FEDS INDICT 24 IN MASSIVE $1.2B TELEMARKETING, DME SCHEME

https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/feds-indict-24-massive-12b-telemarketing-dme-scheme

Collectively, the executives, business owners and medical professionals involved in the conspiracy are accused of causing more than $1 billion in losses for Medicare.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

Two dozen people were indicted in the multistate, international telemarketing and DME scheme, which allegedly occurred in 17 federal judicial districts.

The 130 DME companies submitted more than $1.7 billion in claims to Medicare, were paid more than $900 million, and accounted in total for more than $1 billion in losses for the federal government.

The swindled money was allegedly laundered through international shell corporations and used to purchase exotic automobiles, yachts and luxury real estate in the United States and abroad,

Federal prosecutors are calling it one of the largest healthcare fraud schemes they’ve ever investigated.

Criminal indictments were made public this week against 24 people, including CEOs, COOs, physicians, and other executives at five telemedicine companies, and the owners of 130 durable medical equipment companies across 17 federal judicial districts for their roles in various schemes to bilk Medicare out of $1.2 billion.

Prosecutors said the DME companies allegedly paid kickbacks and bribes in exchange for the referral of Medicare beneficiaries by physicians in cahoots with fraudulent telemedicine companies for unnecessary back, shoulder, wrist and knee braces.

Some of the defendants allegedly controlled an international telemarketing network that lured over hundreds of thousands of elderly and/or disabled patients into a criminal scheme that crossed borders, involving call centers in the Philippines and throughout Latin America, prosecutors said.

The defendants allegedly paid doctors to prescribe DME either without any patient interaction or with only a brief telephonic conversation with patients they had never met or seen.

“The breadth of this nationwide conspiracy should be frightening to all who rely on some form of healthcare,” said Don Fort, Chief of Criminal Investigations at the Internal Revenue Service, one of six federal agencies involved in the probe.

“The conspiracy described in this indictment was not perpetrated by one individual.  Rather, it details broad corruption, massive amounts of greed, and systemic flaws in our healthcare system that were exploited by the defendants,” Fort said.

The 130 DME companies submitted more than $1.7 billion in claims to Medicare and were paid more than $900 million, and accounted in total for more than $1 billion in losses for the federal government.

The swindled money was allegedly laundered through international shell corporations and used to purchase exotic automobiles, yachts and luxury real estate in the United States and abroad, prosecutors said.

Court documents allege that some of the defendants lured patients for the scheme by using an international call center that advertised to Medicare beneficiaries and “up-sold” the beneficiaries to get them to accept numerous “free or low-cost” DME braces, regardless of medical necessity.

The international call center allegedly paid illegal kickbacks and bribes to telemedicine companies to obtain DME orders for these Medicare beneficiaries. The telemedicine companies then allegedly paid physicians to write medically unnecessary DME orders. Finally, the international call center sold the DME orders that it obtained from the telemedicine companies to DME companies, which fraudulently billed Medicare.

DEFENDANTS IDENTIFIED

  • In New Jersey, Neal Williamsky 59, of Marlboro, and Nadia Levit, 39, of Englishtown, New Jersey, owners of 25 DME companies, were indicted for their alleged participation in a $150 million scheme.

    Albert Davydov, 26, of Rego Park, New York, was charged for his alleged participation in a $35 million DME scheme.

    Creaghan Harry, 51, of Highland Beach, Florida; Lester Stockett, 51, of Deefield Beach, Florida; and Elliot Loewenstern, 56, of Boca Raton, Florida; the owner, CEO and VP of marketing, respectively, of call centers and telemedicine companies were charged for their alleged participation in a $454 million kickback and money laundering scheme.

    Joseph DeCoroso, MD, 62, of Toms River, New Jersey, was charged in a $13 million conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and separate charges of healthcare fraud for writing medically unnecessary orders for DME, often without speaking to patients, while working for two telemedicine companies.

  • In Florida, Willie McNeal, 42, of Spring Hill, the owner and CEO of two telemedicine companies, was charged for his alleged participation in a $250 million scheme to swap kickbacks and bribes for DME referrals.
  • In Dallas, Texas, Leah Hagen, 48, and Michael Hagen, 51, of Dalworthington Gardens, owners and operators of two DME companies, were charged for their alleged participation in a $17 million kickback scheme that generated unnecessary DME orders.
  • In El Paso, Texas, Christopher O’Hara, 54, of Kingsbury, the owner of a telemedicine company, was charged in an $40 million scheme to swap kickbacks and bribes for referrals to DME providers.
  • In Philadelphia, Randy Swackhammer, MD, 60, of Goldsboro, North Carolina, was charged for an alleged $5 million conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud. Swackhammer allegedly wrote medically unnecessary orders for DME while working for a telemedicine company, often with only brief conversations with patients.
  • In California, Darin Flashberg, 41, and Najib Jabbour, 47, both of Glendora, and owners of seven DME companies, were charged with alleged participation in a $34 million scheme that paid kickbacks and bribes in exchange for unnecessary DME orders.
  • In South Carolina, Andrew Chmiel, 43, of Mt. Pleasant, owner of over a dozen companies involved in the scheme, was charged in a $200 million scheme to pay kickbacks and bribes in exchange for unnecessary DME orders.

