SAN FRANCISCO -- Federal prosecutors charged the Bay Area's largest home health care provider Thursday with paying doctors millions of dollars in kickbacks in a scheme to defraud the Medicare system.
Amity Home Health Care funneled $8 million in bribes -- in Warriors tickets, Louis Vuitton bags, and "literal envelopes of cash" -- to health care workers in the South and East Bay who referred patients to the company, said David Anderson, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California. Those new patients came with $115 million in Medicare funds for Amity and a related corporation, Advent Care.
Charges were unsealed Thursday against the two companies, CEO Ridhima Singh, and more than two dozen doctors, nurses and other health workers who provided the improper referrals.
The defendants were recorded by law enforcement officers offering, accepting, or approving illegal payments, according to the complaints, violating a federal law against health care-related kickbacks. Some of the payments were allegedly disguised as reimbursements, donations or payroll.
"These doctors and healthcare professionals sold patients like commodities, placing their own financial gains over the wellbeing of their patients and betraying the basic principles of their profession," said Craig Fair, the FBI's deputy special agent in charge for San Francisco.
Singh, the CEO, is also charged with making false statements and tampering with witnesses.
A receptionist who answered the phone at Amity's Hayward headquarters Thursday morning said no one was immediately available to comment on the charges. Singh's lawyer, Chuck Kreindler, declined to comment outside the San Francisco courtroom.
Several of the defendants, including Singh, were arrested and released on bond after their first court appearance in San Francisco on Thursday, while others will be in court over the next week. A parade of doctors and medical executives with ruffled clothes, muffled hair and untucked shirts appeared stunned as Judge Joseph C. Spero read the charges against them. They didn't enter guilty or not guilty pleas.
Home health work -- including hospice aides taking care of people near the end of their life and in-home nurses attending to sick patients -- is one of the fastest-growing employment fields in the country. The industry's rapid expansion makes it "ripe for the potential of fraud," Anderson said.
Authorities started looking into Amity after an initial complaint to the Department of Health and Human Services in July 2016. The investigation involved multiple cooperating witnesses inside the scheme, undercover FBI agents acting as corrupt health executives, and a wiretap of Singh's iPhone that showed her discussing kickback payments over WhatsApp, the indictments say.