Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Bay Area’s largest home health care firm charged with Medicare kickbacks scheme

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Federal prosecutors charged the Bay Area’s largest home health care provider Thursday with paying doctors millions of dollars in kickbacks in a scheme to defraud the Medicare system.

Amity Home Health Care funneled $8 million in bribes — in Warriors tickets, Louis Vuitton bags, and “literal envelopes of cash” — to health care workers in the South and East Bay who referred patients to the company, said David Anderson, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California. Those new patients came with $115 million in Medicare funds for Amity and a related corporation, Advent Care.

Charges were unsealed Thursday against the two companies, CEO Ridhima Singh, and more than two dozen doctors, nurses and other health workers who provided the improper referrals.

The defendants were recorded by law enforcement officers offering, accepting, or approving illegal payments, according to the complaints, violating a federal law against health care-related kickbacks. Some of the payments were allegedly disguised as reimbursements, donations or payroll.

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“These doctors and healthcare professionals sold patients like commodities, placing their own financial gains over the wellbeing of their patients and betraying the basic principles of their profession,” said Craig Fair, the FBI’s deputy special agent in charge for San Francisco.

Singh, the CEO, is also charged with making false statements and tampering with witnesses.

A receptionist who answered the phone at Amity’s Hayward headquarters Thursday morning said no one was immediately available to comment on the charges. Singh’s lawyer, Chuck Kreindler, declined to comment outside the San Francisco courtroom.

Several of the defendants, including Singh, were arrested and released on bond after their first court appearance in San Francisco on Thursday, while others will be in court over the next week. A parade of doctors and medical executives with ruffled clothes, muffled hair and untucked shirts appeared stunned as Judge Joseph C. Spero read the charges against them. They didn’t enter guilty or not guilty pleas.

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Home health work — including hospice aides taking care of people near the end of their life and in-home nurses attending to sick patients — is one of the fastest-growing employment fields in the country. The industry’s rapid expansion makes it “ripe for the potential of fraud,” Anderson said.

Authorities started looking into Amity after an initial complaint to the Department of Health and Human Services in July 2016. The investigation involved multiple cooperating witnesses inside the scheme, undercover FBI agents acting as corrupt health executives, and a wiretap of Singh’s iPhone that showed her discussing kickback payments over WhatsApp, the indictments say.

Singh, who lives in Livermore, repeatedly pushed associates to get her more patient referrals. “It’s been so many years and i know you are aware of what the expectations are,” she texted one associate in November 2018, according to the complaint. “I’m not here to fight I’m pretty clear cut and u know that. I’m drama free but things can get to my nerve when I don’t see the mutual understanding.”

Prosecutors don’t allege that any patients were involved in the scheme or that patients were treated poorly by the companies. But it was the network of bribery that enabled Amity to become the region’s largest home health care provider, the charging documents say.

Related: Tennessee Health Care Executive Sentenced to Prison for Role In $4.6 Million Kickback Scheme

The individuals charged with accepting kickbacks include 13 doctors, five nurses and one social worker from around the Bay Area. In addition to about $6 million paid in cash, the defendants allegedly received gifts like designer bags, tickets to Warriors games, trips to Las Vegas, and expensive dinners to incentivize them to send their patients to Amity.

The doctors charged are Bhupinder Bhandari of Pleasanton; Andre Gay of Union City; Mariam Hasan of Milpitas; Kimberly Hicks of Oakland; Yelena Kabanskaya of San Jose; April Mancuso of Los Gatos; Gerald Myint of Union City; Tam Nguyen of San Jose; Juan Posada of Cupertino; Kerisimasi Reynolds of Los Gatos; Scott Taylor of Oakland; Henry Watson of Oakland; and Zheng Zhang of Saratoga. The nurses are Catherine Cariaga of Fremont; Mervina Deguzman of San Jose; Belinda Roy of Fremont; Stella Teodoro of Union City; and Terence Tirona of Hayward.

If defendants are convicted of violating the anti-kickback law, they could face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum $100,000 fine, while Singh could be subject to steeper penalties under her additional charges.

As he urged defendants not to violate the terms of their bonds, Judge Spero suggested that the case is unlikely to be wrapped up anytime soon.

“A complicated case like this could take years,” Spero told Singh, “and you don’t want to be sitting in a jail cell.”

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