The pain radiated from the top of Annette Monachelli’s head, and it got worse when she changed positions. It didn’t feel like her usual migraine. The 47-year-old Vermont attorney turned innkeeper visited her local doctor at the Stowe Family Practice twice about the problem in late November 2012, but got little relief.
Two months later, Monachelli was dead of a brain aneurysm, a condition that, despite the symptoms and the appointments, had never been tested for or diagnosed until she turned up in the emergency room days before her death.
Monachelli’s husband sued Stowe, the federally qualified health center the physician worked for. Owen Foster, a newly hired assistant U.S. attorney with the District of Vermont, was assigned to defend the government. Though it looked to be a standard medical malpractice case, Foster was on the cusp of discovering something much bigger—what his boss, U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan, calls the “frontier of health care fraud”—and prosecuting a first-of-its-kind case that landed the largest-ever financial recovery in Vermont’s history.
Foster began with Monachelli’s medical records, which offered a puzzle. Her doctor had considered the possibility of an aneurysm and, to rule it out, had ordered a head scan through the clinic’s software system, the government alleged in court filings. The test, in theory, would have caught the bleeding in Monachelli’s brain. But the order never made it to the lab; it had never been transmitted.
The software in question was an electronic health records system, or EHR, made by eClinicalWorks (eCW), one of the leading sellers of record-keeping software for physicians in America, currently used by 850,000 health professionals in the U.S. It didn’t take long for Foster to assemble a dossier of troubling reports—Better Business Bureau complaints, issues flagged on an eCW user board, and legal cases filed around the country—suggesting the company’s technology didn’t work quite like it said it did.
Until this point, Foster, like most Americans, knew next to nothing about electronic medical records, but he was quickly amassing clues that eCW’s software had major problems—some of which put patients, like Annette Monachelli, at risk.
Damning evidence came from a whistleblower claim filed in 2011 against the company. Brendan Delaney, a British cop turned EHR expert, was hired in 2010 by New York City to work on the eCW implementation at Rikers Island, a jail complex that then had more than 100,000 inmates. But soon after he was hired, Delaney noticed scores of troubling problems with the system, which became the basis for his lawsuit. The patient medication lists weren’t reliable; prescribed drugs would not show up, while discontinued drugs would appear as current, according to the complaint. The EHR would sometimes display one patient’s medication profile accompanied by the physician’s note for a different patient, making it easy to misdiagnose or prescribe a drug to the wrong individual. Prescriptions, some 30,000 of them in 2010, lacked proper start and stop dates, introducing the opportunity for under- or overmedication. The eCW system did not reliably track lab results, concluded Delaney, who tallied 1,884 tests for which they had never gotten outcomes.
The District of Vermont launched an official federal investigation in 2015.
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