ERLANGER – A nursing home defending itself from a federal lawsuit alleging that it defrauded Medicare and Medicaid by billing $16 million for “worthless” services and care so “grossly deficient” it led to the death of patients, has quietly settled claims of neglecting residents in previous years.

Villaspring Health Care Center of Erlanger reached out-of-court settlements in one wrongful-death claim and one negligent-care claim, according to Kenton County Circuit Court records. A second wrongful-death claim was dismissed after the plaintiff didn’t follow up on the initial suit.

But the conditions that led to the two settlements recorded at the Kenton County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office remain under a veil of secrecy because the plaintiffs had to sign nondisclosure agreements.

“We did settle a lawsuit, and one of the provisions of the settlements was that I don’t disclose the details of the case,” said Louis P. Cynkar, whose father Louis Cynkar died in December 2005 after being a resident at the nursing home. “If I do, I got to give those people back the money.”

Echoing what authorities said in 2007 when the alleged problems became public, Cynkar said the facilities looked great on the outside but behind closed doors, treatment was lacking. He called in the “chandelier effect,” in reference to how something looks in relationship to its quality.

“We were just extremely deceived,” Cynkar said.

Court records from Cynkar’s suit state that the elder Cynkar moved into the nursing home in August 2004.

The complaint states the elder Cynkar sustained “serious personal injuries, endured severe physical pain and continuous mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life and ultimately … death.”

Carespring Health Care Management, the parent company of the 140-bed Villaspring of Erlanger, and a co-defendant in the federal lawsuit, manages eight nursing homes in Southern Ohio and Northern Kentucky.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services rated seven of Carespring’s nursing homes in the region poorly on staffing, particularly with minutes spent by registered nurses with patients. With the exception of Shawneespring Health Care Center in Harrison, all of the homes were under the national average of 36 minutes a day by an RN per patient.

The reports filed by the federal agency, assess nursing homes based on health inspections, number of nursing staff and other measures such as quality, patient satisfaction and general well-being. The most recent rating was based on data submitted between Jan. 1, 2010, and Sept. 30, 2010.

Villaspring received only one out of five stars for staffing, but is rated average with three stars for health inspections and an above-average four stars for quality measures which include aspects of residents’ health, physical functioning, mental status and general well-being.

While Villaspring of Erlanger’s overall score of two stars is below average, it is not the lowest rated of Carespring’s eight nursing homes in Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky. Highlandspring of Fort Thomas, Heritagespring Healthcare Center of West Chester and Indianspring of Oakley all received one out of five stars.

The federal lawsuit was brought July 15 by Kerry B. Harvey, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky after investigations by the Kenton County attorney’s and Kentucky Attorney general’s offices. The suit alleges the neglect took place from 2004 to 2008.

Cynkar said the confidentiality agreement hasn’t prevented him from cooperating with authorities.

“We have met with the state attorneys office for the last five years,” he said. “So we have worked with them pretty closely.”

Lawyer David Davidson represented former resident Mary C. Fuller in a suit that alleged negligent care but said he wasn’t at liberty to share the details of the claim. She was a resident at the nursing home for only 13 days in November 2007.

“It was settled favorably for my client, but that’s about all I can say,” Davidson said. “There is a nondisclosure agreement.”

He said his client too has cooperated with state authorities but was surprised to see that federal authorities sued civilly using the False Claims Act.

The act allows federal prosecutors to go after anyone suspected of defrauding the United States. The suit claims Villaspring cheated the federal government because it billed Medicare and Medicaid for inadequate services.

A glimpse of what investigators may have found came in a May 2007 interview with The Enquirer. Janet McIntosh of Independence told the newspaper she called state investigators after her father, Cliff Broadus, died in October 2006.

“My father was not a well person – he had Parkinson’s – but people live to be 90 years old with Parkinson’s,” McIntosh said at the time. “He was getting to the point he couldn’t walk anymore, and that’s what we thought we were dealing with.”

Broadus, 73, ended up in a diabetic coma after two weeks at the home, McIntosh said.

During those two weeks, her father called the police three times, but the staff thought he was senile, she said.

“He was scared. He kept saying he was scared, and we didn’t understand,” McIntosh said. “Now we understand a lot more.”

She couldn’t be reached for comment this week.

Barry Bortz, majority owner and CEO of Carespring and co-defendant in the federal lawsuit, and his attorney couldn’t be reached Friday afternoon for comment, but they have consistently denied the claims the nursing home defrauded the government or provided inadequate care. Bortz said earlier this week that the company refused a settlement offer because it has done nothing wrong.

The nursing home has yet to respond to the suit in court and no hearing on the matter has been scheduled. If found guilty, the nursing home could face penalties between $5,500 to $11,000 per false claim and have to repay Medicare and Medicaid three times the amount of the government’s loss for the alleged fraud.