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Health insurance make scamming too easy

July 19, 2019, Washington, DC — Ever since her 14-year marriage imploded in financial chaos and a protective order, Amy Lankford had kept a wary eye on her ex, David Williams.

Williams, then 51, with the beefy body of a former wrestler gone slightly to seed, was always working the angles, looking for shortcuts to success and mostly stumbling. During their marriage, Lankford had been forced to work overtime as a physical therapist when his personal training business couldn’t pay his share of the bills.

So, when Williams gave their three kids iPad Minis for Christmas in 2013, she was immediately suspicious. Where did he get that kind of money? Then one day on her son’s iPad, she noticed numbers next to the green iMessage icon indicating that new text messages were waiting. She clicked.

What she saw next made her heart pound. Somehow the iPad had become linked to her ex-husband’s personal Apple device and the messages were for him.

Most of the texts were from people setting up workouts through his personal training business, Get Fit With Dave, which he ran out of his home in Mansfield, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth. But, oddly, they were also providing their birthdates and the group number of their health insurance plans. The people had health benefits administered by industry giants, including Aetna, Cigna and UnitedHealthcare. They were pleased to hear their health plans would now pay for their fitness workouts.

Lankford’s mind raced as she scrolled through the messages. It appeared her ex-husband was getting insurance companies to pay for his personal training services. But how could that be possible? Insurance companies pay for care that’s medically necessary, not sessions of dumbbell curls and lunges.

Insurance companies also only pay for care provided by licensed medical providers, like doctors or nurses. Williams called himself “Dr. Dave” because he had a Ph.D. in kinesiology. But he didn’t have a medical license. He wasn’t qualified to bill insurance companies. But, Lankford could see, he was doing it anyway.

As Lankford would learn, “Dr. Dave” had wrongfully obtained, with breathtaking ease, federal identification numbers that allowed him to fraudulently bill insurers as a physician for services to about 1,000 people. Then he battered the system with the bluntest of ploys: submit a deluge of out-of-network claims, confident that insurers would blindly approve a healthy percentage of them. Then, if the insurers did object, he gambled that they had scant appetite for a fight.

By the time the authorities stopped Williams, three years had passed since Lankford had discovered the text messages. In total, records show, he ran the scheme for more than four years, fraudulently billing several of the nation’s top insurance companies — United, Aetna and Cigna — for $25 million and reaping about $4 million in cash.

In response to inquiries, Williams sent a brief handwritten letter. He didn’t deny billing the insurers and defended his work, calling it an “unprecedented and beneficial opportunity to help many people.”

“My objective was to create a system of preventative medicine,” he wrote. Because of his work, “hundreds of patients” got off their prescription medication and avoided surgery.

There are a host of reasons health care costs are out-of-control and routinely top American’s list of financial worries, from unnecessary treatment and high prices to waste and fraud. Most people assume their insurance companies are tightly controlling their health care dollars. Insurers themselves boast of this on their websites.

In 2017, private insurance spending hit $1.2 trillion, according to the federal government, yet no one tracks how much is lost to fraud. Some investigators and health care experts estimate that fraud eats up 10% of all health care spending and they know schemes abound.

Williams’ case highlights an unsettling reality about the nation’s health insurance system: It is surprisingly easy for fraudsters to gain entry, and it is shockingly difficult to convince insurance companies to stop them.

Williams’ spree also lays bare the financial incentives that drive the system: Rising health care costs boost insurers’ profits. Policing criminals eats away at them. Ultimately, losses are passed on to their clients through higher premiums and out-of-pocket fees or reduced coverage.

Insurance companies “are more focused on their bottom line than ferreting out bad actors,” said Michael Elliott, former lead attorney for the Medicare Fraud Strike Force in North Texas.

As Lankford looked at the iPad that day, she knew something else that made Williams’ romp through the health care system all the more surprising. The personal trainer had already done jail time for a similar crime, and Lankford’s father had uncovered the scheme.

Williams had already been convicted for false billing when he started his fraud campaign
Scanning her ex-husband’s texts, Lankford, then 47, knew just who to call. During the rocky end of her marriage, her dad had become the family watchdog. Jim Pratte has an MBA in finance and retired after a career selling computer hardware, but even the mention of Williams flushed his face red and ratcheted up his Texas twang. His former-son-in law is the reason he underwent firearms training.

Lankford lived a few minutes away from her parents in Mansfield. She brought her dad the iPad and they pored over message after message in which Williams assured clients that their insurance would cover their workouts at no cost to them.

Lankford and Pratte, then 68, were stunned at Williams’ audacity. They were sure the companies would quickly crackdown on what appeared to be a fraudulent scheme.

Especially because Williams had a criminal record.

In early 2006, while Williams and Lankford were going through their divorce, the family computer started freezing up. Lankford asked her dad to help her recover a document. Scrolling through the hard drive, Pratte came upon a folder named “Invoices,” and he suspected it had something to do with Williams.

