Over 600 Arrested in Healthcare Fraud Sweep

By Pat Anson, Editor

Over 600 doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other medical providers have been arrested in what the U.S. Justice Department is calling its largest healthcare fraud investigation.

Most of the charges involve false claims for opioid prescriptions or addiction treatment that resulted in $2 billion in fraudulent billings to Medicare, Medicaid and other health insurers. Many of the arrests occurred weeks or months ago, and were apparently lumped together by federal agencies to make the crackdown on healthcare fraud appear to be the "largest ever." 

“This is the most fraud, the most defendants, and the most doctors ever charged in a single operation -- and we have evidence that our ongoing work has stopped or prevented billions of dollars’ worth of fraud,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

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Federal officials also announced that they have excluded 2,700 individuals from participating in Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health programs, including 587 providers excluded for conduct related to opioid diversion and abuse. 

“Health care fraud is a betrayal of vulnerable patients, and often it is theft from the taxpayer,” said Sessions.  “In many cases, doctors, nurses, and pharmacists take advantage of people suffering from drug addiction in order to line their pockets. These are despicable crimes.”

A $106 million scheme uncovered in Florida alleged there was widespread fraudulent urine drug testing at a substance abuse treatment center. The owner, medical director and two employees at the sober living facility allegedly recruited patients and paid kickbacks to them for participating in bogus drug tests.

In California, an attorney at a compounding pharmacy allegedly paid kickbacks and offered incentives such as prostitutes and expensive meals to two podiatrists in exchange for bogus prescriptions written on pre-printed prescription pads. Once the fraudulent prescriptions were filled, about $250 million in false claims were submitted to federal, state and private insurers.

In Texas, a pharmacy chain owner, managing partner and lead pharmacist were accused of using fraudulent prescriptions to fill bulk orders for over one million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills, which the pharmacy then sold to drug couriers for millions of dollars. 

“Healthcare fraud touches every corner of the United States and not only costs taxpayers money, but also can have deadly consequences,” said FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich.  “Through investigations across the country, we have seen medical professionals putting greed above their patients’ well-being and trusted doctors fanning the flames of the opioid crisis.”

Since becoming Attorney General, Sessions has shown a particular interest in opioid prescriptions -- once urging pain patients to “tough it out” and take aspirin instead.

Last August, Sessions ordered the formation of a new data analysis team, the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, to focus solely on opioid-related health care fraud.  Five months later, Sessions launched a Justice Department task force targeting manufacturers and distributors of opioid medication, as well as physicians and pharmacies engaged in the “unlawful” prescribing of opioids.

As PNN has reported, the data mining of opioid prescriptions -- without examining the full context of who the medications were written for or why – can be problematic. Last year the DEA raided the offices of Dr. Forest Tennant, a prominent California pain physician, because he had “very suspicious prescribing patterns.” Tennant only treated intractable pain patients, many from out-of-state, and often prescribed high doses of opioids to patients because of their chronically poor health -- important facts that were omitted or ignored by DEA investigators. Tennant has not been charged with a crime, but announced plans to retire after the DEA raid.

Sessions has also proposed a new rule that would allow the DEA to punish drug makers if their painkillers are diverted or abused. If approved, the agency could reduce the amount of opioids a company would be allowed to produce, even if the drug maker had no direct role in the diversion.

Most overdoses are not linked to opioid pain medication, but are more likely associated with illicit fentanyl, heroin, anti-anxiety drugs or antidepressants.