WASHINGTON — Forging vaccine cards, passing off fake medicine as the Moderna vaccine, and billing hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent tests are among the criminal activity alleged by the Department of Justice Wednesday as it unveiled a slew of COVID-related fraud charges.
The government is charging 21 people across the country in cases totaling $149 million in alleged COVID fraud. Charges include taking kickbacks, exploiting the Telehealth system, and misusing aid from the CARES Act.
Most of the $149 million total is tied to one California health clinic, which allegedly exploited people seeking COVID tests to fraudulently bill Medicare $144 million.
Matias Clinical Laboratory took the information of thousands of patients seeking COVID tests, then turned around and billed Medicare for lucrative but unnecessary procedures such as blood work, urinalysis, and tests for other respiratory diseases, the government alleged.
The Department of Justice said it discovered the lab was committing fraud predating the COVID pandemic, and the total amount of fraudulent bills submitted to Medicare was over $214 million. Medicare paid out about $20 million in false claims before detecting the alleged fraud.
Imran Shams and Lourdes Navarro, both of Glendale, California, are now facing charges of healthcare fraud. Shams was banned from billing Medicare because of previous convictions, but the government said he hid his ownership in the lab and laundered proceeds of the scheme through shell companies by buying real estate and luxury items.
“While people were suffering and desperately seeking vaccine and treatment for COVID-19, some saw an opportunity to profit by committing alleged frauds, laundering taxpayer dollars through shell corporations and companies, and buying luxury goods and lavish homes,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite Jr.
Some of the cases announced Wednesday involve selling fake COVID treatments or vaccination cards to skirt CDC requirements. Robert Van Camp of Parker, Colorado, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States and trafficking in counterfeit goods for allegedly producing and selling hundreds of fake vaccination cards in at least a dozen states.
The Department of Justice alleged that Van Camp told an undercover agent that he had sold cards to “people that are going to the Olympics in Tokyo, three Olympians and their coach in Tokyo, Amsterdam, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Honduras. I’ve got a company, a veterinary company, as 30 people going to Canada every fucking day, Canada back. Mexico is big. And like I said, I’m in 12 of 13 states, so until I get caught and go to jail, fuck it. I’m taking the money, [laughs] I don’t care.”
Van Camp allegedly made thousands of dollars selling fake vaccination cards for up to $175 a pop.
Lisa Hammell of Turnersville, New Jersey, is facing similar charges. She is alleged to have printed fraudulent vaccination cards while working at a post office and sold cards to at least 400 unvaccinated people.
In one case, the head of a pharmacy allegedly helped a “naturopathic doctor” fraudulently pass off fake COVID treatments as CDC-approved vaccinations. Ranna Shamiya of Ukiah, California, allegedly used her position as pharmacy director at a Northern California hospital to identify legitimate identification numbers for FDA-authorized COVID vaccines and passed them on to Juli Mazi, the naturopath. Mazi sold products known as “homeoprophylaxis immunization” pellets and allegedly provided customers with false records that they had received the Moderna vaccine.
Shamiya is now charged with making false statements related to healthcare matters. Mazi was previously charged last year.
In two similar but separate cases in Maryland and New York, owners of medical clinics allegedly used confidential information of patients seeking COVID tests at drive-thru testing sites to bill for lengthy office visits that never happened. The proceeds of these schemes were allegedly laundered through shell corporations to purchase real estate and luxury items overseas.
In another case, Elizabeth Mercedes Hernandez, a registered nurse practitioner in Florida, is accused of taking advantage of relaxed telemedicine rules. Hernandez allegedly signed an enormous volume of doctor’s orders for medically unnecessary testing in exchange for kickbacks in the form of sham telehealth consultation fees — billing Medicare for telemedicine consultations that she did not actually perform. Her case is tied to a broader alleged fraud ring tied to over $68 million in false claims.
“This COVID-19 health care fraud enforcement action involves extraordinary efforts to prosecute some of the largest most wide-ranging pandemic frauds detected to date,” said Kevin Chambers, director of COVID-19 fraud enforcement for the Department of Justice, in a press release. “The scale and complexity of the schemes prosecuted today illustrates the success of our unprecedented interagency effort to quickly investigate and prosecute those who abuse our critical health care programs.”
Government agencies repeatedly warned Congress that fraud has surged during the COVID pandemic. But so far, Congress has been slow to provide the resources or authorities requested to crack down on fraudsters and scammers.