in Houston, Texas

Friend of Rep. Borris Miles runs Costa Rican 'medical tourism' firm; HISD approves $600K contract with doc linked to same firm

Wednesday, Jul 13, 2011, 07:55AM CST
By Trent Seibert & Jennifer Peebles
Medical tourism

A state lawmaker and Houston schools vendor who arranged all-expenses-paid trips to Costa Rica for Houston schools trustee Larry Marshall has a friend and business associate who runs a Costa Rican medical tourism company -- the same company that played a major role in the medical tourism event Marshall attended in Costa Rica in November.

State Rep. Borris Miles, a Democratic state House member from Houston whose insurance agency services some of the Houston schools’ flood insurance policies, is an associate of DiCarlos Davis, a Houston businessman who is CEO of International Healthcare Access. The firm’s website touts weight loss services, cancer treatments, dental care and cosmetic procedures that are available from its affiliated doctors in Costa Rica.

Records show Davis’ firm was a major participant in the November medical tourism “familiarization trip” that Marshall attended in Costa Rica, a trip Miles has said he arranged. Miles has said he wants to help people lower their health care costs by exploring medical tourism.

Also representing Davis' company at that November event in Costa Rica, public records indicate, was Kenneth D. Wells, a Houston doctor to whom the Houston Independent School District is giving a $600,000 no-bid consulting contract as an adviser on employee health care issues.

Wells is an advocate of medical tourism, in which people travel to other nations to receive medical treatment or undergo procedures that would be much more expensive in the U.S. His consulting firm’s online bio says his “work on medical tourism” is “one area of innovation” for him, and Wells is slated to deliver a speech Wednesday on medical tourism to a group of Houston human resources professionals at the DoubleTree Guest Suites hotel on Westheimer Road. He did not return a call for comment for this story.

Dr. Kenneth WellsWELLS

Miles has said the Costa Rican government picked up the expenses when Marshall and others went on the four-day “familiarization” trip -- called a “fam trip” in medical-tourism industry lingo -- last November. Miles had extended the same offer to most of the Houston Independent School District's trustees, and has said he has also offered it to other school systems' trustees and other politicians as well.

The revelation of the ties between Miles and Davis come at a time when HISD’s business practices are under increased public scrutiny.

Texas Watchdog recently reported that HISD trustees president Paula Harris -- she is a friend of Miles; he is godfather to Harris’ children -- voted four times on $28 million in contracts that included work for a firm owned and run by another of Harris’ close friends, while HISD also hired the friend’s firms to do more than $100,000 in no-bid work ranging from tracking down truant teens to dry cleaning drapery. Texas Watchdog also recently reported that another friend of Harris’, Demetra C. Jones, the wife of Harris’ campaign treasurer, had been paid $75,000 in no-bid work to arrange after-school classes and programs.

The closeness of HISD officials to people who have business interests before the district worries some.

“Whatever the talk, whatever speeches are being made, so much of what is happening at HISD doesn't really seem to be about educating kids,” said Mary Beckner, an HISD parent. “Students are being used as a shield for the money to be made.”

GROUP TRIP TO SAN JOSE

Marshall, Wells, Davis and Davis' wife, Myra, all flew to San Jose, Costa Rica's capital, on the same flight last November, records show: Continental Flight 1528, nonstop, economy class, out of Bush Intercontinental. Also on the flight with them was Charles Coonrod, an executive for an employee benefits brokerage firm called Foundation Strategies that has done business with HISD, along with a staffer of the trust that provides health insurance to Metro Transit Authority employees.

Zeph Capo, a staffer for Houston's largest teachers' union, the Houston Federation of Teachers, has also said he went on the trip, but Capo’s name does not appear on the same flight reservation with the others. His boss, union chief Gayle Fallon, has said the Costa Rican government has been “hustling” HISD on medical tourism.

Wells and Coonrod also appear with Marshall and others in a group photo taken on the trip that Texas Watchdog found on Miles’ Facebook page several weeks ago.

Marshall has said he made two trips to Costa Rica last year, in April and November, both arranged by Miles.

Costa Rica group photoOn the November "fam trip" in Costa Rica: HISD trustee Larry Marshall, second from left;Charles Coonrod, third from right (back row); Dr. Kenneth Wells (back row at right).

The abbreviation "IHCA" appears next to both Davis and Wells' names in the November event's glossy color schedule, which says both Wells and Davis would give presentations during the opening day talks at San Jose's DoubleTree Cariari hotel on the benefits of medical tourism.

International Healthcare Access' name and logo is displayed prominently on the November medical tourism conference schedule, along with those of the Council for International Promotion of Costa Rica Medicine, also called ProMed, and Costa Rica's tourism bureau.  

International Health Care Access' website lists Davis as CEO of the firm; business corporation registration records on file with the Costa Rican government list Davis as the firm’s “gerente” -- Spanish for manager or director.

Texas state records show Davis runs, has run or has been involved in a number of small businesses in Houston, including the firms TMA Risk Services, DatasorsConsulting, Vortel Inc., and Epix-GHS Inc.

