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.
Ten Texas physicians and a healthcare executive who operates a group of medical practices in Florida agreed to pay a total of $1.68 million to settle kickback allegations, according to a March 22 Justice Department news release.
According to prosecutors, the Texas physicians received thousands of dollars in pay from eight different management service organizations in exchange for ordering laboratory tests from Little River Healthcare, True Health Diagnostics and/or Boston Heart Diagnostics Corp.
Here are the physicians who reached monetary settlements:
Tamar Brionez, MD, agreed to pay $85,006
Gary Goff, MD, and his affiliated practices agreed to pay $454,088
John Hierholzer, MD, agreed to pay $24,850
Bruce Maniet, DO, agreed to pay $175,43
Huy Chi Nguyen, MD, agreed to pay $211,821
Dung Chi Nguyen, MD, agreed to pay $211,721
Rakesh Patel, DO, agreed to pay $174,539
Cuong Trinh, MD, agreed to pay $45,056
Randall Walker, MD, agreed to pay $60,898
Michael Whiteley, DO, agreed to pay $52,015
As part of the settlements, the 10 physicians agreed to cooperate in the investigations against other parties involved in the alleged scheme.
In addition to the physicians, Brett Markowitz, the founder and CEO of Florida Rejuvenation Holdings, which operates medical practices in Tampa, paid $185,000 to resolve allegations of accepting kickbacks from True Health. Prosecutors said True Health paid for each patient that physicians at the medical practices referred for clinical laboratory services.
Janesville, Wis.-based Mercyhealth has fired a vice president in charge of marketing and public relations over an alleged kickback scheme with a vendor, the Janesville Gazette reported Aug.16, citing a letter from the health system’s CEO.
The vice president, Barb Bortner, was fired after health system leaders learned of a $3 million fraudulent invoice and kickback scheme that she was allegedly involved in, Mercyhealth President and CEO Javon Bea said in the letter obtained by the Gazette.
“Our patients and communities we serve expect us to conduct our business affairs with the highest degree of integrity. We are all deeply saddened and disappointed that a member of our team has betrayed that trust,” Mr. Bea wrote in the letter, according to the Rockford Register Star.
Mr. Bea said Mercyhealth officials suspect Ms. Bortner is responsible for fraudulent and “improper” arrangements with an unnamed vendor, and the alleged fraud was linked to the system’s marketing division. Mercyhealth is severing ties with the vendor believed to be involved, the Gazette reported.
The fraud does not appear to have impacted patient care, and the system is taking “all necessary steps to improve Mercyhealth procedures,” Mr. Bea wrote, according to the report.
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.
Three Ascension hospitals in Texas agreed to pay $20.9 million for allegedly paying multiple physician groups above fair market value for services, according to a recent news release from the HHS’ Office of Inspector General.
The three Texas hospitals are Ascension’s Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin, Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin and Ascension Seton Williamson in Roundrock. Ascension self-disclosed the conduct to the inspector general.
The hospitals allegedly violated the Civil Monetary Penalties Law, including provisions related to physician self-referrals and kickbacks in seven instances, according to the April 30 news release.
Some of the allegations the report outlined include Dell Seton paying an Austin physician practice above fair market value for on-call coverage; Ascension Seton Austin paying an Austin practice above fair market value for transplant on-call coverage and administrative services; and Ascension Seton Williamson paying a practice above fair market value to lease the practice’s employed registered nurses and surgical technologists who assisted in surgeries at the hospital.
The release did not disclose the physician groups allegedly involved.
Fourteen defendants have been sentenced to more than 74 years in prison combined and ordered to pay $82.9 million in restitution for their roles in a $200 million healthcare scheme designed to get physicians to steer patients to Forest Park Medical Center, a now-defunct hospital in Dallas, the U.S. Justice Department announced March 19.
More than 21 defendants were charged in a federal indictment in 2016 for their alleged involvement in a bribe and kickback scheme that involved paying surgeons, lawyers and others for referring patients to FPMC’s facilities.Those involved in the scheme paid and/or received $40 million in bribes and kickbacks for referring patients, and the fraud resulted in FPMC collecting $200 million.
Several of the defendants, including a founder and former administrator of FPMC, were convicted at trial in April 2019 and sentenced last week. Other defendants pleaded guilty before trial.
Hospital manager and founder Andrew Beauchamp pleaded guilty in 2018 to conspiracy to pay healthcare bribes and commercial bribery, then testified for the government during his co-conspirators’ trial. He admitted that the hospital “bought surgeries” and then “papered it up to make it look good.” He was sentenced March 19 to 63 months in prison.
Wilton “Mac” Burt, a founder and managing partner of the hospital, was found guilty of conspiracy, paying kickbacks, commercial bribery in violation of the Travel Act and money laundering. He was sentenced March 17 to 150 months in prison.
Four surgeons, a physician and a nurse were among the other defendants sentenced last week for their roles in the scheme. Access a list of the defendants and their sentences here.
The CEO of a chain of medical clinics in Michigan and Ohio was sentenced March 3 to 15 years in prison and ordered to pay $51 million in restitution for his role in a $150 million healthcare fraud scheme, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Mashiyat Rashid was sentenced after pleading guilty in 2018 to money laundering and conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and wire fraud. Twenty other defendants, including 12 physicians, have been convicted for their involvement in the scheme.
Mr. Rashid, who served as CEO of Tri-County Wellness Group from 2008 to 2016, developed and approved a corporate policy to administer unnecessary back injections to patients in exchange for prescriptions of over 6.6 million doses of medically unnecessary opioids, according to the Justice Department.
Many patients experienced pain from the unnecessary injections, and some developed adverse conditions, including open holes in their backs, according to testimony at Mr. Rashid’s trial. Physicians at the clinics denied patients, including those addicted to opioids, medication until they agreed to get the injections, according to court documents.
According to evidence presented at trial, Mr. Rashid only hired physicians who were willing to administer the unnecessary injections in exchange for a split of the Medicare reimbursements for the procedures. Tri-County Wellness Group was paid more for facet joint injections than any other medical clinic in the U.S., according to the Justice Department.
Proceeds of the fraud were used to fund private jets and to buy luxury cars, real estate and tickets to NBA games, prosecutors said. Mr. Rashid was ordered to forfeit to the U.S. government $11.5 million in proceeds traceable to the healthcare fraud scheme, including commercial and residential real estate and Detroit Pistons season tickets.
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.