Thirteen people involved in a $27 million healthcare fraud scheme have been sentenced to a combined 84 years in federal prison, the Justice Department announced Aug. 31.
The defendants allegedly participated in a fraud scheme that involved Novus Health Services, a Dallas-based hospice agency. The defendants allegedly defrauded Medicare by submitting false claims for hospice services, providing kickbacks for referrals and violating HIPAA to recruit beneficiaries. Novus employees also dispensed controlled substances to patients without the guidance of medical professionals, according to the Justice Department.
Novus CEO Bradley Harris admitted to the fraud and testified against two physicians who elected to go to trial. Mr. Harris pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and one count of healthcare fraud and aiding and abetting. He was sentenced to 159 months in federal prison in January.
The 12 others convicted in the scheme include three physicians, four nurses and several executives.
Sunny Balwani, the former president and chief operating officer of bankrupt blood-testing company Theranos, on Thursday was found guilty of 12 counts of conspiracy and fraud against certain investors and patients.
It’s a similar verdict to one handed down in January to Theranos founder and ex-CEO Elizabeth Holmes, who once dated Balwani.
Why it matters: Balwani isn’t a household name like Holmes, but he was instrumental in building a billion-dollar house of cards that duped both investors and patients.
Courtroom drama: Balwani’s attorneys tried to pin the blame for Theranos’ failures on Holmes, much as her attorneys had tried to blame Balwani.
As we wrote when the trial began: Holmes tried to thread an incredibly narrow rhetorical needle, denying the existence of fraud while also redirecting blame. Balwani seems to be attempting something similar; claiming he was a savvy executive with lots of past success, but also a naif who was bamboozled by Holmes.
But prosecutors, who originally wanted to try the pair together, often used Balwani’s own words against him. For example, they presented a text message from Balwani to Holmes that read: “I am responsible for everything at Theranos.”
One big difference between the trials, however, was that Balwani didn’t testify in his own defense.
Details: Balwani was convicted on all 12 counts brought against him, after nearly five days of jury deliberations. This includes a wire fraud charge related to a $100 million investment in Theranos from the family of former U.S. Education Sec. Betsy DeVos.
Holmes had been convicted on four of seven counts, each one related to investors and carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Look ahead: Expect Balwani to appeal the verdict, as has Holmes already has done.
The former leader of a rural hospital chain has been convicted for his role in an elaborate pass-through billing scheme, the Justice Department announced June 27.
After a 24-day trial, Jorge Perez, 62, of Miami, was convicted of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and wire fraud, healthcare fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering of proceeds greater than $10,000.
Prosecutors said Mr. Perez conspired with others to bill for $1.4 billion of medically unnecessary laboratory testing services. He used rural hospitals as billing shells to submit claims for services that were mostly performed at outside laboratories.
The evidence presented at trial showed that Mr. Perez and other defendants targeted and obtained control of financially distressed rural hospitals through management agreements and purchases. They targeted rural hospitals because they often get higher reimbursement rates for laboratory testing from private insurers, according to the Justice Department.
The defendants promised to save the rural hospitals from closure by turning them into laboratory testing sites, but instead billed for fraudulent laboratory testing. Through the scheme, Mr. Perez and others made it appear the laboratory testing was performed at the rural hospitals when, in most cases, it was done by outside testing laboratories owned by defendants, prosecutors said.
“After private insurance companies began to question the defendants’ billings, they would move on to another rural hospital, leaving the rural hospitals they took over in the same or worse financial status as before,” the Justice Department said. At least three of the hospitals were forced to close.
Ricardo Perez, 59, of Miami, was also convicted of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and wire fraud, healthcare fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering of proceeds greater than $10,000 on June 27. He is Jorge Perez’s brother, according to Kaiser Health News.
The former CFO of Pacific Hospital’s physician management arm was sentenced to 15 months in prison June 24 for a tax offense related to a kickback scheme, according to the Justice Department.
The sentencing came about four years after George Hammer was charged. In 2018, he pleaded guilty to one count of filing a false tax return.
Mr. Hammer allegedly supported a kickback scheme that resulted in the submission of more than $500 million in bills for kickbacks for surgeries. He allegedly supported the kickback scheme by facilitating payments to people receiving kickbacks and bribes pursuant to sham contracts that were used to conceal illicit payments, according to the Justice Department.
The Department of Justice notes that Mr. Hammer was a salaried employee and did not profit directly from the kickbacks and bribes.
Twenty-two defendants, including the owner of Pacific Hospital in Long Beach, Calif., have been convicted for participating in the scheme.
A former vice president of Janesville, Wis.-based Mercyhealth was sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison May 4 for wire fraud and tax evasion in relation to a $3.1 million kickback scheme, according to the U.S Justice Department.
Barbara Bortner, 57, Mercyhealth’s former vice president of marketing and public relations, pleaded guilty to the scheme in October 2021.
Ms. Bortner was charged in September 2021. She admitted getting kickbacks from Ryan Weckerly, owner of a marketing agency hired by the health system, from 2015 to 2020.
Prosecutors said Ms. Bortner and Mr. Weckerly created a scheme in which Mr. Weckerly’s marketing agency, Morningstar Media Group, inflated invoices sent to Ms. Bortner for marketing work he did for Mercyhealth. In exchange, Ms. Bortner receive kickbacks from the funds received.
