HEAT Initiative Snares Health Fraud Related Guilty Pleas of Physical Therapist, Money Launderer and Patient Recruiter In Detroit

By Cynthia Marcotte Stamer

The interagency Medicare Fraud Strike Force targeting Medicare Fraud in the Detroit area scored another series of criminal convictions last week. 

The U.S. Department of Justice Criminal Division (Justice Department), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) jointly announced Friday (December 11, 2009) that Baskaran Thangarasan, Sandeep Aggarwal and Wayne Smith had plead guilty for their roles in connection with several Detroit-area health care fraud scheme.

On December 9, 2009, Thangarasan plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and Aggarwal plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to launder money. On December 11, 2009, Smith plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud.

Thangarasan Guilty Plea To Conspiracy To Commit Health Care Fraud

On December 9, 2009, Thangarasan plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud. And Aggarwal plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to launder money. He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine at sentencing.

According to information contained in plea documents, Thangarasan, a licensed physical therapist, admitted that he began working in approximately September 2003 as a contract therapist for a co-conspirator. This co-conspirator owned and controlled several companies operating in the Detroit area that purported to provide physical and occupational therapy services to Medicare beneficiaries. Thangarasan admitted that he, the co-conspirator and others created fictitious therapy files appearing to document physical therapy services provided to Medicare beneficiaries, when in fact no such services had been provided. According to court documents, the fictitious services reflected in the files were billed to Medicare through sham Medicare providers controlled by Thangarasan’s co-conspirators.

Thangarasan admitted that his role in creating the fictitious therapy files was to sign documents and progress notes indicating he had provided physical therapy services to particular Medicare beneficiaries, when in fact he had not. Thangarasan was paid approximately $50 by co-conspirators per file that he falsified in this manner. Thangarasan also admitted that in the course of the scheme charged in the indictment, he signed approximately 1,011 fictitious physical therapy files, falsely indicating he had provided physical therapy services to Medicare beneficiaries. Thangarasan admitted he knew that the files he helped falsify were used to justify fraudulent billings to Medicare.

In addition, Thangarasan admitted that between approximately September 2003 and May 2006, his co-conspirators submitted claims to the Medicare program totaling approximately $5,055,000 for files that were falsified by Thangarasan. Medicare actually paid approximately $2,325,000 on those claims. Thangarasan admitted that throughout the conspiracy, he was fully aware that Medicare was being billed for occupational therapy services he had falsely indicated he had performed.

Aggarwal Guilty Plea to Money Laundering

Aggarwal faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine after admitting in the same case to assisting co-conspirator Suresh Chand in laundering the proceeds of Chand’s Medicare fraud scheme. Chand, who pleaded guilty in September 2009 to conspiracy to commit health care fraud and conspiracy to launder money, admitted to conspiring to submit approximately $18 million in fraudulent physical and occupational therapy claims to the Medicare program. Aggarwal, who admitted working at Chand’s office, acknowledged that his role in the scheme was to set up sham entities at Chand’s direction, with the purpose of using those entities to distribute the proceeds of the fraud to the various co-conspirators. According to plea documents, one such entity was called Global Health Care Management Services. Aggarwal admitted that Global Health Care Management Services, which he helped create, provided no health or management services of any type, but existed solely as a mechanism to conceal the location of fraudulently obtained Medicare proceeds. Aggarwal admitted in his plea that he and Chand laundered approximately $393,000 through this sham entity.

Smith Guilty Plea To Conspiracy To Commit Health Care Fraud

At sentencing, Smith face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for his participation in a scheme to falsely bill Medicare.  . 

Smith pleaded guilty to an indictment that charged he transported and paid Medicare beneficiaries to attend Sacred Hope Center, a Southfield, Mich.-infusion clinic. According to the indictment, the Medicare beneficiaries he paid and transported were paid to sign paperwork indicating that they had received infusions and injections of specialty medications that they did not in fact receive.

According to the indictment, Sacred Hope Center routinely billed the Medicare program for services that were medically unnecessary and/or never provided. The primary owners and operators of Sacred Hope Center have pleaded guilty and admitted purchasing only a small fraction of the medications that the clinic billed the Medicare program for providing. These co-conspirators have also stated that patients were prescribed medications at the clinic based not on medical need, but instead based on which medications were likely to generate Medicare reimbursements.

HEAT Operations Continuing

The cases are being investigated by the FBI and the HHS Office of the Inspector General. Theses cases were brought as part of the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, supervised by the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan.

The investigation resulting in these guilty pleas were conducted as part of a series of interagency Medicare Fraud “Strike Forces” operating in several regions of the U.S. as part of the continuing Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT) operations of HHS and the Justice Department.  Based on initial successes of Strike Force operations in Miami (Phase One) and  Los Angeles (Phase Two), the Justice Department and HHS on May 20, 2009 expanded the scope of these operations to include Detroit and Houston Strike Force teams.

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.

Solutions Law Press author and 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. 

Other Helpful Resources & Other Information

We hope that this information is useful to you.   If you found these updates of interest, you also be interested in other updates on HEAT activities such as the following:

Other recent updates that also may be of interested published on our electronic Solutions Law Press Health Care Update publication include:

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©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  All rights reserved. 

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