Health Care Providers Warned To Raise Defenses As Feds Charge 91 Individuals Bilked Medicare For Approximately $430 Million

October 4, 2012

Health Care Providers Warned To Raise Defenses As Feds Charge 91 Individuals Bilked Medicare For Approximately $430 Million

A total of 91 doctors, nurses and other licensed medical professionals in Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Brooklyn, Baton Rouge and Chicago are facing health care fraud charges for their alleged participation in false Medicare billings totaling approximately $429.2 million to Medicare fraud schemes under federal indictments unsealed in a joint Department of Justice and HHS Medicare Fraud Strike Force nationwide takedown jointly announced by Attorney General Eric Holder, Health & Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and other agencies today (October 4, 2012). Coming on the heels of President Obama’s touting of the health care fraud fighting success of his Administration during his debate with Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney, the indictments are the latest warning to health care providers of the advisability of tightening their Medicare and other health care billing and other compliance practices.

Highlights of The Latest Strike Force Action

Together, dozens of charged individuals were arrested or surrendered as federal officials unsealed indictments charging more than $230 million in home health care fraud; more than $100 million in mental health care fraud and more than $49 million in ambulance transportation fraud; and millions more in other frauds.

The defendants charged are accused of various health care fraud-related crimes, including conspiracy to commit health care fraud, health care fraud, violations of the anti-kickback statutes and money laundering.  The charges are based on a variety of alleged fraud schemes involving various medical treatments and services such as home health care, mental health services, psychotherapy, physical and occupational therapy, durable medical equipment (DME) and ambulance services.

According to court documents, the defendants allegedly participated in schemes to submit claims to Medicare for treatments that were medically unnecessary and oftentimes never provided.  In many cases, court documents allege that patient recruiters, Medicare beneficiaries and other co-conspirators were paid cash kickbacks in return for supplying beneficiary information to providers, so that the providers could submit fraudulent billing to Medicare for services that were medically unnecessary or never provided.  Collectively, the doctors, nurses, licensed medical professionals, health care company owners and others charged are accused of conspiring to submit a total of approximately $429.2 million in fraudulent billing.

“Today’s coordinated actions represent one of the largest Medicare fraud takedowns in Department of Justice history, as measured by the amount of alleged fraudulent billings,” said Assistant Attorney General Breuer.  “We have made it one of the Department’s missions to hold accountable those who abuse the Medicare program for personal profit.  And there are Medicare fraudsters in prisons across the country – some who will be there for decades – who can attest to our determination, and our effectiveness.”

In Miami, a total of 33 defendants are charged for their alleged participation in various fraud schemes involving a total of $204.5 million in false billings for home health care, mental health services, occupational and physical therapy, and DME.  In one case, three defendants are charged for participating in a fraud scheme at LTC Professional Consultants and Professional Home Care Solutions Inc. which led to approximately $74 million in fraudulent billing for home health care.  In another case, five defendants are charged for participating in a fraud scheme at Hollywood Pavilion which led to $67 million in fraudulent billing for mental health services. 

Sixteen individuals, including three doctors and one licensed physical therapist, are charged in Los Angeles with participating in various fraud schemes involving a total of $53.8 million in false billings.  In one case, four defendants are charged for allegedly participating in a fraud scheme at Alpha Ambulance Inc., which led to approximately $49.2 million in fraudulent billing for ambulance transportation.  The case represents the largest ambulance fraud scheme ever prosecuted by the Medicare Fraud Strike Force.  According to court documents, the defendants provided beneficiaries ambulance rides that were medically unnecessary.

In Dallas, 14 individuals – including two doctors and two registered nurses – are charged for their alleged participation in various fraud schemes involving a total of $103.3 million in false billings.  In one case, three defendants – a medical doctor and two registered nurses – are charged with participating in a fraud scheme at Raphem Medical Practice and PTM Healthcare Services which led to approximately $100 million in fraudulent billing for home health care services.  According to court documents, Dr. Joseph Megwa signed approximately 33,000 prescriptions for more than 2,000 unique Medicare beneficiaries from 2006 to 2011.  Many of these Medicare beneficiaries had primary care physicians who never certified home healthcare services for them.  In order to handle the volume of prescriptions, Megwa allegedly signed stacks of documents without reviewing them.

Seven individuals are charged in Houston for their participation in a fraud scheme at a hospital which led to $158 million in fraudulent billing for community mental health center services.  According to court documents, the defendants who served as administrators at the hospital paid kickbacks – in the form of cigarettes, food and coupons redeemable for items available at the hospital’s “country stores” – to Medicare beneficiaries in exchange for those beneficiaries’ attendance at the hospital’s partial hospitalization programs (PHP).  Allegedly, beneficiaries watched television, played games and engaged in other non-PHP activities rather than receiving the services for which the hospital billed Medicare.  Previously, on Feb. 22, 2012, the assistant administrator of the hospital, Mohammad Kahn, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud and paying kickbacks related to $116 million worth of fraudulent claims submitted to Medicare.  After his guilty plea, an additional $42 million in fraudulent claims were discovered that are included in today’s totals.

