September 22, 2013 Updated: September 23, 2013 at 2:44 pm
When patients think they can't trust their doctors, Guardian Patient Advocates is there. The Colorado company says for an annual fee it provides independent medical advice from its own physicians to ensure the best care.
Is it expensive?
"Not really," the company website says. "Not if you value your life."
Annual plans range from $200 to more than $5,000.
The year-old company says its staff is "the experienced leader in compassionate patient advocacy" and the only ones in the booming field who are "board-certified in Physician Patient Advocacy by the American Board of Advocate Physicians and members of the American College of Advocate Physicians."
The problem: The certification board is a fake. So is the college. And the company includes Edwin Shockney, a man experienced in conning people.
The Gazette exposed Shockney as a phony psychotherapist in 2011, showing he had fabricated degrees that are required to be a licensed professional counselor, defrauded companies, repeatedly perjured himself and harmed patients who needed help but got made-up pseudo psychology.
After The Gazette published its findings, Shockney lost his state license, shuttered his practice, declared bankruptcy and left town. But he didn't quit the health care business.
A new Gazette investigation finds Shockney moved into realms of health care not policed by regulators. In addition to the patient advocacy business, he is selling some of the same psychological services he sold in the past under the cover of a shell corporation that hides his identity.
Both businesses inhabit an unregulated niche of health care where guys like Shockney can dupe people with little fear of state or federal intervention.
Contacted by phone, email and through his lawyer, Shockney could not be reached for comment.
"These guys are just lying, making stuff up," said Elisabeth Russell, president of the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants, when shown Guardian Patient Advocates' website claims of certifications. "It's complete crap. They made it up out of thin air."
The 200-member association is crafting a national credentialing program for the nascent profession of patient advocacy, she said, "to avoid problems just like this."
While the overwhelming majority of advocates are honest, she said, the field is a perfect place for shysters to operate. "There is no national accreditation, no certification," she said. "States do not regulate it. Feds do not regulate it, so any fraudsters can declare themselves patient advocates."
Setting up a new shop
Shockney, who was raised in a religious family in rural Indiana, never graduated from college. During his years as a counselor in Colorado Springs, he got around the state education requirements by asserting he had a doctorate in psychology. The state never checked his claims.
As a licensed professional, he worked his way into increasingly influential circles of psychology, examining local police candidates and testifying as an expert in court.
He charged $150 an hour, patients said, often just to have them listen to relaxation tapes.
After the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies pulled his license in 2011, Shockney went underground, continuing to ply his trade in ways that do not require education, state licensing or even that he use his real name.
He moved to Parker and set up a corporation called CIBH-Global, using a post office box in Castle Rock and his grown daughter's name as the name of the incorporator on state documents. She knew nothing about it, said her husband, who asked that they not be identified.
CIBH-Global said on its website that it was "a consortium of health care professionals specializing in behavioral assessment, treatment and intervention."
In March, Shockney renamed the corporation HDMS-Global, according to state incorporation papers. The company says on its website that it provides what it calls psychophysiological assessments and standardized psychobehavioral examinations to "promote professional performance while reducing risk and loss."
It makes no mention of Shockney but says it has locations in Denver, Seattle, San Diego, Chicago and London that serve clients "from the Pacific Missile Range Facilities to Dubai and Kosovo to corporations, hospitality groups, and agencies within the United States."
The Gazette could find only one location: A $25-per-month post office box in a strip mall.
The company offers screening tests similar to standardized, scientifically rigorous tests given by psychologists, but HDMS has its own versions with such names as the Psychobehavioral Performance Quality Survey and Law Enforcement Safety Officer Analysis. The Gazette was unable to find anyone else in the field who uses them.
"I have never heard of any of these tests," said Rick Ginsberg, former legislative director for the Colorado Psychological Association, a group that promotes and lobbies for the profession.
Shockney gave similar tests as a licensed professional counselor. A former business associate, Jim Johnson, who paid Shockney to give the tests to prospective employees, called them "wacky, made-up garbage."
Calls and emails to HDMS-Global were not returned.
The company does not use the words "psychology," "psychological," "licensed" or "professional counselor" on its website - words that are policed by the state. Instead, HDMS-Global sidesteps regulation with vague language, saying it provides "professional consultation and assessment services."
