It is a typical Sunday for 51-year-old Manhattan psychiatrist Dr. William Triebel. He is staying home. Inside his five-room brownstone, filled with plants and symphonic music, the pallid Triebel complains, “I haven’t been able to afford to get away this summer.”
Triebel may talk poor, but a new U.S. Senate report describes him as “the highest-billing Medicaid physician in the nation.” He ran three methadone clinics for drug addicts which took in an incredible $785,114 last year from the New York State Medicaid program. Triebel maintains that he and his wife, Luvia, a nurse from whom he is now separated, netted only $30,000. “Most Medicaid bookkeeping is a fallacy,” he says. “We were billing for 50 employees, and because of the system everything was billed in my name.”
Senate investigators reported numerous violations at Triebel’s clinics, but he has yet to be penalized. “The system as now set up,” said Sen. Frank Moss, who headed the investigation, “allows all kinds of billing practices which may be ripping off the public purse.”
In August the State Health Department announced that Dr. Triebel had made restitution of $320 for double-billing. He denied that it implied any guilt. His reaction to the state’s upcoming investigation of 400 New York physicians for Medicaid irregularities is disarming: “I’m not ashamed. I have nothing to hide.”
His three clinics treated some 1,000 addicts an average of five times each week. Physical examinations and psychological counseling might take up to an hour, but the usual visit, says Triebel, was five or 10 minutes. “The procedure was for them to get their methadone,” Triebel says. “Then the nurses had to watch them to make sure they swallowed it.”
Dr. Triebel, a psychiatrist for 21 years, began working with the methadone program in 1969 while he was medical director of a small private Manhattan hospital. Between 1970 and 1972 he opened the three clinics, all of which were closed by June 1976. The reasons varied: On the Upper East Side Triebel’s lease was not renewed; in Harlem the State Health Department ordered the closing after lack of security led to methadone thefts, and on the Lower East Side the state cited him for inadequate services.
Since June Triebel has devoted most of his time to a conventional private psychiatric practice. His office on the first floor of his home is dominated by a crushed-velvet beige couch. His dog, Genevieve, a German shorthaired pointer, usually sits in during the sessions. “Most patients find Genevieve a delight,” says Triebel. “When they see me interacting with a dog it can be very reassuring.”
Triebel was born into a family that owned a restaurant in Queens. He graduated from City College, then studied psychiatry at Cornell Medical School. “It was the field of medicine where I saw the most discomfort in people’s lives,” says Triebel, who earlier considered a career as a minister.
Away from work Triebel derives pleasure from gardening, music and his three children: Billy, 23, an auto mechanic; Karen, 22, a chemistry student at Bard College; and Douglas, 19, a psychology major at Tulane. He also likes to write poetry and has composed one about Medicaid entitled 116th Street. Sample: “This big Mother don’t want his physical done today. So? Where does a 900-pound gorilla sleep? Well, wherever he wants.” Loosely translated, it means, Triebel says with a sly smile, “There were 11 agencies that made up 218 pages of vague and contradictory rules for Medicaid that didn’t take human beings into account.”