8 Miami-Area Residents Charged, Assets Frozen in $22 Million Home Health Medicare Fraud Scheme

Eight Miami-Dade County, Florida residents have been indicted in connection with an alleged $22 million Medicare fraud scheme operated out of Miami businesses purporting to specialize in home health care services and the assets of those charged and their companies frozen as part of a joint Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Medicare Fraud Strike Force operation.

DOJ and HHS officials jointly announced the Florida indictments and injunction action on June 26, 2009, just two days after their June 24, 2009 joint announcement of that a Detroit Medicare Fraud Strike Force had secured indictments against 53 people for schemes to submit more than $50 million in false Medicare claims.

Both the Florida and Detroit actions arose from health care fraud conducted by Medicare Fraud Strike Force teams acting as part of a recently formalized and expanded Health Care Fraud Prevention & Enforcement Action Team (HEAT) jointly announced by the DOJ and HHS on May 20, 2009.  The Florida and Detroit actions announced last week reflect the growing commitment of federal officials to investigate and prosecute Medicare and other alleged heath care fraud.

8 Florida Indictments

The Florida indictments announced June 26, 2009 charge Gladys Zambrana, Javier Zambrana, Enrique Perez, Alejandro Hernandez Quiros aka Alex Hernandez, Vanessa Estrada, Vicenta Tellechea, Modesto Hidalgo and Carlos Castaneda conspiracy to commit health care fraud.  Gladys Zambrana was also charged with four counts of health care fraud.  Gladys Zambrana and Hernandez Quiros were charged with three counts each of paying health care kickbacks, while Perez, Hidalgo and Tellechea were charged with one count each of paying health care kickbacks.  Gladys Zambrana, Perez, Alejandro Quiros, Tellechea and Castaneda were also charged with conspiracy to launder health care fraud proceeds.

According to the indictment, Gladys Zambrana, Perez and Hernandez Quiros operated ABC Home Health Care Inc. (ABC), listing Javier Zambrana as the owner; and Gladys Zambrana and Castaneda operated Florida Home Health Care Providers Inc. (Florida Home Health), listing Tellechea as the owner.  Both ABC and Florida Home Health purported to be home health agencies that catered to Medicare beneficiaries.  The indictment alleges that at both agencies, beneficiaries were recruited and paid kickbacks and bribes to arrange for their Medicare beneficiary numbers to be used by their co-conspirators to file claims with Medicare for purported home health care services.  The indictment alleges that the services were not provided and were not medically necessary.

The indictment alleges that in addition to exerting ownership and control of the home health agencies, Hernandez Quiros and Castaneda acted as Medicare beneficiary recruiters for ABC and Florida Home Health, respectively; and Hidalgo, a medical assistant, falsified medical tests and records to make it appear that the services were needed.  The indictment alleges that ABC billed more than $17 million to the Medicare program for services provided from January 2006 through December 2008 that were medically unnecessary and were not actually provided.  During that time frame, Medicare paid more than $11 million on those fraudulent claims submitted by ABC.  The indictment also alleges that from October 2007 through March 2009, Florida Home Health billed more than $5 million to the Medicare program for services that were medically unnecessary and not actually provided.  During that time frame, Medicare paid more than $4 million on those fraudulent claims submitted by Florida Home Health.

The charge of conspiracy to commit health care fraud carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.  Each charged count of health care fraud carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years and each count of paying health care kickbacks carries a maximum prison sentence of five years.  Conspiracy to launder health care fraud proceeds carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years per count.

In conjunction with the criminal case, on June 24, 2009, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a civil complaint for injunctive relief under the fraud injunction statute and obtained a temporary restraining order freezing the assets of ABC, Florida Home Health, Gladys Zambrana, Javier Zambrana, Perez, Hernandez Quiros, Castaneda and Tellechea.  In addition, that temporary restraining order also freezes certain financial assets of four other companies the defendants owned or controlled and allegedly used to launder money fraudulently obtained from Medicare.  The temporary restraining order is intended to preserve the remaining proceeds of the fraud for recovery by the United States as part of the criminal case and any related civil proceedings.

