Two nurses and co-owners of a healthcare service from the Greater Houston area were ordered by a federal judge on Monday to pay a combined sum of over $1.4 million in restitution to Medicare.
Joseph Nwankwo, 59, and Stacey Ajaja, 51, were sentenced on March 27 to 36 months and 14 months in jail, respectively, per a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of Texas.
They will be under supervised release for three years after completing their prison terms.
Both healthcare administrators pleaded guilty last year to charges of conspiring to defraud the U.S. through an illegal kickback scheme.
The scheme took place between 2014 and 2016, according to the news release. Nwankwo and Ajaja allegedly paid off marketers and patients in order to receive patient referrals. Nwankwo was also found guilty of bribing a physician to provide “medically unnecessary” home services to patients of their business, Hefty Healthcare Services Inc.
Various government agencies, namely the Department of Health and Human Services-Office of Inspector General, the Texas Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, and the FBI, investigated the case. The prosecution was led by Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Olson.
After sentencing, U.S. District Judge George C. Hanks ordered both Nwankwo and Ajaja to pay back the sums received through this kickback scheme, with Nwankwo owing $1,218,615.13 and Ajaja owing $238,164.69 to Medicare.
Both are currently out on bond until they are ordered to surrender to a federal prison.
Last year two doctors and a nurse practitioner from South Texas were accused of being part of a larger kickback scheme that defrauded the federal healthcare system of over $300 million, as The Dallas Express reported.
Dr. Eduardo Carlos Canova and Dr. Jose Roel Maldonado of Laredo and N.P. Keith Allen Wichinski of San Antonio faced charges of conspiring to commit fraud, which involved paying, receiving, offering, or paying healthcare kickbacks.
All parties, which included 11 people in total, later pleaded guilty.
As part of their plea deal, both physicians — Canova, who was an internist, and Maldonado, who was a family doctor — had their sentences reduced from 55 years to up to five years in federal prison, per KGNS.
“Anti-kickback laws are designed to ensure that financial considerations do not cloud physicians’ judgement,” U.S. Attorney Chad Meacham said in a press release announcing the $300 million fraud case on February 10, 2022.
“The Justice Department is determined to prosecute those flouting our nation’s healthcare fraud laws. Patients – and taxpayers – deserve rigorous enforcement,” Meacham added.
Texas has been rife with all types of fraudsters recently. Six Texans were charged earlier this month with trying to defraud the IRS, as The Dallas Express reported.
Crimes of this type have seen a significant hike in Dallas, with the number of incidents reported increasing by over 21% from 2020 to 2021 and another 4% from 2021 to 2022, according to the City of Dallas Open Data crime analytics dashboard.
There have been 508 fraud crimes logged by Dallas police so far this year.