“THE BREADTH OF THIS NATIONWIDE CONSPIRACY SHOULD BE FRIGHTENING TO ALL WHO RELY ON SOME FORM OF HEALTHCARE. ”

 

 

 

Ex-Florida hospital director gets prison time for role in $1B fraud scheme

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/legal-regulatory-issues/ex-florida-hospital-director-gets-prison-time-for-role-in-1b-fraud-scheme.html

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The former director of outreach programs at Larkin Community Hospital in South Miami, Fla., was sentenced to 15 months in prison April 3 for her role in a $1 billion healthcare fraud scheme.

Four things to know:

1. The judge handed down the sentence just over two months after Odette Barcha pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the federal government and paying and receiving healthcare kickbacks.

2. Ms. Barcha was one of three defendants charged in an indictment unsealed in July 2016. She allegedly had physicians at Larkin Community Hospital discharge patients to skilled nursing homes and other facilities owned by Philip Esformes, who allegedly paid kickbacks for those admissions.

3. Prosecutors allege Mr. Esformes, who operated a network of more than 30 skilled nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Florida, admitted Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries to the facilities even if they did not qualify for skilled nursing home care or for placement in an assisted living facility. Once admitted, the patients received medically unnecessary care that was billed to Medicare and Medicaid.

4. The seven-week trial of Mr. Esformes wrapped up March 29, according to the Miami Herald. On April 5, a federal jury found Mr. Esformes guilty of various counts, including paying and receiving kickbacks, bribery, money laundering and obstruction of justice, according to Law360

 

 

 

An unexpected twist in the ACA case

https://www.axios.com/newsletters/axios-vitals-20db892f-3887-47d7-8a2f-075e3afc8bc0.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiosvitals&stream=top

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A Florida man is capitalizing on the Trump administration’s sudden legal reversal in an attempt to get off the hook for accusations of Medicare fraud.

Philip Esformes, who operated about 20 nursing homes in the Miami area, was arrested in 2016 and charged with committing $1 billion in Medicare fraud through a complex kickback scheme.

  • But Esformes’s lawyers now argue the charges should be dismissed because of the Justice Department’s new position on the Affordable Care Act. ThinkProgress’ Ian Millhiser was the first to flag this creative argument.

How it works: Some of the specific charges against Esformes stem from parts of the Affordable Care Act. They are, his lawyers say, among the specific sections of law that Judge Reed O’Connor invalidated when he threw out the entire ACA.

  • Esformes’s lawyers acknowledge that those statutes are still on the books.
  • But the Justice Department has said it agrees with all of the O’Connor’s decision — which means it has said that “the very statutes it is seeking to enforce in this trial are unenforceable,” his brief argues.
  • The government shouldn’t be able to prosecute Esformes using legal authorities that it’s simultaneously saying are invalid, the lawyers argue.

My thought bubble: This seems like the kind of thing a good prosecutor will probably find a way to wriggle out of. It also seems like the kind of thing career lawyers at DOJ would have caught, if they had been allowed to shape DOJ’s position in the ACA case.

 

 

The Personal Toll of Whistle-Blowing

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/02/04/the-personal-toll-of-whistle-blowing?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiosvitals&stream=top

Why one physician took the risk of becoming an F.B.I. informant to expose alleged Medicare fraud.

 

 

 

 

DOJ recovered $2.5 billion in 2018 healthcare false claim cases

https://medcitynews.com/2018/12/doj-recovered-2-5-billion-in-2018-healthcare-false-claim-cases/?utm_campaign=MCN%20Daily%20Top%20Stories&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=68616131&_hsenc=p2ANqtz–fq1sdxIB88xY-ain-FJhljI6XCajKx4jjImF-6g7OJCDVEtx0Bo9c1pP788k3hLe6ehxSYBoP-w51DLgGo5izH2qh5g&_hsmi=68616131

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

According to the DOJ, this is the ninth consecutive year that the organizations’ civil healthcare fraud settlements and judgments have exceeded $2 billion.

As part of the federal government’s increasing focus on issues of healthcare fraud, particularly in the Medicare space, the U.S. Department of Justice recovered $2.5 billion in settlements and judgments from False Claims Act Cases over the past year.