In Brooklyn, 15 individuals, including one doctor and four chiropractors, are charged for their alleged participation in various fraud schemes involving a total of $23.2 million in false billings.  In one case, nine defendants, including a medical doctor, are charged with participating in a fraud scheme at Cropsey Medical Care PLLC which led to approximately $13.8 million in fraudulent billing for physical therapy and related services. According to court documents, the defendants paid cash kickbacks to Medicare beneficiaries in exchange for physical therapy that was not medically necessary and on some occasions never provided to beneficiaries.

In Baton Rouge, four defendants, including a licensed practical nurse, are charged for their roles in fraud schemes involving approximately $2.4 million in false claims for medically unnecessary durable medical equipment. 

In Chicago, two defendants, including a dermatologist and a psychologist, are charged for their roles in fraud schemes involving, according to court documents, millions of dollars in false claims for medically unnecessary laser treatments and psychotherapy services. 

In addition to the criminal indictments, HHS also used recently expanded health care fraud powers granted as part of the Affordable Care Act to suspend and took other administrative action against 30 health care providers following a data-driven analysis that HHS claims showed “credible allegations of fraud.”  Under the Affordable Care Act, HHS is able to suspend payments until the resolution of an investigation.

According to today’s announcement the charges and other actions announced today resulted from coordinated health care fraud investigations conducted by the Medicare Fraud Strike Force as part of the Health Care Fraud Prevention & Enforcement Action Team (HEAT), a joint initiative announced in May 2009 between the Department of Justice and HHS to focus their efforts to prevent and deter fraud and enforce current anti-fraud laws around the country.

Federal officials now credit strike force operations in nine locations have charged more than 1,480 defendants who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for more than $4.8 billion since strike force operations began in March 2007.

Charges Part of Widening War Against Health Care Providers

The charges unsealed today are the latest and among the most sweeping of an ever-lengthening list of flashy prosecutions and federal program disqualification actions that federal officials are conducting against health care providers using expanded health care fraud laws and investigatory and prosecutorial powers granted under the Affordable Care Act and other legislation. 

Through these and other flashy prosecutions, as well as a continuous campaign of audits and other activities, federal officials are trying to reduce Medicare and other health care expenditures, both by prosecuting health care providers for intentionally submitting false claims, as well as using the treat of audits, program, disqualification or civil or criminal prosecution to scare health care providers to reduce legitimate billings that could trigger a federal audit or other federal scrutiny. 

Federal officials are aided in these efforts by an arsenal of new health care fraud statistical profiling and other health care fraud detection and enforcement tools granted by Congress in recent years that make it easier for federal officials to target and successfully prosecute or bring other sanctions against health care providers whose billing or other business practices come under scrutiny. 

Coupled with the ever-lengthening list of civil settlements and civil monetary penalties, program disqualifications, and audits, Federal officials use high profile criminal sweeps like those announced today both to send a message to health care providers generally, and as a tool to pressure and encourage health care providers to accept settlements proposed by federal auditors and prosecutors to avoid the potential threat of more serious criminal, civil or administrative prosecutions. 

These activities are intended to send a strong message to health care providers that bill Medicare, Medicaid, or other public or private health care programs that they must be prepared to defend any charges billed to these or other federal health care programs and to defend their other business practices. 

In response to these threats, health care providers should take steps to strengthen their billing, referral, audit, medical and other recordkeeping and other compliance and risk management practices to enhance their ability to defend or prevent these exposures.  While most providers already are moving to tighten these practices, the move to electronic health records, changing rules and other pressures are undermining the sufficiency of these efforts.

In the case of physicians and certain other professionals, these plans need to include both efforts to manage potential government investigation risks and management of their practices to mitigate peer review or other disciplinary or practice regulatory oversight that often arises when the practices and hospitals start tightening oversight and controls on practices as part of their own efforts to protect their organizations from fraud or other audits. 

While almost all health care providers can find room to improve their documentation and tighten other compliance, it also is important that providers also plan for how they will finance the cost of defending an audit or other investigation.  Often, the financial cost of defending these and other charges prevents physicians or other health care providers from lodging effective defenses of legitimate practices.  To help avoid this quagmire, providers generally will want to explore getting special liability coverage, indemnification or other protection as part of their planning arrangements.

For Help With Compliance, Investigations Or Other Needs

If you need help 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, audit, administer and defend billing, referral, privacy, staffing and recruitment 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. Contact Ms. Stamer at (469) 767-8872 or via e-mail here.

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©2012 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved

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