Thursday, April 19, 2018
News Roundup

Tampa Bay doctor to pay $400,000 to settle Medicare fraud case

A Tampa Bay area doctor has agreed to pay $400,000 to resolve allegations that he billed Medicare for varicose vein injections and weight-loss counseling performed by unqualified staffers, including his office manager, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Tuesday.

Dr. Ravi Sharma, who is board certified in thoracic surgery, owns Premier Vein Center in Homosassa and used to own Life's Image, a weight-loss center that is now closed. In the past, he practiced medicine in Pasco County and had privileges at Tampa General Hospital and Oak Hill Hospital in Brooksville.

The federal case against him stemmed from a whistle-blower complaint filed by a former office manager in January 2012.

That former office manager, Patti Lovell, provided text messages from Sharma giving her orders to perform ultrasound-guided procedures between 2009 and 2010. Lovell, who was also a weight-loss counselor at Life's Image, said only a handful of weight-loss patients saw Sharma, even though he billed Medicare for all of them.

Prosecutors also alleged that when Sharma was in the office, he billed Medicare for unnecessary vein injections and ultrasound imaging procedures.

"Vein injections and other invasive procedures should be performed by appropriately qualified personnel," Stuart F. Delery, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Division, said in a statement. "We will not tolerate those who put patients' health at risk for their personal gain and convenience."

Sharma holds an active medical license in Florida, and the state has not taken any disciplinary action against him, records show. His Tampa attorney, Geoff Parmer, released a written statement that said Sharma agreed to settle the civil lawsuit "to avoid the cost, disruption and uncertainty of prolonged litigation, which does not include any admission or finding of wrongdoing of any kind."

The doctor will continue to participate in Medicare and other federal programs.

"As a board-certified cardiovascular surgeon, Dr. Sharma's priority will remain providing patients with high-quality health care in every procedure performed," the statement said.

Investigators did not uncover any case of patient harm as a result of the allegations, said Kevin Darken of the Cohen Law Group, which represented Lovell in her whiste-blower's complaint.

Sharma was a partner in Gulf to Bay Cardiovascular & Thoracic Surgical Associates in Hudson between 1998 and June 2009, according to federal court documents. Before 2006, he performed primarily open-heart surgery. After that, he began to do more vein surgeries.

In June 2009, he left Gulf to Bay and opened Premier Vein Centers. A news release from the Department of Justice incorrectly says he closed Premier Vein Centers in 2010; it remains in operation. Sharma posts his speaking schedule on his website.

Lovell, the office manager who was fired in March 2011, will receive $72,000 as part of the settlement. Under the False Claims Act, whistle-blowers who sue on behalf of the government for fraudulent billing receive a share of the fine.

As part of the settlement with the government, Sharma also entered into a three-year agreement with the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services. That agreement requires him to attend training courses provided by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and calls for an independent external review of his billing procedures for federal programs.

Federal prosecutors have been homing in on health care fraud under a 2009 joint initiative between the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Health and Human Services. Since January 2009, the government says it has recovered more than $17 billion through False Claims Act cases.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected]

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