53 Indicted In Detroit June 24

The announcement of the Florida indictment comes just 2 days after DOJ, HHS and FBI officials announced that a Detroit Medicare Fraud Strike Force had secured indictments against 53 people for their involvement in alleged schemes to submit false Medicare claims.  The indictments unsealed June 24, 2009 returned by a grand jury in Detroit resulted in arrests in Miami, New York City and Detroit resulted from a concentrated effort by the Detroit Medicare Fraud Strike Force targeting infusion therapy and physical/occupational therapy providers involved in schemes orchestrated to defraud the Medicare program.

Collectively, the Detroit indictment accuses the physicians, medical assistants, patients, company owners and executives charged in the indictments of conspiring to submit more than $50 million in false claims to the Medicare program.  According to the indictments, the defendants participated in schemes to submit claims to Medicare for treatments that were in fact medically unnecessary and oftentimes, never provided.  In many cases, indictments also allege that beneficiaries accepted cash kickbacks in return for allowing providers to submit forms saying they had received the unnecessary and not provided treatments. 

Federal Officials Turning On The HEAT on Health Care Fraud

 

The Florida and Detroit indictments reflect the growing commitment and cooperation among federal and state officials to investigation and prosecution of health care fraud using Medicare Fraud Task Forces operating as part of HEAT.  Drawing upon successful experiences gained from Medicare Fraud Task Forces operating in Miami and Los Angeles since 2007, HEAT is an expanded multi-agency effort jointly announced by HHS and DOJ in May, 2009 that uses a multi-agency team of federal, state and local investigators to investigate and combat Medicare fraud through the use of Medicare data analysis techniques and an increased focus on community policing. Since strike force operations began in March 2007, DOJ officials report that the Medicare Fraud Task Forces already have resulted in the indictment of 257 defendants in 115 cases for their allegedly fraudulently billing Medicare for more than $600 million.

Before the May 20, 2009 HEAT announcement, Medicare Fraud Strike Forces operating demonstration projects in South Florida and Los Angeles already had produced a number of indictments. The Medicare Fraud Strike Force team operating in South Florida has already convicted 146 defendants and secured $186 million in criminal fines and civil recoveries.  After the success of operations in South Florida, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force expanded in May 2008 to phase two in Los Angeles, where 37 defendants have been charged with criminal health care fraud offenses.  To date in the Los Angeles cases, more than $55 million has been ordered in restitution to the Medicare program.  DOJ and HHS officials have indicated that the success of these demonstration projects lies behind the founding of the HEAT initiative.

The heightened emphasis on enforcement of federal health care fraud laws reflected in the HEAT program the enactment of recent amendments to the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. § 3729 (FCA)  under the “Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009”(FERA).  The FERA amendments increase the likelihood both that whistleblowers will turn in health care providers and other individuals and organizations that file false claims in violation of the FCA and the liability that violators may incur for that misconduct.

The FERA amendments and the HEAT Team and Strike Force activities are part of a broader emphasis in the enforcement of federal health care fraud laws by both the Administration and Congress.  President Obama’s proposed Fiscal Year 2010 budget seeks to further increase funding for fraud prevention and enforcement by investing $311 million — a 50 percent increase from 2009 funding — to strengthen program integrity activities within the Medicare and Medicaid programs.  The Obama Administration anticipates that all combined, the anti-fraud efforts in the President’s budget could save $2.7 billion over five years by improving oversight and stopping fraud in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, including the Medicare Advantage and Medicare prescription drug programs.  Many state agencies also are stepping up their health care fraud investigations and enforcement.

In light of this new emphasis upon health care fraud detection and enforcement, health care providers now more than ever need to prepare to demonstrate the appropriateness and defensibility of their health care billing and other compliance efforts.

Curran Tomko and Tarski LLP Health Care Practice Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer has extensive experience advising and assisting health care practitioners and other businesses and business leaders to establish, administer, investigate and defend health care fraud and other compliance and internal control policies and practices to reduce risk under federal and state health care and other laws. You can get more information about her health industry experience here.  

If you need assistance with these or other compliance concerns, wish to inquire about arranging for compliance audit or training, or need legal representation on other matters please contact Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, CTT Health Care Practice Group Chair, at cstamer@cttlegal.com, 214.270.2402 or your other favorite Curran Tomko Tarski LLP attorney. 

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©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  All rights reserved. 

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