"That could mean anything. It seems like he learned from the last time," said Stephanie Smith, a board member of the Colorado Psychological Association. "He is very careful not to make any claims or use any words that would attract regulators."
When Shockney set up HDMS-Global, he helped create another organization called the Don Horn Resource Center, in partnership with former Broncos quarterback and Colorado Springs resident Don Horn.
The center's website, which was taken down after Aug. 1, focused on athletic injuries with special attention to concussions, a top concern among retired NFL players, where Horn is active.
Horn did not respond to requests for an interview.
The center claimed to be an educational organization, but it appears to have done nothing but funnel business back to Shockney.
"For a small investment" the website promised to help people "identify their current health problems" with the help of "the health performance analysis specialists HDMS-Global."
Concerns about Shockney
HDMS-Global started courting business abroad and going after money owed to Shockney's defunct practice.
In spring a London-based company called Psylutions, which, unlike HDMS-Global, is accredited by a number of legitimate professional bodies, started offering psychological screening services to large private security firms. The director, Lionel Fairweather, said he discovered Shockney had staked his claim on the niche.
"I was informed he was the 'expert' in this field and had the business already," he said in an email. "Luckily for me, some time later I was approached by the same company... once they had found out Edwin Shockney was not qualified to do what he said he could do. His work had exposed this company to incredible legal liability and they needed someone professional to take over at short notice."
Fairweather declined to name the company, citing client confidentiality.
HDMS-Global is also attempting to recoup some of Shockney's financial losses from the collapse of his old practice.
On Aug. 26, Shockney's longtime lawyer, Elvin Gentry, sent a letter on the behalf of HDMS-Global to one of Shockney's former clients demanding $2,945.
From 2009 to 2011, Shockney performed pre-employment screenings for the defense contractor ITT, which sends employees to war zones to help with U.S. military computer systems and communications. The screenings were overseen for ITT by a California company called Occu-Med.
"We had real concerns about Shockney early on," said Jim Johnson, president of Occu-Med. "Shockney was using these goofy, made-up tests for screenings. He had no idea what he was doing."
Despite the reservations, ITT stuck with Shockney until The Gazette reported his deceptions in 2011.
When the company canceled the contract with Shockney, Shockney claims he was owed money for screenings he had given. The letter told Johnson to either pay up or appear in court.
"I couldn't believe this guy," Johnson said. "He cheated us, now he wants his money."
In September, Johnson responded in a letter refusing to pay, saying, "We permitted hundreds of men and women to be deployed to the most hazardous of places with the mistaken belief that they had been evaluated by a well-educated, well-trained and well-intentioned professional psychologist."
Shockney, Bergland team up
At the same time Shockney was developing HDMS-Global, he helped start Guardian Patient Advocates.
At the time, patient advocacy was being profiled in a number of business magazines as a growing industry ripe for entrepreneurs.
Shockney teamed up with a doctor named Bert Bergland who practiced for years in the worker compensation field in Colorado Springs.
Shockney had worked with Bergland in the 2000s, according to a 2007 document from the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies.
Bergland left Colorado Springs after declaring bankruptcy in 2010, but he remained in contact with Shockney.
Bergland, who now lives in Estes Park, set up the HDMS-Global website, according to registration data, using the same Castle Rock post office box.
In August 2012, Bergland used the post office box to incorporate Guardian Patient Advocates. He put Shockney on the board of directors.
Shockney's board member profile on the Guardian Patient Advocate website repeats many of the falsehoods he used in the past, including that he has a doctorate in psychology.
The business model is simple: For an annual fee of as much as $5,670, the company offers advice from what it calls physicians.
"Being a Guardian Patient Advocates member is like having a doctor in your family!" the website says.
A basic $216 membership allows patients to email questions to a doctor and get a response by the next day. A "platinum" membership ($5,670) includes 24-hour phone access.
At the "elite" level, which has no fixed price, Guardian Patient Advocates says it "can arrange for private jet flights for member's families, concierge services and hotel bookings at a location convenient to world-renowned hospitals."
In spring the company posted job offers for licensed physicians, promising up to $800 per day.
Bergland hung up when The Gazette contacted him.
