Vernon Will faces fraud charges

Vernon Will, whose name is familiar to many in the U.S. hospice community for launching what were at one time the largest hospices in both California and Arizona, today is facing criminal fraud charges in Arizona. The charges are not directly related to his hospice operations, but instead to the sale of lifetime residency contracts in two Phoenix eldercare facilities operated by Will's Wilcare company. Will denies that he committed a crime.

Will, along with Connie Black and Dennis Rezendes, founded Community Hospice Care of Anaheim Hills, CA, in 1990. Five years later the hospice, which had grown to a daily census of 1,200 patients, the lion's share of them nursing home residents, was sold to Vitas Healthcare Corp. in Miami. By then Will had moved to Phoenix and Wilcare had launched new hospice operations in Phoenix, Tucson, Denver, and San Jose, CA, also using the name Community Hospice.

In 1993, the Health Care Financing Administration in Baltimore announced its intention to terminate the Medicare certification of Community Hospice in Phoenix, for failing to meet Medicare's conditions of participation. Will promptly filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Late that year, on a fourth certification visit, the hospice finally satisfied government surveyors, and remained in business with a significantly reduced patient census. According to Arizona court papers, Wilcare was in constant financial crisis from 1993 to 1996. Will refiled for bankruptcy in 1997, and his hospice operations were sold off in that year.

Charges against Will, as president and 100% shareholder of Wilcare, his son Douglas, and Joseph W. Ganzenhuber, a friend and business associate, involve selling lifetime residency contracts to residents in two Phoenix independent-living apartment complexes. Residents signed agreements stating that if they ever left the facility, they would get their money back. Sales staff also represented to residents that their money would be stored in trust accounts - which didn't actually exist, according to court papers.

An Arizona grand jury heard testimony in November 1997 on a joint investigation by the Attorney General's office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in response to complaints by lifetime contract residents that they had not received their promised refund when they moved out. A 35-count indictment details charges of fraud, theft and "illegally conducting an enterprise."

The case is now going through pre-trial motions, says Arizona assistant attorney general Sherry Stephens. "The case won't go to trial until early next year."

Contacted by phone at his home in Scottsdale, AZ, Will tells Hospice Management Advisor, "I deny any wrongdoing. Misinformation was provided. I believe the case will be resolved. I will be vindicated. Lifetime residents will get their money back," he says. Will is not involved in hospice these days, but instead is working as a loan officer for a mortgage company.

Susan Goldwater, executive director of non-profit Hospice of the Valley in Phoenix, tells HMA that donations still come in for Wilcare hospices, more than a year after the company's bankruptcy. However, she adds, "The community isn't paying much attention to the case. It hasn't been in the newspapers since last year."