On January 19, 2012, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction and sentence of a medical billing professional for defrauding Medicare and Medicaid. Sylvia Delgado, a medical billing expert with thirty years of medical coding and billing experience, was the medical director of a group psychotherapy company that performed counseling to the elderly. Delgado formed the company (Synergy) in 2002 with Dr. Rafael Solis, a licensed psychiatrist who works primarily at his office in San Antonio, and Robert Rael, a Licensed Master Social Worker. Dr. Solis performed initial evaluations of patients, prescribed medication, and conducted individual counseling sessions. Thereafter, Dr. Solis would refer his patients to Synergy for group psychotherapy. Dr. Solis did not conduct or supervise the group session, but rather the sessions were conducted by Rael. However, Delgado, who performed all of the billing, would bill the group sessions under Dr. Solis’ Medicare and Medicaid numbers because Rael was not authorized under Texas law to have his own billing numbers. The Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement proceeds were split between Delagado and Rael; Delgado received thirty percent and Rael received seventy percent. Additionally, Synergy began paying Dr. Solis $2,000 per month in January 2005. Between 2002 and 2005, the total amount that Medicare and Medicaid paid to Synergy for the therapy was $1.4 million.
While group psychotherapy can be billed to Medicare and Medicare, the sessions conducted by synergy did not meet the requirements necessary for proper billing. For instance, a provider is typically not allowed to bill multiple sessions for one patient in one day, and the use of more than one group therapy code will be rejected in most circumstances. However, Delgado was able to get around this problem after discovering a billing technique which involved attaching a modifier to the billing code. The modifier was used by Delgado to bill up to six sessions per day per patient.
Another group psychotherapy requirement that Synergy failed to satisfy was that which requires the therapy to be conducted by one of the designated healthcare professional listed in the regulations. Rael was not qualified to conduct the therapy, and even though a non-physician may conduct the therapy so long as the regulation’s supervision requirements are met, Dr. Solis had admitted to investigators that he did not supervise the therapy. Furthermore, there was evidence that Delgado had been informed that Rael was not authorized to conduct the group psychotherapy sessions that took place at Synergy. Moreover, it was also discovered that Rael was not even the one who conducted most of the therapy sessions. The majority sessions were actually conducted by Robert Martinez, who has a sixth grade education.
Finally, the therapy sessions were conducted in a manner that consisted of watching television, eating meals, socializing, being read to, playing loteria, and celebrating birthdays. Despite the fact that the regulations prohibit describing these activities as group therapy, Delgado billed Medicare and Medicaid up to six group psychotherapy sessions per day per patient. In addition, Delgado also billed for group psychotherapy when both Dr. Solis and Rael were out of town.
Synergy’s billing practices began being investigated in May 2005 by Medicare’s integrity contractor, Tri-Centurion. Based on the investigation, a grand jury found Delgado guilty on each of the ten-counts contained in the indictment. She was ordered to pay over $1.4 million in restitution and was sentenced to 51 months in prison.
Medical billing professionals should be aware of their practices and make certain that they are in compliance with the applicable regulations. A deviation from the regulations could result in the loss of the medical biller’s money, and in some circumstances, his or her time. If you are a medical billing professional who needs assistance in designing and implementing effective compliance measures, or has questions regarding your current compliance plan, please contact a Wachler & Associates attorney at 248-544-0888.