According to the DOJ, this is the ninth consecutive year that the organizations’ civil health care fraud settlements and judgments have exceeded $2 billion.

While the $2.5 billion number represents federal losses, the DOJ also said it also helped recover significant funds for state Medicaid programs

“Every year, the submission of false claims to the government cheats the American taxpayer out of billions of dollars,” Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio said in a statement.

“In some cases, unscrupulous actors undermine federal healthcare programs or circumvent safeguards meant to protect the public health … The nearly three billion dollars recovered by the Civil Division represents the Department’s continued commitment to fighting fraudsters and cheats on behalf of the American taxpayer.”

The False Claims Act has its roots in groups trying to defraud the military during and after the Civil War and was significantly strengthened since 1986 when Congress increased incentives for whistleblowers to file lawsuits alleging false claims.

In healthcare, organizations across the industry were hit with False Claims cases including drug companies, medical device manufacturers, payer organizations and healthcare providers.

The single largest recovery over the past year was a $625 million settlement paid by drug wholesaler AmerisourceBergen to resolve a number of claims including that the company illegally repackaged injectable cancer drugs into pre-filled syringes and billing multiple doctors for individual drug vials.

The DOJ also brought cases against drug companies who increased drug prices by funding Medicare co-payments meant to serve as a check on healthcare costs.

In one instance, United Therapeutics Corporation paid $210 million over allegations that it illegally used a foundation to funnel co-pay obligations for Medicare patients taking its drugs. Pfizer paid nearly $24 million in a similar case, with the government alleging that the company raised the price of a cardiac drug called Tikosy by 40 percent over three months

One major case against Massachusetts-based medical device company Alere resulted in a $33.2 million settlement over allegations that it sold unreliable diagnostic devices meant to detect acute coronary syndromes, heart failure, drug overdose and other serious conditions.

On the provider side, the DOJ recovered $270 million from DaVita subsidiary HealthCare Partners Holdings for upcoding and providing inaccurate information to inflate Medicare Advantage payments.

Another major case was against former health system Health Management Associates which allegedly engaged in major Medicare fraud including illegal kickbacks to physicians for referrals, incorrect billing for observation and outpatient services and inflated facility fees.

When it comes to health plans, the government’s case against UnitedHealth Group over allegations that it knowingly obtained inflated risk adjustment payments for its Medicare Advantage beneficiaries is still ongoing.

 

 

Trump Administration Invites Health Care Industry to Help Rewrite Ban on Kickbacks

The Trump administration has labored zealously to cut federal regulations, but its latest move has still astonished some experts on health care: It has asked for recommendations to relax rules that prohibit kickbacks and other payments intended to influence care for people on Medicare or Medicaid.

The goal is to open pathways for doctors and hospitals to work together to improve care and save money. The challenge will be to accomplish that without also increasing the risk of fraud.

With its request for advice, the administration has touched off a lobbying frenzy. Health care providers of all types are urging officials to waive or roll back the requirements of federal fraud and abuse laws so they can join forces and coordinate care, sharing cost reductions and profits in ways that would not otherwise be allowed.

From hundreds of letters sent to the government by health care executives and lobbyists in the last few weeks, some themes emerge: Federal laws prevent insurers from rewarding Medicare patients who lose weight or take medicines as prescribed. And they create legal risks for any arrangement in which a hospital pays a bonus to doctors for cutting costs or achieving clinical goals.

The existing rules are aimed at preventing improper influence over choices of doctors, hospitals and prescription drugs for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. The two programs cover more than 100 million Americans and account for more than one-third of all health spending, so even small changes in law enforcement priorities can have big implications.

Federal health officials are reviewing the proposals for what they call a “regulatory sprint to coordinated care” even as the Justice Department and other law enforcement agencies crack down on health care fraud, continually exposing schemes to bilk government health programs.

“The administration is inviting companies in the health care industry to write a ‘get out of jail free card’ for themselves, which they can use if they are investigated or prosecuted,” said James J. Pepper, a lawyer outside Philadelphia who has represented many whistle-blowers in the industry.

Federal laws make it a crime to offer or pay any “remuneration” in return for the referral of Medicare or Medicaid patients, and they limit doctors’ ability to refer patients to medical businesses in which the doctors have a financial interest, a practice known as self-referral.

These laws “impose undue burdens on physicians and serve as obstacles to coordinated care,” said Dr. James L. Madara, the chief executive of the American Medical Association. The laws, he said, were enacted decades ago “in a fee-for-service world that paid for services on a piecemeal basis.”

Melinda R. Hatton, senior vice president and general counsel of the American Hospital Association, said the laws stifle “many innocuous or beneficial arrangements” that could provide patients with better care at lower cost.

