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$754,585 paid due to Medicare overpayment
  • Updated

Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist agreed to pay the government $754,585 due to overpayment caused by improper documentation of services in Wilkes Medical Center’s skilled nursing unit, announced U.S. Attorney Sandra J. Hairston of the Greensboro-based Middle District of U.S District Court.

A federal investigation determined that Wilkes Medical Center submitted Medicare claims for physical and occupational therapy services not supported by documentation between Jan. 1, 2015 and Sept. 30, 2019, stated a Feb. 28 press release from Hairston’s office.

Wilkes Medical Center is operated by Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist under a 30-year lease that began in 2017, three years before Winston-Salem-based Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center merged with Charlotte-based Atrium Health. The Town of North Wilkesboro owns the local hospital, which officially was WRMC Hospital Operating Group before it was leased.

Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist issued a statement last week concerning the case, “It is our policy and practice to follow all laws and regulations as we provide health care to members of our community. The government was required to investigate claims by a former employee. Although the government declined to intervene in that case, it believed it found certain medical records that did not support the services billed.”

The hospital system’s statement continued, “While we disagreed with this finding, we also recognize, as a nonprofit health care provider, it is mutually beneficial to arrive at a settlement rather than to extend the process and incur additional legal costs using resources better directed towards caring for our patients. We appreciate the opportunity to bring this matter to a close.”

The release from Hairston’s office said Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist cooperated with the federal investigation, which resulted from a whistleblower lawsuit. The release also said Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist “took remedial actions to address the issues discovered during the investigation.”

The Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services assisted in the case.

The suit said Wilkes Medical Center caused its employees to repeatedly bill Medicare for physical therapy provided in group sessions at decidedly higher one-on-one therapy rates. It also said overcharging occurred by classifying physical therapy patients at levels of care with higher Medicare payments. The suit said false bills for physical therapy services at the hospital were knowingly submitted to Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance companies from 2008 through the filing of the suit in April 2020.

The suit was filed by Tonya Cook, identified in the 32-page document as a Wilkes Medical Center employee, against Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, WRMC Hospital Operating Group and the Town of North Wilkesboro, based on information from Tonya Cook, identified in the suit as a Wilkes Medical Center employee.

The United States is listed as a plaintiff “ex. rel.,” a legal term indicating the federal government’s status as a plaintiff is based on information from Cook.

The suit was filed under the federal False Claims Act, the U.S. government’s primary tool for combatting fraud. The U.S. may recover up to three times the damages caused to the government by fraud and a sizeable civil penalty for each violation. Whistleblowers receive a mandatory reward of 15% to 30% of collected proceeds and job protection.

The suit said Cook began working part-time as a physical therapy assistant in Wilkes Medical Center’s 10-bed skilled nursing facility unit on the second floor of the hospital in 2006.

It said that starting in 2008, she began seeing a rehabilitation technician transporting all patients in the skilled nursing facility unit to the hospital’s third-floor rehab gym between 8:30 a.m. and noon.

The suit said that often during these times, Cook’s co-workers asked her about the times she was going to enter in her records that she treated patients on the skilled nursing facility floor. It said Cook always said she was going to enter actual times she met with patients and always met with them on a one-on-one basis.

The suit said that by the end of 2010, Cook realized some of her co-workers were asking about her time entries so her co-workers could adjust the times patients were transported and treated in the rehab gym to conform around her time records.

“Specifically, instead of reporting that all of the patients were seen between 8:00-12:00 in a group setting, the employees… were reporting to the government that the patients were seen one-on-one throughout the day.”

The suit said that around 2010, Cook saw a supervisor of physical therapists billing for skilled nursing facility evaluations for patients that weren’t performed.

It said Cook reported her concerns about fraudulent billing practices to superiors, but they continued.

The suit said Cook worked full-time for the hospital from 2015 until 2017, when her work schedule was reduced and was subjected to constant change in direct retaliation to her reports of fraud.

It said that as recently as April 2019, physical therapy assistants at the hospital treated seven patients as a group in the same room and falsely billed for them as if they were treated one-on-one and were classified at the level of care resulting in the highest Medicare payment.

Quiz Bowl program off to strong start
  • Updated

Over 120 students competed in Wilkes County Schools inaugural elementary, middle and high school Quiz Bowl tournaments on Feb. 14, 22 and 28 at the Stone Center in North Wilkesboro.

Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd said during Monday night’s Wilkes school board meeting that he challenged Julie Triplett, chief technology officer for the schools, to make the Quiz Bowl a “super bowl” and she did just that.

Elementary schools had a six-team double elimination tournament and middle and high school tournaments used four-team double elimination formats.

There was a blend of individual and team collaboration response to questions. Questions were from many categories, such as language arts, math, science, social studies, fine arts and popular culture. Similar to Jeopardy, quick recall was encouraged and a buzzer system used to be the first to answer.

Triplett said the Wilkes County Schools transitioned to Quiz Bowl this year to include not only students with a love for reading, but also those who excel in mathematics, science, social studies, the arts and general academic knowledge. Quiz Bowl replaced Battle of the Books.

“Our Quiz Bowl tournaments increased the rigor of our academic competitions and showcased the intellect of our students across all subject areas. Our students competed well, impressing our Central Services staff who helped with the competition and our guests for the tournament,” said Triplett. “We are so proud of our students and appreciate our coaches.”

C.C. Wright Elementary defeated Mountain View Elementary in the final round of the elementary tournament to win that category.

Media specialist Jaimie Cooper, C.C. Wright coach, stated, “We didn’t really know what to expect from the first ever Quiz Bowl competition, but we studied, practiced answering questions, and worked together as a team. I am so proud of these students and I am genuinely impressed by the amount of talent and ability that Wilkes County students have to offer.”

Fifth-grade participant Jeremiah Johnson from C.C. Wright said he is so excited about Quiz Bowl that it’s hard to wait until next year. “We did it! It was really fun,” Johnson said.

West Wilkes Middle defeated Central Wilkes Middle in a close final round of the middle school tournament. Susan Ringo, West Wilkes Middle coach, agreed that it was hard to know what to expect, but students rose to the occasion and saw their hard work pay off.

“Their reactions when the final score was announced was such an honest expression of their surprise and joy at their accomplishment after a tough and hard-fought competition. I could not possibly be prouder of their success,” Ringo said.

Seventh-grade participant Jenilee Gregory from West Wilkes Middle agreed that hard work paid off. “We had so much fun getting ready and it was really exciting to get serious at competition,” Gregory said.

Wilkes Early College High School won the title of high school champion after beating the East Wilkes High team.

WECHS senior Elisha Ralston said he practiced with his team for months before the competition. “To reign as the champion is quite fulfilling, as my team and I put in a great deal of time and effort into practicing for the tournament,” Ralston stated.

The team is coached by Leah Watkins, the school’s bookkeeper/data manager, and Principal Jennifer Sorel.

Watkins said she jumped at the chance to co-sponsor the team. “I’ve always enjoyed trivia and leading this team of brilliant students has been fulfilling. Every school worked diligently in preparation for the competition and showcased their unique interests in answering questions,” she added.

Each winning team was presented medallions for its members and a large trophy from Byrd, made possible through support of Cook’s Inc. Horace Mann Insurance provided snacks and lunches.

Robert Johnson, elected NW leader for 30 years, dies
  • Updated

Editor’s Note: A full obituary for Robert L. Johnson is on page A6.

Robert L. Johnson, who served the Town of North Wilkesboro for 30 years in elected office, died Sunday at age 79.

Johnson’s years as an elected North Wilkesboro official began in late 1981 with the first of three consecutive four-year terms as a commissioner. He was 38 when first elected.

After eight years off the board in the 1990s, Johnson was elected to a four-year term as a North Wilkesboro commissioner in late 2001 and then again in late 2005. He was elected mayor in late 2009 and led North Wilkesboro in that capacity until his unsuccessful bid for reelection in late 2021.

In 2022, Johnson said in an interview that accomplishments he was most proud of included securing funds for establishing the Yadkin Valley Market Place on the Central Business District Loop and starting live music concerts there.

Also during his tenure as commissioner or mayor, the town bought several hundred acres for an industrial park on River Road, purchased a former bank building at the corner of Ninth and Main streets and renovated it for use as town hall and entered into a 30-year lease of the town-owned hospital to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

Either as a commissioner or mayor, Johnson was on the town board the entire time Hank Perkins was North Wilkesboro town manager.

