The owner of two pharmacies and a management company in Florida pleaded guilty Jan. 25 to his role in a $931 million healthcare fraud scheme. He is the seventh defendant to plead guilty in the scheme, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Larry Smith pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud, and his sentencing is set for Oct. 25. In his written plea agreement, Mr. Smith admitted to conspiring with others to defraud pharmacy benefit managers into paying for fraudulent prescriptions. As part of the plea agreement, Mr. Smith agreed to pay restitution of $24.9 million and forfeit approximately $3.1 million.
An indictment charged Mr. Smith and others with a nationwide conspiracy to defraud pharmacy benefit managers by submitting $931.4 million in bills for fraudulent prescriptions purchased from a telemarketing company. After improperly soliciting patient information, the marketing companies received approvals through telemedicine prescribers then sold the prescriptions to pharmacies in exchange for kickbacks, said Derrick Jackson, special agent in charge at HHS’ Office of Inspector General in Atlanta.
In September 2018, HealthRight, a telemedicine company, and its CEO Scott Roix pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud for their roles in the scheme. They agreed to pay $5 million in restitution. Mr. Roix’s sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 25.
Mihir Taneja, Arun Kapoor, Maikel Bolos and Sterling-Knight Pharmaceuticals also pleaded guilty in December 2020, according to the Justice Department.
At the last minute, President Donald Trump granted pardons to several individuals convicted in huge Medicare swindles that prosecutors alleged often harmed or endangered elderly and infirm patients while fleecing taxpayers.
“These aren’t just technical financial crimes. These were major, major crimes,” said Louis Saccoccio, chief executive officer of the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association, an advocacy group.
The list of some 200 Trump pardons or commutations, most issued as he vacated the White House this week, included at least seven doctors or health care entrepreneurs who ran discredited health care enterprises, from nursing homes to pain clinics. One is a former doctor and California hospital owner embroiled in a massive workers’ compensation kickback scheme that prosecutors alleged prompted more than 14,000 dubious spinal surgeries. Another was in prison after prosecutors accused him of ripping off more than $1 billion from Medicare and Medicaid through nursing homes and other senior care facilities, among the largest frauds in U.S. history.
“All of us are shaking our heads with these insurance fraud criminals just walking free,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. The White House argued all deserved a second chance. One man was said to have devoted himself to prayer, while another planned to resume charity work or other community service. Others won clemency at the request of prominent Republican ex-attorneys general or others who argued their crimes were victimless or said critical errors by prosecutors had led to improper convictions.
Trump commuted the sentence of former nursing home magnate Philip Esformes in late December. He was serving a 20-year sentence for bilking $1 billion from Medicare and Medicaid. An FBI agent called him “a man driven by almost unbounded greed.” Prosecutors said that Esformes used proceeds from his crimes to make a series of “extravagant purchases, including luxury automobiles and a $360,000 watch.”
Esformes also bribed the basketball coach at the University of Pennsylvania “in exchange for his assistance in gaining admission for his son into the university,” according to prosecutors.
Fraud investigators had cheered the conviction. In 2019, the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association gave its annual award to the team responsible for making the case. Saccoccio said that such cases are complex and that investigators sometimes spend years and put their “heart and soul” into them. “They get a conviction and then they see this happen. It has to be somewhat demoralizing.”
Tim McCormack, a Maine lawyer who represented a whistleblower in a 2007 kickback case involving Esformes, said these cases “are not just about stealing money.”
“This is about betraying their duty to their patients. This is about using their vulnerable, sick and trusting patients as an ATM to line their already rich pockets,” he said. He added: “These pardons send the message that if you are rich and connected and powerful enough, then you are above the law.”
The Trump White House saw things much differently.
“While in prison, Mr. Esformes, who is 52, has been devoted to prayer and repentance and is in declining health,” the White House pardon statement said.
