WASHINGTON – A federal jury yesterday convicted a Miami-area program director and a Miami-area therapist for their participation in a Medicare fraud scheme involving more than $205 million in fraudulent billings by mental health care corporation American Therapeutic Corporation (ATC), announced 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; Michael B. Steinbach, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the FBI=s Miami Field Office; and Special Agent in Charge Christopher B. Dennis of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG), Office of Investigations Miami Office.
Program director Lydia Ward, 47, and therapist Nichole Eckert, 35, were each found guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud.
The defendants were charged in an indictment returned on Feb. 8, 2011. ATC, the management company associated with ATC and 20 individuals, including the ATC owners, have all previously pleaded guilty or have been convicted at trial.
Evidence at trial demonstrated that the defendants and their co-conspirators caused the submission of false and fraudulent claims to Medicare through ATC, a Florida corporation headquartered in Miami that operated purported 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. The defendants and their co-conspirators also used a related company, American Sleep Institute (ASI), to submit fraudulent Medicare claims.
ATC billed Medicare for hundreds of millions of dollars in false and fictitious services, for thousands of patients who were not qualified, based on fraudulent documents created by Ward, Eckert and others.
Throughout the course of the fraud conspiracy, tens of 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. ATC and ASI billed Medicare for more than $205 million in services to patients who did not need the services and to whom the appropriate services were not provided. According to the evidence, Ward, Eckert, and co-conspirators personally altered and caused the alteration of patient files and therapist notes for the purpose of making it appear, falsely, that patients being treated by ATC were qualified for PHP treatments and that the treatments provided were legitimate PHP treatments.
Evidence further revealed that doctors at ATC signed patient files without reading them or seeing the patients. Included in these false and fraudulent submissions to Medicare were claims for patients in neuro-vegetative states, along with patients who were in the late stages of diseases causing permanent cognitive memory loss and patients who were suffering from substance abuse addiction without a severe mental illness – all of whom were ineligible for PHP treatment.
Ward and Eckert were remanded into custody.
ATC executives Lawrence Duran, Marianella Valera, Judith Negron and Margarita Acevado were sentenced to 50 years, 35 years, 35 years and 91 months in prison, respectively, for their roles in the fraud scheme. Sentencing for Ward and Eckert is scheduled for Jan. 25, 2013. The maximum penalty for each conspiracy count is 10 years in prison.
A mistrial was declared today against ATC patient marketer Hilario Morris, who was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud. Previously, Morris had been convicted of one count of conspiracy to pay health care kickbacks.
The criminal case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorneys Jennifer L. Saulino and Laura Cordova of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section. A related civil action is being handled by Vanessa I. Reed and Carolyn B. Tapie of the Civil Division and Assistant U.S. Attorney Ted L. Radway of the Southern District of Florida. 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, now operating in nine cities across the country, has charged more than 1,480 defendants who have collectively billed the Medicare program for more than $4.8 billion. In addition, HHS’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, working in conjunction with HHS-OIG, is 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.