South Florida has once again claimed the dubious distinction of being the nation’s capital of healthcare fraud.
Twenty percent of the more than 400 suspects recently charged nationwide with falsely billing $1.3 billion to the taxpayer-funded Medicare program as well as private insurers operated in South Florida — putting the region far ahead of other hot spots such as Detroit, Los Angeles and New York.
At a press conference in Washington Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions highlighted the roles of 115 medical professionals charged in the largest take-down of healthcare fraud offenders in the nation's history. Sessions also zeroed in on the alleged exploitation of patients with opioid addictions in South Florida and other regions.
“Too many trusted medical professionals like doctors, nurses and pharmacists have chosen to violate their oaths and put greed ahead of their patients,” Sessions said. “Amazingly, some have made their practices into multimillion-dollar criminal enterprises. They seem oblivious to the disastrous consequences of their greed.”
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Authorities spotlighted a Palm Beach County sober home and treatment facility for addicts with substance abuse problems, saying the owner and a patient recruiter submitted $58 million in private insurance claims for bogus drug treatment under state and federal programs.
According to an FBI criminal complaint, owner Eric Snyder and recruiter Christopher Fuller conspired to lure addicted patients to Halfway There Florida, a sober home in Delray Beach, and to Real Life Recovery Delray, to bill insurance companies for fraudulent treatment and testing.
“Urine analysis was fraudulently used as a profit-machine” at the sober home and treatment center, the complaint said, including “double billing for the same patients and splitting samples to maximize revenue.”
In exchange, the two defendants are accused of paying kickbacks to patients, including gift cards, free airline travel, trips to casinos and strip clubs, along with drugs, the complaint said. Both were recently granted bail; Fuller, 32, has a federal court arraignment at the end of July and Snyder, 30, in early August.
Synder’s defense lawyer, Bruce Zimet, said his client’s business was searched by federal agents more than two years ago.
“Since the search warrant was issued, we’ve had several discussions with the government about the facts of this case and we hope to have more discussions in the future,” Zimet told the Miami Herald Thursday. “We are hopeful that we will be able to persuade the government not to proceed with a grand jury indictment in this case.”
Fuller’s attorney, assistant federal public defender Kristy Militello, could not be reached for comment.
The FBI complaint, filed by prosecutor James Hayes, described Broward and Palm Beach counties as hubs for drug and alcohol addicts seeking assistance to become sober, resulting in illicit activity among some sober homes and treatment facilities.
“News reports estimate treatment for substance abuse is Palm Beach County’s largest industry, with revenues in excess of $1 billion a year,” the complaint said.
The latest total of defendants and false claims far surpassed last year's healthcare fraud take-down, which has become an annual show of force to combat the persistent problem that has cost the U.S. government billions of dollars in losses over the past decade.
Hundreds of federal agents with the FBI and Health and Human Services-Office of Inspector General were deployed to make arrests on Thursday and in recent days.
In South Florida alone, the roughly 80 newly charged defendants were accused of submitting more than $140 million in fraudulent claims to Medicare and private insurance companies for home visits, managed care and prescription drugs that were either not necessary or provided, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Miami.
“Patients are being denied the quality of care that they deserve, doctors are turning a blind eye to their oaths, and taxpayer money is being diverted into the pockets of the greedy,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Benjamin Greenberg.