Jurors to decide fate of South Florida psychiatrist, others in Medicare fraud trial
By Jay Weaver
February 16, 2015
“It’s not just any kind of signing; it’s robo-signing,” Justice Department prosecutor Andrew Warren declared during closing arguments at his Miami federal trial.
“He often signed in the wrong place…where the patient was supposed to sign,” Warren said. “Accidental? Sure, but it’s evidence that he was just a rubber stamp, signing whatever was put in front of him.”
On Tuesday, Miami federal jurors resume deliberating the fate of Kaplowitz, 54, an Aventura psychiatrist who worked part-time as the medical director of Hollywood Pavilion’s outpatient facility, and two other defendants on charges of conspiring to defraud Medicare and related offenses.
The jurors began deliberations Thursday after closing arguments before U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga, but did not convene Friday or Monday because of the Presidents’ Day holiday.
Last week, Kaplowitz’s defense attorney, Joel Hirschhorn, said that his client was unaware of the Hollywood-based psychiatric facility’s misuse of his signature to fleece the taxpayer-funded program for disabled patients with purported mental health issues.
“Evil, wicked people took advantage of this man’s good name, good reputation, and efforts to provide good, honest services,” Hirschhorn countered during closing arguments. “Yeah. He signed lots of forms in blank, and he didn’t date it with the date that he signed them. But did he do so with the intent to defraud?”
Hirschhorn answered his own question, saying: “There was absolutely no authorization for anyone to use Barry Kaplowitz’s provider number” from Medicare. “If it was used, it was without his authorization.”
The other defendants are Melvin Hunter, 63, a Broward resident who worked as an admissions supervisor for Hollywood Pavilion’s inpatient facility, and Tiffany Foster, 49, an Alabama resident accused of taking bribes to refer mental health patients.
A fourth defendant, Christopher Gabel, 62, of Davie, the former chief operating officer, pleaded guilty in November to conspiring to commit healthcare fraud and pay kickbacks to patient recruiters. Gabel, who is serving a six-year prison term, testified that Medicare beneficiaries — including drug addicts with disability status — were admitted regardless of whether they qualified for treatment or even saw a doctor.
The latest trial followed the 2013 conviction of Hollywood Pavilion’s chief executive officer, Karen Kallen-Zury, of Lighthouse Point, who was found guilty along with three other employees of conspiring to bilk $67 million from Medicare by filing phony claims for mental health services from 2003 to 2012. Medicare was tricked into paying $40 million to Hollywood Pavilion. Of those defendants, Kallen-Zury received the longest sentence: 25 years.
During the six-week trial, prosecutors presented evidence showing that Kaplowitz generated $6.5 million in false claims for Medicare patients who did not need psychiatric treatment, resulting in $3 million in tainted income for Hollywood Pavilion between 2008 and 2011. The psychiatrist was paid $1,250 a month over that period for showing up one day a week to sign charts and other paperwork to justify 2,800 false claims to Medicare, prosecutors said.
“He’s an absentee doctor,” Warren argued, saying he did not see his patients. “He rented out his medical degree. He sold his signature. Why? Simple, because Hollywood Pavilion needed it to bill Medicare.”
He said in one instance, Kaplowitz was in Canada in 2011 when he was purportedly seeing a patient at Hollywood Pavilion. He said the notion that the psychiatrist did not have to supervise patients and could just sign off on their treatments was “not only nonsensical” but “offensive.”
“Simply put, Barry Kaplowitz can hide behind the ‘I-didn’t-know-better defense,’” said Warren, who prosecuted the case with Justice Department lawyer, Nicholas Surmacz. “He did know better. He just didn’t care.”
The prosecutor said that Hunter, in charge of admitting patients at Hollywood Pavilion’s inpatient facility, “was the gatekeeper” who “admitted patients based on one thing, whether they had Medicare.”
He described Foster, based in Alabama, as the “matriarch of the HP patient brokers” at the psychiatric facility who received $500,000 in kickbacks for delivering patients.
But their defense attorneys strongly disagreed, saying they were not involved any Medicare fraud.
Hunter’s lawyer, Martin Feigenbaum, said his client had no authority to decide which patients could be admitted to Hollywood Pavilion and knew nothing about false Medicare billing or kickbacks paid to patient recruiters.
“He did his job,” Feigenbaum said, noting Hunter was paid about $50,000 annually over a six-year period. “He didn’t get any money” from the alleged scam.
Foster’s attorney, Marshall Dore Louis, said she was a well-educated businesswoman who had a marketing contract with Hollywood Pavilion to generate patients. He said that when Kallen-Zury, the onetime CEO, took over the reins of the family-run operation in 2005, Foster quit because she suspected something was not right.
“The evidence is overwhelming that she withdrew from this conspiracy” that September, Louis said. “Think about the evidence: Not one patient after that date, not one check to her after that date.”
The prosecution of Kaplowitz, Hunter and Foster was the latest crackdown by the Justice Department and U.S. attorney’s office against operators of mental-health facilities accused of fleecing the Medicare program.
Three previous major prosecutions led to the convictions of about 100 clinic operators, doctors, therapists and patient recruiters at American Therapeutic, Biscayne Milieu and Health Care Solutions Network in South Florida.
Several of those convicted defendants testified at the latest trial. Among them: Dr. Alan Gumer, a former medical director at the Hollywood Pavilion facility who is serving a 21/2-year sentence in the American Therapeutic case, and Keith Humes, a Hollywood Pavilion patient recruiter who is serving a seven-year prison sentence stemming from another Medicare fraud offense.