Two New Orleans residents and a registered nurse from Gray, a community in Terrebonne Parish, went on trial Monday in federal court in Baton Rouge on charges that they conspired to defraud Medicare of $17.1 million.
New Orleans businessman Louis T. Age, 63; his 59-year-old former wife, Verna S. Age; and registered nurse Kathy A. Perio, 47, of Gray, are alleged to have worked with others through South Louisiana Home Health Care Inc. to fleece the insurer.
“This case is about a company that was started, owned and operated to steal from Medicare,” Justice Department prosecutor Abigail B. Taylor told the jury of eight women and four men.
Gesturing toward Louis Age, Taylor said: “He set the system up. He was the one who was running the show.”
Louis Age personally pocketed $1.2 million, Taylor alleged. She said Verna Age received $700,000 from the conspiracy.
Taylor said Perio falsely certified that patients qualified for home health care services, which Taylor explained are only for people who are incapable of leaving their homes for medical assistance.
The company was based in New Orleans but also did business in the Baton Rouge area.
Three of the defendants’ former colleagues pleaded guilty in the case and will testify against them, Taylor said.
One is patient recruiter Mary L. Johnson, 60, of New Orleans. Taylor said Johnson received $400 from SLHH for each set of patient Medicare numbers she brought into the company.
In a signed admission, Johnson agreed that her participation in the health care conspiracy cost Medicare “more than $200,000 and less than $400,000.”
“All she (Johnson) looked for was the red, white and blue card, the Medicare card,” Taylor said.
Another felon and witness is Ayanna Age Alverez, 39, of New Orleans, Taylor told the jury. She said Alverez is Louis Age’s daughter and Verna Age’s stepdaughter.
Alverez will testify that fraudulently altered records of patients who had active out-of-home lives were used by her father and stepmother at SLHH to drain dollars from Medicare, Taylor said.
Some of those patients also will testify, Taylor added. “You will see that they were not homebound, not even close.”
Also testifying for the prosecution, Taylor said, will be a New Orleans physician, Dr. Michael S. Hunter, 55.
Hunter has admitted in writing that he was one of the “medical directors” retained by Louis Age, Verna Age and Alverez to prescribe home health care services “for patients who did not need and did not qualify” for those services.
Court records also show that Hunter admitted he was paid $2,500 per month to sign bogus patient records. He also admitted his criminal acts caused Medicare to lose “approximately $3.38 million.”
Defense attorneys, however, told jurors that Louis Age, Verna Age and Perio should be acquitted at the end of the trial.
James A. Gray II, attorney for Louis Age, said his client has been smeared unfairly by Hunter, Alverez and Johnson.
Alverez “was the one running that company from 2004,” Gray alleged. He said Louis Age is neither a physician nor a nurse.
Gray said Louis Age “hired people to handle these technical matters.”
Other than three people hoping to reduce their future prison time, “There’s nothing to implicate Louis Age,” Gray argued.
Rudy W. Gorrell Jr., attorney for Verna Age, disputed Taylor’s summary of the case.
“This case is about the evil stepdaughter,” Gorrell said of Alverez.
He accused Alverez of forging her stepmother’s name on incriminating checks and documents.
“A bunch of hustlers got together,” Gorrell said, adding that Verna Age was not one of them. He insisted that incriminating signatures in SLHH records are the work of “the wicked stepdaughter.”
Thomas C. Damico, attorney for Perio, said his client is a hard-working registered nurse, who had three jobs to support her children.
Perio earned $1,850 per month, a total of $60,097 from SLHH, Damico told jurors. If anyone took $17.1 million from Medicare, the defense attorney said, “It sure wasn’t Kathy Perio. There may be greed in this case, but that’s not from Kathy Perio.”
Damico added: “When the government points its finger at my client … make them show you the evidence as to Kathy Perio, individually. You can’t convict her simply through guilt by association. Kathy Perio is not guilty of these charges.”
The trial in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge James J. Brady is expected to last through the week.