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FBI raids across country net 30 Medicare fraud suspects

Mass. man among those charged with filing false claims

By Kelli Kennedy
Associated Press / July 30, 2009

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MIAMI - Federal authorities arrested more than 30 suspects, including doctors, and were seeking others in a major Medicare antifraud operation yesterday in New York, Louisiana, Boston, and Houston, targeting scams such as “arthritis kits’’ - expensive braces that many patients never used.

More than 200 agents worked on the $16 million bust that included 12 search warrants at healthcare businesses and homes across the Houston area, where the bulk of the arrests were made.

Federal authorities say those businesses were giving patients “arthritis kits,’’ which were nothing more than expensive orthotics that included knee and shoulder braces and heating pads. Patients told authorities they were unnecessary and many never even received them. But healthcare clinic owners billed between $3,000 to $4,000 for each kit.

Houston’s other scam involved billing Medicare for thousands of dollars worth of liquid food such as Ensure for patients who can’t eat solids. Authorities said clinic owners never distributed the food to patients.

It’s the third major sweep since Attorney General Eric Holder and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in May they were adding millions of dollars and dozens of agents to combat a problem that costs the United States billions each year.

Using about a dozen agents in targeted cities, including Miami, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force has recovered $371 million in false Medicare claims and charged 145 people across the country in just two months.

Authorities in southwest Houston yesterday confiscated paperwork and a computer from Memorial Medical Supply. Owners of the business did not respond to calls from the Associated Press.

The suspects arrested yesterday in Houston were to make court appearances this morning.

In Boston, John Nasky Okonkwo, also known as John Nasky, 49, of Suffolk County, was arrested and charged by the US District Court in Houston with one count of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and four counts of healthcare fraud, according to court documents.

Okonkwo submitted about $2.2 million in false claims to Medicare for medical equipment including orthotic devices and power wheelchairs, according to the court. Okonkwo also worked for a medical supply company, Onward Group Health Inc., in Richmond, Texas, as a patient recruiter, the court said. He allegedly provided names and billing information of Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries to Onward, according to the court.

The first strike force started in 2007 in Miami, a city authorities say is responsible for more than $3 billion a year in Medicare fraud. Clinic owners there would bill Medicare dozens of times for the same wheelchair, while never giving the medical equipment to patients.

The problems have become more complex.

Officials say the suspects have moved into more sophisticated scams including home healthcare, physical therapy, and infusion drugs. They’ve even started tapping into Medicaid Advantage, which allows the elderly and disabled to get benefits through private health insurers.

Since 2007, strike forces in Miami, Detroit. and Los Angeles have indicted about 290 suspects and organizations that collectively have billed the Medicare program for more than $674 million.

Globe correspondent Abbie E. Ruzicka contributed to this report.