“I can say that his passing brings a real sense of loss to me for North Wilkesboro and Wilkes County at large. He was involved in bringing me to the Town of North Wilkesboro as town manager in 2002 and he worked with me on council continuously until my departure in 2012,” said Perkins, who became town manager of Lake Lure in 2022 after several years as manager of Lewisville.

“I was always astounded by Robert’s endless energy to serve the community. What stands out for me is what a great ambassador he was. He was always there and willing to give of himself as a member of the town board and as the mayor of North Wilkesboro. He even kept up with me and my career after leaving the town. I know that his presence will be missed,” added Perkins.

Rep. Jeffrey Elmore of North Wilkesboro said Johnson was “a friend, mentor and leader for the people of North Wilkesboro and all of Wilkes County.” Elmore served with Johnson as a North Wilkesboro commissioner before he was elected to the N.C. House. “He had a servant’s heart.... Always concerned about the effect of his decisions on the everyday citizen. He will be missed,” Elmore added.

Angela Day’s first four years as a North Wilkesboro commissioner were Johnson’s last four as mayor. Day was reelected to her second term in 2021. She said Johnson’s love of the Town of North Wilkesboro was unquestionable. “Most days during his tenure, I could find him working on numerous projects for betterment of the town. His office door was always open to talk,” she added.

Johnson assisted Wilkes County Film Commissioner Terri Parsons with movie projects in Wilkes and on getting the North Wilkesboro Speedway reopened. Parsons stated, “Robert’s death is a great loss to all of us. He fought a long, hard, painful battle with cancer. For me, he was a great friend. He came to me when I first moved here and offered his services to help get the speedway reopened and to help find movie and video locations since I wasn’t from here.”

She added, “Robert was a wonderful, Christian man who loved the Town of North Wilkesboro, as well as Wilkes County. He offered his services to anyone who needed anything. I think we are all better for having known him. He passed away knowing he was going to be with the Lord and all his family and friends who passed before him. I am sure he is dancing on those streets of gold today, completely out of pain. I will miss him.”

Johnson was active in the High Country Council of Governments, Downtown North Wilkesboro Partnership and North Wilkesboro Housing Authority.

He served in the U.S. Army and had a successful career as an electrical contractor and owner of Johnson Electric. Johnson grew up in the Broadway community and as a youth performed in the area with his three brothers and one sister as The Johnson Family Singers gospel group.

In 2022, Gov. Roy Cooper approved inducting Johnson into the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, an honor recognizing outstanding and longtime service to the State of North Carolina. Johnson was nominated for this honor by Parsons, Elmore and North Wilkesboro Commissioner Bert Hall.

Wilkes school dropouts decline by 59.5%

The number of dropouts in the Wilkes County schools decreased by 59.5% from the 2020-21 to the 2021-22 school years, according to revised data provided to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) by the Wilkes schools.

The information, provided for DPI’s Consolidated Data Report, showed 32 students dropped out of Wilkes public schools in 2021-22 and 79 in 2020-21. DPI released the annual report on March 1.

“While these numbers are still higher than we prefer, they show tremendous improvement from the 79 (dropouts) reported in 2020-21,” said Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd.

“I think this data reflects the great work of our teachers, counselors and administrators in working with students to keep them in school and discourage dropping out. I also think this reflects the fact that many of our students are making better decisions about their future and we hope that this trend will continue,” he added.

Before the data was revised due to a reporting error, it showed an even larger decrease in Wilkes dropouts 2021-22.

The 32 students who dropped out in 2021-22 included 15 at West Wilkes High School, nine at Wilkes Central High School, six at East Wilkes High School and two at North Wilkes High School.

The Wilkes school dropout rate per 100 students decreased from 2.79 in 2020-21 to 1.20 in 2021-22.

Wilkes was reported as having a 1.81% dropout rate and 52 dropouts in the 2019-20 school year; 2.34% and 69 dropouts in 2018-19; 2.45% and 78 dropouts in 2017-18; 2.59% and 83 dropouts in 2016-17; and 2.50% and 79 dropouts in 2015-16.

The statewide dropout rate rose from 1.94% in 2020-21 to 2.25 in 2021-22. It was 1.53% in 2019-20 and 2.01% in 2018-19.

Dropout rates in nearby school systems in 2021-22 included Elkin City, no dropouts; Mount Airy City, 2.84%; Yadkin County, 0.18%; Alleghany County, 1.67%; Surry County, 2.06%; Watauga, 2.14%; Iredell County-Statesville, 2.77; Alexander County, 3.07%; Caldwell County, 3.31%; and Ashe County, 3.52%.

