Houston-Area Resident Sentenced to 41 Months in Prison for Medicare Fraud Scheme Involving Claims of Hurricane Damage to Power Wheelchairs
WASHINGTON – Helen Etinfoh, the former owner and operator of a Houston durable medical equipment (DME) company was sentenced today to 41 months in prison in connection with a $3 million power wheelchair fraud scheme, the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services (HHS) announced.
Etinfoh, 50, was also ordered by U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. of the Southern District of Texas to pay $851,228 in restitution jointly and several with her co-defendant. In addition, Etinfoh was sentenced to three years of supervised release following her prison term. Eitnfoh was remanded to custody after sentencing.
On April 16, 2010, after a week-long trial, a federal jury convicted Etinfoh of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and four counts of health care fraud. The jury also convicted Paula Whitfield, a patient recruiter for the DME company, of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and one count of health care fraud. Whitfield was previously sentenced to 21 months in prison.
According to evidence presented at trial, Etinfoh was the owner and operator of Luant & Odera Inc., a Houston-area DME company doing business as Tonni Medical Equipment & Supplies. 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. 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 sentences were 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’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU).
The case was tried by Assistant Chief Sam S. Sheldon and Trial Attorney Joseph S. Beemsterboer 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 nine locations have obtained indictments of 1,000 individuals who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for more than $2.3 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 .