The White House said the action was backed by former Attorneys General Edwin Meese and Michael Mukasey, while Ken Starr, one of Trump’s lawyers in his first impeachment trial, filed briefs in support of his appeal claiming prosecutorial misconduct related to violating attorney-client privilege.
Trump also commuted the sentence of Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor who had served four years in federal prison for fraud. That case also ensnared U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who was acquitted in the case and helped seek the action for his friend, according to the White House.
Prosecutors had accused Melgen of endangering patients with needless injections to treat macular degeneration and other unnecessary medical care, describing his actions as “truly horrific” and “barbaric and inhumane,” according to a court filing.
Melgen “not only defrauded the Medicare program of tens of millions of dollars, but he abused his patients — who were elderly, infirm, and often disabled — in the process,” prosecutors wrote.
These treatments “involved sticking needles in their eyes, burning their retinas with a laser, and injecting dyes into their bloodstream.”
Prosecutors said the scheme raked in “a staggering amount of money.” Between 2008 and 2013, Medicare paid the solo practitioner about $100 million. He took in an additional $10 million from Medicaid, the government health care program for low-income people, $62 million from private insurance, and approximately $3 million in patients’ payments, prosecutors said.
In commuting Melgen’s sentence, Trump cited support from Menendez and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). “Numerous patients and friends testify to his generosity in treating all patients, especially those unable to pay or unable to afford healthcare insurance,” the statement said.
In a statement, Melgen, 66, thanked Trump and said his decision ended “a serious miscarriage of justice.”
“Throughout this ordeal, I have come to realize the very deep flaws in our justice system and how people are at the complete mercy of prosecutors and judges. As of today, I am committed to fighting for unjustly incarcerated people,” Melgen said. He denied harming any patients.
Faustino Bernadett, a former California anesthesiologist and hospital owner, received a full pardon. He had been sentenced to 15 months in prison in connection with a scheme that paid kickbacks to doctors for admitting patients to Pacific Hospital of Long Beach for spinal surgery and other treatments.
“As a physician himself, defendant knew that exchanging thousands of dollars in kickbacks in return for spinal surgery services was illegal and unethical,” prosecutors wrote.
Many of the spinal surgery patients “were injured workers covered by workers’ compensation insurance. Those patient-victims were often blue-collar workers who were especially vulnerable as a result of their injuries,” according to prosecutors.
The White House said the conviction “was the only major blemish” on the doctor’s record. While Bernadett failed to report the kickback scheme, “he was not part of the underlying scheme itself,” according to the White House.
The White House also said Bernadett was involved in numerous charitable activities, including “helping protect his community from COVID-19.” “President Trump determined that it is in the interests of justice and Dr. Bernadett’s community that he may continue his volunteer and charitable work,” the White House statement read.
Others who received pardons or commutations included Sholam Weiss, who was said to have been issued the longest sentence ever for a white collar crime — 835 years.“Mr. Weiss was convicted of racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering, and obstruction of justice, for which he has already served over 18 years and paid substantial restitution. He is 66 years old and suffers from chronic health conditions,” according to the White House.
John Davis, the former CEO of Comprehensive Pain Specialists, the Tennessee-based chain of pain management clinics, had spent four months in prison. Federal prosecutors charged Davis with accepting more than $750,000 in illegal bribes and kickbacks in a scheme that billed Medicare $4.6 million for durable medical equipment.
Trump’s pardon statement cited support from country singer Luke Bryan, said to be a friend of Davis’.
“Notably, no one suffered financially as a result of his crime and he has no other criminal record,” the White House statement reads.
“Prior to his conviction, Mr. Davis was well known in his community as an active supporter of local charities. He is described as hardworking and deeply committed to his family and country. Mr. Davis and his wife have been married for 15 years, and he is the father of three young children.”
CPS was the subject of a November 2017 investigation by KHN that scrutinized its Medicare billings for urine drug testing. Medicare paid the company at least $11 million for urine screenings and related tests in 2014, when five of CPS’ medical professionals stood among the nation’s top such Medicare billers.