Due to the impact of the pandemic and remote learning in 2019-20 and 2020-21, DPI recommended caution in comparing data for those years to prior and subsequent years. It said comparing 2021-22 data to data in 2018-19 and 2017-18 is preferable.

Under State School Board policy, a dropout is defined as “any student who leaves school for any reason before graduation or completion of a program of studies without transferring to another elementary or secondary school.

DPI said the annual dropout rate illustrates the number and percentage of students who drop out during one year’s time. Some of these students may return to school the following year and complete high school while others may drop out multiple times.

DPI said the four-year cohort graduation rate is considered a more comprehensive picture of the issue of students’ persistence and high school completion.

The Consolidated Data Report, presented to the legislature, also includes reportable acts and suspensions.

Reportable acts

Reportable acts are offenses occurring in public schools that under state law must be reported to local school administrators, who must report them to DPI within five school days.

Thirty-one reportable acts were reported in the Wilkes schools in 2021-22; 17 in 2020-21; 27 in 2019-20; 69 in 2018-19; 62 in 2017-18; 86 in 2016-17; and 79 in 2015-16.

The 31 acts reported in 2021-22 included 10 incidents of possession of controlled substances in violation of law; nine of possession of alcohol; six of possession of a weapon (other than a firearm); five of assault on school officials or volunteers; and one of sexual offense

The 17 reported in 2020-21 included seven reports of possession of controlled substances in violation of law; seven reports of assault on school officials or volunteers; and three reports of possession of a weapon (other than a firearm).

The 27 acts reported in 2019-20 included possession of controlled substances in violation of law, 17; assault on school officials or volunteers, six; and possession of a weapon (other than a firearm), four.

The 69 acts reported in 2018-19 included possession of controlled substances in violation of law, 29; possession of alcohol, 25; assault with serious injury, one; assault on school officials or volunteers, six; possession of a weapon (other than a firearm), five; sexual assault, one; and sexual offense, two.

The other reportable acts are assault involving use of a weapon; making bomb threats or engaging in bomb hoaxes; willfully burning a school building; taking indecent liberties with a minor, robbery with a dangerous weapon; rape; possession of a firearm; death by other than natural causes; and kidnapping.

“I would expect the number of reportable acts to be higher in 2021-22 than in 2019-2020, when the school year ended in March, and in 2020-2021, when students attended school on an A/B schedule for most of the year,” said Byrd.

“Having all students back together would lead to an expected increase in numbers. However, when we compare the numbers from 2021-2022 to those of 2018-2019 (the last year we were in school for the entire year on a regular schedule), I think it shows that we have a lot to be proud of in terms of the behavior and choices our students are making.”

He added, “I have always viewed reportable offenses through two lenses. However, in that while I don’t want these incidents to take place on our campuses, I am proud of the fact that our teachers and administrators are catching and addressing these concerns. Again, while I don’t want these numbers to be high, I am proud of the efforts of our administrators in keeping our students safe. I hope students and parents can see this from these numbers. I feel like these numbers show that students in Wilkes County are making better choices and our administrators are dealing with this effectively when they do not.”


In the Wilkes County Schools, there were 619 short-term suspensions for a rate of 7.45 short-term suspension per 100 students and an average of 4.34 days per short-term suspension in 2021-22.

There were 184 short-term suspensions and a rate of 2.20 in the Wilkes schools in 2020-21; 364 and a rate of 4.10 in 2019-20; and 578 and a rate of 6.4 in 2018-19.

Statewide in 2021-22, the short-term suspension rate was 14.66 per 100 students. Rates in adjoining counties that year included Elkin City, 1.89; Iredell-Statesville, 3.55; Mount Airy City, 3.96; Ashe County, 4.30; Watauga County, 5.03; Surry County, 8.63; Alleghany County, 8.77; Alexander County, 8.90; and Caldwell County, 14.20.

There were six long-term suspensions in the Wilkes schools in 2021-22; two in 2020-21; four in 2019-20; and one in 2018-19. There were no expulsions these years.

A short-term suspension is exclusion of a student from school attendance for disciplinary purposes for up to 10 school days from the school to which the student was assigned at the time of the disciplinary action. A long-term suspension is more than 10 days.