FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Federal agents arrested 26 suspects in three states Tuesday, including a doctor and nurses, in a major crackdown on Medicare fraud totaling $61 million in separate scams.
Arrests in Miami, Brooklyn and Detroit included a Florida doctor accused of running a $40 million home health care scheme that falsely listed patients as blind diabetics so that he could bill for twice-daily nurse visits.
The U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the indicted suspects lined up bogus patients and otherwise billed Medicare for unnecessary medical equipment, physical therapy and HIV infusions.
Indictments were issued for 32 people in all, but the status of the other suspects wasn't immediately known.
Miami Dr. Fred Dweck, along with 14 people with whom he worked, was accused in an indictment of running a scam to tap a Medicare program that pays very high rates to care for the sickest patients.
Dweck referred about 1,279 Medicare beneficiaries for expensive and unnecessary home health and therapy services, bribing the owners of two Miami clinics to join the scam. He also faked medical certifications, according to the indictment.
A telephone listing for Dweck could not be found and it was unclear if he had a lawyer.
"No matter what type of fraud is committed, there is one common denominator and that denominator is greed," Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said. "Medicare fraud is not a victimless crime. It hurts every American taxpayer by raising the cost of health care."
The raids come a week after a report that Miami-Dade County received more than half a billion dollars from Medicare in home health care payments intended for the sickest patients in 2008, which is more than the rest of the country combined, according to a report by the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General. Medicare paid the county about $520 million, even though only 2 percent of those patients receiving home health care live here.
In Detroit's raids, suspects paid recruiters to find patients willing to feign symptoms to justify expensive testing, including nerve conduction studies, federal authorities said.
A mother and son were charged in Brooklyn with billing Medicare $246 per patient for expensive shoe inserts reserved for diabetes patients, even though they only provided cheap, over-the-counter versions.
Including Tuesday's arrests, a Medicare Fraud strike force formed by the Justice and Health departments has now charged suspects accused of bilking Medicare of more than $1 billion in less than two years.
The pilot strike force, which started in Miami in 2007, has indicted more than 460 suspects in Medicare fraud scams. The program is now in Los Angeles, Houston and Detroit. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius also announced Tuesday the operation will expand to Tampa, Fla., Baton Rouge, La., and Brooklyn.
Cleaning up an estimated $60 billion a year in Medicare fraud will be key to President Barack Obama's proposed health care overhaul. HHS and DOJ have promised more money and manpower to fight the fraud.