A Florida healthcare executive is appealing $43 million in financial penalties after President Donald Trump commuted his 20-year prison sentence in December, according to law.com.
Philip Esformes, who operated a chain of skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities in Florida, was sentenced Sep. 12 to 20 years in prison. The sentencing came roughly five months after a 12-person jury found him guilty of more than 20 charges, including paying and receiving kickbacks, money laundering and bribery. He was convicted after an eight-week trial for his role in a $1.3 billion Medicare and Medicaid fraud case.
President Trump in late December commuted Mr. Esformes’ prison sentence. The communication left other aspects of his sentence intact, including restitution.
Mr. Esformes still must forfeit $38 million and owes about $5 million in restitution, according to McKnight’s Senior Living. In the appeal of the financial penalties, lawyers cite the federal government’s “inability to show a single instance of fraudulent billing,” according to the report.
President Donald Trump commuted a 20-year sentence for a Florida healthcare executive who was convicted for his role in a $1.3 billion Medicare fraud case. It was the largest healthcare fraud scheme ever charged by the U.S. Justice Department.
In April 2019, Philip Esformes, who operated a network of more than 30 skilled nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Florida, was found guilty of 20 charges, including paying and receiving kickbacks, money laundering and bribery, according to the Department of Justice. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and ordered to pay $44.2 million in forfeiture and restitution. The commutation doesn’t overturn the restitution order.
Mr. Esformes was among several people President Trump granted a full pardon or commutation of all or some of their sentences. In a Dec. 22 news release, the White House said Mr. Esformes is in declining health.
Federal agencies have charged 345 people across the country, including more than 100 providers and four telehealth executives, with submitting more than $6 billion in fraudulent claims to payers. Of that, $4.5 billion was connected to telemedicine schemes and about $800 million each to substance abuse treatment and illegal opioid distribution.
More than 250 medical professionals had their federal healthcare billing privileges revoked for being involved in the scams, according to a statement released Wednesday.
The U.S. Department of Justice also said it is creating a new rapid response strike force to investigate fraud cases involving major providers that operate in multiple jurisdictions.
Telehealth fraud has increased significantly since 2016, the HHS Office of Inspector General said. As providers have quickly pivoted many services to virtual care during the COVID-19 pandemic, attempts at fraud will likely follow.
One of the cases outlined Wednesday included false claims for COVID-19 testing while another involved a COVID-19 related scheme to defraud insurers out of more than $4 million.
The telehealth fraud allegedly involved a marketing network that lured hundreds of thousands of people into a criminal scheme with phone calls, direct mail, TV ads and online pop-up ads. Telemedicine executives then paid doctors to order unneeded medical equipment, testing or drugs with either no patient interaction or only a brief call.
Those were either not given to the patients or were worthless to them. The proceeds were then laundered through international shell corporations and banks.
The scheme is similar to one DOJ prosecuted in April 2019involving fraudulent telehealth companies that pushed unneeded braces on Medicare beneficiaries in exchange for kickbacks from durable medical equipment companies.
The massive bust included the work of 175 HHS OIG agents and analysts and targeted myriad fraud operations across the U.S. and its territories.
One of the larger scams involved 29 defendants in the Middle District of Florida. A telemedicine company and medical professionals working for it billed Medicare for medical equipment for patients they never spoke to.
In New Jersey, laboratory owners paid marketers to get DNA samples at places like senior health fairs. Doctors on telemedicine platforms then ordered medically unnecessary and not reimbursable genetic testing.
The U.S. Department of Justice is charging 10 defendants for an “elaborate” pass-through billing scheme that used small rural hospitals across three states as shells to submit fraudulent claims for laboratory testing to commercial insurers, jacking up reimbursement.
The defendants, including hospital executives, lab owners and recruiters, billed private payers roughly $1.4 billion from November 2015 to February 2018 for pricey lab testing, reaping $400 million.