When a photographer for the Houston Chronicle captured Miles celebrating his win over incumbent Al Edwards in March 2010, Miles was shown enjoying the triumph with Davis, whom a caption for the newspaper’s online edition described as Miles' "business partner."

Reached by phone Tuesday, Miles said he was in the insurance business with Davis and sometimes uses Davis as a consultant. He said he has no business interest in International Healthcare Access.

Davis and his wife have given Miles $11,250 in campaign donations over his political career, all in 2005-06, according to records from the Texas Ethics Commission. (Miles bested Edwards for the House District 146 seat in 2006, but Edwards returned to beat Miles in 2008.) And a person identifying himself as Borris Miles donated $250 toward Davis' charity run in the 2011 New York City Marathon, according to the charity’s Web site.

Reached by Texas Watchdog on his cell phone Tuesday, Davis asked that questions be sent to him via e-mail. He had not responded to the e-mail as of presstime.

Davis also has a business tie to Harris. When Davis’ firm DatasorsConsulting sought to do business with the city of Fort Worth last year, online records show the firm listed as its address 315 W. Alabama St., the Montrose office building owned by Harris and her husband, and from which the Harrises run multiple businesses. (However, the company's official registered address with the state is near the West Loop.)

While Miles told the Houston school trustees that his office would handle the arrangements on behalf of Costa Rica's tourism ministry, e-mails made public by the school system indicate the plane reservations for the November trip for Marshall, Wells, Coonrod, Allen and others were on one itinerary, connected to Davis' e-mail address, and all linked with Davis' Continental Airlines frequent flyer account number.

DOC INKING DEAL WITH HISD

Meanwhile, the exact nature of Wells’ affiliation with IHCA is not clear.

The conference schedule doesn't elaborate on his connection to the firm or why he was there as its representative. He is not one of the two people identified publicly on Costa Rican government documents available online for IHCA's corporate registration.

And IHCA is not mentioned on Wells' LinkedIn profile or his official online bio from his Houston-based health-care consulting firm, called Alken Health Resources, which advises employers on health care issues.

HISD trustees, including Marshall, voted June 23 to approve contracting with Alken, paying up to $640,000. The contract is still being negotiated, the school system said in an e-mail last week. HISD and many other government agencies do not require competitive bids to be sought for professional services.

Wells "provides unique services in medical cost containment as a licensed physician with extensive corporate health care plan management experience," reads a summary of Wells' services given to HISD trustees prior to their vote.

The summary listed numerous steps the Houston district had taken to help employees stay healthy and cut health care costs, such as employee assistance programs and over-the-telephone “wellness coaching,” and told the trustees that “Alken Health Resources’ healthcare industry expertise as well as the knowledge of the medical community will provide key resources and strategies to integrate these programs, establish appropriate measurable goals, evaluate program effectiveness, and provide key support and intervention to ensure the success of these programs.”

With roughly 30,000 employees -- the district is one of the largest employers in Houston -- the rising cost of employee health care is a major issue for HISD which, like many school systems in Texas, is trying to make ends meet in the face of severe cutbacks from the state and a down economy.

Medical tourism isn’t mentioned anywhere in the material given to the trustees before they voted, though it does mention “domestic medical travel” as a cost-cutting HISD initiative.

A brochure available on Alken’s Web site lists “international travel health services/medical tourism” as one of numerous example solutions for employers trying to stop the spiral of workers’ health care costs. And he’s a member of three LinkedIn groups concerning medical tourism, including Medical Tourism & Travel Developers.”

In addition to being president of Alken, Wells also is medical director of Xenith Group, a financial services firm launched by two whistleblowers from Allen Stanford's failed financial empire.

“Other health and wellness specialties include providing companies with a corporate medical director on a contractual basis and medical tourism consulting,” reads Xenith’s description on the LinkedIn networking service.

With both a medical degree and a master’s in business administration, Wells’ resume includes a stint as medical director for oil-and-gas giant Tenneco. He is also a former board member of the Christus Health System and of Houston's Saint Thomas University, and is a former U.S. Army National Guard Flight Surgeon of the Year, according to his LinkedIn resume.

The “fam trip” in Costa Rica last November took participants on tours of clinics and hospitals where medical tourism procedures are performed. All three hospitals listed for visits on the schedule are also listed on International Healthcare Access’ site as being affiliated with the firm.

The trip also featured relaxation in hot springs for the attendees along with trips to a volcano, zipline rides and sightseeing at a suspension bridge, according to the event schedule.

***
Contact Jennifer Peebles at jennifer@texaswatchdog.org or 281-656-1681. Follow her on Twitter at @jpeebles or @texaswatchdog. Contact Trent Seibert at 832-316-4994 or trent@texaswatchdog.org. Follow him on Twitter at @trentseibert or @texaswatchdog.

Lynn Walsh contributed to this story.

Texas Watchdog photo illustration by Jennifer Peebles.

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Comments
Publius
Monday, 07/18/2011 - 10:16AM

If you look at that the doctors affiliated with International Health Access, all but one are cosmetic/bariatric surgeons. http://www.intlhca.com/

Is HISD in need of finding Boob and Belly Jobs for HISD employees? Nice work on finding more crony contracts. $600,000 could by 40 laptop computers for 15 classrooms.

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