HALLOWELL, Maine — A former Suboxone clinic and addiction counseling service that closed abruptly in September is under investigation by the Maine attorney general’s office for fraud and has been ordered to repay more than $300,000 to the state.
Protea Integrated Health and Wellness, operated by Alex Tessman and Leigh Leighton, provided services including medication management, outpatient therapy and medication-assisted treatment for opiate addiction.
The facility on Water Street in Hallowell closed suddenly on Sept. 30, leaving hundreds of clients — including more than 100 community integration clients and 35 Suboxone clients — without access to service and some with only one week of Suboxone to treat their addictions.
According to emails obtained from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services through a Freedom Of Access Act request, Protea was under investigation for fraud and required to repay more than $300,000 in MaineCare funding.
The correspondences indicate that Protea did not appeal that finding. A third-party financial backer then withdrew support for the company, shortly before its sudden closure.
On Sept. 23, DHHS suspended all MaineCare funding to Protea, citing an investigation prompted by a “credible allegation of threat.”
State officials informed Protea of the fraud allegations and their belief that the claims were credible in a Sept. 27 certified letter to Protea program manager Rosemary Boudreau-McDonald.
Among the allegations listed by DHHS Audit Program Manager Denise Osgood in the letter were the following:
— Backdating of assessments and treatment plans.
— A history of significant non-compliance with the MaineCare Benefits Manual.
— Not providing information to member regarding their treatment after their request.
— Providing services to members outside of Protea’s contracted service area.
Valerie Hooper of the DHHS Program Integrity office wrote to DHHS Field Services Manager John Bonner on Oct. 11 that she had met with a detective and an assistant attorney general from the Healthcare Crimes Unit on Oct. 7 to “talk about how they might proceed in their investigation of Protea.”
In response to an email seeking clarification, DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards wrote on Tuesday, “We cannot discuss anything further about the investigation.”
Tim Feeley, spokesman for Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, said Tuesday that the attorney general had no comment.
Picking up the pieces
A flurry of sometimes urgent emails among DHHS staff in late September and early October confirms that clients were eventually notified by mail that Protea would close at the end of September.
In some cases, clients learned from the prescribing physician that the facility would close and received as little as a week of the medication that helps prevent relapses of addiction.
Gavin Gabrion, who had been receiving treatment including psychiatric medication and Suboxone at Protea for about four months, said he received a letter from Protea explaining the closure, but it did not include instructions on how to find a new provider. He said neither he nor any other former Protea clients that he knows heard directly from any state officials or caseworkers.
After submitting several draft letters to DHHS, Protea sent a letter to clients directing them to other providers but offering no assistance with transitioning.
Bonner wrote on Sept. 26 that a new voice mailbox set up by Protea for former clients to leave messages to get their records was full.
Protea employees were laid off on Sept. 19, and according to Bonner, were initially told to keep their laptops and cellphones.
Some employees subsequently refused to return the equipment until they were paid, which Bonner wrote was “very concerning” because they contained patient information.
“This has just gone beyond what I could have imagined in the realm of poor judgment,” he wrote. “These devices have a lot of client (patient information) on them.”
In October, Edwards told the Bangor Daily News that, like any provider, Protea had contractual and regulatory obligations in closing the agency including developing a transition plan to help ensure the continuity of care for clients.
But according to emails from DHHS staff, Protea only filed “an inadequately drafted transition plan” after “a lot of intense prompting.”
Furthermore, both co-owners were less than helpful as DHHS attempted to connect clients with providers.
“Alex Tessman, co-owner, is accused by Leigh Leighton, co-owner, of embezzlement,” Bonner wrote. “However, Leigh declines to file any legal motion. Some of the staff have accused Leigh of embezzlement.”
“Alex has been COMPLETELY unavailable and Leigh has shown incredible incompetence, though Leigh has made some forced effort to address many of our requests,” Bonner subsequently wrote.
Tessman and his former wife, Rowena Tessman, founded the for-profit PROTEA Behavioral Health Services in 2001. In 2006, The Bollard reported that the company had facilities in more than 10 Maine communities.
That same year, Sweetser purchased Protea, a transaction facilitated by former Protea CFO Frank Willard. In 2008, Willard founded Cornerstone Behavioral Healthcare, according to the organization’s website.
A Sweetser spokeswoman said last month that the company “has absolutely no affiliation or interest in the organization that has most recently operated as Protea Integrated Health and Wellness LLC. In 2006, we purchased a business named PROTEA. Since that time, any associated services from that purchase have been offered under the Sweetser name. Any services performed under the Protea name since 2006 have no association with Sweetser.”
Leighton apparently attempted to salvage what he could of Protea at the last minute, and met with Willard, now CEO of Cornerstone, just before Protea closed, Willard confirmed to the Bangor Daily News. He said no purchase-and-sale agreement was discussed.
“Several weeks before they closed the doors, Leigh came to me and asked if I was willing to take on part of his business,” Willard said by phone recently. “He couldn’t keep it together long enough for us to do anything with it.”
In a Sept. 19 email, Bonner wrote that Willard’s “agency was approached last week by Mr. Leighton … [who] informed Frank that the other co-owner had withdrawn $25,000 cash from the agency account and the agency was now in financial upheaval.”
Three former Protea employees and between 10 and 20 former Protea clients are now with Cornerstone, Willard said.
Email correspondence indicates state officials attempted to locate Tessman but discovered he apparently travels back and forth between his house in Ellsworth and Canada, where his family lives.
The Bangor Daily News was unable to reach Tessman and Leighton.
On Sept. 30, Bonner wrote that he’d been contacted by a reporter who suggested Tessman “is in operations to start up another Suboxone clinic” with a physician in Danforth.
DHHS officials were firm and clear in emails when discussing any possibility of either Tessman or Leighton operating a similar facility in the state again.
“Those Protea owners should all be referred to Program Integrity for Exclusion so that they can never work for MaineCare again,” Mary Hendricks of the Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services wrote.
Bonner wrote that one business owner with close connections to Protea said that, “in his opinion, ‘Mr. Tessman should never be allowed to operate a [mental health] agency in the state of Maine.’”