

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin declined to comment. “We have no further details to provide at this time,” he said.

Charlie Robbins, a spokesman for the US Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Arkansas, said that “executing a search warrant is an important step in any long ongoing investigation.

“Given that this investigation is still ongoing, we will not be making any further comment,” he said.

Huge Medicaid payouts

A graduate of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Hyatt was named medical director of Northwest Medical Center’s behavioral health unit in January 2018.

The number of beds increased from 25 to 75, and claims on Medicaid and Medicare, as well as private insurance, increased, according to the Arkansas Attorney General’s search warrant affidavit.

Hyatt was getting $1,367 a day, according to a report prepared by the Arkansas attorney general’s office. And at the same time he was running his own private practice, Pinnacle Premier Psychiatry, in the town of Rogers about 25 miles away, according to the attorney general’s office.

The claims he submitted showed that he conducted daily one-on-one evaluations of patients at the hospital.

But a former staff member came forward in April 2022 and told state investigators that Hyatt was only on the floor with patients “a few minutes each day and that Dr. Hyatt had no contact with patients,” the affidavit states.

Investigators reviewed 45 days of surveillance footage from the facility and concluded that Hyatt entered a patient room or interacted with a patient only 17 times — for a total of less than 10 minutes, according to the report prepared by the attorney general.

“Dr. Hyatt never had even one conversation with the vast majority of patients under his care,” the affidavit states.

Shannon Williams, 52, says she is one such patient.

Williams, a nurse from Harrison, was dealing with her grandmother’s death when she found out her brother died of Covid while she was overseas. The news pushed Williams, who herself worked in a Covid unit, into what she called “crisis mode”.

She ended up in a hospital emergency room about 90 minutes away from Springdale in February 2021. The next morning, she was transferred to the Hyatt unit after a doctor determined she was a danger to herself, according to medical records. (Williams believes she was not suicidal.)

Nurse Shannon Williams.
Nurse Shannon Williams.NBC News

When she arrived at the unit, Williams said she was taken down and injected with a sedative against her will.

“I was scared,” Williams said.

She was held for five days, according to her medical records, despite, she says, her requests to leave.

“It was like I was in prison,” said Williams, a mother of three. “It was like a nightmare. If I cried, I was threatened again with more time.”

According to the search warrant affidavit, Hyatt’s Medicaid claims were worse than those of other psychiatrists in Arkansas.

From January 2019 to June 2022, Medicaid paid out more than $800,000 to the Hyatt facility.

“Dr. “Hyatt is a clear outlier, and his claims are so high that they put the media on certain codes for the entire Medicaid program in Arkansas,” the affidavit states.

Medicaid uses a coding system to determine how much providers will pay—with the highest codes at the highest rates because those patients need more care.

A newly admitted patient will usually come in at the highest severity code, which suggests that the person is unstable and dealing with a serious issue, and then progress to a lower code before being discharged.

But 99.95% of Hyatt’s Medicaid claims came in at the most expensive code, the affidavit says.

“According to the claims made by Dr. Hyatt and the non-physician providers working under his supervision, none of the patients treated in the behavioral unit located at Northwestern Medical Center improved, at least prior to the day of the patient’s discharge,” the affidavit states.

Joking emails

Before coming to represent VanWhy, Cash had a strange interaction with Hyatt over another patient.

In January 2022, Cash sent a fax to the hospital demanding the immediate release of his client, a patient named Karla Adrian-Caceres.

Adrian-Caceres had arrived at the unit the day before and was crying to leave, according to a lawsuit she filed in January 2023.

Adrian-Caceres’ mother went to the hospital to pick her up but was told her daughter would not be released, the lawsuit says. The next morning, Hyatt responded via email to Cash, saying he would neither confirm nor deny that Adrian-Caceres was in the unit.

“Our facility is receiving your ridiculous claims and defamatory commentary about someone you claim to represent being heard inside our facility,” Hyatt said in the email, which was included in Adrian-Caceres’ court filing.

Hyatt said he would only check to see if she was there if Cash got his client to sign an “information release form.”

Cash responded four hours later with a court order demanding the release of Adrian-Caceres.

Cash gave Adrian-Caceres’ mother a court order, and she took him to the hospital, but the hospital still refused to release her daughter.

So Cash got a second court order, and the judge ordered the sheriff’s office to enforce it, according to their law.

A deputy went to the facility with Adrian-Caceres’ mother and got her released, according to sheriff’s office documentation obtained by NBC News.

The next morning, Hyatt emailed Cash, joking about the colleges he attended.

“I think this is what they teach at Poteau Junior College…sorry…Carl Albert State and Northeastern State University,” Hyatt said in the email.

He directed Cash to contact his attorney. “You won’t find it in your “college” yearbook,” he wrote.

When Cash heard from VanWhy’s husband two months later, he did not bother to release the patient himself.

“I went straight to the sheriff this time,” Cash said.

William VanWhy, left, and her husband, Cameron Tryon.
William VanWhy, left, and her husband, Cameron Tryon.William VanWhy

Cash said the patients he spoke with were certain they did not receive much care while being held in the Hyatt unit. These were people who were vulnerable and often needed serious support or therapy, he said.

“Some of them needed help,” Cash said. “And what they got hurt.”


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