The Department of Justice Wednesday announced criminal charges against 21 defendants in nine federal districts across the United States for their alleged participation in various healthcare-related fraud schemes that exploited the COVID-19 pandemic.
These cases allegedly resulted in over $149 million in COVID-19-related false billings to federal programs and theft from federally-funded pandemic assistance programs. In connection with the enforcement action, the department seized over $8 million in cash and other fraud proceeds.
“The Department of Justice’s Health Care Fraud Unit and our partners are dedicated to rooting out schemes that have exploited the pandemic,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.
“This COVID-19 health care fraud enforcement action involves extraordinary efforts to prosecute some of the largest and most wide-ranging pandemic frauds detected to date,” said Director for COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Kevin Chambers. “The scale and complexity of the schemes prosecuted today illustrates the success of our unprecedented interagency effort to quickly investigate and prosecute those who abuse our critical health care programs.”
The announcement builds on the May 2021 COVID-19 Enforcement Action and involves the prosecution of various COVID-19 health care fraud schemes, federal officials said in a news release.
Several cases announced Wednesday involve defendants who allegedly offered COVID-19 testing to induce patients to provide their personal identifying information and a saliva or blood sample. The defendants are alleged to have then used the information and samples to submit false and fraudulent claims to Medicare for unrelated, medically unnecessary, and far more expensive tests or services. In one such scheme in the Central District of California, two owners of a clinical laboratory were charged with a health care fraud, kickback, and money laundering scheme that involved the fraudulent billing of over $214 million for laboratory tests, over $125 million of which allegedly involved fraudulent claims during the pandemic for COVID-19 and respiratory pathogen tests. The proceeds of this fraudulent scheme were allegedly laundered through shell corporations in the United States, transferred to foreign countries, and used to purchase real estate and luxury items. In two separate cases in the District of Maryland and the Eastern District of New York, owners of medical clinics allegedly obtained confidential information from patients seeking COVID-19 testing at drive-thru testing sites and then submitted fraudulent claims for lengthy office visits with the patients that did not, in fact, occur.
“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 of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. “These health care 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. 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.”
In another type of COVID-19 health care fraud scheme announced today, defendants allegedly exploited policies that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services put in place to enable increased access to care during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in the Southern District of Florida, one medical professional was charged with a health care fraud, wire fraud, and kickback scheme that allegedly involved billing for sham telemedicine encounters that did not occur and agreeing to order unnecessary genetic testing in exchange for access to telehealth patients. Late last year, one defendant previously was sentenced to 82 months in prison in connection with this scheme.
The announcement includes charges against two additional defendants for schemes targeting the Provider Relief Fund. The fund is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a federal law enacted in March 2020 that provided financial assistance to medical providers to provide needed medical care to Americans suffering from COVID-19. In total, 10 defendants have been charged with crimes related to misappropriating PRF monies intended for frontline medical providers and three have pleaded guilty.
There were other charges against manufacturers and distributors of fake COVID-19 vaccination record cards who, according to the allegations, intentionally sought to obstruct the Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in their efforts to administer the nationwide vaccination program and provide Americans with accurate proof of vaccination. For example, in the Northern District of California, three additional defendants were charged with a scheme to sell homeoprophylaxis immunizations for COVID-19 and falsify COVID-19 vaccination record cards to make it appear that customers received government-authorized vaccines. One defendant allegedly misused her position as the Director of Pharmacy at a northern California hospital to obtain real lot numbers for the Moderna vaccine that were then used to falsify COVID-19 vaccination record cards. Another defendant pleaded guilty in April 2022. In a separate case in the Western District of Washington, one manufacturer was charged with the multistate distribution of fake COVID-19 vaccination record cards after allegedly telling an undercover federal agent that “until I get caught and go to jail, [expletive] it I’m taking the money, ha! I don’t care.”
Additionally, the Center for Program Integrity, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services separately says that it has taken an additional 28 administrative actions against providers for their alleged involvement in fraud, waste, and abuse schemes related to the delivery of care for COVID-19, as well as schemes that capitalize upon the public health emergency.
“We are committed to working closely with our law enforcement partners to combat fraud, waste, and abuse in our federal healthcare programs,” said Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure. “The administrative actions CMS has taken protect the Medicare Trust Funds while also safeguarding people enrolled in Medicare.”
The enforcement actions were led and coordinated by Assistant Chief Jacob Foster and Trial Attorney D. Keith Clouser of the National Rapid Response Strike Force, and Assistant Chief Justin Woodard of the Health Care Fraud Unit’s Gulf Coast Strike Force in the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section. The Fraud Section’s National Rapid Response Strike Force and the Health Care Fraud Unit’s Strike Forces (SF) in Brooklyn, the Gulf Coast, Miami, Los Angeles, and Newark, as well as the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices for the District of Maryland, District of New Jersey, District of Utah, Northern District of California, and Western District of Tennessee are prosecuting these cases.