Inside Report for Jan. 16, 2013

Feds proceeding with new Medicare fraud trial

The retrial of two New Orleans residents in Baton Rouge on charges they conspired with others to defraud Medicare of as much as $17 million is scheduled for Jan. 31. It is the first such case involving a deadlocked jury since a federal Medicare Fraud Strike Force was established in Baton Rouge in early 2010. A nurse was acquitted in the same trial, also a first for a team that had convicted scores of other defendants.

Verna S. Age, 59, was convicted by a jury in October on a charge of conspiracy to pay or receive health-care kickbacks. Jurors deadlocked, however, on a separate charge of conspiracy to commit health-care fraud. Age’s attorney, Rudy W. Gorrell Jr., announced last week Age will ask the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn her conviction.

Justice Department prosecutors David M. Maria and Abigail B. Taylor told U.S. District Judge James J. Brady after the first trial they would seek Age’s conviction in a second trial on the deadlocked charge.

Also scheduled for trial Jan. 31 is Age’s former husband, Louis T. Age, 63. In October, jurors could not reach a unanimous decision on his charges of conspiracy to commit health-care fraud and conspiracy to receive or pay health-care kickbacks.

The divorced couple operated South Louisiana Home Health Care in the New Orleans and Houma areas, according to their indictment. Louis Age owned the firm, and Verna Age was its director of nursing.

The indictment alleges the former spouses caused Medicare to be billed for services that either were not delivered or not properly prescribed for Medicare coverage.

Court records show Maria and Taylor lost a potential prosecution witness in July, when Milton L. Womack, of New Orleans, who was alleged to have accepted kickbacks for recruiting patients for SLHH, suffered multiple gunshot wounds at a 7th Ward location. Womack died at a hospital.

Court records show Womack, 60, was scheduled to plead guilty in the case less than a week after his death.

Mary L. Johnson, another patient recruiter, admitted she accepted kickbacks of $400 for each patient she sent to SLHH. Johnson pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit health-care fraud and admitted her criminal actions cost Medicare between $200,000 and $400,000.

A New Orleans physician also testified against Verna Age and Louis Age in the first trial.

Dr. Michael S. Hunter pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit health-care fraud and admitted he was paid $2,500 per month to provide SLHH with recommendations for home health-care services for Medicare patients who should not have received them. Hunter also admitted his criminal actions cost Medicare $3.38 million in payments to SLHH for unnecessary services.

The first trial also featured testimony from Ayanna Age Alverez, 39, of New Orleans. Alverez is the daughter of Louis Age. Her mother died when she was 9 years old. Verna Age later became her stepmother.

Before testifying against her father and stepmother, Alverez pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit health-care fraud, conspiracy to pay or receive health-care kickbacks and making a false statement for Medicare benefits.

Verna Age asked U.S. District Judge James J. Brady on Oct. 26 to either overturn her jury conviction or grant her a new trial on the charge for which she was convicted. She also asked the judge to acquit her on the conspiracy charge that deadlocked the jury.

Brady denied both requests on Nov. 26.

Bill Lodge covers federal courts for The Advocate. He can be reached at blodge@theadvocate.com.