Former Houston Texas Physician Gets 70 Month Prison Sentence For Fraud Conviction

A Federal court on November 14, 2011 sentenced Armando Chavez, 42, a former physician and owner of the Chavez Medical Group in East Houston to 60 months for the conspiracy charge and to 70 months for each of the three mail fraud charges. In addition to the prison sentences, which will run concurrently, Chavez was also ordered to pay $3,821,082 in restitution.

The prosecution and sentencing of Chavez highlights the heightened risk that physicians and others engaging in aggressive health care billings risk if Federal officials view their actions as crossing the line.  The Chavez case is particularly notable as it primarily stemmed from claims submitted to private health care payers. 

The Chavez sentence resulted from Chavez’ guilty plea to one count of conspiracy and three counts of mail fraud in connection with billings made at the Chavez Medical Group.

The charges brought in April, 2011 stem from improper billing at the Chavez Medical Group between 2005 and 2007.  Federal prosecutors charged that Chavez billed for services he did not perform through a process of “unbundling” medical codes used on claims he filed to increase the amount he was paid by insurance companies.  While most health care providers recognize potential exposures to health care fraud prosecution for making false claims to Medicare, Medicaid or other federal programs, many providers fail to recognize this same exposure also can result from false billings to private health plans and insurers.

Following the initiation of the investigation, Chavez voluntarily surrendered his medical license to the Texas Board of Medicine.  Filing false health care claims is one of many types of personal misconduct that justifies loss of licensure or other discipline under Texas Medical Board rules.

According to the documents filed of record in the case, Chavez was board certified in internal medicine, licensed by the Texas Board of Medicine in 1997. He started his medical practice in family medicine and in 2005, began to perform endovenous laser ablation, a procedure used to repair varicose veins in the legs.

For purposes of billing, the medical insurance industry provides certain billing codes for the laser ablation procedure, which include a group of procedures billed under one code for the entire procedure. Chavez instructed his staff to “unbundle” or separate the codes for this procedure and to bill for individual steps in the procedure, resulting in greater reimbursement and payment for each patient. Additionally, Chavez submitted claims alleging he repaired all six veins for each patient, when in fact – in most cases – he repaired fewer than six veins. By alleging he repaired all six veins, Chavez alleged he performed six procedures over a period of six days, another aspect of the fraudulent billing which he used to justify the unbundling of codes and allowed him to be reimbursed at the highest possible rate.

Federal prosecutors claimed The typical patient whose billing was submitted as “bundled” into one code resulted in payment of approximately $6000, while the patient whose billing codes were “unbundled” typically resulted in payment of approximately $14,000. Based on these figures, Federal prosecutors claim that Chavez billed insurance companies and programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, a total of $14.1 million for which he collected $3.8 million between 2005 and 2007.

The investigation of this case was conducted by the FBI and the Texas Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit. Assistant United States Attorney Cedric L. Joubert prosecuted the case.  According to the Justice Department, the case is being investigated by the Dallas Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT) Strike Force, which includes the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, the FBI and the Texas Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit. Since their inception in March 2007, Strike Force operations in nine locations have charged more than 1,140 defendants who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for more than $2.9 billion.

While health care fraud enforcement remains a lead Federal priority, health care providers in Texas and other HEAT Strike Force targeted regions face heightened exposures to HEAT task force scrutiny and prosecution. In response to these and other investigation and oversight activities, health care providers should strengthen their compliance practices and oversight and take other special care to position themselves and their billings to defend against possible challenge.

For Help With Compliance, Investigations Or Other Needs

If you need assistance providing compliance or other training, reviewing or responding to these or other health care related risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, may be able to help. Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 24 years experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters. Ms. Stamer has extensive experience advising and assisting health care providers and other health industry clients to establish and administer medical privacy and other compliance and risk management policies, to health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns. A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns/ She also regularly designs and presents risk management, compliance and other training for health care providers, professional associations and others.   Her publications and insights appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.  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 Ms. Stamer at (469) 767-8872 or via e-mail here.

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THE FOLLOWING DISCLAIMER IS INCLUDED TO COMPLY WITH AND IN RESPONSE TO U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT CIRCULAR 230 REGULATIONS.  ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, OR (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.

©2011 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.

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