Steven J. Wasserman, M.D., a dermatologist practicing in Venice, Fla., has agreed to pay $26.1 million to resolve allegations that he violated the False Claims Act by accepting illegal kickbacks from a pathology laboratory and by billing the Medicare program for medically unnecessary services, the Justice Department announced today. The settlement is the largest ever with an individual under the False Claims Act in the Middle District of Florida and one of the largest with an individual under the False Claims Act in U.S. history.
The government alleged that, in or around 1997, Dr. Wasserman entered into an illegal kickback arrangement with Tampa Pathology Laboratory (TPL), a clinical laboratory in Tampa, Fla., and Dr. José SuarezHoyos, a pathologist and the owner of TPL, in an effort to increase the lab’s referral business. Under that agreement, Dr. Wasserman allegedly sent biopsy specimens for Medicare beneficiaries to TPL for testing and diagnosis. In return, TPL allegedly provided Dr. Wasserman a diagnosis on a pathology report that included a signature line for Dr. Wasserman to make it appear to Medicare that he had performed the diagnostic work that TPL had performed. The government alleged that Dr. Wasserman then billed the Medicare program for TPL’s work, passing it off as his own, for which he received more than $6 million in Medicare payments. In addition, the government asserted that, in furtherance of his agreement with TPL, Dr. Wasserman substantially increased the number of skin biopsies he performed on Medicare patients, thus increasing the referral business for TPL.
The government further alleged that, in addition to his involvement in the alleged kickback scheme, Dr. Wasserman also performed thousands of unnecessary skin surgeries known as adjacent tissue transfers on Medicare beneficiaries. Adjacent tissue transfers are complicated and often time-consuming procedures physicians sometimes use to close a defect resulting from the removal of a growth on a patient’s skin. The government
alleged that Dr. Wasserman performed many of these procedures in order to obtain the reimbursement for them, and not because they were medically necessary.
“Doctors who take illegal kickbacks and perform unnecessary procedures not only put their own financial self-interest over their duty to their patients, they raise the cost of health care for all of us as patients and as taxpayers,” said Stuart F. Delery, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division of the Department of Justice. “The Department of Justice will not tolerate those who abuse the public health care programs to which we all contribute and on which we all depend.”
“This settlement represents a watershed achievement in our district’s civil healthcare fraud enforcement program,” said Robert O’Neill, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida. “Schemes of this magnitude require extraordinary remedies, and we are proud to have reached such an outstanding resolution for the taxpayers and their health programs.”
The allegations resolved by today’s settlement were initiated by a lawsuit originally filed in the District Court for the Middle District of Florida by Alan Freedman, M.D., a pathologist who formerly worked at TPL. Dr. Freedman filed the lawsuit under the qui tam, or whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act. Under the False Claims Act, a private party may file suit on behalf of the United States for false claims and share in any recovery. The United States has the right to intervene in the action, which it did in this case, filing its own complaint in October 2010. Dr. Freedman will receive $4,046,000 of today’s settlement.
The United States previously settled with TPL and Dr. SuarezHoyos for $950,000 to resolve the allegations asserted against them in the same lawsuit.
“Anyone cheating patients and taxpayers should expect to pay a high price,” said Daniel R. Levinson, Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Besides paying more than $26 million, Dr. Wasserman is excluded from treating patients and being paid under Medicare, Medicaid and all other federal health care programs.”
This resolution is part of the government’s emphasis on combating health care fraud and another step for the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT) initiative, which was announced by Attorney General Eric Holder and Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services in May 2009. The partnership between the two departments has focused efforts to reduce and prevent Medicare and Medicaid financial fraud through enhanced cooperation. One of the most powerful tools in that effort is the False Claims Act, which the Justice Department has used to recover more than $10.2 billion since January 2009 in cases involving fraud against federal health care programs. The Justice Department’s total recoveries in False Claims Act cases since January 2009 are over $14 billion.
Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Delery and U.S. Attorney O’Neill thanked the joint investigation team, which includes special agents with the Department of Health and Human Services-OIG and the FBI, for their efforts in the investigation of this matter.
The claims settled by this agreement are allegations only; there has been no determination of liability.
The lawsuit is captioned U.S. ex rel. Freedman v. SuarezHoyos et al., No. 04-933 (M.D. Fla.).