Hospitals often say they want to reward doctors who meet certain goals for improving the health of patients, reducing the length of hospital stays and preventing readmissions. But federal courts have held that the anti-kickback statute can be violated if even one purpose of the remuneration is to induce referrals or generate business for the hospital.

The premise of the kickback and self-referral laws is that health care providers should make medical decisions based on the needs of patients, not on the financial interests of doctors or other providers.

The Trump administration is calling its effort a “regulatory sprint to coordinated care.”CreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times.

Health care providers can be fined if they offer financial incentives to Medicare or Medicaid patients to use their services or products. Drug companies have been found to violate the law when they give kickbacks to pharmacies in return for recommending their drugs to patients. Hospitals can also be fined if they make payments to a doctor “as an inducement to reduce or limit services” provided to a Medicare or Medicaid beneficiary.

Doctors, hospitals and drug companies are urging the Trump administration to provide broad legal protection — a “safe harbor” — for arrangements that promote coordinated, “value-based care.” In soliciting advice, the Trump administration said it wanted to hear about the possible need for “a new exception to the physician self-referral law” and “exceptions to the definition of remuneration.”

Almost every week the Justice Department files another case against health care providers. Many of the cases were brought to the government’s attention by people who say they saw the bad behavior while working in the industry.

“Good providers can work within the existing rules,” said Joel M. Androphy, a Houston lawyer who has handled many health care fraud cases. “The only people I ever hear complaining are people who got caught cheating or are trying to take advantage of the system. It would be disgraceful to change the rules to appease the violators.”

But the laws are complex, and the stakes are high. A health care provider who violates the anti-kickback or self-referral law may face business-crippling fines under the False Claims Act and can be excluded from Medicare and Medicaid, a penalty tantamount to a professional death sentence for some providers.

Federal law generally prevents insurers and health care providers from offering free or discounted goods and services to Medicare and Medicaid patients if the gifts are likely to influence a patient’s choice of a particular provider. Hospital executives say the law creates potential problems when they want to offer social services, free meals, transportation vouchers or housing assistance to patients in the community.

Likewise, drug companies say they want to provide financial assistance to Medicare patients who cannot afford their share of the bill for expensive medicines.

AstraZeneca, the drug company, said that older Americans with drug coverage under Part D of Medicare “often face prohibitively high cost-sharing amounts for their medicines,” but that drug manufacturers cannot help them pay these costs. For this reason, it said, the government should provide legal protection for arrangements that link the cost of a drug to its value for patients.

Even as health care providers complain about the broad reach of the anti-kickback statute, the Justice Department is aggressively pursuing violations.

A Texas hospital administrator was convicted in October for his role in submitting false claims to Medicare for the treatment of people with severe mental illness. Evidence at the trial showed that he and others had paid kickbacks to “patient recruiters” who sent Medicare patients to the hospital.

The owner of a Florida pharmacy pleaded guilty last month for his role in a scheme to pay kickbacks to Medicare beneficiaries in exchange for their promise to fill prescriptions at his pharmacy.

The Justice Department in April accused Insys Therapeutics of paying kickbacks to induce doctors to prescribe its powerful opioid painkiller for their patients. The company said in August that it had reached an agreement in principle to settle the case by paying the government $150 million.

The line between patient assistance and marketing tactics is sometimes vague.

This month, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services refused to approve a proposal by a drug company to give hospitals free vials of an expensive drug to treat a disorder that causes seizures in young children. The inspector general said this arrangement could encourage doctors to continue prescribing the drug for patients outside the hospital, driving up costs for consumers, Medicare, Medicaid and commercial insurance.

 

 

 

Feds claim Kansas physician involved in $30M billing fraud scheme

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/legal-regulatory-issues/feds-claim-kansas-physician-involved-in-30m-billing-fraud-scheme.html

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A Kansas physician and Hutchinson (Kan.) Clinic are defendants in a False Claims Act case the federal government recently intervened in, according to the Great Bend Tribune.

The government alleges Mark Fesen, MD, and Hutchinson Clinic billed Medicare and Tricare for more than $30 million for medically unnecessary medications and treatments, including chemotherapy.

The 45-page federal complaint provides nine examples of patients who received unnecessary treatments.

“These patient examples are not isolated examples, but instead representative examples of the medically unnecessary services Fesen and Hutchinson Clinic repeatedly billed to Medicare and Tricare,” states the complaint. “This is supported by the clinic’s own internal audits that found widespread problems with Fesen’s chemotherapy regimens, and particularly his use of Rituxan.”

A clinical pharmacist who worked in Hutchinson Clinic’s oncology department from 2007-14 originally brought the allegations against Dr. Fesen and the clinic under the qui tam, or whistle-blower, provisions of the False Claims Act.