The U.S. Department of Justice has charged 35 people with unlawfully charging Medicare $2.1 billion in what it said is one of the largest healthcare fraud schemes in history.
The 35 alleged offenders were charged in five separate federal districts, and were linked to dozens of telemedicine firms and laboratories focused on genetic testing for cancer. The people charged, including nine doctors and one other medical professional, cumulatively billed Medicare billions for cancer genetic tests, the DOJ said in a press release.
The charges were a culmination of coordinated law enforcement activities over the past month that were led by the Criminal Division's Health Care Fraud Unit, resulting in charges against more than 380 individuals who allegedly billed federal healthcare programs for more than $3 billion, and allegedly prescribed and dispensed approximately 50 million controlled substance pills in Houston, across Texas, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast, the Northeast, Florida and Georgia, and the Midwest.
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These include charges against 105 defendants for opioid-related offenses, and charges against 178 medical professionals.
The investigation targeted an alleged scheme involving the payment of illegal kickbacks and bribes by CGx laboratories in exchange for the referral of Medicare beneficiaries by medical professionals working with fraudulent telemedicine companies for expensive, and medically unnecessary, cancer genetic tests.
According to the DOJ, the targets of the scheme were primarily seniors, who were approached at health fairs, at their homes during door-to-door visits, or through telemarketing calls. The "recruiters," as they were called, would approach seniors about supposedly free cancer screenings or generic cheek swab tests, and the recruiters would then obtain the seniors' Medicare information for the purposes of fraudulent billing or identify theft.
The recruiter would then get a doctor to sign off on a genetic so a lab would process it, and then pay a kickback in exchange for ordering the test. The lab would process the test and bill Medicare, and once it was reimbursed, would share the proceeds with the recruiter, according to the charges.
Often, the test results were not provided to the beneficiaries, or were worthless to their actual doctors. Some of the defendants allegedly controlled a telemarketing network that lured hundreds of thousands of elderly and/or disabled patients into a criminal scheme that affected victims across the U.S.
The defendants allegedly paid doctors to prescribe CGx testing, either without any patient interaction or with only a brief phone conversation with patients they had never met or seen.
WHAT'S THE IMPACT
In addition to the DOJ charges, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Center for Program Integrity said it took adverse administrative action against cancer genetic testing companies and medical professionals who submitted more than $1.7 billion in claims to the Medicare program.
The DOJ Criminal Division, along with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General and the FBI, spearheaded the investigation.
The DOJ calls the scheme one of the largest it has ever handled.
THE LARGER TREND
Since its inception in March 2007, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, which maintains 15 strike forces operating in 24 districts, has charged nearly 4,000 defendants who have collectively billed the Medicare program for more than $16 billion.
In addition, CMS, working in conjunction with the Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General, are taking steps to increase accountability and decrease the presence of fraudulent providers.
The newest Medicare fraud scheme is the second to be uncovered in the last month. Earlier in September, a telemedicine CEO pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States and pay and receive healthcare kickbacks and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering in a scheme estimated at $424 million.
ON THE RECORD
"Unfortunately, audacious schemes such as those alleged in the indictments are pervasive and exploit the promise of new medical technologies such as genetic testing and telemedicine for financial gain, not patient care," said Deputy Inspector General for Investigations Gary L. Cantrell of HHS-OIG. "Instead of receiving quality care, Medicare beneficiaries may be victimized in the form of scare tactics, identity theft, and in some cases, left to pay out of pocket. We will continue working with our law enforcement partners to investigate those who steal from federal healthcare programs and protect the millions of Americans who rely on them."
"Healthcare fraud and related illegal kickbacks and bribes impact the entire nation," said Assistant Director Terry Wade of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division. "Fraudulently using genetic testing laboratories for unnecessary tests erodes the confidence of patients and costs taxpayers millions of dollars. These investigations revealed some medical professionals placing their greed before the needs of the patients and communities they serve. Today's law enforcement actions reinforce that the FBI, along with its partners, will continue to pursue and stop this type of illegal activity."