The four rural hospitals used in the scheme are: Cambellton-Graceville Hospital, a 25-bed rural facility in Florida; Regional General Hospital of Williston, a 40-bed hospital in Florida; Chestatee Regional Hospital, a 49-bed facility in Georgia; and Putnam County Memorial Hospital, a 25-bed hospital in Missouri. Only Putnam emerged from the scheme relatively unscathed: Chestatee was sold to a health system that plans to replace it with a newer facility, Cambellton-Graceville closed in 2017 and RGH of Williston was sold for $100 to an accounting firm earlier this month.
The indictment, filed in the Middle District of Florida and unsealed Monday, alleges the 10 defendants, using management companies they owned, would take over rural hospitals often struggling financially. They would then bill commercial payers for millions of dollars for pricey urine analysis drug tests and blood tests through the rural hospitals, though the tests were normally conducted at outside labs, and launder the money to hide their trail and distribute proceeds.
The rural hospitals had negotiated rates with commercial insurers for higher reimbursement for tests than if they’d been run at an outside labs, so the facilities were used as a shell for fraudulent billing for often medically unnecessary tests, the indictment alleges.
The defendants, aged 34 to 60, would get urine and other samples by paying kickbacks to recruiters and healthcare providers, like sober homes and substance abuse treatment centers.
Screening urine tests, to determine the presence or absence of a substance in a patient’s system, is generally inexpensive and simple — it can be done at a substance abuse facility, a doctor’s office or a lab. But confirmatory tests, to identify concentration of a drug, are more precise and sensitive and have to be done at a sophisticated lab.
As such they’re more expensive and are typically reimbursed at higher rates than screening urine tests. None of the rural hospitals had the capacity to conduct confirmatory tests, or blood tests, on a large scale, but frequently billed in-network insurers, including CVS Health-owned Aetna, Florida Blue and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia, for the service from 2015 to 2018, the indictment says.
Rural hospitals are facing unprecedented financial stress amid the pandemic, but have been fighting to keep their doors open for years against shrinking reimbursement and lowering patient volume. That can give bad actors an opportunity to come in and assume control.
One of the defendants, Jorge Perez, 60, owns a Miami-based hospital operator called Empower, which has seen many of its facilities fail after insurers refused to pay for suspect billing. Half of rural hospital bankruptcies last year were affiliated with Empower, which controlled 18 hospitals across eight states at the height of the operation. Over the past two years, 12 of the hospitals have declared bankruptcy. Eight have closed, leaving their rural communities without healthcare and a source of jobs.
“Schemes that exploit rural hospitals are particularly egregious as they can undermine access to care in underserved communities,” Thomas South, a deputy assistant inspector general in the Office of Personnel Management Office of Inspector General, said in a statement.
An orthopedic surgeon was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison Nov. 22 for his role in a healthcare fraud scheme that resulted in the submission of more than $580 million in fraudulent claims, mostly to California’s worker compensation system, according to the Department of Justice.
Daniel Capen, MD, was sentenced more than a year after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and soliciting and receiving kickbacks for healthcare referrals. He was one of 17 defendants charged in relation to the government’s investigation into kickbacks physicians received for patient referrals for spinal surgeries performed at Pacific Hospital in Long Beach, Calif.
Dr. Capen received at least $5 million in kickbacks for referring surgeries to Pacific Hospital and for referring services to organizations affiliated with the hospital. He allegedly accounted for $142 million of Pacific Hospital’s claims to insurers between 1998 and 2013, according to the Justice Department.
In addition to the prison term, Dr. Capen was ordered to forfeit $5 million to the federal government and pay a $500,000 fine.
The Trump administration is proposing to loosen regulations that prohibit doctors from steering patients insured by federal programs to facilities where they have a financial interest and that outlaw health care companies from offering bribes and kickbacks in exchange for patient referrals.
Why it matters: The industry has long clamored for an overhaul to these laws, which companies say obstruct their goals of providing “value-based care.” But critics worry the broad and vague changes could engender more fraud and abuse than there already is.
