A federal jury in Houston today convicted Helen Etinfoh, 50, and Paula Whitfield, 43, for their roles in a Medicare fraud conspiracy involving, among other things, fraudulent claims of hurricane damage to power wheelchairs, announced the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services (HHS).
After a week-long trial, the jury convicted Etinfoh of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and four counts of health care fraud. The jury convicted Whitfield of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and one count of health care fraud. Each conviction carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Following the jury verdict, Etinfoh was ordered to be detained pending sentencing by U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr.
According to evidence presented at trial, Etinfoh was the owner and operator of Luant & Odera Inc., a Houston-area durable medical equipment (DME) company doing business as Tonni Medical Equipment & Supplies. Evidence presented at trial established that Whitfield was a recruiter for Luant who was paid kickbacks in exchange for providing the company with beneficiaries in whose names bills could be submitted to Medicare. Evidence at trial showed that Etinfoh and other co-conspirators submitted false and fraudulent claims to Medicare for medically unnecessary DME, including power wheelchairs, wheelchair accessories and motorized scooters. Many of these claims were submitted based on information supplied by Whitfield.
Evidence at trial showed that, based on representations from Whitfield and other recruiters, Luant would bill Medicare under a special code that designated these power wheelchairs as replacements for wheelchairs lost during hurricanes that hit the Houston area in the fall of 2008. In fact, the hurricanes did not damage older wheelchairs. Certain beneficiaries testified that they did not even have a power wheelchair prior to receiving the ones provided to them by Luant. The evidence at trial showed that the hurricane code was used because it allowed Luant to submit claims to Medicare without a doctor’s order.
At trial, beneficiaries in whose names claims were submitted to Medicare testified that recruiters whom they had never met, including Whitfield, came to their homes and offered them free power wheelchairs in exchange for their Medicare information. The beneficiaries, all of whom could walk, testified that they neither needed nor used the power wheelchairs delivered to them by Luant, which were often billed to Medicare at more than $6,000 per chair. Evidence at trial showed that Whitfield split certain of her kickback payments with other recruiters.
Evidence at trial also showed that Etinfoh entered into a fraudulent transaction in August 2008 to sell Luant to co-defendant Ezechukwu J. Ohaka. The evidence at trial showed that Etinfoh and Ohaka made it appear as though the sale was to a different individual because Ohaka was already under investigation for fraud in connection with other companies he operated. Ohaka, who was also charged with one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and four counts of health care fraud in an indictment unsealed on July 29, 2009, remains a fugitive and is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Sentencing for Etinfoh and Whitfield is scheduled for July 23, 2010, before Judge Werlein in Houston.
Today’s verdict was announced by Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Criminal Division; U.S. Attorney José Angel Moreno of the Southern District of Texas; Special Agent-in-Charge Mike Fields of the Dallas Regional Office of HHS Office of the Inspector General (HHS-OIG), Office of Investigations; and the Texas Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU).
The case was tried by Trial Attorneys Sam S. Sheldon and Joseph S. Beemsterboer, with assistance from Assistant Chief John S. (Jay) Darden and Trial Attorney Jennifer L. Saulino of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section. The case was brought as part of the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, supervised by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas and the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section.
Since their inception in March 2007, Strike Force operations in seven districts have obtained indictments of more than 500 individuals who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for more than $1.1 billion. In addition, HHS’s 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.
To learn more about the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT), go to: www.stopmedicarefraud.gov .