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Medicare scams rampant in Florida, investigators say

A three-year Medicare fraud investigation targeting dozens of doctors and medical suppliers prompted one federal official to call South Florida the "Medicare fraud capital of the world."

Investigators claim unscrupulous medical supply sales representatives and doctors bilked Medicare out of an estimated $1-billion in South Florida last year by giving elderly residents unneeded medical products and then billing the program for them.

The federal probe is focusing on 12 doctors, seven opticians, 14 medical suppliers and 15 to 20 sales representatives, said Meade Farmer, a senior investigator with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Charges have been filed against eight people, and more are expected, he said.

"South Florida is the Medicare fraud capital of the world," Farmer said. Medicare-fraud scams have existed ever since the program was created in 1966, he said, but "they're getting bigger and more sophisticated every year."

In Palm Beach County, sales representatives, posing as doctors in white coats with stethoscopes around their necks, go door-to-door, Farmer said. They tell the elderly residents they need to take nutritional supplements, then arrange to have a case delivered each month.

In return for a $50 or $100 kickback, they get doctors to write phony prescriptions for the supplements. Farmer said they buy the supplements for $8 a case and bill Medicare $400 a month per patient.

In most cases, the seniors do not need or want the supplements. "A lot of times they end up giving the stuff to their dogs," Farmer said.

Meanwhile, opticians are overbilling Medicare for eyeglasses for senior citizens by giving patients a "buy one pair, get one free" deal, then turning around and billing Medicare for both pairs.

Those charged in connection with the scams include Delray Beach optometrist Richard Bergida, who pleaded guilty in January to defrauding Medicare through false billings for eyeglasses. Bergida, owner of Sea View Optical, will be sentenced in March. He faces up to five years in prison.

The others who have been charged operated in Dade County. One, Dr. George Bahadue of North Miami Beach, has been indicted on 116 fraud-related counts. The U.S. Attorney's Office alleges that he bilked Medicare and private insurance companies of $800,000. Trial is set for March 23.

Also indicted were Bahadue's wife, Lori Stampler Bahadue, and her parents, Charles and Alaine Stampler. The indictment charges Bahadue billed Medicare for $270,000 for services allegedly provided to the parents and two other relatives.

Dr. Salomon Meles, a Miami doctor, has been indicted for helping companies that deal in durable medical equipment file $125,000 worth of fraudulent claims. Meles prescribed equipment for patients in exchange for kickbacks, the indictment said.

Two other Miami doctors, Rene Martinez and Ibo Paneque, also have been charged.