Ex-office manager pleads not guilty in fraud case

by Associated Press

Published: September 16,2011

Tags: Cancer, clinics, courts, healthcare, healthcare benefits, healthcare fraud, public health

SUMMIT — The former office manager of a South Mississippi cancer clinic pleaded not guilty yesterday to charges that she was involved in a massive health care fraud that included using old needles and giving patients less chemotherapy or cheaper drugs than they were led to believe.

Brittany McCoskey, 24, of Monticello, stood shackled before a federal judge in Jackson and pleaded not guilty to 11 charges, including conspiracy and fraud. Prosecutors say McCoskey and two other women were part of a multimillion dollar Medicaid and Medicare fraud at Rose Cancer Center in Summit.

The clinic allegedly gave patients less chemotherapy drugs than they were told, and billed Medicaid and Medicare for more. The clinic also billed the programs for new syringes for each patient, even though it reused some on multiple people, authorities said. Former patients are being tested for diseases like HIV.

A line of questioning yesterday from U.S. Magistrate Judge Linda Anderson underscored the differences between the women charged.

The clinic’s owner, Dr. Meera Sachdeva, is a naturalized citizen from India and prosecutors said her wealth and frequent overseas travel make her a flight risk, even after authorities seized about $6 million. She has or has had medical licenses in six states. She’s being held without bond. She’s a mother of two college students and a 14-year-old son, according to court documents filed by her lawyer. Her husband died in 2007.

Monica Weeks, 43, described by prosecutors as the clinic’s billing agent, was released Tuesday on a property bond on her Madison home, which was valued at $450,000, though she still owes about $293,000. Her children attend private school. Both she and her husband own businesses, according to testimony.

McCoskey told the judge she owns no property and couldn’t afford an attorney. Public defender George Lucas was appointed to represent her. She was released on a $50,000 unsecured bond, meaning she doesn’t have to put up any money. She was placed on home confinement with electronic monitoring.

McCoskey told the judge that she was treated for depression in late 2007 and early 2008 and is on medication for it. She said she didn’t finish high school, but earned a GED. The Mississippi Board of Pharmacy has records of a pharmacy technician listed under McCoskey’s maiden name, though the license expired in 2009, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Court records say McCoskey started working for the Rose Cancer Center in Summit as a receptionist and later became office manager.

Weeks did the billing through a company called the Medical Billing Group, which has a Jackson address. Messages left at the business have not been returned. Weeks also worked with a company called Newborn Associates, an affiliation of doctors who treat babies in Mississippi. The phone number listed on Newborn Associates’ website rings to the Medical Billing Group.

Rose Cancer Center came under scrutiny earlier this year after 11 patients went to a hospital with the same bacterial infection. An alert doctor contacted the Mississippi Health Department, which closed the clinic July 20 because of “unsafe infection control practices.”

Between 150 and 200 former patients have been tested for HIV and hepatitis since the clinic was shut down in July, and testing continues. Mississippi Health Department officials say none of the patients tested so far have been infected with HIV or Hepatitis B or C.

Some of the counts in the indictment allege that the care caused serious bodily harm. Authorities have not claimed that patients died from the care they received, but state and federal authorities continue to investigate.

Court records include a chart that lists the amounts of drugs the clinic allegedly purchased from pharmaceutical companies and compares those to the quantities that were billed to Medicaid and Medicare. The widest discrepancy is for the drug Erbitux. The court documents said the clinic purchased 45,100 milligrams, but billed for 142,200 milligrams.

Medical records indicate Sachdeva graduated from Calcutta National Medical College, University of Calcutta, in the 1980s. Some records said 1986; others said 1988. She has or has had medical licenses in Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska and Ohio. Her Mississippi medical license has expired.

In November 2006, Sachdeva made Weeks the contact for Medicaid and Medicare billing for the clinic, court records said.

In 2009, Sachdeva founded a nonprofit group called Mississippi Helping Hands Foundation Inc., according to business records. It’s not clear how active the organization had been, but its stated goal was: “To provide medical care, including prescription drugs to cancer patients who are financially unable to pay for such care.”

Sachdeva is charged with 15 counts. If convicted on all counts, she faces up to 165 years in prison and more than $3.25 million in fines, though maximum sentences are rare in such cases.

McCoskey and Weeks are each charged with 11 counts of the indictment. If convicted, they face up to 125 years in prison and up to $2.25 million in fines.

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