Miami-Area Therapist Sentenced to Prison in Florida in $205 Million Community Mental Health Fraud Scheme
Miami-area resident Nichole Eckert, former therapist at the mental health care company American Therapeutic Corporation (ATC), was sentenced today to serve 48 months in prison for participating in a $205 million Medicare fraud scheme.
The sentence was announced today 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 Michael B. Steinbach of the FBI’s Miami Field Office; and Special Agent-in-Charge Christopher Dennis of the Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG), Office of Investigations Miami office.
Eckert, 35, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Patricia A. Seitz in the Southern District of Florida. In addition to the prison term, Judge Seitz sentenced Eckert to serve three years of supervised release and ordered her to pay more than $72 million in restitution, jointly and severally with her co-defendants.
On Nov. 15, 2012, a federal jury in the Southern District of Florida found Eckert guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud after a 16-day trial. She has been in federal custody since her conviction.
Evidence at trial demonstrated that the defendant and her 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 defendant and her co-conspirators also used a related company, American Sleep Institute, to submit fraudulent Medicare claims.
Evidence at trial revealed that ATC secured patients by paying kickbacks to assisted living facility owners and halfway house owners who would then steer patients to ATC. These patients attended ATC, where they were ineligible for the treatment ATC billed to Medicare and where they did not receive the treatment that was billed to Medicare. After Medicare paid the claims, some of the co-conspirators then laundered the Medicare money in order to create cash to pay the patient kickbacks.
Eckert was a therapist at ATC’s Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., center from September 2005 to September 2007, and returned to ATC as a therapist from late 2009 to October 2010, when ATC closed its doors as a result of federal charges. Evidence at trial revealed that Eckert fabricated therapist notes and other documents for patient files and submissions, and taught others to fabricate them, to make it appear both that ATC patients were qualified for PHP treatment and that they were receiving the intensive, individualized treatment PHP is supposed to be. ATC used those patient files to substantiate false and fraudulent claims to Medicare. Included in these submissions were claims for patients who were in the late stages of diseases causing permanent cognitive memory loss and patients who had substance abuse issues and were living in halfway houses. These patients were ineligible for PHP treatments, and because they were forced by their assisted living facility owners and halfway house owners to attend ATC, they were not receiving treatment for the diseases they actually had.
ATC and related company 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. On Sept. 16, 2011, the two 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. Dozens of individuals have been convicted at trial or pleaded guilty for their participation in the scheme.
Evidence at trial showed that the ATC scheme resulted in a total of $205 million in fraudulent Medicare billings.
The cases were prosecuted by Senior Trial Attorney Jennifer L. Saulino and Trial Attorney Laura M.K. Cordova of the Justice Department 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, 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.