ST. PAUL, Minn. – U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright has entered a judgment against Defendants Cameron-Ehlen Group, Inc. dba Precision Lens and its owner Paul Ehlen in the amount of $487,048,705.13.
On February 27, 2023, a federal civil jury concluded that the Defendants violated the False Claims Act and the Anti-Kickback Statute by paying kickbacks to ophthalmic surgeons to induce their use of the Defendants’ products in cataract surgeries reimbursed by Medicare. The jury found that 64,575 false claims were submitted to Medicare due to the Defendants’ conduct, which resulted in $43,694,641.71 in damages to Medicare.
Under the False Claims Act (FCA), a person or entity found to have violated the FCA is liable to the United States Government for a minimum civil penalty of $5,000 per false claim and three times the amount of damages sustained by the Government. In this matter, the amount included $358,445,780 in statutory penalties and an additional $131,083,925.13 in trebled damages, resulting in a total amount of $489,529,705.13, less $2,481,000 in proceeds from a previous settlement with Sightpath Medical.
As proven at trial, the Defendants provided kickbacks to physicians in various forms, including travel and entertainment. The United States identified multiple examples of trips, including high-end skiing, fishing, golfing, hunting, sporting, and entertainment vacations, often at exclusive destinations. For many of the trips, the Defendants transported physicians to luxury vacation destinations on private jets. These included trips to New York City to see a Broadway musical, the College Football National Championship Game in Miami, Florida, and the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia. The Defendants also sold frequent flyer miles to their physician customers at a significant discount, enabling the physicians to take personal and business trips at well below fair market value.
“This judgment affirms Congress’ intent to hold individuals and companies accountable when they use illegal kickbacks to defraud federal healthcare programs,” said Bahram Samie, Deputy Civil Chief for the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota. “Medicare beneficiaries are entitled to know with certainty that their physician’s decision-making has not been compromised by a private flight, expensive ski-trip, or any other unlawful inducement. This office is committed to investigating misconduct and recovering funds unlawfully obtained from federal healthcare programs.”
The United States also proved that Precision Lens maintained a fund, referred to internally at Precision Lens as a secret fund or slush fund, in furtherance of its kickback scheme. Precision Lens used money from the secret fund to finance multiple physician trips.
The United States previously announced a $12 million settlement of related allegations with Sightpath Medical, Inc. and TLC Vision Corporation (collectively Sightpath) and their former CEO, James Tiffany. Dr. Jitendra Swarup also resolved claims that he had accepted kickbacks in a settlement agreement of more than $2.9 million.
This civil lawsuit was originally brought by a Relator, or whistleblower, under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act, which allow private parties to bring suit on behalf of the government for false claims and to share in any recovery. The government often relies on whistleblowers to bring fraud schemes to light that might otherwise go undetected. The whistleblower in this matter, Kipp Fesenmaier, will receive a percentage of the amounts awarded at trial.
The case was handled by the Civil Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota, including AUSAs Chad Blumenfield, Bahram Samie, and Andy Tweeten and paralegals Darcie Boschee and Laura Kolars. The case was investigated with assistance from the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.