Marilynn Garfield of Delray Beach, Fla., left, raises her hand when the audience was asked how many are on Medicare during the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans fifth annual town hall meeting on health care reform in Delray Beach, Fla. Medicare is a hot-button topic this election year. And Medicare fraud is an issue in California.
One Southern California man sent recruiters to pressure elderly people into accepting power wheelchairs so he could bill Medicare. A Los Angeles woman is accused of laundering millions of dollars in fraudulent Medicare payments through jewelry stores after ordering walkers and canes for dead people. And a crew in and around Sacramento billed Medicare for running blood tests on each other and paid patients $100 to come to clinics.
They are among California’s players on the “most wanted” list of health fraud fugitives in the U.S. The list contains the names of about 170 people indicted in cases across the country.
Since the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General started the program a year and a half ago, 18 have been arrested, including one woman picked up at San Francisco International Airport.
Donald White, a spokesman for the inspector general's office, said the most-wanted effort has gotten more people looking for suspects and even resulted in one Detroit man turning himself in.
“There are a lot of people who are really fed up with the fraudsters who drain money out of needed Medicare and Medicaid programs designed for some of the most vulnerable U.S. citizens,” White said. “It shows how serious the Office of Inspector General is in catching criminals who steal.”
White said authorities work with international law enforcers and are seeking fugitives linked to scams that total $400 million in fraudulent payments.
Several people from the Golden State are at large, including two who were on the most-wanted list when it was unveiled in February 2011.
They include Leonard Nwafor, who was convicted of health fraud by a jury in 2008 before fleeing. According to a sentencing memorandum in his case, Nwafor ran a company called Pacific City Medical Equipment in San Fernando.
One person who worked for Nwafor approached a blind man after he left church in Fresno, offering to get him a free power wheelchair, court records say. The man provided his Medicare number, and Nwafor drew up paperwork for the order. Three doctors testified in the case that their signatures on prescriptions for power wheelchairs were forged.
Nwafor’s company paid the Fresno patient recruiter $100 for each reference he provided for other Medicare recipients who would take a wheelchair. Ultimately, Nwafor got more than $500,000 from Medicare for wheelchairs that people did not need and often did not get, court records say.
Nwafor faces nine years in federal prison if he is found.
Susan Bendigo is another Californian featured on the original most-wanted list. She is one of more than 40 people accused of running or taking part in a scheme that allegedly provided impostor nurses to Medi-Cal recipients of home health services.
According to court documents, Bendigo was director of nursing for a Sante Fe Springs company, Medcare Plus Home Health Providers. The firm claimed it provided home care nurses for disabled children.
The nurses, however, were not licensed professionals. Court records say Bendigo and other employees coached them to claim to be licensed vocational nurses, if asked.
Bendigo, who was born in the Philippines, was indicted in 2009 but has not entered a plea.
Also on the most-wanted list is Ekaterina Shlykova, who is accused of running a Los Angeles jewelry store that was used to launder $53 million in payments from Medicare for medical supplies. Many were ordered for dead people and for others who did not seek the supplies, authorities say.
Shlykova initially was arrested for driver’s license perjury in August 2009 related to what appeared to be a far smaller Medicare fraud scheme. At that time, authorities believed she worked with two others to bilk Medicare of $678,000 by submitting phony bills for diabetic shoes, walkers, canes and wheelchairs.
Her $25,000 bail was met, and Shlykova was released from jail. Then authorities uncovered a far larger scam.
By October 2009, authorities discovered Shlykova had 99 checkbooks, 151 bank and credit card account numbers and several shell jewelry businesses throughout Los Angeles. An amended complaint against Shlykova accuses her of 67 counts of forgery, money laundering, grand theft, conspiracy and identity theft.
In January 2010, an additional charge was added: willful failure to appear in court. Court records say Shlykova, who also goes by Marina Sekinaeva, has 20 Armenian, Russian and Georgian passports.
Another California most-wanted suspect was picked up in March 2011 at San Francisco International Airport. Zoya Belov has since signed a guilty plea to charges of health care fraud after working at a clinic that recruited patients to receive care.
The plea was based on Belov’s role in drawing blood from patients and performing electrocardiograms at a Sacramento clinic. Patients were brought to the clinic by a “capper,” or driver, who was paid to recruit patients who, in turn, were paid $100 to visit the clinic.
Belov is a nurse who was licensed in Russia but not in the United States. Court records say that on at least one occasion, Belov took blood from a clinic employee and represented it as a patient’s. The clinic sent $2.2 million in bills to Medicare and drew $586,000 in fraudulent payments, records show.
Belov is expected to be sentenced in November. Another member of the clinic team, Dr. Lana Le Chabrier of Santa Barbara, was sentenced in July to six and a half years in prison for health care fraud. She nearly made the most-wanted list, according to prosecutors: After charges were filed, she was seized on the Canadian border with $55,000 in cash and a bottle of hair dye.
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This story was produced by California Watch, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.californiawatch.org.