His soon to be ex-son-in-law had had a promising start. He’d wrestled and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Boise State University, and a Ph.D. at Texas A&M University, before landing a well-paying job as a community college professor in Arlington. But the glow faded when the school suddenly fired him for reasons hidden by a confidential settlement and by Williams himself, who refused to reveal them even to his wife.

Out of a job, Williams had hustled investments from their friends to convert an old Winn-Dixie grocery store into a health club called “Doc’s Gym.” The deal fell apart and everyone lost their money. The failure was written up in the local newspaper under the headline: “What’s up with Doc’s?”

Inside the “Invoices” folder, Pratte found about a dozen bills that appeared to be from a Fort Worth nonprofit organization where his daughter and Williams took their son Jake for autism treatment. As Pratte suspected, the invoices turned out to be fake. Williams had pretended to take Jake for therapy, then created the false bills so he could pocket a cash “reimbursement” from a county agency.

In November 2008, Williams pleaded guilty in Tarrant County District Court to felony theft. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail and was released on bail while he appealed.

Things took an even darker turn about two years later when Williams and Lankford’s 11-year-old son showed up to school with bruising on his face. Investigators determined that Williams had hit the boy in the face about 20 times. Williams pleaded guilty to causing bodily injury to a child, a felony, which, coupled with the bail violation, landed him in jail for about two years.

The time behind bars didn’t go to waste. Williams revised the business plan for Get Fit With Dave, concluding he needed to get access to health insurance.

Williams detailed his plans in letters to Steve Cosio, a tech-savvy friend who ran the Get Fit With Dave website in exchange for personal training sessions. Cosio, whose name later popped up on Lankford’s son’s iPad, kept the letters in their original envelopes and shared them with ProPublica. He said he never suspected Williams was doing anything illegal.

In his letters, Williams said that when he got out, instead of training clients himself, he would recruit clients and other trainers to run the sessions. “It has the potential for increased revenue.”

He asked Cosio to remove the term “personal training” from his website in another letter, adding “95 percent of my clients are paid for by insurance, which does not cover ‘personal training,’ I have to bill it as ‘therapeutic exercise.’ It is the same thing, but I have to play the insurance game … Insurance pays twice as much as cash pay so I have to go after that market.”

Williams downplayed his child abuse conviction — “I can honestly say that I am the only one in here for spanking their child” — and included a dig at his ex-father-in-law, Pratte: “an evil, evil man. He is the reason for my new accommodations.”

Williams told Cosio he needed to raise a quick $30,000 to pay an attorney to get him access to his children. “I will need to get a bunch of clients in a hurry.”

Williams claimed to be a doctor when he applied for a provider number to bill insurers, and no one checked to see if it was true
To set his plan in motion, Williams needed what is essentially the key that unlocks access to health care dollars: a National Provider Identifier, or NPI number.

The ID number is little known outside the medical community, but getting one through the federal government’s Medicare program is a rite of passage for medical professionals and organizations. Without it, they can’t bill insurers for their services.

One would think obtaining an NPI, with its stamp of legitimacy, would entail at least some basic vetting. But Williams discovered and exploited an astonishing loophole: Medicare doesn’t check NPI applications for accuracy — a process that should take mere minutes or, if automated, a millisecond. Instead, as one federal prosecutor later noted in court, Medicare “relies on the honesty of applicants.”

Records show Williams first applied for an NPI under his own name as far back as 2008. But it wasn’t until 2014 that Williams began to ramp up his scheme, even though now he wasn’t just unlicensed, he was a two-time felon. He got a second NPI under the company name, Kinesiology Specialists. The following year, he picked up another under Mansfield Therapy Associates. In 2016, he obtained at least 11 more, often for entities he created in the areas where he found fitness clients: Dallas, Nevada, North Texas and more. By 2017, he had 20 NPIs, each allowing him a new stream of billings.

For every NPI application, Williams also obtained a new employer identification number, which is used for tax purposes. But he never hid who he was, using his real name, address, phone number and email address on the applications. He added the title “Dr.” and listed his credentials as “PhD.” Under medical specialty he often indicated he was a “sports medicine” doctor and provided a license number, even though he wasn’t a physician and didn’t have a medical license.

Medicare officials declined to be interviewed about Williams. But in a statement, they acknowledged that the agency doesn’t verify whether an NPI applicant is a medical provider or has a criminal history. The agency claims it would need “explicit authority” from the Department of Health and Human Services to do so — and currently doesn’t have it. Regulations, and potentially the law, would need to be revised to allow the agency to vet the applications, the statement said.

Medicare does verify the credentials of physicians and other medical providers who want to bill the agency for their Medicare patients.

To those charged with rooting out fraudsters, the current regulations seem like an invitation to plunder.

“Medicare has to make sure that the individuals who apply for NPIs are licensed physicians — it’s that simple,” said Elliott, the former prosecutor who ran about 100 health care fraud investigations.

Elliott, who now does white-collar criminal defense, said he knows of two other cases currently under federal investigation in which non-licensed clinic administrators lied to obtain NPI numbers, then used patients’ information to file false claims worth millions.

Medicare warns NPI applicants that submitting false information could lead to a $250,000 fine and five years in prison. But since Medicare started issuing NPIs in 2006, officials said they could not identify anyone who had been sanctioned.

