Federal prosecutors build the new healthcare-related fraud cases on previous nationwide enforcement actions from 2022
Federal charges have once again been brought against a number of physicians and clinical laboratory owners in what the US Department of Justice described as the “largest ever” coordinated nationwide law enforcement effort against COVID-19 pandemic-related healthcare fraud.
In total, the DOJ filed criminal charges against 18 defendants in five states plus the territory of Puerto Rico, according to an April 20 press release.
The highest dollar amount of these frauds involved ENT physician Anthony Hao Dinh, DO, who allegedly defrauded the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) COVID-19 Uninsured Program for millions of dollars, and Lourdes Navarro, owner of Matias Clinical Laboratory, for allegedly “submitting over $358 million in false and fraudulent claims to Medicare, HRSA, and a private insurance company for laboratory testing” while performing “COVID-19 screening testing for nursing homes and other facilities with vulnerable elderly populations, as well as primary and secondary schools,” the press release states. Both court cases are being conducted in Southern California courtrooms.
The DOJ’s filing of charges came rather speedily, compared to other cases involving fraudulent clinical laboratory testing schemes pre-pandemic. The amount of money each defendant managed to generate in reimbursement from the fraud represents tens of thousands of patients. If feds were paying $100 per COVID-19 test, then the $153 million represents 153,000 patients, in just 18 to 24 months.
“Today’s announcement marks the largest-ever coordinated law enforcement action in the United States targeting healthcare fraud schemes that exploit the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. (above), in an April 20 DOJ press release. “The Criminal Division’s Health Care Fraud Unit and our partners are committed to rooting out pandemic-related fraud and holding accountable anyone seeking to profit from a public health emergency.” Clinical laboratory managers may want to pay close attention to the DOJ’s prosecution of these newest cases of alleged COVID-19 fraud. (Photo copyright: Department of Justice.)
Prosecutors allege that Navarro and her husband, Imran Shams, who operated Matias—also known as Health Care Providers Laboratory—perpetrated a scheme to perform medically unnecessary respiratory pathogen panel (RPP) tests on specimens collected for COVID-19 testing, even though physicians had not ordered the RPP tests and the specimens were collected from asymptomatic individuals.
In some cases, the indictment alleges, Navarro and Shams paid kickbacks and bribes to obtain the samples.
The indictment notes that reimbursement for RPP and other respiratory pathogen tests is generally “several times higher” than reimbursement for COVID-19 testing. Claims for the tests were submitted to Medicare and an unidentified private insurer, as well as the HRSA COVID-19 Uninsured Program, which provided support for COVID-19 testing and treatment for uninsured patients.
Claims to the HRSA falsely represented that “the tested individuals had been diagnosed with COVID-19, when in truth and in fact, the individuals had not been diagnosed with COVID-19 and the tests were for screening purposes only,” the First Superseding Indictment states.
The indictment further states that both Navarro and Shams had previously been barred from participating in Medicare and other federal healthcare programs due to past fraud convictions. Navarro, the indictment alleges, was reinstated in December 2018 after submitting a “false and fraudulent” application to the HHS Office of Inspector General.
It also alleges that Navarro and Shams concealed their ownership role in Matias so the lab could maintain billing privileges.
More Alleged Abuse of HRSA Uninsured Program
In a separate case, Federal prosecutors alleged that Anthony Hao Dinh, DO, an ear, nose, and throat physician in Orange County, California, engaged in a scheme to defraud the HRSA COVID-19 Uninsured Program as well.
Dinh, prosecutors allege, “submitted fraudulent claims for treatment of patients who were insured, billed for services that were not rendered, and billed for services that were not medically necessary.”
The criminal complaint, filed on April 10, alleges that Dinh submitted claims for approximately $230 million, enough to make him the program’s second-highest biller. He was paid more than $153 million, prosecutors allege, and “used fraud proceeds for high-risk options trading, losing over $100 million from November 2020 through February 2022,” states the US Attorney’s Office, Central District of California press release.
Dinh’s sister, Hang Trinh Dinh, 64, of Lake Forest, California, and Matthew Hoang Ho, 65, of Melbourne, Florida, are also charged in the complaint, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Both of these cases are notable because of the size of the fraud each defendant pulled off involving COVID-19 lab testing. Clinical laboratory managers may want to review the original court indictments. The documents show the brazenness of these fraudsters and detail how they may have induced other doctors to refer them testing specimens.
