BY: STAFF REPORT | BocaNewsNow.com
BOCA RATON, FL (BocaNewsNow.com) (Copyright © 2021 MetroDesk Media, LLC) — The FBI and Department of Justice today announced federal charges against several Palm Beach County residents accused of COVID fraud.
According to DOJ officials, the following individuals were just charged:
- Michael Stein, 35, and Leonel Palatnik, 42, both of Palm Beach County, Florida, were charged in connection with an alleged $73 million conspiracy to defraud the United States and to pay and receive health care kickbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stein, the owner and operator of purported consulting company 1523 Holdings, LLC, and Palatnik, an owner and operator of Panda Conservation Group, LLC, a Texas company that owned and operated testing laboratories in Dallas and Denton, Texas, allegedly exploited temporary waivers of telehealth restrictions enacted during the pandemic by offering telehealth providers access to Medicare beneficiaries for whom they could bill consultations. In exchange, these providers agreed to refer beneficiaries to Panda’s laboratories for expensive and medically unnecessary cancer and cardiovascular genetic testing. The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Ligia Markman of the National Rapid Response Strike Force.
- Juan Nava Ruiz, 44, and Eric Frank, 47, both of Coral Springs, Florida, were charged for an alleged $9.3 million health care kickback scheme, along with Christopher Licata, 44, of Boca Raton, Florida, who was previously charged in a separate Indictment. Licata, an owner of Boca Toxicology, LLC, a clinical laboratory based in Boca Raton, allegedly offered and paid kickbacks to patient brokers, including Ruiz and Frank, in exchange for referring Medicare beneficiaries to Boca Toxicology for various forms of genetic testing and other laboratory testing that they did not need, including the submission of $422,748 in claims related to medically unnecessary respiratory pathogen panel testing and genetic testing that was improperly bundled with COVID-19 testing. The cases are being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Jamie de Boer of the Miami Strike Force.
Here is the official announcement:
The Department of Justice today announced criminal charges against 14 defendants, including 11 newly-charged defendants and three who were charged in superseding indictments, in seven federal districts across the United States for their alleged participation in various health care fraud schemes that exploited the COVID-19 pandemic and resulted in over $143 million in false billings.
“The multiple health care fraud schemes charged today describe theft from American taxpayers through the exploitation of the national emergency,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco. “These medical professionals, corporate executives, and others allegedly took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to line their own pockets instead of providing needed health care services during this unprecedented time in our country. We are committed to protecting the American people and the critical health care benefits programs created to assist them during this national emergency, and we are determined to hold those who exploit such programs accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
Additionally, the Center for Program Integrity, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CPI/CMS) separately announced today that it took adverse administrative actions against over 50 medical providers for their involvement in health care fraud schemes relating to COVID-19 or abuse of CMS programs that were designed to encourage access to medical care during the pandemic.
“Medical providers have been the unsung heroes for the American public throughout the pandemic,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. “It’s disheartening that some have abused their authorities and committed COVID-19 related fraud against trusting citizens. The FBI, along with our federal law enforcement and private sector partners, are committed to continuing to combat healthcare fraud and protect the American people.”
The defendants in the cases announced today are alleged to have engaged in various health care fraud schemes designed to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, multiple defendants offered COVID-19 tests to Medicare beneficiaries at senior living facilities, drive-through COVID-19 testing sites, and medical offices to induce the beneficiaries to provide their personal identifying information and a saliva or blood sample. The defendants are alleged to have then misused the information and samples to submit claims to Medicare for unrelated, medically unnecessary, and far more expensive laboratory tests, including cancer genetic testing, allergy testing, and respiratory pathogen panel tests. In some cases, and as alleged, the COVID-19 test results were not provided to the beneficiaries in a timely fashion or were not reliable, risking the further spread of the disease, and the genetic, allergy, and respiratory pathogen testing was medically unnecessary, and, in many cases, the results were not provided to the patients or their actual primary care doctors. The proceeds of the fraudulent schemes were allegedly laundered through shell corporations and used to purchase exotic automobiles and luxury real estate.
“It’s clear fraudsters see the COVID-19 pandemic as a money-making opportunity — creating fraudulent schemes to victimize beneficiaries and steal from federal health care programs,” said Deputy Inspector General for Investigations Gary L. Cantrell of Health and Human Services – Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG). “Our agency and its law enforcement partners are aggressively and effectively investigating these egregious crimes, which is made equally clear given the results of this takedown. We will continue to support the unprecedented COVID-19 public health effort by holding accountable people who use deceptive tactics to profit from the pandemic.”
In another type of COVID-19 health care fraud scheme announced today, defendants are alleged to have exploited policies that were put in place by CMS to enable increased access to care during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, pursuant to the COVID-19 emergency declaration, telehealth regulations and rules were broadened so that Medicare beneficiaries could receive a wider range of services from their doctors without having to travel to a medical facility. The cases announced today include first in the nation charges for allegedly exploiting these expanded policies by submitting false and fraudulent claims to Medicare for sham telemedicine encounters that did not occur. As part of these cases, medical professionals are alleged to have offered and paid bribes in exchange for the medical professionals’ referral of medically unnecessary testing.
The law enforcement action today also includes the third set of criminal charges related to the misuse of Provider Relief Fund monies. The Provider Relief Fund is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a federal law enacted March 2020 designed to provide needed medical care to Americans suffering from COVID-19.
The Fraud Section is prosecuting the cases in the following districts: Western District of Arkansas, Northern District of California, Middle District of Louisiana, Central District of California, Southern District of Florida, District of New Jersey, and the Eastern District of New York.
Today’s enforcement actions were led and coordinated by Assistant Chief Jacob Foster and Trial Attorneys Rebecca Yuan and Gary A. Winters of the National Rapid Response Strike Force of the Health Care Fraud Unit of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section, in conjunction with the Health Care Fraud Unit’s Medicare Fraud Strike Forces (MFSF) in Miami, Los Angeles, the Gulf Coast, and Brooklyn, as well as the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices for the Northern District of California, Western District of Arkansas, and Middle District of Louisiana.
The MFSF is a partnership among the Criminal Division, U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, the FBI and HHS-OIG. In addition, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation, Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General, Department of Defense Office of Inspector General, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Louisiana Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, and other federal and state law enforcement agencies participated in the law enforcement action.
The law enforcement action was brought in coordination with the Health Care Fraud Unit’s COVID-19 Interagency Working Group, which is chaired by the National Rapid Response Strike Force and organizes efforts to address illegal activity involving health care programs during the pandemic.
The Fraud Section leads the Medicare Fraud Strike Force. Since its inception in March 2007, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, which maintains 15 strike forces operating in 24 federal districts, has charged more than 4,200 defendants who have collectively billed the Medicare program for nearly $19 billion. In addition, the HHS Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, working in conjunction with the HHS-OIG, are taking steps to increase accountability and decrease the presence of fraudulent providers.
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