Besides Shockney, the Guardian Patient Advocates board of directors includes Horn. The Facebook page for the Don Horn Resource Center urges people facing problems with their health care to check out Guardian Patient Advocates.
The board also includes people with checkered pasts who are making sketchy claims.
Board member Mary Zennet is an alias for a Colorado Springs psychiatrist named Mary Zesiewicz. Zesiewicz practiced psychiatry in Illinois from 1982 until 1999, then moved to Colorado after she was sanctioned by Illinois for "gross negligence in prescribing high doses of Xanax" and declared bankruptcy.
Since then she has worked at a number of local psychiatric hospitals and was listed as an associate in Shockney's failed counseling business. She still has close ties to Shockney. She is named as president of HDMS-Global on state filing documents.
She did not respond to requests for an interview.
The company's chief operating officer, Neil Warnock, of Bellevue, Wash., claims to be a medical doctor on multiple websites but has never practiced. According to Washington records, he is a nurses's aide with an expired license and a bankruptcy. The medical degree he claims is from an unaccredited school in Senegal named St. Christopher's College of Medicine.
Documents suggest Warnock was not a student of St. Christopher's but a staff member. In the late 1990s, he helped set up operations in the United States for a Ugandan school called Kegezi International School of Medicine. The school closed abruptly in 2004, taking students' tuition with it. About that time, Warnock became the "financial aid administrator" for the Senegalese school, which was run by the same man as the Ugandan school, according to a letter from the school's chancellor filed with the New York State Education Department. In short, Warnock helped both schools charge dozens of American students thousands of dollars for virtually worthless degrees. Warnock did not respond to requests for an interview.
More made-up titles
Bergland then founded the American Board of Advocacy Physicians, which claims to be the only accredited body that can certify advocate physicians. Soon after, he created the American College of Advocate Physicians, which accredited the American Board of Advocacy Physicians.
Both entities are little more than official-looking websites.
The organizations, set up using the Castle Rock post office box, make no mention of their connection to Bergland or Guardian Patient Advocates. The Gazette discovered the ties through website registration documents.
Bergland uses the organizations to tout Guardian Patient Advocates, claiming that the company is the only patient advocacy company certified by the board. Shockney and most of Guardian Patient Advocates' board members have the letters F.A.C.A.P. after their names on the website, signifying that they are fellows of the American College of Advocate Physicians - a made-up title.
It's buyer beware
Experts say the groups' many deceptions, while troubling, appear to be legal.
Because HDMS-Global does not use key words or offer the services of a psychologist, licensed professional counselor, or any other regulated professional, the company likely does not fall under regulation by the state, said Stephanie Smith of the Colorado Psychological Association. Instead it is part of an unregulated world of unlicensed psychotherapists that include everyone from life coaches to hypnotists.
"Unfortunately, it is buyer beware out there," Smith said. "People need to be very careful."
The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, which polices counselors and psychologists, cannot determine if HDMS-Global is breaking state law without an investigation, a spokeswoman said.
Guardian Patient Advocates also ducks regulation. The emerging field of patient advocacy has no government oversight, or even a professional accrediting body.
"These guys can do what they want. There is no certification in the industry, there are no rules, it is really the Wild West," said Trisha Torrey, founder of the Alliance of Professional Health Advocates.
She said Bergland was a member of the alliance until October. "But he wanted to dispense medical advice, our guidelines don't allow that. That is where we parted ways."
After Bergland left the alliance, he created the phony board and college to accredit Guardian Patient Advocates.
"It's just so egregious! This is completely against the code of ethics. You can't pretend you are something you are not," said Elisabeth Russell of the National Association of Health Care Advocacy Consultants.
However, she said, without regulation by the government or a professional body, there is little anyone can do.
"I don't see what recourse there is right now except public shaming," she said.
The web of corporations and organizations tied to the Castle Rock post office box continues to grow.
In late August, Warnock set up a corporation called WHST Group, according to state incorporation documents. His name on the documents reads "Dr. Neil Warnock."
It is unclear what the WHST Group does and how it is tied to the other corporations.
When contacted by The Gazette, Warnock sent a one-line email to the rest of the Guardian Patient Advocates board, apparently accidentally copying The Gazette, saying it "seems like a time" for the company's lawyer to "step forward."
The Gazette asked Warnock to explain his comment. He did not respond.