Hospitals, doctors, nursing homes and other entities would be able to create “value-based arrangements,” and those deals could include exchanging bonuses or other types of “remuneration” without running afoul of referral laws.
For example, under these exemptions, a hospital could provide a nursing home with a behavioral health nurse for certain discharged patients, or a hospital could donate cybersecurity technology to a physician’s office.
Many exemptions already exist, including for organizations called “accountable care organizations” that try to keep a patient’s care within a narrow set of hospitals and doctors, but these changes would go much further.
Between the lines: The overarching concern is everyone’s definition of “value” is different. How will regulators know whether providers are acting in good faith to coordinate care, or if they are using “value-based care” as a cover to control patient referrals and enrich themselves?
A major exclusion: Pharmaceutical companies, medical device firms, labs and medical equipment makers are cut out from the changes because the federal government is afraid those companies would “misuse the proposed safe harbors.”
Pharma lobbyists, in particular, have pushed hard to change the law so drug companies could directly subsidize drug copays for Medicare and Medicaid patients, even though federal officials have said that practice “masks the high prices those companies charge for their drugs.”
HHS Secretary Alex Azar told reporters the government may consider separate regulations for value-based drug contracts, even though the evidence of those deals’ effectiveness is limited at best.
The bottom line: These changes come at the same time that hospitals, physicians, pharmaceutical companies and others are paying out billions of dollars every year in fraud settlements.
Public comments are due Dec. 31, and if this comment process is anything like the initial requests that asked for guidance, the industry will be heavily involved.
The defendants ordered unnecessary tests that were reimbursed by Medicare, with laboratories sharing the profit, DOJ says.
The U.S. Department of Justice has charged 35 people with unlawfully charging Medicare $2.1 billion in what it said is one of the largest healthcare fraud schemes in history.
The 35 alleged offenders were charged in five separate federal districts, and were linked to dozens of telemedicine firms and laboratories focused on genetic testing for cancer. The people charged, including nine doctors and one other medical professional, cumulatively billed Medicare billions for cancer genetic tests, the DOJ said in a press release.
The charges were a culmination of coordinated law enforcement activities over the past month that were led by the Criminal Division’s Health Care Fraud Unit, resulting in charges against more than 380 individuals who allegedly billed federal healthcare programs for more than $3 billion, and allegedly prescribed and dispensed approximately 50 million controlled substance pills in Houston, across Texas, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast, the Northeast, Florida and Georgia, and the Midwest.
These include charges against 105 defendants for opioid-related offenses, and charges against 178 medical professionals.
The investigation targeted an alleged scheme involving the payment of illegal kickbacks and bribes by CGx laboratories in exchange for the referral of Medicare beneficiaries by medical professionals working with fraudulent telemedicine companies for expensive, and medically unnecessary, cancer genetic tests.
According to the DOJ, the targets of the scheme were primarily seniors, who were approached at health fairs, at their homes during door-to-door visits, or through telemarketing calls. The “recruiters,” as they were called, would approach seniors about supposedly free cancer screenings or generic cheek swab tests, and the recruiters would then obtain the seniors’ Medicare information for the purposes of fraudulent billing or identify theft.
The recruiter would then get a doctor to sign off on a genetic so a lab would process it, and then pay a kickback in exchange for ordering the test. The lab would process the test and bill Medicare, and once it was reimbursed, would share the proceeds with the recruiter, according to the charges.
Often, the test results were not provided to the beneficiaries, or were worthless to their actual doctors. Some of the defendants allegedly controlled a telemarketing network that lured hundreds of thousands of elderly and/or disabled patients into a criminal scheme that affected victims across the U.S.
The defendants allegedly paid doctors to prescribe CGx testing, either without any patient interaction or with only a brief phone conversation with patients they had never met or seen.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT
In addition to the DOJ charges, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Center for Program Integrity said it took adverse administrative action against cancer genetic testing companies and medical professionals who submitted more than $1.7 billion in claims to the Medicare program.
