The commander of Fort Stewart's hospital was fired in May after allowing dozens of unauthorized civilians to receive CT scans — with no way for the Army to recoup its costs, an investigation revealed.
Col. Patrick Ahearne, while head of Winn Army Community Hospital, last fall gave a nearby medical center permission to send patients to Winn to conduct scans. Liberty Regional Medical Center in Hinesville, Georgia, was in the process of replacing radiology equipment, and wanted to avoid sending patients 35 miles to Savannah.
Ahearne ignored a number of warnings from his staff, as well as legal advice, and agreed to accept Liberty patients at that hospital's request.
The agreement with Liberty CEO Micheal Hester, never put in writing, led to 100 CT scans from Jan. 25 to Feb. 10 for an estimated cost of more than $13,000, according to the AR 15-6 investigation acquired by Army Times through the Freedom of Information Act.
The investigating officer noted that while "most if not all" scans were performed for ER patients, Liberty was sending over civilians whose condition did not fit the Army definition of "emergency." Providing non-emergency care to patients ineligible for military health care requires Secretary of the Army or Surgeon General approval as well as reimbursement.
"I find that trust and confidence in the decision-making ability of COL Ahearne as the Commander of Winn Army Community Hospital must be deeply questioned in the wake of this investigation," concluded the investigating officer. "[Redacted list of names] all counseled him on multiple occasions to not make the decision to provide radiology services to non-beneficiary patients when they were not in an emergency situation. However, he did it anyway without keeping all of those same advisors informed of his action."
Ahearne, who has served for 27 years, told Army Times via email that "in light of my relief, I am currently pursuing my retirement." He declined to discuss details of the case, as he did not "wish to interfere with any ongoing U.S. Army or MEDCOM processes."
"I made a command decision. I take full responsibility for my actions, though I would like it known that my decision was made with only the best of intentions and with considerable planning in regard to the safety and treatment of our patients," Ahearne’s statement said.
Liberty spokeswoman Rene Harwell declined comment for this story.
In emails and statements collected in the investigation, Ahearne said that he wanted to be a good community partner and "prevent the loss of the ER to the community."
Col. Patrick Ahearne, left, then-commander of Winn Army Community Hospital, and Col. Townley Hedrick, Fort Stewart Garrison Commander, and receive flu shots on Oct. 1.
Photo Credit: John Tongret/Winn Army Community Hospital
But Ahearne failed to establish a method by which Liberty or Liberty’s patients could reimburse Winn for use of the CT scans, according to the investigation.
The scans cost an estimated $13,207.35; the hospital only knew the patients’ names and that LRMC sent them for a scan, and thus had no procedure for patient payment. Meanwhile Liberty was charging patients and their insurance – "more than likely" more than the estimated cost, the investigation concluded.
Ahearne told investigators that Liberty officials were willing to reimburse WACH directly, though he wasn’t sure how it would work.
Aside from financial implications, the investigating officer said Ahearne’s actions left Winn "vulnerable to incidences of patient harm," in part because no Winn medical professionals aside from scan technicians provided care. (No incidents occurred, however, the investigation found.)
The partnership with Liberty, initiated in November, was discovered by the acting commander on Feb. 10, while Ahearne was on a cruise. The partnership was terminated immediately. One of Ahearne's superiors confronted him, reminding him that regulations state that military health care cannot be provided to ineligible parties unless there is an immediate risk to "life, limb or eyesight." Ahearne said he'd rather his radiology staff treat all ER patients rather than try to make a determination on a case-by-case basis of what constituted a true emergency.
Ahearne has not been punished beyond removal from command, and no one else has been punished for the effort, according to Regional Health Command-Atlantic spokeswoman Gigail Cureton.
"While the methods used by Col. Ahearne where not in accordance with Army regulations and policies, there are no indications that Col. Ahearne's motives were anything but altruistic and in support of the local community," Cureton said.
Ahearne is currently doing administrative work with Regional Health Command-Atlantic.
According to his Army biography, Ahearne previously served as Chief of Army Nurse Corps Branch for human resources command at Fort Knox, Kentucky, as well as deputy commander for health services at Fort Carson, Colorado, among a variety of other locations.