Florida Nurse Practitioner Convicted for Involvement in $200 Million Medicare Fraud Scheme Involving Clinical Laboratory Tests, Other Procedures
Federal prosecutors allege that this nurse practitioner ordered more genetic tests for Medicare beneficiaries than any other provider during 2020
Cases of Medicare fraud involving clinical laboratory testing continue to be prosecuted by the federal Department of Justice. A jury in Miami recently convicted a nurse practitioner (NP) for her role in a massive Medicare fraud scheme for millions of dollars in medically unnecessary genetic testing and durable medical equipment. She faces 75 years in prison when sentenced in December.
In their indictment, federal prosecutors alleged that from August 2018 through June 2021 Elizabeth Mercedes Hernandez, NP, of Homestead, Florida, worked with more than eight telemedicine and marketing companies to sign “thousands of orders for medically unnecessary orthotic braces and genetic tests, resulting in fraudulent Medicare billings in excess of $200 million,” according to a US Department of Justice (DOJ) news release announcing the conviction.
“Hernandez personally pocketed approximately $1.6 million in the scheme, which she used to purchase expensive cars, jewelry, home renovations, and travel,” the press release noted.
Hernandez was indicted in April 2022 as part of a larger DOJ crackdown on healthcare fraud related to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Throughout the pandemic, we have seen trusted medical professionals orchestrate and carry out egregious crimes against their patients all for financial gain,” said Assistant Director Luis Quesada (above) of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, in a DOJ press release. Clinical laboratory managers would be wise to monitor these Medicare fraud cases. (Photo copyright: Federal Bureau of Investigation.)
Nurse Practitioner Received Kickbacks and Bribes
Federal prosecutors alleged that the scheme involved telemarketing companies that contacted Medicare beneficiaries and persuaded them to request genetic tests and orthotic braces. Hernandez, they said, then signed pre-filled orders, “attesting that she had examined or treated the patients,” according to the DOJ news release.
In many cases, Hernandez had not even spoken with the patients, prosecutors said. “She then billed Medicare as though she were conducting complex office visits with these patients, and routinely billed more than 24 hours of ‘office visits’ in a single day,” according to the news release.
In total, Hernandez submitted fraudulent claims of approximately $119 million for genetic tests, the indictment stated. “In 2020, Hernandez ordered more cancer genetic (CGx) tests for Medicare beneficiaries than any other provider in the nation, including oncologists and geneticists,” according to the news release.
The indictment noted that because CGx tests do not diagnose cancer, Medicare covers them only “in limited circumstances, such as when a beneficiary had cancer and the beneficiary’s treating physician deemed such testing necessary for the beneficiary’s treatment of that cancer. Medicare did not cover CGx testing for beneficiaries who did not have cancer or lacked symptoms of cancer.”
In exchange for signing the orders, Hernandez received kickbacks and bribes from companies that claimed to be in the telemedicine business, the indictment stated.
“These healthcare fraud abuses erode the integrity and trust patients have with those in the healthcare industry … the FBI, working in coordination with our law enforcement partners, will continue to investigate and pursue those who exploit the integrity of the healthcare industry for profit,” said Assistant Director Luis Quesada of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Criminal Investigative Division, in the DOJ press release.
Conspirators Took Advantage of COVID-19 Pandemic
Prosecutors alleged that as part of the scheme, she and her co-conspirators took advantage of temporary amendments to rules involving telehealth services—changes that were enacted by Medicare in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The indictment noted that prior to the pandemic, Medicare covered expenses for telehealth services only if the beneficiary “was located in a rural or health professional shortage area,” and “was in a practitioner’s office or a specified medical facility—not at a beneficiary’s home.”
But in response to the pandemic, Medicare relaxed the restrictions to allow coverage “even if the beneficiary was not located in a rural area or a health professional shortage area, and even if the telehealth services were furnished to beneficiaries in their home.”
Hernandez was convicted of:
- One count of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and wire fraud.
- Four counts of healthcare fraud.
- Three counts of making false statements.
Medscape noted that she was acquitted of two counts of healthcare fraud. The trial lasted six days, Medscape reported.
Hernandez’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for Dec. 14.
Co-Conspirators Plead Guilty
Two other co-conspirators in the case, Leonel Palatnik and Michael Stein, had previously pleaded guilty and received sentences, the Miami Herald reported.
Palatnik was co-owner of Panda Conservation Group LLC, which operated two genetic testing laboratories in Florida. Prosecutors said that Palatnik paid kickbacks to Stein, owner of 1523 Holdings LLC, “in exchange for his work arranging for telemedicine providers to authorize genetic testing orders for Panda’s laboratories,” according to a DOJ press release. The kickbacks were disguised as payments for information technology (IT) and consulting services.
“1523 Holdings then exploited temporary amendments to telehealth restrictions enacted during the pandemic by offering telehealth providers access to Medicare beneficiaries for whom they could bill consultations,” the press release states. “In exchange, these providers agreed to refer beneficiaries to Panda’s laboratories for expensive and medically unnecessary cancer and cardiovascular genetic testing.”
Palatnik pleaded guilty to his role in the kickback scheme in August 2021 and was sentenced to 82 months in prison, a DOJ press release states.
Stein pleaded guilty in April and was sentenced to five years in prison, the Miami Herald reported. He was also ordered to pay $63.3 million in restitution.
These federal cases involving clinical laboratory genetic testing and other tests and medical equipment indicate a commitment on the DOJ’s part to continue cracking down on healthcare fraud.