WASHINGTON – Paula Whitfield, a patient recruiter for a Houston durable medical equipment (DME) company, was sentenced today to 21 months in prison in connection with a $3 million power wheelchair fraud scheme, the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services (HHS) announced.
Whitfield, 43, was also ordered by U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. of the Southern District of Texas to pay $807,781 in restitution. In addition, Whitfield was sentenced to three years of supervised release following her prison term.
On April 16, 2010, after a week-long trial, a federal jury convicted Whitfield of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and one count of health care fraud. Helen Etinfoh, the former owner and operator of the DME company, Luant & Odera Inc., was also convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and four counts of health care fraud. Etinfoh is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 13, 2010.
According to evidence presented at trial, Whitfield was a recruiter for Luant, which was doing business as Tonni Medical Equipment & Supplies. Evidence at trial showed that Whitfield was paid kickbacks in exchange for providing the company with beneficiaries in whose names bills could be submitted to Medicare. Etinfoh and other co-conspirators submitted false and fraudulent claims to Medicare for medically unnecessary DME, including power wheelchairs, wheelchair accessories and motorized scooters.
Evidence at trial showed that, based on representations from Whitfield and other recruiters, Luant would bill Medicare under a special code that designated the power wheelchairs as replacements for wheelchairs lost during hurricanes that hit the Houston area in fall 2008. In fact, the hurricanes did not damage the wheelchairs. Certain beneficiaries testified that they did not even have a power wheelchair before receiving the ones provided to them by Luant. Luant used the hurricane code because it allowed the company 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.
Today’s sentence 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 Richard C. Powers of the FBI’s Houston Field Office; 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 Greg Abbott.
The case was tried by Trial Attorneys Sam S. Sheldon and Joseph S. Beemsterboer, with assistance from Assistant Chief John Neal 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 810 individuals who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for more than $1.85 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.