A Massachusetts nurse has pleaded guilty in federal court in Boston in connection with a $100 million healthcare fraud scheme, the Justice Department announced Sept. 13.
Winnie Waruru, a licensed practical nurse, pleaded guilty Sept. 8 to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud, healthcare fraud – aiding and abetting, conspiracy to pay and receive kickbacks, making false statements and making a false statement in a healthcare matter.
Ms. Waruru was employed by Chelmsford, Mass.-based Arbor Homecare Service. She was charged in February 2021 alongside Faith Newton, who was part owner and operator of the home healthcare company from 2013 to 2017. Ms. Newton has pleaded not guilty, according to the Justice Department.
Prosecutors allege that the duo used Arbor to defraud MassHealth and Medicare of at least $100 million by committing fraud and paying kickbacks to get referrals. Specifically, prosecutors allege that Arbor billed payers for home health services that were never provided or weren’t medically necessary. Arbor billed MassHealth for Waruru’s skilled nursing visits, many of which she did not perform, according to the Justice Department.
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.
Oak Street Health, a value-based primary care network for adults on Medicare, is facing a Department of Justice inquiry into its relationships with third-party marketing agents and its provision of free transportation for members.
The DOJ is investigating whether Oak Street violated the False Claims Act, per a regulatory filing published Monday. On a call with investors Tuesday, management declined to provide additional information into the government’s request, saying it was too early to know for sure what exactly the agency is investigating but that they’re working to comply.
Otherwise, the provider had a generally solid third quarter with better-than-expected revenue and well-controlled medical costs, analysts said. Oak Street increased its full-year 2021 guidance following the results, which beat Wall Street expectations with topline revenue of $389 million, up 78% year over year and a quarterly record for the company.
The federal government is increasingly cracking down on alleged fraud, especially in the Medicare Advantage program. In privately run MA plans, CMS pays companies on a per-member basis, then adjusts payments based on the acuity or severity of their member’s health status, as supported by provider data like diagnostic codes. Generally, the sicker the member, the higher the plan’s reimbursement.
That’s led to allegations of plans hiking risk scores to overinflate members’ health needs, resulting in higher payments from CMS. Watchdogs have been finding higher incidence of fraud and abuse as the MA program becomes more popular, growing to cover more than 40% of all Medicare beneficiaries.
Oak Street isn’t a traditional plan itself, but enters into full-risk contracts with Medicare Advantage plans, and via CMS’ direct contracting program, in which it assumes full responsibility for patients’ medical expenses in exchange for a fixed per-member, per-month payment. The Chicago-based company is the latest target of a federal inquiry into whether it violated the False Claims Act.
According to the primary care company, the DOJ sent a civil investigative demand on Nov. 1 asking for information about Oak Street’s relationships with third-party marketers and transportation partners.
Oak Street does provide patients transportation to appointments when they need it and has various ways for finding new patients, including community partnerships, but it’s unclear what the DOJ is specifically investigating, CEO Mike Pykosz told investors.
“We have had no meaningful conversations with the government,” Pykosz said. “I’m not really sure what the link is.”
The CEO noted it’s not unusual for such inquiries to take months to resolve, particularly in the hyper-regulated healthcare industry, but said he wouldn’t speculate further.
A civil investigative demand is a form of administrative subpoena, and doesn’t denote any regulatory or legal action itself. However, it is used by the government to kick off investigating potential False Claims violations, and determine whether there’s sufficient evidence to warrant filing an action, according to the National Law Review.
Penalties for violating the act could range from $11,655 to $23,331 per violation, plus triple damages. Total penalties have resulted recently in some significant payouts from MA participants. Notably, in late August, integrated health system Sutter Health agreed to pay $90 million to settle whistleblower allegations of risk adjustment fraud, in the largest False Claims Act settlement against a hospital system in the MA program.
Analysts noted the inquiry, while in early stages, is a point of concern for Oak Street’s future stock performance.
“This creates a new potential risk factor that we are unlikely to get clarity on for some time,” SVB Leerink analyst Whit Mayo wrote in a note.
Oak Street, which also provides services to patients with a range of insurance options, had an otherwise solid quarter, eclipsing $1 billion of year-to-date revenue for the first time in the company’s history.
The highly infectious delta variant did contribute to higher expenses, as it has with other providers.
