WASHINGTON – The owner of a fraudulent Miami-area mental health care company, American Therapeutic Corporation (ATC), was sentenced today to 35 years in prison for orchestrating a $205 million Medicare fraud scheme, announced the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Judith Negron, 40, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King in the Southern District of Florida. Judge King ordered Negron to pay more than $87 million in restitution, jointly and severally with her co-defendants. Negron was also sentenced to three years of supervised release following her prison term. Two other owners of ATC, Lawrence Duran and Marianella Valera, were sentenced in September 2011 to 50 and 35 years in prison, respectively, for their roles in the scheme. These sentences are the three longest prison sentences ever imposed in a Medicare Fraud Strike Force case.
On Aug. 24, 2011, after a six-day trial, a federal jury in the Southern District of Florida found Negron guilty of 24 felony counts, including conspiracy to commit health care fraud, health care fraud, conspiracy to pay and receive illegal health care kickbacks, conspiracy to commit money laundering, money laundering and structuring to avoid reporting requirements.
Evidence at trial demonstrated that Negron, along with Duran and Valera, masterminded and executed a scheme to defraud Medicare beginning in 2002 and continuing until they were arrested in October 2010. Evidence at trial established that the three owners submitted false and fraudulent claims to Medicare through ATC, a Florida corporation headquartered in Miami that purportedly operated partial hospitalization programs (PHPs) in seven different locations throughout South Florida and Orlando. A PHP is a form of intensive treatment for severe mental illness. Negron and her co-conspirators also used a related company, American Sleep Institute (ASI), to submit fraudulent Medicare claims.
According to the evidence at trial, Negron, Duran, Valera and others paid bribes and kickbacks to owners and operators of assisted living facilities and halfway houses and to patient brokers in exchange for delivering ineligible patients to ATC and ASI. In some cases, the patients received a portion of those kickbacks. Throughout the course of the conspiracy, millions of dollars in kickbacks were paid in exchange for Medicare beneficiaries, who did not qualify for PHP services, to attend treatment programs that were not legitimate PHP programs, so that ATC and ASI could bill Medicare for more than $205 million in unnecessary or illegitimate services.
According to the evidence, Negron and her co-conspirators used another company they owned and operated, Medlink Professional Management Group Inc., to conceal the fraud and kickback scheme from Medicare and law enforcement. Once Medicare paid ATC and ASI for the fraudulently billed services, Duran, Valera and others transferred the money to Medlink. Evidence at trial showed that Negron and her co-conspirators used Medlink to pay millions of dollars in kickback payments by using an extensive money laundering scheme.
Evidence at trial demonstrated that Negron signed kickback checks to patient recruiters whose only jobs at ATC were to provide patients from halfway houses or assisted living facilities. Evidence at trial also established that Negron and others caused the alteration of patient files and therapist notes for the purpose of making it falsely appear that patients being treated by ATC qualified for PHP treatments and that the treatments provided were legitimate PHP treatments. For instance, evidence established that Negron would “robo-sign” patient files, meaning she would sign patient documents as a supervising therapist without having treated the patients. The evidence also showed that Negron signed files as though she had been in two places at the same time, in Boca Raton and Homestead, Fla. Evidence further revealed that Negron knew doctors were similarly signing patient files without reading them or seeing the patients. In some cases, Negron provided the doctors with the files for their signature. According to evidence presented at trial, Negron and her co-conspirators billed Medicare for PHP treatment, including group psychotherapy, provided to a patient who was in a neuro-vegetative state, who would not lift her head or respond. The evidence also showed that Negron and her co-conspirators caused doctors to refer ATC patients to ASI even though the patients did not qualify for sleep studies.
Negron has been in federal custody since her conviction.
ATC and Medlink pleaded guilty in May 2011 to conspiracy to commit health care fraud. ATC also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States and to pay and receive illegal health care kickbacks. The corporations were sentenced to five years of probation per count and ordered to pay restitution of $87 million. Both corporations have been defunct since their owners were arrested in October 2010. A top manager, Margarita Acevedo, was sentenced in September 2011 to 91 months in prison.
Today’s sentence was announced by Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division; U.S. Attorney Wifredo A. Ferrer of the Southern District of Florida; Special Agent-in-Charge John V. Gillies of the FBI’s Miami Field Office; and Special Agent-in-Charge Christopher Dennis of the HHS Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG), Office of Investigations Miami office.
The case was prosecuted by Trial Attorney Jennifer L. Saulino and Acting Assistant Chief Benjamin D. Singer of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section. The case was investigated by the FBI and HHS-OIG, and was brought as part of the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, supervised by the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida.
Since its inception in March 2007, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force operations in nine locations have charged more than 1,140 defendants that collectively have billed the Medicare program for more than $2.9 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.