N.O. residents convicted of Medicare fraud

Former spouses Louis T. Age, 64, of Slidell, and Verna S. Age, 60, of New Orleans, were convicted Friday in Baton Rouge federal court on charges resulting from a scheme prosecutors said defrauded Medicare of $17 million.

The pair operated South Louisiana Home Health Care Inc., which provided home health-care services to patients in the New Orleans and Houma areas.

Prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge James J. Brady to immediately jail Louis Age.

Brady denied that request but told Louis Age he would have to report to federal officials Monday and accept an ankle monitor that he must wear until sentencing. The judge did not immediately schedule a sentencing hearing.

Justice Department prosecutor Abigail Taylor reminded jurors Friday that they had heard Dr. Michael S. Hunter, 56, of New Orleans, testify that Louis Age arranged for him to receive $2,500 per month to prescribe home health care for patients the physician never examined.

Taylor repeated that number: “$2,500 a month just to sign orders … for patients he never saw. That was Dr. Hunter’s job.”

“He (Louis Age) was the money guy,” Taylor argued. She said Louis Age “set everything up.”

As the firm’s director of nursing, “Verna participated in the fraud,” Taylor added.

“The company was being run as a fraud,” Taylor told the jury. “Of course, they knew about it.”

For 15 years between 1992 and 2007, Louis Age “was running a clean shop,” said Michael W. Hill, attorney for Louis Age.

“In 2007, what happens?” Hill asked jurors. “He puts his daughter, Ayanna Age (Alverez) in charge of South Louisiana Home Health Care.”

The indictment alleges that Medicare was defrauded by SLHHC between early 2005 and late 2010.

Hill insisted, though, that Ayanna Alverez, 40, of New Orleans, directed the frauds, not her father.

Hill also argued that Hunter’s story that he was hired by Louis Age at a chance meeting at a New Orleans restaurant was not credible.

Louis Age was not the person who hired Hunter and patient recruiters Milton Womack and Mary L. Johnson, both of New Orleans, Hill told jurors.

“Ayanna Age did it all,” Hill argued. “It was she who ran a rogue operation.”

Court records show Womack, 60, agreed to plead guilty to a felony charge and become a federal witness a week before he was fatally shot in July in New Orleans.

Johnson, 61, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health-care fraud and admitted that she received a kickback of $400 for each Medicare patient she delivered to SLHHC. She also admitted her criminal actions cost Medicare between $200,000 and $400,000.

Hunter pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit health-care fraud and admitted his fraudulent actions cost Medicare $3.38 million.

Ayanna Age Alverez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health-care fraud, conspiracy to pay or receive health-care kickbacks and making a false statement for Medicare benefits. She testified against her father and stepmother.

“Are these the kinds of people you want to put your faith in?” Hill asked jurors.

Ernest L. Jones, Verna Age’s attorney, was equally critical of prosecution witnesses.

“They are caught,” Jones said of Hunter, Johnson and Alverez. “They’re not beyond cheating, so they’re certainly not beyond lying.”

Justice Department prosecutor David Maria noted that Jones and Hill suggested there was a lack of clear-cut evidence for the conspiracy charges.

“Criminals don’t sit down in a room together and say, ‘Let’s break the law. Let’s make an agreement,”’ Maria told jurors.

To acquit Louis Age and Verna Age, the prosecutor argued, jurors would have to conclude that all prosecution witnesses lied, including three patients who testified that they did not realize they were ineligible for home health care services that were billed to Medicare.

“Find them guilty,” Maria said of Louis Age and Verna Age.

This week’s trial was a replay of another in October that resulted in no verdict on two conspiracy charges against Louis Age. That jury convicted Verna Age on one count of conspiracy to pay or receive health-care kickbacks, but deadocked on her charge of conspiracy to commit health-care fraud.

Verna Age has filed notice that she will appeal for reversal of her conviction on the kickback conspiracy charge.

Both Louis Age and Verna Age now are convicted on two conspiracy charges that carry possible penalties totaling 15 years in prison.

Jones and Hill declined to comment Friday on the verdict by the jury of 10 men and two women. They said they would discuss appellate options with their clients.

Womack’s death remains under investigation. He was shot six times.

Maria unsuccessfully argued that Brady should jail Louis Age because his preliminary sentencing guidelines exceed the statutory maximum of 15 years. He said those guidelines range from 17 years in prison to more than 21 years.

The investigation of SLHHC was conducted by the Baton Rouge Medicare Fraud Strike Force, which includes agents of the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the FBI and Louisiana Attorney General’s Office investigators.