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Southern California Physician and Clinical Laboratory Owners Charged in Federal Crackdown on Pandemic-Related Billing Fraud

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.

Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr.

“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.)

Matias Clinical Laboratory, Inc.

The DOJ first brought fraud charges against Lourdes Navarro, owner of Matias Clinical Laboratory (Matias) in Baldwin Park, California, in April 2022. The Dark Daily covered that federal crackdown in “California Clinical Laboratory Owners among 21 Defendants Indicted or Criminally Charged for COVID-19 Test Fraud and Other Schemes Totaling $214 Million.

Then, in April of 2023, the DOJ filed expanded charges against the 18 defendants, including the owners of Matias which provided COVID-19 screening for schools, rehab facilities, and eldercare facilities, according to a United States Attorney’s Office, Central District of California press release.

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 was also charged for allegedly attempting to defraud the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program. He faces a maximum sentence of 50 years in federal prison, the press release states.

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.

Stephen Beale

Related Information:

Justice Department Announces Nationwide Coordinated Law Enforcement Action to Combat COVID-19 Health Care Fraud

DOJ Announces Nationwide Coordinated Law Enforcement Action to Combat Health Care Fraud Related to COVID-19—Summary of Criminal Charges

Criminal Complaint: US v. Dinh, et al.

Criminal Complaint: US v. Navarro

Newport Coast Physician Faces Federal Charges in Healthcare Fraud Cases

COVID Fraud Takedowns: Feds Charge 18 People, Including Doctors, with Raking in Nearly $500M from Scams

California Clinical Laboratory Owners among 21 Defendants Indicted or Criminally Charged for COVID-19 Test Fraud and Other Schemes Totaling $214 Million

Federal Government Is Sending Nearly $11 Billion to States for COVID-19 Clinical Laboratory Testing and Testing-Related Activities

Questions remain, however, over how much of the funding will actually reach hospital and health system clinical laboratories

For many cash-strapped clinical laboratories in America, the second round of stimulus funds cannot come soon enough. Thus, lab leaders are encouraged by news that Congress’ $484-billion Paycheck Protection Program and Healthcare Enhancement Act (H.R.266) includes almost $11 billion that will go to states for COVID-19 testing. But how much of that funding will reach the nation’s hospital and health system clinical laboratories?

Dark Daily previously reported on the deteriorating financial conditions at clinical and pathology laboratories nationwide. (See, “COVID-19 Triggers a Cash Flow Crash at Clinical Labs Totaling US $5.2 Billion in Past Seven Weeks; Many Labs Are at Brink of Financial Collapse,” May 4, 2020.) This critical situation is the result of a severe decline in the flow of specimens for routine testing to medical laboratories which, at the same time, are struggling with increasing costs to meet the demand for COVID-19 testing.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the new influx of money to the states on May 18. In a news release outlining the initiative, the HHS said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will deliver $10.25 billion to states, territories, and local jurisdictions to expand testing capacity and testing-related activities.

To qualify for the additional funding, governors or “designee of each State, locality, territory, tribe, or tribal organization receiving funds” must submit to HHS its plan for COVID-19 testing, including goals for the remainder of calendar year 2020, to include:

  • “Number of tests needed, month-by-month to include diagnostic, serological, and other tests, as appropriate;
  • “Month-by-month estimates of laboratory and testing capacity, including related to workforce, equipment and supplies, and available tests;
  • “Description of how the resources will be used for testing, including easing any COVID-19 community mitigation policies.”
“As the nation cautiously begins the phased approach to reopening, this considerable investment in expanding both testing and contact tracing capacity for states, localities, territories, and tribal communities is essential,” said CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, MD, in the HHS statement. “Readily accessible testing is a critical component of a four-pronged public health strategy—including rigorous contact tracing, isolation of confirmed cases, and quarantine.” (Photo copyright: Center for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Funding Should Go Directly to Clinical Laboratories, Says ACLA

The American Clinical Laboratory Association (ACLA), argues the funding needs to go directly to clinical laboratories to help offset the “significant investments” labs have made to ramp up testing capacity during the pandemic.

“Direct federal funding for laboratories performing COVID-19 testing is critical to meet the continued demand for testing,” ACLA President Julie Khani, MPA, said in a statement. “Across the country, laboratories have made significant investments to expand capacity, including purchasing new platforms, retraining staff, and managing the skyrocketing cost of supplies. To continue to make these investments and expand patient access to high-quality testing in every community, laboratories will need designated resources. Without sustainable funding, we cannot achieve sustainable testing.”

Some States Are Increasing Testing, While Others Are Not

Since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in January, the United States has slowly but significantly ramped up testing capacity. As reported in the Washington Post, states such as Georgia, Oklahoma, and Utah are encouraging residents to get tested even if they are not experiencing coronavirus symptoms. But other states have maintained more restrictive testing policies, even as their testing capacity has increased.

“A lot of states put in very, very restrictive testing policies … because they didn’t have any tests. And they’ve either not relaxed those or the word is not getting out,” Ashish Jha, MD, MPA, Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told the Washington Post. “We want to be at a point where everybody who has mild symptoms is tested. That is critical. That is still not happening in a lot of places.”

Meanwhile, Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp continue to expand their diagnostic and antibody testing capabilities.

On May 18, Quest announced it had performed approximately 2.15 million COVID-19 molecular diagnostic tests since March 9 and had a diagnostic capability of 70,000 test each day. The company said it expected to have the capacity to perform 100,000 tests a day in June.

LabCorp’s website lists its molecular test capacity at more than 75,000 tests per day as of May 22, with a capacity for conducting at least 200,000 antibody tests per day. Unlike molecular testing that detects the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, antibody tests detect proteins produced by the body in response to a COVID-19 infection.

As states reopen, and hospitals and healthcare systems resume elective surgeries and routine office visits, clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups should begin to see a return to normal specimen flow. Nonetheless, the federal government should continue to compensate laboratories performing COVID-19 testing for the added costs associated with meeting the ongoing and growing demand.

—Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

HHS Delivers Funding to Expand Testing Capacity for States, Territories, Tribes

As Coronavirus Testing Expands a New Problem Arises: Not Enough People to Test

Quest Diagnostics Performs and Reports Results of 2.15 Million COVID-19 Diagnostic Tests and 975,000 Antibody Tests to Date

ACLA Statement on Expanding Access to Testing

COVID-19 Triggers a Cash Flow Crash at Clinical Labs Totaling $5.2 Billion in Past Seven Weeks; Many Labs Are at Brink of Financial Collapse