Shockwaves likely are still reverberating through South Florida’s medical community after a federal judge sentenced a local physician to 30 years in prison yesterday for fraud.
With this sentence, U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno probably has put more of a chill down the spines of bad docs than anything else possibly could. No arrest, no investigation, no civil penalty will ever have the lasting impact of removing a peer from society for a long, long time.
Dr. Ana Alvarez-Jacinto will be 84 years old before she’s out of prison.
At her Miami clinic, she filed more than $11 million in phony claims for treatment of HIV patients. Hers wasn’t the most severe or egregious insurance crime in recent years. But clearly Judge Moreno was fed up with the rampant levels of fraud in the Miami-Dade area and he meant to send a clear message to other medical professionals that might be so unlucky as to come before his court. He even went beyond the 22-year sentence recommended by the prosecutor.
Alvarez-Jacinto launched a high-profile campaign to beg for leniency. She took out full-page ads in local newspapers and had more than 40 people — mostly others in the medical community — write letters to the court on her behalf. At her sentencing hearing, she even had her ex-husband — also a physician — speak of the good things she had done for her community. To which Moreno reportedly replied:
“I’m not sentencing her for the good things; I’m sentencing her for the bad things. And they’re really, really bad. If a doctor prescribes something that is medically unnecessary, it goes to the heart of healthcare.”
She was hoping to get probation.
Miami-Dade is a mecca for medical fraud. It’s one of the top income-producing industries in the region. A recent series in the Miami Herald, which earned an award last month by the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association, profiled the almost unbelievable extent of medical fraud in the area and how it has become ingrained in the local culture.
Good fraud laws and high-profile public awareness can have impact. Just ask Dr. Alvarez-Jacinto.
At a time when our nation is about to take on the challenging task of reforming health care, it’s not a bad idea to embrace the idea that if there were more judges like Federico Moreno, that task might be less challenging.
Let’s hope this sentence also sends a message to other judges to take fraud more seriously and create stronger deterrents to help ethically challenged docs remain honest.