The Department of Justice announced Thursday that the agency charged 18 criminal defendants, including doctors and testing suppliers, in the largest-yet enforcement action against COVID-19 healthcare fraud schemes that resulted in over $490 million in false federal billing.
The enforcement comes after federal pandemic-related healthcare subsidies spurred the DOJ to create a COVID-19 fraud task force agency in May 2021 to crack down on industry fraud.
So far, the agency has charged 53 defendants and convicted 20 in the past three years of healthcare-related COVID-19 schemes that cost the federal government over $784 million in funds, according to the DOJ.
Multiple defendants were charged with defrauding the COVID-19 uninsured program, a federal program that reimburses providers for pandemic-related services provided to uninsured patients. In California, a provider was charged with billing $230 million in fraudulent claims to the federal uninsured program and then using over $100 million of the proceeds for high-risk options trading.
Also, a California lab owner was charged with submitting over $358 million in fraudulent laboratory claims after upcharging for needless panel tests when performing COVID-19 screening for vulnerable elderly populations inclduing those in nursing homes and school-aged children.
“Exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic and viewing the public health emergency as an opportunity to steal money and resources from federal health care programs shows a clear disregard for the well-being and safety of those who rely on government-funded health care services,” said Christi Grimm, inspector general of the HHS OIG office, in a statement.
The agency also announced charges against medical professionals who forged COVID-19 vaccination cards. The DOJ charged three providers at one of the busiest vaccination sites in New York for allegedly distributing over 2,700 forged vaccination records in addition to destroying vials of COVID-19 vaccines intended to be used to inoculate patients. In Utah, the agency also charged two people for selling about 120,000 in fake COVID-19 vaccine cards.
Providers were also targeted for fraud under the federal provider relief fund enacted under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in March 2020. In Louisiana, a primary care clinic operator was charged with receiving over $1.1 million in relief funds that were used to purchase luxury vehicles, a boat, real estate, a time share, vacations and a trailer. In total, 12 defendants have been charged for misappropriating funds intended for frontline medical providers, with seven having pleaded guilty, according to the agency.