por Robin Lasky
, Contributing Reporter | September 09, 2021
On August 31, an Aventura, Florida resident accepted a guilty plea for his role in a kickback/fraudulent billing conspiracy that purportedly cost the Medicare system up to $73 million.
Leonel Palatnik is the co-owner of Panda Conservation Group, LLC. Panda, through its subsidiaries including Amerihealth, MP3 Labs Inc., and Ambrose Health, provides laboratory testing services with a special emphasis on genetic screening.
Court documents indicate
that Palatnik, along with other parties, made payments to Michael Stein — owner of 1523 Holdings, LLC — under the guise of “IT and Consulting Services”, in order to conspire with telehealth providers. The arrangement allowed for trading Medicare beneficiary information, which could then be used to solicit and bill for telehealth consultations, in exchange for patient referrals to Panda’s labs for medically unnecessary genetic screening.
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“Palatnik pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to offer kickbacks and one count of paying a kickback. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 9 and faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison,” the Department of Justice stated in a press release.
In early 2020, as a consequence of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions on telehealth were temporarily loosened in order to help ensure access to needed care. The less restrictive regulatory environment allowed telehealth providers to bill for a broader range of services without having to first establish a sufficient prior patient relationship. Conspirators purportedly took advantage of the new rules in order to profit from tens of millions of dollars in fraudulent billing.
This case represents one of dozens that have been prosecuted recently in the Southern District of Florida. Since the start of the pandemic, South Florida has emerged as the nation’s healthcare fraud capital
, ranking #1 in COVID-19 financial fraud prosecutions.
The DOJ’s interest in Florida is not limited to pandemic-related fraud schemes. For instance, in 2020, following an investigation by the DOJ Antitrust Division, an oncology practice in Southwest Florida was ordered to pay $100 million
for its role in an anticompetitive scheme spanning two decades.
The pandemic may have created new and enticing opportunities for would-be fraudsters. In March of this year, a South Florida tax preparer was charged for his part
in the applications for $2.3 million worth of fraudulent Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, a scheme that netted conspirators nearly $1 million in fraudulent loans.
PPP loans were provided to businesses, during the pandemic, that meet certain criteria. According to information provided by ProPublica
, in May of 2020, Panda Conservation Group, LLC, which boasts 21 employees, was approved for such a PPP loan in the amount of $143,300 — a total balance that has since been forgiven along with accrued interest.