Oak Street reported $15 million in costs from COVID-19 admissions in the first half of the year, and another $10 million in the third quarter. COVID-19-related expenses surged in the latter half of August and continued into September, but tailed off early into the fourth quarter, CFO Tim Cook said.
The majority of Oak Street’s patients are in northern U.S. markets, however, which experienced coronavirus surges last year during the winter as more people stayed indoors.
“We will see what happens in November and December,” Cook said. “While COVID costs are going to be lower in Q4, unfortunately we’re not in a world where they’re going to be zero.”
In the quarter, the primary care provider’s medical claims expense doubled year over year to almost $310 million. Oak Street’s medical loss ratio of 82.2% was lower than analysts expected, though management said they expected it to be higher in the fourth quarter.
Pykosz and Cook called out medical costs from new patients brought in during 2021 as a system-wide stressor.
Because diagnoses from 2020 claims are used to determine 2021 risk scores, fewer claims last year could mean lower risk scores and lower payments for plans this year. Oak Street’s patients, especially older adults in low-income communities, used fewer services last year during COVID-19, which resulted in lower revenues this year even as costs expanded.
Management said they expected to get back on track in 2022 as patients new to Oak Street this year will contribute to higher reimbursement next year, closing the current medical-cost gap between tenured and new patients.
“This is certainly an outlier year from every other year we’ve had results,” Pykosz said.
Oak Street, which was founded in 2012 and went public in August 2020 at a $9 billion valuation, reported a net loss of almost $110 million in the quarter, compared to a loss of $59 million at the same time last year.
Oak Street continued expanding its membership and network in the quarter, reporting 69% at-risk patient growth and opening 15 new centers in seven new markets.
“At this point we don’t feel there’s a lot of pressure or competitive dynamics pressuring our performance,” Pykosz said.
In the third quarter, Oak Street served 100,500 risk-based patients, representing 76% of its total patient base. The company expects at-risk patient volume to grow to between 111,500 and 113,500 patients this year.
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.
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.
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.
The owners of more than a dozen pharmacies in New York City and Long Island have been arrested and charged for their roles in an alleged $30 million healthcare fraud and money laundering scheme, the Department of Justice announced Dec. 21.
Peter Khaim and Arkadiy Khaimov are accused of submitting fraudulent claims for expensive cancer drugs by exploiting emergency codes and edits in the Medicare system that went into effect due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The drugs were allegedly never provided, ordered or authorized by a medical professional.
Mr. Khaim and Mr. Khaimov allegedly used COVID-19 emergency override billing codes to submit fraudulent claims to Medicare for cancer medication Targretin Gel 1%. The medication has an average wholesale price of about $34,000 for each 60 gram tube, according to the Justice Department.
Prosecutors charged Mr. Khaim and Mr. Khaimov with conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and aggravated identity theft, according to the Justice Department. Mr. Khaimov was separately charged with concealment of money laundering.
Moses D. deGraft-Johnson, MD, pleaded guilty Dec. 18 to 56 counts of healthcare fraud, conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and aggravated identity theft, according to the Department of Justice.
Between late 2015 and his arrest in February of this year, Dr. deGraft-Johnson, who owned and operated the Heart and Vascular Institute of North Florida in Tallahassee, performed invasive surgical procedures on patients who didn’t need them or altered patients’ medical records to reflect procedures he didn’t perform.
As part of his plea deal, Dr. deGraft-Johnson acknowledged consistently performing two invasive diagnostic angiography procedures on hundreds of patients, whether medically necessary or not. When the patients returned for follow-up office visits, Dr. deGraft-Johnson submitted fraudulent claims to their insurance companies stating he performed atherectomies during the appointments. Using this scheme, the physician admitted he claimed to have performed more than 3,000 of these surgical procedures to clear blockages in arteries in as many as 845 of his patients’ legs.
In court documents released in February, prosecutors provided several examples of Dr. deGraft-Johnson’s fraud. In one case, he claimed to have done 14 procedures during a seven-hour period. Prosecutors said the procedures would have taken roughly 28 hours, according to The New York Times. In another example, he allegedly claimed to have performed 13 atherectomies on patients in Florida when he was traveling abroad.
Dr. deGraft-Johnson submitted false claims to insurers for the surgeries he didn’t perform and for the unnecessary procedures. As of Dec. 18, the investigation revealed he received at least $29 million through the fraud scheme.
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.