Healthcare Providers Accused of $100 Million Kickback Scheme
A dozen doctors, pharmacy owners, and marketing professionals have been accused of being involved in a sham medical study used to bilk up to $102 million from Tricare, the publicly funded federal health program for military and their family members. According to federal prosecutors, the scheme involved physicians prescribing “compounded” drugs, such as pain, scar, and migraine creams to military families. The twelve participants were charged in a thirty-five count superseding indictment.
The defendants include: Dr. Walter Neil Simmons, 47, of Mesa, Arizona; Dr. William F. Elder-Quintana, 50, of El Paso, Texas; Jeffrey Eugene Fuller, 51, of Dallas, Texas; Andrew Joseph Baumiller, 37, of Dallas, Texas; Jeffry Dobbs Cockerell, 61, of Houston, Texas; Steven Bernard Kuper, 43, of Burleson, Texas; Ravi Morisetty, 42, of Irving, Texas; Joe Larry Straw, 46, of Frisco, Texas; Luis Rafael Rios, 50, of Killeen, Texas; and Michael John Kiselak, 49, of Southlake, Texas.
The superseding indictment alleges that from roughly May 2014 to mid-February 2016, the twelve defendants conspired to run a scheme to defraud TRICARE in connection with the prescription of compounded pain and scar creams. The scheme involved the payment of kickbacks to TRICARE beneficiaries, payment of kickbacks to prescribing physicians, and the payment of kickbacks to marketers by the owners of compounding pharmacies.
Cesario and Cooper co-owned CMGRX, LLC, (CMGRX), a Texas limited liability company formed in September 2014. The ‘CMG’ in CMGRX stands for Compound Marketing Group. CMGRX primarily marketed compounded pain and scar creams to current and former U.S. military members and their families, on behalf of various compounding pharmacies. CMGRX’s principle marketing tool was a sham medical study through which individuals were paid monetary compensation in exchange for obtaining compounded drugs with their TRICARE prescription benefits. Cesario served as CMGRX’s CEO and Treasurer and Cooper served as its President and Secretary. Neither had any medical, nursing or pharmaceutical licensing or education. CMGRX ceased operations in mid-2015, shortly after TRICARE announced changes to its coverage of compounded drugs. From October 2014 through June 2015, TRICARE paid more than $102 million for compounded drug prescriptions generated by CMGRX.
Defendants Straw and Kiselak led marketing groups for CMGRX, recruiting military members and their families, offering them monetary compensation in exchange for obtaining compounded drugs with their TRICARE prescription benefits. Defendant Rios, a marketer and patient recruiter in Straw’s marketing group, recruited hundreds of beneficiaries on and around Fort Hood.
Per the superseding indictment, Cesario, Cooper, Straw, Rios, Kiselak and their coconspirators paid TRICARE beneficiaries for obtaining and filling prescriptions for compounded drugs, principally compounded pain creams, scar creams, migraine creams, and vitamins. They disguised these payments to TRICARE beneficiaries as “grants” for participating in a medical study they referred to as a TRICARE-approved “Patient Safety Initiative” or “PSI Study” to evaluate the safety and efficacy of compounded drugs. However, the PSI Study was not approved by TRICARE, was not overseen by a qualified physician or medical professional, had no control group, and was not designed to gather any useful scientific data relating to the safety and efficacy of any drug. Its true purpose was to compile a list of TRICARE beneficiaries who had filled prescriptions so that Cesario, Cooper and their coconspirators could calculate how much to pay the beneficiaries.
To further disguise the source of those kickbacks to TRICARE beneficiaries, Cesario and Cooper directed the creation of a charity and funneled the payments to the beneficiaries through the charity. Kiselak introduced Cesario and Cooper to an individual who helped them create the “Freedom from Pain Foundation” and registered it as a tax-exempt charitable foundation. The foundation, however, was funded entirely by payments from Cesario and Cooper, or business accounts they controlled, and from November 2014 to June 2015, they paid approximately $2.8 million to the foundation, most which was used to pay TRICARE beneficiaries and doctors.
Defendant Simmons served as the Chief Medical Officer for CMGRX and helped Cesario and Cooper create the PSI Study. Defendant Elder-Quintana worked as a contract physician with CMGRX., and Cesario and Cooper paid him to prescribe compounded drugs to TRICARE beneficiaries. Some of the payments were made directly to Elder, while others were made to Aztec Medicus, PLLC, a company he owned and controlled. Elder wrote thousands of prescriptions for compounded drugs to TRICARE beneficiaries who he never met in person and for whom he conducted only a cursory consultation via telephone. In an effort to disguise physician kickbacks, Cesario, Cooper and their coconspirators funneled some payments through the Freedom from Pain Foundation, under the false premise that the physicians were providing consulting services in connection with the PSI Study.
Trilogy Pharmacy, a compounding pharmacy in the TRICARE network, paid Cesario, Cooper, Straw, Rios, Kiselak and other CMGRX employees kickbacks in exchange for sending prescriptions for compounded drugs to Trilogy. Baumiller worked closely with Fuller, Cesario and Cooper to disguise these kickbacks as employee wages. Defendant Cockerell owned and operated 360 Pharmacy Services, a compounding pharmacy in the TRICARE network. 360 Pharmacy paid kickbacks to Cesario and Cooper in exchange for sending prescriptions to them.
Defendant Kuper owned and operated FW Medical Supplies LLC, a compounding pharmacy in the TRICARE network that did business under the name Dandy Drug. Dandy Drug paid kickbacks to Cesario and Cooper in exchange for referring prescriptions to them. Defendant Morisetty owned and operated Dena Group, LLC, a compounding pharmacy in the TRICARE network that did business under the name Alpha Pharmacy. Alpha Pharmacy paid kickbacks to Cesario and Cooper in exchange for referring prescriptions to them.
Each defendant is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud, which carries a maximum statutory penalty of ten years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. Cesario and Cooper are also each charged with fourteen counts of payment and/or receipt of illegal remuneration. Each of the remaining defendants, except for Simmons, is charged with at least one count of payment and/or receipt of illegal remuneration. The maximum statutory penalty, upon conviction for each of those counts is five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. Restitution may also be ordered.
The superseding indictment also includes a forfeiture request, which would require the defendants upon conviction to forfeit any property traceable to the offense, including real estate in several cities in Texas and Jacksonville, Florida; funds in bank accounts and investment accounts; numerous vehicles; boats and recreational vehicles; numerous firearms; jewelry and artwork; and other various investments to the United States.
There have been at least two other federal probes claiming that certain pharmacies are paying kickbacks to doctors who have ordered expensive compound drugs for their patients. One probe involved a California pharmacy that billed the state’s workers’ compensation program for pricy markups. Another probe involved a Florida doctor who was indicted on a charge of taking kickbacks for sending prescriptions, billed to Tricare and Medicare, for creams costing as much as $21,000 for a one-month supply.