Prosecutors also said Ms. Bortner agreed to maintain Morningstar Media as its primary marketing group in exchange for the kickbacks.
Mr. Weckerly pleaded guilty in November 2021 and will be sentenced May 17.
Mercyhealth fired Ms. Bortner in August 2021, weeks before the charges were filed against her. Mercyhealth said the fraud didn’t affect patient care.
The Justice Department has intervened in a whistleblower lawsuit accusing former executives of San Antonio-based Merida Health Care Group of violating the False Claims Act, according to Law360.
The Justice Department is intervening in the action, which dates back to 2015, alleging the former executives submitted more than $120 million in false claims to Medicare for medically unnecessary home health services and hospice care. The Justice Department is also adding Merida Health Group’s former CEO Henry McInnis to the complaint, according to the report.
The Justice Department alleges Mr. McInnis and Rodney Mesquias, the former owner of Merida Health Care Group, violated the False Claims Act, and the government is also seeking damages under the common law and equitable theories of fraud and payment by mistake, according to court documents filed April 7 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.
Mr. McInnis was sentenced to 15 years in prison in February 2021 for his role in a healthcare fraud and money laundering scheme. Mr. Mesquias was sentenced to 20 years in prison in late 2020.
A San Jose jury convicted Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes on four counts of fraud, deciding that she lied to investors while raising more than $700M in funds for the company. Holmes was found not guilty on four other counts relating to defrauding patients, though Theranos ended up voiding tens of thousands of erroneous test results. Each conviction carries a maximum twenty-year sentence, although Holmes is widely expected to appeal.
The Gist: It’s rare that tech executives are convicted of fraud. Investors, including many health systems, have been flooding healthcare startups with large sums of cash in hopes of big returns. But the Theranos debacle is a reminder that Silicon Valley’s “fake it till you make it culture” is not always the best fit for healthcare. Providers must continue to hold new medical technologies to high standards, regardless of how much promise they hold to “revolutionize” aspects of patient care.
A Cleveland Clinic-owned hospital system in Akron, Ohio, is paying the federal government $21.3 million to settle claims it illegally billed the Medicare program.
Akron General Health System allegedly overpaid physicians well above market value for referring physicians to the system, violating the Anti-Kickback Statute and Physician Self-Referral Law, and then billed Medicare for the improperly referred business, violating the False Claims Act, between August 2010 and March 2016.
Along with an AGHS whistleblower,the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, which acquired the system at the end of 2015, voluntarily disclosed to the federal government its concerns with the compensation arrangements, which were enacted by AGHS’ prior leadership, the Department of Justice said Friday.
The Anti-Kickback Statute forbids providers from paying for or otherwise soliciting other parties to get them to refer patients covered by federal programs like Medicare, while the Physician Self-Referral Law, otherwise known as the Stark Law, prohibits a hospital from billing for those services.Despite the laws and a bevy of other regulations resulting in a barrage of DOJ lawsuits and been a thorn in the side of providers for decades, fraud is still rampant in healthcare.
“Physicians must make referrals and other medical decisions based on what is best for patients, not to serve profit-boosting business arrangements,” HHS Office of Inspector General Special Agent in Charge Lamont Pugh said in a statement on the AGHS settlement.
Cleveland Clinic struck a deal with AGHS in 2014, agreeing to pay $100 million for minority ownership in the system. The agreement gave the clinic the option to fully acquire AGHS after a year, which it exercised as soon as that period expired in August 2015.
The settlement stems from a whistleblower suit brought by AGHS’s former Director of Internal Audit Beverly Brouse, who will receive a portion of the settlement, the DOJ said. The False Claims Act allows whistleblowers to share in the proceeds of a suit.
As fraud has increased in healthcare over the past decade — the DOJ reported 247 new matters for potential investigation in 2000, 427 in 2010 and 505 in 2019 — the federal government has renewed its efforts to crack down on illegal schemes. That’s resulted in the formation of groups like the Medicare Fraud Strike Force in 2007 and the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit in 2017, which has in turn resulted in the DOJ recovering huge sums in stings, settlements and guilty verdicts.
Some of the biggest settlements reach into the hundreds of millions, and involve billions in false claims.
In 2018, DOJ charged more than 600 people for falsely billing federal programs more than $2 billion; last year federal agencies charged almost 350 people for submitting more than $6 billion in false claims. That last case led to creation of a rapid response strike force to investigate fraud involving major providers in multiple geographies.
Other large settlements include Walgreens’ $270 million fine in 2019 to settle lawsuits accusing the pharmacy giant of improperly billing Medicare and Medicaid for drug reimbursements; hospital operator UHS’ $122 million settlement last summer finalizing a fraudulent billing case with the DOJ after being accused of fraudulently billing Medicare and Medicaid for services at its behavioral healthcare facilities; and West Virginia’s oldest hospital, nonprofit Wheeling Hospital, agreeing in September to pay $50 million to settle allegations it systematically violated the laws against physician kickbacks, improper referrals and false billing.
EHR vendor eClinicalWorks paid $155 million to settle False Claims Act allegations around misrepresentation of software capabilities in 2017, while Florida-based EHR vendor Greenway Health was hit with a $57.3 million fine in 2019 to to settle allegations the vendor caused users to submit false claims to the EHR Incentives Program.