So, for those bent on fraud, the first step is easy; the online approval for an NPI takes just minutes.

Business booms as “Dr. Dave” recruits trainers and insured clients to maximize his fraudulent billing
Williams got out of jail in November 2012 and launched an aggressive expansion with an irresistible pitch: Time to get those private personal training sessions you thought you couldn’t afford!

“Now accepting most health insurance plans,” his Get Fit With Dave website announced. He added a drop-down menu to his site, allowing potential clients to select their health insurance provider: Aetna. Blue Cross Blue Shield. United.

He began building a team, soliciting trainers from the strength and conditioning department at Texas Christian University. He met with new recruits at local fast food joints or coffee shops to set them up. To the trainers, the business appeared legit: They even signed tax forms. Before long, Williams’ network stretched throughout Texas and into Colorado, Idaho and Nevada.

One Fort Worth trainer recalled meeting Williams through one of his clients, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant. Williams, he said, seemed like a real doctor, and it wasn’t hard to imagine an insurer’s wellness program covering fitness. Plus, it was good money — about $50 an hour and Williams paid him for multiple clients at once if he did boot camps, said the trainer, who asked that his name not be used so he wouldn’t be tarnished by his association with Williams. Williams, he said, even gave him an iPad, with “Kinesiology Specialists” etched on the back, to submit bills and paid him via direct deposit.

Clients came to Williams through his business cards, his website and word-of-mouth. Williams, records show, quickly verified if their insurance companies would cover his fees — although he didn’t tell clients that those fees would be billed as medical services, not personal training. To ensure the clients paid nothing, he waived their annual deductibles — the portion patients pay each year before insurance kicks in. Authorities said Williams banked on being able to file enough claims to quickly blow through their deductibles so he could get paid.

Meredith Glavin, a flight attendant with Southwest, told the authorities she got in touch with Williams after her co-workers said insurance was covering their workouts. After providing her name, address and insurance information on the Get Fit With Dave website, Williams emailed back with the good news: “Everything checks out with your insurance. My services will be covered at no cost to you.”

During a follow-up phone call, Glavin said, they discussed her fitness and weight loss goals and then Williams connected her with a trainer. The workouts were typical fitness exercises, she said, not treatment for a medical condition. But insurance claims show Williams billed the sessions as highly complex $300 examinations to treat “lumbago and sciatica,” a condition in which nerve pain radiates from the lower back into the legs.

He used his favorite billing code — 99215 — to bill Glavin’s insurer, United, the claims show. The code is supposed to be used less often because it requires a comprehensive examination and sophisticated medical decision-making, warranting higher reimbursement. In all, Williams used the code to bill United for more than $20.5 million — without apparently triggering any red flags at the insurer. For that code alone, the insurance giant rewarded him with $2.5 million in payments.

Eventually, Get Fit With Dave expanded to about a dozen trainers and around 1,000 patients, said a source familiar with the case. And, court records show, the checks from insurance companies, some over $100,000, kept rolling in.

Williams bought a couple of pick-up trucks, a new Harley Davidson motorcycle and a fancy house. But greed didn’t seem his only motivation. “I made $50K last week,” he wrote in a December 2014 text to a friend. “Seriously it means nothing. It is not about the money. I have had a lot taken away from me, and maybe I am trying to prove something ... Maybe it is my way of giving the finger to everyone???”

Williams’ ex-wife and her watchdog dad sound the alarm, but no one listens
A few miles away, his former father-in-law watched Williams’ illegal business blossom with growing outrage. Pratte kept his grandson’s iPad on his desk, near his computer, and checked it every day. The texts appeared boring, even routine, but Pratte knew they were evidence of ongoing fraud.

“I have another flight attendant friend who is interested in signing up as well,” a new client texted to Williams.

“Tell him to show up with his insurance card,” Williams replied.

To Pratte, the text messages were a “gold mine.” This is the stuff that will really nail his rear end, he recalled thinking as he read the messages. He couldn’t wait to share his findings with the insurers. How often do they get cases wrapped up in a bow?

But when he and Lankford began contacting insurers, they were soon bewildered. When Pratte told Aetna that he wanted to report a case of fraud, he said the customer service representative asked for his member number, then told him non-members couldn’t report criminal activity. Lankford, who happened to be covered by Aetna, made the complaint, but they say they never heard back.

An Aetna spokesman told ProPublica that the insurer could find no record of Pratte’s call but said the company’s fraud hotline takes tips from anyone, even anonymous callers.

Lankford sent an email to Cigna’s special investigations unit in January 2015 “regarding one of your providers that concerns me.” She provided Williams’ company name, address, cellphone number, Social Security number and more, and she described his scheme. “He has no medical license or credentials,” she wrote. “He was in prison for felony theft.”

A supervisory investigator called to ask for the names of personal trainers, which Lankford provided. But, again, there was silence.

Pratte could see many of the clients worked for Southwest and had their benefits administered by United. He jotted down the name, address, phone number, birthdate and member

Source: Vox.com

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