A federal jury in Baton Rouge deliberated Thursday night on the fate of three New Orleans residents accused of participating in a series of frauds alleged to have cost Medicare as much as $17.1 million.
Those defendants are Louis T. Age, 63, his 59-year-old former wife, Verna S. Age, and registered nurse Kathy A. Perio, 47, of the Terrebonne Parish community of Gray.
All are accused of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and other crimes through South Louisiana Home Health Care.
Through his ownership of SLHH, Louis Age set up a system that funneled kickbacks to Dr. Michael S. Hunter, 55, of New Orleans, fees to Perio and kickbacks to patient recruiters, Justice Department prosecutor David M. Maria told the jury of eight women and four men.
Hunter admitted in testimony during the two-week trial that he accepted $2,500 per month from Age for falsely recommending home health care services provided by SLHH to Medicare beneficiaries. Those unwarranted services were charged to Medicare, according to Hunter, who pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud. Hunter admitted his fraudulent actions cost Medicare $3.38 million. He has not yet been sentenced.
“Louis Age hired Milton Womack as a (patient) recruiter,” Maria told the jury. “Louis Age hired Dr. Hunter. Louis Age set up this process for payment of kickbacks.”
Verna Age wrote checks to Womack and other recruiters, such as 60-year-old Mary L. Johnson, of New Orleans, Maria said.
Johnson admitted she accepted kickbacks of $400 for each Medicare patient she recruited into the scheme. She pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and admitted her criminal actions cost Medicare “more than $200,000 and less than $400,000.”
Womack, also of New Orleans, was not a factor at the trial. He suffered multiple gunshot wounds in the 2000 block of Marais Street in the 7th Ward in July and died at a hospital. Court records show he was scheduled to plead guilty in the case less than a week later.
Prosecutors alleged that Louis Age pocketed more than $1.2 million from the fraud against Medicare and that Verna Age received another $700,000.
One prosecution witness was Ayanna Age Alverez, 39, of New Orleans. She is Louis Age’s daughter and Verna Age’s stepdaughter. She pleaded guilty in September to charges of conspiracy to commit health care fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States and to pay and receive kickbacks and making a false statement to Medicare.
Did Louis Age receive more than $1 million from a criminal conspiracy, defense attorney James A. Gray II asked jurors.
“That was money that Ayanna got,” Gray argued. “There is some evidence that some checks were written to Louis Age,” Gray said, before asking jurors to look on the back of those checks to see where they were deposited.
“You’re going to find that they were deposited in all kinds of places,” Gray said, adding that none of those places was Louis Age’s bank account.
Alverez took over the family business, committed crimes and is attempting to blame those crimes on her father and stepmother, Gray told jurors.
“Dr. Hunter is in a world of trouble,” said Gray, later referring to Hunter as “a self-confessed bad man.”
“Ayanna was totally out of control,” Gray said. “I asked her if she was a habitual liar. She said, ‘Yeah.’”
Alverez is under the pressure of a potential prison sentence of 20 years, Gray said, and “would do anything” to get her time reduced.
“Don’t send Louis Age to jail on just these two people’s testimony,” Gray urged jurors.
Rudy W. Gorrell Jr., attorney for Verna Age, maintained that his client is innocent.
“I said it would be the case of the evil, wicked stepdaughter,” Gorrell reminded jurors.
He said Verna Age had ceased to hold an ownership interest before Alverez took over the family business and began committing crimes.
“I told you these (prosecution witnesses) were a bunch of hustlers,” Gorrell said. “Yeah, we’re throwing Ayanna under the bus.”
Thomas C. Damico, attorney for Perio, said Verna Age’s signature appears on some of the Medicare documents allegedly falsified by Perio.
As a nurse, Perio signed certifications that certain patients qualified for home health care services under Medicare rules. Perio was hired by SLHH for the certifications. She received more than $60,000 while working for firm on a part-time basis.
Damico said he does not know whether Verna Age actually signed her name to those documents. Gorrell earlier insisted that Alverez forged the signatures of several people charged in the case.
Damico said he is certain, however, that Perio did not sign those papers.
Alverez admitted she lied to Medicare and forged signatures on paperwork, Damico said.
The defense attorney added that Alverez admitted that she fraudulently altered patient assessments that had been written by registered nurses.
“What proof is there that she (Perio) ever saw those changed assessments?” Damico asked jurors.
“Justice is finding Kathy Perio not guilty,” Damico said.
“In all the nursery rhymes and fairy tales I’ve read, it was always the wicked stepmother,” Maria, the prosecutor, countered.
“There can be no doubt whatsoever that Louis Age and Verna Age were part of this kickback conspiracy,” Maria argued. “Now, it’s time for Louis Age, Verna Age and Kathy Perio to be held accountable for their actions.”