Hawthorne Woman Sentenced To 6½ Years In Federal Prison For Running Wheelchair Scam That Cost Medicare Nearly $3.5 Million
LOS ANGELES – A Hawthorne woman who ran a company that submitted more than $7 million in fraudulent claims to Medicare – primarily for power wheelchairs that were not needed by patients – and caused the government health insurance program to lose nearly $3.5 million has been sentenced to 78 months in federal prison.
Adeline Ekwebelem, 51, was sentenced yesterday afternoon by United States District Court Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald, who also ordered the defendant to pay $3.45 million in restitution to the Medicare program.
Following a seven-day trial last September, a federal jury found Ekwebelem guilty of 16 counts of conspiracy to commit health care fraud, health care fraud and payment of illegal kickbacks.
The evidence presented at the trial showed that Ekwebelem’s Gardena-based durable medical equipment (DME) supply company, Adelco Medical Distributors, Inc., billed Medicare for medically unnecessary DME – primarily power wheelchairs – for beneficiaries often recruited off the street. As part of the scheme, which ran from January 2007 through December 2011, Ekwebelem illegally paid kickbacks to “marketers” who recruited those beneficiaries and then paid kickbacks to a handful of complicit doctors in exchange for fraudulent prescriptions for DME.
Those doctors included Dr. Charles Okoye, who was sentenced to two years in federal prison after he pled guilty to conspiring with Ekwebelem to commit health care fraud, and Dr. Uche Chukwudi, who fled a month before trial and remains a fugitive. Three of Adelco’s marketers – Romie Tucker, Cindy Santana and Maritza Hernandez – have also received sentences of up to two years in prison for their roles in the scheme.
During the course of the scheme, Ekwebelem submitted more than $7 million in fraudulent claims to Medicare and received nearly $3.5 million. As the evidence at trial showed, Ekwebelem did more than cause substantial losses to Medicare – she also caused harm to Medicare beneficiaries. Medicare will only pay for one wheelchair every five years. On at least one occasion, Ekwebelem submitted a fraudulent claim to Medicare for a power wheelchair that she did not even let the beneficiary keep, which later prevented the beneficiary from getting a wheelchair when it was actually needed.
As prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed with the court: “In addition to exploiting Medicare’s honor system, defendant’s scheme also took advantage of the beneficiaries’ unfamiliarity with the English language and the Medicare system, forcing them to provide their personal Medicare information and sign forms shifting liability for the power wheelchairs to them, even though the forms were neither translated nor explained to the beneficiaries. In some cases, defendant’s conduct even prevented beneficiaries from getting medical care they later needed.”
The investigation into Ekwebelem and Adelco was conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Inspector General, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Release No. 15-038