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2 sentenced for Medicaid fraud

Federal prosecutors thought Brenda Henry should go to prison for her part in a Medicaid fraud case. Instead, she got house arrest _ a sentence that because of poor health and extreme obesity she already effectively has been serving.

Henry's weight _ 750 pounds _ has so affected her mobility that U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday conducted her sentencing hearing Monday by telephone conference call. While the judge, a court reporter, the prosecutor and one defense attorney stood in court, Henry and another attorney listened from her Tampa apartment.

Her only words to the court were that a Tampa hospital had agreed to admit her for help with heart, liver and weight problems, even though she does not have health insurance.

Merryday sentenced her to 30 months' probation, to begin with six months of home detention.

Henry, 36, and Angela Starks, 38, are former community outreach workers for a state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services program in Tampa's College Hill neighborhood. Each was convicted in February of conspiring with Andrew Seigel to steer 18 poor, pregnant women to Seigel's Future Steps program in exchange for more than $5,000.

Largo-based Future Steps had a contract to manage and market a 20-bed drug rehabilitation clinic at a Pinellas Park hospital. It collected a share of the more than $18,000 in Medicaid funds paid to the hospital for each poor, pregnant drug user who completed a 28-day stay.

The practice, known as patient brokering, was detailed in a 1993 Times series. The Future Steps indictment followed a year later, and the Florida Legislature outlawed the practice this year.

The HRS outreach position was Henry's first real job, her "ticket out of the projects," her attorney said during closing arguments at the trial. Both women said their moonlighting for Future Steps never compromised their roles for Project Support, the HRS program aimed at helping the same kind of clients.

On Tuesday, Merryday gave Starks the same sentence: 30 months of probation, with six months of home detention to start after any appeals are finished.

Prosecutors wanted the women to serve at least six months in prison, and even brought in a federal prison official to explain that a special facility in Texas could treat Henry's various conditions.

Seigel was sentenced Monday to two years in prison for his role in the Future Steps matter, but he is not required to begin serving the sentence until his appeal is complete.

A fourth co-defendant, Robin Doud-Lacher, a marketer for Future Steps, pleaded guilty and testified against Seigel, Starks and Henry. Her sentencing is scheduled for next week.