The DOJ Criminal Division, along with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General and the FBI, spearheaded the investigation.
The DOJ calls the scheme one of the largest it has ever handled.
THE LARGER TREND
Since its inception in March 2007, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, which maintains 15 strike forces operating in 24 districts, has charged nearly 4,000 defendants who have collectively billed the Medicare program for more than $16 billion.
In addition, CMS, working in conjunction with the Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General, are taking steps to increase accountability and decrease the presence of fraudulent providers.
The newest Medicare fraud scheme is the second to be uncovered in the last month. Earlier in September, a telemedicine CEO pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States and pay and receive healthcare kickbacks and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering in a scheme estimated at $424 million.
ON THE RECORD
“Unfortunately, audacious schemes such as those alleged in the indictments are pervasive and exploit the promise of new medical technologies such as genetic testing and telemedicine for financial gain, not patient care,” said Deputy Inspector General for Investigations Gary L. Cantrell of HHS-OIG. “Instead of receiving quality care, Medicare beneficiaries may be victimized in the form of scare tactics, identity theft, and in some cases, left to pay out of pocket. We will continue working with our law enforcement partners to investigate those who steal from federal healthcare programs and protect the millions of Americans who rely on them.”
“Healthcare fraud and related illegal kickbacks and bribes impact the entire nation,” said Assistant Director Terry Wade of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. “Fraudulently using genetic testing laboratories for unnecessary tests erodes the confidence of patients and costs taxpayers millions of dollars. These investigations revealed some medical professionals placing their greed before the needs of the patients and communities they serve. Today’s law enforcement actions reinforce that the FBI, along with its partners, will continue to pursue and stop this type of illegal activity.”
The U.S. Department of Justice said Wednesday it charged 58 people in Texas in connection with their alleged roles in various schemes to defraud government health programs, including distributing and dispensing medically unnecessary opioids, billing Medicaid for non-emergency ambulance services that were never actually provided and paying kickbacks and laundering money through durable medical equipment companies.
The allegations involved multiple programs including Medicare, Medicaid, TRICARE, the Department of Labor-Office of Worker’s Compensation programs as well as private insurance companies.
Separately, DOJ brought charges against a total of 34 people for their alleged participation in Medicare and Medicaid fraud schemes in other states, including California, Arizona and Oregon. Seventeen of the people charged in those schemes were doctors or licensed medical professionals.
Created in 2007, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force has units operating in 23 districts, and has charged nearly 4,000 defendants who have collectively billed the Medicare program for more than $14 billion. It’s a joint effort between DOJ and HHS to deter healthcare fraud.
According to the most recent statistics, from January, the strike force has brought 2,117 criminal actions, secured 2,754 indictments and recovered $3.3 billion in connection with its investigations.
HHS declared the opioid crisis a national emergency in 2017. And the DOJ is increasingly focusing on fraud related to opioids, including going after medical professionals allegedly involved in the unlawful distribution of opioids and other prescription narcotics.
“Sadly, opioid proliferation is nothing new to Americans,” U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick of the Southern District of Texas said in a statement announcing the charges. “What is new is the reinforced fight being taken to dirty doctors and shady pharmacists,” he said.
The coordinated healthcare fraud enforcement operation across Texas resulted in charges involving networks of “pill mill” clinics that led to $66 million in losses and the distribution of 6.2 million pills, the government said. Sixteen doctors and pharmacists were among those charged.
And that’s on top of last month, when the Health Care Fraud Unit’s Houston Strike Force charged dozens of people in a trafficking network that diverted more than 23 million oxycodone, hydrocodone and carisoprodol pills.
The Texas actions also involved healthcare fraud other than opioid diversion, including fraudulent physician orders for durable medical equipment, fraudulent claims for ambulance services and stealing protected healthcare information.
The separate actions in California, Arizona and Oregon involved schemes that ran the gamut from billing for medically unnecessary compounded drugs, unnecessary cardiac treatments and testing, billing for chiropractic services never provided and a hospice kickback scheme.