WASHINGTON – Miami-area residents Dr. Mark Willner and Dr. Alberto Ayala, former medical directors at the mental health care company American Therapeutic Corporation (ATC), were each sentenced today to 10 years in prison for participating in a $205 million Medicare fraud scheme, 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; Special Agent-in-Charge Michael B. Steinbach 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.
Willner, 56, and Ayala, 68, were sentenced by U.S. District Judge Patricia A. Seitz in the Southern District of Florida. Judge Seitz ordered Willner to pay more than $57 million in restitution and Ayala to pay more than $87 million in restitution, both jointly and severally with their co-defendants. Willner and Ayala were also both sentenced to three years of supervised release following their prison terms.
On June 1, 2012, after a seven week trial, a federal jury in the Southern District of Florida found Willner and Ayala each guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud.
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.
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.
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 revealed that doctors at ATC, including Willner and Ayala, signed patient files without reading them or seeing the patients. Evidence further revealed that ATC then billed Medicare for more than $100 million in PHP treatment for these patients under the names of Willner and Ayala. 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 had substance abuse issues and were living in halfway houses. These patients were ineligible for PHP treatment, 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.
Willner and Ayala have been in federal custody since their convictions.
ATC executives Lawrence Duran, Marianella Valera, Judith Negron and Margarita Acevedo were sentenced to 50 years, 35 years, 35 years and 91 months in prison, respectively, for their roles in the fraud scheme. The 50- and 35-year sentences represent the longest sentences for health care fraud ordered to date. Acevedo, who pleaded guilty early on and has been cooperating with the government since November 2010, testified at the doctors’ trial.
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. 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.
The case was prosecuted by Trial Attorneys Jennifer L. Saulino, Robert A. Zink and James V. Hayes 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, now operating in nine cities across the country, has charged more than 1,330 defendants who have collectively billed the Medicare program for more than $4 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.