Courts & Crime

Feds arrest 4 in nation's largest Medicare fraud case

Federal agents arrested four South Florida health care operators early Thursday in one of the nation's biggest Medicare fraud cases, charging them with scheming to fleece $200 million from the taxpayer-funded program by billing for bogus mental health services.

Lawrence S. Duran, 48, of North Miami, and his company, American Therapeutic Corp., were charged along with other employees in a conspiracy indictment. The Miami-based company's chief executive officer, Marianella Valera, 39, was also among the defendants named in the indictment.

Duran, Varela and two other employees Judith Cruz Negron, 39, and Margarita Acevedo, 40, were in federal custody Thursday morning.

The indictment was unsealed at the same time as a government whistle-blower lawsuit filed against American Therapeutic, the nation's largest chain of community mental health centers licensed by Medicare, authorities said.

The indictment charges American Therapeutic and its senior employees with conspiring to bilk Medicare for group therapy sessions that were either unnecessary or not provided to patients, many suffering from Alzheimer's disease. They were mostly supplied by assisted- living facilities that received kickbacks for the referrals.

Agents for the FBI and Health and Human Services raided one of American Therapeutic's clinics at 1801 NE Second Avenue, just after the arrests. They were carrying up boxes of records and computers out of the clinic to load them into a van.

The U.S. attorney's office plans to hold a news conference Thursday morning, and the defendants are expected to have their first appearances in Miami federal court in the afternoon.

The scope of the alleged Medicare fraud surpassed that of a vast network of Armenian gangsters and their associates charged last week with operating phantom healthcare clinics to try to cheat the federal program out of $163 million.

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