Federal agents allege ‘healthcare fraud abuses erode the integrity and trust patients have with those in the healthcare industry’
Here’s yet another example of how federal and state law enforcement agencies intend to further crack down on fraud involving COVID-19 testing, financial relief programs, vaccination cards, and other pandemic-related programs.
The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it has charged the owners of a Calif. clinical laboratory—as well as 19 other defendants—for their roles in fraudulent billing, kickbacks, and money laundering schemes to defraud Medicare of more than $214 million.
The indictment alleges the pair paid kickbacks to marketers to obtain specimens and test orders. The lab company owners then laundered their profits through shell corporations in the US, transferred the money to foreign countries, and used it to purchase “real estate, luxury items, and goods and services for their personal use,” according to court documents.
“While millions of Americans were suffering and desperately seeking testing and treatment for COVID-19, some saw an opportunity for profit,” said Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Kenneth A. Polite Jr., JD, during a news conference at the Justice Department, The New York Times reported.
“The actions of these criminals are unacceptable, and 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 Luis Quesada of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Criminal Investigative Division in a press release.
“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. “These healthcare fraud abuses erode the integrity and trust patients have with those in the healthcare industry, particularly during a vulnerable and worrisome time for many individuals.” Clinical laboratories throughout the US should be aware of increased scrutiny to Medicare billing by the DOJ. (Photo copyright: El Paso Times.)
According to the DOJ’s Summary of Criminal Charges, “Matias” Clinical Laboratory also “performed and billed Medicare for urinalysis, routine blood work, and other tests, despite the fact that Shams had been excluded from all participation in Medicare for several decades.” The indictment alleges that Shams and Navarro fraudulently concealed Sham’s role in the clinical laboratory and his prior healthcare-related criminal convictions.
“She always tried to follow the law and provide appropriate and quality testing services to the laboratory’s patients. She looks forward to clearing her name in court,” Werksman said.
However, both Navarro and Shams have a checkered past with law enforcement agencies. According to a State of California Department of Justice news release, in 2000, the two were convicted in California on felony counts of Medi-Cal fraud, grand theft, money laundering, and identity theft for using the names of legitimate physicians without permission and filing thousands of false claims with the state for medical tests never performed.
The Calif. Attorney General’s Division of Medi-Cal Fraud and Elder Abuse (DMFEA) seized approximately $1.1 million in uncashed warrants, which were returned to the Medi-Cal program. Since the 2000 case, Shams has been barred from filing for Medicare reimbursement, the New York Times reported.
Other Felony Indictments and Criminal Complaints for Healthcare Fraud
In a separate case, the DOJ announced Ron K. Elfenbein, MD, 47, of Arnold, Md., was charged by indictment with three counts of healthcare fraud in connection with an alleged scheme to defraud the US of more than $1.5 million in claims that were billed in connection with COVID-19 testing. Elfenbein is owner and medical director of Drs Ergent Care, LLC, which operates as FirstCall Medical Center. Elfenbein allegedly told his employees to submit claims to Medicare and other insurers for “moderate-complexity office visits” even though the COVID-19 test patients’ visits lasted five minutes or less.
And in April, the DOJ filed a criminal complaint against Colorado resident, Robert Van Camp, 53, for allegedly forging and selling hundreds of fake COVID-19 vaccination cards, which he sold to buyers and distributors in at least a dozen states.
“Van Camp allegedly told an undercover agent that he had sold cards to ‘people that are going to the Olympics in Tokyo, three Olympians and their coach in Tokyo, Amsterdam, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Honduras,’” the DOJ said in a news release, CNBC reported.
Van Camp also allegedly told that agent, “I’ve got a company, a veterinary company, has 30 people going to Canada every f— day, Canada back. Mexico is big. And like I said, I’m in 12 or 13 states, so until I get caught and go to jail, f— it, I’m taking the money, (laughs)! I don’t care,” the DOJ stated.
Clinical laboratory directors and pathologists know these fraud charges provide another example of how the misdeeds of a few reflect on the entire healthcare industry, potentially causing people to lose trust in organizations tasked with providing their healthcare.