For several years, Alejandra Collazo posed as a doctor at her Hialeah medical clinic, using the stolen identities of actual physicians to write 2,200 phony prescription referrals to home healthcare agencies that paid her kickbacks for patients.
The scam cost the taxpayer-funded Medicare program $8.5 million.
On Thursday in Miami federal court, Collazo paid the price with a sentence of 17 years in federal prison.
“She lived a life of lying, stealing and cheating,” prosecutor Kevin Larsen told U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno. “She is like a catch-me-if-you-can character. She was holding herself out as a doctor, a nurse and a nurse practitioner.”
Collazo, 43, who pleaded guilty last year to healthcare fraud and stealing the identity of a Miami-Dade doctor, apologized as her attorney, assistant federal public defender Anthony Natale, stood by her side.
“I’m very sorry for what I’ve done,” said Collazo, who also has a state criminal record. “I realize that what I’ve done is wrong.”
She tried to drum up some sympathy from the judge as she spoke about raising her family, paying her mortgage and taking care of a mother who recently suffered a stroke.
Moreno, who was urged by the prosecutor to give Collazo a nearly 20-year sentence, reminded her that it was “dirty money” that paid for those household bills. But he gave her a slight break, even though he expressed dismay over her long criminal history.
“Obviously, she has a problem living off fraud,” Moreno said.
Collazo founded her front business, Vortex Medical Center and Management Services, with a convicted cocaine trafficker, Ricardo Corria, in 2011. He was listed as the president and she as the vice president, even though she ran the Hialeah clinic.
“She used me to open the clinic,” Corria told the judge on Thursday.
Corria helped the fake doctor recruit patients to refer to Miami-Dade home healthcare agencies that would pay kickbacks at $100 a pop and then falsely bill Medicare for millions of dollars in unnecessary services. For years, South Florida’s home healthcare field has been rife with fraudulent billing for Medicare patients, according to the FBI and Health and Human Services.
Corria was asked by the judge why he “changed careers” after serving prison time for drug dealing and then going into the healthcare field. “The problem is, when I came out, I could not find a job,” Corria, 49, said, adding that Collazo told him that she was a medical doctor.
He said Collazo paid him a salary of $1,000 a week over two years. She paid herself $2,500 a week as the clinic’s medical director, before hiring an actual Miami-Dade physician, Gonzalo Gonzalez, for that role, according to court records.
But Gonzalez soon discovered the clinic was a sham to bilk Medicare, and he reported Collazo to federal authorities. Collazo, meanwhile, adopted his identity to write prescriptions for patient referrals to home healthcare providers as part of her scheme, records show.
The judge asked Corria when he found out that his business partner was not a real doctor. “That was at the end,” he said.
Their illicit partnership lasted until 2012.
During the ensuing federal investigation, Corria helped the U.S. attorney’s office make the case against his partner, Collazo. After the pair were charged with Medicare fraud in August, the Florida Department of Health isssued a cease-and-desist order for Collazo, who was working as an unlicensed registered nurse in Orlando.
While the judge sentenced Corria to eight years in prison for defrauding Medicare on Thursday, the office plans to recommend a reduction for his cooperation, Larsen, the prosecutor, told the judge.
Corria, standing with his defense attorney Hugo Rodriguez, told the judge: “I feel very ashamed here today in your presence.”